The Role of Anthropology

The year is 2016. For months now, a strange unnerving tension has lingered over the sixth form block, creating an unease that most students had never felt before. Every few days, somebody gets an email telling them if their university of choice has accepted or rejected them. To inexperienced young adults in a university-directed trajectory, those emails are a make or break moment, a life or death situation. Getting that email from UCAS, “Application Status Notification”, induces a panic unlike anything else. Heart flutterings, uncontrollable shaking, and onset nausea are all typical. And opening those emails… reveals your fate. Either your future is confirmed or denied. Egos are bruised on a daily basis by the unknown faceless entities of admissions offices. Just a simple email is enough to crush a person’s motivations; all their hard work falls away. A future ruined.

My future, I had decided, was going to be at the University of Edinburgh studying anthropology. But it seemed that the universe had other plans, giving me a resounding “nah”. After getting rejected, I spent the rest of my final year scrambling to salvage what I could of my tumbling academic performance. It was an uphill battle, but I made it through, grabbed my grades and ran. So, off I went on a jolly gap year, where I could figuratively rebuild my backbone, strengthen my resolve, and learn what I needed to get my future back on track.

What I realised very early on in my year out was how little I knew about anthropology, about the subject I was “so passionate about”. Often, conversations with confused family members or friends would end up with me belittling it to “people studies”. The question that followed in suit was then, “how is that different to sociology?” At that point in time, I had no idea. And the rest of my year out proceeded similarly, with continued attempts to understand the true meaning of anthropology. Fast forward a few months and I got accepted to Edinburgh on the course I wanted. What I realised my application was missing was conviction: why did I want to study anthropology? But regardless of what doubt I had in my field, my future was back on track, even though I still couldn’t tell people what it meant to study anthropology

In all honesty, going into third year, I still couldn’t give a dictionary definition of the subject I’m studying. Some might say that these first two years of university have clearly been wasted; that I spent too much time skipping lectures (which is true) to understand it. But I would have to disagree, anthropology has never been a subject that sticks to definitions, and I am not going to try and go against the grain. Instead, I’ll tell you what it means to me.

The first two years of my course heavily revolved around the study of ethnographies (anthropological texts) that tackle inequality, in one form or another. Whether it be garment workers in Trinidad and Tobago, disease outbreaks in Georgian prisons, or even the racial connotations of rye bread in Danish Schools (yes, this is real); inequality is pervasive in all aspects of life. What struck me with these ethnographies is that they do a stellar job of building a relationship between the reader and the subject; two seemingly unconnected bodies that cannot affect one another. The role of the anthropologist, in my opinion, is to mediate this relationship through certain means: recognising their own position as not only a researcher, but also as an individual with a social identity; providing a platform to empower voices that would otherwise go unrecognised; dismantling inequalities while respecting cultural boundaries.

I’ve definitely taken a big swig of the anthropological ‘Kool-Aid’ this year, and I’ve come out with a newfound belief in the validity of my field. While anthropology has had a troubled past (and foundations within colonialism), it is always first to recognise its own faults, and find ways to improve. In reality, anthropology treats problem solving as a human issue, rather than a technical one, remembering that, at the end of the day, we solve problems for the benefit of people. Its strength in influencing policy comes from this point, always keeping at its core the importance of the people affecting by inequality.

So returning back round to where this gargle of words began, if I could give my anxiety-riddled, self-doubting teenage version of myself some words of wisdom it would be this: the subject you are about to study will be the most important thing you ever learn. It will change not only the way you think, but also the things that you want, and the way you look at the world. Doubt in anthropology is valid, and it is important; it will make your critical skills even better. Much like the people it focuses on, the field will never be stale, it will forever be evolving into something more. As long as there are people, there will be anthropology.






PS. For anyone interested in reading the articles mentioned, they’re easy enough to find:

Prentice, R. (2012), “They Never Showed Me Nothing”: Skill and Self among Trinidadian Garment Workers. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 43: pp.400-414.

Koch, E. (2006), Beyond suspicion: Tuberculosis in Georgian Prisons. American Ethnologist, 33: pp.50-62

Karrebæk, M. S. (2012), “What’s in Your Lunch Box Today?”: Health, Respectability, and Ethnicity in the Primary Classroom. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 22: pp.1-22.



My Iceland: Home of Sentimentality

“Iceland, for me, is bound to people of the past that are still important in my life. They are no longer physically present, but instead, their impact is felt mentally.”

There are certain places in the world that are magical to us on an individual level. For some people, it might be a beach in Spain that your family used to visit annually on holiday; for others it is the bustle and electric energy of a city that never sleeps like New York, and for some it could be something as simple as going back to the place you grew up. For me, Iceland holds a magical energy because of what I associate with this incredible island. This energy is made up of the perfect blend of sentimentality, family, friendship, and mysticism. This probably doesn’t necessarily make sense regarding what I’m trying to say about my love of Iceland, but hopefully by explaining my travels there, this will become clear.

Iceland Flight
No other airport can boast a view like this flying in.

The first visit to Iceland consisted largely of the Golden Circle tour, a pretty famous tour around the South’s most exciting tourist destinations. The tour consisted of three waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss and Gullfoss. Inter-dispersed between these three spectacles, we also visited a Geysir, a glacial lagoon (Jökulsárlón), and a (not so) secret geothermal bath. Among all of these monoliths of nature, what struck me was how alien the landscape was. At some points, we were the only coach on the road and the snow would cover the land as far as the eye could see. Not a single sign of another person could be observed. There was nothing but our little coach, the beautiful fluffy white wilderness, and, perhaps most shockingly, blue skies. On our final day we spent some time exploring the city of Reykjavik. Being probably the smallest capital city I’ve ever visited, it felt personal and homely. The low-rise wooden-slat buildings spread out further horizontally than they did vertically; the only vertical aspects of the city were the Cathedral, and the hill leading up towards it.
Some aspects of the culture were also briefly explained to us, particularly the ways that superstition and mystical belief were still very much alive in Iceland. Many natural monuments were considered to be important to mystical creatures, in the same way that we would value cathedrals. You couldn’t damage these sacred structures, as it would anger these powerful mystical creatures. Therefore, attitudes towards the environment were influenced by these superstitions; culturally infused respect kept the environment safe.

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Interestingly, I came away from this trip thinking that I would never visit the country again. Whilst I had loved the trip, I very much had a “been there done that” mentality, where I thought I had seen everything that Iceland had to offer me. The scenery was gorgeous, but at the end of the day a waterfall is a waterfall. Reykjavik was cute, but it was so small that there couldn’t have been much that we didn’t see. There wasn’t much else in my mind that could possibly tempt me back there. So when a friend from university suggested a February road trip to Iceland I was hesitant.

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The planning for the second trip to Iceland began with much more resistance. I was in my first year of university and struggling with workload, making pals, and keeping the ‘demons’ at bay. At no point in the planning stage was I that invested in going, but the fear of missing out kept me in the loop. Once the flights were booked, it was pretty much a non-refundable decision and I would be going to Iceland again, regardless of how much kicking and screaming I did. So, we kept on planning our trip bit by bit. The group was decided first, and it consisted of one of my roommates, and two of his friends; one of which I had met a few times prior, and the other I knew nothing about. We booked a hire car, places to stay, and came up with a rough idea where we wanted to go. The route we had decided upon was fairly similar to the route I had done on my first trip: it featured Reykjavik, waterfalls, the geysir, and some other familiar sites. But there were some additions to the itinerary that were new, including the Blue Lagoon. On paper, these two trips seem very similar but they were worlds apart.

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What stood out especially was that I felt like I really connected with the people on this second trip. As with any shared experience, you bond over the highs and the lows. This feeling, of building friendships through travelling, was something I had experienced before and it was electrifying. Before the week was out, we had squabbled, made up, come up with inside jokes, and formed a pretty strong connection between us all. Together, we endured some treacherous conditions and major disappointments, and revelled in the spectacular scenery and successes of the trip. My relationship with all of them was based on a different aspect: one friendship had formed through our shared skills of navigation and taking charge (as well as sharing a great music taste); another was formed on sheer enjoyment of the other’s company and how alike we were; and the final was based on how much she made me laugh. During this trip I felt an air of pure ecstasy, something I hadn’t felt all of my first year of university. The combination of these brand new connections, with my love of travelling led me to such a mental place of happiness that I never could have imagined I would achieve in that year; a year dominated by the stress and anxiety of university.

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There are some stand out moments from the trip that stick with me. Sitting in a small log cabin beneath snow-capped mountains playing cards around a tiny little table, eating a kind of pasta dish made from overpriced groceries counts as one of these. Another was failing to gain access to the Blue Lagoon, and taking some pictures to fake our entry, while simultaneously finding a different geothermal bath to enjoy later in the trip. I loved visiting one of the waterfalls where we parked on (what was essentially) an ice rink and slid all over the place as the wind took control of our bodies. Or sliding down the slopes of an icy crater to reach a frozen lake at the bottom. And I definitely will not forget driving through the snow fields of the national park, getting out and doing a mini photo shoot in the sub-zero temperatures. There are countless other moments like this that will go unforgettable and I could spend the rest of this article reciting them all. But these experiences are ours, belonging to the people who I travelled with, and no matter how we move forward they are locked into all of our pasts.

 

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Life moves on, however. People move on and return to normal life. Stress, anxiety and the ‘demons’ return. People drift apart naturally or explosively, and connections are lost. Iceland, for me, is bound to people of the past that are still important in my life. They are no longer physically present, but instead, their impact is felt mentally. My mind connects Iceland with the positivity of those relationships and the joy I felt travelling around in our little 4×4. Rolling around one of the most beautiful countries in the world, on one of the best holidays of my life.

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Twice I have been to Iceland and twice it has been incredible, but the ways it has been incredible were starkly different. The first time nature took my breath away; the second time was something else entirely. Iceland is one of the few places I have been in the world that I could imagine myself living in the future. I can imagine living in Reykjavik, having a fireplace, and a chilled out lifestyle where I can separate my life from stress. I can imagine building up a stock of food for the winter months, and celebrating in the spring as the light starts to return to the sky. And I can imagine heading out into the wilderness for pure serenity and calm, where only Mother Nature keeps me company. I have a feeling that Iceland is a country that I will not be able to stay away from in the future; it is bound to my understandings of mysticism, sentimentality, family and friendship.

 

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