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Critique of your own cultural assumptions

Designed by Ryan Schram and Holly High

Due: November 20 at 5:00 PM
Weight: 20%
Length: 1000 words


In this assignment, we want you to put the ideas from this class together and use them as a critical perspective on your own world. In your essay, you should make an argument that something people in your world think is natural is actually a product of their particular culture’s way of seeing and thinking. In other words, you should use anthropology to critique the culture in which you live.

One of the key ideas in this class is ideology. The word ideology is often used to mean a belief system, a philosophy, or a system of values. For many social scientists, ideology has a specific meaning: It is a way people have learned to see and to think about themselves and each other that masks the way things really are. In this sense, ideologies are everywhere, and they influence us in subtle ways. The most powerful ideologies are never uttered aloud, because they are simply accepted as common sense. Also, in this sense, an ideology makes what is unfair about the world look like it is fair. It makes what should be seen as wrong look like it is right. Ideologies lull us into thinking, “This is the way it is. This is the way it has always been. This is the way it’s supposed to be. There is no alternative, so stop thinking about it.” Ideologies serve to maintain the status quo, and specifically, they serve the interests of elites, that is, people in power.

Ideology is a lot like what anthropologists call culture, but with a bite. When we stop and ask the anthropologist’s questions about people’s way of thinking, we are also in a position to challenge what they have learned to accept. Anthropologists’ questions are critical questions: Why does it have to be this way? Couldn’t it be some other, better, more just way? Hence, anthropology can contribute to cultural critique, or critical thinking about one’s own culture as an ideology.


First, you need to find an example of your own society’s ideologies. This can be found anywhere, because truly powerful ideologies are pervasive. Look for a primary source that you can use to document the habits of thinking that people in your society have, and which leads them to accept a specific state of affairs as the only natural way for people to live.

The ideologies of Australian society can be discovered every day in the pages of Australian newspapers. Remember, though, that ideologies are not stated out loud, so we don’t mean the editorial pages of the Green Left Weekly or the Daily Telegraph. The habitual way people think is reflected in news reporting in mainstream media. Even an apparently neutral, factual, boring report of a commonplace event is saturated with a cultural worldview. A news article is an example of a possible primary source that documents the presence of a cultural ideology.

Consider all of the topics we have discussed in this class: pregnancy, childbirth, hospitals, parenting, lunch, school, the economy, migration, urbanization, government assistance, advertising. In the ethnographic cases we read, the people described all thought that their way of doing things was the best, most rational, and most natural way of doing things. In order for them to accept their cultural system, they had to internalize particular assumptions about how the world works. To begin, find an example from your own everyday life (1) that you can document using primary sources and (2) where you can see evidence that people have internalized particular cultural assumptions which (3) blind them to other possibilities.

Second, reflect critically on what your source does not say. When a newspaper article uses the word food, it does not say what is included in that category because it does not have to say it. Its audience will come to the text with a set of assumptions about their world, and will filter information through those assumptions. To see the cultural background to your own everyday life, you have to pretend to be an alien who has landed from outer space, and would not understand the emic categories that people in one society have learned to use to make sense of the world.

Third, explain the cultural context that you perceive in primary source or sources you have found. Make an argument that links specific details about this way of thinking as examples to a larger claim about the ideological perspective that underlies it.

Grading criteria

This assignment is much closer to a traditional argumentative essay. You will be evaluated on how well you explain your own ideas, and how well you support your ideas with concrete information from a primary source.

You are not required to research your topic by finding scholarly sources (or secondary sources) on your topic. Your argument will be stronger if you explain your own interpretation fully, rather than relying on other people’s ideas. You can, if you want, discuss readings from our class or other scholarly works, but it should not be the main part of your essay. If you do use other sources, you should cite them appropriately as you have in your other assignments.

Otherwise, your essay will be evaluated based on how it measures up in several specific ways:

  • Do you have a single, clear claim about what you conclude from your primary source about the larger cultural context in which you live?
  • Do you use information from your source as evidence to support a point you make, and your overall claim?
  • Do you explain the reasons why specific information you have found leads you to a larger conclusion?
  • Do you describe your evidence in enough descriptive detail for your reader to understand how you arrive at your conclusion?
  • Is your prose clear and readable?
  • Are your paragraphs coherent, that is, does each focus on one main point or topic?
  • Is the order of topics clear to a reader and does it help lead to your conclusion?
  • Has the paper been proofread for clarity, spelling, and grammar?
  • If you do refer to other sources, do you have correct in-text citations and a list of references at the end of the essay?

As we said for your other assignments, longer is not better. Remember that this, like the interpretation of a birth story, is an interpretation of a limited (but potentially very revealing) piece of information, and so you only need to make a limited conclusion about one aspect of your culture. Keep within 10% of the word limit, and if you find your first draft is much longer than 1000 words, revise it and ask yourself how much you need to say to support your main claim.

Formatting and software requirements

For a description of the required appearance and file format of your essay, see the page Formatting and software requirements.

1002/2020/cultural-critique.txt · Last modified: 2020/08/18 22:06 by Ryan Schram (admin)