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Welcome to ANTH 6916: Culture and development—Key concepts, a seminar covering the foundational theories of society and culture. This class was developed to serve as a required unit in theory for students of development and has since grown into an all-purpose survey of theories of society. As I am a social and cultural anthropologist, I have a tendency to bring the anthropological curiosity about the diversity and comparative differences among societies as well as an interest in the subtle and imponderable aspects of people’s social existence. Yet ultimately, and like all social scientists, I want to ask big questions about the human condition. I invite you to join with me and your fellow students in various social sciences in a discussion about what it means to be human and what concepts we can use to illuminate human societies and their logic.
Like many classes at the postgraduate level, this class is organized as a seminar, and thus centers on an open discussion among students. I provide guidance to the discussion. I will not, however, give any lectures in this class.1) Each week we will come together to help each other understand a set of readings better. Each week’s readings represent the work of one important scholar whose ideas have influenced the way people in many social sciences formulate and seek to answer questions about social life. Our job is to find out all the different ways that these ideas can be interpreted and applied. This means we all have to contribute something to the discussion each week, so that we discover as many different perspectives as possible.2)
Indeed, in many cases we will be reading the original works of these key thinkers. Since their work is foundational, it is also often quite old, and speaks in a voice which can be unfamiliar. More to the point, when they were writing, these authors were arguing for ideas which many people found hard to understand and hard to accept. They were breaking new ground. The authors themselves often had to struggle to figure out what they wanted to get across because it was new. This means that they often present their ideas in dense prose. Some of them write very detailed, heavily qualified and nuanced statements which can be hard to follow. Others use evocative yet ambiguous metaphors in a literary style. These works will not be clear on the first reading, or even after several readings, since they are open to interpretation. After decades of debate, the scholarly community has arrived at several possible interpretations, but we can always find others.
Our job in this class is to enter into this kind of discussion, and thus become part of this scholarly community ourselves. Every week, we will know if we have done a good job if:
Your participation in discussion is, in that sense, something you do for your fellow students. By offering your views, especially to people who disagree with you, you help them to reflect critically on their own reasoning. Likewise, when you seek out the perspectives of other people, you are able to become aware of your own thought processes. This is ultimately what you will take away from this class: an understanding of your own perspective, rather than familiarity with the ideas of major theories.
Many students are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with speaking in public, or with participating in a class discussion. Discussion is important to this class, and it is a part of your grade, but I am not assuming that it will come easy to everyone. What I expect is that each person try their best, and keep trying.
What you can expect from me and from your fellow students is that we will all help make the class comfortable and welcoming to everyone’s participation. One way we can achieve this is by using various formats for class discussion, including small work groups, discussion with a partner, and in-class writing. If your active verbal class participation is not possible, you can also talk to me about other ways you can participate in class.
To help each student prepare for their participation in class discussion, each week you will submit a short reflection on an open question about the week’s topic. While each of these are graded, they are not meant to be tests and the questions do not have a single right answer. You receive points for doing a good, thorough job of reflecting on your own ideas and elaborating them in a paragraph or two. If you write in complete sentences and show that you have put some effort into developing your thinking (for example, by citing relevant information in the week’s reading and including a correct reference), you will be doing well. You have space to go out on a limb and say something that you are not entirely sure about.
To make sure that everyone has a chance to take the floor, students will take turns leading the discussion each week. Each student will sign up to get the ball rolling on the discussion with a five-minute presentation, and then ask questions for the class to discuss for the first part of class. Students do not have to prepare a lengthy presentation or act as a lecturer. A good presentation will simply consist of one’s own views of what is important, interesting, and worthy of discussion in a particular reading. The purpose of the presentation is to prepare the ground for discussion and the discovery of different points of view.
Our discussions in class will also help prepare you to develop arguments about social theory and its application to social analysis. Your first major assignment is an essay of 2000 words in which you analyze the theoretical perspective underlying a scholar’s argument in an academic journal article. This will be due before the midsemester break. Your other major assignment is to answer a series of writing prompts that ask you to compare and synthesize the different ideas from the theories discussed in class. This will be due at the end of the semester.