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Anthropology

Name: Michael Rogers

Year: Class of 2011

Hometown: Worcester, MA

Major: Anthropology

A LESSON IN CHALLENGE: MAJORING IN ANTHROPOLOGY AT JOHNS HOPKINS

A blog title with a colon and a subtitle. Exactly what you need, right? After finishing my weekly reading (which is generally measured in the hundreds of pages), I find myself both a little bemused and a little frustrated. That’s all anthropology is, I think to myself—a colon and a subtitle, an idea and a qualification, a specification, a “challenge.” In all seriousness, though, majoring in anthropology at Johns Hopkins has been immensely rewarding to me, both personally and intellectually.

Das_8 One of the most striking aspects of our anthropology program is its breadth—a good friend of mine is also an anthropology major, and the two of us have never taken a class together. There are very few set requirements; majors take part in seminar-style classes, each generally focused around a particular question. Recent topics have included drugs, medicine, mental illness; children in armed conflict; prayer; media; clothing—really very diverse topics. I sometimes wonder to myself, how do they all fit together?

People on bridgePerhaps I should back up. Anthropology is a social science. Anthropologists study people, communities, societies, cultures, and everything within them. This, of course, can take a lot of different shapes. The socio-cultural anthropology that forms the focus of our department overlaps with other social sciences, such as sociology, political science, economics, history, and public health studies and draws on other disciplines in the humanities, especially philosophy. But what seems to me to make anthropology unique is that it is, in practice, a very broad discipline that draws on the tools and ideas of other disciplines. An anthropological study may make use of the knowledge and methods developed in any of these fields, but it does not give primacy to that information. When first beginning to read anthropological works, I was surprised at the many different kinds of evidence presented. For anthropologists, what is important is not so much the mortality statistics or the precise chronology of events. These data acquire significance (so to speak) not from their use in the generation of a scientific or social theory, but from the questions they raise and the influence they have on social interaction and the ways one lives one’s life. For example—with the changes in climate and global economy, there will be (are ongoing) changes in the distribution of food, water, disease, poverty, even information and knowledge. We might ask why this distribution ends up as it does and what this means for a specific community by considering, for example, the way economic policy and geography limit the choices people can make. On the other hand, we might consider the implications of our policy-level responses to these problems. Who, ultimately, would be served by a new welfare law? A law regulating changing food markets? Who would be left out? What would it mean, in the terms of everyday life, to be “left out”?

Obarrio_2 To me, majoring in anthropology affords students three very powerful advantages:

The first is this idea of asking and responding to relevant and challenging questions—questions that are relevant in the sense that our responses to them, whether in the form of policy answers or more questions, are first empirical and based in people’s experiences.

The second is the flexibility and freedom to pursue other fields. I need only to look at the diversity of questions anthropologists ask and answer to get the sense that this is both encouraged and, I think, expected. In our department, professors pose questions in many different disciplines, including economics, linguistics, medicine, public health, art, popular culture, regional studies. The same is true for undergraduates—some popular combinations with anthropology are public health, biology, art history, economics, psychology and environmental studies. I even know an anthropology and physics double major—that’s cross-disciplinary interest. (This was, incidentally, a combination I considered myself before realizing that I didn’t want to take all of those math classes.)

The last is support for independent work, whether for a departmental thesis, personal research or other involvement. It has been my experience that those involved with anthropology at Hopkins (undergrads, grad students, and faculty) have been very supportive. Even as a sophomore, I’ve found immense support from my adviser and other faculty in exploring my interests. (There is extensive support for independent work at Hopkins. Check out the Woodrow Wilson Research Undergraduate Research Fellowship—it’s a program I’m a part of that provides undergraduates with up to $10,000 to fund their own research.)

To major in anthropology, students must take complete 21 credits (seven courses) in the Anthropology Department. As noted above, there is an incredible variety to these courses, and given the diversity of course offerings and the flexibility of the program, it’s possible for anthropology majors to orient themselves around some very specific issues while at the same time developing a broad capacity to question and analyze. In addition to two required courses, The Logic of Anthropological Inquiry and a junior/senior seminar, majors are encouraged to build their program around their interests.

Additionally, students are required to complete foreign language classes through the intermediate level. I take Arabic—it is a stunningly beautiful language, and something different than the Western European languages that are most popular. I hope to be able to travel and use it sometime soon.

Han_9 Personally, I consider anthropology to be a discipline of challenge. Certainly it is challenging in the academic sense, but I mean that I see anthropology as a way to challenge why things are the way they are. In my (admittedly short) experience with anthropology at Johns Hopkins, I’ve come to see this challenge that anthropology poses as a way to explore the implications of what we take for granted, from an individual to an institutional level.

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Click here to access more information about the Anthropology Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective as well as the Anthropology questions thread.

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