Introduction to Anthropology

2013 Introduction to Anthropology – Four Fields


For Introduction to Anthropology 2013, I tweaked and revised the Introduction to Anthropology syllabus posted at the American Anthropological Association Teaching Materials Exchange. It’s a four-fields Introduction to Anthropology syllabus using

Update 2017: Please see my current course for more.

In spring 2013 I returned to the full Applying Anthropology book, after trying an e-Book version of articles in fall 2012. The e-Book was still too quirky, especially about page-numbering and fitting readings together. This made it difficult for in-class discussion, and there were also questions about access and opening the files. Despite my attempts to make things more inexpensive, some students never bought the e-Book, perhaps in part because it was outside the usual bookstore channels. So, it may be a bit more expensive, but there are now more used copies available, and it can be bought through the bookstore rather than only with a credit card.

I encourage anthropologists to put a syllabus online at the AAA Teaching Materials Exchange. I was on the advisory board for this project–there is a need for a central high-quality hub of teaching materials. I’ve also posted reviews of the Best Introduction to Anthropology Syllabus 2012 – Four Fields Anthropology and Best Introduction to Anthropology Syllabus – Four Fields 2013.

Introduction to AnthropologyI originally used the Gomberg-Muñoz ethnography in a Peoples and Cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean course. It is short, inexpensive, and quite helpful to confront stereotypes about illegal immigration. This is especially important for Anthropologists Studying Immigration as immigration reform legislation was introduced in 2013.

Labor and Legality gets good reviews on Amazon and this held true for me as well. Using the phrase “undocumented migrants” is still controversial, but in general students responded positively to the book (see the great comment from Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz below and the link to Drop the I-word: No Human Being is Illegal).

Here’s Gomberg-Muñoz on terminology:

I refer to workers who crossed the Mexico-U.S. border without inspection (or government permission) as “undocumented,” rather than “illegal.” This usage is consistent with recent critical scholarship (e.g. De Genova 2005, Ngai 2004), as it better reflects the contingent nature of immigration status and avoids the pejorative connotations of “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant.” As historian Mae Ngai (2004:xix) notes, “‘undocumented’ is a historically specific condition that is possible only when documents (most commonly a visa) are required for lawful admission, a requirement that was born under the modern regime of immigration restriction.” That is, people are “undocumented” in relation to particular laws in particular places, at particular times in history. Referring to a person as “illegal” glosses the historical and political construction of immigration categories and diminishes the humanity of transmigrant workers. However, the term “undocumented” has its own problems and limitations, and Plascencia (2009) has recently made a compelling case for the more politically sophisticated (if unwieldy) designation “informally authorized migrant.” (2010:x)

Gomberg-Muñoz points out that most undocumented migrants are employed–indeed Mexican migrants have one of the highest rates of employment in the U.S., most are “on the books,” and often contributing payroll taxes. These statistics are borne out in a Pew Research Center report, Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero–and Perhaps Less: these are people who are pulled into specific employment opportunities, and if those disappear, so does the migration (see also the 2011 Anthropology on Immigration and the 2013 Anthropologists on Immigration).

In the spring 2013 version of the class, I did more blogging about the articles we read and used some Twitter, following the great Best practices and tips for Twitter in the higher-ed classroom that John Hawks provides. I also point students to What is Anthropology and use the Anthropology sections of the blog as supplemental material.

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  • Edward Rohn

    Thanks for these posts lately. As a TA that’s getting ready to teach Intro for the first time, but has taught before, it’s nice to have access to the ideas of others.

    • Thanks Edward! Hope it helps–great to see some new energy and hope you can share your experiences. Good luck in the trenches!

      • Edward Rohn

        My Intro class changed my life. I’m excited to have a chance to return the favor, or at least bring anthro to more people.

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  • Ruth GM

    Hi, Ruth Gomberg-Munoz here! I stumbled across this and thought I would weigh in on the “what do we call them” question again. Since I wrote the above, I’ve decided that there is a simpler way to resolve the matter. It is:

    Anthropologists always try to avoid referring to our study participants by labels that they find insulting or otherwise reject. People without papers overwhelmingly prefer the term “undocumented” to “illegal.” Hence, this is also the term that anthropologists should use.

    When I discuss this with my students, I ask them to think like an anthropologist. What are their responsibilities, and to whom are they responsible? We compare “illegal” to other slurs used for racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities…. isn’t there a sense in which “well, that’s what they are” works for all of those? So, the issue is not, are they or aren’t they illegal? The issue is, who gets to decide what they should be called? This semester, I even had the class vote on whether we would use the term “undocumented” or “illegal;” I’m just glad the students chose “undocumented!”

    This is a campaign that some of my (undocumented) students have been involved in:



    • Hi Ruth, so great to hear from you! Just finished teaching your book in my Intro class, where I think it works really well! In the context of the historical and anthropological analysis you provide–i.e., for people who read the book–the argument makes sense, and thank you for the link to Drop the I-word.

      One of my final essay choices was as follows: “Can anthropology make a difference in the world? Does Gomberg-Muñoz on Labor and Legality help move us “toward an anti-nativist, anti-racist perspective on immigration” (135)? Or does it confirm existing perspectives?”

      I received some very thoughtful responses to that one–students took varying perspectives, but it was an opportunity to reflect on both anthropological practice and possible influence.

      Thanks! I look forward to using your book again in the spring!

      • Ruth GM

        Jason, I’m so pleased that you’re finding my book useful! I think it’s great that you are using it to urge students to consider the relation of anthropology and anthropologists to the rest of the world. This is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately, in particular bc I’m working on the public anth YIR for 2012. And actually, I have found your blogsite helpful in that regard, especially the blog “Anthropology is the worst college major… ” (which is what brought me to your site) and also the PP on moral optimism. So… thanks to you! -R

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  • Noelani Browne

    As an aspiring cultural anthropologist, the fist statement under the subtitle “Rights versus Culture” ( I have an old copy, not sure what page it’s on in the new copy) has always made me think. “Arguments that put human rights against culture depend upon the assumption that “cultures” are homogeneous, bounded, and unchanging sets of ideas and practices and that each society has only one culture, which its members are obligated to follow.” Though I know and understand this to be untrue, I have always pondered the idea of being “proactive” about what I would consider a fault or to just chalk it up to culture and leave it as is. However, later in the reading I find that the plasticity of culture should give me a hint on where to stand on situations such as female genital cutting and wife beating in other countries. Cultures as well as the people who practice them are subject to change and follow what they believe to be a better path.

    • Thank you, Noelani, in the latest edition of Lavenda & Schultz’s Introduction to Anthropology textbook, a very important quote: “Arguments that pit human rights against culture depend on the assumption that ‘cultures’ are homogeneous, bounded, and unchanging sets of ideas and practices and that each society has only one culture, which its members are obligated to follow” (2015:491).