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A Vision of Anthropology for a Rapidly Changing World

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

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Erin Vogel goes to the island of Borneo where she studies orangutans to gain insights into human behavior.

Daniel Goldstein travels to Bolivia to examine how the justice system has failed the most vulnerable residents.

Angelique Haugerud is analyzing the work of American satirists who raise delicate issues of class and inequality.

Despite their disparate research interests, the scholars share a common academic home. They are anthropologists, dedicated to studying human life in all its complexity.

“We are all speaking to central issues,” says Dorothy L. Hodgson, chair of the Anthropology Department in the School of Arts and Sciences. “Out in the field and in the classroom our faculty members are asking the big questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? How do people's lived experiences differ depending on the culture in which they live?”

Renowned for its research and teaching, the Anthropology Department is constantly refining and reimagining its field for the 21st century to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

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Rutgers anthropologists have:

•Documented the experience of Hmong actors in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino film.

Discovered the oldest known footprints with modern human anatomy.

• Shined a light on the rescue, death and recovery of immigrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

Excavated the home of the last Jewish resident in the Polish town that was home to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

There’s also room for topics not typically associated with anthropology, such as humor.

Haugerud’s forthcoming book examines how political satirists such as the Billionaires group, who dress up in costumes to look wealthy and then perform their impersonations at rallies, have emerged to address issues that Americans would rather not discuss, namely, economic inequality and the role of wealth in politics.

“I am interested in how the rupture between the ideal of democracy and the reality has inspired this activism,” she said.

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The Anthropology Department includes evolutionary anthropologists who study the origins and physical changes in human beings, and cultural anthropologists who study the lived experiences of humans across the globe through such contexts as the environment, religion, and language.

Both programs are expanding the boundaries of their field.

Interdisciplinary Approach

Evolutionary anthropologists like Vogel have become increasingly interdisciplinary as they work at the intersection of such fields as genetics, morphology, and nutritional sciences.

“I fit into the field of physical anthropology because I am interested in what primates tell us about ourselves,” Vogel said. “They are the only living relatives that we as humans have.”

Her research on the dietary choices made by orangutans during periods of low caloric intake and protein deprivation may shed light on human illnesses such as obesity and anorexia.

“What we found is that when resources become scarce, they begin to actually catabolize their own muscle tissue,” she said. “And that is something we see in starving humans or in anorexic patients.”

Rob Scott, also an evolutionary anthropologist, raises one of humankind’s most vexing questions in his Signature Course, Extinction, which takes students on a journey from the beginning of the universe to the present, and then asked: ‘How may we go extinct?’

“That question was a real conundrum to me because I can’t imagine us going extinct,” he said. “But it is the fate of species after species.”

Promoting Positive Social Change

Cultural anthropologists, meanwhile, are pioneering the practice of engaged anthropology,

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which goes beyond observing, documenting, and publishing to become active in promoting social change.

Goldstein, who has written extensively on the struggles of indigenous people in Bolivia, has taken students on service learning trips to Cochabamba, where they have helped build a community center and assisted residents in their struggle for water rights.

“It’s a little bit of reciprocity for the communities in which we do our research,” Goldstein said. “It’s using the knowledge we’ve gained to transform social realties in a more positive direction.”

Engaged anthropology can take many forms, from political activism to community service to raising awareness about injustice. Hodgson’s research with Maasai Pastoralists , for example, showed how economic development efforts have undermined rather than improved Maasai lives and livelihoods.

“There are anthropology programs that may place more emphasis on keeping an objective distance and gathering esoteric knowledge,” she said. “But that is not what we are all about.

“We believe that the best theory emerges from sustained, committed ethnography that focuses on issues of concern to the people we are working with.”

Student Perspective: Ready for the Job Market

Anthropology students learn to be keen observers, analytical thinkers, and excellent communicators, both verbally and in their writing.

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Heather Aivaliotis, a 2012 graduate in cultural anthropology, and a non-traditional student who balanced family with a full-time course load, said her training in anthropology gives her a competitive edge.

“It gives me such a range of abilities,” she said.

Even in business fields such as marketing, she noted, anthropology students can stand out from the pack with original, creative work.

“Everybody with a marketing degree is going to approach their work from the same angle,” she said. “But anthropologists look at the same problem from a different angle.”

Briana Pobiner, who earned her master’s and PhD in evolutionary anthropology, said the department’s signature strengths - commitment to research, an openness toward interdisciplinary studies, and an overall culture of collegiality – has left her well-prepared for professional life.

She draws daily upon those strengths in her job with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Pobiner leads the Human Origin Program’s education and outreach efforts, and conducts research in Africa where she focuses on the evolution of the human diet.

“There was a real collaborative spirit at Rutgers,” she said. “And that created an atmosphere for intellectual discussions and open exchange of ideas.”

Global Vision and Local Activism

Anthropology graduates are well-equipped to navigate an increasingly global society and excel in fields requiring a sophisticated understanding of the world, such as diplomacy or international business.

“We train critical thinkers, and in the process, we teach people to see the world in new ways,” Hodgson said.

That process happens in the classroom and out in the field.

Several of Goldstein’s students worked last semester at a non-profit organization in Central Jersey that provides resources to immigrant communities.

Students like Alison Fournier and Naomi Washington-Roque learned first-hand about legal, financial, and health issues that immigrants are facing. They documented their findings in journals, modeling the way professional anthropologists write ethnographies.

“We like to look at what happens on the ground and how it compares to the actual policies in place,” Washington-Roque said. “We get to see how laws like Secure Communities that people think are effective, are actually hurting populations.”

Meanwhile, Vogel capped her class on primatology with a final lecture on the threats posed by logging and hunting to primate populations in Africa and Southeast Asia. Whether it’s avoiding buying certain kinds of hardwood floors, or supporting organic farmers, she gave her students many ways to make a difference.

“Not everyone can go afford to go to these places and do grassroots conservation work but there are a lot of other things we can do,” Vogel said. “You can be a smart consumer, and that is probably one of the most important things.”

 

 

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