Meet the Major: Anthropology explores the existential realities of people

By MUHAMMAD ABIDI | November 18, 2019

It is certainly not the easiest of tasks to understand humans; however those who dare to venture into such realms should consider the field of anthropology as a way to actualize their pursuits in understanding the qualitative decisions and interactions of individuals in societies.

“Anthropology allows one to immerse oneself in experiences and go deeper and deeper into people’s existential realities,” Professor Naveeda Khan, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Anthropology said in an interview with The News-Letter

At Hopkins, the Anthropology major is immensely inviting of students who may be discovering it for the first time, after taking a fascinating elective course or attending a seminar. For this reason, many Anthropology courses, including upper-level electives, include an introduction to anthropology in the first part of the course to familiarize all students with the basic tenets and principles of anthropology.

This allows students to take lower-level and upper-level courses regardless of where they are in the major or even if they are not in the major at all. However, Professor Khan did recommend that underclassmen interested in the major should consider the Invitation to Anthropology course as a broad overview of the subject area; it is a lecture course that still includes discussions and breakout sections.

For those considering taking such a course or exploring the major further, a primary question is: What is anthropology at its essence? What separates it from other disciplines that may be exploring the same questions in regards to the human experience?

Khan discussed these questions, stating that anthropology was largely professionalized during the 19th century, following a split from sociology. Anthropology at that time largely consisted of pieces such as travel journals of people who had gone abroad and experienced foreign cultures and environments. As sociology and anthropology continued to grow as separate fields, anthropology evolved into a subject area that emphasized using experiential and qualitative data to characterize human behaviors and interactions.

Khan also outlined that it is important to make the distinction between qualitative research and subjective data, stating that simply because data is found in the qualitative form, does not mean it has been derived through subjective means.

This is what makes anthropology a subject area that some may consider to be rather adventurous. 

“Anthropology is certainly viewed as sometimes being a bit ‘out there,‘” Khan said.

Anthropology emphasizes retaining the empirical observational skill set that is emblematic of research in the natural sciences; it is the role of the observer that makes anthropology a field that inspires reflection and commentary on one’s own society and surroundings through interactions with foreign environments.

There is a focus on going abroad and immersing oneself in the experiences of others and documenting those interactions. While literature and other humanities may apply more subjective interpretations to characterize the ‘strangeness’ of these experiences, anthropology promotes this feeling of otherness as a way to learn more about one’s own self and one’s own society.

“There is something to be gained by simply experiencing strangeness, discomfort and learning from that encounter,” Khan noted.

It is this strangeness that allows individuals to extend their understandings to different groups and people. While an individual may not be able to understand certain cultural practices, humans are still capable of understanding and recognizing that certain kinds of experiences can be beyond oneself.

This is why the immersive nature of anthropology is valued as a method to reflect on the underlying experiences that human interactions and decisions are based upon. At Hopkins, the department provides opportunities for students to study anthropological questions through such means. While it is difficult for such immersion experiences to be available to students right away, many students also have the opportunity to work on current projects that graduate students are pursuing.

Thus, anthropology is a field that utilizes unique approaches to address questions that underlie many of the humanities and social sciences. Developing a way of thinking that emphasizes exposure to environments outside one’s comfort zone is a rigorous pursuit, but studying anthropology equips the individual with the tools for uncovering the human experience. 

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