Living Every Day as an Ethnography: How my Sociological Imagination helps me to Rediscover the Ordinary as Extraordinary
The disciplines of anthropology and sociology are centered upon the study of that which surrounds us each and every day: culture, humanity and social interaction. This is why I consider my journey in sociology/anthropology to be an exercise in discovering the familiar anew. Rather than dismissing daily routine as trivial, normal or commonplace, my major has given me the tools to challenge myself and my surroundings by questioning why “the norm” has become the norm. My experience as a sociology/anthropology major has allowed me to put my life, inside and outside of the classroom, into perspective. Through these disciplines I have been informed and transformed, taught to think critically and challenged to live every day as an ethnography.
I still remember vividly the first time I discovered the familiar anew in the sociology/anthropology department. It occurred the fall semester of my sophomore year in Tom Williamson’s Anthropological Theory class, the first course I took within the discipline. One day Tom walked through the door and, looking puzzled, asked us what we were doing there. Why were we sitting in those chairs? Why had we organized ourselves around that heavy wooden table? Who had told us to come to this place, to act this way, to follow this routine? Class, as one might guess, unfolded into a powerful discussion about Max Weber’s concept of the iron cage and the ways in which our thoughts and actions are trapped, restricted and controlled by our society.
I remember walking out of Holland Hall that day feeling different than I had felt in any other class. As I made my way to Buntrock Commons, I stepped back and, for the first time, truly looked at my surroundings. I began to rethink actions and decisions that had, for so long before, seemed organic, mandatory or inconsequential. I remember, for the first time, questioning why I was walking on the sidewalk instead of through the crisp, newly fallen leaves. The walkway clearly served an important purpose, but I found power in analyzing it anew, in thinking about the magnitude of people whose paths were altered by one person’s decision to lay down that trail of concrete. It was in this rediscovery of the regular that I began to see the ordinary as extraordinary. I had discovered the power of a sociological imagination.
My journey in sociology/anthropology continued to blossom out of that first “ah-ha” moment in the fall of 2005. In the department’s Anthropological Theory and Sociological Theory courses I was introduced to concepts that I had never before considered and was given a supportive space in which to explore and practice these new ways of thinking. It was in these classes that I truly connected to my fellow classmates and to our discipline of study. I was introduced to and became familiar with names, theories and definitions that have since helped me to contextualize my thoughts, both new and old.
Discussing the tension and debate that surrounds labels and categories was one of the most thought-provoking aspects of my theory courses. The way that sociology and anthropology critique the reality and validity of labels, while simultaneously acknowledging that thinking in terms of categories is central to both disciplines, seemed dichotomous to me. It was through critical thinking and class discussion that I saw the ways in which these categories could be acceptable, helpful even, as long as I remain conscious of the socially constructed nature of all categories and frameworks of understanding, even those found within the theories of sociology and anthropology.
As I grew as a sociology and anthropology major, I learned how to use theory beyond the classroom to interpret my daily interactions. I became intrigued by Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology: the examination of how people make sense of the world in which they live and how they explain that world to others. Learning about the concurrently vague and powerful nature of social ideologies, I began to pay attention to how social understandings and expectations differed between groups of people: mid-westerners and southerners, Oles and Carls, Christians and Muslims. I was intrigued to discover the ways in which these ideologies helped to bring individuals together into imagined communities, to make people feel connected despite physical distance or barriers.
My research methods courses worked with my knowledge of theory to shape and refine my sociological imagination for the study of community and the individual. Ever since my sidewalk epiphany, I had been attempting to think critically about the world in which I lived. Research methods helped me to bring focus to what threatened to be my overwhelming, and consequently unproductive, desire to examine and challenge everything. In these courses, I practiced flexible, yet careful, planning and learned the importance of perceptive and receptive ears and eyes.
My theory and methods classes provided me with a foundation for questioning and a method of interpretation. Through these courses, I came to realize that it can be helpful to feel disoriented, that this discomfort can act as a powerful learning tool. New and potentially disorienting situations allow me to experience different views and help me to reflect upon myself as well as others. With this in mind, and excited to put theory and methods to the test, I participated in St. Olaf College’s Term in the Middle East program during the fall of my junior year.
During my months in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Greece I discovered, hands on, that the “generalized other” was not monochromatic, but rather made up of brilliantly eclectic and diverse peoples. The cultures I encountered during my time abroad were as dynamic, diverse and ever-evolving as the people of whom they were comprised, and I began to understand culture as a process rather than as a “thing.” I watched as my host sister, Zineb, slipped her djellaba on over her sparkly black tank top and skinny jeans as she walked out of Fes’ New City and through the medina’s Blue Gate. I noticed the way she was torn between three different “Zinebs”: the public “Zineb” of tradition and modernity (the two very different Moroccan cultural realities who told her how to dress and act) and the private “Zineb,” who would whisper her secret dreams of change to her Minnesotan exchange student.
The five weeks I spent in each of these four countries helped me to deconstruct the concepts of culture and the other, while simultaneously offering me a space in which to deconstruct myself. Living in societies very different from my own, I began to realize that my identity was far more than my identity; it was seeing myself as others see me. Walking through the ancient medina of Fes was like living Charles Horton Cooley’s theory of the looking-glass self. En route to my host family’s home, some native Moroccans laughed at me when I answered “around the corner” to their question of where I lived, while others genuinely welcomed and accepted me into their local community. Both of these perspectives became a part of my identity; Sarah Frank was simultaneously an insider and an outsider, “me” as constructed through others’ perceptions. I began to feel more whole the more I traveled and exposed myself to new places and new situations. Looking back on those life-changing five months, I now realize that I discovered myself through others’ discovery of me.
I returned to St. Olaf after my time studying abroad a more open and thoughtful student and citizen. A firm believer in travel as one of the most important elements of a person’s education, I also came back bitten by the proverbial “travel bug” for which our college is so famous. After having spent a semester and interim exploring parts of the world through the safety net of a group of 26 other St. Olaf students, I was exhilarated by the opportunity to spend January of my senior year in Bangladesh. This time my program would be run through HECUA (the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs), and I would travel with a smaller and more diverse group of Minnesotans. The course was focused on experiential learning; I worked intimately with Bangladeshi college students as I spent a month studying the power and impact of microfinance loans in villages near Manikganj, about three hours away from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.
I entered into my time in Bangladesh excited to explore the Grameen Bank model of microfinance, a formula for poverty alleviation and development that is looked upon with great favor by the vast majority of the “developed” world. As a sociology/anthropology major, I should have known to look at microfinance with a more critical eye, even while living in the United States. As I reflect upon in piece five of my distinction portfolio, I left Bangladesh more convinced of the ability of NGOs to hegemonically impose capitalist values on the Bangaldeshi people than of microcredit’s ability to serve as a global panacea for extreme poverty.
Many of the NGOs that offered microcredit loans to villagers seemed more like business corporations than organizations whose main focus was the wellbeing of those in need. One representative from the Grameen Foundation went so far as to refer to the company as a leader in the booming “poverty industry.” I witnessed, firsthand, ways in which the expansive nature of globalization creates possibilities for coercion. I found Robert Merton’s theory of dysfunctions useful in analyzing the conflict that existed between the NGOs’ capitalist desires and the Bangladeshi people’s needs
Merton believed that most system’s consequences are functional for certain people (the privileged or elite) and dysfunctional for others (the poor or marginalized). He proposed that we must debunk dysfunctional structures by looking at their latent consequences. Microfinance intends to bring the poor out of poverty by building up stable sources of income within small rural villages. By applying Merton’s theory of dysfunctions to Bangladesh, I began to notice the many latent consequences of the microcredit system, primarily the implementation of capitalist structures in regions of the world not configured to support them. Using Merton to analyze my time in Bangladesh helped me to realize that there is little hope in changing a system of inequality without first recognizing and naming those dysfunctional attributes of the institution that stand in the way of change. I believe, as did Karl Marx, that the critical and theoretical study of sources of oppression aid a person in acting as an agent of social transformation.
Combining my knowledge from theory and methods courses with my diverse experiences abroad, I have come to realize that the careful and conscientious study that ethnography requires is not limited to research projects. Being an engaged citizen means being an engaged observer, it means living each day as part of an ethnography. The theoretical and methodological tools I have gained from sociology and anthropology have become intrinsic to my experiences inside and outside of the classroom, at home and abroad.
As I begin to prepare myself for life after graduation and for teaching elementary school through Teach For America, my background in sociology and anthropology will help to inform me each and every day. I will approach my classroom through the lens of liberation sociology, understanding that the creation of awareness is central to a differentiated and multicultural approach to learning. As Cathy L. Nelson writes in her essay Teaching U.S. History: Room for Imagination, I will constantly ask myself “Whose stories are told? Whose perspectives are represented/included? How has my own education interfered with my ability to imagine the teaching and learning of U.S. history [or any subject] in ways that will engage and connect to students’ lives and mine” (Nelson 278)? In teaching, my curriculum choices will be a measure of my socially-informed activism; my lesson planning will hone my practice of suspicion. As a sociologist, anthropologist and a teacher, I will strive to give students “an education that empowers them to be agents of change and agents of their own futures” (Nelson 279).
My journey through the sociology/anthropology department at St. Olaf has been awakening and provocative. Encountering and interacting with the disciplines of sociology and anthropology has changed the way I think about the world, from the most local to the very global, and has shown me the value of critical thinking. I have practiced living life, on campus and abroad, with a sociological imagination and learned to analyze, reflect, interpret and re-interpret even the most seemingly basic of interactions. The tools of theory and methodology to which I have been introduced have shaped my action; they have informed and will continue to inform my future.
On Sunday, May 25, I will be called onto a stage to receive my diploma from St. Olaf College. I will also walk off of that stage with a toolbox of the skills, ideas and understandings that I have practiced and honed through my development as a sociology/anthropology major. My diploma will be framed and hung above my desk. It will represent the hard work I have completed thanks to the privileged opportunities I was allowed. My toolbox, on the other hand, will not be bronzed, encased or tucked away. This knowledge will be continually applied as I seek to live each day as an ethnography, and, in so doing, undoubtedly continue to rediscover the ordinary as extraordinary.
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Delaney, Carol. Investigating Culture: An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology. New York: Blackwell, 2004.
Feagin, Jow and Vera Hernan. Liberation Sociology. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001.
Giroux, Susan Searls and Jeffry Nealson. The Theory Toolbox. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2003.
MacClancy, Jeremy. Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Classics, 2002.
Nelson, Cathy. "Teaching U.S. History: Room for Imagination" Seeding the Process of Multicultural Education . Ed. Cathy L. Nelson and Kim A. Wilson. Plymouth: Minnesota Inclusiveness Program, 1998. 277-284.
Peterson, Samiha. Course notes. Sociological Theory. Department of Sociology/Anthropology, St. Olaf College. Spring semester 2006.
Ritzer, George. Modern Sociological Theory. Columbus: McGraw Hill. 2003.
Williamson, Tom. Course notes. Anthropological Theory. Department of Sociology/Anthropology, St. Olaf College. Fall semester 2005.