Fiction and the art of anthropological maintenance

This will be the first in a series of posts discussing anthropology and speculative fiction.  I’ve decided to do this series for several reasons.  First of all, anthropology is my field of study (specifically, anthropological archaeology), so I’ve got a bit of expertise here.  Second, and more importantly, the discipline lends itself well to speculative fiction.  In fact, many great sci fi and fantasy authors have anthropological backgrounds (Mary Doria Russell, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Gregory Keyes, Octavia Butler, and Chad Oliver, among many others).  In this post I’ll discuss some basic concepts we’ll need for future discussions.  All of the posts on this topic will be tagged as anthropology 101.

So, a brief primer.

Quickly, for those who aren’t familiar, anthropology is the study of humanity.  It is composed of 4 sub-disciplines: cultural anthropology (the study of living cultures), archaeology (the study of past cultures), physical anthropology (the study of human evolution, human biology & primatology with reference to human cultural adaptation), and linguistics (the study of language and its role in the transmission of culture).  So, basically, anthropology covers everything to do with humans and how they interact with each other and with the natural world.  Useful, eh?

Focusing as it does on the varied and splendid world of human cultures, anthropology provides fertile ground for writers, especially those looking to create imaginary but authentic-feeling worlds.  Living and ancient cultures can serve as inspiration for fictional ones, while anthropological perspectives and methods (cultural relativism, participant observation, and ethnography, for instance) provide tools for world-building and character development.

Some concepts:

Cultural relativism is the idea that no one cultural viewpoint or practice is better or worse than any other.  This concept is at the core of modern anthropological method and allows ethnographers objectivity when studying a culture different from their own.

Participant observation is an ethnographic technique in which the anthropologist observes cultural practices and comes to understand their meaning by taking part as much as possible in the culture which he or she is observing.

An ethnography is the end product of (typically a year of) cultural anthropological research.  In it, the anthropologist presents their data and interpretations.  Traditional ethnographies include detailed observations on kinship, religion, material culture/technology, politics, subsistence, economy, gender/age roles, arts/music, and language.  In conducting research and preparing an ethnography, an anthropologist brings two perspectives to bear: the etic and the emic.

The etic perspective revolves around the anthropologist’s interpretations as an objective, scientific observer – an outsider.  Here an anthropologist explains practices and behaviors with reference to larger theories about culture.  Conversely, the emic perspective is the insiders view of their own culture.  Here the anthropologist attempts to understand how a cultural participant makes meaning.

As I’ll discuss in upcoming posts, these methods and perspectives can be immensely useful in:

1. building fictional cultures that feel authentic and fleshed-out

2. writing first contact stories, in which insider and outsider perspectives both play a role in the conflict

3. helping us get inside our characters’ heads and see through their eyes

4. finding inspiration for fictional cultures or characters – by drawing on real cultures (whether living, recently squashed by globalism, or ancient) we save ourselves the trouble of starting from scratch (truth really is stranger than fiction, after all)

5. getting a look at how technology really works: past cultures are a veritable laboratory for the invention and implementation of new technologies (as well as their consequences).  Just because many of these examples aren’t high tech or space-age doesn’t mean they can’t inform how we develop such fictional technologies (and more importantly, how they’ll impact society).

6.understanding how developments (think especially technological ones – on the small scale, things like specific tools, on the large scale, things like agriculture) impact cultural development

7. creating imaginary languages

8. and, generally, helping us think more deeply about how cultures work, how they help us adapt to specific environments (e.g. what works in particular settings, and why), and how people tend to interact with each other (based on race, class, gender, age, and cultural affiliation).

So…stay tuned!  Up first will be an anthropological look at first contact.

ps. let me know in the comments if you think this series will be useful, and if there are any topics you’d particularly like me to discuss.

5 thoughts on “Fiction and the art of anthropological maintenance

    1. mirandasuri

      Glad to hear it 🙂

      I guess it’s a bit like the Prime Directive, in the sense that it’s an overarching principle guiding anthropological exploration, but in substance it’s more “make no judgments” than “do no harm”

    1. mirandasuri

      *laughs* Oh, well, the “do no harm” part of it is an underlying principle in anthropology, just not explicitly part of the concept of cultural relativism. Evil anthropologists, though…they are out there! 🙂

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