If you took my advice and watched Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, you know now that the K. stands for Kroeber, after her father A. L. Kroeber, who was one of the important early anthropologists, and that her work was influenced by growing up in the atmosphere of Berkeley. My work has also been influenced by my study of anthropology, as I was ready to share in this post. I wrote it a few weeks before I saw the American Masters presentation. I moved my post down to shoehorn in my recommendation that you watch the TV show while it is still around.
I was seduced by novel writing in 1975 and that ended my five year study of anthropology, but there is more to it than that.
There were two things in anthropology that were driving me out before I wrote my first novel. One was cultural relativism, the philosophy that underlies the whole field. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. You’ll hear more about that in a future post.
The other thing was field work. I did field work in archaeology for two summers, and that was fun, but my specialization was South Asian social anthropology. That meant sitting in some village in India for a year asking questions about local relationships, and there was no way to avoid it. It’s an absolutely required rite of passage and doing it once isn’t enough. You have to do it again and again. It is the way anthropologists do their research.
It offended my sense of privacy. If anyone were to ask me the kind of questions anthropologists ask their subjects, I would tell them to take a long walk off a short pier. Needless to say, being the person doing the asking wouldn’t make it feel any better.
There is also a deep triviality to field work. It resembles lab research in other sciences in that way. The end result of scientific research is not trivial, but the day to day weighing, titrating, or looking at slides from a telescope or an electron microscopes is exceedingly tedious.
That would also be true of asking questions about who is related to whom in the village, and making out kinship charts so you can tell who is a parallel-cousin and who is a cross-cousin. No, I’m not going to tell you what those two phrases mean; it’s better you don’t even have to think about it.
Encountering anthropology in college is like eating at a good German restaurant. It is laid out on your plate, already prepared, and delicious. It is still the same in grad school until the day you reach the field. Then you have to butcher the hog and make the sausage. It’s no fun any more.
I love ethnologies, treatises explaining in detail how other cultures work. The variety of ways in which mankind has organized his work, his time, and his beliefs is both staggering and fascinating. I would have enjoyed writing them, but the research needed to reach that stage would have been more than I could have borne.
I use what I learned in anthropology every time I write a novel. Sometimes it’s only a little; sometimes it forms the backbone of the whole enterprise.
I also wrote a long article on the subject called How to Build a Culture. I presented it at Westercon 34 in Sacramento, and later archived it on this website. It it’s present form, I have divided it into eleven virtual chapters to make navigation easier. The internal links to reach individual chapters are at the top of the file.
If you want to see it, click here. I think you’ll like it. It’s still anthropology, but you don’t have to do the fieldwork.