At the beginning of Michaelmas 2019, I was slightly unsure what I’d signed up for. In the months leading up to Oxford, everyone back home in Blackpool told me I was in for a culture shock. The idea of black tie formals and eating in a medieval hall, of knowing people who had a preference on wine that favoured a higher price tag, and who would have a favourite poem outside the ones we’d covered in our GCSE anthology was incredibly intimidating. “It’s a different world,” my friends, family, teachers, shop till assistants, strangers on the streets would tell me. “It’s a different culture.”
You can imagine my reaction when I saw, then, that the first essay I’d have to submit for Approaches to History: Anthropology was titled, ‘How valid is it to contrast elite culture with popular culture?’ This felt like an essay designed to answer every fear I had. I threw myself into the books with gleeful abandon.
A lot of people, when I told them my choices for Michaelmas, asked me what Anthropology was and initially a precise definition eluded me. The Oxford English Dictionary (is there any other?) defines Anthropology as ‘the study of human societies and cultures and their development.’ What this translates to as an Approach is spending a lot of time in the RadCam muttering, ‘Wow. Humans are weird.’ Week to week you find yourself catapulted from printer’s apprentices in 1730s Paris ritually executing cats to African nomadic tribes to the King of Madagascar taking a bath. Everything (cockfighting, American civic planning, contraception in 1960s Lancashire families, onion soup) is up for debate, in description so thick that the likes of Natalie Zemon Davis, Marshall Sahlins and the legend that is Clifford Geertz feel the need to invent a thousand new words to justify it: ‘patrilocality,’ ‘consanguineous’ and ‘anachronistic functionalism’ are all on the Anthropology Approaches bingo card. And yet despite all this obfuscation, the greatest gift this module gives is clarity.
Week to week you find yourself catapulted from printer’s apprentices in 1730s Paris ritually executing cats to African nomadic tribes to the King of Madagascar taking a bath.
You see, when you’re faced with all these strange and confusing stories of different cultures and different peoples (did I mention the guy who believed angels are worms in the cheese of the universe?) you can’t help but begin to make comparisons. And for all the ‘otherness,’ it’s quite hard not to see similarities. Nomadic Bedouin society has a practice of parallel cousin marriage not too dissimilar to early medieval Ireland, for example. Charlemagne’s feasts work on the same principle as Admissions dinners. Whilst I don’t share the sense of humour of Contat, the cat-murdering printer’s apprentice, I’m sure he’d be just as confused as I am about TikTok. The message of Anthropology is one of radical empathy: all these people, no matter how bizarre, are human. We need to listen and understand them on their own terms.
As a Fresher trying to grapple with the bizarre and interesting case study of Oxford’s culture, anthropology and its methods of participant observation were a great relief to me. Understanding the pizzas before OGMs or the dress code of matriculation in terms of ritual was a reassurance, whilst studying how families can be created without biological ties helped me to process the family of friends I was quickly amassing. As for the essay on popular vs elite culture, what could be more appropriate? Whilst my peers were discussing their taste in modernist poets and French New Wave, I had a nice tutorial in which the theories of Pierre Bourdieu reassured me there was no intrinsic reason I couldn’t learn to understand and appreciate those things. Culture, he said, is a spectrum and we approach it based on our cultural capital, the tastes and sensibilities we learn and develop throughout our lives. By listening here and there, anyone can begin to pick these things up. That’s just what humans do.