Human Beings are Human Beings. Biologically, more or less melanin, taller or shorter, eye shape, are trivial. They reflect the long-term adaptations to different locations and climates. There were additional adaptations: language, society, culture. Diversity and similarity are part of the human experience. Anthropology studies all of them – or, at least, individual anthropologists study aspects of all of them.
Anthropology is like a curious little bird, pecking and hoarding shiny, spangly bits.
When my husband took a job at the University of Kent, I worked as a temporary typist. Generally, anthropologists study down rather than up. Go into the field; the anthropologist has more education, status, and usually a lot more money, than the people studied.
Working as a temporary typist is different. No status and not much money. Lowest of the low. For a change, I was down looking up.
In one office, I met a woman from a Travelling Family. Her parents wanted her to get a good education, so they settled. She started first grade. The teacher put her desk in the hall, where she could see the blackboard, hear the teacher. Everyone knew gypsies had lice.
In another office, the three women working there corrected their boss’s mistakes, covered his incompetency. They despised him. He was rude, unappreciative, expected them to get his coffee and sometimes even pay for it. They covered for him anyway.No choice. Success flows up; blame tumbles down.
I made a friend in a third office. She had started work at fourteen. I said, “But I wasn’t even allowed to date when I was fourteen.” She laughed and said she wasn’t either. She had to wait until she was sixteen to go out with a boy.
I earned about similarity and difference in a non-fieldwork setting.
I did fieldwork in South Asia, in Lahore, and travelled in India. England, at least the Southeast, was as ranked and hierarchical as Delhi or Sindh. Unlike South Asia, there was not even a pretense of reciprocity. A villager in Punjab gets sick and the landlord is expected to drive him to the hospital. Not in Kent.
Entitlement: some have a right to their position. Ability is irrelevant. No obligation implied.
One thing all these people, places, had in common: they spoke nostaligically of World War II. It was a time they all fought together, were united. Afterwards, things like the National Health Service, establishing safety net for the poor, recognized this.
I think one reason for their nostalgia was the sense of community, commonality. Even those who exploit lose by their separation. Anthropology can offer an explanation. But sometimes I don’t want an explanation. I just want to mourn things as they are and wish they were different.
Wenonah Lyon is a retired anthropologist.. In addition to academic publications, she has published short fiction in In Posse, Dead Mule, Quantum Muse, Maps, flashquake, Unlikely 2.0 and other online and print journals. (The essay in Unlikely 2.0 has been included in cityLit Berlin.) Dream Nexus, YA fiction, will be published by Dreaming Big Publications.