Why Study Anthropology?

Alumni of the Undergraduate Anthropology Major reflect on their past experiences and future directions.

Raymond Fang

(AB'17, Anthropology)

Honors Thesis: “(En)Gendering Exploitation: Risk, Race, and Value in US Medical Genetics” (Lichtstern Thesis Prize Recipient; Advisors: Joseph Masco, P. Sean Brotherton)

I had a great experience in the anthropology department. I worked with a number of very supportive, very friendly faculty members who taught me so much, including Joseph Masco, Sean Brotherton, Kaushik Sunder Rajan, and Judy Farquhar. In particular, Joseph Masco's Winter 2015 class, "Nature/Culture," showed me how exciting and eye-opening anthropology can be, and convinced me to major in anthropology. I was drawn to anthropology because it, more than any other discipline, forces me to question my everyday, taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and think critically about the kinds of social, political, economic, and historical relationships I'm embedded in. Though I wrote my Joint BA thesis in a BA workshop run by another department, my work and thought was always based in the anthropology department because it was my intellectual home at the University.

My background in anthropology has helped me immensely with legal research and writing on genetics, biotechnology, and internet privacy. From June 2017 to June 2018, I was employed as an administrative and research assistant for Professor Lori Andrews at the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Whether it's knowing how to critically dissect complicated texts, being able to write clearly, concisely, and convincingly, or understanding the cultural assumptions that inform law and legal practice, anthropology provided me with a host of very useful skills in the workplace.

In Fall 2018, I enrolled in UC Irvine's anthropology PhD program to study medical anthropology and science and technology studies.

Mallory VanMeeter

(AB'16, Anthropology)

Honors Thesis: “Salve and Salvage: A Reparative Reading of Self Care in Queer Discourse and Practice” (Lichtstern Thesis Prize Co-Recipient; Advisors: Sean Brotherton, Larisa Jaserevic)

I came into college knowing that I wanted to study people and the stories they tell. Based on its name – the study of humans – anthropology seemed like the perfect place to start. Before college, I thought of anthropologists as explorers going out to the field and bringing some dark foreign world to light – the University of Chicago’s Indiana Jones, for example. When I started taking classes in the department, I quickly realized that contemporary anthropology isn’t really about that at all. It has a troubling history steeped in colonization, yes. But what ultimately drew me to anthropology, and what shapes my perspective to this day, is how it trains you to think critically about the stories and structures around you. Rather than making the foreign familiar, anthropology is about making the familiar strange. The transformation that lens enables is invaluable.

Two choices shaped my experience in the Anthropology department at the University of Chicago: taking on a second major and pursuing a thesis. Cultural anthropology is a diverse field. To develop a more intentional focus, I decided to pursue a second major in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Because many courses are cross-listed between the departments, and because of the flexible major requirements of both degrees, I found the combination really doable and enriching.

My training in anthropology has had a real impact on my work after graduation. In my first year out, I worked as a qualitative research assistant with the Voices of Youth Count Initiative at Chapin Hall. In that role, I analyzed interviews with youth experiencing homelessness across the US. The research experience I gained through my BA thesis project and the Ethnographic Methods course definitely prepared me to step into that position. 

More broadly, the program in anthropology taught me how to craft effective narrative, collect and summarize evidence, and connect the dots in complex concepts. I will always carry with me an anthropological appreciation for research and storytelling that empowers communities and makes real change in the world.

Saylor Soinski

(AB'18, Anthropology)

Honors Thesis: “‘Live Clearn, Ride Wild’: Self-Transformation in the Interspecies World of a Wild Horse Inmate Program” (Lichtstern Thesis Prize Recipient; Advisors: Shannon Dawdy, Larisa Jaserivic)

I spent my first year at the University of Chicago changing majors every quarter—from political science to psychology to philosophy. I was first drawn to the anthropology department when I realized that the majors I had been trying all centered around a question central to anthropology: Why do people do the things they do? I fell in love with the field and the department right away. Anthropology has helped me to explore this question while listening to the stories and voices of people who are too often left out of academic conversations. With help from the anthropology professors here, I was able to conduct my own summer-long ethnographic research project in a California prison. Next year, I will be teaching in Detroit while working towards my Master’s in Education at the University of Michigan, where I hope to study the intersection between public education and criminal justice in the US.

Kathryn Yin

(Class of 2019, Anthropology)

Anthropology is an incredibly diverse and dynamic discipline: I’ve taken classes that have focused on material culture, science and technology studies (STS), and even Balkan folklore. Anthropology spans all fields of human inquiry: ontology and the nature of being, migration and displacement, religion and spirituality... our everyday lives. It is about humility and understanding, about drawing experiences and behaviors back to greater anthropological questions. In my first year at the College, I took Self, Culture and Society and was exposed to a number of seminal works in anthropological theory. It was Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques that turned me onto the major, the myriad ways in which social criticism could be combined with travelogue, autobiography and anthropology. To me, that is the draw of anthropology: it can be rebellious, nonhuman, “unscientific”. It is an unfettered exploration of our relationship with everything that we come into contact with.

It is important as a student of the discipline to understand that anthropology struggles to disentangle itself from a legacy of colonialism and racism. But this is not a conversation that anthropologists shy away from: it is a discipline that is reflexive by ethical imperative, that looks inwards constantly to discover the most ethical and respectful ways to observe the human condition. It questions itself at every turn, and at the forefront of anthropology are scholars that are decentering narratives of the Other and questioning mind-body and nature-culture binaries. The anthropology that I love is constantly reinventing and challenging itself. I look forward to taking classes with instructors that are breaking ground in anthropology and lending their knowledge to a new generation of scholars like myself. Personally, I look forward to an anthropological future that is absolutely political, that envelopes posthumanism and multispecies and digital ontologies, that delves into radical subjectivity and alterity.

The tools of anthropology will take you far. The intellectual questions that I’ve developed and pursued as a result of my studies here will likely draw me back to graduate school, as taking classes in the department has finally helped me narrow my interests and define some key questions going forward. Taking STS courses has helped me understand the lengths to which anthropology can extend itself, and I’m really excited to be investigating questions of virtual reality, technology, and the embodied experience. I want to take a few years after finishing my undergraduate degree to work “in the real world”, and I fully believe that the methodological and intellectual tools (i.e. ethnography, interviewing, quant and qual analysis) that anthropology equips you with are fully applicable in all the paths you might choose to take.

Harry Backlund

(AB'11, Anthropology; currently City Bureau Operations)

Honors Thesis: “The Valuable Game: The World Cup and the Affective Edge of Global Capital” (Advisors: John Kelly, Larisa Jasarevic)

I majored in anthropology because I was hooked by a couple of early classes. The readings and conversations were interesting, and I liked that the professors seemed to be learning in real-time with their students.

I also loved how broad it was. Anthropology is inherently interdisciplinary and hard to pin down, which is good if you’re 18 and restless and a little lost. It offers opportunities to dig into literature, music, art, and film, to learn languages or study economies, and has an open border with philosophy and religion. It gives you a lot of dots you can connect later. For me personally it was a chance to learn how people in other times and places made sense of their society at a time when I was struggling to figure out my own.

Looking back my time in the department was formative. After graduating I served coffee at the Medici for a while, taught English in Spain, and worked as a cook back home in Minnesota, before coming to Chicago to make a go as a journalist. I failed at that, and in the process started thinking about how journalism—then as now in structural crisis—could operate differently. I helped start the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper, and from there started working to solve business and operational problems for other community and investigative journalism outlets and others doing meaningful block-level work in Chicago.

Anthropology deeply informed how and why I work. I learned skills and habits that have been essential in journalism and publishing: how to write well, how to think structurally, and how to listen carefully and with an open mind. I also gained insights that are now fundamental to how I think about and act in the world: that every gift implies reciprocity, for example, or that wealth and poverty are social relations before they are material conditions. And it gave me a deep (if open-ended) belief that people should have access to information they can use to affect the conditions of their lives, and stories that make them proud of their communities. Most of my work is about that.

Also, it was a lot of fun. The classes were unique and sprawling, the professors were genuinely excited about their work, and it helped me travel and make friends in other parts of the world who were different from me. It was a good way to spend four years, and a very bright spot in my time at the university.