Crossing Cultures: The Study Abroad Experience Introduction

By defining "culture" as the chief survival mechanism of our species, and "cultures"--in the plural--as the geographically and historically diverse outcomes of this mechanism, Franz Boas and his disciples established a new paradigm for the study of humankind, one that eschews the ethnocentric assumptions of social evolutionism and creates the premises for genuine cross-cultural understanding. One hundred years of anthropological practice, however, have not quite fulfilled the promise of the Boasian Revolution. Possibly this has to do both with the difficulties inherent in doing "real" (i.e., cross-cultural) and "independent" (i.e., self-funded) anthropological research in the contemporary world, and with the unusual psychological profile which seems to be needed to professionally succeed in this field. Encouraging anthropology majors to apply their budding cross-cultural skills in a study-abroad experience can usefully acquaint them with the unique demands of the discipline and serve as a "rite of passage" both personally and professionally.

The main reason why long-term, foreign-language based fieldwork abroad has been traditionally considered a crucial experience for aspiring professional cultural anthropologists--typically being required toward compiling their doctoral dissertation--has to do with the role "culture shock" plays in shaping one's recognition of what a culture is, how enculturation works and cultural membership gets acquired and expressed, and how cross-cultural differences can be identified, understood, and negotiated. Either not getting any culture shock at all, or getting an incapacitating dose of it, are clear signs of lack of aptitude for "doing" anthropology, no matter how long one has academically trained for it. Being able to recognize the symptoms of one's culture shock and finding ways not only to overcome its challenges, but to use them in the service of anthropological research, confirms the availability of the core skills of the profession: reflexivity, mindfulness, empathy, intellectual curiosity, pattern recognition, tolerance for ambiguity, and a healthy sense of humor (as mentioned in the first section). These are actually psychological skills one may be endowed with from birth, but it is only by honing them through the transformative experience of fieldwork in a foreign culture that one can lay the foundations of a professional career in cultural anthropology. This is because one usually emerges from it as a "professional alien" who can, if necessary, subsequently engage in effective research "at home" precisely because no culture is truly native any longer.

The investment of time and resources required for such an experience to have its full impact is inevitably out of reach for undergraduate students. Nonetheless, certain types of training, offered by our methodology and culminating classes--and by any ancillary courses stimulating cross-cultural expertise (through the study of foreign languages, world history, or international affairs, for example)--give students the basic tools to self-test their aptitude for professional engagement with cultural anthropology. The best setting for such a test, though, remains the "study abroad" experience, especially if it is embarked upon by students who have systematically prepared for it, and is long and challenging enough to stimulate culture shock.

The sequence of Independent Study courses required by the EMU Honors College from students pursuing honors certification in their major provides an excellent structure in which to incorporate a culminating study-abroad experience, as well as the focused preparation for it, and the analysis of the experience which can be written up as an Honors Thesis. The piece offered to illustrate this section is a particularly successful example of such a project, through which an anthropology major applied the theoretical and methodological training acquired in the classroom toward research in a field setting providing an almost ideal "natural laboratory" for focused participant observation and cross-cultural analysis.

Study Abroad Dynamics: Anthropological Perspectives
by Jon Maravelias


Return to the table of contents for 3.1 Writing for Cultural Anthropology