One Does Not Simply…Write About Anthropology

My Time as a Graduate Student

Thesis update

I haven’t posted in awhile about my thesis. So here is an update on my research and methods.

Background and Research Methods

            The Lord of the Rings series is a fantasy fiction written by J.R.R. Tolkien between the years of 1937 and 1949, consisting of three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. This canon is the sequel to Tolkien’s earlier work The Hobbit that was published in 1937 and was originally a children’s fantasy novel, and later was developed into a larger work. These works had an everlasting impression upon popular culture that Tolkien probably never thought would happen. I will assume that the reader has either read the books or have seen the movies and a greater detail of plot summary of each of these titles will not be necessary. If not, spoiler alert and you have been warned.

My research will focus on a theoretical structural analysis of Tolkien’s work The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with the The Silmarillion and the Histories of Middle Earth as references. I will be looking at major themes and patterns that are present and have been carried throughout the series such as: magic, dual sovereignty (power and authority), and language. Although there have been literary articles on these similar themes, my aim is to not do another literary article but demonstrate how anthropological theory can be applied to a fictional setting and demonstrate how fictional literatures are reflections of culture itself. Fictions are cultural products that reflect an author’s interpretation of his or her own culture. If culture cannot be reinterpreted or reproduced, what is the point of culture in the first place? It can be argued that every fiction is a cultural experiment. If a reader buys it, then we have reproduced culture.  Maybe not quite the way people thought it was but it’s intelligible, which means it reproduces culture.  If they don’t, then we don’t understand our culture.   In this regard modern fiction writing is just like myth-making, because the teller of tales in a non-literate, non-capitalist society either has the audience with her/him or she/he doesn’t. If he or she does not, she or he doesn’t have a clue how to talk about her or his culture.

With that aside, I will shift to research and theoretical methods that will be implored to collect data within the series. As mentioned above, structuralism will be the major theoretical method for analysis of this series. Why structural analysis? It encompasses everything from the major themes to being able to define the relationships between the major themes and culture itself. I feel the following quote from the introduction of Margaret Williamson’s Powhatan Lords of Life and Death, justly defines the reasons for a structural analysis of this work:

“A common objection to this sort of analysis [i.e., structuralist] is that it represents nothing more than the imaginative acrobatics of the (western-trained) analyst, which while they may be impressive do not get us much further in understanding why a group of people act as they do. It may be objected also that the really die-hard structuralist is so handy with an answer to any possible objection to a proposed structure, or to the method of structuralism, that disproving the validity of either is impossible. Indeed, the matter of proof raises a serious question. How is anyone to know whether what is proposed is “true” or not, particularly when, as in this case, we cannot even ask informants their opinion of any hypothetical structure? The answer is that we cannot know. But we can make a case that all the available evidence supports one interpretation more strongly than it does the alternatives (Darnton 1984:257-259). This is no more than an application of the law of parsimony: the most economical explanation of the phenomena we are trying to understand. Thus I assume that my analysis of the Powhatan is probably correct because it provides an explanation for everything that we know that they did, and moreover it establishes logical kinds of relationships among all those things” (Williamson 2003).

As mentioned before, the major themes that are present throughout the series are: magic, dual sovereignty, and language. Although there are other patterns and themes like life and death, male and female, gender roles, etc.; these themes are intertwined with the major themes I wish to explore.

Magic occurs throughout the series beginning with The Hobbit and is heavily present in the Fellowship and the beginning of the Two Towers, but the use of magic begins to dwindle as the story line progresses through the second book and into the third. The use of magic is almost non-existent in the third book and by the end of the series magic is leaving Middle Earth with the departing of Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel. The degree to which magic is used and by whom varies throughout the series with those who are able to produce, wield, and who are magical beings themselves. There is also an occurrence to the degree of where magic is used the most, geographically. As the characters journey across Middle Earth, the journey begins in the North and travels South, we see that magic is more frequent and stronger in the Northern region than in the South. This also occurs in other fictional literatures, but it would be interesting to see if it correlates with other mythos of witchcraft.

There are several power and authority struggles that occur throughout the series from the obvious control of Middle Earth between Men and the armies of Sauron to the possession of the One Ring. There are many power and authority struggles that occur between the races and within, many obvious and some that are not. Many of these struggles are correlated with the gravitas and celeritas, the concept of order and chaos, of the world.

As we know, Tolkien created the languages that are spoken in the movies and by the diehard fans of the series. These languages define each culture within Middle Earth with an identity that has shaped the behavior and cultural meanings of each race. Much like the languages of Europe where there are several languages spoken that define a country with English being the languages that connect them as a whole group, languages of Middle Earth follows suit. There are several languages: Dwarfish, Elvish, Orcish, Ancient languages of each, and Common Speech. Common Speech is the language of Men and is known by almost all the other races. I am interested to explore the uses of the languages, by whom, and how it has shaped the culture. It will be also interesting to see how Tolkien uses the languages and when he switches languages within the storyline and between whom.

I would be measuring the number of occurrences these themes and patterns take place throughout the series to determine if they could be defined as universals and potentially be applied to other fictional literatures in the future research. I would also explore if these patterns were also parallel to cultural lore and mythos of Europe, the area in which they were written.

Leave a comment »

Finally a Post!

I just realized that I haven’t posted in about a week, silly me. But life sometimes gets in the way of things. Last week I was battling allergies that turned into a head cold, that is now all in my chest. This has made it challenging to focus on school work and thesis research because I have been drugged on on anti-congestion and ny-quail. Needless to say, my work was not the best that was produced during the course of last week.

On a good note I have finished my zoo observation project which required me to learn excel to produce charts and tables to explain the amount of time each individual used sections of the enclosure, time spent performing activities and behaviors, postures, and locomotion. I am pretty pleased with it, lets hope the instructor is as well.

In regards to my thesis, I have been challenged by the some of the writing assignments for Research and Design. Which is a really good thing, because it requires me to think outside of the box for my topic. I am essentially studying fake cultures that do not have archaeological evidence or any real existence within the threads of reality in the sense that we can travel to Middle Earth. But what Lord of the Rings does have are historical documents within the context of the writing (when Gandalf goes and researches the existence of the one Ring in the Fellowship or the maps in Hobbit when the dwarfs are trying to figure out how to get into the mountain), there is also languages that are specific to the an individual culture and there are languages that unit communication between all the cultures (Common Speech), and each have their own cultural traditions and rituals that are shape the identity of the cultures.

But yes, I am doing a structural analysis on Lord of the Rings
Well why not? I am interested in many things, but I wanted to focus a thesis on something fun and challenging at the same time. The challenge is that it is not real, a fake culture. But each culture within has it’s own history that has helped shape it cultural construction. Each culture has a history and language, the whole of Middle of Earth has a history and shared language that allows each of the cultures to communicate and interact with one another, whether it be for good or bad.

As I mentioned before,I am interested in the use of languages within each of these cultures and how it shapes each. Much like our own cultures and languages. The languages were constructed by Tolkien, and they are used today just like Trekies who learn Klingon.

I am also interested in comparing it to the construction of myth.
I love theory and I love reading, so why not? They may be fiction but that makes it just as real to the characters within the story.
In order to achieve all this I had to structurally break down Lord of the Rings…that process has begun and I am loving every moment of it. Analysis of myth has been done, so the resources are there. I am just going to apply it to Lord of the Rings.

One thing I have learned from research and coming up with a thesis topic, is that it should be fun. Does this have any anthropological value? Well that is up for interpretation. I see fiction writing as a reflection of the self. Many authors use familiar aspects from personal experience, cultural histories, and influences of one’s culture to construct these fictions.

I wanted a challenge, and breaking down and discussing anthropological concepts of a fictional culture fits that bill. As Brian told me the other day, “if you can do this with a fake culture, how much easier would be to do with an existing culture.”

Leave a comment »

Thesis Update – Literature Review

This past week we had to write a preliminary literary review for our thesis topics. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be other than the confusion of what to include in it. I was always under the impression that a literary review was just scholarly or academic work that helps with defining and backs up major themes within personal research, there is little to no personal theory.

I decided for my literary review to break down the structure in major themes: mythic thought, liminality, dual sovereignty, and exchange that includes Levi-Strauss, Leach, Needham, Van Genep, Guenon, Mauss, Weiner, Sahlins, Ginzburg, and Weber. As I wrote this I forgot to write a few other key works, but this is just a draft. But here is a preview of the first draft of my literary view.

Structures of Mythic Thought

Myth is a narrative told through a repetition of a series of events, described through collective symbolic imagery that conveys events of the past and present and can possibly predict the future. Myths are more than just a collection of symbols, it carries meaning within the meaning itself. The purpose of the myth is to create order and make sense of the disorder of the world and transfer the meaning. In Structural Anthropology and Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi-Strauss defines “myth as a language,” from which it can be implied that myth is constructed by the same rule as language: a communication of the ambiguous signifier with the collective signified in which it must be told to exist (Leach 1976; Levi-Strauss 1963). Myth-making is the relationship and interaction between the signified and the signifier and is then the reinterpretation of the narrative back to the signifier. The myth-making process must be repetitive in order to be a part of the cultural structure (Levi-Strauss 1963).

In Myth and Meaning, Levi-Strauss argues that although we may see mythology and history as oppositions to one another, as history being real and mythology as unreal, they are structurally constructed in the same way (Levi-Strauss 1979). Levi-Strauss states that history is a continuation of myth that fulfills the same function, to relay past experiences through a constructed narrative to be passed down through time. In the same text, he argues that music can also be treated as a myth. Whether classical or modern, music has always reflected the culture in which it has originated and always consists of a story that can be told with or without words.  Both myth and music have a beginning, middle, and end and must be constructed to captivate an audience. He states that music and myth must be read vertically and horizontally to be understood in its totality or as a whole, to have just one piece of it makes the entire work incomplete; myth or music (Levi-Strauss 1979). Levi-Strauss is trying to convey a message that every culture has music, history, and myth and although they all may be uniquely different in each culture, they have similar structures.

In Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, Marshall Sahlins argues there is not a difference between Hawaiian myths and the historical reality of the first encounter with Europeans and Captain Cook. Cook’s arrival and subsequent events that were told by the English were considerably different from the Hawaiian tale of the events. History, in western context, is a metaphor for belief and reality as determined based off relevant myths. Sahlins uses this analysis to explain the events that took place during Cook’s presence at the islands, and as well as the transformations in Hawaiian culture (Sahlins 1981). Structure is the existing method to the chaos of life that defines the ways individuals respond to different situations that can determine reactions and decisions of individuals. Events focus on the overlapping and interconnecting pieces of the structures while reenergizing and charging the existing structure, allowing structures to continue or be replaced with new structures (Sahlins 1981).

The purpose of a myth is to gain a collective acceptance that allows it to exist through time. If a myth was not popular, it would not exist. Carlos Ginzburg in Ecstasies researches the European history of witchcraft and the origins of witchcraft that have been associated with two things: marginalized persons and death (Ginzburg 1991). Over time, Ginzburg connects various local traditions of the witches’ Sabbath, a journey to the realm of the dead and back, to other concepts like were-wolves that have transcended through historical documents and into popular media (Ginzburg 1991). Ginzburg also illustrates the necessity of heroes, using Greek myths like Oedipus, being liminal characters in juxtaposition to witches that transverse the world of the living and the dead (Ginzburg 1991). Ginzburg portrays the universal messages of fear, acceptance, life, and death that are woven into the tapestry of human understanding and every culture.


In various events throughout the fictional narrative, characters often experience an in between time of various states: life and death, adolescents, rites of passages. In his work: Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage, Victor Turner regards the marginal, liminality, as “interstructural situation within the structure of positions of society;” as a time and place of withdraw from the norms of society. All liminality will eventually dissolve because of its intensity if it does not have some sort of structure to stabilize it (Turner 1967). Therefore an individual will return to the norms of the surrounding social structure or liminal individuals will create their own internal social structure, normative communitas. Liminality is a period in time that an individual is suspended until the ritual is complete or an individual returns to the social constructs of the norm.

Liminality is a term used by Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by Victor Turner that describes a period in which an individual is ambiguous between time and states. It is commonly used in rituals when an individual must pass through one phase of life to another, rites of passages: childhood to adulthood: life to death. To talk about liminitality we must associate it with rites of passages. Van Gennep describes liminaltiy in his work Rites of Passages, as a change in an individuals’ status within a society and a transitions in the passages of time through a three-fold sequential structure: preliminal rites, liminal rites, and postliminal rites, in which an individual must transcend through symbolic markers of social time (Gennep 1960).

Much like van Gennep, Victor Turner and Edmund Leach believe that rites of passages, or transition, are found in every society in which rites indicate the transition, or transformation, between states (states regarding as fixed or stable conditions of an individual or group) through a triad phases of Separation, Marginality, and Aggregation. The actor of the ritual will pass through each of these phases to achieve the ritual goal beginning with separation, the symbolic behavior signifying the detachment from a fixed point in the social structure; becoming marginal where the individual as ambiguous “betwixt and between” time; and ending at the aggregation where the individual is consummated, the ritual ends and the transformation is complete (Turner 1967). Rites of passes are “interval markers of progression of social time” (Turner 1967).

In Culture and Communication, Leach describes it as a liminal zone where it is scared and performed by ritual leaders who are themselves liminal beings or the individual who is transcending through the process from one state to another. Liminal beings can be those individuals who are in direct communication with the Other World like shamans or priests, who are given abnormal rights than those of normal men because they can transcend from one world to the next either by mediation or spiritually. Liminality is defined by its cultural construct, the symbolic meaning of transformation or transcending through time and space (Leach 1976).

Exchange and Inalienable Possessions

Marcel Mauss in The Gift argues the ubiquitous gift that he deemed it as a “total social phenomenon” wherein “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time” (Mauss 1950).  According to him, with giving come three obligations: the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate (Mauss 1950).  To refuse to give, is to refuse any social relationships; likewise, to refuse the gift or refuse to reciprocate, is to refuse the giver (Mauss 1950).  Taking it further, an unreciprocated gift makes the receiver socially inferior to the giver. To give back less than was received, makes the reciprocator inferior to the initial giver (Mauss 1950). To Mauss, the gift is only a means of creating social relations and bringing groups, or individuals, closer together.

Annette Weiner in Inalienable Possessions argues that the socially constructed value of things and people is related directly to the lack of exchange surrounding inalienable possessions.  These inalienable possessions are “certain things [that] assume a subjective value that place them above exchange value” and possession of one such thing “confirms difference rather than equivalence” (Weiner 1992).  “The possession not only authenticates the authority of its owner, but affects all other transactions even if it is not being exchanged” (Weiner 1992).  In this way, exchange and control of exchange accords and deprives authority and power, creating resentment and social distance, not bonds (Weiner 1992). According to Weiner, it’s not reciprocating that makes exchange, but the important inalienable possessions kept out of it or “keeping while giving” (Weiner 1992).  In conclusion, “the social identities of the participants, what they have that makes them different from each other, color the styles, actions, and meanings that create the exchange” (Weiner 1992).

Exchange is much more than the transfer of tangible things from one person or group to another (Mauss 1950).  Exchange is systems of meaning that communicate cultural constructions.  Giving a gift defines an individual to the giver and the giver to the recipient. What is maintained is that gifts, tangible or intangible, do not only create social relationships, but maintain social distance. In every exchange is an underlying message of not only social relations, but the legitimacy of those relationships.

Dual Sovereignty: Power and Authority

            Throughout the narratives, there is a constant struggle for the seat of authority over a body of people or area of the world. These struggles of authority clash with the want and need to have power. Rene Guenon states in Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power that authority is associated with spiritual means of specific knowledge that is manifested with authority and power is temporal, in which the relationship between the two is unequal and power is inferior to the superior authority (Guenon 2001). Guenon describes power as being action and disorder that must be reestablished over time, and authority as the knowledge that maintains the order of a society.

In Max Weber’s work, The Types of Legitimate Domination, on legitimate forms of authority, he describes three types of legitimate authority – legal, traditional, and charismatic (Weber 1925). Legal is the first type in which the authority of an individual is obedient to the system. Whereas traditional, the authority of the individual is obedient to the position.  Weber discusses the third type of authority, charismatic authority as energetic and irregularity that the legal and traditional authorities lack. Charismatic relies on the obedience to a person who garners superhuman qualities “not accessible to the ordinary person, but [are] regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary” (Weber 1925). The individual is designated as a leader by their followers, but is validated as a leader by the masses that trail the charismatic leader (Weber 1925). The basis of legitimacy is based on “the conception that it is the duty of those subject to charismatic authority to recognize its genuineness and to act accordingly” (Weber 1925), not based on fixed traditions.

Leave a comment »

Why do it?

I had a friend ask me about my thesis research topic: what is the benefit of studying characters that are not real? 

My reply was simple: why not? They are fiction, but in their very own definition they are true especially to the characters within the stories. It also proves how anthropology can be applied in various ways. The one thing that I have learned from doing various research projects, it work on something that you are interested in and will stay interested in. And this research combines my love for reading and anthropology.

As I have mentioned in a previous post that I am interested in an ethnographic study of the cultures within fictional fantasy and teasing out the similar characteristics they have in common and comparing them. For those who don’t know what ethnography is, it is literally the study of culture. I emphasize fictional fantasy because there are a lot of fiction out there, but the most popular is fantasy with the uses of some sort of magic and magical creatures. Why? because it is just cool, but there is more to these than just magical creatures and good vs. evil. There are underlining similarities to Judea-Christian theology as well as other Western thought that all these fantasies carry (in the Western world) and with those similarities, is what makes them popular and easy to relate to. I will use Harry Potter for an example – the culture of the Wizarding World isn’t much different than that of Western society, put aside magic. There are struggles for the seat of authority in their government, racism, gender struggles, rites of passage from childhood to adulthood through educational institutions, and so much more of the similar challenges that we have to go through in society. When I say racism – we see this throughout the story with Umbridge and the Ministry against the Centaurus, Ron and the house elves, Malfoy to everyone that isn’t of pure blood, etc. Magic, in many cultures, is very much real. Often we study cultures with the ideas that magic is very much real, loved, and feared in their theologies and ideas of the world. If we can relate and acknowledge that magic is every part real within a culture, why can’t we say the same for the stories?

We still come to the problems that “they are not real.” Well yes and no. Fictional literaturaries are narratives that are imaginary but can have some factual evidence to them, but as a whole it is a work that was made up by the author. But let’s take a moment and look at ethnohistory. Ethnohistory – is the ethnographic study of cultures through historical records that may or may not still exist in the present. Ethnohistorians have to piece together cultures through historical documents, this is most often the case with Native American cultures that do not exist today as they did during the time of colonialism. Amd we all know that these documents by the British, French, Spainish, and Dutch (and even later on with the movement into the Frontier with Americans) that these documents were ethnocentric and one sides, rituals and cultures are interpreted through the eyes the author. Many of these rituals that were performed would be seen as fictional as wizards play Quidditch. Take the Natchez’s mortuary rituals – when a Sun died (their definition of a chief or tribal leader with divine authority), the wives of the Sun and a selected group were to commit a ritual suicide of strangulation during the procession of the death ritual. The Sun would be carried through the village on a stretcher and mothers would through their infants in the paths to be trampled on by the procession.  It all seemed cruel and unholy (most often interpreted that way) but it was seen as an honor within the culture. (that was only the short and clean version of what really happened) But this ritual would seem unfathomable and made up, but it really wasn’t. Like most cultures during that time of colonialism, can only be interpreted by the author itself. Ginzburg does a great job in his work with the Inquisition of witchcraft in Europe, piecing through documents the perspective of the those being accused.

So this brings us back to fictional fantasies and aren’t they just reflection and interpretations of an author’s view of the world just told through a different lens? I think so. Some of who like to write, art, music – aren’t you just interpreting thoughts and feelings of the events going on in your life and/or the world through an alternative means? I find all these similarities within these fantasies. Tolkien for one based LOTR off his experiences of the changing world during the World Wars and the Industrial Revolution and interpreted those events through the use of writing. Again I want and interested in breaking down these fantasies structurally and interpreting their meanings and  how we relate to them as culture/society.

Leave a comment »

Why Go to Grad School?

Same reason to go to college, to get a degree to find a good job. The working sector of life has become more challenging and nowadays a simple Bachelor’s Degree is not enough in most fields. But that is not the sole reason why I chose to go get my Master Degree. I enjoy anthropology and I enjoy sharing the knowledge that I have gained through the course of my studies, and yes it will give me a greater advantage to have a Master’s when applying for jobs. I have been to many conference and I have enjoyed being able to teach others of my research and thus pushing me to get a higher degree to be able to teach.

But grad school is not for everyone because it is more expensive than a Bachelor’s and more work, at least in Anthropology. The only thing that I have going good for me was as an undergrad my professors pushed us and gave us a lot of readings and theory at an almost graduate level. And I am very grateful for that experience because it has prepared me for the challenges that I have faced as a grad student. Although it may not be for everyone, it is worth exploring. I didn’t want to be working at pools, teaching swim lessons, etc for the rest of my life. I already had about 10 years of that under my belt and although I have many certifications for that field of work, it wasn’t my passion. What I did gain, however, was the teaching skills. I am an American Red Cross Instructor for Lifeguard Training, swim lessons, CPR, Babysitting, etc. as well as an instructor trainer to teach individuals who to become instructors. With those skills I have gotten practice speaking in front of people as well as teaching. But I still seem to get nervous a lil when I am talking about anthropology (probably because people actually know what I am talking about). Nonetheless, those skills have served me well.

As I have stated before I have a passion for learning and although a lot can be learned on one’s own, I would have never thought about looking into the other subdisciplines of anthropology like biological anthropology. And I have been working with two others whom I went to undergrad with I have been able to bring my experiences to our ongoing research project.

Overall going to grad school has benefited me, I have been trying to incorporate my research into the courses that I can. And even if I can’t, I still find ways to study more in depth what interests me in that particular subject.

When looking for a grad school, however, be sure to look at the credentials of the professors and of the school.  It is still who know and networking that can help get into a program. I had some help from a former professor at UWF who was interested in my work that I have done and still doing, as well as former professors from UMW that have gotten me to the place where I am today. I still go back and ask for guidance and help, there is no shame in being reminded or guided to the right path. And always look for jobs or opportunities that would benefit you as well, like conferences. Conferences may seem scary because other scholars of anthropology are there, but it is important to keep in mind that they know what you are going through because they were in the same place as you once. And it can also provide with good feedback and constructive criticism for research, that you may never have thought about before.

My hope is to be able to finish my degree by December 2013 and find a job that is teaching. I have been looking into community colleges, adjunct positions, and possible teaching positions within the military (cultural awareness classes or such) something of that manner.

That is my 2 cents on the matter…

Leave a comment »