Dispatches from ASCUS #1: What is Anthropology?

Welcome to Dispatches from ASCUS! My name is Iona Walker, PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and anthropologist in residence at ASCUS for the summer of 2022. I am very excited to be writing to you in the first of a series of Dispatches from ASCUS, a series where I will give you an ‘ethnographer’s eye view’ into the world of ASCUS.

I am an anthropologist. Anthropology is tricky to define. If you ever meet one of us in the wild and ask us what it is we do, you’ll probably see us shift uncomfortably, smile apologetically and say something along the lines of “well… it’s a long story”. As a student I would get frustrated by my professor’s inability to provide me with a straight answer and as a tutor I have seen the same frustration on the faces of my own students. In short, anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. However, there is a good reason for our reticence to give a neat definition. Anthropology is the study of the sheer scale and diversity of human life – if you’re interested in the etymology click here.

Anthropologists study the whole spectrum of human life, from social class to gene editing technologies, kinship to water infrastructure, language to hospitals. We set up field sites everywhere from remote villages in tropical rainforests, to your local pub. Everywhere is a potential field site.

Anthropologists conduct ethnography to produce their research. Ethnography is a long-term data collection method that involves going to a field site and getting to know from the ‘inside’ how a social group, technology or process functions in the world. Ethnography usually involves participant observation, meaning we participate in, and observe, how ordinary life functions in ‘the field’ that we are studying. This means letting go of our previous understandings of the world, and imagining instead that we are aliens, learning about a specific place, group or culture for the first time. Unlike surveys, another method other disciplines use to study social life, there are not pre-defined boxes for participants to tick. Instead, ethnography allows open ended research which is useful for understanding complex problems with multiple perspectives at different scales.

I am a medical anthropologist, which means that I study, think and write about what it means to be human in the context of illness, death and the more-than-human world of microbial life. My PhD is about antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the growing ability of microbes to become resistant to antimicrobial substances such as antibiotics. AMR is a threat because much of modern medicine relies on our ability to control infections and make procedures like surgery
or chemotherapy safe and effective. AMR also impacts our food infrastructure, as antibiotics are involved in industrial farming, with antibiotic runoff polluting the soil and water. However, I am interested in what it means to live with the microbial world, beyond our ability to control them with antimicrobial substances. What does it mean to be human and live in an ecosystem? How can we reimagine our relationship with the microbial world? What ways to we have to know, or produce knowledge about microbes?

ASCUS has a strong focus on the bringing together the arts and the sciences, I am here to bring in the human. The world is facing a moment of profound change and uncertainty, many of us over the pandemic have had major life shifts or changes in perspective, the cost of living is going up and the planet is still facing massive pressure from climate change. We are facing a moment of change, where many of the old ‘business as usual’ structures that maintained normal life are beginning to crumble. I hope that by integrating anthropological perspectives, tools and questions ASCUS can be a space to help understand the world a little better, remain curious and find their community. I will be writing regular Dispatches from ASCUS, where I will talk about anthropology, interview exciting guests and take you deeper behind the scenes of the ASCUS relaunch. I hope you’ll stick with me, stay curious and see you next time!

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