Studying Youth Culture
'Tis the season for our culture to engage in the annual rites of eggnog lattes and full-contact shopping. If this curious ritual were to be studied for science, you would hire a cultural anthropologist.
Anthropology is the study of humankind and all the diversity and variation that we see around the world, and how people live. Cultural anthropology is the study of living humans and their beliefs, values, and practices. How they create a world that has meaning for them.
That’s Dr. Mary Good, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Wake Forest University. Around the holidays, it’s easy to see how children fit into our seasonal customs, but what about the rest of the year? What about other cultures?
In every culture, people typically like children, and they also want their children to continue the same kinds of beliefs and practices that they hold. But, at the same time, kids have this way of finding and creating their own little cultures within that overarching parent or adult kind of culture. I taught a class that was an upper level seminar on the anthropology of childhood and youth, so exploring the ways that children are viewed, and how they come to be part of a particular culture. Each student had to pick an object from our museum collections, and it fit into one of five categories, so education, dolls, clothing, games, and then other toys. Most of the toys were from contemporary times. Some were from the 1950s, some were from the 1970s. We had some, I think, from the early 1900s, so there is a good range.
The students were given the task of researching these toys, and how they incorporate into youth culture around the globe. Afterwards, they got to do something very cool with their research.
As part of their final assignment for the semester, they gave some final input into what an exhibit would look like in a museum. The assignment itself was intended to get the students to think about communicating anthropological knowledge to the broader public, and to kind of take it outside of the classroom. I think a lot of times students think of what they learn in the classroom as something that, you know, last day of school ends, and they don’t have to think about it deeply anymore, but especially with events on campus, events around the world, it’s really important to think about cultural diversity, and how you might communicate the importance of cultural diversity to a greater public.
Thanks in part to the work of Dr. Good and her class, this exhibit is now on display at the Museum of Anthropology, on the Wake Forest University campus. In working to build an exhibit understandable and interesting to all, the students came away with a special gift.
I think that learning to communicate science knowledge is critical, especially in this day and age when there is so much information out there, and there is a real need for interesting and engaging, but also accurate, science information. In the Anthropology department, we have a pretty strong program of helping students to find venues to present their research, but often it’s in scientific circles, communicating science knowledge to other scientists. But it’s also more likely that you’ll have to communicate science knowledge to your grandma, when she asks you what you’re going to do with your anthropology degree, or to community members. So I think that’s another good reason for additional training in communicating science to a broader public. It’s great that Wake Forest has an anthropology museum, and I think that understanding all the different ways that people live and the impressive variety of all of these objects that we create, is really fascinating, and I think that cultural anthropology is knowledge that can be used in a lot of different times and places and professions. I tell my students all the time that, no matter what they go into, they will always use their cultural anthropology perspective. So, hopefully they’ll believe me.