[This is an ongoing semester-long class that will continue for 18 weeks. Students are welcome to enroll in the full 18-week series or pick-and-choose the specific classes that suit their interests.]

Since its founding in the nineteenth century, social anthropology has been seen as the study of exotic peoples in faraway places. But today more and more anthropologists are dedicating themselves not just to observing but to understanding and helping solve social problems wherever they occur.

This class highlights anthropology’s commitment to taking people seriously on their own terms, paying close attention to what they are saying and doing, and trying to understand how they see the world and why. Sometimes this bottom-up perspective makes the strange familiar, but it can also make the familiar strange, exposing the cultural basis of seemingly “natural” behaviors and challenging us to rethink some of our most cherished ideas—about gender, “free” markets, “race,” and “refugees,” among many others.

This class covers issues ranging from fundamentalism to forced migration, child labor to smuggling, human rights to hunger, ethnicity to environmentalism, intellectual property rights to international capitalisms. But this class also explore topics usually associated with leisure or “high” culture, including the media, visual arts, tourism, and music.

The curriculum for this course was designed around the work of leading anthropologists who have demonstrated the tremendous contributions that anthropology can make to contemporary society. Each class uses specific examples from their fieldwork to illustrate the focus of our class discussions.


This course will allow students to better understand the world around them by learning to look at modern issues through an anthropological lens. They will learn about the way in which anthropology as a discipline can shed new perspectives on current world issues.

These current world issues are compared across a range of societies, from “modern” US cities to “traditional” villages in non-Western countries. This cross-cultural approach allows students to understand that the problems that affect people in faraway places also affect us in our own countries, and that these problems are the clearest indication of the interconnections of modern global society.

This course aims to help students:
-Develop the skills to think about problems and predicaments facing people in the world today
-Demonstrate analytical and critical thinking in their conversations about the ways in which anthropology can shed new perspectives on current world issues
-Reflect on their own perspectives when thinking about modern issues
-Evaluate the burgeoning research in the field of cultural anthropology
-Lay the groundwork for students to conduct their own research along the lines of how we all engage with difference and sameness on a daily basis

Polyhistoria classes emphasize critical thinking, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. We believe that students learn social sciences best by doing what professional social scientists do.

(Read more about our approach to history.)

1) Students’ cameras and microphones must be turned on during the class.
2) This class requires the continuous use of logical thinking & hypothetical reasoning skills to critically analyze the topics covered in the class. These cognitive functions are generally not sufficiently developed until a student is 13+ years old. Students must have the ability to think critically and logically to analyze the topics covered in the class.

This class is designed to include lots of interaction and discussion. Light, weekly homework assignments will be posted on the classroom wall each week for students who are interested in further learning.

[A lot of interaction in classes with more than 6 students can cause students’ computers to freeze and the video call to be dropped. Therefore, the class interaction level will be modified in classes with 6+ students because of the Zoom limitations. Larger classes will be taught in the format of an engaging lecture with moderate interaction.]

1 hour per week in class, and an estimated 0 – 1 hour per week outside of class.

Anthropology, Sociology, Economics, International Development

Meets once a week for 18 weeks
4 – 9 learners, ages 13-17


WEEK 1 (August 6)
Taking People Seriously | JEREMY MacCLANCY
Anthropology is about taking people seriously. It is about trying to understand how people interpret and act in the world. Anthropologists listen to what people say, watch what they do, and then try to make sense of their words and their deeds by putting them into context.

WEEK 2 (August 13)
World Markets: Anthropological Perspectives | JANE SCHNEIDER
From an anthropological perspective, the world is a vastly uneven playing field in which a hegemonic “free market culture” and disruptive “market forces” move outward from centers of concentrated power and wealth to exert pressure on peripheries that are more or less vulnerable to their impact.

WEEK 3 (August 20)
Political Ideologies: Socialism and Its Discontents | CHRIS HANN
“Why do we have to have rich and poor? Why? Why can’t everybody have a little bit? What’s wrong with that? Gorbachov is to blame for this mess.” -Bulgarian villager in 1992
This class looks at ideologies and their links to underlying social processes and material conditions that work to sustain relations of power and dominance in a given society.

WEEK 4 (August 27)
On Conflict and Violence | MICHAEL GILSENAN
Why are forms of conflict and violence crucial to anthropology? Because they tell us much about the ways in which groups and persons organize and imagine themselves, constitute relations of power and hierarchy, and create social identities and meanings. Both are central to the world in which we live and to our understanding of our places in that world.

WEEK 5 (September 3)
Imagined but Not Imaginary: Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Modern World | RICHARD JENKINS
When Yugoslavia disintegrated, new states emerged. Some of those new states had old names, names that had vanished from the international map more than fifty years earlier. In some of those new states, new ways of talking about similarity and difference within the region emerged also. Where “race” or similar markers of lineage and descent might once have been evoked, “ethnicity” became the word of choice to identify friend and enemy, and to dramatize lines of alliance and conflict.

WEEK 6 (September 10)
Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival |WILLIAM O. BEEMAN
The term fundamentalism has rapidly entered the vocabulary of social science in the past two decades as a general designation for revivalist, conservative religious orthodoxy. Though it was originally applied only to Christianity, Gananath Obeyesekere theorizes that the extension of the term to other religious traditions dates from the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978–79. Today it is used to de- scribe Evangelical Christians, Iranian revolutionaries, ultra-orthodox Jews, militant Sikhs, and Buddhist resistance fighters, among others. Its categorical use is so widespread and so easily applied that the misperception persists that it has always been with us.

WEEK 7 (September 17)
Interpreting Gender and Sexuality: Approaches from Cultural Anthropology | ALMA GOTTLIEB
Does an American woman know what it means to be a Japanese woman just because the two are both women? What is a “woman”—is it any person capable of bearing and breastfeeding children, or something more? Something else?

WEEK 8 (September 24)
Medical Knowledge and Body Politics | MARGARET LOCK
As far as we can ascertain, peoples everywhere have amassed knowledge and practices designed to preserve health, account for the occurrence of illness, and provide therapeutic relief. Anthropologists started to record such knowledge dur- ing the latter part of the last century, but not until the 1920s did the physician/anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers argue that medicine in nonliterate societies is not simply a random assortment of practices based on custom and superstition. On the contrary, Rivers insisted, medicine is an integral part of society at large, and the form that it takes reflects widely shared values.

WEEK 9 (October 1)
Anthropology, Culture, and Environment | MELISSA LEACH AND JAMES FAIRHEAD
When African farmers describe and manipulate the soils and vegetation which are basic to agricultural livelihoods, they use culturally embedded concepts. Kinship terms such as “companionship” or “brotherhood” may be used to describe situations in which particular trees, crops, or weeds coexist; equally, terms such as “killing” or “struggle” can be used to describe competitive suppression, whether in fallows or crops. Soil fertility may be described in terms of heat and cold, damp and dry, hard and soft, with farmers managing these attributes to balance their qualities. Such vocabularies find echoes and gain their meaning in the broader frames in which people understand their world and their place in it, which might include phenomena—such as kinship and social relations—that Western science would not treat as “environmental.”

WEEK 10 (October 8)
Hunger in Africa: Untangling Its Human Roots | ELLEN MESSER AND PARKER SHIPTON
Since early recorded history, both environmental and human causes have been implicated in the etiology of hunger. The Old Testament cites drought but also siege warfare and lack of administrative foresight to store food for bad years as sources of starvation, while ancient Chinese texts blame famines not only on bad weather but also on bad emperors. In spite of the vagaries of the weather, European peoples since about 1800, and others elsewhere in this century, have managed to remain mostly free of widespread starvation. Yet we continue to witness dramatic mortality from hunger and malnutrition-related illness at the turn of the millennium, most visibly in Africa, and less visibly but still to a significant extent in Asia.

WEEK 11 (October 15)
Anthropology and the Aid Encounter | ALEX DE WAAL
In March 1985, at the nadir of the Ethiopian famine, while journalists and aid agencies were counting the numbers of people at risk of starvation in the millions, a group of Ethiopian refugees in a camp in neighboring Sudan went on a hunger strike. They demanded that the refugee authorities and aid agencies permit them to leave the camp, to take their children out of the feeding centers and clinics, so that they could return home to the Ethiopian highlands. Aghast, relief workers said that this was a suicidal plan: how could starving people turn their backs on food and medicine to face an arduous trek into the perils of war and famine? “The march of death” they described it. But the refugees insisted, refusing food rations until at least the men and some families were permitted to begin their journey home.

WEEK 12 (October 22)
The Refugee: A Discourse on Displacement | VALENTINE DANIEL
“The world is awash with refugees.” “Waves of refugees arrive in Europe.” “Refugee stream swells into the millions.” “First a trickle, then a flood.” “Tens of thousands seek asylum.” “The camps overflow with refugees.” Such are the typical media headlines in Europe and America. Minimally, it appears that embedded in such phrases, the word refugee itself does not swell with a sense of warmth, safety, succor, or welcome but seethes with menace and foreboding. It is also clear that its connotations far exceed its denotation in significance. What does refugee represent in official and public discourse? What are some of the other related words, institutions, practices, prejudices, assumptions, and histories that together constitute a field of meaning in which the representation of refugee is real-ized? And if we take anthropology as an exercise in critical inquiry, what ought to be its relationship to such a representation?

WEEK 13 (October 29)
Our Own Way: On Anthropology and Intellectual Property | A. DAVID NAPIER
The year was 1844. The arrows and quiver had been collected from an unidentified Amazonian two years earlier by a man named Goudot. We know nothing of the individual who, by giving them, helped shape the field of anesthesiology. Every patient undergoing open-heart surgery is indebted to him. Indeed, what modern medicine might look like without this discovery is hard to imagine.

WEEK 14 (November 5)
Anthropologists in a World with and without Human Rights | ELLEN MESSER
On New Year’s Day, 1994, Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico, confronted the Mexican government with demands for basic human rights. Appealing for land, livelihood, adequate food, and access to health care and education, they demanded the essential human right to subsistence as well as an end to discrimination, which denied them access to government social programs. By framing their demands in terms of universal human rights, these indigenous Maya demonstrated how the concept and rhetoric of “human rights” have penetrated grassroots politics and enabled grassroots communities to reach out to international human-rights institutions and advocates. But the human-rights demands of these Zapatistas also highlight the persistent and multiple violations of human rights by governments, even those which have signed human-rights covenants and conventions.

WEEK 15 (November 12)
Responses to Resource Scarcity | UNEP
Disputes and grievances over natural resources are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent conflict. The drivers of violence are most often multi-faceted. However, disputes and grievances over natural resources can contribute to violent conflict when they overlap with other factors, such as ethnic polarization, high levels of inequity, poverty, injustice and poor governance.

WEEK 16 (November 19)
Ideas of Culture and the Challenge of Music
“Country music’s characteristic subject is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), rap’s is success in competition (getting over), rock’s is escaping constraints (getting free).” -Mark Greif

WEEK 17 (November 26)
Fieldwork at the Movies: Anthropology and Media | FAYE GINSBURG
A 1998 piece on the opinion page of the New York Times offered this tale of media, late capitalism, and the local meanings of globalization:
“John Burns, the New York Times New Delhi bureau chief, tells me a delightful story about his seventy-year-old Indian cook. Although John has four different satellite dishes on his rooftop (“I’m practically running an uplink station” he says), he still couldn’t get the World Cup matches off Indian TV. When he was complaining about this over breakfast, his cook invited John to come over to his house next door. When they entered, John found the cook’s illiterate wife watching the BBC. “I said, ‘What’s she doing? She doesn’t even speak English.’” The cook explained that a friend of his had started a “private” cable system and strung cable into his house along the local telephone poles—for $3.75 a month. “Then he hands me the television remote,” says John, “and with increasing astonishment, I start at Channel 1 and click all the way to Channel 27. He had television stations from China, Pakistan, Australia, Italy, France. With all my satellite dishes, I had only 14 stations.” (Friedman 1998: A11)


WEEK 18 (December 10)

Art/Anthropology/Museums: Revulsions and Revolutions |CHRISTOPHER B. STEINER
The formation of ethnographic museums in cities such as Paris, London, Oxford, Leiden, and Berlin, beginning sometime in the 1870s, provided not only a material laboratory for anthropological documentation of Europe’s expanding colonial empires, but also offered a powerful visual catalyst that led artists like Vlaminck, Derain, Matisse, and Picasso toward an iconography of primitivism.



JEREMY MacCLANCY is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and a founding trustee of Chacolinks, which campaigns for the threatened rights of the indigenous peoples of northern Argentina (www.chacolinks.org.uk). He has done major fieldwork in Vanuatu and Basque Spain. Among other works, he has written To Kill a Bird with Two Stones: A Short History of Vanuatu (1980/2001); Consuming Culture (1992); and The Decline of Carlism (1999). He has edited or coedited books on popular anthropology and the anthropologies of sport, food, and art.

JANE SCHNEIDER is a professor in the Graduate Program at the City University of New York. Among her books, she has coauthored Culture and Political Economy in Western Sicily (1976) and Festival of the Poor: Fertility Decline and the Ideology of Class in Sicily, 1860–1980 (1997), and has edited Italy’s Southern Question: Orientalism in One Country (1998) and coedited Cloth and Human Experience (1991)

CHRISTOPHER HANN was the director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale), Germany, since 1999. Previously he taught social anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

MICHAEL GILSENAN holds the David B. Kriser Chair in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, where he chairs the department of Middle Eastern Studies. He has carried out fieldwork in Egypt and Lebanon and is currently engaged in research on Yemeni migration around the Indian Ocean. He has written Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt (1973), Recognising Islam (1982/1995), and Lords of the Lebanese Marches (1996).

RICHARD JENKINS trained as a social anthropologist at the Queen’s University of Belfast and the University of Cambridge, and has been professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield since 1995. Current areas of interest include social identity theory, European societies, ethnicity and nationalism, the cultural construction of competence and disability, and the dis/re-enchantment of the world. He has undertaken research in Belfast, the English West Midlands, South Wales, and Denmark. Recent books include Pierre Bourdieu (1992), Social Identity (1996), Rethinking Ethnicity (1997), and Questions of Competence (1998).

WILLIAM O. BEEMAN is a professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Theatre, Speech, and Dance at Brown University. He has conducted fieldwork in Iran, Japan, India, Central Asia, and Germany. He is author of Language, Status and Power in Iran, and Culture, Performance and Communication in Iran; editor of the book series Margaret Mead: The Study of Contemporary Cultures; and author of numerous books and articles dealing with language, religion, performance traditions, and political culture.

ALMA GOTTLIEB is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Africa. She has contributed articles to many books and scholarly journals and is on the editorial board of several journals. She is the author of Under the Kapok Tree: Identity and Difference in Beng Thought; co-editor (with Thomas Buckley) of Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation; coauthor (with Philip Graham), of Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa; co-editor (with Judy DeLoache) of A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies; and co-author (with M. Lynne Murphy) of a Beng-English Dictionary. She has recently completed The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: Infants and the Culture of Infancy in West Africa. She is a professor of anthropology, African studies, and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

MARGARET LOCK is a professor in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine and Department of Anthropology at McGill University. She is the author of East Asian Medicine in Urban Japan: Varieties of Medical Experience (1980) and the award-winning Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America (1993). Her latest book is entitled Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death (2001).

MELISSA LEACH is a social anthropologist and professorial fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, where she established the Environment Group in 1990. She has researched and published extensively on social and historical aspects of landscape change and the construction of environmental knowledge, especially relating to West Africa and the Caribbean. Her books include Rainforest Relations (1994); The Lie of the Land (1996); Misreading the African Landscape (1996), and Reframing Deforestation (1998), the latter two with James Fairhead. She has just completed a major research project on environmental science/ policy processes and society, and is developing new work around citizenship, science, and risk.

JAMES FAIRHEAD is a professor in the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex. He specializes in the social anthropology of agriculture, forestry, ecology, and food systems in Central and West Africa. Together with Melissa Leach, he has written the prize-winning Misreading the African Landscape (1996) and Reframing Deforestation (1998).

PARKER SHIPTON is associate professor of anthropology and research fellow in African studies at Boston University. Author or editor of many publications on Africa and in social and cultural anthropology, he is a former president of the Association for Africanist Anthropology.

ELLEN MESSER is an associate professor at Brown University and involved with the World Hunger Program. Her research interests include cross-cultural perspectives on the human right to food; biocultural determinants of food and nutrition intake; sustainable food systems (with special emphasis on the roles of NGOs); the impacts of agrobiotechnology on hunger; and the cultural history of nutrition, agriculture, and food science.

ALEX DE WAAL has worked in and on the Horn of Africa for twenty years, concerned with issues of refugees, famine, war, and human rights. He is the author of Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan 1984–1985 (1989); Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (1997); and Who Fights? Who Cares? War and Humanitarian Action in Africa (2000). Currently, he is director of Justice Africa, an advocacy organization based in London.

E. VALENTINE DANIEL is a professor of anthropology and director of the Southern Asian Institute at Columbia University. Of all his writings, he is best known for his two books, Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way and Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence. He is currently writing a book on the American philosopher Charles Peirce, to be entitled Charles S. Peirce’s Philosophical Anthropology.

A. DAVID NAPIER is a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College. He is the author of three books on the cultural construction of the self: Masks, Transformation, and Paradox (1986), Foreign Bodies (1992), and Age of Immunology (in press). He has conducted fieldwork in India and Indonesia on indigenous healing and ritual, and has spent several years working in clinical settings. He is the founder and current executive director of Students of Human Ecology, a nonprofit organization that sponsors mentor-apprentice learning in medical, cultural, and environmental studies.

FAYE GINSBURG directs the Center for Media, Culture, and History at NewYork University, where she is also David B. Kriser Professor of Anthropology. Her books on anthropology and media include Media Worlds (2002), an edited volume, and Mediating Culture (forthcoming).

JOHN CHERNOFF is the author of African Rhythm and African Sensibility.

CHRISTOPHER B. STEINER is an anthropologist who currently holds the Lucy C. McDannel ’22 Chair in Art History and Museum Studies at Connecticut College. His books include African Art in Transit (1994), Perspectives on Africa (1997), and Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds (1999).

JONATHAN MAZOWER is the projects and campaigns officer for Survival International, London.

Thrilled by the opportunity to teach cutting-edge social science scholarship to teenagers, I leapt at the opportunity to teach classes online. I enjoy old, rare books and gardening in Colorado, where even the incompetent can have beautiful roses. In addition to teaching and gardening, I remain actively involved in competitive sports, and you are cautioned not to wager against me at the ping-pong table.

I teach ancient languages, human & political world geography, history, philosophy, economics, political science …and anything else that catches my interest.


Feel free to send me an email at crystal@polyhistoria.com


Come hang out with me on Twitter for more tidbits of interesting research, linguistic curiosities, and forgotten history.

Weekly Enrollment
$18 USD per learner, per week

(Pick-and-choose specific weeks that suit your learner’s interests and schedule.)
On Tuesdays at 11am Mountain