Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Teaching Anthropology by Building Fictional Worlds

The semester is more than half-way over, and so is Teaching Anthropology through SciFi/Fantasy. I blogged briefly about my students' worldbuilding exercises, but I wanted to go into more detail here. At the end of this post, I've included the questions the students have answered so far (divided into four different exercises).

I've had so much fun with this class, I'm not sure I should accept payment for teaching it. (Well, yes, I should, but it's really been a blast.)

A few things I will do differently next time:

1) Ask students to think about social/political organization before gender. Gender is more fundamental to human societies (in my view), but many of my students chose to create small-scale societies, and it would have been easier for them to understand gender roles in those societies if we'd discussed the differences between state and non-states first.

2) Provide an example of worldbuilding. They've done a great job, but their lives (and mine!) would have been easier if they had a model to work from, if only to see the structure and scope of the exercise. It's a little late, but I've now written my own exercise to share with them. (They're now 21 pages single-spaced. I'm having a little too much fun with this!)

3) Change some questions. I'm particularly unhappy with the question about institutions in the social/political organization section. It just did not elicit the kinds of answers I was looking for. Next time, I'll probably ask about different levels of political organization (e.g. family, lineage, village, regional, etc.). If anyone has other suggestions for changes to the questions/different questions, I'm all ears (electronically speaking.)

4) Provide more immediately relevant examples. More about this in another post, but the most successful classes so far involved guest speakers who could talk from personal experience about issues relevant to the students. 

The worldbuilding questions:

Ecology and Subsistence:

Briefly describe your fictional world’s environment. What known environment (i.e., modern Earth environment) is most like the environment of your world? If you’re creating an “alternate Earth” world, this is a simple question to answer, just say “Arctic Circle”, or “Sahara Desert”. If your world is something totally unlike an Earth ecosystem, such as a space station, are there any Earth environments that may have some similarities, like an Antarctic research station?

In what specific ways (if any) is the environment in your world different from the known Earth environment(s) you mentioned above? Are there different plants, animals, day lengths, weather patterns, etc? What are the implications of those differences? (The implications may be explored more thoroughly in answering later questions.)

What foods are available in your world, and what technology is typically used to capture/harvest/processes it? Examples could include bows and arrows to hunt wild animals; simple hand-powered hoes for horticulture; a giant mechano-chemical complex of technology for industrialized agriculture; spaceship hydroponics systems; computers that create everything you want from atoms of the air, etc.)

Gender, Family, and Sexuality:
What forms of human sexuality are accepted/encouraged/considered “normal” or “natural” in your world? Are there forms of sexuality that are discouraged/persecuted/considered “abnormal” or “unnatural”? What kind of variation in sexuality do you see in your world? (Keep in mind that these should relate to the gender roles and family structures you discuss below. For example, you cannot have a society that persecutes heterosexual attractions, but where the basic family unit is a man and a woman and their children.)

What genders exist in your world? In addition to man and woman (assuming you use those), are there third genders? (For ethnographic examples of third genders, research berdache or two-spirit, hijra, and/or kathoeys; there are many more archaeological and anthropological examples of third genders around the world).

What behaviors, personality traits, and occupations are traditionally associated with the genders in your world (in other words, what are the gender roles for the genders you have defined)? What variation exists or is recognized in your world? How are people taught their gender roles? What are the penalties (if any) associated with not meeting the expectations for your gender? (These roles should relate logically to the family structures discussed below and the social organization and subsistence technology discussed during your last world-building session.)

How do people recognize and discuss kinship in your world? (For more about known systems of organizing and discussing kinship, see the University of Manitoba kinship page: What are the implications of this system, in terms of who is considered to be closely related, and who is not? (Again, these should relate logically to the family structures and gender roles you have created.)

What is/are the typical structure(s) of marriage in your world? How does it/do they fulfill all of the necessary functions of marriage (as anthropologists define them)? What variation exists around the typical structure(s)? What penalties (if any) are associated with not fitting within a typical marriage structure?

Social/Political Organization:
Is your society best described as a band, tribe, chiefdom, or state? What aspects of your society make it a band, tribe, chiefdom, or state (for example, what aspects of leadership, economic structure, etc., fit within the classic anthropological definitions of a particular type of social organization)? What aspects of your society are different from most known examples of that type of social organization?

What institutions exist within your society (using the anthropological definition of institution: “any structure or mechanism governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a human community”)? How formal or informal are these institutions?

Within the institutions discussed above, what mechanisms exist to regulate people’s behavior and compliance with the rules (force, economic sanctions, shaming, etc.)? Note that the mechanisms will be different depending on the type of behavior being regulated (ex: murder vs. jaywalking), and the type of institution (ex: the family vs. the legal courts).

Who are the leaders in your society, and how do they exercise authority (if they do)? Where does the leaders’ power come from (what economic, social, religious, and/or military source)? Why do people follow or obey the leader?

Is your society hierarchical? 

If yes: what classes or castes exist, and what is the basis of differentiation (what differences in power, prestige, and/or wealth exist)? How do people in your society tell members of different classes apart? (For inspiration, try doing some research on sumptuary laws, which were ways many societies used to maintain distinctions between social groups, for example, by allowing only the royal family to wear certain colors, preventing the lower classes from carrying weapons, or binding the heads of upper-class children so they would be a different shape in adulthood.)

If no: what mechanisms exist in your society to maintain equality between people? (For inspiration, read Richard Lee’s classic article “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”)

Race and Ethnicity:
What, if any, are the distinct physical characteristics of the people in your world? Do these characteristics vary across populations (for example, are facial features different in the north than in the south, or are people different in body plan from east to west)? Are these physical characteristics adaptations to the local environments, or are there other explanations for these traits? 

Do the people of your world divide themselves and others into “races” on the basis of their physical traits or heritage? If so, what traits do they choose, and how do they determine which race a person belongs in?

How do the people of your fictional society define themselves as separate from other cultures/ethnicities? What are the objective (visible) and subjective (invisible) signs of that ethnicity or identity? (You should consider many aspects of society, such as dress, traditions, religion, language, manners, food, etc.)

Describe the traditional dress and food of your society. On the last day of the semester, you’ll be asked to wear your society’s traditional dress and brings a traditional dish to share, so please keep in mind the boundaries of U.S.-defined decency, and the constraints of both the weather and feasibility when creating your traditional dress and food!

Is your fictional world a pluralistic society (one in which many races/ethnicities live together)? 

If Yes: Are there tensions between different ethnic groups? If so, over what issues (for example: religion, historic conflicts, etc.), and how are they resolved (for example: through shared religion, shared origin myth, or intermarriage)? Are there disparities of power between ethnic groups? If so, why, and what kind?

If No: What are the relationships like between your society and other, nearby societies? Do they share the same or similar ethnicities? Are relations cordial or strained? If strained, what are the major fault lines between the groups? (For example, do the groups see themselves as having separate religions, social organizations, or histories?) If cordial, what mechanisms do they use to keep relations friendly? (Examples might include ritual trade relationships, fictive kinship, or a shared religion.)