Confessions of an Anthropological Geek

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Age 10, Science in the Summer Paleontology Camp

For as long as I can remember, I have been a geek. When all my other classmates were socializing or playing outside on their weekends, I was in my basement buried in the complicated task of building complex, intricate worlds. Sure, I would play outside, but my neighbor and I would invent fantastical quests, transforming a shrub into a secret fortress and collecting flowers to mix into “magical potions.” At sleepovers, when my friends would pile around the TV to watch the latest Mary-Kate and Ashley movie, I’d slink away to watch Titan A.E with their brothers.

I would go through periods of obsession. I’d get hooked on a time period or cultural movement and read everything I could about it. First it was the medieval lore of King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake, and the sorceress Morgan le Fay. After that I become enthralled with dinosaurs and the field of paleontology—I’d spend my weekends watching Walking with Dinosaurs and digging around in my backyard pretending to be on an excavation. This fascination with paleontology quickly transformed into a devotion to archaeology. I became enthralled with the stories of King Tutankhamen and his discovery by Howard Carter. By fourth grade, I was convinced that I would become an Egyptologist.

But my enchantment with Egyptian culture soon expanded into other cultures and countries as well. I discovered my mother’s old issues of National Geographic in my basement and bought encyclopedias of the world. I learned about the massive heads on Easter Island, the folktales of Momotaro in Japan and the violent myths of ancient Greece. At the same time, I plumbed my local library’s shelves for every science fiction and fantasy book I could get my hands on.

As I got older, my geeky interests never waned, but I kept them private. The few times I’d try to talk to a teacher about my love of Interview with the Vampire or Ender’s Game, they’d tell me that such books were unworthy of the academic pursuits of the eighth grade. I simply didn’t understand why The Simarillion wasn’t as important as The Old Man and the Sea. My science fiction and fantasy books delved into the complexity of life and the eternally brutal act of growing up. They utilized the vehicle of fantasy or dystopian realities to explore the questions I myself was working through as I grew and matured, in ways that were simultaneously familiar and strange. After all, growing up often felt very alienating. These books made me think in different ways that subconsciously, yet incrementally and radically, shaped the way I think about the world. These books taught me how to flexibly and creatively analyze and comprehend problems or challenges, serving as vital texts that informed my conceptions of humanity, empathy and imagination.

When I got to college, I thought I’d d13616c824cf6025d792435ab713fa43have to retire my geeky interests. But then I was introduced to Anthropology, my professors singing the praises of Margaret Mead and Franz Boas. Some of the more creative ethnographies read like novels, exploring a different culture with the skill and poetry of any of the fictional authors I’d cherished. I realized I could study folklore and the practice of voudon like Zora Neale Hurston, or combine my interest in literature with the study of culture like Ruth Benedict. I was encouraged to analyze concepts of gender and sexuality in my favorite Japanese anime shows, like Bleach and Soul Eater, and incorporate my love of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies into an exploration of the Japanese religion of Shinto. My geeky interests were not only relevant—they were encouraged. I’d discovered a real job that celebrated the diversity and beauty of indigenous cultures and sought to explain, unpack and creatively write about them. I had found a discipline where all of my interests in religion, folklore, mythology, supernatural beliefs, cyborgs, strange cultural phenomena and science fiction complemented and informed each other.

I love anthropology because it celebrates my geekiness and gives it relevance in the real world. My identity as a geek prepared me to be an anthropologist in ways I am still discovering today—the perpetual stranger or xenologist in the midst of alien cultures.

– Emma Louise Backe

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About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

There are 35 comments

  1. Miss Captain

    One question. That last picture, do you think they really saw aliens in the past??? Or it’s just a creative drawing? I’ve been watching a lot of Ancient Alien on the History Channel. 🙂

    Like

  2. Em

    Oh I can so related to the second paragraph. I am still hooked to Egypt.I still feel I have a deep connection with Egypt. I teach archaeology and physical anthropology in a college and I love what I do. This is indeed a great piece of writing. There’s definitely something fascinating about anthropology.

    Like

  3. jimtgammill

    Your 8th grade teachers sound all too familiar! I had the same problem with H.P.Lovecraft, and Stephen King. I am glad that you found your calling in anthropology, it is a field that I have felt myself drawn to in my own life. I have to admit Indiana Jones did make anthropology/archaeology look pretty damn sweet!

    Like

  4. Audrey

    Beautifully expressed…and I can relate to much of your post! Seriously, there’s something cool about having a rich understanding of historic and culturally relevant information. I admire people who seem to have all sorts of interesting facts up their sleeves and – when I was a child – tried to emulate them, but my brain just couldn’t keep up! Suffice to say, my favourite classes in college had to do with Sociology and Anthropology, but apart from that it’s just a lifelong fascination for me. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    Like

  5. Big Cat Solutions

    Most of my life my “different” pursuits were always encouraged. Luckily for me, my mom was the same way, and she taught me so much growing up. Unfortunately, when I went to high school the attitude was “conform or leave.” I was still the individual I had always tried to be, but it was no longer relevant. Now as an adult, my individual attitudes are still looked on with derision, but they are treated with respect at the same time because “well that’s just how Pam is.”

    I’m reblogging this, because the world needs to see that it’s ok to be a geek.

    Like

  6. wonggonewild

    This is a great post! For my final projects in two undergrad Anthropology classes – I made an Inuit-art inspired wall embroidery (featuring pandas) and wrote a paper exploring the question “Can humans and robot fall in love?”. Totally geeky and I loved it!

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  7. Tomas Karkalas

    It may be as you say, yet I have some specific interests too and what’s? Does our specifics link us together or separate – put into the condition we all strive to escape?
    For example at the age of 16 I perfectly imitated the barking dog…Now these talents are lost, but the wish to communicate survived. While reading I am looking for what we have in common. Everything else belongs to my diary. http://arthiker.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/what-is-behind-the-bars/

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  8. rdn32

    Regarding the point about only some books being considered worthy of academic study, I think this is partly to do with how – in later life – knowledge of literature can be used as “high cost signalling”: making allusions in order to demonstrate status and/or cultural allegiance.

    Peter Brown gives an ancient example of this (in his “Power and Persuasion: Towards a Christian Empire”):-

    “Governors could […] expect to meet, in the local elite, men who enjoyed the same paideia [cultural education] as themselves. […] Through a shared paideia, they could set up a system of instant communication […] They signalled, above all, that they were approachable and that they knew the rules of the game. […] Confronting the legal advisers of a newly arrived governor, Libanius posed the crucial question: ‘How did Odysseus rule when king of Ithaca?’ ‘Gently as a father’ was the instant reply.”

    The irony is that these days, geek “cultural capital” often has greater cachet than “proper” literature. For example, I was recently given some questions by a small software company I was applying to join, and one of the questions was “Kirk or Picard?” (I answered “Kerr Avon”. I didn’t get the job. I don’t think these facts are related…)

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  9. originaltitle

    I’m glad you found your niche and were able to turn it into a career. It’s so rare that personal passions and work actually come together smoothly, but it looks like it really has for you! Congrats and thanks for sharing this.

    Like

    1. areddaway

      at school my friends and i would huddle around manga and tolkien while everyone else dismissed us as weirdoes and geeks. i love being passionate about these things! people are constantly surprised that i still am. good on you for finding a job that allows you to exercise your geekery 🙂

      Like

  10. awax1217

    I too love the past and go to extremes to learn about it. I did a few blogs on some things I found from relatives that have history attached to them. Perhaps you would get a kick out of looking at them on my blog. If you enjoy them let me know. I like the concept of living history.

    Like

  11. Paul Bowler

    What a brilliant post, think our inner geek always shines through in the end. I’ve always enjoyed reading Sci-Fi and Lord of the Rings, and think I always will. Really enjoyed reading this post,

    Like

  12. davidspartanwriting

    I’ve hooked on ancient history of the world and the history of England up until the end of the Viking since forever! Gota love it!
    Most people that I know think that anything from before facebook is crap and not worth knowing, (yes exaggeration but I get my point).

    Like

  13. C. T. Murphy

    I thankfully was always encouraged, but I can sympathize with your plight. It’s difficult growing up (and even now at 25) to find people with the same interests. When you do, it can be even more daunting to find people with your same level of passion for those mutual interests.

    The internet and blogging help at least!

    Like

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