Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer Toggle Navigation Menu

Papers in Honor of David McCurdy

Discovering Culture in Everyday Life:
Papers in Honor of David McCurdy

Invited session at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association sponsored by the General Anthropology Division

Friday, November 17, 2006
8:00 to 9:45 a.m.

San Jose Convention Center
(Room to be announced; please check back in November)


Arjun Guneratne, Macalester College, Organizer and Panel Chair
Richard Reed, Trinity University
Kim Browne, Portland State University
Alyne E.. Delaney, Institute for Fisheries Management and CoastalCommunity Development (IFM), Denmark
Douglas Harper, Duquesne University
Jessica M. Smith, U of Michigan
Rachael Stryker, Mills College
Conrad Kottak, U of Michigan, Discussant

Session abstract

Discovering Culture in Everyday Life: Papers in Honor of David McCurdy

In his 39 years at Macalester College David McCurdy focused his teaching on providing students with a basic set of tools that would help them to discover culture – defined as the shared knowledge people draw on to generate behavior and interpret experience — as it operates in various settings. His focus was on the examination of microcultures, or the culture of subsets of a larger society that may form for a variety of reasons, but which do not define the whole way of life of their participants. At a personal level, David sought to help his students negotiate a culturally complex world, but influenced by his training in doing micro-ethnography, they also became more effective as cultural brokers in their various professional settings. Using the ethnosemantic method developed by his colleague James Spradley, David stressed the importance of the cultural knowledge (insider categories) that people use in everyday life, by challenging his students to see culture in mundane, taken for granted activities and in helping them to think anthropologically by doing anthropology. David demonstrated to generations of Macalester students that one does not have to go to strange places far away and watch people enact unfamiliar rituals to appreciate the power of the culture concept; instead, one can grasp its meaning and value in microcultures such as a tattoo parlor, a liquor store or a fire station. Our aim in this panel is to both reflect on and illuminate David McCurdy’s approach to teaching about culture and to demonstrate the value of the method he taught to professional settings outside anthropology. The goal of the panel will be to examine, through thick and systematic ethnographic description, how the most mundane acts are constituted culturally, and to describe the key concepts or categories that actors in the settings described use to act in and give meaning to their world. The focus will be to demonstrate the classificatory nature of culture and to show how systems of classification orient and shape human actions.

Keywords: ethnosemantics, methods, microcultures

Paper abstracts

See One, Do One, Teach One; Undergraduate Anthropology in an Age of learners

Richard Reed, Trinity University

Dave McCurdy’s method of teaching undergraduate anthropology could be summarized in the old adage that medical students repeat about learning surgery: “See one, do one, teach one.” In an era before the term “experiential education,” Dave McCurdy and Jim Spradley advocated that students become learners, and do so by leaving the confines of the classroom and venturing into other cultures.

The approach rested on two related premises. First, this approach demanded that anthropology was a perspective, rather than a series of facts and figures. Analysis was rooted in the ability to both see the world through the other person’s concepts, and transform those observations into accurate and detailed descriptions, ethnographies. Second, this approached postulated that the analyst could be use the “anthropological perspective” on cultural diversity close to home, as much as on exotic peoples in other regions. It was especially successful in that it made use of the ethnoscientific approaches developed in the cognitive anthropology in the 1960s, which was easily adapted to student research projects. McCurdy’s students read ethnographies and researched foreign cultures, and the final step in the process was for these same students to teach culture. Students were responsible for writing ethnographies with an eye toward publication. The resulting literature of undergraduate, graduate and professional research papers attests to the pedagogical success.

Contact Zones and Ethnography in the Language Teacher Education Sequence

Kim Browne, Portland State University

This paper reports on goals and outcomes of the use of an ethnographic interview project and related readings in a required course in a language teacher preparatory sequence at Portland State University for pre-service teachers of English to speakers of Other Languages. The course, Understanding the International Experience, focuses on the role of culture in language education. It calls for students to participate in an ethnographic interview assignment of roughly ten contact hours with an individual from outside their home culture. One part of the assignment is culture-general and one part focuses on communities of learning. Through the writing and interview process, students are able to discover how they have approached culture contact in the past and begin to articulate how they will integrate culture learning in their language education activities in their own classroom contact zones.

Ethnography, Fisheries Management, and the “Trump Card” of Culture

Alyne E. Delaney, Institute for Fisheries Management and Coastal Community Development (IFM), Denmark

Using rich, ethnographic description, this paper describes the cultural response of fisheries researchers and managers to uncertainty in the world of European fisheries management. Fisheries science is an inexact science, yet European Union politicians rely on scientists and managers in the system to provide the necessary scientific information to manage fisheries; if they do not, the “trump card of culture” maybe be employed by one or more of the member states, overriding their scientific authority. The goal of scientists and managers is to have successful and sustainable fisheries management based on science, not culture.

But what does success entail? In the EU context, successful management involves a massive annual cycle of fish stock assessment working groups, subgroups and plenary meetings which provide reports for the European Commission containing essential knowledge for managing fish stocks and fisheries. Such a cycle is, not only on-going, but also multidisciplinary and multi-sited, providing members from varying backgrounds with an overwhelming and challenging context in which to work. The surest way to understand such a complex system is to know the underlying categories and rules by which the fisheries management subgroup operates and uses to make sense, give meaning, and reduce the uncertainty of their world. From an office in Denmark, to working group meetings in France, to the Commission headquarters in Belgium, this paper describes the cultural categories fisheries scientists use to reduce uncertainty and strengthen their scientific authority.

The Performance of Ritual: Structure and Improvisation in the Italian Meal

Douglas Harper, Duquesne University

Italian family meals are ritualized in the sense that they commemorate important events, such as religious celebrations and personal anniversaries, as well as weekly (Sunday) family gatherings. The meals themselves often contain foods with symbolic meaning, and the sequences of dishes in the meal structures the events in precise ways. The fully ritualized Italian meal is an ideal type, forming an important part of the collective cultural memory of Italians as well as a certain cultural goal. My study, based on intensive field work among contemporary Italian families, shows how the ritualization of eating actually takes place in the daily lives of modern Italians. The cultural ideals remain a centerpiece of Italian identity, and yet the actual performance of ritualized eating often deviates from the expected.

Tattle Tales and Safety Threats: Using Anthropology to Improve Coal Mine Safety Programs

Jessica M. Smith, U of Michigan

The dangers inherent in contemporary coal mine work are moderated by safety rules and regulations generally considered to represent the miners’ best interests. Yet ethnographic research conducted at one open pit Wyoming coal mine suggests that many miners choose not to participate in the company’s safety programs. The author explains this uneven participation by investigating the ways in which different groups of miners assign meaning to these programs. Workers divide themselves into two large groups: those who line up with management’s official value system based on deference to formally educated superiors and those who have created an alternative one that celebrates autonomy in theory if not in practice. The paper elucidates these systems of cultural classification by examining the details of the miners’ everyday work styles and relationships. It also considers the gendered nature of these categories by exploring the unique challenges faced by women miners, who encounter obstacles in climbing the corporate ladder and in participating in work relationships that celebrate a masculinized autonomy. The author will suggest that the mining company would encourage higher participation in the programs and ultimately a safer workplace if managers would recognize and respectfully integrate the alternative value systems developed by both the men and women miners. This paper contributes to our understanding and appreciation of (1) the power of culture as a system of classification to motivate and give meaning to ordinary human actions; (2) the challenges faced by women entering non-traditional workplaces; (3) the insights anthropologists can offer professional settings.

Sister Insider, Sister Outsider: Going Public With The Cultural Experience

Rachael Stryker, Mills College

This paper documents one all-female undergraduate anthropology class’s recent use of Jim Spradley, David McCurdy and Dianna Shandy’s The Cultural Experience to research and write a collaborative ethnography of a California women’s prison. In partnership with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, a San Francisco-based non-profit, the class set out to classify the worldview of incarcerated women, or, “sisters inside,” with regard to their day-to-day activities. However, a semester’s-worth of ethnographic interviews and taxonomies did more than render a clearer view of the norms and mores of prison life for the students; their research findings challenged them to use ethnography to think about the ways in which their ethnography could operate as a tool for: 1) understanding their own place within multi systems of oppression, 2) the humanization and conscientization of prisoners, prison bureaucrats and officials, and 3) developing protocols for improving healthcare for prisoners throughout California. The Spradley-McCurdy ethnographic method thus provided the class with unique opportunities for critical consciousness, blurring the distinction between “sisters inside” and “sisters outside,” and demonstrating it not as a powerful heuristic tool for the emerging field of public interest anthropology. The paper concludes by moving towards an historical and theoretical placement of the Spradley-McCurdy method in the field.