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Active Learning in the Introductory Cultural Anthropology Course

Author(s): Serena Nanda

Source: Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, Teaching Anthropology (Winter,
1985), pp. 271-275
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3216297
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ActiveLearningin the Introductory
CulturalAnthropology Course
Professor of Anthropology
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
New York, NY 10019

The author describes three exercises that can be used to encourage ac-
tive participation in cultural anthropology classes: use of a puzzle to
demonstrate focal issues about culture; discussion of a specific piece of
fieldwork to demonstrate the relationships among fieldwork, ethics,
and cultural relativity; and use of study questions in ethnographic films
to allow students actively to discuss issues. ETHNOGRAPHIC FILMS;

The following three exercises focus on some central concepts in cultural

anthropology. The aim of each exercise is to encourage an active and
participatory role for students in the learning process.

Exercise 1. Ice Breaker: Putting Together a Puzzle

I often give this exercise in the first class meeting. It helps students get
acquainted; they invariably have fun doing it; and it makes an essential
point: culture is shared, unconscious, and patterned, and it shapes not
only an individual's behavior but the very way one "sees" the world.
(See Figure 1.)
I divide the students into groups of four. I hand one puzzle to each
group, with the pieces on top of one another, clipped together. My
directions are simple: "Put the puzzle together." I allow about twenty
minutes. Sometimes students ask if it has to form a square, and I
answer "Yes." I try to get them to do the puzzle without asking too
many questions, although I walk around while they are working to see
how each group is doing. If any group completes it correctly, I ask the
students to cover it. After twenty minutes, I ask the class to stop
wherever they are and to fit in whatever pieces are left as best they can.
Invariably, most groups are not able to do the whole puzzle. They are
able to put most of the pieces together, but the one piece that always
gives trouble is the one labeled Piece No. 1. (See Figure 2.) I call atten-
tion to
that fact and tel that the trouble they are having is the
same difficulty most students have. (I do not want them to feel they are
too dumb to do a simple puzzle.) I then ask them to look again at Piece
No. 1 and at how they have placed it. Almost always that piece is
placed as an arrow facing inward, which obviously is not correct. I then
ask them what the piece looks like to them. There is usually consensus
272 Anthropology & Education Quarterly Volume 16, 1985

Piece No. 1
PieceNo. 1


that it looks like an arrow. (That is the point; it's supposed to look like
an arrow.) I then explain that because the puzzle makes a square,
students almost always place Piece No. 1 with the point facing inward.
In fact, for this puzzle, the "arrow point" is a corner. I then show them
how to fit the piece in order to complete the puzzle. This exercise
becomes the takeoff point for a short lecture on the collective, pat-
terned, and perceptually influential nature of culture; how culturally
imposed ideas (about form, in this case) guide our behavior, including
problem-solving behavior, and may inhibit us from seeing things in new
ways and generating creative solutions to problems. Another issue the
puzzle exercise raises is the degree to which cooperative problem-
solving strategies are themselves culturally patterned. When I first
started giving this exercise some ten years ago, I worried that the
students might do the puzzle in the first five minutes and my attempt to
dramatize the culture concept in this way would fizzle out. It has never

Exercise 2. Fieldwork, Ethics, and Cultural Relativity

This exercise generates a good deal of heated discussion. Ideally,
students should be seated in a circle. In larger classes, students can be
divided into groups of four or five for the preliminary discussion. I give
each student a two-page excerpt from an account by anthropologist
C.W.M. Hart in which he describes taking on the fictive kinship role of
son to an old Tiwi woman who is a member of a particular clan (Hart
This newly acquired kinship role proved useful to Hart, giving him a
place in Tiwi society, increasing his rapport with them, and thus adding
immeasurably to the success of his fieldwork. Subsequently, however,
the following occurred:
Nanda Active Learning 273

I was approachedby a group of... senior membersof the Jabijabuiclan

[theclan to which Hartbelongedby virtueof his fictivekinshiprelationship
with the old woman]... [who] had come to me on a delicateerrand....
[T]heyhad decidedamongthemselvesthat the time had come to get rid of
the decrepitold woman [Hart'sfictivemother].. . . As I knew, they said, it
was Tiwi custom, when an old woman became too feeble to look after
herself, to "coverher up." This could only be done by her sons and her
brothersand all of them had to agreebeforehand,since once it was done
they did not want any dissentionamongthe brothersor clansmen,as that
might lead to feud.. . . [H]er clansmenwere in agreementthat she would
be betterout of the way. Did I agree also?..
The methodwas to dig a hole in the groundin some lonelyplace, put the
old woman in the hole and fill it with earthuntil only her head was show-
ing. Everybodywent away for a day or two and then went backto the hole
to discover,to their great surprise,that the old woman was dead, having
been too feebleto raise her armsfrom the earth. Nobody had "killed"her,
her death in Tiwi eyes was a naturalone....
I asked my brothersif it was necessaryfor me to attend the "covering
up."They said no and they would do it, but only afterthey had my agree-
ment. Of course I agreed, and a week or two later we heardin our camp
that my "mother"was dead. (Reprintedby permissionof CBS College
This incident raises questions about fieldwork, ethics, and cultural
relativity. After the students have read this excerpt, I use the following
questions for class discussion. (Following each question, I include
samples of responses generated by the questions.)
1. What are the ethical issues generated by this incident? In addition
to the old woman's death, there is the issue of Hart exploiting a kinship
relationship with a person he ridicules in order to further his own
2. What clues do we have as to how the Tiwi feel about this practice?
The excerpt suggests ambivalence: for example, they do not call it kill-
ing, but natural death. Also, they demand consensus among all clan
elders, suggesting that some individuals might have a problem taking
this kind of responsibility even where it is a custom. This raises the
issue that there may be a universal moral dilemma involved in killing
members of one's own society.
3. What kinds of reasons would different anthropological perspec-
tives, such as functionalism or cultural ecology, give for this practice?
The most obvious one is that in a hunting-gathering society, people who
no longer can make an economic contribution and are a burden need to
be done away with.
4. Seen from the Tiwi point of view, does this incident suggest a
value orientation different from our attitudes toward life? For example,
different values placed on individual versus group survival? To what
might these value differences be related? Economics, perhaps?
5. How do the personal interests of the anthropologist generate
motivations to "go along with the culture" as Hart exhibits in this inci-
274 Anthropology& EducationQuarterly Volume16, 1985

dent? The anthropologist's willingness to go along because of a commit-

ment to cultural relativity is conveniently consistent with self-interest
dictating that he should remain friendly to the clan elders from whom
he needs information. What other option could Hart have exercised?
6. What else must we know about the Tiwi to understand this
custom fully? The custom must be understood in its full economic,
political, and social context. For example, is this democracy in action?
What is the role of women in their society? How are the elderly general-
ly regarded and treated?
In the discussion, I encourage the students to speak freely and to each
other. I reserve my comments for the closing part of the discussion.
They have to do mainly with the complexity of the issue of cultural
relativity as an anthropological tenet, a much misunderstood and
misused concept in anthropology. One must be careful about introduc-
ing it too simplistically in the introductory course, before students are
familiar with the concepts of ethnocentrism, cultural relativity, an-
thropological fieldwork, and anthropological ethics.

Exercise 3. Using Films in the Classroom: Dadi's Family

Anthropological films often are used and abused in introductory
cultural anthropology courses. My own experience has been that unless
students are well prepared for what they are going to see, know what
they should look for, and are given some questions to think about
before seeing the film, which are then used as a basis for discussion
afterward, they often not only get little out of a film but frequently
come away with ideas quite contrary to those that the filmmaker (or the
teacher using the film) intended.'
One film-discussion unit I have used successfully is based on Dadi's
Family (1981), a film about an extended patrilocal joint family unit in a
village in North India.2 The focus of the film is on women's roles, and it
nicely complements text material on the extended family (see Nanda
1984:221-223). Prior to viewing the film, I give students the following
study guide, which then forms the basis for discussion.
1. Make a kinship chart of Dadi's family. (The students can do this
individually at home, or one student can do it at the blackboard with
the help of the class. It serves as a good reference for scenes and interac-
tions in the film.)
2. Describe the division of labor in the Indian rural joint family. How
is the work people do related to their status and power in the family?
What are the sources of satisfaction in women's lives?
3. What qualities are desirable in a woman considered as a bride for
the joint family? How is education for a girl viewed in regard to her
ability to become a member of the joint family?
4. Examine the dynamics of the family. What are the main emotional
components of the relationship between the different dyads; e.g.,
Nanda Active Learning 275

daughter-in-law/mother-in-law; new bride/husband's sister(s). Ex-

amine the relationships of the several sons and their wives to Dadi.
How are the three daughters-in-law different in personality and position
in the family?
5. How and why have things changed for Indian women in the joint
family? (This is suggested by the dialogue; the film is not a historical
6. What are some of the minor and major tensions in the joint fami-
ly? How are they resolved?
7. What are some of the perceived advantages and disadvantages of
the joint family from the point of view of different members of Dadi's
Students can be given a list of questions before viewing any film.
Such questions invite students to focus on specific issues using the film
as the data source. They can transform using films from mere entertain-
ment to active learning about other cultures from the viewpoint of both
the outsider anthropologist and the insider "native."
These three exercises are effectively alternated with more traditional
lecture or lecture/discussion techniques and can be scheduled
throughout the semester where they best fit with the subject matter.
They not only increase student learning, they make the introductory
class more enjoyable for the teacher.

1. KarlHeider'sFilmsfor AnthropologicalTeaching(1983) is an essentialfilm
source. Particularlyhelpful are its referencesto film reviews.
2. The film Dadi'sFamily(1981) is availablefrom DocumentaryEducational
Resources,5 BridgeSt., Watertown,MA 02172. It is in color,runs 60 minutes,
has English subtitles, and rents for $50. A useful review is provided by
Friedlander(1983). This film was shown as part of the Odyssey Television
Seriesand informationon the film and teachingsuggestionsare availablein the
References Cited
1983 Reviewof Dadi'sFamily.AmericanAnthropologist85:228-229.
Hart, C.W.M.
1970 Fieldworkamong the Tiwi, 1928-1929. In Beingan Anthropologist:
Fieldwork in Eleven Cultures. George D. Spindler,ed. New York:
Holt, Rinehartand Winston.
Heider, Karl
1983 Films for Anthropological Teaching. 7th ed. Washington, DC:
Nanda, Serena
1984 CulturalAnthropology.2nd ed. Belmont,CA: Wadsworth.