What does it mean to be an anthropologist? | Interview with Dr. Marcia Inhorn

We met with Dr. Marcia Inhorn to discuss her passion for stories, Arab refugees, the similarities between anthropology and Journalism, and much more. Enjoy!

What does it mean to be an anthropologist? | Interview with Dr. Marcia Inhorn

Anthropologist Marcia C. Inhorn talks with student Karina Macosko about how she became one of the most influential anthropologists of our time. Beginning with her high school anthropology course, Dr. Inhorn found her passion for listening to people’s stories. Dr. Marcia Inhorn discusses the similarities between journalism and anthropology both of which she majored in at the University of Wisconsin. She shares her own ethnography “America’s Arab Refugees,” her sixth book, that recounts the stories of this often forgotten population in the United States. Dr. Inhorn, a professor at Yale University, also offers advice to students applying to college.

Check out Dr. Inhorn’s books: America’s Arab Refugees: Vulnerability and Health on the Margins and Un-Settling Middle Eastern Refugees: Regimes of Exclusion and Inclusion in the Middle East, Europe, and North America

See Dr. Inhorn’s Academic Influence profile

See additional leaders in anthropology in our article
Top Influential Anthropologists Today

Interview with Anthropologist,
Dr. Marcia C. Inhorn

Interview Transcript


0:00:01.2 Marcia Inhorn: Both journalists and anthropologists are doing exactly what you’re doing.


0:00:13.2 Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com, and I am here with Professor Inhorn, who is an anthropologist at Yale University. And we just wanna know how did you get into your field, and what kind of influenced you to go into it?

0:00:30.0 MI: Yeah, I have an interesting and I think slightly unusual story about getting into the field of anthropology because I was one of the few people that I know who actually took Anthropology as an elective course in my senior year of high school.

0:00:45.9 KM: Wow!

0:00:46.0 MI: I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and I went to a public high school, a large public high school. And in our senior year, we had a choice of what social science to take. And I saw Anthropology, didn’t know very much about it, but I took a class... And I’m going to say his name. My professor was, or my teacher was Greg Mueller. He was my Anthropology teacher in high school, and it changed my life. He changed my life, so I should say it right here. But I really fell in love with the field of anthropology through this senior-year elective. And then when I went to college, I already had a pre-determined major. I was a Journalism major. I’ve been very involved in journalism in high school, and I loved writing. But I thought, "You know, I really enjoyed that Anthropology course so much, I think I’m gonna take Introduction to Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison," which is where I went to college, and the rest is history for me.

0:01:45.4 KM: Wow! So Greg Mueller is the guy we have to thank, right?

0:01:49.9 MI: We do, yeah.

0:01:51.0 KM: And what did this Anthropology course look like? ’Cause I know at my high school, we don’t have a class like that. But what do you think it would be most similar to at most high schools?

0:02:01.0 MI: Yeah, you know, anthropology, we say, is a four fields discipline. We have cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology. And so he taught this high school class, and it wasn’t a full year, it was sort of a semester class, and he taught the four fields to sort of give us a taste of the different types of anthropology. So we studied cultural, we looked at different societies abroad. We learned a little bit about language and kinship, and some of the biological features of human beings. But the thing that I actually remember most was the archaeology component of it. We went out into our high school field and we dug. We dug a pit and then we buried things in it. And it was like an excavation site. And I remember actually making a ceramic pot myself to go into that archeology pit. And it was very... I thought, "This is a very interesting field. It has many different sort of sides to it." But basically, anthropology is really just about humans, trying to understand humans and all of their diversity, and it just attracted me. I was always interested in places beyond the United States, and so I had a passion for it that started in high school, and I think I was really very lucky.

0:03:26.2 KM: Wow! That is so incredible. And do most anthropologists specialize in one of these four fields? Or do they study all of them?

0:03:36.7 MI: Yeah, if you go into college and start taking anthropology, most universities, colleges will require you to take a sort of smattering from the different... Whatever they offer in terms of the different aspects of anthropology. So most larger departments are what we call four fields departments, and they’ll usually want you to take an Archaeology course, a Bioanthro course, a Cultural Anthropology course, and then you sort of decide which direction you want to go. I would say the largest division, the largest subfield within anthropology is probably cultural anthropology, and I think that’s where the majority of anthropologists probably, I would say in the university, that’s probably where most courses sort of are focused, the cultural part of it. And then that includes anthropologists who’ve worked all over the world. We do our research really all over the world. I think that really defines the discipline of anthropology as a whole. And so if you ended up majoring in anthropology, you would learn a lot about different societies, different cultures. It really is an eye-opening exploration of people in places around this globe.

0:04:54.3 KM: And how did you know you wanted to be an anthropologist? What do you think was the main thing that drew you into that field?

0:05:01.9 MI: Yeah, to be quite honest, I grew up in a college town in Wisconsin, and my father was an academic physician. And my father and mother used to bring really interesting people into our home and into our lives. It was really the first time that I met people from different parts of the world. They had friends or colleagues from Thailand and Estonia and Latin America. And so I met all these very interesting people, and I was very curious. And my own father, who is an academic physician, he’s a sort of a public health preventive medicine physician. That’s what he was. He himself went on two anthropological projects in Mexico... He went to Mexico and Guatemala and Venezuela during the time I was growing up. And so I was just very intrigued. They were working on public health problems in sort of rural communities, and it really was anthropology. It was the first sort of understanding that I had that people go and actually try to figure out about health issues in communities and other places.

0:06:10.0 MI: And so I ended up getting very intrigued. I think that’s probably why I took that Anthropology class. And then when I went to college, I knew I was gonna be a Journalism major. I went to the University of Wisconsin, it has a great school of journalism. And I knew that that was probably what I would do; it involved writing, which I love. But I started taking Anthropology classes in college, and they started sort of accumulating. And in my junior year, I said, "I really should double major. I really love anthropology." [chuckle] So I ended up with a double major in Journalism and Anthropology. And I can actually tell you why I think they overlap quite a bit.

0:06:51.5 KM: Well, why is it that Journalism and Anthropology overlap?

0:06:55.6 MI: Yeah, so both journalists and anthropologists are doing exactly what you’re doing. We talk to people. Anthropology is really about conversation. If you’re working with living humans, we, anthropologists, end up doing a lot of talking and conversing and actually interviewing people. And so I had learned that as a Journalism student, how to ask questions, how to listen to people’s stories, how to understand, try to understand other people’s lives and perspectives. And so it’s an art form to be a good questioner and a good listener, you know, what you’re practicing right here as we speak. And I loved it. I loved talking to people and finding out about them. And what I learned about cultural anthropology is that people go and they basically immerse themselves in another community, usually. They live there for an extended period of time. They often learn a local language, whatever that is, and they end up asking people, talking to them, interviewing them, conversing with them. They end up gathering stories; in-depth, really, often, poignant stories about people’s lives. And we call this method in anthropology, the way that we go about collecting our data, we call it ethnography, where we end up literally living, observing, participating in other people’s communities and lives, and really talking to them and asking them questions and gathering their stories. So I think that the best anthropologists are like the best journalists.

0:08:39.4 MI: We’re really interested in human... We have human interests. We’re concerned with humans, their lives, their stories, and also the craft of writing. Anthropologists, once we’re done with this process of ethnography, we come back and we write books that are called ethnographies, and they’re usually very compelling books that talk about people’s lives. They tell a lot of different stories. So I think anthropology, in some sense, is like an extended version of a journalistic practice. Journalists can write very compelling human interest stories, sometimes quite long, but anthropologists sort of spend a longer period and end up really writing books about the studies that they do. So they really overlap, and I actually think that my having first trained as a journalist really helped me to be an anthropologist.

0:09:36.6 KM: Wow! So I guess I should consider myself an anthropologist then, right? [chuckle] Yeah.

0:09:41.0 MI: Yeah, the fact that you’re sitting here with me and you’re starting to ask questions, that’s literally what we do in the kind of research that we do. And it’s interesting, so yeah. And I was actually looking at some of the recordings that your father has done, thinking, "Wow! He’d make a great anthropologist." So yeah, just having a sensitive attention, asking people good questions, that’s really what we try to do in anthropology.

0:10:07.7 KM: Wow! So is it common for anthropologists to first be journalists or to major in Journalism?

0:10:15.0 MI: There are others who have that combination. I would say it’s necessarily a common path. I don’t know that many people who are also journalists who became anthropologists, but you know, I think it’s a good combination. If you end up going to a university that offers both, I would say check them both out. For both, you really have to love writing. We, anthropologists, we write. We write articles, book chapters. But the main product, the main thing that we produce is a whole book, a book that’s called an ethnography. And in fact, I can... I will pull my book right here.

0:10:52.7 KM: Oh, great!

0:10:53.0 MI: My latest book. This is the latest book that I’ve written. It’s called America’s Arab Refugees. It’s my sixth book, it’s my sixth ethnography that I’ve written.

0:11:02.2 KM: Wow!

0:11:04.0 MI: But that’s sort of the product. The thing that we produce are these really in-depth books looking at a particular place, a particular population, and some of the joys and the struggles.

0:11:19.9 KM: Could you just tell us a little bit about your book? It seems so interesting.

0:11:26.0 MI: Yeah, you know, I’m a scholar of the Middle East. I ended up specializing... The place that I went to, the place that I dedicated my career to was the Middle East, learning Arabic. And I spent time working doing research in Egypt and Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. But before I came to Yale University, I was a Professor at the University of Michigan for almost a decade. And Michigan is home to the largest population, in North America, of people from Arab countries, particularly from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and those are the primary ones. And so being a scholar of the Middle East, I thought, "This is really interesting. You know, there’s a huge population in Michigan of people of Arab heritage."

0:12:15.9 MI: And I ended up doing a five-year study going back and forth between Ann Arbor and the community right outside of Detroit, Michigan called Dearborn, which is sometimes called the Capital of Arab America. And because I’m a medical anthropologist, I specialize in health, health issues and human suffering that comes because of health problems. I ended up working in a clinic that served mostly Arab patients. And a lot of them had fled from wars in the Middle East. There was a significant population of Iraqi refugees, and also Lebanese, people who had come from Southern Lebanon that had been in a long and protracted war. And so I ended up writing this book about the lives of Arab refugees in this country, really going back to the Middle East, looking at the conditions under which they have fled, and trying to understand a population that we rarely talk about in the United States. I mean we rarely talk about the fact that the US has tens of thousands of refugees from wars that have happened.

0:13:21.5 KM: Right, yeah.

0:13:23.5 MI: And so my book is really, honestly, it is the first book that really looks at Arab refugees and their health situation, and the wars that made them flee to this country.

0:13:37.7 KM: Wow! That is fascinating. And we try to keep these interviews a little bit shorter, but sometimes, I like to ask the people that we interview: If you could go back and do it all again, go through college again, even high school again, is there anything that you would have changed?

0:13:58.6 MI: No one’s ever asked me that question. I don’t know that I would have changed anything. I think I will say something, which is I think I wished that I had had a chance to look more broadly for a university as an undergraduate. Because I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and my parents were affiliated with the university, my brothers and I basically were told, "You’re gonna go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison." And I didn’t really have a choice. And I think I’m not blaming my parents, but I think if I could do it all over again, I would really look around and sort of see what’s out there. There are all sorts of different universities. Some are large, some are small. They really have different characters to them, and I think that understanding the kind of university, the kind of college that you enter as an undergrad, just by having a bit of choice and looking around can be really helpful in that decision. And so I just, I went to the one that was in my hometown, a big public... A great, great public university with a great journalism school and really good anthropology. So I did just fine. But it was a big university, and I think I just wished that I had had a little bit more knowledge about other places that one might have gone.

0:15:20.3 KM: Wow! Well, thank you so much. I know that’s a difficult question to answer, especially if you haven’t had time to think about it. But I think you gave some really great advice because a lot of the people who come to this website are young people like me who are thinking about applying to college. So thank you so much for all your advice, and thank you for sharing your story, and sharing a little about anthropology. So thank you so much.

0:15:42.6 MI: Oh, good, thank you! I’ve enjoyed speaking with you, and you should consider anthropology. You’re a very good interviewer.

0:15:48.6 KM: Wow, thank you! I think I’m definitely gonna consider it.

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