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Prof. Carla Guerrón Montero is a cultural anthropologist.
Prof. Carla Guerrón Montero is a cultural anthropologist.

Anthropology in action

Photo courtesy of Carla Guerrón Montero | Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Discipline offers tools to understanding, respecting others

In recent years, as America seems increasingly divided politically and culturally, countless observers and editorial writers have urged more civil discussions among those who disagree, encouraging us to listen and try to understand different points of view.

It’s not always an easy thing to do, but the University of Delaware’s Carla Guerrón Montero thinks one way to accomplish it may lie in a particular discipline: Anthropology.

“I think that one of the key contributions of anthropology is highlighting the value of careful and patient observation” of people and their interactions, she said. “Another great contribution — the exercise of suspending our judgment about any issue or activity in order to understand why people act in a certain way — is incredibly valuable.”

Guerrón Montero, a professor in UD’s Department of Anthropology, clearly feels strongly about the subject. She is a co-editor of a new book, Why the World Needs Anthropologists, in which she also co-wrote the concluding essay, “Back to the Future of Applied Anthropology.”

The essays in the book, written by prominent academic and practicing anthropologists, seek to explain the field to students and the general public, as well as exploring issues of interest to new and established professionals. The authors point out that today’s problems in the world are both new and old, and they suggest that solutions lie in a combination of established and innovative approaches. They discuss practical ways to use anthropology to change the world for the better.

Guerrón Montero recently answered a few questions about topics covered in the book.

Q: Does the public understand what anthropology is?

Guerrón Montero: I believe the discipline is going through a self-reflective process about its public role and about how to communicate the value of anthropology to the public. I should note that from its origins, anthropologists have worked outside academia, but we have not been good at communicating the value of our discipline to the public. That is why people continue to have dated and incorrect stereotypes about what anthropology is all about. Very often people believe anthropologists “only” study dinosaurs (that is what paleontologists study), or that anthropologists “only” study so-called exotic, distant places or that anthropologists “only” study issues that have no immediate relevance for the world beyond the academic context. 

Q: What jobs do anthropologists hold?

Guerrón Montero: Anthropologists work everywhere! They work in academia as faculty, but they also work as assistants for U.S. senators, as representatives of social movements pursuing transformative economic worlds, or as researchers for companies as diverse as Intel, Boeing, Motorola or even Hallmark. Why the World Needs Anthropologists offers a diverse list of activities carried out by anthropologists in the United States and Europe

Q: How can anthropology help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems?

Guerrón Montero: In addition to highlighting the value of careful and patient observation of peoples and of suspending our judgment while we try to understand why people act the way they do, anthropologists also can show the value of taking a holistic approach. In its broadest sense, that approach refers to focusing on the larger context to understand cultures and practices. 

Q: Do anthropologists have any specific insights into the current coronavirus (COVID-19)  pandemic?

Guerrón Montero: Anthropologists can help us understand why people around the world react to a global pandemic like this and why some populations have been more affected than others. For example, anthropological research conducted in several countries in Africa shows that a dynamic informal market has contributed to the quick proliferation of elaborate and fashionable masks to follow governmental requirements, even though the masks themselves were not produced following those standards. In addition, in these regions people were open to wear masks rather quickly because there already existed socio-cultural practices that required the use of veils or turbans that covered noses and mouths. This swift adoption of masks did not happen in some countries in the global north. An insight like this can be achieved through anthropological research and can contribute to providing appropriate public health recommendations.

My co-editor Dan Podjed notes that the pandemic is a huge challenge but also an opportunity for social reset. As we seek sustainable solutions for the future in areas like mobility and energy consumption, he says, the help of anthropologists and other social scientists will be crucial.

Q: Does anthropology offer tools the general public can use?

Guerrón Montero: My co-editor Meta Gorup believes that we can all benefit from the anthropological technique of understanding another’s point of view. Instead of drawing lines between “us” and “them,” she recommends that we put more effort into trying to grasp why another person thinks and acts differently than we do, given their different life circumstances. That doesn’t mean we’ll all start agreeing with one another, or that our divisions will disappear, but at least we’ll be able to show more empathy.

More about the book and Guerrón Montero

Why the World Needs Anthropologists was published in November 2020 by Routledge and was No. 1 on Amazon’s list of “Hot New Releases” in the anthropology category and No. 2 in sociology.

The book was edited by Dan Podjed, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia; Meta Gorup, an anthropology doctoral candidate at Ghent University in Belgium; Pavel Borecky, an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Bern in Switzerland; and Guerrón Montero.

Guerrón Montero is a cultural and applied anthropologist who trained in the United States and Latin America and specializes in the anthropology of tourism, the anthropology of food and the African diaspora. At UD, she has joint appointments in Latin American and Iberian studies, Africana studies and women and gender studies.

She studies the complex and multiple meanings and representations of identity among marginalized populations in modern Latin American and Caribbean nation-states, particularly Brazil, Ecuador, Grenada and Panama. 

She is the author of The Color of the Panela: Study of Afro-Ecuadorian Women in the Afro-Ecuadorian Andes and From Temporary Migrants to Permanent Attractions: Tourism, Cultural Heritage, and Afro-Antillean Identities in Panama and the editor of Careers in Applied Anthropology: Advice from Academics and Practicing Anthropologists.

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