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Why I Majored in Anthropology

Devon Baker ’22

I majored in anthropology because the methods and history of the discipline encouraged me to criticize my own work and listen to others in a way I hadn’t experienced in other majors. A lot of time is dedicated to understanding how anthropology has caused immeasurable harm in the past, which has allowed me to do better social justice work that does not perpetuate the harms that academia has brought on throughout history. Taking classes in topics from urbanism, to environmental justice, to digital culture helped me realize that I could ultimately study whatever I was interested in, but in a way that centers people and communities without reducing them to data points.

What I love about the Anthropology Department is how supportive it is of open-ended endeavors. As my own interests have shifted from housing policy, to education, to tech justice, the department and my advisor have encouraged those developments and supported my exploration. I have never felt like a change in my academic interests meant the Anthropology Department could no longer be my home. Anthropology has also helped me become a better organizer, as the methods are so focused on listening to communities and elevating their voices over your own.

My current research (and hopefully my final project) is centered around the disconnect between tech optimism and the communities technology disproportionately harms. I plan on combining my anthropology methods with computer science skills to develop tools for workers in the gig economy and other sectors to more effectively organize and fight for the rights denied to them by tech employers.

When I first came to Pomona, I thought I would study politics or public policy, because as a former foster youth I was interested in instigating social change. As I began organizing and working in policy-focused spaces, I realized the radical change I sought out wasn’t coming from institutions and policymakers, but from movements built from the bottom-up. Anthropology for me reflects that difference—focusing on movements and the people that are a part of those movements, rather than institutions that ultimately diffuse and inhibit radical politics.

Ash Anthony Maria ’22

Growing up I really liked asking questions. I never could settle for a single answer. My parents and teachers learned quickly that my first question would be far from the last. Anthropology encourages this unapologetic curiosity, but also provides the tools to step back and critical think about the questions we’re asking. It goes without saying that anthropology does have an extremely problematic history with its original purpose as a discipline of studying the Other (non-Europeans). However, the discipline’s troubling history has allowed for its students to consistently question its ethics and methods; in recent decades, anthropology has generated influential dialogue on nearly all other academic disciplines using a human-centered socially conscious approach.

My first exposure to anthropology came from a series of phone conversations with my SagePost47 mentor Danny Low ’11. Danny spoke in detail about what he had learned studying anthropology at Pomona and how it has greatly impacted his practice as a primary care physician today. The heightened cultural competency and humanizing analysis that came with having a background in anthropology allowed Danny to build relationships with, and provide care, to his patients that he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Danny sharing his experience played a critical role in getting me to sign up for what later became the most influential class I’ve taken in my academic career, Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology with Professor Tobias Hecht. It only took a few weeks of being in Prof. Hecht’s class for me to be convinced that there was no way I wasn’t going to be an anthropology major. Never in my life had I so consistently done the many readings for a class and not checked the page count to see how long I had to stomach the assignment for. The readings focused on issues directly applicable to humans; it didn’t take a Ph.D. to understand the very real impact of the issues discussed and their salience. Additionally, the class discussions that Hecht and his readings fostered brought in perspectives from all the students and are some of the best academic discussions I’ve had. Potentially, the most exciting aspect of anthropology is ethnography. Over time I’ve found, through dialogues with Professor Hecht, that anthropology serves not only as an effective and unique research method but an approach to life. This approach seems to color his world in such a more curious and open-minded way­­–I hope to engage with the world this way as well one day.

If it wasn’t for Danny and Professor Hecht, I know for fact I wouldn’t be studying this field I’ve come to love and will utilize in every interaction I have the rest of my life. My dream is to one day be a primary care physician like Danny, using the critical thinking and humanizing skills of anthropology I’ll have learned from Hecht and others to provide the best care not only to my patients, but the people I meet in my life.

Carrie Zaremba ’22

I have long sought to understand space and place in all of its physical and metaphorical manifestations. Following this passion, I enrolled in “Imagined Cities” for my ID1 course, taught by anthropology professor Joanne Nucho, who is now my advisor. Completely unfamiliar with the discipline before college, this course marked my first exposure to the field and its potential for radical social transformation. I particularly remember one class when Professor Nucho described anthropology as the “most humanistic of the social sciences.” As a first-year student curious about the world in general, and without a clue where to start, I reasoned that anthropology would provide me with the most comprehensive liberal arts experience.

I see anthropology less as a rigid discipline and more as a lens through which to perceive the world. With the world as your laboratory, anthropology is an ongoing process of defamiliarization and reinterpretation. In deconstructing macro-level structures to the mundane, the “anthropological perspective” uniquely captures how the local informs the global and vice-versa in an ever-changing human society. Equipped with such an interdisciplinary perspective, anthropology majors often find success in advanced courses in other departments through anthropology’s ability to examine complex phenomena from various modes of inquiry, geographic scales, and socio-historical contexts. Similarly, my schedule tends to be considerably more flexible than that of my peers in other disciplines since I can take courses that count as major elective credits in everything from art history to linguistics.

Above all, my interest in anthropology emerges from its emancipatory potential beyond the academy. Located at the nexus of scholarship and activism, the discipline’s increasing emphasis on reflexivity, Indigenous epistemologies, and anticolonial and abolitionist approaches signifies how critical anthropology can help us reimagine and realize a more just world order. It is no coincidence that anthropology professors are some of the most community-oriented and politically active faculty members beyond the walls of the consortium. This dynamic directly translates into praxis-oriented course offerings such as “Cooperative Filmmaking for Social Change” and “Museums: Behind the Glass.” Against this backdrop, majoring in anthropology at Pomona has left me well-prepared to engage in community-based participatory research.

Through the Pomona College Internship Program (PCIP), I received funding to conduct community-based research with the Right to the City Alliance (RTTC), a network of dozens of grassroots organizations across the U.S. committed to building a unified land and housing justice movement. Grounded in Henri Lefebvre's concept of the “right to the city”—which I first learned about in ID1—RTTC prioritizes translocal base-building within an internationalist solidarity framework. Such multi-scalar analysis requires an understanding of space and place that can only be achieved via an anthropological perspective. Working in tandem with our member organizations to fight against the affordable housing crisis exasperated by COVID-19, I employed GIS spatial analysis and social movements theory to support RTTC’s anti-eviction campaign strategy. I enjoyed my PCIP summer with RTTC so much that I decided to continue working alongside them as a research assistant throughout the year. In applying the anthropological perspective to real movement-building praxis, I gained a newfound awareness of the possibilities for social transformation presented by the discipline. In May, I will transition to a new internship in the Office of Public Policy and Planning at the City of Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, with the ultimate goal of pursuing radical planning with a focus on community-controlled alternatives to neoliberal urban development. I look forward to exploring all that the anthropology major has to offer upon returning to campus for the fall 2021 semester.