Anthropology, in the Business of Hacking

Over this holiday break, now that I’ve graduated from school, I found myself having to come clean to my relatives on what exactly it is that I do.

The first idea that pops into most folks’ heads is this:

Indiana Jones

Then this:

Exhumation of Republican partisans from Spanish Civil War (August 23, 2012, photo courtesy of Rui Gomes Coelho).
Exhumation of Republican partisans from Spanish Civil War (August 23, 2012, photo courtesy of Rui Gomes Coelho).

This can be especially confusing because until recently, I’ve never seen an Indiana Jones movie and my research actually involves exhuming.

There is no one way to explain what anthropology is. For me at least, anthropology is tied to my own personal ethics of feminist critique. I am a feminist, and this has a lot to say about how I do anthropology.

Try explaining that to your relatives. Grant it, I consider most of my relatives to be feminists, but in everyday use, this word still leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. It shouldn’t, though.


To explain what I do, I need to explain feminism. The first time I tried explaining what feminism is to my students, it didn’t come out quite right. Feminist critique isn’t just about about acknowledging the rights and perspectives of women but also LGBTQIA folks, people of color, and indigenous voices. As one of my students put it simply, feminism is about about power and who has it.

We ALL Can Do It! (By Soirart)
We ALL Can Do It! (By Soirart)


We’ve come full circle: my anthropology, what I believe in and practice, is done in the spirit of feminism—it is my job to question and rethink hierarchies of power. (And yes, you can make a living doing this, though it comes with some real practical and ethical predicaments—more on this in another post). 

So this past holiday break in Los Angeles, to explain what I do, I needed to walk my family through: 1. Anthropology, and 2. Feminism. This lead to a second problem in explaining what it is I do: How do you explain what anthropology and feminism is and have people relate to it, without getting jargony and alienating yourself?

The best way to let people know what I do, in a one-two punch, is through Hacking.

Anthropology, one seeped in feminist critique, is in the business of hacking. According to scholar Verna Gehring in the edited volume, The Internet in Public Life, the hacker is a person who takes joy in the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of programming systems. The term in popular media depicts a trickster, a prankster, and often relates to computer hacking with its opposition being a “tool”—someone who does and sees things simply as they are without questioning it.

To get back to feminism, hacking, in many ways, is like queering—approaching what the world gives you and challenging it, never fully satisfied, from different angles. Among queer scholars and activists, queer, once a derogatory term at same-sex persons or relationships, is a reclaimed political identity shared among all gender minorities that challenges “traditional” gender identities. This is, in any case, one way of understanding queer, and as I’m finding out with Mel Chen’s book Animacies, there are tons.

This is what anthropology is all about: queering the given, and hacking the obvious to unpack often excluded persons and perspectives. And that, family and friends, is what I do.

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