TEFL and Social Anthropology

English language teaching

Driving home in pouring rain from a day’s teaching in Macon, France, I pulled off the motorway at a service station for a brief respite of staring through the windscreen wipers at the deluge.   I then thought back to my day’s work and the four groups I had taken.  In particular, I thought back to one lady whose English had slowly been improving over the last couple of years to the extent that she could now communicate more and more about her work and personal life; especially as she gained greater confidence to do so.   And I remembered one particular lesson, a year or so back, when she had arrived looking quite stressed, with her hair more disarrayed than usual.  And as chance would have it, for that particular lesson she was the only one of the three ladies to turn up.  So we had a better chance to chat informally.

 ‘It’s my son’, she had explained, ‘he’s suffering at school.  At home he only wants to play computer games and even when we visit relatives we have to take his computer with us.  He’s a real addict.  And because he sits up late at night on his computer, he falls asleep in class.’

 ‘And your husband ?’  I’d asked.

 ‘He’s in America a lot at the moment on business.’

I then had a view beyond the company walls, into her private life and the tensions within.  In fact, when her husband eventually returned from his business trip he immediately sent his sixteen year old son to work in a local boulangerie (baker’s) starting at six o’clock in the morning.  It worked.  After one week, the son was back at school applying himself to his studies more assiduously.

Yes, I specifically remembered that occassion, as I sat gazing out of the car windows at the swiftly forming puddles, for the lady had again appeared highly stressed for today’s lesson.  This time, her stress was due to a pending auditors meeting to be held in English.  The company had recently been taken over by an American company and the issue of combining American and French taxation systems to their accounting needed to be discussed.  Hence, during our lesson we had gone over the vocabulary of various items on the balance sheets and I’d pushed her to elaborate on various details.  She’d performed admirably well, even surprising herself and seemed to leave slightly more at ease.  Yes – only ‘slightly’.   She believed, as many French apparently do, that Americans are ‘unable to moderate their language to help non-native English speakers understand them’.   And this perceived ‘inability’ is then taken to stem from a supposed American arrogance; or just plain ignorance.  It was one reason why this lady hated answering the phone in English.  In fact, she truly suffered anxiety attacks whenever the occassion arrived.  We had been working on this.   That’s the reality!

Reflecting upon these issues with the rain pounding on the car roof, it then appeared evident that a great deal connected TEFL and anthropology.  Particularly in terms of the human factors involved:

‘They’re really not so different’, I thought, ‘both disciplines involve sitting around and discussing with people by asking ‘damnfool questions’; as the late, great anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski once had his work described by his Trobriande Island subjects.

I re-attached my seat-belt, started the motor and carefully cruised back to the autoroute where I sat in a mist of spray for the next hour or so until arriving home.  And during this time I mused on these humane, cultural issues involved in TEFL.  How many individuals had I discussed with over the last ten years getting to know personal details about their home lives and working lives, all under the auspices of building up their English language skills.  Then multiply that number by the number of my colleagues, each themselves being recipients of similar understandings received from countless students.  That is a lot of ‘cultural exchange’;  the traditional domain of social anthropologists.   Of course the two areas overlapped.

Social Anthropology (resumé).

Social anthropology is a methodology which engages researchers in the micro-details of peoples lives.   It is a communicative process which involves a great deal of reflection upon subjects’ words.  It is also a ‘hands-on’ process of ‘participant-observation’ whereby researchers ‘muck-in’ with peoples daily lives in order to clearly observe their every day routines and behaviours.

Social anthropology examines culture – simply defined as ‘shared, passed on and learnt behavioural patterns, beliefs and outlooks’.  It’s actually quite a vast word to define.  Open up this box and you’ll find language, religion, art, science, ethics, demographics, politics, work, sports….ad infinitum, within.  For my money the
most important word is ‘shared’.

Social anthropology is an academic discipline which balances between the humanities and the sciences. Though subjective intuition and personal perception undoubtably play a part, woolly thinking just doesn’t do.  Any ill-supported thesis will be quickly discredited and stand little chance of publication in the anthropological journals.  Both anthropological theory and practice, you see, are rooted in a century and a half of constantly developing ideas, with fundamental philosophies being severely tested.  Getting to know only a few of these is a tough, but essential, egg to crack for any anthropology under-graduate.

Social anthropology, then, is an evolving discipline which began with humanitarian interests in supporting anti-slavery and the rights of native American Indians However, in becoming intellectualized, the ‘study of Man’ soon followed typical, dubious, nineteenth century notions that tended to classify humanity according to an ascending scale of evolution, with the likes of Australian aborigines and the Kalahai San at the bottom and, of course, enlightened ‘Western Modern Man’ at the top.   It wasn’t quite what Darwin intended!

Then came the physical anthropologists who tried to introduce a bit of science to the subject by measuring all aspects of humankind’s physical variety, from head sizes to buttock sizes; again, with the idea that ‘Western Modern Man’ had the most well developed form.  Oh, the shame of it all!

Well, at least these ideas didn’t last for too long – the grand old giants of anthropology came along with more honourable notions and Rousseau’s romanticized ‘noble savage’ was dispelled along with Levi Bruhl’s ‘primitive thought’.  ‘How the natives (really) thought’ then became the quest, with the understanding that native thoughts were just as ‘intelligent’ as ‘Western man’s’ thoughts;  once the cultural contexts in which these thoughts occurred were understood. And to actually understand native thought involved getting off the colonial veranda and walking into the fields to live and work with them:  That was Malinowski’s great contribution. Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz, comparable ‘greats’, amongst others, then built on the contextual importance in understanding such native thought.

Still, setting ideological precepts aside, anthropologists needed funding.  Thus began an inauspicious period when ‘the readies’ came from the CIA and the British colonial office in return for undercover reporting/espionage; particularly in Latin America, Thailand and Vietnam. ‘Reds under the beds’ needed rooting out ‘by hook or by crook’ and naive academics picked up the shit stick.  Again, the anthropology discipline can hang its head in shame.

Nevertheless, lessons were learnt and from the mid-1960s the subject entered a period of intense self-examination with the result that anthropology, of all social sciences, is now extremely conscious of the need to follow ethical principles.   Finally, after one hundred years of existence, anthropology re-discovered its soul and conscience.  In addition, the discipline also began to spread far and wide, overlapping with other disciplines.  Levi-Strauss, for example, the Sorbonne professor frequently credited with initiating the structuralist school, likened his approach to a blend of geology, linguistics and psychology, which he used to determine how inner structures of the mind fashioned exterior cultural attributes.

Today, anthropology stretches way beyond examining exotic ‘others’ and any shared cultural activity now comes under its gaze.  In the modern western world this means marketing and sales, banking, design etc.  In other worlds – business, which is becoming one big area for anthropology graduates to move into. Business anthropology involves understanding markets and consumers, on the one hand, and corporate cultures on the other.   Understanding interactions between the two can greatly benefit companies by enabling them to respond more precisely to customer needs. Global TEFL institutions would certainly benefit from applied research in this field.

Finally, my last comment, for the moment, is about social anthropologists.  They are genuinely ‘nice people’.  They have to be.  Theirs is a profession in which they need to ingratiate themselves and become accepted within their subjects’ midsts.  They need to become one of the family, a co-worker, co-patriot or comrade. They also need to be vertically accepted by all levels of social hierarchies from politicians, priests and policemen to the depraved, the drug-dealers and the drop-outs;  depending on their research remit.  Yet, social anthropologists also balance on the insider/outsider (emic/etic) divide, with objective observations tinged by subjective feelings.  That’s the nature of the discipline.  Ethically they may not wish to influence social policy making, but when the results of their research can suggest favourable policy decisions for the communities in which they have been so graciously accepted – then why not?

TEFL and Social Anthropology:  The Link

So, here I now sit, with my window still open and the sun having now set, writing and reflecting upon aspects of social anthropology, as links between social anthropology and TEFL become more and more evident.  I read back over my comments just a few paragraphs ago about quizzing people on all aspects of their lives and think:  ‘Why! That’s TEFL’.   I next read back on the paragraph that mentions examining all aspects of different cultures – ‘yes, that’s TEFL too’.   I then read back about balancing subjective intuition and objective theory – ‘uh-huh, that’s also TEFL’.  So I read back about the historical development of social anthropology and at least see parallels with the development of English language teaching.  Then I read back about anthropologists being nice people ingratiating themselves with their hosts and think – ‘absolutely, that is TEFL’.

But most of all, the biggest linking factor between TEFL and social anthropology is the listening, the ‘really listening’, with interest and empathy, followed by the ‘really reflecting’ upon people’s words.  Yes, there is the teaching of grammar rules and the enlarging of vocabulary within TEFL, but that’s almost a side-product of the communicative function – the use of language not just to exchange information or to buy a train ticket, but to listen, and reflect and ‘really’ understand.   People do want to communicate, it’s inate and a means to understanding our existences.  So, we listen, question and query; perhaps responding with examples from our our lives.   For me, that’s TEFL and that’s social anthropology.

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