Becoming an Anthropologist with Your Story

Becoming an Anthropologist with Your Story

Becoming an Anthropologist with Your Story

Anthropology, simply put, is the study of what it means to be human. A tall order, almost as difficult as the provocation “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” from The Sound of Music. Anthropologists, writers, storytellers, and artists are obsessed with finding authenticity. They both know that in order to get to the truth, you have to get deep into the messy zones, the gray areas, and the unknowns. And they are both up for the challenge.

To embark on this challenge, anthropologists learn to document the human experience through meticulous observational and note-taking methods under the toolkit of ethnography- ‘from Greek ἔθνος ethnos "folk, people, nation" and γράφω grapho "I write." Anthropology is an all-encompassing study of the human condition and takes into account other disciplines, such as psychology, economics, linguistics, etc. All these disciplines also come into play when we're crafting stories that hopefully pass from audience to audience.

My love for anthropology began in high school when I saw it as a vehicle to go deeper into understanding dance and music traditions beyond my own Indian classical dance training. I studied it in college and started an ethnographic consulting company, Rasa, devoted to applying anthropology to solve business problems. By doing so, I’ve spent decades transcribing the human experience by documenting myths, beliefs, behavioral patterns, taboos, aspirations, values, habits, etc., and translating their experiences in such a way that everyone else could understand their authentic experiences.

To be true to the people I was studying, I had to understand my own biases and cultural conditioning and suspend my own beliefs. This would allow me to immerse myself into worlds ranging from software developers in Silicon Valley to the visually impaired in New York City with fresh eyes, almost a childlike innocence. I deeply listened with my entire being to the minutiae of their daily lives. I was telling their story, and I wanted to ensure I portrayed the genuine essence of their human experience.

Human beings and the cultures we create are not static. Cultural practices are ever-evolving, and when we study people and then report back, we are not only reacting to them but also creating cultural artifacts, thus adding to the culture.

Knowing that I was contributing to the culture already with anthropological essays and reports, I wanted to allow my contributions to live in a more artistic space, so I took experimental steps into screenwriting. I tested the waters with a UCB Sketch Comedy class and moved into TV and film classes from there. Every script made me realize I had unwittingly been training for character development and world-building for decades.

Here are some ways additional anthropology and ethnography training helped me learn about the art of screenwriting.

Reflexivity, aka How to Recognize and Suspend Your Biases

We must become hyper-aware of our biases and thought patterns so that we can step outside of them to understand and depict the truth of another culture’s experiences. The act of being aware of our biases is like in meditation classes when you’re asked to become the observer, watcher of the thoughts and emotions that arise, and not react, but just notice.

When we suspend our own conditioning, something miraculous happens, and we can literally step into another person’s world. We begin to understand WHY people vastly different from us do certain things, feel certain ways, and aspire to certain ways of being. A deep, unconditional empathy sets in.

This is tremendously helpful in writing characters that have otherwise unsavory traits and outlooks- anthropology helps you look into WHY and HOW this person may have become the way they are due to the cultural context and experiences they were exposed to. You can actually understand and convey an empathetic lens towards a villain, as we often see in film and television, such as the film JOKER.

Anthropology and Your Story

Participant observation, aka How to Immerse Yourself in the World of the Character

Participant observation is a research method in which the researcher becomes part of the fabric of the cultural group, blending in as naturally as possible so that the people who are being observed behave as naturally as possible. It is similar to the investigative method employed by the writer of THE WIRE. Though David Simon was more an observer than a participant, there was an anthropological core to how true-to-life he wanted to portray his characters.

My personal example of participant observation was when I became a regular volunteer at a community center for the visually impaired (and got permission to take notes and observe as I volunteered) in order to deeply listen and observe all of the trials and triumphs the visually impaired had navigating the dense, treacherous environment of New York City. The end goal was to gain enough perspective to build a new tool to help them better navigate their environments.

In listening in on conversations, I came across details of the lives of the visually impaired I would have never thought to ask- such as how weather impacts their navigation- snow absorbs sound, so the cane doesn’t help as much; the difference of being born blind vs. setting in later in life and how that alters the perception of oneself; how there is a philosophical divide where some people believe the worlds and its’ structures must be built to accommodate the visually impaired, and others believe the visually impaired should be empowered to navigate spaces just as deftly as someone who is fully sighted.

All of the richness of these observations and knowing I need to step beyond my environment have helped tremendously in writing characters and building worlds with great empathy and detail- nuances are of great importance in my stories because I want audiences to deeply experience what any of my characters experience.

Meticulous Note-taking, aka How to Find the Insane in the Mundane

When you are trained to document every little action, expression, and comment of the people you are researching, you start to see the small actions are where the substance of a character lies. The subtle and mundane things suddenly rise to prominence and begin to tell a very compelling story about the beliefs, fears, and aspirations of your cultural group.

In portraying these mundane moments, one can create a relatable “I thought it was just me” sentiment in the audience. Like when Issa Rae brings out the awkward day-to-day interactions of talking over people in INSECURE. Or as seen in the feature film EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, the blunt ways in which a Chinese mom shows affection via telling her daughter she is getting fat, when she is really conveying “I care enough to want to make you better” sentiments.

In my previous work for a financial institution, I was tasked with understanding how people apply for credit cards and note down glitches in the process. Sounds incredibly dull, right? Well, in observing in-person and online interactions, there was a pattern of fear that kept appearing. Fears around who may be handing their information, fears around being deported, fears around being swindled and bankrupted by the credit card institution, etc. Careful observation of a seemingly boring process revealed very personal and vulnerable fears that needed to be addressed before any process issues were dealt with.

From this and other seemingly dry research projects, I learned that a seemingly innocuous activity could be used to reveal a deeper belief in a character and how a tiny action can go a long way in furthering a story.

Anthropology and Your Story

Social Silences, aka Find the Story in What They Don’t Say

Anthropologist Dr. Gillian Tett highlighted the unspoken rituals in both banking and tribal marriage customs and how she observed that certain conversations were regularly avoided in these transactions and customs. Drawing from her keen observation, I too began looking for the social silences, the ways in which people would dance around certain topics they considered taboo, and I would find tremendous insights into what people did NOT say.

In this way, I realized that, as much as great dialogue is necessary for compelling scripts, I need to balance that with great silences because, in real life, everything is NOT spoken of, in fact, the most fascinating, emotionally burdensome areas of our human experiences are left in silence. I find myself asking, with every character I watch and write- what is it they’re NOT telling us? This helped me understand the importance of mystery, the hidden, and the shadows in storytelling.

Applied Auto-Ethnography, aka How you Move the Audience to Action

You view yourself in fascinatingly new ways when you study your own story as an anthropologist. I saw this phenomenon come to life when teaching courses in Applied Anthropology and Autoethnography at the City University of New York.

It was the advent of the pandemic when our course switched to online, and I gave my students the assignment to study how the pandemic is affecting their own subcultures. One of my most astute and diligent students revealed he was homeless and that college was a refuge from the violent conditions of the homeless shelter. As he dove deeper into studying his context, he decided he would no longer hide his current status as homeless, and he wanted to undo the shame and stigma, and stereotypes around what a homeless person was and rewrite the narrative of the homeless subculture through his own example. By taking time to study his context and the effects of the pandemic and relay this in his writing and presentation, this student was able to move the entire class, myself included, to reframe the detrimental view of the homeless population and advocate for better care and resources.

Another student in the Auto-ethnography class took a deep look at her fascination for sneakers and realized she used sneakers as a way to communicate her rich, artsy personality when her crippling social anxiety wouldn’t allow her to speak. They were more than just shoes, more than style, they were a vehicle for her essence to be known to the world.

I drew so much inspiration from these students and their thoughtful self-reflection, insights, and transformation, and use this type of character growth and arc in my scripts. The real-life examples I had where “there is more than meets the eye” and “expect the unexpected” has helped in developing characters that realistically go against stereotypes, anchored in deep reasons and experiences of why they are the way they are and how they cope.

Anthropology has given me a depth of insight into humanity that has found a natural home in my screenplays. but beyond this, anthropology has made me a more patient person, and a more compassionate person, and I hope anyone reading this will be able to benefit from this magical study of what it means to be human.

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About the Author

I’m an applied anthropologist turned writer, actress, dancer- love writing comedy and magical realism fantasies.

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