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Five important truths I learned from IB social and cultural anthropology

We invited IB Diploma graduates to reflect on post-IB life and offer perspectives on topics of their choosing. Paige Parrinelli is one of this year’s cohort of alumni contributing authors.


By Paige Parrinelli

When I signed up for IB social and cultural anthropology I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had no idea what anthropology was, except that it had something to do with studying human behavior. Even so, taking the class ended up being a worthwhile experience. The class challenged me and extended my world view. This led to anthropology being one of my favorite IB classes. Even eight years later, there are lessons I took from that class that still affect how I view the world today.

1. Our way is not the only way

For our first anthropology assignment, my class read a short case study about a culture we had never heard of before. As I read the case study, I remember feeling uncomfortable.  The study revealed a strange people who would swallow things given to them by a medicine man. They would also enter a special room several times a day, where no one – not even their children or spouses – were allowed to view them. I wasn’t sure what to think as I read about these people, and it was at that point, not even 30 minutes into my first class, where I began to wonder if taking anthropology had been a good idea.

Then came the reveal: the case study was about modern America. We swallowed medication given to use by medicine men, AKA doctors. The strange room was actually the bathroom.

This experience opened my eyes to an important lesson: the practices of my culture were not universal. In fact, there wasn’t one, “normal” way for a culture to structure itself at all. For example, I had always believed that a nuclear family structure was the norm, but from my studies I learned that some cultures had family structures that heavily involved extended family members.

2. Studying other cultures can help us help others

Taking anthropology didn’t just show me how different other cultures could be, but how understanding those differences could help others. One way I was shown this was through a case study I read about curanderismo, a type of Mexican folk medicine. American doctors were able to incorporate curanderismo into their treatments for the comfort of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants who valued the practice. This also showed me that the study of cultures could be used in different fields of study.

3. Studying ourselves can help us improve

One of the other assignments I had for Anthropology was to do a cultural study of my own daily life. Through this I learned how eye opening studying your own actions could be. I had assumed my family lived a healthy lifestyle, but after the study I realized that we actually ate fast food three to four times a week. Since then, I’ve used this strategy to examine my own actions, and it has been a valuable tool in helping me grow as a human being.

4. I can see everyday life through an anthropologist’s eyes

One of the fun things about learning how to analyze cultures and subcultures is that once you know how to do it, you can see it everywhere. After taking anthropology I looked at groups like football fans, TV show fans and even the church I attended in a new light. I was able to identify the markings of culture, and it made my natural curiosity for the world grow.

5. Despite our differences we are all still human

While that first contact with the differences in culture terrified me, the more I learned, the more I realized that despite all the differences, human beings still have something that binds them all as the same species. The one example I remember the most clearly was a case study we read on the Dobe Ju/’Hoansi, a group from the Kalahari Desert. There is a moment in the study where a family questions the anthropologist about why he isn’t married yet, and they even suggest marriage to their embarrassed daughter.

It’s these tiny interactions that remind us that despite our differences we still have a common human spirit that binds us together.

Paige Parrinelli received her IB Diploma from South Fork High School in 2010. She later graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is passionate about how education is changing in a digital world.