Frederick. K. Errington



MAKING THE NORMAL SEEM STRANGE

Students in classes taught by Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology Frederick K. Errington may wince when they hear their professor describe how he unknowingly was treated to a succulent meal of caterpillar while conducting fieldwork in the South Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1983. "I was sitting around a fire with people in Chambri in the East Sepik Province of PNG who appeared to be cooking shish kabob," Errington explains. "They passed one to me and I ate it. It tasted perfectly OK." That was until he learned that sago grubs were the menu du jour.

Errington, who did not become a devotee of the local delicacy, says he relays the anecdote not so much to impress his students with the situations an intrepid anthropologist might encounter while performing fieldwork, but rather to demonstrate how food systems, like many other systems we take for granted, are culturally determined. "Most Americans think that real human beings don't eat bugs," he explains. "So when you are in a circumstance in which you've been fed a bug, all your cultural weight says, 'that's not food.' But there's nothing wrong with bugs, at least not some bugs, from a nutritional point of view."

Errington says his reason for sharing his experience with his students and for studying anthropology as a whole is to learn to see things from a native point-of-view. In the process, students compare the customs of others with their own customs and come to realize the extent to which behavior is influenced by cultural forces.

Errington began to explore the cultural forces at work in PNG in the late 1960s before earning his doctorate from Cornell University. He has gone on to write or co-author six books about the country and its environs in the South Pacific, including the forthcoming The Telling of Class in Contemporary Papua, New Guinea, co-authored with his wife and fellow anthropologist, Deborah Gewertz. Errington joined the Trinity faculty in 1992 and teaches courses in cultural and visual anthropology, the history of anthropological theory, world food systems, and contemporary issues in anthropology.

Rotary Club research

Anthropology, says Errington, is a discipline that provides students with the opportunity to discover how cultural activities can influence the dynamics of power. To illustrate how this occurs, Errington uses his research into class formation in PNG and his membership in the Rotary Club as fodder for discussion.

"In PNG, the Rotary is tied to capitalism very directly," he notes. "In all places, it's moderately expensive to join, so it pulls in at least the middle elite. As the Rotary is played out in PNG, it is an extremely exclusionary organization with exceedingly few Papua New Guineans sufficiently affluent to become members. So by charting the international spread of Rotary to places like PNG, students can better understand how a system of affluence, wealth, and privilege takes hold."

In his classes, Errington also challenges his students to examine a distinctly American activity: football. "The proper outcome of almost all American sports is that one team -- or individual -- will win." Yet in the English sport of cricket, which has been adopted by residents of PNG, the goal of the game is to play until the score is equal. By comparing the two sports, students reevaluate their own cultural assumptions about sports and other activities that they take for granted, Errington observes.

William R. McDonald '00 is an Individualized Degree Program (IDP) student with a double major in anthropology and religion who has taken four courses with Errington. He says Errington "achieves his goal of making the normal seem strange" through his use of football and other commonplace examples. He goes on to praise his professor saying, "By using his considerable field experience, Professor Errington brings so much of himself into the classroom. He makes anthropology real."

Anthropology major Mary C. Phelps '98 says Errington is able to demonstrate "how incredibly broad anthropology is." As an example, she cites her participation in Errington's "Anthropology of Food" course in which students explored such diverse topics as body image, women and food, eating disorders, and agribusiness. "Professor Errington shows how anthropology can be used as a lens to examine anything."

A superb lecturer

Errington's colleague, Associate Professor of Anthropology and department chair Jane H. Nadel-Klein, describes him as "a brilliant scholar with an international reputation. He's a superb lecturer whose lectures are masterfully crafted. He's always ready with creative approaches to the curriculum and has the highest of standards. He is as much at home in a formal setting as he is in a campsite. He's a terrific colleague."

Aside from pursuing pedagogical and scholarly activities, Errington is serving as project head of a Ford Foundation-sponsored initiative at Trinity aimed at rethinking international studies in the wake of the end of the Cold War. In some ways, Errington says, the effort mirrors the study of anthropology.

"Anthropology opens up a world of possibilities. Similarly, with this new Ford initiative, we hope to be able to recast international studies so that it will appeal to a wide range of students -- from those who want to be currency traders in Seville to students who want to be participants in non-government organizations (NGOs), to those who simply want to be part of a corporation with complex international engagements, to those who want to be tourists or travelers or simply informed citizens of the world," he explains.

-Suzanne Zack


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