Two years after completing my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I moved to London to pursue a MA in social anthropology. I arrived at Heathrow airport one early September morning with my passport and a copy of Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism in hand. I had spent much of that sleepless transatlantic flight poring over my notes—thinking about how I would further develop my focus on nationalism and identity politics—which had been the core focus of my undergraduate research.

I saw the MA program at SOAS as an opportunity to deepen my regional specialization in the Middle East and to refine my grasp of key theoretical debates within the discipline before applying to PhD programs for the following year. I had, of course, expected that my research interests would evolve in tandem with the natural ebbs and flows of my intellectual development, the type that is pursuant to any graduate degree. Yet I hadn’t anticipated how the structure of my program and my encounter with the British tradition of social anthropology would inspire me to explore new avenues of thematic and theoretical inquiry.

For one, the nature of my coursework differed greatly in terms of both frequency and scope from the work I was assigned as an undergraduate. In the US, my coursework often centered on book reviews that honed my ability to closely read, analyze and critique a text. With the exception of my senior honor thesis, few of my assignments emphasized comparative analysis.

However, in London, my assignments were far less frequent and a bit more substantive in task; each term essay required me to synthesize works from my course reading list and my own secondary research to develop an original argument. While this difference can be partially attributed to the distinct aims of undergraduate and graduate work, I was surprised to learn that the undergraduates who attended the same lectures as me (on a weekly basis) were also assigned project of a similar nature, albeit with a smaller word count requirement.

Learning to produce this type of work meant more than just acquiring certain research and analytical reasoning skills. It meant viewing ethnographies not as discrete works void of academic and intellectual context, but as products of broader dialogical processes within (and often beyond) the discipline. Furthermore, understanding how to identify debates and place them in conversation with other intellectual dialogues—an undoubtedly crucial skill for any student who aspires towards an academic career in the social sciences—also helped me to see and appreciate the wider trajectory of anthropology. Focusing on the bigger picture led me to seriously consider how and where I, as a graduate student, could make a fruitful contribution to the discipline.

This broad-view thinking also resulted, in part, from my newfound engagement with the various paradigms of the British tradition. Reading about how and why Turner shifted from his early structural functionalist approach within the Manchester School to his later engagement with Dilthey, for example, encouraged me to interrogate my own epistemological assumptions. Learning how colonial interests shaped the early development of British anthropology (Stocking 1995), moreover, pushed me to think critically about my own role as an anthropologist in society. In short, the better acquainted I became with the major paradigms of British social anthropology, the more I began to reformulate my work in relation to pressing concerns of the present day.

By the spring I was knee-deep in research for my dissertation, which explored the discourse of hope among cancer patients in the United States. While this topic certainly diverged from the thoughts I had that early morning on the airplane, it also resulted from the new themes and ways of thinking I was introduced to through the British tradition that year. I guess you could say that my newfound interest in medical anthropology constituted my own personal paradigm shift. My encounter with the British tradition increased my self-awareness as a researcher and compelled me to situate myself within the grander scheme of both the discipline and society at-large. Doing so has forced me to reckon with the ethical and practical implications of my research; who could potentially benefit from my work? Who could it potentially harm? These are concerns that will inform the rest of my career, and I will always be grateful for my year across the pond that equipped me to engage with these issues head-on.

Sara Smith is a first-year PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at Yale University. She is interested in questions concerning health disparities, cancer experience, and the social implications of emergent genetic knowledge and technologies. She recently completed a MA in social anthropology from SOAS (U London) and graduated cum laude with an honors degree in anthropology from New York University in 2009. 

Interested in writing a column for NASA? Contact Keri Canada at keri.canada@gmail.com.

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