S01E04 The Path Not Taken

Ted Fisher talks about his path to Anthropology and how the discipline can affect change. Our first faculty guess talks about anthropology from the inside.

2020, Vandyanthro Podcast
Season 02


[0:00] Music.

[0:14] For episode our previous episode was a bonus episode with Miguel our first bonus episode in Spanish.
And now we have our first professor and with that we are going to close our footer.
In a way so high tide Welcome to our podcast welcome very happy to be here I think this is a wonderful idea and I'm excited.
Thank you thank you too for coming to our facilities can you please introduce yourself in any way you want.
Oh that's already that's like a Rorschach to question here I feel like I'm at the therapists office introduce myself anyway I want my name is Ted Fisher I'm a I'm a cultural anthropologist
I specialize in what I say a political economy issues of political economy as.
They can see as we're all multiple people you know I could introduce myself in various ways but that's my professional I did.
So that's that's good that does me a lot please I work now I'm this I don't think about castle little bit as you said us.

[1:35] A therapy to people just tend to.
Just start when when the magazine so I know do you you've been at Vanderbilt for a long time and you specialize in.

[1:50] In as you as you mentioned in economic anthropology you actually taught me that class some years ago.
Let's not say how many and and you you have several projects that involve.
Foot but before going in that to that route it was about how do you do.
Haven't you got interested in anthropology in the first place.
Well that's a great question I was when I in high school and when I started college I thought I wanted to be a journalist or a photojournalist I was very involved in student newspapers and high school and in college
and that's always pulled pulled at my heart
it didn't work out it turned out when I started college all of the English classes were taught at eight am and I'm not very much of a morning person and I
I spent too much time on extracurricular activities and so I actually.
Failed out of college was kicked out of college after after a year and a half.
And I started tending bar in a restaurant in Birmingham Alabama.

[3:11] And my parents as part of a sort of rehabilitative measure offered to arrange for me to go as the photographer on a church trip to Guatemala
our diocese was going to become the companion diocese to Guatemala and I went down to photograph the bishop shaking hands and signing the paperwork,
things like that and I went to Guatemala and it just
captured me the country it is a physically very impressive place with volcanoes and
burden green valleys up and also the people half the population or Mayan
I grew up in the South that sort of post segregation South but still very sensitive to
issues of marginalized racialized discrimination.
And so it just really spoke to me the circumstances and Guatemala and I came back and just sort of happened to I was going to start going to college again and I just happen to take an anthropology class and it all kind of clicked it's like it
that impulse to document that I had as a journalist I saw well this is a way I can do it and.

[4:31] And with that fantasy of all undergraduates and anthropologists I think maybe make a difference in the world by by doing this kind of document.

[4:41] That's it very different vibe than all the stories I have collected until now.
It was I wasn't expected that that's that's different and that's also very refreshing to so your pattern Tripoli started.
Drew you're to the country your visit before going into any type of anthropology class or intro 200 Balaji.
Right so you went to that first class knowing already a little bit of a different place so that Android.
Once you started in 2000 apology how you became interesting because most of your work is have to do with.

[5:28] Food I remember I was taking your class and I was joking around with some friends you introduce the book.
Sugar and sweet and the sire,
broccoli and desire my book buckling desire yell though we were probably also reading sweetness and Power by citizen power and then jokingly I said oh then I'll write the book
coffee have bitterness
I had forgotten about that and now I'm writing on coffee I'm going to have to like borrow that title jeez I think this shouldn't be like the trilogy but then you always think.

[6:09] You always been into our Brown issues of food
how you and it's just wood especially in related to what Amala and what we had Miguel into episodes and he's a student
of you he was in class
and now in that W department so how you became interested in in these issues.
A great question and I will let me answer it by backing up a little bit one thing that attracted me to anthropology was how broad it is,
I think in its better moments anthropology as the study of humanity there's nothing that we really cannot study,
we do you know it involves psychology and involves economics and involves politics and involves culture high and low and you know everything falls under this broad umbrella,
of anthropology and so I saw in anthropology as a major as a way to explore lots of different interests which which I have I'm a
you know maybe a bit of a dilettante or something I like to do lots of different things and anthropology seemed an area to do that.

[7:26] Sometimes we're not sometimes we can be hostile toward other other fields and other ways of looking at things but I think in our better moments we are a big 10.
And I think that.

[7:41] The world is catching up so in some ways and this is something that an anthropologist Bruno LaTour has written about among others we've spent the last few hundred years
becoming ever more specialized in becoming ever more narrow in our areas of study.
And a lot has emerged from that a lot of scientific discoveries a lot of really cool
research has come out of that at the same time we're starting to realize that the world is not actually compartmentalize that way
that's something that we've put on it we realize now that the environment is not separate from the.
We realize now that are our social concerns are not separate from our political concerns and so we're at a moment where we're trying to I think it's still early days trying to
to pull together all of these different fields again,
and in my romantic optimistic moments I think anthropology can be a platform for for that kind of.

[8:47] And so that's a lead into the food thing I've just sort of fallen into the food stuff in.
In exploring in following the data in some ways my dissertation was on the
would I call the pan Maya movement of Mayan civil rights movement in Guatemala in the way in which they were able to use culture to make economic and political gains in the system in Guatemala,
and that led me to be interested in
a growing number of Mayan farmers who are growing food for export to the United States and what that meant to them to grow broccoli that would be eaten by
people at Whole Foods and wherever wherever they are and then looking at that sort of led me to be interested in coffee and so it just sort of organically it was not a master plan,
the sort of emerged from following,
in this is the genius of in topology and cultural anthropology following the concerns of the people that I was talking with in Guatemala and seeing what was important in their lives and then exploring that further and further.
What do you when you were studying as probably as an undergrad.
You imagine how your life as an anthropologist was going to be and comparing that.

[10:13] To where you are now or it is something that you ever imagined or.

[10:21] You have that Vermont as idea of alveus do not know graffiti for years and years how how do you envision it that and.

[10:32] How do you convert that to to the work you're doing because of what you're doing it's different you just won an award I found in a word.
To work with the.

[10:43] Health Organization and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that's good let's ride I just kind of fell into that Health work as well in the same way no I didn't although.

[10:57] I guessed what I did is an undergraduate majoring in anthropology and then even as a graduate student and for those who may be listening who are thinking about or who are majoring in
apology I always had in my mind several possible career paths,
and you have to do that if you go into an academic field like anthropology so I could have imagined myself being very happy working for a development organization.
For working for the UN or doing an academic career path
this is worked out for me it's funny that you should ask one of the things that I write about sometimes is well-being and what leads people to do to to well-being one thing that attracts from well-being,
is that when we're constantly unsatisfied with Where We Are.
In life and we always can be because when you achieve something then your aspirations start thinking about the next thing that you don't have and the next thing it's tied to capitalism but not only I think it's tied to.
Other things as well.
And so what I try in remember sometimes when I when life seems bad here at the University or I feel like I'm not
getting the support that I need or something like that I try and think back and as a graduate student.

[12:20] Had I foreseen the position that I'm in I would that would have been,
great perfect for me that would have been would have fulfilled all of my desires and aspirations and so I try and remember that.
I'm not where exactly where I imagined but but I'm happy I'm yes.
And how do you think they feel has changed for the new students not only grad students that probably envisioned a career in Academia but.
Future or present anthropology Majors because they feel has changed and I think anthropology.

[13:04] This is a personal take I think entrepreneur he may open different part 4.

[13:10] I'm doubly meilleurs to those different careers not necessarily.

[13:15] At the rating anthropology per se but then economics are.
Only relationships and like different career paths that we are not seeing right now I ambition anthropology as being the new,
English major absolutely I agree.
But how do you see on Triple you being take in the next.
In the next 10 years as you mean I'm one of the professors that has probably.

[13:47] More students follow the youngest especially follow follow a lot.
Yeah it's a tough well one thing would be to and we're sort of collapsing undergraduate anthropology studies and Graduate Studies the
the academic field and not only in anthropology has just changed so radically that there's not a clear.
Or it's always been hard and so I don't want to make it sound like it's really totally there it's always been difficult yes even in Academia a combination of smart a lot of hard work and a lot of luck
have to come together to to make that and it's only gotten harder and harder we're having fewer and fewer tenure-track permanent kinds of positions so
there's that for an academic career and we can kind of put that aside I do agree with you that anthropology is a great foundation for all sorts of.

[14:50] Foreign Relations business advertising and public relations You Know It prepares people for all sorts of things.
And it's integrating in the way in which we talked about earlier it can be integrative,
in a way this is what everybody wants to do these days all the
The Economist want to learn more about psychology and culture and all the psychologists want to learn more about other things so all of the fields are sort of realizing that we need to integrate more and anthropology can provide that glue.
If we let it Our Own Worst Enemy in anthropology ourselves sometimes and.

[15:36] I I think and it's better moments anthropology is a really big tent and that we can take
debates about human evolution and human universals even and sort of biological impact on on the way in which people behave,
we should take that seriously some cultural Anthropologist would say no that's all reductionist and it stated by histories of racism and so we need to ignore it
I think,
and what we're able to do in our department by being focused on one world area and bringing together a biological Anthropologist in linguist and archaeologists is we're able to sort of
overcome some of those divides in the field and really work together and that's the possibility we've got to be open to our students going into a career in business we've got to be open to our students going through into a career in government
we spend a lot of our time and rightly so critiquing the market
I do this myself you know critiquing the mechanisms instructors of capitalism critiquing the way in which political systems are being implemented especially this day in age,
that can read sometimes to our students like
those are morally bad things to do and a Good anthropologist would never do that right yeah and so I think our moral Purity sometimes

[17:01] Can undermine our potential to have a real impact in the world and that real impact would be training a lot of people to be sensitive to the issues that anthropology
is concerned with and having them be lawyers and politicians and business people,
yeah we need to convince the parents,
are paying for Andrew mayor's fair enough yeah.
And lastly as I perceive in any gays at that.

[17:38] Junsu I probably one of the professors that.
Have a more outdoor view that you're more on the internet like blog and blocks and and.
Presence online
what is your take on that is like a very simple question right yeah I think that I think that there's a lot of research that goes on at universities like Vanderbilt but universities across the world
that are really deep dives into a specific field and that other people outside of that field really cannot understand and that's important work.
I you know some of the people in physics and some of the people in astronomy and math I don't even really understand what they studied fully and that's good and they should be doing that,
at the same time here's the big but with that at the same time I would say Society pays us.

[18:40] To to help come up with solutions to your problems whatever they may be
mathematical problems natural environment problems economic problems political problems and so in some ways I feel that it's incumbent on us
to try and translate the research that we produce into the academy to a larger audience.
And so I try to do that it's not easy though I mean you were saying earlier I mean one of my fantasies is an undergraduate or as a graduate student would have been.
This stuff that we're learning in anthropology is so important everybody needs to know this and so we need to get out there and get everybody to be on board with this project.

[19:31] And it's just not as easy as as one fantasizes as a stupid yeah it's sometimes I'm weeping.

[19:40] Our project will save the world and we barely get their Partners or I'll try my mom to read my thesis and she's like.
Give me the nuts give me the 88 general idea and then give me a three minute exactly
but when we can do both like you're doing with this podcast series like I try and do with my blog and other things when you can do both that's that's really important and what we should be.
I think that's a good idea to put things that are easier to consume out there so literally.

[20:20] Learn what we are doing in a easier way than just read a 300 pages of whatever I'm doing.
That it's important to do but there are 300 Pages still absolutely and again the specialist will read the 300 pages and go through the appendices of data and that's good and that may only be a dozen people,
and that's okay because it's this knowledge sort of accumulates over time and you've made an advance that other people will build on and build on at the same time.
The lessons that can be more broadly applied should be.

[20:59] And this will be a promise the last last question.

[21:06] What kind of what an undergrad can expect from you in class.
I mean I took a class from you as I say some years ago but I was a I was a grad student.
Even though with a little business but another God that doesn't have any idea and let's say.
Economic anthropology was something that it was just a bit perfect under schedule and they did.

[21:36] The credit and on social sciences.
That's a great question I mean there's some pragmatic things my philosophy of teaching is that
just as important as the specific material and it's important to be able to learn specific facts and to be able to hold on to those that's all the Border but
more important than any of the specifics is a general critical approach to doing things
and I think that that's what I
I try to convey in my classes so I guess a specific example and you mentioned the economic anthropology.
Very often Economist and
policy makers and politicians talk about the market as if it's the natural horse this just out there that we have to deal with it's like a river and maybe we can build a little damn here and there but there's this natural force,
that is makes us do certain things.

[22:44] But from an anthropological perspective as you know we see all of these social constructions we've created the market over time
it's built on economic and social and legal institutions that we have created and so if we see these things not as Natural Forces,
but as constructions that we can change that empowers us to act in the world in a different way.
We can change the market too.
To pursue the values that we think are important and those might be maximization of economic resources or it could be environmental stewardship or it could be social solidarity,
and of course the real rub is it has to be all of those at once in the you know the devil is in the balance between those.
But I think there's a power to seeing these things as social constructions that can Empower us to make the world a better place.

[23:48] I think this class should be mandatory for business.
I mean it makes sense but probably doesn't make sense to us but yeah,
although I think we're at a moment now where it might we're at a moment in world history where things are very disrupted and there's a moment I think of where we're going to have to create.
New sorts of Institutions to deal with the 21st century reality we've built up a lot of structures and a lot of social institutions that.
It did very well in the late 20th century and you know promoted globalization and lots of good things came out of that bad things as well but lots of good things.
The 21st century world.

[24:36] Doesn't fit those models and so we're going to need to reconstruct all of these things that have seemed to be just like the way the world is NATO and the UN
and the World Trade Organization and all of these things they're under attack right now and they very well may go away in the short-term.
And we can I guess we're at a Crossroads this this might be 1933 and we go down a route of greater and greater nationalization and potentially fascism and.
Or it could be 1945 and we think okay we're living in a new world a 21st century reality we're connected in ways that we never been connected before.
Large transnational corporations have sorts of power that nation-states are not,
able to to manage people have connections that aren't bounded by borders you and I are speaking across thousands of miles right now and it's like we're in the same room.
And so we need to think about new sorts of systems to govern this world.

[25:47] Anthropology one of our Hallmarks is we're concerned with what actually goes on in the world we go we go into the field and we actually talk to people or you know different kinds of evidence
but and so we can use that kind of knowledge to inform this moment that we were in of.

[26:08] Of hopefully creating a better and more Equitable structures for for society going forward.

[26:16] People should listen to us.

[26:20] I thought that's the reason we're doing this yeah we we are on the internet who's that yeah hopefully that's.
This is a tiny First Step thank you thank you very much I know you're very very busy it's almost the middle of the semester.
And you're always running again thank you and we'll look so great.

[26:49] Music.