How to think like a cultural anthropologist

The main narrative of Tangled Roots—the story of Deniz Torun, a second-generation Turkish American trying to finish her Ph.D. studies—actually came after most of the short stories were written. I enjoyed picking out the characters who would embody various historical eras Researching them introduced me to ways of life, worldviews, and, in some cases (especially with the mountain men and flappers), colorful jargon. 

For the novel that would frame the short stories, I knew that I wanted to write about a very old person’s–Chet Ludington’s—forebears and the woman—Deniz—who would research that ancestry. I also wanted Deniz’s family line to stand in glaring contrast to Chet’s. But I had a lot of details to fill in.

Once I settled on Deniz’s background and key elements of her present-day life, I still lacked one huge chunk of information to bring Deniz and her story to life: how to think and speak like a cultural anthropologist.

Understanding a field of study that has been around for over a century is no small task. To make it even more complicated, the discipline has morphed since its beginning.

I needed help. Fortunately, a professor at the university I work for was willing to answer my questions about the subject. Further, Dr. James Coffin gave me articles, a textbook, and a key author to read from who would introduce me to the basic concepts a cultural anthropologist would need to understand and apply to a specific group she desired to study.

I needed more than basics, though. Deniz was a grad student who needed to come up with a specific proposal for her Ph.D. project. Once again, Prof. Coffin helped me to take my ideas and incorporate them in a proposal, couching them in the lingo of cultural anthropology. When I finished drafting that section of my manuscript, he graciously reviewed it and offered feedback.

In researching a book, information comes in various forms. It’s not always easy to find experts in a particular field who can help pick out crucial portions of a topic and illuminate them. I’m thankful for Jim Coffin’s help. Meeting and consulting with him made learning about cultural anthropology a fun and interesting experience.

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