What Taking IB Social and Cultural Anthropology Higher Level is Like, from the Student Perspective

What Taking IB Social and Cultural Anthropology Higher Level is Like, from the Student Perspective

[Anthro{dendum} welcomes invited blogger Mckenna Bullard, a student of Lausanne Collegiate School.]

Introduction to IB Social and Cultural Anthropology

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program includes, among its many courses, a course called Social and Cultural Anthropology. Our school offers this course at both Standard Level and Higher Level and is consistently popular with upper school students. The IBDP Anthropology HL course is taught over two years, assessed with two examination papers and an internal assessment fieldwork project. Another part of the IBDP is an Extended Essay: a 4,000-word research paper that students write independently from class time on a subject of their choice. In IB Social and Cultural Anthropology, students read at least three ethnographies and explore key concepts (like identity, society, and power) and apply their conceptual understanding to real world issues (like sustainability, human rights, and technology).

The curriculum is oriented toward the IB mission statement which states: “The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

Why I chose the class and what I like about it

A high school student, the author, is a young woman with red hair and big grin, sits typing at her laptop.

My name is McKenna Bullard and I go to Lausanne Collegiate School. I have had the pleasure of being able to begin taking an anthropology class my junior and senior year. I began taking anthropology because I have a strong interest in social sciences and have a genuine appreciation for them. One of the reasons anthropology was so mind boggling to me was because I wasn’t aware of the way it could transform my perspective. For instance it was very exciting to know there was another way to look at things, as someone who already thought they looked at things as unbiased as possible. I am excited I am able to share with you both my experiences in an IB anthropology class, and an excerpt from my extended essay where I choose the subject area to be anthropology.

I chose to take anthropology originally to seek out my interests in social sciences. I chose to double my course load in the social sciences by taking psychology and anthropology. At the time I chose these two classes knowing my interests were more wired towards psychology and this was what I thought I wanted to major in. However only a few weeks into my anthropology class the future I had envisioned had changed. I was totally consumed by my interests in anthropology. When I read about other women’s stories I was intrigued, like Deborah Winslow’s ethnography on the women in Sri Lanka who celebrated “bizarre” menstruation rituals[1]. I also loved the IB structure in my class that allowed me to constantly practice my writing. I also was always aware of how the assignments and tasks I was producing were pushing me towards a bigger goal. All of my assignments reflected the test I will take in my senior year. The grading style also allowed me to constantly assess my performance and how and where I can improve. I love anthropology but I also love how anthropology is taught within the IB. I was able to transition from someone who didn’t know how to independently write a different style, other than my English class writing style, to someone who has climbed each stepping stone to understand how to write and think like an anthropologist.

Anthropology as a class in general allows me to feel like I am making a change in the world around me. Anthropology constantly inspires me by allowing me to see others’ experiences. Anthropology as a class has offered me a perspective that is much bigger than the one I owned prior to the class, a perspective that allows me to understand cultural boundaries, differences, and how they impact our world daily. The IB allows a fluid and solid schedule, filled with assignments that challenge me to think outside of my own being. Anthropology in general however gives you a rewarding feeling like no other. To be able to conceptualize various cultures around the world requires an open mind, and I truly believe in order to fix issues in our world we must have the open mindedness, like anthropologists have.

Why I chose to do an Extended Essay in Anthropology and how I chose my topic

I chose to do an anthropology EE because it was the class I saw myself majoring in at college, so I wanted to gather a deeper knowledge of anthropology outside of my own coursework. I also knew I wanted to write about anthropology because I would enjoy the effort and time I would put into it.  I also had recently gotten more confident in my writing in my anthropology class. After I had chosen to do an anthropology EE and it was approved, I started brainstorming about ideas for my EE.  I took notes on my phone of topics I was interested in that we were or had talked about in class. Then one day, I remembered a specific class where we watched a video about the last matriarchal society[2]. The video focused on rituals and the everyday life of this culture. The cultural standards placed in this society completely changed the way this civilization was run. This video also made me think about how strange patriarchal societies are to outsiders. I wanted to study more intense patriarchal societies. So I choose to study Asian, Egyptian, and African societies. I also wanted to hone in on women’s role in these societies. Even though women have little agency they do have a role in the continuum of the cultural norms regarding patriarchal patterns. This was the most interesting part of the whole project to me: understanding that women’s lack of power doesn’t mean they don’t have agency to choose not to encourage patriarchy in their societies. Women have little power but have enough agency to push forward or defy patriarchal norms in society.

Excerpt from my Extended Essay

Women can also participate in power systems between other women. They can achieve status through old age or patriliny, “descent through the male”[3]. Women in Egypt create a social hierarchy consisting of women. This hierarchy makes women focus on climbing in social class through men thus encouraging patriarchy. Senior women gain a lot of power over other women in Egyptian society, but women can also gain status by producing male offspring. In Egypt, “Under classic patriarchy, young girls are married into households headed by their husband’s father. There, they are subordinate not only to all the men, but also to the more senior women, especially their mothers-in-law. Often having no claim on their father’s patrimony, young brides enter their husbands’ households as effectively dispossessed individuals who can establish their place in the patriline only through childbearing (especially by producing male offspring)”[4]. One of the informal ways young women participate in this hierarchy is that women take part in a marriage system organized by their family and their husband’s family. Women take part in trying to climb in social status by producing children from their husband’s family, in hope of young boys. Often women make or are pressured to make fertility decisions that grant them status within the hierarchy but also place them in a position where they lack both power and agency. This shows how women have a role in patriarchy and climb in social status by surpassing other women through marriage and childbearing, encouraging these patriarchal patterns. When encouraging these patriarchal patterns they can climb in social status, but it gives them significantly less power and agency. By women accepting this form of hierarchy they are encouraging patriarchy. It is more obvious in this piece of evidence that women more clearly want to gain class even when they have the agency to avoid taking part in the patriarchal hierarchy, “The cyclical nature of women’s power and their anticipation of inheriting the authority of senior women encourages a thorough internalization of this form of patriarchy by the women themselves. Subordinate to men is offset by the control older women have over younger women”[5].

This shows how women influence the continuous pattern of patriarchy in societies. Women don’t notice being greatly subordinate to men because they still feel like they are able to attain some power through older age. This is a way patriarchy goes unnoticed and therefore is encouraged by women. Salma, an infertile woman in Egypt, mentioned at some point how she felt threatened by the influence of a senior woman in her society, “‘If you don’t have children, I’ll go get married.’ At first, this statement would send Salma into a frenzy, and she would sleep at a relative’s house until Sadiq or one of his family members would come to retrieve her. But on one such occasion, an elderly female relative of Sadiq’s began encouraging him to remarry. When Salma learned of this from his immediate family members, she decided not to leave the house ever again”[6]. This quote mentions how an older lady gave advice to Sadiq, Salma’s husband, which greatly intimidated Salma to the point where she didn’t leave her house. Salma was intimidated because the older woman had a higher social status than her, especially because she can’t climb the social chain without giving birth to boys or having an older age. The intimidation Salma feels from this older relative demonstrates how Salma internalizes the hierarchy between women in Egypt, which means she as a woman is encouraging the taking part in patriarchal systems. Salma has the power to not take part in these systems and avoid being a part of some patriarchal structures, but she chooses to internalize them thus internalizes the patriarchy. Women in societies can encourage the patriarchal hierarchy through internalization, using men and children to gain class, and choosing to participate in the hierarchy even if it takes away a significant amount of their embodied agency. When women take part in any or all of these things, they are encouraging the unfair hierarchy system and passing it down to another generation of young women to deal with. Women have very little agency in their societies but if they use the agency they do have to participate and encourage patriarchal hierarchy systems, they are also encouraging the continuation of patriarchy to live through another generation of women.

Conclusion: Why Anthropology in high school?

I personally think anthropology should be offered as a class in all schools because it can help students to better understand their interests by simply being given the option. For example, I was positive that I was going to major in psychology and I was excited to take my psychology class at the beginning of my Junior year. Even though I picked anthropology, I still didn’t think it would be anything more than an enjoyable class that I would move on from after high school. However because I had the opportunity to take my anthropology class I was able to discover a much more exciting path for myself. I was also able to understand that all of my interests are still yet to be discovered because I am still growing as a person. I truly believe anthropology is my future but the class also showed me how easy it is to change your mind in the face of new interests. I used to be scared of the idea of going to college and changing my mind. But through taking anthropology I discovered finding new interests and pursuing them is the most rewarding. My anthropology class has taught me to be eager to seek out new interests even if it means changing the “plan” I have leading to my future.

My first week of Anthro was the most mind boggling to me. I was asked to read a story called the “Nacirema” story[7]. This story talked about a strange culture, it was so interesting. At the end of the story my class and I found out the story was American spelled backwards and that we were reading about our culture through an outsider’s perspective. This threw me through a loop but mostly because of the fact that I had never thought that an outsider’s perspective looked at me in the same way I look at them, that our culture is just as weird as all the others. I had thought about it before but I was never able to truly see and understand it as well as after reading the “Nacirema” story. For this reason, I believe anthropology should be offered any and everywhere because of the worldly knowledge and practice of a new perspective that is unique to the field.

The study of Anthropology is very important but more so in high school. Some schools do not offer this course and I feel very lucky to have been able to find this class. Anthropology is a unique field that allows one to openly accept peoples differences and how they can impact a society. Anthropology forces one to take a step back and try to step out of your perspective and evaluate its flaws. Anthropology personally has allowed me to be more observant and grateful of the differences that both bond and break humans. But in a broader sense, taking anthropology allows for students to face the reality of having a flawed perspective and acknowledging that before judging others.

[1] Laura Pountney and Tomislav Marić, Introducing Anthropology: What Makes Us Human?  (Polity Press, 2021) 271.

[2] Xiaoli Zhou, The Women’s Kingdom, directed by Xiaoli Zhou and Brent E. Huffman (2006), DVD.

[3] Laura Pountney and Tomislav Marić, Introducing Anthropology: What Makes Us Human?  (Polity Press, 2021) 430.

[4] Marcia Inhorn, Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt (Pennsylvania Press, 1996) 4.

[5] Kandiyoti (1988; 1991) cited in Inhorn (1996: 5).

[6] Ibid. 226.

[7]Horace Miner, Body Ritual Among the Nacirema (Bobbs Merrill, 1956).


One Reply to “What Taking IB Social and Cultural Anthropology Higher Level is Like, from the Student Perspective”

  1. Thanks for this. I took IB anthropology in high school and I ended up referencing my senior paper in something I wrote last year!