Embracing Random Questions

January 31, 2019

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why love and passion reside in the heart? Or why women wear bras? Or maybe why popcorn is a popular snack at movie theatres? At the request of students in my undergraduate ‘Introduction to Cultural Anthropology’ course, I have considered these questions – and over the past fifteen years, another 160 or so similarly variable, and seemingly off-topic, questions. It’s a formal dimension of the course that I call ‘random questions’, in which I invite my students to ask me anything … and I mean, literally anything. My contention is that cultural anthropology has something illuminating or insightful to say about pretty much anything, and therefore, no question is truly ‘random’ to an anthropologist. Even one about popcorn and movie theatres.

During the semester, students learn about the discipline’s main concepts, findings, and claims, of course. But I also want them to understand that anthropology is not simply a body of knowledge to acquire; it’s an open-ended mode of inquiry and thinking, useful for exploring almost any dimension of human life. At the heart of the enterprise is habitual curiosity and recognition that in ordinary matters lie the potential for extraordinary stories and insights. The problem is that the contemporary educational environment can squelch that curiosity, a point Albert Einstein once made when he observed, “It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”

One way of dealing with this problem is to encourage students to recognize that casual and adventitious curiosity is not an undesirable distraction, but an opportunity for learning—about the world, to be sure—but also to ‘think anthropologically.’ Anthropological thinking involves using central disciplinary concepts, theories, and perspectives—among them culture, holism, cultural relativism, community, constructivism, globalization, social structure, and enculturation—as well as methodological techniques like fieldwork, interviews, and participant-observation, to make sense of the many interesting, important, and everyday issues that shape people’s lives everywhere.

It’s a lively aspect of the course. Students submit questions in writing ahead of class, though I can never anticipate what questions might emerge. Rare is the question deliberately designed to ‘stump’ me (i.e., ‘What is a wormhole?’), but even those can be turned to anthropological advantage (by explaining, for example, how anthropologists define and approach the theme of cosmology, and sharing analogous meanings between astrophysical understandings of ‘wormhole’ and the cosmologies of certain indigenous peoples , such as the Achuar and Jívaro peoples of the Amazon basin).

The questions students submit range from the serious and philosophical to the light-hearted and mundane. Nevertheless, they do tend to fall into certain categories that line up with areas of anthropological expertise, even if the specific content of the questions doesn’t. The most common type is questions about norms and customs, in other words, why do people behave in certain conventional ways? The question about popcorn – why is it a popular snack in movie theatres? – is one of these. To my knowledge, popcorn has not been the subject of systematic anthropological inquiry, but we do have a lot to say about the relationship between culture and food, the cultural variability of taste, and how foodways work. The history of popcorn consumption is thousands of years old, but this particular practice is closely related to eating certain kinds of foods (in this case foods categorized as ‘snacks’) at certain times – in this case, during leisure activities. During the late-nineteenth century, popcorn was introduced as an inexpensive snack in parks and other public spaces of leisure, made with a novel new steam-powered mobile unit. But it was initially banned in movie theatres because it was too low-brow and messy. Movie-going became popular during the Depression as a cheap diversion, and popcorn soon followed as a cheap snack. With sugar rationing during World War II eliminating many sweets, popcorn in theatres became king. There are many other fascinating details – but the broader point here is that the sense that it is appropriate and normal behaviour to eat popcorn in a movie theatre was far from people’s minds until the 1930s, and exists today because various cultural meanings of that food aligned with certain technological, economic, political, and social dynamics to make it possible, and they have been sustained since through similar processes.

Another common type of question is about symbols and meanings – in other words why do people make sense of things in certain ways? The symbolic association between the heart and love or passion is a good illustration. There is nothing predetermined or necessary about why we should associate these particular things with the heart – in Vietnam, for example, the center of thoughts and feelings lies in the stomach, so there is a saying that passion comes ‘from the bottom of the stomach.’ Although Aristotle recognized that the ‘ancients’ thought passion lies in the heart (while others thought it was the liver), our modern meanings are rooted in Middle Age Christian devotional art that connected the image of the heart with love for Christ, as well as the emergence of commercially-printed Valentine’s Day cards during the seventeenth century that portrayed hearts as the seat of emotional love between individuals. Investigation into how symbolic representations are collectively established, interpreted, reproduced, and undergo change have been central to cultural anthropology since the days of Émile Durkheim and continue today within many anthropological schools of thought, especially interpretive anthropology. Interpreting symbolic representations begins with recognizing the ways their meanings are shaped culturally.

Finally, I get a lot of questions about social organization and power relations, in other words, what are the social relationships, institutions, and ideologies that enable or constrain and control human action and social lives? While the question about why women wear bras intersects with the previous two categories, it could also fall here. Although many human groups have not considered covering the breast necessary, others invented many ways to restrain or elevate women’s breasts, for many different reasons. Sixteenth-century corsets, for example, prevented women who wore them from working, so it was a means to show social status. Health concerns and the clothing reform movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed to the gradual elimination of the corset, and its replacement with the modern bra. This was undergirded by the contemporary fashion industry and workplace cultures that placed expectations on women to wear them. But the contemporary sexualization of the breast means this question is also about particular sex/gender system that projects certain kinds of sex meanings onto women’s bodies. As feminist anthropologists have asserted, these practices should be understood in terms of the structures and processes that shape and uphold female subordination.

Of course, interesting and important questions rarely have such simple answers – just as these wouldn’t, if I were to go on. But we’re often very quick as academics to provide answers to all sorts of matters without really acknowledging the richness that can lie in inviting the unexpected, random question.



Luis A. Vivanco is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Humanities Center at the University of Vermont. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University in Cultural Anthropology. A widely published scholar in anthropology and environmental studies, his research focuses on the cultural and political dimensions of environmental social movements, wildlife films, and urban bicycle activism. He is the author of A Dictionary of Cultural Anthropology, available on Oxford Reference.