Anthropology Alumni Reflection: Applying Cultural Analysis in the Real World

Author: By Meagan Sutton, '04

Throughout post-graduation life, I have found many useful applications for what I learned in Notre Dame's anthropology program. Yet the true test was when I found myself on the ground in Dharamsala, India, in 2008 with an M.A. thesis topic and a fieldwork proposal.
Fieldwork was not a requirement for my M.A. thesis by any means, and it was out of the ordinary that a student would travel to gather research for the thesis. I chose to do so because reading books in the library had led me to more questions than conclusions about Tibetan studies. I found a number of works in which I felt that authors were writing within a framework that lacked awareness of cultural relativism (the principle that people's beliefs and actions should be interpreted in terms of their own cultural framework). This is an awareness I think is crucial in any discipline. I attribute my critical analysis of these works to the fantastic guidance provided to me by my anthropology professors at Notre Dame.
Yet little did I know that I would truly be tested while in Dharamsala, as I unexpectedly found myself in the midst of one of the biggest Tibetan uprisings since 1959. Fear, anxiety, grief, and anger saturated the town, the people, and subsequently my interviews. Suddenly, I was encountering in real life the ethical dilemmas of fieldwork that I had learned about in my classes. I was faced with the challenge of treating vulnerable and emotional interviewees sensitively and confidentially.
I had gone to Dharamsala to explore the question of whether Tibetan activists would ever resort to organized violence, and the question was formed based on readings from leading academics in the field. Yet when I arrived, I found a crucial cultural nuance that was often overlooked in literature on Tibet, and this finding became the foundation of my thesis: that "non-violence" and "violence" were being defined differently by scholars than by the Tibetans themselves, and the varied interpretations were influenced heavily by their rapidly-changing cultural context.
It is this kind of nuance and questioning of frameworks and norms that I learned from my anthropology studies at Notre Dame, beginning with my Fundamentals in Social & Cultural Anthropology course and then further developed in other courses, particularly in my theory course junior year. These courses taught me to question how we define and categorize things in the first place and how we must remain aware of how our own cultural conceptions may interfere with our analyses of other cultures.
Today, I am applying the same values and analytical skills in my work as an operational internal auditor for Relief International, an NGO based in Los Angeles. Relief International shares important values that I learned while at Notre Dame—the organization strongly emphasizes the importance of understanding culture as the foundation for aid work. I first became inspired by the application of anthropological analysis in the current political and cultural context in Carolyn Nordstrom's course, Anthropology of War and Peace.
In this position, I coordinate with and occasionally travel to several of our 22 field offices. My work will find me traveling to Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar this spring, and other locations globally throughout the year.
My overall goal is to help strengthen the relationship between the field offices and our headquarters by reporting on important cultural, political, and logistical aspects that are often misunderstood or not always known by staff in the United States. Each country office has its own working environment and its own cultural and political context, and I believe that it is crucial to understand these factors before examining logistics and procedures.
I have recently been assigned to design an internal audit system that analyzes how our staff selects and distributes aid to beneficiaries. I am in the midst of developing a system that will not only control for the prevention of corruption and fraud in this process but will also analyze how effectively we are reaching marginalized populations, such as women, children, and the elderly. As part of this process, I believe it is an absolute priority that we include analysis that ensures our selection and distribution process is culturally applicable and respectful.
I would not be where I am today without having been inspired by the innovative professors in ND's anthropology program and without the very strong foundation they provided me. The values that I learned in that program, combined with Notre Dame's overall mission for service, have led me down a vibrant and rewarding path—and I look forward to where this path continues to take me. I am very grateful for the dedication of my anthropology professors for teaching me how to be a cognizant world citizen who contributes positively to our global village.
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