Confronting Conformity

Evolution of a Visual Anthropologist

Sam Pack's interest in visual anthropology grew out of a desire to "go someplace and get away from everyone and everything" after high school in California. More...

By all appearances, a horrible night was shaping up for assistant professor Sam Pack, leading the kind of class students text their friends about and rehash over breakfast at Peirce Hall.

"I just couldn't figure out what was going on," said Casey McKone, a sophomore in a tie-dyed Kenyon hoodie. "I was just thinking, ‘Who am I going to tell after class?'"

On a cold night in early December, Pack was leading his three-hour seminar in Ralston House. As part of his pre-tenure review, two of Pack's colleagues from the Department of Anthropology-professors David Suggs and Bruce Hardy-were on hand to evaluate his teaching.

From the beginning, Pack was distracted by sophomore Ned Daunis, a good-natured, energetic hand-raiser in a gray fraternity T-shirt. Pack scolded him for being late. Then Daunis made a few observations that Pack quickly dismissed. When another student earned praise for a comment, Daunis blurted, "Come on, isn't that what I just said?" Pack rolled his eyes and ignored him.

The exchanges heated up until Pack snapped, "What's the matter, Ned? Did you forget to take your medication?"

Daunis seemed stunned. Other students dropped their heads, suddenly intrigued by their notes.

After a few seconds of silence, Daunis countered, "What the hell, Sam? I can't believe you'd say something like that. It's totally inappropriate!"

Glancing at Suggs and Hardy, who were taking notes in the back of the room, Pack said, "Come on, Ned, you're really making me look bad here. If you can't control yourself, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Daunis stormed out, followed by a slamming door. And Pack seemed rattled. The fluorescent lights picked up the sheen on his forehead. He gestured nervously with a piece of white chalk between his index and middle fingers like a cigarette. In a black velvet blazer with a white dress shirt hanging untucked over his jeans, he evoked a floundering Vegas lounge act. But there was no heckling, just embarrassment.

Will Smith, a senior baseball player, tried to calm Pack with the soothing tone he might use on a pitcher who has just given up back-to-back homers. "Sam, just take a deep breath. Finish your lecture. It's fine."

Fine? It was a disaster. And that's the way Pack planned it.

Ten minutes later, the door creaked open and Daunis returned with a grin. The "confrontation" had been scripted by Pack, Daunis, and another student. No one else, including Suggs and Hardy, were in on it. This was just another "Pack-tivity"--an unorthodox event designed to help students grasp a concept in a new way.

"I want students to have a transformative experience that will change the way they view the world," Pack said. "Otherwise, what's the point? You shouldn't just go to college so you can sound very complex in some cocktail party conversation five or six years from now."

Pack specializes in the ways culture is communicated visually. This subfield of cultural anthropology is often narrowly equated with ethnographic filmmaking, but it includes the study of everything from television to graffiti to dance. And while the Anthropology Department tends to have a materialist perspective--emphasizing behavior related to everyday survival--Pack takes a different approach.

"There are a lot of arguments to be made that what's going on mentally or symbolically has much more influence over behavior," said Hardy, the department chair. "Sam's approach is much more symbolic, which provides a good counterpoint to what the rest of us are doing."

One focus of Pack's research is Native American culture. He's currently pursuing a case study on how casino revenue has complicated issues of Indian identity and cultural authenticity. But he also delves into non-academic pop culture phenomena. Everything from celebrities to video games is worthy of anthropological study because it provides clues into how our society works.

Pack argues that pop icons like Paris Hilton are functioning as "quasi-anthropologists" as they investigate America's hinterlands on what anthropologist Adam Fish labels "first-person adventure reality television" shows like The Simple Life. When Anthony Bourdain travels to far-flung locales on his Travel Channel show No Reservations or Andrew Zimmern gathers material for an episode of Bizarre Foods, they are mimicking elements of the field research that anthropologists and ethnographers conduct.

"At a basic level, these shows involve someone learning about a foreign culture and reporting the findings back to their home community, so there are some strong parallels with anthropology," Pack said. "This intersection of the popular and the ethnographic is the cornerstone of my teaching and research."

And celebrity culture gives students an accessible reference point as they explore complex cultural themes. That's why Pack's seminar is called "The Anthropology of Borat." It tackles the issue of cultural identity with the help of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 mockumentary about a fictional Kazakh journalist who comes to America equipped with a camera and enough politically incorrect views to offend just about everyone.

"It's not that Borat is more insightful than traditional ethnographic studies," Pack said. "It's insight that students can relate to. The key for me is to have them personalize what we're studying."

It's hardly a traditional approach, but Pack goes out of his way to point out that he's not a typical academic. Typical or not, Pack connects with students.

"Sam tries to make everything we're learning as applicable to us as possible," said senior Katie Edelson, a double major in anthropology and women's and gender studies. "In a lot of ways, anthropology is about going out into the field, looking at another culture, and figuring out how to define it. That's essentially what Borat and these other shows are doing."

Another seminar student, sophomore Said Zagha, first saw Borat at his family's home in the West Bank. While his father categorized the movie as "toilet humor," Zagha thought it had more profound implications. He had recently read Edward Said's Orientalism and he saw connections between the highly influential book and the less-than-scholarly film. When he read the course description for Pack's seminar and discovered Orientalism on the reading list, he welcomed the chance to employ anthropological tools to examine culture
in a new way.

"People have a tendency to disregard anything that's mainstream," he said. "In classes, we get used to applying rigid analysis to great books. There's this kind of elitist apartheid-that's Sam's term-that you can only apply this analysis to great books you read in classes and great films by Hitchcock and Fellini. But you can apply anthropological analysis to anything--George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman."

And what do these comedians reveal about culture? As Pack explains it, the genius of transgressive comedians like Carlin and Bruce is figuring out where society draws lines and then crossing them. Through humor, they reveal societal norms and, often, the hypocrisy found in them. Carlin's infamous "Seven Dirty Words" routine, for example, exposed the silliness of obscenity laws.

So-called "over-conformist" comedians like Kaufman and Cohen, in the guise of Borat, have similar goals but use very different means to achieve them. "Borat overplays the part that's expected of him as a way to get people to lower their guard," Pack said. As a naive foreigner with a funny mustache and openly sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic views, Borat elicits indifference or equally unsavory views from the Americans he encounters. When he sings an anti-Semitic song in a country-western bar, it's not long before the other drinkers are joining him on the chorus.

"The class made me re-evaluate why Borat is such a popular character when so much of what he does is racist and discriminatory," Edelson said. "Why is that humorous? What does it say about our culture?"

Pack hoped his deception with Daunis would provoke a similar exploration of culture and society. He wanted his students to relate what happened to the broader issues of conformity, consent, and complicity they had discussed. Why do we often remain silent in situations that violate our beliefs? Why do we frequently go along with things even when it undercuts our personal values?

"Why didn't anybody stand up for Ned?" Pack asked the students.

He then showed videos on the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment. The infamous studies revealed likable, well-educated people going to moral extremes to avoid confronting authority. The class also watched a clip from The Wave, a 1981 television movie about a high-school teacher who deceives his students to help them understand the Holocaust. A sprawling discussion ensued, touching on everything from Noam Chomsky's propaganda model to Cohen's ability to "reveal who we are, not who we want to be."

But the question was still hanging there. Why didn't anyone stand up to Professor Pack and defend Ned?

"Right before finals?" someone quipped. The laughter broke the ice, and some students expressed regret for not defending their classmate.

"I feel kind of like a jerk right now for not saying something," said senior Leah Rogers. McKone saw the experience as the culmination of what they had studied over three months. "We talked about indifference and complicity a lot and how it leads to conformism, but the fact I didn't do anything about it and had no real reaction to it was kind of a slap in the face," she said. "As anti-conformist as I think I am, I'm obviously not that different from everyone else."

Pack later admitted the charade had been stressful and risky, but he didn't regret it.

"As someone who encourages students to stand up for what they believe in, I can't tell them one thing and not do it myself," he said. "I guarantee you the students have a solid reference point that they feel personally connected to."

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