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Anthropology in Practice

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“Rethinking Home” with Citizen Anthropologists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A traditional Samoan fale overlooking the water. Photo by NeilsPhotography.

There is something to be said for having a space that you call home. It grounds you in social and cultural ways. As much as your home is a reflection of who you are, it also becomes a mirror for larger social observances. While we may add our own personal touches to our homes in terms of decor, the overall organization and function follows broader elements of social norms. For example, in the mainland US we tend to divide our homes into public and private spaces—you wouldn’t host a dinner party in your bedroom. This is true even in “studio” apartments: we will tend to try to organize even open layouts along conventional lines. This type of division may not occur elsewhere in the world, where extended family units, environmental conditions, and other factors may change the structure and organization of the space we call home.

As the impact of climate change become more prevalent, people around the world are contending with a possible threat to these spaces. And they’re wrestling with what these changes may mean for themselves and for future generations. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy in the US and Cyclone Evan in Samoa have drawn attention to these concerns, in particular highlighting the shock and disruption citizens experience when their homes are impacted, which go well beyond the physical losses people experience.

Anthropologist Jennifer Newell, curator of Pacific ethnography in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, is working with partners at the Museum of Samoa to connect New Yorkers and Samoans who have experienced extreme weather. The program, titled “Rethinking Home,” is structured around a series of workshops held in Staten Island, NY and in Samoa. It brings participants into the communities affected by climate change to look at our relationship to our homes and how they might change in the future.

For example, in Samoa the traditional house (fale Samoa) is slowly losing ground as Western construction practices are favored. The fale Samoa is an open-sided house built using natural, local materials (poles, coconut fiber, and palm leaves). However, recently, building materials have included corrugated iron and concrete. While this shift may enhance the durability of the homes in Samoa, it is a direct threat to a cultural heritage held by Samoans.

Of course, over time, such cultural shifts are almost unavoidable. Still, it’s hard to overlook the way Newell’s face lights up when she talks about the strong awareness Samoans have of their heritage. Such identification isn’t absent in New York, which has always played host to a large immigrant population from around the world, but is perhaps less concentrated when compared to the messages shared in My Culture Is, an online exhibit from the Museum of Samoa. It was this sense of self that prompted Newell to reach out to the Museum of Samoa, where her partners Lumepa Apelu and Mataafa Atuagavaia responded in kind, seeing an opportunity to bring together otherwise distant communities.

This project is very much an exercise in citizen anthropology. Newell and Apelu have created conditions for cultural exchange and documentation. In the workshops, which occurred earlier this summer, participants were given some interview training, but otherwise meant to absorb and share the experiences of the other group. Participants included members who had experienced Sandy and Evan firsthand, as well as diasporic members of the Samoan community who could provide additional mixed-cultural perspectives.

Interestingly, broader (almost stereotypical) social characteristics have stood out. For example, Newell talks about the Samoan experience of community and the ways in which they rely on community bonds to rebuild after natural disasters. She called this out as a point of difference between Samoans and New Yorkers: the latter must wait for assistance from insurance parties and the government whereas in Samoa “you don’t do anything alone.”

In bringing these groups together, Newell hopes for an overall broadening of perspectives. As coastal residents, both New Yorkers and Samoans must recognize that changes to the ideas and experiences of home will have a larger impact on social organization. In the face of a disaster, individuals benefit from community support, but we have to work to normalize that type of support. Newell’s ethnographic work suggests New Yorkers have to get better—and more comfortable—asking for and receiving help from our neighbors. Samoans will benefit from learning about alternative construction methods, and understanding how New Yorkers navigate change and reconcile those changes to establish new norms.

“Rethinking Home” is opening the door for global collaboration among the communities that are apt to experience and be changed by extreme weather conditions. This project puts a degree of agency in the hands of citizens and encourages a more global experience of community. Newell is using Facebook groups to help cement these relationships. And participants are charged with advocacy; they’ll help to create public outreach media which will be shared in an online exhibition. Exhibits in Samoa and New York will help share findings from this experience.

Homes are more than bricks and mortar. Our home is a stage upon which we transact many of the everyday rituals that establish our membership in social and cultural groups. The absence or loss of that space renders you almost invisible for this reason: without that base, you’re missing an important means of performing acts of belonging.

“Rethinking Home” was made possible with a $43,000 USD grant awarded by Museums Connect, a program funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, which links U.S. museums with museums worldwide.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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