Winter 2023 Issue

How We Look at the World

Anthropology and literature help us navigate the human experience

By Brad Weiss and Elizabeth Losh

How do we make sense of the world and our place in it? At William & Mary, great hearts and minds come together to examine this question from a wide range of perspectives. Our faculty are leaders in their fields and collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. As William & Mary educates for impact through Vision 2026, our faculty continue to work closely with our students to examine complex ideas, weigh competing perspectives and look at the world in new ways.

The W&M Raft Debate is a campus tradition in which faculty members, stranded on a theoretical desert island with a one-person raft, argue about who should be saved to bring their area of study to humanity. In a more congenial adaptation, we asked Brad Weiss, professor of anthropology, and Elizabeth Losh, professor of English and American studies, to discuss the many ways their disciplines are essential for preparing students to navigate our rapidly changing world.


By Brad Weiss

What did you do today? Or perhaps yesterday, if you’re reading this early in the morning? What have you been thinking about? Who have you been talking to? What gets you excited about facing the day? What keeps you up at night?

Regardless of how you answer any or all of these questions, you can be sure that there is an anthropological study of your response. Because, for anthropology, every conceivable aspect of the human — and more-than-human — experience is within the scope of the discipline.

All of life’s experiences provide opportunities for anthropological thinking, research, writing and teaching. Those include the more mundane dimensions of daily living — the sugar you put in your coffee, the commute you took to work and the electricity that powers the device you’re reading now. They also encompass the more complicated problems that happen on a truly global scale — the ebbs and flows of transnational supply chains, private-public collaborations designed to expand the availability of pharmaceuticals and activist movements to address catastrophic climate change.

In recent years alone, studies of oceanography that recast our understanding of how microbial life shapes the world we live in; historical surveys of debt that demonstrate the political implications of our financialized economy; and studies of bureaucracy that reveal the historical workings of politics and power in both colonial and corporate organizations have offered some of the most inspirational anthropological works whose influence has been felt across the academy.   All of these issues are fair game for anthropologists because all of them involve people — people whose ideas and feelings, values and prejudices, relationships and barriers shape the way we all live our lives. How these social and cultural processes shape the lives that people — and others — live is the core concern of our field.

But there’s another aspect of anthropology, a somewhat more subtle framing of these questions, that’s vital to understanding what we have to offer. Because, as anthropologists we not only ask about all of these — and many other — phenomena, we ask ourselves, at the same time: What makes these part of the human experience? Is there, in fact, such a thing as “THE human experience”? For each general concern or problem, human communities offer concrete and particular responses, where the details matter. What this means, among other things, is that however we define our world, it could be defined differently. Everything that we take for granted, that we accept as inevitable, is the outcome of the specific activities people have undertaken to create their world — and that means it could readily be quite different.

In the end, anthropology offers us insights and methods for understanding how people understand the world; and even more, the recognition that we have the ability to change it.

Brad Weiss is a professor of anthropology at William & Mary and author of four books including “Real Pigs,” recipient of the Association for the Study of Food and Society’s 2017 Book Award.


By Elizabeth Losh

Stories have remarkable power in our culture, and the study of literature teaches students to analyze elements of stories closely: how they are told, who features in the telling and what lessons they teach. Of course, we encounter stories in many forms on a daily basis outside of the printed book, such as in movies, games or advertisements, and stories often provide the structure for political speeches, celebrity confessions and religious parables. There are many storytelling professions that William & Mary graduates pursue. A W&M English major has even gone on to be White House press secretary.

Books continue to be an important source of these stories. Check out “Bookstagram” or “BookTok” on social media for signs of the continuing relevance of the printed page. Stories from novels, plays and poems can shape our ideas about interpersonal relationships, human difference, criteria for success, the morality of a given outcome, the credentials for leadership and how to respond to a crisis such as a pandemic or a terrorist attack.

Although literature facilitates understanding of different times and places, stories from another era can still feel surprisingly contemporary. George Meredith’s “The Egoist” was written a century and a half ago, and yet we continue to recognize a character who wants his worth mirrored back to him by subservient others.

Because a love of literature enhances appreciation of language, facility with the written word is linked to many marketable career skills. Along with critical thinking, today’s employers expect college graduates to have strong communication skills. The study of literature is an effective way to expand vocabulary, which is a lifelong form of personal development that continues years after completing a K-12 education. Shakespeare used more than 20,000 words. Studying plays and poems also can implant important verbal memories that last a lifetime.

Even with the ubiquity of mobile devices, knowing something by heart is still valued in our society. Look at how successful CEOs show off their skills at seemingly extemporaneous speaking. Careful reading of passages is also important for success in many careers, including in the legal profession. In many jobs, such as those in the tech sector, patience with drafting and revision is needed as well. Literature faculty often have had special training in teaching composition and provide feedback to help students find the strategies that work.

Most of all, literature extends the realm of possibility into the imagination in ways that enhance human creativity, which all professions require for problem solving.

Luckily, at William & Mary, students aren’t forced to choose between literature and another field. Many have two majors and graduate with twice the disciplinary capacity.

Elizabeth Losh is the Duane A. and Virginia S. Dittman Professor of English & American Studies at William & Mary and director of the Equality Lab. Her latest book, “Selfie Democracy,” examines the unintended consequences of politicians’ digital strategies.