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Last updated 5:59PM ET
April 20, 2018
Local Commentaries
Local Commentaries
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad - May 13
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
(wium) - I used to love to travel. I mean really loved to travel. I thought nothing of throwing everything I needed into one small bag for an adventure.

Of course that was decades ago,when all that I had in the world fit into a backpack and coach class had enough room for your legs. Times have changed. Gone are the days when you could arrive at an airport 30 minutes before departure and know that you would be on time for your flight. In today's world if you are lucky, it will take you 30 minutes to get through security!

Despite the fact that travel has become largely an unpleasant experience, I still do it. You see, as an anthropologist, I believe that you cannot truly begin to understand a culture that is different from your own without going there and participating in daily life.

Anthropologists call this ethnographic research.

Ethnography is complicated. It is both a qualitative research method and a product whose goal is cultural interpretation. The ethnographer goes beyond merely reporting events and details of his or her experience. More specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these events and experiences represent what Clifford Geertz calls "webs of meaning" or the cultural constructions in which we live.

I believe that ethnographic research is one of the most experiential forms of learning there is.

By the time this commentary makes its way to the airwaves, I will be leading a group of anthropology students to Germany for a short-term Study Abroad course. For two weeks we will be immersed in German culture. In the capital city of Berlin we will go behind the scenes at the European Union and German parliament. In the small town of Celle we will spend a day on a 400 year old family farm, tour a retirement community, and visit the Bergen-Belson Memorial.

The itinerary I have planned for this course is by no means random. In fact, much of it is based on my own study abroad experience as an undergraduate some 20 years ago.

My first exposure to a culture different than my own as a teenager changed me forever. I know that I returned to Ohio wiser and more mature. The point of a study abroad experience is to expose students to the unfamiliar. I want my students to see and understand that there are other ways of being human.

Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler writes, "One of the great things about learning to think like an anthropologist is that you become more aware of how the world works."

With this in mind, you might ask, what in the world do the EU and retirement communities have in common? From an anthropological perspective: everything.

The European Union is a political and economic union containing 27 member states. With the development of a single economy that uses a standardized system of laws which apply to all members - people, goods, services, and capital are free to move as they wish.

What this means in daily life is that Germans who don't like cold winters can spend half of their year in retirement in Spain, and Spaniards wishing to escape the hot summers of their country can spend time in the cooler climes of Germany. The same health care and retirement benefits are available regardless of nationality or locale.

It may sound similar to snow birds migrating from northern states in the US to Florida or Texas during the winter months, but it is also different. Germans and Spaniards are culturally, linguistically, and historically different peoples.

Before the creation of the EU this type of migration was not so easy. The foundation of a unified political and economic system has changed the way in which people are spending their retirement years.

Are you beginning to think like an anthropologist? Let me give you another example.

With the opening of the borders in EU states, people are free to move to places that offer a better way of life. Over the last several years EU members have experienced a large internal migration of peoples from "poorer" states to those that are more affluent. As the global economy continues to suffer high unemployment rates, some Germans, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, expressed their frustration at the influx of people who were not German living in Germany.

"We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don't accept them don't have a place here."

Some interpreted her statement as being aimed at Germany's Turkish community, which consists of 2.5 million people. According to a new study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, "one-third of all Germans think foreigners should be sent home when unemployment is high. Nearly 60% of the 2,411 Germans polled think that limits should be imposed on Muslims' religious freedom."

If you find these statements shocking you are not alone. I don't mean to imply that Germany is the only country in the world that is xenophobic. In the US we have created a brouhaha in Arizona with its anti-illegal alien law and, of course, who can forget the "birther" movement questioning President Obama's citizenship, simply because he is different (i.e. black) than any other president we have had until now?

However, Germany does occupy a special place in history for its horrific treatment of people who were different. Lest we not forget that between 1933 and 1945, 11 million people were killed. 6 million of those killed were Jews, while the remaining people included Roma's or Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and those who were disabled.

A visit to the Bergen-Belson Holocaust Memorial, where Anne Frank, her sister, and countless others died, serves as a reminder of what can happen when people allow their assumptions and fears about those who are different than they are run amok.

Of course you can read all about this in books, but actually being there is different.

I think Maya Angelou best sums up the potential of studying abroad. She writes, "Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."

Germany here I come. Next stop India. Any takers?

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio

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