Anthropology 164:

Anthropology of American Culture

Instructor: Dr. Richard Chalfen

Tues. & Thurs. 10:10-11:30 231 Gladfelter Hall


Introduction and Orientation. This course on American Culture can change each year, taking different shapes depending on the instructor, where and when it is offered. This semester we will develop a visual anthropology of American culture in the interests of attending to visual manifestations of culture and to how culture gets put on display in visual/pictorial forms.

Inevitably we will have to face the issues underlying such difficult questions as: What, where, when is American culture? Some say it is virtually impossible to define or even identify American culture. As the composition of the U.S population continues to be more multicultural, and the realities of everyday life in America become more diverse and varied, some feel American culture has gotten away from us. In this sense, American culture may be less and less local, as restricted to within U.S. geographic boundaries, and more and more global, with contexts focused on politics, economics, sports, popular culture on a world-wide scale. In short, it seems that we need to look elsewhere.

Other theorists believe the only meaningful concept of American culture resides within many and varied popular representations. Attention is given to forms of popular culture -- novels, films, advertisements, magazines, television shows (prime time drama as well as soap operas for instance] among others -- as mass-mediated versions/constructions of American culture. Many have argued that feature films shape a public consciousness, a shared agenda. Is this what holds together some-260 million people in the United States?

Combining these two themes (popular culture and globalism), this semester we will examine two (2) types of constructions that take us away from a notion of American culture that exists in real everyday experience. We will discuss two senses of "away." The first meaning resides outside the geographic borders of the United States. That is, we can see how American culture is constructed (read: seen by, understood by, given to "others") in different parts of the world. This semester, Japan and Japanese culture will be featured for comparisons. One basis of this strategy is to claim that you know one culture best by knowing others. Americans seem to know very little about relationships of worldwide economic super-powers -- specifically about Japan and/or about how U.S. culture is related to Japanese culture.

Second, we can study how American culture has been constructed in one model of popular representations -- a source of information that becomes part of common/shared knowledge. The primary vehicle of our exploration will be popular Hollywood-type films that feature aspects of American culture in Japan AND aspects of Japanese culture in America. How does knowledge of one highlight the other? How do Americans react to the presence of things “from the outside”, specifically Japanese? In some cases, we will explore the American presence in Japan (e.g. Mr. Baseball, Black Rain, Tokyo Pop), and, in others, American reactions to people and things Japanese in America (e.g. Rising Sun, Gung Ho, American Yakuza). These representations are not just applicable in the U.S. but, indeed, to images and concepts of what is American all over the world -- a phenomenon that is more and more common every day.

We must acknowledge from the outset that this is not a course about Hollywood films, neither in classical traditions nor in contemporary times, unlike a course that might be given in a cinema studies curriculum. This course is about the construction of identity and socio-cultural relationships of the United States and Japan. We will take a cultural and visual approach to feature films that contain visions and versions of American culture and Japanese culture that are available in the global market place, but especially to Americans. We will be asking: How is American culture visualized and made visible in these examples of mass media? How can we know ourselves better through this comparative perspective?


1996 American Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity by Lee Drummond Lanham, MD.: Littlefield Adams)

1998 Readings for Anthropology 164, Paley Reserve Desk


1996 What Makes Life Worth Living? by Gordon Mathews (Berkeley, CA.: Univ. of California Press)

1994 Bridging Japanese/North American Differences by William B. Gudykunst and Tsukasa Nishida (Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage)

PLEASE NOTE. This semester, I also want us to try an experiment. As most of you probably know, your instructors are being encouraged to initiate innovative teaching methods. Sometimes the primary concern is to help Temple students who are simultaneously working as much as half- and full-time. The objective is to make classes more "user-friendly" because students can take courses like this and attend their classes more on their own time schedule. With this in mind, half of the class time will be "live" and in-class; the other half devoted to "out-of-class" through e-mail student-instructor participation. Obviously all students must have an e-mail address and daily access to a computer. Assignments, lecture notes, viewing guides and quizzes will be given through e-mail. More details will be given during our first week of classes.