University of Notre Dame

Exploring Anthropology: World-making in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature

Course Number: ANTH 13181-3
Instructor: Meredith Chesson

Anthropology is the holistic study of what it means to be human and a member of any society in the past or present. Anthropologists are interested in all aspects of humanness. Unlike some social sciences, which try to study the “normal” or “average,” we are keenly interested in human variety and the seemingly infinite ways to be human in a material body. We believe that we can learn much from exploring the myriad ways that humans live, through time and space, and gain insight by comparing what we learn about different societies to how we ourselves live. Once we have come to understand how others live, our own ways of life often appear less natural and necessary. Sometimes even what seem like the strangest customs and behaviors, carefully studied, can be understood and used to shed some light on our own lifeways.

Through discussions of a variety of Science Fiction/Fantasy novels and supporting articles and films, this seminar aims to develop writing skills while exposing first-year students to several key anthropological questions, including the ways in which humans construct difference in terms of gender, sexuality, race, nationality, and personal histories, and how our identities are often tied to symbols of and our own ideas about shared and unique pasts, presents, and futures. Anthropologists possess a toolkit that helps us to explore these complex and fluid issues. As a fun way to learn about how anthropologists study human behaviors and cultures, I have designed this course around science fiction and fantasy novels. In creating new worlds and societies, science fiction and fantasy authors act as anthropologists. Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature offers an ideal venue to consider what it means to be human in our own world by exploring other cultures in other worlds, places, and times.

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