Attend either a religious gathering or an arts presentation or performance. As with most of our field work assignments, this is pretty open-ended. A religious gathering could range from a worship service to a theologically-focused lecture. An arts presentation might be a museum exhibit or a gallery show, or even a display of art in a public park or building. An arts performance could range from attending the symphony or ballet, to listening to jazz in a coffeehouse to participating in a community folk dance.
Since our purpose in this exercise is to think, observe and analyze religion or the arts in a cultural context, rather than to simply enjoy or be inspired by them, I suggest you may want to try an experience outside your normal, everyday realm. As we’ve seen in past exercises, sometimes if one is too close to the subject, it’s harder to observe and analyze objectively. We all bring our own cultural baggage and that can cloud what we see, hear and understand. It’s also just a good chance to expand your horizons and try something new and different!
For instance, if you’re an Evangelical Christian, why not try doing this assignment by attending a Roman Catholic Mass or a Jewish synagogue worship service? If you regularly go to the Portland Art Museum, why not check out some art in a smaller, more fringe gallery, perhaps on SE Hawthorne or North Mississippi Avenue? If you usually listen to live jazz, why not do some folk dancing, hear some cutting edge rock, or enjoy some country & western music? This is not a requirement, just a good opportunity for you!
Now, once you’ve settled on the activity you’ll observe and analyze, you need to play the ethnographer role once again. Take some notes. Ideally, talk to some folks at the event. Try and figure out where this activity is situated in our diverse American culture. Here are a few kinds of questions to explore. You’ll likely come up with many others to fit your particular interests and circumstances.
What segment of the population is involved? Ethnicity? Gender? Age? Occupation? Social class? What is the purpose of the activity? Is it religious worship? Market economics? Aesthetics? Are there elements of “in-group” solidarity and identity? Are there “rites of passage” involved? Are there cultural institutions, organizations or hierarchies present? Is the activity situated in the public sector or the private sector? What difference does this make? How important does this activity seem to the people involved in it? To the society as a whole? Right now, in these hard economic times of “The Great Recession,” does this activity appear to be struggling, thriving or just holding its own? How can you tell?
As you can see, you can pretty much turn to any chapter in our textbook and ask questions about that topic in relation to either the religious or arts activity being observed. All aspects of culture intertwine with and influence one another. That’s what we, as anthropologists, are seeking to describe and explain!