TEDx Profiles: The anthropologist

More than mud huts and grass skirts

GW Musket | Maggie May | April 22, 2016

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“How do cultures of science initiate and shape participants? How can we critically assess universalist claims about scientific and military ‘truths’? How do scientists justify their complicity with the projects of nation-states?” — from the TEDx Speaker Bios

“The science of war, the military, and nuclear weapons” have always fascinated Professor Hugh Gusterson. Whether he’s studying marriage rites in India or health clinics in Haiti, jetting off across the country or reading in his office, Professor Gusterson makes time for his students. On the surface, the TEDx first-timer is your typical GW professor, whip-smart and unable to tell his favorite joke in polite company. He is also a doting father and an avid fan of art movies, Latin and African music, and the Chelsea soccer team. However, “This season Chelsea has been painful to watch,” Gusterson admits.

Gusterson is not just a professor. His TED Talk will be about the nuclear weapons designers he lived with for two years. Gusterson says he was “trying to understand their world view.” Gusterson has been fascinated with anthropology and understanding the world since he took a year off of school at age 18. “I…ended up working with kids with polio in Africa,” he says.

This introduction to studying the world led to fascinating projects across his academic career.

“One week I might be reading about women in India who have more than one husband at a time and the next about health clinics in Haiti,” says Gusterson.

“But my own research has largely been about war. I’ve been interested in the cultural world of Americans who design weapons and plan wars.” More specifically, “Why U.S. counterinsurgency in the Middle East — made to seem so rational by all those Powerpoint slides generals use — has gone so badly wrong.”

The talk promises to be fascinating and thought provoking.

Gusterson hopes that his audience will take away more than just an interesting experience. He wants people to realize “that anthropology is not just about studying people in mud huts and grass skirts.”

The TEDx Foggy Bottom event on Saturday is sure to be an adventure in intellectual stimulation, entertainment, and all around geeking out. As Gusterson told me, “It’s in the nature of anthropology — the study of all human behavior — that we are interested in lots of disparate things.”

Special thanks to Professor Hugh Gusterson and the TEDx team for their contributions to this article.