Today we feature a guest blog post from AAA Member Emma Louise Backe. Emma is the Head Consultant of the Writing Center at Vassar College.
Baobabs and Briars: Plucking Anthropological Essentials from The Little Prince
I was raised on the story of a young boy that took advantage of a flock of birds for his prodigal departure from Asteroid B-612, a fairy tale penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Throughout my childhood and young adult years, each time I reread The Little Prince, I felt I had peeled back another layer from the deceptively acetic story. Throughout college, the flaxen-haired youth followed me. As I delved deeper and deeper into my chosen major of Anthropology, I mulled over how much the book is related to the anthropological field and taught me some of the most essential lessons about the discipline. I’ve come to realize how much the Little Prince prepared me for a profession in anthropology.
The book begins with a pilot confronting a young boy from a different world (and thusly a different culture) in a desert. The pilot is frazzled by his unexpected crash and desires only to fix his plane, but the boy inquires for a drawing of a sheep. The pilot acquiesces in the hope that the boy will be satisfied with a simple sketch. The first three drawings are deemed too sickly, too old or too farcical. The pilot reconnoiters himself and eliminates the horns, expecting the child to be content with the changes. But the boy is distraught, mentioning a precious flower that could be gobbled up if the sheep were left to wander. He provides the pilot with the environmental context of his home, as well as the cultural or social valuation placed on certain forms of vegetation, establishing a hierarchy of value that does not necessarily equate to typical market standards or Western concepts of worth. So the pilot again begins to sketch, suggesting he give the sheep a muzzle, explaining that it will prevent the sheep from eating the precious flower. The boy, however, is not pleased, noting that the issue is far more complex than can simply be muzzled. So the pilot draws a box with three holes in it, to represent a space for the sheep where it is protected from the outside world and the flower. The sheep, in this illustration, remains hidden, though it is implied by the pilot that the sheep rests inside, a truth that the Little Prince accepts and celebrates. This interpretation of the sheep is exactly what the Prince had hoped for—not so much an actual creature, but an epistemological symbol. It was only through an engaged conversation that the pilot was able to glean the meanings and social contexts that Prince yearned to express. Throughout the exchange, Clifford Geertz’s metaphor of a web of signification ran strong and invisible, imprinting itself upon the conversation.
As the Little Prince travels from world to world, he attempts to understand the cultural reality and relativity that orients the people he encounters. He increasingly remarks how strange the adults are that he meets, yet is never disrespectful—he merely asks questions and inquires after how they perceive the universe. He is baffled by several of the men’s fascination with numbers and figures, an arithmetic dimension they say they need to understand the world. The pilot articulates this need with a sense of irony: “Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father make?’ Only then do they think they know him”, but he remarks that children must be understanding of grown-ups and their absurd preference for numbers. The pilot quite simply explains the necessity of understanding the habits, likes and dislikes, and idiosyncrasies, all expressed in detailed, precise and sometimes poetic description. This textured narrative—which provides a deeper, more penetrating and discerning observation of a people and culture, and thusly a better knowledge of who they are—is what anthropologists know as thick description.
Arriving on Earth, the Prince meets a fox, who asks him to be tamed, or “to create ties”. The fox establishes the dynamics of the relationship and controls their interpersonal development. Each day, they slowly move close together, until gradually, building up their mutual trust and respect, they sit side by side. This relationship requires patience from the Little Prince and illuminates how much anthropological inquiry is dependent on the openness of informants. We may covet their secrets, but the natives are the ones that determine who divulges them. Establishing rapport is not always easy and there may be days when you move backward, research stymied by an accidental transgression in social decorum. Even when the fox and the Little Prince are facing each other, the fox speaks metaphorically, so that it’s still up to the naïve boy to translate what is meant by, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is a riddle that could be unpacked and rearranged a hundred different ways, just as cultures have no single, coherent narrative or interpretation, no expert or unitary explanation that draws a society into a discrete, categorical bundle. We must fumble with our eyes closed in the search of the proper questions, and sometimes our quest can only begin in the darkness.
Before the Prince departs at the conclusion of their taming, the fox imparts one last epithet: “’The only things you learn are the things you tame […] You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.’” With a history of armchair anthropology, the central premises of the discipline have become fieldwork and ethnography, practices that set anthropology apart from the other social sciences and establish the validity of our claims. We can only learn about a culture from the people that inhabit it. But in forging these relationships, anthropologists must respect the boundaries and privacy of our informants, adhering to certain ethical principles that ensure their security and cultural safety. We may continue to travel the galaxy, untangling kinship schema or sacred rituals, but we remain responsible to those we’ve worked with and gained the trust of. There is the duty of telling the story right and making sure that the native’s perspective is appropriately represented, which may require a certain child-like wonder and willingness to explore the unknown, learning their world while we unlearn ourselves.