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Baobabs and Briars: Plucking Anthropological Essentials From ‘The Little Prince’

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.

Little PrinceThe 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. Continue reading

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