How to Teach Missions Anthropology?


A few weeks ago a friend of mine who teaches at a small missions school asked me what is the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology. I suppose the most valuable way to teach missions anthropology is to do missions anthropology. However, the question was given in the context of a course taught in a predominantly classroom environment.

I think I said at the time that I think the most important or valuable is to do ethnographic research. I still think that is probably the most important… but perhaps I would say things a little different now that I have thought about it more.

The most important or valuable way would involve three things that all, potentially, tie together.

  1. Do a simple ethnographic study of a sub-culture or micro-culture. Ideally it is on a group that one is actually interested in, or one that one plans to minister to. Choose a topic of interest as the focus of curiosity. Determine the right method of research. Carry out the research. Analyze the findings. Reflect on the findings in terms of ministry and culture.
  2. Hold dialogues with people of other cultures. These can be semi-structured or unstructured. Write down the conversation. Reflect on the conversation.
  3. For both items 1 and 2, present to a small group in a clinical case format. That is, one presents the work as a case to a small group. One then interprets the case, and reflects on it theologically, ministerially, and culturally. One then opens oneself up to questions, clarifications, comments and insights, from the rest of the group. Then one reflects on the experience of the small group. (And being part of the small group, one also is on the other side, listening and responding to the ethnographic studies and dialogues of others in the group.)

This I find the most effective for a few reasons. First, it is embedded in the real and relevant. That makes it more practical, and usually more interesting. Second, it helps to learn through the experiences, words, and actions of others. Third, it pushes one towards change of values and perspective. It helps one to see the world from others’ perspectives (both those being studied, and those in one’s group.) Fourth, the actual behaviors can be easily tied to the more academic topics such as taxonomies of groups, and special terminologies.

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