On the Pedagogical Strengths of Teaching Controversy


  • Gavin Weston Durham University




Teaching, Controversy, Castaneda, Pedagogy


Gluckman observed “I believe I am not alone among senior anthropologists in finding it more interesting to teach students about anthropologists than about anthropology” (Gluckman 1963: 312). Those who have taught students regarding some of anthropology’s juicier controversies will recognise that the feeling is mutual. This paper argues that we should embrace this potential to engage by intentionally exploring our discipline’s dirty laundry as controversies bring anthropology to life in a way which humanises those anthropologists we study. If we simply provide students with the stark ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments in controversies such as Napoleon Chagnon (Borofsky 2005), Malinowski’s diaries (Malinowski 1967), and Carlos Castaneda (De Mille 2000[1976], 2001[1980]; Fikes 1993) we allow our students to engage with these issues critically, exploring the moral complexities themselves in essays, seminars and other forms. As such it offers the perfect opportunity to facilitate student ‘unlearning’, taking them away from expectations of being spoon-fed the knowledge they need to pass exams and instead providing the tools they need to take their own stance regarding literature and ideas on their own. Given the raw ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments regarding a controversy forces them to critically engage with moral and practical complexities that fieldwork and writing pose for ethnographers.

While doing this, controversies also allow us to use surrounding debates as platforms from which we can discuss the bigger ideas entwined in the specificities involved in controversies. Once students are engaged, we can then deal with the full complexity of events without trivialising them. As such, controversies open doors to wider subject areas: to theories, to the history of our discipline, and the role of institutions such as the AAA and ASA.  In an era when anthropologists routinely avoid polemic (Reyna 2001), this paper argues we ought unlearn this behaviour in the class-room and lecture theatre and embrace the ability to play devil’s advocate in order to force our students to think for themselves. 

Author Biography

Gavin Weston, Durham University

Durham University - Teaching Fellow