The Disorienting Dilemma in Teaching Introductory Anthropology

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Thomas McIlwraith


This paper uses Jack Mezirow’s concept of the disorienting dilemma to discuss opportunities in anthropological teaching to transform student beliefs. It compares the connections between classroom instruction in cultural relativity, a core concept in cultural anthropology, and field-based anthropology experiences related to the same concept.  Drawing on examples from my classroom and from a research-oriented field school, my observations suggest that while students are good at understanding cultural relativity intellectually, and identify or define the concept easily on tests, they are not as capable at applying the concept to observations made of films or in field settings, situations which are disorienting for students despite the fact they have the conceptual tools to work through them. Further, the paper asks if trigger warnings and disorienting dilemmas are actually the same thing, wondering too if trigger warnings are consistent with the transformative potential of higher education promoted by Mezirow.

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How to Cite
MCILWRAITH, Thomas. The Disorienting Dilemma in Teaching Introductory Anthropology. Teaching Anthropology, [S.l.], v. 6, nov. 2016. ISSN 2053-9843. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 23 jan. 2020. doi:
teaching; anthropology; disorienting dilemmas; cultural relativity
Developing Teaching: Reports and Reflections