The Disorienting Dilemma in Teaching Introductory Anthropology

  • Thomas McIlwraith University of Guelph
Keywords: teaching, anthropology, disorienting dilemmas, cultural relativity


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.

Author Biography

Thomas McIlwraith, University of Guelph
Thomas McIlwraith is an assistant professor at the University of Guelph. His interests include ethnography and Indigenous land use policy in British Columbia, Canada. He has held post-secondary teaching and researching positions since 2003.
Developing Teaching: Reports and Reflections