It is a classic observation of anthropologists that we seek to document the everyday activities of people within various cultural contexts in order to provide evidence for making meaning and sensible observations about cultural life. We especially look to the routine activities, that taken for granted ordinariness of life that to those involved seems particularly unremarkable. This gives anthropologists our greatest jollies. And you may well ask, “why?”
Many of the activities that are documented, the structures that are associated with supporting them point to well, nothing particularly groundbreaking at all. In reality, much of what we examine often elicits the response, “well, so what?”
But what people fail to account for in critiquing anthropology, is that it is one of the only disciplines that pays attention to ordinary life in this way, taking routines, taken for granted responses and behaviours and attitudes as the stuff of analysis and critical investigation and reflection. And most of what is examined are the routines that comprise people’s daily lives, the kinds of routines that would not ordinarily create a meme, hold social media attention or be unusual in any way other than for expressing difference within ordinariness among diverse human populations.
Humans love to create structure and order the world in particular ways. We create rules, norms and mores around everything that we do, sometimes calling this culture, tradition or just the way we do things around here. In doing so, we routinise our responses to the challenges that face us in our everyday lives, constantly remaking routines and traditions as the need arises.
We love to master a task, show that we can do it or even submit ourselves for examination to prove that we have a level of mastery. In doing so we routinise and create normative knowledge sets and behaviours as well as the forms that indicate competency.
Routines provide stability, predictability and a level of comfort and certainty in our daily lives. We are reassured of ourselves and our roles through our actions and activities and routines provide the behavioural response, the body memory, the actions that partner with the thoughts and anticipation of a thing.
We often attach a feeling of accomplishment to the satisfactory completion of routine tasks and this relationship to routine tasks forms the basis of our behaviour within rituals as well. This is a blog and not an academic piece so I will not reference the extensive and enjoyable literature on rituals, but suffice to say that rituals are a form of participatory action that provide meaning in our lives at a symbolic level as we make sense of aspects of life that are unknowable or uncontrollable.
And aside from the extraordinary nature of ritual behaviour, it is the ordinariness of everyday life that is of greatest interest because this forms the basis of cultural comparison within diverse cultural contexts. This appreciation of the ordinariness of routinised and familiar behaviours makes them more like us and is the way of bridging the gap of cultural difference. Is it so surprising that the way we often meet a new culture is through food? We eat our way in through familiar rituals and routines associated with the production of nutrients for consumption through more or less familiar social avenues. Ottolenghi, Stein and a host of others are the latest media chefs doing the cultural work of making the strange familiar through their presentations of the cultural and ethnic diversity of the world of food preparation, sale and consumption on the world stage. Not that I’m suggesting that they are anthropologists, but the point about presenting routines cross culturally in popular culture has to be made.
Routines are often the most unremarkable aspect of our daily lives that could be imagined. They may be private and personal and attached to the body and bodily maintenance. Routines provide the cycles of everyday life and a level of certainty and predictability around our movements and actions within a day, a week, a month or a year. In the face of uncertainly, we stamp our movements and reign in the unpredictability through normalising expectations and responses. Routines point to the ultimate cyclicality of the body, of nature and potentially of the universe itself.
So next time you catch yourself hating the thought of an approaching task, chore or routine challenge just remember that your actions are part of a greater whole in which you are exemplifying, embodying, enacting and creating your version of that particular task within all of the possible expressions of that task within humanity. And an anthropologist is interested in that.