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Professor’s podcast brings anthropology into the mainstream

Carie Little Hersh first heard about the field of anthropology in college, when she signed up for a class called “Language and Culture” in the anthropology department at the University of Virginia. Now, as assistant teaching professor in sociology and anthropology at Northeastern, she produces a podcast called “Anthropologist on the Street” so that others can discover how the discipline touches on so many parts of life.

Three months into the series, “Anthropologist on the Street” has tackled issues as diverse as  using prisoners to fight wildfires, the physical and emotional effects of racism, the politics of transgender health, what the remains of ancient civilizations say about its culture, and more. Hersh also runs a complementary blog, “relevANTH,” that she updates with nuggets from each show.

Prior to starting the project, Hersh put herself through “Podcast U,” as she put it, learning about sound mixing and episode structure. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Hersh records the show at home with nothing more than a microphone and her computer. Prior to starting the project, she put herself through “Podcast U,” as she put it, learning about sound mixing and episode structure.

In each episode, Hersh interviews an anthropologist with a different specialty. As indicated by the range of topics covered in the podcast, there are almost as many anthropologic specialties as there are people who study anthropology.

“The short version is that anthropology is the study of human diversity,” Hersh said. “You can study human diversity in terms of language, culture, morphology, biology, archaeological record, politics. That’s what’s brilliant about the field—you can take that curiosity about humans in any direction.”

Hersh’s own background reflects an interest in that human diversity—she’s studied law, science, religious groups, military rituals, and gender, but never lost sight of anthropology. “I have a varied background in terms of specialization, so I try to get the entire breadth of the field represented on the podcast,” she said, noting that experts ranging from medical anthropologists to bioarcheologists have appeared on the show.

On that list of anthropologists, in fact, are Northeastern doctoral student Brett Nava-Coulter and alumna Sailaja Joshi, DMSB’06. Nava-Coulter’s work focuses on sociology, and researching LGBTQ community centers and hospitals that reach out to transgender youth and adults. Joshi is the CEO and founder of Bharat Babies, a startup publishing company that grew out of Northeastern’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“The short version is that anthropology is the study of human diversity. That’s what’s brilliant about the field—you can take that curiosity about humans in any direction.”

Carie Little Hersh Assistant teaching professor in sociology and anthropology

The paradox, for Hersh, is that despite the myriad applications of anthropology, it’s largely absent from the public’s collective conscious. “We don’t have anyone in the 21st century weighing in on topical issues the way we had Margaret Mead in the 20th,” Hersh said of the American cultural anthropologist who was frequently in the media in the 1960s and ’70s.

In today’s highly-polarized climate, having a sense of the historical context and bridge-building inherent in anthropology might not be such a bad thing, Hersh said.

It’s an idea that others seem to share. The podcast has nearly 3,000 downloads since launching in June, Hersh said. She also just received support from the American Anthropological Association, which will soon collaborate with her to produce special episodes for the series.