Catching up with Jessy Arends, CSOC alumnus

I asked Jessy Arends, CSOC class of ’10, to give us an update on graduate school in anthropology at Mississippi State University. Here’s the report:

Hi All!


Ethnographic fieldwork often carries the anthropologist to difficult and distant locations off the beaten path …

The Mississippi sun is spilling into my living room and the temperature is nearing 65 as I sit here writing this.  That being said, in the last two weeks we have received two weather advisory warnings; one for a two inch snowfall and the other for severe thunderstorms with possible tornados.

Could the most surprising thing I’ve experienced in the South be the weather?  Probably not.  However, the weather is definitely one of the myths of the South I’ve dispelled since being here.  Speaking of myths about the South, don’t listen to (all) of them.  Mississippi does not seem like a “third world country.” People wear shoes, and it isn’t full of backcountry hicks, although people do love guns here.  However, the most notable experience I’ve had as a graduate student in Anthropology at Mississippi State is that my work and studies take me from the cotton fields of Western Mississippi to the lush and varied landscapes of Costa Rica.

In December I traveled to Costa Rica as part of my ongoing participation on the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project investigating population growth on the edges of Protected Areas.  I accompanied the Principal Investigator Dr. David Hoffman and my fellow Research Assistant (RA), my graduate school colleague, and my friend Sallie Dehler.  The purpose of our trip was to test the field methods we will implement during our extensive fieldwork next summer, but Sallie and I needed to familiarize ourselves with the fieldsites where we’ll be working as well.  Departing from traditional participant observation and semi-structured interviews, our field methods draw heavily on cognitive anthropology, which seeks to measure patterns of cultural knowledge using aspects of the cognitive sciences.  One way of doing this is through “cultural consensus modeling,” which takes the aggregate responses from a group of individuals through free listing, and analytically forms groups of ideas.  This trip involved testing the next step of our process, which is taking these groups of ideas and asking subjects to “pile sort” them into piles of terms that they see as interrelated. We asked participants to sort almost eighty terms garnered from a previous free listing exercise into piles that summed up their reasons for migrating to the borders of parks and protected areas.  Examples of the ideas and concepts sorted in this process included the reasons for leaving (i.e. violence in high density areas, pollution, poor schools etc.), and potential “pull factors” (job opportunities, serene lifestyle, tourism etc.) that drew these individuals and families to the margins of the protected area. Pile sorts will be analyzed using computer software (AnthroPac). This will enable us to demonstrate how migrants understand related terms and develop a two dimensional image that shows how they group terms, which is known as a “cognitive map.”

Can Costa Rican cows be cognitively mapped?

Can Costa Rican cows be cognitively mapped?

While cognitive anthropology seems head-reeling, at its core it relies on anthropological and ethnographic fieldwork. We’re seeking to use quantitative methods to understand human processes based on information provided to us through people and their lived experience.  The relevance of this project to the international conservation community and Costa Rican migrants themselves lies in what anthropological methods offer.  The debate on reasons behind population growth around the borders of protected areas worldwide is confined to statistics and conversations about how this process increases the threat to biodiversity in the parks themselves. What is missing is the articulated motivations behind their decision to migrate and what the conservation movement, anthropologists, NGOs, and governments can gain from these insights.  In the ongoing debate about whether or not anthropology has a place within the realm of environmental protection and conservation efforts, the project emphatically answers *YES*!

I was recently speaking with Andrew Gardner about the frustrations and complexities of fieldwork.  To be honest, fieldwork isn’t the glory-filled or doom-ridden chaos that Indian Jones showed me on long car trips in my dad’s (VHS playing!) Suburban of my childhood.  Of course, most of us majoring in anthropology figured this out our freshman year. However, it wasn’t until this project commenced that I felt this idea tested in the field.  To be honest, with this fieldwork I felt almost like a traveling salesman, knocking on doors in the hopes of speaking with someone, except instead of being in rural Oklahoma I was in beautiful Costa Rica, fumbling over words and sweating like a pig.  But aspects of my fieldwork and ethnographic training at Puget Sound have stuck with me.  Firstly, instead of trying to sell something, I see anthropology as an avenue toward seeking answers, solving problems, and hopefully improving upon or adding to our understanding of global issues.  Secondly, not once in the field was a door slammed in my face.  Instead I was given an glass of water and enthusiastic participation in the pile sorting exercise.  My advice to aspiring anthropologist, for what it’s worth: knock on doors, relax, and grab a beer afterwards.  In the words of Dr. Hoffman, “fieldwork isn’t that bad.”  I would add that, although seemingly masochistic at times, it can be quite fun.


Thanks, Jessy! Have a great semester, and good luck with the fieldwork this summer. 


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