Spotlight: Anthropology in Iceland

Students pose in front of small aricraft
students in sweaters surrounded by snow
students eating in Icelandic restaurant
student huddle around a table with a view of a lake and mountian in the background.
sunset over Iceland

A unique opportunity to study cultural anthropology in a land of hot springs, geysers, and volcanoes; centuries-old democracy, poetic sagas, and modern technology.

ANTH 299 Home and Away

Each year after the spring semester finishes in May and Wellesley students disperse into the world, a group of students travel with Visiting Lecturer in the Writing Program Justin Armstrong to the land of the midnight sun to immerse themselves in a two-week intensive course, studying cultural anthropology.

The course takes a unique perspective in examining the field of cultural geography through the lens of anthropology. Together, students look at how the environment shapes culture and culture shapes environment. Armstrong says, "Iceland is the perfect location for this course because the setting is so striking and the connections between people and the landscape are so immediately apparent. It also serves as an introduction to ethnographic fieldwork, a practice that finds application in a number of social science disciplines."

So what's a typical day like in ANTH 299 Home and Away? According to Armstrong, the learning begins around 9 a.m., when students gather for a breakfast meeting to debrief, hear a lecture, and discuss the subject of the day. In the afternoon, students embark on individual projects that may involve interviewing local citizens, taking photographs, making maps, shooting video, researching, or participating in a relevant cultural activity. In the evening, the whole group goes hiking or embarks on another adventure.

"For me, cultural anthropology is equal parts theory and practice, and that practice comes from direct engagement with the people, places, and things that we study," says Armstrong. "For that reason I feel that it is key to a student's understanding of the discipline to have the opportunity to experience hands-on fieldwork in a new environment. Working in Iceland gives the students a chance to put the concepts they've learned in the classroom to work. In this way, I often think of our trip to Iceland as a kind of ethnographic laboratory where students can put their ideas to the test. And where else can you have a lecture in a cafe, swim in a geothermic pool, see reindeer, and explore a remote fishing village under the midnight sun all in the same day?"

Katie Donlan headshot“I was contemplating becoming an anthropology major before I took the course, and afterwards I was completely convinced! The Iceland course enabled me to actively take part in my own fieldwork and to learn the very skills that make ethnographies come to life. ”      

                                                                                                                          —Katie Donlan ’16