Faculty Spotlight: Daniel Birchok of UM-Flint Anthropology

Daniel Birchok, PhD, joined the UM-Flint College of Arts & Sciences in Fall 2016 as an assistant professor of anthropology.

Daniel Birchok, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology at UM-Flint

Daniel Birchok, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology at UM-Flint

Read below to learn more about him and the field of anthropology, or join him in one of his Winter 2017 classes:

  • ANT 100 – Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
    (held TR, 9:30am-10:45am)
  • ANT 295 – Cultures of South Asia (held TR, 12:30pm-1:45pm)
  • ANT/SOC 301 – Social Theory (held TR, 2:30pm-3:45pm)

Students can register now at sis.umflint.edu or find more information at umflint.edu/register.

Why are you passionate about your field?
I want to answer this question by noting that I, like many of my colleagues, participate in many fields. My training is in both anthropology and history, and I also work in religious and Islamic studies. That said, the questions that most interest me are anthropological questions. What I find so exciting about anthropology is its ambition as a field. We anthropologists often cannot agree on what, precisely, we study, but that is because at its root anthropology is the study of the human, and we embrace a holistic and opportunistic approach to this project. The sheer ambition of it all has always impressed and excited me.

What are your favorite courses/subjects to teach?
Honestly, I just love to teach. Right now I am really enjoying teaching Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. The course revolves around fundamental concepts in the field, and ones that have the potential to change the ways in which students engage and interpret their social worlds. We discuss the merits and shortcomings of the concept of culture, and are about to turn to the anthropological critique of race, that is, how race can be such a powerful social reality even though it has no genetic basis. I try to structure all of my courses around such questions and concepts, but there is just something about the Intro course that gets at the fundamental potentials of the discipline for making sense of the world in transformative ways. I find helping students figure out how to take up these conceptual tools extremely exciting!

What is your latest or favorite research project?
I have an article that is forthcoming in Asian Studies Review that discusses two female Islamic “saints” in the rural area of Indonesia where I carry out field research. Southeast Asia is well-known for societies in which women are relatively powerful, but scholars have tended to understand this to be the result of local and indigenous cultural patterns, not Islam. I argue, in contrast, that the authority of these female saints, which is today claimed by some of their male descendants, is expressed in distinctly Islamic terms. This is, therefore, an instance of Muslims taking up the Islamic tradition in ways that challenge patrilineal and patriarchal social forms, forms that are also a part of the tradition, at least historically. This kind of internal complexity is quite common among Muslims and in Islamic societies, but it too often gets overlooked in public debate in the United States, where oversimplifications and stereotypes of Islam are the norm.

How did you fall in love with your discipline?
First and foremost, I fell in love with ethnographic methods, mainly as a result of a year I spent as an undergraduate student living in the Federated States of Micronesia. While there, I began experimenting with ethnography. There was something that I found intuitively compelling about the tensions that are central to ethnographic insight, for example, the critical perspective that comes from simultaneously being epistemologically close to yet distant from the object of one’s study. I carried out research about a kava ritual, but more than anything I fell in love with the challenges and rewards of ethnographic encounters and exchanges. (Note: Kava is a mild sedative, processed from the root of a pepper plant. It is socially and ritually consumed in several Pacific societies.)

What do you hope for your time at UM-Flint?
I am looking forward to growing as a scholar and a teacher. My family and I have lived in Southeast Michigan for fourteen years, so it is deeply satisfying to have landed a job in the region that has become our home. I am currently revising a book manuscript, about the family of saints that I discuss above, and every day I feel myself growing through that project. My experiences in the classroom have driven home that students here are very interested in the ways anthropology helps us to understand topics such as race, religion, concepts of person, etc. I am also hoping to develop an opportunity, through a program that I have helped to lead in the past, for University of Michigan-Flint students to travel to Indonesia. If all of this continues or comes to fruition, and I have no reason to believe that it will not, I will be a happy camper.

What do you hope for students in your field?
Whether anthropology majors or not, I hope that all of my students leave my classes with anthropological habits of mind that enrich their lives and help them to be more thoughtful citizens. There are many such habits that I try to instill, but I think the primary one is a capacity to suppress knee-jerk judgments about other people and ways of life in order to try to understand these people and ways of life in their own contexts. Anthropology is often thought of as being infused with an ethic of relativism, and this is not incorrect; but I want my students to recognize that this is a critical and strategic relativism, one that does not refuse the taking of political and moral stances, but that equips us to engage politics and morality in ways that are more careful and sophisticated than they otherwise might be.

What are three things you think people should know about you?
I am a native Pittsburgher and I am very hometown proud.

I love to play basketball, and try to do so multiple times a week.

I did not go to the Federated States of Micronesia to discover anthropology, actually. I was young, and in love, and chasing a significant other. We now have two kids and have been together for quite some time, so I guess it worked out in the end!

To learn more about anthropology at UM-Flint, visit umflint.edu/sac. To register for winter courses, visit sis.umflint.edu or umflint.edu/register.