An Interview with Debbi Long

Debbi Long is a Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at RMIT University and an Honorary Research Fellow at Monash University.

No-one meets Debbi Long and walks away untouched. She is an anthropologist with a reputation. Student anthropologists know her for her sharp insight, bare feet and tendency to swear to add necessary emphasis to issues of social justice. Working anthropologists know her for her fierce intellect. The rest of the world know her and love her for her unconditional goodwill and love-in-action approach.

Interviewed by Aqua Hastings.


Q: How do you do anthropology in everyday life?

A: For me, anthropology is as much about Being as Doing. I didn’t start my undergraduate degree until I was in my late 20s, when I was living in The Netherlands. I’d originally enrolled in a Women’s Studies (as it was then) major, with an anthropology minor. Even though it was in Dutch and my understanding was still wobbly at that stage, my first anthro lecture had me changing my enrolment to a double major. It was both like pulling on an old, warm, comfy coat and like coming home.

Anthropology gave me a language for expressing my way of looking at the world. The thing that resonated right down to my bones was the language around cultural relativism. Here was a group of people who didn’t look at difference and put on a cat’s-bum-shaped-mouth and judge. Here was a sandpit to play in where everyone looked at difference and went “how interesting”. Like many anthropologists, my predominant driving motivation for nearly everything I do is curiosity. It doesn’t make for a whole lot of financial security, but it makes for a whole lot of life.

For me, I can’t imagine not “doing” anthropology in everyday life, because anthropology is so deeply embedded in who I experience myself to be. I think anthropology manifests itself in the everyday when we look at something that is non-conventional and go “interesting”, rather than “ooh yuk”, and help other people see that “different” doesn’t have to be “bad”. Another aspect of anthropology that gets drawn into the everyday is seeing a situation from multiple perspectives – I think anthropologists are very good at helping others take a step back and look at multiple perspectives, rather than just getting caught up in one perspective. We don’t get hung up on contradiction: ethnography teaches us that people are inherently contradictory (what people do and what they say they do are not necessarily the same thing), and that rather than rejecting contradictions they provide us with deep and interesting places to explore.

Another way I think anthropology manifests in the everyday is in parenting. Anthropologists often parent a little differently to the other people around them, and I think there’s some things we do really well. I rarely see anthros offer at-the-time running commentaries and interferences on their kids’ behaviours. We are more likely to sit back and observe our kids, and give them space without inserting a constant stream of parental voice in their ears. Most anthro parents I know really KNOW their kids, because we give them a chance to be themselves without interfering in the superficial stuff (and we are always observing them – we do treat our kids as “data”!). We then “offer” deep existential conversations (which they may or may not appreciate), but we tend not to sweat the small stuff. These are pretty broad generalisations, but I’d love to see a study of anthro parents and kids. I think there’s stuff to be learned from anthro parenting.

Q: What do you love most about being an anthropologist?

A: With research, I love the incredible privilege of sharing people’s lives. Being there when shit goes down is awesome, and having a window into other people’s worlds is such an incredible privilege.  I got hooked working in health. Prior to becoming a health/medical anthropologist, I loved what I did, but it also felt a little self-indulgent. It’s not always that anthropologists can feel like we are being relevant. Once I started working in hospitals, and clinicians – doctors, nurses and allied health professionals – saw my work as useful to how they could improve quality of patient care, I felt the joy of being relevant.

The power that ethnography has to translate people’s experiences into data that can be used to inform policy is really important. I was at a panel recently where a government policy maker was talking about programs aimed at disadvantaged and vulnerable people. He said, very sympathetically, “I can’t use conversations, I need metrics to be able to allocate funding”. A good health anthropologist can turn conversations into usable metrics. We can and do make a difference to people who are not always empowered with having a voice in these discussions.

With teaching, it’s seeing students’ eyes go wide as you open up their worlds. It’s not there with all of them, but with so many students, experiencing an anthro perspective on the world shifts their understandings of themselves and everything around them. Being able to facilitate that – as my first year lecturers did for me – is a massive privilege.

Q: What do you most want the world to learn from anthropologists?

A: To not be dicks.
To understand that science is a cultural construct.
To understand that money is a cultural construct, and that economics being valorised in the way it currently is in global markets is destructive. The idea that profits are prioritised over people and communities is a form of violence that is not well articulated.
To understand the enormous variation of what it is to be human.
Also, to understand what being human is and is not. There are remarkably few human universals (eg: all societies have kinship systems, all societies have gender-based categories etc). There’s lots of things that many people think are normal” or “human” that are culturally based.

If more academics in other fields understood that (I’m looking at you, sociology and psychology) we would have much more rigorous data coming out of western academia, and much less epistemological violence towards non-western, non-mainstream and/or marginalised communities. I have great fondness towards sociologists and psychologists who have good cross-cultural understandings, and would love it if they become more mainstream in their disciplines.

At the moment, one of the most important things we can help to communicate is that people are inextricably intertwined with their environments, and to not prioritise environmental risks is suicidal.

Q: What’s your favourite anthropological encounter?

A: Can I choose two?

In Turkey, just before Ramazan (Ramadan), and being taken round to all the compounds in my host village to inspect and photograph the rams who were to be slaughtered the next day for the celebration (this is not a story for vegans). The grandmother in my best friend’s house dragged me to their ram, and made me cradle his testicles in my hand. “Cok büyük, cok büyük” (very big, very big). They were indeed, enormous. She posed proudly with her beautifully lined face next to the ram’s impressively crinkled scrotum. When the photo came back (this was pre-digital days) it was the first thing she showed to everyone who visited.

Fieldwork on labour ward. I got to observe (and sometimes support) around 30 deliveries. Being there when a new life comes into the world is one of the most awesome experiences on the planet, and I am forever grateful to have been able to experience that.

A: For me, anthropology is as much about Being as Doing. I didn’t start my undergraduate degree until I was in my late 20s, when I was living in The Netherlands. I’d originally enrolled in a Women’s Studies (as it was then) major, with an anthropology minor. Even though it was in Dutch and my understanding was still wobbly at that stage, my first anthro lecture had me changing my enrolment to a double major. It was both like pulling on an old, warm, comfy coat and like coming home.

Anthropology gave me a language for expressing my way of looking at the world. The thing that resonated right down to my bones was the language around cultural relativism. Here was a group of people who didn’t look at difference and put on a cat’s-bum-shaped-mouth and judge. Here was a sandpit to play in where everyone looked at difference and went “how interesting”. Like many anthropologists, my predominant driving motivation for nearly everything I do is curiosity. It doesn’t make for a whole lot of financial security, but it makes for a whole lot of life.

For me, I can’t imagine not “doing” anthropology in everyday life, because anthropology is so deeply embedded in who I experience myself to be. I think anthropology manifests itself in the everyday when we look at something that is non-conventional and go “interesting”, rather than “ooh yuk”, and help other people see that “different” doesn’t have to be “bad”. Another aspect of anthropology that gets drawn into the everyday is seeing a situation from multiple perspectives – I think anthropologists are very good at helping others take a step back and look at multiple perspectives, rather than just getting caught up in one perspective. We don’t get hung up on contradiction: ethnography teaches us that people are inherently contradictory (what people do and what they say they do are not necessarily the same thing), and that rather than rejecting contradictions they provide us with deep and interesting places to explore.

Another way I think anthropology manifests in the everyday is in parenting. Anthropologists often parent a little differently to the other people around them, and I think there’s some things we do really well. I rarely see anthros offer at-the-time running commentaries and interferences on their kids’ behaviours. We are more likely to sit back and observe our kids, and give them space without inserting a constant stream of parental voice in their ears. Most anthro parents I know really KNOW their kids, because we give them a chance to be themselves without interfering in the superficial stuff (and we are always observing them – we do treat our kids as “data”!). We then “offer” deep existential conversations (which they may or may not appreciate), but we tend not to sweat the small stuff. These are pretty broad generalisations, but I’d love to see a study of anthro parents and kids. I think there’s stuff to be learned from anthro parenting.

Q: What do you love most about being an anthropologist?

A: With research, I love the incredible privilege of sharing people’s lives. Being there when shit goes down is awesome, and having a window into other people’s worlds is such an incredible privilege.  I got hooked working in health. Prior to becoming a health/medical anthropologist, I loved what I did, but it also felt a little self-indulgent. It’s not always that anthropologists can feel like we are being relevant. Once I started working in hospitals, and clinicians – doctors, nurses and allied health professionals – saw my work as useful to how they could improve quality of patient care, I felt the joy of being relevant.

The power that ethnography has to translate people’s experiences into data that can be used to inform policy is really important. I was at a panel recently where a government policy maker was talking about programs aimed at disadvantaged and vulnerable people. He said, very sympathetically, “I can’t use conversations, I need metrics to be able to allocate funding”. A good health anthropologist can turn conversations into usable metrics. We can and do make a difference to people who are not always empowered with having a voice in these discussions.

With teaching, it’s seeing students’ eyes go wide as you open up their worlds. It’s not there with all of them, but with so many students, experiencing an anthro perspective on the world shifts their understandings of themselves and everything around them. Being able to facilitate that – as my first year lecturers did for me – is a massive privilege.

Q: What do you most want the world to learn from anthropologists?

A: To not be dicks.
To understand that science is a cultural construct.
To understand that money is a cultural construct, and that economics being valorised in the way it currently is in global markets is destructive. The idea that profits are prioritised over people and communities is a form of violence that is not well articulated.
To understand the enormous variation of what it is to be human.
Also, to understand what being human is and is not. There are remarkably few human universals (eg: all societies have kinship systems, all societies have gender-based categories etc). There’s lots of things that many people think are normal” or “human” that are culturally based.

If more academics in other fields understood that (I’m looking at you, sociology and psychology) we would have much more rigorous data coming out of western academia, and much less epistemological violence towards non-western, non-mainstream and/or marginalised communities. I have great fondness towards sociologists and psychologists who have good cross-cultural understandings, and would love it if they become more mainstream in their disciplines.

At the moment, one of the most important things we can help to communicate is that people are inextricably intertwined with their environments, and to not prioritise environmental risks is suicidal.

Q: What’s your favourite anthropological encounter?

A: Can I choose two?

In Turkey, just before Ramazan (Ramadan), and being taken round to all the compounds in my host village to inspect and photograph the rams who were to be slaughtered the next day for the celebration (this is not a story for vegans). The grandmother in my best friend’s house dragged me to their ram, and made me cradle his testicles in my hand. “Cok büyük, cok büyük” (very big, very big). They were indeed, enormous. She posed proudly with her beautifully lined face next to the ram’s impressively crinkled scrotum. When the photo came back (this was pre-digital days) it was the first thing she showed to everyone who visited.

Fieldwork on labour ward. I got to observe (and sometimes support) around 30 deliveries. Being there when a new life comes into the world is one of the most awesome experiences on the planet, and I am forever grateful to have been able to experience that.

 everyday life?

A: For me, anthropology is as much about Being as Doing. I didn’t start my undergraduate degree until I was in my late 20s, when I was living in The Netherlands. I’d originally enrolled in a Women’s Studies (as it was then) major, with an anthropology minor. Even though it was in Dutch and my understanding was still wobbly at that stage, my first anthro lecture had me changing my enrolment to a double major. It was both like pulling on an old, warm, comfy coat and like coming home.

Anthropology gave me a language for expressing my way of looking at the world. The thing that resonated right down to my bones was the language around cultural relativism. Here was a group of people who didn’t look at difference and put on a cat’s-bum-shaped-mouth and judge. Here was a sandpit to play in where everyone looked at difference and went “how interesting”. Like many anthropologists, my predominant driving motivation for nearly everything I do is curiosity. It doesn’t make for a whole lot of financial security, but it makes for a whole lot of life.

For me, I can’t imagine not “doing” anthropology in everyday life, because anthropology is so deeply embedded in who I experience myself to be. I think anthropology manifests itself in the everyday when we look at something that is non-conventional and go “interesting”, rather than “ooh yuk”, and help other people see that “different” doesn’t have to be “bad”. Another aspect of anthropology that gets drawn into the everyday is seeing a situation from multiple perspectives – I think anthropologists are very good at helping others take a step back and look at multiple perspectives, rather than just getting caught up in one perspective. We don’t get hung up on contradiction: ethnography teaches us that people are inherently contradictory (what people do and what they say they do are not necessarily the same thing), and that rather than rejecting contradictions they provide us with deep and interesting places to explore.

Another way I think anthropology manifests in the everyday is in parenting. Anthropologists often parent a little differently to the other people around them, and I think there’s some things we do really well. I rarely see anthros offer at-the-time running commentaries and interferences on their kids’ behaviours. We are more likely to sit back and observe our kids, and give them space without inserting a constant stream of parental voice in their ears. Most anthro parents I know really KNOW their kids, because we give them a chance to be themselves without interfering in the superficial stuff (and we are always observing them – we do treat our kids as “data”!). We then “offer” deep existential conversations (which they may or may not appreciate), but we tend not to sweat the small stuff. These are pretty broad generalisations, but I’d love to see a study of anthro parents and kids. I think there’s stuff to be learned from anthro parenting.

Q: What do you love most about being an anthropologist?

A: With research, I love the incredible privilege of sharing people’s lives. Being there when shit goes down is awesome, and having a window into other people’s worlds is such an incredible privilege.  I got hooked working in health. Prior to becoming a health/medical anthropologist, I loved what I did, but it also felt a little self-indulgent. It’s not always that anthropologists can feel like we are being relevant. Once I started working in hospitals, and clinicians – doctors, nurses and allied health professionals – saw my work as useful to how they could improve quality of patient care, I felt the joy of being relevant.

The power that ethnography has to translate people’s experiences into data that can be used to inform policy is really important. I was at a panel recently where a government policy maker was talking about programs aimed at disadvantaged and vulnerable people. He said, very sympathetically, “I can’t use conversations, I need metrics to be able to allocate funding”. A good health anthropologist can turn conversations into usable metrics. We can and do make a difference to people who are not always empowered with having a voice in these discussions.

With teaching, it’s seeing students’ eyes go wide as you open up their worlds. It’s not there with all of them, but with so many students, experiencing an anthro perspective on the world shifts their understandings of themselves and everything around them. Being able to facilitate that – as my first year lecturers did for me – is a massive privilege.

Q: What do you most want the world to learn from anthropologists?

A: To not be dicks.
To understand that science is a cultural construct.
To understand that money is a cultural construct, and that economics being valorised in the way it currently is in global markets is destructive. The idea that profits are prioritised over people and communities is a form of violence that is not well articulated.
To understand the enormous variation of what it is to be human.
Also, to understand what being human is and is not. There are remarkably few human universals (eg: all societies have kinship systems, all societies have gender-based categories etc). There’s lots of things that many people think are normal” or “human” that are culturally based.

If more academics in other fields understood that (I’m looking at you, sociology and psychology) we would have much more rigorous data coming out of western academia, and much less epistemological violence towards non-western, non-mainstream and/or marginalised communities. I have great fondness towards sociologists and psychologists who have good cross-cultural understandings, and would love it if they become more mainstream in their disciplines.

At the moment, one of the most important things we can help to communicate is that people are inextricably intertwined with their environments, and to not prioritise environmental risks is suicidal.

Q: What’s your favourite anthropological encounter?

A: Can I choose two?

In Turkey, just before Ramazan (Ramadan), and being taken round to all the compounds in my host village to inspect and photograph the rams who were to be slaughtered the next day for the celebration (this is not a story for vegans). The grandmother in my best friend’s house dragged me to their ram, and made me cradle his testicles in my hand. “Cok büyük, cok büyük” (very big, very big). They were indeed, enormous. She posed proudly with her beautifully lined face next to the ram’s impressively crinkled scrotum. When the photo came back (this was pre-digital days) it was the first thing she showed to everyone who visited.

Fieldwork on labour ward. I got to observe (and sometimes support) around 30 deliveries. Being there when a new life comes into the world is one of the most awesome experiences on the planet, and I am forever grateful to have been able to experience that.

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