Episode 18 Language, Time, and the Anthropology of Arrival with Dr. David Sutton

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Dr. David Sutton has written about the anthropology of movies before, but the film Arrival, he says, is something special. Arrival debuted in 2016, starring Amy Adams as a linguist who was tasked with making first contact with an alien species. Like an anthropologist in a foreign culture, she has to orient herself to an entirely different way of being and communicating. The film is science fiction, but draws in sociolinguistic theory and cultural concepts of time, all while it illustrates the emotional rushes and pitfalls of trying to understand someone who doesn’t share your perceptions of how the world works

Most successful movies and television shows are popular because they connect with some cultural elements in their audiences, which makes them rich material for anthropologists striving to understand how communities think about everything from family to gift-giving to social class. But Arrival goes further, not only representing cultural elements but also showing what many cultural and linguistic anthropologists actually do.

In this episode, Dr. Sutton breaks down why fictional films and television shows can be important in revealing implicit cultural models, and discusses what Arrival tells us about language, time, and anthropology.

*WARNING: Spoilers abound in this episode, so listeners beware!*


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For more information on Dr. Sutton:

Dr. Sutton’s faculty page: http://cola.siu.edu/anthro/facultyandstaff/faculty/sociocultural/sutton.php

Dr. Sutton’s Academia page: https://siu.academia.edu/DavidSutton

Books and articles by Dr. Sutton:

Arrival: Anthropology in Hollywood” in Anthropology Today

Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies by Sutton, David, Wogan, Peter (2010) Paperback

Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island (California Studies in Food and Culture)

Memories Cast in Stone: The Relevance of the Past in Everyday Life (Mediterranea Series)


More information on co-workers, organizations, or institutions referenced in our conversation:

Dr. Sutton would like to acknowledge the extensive dialogue with Peter Wogan and Leo Vournelis in shaping his thinking about Arrival.

Dr. Peter Wogan’s blog: Blockbuster Anthropology: Cultural Analysis of Movies and Sports

More Anthropology of Hollywood, language, and time:

Sherry Ortner’s ethnography, Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream

Hortense Powdermaker’s ethnography, Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-Makers

John McWhorter’s podcast episode “On the Linguistics of the Movie Arrival”

One linguist’s take on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as seen in Arrival

Dr. Richard Wiseman’s “Pace of Life” study

Dr. John McCall’s work on the Nigerian film industry, dubbed “Nollywood”: https://siu.academia.edu/JohnCMcCall

My relevANTH blog post on “An Anthropologist’s Obsession with Outlander

Other links referenced in the episode:

Physical Anthropologist Dr. Kristina Killgrove’s blog, Powered by Osteons, in which she analyzes the anthropology of the television show Bones

Ursula Le Guin’s book Dancing at the Edge of the World, in which she writes the essay “Science Fiction and the Future” about culturally different ways to think about the future and past.

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where aliens speak a metaphorical language: “Darmok

Wikipedia page for the opera Nixon in China

IMDB link to the film Arrival

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