Learning how people in different parts of the world, near or far, think about something as seemingly simple as how to avoid getting a cold or when it's OK to cry in public, and how that organizes their behavior, unsettles our own assumptions and lets us reflect on why we do what we do.

Anthropology begins with observation — Allen Tran's favorite method of research. "In general, I prefer to work from the bottom-up," says the assistant professor of anthropology. "Making your way through the richness, specificity and idiosyncrasies of the kinds of data that observation can yield helps you make connections that might get overlooked otherwise."

Tran focuses on the people of Ho Chi Minh City, examining anxiety and worry in an attempt to upend common assumptions about rapidly developing countries like Vietnam.

"On the one hand, many of the people in my research considered worrying to be a very traditionally 'Vietnamese' thing to do," he says. "Worrying about someone involves a lot of sacrifice and is seen as an important part of caring for others. This is very much tied up in Vietnamese ideals of sentiment and emotional connections to people, often at the expense of oneself."

But worry is also indicative of modernity, says Tran. "Although standards of living for most people have improved dramatically since Vietnam's market reforms in 1986," he says, "given the pace of change and new personal and social insecurities, many people reported worrying more now than ever before."

He says that part of his research is about reconciling these differences and making sense of the dramatic changes that have happened in Vietnam over the past 30-odd years. "It's something that many of the people I spoke with during my research also struggle with," he says.

Tran says his students' research projects can complement how he thinks about his own scholarship. "Taking on multiple perspectives is important to good anthropology," he says. "Learning how people in different parts of the world, near or far, think about something as seemingly simple as how to avoid getting a cold or when it's OK to cry in public, and how that organizes their behavior, unsettles our own assumptions and lets us reflect on why we do what we do."

Posted October 2012

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