Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 9, 2011 9:37PM

Self-Labeling or Self-Limiting?

Rate: 21 Flag
I’ve written about cognitive linguistics in the past:

According to Wikipedia, Linguistic Relativity is the idea that: "the varying cultural concepts and categories inherent in different languages affect the cognitive classification of the experienced world in such a way that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it."

The classic example when I was in college was that because snow and ice are such a prominent environmental reality for indigenous people living above the arctic circle, their language has evolved many different words describing snow.  Because they have precise language to describe very fine gradations in snow conditions, their children learn early to recognize and experience snow conditions differently than the rest of us. This precise vocabulary for snow shapes how the speakers of these languages perceive and experience snow.

I am a linear thinker, and I like having labels for things.  My daughter’s middle name is the scientific term for a particular snow condition.  Yes, really. It’s beautiful.

How we label things matters. Consider that the DSM used to list homosexuality as a mental illness.  Fortunately this is no longer the case, but the potential for harm from such labels still exists. Today it seems as if almost any quirky behavior can be classified as mental disorder and render interesting-but-healthy people vulnerable to discrimination.  

As an interesting-but-healthy person myself, I’m never sure how to self-label.  Unfortunately, labels come with all kinds of baggage.  For example, I never know how to answer strangers’ innocuous questions about my career. This is one of the first things new acquaintances ask, and with good reason. People want a one-word answer that will tell them which pigeonhole is mine.  This will give them clues about my social status, wealth (or not), politics, interests, intelligence, work ethic, and so on. It’s a quick and dirty way to parse new people into preconceived social strata, and I tend to do this myself when I first meet people.  

Saying I’m a stay-home mom hasn’t worked out well in the past.  I tried this once at a holiday party peppered with really cool, artsy, hipsters.  The person who asked what I do quickly cast me in with the Untouchables.  He seemed to think I just lie around all day letting my brain atrophy and couldn't possibly contribute anything meaningful to conversation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with lying around--I wouldn’t mind being horizontal more often. I don’t know any stay-home moms who just sit around wallowing in ignorance. I’m sure they’re out there, but I suspect they're rare.

If I say I have a degree in Anthropology, they tend to imagine this:


I have actually done interesting and exciting field work in the Middle East, but I wasn’t looking for the Holy Grail. Also, if Sean Connery had been there, I might still be following him around in the desert.  My current reality disappoints fans of Indiana Jones.

If I say I am a blogger, people picture this:  

I neither smoke nor live in my mom's basement. Also, I use a MacBook.
If I say I am a writer, people think I write novels.

I would love to write books, but right now my attention span is very truncated. 
I have never self-identified as a writer because the label doesn’t quite fit and because until recently I had never been paid.  Saying I’m a writer seems to imply that I earn a living doing that, but for me it’s more of a hobby.  People want to know my source of income.  They want to know if they can mingle with me without embarrassment.  

Now that I’ve received the validation of being paid to write, I’m very tempted to call myself a writer.  I would say, “I’m a writer,” an air of mysterious sophistication--as if my backpack holds leather-bound notebooks filled with the next great American novel--written by hand--rather than snacks and diapers.  

Ultimately I’m complex, and I don’t want to limit my options.  It pisses me off that I hesitate to just call myself a stay-home mom and let the bigots drift away.  I’m mad at society for undervaluing parents, teachers, and childcare workers, and I’m mad at myself for falling for it.  I’m sure there’s a mental illness for this, but probably no pharmaceutical.

My Trophy Husband thinks I should come up with a short sentence.  Something like, “I’m a contributing writer for a couple of science and critical thinking websites.”  I agree but I need to practice the delivery.  The phrase sounds exciting and sexy--like I’m carrying Science around in my backpack. Which, come to think of it, is true.  And there’s plenty of room for snacks and diapers in there too.   

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I enjoyed this post. I am interested in cognitive linguistics too. You might be interested in my post titled “Observations on the Eastern and Western Thought” which talks about how syntax shapes the thought patterns.
Thanks Suresh Emre. Your post sounds really interesting. I'll go take a look.
I have lots of thoughts on these things, and have two books by Pinker on language and thought to get through. I digress.

Gainfully self employed. It's kind of rude, really, when people press you for details. But stay at home mom cuts of a potential discussion for your interests, not your skill set. Nobody really wants to talk about someone else's kids, until they are in the same boat.
An English friend of mine found our North American habit of asking what someone does very irritating. His answer was great. He'd smile condescendingly and answer, "Do? My dear sir (or madam), one doesn't "do" things, now does one?"

Said in the right tone of voice it is devastating!

Great post!!
I think I will practice saying something like what your husband suggested. Of course, in this city of VERY SERIOUS PEOPLE, when I also say I teach kindergarten I'm a goner. ~r
Thanks so much for the Editor's Pick!

Oryoki: Great point about that being a conversation killer. Not even I want to talk about my own children all the time.

Skypixie: What a great response!

Joan H: K teachers do really important work that impacts the future of our society. It's ridiculous that teaching is not a prestigious profession in the US.

Mimetalker: thanks!
Great article! I was recently at a New Years party and was asked that seemingly loaded question, "What do you do?" I thought briefly, should I tell them about how I've been laid off for the past two years going from one crappy temp / part time job to the next, or about my most recent employment win as holiday help at the local mall? Reality bites especially when you're really a writer/ artist working at the local mall to pay the bills! I went with the writer/ artist angle and was met with fascination.
I had much the same problem as a stay-home mom. Some people just assumed that ALL I wanted to discuss was diapers, formula and sleep schedules. Now that I work in HR, I find that too limiting a description too. But no one pays me to write, so far, so if I say blogger/ writer, it really is more like your mom's basement guy. Sigh Great post!
this is so so true, there is no way to self-label while balancing modesty, politeness and truthfulness ... It's the unavoidable fallout of socializing - this requirement to "brand" oneself but worst of all, presumes that the people asking actually have a right to judge!
Of course you can always say, "I invest in income properties". (You DO pay rent don't you?)
You don't have to mention that the "income property you "invest" in belongs to your landlord.
*sigh* People are so quick to judge. What is a stay-at-home mom and what is a blogger are quickly evolving definitions. Hopefully, our language and the people who use it will be able to keep up with this.
I love the photos especially the one of a blogger.

labels have a lot of misleadingness built in, no matter how they're applied, undoubtedly.
You remind me of the two weeks in 1976 when we stayed in a hotel in Roslyn, VA and whenever I took the kids (ages 3 & 6) out on the streets people stared at us like I was walking exotic zoo animals.

"I manage my investments," pretty much covers it, no?
Well, hipsters are terrible people who dress poorly. So there you go.
I was at a party once with a bunch of snotty academics suffering from severe cases of Aspergers Syndrome. One academic came up to me and asked me what my Ph.D. was in. I told him I didn't have a Ph.D. He just turned on his heels and walked away. Needless to say, I told my husband to NEVER ask me to attend another one of these parties. I think if my father hadn't died the week before and I had been functioning on all 8 cylinders I could have had a good comeback! The sad thing is the snotty Ph.D. would have been clueless.
I am also a stay at home mom and I'm proud to be one. I have raised three good sons. This is more important than an academic's theoretical physics or advanced differential equations! The world needs more stay at home moms but with the way the world and economy is I know this is impossible! I'm very lucky.
I love all of your stories of other people's snubs. Glad to know I'm not alone, but it's also too bad you all have faced similar discrimination!

Great suggestions for replies. Great points about the evolving definitions of blogging/writing/parenting. It's always fascinating to watch our culture evolve and redefine itself.
I enjoyed this post immensely. Fifteen years later I'm still bemused by getting thrown out of a book club I started by a cadre of militant stay-at-home-moms who gradually gained the critical mass to stage a coup. I'm pretty affable socially, but they couldn't get past my "working mom" label. After that, I learned to be more discerning about how I explained my identity to folks. Here's how I stack up these days: lifelong grocery shopper, wife of a home-improvement savant, proud mother of two thoughtful teens, co-dependent nurturer of an infantilized Brittany spaniel, devotee of Emma Peel and Nancy Drew, avid viewer of John Sayles movies...
I know how you feel. I always hesitated over "occupation," until my hobby became my albatross. If I say I am self employed, a business owner, CEO (sounds way too important), work from home, have my own business - however I phrased it, I thought and still think people are picturing someone stuffing tens of thousands of envelopes in their kitchen or some kind of pyramid thing. So now (I have been paid worldwide for my work), I say "I have operated my own international doll business for 6 years now, where I wear all the hats, so you could say artist, photographer, sales or ad copy writer and any of them would be correct."
Self made labels are something that are so very important and should be careful with what they think. Glad you shared the linguistic side of this through your personal experience.
Self made labels are something that are so very important and one should be careful with what they think. Glad you shared the linguistic side of this through your personal experience.
This post is very interesting. It talks about speaking yourself out and showing the real you. You might also want to speak yourself even more so come and try visit
I realized that I was doing this to people, and was appalled; but then, it does tell you something. Now I ask, "do you work?"