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USM Presents Anthropology’s Tools of the Trade Exhibit

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 10:39am | By: Ivonne Kawas Prado

Anthropology — the study of humankind, broadly defined — is known as the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences. Anthropologists research a broad range of topics from reconstruction of prehistoric lifeways to understanding marketing strategies in the global economy, and unsurprisingly, the materials and methods used by anthropologists are similarly broad.

The Tools of the Trade Exhibit by anthropologists at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) displays some of the tools anthropologists use to explore the cultural and biological variation among humans both past and present.

Graduate students at USM are mastering some of those tools and methods, including Forensic Facial Reconstruction (FFR), ethnographic and archival research, and structured surveys and interviews, to reconstruct and interpret lifeways.

Here’s a look at some of their research projects:

USM AnthropologyIn one of the very first studies of its kind, forensic anthropology graduate student Camera Cottingham, a native of Florence, Miss., is directly comparing the accuracy of facial reconstructions made using both sculpting and digital software for the same individual to determine which provides the most efficient and effective results, especially given the limited resources often available to law enforcement agencies.

“At USM, I am currently working on a project involving forensic facial reconstruction and seeking to understand the ways in which improvements can be made,” said Cottingham.

“By immersing myself into the field, I want to do what few have done, which is directly comparing the physical and digital methodologies of forensic facial reconstructions. I also am testing the accuracy of the two different methods in order to see if one leads to a higher rate of positive identifications.

“FFR is an extremely useful tool for missing persons and criminal cases,” added Cottingham. “By working to both improve these methodologies and increasing accessibility, police departments could possibly gain access to a useful tool to assist them in their cases. Ultimately, I believe the field of FFR is vital to lowering rates of missing persons cases and increasing the likelihood of a positive identification of an unknown individual.

“Ultimately, my advisor, Dr. Marie Danforth, has been a huge inspiration to the work I have done thus far on my thesis,” said Cottingham. “In every class I have taken at USM, she has encouraged me to see ways in which the coursework could assist me in looking at forensic facial reconstruction from a unique perspective. Without her constantly pushing me, I would have confined myself to the bounds of the methodologies that already exist for forensic facial reconstruction, rather than seeking to find new ways to improve.”

USM AnthropologyCultural anthropology graduate student Jessi Robbins, a native of Desert Hot Springs, Calif., is bringing anthropology and the archives together in an ethnographic investigation into prison museums in middle Appalachia for a project that asks whether transforming decommissioned prisons into tourist attractions downplays complicated history for the sake of visitor entertainment.

“The research I am currently working on entails ethnographic and archival research gathered at two prison museums in Tennessee,” said Robbins. “I am examining the connection between curated objects and narratives within a space of trauma and the social attitudes cultivated by them. USM has enabled my research by offering anthropology methods courses pertaining to ethnography and fieldwork, as well as offering library science courses geared toward research in archives and the creation of archival collections.

“With my research, I illustrate how decommissioned prison museums perpetuate the illusion of punishment and retribution while shadowing the dark and racist history of the United States carceral system,” added Robbins. “Engaging in more anthropological research regarding dark tourism and museum studies can improve our community by encouraging positive change in the way we exhibit curated objects and narratives at local heritage sites and museums that have been historical spaces of trauma and grief. This research encourages us to engage with these spaces with respect and awareness for the communities that are still affected by these spaces, objects, and narratives today.

Dr. Allison Formanack, an anthropology professor at USM, has greatly inspired me and taught me most, if not all, of the ethnographic skills I am now using to conduct my own research,” said Robbins. “Her class on ethnographic field methods was the first encounter I had with performing any type of real-world fieldwork involving interactions with our community. I learned how to conduct interviews and how to interact with a community, respectfully and transparently. She has inspired me to be the best cultural anthropologist I can be. As Dr. Formanack always says, ‘Anthropology can save the world.’”

USM AnthropologyGraduate student Charles Downey, a native of Tecumseh, Mich., is blending his training in biological anthropology and public health to address the rise of vaccine hesitancy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through structured surveys and interviews, his project investigates the relationship between sources of medical information and vaccine-related beliefs and behaviors in the southeastern U.S.

“Being a student at USM is enabling me to undertake a project to understand how religion and politics impact the ways people form their beliefs surrounding healthcare practices,” said Downey. “USM provided classes that helped me be able to better interact with people in the community and create tools to use in my project.

“My research in biological anthropology and public health is important, as it could be used to inform more specific health policy in the future,” added Downey.

“My professor, Dr. Sharon Young, has supported and guided me with this research endeavor. Her courses have given me a lot of great information and theory that I’ve been able to apply to this project,” said Downey. “She has also been instrumental in helping me shape the methods and techniques I’ve used.”

 Learn more about the anthropology graduate programs, housed in USM’s School of Social Science and Global Studies.