Feb. 15, 2006
It's a Small world, after all
To some, the word anthropologist brings to mind images of dusty books, of lonely archives filled with chipped bones and pottery shards.
Meredith Small is not such an anthropologist.
Yes, she has read the dusty books. But the real fun, she says, is in using that understanding to help people change their lives -- in a small way, at least -- for the better.
A primatologist by training and professor of anthropology by vocation, Small has spent untold hours watching monkeys interact in captivity and in the wild. So if you're looking for a few clues about why people do some of the strange things we do, she's happy to offer a few million years of evolutionary perspective.
Small entered the field of primatology in the 1970s: a time when the field was in its infancy, and its research was fresh and largely unstructured. "People went out and found a monkey nobody had watched, and watched it," she says. She caught the bug as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, then completed her Ph.D. at the University of California-Davis. "Davis was at the beginning of becoming an incredible primate center," she says. "It was an incredible experience. It was really a startling time."
After graduate school, research into mating and child-rearing behaviors took Small around the world -- learning that other cultures (and even other species) have a lot to teach us about ourselves. She came to Cornell in 1988 looking for ways to apply her research.
She found her voice first through teaching, then through writing. In the early 1990s, she shifted from writing for scientific journals to mainstream journalism -- and quickly became a regular contributor to such magazines as Natural History, Discover, Scientific American and New Scientist.
"I discovered that not only did I like writing like that -- I could do it. I realized that this was really what I loved doing. It's what I should be doing," she says. "I'm a trained scientist; I've done the research. But writing for the popular press also informs my teaching. I talk about all different kinds of research. And it's really amazing to get e-mails, to see how it touches people."
Small's four books (with a fifth due in the fall) examine mating, child-rearing and female sexuality across cultures and eras. And she's a frequent commentator on National Public Radio (NPR).
Last year, the American Anthropology Association honored Small with the 2005 Anthropology in Media Award for "the successful communication of anthropology to the general public through the media" and for her "broad and sustained public impact at local, national and international levels."
The better rewards, though, are the ones from people who have pulled over to the side of the road to listen to her NPR commentaries or written to say they have become more confident parents after reading her books.
In 2004, Small broadcast an NPR piece about a student who couldn't bear to get less than an A.
"As an adult long out of college, I know that in the larger world, grades mean nothing," she said. "... I also know that grades for high-achieving students are more than just letters. They are symbolic of the life these young people expect to have -- a perfect life filled with A's. But over a lifetime, even the smartest person rates a C, D or even an F on the really important subjects of marriage, parenting, friendship and love. In the end, if we're lucky, we all end up with a class average of a C in life, and we're happy to get it. Some of us just hope to pass."
As a wife (her husband, Tim Merrick, is an artist and building contractor) and mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Small agreed that grades are important. But more important, she said, are unquantifiable qualities like the ability to take risks and learn from experience; to accept the inevitable failures and move on.
"People e-mailed and said, 'I was that person who wanted the A's. Now I have a husband and a child, and I know it's not about that,'" says Small.
As she speaks, her hands work in fluid motions. She is a habitual knitter, rarely to be found without needles in hand and a bag or two of yarn by her side. It's relaxing, she says -- and her family is well-stocked in sweaters.
For her, the responses to her commentaries and writing are pieces of reassurance that she is doing something significant; that her years of research and teaching are serving their purpose. "It's something I never thought I would do."