Anthropology 101: A Cultural Anthropologist Walks into a Gym

Editors note: Katie Hejtmanek, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist conducting research on the culture of strength sports in the United States. This is the first of an in-depth series introducing readers to her research and preliminary findings. All observations, data, and photos come from her own research.

If you’re a fan of strength sports and want to look at their growth from a cultural, anthropological, and/or analytical perspective, we highly recommend this series. The articles go in-depth on Dr. Hejtmanek’s work, and they’re well worth your time.

Workout Notebook

Have you heard this one? A new play on an old joke. That’s what we cultural anthropologists do: We make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. We look for meaning in the mundane, we ask questions about everyday life, and we seek to understand why people do what they do. We analyze human behavior, not to understand individual motivations, but large, cultural patterns.

Unlike psychologists, we don’t end our analysis on why individuals do what they do, the “in here” reasons for individual behavior. No, we keep digging. We investigate what “out there” in the world supports what people (more than one) are doing, what challenges these behaviors, and why people are doing this now, as opposed to, say, before. We are interested in cultural phenomena, the shared meanings, ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people, and taught and learned by members of a group. 

(Although “culture” is still hotly debated in the field of anthropology, this is a composite of many of the definitions.)


Sometimes these beliefs, ideals, and meanings are taught explicitly – mission statements, official pronouncements of a company’s “culture.” However, if you’ve taken Anthropology 101, you’d know that most of the stuff of culture is taught implicitly; it’s tacit. A cultural anthropologist’s ears perk up when she hears someone say something is “common sense,” or “natural.” Pay dirt. “Common sense” or “natural” are culturally specific beliefs and behaviors masquerading as human universals. If you decide to keep reading (here or any of my articles), you’ll see what I mean.

I am interested in the explicit culture of strength sports – how athletes talk about their sport and their motivations, how organizations brand themselves, what people are actually doing (weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, etc.), who is joining, where did they come from, and all of the other ways that strength sports and athletes make their voices heard.

For example, Union Square CrossFit and Reebok CrossFit 5th Ave each has a specific page dedicated to its Culture. Something new is always happening, and a new friend is on the other side of the platform (they claim). I wonder if this is actually true…. And it’s the job of the anthropologist to find out!


I am also interested in the implicit, the tacit. I tack between individuals and their expressed motivations for joining, say, a CrossFit box and the larger social forces in America that support this endeavor. For example, it is a new phenomenon that women are seeking out fitness activities that actively promote muscular bodies. We’ve been taught that the ideal female body is skinny. It is not “natural” or universal to idealize a skinny female body, rather it has been an American cultural ideal.

But as I read on one of my female student’s t-shirt recently: Strong is the New Skinny (also the title of book written by Jennifer Cohen and Stacey Colino, Harmony Books, 2014). And this is not just a pithy saying. Women are joining powerlifting groups, CrossFit boxes, and weightlifting clubs in droves. It is the job of the anthropologist to find out why!

What happened? How did strong become the new skinny? What are the larger forces at play to encourage this cultural shift? How do women talk about it, besides by wearing a t-shirt? Why do we have shirts that state this? As a cultural anthropologist, it’s my job to find out.


How do I find out? Well, I conduct research. We call it ethnography. Anthropologists live with a group of people and learn the cultural norms, beliefs, and meanings of the group. We listen to what people say about their culture (the emic perspective). We also notice what people don’t talk about, what is assumed, and the differences between what people say they do or believe and what they actually do or say (for example, is something new always happening!?). We then analyze what is happening, finding patterns in speech and behavior, and we interpret what the culture is about.

Kettlebell Swing

I treat strength sports in America as its own “tribe.” I join them; I hang out in gyms, boxes, and sports clubs. I talk to people, I ask them questions, and I listen for how they talk, what they talk about, and I watch what they do. I observe the athletes, trainers, coaches, spectators, family members, and enthusiasts. I don’t do this for a weekend event, or to ferret out a story in the journalistic sense. Rather, I am interested in the everyday, the mundane of strength sports.

And I am interested not just in what people say they do, but what they actually do. I am interested in making the strangeness of strength sports mundane and in making the mundane of strength sports strange. The point is to take the time to systematically analyze this unique cultural phenomenon – the surge in strength sports in the United States – and to share the findings with you. That’s what happens when a cultural anthropologist walks into a gym.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.