Anthro in the news 3/4/13

• Economic anthropologists sought to enrich poor numbers

According to a book review in The Financial Times, “A tendency to issue doubtful data is rooted in colonial days and still creates problems for the [African] continent, according to an important study: Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled By African Development Statistics and What To Do About It, by Morten Jerven. The review goes on: “There are lies, damned lies and then there are African statistics. If economic figures everywhere are a work in progress — regularly rebased and updated to take into account fresh data — those from Africa are the most open to question and the most unreliable in their revision.”

Morten Jerven Poor Numbers
Credit: Cornell University Press

The reviewer considers Poor Numbers to be an important contribution to the subject. Morten Jerven, an assistant professor at the school for international studies at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, builds the case for renewed scrutiny. Pointing to “huge discrepancies and alarming gaps” in African figures, he writes: “Datasets are like guns. Someone will use them if they are left lying around.”

And, further [and now we are getting to the connection with anthropology], Jerven calls for a focus on strengthened national statistical capacity, the use of “economic anthropologists,” and greater transparency on the underlying assumptions and weaknesses of existing data.

As Jerven rightly concludes: “Numbers are too important to be ignored, and the problems surrounding the production and dissemination of numbers are too serious to be dismissed.”

• The real news in anthropology is not about Chagnon

In the Huffington Post, Paul Stoller, professor of anthropology at West Chester University, comments on the latest “flare up” in the news surrounding Napoleon Chagnon‘s memoir, Noble Savages (and see below in this aitn). He states: “In the sweep of time, though, Chagnon’s work is but a blip on the screen. In the nanosecond reality of the media universe, Chagnon’s ideas and struggles will quickly revert back to what they are: ‘very old news.’ The real news…is the ongoing work on structures of poverty and social inequality, work that exposes how contemporary economic practices trigger widespread real world suffering. That scholarship produces results that are politically threatening to men like Rick Scott, Scott Walker and Rick Perry. That’s why they’re slashing higher education budgets. What better way to undermine anthropology, sociology, and the humanities and protect their economic and political interests?”

• Rethinking boarding schools for Aboriginal children

Professor Marcia Langton denies suggestions that sending more Indigenous students to boarding schools, rather than learning in their own communities, would create a new “stolen generation.”

Marcia Langton
She has put forward a plan to close the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students by sending Indigenous students to private, metropolitan schools. She argues that the Australian education system must stop treating Indigenous students differently from their non-Indigenous peers. She proposes more Indigenous teachers, flexibility in the timing of the school year, and cross-cultural training for Aboriginal children to improve students’ marks.

She is quoted as saying: “It’s quite wrong to refer to this as … a new stolen generation because Aboriginal parents willingly send their children to these schools. They want their children to have a good education so the conditions are there for them to perform much better.” Professor Langton blames a severe lack of resources and constant experimentation for the failures in the current education system for Indigenous students. An audio interview is included.

• On South Korea’s adoption program

Shannon Heit, who is pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology at Hanyang University, published an article in The Korea Times, analyzing Korea’s adoption program and how to avoid running the risk of the program regressing. Heit is a Korean adoptee who came to a family in the United States when she was 4 years old. She has been living in Seoul for the past six years and volunteering at the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association for the past two and a half years.

Shannon Heit
Shannon Heit/Korea Times
The Examiner picked up on Heit’s article, commenting: “New Korean adoption laws went into effect in August 2012 … Korean officials wanted a greater emphasis on in-country foster care and adoptions, making international adoptions a last priority…” Heit argues for a nationwide study should be conducted to assess the numbers of children put up for adoption to provide solid data before trying to revise the law.

• Haiti expert comes to Northern Illinois University

According to The Mid-Week news of DeKalb, Illinois, the Northern Illinois University Center for Non-Governmental Organization Leadership and Development (NGOLD) and the Department of Anthropology announced that Mark Schuller has accepted a joint appointment as an assistant professor.

Schuller was hired following a national search, and is the first joint appointment between NGOLD and anthropology. Supported by the National Science Foundation, among others, Schuller’s research on globalization, NGOs, gender and disasters in Haiti has been widely published. Most recently, he is the author of Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs. He is the co-director and co-producer of the documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Schuller is also a regular contributor for The Huffington Post. He chairs the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Human Rights and Social Justice Committee.

• Take that anthro degree…

…and run for political office in Kenya. In Kenya, the race for Kakamega governor will come to an end on Monday with the vote. A contender in the race is Albert Mwilitsa, a first timer and the youngest of the candidates. A former DC for Turkana North district, he holds a BA degree in Governance and Anthropology from University of Nairobi.

• Very old maize

Science Daily reported on new findings by archaeologists related to the emergence of a distinct South American civilization during the Late Archaic period (3000-1800 B.C.E.) in Peru. A persistent question is the role of agriculture and particularly corn (maize) in the evolution of complex, centralized societies. The prevailing theory was that marine resources, not agriculture and corn, provided the economic basis for the development of civilization in the Andean region of Peru.

Peruvian purple corn
Peruvian purple corn (Credit: © Ildi / Fotolia)/Science Daily

New research led by Field Museum curator Dr. Jonathan Haas offers a resolution to the debate by analyzing microscopic evidence found in soil, on stone tools, and in coprolites. Haas and his colleagues have concluded that during the Late Archaic, maize (Zea mays, or corn) was a primary component in the diet of people living in the Norte Chico region of Peru.

The researchers concluded that the prevalence of maize in multiple contexts and in multiple sites indicates this domesticated food crop was grown widely in the area and constituted a major portion of the local diet and not used just on ceremonial occasions. Findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

• Chagnon commentary continues

The recent publication of Napoleon Chagnon’s memoir, Noble Savages, continues to prompt commentary as well as several “letters to the editor.” This past week, biological anthropologist at William and Mary College, Barbara King, wrote for NPR: “The debates surrounding his work are burning brightly once again with the publication of Chagnon’s memoir, Noble Savages. The book received lacerating reviews by anthropologists Elizabeth Povinelli in The New York Times and Rachel Newcomb in The Washington Post. Then, as reported by Inside Higher Ed on Monday, Sahlins resigned his membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Sahlins cited the Academy’s “large moral and intellectual blunder” in electing Chagnon as one reason for his decision. (The other reason involves Sahlins’ objection to collaborative projects between the NAS and the military, an issue that has nothing to do with Chagnon).

I know neither Sahlins nor Chagnon personally. But for a biological anthropologist like myself, these recent, dizzying and highly agitated events surrounding Chagnon and his work are important to try and understand … As an anthropologist, I know that my field is so much better — more elegant, more nuanced — than one that paints non-Western peoples’ behavior as strongly rooted in evolutionary biology or as throwback to times past… So, what now? Am I suggesting that Chagnon not be read? Not at all. Read Chagnon, of course [and other anthropologists]… reading widely and deeply in anthropology is the best antidote to inappropriately reductionist science.

Hugh Gusterson, professor of cultural anthropology at George Mason University, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, contesting Chagnon’s claim that the Yanomamö lived “in a state of nature” before his arrival and noting the need to avoid creating and perpetuating mythologies of the “primitive.”

Napoleon Chagnon wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times commenting that the preferred spelling is Yanomamö, not Yanomami.

Immediately following Chagnon’s letter to the editor is another letter from Steven Gold, director of health and community services, Macomb County, Michigan: “In 1970-71, I transported vials of Yanomami blood to the genetics lab of Dr. James Neel. I used to muse on how the blood had flowed a day earlier in the veins of fierce Yanomami warriors in the Amazon rain forest. Little did I know of the fierce academics whose sublimated conflicts flowed in the corridors of the Anthropology Department.”

[Blogger’s notes: apparently Steven Gold didn’t receive the updated spelling guide from Chagnon. Much more seriously, ethical issues were involved in taking blood from the Yanomamö and transporting it to the U.S. without their understanding of how the blood would be used or the implications for them of having their blood kept for many years in the U.S. After a protracted period of negotiation, the blood samples were returned to the Yanomamö in 2010. Here are links to some resources on the blood aspect of the wider Yanomamö controversy related to research ethics.]

• Welcome to my fossil lab

Genius of Dogs
Credit: Penguin
NBC News carried a piece, with a video interview, on Professor Charles Musiba‘s recent opening of his research lab to 650 high school students across the U.S. through a video-conference program. “It was exciting to be able to do that,” said Musiba, associate professor of anthropology at Colorado University at Denver. Musiba is part of the Scientists in Action program put on by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This is one of only two programs nationwide bringing real world scientists into classrooms across the country through video-conferencing technology.

• Woof: survival of the friendliest

During last February, several media sources discussed the research of Duke University biological anthropologist Brian Hare on the evolution of dogs and canine intelligence and his new book, The Genius of Dogs.

This past week, The Scotsman carried an article about his work: “Dogs, not primates, are the animal kingdom’s clever clogs. Not only that, he claims everything we thought we knew about dogs and their evolution is wrong. We didn’t domesticate them; they domesticated themselves, because cosying up with mankind was the best way for their wild ancestors to get fed and, therefore, survive.”

Perhaps the most ground-breaking discovery of all, according to Hare, is that both our development and that of dogs is not down to survival of the fittest at all. It’s about survival of the friendliest. However, he believes dogs may have reached their evolutionary peak: “But I don’t know. Evolution is strange in many ways…”

• Kudos

Dame Anne Salmond
Dame Anne Salmond/U. of Auckland
Dame Anne Salmond, DBE, FRSNZ, FBA, and Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland, has been named New Zealander of the Year.

Honouring the achievements and contributions of an inspirational Kiwi, the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year is awarded to someone who has given outstanding service to the country and provided inspiration to New Zealanders through their achievements. Dame Anne received the title for her contribution to Maori and Pacific studies.

She is author of seven award-winning books and many articles on Maori life and cross-cultural encounters in New Zealand and the Pacific. She is the recipient of many honours and titles. She is Project Sponsor for the Starpath Partnership for Excellence, which aims to ensure that Maori, Pacific and low income students achieve their potential through education.

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