Anthro in the news 8/5/13

• When prayer becomes addiction

Intense prayer among some Christians can become an addiction, as described by Tanya Luhrmann, professor of cultural anthropology at Stanford University, in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Praying Hands, Durer, Wikipedia
'Praying Hands' by Dürer/Wikipedia

She has learned that when people use prayer to enhance their real-world selves, they feel good. But when it disconnects them from the everyday, they feel bad. Luhrmann points to an anthropological study of the popular Internet game World of Warcraft for insights about when the supportive use of communicating with a different world veers into something less healthy.

The anthropologist Jeffrey G. Snodgrass and his colleagues found that some people were relaxed and soothed by their play: “Sometimes I just log on late at night and go out by myself and listen to the soothing music.” Others felt addicted: “Once I start playing it’s hard to tell whether or not I’ll have the willpower to stop.”

What made the difference was whether people found their primary sense of self inside the game or in the world. When play seemed more important than the real world did, they felt addicted; when it enhanced their experience of reality outside the game, they felt soothed. Prayer, Luhrmann suggests, works in similar ways. When people use prayer to enhance their real-word selves, they feel good. When it disconnects them from the everyday, as it did for the student, they feel bad.

• Our pills, our selves

Viagra. Source:Men-Health

Salon magazine published an excerpt from Cracked: The Unhappy Truth about Psychiatry by cultural/medical anthropologist James Davies.

He explores big pharma’s rebranding practices, suggesting that it constitutes deliberate deception. The piece mentions the work of Daniel Moerman, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Moerman has written about the placebo effect of medical practices and drugs, including how the very shape and color of a pill can change its effectiveness.

• Red beans matter in New Orleans

In an interview with Gambit, David Beriss, professor of anthropology at the University of New Orleans, explains his interest in red beans and their meaning for the food culture of New Orleans.

New Orleans Lunch
New Orleans Lunch (Andioulle sausage, red beans and rice with a Bloody Mary at the original French Market Restaurant). Flickr/Karl Bedingfield

Beriss has made food in general, and New Orleans food culture in particular, a focus in his work. His latest research paper, “Red Beans and Rebuilding: An Iconic Dish, Memory and Culture in New Orleans,” uses our fondness for red beans to examine the city’s identity.

The work received special recognition at the recent Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery at Oxford University in England. In the interview, he responds to a question about what it’s like to study food culture in New Orleans:

“On some level, anthropologists are always interested in food because it’s an important part of what humans do. In New Orleans, it’s hard to miss the fact that food is one of our key symbols. So it’s fun. The students love it, and there’s this growing concentration on it at UNO that we want to capitalize on. If you’re looking at food policy, restaurant marketing, food production, labor issues, zoning and urban planning, those are all realms where having a background in this could be helpful.”

• What does “or” mean in Malay?

Clive Kessler published a piece in Malay Online about the nuances of the Malay word “or” especially in relation to ongoing discussions in Malaysia of whether a child needs consent of one or both parents for religious conversion.

The controversy is about the expression “ibu atau bapa” and whether it must always be read as denoting both parents, and not just one of them to the exclusion of the other.

This is the central question at stake in the recently produced and then withdrawn federal “conversion of minors” bill.

• Take that anthro degree and…

…become an ultramarathon winner and consultant. Every August for more than a decade, extreme runners have come to Grande Cache, Canada, to push their limits in the Death Race. Ultrarunners come from a variety of backgrounds and careers, some are professionals and some not.

Canadian Death Race
Source: Canadian Death Race Facebook page

Ian MacNairn was a University of Calgary health sciences student recovering from a broken leg after being struck by a car. From that accident, he created a study looking at “the rehabilitation process of the human condition,” from not being able to walk to the other extreme of running ultramarathons. That made MacNairn the test subject of his own study, which included his successful finish of the 2009 Death Race.

From there, MacNairn chose to broaden his work for his master’s research on social and cultural anthropology, examining what people go through in ultramarathoning. He took in a number of ultramarathons in Alberta and interviewed the competitors — men and women from different age groups and occupations.

“There were several guys who left law careers to become professional ultrarunners. Other people were in sales, teaching and health care. There was an air traffic controller, pilots,” said MacNairn, who works for a Calgary consulting firm. “There’s something universal that’s drawing all these people. … It’s the question of searching for the boundaries of human ability. It’s to redefine what our potential is. Traditional marathons are run on roads and within cityscapes. It can test you immensely, but ultras are mostly done in mountain settings and it allows people to have a long, self-reflective process.”

• Speaking of Richard III

According to the Manukau Courier (New Zealand), the scientist who helped discover the 500-year-old skeleton of Richard III under an English car park is in Manukau to tell about her discoveries.

Jo Appleby, an expert in human remains identification, was part of the team that found the remains of the 15th century king of England under a car park in Leicester last August. Appleby, an osteoarchaeologist from Leicester University, is at the New Zealand Family History Fair explaining how her team unearthed and identified the king.

Her arrival in Auckland on Tuesday coincided with the announcement that her colleagues at the Archaeology Services in England have found a mysterious coffin-within-a-coffin from the same car park. The experts say they have never before seen a lead coffin encased within a stone coffin and believe it could contain one of three major historic figures associated with the Grey Friars church site where it was unearthed.

Also featured at the Family History Fair is Kay Vaughan, a living relative of Richard. She was revealed at the talk to the delight of the audience. Vaughn, from Auckland’s North Shore, said she got quite a shock when she got the call last week to say she was the 12th time great-niece of Richard III, descended from Anne Plantagenet who was Richard’s sister: “I was very surprised when I got the call from the genealogical society…She said that I was a descendant of Richard the Third and I thought she was having me on.” The talk was aimed to inspire more Kiwis to look into the history of their families.

• Lost and found: Oldest bog body

New radiocarbon tests on the remains of a preserved body found in a County Laois bog, according to the BBC and other sources, reveal that it may date back as far as 2000 BCE.

The body was found by a utility company worker milling peat in 2011. Older bog bodies have been discovered elsewhere but none as mummified or as well preserved as this example. Archaeologists said the body which is believed to be a member of historic royalty, was almost certainly put to the sword by his own people.

The Irish Times reports that the discovery promises to open a new chapter in the archaeological record of Bronze Age burial in Ireland. Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, said previously the earliest bog body discovered in Ireland dated to around 1,300 BCE but the so-called Cashel Man substantially predates this period, making one of the most significant finds in recent times.

He said the remains are those of a young adult male which were placed in a crouched position and covered by peat, probably on the surface of the bog. The man’s arm was broken by a blow and there were deep cuts to his back which appear to have been inflicted by a blade, which indicate a violent death.

• Lost and found: Neolithic carving on Orkney

An image of the stone unearthed from the Ness of Brodgar site in Orkney. Picture Nick Card
Stone unearthed from the Ness of Brodgar site in Orkney. Photo: Nick Card, Source: The Scotsman

An archaeological dig on Orkney has unearthed some of the most important and finest Neolithic art ever found in the U.K., dating back almost 5,000 years.

The stone is unusual as it is artistically decorated on both sides and has impressive deep incisions. It was discovered at the Ness of Brodgar site on Wednesday by Mike Copper, a Ph.D. student from Bradford University, in the buttress of a building believed to have been central to rituals and ceremonies at the time.

Nick Card, the excavation team director at the dig — which lies in the heart of Neolithic Orkney, between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Strenness — said the latest find had created a “huge buzz” on the site. Card, of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology and based at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said: “It is perhaps the finest piece of art we have recovered from the site, and one of the finest from the UK ever — amazing and awe-inspiring.”

• Two studies and two theories of monogamy

The Los Angeles Times reported on two studies research addressing the question: Why are some species monogamous? Two research teams using similar research methods came up with different answers in a pair of studies published Monday. One study, appearing in Science, argued that monogamy evolved as a practical solution for males because females lived far apart from one another. The other, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes the case that males embraced monogamy to protect their offspring from rival males, who might see the youngsters as obstacles to mating with females.

Dieter Lukas and coauthor Tim Clutton-Brock, both evolutionary biologists at the University of Cambridge in England, attacked the problem by categorizing the mating systems of 2,545 species on the mammal family tree.

They discovered 61 cases where a species switched to monogamy, and in 60 of those the species’ ancestor lived a solitary life. That supported the idea that these species may have shifted to monogamy as females established their own exclusive territory, perhaps to secure enough food for themselves and their offspring.

Kit (Christopher) Opie, a biological anthropologist at University College London, led a team that confined its work to primates and came to a different conclusion. In their analysis, which was published in PNAS, reducing infanticide was the only explanation for monogamy that held up.

• Kudos

Josh Snodgrass
Josh Snodgrass. Credit/U. of Oregon

J. Josh Snodgrass, an associate professor of biological anthropology at the University of Oregon. Has been named the monthly Scientist to Watch by The Scientist, a magazine for professionals in the life sciences.

The story appeared Aug. 1 in print and on the website of The Scientist. Human adaptation to environmental and other challenges is what intrigues Snodgrass, and his work in Siberia and Ecuador, in particular, drew the attention of the magazine.

Snodgrass, who joined the University of Oregon in 2005, is quoted as saying: “It’s an honor to be selected and a huge surprise … More than anything else, I’m excited about getting more exposure for my research projects, including my long-term, collaborative field projects in Siberia and Ecuador.”

• In memoriam

George W. Stocking Jr., a historian of science and professor history and anthropology at the University of Chicago, died at the age of 84 years.

George W. Stocking Jr.
G.W. Stocking Jr. Credit: Matthew Gilson/NY Times

He is known for his study of the norms, customs and tribal beliefs of modern anthropologists, documenting a history of racial bias and ethnocentrism as well as great insights.

He was best known for his studies of anthropology’s pioneers, most notably Edward Burnett Tylor, the self-taught 19th-century British theorist who is often called the father of the field, and Franz Boas, the German-American émigré who pioneered its practice in the United States.

In a semi-autobiography, Glimpses Into My Own Black Box, published in 2010, Professor Stocking turned on himself the same unblinking gaze he had trained on the history of anthropology. The book, an account of his youth and family ancestry, amounts to an ethno-historical description of upper-middle-class life at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.

The seven years he spent as a Communist, Professor Stocking wrote, taught him the habit of “self-criticism,” which made him “suspicious of master narratives” and open to studying, in effect, the narratives of people who study others’ narratives.

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