Anthro in the news 3/9/15 and 3/16/15

  • What makes a car great?
Well-off Chinese consumers want Japanese toilets. Credit: AFP.

Gillian Tett, columnist for The Financial Times and an anthropologist by training, describes the increasing inclusion of cultural anthropologists and other social scientists in tech/design research labs around the world for their ability to learn about people’s consumption patterns and preferences. Tett offers the example of Ford, which is opening a new center in Silicon Valley:  “These psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists are trying to understand how we interact with our cars in a cultural sense. It is a striking development and one worth pondering in a personal sense if, like me, you spend much of your life rushing about in a car.”

She emphasizes the value of localized, cultural knowledge in a globalizing world:  “…Chinese consumers often have radically different ideas of what makes a great car, especially if they are female.”

  • What makes a health project work?
So many pills. Credit:

Culturally informed research design in health projects is critical to success. Medical anthropologist Ida Susser of Hunter College, City University of New York, published an op-ed in Al Jazeera about the importance of not blaming the victim when an HIV intervention fails to show positive results. Instead, the blame may lie in a faulty research design. She examines a study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine as an example of blaming the victim.

Known as VOICE, or Vaginal and Oral Interventions to Control the Epidemic. The evaluation of the intervention failed to show any preventive results for women in southern Africa using ARV-based pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pills or topical microbicide gel. Susser writes: “It’s a particularly unsettling failure because previous studies have demonstrated that these ARV-based methods work. Most of the women who participated in the VOICE study did not use the tablets or gel, but those who did were protected. In other words, the study failed not because the products didn’t work but because they weren’t used.”

Susser argues that the research design was to blame, not the women: “The challenge of this research is more social and behavioral than medical; to succeed, we must better understand which routines and methods work best for women in stressful daily conditions. If the offered methods are not used, then researchers must rethink their approach or at-risk women will continue to become infected with HIV, and the epidemic will spiral.”

  • Islam and feminism can be compatible

A lot depends on how you define feminism and women’s rights, according to an article in the U.S. News and World Report. Many believe a combination of the two is implausible, but it is, however, possible if one is prepared to accept that there are multiple feminisms and Islamisms in the world today. The article cites cultural anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. She argues that Muslim women in different contexts and situations experience structures of domination differently. For example, a Muslim woman in a poor neighborhood of Riyadh experiences gender discrimination differently from a businesswoman. In other words, one should not “totalize” the experience of “Muslim women.”

  • Brazil: Sweet and sour

An article in The Huffington Post on Brazil as an emerging “food superpower” points to how agribusiness success is tied to growing landlessness and hunger in a country that is exporting massive amounts of food: “By the dawn of the twenty-first century, Brazil became the world’s number one beef exporter and star in the exports of sugar, coffee, orange juice, corn, soy, and cotton.”

In order to understand the dark side of Brazil’s rise, the author advises that: “…one needs to read Death Without Weeping to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. This is a 1992 book by Nancy Scheper-Hughes…She says the Brazilian Northeast, “land of sugar and hunger, thirst and penance, messianism and madness,” made death routine–particularly for “the children of poor families.” While economic conditions and child nutrition in Brazil’s northeast have improved since the 1990s, the benefits of Brazil as a “food superpower” are not equitably experienced at home.

  • Infuriated and confused at Duke University

The Washington Post covered the ongoing situation at Duke University related to two allegations of sexual assault against a Duke basketball player who has remained active on the team. It quoted Orin Starn, chair and professor of cultural anthropology at Duke: “It’s the ultimate no-win situation…I don’t think anybody feels good about the way that this is unfolding. If these allegations are true, that’s horrifying . . . but if the allegations are not true, one feels terrible for him.”

  • Cultural anthropology: A love story?

Tom McCarthy, author of the new novel Satin Island, writes about his love for cultural anthropology in The Guardian. Claude Lèvi-Strauss gets a lot of love. [Blogger’s note: I have read Satin Island, and I thought it was a spoof, actually a skewering of cultural anthropology. Perhaps I should read it again.]

  • Swedes and Nords: Not a love story

The Washington Post reported on a documentary, Underdog, which tells the story of a 19-year-old Swede who travels to Oslo to find work and ends up working as a housekeeper for a wealthy Oslo family. Over the past few decades, Swedes have become unlikely economic migrants to Norway, with hundreds of thousands making the trip. One estimate says there may be 50,000 Swedes in Oslo, making up almost 10 percent of the population. The article reprints a quote from Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, in The New York Times in 2007: “When I was young, Swedes had whiter teeth, clearer skin, Abba and Bjorn Borg. We had lots of fish, and not much more… Today, Swedes have been cut down to size […] And I would say that many Norwegians enjoy the fact that so many Swedes are here doing menial jobs.”

  • Take that anthro degree and…

…become the first director of Connecticut’s new Office of Early Childhood which combines nine programs formerly scattered over five departments into a single agency focused on early childhood education, safety, and family skills. Myra Jones-Taylor, the new director, has two master’s degrees as well as a doctorate in American studies and anthropology from Yale University. For her dissertation, she researched early childhood education in New Haven’s poorest neighborhoods. She was an assistant professor-faculty fellow at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University. Then, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. tapped her for the school board in New Haven. Now she is directing one of the few comprehensive government units addressing early childhood in the United States.

…become a lawyer and aspiring civic leader. Meg Mikolajczyk (pronounced mike-oh-like-check) earned dual bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and political science with a Celtic studies certificate. Her parents then had a serious talk with her about getting an advanced degree that would be marketable. Maybe law, they said. “You are argumentative anyway,” She did go on to earn a law degree and now practices in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she is running for a seat on the City Council. As a lawyer, she works on cases including the TransCanada pipeline case and Nichols vs. Nichols, a divorce case where a same-sex couple is trying to get their marriage recognized in order to dissolve it. She is also the assisting attorney in the Bernbeck case, involving the state’s petition signature requirements. She shares, with her husband, “…a mutual passion for working toward alleviating poverty in the community.”

…become a professor of human development and family studies. The National Council on Family Relations has conferred its prestigious fellow status on Bahira S. Trask, professor and associate chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Trask is internationally renowned for her research on the relationship between globalization and family change cross-culturally. She focuses on changing gender roles as affected by the changing economy and the need for policies that strengthen and support families. Trask has a BA degree in political science with a concentration in international relations from Yale University and a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.

  • Book review: A kidnapped “cannibal” gets to go home

The Washington Post carried a review of The Captain and the Cannibal by James Fairhead, professor of social anthropology at the University of Sussex. Fairhead uses newly found archives to trace the 1830 voyage to the Pacific of Captain Benjamin Morrell of Connecticut, the first outsider to encounter the inhabitants of a small island off New Guinea. The encounter was violent, and Morrell abducted a young man, Dako. Morrell exhibited Dako as a “cannibal” in popular shows on Broadway and along the east coast. The proceeds funded a return voyage which allowed Dako to go home, where he parlayed his experience among the whites to raise his economic and political status. The reviewer says the book is a “superb new cultural history masquerading as an adventure tale.”

  • “Lost cities” found, or Nat Geo neocolonialism?

The Independent and CNN reported on the National Geographic’s archaeological expedition to Honduras and its reported discovery of the ruins of a lost culture sought by explorers since Cortes. Although supposedly spotted from the air in the 1920s by Charles Lindbergh and the subject of repeated attempts to reach it, no-one had offered irrefutable proof of the existence of the mythical Ciudad Bianca or White City. The Honduran-American expedition, aided by former members of the British SAS, reported that they had discovered extensive remains in the Mosquitia region. As reported in The Guardian, however, some archaeologists, are accusing National Geographic of hyped claims of finding “lost cities” and disregard for years of ongoing research by local archaeologists in collaboration with indigenous people in the area. In other words, the lost cities had been found but not as described and claimed by Nat Geo.

  • Museums and media must respond to ISIS destruction

Adam Smith, professor and chair of Cornell University’s anthropology department, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on ISIS destruction of artifacts housed in Iraq’s Mosul museum and the bulldozing of Nimrud, former capital of the Assyrian Empire. He asks, what is an effective response?  He suggests that both museums be proactive in displaying the remains of the pre-Muslim Middle East and that media directly rebuke the destruction of history and heritage.

  • DNA and physical feature identification

The Bulletin (Oregon) reported on how crime investigators are increasingly able to determine the physical characteristics of suspects from the DNA they leave behind. They can determine a suspect’s eye and hair color fairly accurately. It may also soon be possible to predict skin color, freckling, baldness, hair curliness, tooth shape, and age. Computers might eventually be able to match faces generated from DNA with a database of mug shots.

But this forensic DNA phenotyping is raising concerns about possibly exacerbating racial profiling among law enforcement agencies and infringing on privacy. The article quotes Duana Fullwiley, an associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University, who said that use of such images could contribute to racial profiling since the technology is better able to make faces that are African-American.

  • New technology may bring the end of male dominance

Mel Konner, Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of anthropology, neuroscience, and behavioral biology at Emory University, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, drawing on his new book, Women After All. He argues that women are biologically superior to men in contexts where brute force and heavy weaponry are not central to social and political relationships. Therefore, as small-scale, smart technology becomes more prevalent, men’s physical size and testosterone-driven responses will no longer be the foundations of their dominance.

  • Very old jaw bone

The Toronto Star reported on findings published in Science magazine of a 2.8 million year-old fossil jaw fragment found in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Its age places it near the time when the early human branch split away from more ape-like ancestors. The fossil was discovered by Chalachew Seyoum, a graduate student at Arizona State University. The finding is described in an article in the journal Science. Anthropology professor and director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, William Kimbel, and an author of the paper, said it is not clear whether the fossil is from a known early species of Homo or whether it represents a new species. Fieldwork is continuing to look for more fossils at the site, said another author, Brian Villmoare, assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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