anthro in the news 12/21/2015


Source: Google Images/Creative Commons

Syrian refugees in poverty

Marketplace (American Public Media) published a piece on the dire economic situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. According to a new report from UNHCR, Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have limited opportunities to work since only a small group of refugees has work permits. It quotes Dawn Chatty, professor of anthropology and forced migration at the University of Oxford: “While refugee camps can provide a haven for the displaced population, the reality is that many Syrians in Jordan don’t have access to them…In Lebanon, refugee camps don’t exist…Many are surviving with irregular part-time jobs…and bad pay.”


No lip kissing, please, we’re Indian

James Bond gets only a half kiss in Spectre. Source: News Nation

The Times of India carried an article about a talk at the Godrej Culture Lab in Mumbai by William Mazzarella, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago and author of Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity. He noted how the censorship story has been unfolding in Indian film:  “Censorship itself is a kind of publicity that thrives on visibility…Censorship seems to be flourishing despite the fact that it hasn’t been able to silence or control a great deal of our public conscience space. So maybe we need to think differently about what the censors are up to.”  He speculated on James Bond’s half kiss in the version of Spectre that made it to Indian movie halls.


Cash as the most efficient, or worst, holiday gift?

The Washington Post carried an op-ed by staff writer Ana Swanson, who has a B.A. in anthropology [see below: take that anthro degree and…]. She writes that the holidays generate a shocking amount of waste: “I’m not just talking about discarded wrapping paper or congealed mashed potatoes. I’m talking about what economists and their acolytes have long mourned as ‘the deadweight loss’ of gift giving – the portion of the retail value of a gift that is destroyed when the gift is given. Let’s say, for example, your aunt gives you a weird little figurine that cost her $40. But because you don’t like it very much, you would only be willing to pay $5 for it. *Poof*, $35 of value is gone.” Thus, some economists recommend that you should give cash instead as it is more efficient, in their terms.

The piece then references some classic anthropological studies showing that gift giving has long been motivated by factors much different than maximizing economic value including Wendy James, who wrote about gift-giving among the Uduk in northeast Africa, in the journal Sudan Notes and Records in 1970, and Marcel Mauss, one of the most influential thinkers about gift-giving, who wrote about the potlatch, a feast among native people of the Pacific Northwest. Further, on potlatching, as a social leveling function: “It was an essential way to establish one’s social status, redistribute wealth in the community, and, probably, as the anthropologist Franz Boas wrote, ensure that no one person in the community acquired too much wealth.”

In conclusion, Swanson comments: “…gift giving is about far more than the actual transaction. It’s about the reciprocal activity that creates ties between people, with one gift leading to another gift and then a relationship.” [Blogger’s note: Cultural anthropologists have not much studied cash gifts, but clearly they can have social meaning, create social ties, and perhaps also serve as a leveling mechanism to some extent. In my family, in the 1950s, my paternal grandfather gave his many grandchildren cash gifts on our birthday and at Christmas. It was actual cash in an envelope. He would jokingly say, “green goes with everything.” In other words, his gift would provide us with something that we desired and about which he was clueless. We kids always looked forward to that envelope and certainly didn’t love him any less for giving us a cash gift. The point was that he remembered us and wanted us to have a treat from him. Sure, it is special when you can find the exact, wonderful present for someone that brings surprise and delight to their eyes. But when you have umpteen grandchildren, that’s a bit too much of a challenge. A cash gift can work, both for the economist’s definition of efficiency and to maintain a social relationship of love and care.]


Inside story: Legal marijuana work in the U.S.

The International Business Times reported on workers’ rights in the legal marijuana industry, with a focus on the growers, trimmers and budtenders who earn an hourly wage in dubious workplace conditions. Lia Berman, an anthropology graduate student at the University of South Florida who spent three months working at a Colorado dispensary as part of her thesis project, comments that the lack of employee benefits, low wages, and job insecurity could be causing the diversion of legally grown marijuana to the black market: “The low wages in many ways caused a lot of this product to be sold in informal networks out of economic desperation…I was supporting myself greatly through my own funds; I would never be able to survive working 40 hours a week at a dispensary.”


The fossil fuel era: Beginning of the end

Cultural anthropologist Alan Borais of Kenai Peninsula College published an op-ed in the Alaska Dispatch News about how the Paris Climate Agreement will affect environment and policy in Alaska: “Since oil began flowing in the trans-Alaska pipeline, Alaska’s industry leaders, and the public officials who support them, have cast us as a resource extraction state.” That may have to change…According to Chilean climate negotiator Marcelo Mena Carrasco, the Paris agreement is “the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era.” That’s a sobering thought for an oil resource extraction state already reeling from the whims of geopolitical petroleum economics…In 2015, we’d be better off taking the moral and economic high road and investing in geothermal, tidal and river-flow energy.”


Homeless: Life on the wintry streets of a Massachusetts town

The Berkshire Eagle (Massachusetts) reported on the research of Union College anthropology major Lindsey Hunt who immersed herself in the life of homeless people last winter in her hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Pittsfield suffered a major economic shock when the leading employer closed its plant, moving operations outside the U.S. Hunt conducted four months of fieldwork with homeless people during the winter months in Pittsfield. Her 153 page honors thesis was her culminating project. She works at the Brien Center in Pittsfield [see below: take that anthro degree and…]. She is quoted as saying: “I would walk with them, go to dinners…I spent Thanksgiving with them, Christmas with them, New Year’s Day.”


Youth culture: Class project to museum exhibit

Mary Good and student exhibit on youth culture. Source: WFDD Public Radio

WFDD (U.S. National Public Radio) interviewed Mary Good, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Wake Forest University in North Carolina: “I taught a class that was an upper level seminar on the anthropology of childhood and youth, so exploring the ways that children are viewed, and how they come to be part of a particular culture. Each student had to pick an object from our museum collections, and it fit into one of five categories, so education, dolls, clothing, games, and then other toys. Most of the toys were from contemporary times. Some were from the 1950s, some were from the 1970s. We had some, I think, from the early 1900s, so there is a good range. The students were given the task of researching these toys, and how they incorporate into youth culture around the globe. Afterwards, they got to do something very cool with their research.”

An exhibit of the students’ work is on display at the University’s Museum of Anthropology.  Good says: “…learning to communicate science knowledge is critical, especially in this day and age when there is so much information out there, and there is a real need for interesting and engaging, but also accurate, science information.”


Take that anthro degree and…

…become a news reporter and news analyst. Ana Swanson is a reporter for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, specializing in business, economics, data visualization, and China. She also works on Know More, Wonkblog’s social media channel. Swanson has a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University and an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

…work with a non-profit to improve lives of urban youth. Lindsey Hunt works with the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which provides services for children, adolescents, adults and families who suffer from serious and persistent behavioral health disorders. She has a B.A. in anthropology from Union College in New York State, where she wrote her senior thesis on homelessness in Pittsfield.

…become a news reporter. Nia-Malika Henderson has worked at a number of news organizations, including Newsday, Politico and the Washington Post. Earlier this year, she joined CNN as its senior political reporter. She has a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Duke University and graduate degrees in American studies from Yale University and in journalism from Columbia University.

…become a professor of political economy and international development. Robert Wade is a professor in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. Wade was born in Australia to New Zealand parents and traveled widely since his father was a diplomat. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Sussex University where he had originally enrolled for a degree in economics. But after fieldwork on Pitcairn Island in the Pacific, “I announced that I wished to not do a PhD in economics, but to do one in anthropology thinking all the time, that this would actually be more use for understanding why for example India, where I had been, was so very poor…In some ways I regard that as having been a mistake, because the sort of mainstream of anthropology is very far away from the Adam Smith questions. Having done the degree in anthropology, pretty soon I began to change direction and pay much more attention to the state, to the state bureaucracy. I went to India and I studied the Irrigation Department and other related departments. I went to South Korea and I studied state irrigation agencies and I went to Taiwan and I studied the state more broadly. So I was kind of moving up…the scale in terms of state agencies and then the state as a whole.” Wade was at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex from 1972–1995, and he worked at the World Bank from 1984–1988. He has done fieldwork in Italy, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Pitcairn Island.


Message in a thigh bone

ABC News reported on the discovery of a partial thighbone from southwest China which may provide evidence that pre-modern humans inhabited mainland Eurasia at the same time as modern humans. Analysis of a 14,000-year-old partial thighbone, recovered from Maludong (Red Deer Cave) in Yunnan Province in 1989, is reported in the journal PLOS ONE. It follows a 2012 analysis by the team of skull bones from Maludong and another site in China that led to their first suggestion of the existence of the Red Deer Cave people.The exact identity of these people remains a mystery, and at least one expert is not even convinced the thighbone is human.

The thighbone consists of the upper half of a femur and lacks the head that would form the hip joint, said associate professor Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales, who led the research with professor Ji Xueping from the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. Professor Colin Groves from the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology said the incomplete nature of the thighbone may explain why it looks so primitive.


Jesus and the Magdala Stone: Did he or didn’t he?

For Boise state public radio (Idaho), biological anthropologist Barbara J. King, Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary, reflects on the significance of the Magdala Stone, which dates from the time of Jesus. The big question is whether Jesus taught in the synagogue where the Magdala Stone was found. King says: “…evidence for that claim seems to me both circumstantial and plausible, related to Jesus’ likely route as he moved about, teaching, in the Galilee region. More archaeological excavations will bring more knowledge. This merging of interpretations from science (archaeology) and religious studies can be fascinating for any of us intrigued by the history of human religiosity — whether this month we celebrate a sacred holiday, a secular one or none at all.”


Survival skills: Lessons from anthropology

John J. Shea, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York, published an article in the Huffington Post on how anthropology provides insights into emergency preparedness and disaster response. He is an expert on stone tools and human evolution who has directed archaeological excavations in Eastern Africa and the Near East. He writes that “…never before in history have so few people known basic survival skills…Learning survival skills well enough to use them under stress requires practice. A course I teach at Stony Brook University shows one way of learning survival and cooperation skills together. ‘Primitive Technology’ examines the origins of science by learning and practicing Stone Age survival techniques…For anthropologists, learning survival skills and effective teamwork has obvious benefits. If one lives and works in remote areas long enough, one will eventually need these skills. The benefits might seem less obvious to people who live in cities and suburbs, but low-income urban and suburban areas are often the worst-hit by natural disasters and among the last to receive relief. To prepare for the next most likely emergency, people living in urban and suburban communities should learn about thermoregulation, water security, fire management, first aid, rescue strategies, and how to work together cooperatively.”


“Race:” So complicated

Quartz carried an article about the endurance of the “race” concept in the U.S. It notes that “Race is a categorization primarily ascertained, though not entirely defined, by skin color. It is in some aspects a profoundly American invention, and very dependent upon the historical and cultural contexts.” The article then refers to the work of Robert Sussman, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, St. Louis: “In The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, [Sussman] argues that race has never has been biological. But ‘even though biological races do not exist, the concept of race obviously is still a reality, as is racism,’ he writes in a piece for Newsweek last year. ‘These are prevalent and persistent elements of our everyday lives and generally accepted aspects of our culture.’”


In memoriam

Marianne Stoller, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Colorado College, died in December. She served as chair of Colorado College’s Anthropology Department twice throughout her career, as well as directing the college’s Southwest Studies summer institutes. She earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her areas of expertise were social anthropology, ethnography, ethno-anthropology, art and comparative aesthetics, and Southwest Native Americans and Latinos. She led summer digs in the late 1980s and early 1990s that uncovered a 17th-century Spanish Colonial ranch in La Cienega, New Mexico, one of only six known pre-revolt Spanish colonial sites in New Mexico. Since retiring in 1998, she continued to be active in the Colorado College community by serving on the Board of Managers for the college’s Woman’s Educational Society, for which she raised more than $50,000 in scholarships.

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