anthro in the news 5/28/18

Bullshit Jobs in the news

The latest book by David Graeber, London School of Economics anthropology professor book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, was published May 15 and is being widely reviewed and discussed. In The New Zealand Herald: “When anthropologist David Graeber set out to write his provocatively titled book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he invited the internet to share stories of occupations that people believed may contain a high concentration of faecal matter. Among the hundreds who shared stories was an online marketer whose team spent its days crafting and designing online banner ads for pedantic clients, while being fully aware that no one ever clicked on their ads — at least not intentionally. ‘They later had to make up these new kinds of statistics and measures on how many people see these things from the corner of their eye,’ [comments Graeber…]. ‘They’re doing this tiny detail work because the customer wants everything to be perfect, all the while knowing it makes no difference.’’ This piece contains a short video interview with Graeber in which he differentiates between bullshit jobs and shit jobs.

The review in The Daily Mail included this insight from the author: “‘What I ended up doing, when I was researching the book, I created an email account [and]…advertised the account and invited people to share their experiences…‘I said, “Have you ever had a job that’s totally pointless? Tell me all about it.”’ The responses came rolling in – in their hundreds…I wrote them all in one giant file, and I color coded it for content,’ he says, clarifying that he’s not labeling any jobs ‘bulls**t’ himself; he’s only reporting the feelings expressed by people actually working in those positions. ‘Telemarketers were way up there…There’s nobody in telemarketing who doesn’t feel that their job shouldn’t exist … It’s also unusual because most bulls**t jobs pay pretty well and have good benefits; telemarketers aren’t like that. It’s the worst of the worst.’”

A review in Bloomberg commented: “Graeber writes that the only people who’ve ever argued with his basic premise are business owners, the people who are in charge of hiring and firing. He says he periodically receives ‘unsolicited communications’ from such people, who insist that no one ‘would ever spend company money on an employee who wasn’t needed.’ LOLOLOLOL. Sure, corporations and private equity amassers are always laying people off in the name of shareholder value, but, as Graeber mentions, that’s usually a felling of  workers who are actually productive while the top layers of overpaid, unnecessary management are the last to go. (Or, if they go, it’s with severance packages.)”

Reuters’ review includes this point:  “The book’s main contribution is its highly entertaining definition of terms. A bullshit job is a paid role that’s ‘so completely, pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence’ – even though the incumbent will typically pretend that’s not the case. Qualifying positions are numerous, from the bored receptionist whose main job is to wind up a grandfather clock once a week, to the unhappy employee in a warehouse full of clown noses. Anyone who works in public relations, or has ‘strategic’ in their title, automatically joins the club.”

WGN radio (Chicago) carried an eleven-minute interview with Graeber about what kind of jobs fall into the category of bullshit jobs and how there are more unfulfilling jobs in the market now than in recent years. Not all jobs, he says, have to change the world. Many non-bullshit jobs, however, such as bus driving and nursing, continue to exist. Ironically, however, bullshit jobs often pay better than such useful jobs. 

talking trash 

The Economic Times (India) carried an article spotlighting a book about the huge problem of waste management in India and the lack of commitment to dealing with it: “The book’s extensive research includes stories from landfills, open dumps and recycling sheds by [historian Robin] Jeffrey and his co-author Assa Doron, an associate professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Anthropology at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. The book begins with a taxi ride to Seelampur, a highly-congested locality in northeast Delhi infamous for churning out e-waste in huge quantity.” Doron commented that the “immense volume” of thrown-away electronic gadgetry and the people — women and children, old and young — engaged in breaking it down and segregating material provoked nagging questions: “We’ve got to do a book about garbage” said he had thought to himself.

playing the anthropology card and winning 

Quartz reported on comments by Jim Yong Kim, anthropologist and medical doctor, who spoke at a conference and mentioned how he nailed his job as president of the World Bank in his interview with President Obama. As a non-economist, he was an unconventional candidate for the position. Kim reports that Obama looked at him and said, “So, Jim, why would I nominate you to be president of the World Bank? Why wouldn’t I nominate a macroeconomist?” “Well, president Obama,” Kim replied “have you read your mother’s Ph.D dissertation?” Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an activist and anthropologist who spent years living in Indonesia, researching village craft industries. One of the ideas she explored was the argument made by development economists that the Indonesian artisanal industry would be destroyed by globalization. “But in her 1,000-page dissertation, she showed that globalization led to the flowering, the rapid expansion, of the Indonesian artisanal industry,” said Kim. Her field research had given her better information. “I’m not going to be able to tell you what it looks like from 30,000 feet, like a macroeconomist,” Kim told Obama, “but I can tell you if the programs are working on the ground, because that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.” “Ok, I get that,’” Obama responded. Kim got the job. When the two met again at an informal gathering, Obama remarked, “Jim, that was one of the best ploys to get a job I’ve ever seen.”

sorcery-driven murders in Papua New Guinea

National Public Radio (U.S.) reported on the high mortality rates from local violence fueled by sorcery accusations in Papua New Guinea. Analysis of newspaper records and court filings led by the Papua New Guinea National Research Institute found an annual average of 30 killings from 1996 to 2016. Some government estimates put the number even higher — up to 500 deaths a year. Given the lack of detailed data on such deaths, sociocultural anthropologist Fiona Hukula, a senior researcher with the National Research Institute’s Building Safer Communities program, has enlisted a network of volunteers to report attacks on people accused of sorcery to a national database. With this information, she has identified hot spots of reported sorcery-accusation killings in the highlands and the autonomous region of Bougainville, an island that went through a decade-long civil war that ended in 1998. Hukula is quoted as saying: “The belief in sorcery is quite widespread in this country. But the violence we are seeing is not happening everywhere…Some provinces have had ways to deal with this for a long time that isn’t violent.” The localized data may help inform approaches to preventing future violence.

anthropology in and for everyday life

A panel discussion on Maine Public Radio included four anthropologists explaining how anthropology is part of everyday life. Discussion covered different areas of anthropological research including linguistics and archaeology, what we know about why humans separate into different groups, how anthropology informs our understanding of the human dimensions of climate change, and the anthropology of war. Speakers were: Scott MacEachern, professor of anthropology at Bowdoin College; Cindy Isenhour, assistant professor of anthropology and climate change Institute at the University of Maine; Nadia R. El-Shaarawi, assistant professor of global studies at Colby College; and Sara Lowden, doctoral student in anthropology and environmental policy at the University of Maine.

identifying enslaved people of Maryland

The Washington Post reported on how DNA research may help identify enslaved people buried in a cemetery in Maryland and reconnect them to their descendants. In Catoctin Furnace, the cemetery of enslaved workers of the iron furnace was discovered in 1979 and some skeletal material removed to the Smithsonian. The local historical society knows the years when enslaved people tried to escape the industrial site from “wanted” advertisements in the newspaper. But dating when they died or moved from the area has eluded the historical society. “It’s not unusual at all for them to be lost in time,” said Elizabeth A. Comer, an archaeologist and member of the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society. While the history of the European-American owners and workers at the furnace is well-preserved, that of the black enslaved workers has vanished. Research just completed on the DNA of half of the exhumed slaves may be the key to finding links with possible descendant populations. The historical society is going to load the existing genetic profiles to 23andMe in order to see they can find any matches with living people.


The Guardian reported on national Canadian recognition of an activity book that invites children to discover Prince Edward Island archaeology. The Canadian Archaeological Association named the provincial government’s Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat the recipient of its 2018 Public Communications Award for producing the book, Archaeology in Action. Aimed at young readers, it highlights three case studies.

in memoriam

Zhao Kangmin, the archaeologist who led the excavation of China’s Terra Cotta Army, has died at the age of 82 years. He first saw fragments of the terra cotta warriors in 1974. Farmers, about 20 miles from China’s central city of Xi’an, were digging a well and struck into the pieces. The farmers contacted Chinese authorities, who sent out government archaeologists. Since that time, some of the farmers have since sued the government for recognition of the discovery. Zhao disagreed with their claim: “The farmers saw the terracotta fragments, but they didn’t know they were cultural relics, and they even broke them,” he told China Daily in 2009. “It was me who stopped the damage, collected the fragments and reconstructed the first terracotta warrior.”


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