anthro in the news 2/27/17

Multiculturalism. Source; True Tube U.K.
Multiculturalism. Source; True Tube U.K.

assault on multiculturalism

The Huffington Post published an article by Paul Stoller, professor of anthropology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Stoller is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post as well as a public lecturer and commentator on National Public Radio programs and the National Geographic Television Network. Stoller writes:

“There is an unmistakable assault on multiculturalism in America. Millions of Americans have come to believe that life was better in the past when multiculturalism was barely known and little practiced. Critics of multiculturalism suggest that it is a potential poison that could lead to social and cultural decline. Walter E. Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a prominent critic of multiculturalism, provides a typical argument against it. ‘Multiculturalists argue,’ he wrote in a recent widely circulated op-ed, ‘that different cultural values are morally equivalent. That’s nonsense. Western culture and values are superior.’ [Blogger’s note: Money from the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors supports extremely conservative research and teaching, in economics especially, at George Mason University, including funding of its think tank, the Mercatus Center. Williams is John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics, a position funded to some extent at least in the past by the conservative Olin Foundation. My kudos to universities across the U.S. that have refused such funding.]

cultural revival in New Zealand

A selection of Taonga pūoro from the collection of Horomona Horo. Source: Wikipedia
A selection of Taonga pūoro from the collection of Horomona Horo. Source: Wikipedia

New Hubs (New Zealand) reported on the appointment of Rob Thorne, an anthropologist and musician, the first in his field to be named as composer-in-residence at Victoria University. Thorne is a specialist in Taonga Puoro, Māori instruments, and, along with others, is helping to revive interest in their distinctive sound. Thorne says playing the distinctive sounds of Taonga Puoro has brought him closer to his culture: “The greatest thing that I may have learned about my own culture is that we were very deeply artist and musical.” Traditionally the instruments were used in entertainment, when planting crops, to sound a warning in warfare, and to communicate with the gods. [with audio].

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anthro in the news 1/20/17


not “beautiful”

A letter to the editor by Charles Thompson appeared in The New York Times. He is professor of cultural anthropology and documentary studies at Duke University and author of Border Odyssey: Travels along the U.S.-Mexico Divide. His letter responds to an earlier article in The New York Times, Life Along the U.S.-Mexico Border:

I have traveled the roughly 2,000 miles of the border and have witnessed every section of the wall up close. I have visited with dozens of people along the way and crossed at every crossing. I have learned these truths: The border wall is ineffective except for killing the poorest migrants and wildlife. It is a colossal waste of money and does little to prevent violence or curtail drugs. There is nothing “beautiful” about it. Instead of keeping us safe, our wall sends a message to our southern allies that we have closed off all communication. Any talk of a new wall serves only to underline our lack of imagination for solving problems collaboratively. I reject this symbol for the land of the free.

anthropology day

anthroday_button-width-600The Huffington Post published a piece called “What Is This Anthropology Anyway?” by Therese Muranaka, a retired California State Parks archaeologist who taught anthropology part-time for many years:  In honor of Anthropology Day on February 16, help the Anthropology students in your life celebrate the inherent value of their discipline. For those of you with college children not majoring in Anthropology, suggest an Anthropology minor. Those of you able to do so, take a community college or continuing education Anthropology class. Nothing would be more broadening of your horizons. The world is a very, very big place.” 

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object lesson: dolls on an anthropologist’s shelf


You can learn about a culture by looking at iconic artwork or inspiring architecture — and also by examining seemingly mundane cultural products like dolls.

Dana Professor of Anthropology Loring Danforth makes that point when he teaches the course “Myth, Folklore, and Popular Culture.”

“The first book we read,” he says, “is Barbie’s Queer Accessories,” by Erica Rand, the college’s Whitehouse Professor of Art and Visual Culture.

Rand’s book, combined with Barbie’s powerful and familiar image, provides a “good vehicle to get people thinking about gender, class, sexuality, sexual orientation, and race in American culture,” he says.

But Barbie is only half the story.

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anthro in the news 2/13/17

Contemporary version of a blue-eyed doll Source: covermyfb
Contemporary version of a blue-eyed doll Source: covermyfb

dolls in international relations

The Japan Times published an op-ed by Hirokazu Miyazaki, professor of anthropology at Cornell University and director of its Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies: “One hundred years ago this month, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. The law was intended to keep out broad categories of immigrants, including those who were illiterate, indigent or mentally ill. It also barred entry to people from wide swaths of Asia and the Pacific. Japanese and Filipinos were exempted, but seven years later President Warren Harding pushed through an even stiffer measure, the Immigration Act of 1924, which extended the restrictions to citizens of Japan. The Japanese government protested, as did many American citizens and civil society groups. When it became clear there was little chance of changing the minds of the president or Congress, a man named Sidney Gulick decided to turn his attention to the next generation.” And thus began the exchange of dolls between Japan and the U.S. 

reflection on racism in the U.S.

Caption: President Barack Obama speaks during the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on September 24, 2016.
Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Caption: President Barack Obama speaks during the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on September 24, 2016.
Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The latest piece on U.S. public radio by Barbara J. King, emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, is a reflection on her visit to the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “As I walked along, I experienced moments of emotion. Yet I was also aware, acutely so, that for some people also visiting the museum that afternoon, a ‘highly personal moment’ would be rooted in experiences I could never truly fathom. For decades, I taught College of William and Mary students about race and racism from the point of view of anthropology — explaining that race is not a biologically meaningful category, and sharing the American Anthropological Association’s statement that ‘the racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.” A white American, she concludes by commenting that teaching important facts is not the same as living them. 

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on cinematic anthropology, the use of sensation in ethnographic filmmaking

Professor Lisa Stevenson at the event. Source: Claire Avisar
Professor Lisa Stevenson at the event. Source: Claire Avisar

To most people, the image of a farm on the outskirts of Montreal, the routine of a professional bodybuilder, and Afghan lullabies have little to do with one another. To students of the Anthropology department’s ANTH 408: Sensory Ethnography course, however, they represent the subjects of a semester’s worth of work documenting, creating, and reflecting upon the process of ethnographic filmmaking.

On January 20, held within the historic limestone walls of Thompson House, McGill’s Anthropology Students’ Association hosted the students, their friends, and professors of a class whose central work focused on sensory ethnography (a practice that privileges audiovisual representations of living subjects and rejects the mediation of dialogue, narration, or subtitles). Prefaced by a cocktail hour, this event provided its attendees an evening of food, drinks, and the chance to engage with the students whose work was showcased. With a set of topics as diverse as their approaches, the films were united under their rich cinematography, experimental approach to the traditional narrative, and the attempt to decode human understandings of the world.

Professor Lisa Stevenson, an associate professor in the department of Anthropology, stepped up to the podium. She expressed pride for her students, along with the central question of the night: what is the value of cinematography over traditional written works?


Developed largely during the 20th century – a time of expansion within the discipline of anthropology – ethnography grew out of the schools of cultural and social anthropology as an observation driven method of data collection. Moving beyond bound volumes of empirical analysis, sensory ethnography resides at the intersection of social science and aesthetics. Stevenson emphasized that, instead of drawing on prose as a method of documenting subjects, these student films drew primarily on the power of visual and auditory imagery in unearthing cultural idiosyncrasies. The practice aims to transform current ethnographic methods by creating new ways for researchers to engage with their audiences. The ultimate goal is to shift from data collection to practical knowledge.

What is the value of cinematography over traditional written works?

Through sensory stimulation, researchers elicit reflection and emotion from the viewer. Stevenson explained that although such a style of film might reflect an experimental quality, its loss of linear narrative is purposeful. Without narration or subtitles to guide the viewer, sensory ethnography leaves space for reflexivity and interpretation. Citing Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Stevenson explained that many of the films captured “the imponderabilia of everyday life.” This concept was articulated in films such as Delirium by Timothy Mapley and Rainy Day by Lara Esrey, both showcased at the event, which utilized repetition and routine in order to explore the monotony of consumerism.

Within their documentation of a professional bodybuilder’s daily regimen and an amateur boxing team, respectively, films such as Kinesthesia by Yuki Kasai-Pare and Underdog by Liona Gibbs-Bravo explored the relationship between the montage as a film technique and movement as a human experience. Seeking to show the self-discipline and strength of the human body when pushed to its physical limits, Kinesthesia coupled images of muscles in motion with classical music, the dynamics of which mirrored the intensity of weightlifting. By allowing the audience into their personal workout, the intimate perspective of the film, coupled with stimulating auditory cues, led the piece to succeed in conveying a personal pain that was palpable to the audience.

Instead of drawing on prose as a method of documenting subjects, these student films drew primarily on the power of visual and auditory imagery in unearthing cultural idiosyncrasies.

In contrast to the intensity featured in the aforementioned films, Natural by Julien Renaud and The Present Moment by April Barrett were powerful – but in subtle ways. The films evoked a sensory reaction through an exploration of stillness. Placid and serene, Natural explored nature in the absence of humans, meditating on the passing of time by filling the screen with images of farmland upon winter’s edge. Similar in its awareness of time, The Present Moment staged an encounter between the audience and a community of Roman Catholic nuns. Panning the bright corridors of a church, the smooth camera work enabled the hymnal chatter to prevail as a central feature.

As setting, motion, and sound all helped to develop a focus on what is expressed as sensory, the lighting – or lack thereof – in Sonoluminecnence by Alec Tilly and Lullaby for Kian by Homa Wahabi was equally characteristic of psychedelic trance as it was of the personal elements of one’s bedtime ritual. In the latter film, the tone of a grandmother reciting an Afghan lullaby to her grandchild created a sense of comfort and security. Though many people would not be able to understand her words, the soft, rolling sounds imparted a nostalgia to the moments between consciousness and the verge of being asleep.

Despite their diversity of subject and technique, the films were ultimately unified in their exploration of the use of affect and sensation to explore what it means to be human. Not only did each film succeed in showcasing the curiosity of their makers, but they also effectively passed on their reflexivity to those who had the pleasure of viewing them

Written by:

Visual by: Claire Avisar

Note: This post is republished from The McGill Daily, with permission


best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2016

Here are my 50 cultural anthropology dissertation selections for 2016. As in past years, my search was based on Dissertation Abstracts International, an electronic database available through my university library which consists of almost 100 percent U.S. dissertations. As always, I rely only on the abstract of each dissertation as the basis for my selection. I have taken the liberty of trimming long abstracts so that all entries are roughly the same length. My apologies to the authors for any possible offenses created by my editing.

The search terms I used reflect the focus of the anthropologyworks blog: food, resources, and livelihoods; power and politics; health; conflict and violence; population dynamics; stratification including race, class, gender, and age; activism, programs and policies; and the importance of cultural anthropology in describing and analyzing the complexity of these topics within particular and changing contexts – local, regional, and global. 

The selected dissertations of 2016 offer a rich array of topics and approaches. Health-related research predominates. Other recurrent subjects are politics and power, migration, rights, and the effects of policies and programs. Cities are a notably frequent site, while several studies are based on multi-sited research. 

Congratulations to writers of these 50 dissertation. Best wishes to you all.

See also the best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2009, 2010, 2011,20122013, 2014, and 2015.

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Syrian refugee family thrives in American south

Courtesy of Square, Inc.

by Lesli Davis

A short film produced by Square, Inc. tells the story of a refugee family living in Knoxville, TN.

Yassin Falafel, as some people call him, runs a popular restaurant in downtown Knoxville. After fleeing the war in Syria, he and his family settled in East Tennessee. Initially without a work permit, Yassin began selling his sandwiches at the local mosque. With a little help from an imam at the mosque, Yassin opened his downtown store.

Yassin says that anyone who comes in his restaurant is family – from the fellow refugees he employs to those who have never tried falafel before.

His message is simple: all are welcome.

Courtesy of Square, Inc.