anthro in the news 12/5/16


better voting projections with ethnography

Anthropologist and writer for the Financial Times, Gillian Tett argues that U.S. election polling would have benefited from ethnography: “…pollsters and political pundits need to move beyond their obsession with complicated mathematical models, and participate in more ethnographic research into subtle cultural trends of the sort that anthropologists do.” A letter to the editor, in response to her article, says that sedation of respondents would provide more accurate information about voting preferences, a “truth serum” effect.

combating hate

vqobabc2Paul Stoller, professor of cultural anthropology at West Chester University, published a piece in The Huffington Post describing some recent hate incidents in the U.S., framing his words as a “letter to our students.”  The examples are: incidents in New York City in a supermarket and in a diner, booing of a Gold Star family on a flight, and negative social media during the Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony.  He concludes by saying: “You can take your knowledge and transform it into practice. You can observe small-scaled interactions and ethnographically describe incidents of hate as well as examples of social tolerance. You can post these descriptions on social media to create an ethnographic record of both intolerance and tolerance that will spread far and wide on the Internet—an anthropology of us.”

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Anthro in the news 12/30/13


Calgary Herald. Scott Platt, Getty Images.

  • E-cigarettes: good or bad?

As of the end of 2013, e-cigarettes are hot. According to an article in The Calgary Herald, one sign of the burgeoning popularity of e-cigarettes is that Internet searches for the products have grown exponentially in recent years. A study by U.S. researchers showed a several hundred-fold increase between 2008 and 2010 in searches for the devices over other smoking alternatives such as nicotine patches.

Richard Hurt, who runs the nicotine dependence center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, suggests the expansion of the e-cigarette industry and market is harmful because it is turning back the clock on tobacco control.

Cultural anthropologist Kirsten Bell, in contrast, believes e-cigarettes deserve a chance. A professor at the University of British Columbia, Bell has researched the public health responses to the devices. She feels e-cigarettes aren’t being given a fair shot: “They were sort of being condemned without trial by the majority of people in mainstream tobacco control in public health…You have this sort of unquestioning extension of smoke-free legislation to cover e-cigarettes when of course an e-cigarette isn’t a cigarette. It’s not a combustible product.” Bell thinks a moralistic agenda is at play, equating nicotine use with smoking, even though the dangers of cigarettes relate to how they deliver nicotine, not the compound itself

Couple Snap a Selfie, Macedonia. Adam Jones, Ph.D. Wiki Commons.
  • The meaning in the selfie

The Philadelphia Inquirer carried an article on the selfie in which it referred to the research of archaeologist Dean Snow on Paleolithic handprints on cave walls. What’s the connection? The fact that women are more likely than men to post selfies today and that Snow’s analysis of the handprints indicates that the majority were made by women. The meaning: authenticate the event. [Blogger’s note: that still doesn’t explain the gender difference].

  • Faye Harrison and public engagement

In an article in The Huffington Post, Gina Ulysses of Wesleyan University describes the contributions of University of Florida anthropologist Faye V. Harrison to the ongoing conversations about the future of the university and the “value of a liberal education within a hostile market economy.” Ulysses conducted the interview with Harrison at the November meetings of the American Anthropological Association.

Faye Harrison. University of Florida, 2010.

Harrison’s three-decade long career has been marked by dedication to publicly-engaged work about people who produce and apply both academic and nonacademic knowledge. Her research agenda goes beyond the ivory tower, into what she calls “peripheralized” and “minoritized” areas, engaging people who are typically left out of processes of knowledge-making.

What’s next for Harrison? For one thing, she is co-organizing, with cultural anthropologist Yasuko Takezawa of Kyoto University, a three-session panel entitled “Engaging Race and Racism in the New Millennium: Exploring Visibilities and Invisibilities for the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences” for the intercongress in Chiba, Japan, that will be held in May 2014. Continue reading “Anthro in the news 12/30/13”

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.

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The grand challenges in global mental health

A consortium of social science and medical researchers, advocates and clinicians announced the major research priorities over the next 10 years for addressing mental illness around the world. They call for urgent action and investment. Medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, of Harvard University, is a member of the group. Nature carried a report on the consortium’s conclusions.

Depression. Flickr/shattered.art66
Table 2 presents the 25 Grand Challenges related to mental, neurological and substance-abuse (MNS) disorders.

Cross-cutting themes:

  • research should take a life-history approach
  • suffering from MNS disorders includes family members and communities and thus requires health-system changes
  • all care and treatment interventions should be evidence-based
  • environmental factors such as extreme poverty, war, and natural disasters have important but poorly understood affects on MNS

In conclusion, the report notes that the greatest challenge would be the elimination of MNS disorders. A truly great challenge.

But a challenge that is not likely to be met in the next 10 years given the way things are going with the last factor listed above. Therefore, why not devote the bulk of the research funds to addressing the mental health risks from poverty, war and natural disasters? And, on the way, maybe we should do something about poverty and war?

Herbal answer to Prozac will promote San culture

Guest post by Sean Carey

Think of a South African herb, and the chances are that Hoodia gordonii will come to mind. The much-publicized succulent, which has been traditionally used by the San to ward off hunger and thirst on hunting trips, was the focus of 15 years of research and development by UK-based company, Phytopham — first with pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, and then with international conglomerate, Unilever, which planned to use the herb in its Slim Fast range of weight-loss products.

Traditional preparation of Sceletium by a Nama goatherd.
Traditional preparation of Sceletium by a Nama goatherd. Courtesy: Nigel Gericke.
Unfortunately for Unilever, which invested around £20 million in R&D, double blind and other trials using P57, an extract of Hoodia, indicated that there were a number of adverse effects including a rise in blood pressure and digestive disturbances amongst some subjects. The result was that last November, Phytopharm returned the commercialisation rights of P57 to South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). CSIR now plans to review the data from 14 clinical trials and decide whether it is worth pursuing further projects.

This development was undoubtedly extremely disappointing for the San, who after a dispute about intellectual property rights had successfully secured an agreement in 2003 to receive a share of the royalties from sales of the appetite-suppressant.

However, there is much better news about another South African ground-covering succulent, Sceletium tortuosum, more familiarly known as kagoued (in Afrikaans meaning “something to chew”) or kanna, another herb traditionally used by the San as an analgesic, antispasmodic, sedative, tonic and mood elevator. The herb, which can also be consumed as a tea or taken as a snuff, has been the subject of intensive research by HGH Pharmaceuticals, a company set up in 2007 by South African-born medical practitioner and ethnobotanist, Nigel Gericke.
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Anthro in the news 3/14/11

• Bedouin warriors not motley
Not just a “motley army of poorly armed civilian volunteers,” most of the Libyan opposition fighters are descendants of a long line of warriors. Philip Carl Salzman, professor of cultural anthropology at McGill University, makes this point in a letter to Canada’s National Post: “In the current uprising against the Gaddafi regime, we see a resurgence of the tribes and the reactivation of traditional Bedouin mobilization and martial values.”

• Rethinking tribal power in Libya
Another view, from Khalil Ali Al-Musmari, a retired professor of anthropology, says that foreign media have misrepresented tribal power in Libya. Educated, urban Libyans make their own decisions. In the desert outposts, however, tribes play an important role as villagers decide whom to fight.

• Another big drug from the San
Cultural anthropologist Sean Carey of Roehampton University published an article in the March issue of African Business about an anti-depressant herb known to the San people of southern Africa. The San prozac herb could be more financially successful than diet drug made from hoodia. Follow the money and hope the San get major financial rights and do a good job using the money for their own welfare.

• Last Neanderthals in Greece
Two sites in the Pindos Mountains, dated to between 50,000-35,000 years ago, contain hundreds of stone tools that may have been used by the last Neanderthals in Greece and perhaps Europe.

• Our southern African roots
An extensive genetic study of foraging populations of southern Africa supports the view that modern human origins lie in southern Africa. BBC news cites a co-author of the new study, Brenna Henn of Stanford University and Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London (not involved in the study). The paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

• Basques in Boise, Idaho
A DNA study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reports on the loss of genetic diversity among Basques in Boise due to the founder effect (being descended from a small number of individuals).

• Bonobos: give peace a chance
More on our hippie relatives from Brian Hare of Duke University and Vanessa Woods. Hare and Woods report on our peaceful ancestors who now, sadly, live in the war-torn Congo. We humans should give them a chance.

• Darwin on the hand
Charles Darwin’s assertion that the human hand evolved as a result of tool is supported by experimental research. Stephen Lycett, senior lecturer in human evolution at Kent University, and Alastair Key, of the department of anthropology at Kent University, published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

• In memoriam
Mahmoud Rouh Alamini, a leading figure in establishing cultural anthropology in Iran, died on March 8 at the age of 82 years. He is the author of several books including Old Rites and Fests in Today Iran, Quest with a Lamp, Roots of Culture Studies, On Culture and Swear by Your Shakhe Nabat. He received a B.A. in social sciences in 1960 from the University of Tehran. He received a Ph.D. degree in 1968 from Sorbonne University.

In search of respect: an interview with Philippe Bourgois

Guest post by Julia Friederich, Jessica Grebeldinger, Stephanie Harris, Jacqueline Hazen, and Casey McHugh

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Philippe Bourgois, the Richard Perry University Professor of Anthropology and Family and Community Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Barbara Miller conducted the interview on October 26, 2010, as part of her introductory cultural anthropology class at the George Washington University. Her 280 students had just finished reading In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, and several of them submitted questions for the interview.

Skyping with Philippe. Photo credit: Elliott School of International Affairs, GW

BDM: First, please tell us why you decided to do your dissertation fieldwork in the United States?

PB: I didn’t! I began my dissertation research with the Miskitu Indians in Nicaragua. But the Nicaraguan Revolution, a popular guerrilla movement that eventually overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, was trying to develop an independent socialist government at the time, and the US, through the CIA, destabilized the situation. The CIA distributed machine guns among the people and it turned into civil war. So I went to Costa Rica and Panama where I did research on the United Fruit Company’s banana plantations, and really that’s what eventually brought me to East Harlem. I thought if I can study ethnic conflict in Central America, I should study ethnic conflict and its political economy in my own country. I wanted to look at segregation and what I call “de facto inner city apartheid” in the US. So I went up to East Harlem in New York City and started my new research project there while I was writing my dissertation about the ethnic divide-and-conquer strategy of a US multinational corporation in Costa Rica and Panama. It became my first book: Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation.

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Hallucinogenic healing

Brewing ayahuasca, Credit: Ayahuasca Pix, Creative Commons Licensed on Flickr
Brewing ayahuasca,
Credit: Ayahuasca Pix, Creative Commons Licensed on Flickr

Ayahuasca, a beverage brewed from the roots of an Amazonian plant and consumed under the guidance of a shaman, reportedly provides mind-opening experiences and relief from symptoms of stress, depression and other afflictions. Ayahuasca has long been used in healing rituals in the Amazon region of Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil.

Recently the Guardian carried an article about the use of ayahuasca by members of several Indie groups such as the Klaxons. Then the Washington Post described a healing tour company that connects Westerners to ayahuasca sessions.

To learn more: Marlene Dobkin de Rios is the main cultural anthro expert on ayahuasca. In the 1970s, she published several scholarly articles and an ethnography about its ritual healing use, Visionary Vine: Hallucinogenic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon. More recently, with Roger Rumrill, she published A Hallucinogenic Tea, Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States which provides important updates.

Here are other anthropological sources on ayahuasca, healing, and ritual (with apologies, as they are not open access):

Arévalo Valera, Guillermo. 1986. Ayahuasca y El Curandero Shipibo-Conibo Del Ucayali (Perú). América Indígena 46(1):p.147-161.

Baer, G., and W. W. Snell. 1974. An Ayahuasca Ceremony among the Matsigenka (Eastern Peru). Zeitschrift Fur Ethnologie V 99(1/2):63-80.

Balzer, Carsten. 2005. Ayahuasca Rituals in Germany: The First Steps of the Brazilian Santo Daime Religion in Europe. Curare 28(1):53-66, 119.

Benjamin, Craig. 2000. Trademark on Traditional Knowledge: Slim Ayahuasca Win. Native Americas 17(1):30-33.

Callaway, J. C. 1995. Pharmahuasca and Contemporary Ethnopharmacology. Curare 18(2):395-398.

Desmarchelier, C., A. Gurni, G. Ciccia, and A. M. Giuletti. 1996. Ritual and Medicinal Plants of the Ese’Ejas of the Amazonian Rainforest (Madre De Dios, Perú). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 52(1):45-51.

Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. A Note on the use of Ayahuasca among Urban Mestizo Populations in the Peruvian Amazon. American Anthropologist 72(6):1419-1422.
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Death, Modernity, and Public Policy

A Blog on Current Events, Commentary, and Cultural Critique about Death/Dying/Policy/Representation from George Washington University anthropology and international affairs students

We are a group of anthropology and international affairs students who are writing a blog for our course, Death, Modernity, and Public Policy for the Fall 2010 semester at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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I can see clearly now…

Question: Who knew that marijuana can improve your night vision?

Answer: Many people around the world. For example, Jamaican fisherman who smoke cannabis or drink a tincture infused with it say that they can see better when they are out fishing at night. It helps them avoid dangerous reefs. But why believe what they and other cannabis users say?

Let’s hear from science which now offers a way to measure night vision: “Objective assessment of night vision has recently become possible with the development of a portable device, the LKC Technologies Scotopic Sensitivity Tester-1.” Hurray! If something can be scientifically measured, then it must be real. But let’s see what the Scotopic Sensitivity Tester-1 reveals.

Ethnobotanists (people who study the relationships between plants and peoples in particular contexts) took the technology to the Rift Mountain region of Morocco (a major cannabis producing area) and conducted a case study. They recruited three Moroccan men who were “kif-experienced” (kif is a cannabis product that is smoked). The men smoked kif and were then tested for vision.

Results: vision improved in each man after smoking kif.

In reporting their findings, the authors humbly comment that their case study is very small (true). Nonetheless, they say, further study is merited.

Any volunteers?

Image: “IMG_9576 copia” from flickr user realight, licensed via Creative Commons.