anthro in the news 12/19/16

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

beware the messenger

The Herald (Zimbabwe) published a piece about recent CIA reports on Russian hacking by social anthropologist David Price, professor at St. Martin’s University in Washington State. He argues that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is a tool of American hegemony, not an unbiased source of information: “I remain agnostic in these matters and highly recommend others do too. While we know nothing about the truth of these reports, we know a lot about the messenger delivering this news, and what we know should give us pause before accepting news of a Russian electoral coup here at home. As a scholar with two decades of academic research studying the CIA, I think many on the American left are letting their dire fear of the damage Trump will surely bring to not fully consider how the CIA is playing these events.  Many on the American left misunderstand what the CIA is and isn’t.  It isn’t some sort of right wing agency, it is an agency filled with bright people with beliefs across the mainstream political spectrum…” [Blogger’s note: The article previously appeared in CounterPunch Magazine].

where health is a human right

Health clinic in Cuba. Source: Eric Weaver
Health clinic in Cuba. Source: Eric Weaver

An article in The Atlantic describes the success of Cuba in ensuring the people’s health according to its constitution which says health is a fundamental human right:  Cuba has long had a nearly identical life expectancy to the United States, despite widespread poverty. The humanitarian-physician Paul Farmer notes in his book Pathologies of Power that there’s a saying in Cuba: ‘We live like poor people, but we die like rich people.’ Farmer also notes that the rate of infant mortality in Cuba has been lower than in the Boston neighborhood of his own prestigious hospital, Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s.”

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anthro in the news 11/28/16


dear “comrade”

Quartz published an article about the changing use and meaning of the term tongzhi, “comrade,” in China. Originating in the early Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E), the word tongzhi was a common form of address during China’s Communist Revolution of 1921-1949. The article quotes linguistic anthropologist Andrew Wong, associate professor at the University of California East Bay, who says that the term “signalled solidarity, equality, respect, and intimacy among the revolutionaries.” With the emergence of a market economy starting in 1978, the term’s popularity waned. In the late 1990s, Chinese gay people began to use tongzhi as a term of address, it is still in use today. Party rules published earlier in November outline stricter party governance, including the revival of the use of tongzhi to promote an atmosphere of social equality. In the meantime, complications will arise given the ongoing and widespread use of the term among gay people. [Blogger’s note: for related reading, see Tiantian Zheng’s ethnography, Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China].

well worth revisiting

9781598535051The Philadelphia Inquirer carried a review of a two-volume, edited set of works by Loren Eiseley. Eiseley, who died in 1977, was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. The Library of America and editor William Cronon have presented his work in Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos that “serves as a treasure trove of 20th-century science writing.” The review goes on to say that Eiseley had “a singular voice in American letters, one well worth revisiting.”

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More than Just a Numbers Game: Bingo as a Tool against Disengagement among the Elderly in Adams County, Pennsylvania

Student post by Kaitlin Chiarelli


My interview with Grace started out light-hearted, as she responded matter-of-factly when I asked her age, that she was exactly fifty-nine and three-quarters. When I asked her to explain why she played bingo, her tone became slightly melancholy. She told me she had moved to Fairfield around nine years before because her husband took a job with the local fire company, and he encouraged her to come to bingo one night when he was working as a volunteer. She was worried that she would not know anyone and would have difficulty making friends, but she quickly met Sue and Darcy, who were sitting next to her then and have continued to do so for the past nine years. The fire department and bingo played integral roles in her and her husband’s life, making it a common sphere of public interaction for them. Unfortunately, Grace’s husband had passed away less than two months before our conversation and she was still quite emotional, her voice quivering when she told me this. Grace still attends bingo because she believes that it “gives balance” to her life during this difficult time; she can rely on bingo as an opportunity to be with her friends, which allows for a break from the stresses of home life (Grace, interviewed 8 April 2013, Fairfield).

While not everyone who plays bingo has a story like Grace’s, her narrative does show some of the unique aspects of bingo which I believe make the game important in two Pennsylvania towns, Fairfield and Bonneauville, and in the lives of the players, many of whom are senior citizens. In small, rural towns with few opportunities for social interaction, the bingo games coordinated by the local fire and EMS organizations provide an ongoing and dependable opportunity for creating and maintaining a social community. Bingo brings the players, mainly the elderly, out of their isolated private spheres and into a stable and reliable public sphere together. Participation in bingo encourages social interaction, allows for the creation and maintenance of friendships, has positive physical and mental health benefits, and brings people together to improve their local community.

There is a distinct lack of attention paid to events like bingo in the anthropology of aging, since this field generally focuses on disconnection seen in events like retirement and death, instead of connection, seen on both a personal and community-wide level in events like bingo. The intrinsic disengagement theory, which posits that old age is a universal time for withdrawal, with three potential circumstances for such disengagement, has been an influential albeit controversial theory. Those scholars who support the first scenario of the intrinsic disengagement theory suggest that society pushes elderly people away and inhibits their ability and opportunities for social interaction as a way to remain engaged (Keith 1980:343). In this thesis, I use bingo to argue against the idea that the elderly choose to accept this disengagement; the other possible circumstances associated with this theory are explained and elaborated in detail on page four. My fieldwork demonstrates that elderly players make a significant effort to attend bingo and value the social connections and interactions this activity provides. Furthermore, I argue that we must nuance our understanding of the processes of disengagement and engagement by considering key contextual factors, including town structure, dependence on automobile use, and cultural values such as independence. I suggest a new approach to the study of social isolation and connection in elderly populations, which is particularly applicable to the elderly living in rural areas.

To begin, I provide a concise history of the anthropology of aging and the prominent theory of intrinsic disengagement in particular. Next, I use ethnographic fieldwork to detail bingo as an event and then to critique intrinsic disengagement, particularly on the issues of social isolation, mobility and American values. I conclude my paper with an analysis of other organizations in Fairfield and Bonneauville that provide opportunities for social interaction in order to establish what is unique about bingo and how it best meets the needs of the community and players, particularly in terms of combating social isolation.

Continue reading “More than Just a Numbers Game: Bingo as a Tool against Disengagement among the Elderly in Adams County, Pennsylvania”

Word choices, word choices

I rarely blog about my personal peeves. I try to keep it all professional. So excuse me if I rant a little bit here. It’s about words that annoy me. I am sure you have your favorites, too.

More than a decade ago, the word “issue” moved from teen talk (“You got an issue with that?”) to my academic world. I first noticed it when called to serve on an ad hoc committee about an “issue” between a department chair and a faculty member. They had a problem, a big problem. But we all referred to it as an “issue.”

I have seen issue take over, since then. We, at least in my academic world, rarely talk about problems. Only issues. A student has an issue with her grade. A student has a health issue. In our curriculum, we teach about issues. Interpreting the meaning, and impact if any, of this circumlocution is outside my area of expertise. I have noted its existence for many years and, may I say, its robustness.

Ballistic Missile Lockheed Martin
Trident II D5 Fleet ballistic missile (FBM). Source: Lockheed Martin

So let’s talk about the word “robust.” This word seems to have had a surge a few years ago, in my experience at least, as related to annual reporting on such matters as my blog readership and twitter following: robust. Robust is still with us; it conveys muscularity, strength, and growth, everything capitalism loves.

Well, I want my social media impact to continue to grow in numbers and quality, don’t I? So, I want my social media numbers to be robust. Indeed, I want my textbook sales to be more robust. But “robust” has a limited use, for me. … I want my teaching to be engaging, not robust … and in terms of my own body weight, something less robust would be welcome (but that’s another issue).

And now, we have “boost,” as in “boost phase” which comes from rocketry and refers to a particular stage of a ballistic missile, a missile that carries a warhead. I am no rocket scientist so I could be wrong on this — I just checked Wikipedia on “boost phase.” Boost phase may also apply to non-weapon bearing rockets. And, more benignly, having been around little kids, I do know about “booster chairs” which allow small children to enjoy adult company at the dining table.

Nor am I a linguist, but note the similarity between robust and boost … consonant “b” followed by a vowel or vowels, then ending with “st.” Perhaps that combination in English conveys a sense of positive force, strength, growth, and optimism — all dearly held values of capitalist culture (and maybe that’s why “sustainability” has proved to be so robust in the language of green approaches to our future).

Wires at the Hotel
Wires, including Internet, at a Beirut hotel. Flickr/Markus Hündgen

This essay is prompted by my seeing, this morning, the use of “boost” in a World Bank statement about a new project in Lebanon. The report begins with this description: “A new World Bank Group project will boost Lebanon’s mobile Internet systems and create quality jobs for a high-skilled labor force to help reverse the spiraling trend of unemployment especially among youth and women.”

On a positive note, I end this commentary by arguing that the phrase “to boost” is preferable, in spite of its likely origins in the world of war, to the extremely awkward phrase “to grow” — prevalent during the Clinton era when “to grow the economy” was a sacred mantra. If “to grow” replaced “to boost” in the World Bank statement, it would read:

“A new World Bank Group project will grow Lebanon’s mobile Internet systems and create quality jobs for a high-skilled labor force to help reverse the spiraling trend of unemployment especially among youth and women.”

Things could always be worse.

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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Anthro in the news 7/15/13

• A bold target for the World Bank

The Globe and Mail (Canada) carried an article based on a lunch conversation with Jim Yong Kim, medical doctor, medical anthropologist, and former university president, marking the end of his first year as president of the World Bank. The article discusses the pros and cons of targets. Targets, even wildly improbable ones, can inspire action and achieve change, even if the target is not achieved. Or they can create embarrassment when failure is seen as the outcome.

World Bank Washington DC
The World Bank in Washington, D.C. on April 16, 2013. Flickr: Simone D. McCourte/World Bank

Kim explains his dedication to a new World Bank target of eliminating extreme poverty worldwide by 2030. He is quoted as saying, “What would be really frightening to me is if people like me, people like the World Bank staff, were so concerned about their own lives that they would not grab the opportunity to set a bold target … It took a very long time to convince people that we should have this target, but now that we do, I just see it as a huge gift…”

[Blogger’s note: no one would argue that eliminating poverty, especially extreme poverty, is not a laudable goal. The question arises, though, of the chosen policy pathways toward the goal. Unfortunately for many small scale communities in developing countries, Kim plans to promote large dam construction and hydroelectric development which will destroy such people’s livelihoods].

• World Bank in Africa on the decline?

The New York Times published an op-ed on the declining importance of World Bank loans to Africa in spite of new World Bank efforts, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The authors argue that: “The World Bank has done important work in promoting good governance and evaluating reform efforts. But its latest pledge of aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo sends a very mixed message, coming at a time when the International Monetary Fund has been cutting its loan programs to the country because of concerns about poor governance.”

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon share stories while waiting for the state dinner in Kinshasa
World Bank Pres. Kim and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon laugh in Kinshasa. But the Bank's loan programs in Africa are declining. Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

World Bank Director Jim Yong Kim is quoted as saying: “There are always going to be problems and downsides with the governance of places that are fragile [but he adds that through investment and aid]…we can both reduce the conflict and improve governance.” The authors point out that Kim’s argument assumes that more World Bank spending means better government. Despite the billions in aid the D.R.C. has already received, however, “Kinshasa has not felt compelled to improve. It’s not clear why the bank’s new effort will be different.”

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 7/15/13”

Anthro in the news 7/8/13

• What’s going on in Haiti?

Mark Schuller, assistant professor of anthropology and NGO development leadership at Northern Illinois University, contributed an article in The Haitian Times in response to the question: What’s going on in Haiti? How is the progress, after three and a half years and billions of dollars?

Haiti Marriott
One thing going on in Haiti: rendering of Port-Au-Prince Marriott, scheduled to open in 2014/NY Times

After a recent trip there, he comments that it’s particularly difficult to respond: “…when you get off the plane, there are signs of progress. The airport has been renovated. The roads around Port-au-Prince are being repaired. For those in bright t-shirts on their way to the provinces, travel times have been considerably reduced. Stopping en route in a guarded, air conditioned restaurant or supermarket offers the appearance of relative affluence with customers stopping to inspect shelves full of packaged imported food. If one has the funds, a private vehicle and the inclination to go to a night club or restaurant in the affluent Pétion-ville, the trip home is safer…”

Schuller considers the president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, who as a popular musical performer was known as “Sweet Micky,” and says that “…as head of state, he is performing progress (as noted anthropologist and artist Gina Athena Ulysse puts it)”..and: “The performance appears to be working..” given positive reviews from development agencies, NGOS, foreign governments, and some members of Haiti’s poor majority who have gotten jobs.

• Life after civil war and genocide

The Daily Mail (UK) and many media reported on recent findings about genocide among the Ixil Maya of Guatemala that have been largely ignored by authorities for centuries.

An unidentified Ixil Mayan
An unidentified Ixil Mayan in a mass grave. Photo/AP, Daily Mail

The Ixil came under the spotlight after a Guatemalan court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide on May 10 for the scorched-earth policies used against them during his rule in the 1980s. The conviction was annulled 10 days later following a trial that did nothing to change their lives of the Ixil people.

Byron Garcia, a social anthropologist who has worked in the area for a decade and who now lives in the Guatemalan capital, said Ixil Maya live in the same poverty as always: “People have been relegated to less productive places, places where you can’t grow food, to the mountains made of stone…The young people who can, sow plots of land. And when they can’t, they migrate.”

And, further, he said that victims feel a need to tell their stories, to be heard, to be indemnified, to find the bodies of their loved ones and be able to bury them. [Blogger’s note: the Daily Mail article includes some amazing photographs].
Continue reading “Anthro in the news 7/8/13”