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.
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
Iowa State Anthropologist Jill Pruetz describes the disturbing behavior following the death of a chimpanzee at her research site in Senegal. She and her colleagues captured what happened on video. Interview by Dave Olson. Video courtesy of Jill Pruetz
Shocking is one word Jill Pruetz uses to describe the behavior she witnessed after a chimp was killed at her research site in Fongoli, Senegal. The fact that chimps would kill a member of their own community is extremely rare – most aggression is between communities – but the abuse that followed was completely unexpected.
“It was very difficult and quite gruesome to watch,” said Pruetz, a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University. “I couldn’t initially make sense of what was happening, and I didn’t expect them to be so aggressive with the body.”
Pruetz has witnessed many things since establishing her research site in 2001. She was the first to document chimps using tools to hunt prey. However, what she observed in 2013 was different. Pruetz and her research team documented the chimps’ behavior after discovering the body of Foudouko, a former leader of the Fongoli community, who was exiled from the group for five years. As Pruetz explains in the video above, the chimps – many of which Pruetz suspects killed Foudouko – abused and cannibalized his body for nearly four hours. Continue reading “chimps’ behavior following death disturbing to ISU anthropologist”→
In January of 1998 news leaked that President Bill Clinton had engaged in ‘improper’ relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. People around the country debated whether a man with such moral character was fit to run the country. This carried over into Congressional hearings and Clinton eventually became the second president to be impeached, charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. He was later acquitted in the Senate, served out the rest of his term in the White House and went on to become a popular former president known for doing good around the world.
In her research, writing and teaching, medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes focuses especially on violence, suffering and premature death on the margins of the modern world. Best-known for her work on the global trade in human organs, she was invited to participate in a Vatican conference last summer on human trafficking. The experience brought the Berkeley professor — a lifelong Roman Catholic and sometime critic of the church — into close proximity with Pope Francis. Scheper-Hughes recently shared reflections on the pope and the state of the Catholic Church with Berkeley News.
Social and cultural anthropologist Sam Beck is a leading proponent of moving anthropology out of academia’s ivory tower and into communities and cultures to bring about positive change.
He has been a fixture in the New York City neighborhood of North Brooklyn for more than two decades, where he has studied the effects of gentrification and supported community groups rallying for more affordable housing for ethnic minorities.
Beck has brought that experience to bear as co-editor of a new book, “Public Anthropology in a Borderless World.” With 10 essays in three thematic sections, the edited volume explores how public anthropology improves the modern human condition by actively engaging with people to make changes through research, education and political action. Beck has also contributed a chapter, “Urban Transitions: Graffiti Transformations.” He co-edited the book with Carl Maida of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Public anthropology is a relatively new term that refers to the discipline as a collaboration between the anthropologist and communities to co-construct research and knowledge and communicate that knowledge to a variety of audiences. It also advocates for anthropologists to engage in various forms of intervention, including political action.
American anthropologists, Beck says, have a rich history of positioning themselves in the struggle for social justice and democratization. “Critical and political, [public anthropology] embraces advocacy and at times activism, not just as a strategy for generating data but as a commitment to support and effect change for society’s most vulnerable members and for those living in oppressive conditions,” Beck and Maida write in the introduction.
The first set of essays focus on participatory action research, in which professional anthropologists do research and take action with the community they study, not “on” or “for” them. The essays give examples of how the approach has forged pathways for community empowerment at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and addressed environmental justice concerns in a working-class Latino community in Pacoima, California.
Critical issues facing public anthropological engagement is the subject of the book’s second section. Topics range from how the anthropologist can at once serve as scientist and public social critic, to the promises and pitfalls of activist research.
The final essays seek to understand public anthropology in diverse arenas, from radio and television to visual culture to urban design. In this section, Beck’s chapter shows how urban graffiti, created in and of low-income communities of color, became a commodity for mass consumption, often without attribution.
“Together, the contributors to this volume reposition public anthropology as an anthropology of and in communities that meaningfully and productively engages in a world of intensifying disparities to fulfill a real-world purpose,” Beck and Maida conclude in the introduction.
By Madhukar Ramlallah, editor of the Mauritius Times [with permission from the Mauritius Times]
* ‘I think that there is a certain awareness among Franco-Mauritians that their position can only flourish when other Mauritians also benefit economically’
Mauritius will make progress only if it asks free and frank questions about how well the different components which make society accommodate each other for sustained development and harmonious participation in national affairs. We asked Dr T Salverda, a Dutch anthropologist who has been researching Mauritian society for more than a decade, resulting in, among others, the recently published book ‘The Franco-Mauritian Elite: Power and Anxiety in the Face of Change’, how well has the Franco-Mauritian community kept adapting to the changing social, economic and political climate of Mauritius and how it will likely respond to events in the future. Dr Salverda works as research fellow at the University of Cologne’s Global South Studies Centre and was in Mauritius recently for the international conference held at the MGI to discuss about the Mauritian diaspora. Read on:
* ‘Home is where our Beach is’ – that’s the title of your talk at the Mauritian Diaspora international conference at the MGI, two weeks ago, that sought to look into the reasons for, to use your own words, “the Franco-Mauritians’ limited interest to emigrate”. There must however be more than the beach that have gone into their decision to stay back, isn’t it?
My intervention at the conference results from research on the Franco-Mauritians more generally, and I didn’t analyse the Franco-Mauritian Diaspora, or lack thereof, in all its details. At the same time as many wish to stay on the island, there are most certainly also Franco-Mauritians who migrate or stay abroad after their studies. But what I noticed was that many Franco-Mauritians I met expressed little desire to leave the island. Most of the students I interviewed in France and South Africa also expressed the wish to return – and from what I know, many have returned, indeed. This is in contrast to the argument that many Mauritians studying overseas don’t return after their studies because they would see more opportunities elsewhere – I don’t have the figures if this is the case, but I frequently heard this argument.
In the case of the Franco-Mauritians, it is certainly not only about the beach. Access to the island’s most powerful economic networks is central to their position. Most of the students seemed to worry little about finding employment once they would return. Why I referred to the beach, though, is that the attachment to the island is more than just economic privileges. Many of the students had fond memories of a relatively carefree upbringing and a youth often spent with their family and friends at the seaside. The alternative of a life elsewhere, without the Indian Ocean and the pampering of domestic service, is less appealing.
* Would there be some other “comparative advantage/s” for them to live more permanently in a place such as Mauritius? Their high social and economic positions in a small place like Mauritius? Mauritius has more to offer them and more readily so, than competitive places like France or South Africa, for example?
Yes, most certainly. An important aspect is that, for much of the island’s history, their high social status was symbolised by their white skin-colour. This legacy still lingers on and my feeling is that notwithstanding the criticism their skin-colour also attracts, it still gives them status. “More than” would probably be the case in South Africa and France. There, they would be one of the many whites. In these cases, most would not be part of the wealthiest section or enjoy the same privileges and pleasant lifestyle as in Mauritius. When you combine this with a life on a tropical and relatively well-organised island, it is understandable that they like to remain in Mauritius.
I think, however, that this would go for many Mauritians, as many stay on the island after all – and not against their will necessarily. The closest comparison would, of course, be other Mauritian elites, of which you have a number. Unfortunately I don’t have comparative data, but it would be interesting to find out whether they express the same wish to stay on the island or are more eager to leave.