Anthro in the news 3/9/15 and 3/16/15

  • What makes a car great?
Well-off Chinese consumers want Japanese toilets. Credit: AFP.

Gillian Tett, columnist for The Financial Times and an anthropologist by training, describes the increasing inclusion of cultural anthropologists and other social scientists in tech/design research labs around the world for their ability to learn about people’s consumption patterns and preferences. Tett offers the example of Ford, which is opening a new center in Silicon Valley:  “These psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists are trying to understand how we interact with our cars in a cultural sense. It is a striking development and one worth pondering in a personal sense if, like me, you spend much of your life rushing about in a car.”

She emphasizes the value of localized, cultural knowledge in a globalizing world:  “…Chinese consumers often have radically different ideas of what makes a great car, especially if they are female.”

  • What makes a health project work?
So many pills. Credit:

Culturally informed research design in health projects is critical to success. Medical anthropologist Ida Susser of Hunter College, City University of New York, published an op-ed in Al Jazeera about the importance of not blaming the victim when an HIV intervention fails to show positive results. Instead, the blame may lie in a faulty research design. She examines a study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine as an example of blaming the victim.

Known as VOICE, or Vaginal and Oral Interventions to Control the Epidemic. The evaluation of the intervention failed to show any preventive results for women in southern Africa using ARV-based pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pills or topical microbicide gel. Susser writes: “It’s a particularly unsettling failure because previous studies have demonstrated that these ARV-based methods work. Most of the women who participated in the VOICE study did not use the tablets or gel, but those who did were protected. In other words, the study failed not because the products didn’t work but because they weren’t used.”

Susser argues that the research design was to blame, not the women: “The challenge of this research is more social and behavioral than medical; to succeed, we must better understand which routines and methods work best for women in stressful daily conditions. If the offered methods are not used, then researchers must rethink their approach or at-risk women will continue to become infected with HIV, and the epidemic will spiral.”

  • Islam and feminism can be compatible

A lot depends on how you define feminism and women’s rights, according to an article in the U.S. News and World Report. Many believe a combination of the two is implausible, but it is, however, possible if one is prepared to accept that there are multiple feminisms and Islamisms in the world today. The article cites cultural anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. She argues that Muslim women in different contexts and situations experience structures of domination differently. For example, a Muslim woman in a poor neighborhood of Riyadh experiences gender discrimination differently from a businesswoman. In other words, one should not “totalize” the experience of “Muslim women.”

  • Brazil: Sweet and sour

An article in The Huffington Post on Brazil as an emerging “food superpower” points to how agribusiness success is tied to growing landlessness and hunger in a country that is exporting massive amounts of food: “By the dawn of the twenty-first century, Brazil became the world’s number one beef exporter and star in the exports of sugar, coffee, orange juice, corn, soy, and cotton.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 3/9/15 and 3/16/15”

Anthro in the news 9/8/14

  • Ebola can be stopped according to double docs

The dynamic duo of medical anthropologist/physicians, Jim Young Kim and Paul Farmer, published an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that Ebola can be stopped if an effective response system is put in place:

“Ebola is spread by direct physical contact with infected bodily fluids, making it less transmissible than an airborne disease such as tuberculosis. A functioning health system can stop Ebola transmission and, we believe, save the lives of a majority of those who are afflicted…To halt this epidemic, we need an emergency response that is equal to the challenge. We need international organizations and wealthy countries that possess the required resources and knowledge to step forward and partner with West African governments to mount a serious, coordinated response as laid out in the World Health Organization’s Ebola response roadmap.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 9/8/14”

Workshop in Abu Dhabi on intangible cultural heritage

Cultural anthropologists, academics and researchers are set to gain a greater understanding of Abu Dhabi’s intangible heritage in a workshop in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

Organized by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) under the title, “Identifying Community-based Intangible Cultural Heritage,” the workshop targets heritage enthusiasts, particularly teachers and researchers at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development, heritage departments, local institutions, individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others involved in preserving intangible cultural heritage. Continue reading “Workshop in Abu Dhabi on intangible cultural heritage”

Anthro in the news 6/2/14

  • Los Angeles rediscovers Carlos Castaneda
Castaneda made it to the cover of Time Magazine.

Cultural anthropology icon of the 1970s, and subsequently discredited, Carlos Castaneda rises again. The Los Angeles Times reviewed an exhibit at the Fowler Museum at UCLA displaying a collection of twelve masks from the Yaqui people of Sonora, Mexico that Castaneda put together as a graduate student at the university. They are on view in The Yaqui Masks of Carlos Castaneda along with five others and accompanying accessories used in Yaqui ceremonies for celebration and commemoration. These pahko’ola masks are made of carved wood, mostly painted in vivid red, white and black, with goat hair added for bushy eyebrows and beards. Sometimes they resemble goats, most important of Yaqui domesticated animals, or monkeys, which were seen as tricksters in the wilderness.

David Delgado Shorter, associate professor and vice chair of the World Arts and Cultures/Dance department at UCLA, who has done extensive field work with the Yaquis of Sonora, Mexico, acknowledged the problems in Castaneda’s books: “Much of it seems completely fabricated and not based at all in Yaqui traditions…There are also ways of talking about speech and mannerism that are undeniably Yaqui.” For him, the masks themselves, which would have been very difficult to obtain outside of Mexico in the 1960s, are the clincher. “It attests he was right there,” Shorter said, “in that specific area where he said he was doing field work.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 6/2/14”

Anthro in the news 4/7/14

• Cultural anthropologists fighting Ebola

National Public Radio (U.S.) reported on the role of cultural anthropology in efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola in Guinea.

Health specialists work in an isolation ward for patients in Guékedou, southern Guinea. Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images.
Specialists at a Guékedou, southern Guinea isolation ward. Seyllou/AFP/Getty

Doctors, nurses and epidemiologists from international organizations are flying in to help, along with cultural anthropologists. Understanding local beliefs can help get communities to trust international health care workers, says Barry Hewlett, a medical anthropologist at Washington State University. Hewlett was invited to join the Doctors Without Borders Ebola team during an outbreak in Uganda in 2000. There are anthropologists on the current team in Guinea as well.

Before the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders started bringing in anthropologists, medical staff had a difficult time convincing families to bring their sick loved ones to clinics and isolation wards. In Uganda, Hewlett remembers, people were afraid of the international health care workers: “The local people thought that the Europeans in control of the isolation units were in a body parts business … Their loved ones would go into the isolation units, and they would never see them come out.”

Health care workers did not always promptly notify relatives of a death because of the need to dispose of the body quickly, Hewlett wrote in a report on his experiences in Uganda: “The anger and bad feelings about not being informed were directed toward health care workers in the isolation unit … This fear could have been averted by allowing family members to see the body in the bag and allowing family members to escort the body to the burial ground.” In addition, Hewlett points out that the large tarps surrounding isolation units were removed so family members could see and talk with a sick relative.

Efforts to contain such outbreaks must be “culturally sensitive and appropriate,” Hewlett says. “Otherwise people are running away from actual care that is intended to help them.” Medical anthropologists can help doctors and other medical experts understand how a local population perceives disease, death, and loss.
Continue reading “Anthro in the news 4/7/14”

Anthro in the news 3/24/14

• Flight 370 mystery shrouded in politics

An article in Firstpost reviewed several puzzles involved in the missing Malaysia Airline Flight 370, and discussed how various theories implicate Malaysian politics.

It suggests that unchallenged power has bred political apathy and inefficiency. In terms of the stumbles over the missing plane search, the article quotes Clive Kessler, emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales, who says that the government “lacks the ability to handle many technical matters with assurance and to communicate its purposes globally with clarity and agility.”

• From Haiti: After all, what has been done for us?

The Montreal Gazette carried an article about a new documentary film, Ayiti Toma, The Land of the Living.

It explores the problem of outsiders trying to aid Haiti without truly knowing Haiti. Montreal filmmaker Joseph Hillel’s film opens with a “full-frontal assault” on the role of international aid in helping Haiti. The article mentions anthropologist Ira Lowenthal, who says that the United Nations and other institutions are, “not focused on bettering Haiti.”

Echoing, even more forcefully, Lowenthal’s view is the comment from a man in one of the many neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince hit hard by the 2010 earthquake: “…what has been done for us? Absolutely nothing.”
Continue reading “Anthro in the news 3/24/14”

Anthro in the news 2/3/14

  • World Bank’s development plan for Myanmar

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank and trained medical anthropologist and medical doctor, published an article in The Huffington Post describing the World Bank’s three pillars of its new $2 billion multi-year public and private sector investment program in Myanmar. Noting that 70 percent of Myanmar’s people lack access to electricity, especially in rural areas, he asserts that: “We share the Government’s commitment to expanding reliable, affordable access to electricity, especially to rural areas. That’s why, over the next five years, we’re seeking to invest $1 billion dollars in Myanmar’s power sector…” [Blogger’s notes: So electricity development gets half of the total. Further, the article doesn’t specify how the electricity will be generated, but likely through constructing large hydroelectric dams.]

He then discusses the importance of investing in health, endorsing the government’s goal of “universal health coverage by 2030.” He then turns briefly to agriculture.

[Blogger’s note: Kim was in Myanmar for two days, and I have never been there. But anyone who knows anything about large-scale hydroelectric development has to know that it inevitably displaces thousands of people in rural areas, ruining their small-scale farming opportunities, reducing their food access, damaging their health in many ways, and damaging the ecology.

The World Bank has “accountability” mechanisms in place that supposedly involve close consultation with local communities. So, let’s see how it goes in Myanmar as the Bank and other external players push for economic growth through investing in the energy sector. It goes without saying that the Bank and businesses are profit-seekers: they are not charities. Let’s see if there will be sufficient attention to social justice, including truly informed consent among those displaced and fair compensation for loss of land, water/fishing rights, and other livelihood factors. No matter what, they will never see a proportional return to them from future profits that the energy sector will undoubtedly reap in the future.]

  • Hospitals defining the time to die

Cultural anthropologist Sharon Kaufman published an article in The Huffington Post on, “Defining Death: Four Decades of Ambivalence”. She discusses several cases in the U.S. in which a person was near death, hospitalized and whether they were allowed to die.

She asks what can we learn from these stories and how can we develop a clearer understanding and acceptance of death? Some first steps: “…Families need to comprehend both what the medical ventilator can do and what its limitations are. Doctors need to talk with families, to continue to provide them with compassionate care during and, perhaps most importantly, following the death of such a patient. And because a ventilator-tethered patient looks so alive, a simple declaration of death is no longer enough. Finally, medical schools need to give higher priority to teaching the communication skills that doctors will increasingly need as they confront the vortex created by unexpected death, complex technology, and the threat of litigation.”

Kaufman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She has conducted research for 25 years on medicine, the end of life, and the social impacts of advanced medical technologies in an aging society. She is the author of the book, …And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life.

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 2/3/14”