Anthro in the news 6/24/14

  • Sunni-Shi’a war not likely

Cultural anthropologist William Beeman of the University of Minnesota wrote an article in Highbrow Magazine stating that the many factions among Sunnis and Shi’as in the Middle East will act to limit the possibility of an all-out war:

“The success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in capturing large territories in Syria and Northern Iraq, and now threatening Baghdad, has raised once again the specter of a Sunni-Shi’a war in the Middle East. Such a scenario is possible, but unlikely. That’s because Sunni and Shi’a believers throughout the world are divided into many factions living under different social conditions and with different religious, social and political agendas. These differences greatly reduce the possibility of the emergence of a coalition of either group into a single bloc opposing the other.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 6/24/14”

Anthro in the news 2/25/13

• Human Terrain System update

According to an article in USA Today, a $250 million U.S. Army program designed to aid troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been riddled by serious problems that include payroll padding, sexual harassment and racism. The article cites Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University who has studied the program.

U.S. soldiers pass out toys during a Human Terrain Team site survey mission in Iraq, 2009. (Photo: Spc. Benjamin Boren)
U.S. soldiers pass out toys on a Human Terrain Team mission in Iraq, 2009/Spc. Benjamin Boren

In an email to USA Today, he said: “It’s another example of a military program that makes money for a contractor while greatly exaggerating its military utility … The program recruited the human flotsam and jetsam of the discipline and pretended it was recruiting the best. Treating taxpayer money as if it were water, it paid under-qualified 20-something anthropologists more than even Harvard professors. And it treated our [AAA] ethics code as a nuisance to be ignored.”

In Afghanistan, the Human Terrain teams feed information to military intelligence centers called Stability Operations Information Centers. The reports are designed to help determine potential targets and adversaries. “We don’t know how that information is useful in identifying a group or individual,” said R. Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers University cultural anthropologist who has studied the program. USA Today has obtained a soon-to-be published report by the National Defense University, a Pentagon-affiliated think tank, noting that Human Terrain System efforts “collectively were unable to make a major contribution to the counterinsurgency effort.”

• Follow the vodka

An article in The Atlantic described the growing role of sociocultural anthropology in marketing studies. It highlights the work of Min Lieskovsky, a 31-year-old straight New Yorker who mingled freely and occasionally ducked into a bathroom to scribble notes about a lesbian party in Austin, Texas, that was heavily infused with vodka.

Absolut vodka
Absolut vodka/Wikipedia

Liekovsky had recently left a Ph.D. program in sociocultural anthropology at Yale University, impatient with academia but eager to use ethnographic research methods. The consulting firm she worked for, ReD Associates, is at the forefront of a movement to deploy social scientists on field research for corporate clients. The vodka giant Absolut contracted with ReD to infiltrate American drinking cultures and report on the elusive phenomenon known as the “home party.”

The corporate anthropology that ReD and a few others are pioneering is the most intense form of market research yet devised. ReD is one of a handful of consultancies that treat everyday life — and everyday consumerism — as a subject worthy of the scrutiny. According to the article, many of the consultants have trained at the graduate level in anthropology but have forsaken academia—and some of its ethical strictures—for work that frees them to do field research more or less full-time, with huge budgets. And agendas driven by corporate interests.

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 2/25/13”

Nuclear news, nuclear fears and the role of science

Guest post by Barbara Rose Johnston

I received last week copies of two very different publications reporting on outcomes from the scientific assessment of life in a nuclear warzone. These studies consider, first, the health experience of resident populations living in areas contaminated by nuclear weapons fallout, and, second, the health of people as affected by the low-level radiation that accompanies modern warfare.

The first is a set of eight papers published in the August 2010 issue of the journal Health Physics and reflects conclusions from US-government sponsored science about radiation and cancer risks.

The second, a study conducted by an international and independent team of scientists published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, is about the health effects of war on the local population of Fallujah, Iraq.

Appropriate reading, since much news in the past few days has focused on the ceremonies surrounding the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the human suffering associated with nuclear war.

Nuclear worries and concerns have been a major feature in world news for years, but especially so in this first decade of a new century.

A review of today’s global headlines finds reports of fear and accusations over the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran, as well as fears of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula and in Kashmir, the Himalayan territory that lies between Pakistan and India. Fidel Castro’s first address in four years to the Cuban Parliament warns of an imminent nuclear war if the US follows through on its threat of retaliation against Iran for not abiding nuclear-arms sanctions.

There are also hopeful reports on political promises and the potential progress in the struggle to further abolish nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, there are also reports on the lack of progress – for example, the news that the US Senate has again delayed its hearing on a new START Treaty.

The nuclear news also includes “peaceful uses” of atomic energy. The US is reportedly finalizing a nuclear cooperation agreement with Vietnam that would allow enrichment. There are reports of numerous proposals or approved plans for new nuclear power plants in Germany, Egypt, the US, Canada, the Philippines, India, Serbia, Bulgaria, and the UK.

Continue reading “Nuclear news, nuclear fears and the role of science”

Finally smoked 'em out

Guest post by Graham Hough-Cornwell

It has been surprising to find so little fuss in the blogosphere over the newly-passed smoking ban in Iraq. Articles on the subject have tended to express some sense of dismay or curiosity, a sort of “why now?” feeling that puts the Iraqi parliament’s priorities into question. With the most basic of services to worry about – security, electricity, etc. – does it make sense to take up this kind of cause at this particular moment?

The measure would ban smoking from all public places, and supposedly may include additional provisions down the road to ban smoking in private vehicles, too. Though certainly a forward-thinking measure and a positive step for public health, it comes with an oddly harsh penalty (the fine is equal to $4,300) that surely few Iraqis can afford to pay. And I can’t imagine many Iraqi smokers are enthusiastic about taking their cigarettes onto street corners in the midst of this month’s recent rash of attacks.

Yet of all the countries in the region, how come Iraq is among the first to potentially ban smoking fully in public places? A few have detailed the ingrained culture of smoking in the Arab world – from friends smoking sheesha in coffeehouses to the myriad members of Iraqi parliament lighting up in their offices. Others still have wondered about American troops – with possibly up to two-thirds of American soldiers in Iraq smokers, how could the ban affect them and their morale?

Perhaps most interesting is the medical anthropological angle; that is, how the knowledge of health problems associated with smoking is imparted, and how it interacts with cultural practices. It would be interesting to see some examples of smoking education in Iraq, or from other countries in the region (such as Jordan, which has a public ban in place). I find myself very curious about the cultural backlash or resistance to the ban, but then again, there was and is resistance to similar bans in the United States – by smokers and businesses, in particular – but that has not measurably slowed its progress.

Graham Hough-Cornwell is an M.A. candidate in Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.

Image: “Smoking Kid,” licensed under Creative Commons on Flickr.

The cradle of agriculture in ruins?

By Barbara Miller

An article in The New York Times titled “Idle Iraqi Date Farms Show Decline of Economy “ (Aug. 14, 2009) describes the severe deterioration of agriculture in Iraq and highlights date farming as particularly hard hit. The article notes lack of water, fungi and pests as causal factors in the decline of the agricultural economy.

Any comments on more in-depth sources of information on the state of agriculture in Iraq? Is something more going on than drought and pests, though admittedly that’s a pretty serious combination of threats? Are anthropologists or other social scientists doing local-level studies on this topic?

These date palm trees are in Cairo, because there weren’t any Creative Commons-licensed photos of date palm trees in Iraq.