anthro in the news 12/28/2015

Source: Google Images/Creative Commons

To address ISIS, social science essential

Two social scientists at the University of Oxford,, one a social anthropologist and the other an economist, co-authored an article in the Huffington Post about how “…European states need to go beyond the obvious target, ISIS and its twisted interpretation of Islam, and delve deeper into the complex genesis of violence. Violence is located not just in extremist ideology but also in struggles over the distribution of power within and across nations.” And later on, they write about “…the need to problematize the state and its policies alongside their targets of attack. We need to unpack the common sense view of the state as a benevolent agent operating under explicit policy directions.” Mohammad Talib is Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz fellow in the Anthropology of Muslim Societies at the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies, and Adeel Malik is Globe Fellow in the Economies of Muslim Societies.

 


Miss Honduras at the 2015 Miss Universe contest. Source: Richard D. Salyer/Courtesy of Miss Universe Organization

Stop the killing: A message from Miss Honduras

National Public Radio (U.S.) carried an article about the national costume worn by Miss Honduras, Iroshka Lindaly Elvir, in the Miss Universe contest. It included many decorative skulls. According to archaeologist Rosemary A. Joyce, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Elvir’s costume drew on Maya culture to bring world attention to violence in Honduras.  The U.N. has ranked Honduras as having the highest murder rate in the world. Joyce noted that: “[Elvir] uploaded pictures to her Facebook page in which she is wearing that outfit holding a sign [that reads] ‘CICIH YA’ which is a call for an independent, U.N.-appointed anti-corruption task force to be appointed for Honduras.”

 

 


Continue reading “anthro in the news 12/28/2015”

The 'wall of virtue' that surrounds followers of Isis will not be broken down by bombing Syria

Source: The Tablet

“Sectarianism involves strong feelings, deep resentment, a searing sense of injustice, above all, anger,” explained renowned British social anthropologist Mary Douglas in an important lecture, Seeing Everything in Black and White, delivered shortly before her death in May 2007.

She added: “All of these are intensified when religious loyalty is engaged.”

It’s hard to disagree with Douglas’s analysis of the sectarian vision – in particular, she must be commended for highlighting the importance of how, under certain circumstances, combining religious belief with powerful emotions, can fuel and give impetus to terrorism.

Now, after the Isis attack in St Denis, Paris in which 130 people died, the Al-Qaeda slaughter of at least 21 people by gunmen at a hotel in Bamako, the Malian capital, and another 22 in a Boko Haram-inspired suicide bombing of Shia Muslims near the Nigerian city of Kano, political commentators and the rest of the population are once again struggling to come to terms with what’s happening and why.

So let’s go back to Douglas and review what she had to say about such militant religious groups.

Probably the most important point that Douglas makes concerns the “wall of virtue” constructed by those in the sect. Behind it members can look outwards at other people and classify them as different sorts of human beings – in short, “people not like us”.

Of course, such a classification system doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict or violence – there are plenty of pacifist religious sects in Western and other societies (Amish, Quakers or Swami Narayan) which classify other people as (more or less) metaphysically inferior and place huge restrictions on the number and type of transactions (sharing or exchanging food, handshakes, or daughters and sons) between members and non-members – but in certain circumstances it does.  Continue reading “The 'wall of virtue' that surrounds followers of Isis will not be broken down by bombing Syria”

anthro in the news 11/30/2015

ISIS recruits through friends and social media

An article in the New York Times on ISIS recruitment provides extensive commentary from cultural anthropologist Scott Atran, co-founder of the Center for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict and senior research fellow at Oxford University. He noted that research has found that radicalization rarely occurs in mosques and rarely through anonymous recruiters and strangers. At a meeting held on Foreign Terrorist Fighters organized by the U.N. Security Council’s counter-terrorism committee. Atran said: “it is the call to glory and adventure that moves these young people to join the Islamic State…jihad offers them a way to become heroes.” Atran, who has interviewed captured fighters from the Islamic State and the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, added that Islamic State leaders “understand youth much better than the governments that are fighting against them.” They know how to speak to the rebelliousness and idealism of youth, and they are adept at using social media to target youth.

 


Weapon of mass destruction

Nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. 1946. source: Creative Commons

The Washington Post reported on the enduring effects of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific where, from 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests. If their combined explosive power was divided over that 12-year period, it would equal 1.6 Hiroshima-size explosions per day. The article quoted cultural anthropologist Glenn Alcalay who teaches at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “We have basically destroyed a culture…We’ve stolen their future. When you take the future from a people, you’ve destroyed them.”

 


Continue reading “anthro in the news 11/30/2015”

anthro in the news 11/23/2015

 

As of November 21, Brussels was on high alert for a possible terrorist attack. source: Smirnoff, Creative Commons

What does ISIS want?

CBS (Minnesota) carried a brief interview with cultural anthropologist William Beeman of the University of Minnesota. He addresses the question: What does ISIS want? He says ISIS is seeking to recreate the Islamic caliphate that was active in the Islamic world from the time of the Prophet to 1926 when the caliph was abandoned: “They would like the entire world to be Muslim, but they want the world to be Muslim in a very, very narrowly defined manner…They are fundamentalist Muslims and their idea of Islam is quite different from the rest of the Islamic world…They want the U.S. to declare war in the worst way…by doing battle, they think they will eventually succeed, they eventually will conquer and establish their domination over the world…it’s a bit of megalomania.”

 


source: Creative Commons

Combating “homegrown” terrorism in France

John Bowen, Dunbar-Cleve Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about how France can combat “homegrown terrorism”

What can France do? I leave aside the questions of border security, surveillance and military strategy in Syria: Those are above my pay grade. But I have two recommendations for how President Francois Hollande can improve matters at home. One, break the isolation. Continue efforts already begun to redesign the urban landscape so that it encourages a sense of national belonging rather than a sense of exclusion. Cease the repeated efforts to stigmatize practicing Muslims with silly rules banning face coverings in public or preventing school officials from offering non-pork meal options to children. The French prize their laïcité — their strict separation of church and state — but there should be room for religious observance in a free, open society. Second, recognize that mainstream Islamic teachers are part of the solution. Many have worked hard to build cultural associations and religious schools, where young people can learn a more complex and responsible idea of Islam. Understand that they base their teachings in a centuries-old body of work, as do Catholic, Jewish and other religious scholars, and stop telling them to devise a brand new “French Islam.” They are citizens or long-term residents of France and participants in global networks of religious scholarship. Whether they help in religious schools or as chaplains in the prisons, they need much more recognition and support from the French state.

Continue reading “anthro in the news 11/23/2015”

anthro in the news 10/12/2015

 

Caption: Artemisia annua which yields an anti-malarial drug [source: Wikipedia].
Caption: Artemisia annua which yields an anti-malarial drug, source: Wikipedia
Nobel Prize catalyzes controversy in China

 

The New York Times reported on reactions in China about its first Nobel prize in science which was awarded to Tu Youyou, a retired researcher who worked at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences) in Beijing. The award recognizes her role in extracting the malaria-fighting compound Artemisinin from the plant Artemisia annua. It is the first time China has won a Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline. Bu the award has refueled a longstanding debate in China between Western science approaches to medicine and Chinese traditional medicine. Critics of the award say that it valorizes Western science while seeming to recognize traditional Chinese medicine. The article quotes Volker Scheid, an anthropologist at the University of Westminster in London who refers to Chinese traditional medicine:  “It’s part of the nation, but the nation of China defines itself as a modern nation, which is tied very much to science…So this causes a conflict.”

 


source: Wikipedia

Guinea elections

The New York Times carried an article about the presidential election in Guinea, noting that ethnic clashes marked the last presidential election threaten to resurface. President Alpha Conde is running against seven candidates in the West African nation that has been hard hit by the Ebola crisis. The main opposition leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo, is the same man he ultimately defeated in a 2010 election marked by clashes between their supporters along ethnic lines. The article quotes Mike McGovern, a West Africa expert and associate professor of anthropology at University of Michigan: “What Ebola has made clear is many ordinary Guineans’ deep mistrust of government.”

Continue reading “anthro in the news 10/12/2015”

anthro in the news 8/24/15

  • Islamic State vision driven by dreams

An article in the Independent (U.K.) draws on a recent paper by Durham University emeritus reader in anthropology Iain Edgar regarding the role of night dreaming in Islam in general and violent sectarian offshoots in particular. Edgar follows IS twitter posts and other sources to learn about dream-motivated activities including frequent dreams about “green birds” – jihadi fighters who are on their way to paradise.

  • New Orleans cuisine ten years after Katrina

Building back better? The Australian Financial Review reported on the changes in the restaurant scene in New Orleans ten years after hurricane Katrina. The article draws on insights from cultural anthropologist David Beriss of the University of New Orleans who points out that the shuffle of post-Katrina cultural influences is just another example of Creole culture expressing itself through food:  “Creolisation – that way of adapting and being in the world – shows up everywhere.” Others express concern about gentrification and loss of a more traditional Creole menu. Continue reading “anthro in the news 8/24/15”

anthro in the news 8/10/15

  • Politics and dirty water: A recipe for poor health

An article in the Mail and Guardian (South Africa) describes the role of politics in the mishandling of water treatment in South Africa  It is includes comments from Mary Galvin, associate professor in the department of anthropology and development studies at the University of Johannesburg. She says municipalities ignore both directives and incentives to improve their treatment works.

  • The life of flags
House in Memphis, Tennessee. Credit: Thomas R. Machnitzki.

Robin Conley, assistant professor of anthropology at Marshall University in West Virginia, is lead author of an article in the Huffington Post about the Confederate flag controversy in the U.S.: “Recent challenges to displays of the Confederate flag have created an ironic outcome; its presence is in fact more ubiquitous than before the challenges began. This resurgence is not just found among those championing the Confederate flag as a symbol of state’s rights, or a symbol of a southern identity (that may or may not include an overtly racist agenda). Every time the use of the flag is questioned or criticized, for example when a picture of two white men waving the flag proudly is recirculated as a reminder of the hatred that potentially drives their actions, it appears again. Thus, in efforts to assure its invisibility, it has in fact become even more visible.” Continue reading “anthro in the news 8/10/15”

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: talkafricque.com.

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 2/23/15

  • On endless bureaucracy, forms, and mindless work

Gillian Tett, cultural anthropologist and writer for The Financial Times, reviewed David Graeber’s latest book, The Utopia of Rules: “His new book…asks why so much of modern life is dominated by endless bureaucracy and frustrating administrative tasks, whether in relation to finance, healthcare or almost everything else.”

  • Plausible connections between ISIS and organ trafficking

Two media sources, KCCI Detroit and Front Page Magazine, mentioned Organs Watch and the activist work of cultural anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes of the University of California at Berkeley. [Blogger’s note: The Organs Watch website makes no direct link between organ trafficking and ISIS. But in an email today to me, Scheper-Hughes says, “it is plausible.”]

  • Chinese New Year: To the beach!

The Globe and Mail carried an article about the trend among middle and upper class families in China to go to the beach for the Chinese New Year. In this reshaping of tradition, the key element is keeping the family together. The article quotes Myron Cohen, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University who says that going to the beach for New Year’s is nothing surprising since Chinese New Year “is not a place-oriented, but rather a family-oriented event…so if the whole family goes to Hainan, that’s fine and dandy.”

  • Chinese New Year:  Sheep or goat?

CCTV America published a piece on the Chinese New Year and whether this year is the Year of the Sheep or Year of the Goat. This confusion has business implications—does a shop stock sheep toys or goat toys?  Either way, being born in the Year of the Sheep or the Goat is not preferred, since those born are thought to be mild-mannered and sympathetic but not leaders. The article quotes anthropologist Zhao Xudong, director of the Institute of Anthropology at Renmin University, who said sheep are often considered unlucky in China, particularly for women.

“Some parents delay birth to avoid Sheep years, because it’s considered to be burdened by bad luck. This is partly because Empress Dowager Cixi in the Qing dynasty was born in the Year of the Sheep and brought about policies that stagnated China’s development. All too often, when people confront failures, they attribute it to animal years. Of course there is no scientific evidence to prove this.”

  • “Haiti’s hero” in Toronto

The Toronto Star reported on a visit to Haiti by Paul Farmer, medical anthropology professor at Harvard, doctor, and health activist. Farmer saved hundreds of thousands of Haitian lives, both personally and through the “social medicine” organization Partners In Health, which he co-founded. He was in Toronto to accept a $1-million cheque from the Slaight Family Foundation to launch Haiti’s first emergency medicine training program.

  • Anthropology professor as president of Afghanistan

Al Jazeera America carried an article asking if Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan and former cultural anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University, can bridge the rift of his contended and contentious election and make progress in the country.

  • Tracking down cholera in the past

The Atlantic magazine carried an article on the research of Clark Larsen, professor of biological anthropology at Ohio State University, on the third cholera pandemic in recorded history—and the deadliest. It began in India and spread across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas throughout the 1850s. By the time it subsided in 1860, the pandemic had killed more than a million people around the world. Larsen and his team are studying the remains of victims buried in the mass grave at Badia Pozzeveri, an ancient church in the small town of Altopascio, Italy. They are searching for clues about the evolution of the disease.

For six weeks each summer, the Field School at Badia Pozzeveri, a collaboration between Ohio State and the University of Pisa, gives students a chance to excavate the site’s human remains, which stretch back as far as the bubonic-plague outbreak that devastated Europe in the 14th century. The discovery of the grave—which Larsen estimates contains “a couple hundred” bodies—was a happy accident during a dig in the summer of 2012, as Science magazine reported the following year; old records confirmed that the victims had died of cholera when the epidemic swept through Tuscany in 1855.

  • Kudos

Anthropologist Philippe Descola has won the 2014 International Cosmos Prize, a Japanese award, for his study of the Jivaroan Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Their lives had previously been unknown to the wider world. Descola, who studied under Claude Levi-Strauss, lived in Achuar communities from 1976 to 1979 as he conducted ethnographic fieldwork on their coexistence with nature. “Through slash-and-burn horticulture and hunting, they collected and buried droppings of animals and created a forest with much more varieties of plants than those found in surrounding areas,” Descola said. He explained that the Achuar people communicate with animals in dreams and have a unique relationship with nonhumans. The Cosmos Prize is awarded by the Osaka-based Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden and Greenery Exposition, also known as the Expo ’90 Foundation.

Anthro in the news 11/17/14

  • A taste for service and adventure

Bloomberg Business News reported on the origins and ongoing success of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. On a budget of €952 million ($1.2 billion) per year, MSF runs a volunteer collective of 30,000 physicians, nurses, logisticians, and locally recruited staff that functions as an independent ambulance corps and a kind of MASH unit for those in need.

MSF is able to move so swiftly, in large part, because of its decentralized structure, which is more akin to a guerrilla network than a top-down corporation. They go where things are worst, often to care for civilian casualties and refugees of war. They also confront “neglected” diseases, from malaria to HIV/AIDS, to drug-resistant tuberculosis. They are truly global, privately funded, and astonishingly effective, able to treat diseases others won’t touch in places few will go—and where they’re not always welcome. Continue reading “Anthro in the news 11/17/14”