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”

Anthro in the news 11/10/14

  • Managing the Himalayan Viagra harvest

The International Business Times carried an article about the harvesting of the plant in two isolated Tibetan communities that is the basis for Viagra. The medicinal fungus is fetching big money in the Chinese market. The fungus used as an aphrodisiac, yartsa gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) results from a fungal infection in ground-burrowing ghost moth caterpillars. Research from Washington University in St. Louis reports on the unique management plan to conserve the natural resource. Most villages in the region earn 80% of their annual income during the caterpillar fungus spring harvest season. Continue reading “Anthro in the news 11/10/14”

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”