Anthro in the news 5/6/13

• What New Yorkers are thinking about

The Village Voice included a review of “a fascinating set of videos from an anthropologist named Andrew Irving, a researcher who spent part of 2011 documenting 100 random New Yorkers’ inner monologues.”

Andrew Irving
Andrew Irving, New York Stories: The Lives of Other Citizens/Village Voice
The videos, published by Scientific American, were created by Andrew Irving, professor and director of the Granada Centre of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester, England. He spent part of 2011 documenting 100 randomly selected New Yorkers’ inner monologues. Irving stood on street corners and asked pedestrians to put on headsets and narrate their streams of consciousness out loud.

While each narrative is distinct, Irving picked up on a recurrent theme of economic instability and concerns in “the age of terror.” Irving told the Voice that this particular project arose out of work he had done in Uganda, trying to understand the thoughts of people diagnosed with HIV.

• Hello, God

Tanya Marie Luhrmann
Tanya Marie Luhrmann/Stanford
In a guest column for The New York Times, cultural anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, a professor at Stanford University, discusses findings from her ethnographic field work in a charismatic evangelical church in Chicago. It was not at all uncommon for people to talk about hearing God. She asks, what do we make of this?

“I don’t think that anthropologists can pronounce on whether God exists or not, but I am averse to the idea that God is the full explanation here. For one thing, many of these voices are mundane. A woman told me that she heard God tell her to get off the bus when she was immersed in a book and about to miss her stop… Schizophrenia, or the radical break with reality we identify as serious mental illness, is also not an explanation.” She provides more detail in her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 5/6/13”

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”

Anthro in the news 2/4/13

• Violence in Africa begins with greed

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Kamari Maxine Clarke, professor of cultural anthropology at Yale University, argues that violence in Africa is rooted in greed, related to contested and highly desired natural resources, and corporate greed should be considered a war crime:

Gold dollar symbol
Gold dollar symbol/Wikipedia

“Violence in Africa begins with greed — the discovery and extraction of natural resources like oil diamonds and gas — and continues to be fed by struggles for control of energy, minerals, food and other commodities. The court needs the power to punish those who profit from those struggles. So do other judicial forums.

At a summit meeting here last week, leaders of the African Union proposed expanding the criminal jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to include corporate criminal liability for the illicit exploitation of natural resources, trafficking in hazardous wastes and other offenses.”

• Legal decision in Guatemala that genocide is genocide

According to an article in The New York Times, a Guatemalan judge ordered Efraín Rios Montt, the former dictator, and his intelligence chief to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with the massacres of highland Maya villagers three decades ago.

President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general, says he does not believe that the killings during the war amounted to genocide. A UN truth commission determined that the military had carried out “acts of genocide,” including in the Maya-Ixil villages during the war, in which 200,000 people died. As a legislator until last January, Mr. Rios Montt was protected from prosecution. Prosecutors filed charges when his term expired, but his lawyers’ appeals delayed the case.

Guatemala CIA World Factbook
Guatemala/CIA World Factbook

Scholars of Guatemala said that a number of factors combined to get the case to court, including the tenacity of the attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, and successful efforts to appoint more independent judges.

Victoria Sanford, an anthropology professor at the City University of New York who has written about Guatemala’s civil war, is quoted as saying: ”For Rios Montt to be tried breaks the wall of impunity … It says genocide is genocide and it is punishable by law.”

• Crash course in blood football

The Toronto Star carried an article about how “the concussion issue threatens to sack NFL’s business model” given the impending threat to profits from brain injury lawsuits.

As context, the article points out: The National Football League brought in more than $9 billion in revenue in 2012, and tickets to its showcase event, this weekend’s Super Bowl, range from $850 to $1,250, and even more trough the online resale market. Meanwhile, corporations advertising on Sunday’s game paid a record $3.8 million (U.S.) for a 30-second slot. The NFL is the undisputed king of cash among North American pro sports.

Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, 2006/Wikipedia
Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs, 2006/Wikipedia

But as the money piles up, so do lawsuits and workers compensation claims filed against the league and its teams by former players, who say they suffered irreversible brain injuries while playing in the NFL, and that the league and its teams never informed them about the lasting effects of football’s repeated head trauma.

Duke University cultural anthropology professor Orin Starn wonders if the legal action will lead to similar efforts to raise awareness among football players and fans: “Football is in the same situation; they’ve got a product that’s hazardous to your health,” says Starn, who specializes in the anthropology of sport. “It should come with a warning label stamped on the helmet. America is in massive denial about the blood cost of football.”

Continue reading “Anthro in the news 2/4/13”

Anthro in the news 12/24/2012

• Hopes dashed for Chagossians

Aw’s Sean Carey published two articles in The Independent about the recent consideration of the Chagossians‘ claim for a right to return to their homeland.

Chagos. Source:
In his first piece, he reviews the marathon battle that began in 1998 in the British courts, led by electrician Olivier Bancoult, the newly appointed leader of the Chagos Refugees Group. Although all of the judges in the lower courts unanimously found in favor, in 2008 the Law Lords decided against the Chagosssians’ right of return by a narrow 3-2 majority. The islanders are supported by the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, novelist Philippa Gregory and conservationist Ben Fogle.

In his second article, Carey reports on the decision: “Yesterday, there was huge disappointment amongst Chagossian communities in Port Louis, Mahe, Crawley, Manchester, Geneva and Montréal. A seven-judge chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided by majority that the case regarding the right of return of the exiled islanders was inadmissible. Geographically and legally, it has been a long journey with many twists and turns for the islanders, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers. The decision by the Strasbourg court means that they continue to be barred from returning to their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago, after their forced removal by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973, so that the US could acquire Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island, for its strategically important military base.” After eight years, a decision of inadmissable.

• Declining monkhood in Thailand

In Thailand, Buddhist temples grow lonely in villages as consumer culture rises and there is a shortage of monks. According to an article in The New York Times, monks in northern Thailand no longer perform one of the defining rituals of Buddhism, the early morning walk through the community to collect food. The meditative lifestyle of the monkhood offers little allure to the distracted iPhone generation. Although it is still relatively rare for temples to close down, many districts are so short on monks that abbots here in northern Thailand recruit across the border from impoverished Myanmar, where monasteries are overflowing with novices.

”Consumerism is now the Thai religion,” said Phra Paisan Visalo, one of the country’s most respected monks. He continues, ”In the past people went to temple on every holy day,” Mr. Paisan said. ”Now they go to shopping malls.” William Klausner, a law and anthropology professor who spent a year living in a village in northeastern Thailand in the 1950s, describes the declining influence of Buddhist monks as a ”dramatic transformation.” Monks once played a crucial role in the community where he lived, helping settle disputes between neighbors and counseling troubled children, he wrote in his book, Thai Culture in Transition. Klausner says that today most villages in northern Thailand ”have only two or three full-time monks in residence, and they are elderly and often sick.”
Continue reading “Anthro in the news 12/24/2012”

22 July, 2011. Oslo

Guest post by Thomas Hylland Eriksen

It was only a matter of hours between the blast in central Oslo and my most extensive and exhausting engagement with international media since I started out as an anthropologist in the 1980s. Between Friday night and Wednesday, I spoke on radio, on television (via a mobile phone), to newspapers and magazines from China to Chile, and wrote articles for nearly a dozen publications in five countries.

My priorities shifted in a matter of hours. Our holiday house was turned into a makeshift media centre, and the computer was online almost 24/7.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas Hylland Eriksen in Cuba, 2007. Courtesy of the author.
My engagement with the terrorist attack on Norway is easy to explain. First, although rightwing extremism is not my field of research, cultural diversity in Europe and Norway is, as well as nationalism and ethnicity. Second, I have first-hand experience of the new, Islamophobic kind of nationalism, having been on the receiving end of relatively unpleasant attacks from these quarters for several years.

Actually, I am the only contemporary intellectual mentioned by the terrorist in his writings and YouTube video – a symbol of everything that went wrong with Norway. I have asked YouTube to remove the video.

A few words about the articles: The earliest piece, for OpenDemocracy, was an initial attempt to make sense of the catastrophe and to begin reflecting on the consequences for Norwegian society. It overlaps substantially with articles in Sydsvenska Dagbladet and Information, which, respectively, cover southern Sweden including Lund and Malmö, and a smallish, but select left-leaning audience in Denmark. The title of these Scandinavian-published articles, “Men who hate social democrats,” plays on the Scandinavian title of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy (Men Who Hate Women).
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Anthro in the news 7/18/11

UPDATE: Zahi Hawass has confirmed that he is losing his appointment as Egyptian Antiquities Minister in an ongoing cabinet shuffle.

• Whose lies are better?
Two weeks ago, cultural anthropologist Mike McGovern of Yale University published an op-ed in the New York Times about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in which he argued for understanding of why the immigrant hotel maid would have lied on her asylum application. His position is that life in Guinea can be so difficult and dangerous that lying to get out can make sense, given the context. Now, Robert Fulford, professor of journalism at Massey College of the University of Toronto, claims that McGovern abuses the concept of cultural relativism and is building a culture of excuse-making. Blogger’s note: there appears to be the likelihood of lying on both sides of the case. Questions are: whose lies will be more damaging to the person’s credibility, and whose lies will be left to lie?

• Gillian Tett on the European financial situation
Cultural anthropologist Gillian Tett, an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times, where she is an assistant editor overseeing global financial markets coverage, appeared on the U.S. news television show, Morning Joe. She discussed the European financial situation and, particularly, Irish banking. And she actually managed to work in the word ‘anthropology’!

• Morocco’s Arab Spring
Paul Silverstein, cultural anthropology professor at Reed College, gave a radio interview about Morocco’s response to the Arab Spring movement. He also comments on Morocco’s new constitution that was overwhelmingly approved on July 1.

• Anthro of chess
Robert Desjarlais, a cultural anthropology professor at Sarah Lawrence College, has published a new book on chess, Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chess Board. The Boston Globe online included a piece on the book in its section on (guess what?) chess.
Continue reading “Anthro in the news 7/18/11”

Anthro in the news 6/27/2011

• The trauma of war and rape
In the first of a two-part story, CNN highlights the work of cultural anthropologist Victoria Sanford, whose research has involved listening to victim narratives of Maya women in Guatemala since her doctoral studies at Stanford University in the early 1990s. A Spanish speaker who had worked with Central American refugees, she befriended the few Maya in the area. “I was moved by their stories, but even more so because they were intent on someone hearing them,” she said, “And no one was listening.” She joined the nonprofit Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology investigative team and went to Guatemala. Sanford talked to the women, who told other women about her, and soon she was recording their stories. Over time, and after hearing many stories, Sanford suffered from a kind of “secondary trauma” including paralysis.

• Conflict in Uganda and a possible love complication
The New York Times quoted Mahmood Mamdani, professor anthropology and government at Columbia university, in an article about an ongoing bitter personal rivalry in Uganda that involves President Musaveni and his rival and former friend, Kizza Besigye. Things may be complicated, the article suggests, by a woman, Winnie Byanyima, who is married to the president’s rival but who may have had a romantic involvement earlier with the president. Other matters are likely part of the story as well. Mamdani comments that the government is “clueless” about how to deal with Besigye’s opposition movement. He didn’t comment on the love factor.

• Culture and asthma
Cultural context and behavior shape the diagnosis and treatment of asthma according to David Van Sickle, medical anthropologist and asthma epidemiologist of Reciprocal Labs in Madison, Wisc. Van Sickle’s fieldwork in India revealed that physicians were hesitant to diagnose patients with asthma because of social stigma.

• Treating autism: two cases in Croatia
Drug Week covered findings from a study conducted in Osijek, Croatia, which discusses the treatment of autism in a boy and a girl with risperidone. K. Dodigcurkovic and colleagues published their study in Collegium Antropologicum.

• Profile of a forensic anthropologist
The Gainesville Sun carried a profile of Michael Warren, an associate professor of anthropology and director of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida. He has conducted hundreds of forensic skeletal examinations for the state’s medical examiners and has participated in the identification of victims of mass disasters and ethnic cleansing, including the attacks on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina and the recovery and identification of the victims found within the mass graves of the Balkans. He recently testified in the Casey Anthony murder trial.

• Medieval persecution
The remains of 17 bodies found at the bottom of a medieval well in England could have been victims of persecution, new evidence suggests. DNA analysis indicates that the victims were Jewish. They were likely murdered or forced to commit suicide. The skeletons date to the 12th-13th centuries, a time of persecution of Jewish people in Europe. Professor Sue Black leads the research team. She is a forensic anthropologist in the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anthropology and Human Identification.
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Anthro in the news 8/24

Cognitive anthropologist has a message for Obama about health care reform

Cognitive linguistic anthropologist George Lakoff lists nine things that the Obama administration should have done earlier on in the campaign to reform health care. He also offers specific advice for how to win the campaign through a more effective communications system, including a brilliant suggestion to rename the “public option” as the “American Plan,” which will remove any taint of “socialism” and instead invoke feelings of patriotism.

This blogger likes Lakoff’s idea very much but wonders about the chances of a label change in reminding Americans that patriotism and love of country can include compassion to fellow Americans who have less than they do.

Economic development can exacerbate gender inequality.

In many patriarchal situations (patriarchy is when men dominate most or all social domains including the economy, politics, family, and belief systems), sons are highly preferred to the extent that people opt to abort female fetuses or systematically neglect daughters in terms of food, health care, and affection.

Areas where such preferences are particularly include northern India’s richest states: Punjab and Haryana.

An article in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine (August 23, 2009, pp. 23- 25) devoted to women’s rights internationally highlights the field research of cultural anthropologist Monica Das Gupta in rural Punjab in the 1980s.

Her data revealed the double-edged sword of development: richer, more-educated people have fewer children than poorer, less-educated families, but they still want to have at least one son. So the pressure to avoid having a daughter is more extreme. Das Gupta is currently a senior social scientist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group.

The article offers no recommendations, just a faint note of hope that the “clash” between modernity and exacerbated masculine bias in infant and child sex ratios in highly patriarchal situations may be a problem of only “the short and medium terms” (p. 25). Whatever that means.

Note: For historical context on northern India’s extremely unbalanced sex ratios, see Chapter 2 of my book, The Endangered Sex: Neglect of Female Children in Rural North India, 2nd ed., Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997; originally published by Cornell University Press, 1981.

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.