anthro in the news 6/29/15

  • A matter of Pride: There is no neutral

An article in the Guardian reports on conflicts related to how a group of queer activists mobilized in solidarity with miners in the U.K are being treated in this year’s London Pride Parade line-up. The group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), was scheduled to lead this year’s parade, but the parade’s organizers won’t let trade union members march with them at the front of the parade because they are not political and not neutral. The article points out that LGSM is not the only political group at this year’s Pride and will be joined in the procession with Ukip, a political party whose leader recently declared that HIV-positive immigrants should be barred from the U.K. The article turns to insights from the “politically committed, morally engaged” anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes who points out that “neutrality” in the face of structural violence is not neutrality at all: it’s complicity.

  • Microfinance works, but for whom?

Cultural anthropologist Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics published an article in the Guardian in which he zings microfinance as “…the neoliberal development strategy par excellence. Forget about colonialism, structural adjustment, austerity, financial crises, land grabs, tax evasion, and climate change. Forget about challenging the concentration of power and wealth. And, above all, forget about collective mobilisation. Bankers shall be our new heroes and debt our salvation. Debt, incidentally, is a great way to keep people docile.” Hickel proposes alternatives that will address the structural causes of poverty. Continue reading “anthro in the news 6/29/15”

anthro in the news 6/8/15

  • Porn-driven female genital esthetics

The Globe and Mail reported on growing industry in women’s genital esthetics, illustrating its point with some details about genital-area waxing and skin treatment for women available in Toronto. The article quotes Eileen Anderson-Fye, the Robson Junior associate professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University: “Because of technological advances, we have greater access to pornographic images that explicitly and implicitly convey aesthetic and erotic ideals…“These images hold women to increasingly singular standards about beauty and desirability.” [Blogger’s note: there’s an even more serious question here about what drives porn to portray sexually desirable female genitals as child-like].

  • Culture, hormones, and menopause
Logo of the Women’s Health Initiative

A Reuters article describes findings from a survey about vaginal pain during intercourse in several Western countries. The results, which reveal substantial cross-country variations, will not be surprising to anthropologists. Researchers conducted an online survey asking 8,200 older men and women in North America and Europe how menopause affects their sex lives and relationships. While similar complaints were reported across all countries, the magnitude of suffering for vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and weight gain varied. According to Melissa Melby, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, the findings are limited because the survey recruited only women with vaginal pain and men who experienced it with their partners. Even so, she continues, the cultural differences about menopause highlighted by the survey underscore how regional differences in diet, physical activity, attitudes toward aging, and expectations about menopause influence how women experience symptoms.

  • Good news: First woman president in Mauritius

Anthropologyworks’ Sean Carey published an article in the New African on the election in Mauritius of its first woman president, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, an eminent scientist specializing in ethnobotany. She will also serve her country as its ceremonial Head of State, a move that has caused some controversy but also much support. She vows to be an “apolitical president.” Well, let’s see says Carey, a longtime observer of politics in Mauritius. Continue reading “anthro in the news 6/8/15”

On Fredrik Barth: Hero of cultural anthropology

By Sean Carey

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. He is the author of numerous books, including Ethnicity and Nationalism, A History of Anthropology, Small Places, Large Issues, Tyranny of the Moment, Globalization and Common Denominators. His latest book Fredrik Barth, is an intellectual biography of his fellow Norwegian social anthropologist. It was recently published in the U.K. and will be released in June in the U.S. Here, AW contributor Sean Carey interviews Eriksen about the book.

Fredrik Barth

SC: When many anthropologists (and other social scientists) think of Fredrik Barth, ideas of ethnicity tend to spring to mind. What was it that was so original in Barth’s thinking in this area, and why has his influence been so long-lasting?

TE: In a way, you could say that what Barth did, back in 1967 (the book Ethnic Groups and Boundaries came in 1969), was to systematise and clarify ideas that had been circulating for some time, especially in British anthropology, among people as different as Edmund Leach and Max Gluckman. So the degree of originality could always be questioned. However, he showed, more clearly than any earlier author, the absurdity of the view that ethnic differences were simply a product of cultural differences; that what mattered were social boundaries, usually propped up by mutual stereotypes. Later developments in the bustling industry of ethnicity research have introduced concepts of creolisation and hybridity and thus problematised the concept of the boundary; the state has been brought in, as have concepts of inequality, power and hierarchy that were weakly developed in Barth’s initial statement. However, these are elaborations on his perspective, not refutals.

SC: You mention the state. Is Barth the godfather of progressive multiculturalism? Furthermore, does his analysis of ethnicity lend itself to the formulation of practical social (and economic) policies in developed and developing societies?

TE: The perspective from Ethnic Groups and Boundaries has doubtless seeped into a general public, or intellectual, understanding of what matters in ethnic relations; what it tells us, among other things, is that we should look beyond cultural differences and stereotypes, focusing instead on what people do and I suppose the structural features of society. So yes, there are practical applications of this perspective, but Fredrik would be loath to consider himself a godfather of any kind of multiculturalism. He is not a very political man, you know; yet, an implication of his view, which many have developed in a more applied way, is that a society may well contain considerable cultural diversity without becoming totally fragmented, as long as it is socially cohesive. If you give people the same de facto opportunities within a shared public space, cultural differences come to appear as less relevant, or perhaps even a positive element. The latter has certainly been my view. Just think about what English, or Norwegian, food used to taste like before the new diversity.

SC: Do you think that Barth’s contribution to the field of ethnicity and ‘race’ relations has overshadowed his contributions to other areas of anthropology, including, for example, his novel insights into ritual and other forms of symbolic behaviour which grew out of his fieldwork amongst tribal peoples in New Guinea?

TE: I think the answer is yes, but then again these things are unpredictable, and the world is not always just and reasonable. Ethnicity was only one of Barth’s many theoretical interests. Although his writings over the decades contain a scattering of texts about ethnic relations and, later, complexity – from his 1956 article on ethnic relations in Swat to a 1994 article assessing Ethnic Groups and Boundaries after 25 years – he would see his contributions to political anthropology and ‘transactionalism’, and to the anthropology of knowledge, as being more important.

SC: I see. It’s interesting that Barth’s early work on political organisation and leadership amongst the Pashto-speaking Pathans of northern Pakistan’s Swat Valley was more influenced by the British ‘social action’ perspective pioneered by Edmund Leach and others rather than the structural-functionalism of Radcliffe Brown. Did Barth’s transactionalism come about because of his personal relationship with Leach, or do you think other factors were at work?

TE: There were definitely other factors. Leach was just moderately interested in the theory of games, for example, and remained less willing than Barth to throw overboard the concepts of society and social structure. Curiously, when Barth returned to Oslo in 1950, after his studies in Chicago, he was a warm admirer of Radcliffe-Brown, and somehow his respectful dialogue with structural-functionalism continued at least up to Models of Social Organization in 1966. However, he would later be influenced by Leach, but also by Raymond Firth, and firmly belonged to the ‘Malinowskian’ lineage, or sub-lineage, throughout his early career, emphasising social process and agency rather than structure and social cohesion. The great hero of his youth was the naturalist Niko Tinbergen, whose maxim ‘watching and wondering’ Barth continued to cite for many years. There was, in other words, a strong inductivist bias in his approach – even now, he would emphasise that we need to go out and ‘see what is actually there’ without a strong theoretical bias. The fact that Barth also fell out with Evans-Pritchard in the early 1950s might also have been a factor, though not a major one.

SC: Unlike Leach, however, it appears that Barth was not so impressed with the type of structuralism propagated by Claude Lévi-Strauss.  It prompts the question: was Barth a more thoroughly British-type empiricist than his intellectual mentor?

TE: Well phrased! Yes, you could say that. Leach, like Mary Douglas, became something of an intermediary, trying to explain to the British what Lévi-Strauss and the French were up to; while Barth remained a rather clear-cut anthropological version of the analytical philosopher. He wanted clarity and logical consistency, and was frustrated by the lofty speculations and untestable assumptions he saw in Lévi-Strauss.

SC: Barth was also influenced by Erving Goffman. How so?

TE: They were students in Chicago at the same time, you know, and knew each other then, at least a bit. But it was years later, upon reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) that Barth discovered that Goffman’s microsociology, and his ability to turn tiny observations into fully-fledged social analyses, that Barth discovered a kindred spirit in Goffman. They both believed in observation (and not just conversations) as a means of collecting data, and were adamant that society is best understood through minute and meticulous attention to fine-grained social life.

SC: It’s clear, then, that Barth places a high value on concrete, observational fieldwork as the basis for theorising, rather than the other way round. In fact, in your book you refer to Barth as ‘something of an anthropologist’s anthropologist’ in that sense. Can you comment further?

TE: Not everybody is likely to agree about this formulation of mine. But let me put it this way: Last year, our department in Oslo celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and we organised various events, roundtables and that sort of thing, to celebrate ourselves. We disagreed about lots of things, and had some lively discussions about ‘ontology’ and ANT, methods of comparison and so on. But we agreed on one major thing, namely that good anthropology always has an ethnographic component. So we shared the conviction that detailed descriptions of people’s lives are the kind of high-octane data anthropology can bring to the table. This remains a very fundamental aspect of what we do, and Barth excelled in it. He was simply an extraordinary ethnographer.

SC: Barth sees himself as a scientist and humanist. But what sort of science and what sort of humanism?

TE: These are big questions, Sean, and I try to discuss them in the book. For one thing, Barth’s science is not a positivist one, although he has a weakness for explanation and not just interpretation. The reason is that he has always been aware that fieldwork has a strong interpretive element. You cannot just register ‘what is out there’ when you study other people’s meaningful universes. I’d say that his science is modelled on the natural sciences, but with a strong hermeneutical element. When it comes to his humanism, Barth was never a very political man; but what he has tried to tell us for sixty years is that all human lives have value, and that there are many roads to the good life. And the bad. This simple, but fundamental wisdom from anthropological thought and knowledge comes through in particular in his popular books, which — alas — have only been published in Norwegian.

SC: If Barth did not exist would we (including his critics) need to invent him?

TE: Erm, that’s a good one! Well, actually, in the 1950s and 1960s, he arguably made his critics better and contributed to improving the quality of anthropological debate by shaking things up a bit. The old guard and the new alike (I’m here thinking about Marxists and structuralists) had to sharpen their arguments and rethink their assumptions. The transactional perspective of Models, phrased in a deliberately polemical way, produced a clear theoretical position that people had to relate to. At the end of the day, few embraced it wholeheartedly, not even Barth himself, but it was a position that was very good to think. I really don’t know what to answer. But I see him as one of a handful of anthropologists from the latter half of the 20th century who really made a difference to the discipline, through his work on ethnicity, political strategies and knowledge, but primarily through his insistence that you should know what you’re talking about, especially if you happen to be talking about people who are not present.


Anthro in the news 3/23/15

  • But are you really Japanese?
Ariana Miamoto, Miss Japan Universe. Credit: Miss Universe Japan.

The Washington Post carried an article about Ariana Miamoto, the first biracial Miss Universe Japan.  Her mother is Japanese and her father is African American. The 20-year-old model is a Japanese citizen, a native of Nagasaki prefecture, fluent in Japanese, with an advanced mastery of the art of Japanese calligraphy. She is, in fact, Japanese, though what is termed a hafu, a person of mixed ancestry. So, some critics think she is not Japanese enough. Cultural anthropologist. Ted Bestor, professor of cultural anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard University comments: “The Japanese like to think of their society and culture as having a unique identity that is ‘inaccessible to foreigners’….One of the ways in which Japanese think of their own society as ‘unique’ is to emphasize the homogeneity of Japanese society…”

  • Political upheaval in Mauritius

An article in Al Jazeera attempts to make sense of recent political events in Mauritius, including the change of government. It quotes Sean Carey, senior research fellow in social sciences at the University of Manchester and a frequent contributing author to anthropologyworks. He comments that part of the reason why there is so much social change is because of the rising stock of the meritocratic value in Mauritius.

  • On bullshit jobs, stupidifying bureaucracies, and the need for play

Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber spoke extensively, over dinner, with The Guardian on bullshit jobs, stupidifying bureaucracies and the need for play.

On bullshit jobs: “A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.” Is his work meaningless? He replies: “There can be no objective measure of social value.”

On stupidifying bureaucracies: Graeber came face to face with stupidifying bureaucracies when he had to deal with finding care for his aging mother. “I like to think I’m actually a smart person. Most people seem to agree with that…OK, I was emotionally distraught, but I was doing things that were really dumb. How did I not notice that the signature was on the wrong line? There’s something about being in that bureaucratic situation that encourages you to behave foolishly.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 3/23/15”

Uptown Funk! has the moves – and the endorphins

By Sean Carey

“Will Uptown Funk! be US Billboard’s Hot 100s No 1 Song of 2015?” is a question that is already being asked by both pop moguls and pop aficionados.

I must confess that I heard the song just a couple of weeks ago (I know what you’re thinking: where has this guy been?). It has an undeniably catchy, retro disco feel while still being part of today’s pop zeitgeist – which, I think you will agree, is a very clever trick to pull off.

Because I subsequently found myself humming the melody (not the lyrics which I could not remember) when I was on my way to do some shopping and not thinking of anything in particular I understood very well why Uptown Funk! had shot to the top of the charts, not only in the U.S., but also in neighboring Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, France, Ireland and the U.K.

Then, by chance, I saw the accompanying Uptown Funk! video on TV. It immediately struck me how good, Hawaiian-born Bruno Mars and his four backing singers are at dancing. Quiff-haired English music producer Mark Ronson, from whose album Uptown Special the song is taken, also makes occasional appearances. But for the most part he is either standing or sitting, simply clicking his fingers, tapping his feet or rotating his head on his neck.

By contrast, Mars and his group perform some very intricate moves with their whole bodies, using the street and a nightclub stage as backdrops. Occasionally Ronson pops up in one of the group sequences on the street but you can see for yourself that he doesn’t do very much. Overall he cuts a fairly reticent figure – the nerdy introvert to Mars’s street-wise extrovert, as it were. Perhaps Ronson is purposefully embodying the stereotype that white, middle-class British guys can’t dance – or at least can’t dance very well. Continue reading “Uptown Funk! has the moves – and the endorphins”

Anthro in the news 2/16/15

  • Cultural anthropology expertise essential

An article in The Guardian on global mental health aid following disasters and crises noted that: “The best experts to bridge the gap between international and local experience are those who might not have a health or psychology background, but have deep knowledge about cultural differences: anthropologists.”

And more: “Since the Ebola outbreak there is a growing recognition of this discipline’s role in emergencies. The American Anthropological Association has asked its members to become more involved in the West African countries hit by the disease. It argues that if anthropologists had been more involved from the start of the outbreak more people wouldn’t have caught the disease due to misunderstandings over traditional burials and conspiracy theories about westerners spreading the illness.”

[Blogger’s note: I am happy to report that my Institute, at the George Washington University, co-hosted the meeting in November in Washington, D.C., that was supported by the American Anthropological Association, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and other organizations. See the You Tube videos, Part 1 – Panel 1 and Part 2 – Panel 2 of the event and the recommendations].

  • Hope for return to Chagos
Diego Garcia

The New African magazine published an article by Sean Carey, of the University of Roehampton,  summarizing the current status of the Chagossians’ claims for the right of return to their homeland. Carey discusses the legal shenanigans at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and other parts of the Empire. Leaders of the return movement are cautiously optimistic.

  • No religious basis for anti-vaxxers

An article in The New York Times reviews the issue of formal exceptions in New York state, allowing parents to not have their children vaccinated for medical or religious reasons. Recent outbreaks of measles and mumps in ultra-Orthodox communities in the Brooklyn area have prompted discussion among rabbis about possible underpinnings for anti-vaccine attitudes in interpretations of Jewish law. At one school the proportion of students receiving vaccine exemptions more than doubled to 12 percent during the 2013-14 school year. The article quotes Don Seeman, a rabbi and professor of Jewish studies and medical anthropology at Emory University: “I don’t think there’s much rabbinical support for not vaccinating…What does exist in certain communities is a lot of anxiety about science and the risks we are exposed to through technology.” The texts of most major religious were created before vaccinations were invented, so interpretations have to rely more on teachings about health and well-being in general. Continue reading “Anthro in the news 2/16/15”

Anthro in the news 2/9/15

  • Financial benefits of migrant work in the UAE, yes but…

Laborers from South Asia form the majority of construction workers in the UAE. Source: The National.

The National (Abu Dhabi) and The Hindu (India) carried articles about findings from a recent study of workers from India in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The headline in The Hindu reads: “UAE great destination for Indians to get richer”

The study, conducted by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., involved interviews with 1,500 Indian workers to measure the effects their working here has had on their families at home. One finding is that the laborers earn salaries two and a half times more than what they would earn in India. And remittances they send home improve their families’ situation.

A more critical perspective comes from Jane Bristol-Rhys, associate professor of anthropology at Zayed University. She has studied migration in the UAE since 2001 and has written a book about it that will be available this year. Bristol-Rhys says the study was limited in its scope:

“The study seems to have focused narrowly on financial gains, but what about the emotional impact? In India many children are seeing their fathers only once in two years. The study has not taken this into account…The study also seems to have ignored work done by anthropologists in India as well as the UAE for the past 20 years. These have not been referenced. We know that the individual families are benefiting but is the community benefiting? The local villages do not benefit. Instead, the government takes a large chunk of the remittances that are sent. The people working in the Gulf are also under pressure to bring back gifts with them. In many cases, they take loans to go work and then have to stay for two-three contracts to earn the money back.”

[Blogger’s note: studies also exist documenting the harsh living and working conditions for immigrant labor in the UAE, indicating that it’s not clearly a “great destination” – it’s a very tough destination].

  • Misunderstanding: Ebola’s shadow epidemic in Dallas
From left: Carolyn Smith-Morris, Adia Benton, and Doug Henry. Source: Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas Morning News reported on a panel presentation at Southern Methodist University by three medical anthropologists: Adia Benton, an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, Doug Henry, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas, and Carolyn Smith-Morris, associate professor and director of SMU’s health and society program.

While Dallas’ Ebola “outbreak” may have ended last fall, scientific exploration of what happened in the city has only begun, especially among medical anthropologists. In a two-hour discussion, the three experts sorted through how the crisis evolved, how people responded, and the language they used to describe what happened. They agreed that what took place was an “an epidemic of misunderstanding.” Continue reading “Anthro in the news 2/9/15”

Royal wedding etiquette buzz

Don't hate the players, hate the game
Commemoration Mug. Flickr/Poppet

This just in from Sean Carey, cultural anthropologist at Roehampton University:

Big and growing excitement in the UK about the Royal Wedding next month.

This article on what the Palace is telling guests about etiquette and protocol includes advice about trying not to kiss the Queen!

And this from the BBC about how to address members of the Royal family – remember ma’am rhymes with ham.