“The Most Wonderful Shade of Brown”

Anthropologists are good at critiquing other anthropologists and themselves. We have a lot to be guilty about and we do a good job of pointing that out. The politics of anthropology, and the politics of the politics of anthropology are a major part of what we do. In fact, we’re so good at doing it that I think at times we forget what we have actually done wrong. We spend more time reading dismissals of our ancestors than we do the ancestors themselves.

One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was when Fredrik Barth — who I have a lot of respect for — came to give a talk to our department. The highlight for me was when he was describing how much he enjoyed spending time with people in Papua New Guinea during his fieldwork there. They were, he said, friendly and “the most wonderful shade of brown.” I think he was trying to be provocative and he succeeded — there was an audible gasp from the brown anthropologists in the room, as well as from pretty much everyone else.

And then there is Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Continue reading

Blame and responsibility: An unfolding ethnographic drama [Part one]

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Bree Blakeman. Bree recently submitted her Ph.D. through The Australian National University in Canberra, though you may know her from her more usual online incarnation, as author of the blog Fieldnotes and Footnotes. This is the first in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu consider issues of blame and responsibility.]

I have been thinking a lot about comparative concepts of responsibility lately, particularly in light of recent publications on morality and ethics. Given this, and the fact my political and theoretical views get airing-enough elsewhere, I thought I would take this opportunity to share one of my favourite ethnographic case studies to give a sense of the way that Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. To this end I will present an unfolding ethnographic drama over a series of posts.

The case study itself describes a big ‘blow up’ fight between a young married couple which ends with responsibility being attributed in a way that seems counter-intuitive to the observer or reader. The exegesis will take the reader back through the anatomy of events to show how the attribution of responsibility actually makes complete sense when cast or couched in local terms. The last post will be a few brief concluding remarks on the notion of causality. Continue reading

The Graduate Advisor Handbook: Take Its Advice

Shore, Bruce M. 2014. The Graduate Advisor Handbook : A Student-centered Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

I’m a big fan of the University of Chicago Press’s series on academic life (disclosure: this may be because I went there for graduate school). Their series on writing, editing, and publishing  features several of my favorite titles, and their younger series on ‘the academic life’ has also gotten off to a good start. So I was optimistic about Bruce Shore’s The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Having read it Shore’s book (disclosure: I received a free review copy), I don’t feel like it’s the Final Statement In Human History About Advising Graduate Students. But I do strongly recommend that you read it, especially if you are new faculty or a new graduate student trying to get a grasp of what good advising looks like. Continue reading

Anthropologists Respond to Frequently Asked Questions About a AAA BDS Resolution

We would like to thank the editors of Savage Minds for inviting us to kick off this important conversation on a potential AAA resolution in support of BDS. Over the past four posts, we have tried to highlight some of the key reasons for why anthropologists in particular should honor the call to boycott that was originally issued by a united Palestinian civil society in 2005. From our analysis of the role archeology plays in the dispossession of Palestinians to our overview of historical boycotts within the AAA and discussion of academic freedom, we made the case that BDS is the only sensible, effective, and appropriate response to the current situation.

That being said, the conversation on BDS is far too important to be fully covered in four short blog posts. We would like to thank everyone who took the time to read carefully and respond respectfully, either in the comments or privately, to seek out further clarification on these important issues.

In this last post, we will attempt to answer some of the most common questions we have received. If you have a question that is not answered below, please leave a comment and let’s continue to have this serious conversation about how best to respond to ongoing Israeli mass violations of human rights. Continue reading

Minority Report

Last week I sent out a job app, well, internship app to be truthful. After all I’m a grad student again. But its significant to me because it was the first one I have applied to in the field of archives. I am just now wrapping up an internship at a museum library and being that this is the first time I’ve written a cover letter for an archives position I sought out one of the senior archivists for advice. We talked about what sort of language to use, making sure I could describe the work I had already accomplished with the proper jargon.

Then he said, “And you should say something about your heritage. You’ve probably already got a couple of lines you’ve worked out. Make sure you put that in there too.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

I think, maybe this is a defining quality of white ethnicity in the US: in certain circumstances you have the option of unlocking minority status or else opt to coast on white (male) privilege. Which version of “me” do I want to deploy in such-and-such a context? In the case of a job letter without a name that marks you as “other” it is your privilege to have the agency to chose the minority identity. Such as it is.

I did, indeed, have a couple of lines already worked out from previous letters. But to be perfectly honest I haven’t really used that language in years. This was a letter writing strategy that I employed very reliably as an ABD, particularly in the days when I was applying to everything. As time passed, I changed, my letters changed. I had other things to say.
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Embracing Our Better Angels: Endorsing BDS and the History of the AAA

In our previous posts, we made the argument that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) ought to endorse the united Palestinian call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and systematic legal discrimination. Over the past few weeks, we have unfortunately received more horrifying reminders of why this sort of external pressure needs to be brought to bear and urgently. The situation requires the sort of exigent and effective external pressure that BDS can provide, and so the AAA ought to do what it can. Full stop.

That said, as a great many anthropological writings remind us, we should still look to our past as an organization – both our successes and our failures – to guide our response to the present situation. In the last of our regular posts, then, we will argue that endorsing the united Palestinian call for BDS represents a continuation of the best principles and traditions of the AAA. Continue reading

The year of the freedom technologist

[This is an invited post by John Postill. John is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, in Melbourne. He is currently writing a book titled Hacker, Lawyer, Journalist, Spy: Freedom Technologists and Political Change in an Age of Protest. He blogs at media/anthropology.]

Two and a half years ago, TIME magazine declared 2011 to be The Year of the Protester. From the Arab Spring or Spain’s indignados to the Occupy movement, this was undoubtedly a year of political upheaval around the world.

But 2011 was also an important year for a new global vanguard of tech-minded citizens determined to bring about political change, often in connection with national crises. Let us call these citizens, at least for the time being, freedom technologists.

Consider, for instance, the loose network of freedom technologists who spearheaded the Tunisian uprising. On 28 November 2010, after long years of struggle under one of the world’s harshest regimes, the lawyer and blogger Riadh Guerfali created the site TuniLeaks. A WikiLeaks spin-off, this site released US diplomatic cables that were highly embarrassing to Ben Ali’s autocratic regime. These leaks helped to prepare the protest ground. The trigger came through the actions of another freedom technologist, veteran activist Ali Bouazizi, who recorded on his smartphone the self-immolation of his cousin Mohamed, a street vendor. He then shared the video via Facebook, where it was picked up by journalists from Al Jazeera – barred from entering Tunisia – and broadcast to the whole nation (and the rest of the Arab world). Al Jazeera’s freedom technologists relied on blogs and social media to bypass the official restrictions and report on the fast-moving events on the ground. When the government censored Facebook, the transnational online group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia, carrying attacks against government websites via dial-up connections provided by Tunisian citizens.

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Getting a Job in the Academy: Some Thoughts From the Other Side

This post isn’t just another lament about the sorry state of the job situation in the academy. The US is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis on that front, accentuated by the huge increase in the numbers of people completing  PhDs  in liberal arts subjects and the scale of student debt. The effects of this crisis spill over into what is now a global market in academic jobs. This is clearly evident in the UK where the numbers of applicants for academic posts in anthropology frequently reach well over one hundred, compared to  perhaps fifty or sixty only a decade previously.

The problem is  partly structural- the mismatch between numbers and posts on the one hand, and the impacts of selective shrinkage in the University sector on the other.  But demand is also a factor. People continue to study at graduate level because they are motivated by research as much as anything.  Doctoral study isn’t only about entry into  formal academic employment, in any discipline. And, while the casualization of higher education is a concerning trend, in the US and beyond, it’s not the only issue. It’s hard to imagine under what economic system there could ever be sufficient secure jobs in the university sector for those with higher degrees at a time when it seems that more people than ever are pursuing postgraduate research.

This doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to get a university post, if that’s what you really want. But it does entail a healthy dose of realism combined with the practical career building tips of the sort offered so eloquently by Karen Kelsky aka The Professorisin whose site I wholeheartedly recommend. Having been on the other side of the job process over the past year, as a search committee member and chair of a department, I’m going to offer a few of my own. The first is optimistic, if you are an anthropologist at least.

People with doctorates in anthropology and field based social research expertise can find a home in the cognate disciplines which routinely borrow from anthropological production. Anthropology is a sending discipline which exports people and ideas to allied subjects. Explore possibilities in disciplines such as sociology, development studies and cultural geography. Read their journals. Think about where you publish and where your work could claim a wider interest. Be open.

My second tip is be yourself, in terms of your priorities and what your research is about.   Increasing competition in the job market  coexists with the increasing homogenization of research topics and the standardization of the aesthetic of what counts as significant in terms of outputs and achievements. It’s hard to stand out.  Try. Your field site is unique. So is your research. Don’t smother it in off the peg theory.  (Hint: Not everything in the world today is explained by neoliberalism).

Third, don’t sacrifice productivity to busyness. Presenting at  a million conferences is not in actuality game-changing. What committees are looking for is evidence that  your papers will be converted into interesting and engaging published pieces.  Sure, do some conferences. But limit them. You don’t want to run out of time for getting that paper into press. A published piece goes on working for you long after it has appeared, establishing your reputation and getting your work known about by a far wider constituency than could ever fit into that conference hotel room.

Finally, make connections- between different areas in your own research,  with different  institutions and with different people. That’s how you’ll get to know about new opportunities which arise and it can prompt unanticipated synergies. It is these which yield the most creative possibilities for writing, teaching and thinking.

 

Hobby Lobby: A Win for Ethnophysiology

An example of a good argument against the Hobby Lobby ruling.
An example of a good argument against the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby; they are free to deny the insurance coverage of certain contraceptives for their employees. Blogs have written about how this is a loss for women’s rights and a victory for women’s rights, a win for religious freedom and a loss for the religious, a win for corporate personhood, a loss for the LGBTQIA community, and a loss for conservatives. Whichever the case may be, Hobby Lobby is at the very least a win for ethnophysiology. Continue reading

Digging the Occupation: The Politics of Boycotts and Archeology in Israel (BDS pt. 3)

Recently, the television network NBC started filming Dig, a new archeology drama set in Jerusalem. Normally, we’d be ecstatic to see our fellow archaeologists getting such media fanfare. But there is nothing normal about this venture. Filmed on-site in illegally annexed East Jerusalem, the show is underwritten by 6.5 million dollar grant from the Israeli government. For comparisons sake, this means Israel is spending more to film Dig than on the yearly education budget for all K-12 Palestinian schools.

So why is the Israeli government, currently in the midst of a budget crisis, throwing millions at NBC to get Dig on the air? Because they know something we’ve been reluctant to own up to: archeological knowledge remains one of the Israeli state’s most powerful weapons. If Dig unearths anything, it is that in Israel archeology is neither a neutral nor innocent enterprise. Instead, it has become just one more tool in the occupation of Palestinian lands.

As anthropologists and archeologists, we should be especially concerned when we see our discipline being misused to promote discrimination and occupation. By endorsing Palestinians’ call for BDS, the AAA has a unique opportunity to highlight the misappropriation of our scholarly techniques and defend the good name of our profession.

Continue reading

Classified information

I had a delightful day at work yesterday. It started with a two hour long debate with my colleagues about method and theory. Once we exhausted the possibilities we put our ideas into practice. After I made my contribution a senior scholar reviewed my work and directed me to make some changes, the end result was pretty good. I love this environment of collaboration and shared decision making!

This summer I am volunteering at The Mariners’ Museum as part of my training in information science. I help them with grunt work necessary to meet a funding deadline, they give me work experience and expand my professional network. I get three credit hours towards my Masters to boot. The museum library is housed on the campus of Christopher Newport University and we have one of the most expansive collections of ship’s registries and nautical themed rare books in the US.

My current project is working in the library’s archives creating catalog records for individual items. This is unusual because archives are typically only described at the collection level, who donated the collection and what sorts of materials are included. Its rare for an archive catalog to index each and every thing present in a given collection.

The work I’m currently engaged in is an accrual to an existing collection of pop culture items, all donated by the museum’s vice-president who enjoys perusing eBay, flea markets, and antique stores for anything that references ironclads, the Monitor, or the Battle of Hampton Roads. In 1862 the local waterways hosted a major Civil War naval battle, it was the first encounter between metal ships heralding the end of wooden navies. So this local historical event is of global significance, at least to Navy people anyway. Continue reading