In the middle of the teaching term, summer is the far away season where you imagine that all of your academic, and possibly creative, writing projects will get off the ground. It is an oasis over the desert horizon. When summer finally arrives, you realize the large, luscious lagoon you imagined is more like a puddle. Desperate, you dive in anyways. The reality of the academic summer is that we continue to have competing demands on our time. We rush off to the field. Our families have a heightened sense of entitlement to interact with us. Kids aren’t in school. We are faced with duties left undone in the scramble to get through the term. Those of us who are junior, or precariously employed, are likely packing and moving (again).
According to every “how to” book on successful academic writing, waiting for big chunks of time to advance intellectual projects is ill-advised. Instead, consistent short bursts are the way to cultivate a long and successful publication record. Through various experiments, I found this to be true. Nevertheless, most of us stay committed to a substantial amount of summer writing. We have to. Savage Minds has been a supportive space for thinking and talking about anthropological writing. In this first guest post I want to open a conversation about summer writing and sketch out my plan for the coming month as guest blogger. Continue reading →
It’s been a rollercoaster week in US politics! Hope that, no matter where you are in the world, something in the news made you happy this week. Send me any blog links at email@example.com.
While everyone should be celebrating the monumental decision of the Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages, there is also something in there that, along with this weeks’ ruling on the Fair Housing Act in Texas, should warm the hearts of social scientists in particular. Both of these decisions, in different ways, have advanced the view that our understanding of the real world matters for deciding legal principles. In Obergefell v. Hodges Kennedy argued that the proper interpretation of the constitution, of what it means to be “equal,” is subject to shifting societal norms:
“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” he wrote on Friday. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”
This move towards looking at real world context (Obergefell) and consequences (Texas) in deciding the law just makes sense to us as anthropologists. But while we should welcome the way that these rulings increase the sway of the social sciences in shaping the law, we should also be cautious, for it remains an open question exactly what kind of social science will be held to be relevant in deciding legal questions. The move to include real world implications of the law received its biggest push from the law and economics movement and it is likely that quantitative research by economists and sociologists will continue to hold sway over qualitative work. Certainly several members of the Supreme Court remain quite ignorant about anthropological research on subjects like marriage. At the same time, however, these two decisions by Kennedy seem to establish important precedents for the inclusion of social science research in how we think about the law, and I think that’s a good thing.
It is a knot, an ache, this longing to be present in Nepal right now. Even so, virtual presence fosters awareness. The Internet has become a strange safety net, catching us as we fall into senses of connection. The initial social media push to mark people as “safe” and to track immediate needs as well as report destruction after the two major earthquakes was truly remarkable. Mark Zuckerberg’s stated commitment of substantial Nepal relief funds and a push, through Facebook, raised $17 million quickly. I believe such efforts helped to move my own government into allocating resources beyond the paltry $1million initially proferred by the powers that be.
At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:
Goffman writes a successful ethnography.
Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.
Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.
Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.
Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.
There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.
This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book? Continue reading →
Savage Minds has long been looking for an archaeologist whose writing would mesh well with our own (predominantly cultural anthropological) sensibility, and so when Uzma Rizvi guest blogged for us last August we knew we had found exactly what we had been looking for. We quickly asked her to consider joining the blog as a full time member. While interested, Uzma didn’t want to start until after the end of the school year. . . which has finally come around. So now it is with great pleasure that we welcome Uzma Rizvi, the newest addition to our team! We also would like to extend a hearty congratulations to Uzma on her recent promotion to Associate Professor! Below is a short bio from her academic homepage at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn, NY.
I am an anthropological archaeologist specializing in the archaeology of the first cities. I teach anthropology, ancient urbanism, issues in new materialisms, critical heritage studies, memory and war/trauma studies, decolonization/the postcolonial critique, and social practice. My current research work is largely focused on Ancient India and Ancient UAE, both during the 3rd millennium BCE. Beyond these vast umbrellas of interest, I have a few distinct projects that have been occupying my research world of late. These include, but are not limited to, understanding ancient subjectivity and related to that, the idea of an intimate architecture; war and trauma in relationship to the urban fabric; and finally, epistemological critiques of archaeology that have emerged from my earlier work in postcolonial theory.
Only those who regard healing as the ultimate goal of their efforts can, therefore, be designated as physicians. —Rudolf Virchow
When Gyatso called to give me the list of medicines I was in the library, writing another one of these blogposts. I answered his call, speaking as quietly as I could in Tibetan but hoping he would still be able to hear me, across the planet. A few students looked up, annoyed, as my weird banter broke their concentration. Once outside, I greeted this familiar voice with enthusiasm. Gyatso, a Tibetan doctor or amchi with whom I have worked for many years, was calling from his home in the ancient walled city of Lo Monthang, in Nepal’s Mustang District.
Pleasantries passed and then Gyatso got down to work. Do you have a pen and paper? He asked. I pulled out my notebook and he began to rattle off the names of about 30 different Tibetan medical compounds. Most I recognized as common formulas with as few as five and as many as twenty-five ingredients: plants, animal products, and minerals from across the Tibetan plateau, high Himalaya, and subtropical South Asia. As I wrote down these names, sensory memories flooded in, of dried pomegranate and green cardamom, of eaglewood and Chinese gooseberry, of calcium carbonate and bamboo pitch. The names of these formulas also brought forth a string of symptoms: sleeplessness and anxiety, blood and bile disorders, digestive irregularities, weakened life force. A few of the named medicines were rinchen rilbu, precious pills. These highly complex pharmacological endeavors include detoxified precious and semi-precious stones and metals. They are used sparingly, if also as panacea. Continue reading →
This week either the anthroblogosphere was quiet, or I was too distracted by the hoopla surrounding Rachel Dolezal to keep up… help me out by sending me links at firstname.lastname@example.org!
As you might have expected, anthropologists weighed in on the scandal surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the academic who was outed as “passing” as black. In this interview on the AAA blog, Patricia Sunderland points out that strategic racial repositioning has a long history: Race and Rachel Dolezal
And on Anthropology While White, The Rules That Rachel Broke discusses “racecraft” and Dolezal’s negation of the continuous social processes that go into creating racial identity, in favor of a personal, psychological narrative.
I think I’ve written and thrown away three separate posts on the Alice Goffman debate trying to find something to say that people will find interesting. I personally don’t find the case to be very interesting, or to speak to core issues of what ethnography is or should be. In my opinion, the takeaway is: Goffman wrote a remarkable book at a remarkably young age, like all books it has some problems, and it is bearing an absolutely incredible amount of scrutiny fairly well. She did hard fieldwork and had to make hard choices writing her ethnography, and some people disagree with those choices. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.
The seduction against thinking in an emergency comes, as we have seen, from two sources: first, from a false opposition between thinking and acting; second, from a plausible (but in the end, false) opposition between thinking and rapid action.
—Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency (2011: 14)
It was a rushed decision to accept the tents. But when Ngawang called me – he in New York, his family in his village in northern Nepal – his voice cracked. My mother is cold. She is sleeping on the ground. Not minutes later, news flashed across the Facebook feed: an old friend was organizing a massive effort to send donated tents to Nepal from the US and to work with Indian and Nepali manufacturers to make as many durable if impermanent shelters as quickly as possible. I reached out, asking if perhaps twenty of the donated tents could be set aside for this village in need. I mentioned that someone from my small New England town was heading to Nepal next week. There had been talk of baggage waivers –promissory notes against suffering.
And so I accepted the donation of twenty six-person tents. Send them to my office, I said. We’ll get them there next week. If they hadn’t been donated, I would call them an impulse buy.
In the film Elysium, the ultra-rich have left an apocalyptic Earth ravaged by global warming and overpopulation. Their utopian colony orbits high above Earth which festers below. Science fiction, but Silicon Valley techno-utopians also dream of rising above the planet’s problems.
The Seasteading Institute, for example, seeks to create floating cities far enough from land as to be outside of any regulatory jurisdiction. There, farseers such as the likes of Google CEO Larry Page might be able to innovate, untethered by regulations. At Google’s annual developers’ conference in 2013, Page said: “I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out.”
The seas of Earth appeal to some while the dry seas of Mars attract others: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is at the forefront of commercial space travel for the ultra-rich. At a cost of US$36 billion he hopes his company SpaceX can start a Mars colony. Space tourist tickets come in at a mere US$500,000. He also plans to provide planet-wide internet access, beamed from 4,000 satellites. Continue reading →
In librarian parlance entities, whether books or journal articles or whatever, can be said to have an “aboutness.” And as a cataloger its my job to describe that aboutness with subject headings. I’m working in an archives setting now and my job, essentially, is to sit down with photos such as the one below and, following strict rules, create a digital record that will help researchers find it in the future.
Because we place a premium on organization and arrangement only authorized subject headings are permitted, something called a “controlled vocabulary.” In the work I’m doing now our controlled vocabulary comes from the Library of Congress. One of the defining characteristics of the LoC subject headings is that they are hierarchical, broad terms are subdivided into narrower terms, which are further divided and modified in rather rigid ways.
So those are the basic rules of the game. The objective is to describe the item so that others will find it, but within the constraints set out by the LoC (typically there are in-house rules you have to take in to consideration too, etc). Alright, given all that: What is this picture about? Continue reading →
I am going to use this space as a Savage Minds guest to sort through some of the images, questions, and emotions unearthed over these past six weeks or so, as communities across Nepal have lived and died under the weight of falling buildings, landslides, floods, trauma, and homelessness brought about by massive seismic shifts across the Himalayan belt. Given the dizzying pace of news cycles and our collectively short attention spans, those for whom Nepal is not an important place will refer to this disaster as an earthquake, singular. But this is no singular disaster. The country has experienced about 300 seismic events since April 25, 2015. For thousands, the initial 7.8 earthquake was sufficient to kill them. But the remains of that day rumble on and people are now living to the rhythm of expected surprise. Ayo ayo ayo. A lament. A modicum of pain. But also, simply, it has come.
For most of Nepal’s roughly 30 million people, living uncertainty is old hat. Consider the legacies of civil war and political instability, the dynamics of moneylending, wage labor abroad and the weight of debt, questions of when the rains will come or when they will stop. But the spring of 2015 has cracked open new forms of vulnerability, ripped into the seams of lives and landscapes, and at once exacerbated forms of inequality even as it prompts new forms of Nepali collectivity. More than half a million homes have been destroyed or are precariously habitable. This equates to about 2.5 million people for whom ‘home’ has become a place of desperate refuge or a village now longed for among the tent cities of the urban refugee. More than 3,500 schools have been destroyed. The wind and water of one’s place, and one’s ancestor’s place, may now be nowhere to settle and perhaps an environment to which one should not return, the vertiginous threats of dislodged rock and snow, glacial lake outburst flooding and landslides being what they are. As the skies begin to crackle and roar, as clouds bloat and groan like bellows, millions of Nepalis may look up and wonder what is next. And there becomes an eerie symmetry to it all. Avalanche as downpour. Thunderstorm as quake.
Pierre Bourdieu, in his famous critique of structuralism from Outline of a Theory of Practice, says:
only a virtuoso with a perfect command of his “art of living” can play on all the resources inherent in the ambiguities and uncertainties of behavior and situation in order to produce the actions appropriate to each case, to do that of which people will say “There was nothing else to be done”, and do it the right way.
Two recent headline-grabbing stories, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and Rachel Dolezal getting outed by her parents as “white,” have served to highlight the limits to virtuoso performance: the boundaries our society places over the individual’s ability to perform gender and ethnicity. Continue reading →