Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tweeting Westgate

[The following is an “invited post” by Dr. Sarah Hillewaert. Sarah is an Assistant Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her works focuses on shifting notions of personhood and the changing linguistic and material practices of youth in (coastal) Kenya.]

On Saturday September 21st 2013, an upscale shopping center in Nairobi, Kenya became the target of a ruthless siege. A group of gunmen, their estimated number ranging between 6 and 15, entered the Westgate Mall and opened fire on bewildered shoppers, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. A few hours into the siege, Al-Shabaab – a Somali Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda – claimed the Westgate attack, not through an auspicious video delivered to a major television network, nor through an official statement of Al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, but via a Tweet on the organization’s Twitter account. The militants’ use of social media, and of Twitter in particular, would be featured centrally in the international media’s coverage of the attack. This preoccupation with Al-Shabaab’s use of new media technology, and the concern it was able to create, revealed much more about our apprehension toward the unexpected linkages and similarities social media create than it did about Al-Shabaab’s international reach. The media coverage of the Westgate siege illustrated how we laud the “power” of social media when it generates desirable similarities; unanticipated linkages, however, need to be explained away. A focus on “outliers” or “extremists,” or the identification of practices that answer to our social imaginary then restores the familiar distance between of “us” and “them.” 

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Culture and Ethnology: SMOPS 4

This week’s SMOPS paper is Robert Lowie’s book Culture and Ethnology, which I have cut down to 19 pages. Robert Lowie was one of the most polemical of the Boasians — the phrase ‘attack dog’ has been used, I believe — and is remembered today for many things: his role in creating the Berkeley department of anthropology, his ethnography of the Crow, and his work on the nascent field of kinship studies. Undoubtedly, however, it Lowie’s defense of Boasian orthodoxy that stands out. In his book Primitive Society he forcefully repudiated the Victorian evolutionary theorists that Boas opposed, and towards the end of his life he sparred with Leslie White in the pages of American Anthropologist over the prospects of a revised evolutionary perspective. His undeservedly under-read The History of Ethnological Theory has moments that resemble some sort of Victorian Twitter flipout…

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #4 Culture and Ethnology by Robert Lowie, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Making public anthropology: putting it all together

Erin Taylor recently posted this thread over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative:

It’s long been my belief that anthropologists can increase their public visibility and engagement by working together, especially cross-promoting each other’s work. The PopAnth website has been using social media (TwitterFacebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn) to bring attention to articles written by anthropologists in newspapers, on blogs, in books, and so on.

Recently, I’ve had conversations with Tricia Wang (Ethnography Matters), Matt Thompson (Savage Minds / DANG) and Ryan Anderson (Anthropologies Project / DANG) about furthering collaboration. We agreed that it would be a great idea!

DANG are already bringing together all kinds of people who are interested in open access, digital anthropology, blogging, and so on. For this reason, I suggested that the DANG website might be a good place to put information that can help anthropologists in their public engagement: stuff on open access, guides to writing for the public, ideas on how to get published in newspapers, and so on.

But that’s just one idea. My question is: how do we best coordinate?

There are indeed a lot of us out there who are thinking along similar lines, and we’re often off on our own doing our own things.  This is good, on many levels.  But I also think we could use a bit of collaboration, working together, and finding ways to move the idea of a more public anthropology toward a reality. Continue reading

Numbers

This is a post about numbers.

  1. The other day I was thinking about conferences.  Let’s say you’re in a panel with 10 people, and each person pays a total of $500 dollars to get there.  This includes conference fees, airfare, hotel, and so on.  So that’s a grand total of $5000 dollars so everyone can write a paper, fly across the country, walk into a room, present their paper for 12-15 minutes and maybe have a group conversation for another 20 minutes or so.  It’s a lot of money.  Granted, conferences are about a lot more than just going to present.  They are about going to other presentations, making connections, seeing friends, etc.  But I think there are times when it might make sense to take that collective $5000, round up 10 people who want to collaborate, find a cheap central place to meet—and then do something.  Like write a book.  Create and actually start implementing a project.  Whatever.  Again, conferences have their place.  But I think sometimes it’s also good to look at what we’re doing—and what we want to do—and know when it’s the moment to do something a little different.  Imagine what 10 people with a common goal could really do if given some serious time to really put their heads together.

  2. I saw this chart the other day.  It showed the number of PhDs produced every year compared with the number of jobs that are actually available each year.  The ratio was something like 35,000 to 3,000.  These are not good odds.  Continue reading

The History of the Personality of Anthropology: SMOPS 3

This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.

This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #3: The History of the Personality of Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Trouillot on rethinking "culture" (via Living Anthropologically)

Jason Antrosio has a great new post about Michel Rolf Trouillot’s chapter on culture in the excellent book Global Transformations.  It’s easy to misread Trouillot’s argument–so I think it’s important to really look closely at what he’s saying and why.

Trouillot’s chapter on culture is incredibly relevant these days.  Especially considering the fact that the concept has taken on endless new uses and meanings.  These varied uses often rankle anthropologists, who feel that the concept is somehow theirs and that there must be some way to right the wrongs that have been done to their blessed theoretical child.  Trouillot basically smashes this sort of thinking.

I read through this chapter the other day and it also reminded me of some of the issues that came up in Jason’s recent post about gang culture and court room anthropology.  What happens when people start using the idea of culture to make warped arguments about human behavior?  How can anthropology be used to counter these kinds of arguments?  Trouillot gets right into these issues and arguments in his chapter.  But I think people can easily misread Trouillot’s argument as some sort of dismissal of the culture concept.  However, that’s not what he’s doing–he makes a crucial argument about getting back to the “conceptual kernel” of the culture, basically what those early 20th century anthropologists were  trying to do with it in the first place.  In essence, get back to the point.  Get back to what they were trying to address with that concept.   This is fundamental. Continue reading

Digital media and the everyday abuse of working adults

I live a lot of my professional life online. I’ve been running a personal research blog for over 5 years now, where I often post quite frank discussions of my experiences as a new academic. I have active scholarly Twitter, Youtube and Google Plus accounts. I teach my students to use Twitter, YouTube, Blogger, Google Hangouts (among other social media) in class, and I run workshops where I teach my colleagues and other professionals to use these same tools effectively in their working lives.

So not only is my own professional identity quite exposed, but I’m also engaged in training others to make their identities equally—if not more—exposed. I do this because I am very familiar with the productivity of digitally-mediated communication. These media make possible relationships, idea sharing, knowledge making and forms of epistemological change that are exceptional. And yet they can also be deeply dangerous—something that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last two years.

In 2011, just as I was finishing my PhD, I began to receive a series of private messages focused on my sexuality and appearance sent to my email and other personal online accounts direct from professional acquaintances of mine based at various institutions around the world. These tended to be detailed, fantasy-like descriptions, sometimes accompanied by photographs. There was no debate about the inappropriateness of such messages: they were explicit, sometimes verging on the perverted, often concerned with my physique and dress, or with asking me for certain favours which ranged from ‘cuddling’ with them to baking them cakes in recompense for their paid professional contribution to my academic projects.

I was so embarrassed about these communications and so confused about how to reply that I ignored them for nearly two years. However, when the fifth professional acquaintance of mine began to do the same to me in 2012, but this time on a more aggressive and persistent level, I responded by doing what I know best: investing in research on the topic.

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Responses to 'the super organic': SMOPS 2

Last week, I posted the first Savage Minds Occasioal Paper (hereafter, “SMOP”) featuring Alfred Kroeber’s article “The Superorganic”. This week I bring you the second occasional paper, “Responses to ‘the superorganic'”, which features Sapir and Goldenweiser’s response to Kroeber. You can find it here:

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #2: Responses to “The Superorganic”: Texts by Alexander Goldenweiser and Edward Sapir. Edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Cantor and Smith: Social science witch hunt

It’s been a week now since US representatives Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith published an article on USA Today about “rethinking science funding.”  Their main point is supposedly that we need to take a closer, critical look at how we fund science through grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  On the surface their argument seems reasonable, even “common sense.”  Below the surface, it’s little more than a disingenuous, ideologically-based attack on the social sciences.  And it’s nothing new from Cantor, Smith, and their cronies.  As a graduate student in anthropology–and a recipient of a dissertation grant from the NSF–it’s pretty infuriating to see these two politicians trying to intervene so recklessly into the funding process.1

I understand the need for both accountability and clarity in the whole grant process.  Are there things that need to be changed?  Problems that need to be addressed?  Absolutely.  There are always ways to improve how things work.  Definitely.  But what Cantor and Smith are proposing, despite some of their benign-sounding rhetoric, is not just some altruistic attempt to “help” make things better.  In fact, what they are doing is more like a witch hunt than the “we’re doing this for the people” line they’re trying to sell to the US public. Continue reading

Savage Mind's new occasional paper series: first up, The Superorganic

Folks, today I am beginning something new: the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series. In it, I will present a series of open access, curated texts from the history of anthropological theory. I will keep going until I complete a free anthology suitable for classroom use, or until I get bored. If other minds want to publish in the series, then they can do so too — who knows what projects they may want to cook up…

Here’s a link to the first one: a version of Kroeber’s 1917 article “The Superorganic” that is half the size of the original essay, edited and with an introduction by yours truly.  Please feel free to share widely!

Now to the meat of the paper itself: Alfred Kroeber’s “The Superorganic” is a classic of anthropological theory. Originally published in 1917 in American Anthropologist, the article drew important responses from Edward Sapir and Alexander Goldenweiser. Kroeber included material from the article in his textbook Anthropology: Race, Language, Culture, Psychology, and Prehistory. Kroeber’s interest in the superorganic continued to develop in publications like Configurations of Cultural Growth. “The Superorganic” is central to understanding the thought of one of the founders of anthropology and indeed, the history of anthropological theory itself. And yet it is little read today. Why?

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Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Glenn Shepard]

Just over a month ago a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.
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Bloggers and Digital Anthropologists Unite at AAA

In late November the American Anthropological Association will convene its 112th annual meeting in little town right outside Gary, Indiana, and the name of that town is Chicago! The AAA conference gives professional anthropologists (particularly cultural anthros) a chance to preview some of the latest research in their fields, chime in at section business meetings, and hug old friends. For those of us active in the blogosphere, tweetosphere, and other technological hoohah we’re given a chance to put faces to the screen names.

Last year some of us collaborated to create what’s called a “interest group,” a club basically, within the AAA for those of interested in digital anthropology. The DANG organizational business meeting was a roaring success, ideas were floated, business cards were exchanged, hands were uhm… shaken? shook? Anyways, it was a great time and we do in fact have a tangible and official result that you can participate in at this year’s conference as a result. “Bridging digital and physical publics: Digital anthropologists’ current engagement with 21st century publics” chaired by Bonnnie Nardi (UC-Irvine) and Sydeny Yeager (SMU) is on the preliminary program for Friday morning.

DANG is grateful to the Society for Visual Anthropology who reached out to us and invited us to submit a conference panel proposal for them to review. Bloggers and other digirati: if you have this slot free in your schedule please join us at the panel so that we can make plans to socialize later. Sydeny tells me she’s interested in meeting people over lunch afterwards. In the past we’ve had great turn outs for our AAA tweet-up where bloggers and tweeters show up at a nearby pub one night. Someone will take the initiative for this in mid-November. Probably a Chicago alum. Rex, I’m looking in your general direction…

Of course not everyone has the opportunity to travel — conferences are pricey. I know! I’m still paying off my credit card from the last one. But for those of you who will be present I would invite you to take this space on Savage Minds to begin thinking about meeting up in meatspace. If you’re a blogger and will be at the conference or are presenting on topics related to digital anthropology tell us about your blog or panel in the comments section. Viva DANG!

Around the Web Digest

The kids have this thing called Twitter and since most of us Savages are courting a mid-life crisis we decided it would be a good idea to get hip and shout the academic equivalent of “Get off my lawn” from our respective ivory towers. Now if only we could afford convertibles everything would be all right! Follow us @savageminds or like our Facebook page, which pretty much has the same thing. If you’re actively avoiding the timesuck of social networks, you’re in luck because ever month or two I collect all the tweets here on the blog. If you’ve seen something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community, email me at [mdthomps@odu.edu] or tweet back at us. So, without further ado here’s a selection of what we were reading in August and September.

August