Monthly Archives: December 2013

Empathy, Obligation and Ethnographic Writing

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

I am not a specialist in the anthropology of emotions, nor am I a psychological anthropologist. Yet, for some time I have been preoccupied by the concept of empathy. I want to thank the SM community for engaging with me in this think-out-loud. I am grateful that Zoe Wool has thrown away our shoes so that we may continue to wander/wonder about this topic.  In this last post, I share the motivations for my curiosities.

I came to my concern for/with empathy in much the same way many of us writers-of-real–lives-lived do, ethnographically. My work revolves around dramas of national obligation as they unfold in northern Canada. Specifically, I write about the intersections of race, gender, citizenship and political economy that belie a region marked by high natural resource revenues (diamonds, oil, gas) and substantially uneven distributions of social harm between Aboriginal people and Others. I write about enduring optimism and continued faith in extractive capital, despite its record of impermanence and destruction in the area. Continue reading

Empathy: A Companionate Redux

I thought I would kick off the last morning of the year by chiming in on the comments to Dr.LibertyBell’s very generative second post on empathy here at SM.  But I seemed to have found the post and comments so generative, that I now find myself rounding off the last afternoon of the year by posting this companionate redux instead.

On the Particularity of the Empathetic Subject

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Faculty Professors

As many of you know, our blog title comes from Lévi-Strauss’s book Pensée Sauvage, translated in English as The Savage Mind, but which is a pun on the French word for “wild pansies” (viola tricolor). We are now working on a redesign of our website and I’ve been spending a lot of my time searching Google for good images of wild pansies that we could use for our banner.

The image on the blog sidebar right now is the one that was on the cover of Lévi-Strauss’s book. It is by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to find high-resolution scans of this image in the public-domain. I have found some other botanical illustrations that I like, but was still looking when I discovered the work of Count Franz Pocci, who painted this delightful painting, which I just had to share with everyone:

viola tricolor

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Global Stats: Who is Reading Savage Minds?

Anthropologists like to say that we cover the whole world, the entirety of human experience in all places and times. But that doesn’t always translate into global conversations about anthropology and its findings. Questions of access to published research often get in the way, as do language barriers. As we close 2013, we take an inside look at who is reading Savage Minds—this U.S.-based, English-language group anthropology blog.

Our #1 audience is in the U.S.A. While this is no surprise, the global list of readers does include some surprises, and offers a particularly situated view into who is reading anthropology around the world—from Argentina (#35 on our list) to Zambia (#113). Continue reading

Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.

Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t?  Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading

Return to grantlandia

Back in 2011 I wrote a post here called “Wasting away again in grantlandia.” That one was written when I was right smack in the middle of the joys of grant writing. I think by that point I had revised my proposal about 1000 times and my eyes were just about to go on strike. My brain was having a hard time with basic sentences. I was fried. Ah, those were the days.

Now that I’m on the other side of the grant writing process, I want to take the time to revisit the whole subject a bit. Not because I’m some sort of self-proclaimed expert or guru on grant writing—far from it. I just want to talk about some of the things that I learned about revisions, rejections, reviewer comments, and some other fun grant-related goodies. So let’s get started. Continue reading

From slinging food to anthropology

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up where I am–a graduate student nearing the end of my formal education in anthropology–and where I am going next.  In my other life, I was a photographer (I spent most of my 20s walking around with Leicas and view cameras, taking pictures of all sorts of random things).  But my occupation–how I made money–was undeniably in the restaurant industry.  I started working in restaurants when I was 15.  I got a job in a pizza place answering phones.  I made about 15 bucks every two weeks and thought it was amazing to have that amount of cash.  I worked with a bunch of older surfers who were my heroes.  What a life.

Later I worked for a chain of restaurants that sold pies and “home-cooked” American food.  Let’s call it “The Olde Pie Shoppe” to keep things nice and anonymous and avoid any lawsuits.  That was a four-year experience in the wonderful world of corporate food production.  I will never forget the weekly pre-work meetings where the managers tried to encourage us all to think of creative, interesting ways to make our straight-from-the-freezer foods sound appealing and desirable (like chicken fried steaks).  After that, I started working as a bartender.  It was a good move for two reasons: 1) I never really liked the whole singing-birthday-songs-at-tables thing, and 2) bartending meant a lot more money.

I’m pretty sure my interest in anthropology began when I was working in food service.  Continue reading

A Disempowering Rant

Welcome to the NHK

I usually try to avoid ranting about my pet-peeves, but I just gotta get this one off my chest: what’s up with leftist academics criticizing a theory for being “disempowering”? I don’t even know where to begin with such criticism. It is as if someone, upon learning of such a theory, would be so overwhelmed by the inevitability of domination that they simply give up trying to make the world a better place. Has this ever happened to someone? Really?!

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Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising.  In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world.  This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.

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House Cleaning

Since restoring the old site was taking so long, we took the plunge and paid WordPress.com the $100 to be able to use our old domain here, it also gets rid of the ads which were bothering us. (We’ve always been ad-free.) We still haven’t been able to restore our old posts, and we are still working on moving the site to our own self-hosted account, but all that will take much longer than we thought. Till then, we didn’t feel it was necessary to constantly advertise that this was a temporary site. If you have any problems using the site as a result of the changes, please let us know.

Anthropology and the Humanities: SMOPS 7

This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series features Ruth Benedict’s “anthropology and the humanities.” This piece is the published version of the lecture Benedict delivered for her presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological association in 1947. In this piece, one of the last she wrote before she passed away, she argues that anthropologists can benefit from drawing on the methods of the humanities in addition to scientific methods. Benedict’s argument is worth examining in its own terms, but it is also worth reading between the lines of her essay. In making her case for the humanities, Benedict implicitly describes anthropology’s core values. This piece is valuable, then, not only for its argument about the humanities, but because it gives us a summary of what one of our foundational figures considered the essence of anthropology to be.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series #7: Anthropology and the Humanities by Ruth Benedict, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Lawrence of Arabia as anthropologist

To be honest, I was surprised how much attention Peter O’Toole’s recent passing received. We all knew he was famous, but we also learned this week how deeply he was loved. Many people loved him because he had that one thing that is so hard to find in the entertainment industry today: charisma. But anthropologists loved him for something else: Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia is central to anthropology, and ought to be more even more central than it is. It is about fieldwork, intimacy, impersonation, and colonialism. It puts on display the complexity, ambivalence, and often ugliness that comes with anthropological fieldwork.

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Beyond the College Essay

UPDATE: Rebecca Schuman has come under fierce attack for her article, including calls that she be fired. Please see this letter of support.

Rebecca Schuman has a piece in Slate which is getting a lot of attention. Titled “The End of the College Essay: An essay” she complains that “It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual ‘evidence’” especially when plagiarism is so rampant and the students who actually read comments are the ones who need them the least, etc. She is quick to add that “Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency.” But insists that she has tried everything, all to no avail. In the end, she offers up some alternatives to writing papers, such as written and oral exams. It is an intentionally provocative piece, and I’d like to make use of this provocation by making a few points drawn from my personal experience as well as some more general observations based on things I’ve read.

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Are you there Internets? It’s me NAD*

*North American Dialogue; with apologies in advance for acronym abundance

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay A. Bell

I recently became the Associate Editor of North American Dialogue (NAD). Part of the AAA Wiley-Blackwell basket of goodies, NAD is the peer reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA). I was brought on to help with the journal’s “brand issues”; namely its recent conversion to a peer reviewed publication and its history as being, um, well CUNY-centric. I am pretty excited about working with SANA on NAD. As a relatively recent section of the AAA, SANA has done much in the way of establishing anthropologies of North America as politically and theoretically important. As the incoming Associate Editor, I am hoping to pick your savage minds about publishing, social media and related issues. In particular, for those of you whose work is North American (and we mean that as broadly as possible), what would you like to see from this publication? From the digital gurus in the crowd, I want to hear about how or if social media should be used to draw a broader public to scholarly work?

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