I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.
In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election scholars across the country and internationally have worked to understand the drivers for the election outcomes. We have tried to foresee the potential consequences of a Republican party domination of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government for vulnerable populations, for the environment, and for the economy. And, we continue to grapple with the serious threats the president elect and his cabinet nominees pose to the freedom of the press, to citizen’s rights to free speech, and to the various protections that scholars receive through university systems of academic freedom and tenure. At most universities there have been teach-ins, learn-ins, and panels, as well as emergency meetings of departments, faculty action groups, student groups, and other concerned parties. What more can scholars do?
Since the election, one statement we have heard repeatedly from some academics, pundits, journalists, and bloggers who write about academic life, is that scholars need to somehow change what they are doing, and how they are doing it, in order to face this seemingly new political reality in the Unites States. While the latter part of this argument has been addressed by numerous scholars and activists who write and think about race, class, sexuality, and inequality more generally – with clear and compelling arguments about how this is not a “new” political reality for many but rather a kind of contemporary culmination and re-entrenchment of the structures of power and oppression that underpin the entirety of the national political project – the former part of the argument has been allowed to stand with little critique. Do we need to change what we do and not just how we do it? Not necessarily. Continue reading →
In 2016 the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their involvement in the illegal occupation of Palestine both gathered significant steam and faced a huge roadblock. In the United States, the country that largely underwrites and funds the Israeli occupation, the call to boycott initiated in 2004 by Palestinian civil rights organizations movement has had some impressive successes, with eight associations endorsing it thus far, notably in academic fields that challenge Eurocentrism. The movement continued to grow last year as scholars across disciplines learned more about the Israeli occupation and its consequences. Several larger academic organizations discussed or voted on the boycott call, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). As criticisms of the Israeli state and Zionist ideology spread, backlash intensified.
We are part of the diverse group of anthropologists of different backgrounds, including Israelis and Palestinians, who have organized a movement to convince the AAA membership to adopt the boycott. For several years, we have worked to educate our colleagues about both Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and the boycott as an effective tactic by which to support those rights. We’ve done this through panels, roundtables, dozens of op-eds, videos, webinars, teach-ins, email outreach, and canvassing on the floors of various anthropology conferences. As the MLA begins its discussions of the boycott, we offer this retrospective on the AAA vote last spring. Continue reading →
The editorial collective at Savage Minds has decided to change our name. We have several reasons for this, but mostly feel that the name no longer fits or best represents the blog. As a title, “Savage Minds” was a sort of anthropological insider’s double pun. As we explain on our About page, the name “comes from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s book The Savage Mind, published in 1966. The original title of the book in French, La Pensée Sauvage, was meant to be a pun, since it could mean both ‘wild thought’ or ‘wild pansies,’ and he put pansies on the cover of the book, just to make sure readers got the pun. Lévi-Strauss was unhappy with the English title of his book, which he thought ought to have been “Pansies for Thought” (a reference to a speech by Ophelia in Hamlet). We liked the phrase “savage minds” because it captured the intellectual and unruly nature of academic blogging. As a result, the pansy has become our mascot as well.” And thus, a blog was born in 2005. Continue reading →
By: Caitlyn Brandt, Allison Dudley, Will Lammons, and Aaron Trumbo
The holidays are upon us once again, and soon many of us will engage in those family dynamics that reunite extended family and old acquaintances. This is a time to be thankful for loved ones, but it can also be a reminder that “you choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family.” In many households, clashes over differing politics and ideologies are a holiday tradition. This season, however, passions are running especially high fresh out of a divisive U.S. election cycle. For many of us, the events of recent days have been a disheartening reminder of deep political division within the U.S., and the serious social and environmental injustices that persist. Yet for some, perhaps even members of our own families, the recent election has bolstered views of bigotry and prejudice along with the actionable expression of those beliefs.These deep divisions will be represented at dinner tables across the nation this holiday season. Thus, the question is how, as students and practitioners of anthropology, can we facilitate open discussions that acknowledge opposing views, while refuting bigotry and statements (or denials) that are potentially dangerous and hurtful? How can we turn these conversations into productive moments of solidarity during these celebrations of gratitude and family?
This essay is the result of a discussion on public anthropology in an empire seminar, where a ‘politics of scholarship’ discourse morphed into the ‘politics of Thanksgiving dinner’ discussion. Anxieties over inevitable confrontations about refugees, sexism, border walls, race, climate change, and other divisive issues prompted us to consider our role as public spokespersons of the discipline. The holidays may test our patience and resilience in the face of tough conversations, but they can also be ground for public anthropology.In what follows, we enlist a set of best practices for confronting bigotry and insensitivities among family and friends in a direct, yet compassionate manner. Continue reading →
The 2016 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association — or #AAA2016 #amanth2016 — just concluded in Minneapolis. I’ve been attending these meetings since 1993, and this was the most politicized, energized one I have experienced. From the opening comments of AAA President Alisse Waterston to panels on “Unapologetic Blackness” and activist sessions on #NoDAPL and more, a sense of urgency, action, and productive anger pervaded the meetings. A commitment to say no to hate, to white supremacy, to destructive policies, and to act on these commitments.
Teaching is part of our commitments.
With this in mind, I continue here the initiative started by my SM colleague Zoë Wool to #teachthedisaster. Starting, I believe, with the #FergusonSyllabus, a new form of activist action is to curate a list of readings to teach about ongoing crises. These come from across the disciplines, and from scholars in and out of academia. I’m sharing all those I could find here. Some glaring absences—in my online searching at least—was anything on immigrant and refugee issues or on Islamophobia. If anyone knows of such syllabi, please do share the links. All contributions welcome. Continue reading →
Cultural anthropologists are often concerned that their work is not getting the public attention that it deserves. Yet just a few decades ago, cultural anthropology was familiar to a broad audience who thought it to be interesting, thought provoking, and even life changing. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the work of a number of cultural anthropologists found an appreciative public, and their books sold well. These anthropologists wrote in plain English, on eye-catching subjects, and for commercial presses rather than academic presses. Looking back, their work may elicit a mixture of admiration, amazement, embarrassment, and even dismay. Can you identify these anthropologists? (Answers follow the questions.)
The US cannabis landscape is shifting quickly, and so is the way we talk about the plant and its uses. The push to end its prohibition has entailed a proliferation of stakeholder groups, each with its own labeling preferences. Interviews with Southern Californian parents using marijuana medically for children with intractable epilepsy (pharmaceutically uncontrolled seizures) taught me that what’s in a name matters—a lot. How it matters differs depending on who is talking, and what he or he seeks to accomplish when it comes to this plant and its products.
Cannabis—marijuana—has many medical applications, including for epilepsy. Parent interest in this rose sharply when CNN profiled its success with a child in Denver. However, little scientific research has been done with the plant (its legal classification makes that tricky), so doctors generally will not assist parents proactively in regard to its use. Word of mouth, online resources, and purveyor promises are often all that parents have to go by as they work out dosage and other aspects of their child’s cannabis regimen. My research explores how they manage this, which has implications for our understanding of how regular citizens contribute to biomedicine’s knowledge base and therapeutic tool kit. Findings also may be used to help improve service provision for these vulnerable families. Continue reading →
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Les W. Field. Les is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at U New Mexico. He pursues collaborative research projects in South, Central, and North America, and in Palestine. Field has also co-organized two field schools for UNM undergraduates and graduate students in the occupied West Bank.]
Many Latin Americanist anthropologists and other scholars are unaware of the state of Israel’s substantial, long-term relationships with certain forces and governments in Latin American countries. Yet knowing of these relationships will aid scholars seeking more background information as they consider their position within the AAA debate over whether the Association should boycott Israeli academic institutions. Israel’s involvement in Latin America initiated quickly after its 1948 establishment, after which it built alliances with right-wing and military regimes that have consistently displayed anti-left, anti-indigenous and anti-democratic characteristics. The comparative thrust of the discipline of anthropology should lead Latin Americanist scholars to ask whether Israel’s record in Latin America is consistent with Israeli policies towards Palestinians inside Israel and the Occupied Territories. As an ethnographer of social change in Nicaragua during the 1980s, it was Israeli support for the Contra insurgency that first led me to read widely and critically about the question of Palestine. I came to see important resonances between Israeli foreign policy in Latin America, on the one hand, and the systematic dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and other resources, including the implementation of apartheid-like policies in the lands controlled by Israel, on the other.
In what follows I offer significant examples of Israel’s involvement in parts of Latin America where I and many other anthropologists have worked, often with indigenous peoples. In the conflicts of which this involvement is a part, the AAA took significant stands in defense of human rights.[i] I argue that if in Latin America, successive Israeli governments have supported brutally violent even genocidal campaigns against indigenous peoples (which the AAA has often opposed) and also supported the most right-wing even anti-Semitic regimes, pay attention to what Israel does in the Occupied Territories because foreign and domestic policies are, I would argue, part and parcel of the same nationalism. Latin Americanist anthropologists, indeed all anthropologists, should learn about the effects of Israeli foreign policy upon the places where they work, then learn about the parallels with Israeli domestic policy. This knowledge is critical when making any decision to boycott or not, because as anthropologists, we know that states operate in complex international arenas but often reproduce their own exclusionary nationalisms in doing so. I decided to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions on the basis of what I have learned, and I submit the following aspects of Israeli foreign policy in Latin America since the 1980s, that may similarly educate other anthropologists. Continue reading →
This call to action was written by Adriana Garriga-López, Ph.D. (Kalamazoo College), and Shir Lerman, M.A., M.P.H., PhD Candidate (University of Connecticut), with Jessica Mulligan, Ph.D. (Providence College), Alexa Dietrich, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Wagner College), Carlos E. Rodríguez-Díaz, PhD, MPHE, MCHES (University of Puerto Rico), and Ricardo Vargas-Molina, M.A. (University of Puerto Rico). The authors are members of the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Zika Interest Group.
We write out of our shared concern over the current Zika virus epidemic in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in the hopes of making useful interventions. Because of Zika’s adverse effect on fetal development and potential link to Guillain-Barré syndrome, the virus poses serious concerns for public health. The World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency in Brazil following the outbreak of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome cases, strongly suspected to be associated with Zika.
Puerto Rico is already in a state of political-economic emergency, while burdened with a preexisting Chinkungunya epidemic, as well as endemic Dengue virus. All three viruses share the same mosquito vector, Aedes aegypti. In late January 2016 an influenza epidemic was also declared on the island.
Because the main vector is an anthropophilic (domestic) mosquito, well adapted to the human made environment in areas where there are multiple opportunities for water to collect, we find the issue of access to clean water and waste management (especially plastic) to be of great urgency and importance in containing viral spread. We call on the government, as well as agricultural corporations and water-intensive industries in Puerto Rico to share responsibility for the ecologically sustainable restructuring and management of the public water systems, especially in view of the historic drought of 2015 on the island, during which Puerto Ricans suffered unprecedented water shortages for several months. Continue reading →
Writing is a responsibility in the academy. Through our writings we enter into dialogues with one another. From undergraduate thesis to dissertation, scholarly articles and monographs, our writing marks the trajectory of our careers. It forms the basis on which our peers and colleagues evaluate the contributions we make to discipline. But writing is more than a job responsibility of an academic. In writing anthropology, and in my case archaeology, there is an added responsibility to scrutinize how the histories we produce are connected to the lives and futures of the communities we study.
The formation of anthropology as a discipline in North America occurred at the same time as European and American governments dispossessed indigenous nations of their homelands. Coinciding with the closing of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, the Bureau of Ethnology, later renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology, sponsored ethnographic and linguistic research on Native American communities. These “salvage ethnographies” documented the cultural traditions and lifeways of Native American tribes under the presumption that the combination of assimilationist policies and exposure to American lifeways would cause them to vanish entirely. Archaeologists followed suit, recording ancestral sites and collecting artifacts, as well as human remains in their attempt to document the cultural history of tribes. The objects and ancestors uncovered by archaeologists and others—often through dubious means—became specimens of national history; representations of a past that ceased to exist following the arrival of Europeans and their colonization of the continent. Given this colonial history, how can the work of these disciplines be used to disrupt colonial relations in the present? Continue reading →
What if anthropology were to suspend its claims to be a social science, whether of a geisteswissenschaftliche or a positivist variety? What if it were to turn instead to exploring its affinities with art and literature as a mode of engaged creative practice carried forward in a world heterogeneously composed of humans and other-than-humans? I am prompted to reflect on these questions by an encounter from my recent fieldwork.
In February 2013, I participated in Frogtopia. At once no place and multiple places, Frogtopia is the creation of Frog King, who in turn is the creation, or the costumed alter ego of Kwok Mang-ho. Born in Guangdong province in 1947 and educated in Hong Kong, where he now lives, Kwok is recognized today as one of the pioneers of multimedia and performance art in China. His output consists of a proliferation of works in a variety of media: video, photography, ink on paper, costumed performance and found materials such as plastic bags. His approach, typically, is to fill his canvases and exhibition and performance spaces with his characteristic motifs, including calligraphy, inflated plastic bags suspended from strings and the frog image that has played an increasingly conspicuous part in his work. Kwok has stated in interviews that he was drawn to the figure of the frog because of its metamorphic life cycle and its capacity to move between land and water. At the same time the image is meant to evoke a range of other associations, its bulging eyes embodying watchfulness and suggesting too a bridge for exchange and communication between Chinese and Western artistic influences and a sail boat for journeying to new places. Continue reading →
I will only know what I precisely want to say in this piece once I finish writing it.
This enigmatic sentence is not meant as an alluring opening statement, nor is it a sign for an experimental literary method that I will be employing in this blog. For what it’s worth, this sentence captures my principal insight into the process of writing. It is an insight that I gained after years of experiencing much frustration with writing, after producing endless drafts of the same text, after nights and days spent on trying ‘to get it right’, after struggling not to lose my focus, not to get lost in the texts I tried so hard to write.
Luckily, I do not feel like that any more. But it has been a long ride. Continue reading →
Some of our co-bloggers in this forum rightly suggest that reading precedes and accompanies writing. But then they say that young people today, in this era of attention deficits, are losing the art of reading. When I was young, hope I still am, I usually responded quite stubbornly to this kind of admonishing “wisdom”. Maybe our teachers need to be more inspiring. In writing, we may need to rediscover a richer variety of forms. There was a time, for instance, when scholars primarily wrote not in essays, but in a more difficult and older art of texting, namely, aphorisms.
Let’s not underestimate the new forms of attentiveness that are emerging. On Instagram for instance, which to the surprise of discerning readers creates the possibility of stranger sociality based only on a fellowship of images. Continue reading →
When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.
Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In these monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things. Continue reading →
This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.
I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.
But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting. Continue reading →