All posts by Kerim

P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, in Taiwan, where he teaches linguistic and visual anthropology. He is co-director of the film Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!, winner of the 2011 Jean Rouch Award from the Society of Visual Anthropology. Follow Kerim on Twitter.

Don’t Trust Your Memory!

While this Slate article uses the recent news about Brian Williams as a hook, I think the advice it gives is very useful for anthropologists doing fieldwork. Whatever you think about Brian Williams, there is more and more evidence that human memories can’t be trusted. This is important for anthropologists who often rely upon their memories as a research tool. The article gives some good advice for avoiding that problem, much of which most anthropologists are probably already doing (keeping notes!) but it helps make clear just how important these practices are.

After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

I especially like the point that our most vivid and frequently recalled memories may be the most subject to distortion because “each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions.” Worth keeping in mind!

Race is a Technology (and so is Gender)

I think there are two very different ways of talking about race and racism which frequently get conflated, and I think this confusion is responsible for a lot of wasted energy in various online debates. The same goes for discussions about gender and sexism. On the one hand we have a moralistic view of racism/sexism. This view seems more likely to be held by people who are decrying accusations of racism/sexism than by those who try to call attention to them, but not exclusively. Those who call out racism/sexism, on the other hand, are more likely to be talking about race/gender as technologies of power which work to systematically marginalize certain voices (and certain lives) than they are to be accusing anyone in particular of being immoral.

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Seeking New Around the Web Intern for 2015

[UPDATED: Added a FAQ at the bottom of the post.]

With Dick Powis now a full time contributor, Savage Minds is looking for someone to fill his shoes as our Around the Web editor. This position is called an “internship” because we see it as a way to cultivate new talent. (Also because it isn’t paid, but then nobody here is paid.) Doing the weekly roundups is not only a great way to force yourself to pay closer attention to the anthro blogosphere, but it also gives you a seat at the table behind-the-scenes at Savage Minds, helping select guest bloggers and discussing the future of the blog. Interns are encouraged to blog as well – but it isn’t required. Full time contributors like Dick Powis and Matt Thompson started out as Around the Web interns, but there is no requirement to stick around more than a year if you don’t want to. (We hope you do…) Continue reading

A History of Times We Did Not Laugh

[The following is an invited post by Ritu Gairola Khanduri. Ritu is a cultural anthropologist and historian of India. She is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Texas, Arlington. In addition to her research on media, she is currently completing a book on Gandhi and material culture. Research for Caricaturing Culture in India has been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Fulbright Foundation, the Institute for Historical Research-Mellon Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s prestigious Carley Hunt Postdoctoral fellowship.]

These past months have seen carnage of unimaginable magnitude. But none has attracted the outpouring triggered by the Charlie Hebdo killings. What have cartoons got to do with this?

For many, but not most of the world, the experience of freedom is now salient in speech and expression. In this struggle for freedom and rights, and its maintenance, cartoons have become the severest testing ground. We reprimand cartoons. We summon cartoons. We make demands on cartoons.

This generative force of cartoons is at the heart of my book Caricaturing Culture in India: Cartoons and the History in the Modern World.  It is a story of how cartoonists became central to newspapers and politics in India. It is also a history of why cartoons provide a new context for offence and the refusal to laugh.

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The Four Types of Comments

The Four Types of Comments

Passover is still a few months off, but I wanted to share a bit of wisdom from the Passover Haggadah because it has helped guide me through many an online debate. There is a section which tells the story of the four sons (we always read it as “sons and daughters” at my house): “one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know to ask” and “recommends answering each son according to his question.” Wikipedia can fill you in on the rest of the story and the traditional responses if you need help understanding the irony of the cartoon at the top of this post, but for my purposes I just want to focus on the central pedagogical insight: that different questions and questioners require different responses. That different questions call for different responses may not seem to be a particularly useful insight, but I think a lot of the pain involved in internet discussions can be avoided if one thinks clearly about this and learns to act accordingly.

For me, engaging in online debate means trying to think seriously about a comment1 and what work it is doing before I choose how to respond. This avoids the problem suggested by the joke of the cartoon: that one’s ideological stance will shape how one interprets the comment. I’m not saying that one can respond to comments in a way that is completely free of ideology, just that focusing on the comment text itself rather than your assumptions about the person leaving the comment can help a lot. Yes, interpretation of the motivation and character of the commenter is important, but in this approach it only enters into the equation after you have determined what type of comment you are dealing with. What follows then is my adapted typology of the four types of comments one finds on the internet, and how best to respond to each one. Continue reading

Old Friend, New Contributor

Savage Minds is very happy to welcome long-time “intern” Dick Powis to the ranks of Savage Minds “contributor” (we also call them “Minds”). Dick has been doing a great job all year with the weekly roundups, and he’ll keep doing them until graduate school grinds him down, or we officially launch a search for a new intern. Most people become full-time members of Savage Minds by grabbing our attention with their blogging or guest blogging on the site, but the intern program is a second route, good for people just starting out. (Dick was still in college when he started, although he already had a great anthropology blog.) To be honest, there isn’t really that much difference between being an intern and a full-time member of the blog, except that contributors can take a little more initiative posting “invited posts,” launching special series, and otherwise leveraging the blog into more of a publishing platform than just a place for their personal blog posts. (Interns also have the added responsibility of the weekly and yearly roundups.) Now that he is a contributor, we look forward to seeing Dick taking more of a leadership role here at Savage Minds. Welcome aboard!

Boas and the Monolingualism of the Other

Kwakiutl texts

In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.

So where does Boas fit into all of this? Continue reading

Boas and the Culture of Racism

The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.

This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:

Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.

While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.

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Strategy of Condescension

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

That Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview in Chinese was big news this week. You can see the start of the interview here:

As you can hear, Zuckerberg’s performance was greeted with “repeated cheers and applause by the assembled students and faculty members.” I don’t want to pick apart Zuckerberg’s Chinese – he only started learning a few years ago, but still did better than some people I know who have lived in Taiwan for over a decade. Nor do I want to focus on the mixed reactions he got on the internet later on. Rather, I want to engage in a thought experiment. Can you imagine a Western audience cheering and applauding a Chinese CEO for speaking in English?

Pierre Bourdieu uses the term “strategy of condescension”1 to refer to the “act of symbolically negating” the power relationship between two languages. Continue reading

The Semiotics of Bubble Tea

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

Milk Tea
Bubble Milk Tea

Rather than writing a a straightforward review of Paul Manning’s wonderful The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking (winner of last year’s Sapir Prize), I thought I’d instead engage with the book by endeavoring to apply Paul’s ideas and analytic techniques to a context which is more familiar to me than post-soviet Georgia: contemporary tea culture in Taiwan.

For those who don’t know, bubble tea is a sweet milk tea, often served cold, filled with chewy tapioca balls one drinks up through an extra-large straw. It was first invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and soon became a global sensation. It is now even available at the McDonald’s run McCafé shops in Germany. Continue reading

Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman argues that economists and policy makers have deliberately mystified the current economic situation for political reasons and that the solution to our current woes is actually very simple: we need more government spending to boost demand. He plays off the above Mencken epigram, saying “For every simple problem there is an answer that is murky, complex, and wrong.”

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Salaita Updates

UPDATE: Read comments for statements from the AAA and the UIUC anthropology faculty and graduate students.

UPDATE 2: Here is the official AAA blog post with the letter that was sent to UIUC.

In the week since Rex’s post on the Salaita case things have been moving fast. So fast that (unlike Corey Robin) I have a hard time keeping up. As of today, six departments at UIUC have taken votes of no confidence in the university leadership, with the number expected to rise to ten by the end of the week. Add to that seven academic associations which have issued letters condemning the university’s handling of the case, as well as numerous talks, conferences, and other events which have been canceled by scholars boycotting the university, and it is safe to call this a “movement.”

If you want to understand why, I strongly recommend reading this letter by the AAUP [PDF]. Continue reading

Paperpile (Tools We Use)

About a year ago I wrote a long post that discussed both my general approach to working with academic PDFs as well as the specific Apple (OS X/iOS) software I use to manage my own workflow: Sente. I still consider Sente to be a kind of gold standard for reference management software, but there are a couple of things about it that lead me to regularly check out the competition. One is that it only works on Apple products and many of my students are Windows users. The other is that, even on the Mac, it does not work within the web browser itself, but forces you to launch the app and use its own built-in web browser, which always interrupts my workflow. In my last post I mentioned a few other issues and briefly surveyed the competition; however my current work environment has me on a Windows 7 computer and so I decided to look again at the competition, especially cross-platform solutions. The first one I discovered is ReadCube but I found it just didn’t meet my needs. It didn’t do a very good job getting citation information (I had lots of errors in my metadata) and the iPad app was too limited for my needs. However, another service turned out to be more promising: Paperpile, and I thought I’d write a short post about how I’m using that.

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Studying Arabic in Wartime Israel

[The following is an invited post by Arpan Roy. Arpan is a student of anthropology and currently an instructor of English and linguistics at An-Najah National University in Nablus. His research interests are activism and dual narratives in Israel/Palestine.]


Although I was instantly moved by the Palestinian narrative from the moment I learned of it, it would be years before I knew any Palestinians. Nor did I know any Israelis. Yet, in the bohemian subcultures of urban America, you could say that I, in the ironic words of Najla Said, ‘grew up as a Jew.’ Jews were friends, ex-girlfriends, band mates, co-workers, classmates, bosses, and professors. Some broke from the dominant Zionist narrative, while others did not. Usually we didn’t talk about it. There was enough going on with my own coming of age to get into world politics. Somehow I missed the second intifada.

Soon I’d have more to say. Once, in San Francisco, a band I was playing in broke up when the harmonium player stormed out of practice after I debuted a new song about Palestine. A few months later, in 2006, I was traveling in South America when the Second Lebanon War broke out. I was surrounded by herds of Israeli backpackers fresh out of the military. It was difficult for me not to separate the scenes of destruction I read in the news from the aloof and giddy young ex-soldiers let loose on the streets of Cuzco and La Paz. More than a few conversations went late into those nights.

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