All posts by Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

What really happened on Thanksgiving

(This is the second annual posting of a short, edited snippet of pages 55-66 of Charles Mann’s   1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. In it Mann describes the history of Indian-European relations that existed before the arrival of the Mayflower by following the story of a single Indian, Tisquantum, and the role he played in the events leading up to the first Thanksgiving. There reality is — surprise! — a lot messier, entangled, and nasty than the normal story taught in school. If you’re not American, or just wondering what really happened to create this current celebration of over-eating and colonialism, read on! This fair use reproduction is just a small chunk of Mann’s 500+ page book. If you’d like to read more about this topic — I’d recommend buying and reading all of 1491.)

I had learned about Plymouth in school. But it was not until I was poking through the scattered references to Billington [the author’s ancestor] that it occurred to me that my ancestor, like everyone else in the colony, had voluntarily enlisted in a venture that had him arriving in New England without food or shelter six weeks before winter. Not only that, he joined a group that, so far as is known, set off with little idea of where it was heading. In Europe, the Pilgrims had refused to hire the experienced John Smith as a guide, on the theory that they could use the maps in his book. In consequence, as Smith later crowed, the hapless Mayflower spent several frigid weeks scouting around Cape Cod for a good place to land, during which time many colonists became sick and died. Landfall at Patuxet did not end their problems. The colonists had intended to produce their own food, but inexplicably neglected to bring any cows, sheep, mules, or horses. To be sure, the Pilgrims had intended to make most of their livelihood not by farming but by catching fish for export to Britain. But the only fishing gear the Pilgrims brought was useless in New England. Half of the 102 people on the Mayflower made it through the first winter, which to me seemed amazing. How did they survive?

In his history of Plymouth colony, Governor Bradford himself provides one answer: robbing Indian houses and graves. The Mayflower hove to first at Cape Cod. An armed company of Pilgrims staggered out. Eventually they found a deserted Indian habitation. The newcomers—hungry, cold, sick—dug open burial sites and ransackedhomes, looking for underground stashes of food. After two days of nervous work the company hauled ten bushels of maize back to the Mayflower, carrying much of the booty in a big metal kettle the men had also stolen. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn,” Winslow wrote, “for else we know not how we should have done.”…

Inexperienced in agriculture, the Pilgrims were also not woods-people; indeed, they were so incurious about their environment that Bradford felt obliged to comment in his journal when Francis Billington, my ancestors son, climbed to the top of a tall tree to look around. As Thoreau noted with disgust, the colonists landed at Plymouth on December 16, but it was not until January 8 that one ofthem went as far away as two miles — and even then the traveler was, again, Francis Billington. …

Huddled in their half-built village that first terrible winter, the colonists rarely saw the area’s inhabitants, except for the occasional shower of brass- or claw-tipped arrows. After February, glimpses andsightings became more frequent. Scared, the Pilgrims hauled five small cannons from the Mayflower and emplaced them in a defensive fortification. But after all the anxiety, their first contact with Indianswent surprisingly easily. Within days Tisquantum [and Indian who had previously visited England] came to settle among them. And then they heard his stories.

No record survives of Tisquantum’s first journey across theAtlantic, but arithmetic gives some hint of the conditions in Hunt’s [who had captured Tisquantum] ship. John Smith had arrived with two ships and a crew of forty-five. If the two ships had been of equal size, Hunt would have sailed with a crew of about twenty-two. Because Hunt, Smith’s subordinate, had the smaller of the two vessels, the actual number was surely less.Adding twenty or more captured Indians thus meant that the ship wassailing with at least twice its normal complement. Tisquantum would have been tied or chained, to prevent rebellion, and jammed into whatever dark corner of the hull was available. Presumably he was fed from the ship’s cargo of dried fish. Smith took six weeks to cross theAtlantic to England. There is no reason to think Hunt went faster. The only difference was that he took his ship to Malaga, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There he intended to sell all of his cargo, including the human beings.

The Indians’ appearance in this European city surely caused a stir. Not long before, Shakespeare had griped in The Tempest that the populace of the much bigger city of London “would not give a doit [a small coin] to a lame beggar, [but] will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” Hunt managed to sell only a few of his captives before local Roman Catholic priests seized the rest—the Spanish Church vehemently opposed brutality toward Indians… The priests intended to save both Tisquantum’s body, by preventing his enslavement, and his soul, by converting him to Christianity… In any case,this resourceful man convinced them to let him return home — or, rather, to try to return. He got to London, where he stayed with John Slany, a shipbuilder with investments in Newfoundland. Slany apparently taught Tisquantum English while maintaining him as a curiosityin his townhouse. Meanwhile, Tisquantum persuaded him to arrange for passage to North America on a fishing vessel. He ended up in a tiny British fishing camp on the southern edge of Newfoundland. It was on the same continent as Patuxet [Tisquantim’s home], but between them were a thousand miles of rocky coastline and the Mi’Kmac and Abenaki alliances,which were at war with one another.

Because traversing this unfriendly territory would be difficult, Tisquantum began looking for a ride to Patuxet. He extolled the bounty of New England to Thomas Dermer, one of Smith’s subordinates, who was then staying in the same camp. Dermer, excited by Tisquantum’s promise of easy wealth, contacted Ferdinando Gorges. Gorges, a longtime, slightly dotty enthusiast about the Americas, promised to send over a ship with the men, supplies, and legal papers necessary for Dermer to take a crack at establishing a colony in New England… On May 19, 1619, still accompanied by Tisquantum, he [Dermer] set out for Massachusetts…

What Tisquantum saw on his return home was unimaginable. From southern Maine to Narragansett Bay, the coast was empty – “utterly void,” Dermer reported. What had once been a line of busy communities was now a mass of tumbledown homes and untended fields overrun by blackberries. Scattered among the houses and fields were skeletons bleached by the sun. Slowly Dermer’s crew realized they were sailing along the border of a cemetery two hundred miles long and forty miles deep. Patuxet had been hit [by Western-introduced diseases] with special force. Not a single person remained. Tisquantum’s entire social world had vanished.

Looking for his kinsfolk, he led Dermer on a melancholy march inland. The settlements they passed lay empty to the sky but full of untended dead. Tisquantum’s party finally encountered some survivors, a handful of families in a shattered village. These people sent for Massasoit, who appeared, Dermer wrote, “with a guard of fiftie armed men” — and a captive French sailor, a survivor of the shipwreck on Cape Cod. Massasoit asked Dermer to send back the Frenchman. And then he told Tisquantum what had happened.

One of the French sailors had learned enough Massachusett to inform his captors before dying that God would destroy them for their misdeeds. The Nauset scoffed at the threat. But the Europeans carried a disease, and they bequeathed it to their jailers. Based on accounts of the symptoms, the epidemic was probably of viral hepatitis… Whatever the cause, the results were ruinous. TheIndians “died in heapes as they lay in their houses,” the merchant Thomas Morton observed. In their panic, the healthy fled from the sick, carrying the disease with them to neighboring communities. Behind them remained the dying, “left for crows, kites, and vermin to prey upon.” Beginning in 1616, the pestilence took at least three years to exhaust itself and killed as much as 90 percent of the people in coastal New England. “And the bones and skulls upon the severall places of their habitations made such a spectacle,” Morton wrote,that the Massachusetts woodlands seemed to be “a new-found Golgotha,” the Place of the Skull, where executions took place in Roman Jerusalem.

The religious overtones in Morton’s metaphor are well placed. Neither the Indians nor the Pilgrims had our contemporary understanding of infectious disease. Each believed that sickness reflected the will of celestial forces… Until the sickness Massasoit had directly ruled a community of several thousand and held sway over a confederation of as many as twenty thousand. Now his group was reduced to sixty people and the entire confederation to fewer than a thousand. “The Wampanoag,” wrote Salisbury, the Smith historian, “came to the obvious logical conclusion: ‘their deities had allied against them.’”

The Pilgrims held similar views. Governor Bradford is said to have attributed the plague to “the good hand of God,” which “favored our beginnings” by “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives . . .that he might make room for us.” Indeed, more than fifty of the first colonial villages in New England were located on Indian communities emptied by disease. The epidemic, Gorges said, left the land “without any [people] to disturb or appease our free and peaceable possession thereof, from when we may justly conclude, that GOD made the way to effect his work.”

Much as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed tens of thousands in one of Europe’s richest cities, prompted spiritual malaise across Europe, the New England epidemic shattered the Wampanoag’s sense that they lived in balance with an intelligible world. On top of that, the massive death toll created a political crisis. Because the hostility between the Wampanoag and the neighboring Narraganset thad restricted contact between them, the disease had not spread to the latter. Massasoit’s people were not only beset by loss, they were in danger of subjugation.

After learning about the epidemic, the distraught Tisquantum first returned with Dermer to southern Maine. Apparently concluding he was never going to meet Rowcraft, Dermer decided in 1620 to make another pass at New England. Tisquantum returned, too, but not with Dermer. Instead he walked home—the long, risky journey he had wanted to avoid… Tisquantum was seized on his journey home, perhaps because of his association with the hated English, and sent to Massasoit as a captive.

As he had before, Tisquantum talked his way out of a jam. This time he extolled the English, filling Massasoit’s ears with tales of their cities, their great numbers, their powerful technology. Tisquantum said, according to a colonist who knew him, that if the sachem “Could make [the] English his Friends then [any] Enemies yt weare to[o]strong for him”—in other words, the Narragansett—“would be Constrained to bowe to him.” The sachem listened without trust. Within a few months, word came that a party of English had set up shop at Patuxet. The Wampanoag observed them suffer through the first punishing winter. Eventually Massasoit concluded that he possibly should ally with them — compared to the Narragansett, they were the lesser of two evils. Still, only when the need for a translator became unavoidable did he allow Tisquantum to meet the Pilgrims.

Massasoit had considerable experience with Europeans—his father had sent Martin Pring on his way seventeen years before. But that was before the epidemic, when Massasoit had the option of expelling them. Now he told the Pilgrims that he was willing to leave them in peace (a bluff, one assumes, since driving them away would have taxed his limited resources). But in return he wanted the colonists’ assistance with the Narragansett.

To the Pilgrims, the Indians’ motives for the deal were obvious. They wanted European technology on their side. In particular, they wanted guns. “He thinks we may be [of] some strength to him,”Winslow said later, “for our pieces [guns] are terrible to them.”

In fact Massasoit had a subtler plan. It is true that European technology dazzled Native Americans on first encounter. But the relative positions of the two sides were closer than commonly believed. Contemporary research suggests that indigenous peoples in New England were not technologically inferior to the British—or, rather, that terms like “superior” and “inferior” do not readily apply to the relationship between Indian and European technology.

Guns are an example. As Chaplin, the Harvard historian, has argued, New England Indians were indeed disconcerted by their first experiences with European guns: the explosion and smoke, the lack of a visible projectile. But the natives soon learned that most of the British were terrible shots, from lack of practice—their guns were little more than noisemakers. Even for a crack shot, a seventeenth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than may be supposed. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious to an arrow shot. To the colonists’ dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep, “which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it.” To regain the upper hand, the English set up a target made of steel. This time the archer “burst his arrow all to pieces.” The Indian was “in a great rage”; he realized, one assumes, that the foreigners had cheated. When the Powhatan later captured John Smith, Chaplin notes, Smith broke his pistol rather than reveal to his captors “the awful truth that it could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.”

At the same time, Europeans were impressed by American technology. The foreigners, coming from a land plagued by famine, were awed by maize, which yields more grain per acre than any other cereal. Indian moccasins were so much more comfortable and water-proof than stiff, moldering English boots that when colonists had to walk for long distances their Indian companions often pitied their discomfort and gave them new footwear. Indian birchbark canoes were faster and more maneuverable than any small European boat. In 1605 three laughing Indians in a canoe literally paddled circles round the lumbering dory paddled by traveler George Weymouth and seven other men. Despite official disapproval, the stunned British eagerly exchanged knives and guns for Indian canoes. Bigger European ships with sails had some advantages. Indians got hold of them through trade and shipwreck, and trained themselves to be excellent sailors. By the time of the epidemic, a rising proportion of the shipping traffic along the New England coast was of indigenous origin.

Reading Massasoit’s motives at this distance is a chancy business. But it seems likely that he did not want to ally with the foreigners primarily for their guns, as they believed. Although the sachem doubtless relished the possibility of additional firepower, he probably wanted more to confront the Narragansett with the unappetizing prospect of attacking one group of English people at the same time that their main trading partners were other English people. Faced with the possibility of disrupting their favored position as middlemen, the Narragansett might think twice before staging an incursion. Massasoit, if this interpretation is correct, was trying to incorporate the Pilgrims into the web of native politics. Not long before Massasoit had expelled foreigners who stayed too long in Wampanoag territory. But with the entire confederation now smaller than one of its former communities, the best option seemed to be allowing the Pilgrims to remain. It was a drastic, even fatal, decision.

Tisquantum worked to prove his value to the Pilgrims. He was so successful that when some anti-British Indians abducted him the colonists sent out a military expedition to get him back. They did not stop to ask themselves why he might be making himself essential, given how difficult it must have been to live in the ghost of his childhood home. In retrospect, the answer seems clear: the alternative to staying in Plymouth was returning to Massasoit and renewed captivity.

Recognizing that the Pilgrims would be unlikely to keep him around forever, Tisquantum decided to gather together the few survivors of Patuxet and reconstitute the old community at a site near Plymouth. More ambitious still, he hoped to use his influence on the English to make this new Patuxet the center of the Wampanoag confederation, thereby stripping the sachemship from Massasoit, who had held him captive. To accomplish these goals, he intended to play the Indians and English against each other.

The scheme was risky, not least because the ever-suspicious Massasoit sent one of his pniese [a warrior-counselor], Hobamok, to Plymouth as a monitor… Sometimes the two men were able to work together, as when Hobamok and Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims negotiate a treaty with the Massachusett to the north. They also helped establish a truce with the Nauset of Cape Cod after Bradford promised to pay back the losses caused by their earlier grave robbing.

By fall the settlers’ situation was secure enough that they held a feast of thanksgiving. Massasoit showed up with ninety people, most of them young men with weapons. The Pilgrim militia responded by marching around and firing their guns in the air in a manner intended to convey menace. Gratified, both sides sat down, ate a lot of food, and complained about the Narragansett. Ecce Thanksgiving.

What Happened at #AAA2015: The Good, The Bad, and the Bibs

Last week, Denver welcomed about five thousand anthropologists to its Gilded Age (and Gilded Age revival) downtown for the massive anthropological blowout that was the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. So what were the main trends of the meetings? Well, in no particular order they were:

The Bibs: This year’s membership badges were, well, slightly larger and redder than they were in the past. I think that the goal was to reduce plastic waste, since the badges were made of cloth. That was a great goal and I think it was well-achieved, and if bibs are the future then that’s fine with me. But… yeah…

#AAA2015 member badges were larger than in previous years
Member badges were larger than in previous years

Another feature of the badges  was a QR code, which could be used to scan your fellow anthropologists. No one I know actually tried to scan anyone else — most people I talked to feared what they would learn. However, according to AAA material, in the future being labeled with a QR code will enable us to participate in ‘scavenger hunts’. That’s right: scavenger hunts. The mind boggles. Continue reading

Savage Minds at #AAA2015

Welcome to Denver! If you are like me, you will be disappointed by the failure of the AAA to foreground the Mile High City  as the location of timeless classic Mork and Mindy. But you don’t be disappointed by the ridonculous amount of panels on offer. Savage Minds has a lot going on this AAA, so I hope you’ll join us at some of our events.

The two most important things to come to are:

The Savage Minds/HAU/University of Chicago Press Party.
Saturday, November 21st, 9:00 p.m.
Stout Street Social
1400 Stout Street, Denver, Colorado

We are going to rock and roll all night and party every day, so come join us. Secondly, to celebrate our blog’s 10th anniversary, we will be having throwing the panel

The Internet and Anthropology: Ten Years of Savage Minds
Saturday, November 21, 2015: 8:00 AM-9:45 AM
Centennial F (Hyatt Regency)

So grab a cup of coffee and come participate in the session where we’ll talk about where we think the blog and anthropology have been, and where it will go in the future. We’ll need some help with that last bit, so if you have any ideas please come share them!

Finally, many of our minds have their own sessions and papers underway. Here is some of what we are doing:

Ryan Anderson is giving the paper “The Life and Death of Cabo Cortes: Social Movements and the Politics of Tourism Development on the East Cape of Baja California Sur, Mexico” as part of the panel “Negotiating Collective Action: Dynamics of Social Movements as Shifting Spaces of Political Action”.  Thursday, November 19, 2015: 4:00 PM-5:45 PM 709 (Colorado Convention Center)

Kerim Friedman has organized the session “Teaching Language and Culture: Approaches from World Anthropologies”. Thursday, November 19, 2015: 10:15 AM-12:00 PM Centennial B (Hyatt Regency)

Maia Green has organized a session “The Productivity of Regulation: Ethnographies of Alignment and Citizenships” Thursday, November 19, 2015: 10:15 AM-12:00 PM. 707 (Colorado Convention Center)

Alex Golub is giving the paper “Answerability, Acknowledgement, and the Unknowable: Anthropological Entanglements with the Mining Industry and the Work of Dan Jorgensen” at the session “Cults, Christians, and Copper on the Global Frontier: Engaging the Anthropology of Dan Jorgensen”.  Thursday, November 19, 2015: 8:00 AM-9:45 AM 704 (Colorado Convention Center)

Carole McGranahan is organizing the panel “Theory in (Himalayan) Anthropology Since the Eighties”. Saturday, November 21, 2015: 10:15 AM-12:00 PM 405 (Colorado Convention Center)

Rebecca Nelson is organizing the panel “Unexpected Spaces of Feminist Practice?: Producing Latin American and Carribean Feminisms from the Margin”  Thursday, November 19, 2015: 4:00 PM-5:45 PM 604 (Colorado Convention Center). She’s also giving the paper “Tensions Between Cosmopolitanism and Cultural Management in a Guatemalan Volunteer Tourism Program” for the panel “Rethinking Cosmopolitanism: Tourism and Tourists in a Post-Hegelian Age”  Thursday, November 19, 2015: 10:15 AM-12:00 PM 604 (Colorado Convention Center).

Dick Powis is giving the paper “Men as Men: Toward a New Couvade” in the panel “Proper Births, Proper Parent”  Wednesday, November 18, 2015: 4:00 PM-5:45 PM
608 (Colorado Convention Center).

AAA is a busy time, but why not stop by some of our events and meet our bloggers in the flesh? It should be fun!

Official #AAA2015 #tweetup planning thread

Ok trying to plan the tweetup for the AAAs on twitter is getting ridiculous because by the time you mention everyone who is involved in planning it there is no room for an actual message. So here is a thread where we can plan the time and date of the tweet up.

I am happy to coordinate this and provide enough structure that the discussion doesn’t flop around like a fish out of water and never reach a conclusion.

The only thing I’d like to emphasize is that the best day to have the tweetup is friday and usually we have had good results having it in the late afternoon/early evening so people can grab a bit and then head out to other events.

Usually what happens is we set a time and then when I arrive at AAAs I scout a location and then let people know where to meet on twitter. I’ll be arriving on Wednesday so I’ll have plenty of time to have a look around.

Things You Might Be Inclined To Say That People Say Every Year We Try To Organize This:

  1. “Why have it on Friday? Why not Saturday? (Or Thursday or Sunday)?”

Answer: Because Friday is the middle of the conference. It is actually less busy that Saturday, which is when most of the main parties are. Thursday not enough people have arrived. Sunday no one is around. And Wednesday? It’s like Thursday, but with even less people.

  1. “We can’t have it at that time because it overlaps with [something]!”

Answer: The tweetup will overlap with something. That is because the AAA schedule is ridounculous. Inevitably it is going to overlap with something. The goal is to have it overlap with the least number of things, not nothing. When planning the tweetup, if you don’t like a time, please demonstrate that it’s a bad time slot because it overlaps with many things, not one thing.

  1. “Why don’t we just have the tweetup at [some other event someone else is already organizing]?”

Answer: 1) Because no one will be able to hear a damn thing at that event anyway (Wenner-Gren I’m looking at you) 2) The purpose is to meet other anthropology tweeters and get to know them, not wander around a room full of people asking “do you tweet or are you just here to watch Marisol de la Cadena hand out drink tickets?” 3) It will be more intimate and allow real conversation with people  and 4) I sort of believe anthrotwitter flourishes when it isn’t coopted by some other organization.


I am thinking Friday evening/late afternoon. Theoretically it could be at lunch. What do you think?

My plan is to let this thread run for about a week and then see if we can reach agreement. If not, I’ll try to figure out what the closest thing is to agreement and then I’ll start broadcasting that as the date of the tweetup.

The _other_ enemy of Open Access

An article made the rounds of social media recently on whether or not the for-profit website is outflanking the open access movement. It’s a great article that I’d encourage people to read closely., in case you didn’t know, is basically tumblr for academics — a bunch of hosted blog sites tied together into a social network. I am deeply ambivalent about (and its more sciency cousin Research Gate) but in the end I use the site and even accepted one of the many ‘editorships’ they provided to people, which allows you to rate up content on their site.

There’s a lot to be said about, most of which can be found in the post I linked to above. But what that piece sparked in my head was the way and other sites enable (and perhaps even promote?) the other enemy of the open access movement: law-scoffing consumerism.

Continue reading

What a cooperative proposal means for the AAA

Social media was a-twitter (see what I did there?) today with an important statement about the future of anthropology publishing posted at both Cultural Anthropology and in the latest number of HAU. But what precisely is this post about? What are the broader politics that form its context, and what is its point?

The basic idea is this: We have long known that the American Anthropological Association is unable and/or unwilling to innovate on its own. Most of the developments in open access anthropology have happened outside of the AAAs structure. Sure, the AAA has tried various things such as a faux-open access journal and open access book reviews. But its core business model has been to throw in its lot with a large corporate publisher.

Our recent proposal to the AAA marks an important watershed in open access anthropology because it represents something new. Now, open access is not only growing outside of the AAA’s auspices, it is actually feeding back into the AAA itself. Instead of just going its own way, the open access community is now saying to the AAA: “You can’t develop a robust open access business model on your own. But what if we developed one for you? What if we could prove to you that there is a financially sustainable way for you to run your publishing unit? If we build it, will you come?”

My guess is that, no, the AAA will not endorse the model. The AAA has published American Anthropologist for over a hundred years, and their fundamental goal is to make sure that it continues for another hundred years. In the past couple of years the AAA has done a good job of building capacity, but it is still a conservative institution which is very risk averse.

But we can hope. And hopefully the cooperative proposal we have set out will receive lots of pushback from the AAA and people in the publishing industry to tell us that It Cannot Be Done, You Don’t Understand The Numbers, and so forth. This will only lead us to sharpen our argument, gather more data, and make an even stronger case. And — if you don’t mind my saying so — I think the open access movement deserves a lot of kudos of continuing to press its case with an institution that it very easily could have walked away from. In the end, the only way to test the business model is to actually try it, and I hope that someday we can prove to the AAA that our proposals are indeed feasible. If we do not, it will not be for lack of trying on our part.

Happy Open Access Week!

This week is Open Access week! In fact, by the time you read this it will already be Tuesday or Wednesday of Open Access Week because I’m not getting to writing this post until Monday PM Honolulu time. But regardless of how far into it you are: Happy open access week!

Open Access Week is a time to celebrate Open Access, get people involved in Open Access opportunities (like the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon) and discuss the challenges that Open Access faces in the future.

A quick google search shows that we’ve been celebrating Open Access Week on this site for at least five years. This year, I hope to spend some of this week demonstrating just how much quality open access anthropology there is online. In particular, I’d like to show that one of the biggest challenges facing open access anthropology is finding and using the huge amount of resources that are out there. In some cases, it’s possible to replace textbooks or anthologies with open access sources — or at least come pretty darn close.

The big challenge is finding a way to curate all of the available material and make it available to other people. This is something that requires time, expertise, and effort. Google searches won’t cut it anymore — we need to build a layer of curation on top of the layer of open access material that is currently available. This week, I hope to provide some examples of how this might get done.

So stay tuned, and until then — happy open access week!

Encrypting Ethnography: Digital Security for Researchers

(This invited post comes to us from Jonatan Kurzwelly. Jonatan is a a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. You can email him at . his PGP fingerprint is: 1B4B 89B4 DD31 B05E 949A E181 B51C CA99 2FD6 6382 -Rex)

Imagine a situation in which everything you do on your computer, tablet or telephone is easily available to local authorities, criminal organizations, corporations or even your neighbors or their teenage children. Imagine that your electronic diary is public and anyone can read everything you have written about the people you work with. Every piece of secret, confidential information you have been entrusted with is being read. It doesn’t matter if you use nicknames and codewords – someone who knows the context of your fieldsite will figure it out. With the use of special software, all your text, photographs, videos and sound recordings can be quickly and automatically analyzed, regardless of the language you write in. Moreover, imagine that all of your communications with your colleagues, sponsoring institutions or supervisors are also publicly available. This includes field reports, emails, video conversations, instant messaging, phone calls.

These are not fantasies but real threats if you are not taking additional measures to protect your data and are using a computer! The aim of this post is to introduce the problem of digital threats for sociocultural anthropologists and their informants. My intention is to bring this issue into public debate within the discipline and suggest introduction of appropriate security training into research preparation. I then describe some free-of-charge methods and tools that increase protection from Internet surveillance and data theft. I focus on the need to protect researchers’ personal computers, as well as the benefits of increasing the digital protection, privacy and anonymity of their informants. Continue reading

#OpenAccess as Famine

The current state of thinking about open access today is a lot like our contemporary understanding of famine.

In the early 1980s Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze published the ground-breaking book Hunger and Public Action. In it, Sen and Drèze made the unexpected and original argument that famines are not caused by lack of food. Rather, they are caused by lack of entitlement — when famines occur, there is typically enough food to feed everyone, but the social system that distributes it is out of whack. Prices change such that poor people can no longer afford food, and there are not enough (or not correctly designed) social programs that ensure the food is distributed to the poor. It’s not the food that’s missing, it’s the justice.

The metaphor can be run several ways. From one point of view, our closed access world is one in which there is more knowledge than ever, but paywalls ensure that most people are starved for it. While some brave souls continue their long tradition of smuggling, most people starve or watch ad-supported TV, which is the knowledge equivalent of eating mud to feel full (apologies to the legitimate geophages out there who find this an invidious comparison).

In another version of this metaphor, it’s the resources needed to publish — money, manpower, software — that’s the food and it’s the scholarly ecology that doesn’t provide the entitlements necessary for open access publishers to get the resources they need to survive and thrive. That’s why so much of the recent work on open access has now moves to understanding the scholarly ecosystem as whole. Projects like Libraria are trying to see if we can rearrange the existing relations of production (ahem) to create cheaper, more free research. In the Netherlands, the univerisites are realizing that cancelling the Elsevier subscription would liberate enough money to make accessible all those articles the Netherlands currently publishes with Elsevier. In this case, the money to publish open access is in place, but the existing system runs this money through for-profit publishers whose profit margins are too large.

Once, we had to face the claim ‘there’s no money to pay for it’. Now, we know the question is ‘who is entitled to access it?’ Of course, open access advocates have long looked at the big picture when it comes to what needs to change in scholarly publishing. But I do feel that in the past couple of years there has been a shift away from the basic groundwork of developing software and making arguments for the legitimacy and feasibility of open access. It could have been that open access remianed a fringe idea pursued by those without a lot of institutional power. Now, however, as governments, funders, universities, and publishers take open access seriously, it’s increasingly the systematics of entitlement that’s being examined and rethought. It’s an exciting time for open access, and I hope to see even more exciting times ahead.

Osama Bin Laden, Chelsea Manning, and their anthropologists

Anthropology can turn up in the strangest places. While we often hold up Margaret Mead and… uh… well, mostly Margaret Mead… as examples of public anthropology, our discipline does a lot of important work in times and places few of us would suspect. For instance, take these two recent examples from the media featuring Chelsea Manning and Osama bin Laden:

Most people remember Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) as the person who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks. After being imprisoned for the leak, Manning has become an activist and intellectual in her own right, as well as the center of an ongoing struggle to make sure her rights are respected in prison. And in her free time… she reads anthropology.

This according to a New York Post article Manning recently faced the possibility of indefinite solitary confinement because of the items she had in her possession, including a tube of toothpaste and a copy of Biella Coleman’s excellent ethnography Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy — The Many Faces of Anonymous (creative commons licensed PDF here). You knew anthropology ends up in unusual places — now we know that includes the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.

The other anthropologist to make the news recently was Flagg Miller of UC Davis. Miller holds the unique title of being the only person in the world to sit down and listen to all 1,500 cassette tapes in Osama Bin Laden’s personal cassette tape collection.  My favorite part of the BBC’s piece on Miller’s new book, Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida comes when Miller shows the reporter the earliest known recording of Bin Laden from the late 1980s. Recording quality is poor and the reporter asks “But how can you tell it’s Bin Laden?” There’s a short pause and Miller replies “Well… I’ve listened to over a thousand hours of him speaking…” That’s anthropology for you — you work it into your bones, and it’s that lived experience that lets you make the hard calls.

Anthropologists worry constantly that there isn’t enough public anthropology. But how much public anthropology is enough public anthropology? We are reaching all kinds of audiences in all kinds of ways — and with research totally different than the usual white-on-brown village ethnography that people (including us!) imagine that we do. So let’s give ourselves some credit where credit is due and pat ourselves on the back for showing up in unexpected — but important — places.

Malinowski’s Legacy: One Hundred Years of Anthropology in the Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

(Last week a major international conference was held in Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, where Bronislaw Malinowski did the research on kula that resulted in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (pdf of the conference program)The conference organizer Sergio Jarillo de la Torre was kind enough to write up this report of what happened, which I post here – R) 

As one of the “Malinowski’s Legacy” conference participants put it, good ideas have many fathers but bad ideas are orphans. Allan Darrah’s observation came as we were discussing the origins of the symposium at the Wanigili Centre in Alotau a day before its beginning. As far as my share of the paternity in this conference goes, the idea was generated during a road trip to Buffalo with Joshua Bell, who argued for the need for a third kula conference. It was then put forward to a group of Massim scholars at the 2012 ASAO meeting in Portland. And if 2015 seemed the right time to all (the 100th anniversary of Malinowski’s arrival in the Trobes gave us a perfect excuse to update Massim anthropology), there wasn’t much agreement on what would be the right place.

For my part, I wanted this conference to be a return of sorts and I claimed that it needed to take place in PNG or it wouldn’t take place at all. I think nowadays there is little excuse to keep anthropology far removed from the place where it originates. It is no longer a matter of bringing Pacific and other native scholars to Europe or America for our conferences but rather taking back “our” ideas to the people who help us form them, scholars and non-scholars. If we can’t discuss kula with our partners in the Milne Bay, chances are we haven’t learned much about exchange in these last hundred years… Continue reading

Book proves culture leads to Asian American success, headlines claim opposite

A strong media push by the Sage Foundation has put Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s book The Asian American Achievement Paradox into the public sphere in the past couple of days, garnering an op-ed on and an interview on Inside Higher Ed. The book — at least what I’ve been able to read of it so far — is excellent. Even better, it pushes back against the embarrassing, amateurish work of Amy Chua, which claims, in essence, that ‘Asians’ are successful because they are morally virtuous. Or rather, since the weird, deeply-seated Anglo-Protestant cultural currents that run the US are often disguised, because of their ‘cultural values’. Lee and Zhou are adamant that cultural values do not cause Asian American success, and should be commended for boiling down their research findings into headline — and then getting people to run it. But their alternate explanation of Asian American success will look to most people, and especially most anthropologists, essentially cultural. The book deserves discussion because of the way it frames the culture concept, studies ‘culture of success’ (and, lurking in the background, ‘culture of poverty’ ) arguments, and attempts to intervene in the public sphere. It is an excellent model for how anthropologists should approach a topic they often shy away from. But it’s an argument for culture not against it. Or rather, for a good understanding of culture rather than an essentialized and inadequate ethnoracial understanding of culture.

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