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

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

Summer reading lists vs. What Actually Happened

Ah, summer reading lists: Elaborate plans for personal enrichment and literary sophistication made in the spring and carried out… when? It’s easy to find tons of summer reading lists and recommendations out there every year — especially in the Northern hemisphere, where it’s actually summer (there’s snow falling in Canberra atm, remember). But what happens after those lists are actually made? 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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Welcome Libraria!

When twitter lit up last week with the news that PKP and SPARC had partnered with EASA, SCA, and 4S your response was probably “WTF?” The new project is called Libraria and is an important development in open access publishing for anthropologists. So important, in fact, that it deserves a bit of explanation for those who are not insiders into the acronym-filled world of the open access movement.

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Vale Jack Goody

Keith Hart recently announced on social media that Jack Goody passed away. He was just a few days before his 96th birthday. Goody had a long and productive life and was a model of the successful anthropologist: Born in England at the end of the one world war, he spent much of the second as a prisoner of war. After the war he joined the anthropology program at Cambridge, where he was a junior partner to Edmund Leach and Meyer Fortes. He ended up becoming the William Wyse Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge, taking up the mantle from Fortes, who was the first person to capture Cambridge for social anthropology. Given his institutional centrality, it’s not surprising that Goody is remembered by British anthropologists. But he deserves to be remembered by American ones — and by everyone, really — both for being a role model of successful scholarship and an indirect influence on authors we read today, such as David Grabber and Tanya Li.

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Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography (book review)

Thomas Hylland Eriksen. 2015. Fredrick Barth: An Intellectual Biography. London: Pluto Press.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen has a well-earned reputation for writing good, short books on large, intractable topics. His introduction to anthropology, history of the discipline, and books on globalization and ethnicity and nationalism have given the Norwegian anthropologist an international profile. We ran a preview of Eriksen’s new book on SM a while back (and have mentioned Barth more than once). So does Eriksen’s biography of Norway’s Greatest Anthropologist live up to the hype? Yes. But interestingly enough, in reading it you come to appreciate the author of the biography slightly more than you do its subject.

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Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.


Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run”

At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:

  1. Goffman writes a successful ethnography.
  2. Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

  3. Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.

  4. Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.

There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.

This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book? Continue reading

Anonymity, Ethnography, and Alice Goffman: Welcome, journalists

I think I’ve written and thrown away three separate posts on the Alice Goffman debate trying to find something to say that people will find interesting. I personally don’t find the case to be very interesting, or to speak to core issues of what ethnography is or should be. In my opinion, the takeaway is: Goffman wrote a remarkable book at a remarkably young age, like all books it has some problems, and it is bearing an absolutely incredible amount of scrutiny fairly well. She did hard fieldwork and had to make hard choices writing her ethnography, and some people disagree with those choices. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.

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Anthropology and open access book reviews: new and old projects

The AAA recently unveiled its new open access book review forum  the ‘Anthropology Book Forum’ (ABF) today. It’s an interesting project that has lots of positive things going for it: It’s open access, and the goal is to get book reviews out quickly. These are both good things. So I wish them luck.

It’s interesting to compare this new project to the Anthropology Review Database, an old (by web standards) initiative of Hugh Jarvis and Jack David Eller. The ‘ARD’ has been around for a long time, as you can tell from it’s ‘pre-css’ look. In some sense, the ARD is more of a success than the ABF may be. It’s been running with a quick-turnaround model for fifteen years. It also explicitly uses a creative commons license, which the ABF does not.

But in some senses, the ARD demonstrates the potential pitfalls of the ABF. For instance: how many readers had heard of the ARD before reading this post? The ARD’s current low profile suggests that the ABF will need to work hard to draw eyeballs. In fact, since Eller seems to be the only person still writing reviews for the site, it seems one possible future for the ABF is that it be read and written by extremely low amounts of people. Continue reading

Watching and wondering: What we can learn from Fredrik Barth

(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent two part interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)

On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.

That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.

Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.

Thanks to a new book by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth – An Intellectual Biography (Pluto Press), the Norwegian veteran will appear less of a mystery – and yet ever more captivating. Continue reading

Open access: What Cultural Anthropology gets right, and American Anthropologist gets wrong

Two different editorials about the future of open access appeared recently. The first, Michael Chibnik’s editorial in American Anthropologist, was gloomy about the prospects of the journal’s going open access in the future. A response from the board of the Society for Cultural anthropology ( ‘SCA’ the publisher of Cultural Anthropology) also recently appeared on the website. So what are these people saying, what is at stake, and why should we care?

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Octopuses can see in the dark: Theme and variation

The original:

New York Times: For an Octopus, Seeing the Light Doesn’t Require Eyes

Which in other formats would be:

Scientific American: Octopuses Don’t Require Eyes To See

American Ethnologist: Visibility of Surface and Surface of Visibility: Octopuses Don’t Require Eyes to See

Cultural Anthropology: Entangled Skin and Vibrant Light: New Surfaces for Anthropology

Twitter: 4 realz! #for #an #octopus #seeing #the #light #doesn’t #require #eyes

Feel free to add your own in the comments.

You can help stop drastic cuts to NSF funding for anthropology

Paid-up AAA members got an unusual email in their inboxes the other day from Monica Heller, the president of the American Anthropological Association. It’s unusual to get AAA direct mailing, and those of us who do often are halfway to hitting the delete button before we even get around to reading the subject line. This is one email, however, that we should all take seriously: Next week the House of Representatives will be debating the ‘COMPETES’ Act (H.R. 1806), which will, in essence, cut NSF funding of anthropology in half. This is one to worry about, folks.

I’ve argued in the past that the NSF already radically underfunds the social sciences. This new bill cuts the budget of the SBES (social, behavioral, and economic sciences) 45%, and targets a third of funding for one units (the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics) while leaving the other units to fight for the scraps.

Luckily, it is easy to tell your representatives what a lousy idea you think this is — head over to Vox Pop and follow their simple and easy process to send an email to your representative letting them know that you think anthropology and the social sciences deserve better.

Not all anthropologists practice a version of our discipline that is scientific — that’s why we also apply for funding from agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities. But for many of us, anthropology is a STEM discipline: an evidence-based research science interested in generating generalizable models of cultural and social process. It may not always look this way to non-anthropologists, mostly because hypothesis formation in inductive, qualitative field research looks a lot different from the version of the scientific method you are taught in high school. But that’s ok — numerous studies of bench science have shown that lab work doesn’t look very much like high school version of the scientific method either.

Consider, for instance, the winner of the 2015 Bateson Award,  Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think. The Bateson award is given out by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, the section of the AAA most likely to be named as anti-science by people who consider themselves pro-science. Kohn’s book is widely viewed as a part of the theoretical turn towards ‘ontology’, which is in turn seen as being the most anti-scientific approach imaginable. In fact, Kohn is quite frank in emphasizing his debt to Terrence Deacon, a biological anthropologist who does interdisciplinary work in neurobiology and human evolution. As counterintuitive as it may seem to  some, books like How Forests Think are tied to a scientific project which the NSF currently supports — but might not for much longer.

So take the time to click through this link and help support federal funding for anthropology. Thanks.