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

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.

savageminds and meet in person

Back in the day when the original group of Minds first got this blog all stood up, the anthropology scene was in a different, pre-Twitter phase of deeper engagement and longer entries. We knew each other. Since then some blogs have given up the ghost, others have moved on to bigger and better things, and two (or three!) generations of anthropology blogs have replaced them.

Throughout all this time, there has always been Founded in 2004 by Lorenz Khazaleh, this multilingual blog has been covering anthropology for longer than SM. Lorenz’s pace on the blog has slowed down and sped up (and slowed down again) over the years, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the most experienced anthropology bloggers around.

I was so pleasantly surprised, therefore, when I ran into him at a recent conference in Oslo. For the first time in eleven years of blogging, we were face to face for the first time! It was a genuine pleasure — especially when someone explained to me that ‘Lorenz’ was actually the true name for the blogger I knew as  ‘’!

We were so excited we took a picture. Here it is for the record books:

Rex and Lorenz in Oslo
Rex and Lorenz in Oslo

This picture comes just in time for SM’s tenth anniversary, which we’ll be marking in less than a week from now so… look forward to more self-satisfied nostalgia from middle-aged white guys in the near future :S Don’t worry — we’ll be back to normal after that.

State Crime on the Margin of Empire: A new book on Bougainville

The civil war on Bougainville — a large island that is part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) — was one of the most important events to happen in the Pacific since World War II. Local dissatisfaction with the island’s large, foreign-owned copper mine turned to demonstrations, escalated into a guerilla war, and forced both the mine and the PNG government to leave the island, which then entered a period of conflict between pro- and anti- PNG factions. It was a key test of sovereignty in newly-independent Pacific states, had an enormous human cost (20,000 dead, sexual violence, destruction of villages and property), and was a cautionary tale about the limits of corporate power. The reconciliation process that ended the conflict in itself is studied by academics and policy makers all over the world as an example of successful peacemaking. So what does this new book offer to Pacific scholars, and to the anthropology of mining?

Everyone knew Bougainville was important when it happened, and there is a large literature on the conflict — often written in the heat of the moment — recording the events that transpired. Given this crowded terrain, it’s fair to wonder whether Kristian Lasslett’s new book State Crime on the Margins of Empire: Rio Tinto, The War on Bougainville and Resistance to Mining can add anything new. The answer is: “yes.” Lasslett’s book is a remarkable and extremely valuable addition to the literature on this area. Written from a Marxist perspective, it uses impressively detailed original research to present a fresh take on the Bougainville conflict, one that is highly critical of the existing consensus about what happened on the island. Continue reading

This Earth Day, read about the anthropocene at Open Anthropology

As our guest blogger John Hartigan has show, 2014 was the year of the Anthropocene for anthropology. Multispecies? So 2010. Ontology? So 2013. This Earth Day is a great time to start thinking about the anthropocene — and to make sure that concern and attention to climate change is more than just a fad for anthropology. A great place to start is Open Anthropology’s current issue on the Anthropocene.

in the past Savage Minds has not been kind (at all) to Open Anthropology. This is the AAA’s faux-open access journal that present themed ‘best-of’ issues that are temporarily open and then go back behind a paywall. Over time the curation of these issues has gotten better, but serious problems still remain with the ‘journal’ — there are no permalinked URLs for the current (open) content, and of course that majority of the content on the site is actually behind a paywall — a bitter irony for a supposedly open access project.

This new issue on the Anthropocene is by Open Anthropology’s new editors Jason Antrosio and Sally Han. Jason has spent years earning cred with anthropology noosphere by producing great blog posts at Living Anthropologically and other blogs. As a result, I’m tempted to give Open Anthropology an easier time just because of my respect for Jason. But I’m not going to, because frankly the site still has a tremendous amount of problems. Hopefully, he and Sally will work on improving it as time goes on.

But enough kvetching — the Anthropocene issue that is currently up is quite good, with an excellent mix of four field approaches ranging from Franz Boas to Jim Roscoe. Go take a look — in fact, you may want to download all of the articles right now. This Earth Day, Open Anthropology is making valuable resources about the Anthropocene available to all. Next Earth Day, they’ll be locked up tight behind a paywall.

Why Anthropologists Should Embrace BDS: SMOPS 14

I’m happy to announce the next number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series, “Why Anthropologists Should Embrace BDS”. This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series is unusual for two reasons. First, this is the first SMOPS that is not a reprint of early pieces in the history of anthropology. Secondly, I am not the author of this piece, although the authors have assigned their copyright to me in order to give this piece a Creative Commons license. This piece presents in expanded and revised form material which originally appeared on the Savage Minds blog in June and July 2014. These guest blog entries, composed by two people writing under the pseudonym ‘Isaiah Silver’, are part of a wider discussion regarding the American Anthropological Association’s stance towards Israel. As such, this SMOPS is meant to provide a convienient, downloadable, citeable explanation of their position.

Divestment is an emotional — even explosive — topic for many anthropologists, and especially for Jewish anthropologists. To me, the most valuable contribution this SMOPS makes is not in arguing one side of divestment or the other. Rather, its value comes from the fact that it presents a picture — almost a mini-ethnography — of Israel that varies greatly from what Jewish American anthropologists such as myself were told about our homeland growing up. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of Israel, I believe that we as anthropologists have a professional obligation to see and know the full reality of life in Israel today, including evidence that contradicts many of our taken-for-granted ideas about that country. Challenging preconceptions in the name of truth is, after all, the fundamental duty of anthropological ethnography. As Jewish American anthropologists, we must work through these issues the ethnography presents. An incurious and uninformed support of Israel does not fulfill Jewish American anthropologists’ obligation to anthropology or Israel — and refusing to engage the issue at all is simply to give up on one’s identity altogether.

Why Anthropologists Should Embrace BDS, by Isaiah Silver,  Edited by Alex Golub

Déjà Lu: Now, more than ever

When Americans like myself say “anthropology” we usually mean “American anthropology” or — even worse — “American cultural anthropology”. But as the pretty much everyone in the world who is not American will tell you, there is a lot more to anthropology than just what Americans do. The World Council of Anthropological Associations is one of the key institutions seeking to raise the profile of the global anthropological scene. One of the key ways they do it is with their open-access journal Déjà Lu, which recently released its third issue. It’s great and you should read something in it now.

Déjà Lu is actually an anthology. Journals from around the planet select one article of their that they wish to feature, and contribute it to Déjà Lu, who then publishes it in open access format. The result is a scrumptious multilingual smorgasbord of anthropological treats.

American journals are heavily represented on Déjà Lu, since they are a large part of world anthropology. But there is a lot else on hand as well and the journal is a great way to discover new pieces to read, as well as new journals to follow, even if you are an ashamed monoglot like me. Suomen Antropologi usually keeps its content locked up pretty tight, but you can download Tim Ingold’s Westermark Lecture (like to PDF). SITES is a Pacific journal I’ve known about for a long time, but I would have missed it’s new issue on whakapapa if it wasn’t for Déjà Lu. And that’s really just the start.

Your interests are probably different than mine, so why don’t you go stroll over the Déjà Lu’s site and see what tickles your fancy?