Category Archives: Blog post

Around the Web Digest: Week of June 28

It’s been a rollercoaster week in US politics! Hope that, no matter where you are in the world, something in the news made you happy this week. Send me any blog links at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

According to this post on Media/Anthropology, bilingualism has a different social valence in Spain (where it signifies upward mobility) and Denmark (where it signifies loss of competency in Danish): Educating “Bilingual” Children in Spain and Denmark

At Raving Anthropology, a student is chronicling her fieldwork on drug use and harm reduction in electronic dance music halls in Toronto. In Eat, Sleep, Anth, Repeat, she discusses entering the field, and follows up with excerpts from her field notes in Field Notes: This Data Collection is Interfering with My Dancing. (There’s strong language in case you’re squeamish).

This AAA blog post points out that white middle-class parenting standards should not be taken as the norm, with any difference seen as a lack: White+Word Gap=Wrong! 

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Kennedy and the Triumph of the Social

While everyone should be celebrating the monumental decision of the Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages, there is also something in there that, along with this weeks’ ruling on the Fair Housing Act in Texas, should warm the hearts of social scientists in particular. Both of these decisions, in different ways, have advanced the view that our understanding of the real world matters for deciding legal principles. In Obergefell v. Hodges Kennedy argued that the proper interpretation of the constitution, of what it means to be “equal,” is subject to shifting societal norms:

“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” he wrote on Friday. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”

And in Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. Kennedy argued that it is not necessary to establish a discriminatory intent in order to sue under the Fair Housing Act. Rather, it is enough to show that “an identified business practice has a disproportionate effect on certain groups of individuals.”

This move towards looking at real world context (Obergefell) and consequences (Texas) in deciding the law just makes sense to us as anthropologists. But while we should welcome the way that these rulings increase the sway of the social sciences in shaping the law, we should also be cautious, for it remains an open question exactly what kind of social science will be held to be relevant in deciding legal questions. The move to include real world implications of the law received its biggest push from the law and economics movement and it is likely that quantitative research by economists and sociologists will continue to hold sway over qualitative work. Certainly several members of the Supreme Court remain quite ignorant about anthropological research on subjects like marriage. At the same time, however, these two decisions by Kennedy seem to establish important precedents for the inclusion of social science research in how we think about the law, and I think that’s a good thing.

Senses of Connection

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world

—Mary Oliver

It is a knot, an ache, this longing to be present in Nepal right now. Even so, virtual presence fosters awareness. The Internet has become a strange safety net, catching us as we fall into senses of connection. The initial social media push to mark people as “safe” and to track immediate needs as well as report destruction after the two major earthquakes was truly remarkable. Mark Zuckerberg’s stated commitment of substantial Nepal relief funds and a push, through Facebook, raised $17 million quickly. I believe such efforts helped to move my own government into allocating resources beyond the paltry $1million initially proferred by the powers that be.

At latest tally, $3 billion has been pledged toward rebuilding Nepal by foreign donors, from states to NGOs. I will leave aside, for the  moment, the tangle of questions about how such funds will be allocated, and the Nepali government’s role in this process, except to say that there is a great deal at stake beyond semantics in an official shift from “relief” to “rebuilding.”  And that each community’s effort at remaking a world contains its own nuance, as my friend and colleague Sara Shneiderman points out from the vantage of Dolakha District – a place she knows well.

But back to webs and the representations they spin out.

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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

“Slow” Medicine in Fast Times

Only those who regard healing as the ultimate goal of their efforts can, therefore, be designated as physicians.
—Rudolf Virchow

When Gyatso called to give me the list of medicines I was in the library, writing another one of these blogposts. I answered his call, speaking as quietly as I could in Tibetan but hoping he would still be able to hear me, across the planet. A few students looked up, annoyed, as my weird banter broke their concentration. Once outside, I greeted this familiar voice with enthusiasm. Gyatso, a Tibetan doctor or amchi with whom I have worked for many years, was calling from his home in the ancient walled city of Lo Monthang, in Nepal’s Mustang District.

Pleasantries passed and then Gyatso got down to work. Do you have a pen and paper? He asked. I pulled out my notebook and he began to rattle off the names of about 30 different Tibetan medical compounds. Most I recognized as common formulas with as few as five and as many as twenty-five ingredients: plants, animal products, and minerals from across the Tibetan plateau, high Himalaya, and subtropical South Asia. As I wrote down these names, sensory memories flooded in, of dried pomegranate and green cardamom, of eaglewood and Chinese gooseberry, of calcium carbonate and bamboo pitch. The names of these formulas also brought forth a string of symptoms: sleeplessness and anxiety, blood and bile disorders, digestive irregularities, weakened life force. A few of the named medicines were rinchen rilbu, precious pills. These highly complex pharmacological endeavors include detoxified precious and semi-precious stones and metals. They are used sparingly, if also as panacea. 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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Thinking in an Emergency Or, Free Tents as a Cautionary Tale

The seduction against thinking in an emergency comes, as we have seen, from two sources: first, from a false opposition between thinking and acting; second, from a plausible (but in the end, false) opposition between thinking and rapid action.

—Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency (2011: 14)

It was a rushed decision to accept the tents. But when Ngawang called me – he in New York, his family in his village in northern Nepal – his voice cracked. My mother is cold. She is sleeping on the ground. Not minutes later, news flashed across the Facebook feed: an old friend was organizing a massive effort to send donated tents to Nepal from the US and to work with Indian and Nepali manufacturers to make as many durable if impermanent shelters as quickly as possible. I reached out, asking if perhaps twenty of the donated tents could be set aside for this village in need. I mentioned that someone from my small New England town was heading to Nepal next week. There had been talk of baggage waivers –promissory notes against suffering.

And so I accepted the donation of twenty six-person tents. Send them to my office, I said. We’ll get them there next week. If they hadn’t been donated, I would call them an impulse buy.

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I Will Not Call Her Name: An Ethno-poem on Racial and Gendered Violence

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this ethno-poem by L. Kaifa Roland who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Kaifa is the author of Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha: An Ethnography of Racial Meaning (OUP, 2010) “T/racing Belonging in Cuban Tourism” (Cultural Anthropology, August 2013), and “Between Belonging and the F/Act of Niggerisation” in Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong (Sense Publishers, 2014). Currently, she is doing ethnographic research with Black women entrepreneurs in Havana.]

I will not call her name

There are other names to be called

In this prematurely labeled epoch of post-racial America

Our children lay dead in the streets

At the hands of authority figures who see their color

and gender as a threat

Shoot to kill not to stop or inquire

Call their names.

Like Emmett Till before them,

young black men keep falling:

From Amadou Diallou

to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant

and Sean Bell and Eric Garner,

Tamir Rice and Michael Brown

and on and on it seems… Continue reading

Who benefits from the ‘internet space race’?

In the film Elysium, the ultra-rich have left an apocalyptic Earth ravaged by global warming and overpopulation. Their utopian colony orbits high above Earth which festers below. Science fiction, but Silicon Valley techno-utopians also dream of rising above the planet’s problems.

The Seasteading Institute, for example, seeks to create floating cities far enough from land as to be outside of any regulatory jurisdiction. There, farseers such as the likes of Google CEO Larry Page might be able to innovate, untethered by regulations. At Google’s annual developers’ conference in 2013, Page said: “I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out.”

The seas of Earth appeal to some while the dry seas of Mars attract others: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is at the forefront of commercial space travel for the ultra-rich. At a cost of US$36 billion he hopes his company SpaceX can start a Mars colony. Space tourist tickets come in at a mere US$500,000. He also plans to provide planet-wide internet access, beamed from 4,000 satellites. Continue reading

Thinking about race like a cataloger

In librarian parlance entities, whether books or journal articles or whatever, can be said to have an “aboutness.” And as a cataloger its my job to describe that aboutness with subject headings. I’m working in an archives setting now and my job, essentially, is to sit down with photos such as the one below and, following strict rules, create a digital record that will help researchers find it in the future.

US Army Signal Corps Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Photographs

Because we place a premium on organization and arrangement only authorized subject headings are permitted, something called a “controlled vocabulary.” In the work I’m doing now our controlled vocabulary comes from the Library of Congress. One of the defining characteristics of the LoC subject headings is that they are hierarchical, broad terms are subdivided into narrower terms, which are further divided and modified in rather rigid ways.

So those are the basic rules of the game. The objective is to describe the item so that others will find it, but within the constraints set out by the LoC (typically there are in-house rules you have to take in to consideration too, etc). Alright, given all that: What is this picture about?
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Reckonings: Participant-Observation from a Distance

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sienna Craig.

I am going to use this space as a Savage Minds guest to sort through some of the images, questions, and emotions unearthed over these past six weeks or so, as communities across Nepal have lived and died under the weight of falling buildings, landslides, floods, trauma, and homelessness brought about by massive seismic shifts across the Himalayan belt. Given the dizzying pace of news cycles and our collectively short attention spans, those for whom Nepal is not an important place will refer to this disaster as an earthquake, singular. But this is no singular disaster. The country has experienced about 300 seismic events since April 25, 2015. For thousands, the initial 7.8 earthquake was sufficient to kill them. But the remains of that day rumble on and people are now living to the rhythm of expected surprise. Ayo ayo ayo. A lament. A modicum of pain. But also, simply, it has come.

For most of Nepal’s roughly 30 million people, living uncertainty is old hat. Consider the legacies of civil war and political instability, the dynamics of moneylending, wage labor abroad and the weight of debt, questions of when the rains will come or when they will stop. But the spring of 2015 has cracked open new forms of vulnerability, ripped into the seams of lives and landscapes, and at once exacerbated forms of inequality even as it prompts new forms of Nepali collectivity. More than half a million homes have been destroyed or are precariously habitable. This equates to about 2.5 million people for whom ‘home’ has become a place of desperate refuge or a village now longed for among the tent cities of the urban refugee. More than 3,500 schools have been destroyed. The wind and water of one’s place, and one’s ancestor’s place, may now be nowhere to settle and perhaps an environment to which one should not return, the vertiginous threats of dislodged rock and snow, glacial lake outburst flooding and landslides being what they are. As the skies begin to crackle and roar, as clouds bloat and groan like bellows, millions of Nepalis may look up and wonder what is next. And there becomes an eerie symmetry to it all. Avalanche as downpour. Thunderstorm as quake.

Monsoon began officially last week. Continue reading

The Limits of the Virtuoso

Via @jbouie
Via @jbouie

Pierre Bourdieu, in his famous critique of structuralism from Outline of a Theory of Practice, says:

only a virtuoso with a perfect command of his “art of living” can play on all the resources inherent in the ambiguities and uncertainties of behavior and situation in order to produce the actions appropriate to each case, to do that of which people will say “There was nothing else to be done”, and do it the right way.

Two recent headline-grabbing stories, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and Rachel Dolezal getting outed by her parents as “white,” have served to highlight the limits to virtuoso performance: the boundaries our society places over the individual’s ability to perform gender and ethnicity. Continue reading

Anthropology and the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions: Is an academic boycott effective?

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present this final essay in a series dedicated to the issue of the boycott.  Previous essays by Talal Asad, Mick Taussig, J. Lorand Matory, Rosemary Sayigh, and Brian Boyd reflected on the decision to boycott such institutions. This piece considers whether such decisions will have the desired effect.  The evidence thus far says: yes.

 

Is an academic boycott effective? Ask Israeli leaders

I. ben Alek

I. ben Alek is a pseudonym for an anthropologist and long-time student of Israeli politics

“Israel has been blessed with a lot of talent that manufactures many excellent products. In order to export, you need good products, but you also need good relations. So why make peace? Because, if Israel’s image gets worse, it will begin to suffer boycotts.”

 —Then President of Israel Shimon Peres, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, May 18th, 2012.

How can an academic boycott of Israeli institutions be effective? While debating the issue at the 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, several colleagues insisted it could not be effective. This was a central criticism they had of the Statement of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. After all, critics said, a potential AAA boycott resolution would only be boycotting some hundred or less anthropologists that work or study at Israeli institutions of higher education. Further, they argued, many of these scholars are on the left side of the Israeli political spectrum, and are finding little room to maneuver at a time when Israeli leaders are fanning the militarization of public opinion. Isn’t it counterproductive to undermine their position, as well as that of other dissident scholars, living and working there? A statement against boycott of Israeli academic institutions signed by some four hundred anthropologists claims also that such a boycott would “collectively punish” academics for the decisions of their government, and further that “A boycott of anthropologists and academic institutions plays into the hands of those supporting the current political stalemate.”
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Around the Web Digest: Week of June 7

I love when good online content finds me! Keep submitting links to me at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com and I’m happy to feature them on here.

The title of this Washington Post article is pretty self-explanatory: Why Congress Should Not Cut Funding to the Social Sciences. Takeaway? Aside from having any intrinsic value, understanding social phenomena is important for shaping public policy.

My friends and I were just comparing notes on Ph.D. research with some people we know from the biology department, and they couldn’t understand our view of research as a basically solitary activity in anthropology. This post on the Global Social Media Impact Study Project Blog addresses that very perception: A Methodological Case of Comparative Anthropology 

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Anthropology and the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions: Brian Boyd

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present the latest in a series of essays reflecting on the decision to support the boycott until Israeli higher education ends its complicity in the violation of Palestinian rights (including academic rights).

This piece by Israel-Palestine archaeologist Brian Boyd joins earlier statements on Savage Minds by Talal Asad, Mick Taussig, J. Lorand Matory, and Rosemary Sayigh.

Archaeology and the BDS/boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions: some personal fragmentary reflections

Brian Boyd
Columbia University

Reflecting on why I support the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I found myself looking back through fieldwork diaries I made while I was an undergraduate student in the late 1980s. The first set dates from early July to late September 1988, the second from the same period in 1989: the early years of the First Intifada. My fieldwork was as a volunteer on a French-Israeli archaeology project in western Galilee. In 1988, the team consisted of a French director, a Palestinian assistant, and around 20 students, almost all European and one or two Israelis. In 1989, the situation was similar, with the addition of one Palestinian student. The project was mainly funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs/CNRS and the excavation license granted by, as with all archaeological projects in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority. All archaeological licenses granted to a non-Israeli project director must bear the name of an Israeli co-director, despite that person not being an active daily member of the project team.

During those six months, the archaeological team lodged in the old youth hostel in the Arab area of the northern Mediterranean coastal town that Arabs call ‘Akka and Israeli Jews call ‘Akko. A Christian Arab family ran the hostel, and the town itself was part-Arab (the Old City), part-Israeli (the New City). At that time, I knew little about the Israel/Palestine situation beyond UK media reports, but clearly the recently announced Intifada (late 1987) was on everyone’s minds, especially in a town with Akka’s/Akko’s demographic. I befriended a local Arab café owner, who said he worked for “the labor party”. One evening, a few of us diggers visited his café to find it full of tourists of different nationalities – Japanese, American, British, French. The owner had gathered them together from a number of tour parties and had given them cold-water melon on this hot day. After talking with us all about the Intifada situation, he orchestrated an international chorus around his tables – “We want peace! We want peace!”, over and over. This was, I guess, my first “political” encounter with an Arab person, and one which has stayed in my mind because of the contrast I was seeing between (a) this spontaneous Arab-led international “happening”, particularly hearing the call for peace, and (b) the fairly heavy Israeli police and military presence that I had seen everywhere since my arrival in the country only a few days before. Continue reading