Category Archives: Blog post

Tansi! Tawnshi!

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Zoe Todd. 

Tansi! or Tawnshi!

These are, respectively, the nehiyawewin and Michif greetings of my home territory.  I grew up in amiskwaciwâskahikan/pêhonan in Treaty Six territory in central Alberta, also known by the colonial name Edmonton. Michif and nehiyawewin are two of several Indigenous languages spoken in my hometown, which is the traditional territory of Cree, Blackfoot, Saulteaux, Dene, Nakoda and Métis peoples. I am finishing my PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen and will begin a position at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in July.

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The hills of Nepal are crying, but why aren’t we listening?

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this guest essay by Galen Murton. Galen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His research examines of questions of identity, development, and material culture in the Himalayan borderlands of Nepal and Tibet. He is currently in Nepal conducting research on roads, borders, and trade in Mustang district.]

It is for the living paradox of Nepal that so many of us love this country. The sacred spaces of Kathmandu in the profanity of an overwhelmed, polluted city. The beautiful smiles and namastes of a village within communities for which the government could hardly give a damn.

Yesterday the children of Pokhara returned to school while mass burials and cremations continued in Gorkha, Lamjung, Nuwakot, and elsewhere. This return to normalcy in Nepal’s most scenic city is essential, and yet nothing is in fact normal. Tourists are in short supply and yet the shopowners of Lakeside sit in vacant showrooms, eagerly awaiting their return. Everyday conversations tend towards the mundane again – the price of petrol, the pre-monsoon weather – and yet the specter of disaster looms everywhere – where were you when IT happened?; are you and your family and your home alright?; what about the village?; did you lose anyone? Everywhere there is a big elephant in the room, or better yet, a makara in the shadows. Continue reading

Gone: The Earthquake in Nepal

Gone. This one word is in heavy use right now. Heavy as in frequent, and heavy as in weighty. Gone are homes. Gone are temples. Gone are entire villages. Gone are animals. Gone are the thousands of people who died in the 7.8 earthquake which rocked central Nepal midday on Saturday, April 25. Felt across Nepal and into Bangladesh, India, and Tibet, the earthquake is still not over. There are people being rescued alive in rubble. There are still tremors and aftershocks. There are landslides and avalanches. There are still entire regions from whom we have not heard, about which we do not know their status. We do not yet know. It is not over.

Langtang village, now gone
Kyangjin Gompa in the Langtang Valley survived the earthquake.
Before the earthquake this was Langtang village. Now gone.
Before the earthquake this was Langtang village. Now it is gone.

What we did know was that a big earthquake was coming. One had long been predicted for Nepal. Despite this, emergency preparedness mostly took the form of prayer, of hoping it wouldn’t happen or that it wouldn’t be too bad. It did happen and it was bad. Continue reading

Between the Anthropocene and Neostructuralism

Over the weekend I read the book symposium in Hau on Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture; then I perused the Open Anthropology current issue on the Anthropocene, recently highlighted by Rex. The experience was somewhat jarring—Descola’s ontological perspective renders up an almost placid view of humanity via fairly timeless schemas such as totemism and naturalism; while Jason Antrosio and Sallie Han’s curation of anthropological writings depict humans (finally?) confronting the precarity of our species-being in the face of climate change. Strikingly, though, they both share a confidence in the relevance and purchase of “classic” concerns of anthropology—conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically. And it’s this shared confidence I want to tap in thinking about how multispecies analytics are percolating up in anthropology. Continue reading

Savage Minds Reader Survey Results Part 1: Demographics

First of all, a big “Thank you!” to everyone who responded to the Savage Minds Reader Survey. Over the one month the survey was up Google tells us that we had 31,003 people visit the site1, but of those only 6,255 were returning visitors. It is that second number we want to target, since we aren’t really interested in the people who randomly end up on the site because they are Googling “jewish glam rock” or “origin sexy librarian” (although we’re happy if they become regular readers after ending up here). The fact that 430 people responded to the survey means we got about 7% of the regular readers during that period, which is fantastic. Of those almost half left their email to be entered in our prize drawing. The lucky winners have already been selected and (hopefully) notified of their prizes.

If you’d like to look at the survey results directly, take a look here. In this post I’m going to summarize some of the demographic data and information on how people use the site. At least one or two more posts will come later on with more information on the qualitative answers, and the data on employment and student debt, etc. Continue reading

Puppy-Dog Eyes of Science

“Scientists say…” It’s interesting what natural science research starts making the rounds on social media. Mostly on diet or health broadly, and increasingly concerning climate change. On rare occasion—as over the past few days—some reports surface that offer insight into the circulating clutter itself, as in “cute dog” photos. In this instance, they’re opportunities to glimpse changing understandings of big topics, like domestication and evolution.

Links for two articles recently popped up in my Twitter feed: “The Science of Puppy-Dog Eyes” (NYTimes, 4/21/14) and “The Guilty Looking Companion,” Scientific American (4/20/15), both treating the gazing behavior of dogs and its various effects on humans. The first, by Jan Hoffman, reported on a study published in Science (in a themed-column on evolution), titled, “Dogs hijack the human bonding pathway.” The second, by Julie Hecht, “The Guilty Looking Companion,” builds off an article in Behavioral Processes, on a tangled question: “Are owners’ reports of their dogs’ ‘guilty look’ influenced by the dogs’ action and evidence of the misdeed?” Both suggest a far more agential companion species than many people might’ve suspected, but more importantly they each complicate stock domestication narratives suggesting it was something we simply did to them. They also suggest opportunities for extending social analysis beyond the human. 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.

Cultural Evolution As Dialectic

Are cultural anthropologists going to get serious soon about evolution? When I first learned anthropology, back in the mid-1980s, “cultural evolution” (Lewis Morgan and E.B. Tylor) was always an early lesson in intro courses, basically on how not to think about culture. Or as an illustration of European ethnocentrism, with their culture as the more complex evolutionary development from simpler, primitive societies. But now I teach Darwin’s Origin of the Species in my intro grad theory course and to my undergraduates, as well. There’s no better way to engage the importance of yet problems with talking about underlying commonalities across species lines. As well, if we’re going to talk about “life itself” in relation to biopower and biopolitics, we have to become fluent with the underlying grammar of biology, and that’s evolutionary theory. Perhaps the “biocultural synthesis” will promote this kind of fluency; certainly Hicks and Leonard make a powerful argument for this in their recent article in Current Anthropology, “Developmental systems and inequality: Linking evolutionary and political-economic theory in biological anthropology.” They see an opportunity “to balance the importance of our long evolutionary history with our social and cultural complexity as explanatory frameworks for understanding modern human variation and health.”

But the challenges here are manifold. Continue reading

Dataverse: an open source solution for data sharing

When you think of scholarship you might think first of publications, articles and books, but that is just the final product. Yes it is polished through countless hours of research, writing, and responding to reviewers, however all that work is built on an even more time consuming foundation of collecting raw materials. In cultural anthropology this includes field notes, journals, marked up literature, audio recordings, transcripts, and maybe photographs and video. I think I even have a few 3-D objects squirreled away in banker’s boxes. Although we seldom refer to it as such all of this is “data,” it is information awaiting interpretation.

We take great pride in our finished products. Peer reviewed publications are still the coin of the realm. Our attitudes towards data in cultural anthropology are less clear. Are our data worth saving? What have you done with your data? How would you feel about sharing your data with others?
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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?

A Cultural Anthropologist Reads a Science Journal

One morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany.

Working on race, I initially began reading science journals as a way to keep up with claims and counterclaims in the polemics over its social construction. But as my focus shifted from people to plants (still keyed in on race), and as I developed an ethnographic project on biodiversity research, I began reading the journal articles to better understand what these plant scientists are up to. Along the way, the items in these reports (concepts, techniques, analytics) shifted, in my view, from socially constructed artifacts to crucial means for comprehending the very subjects that interest my ethnographic subjects. Now my approach to cultural analysis is changing. Continue reading

What Are You Reading This Summer?

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The semester is nearly complete, and summer is upon us. After finishing my first year in graduate school, I have this to say: I had no idea that I was capable of reading so much so quickly. Wow.

And yet, there were many things that I wanted to read and could not fit into those tiny pockets of “free” time. You know what I’m talking about, right? You get that itch that says, “If only there were more hours in a day, I would totally pick that book up!” And reading Carole’s Ethnographic Theory syllabus is not helping matters.

So I need to keep this momentum going; here is my summer reading list for 2015. It serves a few purposes, so it has to be somewhat calculated. This time next year, I’ll need to turn in a substantial literature review that gestures (somehow) toward my dissertation research/proposal, so now is the time to ramp up my consumption of readings that will contribute to it. There are also some things that I feel like reading, because “How have I gone this long without reading that” (e.g. Nietzsche)? One is out of sheer curiosity (i.e. Bennett). A few things I’ve read in the past, but I’d like to revisit with a full year of graduate social theory seminars under my belt (e.g. Foley, Fullwiley). And I owe Duke University Press a review (i.e. Starn; coming soon!). Naturally, this does not include the rapidly growing list of articles – classics, landmarks, and brand new publications – that I’ll need to whittle away.

In order (by nothing other than a sense of urgency, I guess): Continue reading

What We’re Teaching This Semester: Ethnographic Theory

What courses do professors teach and why? Who determines what students need to know? In my department we teach a combination of required courses and elective courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. At the graduate level, I regularly teach a semester of our year-long introductory theory course, and other times I teach seminars focused on more narrow topics either in one of my specialties or an exploratory course. This semester I am teaching the latter: a new graduate seminar in ethnographic theory. In the spirit of our not-quite-official Savage Minds series on teaching, I offer some thoughts here on why and how I am teaching ethnographic theory this semester.

Right now, where is intellectual energy in cultural anthropology? This seminar is designed to ask and answer this question through looking at scholarship from the last several years organized around the concept of ethnographic theory. Our overall prompt is dual, both the call for a ‘return’ to ethnographic theory in the now four-year old journal HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory and recent reflections in Cultural Anthropology on the current anthropological moment twenty-five years after Writing Culture. On the syllabus, I wrote the following introduction to the course which is officially titled “Ethnographic Theory: On Philosophy, Method, and Writing:”

What is the ethnographic? How do we practice and write ethnography? In this seminar, we will look beyond ethnography as method to consider the ethnographic as theory. Ethnographic knowledge is both epistemology and ontology, a way of knowing and a way of being. It is experiential, embodied, and empathetic, and is the foundation of field efforts to arrive at—as Clifford Geertz so famously stated in 1974—how people collectively explain themselves…to themselves. It is through ethnography that we can get to “where true life and real lives meet.” Ethnography is excessive and it is messy, but so is life. Our goal in ethnographic research is to get to this excess and messiness, to the lived expectations, complexities, contradictions, and possibilities of any given cultural group. In this seminar, we will explore ethnographic theory through reading in three areas: political subjectivity, ethnographies of the suffering subject, and the ontological turn Continue reading

Culture is for the birds…and the bees…and the dolphins, etc.

I guess I’m not surprised the idea of nonhuman cultures still generates disquiet for some cultural anthropologists. But I was a bit taken aback that this long-running argument seemed to be news. After all, there are recent ethnographic examples of what this looks like: Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut characterize their book, Buzz, as “an api-ethnography that considers bees as cultured beings that traffic between worlds of the hive and of the urban landscape” (2013:36), taking “the subjective experience of bees” as one of their foci as they work to interpret bees’ behavior. Somewhat less boldly, Colin Jerolmack’s The Global Pigeon (2013) depicts these birds as part of the social interactional order of public space; though he maintains them at the center of his ethnographic analysis, arguing, by the way, that “pigeons partly domesticated themselves” (9) in colonizing urban space. And of course there’s Eduardo Kohn’s, How Forests Think, winner of the 2014 Gregory Bateson Prize.

But in response to the question about the theoretical foundations for all of this, I’m quite ready to go beyond anthropologist and primatologists like Raymond Corbey and Frans de Waal who’ve been making this case for years. I’m more interested in how nonhuman cultures are being documented and analyzed by natural scientists, because their work opens up new spaces for theorizing culture “beyond the human.” Continue reading

“The essential job of a publishing house is curation”: Jacob Stevens on Verso Books

(update: I correct some typos -Rx 17 April 2015)

One of the great things about running a well-established blog is that you can just cold-call interesting people and ask to interview them, and they’ll say yes.  Verso Books has had a long history of publishing works which have has a tremendous impact in anthropologyand so I’d always tried to stay up to date with what the press was doing. When it began selling ebooks directly through its website and offering them at discounted prices through sales, I got curious about what their plan want to keep their independent, progressive press operating in an era of Reduced Everything. I was very lucky, therefore, to have a chance to speak to the managing director of Verso, Jacob Stevens, who talked with me about Verso’s plans and future directions.

I came away from this interview tremendously impressed with Stevens and Verso more generally. Stevens’s strategic vision is remarkably clear and focused on what the key commitments of progressive publishing should be. At the same time, he’s thought outside the box in many ways — looking to journal subscriptions as a model for direct sales of monographs, or taking the lessons of the music industry and applying them to publishing. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview and the light it sheds on Verso’s plans for the future, and the state of independent publishing today.

AG: Let’s start by talking about your Christmas sale. That seemed to be a pretty major statement by Verso. The discounts were incredibly steep and the selection was very good. Could you tell why you decided to do that sale, how successful it was, and its role in your publishing strategy?

JS: We initiated a redesign of the website in 2008, always with the aim of launching a strong direct sales channel. That finally came about in March last year, and we took three decisions to try and make sure that it was a success and that it was noticed. The first one was to bundle ebooks with print. The second one was to offer discounts, and the third was to offer free shipping. Essentially, we were competing with Amazon.

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