Category Archives: Blog post

Around the Web Digest: Week of July 20

The anthroblogosphere is still a pretty quiet this week, but some (like Merrill Singer and Agustín Fuentes) have seemingly picked up some of the slack. Definitely give their articles a read, as they have some pretty important messages to impart. If you have an important messages to impart, preferably in the form of blogs or news articles, send them my way for next week’s digest at richard.powis@gmail.com or on Twitter at @dtpowis.

Right this way. Continue reading

“The Most Wonderful Shade of Brown”

Anthropologists are good at critiquing other anthropologists and themselves. We have a lot to be guilty about and we do a good job of pointing that out. The politics of anthropology, and the politics of the politics of anthropology are a major part of what we do. In fact, we’re so good at doing it that I think at times we forget what we have actually done wrong. We spend more time reading dismissals of our ancestors than we do the ancestors themselves.

One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was when Fredrik Barth — who I have a lot of respect for — came to give a talk to our department. The highlight for me was when he was describing how much he enjoyed spending time with people in Papua New Guinea during his fieldwork there. They were, he said, friendly and “the most wonderful shade of brown.” I think he was trying to be provocative and he succeeded — there was an audible gasp from the brown anthropologists in the room, as well as from pretty much everyone else.

And then there is Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf. Continue reading

Anthropologists Respond to Frequently Asked Questions About a AAA BDS Resolution

We would like to thank the editors of Savage Minds for inviting us to kick off this important conversation on a potential AAA resolution in support of BDS. Over the past four posts, we have tried to highlight some of the key reasons for why anthropologists in particular should honor the call to boycott that was originally issued by a united Palestinian civil society in 2005. From our analysis of the role archeology plays in the dispossession of Palestinians to our overview of historical boycotts within the AAA and discussion of academic freedom, we made the case that BDS is the only sensible, effective, and appropriate response to the current situation.

That being said, the conversation on BDS is far too important to be fully covered in four short blog posts. We would like to thank everyone who took the time to read carefully and respond respectfully, either in the comments or privately, to seek out further clarification on these important issues.

In this last post, we will attempt to answer some of the most common questions we have received. If you have a question that is not answered below, please leave a comment and let’s continue to have this serious conversation about how best to respond to ongoing Israeli mass violations of human rights. Continue reading

Minority Report

Last week I sent out a job app, well, internship app to be truthful. After all I’m a grad student again. But its significant to me because it was the first one I have applied to in the field of archives. I am just now wrapping up an internship at a museum library and being that this is the first time I’ve written a cover letter for an archives position I sought out one of the senior archivists for advice. We talked about what sort of language to use, making sure I could describe the work I had already accomplished with the proper jargon.

Then he said, “And you should say something about your heritage. You’ve probably already got a couple of lines you’ve worked out. Make sure you put that in there too.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

I think, maybe this is a defining quality of white ethnicity in the US: in certain circumstances you have the option of unlocking minority status or else opt to coast on white (male) privilege. Which version of “me” do I want to deploy in such-and-such a context? In the case of a job letter without a name that marks you as “other” it is your privilege to have the agency to chose the minority identity. Such as it is.

I did, indeed, have a couple of lines already worked out from previous letters. But to be perfectly honest I haven’t really used that language in years. This was a letter writing strategy that I employed very reliably as an ABD, particularly in the days when I was applying to everything. As time passed, I changed, my letters changed. I had other things to say.
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Embracing Our Better Angels: Endorsing BDS and the History of the AAA

In our previous posts, we made the argument that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) ought to endorse the united Palestinian call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and systematic legal discrimination. Over the past few weeks, we have unfortunately received more horrifying reminders of why this sort of external pressure needs to be brought to bear and urgently. The situation requires the sort of exigent and effective external pressure that BDS can provide, and so the AAA ought to do what it can. Full stop.

That said, as a great many anthropological writings remind us, we should still look to our past as an organization – both our successes and our failures – to guide our response to the present situation. In the last of our regular posts, then, we will argue that endorsing the united Palestinian call for BDS represents a continuation of the best principles and traditions of the AAA. Continue reading

Getting a Job in the Academy: Some Thoughts From the Other Side

This post isn’t just another lament about the sorry state of the job situation in the academy. The US is undoubtedly undergoing a crisis on that front, accentuated by the huge increase in the numbers of people completing  PhDs  in liberal arts subjects and the scale of student debt. The effects of this crisis spill over into what is now a global market in academic jobs. This is clearly evident in the UK where the numbers of applicants for academic posts in anthropology frequently reach well over one hundred, compared to  perhaps fifty or sixty only a decade previously.

The problem is  partly structural- the mismatch between numbers and posts on the one hand, and the impacts of selective shrinkage in the University sector on the other.  But demand is also a factor. People continue to study at graduate level because they are motivated by research as much as anything.  Doctoral study isn’t only about entry into  formal academic employment, in any discipline. And, while the casualization of higher education is a concerning trend, in the US and beyond, it’s not the only issue. It’s hard to imagine under what economic system there could ever be sufficient secure jobs in the university sector for those with higher degrees at a time when it seems that more people than ever are pursuing postgraduate research.

This doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to get a university post, if that’s what you really want. But it does entail a healthy dose of realism combined with the practical career building tips of the sort offered so eloquently by Karen Kelsky aka The Professorisin whose site I wholeheartedly recommend. Having been on the other side of the job process over the past year, as a search committee member and chair of a department, I’m going to offer a few of my own. The first is optimistic, if you are an anthropologist at least.

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Hobby Lobby: A Win for Ethnophysiology

An example of a good argument against the Hobby Lobby ruling.
An example of a good argument against the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby; they are free to deny the insurance coverage of certain contraceptives for their employees. Blogs have written about how this is a loss for women’s rights and a victory for women’s rights, a win for religious freedom and a loss for the religious, a win for corporate personhood, a loss for the LGBTQIA community, and a loss for conservatives. Whichever the case may be, Hobby Lobby is at the very least a win for ethnophysiology. Continue reading

Digging the Occupation: The Politics of Boycotts and Archeology in Israel (BDS pt. 3)

Recently, the television network NBC started filming Dig, a new archeology drama set in Jerusalem. Normally, we’d be ecstatic to see our fellow archaeologists getting such media fanfare. But there is nothing normal about this venture. Filmed on-site in illegally annexed East Jerusalem, the show is underwritten by 6.5 million dollar grant from the Israeli government. For comparisons sake, this means Israel is spending more to film Dig than on the yearly education budget for all K-12 Palestinian schools.

So why is the Israeli government, currently in the midst of a budget crisis, throwing millions at NBC to get Dig on the air? Because they know something we’ve been reluctant to own up to: archeological knowledge remains one of the Israeli state’s most powerful weapons. If Dig unearths anything, it is that in Israel archeology is neither a neutral nor innocent enterprise. Instead, it has become just one more tool in the occupation of Palestinian lands.

As anthropologists and archeologists, we should be especially concerned when we see our discipline being misused to promote discrimination and occupation. By endorsing Palestinians’ call for BDS, the AAA has a unique opportunity to highlight the misappropriation of our scholarly techniques and defend the good name of our profession.

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Classified information

I had a delightful day at work yesterday. It started with a two hour long debate with my colleagues about method and theory. Once we exhausted the possibilities we put our ideas into practice. After I made my contribution a senior scholar reviewed my work and directed me to make some changes, the end result was pretty good. I love this environment of collaboration and shared decision making!

This summer I am volunteering at The Mariners’ Museum as part of my training in information science. I help them with grunt work necessary to meet a funding deadline, they give me work experience and expand my professional network. I get three credit hours towards my Masters to boot. The museum library is housed on the campus of Christopher Newport University and we have one of the most expansive collections of ship’s registries and nautical themed rare books in the US.

My current project is working in the library’s archives creating catalog records for individual items. This is unusual because archives are typically only described at the collection level, who donated the collection and what sorts of materials are included. Its rare for an archive catalog to index each and every thing present in a given collection.

The work I’m currently engaged in is an accrual to an existing collection of pop culture items, all donated by the museum’s vice-president who enjoys perusing eBay, flea markets, and antique stores for anything that references ironclads, the Monitor, or the Battle of Hampton Roads. In 1862 the local waterways hosted a major Civil War naval battle, it was the first encounter between metal ships heralding the end of wooden navies. So this local historical event is of global significance, at least to Navy people anyway. Continue reading

Writing Badly, Speaking Better. Practical Books for Doing the Life of the Mind

Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do.  And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.

A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and,  by extension,  to anthropology.   Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in  the Social Sciences   by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book.  Its  a  `How Not To’ book.  But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.

Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields,  within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED summarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .

Sure,  it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember.  And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of  intellectual  posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.

Books for (re)starting school I: Your recommendations?

It may feel like summer to academics in the northern hemisphere, but the start of the school year is right around the corner. For some people, this will mean the beginning of an exciting new career in college or graduate school — for a lucky few it will mean the start of a career in college or graduate school as a professor. For many more, it is a time to find new ways to do familiar things better.

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Pt. 2. Why Anthropologists Must Boycott: Israeli Attacks on Academic Freedom

This is the second post in a series advocating that the AAA endorse an academic boycott against Israel. For more general information on BDS, see our first post.

This past May, Palestinian students at Haifa University requested permission to hold a formal commemoration on campus for the more than 600 Palestinian villages destroyed in the course the Nakba (the mass expulsion of Palestinian residents that accompanied Israel’s founding). When administrators denied their request, students decided to gather informally without flags or banners. They were not in violation of any university policy.

But even this silent commemoration was too much for administrators. Haifa University organized a raucous dance party on the quad to disrupt the informal gathering. During the event, representatives of the student union taunted those present and police officers were sent in to intimidate and later disperse the Palestinian students.

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Anthropology and Enlightenment: Reflections on the ASA Conference in Edinburgh

I have just got back from the Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial conference. The ASA formally represents anthropologists from the former Commonwealth countries, including the UK. Like the AAA for those such as myself,  who are neither resident in nor citizens of the United States,  it’s now more than this- a forum for anthropologists to get together to discuss practice, organize conferences and share ideas.

The ASA holds annual conferences, some of which are in commonwealth countries.   This year’s conference was Edinburgh, a fabulous city as well as a pertinent choice given the forthcoming referendum which will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.  This nationalist moment informed the theme of the conference which was structured around the intellectual contributions of the Scottish enlightenment- to modern thought in general and to contemporary concerns in anthropology.

These big ideas were intended to be explored in some of the plenaries, depending on the contributors, many of whom did as academics will and explored their own big ideas. This wasn’t   a particular problem. As in any conference of this sort, themes are primarily ways of organising the order of events and putting people together.   And, this being anthropology, there was less orientation to coherence than to the presentation of highly individual points of view which we were presented with in abundance.

If anything, there was slightly too much on offer. I am not sure exactly how many delegates attended, maybe somewhere between five hundred and one thousand, but there were so many panels, almost eighty, over three full days that the audiences were often very small. On the plus side, this gave the event an intimate feeling, which was reinforced by the social buzz of the coffee breaks. In contrast to the social awkwardness induced by the overwhelming scale of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings where delegates huddle over flat screens as they try to work out with whom to seek a connection this was a meeting which encouraged face to face interaction.   The setting, a University campus in a part of the city near to downtown, was suitably informal.

The content on offer was not very different from that presented at other social or cultural anthropology meetings elsewhere. There were, for example, panels on animal human relations, on issues of care and gender , on forms of modern knowledge, on utopias and on waiting. Ontology and neoliberalism as terms were invoked with an unsurprising regularity (I even managed to invoke them in my own presentation on religion and David Hume!) , as were emergent keywords struggling to become dominant as the next wave of fashionable theory.

A number of  strong papers foregrounded field findings presenting insights on observed social practice as it is being reconfigured in the face of rapid change.   Others foregrounded an analysis which preconfigured the interpretative framing of a story, generally including the anthropologist, as ethnographic insight. I left the conference having learned far more about my fellow anthropologists than I learned about the worlds which they had experienced first hand.

This isn’t a comment on this specific conference. Far from it. It’s a reflection on the current preoccupations of anthropology. Good anthropology should both reflect on itself and our own theory and on real social practice in the world. The whole point of ethnography and of spending an extended time in the field was to use observation of how people lived in the worlds they made as the building blocks of the theories which could to describe and explain them in different settings.

As a professional showcase of what social anthropology currently is and what social anthropologists think its important to talk about I enjoyed the conference enormously. Its appeal to those outside the discipline is less certain. As long as our concerns are driven fundamentally by the models and imaginaries of social theory   we will continue to have the kinds of conversations which characterise our conferences. These are fascinating and erudite for sure, but if we are really concerned with wider society should we be having them only with ourselves?