Category Archives: Blog post

“I know of Malinowski’s despotism”: Mauss to Radcliffe-Brown

The people who fill our theory readers are real people who lived vibrant, quirky lives.  It is easy to reduce them to a set of ideas or to a stereotyped, essentialized colonizer. But in fact their ideas — and their colonialism! — were flesh and blood and richly particular.

And they all knew each other.

Consider Mauss’s correspondence with Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheimians both, their theoretical interests allied them against Malinowski. Mauss’s withering, gallic trashing of Malinowski may have more to do with placating Radcliffe-Brown than it does genuine animus. But it also reflects so much else that academia still has: A concern with funding, grudging respect for publication history, trash-talking about a rival’s advising style. It’s all there.

I know of Malinowski’s despotism. Rockefeller’s weakness with regard to him is probably the cause of his success. The weakness, due to the age and the elegance of the other English, those in London as well as those of Cambridge and Oxford, leave the field in England free for him; but you may be sure, even the young whom he protects know how to judge him. There are dynasties that do not last. His big work on magic and agriculture will surely be a very good exposition of the facts. This is what he excels at. And the subventions from Rockefeller for a whole army of stooges which he has had at his disposal will certainly have allowed him to have done something definitive. Only, alongside it there will be a very poor theory of the magical nature of this essential thing. At last he is going to write a great book on his functionalist theory of society and family organization. Here his theoretical weakness and his total lack of learning will make itself still more obvious.

This little glimpse into history is just one of the many open access publications on the history of our discipline that are out there. In addition to the newly-revived History of Anthropology Newsletter there are also the many excerpts and memorial over at the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Thanks to them for making this small, wonderful, slightly terribly little bit of historical kvetching accessible to all!

2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Views from Bolivia

Daniel M. Goldstein

I have known the Aliaga family for 24 years, since I first arrived in Bolivia to study Quechua in 1992. My wife and I were living with a Bolivian family, headed by the widow of a lawyer who had once been business partners with a man named Gunther. Gunther was a Holocaust survivor then living in Cochabamba. On learning that we were Jewish – a rarity in Bolivia – the widow exclaimed, “I know someone Jewish!” and put us in touch with Gunther. On meeting us, Gunther exclaimed, “I know someone young!” – not so unusual, except among Gunther’s acquaintances – and he put us in touch with the Aliagas. We’ve been friends ever since.

I was interested to learn more about Bolivians’ perceptions of the U.S. Presidential campaign through which we are now living, a campaign that many observers have described as among the most bizarre and revolting they have ever witnessed. Recently, Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia (a Bolivian studying in the U.S.) and I wrote a piece on this blog exploring Raúl’s feelings about the Trump campaign in light of Bolivian political experience. For this follow-up piece, I wanted to change directions, to understand the perspectives on this election of some Bolivians and Bolivian-Americans living in Bolivia. And so I wrote to the Aliagas to ask for their insights. (For a perspective from Kenya, see Angelique Haugerud’s Savage Minds post, “Is This What Democracy Looks Like?”)

Anna Aliaga is a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Grass Valley, California. She met and fell in love with Carlos, and the two of them settled in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba to raise a family. Anna founded and runs a business producing and exporting artisanal knitwear and leather goods; Carlos is an intellectual, artist, author, and musician. Their two sons, Eduardo and Elahdio, are now grown: Eduardo graduated from Stanford University in 2013 and is working in Austin, Texas, and Elahdio recently graduated from Santa Clara University in California and returned to Bolivia. I asked them to write a bit about their perspectives on the current electoral campaign.

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Malinowski and Hats

The alternate title for this post was going to be “Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas walk into a bar…”. This is a little autobiographical passage from pages 46-48 of History, Evolution, and the Concept of Culture: Selected Papers by Alexander Lesser. In it, Lesser (a vastly under-read and under-appreciated author) describes what it was like to be a graduate student in the 1920s. It’s a fun little vignette that says something about the limits of functionalism… and academic networking! I’ve condensed this account down a good deal — if you’d like to see the full version, check out the book. 

I first met both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in 1926 or 1927. It was the first occasion of their both being in New York at the same time. Pliny Earle Goddard was very anxious to have Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski meet Boas. He believed they would both discover that Boas was driving at the same thing they were driving at, that there really weren’t any fundamental conflicts. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were invited to what was a large living room in Ruth Bunzel’s parents’ apartment, somewhere near Riverside Drive. There were only about ten of us: six graduate students, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas.

When the time seemed right, Goddard invited Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown to say something. Radcliffe-Brown started off by giving extemporaneously a fifteen minute exposition of what he considered to be the meaning of meaning. It was, from a verbal standpoint a beautiful performance. Boas simply looked at Goddard, and looked at Radcliffe-Brown, and nodded his head. And that was all. Then Goddard turned to Malinowski and asked him if he wanted to say anything, and Malinowski gave an exposition of his concept of functionalism. After he got through with his fifteen minutes, Goddard turned to Boas, expecting him to say something… and then there was utter silence.

After the silence had gone on for as long as I could stand it, I asked a question. I was scare to death, of course. I asked Malinowski if he meant it when he said that every thing, every item in culture, had a vital function. He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “In the back of my hat here’s a little bow which is sewn on to where the seam comes. Now if you go to a store and try to buy a hat, you’ll find it has a little bow on it.” I asked him what its function was. The binding of the hat is sewn together at the back end very tightly; the bow doesn’t hold anything. If it isnt’ there, nothing will happen. And yet if you should happen to buy such a hat in a store, and it didn’t have the bow, the salesman would say, “wait a minute, I’ll have the bow put on.” But what function does it have? Well, Malinowski looked at me and said, “Well….” He thought first of course that maybe it held the hat together, and I showed him it didn’t. So then he said, “Well, maybe it’s decorative.” I said, “How? You can’t even see it.” We went on like this, for some time, but he finally said, “Oh, I’m interested in important matters.” He simply dropped it.

Now, where did I get this item? I happened to be indexing the first forty volumes of the Journal of American Folklore – that’s how I was earning my way through Columbia, for fifty cents an hour. If you start trying to index a thing like that believe me, as you go through a volume it becomes damned boring. So every once in a while, you say: “Oh, what the hell, at fifty cents an hour I’ll read a paper.”

There were several papers by a man named Garrick Mallery. He was an American ethnologist, and he was particularly interested in survivals. In regard to the hat bow, his explanation was that this was a survival of something which had once been more functional. At the back end of the hat ribbons were attached, and one wore the hat with ribbon streamers; style had gradually dictated that these become smaller and smaller, until they were finally stuck up inside the hat, and disappeared into the bow. So much for hats and Malinowski.


Around the Web Digest- October 3

As I continuously wait for the US to abolish Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, here are your readings for the week.

All throughout Mexico, indigenous knowledge surrounding agriculture and foodways provide valuable insight into sustainable futures. Biodiversity, alternative proteins, and landscape restoration are nothing new in the age of food insecurity.

Māori women are embracing the Moko Kauae after colonization almost wiped the tattoos away. As Māori women embrace increased political visibility, the facial tattoos embody resistance in a changing state. 

As gentrification in Washington, D.C. continues to increase rent prices and attract predatory developers, the Ethiopian community is quickly being displaced. The security of ethnic enclaves for new immigrants are threatened in this competitive housing market.

The term “Chinese” cuisine erases the vast diversity of styles and flavors that emerge among different Chinese ethnic groups. NPR covers a new exhibit in New York at the Museum of Chinese in America that explores the nuance of regional cuisine in China.

As the aftermath of the Rio Summer 2016 Olympic Games are slowly manifesting, social movements for queer people and feminism are gaining traction in response to growing political violence. 

See you next week!

Trump: A Bolivian’s Perspective

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Daniel M. Goldstein and Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia]

In the Andes last summer, while traveling to visit family and friends prior to beginning his studies in anthropology at Rutgers University, Raúl Rodriguez Arancibia took a long-distance bus ride on which they were showing the 2015 film “Our Brand is Crisis.” (Most Bolivian buses have mounted screens at the front on which they show movies throughout the ride). The movie is a political satire based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, which recounts the role of American political campaign professionals working as consultants in a Bolivian presidential election. The film depicts the Bolivians as dolts, their primitive innocence contrasted with the wisdom and sophistication of the Americans. What might it look like, Raúl wondered, if the roles were reversed, and the camera turned on U.S. politicians? What might a Bolivian insider’s view of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign reveal?

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Can anthropology solve big problems? Imagining Margaret Mead’s response to climate change

Climate change is the nightmare that keeps me up at night. The consensus seems to be that the world will be significantly different within my children’s lifetimes. Many places will be uninhabitable. Many if not most of the world’s great cities, which are built on waterfronts, will be flooded and destroyed by unpredictable weather events and rising oceans. The global refugee crisis will become much, much larger. The food supply will become uncertain. The American landscape and economy will be different in ways I cannot imagine, while India, where I conduct my research, will be a place exponentially more difficult for the millions of people already struggling to get by. There is a degree of uncertainty in these statements, albeit a hopeful uncertainty. Many of the predicted changes are already happening, faster than scientists had thought.

For me, climate change is a crisis so big it is hard to think about at all. Can anthropology help us think through a problem that leaves us feeling overwhelmed? I would argue that yes, anthropological thinking can tackle these thorny problems, and in fact, it’s one of the few approaches that can. The recent AAA Global Climate Change Task Force Report makes this clear, by pointing out anthropology’s unique view on historical and current adaptation. Here, I also want to look back and find some inspiration in the public anthropology of Margaret Mead, who did not hesitate to comment on thorny problems of her day. Continue reading

Give and Take

This entry is part 16 of 16 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Leslie J. Sabiston and Didier M. Sylvain

did i see that right?
my skull is in a cardboard box
in that basement?
my bones are under
an orange tarp from canadian tire,
rattling plastic in the wind.
my grave is desecrated
my skull is in that white lady’s basement
my bones are under that orange tarp from canadian tire
rattling plastic in the wind like a rake on the sidewalk.
my body is tired
from carrying
the weight
of this zhaganashi’s house.
ah nokomis
this shouldn’t have happened.
your relatives took such good care.
the mound so clearly marked.
ah nokomis
how did this happen?
what have you come to tell us?
why are you here?
aahhhhh my zhaganashi
welcome to kina gchi nishnaabe-ogaming
enjoy your visit.
but like my elder says
please don’t stay too long.*

              —Leanne Simpson [1]

Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing.  —Toni Morrison [2]

We knew we would be confronting a constructed division between our communities and profession before we even got here. We already had questions to critique that construction, to deconstruct the idea of the university as a place of enlightenment. And as the years go by, as we return to our ancestral homelands to conduct research, those questions become stronger and also more difficult to parse. Today we feel even more compelled to refuse certain colonial practices of our discipline, but the “why” spirals deeper and deeper. How deep do we want to go? What do we give and take in the descent? What do we lose?

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Anthropology and the MacArthurs

The 2016 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and — unlike some years — there were no anthropologists on the list. Established back in 1981, the grant was intended not to find “geniuses” (despite the fact that its nicknamed the genius grant) but rather “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary orginality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. This year no anthropologists made the cut, but this isn’t how it always goes. Continue reading

Childhood games: What would Margaret Mead say about screen time?

Last month, a New York Post article about video games being like “digital heroin” for kids caused a bit of an uproar. The article describes a young boy losing interest in reading and baseball in favor of Minecraft, increasingly throwing tantrums until late one night his mother finds him in a catatonic state. Many have refuted this article as based on suspect evidence and even as a plug for the author’s addiction recovery center, noting the human tendency to treat new technologies—especially those used by children—with hysteria. It’s just the latest in the “screen time” debates.

But beyond scaremongering, what does screen time and immersion in digital worlds actually mean in terms of child rearing? Continue reading

Decolonization as Care

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Uzma Z. Rizvi

What happens to our praxis once we start from a place of acknowledging difference in our persons, our histories, our bodies, and our aesthetics? This text starts from a standpoint of curiosity, consideration, and mindfulness as we explore how, who and what we are, inform structures we create. The moment and place of knowing requires a certain slowness to enter into our thoughts, movements, and research, allowing for nuance and precision, for care and humility, and for an aesthetic of difference to incubate our praxis. Once we allow our work to breathe, to reflect, to sense difference, it transforms structures around it or structures created through it.[1] The act of research becomes praxis through which critical awareness of one’s own condition and the condition of others comes into high relief. One aspect of this praxis includes bodies co-producing the work. There are intricate processes that situate us between theory and practice as praxis, which must begin to take into account the many ways in which we are identified, the modes of address, our different bodies, and varied epistemologies.

Intersectionality allows us to occupy that praxis and standpoint critically.[2] It takes into account systems of oppression within the world that hold marginalized people in place (often at an inferior position) in multiple ways. It is not a new idea to acknowledge that our vectors of identity (race, class, ethnicity/gender/body, et cetera) inform how we experience and consider the world, but what is significant in intersectionality is that that place holding happens in different ways at different times and for different reasons. On the flip side, it also means that privilege manifests itself in similarly multifaceted forms. If, due to your body experience, you have never had to question how the world looks at your race/class/ethnicity/gender/body, or if that has never impacted the way the world identifies your research or work, you should know that that is a privileged experience. And that privilege or lack thereof, informs you and your praxis.

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Dialogical Anthropology in an Age of Controlled Equivocation

I’ve been thinking about Dennis Tedlock and reading Marisol de la Cadena’s Earth Beings at the same time lately. Much of Earth Beings is concerned with intimacy, translation, and understanding — both cross-cultural and inter-personal. It seems to me that Earth Beings isn’t alone in having this concern. Although I am hardly an expert in this literature, Viveiros’s ‘controlled equivocation’, Holbrad’s Truth in Motion and much other work in this vein is really about what it means to understand someone who is different than you. Although much of this work is branded ‘ontology’ at times I feel like its central concern is really epistemology.

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The deviant girl and feel-good feminism: Channeling Margaret Mead in Bangalore

In my field site of Bangalore, south India, I found support among young female professionals for feel-good feminism—that is, messages of female empowerment in pop culture that do not seek to shift the status quo much. This kind of feminism is often used by advertisers to appeal to female customers, as in this much-talked-about detergent ad in which a father belatedly realizes the bad example he set for his daughter by not helping with housework, or this recent Nike ad featuring female athleticism in India, where few women participate in sports. The idea here seems to be that a general female empowerment can allow (middle and upper-class) women to push the boundaries of gender norms ever so slightly.

But how much deviance from gender norms is really possible? Deviance is a word not used in contemporary anthropology very much anymore. It suggests a rigid norm that can be identified and described with a certainty few anthropologists would agree with now. It is also a term loaded with stigma. Who are the deviants? Continue reading

Seeing Culture Like a State

(Chinese translation 中文翻譯)

At this year’s Taiwan’s annual anthropology conference, the Taiwan group anthropology blog Guava Anthropology hosted a public event where blog members were invited to give five minute “lightning talks” on the topic of cultural policy. In May, Taiwan’s new Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun 鄭麗君 announced plans to hold a national conference with the aim of establishing a “Basic Cultural Law” for Taiwan.1 These talks were to reflect on both the role of the government in shaping cultural policy and the role of anthropologists in shaping government policy. Below is the English version of the talk I gave in Chinese.2

The State must “see” culture

The central problem facing state cultural policies is the need to make culture visible to the state. After all, if the state can’t “see” culture, how can it regulate it? Post-war Taiwan saw tremendous changes in cultural policy: from promoting China-centric cultural nationalism to embracing multiculturalism. But whether it is mono-culturalism or multiculturalism, whether the state wants to suppress or encourage the development of local cultures, it must first be able to “see” them. Continue reading

ArXiv for anthropology: @SocArXiv + #AAA2016 = Open Access Strikes Back

Cliffs Notes version of this post: @SocArXiv is a Green Open Access digital repository that is currently being developed for the social sciences. I think this is a good thing. Let’s talk Open Access and publishing at #AAA2016. –R.A.

Back in May, fellow Savage Mind Chris Kelty wrote a post about Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN (aka the Social Science Research Network). The short version of the story is that this purchase is Not Good News, although some folks think it’s Worse News than others. Kelty’s primary argument was that SSRN users needn’t worry so much about their papers, and that DATA was the actual issue. Data, he wrote, is the real reason why Elsevier was attracted to the idea of getting their hands on the SSRN. This data is valuable, Kelty writes, because: Continue reading

Language, Power, and Pot: Speaking of Cannabis as Medicine

By: Elisa (EJ) Sobo

The US cannabis landscape is shifting quickly, and so is the way we talk about the plant and its uses. The push to end its prohibition has entailed a proliferation of stakeholder groups, each with its own labeling preferences. Interviews with Southern Californian parents using marijuana medically for children with intractable epilepsy (pharmaceutically uncontrolled seizures) taught me that what’s in a name matters—a lot. How it matters differs depending on who is talking, and what he or he seeks to accomplish when it comes to this plant and its products.

Cannabis—marijuana—has many medical applications, including for epilepsy. Parent interest in this rose sharply when CNN profiled its success with a child in Denver. However, little scientific research has been done with the plant (its legal classification makes that tricky), so doctors generally will not assist parents proactively in regard to its use. Word of mouth, online resources, and purveyor promises are often all that parents have to go by as they work out dosage and other aspects of their child’s cannabis regimen. My research explores how they manage this, which has implications for our understanding of how regular citizens contribute to biomedicine’s knowledge base and therapeutic tool kit. Findings also may be used to help improve service provision for these vulnerable families. Continue reading