Category Archives: Book review

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

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

Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis – [Book Review]

CEP-cover

Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis
Michael Kimmel, Christine Milrod, and Amanda Kennedy, eds. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014. 251 pp.

Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis” is a new publication (October 2014) from Rowman & Littlefield following fast on the heels of its companion “Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast” which was released in September. I’m told that they’ve been warmly received by anthropologists, as they both sold out rather quickly at the R&L booth at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association this past December in Washington DC. As a budding scholar (ahem) of global masculinities, I thought it would have been silly to not take the opportunity to review Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, if not simply for the title and synopsis, definitely because of Michael Kimmel’s involvement. Kimmel, one of three editors (in addition to Christine Milrod and Amanda Kennedy), is one of the more well-known sociological scholars on men and masculinities in America. Of more than a dozen books on the subject, perhaps his best-known is “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys become Men,” a book that I would highly recommend for undergraduate- and graduate-level students of Gender Studies. While some of Kimmel’s work is not without some anthropological blindspots (he is not an anthropologist after all), one should be able to approach Cultural Encyclopedia (henceforth, CEP) trusting that a book written by over 90 authors would ultimately deliver on its claim to being “cultural.” It should be noted that this review is written without any knowledge of the content and style of Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, which was edited by Merril D. Smith. Continue reading

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

Jurafsky, Dan. 2014. The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

The Language of Food has always been one of my favorite blogs, and so when I heard that it was being turned into a blook, I leapt at the chance to review it. Having now read the book, I still like Jurafsky’s writing and approach, but feel the blog was occasionally unable to transition of the Internet and on to the page. And yet, despite the beefs anthropologists might have with the book, I find myself recommending it to non-academic friends both because it makes a fine read, and because it teaches some core anthropological lessons. It deserves a wide readership for the anthropological lessons it teaches and the delightful stories it tells along the way.

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The Semiotics of Bubble Tea

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

Milk Tea
Bubble Milk Tea

Rather than writing a a straightforward review of Paul Manning’s wonderful The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking (winner of last year’s Sapir Prize), I thought I’d instead engage with the book by endeavoring to apply Paul’s ideas and analytic techniques to a context which is more familiar to me than post-soviet Georgia: contemporary tea culture in Taiwan.

For those who don’t know, bubble tea is a sweet milk tea, often served cold, filled with chewy tapioca balls one drinks up through an extra-large straw. It was first invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and soon became a global sensation. It is now even available at the McDonald’s run McCafé shops in Germany. Continue reading

Abbott’s “Digital Paper”: the best book about research EVAR

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I occasionally sang with Andrew Abbott in choir — he was the bass in suspenders. It was only after moving halfway around the world that I began reading his work. I quickly became a fan. Abbott is one of the most thoughtful people writing today about what specialist knowledge is, and how we produce it. A historical sociologist with strong quantitative skills, he’s produced books on the history of academic disciplines and the dynamics of their formation and professionalization. But he’s also produced practical pieces about how students and professors develop ideas, and how to have new ones. There’s also an ‘applied’ dimension to his work — he produced the report on the University of Chicago’s library which made the bold move to double down on physical book purchases in what was supposed to be a digital future.

Abbott’s latest book, Digital Paper, continues this focus on the sociology of knowledge production by providing us with a “library methods” book: a ‘how to do fieldwork’ book, but for people who do library research. Andrew Abbott writing a book on how to do research? I was destined to like this book before I opened it up. But having read it now, and with a critical (if biased) eye, I can honestly say that every student, professor, and intellectual needs to read it. It’s a superb ‘how to’ guide about writing a long research paper or thesis. But it’s more than that. It’s an entire theory of how scholars pursue scholarship. It’s a memoir of Abbott’s own research. It’s a pessimistic and slightly misanthropic ode to a quiet world of well-ordered card catalogs destroyed by the garish vulgarity of online databases. It’s an epigrammatic summary of a career’s worth of knowledge. It is — yes, I really mean this — life-affirming. It improved my own ability to do research. Everyone needs to read it. You need to read it.

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The Private Lives of Anthropologists: A Review of Lily King’s Euphoria

[This is an invited post by Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. Paul is an anthropologist of Samoa, and author of numerous articles about Margaret Mead and the Mead-Freeman controversy including The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, and reviewed here on Savage Minds).]

 A review of Euphoria by Lily King. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014).

The last time Margaret Mead appeared as a character in a best-selling novel was over fifty years ago. In Irving Wallace’s The Three Sirens (1963), Dr. Maud Hayden (the Mead stand-in) finds her world turned upside down by the discovery of a Polynesian island where, as America’s foremost anthropologist, she leads a team of researchers who encounter “people from a simpler, happier society, free from the inhibitions and tensions of the 20th century.” The novel’s dust jacket informs us that the culture of the island is “a shocking assault, a challenge to their most cherished beliefs about love, sex, marriage, child rearing, and justice.” So profound is this encounter that the researchers end up studying their own desires, fears, and passions. Of course, this trashy potboiler had no redeeming social value, but interest in the Mead character, the tension between a repressive West and a permissive Polynesia, and the interplay between professional fieldwork and private lives attracted many avid readers. Continue reading

The Graduate Advisor Handbook: Take Its Advice

Shore, Bruce M. 2014. The Graduate Advisor Handbook : A Student-centered Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

I’m a big fan of the University of Chicago Press’s series on academic life (disclosure: this may be because I went there for graduate school). Their series on writing, editing, and publishing  features several of my favorite titles, and their younger series on ‘the academic life’ has also gotten off to a good start. So I was optimistic about Bruce Shore’s The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Having read it (disclosure: I received a free review copy), I don’t feel like it’s the Final Statement In Human History About Advising Graduate Students. But I do strongly recommend that you read it, especially if you are new faculty or a new graduate student trying to get a grasp of what good advising looks like. 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.

Plays Well in Groups – [Book Review]

pwig-frank

Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex
Katherine Frank. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013. 406 pp.

“So, how did she…do her research?” This was a common response after mentioning to colleagues that I was reading a book “on the anthropology of group sex.” The critical intonation of the query comes from professional curiosity of these anthropology students and professors, and it is rooted in a (mistaken) assumption that the book is strictly ethnographic. Rather, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex by Katherine Frank is an excellently researched collection of narratives – histories, current events, media studies, ethnographic works, and participant interviews – analyzed through a sex-positive and unifying anthropological lens. Frank’s task is drawing parallels between different forms and practices of group sex in general, while exploring deeper social, political, economic, and historical contexts in order to contrast them. Much of the book is about who has group sex and why, as well as who fears group sex and why. An overarching theme of the book is thus one that appealed to my interests: an emphasis on sexual taboo and transgression. Continue reading

The Soul of Anime [book review]

What happens when dedicated people come together to work on a project they care about? Where do good ideas come from? How is it that some creations start off in niche markets and grow into global brands while others fade into obscurity? In his latest foray into Japanese popular culture, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Ian Condry offers ethnographically grounded theory for the study of creativity. The work can be read as a synthesis of the best practices in the field of pop culture studies from anthropology and cultural studies.

Soul of Anime

Condry describes the efforts of dedicated artists and producers working in a “crucible” atmosphere of “collaborative creativity.” Their collective social energy is the “soul” of their shared engagement with the project. Therefore this study offers something other than a follow-the-money investigation, anime as Japanese national culture, or an interpretation of the content of anime, reading the text. Rather Condry seeks to follow-the-activity and commitment of small groups of people (mostly men) as they exercise creativity. It is the dynamic social relations, the connections between people in a working group that shine through here. Anime is emergent from the social practice of creativity and the collective values of that group as they define the importance of their own actions within a context.
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The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

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Fiction and familiarity

My impression is that many people read fiction as an escape from their day-to-day. I am not those people. I like to have enough of a non-fictional toehold on a story to be able to judge its verisimilitude. I don’t want to be the reader analog to the millions of people under the impression that the legal system is in any way similar to Law & Order or CSI.

Given my interests and experiences, my toehold criterion seems to leave me with only so many fictional reading options to choose from. But early this spring I came across one short story and one novel fitting it to a T. Continue reading

The Lessons of Arnold Toynbee

When William McNeill’s biography of Arnold J. Toynbee dropped to 2 bucks on the kindle store, I knew that I had to read it. Like most scholarly flashes, it had more to do with the way decades of reading and browsing were being shuffled around in the back part of my brain. My intuition was right — McNeill’s book is valuable to people interested in Toynbee but also, more importantly, to scholars everywhere trying to balance work and life. As someone who gave himself up wholly to work, Toynbee exemplifies what an intellectual can accomplish once they give up everything but their work. As a result, this well-written and intimate biography of Toynbee serves as a cautionary tale (or how-to guide) for many of us.

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