Savage Minds Notes and Queries in Anthropology Fri, 11 Sep 2015 22:00:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 #OpenAccess as Famine Fri, 11 Sep 2015 22:00:26 +0000 Continue reading #OpenAccess as Famine ]]> The current state of thinking about open access today is a lot like our contemporary understanding of famine.

In the early 1980s Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze published the ground-breaking book Hunger and Public Action. In it, Sen and Drèze made the unexpected and original argument that famines are not caused by lack of food. Rather, they are caused by lack of entitlement — when famines occur, there is typically enough food to feed everyone, but the social system that distributes it is out of whack. Prices change such that poor people can no longer afford food, and there are not enough (or not correctly designed) social programs that ensure the food is distributed to the poor. It’s not the food that’s missing, it’s the justice.

The metaphor can be run several ways. From one point of view, our closed access world is one in which there is more knowledge than ever, but paywalls ensure that most people are starved for it. While some brave souls continue their long tradition of smuggling, most people starve or watch ad-supported TV, which is the knowledge equivalent of eating mud to feel full (apologies to the legitimate geophages out there who find this an invidious comparison).

In another version of this metaphor, it’s the resources needed to publish — money, manpower, software — that’s the food and it’s the scholarly ecology that doesn’t provide the entitlements necessary for open access publishers to get the resources they need to survive and thrive. That’s why so much of the recent work on open access has now moves to understanding the scholarly ecosystem as whole. Projects like Libraria are trying to see if we can rearrange the existing relations of production (ahem) to create cheaper, more free research. In the Netherlands, the univerisites are realizing that cancelling the Elsevier subscription would liberate enough money to make accessible all those articles the Netherlands currently publishes with Elsevier. In this case, the money to publish open access is in place, but the existing system runs this money through for-profit publishers whose profit margins are too large.

Once, we had to face the claim ‘there’s no money to pay for it’. Now, we know the question is ‘who is entitled to access it?’ Of course, open access advocates have long looked at the big picture when it comes to what needs to change in scholarly publishing. But I do feel that in the past couple of years there has been a shift away from the basic groundwork of developing software and making arguments for the legitimacy and feasibility of open access. It could have been that open access remianed a fringe idea pursued by those without a lot of institutional power. Now, however, as governments, funders, universities, and publishers take open access seriously, it’s increasingly the systematics of entitlement that’s being examined and rethought. It’s an exciting time for open access, and I hope to see even more exciting times ahead.

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Anthropologies #21: ‘Patabea se bariu’–Rethinking environmental change Fri, 11 Sep 2015 15:23:46 +0000 Continue reading Anthropologies #21: ‘Patabea se bariu’–Rethinking environmental change ]]> This entry is part 5 of 5 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Our next essay comes from Elena Burgos-Martínez, who is currently completing her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Durham University. Her research explores local conceptualisations of the environment at the intersection between cultures in coastal Indonesia. She is interested in linguistic variations brought about by semantic expansion and new forms of rationalization which define local senses of modernity and belonging. Elena has background in Education, Geology, Chemistry, Sociolinguistics and Social Anthropology and strives to integrate different scientific paradigms when undertaking research. –R.A.

Kala ale’ boe mecin’, shouted Ila, while starting a Bajo song which is intended to ask the wind for help in very hot days. Wind, as stated in the song, travels from deep under sea water up to the surface, all the way through to what is above sea level. Winds mimic humans and humans mimic the wind – each featuring different attitudes towards what is in between wind directions (‘barat’/’west winds’ tends to be a bit volatile and impatient). Winds are an important feature of the environment for the Bajo of Nain Island, in North Sulawesi (Indonesia) and as such they regulate socio-ecological understandings and practices. Although intimately connected to conceptions and representations of climate change, this essay centres its critical consideration on environmental change rather than climatic discourses. I approach my subject by looking at ethnographic data collected through participant observation and posterior analysis on different conceptualisations of the environment and perceptions of the physical environment as un-detachable from the social.

The term ‘change’ often functions as an unsettling category that leads to diverse forms of adjustment. But are change and adaptation complementary or inherently the same? Contemporary discourses and narratives of climate change frequently presuppose a rupture between nature as a third person entity and the human, with human beings being held responsible for the changes that the other side of the living world experiences. Thus, it is an exhausted and popularised ‘nature’ (shifting all signifiers; land and seascapes) that is posed as a threat to human stability, forcing us to what we think is the only possible alternative: adapting to a new unpredictable environment. Nevertheless, such approaches to the environment as related to humans but detached from human features continue to overlook the relational complexity of the processes where signifiers and signified are produced and of what becomes an active feature of human perception first.

Whether the public affirms or denies climate change as an imminent catastrophe, a portion of the globe still bases their assessments on an implicit detachment from nature. But not everyone’s understandings of our global world follow the same rationale. Until recently, the Bajo of Nain Island in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, for example, did not have a word for ‘nature’ in their language, Baon Sama. The concept of nature became part of their language via social programs that used international sources which had been translated into Bahasa Indonesia (the official language of Indonesia). International utopias of a very well-known register called ‘development’ claim to work towards the empowerment of the ‘marginal’ but often ignore local notions and interpretations of the concepts in matter. These convictions seem to be taken for granted, and often intersect with notions of the human and the non-human that do not rely on nature/human dichotomies simply because these philosophies have not emerged from the same conceptual systems.

Amongst the islanders of the Celebes Sea, nature can only be human: all that belongs to the Bajo sphere is human, regardless of foreign categorisation sets, since it is only animated through collective human cognition and perception. Thus, the signifiers are made such through the collective understanding of their quality as referents for meaning; meaning-making comes always first, lived experience becomes the medium and the message.

Change, an intrinsic feature of all cultural systems, means buoyancy for the Bajo, an intrinsic and defining feature of resilience and capability to remain Bajo amid processes of cultural intrusion and change. There’s no antithesis for change since their vernacular perception of stability is intrinsically dependant on change, both being interweaved to the point in which they become parts of the same reality. For the Bajo, the ability to collectively endure social change and rationalise it, in the intersection with different cultural groups, is the cause of environmental change.

A series of international environmental organisations, driven by a self-proclaimed expertise in ‘emancipating’ smaller communities (via pre-designed developmental programs), build entirely on the basis of the socio-political agendas of donors. These paternalistic initiatives encouraged the establishment of new local businesses as ways of belonging to international networks of dependency. Nevertheless, local efforts to ascribe to bigger profit were bolstered by the politics of international resource management, which maintained and perpetuated corporate power structures across Indonesia.

Similarly, other coastal communities around the Celebes Sea, consider what we call “adaptation” a response to human confluence rather than environmental fluctuation, allowing them to accommodate physical transformations. Bajo environments are all-inclusive; the human and the non-human are part of the same fluid ontology and often interchange. In Nain Bajo, ideas of what qualifies as human or as non-human were introduced by foreign concepts and semantic expansion through development programs. Contemporary Bajo have adapted such concepts and made them environmentally friendly with a renewal of the cosmology of ‘iblis’ (a hybrid spirit that is not human or nature but both). These ‘iblis’ can take the shape of any non-human animal, human, or the wind itself—and they regulate socio-ecological interactions and relations.

Changes in climate take the shape of unpredictable winds on the Bajo side of the world. An animated nature, which often mirrors the human, operates across perception, understanding, and thought through most cultural groups—but it relies on different values and philosophies when it comes to defining the non-human aspects of it. Nevertheless, when we legitimise expert knowledge as the sole basis of environmental science, we can think of unpredictability as a threat to the transmission of any type of consciousness.

However, rather than relying on expert knowledge, generations of Bajo have long considered experience-based knowledge as the key to understanding how things exist and work. In light of cultural intersections, they deal with the so-called re-adjustment of previous and new socio-ecological ontologies from within them and as they happen. They do not consider themselves observers or victims of change but active regulators of such. Thus, change and its unpredictability carry its own agency in defining how the Bajo environment functions. In view of upcoming discourses constructed around the diversity of environmental knowledge and rationalisation, we must allow sufficient room to register the fluidity of local narratives as well as we need to challenge and the so-called universal categorisation canons.

Similarly, a few oceans away, climate scientists, weather forecasters, and other experts trained in regions of the world where Western philosophies situated ‘nature’ as a subject for the physical sciences. This shift followed centuries of philosophia naturalis (a discipline that integrated cosmology, physics, and philosophy before the 17th century), which was grounded in an all-encompassing, interwoven rationalisation of the natural and the human. Nowadays, modern science’s expertise fills the gaps of instability when predicting nature’s patterns with an old utopia (that of ‘nature’ being an order separate from that of humanity, an entity needing new forms of control) and a newly-shaped conceptualisation of the world. This perceived need to monitor and manage the so-called physical world often forced upon all sides of humanity. Such managerial prospects present a different stand than the one discussed in previous paragraphs but have many common threads, including the defining agency of social change, which leads to human adaptation and its ultimate effect: environmental mirroring. For many, the causal force of change begins with, and in, the environment and culminates with human adaptation. However, habituation to new forms of collectiveness resulting from cultural intersection cannot be extracted from the physical environment, for the environment can only exist as a subject and object of changes in the conceptions that construct it and regulate its perception.

Environmental change is not perceived in the same manner worldwide; the human isn’t either. Shortly after the Age of Reason placed mind and body on different sides of the dichotomy that regulated an emerging rationalisation of the world as divided into the human and the non-human, nature came to be perceived as representing all other non-human features of the planet. Non-European locations were also influenced by the semantic expansion of 18th century philosophies and thought (be it through colonisation or exploration) and so ‘nature’ became the other; always under watch, always needing salvage. And a new conceptualisation called individualism, devoid of “natural” human beings, began to spread. This conceptualisation was often a constructed synonym for the urban, industrialised advocates of technocratic hegemonies of the time. The rest was presupposed as barbaric, savage or un-human.

Therefore, when defining the globality of environmental knowledge and its applicability in local settings, it is vital to critically examine what socio-political forces shape the underlining values that are included, secluded and excluded at the crossroads of global narratives, and the interplay of subjectivities in places where such different rationales intersect. Within the debate on environmental and climate change, such an approach is essential if we are to achieve a deeper understanding of the impact humans have in transforming a world that becomes unfamiliar and uncanny when defined solely on the basis of our detachment from nature itself and the values of a portion of it.

For some peoples, the positive qualities of change outweigh the risks of unpredictability. When the collision with the unexpected is understood as the basis of resilience (which in Baon Sama means ‘capability’- with capability being a translation of ‘mampu’, the ability to thrive within the group and become an active member of it following its own order and rationale) and offers a frame that allows processes of re-negotiation of cultural identity and collective agency to flow in the intersection between different social utopias and the reinforcement of centralised, globalised powers and authorities. The location of certain types of knowledge and understandings is by no means arbitrary, since it pertains to its own encompassing order and relational perceptions, which are subjected to change and as such have to be considered within the settings within which they originate and transform. That said, no space can be assumed to be a clearly demarcated enclosure where categories are prone to, or should, remain untouched by the juxtaposition of the global and the local.

Whereas wind unpredictability influences the maintenance of hierarchies of knowledge, when skilful members of the community fail to foresee difficulties that might arise at any time, wind is incorporated into the Bajo category of things that undergo change. These are not categorised as belonging to either the social sphere or the physical one, but as constitutive of both. Change allows room for improving the group’s ability to thrive in the socio-ecological environment, to become a competitive part of regional and national belonging. Change is always social, and it is through the social lens that it becomes physical. Thus, environmental causality takes a different turn when placing social change as cause and defining feature of environmental change.

Throughout debates that frame the contemporary concept of climate change as a matter of urgency, it is never clear whether the always derogatory ‘change’ functions as a consequence of an unpredictable human earth or as a driver of such a volatile ‘nature’. And at the very core of such contestations of human activity, contemporary conjectural ecologies still continue to base their relational judgements in determinisms grown in the divide between mind and matter, inherited from Western European enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophies and objectifications. These systems of knowledge, while claimed to be of cross-cultural validity, can deform other voices and neglect relational and local complexity. Herewith, systems of objectification of the world that do not place human determinism and environmental determinism as individual and separated categories and do not coincide with rationalisation through oppositions are likely to be reduced, by dualistic machineries, to the antithesis of rationality, so-called belief.

Amongst advocators and deniers of climate change on our side of the hemisphere, the human and the non-human, for example, are distributed into differentiated essential systems, following a utilitarian logic, in the instrumentalisation of nature, where the human manages the non-human but, at the same time, is constrained by its biological needs which result in certain cultural responses. However, among the Bajo, it is the constraint of new social orders and needs (those introduced by international economic and political systems, such as fishermen strengthening programs, which created business links between Nain Island and other regions in Indonesia) that lead to environmental responses. In fact, the environment has always been human, as it is perceived and understood by humans and could never be otherwise. Thus, new socio-ecological relations that favour sociality, under Bajo terms, are likely to be positive; whether a foreign concept called ‘nature’ has to be metamorphosed, through semantic expansion, and into a fluid variety of Bajo narratives that circulate the every day. These narratives do not place the human and the natural in distant axes but as parts of the same coordinate—where a bottle of plastic is as human as a turtle nesting in it, both being perceived by the same Bajo systems of objectification, both belonging to the same Bajo space, none can be detached from the idea of ‘the natural’ and/or ‘the human’.

*Note about the title of this essay: ‘Patabea se bariu’ (Elena’s PhD thesis’s title) means ‘joining the wind’ in Baon Sama– a Bajo translation for the expression ‘gone with the wind’, a metaphor that means disappearance in some places whereas it accounts for staying and shape-shifting into more sophisticated forms of change that will always allow for permanence.

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The Riddle of Sean Lien Wed, 09 Sep 2015 17:01:51 +0000 Continue reading The Riddle of Sean Lien ]]> [Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Renée Salmonsen and Chuan-wen Chen.]

Originally posted on the Guava Anthropology Blog 28 September 2014

Author: Hsiu-Hsin Lin
Translators: Renée Salmonsen & Chuan-Wen Chen

Translator’s note: Contemporary youth and amateur politicians are taking an increasingly active interest and role in Asian politics. We feel it is important to translate this article because the result of Taipei’s mayoral election last year was a significant milestone for Taiwan. This article was written in the month leading up to the election. Many people view the result, independent candidate Wen-je Ko winning the capital city mayoral election, as a reflection of voters seeking change and expressing their dislike for both major political parties, the Kuomintang party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The election was held on November 29th, 2014. The two most popular candidates were Wen-je Ko and Sheng-wen Lien. Neither of the leading candidates had previous significant administrative or management experience in government institutions. Ko, a former surgeon, won the election with 57.16% of votes. Sheng-wen Lien, a.k.a. Sean Lien, is the son of Lien Chan, the former Chairman of the KMT and the Vice President of Taiwan. Sean Lien won the KMT mayoral primary, but lost the 2014 Taipei City mayoral election with 40.82% of votes.

The idea for this article stems from a class discussion. Taipei’s mayoral election has been the hot topic for weeks now. Anything seemingly unrelated to the election is now related. Due to recent circumstances, I haven’t logged-on to Facebook or watched TV lately which has enabled conversations with my students to skip over the hot, trending topics of the election and return to the greater issue of the “Sheng-wen phenomenon”. In other words, whether Sheng-wen is elected or not the emergence of a figure like Sean Lien is a very important phenomenon for the social sciences.

Two or three years ago Sheng-wen put out a book titled My Life’s Adversity or My Life’s Struggle, something or other. I teased my Taipei friends that Sheng-wen is trying to coerce his way into becoming their mayor. My friends thought I was joking, the idea of his book gaining any clout in political circles seemed ridiculously funny. The joke was funny until early September 2014 when the punchline became reality. After Sheng-wen publicly announced his candidacy, I repeatedly asked my students why they thought he was being portrayed as a political figure in the media when he had no previous experience as one. Too often the media links together situations like Sheng-wen’s out of nowhere, creating a figure worth discussing. As the election approaches, whenever I hear that the gap between the two sides isn’t too wide, I begin to understand what’s happening less and less. Opinion polls have Sheng-wen ahead by 30% which further decreases my understanding: How is Sheng-wen even in the running to be Taipei mayor?

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As world elections become increasingly open, there are hardly any candidates whose family net value is over 100 billion National Taiwan Dollars (NTD) and who lack any professional experience (excluding of course the inner-circle of political connections). This pampered youth has surfaced occasionally during his father’s public appearances, with plenty of photos to prove it. And then suddenly he is in the running to become mayor of the capital?! This in itself is odd. Out of nowhere Sheng-wen received a 30% public approval rating? Makes me wonder, what is really going on in Taiwan?

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My colleagues, students, and I tried to figure it out: why is Sheng-wen even in the Taipei City mayoral election? Students offered several answers, “pretty wife, wealthy, political connections, power struggles within the political party…,” and then a student said, “financial capital!”

My focus abruptly shifted to the themes of TV talk shows. A hollow candidate reflects a likewise frighteningly hollow image of Taiwan ── the spirits of Taiwan’s empty valleys were summoned by Sheng-wen.

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Previous mayoral candidates showed some personality at least. Even good ol’ President Ma Ying-jeou showed some personality by offering a range of opinions on executive legal proceedings to the Senkaku Islands (that he gets bad marks in my book is not the point here, he’s more of a classical political thinker anyways). On the contrary, the emergence of Sean Lien is very postmodern. Hollow as a ghost. Empty and naive like a videogame character. You would never guess that the “newness” Lien exhibits is a new phenomenon of globalization. The globalization of Taiwan is embedded in Taiwan’s relationship with China.

EasyCard is Lien’s sole “political achievement” worth mentioning. Whether he exaggerated that he single-handedly turned the company from loss to profit or not, at least he successfully imitated Hong Kong’s Octopus card and brought it to Taiwan. According to Lien, he was the first to introduce the value of plastic money to the members of Parliament and encouraged its great success in Taiwan. It seems however that his “achievement” was accomplished by again riding his father’s coattails. The persistence of these sorts of actions reflects two characteristics of globalization.

First of all, the financial sector practically exceeds the manufacturing sector. Second, the Taiwanese financial sector heavily relies on networks of influence (similarly fine-tuning globalization in any country). When Sean Lien first emerged onto the political scene he proudly announced the legitimacy of (a kind of) financial industry under the guise of globalization. The fact that he still received a 30% public approval rating explains the public’s desire to find a solution to the anxiety and insecurity Taiwan holds facing globalization. The unrest results in Taiwan’s support for hollow, nameless symbols, which also happen to be characteristics of globalization. These define the “spirits” summoned up by Sheng-wen.

taipei stock

Globalization has made the public very anxious. Taipei’s mayoral election is presented in the media like a presidential election. Economic growth is the crux of Lien’s campaign. Terry Guo, recognized as one of the richest businessmen in Taiwan, commented on the election as if he was a political expert. This is clearly an election for administrative territory. The Kuomintang has tried its best to spread economic panic. I often say in my sociology classes that mafia bosses are just another kind of sociologist as they most genuinely express the human desire for power. Old gang bosses surrounded by young gangsters. They drive luxury cars like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The Kuomintang is the most sensitive monitor of the public, all too aware of our fears and our anxieties.

Let’s consider the public’s sentiment with an anthropologist’s tone. Gellner has clearly stated that the former economic imagination visualized the “nation.” When the nation “brings up” it’s citizens with compulsory education, there is an implied mobility and maximization of nationals in different industries within the nation. According to Gellner, thanks to the industrial revolution, a uniformity within the nation has been reached by methods of convenience. Nations have become interactive communities. To put it in another way, the nation exists because of the wave of nation-states, (I believe that the community is the premise of existence — what can I say, I’m a helpless follower of Durkheim), like a family but on a larger scale. From social security to the welfare system, education to the national defense, people can find support during these turbulent times from within the community. This is why the economic transition has been seen as a “progress of economic history in Taiwan,” as seen in export processing zones in 1950s and science parks in the 1980s. Take note though: although the Hsinchu Science Park mostly relied on subcontract work in the 80s, blending in with the international division of labor at the time, the nation is still seen as a collective system of individuals within any division of labor system.

Yet in this post-90s globalized world, the boundaries of nation states are weakened and production is challenged. Here are a few of the resulting issues:

The complexity of the global labor division

As the chain of marketing and production increases and we do our best to curtail the gap between them, the processes of facilitating materials and labor power deserve greater consideration. How can one master their personal niche? The challenges differ by industry. For instance, subcontractors and conventional machine operators adapt their work to change very differently. This is a rather grim challenge for all sectors of Taiwan manufacturing. Every aspect in the chain of production is about racking one’s brain to pinpoint how we are vital to the process. Whether or not everyone’s wishes are fulfilled, usually everything does not turn out how you plan. Even so, your initial position within the chain will determine the future weight of your bargaining chips. Ultimately proving that you are a necessity is unlikely.

The spirit of finance and gutter oil permeate everything

Thanks to the strained circumstances of the manufacturing industry, the financial sector is quickly and conveniently being tidied up becoming an unrivaled apparition among global industries. Among other recent revelations, the manufacturing industry is a cover-up for the financial sector. Like when the “government” covers up a construction site or aeronautics center (as if they are really making something?!) they are actually engaging in a kind of speculation. Manufacturing is an excuse, stock and land speculation are facts. The spirits linger in the financial figures (100 million as a unit of measurement) as a new coded method of transaction in the official merchant community.

A state doesn’t look like a state

As new forms of speculation poison and humiliate Taiwan, our overseas investments, and the Chinese-South Korean free trade areas, they are also used as tools of intimidation. These occurrences originate from a double-sided contradiction ── states remain plagued with expectations of “nationalities,” yet these dramas act as holy gatekeepers for financial players. Our past feelings about the state are manipulated as grounds on which to stake land and financial claims. Instead the state needs to penetrate those areas reliant upon expert knowledge.

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In contemporary society we live like parasites off of the state. We gradually lose the feeling of belonging to a whole. From these positions of removal, multi-faceted dilemmas, and moments of coercion, already places of hope cannot be seen. Even though Taiwanese flaunt a “winning through togetherness” attitude, they have lost the “subject” and “object:” What is ‘togetherness’? What are we ‘winning’? Although people have only faint expectations of the state, they are endlessly disappointed. These turbulent and perplex situations are conduits to pleasure seeking and joy, laid before populations as an exit strategy.

Then, suddenly, from the realm of fear and complexity emerges Sean Lien. From out of the blue he forcefully and illegally occupies the heavens. He, with his hulking stature and his family’s enormous wealth, is obviously famous, though not so-obviously well known is why. His all-around uselessness, lack of brainpower, inability to perform even unimportant investigations, and overall lack of any sense of security in these times of uncertainty only contribute to this era of financial domination. Am I right? What is it that you like about Sheng-wen? What is it that you mock? You don’t even know how to hate him! Sheng-wen has a sort of airy cheeriness about him, not unlike the abundant emptiness of a numerical figure. The significance of Sheng-wen’s complexity is that even Sheng-wen doesn’t know how to win this election!


Thus, regardless of the election results this fight isn’t just between Ke, Lian, and Feng (and no I didn’t forget Guang Yuan). The battle is being waged globally, nationally, and among the citizens on both sides of the battlefield. Its only just beginning! But only within our government are there endless threats and intimidation. A condition-less openness is used as an antidote to serve the idiots-who-need-amusement era. No matter if Sheng-wen is happy or not, I fear our near future is incapable of giving rise to happiness.

End note: I would strongly like to open an interdisciplinary course on reducing student’s anxieties. This would include globalization’s attack on Taiwan’s industries, legal deformations, boundary maintenance, failing nation-states, new production phenomenas, new cultural networks, new communities….

Link to original article:

Chuan-Wen Chen is taking a break from being a graduate student in the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Her research focuses on elderly care coordination in a multicultural urban environment. Her latest projects are learning about interior design and surviving in China

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Partha Chatterjee: Why I Support the Boycott of Israeli Institutions Wed, 09 Sep 2015 13:27:58 +0000 Continue reading Partha Chatterjee: Why I Support the Boycott of Israeli Institutions ]]> [Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, and of the Centre for the Studies of Social Sciences in Calcutta. He is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective.]

Having taught for a lifetime in Indian institutions and, alongside, about two decades in US universities, I have a position on this question that is somewhat unusual from the point of view of most American anthropologists. My political views were formed in the course of growing up in a country that was once the classic colonial possession of the British Empire, achieving its independence in the year of my birth. I grew up with the marks of colonial rule scattered all around me – equestrian statues of colonial governors and generals at street corners, all-white sporting clubs and swimming pools where native youngsters were shooed away by turbaned gatemen, rows of office buildings with names like McKinnon and McKenzie or Jardine and Henderson whose top officers, I was told, were still spotlessly white. I went to an elementary school run by an English couple whose son – I still remember his name, Stephen Hartley – was routinely awarded the top prize by our Indian teachers at every school competition. Ever since, no matter which country I have visited, I have rarely failed to recognize the signs of colonial superiority.

I first came to know about the fate of European Jews in a roundabout way. Sometime in my childhood, I came to hear the phrase notun ihudi – the new Jews. It was probably the title of a movie. It referred, I was told, to people like us, thrown out of our homes in the eastern half of Bengal which had now become part of another country called Pakistan. Both my parents came from there. Once every few months, I would wake up in the morning to find the house full of strangers – relatives from Pakistan who stayed with us for a few days and then moved to a more permanent dwelling. We were, I heard, the new Jews – refugees, forced to make a new life in a strange land.

Later, I read about the history of Nazism and the Second World War in school. I read stories of the persecution of Jews. Our English teacher told us that Shylock’s character only made sense if one shared the prejudices of European Christians about Jews. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the meaning of that remark. But as I grew older, I learnt about the long history of racism in Europe, a history that bound together in the same chain of hatred and condescension the Jews of Europe with Orientals and Africans.

I also discovered why our elders among the Bengali Hindu refugees from East Pakistan so loved the analogy with European Jews. The latter represented, they pointed out endlessly, the cream of European intellectual and cultural life. Some of the greatest scientists, writers, musicians and artists of our time had been driven into exile by European racists who hated Jews. They were, of course, quick to add that the same thing had happened to the Hindus who were the intellectual elite of East Bengal: they had been expropriated and expelled by an ignorant Muslim peasantry and its bigoted leaders. It didn’t take me long to recognize in this comparison the signs of class prejudice tinged with religious animosity. Even more perplexing was the discovery that the expelled European Jews had sought and had been granted a homeland by Britain in their colonial possession in Palestine. My journey from adolescence to adulthood was marked by the realization that in the world of politics, few things were painted in black or white.

Yet judgments had to be made. On Palestine, my judgment was clear. Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe had found hospitality in the United States and Western Europe. Nevertheless, they insisted on a state of their own, moved into the British territory of Palestine and, after the British left, began to seize the lands where Palestinians had lived for centuries, driving them into refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other Arab countries. I remember the war over Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal – a last desperate attempt by a pathetic British aristocracy to hold on to the vestiges of its colonial empire. From then on, the United States became the guardian angel of the Zionist state as the latter emerged as a major military power in the region, armed with a nuclear arsenal it refuses to acknowledge. More ominously, it became a security state singularly aimed at the protection of one section of its population – the Jews – and treating its Arab citizens as lowly barbarians threatening to swamp the Jewish nation with their fast-breeding families and actively assisting the hostile forces ranged across the border. Israel continues to build walls to fortify the Jewish population, imposes a ruthless regime of passes and security checks that every Arab-Israeli or Palestinian has to daily negotiate, and ignores every international norm to build Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands in order to permanently scuttle all chances of a sovereign Palestinian state coming into existence. I don’t need to mobilize any scholarly knowledge at all: my inherited common sense tells me what I need to know. This is colonial rule as well as apartheid, both based on the exercise of brute force.

In my personal capacity, I have always boycotted Israeli institutions. Despite having dozens of friends in Israeli universities, I have never agreed to visit Israel. There was a particularly poignant moment a few years ago when I was invited to be present on the occasion of the release of the Hebrew translation of one of my books. It was hard for me to refuse the heartfelt invitation of my Israeli friends who, I knew, deeply disliked and actively opposed most of the policies of their government. But the thought of applying for a visa at an Israeli embassy, passing through Israeli immigration and, who knows, answering questions at check points and barriers put me off. An unfortunate fallout of this reluctance on my part is that I have been also unable to accept invitations from Palestinian institutions. But how else does an individual like me show, in a private capacity, my refusal to submit to the blatantly colonial protocols of the Israeli authorities in order to accept the hospitality of my Palestinian friends?

In case I am accused of holding double standards, I must hasten to clarify that I have not failed to see the signs of colonial superiority in the country of which I am a citizen. I have visited every state of India except two – Kashmir and Tripura. Irrespective of my political views, I know that people on the street in Kashmir would regard me as just another “Indian” – perhaps a tourist out to have a good time while caring nothing about the hardship of the local people, or worse, a shady character sent out on a sinister security-related assignment. Those are not presumptions with which I would feel comfortable. And Tripura, a place that’s hardly known even in the rest of India, has remarkable similarities with Israel. A princely state of British India inhabited almost entirely by indigenous “tribal” people, Tripura was practically overrun after independence by Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan. Led by an educated middle class, enterprising Bengali farmers drove the indigenous population into the hills, cleared forests and settled down to an agrarian way of life in a new land. True, the Communist Party which has been in power for a long time in Tripura has tried to build bridges with the tribal population, but the demographic facts are too stark to ignore: the tribal peoples are now a mere thirty per cent of the population. The seventy per cent who dominate the state are ethnically my people. I have imposed a prohibition on myself from travelling to Tripura.

It is relevant to add that the party currently in power in India professes a right-wing ideology of Hindu nationalism and frequently points to Israel as the exemplary case of a country fiercely asserting its cultural identity based on religion and brooking no compromise against the threat posed by political Islam. Boosted by increasingly close ties based on huge defence purchases and security assistance from Israel, the Indian government has been carefully shifting its traditional support for the Palestinian cause in the United Nations and other international forums. This has deepened my aversion towards the current regime in New Delhi.

I often hear the question: what is a boycott going to achieve? I remember hearing the same question in the 1970s and 1980s when the campaign was on in British universities for boycotting South Africa. It would be stretching the point to claim that the boycott campaign ultimately led to the end of the apartheid regime. But looking back, I have no doubt that the furious debates the campaign unleashed in the public media, sporting arenas, living rooms, bars and numerous other places went a long way in shaking people off their complacent positions of ignorance and indifference. I earnestly hope that the present campaign will have a similar effect.


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Anthropologists Writing: The Fall 2015 Writers’ Workshop Essay Series Tue, 08 Sep 2015 15:44:24 +0000 Continue reading Anthropologists Writing: The Fall 2015 Writers’ Workshop Essay Series ]]> It is my pleasure to announce the fourth (and final) season of our Writers’ Workshop series. Each Monday we will share a new essay reflecting on some aspect of the writing process. We invite you to follow along, and to make these essays part of your weekly writing rituals. This fall we have a fantastic group of contributors:

September 14—Kim Fortun

September 21—Daniel Goldstein

September 28—Sasha Su-Ling Welland

October 5—Gabriella Coleman

October 12—Paul Tapsell

October 19—Victoria Massie

October 26—Carla Jones

November 2—Katerina Teaiwa

November 9—Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

November 16—Ieva Jusionyte

November 23—Gastón Gordillo

November 30—Bhrigupati Singh

December 7—Barak Kalir

December 14—Stuart McLean

The Savage Minds Writers’ Workshop series launched in January 2014. We’ve had three successful seasons with thirty-two contributors writing across topics, genres, subdisciplines, and concerns of all sorts. All of these essays are available here for reading (or re-reading as the case may be):

Spring 2014—Gina Athena Ulysse, Kirin Narayan, Sienna Craig, Bianca Williams, Kristen Ghodsee, Zoë Crossland, Robin Bernstein, Michael Ralph, Matt Sponheimer, and myself

Fall 2014—Paul Stoller, Noel B. Salazar, Marnie Thomson, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Mary Murrell, Roxanne Varzi, Adia Benton, Ghassan Hage, Siva Venkateswar, Catherine Besteman, and Kevin Carrico

Spring 2015—Ruth Behar, Chelsi West, Anne Claus, Alan Kaiser, Anand Pandian, Jane Eva Baxter, Michael Lambek, Sarah Besky, Yarimar Bonilla, Donna Goldstein, and Jess Falcone

We already know that all anthropologists write. This series is designed to get beyond the instrumental aspects of writing, and to think of the craft of writing, to think of anthropologists as writers regardless of the genre in which they write. We are in good company in this effort, and yet there is more work to be done, more questions to be asked about prose and style, about non-formulaic writing for journals, about writing in different languages, about finding the time to write, and more.

writing books


Second only to the tip to have a consistent writing practice and to write every day, is the suggestion to find community in one’s writing. Many academics, and probably most cultural anthropologists, have solitary writing practices. We write alone and yet we need feedback, encouragement, and conversation about our writing. Some are lucky to have regular in-person writing groups with whom they can share their writings, and others find such community online. If you are looking for online community, here are some to try: Shut Up and Write Tuesdays: A virtual writing workshop for academic folks, #GetYourManuscriptOut on Twitter, Alan Klima’s Academic Muse website, and for the entire month of November: AcWriMo or Academic Writing Month.

If what you want and need doesn’t exist, create it. Find the kindred spirits who inspire you, or perhaps those not-so-kindred ones who generate a different kind of writing energy for you. Either way, may the essays in this series be a good resource for thinking your writing anew.

Welcome all, and thank you in advance to our authors.




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Around the Web Digest: Week of August 30 Tue, 08 Sep 2015 05:28:43 +0000 Continue reading Around the Web Digest: Week of August 30 ]]> Send along anything interesting to!

The BBC reports that Chimpanzees and Monkeys Have Entered the Stone Age (by using relatively sophisticated stone tools). More interesting to me is the claim that they recognize the value of cooked food and seem to understand the process of cooking in experiments.

Science Daily writes that archaeologists have linked Mayan environmental alterations to the beginning of the Anthropocene. Clues from Ancient Maya Reveal Lasting Impact on the Environment 

A blog called Stuff Mom Never Told You featured the profiles of 9 Women Who Changed Anthropology, including some I had never heard of myself. As with any list, we can immediately begin questioning who was included or excluded.

Living Anthropologically points to how Ruth Benedict particularly shaped the development of the concept of culture that we attribute to Boas… for better and for worse, given that her words sowed the seeds for the equation of the culture concept (as an abstraction or verb) with groups (becoming Cultures, as a plural noun): Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, and the Anthropological Concept of Culture

Treating culture as a static entity can lead us to place it in an adversarial relationship with health and development: Health, Culture, and Wellbeing: Beyond Seeing Culture as Obstacle 

Discard Studies responds to the refugee crisis that has recently gripped our attention with a short, information-rich review of the body of literature that treats refugees as human matter out of place: Refugees: Humans-As-Waste? 

Allegra Laboratory describes how nationalism and infrastructure development can become spectacularly intertwined: Can a Gas Pipeline Heal Bolivia’s Wounded Geo-Body? 

Pop Anth posted this review of a book about money as a cultural institution. One part of the summarized book resonated with me strongly after my fieldwork experiences: that damaged bills are believed to have lesser or no value. I once went to three banks trying to get them to accept a U.S. twenty-dollar bill with a slight tear in one corner: Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City. 

See you next week!

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Embracing Impostor Syndrome Tue, 08 Sep 2015 02:28:36 +0000 Continue reading Embracing Impostor Syndrome ]]> Cat posing as a meerkat
image source

It seems a fair amount of academics, especially women, suffer from impostor syndrome, “a constant fear of being discovered to be a fraud and a charlatan.” Self-doubt is surely a universal human trait, but we vary in our ability to suppress, ignore, and/or manage such feelings. What is perhaps somewhat unique about impostor syndrome among academics is that “it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline.” As Kate Bahn puts it, it’s “a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.” I once calculated that for every book I read I find myself discovering at least ten new books or articles I feel I need to read. That means that if I read a book a week there are about five hundred and twenty new books on my list by the end of the year, each of which feels urgent and essential for my own intellectual development. One’s awareness of the vast body of knowledge we don’t know is actually part of what makes us “experts” but the price we pay for this expertise is a kind of self-doubt. It is always possible that the next book will contain the golden nugget we are searching for.

But there is a flip side to this, which is the recognition that when we start off our careers, whether still in graduate school or as junior faculty, we really are impostors. Sure, there’s always someone like Rex, whose parents read Edward Sapir’s A sketch of the social organization of the Nass River Indians to him before bed instead of Green Eggs and Ham, but most of us only become committed to the idea of becoming experts in a particular field during graduate school. While I had studied anthropology in high school, and even wrote a senior paper on ethnographic film in twelfth grade, by the end of college I still was unsure whether I even wanted to be an academic, not to mention having a clear vision of my own academic career. Even once I was in graduate school, I still dithered about deciding on a research topic until quite late in my career. (Now I advise graduate students to pick some topic right away, even if they change it later on – but that’s a subject for another blog post.) This means that there simply isn’t much time between when we decide we want to be experts in something and when we get a Ph.D. which certifies our supposed expertise.

I could easily create a biography of my life that made it seem as if I was born to do what I do now. But, especially after reading Galen Strawson’s recent piece on self-narration in Aeon, I think such narratives might do more harm than good. For one thing, they might discourage otherwise promising students from embracing a potentially rewarding intellectual journey. We can’t all be Eduardo Kohn who met his thesis advisor in his grandmother’s study when he was twelve. Such self-narrativizing also makes it seem as if we must pick a research focus that fits our biography. No doubt that doing so saves you a lot of time and trouble; if you already are familiar with the language, culture, and scholarship around a particular place you save yourself years of playing catchup. Branching out into the unknown makes life a lot harder; but it can also make it more rewarding. After committing myself to a career in Taiwan studies, my first major academic publication ended up being on India. I’m back to working on Taiwan, but that detour was one of the most intellectually and emotionally gratifying things I’ve ever done.

Thinking about my work on India also makes me realize how ethnography has the potential to imbue the ethnographer with a unique form of expertise in a short amount of time. I don’t speak Hindi and I didn’t major in South Asian studies, but spending six years making a film taught me a lot about the history and struggles of one Indian community. It also focused my own studies of India around a specific set of under-researched historical questions derived from what I learned in the field. Viewed one way, expertise in anthropology is impossible: there is an almost infinite amount of knowledge one is expected to acquire. But when it comes right down to it, a well defined research project can make it possible to gain the necessary expertise in a short amount of time.

One of the most frustrating things about academia is when scholars (and I’m afraid this attitude is all too common) dismiss approaches to the subject matter which draw on a whole different bundle of questions, skills, and experiences from those that they themselves have mastered. Academics over-value the particular set of skills and knowledge that they have spent a lifetime acquiring, while devaluing those that they have had to ignore in their own quest for expertise. We could all do with a dose of Socratic skepticism, understanding the limits of our own expertise in order to better value the work done by other scholars who bring an entirely different set of research skills, life experiences, and theoretical questions to bear on the topics we hold dear. By accepting that we are all, to some extent, imposters, we might gain a measure of humility in the face of the tremendous diversity of approaches within our discipline.

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Anthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology? Sat, 05 Sep 2015 18:43:21 +0000 Continue reading Anthropologies #21: Is There Hope for an Anthropocene Anthropology? ]]> This entry is part 4 of 5 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

Up next for this issue we have Todd Sanders and Elizabeth F. Hall. Sanders is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He has written extensively on African and Euro-American knowledge practices, and is currently collaborating with Elizabeth Hall on a project called ‘Knowing Climate Change.’ Hall is a physician-scientist and Research Associate at the Centre for Ethnography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She trained as a specialist in public health medicine and holds a PhD in epidemiology.  –R.A.

Global climate change is driving anthropologists in opposite directions. Some are enthusiastically adopting “the Anthropocene” – a “gift” from our friends in the natural sciences (Latour 2014) that might enable us to exit, at long last, our Modern world and its Holocene thinking (Hamilton, et al. 2015). The concept potentially dovetails with old and new concerns – networks, rhizomes and relational ontologies; more-than-human socialities; hybrids, nonhumans and the posthuman; multispecies, multinaturalisms and modes of existence – and promises critical purchase over today’s troubled times. For as we enter the Anthropocene, we’ll need new conceptual tools and ways of thinking to understand our new home. The familiar dualisms that have long dogged our discipline and world – Nature and Culture; local and global; Moderns and non-moderns; and so on – are not up to the task. Discard the Modern dualisms. Dwell on the emergent processes of their production. And reimagine worlds as partial and provisional, composed through multiple, heterogeneous entanglements. For many anthropologists, the time is ripe for such an Anthropocene Anthropology.

At the same time, climate change is leading other anthropologists right back to the Holocene. For them, this is not the time to abandon dualisms nor to theorise partial, emergent, hybrid worlds. Instead, we must entrench and purify the well-known anthropological categories of nature and culture, tradition and the local, and insist on the merits of holism. These anthropologists share theoretical affinities more with Julian Steward and Robert Netting than with, say, Latour or Tsing. Their scholarship is large and growing, and asks how climate change will impact local, traditional cultures. The story ordinarily goes like this: local, traditional cultures crucially depend on nature for their cultural, material and spiritual needs. They will therefore suffer first, worst and most directly from rapid climate change. These place-based peoples are somewhat resilient and adaptive, due to their local, indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge. Yet cultural adaptation has limits. Urgent anthropological interventions are thus required to mediate and translate between local and global worlds to help these cultures adapt. The Anthropocene figures here too: not as an opportunity to reconfigure and overcome Modern dualisms but as a way to underscore and holistically integrate them. Welcome to the Holocene!

While this approach is strongly endorsed by the AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force (Fiske, et al. 2014), other anthropologists will insist that in today’s world, old ideas about local, traditional cultures are “obsolete from the outset” (Hastrup 2009: 23). For them, entrenching ourselves in the Holocene is not the obvious way to enter the Anthropocene. Still, it’s worth noting that obsolescence is a matter of perspective and is context-dependent. This pedestrian point is crucial because, when it comes to climate change, anthropology is not the only discipline in town. And because it isn’t, anthropologists may not get the last word on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices are useful, or useless, in the wider climate change arena.

In this vast, bustling arena, considerable efforts are being devoted to putting a human face on climate change. For many in the human sciences, this means supplementing and nuancing abstract, paternalistic, quantitative climate sciences with humanistic, qualitative data and values from real people (Hulme 2011; Jasanoff 2010). As we discuss elsewhere, this is one reason growing numbers of social and natural scientists are doing ethnographic research on “the human dimensions of climate change” (Hall and Sanders 2015). From geographers to geophysicists, ecologists to ethnobotanists, scholars from every alcove of the academy are joining the human dimensions enterprise. They travel to remote places on the planet to understand how local, traditional cultures will – or will not – adapt to climate change. And they tell familiar tales: the same tales, in fact, that some anthropologists tell about local, traditional, place-based cultures being done in by a changing climate. In this broader academic arena, such local, traditional peoples are fast becoming the human face of climate change. Figure 1, reproduced from a leading interdisciplinary climate change journal, is emblematic.

Sanders and Hall_Figure 1 JPEG
Figure 1. “Theo Ikummaq in the middle of Fury and Hecla Strait, between Igloolik and Baffin Island, explaining the challenges with spring ice conditions, while waiting at a seal hole (June 22, 2005).” (With kind permission from Springer Science+Business Media: Climatic Change, Travelling and hunting in a changing Arctic: assessing Inuit vulnerability to a sea ice change in Igloolik, Nunavut, 94, 2009, p. 375, Laidler GJ, Ford JD, Gough WA, Ikummaq T, Gagnon AS, Kowal S, Qrunnut K, Irngaut C, figure 2).

This scholarship shares affinities with salvage anthropology and cultural ecology, and while not unaware of the many critiques of such projects, remains mostly unfazed by them. These are urgent, real-world problems, after all, that require serious ethnographic attention. There’s no time for wiffle-waffle. But whatever one’s views on the matter, the point is that this multi- and interdisciplinary scholarship is large, and working hard to complement and complete the climate change puzzle: to serve up culture to nature, local to the global, traditional to the modern, values to facts, indigenous knowledge to Western Science. This is Holocene thinking replayed with a vengeance.

After decades of imploring social scientists to step up to the plate, to leave our ivory towers, to add the missing human piece to the climate change puzzle, “harder” natural scientists are welcoming such “soft” climate change scholars and scholarship. Of course economists got there first. But this new wave of human dimensions scholarship provides hope that, after decades of delay, important aspects of “the human” might finally be fleshed out and “integrated” into our understandings of climate change. These hopes are understandable, given the Modern metaphysics many in this arena share.

It all began with capital-n Nature, which natural and computational scientists reanimated decades ago. Today, this Nature takes the form of coupled Ocean-Atmosphere General Circulation Models (OAGCMs) and Earth System Models (ESMs), which rely on formally-specified (i.e., mathematical) equations to model the Earth System’s natural components and the complex links among them. “The human” came later. Social scientists from many disciplines are now adding in the human, or trying to, and the calls for more such efforts continue.

One perpetual challenge in this arena has been how to combine the two, Nature and Culture, the Ecological and the Sociological. Thus funding streams like the NSF’s long-running Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program have been established for precisely this purpose. The research projects they support are often large, always interdisciplinary and “must include analyses of four different components: (1) the dynamics of a natural system; (2) the dynamics of a human system; (3) the processes through which the natural system affects the human system; and (4) the processes through which the human system affects the natural system.”

But however funded, efforts to “integrate” human and natural components of the system in the name of climate change are legion. Consider the tightly-coupled Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which aim quantitatively to bring diverse natural “scientific, economics and social science expertise together to provide analysis and advice that comprehensively addresses all or at least many aspects of the climate change issue” (Sarofim and Reilly 2011: 27). There are also many looser modelling efforts with telling titles – coupled human and natural systems (CHANS), human-environment systems (HES), social-ecological systems (SES) – that aim to couple human and natural components of the Earth System. Such holistic, Modern integrationist efforts stabilise “components” through the act of “coupling” them, and sometimes mistake models for the world. They are also widespread and flourishing.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre, for instance, funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA) to the tune of 30 million US dollars, is well-known for developing complex social-ecological systems to aid decision-making around climate change. The Centre’s Science Director, Carl Folke, notes:

We want to build a unique transdisciplinary research environment where innovative ideas can flourish. By combining new forms of cooperation with a holistic perspective, we hope to generate the insights that are needed to strengthen societies’ and the ecosystems’ capacities to meet a world which spins faster and faster.

Folke is one of the Centre’s founders, and has devoted much of his distinguished career to theorising “resilience” and “social-ecological systems.” While Figure 2 is illustrative of some of his influential work on coupled systems, similar diagrams could be reproduced from countless other scholars.

Sanders and Hall_Figure 2 JPEG2
Figure 2. A conceptual framework developed in relation to the resilience approach. (Republished with permission of Global Environmental Change, from “Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis,” Folke, C., vol. 16, 2006; permission conveyed through Copyright Clearance Center, Inc.).

Note how the all-embracing social-ecological system is composed of Latour’s modern constitution: a Great Divide between Nature (left) and Culture/Society (right), with feedback loops between the system’s component parts. Note, too, how scale works, also in a Modern register: each side is composed of “nested hierarchies,” the “larger” levels encompassing the “smaller.” (There’s obvious scope here to fill local slots with local knowledges and peoples). While Folke acknowledges that these are conceptual models, many others do not, leading to statements like “[c]oupled human and natural systems (CHANS) are systems in which humans and natural components interact” (Liu, et al. 2007: 639). Coupled systems scholarship may enable us to sort messy empirical worlds into tidy, Modern boxes, and to pretend we haven’t done so. But such purifying practices are of little interest to Anthropocene Anthropology, and do not create an environment in which Anthropocene thinking might flourish. Where to find such a place?

Last year, we attended Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, an innovative ArtScience collaboration at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The event was produced by a London-based charitable organisation whose mission is to bring together artists, scientists, journalists, media specialists and other publics “to stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable and vibrant future society” in the face of global climate change.

The four-month-long exhibition and festival was big, Canadian-flavoured, and guided by a single question, and answer, prominently printed on the catalogue cover: “What does Culture have to do with Climate Change? Everything.” The “culture” had two senses: as in the cultural arts (music, theatre, photography, etc.), which play a crucial role innovating and communicating to the public; and in the anthropological sense (more or less). The event featured a performance by Inuit musician Tanya Tagaq and a mock trial of Canadian broadcaster, environmentalist and scientist, David Suzuki, for his Carbon Manifesto; poetry slams and a performance art piece by Dene-Inuvialuit artist, Reneltta Arluk, that examined “the impacts of climate change on Northern peoples and explore[d] the artist’s personal cultural identity;” talks by journalists, artists and others on fossil fuel dependence and the health of the oceans, biodiversity, sustainability and extinction; workshops on provocative, environmental activist arts; public discussions, including one with University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the well-known Canadian Inuit cultural and human rights activist and author (Watt-Cloutier 2015). The event also featured visual arts and artists: videos produced with Inuit filmmakers on climate change and Inuit traditional knowledge, on everyday life in the far North, and others; photographs of majestic Nature; and awe-inspiring photos that the Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, took from outer space.

Climate is Culture was spectacular. Yet the event left us haunted by the thought that the sustainable, vibrant, dare we say “Anthropocene” future we had hoped to find looked strikingly like the present – or even the past. Nature had thoroughly bifurcated from Culture, while Culture had simultaneously split in two: planet destroyers (the global, modern, fossil-fuel-burning West) versus innocent victims (the local, traditional Rest). Modern dualisms ran amok, creating Nature and Culture, local and global, Moderns and non-moderns everywhere we turned. One prominently-displayed photo captured the mood most eloquently: a lone, Inuk elder standing on an ice flow, poised to harpoon an unsuspecting walrus poking its head out from beneath the sea (similar to Figure 1 above, add walrus). “Lukie, 70, prepares to harpoon a walrus while standing on moving ice in Foxe Basin,” read the caption. It continued: “This scene could have been from a thousand years ago, but it is today.” The photographer, a visual artist and Associate Professor of Geography at a major Canadian university, provided the perfect title: “1000 Years Ago Today.” Though the photo, caption and title said it all, a further plaque was provided, just in case:

The Arctic: A Place of Global Warming and Wisdom

Arctic climate change is a hot topic with surface air temperatures in the region warming at double the global average, and corresponding loss of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost being observed by both scientists and local people. In Canada’s North, Inuit are on the front lines, and traditional knowledge and experience indicate that climate change already affects travel routes and safety; wildlife, vegetation and habitat; human food security and health; and communities and coastal infrastructure. These cumulative impacts challenge cultural and social identity. However, with an ancient culture, persisting over millennia, Inuit show that human ingenuity, connectedness with the land, and respect for future generations are all-important teachings for the modern world as we collectively face climate change, the paramount issue of our time.

*   *   *

So, what should we think when so many cutting-edge scientists including anthropologists, avant-garde artists, activists, journalists, charitable foundations, non-profit and government funders from across the planet are living happily in the Holocene – as if our theoretical lexicons and social imagination were firmly fixed, if not 1000 years ago today, perhaps 100? Who in this world is ready for an Anthropocene Anthropology? Are there grounds for hope? Enthusiasm? We think so, but only with certain shifts in anthropological practice.

First of all, more critical reflections, debates and theorising of anthropological knowledge practices around climate change are required. Many anthropological writings on climate change imply that holistically integrating our discipline’s disparate questions and theoretical concerns, knowledges and knowledge practices is possible and desirable – a win-win scenario, as it were. This approach is seductive: it suggests that every anthropologist can contribute her or his crucial piece of the climate change puzzle. But it is also seriously undertheorised, and does not accord with current thinking in the social sciences – including in anthropology – about what knowledge is and how it works. Partial connections and incommensurabilities render puzzle metaphors suspect. Knowledges are not puzzle pieces, nor can they simply “add up” to create “the whole.” Focus is required. Choices are always made. Power is never absent. Such commonplaces hold within as well as beyond anthropology. For these reasons, sustained engagements with social theory and the anthropology of knowledge would prove productive. How should we understand climate change anthropologically? Which of our many competing analytics provide the most theoretical purchase over the problem at hand? What are their real-world consequences? Should we dwell on culture or “culture”? Local or “local”? Or something altogether different, of which many promising candidates exist? Forging a meaningful Anthropocene Anthropology will mean prioritising certain anthropological knowledges, analytics and concerns over others. We can’t have it all ways.

Second, whatever our disciplinary response, we must recognise that anthropologists may not be the final arbiters on which of our knowledges and knowledge practices find favour in the wider world. Anthropology, after all, exists in a broader context. And as every anthropologist knows, context matters. The way forward is thus not to repeat, at higher volume, the truism that anthropology has lots to offer. It is to anthropologise the myriad Euro-American contexts in which climate change knowledge is produced and put to work. This means critically interrogating natural and social science knowledge practices surrounding climate change (e.g., interdisciplinarity, collaboration, producing “useful knowledge,” etc.), as well as the disparate policy and science policy realms through which scientific knowledges of climate change are institutionalised. Venerable traditions in political and legal anthropology, and in the anthropology of science and of policy, point the way. But whatever context we choose to study – there are many – Anthropocene Anthropology has its work cut out for it. For in today’s world, as Geertz might have said, it’s Holocene turtles all the way down.


Fiske, Shirley, J., Crate, Susan A., Crumley, Carole L., Galvin, Kathleen A., Lazrus, Heather, Luber, George, Lucero, Lisa, Oliver-Smith, Anthony, Orlove, Ben, Strauss, Sarah and Wilk, Richard R. 2014. Changing the atmosphere: anthropology and climate change. Final Report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.

Hall, Elizabeth F. and Sanders, Todd. 2015. Accountability and the academy: producing knowledge about the human dimensions of climate change. [link:] Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(2): 438-461.

Hamilton, Clive, Bonneuil, Christophe and Gemenne, François, eds. 2015. The Anthropocene and the global environmental crisis: rethinking modernity in a new epoch. London: Routledge.

Hastrup, Kirsten. 2009. Waterworlds: framing the question of social resilience. Pp. 11-30 in The question of resilience: social responses to climate change, ed. K. Hastrup. Copenhagen: Special-Trykkeriet Viborg a-s.

Hulme, Mike. 2011. Meet the humanities. Nature Climate Change 1: 177-79.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2010. A new climate for society. Theory, Culture & Society 27(2-3): 233-53.

Latour, Bruno. 2014. Anthropology at the time of the Anthropocene: a personal view of what is to be studied. 113th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Washington DC.

Liu, Jianguo, Dietz, Thomas, Carpenter, Stephen R., Folke, Carl, Alberti, Marina, Redman, Charles L., Schneider, Stephen H., Ostrom, Elinor, Pell, Alice N., Lubchenco, Jane, Taylor, William W., Ouyang, Zhiyun, Deadman, Peter, Kratz, Timothy and Provencher, William. 2007. Coupled human and natural systems. Ambio 36(8): 639-49.

Sarofim, Marcus C. and Reilly, John M. 2011. Applications of integrated assessment modeling to climate change. WIREs Climate Change 2: 27-44.

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. 2015. The right to be cold: one woman’s story of protecting her culture, and the Arctic and the whole planet. Toronto: Allen Lane.

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Anthropologies #21: Agricultural Adaptations and their Socio-Political Parameters: Social Responses to Climate Change in Ghana and South Sudan Thu, 03 Sep 2015 02:53:09 +0000 Continue reading Anthropologies #21: Agricultural Adaptations and their Socio-Political Parameters: Social Responses to Climate Change in Ghana and South Sudan ]]> This entry is part 3 of 5 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

The next installment for the anthropologies issue on climate change comes from Douglas La Rose. La Rose is the regional coordinator for the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), a humanitarian organization operating in Northern Bahr al Gazal, Western Bahr al Gazal, and Warrap States in South Sudan. He has previously worked on food security and livelihoods interventions and research projects in Ghana, the Solomon Islands, and Ethiopia. He has a Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology and lives with his wife and two children on their family farm in the Volta Region of Ghana, West Africa.


Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable people in the world. In the sprawling global region where I have been working over the past decade, Western and Eastern Africa, it is even more biased against the fortunes of people struggling against parching droughts and sweeping floods. The ways that communities respond to these climate extremes are disparate and not established, but certain variables such as conflict and strong political social institutions have a profound influence on the suite within which communities can situate their responses. Communities that live in conflict zones often don’t have the ability to adapt to climate extremes, while communities facing similar problems in relatively peaceful areas with stability and stronger social and political institutions can take certain risks that increase their resilience and adaptability.

I began my research on climate change adaptations in 2009 in Ghana. I found farmers in the forest-savannah transition area of the Volta Region redundantly planting cassava and adopting agricultural practices from their northern neighbors in the savannah to adapt to an environment transitioning from lush rainforest to a grassland Sahelian environment characterized by fluctuations between desiccation and oversaturation (La Rose 2011). From there, I began working with farmers in South Sudan in facilitating and supporting their own adaptations to climate change. In both instances, the weather fluctuations and unpredictable transitions into the rainy season that I had come to learn so much about in Ghana surfaced to challenge farmers.

In both countries, a similar cycle of agricultural uncertainty prevailed: timely land preparation, early light showers, optimistic and appropriate planting, and then a cruel wait for the rainy season followed by the death of seeds and need for replanting. Though the narratives were couched in different interpretations and embedded worldviews, the overall hydrological pattern was the same. Social institutions and embedded worldviews were metamorphosed by the cracking clay of the dry season stretching endlessly into sudden temperamental rainy seasons of battering storms and engulfing floods. Environmental perturbations were challenging, refining, and broadening agricultural practices. Resilient crops and mixed agricultural practices buffered against the vulnerability that intensive cultivation of cereals created. In Ghana, I found farmers trading the economics of mono-cropped cereals for the security of crop diversification and the intensification of food and drought tolerant crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, and other less marketable crops.

In South Sudan, the negative impacts of climate change are exacerbated by other social upheavals. These social upheavals are often the result of climate change or other social and cultural tensions piggy-backing onto the historical currents which define nations’ and ethnic groups’ current anxieties. In areas consumed by conflict, climate change deepens the hunger of displaced peoples and routs the attempts by rural, sedentary farmers to produce enough food to buttress some form of local or domestic food security. In these contexts, the option to adapt to climate extremes is replaced by the need for external assistance, displacement, or a combination of the two.

In the following, I will discuss the ways climate change is impacting dissimilar ecological, social, and cultural contexts and the way people are or aren’t adapting to the challenges that it presents. In the case of Ghana, I argue that the relative peace and prosperity of the country and a supportive political and economic system allow farmers to adapt to environmental changes using local, imported, and hybridized environmental knowledge. In South Sudan, the civil war that has engulfed the country since 2013 has limited the options of agriculturalists and pastoralists and plunged both rural and urban households into deep food insecurity. Working in South Sudan from December 2014 to the present, my experiences with farmers have transformed my understandings of the resilience that rural farmers have towards adapting to climate change. Even communities who have adapted to climate extremes and disasters through the deployment of traditional and hybridized knowledges are unable to deal with environmental fluctuations when there are no social and economic support systems or military or non-military organizations to protect them from violence. In fact, conflict fuels and is fueled by climate change in South Sudan. People who can’t cultivate their land or secure their livestock become internally displaced and a) face hunger from being divorced from food production and b) indirectly cause hunger by not generating food within the local economy.


Ghana is one of the most iconic nation states in sub-Saharan Africa. Africans all across the continent gaze towards Ghana as an example for their own political and economic development. It is reputable for having a robust liberal democracy characterized by free and fair elections, an economy that has mostly seen consistent growth for three decades, and a highly skilled population that is transforming the country and the continent to meet locally identified needs with African solutions. In the 1960s, Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah led an ambitious newly-independent country with his ideology of pan-Africanism – the desire for a self-reliant African continent that looked inward for solutions and shook off colonial ties and economic exploitation by Western powers.

This ideology predicted and promoted a “United States of Africa” which would take the form of an African federation of states. Elements of isolationism within pan-Africanist ideology eventually ceded to a more globalized perspective wherein African nation-states held on to sovereignty and the politics of patronage within fragmented political institutions, ethnic loyalties, and nationalisms. Both ideological systems were undercut when the Cold War kicked-off proxy wars throughout the continent, including the deposition of Kwame Nkrumah himself in a CIA-backed coup following his warming to the Soviet Union. After decades of coups and countercoups, Ghana emerged from the ashes in the mid-1990s with a liberal democracy that led the country on an exponential growth curve from economic deterioration to applauded heights. The economic recession over the past decade has hit Ghana hard, spurring inflation and setbacks in the struggle against poverty. However, Ghana has maintained its robust political system and is undoubtedly still the beacon of liberal democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.

The less told story is the one of climate change and agricultural transformation in rural Ghana. Taking all variables into account, the fact that Ghana has become less agriculturally productive over the past decade is a testament to the country’s struggle against climate change (FAO 2015). This can be seen in macro level analyses of the agricultural economy as well as embedded anthropological perspectives at the community level. There have been valiant efforts by the government of Ghana and international organizations to reverse this trend, but these efforts have, at best, stalled the deterioration of agricultural production. An increased focus on chemical fertilizers has not led to a marked improvement in the yields of cereal crops.

The research I undertook between 2009 and 2011 in a rural farming community in the Volta Region of Ghana demonstrated that farmers are embracing crop diversification, agricultural strategies from their northern neighbors in the savanna, and the redundancy of crops such as cassava and plantains in place of more valuable cereal crops as a means of adapting to climate change (La Rose 2011). Cassava in particular emerged prominently among farmers’ narratives about climate change and their adaptability strategies. Farmers talked of their increased reliance on cassava as, according to them, the last crop available once all of the other crops had withered away. As Vivian Kesee, a peasant farmer in her late 40s who had increased her cassava production as a result of lower maize yields and closer brushes with hunger explained to me, “I plant a lot of cassava because it will not fail me, it will not deceive me” (Kesee, Personal interview, August 15, 2010). Plantains and bananas also figured prominently in their narratives about climate change adaptation. According to the data I collected, 88% of farmers grew cassava in 2010 compared to 30% in the 1990s. While most farmers still maintained plots of maize for income-generation, they had reduced the amount of land they grew maize on by 70% over the past twenty years, and they had almost completely abandoned mono-cultural systems of maize production. Only wealthy farmers and people who had secondary agricultural investments practiced intensive maize cultivation and were secured by access to chemical fertilizers.

Innovative farmers and early adopters in the community had started implementing agricultural practices more common in northern Ghana, particularly on marginal lands. Whereas the methods of intensive cereal cultivation and agroforestry had begun to shrink their yields, farmers picked up hoes and tilling tools and started to cultivate the land in rows and ridges. They planted more beans and yams – crops that weren’t cultivated in the area until recently – and started building live fences out of cassava and maintaining small “reserve plots” with scattered crops consisting mostly of cassava and plantains. Gone were the multi-story farms crowned by tropical hardwoods and cocoa trees. They were replaced by low-lying meticulously intercropped pulses, cereals, and tubers that were fenced in by live fences.

Even on satellite photographs, one can see the chess-board pattern which is emerging along the forest-savanna transition zone. One element of the pattern demonstrates farmers sticking with more traditional cultivation practices and the other shows farmers who are adopting new strategies in response to climate change. These practices aren’t just being deployed by farmers at the local level, they are also producing a feedback mechanism which is inspiring the government to support this transition. Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) extension workers travel to communities throughout the district supporting farmers that shift to these methods with technical expertise and government incentives.

South Sudan

The immediate impacts of climate change look far different for farmers in Ghana than South Sudan. Since December 2013, South Sudan has been mired in a violent civil war that has split the country into multiple factions. The government of South Sudan has focused its energy on defeating the opposition rebel group, and thus neglecting services for farmers and other actors in the broader local economy. While NGOs and donors try to fill in the gap, the lack of a political solution often undermines their efforts to aid farmers and pastoralists throughout the country. The food production system is thus undermined by both insecurity as well as unprecedented droughts and floods. Where in Ghana the government might work with international organizations to find solutions to changing environments and fluctuating food production, in South Sudan farmers are essentially left on their own to battle climate change with no safety nets. As a result, more than 5 million people face hunger and starvation. In addition, the 2.5 million people who have been internally displaced as of July 2015 are thus a mosaic of peoples displaced by civil war and agriculturalists and pastoralists displaced by their politically induced inability to adapt to an unpredictable environment.

Farmers in South Sudan are eager to take up agricultural adaptability strategies. In communities I have worked with in Warrap State in northern South Sudan, farmers are cultivating vegetable plots along extensive snaking rivers and using treadle pumps to irrigate them. Farmers are learning the merits of tilling their land and row planting sorghum and groundnuts, shifting the crops each season to maintain soil fertility. They are embracing principles of natural resource management that focus on keeping livestock out of plots through natural fencing strategies, soil and water conservation through mulching and buffer strips, and the importance of trees in land management. Farmers are using compost and other means of managing soil fertility to increase their crop yields. This eagerness to adapt to climate change through tailored agricultural practices, however, is being sapped by the presence and/or prospect of violence. Farmers in South Sudan can only be as eager as the situation permits.

Talking about climate change with farmers in South Sudan is often a very sobering experience. It is also the touch point where their agricultural adaptation strategies quickly divert course with the strategies explained by rural Ghanaian farmers. As one farmer in Warrap state explained to me,

I used to have a lot of cows, and I had to destock [cull] them as grazing lands became less healthy due to the weather problem. Now I am indeed cultivating more and more crops, and there is an unlimited amount of land that is accessible to us. The government encourages us to expand our farmland and vegetable plots. I have been following their advice, but I don’t get enough technical support and there are no reliable market linkages if I do produce a surplus. Also, there has been a conflict here that stopped me from farming for more than one month this year and now you can see half of my sorghum is dead and the vegetable garden is choked with weeds (Deng, personal communication, April 2015).

What is notable in this comment is the realization of a “weather problem” that had impacted the livelihood of this pastoralist and pushed him into crop and vegetable farming. However, this transition – or adaptation – has been impacted by a lack of quality extension services and the time needed to dedicate himself to cultivation while conflict engulfs the country. A lack of good market access – and, indeed, good markets – further disincentivizes him from focusing on producing the kind of surplus the country needs to meet its food security needs.

Conclusion: Climate Change, Social Institutions, and Vulnerability

While it might seem peculiar to compare the impacts of climate change on agricultural production in Ghana and South Sudan, the two countries offer unique insights into the ways that communities respond to climate change at the local level and the ways that the relative social and political contexts impact farmers’ ways of responding to environmental perturbations.

In Ghana, farmers have freedom from both violence and isolation and the luxury of multiple layers of economic buffers to allow them to devise and deploy agricultural adaptations to climate extremes. These adaptations are hybridized solutions based in farmers’ knowledge sources on the local level, the national level, and the international level. Farmers have the freedom and means to seek agricultural knowledge and the support systems necessary to take risks.

In South Sudan, farmers have the desire to adapt to a changing environment through fine-tuned agricultural practices. The civil war and political situation, however, both prevents farmers from completing their work and disincentivizes them by eroding markets and market linkages. While some farmers are able to deploy these strategies to maintain food security, other farmers don’t receive the support or conditions necessary to adapt to environmental changes and feed themselves.

Environmental anthropologists examining climate change adaptability strategies should examine the conditions on multiple layers of social organization. Most communities have the willingness and capacity to both devise agricultural strategies on their own and successfully implement them. However, communities who are exposed to political uncertainty, violence, and a lack of support systems may not have the necessary conditions to enable them to adapt to climate change. Where this line is drawn is important for understanding the situation on an anthropological level as well as devising impactful solutions at the humanitarian level. For example, in some situations farmers might be free from violence but lack the support systems required to adapt to climate change. In other situations, farmers might have the support systems necessary to adapt but be impacted by social or political violence. In ideal situations, farmers would be able to provide food for themselves and their agricultural economy as well as take risks and devise new production systems in anticipation or response to further environmental changes. Climate change, social institutions, and vulnerability levels are interconnected, inseparable, and provide the conditions wherein a community may or may not be able to maintain its livelihoods.


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2015, Country Fact Sheet on Food and Agriculture Policy Trends in Ghana, Ghana, viewed 15 June 2015, <>

La Rose, D. 2011. Buem Crop Choices and Agricultural Strategies as Adaptability Practices: Social Responses to Environmental Change in a Rural Ghanaian Farming Community. M.A Thesis. Montezuma Publishing, San Diego, CA

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Anthropologies #21: Annual Review of Anthropology, Climate Change, Anthropocene Mon, 31 Aug 2015 17:12:43 +0000 Continue reading Anthropologies #21: Annual Review of Anthropology, Climate Change, Anthropocene ]]> This entry is part 2 of 5 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

To kick off this issue, we begin with Sean Seary’s excellent overview of recent literature about anthropology’s engagement with climate. This review originally appeared on Anthropology Report, has been reproduced here to give us a solid foundation for moving forward. Seary, a recent graduate from Hartwick College, currently lives in Brunswick, Maine. His research interests focus on the convergence of anthropology and climate change. Seary’s work has also been featured on PopAnth. –R.A.

Introduction: Anthropological Interventions

Since the 1960s, global climate and environmental change have been important topics of contemporary scientific research. Growing concerns about climate change have introduced a (relatively) new variable in climate change research: the anthropogenic causes of local-global climate and environmental change. Despite archaeologists providing some of the first research and commentary on climate change–a point that is explored in Daniel Sandweiss and Alice Kelley’s Archaeological Contributions to Climate Change Research: The Archaeological Record as a Paleoclimatic and Paleoenvironmental Archive–the field of climate and environmental change research has been predominantly studied by “natural scientists.” This is where Susan Crate’s Climate and Culture: Anthropology in the Era of Contemporary Climate Change in the 2011 Annual Review of Anthropology intervenes. Crate calls for anthropological engagement with the natural sciences (and vice versa) on global climate change discourse, with the intention of creating new multidisciplinary ethnographies that reflect all the contributors to global environmental change.

Crate’s review begins by stating that the earliest anthropological research on climate change was associated with archaeologists: most of whom studied how climate change had an impact on cultural dynamics, societal resilience and decline, and social structure. Anthropological and archaeological engagement with climate change revolved around how cultures attributed meaning and value to their interpretations of weather and climate. Archaeology has long been working on understanding the relationship between climate, environment, and culture. Historically, archaeologists have worked with “natural” scientists in the recovery of climate and environmental data pulled from archaeological strata (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372). Such works include Environment and Archaeology: An Introduction to Pleistocene Geography (Butzer 1964), Principles of Geoarchaeology: A North American Perspective (Waters 1992) and Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice (Dincauze 2000). The archaeological record incorporates not only stratigraphic data, but also proxy records. These records contributed to much larger paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental studies, including publications in general science literature like Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Sandweiss and Kelley 2012:372; see also the 2013 article in Nature, Contribution of anthropology to the study of climate change). Conversely, the work of “natural” scientists has also appeared in archaeological literature. Contemporarily, archaeologists have studied the impacts that water (or lack thereof) can have on human-environment interactions, through the study of soil and settlements drawing from case studies in Coastal Peru, Northern Mesopotamia, the Penobscot Valley in Maine, or Shetland Island.

Contemporary anthropological analysis of climate change usually focuses on adaptations towards local climate, temperature, flooding, rainfall, and drought (Crate 2011:178). Climate change impacts the cultural framework in which people perceive, understand, experience, and respond to the world in which they live. Crate believes that because of anthropologists’ ability to “be there,” anthropologists are well-suited to interpret, facilitate, translate, communicate, advocate, and act in response to the cultural implications of global (and local) climate change. Understanding the role that people and culture play in understanding land use changes is crucial to defining anthropology’s engagement with climate change. Anthropologists, as well as scientists from allied disciplines must engage in vigorous cross-scale, local-global approaches in order to understand the implications of climate change (Crate 2011:176).

Crate urges that anthropology use its experience in place-based community research and apply it to a global scale, while focusing on ethnoclimatology, resilience, disasters, displacement, and resource management. By studying people living in “climate-sensitive” areas, anthropologists can document how people observe, perceive, and respond to the local effects of global climate change, which at times can compromise not only their physical livelihood, but also undermine their cultural orientations and frameworks (Crate 2011:179). Anthropology is well positioned to understand the “second disaster,” or sociocultural displacement which follows the first disaster (physical displacement), as a result local environmental and climate change. Some of these “second disasters” include shifts in local governance, resource rights, and domestic and international politics (Crate 2011:180). These “second disasters” present yet another challenge to anthropology’s involvement with global climate change: that global climate change is a human rights issue. Therefore, anthropologists should take the initiative in being active and empowering local populations, regions, and even nation-states to seek redress for the damage done by climate change (Crate 2011:182) It is the responsibility of anthropologists working in the field of climate change to link the local and lived realities of environmental change with national and international policies.

In order to accommodate to the rapidly changing (human) ecology, anthropology is in need of new ethnographies that show how the “global” envelops the local, and the subsequent imbalance (environmental injustice/racism) that it creates during this process. Crate urgently calls for anthropologists to become actors in the policy process, utilizing a multidisciplinary, multi-sited collaboration between organizations, foundations, associations, as well as political think tanks and other scientific disciplines. Anthropology’s task at hand is to bridge what is known about climate change to those who are not aware of its impacts, in order to facilitate a global understanding of climate change and its reach (Crate 2011:184).

Crate’s “Climate and Culture” may not have been the first Annual Review article regarding climate change and anthropology, but it is certainly one of the most urgent and pressing. Crate became a member of the American Anthropological Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force. Their report released in January 2015 sets an ambitious agenda for anthropology and climate change. Crate’s article also became foundational for a thematic emphasis of the 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology, which featured seven additional articles on anthropology and climate change.

Politics of the Anthropogenic

Nathan Sayre’s Politics of the Anthropogenic continues where Crate’s Climate and Culture left off: at the advent of a new form of anthropology, one that utilizes an interdisciplinary approach towards understanding the human ecology in relation to global climate change. Sayre invokes a term which Crate did not use in her review article, but that seems to have increasing salience to anthropology: The Anthropocene. Notably, the idea of the Anthropocene and its relationship to anthropology was also the subject of Bruno Latour’s keynote lecture to the American Anthropological Association in 2014: Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene.

Sayre describes the Anthropocene as the moment in history when humanity began to dominate, rather than coexist with the “natural” world (Sayre 2012:58). What defines the Anthropocene as a distinct epoch or era is when human activities rapidly shifted (most often considered the Industrial Revolution) from merely influencing the environment in some ways to dominating it in many ways. This is evident in population growth, urbanization, dams, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and the overexploitation of natural resources. The adverse effects of anthropogenic climate change can be measured on nearly every corner of the earth. As a result of local environmental change and global climate change, humans, climate, soil, and nonhuman biota have begun to collapse into one another; in this scenario, it is impossible to disentangle the “social” from the “natural” (Sayre 2012:62). Sayre states that anthropology’s role, together with other sciences, in analyzing climate change in the Anthropocene is to understand that there is no dichotomy between what is considered natural and cultural. Understanding the fluctuations in the earth’s ecosystems cannot be accounted for without dispelling the ideological separation between the natural and the cultural. By adopting conceptual models of “climate justice” and earth system science, anthropologists and biophysical scientists can further dispel the archaic dichotomy of humanity and nature.

The atmosphere, the earth, the oceans, are genuinely global commons. However, environmental climate change and the subsequent effects are profoundly and unevenly distributed throughout space and time (Sayre 2012:65). Biophysically and socioeconomically, the areas that have contributed most to global climate change are the least likely to suffer from its consequences. Those who have contributed the least suffer the most. Anthropologists can play an important role in utilizing climate-based ethnography to help explain and understand the institutions that are most responsible for anthropogenic global warming–oil, coal, electricity, automobiles–and the misinformation, lobbying, and public relations behind “climate denialism” in the Anthropocene. This is the first step in seeking redress for the atrocities of environmental injustice.

Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory

Understanding climate change in the Anthropocene is no easy task, but as Richard Potts argues in Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory, humans have been influencing their environments and their environments have been influencing them well before the era that is considered the “Anthropocene.” Throughout the last several million years the earth has experienced one of its most dramatic eras of climate change, which consequently coincided with the origin of hominins. Homo sapiens represent a turning point in the history of protohuman and human life, because of their capacity to modify habitats and transform ecosystems. Now, approximately 50% of today’s land surface is reserved for human energy flow, and a further 83% of all the viable land on the planet has either been occupied or altered to some extent (Potts 2012:152).

Vrba’s turnover-pulse hypothesis (TPH) and Potts’s variability selection hypothesis (VSH) both serve as explanations for the correlation between environmental and evolutionary change. Vrba’s TPH focused on the origination and extinction of lineages coinciding with environmental change, particularly the rate of species turnovers following major dry periods across equatorial Africa. Potts’s VSH focused on the inherited traits that arose in times of habitat variability, and the selection/favoring of traits that were more adaptively versatile to unstable environments (Potts 2012:154-5). There are three ways in which environmental change and human evolution can potentially be linked. First, evolutionary events may be concentrated in periods of directional environmental change. Second, evolution may be elicited during times of rising environmental variability and resource uncertainty. Finally, evolution may be independent of environmental trend or variability (Potts 2012:155). The aforementioned hypotheses and subsequent links between evolution and environmental change help shed light on the origins and adaptations of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals. The anatomical, behavioral, and environmental differences between neanderthals and modern humans suggests that their distinct fates reflect their differing abilities to adjusting to diverse and fluctuating habitats (Potts 2012:160). Potts does an excellent job of stating that before the Anthropocene, early Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthals not only impacted and manipulate their surrounding environments, but were (genetically) impacted by their environments.

Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change

Heather Lazrus’s Annual Review article Sea Change: Island Communities and Climate Change returns to climate change in the more recent Anthropocene. For island communities, climate change is an immediate and lived reality in already environmentally fragile areas. These island communities, despite their seeming isolation and impoverishment, are often deeply globally connected in ways that go beyond simplistic descriptions of “poverty” and “isolated” (Lazrus 2012:286). Globally, islands are home to one-tenth of the world’s population, and much of the world’s population tends to be concentrated along coasts. Therefore both are subject to very similar changes in climate and extreme weather events. Islands tend to be regarded as the planet’s “barometers of change” because of their sensitivity to climate change (Lazrus 2012:287). Not only are islands environmentally dynamic areas, consisting of a variety of plants and animal species, but they also have the potential to be areas of significant social, economic, and political interest.

Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next

Madagascar is a fascinating example of sociopolitical and ecological convergence, and is explored by Robert Dewar and Alison Richard in their Madagascar: A History of Arrivals, What Happened, and Will Happen Next. Madagascar has an extremely diverse system of human ecology that is nearly as diverse the island’s topography, environments, and climate. As a product of its physical diversity, the human ecology of Madagascar has a dynamic social and cultural history. In the Southwest, the Mikea derive significant portions of their food from foraging in the dry forest. Outside of most urban areas, hunting and collecting wild plants is common. Along the west coast, fishing is crucial as a central focus of the economy, but also as a supplement to farming. Farmers in Madagascar have a wide range of varieties and species to choose from including maize, sweet potatoes, coffee, cacao, pepper, cloves, cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, and turkeys (Dewar and Richard 2012:505). Throughout the island, rice and cattle are the two most culturally and economically important domesticates, and are subsequently adapted to growing under the local conditions of the microclimates of Madagascar. Semi-nomadic cattle pastoralism takes place in the drier regions of Madagascar. Whatever the environmental, climatic, social, or economic surroundings may be, Madagascar (as well as other islands) serve as local microcosms for climate change on the global scale. This relates to Crate’s call for an anthropology that brings forth the global array of connections (“natural”/ sociocultural) portraying local issues of climate change to the global sphere.

Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface

Agustin Fuentes’s main arguments in Ethnoprimatology and the Anthropology of the Human-Primate Interface focus on human-induced climate change and how it affects a vast amount of species, including the other primates (Fuentes 2012:110). By getting rid of the ideology that humans are separate from natural ecosystems and the animals within them, then anthropology can better grasp inquiries relating to global climate change within the Anthropocene. Fuentes then goes on to say (similarly to Crate and Sayre) that by freeing anthropological (and other scientific discourse) from the dichotomy of nature and culture, people will fully understand their relationship in the order of primates, but also their place within the environment. Our human capacity to build vast urban areas, transportation systems, and the deforestation of woodland all impact the local environments in which we live, and consequently gives humans an aura of dominance over nature. As Fuentes states, “at the global level, humans are ecosystem engineers on the largest of scales, and these altered ecologies are inherited not only by subsequent generations of humans but by all the sympatric species residing within them. The ways in which humans and other organisms coexist (and/or conflict) within these anthropogenic ecologies shape the perceptions, interactions, histories, and futures of the inhabitants” (Fuentes 2012:110). Essentially, Fuentes points out that humans have dominated ecosystems on a global scale; however, this has impacted not only human populations but also various plant and animals species, as well as entire ecosystems. It is only within the understanding of the symbiotic relationship between human/plants/animals/ecosystems that people will realize their impact on the environment on a global scale.

Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations

In Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human-Animal Relations, Rebecca Cassidy ties together Fuentes’s arguments with Crate’s by demonstrating how climate change not only impacts people’s physical livelihood, but also their sociocultural lives. Cassidy states that people with animal-centered livelihoods experience climate change on many different levels, and subsequently, climate change may see those animals (or plants) become incapable of fulfilling their existing functions. Societies that are most frequently geopolitically marginalized often are left reeling from the impacts that climate change has on their social, political, economic, and environmental lives (Cassidy 2012:24). The impacts that climate change has on marginalized societies often affects their ability to live symbiotically and sustainably with other species. Human/animal “persons” are conceived to be reciprocal and equal, living in a symbiotic world system, in which their sustenance, reproduction, life, and death are all equally important. The extinction of particular species of animals and plants can cause cosmological crises, as well as disrupt the potential for future adaptability.

Cassidy’s claim that humans, animals, plants, and their environments are reciprocal and symbiotic ties in with Crate’s plea for an anthropology that rids itself of the old dichotomy of the natural and cultural. Crate’s idea for new ethnographies that consider the human ecology of climate change begin by utilizing what Lazrus calls Traditional Environmental Knowledge, or TEK. TEK is “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive process and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Lazrus 2012:290). TEK utilizes the spiritual, cosmological, and moral practices that condition human relationships with their surrounding physical environments. Such ethnographies should reflect all of the potential contributors to climate change in the Anthropocene, but they should also infuse new urgency to anthropological approaches. As Crate states “anthropologists need to become more globalized agents for change by being more active as public servants and engaging more with nonanthropological approaches regarding climate change” (Crate 2011: 183).

As made evident by the work of Sandweiss and Kelley, anthropology has early roots in climate change research dating back to the 1960s. Since then, anthropology’s contribution to climate change research has been significant, and is now sparking a new generation of engaged anthropology in the Anthropocene.

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Around the Web Digest: Week of August 23 Mon, 31 Aug 2015 16:26:21 +0000 Continue reading Around the Web Digest: Week of August 23 ]]> Better late than never, I always say, as the semester starts anew and we all either pack our lunchboxes to go back to school or feel that old pull in a job that runs on a different cycle. Help me stay on top of the links by sending me anything you write or discover at

The Alice Goffman controversy continues to provoke critique and introspection about the nature of ethnographic fieldwork. A recent critique by Paul Campos goes beyond the typical claims that ethnographers are unconcerned with fact-checking to suggest that a small percentage are engaging in wholesale fabrication. Paul Stoller addresses this in his column for HuffPost: In Defense of Ethnography. His basic claim, that ethnography can allow us to delve into the messiness of human experience in a way that fact-checkers cannot, reminds me of the time that a researcher from another discipline came to my field site and was met with evasiveness and equivocation.

This post on Somatosphere links Stoller’s post to the practice of giving pseudonyms and changing identifying information: “Ethnography is not about ‘fact-checking,’ Stoller notes, but rather a weaving of personal and professional interactions into fruitful, if not fruitfully frustrating, entanglements. Acknowledging the precariousness of other people’s lives, a precariousness that the writer often does not share, may mean blending the ‘facts’ to protect people’s identities.” What’s in a Name?

HuffPost was on a roll this week… its AAA blog contained this post, whose title is self-explanatory: Cultural Anthropology in Secondary Schools: An Essential Part of a 21st Century Education. It’s hard to disagree that both the general public and anthropology would be better off if the subject were introduced to students earlier.

It’s a little scattered but if you like pop cultural analysis, you’ll enjoy this two-part post (in Spanish) on El Antropólogo Perplejo. It suggests that Superman represents the rural hero against the city itself, which is demonized, whereas Batman is an essentially urban hero from a functionalist perspective, attempting to restore the parts of the city to working order: Superman y Batman Desde la Antropologia Urbana 1/2 and 2/2. It also suggests that superheroes are fascist. features some straight-talking advice for professors: Be collegial, get to know the staff, and be aware of your own privilege. The Tattooed Professor Has Some New Year’s Resolutions for Academics (because, of course, the new year begins in late August).

The New Yorker actually did a long-form article on the shipwreck excavations at Yenikapı. The article explores how the differential valuations of various layers of occupation (Byzantine and Ottoman) relate to Turkish nation-building: The Big Dig:
Istanbul’s City Planners Have a Problem: Too Much History

The NY Times reports on the archaeological discovery of a rich nearly 4,000-year-old archive describing trading activities between Assur (modern-day Iraq) and Kanesh (modern-day Turkey): The V.C.s of B.C.

Food Anthropology continues to slay with interviews on pedagogy; in this case, focused on a service project: “It all comes alive.” Robbie Baer on Successful Service-Learning Projects with Anthropology of Food Students

Now premiering: Syllabus: The Movie. Digital Ethnography reports on a professor who got so excited about his new syllabus he gave it its own trailer. Could this help get students energized on the first day of class? The Syllabus: Trailer for Introduction to Cultural Anthropology

Imaginative Ethnography links to a lovely set of hand-drawn fieldnotes by Carol Hendrickson, who suggests that incorporating drawings and ephemera into the notes creates a much richer record of the anthropologist’s experiences. Unlike taking a photo, sketching takes time and requires a different perspective: Ethno-Graphics

See you next week!

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Anthropologies #21: Climate Change Issue (Introduction) Sun, 30 Aug 2015 18:41:51 +0000 Continue reading Anthropologies #21: Climate Change Issue (Introduction) ]]> This entry is part 1 of 5 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

For the latest issue of anthropologies, we’re taking a look at the ever contentious subject of climate change. Over the next week or so, we will be posting individual essays from our contributors. At the end we will post the issue in its entirety. Please share, and feel free to post your thoughts and comments. Here’s the introduction, written by Jeremy Trombley, the co-editor for this issue. You can contact him on Twitter here: @jmtrombley. Thanks Jeremy for all of your help putting this issue together! –R.A.

Photo by Flickr user Erik Jackson. Original caption: “The Act on Climate March in Quebec City, on April 11th, 2015, was led by First Nations to protest governmental inaction on the issue. Main concerns included oil exploitation and transportation by pipeline. My goal with this photograph is to ensure their voices are heard.”

The climate is changing. Oceans are rising, glaciers melting, animals migrating to more hospitable environments, people struggling to understand, resist, and adapt. But solutions seem far off, and many seem reluctant to change their lives to prevent the worst-case scenarios. Even those who are aware and accepting of the science underlying climate change are often unwilling to look the realities in the face – the extent to which the world could be changed, the apparent inevitability of the process, the feedback loops that could escalate climate change beyond even our most dire predictions. Scientists who study the environmental effects of climate change – past, present, and future – struggle to comprehend the extent and intensity of its effects. It can be disheartening, even hopeless, but time moves on and ever-increasing amounts of CO2 are being pumped into the atmosphere on a daily basis. What can be done? What should be done? How do we even begin to answer these questions? This is what the essays in this issue explore from an anthropological lens.

Anthropologists are at the forefront of studying the “human dimensions” of climate and environmental change– although not always in the same form, it has been a major topic of ethnographic research since the early years of the discipline (Kroeber 1947; Steward 1972). Recently, with the release of the AAA statement on climate change (Fiske et al. 2014), it has become solidified as an important concern not just for a handful of anthropologists specializing in the topic, but for the discipline as a whole. And yet, despite this interest, everything about climate change goes against our disciplinary norms.

Where anthropologists tend to focus on specific peoples in specific places, the effects of climate change are global and universal. Although the effects on people will vary depending on geography, climate, subsistence, cultural perspectives, socio-economic status, racial and ethnic background, gender, and so on, we will all feel its effects and we will all need to contend with change. Whereas anthropologists tend to make use of qualitative methods and data, climate science is driven by some of the most complex quantitative machinery the world has ever seen in the form of Global Circulation Models and climate science (Edwards 2010). Finally, where anthropologists prefer long-term research allowing us to deeply understand the complexities of the communities with whom we work, climate change demands an immediate and rapid response. Nothing short of everything will do.

So how is an anthropologist to contend with such a significant topic? As is common in anthropology, and particularly with issues that are as complex and global as climate change, you will find no easy solutions, no firm answers here. However, we hope that the essays presented in this issue will stimulate discussion and debate, and provide important concepts and methods for understanding and dealing with the changed and changing world in which we live.

Understanding the local impacts of climate change has been an important aspect of anthropologists work on the issue. Sean Seary gives us a comprehensive review of Susan Crate’s work on climate change, while Douglas Larose examines the social and political impacts of climate change in Ghana and South Sudan. Elena Burgos-Martinez uses climate change ethnography to elucidate the conflicting ontologies of change in Western development organizations and the Bajo of Indonesia. Meanwhile, Sanders and Hall critique ethnographies of climate change that focus on localized impacts, suggesting that they fail to develop a fully “anthropocene anthropology” because they do not break with the traditional dualisms of “Holocene” thought.

Next we explore methods of communicating and educating future generations about the issues associated with climate change. Katherine Johnson examines the challenges of teaching climate change from an anthropological perspective, and overcoming the sense of resignation that students may develop when learning, for the first time, the effects that it has for people around the world. Similarly, Henderson and Long discuss climate change curricula and the potential for education to motivate students to change and take an active role in advocating for solutions to the problem.

In spite of the scientific consensus on climate change, it has been a politically and economically polarizing issue. Questions of how (and whether!) to manage climate change and the politics of the required socio-economic changes are of central concern for anthropologists. Mike Agar uses concepts drawn from complexity theory and adaptive management to shed some light on the role of ethnographic research in addressing climate change. Lee Drummond provides a counterpoint to the assumption that climate change represents a crisis, drawing on an anthropological understanding of human evolution and adaptability. Finally, we end the issue with Heid Jerstad’s evocative essay about weather, change, and the socially- and politically-charged terms of debate that frame climate change discourse.


Edwards, Paul N. 2010. A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fiske, S. J., S. A. Crate, C. L. Crumley, K. Galvin, H. Lazrus, L. Lucero, A. Oliver-Smith, B. Orlove, S. Strauss, and R. Wilk. 2014. “Changing the Atmosphere.” Anthropology and Climate Change. Report of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force (American Anthropological Association, 2014).

Kroeber, Alfred Louis. 1947. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Vol. 38. Univ of California Press.

Steward, Julian Haynes. 1972. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. University of Illinois Press.

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Ethnographic Field Data 3: Preserving and Sharing Ethnographic Data Fri, 28 Aug 2015 12:00:03 +0000 Continue reading Ethnographic Field Data 3: Preserving and Sharing Ethnographic Data ]]> [This is the final post in a three-part series on archiving and sharing fieldwork data.]

Lisa Cliggett: How can we archive all this data? 

Two years ago, I worked with Lisa Cliggett on an NSF-sponsored project to curate 60 years of anthropology projects in the Gwembe Tonga region of Zambia, a complex pilot project that involved anthropologists, campus IT, librarians, and a gullible library school student then-willing to work for free (me!). We experimented with ways to curate Lisa’s field records in a digital library using Greenstone and Drupal. Our goal was a small teaching archive that undergraduates could use to better understand the processes involved in fieldwork–something that could be built into a larger archive over time.

This comes from Cliggett’s long-standing interest in preserving qualitative research. As she’s covered, there is a profound risk of data loss if we don’t find ways to share anthropological data and archive our fieldnotes as anthropologists. As she explains, thinking carefully through our archiving practices is important:

“As early as 1999, a colleague and I experimented with digitizing. . . a portion of Elizabeth Colson’s field notes in order to explore possibilities for creating a fully digital qualitative database. . . We saved files in an OCR format, storing them on “the standard” of the time – a 3.5 inch floppy disk. . . Now, 13 years later, we have a shoebox of 3.5 inch disks with files saved in 1990s proprietary software. Surely we could find technicians to free those files from their fossilized form, but it would require determination, time, and funding” (Cliggett 2013, p. 6).

So there’s a tension running throughout these last few posts: Dr. Bernson’s paper documentation could easily be lost, and Kristin Ghodsee’s sensitive research materials shouldn’t yet be openly shared—yet Lisa Cliggett’s earliest attempts to preserve historic field records also didn’t result in secure and accessible digital files.

Tips on preserving and sharing ethnographic source materials

This final set of tips, then, relates to how—and what—we can to do best document and share our field materials with other researchers, including the limits we might place on sensitive information and how we could later make that accessible to other scholars or to the descendants of original participants. Some suggestions:

Choose durable formats. Save your digital records in “open” file formats that are not owned by any particular corporation. This ensure that your files can be accessed by future scholars. For instance, storing in rich text (.rtf) instead of Word files (.doc) makes documents easier to analyze in Atlas.ti or NVIVO, as well as accessible to future researchers even if Microsoft goes out of business.

Use coding software with care. Most commercial qualitative coding software, such as MaxQDA, NVIVO or Atlas.ti, does not let you export your coding system into an open format that can be archived or imported into other programs. This is a huge concern, because if we can’t share our coding with future researchers, our perceptions and context for our notes may not be available. Before licensing any of this software, I recommend that you talk with vendors and ask that they allow the ability to fully export your codes in an open format like XML, one that can be imported to another program or stored in a long-term archive.

Code in open formats. Given that commercial coding software does not yet support data sharing, your easiest open may be to code within a text, using #hashtags or other in-text notations that could be read in any software or printout.

Get informed consent for archiving. If doing formal interviews, you can include language on an IRB consent form that lets participants indicate if they are willing to have anonymized versions of their interview stored in a secure data archive like Michigan’s ICPSR. Click here for a sample informed consent sheet that has participants choose whether to have their interview anonymized and shared with future researchers. Such consent is best given for clear records like one-off interviews or surveys.

Remove direct identifiers. If you are archiving a subset of your research to be accessed by other scholars or students, remove “direct identifiers” (name, location, family ties) from the text. Michigan’s ICPSR data archive is the best developed social science digital archive, and it requires that you strip identifying data from interviews before depositing them. Microsoft Word’s “find and replace” may be your friend here; have a student or colleague look over the materials as well.

Store identifying data in a restricted archive. If you have historical or contextual reasons for wanting to keep ‘direct identifiers’ within a set of field documents, you may be able to archive ‘restricted data‘ with ICPSR. This would require that later researchers get IRB approval before accessing and using your field data.

Embargo sensitive data. Are the above two points making you nervous? Me too, and that’s why I’m working in this area. Qualitative data archives are still very experimental; we can’t always share current videos, images, or texts. Our records, being deeply implicated in community and people’s lives, have enough details to easily identify others, even with changed names or places. Many ethnographic source notes should be embargoed, limiting access for 50 or 100 years. This balances the usefulness of our records to future scholars against the risks of current exposure.

Document your field documents. Because funders like the NSF are often the ones asking us to manage qualitative records, their grants should cover the costs of ‘documenting’ any project data that you plan to share. Student assistants can be tasked to add ‘metadata’ (tags, codes, context) to each document. Use of standard labels (a “controlled vocabulary”) for place, language, or authors can help make your project easier to find in a larger database or archive.

Create finding aids. Let others know what’s out there. In libraries and archives, a finding aid is a sort of abstract for a set of records, listing their topics, regions, persons, or content. For instance, I’ve collected notes and interviews on topics like:

  • Multi-level marketing in Central Asia
  • Kazakh and Kyrgyz names and naming practices
  • Democratic elections in Mongolia
  • Missionaries in Central Asia

Finding ways to share when we have more information on both published and unpublished topics could let other ethnographers know what prior projects might have aspects that could be available or reused.

Consider data reuse contracts. Much as non-disclosure contracts can make it clear that field assistants shouldn’t write up results without you, a reuse contract can clarify the terms under which you share your notes with other researchers. This could include your right to check results for identifying information, or the need for other researchers to abide by certain ethical standards before building on your work.

Support the AAA data registry. The AAA is already working with archivists and librarians to build an Anthropological Data Registry, which currently hosts information about 52 anthropological datasets and archival collections. This is based on an older CoPAR list of where physical fieldnotes are archived. If you know of any other physical or online archives of prior anthropological research materials, share that in the data registry!

Talk to a research librarian.If this is overwhelming or threatening, don’t despair! These are complicated issues that librarians and anthropologists are working together on. Send a quick note to your librarian or archivist now, while you’re thinking about it. Ask to talk about archiving or data sharing options at your institution.  Librarians are attuned to these kinds of concerns, and can help you or find someone else who can.

All in all, I hope this is inspiring you to look at some of your field documents and see how you could archive or share them. And once again, if you’ve experimented in any of these areas, do share your experiences or interests in the comments.

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Osama Bin Laden, Chelsea Manning, and their anthropologists Fri, 28 Aug 2015 00:11:02 +0000 Continue reading Osama Bin Laden, Chelsea Manning, and their anthropologists ]]> Anthropology can turn up in the strangest places. While we often hold up Margaret Mead and… uh… well, mostly Margaret Mead… as examples of public anthropology, our discipline does a lot of important work in times and places few of us would suspect. For instance, take these two recent examples from the media featuring Chelsea Manning and Osama bin Laden:

Most people remember Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) as the person who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks. After being imprisoned for the leak, Manning has become an activist and intellectual in her own right, as well as the center of an ongoing struggle to make sure her rights are respected in prison. And in her free time… she reads anthropology.

This according to a New York Post article Manning recently faced the possibility of indefinite solitary confinement because of the items she had in her possession, including a tube of toothpaste and a copy of Biella Coleman’s excellent ethnography Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy — The Many Faces of Anonymous (creative commons licensed PDF here). You knew anthropology ends up in unusual places — now we know that includes the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.

The other anthropologist to make the news recently was Flagg Miller of UC Davis. Miller holds the unique title of being the only person in the world to sit down and listen to all 1,500 cassette tapes in Osama Bin Laden’s personal cassette tape collection.  My favorite part of the BBC’s piece on Miller’s new book, Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida comes when Miller shows the reporter the earliest known recording of Bin Laden from the late 1980s. Recording quality is poor and the reporter asks “But how can you tell it’s Bin Laden?” There’s a short pause and Miller replies “Well… I’ve listened to over a thousand hours of him speaking…” That’s anthropology for you — you work it into your bones, and it’s that lived experience that lets you make the hard calls.

Anthropologists worry constantly that there isn’t enough public anthropology. But how much public anthropology is enough public anthropology? We are reaching all kinds of audiences in all kinds of ways — and with research totally different than the usual white-on-brown village ethnography that people (including us!) imagine that we do. So let’s give ourselves some credit where credit is due and pat ourselves on the back for showing up in unexpected — but important — places.

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Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 2 Tue, 25 Aug 2015 19:37:01 +0000 Continue reading Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 2 ]]> Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Takami Delisle. Tak currently works as a medical interpreter for Japanese patients and helps run an organization for anthropology students of color. You can read the first installment of this piece here. She also has her own blog. If you’re interested, please contact her through Twitter @tsd1888.


Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology

by Takami Delisle

Looking back on those years when I was perpetually in fear of disappointing my professors, I realize that’s when I began to question the whole point of anthropology. I wasn’t alone; there have been many discussions out there about what anthropology can teach us, what we can do with it, and what anthropological knowledge means (e.g., Anthropologies, Issue 1, and Ryan’s open thread on who owns anthropology). Among them I encountered a handful of anthropologists questioning the validity of academic anthropology. I felt vindicated – I too am in disbelief of academic anthropology, because what it seems to be doing is producing its own kind of species of “anthropologists,” claiming that they are the only real, true, and legitimate anthropologists. If the goal of anthropology is to better understand humankind and help make the world an equitable place, now would be a good time for these academic anthropologists to take a good look in their own backyard. Those who are leading the next generations of anthropologists have to learn not to take themselves too seriously, not to be arrogant. They owe mentorship and respect to their students, the future generations of anthropologists, before claiming how righteous, intellectual, and special they are.

For this, I argue here that academic anthropologists are in dire need of critical evaluation. They must not become or practice what they critique. They must not fall into the delusion of believing that anthropology is a post-racist/sexist discipline. They can’t keep claiming to not be racists or sexists without taking the time to understand their own privileges. As Faye Harrison firmly asserts in her AAA report “Racism in Academy” (2012), academic anthropologists must confront anthropology’s exceptionalism, which is “the common claim that anthropologists make that the discipline is intrinsically multicultural and nonracist because of its cross-cultural orientation and its Boasian tradition of intellectual racism” (17). In reality, as Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson astutely highlight in their report “Anthropology as White Public Space?” (2011), academic anthropologists “have not done well when it comes to decolonizing their own practices around race … the racial division of academic labor and race-avoidant workplace discourses are key constituents of anthropology departments as white public space” (545).

One of the strikingly familiar results in the report is how often anthropology students and faculty of minority become responsible for “diversity duty.” Not surprisingly, one of the few minority faculty in my second graduate program represented the department in the university-wide “diversity” committee, which was supposedly to promote diversity in the whole university community. What would be the benefit of having such a committee, if a representative from every department is a minority and a bunch of nonwhites get together discussing diversity? Aren’t minorities more than well aware of the importance of diversity, and aren’t the white folks the ones who need to be included in these discussions?

In the end, “students and faculty of color are often hyper-visible as tokens of institutional political correctness but invisible as scholars in their work settings” (Brodkin et al 2011:551). Race-avoidant discourses were prevalent in my second anthropology department. I lost my personal “affirmative action” battle to my white advisor. The department gave no guidance and support to nonwhite graduate students in teaching the topic of racial issues to the mostly white students, who often frustratingly threw dagger-like angry stares at me – some of them even called me “anti-white.” The department gave me no place to express my experiences as a racial minority. I once voiced my concern about why I – as a racial minority – felt forced to suppress my thoughts on racism in our seminars. All the white faces swiftly turned to me with acrimonious glares. The white professor simply carried on, and it was the cue for my classmates to move on as well, without responding to my concern. Just like white professors, white students didn’t want to get involved in conversations about racial issues within our department. Yet they were all eager to discuss race as a theoretical, distant, anthropological topic.

The authoritative academic anthropologists who run departments can become the panopticon, transforming their community into a microcosmic biopolitical society. They do this, ironically, while using these concepts as tools for social analysis and critique. Graduate students in my second department practically had no say in departmental policies, even collectively in the name of our graduate student association. As such, the notes taken by a student representative during the faculty meetings were severely censored by the faculty. Students spent so much time trying to figure out many unwritten, intangible rules; they were constantly riding an emotional roller coaster of panic, thrill, distress, ecstasy, and despair. But they took those rules as they were, even those seemingly unreasonable ones, while quietly complaining among themselves. And they worked hard to follow the rules, often policed each other, and competed with each other under the rules. Some of them even took a great deal of pride in fulfilling the rules, as any positive comments from the professors made students totally high. If anyone challenged the rules, hostility flared up within the students, who were divided by the not-so-subtle color line. After all, students simply did what they were told to do. Just like Michel Foucault described “biopolitical” societies, authoritative power is conditioned into the consciousness and bodies of the population (graduate students). Those rules are a form of power (or “biopower”) that “regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, and rearticulating it … every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her accord,” as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt put it in their book “Empire” (2000:23-24). The beauty of anthropological inquiry and knowledge gets lost in this.

I am not getting into every detail of my experience in the department here, but towards the end of my career there, I just felt so bullied. I could feel that the program was destroying me – it depressed me, controlled my life, and emotionally tortured me. The only good thing I had in the department was my good friend there, who happened to be another minority student and shared many struggles with me. My husband wanted me to pull the plug way before I realized I should have. But the big turning point was a meeting with my advisor to discuss my leave of absence. “You’ve already asked for delaying your progress three times,” she declared in the beginning of the meeting. I felt so angry that I could feel my heartbeat in my face. Yes, the “three times” part was absolutely correct, but no, the “you’ve asked for it” part was unequivocally wrong. The first time was when one of my dissertation committee members left for another institution, as I was nearing the time for my proposal defense. She loved my project. She was the only one who patiently helped me go through the writing process. But some of the materials in my project were outside of the expertise of her replacement, who of course pushed my project into her direction.

Soon enough, I was rewriting my entire proposal. The second “delay” was when another committee member just quit, out of the blue, with no clear explanation, just a few weeks before my qualifying exam. Her replacement wanted me to add more materials on my exam bibliographies, almost a dozen books, which made it impossible to prepare for the exam within such a short amount of time. The third time was when Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami happened. I had to go home abruptly, knowing that the whole disaster devastated my sister-in-law’s family in Fukushima and my mom’s relatives up in the north. So, let me ask again. Did I ask for delaying my progress under these circumstances? Are they all my fault? I dare anyone say yes.

And I eventually did leave the program with full of guilt, self-blame, and shame. My therapist once asked me, “Do you really want to go back to the burning airplane? It injured you so badly, but just because you spent so much time, energy, and money to get on it, you’d want to get back on that burning airplane, knowing you will get injured more?” “It’s not that simple,” I bluntly responded. “I know, but I want you to think about it,” he shot back. The metaphor turned out to be quite effective. One day I said to myself that it was the time for me to learn to be gentle and merciful to myself. So the recovery process began, and oddly enough, anthropological knowledge has helped me through all of this.

Some people may say that my passion for anthropology wasn’t strong enough to put my personal difficulties aside and still pursue the degree. Others may say that I wasn’t intelligent enough to complete the program after all. And still others may tell me to stop being so much of an idealist and accept the reality: everyone is a hypocrite, teaching something while practicing the opposite. But at least I am not engulfed in the biopolitical, institutionalized world of anthropology. I didn’t let it take over me. I am getting myself back. I get to be me again. I would rather live my life with anthropology in my pocket than live my life trying not to drown in the middle of a massive ocean of anthropology.

To those who are out there thinking about going to graduate school for an anthropology degree – Be wise and selective about the culture of the anthropology department you want to be a part of, especially if you’re a minority student. You need to know about your prospective advisor, talk to current and former students, and figure out how/whether the department as a whole is engaged in communications about its own gender and racial issues. Doing all this is that important because it will determine the course of your life for the following 7 to 10 years. And if you make it to the end, stay humble and worldly, be true to anthropology.

To those who are happily doing their graduate studies in anthropology: Remember, complacency with the status quo can be your worst enemy. Keep in mind that people with more power are less aware of the power relationship than people with less power are. And,

…. practice what [you] preach … to do the same with those [you] see as a part of [your] own culture (department) – particularly if they may see themselves as part of ‘the Other’ themselves. To not do so is hypocrisy. To do so creates real understanding, acceptance, and diversity in a department (Brodkin et al 2011:546).

To those who had limited choices of graduate programs and are finding yourself burned out in academic anthropology because of your department’s oppressive power structure – If you’re looking for advice, I’m afraid I cannot offer any, except that it’s worthwhile identifying and communicating with faculty and fellow graduate students with willing ears. But I’m not the one who stuck around to finish the PhD. All I can say is that I still love anthropology, and I still call myself an anthropologist, whether some of the academic anthropologists like it or not. I don’t think I have ever lost my appreciation for anthropology, even in the midst of the craziness at my second graduate program. I simply couldn’t take the authoritative academic anthropology, and I didn’t want to use it as a vehicle to do anthropology any more. If I had stayed there longer, I could have started to dislike anthropology. In retrospect, I left academic anthropology to preserve my passion for anthropology, and I think it worked for me. But I cannot tell others like myself to do the same.

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