Savage Minds Notes and Queries in Anthropology Sat, 20 Dec 2014 23:43:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Future at Last: Unraveling the Embargo on Cuba Sat, 20 Dec 2014 18:09:22 +0000 [Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by L. Kaifa Roland who is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Kaifa is the author of Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha: An Ethnography of Racial Meaning (OUP, 2010) “T/racing Belonging in Cuban Tourism” (Cultural Anthropology, August 2013), and “Between Belonging and the F/Act of Niggerisation” in Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong (Sense Publishers, 2014). Currently, she is doing ethnographic research with Black women entrepreneurs in Havana.]

CUBA, Havana- Photographer Unknown, 'Cuba' - RESIZED

Just for the fun of it—in the aftermath of President Obama’s announcement that relations between the U.S. and Cuba were thawing—I decided to revisit the conclusion to my now ten year-old dissertation in which I had done the academically forbidden: I gazed into my “crystal ball” to imagine the future. I laid out a couple of scenarios involving Fidel Castro’s dying in office or relinquishing the position while still alive. Then I outlined another scenario that resonates with today:

There is one other possibility that does not depend on the life or death of Fidel Castro, but on the U.S. government’s decision to end the economic embargo of its own volition. Many historians have written about Castro’s skill at manipulating the Cuban people’s nationalism into anti-Americanism … If the U.S. imperialist role in Cuba prior to the revolution were not ample justification, more than 40 years of economic sanctions is an easy means not only to generate nationalist sentiment, but also serve as a crutch for the revolution’s many failures. The U.S. argues that it maintains sanctions in order to bring about Castro’s downfall, but the only reason the socialist government can even attempt to contain the capitalist incursions exemplified by tourism is precisely because of the blockade… [I]t would be impossible for Cuba’s socialist government to contain the onslaught of American-style capitalism as it is practiced on a near-global scale today. The blockade is what allows the Cuban government to safely experiment with capitalism within the socialist context (Roland 251–252).

Since it is no longer looking into the future, but watching the present unfold, I hope it is safe to dust off this nugget for consideration at this moment. The question I have received most frequently in the days since President Barack Obama’s and President Raúl Castro’s simultaneous announcements is, “this is good, right?” And of course it is! More than 50 years of trying to bully Cuba into doing what the U.S. wanted is untenable. But as anthropologists, we are also interested in know what the changes mean on the ground, so I am more interested in asking who will the policy changes affect? But first a little background to the blockade…

Cuba and the U.S.: How did we get here?

Whereas Cuba and the U.S. were bound to one another by close economic and political ties in the early twentieth century, the countries have effectively been in a stalemate since the early 1960s. When Fidel Castro overthrew what he perceived to be an illegitimate president who only acted at the behest of the United States, he began nationalizing U.S. properties to which the U.S. responded by limiting the sugar quota. The chess match continued to deteriorate relations between the two until the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis signified the inability to trust the security of one’s borders with the other, especially once the Cubans had turned to the Soviets for support. Many among Cuba’s white upper classes fled to the U.S. during these early years of revolution, while increasing numbers left over the decades. The perspective of these Cuban Americans on Cuba is the one that most U.S. citizens recognize. With their base in Florida, the Cuban American lobby influenced one of the most important policy decisions toward Cuba: the 1980 Helms-Burton Law codified the long-standing embargo which now requires a congressional majority to change. Fidel Castro would rally the Cuban people into a nationalist frenzy by pointing to such moves by the United States as a way to try to control Cuba like they did before the revolution—and indeed, as President Obama acknowledged in his announcement, Cubans could always point to el bloqueo (as they call the blockade) as the cause of the revolution’s many shortcomings in its ability to provide for the Cuban people.

Implications of U.S. Policy Change

So what does all the policy change mean for both Cubans and Americans? Though the terms of the Helms-Burton Law remain in effect, President Obama outlined several ways in which the blockade will be relaxed.

Diplomatic Relations

There have been “Interest Sections” in each country representing the interests of the other since the Carter administration, but formal diplomatic relations means that the two countries officially recognize one another and agree to dialogue with one another. These conversations will facilitate every other area of policy shift.

State Sponsored Terror List

This is one of the most annoying features of the U.S. position towards Cuba as far as most Cubans are concerned. Both sides of this fading Cold War episode have been involved with spying and shooting down planes, so Cubans have long resented being considered a state sponsor of terror alongside countries considered threats in the post 9/11 era. The prisoner swap involves individuals on both sides who were caught spying or trying to foment revolt in the other country. If Cuba is removed from the state sponsored terror list, it will go a long way toward viewing the United States as a country that interacts with Cuba on a realistic basis, rather than based on fears born of Cold War nightmares.

Travel Restrictions

For the most part, the travel restrictions that keep most Americans from legally traveling to Cuba will remain in place until the law enforcing the embargo is repealed. The U.S. Treasury Department’s “Trading with the Enemy Act” makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money in Cuba. However, the recent announcements will broaden categories of legal travel to include those that previously needed special permission like athletes, humanitarian work, and travel involving the export of authorized goods.

Banking and Trade

This is a big deal! The previous iterations of the embargo prevented not only U.S. citizens from easily accessing money based in the U.S., but individuals and corporations from other countries as well. Now a Mexican citizen, for example, can use his/her American Express card to pay for a hotel in Cuba. This opening in the banking area means much more money will be flowing through Cuba. For those of us who regularly travel to Cuba, we will no longer have to carry stacks of cash simply because we could not use anything plastic. Also, my study abroad students will be happy to know that those of us who legally travel to Cuba can now bring a limited amount of cigars and rum back without repercussion (a throwback to the pre-George W. Bush regulations).

Transfer of Money

While this is largely just an expansion of a previous policy, it is also the area that will make the greatest difference in the lives of everyday Cubans. Family members or other contacts that live abroad are now able to send greater amounts of money to those on the island. My own anthropological research is most focused in this area, as I seek to determine who benefits most from access to the movement of money and goods into Cuba. To this point, it seems that Cuba’s capitalist openings in entrepreneurship in particular have had the greatest benefit to those with family who live abroad; because the majority of Cubans who fled abroad are whiter skinned, blacks and mulatos have to be more creative to access the newly circulating material goods.

In sum, all of these openings will have positive implications for both Cubans and U.S. citizens. I would only note that there is very little change in who will be affected by the openings. Still, the aggregate of the policy change is what is really important. One of the arguments I made in my book Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha (yes, a shameless plug!) was that much of Cuban nationalism is a reflection of what Cubans understand as the masculinist duty to provide and protect those in the man’s family. If I metaphorically described the collapse of U.S.-Cuban relations in the 1960s as a “phallus measuring competition” in my book, then one of the key effects of the U.S. tucking its member away first is that Cubans will get to maintain some degree of their dignity as they re-enter the U.S. sphere. Contrary to Senator Rubio’s assertion, I wonder if President Obama’s anthropologist mother gave him a unique sensitivity to the kinds of cultural dynamics required to finally resolve the half century stalemate with Cuba as no prior president could.

Next steps: What can WE do?

U.S. policy toward Cuba has long been the singular purview of one group of Americans: Cuban Americans. In this moment that the broader U.S. citizenry has a reason to think about Cuba again, the best thing we can do is to invoke our networks to contact our congressional representatives and implore them to end the embargo now. When more Americans than the small but powerful Cuban American lobby take a stand on Cuba, we can impact lasting change. Re-entering the U.S. sphere will bring new challenges to Cuba including increasing inequality, eroding a welfare state that has provided free cradle to grave health care and education, and introducing massive corporations like Walmart that will easily overwhelm state-controlled socialism within months of their arrival. Indeed, I have long argued that Cubans should be careful what they wish for when they chant “Abaja el bloqueo – End the Blockade!” Nonetheless, the Cuban revolution’s survival or failure should be decided by the Cuban people without the U.S. blockade as a scapegoat that fuels nationalism.

Everyday Cubans have been waiting for change for a long time. The future is here. Let us put our crystal balls away and further tear down the wall that blockades us from one another.


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Doing Concept Work: An Interview with Ann Stoler about the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry Sat, 20 Dec 2014 00:42:11 +0000 (The Institute for Critical Social Inquiry [ICSI] is a program getting under way at the New School for Social Research, where advanced graduate students and junior faculty will have the opportunity to spend a week at The New School’s campus in Greenwich Village, New York City, working closely with some of the most distinguished thinkers shaping the course of contemporary social inquiry (you can apply here — they have financial aid!). Its director, Ann Stoler is a historian/anthropologist whose work has had a tremendous impact on how anthropologists and historians think about history and colonialism. Her writing has also been one key route through which Foucault’s work has come to be known in anthropology. I talked recently with Ann about ICSI and ‘theory’ more generally. Here’s what we said -R)

Rex: So, tell me about the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry [ICSI].

Ann: Well, the Institute has been in the making for about two years. It’s a response to what I see as a pervasive problem in our academic world — given the demands of fast-paced publishing coupled with overstretched teaching loads for many young scholars in the making.  How do we get to learn about the things that we’ve always imagined we should know, and that we don’t? The things we haven’t had time for in our careers, because we’ve been too busy being “productive” and teaching our courses? It’s modeled on the notion that if we can provide a master who knows about a particular subject or thinker really well, a range of people would have a wonderful opportunity to have access in a short amount of time to someone whose conceptual vocabulary and “styles of thought” could be drawn on to address pressing questions that engaged social inquiry should be addressing now. The Institute is geared, as it stands, for advanced doctoral students and junior faculty across the disciplines but we have already had queries from tenured professors excited by the prospect of working for an intensive week with the thinkers who will teach these Master Classes.

One of the models for this sort of project is The School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell where I had the pleasure of teaching several years ago. The SCT summer school is six weeks. At Cornell, each year four faculty each conduct a twice-weekly seminar on chosen issues. It’s a wonderful environment for reading and writing and conversation if one has enough time to do it.

Our idea is somewhat different. The focus of the ICSI seminars is both more intensive and perhaps less about theory with a capital ‘T’, than about how conceptual work can be harnessed to think innovatively about grounded social inquiry. The emphasis in our seminars is to offer the methodological traction participants can garner by thinking with others in one of three seminars, each exploring a different form of critical social inquiry that focuses on contemporary issues, subjects, and political configurations.  The ICSI takes as its charge introducing a new generation to “masters”, whose thinking in and about other historical moments might challenge seminar participants to think differently about their perceptions and practices today.  I am using the term “master” in two senses here:  the “master” is both, first, the person giving the seminar, sharing with participants how he or she each sees and works with and against, a particular thinker, and second, the thinker around whose work the seminar focuses (e.g., Marx, Hegel, Derrida, Arendt, Fanon, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Foucault—someone whose work you haven’t been able to devote the time to examine closely).

This dual sense of master is a large part of what is exciting about ICSI. It’s a kind of immersion in the conceptual capacity that someone offers. Our goal is to reach a range of scholars; from those embarking on their dissertations, those just returning from the field or the archive, both junior and senior faculty bogged down by having to teach too many courses. I see the ICSI as a joining of scholars from the Global North and Global South, sharing a dense infused intellectual environment.

In this sense, ICSI is both an analytic and a political project. What does being critical mean right now? What does it mean not to think about “theory” with a capital T disengaged from practical problems in the contemporary world.  Instead, the goal is to see how those problems articulate with the conceptual vocabularies with which we work.

There’s play here with the idea of  “masters on masters.”  To participate in a seminar on Heidegger taught by Simon Critchley — or more accurately Critchley in conversation with Heidegger–is a unique opportunity.  Talal Asad and Patricia Williams, on the other hand, take key issues, secularism for Asad, race for Williams, and will provide participants with the critical problematics that confront us all in thinking these issues today.

The format is a one-week intensive seminar, three-and-a-half to four hours in the morning — part lecture, part reading a chosen set of texts.  The afternoon is devoted to the work of participants, an opportunity to share their own work and reflect on how the questions raised in the morning seminars might help them think their own projects. The design is also inspired in some ways by a vibrant summer workshop in Johannesburg that Achille Mbembe has run for many years, in which students and faculty from a range of disciplines come together. A sliding tuition scale permits students from the Global South to participate.  That too is how the ICSI will operate, although in our case we have an endowment that allows us to charge all students far below the actual cost. Housing is also provided. The seminars will be at the New School’s new University Center in the heart of New York City.  Each of the three faculty will give a public lecture during the week. On the last day there will be an open forum for students and faculty from each of the three seminars to reflect together on the styles of thinking and critique offered. Bruno Latour may think critique is dead but I think there should be room to question when critique is effective and when and why it is not.

Rex: This is the first year it’s being offered, is that right?

Ann: Yes, it’s the first year this is being launched. First years are always precarious. You have to get the word out, and you have to let people know about it. The first week that we launched the website, we had a tremendous response, and we’ve continued to field inquiries daily, so something about it is inciting interest. We have quite a number of applications already and have switched to rolling admissions with a final deadline in February. We’ve also had the good fortune to receive another small gift, so we’ve been able to reduce the tuition somewhat more than we originally thought.

Rex: You know, that process of trying to find some way to balance the tuition with people’s ability to pay sounds really like an important part of the project.  Can you tell me more about how that works in your case? There’s financial aid for which people can apply.

Ann: As I said, there is a sliding scale for tuition, depending on whether applicants are at institutions in the Global North or the Global South. Additionally, there are some funds for travel grants.  This is not a money-making enterprise: it’s a political and intellectual one that may some day break even, but right now what we care about is getting people eager to think together and aloud across the disciplines.

A wonderfully innovative trustee of the New School for Social Research generously provided the ICSI’s endowment.  Additionally, literally as we speak, she has brought a broader group of donors on board whose gifts have allowed us, as I mentioned earlier, to lower the costs to all participants. Our trustees and donors understand that part of the mission of the New School is to offer an intellectual vitality to a much wider range of people than those who can afford to come to graduate school in New York City. Scholars-in-the-making may get to attend the crowded lecture of a luminary or ask a rushed question if they can get to the podium in time to beat out others, but rarely to converse in depth, on a daily basis with important figures such as Talal Asad, Patricia Williams, Simon Critchley, Judith Butler, and Gayatri Spivak. At the moment we have enough internationally renowned “masters” to cover nearly four years of seminars.

The small seminar format is designed to facilitate and activate interaction and exchange. Each seminar will have a facilitator (probably a New School doctoral student), who will create a ‘living archive’ of extra readings referenced for current and future use. We want this to be a resource in multiple senses: of connections between people and materials from different fields. The model is one of density, intensity, and exhilaration in a concentrated amount of time.

With feedback from each summer’s participants, we image that the format will be tweaked and expanded. We scheduled it for June so that people will have finished their coursework and/or teaching, and to avoid impinging on the summer months when so much writing and research is done.

Next year in June 2016, we will have Jay Bernstein, a “master” on Hegel whose online lectures are famous for the clarity and scope.  Jay’s ICSI seminar of course won’t be a reading of all of Hegel, but a focused immersion led by someone renowned for teaching Hegel for twenty years. Someone who knows how to open up some of those spaces imagined tobe impenetrable to those of us who have not studied those particular thinkers.

Rex: That really sounds like that’s part of the “master on a master” thing. You’re not only learning how Hegel thinks, you’re getting to see how a scholar who’s an expert on him thinks, how they interpret the text, how maybe you can approach it in the future wearing their goggles.

Ann: It’s really a matter of someone with a facility, capacity, and passion. I’m not just interested in any teacher. We’re seeking those who see this as an opportunity to teach in a completely different venue. If you’ve taught Fanon for fifteen years, you come to it with a well-honed ability to convey why he matters. And central to that effort is addressing the simple and searing question, to borrow David Scott words, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” It’s not that we are in the business of conflict resolution. We’re really in the business, I think, of learning how to ask better questions, to learn to hear the phrasing and force of the concerns of those most disadvantaged in our inequitable world – the questions they themselves may well know how to pose. I see our other task as one of making those things that seem so obvious to us more open to doubt, uncertainty, and inquiry.

Rex: I guess that’s where the concept of “critical” in the title comes in. I imagine there are some people who’d say reading Heidegger for a week with other professors or other PhD students isn’t really a kind of critical political engagement. But you really have a vision of what it means to do critical studies where you do see that as being very relevant and important. Can you expand on that?

Ann:  I think Heidegger offers a way of formulating a question, with a degree of deliberation that permanently changes your sensibility. What Heidegger does is both unravel grammar, and in unraveling grammar, unravels and opens up spaces and clearings of how one can bring something into thought again.

Rex: It seems that on the one hand you see the value of theory and criticism in one sense, but you’ve been very critical of the way that theory is taught or used — you see the potential for it to go astray sometimes.

Ann: Well, I think it is an issue of pedagogy. I think “great thinkers” are often taught as if they are providing a ready toolkit — it’s actual a phrase that Foucault unfortunately used. But these toolkits are not fixed, they’re not portable in some decontextualized way.  It’s not students who go awry, it’s in how these concepts are often taught. I think of concept work, working with concept, as a much more provisional and creative project.

That’s one of things I so admire in Talal Asad’s work on suffering, pain, and liberalism.  I think much the same is true of the way that Simon Critchley takes Heidegger’s often intractable language on being and non-being and finds ways to see how it matters in the world today. Patricia Williams makes a similar move in her exploration of the legal, political and rhetorical framings that infuse how subjects are conceptualized. These are scholars with decidedly political sensibilities; for example, Simon crafts The Stone blog for the New York Times, Patricia writes for The Nation. I think we need this broad range of genres through which we can be public intellectuals in a different kind of way.

Rex: In my experience, oftentimes students feel like they need ‘theory’, and sometimes professors don’t want to teach it. I know when I was at Chicago I felt like I needed more theory and my professors didn’t really want to teach a course on Foucault and I thought, “but you guys keep on talking about this guy, why won’t you tell me what he’s saying”? Now as a professor, my students are like, “don’t we need to read more Bourdieu”? And I’m like, “oh my god, I don’t want to teach a whole course on Bourdieu.”

So maybe there’s some sort of weird social dynamic going on here? On the one hand we demonstrate to our students that they have to do some theory, and at the same time we’re reluctant to give it to them — maybe because we know it’s not what they really need to do? It seems like there’s something maybe potentially not so healthy going on in the way we teach theory.

Ann: This concern pervades all of my teaching, particularly how to impart in a way that offers skills in how to unthink as well as to think what’s already there.  Many anthropologists, not unreasonably, want to unsettle what often seems obvious and given. I think it takes work to convey the ways in which you can stop and pause, and work with something, rather than work off it.

Rex: Work ‘with something’ and not ‘off of it’?

Ann:  ‘Working off it’ is saying “OK, I’m going to take this concept and then I’m going to impose it on my case study.”

Rex: I guess there is a question of connecting this project to anthropology. It sounds like sometimes people are taking the thinkers that you’ve mentioned and trying to do a natural science project with them, saying “here is a theoretical framework, which we’re going to use to analyze the data and make sense of it, and then we use the data to improve the model,” and it sounds like you’re saying, that’s not how we should be using those thinkers.

Ann: That’s right.

Rex: So for people who aren’t in New York and don’t get a chance to have a sense of this other way of using theory — is that how anthropology articulates with ICSI? That we’re trying to think of a different way of using theory to deal with our field experience? I’m not even going to say ‘data’, but ‘field experience’?

Ann: I see the impulse of the ICSI as one that speaks to various forms of knowledge production. In a book manuscript I just finished, I use the subtitle “concept work for our times,” trying to imagine what it is to do concept work, and particularly doing it with those concepts on which, in this case, some students of colonial and postcolonial situations so depend.

Those who know my work would not be surprised that I still return to think with and against Foucault.  By placing an “ethics of discomfort” center stage, he challenges his audience to find a way of working outside the comfort zone of the familiar.  Instead, he insists on places that produce a kind of intellectual vertigo or malaise; places where we not only lack ready answers, we don’t even know if our questions are the right ones to be asking.  One of the hardest tasks is to find concrete ways of doing this. And I think here we are well served by reading for styles of thought, styles of thinking, styles of reasoning. George Steiner reminds us that there is poetry in thought, and that thoughtful reading will reveal it in the worlds that we inhabit as ethnographers, philosophers, historians, geographers, and literary critics.

I imagine the ICSI seminars as providing a tenor and tone that invites and values that kind of thinking.

Rex: The New School is a place where people have been trying to do this for a long time. On the one hand, I’m always imagining other voices, maybe somebody who would say “Well, this is the death of anthropology, it’s the death of relevance, it’s the death of empiricism.” I’m sure you’ve heard these criticisms before: “Poetic thinking, what is that? We need to know what the per capita calorie intake is.”  But the New School is a place where people have been engaged in this for a long time. It’s a place that has its origins with a lot of original anthropological thinkers like Elsie Clews Parsons and Alexander Goldenweiser who are also intellectual and cosmopolitan.

Ann: I don’t see it as the death of anthropology in any way, obviously. Social inquiry is inspired by thinking in a grounded way. This is not just abstract thinking. There is nothing transcendental about philosophy. There’s nothing that should stand outside “worldliness,” as Edward Said put it. It is incumbent on us as scholars to be engaged, otherwise it doesn’t really matter.

The ICSI is an invitation to ask what critique might look like in an “effective” mode. Raymond Williams said it beautifully; that critique is not about judgment.  Judith Butler, in her consummately unadorned fashion, in “What is Critique?” reminds us, critique is a way of disclosing those very spaces that are secluded from us. That’s the task of the ICSI.

Rex: I think that point that it’s not abstract or transcendental, but it’s grounded in the concrete — that’s the anthropological argument that theory has to be connected somehow to ethnography or to lived experience in the field. I think that’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand about that work.

Ann: A radical pedagogy is demanding, exhilarating, arduous.  Critique, which Foucault once called the art of reflective insubordination (or insolence.), is insolence toward ourselves, toward our own givens, toward the baggage that we come with. It seems like it has to be something that we have to think collectively and cooperatively–but not consensually–about.

Rex: What genre is this seminar? Is it a summer session? Is it a field school? A reading group? Listening to you talk it really seems to me, as a Melanesianist, that this sounds like a men’s house. It sounds like ritual initiation: we’re going get you all together for a week. You know, lots of things happen in the men’s house… probably some of which you don’t want to emulate…

I’ve been working on Jung lately and it reminds me of Bollingen, or the teacher’s tisch in the old German academy, where there is this conscious attempt to really make it not just about the text, but about creating a liminal atmosphere, as Victor Turner said, where incredible things can happen and people feel like they’re in a new place.

Ann:  I don’t think of it as a field school. And though it is an intensive week in June, I don’t think of it as a summer session either. I love the concept of a Master Class in the arts. You learn from a skilled, experienced craftsman or artist, learning that comes with frequency and care and opens to improvisation. As for ‘masters’ of social inquiry, we can see it in their movement, a conceptual grace if you will, as they move between exposition and doubt, in the texts they juxtapose and the work that goes into formulating good questions. There’s a beauty in a master classes, an attentiveness to gesture, vocabulary (of body and mind) and tone.

In a dance master class, it’s also an atmosphere, a particular way of acquiring competence.  There’s also much that the master gets back from the students. The master becomes a better thinker when s/he enables and animates students to question in particular ways. That’s the real feedback. I would hope that the luminaries we invite will see the possibility for this kind of exchange.

So for me, initiating and directing this new institute feels like a labor of love. I’ll be present for all of it: at the morning seminars, the afternoon workshops, and the sundry meals and gatherings that happen in between.  I’ll also host an open coffee/tea hour for whoever wants to stop by.  I want it to be fun and fertile, fostering a disposition that doesn’t end when the week is over.

Rex: You mentioned earlier that these people are at a certain point in their career where they’re ready for this, maybe because they feel like they’ve already reproduced themselves through their graduate students and they want to address a broader audience, or maybe pass on what they do in a different way than just—

Ann: You’re right –that’s what I’m looking for. People who know enough to know what they don’t know; and people who are not or no longer entranced with cultivating a following.  For the faculty, it’s really a chance to undo yourself.  There’s a beautiful book, Examined Lives, by my New School colleague, James Miller, in which he looks at the ways in which philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche developed practices of living that infused their analytic and conceptual labor. And of course the other way around.

Rex: On the one hand, there is a sort of sense that you know who you are, you have tenure, you feel comfortable in your skin. But sometimes the people I’ve met who are so good at conveying this sort of master class feel, where they walk in, they speak for 30 minutes, they lay it out for you, and your mind is blown—sometimes I feel like it’s not because they’re undoing themselves. I come from a much more conservative intellectual tradition, I think, than the one you’re citing here, so let me resist that language of undoing just for the moment.

I feel like it’s because they figured out what the central question in their life is. They realized that they’re probably never going to solve it, but they have cleared out all this space. They know it’s not this, it’s not that, and so they can just present it to you and be like: “How can we be different and equal? How do we turn a script into a lived experience?” It’s sort of that core self, that incredible coherence they have, even though ultimately this coherence is about a question and not an answer. You know? “Well, I read Kant again, this is time number forty, my question is still—”

So is it the undoing, or is it that they have such a clear sense of what the issues are in their lives, or are those two not opposites?

Ann: I don’t know. I’m certainly not one of those people who enjoy such a sense of clarity. I think it’s less a matter of having figured something out than coming to realize that you have to come up with new measures of what counts. It is a humbling moment, at this point; one is really not worried about being in the game and driven by it in the same way.

These are my priorities, not necessarily those of the faculty giving the Master Classes.  These are masters with their own gifts of pedagogy and creative thought, people immersed in their work. It is this sense of immersion and political sensibility that I invite them to share with us.

Rex: I think that’s good; I think if you said, “the most successful people in the academy will now, for a week, tell you the truth. Come, be part of our show, bask in our reflected glory” there’d be some people who are really into that. But the question is always: What kind of people is that project attracting? And is that really the kind of intervention in their biographies you want to have?

Ann: We’re going to be very attentive to what those who participate this first year find most rewarding. We’ll want feedback from participants on what the experience is like and from those leading the seminars as well.  Each year we will try to incorporate their thoughts into the new space we’re in the process of creating.

Rex: There are cultural issues as well. Many people coming from the global south are coming from a different place. I mean, living in Polynesia, where we have many students from the Pacific, many of the cultures here are hierarchical and people want a kind of apprentice master-student relationship, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. So they’re going to show up and, be like: “I thought Simon Critchley was going to give me his cliff notes for Heidegger, but instead we spent all this time talking about concepts”. So there’s a lot of challenges to work through. But I guess that’s a sign that it’s worth doing.

Ann: I think you’re right. I think that’s true about any project in which someone is known for what they do, people are sitting ready with their pencils poised.

Rex: Can I shift gears a little and talk about the backend of this? So the New School, you have an endowment, that’s good, and the school has been supportive, but…how can I ask this—this is not intended to be an earner for the New School?

Ann: No. The goal is to be self-sustaining. When I presented the idea of the institute to The New School for Social Research’s Board of Trustees, I was thrilled by their enthusiasm.  It’s a new intellectual venture–not nostalgia for what the New School was, but an affirmation of its contemporary commitment to address worldly problems, to sponsor face to face pedagogy, and to accommodate not only the well-heeled. The New School has long been committed to developing alternative forms in which we share and produce knowledge, create and critique it and develop practices that keep us grounded and attentive.

Rex: The reason I ask this is because you know, increasingly at many places, including my place, people are trying to be more entrepreneurial and find ways to raise money because they’re not getting money from the sources that they used to.

Some people are going to look at this and say, hey, we’ll have people come out for a week, we’ll charge them $1,500 a pop and that’s how we’ll pay for faculty travel for next semester. I think it’s interesting to hear the choices that you’ve made, because I suspect the people who say “let’s turn this into a cash cow,” will find it’s not working for them in the same way that I trust it will work for you And one of the reasons it’s not going to work is because they’re not doing it because it’s the right thing and because they’re driven to do it, they’re doing it to make money, and that’s not going work.

So, to totally co-opt this interview, that’s one of the main points and I always try to share in any forum even when I’m interviewing other people. Institutions that are successful like the New School are successful partially because they have donors who can start these programs and endowments to a certain extent, but also because they’re following their hearts.  And a lot of places when they try to emulate, they’re not following their own vision.

Ann: That’s so right, Alex. I wouldn’t have proposed this if I thought they wanted a cash cow. It emerged from something that I’ve long cared about–the politics of knowledge. How we use knowledge, how we produce it, who we share it with, what we imagine knowledge to do, what work it does in the world.

Rex: I think you are one of these people who have figured out what their central question is!

Ann: No, no. I haven’t at all! I always feel so twisted and hesitant in the face of what I don’t know. I’m not being coy.  How important is what we’re doing now? How can one develop priorities?  You know, not everybody is Judith Butler, who can enthrall a reverberating crowd at Occupy. What are the sundry ways that we can draw on what we can offer without pretending to be something that we’re not? Without disowning the fact that we live in this really privileged world, an intellectual world in which we get to learn every single day—how do we do that in a way that has some integrity to it? And can we face ourselves at the end of the day?

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Anthropologies/Savage Minds student debt survey: THE DEBTORS Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:00:27 +0000 Earlier this year I posted two informal student debt surveys here on Savage Minds as part of the Anthropologies issue on Student Debt. Both of these surveys focused on student debt in anthropology. Here at long last are some of the results. (Sorry for taking so long  to get to this…I was writing a dissertation over the last nine or so months.)*

There was a lot of data to sift through. In this post I’ll discuss the first survey, which had 285 total responses. We’ll start with the highest level of education attained. Thirty-four percent have completed their MA. Thirty-three have completed their PhD, fourteen percent have completed an undergraduate degree, nine percent have completed “some grad school,” six percent have completed between one and three years of college, and another six percent chose “other.”

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they are not currently enrolled in college or grad school. Forty-six percent are enrolled. Two percent chose “other” when asked if they are currently enrolled.

In terms of current employment status, forty-five percent have a full-time job, twenty-two percent have a part-time job, nineteen percent are unemployed, and fourteen percent chose “other.”

The majority of responses came from socio-cultural anthropologists (59%), followed by archaeologists (18%), biological anthropologists (13%), and linguistic anthropologists (3%). Eight percent chose “other” when asked about their disciplinary niche within anthropology.

Now we get to the subject of debt. When asked about current student loan debt, thirty-three percent of people said they have ZERO DEBT. Nineteen percent reported debt between $11,000 and $30,000, fourteen percent reported debt between $31,000 and $50,000, nine percent have debt between $1 and $10,000, five percent have between $91,000 and $120,000, another five percent have more than $120,000 in debt. A final three percent of people have student loan debt between $71,000 and $90,000. One issue with these numbers is that I asked about current student loan debt—the problem here is that some people who may have had debt in the past could have paid it down (in full or in part). A few respondents did note this issue in some of their comments.

When asked about the types of loans they have, the overwhelming majority reported taking out government loans (180 people or 58% percent). Another sixteen percent took out private loans, five percent took out personal loans, and a final one percent chose “other.” Twenty-one percent of people chose “not applicable” for this question.

Next I asked about credit card debt: “How much credit card debt did you accrue while pursuing your education?” More than half ( 55%) said they did not accrue any credit card debt at all. Sixteen percent reported credit card debt between $1,100 and $5,000, twelve percent were between $5,100 and $10,000, nine percent were under $1,000, and five percent are between $11,000 and $20,000. A total of three percent reported credit card debt of $21,000 and up.

This brings us to the more qualitative responses. Next we’ll look at 15 sample responses of people with student loan debt (approximately a 5% sample). I used a random number generator to choose representatives from the pool of 285 responses. I only included answers from people who submitted responses to every question. For each of these examples we’ll look at 1) education; 2) whether or not they are currently enrolled; 3) reasons why they went into anthropology; 4) student loan debt; 5) credit card debt; 6) thoughts about future career in anthropology; and, lastly 7) Any final thoughts or concerns. Here we go.

Response #216

Has completed PhD. Not currently in college/grad school. Unemployed. Last attended school 2007-2013. Focus: archaeology. Went into anthropology because they had a “passion for the field.” Their student loan debt is between 31 to 50k. No credit card debt.

Feelings about future career in anthropology: “Uncertain but still hopeful.”

Final thoughts: “I probably could have done without so many loans, but it certainly made things easier and sped-up completing the degree within the allotted (funded) time provided by the university.”


Completed MA. Not enrolled. Full-time job. Last attended 2005. Socio-cultural anthro. Why anthropology: “loved anthro.” Has between 51 to 70k in student loans. No credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career: “While the experience I gained in grad school was critical to getting my full time job in so many direct & indirect ways, that job is unrelated to anthro. I do teach anthro courses at a community college.”

Final thoughts: “Anthro as a degree choice, much less a career, is a tough sell post-recession. The field needs to work much harder to sell its practical benefits, which are many.”


Completed undergrad degree. Not enrolled. Unemployed. Last attended university from 2010-2013. Focused in biological anthropology, socio-cultural, and medical. Why anthropology: “I started out want[ing] to study archaeology, go to law school, and work for UNESCO. A biological anthropology class changed everything, I wound up falling in love with genetics, falling out of love with genetics, and falling into medical anthropology. Now I’m awaiting admissions decisions from 8 PhD programs in sociocultural/medical anthropology.” Has between 31 to 50k in student loans. No credit card debt.

Future career: “Slightly optimistic. I’m young, I’m told that I was pretty successful for an undergraduate, I’ve been scouted by top notch anthropology graduate programs, I have a lot of options and a lot of open doors. In the end though, I don’t know. My career in anthropology can be what I want it to be, I’ve learned. It’s my future career in academia that I’m worried about.”

Final thoughts: “Before I went to school, I was an executive chef, and well on my way to making a name for myself. (I quit because I never wanted to cook, I had always wanted to be an anthropologist, and that time came when I qualified for the loans.) As an executive chef, I made about $40,000 a year. I’m concerned that once I get to where I want to be (while I will have a job that I love infinitely more than cooking), I may not make much more money than when I left cooking. I don’t know if that’s as much an issue with anthropology, as it is with academia though.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full-time job. Last attended 2009. Focus in Socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “Continue research, teach anthropology.” 31 to 50k in student loan debt. Between 5100 and 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “In TT job, fearing tenure review, but otherwise stable.”

Final thoughts: “Took out a state government-sponsored loan (non-federal) to pay for four years of undergrad tuition. Loans were deferred over grad school, but they would not change term/duration of loan payback period, squeezing 15 year loan payback period into 5 years: now paying $1,500/month for past 3.5 years, for federal/state loans combined. Went from close to 100k to 40k. More than a third of my monthly salary goes to loan agencies. Pros: Will be done payments in 3 years; Cons: Still living like grad student. I don’t regret my undergrad school choice, but didn’t anticipate going straight into grad school, and having to pay so much over such a short period once finished. Very dodgy loan. High interest rates. Family and I did not know any better… Little college savings. Wish I had that too.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full time job. Last attended 1988-92. Socio-cultural anthro. Reason: “I loved the field of anthropology, and could not imagine doing anything else. I had the goal of getting a PHD from high school.” 11 to 30k in loans. Under 1000 in credit card debt.

Future career: “Now that i have a full-time (non-TT) job, I feel quite good about it. But immediately after I completed my PHD I had no idea if I would actually ever get a full-time job, and the fact is that part of why I have the job is because I followed my spouse to his TT job, and was then in the right place at the right time when this job came up at our university. I filed my dissertation in 1992, and was not in a full time job doing anthropology until 2009.”

Final thoughts: “It seems to be a problem that is of a piece with student debt generally, not specific to anthropology.”


Completed MA. Currently enrolled. Socio-cultural anthropology. Reason for going into anthropology: “To become an academic.” Between 31 to 50k in student loan debt. No credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career in anthropology: “Pretty good, but only because I can market myself to both STS and environmental studies jobs, which seem to be doing better than anthro.”

Final thoughts: “It is terrifying, and a disaster. None of my advisors have a clue how much debt I have.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full time job. Last attended college between 2004-2014. Focus in socio-cultural anthro. Why anthropology: “I was interested in learning anthropological concepts and methods to do practical applied work. While I have ended up working in academia so far I thought my degree would help me have better and more expanded career prospects.” Has between 31 to 50k in student loan debt. Has between 5100 to 10k in credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career: “I feel a great deal of trepidation. I never set out to have an academic career but lost sight of that during my training. Now I am trying to find a way of the academic world but feel there are few guidelines or bridges to do so.”

Final thoughts: “I am the first person in my family to graduate from college as well as acquire higher education. As such everything I have learned about the system I have had to learn on my own. I am appalled at the very little guidance available on issues of financial management and debt. I feel that my debt mostly was accrued as a result of how long my degree took me. A shorter time-to-degree and making the process faster, more structured and stream-lined with warnings about hidden costs of graduate school would be tremendously useful.”


Completed undergrad. Not enrolled. Unemployed. Last in school December 2013. Focus in socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “My last class for a 2 year degree was Anthropology, and I felt I’d found a career that was just being me. I went to university 6 years after that class for the sole purpose of being an applied anthropologist.” Has between 11 to 30k in student loan debt. No credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career in anthropology: “I am very excited to see how the field opens up and moves away from academia. I look forward to being a part of the movement and putting my debt to good work. The hope is that at least somebody will benefit… ‘cause I know I won’t be making my money back anytime soon.”

Final thoughts: “I am devastated that I feel I am being forced into greater debt in the form of a Master’s degree. I think that the field of anthropology should be more accepting of people with work experience or self-education who want to be identified as anthropologists. Thinking like an anthropologist is not just about the training one gets in school, and we all know that sometimes people get advanced degrees in the field who can’t seem to think like an anthropologist anyway.”


Completed MPH. Not enrolled. Last attended college from 2005 to 2012. Focus: Biological anthropology. Reason for going into anthropology: “I was at the end of my freshman year deciding classes for fall and I found an anthropology course I thought would be fun. Half way through the semester I switched majors from psychology to anthropology. I graduated with a BA in anthropology. Then I studied public health focusing on community health education. I plan to go back after my AmeriCorps term is complete to work towards a PhD in applied medical anthropology. I already applied and am waiting. Hopefully, I will attend this fall.” Debt: 51,000 to 70k in student loans. Between 1100 to 5000 in credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career: “With a BA in anthropology, I feel I have little options. Not many people know what an anthropologist is and the few who know, ask me about Bones and Indiana Jones. With a PhD I will be able to conduct research and work for a government agency or teach at university level. a PhD combined with my MPH will open more doors for me.”

Final thoughts: “I am worried the years it takes to complete PhD will push my debt well into the six digits. It’s scary to think I can buy a decent house for the cost of my education. The interest rates are also scary. The lingering thought of employment prospects and a low salary is also concerning. Obviously I am not doing this for the money.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Has a full-time job. Last attended college from 2004–2013. Focus in socio-cultural anthropology. Reason for anthro: “I had spent several years in a well-paying but soul-sucking private industry job. I had done a BA in archaeology and decided I wanted to learn more about culture and representation, so I went back and did a second BA in cultural anthropology. After traveling in the Middle East and Asia, I started a terminal MA program in visual anthropology and went on to complete a PhD in cultural anthropology with a focus on the Middle East and economic development.” Has between 91 to 120k in student loan debt. Between 5100 to 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “I am lucky because I was able to secure a VAP position while finishing my dissertation and then a TT position immediately after finishing. I am at a small state (teaching) school in an ideal location (in the south, minutes from the beach) and the cost of living is not too high. But the pay is not great ($50,000….I feel terrible complaining about this, though!). But childcare, credit cards repayment, and student loan take a big chunk out of that and my husband is still making very little. I have taken a second job (part time program creation that I can primarily do from home) which helps quite a bit. On paper, it looks like we are doing well but it is still very tight and I am putting in about 60 hrs a week and my husband works about 50–60 hrs/wk. This leaves very little time for writing/publishing and continuing my research can only be done during the summer. It leaves very little time to actually spend with my child or husband. OK, now I sound super whiny! I know I am a lucky one.”

Final thoughts: “There needs to be more of a focus on practical applications in graduate school. For example, in a methods class there should be time spent on M&E. This might increase chances of being able to secure contract work as a way to bolster one’s income. Departments also need to keep an eye on the increasing tuition costs and ensure funding covers this. It would also help to have committee chairs doing everything they can to get their students done and out of the program as early as possible.”


Completed MA. Currently enrolled in PhD program. Full-time job. Socio-cultural anthropology. No reason for going into anthro. Has between 11 to 30k in student loan debt. Between 5100 and 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “I actively pursued a non-academic career as soon as it became clear just how dire the job market is. Thankfully I’m well-positioned to pursue a career in applied research and should be able to pay off my debt relatively quickly. Currently, my salary exceeds that which is offered to just about any assistant professor.”

Final thoughts: “I hate to waste energy writing about it. We all know what the problems are. The onus is on faculty to reduce the number of admitted PhD students and to get off their asses and learn how to advise students how to pursue non-academic careers. We are also all well aware of the structural problems that will keep them from doing these things.”


Completed MA. Currently enrolled. Unemployed. Socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “Entirely by accident, if I’m being truly honest. I started my MA in architectural theory (my former profession), and as part of that course read Hugh-Jones and Carsten’s ‘About the house’ which led to wider reading in anthropological theory. This was enough to make me transfer the following year.” Student loan debt: between 11 to 30k. No credit card debt.

Future career: “I feel it is unlikely that my PhD will lead to a career, in the sense of a post-doc/lectureship. It seems unlikely in the context of my home country (UK), and perhaps even more so in the US or Europe.”

Final thoughts: “As with all social sciences/humanities, it seems silly, on a practical level, to pursue even undergrad study without funding these days. It’s a shame that education is now subject to the logic of the market, especially with the social sciences as they’re the few subjects able to seriously challenge the notion of education having more than instrumental value.”


Sixth year PhD. Currently enrolled. Part-time job. Focus in socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “passion for anthropology and for teaching undergrads.” Has between 91 to 120k in student loan debt. Between 11–20k in credit card debt.

Future career: “hopeful to stay in academia, hopeful that I will be able to finish my PhD.”

Final thoughts: “anthropology as a discipline needs to carve out its significance rather than remain an ‘outsider’ to more prestigious disciplines, this way, more government funds can be made available for anthropology grads. Also, more funds should be made available for anthropologists who study in North America.”


Completed MA. In grad school. Unemployed. Focus in archaeology. Why anthropology: “Tried corporate stuff, hated it.” Has between 71 to 90k in student loan debt. Between 5100–10k credit card debt.

Future career: “I am optimistic, and have a few opportunities developing. I am confident that I will pay off my debt before I die.”

Final thoughts: “I don’t regret taking out the loans or entering this field. I absolutely love what I do, love teaching anthropology, and I have been able to travel and do research all over the world.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full-time two year position. Last attended college in 2011. Focus in archaeology. Why anthropology: “I loved anthropology and couldn’t see myself doing anything else.” Has between 31 to 50 k in student loan debt. Between 5100 and 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “Not particularly optimistic. I was always at the top of my field with full funding but my options are limited because we can’t afford to keep moving around while we wait for a tt position to come through. Taking my current position has seriously crippled us financially. Dual career couple makes it worse. Even if the best case scenario happens and both my husband and I get tt jobs, I don’t know that we’ll ever be ok. We’ll have to pay about $2000 a month for paying back debt alone.”

Final thoughts: “Academia is extremely elitist and anti-family. All of the people I know who made it either were either single or had financial support from families or spouses who could support them. Paying for childcare is impossible. As a consequence, I could not be as productive as my childless colleagues. These 1 year positions are ridiculously exploitative—they get cheap labor and put us further into debt just to be jobless again in a year or two. Create tt positions or hire someone locally, the current system is a joke.”

*Compare this post with some of the responses from those who were debt free, here.

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Revolutionary Time: First Thoughts on a Concept Wed, 17 Dec 2014 21:55:56 +0000 [Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Melissa Rosario who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at Bowdoin College. Melissa is a cultural anthropologist interested in the politics of autonomy for Caribbean peoples and marginalized U.S. groups, particularly Puerto Ricans. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled Revolutionary Time: A Treatise on the Cultural Logics of Resistance in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.]

These days, I have been thinking a lot about revolution. Names of places—Ayotzinapa, Ferguson, Staten Island—now immediately trigger an affective response in me as evidence of the unbroken chain of state repression against black and brown and indigenous bodies. I don’t want to rehash all the extremely apt analyses of all that has remained the same—women’s bodies remain marginal to our collective outrage; the prison industrial complex operates as the new Jim Crow; we are waking up to the violence of the status quo; there is an ironic distance between Obama’s position on Mexico as a uncivil state who must be held responsible for killing innocent youth while remaining silent on the murders of unarmed black youth—but rather to think about what has changed. To do that, we have to turn to the mass mobilizations themselves, the creative responses, the emotional outcry and think about how they move us towards another way of imagining our present predicament and our collective future. As a Diasporican and scholar of the Caribbean, I know that others have been spending their time trying to unthink concepts like revolution and sovereignty. While I agree that the way we understand these concepts need to be redefined, I want to push us in another direction, and ask, what might it mean to reclaim them through communal presence even amidst today’s radical uncertainty?

This riff is a collection of first thoughts on the concept of what I call revolutionary time. I started playing with this idea in 2010, when I was in Puerto Rico doing research on antiprivatization struggles on the island. I arrived in 2009, just after then Governor Luis Fortuño passed an emergency law that authorized an austerity plan for the island, laying off thousands of workers, reducing the funds given to the public university by approximately 25%. These moves led to a truly radical moment: marked by mass protests as well as a sense of dissatisfaction with politics as usual. While a large scale general strike never materialized, these events helped catalyze the first system-wide strike in the University of Puerto Rico. This was a belated “coincidence,” that led many (myself included) to experience an embodied sense of political possibility—a revolution—that made intentional intimate politics a viable avenue for protest and transformation.

These witnessing-experiences led me to the idea that revolution is ultimately a temporal project: one that requires a continual practice of delinking from systemic logics—of recognizing ultimately that both linear and cyclical understandings of time are insufficient for achieving liberation. I am not only positing that we think of revolution in a more holistic way but also that we see it as a practice of unfixing the future from a knowable thing to malleable thing.

I’ve been ruminating over the truth of my own claims about what makes a revolution. 2010 was in many ways, a more hopeful moment. And yet, the current conjuncture seems to be providing us with a less naïve, and more robust revolutionary time. I am physically dislocated from the epicenters of protests, but even from here—temporarily housed in the whitest state in the country—I can feel something shifting. Both in the negative sense—the perfunctory grand jury process has become contentious, the difference between corrupt state and extrainstitutional forms of power are untenable—we are now inhabiting the ruins of our past possibilities, only thinly veiled by a postracial narrative propped up by a stubborn belief in individualism and the symbolism of the first black president. But I can feel changes in a positive sense too—in the images being shared of the marches, take overs of streets/highways/bridges, enacting symbolic spaces of social deaths that help protestors to reflect on and feel blackness as a zone of nonbeing. These are practices that not only signal resistance, they help us to remember what is always in danger of being forgotten. We know this is wrong. We feel it in our bodies. And this knowledge itself appears to be a great possibility and potential vehicle for healing.

I think that as scholars, we must reject the pessimism that normally shapes our analysis. We need to become vehicles for other visions being crafted in the streets. The better we are at paying attention to these subtle signs, to cultivating compassion for ourselves and our feelings, the better we will be at facing those that tear us apart with their blind acceptance of the status quo.

We need a revolution capable of healing our wounds. We can and should rage. We can and should reject calls for peace that are meant to pacify us, that are meant to keep us off the streets. But we also must recognize that battle is an untenable position in the long run. What I want to call for is an exploration of tools for staying present to the vastly unjust realities that we inhabit while we envision new ones. Like song. Like the altar for the 42 still missing in Ayotzinapa, composed of empty chairs and candles on a basketball court outside the school.

I am especially inspired by the queer Black and Latina feminists healing artists who are leading us towards healing justice.   Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ reminder that we C(h)ant.Breathe Black feminist visions to make space for more of us to breathe and to burn up this rage. We breathe together, or not at all.

This Thursday, December 18, I invite you to join the healing justice movement. Many radical healers will donate all proceeds generated on this day to the Black Lives Matter Ferguson Bail and Support Fund. If you want to donate yourself, click here. To find healers in your area, click here.

Whether you participate or not, I encourage you to reflect on what it might mean to find a sense of ease in your daily resistances—knowing that these practices, when paired with collective forms of action are already anchoring a new vision of interbeing into our present(s) and future(s).



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The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky Wed, 17 Dec 2014 00:20:48 +0000 Jurafsky, Dan. 2014. The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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

Jurafsky is a computational linguistic at Stanford — someone who crunches large corpora of data and figures out how computers should process human speech. Language of Food grows out of an undergraduate course he teaches, so it has the feel of a specialist reaching out to a more general audience by exploring some of his personal interests even, if they are off the main trajectory of his research. His situation in California is a major part of the book. In many ways the volume is a love letter to San Francisco, its food, and its mindset, and its cuisine, and as a native Californian Jurafsky channels the whole city, not just the web 2.0 version of it. As a fellow northern Californian this really endeared the book to me, though ymmv.

At root, Language of Food takes two separate approaches to food. The first uses freakonomics-style ultra-fancy regression analysis to ‘surprise us’ with ‘fascinating facts’ about how people think about food. I was not particularly impressed by this approach. Did someone really fund Jurafsky to crunch five bintillion Yelp reviews in order to figure out that the most common adjective used in positive restaurant reviews was ‘good’?  This sort of thing strikes me as a massively over-engineered attempt to prove what everyone already knows.

But, to be fair, there is no way that Jurafsky could have written these sections of the book to please me — they are just not the sort of work that anthropologists value. Anthropology is about working on human life from the inside out, while Jurafsky’s approach is focused on moving from the outside in. So I suppose that I am glad that both approaches are out there and working simultaneously to converge on similar findings. Now we know through lived experience and computational linguistics that people use the word ‘good’ to describe restaurants they review positively.

The second approach in the book is far more interesting to anthropologists, and it’s what draws me to Jurafsky’s work: His discussion of the diffusion and transformation of cuisine across time and space. In marvelous, deeply researched, and well-illustrated chapters he describes the cultural history of fish and chips, ice cream, and macaroons as they move from east to west and back again. These chapters are, to me, the core of the book.

There’s a reason that these chapters are such a genuine treat for anthropologists like me: Anthropologists used to write this way ourselves. Jurafsky’s work is a timely and well-executed retread of classics like Ralph Linton’s 100% American (1936) or Robert Lowie’s Culture and Ethnology (1917). In fact, these sorts of bravado lectures on the unexpected histories of our culture traits were a staple of American anthropology in its culture-historical mode.

It’s a pity, in a way, that anthropologists have ceded the field to linguists like Jurafsky. Too often our ethnography — and yes, our ethnographers — lack the deep areal expertise that allows us to write books like The Language of Food. Half ethnography and half philosophy, too much anthropology these days ends up being neither. Anthropologists therefore have a lot to learn from Dan Jurafsky, the least of which is that if we write accessibly about the complexities of ethnographic life, we might get book contract out of a mainstream publisher like Norton. We should all be giving lectures on why turkey and Turkey are the same word.

That said, there is something also a little problematic about this sort of old-school culture history, and it’s got to do with the way that Jurafsky yokes his history of diffusion to a multiculturalist argument about tolerance. Throughout The Language of Food Jurafsky argues that the travels of food across the planet is a sign that learning about new ways of eating can help build a liberal, secular, happily multicultural community — a kind of global eating community that overcomes the narrowing parochialisms of religion and ethnicity. In like, you know, exactly the way that people are multicultural in San Francisco.

This is the sort of argument the NPR crowd loves, but the argument seems a bit forced — one gets the idea that the publisher really encouraged Jurafsky to include it — and it also falls flat. Jurafsky is absolutely right that eating is incredibly important to human meaning-making. But, like all things cultural, humans can make eating mean all different things — the meaning of food and eating is, as we like to say, shaped by history and context. Taking communion can be a powerful way to build a Christian communion. Eating bits of the body of your foe can be the ultimate form of aggression and domination. Learning to cook Chinese food can connect one to the Chinese community, or it can be an act of cultural co-option that leaves enrages them. There mere fact of diffusion cannot ground liberal tolerance because food’s meanings are context dependent.

Anthropologists moved away from Boasian decontextualized culture history, in fact, because it was inadequate to explain patterns of diffusion. In order to understand how and why tea, sugar, and ketchup spread over the planet we needed to understand the concrete historical context in which they moved. This is what is lacking in Jurafsky’s approach. The Catholic reconquest of Iberia? Opium shipments to China? Spanish colonialism in the New World? These central parts of the story of food are missing in Jurafsky’s account.

I’m not slighting Jurafsky for not being politically correct, or not being a Marxist or whatever. I’m not interested in being those things. The point is that an adequate history of food reveals that the forces that propelling it around the world were often the opposite of the happily multiculturalism Jurafsky advocates for. Perhaps if Language of Food had jettisoned it’s normative claims we could have just enjoyed Jurafsky’s romp through history and etymology. But the added ethical baggage requires more attention to the political economy of food than Jurafsky brings to the table.

Part of the charm of blog version of Language of Food was its scattershot approach.  Each entry went off in a million directions (it was also, by the way, more heavily illustrated than the book version).  The entries didn’t always have a super-coherent narrative or clear focus, but who cared? It was a blog, and that was part of the appeal. It was fun to watch Jurafsky bouncing around from sound symbolism to nineteenth century menus to maps of the silk road.

Perhaps it is unfair of me, but I was hoping that the book version would do a little better at telling a complex story clearly. Unfortunately, The Language of Food, like the blog,  struggles to juggle all of the bits of story that it wants to tell. It’s no wonder — the food Jurafsky follows travels all over the place in a way that is maddening to track down and describe. And, to be sure, the book is well written, easy to read, and never loses the reader in technicalities — but I did feel it we lost the forest for the trees on more than one occasion. I had a similar concern about the recipes, which sit uneasily in the book and are not collected at the end. Is this a history book or a story-telling cookbook? Were we meant to be able to try them at home? Language of Food sits on the fence on this issue too. But, again, these are hardly major objections to the book.

Overall, there is a lot to like about Jurafsky’s book. It reads well, it’s well researched, it tells fascinating stories, and it helps drive home central lessons of anthropology: Cross-cultural trade has a long and deep history, our own culture owes much to other cultures, and the global community has been related a long time. It’s eminently teachable, and I find myself recommending it again and again to my friends who are interested in food. At the end of the day, even if you don’t want to hit the ‘buy’ button for the book, there is still the blog to fall back on as a source of lecture material and inspiration. Anthropologists may have hoped for more, but we’re a tough crowd to please and really: Jurafsky has better things to do than please us! But please us he does, and I’d recommend Language of Food in either its book or blog form as proof of what a traditional anthropological approach, enlivened for the present, can bring to a public audience.


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Digital Anthropology: You could get with this, or you could get with that Tue, 16 Dec 2014 17:40:43 +0000 Last week I reported from #AAA2014 on the emergence of digital anthropology as a growing theme in our discipline and one in need of some legitimacy relative to anthropology’s traditional domains. Readers posed questions interrogating the worth of digital anthropology. What is it good for? What does it add? How should we define it?

I’ve been mulling over this question of what digital anthropology can do that is different from digital sociology or digital communications studies and the answer I came up with is problematic because it points back to these questions of jobs and disciplinary legitimacy. The next frontier for digital anthropology should be participatory design with the added challenge of translating participatory design into conventionally valuable works of scholarship.

I mean, anthropologists and ethnographers can also forward an innovative agenda of the study of cyberworlds and the way people use information technologies to mediate their social relations/ relationship with the natural environment because our training, our canon, the questions we ask are anthropological. Once you drink the anthropology Kool-Aid it really does change the way you see the world, or so I believe. There’s something special about us that makes it essentially different from sociology or communication.

But at the risk of sounding bratty this is kind of the same justification used in tourism anthropology. Let me say here that I LOVE TOURISM ANTHROPOLOGY. My dissertation is in tourism. I’ve got a lot of respect for those folks. Tourism studies also made a huge splash at the AAA’s this year, go back and check your program. It was everywhere! And that is a good thing, it is incredibly important work: it’s probably the biggest service industry in the world and one of the most relevant ways in which people of different cultures come into contact with one another. Tourism is a really big deal globally, but it is not held in high esteem in the discipline. There’s not a lot of innovation in the field. There’s performance/ performativity, host and guests, work and leisure, cultural imperialism, discourse but its not enough. It’s not taking those old ingredients and mixing them into a new dish that brings people to the table from outside tourism studies.

One area where digital anthropology is well positioned to make big waves is via participatory design. For example, working with communities to compose digital representations of themselves, addressing “cultural” gaps between users and developers particularly when those users are “other,” delivery of social services online/ open government. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that this is applied research. It is seldom done within the academy and when it is it places the added burden upon the anthropologist of translating that product into something of academic value. Thus it is not enough to produce a website for a Buddhist monastery or create a video game that teaches an endangered language to children. No one gets tenure in anthropology for website design. You have to write an article about the website, you have to write a book about your video game.

This is going to be a major challenge. How do you write a fascinating, page-turning account of producing a website? Not only do you need the ethnographic skillz to execute the participatory design. Not only do you need the chops to talk to the IT people who will collaborate with you (or even more rare, write the code yourself). But you also have to be an eloquent writer that can communicate to readers why it took weeks of effort to settle on the background color of your homepage in a way that makes them care.

As strange as it may seem, it is absolutely necessary that digital anthropologists continue the reproduce disciplinary jargon so that our colleagues value what we’re doing. I disagree that this is some indicator of disengagement with the real world or our students for professionals to speak with one another in specialized language. True reaching broader publics is a pressing issue for all of anthropology if not all of academia, but that is something bigger even than digital anthropology however privileged/ high profile we might be among students currently. After all students become doctors, lawyers, and architects despite those professions having outrageous jargon too. But who will find a job in digital anthropology?

Digital anthropologists won’t be in academia unless we learn how to translate what we do into the language and genres of acedmia. We’ll all be working for design firms, libraries, museums, or in communications. That’s going to take some mid-range theory. We need people who can cite Claude Shannon and Bruno Latour in the same sentence. Here’s an interesting example, look to what “multispecies ethnography” has been able to accomplish: reinvigorating cultural ecology by injecting some post-structuralism. And that mattered because it engaged contemporary disciplinary debates.

Maybe we should go back to the thread Kelty laid down with recursive publics? Maybe we should talk to the activist anthropologists about how community engagement becomes an ethnographic object? Maybe we need to make inroads to the Society for Applied Anthropology? We need to take stock and anticipate: what have we learned from the study of cyberworlds that speaks to everyone, to archaeologists and linguists and physical anthropologists and the high flying theory heads, that is relevant beyond the confines of our little clique?

And if our train goes off the track/ Pick it up pick it up pick it up.

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When Peoples Meet Mon, 15 Dec 2014 19:51:30 +0000 Here’s an SM mini-quiz: Given your knowledge of anthropological fads, what year would you expect to see a book published which had section headings like “Power, Politics, and Dominance”, “Tactics of Survival and Counter-assertion”, and “The Problems of Contemporary Imperialism”? Take a guess and click below the jump for the answer.

  1. The book? When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts. The editor? Alain Locke, a key figure in the Harlem renaissance and the first Rhodes Scholar.

When Peoples Meet is more than just a work of anthropology. At over 800 pages and with 100 chapters, this anthology was meant to synthesize pretty much all of the expert literature in the social sciences and humanities that had to do with ‘when people met’. Contributors include everyone from Arnold Toynbee and Charles Darwin to more familiar names to us such as Franz Boas and Edward Sapir.

When Peoples Meet presents a version of history that doesn’t always get told in our contemporary canon. In the selection from Darwin, for instance, the famous naturalist witnesses a Spanish campaign against Indians (in, I believe, Chile):

This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman, he [a Spanish soldier] answered, “Why, what can be done? They breed so!” Everyone here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against the barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country?

Despite it’s explicitly interdisciplinary nature, anthropologists figure heavily in the collection. Twenty of them were anthologized in When Peoples Meet, and several (such as Boas) are featured more than once. Overall I’d estimate that around a quarter of the book is anthropology. They also figure prominently in the acknowledgments: Gene Weltfish, Ruth Benedict, and Melville Herskovits are all mentioned by Locke and his co-editor Bernard Stern. It’s not surprising, then, that When Peoples Meet has such an anthropological point of view.

Because the book wasn’t published by a big New York publisher, it basically has very little web presence. Because no one is interested in making any money off of it, it doesn’t feature prominently in search results. But it was pretty widely distributed back in the day — any university library, and even a good-sized city library system will have a copy. The piece deserves to be not only remembered, but taught. This was a time when anthropologists still wrote in English (well, more of them did at any rate). Although the essays may seem dated now, they contain research results that have not really been invalidated by additional research, even if we now have a much more complete and complex understanding of the dynamics of culture change. Clear statements about the fundamental findings of our discipline? This is definitely a volume with bits that could be used in an intro course. Or, more interestingly, a volume that could be used by someone struggling to find some structure for planning and teaching their first intro course.

I know, you were totally thinking ‘tactics’ didn’t occur in the title of anthropological works until after Foucault, right? :)

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Sources on St. Clair Drake Sun, 14 Dec 2014 06:49:59 +0000 Since so many readers were interested in Faye Harrison’s piece here on SM and Karen Brodkin’s challenge to Boas’s supremacy as the exemplar of anti-racist anthropology I thought I would provide a quick walkthrough of some aspects of this alternate canon in anthropology — what Harrison has called the ‘DuBoisian’ stream in the history of anthropology (there is a whole special issue of Critique of Anthropology on this topic).

There are many sources to learn about this stream of thought. Leith Mullings 2013 AAA Presidential address is a good starting place. Over a year ago I asked the AAA if we could transcribe it and throw it up on SM but they said no because they wanted to publish it, which has not happened yet (or perhaps I missed it). So for now even the text-inclined will have to go to YouTube (hey, at least it’s open access). Another source is Harrison’s own African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (the shortcut version of this book is the ABA’s ‘pioneers’ page).

In truth one might wonder why we could call this an ‘alternate canon’? After all, how can a presidential address be ‘alternate’? The answer has a lot do with who and where has the money to train the next generation of graduate students. But rather than try to go over this whole history, which I know so little about, I thought I would try to focus on a single figure: St. Clair Drake.

The wikipedia entry on Drake is gives a good overview of his work: His work on two key pieces of anthropology, Black Metropolis and Deep South (both collaborative projects), his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and his time as a professor at Roosevelt (in Chicago) and then Stanford. For many people, he is a foundational figure in black/afro-descended anthropology.

If you’d like to learn more, perhaps the best place to go is his trio of autobiographical articles “Anthropology and the Black Experience“, “Reflections on Anthropology and the Black Experience” (maybe the most accessible of the three?) and “Further Reflections on Anthropology and the Black Experience“. This last piece is part of one of the early issues of Transforming Anthropology (the journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists, which is part of the AAA) which has a special section of Drake — all of the articles in it are worth reading.

The French, for various reasons, latched on the urban anthropology and sociology early on, but could not take it’s cultural context for granted. As a result there is a lot of good intellectual history of this topic in French (work on Goffman, Robert Park and the Chicago school, etc). This includes an excellent and accessible article on the amazing “Making Of Black Metropolis“. The Chicago Reader (the local listings mag) also has a contemporary review of Black Metropolis.

Jerry Gershenhorn, who made his name doing work on Melville Herskovits, has recently started working on African-American scholars, including St. Clair Drake. Check out Gershenhorn’s faculty page for publications. To be frank, Drake is far more compelling, personally, than Melville Herskovits.

There is also a variety of Drake’s work available open access on the web —  though, IANAL, I have no idea how it got there. This biggest one is, of course, That site’s webibliography has a great selection of key texts about and by Drake, and many of them are available for download and very juicy, such as The American Dream and The Negro: One Hundred Years of Freedom? But there are other sources as well. If you really want to wonk out, has a copy of Drake’s 300+ page report Churches and Voluntary Associations in the Chicago Negro Community from 1940.

It would be wrong to think of Drake as just an anthropologist — he was a sociologist and founder of African-American studies as well. and it would be wrong to think of his work as somehow only of interest to people interested in black people. As his loose disciplinary affiliation suggests, Drake was hardly parochial. In fact, he was part of something much larger: The activist, bohemian and intellectual realm which was the context of anthropology’s crystallization. Anyone interested in the history of our discipline — or in challenging our disciplinarity! — needs to reckon with St. Clair Drake as an important figure.

But I really don’t think I’m an expert in this field, so I’d love to see any additional links or resources pop up in the comments.

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Reflections on the AAA Die-in as a Symbolic Space of Social Death Fri, 12 Dec 2014 16:13:22 +0000 [Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Faye V. Harrison who is currently Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including the landmark volumes Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation (American Anthropological Association, 1994) and Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age (University of Illinois Press, 2008).]

Faye Harrison


Like hundreds of others, I participated in the December 5th die in at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington, D.C. Under the leadership of the Association of Black Anthropologists and galvanized through the ABA’s alliance-building with other kindred-thinking AAA sections, the main lobby of the Marriott Hotel was converted into a symbolic space of social death for four and a half minutes. Darren Wilson and his fellow Ferguson, Missouri police officers left the lifeless body of teenager Michael Brown in the middle of the street for four and half hours before it was covered up and taken away. Four and a half hours of exposure to the elements; four and a half hours of utter disrespect for the loss of the young man’s life and disrespect for the family and community that would grieve the killing of yet another son on blood-stained ground. A blood-stained landscape of social and real-life death links Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California to Ferguson, Missouri and countless other sites across the nation and the world, where the lives of blacks and other people of color are being targeted for harassment, arrest, incarceration, and, in the worst case scenario, elimination and disposal.

In the racialized spaces of social death wherein Black lives are rendered less than fully human, Black male and female encounters with police and also with the vigilante violence of citizens enacting a stand-your-ground logic have disproportionately resulted in the wrongful deaths of unarmed adolescents and adults, sons and fathers like Staten Island, New York’s Eric Garner. It’s imperative that we understand that daughters, mothers, and grandmothers are not immune to this kind of existential vulnerability. The Black females who have died from wrongful police killings—including 93 year-old Pearlie Smith and 7-year old Aiyana Jones—have been much less visible in the media and in mass protest action. This phenomenon results from a racialized gender bias that needs to be better understood so that it can be effectively redressed.

A tragic pattern prevails across the land; it represents an escalation of extrajudicial executions targeting black and other dark(ened) bodies, whose culpability is conjured through criminalizing accusations. They are guilty of driving, walking, talking back, and, in the case of Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida, even of listening to loud music while Black. The widely shared presumption is that these targeted individuals were dangerous threats to law and order and to personal security, particularly white people’s safety and undisturbed peace. The controlling image or stereotype of the violently aggressive thug has been indiscriminately projected upon black bodies, particularly those performing black masculinities. The refusal of grand juries to indict and, in the case of trials, of juries to convict the rightful perpetrators of this violence reflects the extent to which black lives are devalued and infra-humanized in this society. It is for this reason that protesters all across the country and even our allies in other national settings are carrying signs asserting that “Black Lives Matter!” and exhorting “Don’t Shoot!”

These poignant declarations resonate with those being made in public protests against the undeclared war on black youth in Brazil, where the pacification of poor neighborhoods, to make way for the World Cup and Olympics, is intensifying the already existent racially-marked violence of police and privately-commissioned militias—death squads—that participate in the ethnic/social cleansing of urban and rural space. The coercive dislocation and elimination of black people is an integral feature of the systematic land grab that Keisha-Khan Perry brilliantly analyzes in her award-winning ethnography, Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil (2013). Other anthropologists working in Brazil are also documenting these trends, such as Christen Smith and João Costa Vargas. Vargas analyzes them in terms of an anti-black genocidal continuum which also exists in other African diasporic settings, including the United States.

Human rights reports have also documented the extent to which racial profiling, extrajudicial executions, and police impunity are troubling trends in both Brazil and the United States of America. In 2009 two relevant documents were issued: Human Rights Watch’s Lethal Force: Police Violence and Public Security in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Related Intolerance’s follow-up report on the implementation, or lack thereof, of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action. I am referring specifically to the addendum on the internationally renowned lawyer and legal scholar Doudou Diène’s 2008 mission to the United States. A major portion of his report dealt with law enforcement, which rivaled with immigration control and counterterrorism as a context for racialized human rights abuse.

Our declarations of “Black Lives Matter” also resonate with the human rights protests all across Mexico, where 43 students, many if not all from poor indigenous backgrounds, disappeared from a teachers college in Iguala, Guerrero in September. They were abducted by police and handed over to a drug gang that murdered them, if rumors and initial forensic evidence are accurate. That the lives of those 43 students matter has been collectively expressed in demonstrations and declarations demanding that the federal government hold the instigators and perpetrators of the crime against humanity accountable and return the students to their families and communities—that is, if they are still alive. However, if the students have perished, the government has the responsibility to conduct a comprehensive investigation and provide a public explanation of what happened and why. And it has the responsibility to punish the culprits, going against the grain of a political culture of impunity and corruption.

On November 25, 2014, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), of which I am currently president, published a brief statement in solidarity with Mexican and Latin American protesters, who include anthropologists, on the opinion page of the newspaper La Jornada. Like Ferguson, Mo., this is a tragic case of youth from oppressed communities being targeted by repressive social control practices, from militarized policing and para-militarized repression to a whole range of neoliberalized modes of governance. As an anthropologist, a concerned citizen, and a mother, my mapping of human rights violations zooms in on my own backyard as well as in more distant zones of power disparities.

The four and a half minutes we all lay in complete silence on the lobby floor were quite intense. I filled my mind with meditative thoughts of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and their parents, who channeled their profound grief and sorrow into internationally visible activism. I also saw the faces of my own three sons, now men. I remembered when I delivered the eldest during an unexpectedly difficult and protracted labor. Anxieties mounted within me about the challenges I would face of raising a Black male child in a racist society in which a threatening otherness would be attributed to him. I suspected that much of the discrimination he was likely to face would be much more subtle than what his father and grandfathers had known. But what I feared most and couldn’t get out of mind was the specter of brutal police force and the potential hate crimes to which he might be subjected. I wondered whether, as a parent and a member of a wider family and community, I would be sufficiently able to protect him and to guide him into full adulthood. I meditated and prayed that I would be able to meet the challenges and demands of Black motherhood.

As I labored with all my might to give birth to my baby boy, my man child who would be born into an unfulfilled promise land, I questioned whether the neoliberal logic likely to be applied during the 1980s Reaganomics regime would lead to a milieu marked by even more dangerous racializing meanings, conditions, and practices, contrary to the expectations born of civil rights era optimism. Years later I would come to know that so much of the research anthropologists have done on the neoliberal landscapes of the past three decades have illuminated the troubling effects of structural racism’s persistence and remaking in its entanglements with other dimensions of social inequality and conflict—class, gender, sexuality, and generation or age. However, the current conjuncture, articulated now as the Age of Ferguson, has severely challenged the optimism that many antiracist liberals and leftists have long embodied about the extent to which our society has changed for the better and is capable of changing at a positively discernible pace.

The depth, intensity, and pervasiveness of anti-blackness in the fabric of U.S. society compel us to rethink our models of and for social transformation. Those who subscribe to more pessimistic perspectives, such as scholars and activists associated with the Derrick Bell-variety of critical race theory and the intellectual trajectory known as Afro-pessimism, urge us to relinquish our political naïveté in favor of a more critically realistic views of what is, what is possible, and what should be done about them. Whether optimist, pessimist, or somewhere in between, perhaps we can agree that the “Black Lives Matter,” “Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” demonstrations proliferating across the country clearly belie the widespread postracial pretensions and conceit that have denied grievances against racism the legitimacy as well as the political and policy attention they rightfully deserve.

The four and a half minutes were over. After getting up from the floor, I interacted with the two women who were nearest to me. One remarked on how intense those few minutes of silence had been for her. I agreed, as I wiped away tears streaming from my eyes. After exchanging our feelings and reactions, we gave each other a big group hug and expressed sincere thanks and appreciation for having experienced the die in with colleagues whose knowledge, sensibilities and politics we respected. That night at the AAA Business meeting, after a prolonged debate on a contentious resolution not to support the boycott against Israeli academic institutions, which was voted down, a motion from the Section Assembly was passed without any opposition. The motion called for the association’s making a public statement on Ferguson and Staten Island, appointing a task force to determine what anthropologists can do to address racialized policing, and urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate extrajudicial violence and killing. Many of us left the AAA meeting feeling that anthropologists can and will find meaningful ways to play a part in the struggle, as it will continue to unfold in the years to come. La lucha continúa. A luta continua. The struggle continues.

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“The Digital” as major theme at #AAA2014 Thu, 11 Dec 2014 16:50:05 +0000 As I settled in to browse the conference program for the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (just hours before I was scheduled to leave, natch), I was immediately struck by a common thread running through a slew of paper panels and workshops. This year anthropologists convincingly demonstrated that they have wholly embraced the Digital, it was everywhere from topics to methodological choices, technologies and communications.

Here’s a sample of what conference goers had in store:

  • NAPA Workshop: (FREE) Software for Writing and Managing Fieldnotes: FLEX DATA Notebook for PCs
  • Writing Ethnography: Experimenting on Paper, Experimenting Online

Add to this the #AAA2014 tweet-up, constant updates on social networks and blogs (not to mention the email and instant messaging we all take for granted) and it is clear — there is no part of our professional lives that is untouched by the online. Research, fieldwork, methods, teaching, scholarly communications. Digital anthropology is a major development in our discipline and rightly so, humanity, our bread and butter, is potentially redefining itself in relation to these technologies. We can’t not study this stuff!

Moreover, our public loves digital anthropology. People come to these panels, especially the students. Digital anthropologists themselves are an incredibly diverse bunch, I met several international folks who were making the journey to the AAA for the first time to speak on digital studies. The presses know the topic sells books. In the exhibition halls there were stacks of books for sale like Digital Rebellion: Birth of the Cyberleft, Oral Tradition and the Internet, Digital Anthropology, and Human No More.

Despite all these strengths it was not uncommon to hear students tell of being discouraged by faculty advisers from going into this area. Too many of our colleagues still limit “real” anthropology to villages and developing countries. Perhaps there is a kernel of wisdom in their obstructionism. Look to the senior voices in digital anthropology and they all started out in something else.

Its an unwritten rule that you have to begin your career in one of anthropology’s “traditional” areas of expertise then, once you’re established, you can branch out into Facebook fieldwork. That’s a shame. It’s the same double standard that plays out in Open Access. Make your publications available to everyone… unless you don’t have tenure then you need to chase the top titles in your field. It leaves the students who want to focus on this incredibly important aspect of what it means to be human right now out in the cold because despite its popularity (or, perhaps, in part because of it) digital anthropology is lacking in legitimation.

I don’t understand why this is the case. Anthropology wants desperately to be relevant, it wants to get its message out to broader publics. This is the stuff that fills classrooms and gets covered in the press. How can we advocate for the legitimacy of digital studies?

Read the job ads in cultural anthropology and most of them are going to make reference to some geographic region that their potential hire must fill. Does a digital anthropologist have a hope of being hired by an anthropology department?

What is it that they want, those who hold the prestige? How can we move this scholarship forward from Trendy Topic to the next STS or the next Queer studies? Because what the digital anthropologists do is not new. The traditional features of anthropology wholly transfer because the Internet is humans. Its humans all the way down.

This was the year DANG (the Digital Anthropology Group) met CASTAC (the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing) and exchanged ideas about how we can support and enhance each others’ work. In the future I hope these two groups grow closer together, support each other in conferences and on the web, and complement each others’ strengths. CASTAC is a committee within the General Anthropology Section: what can they do that DANG cannot? DANG is an interest group, more informal and perhaps more agile, how can we play our free form structure to CASTAC’s advantage? If you are interested in contributing to DANG, or just want to learn more about the group please check the Digital Anthropology Group tag below, or email me directly.

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Learning from Stuart Hall: the Limit as Method Wed, 10 Dec 2014 19:28:51 +0000 (Here’s a guest post from Sareeta Amrute. Sareeta is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. She is currently completing her first book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: an Ethnography of Indian IT Workers in Berlin (Duke U. Press). You can read more about her scholarship on her website)

Stuart Hall’s work is notable for the way it links biography, critique from within and of the ‘Left’, and a Marxian analysis of capitalism and popular culture. Hall passed away in February 2014, and is the subject of a series of talks on his life and work ongoing here in Seattle at the University of Washington. These remembrances inspired me to think more closely about Stuart Hall’s specific contribution to research methodology. Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended.

I began my return to Stuart Hall by re-reading an essay that I’ve returned to time and again: Stuart Hall’s 1996, “When Was The Post-Colonial? Thinking at the Limit”. In this essay, Hall notes that the term post-colonial is useful precisely because of its ambiguity, the way it troubles—even while acknowledging the power of—the binaries of ‘then’ and ‘now’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ (246-8). As such, its periodization, emphasizing as it does the colonial encounter, provides an alternative narrative of capitalist modernity that puts the peripheries at the center of a story normally told from the perspective of European modernization (Hall here anticipates Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theoretical moves in Provincializing Europe). “The post-colonial”, Hall writes in that piece,

“is no different from other ‘posts’. It is not only ‘after’ but ‘going beyond’ the colonial… colonialism refers to a specific historical moment … but it was always also a way of staging or narrating a history” (Hall, ‘When was the Post-Colonial Thinking at the Limit’, 253).

But re-reading Hall’s essay this time around in concert with his earlier essay from 1980, “Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance” made me think more concretely of Stuart Hall’s method of building concepts and of doing analysis. The essay on the post-colonial mobilizes the idea of the limit to mean an “episteme-in-formation”, denoting an emergent relationship of power, temporality, and knowledge that both carries with it colonial ‘after-effects’ as Hall calls them, and marks a shift that reconfigures those relations.

In the earlier essay, the limit appears as something else. Hall is concerned in ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structures in Dominance’ to move beyond two dominant paradigms for understanding racism, which he diagnoses as economic determinism and sociological pluralism.

The first, familiarly perhaps, reduces race to a mystifying expression of underlying class relations. The economy is the determining factor in the constitution of race. The second correctly objects to this line of thought by arguing that not all manifestations of race can be reduced to economic relationships. It however sidelines any possible relationship between economic structures and racial formations, thereby producing multiple types of racial formation without being able to link any of these to the social and historical conditions through which they are produced.

In the essay, Hall charts a methodology that will create an historically grounded framework for the analysis of race and social domination based on three principles of investigation, which he derives from a heterodox reading of Marx: First, “that the analysis of political and ideological structures must be grounded in their material conditions of existence (the materialist premise) and second, that the specific forms of these relations. . . must be made historically specific” by supplying those elements that can explain their differences (372). This latter is what Hall calls the historical premise. Finally, the third principle is that what we might today call relations of power, or in his words, ‘structures in dominance’ is followed through any given social relationship at hand. These principles are a starting point for doing work that connects questions of capitalism and capitalist formations with those of race, domination, and cultural hegemony.

If these three principles are a kind of distillation of Hall’s method of exposition, how did he get there? I think he did so by thinking in another way about the ‘limit’. In the essay ‘Race, Articulation and Societies Structures in Dominance’, the limit is used in terms of thinking through the ‘limit case’ of South Africa. South Africa, a clear example of an economy organized along racial lines, presented for Hall a case that could neither be fully explained by recourse to capitalist economics, nor by reference to the racist South African state. Each without the other was a partial explanation, inadequate to the task of understanding social domination.

The importance of the limit in this sense of an empirical case that gives the lie as it were to easy theoretical positions and to political polemics seems important in much of Hall’s work. In the post-colonial essay, for instance, Latin America with its long history of colonization and early decolonization provides a limit case for the term, allowing, indeed forcing, Hall to confront what is generalizable about the term (that it inaugurates a shifted narrative about the significance of colonial relationships to the unfolding of the history of colonized and metropolitan places). And, in the wonderfully-named short piece “The Whites of their Eyes” on race and representation in media, the practice of nativist politics used by the Labor Party in Britain in the name of job protection for the working classes serves as Hall’s limit case through which to think more carefully about how the politics of class and of race are aligned and fractured under certain historically specific conditions (in Hall’s case, Thatcherite Britain).

From Hall’s deployment of the ‘limit case’ we can see the way that a given social reality generates not another type of social life, but the careful reworking of existing frames of analysis. In this way, the limit case circles back to the limit as the edge of an emergent episteme. By thinking through a limit case, the outlines of that episteme (the trace of the limit) beyond which thinking has not yet gone, begin to be discerned.

These very grounded methods for engaging in research are for me one of Hall’s most important contributions to the human sciences, enabling the insights of ethnographic ‘limit cases’ to push at and delineate the limits of what is currently known.

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#BlackLivesMatter and #AAA2014: Die-In, Section Assembly Motion, and the ABA Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Practices Tue, 09 Dec 2014 20:48:08 +0000 On Monday, December 8, 2014, the Association of Black Anthropologists issued a Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Practices. The Statement followed from recent events in the USA discussed and acted upon at last week’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC (#AAA2014): a die-in held on Friday, December 5 at 12:28 pm in the main lobby of the conference hotel, and later that same day, a section assembly motion on Michael Brown and Eric Garner, racialized repression and state violence was presented and approved by the AAA membership at the AAA business meeting. The die-in was planned and motion drafted Thursday by a group of anthropologists at special sessions on Ferguson, racism, and violence; this organizing work continues at the #BlackLivesMatterAAA website. Both the Statement and the Motion are published in full below. 

Die in from above panorama

Die-In, lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington DC

Black Lives Matter AAA


ABA Statement Against Police Violence and Anti-Black Practices (8 December 2014)

The Association of Black Anthropologists condemns, in no uncertain terms, the ongoing terrorism waged against Black U.S. communities by the state, police, and White vigilantes. We condemn the executions of our boys and girls, women and men by the police in Ferguson, Staten Island, Saratoga Springs, Los Angeles, and throughout the country. We also recognize that these forms of state violence are perpetrated against Black people globally. We are enraged by the fact that no police officer has been indicted in the recent murders of Aiyanna Jones, Michael Brown and Eric Garner; and we are outraged that in the hundred days since the murder of Michael Brown, police have also murdered unarmed Ezell Ford, unarmed Tanisha Anderson, unarmed Roshad McIntosh, unarmed Akai Gurley, unarmed Dante Parker and unarmed Kajieme Powell. These are state-sponsored massacres of our people, massacres enabled by a long history of national and global anti-Blackness.

As it pertains to the ongoing atrocities of the criminal justice system in this country – alongside those who spoke before the United Nations in November, we charge genocide.[1]

As members of the academic discipline with the distinctive history of establishing the language and “science” of race to justify settler colonialism and slavery, we recognize full well that the root of today’s anti-Black state-sponsored violence in the U.S. is white supremacy. We know that our discipline played a significant role in developing the trope of a particular Black subject – the “urban” Black – that has been deployed by society at large to dehumanize Black people.  At the same time, we also realize that our discipline has been tepid in fruitfully acknowledging and addressing its own white supremacist foundation. We therefore call on our colleagues in the American Anthropological Association to join us in not only condemning this history but also in affirming that Black Lives Matter – beyond the role of ethnographic subjects and cultural vessels. We call on our colleagues in anthropology to stand against the U.S. state’s terrorism against Black and Brown peoples. We call on our colleagues to join us in demanding redress and restitution, with expediency.

As Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston is known to have said, “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” We will not be silent. For members of the American Anthropological Association to be silent at this time given our discipline’s historic complicity in establishing the current order, and when we have the means to make a difference, is criminal.

To this end

  1. We call on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association to issue a formal statement that condemns the heinousness of these crimes and calls on our academic guild to more forcefully tackle the problems brought on by racism and racial profiling. We ask that the Executive Board make every effort to make this statement accessible to the general public through mainstream media outlets so the discipline’s stance and investment in these efforts can be widely known.
  2. We call on our colleagues to join the ABA in challenging the power positions from which we produce anthropology.
  3. We join with other anthropologists, and stand in solidarity with people from around the country, in calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to review the use of force by police and to make a commitment to working for the eradication of racism and racialized state violence.
ZNH quote AAA2014


AAA Section Assembly Motion on Anti-Black Violence in the USA (5 December 2014)

The Section Assembly of the American Anthropological Association is outraged by the failure of the Ferguson and Staten Island grand juries to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the dismissal of the case against the officer who killed 7 year old Aiyana Jones.  In the hundred days since the murder of Michael Brown, police have also murdered 12 year old Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Darien Hunt, Aura Rain Rosser, Tanisha Anderson, Roshad McIntosh, Akai Gurley, Vonderitt Myers, and Rumain Brisbon, among others – all unarmed. These incidents reflect a blatant disregard for the value and dignity of their lives and the communities in which they live. These events are representative of a broader U.S. history of systematic anti-black violence, dating back to the enslavement, lynch laws, and the prison-industrial complex that affects black children, men, women and gender queer people.

As members of an academic discipline with the distinctive history of establishing the language and “science” of race, which has been used to justify settler colonialism and slavery, we understand the roots of this state violence. While U.S. ideologies hold that we are all equal under the law, this has never been the case, and in fact inequality has been structured into the justice system from the start, and is currently escalating via the militarization of local police forces.

To this end, we want the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association to: 1) make a formal statement condemning these activities and structural conditions, 2) create a Task Force to explore issues related to racialized police brutality and extra-judicial violence; and 3) call on the U.S Justice Department to review the use of force by police and to make a commitment to working for the eradication of racism and racialized state violence.

Shut It Down AAA


Action and Organizing at the AAAs

For many people, this year’s AAAs was like no other. Who knows when the last time was that so many members attended the organization’s business meeting? Energy and commitment was palpable, powerfully so at the business meeting as the vote on the above Section Assembly Motion followed a landslide vote to continue discussion and education on a possible boycott of Israeli education institutions. Political crises brought scholars together across fieldsites, generations, issues, and more. ABA member Bianca Williams (Colorado) speaks to this sense of momentum:

The activities and energy at the AAA has truly reestablished my faith in our discipline. I worked diligently with folks from different walks this past week—ABA members; researchers who study police violence; anthropologists from all four fields; AAA Executive Board members; passionate graduate students; and scholars who have been committed to fighting anti-Black thought and practices–to ensure that anthropology clearly stated and demonstrated its investment in destroying the structural racism that facilitates an environment where Black lives are devalued. The die-in, the major presence at the general body business meeting, the support of senior anthropologists, and the ABA’s statement lets me know, and hopefully lets others know, that anthropologists are committed to fighting this struggle for the long term, as we have particular theoretical and methodological contributions to make. For me, this is what engaged anthropology looks like. Hopefully AAA 2014 was a call to action for all anthropologists.

We are learning as we are acting too; a powerful image went up on Twitter of AAA President Leith Mullings (CUNY, The Grad Center) guiding younger scholars in the ways of AAA bureaucracy, on task forces and sections and motions, and how to get things done.

Processed with Rookie


In reflecting on #AAA2014, Aries Dela Cruz (Rutgers) captured the sense of possibility for work inside the AAA that speaks to and with the outside world:

“This was my first AAA as a new anthropology student, and what it has taught me is that our discipline can be most effective and affective when we respond to a political moment. The public takes us seriously when we speak in a language that’s relevant to them, understands their grammar and modes of being. In addition to physically symbolizing racialized repression and state violence, the die-in laid the groundwork for the motion to be overwhelmingly passed by the section assembly.

All over the world, people can now see anthropologists as a resource they might be able to access in their local communities as allies, as people who can train them to conduct ethnographies of police departments to be able to be used in civil rights lawsuits.”

How can we best use the institutional spaces and structures available to us? How can we transform these spaces and structures as needed? One thing is for sure: our ethnographic knowledge, our teachings, our energy is needed now inside anthropology as well as outside of it. Next year in Denver….and between now and then, there is much work to be done.


With thanks to Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Aries Dela Cruz, Marco Hill, and Bianca Williams for photos, stories, and help putting it all together. For more photos from the AAA Die-In, see Marco Hill’s website.

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The Wellspring of Zora Neale Hurston’s Creative Imagination Mon, 08 Dec 2014 09:16:08 +0000 In her stories, plays, poems and songs, Zora drew the words out of her Eatonville memories, the wellspring of her creativity, elevating dialect to new literary heights. As early as 1919, well before her first short stories were published, she wrote poetry in dialect (“In de evenin when I’m alone/ And thinkin jes o’ you…) as well as standard English (“I do not grieve that I no more behold thee,/ Nor press thy lips, nor lie upon thy breast;…). In elevating rural Black culture to the heights of literature, Zora was moving against the grain of writers who would eventually become her urbane contemporaries, and whom she dubbed the “Niggerrati.” In choosing to write in dialect, almost six years before she would venture to Harlem and seven years before she encountered anthropology, Zora demonstrated in her own work the linguistic innovations she later concluded (after much research) was illustrative of a core aspect of Black culture. As her niece Lucy Hurston writes in her book, Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston: Zora wrote stories [and poetry] the way she’d heard them all her life –in the idiom of the black American South.” To Zora, Black language, Black dialect, was not “poor” English, it was an example of Black ingenuity and Black folk’s ability to not only modify the language imposed upon them by slavery, but to invent something completely new and unique. Zora would return to Black language later in her research and view it through a linguistic anthropological lens; she would come to view it not only as a rich resource for her literary works, and certainly not poor mimicry of whites as some scholars argued,  but as evidence of  the cultural adaptive capabilities of  Black folk.

By the time Zora arrived in Harlem in 1925, at the urging of Charles S. Johnson, then editor of Opportunity Magazine who saw promise and talent in her , the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. In her autobiography, Dustracks…, Zora described the moment this way: “So I came to New York through Opportunity, and through Opportunity to Barnard.”

Zora’s admission to Barnard College and her subsequent introduction to Franz “Poppa” Boas and Ruth Benedict as professors would have a profound impact. It was not the end of her life as a writer, but the beginning of a new chapter, one best characterized as “the making of an anthropologist.”

Visit my “Zora Corner”


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Anthropology: It’s still white public space–An interview with Karen Brodkin (Part II) Thu, 04 Dec 2014 22:36:46 +0000 This is the second part of my interview with Karen Brodkin.  Part I is here.

Ryan Anderson: All of this has me wondering how this is happening in US anthropology. As a discipline, we have this sort of pride that comes with our Boasian legacy of anti-racism. But your work seems to indicate that something is terribly amiss. Despite all of our rhetoric about anti-racism, it turns out we have some serious internal problems when it comes to race and diversity. In your view, how has this happened and why do we tell ourselves such a different story?

Karen Brodkin: In its institutional profile, anthropology is not much different from other white-majority institutions, and like them, we also think we’re doing better than especially non-white anthropologists think we are. I’ve used “white public space” to highlight the different views that white and racialized minority anthropologists have about anthropology’s racial climate. But knowing that only raises two more questions. What are the specific practices and narratives that have led anthropologists of color give the discipline’s racial climate low marks over some 40 years? And, what are the positive changes anthropologists have been making within their departments and scholarly networks? Both these efforts and conversations about them need a bigger public profile within the discipline.

I think that the story about our Boasian anti-racist legacy is one of the (many) things we need to change. As you indicate, it’s part of what makes many of us think we’re doing well. It is also part of what attracts scholars of color to anthropology, even if they subsequently may become disappointed.

The story I learned eons ago, and that I also taught made Boas an exemplar of anthropology’s anti-racist potential, either as PR for the discipline or as encouragement to engage in social justice scholarship, depending on the teller. It was a story of Boas and his students as activists and scholars who challenged prevailing ideas that races were unequal and that white social supremacy was a natural and inevitable outcome of superior biology. Key points were that race, language and culture varied independently; that biology was changeable; that Africa had great kingdoms; and that there was no inherent or inevitable inferiority of black Americans or any other racialized group.

All that was true and good, but, as Lee Baker has shown, Boas had some serious limitations in his own era, and they loom even larger in today’s context. In their own time Boasians ignored the political economy of race and the sociocultural organization of African American communities. Political and economic oppression of black Americans was the “self-evident” confirmation of white supremacy. With 20-20 hindsight it’s easy to see how big that omission was. Nevertheless, the political economy of American racism was very much part of the analysis of progressive scholarship in Boas’ time. W.E.B. DuBois, whom Boas knew and worked with, and anthropologists like Alison Davis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, contemporaries of Boas’ students, were publishing politically and economically-informed analyses of Black America and of African American cultural communities.

Nevertheless, these scholars and the kind of socially critical analysis they generated about race/ism weren’t in the anthropological canon I learned, and I’m guessing they still aren’t. By ignoring this work, Boasians arguably established a pattern of marginalizing the study of race and racism—that it’s somehow not real anthropology–that persists today. That their view of culture in general didn’t include political economy is also a weakness. Marginalizing the study of rac/ism in the U.S. was in part a casualty of a larger exclusion of political economy. Anthropology ceded such things to sociology. Still, British social anthropology, and later, even Marx, made happy homes in U.S. anthropology. Less so the study of race and racism.

Racism is a shape shifter, and while Boasian anti-racism countered the white racist narratives of its time, today’s racism isn’t the racism of pre-civil rights eras. We’ve inherited three weaknesses from genuflecting to Boasians as anti-racist ancestors instead of analyzing their contributions in historical perspective.

First, as Lee Baker shows in “The Color-Blind Bind,” the political right wing has embraced anthropology’s signature contribution that race is not a biological concept to argue for erasing race from the civic vocabulary; if there are no races, there can be no racism. How do we as anthropologists counter that logic?

Second, there’s a hole in our traditional Boasian story. DuBois, St.Clair Drake, Cayton, and Alison Davis gave birth to a powerful stream of anti-racist social science scholarship, but I don’t think it’s widely embraced as part of our canon. Seldom are these scholars included as apical ancestors, even though we make disciplinary exceptions for Durkheim, Weber and more recently Marx.

Third, both Boasian and British colonial anthropology have left an exoticist legacy, which disparaged studying “us.” Boasians tended to treat Native Americans as cultural and ahistorical “others,” and African Americans as a biological race but otherwise culturally the same as whites. Happily dying, such traditions lived on well in the 1980s and ‘90s, and I suspect are alive still among some of us old folks. If anthropology’s reason for being is to understand society & culture, how trustworthy are we at understanding either in places we know not so well, if we assume incompetence at reflective analysis of our home places?

So what’s the point of this long meditation on Boas? I think that it’s just one (very small) example of the kinds of critical reflections we need to make on our disciplinary taken-for-granted cultural practices and narratives. We also need to move from reflection to changing the Boasian narrative and expanding the anthropological canon to include DuBois, Drake, Davis and Cayton as theoretical pioneers. Doing so would be one step in placing the study of race squarely inside the anthropological mainstream.

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Ethics, Visual Media and the Digital Thu, 04 Dec 2014 18:27:40 +0000 As c.10,000 anthropologists descend upon Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological Association conference, my colleague Jonathan Marion (University of Arkansas) and I, alongside an international cadre of researchers, have joined a long-standing conversation about the relationship between digital cultures, visual media and ethics that will fully manifest on Saturday, but that exists online in multiple forms too (more below). That conversation is a complicated one, known to induce frustration, confusion, feelings of helplessness, despondency and, at times, defiance among those who engage in it. By this I refer to the business of negotiating (1) the ethical implications of our own research programmes, (2) the experience of formal ethical review, and (3) ethical issues borne out of the everyday actions of our communities of study. Such ‘business’ is seemingly made even more complicated when digital and visual media are brought into the fold.

Indeed, more than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure – are arguably more conspicuous now than in 2003. Today, their complexities appear to be extending as digital interactions themselves extend, and the consequence is an inevitably fraught landscape of practice with debatable outcomes.

There is no shortage of voices commenting on the state of ethics in anthropology (myself and Jonathan included), and an increasing number of those voices are now zeroing in on certain forms of anthropological research that seem to nurture special ethical conditions. Visual media, for instance, have triggered an entire discourse on ‘visual ethics’, which – as reviewed by Andrew Clark – seems to be premised on a series of claims about the uniqueness of the image and, hence, its incompatibility with existing ethical codes (or its wholesale neglect by those codes).

While all data forms arguably have their own unique repercussions, it is difficult to dispute the argument that existing ethical schemas are often inadequate for managing new or emerging modes of media application. As one example, assurance of anonymity is regularly a blanket condition in most ethical frameworks. Yet, quoting from Clark with regards to imaging work, “it is often impossible, impractical, or even illogical to maintain the anonymity and confidentiality of individuals in artwork, photographs and film.” Beyond picturing practices alone, however, online modes of engagement now often hinge upon visibility and identification—thereby colliding with standard anonymity policies. This puts us in a position where we must stretch out the nature of our ethical structures if we expect our research programmes to survive. As Brent Luvaas has been compelled to ask in the course of his research into online self-promotional work, “what if our subjects don’t want to be protected? What, in fact, if their very participation in our research is contingent on the exposure it might bring them?” To my mind, these questions ultimately demand a reorientation of prevailing ethical paradigms.

The intersections between visual data/practice, digital technologies and web-based engagements are especially thorny. For instance, following the work of Sabra Thorner (among others), many long-brokered matters – such as (digital) repatriation of indigenous material culture – are now the subject of deeper turmoil, as efforts to take control back over channels of circulation and ownership bump up against now growing (especially Western, neoliberal) claims to “open access” and “open sourcing”.* In this case, the seemingly ethically-inspired open access / open source movement could be seen as anything but ethical: a kind of dubious enterprise aimed at usurping hard-won rights. In other words, the movement itself becomes a moral conundrum, with privacy and openness seemingly pitted against one another. To borrow from Kendall Roark, they are “framed as competing interpretations of the public good.”

Digital culture, in fact, impacts on the whole nature of work and play, leisure and labour, increasingly blurring the boundaries between them, and therein contributing to a larger precariousness in human existence (for more, see the work of Ekbia and Nardi 2014). The connectivity and supposed ‘democracy’ of the web mean that skilled communities of practice (e.g., as seen in Thet Shein Win’s research on visual effects artists) are more and more easily undercut. On top of this, the entire means by which we define and interact with other humans is complicated as hybrid forms of life become enrolled in acts of pleasure, surveillance, etc. (see Mitali Thakor’s enquiries into 3D avatars as means of entrapping pedophiles), or as media artefacts are drawn into specific political and ideological disputes (see Miguel Diaz-Barriga and Margaret Dorsey’s analysis of photography of the US-Mexico border wall in relation to national security).

Moreover, in an increasingly digital world, assurances about the security of data are transformed when those data have no physical manifestation whatsoever, but rather exist entirely in virtual form (e.g., see Barbara Hoffman’s enquiries into cloud-based storage), and are otherwise all-too-effortlessly deployable in myriad and often unintended fashion (e.g., see Aaron Thornburg’s examinations of the dissemination of digital student work).

In such a complex climate, the “ethical absolutism” (Wiles et al. 2012 citing Plummer 2001) that many anthropological research programmes hit up against in formal ethics review processes is wholly inappropriate. As Clark (2013) discusses it, existing ethics guidelines might not “constitute ethically appropriate guidance at all.” And, in fact, there is evidence to suggest that – in ethically-contentious fashion – researchers themselves variously resist and subvert ethics processes (via, for example, forms of ‘creative compliance’ or ‘half-truths’) in order to survive the system. Or they cope by otherwise purposefully doing a disservice to their practice and interlocutors via scaling back, sanitising or censoring their own work (see Wiles et al. 2012).

To borrow from Clark (2013), “Ethical moments emerge at the interplay of relationships (including power inequalities)…when ethical quandaries cannot be resolved by resorting to pre-determined universalistic principles.” Such moments obviously don’t just manifest in the context of research, but are part of ordinary life. Here, a kind of ‘everyday ethics’ – navigated by all human beings in the course of their day-to-day existence – informs individual behaviours. Such ethics are frequently brought to bear in engagements with digital and online cultures (see Clark 2012) where, for example, regular acts of self-censorship or self-exposure are performed (e.g., see the work of Jessika Tremblay on online Indonesian political participation, and el-Sayed el-Aswad on online Emirati self-representation). But how such ‘everyday ethics’ are accounted for in institutional ethical policies, or how they are robustly assessed and refined by individuals themselves, is far from clear.

Taken together, all that seems obvious about ethical practice is that it is fluid and complex, driven by practical needs, organisational frameworks, related regulatory requirements, specific intellectual circumstances, not to mention individual and collective moral tenets. In other words, ethics tend to be necessarily situated (after Clark 2012, 2013), depending upon recursive reflection and constant questioning of one’s processes, objectives and modes of engagement.

Our experience, then, suggests that the most meaningful means of attending to and shaping ethical action is in dialogue with others. A growing number of forums now exist that aim to facilitate such dialogue, including the AAA’s own ethics blog (which, disappointingly, seems rarely used), the Centre for Digital Ethics and Policy’s online meeting place and associated resources/events, and Jonathan’s and my own efforts at annual ethics symposia, among many others. As anthropologists we arguably have an ethical responsibility to participate in these conversations, and to continue challenging existing ethics infrastructures that do not align with everyday human behaviours. Such participation also has the benefit of strengthening bonds across our communities of practice and amplifying our programmes of study. So, if you’re not already part of the conversation, please join—it’s an opportunity to shape both research and broader human futures.


*This predicament is also reminiscent of Boast’s (2011) discussion of the neocolonial museum.

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