Savage Minds Notes and Queries in Anthropology Tue, 07 Jul 2015 02:03:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Around the Web Digest: Week of June 28 Mon, 06 Jul 2015 14:45:16 +0000 Continue reading Around the Web Digest: Week of June 28 ]]> Savage Minders, was your Sunday ruined by the absence of the Around the Web Digest? I’ll have to cast the blame on my intermittent Internet access here in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Thanks to those who’ve sent me links for the digest at! (For those who haven’t, make this your resolution for next week).

This post on Cotton Belt Journal connects recent debates about the Confederate flag to the archaeology of African American history: This Place Matters: Remembering African American Heritage Sites

I’m becoming a big fan of Food Anthropology… their posts on “food pedagogy” always make me want to revisit my syllabi and push myself to engage more with the local environment: “You Can’t Talk About Food Without Talking”: Aimee Hosemann with a Professor’s Perspective on the Course “Food and Culture” asks, Why Is Queen Nefertiti’s Bust in Berlin and Not Egypt? and answers, “colonialism.” As familiar as this story may be, it’s a good reminder that archaeology takes place in a postcolonial landscape.

In the same vein, the blog Museum Anthropology also features news updates about antiquities and issues of repatriation, like this one: Feds Petitioned to Investigate Sale of Native Objects by East Coast School 

Living Anthropologically provides some resources to answer the question, “What are you planning to do with that?” Anthropology Major Jobs: Advice for Undergraduate Majors 

Guernica Mag also provides a passionate rebuttal to undergraduate students’ increasingly desperate search for the perfectly utilitarian undergraduate major: Matt Burriesci: The Arts and Humanities Aren’t Worth a Dime 

It appears to be primarily sociological, but the blog Understanding Society has a lot of content that should be interesting to anthropologists, like this post about whether the use of social media tends to stimulate real debate and a deeper understanding of political issues or tends to create echo chambers: Deliberative Democracy and the Age of Social Media.

The Scientific American blog Anthropology in Practice also takes up this theme, looking at how technology (from party lines to neighborhood Facebook groups) is used to delineate group membership: How Information Builds a Community. It also makes me think about those groups on social media that are used to explicitly define local identity, like “You Know You’re From Potsdam, NY When…”

Also focused on technology and space, this post from Ethnography Matters suggests harnessing smartphone technology as a method to record the sights and sounds associated with places in the field: Sensory Postcards: Using Mobile Media for Digital Ethnographies 

I include this post from Publishing Archaeology mostly to bring this blog to your attention (World’s Worst Book Review)… although I must say, it does sound like a pretty bad book review. Can anyone top it?

This post on Archaeology, Museums and Outreach reminds us that MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) are not necessarily the enemy: Recent MOOCs I Have Taken and How They Helped Me on the Job 

See you next week (minus one day!)

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Summer Writing: Practice Community Fri, 03 Jul 2015 00:41:18 +0000 Continue reading Summer Writing: Practice Community ]]> Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay Bell

In the middle of the teaching term, summer is the far away season where you imagine that all of your academic, and possibly creative, writing projects will get off the ground. It is an oasis over the desert horizon. When summer finally arrives, you realize the large, luscious lagoon you imagined is more like a puddle. Desperate, you dive in anyways. The reality of the academic summer is that we continue to have competing demands on our time. We rush off to the field. Our families have a heightened sense of entitlement to interact with us.  Kids aren’t in school. We are faced with duties left undone in the scramble to get through the term. Those of us who are junior, or precariously employed, are likely packing and moving (again).

According to every “how to” book on successful academic writing, waiting for big chunks of time to advance intellectual projects is ill-advised. Instead, consistent short bursts are the way to cultivate a long and successful publication record. Through various experiments, I found this to be true. Nevertheless, most of us stay committed to a substantial amount of summer writing. We have to. Savage Minds has been a supportive space for thinking and talking about anthropological writing. In this first guest post I want to open a conversation about summer writing and sketch out my plan for the coming month as guest blogger. 

During my PhD, I spent an enormous amount of time reading books on how to write dissertations. The best advice came from my supervisor. She said, “you learn to write a dissertation by writing a dissertation”. Touché. Although this phrasing makes me cringe, writing is a practice. Writers of various stripes advocate for a daily routine of some kind. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, popularized the term ‘morning pages’. This refers to three stream of consciousness pages written first thing every morning. Anthropologist and author Kirin Narayan gives similar advice. She writes daily, often describing a single event that stood out for her from the previous day. Sagely, she does this before the flood gates of email open. Humor essayist David Sedaris, whom I consider an almost-anthropologist of white American culture, has kept a diary since September 4th 1977. He has missed fewer than a handful of days in his chronicles of everyday life. Clearly daily writing has served many people well.

For some, a daily practice gets linked to a quota. Sometimes it is a time quota, a page quota or a word count. This can quickly lead you into challenge territory. Challenges are public (sometimes personal) commitments to specific a task over a period of time. For instance, Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), a spin on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), is a virtual goal setting and check in space for PhD students. Those satisfied by word counting may already know of the site 750 Words. This site gives you space to keep a running daily conversation and prompts you every day. It ‘analyzes’ your entry. Last week it seems I was often angry and extroverted. Have you tried such challenge structures? Are they simply stress inducing? Or do they help you?

Last summer, I became extremely curious about a growth in ‘challenge cultures’ more generally. I decided to make a challenge of writing about challenge culture for 30 days. Intuitively, I called that series #30daychallenged. It took me 196 days to complete the challenge. I’ll tell you more about my anthropological foray to the self-help arts, specifically what they might teach us about language, culture and cognition, another time. I am bringing up challenges because they wed writing practice to community, a second element of successful writing. Comments I got from friends and strangers while I was #30daychallenged shaped my thinking, led me to key literatures and connected me to people doing related work. It helped turn a curiosity into a veritable project.

When I agreed to blog for SM for July, I had this grand idea I would pre-write some very compelling pieces about very important topics and would become the anthropological equivalent of very Rich and Famous (e.g. not sharing a hotel room at the AAA). I had a vision of my writing style: it would be broody and bright a la Lauren Berlant with a dash of whimsy a la Ruth Behar. I was certainly not going to fall back on my trademark style which is the “Hot Messay”. These are the delusions conjured in the middle of the winter while teaching 3/3 on the snowiest campus in the United States. Now seeing the puddle for what it is, I must fall back on all of the advice I read about writing (often in lieu of writing) which is to write often and share ideas early. 

In the coming month, I am leveraging the exploratory nature of the blog genre to describe a recent ‘visual turn’ in all dimensions of my anthropological practice. Over the past year, art and design inflected ideas and methods seem to demand my attention. This includes aspects of my research methods and output, teaching strategies and ‘encounters’ with colleagues’ work. Be advised I am not a bonafide Visual Anthropologist. I sincerely appreciate  and admire this subfield and acknowledge the time and experience that goes into developing the expertise. I haven’t had a path that included this training. That said, I’ve had to grapple with art and design (often on its own terms) in ways I’d like to think/write about here. I do hope you’ll join me and share your summer writing/making projects and challenges. I thank you in advance for the space to practice in community.

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Around the Web Digest: Week of June 28 Mon, 29 Jun 2015 04:16:55 +0000 Continue reading Around the Web Digest: Week of June 28 ]]> It’s been a rollercoaster week in US politics! Hope that, no matter where you are in the world, something in the news made you happy this week. Send me any blog links at

According to this post on Media/Anthropology, bilingualism has a different social valence in Spain (where it signifies upward mobility) and Denmark (where it signifies loss of competency in Danish): Educating “Bilingual” Children in Spain and Denmark

At Raving Anthropology, a student is chronicling her fieldwork on drug use and harm reduction in electronic dance music halls in Toronto. In Eat, Sleep, Anth, Repeat, she discusses entering the field, and follows up with excerpts from her field notes in Field Notes: This Data Collection is Interfering with My Dancing. (There’s strong language in case you’re squeamish).

This AAA blog post points out that white middle-class parenting standards should not be taken as the norm, with any difference seen as a lack: White+Word Gap=Wrong! 

New York Magazine’s page, the Science of Us, asks the question, When Did the End Begin? They provide 6 separate accounts of the beginning of the Anthropocene, a few of which come from anthropologists.

According to this fascinating but short NPR story, Americans experience schizophrenia differently than people in other places because their conception of their minds as a fortress makes it feel like an invasion: Auditory Hallucinations May Vary Across Cultures 

The Guardian reports that a 17th-century bishop was buried with a 5-month old fetus, concealed in the bed of herbs that surrounded and preserved his body: Scan of Mummified Body of Swedish Bishop Reveals Baby Hidden in Coffin

A few of my friends shared this article from McClatchy DC, which discusses archaeologists’ excitement and panic as frozen bodies and artifacts are being revealed and exposed to rapid decomposition: As Globe Warms, Melting Glaciers Revealing More Than Bare Earth 

In similar mummified news, this article in the Siberian Times seems a bit problematic but the necropsy of a 12,000 year old domesticated puppy is exciting… Does anyone have a better link discussing this? Autopsy Carried Out on World’s Oldest Dog Mummified by Ice 

The blog Elfshot: Sticks and Stones features reproductions of Northern artifacts, like the ones described here: Atlatls and Darts for Alaska and the Yukon

Middle Savagery came out with these recommendations for staying safe in the field for archaeologists: Health and Safety for Academic Archaeologists Part 2

See you next week!


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Kennedy and the Triumph of the Social Sat, 27 Jun 2015 01:51:48 +0000 Continue reading Kennedy and the Triumph of the Social ]]> While everyone should be celebrating the monumental decision of the Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages, there is also something in there that, along with this weeks’ ruling on the Fair Housing Act in Texas, should warm the hearts of social scientists in particular. Both of these decisions, in different ways, have advanced the view that our understanding of the real world matters for deciding legal principles. In Obergefell v. Hodges Kennedy argued that the proper interpretation of the constitution, of what it means to be “equal,” is subject to shifting societal norms:

“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” he wrote on Friday. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”

And in Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. Kennedy argued that it is not necessary to establish a discriminatory intent in order to sue under the Fair Housing Act. Rather, it is enough to show that “an identified business practice has a disproportionate effect on certain groups of individuals.”

This move towards looking at real world context (Obergefell) and consequences (Texas) in deciding the law just makes sense to us as anthropologists. But while we should welcome the way that these rulings increase the sway of the social sciences in shaping the law, we should also be cautious, for it remains an open question exactly what kind of social science will be held to be relevant in deciding legal questions. The move to include real world implications of the law received its biggest push from the law and economics movement and it is likely that quantitative research by economists and sociologists will continue to hold sway over qualitative work. Certainly several members of the Supreme Court remain quite ignorant about anthropological research on subjects like marriage. At the same time, however, these two decisions by Kennedy seem to establish important precedents for the inclusion of social science research in how we think about the law, and I think that’s a good thing.

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Senses of Connection Fri, 26 Jun 2015 12:00:46 +0000 Continue reading Senses of Connection ]]> I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world

—Mary Oliver

It is a knot, an ache, this longing to be present in Nepal right now. Even so, virtual presence fosters awareness. The Internet has become a strange safety net, catching us as we fall into senses of connection. The initial social media push to mark people as “safe” and to track immediate needs as well as report destruction after the two major earthquakes was truly remarkable. Mark Zuckerberg’s stated commitment of substantial Nepal relief funds and a push, through Facebook, raised $17 million quickly. I believe such efforts helped to move my own government into allocating resources beyond the paltry $1million initially proferred by the powers that be.

At latest tally, $3 billion has been pledged toward rebuilding Nepal by foreign donors, from states to NGOs. I will leave aside, for the  moment, the tangle of questions about how such funds will be allocated, and the Nepali government’s role in this process, except to say that there is a great deal at stake beyond semantics in an official shift from “relief” to “rebuilding.”  And that each community’s effort at remaking a world contains its own nuance, as my friend and colleague Sara Shneiderman points out from the vantage of Dolakha District – a place she knows well.

But back to webs and the representations they spin out.

Although the feeling is different now than it was in those adrenaline-soaked first few weeks after April 25, the pings and bleeps that come in from this world of “likes” and “shares” still brings a certain solace. I look to social media for ways to link lived experiences, to analyze emergent representations of this unfolding catastrophe, and to question the symbolic violence that comes with disaster voyeurism. Yet the surfeit of image can overwhelm. These eyes grow weary even though I see Nepal in my mind’s eye. I long to witness resilience and complexity. To that end, I have turned toward images from photographers I know and trust and from friends on the ground to capture in images that potent mix of love and truth, determination and despair.

Even so, distance privileges the visual. What of the other senses?

Touch. Sound. Smell. Taste. This is where imagination mixes with time spent.


To call her hands ‘leathery’ is cliché. They are human hands, skin made and unmade by the world she works: hearth, field, sickle, suckle, sewing machine. After the quake she fished out the machine that brings her livelihood – a deceivingly simple technology which stitches together much more than cotton – and sets it up beside the wreckage. Ahimsa means non-harming but it is also a form of gentleness. There is grace in this salvaged machine: glossy, black. She puts her hands together, touches her forehead, and it is rough on smooth, woman to god, living to dead, exhaustion to strength. It is the feel of a life remade.

The crackle of a YouTube clip has nothing on the real roar of a Nepali river, even on a slow day, before the rains. When sheaves of rock and soil pealed off into the Kali Gandaki to create a massive, churning pool that threatened the trading town of Beni Bazaar, the reckoning was greater than the whir of ten helicopters, not unlike a bomb, more guttural than thunder. People watched. But, more than that, they listened for what would come next. This sense and sensibility echoes across many valleys of the bruised country: If that cliff comes down, we’re done for.

The smell of woodsmoke is bittersweet. When mixed with milk from the one family cow that wasn’t crushed or frightened into barrenness, with handfuls of salvaged sugar and tea that came in trucks, there is hope in a day. It is dawn after all. She tells the foreign doctor to sit with her, offers him chiya from a dented stainless steel mug outside her house that is no longer a house. They speak to each other, even as they speak past each other, the air perfumed by small comforts and respect.

While her brother helps her uncle dismantle the roof, she takes refuge in a cornfield with her books. The work of salvaging tin deafens. The radio brings static-infused levity but it breaks her concentration. In order to rebuild, one must destroy. In order to taste a future, one must study hard in the present, no matter the circumstances. Even so, her belly rumbles as she folds herself into these silky stalks of sustenance. World Food Programme rice is a pale substitute for the tastes of home. Still, body memories hold tight to the flavors of this village: roasted kernels popped into a game of upturned mouths; the playful pucker of pickled radish; tang of nettles on the tongue.

The man with a clubfoot who many call ‘elder brother’ had gone to check on a sick neighbor, and so had been late that day staking the two family goats outside to graze. When he returned from the house down the road, dusty and shaken but alive, he found these animals buried under the timber of his home – a place where the boundaries between human and animal, between inside and outside, was already porous. The man pulled the limp and maimed bodies of the nanny and her adolescent kid from the mess. It was like prying open an arthritic fist: each brittle beam a finger, each boulder a knuckle. This required as much delicate touch as it did muscle. And then he was cradling them, crying as he stroked their backs at the loss of so much more than milk and meat and fiber.

At first she thought it was another quake. Soon enough she realized that the turbulence she felt was the shift of the womb-world. Labor had begun. The first earthquake damaged but did not destroy her natal home – the place she had returned in anticipation of this birth. But two nights after the second major quake, she and the rest of her village were sleeping under tarps outside. Any hope of saving the structure in which her own mother had given birth to her was now dashed, bricks scattered like chicken feed across the courtyard. Now here she was, trying to muffle her groans so as not to wake those beside whom she slept. This was a failed attempt at silence. So much pain, so much raw beauty. Her son crowned, passed through, slipped into the arms of his new grandmother. Birth waits for no one, not even the earth gods.

When the Class One student returned to investigate the pile of concrete that was once his school, he found a classmate’s notebook open to a page of sums. 1+1=2, 2+2=4, 4+4=8, and so on, until the work fell off the precipice of a torn page. Curious, and knowing his mother would yell at him if she caught him here, the boy stepped gingerly over the once-wall-now-uneven-floor. He was looking for artifacts from a time, only days ago, that felt like an entirely different aeon. And then he did the strangest thing – something that surprised him even as it happened. This young boy reached down and tasted soil, as he had seen his grandmother do on occasion with the clay by the mountain spring. He remembered the way she would do it, unceremoniously, and how she would remark on its fine sour flavor. But all the boy could taste now was a bitter, chalky loss, inspiring thirst.

The old woman had given up tents. Or at least that is what she thought after she moved from the black wool structure in which she had been raised, up across the border in Tibet, down to this high mountain village. The man she married, now long ago dead, had been the son of her family’s trading partner in the salt-for-grain days. What sort of dream has she returned to, now that she sleeps and cooks and eats and fills her offering bowls each morning within four walls made of olive army canvas? At least the young men who helped her move out of her half-collapsed home had fashioned a chimney. Still, she smells of smoke in ways that she hasn’t in years. There is an acrid tinge to her sweat, not unlike the basket of fermenting barley beer now left open to the air. When the house stood, everything harsh seemed to be muted, sweetened by wooden beams, streams of light, and whitewash.


To break open is not to succumb
But to sense our way through, however we can.

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Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run” Thu, 25 Jun 2015 20:42:15 +0000 Continue reading Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run” ]]> At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:

  1. Goffman writes a successful ethnography.

  2. Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

  3. Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.

  4. Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.

There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.

This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book?

In the appendix to On The Run Goffman describes the death of one of her key informants, and driving around in a car with some guys with guns planning to kill his murders and take revenge. This, Lubet says, constitutes conspiracy to commit murder. But was Goffman’s actions unethical? What does it mean to commit a crime? And does answering these questions say anything new, interesting, and important about ethnography?

Clearly, it’s not prudent to confess to a crime in print. But is it unethical, in general, to break the law during fieldwork? I think the answer is, in general, no. I personally believe that one should follow the laws of the country where you live just on general principles. But there are many cases when anthropologists do fieldwork in places where the laws are clearly contrary their moral intuitions, and to accepted international standards. For instance, Goffman makes a compelling claim that her field site is one of these places.

There are also places where the law is an ass. Should an ethnobotanist not apprentice themselves to an herbalist because the herbalist doesn’t have a business license to put up a stall in the local market? What if no one in the market has ever had such a license? Here, the legal is simply removed from life on the ground. Equally, we can imagine situations where it is legal to do things that the fieldworker thinks is unethical — tapping phones, exploiting sex workers, polygyny, and so forth. Clearly these things don’t suddenly become carte blanche once you clear customs.

Legality and morality don’t always align. In situations where they don’t — which might even be most situations — fieldworkers need to use good judgment, professional ethics, and their own moral compass. Sometimes, making the right decision is hard, and sometimes, people will disagree with the recision you made. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.

Goffman’s case exemplifies well-known and standard dilemmas for field workers. Did she behave unethically, from a social science perspective? It’s a difficult call. That fact that some calls are difficult is not going to go away, and there’s no magic solution for making them easier. From my point of view, Goffman got angry, drove around, and nothing happened — it’s hard to get exercised about that.

To be sure, trying to make moral laws and trying to act ethically in the field are huge topics on which oceans of ink have been spilt. But rather than focus on the ethics of breaking the law in the field, I want to focus instead on the very concept of ‘breaking the law’ itself. The legal anthropologist in me feels that someone has broken the law when a judge has ruled that they have done so and the appeal process has concluded. That certainly hasn’t happened to Goffman.

Can we really be said to have ‘committed a crime’ when we do acts which someone suspects in the future would result in a ruling from judge? Thinkers on both the left and right (usually the extremes of both ends) have argued that the legal system is structured in such a way that we are all commit crimes every day. Or rather, that our ongoing social lives can be criminalized by state actors depending on their discretion, our subject position, and other factors. This is because laws are complex and loosely written, and because social life is ambiguous and can be narrated in more than one way. Also, it’s in the fundamental nature of legal hermeneutics that the fit between general principles and particular cases is always wobbly.

I’m not an expert in this field like Lubet is so perhaps some readers will tell me I’m wrong. But I think we need to be careful when we say ‘Goffman broke a law’. This makes it sound as if the law is clear, unambiguous, easy to apply, and Goffman broke it. But that’s not really how law works. So not only is not necessarily a mark against her ethically that she acted illegally, we need to understand that attributions of illegality are themselves part of a power-laden social process, not naturally given and stigmatizing facts.

Lubet’s review did two things: First, it accused her of a crime. Second, it cast doubt on the veracity of some of Goffman’s claims. You can’t really do the first thing thing and expect a response to the second. If you want someone to be forthcoming with details of their research, don’t lead with the felony charge. Goffman has lawyered up, which means that she will probably never talk about her fieldwork beyond what is already on the record — a move Lubet would surely recognize as in her best interests. But it does have a chilling effect on your interlocutor. If he and others have probed more collegially, we might have gotten more out of Goffman, rather than just a bunch of burned field notes.


I find it hard to be critical of Goffman as an ethnographer. It was clearly grueling, exhausting work that took years and years. Commenters often fail to note that it was also her first fieldwork, begun as an undergraduate, and it’s remarkably strong for novice work. I personally felt like it was a bit derivative — why read On The Run when you could read Sidewalk? — but clearly that’s quibbling. More substantively, I would say this: Goffman’s book is ultimately about how young black men interact with the legal system — a relationship that is made of two parts. Although Goffman does dip into the lives of wardens, lawyers, and police officers, On The Run essentially gives us only one half of this this interaction. I respect her choices, understand her position, and appreciate her book. But if Goffman was more familiar with the life of the law her book — and perhaps her actions — would have been written to more robustly withstood some of the criticism now being made against it.

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Welcome new blogger Uzma Rizvi! Thu, 25 Jun 2015 00:40:26 +0000 Continue reading Welcome new blogger Uzma Rizvi! ]]> Savage Minds has long been looking for an archaeologist whose writing would mesh well with our own (predominantly cultural anthropological) sensibility, and so when Uzma Rizvi guest blogged for us last August we knew we had found exactly what we had been looking for. We quickly asked her to consider joining the blog as a full time member. While interested, Uzma didn’t want to start until after the end of the school year. . . which has finally come around. So now it is with great pleasure that we welcome Uzma Rizvi, the newest addition to our team! We also would like to extend a hearty congratulations to Uzma on her recent promotion to Associate Professor! Below is a short bio from her academic homepage at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn, NY.

I am an anthropological archaeologist specializing in the archaeology of the first cities. I teach anthropology, ancient urbanism, issues in new materialisms, critical heritage studies, memory and war/trauma studies, decolonization/the postcolonial critique, and social practice. My current research work is largely focused on Ancient India and Ancient UAE, both during the 3rd millennium BCE. Beyond these vast umbrellas of interest, I have a few distinct projects that have been occupying my research world of late. These include, but are not limited to, understanding ancient subjectivity and related to that, the idea of an intimate architecture; war and trauma in relationship to the urban fabric; and finally, epistemological critiques of archaeology that have emerged from my earlier work in postcolonial theory.

Welcome Uzma!

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“Slow” Medicine in Fast Times Tue, 23 Jun 2015 12:00:18 +0000 Continue reading “Slow” Medicine in Fast Times ]]> Only those who regard healing as the ultimate goal of their efforts can, therefore, be designated as physicians.
—Rudolf Virchow

When Gyatso called to give me the list of medicines I was in the library, writing another one of these blogposts. I answered his call, speaking as quietly as I could in Tibetan but hoping he would still be able to hear me, across the planet. A few students looked up, annoyed, as my weird banter broke their concentration. Once outside, I greeted this familiar voice with enthusiasm. Gyatso, a Tibetan doctor or amchi with whom I have worked for many years, was calling from his home in the ancient walled city of Lo Monthang, in Nepal’s Mustang District.

Pleasantries passed and then Gyatso got down to work. Do you have a pen and paper? He asked. I pulled out my notebook and he began to rattle off the names of about 30 different Tibetan medical compounds. Most I recognized as common formulas with as few as five and as many as twenty-five ingredients: plants, animal products, and minerals from across the Tibetan plateau, high Himalaya, and subtropical South Asia. As I wrote down these names, sensory memories flooded in, of dried pomegranate and green cardamom, of eaglewood and Chinese gooseberry, of calcium carbonate and bamboo pitch. The names of these formulas also brought forth a string of symptoms: sleeplessness and anxiety, blood and bile disorders, digestive irregularities, weakened life force. A few of the named medicines were rinchen rilbu, precious pills. These highly complex pharmacological endeavors include detoxified precious and semi-precious stones and metals. They are used sparingly, if also as panacea.So as not to fully deplete Gyatso’ own medical supplies, with which he treats his own rural community, I had brokered donations of Tibetan medicines from a reputable doctor with her own small pharmacy in India. The doctor would package up this precious cargo and send it by bus from Delhi. Gyatso, along with his brother, heads up a school and medical clinics in Mustang and Pokhara. He was beginning to mobilize several of his senior students along with a few local youths who would then head to the Village Development Committee from which one of their former students and the cook at their school hails: a region in Dolakha District that was severely damaged in the April 28 quake and then further impacted by the May 12 event. After some initial questions about where they should go, they decided on a closely hewn response: help those you know, or those you can trust to help you reach people they know. This sort of practical wisdom turns stereotypes about Nepali propensities to privilege ‘one’s own people’ (aphno maanche) on its head.

As our conversation continued, the structure and form of what will likely be the first of several Amchi Medicine Clinics to emerge in response to the Nepal earthquakes  took shape. These clinics aim to provide not only Tibetan medicines and food but also to offer support through ritual practice to honor the dead and protect the living. The idea for these camps was suggested by various amchi soon after the first earthquake. Although their strategies regarding where and when to and who to send go varied, these practitioners presented a single-pointed vision when it came to the purpose of such an endeavor. They would provide culturally astute, mindful care for people living with and suffering from forms of embodied trauma that can be well served by this medical tradition. They understood that without enough to eat, medicines would bring less benefit. They knew that people would value the lighting of butter lamps, but would not necessarily have the butter to offer. The anticipated ongoing physical trauma from the work of dismantling homes but also the needed work of clearing away the spiritual pollution evoked by so many violent, untimely deaths. They spoke of the need to appease local deities of place and to reconsecrate damaged structures.

A Nepali amchi diagnosing a patient through pulse analysis. Photo credit: Joan Halifax
A Nepali amchi diagnosing a patient through pulse analysis. Photo credit: Joan Halifax

Most of all, what has taken clinical psychiatry and international disaster response teams many years – and many disasters – to understand came easily for them. The awkward hyphens of bio-psycho-social meld into a different social ecology of health and illness for these practitioners, one that takes seriously the reality that the elements which make up this planet are also those which give us sentience: earth, air, fire, water, space. Amchi are at once ethnobotanists and ritual specialists attune to the living landscapes and sacred geographies of home as well as pharmacologists and physicians. The modes of knowledge transmission they represent might be considered critically endangered in an era of ‘big’ traditional pharma as well as the introduction of biomedically-derived production standards and clinical research protocols, but they know how to respond in meaningful ways at such moments of crisis. They also understood that they could perhaps be most helpful not in the immediate rescue and triage mode but in response to the settling in of suffering over these coming months, when time stretches out into new spaces of vulnerability, memory, loss.

Non-biomedical health systems and various forms of traditional medicine remain a crucial avenue through which many Nepalis seek care for chronic and acute illness, including mental health and responses to trauma.  Nepalis rely on Tibetan medicine to address their health concerns, both in rural villages along Nepal’s northern border and in urban clinics, where patients represent Nepal’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Also known as Sowa Rigpa, the ‘science of healing,’ this medical practice is less formally recognized and supported by the Nepali government than Ayurveda, even as amchi work at the frontline of care for many of the country’s high mountain communities.

As Nepal’s amchi move forward with their planning, they will work closely to coordinate with other relief organizations working in these areas. Their aim is not to reproduce the infrastructure of aid delivery but to connect directly to such efforts while providing distinct forms of care. I hope that such efforts by highly skilled Tibetan medical practitioners might dissuade – or at least provide a counter-example to – those biomedical aid workers who have decided that it is acceptable to just pluck up some traditional medicines and, with rudimentary translation of symptoms and no training in proper diagnostic methods (pulse and urine analysis) or understanding of the clusters of imbalance such medicines are meant to address, hand them out to people anyway. This is another form of biomedical hubris and a certain type of cultural violence, seeping in around the edges of right motivation. Imagine the pushback if a Tibetan physician were to show up in an emergency room and begin prescribing anti-psychotics and blood thinners, willy nilly.

Although these amchi medical clinics are proposed within an ephemeral ‘camp’ structure at present, such effort may represent an opportunity to re-imagining post-quake healthcare infrastructure in ways that more directly incorporate  practitioners such as  amchi into the provision of primary health care. The foundation for such work exists, as amchi are marginally recognized (if not supported by) Nepal’s Department of Ayurveda within the Ministry of Health, and through the Council on Technical Education and Vocational Training. Full-scale support for and integration of amchi into public health infrastructure remains a dream in Nepal, even though this is the reality in places as politically distinct as Bhutan, Mongolia, and Tibetan regions of China.

Working with amchi on these clinics – including raising funds for them through DROKPA, an all-volunteer non-profit organization I co-founded in 1999 — has been one of the ways I’ve chosen to respond to the Nepal disasters as a medical anthropologist. I’m also incorporating younger amchi into collaborative research teams that will investigate responses to these events in three contiguous districts (Mustang, Manang, and Gorkha) through an NSF RAPID award of which I am a part.

I chose to open this blogpost with the words of Rudolf Virchow even though I know that he and many of Nepal’s amchi would see the relationship between what Virchow calls ‘faith’ and its relationship to medicine and science quite differently. Despite these epistemological divergences, I think they would all agree on fundamental premises of being of service and seeing the individual body as a microcosm of the larger social, ecological, and political worlds to which one belongs.

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Around the Web Digest: Week of June 14 Mon, 22 Jun 2015 03:40:46 +0000 Continue reading Around the Web Digest: Week of June 14 ]]> This week either the anthroblogosphere was quiet, or I was too distracted by the hoopla surrounding Rachel Dolezal to keep up… help me out  by sending me links at!

As you might have expected, anthropologists weighed in on the scandal surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the academic who was outed as “passing” as black. In this interview on the AAA blog, Patricia Sunderland points out that strategic racial repositioning has a long history:  Race and Rachel Dolezal

And on Anthropology While White, The Rules That Rachel Broke discusses “racecraft” and Dolezal’s negation of the continuous social processes that go into creating racial identity, in favor of a personal, psychological narrative.

Somatosphere features this analysis of how to communicate the mixed methods that medical anthropologists often use to various audiences, including “the public.” Creating Methods That Speak Across Disciplines in Medical Anthropology

The Memory Bank critiques anthropology’s tendency to analyze people’s relationships with money in simplistic (straw man) terms in this post: The Limits of Naivety for the Study of Money 

In the context of the ongoing debate surrounding Alice Goffman and the ethics of ethnography of criminality, Anthropoliteia raises issues of representation and positionality in studies of global policing: Conference Report: Global Policing at Oxford

This excellent analysis of sexual harrassment at cons (comic conventions) suggests that women are increasingly entering a male-defined space, threatening men who feel that rights are a zero-sum game: The Character of Sexual Harrassment at Cons

Probably surprising no one, a genomic study concluded that Kennewick Man resembles modern Native American populations more closely than any other. Could one of the reasons for identifying him as non-Native possibly have been political? I like the flat statement in the title of this post on Dienekes’ Anthropology blog: Kennewick Man was Native American. 

The Center for Imaginative Ethnography’s summer series features literary experiments like the following, scenes in a drama about gringos’ motivations, ulterior and otherwise, for learning Spanish:  Imperfect Tense: An Ethnodrama of American Adults Learning Spanish in Mexico

See you next week!

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Anonymity, Ethnography, and Alice Goffman: Welcome, journalists Fri, 19 Jun 2015 20:58:18 +0000 Continue reading Anonymity, Ethnography, and Alice Goffman: Welcome, journalists ]]> I think I’ve written and thrown away three separate posts on the Alice Goffman debate trying to find something to say that people will find interesting. I personally don’t find the case to be very interesting, or to speak to core issues of what ethnography is or should be. In my opinion, the takeaway is: Goffman wrote a remarkable book at a remarkably young age, like all books it has some problems, and it is bearing an absolutely incredible amount of scrutiny fairly well. She did hard fieldwork and had to make hard choices writing her ethnography, and some people disagree with those choices. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.

For me the most interesting part of it is watching journalists run up against issues of anonymity and academic ethics for the first time and try to come to terms with it. I think its important to push back against the idea that ‘ethnography’ is suspect as a form of knowledge because it anonymizes identities and makes them “all but impossible to fact check”. An article by Leon Neyfakh making basically this claim appeared, embarrassingly enough, on the same day as an article by Jesse Singal which did fact check ing them. Singal — clearly an anthropologist at heart — walked around the neighborhood where Goffman did fieldwork handing out donuts until he fell in with the people she writes about in the book. What is at stake in this debate? Ultimately, I think the discomfort that some feel with Goffman’s book is that it forces them to think about issues of generalization, particularity, and anonymity in a way they haven’t before. Welcome, journalists, to the world of social science theory and ethics! We have been dealing with these issues for some time!

The idea that ‘ethnography’ is less empirical, true, or relevant than ‘journalism’ or ‘chemistry’ because it automatically anonymizes its sources is incorrect. In fact, there is no such thing as a single genre called ‘ethnography’. We can see this clearly in Neyfakh’s piece — the experts he interviews profess a wide range of opinions about anonymizing the people you study with. In sum, opinions on anonymization vary widely within the academic community.

They vary across time as well. Anthropologists have a long history of naming names. Sometimes this is because we view our interviewees as teachers or partners. In other cases it because we viewed them as so removed from the world of anthropology that they would never meet our readers, and so what did it matter?

On the other hand, anthropologists have also written purely fictional accounts, as as the 1922 volume American Indian Life. Here, entire people are made up. The goal is to provide a sense of what typical Indian life was like, but to do so by telling a compelling (and made up) story.

And we’ve tried everything in between: composite characters based on a mashup of different people, transcribed autobiographies that are not fact-checked at all, theoretical critique in the form of epic poetry, dance based on initiations we’ve undergone and more.

So ‘ethnography’ is a fundamentally experimental genre, or perhaps a loose assemblage of genres, not a single thing that can be blamed for Goffman’s success or failure, let alone used to condemn a field or discipline. In fact, as Neyfakh’s article makes clear, many of the issues surrounding anonymization were foisted on ethnographers by the IRB process, and are thus exogenous to ethnography itself.

Neyfakh makes an important and valid point to protest that the power of Goffman’s book comes from the particular biographies of the lives she narrates. To argue that the importance of the book comes from the general patterns of social life it generates, but to sell the reader on these patterns with biographical particularities does constitute a bit of a bait and switch.

But at the end of the day, her decision to write in this way is not a result of the general professional standards of ethnography, but because of the particular nature of her field site and her personal choices a writer. I think it was a legitimate choice, and I think Goffman’s book is a good read with solid ethnography and important lessons about race and policing in the United States. But it was a difficult one, one that no doubt left Goffman unhappy because her respondents could be identified, but also one that left journalists unhappy because they couldn’t be identified enough (at least, not without donuts). Which just goes to show that the Goffman debate is at heart not about problems of ethnography as a discipline, but about the fact that hard choices are hard, there’s no easy way to make them, and someone will always have preferred you make a different one.

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Thinking in an Emergency Or, Free Tents as a Cautionary Tale Fri, 19 Jun 2015 12:00:19 +0000 Continue reading Thinking in an Emergency Or, Free Tents as a Cautionary Tale ]]> The seduction against thinking in an emergency comes, as we have seen, from two sources: first, from a false opposition between thinking and acting; second, from a plausible (but in the end, false) opposition between thinking and rapid action.

—Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency (2011: 14)

It was a rushed decision to accept the tents. But when Ngawang called me – he in New York, his family in his village in northern Nepal – his voice cracked. My mother is cold. She is sleeping on the ground. Not minutes later, news flashed across the Facebook feed: an old friend was organizing a massive effort to send donated tents to Nepal from the US and to work with Indian and Nepali manufacturers to make as many durable if impermanent shelters as quickly as possible. I reached out, asking if perhaps twenty of the donated tents could be set aside for this village in need. I mentioned that someone from my small New England town was heading to Nepal next week. There had been talk of baggage waivers –promissory notes against suffering.

And so I accepted the donation of twenty six-person tents. Send them to my office, I said. We’ll get them there next week. If they hadn’t been donated, I would call them an impulse buy.

The baggage waivers did not materialize but the tents arrived nonetheless. A colleague helped to carry them up from the UPS truck and unburden them of the cardboard in which they were wrapped. I cleared a large corner of my office, stacked the smooth, mineral gray duffels against the wall. Each weighed about twenty-five pounds; two could fit into a suitcase. Four would max out a normal amount of allotted weight on all of the passenger airlines heading to Kathmandu. Suddenly, the weight of these gifts felt enormous. I recalled a dear friend and fellow Nepal scholar telling me that she was in a large Costco-like box store days after the first earthquake. She stared at a wall of camping equipment and a tent display and just burst into tears. I felt like doing the same. I wished that there were a way to bend matter, to reassign reality to these folds of polyester with their aluminum spines and beam them across the world.

As I registered this cluster of pristine shelters in my office, I began to regret my decision. For all the good intentions, execution is everything in an emergency. Instead of focusing more energy on fundraising, writing, or connecting with people, I was now going to figure out this transportation puzzle. And such efforts may belie actual needs, by the time they reach their destination. Still, the good son remained desperate to get these shelters to his village. He considered using the hard-earned funds he had been raising for village reconstruction to pay airlines to deliver these tents to Kathmandu. But when we began to do the math – how much tin could a baggage fee buy? – the logic of this choice fell away. We all redoubled efforts to raise the tens of thousands of dollars that would be needed to create temporary shelters to get people through the summer but also, if needed, through winter.

As for the tents, we would have to rely, instead, on slower movements and other forms of connection to deliver them. A Nepali medical student packed up the first two, as she headed off to provide direct medical relief in communities along the Kathmandu Valley rim. Four more went with the doctor accompanying her. These were delivered to one of my research assistants – also from the same village as Ngawang – in one of the first massive thunderstorms of the monsoon season. The moment broke pent up heat and dust, and seemed to release a certain form of collective frustration, even as it was the first test of just how well these and other forms of temporary shelter would do in the coming months.

The tents that remained in my office took on a life of their own. They were a reminder to everyone who visited of what had happened and was still happening in Nepal. The pile grew smaller again as I sent four more tents off to a friend in Wyoming who was heading to Nepal. Baggage waivers again not successful, these four tents are now traveling to Nepal with another friend, this time from Boulder, Colorado. I tried to rationalize the cost of shipping them by saying that it was less than the airline fees but still there was a pang when I swiped my credit card. Not to mention the strange and ironic sensibility that I was paying to move around different forms of petroleum product and fossil fuel in the hopes of providing relief.

That left ten. Ngawang and I found a Tibetan friend raised in Nepal and heading back to continue relief work who was willing to take them. This time the airline baggage waiver was secured.  But she was in New York. I called our local coach service, which runs between the Upper Connecticut River Valley and Grand Central Station, and asked about the next bus out. Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am, we cannot accept any unaccompanied baggage. In the new world order that is not such a new world order anymore, I could not send tents alone to New York in the barrel of a bus. To do so was a terrorist threat or the equivalent of abandoning a child.

Ngawang and my daughter, Aida, loading up tents. Photo credit: Sienna Craig
Ngawang and my daughter loading up tents. Photo credit: Sienna Craig

So Ngawang came from New York to collect this precious cargo. We shoved as many as we could into travel-worn duffels that had made the trek between the US and Nepal many times. It felt as if to put these virgin shelters into such seasoned containers was to at some level prepare them for the journey that lay ahead: across oceans, into the stream of Kathmandu traffic on the backs of motorcycles, along the potholed Prithvi Highway to Pokhara, up the ‘green road’ to Mustang District, past waterfalls and the immanent threat of landslides, around switchbacks of cornmeal-colored powdery earth, past juniper forests, and, finally, home.

I wondered how the families would unwrap them when the arrived. In one moment of depression and desperation, I found myself obsessively reading the company website tent specifications: state-of-the-art aluminum, fine mesh windows, piping in a color the company called ‘orange Popsicle.’ Worlds collided. I wondered what locals would make of the E!power port and the E!luminate System that were features of this tent. Knowing the resourcefulness of the people involved, I imagined a soft luminescence of a solar bulb, salvaged from a home and strung up inside this 10”x10” structure. I could picture schoolchildren stacked cheek by jowl, playing games on someone’s mobile phone. Outside, their parents would sit cross-legged on saddle blankets and plastic mats, discussing which house to rebuild first, beginning to see stones falling into place.

And so, as much as I have come to view these tents critically – to see them as a cautionary tale against rapid action decoupled from careful thinking – they have also become weighty talismans. These tents are reminders that the possibilities for charity largesse are only ever as good as the nimbleness of implementation; that commodity chains come to live in the people who carry things, that ‘relief’ is a synonym for ‘those who figure out how to get things done.’ Across Nepal, the meeting of need has depended so much on Nepalis helping other Nepalis – people who might not have known each other before this disaster and who might not have thought to help each other if they did. Elaine Scarry reminds, “The habits of everyday life…often fail to serve in an emergency. But in the absence of our ordinary habits, a special repertoire of alternative habits may suddenly come forward” (2011: 15). Perhaps here are the seeds of new habits of mind. Naya Nepal, revisited.

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I Will Not Call Her Name: An Ethno-poem on Racial and Gendered Violence Thu, 18 Jun 2015 20:53:40 +0000 Continue reading I Will Not Call Her Name: An Ethno-poem on Racial and Gendered Violence ]]> [Savage Minds is pleased to publish this ethno-poem 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.]

I will not call her name

There are other names to be called

In this prematurely labeled epoch of post-racial America

Our children lay dead in the streets

At the hands of authority figures who see their color

and gender as a threat

Shoot to kill not to stop or inquire

Call their names.

Like Emmett Till before them,

young black men keep falling:

From Amadou Diallou

to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant

and Sean Bell and Eric Garner,

Tamir Rice and Michael Brown

and on and on it seems…

Black girls and women are exposed and vulnerable

and die a million deaths everyday in this country as well

Though we don’t hear their names as often.

Like the Four Little Girls killed in a church bombing —

Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley —

Their names are unspoken and quickly forgotten:

Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Jones, Gabriella Nevarez,

Tyisha Miller, Yvette Smith, Tarika Wilson, and too many more…

I call their names!

Dajerria Becton was the young biking-clad girl

Forced to the ground by her hair

At the hands of a police officer

During a pool party.

One week later

Arnesha Bowers was brutalized, raped, and killed by gang members

(A different gang from the police this time).

Yet the spectacle of she whose name I shall not call

Has cornered the market on race talk in the intervening week.

I will not join in.

And now worshippers from a church—

“Mother” Emanuel AME Church

(as a member of that extended church family, I weep calling her name)—

Lay slaughtered by what would be called a terrorist

If the significance of skin color could so easily be changed.

There is too much wrong with this picture—

Yes, race is fluid

And a biological fiction created by and for society

But it also has real world implications

Like a string of dead or violated bodies named or unnamed.

So, no, I will not call her name

She does not matter to me.

Without joining the growing ranks of self-designated race gatekeepers,

What matters are actual black people—

Men and Women, Boys and Girls

More often from the underclasses, and we mustn’t forget the many sexual minorities—

Who are living and dying an exhaustively old black experience

That has yet to transcend the on-the-ground meanings of race.

While certainly all lives matter, the unnamed one highlights the finer point that

Black lives matter

And that violence can be inflicted upon black bodies

Without the barrel of a gun.


Kaifa RolandL. Kaifa Roland. 18 June 2015.

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Who benefits from the ‘internet space race’? Thu, 18 Jun 2015 07:05:32 +0000 Continue reading Who benefits from the ‘internet space race’? ]]> In the film Elysium, the ultra-rich have left an apocalyptic Earth ravaged by global warming and overpopulation. Their utopian colony orbits high above Earth which festers below. Science fiction, but Silicon Valley techno-utopians also dream of rising above the planet’s problems.

The Seasteading Institute, for example, seeks to create floating cities far enough from land as to be outside of any regulatory jurisdiction. There, farseers such as the likes of Google CEO Larry Page might be able to innovate, untethered by regulations. At Google’s annual developers’ conference in 2013, Page said: “I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out.”

The seas of Earth appeal to some while the dry seas of Mars attract others: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is at the forefront of commercial space travel for the ultra-rich. At a cost of US$36 billion he hopes his company SpaceX can start a Mars colony. Space tourist tickets come in at a mere US$500,000. He also plans to provide planet-wide internet access, beamed from 4,000 satellites.

Facebook and Google have shelved similar plans for satellite internet access for those it has yet to reach. Instead, Facebook has opted for a less lofty approach, targeting not space but the stratosphere: its Connectivity Lab is tasked with bringing about an internet-saturated planet. To do this, they have invested in solar-powered drones capable of providing internet to underserved and disconnected areas. Google on the other hand, through its secretive X lab, devised Project Loon to provide internet via high-flying balloons.

Why are some of the world’s most powerful technologists so focused on providing internet access by hook, crook, drones, balloon or satellite?

Above the Facebook flag at Facebook HQ flies another, bearing the symbol of Facebook’s non-profit organisation, The internet-dispersing drones under development are designed to bring about the objectives of – connecting up the next three billion people yet to join the internet. But it isn’t the “internet” as we know it today, instead, allows users to access only Facebook and select other sites, not the entire internet. In an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 65 organisations from 31 countries criticised the project, claiming it violated the principle of network neutrality, that no site should be favoured over others. Security, privacy, censorship, and freedom of expression were among the other concerns voiced over Facebook’s growing control.

It may seem axiomatic to those in the West, but what if people don’t want access to the internet – of the type provided by Facebook, Google and SpaceX, or any other? There are well over a billion people living in states under governments that resist Western-style internet connectivity in order to preserve that country’s status quo.

Technical approaches towards national internet sovereigntyincluding IP address blocking, domain names, key words, and packet filtering. Non-technical forms of censorship include laws, regulations, threats, bribes, and arrests of publishers, ISPs, and authors. Reporters without Borders identifies 19 countries – including the US and the UK – along with Cuba, China, Iran, and North Korea, all of which use one or several of these tactics to create a distinct national internet.

Certainly, what governments want for their people and what the people want for themselves frequently diverge. But while we may agree that internet censorship by authoritarian dictatorships is an affront to free communication, can we really put our faith in Facebook’s drones? It is possible to overthrow a government and depose a dictator but it is nearly impossible to revolt against corporate drones and extraterritorial CEOs.

With solar powered balloons raining internet down where it wasn’t before, from inaccessible places such as high in the atmosphere or beyond, is resistance to the internet even an option? As US president Ronald Reagan knew when he initiated his Star Wars defence programme in the 1980s, space is the ultimate high ground. In the stratosphere and in space, the techno-liberal social engineering ideal – that the internet is inherently good – meets the desire to be above the fray of terrestrial, democratic regulation.

In the dramatic conclusion of Elysium, Max Da Costa (played by Matt Damon) flies a pod of illegal immigrants from Earth and crash-lands it into the luxurious orbiting utopia, rebooting the computer that keeps the citizens of Earth and Elysium in inequality. Those who do not want the internet may need a similar radical approach, because when the ultra-rich take to the skies it becomes nearly impossible to protest their decisions.

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Thinking about race like a cataloger Tue, 16 Jun 2015 20:54:21 +0000 Continue reading Thinking about race like a cataloger ]]> In librarian parlance entities, whether books or journal articles or whatever, can be said to have an “aboutness.” And as a cataloger its my job to describe that aboutness with subject headings. I’m working in an archives setting now and my job, essentially, is to sit down with photos such as the one below and, following strict rules, create a digital record that will help researchers find it in the future.

US Army Signal Corps Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation Photographs

Because we place a premium on organization and arrangement only authorized subject headings are permitted, something called a “controlled vocabulary.” In the work I’m doing now our controlled vocabulary comes from the Library of Congress. One of the defining characteristics of the LoC subject headings is that they are hierarchical, broad terms are subdivided into narrower terms, which are further divided and modified in rather rigid ways.

So those are the basic rules of the game. The objective is to describe the item so that others will find it, but within the constraints set out by the LoC (typically there are in-house rules you have to take in to consideration too, etc). Alright, given all that: What is this picture about?

We know that these men are in the Army by virtue of the collection I’m looking at and the guy with the cap bearing an insignia is a Lieutenant. We can express that like this:

United States. Army–Officers.

What this subject heading shows is that all the branches of the armed forces are corporate entities that are themselves subdivisions of the United States, I’ve further specified we are talking about Army officers which is a smaller subset of that broader term.

However, not everyone in this photo is an officer. Interestingly enough if I want to include the two black GI’s carrying the litter I cannot say United States. Army–African Americans, but instead must use African American soldiers. LoC explains the difference:

African American soldiers.

  • Here are entered works on African American military personnel in the United States Army. Works on the organization, administration, and history of African American units within the United States Army are entered under United States. Army–African American troops.

This photograph is not about Army administration or history. Its about the personnel. Hence, African American soldiers and not United States. Army-African American troops.

A result of this is that the racial characteristics of some persons are labeled in the subject headings but not others. To remedy this I can utilize another field in my catalog record reserved for notes. My colleagues and I debated over the proper terminology to use, this is very important because all our word choices need to be justified (even our punctuation must be justified!) and consistently applied over the entire collection. Are we dealing with African Americans and Caucasians, or blacks and whites? Or what?

We decided to return to the LoC for guidance and here we found some interesting taxonomical definitions concerning race. Remember these are supposed to reflect the hierarchical arrangement of clear-cut definitions required by library catalogers.

African Americans

  • Here are entered works on citizens of the United States of black African descent. Works on blacks who temporarily reside in the United States, such as aliens, students from abroad, etc., are entered under Blacks—United States. Works on blacks outside the United States are entered under Blacks—[place].


  • Here are entered works on blacks as an element in the population. Theoretical works discussing the black race from an anthropological point of view are entered under Black race. Works on black people in countries whose racial composition is predominantly black are assigned headings appropriate for the country as a whole without the use of the heading Blacks. The heading Blacks is assigned to works on such countries only if the work discusses blacks apart from other groups in the country.

Black race

  • Here are entered theoretical works discussing the black race from an anthropological point of view. Works on blacks as an element in the population are entered under Blacks.


  • Here are entered works of a sociological nature that discuss white people as an element in the population, especially in countries where they are a minority. Works of an anthropological nature focusing on the physical features that characterize Caucasians and distinguish them from other races of mankind are entered under Caucasian race.

Caucasian race

  • Here are entered works of an anthropological nature focusing on the physical features that characterize Caucasians and distinguish them from other races of mankind. Works of a sociological nature that discuss white people as an element in the population, especially in countries where they are a minority, are entered under Whites.

Race as an abstract, theoretical construct is, for the Library of Congress, defined as the domain of anthropology because of the emphasis on physical features of the body. Anything not having to do with the body must therefore be sociological!

Returning to our photograph and its aboutness, it is clear that this item does not have anything to do with abstract, theoretical constructions such as the black race or the Caucasian race, but rather is about the specific people contained within the camera’s frame, they are blacks and whites. Therefore we can proceed with describing our photograph in the notes as about African Americans (who are citizens of the United States) and whites. So the subject headings are:

United States.–Army–Officers
African American soldiers
Allied health personnel and patient

And the note reads:

“Two African American soldiers carry a white patient in a litter while a white officer looks on.”

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Reckonings: Participant-Observation from a Distance Tue, 16 Jun 2015 12:00:52 +0000 Continue reading Reckonings: Participant-Observation from a Distance ]]> Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sienna Craig.

I am going to use this space as a Savage Minds guest to sort through some of the images, questions, and emotions unearthed over these past six weeks or so, as communities across Nepal have lived and died under the weight of falling buildings, landslides, floods, trauma, and homelessness brought about by massive seismic shifts across the Himalayan belt. Given the dizzying pace of news cycles and our collectively short attention spans, those for whom Nepal is not an important place will refer to this disaster as an earthquake, singular. But this is no singular disaster. The country has experienced about 300 seismic events since April 25, 2015. For thousands, the initial 7.8 earthquake was sufficient to kill them. But the remains of that day rumble on and people are now living to the rhythm of expected surprise. Ayo ayo ayo. A lament. A modicum of pain. But also, simply, it has come.

For most of Nepal’s roughly 30 million people, living uncertainty is old hat. Consider the legacies of civil war and political instability, the dynamics of moneylending, wage labor abroad and the weight of debt, questions of when the rains will come or when they will stop. But the spring of 2015 has cracked open new forms of vulnerability, ripped into the seams of lives and landscapes, and at once exacerbated forms of inequality even as it prompts new forms of Nepali collectivity. More than half a million homes have been destroyed or are precariously habitable. This equates to about 2.5 million people for whom ‘home’ has become a place of desperate refuge or a village now longed for among the tent cities of the urban refugee. More than 3,500 schools have been destroyed. The wind and water of one’s place, and one’s ancestor’s place, may now be nowhere to settle and perhaps an environment to which one should not return, the vertiginous threats of dislodged rock and snow, glacial lake outburst flooding and landslides being what they are. As the skies begin to crackle and roar, as clouds bloat and groan like bellows, millions of Nepalis may look up and wonder what is next. And there becomes an eerie symmetry to it all. Avalanche as downpour. Thunderstorm as quake.

Monsoon began officially last week.

Thinking anthropologically in the midst of raw emotion has been at once a refuge and an odd form of distancing – grasping for something that is tangible and yet ephemeral as a form of security when there is little to be had. Where do global assemblages go when donated tents sit in in my office, while so many people sleep on the ground? Where, within a cognizance of neoliberal tactics, can I place the buckled government health post or the NGO funds that will rebuild it? In what mode do I assess the political economy of disaster capitalism when a son hopes to cremate his mother but is denied state relief because his citizenship papers are buried? How do exegeses on ‘structuring structures’ give way to a ground-truthing of aid and political will amidst the rubble of so many actual buildings? How can I be a participant-observer through the portal of my retina display when friends tell me I should come, see for myself, bring what I can? How might I reckon the far-away-so-closeness that Viber or IM provides with the knowledge that my utility as a scholar and a fundraiser might mean that where I should be is here, tucked in to summer in Vermont, even as my heart-mind is in Nepal?

To keep living these questions themselves, as Rilke puts it, is to challenge simple assertions about Nepali culture, to heed advice about writing good anthropology in a time of crisis, to take seriously the questions raised by scholars of and from the region, to consider carefully how the various arms of the state are responding, and how we write about such response.   Whose voice? Which culture? What reality? Drill down. Be empirical. Write what you know. Fellow Nepal scholar Lauren Leve provides a rich example of what I mean.

In the Nepali district in which I have spent the most time – a region in the rainshadow but where climate change has come to roost – destruction keeps occurring in slow motion. We speak of cracks – gé – running down the sides of rammed earth homes, letting in sky. Even though Mustang District was not as heavily impacted by the quakes as other places, people are still sleeping outside. Bridges have buckled and folded. Veins of earthen hydrology have cracked through the center of town. Centuries-old monasteries are being reduced to the elements from which they came. In one of the villages that have been most heavily hit, local residents are beginning the salvage work that is a necessary step in the process of rebuilding. Yet in this village where all homes were damaged but only some were completely destroyed, debates surface about whose need is greatest. As tin gets distributed for temporary shelters, the social laws that help to enforce community solidarity may trump other ways of calculating fairness. These discussions also hinge on translocal economies: Which families own a house in the cities of Pokhara or Kathmandu? Whose children are living in Brooklyn, sending money home? What of the disabled?

Villagers from Ghiling, Mustang District, Nepal repairing a chöten. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering
Villagers from Ghiling, Mustang District, Nepal repairing a chöten. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering

Politicians from the district center arrive with army men and candy colored tarapulin, delivering the news that the entire village may need to be relocated. But on what basis? elders ask. They spin their wool and talk about how the old heart of this settlement was less damaged than newer houses, those built on the edge of things. Astrological calculations and a reading of this place’s sacred geography advised against those locations, after all. Local and diasporic youth as well as those running the school argue the need for engineers and geologists to perform assessments. It occurs to me that these logics are different ways of knowing a shared precarity, divining a collective future.

Then come discussions about how to rebuild. The desire for rammed earth bricks and flat roofs, for houses rimmed in garlands of firewood, held firm by wooden beams with central courtyards open to the heavens, is strong not only because of convention but also because the region’s tourism economy is structured around the idea of visiting a ‘little Tibet’ – an unreconstructed place, a remote place. Even so, scholars of the region complicate this concept of remoteness as a somewhat troubled and always ‘relational category.’  These concerns for aesthetic integrity come up against ‘new normals': more rain and rising temperatures in summer, erratic snowfall and fewer people to shovel roofs in winter. Perhaps pitched tin in a ‘monastic’ shade of red is a better solution?

These deliberations occurring half a world away keep me up at night, as do the surfeit of images, so many of them brimming with suffering. One friend shares a picture that lifts his spirit as it does mine: people repairing and reinforcing a chöten at the entrance to his village. This structure marks territory, inscribes collective belonging. Villagers use earthen pigments to paint the chöten with luminous stripes of ochre, cadmium, sage-colored soil. To heal its wounds – to share responsibility for its conservation – is one way of addressing other forms of trauma.

And then there are places where such work has been stopped in its tracks by this self-same Earth.

An email from a journal’s managing editor reminds me that I owe them a manuscript review. The piece, about community-led conservation of a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of central Nepal, has been sitting on my desk since just before the first earthquake. I kept meaning to read it but have not yet made the time. You’ll have it by week’s end, I tell the editor. The earthquake has kept me busy, preoccupied, I say.

Later that evening I begin to read, but the abstract stops me short. This is a piece about the  Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Langtang Village. Langtang. Tears come. This community was literally wiped clean away by a massive landslide triggered by the first quake. Hundreds of villagers and dozens of foreign trekkers lost their lives here, buried by the onslaught of rock, snow, and mud. Those strands of kin who did not perish are now living in a tent city in Kathmandu. The children of Langtang have just started school again, also in tents; online memorials to ‘those who left us’ bring to life the faces of mothers, sons, trekking guides, farmers, monks, grandfathers, and so many more. Just a few days ago, on June 12, the displaced community in Kathmandu held a massive ghewa ceremony, a ritual to mark the end of the 49-day period of the bardo, the in-between state between death and rebirth. Words fail, and the words on the page in front of me blur.

Until they don’t. As I read the story of this sacred space and all that its stewardship means to the people of Langtang, I am reminded of the ways that monastery is mountain deity; that the borders between built space and social ecologies of place are permeable; that materiality in this form of mahayana Buddhism is about a certain type of witnessing, “cultivating a critical and particular engagement with the material world,” as the authors describe. Buddhist emptiness is not nothingness, even when things are gone. And it is not a static logic of authenticity that people value when considering the needs of their social and religious institutions, but rather a sense that the lineage and integrity of such places can remain intact, and that they have the skillful means, the upaya, to rebuild them.

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