Around the Web Digest: Week of July 5

I’m brimming with conference energy from the Guatemala Scholars Network meeting this last week in Antigua, Guatemala, so this post will be longer than usual. Thanks for reaching out with links and suggestions at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

Language Log featured this Open Letter to Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, that I found useful as a reminder that just because privilege goes unmarked, it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as the norm or default. (In other words, it’s not “speech” and “gay speech,” it’s “straight speech” and “gay speech”).

Along similar lines, thank you, Society for Linguistic Anthropology, for pointing out that young women are blamed for creating “annoying” vocal aberrations like uptalk and vocal fry, just as women are blamed for not “leaning in” in the workplace: (Socio-)Phonetics in the News. (Also, as an aside, radio host Ira Glass exhibits more vocal fry than anyone I’ve ever heard).

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Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.

 

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 rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com! (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”

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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.  Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of June 21

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 rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

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! 

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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.

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.

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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? 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!

“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. 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 rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com!

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.

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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.

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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.

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