From #EbolaBeGone to #BlackLivesMatter: Anthropology, misrecognition, and the racial politics of crisis

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Adia Benton. Thurka Sangaramoorthy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention (Rutgers University, 2014). Her work on race, health, and inequality in the US has appeared in Medical Anthropology and Human Organization. Adia Benton is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She is the author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota, 2015). Her writing on the West African Ebola outbreak has appeared in Dissent, The New Inquiry and Cultural Anthropology’s Hot Spots series.]

Almost five months into the epidemic, on August 8, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a “public health emergency of international concern.” Military and police responses — both international and national — played a crucial role in responses to the epidemic. A few weeks later, on August 20th, the Liberian military quarantined residents of West Point in the capital city of Monrovia without advance warning, essentially cutting them off from food and supplies and causing thousands of residents to clash with troops and riot police. Images surfaced of troops firing live rounds and tear gas and viciously beating back residents who challenged the lockdown. Military-enforced quarantines around entire districts of Sierra Leone and the shift of power from the ministry of health to the ministry of defense were key features of its Ebola response.

Across the Atlantic, on August 9, 2014, 18-year old unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Peaceful protests and civil disorder ensued in the following weeks, prompting the governor to declare a “state of emergency” and call on local police and the National Guard to control protests and maintain curfews. Greater public attention was placed on the increasing militarization of local police forces as the grand jury, which was convened to hear evidence of the circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, reached a decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Continue reading

Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part II

So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:

I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!

Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way
Coding your fieldnotes the old fashioned way

Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.

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What we’re teaching this semester: Political Anthropology

Almost all academics, and a lot of semi- or non-academics, end up teaching in the course of their careers, but we rarely spend much time talking with others about how we think about course design and broader issues about how courses fit into our lives and the lives of our students. With the semester beginning for several Minds, we thought it would be interesting to talk about the courses we teach and the thought that goes into teaching them. Continue reading

Ethnographers as Writers: Theory and Data – Part I

There's nothing more intimidating than a blank page.
There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page.

Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.

The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:

What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.

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The Politics (and Stories) of Fieldwork in Cuba: Good job, President Obama, but is this just ‘here we go again’?

(This guest post comes to us from Laurie Frederik. Laurie is Associate Professor and Director of the Latin American Studies Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.  She is author of Trumpets in the Mountains: Theatre and the Politics of National Culture in Cuba, Duke University Press, 2012, and has been conducting research in Cienfuegos and Guantánamo provinces since 1997. -Rex )

The promised opening up or “normalizing” of diplomatic relations with Cuba may or may not mean that much will change for researchers, although tourists and commercial entrepreneurs rejoice in its potential.  President Obama’s statement had significant performative value, a declaration more powerful than a promise, perhaps, given the authority of the speaker. It was exciting for those of us who have been struggling to conduct research on the island for many years, and it inspired a flurry of projected “what if” and “when…” scenarios.

As amazing as Obama’s and Raul Castro’s televised statements were, however (their simultaneity is also notable), real policy change probably has a long way to go.  There has been easing of restrictions before.  Does anyone really believe that Obama can do more than Carter or Clinton?  Does this moment simply mean that a new generation of ethnographers has a window of opportunity they must seize before the next clampdown and/or next election?  I think we all feel that after 54 years, it’s about time and that Obama would be the man to do it.  What remains to be seen is how fast, to what degree, and how the changes directly affect those on each side of the Florida straits.

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Ethnographers as Writers: Getting Started

Every article, book, or thesis begins with a first word, but getting started feels overwhelming. My worst prose derives from disorganized thinking and writing, and over the years I’ve experimented with different systems to help me get my projects off the ground. When I map out some incremental steps, my projects seem more manageable.

First I ask myself: what do I want (or need) to write? This helps determine the best format for my research results. In some cases the format was predetermined for me – when I was a doctoral student I had to produce a dissertation of a certain minimum length. When I write for a journal, they enforce specific word counts. These days, I have a bit more freedom, but I still struggle to determine if I have a book length argument or if my research is best presented as a series of articles.

Before I write the first sentence, I try to visualize the contours of my project. I once typed up outlines, but now I imagine less formal ways to physically manifest a project. At the outset, I spend hours examining my research, beginning to define the distinct sections or chapters. I need a concrete guide that will help me tackle the writing tasks necessary to get from the first to the last word of the project.

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Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis – [Book Review]

CEP-cover

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

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

A Death in the Field

Serendipity confounds me. I spent most of Monday writing the following reflections on the death of a Bulgarian woman, one of my “key informants,” who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago while I was in Sofia. You can imagine my surprise when I logged on to Savage Minds this morning to post my short tribute to Ana. I encountered Ruth Behar’s beautiful piece on the passing of Esperanza, her comadre in Mexico and the inspiration for Translated Woman. Behar’s essay moved me to tears, and my own purple prose pales in comparison to her poetic rumination on the way an ethnographer’s life can become intertwined with those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. Journalists would say that I’d “been scooped,” since this post evokes many of the same issues and emotions as Behar’s and she is by far the more accomplished writer and anthropologist. But for Ana’s sake, I’ll post this humble essay anyway. The fleeting immortality of the written word is the only gift we ethnographers have to give.

Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Sveti Sedmochislenitsi church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Getting to know people across the barriers of language, culture, and generations provides one of the greatest joys of ethnographic fieldwork. I dislike the term “informant” because of its negative connotations, especially in the postsocialist context where people once “informed” on each other to the secret police. I prefer the term “fieldwork friends.”

I’ve conducted ethnographic research in Southeastern Europe for eighteen years, and I recognize the difficult power imbalances and the hierarchy of privileges that underpin relationships in the field. My position as an American – first as graduate student, then as professor – provides certain advantages that my fieldwork friends lack. Despite these challenges, I’ve forged close relations with many Bulgarian men and women who’ve shared their lives with me over the years.

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Goodbye, Comadre

[Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Ruth Behar. Ruth is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous articles and books including The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press, 1996), An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2007), Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys (Duke University Press, 2013), and is co-editor with Deborah Gordon of Women Writing Culture (University of California Press, 1995). Of all her writings, the best known is Translated Woman: Crossing the Border With Esperanza’s Story (Beacon Press, 1993). It is to this book–and to Esperanza–that Ruth returns in the essay below.]

The old year ended and I hadn’t yet said goodbye to Esperanza, my comadre. I just couldn’t believe she was gone.

I knew that the first important thing I needed to do in the new year was to write a farewell letter to her. Now it is Three Kings Day, an appropriate moment to thank her for all the gifts she gave me.

Esperanza and I met on the Day of the Dead in 1983. I was about to turn twenty-seven and all I had to my name was a recent Ph.D. in anthropology. I was living in the town of Mexquitic, in Mexico, fifteen hours from the Laredo border, and trying to decide what to do with my life after a disastrous, humiliating academic job interview. She was fifty-three-years-old, a farmer and street peddler, barely literate. Other women told me to avoid her. She was known to be fiery, rude, and a witch. Continue reading

Ethnographers as Writers: A Light-Hearted Introduction to Academese

Academics are collectively responsible for the production of some of the most obtuse and impenetrable prose in the English language.  Rhetorical fashions come and go, but the penchant for opacity has become a defining feature of contemporary scholarship

We were sitting over the remains of dinner in a Village restaurant when the conversation turned to gender and women’s studies.

“I am an –ism person,” Temma Kaplan, Rutgers historian said to me. “I don’t do –ity.”

I gave her a knowing look.

“It used to be all –isms. Now everything is –ities,” she said.

“But you can’t get a job in women’s studies without working on an –ity.” I said, “–ities are the thing these days.”

She sighed and shrugged.

Academese is the secret code that some scholars use to signal that they are members of the club.  It ensures that no one can really tell whether their ideas are brilliant, bad, or merely mediocre.   This is especially useful when submitting an application to a multidisciplinary search or review committee.  Since academics are so narrowly specialized these days, there are probably only a handful of people in the world who can judge whether a project is truly groundbreaking. 

Learning to write like an academic is difficult. If you don’t want to rely solely on the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, you too can learn the subtle art of writing impenetrable prose. It takes time and practice, and not an insubstantial amount of creativity, to produce appropriately complex neologisms for otherwise basic concepts.

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Zora Neale Hurston’s Gifts to Anthropology-Pt 2

Zora and Performance

I am most struck, however, by Zora’s recognition and analysis of the performative nature of Black culture. Years before performance theory was born, Zora Neale Hurston had been there and done that.   We will not find her insights, however, in the traditional scholarly publications. Zora’s discourses on the performative character of Black people are  in essays published in the then groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro edited by Nancy Cunard. There hold a wealth of analysis and interpretation of Negro/Black performativity, and are frequently overlooked.

Many academics today have come to recognize that there is significant intellectual value in having a “public voice” that reaches broader audiences beyond those attracted to our scholarly articles. The Savage Mind blog is a good example of the multiplicity of platforms available to anthropologists to speak their piece outside of the constraints of refereed journal articles.

Zora, like her contemporary Margaret Mead who wrote for RedBook, was a “cultural commentator” or what we call in today’s parlance, a “public intellectual” of the first order. Continue reading

Old Friend, New Contributor

Savage Minds is very happy to welcome long-time “intern” Dick Powis to the ranks of Savage Minds “contributor” (we also call them “Minds”). Dick has been doing a great job all year with the weekly roundups, and he’ll keep doing them until graduate school grinds him down, or we officially launch a search for a new intern. Most people become full-time members of Savage Minds by grabbing our attention with their blogging or guest blogging on the site, but the intern program is a second route, good for people just starting out. (Dick was still in college when he started, although he already had a great anthropology blog.) To be honest, there isn’t really that much difference between being an intern and a full-time member of the blog, except that contributors can take a little more initiative posting “invited posts,” launching special series, and otherwise leveraging the blog into more of a publishing platform than just a place for their personal blog posts. (Interns also have the added responsibility of the weekly and yearly roundups.) Now that he is a contributor, we look forward to seeing Dick taking more of a leadership role here at Savage Minds. Welcome aboard!

Zora Neale Hurston’s Gifts to Anthropology- Pt 1

Endings…

It is fitting that I end this blog on January 1, 2015. The winds of January blow with grace across Zora Neale Hurston’s memories. She died January 20, 1960 (fifty-five years ago) and January 7, 2015 will mark the 124th anniversary of Zora’s real birthday (January 7, 1891). Throughout her life, Zora shaved almost ten years off her age, even entering Barnard College at the age of 35. Her life was not only “wrapped in rainbows,” the title of the latest Hurston biography by Valerie Boyd’s, but it was also wrapped in mysteries. And the greatest mystery of all are her contributions to anthropology, which have  never been acknowledged.

Our lack of understanding is the result of several facts. Zora was an early bordercrosser. She consciously sought to emphasize the humanistic side of the  scientific objectivity  she embraced so eagerly; she was also nomadic, not by choice but by circumstances. Though a published writer, teacher and researcher, Zora barely eked out a subsistence lifestyle. In today’s terminology, she would fit the category of “the working poor.” Despite the impoverishment of trying to be a Black woman writer, anthropologist, intellectual in the 1920s and later, Zora stuck to her convictions and suffered for her determination to prove herself and independent woman.

However, always behind in rent, or having to store her belongings with others because she was in the field (turpentine and citrus camps that were institutionalized sharecropping), most of her field notes and clues to her research methodology remain hidden. Perhaps they are buried in the attics or trunks of her former friends and their descendants have yet to discover their value. And while insights into her approach as an ethnographer are elusive, they are not completely hidden from us. I have found many of Zora’s analytical gems buried in her correspondence. She would love the instantaneousness of today emails, since she was a prolific and dedicated writer whose letters carried forth her research ideas, her analysis and her vision of the Black folk culture she researched. Continue reading

Ethnographers as Writers: An Introduction

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Ghodsee.]

Ethngraphers as writers - Introduction
A writer’s tool

I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.

I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.

University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.

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Around the Web: Year in Review 2014

boas-nye-01

As 2014 comes to a close, I thought I’d take up the annual task of rounding up the best of Savage Minds and the anthroblogosphere. First, some fellow Savage Minds authors will share their favorite posts from the year. As the Around the Web curator, I’ll list the posts (from SM and elsewhere) that stood out for me. Then, I’ll show some of the submissions that we received from our readers. Finally, we’ll review some of the best blogs and articles that have provided an anthropological perspective on the 2014’s current events.

Let’s go! Continue reading