Israel BDS — Why I Signed…Reluctantly

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to present this thoughtful reflection on the boycott by James Ferguson. The American Anthropological Association will be voting on a pro-boycott resolution (Resolution #2) at its annual business meeting at 6:15 pm on Friday, November 20. His essay joins others on this blog, by scholars such as Partha Chatterjee, Talal Asad, Rosemary Sayigh, and Bryan BoydWe urge all anthropologists to look at the facts of the boycott and VOTE YES on #2 if attending the meeting.


Israel BDS – Why I Signed…Reluctantly

James Ferguson

I did not come easily to the decision to sign the petition supporting an academic boycott of Israeli universities.  My experience has been that academic boycotts can easily do more harm than good.  They harbor the risk of creating divisions between scholars working on the outside (for whom grand denunciations come easily, and often without cost) and those on the inside (at least some of whom may be progressive intellectuals of courage and commitment, working under the most challenging of circumstances, who may resent rather than welcome attacks on the institutions that support them).  There are also, it must be said, risks of hypocrisy, when American scholars righteously denounce foreign universities while saying little about their own comparatively lavishly-funded institutions, which are of course dripping with their own forms of complicity with militarism and imperialism.

In a complex situation, however — one, moreover, of which I personally have only very imperfect and limited knowledge — I feel obliged to give great weight to the views of those more knowledgeable than myself.  This is, after all, the most basic sort of trust that we rely upon as a scholarly community.  And it seems clear to me that the members of our intellectual community whom I judge to have the most knowledge and the best understanding, both of the Israel/Palestine situation in general and of the political role played by Israeli academic institutions, are in strong support of the resolution.  This is not just a question of a list of names, but a set of convincing arguments that has been assembled by an impressive assembly of scholars, many of whom I know to be not only fine researchers, but fair-minded persons of honest character and good judgment.

We are right to pause and discuss over this complex issue, and not to blithely assume that a repugnance for Israel’s policies simply or automatically warrants a boycott of its academic institutions.  And, in truth, I would be happier if the boycott were more closely aimed at specific practices of specific institutions (certainly, this would be desirable if our goal is to help transform Israeli institutions and not just to declare our opposition to the regime in the abstract).  But my assessment, in the end, after reviewing the arguments on both sides (and, as I have noted, giving special weight to the judgments of the scholars of the region whose work I know and admire, within anthropology and beyond) is that the boycott will find its fundamental meaning not within the academy, but beyond it.  In this light, we might see anthropologists’ support for the BDS movement both as a kind of public declaration that we have taken notice of the illegal and immoral conduct of the Israeli state and the institutions that support it, and as a small gesture of solidarity with those who have suffered most from that conduct.  That is reason enough for me.

The 59th Street Bridge Song

Slow down, you move to fast 

You got to make the morning last

(Paul Simon, Feelin’ groovy/The 59th St Bridge Song)

I grew up with vinyl. My family was an aspirational almost hippy immigrant family.  The 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was a ‘go-to’ album, as was the (also) 1966 album Revolver. Seemingly child friendly, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beetles infused our household with songs in which we were encouraged to slow down, talk to lamp posts, and live communally in yellow submarines.

Late capitalism has done everything it can to eradicate that possibility from my life.

I heard these songs in the deep recesses of my mind as I was preparing my tenure file earlier this year. My entire being entered into a space of stillness, staring resolutely into the belly of the beast in order to maintain some semblance of resistance to the deep anxiety that is structurally integral to the evaluation process of tenure. I took longer walks, barely responded to emails, slowly stopped talking to others and preferred to count my breath. With every formatting issue or question related to the subjective criteria of excellence, I slowed down even more, questioning in each moment why academic labor had entered into these frameworks of exploitation. The first person I saw upon submission of my file was a colleague of mine who is brilliant, and an adjunct who teaches at three colleges just to make ends meet. My self-indulgent slowness entered into a space of silence. 

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Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 2

In Part 1, I compared traditional fieldwork in a South Indian village with my unexpected and forced relocation to a U.S. treatment center for heroin addicts.  Now, in Part 2, I want to try out a concept to explain why it felt like I was doing the “same” thing in such different places. What fundamental of an anthropological perspective might have led to that feeling of sameness?

I’ll continue to use those early experiences from the late 1960s and early 70s. I don’t think the fundamentals have changed all that much.  But more recent experiences will be added in now and then. Over the decades, I’ve used what we do in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places, some of them not suitable for mention in a family blog of this type.

It strikes me that—in contrast to most everyone else who talks about a human group not their own—anthropologists start out by wanting to learn about that group and what they do, from them, beginning with a suspicion that what the anthro and every other outsider thinks is true is probably wrong. I sometimes describe us as “ambulatory falsification machines.” Tell me something that you or I think we know about the people we’re interested in, and I’ll bet my retirement savings it’s at least a stick-figure version and maybe flat wrong. Continue reading

Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to extend its original series on this blog in light of a boycott vote at the November 2015 American Anthropological Association meetings. Endorsed by Jewish Voice for Peace and over 1000 anthropologists, a pro-boycott resolution will be up for vote at the AAA Business Meeting at 6:15 pm on Friday, November 20. It is Resolution #2 on the docket. This post debunks common myths about the boycott, and urges all attending anthropologists to VOTE YES on #2 at the meeting.


Myths and Facts about the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions


Myth #1: The boycott prevents Israeli and U.S. scholars from working together.

Fact: The boycott is not directed at individuals; it is directed at the institutions in which they work. It does not deny Israeli scholars the right to attend conferences (including the AAA meetings), speak at or visit U.S. universities, or publish their work in AAA publications. Nor will boycott prevent U.S. scholars from traveling to Israel. Individual AAA members will remain free to decide whether and how to implement the boycott on their own.


Myth #2: Dialogue is a better way to support Palestinian rights than a boycott.

Fact: Boycott and dialogue are not incompatible; individuals will continue to dialogue even after this institutional boycott is implemented. But dialogue is not enough. Despite decades of dialogue and diplomacy, Israel has continued to act with impunity and the occupation has grown only more entrenched and dangerous. The anti-boycott resolution, “Engaging Israel Palestine: End the Occupation, Oppose Academic Boycott, Support Dialogue” (Resolution #1) simply repackages the status quo of dialogue without justice, and flies in the face of the unanimous conclusion of the AAA Task Force on Israel-Palestine that it is time for the Association to take significant action. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of October 25

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yes, Halloween. Send me any links to include here at

The Economist traces the growing popularity of the holiday from the Celtic Samhain through the growth of suburbia: The Meaning of Halloween

This post on the Geek Anthropologist explores the supernatural in American life and its connection with the experience of sleep paralysis: Why Halloween is for Anthropologists

It’s unfortunate that this IFL Science post uses such ethnocentric and exoticizing language in its title, because it’s an interesting survey of death-related practices in the past and present: Preserving the Dead: Weird and Grisly Practices from Around the World

This New Yorker article asks the question Are Cats Domesticated? Based on archaeological and genomic evidence, it concludes… yes and no.

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Unscholarly Confessions on Reading

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Katerina Teaiwa as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Katerina is Head of Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language at Australia National University, as well as President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her book Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Indiana University Press, 2015) focuses on histories of phosphate mining in the central pacific, specifically the movement of Banaban rock and the complex relations created by the mining, shipping, production and consumption of superphosphate and ensuing commodities (watch the book trailer on youtube). This Banaba work inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of phosphate mining in the Pacific through Banaban dance. She is currently collaborating in the The Anthropocene Kitchen project to convert her book and research into a science comic.]

They say to write well you should read well: “read more and write better” proclaims the Writing Forward blog. And in her Savage Minds essay Ruth Behar states: “It comes down to this: you can only write as well as what you read.”

While I have to write regularly as an academic, I’m currently struggling to identify good reading practices in my weekly or even monthly routine. How do we define good practices? Is what influences us as academics primarily the “high quality” sources — the peer reviewed articles and books, the classical texts or novels, the rich ethnographic texts, fieldwork or other reliable data — that we expect to find cited in our colleagues’ work, and that we regularly assign to our students? Continue reading

Rewind and Fast Forward, Part 1

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Michael Agar].

A couple of months ago I was having dinner with an old friend in Seattle. He stopped his fork in mid-flight and looked at me, astonished. “Microsoft hires anthropologists?” “Yes,” I answered, “They fire them too.” He’d just complained about the over-techification of his hometown, worried that the rumors of AliBaba adding to the existing digital mob were true. I had just said that “even anthropologists” were part of the new tech world. He still thought of us as collectors of quaint and curious customs of exotic people. Interesting and entertaining perhaps, but hardly relevant to the brave new digital world.

It made me wonder, again, how to explain what anthropology “is.”  Why did my old friend still see it only in terms of the “savage slot,” Trouillot’s phrase that describes anthropology’s traditional academic assignment.

I do know that anthropology “is” something. It exists. It’s certainly the most self-conscious discipline that I know of, sometimes embarrassingly so at gatherings of diverse professions. It definitely tends to be more tied to the personal identity of its bearer than most professional labels that people use when you ask “what do you do?” Whatever it is, it has strong personal and social force. What is that force? Continue reading

Tripping On Good Vibrations: Cultural Commodification and Tibetan Singing Bowls

In September of 2014, science-and-technology news outlets reported on a discovery that supposedly had the potential to revolutionize the field of solar energy. While doing PhD research at the University of Cambridge, a physicist by the name of Niraj Lal developed a new way to design solar panel cells that increased their ability to absorb light and covert it into electricity dramatically . This alone was good news, but the hook of the story was more specific. For Lal’s breakthrough was inspired not only by recent developments in the world of physics, but also by something ancient and ‘spiritual’: the Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl.

Lal had experimented with playing a variety of metal singing bowls – i.e. with making them ‘sing’ by striking their sides and then running a padded pestle or mallet around their rim to produce a sustained ringing sound. As he explained in his 2012 PhD thesis, such musical experiments helped him realize that, if properly arranged, tiny, resonating singing bowl-shaped solar cells could do with light what their larger cousins did with sound, and therefore maximize light-energy conversion. (Well, actually what he said was more like this:

“This thesis explores the use of plasmonic nanovoids for enhancing the efficiency of thin-film solar cells. Devices are fabricated inside plasmonically resonant nanostructures, demonstrating a new class of plasmonic photovoltaics. Novel cell geometries are developed for both organic and amorphous silicon solar cell materials…A four-fold enhancement of overall power conversion efficiency is observed in organic nanovoid solar cells compared to flat solar cells. The efficiency enhancement is shown to be primarily due to strong localised plasmon resonances of the nanovoid geometry, with close agreement observed between experiment and theoretical simulations. Ultrathin amorphous silicon solar cells are fabricated on both nanovoids and randomly textured silver substrates. Angle-resolved reflectance and computational simulations highlight the importance of the spacer layer separating the absorbing and plasmonic materials. A 20% enhancement of cell efficiency is observed for nanovoid solar cells compared to flat, but with careful optimisation of the spacer layer, randomly textured silver allows for an even greater enhancement of up to 50% by controlling the coupling to optical modes within the device.”

…but you get the idea). Continue reading

Four ghost stories from Aunt Julia

More so than any other person in my mother’s extended family, Julia was a person who was truly loved. She helped to raise her mother’s children, then her own children, her many nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Everyone from my mother’s family thinks of her as a caregiver and an essential part of their upbringing. She was my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, and in January 1997 we met so that I might collect some of her famous ghost stories.

Julia was born in 1911 on a hacienda in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico, the fourth child and second girl of eleven. Fleeing the Mexican revolution her family settled in Austin, Texas, in 1918. Julia never attended school, but instead as one of the older children was in charge of the house and it was here that her skills as a cook and storyteller emerged.

Many in my family would single out her tales of the supernatural as her most memorable stories. I think Halloween makes for a fine occasion to share them and I hope you enjoy!

The first two take place when the family lived on a dairy near Deep Eddy in the 1920s, this house and all the land around it was haunted. Julia attributed these unexplained events to the remains of old barracks built by the soldiers of General Santa Anna. The second two stories take place in a haunted house on East 6th Street that the family lived in from the 1940s until sometime in the 1950s.

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The _other_ enemy of Open Access

An article made the rounds of social media recently on whether or not the for-profit website is outflanking the open access movement. It’s a great article that I’d encourage people to read closely., in case you didn’t know, is basically tumblr for academics — a bunch of hosted blog sites tied together into a social network. I am deeply ambivalent about (and its more sciency cousin Research Gate) but in the end I use the site and even accepted one of the many ‘editorships’ they provided to people, which allows you to rate up content on their site.

There’s a lot to be said about, most of which can be found in the post I linked to above. But what that piece sparked in my head was the way and other sites enable (and perhaps even promote?) the other enemy of the open access movement: law-scoffing consumerism.

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A Case for Agitation: On Affect and Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Carla Jones as part of our Writers’ Workshop seriesCarla is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research analyzes the cultural politics of appearance in urban Indonesia, with particular focus on femininity, aesthetics and Islam. She has written extensively on self-improvement programs and middle-class respectability during the Suharto and post-Suharto periods in Jogjakarta and Jakarta, and is the co-editor, with Ann Marie Leshkowich and Sandra Niessen, of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003). Her current work situates anxieties about Islamic style in the context of broader debates about visibility and wealth.]


We are living in affective times. At least according to the many journal themes, conference panel titles and other measures of anthropology’s current interests, affect is in the air. This feels relevant for thinking about writing. Feeling seems central to the reasons we write, even if we rarely say that out loud. Feeling in the mood to write, feeling ready to say something, feeling safe to say it, feeling passionately about it, feeling proud of it once we’ve said it, these all undergird the conditions for writing. These feelings contrast with the objectivity of a social science based in data and facts, and we have a now decades-long critique in the discipline about the fundamentally political and subjective nature of knowledge production. But these are also largely positive feelings.

I want to suggest that one of the motivations to write is also irritation. This may seem contrary and cranky. I don’t mean for it to. For me it is empowering. I increasingly find that the nudge that takes me from mental idea to written word is much more than a deadline. It is a feeling that might be impolite. I find I am most in the mood to write when I am agitated. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of October 18

Happy Sunday (technically)! If you come across any links to include here, email me at

It’s not explicitly anthropological, but City Lab started an interesting conversation about the problematic stereotypes embedded in dining out in the U.S. (such as referring to certain foods from the global South as “ethnic”) in How Not to Be a Restaurant Racist, which provoked the response What’s Very Wrong with “How Not to Be a Restaurant Racist” on The Stranger.

I also love this Material World post about how observers from the global North find the sight of luxury goods and wealth gaps “bizarre” in places like Accra: Ain’t No Jaguars in Ghana’s Urban Jungle Luxury and the Postcolonial Bizarre

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Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas Revealed! Tibetan Buddhist Aliens and Religious Syncretism

In this post I’m going to be talking a little about aliens. Tibetan ones, specifically. Also, sex magic. Bear with me now. A lot of this may be quite unfamiliar, esoteric territory for Savage Minds readers, but it’s territory that I think is anthropologically interesting. In addition to being an under-appreciated slice of Orientalist history, the Tibetan alien is an exquisitely weird gateway into a number of issues relating to epistemology, ontology, and ‘truth’. The convoluted history of the Tibetan alien opens up a space for thinking about the construction of ‘tradition’ and its relationship to religious practice and experience. It also beams a light on the politics of other-ness, both as they relate to issues of cultural appropriation and personal spiritual transformation.

To begin, let’s travel first to Dharamsala, North India, 1992. Continue reading

The Privacy Paradox: IRBs in an Era of NSA Mass Surveillance

[This invited post was written by Daniel O’Maley, who recently graduated with a PhD in cultural anthropology from Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on the global Internet freedom movement and the link between digital technology and new forms of democratic participation. You can read more about him and his research here]

Increasingly, our lives are mediated by the Internet and other digital technologies. For anthropologists like myself, this presents new opportunities for research, but the digitization, exchange, and storage of personal data also generate new privacy concerns for our participants. During my research on Brazilian Internet freedom activists, I learned about both the potentials of the Internet, as well as the way that digital technology can, and is, being abused to violate civil liberties. What I call the “privacy paradox,” refers to the situation in which the U.S. government at once defends research participants’ privacy through Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) while it simultaneously violates their privacy on a massive, global scale through mass surveillance national security apparatus.

The privacy paradox become apparent to me in July 2013, just a month after the Snowden leaks that exposed NSA mass surveillance, when I sat down to interview a high-level official of a Brazilian IT firm. Before the interview, I detailed the measures I was taking to ensure that his personal data would be protected and I explained that this was required by Vanderbilt’s IRB per U.S. law. Upon hearing this, the IT official looked at me incredulously. Over the previous two months the front pages of newspapers had been plastered with articles detailing U.S. government surveillance projects with codenames like PRISM, XKeyscore, and Stellar Wind that used the global telecommunications infrastructure to collect personal data on people around the world. My interviewee was well-versed in issues of privacy in the digital age, so to hear me state that the U.S. government was concerned with his privacy was laughable.

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What a cooperative proposal means for the AAA

Social media was a-twitter (see what I did there?) today with an important statement about the future of anthropology publishing posted at both Cultural Anthropology and in the latest number of HAU. But what precisely is this post about? What are the broader politics that form its context, and what is its point?

The basic idea is this: We have long known that the American Anthropological Association is unable and/or unwilling to innovate on its own. Most of the developments in open access anthropology have happened outside of the AAAs structure. Sure, the AAA has tried various things such as a faux-open access journal and open access book reviews. But its core business model has been to throw in its lot with a large corporate publisher.

Our recent proposal to the AAA marks an important watershed in open access anthropology because it represents something new. Now, open access is not only growing outside of the AAA’s auspices, it is actually feeding back into the AAA itself. Instead of just going its own way, the open access community is now saying to the AAA: “You can’t develop a robust open access business model on your own. But what if we developed one for you? What if we could prove to you that there is a financially sustainable way for you to run your publishing unit? If we build it, will you come?”

My guess is that, no, the AAA will not endorse the model. The AAA has published American Anthropologist for over a hundred years, and their fundamental goal is to make sure that it continues for another hundred years. In the past couple of years the AAA has done a good job of building capacity, but it is still a conservative institution which is very risk averse.

But we can hope. And hopefully the cooperative proposal we have set out will receive lots of pushback from the AAA and people in the publishing industry to tell us that It Cannot Be Done, You Don’t Understand The Numbers, and so forth. This will only lead us to sharpen our argument, gather more data, and make an even stronger case. And — if you don’t mind my saying so — I think the open access movement deserves a lot of kudos of continuing to press its case with an institution that it very easily could have walked away from. In the end, the only way to test the business model is to actually try it, and I hope that someday we can prove to the AAA that our proposals are indeed feasible. If we do not, it will not be for lack of trying on our part.