Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

My patients sometimes present me with an opportunity to reflect on anthropological literature through our brief and yet candid conversations. By rule, we medical interpreters are not supposed to be friends with clients (both patients and providers), and thus we limit the amount of private time with them. Again, our fundamental responsibilities are to be a communication conduit, invisible and detached from the emotional exchanges between patients and medical professionals. It keeps us out of potential trouble, such as being asked for medical advice or personal assistance outside clinical settings (violation of HIPAA and Code of Ethics). Every time a patient asks me about her/his treatments, I have to tell her/him, “Let’s ask the doctor about it,” even if I know how I want to answer.

But when I accompany patients under long-term invasive treatments, we often end up with alone time. In such instances, I make sure that our conversation topics remain neutral and non-medical. And yet, we often develop a rapport, telling funny stories and laughing together. As I spend more time with them, some of the patients begin to confide in me about their struggles with their illnesses.

One of them, for instance, asked for my opinion on whether or not to wear a wig to cover up hair loss from chemotherapy. According to her, cancer patients in her home country typically prefer keeping their illnesses secret from people outside their families. Since her social network was mostly insulated within the community where the people speak only her native language, she was naturally inclined to follow the same trend. At the same time, crossing paths with her fellow cancer patients who were without wigs in the clinics led her to the realization that things were a bit different beyond her community. Still, she felt that going wigless would be like advertising her illness.

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Vale Elizabeth Colson

When Elizabeth Colson passed last month at the age of 99, anthropology lost one of its preeminent figures. Colson was a unique figure in many ways: She straddled the English and American anthropological traditions, rose to prominent positions of authority at a time when anthropology was still largely a men’s club, and exhibited a devotion to her research that few can match: According the Facebook post I was able to find confirming her death (thanks Hylton), Colson died and was buried in Africa.

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Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall: Thinking beyond the many turns in Anthropology

By Nokuthula Hlabangane

“Modernity will never again, up to the present, ask existentially or philosophically for the right to dominate the periphery. Rather, the right to domination will be imposed as the nature of things and will underpin all modern philosophy.” (emphasis in original; Dussel, 2014: 32-33)

To divorce anthropology from the overall project of modernity would be disingenuous. Anthropology is an integral part of the arsenal that effected the us/them hierarchical dichotomy, the negative repercussions of which continue to haunt the geo-politics of our time. There is thus no question as to the need to decolonise the discipline. The question remains whether it is at all possible to decolonise the discipline, which some argue is more mired in coloniality than not. Exceptionalising anthropology as the unique colonising force in the human sciences misses the point. The sight of the colonising project of the human sciences, and the sciences in general, should not be lost even as we count the tally of the destruction that anthropology singularly wrought.  To be sure, we, in Africa who purport an Africanist, decolonial outlook, are viscerally aware of this destruction. We, who were trained in the discipline learnt, along the way, to come to it with gaping wounds, understanding fully well our untenable position as participants in a discipline that continues to cause so much pain, mainly because of its inability to engage in deep introspection. Our perhaps unrealistic hope is that we are awakened from the complicit role that we inevitably play by standing by its prescripts.

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Please Don’t Shoot the Fact-Checker

Anthropologists seeking to communicate their research to general audiences are likely to work with fact-checkers. Here’s some advice on how to handle the process if you’ve been interviewed by a reporter.

I write a lot of emails that make me seem much less educated than I am. Why? I often work as a professional fact-checker.

In this capacity, it’s my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the words someone else has written. I’m not conducting original research; I’m making sure that another writer got their facts right.

This usually entails contacting the experts the author chose to interview and asking them a series of questions to determine whether or not the wealth of information they provided to the author was adequately distilled into a handful of words. I frequently do this by rewriting the author’s article into a series of “yes” or “no” questions.

Years ago, I was fact-checking for a glossy magazine and wrote an email to a well-respected biological anthropologist who had been quoted in the story I was working on. I asked: “Did marriage evolve so that we can find someone to fall in love with, in order to reproduce?” I’d read enough Gayle Rubin to answer this question from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist. I had to remind myself that, as a fact-checker, my job was not to challenge the statement the scholar had made. My responsibility was to confirm that these were words this media-savvy scholar would have spoken. She answered with a simple “yes.”
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Anthropology outside Anthropology, Part 1

“I’m an anthropologist by training and I work as a medical interpreter.” When I tell this to people from anthropology backgrounds, I often receive sympathetic groans from them, as if I fell out of anthropology heaven, wasting my graduate training. It certainly felt that way when I left academic anthropology. However, my medical interpreter job proved me wrong.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about this job when the offer came to me at first. Having read numerous scholarly critiques of biomedical institutions during my studies in medical anthropology, I felt that I would be engulfed by biomedicine and end up working on the “wrong side” of the powerful (biomedicine)-powerless (patients) equation.

Anyone who has studied medical anthropology should be familiar with the canonical work in critical assessments of biomedicine (or Western medicine) by Arthur Kleinman, Byron Good, Margaret Lock, etc (for practical advice on working within biomedicine, see Kleiman’s essay “Anthropology in Clinic”). They warn us of the authoritative power of biomedical knowledge, which is so extensive that it permeates as legitimate cultural norms, values, and morals through our everyday lives. Specifically relating to my current job, some scholars caution about the negative consequences of medical interpreters in patients’ health outcomes: the interpreter as information gatekeeper and provider proxy (Hsieh and Kramer 2012), the interpreter as a covert co-diagnostician and institutional gatekeeper (Davidson 2001), and the interpreter as an ineffective mediator for meaningful clinical communications (Leanza, Bolvin, and Rosenberg 2010).

Despite my skepticism, the medical interpreter job hasn’t bulldozed over my principles as an anthropologist. And I credit this positive result to the medical interpreter certification program, as well as my training in anthropology. The interpreter training was carefully crafted to encourage prospective interpreters to learn how to focus strictly on being communication conduits between providers and patients, while also developing the ability to assess when to become a patient’s advocate. The instructor of this training program made us practice juggling these roles in various hypothetical scenarios over and over again.

Being detail-oriented, which I acquired from my ethnographic research as a part of the training in anthropology, helps me fulfill these medical interpreter roles as well. We interpreters are the eyes and ears of these complex medical situations, vigilantly attending to facial expressions of the provider and the patient and any words and sounds uttered by them. What our eyes and ears catch is instant data, so to speak, in order for us to identify miscommunications, distrusts, and disagreements between both sides of the equation. In this way, we can quickly step out of the communication conduit role and jump back in to help attenuate conflicts and tensions.

One unexpected benefit from my training in anthropology came to light through writing up mandatory post-appointment reports. My interpreter agency often commends me for my meticulous reports. Writing these reports certainly brings back some of the memories from my ethnographic research – Flashback: I’m sitting in my car at a gas station a couple of blocks away from one of my research sites and madly scribbling down every little detail I saw and heard during a long event where I just did participant-observation. I can later type this all up into a coherent story as a part of research data that will be coded and analyzed after the completion of the research.

Sure, writing post-appointment reports isn’t as complicated as typing up fieldnotes. But all of the words I jot down while interpreting my clients become something like the notes I took during my participant-observation, as I type them up into a post-appointment report – sometimes on my phone as soon as I get back to my car in the hospital parking lot. I honestly would have never thought that ethnographic research skills would be useful at a job outside anthropology.

To see Part 2, click here.

Anthropologies #22: Reflections on Food in Food Research

The second installment of the anthropologies issue on food comes from Zofia Boni, a food anthropologist. Boni’s PhD (SOAS) focused on food and children and the negotiations regarding feeding and eating in Warsaw. Currently, she is a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. Her new research project focuses on the social dynamics of childhood obesity in Poland. –R.A.

Food is an intrinsic element of all anthropological research. Sharing food can be an ice breaker; it can provide a context or an opportunity for the conversations with your interlocutors, it provides insights into their lives and often means that “you are in!” or at least you are getting closer.

In the case of anthropology of food, however, food becomes particularly important as it is placed at the heart of the research. What happens when food is not only a research tool which facilitates interactions, but also becomes the object of the research? How can we actually study something so ephemeral? And what happens when we eat it and therefore embody the object of our research? What sort of implications does it have for the researchers and the researched? What sort of tensions or connections does it create? Though anthropologists reflect on those issues, the centrality of food and its importance for many anthropological encounters, to a large extent, stays implicit. This essay aims to inspire the discussion about the role and place of food in anthropological research on food. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest- July 31

Hi everyone, hope the first week of August is not beating down on you too hard! Here are your readings for the week.

As the 2016 Summer Olympic games begin this week, Gregory Mitchell observes the effects of mass sports tourism on the lives of sex workers in Brazil.

Durkheim and the “collective effervescence” has picked up some steam to explain the popularity of Trump. However,  Religion Dispatches looks at the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer and The Golden Bough to explain Trump as a magician-king.

When kawaii becomes kawai. The immaculate construction and cuteness of bento lunch boxes are used as markers of social status among Japanese parents and a source of shame for more humble lunches.

The linguistic diversity of indigenous people in Mexico is gloriously animated in several short films that seek to preserve endangered languages.

The Nation profiles the lives of several Korean adoptees in America and the struggles that follow. Alyssa Jeong Perry cites University of California, Irvine anthropologist Eleana J. Kim and her book Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging (which I am currently reading and highly recommend).

See you next week!

Writing About Violence (Part II)

After nearly three years of eating almost nothing but the watery beans and undercooked rice I was served while conducting research in Brazilian prisons, I couldn’t wait to hit the restaurants of New York City when I returned from the field. I was surprised to find that even the spiciest chana masala tasted bland. I was numb. Kind neighbors had to remind me to put on a coat when I left my apartment to walk to the library, even though the sidewalks were covered with ankle-deep snow. My nose didn’t even twitch when I was forced to wait for a train on a piss drenched subway platform.

Well-meaning friends recommended therapy. Graduate advisors suggested writing as a strategy for self-care. I watched movies instead.

One night, I went out to see Ônibus 174, a slick documentary directed by José Padilha that tells the story of a Rio bus robbery that turned into a nationally televised hostage situation. The film manages to vilify poor black youths who turn to violence out of desperation, and the police officers who are tasked with keeping such violence out of the neighborhoods where privileged Brazilians like Padilha live. I left the movie theater with hot tears in my eyes and cried for six hours. Then I opened a brand new notebook and, for four straight hours, wrote about the seemingly endless reasons my fieldwork experiences led me to despise Padilha’s film.

No one but me will ever read those pages. The writing they contain is too raw to share. I confirmed this a few weeks ago, when I pulled out that notebook to verify that the writing was as awful as I remembered; it was. Sure, I’d vividly described a few places and had jotted down the kernels of thoughts that have since ripened, or that I am still cultivating. But, overall, the prose was too emotional and self-absorbed to be ethnographic.

I’ve thought of that private notebook when reading the texts of some emerging ethnographers who have recently studied violence in the field and have rushed to write publicly about their experiences before they’ve had the time to really think them through. While I commend such individuals for having the courage and the discipline to write, I also invite them to pause before publishing. Ethnographic writing can be a therapeutic exercise, but to be effective it must also be more.

Ethnographers of violence who are far, far more accomplished than I have argued that writing can help an anthropologist who has been emotionally taxed by fieldwork to recover. Even as the act of writing plunges the anthropologist back into the field, it also offers him or her a way to move beyond personal experiences of horror or fear to arrive at larger conclusions about the human condition. But the movement from therapy to theory is not as simple as this statement implies. It is only over time, and via multiple drafts, that writing permits the ethnographer to tease out the ways that intensely felt personal experiences of fear or suffering jarred their previous understanding and challenged them to rethink troubling problems and uncomfortable truths from unexpected angles.

When we read Philippe Bourgois, Mick Taussig, or Donna Goldstein—or many, many others who write about violence with style and grace—we don’t always notice the intellectual labor that went into producing their work. The grit and urgency of the writing belies its polish. Many of us aspire to write so vividly, so personally. Yet, it is crucial to note that when we read texts like In Search of Respect, Law in a Lawless Land, or Laughter out of Place, even though we feel the immediacy of the ethnographic encounter by being privy to the author’s thoughts and emotions while in the field, the enduring contribution of these texts lies in what their authors have told us about the people and the places they have studied, not in what the authors have revealed to us about themselves.

Moving from therapy to theory in writing about personal experiences of violence is intellectually demanding work. The difficulty of the task is exacerbated by the imperative to publish quickly and often. When still overwhelmed by the stresses and emotions of recent fieldwork, it is often easier (and more immediately rewarding) to write about the personal effects of what we experienced in the field. But allowing time and reflection to intervene between our ideas and the visceral and the emotional aspects of certain ethnographic encounters can enable us to better think through the ways that personal experiences of fear or suffering can illuminate larger patterns or problems. To put it simply: while ethnographic writing can offer catharsis, it should also offer critique.


Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Goldstein, Donna. Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown. University of California Press, 2013.

Taussig, Michael. Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Theidon, Kimberly. “‘How was Your Trip?’ Self-care for Researchers Working and Writing on Violence.” Drugs Security and Democracy Program DSD Working Papers in Research Security. New York: Social Science Research Council, 2014.

Journey between Two Languages

By Asmeret Ghebreigziabiher Mehari

As a non-native learner and speaker of Amharic, English, and Swahili, I have taken several journeys between these languages and my mother tongue, Tigrinya. Considering geopolitical domination and subordination, the passages between Amharic and Tigrinya or Swahili and Tigrinya are fewer than between English and Tigrinya. However, all crossings have similar purposes: to improve my comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills of these languages. In writing this post, I have taken a journey that merges Tigrinya and English in the service of two critical questions: 1) what role would a journey between two languages play in the process of thinking and writing about decolonizing archaeology?  2) What would the traveler feel and experience?

This journey took a few days to begin answering these two questions, but the first two days make the foundation of this and any future journeys.

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Ramadan Diaries: Week Three

[Note: Ramadan is long over, but due to some technical difficulties, our weekly entries were interrupted. With this entry on not fasting during Ramadan, we pick up where we left off.] 

Ramadan Diaries takes you into the Ramadan experience of two students of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Oguz Alyanak and Dick Powis. They will be fasting amongst Muslims in two Francophone contexts, Strasbourg, France and Dakar, Senegal, respectively. By sharing brief notes on the fasting experience, the aim is to provide a reflexive account of participant observation as it is undertaken by two scholars with distinct backgrounds and field sites. This is the fourth entry in the series, you can read the Introduction, Week One, and Week Two here. 

Oguz Alyanak: Last week, I took the overnight bus from Strasbourg to Paris to attend a two-day conference. The six-hour bus trip, on Wednesday (to Paris) and Friday (back to Strasbourg), started at midnight. I boarded the bus less than two hours after breaking fast, and skipped my last meal of the day (sahur) because I fell asleep during both legs of the trip. So far, fasting has not been physically demanding. However, I was not sure whether my body would handle it while attending a conference tired and sleep-deprived. Hence, for the first time, I thought about skipping. The idea led me to think of my Ramadan experience, and particularly of its purpose, and what I made of it as part of my fieldwork. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest- July 24

Hi everyone, I apologize for the delay but here is this week’s readings for you!

With Hamilton, the musical sensation soon traveling to different cities in the U.S., Current Affairs questions its revisionist portrayal of European colonists and downplaying the history of slavery.

Pokemon Go has millions of players exploring their neighborhoods and ending up in interesting situations in the past few weeks. However, not everyone with disabilities can go out and catch them all. How does the rise of augmented reality technology ignore the needs and embodied experiences of different groups?

Have you noticed your Chinese takeout getting more expensive? Joe Pinsker examines a “global hierarchy of taste” that relates the price and prestige of cuisine to a nation’s political and economic influence.

Anti-Black racism does not only take the form of police brutality. City Lab connects the militant policing of Black neighborhoods with environmental pollution that contribute to higher rates of conditions such as asthma and cancer in Black populations.

Two-Spirit indigenous populations in North America have a complicated history with anthropologists. In recent years, more non-indigenous people have claimed two-spirit as part of their identity. Black Girl Dangerous interrogates the violence of colonialism when non-indigenous people claim to be two-spirit. 

See you next week!

Writing About Violence (Part I)

Writing is never easy. Writing ethnographically about people who perpetrate violence is exceptionally difficult. Not only does the ethnographer have to cautiously avoid slipping into what we call “pornographic’ representation, she (or he) must find a way to convey the humanity of people who do “inhuman” things, while also doing justice to the victims of their violence. Writing in the first person compounds these difficulties. How does one insert his or herself, as ethnographer, into such a narrative?

In writing up my research on prison rapes and murders, I struggle with the competing desires of wanting to present myself as a likeable protagonist and wanting to honestly relate the ways that my ethnographic practice cannot help but become entwined with the forms of violence that I study. I also worry that as I try to navigate between these two treacherous poles of representation, my writing will be either disastrously self-exculpating or unnecessarily self-flagellating.

One solution to this problem might be to consider the ethnographer in the stories I write about violence as a character, rather than a robust and authentic representation of me. But, would doing so necessitate writing the violent events of my fieldwork as fiction? And would turning into ethnographic fiction events that I experienced as being too-real (and as having too-real consequences) be just another way to avoid confronting their ethical ramifications?

A simpler solution would be to pretend that the violence I either witnessed or experienced in the field did not happen at all. I would not be the first to elide physical violence in my ethnographic writing. In fact, I’ve admittedly written much less about the violent events that were central to my fieldwork than I have about the forms of structural violence that have shaped the ethnographic contexts in which I study because I find doing so to be less fraught than writing about specific instances of physical aggression or pain. But blood, bullets, and torn flesh were so prevalent in my fieldwork, I would feel dishonest if I wrote them out of my work.

Another course I could steer in writing about my ethnographic encounters with perpetrators of violence would be to unequivocally position myself as observer rather than participant. But, to me, this would hearken back to the late nineteenth century, when ethnography was decidedly about “the other,” not about the complex relationships that entangle us with people we might—especially when acts of murder or torture are involved—prefer to refer to as “them.”

The choice I have made is to directly acknowledge both my discomfort with and my complicity in the violence that I study. The subsequent challenge I face is how to write this way without dipping into the egocentrism that, as my next post will discuss, sometimes plagues writing about ethnographic encounters with violence.


Fassin, Didier. 2014 “True Life, Real Lives: Revisiting the Boundaries Between Ethnography and Fiction.” American Ethnologist 41(1): 40-55.

Nader, Laura. 2011. “Ethnography as Theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1): 211-219.

Taussig, Michael. 2010. “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic.” Walter Benjamin’s Grave. University of Chicago Press, p. 121-156.

A Question of Politics, not Agency

My as work has an anthropologist in Brazil has drawn me into an historically layered matrix of racial, class-based, and gendered violence that I did not sufficiently understand when I entered the field. I am still working to understand it now. In my previous post I described how, when an off duty police officer held a gun to my temple, he made it impossible for me to claim that I stood fully outside that matrix because I was a light-skinned foreigner. Still, I could not claim that I stood fully within the matrix because I was an anthropologist. The threat I faced was an exceptional moment in my life; such moments were likely to become quotidian to the three little boys who knelt with me in the cane.

In writing about the event, my goal was to foreground the matrix in which the violent encounter I described unfolded and to think through my liminal place within it. While I do assume responsibility for making the event I described possible, I am more interested in examining the larger structures and forces that create the conditions in which violence occurs than I am concerned with assigning individual blame for particular acts of violence.

Admittedly, it would have been expedient to cast myself as an innocent victim of an “other’s” violence. But to me, the more productive question to ask is: How have innocence and complicity become intertwined in a context where murder is too often understood to be an acceptable response to perceived disrespect?

Fractal Kinship: Europe 2016

Political conflict can create deep turmoil within families. Marina lost her only son to fighting in eastern Ukraine. He died while fighting in a Ukrainian airborne division that was attempting to regain territory lost to separatists. The magnitude of this loss becomes more palpable if we consider Marina’s family as a whole: her mother had welcomed the separatists and supported them in their fight. Her sister was politically active and took a leadership position in one of the breakaway republics. So as Marina sees it, her mother and sister helped facilitate the death of her only son.

The EU referendum results have also thrown families into upheaval. The title of a recent article sums it up well “I can barely even look at my parents.” In the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a generation gap between the millennials and the older generation has widened. Young people report having heated arguments with their parents, being hung up on, and even being told to leave Great Britain if it is so wonderful in the EU. A primary issue is that the younger generation has been planning for a future that as a result of the vote to exit the EU, is out of reach. One man summed up his feelings toward his parents by saying “I feel betrayed.”

Photo of maternity ward in Donbas by Olexandr Danylov

Betrayal. It is a commonly used word within families affected by the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine as well. I am calling this phenomenon, that seems to be a part of conflict in many places and times, fractal kinship. A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Fractals are useful in modeling structures like coastlines and snowflakes, in which similar structures recur at progressively smaller scales.

There are other pertinent examples of fractal kinship in more distant history. Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858 that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” This notion became part of the American political vocabulary. The American Civil War pitted brother against brother and father against son. As Taylor (2005) points out, the division of families in the Civil War shattered expectations and beliefs about the meaning of family at the time, prompting people to step back and think. Continue reading

Teaching Decolonizing Methodologies

By Paige West

For about a decade I have been teaching a graduate seminar in anthropology at Columbia University called “Decolonizing Methodology” which takes Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples as its starting point and also draws on other key texts focused on research methodologies specifically (Denzin et. al. 2008; Kovach 2010). In the course we tend to start with Smith’s work and then use her careful analysis to guide us in taking apart the various traditional methodologies that anthropologists tend to rely on in their research and the various theoretical frames that are of-the-moment within the field. This means that the course moves back and forth between “decolonizing methodology” and “decolonizing theory”.

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