Osama Bin Laden, Chelsea Manning, and their anthropologists

Anthropology can turn up in the strangest places. While we often hold up Margaret Mead and… uh… well, mostly Margaret Mead… as examples of public anthropology, our discipline does a lot of important work in times and places few of us would suspect. For instance, take these two recent examples from the media featuring Chelsea Manning and Osama bin Laden:

Most people remember Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) as the person who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks. After being imprisoned for the leak, Manning has become an activist and intellectual in her own right, as well as the center of an ongoing struggle to make sure her rights are respected in prison. And in her free time… she reads anthropology.

This according to a New York Post article Manning recently faced the possibility of indefinite solitary confinement because of the items she had in her possession, including a tube of toothpaste and a copy of Biella Coleman’s excellent ethnography Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy — The Many Faces of Anonymous (creative commons licensed PDF here). You knew anthropology ends up in unusual places — now we know that includes the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.

The other anthropologist to make the news recently was Flagg Miller of UC Davis. Miller holds the unique title of being the only person in the world to sit down and listen to all 1,500 cassette tapes in Osama Bin Laden’s personal cassette tape collection.  My favorite part of the BBC’s piece on Miller’s new book, Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida comes when Miller shows the reporter the earliest known recording of Bin Laden from the late 1980s. Recording quality is poor and the reporter asks “But how can you tell it’s Bin Laden?” There’s a short pause and Miller replies “Well… I’ve listened to over a thousand hours of him speaking…” That’s anthropology for you — you work it into your bones, and it’s that lived experience that lets you make the hard calls.

Anthropologists worry constantly that there isn’t enough public anthropology. But how much public anthropology is enough public anthropology? We are reaching all kinds of audiences in all kinds of ways — and with research totally different than the usual white-on-brown village ethnography that people (including us!) imagine that we do. So let’s give ourselves some credit where credit is due and pat ourselves on the back for showing up in unexpected — but important — places.

Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 2

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Takami Delisle. Tak currently works as a medical interpreter for Japanese patients and helps run an organization for anthropology students of color. You can read the first installment of this piece here. She also has her own blog. If you’re interested, please contact her through Twitter @tsd1888.


Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology

by Takami Delisle

Looking back on those years when I was perpetually in fear of disappointing my professors, I realize that’s when I began to question the whole point of anthropology. I wasn’t alone; there have been many discussions out there about what anthropology can teach us, what we can do with it, and what anthropological knowledge means (e.g., Anthropologies, Issue 1, and Ryan’s open thread on who owns anthropology). Among them I encountered a handful of anthropologists questioning the validity of academic anthropology. I felt vindicated – I too am in disbelief of academic anthropology, because what it seems to be doing is producing its own kind of species of “anthropologists,” claiming that they are the only real, true, and legitimate anthropologists. If the goal of anthropology is to better understand humankind and help make the world an equitable place, now would be a good time for these academic anthropologists to take a good look in their own backyard. Those who are leading the next generations of anthropologists have to learn not to take themselves too seriously, not to be arrogant. They owe mentorship and respect to their students, the future generations of anthropologists, before claiming how righteous, intellectual, and special they are.
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Ethnographic Field Data 2: When Not-Sharing is Caring

In my last post, I recommended that we consider archiving and sharing records from our fieldwork. Yet sharing both raw notes and publications can present challenges, as Rex recently covered with the controversy over Alice Goffman’s ‘anonymous’ but easily traced research in Philadelphia, published after she destroyed her fieldnotes.

Kristin Ghodsee similarly writes of the difficulties she encountered as she researched post-Socialist Muslims in Bulgaria—research that caught the interest of both local and American officials. After being detained and interrogated by Bulgarian officials, she decided to drop almost all of the ethnography from her forthcoming work. She describes her encounter with the state in this way:

He then asked me: “Are you responsible for this?”
“Excuse me?” I said, not quite understanding his implication.
“Is your purpose in Bulgaria to encourage these girls to assert their human rights?”
“No,” I stammered, “I’ve been doing this research since 2004, long before this summer.”
“But you know the girls?”
“Some of them.”
“And the people who are teaching them?”
“They are all the subject of my ongoing research. An academic research project.”
“Good,” he said. He nodded and jotted something down on his clipboard. He finally asked me if I had any questions for him.
“Is this interview a normal procedure for Americans applying for long-term residency?”
“No,” he said, matter-of-factly, “It is only for you.”
“Why me?”
“Your topic is interesting to us.” (Ghodsee 2011, p. 180).

As Ghodsee goes on to suggest, sharing the results of our research in any form, published or unpublished, can attract unwanted attention and Continue reading

“Anthropology” in the Snowden Surveillance Archive

A search for “anthropology” in the Snowden Surveillance Archive results in two hits. Both documents were created and presented by the UK GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) which sees anthropology as a method with which to “manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.” Take a look at the two GCHQ Powerpoints below and see how the surveillance apparatus views your discipline.

The ART of DECEPTION: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations

Psychology: A New Kind of SIGDEV

Around the Web Digest: Week of August 16

Dear readers, either the blogs have been quiet this week or I’m missing some, which you can rectify by sending me links at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

The most shocking, terrible news in anthropology this week was the Islamic State’s murder of archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad for refusing to reveal the location of artifacts from Palmyra that had been moved for safekeeping. Archaeologist Kristina Killgrove posted a tribute to him on her Forbes blog: Archaeologists Respond to the Murder of Khalel al-Asaad at Ancient Palmyra

An exhibit at the National Geographic Museum uses Indiana Jones as an entry point to dispel myths about archaeology… it even uses the arguably non-canonical fourth installment (#notmyindy) to explore alien astronaut pseudoscience. The Geek Anthropologist’s review: “It Belongs in a Museum”: Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology Review 

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The social costs of export agriculture in San Quintin, Baja California–An Interview with Christian Zlolniski

Workers in the fields, San Quintin, Baja California, Mexico. Image courtesy of Christian Zlolniski.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview Christian Zlolniski about his ongoing work in Baja California, Mexico. I contacted Zlolniski in hopes of getting some more insight about the farmworker strikes in the San Quintin Valley that began this past March. Zlolniski is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research focuses on economic globalization and immigrant labor, with regional emphasis in the US Southwest and Mexico.  He is the author of the book Janitors, Street Vendors, and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley (UC Press, 2006) and co-author of De Jornaleros a Colonos: Residencia, Trabajo e Identidad en el Valle de San Quintín (COLEF, Mexico 2014).

Ryan Anderson: When did you first start doing fieldwork in San Quintin? Why San Quintin?

Christian Zlolniski: I began doing fieldwork in 2005 with two professors at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef) in Tijuana, Mexico –Laura Velasco a sociologist, and Marie Laure Coubes a demographer. We wanted to study the settlement of thousands of indigenous farmworkers in the region who in the past were seasonal migratory workers. It was evident to us that San Quintin was changing fast and becoming a major agro-export enclave in Northern Mexico. It combined advanced agricultural production technologies with the massive employment of indigenous workers as a source of cheap and flexible labor. Except for a few pioneering studies, the academic literature on this region was rather thin and San Quintin was not in the radar screen of politicians, the media or scholars. We also felt that the academic literature on border studies in Mexico had an urban bias with special focus on the economic, demographic and cultural changes in large border cities (and studies on the maquila industry) while important transformations in rural society and economy, including the rapid growth of export agriculture, were largely ignored. Continue reading

Forget the outrage: Stop signing away your author rights to corporations

Earlier this summer here at the Savage Minds editorial offices, we had a temporary informational mishap that led some of our staff to believe that the mega-publisher Elsevier had purchased Academia.edu and, possibly, the rights to all of our first born children. This insider intelligence had us all on the edges of our figurative seats for about 11 tension-ridden minutes.*

In the end, the intel turned out to be incorrect and we all let out a collective sigh of status-quo-preserving relief. For a minute there we thought we might have to get all up in arms and start checking the oil in our X-Wing fighters and such to fight the big Open Access battle of the century. No need. Stand down folks, stand down.

But the false alarm got me thinking of the time that Elsevier issued more than 2,000 take-down notices to authors who had illegally posted articles on Academia.edu. This was back in 2013. Remember that? You might not. But. It. happened. That was the time that a bunch of scholars get all bent out of shape at the Big Evil Publisher that had committed the dastardly act of exercising its legal rights! The nerve! The gall! What right does that Big Evil Publisher have over work that authors freely and willingly gave away via signed author agreements? I mean, seriously, what those publishers are doing is an outrage. Right? Who has the time to read the author agreements? Is there even any text on those agreements? Who reads any fine print these days? Continue reading

Savage Minds Reader Survey Results Part 2: Education, Work & Debt

Earlier this year we conducted the Savage Minds Reader Survey. Kerim described some of the demographic results in this post. Here I’ll provide a very brief recap. The majority of the responses came from readers in North America (62.8%) and Western Europe (16.7%). In terms of gender, 57% chose “female,” 43% chose “male” and two chose “other.” About 70% of the responses came from people in their 20s and 30s. Seventy six percent have either a PhD or a Master’s degree. Finally, to add one demographic detail to Kerim’s summary, when asked about their ethnicity, about 81% of the respondents chose “white” (244 out of 302 respondents).* For the rest of this post I’ll be talking about education, work (employment), and debt. Continue reading

Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology, Pt. 1

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Takami Delisle. Tak currently works as a medical interpreter for Japanese patients and helps run an organization for anthropology students of color. You can find her on Twitter @tsd1888 and she also has her own blog. If you’re interested, please contact her.


Toward Living with (not Under) Anthropology

by Takami Delisle

I have spent most of my American life doing anthropology. I think about and with anthropology when I observe the world around me, whether watching the news or listening to friends’ conversations. It’s not that someone is forcing me to do so with a knife right at my jugular, but it’s that anthropology has been one of the biggest passions I have ever had in my entire life. Coming home after my very first cultural anthropology class, I felt as if I had just been awakened by something magical. I still remember the sense of thrill when I declared my major as anthropology at my first U.S. university. I sat in the very front row in every single cultural anthropology class like a little kid watching a cartoon right in front of the TV.

What drew me into anthropology is that it opened a door to a wide-open space where I was encouraged to ask questions that I had never felt allowed to voice – like Japan’s appalling gender inequalities, Japanese corporations’ socioeconomic exploitations overseas, and the central government’s ill treatments of Okinawa. Anthropology gave me opportunities to critically and objectively reevaluate the country where I was born and raised, the place I often took for granted. It’s not that anthropology gave me answers to all of my questions, but it did bring me closer to the answers.

My first anthropology graduate program did not betray my expectations of anthropology. The seminar “Poverty, Power, and Privilege” was the most instrumental for strengthening my passion for anthropology. It provided me with theoretical and analytical tools to trace social injustices back through history – to see where they came from and how they changed over time. This seminar taught me to look at the bigger picture when it comes to inequality, and to pay close attention to issues of power. Everything about the seminar blew my mind.

I also learned what it means to be a good anthropologist from this graduate program, which had incredible, worldly-minded teachers who were also good mentors. For instance, after I submitted the final draft of my master’s thesis to my faculty committee members, one of them, who was also the department chair, e-mailed me his comment, which started with, “I want to thank you for teaching me about this important community” – his humbleness taught me to be humble, as I also thanked many of my own students for teaching me things I didn’t know. Another professor, who didn’t believe in the value of testing and grading his graduate students, asked us in his seminar to write what each of us found the most intriguing about the seminar, instead of giving us a final exam – his consistent practice of the principle against the standardized education taught me to be loyal to my principles. When a white student in one of my discussion sections complained about the class materials on racial issues and accused me of being a racist toward whites, the professor whom I was a TA for asked me to let him directly speak with the student to defend me, instead of telling me to ignore the incident – his courage to pursue justice taught me to stand up to injustice. When I brought the dilemmas and difficulties that I had encountered during my research fieldwork to my advisor, instead of telling me to figure them out on my own, she patiently listened, worked out strategies with me, and suggested to incorporate these encounters into my research data and thesis – her mentorship taught me to stay motivated, to keep pushing forward. I was entirely impressed, when another professor, who was often quite harsh on me, stood in front of the whole seminar at the first meeting of the semester and publicly admitted that she was wrong for her vehement disagreement with my argument in another seminar during the previous semester. Her honesty and integrity as an anthropologist taught me to be committed to anthropological inquiries. All these professors helped solidify my deeper understanding of what anthropology should be as a discipline.
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Ethnographic Field Data 1: Should I Share my Fieldnotes?

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Celia Emmelhainz.]

“This will be your office,” Dr. Bernson* says, unlocking the storage room near her office.

Tall wooden shelves frame rows of ethnography, gender studies, and area studies book, dog-eared dictionaries of minority languages, and obscure books she picked up in the field. A row of file cabinets faces the bookshelves, and in the back: two old computers for the graduate students.

One Tuesday, when work is slow, I unlock my office door and open the large file cabinet marked fieldnotes. Continue reading

Malinowski’s Legacy: One Hundred Years of Anthropology in the Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

(Last week a major international conference was held in Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea, where Bronislaw Malinowski did the research on kula that resulted in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (pdf of the conference program)The conference organizer Sergio Jarillo de la Torre was kind enough to write up this report of what happened, which I post here – R) 

As one of the “Malinowski’s Legacy” conference participants put it, good ideas have many fathers but bad ideas are orphans. Allan Darrah’s observation came as we were discussing the origins of the symposium at the Wanigili Centre in Alotau a day before its beginning. As far as my share of the paternity in this conference goes, the idea was generated during a road trip to Buffalo with Joshua Bell, who argued for the need for a third kula conference. It was then put forward to a group of Massim scholars at the 2012 ASAO meeting in Portland. And if 2015 seemed the right time to all (the 100th anniversary of Malinowski’s arrival in the Trobes gave us a perfect excuse to update Massim anthropology), there wasn’t much agreement on what would be the right place.

For my part, I wanted this conference to be a return of sorts and I claimed that it needed to take place in PNG or it wouldn’t take place at all. I think nowadays there is little excuse to keep anthropology far removed from the place where it originates. It is no longer a matter of bringing Pacific and other native scholars to Europe or America for our conferences but rather taking back “our” ideas to the people who help us form them, scholars and non-scholars. If we can’t discuss kula with our partners in the Milne Bay, chances are we haven’t learned much about exchange in these last hundred years… Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of August 9


Apparently it’s National Tell a Joke Day… earlier this week I got to check out a satirical play about electoral politics here in Guatemala called Mi Candidato No Es Chafa (My Candidate’s Not Bootleg/Low Quality) that reminded me that humor is an incredibly complex cultural performance and true immersion is a moving target. Keep me up to date by sending me links to anything I should feature in this space at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

In this post on Allegra Laboratory, a South Indian researcher reflects on her feelings of discomfort in doing fieldwork a little too close to home, which has forced her to a new level of introspection about her own relationship with traditional food practices and other overt signs of identity: Dis-orientalizing & Ethnographic Journeys Fieldnotes

As an interesting companion piece, this post featured on Anthsisters, Becoming a Responsible Maori Researcher, points to the fundamental paradigm shift that takes place when the researcher can claim or represent an internal perspective, invoking rich ties to the community.

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Summer reading lists vs. What Actually Happened

Ah, summer reading lists: Elaborate plans for personal enrichment and literary sophistication made in the spring and carried out… when? It’s easy to find tons of summer reading lists and recommendations out there every year — especially in the Northern hemisphere, where it’s actually summer (there’s snow falling in Canberra atm, remember). But what happens after those lists are actually made? Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of August 2

Happy August! I hope you aren’t going into panic mode looking at your to-do list for summer. Send along any blog posts that need to be featured here at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com!

NPR profiles two cases, an athlete whose levels of testosterone are considered too high for her to compete as a woman and a transgender teen who has caused controversy by seeking to use the men’s restroom at his school:  Being A Woman: Who Gets To Decide?

Nautilus explores the Whorf/Kay and Berlin debate in more depth than most blogs: Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language

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Book proves culture leads to Asian American success, headlines claim opposite

A strong media push by the Sage Foundation has put Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s book The Asian American Achievement Paradox into the public sphere in the past couple of days, garnering an op-ed on CNN.com and an interview on Inside Higher Ed. The book — at least what I’ve been able to read of it so far — is excellent. Even better, it pushes back against the embarrassing, amateurish work of Amy Chua, which claims, in essence, that ‘Asians’ are successful because they are morally virtuous. Or rather, since the weird, deeply-seated Anglo-Protestant cultural currents that run the US are often disguised, because of their ‘cultural values’. Lee and Zhou are adamant that cultural values do not cause Asian American success, and should be commended for boiling down their research findings into headline — and then getting people to run it. But their alternate explanation of Asian American success will look to most people, and especially most anthropologists, essentially cultural. The book deserves discussion because of the way it frames the culture concept, studies ‘culture of success’ (and, lurking in the background, ‘culture of poverty’ ) arguments, and attempts to intervene in the public sphere. It is an excellent model for how anthropologists should approach a topic they often shy away from. But it’s an argument for culture not against it. Or rather, for a good understanding of culture rather than an essentialized and inadequate ethnoracial understanding of culture.

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