Tag Archives: culture

Footprints, Families, and Fallacies

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, Jane Eva Baxter]

Yesterday, the media widely reported the discovery of 850,000 (or so) year old footprints at the British seaside village of Happisburgh. This media coverage coincided with the publication of an article in the open access, peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE, and the announcement that the footprints will be featured as part of an upcoming exhibition called, “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story” at the Natural History Museum in London.  While the AP story can be found through your media outlet of choice, you also can read a bit about the find through the British Museum blog by curator Nicholas Ashton, who was involved with the project.

The Allure of Footprints

This discovery has generated a good deal of enthusiasm among the general public.  As some small measure of this excitement, I can report six students in my World Prehistory course (of 40 students) emailed me with links to news coverage about the find in a single day. This is not typical, and such news sharing is not required or even necessarily encouraged as part of the course. Archaeologist Clive Gamble, quoted in the AP article, explains why this discovery has such a popular appeal. “This is the closest we’ve got to seeing the people,” he told the AP. “When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of [William Blake's hymn] ‘Jerusalem’ — ‘And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary.” Continue reading

Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.

Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t?  Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading

Conference Chic, or, How to Dress Like an Anthropologist

By Carole McGranahan with Kate Fischer, Rachel Fleming, Willi Lempert, and Marnie Thomson

Wondering what to wear to the AAAs? We’ve got you covered. For women: throw a few scarves in your suitcase, a suitable range of black clothes, a kick-ass pair of shoes or boots, and some anthropological “flair,” and you should be good to go. Men need to pack their nice jeans, a good buttoned shirt, and the pièce de résistance: a stylish jacket. Unless you’re an archaeologist. Then all you need are jeans.

Anthropologists around the world are packing for the annual American Anthropological Association meetings (“the AAAs”) being held this year in balmy Chicago from November 20-24. What, you might wonder, are they packing? What look do anthropologists go for at the AAAs where thousands of anthropologists gather each year? We’ve turned to our social media networks to find out, posting this question on Twitter and on multiple Facebook accounts to learn just what fashion choices anthropologists are making this week. Continue reading

Trouillot on rethinking "culture" (via Living Anthropologically)

Jason Antrosio has a great new post about Michel Rolf Trouillot’s chapter on culture in the excellent book Global Transformations.  It’s easy to misread Trouillot’s argument–so I think it’s important to really look closely at what he’s saying and why.

Trouillot’s chapter on culture is incredibly relevant these days.  Especially considering the fact that the concept has taken on endless new uses and meanings.  These varied uses often rankle anthropologists, who feel that the concept is somehow theirs and that there must be some way to right the wrongs that have been done to their blessed theoretical child.  Trouillot basically smashes this sort of thinking.

I read through this chapter the other day and it also reminded me of some of the issues that came up in Jason’s recent post about gang culture and court room anthropology.  What happens when people start using the idea of culture to make warped arguments about human behavior?  How can anthropology be used to counter these kinds of arguments?  Trouillot gets right into these issues and arguments in his chapter.  But I think people can easily misread Trouillot’s argument as some sort of dismissal of the culture concept.  However, that’s not what he’s doing–he makes a crucial argument about getting back to the “conceptual kernel” of the culture, basically what those early 20th century anthropologists were  trying to do with it in the first place.  In essence, get back to the point.  Get back to what they were trying to address with that concept.   This is fundamental. Continue reading

Breastfeeding in public: what is and what is not "appropriate"

I just read about a discrimination case in the San Diego area in which author/educator Rachel Rainbolt was told by her child’s homeschool teacher that breastfeeding was “inappropriate” behavior during weekly meetings.  Read more about this case on her site.

First of all, this sort of reaction to breastfeeding is not uncommon.  It reminds me of this cartoon, which points out some of the deep hypocrisy that pervades this whole issue, especially here in the US.

Second, this is obviously about cultural norms–and this includes ideas about what is and what is not considered “indecent” in public settings.  Part of the issue is who defines norms, and how certain activities (or parts of bodies) are deemed either acceptable or not.  The whole conversation about breastfeeding is entangled in all kinds of social and cultural ideas about human nature, sexuality, and how we think about individual human bodies in relation to the larger social body.  When a lot of people think about breasts (this includes men and women), they automatically think SEX.  As if that’s their primary reason for existence. Continue reading

OAC Online Seminar: A cultural analysis of the Lance Armstrong "reality show"

The Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) is continuing its online seminar series with its latest installment (#17), a paper by Lee Drummond that takes on the Lance Armstrong phenomena (or debacle), using it as a lens for understanding American society.   The seminar is well underway, and will be open for comments and questions until September 21.  Here’s a bit from Drummond’s abstract: Continue reading

Star Trek and the Unfinished Project

I recently watched a “fan episode” of Star Trek which felt so much like the original series that you could easily believe it was directed produced by Gene Roddenberry. This devotional attention to detail got me thinking about the continued appeal of Star Trek. Habermas’ phrase “the unfinished project of modernity” immediately sprung to mind. Whereas in Star Wars modernity is represented by the dreaded Empire, Star Trek’s Federation is a benign force that carefully oversees the social development of lesser species. If the Enterprise encountered Jedi knights they would probably see them as a vestigial form of feudalism oppressing peasant society with their special powers.*

Here’s a confession. I not only grew up watching Star Trek, but I also grew up being spoon-fed that same version of modernity at school. I went to the United Nations International School for both middle school and high school, and I helped organize a series of student-run conferences on development related issues at the UN. But then I became an anthropologist. As an anthropologist, reading the likes of James Ferguson, James Scott and Arturo Escobar, one becomes a little skeptical about modernity’s “unfinished project.” It was for this reason that I found myself watching this nearly flawless recreation of the original Star Trek series and wondering: what’s the point? I loved it and will continue to watch any new episodes, but I also found it disturbing to have this outmoded vision of modernity preserved so uncritically.

It is like someone designing, in 2013, a building in the style of brutalist architecture from the sixties. I can admire some of these buildings and can even see the argument for preserving the greatest examples of brutalism, but would you really want to make a new building in this style? Perhaps the problem is that we still don’t really have a good alternative? It seems that a lot of science fiction these days is dystopian, zombie movies abound, but there there are very few movies or TV shows that see modernity as something positive. I understand the appeal of the enchanted vision of modernity that Star Trek gave us, but rather than forever try to recapture our lost-innocence, to finish a project which can never be finished, maybe it is time to tell a new story about modernity?

* Star Wars, of course, is set in the past.

When "culture" erases history

Sure, sometimes “culture” can tell us a lot about human behavior and differences.  But there are also times when arguments based upon the concept of culture can obscure just as much as they reveal.

Right now I am in the middle of going through all of my interviews, making notes, and looking for themes I can draw from for my dissertation.  Things are coming along.  I figured I’d share some of what I am doing…sort of let you in on the process as I work through it.  If you don’t already know, my research is about the conflicts over tourism development on the East Cape region of Baja California Sur.  These conflicts are, in part, about development.  Or, more specifically, about what type of development people want to see happen in the region.  Some of the area’s residents are in favor of large scale development, some root for something along the lines of “sustainable development,” and still others basically don’t want to see *anything* change at all.  I worked in a small coastal community in the heart of the East Cape, a place where land ownership is one of the most critical issues. Continue reading