Tag Archives: History

Personal Computing: Ordinariness and Materiality

This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.

The introduction of portable personal computers significantly broadened the scope of computing in anthropology. Where centralized mainframe computing had lent itself to large calculative tasks and team research projects, PCs fit more readily into the classic model of the lone fieldworker working primarily with textual material. Through the 1980s, computers achieved a certain ordinariness in anthropological work — the use of a computer for data collection or analysis was not limited to a vanguard group seeking to redefine anthropology, but was rather becoming a typical fact of university life (and, increasingly, life outside the university as well). This ordinariness set the stage for the explosion of social scientific interest in computers that was to come with the introduction of the world wide web and its attendant mediated socialities.

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Ethnoscience: Being Scientific with Computers

This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.

If we had to pick a moment when computers first appeared as anthropological research tools, it might be the 1962 Wenner-Gren Symposium on “The Uses of Computers in Anthropology.” The proceedings would be published three years later, in a volume edited by Dell Hymes. Over the following decades, as journals featured reviews of computer programs for anthropologists, the symposium regularly served as the inaugural reference.

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Structuralism: Thinking with Computers

This post is part of a series on the history of computing in sociocultural anthropology.

In his foundational 1955 article “The Structural Study of Myth,” Claude Lévi-Strauss outlined the program for a structuralist, cross-cultural study of mythology. The basic premise is prototypical structural anthropology: to analyze myths, one must decompose them into their constituent units (or “mythemes”). Thus decomposed, hidden mythical patterns can be made evident. These patterns are the real “content” of myths, according to Lévi-Strauss — they persist across different tellings of the same myth, and they reflect the inner structures of the mind. More important for the structuralist project, they recur in different myths, cross-culturally, reflecting the psychic unity of mankind.1

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Computers and Sociocultural Anthropology

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Nick Seaver.

The fundamental requirement of anthropology is that it begin with a personal relation and end with a personal experience, but […] in between there is room for plenty of computers.
– Claude Lévi-Strauss, epigraph to The Use of Computers in Anthropology 1

Recent years have seen the growth of what we might call “alternate universe anthropology.” People with little or no training in anthropology are taking on big sociocultural questions, and they’re doing it with computers. We find PhDs in Electrical Engineering trying to algorithmically define musical genres, computer scientists modeling family ties in social networks, and autodidact software developers designing “content discovery” apps around their own theories of cultural influence and flow. If sociocultural anthropology didn’t already exist, people might reasonably assign the name to this stuff.
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anthropology + design: kat jungnickel.

[This post is part of a series featuring interviews with designers reflecting on anthropology and design.]

KAT JUNGNICKEL. ethnographer. maker.

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ANTHROPOLOGY + DESIGN.

I’ve always made a bit of a mess. I’ve splashed around darkrooms, attempted to stitch interdisciplinary collaborations, and knit a research blog. I’ve hosted exhibitions, printed ‘zines and folded origami-inspired data boxes. I regularly collaborate with colleagues to build and perform dubiously welded “Enquiry Machines,” and I’m currently sewing a range of new Victorian women’s cycle wear as a means of thinking about public space, mobility, and gender. Continue reading

The History of the Personality of Anthropology: SMOPS 3

This week’s SMOPS is an edited version of Kroeber’s “A History of the Personality of Anthropology,” a piece which Kroeber wrote very late in his life. In it, Kroeber lays down his vision of anthropology’s unique outlook. In one striking passage, he describes anthropology as a ‘changeling’ discipline. Changelings are, in European folklore, elf or fairy children who are brought up by human parents who are unaware of their child’s true nature. The child of natural science on the one hand and the humanities on the other, Kroeber sees anthropology as ill at ease in its adopted home of the social science.

This paper is worthwhile because it conveys in a few short pages some of the fundamental instincts of American cultural anthropology. It will be useful for teachers who need a text to use as the basis for a lecture on anthropology’s outlook. Of course, the piece itself could also simply be assigned. Anthropologists from other national traditions will benefit from this thumbnail sketch of the American outlook, as will non-anthropologists looking for a nontechnical explanation of how anthropologists look at the world.

Savage Minds Occasional Paper #3: The History of the Personality of Anthropology by Alfred Kroeber, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

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Forgetting Gabriel Tarde

(This guest post comes from Matt Watson, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Texas Tech University. He’s developing these ideas in a book manuscript titled Reading Latour’s Cosmopolitics: Ontology, Ecology, Love. Descriptions of his research and publications are available at www.matthewcwatson.org. Feel free to send thoughts, corrections, objections, specific compliments, or notes (love or ransom) to matthew.clay.watson@gmail.com. -R )

As Rex recently pointed out, Durkheim’s elder and rival Gabriel Tarde is experiencing a “reinvention” or “revival” at the hands of Bruno Latour and assorted posthumanist authors. They’re studiously reworking Tarde’s ambitious argument that invention, imitation, and opposition are the elementary forms of social life (human, animal, and other). Of these three elements, Tarde most thoroughly explored imitation. A now-established trope among neo-Tardians is that Durkheim’s success in securing sociology’s autonomy as a discipline relegated Tarde’s “microsociology” (as Gilles Deleuze called it) to the margins of the human sciences. Contributors to the edited volume, The Social after Gabriel Tarde, assert that anthropologists haven’t worked through Tarde’s ideas. The editor, Matei Candea, states, “Until recently…Tarde was almost entirely absent from anthropology, with the notable exception of the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.” It might come as a surprise, then, that in 1964 Margaret Mead could write, “Since Tarde’s original publication, the idea of imitation has been worked to the bone.” What on Earth could Mead have meant? Wasn’t Tarde forgotten?

The short answer is no.

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The Lessons of Arnold Toynbee

When William McNeill’s biography of Arnold J. Toynbee dropped to 2 bucks on the kindle store, I knew that I had to read it. Like most scholarly flashes, it had more to do with the way decades of reading and browsing were being shuffled around in the back part of my brain. My intuition was right — McNeill’s book is valuable to people interested in Toynbee but also, more importantly, to scholars everywhere trying to balance work and life. As someone who gave himself up wholly to work, Toynbee exemplifies what an intellectual can accomplish once they give up everything but their work. As a result, this well-written and intimate biography of Toynbee serves as a cautionary tale (or how-to guide) for many of us.

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Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

The fourth in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first three posts are herehere, and here.

In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.

This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” —  is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment.  For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet.  (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)

In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments.  In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to.  The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012.   Continue reading

Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading

Glenn Beck, archaeologist

Celebrity conservative and goldbug, Glenn Beck, made an interesting argument this past Wednesday, August 18, on his Fox News show — since 2009, the most watched news program on television’s most watched news network. Beck contextualized this segment as part one in a three part series on Civil Rights in America.

Here the Hopewell earthworks with their numerological connection to the pyramids of Giza are being deployed as evidence that North America was a site of divine providence. The Bat Creek stone, originally found in Tennessee in 1889, is supposed to be evidence of pre-Columbian Jewish migration west from Phonecia across the Atlantic. Later in the segment a guest offers Tisquantum’s (Squanto) discovery of the Plymouth colonists as another example of divine providence.

The foil to Beck’s argument about divine providence, that America is special in the eyes of God and that the Founding Fathers were doing God’s work on Earth, is what he terms manifest destiny. For Beck manifest destiny is a perversion of divine providence. He states, “Manifest Destiny is, get out of my way, my way or the highway, because I’m on a mission from God. That is Manifest Destiny. That’s Woodrow Wilson. That’s Andrew Jackson. That’s not George Washington. It’s different.”

According to Beck, the purpose of this lecture is to reveal a history that “the Smithsonian, science, government, and commerce colluded to erase.” He continues, “The history that has been erased in our nation and, in particular, with the Native Americans, happened because it didn’t fit the story they created – manifest destiny. It only works if the Indians were savages. And they had to have savages for commerce and government to expand. The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?”

I think its unfortunate that archaeology, perhaps the most popular and most public face of anthropology, is so frequently hijacked by amateurs for nationalist and religious ends. The blog A Hot Cup of Joe just did a noteworthy post on this very topic. With the authority and authenticity that so many cultures ascribe to events in the past a material remainder can, like a fetish, carry great power. An actual physical object from the distant past that is undeniably real to the touch is proof that people were here before and the certainty of that physical reality is conveyed, like Frazer’s principle of magical contagion, onto ideologies making them just as real.

It’s doubly unfortunate that living American Indian people have to put up with this manipulation of the past to suit the ends of non-Indians. On August 13, Indian Country Today reported that the Cherokee Nation was filing suit against the state of Tennessee for extending state recognition to six groups that the Cherokees believe to be fraudulent. Included in this group of six are the “Central Band of Cherokee” which claim to be a Lost Tribe of Isreal.

Meanwhile on Glenn Beck fansites, his viewers did not give the above performance high marks. A common concern expressed on discussion boards was that the history lesson resonated too closely with Beck’s Mormon faith and they feared that the stigma attached to Mormonism would lead some to question their fandom of Beck, possibly leading to less enthusiasm for his general political agenda that they so highly value.

This case is a prime target for the Bad Archaeology blog and I hope they choose to write it up.

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Resource in US History and Culture: The Government Comics Collection

Screenshot from "Duck and Cover" fil...

Image via Wikipedia

The library at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has posted a collection of digitized government comics and related material. There are about 180 freely-downloadable PDFs available, on topics ranging from health and human services to military training and recruitment.

Among my favorite is a 1951 AIr Force publication explaining psychological warfare entitled “Bullets? Or Words?” and illustrated by Milton Caniff, a comic-strip artist who gave us the syndicated comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”.

In fashioning new psychological weapons, it is necessary to base them on sound scientific principles and an understanding of psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology and other allied fields of knowledge.

Indeed.

I’m also a fan of "Bert the Turtle Says Duck and Cover", which offers immensely useful and reassuring advice on what to do in case of a nuclear bomb explosion. “There is always something to shelter you – indoors, a schol desk, a chair, a table.” Funny how they left out lead-lined iceboxes, but perhaps the authors felt that went without saying.

Related material includes briefs for the artists and authors, as well as government reports on the impact of comics, such as the US Senate’s 1955 “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency: Interim Report”. If you remember your history (or have read Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay) you’ll remember that the mid-‘50s saw a witch-hunt launched against comic book publishers and authors every bit as intense as the one launched against Hollywood, with comic books accused of promoting delinquent and violent behavior as well as homosexuality and anti-Americanism.

Although my interest is more sparked by the Cold War-era material, the collection dates up to the last decade, offering an interesting lens through which to view the last 6 decades or so of US culture and of the US government’s relations with its subjects.

Thoughts on Imagined Communities on Inauguration day

One of my classes (re)read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities today. Several of the students (none of whom can be quite old enough to have voted against Bush once, and certainly not twice) sagely recalled the last time they had read it, as if we lived in a different world. Maybe we do, I thought, and I felt like doing the same, since it seems an appropriate book to have read on this day of all. Ergo…

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A Special Offer and a Note About Blogging

Everyone’s arguing lately about Savage Minds — it’s “civil society” or lack thereof, its institutional position in the field of anthropology, it’s Euro-Americano-centrism, and so on. What’s missing, I think, is that while Savage Minds is a “place”, a “publication” of sorts, with some cohesiveness, it’s also a somewhat random collection of individual anthropologists bound together by no shared theoretical orientation, area specialization, political stance, or academic genealogy. I think it’s clear that we don’t always agree — in fact, we’ve disagreed quite sharply at times. More to the point, we not only blog about different stuff but we blog for different reasons.

For me, Savage Minds has always been a place to “mess around”, anthropologically speaking. A place to try out new ideas and thin hypotheses, a wall to throw stuff onto in order to see what sticks. A place where I could try my hand at the kind of argument Yehudi Cohen makes in Disappearance of the Incest Taboo (that’s an AnthroSource link, for those with access) and string together some ideas about the end of marriage, or muse about the moral underpinnings of anthropology. A place to incubate arguments and positions — and to receive feedback from my peers both inside and outside of the field.

It’s been invaluable to have this kind of forum, away from the main channel of academic thought — the journals and academic presses that are our disciplinary mainstream, even if many of them have lower readerships than Savage Minds. So valuable, in fact, that I felt it absolutely necessary to include Savage Minds in my “Acknowledgements” when I published Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War. Here’s what I wrote:

Over the years, two online communities have proven invaluable as both a source of new ideas and a place to rehearse my own fevered anthropological imaginings. To the members of ANTHRO-L (especially Ron Kephart, John McCreery, Richard Senghas, Jacob Lee, Richard Wilsnack, Anj Petto, Ray Scupin, Robert Lawless, Wade Tarzia, Lynn Manners, Martin Cohen, Bruce Josephson, Richley Crapo, Tom Kavanagh, Scott MacEachern, Mike Pavlik, Thomas Riley, and Phil Young) and my fellow Savage Minds, (Alex Golub, Kerim Friedman, Chris Kelty, Nancy LeClerc, Kathleen Lowery, Tak Watanabe, and newbies Thomas Erikson, Maia Green, and Thomas Strong) I offer both my gratitude and respect.

In the end, I’m not sure I could have written Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War without having had this forum to develop those ideas. The other Minds and the many people who comment here not only helped me to refine my thoughts on anthropology and its role(s) in society, but to rethink myself as an anthropologist.

By way of gratitude, then, I asked my publishers if I could offer at least a little something back to this community which has offered me so much. They responded enthusiastically, providing me with a discount code to offer Savage Minds readers. So here’s the deal:

  1. Order Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War from U Mich Press.
  2. At checkout, enter the coupon code: WAX08UMP
  3. Enjoy a 20% savings!

With the coupon code, the US price is $26.00 instead of the usual $32.50. As far as I know, this offer is not limited to US buyers, but I’m pretty sure the price of international shipping will eat up any savings over buying the book at full price locally. The coupon code expires on May 30, 2008.

For more information about the book, check out the review by Penny Howard at the Socialist Review. More reviews and information about the book will be posted at my personal site on the book page as it becomes available.

And if you’re not interested, for whatever reason (maybe your mother was cruel to you as a child?), that’s cool, too — I offer you as a member of the Savage Minds community my thanks.

But really, buy the book. Buy the book or I shall plug at you a second time! Tphptptptptp!