Looking in the Mirror (Part 2 of 3)

Recently a friend of mine discovered a picture of her grandfather in one of the ethnographic books about the Sherpas. Underneath the picture, next to his name, it said “assistant.” She found this insulting. As she saw it, her grandfather had always occupied a space of respect and honor. In this book, he was reduced to an assistant.

Why does her irritation make sense to me? And, at the same time, why do I think the title of “assistant” is appropriate in this context?

I am a Sherpa anthropologist—an anthropologist, who is a Sherpa, and a Sherpa, who became an anthropologist. I make no claim to know everything about Sherpas or related to Sherpas. How could I?

After hundreds of hours of interviews over the years, everyday participant observation, and continuous reflection—filled with pleasure and pain—the only thing I can say authoritatively as a Sherpa anthropologist is that there is no one authority on the Sherpas.

Continue reading

Can There Be a Cheat-Proof Exam?

Cheating is not fun for anyone, except perhaps for the student who does not get caught. At my university I have only one class I teach for non-majors, that is students from around campus who are not majoring in anthropology. It is a class in the anthropology of Tibet, and is a large, lecture class consisting of 150-250 students in any given semester. Each week I lecture twice for fifty minutes, and the students have weekly “recitation” sessions of roughly twenty-five students each where they collectively discuss that week’s readings and lectures with a graduate student Teaching Assistant (TA). This is a classic course model for a large, public university in the USA. It is a course I resisted teaching for years—so many students, I thought. How could I ever teach about Tibet to such a huge audience?—but one I have now taught five times since 2008, and that I have come to love. There is a thrilling combination of reaching an audience for whom this is likely to be the first and only class in anthropology or about Tibet for the great majority of the students. I like to think of the students taking lessons from anthropology back with them to their home majors, whether it is biology or business or neuroscience or journalism. I [optimistically] like to think of them rethinking aspects of their studies, or the world around them, with the introduction to anthropology via Tibet they have received. Of the many things I like about the course, there is one thing I do not: it is the only course in which I catch students cheating.

My initial explanation for this was due to the fact that the course was mostly non-majors. Anthropology students were more committed, less likely to cheat, I thought. Non-majors took the course as a novelty, it seemed, thinking it would be interesting but easy. Some were not amused when they found out it was not easy but actually required attending lecture and recitation, and reading, and thinking. Other students loved the class, and over the years, a number have changed their majors to anthropology after taking this class (and other ones my colleagues teach similar to this—“gateway” classes, we sometimes call them). These students, and the overwhelming majority of the students did not cheat, but instead enjoyed a semester devoted to a topic often radically different than that what they usually studied. For some students it was the only time they had written papers in their college career. Others had no idea how to study for the exam. “Its all stories,” they would say. “And do we need to know the theories?” Exactly, and yes. Welcome to anthropology. Continue reading

Anthropology Under My Skin

By: Lorena Gibson

How we can reclaim anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand and stake out a new public and pedagogical space for the discipline? This question was at the heart of a panel at the recent Anthropology in Aotearoa Symposium, hosted by the Cultural Anthropology Programme at Victoria University of Wellington on 10-12 May 2017. My contribution to the panel–shared below–was as part of a group of anthropologists from across the country who collectively sought to address the above question.

Writing a poem was my way of overcoming the writer’s block that hit me when I tried to turn my abstract into a paper. I was inspired to do so after re-reading the work of my colleague Teresia Teaiwa, who has been a major influence on how I think about and practice anthropology and who sadly passed away earlier this year. My poem begins where I first encountered anthropology – as an undergraduate student in a first-year class taught by Jeff Sluka – and ends with a new class I will teach next term. Providing a view from Aotearoa, it retraces some key moments in my journey towards what Faye Harrison calls an anthropology for liberation.

I am grateful to Sita Venkateswar for showing me what a classroom agenda can look like when informed by a politics of decolonisation, and to Teresia Teaiwa for continuing to inspire.

Continue reading

Bronislaw Malinowski: Don’t Let The Cosplay Fool You

If there’s one picture that epitomizes White Guys Doing Research, it’s this one:

The canonical author of the canonical book, naked black people, white guy in white clothes being White  — for a lot of people, it’s totally crazy-making. But in many ways, Malinowski was far more more complicated than we given him credit for. There are many people who deserve more criticism for their role in colonialism than Malinowski (just wait for my blog post on Julian Steward). This is not to absolve Malinowski of whatever sins he committed. Rather, it’s just to ask that we remember what he actually did rather than project sins onto him.

Continue reading

Looking in the Mirror (Part 1 of 3)

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Pasang Yangjee Sherpa.

“You become an anthropologist, when you publish,” we were told in a graduate anthropology seminar. If this is true, I became an anthropologist some time ago. But, a further question remains unanswered: what kind of anthropologist am I? I explore this question in three weekly blog posts this month. I look at the experience I have had (those “aha!” moments), the anthropological questions I ask (to myself and others), and the curiosities that (never cease to) motivate me.

Oh, high?

Two months ago, I walked into a gym in Arizona. I needed some motivation to get on the treadmill. I thought Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” track would do it. It’s loud, fast, and strong, just like Beyonce. Suddenly, I heard Wendy at the front desk ask me, “How high do you take people?”

My friend was introducing me as a guest to Wendy. After learning that I am a real Sherpa, out of curiosity, she wanted to know about my skills on the mountains.

To answer that question, I needed to come out of my Beyonce mind-bubble first. I then needed to think about the question—what was the question? Oh yes, high! Hmm…is this high as in Washington State’s (where I live) legalized marijuana high? I would not know that. I have zero experience of pot. Hmm…what high? Oh right, of course, take people up the mountain…carry their loads…that high. Okay. Got it. But how do I answer it? I have zero experience in mountains or mountaineering or being a porter. It felt like this conversation in my head went on forever. But, it had taken only a couple of seconds to process the situation. I looked back at Wendy, and with a puzzled smile, I replied, “I guess as high as they want to go?” Continue reading

Facebook in Papua New Guinea: What Happens When The Net Isn’t Neutral

If you care about open access, you should care about net neutrality. There are obvious reasons why: After all, there’s  no point in putting your preprints online if potential readers  can’t afford to connect to your site. Pricing the web up means moving it out of the hands of those who need it most. It hinders the free flow of information and works against an informed citizenry. But there is another, subtler danger that comes from ending net neutrality: losing not only access to information, but the habit and expectation of access.  A good example of this can be seen in the case of Papua New Guinea, where people have access to more and more information, but might never learn that they could look for it.

As an anthropologist, I’ve been going back and forth to Papua New Guinea (PNG) since 1998. PNG is the size of France and has a population of around 8 million people (that’s almost twice the population of New Zealand). So it’s not a small coral atoll somewhere. It’s a large, regionally important country, as well as a classical location for anthropological work, from Margaret Mead to Marilyn Strathern.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guineans have not received the education system they deserve. Universities struggle to stay open. The few museums in the country are underfunded and underappreciated. There are few libraries. While there are many Christian bookstores, there are few secular ones. Since much of the country is tropical, books simply don’t last as long as they do in colder climates. Today, sadly, you can grow up in Papua New Guinea without any real knowledge of its past or the great cultural achievements of its many civilizations. Many young Papua New Guineans growing up today aspire merely to become Australian, because they can’t have pride in a past they have never heard of.

Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: April 24

As my internet connection is finally back after a cat-induced Wi-Fi disruption, I come with more readings for the week.

By the time this goes live, May Day demonstrations will happen all around the world for labor rights. As a reminder of the struggle, Guatemalan immigrant workers continue to face low wages and dangerous working conditions on chicken plants all around the U.S.

Archaeology and tribal land are not safe from Trump either as the evil cheese snack moves to change the Antiquities Act to privatize land and further extract already depleted natural resources. 

Speaking of #teachingthedisaster: Yarimar Bonilla, Marisol LeBrón, and Sarah Molinari created the #PRSyllabus to contextualize the debt crisis in Puerto Rico.

University of California, Berkeley just released a Q & A with Nancy Scheper-Hughes for the “Anthropology on the Front Lines” Conference and illustrates the responsibility of an anthropologist through what she calls “barefoot anthropology”.

More readings to come!


Counting and Being Counted: New AAA Tenure and Promotion Guidelines on Public Scholarship

How do we count and value public scholarship in anthropology? — Do we count and value public scholarship in anthropology? — And, how do we do it at the time of tenure and promotion?

Some departments of anthropology do value and count public scholarship, and have for a long time. Some have built metrics or possibilities into their evaluation systems for considering public scholarship as a part of one’s intellectual work. Others haven’t. Some universities have made strong statements about the value of public scholarship. Indiana University is a one good example; see their Faculty Learning Community’s work on this, including system-wide guidelines on how to count such scholarship. But most universities do not have formal guidelines or even mandates for public scholarship.

Public scholarship is a key part of anthropology. In some ways, it has been part of our practice for a very long time. In other ways, it feels newly important in today’s political climate. Regardless of the genealogies we might chart for the anthropological commitment to having our scholarship be public, it has sometimes been considered something extra to what we do, or something that falls outside what we count as “real” contributions to the field. Given the move of some departments and some universities, as well as some other disciplines to find ways to acknowledge the value of public scholarship, AAA President Alisse Waterston decided it was time for anthropology to act. Continue reading

The biggest threat to open access is a closed Internet

Many open access advocates were disappointed (but not surprised) when the American Anthropological Association decided to renew its contract to publish with Wiley, which means that the AAA will continue to keep our publications behind their paywall. But in Trump’s America, anthropologists interested in open access are faced with another, bigger challenge: Just keeping the Internet itself open and free.

Continue reading

This Saturday I’m Marching for Science and You Should Too

This Earth Day, 22 April, People across the world will be celebrating the important role that science plays in supporting human freedom and prosperity. This is an event that anthropologists everywhere should participate in. If you are an anthropologist who likes freedom and prosperity — and I’m guessing you are — then you should get out there this weekend and celebrate that fact.

Some people might say that anthropology is somehow opposed to science, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some anthropologists consider themselves scientists, while other consider themselves humanists, while yet others consider the humanities-science binary problematic. We are also aware that ‘science’ itself is not a simple term. As Steven Shapin has pointed out, scientists themselves don’t have a coherent meta-scientific account of what science is.

But a keen interest in how science works and the interesting epistemological questions raised but science studies are on thing. Actually opposing science is something else. I think  if Bruno Latour found out  people were becoming anti-vaxxers because they read Aramis he would begin vomiting uncontrollably. No. These very interesting, highly abstract discussions should not distract us from the more fundamental things that we agree on as a discipline: That life is better when we understand the world around us, that this understanding should be available for everyone and not just the powerful, and that we can make better decisions about our lives when we know how the world works.

Of course, if you are an anthropologist who is critical of science, perhaps you should not support the march. If you think that the government should not make policy based on evidence, then you shouldn’t support the march. If you don’t want our children to have cutting-edge science education, then don’t go. If you don’t think that we should include voices and contributions from people of all identities and backgrounds in science, then feel free to stay home  — because the march is about supporting all of those things.

But I doubt our discipline is so muddled that there are very many people like that. Anthropology tends to skew left harder than most social sciences, and the left has gotten really good at talking about what it is against. But now we need to start talking about what we are for. We need to be honest about our value commitments, and we need to be clear about the bedrock assumptions of our discipline. I think anthropology is with science and against ignorance. We are with science because we believe in the power of skepticism to improve what we know about the world by asking “but how do we know this?” and “is this the best we can do?” We are with science because we think people have stories that need to be heard because those stories are true, even if they are inconvenient for the powerful. We are with science because we believe our discipline has results that are factual and accurate and important. We are with science because our ethnography tells us what it is like to live in places where free speech is stifled, where communication is controlled by the government,  where students are taught lies, and where disconfirming evidence is explained away as the work of provocateurs. And we don’t want to live in that world.

So this Earth Day come out for science and be part of the conversation. Its the best way to show how important anthropology is to science, and how important science is to anthropology.

#AAA2017 registration sucked. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

Even if you are not attending #AAA2017 in Washington, D.C. you have probably already heard about how much it sucked to try to register for it. The stories of frustration and anger on social media were, frankly, pretty epic. Over the past few years, I’ve felt a grudging respect for AAA staff, who have tried to modernize the office and make the AAA into a respectable organization. But it’s hard to find a bright side in the #AAA2017 registration sage. Let’s face it: As the AAA gets more corporate, it begins to suck the way a corporation sucks.

I haven’t investigated any of the complaints about the AAA in detail, so I can’t confirm what precisely went wrong or how fair the criticisms are. But even if only half of them are true, the situation was pretty grim. The interface was, I’m told, impenetrable. One person I know claims the app locked her out of her phone. Several others organizing panels had their participants replaced by other random people, which led to the idea of perhaps doing some sort of LARP at AAAs where you could pretend to be other anthropologists and give papers as if you were them. At one point passwords were changed unexpectedly. It seemed the only way to figure out what went wrong was to call AAA staff and harass them, which of course no one wanted to do. The entire thing was enough of a debacle that the AAA even extended the deadline to register.

I’m sure that these issues were not the AAA’s fault and people report that AAA staff were very helpful. It’s the contractors, I’ve been told — the people who sold the AAA the web portal they use. Given how poor the AAA’s web app was at #AAA2016, I have no doubt that the AAA was able to once again hire the wrong people. But but but… who really believed that  the Deepwater Horizon oil spill wasn’t BPs fault, but their contractors? The diffusion of responsibility in this way is a classical technique of corporations, and the AAA should not take this route, no matter how tempting. The buck stops with them.

And since the AAA is acting like a corporation, let’s examine its product. The AAA meetings are a profit center for the AAA. In 2015, the association made over US$460,000 from it. Are we, as consumers, getting value for money out of the association? I’d say no. The registration system has always been a pain. But now it is getting worse. Most of the new additions to the conference are not very valuable (like the app) or turn us into advertisements (the sponsored bags). And the total cost of attending these events is extremely high — particularly for people who are not wealthy tenured professors. This is true despite the discounts the AAA has very thoughtfully made for the underemployed.

I’d urge the AAA to step up and run a great #AAA2017, and it still had plenty of time to make corrections and do that. But it needs to take these meetings seriously, because so far the AAA is giving us less and less for more and more. From my perspective, it makes more sense these days to small, stimulating, cheap meetings closer to home than it does to splash out for big, expensive events which the AAA — to judge from its registration system — doesn’t actually want us to attend anyway.

George Soros: Public Enemy and Human Sacrifice

George Soros is one busy man, particularly for an octogenarian. If the rumors are to be believed, he is single-handedly funding agitators in the United States and Hungary (and likely other Central and Eastern European countries as well). He is funneling money into Black Lives Matter and importing Muslim refugees into Europe in order to destroy Christian white Europe. He is the mastermind behind lobbying groups masquerading as civil sector organizations in Hungary that have the goal of bringing down the Hungarian nation. In short, he is the perfect enemy. Nick Cohen writes in a recent Guardian article, “If he did not exist, they would have to invent him. As the ‘George Soros’ they credit with supernatural power does not exist, you could say that they have invented them.”

Continue reading

Pandora’s Brew: The New Ayahuasca Part 7

Conclusion: It’s all fun and games…

As I mentioned in the first post of my series, anthropologists and ethnobiologists have played an outsized role in studying and popularizing ayahuasca and Amazonian shamanism, and more recently, attending to its internationalization. This history affords anthropologists a stake in discussions of drug policy issues pertaining to the subjects; one might even suggest it requires their participation as a matter of ethical concern. One topic of interest among scholars and activists right now is whether and how to regulate ayahuasca practices within a framework of increasing legalization and legitimation in the global north. Some scientists and activists seem to believe that legality alone will bring increased transparency and safety by eliminating the need for practitioners and participants to navigate in what is effectively a criminal underground. However, the assumption of legality among the practitioners and participants of the new ayahuasca churches, particularly Ayahuasca Healings, sheds light on numerous other problems that legalization alone will not solve—in fact, may exacerbate. These include the misappropriation of indigenous culture, the hyper-commodification of spirituality, and a rapid increase in demand for the vine, which is already being overharvested in some areas. Continue reading

A Threat to Academic Freedom Everywhere? A CEU Update

An estimated 70,000 people turned out to rally in support of Central European University in Budapest on Sunday. The amendment to the higher education law, given the moniker LexCEU, which would effectively close the international university was voted on and approved by the Hungarian parliament April 4th.  On Sunday April 9th, demonstrators called for President János Áder to veto the bill but their cries fell on deaf ears. On Monday night, as one of my friend’s put it in her facebook post, “President Áder decided not to give a damn about 80.000 people in his country and signed the law.” Continue reading

Pandora’s Brew: The New Ayahuasca Part 6

Oklevueha Native American Church

In addition to the widespread appropriation of Native North American culture that characterizes neo-shamanic discourse, the current spate of ayahuasca churches in the U.S. adds insult to injury by claiming that their practices are legal because they are official branches of the Native American Church, specifically the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC), led by James Mooney. At least four churches and one retreat center have been established under the ONAC aegis focusing specifically on ayahuasca (though they may offer other services and products as well including herbal elixirs, cuddle parties and the ceremonial use of Life Frequencies Essentials and Chakra Tools computer software). These churches falsely claim to be offering legal ayahuasca ceremonies in the United States. Membership in these churches is available to the public for a fee, and in keeping with the common framework of Amazonian shamanic tourism, they charge a second (usually much higher) fee for ceremonial services.

Death in Kentucky

Continue reading