Annual Highlights – 2011

It was a good year for the vibrancy of the Savage Minds community. There were plenty of interesting posts to comment on and issues to debate. Here in our annual year-in-review I’ll point you towards some of our greatest hits, maybe there’s one you missed! The top ten posts of the year are highlighted in boldface.
Personally, my favorite posts are in the how-to or ask-the-crowd genres. There was a lengthy list of “exotic” ethnographies (#5) appropriate for undergraduate intro courses and a plea for help on how to best choose intro level textbooks. Ahead of the annual meeting of the AAA there was a post on how to write conference papers. Our resident photographer, Ryan, wrote two handy pieces on cameras in the field. One was on the authenticity of the iPhone app Hipstamatic vis-a-vie the kind of photography done by “real” photographers, the second a call for reflexivity in the use of photographs, typically used without critical reflection in ethnography. Perhaps tangentially visual, Kerim unearthed an early twentieth century method of categorizing skin color based on Milton-Bradley produced spinning tops. On the topic of writing Kerim wondered why established scholars seem to repeat themselves so often and he weighed the benefits of adopting such a style.
Some of Savage Minds’ most popular features were original research, notes from the field, and other stepping stones to new publications. Guest-blogger Lua Wilkinson reported on her work on nutrition in China and the intersection of food culture and neoliberalism (#10); there was also a companion piece on breastfeeding and infant nutrition in China. Marking the one year anniversary of Haiti’s devastating earthquake guest-blogger Laura Wagner shared some of the jokes Haitians tell to make light of the situation (#6). Kerim reflected on Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption hunger strike in India based on what he had learned over the course of five years fieldwork there. And nowhere but on Savage Minds will you find posts on Taiwanese parodies of Bollywood music videos posted on YouTube.
This year we had a lot to say about social networks, new media, and other aspects of internet culture. There was Google+’s real name policy (ie. compulsory first name and surnames) and the unintended consequences it had for aboriginal peoples. We discussed the negative potential digital searches may have on academic citations when results are filtered, particularly because “we are still ignorant to the extent to which our online experience is being shaped by these algorithms.” This was expanded in a separate post on Google+ “circles” which can function like echo chambers or silos, and how this is actually indicative of a broader corporate culture at Google. Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, Adam got sick of all the Steve Jobs hoo-hah and invoked Charles Taylor on the social imaginary to theorize his mythos.
Re: media and activism all this came to a head this year with the Arab Spring, Anonymous, and #Occupy social movements. The importance of Twitter in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen was reframed as being more about the importance of literacy. Adam shared his report on free speech and media activism at the National Conference on Media Reform, in Boston (there was also a post providing a more ethnographic and reflective account of American political progressivism). Continuing on the theme of television news is a post on why today is the golden era for progressive television and internet video. The issue of “information imperialism” was raised in light of the U.S. State Dept’s $70 million dollar expenditure on stealth communications technologies to disseminate propaganda and foment revolutions.
In 2011 the spirit of the #OWS grabbed everyone’s attention when it made the leap to campus activism and the state retailiated with a heavy handed show of force. Adam found connections to Habermas and called for an awareness of interrelated/ interdependent media ecologies. Amidst the jumble of concerns and outrages The People took to the streets to decry, eventually the broader issues of the Occupy movement came into focus, namely the potentially deleterious effects of socio-economic inequality may have for democracy.
Coinciding with this were related discussions concerning economics. Including the sometimes testy relationships between anthropologists and economists, inside jokes and criticisms that economists level at their own discipline, and whether anyone in anthropology really cares about Marxism anymore. I deconstructed a common trope in the mainstream media, which I labeled Home Economics, that I felt connected laypersons’ misunderstanings about federal deficits (one of many prevalent buzzwords in domestic American politics this year) to populism and nationalism.
Academic funding weighed heavily on our minds this year. Ryan wrote a helpful piece on navigating the grant application process. There were other posts on the politics of preserving the future of funding in the era of reduced public support, including budget cuts to the Fulbright Program. Shrinking budgets at the NSF prompted worries that cultural anthropology would no longer have a place at the table among STEM and SBE grants. This all came to a head when Rick “The Most Unpopular Governor in the 50 States” Scott singled out anthropology as exemplary of the supposed irrelevancy of liberal arts in economic growth. Anthropology blogs and the AAA leapt into a spirited defense of our discipline, not in the least was Rex’s meditation on the importance of higher education in producing an engaged citizenry.
There were a number of pieces on anthropology and Open Access, and here Ryan blazed a path on this important topic. As a graduate student, he pondered how one ought to plan an academic career given that the academic publishing industry appears to be teetering on a precipice [you can read the update to that post here]. The ethic of disiminating data and information to the widest audience possible was related to Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities and there was a fascinating interview with Jason Jackson, a leader bringing OA to anthropology and folklore [part I, part II, and part III].
This year at Savage Minds, we delved into theory with gusto. Kerim wrote a timely piece on Hume in honor of his 300th birthday. I started (but never finished) a series covering the 25th anniversary of Writing Culture at Duke University – here’s the introduction, part I, and part II. This prompted Rex to reflect on his love/hate relationship with that particular edited volume, circling back to this theme later in a piece titled “Postmodernism as Rigorous Science”.
It was just a year ago we had “science” to kick around. Kerim likes that science is willing to ask tough questions, but argued that it needed the humanities to make it better. This linked up to a a discussion on The Greater Humanities, a conference paper from Jim Clifford in which he imagines a new coalition of knowledge practices fit to weather the changing environments of the univerisites of the future.
The future of anthropology, or perhaps I should say what-anthropology-is-now, took center stage in some of the year’s most compelling posts. Guest-blogger David Graeber wrote a piece on just how big our questions should be (#7). His advice: go ask Marcel Mauss. Chris Kelty pondered the Anthropology of Freedom (whatever that means) in a five part series: part I, part II, part III, part IV, part V. There were spin offs of that conversation too, with Rex as moderator here and then digressing into Habermas here. Who knew we had such a thing for Habermas?
With #AAAfail in our rearview mirror the Savage Minds editors decided to let bygones be bygones and embrace our professional organization with unconditional love. Well, no. Not really. Scratch that. We found plenty of opportunities to ask #WTHAAA? Rex was consistently critical of the AAA’s deal with Wiley-Blackwell, especially when he noticed a pronounced delay in the availability of the latest issue of Cultural Anthropology on Anthrosource. Kerim posted a four-way conversation on how American anthropology’s disciplinary debates were portrayed in the mainstream media. And we all scratched our heads over the controlled vocabulary in the keywords the AAA allowed (#8) in the abstract submission process.
When it came to unloading on people and practices we didn’t like, Savage Minds pulled no punches in 2011. Dustin burned all his bridges to the evolutionary psychologist community excoriating Santoshi Kanazawa’s blog post for Psychology Today (#3). When Jonathan Franzen wrote an op-ed about technology and society Kerim pushed him in the dirt and took his lunch money. When a scandal broke over the fictional content of 3 Cups of Tea we collectively cackled and tented our fingers like Monty Burns. I got all huffy when the quantiative analysis of word frequencies in Google Books promised “to rigorously study the evolution of culture on a grand scale.” And Adam got tired of dealing with hip, trendy elites (who hasn’t?) and their neoliberal pursuit of social justice movement within consumer capitalism.
Still, when you get right down to it we’re all in anthropology because we love it (that and the big fat paychecks). Rex led the way here penning anthropology’s bumper sticker slogan “Human Nature: It’s Not What You Think” (#9). On Valentine’s Day he issued a call for love letters to anthropology which turned into a minor movement across multiple blogs [read his reply “Why I <3 Anthropology” here (#2)]. I wrote a post on public anthropology asking everyone to abandon their dreams of a heroic champion and instead focus on modest local goals and Zoe eulogized a real hero, the late Tim Hetherington who was killed in Libya. The Fuck Yeah! Anthropology Major Fox (#4) meme reminded us all of the joy and wonder of bright young undergraduates discovering the discipline for the first time, then leaving everyone in stitches with their intoxicated pranks.
It seems that in 2011 we had less to say about American foreign policy and the ongoing wars in Iraq in Afganistan. Perhaps the Human Terrain controversy become boring? Maybe our attentions were diverted to the street protests that swept the globe? Or possibly we just need Max Forte to kick us in the seat of the pants and start blogging again? At any rate this year the most viewed post on Savage Minds followed quickly on the heels of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, my own Codename: Geronimo (#1), a semiotic analysis of the U.S. military’s tangled history of using American Indians as symbols of martial prowess, either as friends or foes. It borrows heavily from a conference paper I wrote in ’05 titled “How the Mid-East was Won” (three years prior to, but not nearly as complete as Stephen Stilliman’s “The ‘Old West’ in the Middle East: U.S. Military Metaphors in Real and Imagined Indian Country” in American Anthropologist, V.110, #2), hence all the references to the Iraq war when examples from Afghanistan would have been more relevant.
I think I speak for all of us at Savage Minds in extending a hearty thank you to our readership. When writing these blog posts, you simply have no idea whether people will come away enlightened, think that you’re an idiot, or even bother to read it at all. The audience is part of the thrill, the mystery, and the frustration of writing for any venue. In closing I would like to extend an invitation to all our readers to join in on discussions in the comments sections of our future posts. Blogging, like so many other kinds of discourses, benefits from more voices rather than less. Don’t be shy! Speak your mind and click submit. Hell, start your own blog and send us the link. See you in the new year, anthropologists.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

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