Yearly Archives: 2012

The End is Nigh. Start blogging.

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Clare A. Sammells.

My thanks to the editors of Savage Minds for allowing me to guest blog this month. Hopefully I will not be among the last of Savage Mind’s guests, given that the End of the World is nigh.

You hadn’t heard? On or around Dec 21, 2012, the Maya Long Count will mark the end of a 5125 year cycle. Will this be a mere a calendrical turn, no more inherently eventful that the transition from Dec 31, 2012 to Jan 1, 2013? Will this be a moment of astronomical alignments, fiery conflagrations, and social upheavals? Or will there be a shift in human consciousness, an opportunity for the prepared to improve their lives and achieve enlightenment? Continue reading

5 Documentary Films from Taiwan

Someone asked me for a list of five documentary films for an online anthropology publication, but the piece never got published so I’m sharing it here. I decided to choose is a list of five films from Taiwan which I think would be particularly interesting for anthropologists. I’ve tried to select a variety of film styles: one fiction film by an indigenous Taiwanese filmmaker (Finding Sayon), two ethnographic films made by Taiwanese anthropologists (Returning Souls and Amis Hip-hop), a documentary by an indigenous activist (What’s Your Family Name, Please?), and an observational documentary (Yellow Box).

Yellow Box looks at the world of “Betel nut beauties” (scantily clad women who sell betel nuts to passing drivers) but manages to avoid being exploitative by pointing the camera so the gaze is primarily on the customers.

Finding Sayon is fictional account of a film crew visiting the village where a famous Japanese-era story, The Bell of Sayon (about an Aborigine girl who sacrificed her life for her Japanese teacher) took place. [Yes, I know this means it isn’t really a list of 5 documentaries – but this film is definitely of interest. We even had a review of it here on Savage Minds.]

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Fly-on-the-wall or Troll?

Thanks for letting me guest blog on Savage Minds this month! I’ll wrap up with some meta analysis about being an activist/anthropologist/blogger type.

I’m not a regular commenter on any websites, but sometimes I read long comment threads on controversial posts, spending enough time that I go into a kind of trance until something snaps me out of it and I’m disgusted by my own voyeurism. From these forays I’ve learned that people are quick to accuse commenters with unfamiliar screen names and unpopular opinions of being trolls, meaning they are only there to elicit a reaction. Writers can also troll for pageviews. (I don’t study online sociality or new media, so sorry if this sounds like The Internet 101: Beyond AOL.) Controversial posts often go up with the intention of eliciting reactions to raise pageviews, for monetary gain or fame or to raise awareness.

For the most part, I’m an outsider to that game. I think of my own blog as an archive of knowledge, there for the Googling, rather than part of a click-oriented news cycle. A “trending” category on my blog would probably just be an image of a skeleton covered in cobwebs. I reliably get a “great writing Doni!” comment from, you guessed it, Mom, but most people who look at my blog don’t leave comments. I do, however, monitor pageviews out of curiosity.

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Reaction to AAA OA Announcement

When Leith Mullings announced that the AAA would be publishing a new Open Access journal we here at Savage Minds were all:

funny gifs

But when we saw this:

There will be a specific policy for Open Anthropology on “ungating” and perhaps “re-gating” content after a certain period of time.

we were all:

funny gifs

Seriously, does the AAA even know what “open access” means? Hint: “free access” is not the same thing as “open access”.

UPDATE: Seems that Ryan and I posted about this right around the same time. Make sure to go read his take as well.

Anthropology News: Announcing Open–and then closed again–Anthropology

I was just checking through my ridiculously full gmail inbox when I saw the latest “content alert” from Anthropology News.  One piece really struck my attention: the announcement of a new open access publication called Open Anthropology.  AAA president Leith Mullings writes:

I am very pleased to announce that at its May meeting, the Executive Board (EB) agreed to explore and implement a pilot open access publication. Open Anthropology, the first public, open access digital-only publication of the American Anthropological Association, is expected to launch in 2013.

Wow, that’s some great news.  Here’s more:

In making this decision, the EB considered the extensive transformations taking place in scholarly publishing, as well as the importance of sharing information as widely as possible. In keeping with the AAA Statement of Purpose, Open Anthropology will help promote anthropology and anthropologists and “the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.” We know anthropology has much to offer in this regard

Yes indeed, anthropology does have a lot to offer.  Nice!  This is sounding fantastic.  Almost too good to be true.  More:

By examining the conditions under which various practices and relationships arise, anthropologists have a great deal to say about how and why they change. It is this perspective that makes the discipline potentially applicable to addressing the pressing problems of today’s world.

Yes!  This is really getting good.  Tell me more:

Open Anthropology will be devoted to previously published AAA articles, review articles, book and audiovisual reviews, and reports and comments on topics of interest to the general public, and that may have direct or indirect public policy implications. Content in Open Anthropology will be culled from the full archive of AAA publications, curated into issues, and will be freely available on the internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search or link to the full text of these articles.

A really important, exciting idea.  Pretty cool, no?  There must be some kind of catch, right?  Oh wait, this just in: Continue reading

The Anti-Debt: First thoughts of Jared Diamond’s new book

I spent a good chunk of the plane flight to and from AAA reading an advance copy of Jared Diamond’s forthcoming book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Socieites?. (Actually, that’s not true. I got sidetracked by the vivacious Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu which I highly recommend). I plan to blog more about World as I plow through it, but I’m far enough along now that I did want to share some first thoughts. The book’s argument is in its title: Diamond examines the lifeways of traditional/small-scale/prehistoric societies (the terminology, although central to his argument, is messy because the category he’s trying to construct is incoherent. But more on that later) to see what practices and ideas they may offer those of us who are Developed and slightly nostalgic for the good old days. It’s big and ambitious, and the most audacious attempt to do cultural anthropology that Diamond has yet attempted. I basically think of it as the anti-Debt (runner up for comparison, btw, goes to James C. Scott, whose work also is a lot like Diamond’s).

Debt and World share a similar focus: to challenge our ethnocentrism by showing us the world can be — and was — different from what it is now. Both fascinate because this focus is embedded in a much bigger, global story which is really the main attraction of both books: what Graeber and Diamond are really doing is showing us their world view, and how much the world and how narrations of it change when we see it from their point of view. Both are criticized by particularists — people who are angry there aren’t more footnotes, insist that ‘it’s more complicated’ and are opposed, in principle to thinking big (although I must say Diamond has become completely unmoored from evidence in this latest book and has basically decided to skip any detailed accounting of his claims whatsoever). But there the similarities end.

I take Graeber’s book to be an attempt to get people to wise up — to realize that the truth is right there in front of them and not that hard to see if you look at it straight on: that we’ve created a system that is deeply screwed up, cruel, and unfair. Diamond, on the other hand, has a sort of whiggish take on societal evolution and basically thinks it is great that we are where we are, and we shouldn’t want to be anywhere else (you only need to get to page 11 of the book for him to write off anarchism). That said, he does have a romantic nostalgia for the past and the simpler world we have lost — which is why he wants to use it to remind ourselves of how we ought to live. Politically, the books couldn’t be more different.

Diamond has done what anthropology — with the exception of Graeber and Debt — has not: written a big, accessible book which presents our findings to a general audience. He is the new Margaret Mead. The new Margaret Mead, people. Meanwhile, over in our corner of the world we are either not interested in popularization (when is Rabinow going to write ‘anthropology of the contemporary: a light beach read’?) or else are committed to ‘public anthropology for anthropologists’: accounts of organ trafficking, war zones, etc. that deal with our issues and are written in ways we consider ‘popular’ and consist largely in trying to convince the public that they ought to care as much about structural violence as we do.

Most of Diamond’s material comes from a small number of examples, and behind each of those examples is a small number of scholars who are expert in those fields who obviously have Diamond’s back. This includes my friend and colleague Polly Wiessner, whose work on — and for — the people of Papua New Guinea is remarkable. I can feel the wagons circling: on one side, the anthropologists who are interested in knowledge and progress and feel burned by anthropology’s turn to ‘postmodernism’ (which for them may mean Geertz), and on the other, most of the people at the AAAs. The most important point about Diamond’s new book for me personally is that it forces anthropologists to think through where they are today and who they are willing to support. A lot of respectable people have been enrolled by Diamond. The dynamic is no longer ‘anthropology versus a dilettante outsider’. rather, we face Jared Diamond as the representative of one faction in anthropology’s internecine struggle. Its one thing to insist that anthropology has a different outlook than a lot of other disciplines, and that that outlook is important and deserving of respect. It is quite another to say that a lot of anthropologists are ready to join the scientific community while others are doing something else that no one can understand and which is important because…. uh…

Debt is important to me because it represents an anthropological tradition which has important things to say about the world which it think are ‘true’, even if they are not ‘science’. It too relies on experts who have nailed down areas of study (Keith Hart, for instance, or, you know, Polanyi) but also moves beyond them to show what synthesis looks like when done from our point of view. This version of anthropology as a rigorous, humanistic and generalizing form of knowledge offers a credible and important counterweight to narrow visions of anthropology which get extremely shirty about what can count as knowledge. However, it is important to note that when well-done and carefully executed, there should be considerable overlap between Debt and World approaches to knowledge. Ultimately, these two approaches should be able to work together to produce complementary accounts of human life which can take their seat at the huge Round Table Of Human Knowledge that is scholarly work. It’s just hard to manage this sort of accord when the ‘Scientists’ always insist on playing King Arthur.

Stop the silence, and some suggested reading (more about the state of academia)

Here is my opening thought: What’s stopping us from rethinking and reshaping academia?


I’ll tell you one thing that’s stopping us: the belief that “nothing can be done” to fix the system.  As long as we all stand by and accept this, surely nothing will change.  That’s one easy way to keep the status quo going: Don’t hold out hope for alternatives.

Silence is another big part of the problem.  Silence, in some cases, because of a certain fear of retribution (loss of funding, or a job, or tenure, or [INSERT YOUR FEAR HERE]).

It’s almost like we really don’t believe any of that stuff we read and quote and talk about all the time.  You know, all the stuff about power and hegemony and social change and so on.

Ya, that stuff.

We anthropologists like to talk a lot about agency and power and other neato ideas, but for some reason when it comes to the internal political issues we face in academia, all of that goes away.  Everything becomes “too complex,” too entrenched, or simply impossible to even think about changing.  What’s with all the fatalism?

Yes, of course I understand the fact that there are certain “structural problems,” and that some issues exist at higher levels.  And I understand that certain things are out of our control.  But, beyond all of the structural determinism, what CAN we do to start dealing with the serious issues that plague the academy?  Anyone?  What things ARE in our control?  What can we change?

One thing is for sure: silence leads us nowhere.

Speaking of no longer remaining silent, please read this post over at Analog/Digital by Fran Barone.  Just read it.  Here’s my favorite quote:

It is almost laughable that I and many others are even vying for positions in this profession. And yet at the close of this blog post I will be applying for two more academic jobs, one research and one teaching. Glutton for punishment? No. The fact is that I love the work that I do when I’m able to do it; I believe in the value and worthwhile impact of my research and the quality of my teaching; and I think a strong academic sphere is essential to the wellbeing of society. Making change from within the system is not nearly as difficult as it is from out here. And it is really not that hard to be respectful, engaged, open and honest. I can’t understand why so many people struggle with it. I’m tired of not saying anything about it for fear of retribution or never getting a job and you should be, too. Maybe I won’t get a job in the future because of this post, but then it probably wouldn’t have been the right environment for me, anyway.

Go read what she has to say.  Then, as Fran says at the end of her post: SAY SOMETHING.


UPDATE 11/26/12: A few related links:

See Erin Taylor’s post “Producing academic scholarship: If universities are failing, where else do we go?” over at the OAC.

And check out Jeff Nall’s piece “Working for Change in Higher Education: The Abysmal State of Adjunct Teacher Pay.”

UPDATE 11/28/12: Check out Paul Stoller’s article on Huffington Post: “Changing Culture in Higher Education.”

Something joined or added but not essential

For me one of the highlights of the annual meeting of the AAA is migrating from one reception to another like a hunter-gatherer constantly seeking to optimize food foraging strategies. While the Wenner-Gren typically has the heaviest hors d’oeuvers (this year they even had free booze) I find the best company at the joint reception of the progressive and minority sections.

There under the thumping beat of party music I met a friend of a friend of a friend, a young man who had recently left an adjunct position at a Colorado school for a tenure track position somewhere in California. We toasted his professional good fortune as this was the first semester of his new job.

“How did you do it?” I begged, “It’s so hard to make tenure track.”

“I don’t know, man.” He exhaled, “Just got lucky I guess.”

It’s true that making it out of the post-graduate equivalent of the horse latitudes to the beginnings of an academic career as an assistant professor requires a tremendous amount of work. And sure, it helps if you have a pedigree and other trappings of prestige to go along with that big, beautiful brain of yours.

But that’s not always enough. Sometimes you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time.

Here at Savage Minds we have discussed how the labor of academia is being transformed by disruptive technologies, by neoliberalism, and by economies of prestige that necessitate a large adjunct workforce. We have also observed the extent to which academia has conserved rather than challenged many of the racialized and gendered social privileges that define the warp and weft of American society — something represented in the demographic of contingent workers. These topics were also touched on by an excellent run of guest posts about precarity too.

While organizations such as the New Faculty Majority seek to improve the working conditions for all adjunct faculty, we could stand to learn more about adjunct anthropologists specifically. Fellow anthropologist Matthew Wolf-Meyer, who teaches a course on professionalization at UC Santa Cruz, has put together two surveys that probe the state of being an adjunct anthropologist today. You can read blog posts about his class here .

We invite every anthropologist with adjunct work experience who cares about this issue to participate in the survey. Then we can share the results and address new questions in future Savage Minds posts.

Click here if you are currently an adjunct faculty in anthropology (not grad student)

Click here if you are a former adjunct faculty in anthropology (now working in some other capacity)

Thanks in advance for taking the survey and sharing it widely.

Building an Anthropology of Bicycling

Researching bicycling, like many ethnographic projects, suggests a bodily incorporation of the ethnographer into some local practice. I mean, I could study the social and cultural life of bicycling and not also ride a bike, but that would be like a celiac studying people who sample bread. Actually, that’s kind of accurate, because there is not one kind of bicycling, just as there is not one kind of bread. The celiac could enjoy millet and rice flour loaves, while avoiding those with wheat flour. I study and practice urban transport bicycling, which includes what I think of as “urban recreational cycling,” but I don’t know much about mountain biking, long distance recreational cycling, or racing.

I don’t study those things, but I know people who do, like Sarah Rebolloso McCullough, who studies the history and practice of mountain biking. I don’t focus on gender, but I read the work of Elly Blue, a writer trained in anthropology who explores gender and many other issues in bicycling as a zine publisher. And I haven’t done fieldwork about the history of the larger urban biking movement in the U.S., but Zack Furness has. My individual project connects with a community of practice made up of these folks and many more.

In addition to providing an ethnographic subject that connects me to existing theoretical conversations in anthropology, studying bicycling has meant tracing the contours of an emerging field. For many years, transportation researchers have used quantitative methods to study bicycling and to make recommendations about infrastructure and policy. The study of bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon is a newer endeavor whose beginning is marked most clearly by the 2007 publication of Cycling and Society, edited by Dave Horton, Paul Rosen, and Peter Cox. Many of the essays in that volume used qualitative methods and ethnographic engagement to analyze the meanings of bicycling in various contexts, paving the way for more research in this vein.

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Self Archive Already!

If you are an academic who has published in non-open access peer-review journals and haven’t yet taken any steps to make those articles available for free on the internet, you are doing it wrong. Doing so will ensure that more people read and cite your work. It will also make that work available to people who might otherwise not have access. And it is perfectly legal.*

There are a number of options for doing so. The best would be if your university or academic association has an official repository devoted to archiving such work. The AAA is currently working with SSRN to provide such a service, so you might try there. But you don’t need to be so official about it. You can simply host PDF files on your own website, or take advantage of any number of commercial services. I see a lot of people now using, Mendeley, or Zotero. Google Drive and Dropbox are also options, although you will want to have some kind of website where these links are advertised. Maybe Google Sites or WordPress? The list of options is endless, and it doesn’t really matter which you use – just get your stuff online!

In short, there is no excuse for not posting your own articles online, and if you see an academic who isn’t doing so you should take the time to let them know. A lot of scholars simply don’t know how to host their own website or use services like — why not help them? Yes, in an ideal world journals would all be open access, but till that happens, there is no reason you can’t take steps to liberate your own work (and that of your colleagues).

  • While almost all academic journals allow some form of self-archiving, they do differ in the details. Some allow a copy of the final article as it appears on the journal website, while others only allow you to post an uncorrected pre-print. To see what is allowed for particular journals, make use of the excellent RoMEO database. And don’t worry if you are confused. I encourage people to err on the side of openness. If you accidentally make a mistake you probably won’t have FBI agents banging down your doors. You are more likely to simply get an email asking you to remove the PDF from your website.

Castes of Crime

With the appointment of Nicholas Dirks as the new chancellor of UC Berkeley, I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, something that comes up whenever we show our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!. During post-film discussions, people often ask about why it is that when the actors (the members of Budhan Theatre, who, along with their families, are the subjects of our film) introduce themselves they use “Chhara” as a surname: “Dakxin Chhara,” “Sandeep Chhara,” “Kalpana Chhara,” etc. We explain that this is not their real last name, but more of an affirmation of their formerly stigmatized identity. Having been labeled by the British as a “Criminal Tribe” in 1933, the members of Budhan Theatre now proudly declare that they are “born actors” not “born criminals.” But this naturally leads to the next question: are the Chharas are a “caste”? This is where Nick Dirks comes in, because to answer it requires understanding a little bit about the history of caste in India.

One of Dirks’ most important books is Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India in which he argues that India’s contemporary caste system was largely a colonial invention. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t something called caste before colonialism, just that caste in its present form was shaped by the colonial process. Nor was this shaping of caste purely a top-down matter, but something that happened through a process that heavily involved the Indian people themselves. Both the Brahmins who worked closely with the British to encode the caste system in the new bureaucracy, as well as the ordinary people, many of whom organized politically to ensure that their caste status was listed favorably in the census. While the “invented” nature of caste is still a matter of considerable academic debate, much of the debate is over how extensive and how formalized caste was in pre-colonial India. Most scholars accept Dirks’ argument that caste was profoundly altered as a result of the colonial encounter. (Well, OK, maybe some of his detractors wouldn’t use the word “profound”…)

Where this connects with the history of “Criminal Tribes” (now known as “Denotified and Nomadic Tribes” or DNTs) is with the following account from his book: Continue reading

In Rousseau’s (and Polanyi’s) Footsteps (Thoughts on Debt)

After writing my last post on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years I got a nice email from Keith Hart, which reminded me I still hadn’t read his long review of David’s book which I’d bookmarked back in July. I was waiting till I read the book myself as I like to read things with an open mind. But if you only read one review of Debt, this is the one you should read. Hart is himself one of the foremost economic anthropologists, and he has long been writing about some of the main issues discussed in Graeber’s book: money, the human economy, etc. His book on Money, The Memory Bank, is available online. (Keith is a long-time innovator in moving anthropology to the internet, and is also one of the main forces behind the Open Anthropology Cooperative.)

I’d really just like to leave this post here and make you all go read Keith’s piece, but it is long, and experience tells me few readers ever click on the links, so here are a few highlights for you [below the fold]:

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Mapping post-election racism

Some folks argue that we are living in post-racial times.  That the days of racism are over.   After the Civil Rights era, it all just evaporated.  And the election of Barack Obama was somehow more proof of the fact that racism is no longer an issue in the U-S-A.  This “racism is no longer a problem” argument is a pretty common narrative these days.  Hmm.  From today:

Some Americans are racist. We know this, though there’s nothing quite like a black guy winning a national election to bring them out of the woodwork. The sheer volume of racist Tweets is disheartening, but can we learn anything from them?

Because this stuff is now nationally broadcast rather than confined to poorly Xeroxed newsletters, there’s data waiting to be mined. Floating Sheep, a group of technologically minded geographers, has attempted to determine just where the racism is coming from.

Read the rest here.  For more check out these links:

The National Monitor

Floating Sheep

Floating Sheep FAQ response

CNET news

A defense of the humanities in these budget-cutting times

University budgets are getting cut left and right.  There’s a debate about this going on at my university right now.  I hear conversations about the lack of funding, the economic crisis, and the need to cut programs.  I also hear conversations where words like “productivity” and “performance” and “economic viability” are being thrown around a lot.  Sure, I understand the fact that we are facing some pretty bad economic times.  And I understand the need to rethink how we are financing the university.  Completely understand.  But, at the same time, when I hear people talking about cutting programs and reshaping the university based primarily upon economic performance…well, that’s when it’s really time to pay attention to what this all means.  If the only ones who survive university budget cuts are those who can demonstrate that they are “making money” for the university, I don’t think that bodes well for the university system as we know it.

Ya, as if that’s something we didn’t already know.

In the spirit of not letting to university go down that road (any more than it already has), please read through this 2010 essay about the importance and value of the humanities: A Faustian bargain, by Gregory A. Petsko.

Desk Reject

Today I learned the term “desk reject.” I’ve never worked as an editor for an academic journal. It seems like a thankless job, and I have nothing but admiration for those who find the time and energy to do it well. But I have gotten to a stage in my career where I am frequently called upon to do anonymous peer review articles and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of journal editors are shirking their responsibilities by sending papers out for peer review that should never have gotten that far.

Rejecting a paper before peer review is called a “desk reject” and different journals differ in their policies. Some journals reject most papers before they get to peer review, while others send out almost everything. In some cases, it seems, this might be a ploy to boost rejection numbers so as to improve a journals’ ranking, although it isn’t clear that it actually makes a difference (for ranking) how you reject a paper.

From chatting with journal editors on Facebook it seems the most frequent cause for a desk rejection is that an article is obviously inappropriate for that journal. Editors told me of articles sent in the wrong language, or even the wrong academic discipline. Articles that are particularly poorly written might also be subject to a desk rejection.

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