All posts by Kerim

Kerim

P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, in Taiwan, where he teaches linguistic and visual anthropology. He is co-director of the film Please Don't Beat Me, Sir!, winner of the 2011 Jean Rouch Award from the Society of Visual Anthropology. Follow Kerim on Twitter.

The Cyborg Anthropologist (Tools We Use)

For those who don’t know, I live, work, teach, and do research in a predominantly Chinese speaking environment. Although you are probably aware that learning Chinese is hard, you might not realize that even scholars who have studied the language for most of their adult lives still struggle with it. That’s because scholars who work in Chinese rarely talk about the subject openly. As David Moser explains:

inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers . . .

You might have read somewhere that it takes a vocabulary of several thousand Chinese characters to read a newspaper, but the truth is that it is actually much harder than that: Continue reading

It’s not hip to be square

I see shows like Star Trek as emblematic of a transitional period in American masculinity — at least on TV. The 50’s would have been pure Kirk, with a woman on every planet and an ability to knock out foes with a one-two punch. After the 70’s we got numerous examples of Spock, with his faith in science and confusion around emotions (not to mention women). There is a direct line from Spock to Seinfeld, and it goes through Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Huey Lewis And The News. The overwhelming message of my childhood was that it was “hip to be square.”

There is something to be said for this change. The confusion over emotions and social norms allowed men to be emotional and sensitive. Alien women may have objectified, but race (supposedly) no longer mattered. But the figure of the clueless scientist who just doesn’t understand women is not harmless. An obvious example is someone like nerd-hero Richard Feynman who was confused as to why women wouldn’t trade sex for sandwiches. The sexist culture that seems to exist within companies like Uber and Google makes it difficult for women in those industries, and arguably affects the kind of products and services offered by tech companies. Twitter’s foot dragging on the issue of online harassment is a good example of this.

There is a debate within linguistic anthropology which helps explain just what is wrong with our society’s continued celebration of the clueless naiveté of nerd culture. Continue reading

Ethnographic Films: A Family of Resemblances

This is the third post in my series on the definition of “ethnographic film.” In the first post I laid out the basic approach I am using: one based on Umberto Eco’s model of listing a “family of resemblances” rather than offering a strict test of a film’s “ethnographicness.” In the second post I showed how this would work in practice, based on a rough sketch of the “family of resemblances” I will be outlining in more detail here.

Before I do that, however, I’d like to take a moment to point readers to Carole McGranahan’s 2012 post “What Makes Something Ethnographic?” There she provides a list of nine features generated by her class. One of the points of she makes is that these features are constantly changing and evolving. This is why, in defining ethnographic film, I chose to dodge the bullet by avoiding the question altogether! Letting others deal with that problem is the easy way out, I don’t deny it; but it also allows me to articulate a definition that can change along with the discipline. Looking back at previous attempts to define ethnographic film, many of them strike me as having been dated before the ink even dried on the paper. Hopefully this more flexible approach can avoid that fate.

And now on to the list! If you feel I missed an important feature, or overlooked something, please let me know in the comments. Continue reading

The Four Dimensions of Ethnographic Films

In my last post I argued that rather than choosing between overly narrow (“closed”) or overly broad (“open”) definitions of ethnographic film, it would be better to follow Uberto Eco’s model of listing a “family of resemblances.” This would consist of a list of features that make a film “ethnographic” but without any two ethnographic films necessarily sharing the exact same list of features. When I wrote that I had a draft list of about sixteen features I had been working on. I had planned to prune it down a bit and sharing it with you today; however, upon further reflection it occurred to me that the longer list could be grouped into four broad categories, or “dimensions,” as follows:

  • Discipline: features related to the discipline of anthropology (e.g. films made by anthropologists)
  • Norms: features related to the norms and practices of ethnographic research (e.g. research ethics)
  • Subject: features related to the topics and peoples discussed in the anthropological literature (e.g. films by or about nomadic peoples)
  • Genre: features related to the various styles associated with the genre of ethnographic film (e.g. “reflexivity”) Continue reading

Do we even need to define ethnographic film?

Before this year I never felt the need to come up with a clear definition for what counts as an “ethnographic film.” Constructing better pigeonholes only seems to be of use to the gatekeepers who get to decide which films count and which do not. I still think that’s true, but this year I became one of those gatekeepers! As programmer for the 2017 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival I suddenly found myself needing to articulate some kind of working definition that could be communicated to filmmakers, distributors, festival judges, etc. so that everyone understood what did or did not count as an “ethnographic film” for the purpose of this festival. I failed.

The best I could offer was “I know one when I see one” but this definition cost me dearly. We had over 1,500 entries for the festival, and it took a lot of work to weed out which of those films would go on to the judges and which would not. In the end about two thirds of the films were rejected in the first round. In many cases we only needed to read the film description or watch a few minutes to know that it wasn’t right for the festival. In other cases I ended up watching the whole film before deciding. It was a lot of work.

To be honest, I don’t know if a better definition would really have helped. Festival submissions are free1 and a lot of filmmakers don’t bother to read the rules before submitting. Many of the rejected films didn’t even meet the most basic entry requirements listed on the submissions page, and hundreds of them were clearly scripted dramas with no claims to being the slightest bit anthropological or ethnographic. Still, the whole process got me thinking about how I would go about trying to define ethnographic film. Here’s what I came up with. I’m posting this in two parts. Today I’ll set out my goals for such a definition, including my overall approach. In a later post I plan to actually sketch out what such a definition might look like. Continue reading

Population #ReadIn

“Racism” is such an unwieldy concept. Living in a world in which racism is one of the fundamental building blocks that shapes all our relationships, calling someone racist is somewhat akin to a fish accusing another fish of swimming in water. This is how I felt when I saw Democrats claiming that the election was won because of racism. If I were to make a list of racist things in American politics it would be just as likely to include welfare reform as the southern strategy, just as likely to include drones as border walls, and just as likely to include super-predators as a muslim registry.

I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There is a very important difference between a political party which relies on minority votes and one which tries to suppress them. There is an important difference between a party which engages in dog-whistle politics to win over swing voters and a party for which such voters are their electoral base. But that doesn’t get us away from the fact that – in American politics – we are always talking about relative racisms. Many of those supposedly racist voters voted for Obama in the last election, and many minority voters handed the election over to Trump in their state simply by staying home on election day.1 I don’t write this because I want to assign blame, but simply to illustrate how crude a tool “racism” is when trying to make sense of this all. So, if racism can’t help us, how do we talk about this phenomenon which is so central to contemporary politics?

It is not an easy riddle to solve, but one important part of the solution can be found in in the writings of Michel Foucault. Just a part of the solution, mind you, but for my own thinking on the matter it has been key. For that reason I was very happy when a bunch of anthropologists announced that they wanted to read read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in Society Must Be Defended as a means to think through “the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race” on inauguration day. This is because the concept of biopolitics is a very useful addition to the analytical toolkit we have for talking about the diverse phenomenon grouped under the term “racism.” As with any such analytical tools, the benefits of highlighting certain features necessarily obscure others, and there are entire books written to try to sort out exactly what is lost and what is gained by using these tools; however, today I would like to simply focus on one aspect of this lecture which has been particularly useful to me: Foucault’s use of the term “population.” Continue reading

Pokemon GO comes home: Manners pedagogy in the Japanese linguistic landscape

[This is an invited post by Debra J Occhi, Miyazaki International College (aka Hyuga Natsuko1, yellow team). Debra is a linguistic anthropologist employed at Miyazaki International College. Her current research interests include leisure, gender, cuteness, characters, and regionality.]

Pokemon GO, one of the big waves in summer 2016 media-mix pop culture, was released July 20, 2016 in Japan, immediately triggering warnings about personal safety and public manners. I downloaded it and embarked on participant observation ethnography for the next three weeks in Tokyo, and have played it in various parts of Kyushu since then. From the start, news from various countries of the changes wrought by Pokemon GO framed it as both a new source of social mayhem and conversely, a boon to the sedentary, depressed gamer. Yet here in its birthplace, Pokemon GO is just one of the summer events centered around this franchise. In the late 1990s Pokemon had entertained my kids while we were living in Sendai during my dissertation fieldwork. Back then the original media consisted of the card-based game, Game Boy games, and the summer’s movie, all based on the anime. I was downtown teaching English conversation when that notorious episode triggered epilepsy in some viewers; fortunately my kids were safe at the neighbor’s. From then on, all anime contain warnings at the start of each show to viewers to maintain distance from the screen and watch with lights on. While Pokemon has been misinterpreted as the devil’s temptation by some in the USA, it seems to me that in its home country Pokemon has continued to inspire personal safety instructions, and public manners training as well.

Continue reading

Seeing Culture Like a State

(Chinese translation 中文翻譯)

At this year’s Taiwan’s annual anthropology conference, the Taiwan group anthropology blog Guava Anthropology hosted a public event where blog members were invited to give five minute “lightning talks” on the topic of cultural policy. In May, Taiwan’s new Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun 鄭麗君 announced plans to hold a national conference with the aim of establishing a “Basic Cultural Law” for Taiwan.1 These talks were to reflect on both the role of the government in shaping cultural policy and the role of anthropologists in shaping government policy. Below is the English version of the talk I gave in Chinese.2

The State must “see” culture

The central problem facing state cultural policies is the need to make culture visible to the state. After all, if the state can’t “see” culture, how can it regulate it? Post-war Taiwan saw tremendous changes in cultural policy: from promoting China-centric cultural nationalism to embracing multiculturalism. But whether it is mono-culturalism or multiculturalism, whether the state wants to suppress or encourage the development of local cultures, it must first be able to “see” them. Continue reading

Archiving for the longue durée (Tools we use)

Do you backup? Good. But not good enough.

First, lets talk about backup. A good backup strategy should be regular, redundant, and involve multiple locations. Regular, so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you backed up your data the day, week, or month before you accidentally spill your soup on your keyboard. It should be redundant, so that if your backup drive was shorted out by the same thunderstorm that destroyed your computer you still have another copy. And it should involve multiple locations so that if a fire burns down your house there is still a copy of your most important stuff at your parent’s house.

There are lots of ways to make sure you meet these basic requirements. My solution involves:

I feel pretty good about this system. It may not be perfect, but it meets the minimal requirements I listed above. However, it isn’t good enough for me, and it might not be good enough for you either… Continue reading

AAA Boycott Vote Postmortem

By now you have probably heard that the boycott vote failed by an incredibly narrow margin:

In the end an astounding 51% of its 10,000 members participated. The resolution failed by exactly 39 votes: 2,423-2,384 (50.4%-49.6%)—a statistical dead heat.

David Palumbo-Liu, Steven Salaita, Charlotte Silver, and Elizabeth Redden have all written excellent postmortems about the vote. Having read all four, it strikes me that there are three important points to be made: The first is that the AAA is still moving ahead with a statement of censure of the Israeli government and other actions. The second is the role played by outside groups that sought to influence the vote. And the third is the status of the BDS movement after the vote. Read on for my take on each of these three points… Continue reading

A Letter to the AA Regarding its World Anthropology Section on Israel

[Savage Minds welcomes the following invited post by Matan Kaminer. Matan is a doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is working on his dissertation, an ethnographic exploration of the conjunction between settler colonialism and global migration on the farms of Israel’s Arabah region, where the majority of the workforce is made up of migrants from Northeast Thailand (Isaan). He has been active in the Israeli conscientious objectors’ movement, in national and municipal politics and in migrant solidarity work in Israel for the past fifteen years.]

The Spring 2016 issue of American Anthropologist carried a World Anthropology section on Israel. Unlike previous installments, this issue featured a series of written interviews with former and current heads of the Israeli Anthropological Association, many of which used the opportunity to weigh in against the academic boycott of Israeli universities. Matan Kaminer, a young Israeli anthropologist, wrote the following response, which was rejected for publication by Anthropology News. It is reproduced here verbatim. Continue reading

Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 3: It’s in the Resolution

This is the third post in a three-post series of personal reflections on the AAA boycott vote. The first post discussed my own childhood Zionist education, while the second post addressed the false claim that the boycott unfairly singles out Israel.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.

It’s in the Resolution

What do we mean by an academic boycott anyway?

What if I told you that the answer can be found in the the boycott resolution?

what if I told you? 

First and foremost, it can’t be emphasized enough that the boycott only applies to institutions, not to individuals. Continue reading

Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 2: SQUIRREL!

*This is the second of a series of posts I am writing on the topic of the AAA boycott vote. You can read the previous post here. And now the third post is up as well.**

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting is now taking place by electronic ballot. It started on April 15th and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision. Because each update to the AAA website seems to make it even more difficult to navigate, please read this useful guide on how to vote.

Squirrel!

A running joke in the 2009 movie Up is that the otherwise intelligent talking dog gets distracted by squirrels, forgetting everything it was saying whenever it sees one. Continue reading

Why I’m Voting for the Boycott Part 1: David vs. Goliath

UPDATE: The second post in this series is now up. And now the third post as well.

Last November anthropologists attending the AAA business meeting in Denver voted by an astounding 1040-136 to endorse the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, but this was just a resolution to put the boycott to a vote, not an actual endorsement of that boycott by the entire AAA membership. The actual voting takes place by electronic ballot starting today, April 15th, and lasts until May 31. For this reason it is crucial that all AAA members, whether or not they support the boycott, vote to make their voices heard in this historic decision.

While we have been posting extensively about the boycott here on Savage Minds, so far none of the full-time contributors have expressed their personal opinions on the matter. Over the next few weeks I hope to do just that, starting with a post about my own experience growing up as a Reform Jew in New York City. I have at least two more posts planned as well, including one on boycotts as a political strategy and another in which I try to round-up and summarize some of the writing which I have found most persuasive on the topic.

What follows is a very personal statement and intentionally avoids most of the issues that have already been discussed elsewhere. For those wanting more information I recommend looking through our own archives on the subject, or exploring the blog maintained by Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, as well as the anti-boycott blog. But, above all, I recommend you read this post on “Myths and Facts About the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions,” Dialogue vs. BDS, and the Report on Israel/Palestine (PDF) prepared by the AAA task force.

David vs. Goliath

I was raised as a Reform Jew in New York City in the eighties and the Judaism we were taught at Hebrew School was little more than Zionist propaganda. As Lisa Goldman recently put it,

for Jewish-Americans, more so than ever for Jews in Israel, Zionism is a crucial element of their identity. The most important element is neither God nor religion but the Holocaust, with its heavy legacy of trans-generational trauma. The lesson of the genocide, many believe, is that Jews need a safe haven. A state of one’s own.

During my weekly Hebrew school classes, as well as related weekend activities and camps, we almost never discussed Jewish religion, ethics, or philosophy.1 Instead, we were taught to think of ourselves as victims of historical persecution stretching back to the dawn of time. We were taught the importance of maintaining our ethnic identity in the face of this persecution.

David and Goliath
“David and Goliath” by Erik Bragalyan

Even as young children, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as little David’s standing up to Goliath. The holidays we celebrated were similarly built around such David and Goliath narratives: Purim celebrates the story of Esther who triumphed over the evil Mordecai Haman,2 and Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees over the forces of Antiochus.

Only as we got older did we learn of stories in which the Jews failed to triumph against overwhelming odds: the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms, and, of course, the Holocaust. Yet even when learning about war and genocide, there was always the promise of a new David emerging that might once and for all put an end to such historical defeats: muscular Jewish nationalism. The Warsaw Uprising may not have succeeded, but the Six Day War and the raid on Entebbe were another story. Israel’s success meant that Jewish children could sleep peacefully at night. It also meant that Isreal was all that was standing between us and the abyss.

I never went on any of the trips to Israel organized by the school, but we watched films about the wonders of life on the kibbutz. (We were, of course, carefully warned away from socialism with stories about the horrors of collective family life.) I also helped raise money to plant trees in Israel. We were told that the Arabs had not cared for the land properly, turning it into a desert; the implication being that they did not deserve the land because they had been poor caretakers. Such stories of neglect by indigenous inhabitants will be familiar to scholars of all forms of settler colonialism. (I have since heard ethnic Chinese say much the same thing about indigenous Taiwanese.) At the time, however, it evoked a powerful image of Palestine as a desert which was only able to bloom once the rightful owners had returned.

When I was twelve they took us on a weekend retreat where we watched the movie Ticket to Heaven about a man who gets “brainwashed” by a cult and has to be “deprogrammed” by his parents. But unlike that film, unlearning Zionism was not a simple process involving being locked in a room with a professional “deprogrammer.” It took years of reading, questioning, and talking to people who actually knew something about life under the occupation. Thanks to patient friends in college and graduate school, I began to question the simple narrative by which the Holocaust served to legitimize colonialism. I learned about the Nakba by which “led to the expulsion and displacement of the Palestinian Arab population.” I learned how life in Gaza was like living in a giant prison. I began to question the logic of the two state solution. I learned about the rise of right wing extremism in Israeli politics. And slowly, bit by bit, the stories I had learned as a child began to unravel a the seams, creating space for a much more complex story to take its place.

Even as I began to question my Zionism, however, certain habits and reflexes of thought still remained. I would find myself instinctively grasping at straws to support claims I had already come to realize were unsupportable. Recently I encountered similar reflexes while teaching here in Taiwan. We are starting to get exchange students from China and during one lecture, after I said something mildly critical of China, one of these students spoke up to challenge what I said. I was actually quite happy about this because Taiwanese students are usually so passive in class that actually getting challenged by a student felt refreshing. But after the lecture the student came up to me and introduced herself. She said that she actually agrees with what I had said about China and that she’d come to Taiwan precisely to get exposed to more critical views, but that defending China’s honor had become a reflex for her so she’d spoken up without thinking. Nationalism works upon is in very deep ways which talk of “imagined communities” often fails to grasp.

Zionist reflexes are not unique to Jewish kids from NY. They seem to exist at a more general level in European and American public discourse as well. I see non-Jewish politicians, media personalities, and even academics reflexively defending Israel, portraying anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, unquestioningly accepting the necessity of a two-state solution, and refusing to engage in any way with Palestinian political aspirations. It is as if the slightest break in our collective resolve would open the door to the ultimate evil. “Never again” means you are either “with us or against us” and the failure to be “with us” is too horrible to contemplate.

At a very basic level I supported the boycott resolution because I felt that it would open up a public space that would allow for questioning of these deeply ingrained assumptions. I don’t expect those people on Facebook who write “Disgusting” every time I post about the boycott to change their minds, but my public support of the boycott, and of the BDS movement more generally, has already sparked dozens of conversations with people who are genuinely curious and open-minded. In this sense the boycott resolution and the resulting discussion have already done a lot of the work I hoped they would, but I still think AAA members should vote for the boycott. In my next post I will try to explain one reason why I think an actual boycott, and not just this discussion about the boycott resolution, is still important.


  1. My brother went to a different Reform Hebrew school and had a very different experience, one that did indeed involve interesting discussions of ethics and philosophy. 
  2. Thanks to reader “yogi” for the correction. I obviously wasn’t paying enough attention in Hebrew school! (Or just have a lousy memory…) 

Filming Empathy – Part 1

In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:

On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.

Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?

Continue reading