All posts by Nancy

Admission of racial profiling in Canada: What next?

Here’s an interesting “article”: in Canadian news today about the Kingston (I can only assume they’re referring to Kingston, Ontario) police force:

“Kingston’s police chief apologized to the city’s black community Thursday after a controversial study found officers are more likely to stop black people than whites.”

The police chief went on to specify that the officers themselves had no reason to apologise because:

“What we’re doing wrong if we’re doing anything wrong is systemic and that’s my problem.”

I think it’s great that the existence of a problem of racial profiling is being addressed. However, I find it fascinating that the chief of police is willing to carry the blame for a long tradition of systemic and institutionalised racism in Canada (although I realise that this is probably not his intention). As an individual and an authority figure, he can certainly exert some influence on the people under his command, while he is in command.

The problem, though, is that racial profiling is a symptom of a wider societal problem that reaches far beyond the police force. The roots of this problem are tightly intertwined with educational and political problems that also need to be examined. That being said, I’m sceptical about the exercise of looking at police practices in isolation from the social and cultural context within which they are located.

But, hey, it’s a start and I sure can’t complain about the issue being given some recognition and acknowledgement; enough so that an actual scientific study was conducted with the cooperation of the police force. I’m looking forward to hearing about what will be done at a concrete level once the report is fully analysed.

“In some cultures . . .” and other musings on the popular use of folk anthropology

You know those people who justify their lifestyle and/or ideology by saying “Well, in some cultures, this is considered normal”? Or the people who decontextualise arbitrary elements of various “exotic” cultures to illustrate what they perceive to be human universals? I see some of this in certain counter-cultural social circles such as neo-pagan groups, polyamorists, attachment parenting advocates and so forth. (Just so that we understand each other, here, I’m not putting any of these groups down or accusing their members of ignorance. In fact, I’m part of at least one of these counter-cultures).

The comments that I read in messages on various virtual forums or that I hear in various get-togethers often lead me to be the pesky anthropologist, raining on every body’s parade. For instance, whenever I hear polyamorists proudly claim that this lifestyle is normal and honourable because people around the world have been practicing polyamory since the beginning of time, I wince and then . . . rain on their parade. I feel that I have to mention to them that the term polyamory, just like the terms homosexual, bisexual and so forth, are historically and culturally situated and cannot be projected across time and space. Not in those words, of course.

On the other hand, I also get the “oh, but polyamory is different from polygamy” with the elaboration that the latter is disgusting and inherently degrading to women (because people often confuse “polygamy” with “polygyny”). Again, I have to intervene with my anthropological explanations.

Often, people are glad to be better informed. Other times, they are angry because I just went and messed with their scheme of things, which does tend to get people riled up. So I ask myself why I keep bothering.

Part of that self-questioning leads me to ask myself if I am much different from them. After all, anthropological study is what opened my eyes to alternate possibilities for my own life. My decision to adopt several elements of attachment parenting (i.e. nurse my son beyond the typical 6 months, co-sleep, carry him for many hours of the day when he was a baby) was largely based on reading ethnographies containing information on cross-cultural child-rearing practices.

However, unlike the above-mentioned generalisers (again, I’m not putting them down . . . some of them are my friends), I put the practices in which I am interested in context. If I adopted certain parenting practices that appealed to me in spite of them going against the mainstream North American grain, I did it with the understanding of why mainstream practices made sense to most of the people around me. This allowed me to be able to see where they were coming from in their arguments and to counter the arguments with my own. It also allowed me to be prepared for the somewhat marginal position that comes with adhering to alternate life choices.

Folk anthropologists, on the other hand, are often unable to make that link that is created by cultural relativity. They tend to take the facts out of context and become unable to back-up the practices that they are defending against the scrutiny of the cultural mainstream. They are therefore left with meaningless statements such as “In some cultures . . .” They also sometimes fail to see the cultural context that exists in their own society and that leads to people around them being so adamantly opposed to their way of life. Finally, they face emotional distress when faced with scorn or rejection, something for which they were not necessarily prepared because of the lack of awareness of cultural context.

So this musing answers my own question regarding why I bother. I bother informing people, even at the risk of being branded “the annoying anthropologist” (hey, it could be worse), because I fundamentally agree with some of their basic positions and want to equip them with better toolkits to defend their ways of life against the “moral majority”, if such a thing exists in Canada. I want them to be strong in the face of cross-examination. I want them to be able to offer content instead of fluff to those who would question their moral integrity.

Ideally, I do believe that cross-cultural knowledge should benefit everyone who is interested in it and that it should be accessible. However, it should also be presented in a way that is consistent with anthropology’s value of cultural relativity. Anthropologists who seek to inform the public about anthropological knowledge have fierce competition, though. Popular media, with their frequent lack of depth and integrity,have a nasty tendency to exoticise non-Western societies (yes, yes, I know this term is problematic). Even seemingly scientific documentaries often fool people into believing that they are being adequately informed about cross-cultural practices. It is this kind of exposure, the non-relativistic sort, that promotes a sort of folk, or pop, anthropology and I’m afraid this will lead to greater misunderstandings within and across cultures.

Anthropology, Educational Psychology and Experiential Learning

The funniest thing happened in my Psychology of Learning course this past winter. The instructor had set up a class debate about the developmental theories of “Jean Piaget”: and “Lev Vygotsky”: . Whereas Piaget’s work, in a grossly oversimplified nutshell, looks at children’s development through the various cognitive stages as a natural occurrence of sorts, Vygotsky’s ideas bring forth the importance of social interaction in the development of children’s cognitive abilities. In other words, it is interaction with more knowledgeable individuals that pulls children along through their cognitive development. The process whereby adults present children with problems that the children could not solve on their own and provide support so that the children can effectively learn the appropriate tasks is called scaffolding.

Oh, that wasn’t the funny part, by the way. The funny part is that I, the token anthropologist in the room, was randomly chosen to speak on behalf of the Vygotsky-ite team whereas the spokesperson for the Piaget-ites (ians?) was . . . you guessed it . . . a biologist (also randomly chosen).

Oh, it was great fun! I got to accuse her of biological determinism. (I should mention that I love accusing people of biological determinism and I do it as often as I can, in all sorts of contexts and in my most indignant voice: “You biological determinist, you!”) OK, so I guess you had to be there.

While the experience was a hoot, it got me thinking about teaching anthropology, especially to people in their late teens, which comprise the bulk of our student population at Vanier College. The knowledge that I gained about learning theories in this course was invaluable and, ever since I completed the course, I’ve been experimenting with ways to apply them specifically to anthropological content.

For example, Vygotsky’s sociocultural approach to learning is quite appealing from an anthropological perspective. It is in line, after all, with our notion of enculturation. It also fits right in with the middle ground in the nature vs. nurture debate where one refuses to go the extremes of biological or cultural determinism.

The compatibility goes beyond that, however. Vygotsky, like Piaget, can be categorised as a constructivist according to my instructor, which signifies adherence to a body of thought that posits that knowledge is constructed by the learner as opposed to being something that exists “out there”, external to the learner.

This has allowed me to move away from a teacher-centered classroom to a certain extent. With experimentation, I have found that my students already know much of what I’m there to teach them. By asking them questions such as “What do you think are some functions of religion?” and seeing that they explained most of what I was about to tell them, I saw that, in fact, all I was doing was giving them tools with which to discuss what they already know from an anthropological perspective. By posing questions that require them to think about prior knowledge in a new light and by providing them with tools that will help them to do it more effectively, I am providing scaffolding for them in their construction of anthropological knowledge rather then simply filling their brains and notebooks with knowledge that comes from outside of them.

Now, of course, I couldn’t just leave well enough alone. I’m a big fan of experiential anthropology (a.k.a. radical participation) and “Jean-Guy Goulet’s work”: had a big influence on my M.A. research. Naturally, then, I was attracted to the idea of experiential learning where students engage in meaningful activities that will help them learn through the very process in which they are engaged.

In other words, I’m seeking to get away from the tendency to tell students what they need to know. Rather, I’m working toward using a greater number of activities that will allow them to realise that they know stuff (and I do call it stuff, just because . . . ) and that they can, with a little help from me or another qualified professional, figure out what it all means.

An example of an exercise that I’ve experimented with is the use of different coloured poker chips to demonstrate various methods of distribution such as generalised and balanced reciprocity. Before even telling them what these methods are, I set them up in small groups with little scenarios that they must act out according to what they think makes sense. You got it . . . we do play acting! Weeeeee!

When the gut reaction of the hunter is to keep all of the meat for herself, I ask her to think about the long run. A light goes on and s/he realises that s/he would lose social credibility if s/he did not share and that this could result in others not sharing with her a few weeks down the road. I get the students to explain all of this to me and then I give them a term: generalised reciprocity. And they get it because they already knew it in their own way.

So, what I am getting at with all of this is that the teaching of anthropology, especially to students who will not necessarily go on to major in the field, needs to be centered not just on learning anthropological jargon or on reading ethnographies but on figuring out, through experiential means, why things make sense in their various cultural contexts. The students at this age (17-19) have the capacity to do so but, as per Vygotsky’s theory, they need to be pulled through and supported in the construction of this knowledge. With more understanding of how learning takes place (in other words, with a little help from educational psych), I think that anthropology teachers can become more effective at this and, indirectly, have a social impact which reaches farther than the classroom and into the lives of future math teachers, business administrators, lawyers and plumbers.