All posts by Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

Gareth Dale on Karl Polanyi

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is difficult to summarize. A patriotic citizen of his native Hungary, he spoke German at home and identified with German intellectual culture. He was a Jew who converted to Christianity, as well as an Anglophile who was deeply impressed by the spiritual intensity of Russian culture. He witnessed Europe’s fin-de-siecle nervousness and survived two world wars, living in Hungary, Vienna, England, before finally taking a position at Columbia University just in time to witness the birth of the Cold War.

Disciplinarily, Polanyi was equally hard to pigeonhole. A socialist, he insisted that markets were created by and embedded in society, not naturally existing creations that could or ought to be ‘free’.  Economists thought him a sociologist, sociologists thought him an economist. Much of his work was historical, but he greatly influenced the field of anthropology.

In fall 2016 British academic Gareth Dale published the first ever biography of Karl Polanyi, presenting for us at last a major account of Polanyi’s complex and fascinating life. I interviewed him recently over email about his book, Polanyi’s life, and his relevance for today. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

Ever since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas on risk back in 1992, anthropologists have understood that there is a difference between what is actually dangerous and what people think is dangerous. Scientists can measure the probability of you being struck by a bolt of lightning or getting hit by a car. But our fears are not based on extensive scientific study, nor are they the results of our own idiosyncratic psychology. They are shaped by the culture we live in and the history we’ve collectively experienced. The sad thing, anthropologically, about Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration is that it does not make Americans safer, just makes some Americans feel safer. The tragic thing about the order is that forces others to suffer for the sake of our own false sense of security.

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Year of the Mushroom

In the next week or so, many of us will celebrate the year of the rooster. The year of the monkey, which we are just saying good bye to, had a lot of stuff going on inside of it. But looking back at the anthropology end of things, it’s pretty clear that 2016 was not the year of the monkey, but of the mushroom.

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Teaching Martin Luther King in Hawai‘i

Every Spring I teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in the class immediately following MLK day. Typically I focus on first and second year college students. I do it for several reasons: For many of my students, “I have a dream” is the only text of MLK’s that they know; because it helps explain the reason for the season; and, most of all, because the letter is incredibly teachable.

I originally got the idea from Gerald Graff, who remarked that King was such a clear writer you could almost reconstruct the letter he was responding to just by turning his sentences around. So I said, alright, let’s do it. I’ve done the assignment is several different ways, but basically it goes like this: Students come to class, and we read the letter out loud, each student reading one paragraph at a time. We then begin with the logice of his argument: What are his claims, his reasons, and his examples (this goes pretty quickly in a college setting).

We then move on to rhetoric, asking: How does MLK creates roles for readers and audience in the text? Who does he compare himself to? Who is Paul, what is Tarsus? Many students don’t know this, while others are proud to be able to share their knowledge in an institution which is sometimes not totally welcome to practicing Christians. Some who think they are Christians realize they don’t actually know anything about key texts from their tradition. It’s interesting. But anyway the questions are: Who does he think his audience is? What does he assume that they know?

I then introduce the concept of heteroglossia and ask my student what other voices they can find in the text. How is this single-authored piece shot through with other opinions. Who is King agreeing with or disagreeing with? At the end of class I give students an assignment to write the letter than King was responding to, using only text-internal clues regarding what that letter said. I ask them to reconstruct the argument, as well as to sign it — that is, imagine what kind of people wrote it, even if they don’t know their names.

This process is not too hard on students — you could do it in middle school or high school, in addition to college. You can tweak it, asking them to read MLK’s letter outside of class and then come to class having written the letter to which he’s responding. You can assign some chapters on the book on the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, to provide context, or read other texts by King (I’ve used “Conforming Non-Conformist” in the past).

But really, it’s the ease of analyzing King’s text that makes the exercise so useful. Students feel like they can do it. And you can basically teach ALL intro level college analytic skills just out of this one piece of writing. Once they have that under their belt, you can tell them: “Great. Now on Thursday we’ll be doing this with Foucault. Good luck!”

King’s text is not just easy to analyze, it’s also a model of clarity and persuasive speech. King writes clearly and concisely, but does not write sparely or sparsely. When he needs to let the clauses roll out, they roll out. It’s a valuable corrective to the indigestible academic prose that fills the academy, and which our students unfortunately learn to imitate.

King is exemplary for more than just his prose of course. Undergraduates today — especially those in Hawai‘i — don’t live in King’s world. This is the first experience with Jim Crow that many of my students have had. It’s powerful. And King does more than remind readers of a past that they may not have had access to before. His approach to dialogue is important to. In academy which is used to critique, King tries to convince. In an academy which too often stigmatizes enemy subject positions, King offers readers a chance to be good people — if they get on board his plan. King doesn’t just know what’s wrong. He knows what’s right.

It’s also quite shocking to some students to see that King was in fact a political agitator. We have a vision of him as a great conciliator, someone who found common ground, increased shared understanding, etc. But the King of the Letter actively advocates disruptive, illegal protests. He urges us to heighten tensions, not resolve them. He encourages violation of unjust laws. King was an activist who did the right thing, not the legal thing. I sometimes feel that this is something that people would like us to forget about him.

Finally, reading the Letter makes students ask new questions: What happened after the letter was written? How did we get from there to here. If I fill in some of the context, they start asking: Who was Malcolm X? Martin Buber? If I am teaching a more advanced class, we begin asking “how are we interpellated as a subject? What are the rights and wrongs of such interpellation”?

Your mileage may vary, and it may be too late for you to incorporate some of this material into your own classes later on this week. I’m sure that I’m hardly the only person who finds time in class to teach MLK around MLK day. But if you haven’t yet, why not give this exercise a shot, or adapt it for your own use? Or why not share your own in-class exercises below? Thanks. And happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Behold, a timeline of the history of anthropology!

(Update 11 Dec 2016: Up-to-date timeline files are now hosted on github and there is an interactive version of the timeline as well -Rx)

I am extremely happy to announce today that I’m making open access my timeline of the history of anthropological theory. This timeline has over 1,000 entries, beginning with the birth of Lewis Henry Morgan on 21 Nov 1818 and the latest is the death of Roy D’Andrade on 20 Oct 2016. It includes details from the careers of roughly 118 anthropologists from England, France, and the United States. It is designed to be viewed in Aeon Timeline, but I’ve also provided a dump of the data so you can play with it however you like.

History of Anthropology Timeline (98K .zip file on google drive)

The lives of George Hunt, Franz Boas, and Zora Neale Hurston. You need to scroll around the full database to see all the dates.

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We’re in Crisis! Time to Slow Down: Discernment in a Trumpian Age

(This occasional post comes from Edgar Rivera Colón, Ph.D. Dr. Rivera Colón is a medical anthropologist and teaches at Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. Dr. Rivera Colón is also Assistant Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies at Saint Peter’s University, The Jesuit University of New Jersey. He does spiritual direction with activists as a ministry of the Ecumenical Catholic Church (ECC), an LGBT-affirming faith community, based in Guadalajara, Mexico.)

No hay mal que dure cien años — ni cuerpo que lo resista.” (Popular Puerto Rican saying).

“There is no evil that can last a century — nor bodies equipped to endure it.”

The last weeks have been a marathon (Trumpathon?) of despair, grief, resistance, and mobilization in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory. I’ve spent part of time having long conversations with younger activists — folks in their 20’s and 30’s — about their feelings of disorientation and anger at what seemed to many to be an impossible electoral outcome. One of most dangerous, hate-spewing, fear-mongering, and vulgar presidential candidates in the US history is about to take over one wing of the state apparatus. Whatever one’s take on the whys and wherefores of the 2016 presidential election results, the negative effect on many bodies, spirits, and minds is palpable and worrying. What to do in such a crisis with so many layers and consequences that could warp even further the American polity for two or three generations hence? Continue reading


The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association is now over, as is Thanksgiving. Now that we are over the hump and have a bit of perspective, we can ask: How well did the AAA handle the meetings?

#tweetup #aaa2016
The Spaghetti Factory-turned Irish Bar named The Local hosted 8 events by anthropologists a day, 6 days a week in November, including the #tweetup. I’ve added a filter to this image to give you a sense of what it looked like after two pints.

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The role of #openaccess in Trump’s America

Trump’s victory yesterday was the result of many factors. The politics of academic publishing was hardly an important part of the elections results. Large for-profit publishers like Elsevier and Taylor and Francis did not secretly elevate Trump to victory, nor would the outcome have changed if voters in Florida had access the entire run of Anthropology and Humanism. But this election did raise issues that central to open access as a movement. It was about truth, credibility, and authority. It was about how the same fact pattern can be interpreted in different ways. It was about judging for yourself the quality of partial and possibly biased information. And what comes next is even more relevant to our academic values. In the next four years we will see many people pushing back against accepted truths — that African Americans face discrimination, that the holocaust occurred, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and much much more, I’m sure. Now, than, we academics need to explain what scholarly and scientific knowledge is, why it is important that non-experts should take it seriously, and how open access  is central to a vibrant, functioning democracy.

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“I know of Malinowski’s despotism”: Mauss to Radcliffe-Brown

The people who fill our theory readers are real people who lived vibrant, quirky lives.  It is easy to reduce them to a set of ideas or to a stereotyped, essentialized colonizer. But in fact their ideas — and their colonialism! — were flesh and blood and richly particular.

And they all knew each other.

Consider Mauss’s correspondence with Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheimians both, their theoretical interests allied them against Malinowski. Mauss’s withering, gallic trashing of Malinowski may have more to do with placating Radcliffe-Brown than it does genuine animus. But it also reflects so much else that academia still has: A concern with funding, grudging respect for publication history, trash-talking about a rival’s advising style. It’s all there.

I know of Malinowski’s despotism. Rockefeller’s weakness with regard to him is probably the cause of his success. The weakness, due to the age and the elegance of the other English, those in London as well as those of Cambridge and Oxford, leave the field in England free for him; but you may be sure, even the young whom he protects know how to judge him. There are dynasties that do not last. His big work on magic and agriculture will surely be a very good exposition of the facts. This is what he excels at. And the subventions from Rockefeller for a whole army of stooges which he has had at his disposal will certainly have allowed him to have done something definitive. Only, alongside it there will be a very poor theory of the magical nature of this essential thing. At last he is going to write a great book on his functionalist theory of society and family organization. Here his theoretical weakness and his total lack of learning will make itself still more obvious.

This little glimpse into history is just one of the many open access publications on the history of our discipline that are out there. In addition to the newly-revived History of Anthropology Newsletter there are also the many excerpts and memorial over at the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Thanks to them for making this small, wonderful, slightly terribly little bit of historical kvetching accessible to all!

Malinowski and Hats

The alternate title for this post was going to be “Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas walk into a bar…”. This is a little autobiographical passage from pages 46-48 of History, Evolution, and the Concept of Culture: Selected Papers by Alexander Lesser. In it, Lesser (a vastly under-read and under-appreciated author) describes what it was like to be a graduate student in the 1920s. It’s a fun little vignette that says something about the limits of functionalism… and academic networking! I’ve condensed this account down a good deal — if you’d like to see the full version, check out the book. 

I first met both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in 1926 or 1927. It was the first occasion of their both being in New York at the same time. Pliny Earle Goddard was very anxious to have Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski meet Boas. He believed they would both discover that Boas was driving at the same thing they were driving at, that there really weren’t any fundamental conflicts. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were invited to what was a large living room in Ruth Bunzel’s parents’ apartment, somewhere near Riverside Drive. There were only about ten of us: six graduate students, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas.

When the time seemed right, Goddard invited Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown to say something. Radcliffe-Brown started off by giving extemporaneously a fifteen minute exposition of what he considered to be the meaning of meaning. It was, from a verbal standpoint a beautiful performance. Boas simply looked at Goddard, and looked at Radcliffe-Brown, and nodded his head. And that was all. Then Goddard turned to Malinowski and asked him if he wanted to say anything, and Malinowski gave an exposition of his concept of functionalism. After he got through with his fifteen minutes, Goddard turned to Boas, expecting him to say something… and then there was utter silence.

After the silence had gone on for as long as I could stand it, I asked a question. I was scare to death, of course. I asked Malinowski if he meant it when he said that every thing, every item in culture, had a vital function. He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “In the back of my hat here’s a little bow which is sewn on to where the seam comes. Now if you go to a store and try to buy a hat, you’ll find it has a little bow on it.” I asked him what its function was. The binding of the hat is sewn together at the back end very tightly; the bow doesn’t hold anything. If it isnt’ there, nothing will happen. And yet if you should happen to buy such a hat in a store, and it didn’t have the bow, the salesman would say, “wait a minute, I’ll have the bow put on.” But what function does it have? Well, Malinowski looked at me and said, “Well….” He thought first of course that maybe it held the hat together, and I showed him it didn’t. So then he said, “Well, maybe it’s decorative.” I said, “How? You can’t even see it.” We went on like this, for some time, but he finally said, “Oh, I’m interested in important matters.” He simply dropped it.

Now, where did I get this item? I happened to be indexing the first forty volumes of the Journal of American Folklore – that’s how I was earning my way through Columbia, for fifty cents an hour. If you start trying to index a thing like that believe me, as you go through a volume it becomes damned boring. So every once in a while, you say: “Oh, what the hell, at fifty cents an hour I’ll read a paper.”

There were several papers by a man named Garrick Mallery. He was an American ethnologist, and he was particularly interested in survivals. In regard to the hat bow, his explanation was that this was a survival of something which had once been more functional. At the back end of the hat ribbons were attached, and one wore the hat with ribbon streamers; style had gradually dictated that these become smaller and smaller, until they were finally stuck up inside the hat, and disappeared into the bow. So much for hats and Malinowski.


Anthropology and the MacArthurs

The 2016 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and — unlike some years — there were no anthropologists on the list. Established back in 1981, the grant was intended not to find “geniuses” (despite the fact that its nicknamed the genius grant) but rather “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary orginality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. This year no anthropologists made the cut, but this isn’t how it always goes. Continue reading

Dialogical Anthropology in an Age of Controlled Equivocation

I’ve been thinking about Dennis Tedlock and reading Marisol de la Cadena’s Earth Beings at the same time lately. Much of Earth Beings is concerned with intimacy, translation, and understanding — both cross-cultural and inter-personal. It seems to me that Earth Beings isn’t alone in having this concern. Although I am hardly an expert in this literature, Viveiros’s ‘controlled equivocation’, Holbrad’s Truth in Motion and much other work in this vein is really about what it means to understand someone who is different than you. Although much of this work is branded ‘ontology’ at times I feel like its central concern is really epistemology.

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Chicago’s “Trigger Warning” Letter Is very un-Chicago

Jay Ellison’s recent letter on trigger warnings made the rounds of social media late last week, and this week the story continues to circulate. It’s a topic that hits close to home for me. I have two degrees (MA and Ph.D.) from Chicago. As a student, I worked part time in the Social Sciences and Humanities division and full time in Physical Sciences, punching down cross connects in building basements and visiting faculty offices to explain what ‘the web’ was. I sang the Sunday service in Rockefeller chapel, was married at Hillel, and had the reception at Ida Noyes (long story). At one point when I was writing up my Ph.D., working part time, and serving as the Starr Lecturer in anthropology, I joked that I was student, staff, faculty, and alum — simultaneously. I’ve been told that my latest book is featured on the front table of the Seminary Coop. What could be more Chicago then that?

That said, there are many people more connected to the university than I am. I am just an alum. But I still feel connected to my alma mater. That’s why I’m writing this letter to argue that Ellison’s letter is on the wrong side of this issue in general, and in violation of our university’s long-held academic values in particular.

In some sense, Ellison’s letter has little to do with Chicago itself. A newcomer to the university, Ellison is a full-time administrator with no faculty appointment (as far as I can tell) and, worse of all, has a Ph.D. from Harvard: A light-weight, blue-blooded institution which all true Chicago grads recognize as far more concerned with maintaining its cultural capital than letting scientia crescat and vita excolatur (of course, it could be worse — he could be from Yale). Continue reading

Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, and Generational Change in Anthropology

(update: I incorrectly spelled  ‘Tedlock’ in the title of this post when it first went lived. This has now been corrected. Apologies.) 

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot of obituaries lately. Between Elizabeth Colson, Edie Turner, and Anthony Wallace and Raymond Smith, I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the past. Now, in close succession, we have also lost Paul Friedrich and Dennis Tedlock. It’s sad to record these passings, but I take some consolation in the fact that the people we remember have been so productive and matter so much to the people who mourn them — the world is richer for them having been in it. But in remembering these two today, I also want to talk briefly about how our discipline is changing, and what these demographic shifts might signal for anthropology’s future.

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