Situating Knowledge

As an anthropologist working at the intersection of anthropology and development studies I sometimes undertake work for development organizations. The kind of work I do does not fall into the category of applied anthropology or  the work of cultural translation. Most often  I’m asked to provide, in written form,  a rapid analytical overview of an issue or situation in relation to a pressing policy objective. What counts as a situation  or an issue  is determined by the political context and policy framing which makes it relevant at a particular moment.

The private sector takes the lead

 

Such work can be challenging, personally and politically. Current development paradigms which fetishize market forces and the unfettered private sector as an engine for positive social transformation are laying the foundations that consolidate the entrenchment of  new kinds of inequalities on an  unprecedented scale.  At the same time, financial transfers from richer countries to poorer ones provide much needed subsidies for improved public provision of essential basic services. Understanding where policies have traction,  and for whom,  is a critical part of the contested politics of development practice, within and between development organizations. Continue reading

What you can REALLY do with an anthropology degree

The Brooking Institute’s Hamilton Project (because after Hamilton everything has to be named after Hamilton) has a new website examining the relationship between career path and college major — in other words, it shows you what people who major in one field do for a living. The site and its accompanying interactive data visualizer and reports affirms what I have spent the last three years telling undergraduate majors in my role as undergraduate advisor, so I wanted to take a second here and discuss what you can actually do with your major. What the data actually say.

Here is the standard speech I give students: There is no strong connection between your college major and occupation (at least for anthropology and most other majors). The purpose of an undergraduate degree is to give you general skills which will enable you to be a citizen of your country and the world. These same generalized capacities you need for citizenship are what you need for the job market. There is no point learning how to mechanically follow orders, since that just means you can be replaced by a robot. What’s key is the ability to learn quickly is key, since companies don’t really believe in training any more. You will be paid best if you can build or maintain the lives of the privileged. You will be paid poorly if you work for the poor or disadvantaged. The answer to the question “what can I do with this major” is not a fake list of job choices. It is ask “what do you want?” If you are waiting for your college professors to hand you a high-paid job, that’s not going to happen. And this is not our fault: it isn’t the educational sector that keeps blowing up the economy so the rich can get richer. College is not about choosing a major off a menu so that you can chose a job off a menu. College is about figuring out what you want to do and then seeing how possible that is in the world we live in today.

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Artificial Intelligence: Making AI in our Images

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sally Applin

Hello! I’m Sally Applin. I am a technology anthropologist who examines automation, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the context of preserving human agency. My dissertation focused on small independent fringe new technology makers in Silicon Valley, what they are making, and most critically, how the adoption of the outcomes of their efforts impact society and culture locally, and/or globally. I’m currently spending the summer in a corporate AI Research Group where I contribute to anthropological research on AI. I’m thrilled to blog for the renowned Savage Minds this month and hope many of you find value in my contributions.

There is so much going on in the world that it is challenging to choose a single topic to write about—floods, fires, hurricanes, politics—as anthropologists in 2017, we are spoiled for choice. However, as a warm up for the month ahead, I thought I’d start with a short piece on automation and agency to frame future pieces which will address these topics. The following is a letter I wrote yesterday morning to the House of Lords in the UK, who issued a call for participation on the governance and regulation of Artificial Intelligence, a topic with great importance to me. If done well, AI will benefit many, and if overlooked, or done in haste or without forethought, there could be catastrophic outcomes from poorly designed algorithms, and automation and limitations that permanently alter society as we know it.

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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

Robert Lowie just destroyed A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in one must-see letter

When it comes to Internet Drama, nothing beats the paper letter. Anthropology’s founders did not lead isolated lives. “American cultural anthropology” corresponded with “British social anthropology” and the “Année Sociologique” all the time. I’ve blogged before about Marcel Mauss talking trash about Malinowski with Radcliffe-Brown. But for pure in-your face, the winner has got to be Robert Lowie’s response to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.

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The Path of Climate Change

In the 1980s the Pastoruri glacier was one of the greatest adventure tourism destinations in South America. Over 100,000 people visited the glacier annually to mountaineer, ski, and enjoy spending time on one of the most accessible glaciers over 17,000’. But since 1995, Pastoruri has lost more than 50% of its mass, transforming the icy giant into a slushy, overfull lake. To remedy the fact that currently only about 30,000 people visit the glacier each year, La Ruta del Cambio Climático (or the Path of Climate Change) was created in order to teach visitors about the effects of glacial melt. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t quite have the same draw. Continue reading

Teaching in place: fostering relationality and reciprocity in the classroom in 2017

view of the Rideau River from Carleton University campus, Ottawa, Canada

 

It’s that time of year when professors like myself are editing, updating, or drafting syllabi for the coming fall semester here in Canada (and as I understand, the fall term is underway for many of my American peers!). As I head into my third year as an anthropology professor in Ottawa, Canada, I’ve been thinking hard about what it means to enact anthropology, pedagogy, and co-thinking in this particular place and time. I live, work, and teach in unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. In fact, Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, sits in entirely unceded Indigenous land. What does that mean? Well, our House of Parliament sits on land for which no treaty was ever signed or negotiated. This creates complex and urgent realities between a) the Algonquin communities whose laws and histories are inextricably bound to this city in the heart of the Ottawa River watershed and b) the broader Canadian nation-state (and its myriad institutions). Continue reading

Great anthropologists who fought fascism

Some of you who — unlike me — have not had family members murdered by nazis or had every synagogue in their home town firebombed in the same night may now be learning about antifa for the first time. But although it’s making waves in the media now, antifascist action has a century-long history which includes many anthropologists, who have fought fascism not by writing letters to the New York Times or retweeting an animated .gif but by putting their lives on the line.

As histories of antifascist action document, antifa is a fundamentally illiberal political movement which seeks to oppose fascism by any means necessary — including violence. For this reason, I can’t stress enough that I am opposed to antifa in the United States at the moment because I am opposed to violence, which is both against my values and tactically and strategically against our interests at this point in time given the mood of the country. But in different times and different places the threat of fascism was so dire that violent resistance was necessary. And in those moments, anthropologists acted bravely and with honor. Continue reading

Anthropologists need to address the Google memo on its merits. Again.

When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.

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Illustrated Man #10: The Vision

I first started blogging about anthropology and comic books back in 2012 in an occasional series titled Illustrated Man. It lasted for about nine posts before petering out as other projects demanded my attention, especially going back to grad school to pick up a Masters after completing my doctorate. While I stopped blogging about them I never stopped reading comics.

Now a professional librarian, my engagement with comics is changing again as I begin serving on a graphic novel book prize committee for my state professional association. It’s time to shake off the rust and get to writing again! So welcome to The Return of Illustrated Man. For our first installment I’ll be taking up a subject neglected in the original run, superheroes, with a review of The Vision: Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast (2016).

 

Marvel fans know Vision as one of the oldest characters of the Avengers, his Silver Age origins dating back to 1968. Despite his longevity Vision is not a heavy hitter among the superstar Marvel heroes and is typically only seen in the context of the Avengers group. I mean, he’s no Wolverine or Spider-Man. Casual fans may recognize him as a supporting character from the recent blockbusters Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Perhaps because of his status as a relatively minor character in the Marvel canon, Vision was ripe for a reimagining and his latest iteration, a twelve issue run from 2016 now collected in two trade paperbacks, is stellar.

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Pacific Islanders will pay the price for Trump and Kim’s nuclear escalation

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s war of words is threatening to become a real nuclear war as North Korea has announced that it is seriously considering attacking Guam. This reckless escalation of tension is profoundly frightening to everyone. But one group who will suffer from this potential attack has not gotten enough attention: Indigenous Chamorro people who have had little choice but to live with the US’s massive military buildup on their island, and its consequences.

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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

Searching for Solutions to Climate Change Risks in the Peruvian Andes

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Courtney Cecale

Climate change has arrived in the Cordillera Blanca. Since 1970, this high altitude mountain range with the largest concentration of tropical glaciers in the world has lost around 30% of its icy mass (or around 200km²). The flowing meltwater converges into hundreds of new high alpine lakes, many of which grow overfull and unstable with each passing year. In a place already notorious for one of the worst environmental disasters in history (killing over 20,000 people), the consequences of further melt from climate change are potentially catastrophic. But in the last 15 months of fieldwork research here, climate change has taken multiple other forms — less sensational than a disastrous flood, but alarming and life threatening none the less.  Continue reading

Re-materializing the Immaterial Economy: Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class

(This occasional post is a book review that comes to us from Alisha Wilkinson and Meg Stalcup. Meg Stalcup is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa, where she heads the Collaboratoire d’Anthropologie Multimédia (CAM/MAC). Alisha Wilkinson is a senior in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa. Next year she will work in Peru, before starting graduate work in anthropology. I’m very excited to see undergraduates publishing on Anthrodendum, and hope to see more work like this in the future! -Rx)

All ethnographies, perhaps, contain some mystery: of how humans understand each other, or the way that words and glances, observations and encounters are turned into insights about what it means to be human at a given moment in history. But Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin begins with a proper mystery, a person who has disappeared, and this literally missing body adroitly stages the subsequent exploration of IT workers’ missing bodies in scholarship on cognitive labor.

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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