Tag Archives: Topics

True Miracles

I’m re-reading Durkheim’s Elementary Forms* for a class I’m teaching, and this quote caught my attention:

The idea that societies are subject to necessary laws and constitute a realm of nature has deeply penetrated only a few minds. It follows that true miracles are thought possible in society. There is, for example, the accepted notion that a legislator can create an institution out of nothing and transform one social system into another, by fiat – just as the believers of so many religious accept that the divine will made the world out of nothing or can arbitrarily mutate some beings into others. As regards social things, we still have the mind-set of primitives.

While there is something quaint about the idea that there are fixed laws governing societies analogous to those which govern nature, there is simultaneously something very prescient about these words – words which anticipated both the modernist follies so well described by James Scott, as well as the imperialist follies of today’s neoconservatives. Nearly one hundred years after it was written our understanding of the institutions we live in still seems so primitive.

*I’ve not read the Karen Fields translation before, and so far I’m very happy with it. I’ve read that it is much more reliable the the previous one, but my French isn’t good enough too say one way or another.

Buffer Races and Castelike Minorities

Fareed Zakaria’s recent Washington Post editorial on immigration has rightly been praised for its clarity.

Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

The only criticism I’ve seen of Zakaria is that he conflates German guest workers with second or third generation France citizens of foreign descent. (See Moorish Girl for more on “immigrants” vs. “citizens.”) But I think there is a deeper problem here. The reason immigrants tend to do well in America is not because America is a more welcoming society, but because we already have a permanent racial underclass in our African American population! (And, to some extent, Latinos and Native Americans as well.)

America’s recent immigrants serve a useful purpose, deflecting attention away from one of the core conflicts in our society. American immigration policy in recent years has favored middle class Asian immigrants. Their arrival conflates the black/white dichotomy that led to so much social unrest in the 1960s. This can be seen in the area of Affirmative Action policies where it has been widely remarked that those who would benefit most from their termination would not be White Americans, but the children of Asian immigrants!

Popular in Marxist academic circles, the concept of Asian immigrants to the US acting as a “buffer race” has never made it to the mainstream. I would argue that part of the reason for this lies in the intrenched logic of American “multiculturalism.” According to the dominant narrative, America is a “salad” (no longer a “melting pot”) in which each culture adds its own unique flavor to the mix. This narrative hides the very different histories of America’s various ethnic minorities.

In their celebrated essay, “Black students and the burden of ‘acting White.'” (1986, Urban Review 18(3), 176-203) Ogbu and Fordham suggest a tripartite classification for thinking about America’s ethnic minorities:

In order to account for this variability, we have suggtsted that minority groups should be classified into three types: autonomous minorities, who are minorities primarily in a numerical sense; immigrant minorities, who came to America more or less voluntarily with the expectation of improving their economic, political, and social status; and subordinate or castelike minorities, who were involuntarily and permanently incorporated into American society through slavery or conquest. Black Americans are an example par excellence of castelike minorities because they were brought to America as slaves and after’ emancipation were relegated to menial status’ through legal and extralegal devices… American Indians, Mexican Americans, and Native Hawaiians share, to some extent, features of castelike minorities.

What it means to be a “castlike minority” can be understood by looking at our prison population (more here):

Since 1989 and for the first time in national history, African Americans make up a majority of those entering prison each year. Indeed, in four short decades, the ethnic composition of the U.S. inmate population has reversed, turning over from 70 percent white at mid-century to nearly 70 percent black and Latino today, although ethnic patterns of criminal activity have not fundamentally changed during that period.

While South Asian immigrants may never become white in the same way that Jewish and Irish immigrants did (Fareed Zakaria has commented that TV ratings drop whenever he appears on a talk show), I would argue that the reason immigration has “worked so well” in America is that immigrants usefully distract us from the real racial issues in this country, while for many European countries, immigrants are the racial underclass.

Anthropologists Demand Coca-Cola Boycott

A lot of people are upset about Coca-Cola’s purported involvement in the violent suppression of trade unions at its Columbian bottling plants. You can, for instance, visit KillerCoke.org, CokeWatch.org, the Students Against Sweatshops Coke Campaign, or the Spanish language site run by Colombian Food and Beverage Workers. Most recently, anthropologists have joined the fray: the Association for Feminist Anthropology, the Anthropology and Environment Section, the Society for the Anthropology of North America, the Society for Latin American Anthropology, the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, and the Society for the Anthropology of Work have all adopted a resolution demanding a boycott of Coca-Cola until these issues are adequately addressed.

The catalyst for this action seems to be Lesley Gill’s recent essay in Transforming Anthropology, “Labor and Humanrights: ‘The Real Thing’ in Colombia” (PDF download). It is worth reading the first few paragraphs in full:
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Taiwanese Aborigine Memories of Japan

Memories of its fifty years of Japanese colonial rule are very complex in Taiwan. When the Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist (KMT) party took over the island after World War II they used the term “retrocession,” emphasizing the return of Taiwan to China. “Retrocession day” is still a national holiday. However, since the eighties there has been a revisionist historiography which seeks to emphasize the unique history of Taiwan as distinct from that of China. Central to this unique history are three things: Taiwan’s Aborigine population, its long history of resistance to imperial Chinese rule, and the important role of Japan in modernizing the island. You can usually figure out what political party a Taiwanese person supports simply by asking them about the Japanese era. This is more complicated, however, with Taiwan’s Aborigine population.

The Japanese wanted to prove that they could govern Taiwan more efficiently than the British ruled in India or the Americans in the Philippines. As a result, the Japanese colonial experience in Taiwan was much milder than that in Korea or Mainland China … for the Han Chinese. It is thus possible for many Taiwanese to romanticize this era, as one sees in the rampant Japanese-era nostalgia that is consuming Taiwan. For the Aborigines, however, it was a different story. At the dawn of the twentieth century the mountainous parts of the island where still largely under the control of the Aborigines. The Japanese forcibly took over those areas in a genocidal campaign of violence. There is no record of the number of Aborigine lives lost, but the Japanese recorded 10,000 Japanese dead as a result of what was a largely one-sided battle. Once under Japanese rule, however, schools were set up throughout the region and many Aborigines first gained literacy at schools run by the Japanese police. When missionaries later came into the region (under the KMT), they found it easy to use Japanese language bibles. In the end, Aborigines became some of the most loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor, many even volunteering to serve in the Japanese armed forces during World War II.

All this is the background for a curious political event which took place earlier this year:
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Hip Hop Fact Checking

The University of Calgary issued a press release about a linguistics researcher, Dr. Darin Howe, who is using hip hop to study African American vernacular English [AAVE]. The press release states, in part:

It’s rare to use the words ‘hip hop’ and ‘serious academic research’ in the same sentence…

Howe is believed to be the only academic in Canada and one of the few in the world to take a scholarly look at the language of hip hop.

A simple Google search for “hip hop” on academic web sites produces over a million hits. Right at the top is this bibliography. And a Google search for linguistics and hip hop produces 27,500 hits. Of those, 725 hits are from Canada! (Linguists seem to be doing more hip hop research than anthropologists. AnthroSource has only 101 hits.)

But what really bothers me about this press release isn’t so much the wildly inaccurate nature of its claims, but the notion that there is something intellectually daring about doing research on popular culture in this day and age. I mean, we are talking about a 1.5 billion dollar industry!

(via Nomadic Thoughts)

UPDATE: For some serious hip hop linguistics fact checking, see Benjamin Zimmer’s post over at Language Log.

On The Origins of Sexual Prohibitions

In the latest issue of the New Left Review, Jack Goody has a review of Maurice Godelier’s Métamorphoses de la Parenté, about which he says:

There has never been a book that adequately covers the range of human kinship and domestic organization. This is as near as anyone has got.

Those of us who struggle over French will have to wait for an English translation. Till then, however, Goody’s review gives us a taste of things to come, while taking Godelier to task on a number of issues.

Of particular interest is Godelier’s discussion of primate societies, which he uses to critique his former teacher, Lévi-Strauss, who argued that the “the prohibition of incest … saw the original passage from nature to culture defining human society as such.”
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Fingerprinting, Thievery, and Bob Marley

One of the most difficult issues we have had to confront in making a film about the Chharas is that of thievery. It is a fact that a sizable minority of the community still make their living from petty theft. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about this on camera. It is important, however, in talking about the theater (the subject of our film), because the Chharas themselves see a link between their skill at acting and their skill at thieving. It is also historically important, since the Chharas (or, more precisely, the Sansis who speak the same language) were the first group to be labeled as “Criminal Tribes” after the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.

It was in the course of searching for some more information about the topic that I came across Vinay Lal’s review of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu’s 1915 book: The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection. Lal’s article discusses the role of colonial anthropology in creating the category of “criminal tribes”, but since I am already well aware of this story, my attention was caught by his tangential account of the origins of fingerprinting in colonial India:

Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. … Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity.

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Roxy Gagdekar, Bridge Blogging Chharanagar

While we are working on the film, we have been having our meals at Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, and we have had many long talks. He is a tremendous source of information about the Chhara community, denotified tribes, and the politics of Gujarat. A reporter at one of Gujarat’s leading newspapers, Roxy is also an excellent writer. So I am very happy that he has decided to start his own blog. He plans to use it to write about Chharangar, the activities of the Budhan Theatre, and even some short fiction he has written.

In one of my first posts on Savage Minds, I argued that there would be a resurgence of “armchair anthropology” as a result of the internet. Central to this argument are what Hossein Derakhshan calls “bridge bloggers.” Such bloggers are able to bridge the same linguistic and cultural barriers that anthropologists seek to overcome. In some cases they may even do it better. I believe that Roxy Gagdekar is one such person.

How to spot a Chhara

Last night, sitting in Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, I asked him a question that I have been asked at nearly every screening of Acting Like a Thief: namely, how are people able to identify Chharas?

Beyond the historic injustices Denotified Tribes (DNTs) faced during the British Colonial period, Chharas (and other DNTs) continue to suffer from ethnic discrimination. Stigmatized as thieves, it is difficult for them to get legitimate jobs in mainstream society. As a last resort, they turn to criminal activity. It is a vicious circle from which only a few are able to escape.

But how do people know they are Chhara? They don’t look noticeably different from the rest of the population, and even if they did, they could easily be from a neighboring state. They speak their own language (Bhantu), but they can speak Gujarati as well as anyone else.
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Ancient People: We are All Modern Now

The oldest cliché in the book, guaranteed to be found in any newspaper article or TV show about indigenous peoples, is the moniker “ancient people” (sometimes “ancient tribe” or “ancient tribal people”, etc.)

What is an “ancient people”?

The idea, I suppose, is that their current practices, social structure, and way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. It is a nice fantasy, but it is almost never true. Further investigation invariably reveals a history of constant change. These include changes that come from the dynamics of so-called “traditional” ways of life, including warfare with neighboring groups, the constant invention of new traditions, changes in food supply, and migration to new ecological environs. It also includes exogenous factors, such as invading armies, trade with other groups, colonialism, and incorporation into the global economy. Often these changes (including incorporation into the global economy) happened a century ago. So long ago that the younger generations have never known any other way of life.

In some extreme cases, the group itself might be a product of colonialism. As Mamdani documents in Citizen and Subject, many so-called “tribes” were invented by European’s in order to simplify colonial administration of rural areas. Fluid and even democratic indigenous practices were replaced with the creation of a tribal “chief” answerable only to colonial authorities – a despot.
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Translation Economy

Via Lorenz, I see that the latest Anthropology News article by Brazilian anthropologist Gustavo Lins Ribeiro is freely available online. In it he seeks to offer an alternative vision of the knowledge economy which breaks down barriers between the various national anthropologies which have emerged over the past century. Although there is some flow from these various national anthropologies to the English speaking world, he would like to see more horizontal flows of knowledge:

We need to foster the visibility of non-metropolitan works of quality and enhance our modes of exchanging information. Translation of different anthropological materials into English is important to help diversify knowledge of the international production of anthropology. But unidirectional translation is not enough. If we want to avoid linguistic monotony, we also need to increase the quantity of heterodox exchanges and translations. German anthropologists should be translated into Japanese, Mexicans into German, Australians into Portuguese, Brazilians into Russian, and so on.

A noble goal, which I wholeheartedly endorse, but it is also necessary to consider just what a tall order this is. It costs the EU a billion dollars a year to translate all official documents into the various member languages. The entire US publishing industry only manages to translate about 330 books a year into English. Volunteer translations on the web can help, but I have yet to see any such site that produces a significant volume of output. For instance, there is a huge gulf between the various language versions of Wikipedia – the one place where we would expect the web to work best in this regard. And we all know just how far machine translation still has to go …

Which isn’t to say that it can’t be done. Government subsidies, better machine translation, and collaborative online software can all help. But for the time being I think we will still depend on individual scholars who have the skills to serve as a bridge across the linguistic divide. We should remind people just how valuable those skills are, and why it is worth the significant time and costs to train scholars in those skills. And not just scholars, but diplomats and our defense forces as well.

Acting Like a Thief

Since I became involved with India’s Denotified Tribes, or DNTs, I’ve been trying to encourage anthropologists to study them. There is have been some good writings about DNTs, but the literature is still relatively sparse. Almost all of it is historical, with very little in the way of contemporary ethnography.

So I’m proud to announce the release of Acting Like a Thief! A short documentary film I shot and co-produced with Shashwati, who did an amazing job editing it.

Acting Like a Thief
We are releasing the film as a free BitTorrent download for all those tech-savvy people (the less tech-savvy can get a DVD for a $50 donation to our next project). I hope that this short piece will help raise awareness about DNTs and maybe even encourage some grad students who are still thinking about what they might like to research for their dissertation. If you think you might like to do such research, please contact me and I can help arrange some introductions.

Science vs. science

In a recent post I suggested that those promoting traditional forms of knowledge should not seek to claim scientific legitimacy, but instead should generally educate people better about the basis of scientific knowledge, thus displacing the exalted status we give to Science (with a capital “S”). These ideas are approached from a very different angle in an intriguing post by labor activist and prolific blogger Nathan Newman, who in a recent post about the Scopes trial points out that the actual history and context of the trial was somewhat different than the theatrical version we get from Inherit the Wind.

It turns out that, although populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan conflated the two and brought religion into the equation as well, much of his anger was actually directed at eugenics, not evolution:
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Vanishing Race and the Ethnographic Present

BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow recently discovered the Library of Congress’ extensive collection of Edward Curtis photographs. Since this means that thousands of people will now be looking at those images, I think it is important to discuss how they were made.

The anthropological term the ethnographic present refers to the artificial construction of a time before contact with European culture, and is best illustrated by this Far Side cartoon:


Curtis worked very hard to construct such an ethnographic present in his photographs.
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Wars and Words

A little horn tooting:

My Language in Society book review on both At war with words and War of words: Language, politics and 9/11 has finally been published!

Here’s the abstract:

Daniel Nelson writes that “we talk our way into war and talk our way out of it” (Dedaic & Nelson [henceforth DN], p. 449). Drawing on a diverse array of methodological and theoretical perspectives and an equally wide range of subject matters, Mirjana Dedaic and Daniel Nelson’s edited volume on the role of language in war, and the effects of war on language, is a sprawling, perhaps unwieldy collection that opens up a number of important avenues of investigation in this gravely important but as yet undefined field of study. Sandra Silberstein focuses her book much more narrowly on the language of politics and news media in the wake of the September 11 tragedy. Despite their differences, both books address similar themes: (i) declaring war, or the language used by political leaders to justify military action; (ii) propaganda, or the construction of a war narrative by the media, and the use of political discourse to divide populations; (iii) language politics, or how wars shape language policy; and (iv) controlling speech, or the language used to grant or deny legitimacy in political debates. With the exception of language politics, not touched on by Silberstein, these themes are addressed equally by both books.

OK, it isn’t an article, but I’m put a lot of work into it! It was hard to adequately discuss so many different essays in such a short space (one of my criticism of At War With Words is that the material doesn’t all gel together into a coherent volume), and I think I did a good job of it.