Tag Archives: Topics

Disaster Anthropology

I’ve been keeping my Katrina coverage, which has been more political than anthropological, restricted to my own blog, but I see that antropologi.info has a good post about the anthropology of disaster, and other Katrina-related anthropology reports.

This isn’t a subject I know anything about, but if you have suggestions for a disaster anthropology reading list please leave them in the comments. (Ragout already suggested one such article in the comments to a previous post.)

I did begin collecting some articles about the impact of race and class on both the disaster and the media coverage afterwards. I think this is another area where anthropologists can offer some insights, as geographer Craig E. Colten did on NPR.

UPDATE: Here is Craig Colten’s web page, and his new book: An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature. From Amazon.com:

Colten shows how every manipulation of the environment made an impact on the city’s social geography as well—often with unequal, adverse consequences for minorities—and how each still requires maintenance and improvement today.

UPDATE: Here is a web site from the SSRC titled, “Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences.” (Vis Anthropologi.info, where more links can be found.)

Indian Groupies, Authenticity, and Ethnic Anxiety

In the past I’ve been critical of Jack Hitt’s writing for the NY Times about language and culture, but his recent magazine article about recently recognized Native American tribes is quite good:

Ethnicity is a tricky thing because it is commonly understood as something fixed and essential rather than what it more likely is: an unarticulated negotiation between what you call yourself and what other people are willing to call you back. Geniusz has lived her life culturally among the Ojibwe and is recognized by them as an Indian. Her easy comfort at calling herself an Indian comes in part because everyone in her area recognizes the essential Indian life she has led. Her physically European features are, in this part of Michigan at least, understood as only marginally curious.

The way the ethnic negotiation works depends on what part of the country you are located in. Native Americans recognize that there exists a kind of spectrum. At one end there are Indians living on a well-established Western reservation in a tribe that is branded as seriously authentic — Hopi, say — where many in the tribe retain the classic Indian physical characteristics. Moving along, you encounter various tribes that have intermarried a lot — like the Ojibwe — yet whose members still feel a powerful sense of authenticity. But once you visit tribes of newcomers, where few members knew their Indian ancestors personally, you begin to sense a clawing anxiety of identity. At the far end are hobbyists, those Indian groupies who hang around powwows, hoping to find a native branch in their family tree. They enjoy wearing the traditional tribal garb and are, as the University of Michigan history professor Philip Deloria titled his book, ”Playing Indian.”

Hitt is careful to point out that the whitening of the Native American population was actively promoted by U.S. government policies:

Some Native Americans carry what is called, awkwardly, a white card, officially known as a C.D.I.B., a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. This card certifies a Native American’s ”blood quantum” and can be issued only after a tribe has been cleared by a federal subagency.

The practice of measuring Indian blood dates to the period just after the Civil War when the American government decided to shift its genocide policy against the Indians from elimination at gunpoint to the gentler idea of breeding them out of existence. It wasn’t a new plan. Regarding Indians, Thomas Jefferson wrote that ”the ultimate point of rest and happiness for them is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people.” When this idea was pursued bureaucratically under President Ulysses S. Grant, Americans were introduced to such phrases as ”half breed” and ”full blood” as scientific terms. In a diabolical stroke, the government granted more rewards and privileges the less Indian you were. For instance, when reservation lands were being broken up into individual land grants, full-blooded Indians were ruled ”incompetent” because they didn’t have enough civilized blood in them and their lands were administered for them by proxy agents. On the other hand, the land was given outright to Indians who were half white or three-quarters white. Here was the long-term catch: as Indians married among whites and gained more privileges, their blood fraction would get smaller, so that in time Indians would reproduce themselves out of existence.

Compounding this federal reward for intermarriage was the generally amicable tradition most tribes had of welcoming in outsiders. From the earliest days of European settlement, whites were amicably embraced by Indian tribes. For instance, the leader of the Cherokee Nation during the forced exile of 1838-39 — the Trail of Tears — was John Ross, often described as being seven-eighths Scottish.

Because phenotypic markers of Indianess are so hard to find among some of the newcomers (who seem to have tremendous anxiety about their own whiteness), language has become a crucial marker of authenticity:

Because it is time-consuming and difficult to learn any language, the commitment it takes to attend one of Wendy Geniusz’s camps or to sign on with Fielding’s work or to participate in any of the widespread Native American language revivals weeds out the easy hobbyists and leaves a cohort of Indians whose authenticity — regardless of genealogy or blood quantum — may one day be hard to question.

Finally, it is also interesting to learn about the various levels of of official recognition that are available for Native American tribes:

The Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama is, according to the University of Oklahoma anthropologist Circe Sturm, one of more than 65 state-recognized tribes, most of which have emerged in the last few decades in the Southeast. State recognition is merely one of many legal mechanisms used to legitimate a Native American tribe. They range from the most difficult — federal recognition, which is required for running a casino — to state and local designations and on to unrecognized groups. (The Cherokees alone account for more than 200 of these recently formed unaffiliated tribes.)

And no, it is isn’t about cashing in on casino money, very few of these new groups qualify for casinos, and those who do are very restrictive about who can be a member.

The only quibble I have with the article is the implication that academics used to treat ethnicity as some kind of a fixed quantity but now recognize it as more mutable and negotiated. Anthropologists have understood the mutable nature of ethnic identity at least as far back as Boas. And, although it falls outside the scope of the article, if I were teaching this topic in a class I would want to point out how in South Africa or Brazil the links between race and ethnicity are conceived of quite differently than they are in the United States.


There’s the old joke about the guy looking for his keys under the lamplight because, even though that’s not where he lost his keys, the light’s better there. I feel that way about studies of I.Q.. When critics, like Howard Gardner, object that such measurements fail to capture important aspects of thought, psychometricians reply that concepts like Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” don’t produce the same kind of “stable” test results they get from I.Q. tests, so they need to keep using I.Q.! It strikes me that what we have here is a concept that has been perpetuated in order to legitimate the continued existence of a discipline, and of a testing regime, rather than because it tells us anything important about the mental abilities of those tested.

I’ve been looking at this issue because four of the top political bloggers (Atrios, De Long, Kevin Drum, and Matt Yglesias) have ganged up on Andrew Sullivan for his recent endorsement of the central tenants of The Bell Curve. As a result of all these posts we get a great list of online articles debunking the book, to which I’ve added a few more and grouped them all here for your reference. The critiques vary in whether or not they accept the notion of I.Q.. Some accept it, but claim it isn’t genetic, others accept a genetic component, but deny that this correlates with race, while others (like Howard Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould) are more critical of the very notions of intelligence that are supposedly being measured in the first place.

  • Thomas Sowell’s American Spectator article, in which he discusses the “the work of James R. Flynn, who found substantial increases in mental test performances from one generation to the next in a number of countries around the world.” Findings which disprove any link between genetics and I.Q. (originally linked in this DeLong post, and metioned in Matt’s post as well.)
  • Nicholas Lemann’s debunking in Slate: “What Herrnstein and Murray used to measure IQ is actually a measure of education as well as intelligence.” (also from Matt.)
  • Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns.” The report by the American Psychological Association which I make fun of above, but which is well worth reading – especially with regard to whether there is any link between intelligence and race. (via Kevin Drum.)
  • Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis 2002 paper, “The Inheritance of Inequality” [PDF] which debunks the notion that social inequality is genetic. (via Brad DeLong, who has a summary of the findings.)
  • Howard Gardner’s critique of The Bell Curve in The American Prospect, in which he elaborates on the limitations of I.Q.
  • Two defenses of I.Q.: One by Linda S. Gottfredson in Scientific American, and another by Christopher F. Chabris in Commentary.
  • Responses by Flynn, Gardner, and others to the article by Chabris.
  • Wikipedia pages on The Bell Curve, Race and Intelligence, IQ, the Flynn Effect, Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man, and Howard Gardner’s concept of Multiple Intelligences.

Perceptions of Asian Perception

A recent AP news story (discovered thanks to Photoethnography.com) claims that “Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time science has attempted to prove the uniqueness of the Asian mind. There was Swarthmore President Alfred Bloom’s 1981 book, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought which claimed:

that the lack of a subjunctive tense in Chinese made it extremely difficult for native speakers to explore “counterfactual” conceits (for example: if Gisele were fat, she wouldn’t be a supermodel).

When Mr. Bloom tested Chinese and American students on a series of counterfactuals, he found that the Chinese students were typically unable to distinguish between events that really happened and false hypotheticals. The implication, Mr. Bloom argued, is that Chinese is more concrete than English, and, as a consequence, Chinese speakers have more trouble with abstract thought than Americans.

However, his research methodology was seriously flawed. In fact, poor translation may have been the problem:

Terry Kit-Fong Au, a native Chinese speaker and psychologist at Harvard, did not take kindly to this linguistic slight of his presumed powers of reasoning. He repeated Bloom’s experiment with one crucial change: he asked Chinese bilinguals to translate an idiomatic Chinese version of the story into English. With this translation his results were in the reverse direction from Bloom’s. Only 60% of American high school students who read the nonidiomatic versions understood the counterfactual, whereas 97% of Au’s monolingual Chinese subjects who were given an idiomatic Chinese version grasped the significance of the counterfactual.

More recently, there have been claims that Japanese have unique brains as a result of their language.

A lot of these discussions invoke the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Unfortunately, they rarely have anything to do with what Sapir or Whorf actually said.

I can’t get online access to the original scientific article cited by the Associated Press story for another six months, so I can’t tell if what we have here is poor science or (more likely) simply poor reporting. But I have a big problem with the conceptual leap taken between the following two statements:

The researchers, led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett, tracked the eye movements of the students — 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese — to determine where they were looking in a picture and how long they focused on a particular area.

“They literally are seeing the world differently,” said Nisbett, who believes the differences are cultural.

There is a big difference between how we see pictures and how we see the world. I am ready to accept that there are cultural differences (perhaps dependent upon our various traditions of visual representation) that affect how we “read” a picture, but I’m not sure that these translate into differences in how we see the world – or even what that might mean.

Paul Messaris’ 1994 book, Visual “Literacy”: Image, Mind, and Reality has a fairly good discussion of the state of scientific research on reading images at that time. He is primarily concerned with debunking the myth that people who have never seen a picture need to be taught how to understand visual representations. Accordingly, he recounts several studies which suggest that understanding two dimensional, black-and-white representations of the world, even abstract ones, is fairly intuitive. He highlights how such issues as the materials used and the nature of the images being portrayed can have a huge impact on reader’s ability to interpret an image.

A 1960 by William Hudson study found South African miners having difficulty interpreting smaller animals in the background as being further away; however, his study turned out to suffer from many of the same problems as Bloom’s study of Chinese counterfactuals:

The Africa depicted in these pictures — a loincloth-wearing, spear-carrying hunter in a landscape populated by big game — might still have been a reality in some parts of the continent when the research of Hudson and his successors was taking place, but it seems doubtful that the kinds of people who were actually studied in this research — South African mine laborers, Ugandan farmers — would have much direct contact at all with such situations. On the contrary, it is possible that, for many Africans, familiarity with that particular version of Africa may actually be more likely to occur secondhand – for example, through pictorial media.

Consequently, those subjects who were more experienced with pictures might also have had greater previous experience with the kind of hunting scene depicted in Hudson’s pictures, and this familiarity, rather than knowledge of pictorial codes, might account for their superior ability to form an integrated, three-dimensional percept. Data supportive of this possibility occurred in the Kilbride and Robbins study (1969), in which 10 percent of the rural residents accurately identified the picture of the elephant as that of a large animal but were apparently uncertain as to the exact nature of the animal, calling it a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, and so on. This uncertainty is consistent with the fact that the only large animal likely to be found in their own immediate environment would be a cow.

So, when Japanese and American’s are asked to look at underwater scenes and Japanese spend more time describing the background, it may not be because of “differences in perception go back at least 2,000 years,” it may just be something simple – like the fact that Americans eat a lot less seafood and aren’t used to seeing pictures of fish. It may also be that differences which have been observed in eye movement when reading Chinese and English may account for different habits of visually scanning a printed page – whether text or image; but these differences might not necessarily reflect how we visually scan the real world around us.


In a comment on my last post Alexandre wrote:

Despite the fact that online communication can be as rich if not richer than face-to-face communication, many anthros favour the latter over the former…

Now Alexandre, a fellow linguistic anthropologist, has some interesting things to say about why anthropologists might prefer face-to-face communication, but I don’t want to discuss those here. Instead, I want to suggest that the whole face-to-face vs. online binary opposition needs to be rethunk.

Let me just discuss shopping – something I do both online and face-to-face. Just the other day we went to the local hardware store. While getting balloons for a party we overheard discussions about the proper way to lay poison for carpenter ants, what the best kind of drill was for a certain task, and we even got advice on which color ribbons would be best to use. We also learned intangible things about life here from people’s body language, their manner of speech, etc. And, at the most basic level, we had an experience that we value – interacting with our fellow human beings.

Now, I think we would all agree that something would have been lost from an online purchase. True, Amazon does offer recommendations, and there are plenty of services that offer all kinds of meta-data that might simulate, or even improve upon the kinds of overheard conversations we might hear in the hardware store, but even after all that we feel that something we value, contact with our fellow human beings, has been lost. Not to mention all that rich ethnographic data we pick up consciously or unconsciously, whether we are trained to do so or not.

But lets look at another shopping experience. Not the village hardware store, but Target. I had at least two face-to-face interactions at Target: asking where to locate an item, and checking out. Both were brief, purely informational, and completely unmemorable. True, they didn’t need to be this way. I’ve seen people go out of their way to make service encounters more personal. I’m just not that type.

Similarly, while the local store might give you interaction with the shopkeeper, you still have no interaction with the producer. The internet now allows you to buy certain items directly from the producer, without a middleman. I haven’t used these services, but I can imagine situations where one might have meaningful interaction with a farmer or craftsman not possible at either a large chain shop or the village store. So while something has been lost from the face-to-face experience of the village store, a whole new type of relationship between consumer and producer has been created.

And, finally, another example from a very different realm. Tonight I’m going to engage in a political protest with people I’ve mostly never met. I’m going to do that right outside the village store I just spoke about. But I didn’t find out about this protest at the village store. I found out about it by putting my zip code into an online form. Here the internet is facilitating new forms of face-to-face communication. It is easy to think of some other examples – like flash mobs, but my favorite is blogging. I’ve already met a lot of real world friends through blogging. And I hope to meet some of my fellow anthropology bloggers at this year’s AAA in Washington, DC.

So, while I think everyone agrees that there is something we value about face-to-face communication which we miss online, there are two things to remember: First, different types of real-world institutions facilitate very different kinds of face-to-face interactions, not all of them positive. And, secondly, in addition to offering alternative modes of interaction (for better or for worse), the internet is also an important tool for facilitating real-world face-to-face interaction.

The Rest of the World

vanishing point

Vanishing Point consists of a map of the world connected to a database fed by news coming from several international newspapers. The visibility of each country on the map results from the quantity of media coverage the country receives, so those countries that do not make the news disappear progressively.

Some countries, such as Taiwan, are completely invisible:

vp Taiwan

While others are (not surprisingly), well covered in the newspapers of the seven most industrialized nations.

vp USA

Fortunately, thanks to the internet, we are no longer so dependent on such limited news sources. Still, while we have access to thousands of newspapers from all over the world, language remains a barrier. That’s where sites like Global Voices can step in and fill the gap. Ethan Zuckerman calls the bloggers linked to in the Global Voices news aggregator, “bridge bloggers.” These are bloggers who are able to cross not only a linguistic divide, but also a cultural one. As he wrote in an article for Anthropology News [AAA members only]:

Bridge bloggers have one foot in each of two worlds: the world they live in and the one their readers inhabit. To convey events and ideas to a global audience, authors need to speak in a language—literally and figuratively—that a global audience can understand. It’s unsurprising that most bridge bloggers have lived and worked abroad, or are expatriates writing about their adopted country.

Zuckerman encourages anthropologists to blog precisely because they are often perfectly suited to exactly such a task. However, not all anthropologists are interested in explaining “their people” to the rest of the world. Some, like Alireza, have chosen to no longer blog in English, opting to blog only in Persian. While others, like this Norwegian anthropologist, have made a conscious decision to blog in English.

In the end, I’m not sure how much of a difference it will make. For highly motivated people, the information is out there and sites like Global Voices can be a useful tool. But most of the most popular blogs are still narrowly focused on information technology (with a concomitant obsession with the ever-exotic high-tech Japanese), or with American politics (and, justifiably, Iraq). Moreover, “bridge bloggers” often only cross national boundaries – not those boundaries of class, race and gender that often divide us within countries. True, there are some homeless bloggers (now in subsidized housing!), but I’m sure a map of the United States divided by class would show as much invisibility at the bottom as one sees in Africa on the Vanishing Point map.

(Thanks to Mike of Ishbaddidle for the link!)

UPDATE: Here is a link to an earlier post I wrote about various ways of mapping the news. And here is a new site that lets you see the front page of thousands of newspapers (also thanks to Mike).

UPDATE: World Changing points out that Ethan Zuckerman had himself tried doing something similar, drawing on the BBC, although he discontinued it last year.

Brain Boy

When writing my previous post about the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives, I came across the web page of the director, Robert Leopold. On his page he has a link to a page from the 1960s comic book, Brain Boy:


Here is Robert’s description:

He’s a dashing young man with extraordinary powers, an under-cover agent for a clandestine branch of the Secret Service called the Organization of Active Anthropologists. If you read comic books in the early ’60s, you know him as Brain Boy, the studious superhero who appeared in six full-length color comics published by Dell between 1962 and 1963.

Brain Boy was versatile, battling Latin American dictators and extraterrestrials between the covers of a single issue — and always in a suit and tie.

Sounds like the comic book version of “Anthropologists as Counter-Insurgents.”

UPDATE: The B-Log has more.

National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives

The National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives collect and preserve historical and contemporary anthropological materials that document the world’s cultures and the history of the discipline. Their collections represent the four fields of anthropology – ethnology, linguistics, archaeology, and physical anthropology – and include manuscripts, fieldnotes, correspondence, photographs, maps, sound recordings, film and video created by Smithsonian anthropologists and other preeminent scholars.

They also have a blog (well, it has an RSS feed – but no permalinks…) telling you what’s new in the collection. Recently announced is an effort to “digitize 8,000 pages of Cherokee language manuscripts.” The site also has a few online exhibits, including this one of Lakota Winter Counts.

The Representation of Aborigines in Taiwanese Baseball

This is the third in a series of Savage Minds posts on sports and ethnic representation. The first was Oneman’s post on ethnic mascots, followed by my earlier post on ethnic soccer clubs in Australia.

This post draws on a 2000 paper (PDF) by Andrew Morris, presented at the conference Remapping Taiwan: Histories and Cultures in the Context of Globalization, as well a more recent (2004) version of Morris’ work, “Baseball, History, the Local and the Global in Taiwan,” which appeared in the book The Minor Arts of Daily Life: Popular Culture in Taiwan.


Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 till the end of World War, when the Nationalists (Guomindang, or KMT) took over. Baseball had become popular under Japanese rule, but managed to survive KMT efforts to de-Japanify the country.
Continue reading

Witchcraft in the Modern World

Via Sepia Mutiny, a Washington Post story about accusations of witchcraft in modern day India. The author, Rama Lakshmi, takes the view that such accusations are really about maintaining patriarchy, and should not be thought of as mere “superstition”:

In a tribal society steeped in superstition, the spells of witches often are blamed for stubborn illnesses, a stroke of bad luck, the drying up of wells, crop failure or the inability to give birth to a son. But social analysts and officials said that superstition and faith in witchcraft often are a ploy for carrying out violence against women.

“Superstition is only an excuse. Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes it is used to punish women who question social norms,” said Pooja Singhal Purwar, an official at the Jharkhand social welfare department.

“Women from well-to-do homes in the village are never branded witches,” Purwar said. “It is always the socially and economically vulnerable women who are targeted and boycotted.”

Unfortunately, the online fulltext version of Mahasveta Devi’s excellent story Bayen has been removed from the web at the request of the publishers. It is an account of how such witchcraft accusations play out in rural India (and like Zora Neal Hurston’s work, it is ethnographically informed). You can find it in the collection: Five Plays.

A book about witchcraft in South Africa, Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy, sees contemporary witchcraft accusations in a very different light. According to this H-Net review by Gary Kynoch (via Anthropologi.info), the book sees witchcraft accusations as an attempt to explain continued suffering even after the demise of the Apartheid state:

Community solidarity has eroded when compared to the unity of the “struggle” years. At the same time, improved opportunities for black South Africans have enabled a significant minority of Sowetans to accumulate material wealth and enjoy a relatively privileged lifestyle. The less fortunate are often bitter at being left behind and rising inequalities have fuelled community and family conflict in the post-apartheid period. Without “the system” to blame, witchcraft is increasingly considered the source of many of these difficulties. The anxiety engendered by the AIDS crisis has further heightened witchcraft fears.

I personally haven’t read anything Anthropological on witchcraft more recent than Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, but I almost feel inspired to create a course syllabus on witchcraft in the contemporary world. Anyone similarly inspired would definitely want to take a look at this MIT Open Courseware syllabus for James Howe’s course: “Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World.”

Finally, I wanted to add one other witchcraft link: to the excellent Museum of Witchcraft in Iceland. I visited this exhibit in 2000, and enjoyed it tremendously. The witchcraft accusations discussed there were mostly in the seventeenth century, where they seem to have been a European import. The most fun part of visiting the exhibit was watching the Icelandic visitors discussing whose ancestors were accusers and whose were the accused (Iceland is a small country and everyone is related).

Around 130 cases of witchcraft or sorcery are found in court records both from the high court at Þingvellir and in fragments of county court records. Of the approximately 170 persons accused around 10% were women, the rest were males, mostly of the lower classes though some sheriffs and clergymen were also accused. None of the latter suffered physical punishments. It must be remembered in this context that the total population of Iceland at the time was only around fifty thousand.

UPDATE: This story from the Telegraph UK just happened to appear today:

A Sicilian palazzo once used as a headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition has been discovered to contain dozens of pieces of graffiti by “witches” condemned to burn at the stake.

The anguished scribblings and drawings were found on the walls during renovation work on the Palazzo Steri in Palermo, reviving what had been a nightmare for the many women held there to await their fate centuries ago.

One of the damned wrote: “Hot and cold I am / as I be consumed by the fever of malaria / my guts do tremble / and mine heart and spirit grow weak.”

Autoethnographic Text

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s 1615 document, Primer nueva coronica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government) is a fascinating document, written by “an ethnic Andean who addressed his 1,200-page work, of which nearly 400 were pen-and-ink drawings of Inca and colonial life, to King Philip II of Spain” with the hope of reforming colonial rule. It was discovered in 1908, sitting forgotten in a library in Copenhagen, and was first published in 1936. Now it is online, thanks to Rolena Adorno at Yale University.

I discovered the site via this post by Language Hat, which points to several excellent essays in English about the history and importance of the document. This one, by Rolena Adorno, offers a good overview:

Guaman Poma’s activities as an investigator and writer are those which hold greatest interest for us today. His reliance on Andean languages and the accounts of the elders who either had survived the Spanish conquest, or had known those who had, gives his accounts of pre-Columbian Andean society an authority found in few other places. His time spent working with colonial church inspectors and civil officers gave him the experience from which to construct an unusually complex view of colonial administration, including its goals at the highest levels and its practices and abuses at the level of the local community. His self-taught knowledge of the European historiographic, juridical and rhetorical traditions reveals the type of Spanish literary and intellectual culture that was available to the native elite.

Language Hat also highlights this article by Mary Louise Pratt which coins the term “autoethnographic text” to refer to “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them.”

Autoethnographic texts are not, then, what are usually thought of as autochthonous forms of expression or self-representation (as the Andean quipus were). Rather they involve a selective collaboration with and appropriation of idioms of the metropolis or the conqueror. These are merged or infiltrated to varying degrees with indigenous idioms to create self-representations intended to intervene in metropolitan modes of understanding. Autoethnographic works are often addressed to both metropolitan audiences and the speakers own community. Their reception is thus highly indeterminate. Such texts often constitute a marginalized groups point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture. It is interesting to think, for example, of American slave autobiography in its autoethnographic dimensions, which in some respects distinguish it from Euramerican autobiographical tradition. The concept might help explain why some of the earliest published writing by Chicanas took the form of folkloric manners and customs sketches written in English and published in English-language newspapers or folklore magazines (see Treviño). Autoethnographic representation often involves concrete collaborations between people, as between literate ex-slaves and abolitionist intellectuals, or between Guaman Poma and the Inca elders who were his informants. Often, as in Guaman Poma, it involves more than one language. In recent decades autoethnography, critique, and resistance have reconnected with writing in a contemporary creation of the contact zone, the testimonio.

Pratt’s essay analyses the ways in which Guaman Poma appropriates and adapts “pieces of the representational repertoire of the invaders” to form his critique of colonial practices.

Pratt’s discussion of the illustrations is also quite interesting:

The genre of the four hundred line drawings is European–there seems to have been no tradition of representational drawing among the Incas–but in their execution they deploy specifically Andean systems of spatial symbolism that express Andean values and aspirations.

The caption for this image reads: “The Inka asks what the Spaniard eats. The Spaniard replies: ‘Gold.'”


Literary Kinship Studies

While there was once a time that anthropological theory influenced literary studies, lately it seems as if the trend has been the other way around; so, can we assume that when literary scholars turn their attention to kinship studies it will spark renewed interest in the subject among anthropologists? The book I’m referring to is: Novel Relations : The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818. It was recently reviewed in a New York Review of Books article on Jane Austen, by Diane Johnson.

Perry’s book shows that Austen lived at a time when women’s status was shifting. While it had previously been defined by blood relations, making a woman’s relationship with her parents and siblings more important than who she married, by the end of the eighteenth century women’s status was increasingly defined entirely by the family she married into. This has important implications for literary studies, since sibling relationships are often overlooked in readings of Austen’s novels:

In Perry’s view, previous definitions of the family have been based on incorrect inferences from statistical norms and prescriptive conduct manuals. Statistics taken from public records of marriages and births ignore “many of the other filaments in the web of kinship that located people psychologically in the period,” because there are no published records of such filaments—a maiden aunt, like Austen living with the family, for example, would not appear in any record. And where modern readers assume that a novel will contain a love story, the main story the author had in mind might in fact be about a bad or good brother, a long-lost relative, fathers separated from daughters, a devoted aunt, or some other aspect of the birth family (with mothers often missing or unimportant, as in Austen). Such elements were more important than love stories in the novels Austen read, like Tristram Shandy or The Castle of Otronto.

… This loss of female authority was accompanied or explained by other social factors that were not in women’s interest: the growing “dispersion of communities, and the growing power of individualism,” and changes in property laws and marriage settlements that left sisters and daughters less well provided for than they had been, and with little legal leverage. Inheritance issues drive most of Jane Austen’s plots and subplots; and because she was on the cusp of changes that would increasingly commodify women and virginity for the marriage market, trends masked by conventions of romantic love, she came to seem to some later readers as somewhat hardhearted in the practicality of her views, for instance (in Perry’s example) her implicit mockery in Sense and Sensibility of Marianne Dashwood’s “ardent belief in a first and only love,” a belief that would have made no sense in an earlier period, when a third of all marriages were second marriages, after the death of a spouse, but was fashionably new in Marianne’s day.

Perry’s elucidation of the plots of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century novels in the light of these broad social changes goes a long way toward explaining why many of them do not move us today; the reunion of long-lost fathers and daughters, for instance, or the intense relation of brother and sister no longer seem especially affecting. The long-lost relative plot simply had more emotional force when the “consanguinal” family rather than the “affinal” family was the principle focus of emotional life (though, thinking of The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner we can see that such consanguinal plots appear at least as late as George Eliot). It may be that the marriage plot itself has seen its day, and in these times of redefined families, plots will change—there is already a spate of family novels and novels about friendship that do not resolve in marriage.

This makes me think about the differences between Hollywood and Bollywood films. In the latter (although it is changing now) familial relations between siblings and between children and their parents are far more important than romantic relations between unmarried men and women. In fact, the main emotional relationship in many Hindi movies is between the male lead and his mother, not between him and the woman he is to marry at the end of the film. I wonder if this (even more than colonial history) explains the love so many Indian’s have of classic English literature?

Bourdieu in Bollywood

No, not a post about French academics dancing in wet saris … In a post over at Sepia Mutiny, Amardeep Singh asks an interesting question about Bollywood* cinema:

Why is physical difference from Indian norms acceptable (or even desirable), while significant linguistic difference is an impossibility?

He is talking about Hindi film actress Katrina Kaif, whose voice has to be overdubbed to hide her English accent when speaking Hindi. This, in itself, is nothing new. In fact, Bollywood has long employed actors from various regions of India, using overdubbing to hide their regional accents. But Amardeep feels that this is different:

But why is Katrina Kaif in Bollywood to begin with? Why is she getting parts? It’s not for her acting ability, which seems pretty minor, at least in Sarkar. I believe she and others are being brought in because they look white.

I don’t hold that against them, but I do question why it’s such a commodity in Bollywood. … Indian actors have always tended to be much lighter-skinned than ordinary Indians, and the projection of ‘western lifestyle’ has been a part of Indian movie mythology for at least 40 years. And it’s always been somewhat troubling to me — a sign of a lingering colonial mentality.

The difference now, in this era of hybridity-globalization, is that the simulacrum of whiteness is approaching perfection.

The oddity is that what is wanted is the physical appearance of whiteness mixed with a classy, sometimes English-inflected, but still authentic Hindi-speaking capability. I find that to be an interesting paradox. The need for good Hindi can be explained as an issue of effective communication with mass audiences, but it doesn’t make the paradox any less real.

Vikrum Sequeira has more on the concept of fair skin in India, but I’d like to get back to Amardeep’s original question. What is the difference between looks and language?

I believe that the answer has to do with the way in which alternative symbolic markets are constructed. In her famous critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, linguistic anthropologist Katherine Woolard pointed out that the official language of the state is not always the dominant language – that alternative linguistic markets can be created which oppose the state sanctioned hierarchy. She uses the example of Catalonia, Spain, where Catalan came to be valued over the dominant Castilian. As Wooldard points out, this is true even of the Castilian speaking workforce. For Woolard, the historical reasons for this lie in “the regional economic dominance of the Catalan bourgeoisie” which survived attempts by the Francoist government to impose “centralized (and increasingly multinational) finance capitalism over the Spanish economy.”

In Bollywood, the truly rich and powerful characters in most films have always spoken English. However, these characters have often been portrayed as untrustworthy. In the 70s they were villains who sold out the interests of their people to big business. Today they are often young people who have lost touch with their values. What we have is the classic case of an alternative linguistic market. While the dominance of English is recognized, a space has been created in which preferring English over Hindi is negatively sanctioned.

Interestingly, the Bollywood elites who make these films are largely cosmopolitan and English speaking. This is not an unusual phenomenon in postcolonial nations. In Taiwan I also found that many advocates for local language rights were similarly cosmopolitan and multilingual. Looking at race can help us better understand this phenomenon.

Amardeep’s question can be rephrased: Why has an alternative market developed in the linguistic sphere, but not in the sphere of personal beauty? I would argue that it is precisely because race is not something that one can so easily change. Sure, there are all kinds of beauty products one can buy to lighten one’s skin. (In Taiwan I have to go out of my way to avoid buying moisturizing cream with bleach in it.) But without Michael Jackson’s wealth, most people cannot change the color of their skin. Now, there have been attempts to create alternative markets in skin color. The whole “Black is Beautiful” movement sought to do just that. The problem such movements often face is that they tend to exclude the elite. India’s English speaking cosmopolitan elite can, if they want, have their children learn enough Hindi to maintain their power in such a marketplace. However, they cannot easily change the color of their skin – and India’s ruling class is still largely “wheatish” in complexion.

*See here for a post on the origin of the word “Bollywood.”

What’s wrong with Yali’s Question

I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show last night. Its all on TiVo, but I’m finding it hard to sit and watch – it is a rather painfully made show. So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly: peering out windows, looking at maps, walking back and forth, etc. Ugh! And do they really need to work the title of his book into every other sentence? I mean, in the first episode they don’t even get up to the invention of guns…

The show is framed by the motif of “Yali’s Question.” Yali is portrayed as some local guy (he looks like a worker) whom JD bumps into on the beach one day and asks him:

Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

But Yali isn’t just some guy on the beach. He’s a politician. This isn’t JD’s fault. Here is what he says in the book:

I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the district then.

But I can’t completely absolve JD for this portrayal. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong about the very question he is asking.

The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come so different?

By framing the question in this way, the show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although we are told that there are intelligent people from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter gatherers, or poor farmers. While the show does show the hubub of urban New Guinea at the end, one would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.

This gets to the fundamental problem I have with JD’s question. While it is interesting and important to ask why technologies developed in some countries as opposed to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do! Both New Guinea and the United States are far more unequal (by some measures) than is India. Moreover, inequality throughout the world is increasing more rapidly now than every before.

Although it is a contentious argument, economist Amartya Sen argues that inequality within countries can be more important than inequality between countries. I’ve collected a bunch of writings about this question on my wiki, and there was some lively discussion about it in response to this earlier Savage Minds post. But the main point Sen makes is that people in societies that are objectively poorer, but less unequal live longer than people who are objectively wealthier, but at the bottom rungs of a more unequal society. It doesn’t help to have more cargo if you can’t afford the dental work necessary to meet new standards of beauty. (Read this post about a US woman who couldn’t get promoted because of her teeth.)

Yes, it is interesting to know the environmental constraints societies have struggled against over the course of history, but it is a mistake to see this as an explanation of contemporary inequality.

To take a recent example, Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria, and their collective wealth would be enough to give them plenty of “cargo” …

So, no offense to Yali, but his question should be:

Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?

Once you frame the question that way, environmental factors seem rather incidental.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, points out that I overstated my case with the Nigeria example. However, I still think my overall argument still stands. The comparative wealth of Nigeria is less important for my point than the inequitable distribution of that wealth within Nigeria.

I would also add that the poor farming conditions DeLong speaks of are partially a result of the oil economy:

During the oil boom, Nigeria’s small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities’ industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth.

UPDATE: My discussion with Professor DeLong continues in the comments section of this post – which also has links to discussion on other sites.

Culture Talk

According to Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, author of the book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Americans are trapped in “Culture Talk,” a way of framing the problem of terrorism which assumes that culture was made

only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artifacts?

There are two versions of Culture Talk: the crude view that Islam as the enemy civilization, and a more subtle view of Islam as divided within itself (although this division is seen as unchanging over the course of Muslim history since the middle ages). Mamdani ascribes the first view to Samuel Huntington, whose 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” is widely cited by proponents of this view. However, Mamdani argues that Huntington’s article was little more than a caricature of Bernard Lewis’s 1990 “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” This earlier article forms the basis of the more nuanced version of Culture Talk.

Lewis both gestures towards history and acknowledges a clash within civilizations. … But Lewis writes of Islamic civilization as if it were a veneer with its essence an unchanging doctrine in which Muslims are said to take refuge in times of crisis.

Lewis ignores the important political and historical contexts of fourteen hundred years of history when he writes:

The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.

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