Tag Archives: Class

The Nuclear Option: For Anthropologists Who Have Considered Humor When the Drive to Modernity is Not Enough

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Donna Goldstein as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Donna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She is the author of  Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (University of California Press). She is currently writing about pharmaceutical politics, bioethics, regulation, and neoliberalism in Argentina and the United States, and is investigating the history of genetics, Cold War science, the health of populations, and the future of nuclear energy in Brazil.]

“Going through the Brazilian Portal. Hold on! We are heading into Porto Frade, a gated community of the rich and wealthy! Everything functions here!” These are the words of my Brazilian research co-pilot, Nelson Novaes Pedroso Junior, during our recent field excursion to Angra dos Reis to explore perceptions of risk and the role of the nuclear energy plants in the region. Together with doctoral candidate Meryleen Mena, our research team entered Porto Frade, a securitized community not far from the Angra I and II nuclear complex in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is a gated community and a world of yachts, million dollar homes, mostly empty streets (in March of 2015, at least), and security apparati just within the five-kilometer mark of the emergency evacuation plan of the nuclear plant.

Yacht Porto Frade
Porto Frade. Photo by Donna Goldstein.

This is not only a less well-known Monaco or Sausalito, but also a community of second homes that are underutilized by their wealthy Brazilian owners. The homes are perfect, the gardens well-kept, and the yachts are supersized. In Porto Frade you can find restaurants with French names and menus that would please the most discerning cosmopolitan foodie. If I had no social conscience at all, I could probably have enjoyed my late Saturday lunch that much more. But knowing a tiny bit more about the broader context made enjoyment somewhat difficult. One needs a good sense of humor and sense of the absurd to work in Brazil and to write about its contradictions. Continue reading

Learning from Stuart Hall: the Limit as Method

(Here’s a guest post from Sareeta Amrute. Sareeta is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. She is currently completing her first book, Encoding Race, Encoding Class: an Ethnography of Indian IT Workers in Berlin (Duke U. Press). You can read more about her scholarship on her website)

Stuart Hall’s work is notable for the way it links biography, critique from within and of the ‘Left’, and a Marxian analysis of capitalism and popular culture. Hall passed away in February 2014, and is the subject of a series of talks on his life and work ongoing here in Seattle at the University of Washington. These remembrances inspired me to think more closely about Stuart Hall’s specific contribution to research methodology. Hall uses two sense of the limit to ground his research. First, he thinks through limit cases to question a given theorization. Second, he thinks at the limit to uncover what is not yet know about a particular case. The limit as research methodology has, to my mind, a very anthropological sensibility about it, since it uses empirical cases to talk back to establish categories, and at the same time, keeps newly developed conceptualizations open-ended. Continue reading

The first MOOC was a book

There is some interesting discussion happening right now about Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. I think a lot of it conflates education with universities as an institution of learning. To better untangle some of this it is helpful to think about earlier changes in communications technology and how they changed learning. To that end, I’d like to discuss an article by my thesis advisor, F. Niyi Akinnaso (1992): “Schooling, Language, and Knowledge in Literate and Nonliterate Societies.”

Akinannso’s article questions the casual equation of formal learning with literacy. He shows how Yoruba traditions in Nigeria associated with Ifá divination have many of the same features we associate with formal learning, even though it is an entirely oral tradition. There are schools, exams, and, importantly for the present discussion, a process of socialization into the use of texts (whether those texts be written down or memorized). He compares the training of diviners to Peter Burke’s description of the training of Catholic priests in early modern Italy:

During the course of their training, these professionals develop special exegetical abilities and become speakers of the appropriate language of authority.These attributes and the specialized knowledge they have acquired become the chief source of their power in society.

The point being that these functions of the university (or seminary) as an institution can be fulfilled separately from the technology of literacy.

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Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading

Rorschach Test


The Henry Louis Gates Jr. affair (“gatesgate”) seems to be some kind of national rorschach test. Gates has portrayed it “as a modern lesson in racism and the criminal justice system.” Or as put more eloquently by Stanley Fish: “The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?” (Fish also ties this question to the media frenzy over Obama’s birth certificate.) But others have seen it as a class issue: “He isn’t outraged because he feels he was the victim of racial profiling by the police… He’s outraged because he was the victim of class profiling.” Rush Limbaugh takes a similar approach, as does the National Review. Or even (albeit much less convincingly) gender: “would any of this have happened if the major players had been women?” (Um, don’t you watch COPS?)

But it doesn’t stop with class/race/gender. It is also an issue of civil liberties: “the thing about all of this that creeps me out the most is that so many people are willing to defend this officer who…arrested a guy because he didn’t like his attitude.” Or, “professionalism“: “By telling Gates to come outside, Crowley establishes that he has lost all semblance of professionalism. It has now become personal and he wants to create a violation of 272/53 [the statute authorizing prosecutions for disorderly conduct].”

As mentioned above, most mainstream right-wing pundits seem to be taking the “elitist” tact on this case, but some go even further, arguing that it is reverse-racism: “All he has is a collection of prejudices about the group to which the officer belonged: white police officers. And based on that collection of prejudices, Gates leapt to a conclusion — this police officer is a racist.” Others on the right seem eager to reduce the story to a personal narrative, emphasizing how the cop, “James Crowley has taught a class about racial profiling for five years…”

I don’t get the impression that it is a case which has attracted quite as much attention outside the United States, certainly not here in Taiwan, but I could be wrong. I’d be very curious to hear from our readers how this incident has been portrayed elsewhere.

(Thanks to Carole McGranahan for pointing out the “personal narrative” angle.)

UPDATE: Charles Blow has more on the different experiences of race in the United States and how they affect how one is likely to interpret this story:

Whether one thinks race was a factor in this arrest may depend largely on the prism through which the conflicting accounts are viewed. For many black men, it’s through a prism stained by the fact that a negative, sometimes racially charged, encounter with a policeman is a far-too-common rite of passage.

UPDATE: Another “professional” frame, this one saying that shooting someone for asserting their constitutional rights (instead of obeying immediately) is, in fact, what one should expect from a well-trained police officer:

He is instead concerned with protecting his mortal hide from having holes placed in it where God did not intend. And you, if in asserting your constitutional right to be free from unlawful search and seizure fail to do as the officer asks, run the risk of having such holes placed in your own.

UPDATE: Over at anthropoliteia, a blog devoted to the anthropology of policing, Jeff Martin says this is a teachable moment:

To focus discussion of the event onto the cultural dynamics by which larger issues are made relevant to social action, we can usefully borrow Marshall Sahlins’ concept of the “symbolic relay,” i.e. symbols which are deployed to “endow the opposing local parties with collective identities and the opposing collectives with local or interpersonal sentiments.

Whereas Radly Balko says “If there’s a teachable moment to extract from Gates’ arrest, it’s that arrest powers should be limited to actual crimes.” And Tenured Radical says that what he learned living in an integrated neighborhood “is that white people put black people in danger every day.” Meanwhile, the police released a recording of the phone call to the police placed by the white neighbor.

Reforming Community College Education: David Brooks on Obama’s Community College Plan

There has been a lot of talk about Obama’s recent commitment to community college education. The plan, outlined here, calls for increased community college graduation, funding for innovation in educational strategies and techniques for increasing completion rates, increased partnerships between community colleges and businesses, modernized facilities, and the development of online courses (interestingly to be created and distributed by the Department of Defense).

I don’t really know enough to evaluate all the elements of the plan — from a cursory glance, it looks like it will be a helpful in certain areas, overall doing little but doing little harm, as well. It’s not the kind of massive educational reform we need at the community college level (and even more at the university level, and still more at the K-12 level), but I see little reason to be against it.

Except for this: David Brooks supports it. And David Brooks’ track record is perfect: he’s never been right about anything. I mean, he gets details right here and there — there is a president named “Obama”, there are community colleges, students do indeed exist — but not always (e.g. the famous “you can’t get a meal over $20 in this small town” deal, to which the town’s residents replied “well, you could try one of the restaurants”) and on the Big Picture he is just stunningly, spectacularly… off. Now wrong, per se, just off.

Don’t get me wrong — I like David Brooks. He makes me laugh. He has never had a conversation with a working class person that hasn’t made him an expert on all things working class (which is probably why he has limited his interaction with real working class people to just one or two — he doesn’t need any more!). He writes with verve and style and a kind of friendly helpfulness that I find endearing. Just because the man’s wrong about everything doesn’t mean he’s not likable.

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AAVE is Tangible and Irrefutable Evidence of Difference

Tomorrow I’m teaching my Taiwanese students about Black English, also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics. For this I’m using Chapter 9 of Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent, which contains her essay, “The Real Trouble with Black English.”

In re-reading the following passage I found myself thinking about the whole Reverend Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle.

in spite of many years of empirical study which is established AAVE as a normally functioning spoken human language, its very existence is often doubted and denied by African and European-Americans alike. The real trouble with black English is not the verbal aspect system which distinguishes it from other varieties of US English, or the rhetorical strategies which draw such a vivid contrast, it is simply this: AAVE is tangible and irrefutable evidence that there is a distinct, healthy, functioning African-American culture which is not white and which does not want to be white. This is a state of affairs which is unacceptable to many. James Baldwin who wrote and spoke so eloquently on the issues at the heart of the racial divide in this country, put it quite simply: “the value [of] a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people”

Social Life of Swimming Pools

Anyone whose flown over the US has seen the sight: rows of houses each with their own little swimming pool in the back. I was particularly struck by this after I returned from a trip to Iceland which has an amazing system of public pools and hot springs. I’ve heard Germany’s system is also very good. At the time I chalked it up to American individualism and suspicion of anything “communal,” (hence potentially communist), but what I didn’t know at the time was the role played by racism. I discovered this connection via an NPR story about the book Contested Waters, a social history of community swimming pools in several northern cities in the US.

At its heart, this book answers that question. It explains how and why municipal swimming pools in the northern United States were transformed from austere public baths—where blacks, immigrants, and native-born white laborers swam together, but men and women, rich and poor, and young and old did not—to leisure resorts, where practically everyone in the community except black Americans swam together.

But the story does not end there. A second social transformation occurred at municipal swimming pools after midcentury. Black Americans challenged segregation by repeatedly seeking admission to whites-only pools and by filing lawsuits against their cities. Eventually, these social and legal protests desegregated municipal pools throughout the North, but desegregation rarely led to meaningful interracial swimming. When black Americans gained equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools.

Slightly related: even though Taiwan is an island with numerous rivers and streams and even public swimming pools, many people can’t swim. Each year many drown as a result. I know many girls don’t like to swim because they don’t like to spend too much time in the sun, which could “ruin” the pale white complexions they work so hard to maintain, and if the girls aren’t swimming I suppose the boys are much less interested as well… (Many of my female students also equate getting muscles from exercise with getting “fat.”) So I was glad to hear that my university instituted a policy requiring all students to pass a swimming test in order to graduate.

The Impact of Real Colonialism on Colonialism “Lite”

Arlene Goldbard has a scathing, and I believe justified, attack on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Case for Contamination.” She writes:

Much of his work has opposed the idea that we are limited by arbitrary facts of identity –race, sexual orientation, and so on — which tend to become dictates; instead, he asserts the individual’s freedom from all imposed categories. From the perspective of individual liberty, I agree.

… But in his Times essay, Appiah elaborates an entire cultural policy based on nothing more than the individual’s right to make his own path by walking through the cultures of the world.

The Appiah article is an extended attack on UNESCO’s “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.”

Appiah sets up a straw man to stand in for those who endorse the Convention. He calls them purists and compares their relationship to cultures under pressure from globalization to the anxious “assistant on the film set who’s supposed to check that the extras in a sword-and-sandals movie aren’t wearing wristwatches.” He says (without a shred of evidence) that those concerned to preserve cultures want to force people to “maintain their ‘authentic’ ways,” a goal I have never heard anyone espouse (and I am moderately well-informed on this subject). And he dismisses those who feel their own cultures are threatened by globalization as merely expressing discomfort with change: “[T]he world, their world, is changing, and some of them don’t like it.”

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A Thin Hypothesis About Fat People

Ampersand at Alas, a Blog takes on some recent research about obesity and dieting, shredding to pieces some of the myths that persist about the health effects of being fat. Despite all the efforts of the diet industry — a $30 billion a year industry according to NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), making it bigger than Hollywood, pro sports, even porn — clinical research repeatedly shows no benefit from dieting (except in specific cases such as diabetes). What’s more, losing weight — any amount of weight, at any time in your life — significantly increases the likelihood of death. In fact, it appears that “healthy” people actually have a higher mortality rate than “unhealthy” fat people — that is, people with lower BMIs (body mass indexes) are more likely to die than even people who are significantly overweight!
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Ongoing Labor Issues at the AAA

Robert O’Brien has posted the first update to the AAA-UNITE web site since July. In it he addresses several labor-related issues affecting the AAA. These include, banning Coke from being served at AAA events, supporting the rights of graduate employees, and protesting the decision to use Gannett presses to print Anthropology News. He urges discussion either in the comments to his post, or on the AAA-UNITE e-mail list. Please read the whole thing for more details.

Sidney Mintz it aint, but…

The New Yorker has a brief “talk of the town” piece about an academic studying Starbucks. It caught my eye because as a grad student, doing fieldwork at hospitals in Boston, I spent a lot of down time in Starbucks thinking about just such a project, every time I witnessed two starbucks employees debate the best way to bilk the Mass. welfare system, or discuss how “fair trade” was not revolutionary, etc. Unfortunatley, most of what this particular history professor seems to be doing is simply going to Starbucks, and occasionally counting the number of patrons, or observing the demographic mix–hardly fieldwork.

I like the idea of a Mintz-esque study of the political economic transformation that Starbucks has wrought–to say nothing of their successful introduction of real coffee to the furthest reaches of America–but I guess I’ll have to wait, or do it myself. But even when I was contemplating such a project, I ultimately decided that if one were serious about a corporate anthropology, or an anthropology of corporations, one would proceed directly to Wal-Mart, without passing go, without collecting $200. Where else could one satisfy one’s pleasure in discovering the exotic in 1300 locales in 10 countries?

The Most Dangerous Ideas

Edge, the onine community of “third culture” advocates (the “third culture” is meant to be a bridge of sorts between traditional science and the humanities — in practice, it is largely an invasion of traditionally humanist concerns by scientifistic methods and theories), has released their Annual Question: “What is your dangerous idea?”. Last year’s question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” produced some really great musings on the nature of science and knowledge, but despite my respect for many of the participants (though I admit that Stephen J. Gould’s presence at Edge is sorely missed), after having dipped into a random-ish sample of contributions, I find this year’s contributions somewhat predictable and even humdrum.

Of course, as far as I can tell, there’s no anthropologists on Edge’s “council” of scientific thinkers (I may have missed one or two — there’s a lot of people associated with Edge), and the handling of culture overall tends to be a little sloppy, with a lot of reductionism and not a lot of nuance. Which is maybe why it makes sense that Steven Pinker would think his contribution — “Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments” — might actually be a dangerous idea. Pinker notes that ideas relating to sex and race differences are widely perceived to be dangerous, citing for example the villification of Harvard president Larry Summers after last year’s comments on women’s under-representation in the sciences. However, I don’t find this to be a very dangerous idea at all — an uncomfortable one, perhaps, but one that most people hold to some degree or other. I would consider dangerous an idea whose ramifications had the potential to drastically alter the way society is structured, and I don’t see that the assumption of innate differences between groups would have that effect. Given the centrality of such assumptions in the history of the modern world, I think it’s fair to say that Pinker’s “dangerous idea” fits quite comfortably with the status quo — it is after all the idea that many of our social institutions are built on.

In fact, I think a far more dangerous idea is that people do not differ genetically on a group basis, at least not in any significant way. Of course, I side with the effort Pinker dismisses with his straw man description of those who would “reengineer” the “intellectual landscape” to rule out hypotheses about race, intelligence, innate predelictions, and so on a priori. But consider the ramifications of an absolute equality of talent, potential, temperament across the human species: if all humans are innately equal in their potential to succeed and to make meaningful contributions to their societies, then the fact of poverty, of small-mindedness, of difference itself has to be explained as cultural, which is to say it has to be considered as something that we create ourselves. The infant with the potential to become a great doctor, physicist, peace activist, parliamentarian, anthropologist, designer, artist, parent, urban planner, minister, author, friend, diplomat, geologist, therapist, singer, gardener, athlete, or diviner but instead ends up dead at 18 of drug overdose or gang shooting or collateral damage or murder conviction or disease or suicide bombing or knife fight or suicide or car accident is our collective fault. And if we are serious about the commitment to “political equality”, to “universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups” as Pinker claims to be, then the ramifications of the prospect that differences in station cannot be attributed to differences in biological makeup implies a radical restructuring of our societies, institutions, and thought patterns. And if we are not committed to equality on these terms, it implies an ever-increasing dissonance between the ethical precepts that supposedly guide our social and institutional efforts and the reality we embrace, or the outright abandonment of those precepts.

That’s what I consider dangerous!

Faculty Democracy

Faculty Democracy is a broad-based association of NYU faculty dedicated to bringing transparency and accountability to decision making at the university.

One of their first acts has been to come out in support of the striking graduate students. In this statement in support of GSOC, they emphasize the importance of graduate student’s right to express their opinions:

Regardless of our individual opinion about unionization for graduate assistants, we (the undersigned NYU faculty members), believe that in order to protect academic freedom and to maintain an open and collegial atmosphere at the university, graduate students should be free to express and follow their beliefs about unionization without any fear of reprisals. At a time when this institution is under heightened public scrutiny, it is all the more important to preserve this enviable tradition of freedom at NYU.

I counted fourteen anthropology professors among the over two hundred signatures.

Faculty Democracy have also posted this letter to NYU’s undergraduates responding to comments by the school president:
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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.)