Tag Archives: linguistic anthropology

The Cyborg Anthropologist (Tools We Use)

For those who don’t know, I live, work, teach, and do research in a predominantly Chinese speaking environment. Although you are probably aware that learning Chinese is hard, you might not realize that even scholars who have studied the language for most of their adult lives still struggle with it. That’s because scholars who work in Chinese rarely talk about the subject openly. As David Moser explains:

inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers . . .

You might have read somewhere that it takes a vocabulary of several thousand Chinese characters to read a newspaper, but the truth is that it is actually much harder than that: Continue reading

It’s not hip to be square

I see shows like Star Trek as emblematic of a transitional period in American masculinity — at least on TV. The 50’s would have been pure Kirk, with a woman on every planet and an ability to knock out foes with a one-two punch. After the 70’s we got numerous examples of Spock, with his faith in science and confusion around emotions (not to mention women). There is a direct line from Spock to Seinfeld, and it goes through Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Huey Lewis And The News. The overwhelming message of my childhood was that it was “hip to be square.”

There is something to be said for this change. The confusion over emotions and social norms allowed men to be emotional and sensitive. Alien women may have objectified, but race (supposedly) no longer mattered. But the figure of the clueless scientist who just doesn’t understand women is not harmless. An obvious example is someone like nerd-hero Richard Feynman who was confused as to why women wouldn’t trade sex for sandwiches. The sexist culture that seems to exist within companies like Uber and Google makes it difficult for women in those industries, and arguably affects the kind of products and services offered by tech companies. Twitter’s foot dragging on the issue of online harassment is a good example of this.

There is a debate within linguistic anthropology which helps explain just what is wrong with our society’s continued celebration of the clueless naiveté of nerd culture. Continue reading

Language, Power, and Pot: Speaking of Cannabis as Medicine

By: Elisa (EJ) Sobo

The US cannabis landscape is shifting quickly, and so is the way we talk about the plant and its uses. The push to end its prohibition has entailed a proliferation of stakeholder groups, each with its own labeling preferences. Interviews with Southern Californian parents using marijuana medically for children with intractable epilepsy (pharmaceutically uncontrolled seizures) taught me that what’s in a name matters—a lot. How it matters differs depending on who is talking, and what he or he seeks to accomplish when it comes to this plant and its products.

Cannabis—marijuana—has many medical applications, including for epilepsy. Parent interest in this rose sharply when CNN profiled its success with a child in Denver. However, little scientific research has been done with the plant (its legal classification makes that tricky), so doctors generally will not assist parents proactively in regard to its use. Word of mouth, online resources, and purveyor promises are often all that parents have to go by as they work out dosage and other aspects of their child’s cannabis regimen. My research explores how they manage this, which has implications for our understanding of how regular citizens contribute to biomedicine’s knowledge base and therapeutic tool kit. Findings also may be used to help improve service provision for these vulnerable families. Continue reading

Jennifer Jackson’s Wonderful Description of Linguistic Anthropology

Jennifer Jackson passed away in May of this year at the young age of 39. Here is an excerpt from the obituary that ran on Anthropology News:

We mourn the loss of her brilliant mind, quick smile and mischievous humor. She was known for incisive scholarship on politics and social justice. She wove a keen artistic sense for poetics into her ethnographic observations, as evident in her 2013 book Political Oratory and Cartooning: An Ethnography of Democratic Processes in Madagascar. Her eye-opening insights into the language of American politics were featured in national media. Jennifer served the American Anthropological Association, first on the Executive Board’s student seat then the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Executive Board.

There will be a memorial in her honor at the AAA in Denver. I didn’t know her personally, but here in Taiwan we are honoring her by reading her ethnography. It is a great book and well worth reading for many reasons, but I especially loved her description of the discipline of linguistic anthropology in the introduction (pp. xxiii-xxv). (It’s a long quote, but I couldn’t see anything in it that I would want to cut.) Continue reading

VISUAL TURN IV: People and Stuff– A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (2/2)

In a previous post, I described the process of an ‘Ethnocharrette’ – essentially a strategy that incorporates aspects of design methodology into anthropological practice. As part of a longer series thinking about how art/design modalities are increasingly commonplace in anthropologies that aren’t designated as visual anthropology. I wondered if this attention to art and design in anthropology is ‘new’ or simply new to me given my recent collaboration with two artists? Is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” underway? I discussed these questions with Keith M Murphy, author of Swedish Design: An Ethnography. This post is the second half of our conversation. Continue reading

VISUAL TURN III: Anthropology of/by Design — A Conversation with Keith M. Murphy (1/2)

Encounters with art and design by an anthropologist and curious non-expert in visual culture.

Since starting to work alongside an artist and a designer, I’ve become more aware of ethnographic practice inflected by art and design. There seems to be a growing number of institutional spaces, degree programs, courses, workshops and books devoted to exploring different combinations of art/design aesthetics and ethnography. While audience and aims vary, one can’t help but wonder what it means for there to be a kind mushrooming of art/design inflected methods and outputs (Design Anthropology, Anthropology Design, Design Ethnography, Sensory Ethnography to name a few and see for instance a last year’s ANTROPOLOGY + DESIGN series on Savage Minds). While visual anthropology has an extended history, and anthropologists have long been interested in the intersections of aesthetic and cultural production, is there something of a “visualisation of anthropology” (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2005) underway? Is an attention to art and design in anthropology ‘new’ or simply new to me? For those of us not designated as ‘visual’ anthropologists, are we being asked/invited/demanded to engage with different modalities for fieldwork and scholarly output?

I decided ask an expert. Keith M. Murphy is an anthropologist of design. His new book Swedish Design: An Ethnography is just that. It is a rich description and analysis of how everyday things (furniture, lighting) are made to mean through processes of design within the context of larger cultural flows. Like some of the iconic objects he describes, Keith’s writing is sharp, uncluttered and politically aware. Continue reading

Strategy of Condescension

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

That Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview in Chinese was big news this week. You can see the start of the interview here:

As you can hear, Zuckerberg’s performance was greeted with “repeated cheers and applause by the assembled students and faculty members.” I don’t want to pick apart Zuckerberg’s Chinese – he only started learning a few years ago, but still did better than some people I know who have lived in Taiwan for over a decade. Nor do I want to focus on the mixed reactions he got on the internet later on. Rather, I want to engage in a thought experiment. Can you imagine a Western audience cheering and applauding a Chinese CEO for speaking in English?

Pierre Bourdieu uses the term “strategy of condescension”1 to refer to the “act of symbolically negating” the power relationship between two languages. Continue reading

The Semiotics of Bubble Tea

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

Milk Tea
Bubble Milk Tea

Rather than writing a a straightforward review of Paul Manning’s wonderful The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking (winner of last year’s Sapir Prize), I thought I’d instead engage with the book by endeavoring to apply Paul’s ideas and analytic techniques to a context which is more familiar to me than post-soviet Georgia: contemporary tea culture in Taiwan.

For those who don’t know, bubble tea is a sweet milk tea, often served cold, filled with chewy tapioca balls one drinks up through an extra-large straw. It was first invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and soon became a global sensation. It is now even available at the McDonald’s run McCafé shops in Germany. Continue reading

How do you pronounce “革命ing”?

Last night over 300 students and demonstrators took over Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan in protest of a secret trade agreement with China. For some background and context over the protest I recommend reading Michael Turton’s excellent blog posts on the ECFA trade agreement. And there is also an English language live-blog of the protest for those who wish to follow the news as it develops. What I want to focus on here, however, is one image from that live blog: Continue reading