Tag Archives: Regions

Geographical Regions

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 3

“The time is now ripe for anthropologists to consider the concept of freedom and the empirical manifestations of freedom in culture. What more significant and urgent task is there for the anthropologist than that of launching a concerted inquiry into the nature of freedom and its place and basis in nature and the cultural process? Such an inquiry would provide in time a charter for belief in those values and principles indispensable to the process of advancing culture and to the ideal of a democratic world order dedicated to the development of human potentialities to their maximum perfection.” (preface to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology ed. David Bidney, 1963 p. 6)

Freedom Hof-style
You and me both, pal.

Thus did David Bidney valiantly launch the investigation into freedom by anthropologists only to immediately then admit: “I realize that hard-headed, realistic anthropologists, including some of the participants in this symposium, would not find themselves in agreement with this anthropologic dream. There is danger, they will protest, that you are reifying Freedom into an absolute entity, just as culture once was. Freedom they will object is a non-scientific, political slogan which betrays its ethnocentric, Western and American origin…”

Freedom, as concept, still evokes this suspicion. That it is “nothing more” than a political slogan; or that it masks the reality of domination, oppression, slavery and power. As well it should given how promiscuously it is exploited.Or, as Edmund Leach so characteristically puts it in his contribution to the same volume: “To prate of Freedom as if it were a separable virtue is the luxurious pursuit of aristocrats and of the more comfortable members of modern affluent society. It has been so since the beginning.” (77)

What Leach expresses here, in part, is the descriptivist bias of anthropology of the time, and specifically of political anthropology: that the goal is comparative analysis without a priori reference to any normative political ideals. This, I think probably resonates with most anthropologists, who would be much less likely to be interested in Freedom as a concept that delimits a certain relationship between action and governance, more more likely to see it as a slogan that has been used as a warrant in colonial, imperial and global economic endeavors; as a tool used to transform existing arrangements in its own name (and secretly in the interests of a global elite). At a first cut this is undeniably so if one simply listens to the way the word is used in the news, and by politicians especially.

Indeed, it is my probably hasty opinion that the whole of “political anthropology” (at least in it’s 1930s-1970s form) shares this bias, despite the fact that it would seem to be this domain to which one would immediately turn for help in understanding the variations in the nature of Freedom. Instead, freedom is excluded from investigation insofar as it contaminates, confuses or otherwise confounds the exploration of objective political structures. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. Continue reading

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 1

It should come as a surprise that, as James Laidlaw says, “freedom is a concept about which anthropology has had strikingly little to say.” I’ve been thinking about the problem since giving a paper last year at the AAA on “Digital Liberalism” and the problem of Freedom as it relates to liberalism and technology. I’ve decided to break my radio silence at SM and post a series about Freedom, now that the fireworks are over, in part to see what reaction it provokes here, if any.

Why does Google think this is the universal image for freedom?

In fact the number of works that directly address freedom as either an anthropological problem for investigation, or a tool for making sense of ethnographic data, can be held in one hand. There are lots of other concepts that are similar to or related to freedom (enough that I defer to a second post on the subject), but as for the problem of freedom, a term which has more ideological and rhetorical use and abuse today than any other, anthropologists have been largely silent.

Contrast this with the fields of political theory, philosophy and history where one could be buried alive several times over with the number of detailed treatises on the problem of freedom? Why this dearth, this differential unconcern?

It should also come as a surprise that the dean of English language anthropology, that Polish-born fieldworker, scientist of culture and diarist extraordinaire, grandfather Malinowski ended his career, and his time in this world, at work on a book about Freedom, Freedom and Civilization. Continue reading

Anthropology in Nigeria – Extended Version

One could almost use the state of anthropology in Nigeria as a field of study to illustrate the state of the discipline in West Africa, but of course, in Nigeria, it would have a distinctive Nigerian flavour. First of all, parents are mostly the ones who are responsible for their children’s university education, and not many parents are willing to pay for their children to study anthropology. The first considerations are always about whether their child would be able to get a job after completion of the course. The way to sell a degree programme to potential students – and their parents – is by highlighting the job opportunities the programme would open graduates to. Only a few students end up enrolling in programmes that offer degrees in ‘non-professional’ courses, and most of the students are offered those programmes as ‘second options’ after they are refused admission into more attractive degree programmes. Sociology has been able to make itself remain relevant by operating professional masters programmes like Master of Industrial and Personnel Relations and Masters in Project Development and Implementation, and Masters in Industrial and Labour Relations.

One does not need to think of Bohanan’s work among the Tiv of northern Nigeria, or Abner Cohen’s research among Hausa migrants in the southern Nigerian city of Ibadan before one experiences a feeling of nostalgia. There were for instance Nigerians like Angulu Onwujeogwu, Ikenna Nzimora and Victor Uchendu. In Africa at large, efforts were not just expended on doing ‘good’ anthropology and sociology; there were in fact efforts to overcome the Western epistemic assumptions that underpinned much anthropological exercise of the time. I probably don’t need to mention that anthropology was often a tool for colonialists. See, for instance, Bernard Magubane’s criticism of colonial anthropology in this Current Anthropology article. It would also be useful to see Archie Mafeje’s article that is partly a response to Magubane’s article. The point is that there was a lively discussion in anthropology on the continent.

A cursory look at the credentials of many African anthropologists of the 60s and 70s would show that they were largely Western educated, partly because African states, at that point, had a developmental agenda, and that agenda involved awarding scholarships to students to study in Western universities. And when this was not the case, many African got scholarships from Western countries. One could say that even then, with newly independent African states, anthropology was not particularly popular. I think this is linked to the involvement of anthropology in the colonial project. It is arguable that sociology enjoyed a better image than anthropology, especially with its somewhat better image as a discipline that studies ‘more civilised’ societies. That is also probably why there are very few stand-alone anthropology departments in Nigerian universities.

Things became much worse in the 80s when Nigeria’s oil wealth started turning into a curse. Serious balance of payment problems, coupled with a succession of repressive military dictatorships finally encouraged many Nigerian scholars to leave the country, and those who stayed found it increasingly difficult to work. The already unattractive anthropology even became less attractive, and joint anthropology and sociology department started doing much less of anthropology and more of sociology. The fact that many development agencies want statistical data has meant that data provision and generation concentrated in the hands of economists and sociologists. This in turn meant that fewer people got interested in doing graduate degrees in anthropology. I recently visited a Nigerian sociology and anthropology department where there was neither a single lecturer who does anthropological research, nor any graduate student who wanted to do anthropological research.

It is also in this state of the Nigerian economy state that many parents would not be willing to pay for their children to study anthropology in universities. One could also add that a desire to be modern, and therefore to study something modern, is linked to the lack of interest in anthropology, especially as people still seem to associate anthropology with the study of the primitive – in post-colonial studies terms, the Other. There is bound to be a problem for a discipline that studies the Other, when the classical definition of the Other in this context would actually be the self. I know that the experiences of people in African countries are far from uniform, and that there is of course a multiplicity of Others, but those are the fine details that almost always get lost in the quest for modernity. Yes, I throw in that word, because no matter how much we discuss the faults and failings of modernisation as a theory and as a concept, the everyday lives of young Nigerians is modeled after the dream of becoming modern. Of course, I am an anthropologist, and I understood the importance of the kind of knowledge that anthropological methods and methodologies produce, even before I decided to do a Ph.D in anthropology. And of course, there are also other really intelligent anthropologists still in Nigeria. But when one starts framing a discussion in those terms one should realise that one is talking of the exceptions and not the rule.

Some questions of course beg answers. Does Nigeria, and by extension other African countries, have need of the anthropologist’s contribution in its present predicament? Can the problems thrown up in the country be framed in anthropological ways? Are these problems not always being framed in such ways whether or not people realize or admit it, whether or not people study their society, its mental, material and behavioural artefacts, and engage one another, self and other, with the benefit of ethnographic and theoretical training received in university departments of anthropology? At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I think that it is always anthropology, good or bad—from Huntington to Soyinka.

Any insights from other areas?

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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Rats and Europeans

In September, I blogged about the decline of Easter Island, citing Benny Peiser’s critique of Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Although I cited the article approvingly, comments by Russil Wvong led me to reevaluate it. There were some errors regarding Diamond’s argument, and the journal in which it was published seems to have an anti-environmentalist axe to grind.

While not defending his article, Benny Peiser wrote an e-mail to alert me to a new study which casts doubt on Diamond’s thesis. USA Today reports that “rats and Europeans are likely to blame for the mysterious demise of Easter Island,” not simply deforestation and warfare as suggested by Diamond.

anthropologist Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii at Manoa first blames the Polynesian rat. The rats probably deforested the 66-square-mile island’s 16 million palm trees. “Palm tree seeds are filet mignon to rats,” Hunt says.

While USA Today focuses on rats, another article describes Hunt’s analysis of the European impact:

While tribal warfare likely reduced the population of Easter Islanders, Hunt suggests that most of the decline probably was resulted from early 18th-century Dutch traders, who brought diseases and took slaves from the island. Research elsewhere indicates that “first contact” diseases — like typhus, influenza and smallpox — carry extremely high mortality rates, often exceeding 90%. The first traders to reach the island likely carried such diseases which would have rapidly spread among the islanders and decimated the population.

My own prejudices lead me to blame rats and Europeans for just about everything, so I’m inclined to trust Hunt’s research, but I’m sure this isn’t over…

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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Few people know that before they made King Kong in 1933, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were documentary filmmakers. Their first film was Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, made in 1925, made just a few years after Nanook. The film documents the harrowing migration of the Bakhtiari in Western Iran.


I regret not having had a chance to see this film. Fortunately, in honor of Peter Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong remake it will be screened on Turner Classic Movies next Tuesday. Here is their description of the film:
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Aleph Bet

I recently wrote a post on my other blog pondering how the Devanagari alphabet came to be ordered in such a rational way. So I was excited to read about this exciting archaeological find, described in the New York Times as “the oldest reliably dated example of an abecedary – the letters of the alphabet written out in their traditional sequence.”

Just what language these letters represent is a matter of some debate, as is archaeologist Ron E. Tappy’s literal use of the Bible, but it seems like a spectacularly important discovery nonetheless.

More links over at Language Log where you can also see a picture.

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.

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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