Tag Archives: war


ikea instructions

If you’ve spent any time perusing web forums you’ve encountered the phrase “RTFM” which stands for “Read the fucking manual.” This invariably offends the initial poster who, rightfully (IMHO), points out that if the documentation was clearer they never would have taken the time to register for a web forum and post their question in the first place. The problem with most documentation is that it only makes sense if you already know the answer. People who write documentation have a hard time putting themselves in the mindset of the people for whom the documentation is actually written.

This is not a trivial insight. Continue reading

Human Terrain: Sexual Harassment, Racism, Malfeasance. ‘Next up: Expansion.’

USA Today quotes anthropologists Hugh Gusterson and Brian Ferguson in a long-ish article tied to the forthcoming publication of a National Defense University (a Pentagon affiliated think tank) report on HTS.  Gusterson:

It’s another example of a military program that makes money for a contractor while greatly exaggerating its military utility. The program recruited the human flotsam and jetsam of the discipline and pretended it was recruiting the best. Treating taxpayer money as if it were water, it paid under-qualified 20-something anthropologists more than even Harvard professors. And it treated our ethics code as a nuisance to be ignored.

The article mentions many of the failings of the program, from allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination to padded time-sheets and wasted funds.  Noting the USA Today article, Zero Anthropology collates a series of documents related to investigations into HTS here.

DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12

UPDATE 2/9/13: A bit of a correction to the title here.  I called this post “DeLong and the economists on Debt” but it should have been called “DeLong, the political scientist (Farrell), and the sociologist (Rossman) on Debt.”  Apologies for that–I didn’t do my homework there.  Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for pointing this out.

I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond, in which he ultimately argues that David Graeber’s Debt might be seen as the anti-Diamond (in terms of argument).  Debt, Rex argues, is one of the few “big picture” books that have been written by an anthropologist since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, which was published more than 30 years ago (1982).  Three decades is a pretty long time (and we anthros wonder why so few people seem to know what we do).  Diamond gets a lot of attention from many anthropologists, in part, because he is writing exactly the kinds of books that we really do not produce anymore.

Personally, I think we give him a little too much attention and air-time when we put so much energy into combating his arguments.  If anthropologists disagree with the version of world history that Diamond is putting out there, my answer (as it was when I wrote this) is to write solid books that make our case.  Yes, of course that’s easier said than done–but please tell me one thing that’s truly worthwhile that doesn’t require a ton of work.  Nobody said any of this should be easy.  If we have different–or “better”–ideas, then we need to find ways to get them out there (through books, or blogs, or interviews or smoke signals or whatever).  Going directly after Diamond every time he publishes is kind of a dead end if you ask me.  It continually sets us up for claims that we’re just reacting because of jealousy or sour grapes.  The way around that is to jump in the ring, take part, and produce the kinds of books that mark the way to a different explanatory path.*

Debt, argues Rex, is one of those books.  And I think he’s right. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest

It’s been a while since I updated the ol’ Around the Web Digest. What with the AAA’s and end of the fall semester (coupled with a spouse-imposed Internet ban over Winter Break) the whole thing slipped from the back burner to out of the kitchen altogether!

Well this morning I decided I was through being behind and culled all those tweets going back to November. I left out a lot of the communiques from the conference and, as usual, the links to Savage Minds posts. Overall it does seem like we’ve been tweeting less, but we shall see what the spring semester brings…

And now, without further ado, to the links!


Moral affect, ‘the war on terror,’ and the posthuman symbolism of Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty begins with a statement that it is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” And then the screen goes black; you hear voices from the World Trade Center only.  The theatre is pitch black for minutes.  There is no vision.

I went to see Zero Dark Thirty on Saturday. I’ve tried to avoid reading any of the controversy until having an opportunity to see the film (it opened later in Ireland than in the States), though it’s hard when my favorite critic of US power (Greenwald) has made what I am sure are compelling arguments against the film; and my favorite drama queen (Andrew Sullivan) has also been writing about it a lot; I have tried to avoid them both on ‘ZDT’, and so now I have to go back and read a month’s worth of material. Anyway, the film absolutely does position torture as effective in gaining intelligence that led to Osama Bin Laden, which is not a truthful claim despite the film’s opening sentence, and therefore it appears to carry forward the ideology of the ‘war on terror’ as promulgated by Cheney and Co.  So the central historical claim of the film appears to be false.  Still, according to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, “Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, who does not think ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is pro-torture, has made the especially apt observation that it’s a story about war crimes told from the perspective of the criminals.”

The question that hovers over the film is:  what does the ‘perspective’ of the war criminals look like?  What does it see?  Being a film, what does ZDT show about the war on terror as a ‘way of seeing’?  I don’t think the film is triumphalist or a representation of the heroic (pace Naomi Wolf’s over the top take down of the director). While not being an ideological condemnation of the prosecution of the ‘war on terror,’ it seems to me that it does portray the inhumanity, and figuratively the non-humanity, of those prosecuting it through the symbolism of affect (or its absence) it deploys.  The symbol is ultimately a kind of killer (affectless) insect.  This is what US ‘national security’ has become.

Continue reading

Around the Web

Here at Savage Minds we love to read and we love to share. Once a month I collect the tweets from @savageminds and reblog them here. Check it out, maybe you’ll find a gem you missed! Our Twitter feed is reproduced on our Facebook page, so you can find us there as well. If you’ve found something interesting around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community you can email me at mdthomps AT odu.edu or, better yet, tweet your find @savageminds. And now… to the links!

Violence against women x 2

This probably belongs on Sociological Images, but I am going to post it here anyway.  I just read this brief 2010 article about violence against women in Russia, after reading through this fact sheet from the World Health Organization.  Then when I looked back at the article, I noticed something that seemed off.  Here’s a screenshot, see if you can figure it out:

Women as targets of violence, in more ways than one.  Sometimes it’s more overt, sometimes it’s a hidden under the surface–like this ad that just happened to be posted alongside an article about violence against women.  It’s one of those ads that changes every time you refresh the page.  It’s just kind of one of those quotidian digital moments that can bring various strands or currents of our social world together.  Different forms of violence, different layers, coming together in a supposedly coincidental moment.  But sometimes these kinds of moments tell us a lot about larger issues, problems, and pervasive forms of violence.


so far, the constitutive goods of ethnography that i’ve talked about have been friendship and (an embodied awareness) of awkwardness. i’d like to see more of us take on vulnerability, because it seems to me that several of the recent mania in our discipline–most notably the hardness (quantitative) envy seen in some quarters, but also seemingly touchy-feely trendy topics like #affect–reveal distancing techniques meant to deny what we’ve known all along: not just that the fieldwork requires considerable vulnerability, but that like any other attempt of carrying experience over into knowledge, findings into academic conversation, the knowledge that we produce is vulnerable at every point it changes places, hands, or media. bruno latour has such vulnerability in mind when he talks of “referential chains” between soil samples and arguments about ecology and, i think, in his conversations of the sociotechnical “factishes” that make us act rightly

this is hardly the place to talk about latour’s arguments–it would make me far too vulnerable than i prefer–but i wonder why, apart from behar’s 1997 the vulnerable observer, we do not spend more time talking about vulnerability, if only to practice a kind of diligence. i don’t mean, by the way, the kind of diligence that has hedged ethnography about with a combination of IRB and rather patronizing ethics codes (not to mention a far too reactionary arguments about both). what i have in mind is more akin to the kind of “hyper and pessimistic activism” foucault talks about in his “genealogy of ethics,” an awareness of the dangers, the vulnerabilities that are part of our trade

Continue reading

Around the Web

Getting back on track with our regular Around the Web feature, which I momentarily delayed out of courtesy to a long run of excellent guest posts, here are the links to some of the things we were reading in the month of July. Follow us @savageminds or like our Facebook page to get them on an (almost) daily basis. I’m still a bit spotty when it comes to Twitter etiquette, so apologies if I stole you’re link and didn’t give you credit. If you’ve found something around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community feel free to email me at MDTHOMPS @ ODU.EDU.

Fighting Back

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Nathan’s prior posts: post 1 & post 2]

As my friend and co-blogger Lane responded to my Facebook posts about selling out, “I prefer to think of myself as a virus, any prospective employer as a host. ‘Selling out’ is somewhere in that hazy zone between keeping your host (and yourself) alive and promoting the best environment for others of your species!” It would seem to me that many readers of this blog would agree, even in the most difficult and ethically compromised of research environments. After all, if we – as academically trained anthropologists and ethnographers – do not move to change the kinds of problematic research practices that serve to produce the feeling of “selling out,” it is somewhat unlikely that anyone else will.

Two recent posts here on Savage Minds describe examples of doing that viral work that I think deserve particular mention. First, one of Laurel’s blog posts provided a great discussion of what it’s like to enter into a particular variety of market ethnography. Second, in response to my last post Ben commented on his work as a military ethnographer, and the various pressures and constraints he has faced in such a role. Keeping Lane’s statement in mind, it seems to me that individuals like Laurel, Ben, Gottlieb, and John deserve more attention within academia. As a student, I was rarely exposed to anyone who had chosen to leave academia after finishing their degrees. Thinking back to the process of inviting speakers for colloquia and various departmental events, names of those who had pursued other career trajectories simply never came up. I can only recall one instance in which one such individual – a former graduate of our department turned consultant – came to address us, and even then, there was absolutely no discussion of how or why he came into his new role.

As Gottlieb and John point out, for many, the desire to be connected to the academic community does not simply vanish after taking up careers outside academia. Arguably, we could do much to resist the stigma of selling out, while simultaneously keeping a line out to those who may not hold academic positions, simply through more early doctoral student exposure to graduates who have pursued non-academic careers. In addition to serving to resist the stigma, such exposure would provide Ph.D. students with the professional contact networks they need to more easily find corporate and government work, along with providing a much needed glimpse of potential career routes. There is clearly enough demand for this kind of information, as a number of former academics have made careers for themselves guiding recent grads and struggling academics to non-academic jobs – one such site is actually entitled “Selloutyoursoul.com”. Continue reading

Making Ethnography Work

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali’s previous post here.]

The woman at the table next to me, an older woman with shoulder-length white hair and green-framed glasses, has lost it. “I don’t know where it went. It’s gone. I’m going to start over.” Squinting, she lets out an exasperated sigh and moves her face closer to the screen. The man across from her, who looks about my age, reaches into his plaid shorts for a smartphone – an opportunity to do something. The woman in the green glasses is the director of an organization; the man in plaid shorts is her tech support. They are working to fix a problem with the organization’s website, which seems to be spamming site users. The communication between director and tech support is terrible. I silently hope to myself that this is a relatively new relationship, and not something that’s been going on for very long. Digital projects are complicated enough. The last thing you’ll need is miscommunication.

I observe a version of this scene with some frequency when I work from coffee shops. (And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find myself in this scene from time to time.) Everyone wants web presence. Not everyone knows what that means, or what it takes to get it. More and more people (who may be directors, assistant administrators, project managers, or business owners) are interfacing with developers, designers, and content management systems. Knowledge gaps and misunderstandings are common between those who want and those who provide web services. There is even a growing field of professionals who facilitate such projects, thus reducing the frustration of getting or building a website. Some days, I wonder if I am part of this growing field. (The answer is, ‘yes, I unexpectedly am.’)

Over the last two years, since we began redesigning CA’s website, I have learned a lot about developers, designers, and the conditions they work in. There is MUCH more to learn. I’m far from expert. I’ve also heard, again and again, that CA’s website is not just a website. It’s a digital archive, a repository of supplemental material, indexes, teaching tools, and, increasingly, essays. The site has over 600 pages. Not only do I manage this beast, I’m also managing its redesign. Continue reading

Going Rogue?

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Nathan’s previous post here.]

So, in my last post I spoke mainly about my current situation as a post-graduate in employment limbo, experiencing the strain of potentially leaving academia. In this post, I want to start to unpack what I meant by “selling out” through a discussion of some of my own experiences on the job market. Specifically, I’ve chosen the two positions I’ve applied for that most clearly evoked the stigma of selling out. None of this is to say that I think there should be a stigma attached to leaving academia in all cases, or that people who have taken jobs outside of academia have “sold out,” but rather that leaving academia comes with baggage that deserves at least some attention.

On any given weekday, you’ll likely find me in the hanging chair on my front porch, with an aging MacBook open in my lap and two black cats sprawled at my feet. My job hunting process is simple – I use various job listing sites to search for positions which contain the term “qualitative” within the state of New York. Beyond that, I progressively widen my search to more inclusive terms such as “internet,” “PhD,” and “research”. The first search tends to bring the results I’m most interested in – and I am often pleasantly surprised to find employers who are aware of, and looking for, applicants with backgrounds in ethnographic research. As I mentioned previously, a wide range of employers are looking for individuals with research experience, including strategic consulting firms, media companies, marketing firms, and think tanks. These positions tend to be located in major metropolitan areas however, so my initial rounds of applications were more frequently directed towards more local, non-research positions where I imagined a background in ethnographic research might give me an advantage.

My first round of interviews included one with a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. In many ways, the position would have distanced me from research work and ethnographic practice, bringing me closer to my former life as an IT worker. As an Information Security Analyst, I would have been engaged in various forms of training, investigatory work, and contract analysis. In my mind, I had still envisioned a site for ethnographic practice – after all, information security is universally concerned with networks of trust and authority, and fostering a culture of security is often more important than strong technical safeguards. How do everyday employees within a particular corporate culture frame information security risks? What is the discursive work of a contractual agreement to protect sensitive financial information? While it may seem slightly idealistic, I genuinely think that ethnographic practice can provide new and useful insight into these kinds of issues. Continue reading

Selling Out

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.

Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.

In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.

The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.

Continue reading

Book Review — Freedom in Entangled Worlds, by Eben Kirksey

In Freedom in Entangled Worlds, the first book by anthropologist Eben Kirksey, Mellon Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the reader is presented with a history of the merdeka movement in West Papua. This tale of magic, nationalism, and human rights in an “out of the way place” unfolds on a global stage as the author treks from the secret hideouts of guerilla fighters in the highland bush country to the seat of corporate power at BP headquarters in London. Along the way we get a master class in how an academic activist might balance post-structural theory with the kinds of strong knowledge claims that may influence political decision makers.

Indonesia formally incorporated West Papua into its nation in 1969 with the fraudulent Act of Free Choice. Since that time West Papuan leaders have pursued independence, or at least increased autonomy, for their region through many, often contradictory, means. From political engagement with the Indonesian state to pleas made before the international community tribal leaders and educated city dwellers have risked their lives through armed resistance, peaceful protest, and magic pursuing their dreams of freedom. The odds seem insurmountable and the movement itself endures near constant crisis, thus the theme of crisis as a sign of hope runs throughout this short, adventurous ethnography.

In a revealing scene towards the end of the book, Kirksey, finding himself in the halls of Washington power (and the crosshairs of an FBI investigation), forms alliances with other activist organizations such as the East Timor Action Network. Frustrated that his investigation into the murders of some American school teachers outside a Freeport MacMoRan mine is largely being ignored by those in positions of power he learns an important lesson every anthropologist who wishes to speak truth to power must learn.

“Politics isn’t about facts but about stories,” the director of ETAN tells him. “Your story is too complicated.” Continue reading