Emma Crewe, social anthropologist and research associate at SOAS, the University of London, published an op-ed in the Times Higher Education (U.K.) on how to improve British politics and re-enchant the public: “Public cynicism towards politics is reaching new heights. Politicians are widely considered to be venal, tribal and dishonest. But what are they really like?”
Since October 2011, she has been studying MPs at work. She finds that, surprisingly, “half the new 2010 intake of MPs took a pay cut to enter Westminster, MPs have defied their whips more frequently in every Parliament since 1945, and MPs did not seem to be any less honest than any other professional group – or, specifically, than members of groups with complex combinations of interests where compromises have to be made.” In contrast to the popular image of MPs as power-hungry egoists, many reminded her of aid workers, motivated by both ambition and altruism “…but MPs work harder and accept more painful scrutiny.”
Crewe opines that public disenchantment is more about the work of politics – “…its messiness, contradictions and changeability” and public conflation of Parliament and government which are “different parts of the state and need to be disentangled.”
At the Guardian’s comments page on Tuesday, May 19, from 1pm – 2pm BST, a group of experts will discuss how best to protect coffee farmers. One of the speakers is Sarah Lyon, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky and author of Coffee and Community: Maya Farmers and Fair Trade Markets. Her work focuses on Maya women farmers and social/gender justice in coffee production.
The Globe (Canada) is carrying a series exploring the growing dependence around the world on credit. You can join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #DebtBinge. A recent article discusses how debt-related financial stress is linked to mental-health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and a higher risk of suicide. As the health consequences of financial stress become more evident, researchers and health professionals are making the case for treating personal debt as a public health problem. The article presents commentary from biocultural anthropologist Elizabeth Sweet, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is examining the factors that can make debt a health hazard. She notes that it is not well understood what types of debt provoke the most stress. For instance people may feel less stressed about mortgages and student loans than credit-card debt or payday loans.
The Chronicle Herald (Canada) published an op-ed by Rylan Higgins, professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, on the plight and rights of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) in Canada. Canada’s use of TFWs is complicated: Programs vary from province to province and from sector to sector within provinces, and policies have changed over time. Long-term anthropological studies of TFWs, however, “reveal common and unsettling patterns regarding what it means to be such a worker in Canada.” Higgins notes that a primary finding of anthropological studies is that the relationship between employers and workers is exploitative: “The detailed and intimate accounts that anthropological research provides reveal that many employers in Canada regularly seek TFWs precisely because these workers’ precarious status is a benefit to those seeking a tractable workforce.” (more…)
An article in The Indian Express about India’s efforts to help Nepal recover from the April 25 earthquake quotes Edward Simpson, professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London: “An earthquake does not conclude. It lives in metaphor and history, passing in and out of popular consciousness.” In addition to dealing with loss as survivors try to put their lives back together, they know that future earthquakes are inevitable.
National Public Radio (WRVO) reported on a recent vote by the St. Lawrence County Legislature to table a resolution that would ask the state of New York to require Amish buggies to display orange, reflective triangles. People on both sides of the buggy debate spoke at the meeting. The group supporting the resolution is focused on road safety. Karen Johnson-Weiner, professor of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam and studies the Amish, said the Amish will not use the orange reflectors:
“It’s bright. I’ve heard some say the three-sided reflects the trinity…I’ve heard some say it’s putting belief in a man-made symbol that’s too gaudy for them, they don’t use those bright colors, and at the base those things that are against the Ordnung — the rules each Amish church group sets for themselves — are against their understanding of how they should be as Christians in the world.” [Blogger’s note: some Amish groups have accepted the placement of the orange triangle on their buggies while others do not. Non-Amish drivers should perhaps be asked to bear a symbol of their high speed and assertiveness…not sure what it would be].
The Huffington Post carried an article on how eating bugs has not spread in Western cultures in spite of attempts to promote them as an edgy new food source in high end restaurants. It points out that, while millions of people around the world rely on insects as part of their diet, people in Western cultures typically don’t seek out insects to eat. The article draws on commentary from Julie Lesnik, an associate professor of anthropology at Wayne State University who specializes in entomophagy. She points out the cost factor which makes a steak dinner more expensive than a specialty insect dish at a restaurant. In addition is what she calls the ick factor: many Westerners have been taught from a young age to associate insects with the spread of disease or to think of them as agricultural pests, “a stigma translated into disgust and then we don’t eat them.” From an evolutionary perspective, Lesnik notes that when humans first arrived in Europe and North America, it would have been covered in ice and so insects were not available as an edible resource. She feels that the chances of major growth in insect consumption in the United States is not likely to happen since she knows of no example of a group who stopped or drastically reduced eating an affordable, readily available protein (such as beef) in favor of a more expensive, less available one (such as crickets). (more…)
By Sean Carey
Last Friday, after it was announced that the Conservative Party had won a wholly unexpected overall majority in the UK parliament – “the sweetest victory” according to its leader and returning prime minister, David Cameron – I decided that the best thing to improve my mood would be to cook my family a Keralan-inspired chicken curry. Looking in the refrigerator and cupboards I found that I had all the ingredients except for some curry leaves, which impart a distinctive citrus-like flavor to the dish.
So I head to my favorite Pakistani-owned food and spice shop, one of several such stores on Hatfield Road in my home town of St Albans, an affluent commuter town nearly 20 miles north of central London.
The shop I visit is a type found in urban areas throughout the U.K. wherever there is a sizeable south Asian population. This one caters for the local British Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, as well as a small number of people from other ethnic minority groups, including black Africans and Indo-Mauritians, keen to lay their hands on a wide range of competitively-priced goods –branded pickles, powders and sauces; vegetables such as okra, sweet potato and aubergine; and freshly-picked herbs like coriander, mint and, of course, curry leaves. At the back of the shop is a halal butcher. The team of young men clad in white overalls chop chicken and lamb into large or small pieces as requested, a service notably absent at local supermarkets run by large retailers such as Morrisons, Sainsbury’s or Tesco.
When I arrive at 1:30 in the afternoon, I find that the lights in the shop are off. I try the door. It’s locked. Of course, I say to myself, all the staff have gone to Friday prayers at one of two mosques further along the street.
What to do? I walk to some of the other South Asian-owned stores thinking that one might be open, but have no luck. Evidently everyone is at prayer. I look at my watch and calculate that that it won’t be very long before prayers are over and the shopkeepers and their staff return. Because it’s a sunny day and I have time to kill I sit on a bollard and watch the world go by. Sure enough, just before 2 pm, people pour out of the mosques and the retail sector in that part of Hatfield Road returns to life (thus neatly demonstrating how individuals animate or energize institutions). I purchase the curry leaves and a few other bits and pieces, and make my way to the checkout at the front of the shop. The friendly, elderly bespectacled owner, still wearing his skullcap, begins to press the keys on the old but still functioning cash register.
We have never discussed politics before, but out of curiosity I ask him what he thinks of the election result. “Well, she’s back again,” he sighs referring to the re-election of Anne Main, the St Albans Conservative candidate. “I don’t think anything will change round here. We had better get used to it.”
I think to myself that he is answering my question according to a local perspective, whereas I was expecting that he would offer his opinion about the national scene. Nevertheless, like many first-generation South Asian migrants, the manner in which he answers my query clearly signals that he is not a Conservative supporter.
The shopkeeper carries on processing my items, carefully placing them in a plastic carrier bag. Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he adds: “I was saying to my wife yesterday that back in our home town at election time two or three people would probably have died. Nothing like that happens in St Albans.”
“Yes that’s true,” I say. “It’s a bad result for Liberal Democrats and Labour in St Albans but at least no one died.” We both laugh, and in doing so celebrate a change of government without bloodshed, even though it’s a government neither of us approves of.
‘In the UK using a pencil to mark ‘X’ in the box alongside the name of one’s preferred candidate really is magic, isn’t it?’
My heart is heavier than the Heart Sutra, which is usually translated as: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Gone. Gone. Gone beyond. Gone altogether beyond.”
Mhanegang, Nepal, where David Holmberg, Ph.D. ’80, professor of anthropology, and I have worked for 40-plus years, is gone.
According to our longtime friend, host and research partner, Suryaman Tamang, all the houses in Mhanegang have been destroyed. They already have lost 17 people in this one small community. Up the mountain, in Balche,Jay Tamang reports that 30 people were killed by a single landslide. And at the head of the valley, according to Sarita Lopchen Himdung, the large, dense community of Bomtang was flattened. Cremation pyres have been burning almost nonstop throughout the entire Salankhu Khola valley, where these villages are located, in the very severely hit Nuwakot District.
I can almost hear the keening of mourners all the way here in Ithaca.
It is incredible to me that we were just in Mhanegang a few weeks ago. The Cornell Nepal Study Program (CNSP) students and faculty were with us there a few weeks before that. We sang and danced well into the night: The CNSP students showed everyone the macarena and square dancing; the Mhanegang villagers taught the CNSP students Tamang line and circle dancing. There were newborn goats and fried doughnuts. The students bathed at the spring in the sun.
Mhanegang, like all of Nepal, was, of course, very lucky that the first earthquake occurred at noon, when few people were asleep or in their houses, and on a Saturday, when no one was at school. Most people were relaxing or working outside with family and friends. They are not lucky now. Everything they had is buried under the rubble of their houses. They are not on anyone’s relief radar. And the quaking continues.
The initial quake was centered a bit to the west of Mhanegang near Barpak, but according to geologists, the shallow nature of this quake meant that its greatest devastation rippled out to the east – right toward Mhanegang. And, of course, hundreds of other villages. Estimates are that 90 percent of the houses in Rasuwa district were destroyed. U.S. Fulbright Scholar Austin Lord gives a vivid account of how terrifying it was to be in Langtang during the earthquake. Yale anthropologist Sara Shneiderman, Ph.D. ’09, and anthropologist Mark Turin report extensive damage in Dolakha. Roshan Phyuba Tamang visited his home village of Darkka in Dhading and posted photos of the damage, which are still among the only pictures available from the region between the epicenter and Kathmandu.
Unfortunately this earthquake isn’t done yet either. The U.S. Geological Survey reports a total of 40 separate quakes/aftershocks, including three “significant” ones: the original 7.8 quake, followed by a 6.6 roughly 3 hours later a little further east, and the next day by a 6.7 one at Kodari, following the pattern of movement observed by the geologists – from the original epicenter east and a little north.
And it’s not just the ongoing repeatedly quaking earth that is shocking – although it must make everything seem very terrifyingly impermanent indeed. The people in Mhanegang and the other villages most directly in the path of this earthwreck are going to become very desperate very soon. They need medical attention, blankets, tents and food. Their water systems and sanitation need to be fixed. They will need almost unimaginable amounts of help rebuilding their homes. And lives. And hearts. As a village friend of Shneiderman said, “My heart can’t stop shaking.”
Kathryn S. March, Ph.D. ’79, is a professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She has worked on questions of anthropology, gender and social change in Himalayan Asia since 1973.
Note: this post is republished from the Cornell Chronicle, with permission.
Cultural anthropologists Sara Shneiderman and Mark Turin published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail (Canada) urging that mechanisms be put in place in Nepal “to ensure that the relief reaches far beyond the capital of Kathmandu to remote, rural areas, where the devastation is least reported but most widespread. The loss of world heritage sites in Kathmandu’s urban center is visually striking, but it is now time to look elsewhere.” Shneiderman is assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia, and Mark Turin is chair of the First Nations Languages Program and associate professor of anthropology at UBC.
Newsweek described the situation in Kathmandu, where temples collapsed and stone sculptures and other valuable material heritage items lie in heaps. The article quotes cultural anthropologist and Nepal expert, Sara Shneiderman of the University of British Columbia, about the possibility of theft, in spite of many official and volunteer guards: “I wouldn’t be surprised if people were taking advantage of the current situation…There is a long history of stolen temple art, much of which turns up in auctions and so forth. And in a situation where people are desperate to secure their own resources, you can understand why people might do this.” In terms of the trade-off between helping people and protecting material heritage: “I think it is right that police should be focused on relief efforts and not necessarily on protecting statues,” says Shneiderman. “Though it would be sad if there were some loss in that regard.”
The Hays Daily News (Kansas) carried an article about the possibly insurmountable administrative challenge to the country of Nepal after the earthquake. Sara Shneiderman, anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia, said possible corruption and weak links between Kathmandu and rural areas, where approximately 90 percent of Nepal’s 28 million people live, could make it difficult for officials to set priorities: “Most people’s first impulse is to do the best they can, but with large funds there is always that risk (of misallocation).” (more…)
By Sean Carey
Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. He is the author of numerous books, including Ethnicity and Nationalism, A History of Anthropology, Small Places, Large Issues, Tyranny of the Moment, Globalization and Common Denominators. His latest book Fredrik Barth, is an intellectual biography of his fellow Norwegian social anthropologist. It was recently published in the U.K. and will be released in June in the U.S. Here, AW contributor Sean Carey interviews Eriksen about the book.
SC: When many anthropologists (and other social scientists) think of Fredrik Barth, ideas of ethnicity tend to spring to mind. What was it that was so original in Barth’s thinking in this area, and why has his influence been so long-lasting?
TE: In a way, you could say that what Barth did, back in 1967 (the book Ethnic Groups and Boundaries came in 1969), was to systematise and clarify ideas that had been circulating for some time, especially in British anthropology, among people as different as Edmund Leach and Max Gluckman. So the degree of originality could always be questioned. However, he showed, more clearly than any earlier author, the absurdity of the view that ethnic differences were simply a product of cultural differences; that what mattered were social boundaries, usually propped up by mutual stereotypes. Later developments in the bustling industry of ethnicity research have introduced concepts of creolisation and hybridity and thus problematised the concept of the boundary; the state has been brought in, as have concepts of inequality, power and hierarchy that were weakly developed in Barth’s initial statement. However, these are elaborations on his perspective, not refutals.
SC: You mention the state. Is Barth the godfather of progressive multiculturalism? Furthermore, does his analysis of ethnicity lend itself to the formulation of practical social (and economic) policies in developed and developing societies?
TE: The perspective from Ethnic Groups and Boundaries has doubtless seeped into a general public, or intellectual, understanding of what matters in ethnic relations; what it tells us, among other things, is that we should look beyond cultural differences and stereotypes, focusing instead on what people do and I suppose the structural features of society. So yes, there are practical applications of this perspective, but Fredrik would be loath to consider himself a godfather of any kind of multiculturalism. He is not a very political man, you know; yet, an implication of his view, which many have developed in a more applied way, is that a society may well contain considerable cultural diversity without becoming totally fragmented, as long as it is socially cohesive. If you give people the same de facto opportunities within a shared public space, cultural differences come to appear as less relevant, or perhaps even a positive element. The latter has certainly been my view. Just think about what English, or Norwegian, food used to taste like before the new diversity.
SC: Do you think that Barth’s contribution to the field of ethnicity and ‘race’ relations has overshadowed his contributions to other areas of anthropology, including, for example, his novel insights into ritual and other forms of symbolic behaviour which grew out of his fieldwork amongst tribal peoples in New Guinea?
TE: I think the answer is yes, but then again these things are unpredictable, and the world is not always just and reasonable. Ethnicity was only one of Barth’s many theoretical interests. Although his writings over the decades contain a scattering of texts about ethnic relations and, later, complexity – from his 1956 article on ethnic relations in Swat to a 1994 article assessing Ethnic Groups and Boundaries after 25 years – he would see his contributions to political anthropology and ‘transactionalism’, and to the anthropology of knowledge, as being more important.
SC: I see. It’s interesting that Barth’s early work on political organisation and leadership amongst the Pashto-speaking Pathans of northern Pakistan’s Swat Valley was more influenced by the British ‘social action’ perspective pioneered by Edmund Leach and others rather than the structural-functionalism of Radcliffe Brown. Did Barth’s transactionalism come about because of his personal relationship with Leach, or do you think other factors were at work?
TE: There were definitely other factors. Leach was just moderately interested in the theory of games, for example, and remained less willing than Barth to throw overboard the concepts of society and social structure. Curiously, when Barth returned to Oslo in 1950, after his studies in Chicago, he was a warm admirer of Radcliffe-Brown, and somehow his respectful dialogue with structural-functionalism continued at least up to Models of Social Organization in 1966. However, he would later be influenced by Leach, but also by Raymond Firth, and firmly belonged to the ‘Malinowskian’ lineage, or sub-lineage, throughout his early career, emphasising social process and agency rather than structure and social cohesion. The great hero of his youth was the naturalist Niko Tinbergen, whose maxim ‘watching and wondering’ Barth continued to cite for many years. There was, in other words, a strong inductivist bias in his approach – even now, he would emphasise that we need to go out and ‘see what is actually there’ without a strong theoretical bias. The fact that Barth also fell out with Evans-Pritchard in the early 1950s might also have been a factor, though not a major one.
SC: Unlike Leach, however, it appears that Barth was not so impressed with the type of structuralism propagated by Claude Lévi-Strauss. It prompts the question: was Barth a more thoroughly British-type empiricist than his intellectual mentor?
TE: Well phrased! Yes, you could say that. Leach, like Mary Douglas, became something of an intermediary, trying to explain to the British what Lévi-Strauss and the French were up to; while Barth remained a rather clear-cut anthropological version of the analytical philosopher. He wanted clarity and logical consistency, and was frustrated by the lofty speculations and untestable assumptions he saw in Lévi-Strauss.
SC: Barth was also influenced by Erving Goffman. How so?
TE: They were students in Chicago at the same time, you know, and knew each other then, at least a bit. But it was years later, upon reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) that Barth discovered that Goffman’s microsociology, and his ability to turn tiny observations into fully-fledged social analyses, that Barth discovered a kindred spirit in Goffman. They both believed in observation (and not just conversations) as a means of collecting data, and were adamant that society is best understood through minute and meticulous attention to fine-grained social life.
SC: It’s clear, then, that Barth places a high value on concrete, observational fieldwork as the basis for theorising, rather than the other way round. In fact, in your book you refer to Barth as ‘something of an anthropologist’s anthropologist’ in that sense. Can you comment further?
TE: Not everybody is likely to agree about this formulation of mine. But let me put it this way: Last year, our department in Oslo celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and we organised various events, roundtables and that sort of thing, to celebrate ourselves. We disagreed about lots of things, and had some lively discussions about ‘ontology’ and ANT, methods of comparison and so on. But we agreed on one major thing, namely that good anthropology always has an ethnographic component. So we shared the conviction that detailed descriptions of people’s lives are the kind of high-octane data anthropology can bring to the table. This remains a very fundamental aspect of what we do, and Barth excelled in it. He was simply an extraordinary ethnographer.
SC: Barth sees himself as a scientist and humanist. But what sort of science and what sort of humanism?
TE: These are big questions, Sean, and I try to discuss them in the book. For one thing, Barth’s science is not a positivist one, although he has a weakness for explanation and not just interpretation. The reason is that he has always been aware that fieldwork has a strong interpretive element. You cannot just register ‘what is out there’ when you study other people’s meaningful universes. I’d say that his science is modelled on the natural sciences, but with a strong hermeneutical element. When it comes to his humanism, Barth was never a very political man; but what he has tried to tell us for sixty years is that all human lives have value, and that there are many roads to the good life. And the bad. This simple, but fundamental wisdom from anthropological thought and knowledge comes through in particular in his popular books, which — alas — have only been published in Norwegian.
SC: If Barth did not exist would we (including his critics) need to invent him?
TE: Erm, that’s a good one! Well, actually, in the 1950s and 1960s, he arguably made his critics better and contributed to improving the quality of anthropological debate by shaking things up a bit. The old guard and the new alike (I’m here thinking about Marxists and structuralists) had to sharpen their arguments and rethink their assumptions. The transactional perspective of Models, phrased in a deliberately polemical way, produced a clear theoretical position that people had to relate to. At the end of the day, few embraced it wholeheartedly, not even Barth himself, but it was a position that was very good to think. I really don’t know what to answer. But I see him as one of a handful of anthropologists from the latter half of the 20th century who really made a difference to the discipline, through his work on ethnicity, political strategies and knowledge, but primarily through his insistence that you should know what you’re talking about, especially if you happen to be talking about people who are not present.
The Huffington Post republished an article originally in French on HuffPo France about a project of artist David Mesguich in which he is working with prisoners to paint large murals in Marseilles’ Baumettes prison, one of the most notorious prisons in France. His goal was, “to show the prisoners…that beautiful and positive things can still come from inside them.” The article quotes Didier Fassin, cultural anthropologist and physician, and author of The Shadow of the World: An Anthropology of the Penal Condition, who says that the initiative is compelling but difficult to assess without commentary from the inmates: “It transforms the prison space, and brightens it, while emphasizing by contrast the ugly and oppressive character of the metal gates, the barbed wire, and the walls…This being the case, the question is more general, as is the case with cities. Making murals in a city does not change its reality.”
According to an article in WorldCrunch, Brazil, which is the world’s largest Catholic country, has a growing Muslim population and, with some rare exceptions, is a model for integration of Islam into a mixed population. The article presents commentary by Francirosy Ferreira, an anthropology professor at Sao Paulo University. He notes that it is impossible to know the exact number of Muslims in Brazil because they are registered under the “other” category in the census: “But their estimated number is now about a million, of whom 30% to 50% are converts, depending on the region.” He attributes the renewed interest in Islam in Brazil to the airing of a soap opera that took place in Morocco. The series, called The Clone, created before the 9/11 terror attacks, included an admirable Muslim protagonist.
The Washington Post carried an article on a new ban against strippers performing at funerals issued by China’s Ministry of Culture. The trend to hire strippers for funerals in China has been growing, and is apparently an import from Taiwan where, as National Geographic documented three years ago, inviting funeral strippers is decades-old. The article includes commentary on why people want strippers at a funeral from Marc L. Moskowitz, a cultural anthropology professor at the University of South Carolina and producer of a documentary on Taiwan’s funeral strippers: “In Taiwan, all public events need to be ‘hot and noisy’ to be considered to be a success.” Moskowitz explained that “Usually the people involved are working-class folks, both in Taiwan as well as in China. In urban areas, there is a greater push to be part of a global culture.” Thus, he speculates, that the ban may be related to the Chinese government positioning itself in terms of global culture through “an awareness that people outside of Taiwan or China might find the practice strange or laughable.” (more…)
Tanya Luhrmann published an op-ed in The New York Times exploring how people around the world can use multiple angles that might include both Western scientific ways of thinking and “belief”-based thinking. She cites the work of psychologist Cristine H. Legare and colleagues “…who recently demonstrated that people use both natural and supernatural explanations in this interdependent way across many cultures. They tell a story, as recounted by Tracy Kidder’s book on the anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. ‘But if you believe that,’ he cried, ‘why did you take your medicines?’ In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, ‘Honey, are you incapable of complexity?’”
“Partners in Health, a Boston-based charity dedicated to improving health care for people in poor countries, signed on to the Ebola fight last fall with high ambitions. Unlike Doctors Without Borders and other relief agencies that specialize in acute response to crises, Partners in Health pledged to support the deeply inadequate health systems in Sierra Leone and Liberia for the long haul. Its leaders also publicly criticized the low level of care provided to Ebola patients and promised that its treatment units would do better. “’Let’s have a medical moon shot,’ the group’s co-founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, said last October. But the medical group, which had never responded to an Ebola outbreak before and had rarely worked in emergencies, encountered serious challenges.” [Blogger’s note: Nonetheless, without a doubt, PIH did save lives. Whether or not they will be able to effect long-term preventive changes awaits to be seen.]
…become a community life director and chef. Liana Hernandez is the community life director and executive chef at the YWCA in Tucson, Arizona. Having studied anthropology at the University of Arizona, she gained from it an understanding of the imbalance that exists between marginalized communities of color and the dominant ones in the U.S. This insight, coupled with a strong sense of social service, drives her work at the YWCA where she says she is “setting the table for change,” an image that she takes seriously. (more…)