Saturday, May 30, 2009

New Anthropology Place: Discuss amongst yourselves

We now have a place where we can all hang out together--online. Keith Hart and others have created The Open Anthropology Cooperative at

Go on over and check it out and look for the Obama group and join the discussion with me and Keith--that one is a bit lonely.

I think the site makes my blog radio. Oh well, maybe you will listen to me now and then when your internet is out, so to speak.

The Love I.E.D.: Teachable News You Can Use

Truth be told, for all that gets published on a daily basis, there isn't that much of use in the press for your basic anthropology class. One seems to be perpetually stuck with that view of culture that is both eternal and exotic. You know, the one that I think we can safely say the vast majority of students come with: "those people have a fully formed culture which sprang like Athena from Zeus's head and, man, its weird shit." To counter-act that view its always nice to find a story which presents "culture" in the process of becoming. Then, the anthropology professor can assert: "see, here we have common and shared human emotions, something we all recognize, being expressed in the terms given by the life experiences of the people--this, right here, is the heart and soul of our discipline, reality and meaning being constructed anew through the lived experiences of people--with all the shit attached." I always like to take away some shit but give some shit back because, generally, students are correct, there is always some shit when it comes to people.

Here in the New York Times is one such story, teachable news you can use: Lovelorn Iraqi Men Call on a Wartime Skill.

Here is the beginning of the story to get you started but click on through to read it all:
It goes like this: Boy meets girl. They exchange glances and text messages, the limit of respectable courting here. Then boy asks girl’s father for her hand. Dad turns him down. Boy goes to girl’s house and plants a bomb out front.

The authorities call it a “love I.E.D.,” or improvised explosive device, and it is not just an isolated case. Capt. Nabil Abdul Hussein of the Iraqi national police said that six had exploded in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad alone in the past year.

“These guys, they face any problem with their girlfriends, family, anyone, and they’re making this kind of I.E.D.,” Captain Hussein said.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Flat Tires and HIV/AIDS: blame it on the alcohol

Yesterday in the early morning, I had one of those oh-shit moments. Came out to get in the car for the 40 minute drive to an 8:30 class only to find a tire flat--not much time to spare and none to spare on the spare.

Ha! Daughter home from college with car and no plans until late in the afternoon. I'll just borrow her car--which was once mine, paid for by me, and insured by me. But, definitely, not mine anymore. Its a bit strange tooling down the highway over-accessorized. In front of me attached to the dashboard are fuzzy pink bunnies, fuzzy pink balls, and various figurines; stuffed animals peek at me from door pockets and over my should strapped into the middle seat belt, one Commander Cuddles, a large stuffed bear clutching red felt flowers to his fuzzy chest in a gesture of joy and supplication.

Once my eyes settled in, my ears started to notice the difference. Gone were my presets and, suddenly, I was listening to the morning show on HOT Hits957 and their special segment entitled "Whatcha doing at the Courthouse". Way. Check out the live interviews here.

Next up some actual music, specifically, that fine love song "Blame it on the Alcohol". Its your basic rationalization song--rationalization supplied by Jamie Foxx and T. Pain (stand up guy, uh?). Lyrics here. We watched the video in class today. Opie. WTF? Of course, my students had all the inside scoop, all the principal celebs featured in the male fantasy got together at our POTUS' inauguration. I blame it on the alcohol. Here is the Obama spoof version.

Why did we watch it? Does one have any difficulty arguing that maybe Africans aren't any more sexually promiscuous than us or that a woman might find it difficult to demand the use of condom in a sexual encounter, or that she might be viewed as a submissive object, or even the more benign "shit happens" after seeing that? Case closed.

I kinda missed Commander Cuddles today. It is strangely comforting to be playing Morgan Freeman to a fuzzy bear's Miss Daisy.

Oh the flat tire? Wasn't nothing but a nail.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Jared Diamond Post at Crooked Timber: Just Because....

Feeling somewhat frustrated with the lack of coherency in all the never-ending discussion, I posted this up at Crooked Timber where the thread of comments on their post, Diamond's Vengeance seems never-ending:

Perhaps, it is true that we need a more populist voice for Anthropology because there is much very basic anthropology getting lost in this thread and, I might add, the exchanges at Savage Minds.

When I conducted my fieldwork in the 1980’s and 1990’s (before IRB’s), I was told many a story in a pick-up truck. Those stories were the jumping off point for my research. I would have followed that story up with formal interviews, with the notebook out, quotes recorded as carefully as possible, and having obtained informed consent as to what would be recorded and what published. It would have taken a long time to contextualize the meaning of that story. (Read that last sentence, carefully, because it speaks volumes about what Jared Diamond failed to do.)

The ethics dilema: As an anthropologist, I am compelled to “do no harm”. The determination of harm can only come from a detailed participant observation experience in which we struggle (with much weakness and some arrogance) to determine the consequences of our research. I, myself, have a pile of fieldnotes with names, dates, and detailed stories. In graduate school at Northwestern, where there is a large African studies program, we young students—anthropologists, historians, and political scientists, alike—drank many a beer while pondering the fate of our yet uncollected notes: should we keep them ourselves, place them on deposit in the library to be viewed upon request, seal them up with a 30 year rule. But, most importantly, how will we know what is “harm” when we doing that recording? At no time would we have concluded that a story in a pick up truck from one individual admitting to acts deemed illegal in a modern nation-state be appropriate for publication. This would clearly be harm. This is clearly unethical.

(I often point out to my students that a film like China Blue, which was made inside the PRC with hidden cameras, could not have been made by an anthropologist. We are simply not permitted those liberties according to our ethical codes.)

But back to our main point. Diamond’s ethical lapse reveals the reasons why we cannot place any stock in his anaylsis. Diamond, apparently, had no rapport with what we anthropolgists might call a research population. He did not have the kind of on-going, “boots on the ground” (if you will permit the tortured metaphor), hard-fought, give and take relationship with the individuals he purports to discuss. Had he that relationship, we would not be having this debate. Nor would we be speculating on his possible alternate motives. It would not be about him, if you will; rather, we would be discussing the data that he brings to the table, the multiplicity of stories and discussions that he should be citing to support his argument. But that would have been just another boring ethnography and, after all, who wants to read that?

I venture to say that the story seemed “sellable” because it tapped into that great white hunter/intrepid explorer meme. Driving with savages is way more cool than watching birds or sweating over fieldnotes. Sucks to be professional and ethical. (Before everyone jumps on the bitter anthropologist attack, I am laughing my ass off in this last bit.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

HTS and Barack Obama's Mother: Whose "Anthropology"

I have been kind of amused to see some discussion on other anthro blogs about the Human Terrain System and the idea that Barack Obama should know better than to support that endeavour because his mother was an Anthropologist.

But let's unpack that baggage shall we. What kind of anthropologist was she? Barack Obama's mother worked, at various times, for the Ford Foundations, USAID, and the World Bank. I have some sympathy for the work she was trying to do. I, myself, tried my stint with USAID in Tanzania. In the end, I realized how badly I was fooling myself: it is neocolonial. It is what we used to call; interference. Plain and simple. It isn't really anthropology. Not my kind.

I understand the seduction of it. Before I attempted it, I had already had a full fieldwork experience in Tanzania which left me in a kind of personal belief limbo. Flying into Newark (my Grandparents live in Jersey) we came right by the Statue of Liberty. With my fieldnotes piled high in my lap (yes the flight attendants were not happy with me but it was another time), I burst into tears at the sight of her. I was coming home. I felt the beginnings of relief. Good bye to the worries of clean water. I spent a full year plotting access to boiled water. It was always on my mind. Many things were always on my mind in Tanzania. They weren't in America.

Later would come the guilt. When you are offered the opportunity to "do something" about the guilt, is is very seductive. In the end, if you are very honest, you realize that development work like that, is all about you and your relationship with the guilt, or some other psychological reason. Because, in reality, there is, always, someone there, "in-country", one of "them", who can do better than you. There is always someone there that can do better than "us". And "us" is busy trying to create them anew in our image. It is our own arrogance that makes "us" want to save "them". And perhaps, perhaps "they" should be saved from "us". No?

But sometimes nationalistic sentiment prevails and perhaps a bit of personal arrogance, and perhaps a bit of professional arrogance, as well. And, maybe just maybe that is what Barack Obama learned from his mother. For to work for USAID or to become President of the United States, or to be an Anthropologist under the Human Terrain System means that you place America first and Anthropology second. For Anthropology recognizes the danger of thinking any one person or any one nation is better than any other and has the right to drive another's bus. At least, my anthropology does.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shooting People: A Largely Unteachable Moment in Texas

I really, really don't know how to teach anymore. Now, I recognize that I am tired. I got all my grades in for 7 classes (our load is 5 but I teach two extra--daughter at University, you know) and immediately started a Spring Mini, I don't know who all out there in anthropology/college land do those types of things. One semester in three weeks--that is three and a half hours a day for five days a week. So, yes, I am tired. I am white-knuckling it through these three weeks and then I will be teaching only online until the Fall. I am thinking of staying at home with salt and vinegar potato chips and a jug of wine until then. But, even so; I am fairly certain I have reached some crises moment--the moment when my students scare the shit out of me.

They seem perfectly happy with the idea of shooting people. They want to shoot the New Guinea Highlanders who run down hills toward them with stone spears. They want to shoot people in the parking lot if they are stealing their pick-up truck, they want to shoot supposed thieves in the yard of the next-door the they run away. And now they can have guns on campuses and in the national parks--two of my favorite locations in the good old U.S. of A. In a world in which asking a student to stop texting in class rates a "dis" on rate my professor how can you begin to have a reasonable discussion of the issue. Not that I can remember the last time I had a serious discussion in class....not when I have to waste so much class time explaining that the pyramids where not built by aliens.

And they feel frustrated with me. I am naive and stupid for not wanting to defend myself. To them, I seem to be lacking some important, natural defense mechanism. I wonder if the vehemence of their opinions and their attack on me implies an underlying insecurity in their position. Okay, I made that up to make myself feel better.

I suppose the only consolation is that the one University of Texas student in the class looks as confused as I am. Perhaps that means that we will not shoot each other.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who Among Us Did Not Get a Big, Old Stiffy?

Oh man, that did it for me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Video Killed the Radio Star

Argh! Ever since I put my classes online, I can't get a classroom version to make in the summer. And they will all happily log and only half will finish. We can't rewind we've gone too far.

Monday, May 11, 2009

No Soup for Me

Let us instead ask the essential question: how are we to be taken seriously as an academic discipline when our own ethical debates are being conducted unethically?

Seriously, people. Seriously.

(Thanks to the World's Most Beautiful Sociology Professor and Queen of all Seinfeld references for the blog title.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

FGM versus Female Genital Cutting, again...and on Mother's Day....Oye

I am probably behind the times, as usual, but I just noticed this nice little, succinct article with a pithy title at The American Prospect:

Rights Versus Rites: When it comes to the lives of women around the globe, do local traditions ever trump human rights? Michelle Goldberg | April 28, 2009

One of those pieces were the media is catching up with our own anthropological debate; it, once again, explores the arguments of Fuambai Ahmadu and Richard Shweder, which I assume we all know well?

Those of you who are looking for usable links for students, many are contained here at the NYT's Tierney Lab blog, I link them up on Blackboard for my students as readers of this blog may recall, we have, as yet, limited journal access at my institution of lower learning. That particular blog post resulted from the 2007 AAA discussions about the issue.

Anyway, what I like about The American Prospect Piece is the way the journalist tried to push the discussion beyond the polemic and the cause du jour of what she labels "fashionable thirdworldism" to suggest we might want to, actually, pay attention to what is happening "on the ground", so to speak. At least, that is the implication when she tells us the story of Agnes Pareyio (who was honored as UN in Kenya person of the year), a story just as meaningful as that of Fuambai Ahmadu.

Unfortunately, I don't think she truly embraced where her story lead her. Maybe just maybe all female genital cuttings aren't the same and maybe just maybe all Africans aren't the same. Could we (whoever "we" are), as Socet laments in his comment on the last blog post, stop viewing everything from the us/them lens and try for some more nuanced understandings of locally produced meanings. I, personally, always thought that was what our discipline did best. You know, bottoms up, you all...not tops down.

Oh, and by the way...sometimes Maasai women don't look like "Maasai women". Shocking, isn't it.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Reason Number 5,782,496 Why Anthropologists Are a Pain in the Ass

Conversation on the way to the photocopier:

Psych person anxious to share with me his desire to spread the gospel of Service Learning: "My students had such a good experience helping to build homes for Katrina victims in New Orleans when we went a couple of years ago. It really gave them perspective on their lives. It really achieved what I wanted. They really felt sorry for those people."

Pamthropologist: "I am not really sure I want my students feeling sorry for people, that whole superiority thing, you know."

Psych person: "What do you mean?"

Pamthropologist sliding further down the hall and feeling awk...ward having only just realized where this was going because she was too busy wondering if the copier had been fixed and forgot to be diplomatic and was her usual blunt self: "Well, you know, my discipline isn't really comfortable with the idea of creating an us/them perspective which pits the "other" as the victim. We kind of like the idea of meeting as equals. Plus, we aren't, necessarily, into the whole idea of having students have "emotional" experiences. We look at things a bit more analytically. Oh my, look at the time must get this done."

PNG Witchcraft Accusations and Teachable Moments

An interesting (and, as expected, nasty) discussion is brewing over The Independent's coverage of witchcraft killings in Papua New Guinea at a story posted up today, entitled "Witch Hunts,Murder, and Evil in Papua New Guinea (interesting choice of words, non?). Too bad we are not, actually, teaching at the moment because I think it would be a good spark for student discussion. Since, I show First Contact in the cultural class every semester, students have some context for understanding the potential issues.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

*sigh* Its that time of year

Its hard to write free-wheeling posts these days and harder to look outward. The end of the Spring semester is upon us and that feeling of siege has begun. My compassion meter is on zero and I feel pretty sure, I am incapable of a wise decision.

Go away English pig-dogs. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt like elderberries. Or something like that.

I wish I could chuck a cow at someone.

The best thing about this post? A complete absence of porcine references. This post is swine-free.

Fetchez la vache.