anthro in the news 11/23/2015


As of November 21, Brussels was on high alert for a possible terrorist attack. source: Smirnoff, Creative Commons

What does ISIS want?

CBS (Minnesota) carried a brief interview with cultural anthropologist William Beeman of the University of Minnesota. He addresses the question: What does ISIS want? He says ISIS is seeking to recreate the Islamic caliphate that was active in the Islamic world from the time of the Prophet to 1926 when the caliph was abandoned: “They would like the entire world to be Muslim, but they want the world to be Muslim in a very, very narrowly defined manner…They are fundamentalist Muslims and their idea of Islam is quite different from the rest of the Islamic world…They want the U.S. to declare war in the worst way…by doing battle, they think they will eventually succeed, they eventually will conquer and establish their domination over the world…it’s a bit of megalomania.”


source: Creative Commons

Combating “homegrown” terrorism in France

John Bowen, Dunbar-Cleve Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about how France can combat “homegrown terrorism”

What can France do? I leave aside the questions of border security, surveillance and military strategy in Syria: Those are above my pay grade. But I have two recommendations for how President Francois Hollande can improve matters at home. One, break the isolation. Continue efforts already begun to redesign the urban landscape so that it encourages a sense of national belonging rather than a sense of exclusion. Cease the repeated efforts to stigmatize practicing Muslims with silly rules banning face coverings in public or preventing school officials from offering non-pork meal options to children. The French prize their laïcité — their strict separation of church and state — but there should be room for religious observance in a free, open society. Second, recognize that mainstream Islamic teachers are part of the solution. Many have worked hard to build cultural associations and religious schools, where young people can learn a more complex and responsible idea of Islam. Understand that they base their teachings in a centuries-old body of work, as do Catholic, Jewish and other religious scholars, and stop telling them to devise a brand new “French Islam.” They are citizens or long-term residents of France and participants in global networks of religious scholarship. Whether they help in religious schools or as chaplains in the prisons, they need much more recognition and support from the French state.


anthro in the news 11/16/15


France as terrorist target

ATTN (France) published an article documenting recent terrorist attacks in France along with commentary from cultural anthropologist John Bowen’s article in Time. January 8, 2015, following the Hebdo attack. Bowen, who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote that the causes of the many attacks in France are complex and include France’s longstanding connections with Islam and its large Muslim population which is 7.5 percent of the total.


Sickness and the city

The Financial Times reported on findings from a study led by researchers at University College London (UCL), which sheds light on why most diabetes sufferers live in cities. Risk factors include increased junk food consumption, lack of safe spaces for exercise, social isolation, and economic inequalities. The research was based on interviews with diabetics and those at risk of the disease in five cities: Copenhagen, Houston, Mexico City, Shanghai, and Tianjin. The goal is to develop policies to break the link between diabetes and urbanization. The article provides commentary from David Napier, professor of medical anthropology at UCL, who said that, by focusing on medical factors, traditional research has failed to capture “the social and cultural drivers” that made urban populations especially vulnerable to type 2 diabetes, the type often linked to obesity. Napier noted that policymakers and urban planners must come up with strategies to promote healthier living in cities to avoid accelerating the growth of diabetes and other chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer.



anthro in the news 11/9/2015


Enset is a survivor when other plants die. credit: DW/J. Brewer

A traditional African food crop is money in the bank

An article in Deutsche Welle described the importance of enset, a staple crop in parts of Ethiopia, in the past and future, given the effects of climate change in the region.  Endemic to Ethiopia, the plant has been cultivated there for more than 7,000 years. Often called the “false banana” because of its similarity to the banana tree, it can withstand droughts as well as heavy rains. The article quotes Gebre Ynitso, associate professor in the department of social anthropology at Addis Ababa University: “[As a child] I would play hide-and-go seek in the dense enset plantation.” He helped his parents transplant the enset and made toys out of its roots. He and his fellow villagers tended the towering plant and harvested its roots and leaves for food and collected its fibers to weave into hats, sacks, and mattresses. “No part of the plant went to waste…One of the unique qualities of the enset is that it will always be around as a backup plan,” he said. “It’s like money in the bank.”


Cultural context of mental illness

The New York Times published an op-ed by cultural anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor at Stanford University. She writes about how cultural context affects definitions of mental illness in Chicago, the U.S., and Chennai, India. From her perspective as an American, she notes: “If psychotic homelessness were an easy problem to solve, we would have already done so. But we aren’t going to do so until we recognize that the streets in different places have their own cultures. To reach the people who need our help we need to understand what it means to be crazy in their world.” Luhrmann highlights the work of a local NGO in Chennai, called The Banyan, which is help homeless women and their families.


anthro in the news 11/2/2015

Arizona desert. source: Creative Commons

The killing field of Arizona

Pacifica Public Radio [U.S.] aired a piece on the implications of the election of Republican Paul Ryan to speaker of the House of Representatives for U.S. immigration policy. It included commentary by Jason de León, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and director of the Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term anthropological study of clandestine border crossings between Mexico and the United States. León is author of The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. He uses a combination of ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, and forensic science to critique “Prevention through Deterrence,” describing the U.S. border enforcement policy as one that steers migrants to cross in extremely harsh environmental conditions with a high risk of death.  According to de Léon, this policy has failed to deter border crossers for two decades while turning the rugged terrain of southern Arizona into a killing field.


Do you believe in magic? Surveys not the right tool to find out

Christian cemetery. source: Creative Commons

An article in the Irish Times about “spooky” phenomena and supernatural beliefs in general quoted Lawrence Taylor, a professor of anthropology at Maynooth University and the author of Occasions of Faith: An Anthropology of Irish Catholics. He comments that while findings from surveys on supernatural belief are regularly reported, they have little scientific value. The article also mentions the work of archaeologists R. C. Turner and R. G. Scaife who note in the preface to their edited book, Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives, that the discovery of human remains in bogs and marshes has long formed a part of oral history throughout Europe.





anthro in the news 10/26/2015

source: NPR

Happy slaves?

A piece on National Public Radio (U.S.) reported on how the coconut industry in Thailand thrives on the use of the labor of trained monkeys. Some observers claim that this work constitutes animal abuse. Skeptics of allegations of abuse include Leslie Sponsel, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Hawaii:  “…the monkeys are very similar to family pets, and for some households, even like family members to some degree. Young ones are trained, and they are kept on a chain tethered to the handler or to a shelter when not working. They are fed, watered, bathed, groomed and otherwise cared for. They often ride to the coconut palm plantation on the back of a motor bike or in a cart driven by the handler…That is not to say that there is never any cruelty or mistreatment.” Sponsel added that overall he respects “the poor farmers and others who are just trying to survive and prosper in support of their families.” A trained monkey can pick an average 1,000 coconuts a day while a human can manage to pick 80.


Domino effect of violence in northern Afghanistan

Al Jazeera published an op-ed by Morwari Zafar, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at the University of Oxford and visiting scholar in the Institute of Global and International Studies at the George Washington University. She argues that violence in northern Afghanistan threatens the country’s vulnerable populations and jeopardizes stability in the country as a whole. Faryab province used to be a stable, economically self-sufficient home to nearly one million multiethnic inhabitants: “But today, Faryab simmers dangerously. Against the backdrop of the US government’s latest extension of its military commitment to Afghanistan, it is worth noting that the province is precariously situated along the same political fault lines that recently rattled Kunduz province.”




anthro in the news 10/19/2015


source: The Independent

Muslim refugees and culture talk

The Independent (Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada) carried an article about Canada’s failure to help with the current Middle East refugee crisis, drawing on the fact that Alan Kurdi, the child refugee found dead on a Turkish beach, had an aunt in British Columbia, who had appealed without success to the Immigration Minister to help get the family to Canada. This episode highlights the erosion of government support for refugees with the odds of being granted asylum have declined since 2006, when the Conservatives took power.  The article mentions the writings of two Columbia University cultural anthropologists, Lila Abu-Lughod and Mahmood Mamdani. Abu-Lughod argued in a 1991 essay that policy narratives used the “plight of Muslim women” to justify making war after 9/11 at the expense of analyzing the historical development of those contexts in which “Islamic extremism” flourished. Mamdani diagnosed “culture talk” as a central feature in post-9/11 attempts to find links between Islam and terrorism. Cultural explanations tend to erase history he said: “By equating political tendencies with entire communities … such explanations encourage collective discipline and punishment – a practice characteristic of colonial encounters. They also imply that people’s “identities are shaped entirely by the supposedly unchanging culture into which they are born.”  The Conservatives in Canada insist they are not targeting Muslims as such. Rather, they claim to be speaking for “Canadian values,” including those of “the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are moderate Muslims.” As Mamdani says, they are pitting “good Muslims” against “bad Muslims,” placing the burden on individual Muslims to prove that they are on the right side.


source: BBC News

Welcome to the neighborhood

BBC News carried an article by Irish anthropologist Martina Tyrrell of the University of Exeter has studied the relationship between humans and animals in Arviat, an Inuit community on the west coast of Hudson Bay for fifteen years. The townspeople are increasingly having to cope with polar bears in town. In the past it was rare for bears to enter the town, but now in the summer and autumn, it’s becoming a part of everyday life. Encounters with bears are common, but harm to either humans or bears is rare.



Time for tobacco-state politicians to make ‘adult choice’ on Pacific trade agreement

By Gerry Everding

If Republican senators from tobacco-growing southern states believe in social responsibility, they would fully explore the TransPacific (TPP) trade agreement’s potential impact on countries around the world — including provisions that influence the ability of American tobacco corporations to flood the globe with cheap, cancer-causing cigarettes — suggests the author of a book on the history, social costs and global politics of the tobacco industry.


“One of the great paradoxes of tobacco,” said Peter Benson, PhD, associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, “is that while the U.S. government and public health community became increasingly aware of the harms of tobacco, the trade wing of the American government has been busy fighting for the expansion of new markets in the developing world, where they want people to purchase American-made cigarette products, like Marlboros.”

Benson, the author of “Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry” (Princeton University Press, 2012), has conducted years of research on the industry, including months working alongside farmers and migrant workers in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. (more…)

anthro in the news 10/12/2015


Caption: Artemisia annua which yields an anti-malarial drug [source: Wikipedia].

Caption: Artemisia annua which yields an anti-malarial drug, source: Wikipedia

Nobel Prize catalyzes controversy in China


The New York Times reported on reactions in China about its first Nobel prize in science which was awarded to Tu Youyou, a retired researcher who worked at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences) in Beijing. The award recognizes her role in extracting the malaria-fighting compound Artemisinin from the plant Artemisia annua. It is the first time China has won a Nobel Prize in a scientific discipline. Bu the award has refueled a longstanding debate in China between Western science approaches to medicine and Chinese traditional medicine. Critics of the award say that it valorizes Western science while seeming to recognize traditional Chinese medicine. The article quotes Volker Scheid, an anthropologist at the University of Westminster in London who refers to Chinese traditional medicine:  “It’s part of the nation, but the nation of China defines itself as a modern nation, which is tied very much to science…So this causes a conflict.”


source: Wikipedia

Guinea elections

The New York Times carried an article about the presidential election in Guinea, noting that ethnic clashes marked the last presidential election threaten to resurface. President Alpha Conde is running against seven candidates in the West African nation that has been hard hit by the Ebola crisis. The main opposition leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo, is the same man he ultimately defeated in a 2010 election marked by clashes between their supporters along ethnic lines. The article quotes Mike McGovern, a West Africa expert and associate professor of anthropology at University of Michigan: “What Ebola has made clear is many ordinary Guineans’ deep mistrust of government.”


anthro in the news 10/5/15


The Vatican, source: Creative Commons

An anthropologist meets the Pope

The Huffington Post published an article by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, medical anthropologist at the University of California Berkeley, describing her visit to the Vatican in April at the invitation of Pope Francis. The Pope convened an international meeting of experts to discuss human trafficking and modern slavery.  Scheper-Hughes writes:  “…he is an incredibly happy man, a man at peace with himself and with the world. He seems comfortable in his skin. But most of all, he is fearless. Although he still ends most encounters with the petition, “Pray for me,” he is smiling and radiant. In accepting the heavy cargo that is the papacy, with all of its entanglements, intrigues, risks and dangers, and its daily uncertainties, Pope Francis is calm and reassuring.”


A 481-foot drug tunnel in Nogales discovered in 2014. source: USA Today

Smugglers’ tunnels give U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security a bad name

Nogales International (Arizona) reported on the situation in Nogales, a city in Arizona that accounts for most of the 183 cross-border tunnels between Mexico and the U.S. that have been discovered  since the mid-1990s. The article draws on commentary from cultural anthropologist Howard Campbell of the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied drug trafficking in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. He said that tunnel trafficking is just a small part of the overall drug smuggling picture: “Although it’s very colorful and exciting, it’s not really important for the overall volume, except for short periods of time…” He added that other researchers have found that the “majority of drugs, in terms of value…actually cross through ports of entry.” Campbell suggested the Border Patrol’s interest in rooting out tunnels has less to do with how many loads pass through them than with their symbolic value. With the Department of Homeland Security spending billions of dollars annually on agents and technology, smugglers outwitting their efforts with shovels and pickaxes doesn’t look good: “The tunnels really give the Border Patrol and Homeland Security a bad name.”


anthro in the news 9/28/15

Mural in New York City, September 2015 (Source: Anthony DelMundo / NY Daily News)

What the Pope said

Two media sources included commentary from anthropologists about the Pope’s messages during his visit to the United States. The Real News Network (TRNN television) provides a transcript of a panel discussion in which Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley discussed the Pope’s language about and position on capitalism and how his message does or does not resonate with poor people in Latin America.  KNPR (Nevada) aired a discussion about the implications of the Pope’s U.S. speeches for the state of Nevada, including insights from Kevin Rafferty, archaeologist and professor at the College of Southern Nevada where he chairs the department of human behavior.


Hostess Cupcake (Creative Commons, public domain)

Food studies and activism rising

KQED (California) reported on the rising popularity of food studies courses and degree programs on U.S. campuses as well as student food activism. The piece mentioned Emory University’s Peggy Barlett, professor of anthropology, who has introduced several food courses including the Anthropology of Coffee and Chocolate and Fast Food/Slow Food. Indiana University, which established the first Ph.D. in the anthropology of food in 2007, reports an upswing in the addition of and student interest in food-related courses; food was a university-wide focus during the spring semester.