anthro in the news 8/31/15

  • Debating the U.S.-Iran deal

The MinnPost (Minneapolis, U.S.) carried an article describing a debate among four scholars about the Iran nuclear deal that was held at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School. Anthropologist William Beeman of the University of Minnesota, who travels to Iran frequently, argued that Iran never was seeking nuclear weapons; thus all of the concessions the United States and its negotiating partners have made have only induced Iran to give up something that it wasn’t doing anyway. Beeman favors ratification of the agreement, saying that many who oppose the agreement are motivated by a desire to humiliate Iran and embarrass President Obama. Those who believe it is possible to get back to negotiations to strengthen the deal are engaging in “magical thinking” because the other world powers that had imposed sanctions on Iran have already decided to approve the deal and have moved onto opening trade relations with Iran.

  • Displaced from New Orleans

The Huffington Post carried an article describing the findings of a new report, based on five years of research, on the experiences low-income of black women who were displaced from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The study was led by cultural anthropologist Jane Henrici of the George Washington University and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

  • Pool parties in Damascus

The Wall Street Journal reported on the Syrian government’s attempts to promote life as normal even though the country is in a state of war and the president continues to lose control. For example, the government hosted a conference in May to mark World Migratory Bird Day, even though half the country’s human population have been forced from their homes. Weekend pool parties in Damascus go on as usual despite a water crisis in much of the country. The article quotes Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio: “We’re hearing of these over-the-top parties. It is almost manic in the sense of they’re going over the top to pretend that everything is fine…You know how on the Titanic, as it is sinking, you have the band playing the last few songs? It is sort of like that.” (more…)

anthro in the news 8/24/15

  • Islamic State vision driven by dreams

An article in the Independent (U.K.) draws on a recent paper by Durham University emeritus reader in anthropology Iain Edgar regarding the role of night dreaming in Islam in general and violent sectarian offshoots in particular. Edgar follows IS twitter posts and other sources to learn about dream-motivated activities including frequent dreams about “green birds” – jihadi fighters who are on their way to paradise.

  • New Orleans cuisine ten years after Katrina

Building back better? The Australian Financial Review reported on the changes in the restaurant scene in New Orleans ten years after hurricane Katrina. The article draws on insights from cultural anthropologist David Beriss of the University of New Orleans who points out that the shuffle of post-Katrina cultural influences is just another example of Creole culture expressing itself through food:  “Creolisation – that way of adapting and being in the world – shows up everywhere.” Others express concern about gentrification and loss of a more traditional Creole menu. (more…)

anthro in the news 8/18/15

  • “Blood coming out of her wherever”

National Public Radio (U.S.) carried a piece about cross-cultural attitudes toward menstruation, noting that while negative attitudes about menstruating women are widespread, they are by no means universal. The article was prompted by Donald Trump’s remark during a recent debate that Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” NPR quotes Beverly Strassmann, evolutionary anthropologist and biologist at the University of Michigan who studies menstrual taboos: “Menstrual taboos are so widespread, they’re almost a cultural universal.” Yet the exceptions, societies that treat menstruating women with respect, are important. Alma Gottlieb, professor of cultural anthropology and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, is co-editor with Thomas Buckley of Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, which includes positive examples.

  • So true: Graeberian bullshit jobs

According to an article in the Independent (U.K.), a study has found that more than a third of British workers believe their jobs are meaningless. In 2013, David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, argued in his article, On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, that increasing numbers of jobs are not socially useful and exist only for their own sake.

  • Caucasus ritual: You cannot be sober

The Independent (U.K.) carried an article about an annual summer ritual in a region in the Caucasus Mountains, in Georgia. The event includes horse racing, animal sacrifice, dancing, and beer drinking. The article focuses on the ritual leaders, or khevisberi, and provides commentary about them from Kevin Tuite, professor of anthropology at Montreal University: “Boxing with God,” as he calls it, is the defining experience in becoming a khevisberi. You are haunted by dreams and hallucinations, the deity visits calamities on you and your family, and finally you submit. [Blogger’s note: while a khevisberi is not easily recruited, it seems likely that they would not consider their work as a khevisberi to be meaningless in the Graeberian sense]. (more…)

Fear of falling

By Sean Carey

Remember when your mother or other responsible adult told you as a small child to tie your shoelaces so you would not trip and fall? I do. And I’ve carried out that hard-to-learn-as-a child-shoelace-tying maneuver ever since.

Now, my tying skill is used on a pair of old running shoes, which, with the over-cushioned insoles removed, I find very comfortable for everyday walking. The shoes do though have very long laces.  Even when tied with a double knot, the laces create large loops.

Two weeks ago I was walking along a footpath, shod in my favorite running shoes. Heading in the direction of my local bank, I become aware that the tip of my right shoe is caught in one of the loops of my left shoe. It’s happened several times before, and I’ve always managed to quickly disentangle myself without taking a tumble.

This time I’m not so lucky.

My foot is well and truly stuck. Down I go, breaking the fall with the palm of my right hand. The pain is excruciating, especially as I land on a hard surface composed of small stones. I roll over onto my right shoulder. I am aware that the area around my right eye has just skimmed the ground. That part of my head hurts. I swear a lot, both at the injuries and my own stupidity for not being more careful to prevent something like this happening to me.

A few weeks previously on TV I watched Australian Olympic gold medallist, Sally Pearson, fall after hitting a barrier in the women’s 100m hurdles at a Diamond League meeting in Rome. She landed on her hand. I winced while watching the slow-motion replay. Later, an orthopaedic surgeon described Pearson’s injury as a “bone explosion” in her wrist, which highlights the delicacy of the human hand bones even in very fit young people. Those images, of Pearson sitting on the track in agony, and the information about her multiple broken bones flash through my mind as I lie on the ground. (more…)

anthro in the news 8/10/15

  • Politics and dirty water: A recipe for poor health

An article in the Mail and Guardian (South Africa) describes the role of politics in the mishandling of water treatment in South Africa  It is includes comments from Mary Galvin, associate professor in the department of anthropology and development studies at the University of Johannesburg. She says municipalities ignore both directives and incentives to improve their treatment works.

  • The life of flags

House in Memphis, Tennessee. Credit: Thomas R. Machnitzki.

Robin Conley, assistant professor of anthropology at Marshall University in West Virginia, is lead author of an article in the Huffington Post about the Confederate flag controversy in the U.S.: “Recent challenges to displays of the Confederate flag have created an ironic outcome; its presence is in fact more ubiquitous than before the challenges began. This resurgence is not just found among those championing the Confederate flag as a symbol of state’s rights, or a symbol of a southern identity (that may or may not include an overtly racist agenda). Every time the use of the flag is questioned or criticized, for example when a picture of two white men waving the flag proudly is recirculated as a reminder of the hatred that potentially drives their actions, it appears again. Thus, in efforts to assure its invisibility, it has in fact become even more visible.” (more…)

anthro in the news 8/3/15

  • Seeking Angelina lips

The Globe and Mail reported on the growing use by women in Canada of cosmetic surgery, pointing to a look that is called “richface.” The article includes insights from Alexander Edmonds, professor of social and medical anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and author of Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. She says: “Part of the draw of duck lips is that some people like the artificial look. I am reminded of anorexia– which is not only a disorder of eating, but a disorder of perception. There is an addictive quality to cosmetic surgery that can alter, not just the body, but the perception of what is natural, artificial or beautiful.”

  • Military neuroscience: Too delicious to ignore

As reported by the Washington Post, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is increasingly funding research about the brain. One of its lesser known research endeavors is its Narrative Networks project which aims to understand how narratives influence human thought and behavior. Psychologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology recruited undergraduates to be hooked up to MRI machines and watch short movie clips. The excerpts featured a character facing a potential negative outcome and were taken from suspenseful movies, including Alfred Hitchcock movies as well as Alien, Misery, Munich and Cliffhanger. Researchers found that when suspense grew, brain activity in viewers’ peripheral vision decreased. Moments of increasing suspense were also associated with greater interference with a secondary task. Thus, an “emotional threat” affects a person’s attention both spatially (vision) and conceptually (across different tasks).

The article refers to a critical perspective on such research from Hugh Gusterson: “[m]ost rational human beings would believe that if we could have a world where nobody does military neuroscience, we’d all be better off. But for some people in the Pentagon, it’s too delicious to ignore.” Gusterson is professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University. (more…)

anthro in the news 7/27/15

  • The past as present in the Greek referendum

Cultural anthropologist Daniel M. Knight published an article in the Huffington Post describing how people in Greece at the time of the referendum vote discussed “discussed their fears and aspirations for the future through extensive reference to poignant pasts.” Knight, an Addison Wheeler Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University and Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Observatory, London School of Economics and Political Science, stated:

“I have written at length about the significance of the past in the way Greeks experience the current economic turmoil. As I argue in my recent book, History, Time, and Economic Crisis in Central Greece, the cultural and temporal ‘proximity’ of selective moments of the past help people understand dramatic social change. By embodying moments of the past, locals discuss their fears of returning to previous epochs of hardship while drawing courage that even the worst crises can be overcome.”

  • Rihanna and David Graeber: Connect the dots

An article in the Financial Times reviews Rihanna’s latest video, Bitch Better Have My Money, noting that the video’s fictional events are thought to be connected to Rihanna’s personal fury at a former accountant: “In the song’s seven-minute video, the Barbadian singer is depicted kidnapping the beautiful wife of a character called The Accountant. Torture and unpleasantness ensue. On failing to secure a ransom for the bound and gagged blonde, Rihanna kills (spoiler): him.”

The article points out that accountants, like lawyers, “are adepts of a system of codes and regulations that the rest of us are bound by but do not understand. In his book, Debt, anthropologist David Graeber traces the history of accountancy to Sumerian temple administrators in 3500BC. From its inception the practice of weighing up people’s debts and credits was infused with religion. The financialisation of morality, Graeber argues, is the root meaning of money.” (more…)

Kinship has consequences: Ben Affleck not so different from British Bangladeshis

By Sean Carey

Hollywood star Ben Affleck’s attempt to suppress a story about a slave-owning ancestor of his has caused something of a furore, especially in the U.S. The information about Benjamin Cole, a great-great-great grandparent on Affleck’s mother’s side, who was “trustee” of seven slaves in Georgia, came to light after Affleck agreed to participate in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) genealogy programme Finding Your Roots.

Affleck, a self-defined “moderately liberal guy”, was horrified when the information about Cole was brought to his attention by researchers. So he decided to lean on the show’s producers to omit this detail before transmission last October, as he evidently felt that this information contaminated his public and private self. “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” he revealed on Facebook after he was forced to apologize once his attempted cover-up was revealed by WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post invoked cultural anthropologist Franz Boas’ demolition of “scientific racism” (in which character and behavior among groups or “races” are  supposedly  aligned with biologically inherited characteristics such as skin, hair or eye colour) to reassure Affleck that his “embarrassing” ancestor had zero input into his own character or personality. “If your grandfather was a louse that has no more bearing on you than if your neighbor is one as well,” declared political columnist Richard Cohen. “We may be our brother’s keeper, but we are not carbon copies of our ancestors.”

Cohen’s reprimand to Affleck that he was “dumb to pressure PBS” is itself interesting. That attitude fits Western-type hyper-individualist cultures, where family bonds are typically weak or restricted though not completely absent. Even, I surmise, in Hollywood or in the offices of the Washington Post.

Moreover, although Cohen is undoubtedly correct about the errors of scientific racism, his view that it’s possible to erase one’s family origins or standing is unlikely to gain traction among many contemporary groups in which kinship and perceptions of honour and shame are closely intertwined. (more…)

anthro in the news 7/20/15

  • Trending: #BoycottGermany

BBC News carried an article about the social media buzz on boycotting German products in protest of its position on Greece. #BoycottGermany was first mentioned on Twitter in connection with the Greek crisis last weekend, but started picking up on Monday. At the time of the article’s publication, the hashtag had been used more than 30,000 times. One of the most retweeted messages came from David Graeber, American anarchist activist and anthropology professor at the London School of Economics. He references the post-World War II cancellation of debts accrued by the Nazi regime:

“My proposal: Germany now morally obliged to repay Nazi debt canceled in 1953. With interest. We must #BoycottGermany until they do.” David Graeber (@davidgraeber) July 13, 2015

  • Overkill on the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal

Cultural anthropologist William Beeman, professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, critiqued the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal in the Huffington Post: “The deal is, in fact, overkill. There is no evidence anywhere that Iran had, has or will have a nuclear weapons program and that mere enrichment of uranium–something 19 other non-nuclear weapons countries do without any complaints from the US–is not tantamount to weapons manufacture, the inspections regime negotiated in the Vienna accords are quite incredible–the most serious ever enacted anywhere.” (more…)

anthro in the news 7/13/15

  • Mexico is not just a U.S. add-on

The U.S. needs to move beyond this

US-Mexico relations could improve with U.S. recognition of positive aspects of Mexican culture and legalizing marijuana in order to break the cartels. An article in the Guardian quotes Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso:

“We need to change the discourse about Mexico. Americans need to get beyond saying they like Mexican food and accept that these countries are joined at the hip…Mexico is a permanent part of American culture. Let’s embrace it as part of the country, not some kind of add-on.”

  • Ben Affleck: Please meet Boas

An article in the Washington Post has this lead: “To fully appreciate how dumb Ben Affleck was to pressure PBS into censoring any mention of a slave-owning ancestor, you have to know something about Franz Boas. He was the father of American anthropology, a Columbia University professor who repudiated the doctrine of scientific racism — the idea that you are pretty much what your grandfather was.”

Affleck prevailed on the producers of Finding Your Roots, and its host, Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., to erase mention of Benjamin Cole, a slave-owning ancestor of Affleck’s. The article concludes that Affleck should not worry about his ancestry: “If your grandfather was a louse that has no more bearing on you than if your neighbor is one as well. We may be our brother’s keeper, but we are not carbon copies of our ancestors.”

The series has been suspended on the grounds of Affleck’s  “undue influence.” (more…)