object lesson: dolls on an anthropologist’s shelf

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You can learn about a culture by looking at iconic artwork or inspiring architecture — and also by examining seemingly mundane cultural products like dolls.

Dana Professor of Anthropology Loring Danforth makes that point when he teaches the course “Myth, Folklore, and Popular Culture.”

“The first book we read,” he says, “is Barbie’s Queer Accessories,” by Erica Rand, the college’s Whitehouse Professor of Art and Visual Culture.

Rand’s book, combined with Barbie’s powerful and familiar image, provides a “good vehicle to get people thinking about gender, class, sexuality, sexual orientation, and race in American culture,” he says.

But Barbie is only half the story.


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anthro in the news 2/13/17

Contemporary version of a blue-eyed doll Source: covermyfb
Contemporary version of a blue-eyed doll Source: covermyfb

dolls in international relations

The Japan Times published an op-ed by Hirokazu Miyazaki, professor of anthropology at Cornell University and director of its Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies: “One hundred years ago this month, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917. The law was intended to keep out broad categories of immigrants, including those who were illiterate, indigent or mentally ill. It also barred entry to people from wide swaths of Asia and the Pacific. Japanese and Filipinos were exempted, but seven years later President Warren Harding pushed through an even stiffer measure, the Immigration Act of 1924, which extended the restrictions to citizens of Japan. The Japanese government protested, as did many American citizens and civil society groups. When it became clear there was little chance of changing the minds of the president or Congress, a man named Sidney Gulick decided to turn his attention to the next generation.” And thus began the exchange of dolls between Japan and the U.S. 

reflection on racism in the U.S.

Caption: President Barack Obama speaks during the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on September 24, 2016.
Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Caption: President Barack Obama speaks during the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on September 24, 2016.
Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The latest piece on U.S. public radio by Barbara J. King, emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, is a reflection on her visit to the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “As I walked along, I experienced moments of emotion. Yet I was also aware, acutely so, that for some people also visiting the museum that afternoon, a ‘highly personal moment’ would be rooted in experiences I could never truly fathom. For decades, I taught College of William and Mary students about race and racism from the point of view of anthropology — explaining that race is not a biologically meaningful category, and sharing the American Anthropological Association’s statement that ‘the racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.” A white American, she concludes by commenting that teaching important facts is not the same as living them. 


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on cinematic anthropology, the use of sensation in ethnographic filmmaking

Professor Lisa Stevenson at the event. Source: Claire Avisar
Professor Lisa Stevenson at the event. Source: Claire Avisar

To most people, the image of a farm on the outskirts of Montreal, the routine of a professional bodybuilder, and Afghan lullabies have little to do with one another. To students of the Anthropology department’s ANTH 408: Sensory Ethnography course, however, they represent the subjects of a semester’s worth of work documenting, creating, and reflecting upon the process of ethnographic filmmaking.

On January 20, held within the historic limestone walls of Thompson House, McGill’s Anthropology Students’ Association hosted the students, their friends, and professors of a class whose central work focused on sensory ethnography (a practice that privileges audiovisual representations of living subjects and rejects the mediation of dialogue, narration, or subtitles). Prefaced by a cocktail hour, this event provided its attendees an evening of food, drinks, and the chance to engage with the students whose work was showcased. With a set of topics as diverse as their approaches, the films were united under their rich cinematography, experimental approach to the traditional narrative, and the attempt to decode human understandings of the world.

Professor Lisa Stevenson, an associate professor in the department of Anthropology, stepped up to the podium. She expressed pride for her students, along with the central question of the night: what is the value of cinematography over traditional written works?

 

Developed largely during the 20th century – a time of expansion within the discipline of anthropology – ethnography grew out of the schools of cultural and social anthropology as an observation driven method of data collection. Moving beyond bound volumes of empirical analysis, sensory ethnography resides at the intersection of social science and aesthetics. Stevenson emphasized that, instead of drawing on prose as a method of documenting subjects, these student films drew primarily on the power of visual and auditory imagery in unearthing cultural idiosyncrasies. The practice aims to transform current ethnographic methods by creating new ways for researchers to engage with their audiences. The ultimate goal is to shift from data collection to practical knowledge.

What is the value of cinematography over traditional written works?

Through sensory stimulation, researchers elicit reflection and emotion from the viewer. Stevenson explained that although such a style of film might reflect an experimental quality, its loss of linear narrative is purposeful. Without narration or subtitles to guide the viewer, sensory ethnography leaves space for reflexivity and interpretation. Citing Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Stevenson explained that many of the films captured “the imponderabilia of everyday life.” This concept was articulated in films such as Delirium by Timothy Mapley and Rainy Day by Lara Esrey, both showcased at the event, which utilized repetition and routine in order to explore the monotony of consumerism.

Within their documentation of a professional bodybuilder’s daily regimen and an amateur boxing team, respectively, films such as Kinesthesia by Yuki Kasai-Pare and Underdog by Liona Gibbs-Bravo explored the relationship between the montage as a film technique and movement as a human experience. Seeking to show the self-discipline and strength of the human body when pushed to its physical limits, Kinesthesia coupled images of muscles in motion with classical music, the dynamics of which mirrored the intensity of weightlifting. By allowing the audience into their personal workout, the intimate perspective of the film, coupled with stimulating auditory cues, led the piece to succeed in conveying a personal pain that was palpable to the audience.

Instead of drawing on prose as a method of documenting subjects, these student films drew primarily on the power of visual and auditory imagery in unearthing cultural idiosyncrasies.

In contrast to the intensity featured in the aforementioned films, Natural by Julien Renaud and The Present Moment by April Barrett were powerful – but in subtle ways. The films evoked a sensory reaction through an exploration of stillness. Placid and serene, Natural explored nature in the absence of humans, meditating on the passing of time by filling the screen with images of farmland upon winter’s edge. Similar in its awareness of time, The Present Moment staged an encounter between the audience and a community of Roman Catholic nuns. Panning the bright corridors of a church, the smooth camera work enabled the hymnal chatter to prevail as a central feature.

As setting, motion, and sound all helped to develop a focus on what is expressed as sensory, the lighting – or lack thereof – in Sonoluminecnence by Alec Tilly and Lullaby for Kian by Homa Wahabi was equally characteristic of psychedelic trance as it was of the personal elements of one’s bedtime ritual. In the latter film, the tone of a grandmother reciting an Afghan lullaby to her grandchild created a sense of comfort and security. Though many people would not be able to understand her words, the soft, rolling sounds imparted a nostalgia to the moments between consciousness and the verge of being asleep.

Despite their diversity of subject and technique, the films were ultimately unified in their exploration of the use of affect and sensation to explore what it means to be human. Not only did each film succeed in showcasing the curiosity of their makers, but they also effectively passed on their reflexivity to those who had the pleasure of viewing them

Written by:

Visual by: Claire Avisar

Note: This post is republished from The McGill Daily, with permission

 

best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2016

Here are my 50 cultural anthropology dissertation selections for 2016. As in past years, my search was based on Dissertation Abstracts International, an electronic database available through my university library which consists of almost 100 percent U.S. dissertations. As always, I rely only on the abstract of each dissertation as the basis for my selection. I have taken the liberty of trimming long abstracts so that all entries are roughly the same length. My apologies to the authors for any possible offenses created by my editing.

The search terms I used reflect the focus of the anthropologyworks blog: food, resources, and livelihoods; power and politics; health; conflict and violence; population dynamics; stratification including race, class, gender, and age; activism, programs and policies; and the importance of cultural anthropology in describing and analyzing the complexity of these topics within particular and changing contexts – local, regional, and global. 

The selected dissertations of 2016 offer a rich array of topics and approaches. Health-related research predominates. Other recurrent subjects are politics and power, migration, rights, and the effects of policies and programs. Cities are a notably frequent site, while several studies are based on multi-sited research. 

Congratulations to writers of these 50 dissertation. Best wishes to you all.

See also the best cultural anthropology dissertations of 2009, 2010, 2011,20122013, 2014, and 2015.

Altun, Murat. Of conspiracies and men: The politics of evil in Turkey. University of Minnesota.  Advisor: Hoon Song. 

This ethnographic study documents the belief in conspiracy theories in Turkey, a growing conviction that an insider evil agent is stirring the harmony and unity of society. It is based on fieldwork in Northeastern Turkey, where belief in conspiracy theories are prevalent and a folk festival of evil power expulsion is celebrated. I ask: what are the cultural and historical roots of believing in conspiracy theories? The ethnography sheds light on the increasing references to conspiratorial powers in Turkish politics by drawing attention to the conspiratorial thinking in Trabzon, one of the strong voter bases of the governing Justice and Development Party. Kalandar, from its costumes and reenactments to its relation to historical religious conversions and state violence, provides a lens for its participants to interpret the concept of a nation that they imagine to be in constant defense of “insider conspiratorial” threats.

Ananda, Kitana. Politics after a ceasefire: Suffering, protest, and belonging in Sri Lanka’s Tamil Diaspora. Columbia University. Advisor: Daniel, E. Valentine.

This multi-sited ethnographic study concerns the cultural formations of moral and political community among Tamils displaced by three decades of war and political violence in Sri Lanka. Through field research among Tamils in Toronto, Canada, and Tamil Nadu, India, I inquire into the histories, discourses, and practices of diasporic activism at the end of war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Tamils abroad were mobilized to protest the war, culminating in months of spectacular mass demonstrations in metropolitan cities around the world. Participant-observation among activists and their families in diaspora neighborhoods and refugee camps, public events and actions, semi-structured interviews, media analysis, and archival work, reveal how “diaspora” has become a capacious site of political becoming for the identification and mobilization of Tamils within, across, and beyond-nation states and their borders.


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Syrian refugee family thrives in American south


Courtesy of Square, Inc.

by Lesli Davis

A short film produced by Square, Inc. tells the story of a refugee family living in Knoxville, TN.

Yassin Falafel, as some people call him, runs a popular restaurant in downtown Knoxville. After fleeing the war in Syria, he and his family settled in East Tennessee. Initially without a work permit, Yassin began selling his sandwiches at the local mosque. With a little help from an imam at the mosque, Yassin opened his downtown store.

Yassin says that anyone who comes in his restaurant is family – from the fellow refugees he employs to those who have never tried falafel before.

His message is simple: all are welcome.

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Courtesy of Square, Inc.

 

anthro in the news 2/6/17

Bet for Nothing. Source: Hapal. Flickr Creative Commons
Bet for Nothing. Source: Hapal. Flickr Creative Commons

trumped-up conflict with Iran

The Berkeley Daily Planet published an opinion piece by William Beeman, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Minnesota. In his view, “…the Trump administration appears to be renewing the possibility of violent confrontation with Iran using a questionable pretext—Iran’s testing of conventional missiles. No one in the U.S. government or the press seems to understand that Iranian ballistic missiles do not fall under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA (the ‘Iran Deal’). The JCPOA has nothing at all to do with conventional weapons, only nuclear technology. The current controversy over Iran’s missile testing has entirely to do with interpretations of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (20 July 2015), which endorsed the JCPOA after it had been ratified. UNSC Resolution 2231 stated flatly that ALL of the previously existing UN sanctions against Iran were terminated…”

view of U.S. politics from Japan

World. Source: David Flores. Flickr Creative Commons
World. Source: David Flores. Flickr Creative Commons

The Japan news reported on a 2016 poll in the U.S. asking how much the United States should be involved in international disputes. Fifty-three percent of Democratic Party supporters responded that the United States should keep its current level of involvement. Republican Party supporters’ views were divided: 40 percent called for reduced involvement, 30 percent for the current level of involvement and 29 percent for increased involvement. The article includes commentary from Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University, who specializes in cultural anthropology and United States studies. He interprets the results as “indicative of the divide within the Republican Party between the interventionist mainstream and the isolationist Trump supporters.”


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chimps’ behavior following death disturbing to ISU anthropologist

Iowa State Anthropologist Jill Pruetz describes the disturbing behavior following the death of a chimpanzee at her research site in Senegal. She and her colleagues captured what happened on video. Interview by Dave Olson. Video courtesy of Jill Pruetz

Shocking is one word Jill Pruetz uses to describe the behavior she witnessed after a chimp was killed at her research site in Fongoli, Senegal. The fact that chimps would kill a member of their own community is extremely rare – most aggression is between communities – but the abuse that followed was completely unexpected.

“It was very difficult and quite gruesome to watch,” said Pruetz, a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University. “I couldn’t initially make sense of what was happening, and I didn’t expect them to be so aggressive with the body.”

Pruetz has witnessed many things since establishing her research site in 2001. She was the first to document chimps using tools to hunt prey. However, what she observed in 2013 was different. Pruetz and her research team documented the chimps’ behavior after discovering the body of Foudouko, a former leader of the Fongoli community, who was exiled from the group for five years. As Pruetz explains in the video above, the chimps – many of which Pruetz suspects killed Foudouko – abused and cannibalized his body for nearly four hours. Continue reading “chimps’ behavior following death disturbing to ISU anthropologist”