Anthro in the news 4/7/14

• Cultural anthropologists fighting Ebola

National Public Radio (U.S.) reported on the role of cultural anthropology in efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola in Guinea.

Health specialists work in an isolation ward for patients in Guékedou, southern Guinea. Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images.
Specialists at a Guékedou, southern Guinea isolation ward. Seyllou/AFP/Getty

Doctors, nurses and epidemiologists from international organizations are flying in to help, along with cultural anthropologists. Understanding local beliefs can help get communities to trust international health care workers, says Barry Hewlett, a medical anthropologist at Washington State University. Hewlett was invited to join the Doctors Without Borders Ebola team during an outbreak in Uganda in 2000. There are anthropologists on the current team in Guinea as well.

Before the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders started bringing in anthropologists, medical staff had a difficult time convincing families to bring their sick loved ones to clinics and isolation wards. In Uganda, Hewlett remembers, people were afraid of the international health care workers: “The local people thought that the Europeans in control of the isolation units were in a body parts business … Their loved ones would go into the isolation units, and they would never see them come out.”

Health care workers did not always promptly notify relatives of a death because of the need to dispose of the body quickly, Hewlett wrote in a report on his experiences in Uganda: “The anger and bad feelings about not being informed were directed toward health care workers in the isolation unit … This fear could have been averted by allowing family members to see the body in the bag and allowing family members to escort the body to the burial ground.” In addition, Hewlett points out that the large tarps surrounding isolation units were removed so family members could see and talk with a sick relative.

Efforts to contain such outbreaks must be “culturally sensitive and appropriate,” Hewlett says. “Otherwise people are running away from actual care that is intended to help them.” Medical anthropologists can help doctors and other medical experts understand how a local population perceives disease, death, and loss.

• Companies desperately seeking cultural anthropologists

The Business Insider (India) reports that major companies are increasingly hiring cultural anthropologists to inform them about what customers want from a product.

Google, for example, hired an ethnographer to study the meaning of mobile. Intel has an in-house cultural anthropologist, and Microsoft is reportedly the second-largest employer of anthropologists in the world.

Cultural anthropologists can provide customer insights that big data glosses over, especially on the role that products play in people’s lives: What customers want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different; it takes an anthropological lens to learn why.

• Male initiation in South Africa: Keep it or cut it?

The Independent (South Africa) carried an article raising questions about male initiation practices and asking why they still exist, specifically Ulwaluko in Eastern Cape Province.

Schalk van Zuydam/Associated Press
Schalk van Zuydam/Associated Press

The article quotes anthropologist and professor Lamla Masilo at Walter Sisulu University who suggests that Ulwaluko introduces initiates to “new adult discipline” and that as full members of society, young men are expected to uphold their customs and traditions.

Furthermore, all those who have undergone Ulwaluko are expected, among other things, to provide for and protect their families. 

They need to give practical expression to ubuntu: be kind, merciful, compassionate, decent, and be helpful wherever they can or whenever there is a need.

[Blogger’s note: this article raises the question of whether the male counterpart of FGM — female genital mutilation — should enter the discourse, as MGM.]

• Skatepark, American Indian art, and youth

The North Kitsap Herald (Washington State, U.S.) reported on a new skateboard park in Kingston, Washington.

The Coast Salish tribe (S’Klallam culture) is opening a skate park in April supported by the Sheckler Foundation. The foundation, founded by professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, assists projects that benefit and enrich the lives of children and injured athletes. This is the foundation’s first project.

Skate boarder. Flickr Alexandre Dulaunoy
Skate boarder. Flickr/Alexandre Dulaunoy

The Tribe provided the site for the project near the Teekalet neighborhood.

The site was selected by the S’Klallams Working and Giving (SWAG) youth group. Sheckler was discussing the collaboration that resulted in a skatepark with Josh Wisniewski, the Tribe’s archaeologist and cultural anthropologist.

An eagle flew above, almost directly over a Coast Salish painting of an eagle. Maybe the eagle was a sign. “Or not, maybe. Maybe [it] just is,” said Wisniewski.

The skate park reflects the Tribe’s youth and culture and may bolster relationships with people from outside the reservation: “People have perceptions of Native people and communities,” Wisniewski said. “This park is something that kids who are Tribal members can invite their off-reservation friends to come visit. In doing so and sharing the park and the art, they will be able to share their community, culture and language. That is how the park and skateboarding will break down barriers.”

• Afghanistan: It’s different now and who will be the president?

The New Republic, among many other media, mentioned Dr. Ashraf Ghani, one of the leading candidates for president of Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai Wikipedia
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai/Wikipedia

Ghani has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Columbia University and taught in the anthropology department at Johns Hopkins University before moving on into the world of policy and politics.

• The World Bank: It’s different now and so is its president

CNN provided an interview with Jim Yong Kim, medical anthropologist and president of the World Bank, focusing on his efforts to promote health, economic development and more prosperity in developing countries.

The article quotes Kim as saying: “Twenty years ago I was actually on the streets protesting against the World Bank … I was part of the ’50 years is enough’ movement, and we wanted to shut down the World Bank on its 50th anniversary.” Now, as president of the organization, he says it is “a very different bank.”

“Twenty years ago the World Bank wasn’t focussed so much on health and education … The World Bank was saying, ‘Well, let’s just make the economy grow, and then once the economy grows then we can think about health and education.’ We now know that investing in health and education is critical for economic growth. So in many ways what’s great is that the World Bank does rely on evidence.”

• Take that anthro degree and…

…get a job as the Eat Well Initiative coordinator at Growing Places Indy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to urban agriculture and healthy lifestyles. The Indy Winter Farmers Market, where Sarah Mullin works every Saturday, is an initiative of Growing Places Indy. She digs in the dirt at South Circle Farm in exchange for a bounty of fruits and vegetables. During the summer, she works the farm’s booth at City Market. Mullin moved to Indianapolis after graduating from Indiana University with degrees in anthropology and Spanish. In 2011, she started volunteering for the Winter Farmers Market and was offered the job a year later.

Prior to working at Growing Places Indy, she worked for five years in the Indiana migrant education program at the state of Indiana’s Department of Education. She has also taught English as a New Language: “That’s where I started to see how crazy the conventional food system can be.” Commenting on her first job in the food system, she says: “When I was in college, I worked at a food bank as my work-study program. I loved it. It was so interesting and there was so much to learn — how much food is wasted, how a food bank can be full but with unhealthy food. Our food is our culture, it’s the main thing we do every day, but it’s a little messed up.”

Morris Foster/University of Oklahoma
Morris Foster/University of Oklahoma

…become vice president for research at a university. Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, has hired a new vice president for research, Morris Foster, a medical anthropologist who has been on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma for 27 years. Foster has a bachelors degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University.

• Sudan: Oldest case of malignant cancer

CBS News reported on the findings of Michaela Binder, archeology doctoral student at Durham University in the U.K., who was excavating a tomb of skeletons in Sudan and found one that looked different.

She is quoted as saying: “At first, I wasn’t sure if this is actually a disease because we have a lot of termites in the area, who tend to eat bones or tend to make a lot of small holes in the bones.” 

Daniel Antoine, the museum’s curator of physical anthropology, said only three other examples of malignant cancer deaths have been found dating before the year 1000 B.C.E. [With video].

• Neanderthals are good to blame

The Mail Online (U.K.) carried an article on new research on the Neanderthal genome.

A sidebar offers insights from professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London:  “We got a quick fix to our own immune system by breeding with Neanderthals which helped us to survive … Studies have also already been published which show that humans outside of Africa are more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes, and that is because we bred with Neanderthals, while those who stayed inside Africa didn’t.”

Related findings: the journal Nature published a paper suggesting that a gene which can cause diabetes in Latin Americans came from Neanderthals.

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