Anthro in the news 2/9/15

  • Financial benefits of migrant work in the UAE, yes but…

Laborers from South Asia form the majority of construction workers in the UAE. Source: The National.

The National (Abu Dhabi) and The Hindu (India) carried articles about findings from a recent study of workers from India in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The headline in The Hindu reads: “UAE great destination for Indians to get richer”

The study, conducted by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., involved interviews with 1,500 Indian workers to measure the effects their working here has had on their families at home. One finding is that the laborers earn salaries two and a half times more than what they would earn in India. And remittances they send home improve their families’ situation.

A more critical perspective comes from Jane Bristol-Rhys, associate professor of anthropology at Zayed University. She has studied migration in the UAE since 2001 and has written a book about it that will be available this year. Bristol-Rhys says the study was limited in its scope:

“The study seems to have focused narrowly on financial gains, but what about the emotional impact? In India many children are seeing their fathers only once in two years. The study has not taken this into account…The study also seems to have ignored work done by anthropologists in India as well as the UAE for the past 20 years. These have not been referenced. We know that the individual families are benefiting but is the community benefiting? The local villages do not benefit. Instead, the government takes a large chunk of the remittances that are sent. The people working in the Gulf are also under pressure to bring back gifts with them. In many cases, they take loans to go work and then have to stay for two-three contracts to earn the money back.”

[Blogger’s note: studies also exist documenting the harsh living and working conditions for immigrant labor in the UAE, indicating that it’s not clearly a “great destination” – it’s a very tough destination].

  • Misunderstanding: Ebola’s shadow epidemic in Dallas
From left: Carolyn Smith-Morris, Adia Benton, and Doug Henry. Source: Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas Morning News reported on a panel presentation at Southern Methodist University by three medical anthropologists: Adia Benton, an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, Doug Henry, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas, and Carolyn Smith-Morris, associate professor and director of SMU’s health and society program.

While Dallas’ Ebola “outbreak” may have ended last fall, scientific exploration of what happened in the city has only begun, especially among medical anthropologists. In a two-hour discussion, the three experts sorted through how the crisis evolved, how people responded, and the language they used to describe what happened. They agreed that what took place was an “an epidemic of misunderstanding.”

Benton cited key words that made the disease more frightening than it should have been. For example, the World Health Organization decided to call it “Ebola hemorrhagic disease,” which focused on its explosive symptoms rather than its cause. Henry recalled the “emotional epidemic” that struck Dallas when Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in September, noting: “I was troubled by how the media and politicians exploited the situation.” When Ebola arrived in Dallas, Smith-Morris sent her students door to door to talk to Dallas residents about how they felt as the outbreak unfolded: “There were lessons to be learned about stigma, prejudice and fear.”

  • Male geishas rising in popularity

Male geisha. Source: Everett Kennedy Brown/EPA/Corbis.

The Daily Beast ran an article about the rising popularity of male geishas in Japan and mentioned the work of two cultural anthropologists: Laura Miller, the Eiichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies and professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Akiko Takeyama, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas. Miller points out that the original geisha were only men.” Takeyama notes that there is some commonality between the hosting club and the art of the geisha, but many differences as well. Male geishas have female clients while others “…market themselves towards a gay clientele [and] are located in a different area—Shinjuku-nichome, Tokyo’s well-known gay district,” explains Takeyama. In this case, “the exchange is targeted more directly towards explicit sexual acts.” Miller estimates that throughout Japan, there are only 1,800 female geisha, reflecting the declining tradition of female geishas. But there are more male hosts than that in the Kabuki-cho red light district alone.

  • South Africa’s “blind eye” to crimes during the anti-apartheid movement

An article in Newsweek magazine describes how South Africa seems to be “turning a blind” eye to crimes and atrocities during the anti-apartheid movement. So far, only three death squad operatives have been tried and convicted. One of the convicted persons is Ferdi Barnard, described by the South African media as a hoodlum who was involved in drug trafficking and participation in a death squad that reported to the apartheid-era South African Defence Force. He was convicted of the murder of David Webster, a professor of anthropology and anti-apartheid activist. Barnard was sentenced to two life terms plus 63 years.

The question remains: Why have only three death squad operatives been tried and convicted? Part of the answer is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established as part of the transition, instituted a procedure by which the confession of crimes could result in amnesty. However, few senior officials in the apartheid government took advantage of it.

  • Mystery of a missing anthropologist

An op-ed in The Kathmandu Post reviews three holes in the collective memory of Nepal, one of which is the disappearance in 1995 of Nepal’s leading cultural anthropologist, Dor Bahadur Bista, the father of Nepali anthropology and author of the seminal book, Fatalism and Development. Bista was a controversial figure, who laid out a damning critique of Nepali society. He brought ethnicity into class dynamics and was vilified for it. Bista left Kathmandu for Karnali where he founded schools, hydropower projects, and the Karnali Institute. While working in Jumla in 1995, Bista disappeared. What happened to him? Some claim his social activism angered local landlords who had him murdered. Others say he went to India where he lives as a hermit. His disappearance has not been subject to a serious investigation.

  • Best baby book is by an anthropologist

The New York Times published an op-ed praising The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings by David F. Lancy:

“….an academic title — but it’s possibly the only book that new parents will ever need…The book, which first appeared in 2008 and is about to be published in a second edition, is a far cry from ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting.’ Professor Lancy, who teaches at Utah State University, has pored over the anthropology literature to collect insights from a range of culture types, along with primate studies, history and his own fieldwork in seven countries. He’s not explicitly writing for parents. Yet through factoids and analysis, he demonstrates something that American parents desperately need to hear: Children are raised in all sorts of ways, and they all turn out just fine.”

  • Axing anthropology from the A-level

The Independent (U.K.) reported on a decision by the AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) to cut anthropology from the A-level due to low enrollments. Schools and colleges which have offered anthropology A-level were notified that the subject was to be axed. It joins subjects such as Polish, Hebrew, Bengali and Punjabi which are being stopped from 2017 after the board said it could not continue to subsidize specialist courses. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition to save anthropology A-level. The Royal Anthropological Institute described the decision by the AQA exam board as “appalling.” In a letter to The Independent, leading anthropologists including André Singer, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and David Shankland, the institute’s director, argued that the subject was unique in offering an understanding of society’s problems. They wrote:

“Anthropology is the one discipline that can offer deep insights into understanding many of the problems currently faced by the UK and the world. It is the study of different ways in which people make sense of our common humanity, and we tackle directly vital issues of prejudice and racism so badly needed in today’s society.”

  • Detroit’s Brick Lane

An article in the Detroit News describes Detroit’s counterpart to London’s Brick Lane, where the Bangladeshi diaspora serves up great food in a suburb city of some 22,000 called Hamtramck (pronounced ham-TRAM-ik). The town was mainly settled by Polish immigrants who made up 41 percent of the population in 1990. In 2010, the population of Polish descent declined to 14 percent while the immigrant population was 41 percent, making Hamtramck the most internationally diverse city in Michigan. Many of the new residents are from Bangladesh. The author of the article mentions anthrowork’s Sean Carey who guided him through Brick Lane during his time in London. Hamtramck’s Brick Lane is a stretch of Conant Street known locally as Bangladesh Avenue since 80 percent of businesses are owned by Bangladeshi-Americans.

  • A life with Tamil folklore

The Hindu (India) carried a lengthy discussion of the work of Canadian cultural anthropologist and folklorist, Brenda Beck. Beck has studied Tamil culture for fifty years and is a leading expert on Tamil stories and story-telling, most notably her work on The Legend of Ponnivala for forty-five years. She has been producing edutainment video projects for twenty five years with the goal of using documentary video and animation to communicate fun, captivating, and informative material to people of all ages.

  • Comics in the classroom

The Indianapolis Star published an article on comic book writers and artists with roots in Indiana. One of people mentioned is Christina Blanch who, with her husband, produces Aw Yeah Comics. Blanch is a writer for the Damnation of Charlie Wormwood for Dynamite Comics and an anthropology professor at Ball State University. In her teaching, she introduced she introduced the dystopian science fiction comic book series Y: The Last Man as a tool to energize her students: “They loved it” — so much so that she started a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) taken by more than 7,000 students worldwide.

  • [Not] the first non-Japanese geisha in 400 years

The Daily Mail (Australia) reported on Melbourne-born Fiona Graham who works in one of Japan’s largest cities as “the first Caucasian geisha” in almost 400 years. Graham, who holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford, formally debuted as a geisha in 2007 after a life-long fascination with Japanese culture and a lengthy training period. [Blogger’s note: I was happy to see a comment from one astute reader: “interesting story, but inaccurate. Liza Dalby, an American became a geisha and wrote a wonderful memoir about it in the 1980s”].

  • Profile of Wade Davis

The Telegraph (U.K) offered a profile of Wade Davis whose expertise is more diverse than most any other anthropologists: trained park ranger, river guide, and forestry engineer. He holds three degrees from Harvard, including a Ph.D. in ethnobotany. His work has taken him across Africa, Polynesia, Asia, the Arctic Circle and the Amazon, where he has lived with 15 indigenous groups. Davis was an explorer in residence for the National Geographic Society for 13 years. His latest book, Into the Silence, won the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize. He lives on Bowen Island, in his native British Columbia, and he is a professor in the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia.

  • Take that degree and…

…become a benefit accounts operations manager. Nikki Hunt is operations manager with Discovery Benefits in Fargo, North Dakota. She graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead with a degree in history and anthropology.

  • Copper mining threatens Buddhist heritage in Afghanistan

According to an article in U.S. News, archaeologists are scrambling to uncover artifacts at Mes Aynak, a Buddhist site dating back nearly 2,000 years. “The more we look, the more we find,” archaeologist Aziz Wafa said. At this site, copper powder was melted down and painted onto ceramics. Excavators have found silver platters, gold jewelry and a human skeleton as they have uncovered the contours of a town that once had elaborate homes, monasteries, workshops, and smelters. Along with such cultural remains is 5.5 million tons of copper, making it one of the largest copper deposits in the world.

The article quotes Abdul Qadir Timor, director of archaeology at Afghanistan’s Culture Ministry: “The copper mine and its extraction are very important. But more important is our national culture…Copper is a temporary source of income. Afghanistan might benefit for five or six years after mining begins, and then the resource comes to an end.”

Beijing’s state-run China Metallurgical Group struck a $3 billion deal in 2008 to develop a mining town at Mes Aynak. Workers built a residential compound, but were pulled out two years ago because of security concerns. A spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said the government is determined to finish that project. [Blogger’s note: Ghani has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology but worked for the World Bank for many years].

  • Death in Siberia: A mother and her twins

A prehistoric burial of a woman and twin infants in Siberia is likely the oldest example of death in childbirth. The grave was first excavated in 1997 at a prehistoric cemetery in Irkutsk, a Russian city near the southern tip of Lake Baikal. Angela Lieverse, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, studies these communities with the Baikal-Hokkaido Archaeology Project. In 2012, Lieverse restudied some of the bones from Lokomotiv, which were in storage at Irkutsk State University. The occupants of the grave in question had initially been interpreted as a mother, 20 to 25 years old, and a single child. But Lieverse realized there were duplicates of four or five of the fragile bones: “Within 5 minutes, I said to my colleague, ‘Oh my gosh; these are twins.” The fetal bones were found within the mother’s pelvic area and between her thighs. Lieverse reconstructed a childbirth scenario that even today would be risky for the mother and her babies: One twin was likely breech (positioned with its feet down) and was partially delivered. The second twin was positioned with its head down and seems to have remained in the womb. Lieverse thinks the breech baby may have been trapped or locked with its sibling, leading to a fatal obstructed birth.

  • Book review: Humans conquered the world, but how did they do it?

The Wall Street Journal published a review of the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The reviewer comments that Harari’s argument, while sweeping and seemingly plausible, is “studded” with errors. He writes:

“Sounds plausible, unless you know something about the subject. In 2000, Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut and Alison Brooks of George Washington University attacked the idea of a sudden cognitive revolution. In a now-classic paper, the authors contended that evidence for increased human capacities had been found in sites tens of thousands of years earlier, but wrongly dismissed. Rather than occurring all at once, as one would expect in a ‘revolution,’ the new behaviors turned up in places ‘separated by sometimes great geographical and temporal distances.’ The McBrearty-Brooks article helped give rise to a scholarly dispute that continues to this day. If language developed millennia before our species left Africa, something else must have unleashed humankind. One theory involves Toba, a super-volcano in Sumatra that erupted about 70,000 years ago, plunging Earth into a years-long winter that may have cleared the way for humankind’s expansion. But the evidence for this is just as shaky as the evidence for a cognitive revolution.”

  • In memoriam

Forensic anthropologist Walter Birkby, who used deep knowledge of the human skeleton to solve crimes and identify the nameless, died at the age of 83 years. Birkby was a nationally recognized expert in human identification and was called on to substantiate locks of Beethoven’s hair and look for signs of cannibalism on the exhumed bones of the notorious Alferd Packer party. He testified in some of the most high-profile homicide cases in Pima County and was in demand in other jurisdictions as well. Birkby, affectionately known as Dr. Death, researched and taught at the Arizona State Museum and the University of Arizona department of anthropology and served as a consultant and later employee of the Pima County Medical Examiner.

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