Anthro in the news 2/23/15

  • On endless bureaucracy, forms, and mindless work

Gillian Tett, cultural anthropologist and writer for The Financial Times, reviewed David Graeber’s latest book, The Utopia of Rules: “His new book…asks why so much of modern life is dominated by endless bureaucracy and frustrating administrative tasks, whether in relation to finance, healthcare or almost everything else.”

  • Plausible connections between ISIS and organ trafficking

Two media sources, KCCI Detroit and Front Page Magazine, mentioned Organs Watch and the activist work of cultural anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes of the University of California at Berkeley. [Blogger’s note: The Organs Watch website makes no direct link between organ trafficking and ISIS. But in an email today to me, Scheper-Hughes says, “it is plausible.”]

  • Chinese New Year: To the beach!

The Globe and Mail carried an article about the trend among middle and upper class families in China to go to the beach for the Chinese New Year. In this reshaping of tradition, the key element is keeping the family together. The article quotes Myron Cohen, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University who says that going to the beach for New Year’s is nothing surprising since Chinese New Year “is not a place-oriented, but rather a family-oriented event…so if the whole family goes to Hainan, that’s fine and dandy.”

  • Chinese New Year:  Sheep or goat?

CCTV America published a piece on the Chinese New Year and whether this year is the Year of the Sheep or Year of the Goat. This confusion has business implications—does a shop stock sheep toys or goat toys?  Either way, being born in the Year of the Sheep or the Goat is not preferred, since those born are thought to be mild-mannered and sympathetic but not leaders. The article quotes anthropologist Zhao Xudong, director of the Institute of Anthropology at Renmin University, who said sheep are often considered unlucky in China, particularly for women.

“Some parents delay birth to avoid Sheep years, because it’s considered to be burdened by bad luck. This is partly because Empress Dowager Cixi in the Qing dynasty was born in the Year of the Sheep and brought about policies that stagnated China’s development. All too often, when people confront failures, they attribute it to animal years. Of course there is no scientific evidence to prove this.”

  • “Haiti’s hero” in Toronto

The Toronto Star reported on a visit to Haiti by Paul Farmer, medical anthropology professor at Harvard, doctor, and health activist. Farmer saved hundreds of thousands of Haitian lives, both personally and through the “social medicine” organization Partners In Health, which he co-founded. He was in Toronto to accept a $1-million cheque from the Slaight Family Foundation to launch Haiti’s first emergency medicine training program.

  • Anthropology professor as president of Afghanistan

Al Jazeera America carried an article asking if Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan and former cultural anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University, can bridge the rift of his contended and contentious election and make progress in the country.

  • Tracking down cholera in the past

The Atlantic magazine carried an article on the research of Clark Larsen, professor of biological anthropology at Ohio State University, on the third cholera pandemic in recorded history—and the deadliest. It began in India and spread across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas throughout the 1850s. By the time it subsided in 1860, the pandemic had killed more than a million people around the world. Larsen and his team are studying the remains of victims buried in the mass grave at Badia Pozzeveri, an ancient church in the small town of Altopascio, Italy. They are searching for clues about the evolution of the disease.

For six weeks each summer, the Field School at Badia Pozzeveri, a collaboration between Ohio State and the University of Pisa, gives students a chance to excavate the site’s human remains, which stretch back as far as the bubonic-plague outbreak that devastated Europe in the 14th century. The discovery of the grave—which Larsen estimates contains “a couple hundred” bodies—was a happy accident during a dig in the summer of 2012, as Science magazine reported the following year; old records confirmed that the victims had died of cholera when the epidemic swept through Tuscany in 1855.

  • Kudos

Anthropologist Philippe Descola has won the 2014 International Cosmos Prize, a Japanese award, for his study of the Jivaroan Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Their lives had previously been unknown to the wider world. Descola, who studied under Claude Levi-Strauss, lived in Achuar communities from 1976 to 1979 as he conducted ethnographic fieldwork on their coexistence with nature. “Through slash-and-burn horticulture and hunting, they collected and buried droppings of animals and created a forest with much more varieties of plants than those found in surrounding areas,” Descola said. He explained that the Achuar people communicate with animals in dreams and have a unique relationship with nonhumans. The Cosmos Prize is awarded by the Osaka-based Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden and Greenery Exposition, also known as the Expo ’90 Foundation.