Extreme Anthropology

During my exploration of anthropology in the Directory of Open Access Journals, I came across the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. Just the title entices, but the contents are quite interesting as well.

The journal is run by the Extreme Anthropology Research Network, a group centered in Scandinavia, but with members from all over, that explores the “notion of the ‘extreme’ within contemporary cultural, political and economic environments.”

Its recent special issue on “Security and Morality: Critical Anthropological Perspectives” consists of 11 interesting articles, but one, “Why do we need your research?: The Ethics of Studying Security and the Deilemmas of the Anthropologist-Expert” by Tessa Diphoorn and Erella Grassiani, caught my eye. The authors discuss the double-binds that they face as anthropologists doing research on Israeli and South African policing and private security.

The article focuses on the ethical and methodological challenges of studying “security”—something that is taken for granted as a public good. After all, as the authors point out, who would want to argue for the value of “insecurity”? Diphoorn and Grassiani talk about the misunderstanding they face from funders and other researchers about the nature of their work, the expectations that their informants have of them and which are problematic to meet, and the methodological choices they have to make in order to gain access to situations where some level of suspicion is the norm.

In the process, they ask anthropologists to complicate how we think about “engaged” and “public” anthropology. Diphoorn and Grassiani show that anthropologists face an array of difficult methodological and ethical judgements in dealing with those who are often seen as perpetrating violence for the benefit of the “public.”

Interesting papers from the DOAJ

The Directory of Open Access Journals makes it fairly easy to find articles on many subjects published in smaller journals around the world. My guess is that many of these papers go quite overlooked in North America-centric anthropology, and so I spent a little time digging through articles that had been published this past year in anthropology to see if anything caught my interest. A few did. I’m going to post short blurbs on each of them; they might catch your interest too.

The Ritual Aspects of Ukrainian Beekeeping.” in EtnoAntropologia, a journal of the Società Italiana de Antropologia Culturale. Written by Uliana Movna of the Ethnology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Why I clicked: Bees. I had no idea that bees, their honey, and wax had such cultural importance in the Ukraine.

Excerpt: “As universal ritual symbols, the main products of the life of bees are honey and wax, which, over a long historical period, have “grown into” calendar and family rituals of Ukrainians. During the research, it was revealed the main ritual purpose of honey as a mediator between the bee and man, with other world and souls of the ancestors, the conductor and the amplifier of the processes of transition at the moment of passing by the human the corresponding stages of age and social hierarchy.”

Labor-based Grading

Sandie Friedman at Inside Higher-Ed on Asao Inoue’s “Labor-Based Grading System”:

Any rubric that evaluates students’ language according to a single standard — which is invariably a white, middle-class standard — is reinforcing racism, [Inoue] argues. Rather than evaluating students’ work according to a quality-based rubric, Inoue advocates grading students on the labor they complete. By “labor,” he means all the work that goes into writing: reading, drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revising, polishing.

Students receive a grade only at the end of the course, based on the labor they have completed.

To me, this feels like the kind of thing that will address structural inequalities in university teaching, which often falls into the “add minority content to curriculum” mindset.

The Design Squiggle as a Way of Thinking about Anthropological Research

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

It seems to be well known among designers, but I only recently learned about the “Design Squiggle” a few days ago.

The Squiggle is a visual tool that helps you keep track of where you are in the design process. The big mess on the left is where most projects start: uncertainty with a bit of chaos. The smooth line on the right is where you eventually want to get to: clarity and focus.

Comparisons between cultural anthropology and design are not new. And yet it does not seem very widespread for anthropologists, and perhaps most other social scientists, to engage much with what designers do and think about to inform how they approach cultural research. Our models tend to be literary, philosophical, or scientific.

To me, this squiggle is a very good representation of what the research process in anthropology looks like. You are dropped in the middle of something interesting but difficult to process. Too much information. You try to pay attention to everything, make sense of the littlest occurrence, and tire yourself out in the process. As time goes on, you find a direction to go, but then find your eye pulled towards something new. Eventually, you learn how to separate figures from ground, and things start to make sense.

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

This is a feeling that any teacher of anthropology has tried to convey to a student. But it’s not something that’s easy to grasp when you’re in the middle of first fieldwork, and this can be a source of more than a little anxiety. Maybe, I think, this Squiggle does better in conveying the feeling more than saying “This is what it’s like for everyone.”

The one thing I would add that would make the Squiggle feel truer to anthropological life is for squiggles to link to further squiggles in a nearly endless chain. The dissertation proposal is its own squiggle. Fieldwork is a bundle of squiggles. Writing is a squiggle for each paragraph, as is each chapter, each presentation, each article… Squiggles all the way down and at every step forward. I think the reason that all of the grad students and faculty members that I’ve come to know have tenacity as one of their defining traits is that tenacity is what it takes to work through endless fractal patterns of squiggles. Anthropologists should probably be called squiggleographers.

A fractal pattern of squiggles. One more thing: Since first encountering the work of Minakata Kumagusu during my fieldwork in Japan, I’ve been taken by a sketch of his that is known as the “Minakata Mandala.”

From http://acidrainproduction.com/slime-intelligence/

As I understand it, this is something that Evans-Pritchard would have called a diagram of witchcraft if he’d found it among the Azande. There are physical laws that can predict that an event will take place. But there is another order, beyond those laws, that explains why this event took place here, now, to these people. This is what Minakata’s sketch tries to render visual. He may have been a squiggleographer avant la lettre.

Occupying Shakespeare

James Shapiro reviewing Shakespeare and the 99%:

[It is] the first book of its kind: one that gives voice to a seething and justified resentment of the academic elite by those teaching at non-elite institutions. Its publication signals that there is now more to be gained than lost by challenging a profession unwilling to acknowledge disparities in “income, power, and prestige.” It speaks to divisions long papered over and suggests that the myriad challenges now faced by faculty at non-elite schools are likely to be visited soon upon those who teach at research universities.

This part give me things to think about with regard to my previous post on the structure of American anthropology (emphasis added):

A crucial feature of the still dominant historicist approach to Shakespeare and his world is its insistence on “alienation.” The New Historicism, Daniel Vitkus argues, “sought to reconstruct the past in ways that defined that past as radically different. So much so, that sometimes the perceived strangeness of past cultural practices functioned to disconnect that strange past from the familiar present.” This emphasis on alienation may work brilliantly in Ivy League classrooms, but, as many of the contributors to this volume — almost all of them trained in this methodology — have come to discover, “the hermeneutics of suspicion” fares less well at schools where most students come from working-class backgrounds.

This makes me wonder how much the ideas, debates, and perspectives in which graduates of the “central” anthropology departments (and their students) are immersed are failing to land with students they teach at non-elite institutions.

On one chapter by Denise Albanese:

Her mostly first-generation students have worked hard to get where they are, and often bring to the classroom a “naive” predisposition — one that we all began with at some point in our reading experience: a desire to identify with literary characters, to think of them as real people. She concludes that her students are “not necessarily well-served by our insisting on disenchanting the literary object.”

How does this translate to the teaching of anthropology? Perhaps if anthropology is failing to connect with students, then this may not be just a failure to make it more “accessible” but that the theoretical underpinnings of the version of anthropology we present don’t speak to them.