Why Stephen Colbert’s Job is Safe: Dirimens Copulatio

Not only am I not arguing what you say I am, I’m arguing some of the things you say I’m not.

Your title, “circling the wagons,” implies the exact opposite of what I was suggesting. This metaphor suggests insularity and defensiveness, at best. In fact, my essay could easily be interpreted as a call to anthropologists to come out of the closet and start insisting on their relevance not only to the academy, but to the world. If your response were actually about my essay, it might more accurately be called “Maintaining the four fields is not the way to improve anthropology’s relevance” – a point you might or might not actually agree with – readers can’t tell.

Furthermore, absolutely nothing in my essay implies that applied anthropology is lesser than academic anthropology. In fact, nothing would please me more than to see the military, the government, public education, business, entertainment, sports, hell, the hospitality industry – you name it – FILLED with anthropologists. My point precisely was… I think that the results would be better if they were trained as anthropologists – REAL anthropologists. That’s right, I said it: real. And by real I do not mean those with PhDs, I mean all those who have studied and understand the core principles of holistic, four field anthropology.

All anthropologists in today’s world have career trajectories that compel them to engage in the application of their research to real world problems and peoples – regardless of whether a university writes their paycheck. Similarly, all anthropologists have an obligation to be analytically rigorous, well-versed in both the strengths and weaknesses of their discipline, and to make informed, deliberate decisions about the theoretical concepts that underpin their work – regardless of whether a commercial enterprise writes their paycheck.

You’ve also thrown in a total red herring in the form of post-modernism, utilizing a manipulative rhetorical device popular with political pundits called ad populem: “Everyone hates post-modernists. I’ll imply that her opinion would please them and thus avoid needing to use sound reasoning to disagree.” Suggesting that the strength of anthropology lies in the intellectual tensions created by dialogue and negotiation among the four fields is hardly a post-modern concept!

In fact, as you specify in your blog when you purport to “only speak to cultural anthropology,” you reveal that it is you who writes from an academically provincial viewpoint. This is particularly absurd when you are accusing someone else of having a narrow vision of the discipline.

If anyone in (on?) this blog should be tsking and shaking her head in disbelief it is I, Cindy, not you. No amount of posturing or rhetorical misdirection on your part is going to turn me into your anti-applied, holier than thou academic straw-chick. And sorry, we all know you chose to get an advanced degree in anthropology, not business. Maybe next time I’ll choose to respond to your self-serving distortions of my opinions with an anthropological version of “The Word.” For now I’ll settle for giving you a wag of my finger, and letting you know – you’re on notice, Dawson.

Anthropology’s strengths lie in the combination of attributes that make it unique: these include commitments to the concepts of extended fieldwork and cultural relativism, a comparative perspective that encompasses all of human space and time, a humanistic perspective that views individual variation and difference as objects worthy of study, and the holism that is embodied in a thorough consideration of how the four fields can bring insight to any given question about the human condition – even if they yield contradictory data!

Every anthropologist I have ever known is passionate about his or her vision of the discipline in one way or another. My call to arms is both a call to share the object of that passion and to insist on its value – don’t take just culture – take anthropology, and anthropologists, too.

send anthropology’s wayward street walking child home!

Tony Waters of CSU Chico has kindly posted a response to “Circling the Wagons is not the solution.” Thanks for adding to the conversation Tony!

Mark, Mark, Mark! I think you miss Cindy’s point which is that culture [editor note: Cindy thinks this is a typo and Tony means Anthropology has a special role and made me add this… shes mean to me.] has a special role as the parent of culture. The same could be said of writing for English, government for political science, calculus for math, and the past for history. Writing, government, and the past are of course relevant to many disciplines. But, the classroom where their very nature is best evaluated, mulled, and debated effectively are staffed by people trained in those disciplines.

During the last twenty years, culture (but not anthropology) moved to the center of many university curricula in response to very real political, cultural, and economic concerns. As a result, culture is part of many university general education programs in the same way that writing, mathematics, history, government, etc., have long been. What is different is that English, math, history, and political science departments colonized their subjects years ago, and received money to hire trained people to teach their subjects. As a result, generations of college graduates write essays as taught in English classes, believe that calculus is synonymous with college math, and have shared knowledge about the nature of American history and government.

None of this is a bad thing—I think a history course is best taught by someone trained in history, calculus courses by people trained in math, etc. Rather, the point is that the same thing could have happened with culture and anthropology, but didn’t. Instead, as Cindy writes, culture is now an academic streetwalker without an academic home. As a result, unlike similar English, math, government, and history requirements in the undergraduate curriculum, “cultural literacy” requirements are satisfied by taking courses offered by departments ranging from English to business. But, is it really legitimate to assert a student is proficient in “culture” because they have taken marketing from the Bennetton executive who developed a “many colors” campaign in the Caribbean? I think not. I see nothing wrong with the Bennetton executive teaching marketing in a business school—indeed such a person would make a fascinating colleague and good guest speaker in an anthropology class. But I have a problem when a marketing class is used to meet a university’s general education cross-cultural requirements.

A university that purports to require students be culturally literate should fund anthropology departments to teach culture. The academy needs to send anthropology’s wayward street walking child home. And faculty budgets need to reflect this.

A small story about micro-loans.

Kiva.org front pageAbout 10 months ago I joined www.kiva.org for my first experiment with a micro-loan. If you have not encountered this yet, micro-loans are a growing industry in developing nations all over the world. The idea is quite simple, these are very small loans many less than a few hundred dollars to help someone start or expand a business. They have a remarkably low default rate and 100% of your loan goes to the person in question. It is not charity… it is a loan they have to pay back, and when you read stories about it, there is great social pressure to do so. You don’t have to cover all the loan yourself. With Kiva, you can fund as little or as much of the loan as possible.

I signed up to the tune of $200, to help complete a loan for a woman wanting to expand her clothing store.

Today I was fully repaid, and it was repaid early! With Kiva, you don’t take your money back out. When the loan is repaid, you you can use the credit to make more loans. So I have reinvested in two more people and can keep doing it over an over. A nice little system.

go to http://www.kiva.org

Circling the Wagons is not the solution to anthropology’s problems

margaret meadCindy, Cindy, Cindy! The problem with academic anthropology today (and I can only speak to cultural anthropology) is that the concept of culture is the most static and smothered at the hands of anthropologists! The problem is not that all these other disciplines are misusing culture, but that most academics in anthropology can’t accept that the study of culture has taken on a much wider, and more practical, role in understanding many parts of our lives from business to the military.

The most influential books that speak to cultural issues today aren’t written by anthropologists, they are written by journalists, physicists and mathematicians to name a few. Anthropologists didn’t lose culture; we started an endless string of post-modern debates about just what culture means that pushed the discipline away from relevance. The other disciplines went out and explored how culture interacted with their professions while anthro’s sat home and engaged in intellectual masturbation. When Former President Clinton made the famous statement “It depends on what your definition of is, is.” I am sure many cultural anthropologists nodded their heads believing that would be a perfectly reasonable and exciting discussion to have before proceeding further, given there is no such thing objective truth.

Anthropology can’t claim to own the study of culture anymore that MBA programs can claim to own the turf of business today. Plenty of anthropologists are working on questions of business, just as there are business school researchers working on questions of culture in the context of business. What anthropology can do is develop a point of view about cultures that are relevant to questions we (business, governments, and others) are asking. Many cultural anthropologists are still fighting tooth and nail to prevent the discipline from have any practical application. The latest example being the committee to form an official position on the use of anthropology in the military and intelligence communities. Good grief, the larger anthropology community is so anti-applied that some people were floating the idea that people that didn’t teaching in universities should just be called practitioners.

You see other fields as misusing and misunderstanding culture. I see it as pulling out of the bubble it was placed in by over-protective and elitist parents. You are right, those of us outside the academic world spend very little time debating the parameters of just what is culture. We’re comfortable with the slipperiness of the definition and figure that’s good and we can work with that.

Ok, now that all the blog software problems have been worked out, I can actually blog! Actually, they were all worked out by a very nice young lady in Baku, Azerbaijan that converts lot of blogs from Movable Type to Wordpress.

Can (and Should) Anthropology Share Culture?

For me, the short answer to this question is obviously, yes. We want EVERYONE to know and love the concept that we consider to be our finest intellectual creation, the lynchpin of our diverse discipline. And yet, could it be the case that we have shared ourselves out of jobs, or worse yet, allowed our baby to be turned into the “working girl” of the social sciences? This is the undercurrent of Tony Waters’ opinion piece from the December 2006 issue of the AAA Newsletter entitled, “Who Stole Culture From Anthropology?”

Waters, a sociology professor at CSU Chico, has three major points he would like anthropologists to consider. These are as follows:
1) In not more carefully guarding culture as the intellectual purview of anthropology we are “Giving Away Curriculum.” He points out that students are just as likely, if not more likely, to hear about the concept of culture from professors in departments of “education, business, genetics, political science, psychology, history, or sociology.”
2) These professors, however proficient in their own disciplines, are unlikely to truly have a background in our discipline and this means we are, as Waters puts it, “Losing History,” and giving the impression that intellectual issues of “culture” can be taught by anyone who knows the word.
3) Anthropologists, he argues, are now suffering the practical effects of not stopping these intellectual leaks in the realm of “Academic Politics.” That is, because courses on culture have been “hijacked,” new faculty lines are not going to Anthropology Departments, but rather to all of those other departments “where culture is now taught.”

Now Waters, who says he routinely hires anthropology PhD’s as adjunct faculty in his department when he needs a course taught “about culture,” clearly loves anthropologists, for as he says, “Who but an anthropologist can talk about Durkheim, chimpanzee behavior, linguistics, archaeological stratigraphy, and mitochondrial DNA?” It’s true, and it warms my heart to say so, but why then, why, why, why, in an era when diversity, multicultural, and globalization are some of the most common buzzwords in forward thinking academic administration, do anthropologists not rule the roost?

Okay, by now it is probably obvious that the metaphor of culture as a beautiful, headstrong child we let run away for a life as an academic streetwalker came from me, not Waters, but you see it breaks my heart to see culture, our pretty baby, so misunderstood. Now she’s turning tricks for business and communications, selling herself cheap to evolutionary psychologists and literary analysts. Oh sure, all of these “others” think they know her, but they fail to grasp her complexity. They fail to see how she requires constant attention and stimulation; only thrives in a context of rigorous debate, and stagnates if you treat her as a utilitarian means to an end.

For one thing, although it may seem cliché, poor culture comes from a broken home: four parents, all in different sub-disciplines, and these days often refusing to speak to each other. I was a PhD student at Berkeley when Tim White (the famous palaeo-anthropologist) packed up and left Anthropology for Integrative Biology. I don’t recall anyone shedding a tear or suggesting family counseling. Well, except me.

I’m sure the question of the future of four-field anthropology is one to which I will return in this forum, because it preoccupies me greatly. But for now, let me say that culture without the “culture” of anthropology, is a poor culture indeed. It’s like eating pad thai and thinking you understand Thailand, watching sumo on ESPN and then writing a book on Japan (with apologies to Ruth Benedict), or collecting Kwakwaka’waka masks and then assuming you could hold your own potlatch. Or, indeed, wearing a Cesar Chavez t-shirt and imagining that you’re part of the revolution while you sit at Starbucks contemplating number 38 down in the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle over a chai latte.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above activities, but they illustrate something that American anthropologists have known since Boas et al. vanquished the museum model of the “hall o’ spears” and “hall o’ basketry:” cultural traits removed from their context lose much of their meaning (not to mention analytical power). Hula without knowing the context of Hawaiian spirituality it celebrates is a tiny bubble compared to the glorious and powerful religious artform it can be when thriving in its traditional context. Similarly, culture, without an understanding the full context and culture of anthropology, is impoverished.

Culture grew up in the crucible of the four-field tradition. She thrives on the continuing tension among perspectives of natural sciences, historical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Culture is a robust and beautiful analytical concept precisely because of its continued negotiation – it is the dialectic that keeps her alive and relevant. One day she is an algorithm, the next a web of significance, then a material culture trait list, or even a suite of behaviors – she is all of this and more, and that is why we love her.

For you see, culture is not only the concept most dear to us American anthropologists, but also the most contentious. Students do not leave my Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology without learning at least four different definitions of culture. They understand that the one you chose to believe in and employ makes a very big difference in choosing a research topic, the nature of the questions you will ask, the data you will perceive as relevant to record, and the conclusions you will entertain as feasible.

When culture is imported to these other disciplines, it becomes static in their hands. Without the constant bickering of the four fields, culture starts to become reified. It goes into their “toolboxes” to be pulled out at opportune moments, but doesn’t really get the attention it deserves. Take the hula without understanding Hawaiian culture and it is still exciting, but you sure are missing alot. Take the culture without understanding the rest of anthropology and it is still useful, but you sure are missing alot.

So, should anthropology share “culture” with the rest of academia, not to mention journalists, educators, etc.? Absolutely. But, can anthropology share the concept of culture without giving away its (meaning anthropology’s) heart and soul? This is a harder question. It is also one we should face head-on, and not ignore. Waters concludes his essay by stating that “while the anthropologists were out in the field, the subject of culture was appropriated by others” and so were the jobs.

It’s time to fight for primary custody of culture and the holistic anthropological perspective she embodies. Sure she can visit those other folks, but unless anthropologists can convince the world that there is something truly unique and relevant about our holistic perspective and our insanely broad training (compared to other academics today), we are destined to become the “Roman Empire” of academia. Our culture, language, history, and even genetic material will be assimilated into daughter disciplines — hybrid cultures to whom we are a distant, dimly understood ancestor. Maybe that is an inevitable course, and maybe that is even better for culture (and anthropology?) in the long run, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Foxfire, Forward into the past (again)

Growing up, my father felt it was important for my brother and me to know about our roots as dirt farmers and coal miners. My mother and father were raised in the coal mining regions on the tri-state border of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. It was a cultural conflict for them. On the one hand, they wanted us to learn about our Appalachian heritage, on the other they never wanted us to emulate or be around people that lacked in education or standing to a certain degree. Looking back at this, I don’t see it as hypocritical on their parts. They grew up well acquainted with living in grinding poverty and company towns. They didn’t want their kids to have any part of it. We got the back-to-the-land movement version of the Appalachian experience.

foxfire.jpgI grew up thumbing through the Last Whole Earth Catalog and reading Mother Earth News, but the coolest books were had were the Foxfire series of books, based on the magazine of the same name. They were an amazing high school / community based project started by Eliot Wigginton at a small rural school in Georgia. The program does more than collect oral histories. In the books and the programs, students have learned diverse practices such as constructing a log cabin, butchering hogs to conjuring.

wagonwheel2.jpgSo growing up in Florida, in a typical upper middle class home, why did my parents all have these back to the land, neo-hippie books and magazines? My father kept a pretty sizable garden all our lives, we kept backyard beehives for honey (much to the consternation of the neighbors), later there was the cattle ranch where we lived dual lives as ranch and city kids.

I wonder if this reflects the 1st generation immigrant story, but intra-state? My bother and I were the first two kids on either side of the family to be born and raised off the mountains. My father was the first in either family to have a college degree, much less his MD and ABD. My bother and I were next with our own alphabet soup of letters after our names.

My parents wanted to leave the poverty behind, but pull the culture with them like a hermit crab dragging its shell. Like the immigrants that despaired their children would not be able to speak or understand that language and values the connected them to their ancestors, my parents worried for the same, even if they did not know it. I was raised listening to mountain music, the first instrument I learned to play was a traditional lap dulcimer, and as you know, reading the foxfire series.

I have no idea what the point is…. I was just noticing the book in my shelf this Sunday.

Kennewick Man Sighted Buying Groceries in Virginia

groceries.jpgMost everyone in the anthropological community is familiar with the controversial human skeletal find known as Kennewick Man. Discovered in 1996 by some hikers on the Columbia River, Washington, Kennewick Man was initially identified as a 19th century Euro-American settler, but closer inspection revealed a projectile point embedded in his pelvis that was common about 9,000 years ago, a date that radiocarbon dating later confirmed. In short, Kennwick Man sparked an epic controversy around two primary topics: 1) who should have legal stewardship of the remains; and 2) what was “Kenne’s” race.

Those interested in reviewing the sensational circumstances surrounding Kenne’s eventual disposition (these included the mysterious dumping of many tons of rock on the original location of the find by the Army Corps of Engineers, and a multi-year law suit in which scientists won the right to study the skeleton), will find many sources on- and off-line.

kennewick.jpgEqually intense was the controversy surrounding the investigating archaeologist’s characterization of the skeleton’s features as “caucasoid” – a word that the media immediately equated with caucasian – rather than a set of metric traits characterizing a variety of world populations including the indigenous Ainu of Japan. A reconstruction of Kenne’s face was widely circulated in which he bore a striking resemblance to Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation, a character played by British actor Patrick Stewart.

The publication of this image in association with the very early date of 9000 BC, led to rampant speculation in the public media: had Europeans been the earliest settlers of the North American continent? And so, in the blink of an eye, the 19th century fantasy of a lost race of White Americans was revived, although nobody can say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints looked surprised.

This was the Kennewick Controversy that I was teaching in Spring of 2006 to my class on Native American cultures when in April a shocking event occurred: Time magazine published an opulent cover portrait of Kenne in which he looked decidedly mongoloid, his features invoking those of modern Arctic peoples. How could this be, the class demanded to know? We scoured the magazine article for clues. Who had authorized this new reconstruction? The students demanded answers.

There was no mention of the cover image in the article. There was no acknowledgment of how very much this representation diverged from previously published images. Encouraged by the students, and now personally quite intrigued, I wrote to the scientists quoted in the article asking if they had authorized Kenne’s new face. I received no response. I wrote to Time asking where they had gotten the cover image and they referred me to the tiny artist’s credit on the inside of the cover: Kam Mak.

Two days and many Google inquiries later, I had discovered that Kam Mak had a part time academic appointment at an arts college in New York City and had left my home phone number with the department assistant, saying I was an anthropologist eager to discuss his recent cover art for Time. When I came home from teaching the next day, there was a message on my answering machine, “Hello, this is Kam Mak. I am delighted in your interest. Please phone me at my home in Virginia.”

Kam Mak, I discovered, is a charming and thoughtful man with a gift for painting vibrant images that touch the soul. Born in Hong Kong, but raised primarily in New York, he has illustrated the covers of many young adult novels and has written and illustrated a beautiful children’s book about his childhood in Chinatown. We had much to talk about immediately, as he was working on a project depicting food in Chinese markets and I had just finished teaching a class on food and ethnicity that had included a week stay in Honolulu to explore ethnic cuisine there.

I turned the conversation to Kenne, however, and learned the following: 1) Time had not requested a particular image; 2) they had contacted him based on his having done a portrait for them several years earlier with which they were pleased; 3) they had sent him a handful of articles about the skeleton, so he did know something about the controversies. So, how, I pressed, had he decided on Kenne’s features? Mr. Mak’s response was unexpected and yet made a delightful sense: he had used his own face!

Yes, and Mr. Mak was kind enough to send me a digital photo of himself and there it was – the high cheekbones, the set of his jaw and lips, even the thoughtful expression in the eyes – our new Kennewick Man was Kam Mak – “with a little Eskimo thrown in” – as he described it to me.

The students were initially horrified, after all I had spent the semester talking about how significant images of Native Americans were to their public perception – from the cigar Indians to contemporary sports mascots. I talked them down, however, and soon they saw the humor in the situation and appreciated the humanity of Kam Mak’s vision of Kenne not as a symbol or stereotype, but a real man, like himself.

My choice for best book on Kennewick Man and why he caused such a fuss: Thomas, David Hurst. Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-09224-1