Teaching Tales (Part I)

Yesterday I walked into the classroom of my Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology class and passed two young women deeply engaged in an animated discussion.  The snippet I overheard was part of a recounted conversation: “…and I was all, ‘Geeze, she’s your professor!!’  I mean seriously, would it kill him to codeswitch?  It’s just stupid…”  Her conversational partner was nodding affirmatively in shared disdain.

Don’t you love it when the anthropology actually takes?!

Living in Exponential Times

I promise I won’t post youtube videos with every single post (haha). However, this time I will. One of my professors posted this video on our blackboard discussion board and I found it really interesting. There is also a wikispace that further discusses the statements made in the video. If all the statements made were statistically sound, then my generation and future generations are in for some really amazing changes. That statement might make you say “duh” but seeing it in numbers and within some sort of timeline makes the point really hit home.

I found it amazing that it said 70% of four-year-olds have used a computer. It also states that students are being trained for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I can’t imagine where this statement came from, but it is interesting…


It’s time again for the Ig Nobel Awards….

ig noble awardEvery year, the Journal of Improbable Research hosts the wonderful Ig Noble Awards for research that makes you laugh and then think. The Ig Nobles have all the usual areas such as peace, aviation, linguistics and of course, chickens. The ceremony also includes winning a date with a noble laureate, and the 24/7 lectures. In the 24/7 lecture series, established scientists have 24 seconds to give a technical explanation of their scientific field. Following this, they have to explain their field in layman’s terms in just 7 words.

To get a true feel for the ceremony, there is a video from the awards last August.

Human Terrain System: Too Little, Too Late, and So What?

Ok, Mark Dawson finally wrote often enough about the Human Terrain System for me to investigate what this military program actually is. I have some sympathy for the idea of using anthropology in the military because I have seen too many anthropologically incorrect lieutenants proclaiming to the press something along the lines of “You gotta be here to understand the bad guys. All the bad guys understand is strength/power/force/money. It is just their culture. And you never show weakness, or they will kill you. It’s that simple…” I have always been disappointed that the military encourages press representatives to mouth such simplistic rot, and that the press uncritically reports such uninformed ‘anthropological’ opinion. I also have an enduring wish that every soldier in Iraq would be exposed to a good course in anthropological theory in which the nature of military culture, American culture, Iraqi culture, and insurgency would be discussed. In this respect, I agree with the military that they would be much more effective if they were better aware of the “human terrain.”

So finally, as Mark suggested in his last post, I typed in Human Terrain System (HTS) and had a look at some of the top seven or eight hits. Judging by what the military writes about the program, I have some good news for those concerned about the ethics of HTS: It will not make much difference one way or the other. Everything I know about the nature of culture, and the nature of bureaucratic organizations (like the army), tells me this ain’t gonna work. No matter how well qualified the anthropologist might be—and in Markus Griffin it looks like they have a good one—the amount of resources, the nature of the military, and the nature of anthropology mitigates against even the most minimal goals of the project being successful.

The Human Terrain System involves assigning five-member teams of culturally sensitive people to a brigade headquarters. Three of these five are military people, and two can be civilians. Five teams were assigned in 2006 to test the idea. They report directly to the commander of a brigade (typically a brigadier general). Currently, with the surge, there are about twenty brigades in Iraq. Depending on their responsibilities, each brigade has somewhere between 2000 and 5000 soldiers who are roughly the same age as many of my undergraduates at Chico State. Since each HTS team includes only two anthropologists, that makes twelve anthropologists among tens of thousands of soldiers whose primary training is in logistics, weaponry, discipline, combat, and the other things that make an army go.

Just how little will be accomplished by HTS can be seen by looking at how anthropologists do what they do in the university. University classes are typically 45 hours in a semester, and the professor has the power to assign reading designed to get a student to think anthropologically. Typical sections are from 25-40 students. And for some (not all) students, this makes them more culturally sensitive, and able to think past the cultural over-generalizations of my hypothetical lieutenant about good guys and bad guys in an insurgency. In contrast, all the HTS team is likely to get is a weekly consultation and memo to a busy brigadier general. Such consultation will have little effect on our lieutenant briefing the press who will continue to get anthropological wisdom from the military’s own sub-culture. It will do even less for the thousands of enlisted men and officers in the brigade who man road blocks, protect convoys, search houses, patrol, and engage cross-culturally (and sometimes violently) with the Iraqi people. These interactions will be the source of the military’s folk anthropologies as they are now, not the under-staffed and isolated HTS teams at brigade headquarters.

Also unrealistic is the job description for the HTS anthropologists. According to the military, the civilian anthropologists hired will be the Indiana Jones of Cultural Anthropology. They will have an advanced degree, speak the local language, have lived in the local culture, published about the local culture, and be ready to embed themselves in the military. They will be able to use the instant high tech access to other specialists in Washington and the United States, presumably in order to fill in the blanks in their Kurdish-English dictionary (apparently this is more reliable than asking the Kurdish cook next door). This is in addition to the implied requirements that they pass the military security clearance, walk away from their job and family for a year, and be among the 30 or 31% of the American public who are sympathetic to the Bush Administration’s goals in Iraq. I got some bad news for the military. Indiana Jones is a movie character, and most cultural anthropologists are not that versatile. It takes at least a year of full cultural immersion to master an exotic language for street use (or as HTS describes it “field research”), and little such systematic immersion has been possible in Iraq since, hmm, let’s see…sometime before the coup of 1968, or maybe 1980 when the war with Iran began?

To bring an anthropological perspective to the military is going to take much more than the Human Terrain System. Generating a culturally-competent military is not about adding one more technical unit called “human terrain system” to deal with a system called “culture.” Culture is not reducible to a bureaucratic unit in the same way as logistics, mechanics, weaponry, prisons, and so forth. But this is how the army and its HTS program treats culture. Rather a culturally-competent military implies a new type of soldier who understands that power and legitimacy are not solely dependent on weaponry. Such soldiers would also need to understand that Iraq is not neatly divided into good guys and bad guys, and that cultural sensitivity is more than a public relations exercise. Bringing this to the military will involve much more than the occasional roving anthropologist reporting to a brigadier general.


The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century at http://www.army.mil/professionalwriting/volumes/volume4/december_2006/12_06_2.html

AAA resolution of October 31, 2007 about the Human Terrain System http://www.aaanet.org/blog/resolution.htm

Anthropologist Marcus Griffin’s blog from Iraq http://marcusgriffin.com/blog/2007/05/the_human_terrain_system_1.html

Digital Ethnography

Today I had the random idea to search YouTube.com for the keyword “ethnography” to see what, if anything, it would come up with. The first two videos that were listed intrigued me. The videos are products of Kansas State University’s anthropology department. The students and faculty of that department have created an on-going project focusing specifically on digital ethnography.

I think this type of project is so exciting and can come up with really interesting results. The videos are short and to the point but can also inspire further research or interest. I myself recently, for the first time, created a short ethnographic video. The analysis done in the video editing stage is valuable practice. There is something about merging, cutting, and pasting video clips together that feels more “hands on” than working in a 2D surface compiling data and writing reports. The results can be seen by a larger audience of people who may not be willing to sit down and read a book-length report on your research. In fact, the video may work well as a tool to get people to want to read further into your research. In the second video, “A Vision of Students Today”, the research team could have compiled their data and analysis in a long detailed report, however, their message is still strongly conveyed in this five minute video. Digital ethnography is definitely going to be an important tool of future research and communication and hopefully more projects like Kansas State University’s are soon implemented at other colleges.

Introduction to the project —

A Vision of Students Today…

There is more information about the project at: http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/?p=119

American Anthropology Association Issues Statement on HTS, based on… not much it seems.

Ah, the days go by and even I cool down. While I am very critical of the wording the Executive Board chose for its statement on the HTS, I am not sure I would have wanted to be on the “AAA Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology With the US Security and Intelligence Community”. They were in what has to be a lose-lose position. No matter what they said, some large group of people were going to be really ticked off. So, let me precede my high-end rant by saying that I recognize that the Ad Hoc Commission was given a job that assured maximum heat.

The Human Terrain System is a highly controversial topic within the anthropology community. I understand that, and it is something that deserves a lively, vigorous and reasoned debate. Unfortunately the reasoned part is an element that seems sadly lacking. The statement issued by the AAA board reflects this. The second paragraph starts with these disturbing sentences:

“The Commission’s work did not include systematic study of the HTS project. The Executive Board of the Association has, however, concluded that the HTS project raises sufficiently troubling and urgent ethical issues to warrant a statement from the Executive Board at this time.”

In a larger frame, it shows how the governing body of the AAA is moving the discipline farther away from anything resembling a science and to more of an ideology. How can any organization that purports to represent a scientific discipline issue a statement that says they have not actually studied the group that is the topic of the controversy to start with? I know that all of the people on the Executive Board are anthropologists of some stripe. How serious can someone take such a statement when its board openly admits they have not completed the basic research? Did they even talk to anyone connected to the HTS?

The HTS is not a covert activity. It’s widely written about; there are at least two anthropologists in Iraq that blog about their work. In short, contacting them and or the even the creators of the program is pretty easy.

Are there problems with the program? Of course. But to issue a statement apparently without actually going to the source material or speaking with those actually involved (how I am interpreting what is meant by no systematic study) does not build credibility for the EB’s position.

Applied Ethnography and the German Military in Afghanistan

I went to a workshop Friday in which anthropological involvement with the German military in Afghanistan was described. The German army is participating in the NATO operation in northern Afghanistan, which is in one of the more peaceful areas of that country. An ethnologist, Dr. Monika Lanik reported on the difficulties in developing inter-cultural competence in the context of deployments. Ethnographic competence is considered important because the German military is taking on a new international character as a result of peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Dr. Lanik pointed out that this is as much a diplomatic function as a military one. As a result, this new type of military operation requires diplomatic skills which in turn implies ethnography.

In the case of Afghanistan, German military have provincial reconstruction teams. This context requires soldiers to be aware of patronage relationship, the context of the drug trade, and modern versus traditional values. Dr. Lanik noted that awareness of such “deep play” goes well beyond the simpler tasks involving the recognition of ethnic symbols, or actions likely to accidentally give offense. Rather it reflects a need to focus on the deeper context that culture provides for not only a peacekeeping, but economic development.

The ethnographic training of German military personnel asks them to recognize the context that their own culture provides in what they are trying to accomplish. As in any military, both military and national culture is inter-twined and taken for granted by the soldiers. In such a context, a job for the ethnographer is to ask soldiers what part of their world view is a consequence of their military training, what part is a result of German culture, what emerges out of their personal biography, and finally what is brought by the local culture? As in any culture, there are naïve assumptions that home culture is universal, and can be imputed to the people with whom they will negotiate. The job of the ethnologist is much the same as it is with any institution—train and teach for inter-cultural competence.

There is controversy associated with the German mission in Afghanistan. The German mission in Afghanistan is itself politically controversial in a country which sees its military as strictly for domestic defensive purposes. How long the German forces should stay in Afghanistan is an on-going political question raised frequently in the German Parliament.

Some German anthropologists also raise the issue of whether anthropologists should be involved with the military at all, even though the German military is focused strictly on defensive purposes. As in the United States, it is framed as a question of professional ethics—and the question is asked whether providing ethnographic advice is appropriate at all.

Festival in the Suburbs

So now that Halloween is over, and a good time was had by my family, I can muse aloud (or ablog) about the slow creep of Halloween from a good time for kids, to a mandatory RAGING PARTY for the adults, and how that plays out in Homeowner Associations, and other community organizations.

This is the first time in my life I’ve ever lived within the influence of an HOA, and I have to say, it’s quite a learning experience. We picked where we are living at least in part because we perceived our future (and present) HOA to be a relatively casual one, lenient about yard art, not concerned about what you put in your back yard (like, laundry to dry), etc. I was not expecting a rescheduling of a major holiday.

But Halloween was “scheduled” for the Saturday before Oct 31st this year. Just in my neighborhood. Two streets over? Oct 31st. The swanky neighborhood known for sending evil letters about dandelions in neighbors yards? Oct 31st. My neighborhood? There they are, scheduling festival. And so all of my Anthro Buttons were pushed.

It’s one thing (I said to the HOA) to have extra! fun! things for Halloween. It’s another to get all fascist about it (um, I may feel strongly about this) and dictate (ha) when your neighbors can go trick-or-treating. Be laissez-faire (I encouraged)! This is not your job (I coaxed)!

Of course, I was speaking about future years, because this year was a done deal. And next year, Halloween falls on Friday. But the next time Halloween is not on a weekend, things are sure to be in dispute again.

The argument for Halloween on the Weekend appears to be three-pronged: 1) it’s too hard to deal with sugared-up kids on a weekday, when they have to go to school the next morning, 2) the adults don’t get to tie one on on Halloween night if they have to go to work the next day, and 3) local churches have activities on Halloween night (Oct 31st).

The perception appears to be that the neighborhood should make a blanket policy, and schedule the holiday so that it is more convenient (for some). But (straightening my now-askew anthropology hat) festival is time-out-of-time. Festivals are organic (high-frutcose corn syrup in the candy notwithstanding) expressions of community, they are collective and grass-roots. Top-down meddling with festival creates (as it has in my neighborhood) factions (Weekend Halloween vs. Leave it Alone and Make Your Own Choices, Already).

So what should an anthropologist counsel these neighbors? This anthropologist counseled non-intervention. In a letter I sent to my HOA board, I said:

“The HOA should, above all, do no harm. Leaving Halloween alone, but providing ways that we as a community can do extra celebrations (as neighborhoods all over our city, and indeed the U.S. do) on those years when Halloween is not a weekend-day, seems to be the way to go. It doesn’t take anything away from anyone. It provides for our neighborhood to remain connected to surrounding communities (who are also celebrating Halloween), while also allowing for extra fun, for those who want it. Having Halloween block parties, parades, or cookouts on the weekend days would never be precluded. But moving trick or treating around does leave people out. It did last year, and it did this year.

That’s just not very neighborly.”