The A-hole: A True Human Universal?

As a member of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, I recently became aware of a new development in a controversy currently underway on the island of Kaua’i regarding the disturbance of some Native Hawaiian burials for the construction of a private residence.  The practice of archaeology has been particularly contentious in the islands since the convergence of three historical events: 1) massive development and construction, particularly associated with the tourist industry; 2) the passage of federal and state antiquities protection laws mandating the involvement of archaeologists in cultural resource management; 3) the revitalization of Native Hawaiian culture, and its members’ mobilization in protection of their homeland and heritage.  Arguably these three, often divergent, interest groups came of age in the 1960’s and have been locked in a dance of conflicting and converging interests ever since. (*1)

One of the developments of this structure of the conjuncture (a la Marshall Sahlins) was the establishment of Island Burial Councils that are empowered by State law to determine the final disposition of any human remains that are discovered.  In the case mentioned above, a group of Native Hawaiians, known as Kanaka Maoli Scholars, have protested the handling of the review and recommendations of the Kaua’i – Ni’ihau Burial Council with regards to a property located at Naue (  Kanaka Maoli Scholars argue that the State Historic Preservation Division approved a Burial Treatment Plan against the clear objections of the Burial Council, thus allowing building permits to be issued illegally, and concrete foundations to be poured on known gravesites.  Meanwhile, the homeowner has filed a civil suit against members of the Native Hawaiian community alleging trespassing and harassment, among other things.

Whatever breaches of process may or may not have occurred in the course of managing this particular site (and since I currently live on the Mainland, I have no inside information from either side of this mess), I can tell you that most of the archaeologists that I know who work in Hawai’i consider it a tremendous privilege to be included in any aspect of stewardship of this amazing cultural legacy, and many experience daily life like an E.R. doctor: in a never-ending state of triage racing to save patients from the disease “development-fever.”  All the while under-staffed, with too few resources, and constantly challenged by the politicization of the process.  There is no universal archaeological site healthcare in the United States, and all too often the decisions regarding which patients to save and rehabilitate, and which to simply “patch-up” and send on their way, are made by the interests of capital.  Bound by our own Hippocratic oath, most archaeologists would truly love to save and cherish every patient, seeing each and every one of them thrive. (*2)

Well, gentle reader, as many of you know, much of modernist anthropology has been preoccupied with the search for human universals.  In my opinion these efforts usually end in one of two ways, either the “universal” reached turns out to be amazingly narrow in scope, or mind-bogglingly broad in scope.  There does seem to be one that keeps cropping up, however, and that is illustrated by the latest opinion expressed in the Naue controversy.  As part of their campaign to draw public attention to what they feel is the unfettered desecration of their ancestors’ burials, Kanaka Maoli Scholars sent copies of their recent protest letter (see link above) to a variety of constituents, including high ranking executives at the company owned by the homeowner.  One of these employees, in an inadvertent case of “I’m rubber, you’re glue, when you act like an asshole, it looks bad for you,” has provided more evidence for one of the most convincing universals ever promulgated… the “assholes, every community has at least one, and s/he will usually self-identify within the first 24 hours of contact” universal.

This guy responded to the letter of concern sent to him by the Kanaka Maoli Scholars with a single line.  He asks, “So how do you know the people buried out there weren’t assholes??”  Wow – a whole new principle to guide historic preservation (and with any luck, human resource decisions at his firm).  Maybe the asshole is a kind of human universal – after all, we all have them, but it takes a special Homo sapiens to talk out of his.


(1) To read a series of powerful essays relevant to Native Hawaiian sovereignty, colonialism, and academia, read Haunani-Kay Trask’s, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i (1999).

(*2) There is no question, as with medical doctors, there are some archaeologists who are in the business for what profit there is to be had, and others who are simply not as competent as one might wish.

An HTS Debate

An experience I’ve been meaning to share since the end of December concerns the Human Terrain System (HTS). Dr. Henry Delcore at California State University, Fresno, invited me to act as a judge for a class debate. The question of debate was, “Should the American Anthropological Association (the main professional organization for anthropologists in the US) discourage anthropologists from working in the Human Terrain System program?”

The debate was part of their final requirements for passing the course, and I thought it was a new and interesting method of engaging the students. It was evident that it was also effective in getting the students to really research not only the HTS system, but also techniques and etiquette of formal debate. One reason it was probably effective is that if you weren’t fully prepared with a firm knowledge of the information, it would have been pretty embarrassing when it came your turn to speak! The students had excitement, healthy competition, and seemed sincerely interested in the topic and task at hand.

I was very impressed because the student’s arguments were so good that I assumed that they got to pick sides ahead of time and that they chose the team that represented their own personal viewpoints. I found out after the debate was over that the students were asked their personal viewpoints ahead of time and purposely placed on the team to argue the alternative viewpoint! Kudos to the students for being so objective and convincing even when they were debating a viewpoint they did not personally support! In addition to this, I found myself constantly analyzing which team was in the lead, and I found that it swayed many times. In the end, the team arguing the negative came out ahead, but it was certainly a close call.

One of many major points of arguments came when the team arguing the negative viewpoint said that the HTS system is a new program and therefore has the opportunity to make positive changes in our military and in reducing harm. They argued that it was up to those anthropologists accepting positions on the HTS teams to develop the HTS program into a program that is positive, transparent, and which upholds high ethical standards. The affirmative argued that this was not possible because of environment and situation, and due to the fact that the anthropologists would be associated with the military, dress in military attire, and would have to carry weapons. This, they argued, prevented the anthropologists’ ability to be seen as a neutral party. The debate went back and forth, both sides making strong points.

I believe that activities like this are such a great way to capture the student’s attention and to get them really passionate about researching a topic. As a former and future student, I know that I am certainly more satisfied, excited even, when an instructor implemented new methods of graded activities rather than just sticking to the typical lecture, reading, examination routine. I was so impressed with the students’ excitement, I even found myself wishing to join the debate!


I had the opportunity to attend the 2008 EPIC conference in Copenhagen, Denmark last October. A hot topic there was the use of “Personas” in usability research, with the idea that it was an effective and quick way to communicate the results of the research to the client. Personas are fictional characters developed as a representative of the research subjects as a whole in order to identify the characteristics/patterns of the subjects and as a way to “get to know” the company’s “typical” customer on a more intimate level so that the company may make better operational decisions to fit the majority of their customer’s needs and wants.

This was a somewhat controversial item because, in my group at least, half of the anthropologists disagreed with the effectiveness of a personas. The argument was that personas are just characters, and although they are developed from real anthropological research, they are still fictional. Those who supported this viewpoint suggested that the actual research data should be reported to the companies in lieu of persona (confidentiality protected of course). After all, why should someone make up a fictional person when real living people had been studied and could serve as [more valid] representatives? They believed that the clients should view the data of the real consumers in order to get the most effective results.

I certainly understood the viewpoint of those anthropologists that supported presenting the actual data rather than a representative character, however, I personally support the viewpoint of the companies/researchers that use personas. I’ve heard, and although I have no first-hand experience with clients consulting with me for usability research, and from the explanations provided from the Copenhagen research companies I visited, I believe that personas are an important and effective mode of communication of the data from the researcher to the client. The reason I take this stance is that companies, and more importantly the executives with the ability to commission such research, usually have absolutely no time, or often desire, to read some long drawn report of findings or statistics. This is why they hire consultants to do the research so that they may gain the intimate understanding of their customers without having to expend their non-existent time researching it themselves. There are critical pieces of that data that they do need to take the time to review and I’m not saying they need not receive a full report of the research results, however, having a persona allows them to “get the point”, so to speak, of who exactly their typical target customer is and what their needs and frustrations are, in a very brief amount of time. And I believe the reality is that many of the executives will not read the full research reports because of time, disinterest, or other factors and therefore making the efforts of the whole project useless because without implementation it becomes only interesting [but operationally ineffective] information. As an Office Manager for a non-profit organization, I certainly understand, from experience, the lack of time available to do this research, even though it would significantly impact the quality of the operations or client services. Furthermore, personas are an easy tool to communicate research results to employees.

As a side note, the EPIC participants were able to visit multiple that do usability/business research projects. Copenhagen has many of them and they are highly respected. The ones I visited did projects for the Denmark hospital system, police force, and a variety of other organizations. There was also a wide variety of company types/projects that these companies were hired to do research for. That says to me there is great hope for the future of this type of research.