Incidental Anthropology: Anti-Circumcision Advocates on Amazon.com, Thai Skin Bleaching Products, and Portraits of Chinese Families with Their Belongings

First, in an example of the internet’s power to concentrate amorphous outrage into a highly focused beam, the reviews for this book have become the schwerpunkt of anti-circumcision “Inactivists.” : here

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the French cosmetic company Sanofi Aventis has begun advertising a vulva-bleaching product (yes you read that correctly). You can see the television ad here

Finally, a wonderful portrait series featuring people in various provinces around China with their belongings .

How the FBI spreads DIYBio

For more than a year now I have been conducting research on DIYBio . In a lucky break, the FBI convened a conference on DIYBio and Security this past summer, which I managed to attend. The conference lasted three days with sessions in the morning and afternoon. Some sessions were reserved for the FBI to discuss safety scenarios and other topics of special concern to them, and others for the invitees to discuss their lab.  The FBI isn’t shy about their involvement, and have even recorded a few short podcasts on the their interest in amateur science: FBI Podcast

The FBI has a long standing institutional interest in avoiding surprise. Since 911, avoiding surprise has taken the form of focusing on what Rumsfeld famously called the “unknown unknowns.” Like most American policing organizations, the FBI is now primarily an intelligence organization that gathers, sorts, and most importantly classifies information based on forecasted security threats. Which is to say, if you are doing something with technology or science that is outside of institutional boundaries, then you will probably meet your local FBI agent at some point. Or, as was the case with most attendees at this conference, the FBI will send you a polite letter and a plane ticket requesting that you come tell them a little about yourself.

While the FBI was busy lobbying the attendees about the benefits of getting to know their local anti-terrorism agent, a counter education was taking place during informal get-togethers  outside the bounds of the conference venue. A good portion of attendees must have taken note of this sign in a side trip to Noisebridge . Even more discussed strategies for working with or around the FBI in between more prosaic discussions about finding suitable landlords and insurance agents, dealing with local regulatory agencies, and attracting/vetting potential lab members.

Getting to Know the “New FBI”

Safety, the watchword of our time.

Over the three days of meetings, most FBI agents began their remarks by stressing  that they work for the “new FBI”, which operates in a different manner than the “old FBI”. A few times FBI agents rose to their feet and gave the kind of personal testimony to the difference between the “old” and “new FBI” that you might expect to see in an evangelical church. One agent in particular noted the majority of agents at the conference were hired post-911 and have no first hand experience of the “old FBI.” The “new FBI” would prefer to speak calmly with you about your activities rather than bust down your door and risk a PR disaster such as the Kurz incident. The first rule of the “new FBI” is safety through observation rather than justice through apprehension.

The line dividing the old and new, per the agents testimony, was the string of events leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was not the actual attacks, per se, but rather the activities of the attackers around the US in the months leading up to 9/11 which marks the point of departure between old and new FBI. In particular, the peculiarities of the 911 hijackers flight training was used as an example of something the “new FBI” would be aware of through relationships forged with flight training instructors. The comparison of a DIYBio lab with a flight school was left implicit, but was hard to miss. You could be breeding terrorists along with bacteria. The second rule of the “new FBI” is leverage the power of the crowd to extend the reach of your observational apparatus.

Paradoxically, and this says something about the uncomfortable nature of policing in the current clime, by hosting this conference over the last 3 years and expanding the list of invitees each year, the FBI has become one of the most important institutions in the global spread of DIYBio. The number of people involved in DIYBio is small enough that practitioners can get to know one another on a personal level.  Of course, this can only become possible if an organization with deep pockets is willing to fly everyone to the same location so they can spend time socializing. With no academic or industry organization to sponsor them all, the FBI conference is the only way DIYBio can have a venue to share ideas and socialize face to face. No doubt, next year there will be more DIYBio labs and they will be better organized and their projects more complex due to the FBI sponsored conference. This too must be a commandment of the new FBI: Establish a symbiotic relationship with that which you wish to police and your budget will never be lacking.

Incidental Anthropology: Wearing a V-Neck in Malaysia and “the flirt” on Facebook in Brazil

Two things today:

First, in a move of dubious methodological validity (though related to the move embraced by the Culturomics crowd and made profitable by the American comedian Jeff Foxworthy) , the Malaysian government would like you to be on the lookout for men wearing V-neck shirts.

Second, the blog Material World (you should read it!) just posted  a great study about flirting on Facebook in Brazil.

Incidental Anthropology: On “having it all” in France at the Dawn of the 20th Century

Today in Slate, there is a wonderful (and brief) article on the presentation of French women in popular magazines around the turn of the 20th century. At this time, magazine editors were moving from the established image  of the bicycle riding “New Woman” to formulating the contemporary femme moderne.  A nice snapshot of a category under construction.

McGee, Boas and the organization of American Anthropology

I found this on the AAA website last week:

“The AAA has been a democratic organization since its beginning. Although Franz Boas had initially fought to restrict membership to an exclusive group of 40 “professional anthropologists,” the AAA’s first president. W. J. McGee, argued for a more inclusive membership embracing all those who expressed an interest in the discipline. McGee’s vision still guides the Association today. Business affairs, likewise comprehensive with 24 Councillors selected from the membership, and Executive Committee of 9 in 1902, are now conducted by a 38-member Section Assembly representing each of the Association’s constituent Sections, and a 17-member Executive Board. This increase in representation reflects the growing diversity of the discipline, which is viewed by many as a source of strength for the Association and for American anthropology as a whole. In Richard B. Woodbury’s words, “. . .the AAA has remained the central society for the discipline, addressing with considerable success its increasingly varied interests and speaking for anthropology to other fields, the federal and state governments, and the public” (Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, 1994). aaalogo15notext

As one suspects, the story of the AAA’s founding is more complex than a blurb on the AAA website can get over. But, it is true that Boas was in favor of organizing a core group of professional anthropologists to govern the AAA and was opposed McGee’s suggestion of a confederation of groups which would include local organizations and interested amateurs. As was the case throughout his life, Boas’ main concern was with professionalizing anthropology and securing anthropology a durable place in the academy. At stake was this question: Should the mainline of anthropological thought lie within academic departments or within a confederation of organizations which include a large contingent of interested amateurs?

One of the complexities missing from the AAA’s web verbiage is any mention of the context of the philosophical conflict between Boas and McGee. McGee was an autodidact who made important contributions to the geology of the American West, invented several agricultural implements and was instrumental in the development of irrigated agriculture. But, he was also a horrifically amateurish reader of evolutionary theory and the inventor of “The Human Zoo.”  And it was this McGee that Boas was reacting against when he proposed  tight control on membership and worked to displace evolution with culture. Despite the AAA’s protests to the contrary, it is clear that through its history the AAA has been a professional organization more in line with both the organizational and philosophical vision of Boas than with McGee, a fact which lends a bit of irony to the oedipal rage in the quote above.

Day 2 of the German Conference on General Education Reform

The conference took interesting turns. Homage was paid to Goethe, Weber, Marx’ Theses on Feuerbach, and Bourdieu on the habitus of academic silos. Not the sort of thing that would have happened in our GE meetings at Chico State where the Engineers, Soil Scientists, and Business Profs would have shook their heads in bewilderment. Here in Geramny they did not. In CHico, I think that only the Sociologists and Anthropologists likely would be smiling at such references!

This was followed by a presentation about German “Bildung” a concept which is sometimes translated as “education”, but really means something like “cultivation of the human being.” This was done by teacher who is somehow between art and psychology. He had prepared an engaging presentation using art to represent the General Education curriculum and society. Wow, that was a stretch!