Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?

The Anthropology blogosphere (including Ethnography.com, SavageMinds.org, anthropologyreport.com and even National Public Radio) has recently lit up with critiques of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday.  Jared Diamonditis seems to be a regular affliction of anthropology, re-emerging every time that the esteemed Professor of Geography (and Physiology) publishes a new tome of big picture history.  The manner that Diamond does this is something that anthros really don’t seem to like.  This is because besides his own field of Geography, Diamond borrows data liberally from all four fields of anthropology to make big generalizations in a manner a cultural geographer, comparative historian, or field ecologist might. But oh yeah, Diamond is a geographer by departmental affiliation, and a field ecologist by training and predilection.

It also seems to bother anthros that Diamond also on occasion—though not always—wanders off the reservation and lets his political views seep into his analysis.  And since these political views don’t typically jibe with those of the anthros, particularly when it comes to oil companies, well you get the idea.  But then there is a counterpoint, someone finally ends up pointing out that since no anthro since Eric Wolf has done such big picture stuff in Europe and the People without History published way back in 1982, anthro has no right to complain.  And so it goes back and forth until the next big tome from Diamond comes out, and Jared Diamonditis flares up again.

Ok, that’s my two paragraphs for the current “controversy.”  In response, I want to write about an anthropologist—an ethnographer actually—who I think is greatly undervalued in anthropology, Nigel Barley.  Barley describes well what anthropologists do best in The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut published in 1984.  This is the book I point students to when they want to understand field work, ethnography, and cultural anthropology.  As a sociologist, this is one of the anthro books I truly admire, because it reflects well on my own field experiences in Tanzania.  Oddly, I find few anthropologists who have read it, much less heard of it.

The Innocent Anthropologist is a memorably written story of Nigel Barley’s experience doing fieldwork among the Dowayo in rural Cameroon in the early 1980s.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge with the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that inevitably emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense the book is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and methodologically rigorous ethnography typically assigned undergraduates.  In such ethnograpny in  the ethnographer somehow ends up erudite, insightful, and making references to Bourdieu and Baudrillard while drinking the local brew.  Nothing wrong with this, but let’s face it, it is not the sort of thing that a 19 year-old taking your Intro to Cultural Anthro course for General Education credit identifies with.

Barley also does a great job explaining the nuts and bolts of doing ethnography in a remote Cameroonian village.  There are empathetic descriptions of coming-of-age rituals, ancestor cults, gender relations, the agricultural cycle, and a well-written nod to Malinowski.  There are also empathetic passages describing boredom, cross-cultural frustrations, and hilarious language learning errors.  And what students will really remember is Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth.  Such an account would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!). And of course such tales, which are really the center of the ethnographic experience are left out by the likes of the ever-dignified Professor Malinowski.

But the scene from Barley’s book I spend most of my time mulling about is at the very end, and has little to do with Africa, but everything to do with ethnography, culture, and the human condition.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon being bored, sick, confused, and frustrated while ostensibly “doing ethnography.” Oddly though, after returning to England, he still wants to tell everyone he meets about this wonderful world he encountered in Cameroon—something that he quickly discovers no one really cares about.  Or worse, they treat him like a raving lunatic because he approaches everyday problems with a vigor and habitus appropriate to a Cameroonian village, rather than that of a staid tweed-jacketed English lecturer.

So Barley returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been, despite his field work in the Cameroon. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life, like what was on television the previous evening, or the doings of the local football team.  Most mundane is the friend who complains because Barley left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goat farts (sorry no spoiler on that one either!), shamanistic ritual, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how the big adventures of life often end: In a question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler who becomes embedded in a new culture.  Certainly it happens to my undergraduate students who leave home for Chico State the first time, and then return to the parents at Thanksgiving or Christmas brimming with tales of college life, only to be told by their parents to be sure to eat enough lettuce and clean up their room.  Indeed such dissonance happens to anyone returning from a adventure in which they embed themselves in a culture different from their own.  And this indeed is the great ethnographic lesson Barley teaches my undergraduates.  What is more, it is a lesson every bit as big as what Jared Diamond makes with his massive tomes.

Oh, despite his frustrations, whining, and moaning, did I mention that Barley returned to the Cameroon a few months later?  He was indeed hooked on field work and the need to experience new cultures, as we hope our students will—after all the complaining and lost teeth, he was back in Cameroon as quickly as he could.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, theoretical, and easy to read.  And students are happy to read it—the whole thing.  Most importantly, it is a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, why they do it, and what an anthropological viewpoint has to say about not just a small place in Cameroon, but the human condition.  I have used this book in my undergraduate social science classes a number of times, and it has always worked well to get students dreaming about the possibilities of culture and travel—i.e. the things that I would expect a good Intro to Cultural Anthropology course to do.  And the neat thing is that it can do it by celebrating what anthropology does best—while leaving poor irrelevant Jared Diamond out of the story.

This Week in Ethnography: Does Jared Diamond do Ethnography?

This week in Ethnography, I realized that “DIY anthropologist” Jared Diamond is now moving into the area of anthropology I hold most dear – ethnography.  In earlier publications and movies, Diamond has dabbled in other areas of anthropology (e.g., archeology and physical) but his latest work cuts too close for my comfort.  Barbara J. King posted a review of Diamond’s latest book entitled, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” at Why Does Jared Diamond Make Anthropologists So Mad?  In this post, King closes with a point that many anthropologists have held about Diamond’s DIY anthropology:

Where, at least since 1982 and Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, are the “big books” in which we anthropologists do a better job than Diamond?

Although I used to share King’s perspective, I’m now changing my tune because Diamond has brought his DIY anthropology right to my yard as it were.  Since King’s anthropology is oriented towards primate behavior, she is a safe distance from Diamond’s reach.

Diamond’s DIY anthropology could be thought of in at least three ways:

1. “Big Booking”: Barbara King’s version that argues that at least someone is doing grand theory in anthropology.

2. “Academic Pornography”: Jason Antrosio’s version which highlights Diamond’s ability to sensationalize to the point of spectacle or “academic porn”.

3. Neo-Armchair Anthropology:  Of course this new definition of “arm-chair anthropology” would have to be updated to include modern realities like cheap flights and eco-tourism, which facilitate visits to exotic locals but the core idea of scholars reading others’ work and musing about them through complex, imaginative mashups would still apply to this definition.  Kerim Friedman actually predicted a less critical version of this in 2005 in a post entitled Armchair Anthropology in the Cyber Age?

I found the following picture on the Animal Attraction page of the Australian Broadcasting Company.  The funny thing about it is that it follows the critical observation of many of my anthropological theory students’ that “anthropological theory is the story of a long line of white bearded men in armchairs”!







Why The DIYBio Lab Is The New Darkroom

This is the second in a series of posts about my work on DIYBio. The initial post has some background and can be found here.

A popular (and sexy) comparison for DIYBio is with the Homebrew Computer Club. One often reads that DIYBio is at the same point in its development as the HCC was just prior to the IBM PC i.e. it is 1978 in the lab and a bright new industry is developing among hobbyists. Maybe, but where is the the small business accounting market that propelled the PC industry and what might serve as the Visicalc of DIYBio?

The going answer to this question is personalized medicine powered by a) cheap DNA sequencing and b) Quantified Self style data collection. These two phenomena are thought to be leading directly to a DIY approach to medical treatment which, similar to the way spreadsheets brought accounting power tools to the masses, would disrupt the medical establishment by putting new tools in the hands of amateurs and thus inaugurate a new industry. See this idea expressed just after 1:30 and 7:30 into the recent DIYBio TED Talk.

Another popular thought is that DIYBio is a type of hacking similar to the tenants and techniques of software hacking. Here the comparison is between hacking computer code and hacking DNA, with the political tenants of hacking extended to “biohackers” and by extension from computer software to human wetwear.

Yet another popular comparison, this time from professional synthetic biologists, is to the birth of synthetic chemistry in the 19th century. In this view a new industry is coming into view that will bend DNA to human ends much as the synthetic dye industry bent benzene to human ends in the 19th century.

Let me set aside the latter two views of DIYBio for a later post about concepts, conceits and metaphors in synthetic biology, and focus for a bit on the first view of DIYBio.

How Medicine is Not like Accounting

DNA sequencing is surely getting cheaper, but even a $1,000 genome (more on this idea in a later post) doesn’t answer complex medical questions with much confidence. The main tool here is the Genomic Wide Association Study, which is a fancy name for statistical induction over large datasets. Big data for health care, in other words. Just like the big data (and data mining) that have driven the second and third wave of internet companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. From custom ads to recommendation engines statistical induction hooked to visuals is enjoying a high tide.

I enjoy the Amazon recommendation engine and have purchased things I would not have been aware of otherwise, but I wouldn’t have an organ removed because people with similar habits/SNPs/etc.. have done so in the past. For that to occur I require a different type of knowledge to be produced. The kind that is already produced by a medical doctor’s examination and clinical tests.

What statistical induction over big data is good for (whether this is in GWAS, at Amazon or in the HRAF files) is finding areas that might benefit by more exacting inquiry. And perhaps there is a role for data mining DNA, but it won’t in directly deciding which medical procedures to perform. Not to revisit the Hobbes/Boyle debate, but the knowledge produce by GWAS is simply not exact enough for clinical certainty.

My point here is that the medical field is not accounting. The problems are not cut and dry and there is no easy one-to-one translation from an analog process to a comparable digital process.

How Amateur Labs are similar to Darkrooms

I think a more useful historical antecedent for the DIYBio lab is the photographic darkroom. Despite the laboratory being associated with the kitchen (stemming from the early alchemist forward) and the darkroom with the bathroom (easier to light proof) they share a common thread. Both are spaces where art, science and commerce mix. Perhaps more importantly, like a DIYBio laboratory, the darkroom was a space for disinterested experimentation with a chemical process, that cross-cut scientific, artistic, social and moral boundaries. Just like this thought experiment.

When the positive/negative process replaced the daguerreotype process it opened the way for the establishment of amateur photography using a common battery of chemical reagents and an accepted, but often elaborated upon, set of protocols. Similarly, transforming plasmids into E.coli with a set of standard, but often elaborated upon, set of protocols has emerged as the basic process undertaken in DIYBio labs.

Further, the process of transforming a photographic negative into a positive print around the turn of the last century required about the same amount of ingenuity, equipment and knowledge as transforming a plasmid into E.Coli does today. And, many of the problems facing DIYBio labs are similar to those facing darkroom builders one hundred years ago. Equipment had to be created, protocols worked up, and new ways of working had to be invented then diffused throughout the burgeoning group of darkroom enthusiasts. Also like a darkroom, DIYBio is potentially, but not necessarily dangerous.

Between 1890 and the 1930’s interest in photography exploded as professionals and their daguerreotype process gave way to amateurs using film. By the end of the 1930s the B&W darkroom assumed the shape it still retains today. At the height of its popularity, there were amateur photography clubs with community darkrooms for use by members, temporary darkrooms in bathrooms, teaching darkrooms in colleges and high schools, commercial darkrooms in business districts and experimental darkrooms in numerous bathrooms and kitchens around the world.

The DIYBio laboratory is still in its infancy, but there is every reason to think that it will be in the future what the darkroom was in the past; a space where interested amateurs will invent new forms of art and commerce that will push and challenge boundaries we experience today as “natural.”

Writing Against Identity Politics: An Essay on Gender, Race, and Bureaucratic Pain,” in the latest issue of American Ethnologist

Smadar Lavie’s essay, “Writing Against Identity Politics: An Essay on Gender, Race, and Bureaucratic Pain,” appears in the latest issue of American Ethnologist (Volume 39, Issue 4). The essay focuses on Israel’s single mothers on welfare who are Mizrahi—Jews with origins in the Muslim World. Here is its abstract:

Equating bureaucratic entanglements with pain—or what, arguably, can be seen as torture—might seem strange. But for single Mizrahi welfare mothers in Israel, somatization of bureaucratic logic as physical pain precludes the agency of identity politics. This essay elaborates on Don Handelman’s scholarship on bureaucratic logic as divine cosmology and posits that Israel’s bureaucracy is based on a theological essence that amalgamates gender and race. The essay employs a world anthropologies’ theoretical toolkit to represent bureaucratic torture in multiple narrative modes, including anger, irony, and humor, as a counterexample to dominant U.S.–U.K. formulae for writing and theorizing culture.

Read it online at: here: (currently available without subscription)

Or here (requires subscription)



Keywords: agency and identity politics, critical race theory, intersectionality, world anthropologies, autoethnography, symbolic anthropology, welfare bureaucracy, single mothers, ethnonationalism, citizenship, Israel–Palestine, Mizrahim

This Week in Ethnography: Blog, “LivingEthnography”

This Week in Ethnography I found an interesting blog entitled,

LIVING ETHNOGRAPHY: Research and Conversations on Ethnography, Writing and Folklore

As personal blogs go, it’s more productive than most and the content is appealing.  The About page is interesting in that it provides a few hints at the authors identity but no name:

I am a Folklorist, writer and ethnographer; I study immigration, communities and change.  My current academic book project, Diversity Dependence: Suburban Identity and the Quest for a Multicultural Ideal examines three locations where immigrants and newcomers fundamentally influence political dynamics  and identity.  I am also completing a novel, The Unfinished.

I did finally figured out who the author was but not without a little work! Are you enticed yet?….

What initially caught my attention was a posting entitled, “The New El Norte: Canada” where the author discusses a new immigration trend in North America.

I lived in Mexico on and off from 1999 through 2005.  Working with immigrants traveling back and forth to Pennsylvania, we spend a lot of time talking about the broken U.S. immigration system and the difficulties workers faced when crossing into the U.S.

Back then I asked a question that seemed far-fetched: why not go to work in Canada?  Their immigration laws were certainly more flexible.

The responses were consistently the same: “it’s too cold” or “I don’t know anyone in Canada.”  I already knew that most immigrants followed their networks north–one person would find and setting in a new area, then travel back to Mexico and share the cultural knowledge with family, friends and neighbors who in turn would start to join the “pioneer” migrant in the new locale.  Migrant patterns are enduring, but they are not unchanging.  This article from the Washington Post highlights how a model guest worker program in Canada is making a new El Norte.

For years I have argued that the U.S. needs a revised guest worker program. Many of my colleagues scoff at the idea, thinking that our H2-A visa program, which links agricultural workers to their employer for housing and health care.  It’s a program that might work well for farmer, but it makes the immigrant worker beholden to his or her employer.

Continue reading the post here


THIS WEEK IN ETHNOGRAPHY: Teaching Anthropology ‘Way Off Campus

This week in Ethnography, Heather E. Young-Leslie, Ph.D. describes how best to teach ethnography in the post entitled Sand in My Syllabus; Teaching Anthropology ‘Way Off Campus.

The anthropologist professor is not replaceable, not redundant. But the style of teaching anthropology that we have had since WWII… well, that is replaceable.

I start with the above quotation from the conclusion to give you a taste of the power of this piece.  This article includes solid information for those of us trying to prove or improve our teaching craft.  The title is derived from the following “gritty” quotation which further illustrates the author’s skill:

Sand makes you aware of things you normally take for granted. Sand may be something common to the ‘way off campus locations I’ve taught (and one of the on-campuses too), but it is also a great metaphor for the ‘way off campus pedagogical experience, indeed, for the ethnographic experience.  Because in the same way that anthropology puts grit in our comfy stereotypes and cultural assumptions, once you start thinking about the requirements for teaching in non-university classrooms; such as to retirees on cruise ships, or to university students on away-from-home courses, the value of experience-near, and experience-rich learning opportunities abrades your usual ways of thinking about teaching. It puts sand in your syllabus.

Read the entire post here: