Mla Bri Genetics and Anthropology in Northern Thailand

Many anthropologists are concerned with the tendency of biologists to reduce social life in general, and culture in particular to the genes people carry.  As a sociologist, I share that concern.  I think that such reductionist approaches give a false sense of precision to the concept of culture which while very real, is often messy at the edges in very human ways.


I came up against this tendency to “reduce” everything to genetics recently in an article about the Mla Bri of Thailand, a small group (200-300 people) speaking a Khmuic language in northern Thailand.  As a group, they attract the attention of anthropologists because, until recently, they did a lot of hunting and gathering for subsistence, while also being engaged in exploitative labor practices with neighboring groups speaking a range of languages, including northern Thai, Hmong, Mien, and probably Khmu.


Anyway, in 2010, a second article about Mla Bri genetics was published in BMC Genetics using blood samples collected from Mla Bri in 1999 by visiting geneticists.  These samples were then compared to blood samples in a bank from the other ethnic groups found in northern Thailand, including northern Thai, Hmong, Mien, Khmu and so forth.  But the geneticists doing the work did all their work at the laboratory bench, and did not familiarize themselves with the geography of the Thai highlands, or the unequal relationships between the Mla Bri and the neighboring groups.  Their conclusion was that the Mla Bri have been isolated culturally and genetically from the Hmong and other groups for a long long time.  I am confident that their work at the laboratory bench was sound.


But, I did have a basis to question their lack of ethnographic context—you see, I have good friends who have lived with the Mla Bri as missionaries for the last 30 or so years.  Gene and Mary Long speak Mla Bri, and were even present with the blood samples were drawn in 1999.  They are also among the best “gut level” anthropologists I’ve ever met.  Anywya, On the basis of what they knew about the Mla Bri, we evaluated the article in BMC Genetics, and wrote a comment which was posted this week.  This posting makes the point that the genetics work published in 2010 would have been greatly enriched if the authors had talked to the people living in the village, whether it be the Mla Bri themselves, or the Longs.  Indeed, it is well-known among the Mla Bri that despite strong norms for endogamy, extra-marital relationships do exist, and that exogamy does occur.


Our Comment in BMC Genetics is available here:


The article we are commentin on is here.


A similar exchange that I had about the Mla Bri in 2005 in the pages of PLoS Biology is here.


The original 2005 article about the Mla Bri genetics is here.


If you want to know more about the Longs and their work with the Mla Bri, there will be an article about suicide among the Mla Bri in the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Siam Society which should be on-line soon!


Bottom line:  Be wary of the cultural reductionists, be they the selfish-gene type, the lab bench type, check the box type, or any other such type.  For a comment on this, see here!

Hey Look, Social Scientists Can Sell Stuff Too

Now in 2013, The Atlantic, no less, has discovered that marketing firms can take advantage of social science skills, including participant observation, too, and published a nice story about it here.


But perhaps they are a little late to the revelation.  I suspect that they could have walked across the hall to where advertising is sold for their magazine, and made the very same discovery, as indeed, cigarette manufacturers did decades ago!  But, I guess better late than never.


And for social scientists inclined toward such jobs, I suspect such stories are a relief from a sometimes discouraging academic job market!


More on Tooling

A few months back I wrote a post about tooling up for research That post lives here. A few months on I have discovered a few more tools to share.

I should note here, that Kerim at Savage Minds has recently written about his use of Markdown. Further, Savage Minds has a wonderful collection of how-to posts on various matters related to tooling, broadly speaking. But, onto the new tools.


I use ConnectedText for two purposes. First, it has replaced Atlas.ti as my repository for holding and indexing data. As explained here it can be used as a sophisticated QDA tool, though I use it in a far more relaxed manner than the mysterious Dr. Andus describes. Further, unlike most commercial QDA programs, ConnectedText doesn’t force a Grounded Theory or mixed methods approach on the researcher.

Second, it serves as a Zettelkasten for my various reading notes and assorted thoughts. For an in depth look at the theory and practicalities of using ConnectedText as a Zettelkasten, see this overview by Manfred Kuehn.

Kuehn also runs a fascinating blog called Taking Note in which he writes about various methods of note taking and their relation to the production of texts. Highly recommended!


If you work from audio or video in a serious manner, then you know what a pain it can be to organize your data. Transana does a few things to make the process less painful.

First, it has a flexible project based method of organizing data which allows for making connections chronologically and/or thematically. Secondly, the developers have made good progress in allowing collaboration, which is no easy task with large video and audio files. 

Most of the technical possibilities (and they are numerous) are fully explored in this research article written by the developer and a methodological consultant. Suffice to say, if you work with video games or in other multimodal environments, then Transana is worth investigating.

Conferences as Thanksgiving Dinner

Adam Fish at has written about the problem conferences and conference fees.  He asks whether they are really worth it for graduate students in particular—many grad students are told by their major professors that conferences are necessary for networking.  I share Adam’s doubts, though.  Hiring for tenure track academic jobs is done by hiring committees with the approval of deans and provosts who are not at the conference.  Few if any decisions are made at the conference “job fairs.”  In my experience, hiring committees prefer actually teaching classes, and publishing papers to conference attending.


Conferences are a strange phenomenon in academia; in my view, they are mainly homecoming rituals in which you renew old acquaintances from grad school, and other places.  It matters for the perpetuation of the group, just like it does for your family at  Thanksgiving, or perhaps what the Trobrianders did on a kula visit.


In this respect, conferences are an important.  But are they really that important for landing a job in the highly bureaucratized academic job market?  If the answer is yes, then you also probably believe that meeting your cousin’s new girlfriend at Thanksgiving is a good way for finding a job, too.  In other words, sometimes it works, but usually it is irrelevant.


Which brings up the question: But how often should you go to an academic conference?  Well, ask yourself, how often do you go big formal family events like Thanksgiving? After all preparing and paying for an academic conference probably takes just about the same amount of time and expense as making it to a big family dinner in a distant city.  There is the preparation, applications for leave, travel, and so forth which all take up the better part of a week, if not more.  Then there are the steep fees which, as Adam points out, always hit the impoverished grad students the hardest (at least for Thanksgiving Aunt Sally is not going to give the grad student a bill for the meal!)


Big holiday meals with my family are indeed nice a couple of times per year.  And that is a good rule of thumb for going to academic conferences, too.  A couple of times per year you should renew professional acquaintances, get some perspective on what you do at your university, and then back to what is really important, which is indeed, teaching actual classes, and finishing actual papers which are headed for print.


But for getting that tenure track position,  nothing beats actually teaching an actual class, and getting an actual paper published in a journal which is refereed or not.  Book reviews are cool, too; I’ve never understood why grad students don’t seek out more of them.  Insightful blogs on a site like,, or even  All of these “publications” in my mind trump fifteen minute papers given in massive conference where seven people attended the presentation.

Ethnography and Russian Israelis in Tel Aviv: Getting Reluctant People to Speak


by Daiva Repeckaite

Guest blogger Daiva Repeckaite is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and 
Cultural Anthropology, VU University Amsterdam. Her thesis research is 
on networking practices and ideas about citizenship of Russian-speaking 
Israelis, particularly those living in poorer areas in Tel Aviv. Daiva 
has carried out her first fieldwork in Israel for eight months in 
2009-2010, and is currently in Tel Aviv to do additional interviews and 
participant observations.

Anthropologists can never agree on whether going to the field requires a sort of purification from preconceptions and theories, or should fieldwork and theoretical inquiry go in parallel. Openness is a matter of pride, and ethnographers love claiming they express their findings in their informants’ words, rather than imposed structures ‘from above’. All of this popped up in my fieldwork in an unexpected way.


My PhD research is on the models of citizenship and belonging in the new country as constructed through in-group networking practices and discourses. I carried out a large part of my fieldwork three years ago, with a still-vague idea about theories and analytical frameworks to use. Since many of my interviews happened in South Tel Aviv, a poorer part of the city, we were always surrounded by diverse immigrant groups: African asylum-seekers, Filipino guest-workers and others. Some interviewees expressed dissatisfaction with the competition for housing and jobs with non-citizens, whom they occasionally construed as the fundamental Others – as we in Anthropology like to say, with a capital O. This was when I came up with an idea that their views on asylum-seekers can be a good litmus paper for the ideas about citizenship that I wanted to explore.


Having returned from the field, I quickly realized that the topic of interethnic relations in South Tel Aviv is among the ‘sexiest’ and gets my abstracts accepted to conferences. It was not my main topic in the beginning, but the lack of elaborate and up-to-date quotes from my informants was compensated by internet forums. In one forum, users actively discussed issues in South Tel Aviv, suggesting that non-citizens bring crime and drugs[1]. Of course, in my papers and presentations I explained that any negative feelings towards other ethnic groups are merely results of the vulnerable position of these Russian-speakers as workers, and the feeling of disillusionment when they came to Israel on the basis of an ethnic privilege, but were thrown into the same pot with non-citizens in the labor market.


While I was touring conferences, the situation changed for the worse. Far-right groups rallied and attacked African immigrants in South Tel Aviv, and reported crimes by asylum-seekers were met with racist outcries (extensive coverage on the situation is available here, one example of a right-wing rally is here, videos and analysis here). Reading the news, I always wondered where my Russian-speakers were. People from ex-USSR tend not to mobilize for demonstrations. However, I expected that they would be concerned with the growing tension in the neighborhood and, judging from the narratives collected earlier, I expected that these concerns will relate to the way they see themselves as citizens. In Israel, Russian-speakers are often stereotyped as predominantly right-wing, as the main party representing them is a ‘hawk’ in relation to the Middle East conflict.


Last month I arrived in Tel Aviv again, determined to find my old informants, add new ones and explicitly ask what they thought about interethnic relations in their neighborhood. But guess what? All of them so far appeared to be doves of peace and multiculturalism. Asked about life and safety in a troubled Shapira neighborhood, one informant said, “Just like any other neighborhood.” A bar owner, asked about whether he heard about far-right demonstrations in the area and conflicts with Africans said, “Maybe in some other neighborhood, I haven’t heard anything, here everyone lives peacefully.”


The informants so far show that they do not need their lives to be explained using models of working class alienation and citizen privilege construction. Instead, they refuse to participate in the debate. At the same time, my intuition was that something might be hiding between the lines. This is not the first time people try to present themselves positively and favorably during an interview. Possibly, three years ago they were more relaxed about expressing whichever thoughts they had, but when the tensions turned violent, they do not want to be associated with the violent side.


This is a good chance to reflect on interviews as a method. Interviews are a method that helps informants feel in the center of attention, and ethnographic interviews are expected to allow them time to talk and to frame the story in their own words. On the other hand, interviewees are never purely channels of information about themselves – they consciously or subconsciously construct a story they like. This may be a story of victimhood, heroism, non-conformism, etc. So, just when an ethnographer sharpens her sword to defend the widely stereotyped group and explain its stance, the group presents itself as happy interculturalists.




Here’s Why Jared Diamond is Irrelevant to Anthropology

As I discussed in a previous post, the blogosphere is atwitter (pun intended) about Jared Diamond’s new book The World before Yesterday.  It seems his press agent got him some good publicity on NPR and National Geographic, both outlets which Anthropology PhDs apparently pay attention to.  And guess what: Anthropologists don’t like The World Before Yesterday; check out the comment streams at SavageMinds.Org,, or any number of other anthropology blogs.  As many of the anthropological critiques point out, there are big problems with the way Diamond uses anthropological data.  My opinion: So what?  Lots of people use and misuse anthropology data–the Bush administration even used some of it it to invade Iraq and other countries.  More importantly though, anthropology has many better books about anthropology.  In fact, as something of a mental exercise, this sociologist tried to imagine the books he would use in an Introductory Anthropology (Four Fields) course.  Guess what again?  Jared Diamond didn’t make the list because, well, he is a Geographer and Ecologist.  These are great fields, but they are not anthropology, so out he goes.


Fair warning: I avoid textbooks.  In my view, anthropology is best understood through real books.  Real books, in which 19 years olds are asked to read the whole thing. Not textbooks, and not books with chapters, but books in which one (or maybe two) authors flesh out an important intellectual idea.


Anyway, here are the books I would use in my Intro to Anthropology (Four Fields) course.


1) Nigel Barley, The Innocent Anthropologist.  This book goes first in the class, and will hook the students in.  It is an empathetic take on fieldwork, bureaucracy, and the differences between academic life, rural Cameroon, and the delights/frustrations of learning a new language.  It is also easy to read, and an outstanding introduction to what ethnographers do in the field.  Once they get started on the book, students tend to finish it, too; it is a page-turner which they will read through to the end without much prompting from annoying little quizzes.


2) Carol Stack, All Our Kin.  This book is a field work classic (not “dated”) about public housing policies, kinship patterns, race, and family in 1960s Chicago.  Again, it is easy to read.  And although it is not a knee slapper like The Innocent Anthropologist, my experience with Stack’s book is that students find it thought provoking, and have little trouble pushing through to the final pages.  It also has the advantage that it is about a US American culture which many middle class students are aware of only via stereotypes.  Stack dispose of these stereotypes in a nuanced description of how poverty and family looks from the inside.  Hers is a classical empathetic ethnographic view which resonates today.  Usually it gets a lot of “Oh, now I see what poverty does about…” moments from students who before reading the book were stuck in stereotypes..


3) Stephen Le Blanc, Constant Battles.  This book is written by an archaeologist, and like takes a “big picture” view of anthropology and culture, and why the archaeological record says that violence is an important part of the human past. LeBlanc also writes about how anthropologists understand the built environment, which in LeBlanc’s view has involved a lot more fighting, fear, and fortresses than students are accustomed to.  Likewise, LeBlanc’s description of the ecology of the pre-historic Southwest USA is excellent, and students will be attracted to his descriptions of excavations done in the cliff dwellings there.  Constant Battles is a little more difficult to read than the first two books, but still very accessible to a 19 year old who shows up to class to hear an anthropologist’s background lectures.


4) Jonathan Marks, What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee.  Molecular Anthropology at its best! The answer to Marks’ answer to the question posed by the title of this book is of course: “not much;” Marks’ book is about culture rather than molecules, and especially it is about the culture of science which worships at the altar of biological reductionism.  Thus this book is about DNA, the philosophy of science, and the misuses of evolutionary theory in popular (and not so popular) science. The book challenges received wisdom on the relationships between evolution and culture, and the methods of the natural scientists who, Marks bluntly points out, are nasty reductionists with cultural and political blinders.  Marks also has a great discussion about Kennewick man, and other ethical controversies which the better students will appreciate.  This book is above the heads of the average 19 year olds unversed in the vagaries of DNA and the philosophy of science. But this should just meant that the professor works a little harder to keep things as relevant as possible.  Notably, it is also a good challenge for the better students.


5) Mischa Berzinski, Field Work: A Novel.  Ok, it’s a novel, but it’s a good novel, and the main character is an anthropologist.  It’s also about an area of the world (Thailand) that I know well, and provides a good description of the power of animism and Christianity in Buddhist Thailand from an anthropological viewpoint.  (Lots of chances to discuss Durkheim on religion here!)  Field Work also has the strength that it critiques the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and the world of the Grateful Dead.  Still the best parts are about Thailand, Southeastern Asia, the difficulties of field work, and language.  There are also long descriptions of highland agricultural cycles, marriage, sexuality, crime, modern Thailand, and a wide range of subjects that engage students.  You can also point out that Thailand has cheap Study Abroad programs for anyone you’ve infected with the anthropological bug.  Finally, the book is a “whodunit?” and you don’t find out who did the murder until the very end.  The mystery will keep the 19 year olds reading through the more dense descriptions of highland life, even at the end of a long semester.


Notice that 4/5 of these books are by anthropologists, and the other one is a novel about—an anthropologist.  The hole in this syllabus for a “four fields” course is in Linguistic Anthropology, and the importance of language learning.  These subjects though are found in both Barley’s and Berlinski’s book.  Plus the instructor (that’s you Dr. Anthropology) is there to relate their own fantastic tales about language learning troubles, and the vagaries of language change.


So, to return to my main point, which is about the irrelevancy of Jared Diamond for Anthropology.  Like I said in the introduction to this essay, anthropology has plenty of good books to present, without worrying too much about other fields.  So what if NPR and National Geographic don’t feature anthropology’s books—that’s their problem not anthropology’s.  Look at what great books they are missing!  Wouldn’t a sit-down with Nigel Barley work at least as good on NPR as with Jared Diamond?


Ok, I know, you say that there is no overview to tie the whole thing together, like an Intro text.  And I say yes there is—the professor ties it together.  That’s what anthropology professors do, and they do so in a way that let’s the students know that real live practicing anthropologist are engaged and interesting people.  And of course how anthropologists do this is by pointing out the underlying theories of culture, etc., which unite the field.  You, Dr. Anthropologist are what make great anthropology like that described here come alive for those Intro to Anthro students who frankly have never heard of Jared Diamond unless they have somehow landed in cultural geography class.


Hey, I don’t know about your students, but my sociology students don’t listen to NPR or watch National Geographic cultures—those are your hobbies you latte sipping, Volvo driving, middle aged New York Times reading anthropology PhD.  And remember, in addition to the recreational time you spend with NPR and National Geographic anthropology is what you really do, and what give your life and those of your students meaning, in ways that no mass produced textbook (12th edition) ever will.  Or even Jared Diamond.


So suck up the fact that Jared Diamond likes anthropology enough to cite it in his tomes, and go out and give ‘em anthropology books.  It is an exciting and engaging field which stands on its own.  In fact I’m so excited about it, that I am hoping to hear from some Dean from a small liberal arts college will read this, ignore my PhD in Sociology, and recruit me to come teach introductory to Anthropology course.


So Dr. Dean, I’m waiting, and if you are interested in my Cultural Anthro class, email me at

Did Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Practices of Good Undergraduate Education Dumb Down American Education? A View from Germany

I just finished my semester teaching as a Guest Professor at Leuphana University in Germany, and am beginning to figure out an answer to a question I get asked frequently: “What is the difference between American and German universities?”  Actually, the German students who have been exchange students in the United States have helped me along.  They say:


In American universities, there’s lots of assignments, busy work really, and the students are not expected to take responsibility for their own learning.  Really it is like [German] high school, not the university.


German university classes in contrast to American universities do not involve a lot of graded work during the semester.  The credit for the entire course comes down to a few ungraded assignments during the semester (typically including a 20 minute oral presentation), and a final test or paper which is the only thing actually evaluated for a grade. Class itself is a combination of student presentation, faculty lecture, and if it is small enough, seminar.  In the case of the paper, it is usually 10-12 pages long—one for each class.  There are no incentives for attendance.  There are also is no preparation for midterms or quizzes–because there are few such tests in the American sense.  The term paper for the class is handed in is due about six weeks after the semester ends. The professor then hands in a grade sometime in the next few months, which is then reported to the student, without elaboration or feedback.  And that’s it—if you pass, you go on to the next semester.


In other words, at this German university, there are classes in which there is little encouragement for contact between students and faculty, professors do not initiate cooperation among students (that is up to the students), there is little feedback from the faculty regarding student work (and feedback need not be prompt), time on task is not monitored, and no one really cares if a student has another way of learning that does not show up on assessment.


The good news, though is that there are high expectations for German students, and if they meet the high expectations, they get a degree at the end of three years or more.  Oh, and before they can also organize complex ideas in their 10-12 pages, read voraciously, and are up to date on current events both within and outside their fields.  But they are this way not because of class content and monitoring by university faculty like me.  Rather they are like that because that is what a good student is.  The 20-30 minute class presentations are generally include high quality analysis, too.  Also, with most German undergraduates you can have an well-informed conversation about their lives or the events of the day in English, German, and perhaps another language.


But is this really good practice in undergraduate education?  According to the gurus of American undergraduate education, Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987)  the German system is a lousy system which should produce


Apathetic students, illiterate graduates, incompetent teaching, impersonal campuses — so rolls the drumfire of criticism of higher education.


The problem of course is that my German students are far from apathetic, certainly not illiterate, and judging from the fact that major political parties show up on campus to court the student vote they are far from apathetic.  As for the incompetence of teaching, I cannot judge that from my perspective, except to note that my German language teacher was pretty good!


Nevertheless in response to the problem that Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987) diagnosed regarding apathy, illiteracy, and incompetence, they prescribed seven best practices for high quality undergraduate education which American faculty are routinely held to in faculty reviews:


1. encourages contact between students and faculty,

2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,

3. encourages active learning,

4. gives prompt feedback,

5. emphasizes time on task,

6. communicates high expectations, and

7.respects diverse talents and ways of learning.


A German academic high schools (Gymnasium) teacher might recognize Chickering and Gamsons (1987) criteria, but the German university system I described above only meets 1/6 of Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) goals, i.e. the one about high expectations.   The other six, are considered to be the responsibility of the student, not the faculty, which is why of course my German students hold American undergraduate education in such low esteem, and typically consider their exchange experience to be “high schoolish.”


The German view is that university faculty is in charge of organizing interesting class to which students will come if they are inclined, and participate when they are prepared.  If they show up sort of regularly, and do the major assignment/test at the end of the semester, they will get credit for the course.  University faculty are not in charge of checking endless assignments, homeworks, administering quizzes and the many other tasks which are really about checking for “time on task,” the metric that is most valued by administrators and faculty?


Could it be too that the reason that the German students believe that American undergraduate education is “like high school” is the fault of Chickering and Gamson (1987)?  I bring this up because since I started teaching American undergraduates in 1996, the administrators who hired me have asked me to include Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven goals of good undergraduate practice in my employment dossier.  I have dutifully done this, and in a show of faith upped the number of assignments in my classes, made a point of returning assignments quickly, encouraged active learning in the assignments I make, tried to make sure that I assigned 2 hours of reading/out of class work for each Carnegie unit the students receive, and checked to see if they did it by using quizzes.  I am an accountable professor!  But does this really make me a good professor who creates students who think creatively and deeply about sociology as I see my German students doing?


And anyway, what do we in the American system get in response?  Undergraduates who are like, well, high school students in their capacity to work independently (meaning they work like well-supervised high school students).  The expectations authored by Chickering and Gamson (1987) have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We defined high quality as demanding a lot of busywork (not critical thinking, routine reading, or the capacity to work independently, and surprise, we get undergraduates who


–contact faculty frequently

–do group work

–equate active learning with recreational activities

–expect prompt and voluminous feedback rather than editing themselves

–spend a lot of time doing homeworks

–read for the detail on quizzes rather than for “fun”

–have high expectations of their own abilities, and

–expect learning accommodations to be made for different learning styles


This is not to say that German students are faultless.  Indeed, the German system has recently undergone major reform because students frequently floated away from a system that by American standards can be pretty brutal (it is easier to flunk a student you do not know, than one who has frequent contact with faculty).  German students also take too long to graduate, and so forth.  I should add, that my experience last semester is that American attendance patterns are a bit better than German, and punctuality is also a lot better at Chico State, where I routinely start class within 15 seconds of the class start time, a process which seems to take 5-10 minutes here…).


Still, when the German students do finally get to class, they bring intellectual preparation that my American students do not.  But then again, habits of intellectual engagement, like voluminous reading, independent thought, oral presentations, and routinely crafting 10-12 page essays are really not part of what Chickering and Gamson (1987) have defined as high quality undergraduate education, are they?



Chickering and Gamson (1987).  There are hundreds if not thousands of copies of Chickering and Gamson’s original article floating around on the internet.  If you really want to read it (I encourage you to do so), either click the link embedded in the article, or simply google it up!