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.

ConnectedText

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!

Transana

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 SavageMinds.org 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 savageminds.org, anthropologyreport.com, or even ethnography.com.  All of these “publications” in my mind trump fifteen minute papers given in massive conference where seven people attended the presentation.

“Building Bildung,” and Other Improbabilities among German University Undergrads

 

German has two words for the English word “education.”  Erziehung describes the school system, and the mechanics of what is taught and conveyed from the world of adults to that of children in order to “bring them up.”  Focus is on skills adults need like literacy, numeracy, history, and the factual basis citizens need to understand to participate socially, culturally, and economically in society.  The German education system is designed to educate all children in such basic skills. It is something that is done for children, and leads to practical apprenticeships/schooling which many German youth begin at ages 15 or 16, i.e. after completion of  9-10 years of schooling and in turn lead into the workforce.  This type of schooling makes for a very disciplined and skilled workforce, which is able to produce engineering wonders like Audi, BMW,  Mercedes and Siemens that power Germany’s modern export-led economy.

 

But there is another word in German for education, which is “Bildung,” which is a more important quality, and the one which is more highly valued even though it is not aimed directly at workforce preparation.  Bildung it is tucked into the programs of the primary, secondary, and really kicks in at the university level, including at Leuphana University where I am currently a guest professor.  Bildung roughly means “cultivation of the intellect.”  Unlike Erziehung, such cultivation is not something that is done for you, rather it is a quality that you as an individual cultivate as a matter of intellectual habit.  This is why primary and secondary schools in Germany have a curriculum in music, art, history, religion, the social sciences, philosophy, and so forth.  Famous German philosopher-types have written about this word and emphasize the quality of “cultivation of the intellect.”  Related to this, Germany prides itself on being the land of “poets and thinkers.”  Besides BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Siemens, think also Luther, Goethe, Hegel, Schiller, Brothers Grimm, and Max Weber.  And in music, it’s Beethoven and Bach just for starters.  Indeed, in a country where political and military achievements are looked at with skepticism, bemusement, and sometimes disgust, cultivation of the Bildung is critical to a sense of adult identity.  The result for the education system that children are expected to develop habits of intellectual cultivation for their own sake–and to appreciate the cultural resources which are the product of such habits.  By the time they reach university, students are expected to do this on their own, without a lot of prompting from university professors like me.

 

To illustrate, here is a quick email I received from a student in my Post Colonial Theory class at Leuphana University last week, with a question about her term paper.  I know her well because she came to my classes for the last 14 weeks, even though there is no grade or “incentive” given for attendance; indeed the paper is the only graded work she will do for me this semester, and it is due after a six week writing period in which there are no classes.  As a full-time student, she will be completing 5-6 such papers during this period. She wrote:

Dear Mr. Waters,

you suggested to me to use Fanon and Wallerstein for my term paper about (Country X), but I would rather like to use Said and Spivak if possible. It seems pretty difficult to apply Fanon’s and Wallerstein’s theories on (Country X), since they are more focused on race, ethnicity and the relations between 1st and 3rd world or rather colonies which were overseas. It seems like Said and Spivak might fit better, also since (Country X) literature and articles about a postcolonial (Country X) refer to their theories. I still would like to refer to Fanon a little bit too. But of course I would like to know what you think about this?

Best regards,

Leuphana Undergrad in Culture Studies

What do I think?  After 15 years working at a mid-level American university, I think cool—go for it.  I mean an email like this from an undergrad is really cool!  I wonder how you could work in three languages (English, German and Language X), and where you came to have such a wide interest in social theory.  My students in America would have taken my cookie-cutter advice about using Wallerstein and Fanon, and left it at that.  But if the Language X literature leads to Said and Spivak, and you’re game to read that—go for it! And I am really looking forward to learning something from your paper about both Country X, and new ways of applying post-colonial theories.

 

The student’s years of cultivating the habits of the mind that are German Bildung in primary and secondary school are what prepared her to write such an email as a second year university student.  She has habits of reading widely, questioning sources, and engaging creatively.  What is more, she assumes that such things are normal educated humans do, as indeed it is  among my students here.  The funny thing for this US American professor is that any number of my students here in Germany could have written such an email—this is just the one that was handy.

 

But, I have rarely in my years of teaching in the US received an email like this.  Rather the focus of the US American student is on the formula that will get a good grade on my paper—And, truth be told, I give it to them: Have a clear introduction with a thesis, illustrative examples in the body, and a good conclusion to tie things off.  In other words mechanics and process are the issue I my conversation with US students.

 

Which brings me back to the subjects of Erziehung, Bildung, and what is now my new pet peeve, Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) Seven Practices of Good Undergraduate Practice.  In my personnel file at Chico State, I repeatedly reflected on these seven principles at the behest of administrators concerned that I earn my keep, i.e. be “accountable.”  As I wrote previously, I think that the insistence of US American administrators on using these “best practices” have over-emphasized process at the expense of what is in essence, Bildung.

 

Before I finish this blog, here are the Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven processes which administrators claim underpin high quality undergraduate teaching.  Note that little of this refers to student learning or acquisition of Bildung.  Rather it is about the faculty can be supervised on, and therefore held accountable for by administrators.  Good Teaching Practices include:

 

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.

By and large, these are great principles of educational process.  But indeed they leave out Bildung.  Nowhere in these seven principles is there any mention of thinking, reading, capacity to think abstractly which is what my student’s email demonstrated.  Nothing in Chickering and Gamson (1987) for the land of poets and thinkers!  Rather it is designed for the land of process engineering—the world Frederick Taylor imagined when in 1911 he published The Principles of Scientific Management.  (Note to American students reading this: If you don’t know who Frederick Taylor was, check out his Wikipedia entry).

One consequence are email from German students like the one above who, by the way, has had little personal feedback from me during the semester, nor do I have any clue about how much “time on task” she has spent on any assignment.  But she does have high expectations for herself, and she learns and writes in German, English, and Language X which is certainly diverse, though perhaps not in the way Chickering and Gamson were thinking of diverse learning styles.  What she has are habits of the mind that are what the German system somehow cultivates. I guess this could be called active learning, though I have no idea what I did as a Professor to encourage it.  Which of course brings me back to Professors Chickering and Gamson (1987), and their Seven Principles.

What would happen if instead of addressing their seven principles on my next course syllabus, I was to melodramatically tell my US American students: Give me Bildung (Habits of Mind), or Give me Death!

I write about Bildung and other such improbabilities in the US American K-12 education system in my new book Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Request it from your library, or if you have enough money, order a hardcover (or Kindle) copy from your favorite bookseller!