Campbell’s Law, Planned Social Change, Vietnam War Deaths, and Condom Distributions in Refugee Camps

Donald T. Campbell was a psychologist in the 1970s. During this time, the belief emerged that society was a social engineering project that could be planned and evaluated.  The general idea was  that if you collected enough data, you could plan and control social change in a way that led to desired results.  Economists from USAID believed this about economic development, military planners in Vietnam believed it, and Sociologists in the War on Poverty believed it.  But by 1976, Campbell wasn’t so sure…

The generation of social scientists Campbell critiqued ran around measuring poverty, illiteracy, disease, Communism, and other bad things.  Thus in the 1970s you had Wars on Poverty, Smallpox, Illiteracy, Drugs, and so forth.  There were also violent wars in Vietnam (for the Americans), and in Afghanistan (for the Russians).  When I lived in Tanzania in the 1980s, the Tanzanian government had wars on Poverty, Ignorance, and Disease, all funded by international donors living out this paradigm.  Planners in Washington, New York, Dar Es Salaam, and elsewhere calculated with statistical precision what was needed for victory in their “war,” and allocated government money to produce the desired victory.  Their decisions were “data driven” and “evidence based,”  to borrow two words common in policy making circles today.

Campbell was involved in such projects himself.  He was so much part of them that he wrote an unfortunately obscure paper, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change” which reflects on the psychology of planners.  More interesting for this blog, though, is the fact that what he was really doing was taking the ethnographic temperature of number-assessed planners.   Campbell’s Law is as follows:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

In Vietnam, Campbell pointed out, the quantitative social indicator was “enemy killed.”  Thus, he noted, this measure was corrupted as dead civilians were re-defined as “enemy,” and occasionally villages were invaded in the hope that at the unit would have kill-metric which could be rewarded.  Two examples added by other social scientists including the following: Cardiac surgeons declined to operate on seriously ill because such patients were more likely to die (duh).  They did this because the state began issuing “scorecards” rooted in survival rates.  So, since the very sick were the most likely to die in surgery (or on their own), the doctors declined to operate on the seriously sick, and preserved their high survival rates.  Another example of Campbell’s Law comes from airline schedules.  Airlines began to be scored on the basis of “on-time arrivals” in the 1980s.  They responded by simply increasing estimated flight times, thereby driving up their “on-time” rates—anytime you arrive early at a destination, thank Campbell’s Law; tailwinds probably did not have much to do with it!

Citing “Campbell’s Law” when critiquing the United States’ “No Child Left Behind Act” is something of a fad in education circles today.  This is because high stakes testing for science and math drives decision-making about student promotion, teacher retention, and school closures.  Thus, you get extensive test prep of students in reading and math, with resultant dilution of subjects like history, science, music and the arts which are not tested for.  And of course, the ultimate vindication of Campbell’s Law are the cheating scandals by schools and teachers concerned only about “succeeding” on test day.

Campbell’s law also applies well to other bureaucratic endeavors, especially those of applied social scientists.  My own experience is in Tanzania where projects to assist refugees or villagers were created with quantitative goals and objectives to satisfy donors, independent of what was needed or wanted by the villagers (or refugees) they were assisting.  My favorite version of Campbell’s Law was the many broken diesel-powered water projects that littered western Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s.  Indeed a book called Watering White Elephants was written about this phenomenon.  Many of these were funded with the bureaucratic “Health for All by the year 2000” goal of WHO in mind. Quantitative reports showing that the goals of the project in terms of villagers served, villages with pumps, etc., were met.

For the refugees I worked with in Tanzania between 1994 and 1996, a good example was the numerical goal established for birth control in the Rwandan refugee camps.  This was right after the Rwanda genocide, and the UN was concerned about the exploding birth rates, and the costs that would be incurred by their child health programs.  The result was a bright idea: Condoms all around!  In `1995-1996, four million condoms were distributed in record time by a USAID program, a quantitative  result trumpeted at NGO meetings I attended (Quick: 4 million condoms spread across 450,000 refugees means that USAID is assuming what about the frequency of refugee sex???).

The visiting anthropologist hired to evaluate the program though pointed to the corruption of the condom distribution program.  The condoms, she found were not used to prevent births, which continued to rise quickly, even nine months (or more) after the big distribution.  Rather the condoms became a marker for young men to display their prowess.  The young men cut off the end of the condom and wore it as a bracelet to represent conquests.  Campbell’s Law wins again!

Indeed, there is a ethnographic field worker’s version of Campbell’s Law which was written by the development economist Teodor Shanin in 1966 at the height of the Cold War.  Central planners in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing were running around the world applying the econometric models (Washington), or assumptions about central state planning (Moscow and Beijing) to Third World projects.  The result was Campbell’s Law writ large, as the planners with their emphasis on production targets, development plans, and so forth created goals which implementers adjusted their programs to match.  The result was that in places like the Congo, Vietnam,and  Afghanistan, all the great powers were ultimately frustrated.  Echoing Campbell’s law, Shanin wrote about the corruption of the quantitative social indictors in the following way:

Day by day, the peasants make the economists sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam”  Shanin (1966).

Which in the end points to the strengths of the ethnographic method, since after all Campbell’s Law applies to quantitative measures, not qualitative.  As long as ethnographers are the harmless fuzzballs on the wall, they are able to write about processes, interactions, relationships, and so forth that quantitative measures typically miss.  After all, Campbell’s Law itself is ultimately an ethnographic conclusion about the nature of quantitative methods. Ethnographic method may not be grand, or easily adapted to manage large bureaucratic projects, but in its insight, it can be used to describe the limitations of more quantitative projects.

Reposted from (2010).

Social Class and Food from Around the Web

I grew up eating what the educated like to call “junk” food and “trash” food, mostly it was “poor food,” that came from boxes and cans. It wasn’t always like this in my family, we had short periods of feast and long periods of famine, and when times were good (my mom “marrying up’) we ate fresh, home cooked food. When times were bad however (going broke after losing the family business), it was hamburger in a five-pound tube and no label, mac and cheese in a box.

There’s much debate about poverty and food, mostly around how welfare recipients do or don’t spend their money on food. At the same time, when the debate about health/nutrition and poverty comes up, the poor and working class are the subject of scorn and critique for their food choices and “the growing obesity problem.” It’s a no-win situation.

Easy CheeseToday, we offer you some selections from around the web about social class and food:

  1. Read the excellent “Trash Food” by Chris Offutt by clicking here.
  2. Look at a playful Instagramer’s take on class and food plating by clicking this link to Twisted Swifter (a favorite website). If you don’t know what “food plating” is (bless you, I didn’t either), click this link to learn the “Basics of food plating.”
  3. Those with an anthropological bent, can read Robin Fox’s take on class, food, and table manners when you click here.

Monetizing Mindfulness

Maybe the word “mindfulness” is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness — taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails — makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.

I came across a good critique of how the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has been co-opted by the PMC (professional middle class) and other groovy types looking to sell stuff to the MBA’s. My critique of the article is that the concept was co-opted by the kind of people who read The New York Times, and it’s unlikely they have the reflective skills to realize that this article is about them!

Click the link here, and give Virginia Heffernan’s article a read yourself and let us know what you think. Has the meaning of mindfulness been muddied? Is it less a spiritual practice and more a class marker?

Expressing Outrage and Lynching: Vigilantism in a Tanzanian Village, 1997

When Killing is a crime(Adapted from Tony Waters, When Killing is a Crime, Lynne Rienner Publishers 2007).

By Essau Magugudi in Kigoma
NOVEMBER 27, 1997, is deeply etched in the memories of Shunga villagers. It was on this day that they took law into their own hands and hacked to death three bandits who they suspected of carrying out acts of robbery in villages surrounding refugee settlements of Mutabira and Muyovozi.
Such retribution was unprecedented…”

I found the above article story while cruising the internet in1999, after typing in the keyword “Shunga” on a lark. Shunga is a remote village in Western Tanzania where my sister-in-law lived for 16 years, and also where my wife and I were married. I had also spent six weeks there in 1996 recovering from hepatitis and writing an article about Shunga which was later published in African Studies Review.

Magugudi’s  article struck me as odd because lynch law (or vigilante committees, if you will) were not unprecedented in that part of Tanzania as is asserted in his article. Rather it is fairly typical of remote Tanzanian villages at that time, and has in fact been found around the world where ever justice systems are weak. Indeed, during the three years I lived in the nearby town of Kasulu (1984-7), typically once or twice per year, some kid would be caught in the market stealing something trivial. Someone would yell “thief” and he would run toward the police station as fast as he could, with a very angry mob chasing after him. The unspoken arrangement was that if he made the police station he would be arrested and a legal case would be made against him. Thus, the police station was “safe” so to speak, even though the thief would be prosecuted. But, if the crowd caught him, he might be beaten to death.

Similar rules of summary justice were applied to Shunga. The big talk in Shunga in previous years had been of rumored poisonings, the attempted murder of a former ward councilor (someone set his grass roof on fire in the middle of the night), and the execution by a burning tire “necklace” of a thief caught in a neighboring village. Vigilante justice and summary execution is not that unusual where the courts and police find it difficult to find transportation to the remote villages even if they are called. Indeed, in Tanzania when I lived there, without access to a vehicle police officers needed to walk for at least half of a day even to ask the first question. What has changed is that because of a refugee crisis in this part of Tanzania, which began in 1993.  Journalists came to the area looking for stories, some of which might end up on the internet where I can find them.  Mugugudi continued:

…The three slain bandits had on that day ambushed a peasant along the main road … As luck would have it, the peasant escaped narrowly from his custody of his captors who had tried to seize his bicycle. He then reported the incident to the villagers who were bathing at a nearby stream. As the bandits emerged from their hideouts and descended towards the stream, they were stopped by villagers for questioning. It was discovered that the bandits were refugees at Muyovozi [refugee] camp. Upon searching them, the villagers found them with three locally made guns secured in an old sack. The bandits were handcuffed and taken to the ward office where a mob of angry youths hacked them to death.

Not much of a criminal investigation here. Probably most relevant is the fact that the youths killed represented the threat the refugee camp provided to the village. Since 1994, Shunga, which has a population of about 4,000 has had a UN supported refugee camp built on its boundary. In 1997, there were 50,000 refugees from Burundi living there.

The hacking of the bandits did arouse mixed feelings among villagers, especially when the councillor of the ward was taken by the police to Kasulu for questioning, but residents of Shunga and other neighboring villages believed the killing of the bandits would minimize, if not stop altogether, acts of banditry which had been increasing in the villages.

“Mixed feelings” is usually an indication that there are doubts about “legitimacy,” particularly in the context of the removal of the ward councilor. Villagers asked themselves whether they should have killed the refugees or not? How does it feel like to live next door to people who have killed publicly in this fashion? What can the central authorities, whose authority was usurped, actually do? Should they have presented the thieves to the ward councilor while still alive? There are doubts among the villagers about whether the right thing was done, and whether they legitimate authority to do it. Notably, though, the doubts were about who should have responded, not whether the punishment for theft was just. Rather, it was about who is the legitimate third party, the central government, ward councilor, or the village mob? There is also fear that “two party” justice exposes the villagers up to retaliation by the dead refugees’ friends.

I also pity government officials assigned to rural areas of Tanzania, like the ward counselor. He was sent to a remote village like Shunga with the idealistic assumption that he could persuade villagers to develop and pay for a modern state, even though they will never receive things like police investigations. From the villagers perspective, the most most prominent duty or the ward counselor is to collect the annual head tax, a job which confers little status, and for which their miniscule salary which is typically late. In fact the salary is so small and irregular that as with virtually every other person living in Shunga, the ward councilor had a subsistence farm in order to raise enough food to eat.
Not surprising, in many parts of Tanzania, the situation often leads to corruption. Technically, of course, the Shunga Ward Councilor had the Kasulu Police force to back him up, but then so does every other of the 40 or 50 ward councilors in the District. When I lived in Kasulu, the police had only one or two vehicles, and were unlikely to respond to a remote robbery case. A consequence is that the problem sometimes escalates into the type of lynching described above. This is a classic case of a weak state which has little legitimacy built up, and as a result has difficulty asserting the monopoly on the use of coercive force.

In fact, the central government is aware that Shunga has had a history of problems with ward councilors. One of the previous ward councilors, who pushed projects of school construction and tax collections too hard (he was known as a modernizer), had the grass roof of his house burned late one night, in an attempt to kill him. He was warned, but lost his house, and was given a transfer by the central government. No one ever prosecuted (or lynched) those responsible for the torching.

But, four months after that incident Mugugudi described, several more incidents of banditry and robbery were reported from villages near refugee settlements in Kasulu district.

So much for the hope that lynching controls stealing. Banditry was a chronic problem before and after the incident in Shunga. Lynching, perhaps less so, but the point that Esau Magugudi makes here is a good one. Lynching is not necessarily an effective means of crime control. Nor were the footraces out of the Kasulu marketplaces described above. Stealing was there before and after “executions;” so much for  theories equating severity of punishment with deterrence. This is a stark reminder that capital punishment of the most horrific sort did not control theft in the area.

Related Reading
Waters, Tony (1997) Beyond Structural Adjustment: State and Market in a Rural Tanzanian Village. African Studies Review. 40(2):59-89.

Adapted from Tony Waters, When Killing is a Crime, Lynne Rienner Publishers 2007.

Hatfield and McCoy Feud–The Real Thing

(Extract from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters (2007).  Lynne Rienner Publisher).

The Hatfield and McCoy feud is legendary in the United States, having become the subject of film and television drama. However, the events do have a root in a real feud, which took place across the Tug River, which forms the boundary between West Virginia and Kentucky in the latter half of the 19th century. The origins of the feud are vague. Squirrel Huntin’ Sam McCoy, one of the feudists, later wrote his memories of the time, but could not remember why the feud started, but his descriptions of general horseplay and boisterousness in the context of a trial over the ownership of hogs come closest to being a general explanation. Depending on how you count, the resulting feud left between 12 and 20 dead between 1882 and 1900, and as many wounded (Waller 1988:239; MacClintock 1901:176).

The Hatfield-McCoy feud illustrates well the manner in which violence, and new methods of responding to violence, emerge in areas where the state is weak. At the time of the feud, the remote area of Appalachia, where there were no regular roads, no railway, and people lived on homesteads where they grew what they ate and wore. The source of cash most often was whiskey, which was typically sold without payment of required taxes. What contact with the authorities there were, often came in the form of arrests, when mountaineers brought their “moonshine” into town to sell surreptitiously.

In other words, the state in rural Appalachia was still weak, and many were suspicious because the authorities lacked a monopoly on the use of coercive violence. As a result, when looking at the story of the McCoy-Hatfield feud, the role of the state is anomalous. Sometimes, the protagonists tried to enlist the authority of the state to represent them in the settlement of grievances. At other times, particularly when they were dissatisfied with the action of the court, principals in feuds organized their own attacks and even “executions” in the interests of exacting revenge.

In the late 19th century, each clan had a leader, Devil Anse Hatfield on the West Virginia side of the Tug fork of the Big Sandy River, and Old Ranel McCoy, opposite him, on the Kentucky side of the river. Each had extensive kin relations on both sides of the river. Each was a prolific patriarch as well; Devil Anse had 13, children, and Old Ranel sixteen. Intermarriage between the clans was extensive.

The trigger to the feud was in 1879, when Old Ranel McCoy came to believe that Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Devil Anse, had penned up his free-ranging “razorback” hogs. Old Ranel’s first impulse though was to report the case to the authorities and he took the case to the Justice of the Peace on the Kentucky side of the river. A trial was called, and a journey of six McCoys and six Hatfields empanelled. One of the McCoys though sympathized with the Hatfield case, and as a result Ranel McCoy lost the case, and presumably Floyd Hatfield kept the hogs.

But later in 1879 a fight erupted between Sam and Parish McCoy, and one of the Hatfield witnesses, Bill Stayton, from the trial. Parish McCoy and Bill Stayton both managed to shoot each other, before they clinched, fighting with hands and teeth (MacClintock 1901:177). Sam McCoy responded by shooting Stayton in the head.

The two McCoys were brought to trial for Stayton’s death, with Devil Anse Hatfields’s own brother as judge. Nevertheless, the McCoys were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. In response, according to MacClintock, the Hatfields declared “war.” The clans began sharp-shooting from a distance, and the McCoys in particular began to post sentinels to protect their homes and farms. Nevertheless, truces would emerge, particularly in the context of elections, which were held periodically.

Relations stood a chance of being healed later in 1879, when the feud was complicated, by a romantic relationship between Johnse Hatfield, son of Devil Anse, and Roseana McCoy, daughter of Old Ranel. Roseana went to live with Johnse at the Hatfield homestead, but Old Ranel refused permission for them to marry. In response, the McCoy brothers and friends interrupted the lovers’ trysts, and took Johnse captive. Devil Anse responded by sending out his family, which recaptured Johnse, and humiliated the McCoys. The McCoys responded by having a warrant taken out of the arrest of two Hatfield brothers. The warrant was served, but the Hatfields released, and the feud simmered. And while these incidents are cited by historians of the feud, it still did not heat up.

The violence of the feud is continued on election day in 1882, which was devoted to socializing and politics, liberally lubricated with “apple jack” and “corn-juice.” Talbot McCoy, a son of Old Ranel, asked Devil Anse’s uncle ‘Lias Hatfield for repayment of a $1.75 debt so that he could buy more whisky. ‘Lias denied owing the debt, and a fight ensued, which was broken up by officers. In response, Deacon Ellison Hatfield called Talbot McCoy a coward, and challenged him to a knife fight. The officer released Talbot to defend himself and another fight ensued. Despite the fact that young Bud McCoy was digging into him with another knife, Ellison Hatfield got the best of Talbot McCoy, and was about to crush his opponent’s head with a stone, when Farmer McCoy raised his revolver, and shot Ellison in the back. The three McCoys were immediately taken into custody by Kentucky police, while the Hatfields retreated back to West Virginia.

Devil Anse Hatfield quickly heard of the incident, and organized his kin to intercept the prisoners. Twenty to thirty of them challenged the sheriff’s men, and before the three McCoys reached the jail in Pikeville, Kentucky, they were hustled back to West Virginia. Miraculously, Ellison was still alive, and Devil Anse Hatfield announced a deathwatch. If Ellison died, so would the three McCoys: legend has it that he told two McCoy women who had arrived to beg for the lives of the three men: “Yo’ needn’t beg, an’ yo’ needn’t cry. If Ellison dies, yo’ boys hez got to die, damn my heart if they don’t!” Ellison himself, as he lay dying urged that Devil Anse turn his killers over to civil courts, saying, “Give them civil law.” The mothers of the three McCoys arrived and pleaded for mercy. But when Ellison died, Devil Anse Hatfield ordered all three tied to trees on the Kentucky side of the river, and shot.

After the McCoys actually appealed “civil law,” Kentucky issued warrants for Devil Anse Hatfield and twenty of his supporters. But no action was taken to capture the Hatfields by the West Virginia government where the Hatfields remained (Waller 1988:76). Finally five years later, in 1887, the governor of Kentucky upped the ante, by offering rewards for the capture of Devil Anse. Still, the West Virginia government did not pursue the warrant, or Kentucky’s requests for extradition. In response, the McCoys and their Kentucky allies began to organize posses into West Virginia. In retaliation, West Virginia issued warrants for the arrest of the “McCoy invaders,” and the Hatfields organized raids into Kentucky, resulting in the death of a daughter and son of Old Ranel McCoy. The “Battle for Grapevine Creek” in which groups of about forty men on each side battled, one made of West Virginia Hatfield allies, and the others deputies from Kentucky who had crossed the river resulted.

The raids attracted attention in the national press, which characterized the events as being a product of the barbaric culture of Appalachia. The national exposure led to redoubled efforts to control the situation. Kentucky in response proceeded with the prosecution of the nine Hatfields over the objections of the West Virginia governor. The man accused of causing the death of Old Ranel’s daughter, a mentally retarded Hatfield cousin by the name of Ellison Mounts, became the one person hung as a consequence of the feuding. Devil Anse, the leader of the Hatfield clan, and organizer of the original execution, remained unindicted and honored by his clan, and died at home in 1921.

By 1900—some argue earlier—the feud ended. With so many dead, and finally a good number imprisoned, the rule of the state came to be accepted. In other words, the final assertion of power by Kentucky brought an apparent end to the feud. There were no more killings, and the feud itself became the stuff of Hollywood legend.

But why did the feud occur? Crimonlogical theories about the legitimacy of the state, and the dangers of unlegitimated third parties provide a clue. The Hatfield and McCoy feud occurred in a place where the state was present, functioning at a certain level, and could be a powerful arbiter in the context of lesser offenses. Nevertheless, when the feud escalated beyond a level that Kentucky could control, each clan retreated into itself, and the feud began. This would seem to indicate that the central government had only an imperfect “monopoly” over the use of coercive power. In essence, what Cooney calls a “virtual stateless area” meaning an area where the state was unlegitimated, and did not have a monopoly on the use of coercive force emerged in the social space between the two states. The two McCoy and Hatfield patriarchs in fact had a great deal of legitimated power—though never a monopoly.


Further Reading

McClintock, S. S. (1901) “The Kentucky Mountains and their Feuds. II. The Causes of Feuds. American Journal of Sociology, 7(2):171-187.

Waller, Altina L. (1988). Feud: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.



Something is Wrong with You. You’re Broken. You’re a burden.

By Guest Writer: Eric Chisler

We expect kids to sit for hours

I just got the most profound sense of grief upon reading this. I’m tearful and shaken. I think I just realized the moment that I stopped living in my body, the moment I became convinced that I was defined by what goes on in my head.

I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 7 or 8 years old. The same year I went to Chuck-E-Cheese’s for my birthday party and then my first trip to Disneyland the following summer, I was taking 20mg of Ritalin. And an anti-depressant called Desipremine. By the time I was in high school they had piled a diagnosis for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Dysgraphia on top of those diagnoses. By the time I was a Junior in high school I had exhausted every ADHD medication and was back on Ritalin, taking the maximum dosage that was legally prescribable. My whole childhood felt like a long battle with this idea, this question that nagged at me: “What is wrong with me?”

It all centered around my introversion, my natural sense of wonderment and my strange paradox of being considered extremely smart and yet struggling constantly with school.

School. It seems to have been the central drama of my life. It was such a chaotic story to sort out: At the end of 1st grade I was tested to see where I was at academically. Reading level at 5th/6th grade, vocabulary 6 months into 12th grade. At the end of the very next school year I was on Ritalin and by 3rd grade I spent a period every day with a school psychologist. By the time I was in high school I had monthly meetings with a group which included the school therapist, school counselor, Vice President of Instruction, my teachers and my parents.

The narrative looped and looped: “Something is wrong with you. You’re broken. You’re a burden.”

This narrative, more than any “troubles” I was having with learning, has wounded me more than anything else. I’m just learning to face it and cope with it.

I suppose I’m writing this to all the parents out there who are facing challenges with their child in the school system. I implore you: please don’t make your children face this narrative. No amount of saying “You’re special” or giving positive reinforcement can counter the narrative implicit in all of these actions. So much of this tendency in our society comes from the eroding cultural makeup that drives our schooling and our socializing strategies. The kids are not the problem. Your parenting isn’t necessarily the problem.

The problem is the way we force our kids to conform to society of deadening influences. The problem is a school system that views children as a societal product for the economic meat grinder. The problem is a culture that forces children to lead lives that are counterintuitive to the natural impulses and deep curiosity of childhood. The problem is our will to anaesthetize our Children when they respond to these systems and their logic with the chaotic rebellion of youth.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Look to homeschooling, unschooling. But more importantly, look to your child. Look to who they are and how they show up. The wisdom to guide their lives to the auspiciousness of their gifts, their joys, is latent in them. In fact, if you do, I bet you will learn something profound about yourself, about the wounds that exist from your experience in school, in this system, in this culture of control and separation.


Late December 2006

This morning, while sitting at one of the tables by the pool visiting with a resident of the complex, I noticed Palm fronds falling from the canopy of green above me. I followed the thwup, thwup, thwup? of a heavy tool beating in the air to the cascade of fronds falling to the sandy soil below and finally, looked up into the tree from which they fell.

A ladder, probably 20-feet tall, rested against the narrow trunk of a tall Palm and atop it, a thin, grizzled man in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a colorful long sleeved shirt, and baseball cap, stood. He held a 12-inch long machete in his oversized hands and swiftly, with precision that comes only from years of repetition, he cut through the stalk of each of the fronds attached to the statuesque tree, leaving only a few tall fronds in the very center of the crown.

He made quick work of each of the ten or so trees in the patio, some only 20 feet tall, some 30 feet. I watched for nearly 20 minutes, the man trimming four trees while I gazed up into the bright blue Mexican sky. After the fourth tree, I retrieved my camera and as the dark man with the thin face descended from a tree, I approached him. I smiled and said in English, amazing. He smiled and pointed up to the next tree with a full crown.

Trabajo, he said to me. I smiled again and with my eyes, followed his pointing finger to the top of the tree.

I pointed to my camera and in English said, May I?


Si, he nodded his head and stood beside his ladder, leaned into the tree and posed for a picture.

Gracias, I said, and although my high school Spanish class was nearly twenty years ago and I have forgotten almost everything Mr. Perez taught me, I asked, Como te llamas? What is your name?

Carlos, the grizzled man said to me.

Carlos, I repeated. He smiled his big smile again and waited for me to tell him my name. me llamo Mariana,? I replied, and I wondered where the sentence came from. It popped into my head as random as a star shooting through the night sky.

Mariana, he repeated and nodded his head in confirmation.

Carlos stuffed the handle of the machete into the waistband of the back of his jeans and took hold of the ladder, grabbing both sides of the metal contraption with his gnarled hands and hoisting it to the next tree.

Climbing Carlos

I watched as he climbed the 25-foot Palm, the heels of his cowboy boots catching each rung of the ladder on his way. Carlos stopped every few feet and smiled down at me and on cue, I raised my camera over and over to snap his photo. Finally, at the top, he turned his attention from my camera and focused his hands on the regal crown of the giant Palm.

He worked with determination on the foot-long ball of bark that had formed at the base of the crown, peeling away layers of brown husk like the layers of an onion. He worked until the trunk was smooth, the husk discarded to the ground below, the space where the ball had been was nearly flat.

The machete suddenly appeared in his large, chocolate hands and he stopped once more to look down at me, Are you watching? He seemed to say. I raised my camera and snapped the photo just as he dropped the machete on the tender flesh of the green stalk. He held the severed frond in one hand and the machete in the other, balancing high on the ladder as he posed for a photo. Bueno! I called up to him. He laughed and let the frond fall to the ground.

Carlos 5

Carlos spent the next few minutes chopping away at the fronds, letting each fall the way the first had, until brown husk and Palm fronds littered the walkway and shrubs below. Finally, he stuffed the handle of the machete into his waistband again and descended the ladder. When he was planted on the ground, I called to him, Carlos! Gracias! and gave my best smile to let him know I appreciated his time. He abandoned his ladder and walked toward me, pointing at the camera in my hands.

See, see? he asked, and pointed to himself.

You want to see the photos? I asked, and he nodded and smiled. He leaned over my shoulder to see the tiny image of himself in the tree, holding the machete, dropping the fronds. I’m going to write a story, I told him, escribe story, and I pantomimed writing with a pen and paper.

Si, story, he repeated.

Carlos, Cabo San Lucas? I asked Carlos if he lived in Cabo San Lucas.

Todos Santos, he replied. My husband and I had traveled to the tiny artists village a few days earlier. The village hung over a bluff on the Pacific Ocean, perched somewhere between modernity and an ancient Mexican village.

Oh, beautiful! I said to him. He nodded his head and agreed with me, beautiful.

I had learned how many, how much while shopping a few days before and asked Carlos, Cuantos anos? How old are you?

Cuarenta nueve, he replied.

Forty-nine? I confirm.

Si, forty-nine anos, he replied.

Carlos must think I am more learned than I am, for he breaks into rapid, nearly unintelligible to me, Spanish and I make my mind quicken to keep up with his tongue. I pick out a few words, but nothing that will make a sentence and I realize that my education, although good, was wasted due to my constant residence in the United States. When it comes to other cultures and languages, I am nearly bankrupt.

But I nodded my head and parroted a few of the words Carlos has spoken to tell him that some of what he said got through, that I was paying attention, that I will remember. He smiled and enveloped my hand in his surprisingly soft grasp, shaking it warmly for several seconds.

Gracias, Carlos, Gracias, I said and smiled.

Gracias, senora, he said, and dropped my hand. It was replaced almost immediately by the machete and as I walked away, he moved his ladder to a new Palm, climbed the giant tree to its top, and went to work, once again.

Carlos 6

Originally published at

Albanian Blood Revenge

When Killing is a crime

(Extract from When Killing is a Crime (2007) by Tony Waters.  Lynne Rienner Publishers)

During the early 20th century, the small Balkan country of Albania was a remote corner of the Ottoman Empire, a principality ruled by a warlord king after World War I, and occupied by Italy during World War II. For most of the century it was a reclusive Stalinist state sealed off from the rest of the world, and ruled by one of the most severe, controlling, and totalitarian governments. Since 1991 Albania has become an anarchic state, in which the government lost legitimacy, and a range of mafias, clans, and businesspeople assumed control. It is an unusually good place to illustrate the range of roles the state plays in state violence and control. Principles dealing with the role of legitimated third parties, and the threat of totalitarian violence are well illustrated.

As is the case in many places where the government is weak, extra-governmental institutions emerged in Albania. These include norms and rules to both further peaceful relations between groups, and provide compensation or justice when an offense occurs. The kanun of Albania is a code of traditional rules for feuding, which are contained in books and oral traditions. But there are no courts for the kanun; each side in a dispute is left to evaluate the rights and the wrongs visited upon them. This system is inherently imperfect, and as a result each clan traditionally had a three-story stone tower known as a kula to which the men would retreat when a dispute was unsettled. There, they were “locked” meaning that they could be killed if the offended party encountered them. By the 1990s, the kula towers were gone, but the members of the clan against which there is a kanun declared are effectively “locked” and either restricted their movements or risked death. Even in the 1990s, wandering about in town can be a fatal mistake, as will be described below. As a result, the men restrict their movements to areas where in-coming paths can be easily monitored.

Scott Anderson (1999) described the murder of Shtjefen Lamthi, on a street of Shkoder, Albania in 1998. Some 200 people witnessed the killing in which Leka Rrushkadolis pumped 31 bullets into Lamthi, in retaliation for the killing of his father by Lamthi’s father in 1985. No one cooperated with the police to make an arrest even though the identity of the killer was well-known. Indeed, the identity of the killer was so well known that Anderson, a foreign reporter, was eventually able to find and interview the killer, and publish his pictures in the New York Times Magazine. What Anderson found was that death delivered on the open street to people like Lamthi, had its origins in a modern kanun. As will be described below, the sharpness and lethality of such a feud is related to the weakness of the 1990s Albanian government, and its inability to assert a legitimated monopoly over the use of coercive force. In the absence of such a monopoly, the lips of potential witnesses were sealed because they fear the courts could not protect them from revenge attacks.

An Albanian Feud: The Kanun

The kanun killing of Shjtefen Lamthi had its origins during the Communist period when state control was strong. Lamthi’s father, Preka Lamthi, was an official in the government. One day in 1985, Noue Rrushkadoli, a neighbor and fellow member of the Communist Party, visited to play cards and drink raki at his friend’s house. There was a lot of drinking, and Noue, who was known for his temper, ended up turning over the table of his host, a particularly strong Albanian insult. Preka, the elder Lamthi, ordered him out of the house, but Noue Rrushakadoli responded by attacking Lamthi’s son Shtejfen, stabbing him six times. Following this, someone—it is not clear who—stabbed Noue. The knife hit his heart, and he died.

A government inquest into the death of Noue Rrushakadolis decided that whoever held the knife, the killing was in self-defense. No case was prosecuted, and Shjtefen survived. Noue’s sons Leka and Angelo Rrushakadolis, quietly nursed their grudge, wary of a man they perceived to be a powerful government official of an all-powerful state. The practice of blood vengeance had been effectively stamped out by the Communist government, which ruled with an iron fist between 1945 and 1991. Indeed, the penalty for a kanun-based attack was that the perpetrator was buried alive with his victim.

In 1988, with the control of the Communist party slipping in Albania, Leka Rrushakadoli made his first attack, stabbing Preka Lamthi in one of the town lanes. In response, the two families became wary of each other, even while Albania was changing quickly. Both families moved to a new town, and entered the new free-wheeling capitalist economy. Then, in 1997, the economy collapsed, and Leka began to nurse his old grudge against the Lamthi family. He bought a Kalashnikov automatic weapon, and waited. Shtejfen crossed his path on August 3, 1998, and Leka shot him in the marketplace. From the Rrushakadoli perspective, the score was now even, but they knew that the Lamthi family would seek revenge. As a result, all of the males of the Rrushakadoli family found themselves “locked,” afraid to be seen in public. One member of the Rrushakadoli family who had emigrated to Canada ten years previously, and returned found himself “locked” and unable to return to Canada.

Assessing the Kanun of the Lamthi and Rrushakadoi Families

In 1999 when Anderson wrote, the score was one Lamthi and one Rrushakadoli. But both clans still felt wronged. The end result of Noue Rrushakadoli’s 1985 death was a feud in which 14 years later, two entire clans had removed themselves from the broader community, afraid to move about, or engage in other types of normal social and economic activity. But this was not an inevitable result. Examples of the “what ifs” in this situation highlight some of the broader social conditions that led to the murder of Noue Rrushakadoli in 1985 becoming framed as part of a kanun, and not another way. For example:

What if the death of Noue Rrushakadoli had occurred in 1955 instead of 1985? The strong Communist government would have effectively stopped Noue’s sons from responding. In the event that a revenge killing had occurred, the all-powerful Communist government would have stepped in, buried Leka with Shtejfan, and that the feud would not have gone further.

What if there had been a more powerful government installed in Albania in the 1990s, as indeed there was in a number of ex-Communist countries at that time? Preka Lamthi (or whoever held the knife that killed Noue) might have been tried for manslaughter, sentenced to prison for a few years, and the passions of the Rrushakadoli sons cooled. Alternatively, if the central government had been more powerful, they would not have been hesitant about arresting Leka Rrushakadoli, after he fell from grace, and perhaps try him for the crime.

What if the Albanian economy had boomed, and all had held good jobs? Would the Rrushakadoli’s minds have turned to revenge? Even had Leka killed Shtejfen, perhaps his family have turned on him, and handed him over to the police, so that they could get back to the business of prosperity?

The biggest What If? question is about the role that revival of traditions like kanun play in the assertion of what is right, wrong, and moral in a society undergoing rapid social change. Following the collapse of any established order, a new one emerges. This is inevitably contested, as the society struggles to establish new norms for understanding itself. The attempt to assert (or reassert) an old tradition like kanun becomes a potent tool to define who is part of whatever group is emerging, and who is not.


Further Reading

Anderson, Scott (1999). “The Curse of Blood and Violence.” The New York Times Magazine, December 26, 1999.


The Rochambo of Paradox, Conundrums, Dilemmas, and School Bureaucracies

The below is pp. 185-186 (Chapter 9) of my book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child. Other extracts can be read here at

here, (Leaky First Graders, etc.)

here, (How the Rich Educate their Children: A Swiss Hogwarts)

and here. (Children as Raw Material on the Bureaucratic Assembly Line)

Or better yet, you can ask your library to get you a copy, hopefully by getting them to buy a hardcover copy from my publisher, or a used copy from If you could also send an email to the publisher urging them to issue a cheap soft cover version, that would be appreciated, too.  In either case, I really hope that more people will buy it—besides the fact that I get a 2% (two percent) cut of net revenues, I really like it when people read my books!

Schooling Childhood Cover

The Limits of the Modern American School: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Bureaucracies, while well suited to deal with matters of the rational mind that pragmatic American habitus celebrates, are in fact ill-suited for matters of the heart. Thus, bureaucracies created to undertake the tasks bump up against the three values identified long ago by de Tocqueville and that are at the heart of many continuing American dilemmas. These include first the dialectical tensions over equality, individual rights, and utilitarianism.

They are the rock, paper, scissors of the American educational system. This chapter is about how this game of rochambo is played out in recent decades. In describing the swings, I will move between demands

to eliminate the inequalities of race and poverty, protection of individual rights, and most recently, the appeal to business ethics in the administration of education programs. Three examples will illustrate the dissonance between these three values: The persistence of inequality, the persistence of radical individualism, and the persistent connection between education and business practice.

Paradoxes, conundrums, and dilemmas underlie the cultural habitus of the American school that drives the dreams of parents, teachers, administrators, and ultimately children. But the experimentation that began in the nineteenth century and was designed to lead to an ever more perfect school system, ultimately has practical limits rooted in the nature of its Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy intertwined habitus. And this is where limits to how egalitarian, how individualistic and how efficiently schools can be managed. Because schools ultimately seek to provide equality in a society that is not equal, individuality in an environment that is group focused, and efficiency in an institution in which inputs be controlled, the product defined, nor flawed goods discarded

In the case of the American school, the limits are most identifiable when institutions bump up against the underpinnings that form the habitus of thought and deed of both individual and the society they create. In the United States, these limits are found particularly in how schools continue to wrestle with the most salient features of American society and how it views its children. Prominent is the persistence of inequality rooted in both socioeconomics and race and the preservation these contradictions in the context of American-style business models; oddly enough, this happens in the context of an insistence on the uniqueness and rights of every individual child to seek their own potential. And so like a rochambo game of rock, paper, scissors, one wins and one loses, but the game never really stops. Egalitarianism individualism, and utilitarianism echo through the schools, pushing each other aside, but only temporarily.

Thus when a school becomes more egalitarian, it loses its capacity to recognize individual differences, as indeed happened in the 1980s. When it focuses on pragmatic service to the business community it tends toward inequality, which is what happened as millions of immigrants, African Americans, and others were sorted and tracked into vocational tracks during the twentieth century. And when a school begins to respond to individual needs, it becomes less efficient, and given the inequality in the American social system, it advantages the rich. In other words, over the decades, the American school system has played a game of rochambo as the tensions between the habitus of egalitarianism, utility, and individualism play themselves out.

Why isn’t more focused on ethnography? Um, ‘cause I don’t feel like it.

I like to use the categories on our homepage to surf through old posts, looking for oldies but goodies to re-post on slow days. I also like to read and think about anthropology and sociology and I can count on finding something here to get my mental juices flowing. And like Mark describes below, I like to think about social science in terms of strategy and innovation. I think that if you want to make it as an anthropologist or sociologist outside of academia, you have to adopt a “broader and more holistic approach” to ethnographic work. A couple of years ago I read an article in The Atlantic titled, “Anthropology Inc.” and it changed the way I thought about doing social science. Click the highlighted link in the previous sentence but make sure you read what Mark has to say below.

Originally published by our founder Mark Dawson in July 2007.

A friend asked me how many people regularly read this blog. Well, not a lot. There is a good reason for this. I have owned the domain for about a decade, as well as several other anthropology related domains. On the other hand, while I am an ethnographer, my professional life is focused on the strategy and innovation, of which ethnography is just one of the tools in my toolbox. This blog is not unlike having a big sign outside your store that says “Motorcycle Repair” and wondering why no one is popping in to order a pizza

If you are looking for information about Kula rings, Margaret Mead, Structuralism and the Yanamamo, let me please point you to For basic social science information, its pretty good. If you want to learn how to make a living an anthropologist, then this is the blog for you!

See, all of these entries are about culture in some way. What draws companies to bring anthropologists into the fold is the belief anthropologists take a broader and more holistic approach to understanding both customers and themselves.

So this bog is about strategy, innovation and people that say interesting things about those topics from an anthropologists point of view. -M.D.