About the Spread of the English Language in India

The Monster Anglopolis: The English Language in India

by Sunandan Roy Chowdhury

 Published in Planet 216

Sunandan Roy Chowdhury decries the dominance of the English language over Indian culture, thought, identity and material development.

The waters of the Arabian Sea wash the walls of Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts – India’s premier venue for theatre and performances, located in posh downtown Bombay, as Mumbai was known in the days of British Raj and in the early decades of independent India. It is mid November and I am there with a writer friend from Slovenia to attend the Mumbai Literature Festival. The festival has brought together an impressive show of writers from India and abroad. As I walk around the designer campus of the NCPA, I notice theatre posters, about a dozen of them, announcing forthcoming shows – the shows and their posters, all in English. This, in a city where people speak more than a dozen languages and which has strong modern tradition of theatre, at least in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi. However, Mumbai almost never hosts theatre in a language other than in English. Click Here for the Whole Article

Johnny Cash on the Importance of Listening to Your Mama about Open Carry of Guns

In my Criminology class, I used to lecture about “ecological theories” of crime.  For example, the “ecology of bars” lend themselves to violence.  Basically, ecological theory says that if you put together young males, alcohol, and guns, someone is more likely to get hurt than if any one of the tree elements is removed.  Remove any one of the three, and the danger goes down. Which is why the youngest males are not allowed in bars, there are hours after which alcohol is no longer served, and you are to leave your guns outside the bar.  Anyway some really smart criminologists thought this all up in the 1970s and 1980s, and published a whole bunch of books to make this point.

On the other hand, Johnny Cash had pretty much the same thoughts in the 1950s or so, and put them to music.  Here it is: Ecology of Crime theory by the ethnographer Johnny Cash!


“Could be Worse!” Adventures in Maximum Security Prisons and Our Forthcoming Book

     This essay begins in February 2009, and picks up again in November 2011. And now it is going to pick up again in 2016, as I anxiously await the publication of our book “Prison Vocational Education and Policy in the United States: A Critical Perspective on Evidence-based Reform.”  The book is authored by Andrew Dick, Bill Rich, and myself, and despite the title, is really quite a good read.  Anyway, for those of you who clicked on the link, you will know that it was due to be published on July 1, 2016.  It is a bit late, which is really normal for such things–after all it has been about eight years since we began the research in the first place.

      A strong point in the book are the “vignettes” where we describe prison life as we experienced it.  There are stories about gangs, theft, missing green houses, the tribulations of teachers, and the denial of love, among other things.  And we take a real hard look at the difficulties that prison administrators (and prisoners) have in trying to make a really bad situation better.  One of these vignettes is about a yoiung man who was down for “life without parole,” presumably for having killed someone.  I met him in solitary confinement which is one of the all time weird places I’ve ever been, and had a rather nice chat with him about vampire novels, how much it hurts to get skin grafts, and whatever else came to our mind.  I wrote it up as a blog for here at Ethnography.com, and then posted it in 2011.  The older blog is what follows.  So in celebration of the publication of our book, here it is again.  As for the delays in publication, well, “Could be worse!”

“Could be Worse!!”

 This essay begins in February 2009, and picks up again in November 2011 In both months I had a chance to meet and talk with prisoners in California who had been sent to prison on a sentence of “Life without parole,” or LWOPed in the acronym-plagued prison system.  LWOP is the most severe penalty for murderers in California, exceeded only by the rarely used death penalty.  It is a form of degradation California reserves for people who are convicted of particularly venial types of murder.

     I do not of course meet such people very often in my daily life at Chico State where I teach Sociology.  But from 2008-2010 I was involved in a study of vocational education programs in California’s prisons which was funded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  There I met my first prisoner on a LWOP sentence in the unusual circumstances described below.  Then last month, I took my criminology class to Chowchilla Women’s prison for a standard tour where I met my second LWOPed inmate.  So that’s the context for these stories which are not only about punishment, but about the human spirit, and particularly optimism in the face of degradation and humiliation.

Could Be Worse!

I was taken inside the Administrative Segregation Unit at a California State Prison in the middle of the desert in February 2009.  The prison is one of thirty three in California, but the only one located below sea level.  We went there to observe vocational education classes, but when we arrived we found out that the prison was on lock-down due to gang activity.  So after talking to the voc ed teachers, we looked for something else to do.  Our hosts offered us a tour of the “Administration Segregation” unit—the jail within the prison, known in prison jargon as solitary, or “the hole.”  After dressing us in the stab-proof vests that all non-prisoners in Ad Seg wear, we were brought into the building where inmates are confined.

“Ad Seg” is the place where inmates from the maximum security level 4 yard are taken for punishment.  To get there, you have to assault a guard, seriously assault another prisoner, be caught with a lot of drugs, be a nasty gang leader, or have been a real problem.  The Ad Seg Unit at this prison had 200 beds.  Inmates are bunked two to a cell, and permitted outside for only ten hours per week.  When outside the cell, prisoners wear handcuffs, and are shackled at the waist.  The handcuffs are removed only when they are in the cell, or in the outdoors exercise cage. If they must wait in the hallway for a lawyer appointment, medical appointment, or so forth, they are locked standing in 3’ by 3’ by 7’ cages.

Meals are prepared by the officers, and eaten either in a hallway, or inside the locked cells.  Indeed, this is what makes Ad Seg so expensive.  Tasks normally undertaken by prisoners themselves for 8-19 cents per hour, such as cooking, cleaning, and so forth.  In Ad Seg, professional prison officers do all this.

The cells are perhaps 10’ x 8’ and have two bunks, a sink, and a toilet.  The two bunks are concrete, with a 3”-4” thick mattress.  Inmates are housed by race.  Showering is down the hall and is twice per week.  They shower one at a time.

Inmates brought into Ad Seg are isolated for their first three bowel movements in a special cell.  This is done so they cannot smuggle drugs, weapons, or other contraband by swallowing them.  They are then assigned to a cell.  To be removed from the cell, they put their hands through a window for cuffing, and are always accompanied by a guard when outside.  They are moved around their area in their underwear.  If they are being let out for their hours of exercise, the cuffs are removed after they are in a cage, which actually looks like a dog run.

The ten hours exercise per week are in an outdoor exercise cage of about 15 by 30 feet.  The cage is open to sun for half of its area, and shaded on the back half.  The cement on the ground is well-polished since it seems that one form of exercise that the inmates really like is polishing the concrete with a wet rag.


When we came into the exercise cage area, there were three inmates in two adjacent cages, which is really the focus of this essay.  Two in their late twenties shared one exercise cages—they were also cellmates.  Another younger inmate was in the adjacent cage.  All looked white, though I guess they could have been Hispanic. We started to talk to one of the inmates who was in the cage with his cellee (cellmate).  He had a 37 year to life sentence, and was really interested in our study of vocational education because he believes that the parole board requires a lot of classes and a BA degree before they will authorize his release.  He had a Mohawk haircut, and a pierced nipple.  (I wanted to point out to him that a better strategy than a BA might be to avoid doing things that get you sent to Ad Seg, but let it go.)

Gradually I drifted over to the inmate in the adjacent cage.  He was small, dressed in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and had bandages on his knees.  He had a small goatee, and was missing his two front teeth.  At first he was hesitant to talk to me, but warmed up after pleasantries.  His favorite phrase seemed to be “Could be worse!” which he actually said with a smile and some cheer.  As in “How are you?” Answer: “Could be worse!”

I asked him how old he was—he was 21.  He said that he had been locked up for three years, after being arrested at age 18.  He spent three years in the Los Angeles County Jail until being sent to this prison the previous November.  And already he had done something to get himself put in Ad Seg.  He told me that he was from Los Angeles, and from a particular neighborhood, but only from south of some particular street.  Indeed, he noted, the first time he ever went north of that street was when he was arrested and taken to LA County Jail.  He told me he like to read vampire novels.

I asked him how long his sentence was.  He responded, “Life without parole!” I think he noticed the surprised look on my face.  There are only about 3000 prisoners in California with such a long sentence, and he was still smiling when telling me.  His response to my surprised look was his trademark “Could be worse!”  This surprised me again.  How, I thought, could it be worse?  This 21 year old, was three years into a sentence which would last probably fifty or sixty years.  He had killed someone in a particularly venial fashion in order to get the sentence in the first place.  Then he had done something really bad in prison to get himself arrested again, and put into administrative segregation.  He was 21 years old and had the next-to-worst-sentence California offers, on a good day he would be in a maximum security level four prison in some desert. On that good day he would be pressured to be part of prison gangs, maybe work in the prison kitchen, do dishes, and clean the floor with a mop that has a handle.  And unless he was transferred to another prison on a bus in daylight, he would likely never even see a tree for the entire time. On a bad day, he would be arrested, and be stuck in another cell in administrative segregation where someone would be counting his bowel movements. To this Ph.D. it was obvious that things could not get much worse.

Ok, I didn’t tell him all that, but I did manage to stutter out, “but how could it be worse?  You are in on a Life without Parole sentence, and in here, in a cage!”

But he thought the answer was obvious.  What could be worse than this?  “Hey, I don’t have the death penalty!”
Uh, yeah, good point, I guess.  And I am the one with the Ph.D.?


The next question I asked him was about his legs.  They were covered with red burn scars from the feet up to the bottom of his boxers.  He told me that the burns occurred in an auto accident in which his legs were burned by gasoline after which he was arrested (apparently he was fleeing the police).  He was proud that he had recently had surgery to permit him to walk again—grafts had been taken from his stomach (he showed me the patches from which the skin had been taken), and put onto the back of his knees so that he could straighten out his legs again.  He was actually quite pleased with this condition. “After all,” he said, “Could be worse!”

I have spent some time on the internet trying to figure out who Mr. Could-be-Worse is.  I Googled around, but could not find any murderers who met his description: Murder in 2006, three years in LA County Jail, conviction in November 2008, born about 1988, and severely burned upon arrest following a police chase.  I couldn’t find him in any of the newspapers.

Which brings up a final point about prison, which is that things never are as they seem, and manipulation and deception are normal and routine.  Officers and prisoners are agreed on this.  So what do I really know about this guy?  He was locked in a dog kennel in one of California’s maximum security prison, was severely burned, small, and young.  The rest I have only his word—


We Need the Death Penalty for the truly Evil—I’ve Seen Absolute Evil—Some People Indeed are Worse!

Which brings me up to the present day (November 2011).  I took my criminology class on a prison-tour three weeks ago, and met my second LWOP prisoner, this time at Chowchilla Prison for women.  At the end of the tour, we asked the Lieutenant if we could talk to inmates.  He brought out two women who were part of the leadership liaison for the prisoners and administration.  As it turned out, both women had life sentences.  One had been in prison since 1994 and had a plain old life sentence.  She later told us that she was 42 years old.  The other woman, who appeared older (perhaps she was 50) was down for a sentence of “Life Without Parole.”

Unlike the 21 year-old LWOPed prisoner in the desert, though, this inmate was a respected part of the prison leadership.  Indeed, as our tour guide indicated, he really liked working with such inmates because they are among the more stable in the prison.  Lifers are less likely to cause trouble for the prison officers, and can even control the more volatile younger prisoners.  After all, as another prison officer once pointed out to me, the lifers are there for good, and regard it as their home.  They do not want their home defiled by the antics of young hooligans.

Anyway, one of the Chico State students asked the two women a classic question about whether criminals are “born” or made that way by society.  This is when we got a rather strange response from the LWOPed woman.  She responded that she believed in the death penalty, because there are some people so evil that they are irredeemable.  She went on to add that she had seen true evil at Chowchilla (which also houses the “condemned row” in California for 19 women awaiting execution).  This, I mused, was an unusual way to answer such a question from someone who had missed the death penalty herself by not very far.

But, I suspect as with Mr. Could-Be-Worse, this is ultimately a relative statement.  Status, and ultimately a sense of self-identity is established relative to whoever you can plausibly compare yourself with.  In essence, for the LWOPed inmates I met, the death penalty provides reassurance that there is something worse than themselves.  This is a very human reaction, I suspect—all of us at some level are comparing ourselves to those around us and concluding that we ourselves are at least a little better than the others.  I guess to go on with life we need to believe that things could be worse, even when we are in the “hole” of one of California’s prisons.




Battle Ritual Among the Nacirema

By Guest Writer Finn Johansson

Battle ritual among the Nacirema

In anthropological and ethnological research, scientists face new cultural specialties every day. Yet there are some rites, so deeply inherited by the practicing community, that ritual behavior might astonish even the most experienced researchers. Accessing those abnormalities from an empirical point of view in order to simplify cross-cultural communication is one of the main tasks of the rite-specified anthropologist. In order to do so, he often has to overcome his own fears and preserve his open-mindedness, even if every civilized muscle of his body wants to escape a situation so far away from what he is used to. Of course, to produce such a reaction of a scientist, one has to observe the extreme, the unexpected and the surprising. During the 25 years of my lifetime that I have spent working in the field, this kind of situation occurred only once. Rumors have been spread in the branch for years but they are still far away from the rituals brute exceptionality. What follows in this essay is the first immediate documentation of the most sacred ritual of the Nacirema, the Labto-of.

In order to understand the rite, the most essential shades of the practicing tribe have to be appreciated in advance. The Nacirema are a North American group whose scattered living territory is bordered by the Canadian Cree in the North, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico in the South and extends to parts of the Dutch Antilles. Little is known about their origin, but according to tribal tales, the Nacirema arose on the mystical eastern land of Poru. Their legendary first chieftain, Notginshaw, led the Nacirema on the backs of brown dragons with giant white wings that carried their descendants over the sea. Here they moved on, long silver monsters that tore the nature apart. According to oral narratives Poru was a perishing land whose history was shaped with countless bloody wars between the enslaved. It was also overpopulated by a high diversity of tribes. Epidemics spread rapidly and cost innumerable lives. Evidently this extreme environment has formed the violent culture of the Nacirema. Highly experienced in battle, it is not surprising that the Nacirema quickly overpowered the other tribes of the Americas. The native population became systematically murdered, enslaved or forced to change sides if they didn’t die in disease epidemics. Few survivors were hold in rural areas which were misused as natural prisons where they were forced to live under harsh conditions and faced a future without prospects.

During the following centuries the Nacirema didn’t abandon their violent habits and repeatedly waged war against other tribes, both in America and Poru. Eventually, they even split and fought their brothers and sisters in a terrible civil war. This led to the reunification of the remaining tribes under the lead of the legendary chief Eba-Nlocni, who finally forced a peace in their homeland, before he himself was assassinated. The Nacirema, tired of war, laid their weapons aside and focused on agriculture and preserving the peace among the tribes of North America. However, without the recurring violence, group solidarity began to dissipate and in its place, rituals began to emerge that would remind the people of their glorious sacred history, in much the way that Durkheim described among the Aboriginals of Australia.[1] In various areas of the Nacirema’s land, ritual groups named after the most violent totems and tribes of the past were created that would re-enact traditional rivalries in a mock combat.

As a result, the Nacirema routinely fall back into old habits, at least in a symbolic fashion. In fact, a lot of what we know about the Nacirema’s history and tradition, we learned from their multiple rituals practiced until today. Horace Miner describes body rituals with violent and self-humiliating aspects that leave no trace of normal human behavior. Here I will discuss the Labto-of. This most sacred ritual recreates the violence between the various factions which once routinely emerged.

When I first got in touch with the Nacirema I was daunted by their domineering behavior towards foreigners. Also, like many other American tribes, they speak a complicated tongue which makes communication an omnipresent issue.[2]However, despite the language barrier, I was able to obtain new insights into the particular and uncharted culture of the tribe.

After weeks I spent among them, my host finally granted me permission to observe the ominous Labto-of. It is a ritual battle that aims to honor both the countless wars the Nacirema fought in history and the era of agricultural growth. The ritual is performed by the members of two villages who face each other in a ritual battle around a sacred fruit: a stuffed raisin. Gathering the knowledge of centuries of agricultural tradition, the Nacirema have eventually been able to produce this fruit.Due to its extraordinariness it became a symbol of the tribe and the central object of the Labto-of.

An agricultural miracle: The Holy Raisin

Nacirema seldom let people who don’t engage in the combat get near the holy object, so I didn’t get the occasion to hold it myself. Definitely the raisin is not grown on the location of the Labto-of since the whole area is freed of any larger plants. It could grow under the earth, but I couldn’t spot traces of recent digging actions either. The participating individuals themselves don’t see the object before the imminent start of the fight. This fact leaves me even more astonished with the behavior of the fighters who seem emotionally attached to this raisin, even though they never seen it before. It can be explained with the natural content, which is elemental for the survival of the whole tribe. In fact, every Nacirema consumes a massive amount of the inner substance every day. When the raisin is ripe for spiritual use, the object’s surface is of a dark brown color. This holy raisins distinctive feature is that it never decays. It might still fulfill its duty after years of no use. Also it is very hard to break. Its durability during the battle shows the high resilience of this object. It can be kicked, punched and crushed, but never breaks. However, the Nacirema own a device to pierce through the surface and reach the precious inside. I can guarantee this since the holy raisin obviously has been opened before. The cut is clearly closed up with a magic cream which reacts with the raisin and becomes hard as soon as it touches it. Apparently the Nacirema open the fruit and place objects of holy value inside, which makes this raisin more sacred than others of its kind. In fact, it happens quite often that fighters try to rob the raisin in the heat of the battle. However, if they aren’t taken down, they usually don’t get very far since the place is encircled with high, angular walls on top of which several hundred tribe members gather. 

The spectacle of the Labto-of

Before the main ritual begins, many smaller rites are practiced to increase the spiritual tension among the present members of the tribe. During those there are several major stakeholders playing their ritual roles.

It starts with animal battles. Each village leads an animal into the scene before the fight begins. The Nacirema sustained this tradition from Poru, where animal combats were a part of the all-embracing struggle for life. These heraldic animals celebrate the powers of the combatants and are part of the procedure that prepares the spectators for the core ritual. Roosters, eagles and amphibians of colorful appearances are trained to fight each other, causing the spectators to yell, cheer and enjoy themselves.

Afterwards the ceremony progresses with the reenacting of old marriage habits. Competing villages have a selection of its most beautiful pubescent virgins brought into the arena where the mock battle will occur and make a point of rousing the emotional intensity. The pieces of clothes, seemingly provisionally covering their extremities can be compared to the dress of African tribes. The women’s lips must be covered by animal blood since they shine in wet red and in their hands they hold instruments made of leaves, which they continuously shake in rhythmic movements when yelling at present tribe members. As Hall describes in his Dance of Life, the rhythm ties the people together and makes the spectators follow the virgins’ lead.[3] Arrived on the place, the virgins immediately start to move in ritual salvation worshipping the earth. With rhythmic movements they illustrate fighting scenes. The virgins beat the air with their hands and feet and spectacularly catapult each other upwards imitating the arrows shot at Nacirema’s enemies. While doing so they keep on yelling and shouting powerful Nacireman terms. The men of the villages particularly enjoy this ritual presentation since they can eyeball the women of other villages and choose possible brides. For this cause they wear ritual headdresses which throw a shade on their eyes, thus no possible competitor can tell who the neighbor is glancing at. In doing so, jealousy-motivated attacks among the spectators during the ritual are effectively prevented.

Since the natural shape of head and face is considered as ugly in the culture of the Nacirema, clan-members take tremendous efforts to modify their appearance. Horace Miner already described the masochistic rituals performed by the holy-mouth men.[4] Further people may also undergo extremely painful treatments including the indentation of the nose and dislocation of cheekbones in rituals performed by medicine men. However, this disturbing privilege is held by the more wealthy individuals. Nacirema of a lower stand commonly take advantage of the possibility to wear a headdress which modifies the head’s shape. Multiple kinds of headdresses also play significant roles in the Labto-of-ritual.

The present elders can easily be detected in the scenery. Usually nobody dares to choose a position closer to the ceremony than they do;further they wear a unique headdress that differs from the accessories worn by the participants. Unlikely elders of other tribes, sages of the Nacirema act conspicuously extroverted; however this only underlines the exceptionality of the tribal hierarchy. Their wisdom and experience is symbolized by a black ‘belt’ they wear on their heads. It covers the top and reaches both ears, where it closes in two plates. Those clinch the skull together in order to constantly slim it. The pain it inflicts can be detected by the gradual change of color of the face from white to red, depending on how active they participate in ritual dances which they perform during the ceremony. Because they are usually seriously obese and too old to take part in the main ritual, they fulfill the role of the elders which means to yell and scream until they lose their voices, while they stomp on the ground to praise the earth, the raisin grew on. The elders’ dances are the most uncontrolled and most spiritually steered part of the spectacle, yet it is not the main attraction. The Labto-of doesn’t really begin until the ritual warriors themselves rush into the arena.

Introducing the ritual warriors

The warriors participating in the Labto-of are entirely male. Traditionally, the woman holds a minor role in the war-shaped society of the Nacirema.[5] Following the rules of the tribe, warriors are dressed in a certain way.

Hiding the disgrace of naturally shaped faces, the headdress covers up most of the head. In the front side multiple holes have been drilled in the surface to enable a small field of vision. To compensate this deficit, individuals use a cream of unknown ingredients fabricated and blessed by medicine men to paint numerous pairs of eyes on their cheeks. The Nacirema believe that this cream unleashes the furious power inherited in each of them and increases their speed and force on the battlefield. Other allowed gadgets are hidden in the mouth.They are object of a strange substance that seems to have some blurry fluid inside. Warriors bite and suck on these in order to access the substance which seems to provide them extra power. Because of the violence of the fights, the warriors affix these objects on their headdress so that they won’t swallow them and choke on them during battle.

The headdress also protects the warrior from heavy injuries, since opponents who jump on the heads of laying warriors might crack it open otherwise. Not only the senses available during combat are limited, also the combatant’s agility is restricted by the ritual armor. Its colorful decoration and drawings of the particular totem indicate which village the warrior represents. Resembling old agricultural devices pushed into the ground, the armor shapes the body like an upside-down shovel, going wide at the necks level and sitting tight on the ankles, thus the ability to accelerate is not heavily influenced.

The only weapon allowed is the human body.This precaution decreases the death rate, but makes the scenery appear even more barbaric from an external perspective. Due to the heavy armor, the weight of each player is increased. Individuals are dragged down before multiple opponents crush it with their weight until it stops moving. To be able to overwhelm an opponent in this dominating way, means earning the respect and the acknowledgement from the observing elders and tribe other members.

Every competing army has one soldier, the chief, who is higher in rank than the others. He orders his troops, and is the strategic mind of the faction.

Other than most of his soldiers, his armor isn’t very strong. His skin color is typically brighter than the others’ which appears to be a relic from the times of slavery. Also his physics is not comparable to the bodies of his soldiers.When the opponents reach him, he is beaten down immediately. He is not a very powerful warrior and seldom participates in aggressive actions himself. Furthermore, combined with the wisdom of the elders, the chief is leading the tribe’s troops. He is the face and mind of the village that even fighters of other villages recognize and fear. His strategic abilities are the key to success of the army, which also makes him the main target of the enemy’s attack.

The uniqueness of the chief has its reason within his connection to the holy raisin. Even compared to the other warriors, he has a way stronger bond to the holy object. Because of the weak outer appearance compared to his soldiers, it is to assume that chiefs don’t get in their position by being exceptional powerful fighters. Rather a patriarchal structure is possible. Some of the chiefs of the villages are related to each other and became chiefs as their fathers before them. So the spiritual ability to understand the raisin could be transferred by blood.

Before they are assigned to be the next chief of the local population, future leaders have to go through a year-long ritual training with numerous specific rituals. Generally they are taught by mentors who have been chiefs before them. Over years, the future leaders study the secrets of the raisin and get prepared for battle with countless simulations.Since the whole community has faith in his chief’s vocation, he carries a huge responsibility and has a high impact on the tribe’s reputation. The predominant method to earn prestige for the village is a good performance during the main ritual of the Labto-of – the fight over the holy raisin.

Escalation of violence in the ritual battle

Before the warriors face off against each other, there is a series of rituals to ensure that the competing armiesare one in mind and movement. At the beginning of each battle, a small group ceremony is performed. Each village’s warriors lean their headdresses on each otherin order to let the ancient spirit connect, clear their minds and connect their thoughts. The chief then speaks a last prayer that is only for the ears of his subordinates. During this he reveals secrets about the ritualraisin which will be fought over during the spectacle itself.After this last moment of peace, he orders them to prepare for battle in a secret language. The stance of the beginning is to stretch the legs, bow forward and touch the holy earth. The warriors then throw their heads back, bare their teeth, yell and send killing glances at the opponentsin order to threaten each other. The animalistic behavior escalates when the signal to fight appears.

As soon as the high tone occurs, both armies run together with their heads and the battle begins. The warriors, who are not thrown down by the first clash, immediately start to beat each other with bare hands; brutally wrestle each other to the ground before they try to crush their opponent. It appears as if there are no rules. It is obvious that the Nacirema unleash the violent potential of this tribe that isdeeply inherited in every individual. Old friends become enemies. From an anthropologist’s point of view, I have to say that the happenings during this ritual are of unique brutality. The heat of the battle is so overwhelming that the tribe members seem to lose control over their bodies and smash their opponent without reservation. Especially fighters with lank body compositions are in the disadvantage since they can easily be pushed down and quickly overwhelmed by the opponent before they disappear in the chaos. It’s a fierce combat, which does harm to most of the fighters. Some get their bones broken, hurt their muscles and tendons which make them incapable of fighting further. Even the experienced medicine men are not able to treatsome heavy injuries. Hence it occurs that members of the tribe suffer critical blows which leave no chance of saving their life and cause them to die during, or shortly after the old ritual ceremony.

The actual ritual can be seen as a violent dance of giving and taking, of holding tight and letting go. The sacred raisin, the central object of the rite, is shepherded in one moment and might be thrown up in the air in the next. Emotions play an eminent role in this ritual. The fighters show self-abandonment as they take care of each other during the battle, furious rage and dominance to the enemy and religious love to the sacred nut. However, the latter stays the strongest emotion experienced during the Labto-of. Even though 3, 4 or 5 enemies are about to overwhelm the holder, the fanaticism causes the warrior to disregard his own safety and willingly take serious injuries as long as the holy object stays safe.

Then, all of a sudden, a second signal appears and everything is over as quickly and surprising as it began. The warriors wake up from their ritual rage and immediately get their self-discipline back and might even help each other back on their feet. The whole ritual consists of countless of these rounds, which seem to represent the multiple wars the Nacirema fought in history. During the pauses eventual casualties are taken away and replaced from the reserves.

The combatants’ behavior during the breaks appears paradoxically to the immense brutality which reigns during the battle rounds. Before and after the battle, everybody on the field is friends and warriors of different villages reach out to touch the hands of other fighters and bump their bodies against each other as gestures of mutual respect and acknowledgement. They also knock their headdress together to keep up the spiritual unity under the fortunate era symbolized by the sacred raisin.

Hierarchy and command are also important to the battle, recreating many of the positions remembered from Poru. In the middle of the battle one of the fighters symbolically gives birth to the raisin and pushes it back between his legs, the chief then decides who is allowed to hold the raisin next. This decision process usually passes as it follows: The chief commands his army from behind who fights off the attackers at a signal. When his troops are getting in the disadvantage, he has to make use of his spiritual capabilities to save the raisin. He then stands still, lifts the raisin close to his chest and enters a second-long ritual trance state to build a kind of aspiritual connection to the raisin. While the chief is meditating, his warriors do everything to break through the enemy lines, where they engage in one-on-one-combat with the opponent. If they manage to win over their enemy they have proven worthy to hold the fruit. In the majority of cases the most successful warriors, who manage to defeat their opponents the fastest, are chosen to get hold of the raisin. If none of the single-combatants performs in this way, the chief may also hand the raisin to one of his defenders nearby. Once the raisin leaves the chief, it may never touch the ground. As soon as it does so, the blessed raisin’s spirituality gets disturbed and even the precious content can’t avert that the fighters immediately lose interest in the fruit.

Farmer’s references, little-earners and cultural understanding

If one of the fighters leaves with the raisin to one side of the set by coincidence, the spiritual power of the raisin is unleashed and transferred to the holder. He has to perform ritual dances which resemble those performed by the elders off the battle area. They bump on their chest and yell while they jump up and down. To calm him down, others might again bounce their headdress against each other. After the warrior, who left the field, has finished his dance, the re-enacting of farmers traditionally tilling their fields follows, before the usual battle-rounds start over: The raisin is pushed into the ground and hold by one warrior, before the most fameless fighter, the kicker, enters the scene and fulfills his single duty. He steps against the raisin and shoots it as far as any possible, where the opponents pick it up and the next round begins.

After hours of fighting, the Labto-of comes to an end and spectators as well as warriors leave the place together in harmony. The only purpose of the place is to serve as an arena for the weekly battles. In the meantime, the place is deserted. Ritual-interested foreigners occasionally show interest in the Nacirema’s tradition of the Labto-of. Most likely the happenings during the ritual will always stay a mystery for foreigners and they can only assume about the practiced rites – like I did in this essay. In fact, just Nacirema themselves seem to be capable of understanding the whole ceremony as it is. Then again, Nacirema don’t share the fascination for a strange ritual performed by people from Poru during which 22 suspender-wearing men hunt for one ball and fake injuries.



Edward T. Hall: The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. 1983

Horace Miner: Body Ritual among the Nacirema. In: American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 58, Nr. 3, Blackwell Publishing, 1956.

[1]Horace Miner: Body Ritual among the Nacirema. In: American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 58, Nr. 3, Blackwell Publishing, 1956.

[2]Nacireman is a dialect of an ancient language that was spoken in Poru. Only medicine men and the tribe’s sages are still capable of communicating in the original language. Due to its derivation, Nacireman is unrelated to any other language spoken in the Americas and consists of aligned sequences of sounds which can arduously be imitated by foreign tongues. Let me give an example to explain this further: The most crucial particle of the Nacirema’s language is only pronounced properly when strongly biting on the tongue, filling the mouth with air and slowly blowing it out between the teeth before opening up completely. While doing so, the upper lip has to be lifted to expose the incisors. This sound is almost silent, but if the biting-sequence is omitted, the phrase is difficult for native speakers to understand and it could easily be taken as an insult. Due to the significance of this particle concerning most coherent Nacireman sentences, the process of learning this language is not just challenging in terms of grammar rules, like any other language, but it is also painful to practice.

[3] Hall, E.T.: The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. 1983

[4]Horace Miner: Body Ritual among the Nacirema. In: American Anthropologist, New Series. Vol. 58, Nr. 3, Blackwell Publishing, 1956.

[5]Traditionally, the woman holds a minor role in the war-shaped society of the Nacirema. In fact, in history there was just one occasion when women successfully gained power over the male members. It was when the abolition of ‘Numbwater’ was executed. It is a natural, but toxic drug, produced with a centuries-old recipe from Poru. Frequent consumption causes the body and mind to decay. The substance attacks the consumer’s brain and can provoke serious neurological damage. Addicts become emotionally and intellectually ‘numb’, escalating until insanity. Very frequently, Nacirema men become incapable of performing their daily body rituals. Since Nacirema women are generally more obedient to these everyday rituals, they intervened and reached the temporary abolition of ‘Numbwater’ by the tribe leaders.

Finn Johansson is a student at Leuphana University in Lueneburg, Germany.

Originally Posted at Ethnography.com, October, 2015.

Farmer Power: The Continuing Confrontation between Subsistence Farmers and Development Bureaucrats

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 1966:5)

Economists, politicians, and strategists since at least the end of World War II dream of the world’s rural farmers becoming a wealthy, healthy, and modern middle class.  Implicit to this dream is peasants moving off the farms of China, India, Africa, and Latin America to staff factories in an ever-wealthier world.  When this doesn’t happen, the Ph.D.s do indeed sigh, sweat, and swear not at themselves, but at the peasants that frustrate the models on which their development plans are based.  In the process though, they forget one thing: the very nature of the world’s subsistence peasants.  Subsistence peasants farm, feed themselves, build their own houses, have children, grow old, while producing little for the world markets that the economists celebrate.  In short, peasants resist the siren song of the economists’ models, no matter how effectively it might be packaged by cheerleaders for globalization and free markets including U2 frontman Bono, UN Secretary Generals, US Presidents, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, or economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The Two Great Transitions in Human History

Anthropologists and historians talk about the two great transformations in human organization.  The first began 8,000-10,000 years ago when Neolithic farmers emerged from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers.  During the following millennia they became clans who as a small unit together tilled the earth, raised animals, built permanent houses invented village life, and even at times created empires.  The economists dream though of a second transition begun only about 400 years ago, and continuing today.  In this transition, the same farmers—heirs to the Neolithic—are moving into a modern market economy in which tasks are highly specialized, and trade in the global marketplace is key.  In this transition there are governments and banks gambling big money that millennia are not needed before a world-straddling market economy emerges.  Indeed, economist William Easterly estimates that since World War II over $2.3 trillion was spent to entice these farmers into the new global marketplace by the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development, European Community Humanitarian Organization, and so forth.

So why didn’t such a big investment necessarily work during the five and ten year plans of the economists?  Simply put it is because subsistence farmers of the Neolithic are outside the ethic of the economist’s modern marketplace, and relatively immune to its enticements.  Subsistence farmers traditionally grow most of what they eat, build the houses they live in from local materials, and make the clothes they wear independently from the marketplace.  Their small surpluses go to harvest celebrations, or as tribute to the chief, prince, king, or other leader who provides relief supplies in the event of famine.  Indeed, what is produced by subsistence farmers never even has a market price put on it.  But life was good for farmers with access to hoes, plows, unclaimed arable land, and rainfall; in good years there was enough food to support a rapidly expanding population.  In better years there was something left over that could be traded for minor luxuries, or offered as tribute to a potentially rapacious warlord. And so, across the millennia, values, norms, and culture emerged to justify and accommodate the nature of subsistence farming.  First was loyalty to kin, and tribute to a feudal leader who maintained the famine socks and organized defense.  The abstract nation-states, citizenship, and market principles of the economists and politicians were yet to be invented as the organizing principle for larger societies.

In short, subsistence peasants, while vulnerable to catastrophe, were more independent of the marketplace than we moderns.  If markets failed, life on the farm was more uncomfortable, but there was still food to eat, and a place to live.  In the modern market though, market failure means that unpaid workers are evicted from their houses or unable to buy food.  Subsistence farmers, when viewed from this perspective, had it quite good as long as land was plentiful and rains came.  Indeed, this is why Karl Marx when dreaming of world revolution, compared France’s unrevolutionary nineteenth century subsistence peasants to an inert sackful of potatoes.  Marx complained that like potatoes in a sack, no peasant household was much different from any other.  The French peasants contributed little to the efficient globalized markets emerging in Europe’s cities: a potato was always just a potato, each pretty much like the other.

Nineteenth century European factories initiated this transition by hiring masses of former peasants to work in textile mills, meat packing plants, mono-crop agriculture, and the other specialized assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution in which skilled workers do a single simplified task, but do it efficiently.  This transition is what development agencies like the World Bank call ‘development’.  Given that this is such a massive project, it is perhaps surprising that it occurred in many countries in only a matter of decades or a century, rather than the millennia of the first transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian populations.  Nevertheless, this transition is not yet over.  It is continuing in the third world today, as the subsistence peasants continue to defeat the plans and prophecies of hyper-educated economists, politicians, and planners.

The Long Successful Run of the World’s Peasants

The world’s subsistence peasants had a long and successful run.  Emerging out of scattered hunter-gatherer communities 8,000-10,000 years ago, they settled down in fertile river valleys where they raised more human food per hectare than nature had ever produced for their forbearers.  As hoe wielding farmers cleared the land, rapid population growth resulted from the increases in food production. Surpluses, though small by modern standards, still eventually supported great empires in places like Ancient Egypt, Rome, China, Europe, and the Americas.   True, a “terrible compromise” in which freedom and liberty were traded for the protection of a tribute-seeking King often emerged.  But life and culture were similar for the vast majority who remained on the farm, growing and consuming what they needed to eat, building housing, producing clothing, and having children.  In this context, rarely did more than ten or twenty percent of all production enter the marketplace—the bulk of consumption remained on-farm where peasant families, each doing the same thing as the other, continued to resemble that unrevolutionary sack of potatoes which so frustrated Marx.

Take a potato out of the sack, and the bag is still a sack of potatoes, just a little lighter.  Take a smaller specialized piece out of a specialized machine, and not only is the machine only a little lighter, but it also might not work.  This is why peasantries are so resilient when compared to a system of differentiated economy organized by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and the principles of supply and demand.  The problem is that from the retrospective and comfortable position of today’s economists, this change appears magical and painless in societies celebrating individual achievement, and the accumulation of capital.  But it is not painless for the peasant whose old way of life is slowly destroyed, family loyalties dissipated, land appropriated, clans disrupted, and replaced too often with life in the urban slums of modern industrial cities.

Scotland’s subsistence peasantry is a good example.  Scotland’s clans from time immemorial occupied the hills and glens where they farmed, raised livestock, built stone houses, and paid in-kind tribute to patron clan chiefs.  However, following English military victories in 1748, a new way of looking at the land emerged.  Clan chiefs siding with the British were granted personal title to the clan lands, while at the same time new factories demanded wool, flax, and labor. The Scottish highlands provided an excellent place to graze sheep and raise fields of inedible flax for the textile mills of the growing cities, and Scotland’s peasantry provided laborers who could work in the newly industrialized economy as wage laborers.  In modern words it was a “win-win” for the “Clan Chiefs” who could now sell or rent “their” personal lands in the free land market, and the expanding industrialist class which needed cheap labor.  But left out of course were the peasants who lost uncommodified traditional rights and privilege to use the land their ancestors had, the right to the famine stocks kept by the clan chief, who now preferred the global market’s measure of productivity, i.e. hard cold cash.

In this context, expropriation of Scottish peasant lands occurred by hook and by crook across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Threats of famine pushed former peasants into factory towns where they became the new urban working class.  When the bright lights of the labor market were not alluring enough, sheriffs and military often played a prominent role.  And as the survivors gained market skills needed in the rough urban environment, they lost subsistence skills and the old way of life: No longer could they grow their own food, or build their own stone houses even had they been so inclined.   The lucky survivors after a few generations were though able to serve the needs of the world-straddling labor market, and become the middle class consumers which today’s economists celebrate.  But this was not the only strategy of Europe’s eighteenth and nineteenth century peasants.

For a time Europe’s subsistence farmers had another strategy to deal with the disruptions coming with the transformation to market society: They could flee to places like North America where arable land was available after the native population died from European contact. And so when the European peasants arrived in North America in the eighteenth century, many left for the nearby forest where it appeared they might resume life as a subsistence peasantry.  In fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not only the Scottish peasantry fled to the North American forest, but also English, German, French, and others displaced European peasants.  Hacking, clearing, hunting, and fighting their way across the North American continent, Europe’s subsistence peasantry peopled the land east of the Mississippi between about 1750 and 1850.  The expansion was one rooted in the conservative subsistence peasantry’s greatest traditional strengths, especially the ability to have many children, organize social life around clan-based loyalties, and a penchant to clear land for new farms.  This happened across decades (rather than millennia), as the United States and Quebec experienced one of the highest population growth rates ever-recorded: Populations of North America’s subsistence farmers doubled every 20-30 years.

A paradigmatic example of the consequences of such rapid demographic growth is the frontiersman Daniel Boone.  In his long life (1734-1820), Boone hunted, and cleared farms across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri along with his 13 siblings, 10 children, and more than 60 grandchildren.   For a time of course, subsistence farmers like Boone even made it in the rough land markets of Kentucky where he settled in the 1770s.  But like millions of other rural peasants dabbling in the unfamiliar impersonal marketplace with its emphasis on cash rather than the handshakes, Boone was conned by land speculators from the city.  Fortunately for him, there was still land left further west in Spanish Missouri, to where he moved his clan in 1799.

Neither Daniel Boone, his extraordinary clan, nor Europe’s peasants prospered for more than a few decades whilst hacking, clearing, and hunting—the modern industrial world was too close.  And as in Scotland, the actual profits, and the land itself, slowly but surely made its way into the hands of the newly emerging investors who controlled the government, banks, law firms, and land offices.  So in a slow but recurrent fashion, the United States’ Northwest, settled by prolific hunters and farmers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, passed into the modern global land market.  Most dramatically, what was in 1830 a remote trading village for hunters—Chicago—by 1870 was a large modern industrial town, coordinating the production of maize, wheat, lumber, cattle, and hogs across several states. Just like in Scotland, in North America the peasants were slowly but surely moved onward—into factories, production for the market, or further west.  As in Scotland, the movement was facilitated by urban market power in the form of land speculators and bankers—whose eviction notices were backed up by the sheriff.  And so, North America’s subsistence peasantry faded into history as the land they cleared passed out of their hands whether violently, or through the maneuverings of mortgage bankers.

It will be no surprise to readers of Current Intelligence that markets are enormously successful in concentrating and increasing economic productivity.  But I doubt that any of Current Intelligence’s readers, myself included, can raise what they eat, build their own house, and make their own clothing like Daniel Boone, a Scottish clan, or an African subsistence farmer today.  We are very much part of the finely-tuned world in which labor is specialized, and worldwide trade is critical.  But even Bono, Thomas Friedman, and Jeffrey Sachs likely have ancestors who in the recent past were such self-sufficient farmers.

In place of subsistence farms are the large corporate and government bureaucracies who use the invisible hand of the marketplace to produce for the world. But to say that this happened, is not to say the process was just, nor came without suffering.  Nor was it necessarily welcomed by the world’s peasants whose passive resistance to market incentives still throw askew econometric forecasts. And if more evidence is needed of this conflict, one need look no further than  Africa today, where vast numbers of subsistence peasants continue to live, farm, and resist government attempts to exclude them from lands reserved for cash-generating timber reserves, hunting blocks, plantations, or national parks even as promises of cash for wage labor entice them into the cities.

Africa’s Peasants Confront Markets and Its Bureaucrats

In pockets of Asia, Latin America and especially Africa peasant clans are still often like those Marx compared to a bag of potatoes: similar to each other, and not particularly suited to a fine division of labor. Perhaps all that is particularly new is that they have access to clothing purchased from the bales of the wealthy world’s cast-offs.  But like the peasants in Scotland or even Daniel Boone, they resist with the tools of the subsistence peasant: high birth rates, clearing land, reliance on clan loyalty, and demands for relief commodities when crops fail.

The problem is that few development bureaucrats or businessmen see Africa in terms familiar to its subsistence peasantry, i.e. as a conservative, well-tested, and secure way of life.  Rather they see it in terms of its incapacity to produce for a global marketplace in which land and labor are capital.  Thus African development programs are typically about the tools and measures of the marketplace, like trade balances, currency stability, mineral production, agricultural extension, clothing manufacture, and oil.  Unseen in such analyses are the subsistence peasants who are effectively invisible because they primarily produce outside the global market.  In this context, they will always frustrate the highest ideals of the development agencies.  The way they frustrate the modern marketplace is through the same messiness seen in eighteenth century Scotland, and nineteenth century North America.  They have babies who as young men and women eventually push into forest reserves, national parks, and other cash-producing concessions only lightly policed by the central government.  And when these traditional strategies no longer work, the survivors demand relief supplies from their patrons, just as surely as Scottish peasants asserted rights to famine relief from patron clan chiefs in the eighteenth century Highlands.  And perhaps most threatening, when land does indeed run out, the peasantry creates vast numbers of youth who no longer have access to land for a subsistence life, and few market skills of interest in urban labor markets.  And ominously, these displaced youth are the targets of extremists seeking to create the militias needed for the type of revolution Marx dreamed of.  Or in a post Cold War world, they are susceptible to the ethnic ideologies found in places like Rwanda, Congo, Colombia, Afghanistan, The Middle East, and elsewhere.

The Limits of Modern Economics for Understanding Peasant Life

There are of course advantages to modern neo-classical economic models: They do predict how people embedded in the marketplace respond to incentives.  Today though, the trick is knowing which farmer is embedded in the marketplace, and which in older persistent ways of thinking about economic life.  The former will respond to incentives in manners development bureaucrats will understand.  But for those still embedded in older subsistence ethics, the bureaucrats encounter people who do not remain at factory benches consistently, hire based on clan loyalties, appeal to personal relationships in the awarding (and repayment) of loans, lose their land to hucksters, and withdraw from confrontation when working conditions become onerous.  Most frustrating for the bureaucrats are the emphases on the age-old method of resistance; especially having more children than the development bureaucrats think economically wise.  And of course when food shortage looms, they look to the new patrons in the aid bureaucracies for relief supplies.

Such techniques, whether called peasant stubbornness, resistance, weapons of the weak, or simple laziness are in fact the old means used to resist the intrusion of the outside world into the older world of the subsistence peasant.  But after $2.3 trillion spent in development assistance to change the peasantry into the finely tuned producer in a market economy directed by the guiding spirit of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, you would think something else might be tried.  There are rational reasons the world’s subsistence peasants avoid capture by the world market—and unless these reasons are evaluated, not even another $2.3 trillion will provide the alchemy needed to transform Marx’s bag of potatoes into a finely tuned watch.  And as long as this happens, the sighing of the economists, and sweating of the politicians will continue.

Tony Waters

Chico, California