Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Anthropology Class

‘Tis the season for academic rites of passage and for many of us to say goodbye to the students who have been our intellectual companions for the past four years. Here are some of the (mostly) lighthearted thoughts I shared with my graduating anthropology majors and minors at our department reception this week. *Please note that this was an outline and I elaborated each point with ad-libbed examples from the classes we had shared and with local community examples that would make no sense to outsiders. Also, please see my post below, entitled, “Cindy’s Top Ten Things Anthropologists Should Not Do When They Are Drunk,” if you are seeking more practical advice.

It is a very emotional thing for me to stand up here and think about this group of seniors leaving. So many of you have meant so much to me over the last years. It’s hard to imagine that I will not continue to see your faces in the hallway, in my office, and smiling at me in class.

So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer you five examples of what I’ve learned form anthropology that I apply in my daily life.

First: generalized reciprocity rules. As in, it kicks butt. The most successful, longest running, least conflict-ridden societies we know of in human history operated on the principles of reciprocity. Use this insight to form networks, to create bonds, to build community and accomplish goals. Now, keep in mind that the trick to successful reciprocity is in choosing your partners wisely. If you live your life like this, it will come back to you. It’s anthropological karma.

Next, when the emic and etic interpretations of something do not align, there are important things to be learned. I do believe that an appreciation of the fact that emic and etic perspectives can at times be contradictory and yet both true in important ways is a fundamental characteristic of thoughtful, complex anthropology. I also believe this disconnect is always a sign to dig deeper. An example might be when you read something in the paper that seems at odds with your experience of the world. I can’t tell you which of the two is going to be “more right,” “more often,” only that you should pay attention when they don’t match.

Third, cultural relativism does not mean the abdication of opinion. Oh, they will try to convince you that it does. Those people out there who invented the term “political correctness,” will try to tell you that it means “anything goes;” that if you accept cultural relativism you have to accept wife beating, widow burning, and pedophilia as interesting cultural practices that are not the same as your own. It does not; they are wrong. They are twisting the concept for their own purposes – don’t let them. Cultural relativism is about context, insight, and suspension of judgment until a deeper understanding is achieved.

Symbolic capital or cultural capital is key. Every culture and sub-culture out there has its own rules and rewards. Ask yourself, what do these people value? Do I share these values? It is not a level playing field out there. You have an advantage: an advantage in terms of your bachelor’s degree, which is prestigious cultural capital in mainstream American culture. And, of course, most importantly in your outstanding choice of anthropology as the cornerstone of that education! What will you do with that advantage?

And finally, of course, the most famous anthropological insight of all: bone sticks to your tongue. Actually, I’m still not sure what to make of this last one. Like so many things in life, I just know it’s true. Perhaps someday one of you will come to understand its significance and return to explain it – and then the teacher will become the student.

Margaret Mead once said that American culture unfairly and arbitrarily teaches its members that fun is for childhood, work is for middle age, and regret for our twilight years. Of herself, she commented, “My great secret is that I was wise enough to never grow up, while fooling most people into believing I had.” So, go, have fun, work hard, accept regret when it comes, and then get back to the business of having fun and working hard.

I love you all! Congratulations!

Originally Posted June, 2008 at Ethnography.com

Karl Marx’s View on Agency and What the Individual Can Do to Effect Social Change

Last Friday, I went to an Education conference to talk about my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. It is a book which emphasizes that questions whether schools can change as fast as school reformers have often wish. The point is to explain that as bureaucracies, schools are embedded in persistent habitus, which resists changes, even of the most articulate and passionate reformers.

Somehow, this degenerated into a discussion of what social scientists call agency. “Agency” is a view that social science has a responsibility to empower students and others for change–however change is defined.  In other words, social science should give actors the intellectual tools to force change.  It is the idea that the smart and passionate people (such as those at the conference) can come together and bring desirable change—if the will is enough. Such reformers often quote the young Karl Marx who in 1845 wrote in “Theses on Feurbach” the following:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it

The quote is so influential, that in 1956 when Marx’ bod) was placed in a new tomb in Highgate Cemetery in England, the quote was one of two placed on his tomb. The quote is often used to justify the idea that social science can, should, and must be used bring about social change. For the woman at my session, this change was to be toward a more democratic schooling system. My book says something different though, in particular there are limits to what bureaucratic structures can achieve, particularly in the schools.  Somehow, I couldn’t persuade her that not all things were possible, even when good people were equipped by social science with better knowledge.

So I changed the point, and started to quote Marx, but not from his 1845 writings, or even from the Manifesto of the Communist Party written in 1848 in which he insisted a worker’s rebellion was imminent. Rather, I inartfully tried to quote from the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” which Marx published in 1852. Unlike in his earlier writings, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” was about disappointments, and why revolutionary change is so difficult. What had of course happened between 1845 when Marx wrote about change, and 1848 when Marx predicted revolution in Europe, was that the conservative bourgeois capitalists had won elections in France and elsewhere.  These elections effectively announced the end of the revolutionary era described in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848. Big oops, and so Marx had some explaining to do. So here is what the contrite Marx wrote in “The 18th Brumaire” after his revolutionary dreams were dashed, at least for the time being:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.


And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the [French] Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the [French] Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.


In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

But not recalling something as intimate as your mother tongue is tough.  How many people truly do it?  Very very few.  How many societies forget the habitus of the past?  Equally few.  As someone who has learned new languages, I know that the last section is particularly true. I can never really drop my American English ways of thinking and translating, even if I am generating the most articulate Thai I can conjure. And after 28 years of living in the United States and speaking English fluently, my wife still finds herself reverting to German rhetorical styles, which only have after 28 years have come to recognize as such. In the same way, our schools do not forget the mistakes of old, and repeat them, always waiting for past practices to no longer be recalled.

In the same way, the old ancient habits of our first grade teachers, wonderful though they were, push against the efforts of reformers to introduce revolutionize themselves. For example, the habitus that my own first grade teacher, Mrs. Skagen, who was born in 1912 and herself went to first grade 1918-1919, modeled for me in 1964-1965, still influence me today. And indirectly I suppose that Mrs. Skagen’s first grade teacher, born perhaps during the American Civil War (1861-1865), or shortly after, are one of the sources of what she did to me. I have a hard time imagining that what Mrs. Skagen passed on to me, or what her teacher passed on to her is a “nightmare” as Marx put it, but still it gives life to the difficult tasks agents of change confront. Or as Marx gloomily put it:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

   I guess that what this also means is that I do not believe with the young Marx, that the only point of philosophy, social science, and learning is to change the world. Sometimes it is just to understand the world. And that is a noble enough task!

    I just wish that at that conference I had been as articulate as Marx was, or for that matter, Mrs. Skagen!

Originally posted at Ethnography.com on October 15, 2015.  Modified and edited September 9, 2016.

Does the Chinese Government Fund PhD Dissertation in Christian Theology???

I have been staying in Germany the last few weeks, hanging around academic types. Two that I came across were Chinese PhD students are studying at German Schools of Theology. Christian theology. One is trying to figure out the nature of Eschatology in a Chinese context. Eschatology is about the what happens to people after death, judgment, and final destiny (it is true—I just checked the dictionary). The other dissertation is a historical thesis about the nature of tolerance and intolerance in Augsburg, Germany in 1520-1530. This latter one uses source material in archaic German, and medieval Latin—and the article I looked at was of course written in English.

What is bemusing, I think, is that both students are funded by Chinese government funds. And of course the Chinese government is run by the Chinese Communist Party which seems to be stretching quite broadly into funding the humanities, even as the US pulls back into STEM. And so life goes on. I hope that both students do really well in their studies and are able to use what they are learning in their careers in China.

Batman and George Orwell Philosophize, or is it best to be a wimp and a fool, or just a fool?

     Colonial Burma has a strange hold on the colonial British imagination—it is a remote and exotic place where the British were not very successful in holding sway. And the place it emerges occasionally is in the inability of the west to “understand” the east. Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler in the film Batman Returns (2008) had some experience in colonial Burma which sheds some light on how the British might have thought about their imperial adventure there. Indeed, he is even able to relate it to he problem of The Joker, a maniacal character who savaged Wayne’s own Gotham City.

Bruce Wayne: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And, in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Bruce Wayne: “Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.”

Alfred Pennyworth: “With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But, in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.”

Bruce Wayne: “So why steal them?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”

Bruce Wayne: “The bandit, in the forest in Burma, did you catch him?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “Yes.”

Bruce Wayne: “How?”

Alfred Pennyworth: “We burned the forest down.”

I picked this exchange out of a Thomas Friedman column, in which he advocates intervention in Arab states which are “decent,” but oddly concludes that outsiders can indeed use their military power to intervene in such circumstances. This is an odd conclusion, because what Alfred is saying, I think, is that the danger of massive over-reaction (burning the forest down), can be a disproportionate response to an evil, which only makes the evil worse.

Had Alfred been on his toes though, he might have gone on to recommend the short story of his colleague in the Burman colonial service, Eric Blair a.k.a. George Orwell, to Bruce Wayne and Friedman. “Shooting an Elephant” is part of Orwell’s memoir of colonial Burma, where he was once a colonial officer developing a skepticism about the imperial project. A domesticated elephant had come into its period of “must,” and began to wreak havoc in the town, killing a low-status man. But when Orwell arrived with his big gun, the elephant’s period of must had passed, and it was placidly browsing, as elephants will do. Orwell (or his character) must make a decision. Does he shoot the peaceful elephant as the crowd expects, or does he let it browse—since it is no longer dangerous to anyone.

As the representative of British colonial power, Orwell, is widely despised by the crowd—he recalls:

I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.

But the crowd wants blood revenge taken on the poor elephant. And besides if it is killed, they can take the meat.

So if Orwell shoots the elephant, he will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd, but continue to be despised for killing the valuable property of a local mahout. If he lets the elephant go, the crowd will think him a coward, and still despise him. So the choice of the young Orwell is, do I shoot and be hated, or do I not shoot and be hated? By shooting the elephant, he is symbolically burning down the forest and therefore making a fool of himself. By not shooting the elephant, he is being both a wimp, and in his own word, a fool.  Some choice.

So what does he do and why?  No spoiler alert, you will have to read the brief original essay yourself to find out.  I will note though that Orwell himself noted that there was a division of opinion about what to do among the Europeans:

Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said [it was right to shoot the elephant], the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.

But isn’t this the same choice that Alfred Pennypacker presented to The Dark Knight? Both burning down the forest and shooting the elephant may satisfy immediate short-term needs, but are they really in the longer-term interest of anyone?

Originally posted at Ethnogrpahy.com on February 11, 2016

Asking How Many Children Your Mother Has is a Complicated Survey Question!

I am teaching a Population class here in Chico, California, this semester. Sometime during the class, I generally  ask students about how many children there are in their families, and what their own fertility intentions are.  To avoid the complications of the modern family, divorce, remarriage, and so forth, I break it into three questions, which are:

1)  How many children does your mother have?

2)  How many children does your mother’s mother have?

3)  How many children do you intend to have?

Framing it this way has up to now kept the classroom discussion relatively precise, and on track.  In keeping with the traditions of population science, framing the question keeps things relatively biological–which is appropriate in this type of class.  Until now–when I was again reminded that definitions are always generated from a broader social context.

Anyway, about three days after this semester’s class, I had an apologetic Saudi student come to my office.  He had written on his (anonymous) survey that his mother had nine children.

Him: “I’m sorry that I lied on your question—I really come from a family of 29 children.”

Me: “So your father has more than one wife?”

Him: “Yes, I have four mothers.”

Me: “So you didn’t lie, since I had asked only about your own mother.”

Him: “Yes I did lie, and I’m sorry for it; my mother gave birth to nine children, but she of course has 29 children.”

Me: “No, you didn’t lie because your mother has nine children.”

Him: “Yes, I did lie, my mother has 29 children…”

It went back and forth in a friendly way for a few minutes, both of us somehow satisfied. He told me about his home in Saudi Arabia.  His father died a couple of years ago, but his mothers were still living there.  He had a great deal of affection for his siblings, or course, who he remembers as being a rambunctious lot.

I think it took me about four days to realize that despite the friendly conversation, we were still talking past each other with respect to the definition of what “mother,” “wife,” and probably “father” is.  Not to mention the relationship between “giving birth,” and being a “mother.”  Next time I give this survey I will have to think things through a bit more carefully!

Originally posted November 2013

The Connection between Crime and Immigration: A Complicated but not Conflicted Issue

This blog was originally posted in 2010.  However, the issues raised I think are timeless.  “Debates” about crime and immigration reappear it the presses around the world periodically, usually without much context.  Rather a person who happens to be an immigrant is caught doing a crime, and then inferences is made to all members of a group.  The fact of the matter though is that immigrants tend to be ore law-abiding than native born populations.  This is a settled fact among people who study crime and immigration.  For those who do not, they need to be reminded now and then, that immigrant populations tend to be more law abiding than foreign born.  Anyway, here is my post from 2010.

My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated.  In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest.  This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press.  In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born.  But then I read deeper.  Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us.  It is with this conclusion that I take exception.

In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens.  But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.

Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants.  And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups.  In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age   and gender.  Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows.  The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties.  So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.

What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States.  Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.

But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem.  This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report.  The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own.  This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities.  In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society.  This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system.  Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities.  Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem.  The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.

The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities.  And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests.  Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.


Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide?  Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities.  Sociological Quarterly

Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009.  56(3):447-473.

Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at http://www.policefoundation.org/pdf/strikingabalance/Appendix%20D.pdf

Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.