• Category Archives Communication for Anthropologists
  • Well I’m not blogging either, so there.

    Cindy’s not the only one not blogging.  Here are a few things I’m not writing about:

    1)Transparency. Mark wanted me to write about it ages ago, and I’ve thought about it, and don’t know what to say. Part of what troubles me about HTS is the overt lack of transparency (does that make them transparently opaque?), in the name of national security. Is this just a question of degree? Because, really, none of us who do or who have done research among our fellow human beings are completely open books. I have yet to post my undiluted field notes for all and sundry to see. I did, however, file a human subjects protocol, and I wonder if one could look it up at the office at my PhD-granting institution if one wanted to. I like to think that being forced to think bureaucratically (that is, having to file paperwork certifying that you have thought about it) about risk, and harm, and doing thoughtful research, is one of the best ways to try to ensure, as a discipline, that such thoughtful and responsible research is carried out. Sort of like, if you think someone is watching, you might behave better.

    So at what point does the difference in the degree of transparency, between the run-of-the-mill anthropologist (moi), and the HTS practitioner (not-moi), become a difference in kind?

    2)How damn hard it is to write when you are not in graduate school anymore. And have kids. And work a little bit. And want to have time to fart around on the internet, go for walks, and occasionally interact in meaningful ways with spouse, friends, family. No one speaks of this while you are in graduate school! Maybe they did, and I wasn’t listening. This sounds like whining, but I really do have a point: in graduate school, all you have to do is read and write. The whole setup is supposed to facilitate that. So those people who were doing grad school at the same time they had other obligations have a leg-up on those of us slackers who Just Did Grad School. Now, in my ostensibly grown-up life post-graduate school, I’d like to write a bit, and read some intellectual stuff that’s not just what I’m making my students responsible for, but the energy and inclination is not there. I’d have to form an infrastructure from whole cloth. Find writing partners. Schedule time for “writing.” Schedule time for “research.” And carve that time out of the rest of my existence. This sounds like a very sorry-ass-tiny-first-world-problem, I’m sure, but part of what I want to point out is that there is no systemic anything that gives young academics in the non-tenure-track workforce support to write. I suspect the non-tenure track thing might also be key, because there are infrastructures in place to facilitate tenured faculty writing. The rest of us are On Our Own.

    In graduate school, the motivational structure around productivity is external. Outside of graduate school, and in the absence of tenure requirements, the motivational structure needs to be internal. Clearly, I am finding these conditions challenging.

    3) The fact that Barack Obama’s mom was an anthropologist. Ruth Behar has already written movingly about this, so I don’t have to, but I’ve been pondering anthropological thoughts throughout the campaign, and even after the election, and wish that there had been some sort of Anthropologists for the Anthropologist’s Son group around, pushing us as a discipline into some kind of spotlight. Surely, his mother’s passion for anthropology, the one that led her to eventually settle and build a family in Indonesia (among other places), informs the choices that the President-Elect makes/will make about how to move through the world? About his approach to his own racial identity? About his perspective on the role of government in society?

    There’s another blog entry waiting to happen, and clearly it is not coming from me.


  • As folks head into the AAA, a few thoughts about anthropology in the military –Part 1

    Yes, I know. I rant about the AAA and yet I still download the PDF of the conference program. I wonder why we all do things like that? It’s not like I’m looking to change the stance of the AAA or the stance of people that get hysterical over anthropologists working in the military or intel communities. To me, those are all done deals, my mind is not going to change (at least not by the arguments presented so far) and I am not going to change someone else’s. Everyone may as well go to their separate corners and be done with it. But yet I still feel the need to raise a voice from time to time. Not to change peoples’ minds, but perhaps to let other people (students?) know that anthropology can be much more than what (I believe) a small group of people have been trying to limit it to. Political ideology and political correctness are not substitutes for doing the work and analysis in order to get to the clearest answers and insights… it’s not about hunting for a way to prove the other person right or wrong, or at least it shouldn’t be. Maybe you do harbor a secret desire to work for the CIA or NSA. Sure, given the oppressive political environment some anthropologists want to create, you may not want to advertise that fact, but know that there are others out there like you but they might not have the title “anthropologist.” It’s not news that I am ethically fine with people that have anthropology training working in all areas of the military and intel communities, not just contributing to the stabilization and community building kind of work that people we partner with are engaged in. Hell, I am fine if people want to use their skills to move forward the political agenda they are most passionate about. But use your skills and don’t just lay down in front of the agenda laid out for you. How many anthropologists that were against the invasion of Iraq actually used their skills, expertise and training as anthropologists to prevent or shorten the escapade? Lets count the hands up… anyone, anyone? Sorry, scribbling a poster to hold up as an anonymous face at a rally is not using your advanced training to change the direction of government and neither is a signed statement of protest. Use your skills to do fieldwork, use the fieldwork to generate insights, us those insight to create plans of action and recommendations. The reason why corporations and the military have been working with anthropologists for years is that they get value from the anthropologists doing what they are trained to do. Why is it when anthro’s decide to protest something they don’t bother doing any of that same work to further their own agendas? Creating real change requires doing real work.

    Students: There is good and honorable work out there in non-profits, political groups, all levels of national, state and local governments, military, corporations, and more, no matter what your convictions but rarely is it called anthropology and would benefit greatly from the mind set of an anthropologist. Anthropologists have a lot of opportunities for a seat at these tables, they just have to be willing to get off the high horse and take it.


  • More about Erving Goffman and my German Language Problems

    As I wrote before I am living in Germany and learning German.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend 2.5 hours with ten strangers from all over the world. We have little in common except that we are foreigners living in Germany struggling to integrate. Our conversations with each other are in German, and inevitably about such topics as why it is so difficult to remember how to get the right ending on a comparative adjective (is it –e, -en, -er, em, es, etc.?). Not really the stuff that great friendships are made of; particularly when you do not share fluency in a common language. But nevertheless, Cordula our teacher assures us that this is all necessary for our life in Germany. So grumpy or not we all push along, collectively sharing an unspoken dream of proving Germans wrong about the idea that multiple adjectival endings are important to anyone’s life.

    All of us have tried to explain to Cordula at some point why German does not make sense. She just smiles nicely, and notes that “it’s irregular,” which is the language teacher’s way of saying “it is logicval only when I say it is logical, otherwise it is illogical.” And so we are stumped since after all, how can you ever say that my language is “more logical” than German unless you get the proper ending onto the adjective (something along the lines of “my language is more logikalerere than German because the der-die-das komparativ so much easier is”). You don’t have to believe me on this issue, of course. Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language”
    after killing two or three German teachers—they died of heart failure—in the 1880s during his attempts to master German grammar. Fortunately, Cordula, has both a better sense of humor and stronger heart than Twain’s teachers, is still alive, but more about her below.

    But this blog is not about the nature of German language, but about my classmates who are what sociologist Erving Goffman called my “own” because we share the stigma of being linguistically impaired in Friedrichshafen. There are ten of us, and except with the young English-speaking Kenyan woman who works at a local nursing home, my conversations with the others are in German. We all speak enough to know something about each other. There are two music teachers (one from Russia and one Kazakhstan) both married to German men. There are two from Belarus in the class, one a computer engineer at a local company, and the other a language student. Two Italians work at local restaurants, and Daniel from France who recently retired here. The most fluent German speaker is a Hungarian-speaker from Romania who we all secretly admire greatly. In short, we have little in common, except that we ended up in Friedrichshafen somehow, we are all foreigners, we share a classroom twice a week, and believe in Cordula’s capacity to transform our German verb forms.

    And yet we also share that unspoken and special bond described by Goffman in his book Stigma. We are each others’ “own” with respect to the vast numbers of Germans around us who are the “normals.” Some of the best classroom conversations have been about how the normal Germans do things to us which are odd to us. Among the things we notice are that Germans are insurance-crazy, carry little reflective triangles in their cars (in case their car breaks down, and their warning blinkers don’t work), and do not like hugging as much as Italians, Russians, and French. We have all compared notes about German immigration law as a result of time spent securing permits in the local immigration office.

    We have also endured at some level an attitude that foreigners should just get with it and learn German—integration is the key (gee thanks for the advice Mr. Normal German—when was the last time you tried to memorize and use 48 Kazakh articles?). As with normals everywhere, they do not easily understand what it is like to be on the outside looking in. Believe me, we all want to “integrate” and achieve linguistic anonymity–were it only so easy! So integration from a normal is the last thing any of us wants to hear after hours spent wrestling with the weird German vowels like Ö Ä Ü, unpronounceable even to Mötley Krüe, or worse yet distinguishing between the sound of a sharp s (ß) and a double ss.

    And so we help each other out in class with whispered answers when we are stuck, awkwardly trade news about planned vacations and family, and have a special bond when we encounter each other in the city. Daniel especially, has become helpful in slipping us all study guides, and one of the Italians picked up the tab for me and my family when we were at his restaurant. Cordula of course is our shared hero—she is what Goffman called one of the “wise.” She is a “normal” German, but as a result of years teaching German, she instinctively understands and sympathizes with our tribulations. She points out my “typical English mistakes,” and I can even laugh when she does this. She also knows more about the rapidly changing German immigration laws than do most Germans—a wisdom she gained through years of interacting with foreign German learners.

    Among Cordula’s more appreciated tales are about the strong local dialect known as Swabian German. Somehow it takes the edge off of things, realizing that all those “normal” Swabians also use the “wrong” article with the word for “butter” routinely, and butcher any word having a st consonant combination. Those of us imagining ourselves at the bottom of Friedrichshafen’s linguistic heap enjoy the chance to snicker at the problems of our presumed tormentors!


  • Applied Ethnography and the German Military in Afghanistan

    I went to a workshop Friday in which anthropological involvement with the German military in Afghanistan was described. The German army is participating in the NATO operation in northern Afghanistan, which is in one of the more peaceful areas of that country. An ethnologist, Dr. Monika Lanik reported on the difficulties in developing inter-cultural competence in the context of deployments. Ethnographic competence is considered important because the German military is taking on a new international character as a result of peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia. Dr. Lanik pointed out that this is as much a diplomatic function as a military one. As a result, this new type of military operation requires diplomatic skills which in turn implies ethnography.

    In the case of Afghanistan, German military have provincial reconstruction teams. This context requires soldiers to be aware of patronage relationship, the context of the drug trade, and modern versus traditional values. Dr. Lanik noted that awareness of such “deep play” goes well beyond the simpler tasks involving the recognition of ethnic symbols, or actions likely to accidentally give offense. Rather it reflects a need to focus on the deeper context that culture provides for not only a peacekeeping, but economic development.

    The ethnographic training of German military personnel asks them to recognize the context that their own culture provides in what they are trying to accomplish. As in any military, both military and national culture is inter-twined and taken for granted by the soldiers. In such a context, a job for the ethnographer is to ask soldiers what part of their world view is a consequence of their military training, what part is a result of German culture, what emerges out of their personal biography, and finally what is brought by the local culture? As in any culture, there are naïve assumptions that home culture is universal, and can be imputed to the people with whom they will negotiate. The job of the ethnologist is much the same as it is with any institution—train and teach for inter-cultural competence.

    There is controversy associated with the German mission in Afghanistan. The German mission in Afghanistan is itself politically controversial in a country which sees its military as strictly for domestic defensive purposes. How long the German forces should stay in Afghanistan is an on-going political question raised frequently in the German Parliament.

    Some German anthropologists also raise the issue of whether anthropologists should be involved with the military at all, even though the German military is focused strictly on defensive purposes. As in the United States, it is framed as a question of professional ethics—and the question is asked whether providing ethnographic advice is appropriate at all.


  • Inter-disciplinary Teams

                This is the first semester of the Engineering for Peoples and Markets Program at Fresno State. The program consists of two teams. Each team consists of two or three engineer majors (computer and electrical), an entrepreneurship major, and an anthropology major. The purpose of our team is to work together on the creation, design, and marketability of a piece of technology created by the engineers for their senior projects. It has been interesting discovering each of our roles within this project, and the experience of working with people trained in different fields has been valuable.  There have definitely been some learning hurdles for me, and things I’m still working on. Some things that I initially saw as hurdles, I’m beginning to realize might be more common than I thought.

                Our project is very dependent on the curriculum of the engineer majors because this is their senior project and they must create a working prototype by the end of the school year in order to graduate. I originally saw this as an obstacle that would only exist in a college program like this one. Due to the attachment of the project to their pending graduation, I felt like the engineers were very cautious, sometimes only focusing on simply getting a very basic working apparatus, rather than a prototype that was more representative of our team’s research and design recommendations. Everything seemed to be contingent on “if we end up commercializing it”, rather than “let’s give this a try”. Their apprehensions are certainly understandable!

    Now, as I think about the situation in a different light, I’m thinking this may be a lot closer to what I may experience in the future when working in consultation with other people or companies. Time and resources are always a major concern. Rather than seeing this as an obstacle needing to be removed, I see it as a learning challenge on my part on how to create a good communicative environment with the team and try to represent my research and recommendations in ways that will also include possible solutions on how to address time sensitivity and limited resources. I certainly do not have an answer to this, but it is a constant learning experience for me.

    I tried researching “inter-disciplinary teams” online to find out examples of how other teams are working together, at other colleges and within business and organizations. The only articles I could find were regarding inter-disciplinary teams working together within the medical field. I’m wondering if there are other resources where I can find articles relating to this, and examples of how similar programs are operating at other universities.


  • Can Bad Grades and Graduate School Go Together?

    Someone asked Mark whether getting “bad grades” means for becoming an anthropologist. Every graduate anthropology program is different, of course, and there are no blanket statements possible. But, good grades are always a fantastic idea if you are trying to get into graduate school, in anthropology or any other subject. After all, the professors evaluating your applications mostly had good grades. And since the graduate school admissions process is in large part considered to be about identifying who will be a professor in the future (even if your goal is to be a practitioner), the admissions committee is typically looking for someone who will end up being something like them. Nevertheless, I urge people with not-so-good grades to apply, if that is their dream. Persistence, some life experience, cross-cultural experience, publications etc., can all substitute for the lower grades you may have gotten, and can no longer change. My own experience in the late 1980s is perhaps instructive.

    I had a 2.7 gpa in my B.S. undergraduate program at UC Davis in International Agricultural Development in the 1970s. This got me into a M.S. program in Biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I graduated with a 3.4 g.p.a. Better but I was still not a future Malinowski. But the Peace Corps didn’t care, and neither did my next two employers in Thailand and Tanzania. So I had a great time working in both countries, learning the Thai and Swahili languages, and even doing some academic and professional writing about refugees. But I found I found among the people I respected the most were not only natural scientists (like me), but the two or three anthropologists I met up-country. The anthropologists had the best take on the culture and societies we lived in, and somehow were the best able to assess the frustrations and delights I took in living abroad. Anyway, after six years working in Thailand and Tanzania, I decided to apply for the anthropology program at UC Davis in the general belief that my publications, language skills (Thai and Swahili), and interest in refugees would make up for the less-than-stellar g.p.a. Wrong. I was rejected twice.

    Instead, in 1988, I enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, where I took a number of Anthropology and International Affairs courses in a still not completed MA program. Some good grades from Sacramento State, and lots of personal lobbying at UC Davis finally got me admitted to the MA program in Sociology, which in turn led to the Ph.D. in Sociology. And today my professional affiliation is with sociology, not my first choice, anthropology. I am happy as a sociologist, but still admire the anthropologists I continue to come in contact with.

    So grades always matter. Now that I have been a professor for ten years, and have given thousands of grades, I know what bad grades measure, more or less. Bad grades are often a measure of a lack of discipline. Failure to take tests seriously, go to class, and a whole range of other things that do not lead to good grades. So are going to too many parties, late night bull sessions with with friends, staying up late etc., etc., are the most common explanation for a less than stellar g.p.a. Do not do these things. However, if it is all a done deal like it was for me, and you still have a passion for academics, do be polite and persistent in your applications to graduate school. Do not take the first no for as the definitive answer, and get a thick skin. Take extra classes to help redefine yourself. And when someone grumbles that you have a “rather peculiar g.p.a.” realize first that they have the power in this situation, and you may need to bite your tongue. And second, find someone who will be more sympathetic. More importantly perhaps, recognize that the comment is as much a reflection of their short-sightedness and lack of “real life” experience during their undergraduate career, and after, than it is about where you are in the application process.

    For what it is worth, here is a link to an article I wrote five years ago about students who, like me, get too many C grades, and even a D or two, as an undergraduate. It is called “The Trouble with Valedictorians,” and still reflects my view about people who have never received the insult of a D+ grade.


  • Visualization for anthropologists 401

    I am always interested in examples of visualization because while it’s a wonderful way to communicate insights to people, its rarely utilized by anthropologists. We are a wordy bunch and in the culture of anthropologists countless pages of jargon are held in far higher regard than an elegant illustration. viz.jpg To address this weakness in our profession, I share with you the Periodic Table Of Visualization Methods from Visual-Literacy.org. Roll over the various “elements” and you get a pop-up of an example of that method. From the site description about Visual-Literacy.org: "The Visual-Literacy.org e-learning course will be used as an online leveling course as well as a blended skill-building course for students of fourteen different university courses in four universities (for more than 500 students). These courses require advanced analytical and conceptual visualization skills in order to transform abstract thought efficiently into graphic, tangible forms and to manage the topic complexity and the problems addressed in each class." Just a wee bit of inspiration for the morning.