The US Army’s Human Terrain System Bites the Dust

….some argue that HTS was a good idea that was badly mismanaged. It would be more accurate to say that HTS was a bad idea that was badly mismanaged. Cultural knowledge is not a service that can be easily provided by contractors and consultants, or taught to soldiers using a training manual. HTS was built upon a flawed premise, and its abysmal record was the inevitable result. The fact that the program continued as long as it did reveals the Army’s superficial attitude towards culture…..Roberto Gonzalez

Click to continue reading “The US Army’s Human Terrain System Bites the Dust”

Why is Queen Nefertiti’s Bust in Berlin, and not Egypt?

Last weekend, I visited The Egyptian Queen Nefertiti this weekend on a trip to Berlin’s Neues Museum. “New” being a museum built in the mid-nineteenth century, bombed during World War II, and finally re-opened in 2009 after reconstruction following German Reunification.

The bust of Nefertiti is the Neues Museum’s best-known artifact. The Nefertiti statue is of Egypt’s Queen during the period of approximately 1370 BC-1330 BC. The statue is known for the skill that the sculptor Thutmose put into it, the well-preserved coloration, and the beauty of Nefertiti herself.

The bust remained buried until discovery by German archaeologists in 1912 when they excavated the Thutmose’s workshop. The German team was digging under license at the time from the government of Egypt, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which in Egypt at the time was dominated by the British. (But the antiquities department was at that time under the French as a result of the strong interest in Antiquities established there under the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte who had occupied Egypt 100 years earlier.)

If that last paragraph makes immediate sense to you—pat yourself on the back! The point of the paragraph is to point out that the Nefertiti statue was obtained under some version of legal/extra-legal/colonial license at a time when it seemed that every European power had its finger in the Egyptian pie at a time when Antiquities were attracted quite strong interest in Europe. Anyway the statue made its way to Berlin by 1913, where it was eventually put on display at the New Museum.

So the Nefertiti statue was brought to Berlin just before the World Wars. Berlin itself of course became the center of German militarism first in World War I, and later in World War II. Much of Germany’s antiquities were removed by the Nazi government during the war (1939-1945), and much of what was left behind was shipped to the Soviet Union as the spoils of war in 1945-1946. The Nefertiti statue itself was discovered by the occupying American forces in a salt mine, and put on display in West Berlin where they ruled. The Soviets who occupied East Berlin where the Neues Museum and Museum Island is found of course objected—but by then Nefertiti was another pawn in Cold War rivalries. Not until the final restoration of the New Museum in 2009, was the statue returned to the Neues Museum, 70 years after it had left. And that of course is where I saw it last weekend.

In the process of this history, the Nefertiti bust has become an important symbol for Berlin. The sculpture is of course well-preserved, and the Germans do this because they believe that such ancient artwork should be held in trust for all of humanity.


But of course here is were the disagreement starts. The modern Egyptian government regards the 1912 as looting, and has requested the statue be returned to Egypt for display there. Egypt never allows antiquities to leave the country (which is why much of King Tutankhamen’s treasure is still in Egypt).


And so Nefertiti remains in Berlin at least for the time being, and international treasure, rather than an Egyptian national treasure. This is contested of course, as many museums around the world have found out. How responsible are they for the conditions under which their trophy pieces are obtain decades, or even a century ago?

Are Long-term Job Prospects Better for Philosophers than for Engineers?

The machines may not destroy us, but it’s quite probable that they will render our labor obsolete, and without the creation of massive new fields of employment. Of course we will need engineers and software experts in the near future. But you know what we will need even more?

Philosophers, historians, artists, economists, and political scientists.

Click to continue reading “Are Long-term Job Prospects Better for Philosophers than for Engineers?”

The Tattooed Professor Wants to Ban the Research Paper!


The Tattooed History Professor, Kevin Gannon, wants to ban the research paper. No! Say it is not true! Everyone knows that research papers are the only way students learn how to think in a sound reasoning fashion.

He says this is the case because some students can’t do it. They write tendentious introductions, to start with. Some of the papers his students hand in are well-done he writes, but it seems too many of the papers he grades

….begin with “since the dawn of time, man has engaged in conflict, and nowhere was this more true than in the Spanish-American War.” Some of them show wide research, and some don’t. Some of them are well written, and some are a word salad of colloquialisms and faux-scholarly terms lifted willy-nilly from

He proposes WordPress websites, oral exams, and poster sessions and other things in their place, particularly for younger students.

In part I agree with Kevin. But in part I also think that this is a cop-out to the forces at public universities which send faculty larger class sizes which mean that students will indeed write less simply because there was no one to respond to their writing.  This of course started earlier in high school. Getting students to write well is a years long process which begins during primary and secondary schooling, not when they pop full-blown into a university class in history, sociology, English, anthropology or anything else.

The only way to get students to write and reason well is to respond to them when they write those tendentious introductions—and this requires educated eyes on their papers beginning at an early age.

Educated eyes are of course expensive, and the truth of the matter is that in the United States such instruction is primarily reserved for those who will pay for it through systems of private schooling where class sizes are kept under control.  What does keeping class size under control mean at the college level?  Basically maximum 20 students per class–that’s what the private liberal arts colleges do in their writing classes.  In fact, that is what I had in my 1970s era writing classes at the University of California.

Sociologist George Carlin Expounds on the Need for Stuff!

We like our stuff.   Stuff in fact is what makes the world’s capitalist markets go round. There are some well-thought out ways of describing the nature of stuff, including Karl Marx’s description of how and why “fetish commodity” is necessary to keep us consuming and buying. Then there was Torstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. But these are both boring reads—except for geeks like me who like classical social theory.

For the rest of you, there is the classical sociologist George Carlin who also had a theory of stuff, which is linked here. Just remember, if we did not demand our stuff, we wouldn’t have a need to work, and then we wouldn’t spend, and everyone else would be out of work too. Then we would not only have more stuff, but the farmers wouldn’t grow any food because they couldn’t buy stuff in exchange for the stuff they grow, and then we would all be in a real pickle. Speaking of pickles, there was Larry the Pickle in the Veggie Tales who had an excellent rap about “Stuff Mart.”

But this blog is not just about Larry the Pickle, who in some respect is a sociologist, just like sociologist George Carlin. It is about the Carlin, who updated Marx and Veblen’s writings on the nature of stuff for a modern US American audience, which is performed here. The weekend is coming, so go out and do you duty by buying more stuff, preferably on credit, so that you, everyone else, and especially the farmers can have a job to pay back all your bills. Your country and the world depends on it!

The Ethics of Ethnography, and Alice Goffman’s Ethnography about Crime in Philadelphia

Leon Neyfakh at Slate has written a review of the controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s new ethnography On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City which is about the African’ American community of inner city Philadelphia, and their relationship with the  police.  The essay is called “The Ethics of Ethnograpy,” and discusses the role of Institutional Research Boards, the responsibility of social scientists for replicability, the nature of scientific generalization, and the nature of ethnography.  His article is good, and a quick read for anyone interested in ethnography.

Neyfackh’s review asks question about “What is Ethnography?” and how is it related to science, journalism, and literature. Neyfakh’s review can be accessed here.

Alex Golub at Savage Minds has also contributed a thoughtful analysis of how journalists like Neyfakh evaluate ethnography, which can be accessed here.As he points out, the techniques of journalism and ethnography may use similar techniques particularly when it comes to interviewing, but the overall project is fundamentally different.  Journalists are about the facts and “fact checking,” while ethnographers look for underlying principles, and that big word of social science, “generalizability.”

On the Run is now definitely on my summer reading list. So is a book cited in the article about the role of Institutional Review Boards in the vetting of social science research, Ethical Imperialism, Institutional Research Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009, by Zachary Schrag.



We Need New Names by First Time Novelist NoViolet Bulawayo

I get much of my sociological imagination from novels, and I just finished one. It was We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The story starts in the shantytowns of Paradise and Budapest in modern day Zimbabwe. The main protagonist is Darling, a then ten year old girl who develops intense relationships with five other children who together play “bin Laden,” steal guavas, and cope with daily life in the chaos of the shantytowns.

Parts highlight what the broader world of modern Zimbabwe means for such children—whether it is a father with AIDS, politicized gangs, pregnancy of an eleven year old, South African labor migration, NGO politics, and an aunt in the incredibly wealthy and far off America.

Darling joins her aunt in America, which is what the second part of the book is about. There she is pushed into a new world where school is easy, life predictable, but also chaotic. Darling becomes friends with other immigrant children, attending school, cultivating the relationship with her aunt and her Ghanaian partner, and seeking to melt in to the new American world. Darling’s worlds can come together only through Skype, particularly after her tourist visa expires, and she becomes and illegal immigrant in the United States, unable to imagine returning except via the internet.

The story Bulawayo tells of migration is of course an old one, but nevertheless worth repeating. Migrants leave an old world behind, and become part of a new world, but often at the expense of sacrificing the warmth of the remembered home. There is a becoming of a new identity, even as there is an “unbecoming” of an older one. In the end, Darling is challenged by her childhood friends in Zimbabwe who, via the instant communication of Skype, ask her if she is still Zimbabwean or not? She thinks she is—but her friends have questions. How can someone who is not sharing the hardships sustain the identity?

We Need New Names is a bit slow at the beginning, as the reader seeks to position themselves in the shantytowns of Zimbabwe. However, it quickly becomes a memorable read for anyone interested in child migration, Zimbabwe, migrants in US cities, and youth. Or someone who simply likes a good thoughtful story.

Comparisons to another recent novel of African migration, Amerikanah, which tells the story of Nigerian elite migration are perhaps inevitable. And while the themes are similar, We Need New Names is a different story—it is the story of migration told from the perspective of children of shantytowns, and needs to be read from that perspective.