Indiana Jones Rides Again–Into National Geographic’s Museum!

There is a nice description/analysis at National Geographic which Emma Louise Back posted recently at The Geek Anthropologist.  Such postings manage to make archaeology and popular culture fun at the sme time. Somehow she manages to even get a citation to Agatha Christie into the post.   Here is the link to the article.

Is “Indiana Jones” a Psychological Hazard for Male Archaeologists?

     My son Christopher graduates next month with a Bachelor’s degree in Archaeology.  I think that this happened because we made him a sandbox as a child, and he seemingly has not grown out of it, as most of us do after age 8.  Only now he is more geeky.  So instead of digging for plastic soldiers and banana peels in the sand, he looks for shards (pieces of pottery, I’m told), and sherds (pieces of glass) on Caribbean islands.  And mostly what he really finds are really old chicken bones. 

       Completely consistent with archaeological geekiness are Christopher’s long disputations about archaeological ethics.  This seems to be a hazard of the major, and includes rants against treasure hunters, mumbling about stratigraphic context, expressions about the need to involve locals in research, the nature of local museum collections, and the importance of being able to converse in local languages.  And of course, as Durkheim might say, every chicken bone is sacred.  This is fine, and I can relate.  We sociologists too like to believe that we are important enough to harm someone, and therefore need ethics, just like doctors and soldiers.  We are not as fascinated by chicken bones, but to each their own.

      So at least until two weeks ago, Christopher seemingly was seemingly headed toward a standard academic career in boring archaeology, which as far as I can tell is not that different from being a young civil engineer, medical lab tech, or other standard fare.  But then he confused us by insisting that for the graduation ceremony, his sister must provide him with a fedora to replace the mortarboard, and a whip.  It turns out that like to many male graduates of archaeology, he thinks his degree and expertise in chicken bones makes him into some kind of Indiana Jones, rather than just another drudge.  In fact, he deludes himself into believing he has a resemblance to this guy, even though his chief archaeological mentor is female professor specializing in (among other things) underwater archaeology a totally cool sub-discipline which Indiana Jones has never even attempted (can Indy even swim?).  And anyway, what does Indy know about with sherds, shards, ethics, or chicken bones?  Is Indiana Jones really that great of a role model for archaeologists?  

      So I asked a couple male archaeologists, about how I could cure Christopher of his Indiana Jones fetish.  Oddly, they did not consider this a problem.  In fact, they just looked at me quizzically, as if to say, why wouldn’t he be like Indiana Jones?  The unspoken response was, “isn’t every archaeologist kind of like Indiana Jones—particularly the really cool part?”  They will acknowledge that Indy as portrayed in the movies is a treasure hunter and a fraud, but they blame this on the writers, not Indy himself.  Like Christopher, they fantasize that indeed, archaeology is just like the movies rather than the sandbox and the lab. And even when the film-maker makes bloopers, like asserting that Indy learned Aymara (or was it Quechua?) while riding with Pancho Villa, they blame the filmmaker and point out that Indy really really rode with Hiram Bingham.  The fictional non-existent Indy never gets the blame.  No, even archaeologists like Cindy Van Gilder blame poor Steven Spielberg, a mere film-maker, for the bloopers and politically incorrect story lines. 

     Out of frustration, I went to the Archaeological Institutes of America web-site.  I figured they would have a dignified response to the claptrap of Indiana Jones “the archaeologist.”  But no, there it got even worse.  They elected Harrison Ford, an ACTOR, to the Board of Directors in 2009.  They even gave him a major award—an occurrence that only one lonely and ignored archaelogical blogger, Dr. Tim McGuiness, has the good sense to protest. 

      So what is it about archaeology that makes them take the fictional Indiana Jones so seriously?  After all, Ford played Han Solo in Star Wars, and was an outstandingly cool alpha male there too, but he was not elected to NASA’s board of directors.  Agatha Christie was never given a special position at the British Home Affairs office because her characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple outdid Scotland Yard’s detectives.  Nor do any criminal justice types assert that Dirty Harry was a good thing, “except for the part the writers got wrong.” Nor has the American Criminological Society given Clint Eastwood their highest honors

      Nor is the Air Force going to give a medal to Tom Cruise and place him on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for acting in “Top Gun.”  They have far more restraint than that. And hey, I know about such restraint, since I’m a sociologist, and we can legitimately claim America’s number one actor, none other than Ronald Reagan himself, as one of our very own (Sociology BA, class of 1932 Eureka College).  Note we can even do this without resorting to Reagan’s FICTIONAL film work in his well-known movie, Bedtime for Bonzo, or in any other high profile role he may have had in Washington DC.  Ronald Reagan is, by training, one of us!  But, modestly, we sociologists for over 60 years resisted the temptation to elevate the world’s best-known actor to the Board of Directors of the American Sociological Association.  ASA even resisted the obvious temptation to give Reagan a major award, preferring instead to attract the attention of the world through the elegance of our regression equations, and sophisticated interpretations of post-modern meaning.  Why can’t the AIA in particular follow our dignified lead, and modestly admit that Indiana Jones is ONLY A MOVIE CHARACTER, just like Ronald Reagan was ONLY A MOVIE CHARACTER.  (Ok, so maybe Reagan was more than a movie character—but Indy ain’t!)

       None of the of course addresses the basic problem of how to deal with a Indiana Jones wannabe in the family.  Is this some kind of permanent disorder?  Or is it treatable? Perhaps someone out there in the Ethnography.com community has some advice to offer?

Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. And, of course, there are the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply is, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean comes to tell Indy that he has been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hasn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (Indy chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas & Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus next. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…

*******************************************************************

To read more about these issues in North America try The Mound Builders, by Robert Silverberg, 1986. Or even Cynthia L. Van Gilder and Douglas K. Charles, 2003. “Archaeology as Cultural Encounter: The Legacy of Hopewell,” in Method, Theory, and Practice in Contemporary Archaeology.

Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. There are also the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply was, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean came to tell Indy that he had been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hadn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (he chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came form Ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of a pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas-Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus soon. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…

Originally posted on May 23, 2008 on Ethnography.com by Cynthia Van Gilder.

Ethnography as a Contact Sport: the Mla Bri and the Long Family of Phrae, Thailand

Ethnographers and a Lack of Common Sense

How many ethnographers are crazy? This question came up for me in a Facebook post recently by Gene Long, a missionary/linguist/ethnographer who has lived with the Mla Bri (Yellow Leaf) hunter-gatherers of Thailand since 1981. In other words, he and his wife Mary Long have 34 years of participant observation data about people who have the rare habit of hunting and gathering for subsistence—an anthropological rarity.

Today the Mla Bri are somewhere between hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and charismatic Thai television stars. Anyway, using their training in linguistics, Gene and Mary developed a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Mla Bri language and culture. This is of course not unprecedented in anthropology—it is something like the anthropologically charismatic Ju/’Hoansi in Namibia—but more about that at the end of this blog. In the meantime, if you want to know more about the specifics of the high quality ethnography Gene and Mary Long can do, please see this 2013 article about Suicide and the Mla Bri published in the Journal of the Siam Society. Or of course there is a Wikipedia article, too.

Of all the ethnographers I know, I’ve known Gene and Mary the longest. I first met them in Phrae when I was in the Peace Corps in 1980-1982. I visited Gene and Mary recently (in August and July 2015), so of course we reminsiced, as old friends will. Somewhere in between this, Gene posted on Facebook, introducing my wife and I to his many Thai and American Facebook friends. He pointed out that when we first met in 1981, he thought I was “weird,” and that I thought he was “nuts.” I disagreed on Facebook—I might be weird, but Gene was not just “nuts,” he was crazy because of the goals he set for himself, his family, and his mission in 1981. In 1981 he told me that he would spend at least 30 years looking for a group that everyone else in Phrae said did not exist, live with them even though they were wanderers and had no permanent house (and did not exist), learn their unknown language (if there was one), and begin translating Christian scripture into that potentially non-existent language. He also said he had people in America who would pay for the whole venture. If that is not delusional in a rational world, I don’t know what is.

But thinking about it more, I think that this crazy irrational quality is something that Gene shares with ethnographer-types. Think about the physicist Franz Boas who sailed off to Baffin Island to study geography, but ended up asking the Inuit about colors in a world where everything was covered with snow. Or Bronislaw Malinowski who offered to spend his World War I internment on the Trobriand Islands where he became grouchy, grumpy, lustful, and ethnocentric, and wove tales about travelling kula armbands which even today first year anthropology students must read about. Nigel Barley, a patron saint of this blog, was also crazy—after all he had his teeth removed by a mechanic in Cameroon (see his book The Innocent Anthropologist), and more recently ethnographer Alice Goffman hung out with probationers and criminals for six years in Philadelphia in a world which was mostly boring, but in which illegal drugs were sold, running from the police was a sport, and most of her friends/informants were armed. From her ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City it also sounds like she spent much of the six years visiting people in jails and other lockups. Such behavior is not just “nuts,” but more accurately described in the vernacular as “crazy.”

Now I don’t know Boas, Malinwoski, Barley, or Goffman, so I can’t tell you how they became that way. But I have known Gene Long (known more commonly by his Thai name Bunyuen Suksaneh) for 34 years, so I thought it might be a good idea to explain to the world why not only Bunyuen/Gene is crazy, but so are ethnographers in general.

The “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves in Thailand

In Gene’s case, he was convinced of his life’s work in 1979 after reading a 1963 article in the Journal of the Siam Society about an “expedition” to visit a group of hunter-gatherers living in northern Thailand who were known derogatorily as “spirits,” because they were so rarely seen. The other significant reference to the Mlabri was made in the 1930s by Austrian adventurer Hugo Bernatzik who visited them for about two weeks in 1936 or 1937, and wrote half of a book about his visit. On this rather slim record, Gene dedicated his life.

It turns out that “Spirits” of the Yellow Leaves is a northern Thai term used to describe people we now know call themselves Mla Bri (the Mla Bri do not mind being called “Yellow Leaf people,” but they do object to being called “spirits”). The northern Thai called them “Spirits” because the only evidence ever seen of them were lean-to shelters made out of banana leaves which had yellowed—the story went that the yellowing of the leaves was the signal for them to disappear. Anyway Gene chased these rumors around northern Thailand for about two years before settling in Phrae Province where I lived because first, there were rumors about the Yellow Leaf people there, and second because the Thai government would not let him settle in provinces where the Thai Communists had organized a violent insurrection which it seems was where most of the Yellow Leaf lived then.

So Gene and Mary Long are actually still in the Thai forest with the Yellow Leaf people in 2015. Their modest house is on the edge of a Yellow Leaf settlement, they speak the language well, have started a hammock making business to generate income for the Mla Bri and neighboring Hmong, and have for years been relating Bible stories to the Yellow Leaf. They are also sitting on 34 years of ethnographic and linguistic notes (Mary is a very methodical record keeper) is in my mind also crazy. And like Malinowski, they are taking some time writing up their decades of notes and observations about hunter-gatherers who have smashed into the world of modern Thailand, a country which includes some of the world’s largest shopping centers.

Anyway, the first installment of their ethnographic efforts was “Suicide among the Mla Bri,” described above. A second story about demographic change among the Mla Bri is being prepared. This will be a lighter story, since it is about drops in infant mortality, the eradication of malaria, and the birth of a robust cohort of children after about 2000. Hopefully, there will also be some writing about the experiences of the Yellow Leaf people starring in video productions, having blood samples taken by roving anthropologists, weaving in Washington D.C. for Refugees International, and bungee jumping in Japan.

So back to 1981. In 1981, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer at the malaria zone office in Phrae where Gene and Mary had moved. So I asked my co-workers at the Malaria Zone Office about the “Yellow Leaf” people. The malaria service people often travelled in remote areas (even those areas where the Communist insurrection was a problem) of Phrae and Nan provinces chasing malaria parasites, and spraying DDT to control the malaria carrying mosquitoes. They told me that they had heard of such a people, but they were fictional, which in their mind was why they were called “spirits.” No one they knew had ever actually seen a Yellow Leaf person, and they insisted that the whole story was just some rural rumor. They noted that there were Hmong, H’Tin, Yao, Akha, Karen, and other groups out there, but really they insisted, there was no such thing as the Yellow Leaf people.

On the basis of this authority I told Gene shortly after meeting him that he could go home to America and have all Krispy Kreme donuts he dreamed of. But he didn’t take my wise counsel, and continued hiking around the mountains asking rural villagers about the Yellow Leaf people, as he had for the previous two years. He would come back with great stories about sleeping in Hmong corn cribs, encounters with the Thai military, trouble with the Thai police, opium fields, and the Communist insurgency. In fact, truth be told, I too would have liked to have been doing some such exploration, rather than being cooped up in my office next to the DDT storehouse studying Thai, which was how I spent much of my time.

Anyway, one day in late 1981 or 1982, Gene came back very excited—he had found his first real live Yellow Leaf person! So of course I wanted to know more. How did he talk to the Yellow Leaf men he had met? In northern Thai, he responded proudly. Did you ask them about their own language I asked? Yes, he said, excitedly! “They said that they speak northern Thai like everyone else.” So I asked, what does this mean for your project regarding translating the Bible into a non-existent language for a people who insist they are northern Thai, albeit with an unusual lifestyle?

Gene said he was going to still do it—after all he still had thirty years or so to go in setting up his mission to the Yellow Leaf people. See what I mean about crazy? He was going to translate Bible stories into a language which did not exist, for a people who said they were northern Thai. He also had plans to live near them, even though as hunter-gatherers and had no fixed abode.

Anyway it got crazier when I pressed Gene further on this issue. Gene responded confidently that the “Yellow Leaf” men he had finally met after three years searching had lied to him about not having their own language—they really had one! He knew this because they used the wrong tone when saying the northern Thai for “ear”, which is “hoo.” He then gave me one of his mini-lectures on linguistics—it seemed that the fact that the men pronounced the tone wrong meant that there must be some kind of “interference” from another language which they used. Otherwise they would not have such a bad “accent” when speaking northern Thai. On this slim conclusion, he moved his family to a rural Thai village whose name translates into English as Sugar Cane Creek, located at the end of a very rudimentary dirt road, where they enrolled their son Allen in the local school.

Finding that he had frequent contact with Mla Bri people, but wanting more, Gene built a bamboo house for himself, Mary, and his two boys some five kilometers from Sugar Cane Creek in 1982. As an adventurous 24 year-old, I thought this was pretty cool—I like full-time camping. But for a young farang family? Wouldn’t you think he was crazy? The really crazy thing was that somehow he still got churches in America to pay for this years-long camping hobby among Communists, Hmong, and various renegades, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the bamboo hut did not last long—like Indiana Jones, neither Gene nor Mary do snakes, and snakes liked the bamboo hut. This was also the time that their children began to develop their annoyance with the unpredictability of work elephants, which were found in the area. So they built a more substantial house in the jungle where apparently the Yellow Leaf people did not really live, or for that matter speak anything but northern Thai.

As for me, I left Thailand in late 1983, and ended up in Tanzania in 1984. When I next visited Gene and Mary in 1985, they were settled into a small Thai-style house on pillars, and had a third child. They also after six years made more systematic contact with the Yellow Leaf people, a few who were put up their lean-tos nearby, and the Longs were starting to learn their language—it seemed that they actually had one after all! The key question it turned out was to ask not directly for the words they knew by pointing to the item, but to ask what the “old people” used to call something. In this way they were beginning to accumulate vocabulary and trust. Over the next few years they started to figure out the language, cosmology, kinship system, and religion. They were also surprised to find out that unlike other languages in the area, the Yellow Leaf language had a dual verb tense (in addition to the more typical singular and plural), but no extensive counting system.

The Mla Bri started slowly to settle down in the 1990s. It turned out that there were only a total of 300-400 people speaking the Mla Bri language (a Khmuic language). Other groups also settled in the area as the mountains of Phrae became more densely populated. In particular, in 1983 or so, the Communist insurgency in Thailand ended, and Hmong who had been in revolt were resettled near where the Longs had built their house—the Thai government even built a school and health clinic there. The Yellow Leaf were so marginal and itinerant that they did not use the government facilities at first. The Hmong also provided another context for the Yellow Leaf to settle in the area—it turned out that the Yellow Leaf were not only Hunter-Gatherers, but also when food supplies were low, would hire themselves out to do piece work for the Hmong farmers, tilling fields in exchange for used clothing and food. The relationship was unequal and exploitative—the Yellow Leaf were often underpaid—their response to such excessive exploitation was often simply to disappear into the forest which the expanding Thai state was seeking to control.

More Stories of Encounters with the Modern World

So far Gene’s crazy story has been about how difficult the Mla Bri were for the Longs to contact. But the Longs were not the only ones contacting “the last hunter-gatherers in mainland Southeast Asia.” Anthropologists were of course interested, but so were filmmakers, journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and eventually tour operators. The Crown Princess of Thailand, has had a long-time interest in educating and protecting people of the hills, also has charitable interests in the Mla Bri. Particularly as paved roads were developed, ordinary Thai also take an interest in the Mla Bri, bringing with them gifts including food, clothing, bicycles and other items with which in the Buddhist tradition they can “make merit” by assisting the poor.

An Anthropologist for Every Mla Bri?

During the 34 years that that the Longs have had contact with the Mla Bri, there have been at least a dozen anthropologists seeking them out. After all, from an anthropological perspective, the Mla Bri, like the Ju’/Hoansi of Namibia, are charismatic super-stars! They are hunter-gatherers who lived off the land recently, presumably like humanity did for hundreds of thousands of years before settling down to farm and raise animals. Thus, anthropologists (and linguists) from near (Thailand) and far (Denmark, The United States, Japan, Germany) visit and publish about the Mla Bri. Some of this anthropology is very good, and recommended by Gene and Mary. Linguists have designed three alphabetic systems using Thai characters of writing Mla Bri, too, to supplement notes about vocabulary, grammar, etc., made with the international phonetic alphabet. Among the very best are the highly technical linguistic studies by Jorgen Rischel whose ashes were scattered in the Mla Bri village after he died.

Other anthropological writing is strange from Gene and Mary’s perspective—there were the blood typers and skull measurers in the 1980s, and then the genetic analysts who themselves never came to Thailand, but analyzed Mla Bri blood only in distant labs. Such lab-based results—which in the world of science gets publications—seem very distant from what Gene and Mary see on the ground.

What other group of a three to four hundred people has so much anthropological attention?

Media Stars in Thailand and Abroad

Thai have also taken an interest in the Mla Bri since their (re)discovery in the early 1980s. This has resulted in a sporadic attention on the Mla Bri—after all since 1999, they have officially become Thai citizens. Much of this attention addresses Thai cultural interests, and often romanticizes the relationship between the Mla Bri and Thailand and is of the “noble savage” school. Other media focus on issues of development—how can we get the Mla Bri to go to Thai schools, improve health outcomes, and assimilate the Mla Bri (and other hill groups) to Thai society. Important from the Thai world view is the fact that Mla Bri have begun to farm rice on the hillsides—just like rural northern Thai did in the past and indeed some continue do even today.

Perhaps related to the role of the Mla Bri as media stars is the need in Thai Buddhism to “make merit” by assisting the poor. And by modern Thai standards, the Mla Bri are poor. They do not own land, the adults are illiterate, their houses made of cinder block do not have air conditioning, and they rarely go to town. For transport, a few Mla Bri how have motorcycles, but none own their own car, like some Thai families do. Thus in recent years, particularly on Buddhist holidays, Thai merit-makers will arrive in the small village. The Mla Bri know how to line up behind their cars and vans, and graciously accept the clothing, food, and other gifts the merit makers bring.

More widely, the Mla Bri have attracted the interests of talented photographers and filmmakers from abroad. The Longs’ favorite movie was done by Danish filmmakers who made “The Importance of Being Mlabri,” though thre are others, both Thai and foreign, who arrive to make other films.

Tourist Attraction

The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, is a mecca for western, Chinese, and Thai tourists. Western tourists in particular appreciate what is exotic from their perspective. This often means the “long neck” tribe from Myanmar (Kayan whose girls wear necklaces which give the illusion of lengthening their necks), anything having to do with opium cultivation, dancing, spirit ceremonies, and so forth. The Mla Bri have also attracted the attention of the tour operators, and periodically a van full of tourists will arrive to take pictures, and so forth. A small settlement of Mla Bri where Gene and Mary do not work, has thus has become a tourist attraction, advertised in Chiang Mai as being the home of the “last” hunter-gatherers. Tourists interested in the exotic are collected, and brought in on mini-vans. Before they arrive, the Mla Bri are told to take off the clothes they have received from Buddhists making merit, and put on their “traditional” loincloths. They then perform traditional dances for the tourists, climb trees, and do other acts which fit with the western imagination of what it means to be “primitive.”

NGOs to the rescue

The small but exotic Mla Bri have also occasionally caught the attention of NGOs as well. Refugees International from Washington DC had a program aimed at the Mla Bri for a while—they even brought two Mla Bri women to the United States to demonstrate weaving skills in Maine. A Japanese NGO interested in indigenous rights also managed to bring a few Mla Bri to Japan, briefly, where they were apparently introduced to indigenous people of Japan. Somehow, the Mla Bri man ended up on a bungee platform, with the cord tied around his ankles. Unable to communicate well, he was pushed off the edge, a ride which he told Gene he assumed to be his last one! Somehow whoever did this to him in Japan was not able to describe the elastic qualities of bungee cords!

Protection from a Princess

HRH Princess Sirindhorn has an office which involves her in charitable work, including in northern Thailand with the Mla Bri. In this context, the Mla Bri have been taken under her wing, and a number of development projects initiated, including the establishment of a reserve where any Mla Bri who want to can live in the forest.

More recently, a Royal Project has begun assisting the school which is near where Gene and Mary live. Two teachers have been assigned to the Mla Bri stream to assist the Mla Bri primary schoolers with acquiring basic literacy and numeracy in Thai, and encouraging them to go on to secondary schooling in the city.

Mary Long’s Piles of Ethnographic Notes

I know of much of this because Mary in particular is an inveterate note taker, and both Gene and Mary have long detailed memories. Mary has notes about Mla Bri folk tales, origin stories, experiences with individual Mla Bri. When I asked her about the blood samples taken for the genetics articles published in PLoS Biology, and BMC Genetics, she went through her notes, and found the exact date in about 5 minutes.

Many other questions can be addressed using such notes—keep in mind that Malinowski’s time on the Trobriand Islands was only five years, Barley a little more than a year in Cameroon, and Alice Goffman six years in Philadelphia. The advantage of 34 years of participant observation is that Gene and Mary remember the grandparents of the children living in the village today! Indeed, they are a veritable storehouse of kinship data, seeking to highlight the kinship relationships of the 300+ Mla Bri in the group today.

Gene and Mary Long’s Ethnographic Imagination

In the article about Mla Bri suicide, there is a discussion of the concept “paluh” which means something between scolding, laying a curse, and some version of clinical depression. This is an important Mla Bri concept, for reasons that we have yet to completely work out. There are also the origin stories of the Mla Bri, fears of the earth opening and swallowing people who displease the spirits, mortuary rituals, marriage practices, child-rearing habits, inter-ethnic relations with the neighboring Hmong, and a host of other practices. Much of these we think emerged from the nomadic hunter-gatherer contexts which the Mla Bri practiced recently, and indeed still occasionally revert to today. Based in Mary’s 34 years of field notes are many PhD dissertations!

And What the Long’s Actually Do Every Day

This all sounds exotic, but the Long’s life is actually quite tedious. The Long’s small house is a hubbub of rather mundane activity. They provide hard boiled eggs to Mla Bri children who attend the Thai school, conduct Saturday school for the interested children, do minor doctoring and ambulance runs into town, teach Bible stories to interested children, organize repairs of the water system and internet, assist with construction activities in the village, and so forth. The Mla Bri still hunt and gather when not working in the fields and, as is customary, divide up the kill with their kin—which today include the Longs.

Much of Gene’s efforts over the years have involved income-generating activities, too. Among the more successful projects have been hammock weaving, and a small coffee plantation. Both are advertised on the internet.  They have also encouraged the Mla Bri to plant their own rice fields, and a number of the Mla Bri in this fashion have joined the horticultural world over the last 10 or 15 years.

All day-to-day village is pretty mundane—many ethnographers have written about this. Gene no longer hikes around the hills, but snakes do still occasionally show up. Today there is a paved road to within 500 meters of the Mla Bri settlement, and the Mla Bri have electricity, Thai television, motorcycles, and grow their own rice. Mla Bri have flown on planes, and occasionally even visit the seashore and Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Mortality rates have dropped significantly, large numbers of children are surviving, and the Mla Bri language is for the time-being even strengthening. As for religion, the Longs have translated a few Bible stories into Mla Bri, but have not themselves founded a church. A few Mla Bri do have an interest in the newly established Christian church in the neighboring Hmong village which was established by Hmong missionaries. There was even a Mla Bri man who had a nascent career as an elephant mahout!

Much of what has happened since 1981 was unanticipated. I don’t think that Gene ever imagined that he would observe the full-on collision of the Mla Bri with today’s modern Thailand with its motorcycles, resettled Hmong insurgents, merit-making Buddhist visitors, elephants, wandering anthropologists, and prolific filmmakers.

Still, the funny thing is that I think that the Long’s life has turned out pretty much what Gene’s crazy dream was when he first articulated it to me in 1981.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com August 19, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Human Terrain System: Too Little, Too Late, and So What?

Ok, Mark Dawson finally wrote often enough about the Human Terrain System for me to investigate what this military program actually is. I have some sympathy for the idea of using anthropology in the military because I have seen too many anthropologically incorrect lieutenants proclaiming to the press something along the lines of “You gotta be here to understand the bad guys. All the bad guys understand is strength/power/force/money. It is just their culture. And you never show weakness, or they will kill you. It’s that simple…” I have always been disappointed that the military encourages press representatives to mouth such simplistic rot, and that the press uncritically reports such uninformed ‘anthropological’ opinion. I also have an enduring wish that every soldier in Iraq would be exposed to a good course in anthropological theory in which the nature of military culture, American culture, Iraqi culture, and insurgency would be discussed. In this respect, I agree with the military that they would be much more effective if they were better aware of the “human terrain.”

So finally, as Mark suggested in his last post, I typed in Human Terrain System (HTS) and had a look at some of the top seven or eight hits. Judging by what the military writes about the program, I have some good news for those concerned about the ethics of HTS: It will not make much difference one way or the other. Everything I know about the nature of culture, and the nature of bureaucratic organizations (like the army), tells me this ain’t gonna work. No matter how well qualified the anthropologist might be—and in Markus Griffin it looks like they have a good one—the amount of resources, the nature of the military, and the nature of anthropology mitigates against even the most minimal goals of the project being successful.

The Human Terrain System involves assigning five-member teams of culturally sensitive people to a brigade headquarters. Three of these five are military people, and two can be civilians. Five teams were assigned in 2006 to test the idea. They report directly to the commander of a brigade (typically a brigadier general). Currently, with the surge, there are about twenty brigades in Iraq. Depending on their responsibilities, each brigade has somewhere between 2000 and 5000 soldiers who are roughly the same age as many of my undergraduates at Chico State. Since each HTS team includes only two anthropologists, that makes twelve anthropologists among tens of thousands of soldiers whose primary training is in logistics, weaponry, discipline, combat, and the other things that make an army go.

Just how little will be accomplished by HTS can be seen by looking at how anthropologists do what they do in the university. University classes are typically 45 hours in a semester, and the professor has the power to assign reading designed to get a student to think anthropologically. Typical sections are from 25-40 students. And for some (not all) students, this makes them more culturally sensitive, and able to think past the cultural over-generalizations of my hypothetical lieutenant about good guys and bad guys in an insurgency. In contrast, all the HTS team is likely to get is a weekly consultation and memo to a busy brigadier general. Such consultation will have little effect on our lieutenant briefing the press who will continue to get anthropological wisdom from the military’s own sub-culture. It will do even less for the thousands of enlisted men and officers in the brigade who man road blocks, protect convoys, search houses, patrol, and engage cross-culturally (and sometimes violently) with the Iraqi people. These interactions will be the source of the military’s folk anthropologies as they are now, not the under-staffed and isolated HTS teams at brigade headquarters.

Also unrealistic is the job description for the HTS anthropologists. According to the military, the civilian anthropologists hired will be the Indiana Jones of Cultural Anthropology. They will have an advanced degree, speak the local language, have lived in the local culture, published about the local culture, and be ready to embed themselves in the military. They will be able to use the instant high tech access to other specialists in Washington and the United States, presumably in order to fill in the blanks in their Kurdish-English dictionary (apparently this is more reliable than asking the Kurdish cook next door). This is in addition to the implied requirements that they pass the military security clearance, walk away from their job and family for a year, and be among the 30 or 31% of the American public who are sympathetic to the Bush Administration’s goals in Iraq. I got some bad news for the military. Indiana Jones is a movie character, and most cultural anthropologists are not that versatile. It takes at least a year of full cultural immersion to master an exotic language for street use (or as HTS describes it “field research”), and little such systematic immersion has been possible in Iraq since, hmm, let’s see…sometime before the coup of 1968, or maybe 1980 when the war with Iran began?

To bring an anthropological perspective to the military is going to take much more than the Human Terrain System. Generating a culturally-competent military is not about adding one more technical unit called “human terrain system” to deal with a system called “culture.” Culture is not reducible to a bureaucratic unit in the same way as logistics, mechanics, weaponry, prisons, and so forth. But this is how the army and its HTS program treats culture. Rather a culturally-competent military implies a new type of soldier who understands that power and legitimacy are not solely dependent on weaponry. Such soldiers would also need to understand that Iraq is not neatly divided into good guys and bad guys, and that cultural sensitivity is more than a public relations exercise. Bringing this to the military will involve much more than the occasional roving anthropologist reporting to a brigadier general.

References

The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century at http://www.army.mil/professionalwriting/volumes/volume4/december_2006/12_06_2.html

AAA resolution of October 31, 2007 about the Human Terrain System http://www.aaanet.org/blog/resolution.htm

Anthropologist Marcus Griffin’s blog from Iraq http://marcusgriffin.com/blog/2007/05/the_human_terrain_system_1.html

Have I mentioned how much I like Anthony Bourdain and his show “No Reservations”?

bourdain-distilled_175.jpgYes I have indeed mentioned it before. I like it so much because he starts at a place that anthropologists are trained to not go: the sheer love of the unexpected. We are trained to avoid being Indiana Jones, we are not just globe-trotting dilettantes, we are scientists! Well, that really takes the fun out of it doesn’t it? Boursain makes no claim to be anything more than a chef and writer that really digs food, people and instructional misadventures. There is no other phrase for it, his show is simply open-hearted. He does not start from a scientific mind set, he starts by asking “where can I share food with people, drink, laugh and sometimes be truly horrified”? The respect he shows for other cultures, his willingness to stumble his way through cultural faux pas without worrying about his ego is an example to any social scientist.

Don’t look for insight out of the program, look for joy and the reason you got into this game to start with.

No, I have never dug up a dinosaur… ever.

When someone asks what I do, I usually tell them I am an anthropologist that helps companies find new opportunities for growth and strategic direction. This is most often followed by them asking: “That sounds really interesting. How does digging up dinosaur bones help a company find new opportunities?” It comes from a common misunderstanding: There are four different kinds of anthropologists: I am a cultural anthropologist (I talk to live people), rather than an archeologist (dig up people and objects). The misunderstanding is reasonable, because when you seen an anthropologist on TV, they are usually digging up dinosaur bones or an ancient Greek village, and in the case of Indiana Jones, grave robbing.

Here is the old graduate school joke that we used:
Anthropologists from all four subfields walk into a room and discover a dead body:
The Archaeologist would empty pockets of the corpse, count the change, remove the cloths, label everything and take notes on everything for study back in the lab.
The Physical anthropologist would measure all various parts of the body, take notes about the context it was found in and compare notes with the archaeologist.
The Paleontologist would yawn: Something has to be several thousand years old before it’s of interest.
The Cultural Anthropologist would ask the corpse questions like “What do you call the current state you are in?”, “What does death mean in your culture?”, If someone from outside your village died here, would they have change in their pockets too?”

Granted these questions may seem irrelevant to the stiff being interviewed, but we cultural folks are both pesky and persistent and will get the answers somehow. Besides, the other fields in anthropology often involve long hours of digging in the dirt under a very hot sun in places without cable television. Cultural Anthropologists try to avoid this at all costs because the sun makes our beer warm and foamy. No one except the Archaeologists like warm foamy beer.

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.


“Quick, look over there. No, don’t stare Dammit!”

These are the hushed tones of people celebrity watching. Someone in my office was recently talking about an experience a friend had seeing a celebrity in “real life” Having lived in LA for a bit, I can tell you that few are immune to the odd other-world feeling of seeing someone famous in the flesh. But why do we get those feelings, these are people with jobs and in some cases apparently serious personal issues.

It’s because TV and Movie stars are the gods and the story tellers our tribe no longer has. If Jesus and Al Pachino both walked into a restaurant, your brain would seize up trying to decide where to stare first. When I was in middle school, (for reasons I don’t remember) we started reading about Greek myths. As I got started experiencing my own brief sighting of our contemporary gods walking the earth, I could see the connection of Greek mythology and contemporary entertainment.

The thing about Greek Gods is their stories were often brought about by their failings, but those failing were human failing’s writ large: on a Gods scale. They were subject to lust, envy, pride and the related wounded egos, and as far as human maidens were concerned, Greek Gods were the original stalkers from hell. Zeus help you if you happen to be the male suitor deemed to be in the way. The stories did not hold up the Gods as the paragons of virtue, they were object lessons, sometimes showing what happens if you are childish and greedy and hat happens when you are heroic and noble.

I think that’s why we love our flawed heroes. Indiana Jones was terrified of snakes, (and by anthropology standards, little more than a grave-robber), made rotten choices that got him in trouble and made the story more interesting. But like the Greek Gods, these failings make them more accessible, allowing us to take the stories into our lives.

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.


The Case of the Exploding Pinto

A by-product of the industrial age are accidents by companies seeking to create wealth for themselves. Both hiring workers, and selling products creates a question of who is responsible for the safety of working conditions and products. And more important, who is responsible when a product fails, or an accident happens? Is it the person who buys or sells the product? Is it the responsibility of the company who buys or sells labor? Or is it the responsibility of the consumer?

A particularly well-known story of product safety is that of the Ford Pinto. This was made particularly famous when in a seven-page cost-benefit analysis done by Ford Motor Company valued human lives at $200,000 and concluded that it was cheaper to be sued by the predicted 180 burn fatalities, and 180 serious burn victims, than make an $11 design modifications on a predicted 11 million cars. Indeed, the lawsuit estimated that lawsuits would cost $49.5 million which was far less than the $137 million needed to re-design and retrofit the popular low-cost car (Strobel 1980:286).

Local governments wrestled with questions of product liability in the way they administer civil and criminal law. For the Pinto, the best example of this occurred, in August 1978, when three Indiana girls died in an accident in which their Pinto was rear-ended by Robert Duggar. Duggar, who had a poor record of driving, as well as open alcohol containers in the vehicle was not charged in the accident. But then the Elkhart County District Attorney Michael Cosentino took an unusual step. There had already been wide publicity regarding the dangers created by the design of the Pinto’s gas tank. Indeed, investigative reporting by Mother Jones magazine in 1977 had revealed that there was a bolt protruding from the axle which punctured the gas tank in the event of a rear-end collision. This design flaw meant that many low impact accidents resulted in lethal explosions, even when the collision was a low speed. Cossentino, pointed out that since the Ford Motor Company was well-aware of this flaw, they could be tried for manslaughter. And under Indiana law this was possible.

The Exploding Pinto

In August 1978, Judy Ulrich drove the Pinto she had bought with her father as a high school graduation present. She had graduated from high school that year, and was on her way to a volleyball game at a church some 20 miles away. She stopped to fill the gas tank of her Pinto, but in leaving the filling station, apparently drove off with the gas cap still on top of the car. The gas cap fell off as she pulled onto the highway. Judy made a U-turn on the Highway, and slowly drove back, looking for her gas cap. Apparently after spotting it by the side of the highway, she slowed. As she slowed, the van driven by 21 year-old Robert Duggar came up behind on the slowing Pinto at 50 mph, well within the speed limit. The van struck hard at the Pinto. The gas tank was forced onto into a protruding bolt on the rear axle which punched a 2 ½ inch hole in the just-filled 11 gallon gas tank. Gas splashed into the passenger compartment, and before the vehicles had come to a stop it exploded.

The Trials of Ford Motor Company

The death of the three Ulrich girls in the Pinto mystified Cosentino and his staff. Six months earlier, one of the investigative staff had read an article about the dangers inherent to the design of the Pinto gas tank in an article published in the September-October 1977 issue of Mother Jones. The article ”Pinto Madness” detailed how the Ford Motor ignored engineers concerns about the safe design of the rear-mounted fuel tank in order to accommodate a corporate goal of producing a 2,000 pound car for less than $2,000, The article indicated further that a follow-up study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 38 cases of rear-end collisions with Pintos resulted in 27 deaths. Of these deaths 26 died as a result of damaged gas tanks with subsequent fires. Subsequent safety tests conducted by the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) revealed that an impact of 35 mph or greater was likely to result in a burst gas tank, and the immolation of any occupants in the vehicle compartment. Subsequently in February 1978, a California jury awarded $128 million in civil damages in an accident involving a 1972 Pinto (the verdict was eventually overturned, and Ford paid only $3.5 million). On June 9, 1978, two months before the Ulriches accident Ford finally announced a recall of the 1.5 million Pintos then on the road.

The death of the Ulrich girls created a legal conundrum for the conservative Republican prosecutor. He could do nothing, and permit the case to go to civil court as it had in the past. Judging from past awards, the girls’ parents would problem win a judgment against Ford Motor Company; he could prosecute Duggar for manslaughter, on the grounds that his reckless behavior had led to the death of the girls. Or, he could try a novel approach, and make a criminal charge against the Ford Motor Company and its executives by making the argument that in ignoring the obvious faults of the Pinto, Ford had committed “reckless homicide.” In other words, without Ford’s recklessness and disregard for consumer’s lives, the accident would not have been fatal..

The Elkhart County Grand Jury gave Cosentino what he had asked for: an indictment of the Ford Motor Company for reckless homicide. The indictment sent a shiver through corporate America. This happened because while the maximum criminal penalty for Ford was a trivial $30,000, executives could in the future be held criminally liable for financial decisions leading to the deaths of consumers.

The Trial of the Ford Motor Company for Manslaughter

At the trial, the expensive legal team for the Ford Motor Company chipped away at the charges. The judge limited the question of recklessness to whether Ford had been too slow in pursuing the recall in the 41 days between the recall and the accident which killed the Ulrich girls. Ford also made the claim that if there was to be criminal liability, it was not the Ford Motor Company which made a product, but the driver of the van who collided with the Pinto, Robert Duggar.

After days of difficult deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict which declared Ford Motor Company to be not guilty of the criminal charges brought by Cosentino. Members of the jury later indicated that although they thought Ford had been negligent, their decision-making did not rise to a level under which a conviction was possible under Indiana’s homicide statute.

How are Decisions Made about Product Safety?

Despite the acquittal in criminal court, a “Pinto Narrative” quickly emerged as being paradigmatic of corporate preference for profits over human life. Like high profile domestic violence cases, the case changed the nature of the running conversation about who is really responsible for death. Despite the courtroom loss, books, articles, and texts continue to hold up the case as the type of conscious decision-making which results in victimization in the pursuit of profit. Provocatively though, sociologists Lee and Erman (1999) called this assumption into question, pointing that “decision makers” working in a corporate environment do not make conscious decisions to market an “unsafe vehicle.” Rather they assert that such amoral calculations emerge not as a result of legal intent, which implies conscious decision-making, but in the context of broader institutional forces which emerge from the institutional cultures (in this case Ford), and the automobile industry in general. What this means of course is court proceedings which probe the minds of individual decision-makers may not be adequate for exploring how decisions leading to a great deal of human suffering occur.

This thesis is important for understanding not only how product safety decisions are made, but how any type of corporate decision-making resulting in death is evaluated. Simply put, correcting the decision making of individuals through the application of criminal law does not by itself result in more moral decisions. Attention has to be paid to the context—that it the ecology—of decision-making.

Further Reading

Lee, Matthew T., and M. David Ermann (1999) “Pinto ‘Madness’ as a Flawed Landmark Narrative: An Organizational and network Analysis.” Social Problems 46 (No 1).

Strobel, Lee Patrick (1980). Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial. South Bend, Indiana: And Books.

Dowie, Mark (1977). “Pinto Madness.” Mother Jones. September/October 1977.

 When Killing is a crime

Excerpt from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters, Lynne Ripener Publishers, 2007, pp. 248-250.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com on April 8, 2015