Why Does Anthropology Worry about Jared Diamond when they have Nigel Barley?

The Anthropology blogosphere (including Ethnography.com, SavageMinds.org, anthropologyreport.com and even National Public Radio) has recently lit up with critiques of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday.  Jared Diamonditis seems to be a regular affliction of anthropology, re-emerging every time that the esteemed Professor of Geography (and Physiology) publishes a new tome of big picture history.  The manner that Diamond does this is something that anthros really don’t seem to like.  This is because besides his own field of Geography, Diamond borrows data liberally from all four fields of anthropology to make big generalizations in a manner a cultural geographer, comparative historian, or field ecologist might. But oh yeah, Diamond is a geographer by departmental affiliation, and a field ecologist by training and predilection.

It also seems to bother anthros that Diamond also on occasion—though not always—wanders off the reservation and lets his political views seep into his analysis.  And since these political views don’t typically jibe with those of the anthros, particularly when it comes to oil companies, well you get the idea.  But then there is a counterpoint, someone finally ends up pointing out that since no anthro since Eric Wolf has done such big picture stuff in Europe and the People without History published way back in 1982, anthro has no right to complain.  And so it goes back and forth until the next big tome from Diamond comes out, and Jared Diamonditis flares up again.

Ok, that’s my two paragraphs for the current “controversy.”  In response, I want to write about an anthropologist—an ethnographer actually—who I think is greatly undervalued in anthropology, Nigel Barley.  Barley describes well what anthropologists do best in The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut published in 1984.  This is the book I point students to when they want to understand field work, ethnography, and cultural anthropology.  As a sociologist, this is one of the anthro books I truly admire, because it reflects well on my own field experiences in Tanzania.  Oddly, I find few anthropologists who have read it, much less heard of it.

The Innocent Anthropologist is a memorably written story of Nigel Barley’s experience doing fieldwork among the Dowayo in rural Cameroon in the early 1980s.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge with the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that inevitably emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense the book is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and methodologically rigorous ethnography typically assigned undergraduates.  In such ethnograpny in  the ethnographer somehow ends up erudite, insightful, and making references to Bourdieu and Baudrillard while drinking the local brew.  Nothing wrong with this, but let’s face it, it is not the sort of thing that a 19 year-old taking your Intro to Cultural Anthro course for General Education credit identifies with.

Barley also does a great job explaining the nuts and bolts of doing ethnography in a remote Cameroonian village.  There are empathetic descriptions of coming-of-age rituals, ancestor cults, gender relations, the agricultural cycle, and a well-written nod to Malinowski.  There are also empathetic passages describing boredom, cross-cultural frustrations, and hilarious language learning errors.  And what students will really remember is Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth.  Such an account would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!). And of course such tales, which are really the center of the ethnographic experience are left out by the likes of the ever-dignified Professor Malinowski.

But the scene from Barley’s book I spend most of my time mulling about is at the very end, and has little to do with Africa, but everything to do with ethnography, culture, and the human condition.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon being bored, sick, confused, and frustrated while ostensibly “doing ethnography.” Oddly though, after returning to England, he still wants to tell everyone he meets about this wonderful world he encountered in Cameroon—something that he quickly discovers no one really cares about.  Or worse, they treat him like a raving lunatic because he approaches everyday problems with a vigor and habitus appropriate to a Cameroonian village, rather than that of a staid tweed-jacketed English lecturer.

So Barley returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been, despite his field work in the Cameroon. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life, like what was on television the previous evening, or the doings of the local football team.  Most mundane is the friend who complains because Barley left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goat farts (sorry no spoiler on that one either!), shamanistic ritual, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how the big adventures of life often end: In a question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler who becomes embedded in a new culture.  Certainly it happens to my undergraduate students who leave home for Chico State the first time, and then return to the parents at Thanksgiving or Christmas brimming with tales of college life, only to be told by their parents to be sure to eat enough lettuce and clean up their room.  Indeed such dissonance happens to anyone returning from a adventure in which they embed themselves in a culture different from their own.  And this indeed is the great ethnographic lesson Barley teaches my undergraduates.  What is more, it is a lesson every bit as big as what Jared Diamond makes with his massive tomes.

Oh, despite his frustrations, whining, and moaning, did I mention that Barley returned to the Cameroon a few months later?  He was indeed hooked on field work and the need to experience new cultures, as we hope our students will—after all the complaining and lost teeth, he was back in Cameroon as quickly as he could.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, theoretical, and easy to read.  And students are happy to read it—the whole thing.  Most importantly, it is a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, why they do it, and what an anthropological viewpoint has to say about not just a small place in Cameroon, but the human condition.  I have used this book in my undergraduate social science classes a number of times, and it has always worked well to get students dreaming about the possibilities of culture and travel—i.e. the things that I would expect a good Intro to Cultural Anthropology course to do.  And the neat thing is that it can do it by celebrating what anthropology does best—while leaving poor irrelevant Jared Diamond out of the story.

Something about Homecomings and The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley

 One of my favorite anthropology books is The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley.  It is a memorably written story of Barley’s experience doing fieldwork in rural Cameroon.  The strength of the book is that it includes the personal problems that emerge out of the frustrations, boredom, tribulations, and mis-interpretations that emerge in the context of “doing ethnography.”  In this sense it is much different than the dispassionate, theoretical, and scientific ethnography typically assigned undergraduates in which the ethnographer somehow always ends up being always erudite, and insightful.  Barley’s explanation of how the mechanic at the dentist’s office removed his two front teeth is particularly memorable—and would never make its way into a standard ethnography (sorry, no spoiler here–you need to get the book!).

The scene from Barley’s book I have been mulling since my return from Germany to California three weeks ago, though, is at the very end of the book.  Barley spent a year and a half in Cameroon before returning home to England. He returns to England, where he finds out that life is—as it had always been. People ask him how Cameroon was, complain about the English weather, and then launch off into conversations about the more mundane things of life.  The friend who complains because he left a sweater at his apartment some two years ago—could he please pick it up some time?—provides the greatest homecoming dissonance for Barley.  Like, who cares about a sweater when you have been dealing with ancestor cults, goats, shaman, and have lost your two front teeth!?!?

But this indeed is how adventures which are big for us as individuals often end, in a mundane question about a forgotten sweater.  This happens whether we are ethnographers, archaeologists, or any other kind of long-term traveler.  I suppose that such dissonance happens to soldiers and anthropologists returning from Iraq as well.

It has long mystified me that The Innocent Anthropologist is not a staple of Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses.  It is well written, funny, empathetic, easy to read, and a fantastic introduction to what ethnographers do, and why they do it.  Students I have had read the book generally appreciate it, even if they never leave the US.

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






Nicholas Wade Writes Again—And Again Anthropology Pays Attention

Nicholas Wade has a new book out, and the Anthropologists are sharpening their indignation—complaining because he treads on their private territory.  Sorry, anthro, you are not medicine or law, and do not have a monopoly over who practices what you preach.  Let it go.  Sometimes I think that the entire discipline is beset by a big-time inferiority complex

The solution?  Simply do good anthropology, and more importantly, promote good anthropology.  That might mean assigning Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist, Jonathan Marks book What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, W. E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk, and so forth.  Durkheim, Marx, Wollstonecraft, and Malinowski are also more worthy of your precious classroom time.  Talk about such books in your classes, have students read them, and stop wasting time setting up the strawmen of Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and others you may not like.

Strawmen. Are. Not. Worth. Class. Time. Of. Which. There. Is. Too Little.

BTW, I assigned The Innocent Anthropologist this semester to a senior seminar in Social Science and again had a great response—so good that I’m going to try it out with a lower division International Engagement class next semester.  Barley is great because not only can you critique the limitations to functionalism, you can also talk about the nature of empathy, humility, cultural relativism, and ethnography.

And in a final BTW, if you want to see some posts here at Ethnography.com from the last time Wade published a book, they are here, and here.  From way back in 2007.

Anthropologists as Academic Cannibals: Grad Students for Breakfast, and Academic Grandparents for Dinner?

Anthropology is going through yet another bout of self-flagellation as Marshall Sahlins, Napoleon Chagnon, and others refight battles going back to the 1970s, gleefully aided and abetted by the New York Times.

This follows quickly on the heels of an attempt to kick Jared Diamond off of the anthropological island he never was on, and stretching back another, oh perhaps 3 or 4 weeks, savage minds.org took a run at banishing James Scott for his book about the highlands of Southeast Asia.

In a voyeuristic way, I guess I enjoy watching this anthropological cannibalism, as do apparently a lot of others.  But I would appreciate a story in the NPR or the New York Times about Nigel Barley’s ethnography more.  Or perhaps a Carol Stack retrospective on All Our Kin. But so far as I can tell, neither anthropologist spits bullets, so no story for NY Times (But then how did E. O. Wilson make it to Philosopher’s Stone on the front of the NY Times website with more Socio-biology the other day? Why wasn’t Barley invited?)

Anyway, this brings me back to the better known victims of anthropological cannibalism, graduate students.  As is well-documented in savageminds.org and elsewhere, anthropology has an unusual capacity for devouring its own graduate students, with the symptom being high drop out rates, and for those who survive, extraordinarily long time-to-PhD.  Still, I’m not that impressed—this unfortunately is a characteristic shared with a number of other disciplines—the Humanities come to mind quickly, and even the natural sciences have their own peculiarities.

What I am starting to conclude about Anthropology and academic cannibalism is that somewhat uniquely, the discipline seems to go after their academic grandparents too. Kind of like having graduate students for breakfast, and academic grandparents (think Margaret Mead, B. Malinowski, Boas, etc) for dinner.  Ye gads.

The funny thing is that even though I was eaten for anthropological pre-breakfast when I didn’t get into anthro grad school in 1987 (and 1988), anthropology continues to be among my favorite fields, and anthropologists among my favorite people.  The flavors of the discipline are indeed unique, and the stretch from linguistics to archaeology (with everything in between) is invigorating.  Plus anthropologists themselves are some of the most interesting people around.  But please, couldn’t you get someone to hire a press agent for the discipline?  Proctor and Gamble, the National Rifle Association, and Chico State all have have press agents to spin their image whenever one of their members does something embarrassing.  Heck, maybe AAA can get a press agent to talk to the NY Times and have Nigel Barely or Carol Stack write something for Philosopher’s Stone, leaving E. O. Wilson consigned to blogging grumpily about socio-biology from his Harvard perch.

Speaking of blogs, I might also had anthropology has some of the most active and invigorating blogs out there—starting with savageminds.org where there actually was briefly some refreshing backlash against the Sahlins/Chagnon business in the comment section.  But why oh why is the story itself highlighted with so much huffing and puffing?  One would think that Napoleon Chagnon had personally directed the destruction of the Amazon Basin over the objections of the mining companies, farmers, oil companies, traders, armies, police, and a host of others not mentioned.  Chagnon must have been quite the guy to have single handedly created so much Amazonian destruction, and then go on to making hundreds or thousands of Anthropology PhD. Instructors require his book for Anthro 101 despite his obvious anthropological incompetence.

Anyway, to see a slightly less jaundiced view of this problem, have a look at what John Hawks posted recently at anthropologiesproject.org What’s Wrong with Anthropology.  Again, a good reminder of why I really like anthropology.

Here’s Why Jared Diamond is Irrelevant to Anthropology

As I discussed in a previous post, the blogosphere is atwitter (pun intended) about Jared Diamond’s new book The World before Yesterday.  It seems his press agent got him some good publicity on NPR and National Geographic, both outlets which Anthropology PhDs apparently pay attention to.  And guess what: Anthropologists don’t like The World Before Yesterday; check out the comment streams at SavageMinds.Org, anthropologyreport.com, or any number of other anthropology blogs.  As many of the anthropological critiques point out, there are big problems with the way Diamond uses anthropological data.  My opinion: So what?  Lots of people use and misuse anthropology data–the Bush administration even used some of it it to invade Iraq and other countries.  More importantly though, anthropology has many better books about anthropology.  In fact, as something of a mental exercise, this sociologist tried to imagine the books he would use in an Introductory Anthropology (Four Fields) course.  Guess what again?  Jared Diamond didn’t make the list because, well, he is a Geographer and Ecologist.  These are great fields, but they are not anthropology, so out he goes.


Fair warning: I avoid textbooks.  In my view, anthropology is best understood through real books.  Real books, in which 19 years olds are asked to read the whole thing. Not textbooks, and not books with chapters, but books in which one (or maybe two) authors flesh out an important intellectual idea.


Anyway, here are the books I would use in my Intro to Anthropology (Four Fields) course.


1) Nigel Barley, The Innocent Anthropologist.  This book goes first in the class, and will hook the students in.  It is an empathetic take on fieldwork, bureaucracy, and the differences between academic life, rural Cameroon, and the delights/frustrations of learning a new language.  It is also easy to read, and an outstanding introduction to what ethnographers do in the field.  Once they get started on the book, students tend to finish it, too; it is a page-turner which they will read through to the end without much prompting from annoying little quizzes.


2) Carol Stack, All Our Kin.  This book is a field work classic (not “dated”) about public housing policies, kinship patterns, race, and family in 1960s Chicago.  Again, it is easy to read.  And although it is not a knee slapper like The Innocent Anthropologist, my experience with Stack’s book is that students find it thought provoking, and have little trouble pushing through to the final pages.  It also has the advantage that it is about a US American culture which many middle class students are aware of only via stereotypes.  Stack dispose of these stereotypes in a nuanced description of how poverty and family looks from the inside.  Hers is a classical empathetic ethnographic view which resonates today.  Usually it gets a lot of “Oh, now I see what poverty does about…” moments from students who before reading the book were stuck in stereotypes..


3) Stephen Le Blanc, Constant Battles.  This book is written by an archaeologist, and like takes a “big picture” view of anthropology and culture, and why the archaeological record says that violence is an important part of the human past. LeBlanc also writes about how anthropologists understand the built environment, which in LeBlanc’s view has involved a lot more fighting, fear, and fortresses than students are accustomed to.  Likewise, LeBlanc’s description of the ecology of the pre-historic Southwest USA is excellent, and students will be attracted to his descriptions of excavations done in the cliff dwellings there.  Constant Battles is a little more difficult to read than the first two books, but still very accessible to a 19 year old who shows up to class to hear an anthropologist’s background lectures.


4) Jonathan Marks, What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee.  Molecular Anthropology at its best! The answer to Marks’ answer to the question posed by the title of this book is of course: “not much;” Marks’ book is about culture rather than molecules, and especially it is about the culture of science which worships at the altar of biological reductionism.  Thus this book is about DNA, the philosophy of science, and the misuses of evolutionary theory in popular (and not so popular) science. The book challenges received wisdom on the relationships between evolution and culture, and the methods of the natural scientists who, Marks bluntly points out, are nasty reductionists with cultural and political blinders.  Marks also has a great discussion about Kennewick man, and other ethical controversies which the better students will appreciate.  This book is above the heads of the average 19 year olds unversed in the vagaries of DNA and the philosophy of science. But this should just meant that the professor works a little harder to keep things as relevant as possible.  Notably, it is also a good challenge for the better students.


5) Mischa Berzinski, Field Work: A Novel.  Ok, it’s a novel, but it’s a good novel, and the main character is an anthropologist.  It’s also about an area of the world (Thailand) that I know well, and provides a good description of the power of animism and Christianity in Buddhist Thailand from an anthropological viewpoint.  (Lots of chances to discuss Durkheim on religion here!)  Field Work also has the strength that it critiques the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and the world of the Grateful Dead.  Still the best parts are about Thailand, Southeastern Asia, the difficulties of field work, and language.  There are also long descriptions of highland agricultural cycles, marriage, sexuality, crime, modern Thailand, and a wide range of subjects that engage students.  You can also point out that Thailand has cheap Study Abroad programs for anyone you’ve infected with the anthropological bug.  Finally, the book is a “whodunit?” and you don’t find out who did the murder until the very end.  The mystery will keep the 19 year olds reading through the more dense descriptions of highland life, even at the end of a long semester.


Notice that 4/5 of these books are by anthropologists, and the other one is a novel about—an anthropologist.  The hole in this syllabus for a “four fields” course is in Linguistic Anthropology, and the importance of language learning.  These subjects though are found in both Barley’s and Berlinski’s book.  Plus the instructor (that’s you Dr. Anthropology) is there to relate their own fantastic tales about language learning troubles, and the vagaries of language change.


So, to return to my main point, which is about the irrelevancy of Jared Diamond for Anthropology.  Like I said in the introduction to this essay, anthropology has plenty of good books to present, without worrying too much about other fields.  So what if NPR and National Geographic don’t feature anthropology’s books—that’s their problem not anthropology’s.  Look at what great books they are missing!  Wouldn’t a sit-down with Nigel Barley work at least as good on NPR as with Jared Diamond?


Ok, I know, you say that there is no overview to tie the whole thing together, like an Intro text.  And I say yes there is—the professor ties it together.  That’s what anthropology professors do, and they do so in a way that let’s the students know that real live practicing anthropologist are engaged and interesting people.  And of course how anthropologists do this is by pointing out the underlying theories of culture, etc., which unite the field.  You, Dr. Anthropologist are what make great anthropology like that described here come alive for those Intro to Anthro students who frankly have never heard of Jared Diamond unless they have somehow landed in cultural geography class.


Hey, I don’t know about your students, but my sociology students don’t listen to NPR or watch National Geographic cultures—those are your hobbies you latte sipping, Volvo driving, middle aged New York Times reading anthropology PhD.  And remember, in addition to the recreational time you spend with NPR and National Geographic anthropology is what you really do, and what give your life and those of your students meaning, in ways that no mass produced textbook (12th edition) ever will.  Or even Jared Diamond.


So suck up the fact that Jared Diamond likes anthropology enough to cite it in his tomes, and go out and give ‘em anthropology books.  It is an exciting and engaging field which stands on its own.  In fact I’m so excited about it, that I am hoping to hear from some Dean from a small liberal arts college will read this, ignore my PhD in Sociology, and recruit me to come teach introductory to Anthropology course.


So Dr. Dean, I’m waiting, and if you are interested in my Cultural Anthro class, email me at twaters@csuchico.edu.

All About Ethnography.com

Mission Statement of Ethnography.com

We seek to change the way the world thinks about the Social Sciences in general and ethnography in particular.

We believe that telling good stories as social commentary is at the heart of what social science should do.  We also think that social sciences don’t always do this, which is why we need this blog.

Good stories mean that it what is posted here will be accessible to ordinary people, not just those with a PhD.  If you want to see what ordinary people are like, see the Ordinary People Project streamed here at Ethnography.com.  These are the kind of people we want reading this blog.  Our focus is writing (fiction and non-fiction), poetry, photography, and art work intended to attract such an audience.  The main point is that it has to be interesting, make a point, and maybe even be funny.

 RIP Sociology, RIP Anthropology

We’ve given up on traditional anthropology and sociology which, despite our prescient critiques, remain unresponsive to our entreaties.  In our view, much of these disciplines have become tedious and boring.  They are also unwilling to publish the type of story-telling and commentary we seek for Ethnography.com.

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What do we seek?  Please see the books by our patron saints Nigel Barley and Annette Lareau.  Barley wrote The Innocent Anthropologist, and Lareau wrote Unequal Childhoods.  Unlike the other people mentioned in this section, Barley and Lareau are alive and writing, presumably somewhere between Pennsylvania, Berkeley, England, Cameroon, and Borneo.  Both write ethnography at its best—read it, laugh with it, and get a sense of what culture really means and how ethnography should be done.  For this reason, Barley and Lareau are our living patron saints.

Or have a look at the work of our academic ancestors.  Our academic ancestors include Erving Goffman, W. E. B. DuBois, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Mary Wollstonecraft.  All are dead by various causes, but all told stories to make broader social points.  They were really good at this, and none of them were boring.  And all told good stories (we already said that).

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention our own ancient ancestors here at Ethnography.com.  Mark Dawson started the blog in 2005 with a red, white, and black design which was used until October 2013.  Cynthia van Gilder, Donna Lanclos, and others have made important contributions over the years.  As long as they don’t stop us, we will continue to highlight their writings on occasion because much of it is indeed timeless.

A New Discipline, a New Social Science

So you first heard it here.  Ethnography.com is about nothing less than upending the social sciences in The United States in particular, and the world in general.  We have a mission statement, patron saints, and honored ancestors.  Now we need the good writing, film, photos, and other material to spice up this new vision.  AAA and ASA, you have been warned!

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Waters, T. (2008, April 4). The Battle for Kosovo on the Internet. Ethnography.com.
Retrieved April 11, 2008, from Ethnography.com: http://www.ethnography.com/.