This past March saw the 151st installment of Wenner-Gren’s legendary symposium series, as we invited scholars from around the world to share their work and discuss the transformation of public life in the context of rapidly-evolving media technologies. Alexander S. Dent, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at The George Washington University, sat down with us at the symposium’s conclusion to share his reflections on the experience and what it could mean for future research.
A look ahead at what this summer holds, sponsored by Wenner-Gren.
July 1 – 3, 2015
University of Zimbabwe, Harare
The biennial Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA) Conference brings together a vibrant community of professional archaeologists and allied specialists from Southern Africa as well as international scholars whose research interests lie in the region. The main aim of the conference is to provide these professionals with an international platform to share new knowledge, network and seek collaboration in the fields of archaeology and archaeological heritage management. This provides a solid platform for the transmission of new techniques, new theories and field approaches to ensure that southern African archaeology is locally and globally relevant. The theme of ASAPA 2015 is promoting inter-disciplinary research. The conference attracts other stakeholders such as members of communities that live around archaeological sites, traditional custodians, policy makers and museum curators. It provides an opportunity for dialogue in theory and practice between different archaeological practitioners.
July 6 – 10, 2015
L’université de Paris Ouest
Every two years, the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists aims to bring together scholars working in the field of Southeast Asian archaeology to present and discuss new data. This international initiative aims to foster scholarly cooperation within Europe, as well as worldwide cooperation among Southeast Asian scholars. Panels on a wide range of topics relevant to the field will be present.
July 15 – 17, 2015
Thammasat University, Bangkok
The title of the conference is ‘Re-imagining Anthropological and Sociological Boundaries’. This theme proposes to debate how already-existing tools for the study of societies may benefit from questioning long-held assumptions and categories, and how looking beyond the conventional boundaries of anthropology may help the discipline renew itself, from a theoretical, methodological, and political perspective. We deem it significant that the need to re-evaluate anthropological approaches to the study of humanity should be raised by scholars from an area as diverse as Southeast Asia, and in particular from Thailand, a country whose unusual engagement with colonialism, paired with recent experiments with neoliberalism, has resulted in complex social phenomena we often feel unprepared to interpret. This conference is also an opportunity to encourage dialogue between Thai anthropologists and social scientists worldwide.
August 3 – 6, 2015
Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
EAAPP marks its 10th anniversary in 2015 at the height of commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Homo habilis (OH7), which the holotype specimens are now housed in the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam. The goal of this conference is to bring East Africans, international researchers and cultural heritage managers together in a forum to share current research findings and knowledge on the status of human origins research fifty years after the discovery of H. habilis at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. This forum provides unique opportunity of discussions among scientists, curators etc. about research development, conservation, and curatorial management. At the core of this conference is raising public awareness and interest in science and conservation of fossils and archaeological material.
August 12 – 14, 2015
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The Sixth Paleopathology Association Meeting in South America (PAMinSA VI) seeks to promote the exchange of results and to establish bonds between professionals from South America and all over the world. This event offers a space to promote advancement in innovative paleopathological research. This meeting represents the tenth anniversary since the first PAMinSA. Thus, it will be an opportunity to discuss the advances produced in South-American paleopathology during the last decade and to debate about specific issues related to the study of ancient health in the region. Its attainment in Argentina will allow keeping the continuity of these meetings as well as encouraging and enriching paleopathology as a scientific discipline in South America.
Sara Safransky is an assistant professor of geography in the Department of Human and Organizational Development at Vanderbilt University. In 2011, while a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid in research on “Breaking Ground: Urban Farming, Property, and the Politics of Abandoned Land in Detroit,” supervised by Dorothy Holland. During her dissertation research, she co-developed an engaged research project called Uniting Detroiters with Linda Campbell, co-director of Building Movement Detroit, and Andrew Newman, assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University. In 2014, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to Detroit to aid in engaged activities on one of the Uniting Detroiters key projects called Detroit: A People’s Atlas. In this blog, Safransky describes how her dissertation research led her to become involved in Uniting Detroiters and the scope of the Atlas project.
Detroit faces a land crisis that is without parallel in a U.S. city. City officials classify a staggering 100,000 lots – or one-third of Detroit’s landed area – as “vacant” or “abandoned.” In 2010, then Detroit mayor David Bing launched the Detroit Works Project, a contentious planning process that aimed to “right size” the city – or fix the so-called spatial mismatch between surplus land and a reduced population. Arguably the most radical reimagining of a modern city to date, Bing suggested that service delivery go to neighborhoods considered to have market potential. Meanwhile, the areas with less potential for development would be repurposed as urban farms and wilderness zones. The proposal seemed predicated on the incorrect idea that depopulated areas were empty.
One does not have to be in Detroit long to recognize that official and popular media categorizations of land as “vacant” or “abandoned” obscure more than they reveal. First, “vacant” land in Detroit is not vacant in the psychological sense because it is layered with deep feelings of historical loss and racial injustice that haunt the metropolitan region. Second, vacant land is not vacant in practice. Neighborhood residents occupy the land, care for it, and use it. At a community meeting, one woman encapsulated the sentiments of many activists and neighborhood residents when she said: “We don’t call it vacant … we say ‘open space’ … land that is open space is held in the commons, held by the people.”
My research examined these two ways of seeing the city’s so-called abandoned lands – as surplus and commons – and the how urban greening and agrarian projects took different forms in relationship to each. Towards this end, I conducted 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork and collaborative participatory research in Detroit between 2010 and 2012. As a white woman from outside Detroit, I faced questions about what it means to engage in ethical research in a place where many community activists expressed their frustrations with extractive journalism and research.
As I grappled with these questions, I had a fortuitous meeting with Linda Campbell, who directs an organization called Building Movement Detroit. She and her community partners were in the beginning stages of a power analysis of Detroit’s development and social movement landscape. We discussed how my dissertation might be useful for and benefit from such a project. She invited me, and also Andrew Newman, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University to be learning partners, and the three of us worked with other community activists to develop a participatory research project called Uniting Detroiters. Over the past three years, the project has brought together residents, activists, scholars, students, social justice organizations, and neighborhood groups to study and discuss the emerging development agenda in Detroit, its place in broader national and global trends, and local challenges to and opportunities for transformative social change.
In recent years, the global attention directed at Detroit by journalists, filmmakers, artists, and writers has produced an image of the city that is often far removed from the daily lives of residents, and yet is so imposing in its power that all narratives of Detroit must contend with it. This imagined Detroit is marked by several now predictable themes, including the conflation of a very real depopulation process with sensationalized imagery of “post-apocalyptic” emptiness, the erasure of the Motor City’s rich history, and the casting of the city as a blank slate waiting for salvation by heroic entrepreneurs. Now, at precisely the moment the city has reached an important crossroads, these same themes appear to have migrated from the realm of film and journalism into the official maps that plot the city’s course for the future. Indeed, since the inauguration of the controversial Detroit Works Project, mapping has become part of a new, high stakes polemic over the city’s future.
The Uniting Detroiters project has sought to intervene in this development predicament by using research to strengthen the city’s long vibrant grassroots sector and reassert residents’ roles as active citizens in the development process. Toward this end, we are in the process of competing two movement-building tools: a documentary called “A People’s Story of Detroit” and a book called Detroit: A People’s Atlas, the latter of which was supported by the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant.
A community project organized by scholars and activists, but mostly written by and for a public audience, the Atlas starts from the premise that maps are not merely illustrations of reality but better understood as propositions: arguments about the way the world works or should work. We see a clear link between the exclusion of Detroiters’ day-to-day experiences from dominant mappings and narratives of the city and the alienation of residents from the democratic process, and the erosion of their rights. Therefore, the Atlas offers a counter-narrative of Detroit’s redevelopment by remapping the city from below. The maps making up the Atlas do not simply locate things in physical space, but re-situate communities and re-imagine the limits of what a city can be as an urban, ecological, social, and cultural space.
Maps are among the most important conceptual and visual elements of the book, but there is far more to the Atlas than cartography. Detroit: A People’s Atlas includes a wide variety of essays, stories, photography, and poems contributed by over 20 residents from Detroit and Windsor. It also draws on research that we conducted as part of the Uniting Detroiters project, including over 47 interviews and 16 oral histories with individuals involved in social justice organizations and neighborhoods groups and transcripts from a series of workshops on land justice, which approximately 150 residents attended. The aims of these workshops were to share information about the political-economic and territorial reconfigurations underway in the city and discuss progressive land-use alternatives. The Uniting Detroiters project also supported community groups in participatory mapping project, some of which will be published in the Atlas. A ten-member community-based editorial advisory board has helped plan and organize the project.
The core argument that animates the diverse array of community perspectives in the Atlas is that having the power to map is to be empowered to define one’s own political, cultural, and even spiritual space. The thirty maps that make up the Atlas plot not only points in space, but efforts at self-determination, democratic governance, and creativity. The innovative creativity and dynamism of Detroit’s grassroots organizations are globally known among social activists and academics and yet excluded from many narratives about the city as of late. In this respect, Detroit: A People’s Atlas sheds light on an underappreciated aspect of the city’s present that nonetheless has deep roots in its past. It seeks to offer vital perspectives on the city that are absent from “official maps.” Even more importantly, these maps offer a fresh perspective on what cartography and mapping can mean at a universal level; in this respect the book offers not only a new perspective on Detroit, but also represents an important contribution to the field of critical urban studies. We expect a release date of Detroit: A People’s Atlas in 2017.
A Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant supported Sara Safransky’s involvement in community-based activities associated with Detroit: A People’s Atlas. During Safransky’s dissertation research, she became actively involved in the United Detroiters project, a collaborative effort based on the idea that collective research and reflection are important for creating a more just and equitable city. Detroit: A People’s Atlas is a community-centered writing and mapping project that connects life histories and everyday urban experiences with political-economic reconfigurations in the city (e.g., state takeover, bankruptcy, austerity, rightsizing) and broader structural changes taking place in other cities across the country and globe. The Atlas is designed to take stock of social justice work happening across Detroit and build movement networks in the process. In addition to maps, the Atlas includes critical and personal essays, poetry, photographs, interviews, and oral histories. Through these visions and stories the Atlas counters blank slate narratives about the city often portrayed by the corporate media and many of our politicians. The Atlas is being written for the broadest public with an expected release of 2017.
June 21-25, 2015
University of Zagreb
“This Congress’ theme takes the triad of utopias, realities and heritages as a challenge and seeks to relate it to the ethnographic study of expressive culture and everyday in European ethnology, cultural anthropology and folklore studies. The Congress theme thus aims at analyzing the contemporary moment in the production of imaginaries, projections, wishes, frustrations and anxieties that people have with regard to the past and future; and at the same time proposes to take a self-reflexive stance toward our discipline’s own role in defining the future and imagining the past. While the topic of utopias has recently surged as an iconic term in other academic conferences, ours gives it a special twist by linking it to specifically anthropological and ethnological approaches to everyday realities which are the context of both utopian visions of the future and representations of the past as heritage. The biennial SIEF conference, held for the first time in its history in southeastern Europe, aims at more intensely involving colleagues from Europe’s margins and beyond in international scholarly exchange in cultural anthropology, European ethnology, folklore studies and adjoining fields.”
Brooke Bocast is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Maryland – College Park, specializing in the areas of gender, youth, and global health. In 2010, while a doctoral candidate at Temple University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “’If Books Fail, Try Beauty’: Gender, Consumption, and Higher Education in Uganda,” supervised by Dr. Jessica Winegar. In 2014, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, to publicly share and discuss her research findings on female university students’ strategies for social advancement in relation to higher education reform and rising rates of HIV on Ugandan university campuses.
It’s tough to be a university student in Kampala, Uganda. Students contend with crumbling facilities, ineffective administrations, campus closures due to faculty and student strikes, and social lives removed from rural kin networks. At Makerere University (the “Harvard of Africa”), students are saddled with expectations to succeed above and beyond their peers, a proposition made ever more difficult by decreasing opportunities for post-grad employment. While Makerere historically catered to the sons of the East African elite, in the 1990s, President Museveni privatized Uganda’s higher education sector and “democratized” Makerere admissions through quota systems. During my dissertation fieldwork (2010-2012), Makerere administrators and the general public debated the efficacy of these policies, with particular attention to affirmative action for women and the role of female students in general.
My dissertation research examined Makerere University’s sexual economy wherein university women exchange sexual favors for money, luxury commodities, and academic marks. These practices put young women at increased risk for STDs, pregnancy, and moral rebuke. Because of this, global health organizations often assume that women who participate in sexual economic transactions must be indigent, or ignorant, or both. Yet many university women engaged in “transactional” sex are members of Uganda’s nascent middle class and successful students at East Africa’s prestigious Makerere University. Based on data collected in Kampala and at students’ family homes throughout East Africa, I argue that participation in Makerere’s sexual economy is a central means by which female students pursue social advancement in a vastly transformed and contested education system. This strategy has profound consequences for kinship, marriage, and social structures, and gendered labor practices; in addition, campus-based relationships shape emerging HIV transmission patterns.
UNAIDS identifies transactional, “cross-generational” sex (locally termed “sugar daddy” relationships) as a key driver of Uganda’s rising HIV prevalence rates. In recent years, Uganda’s federal government, educational institutions, and public health NGOs have honed in on female university students’ role in these relationships via behavioral change campaigns that seek to alter students’ choice of sexual partners. [see image 1] Popular discourse assumes that young women pursue sugar daddy relationships because they are either vulnerable and desperate or materialistic and predatory. Throughout my fieldwork, university administrators and global health practitioners approached me with questions about young women’s motivations for engaging in sugar daddy relationships. I was often asked how to get university students to stop dating older men. Of course, there is no single “answer” to the “problem” of sugar daddy relationships. Young women engage in diverse sexual interactions for myriad affective, aspirational, and material reasons. My informants reject campaigns that position them as passive and vulnerable, because they consider themselves to be agentive and knowledgeable. At the same time, the epidemiological ramifications cannot be ignored. By engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners across age brackets, young women put themselves and their partners at risk for STDs, and contribute to intergenerational HIV transmission.
I applied for an Engaged Anthropology Grant because I wanted to facilitate discussion between various stakeholders around the dynamics that drive intergenerational sexual relationships on campus. In order to avoid reproducing the dominant framing of transactional sex as a problem of young women lacking life skills and/or sexual restraint, I collaborated with my colleague, Dr. Christian Kakuba at Makerere’s Centre for Population and Applied Statistic (CPAS), to produce an event that framed students practices’ within an analysis of structural inequalities in Uganda’s education sector writ large. We titled our workshop, “Inequalities in Education: A Multi-disciplinary Perspective,” and included presentations based on demographic and ethnographic data that addressed access to, and experiences within, Uganda’s primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions. CPAS hosted the workshop, and attendees included Makerere students and alumni, university administrators, policy-makers, civil society actors, education professionals, and public health practitioners. Dr. Kakuba presented his findings on demographic factors that influence primary and secondary school attendance [see image 2], and I presented qualitative data on gendered health disparities among university students, in relation to HIV and cross-generational sex. In addition to paper presentations, we led break-out groups over lunch and facilitated discussions that tacked back and forth between students’ everyday experiences, national trends, and implications for policy and practice. [see image 3]
Workshop participants raised a number of points for further discussion. For example, a secondary school headmaster noted that current policies fail to account for the needs of students with physical and intellectual disabilities, rendering their educational experiences especially trying. Multiple participants, including Makerere alumni, questioned the value of formal education in general, given the limitations of Uganda’s formal employment sector. Female Makerere students spoke about the factors that compel young women to acquire sugar daddies, pointing out that affective and aspirational motivations often trump health concerns. [see image 4] A representative from the Institute for Social and Economic Rights requested further collaboration with the Centre for Population and Applied Statistics, given their shared institutional interests in population data and social justice. It is heartening to think that my Engaged Anthropology project provided a forum for such conversations to occur, and facilitated connections that may lead to improved services for students at all levels of Uganda’s education system.
Every year, the Wenner-Gren Foundation awards the Wadsworth African Fellowship to a young African scholar, enabling them to undertake graduate training in anthropology at a world-class institution. This year’s recipient is Njabulo Chipangura of Zimbabwe, who will be commencing studies at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand.
I was born in 1984 in Mutare, Zimbabwe. I did my undergraduate honours degree in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Midlands State University in Gweru, Zimbabwe between 2004 and 2008. In September 2009, I joined the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe as a curator in the archaeology department at Mutare Museum. Since then I have been involved in a number of archaeological researches which touches on conservation of all archaeological and historical sites, exhumations, rescue excavations and archaeological impact assessments. In 2011, I was awarded with the National Heritage Council of South Africa Scholarship and the Robben Island Museum Grant to study for a Master’s Degree in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape.
For my PhD in Anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand, I am interested in understanding artisanal and small scale mining practices (ASM), technologies and processes in Eastern Zimbabwe using ethnographic and archaeological methodologies. The research seeks to pursue the significant lack of knowledge of all aspects of ASM in Eastern Zimbabwe, and the little knowledge of its history. Contemporary ASM activities have identifiable historical continuity with the past. This might be, for instance, include contemporary re-exploitation of nineteenth century or even much earlier mine workings and shafts, and there may be oral traditions or indigenous memory in some form.
The University of the Witwatersrand will be an ideal place for my study because of its reputation as one of the best universities in Africa. Moreso, the anthropology department at the university is a place with renowned scholars who will help me in achieving my own career goals. The diversity of anthropological issues that the department is involved in also places me at a vantage position in terms of learning and gaining new knowledge.
Michael Galaty is Professor and Department Head of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures (AMEC) and Interim Director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University. In 2013 he and Dr. Anastasia Papathanasiou of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture received an International Collaborative Research Grant to aid ‘The Diros Project: Greek-American Collaborative Archaeological Research & Training At Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave’
Tell us a little bit about the project that received Wenner-Gren funding.
For several years, my Greek and American colleagues and I have been working in and around a very large cave located in the Mani, Greece, called Alepotrypa (Fox Hole). It is one of the largest caves in Greece and housed a Neolithic village, mortuary, and ritual complex prior to its collapse around 3100 BC. We’ve surveyed the cave’s catchment zone, which encompasses the Bay of Diros, and conducted excavations at a large open-air site called Ksagounaki, located outside of and above the cave, and built with very large “megalithic” stones. Like many Neolithic villages, the occupants of Ksagounaki buried their dead “intramurally,” i.e. in the village and under house floors. In 2014, Wenner-Gren helped support additional survey work, including geophysical surveys, in Diros and excavation at Ksagounaki. Alepotrypa and Ksagounaki are extremely important settlements, since they span various periods of the Neolithic, including the Final Neolithic, or Copper Age, which is very rare in Greece. It was during the Neolithic Age that farming arrived in Greece (circa 6000 BC), allowing increased sedentism and the appearance of village life, laying the groundwork for the later Greek Bronze Age, during which the first states in Europe formed, the so-called Mycenaean states. In 2014, we also excavated a Mycenaean “ossuary” at Ksagounaki, an unexpected, unique feature, filled with human bone and various grave goods, including a bronze dagger, ivory hair pin, fine pottery, and exotic stone beads. Because Alepotrypa and Ksagounaki were large, important places, still visible on the landscape 2000 years after their abandonment, we hypothesize that some kind of “cultural memory” drew the Mycenaeans back to Diros, to rebury important dead.
What importance did this project hold for anthropological education in Greece?
Thanks to the generosity of Wenner-Gren, in 2014 we were joined in the field by Prof. Georgia Phillipakis, from the University of Athens, and four of her students. Greek archaeology is a stand-alone discipline, strongly influenced by history, less so by anthropology and anthropological thinking. The four University of Athens students who worked with us were given a “crash course” in anthropological archaeology. They worked both in the field and in the lab, with Greek and American faculty and graduate students, all of whom practice an anthropologically-informed brand of archaeology. Students were given practical training in new survey and excavation methods, including geophysics, excavation, and artifact conservation and analysis. Several times a week, in the cool of the evening, professors and graduate students would lecture on some aspect of their work with The Diros Project, highlighting both what they were doing and its anthropological significance. These lectures built theoretical foundations for the methodological training gained by students during the long, hot southern Greek days. Of her experience, Greek student Effrosyni Roditi wrote: “I would like to thank you all for the opportunity you gave me to participate in this project . I learned so many things in just a few weeks, I met wonderful people and I had a great time. Since this was my first excavation , I would like to say that this project has increased my desire to work as an archeologist. It was a unique and memorable experience.” Our training program for Greek students would not have been possible without the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation.
What were some challenges that arose during the course of the research, and how did you adapt?
Greece is currently suffering economically. As a result, the government has slashed funds for archaeology and laid many archaeologists off. This has made doing archaeology in Greece that much more difficult. Costs are very high. We American archaeologists continue to marvel at the tenacity and determination of our Greek colleagues, who are committed to protecting and studying their cultural heritage, despite the tough times. The economic and political troubles in Greece have slowed the permitting processes, making planning difficult. In 2014, we arrived in Greece to begin work and were informed that our permit had been delayed. Despite the stress this caused, our Greek colleagues sprang into action and our permit was delivered in a matter of days. Learning to work under conditions of uncertainty took some adapting, but we pulled together as a project, got our permit, and had an incredible research season.
In 2014 we uncovered at Ksagounaki the remains of a couple, a man and woman in their late 20s (based on DNA analysis), who were buried together, embracing. While prehistoric double and multiple burials are not uncommon in Greece and worldwide, a 5800-year-old “spooning” burial is unique. We do not yet know how they died and exactly why they were buried together, but there must be some kind of personal story, a relationship, that prompted their shared internment. This story captured the imagination of the popular press and for a few short days in February (the Greek government announced the find on Valentine’s Day), the Diros couple held the web public’s attention. Our opinion is that if archaeologists (and, more generally, anthropologists) are to make a difference in the world, we must do a much better job of accessing social media and shaping the public’s understanding of the human past. If we do not do so, we cede that territory to those who would distort the past and use it, sometimes with malicious intent. Finds like that of the Diros couple help us connect with a global public eager to know more about our shared humanity, which is ground in a shared archaeological past.
What are some next steps? What are you working on now?
In 2015 we will spend a month in Athens studying the artifacts collected over the course of five years by The Diros Project and excavated at Ksagounaki. In the future we hope to continue excavation at Ksagounaki and to extend our survey work outside the immediate hinterland of Alepotrypa. We assume that those who lived at Ksagounaki used a much wider territory, including the mountains. Those buried in the cave may have come from distant communities. And we have no idea where the Mycenaeans who built the Ksagounaki ossuary circa 1200 BC lived. These questions can be best addressed through expanded regional survey work.
Better late than never! Our final report on the 2014 class of Wadsworth International Fellows – Ethiopia’s Tegenu Gossa.
I have a BA degree in History from Alemaya University in Eastern Ethiopia in July 2004. Some of the basic archaeology courses I have taken in my undergraduate study helped me to develop an initial interest in this field of study. Hence, I eventually took up the chance to study my graduate study in Archaeology in Addis Ababa University from 2010 to 2011. I have worked as a lecturer of Ancient History of Ethiopia in Arba Minch University in Southern Ethiopia between 2009 and 2011. I have also been lecturing Archaeology in the same university since 2011.
The research project for my graduate study focused on the analysis of MSA/LSA lithic artifacts excavated from the site of Aladi Springs in the Afar Rift. The research proved to be successful where the major findings of the research were published in an international journal (Gossa et al 2012). Besides, this study provided me with best opportunities to have continuous contact and communications with foreign and Ethiopian researchers working in the country and thereby participate in various paleoanthropological field projects organized by those international team of researchers. To this end, I have participated in the expedition to the Blue Nile Basin of northwestern Ethiopia in 2010, the Main Ethiopian Rift system (Gedamotta MSA site) in 2011 and 2012, and the Ledi-Grearu research project in the Afar Rift system in 2013.
Besides elevating my interest in the discipline, these field engagements also greatly shaped my future research interests. The research project I have proposed for my PhD training is going to be held in the newly discovered site of Melka-Wakena located at the headwaters of Wabe-Shebelle River found in South-central Ethiopia. This site appears to be one of the few highland hominin occupation sites at world scale with an elevation of about 2400 m.a.s.l. In the exploratory survey we have conducted in the site in 2013 and 2014, we already identified numerous localities rich in Early Stone Age lithic artifacts and faunal remains along the banks of the river. Hence, the research project is going to revolve around lithic analysis and Early Stone Age hominin foraging strategies. This relatively unique site is expected to produce important paleoanthropological and paleoecological data pertaining to the Lower and Middle Pleistocene hominin highland adaptations.
The latest Institutional Development Grant brings together four Baltic-region universities, three of which have already entered into a collaborative framework for the implementation of tertiary level education through establishment of the Baltic Graduate School in 2008. The project will support the establishment of a separate doctoral program in anthropology within the framework of the Baltic Graduate School and thus will also contribute to strengthening the discipline of anthropology in the Baltics. Our Foundation Anthropologist for International Programs, Judy Kried, spoke to Dr. Aivita Putnina, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Latvia, to learn more about the program, the grant, and anthropology in the Baltic region.
First can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in anthropology? Who have been the anthropologists that have most influential in your own personal formation and why?
I first met anthropology at Vytautus Magnus University in Lithuania where I went as a philology exchange student. I had studied general medicine before but soon realised that it offered a limited view. I switched to the humanities. I was so excited to find that there actually was something that I longed for and which encompassed both perspectives. Vytautus Magnus was a brand new university (re-)established by expatriate Lithuanians to help their newly-liberated country. Quite a few of them, including the acting rector Liucija Baskauskas, were anthropologists. I did not get a degree in Anthropology but in Sociology, which I did not study, simply because anthropology was not included in Lithuanian science nomenclature. I am grateful to my undergraduate teachers as they gave me good foundations in anthropology and inspired me to continue my studies. My further studies at the University of Cambridge were made possible by Soros and Chevening grants in 1995. The next year I received a William Wise studentship to continue my studies at doctoral level. Cambridge is an incredibly intense place where you literally can do so much. I cannot name here all the anthropologists – my professors and peers – that I met there. I received enormous support from Professor Marilyn Strathern. Her personality, her style of writing and speaking made her one of the most important teachers I have ever met in my life. In my doctoral research I focussed on childbirth practices in Latvia, capturing and theorising societal change at a family, health care and political level. However, I realised that my informants did not get as much from our encounters as I did. Thus, there was one more consequence of my Cambridge experience. I realised that a sterile academic environment does not attract me and since then I have tried to make anthropology public and engage with the field which I study. I am glad I could partly “repay” my informants in helping to establish home birthing or introducing cancer screening in Latvia based on my research data. This kind of engagement has gone along with the establishment of anthropology in Latvia.
Can you tell us a little about anthropology in the Baltic states of
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? What are the pressing questions and
concerns for the discipline there?
The history of anthropology in the Baltics starts in 19th century when most of the area which now forms the Baltic states was part of the Russian Empire. The word ’anthropology’ itself was used mostly in the context of physical anthropology. Culture and society were mostly the domain of ethnologists and folklorists, either in the Volkskunde or Soviet traditions, depending on the era. Since the beginning of the 1990s social and cultural anthropology, informed mostly by the British and American schools, started to be taught across the Baltics as separate subjects, partly due to the influx of Western-educated local people. Latvia now has one Bachelors program and two Masters programs and these have developed in the last eight years. Estonia has had a Bachelors and Masters program for about ten years. It is producing PhDs – although these have to be done in another program in Humanities. Lithuania has had some Anthropology courses since the 1990s and PhDs can be done, but in Sociology. Anthropology is not considered as a separate field of science and rigid science classification procedures inherited from the Soviet period influence both the opportunities and funding for the development of anthropology education and research here. We will try to solve this frustrating issue with the establishment of the joint doctoral program.
Is anthropology a subject that attracts students in the Baltic States?
Indeed, and increasingly so. As time as progressed we are now teaching people who have done both their Bachelors and Masters studies in anthropology, who wish to go further. This IDG comes at the right time to meet this need for doctoral students. However, at every level, anthropology attracts people because it offers interesting and alternative perspectives in changing societies. We try to be as publicly visible as possible, getting involved in debates within society at parliamentary, other political, media and general public engagement levels so this encourages students as they can see that what anthropology does can have some impact.
Can you tell us about your department, its specialties and how the
award will help your department as it moves forward?
The department at the University of Latvia is very keen to develop its public role, and has adopted public anthropology as its specialisation within our joint doctoral program as a result. We have staff who have researched in Latvia itself, but also in Germany, Russia, Norway, the UK on themes of morality, violence, gender, medical anthropology, economic anthropology, rhetoric culture, business anthropology among other things. Our partners in Latvia and the other Baltic states add greatly to our joint expertise. This is one of the main benefits of the grant for a doctoral program as students can receive supervision and training in many things, but geographically fairly closely. It also helps create a critical mass in anthropology in the broader region as we will become more visible and attractive to students at home and hopefully abroad. On that last note, it must be said that this is a problem for the Baltic states in general and not only for anthropology. The ‘brain drain’ towards Western Europe is only one aspect of the massive emigration all three countries have faced in the light of EU expansion and financial crises. We hope that more students from this region stay and study here and help to build up a beacon of anthropology in the Baltic states.
The 151st(!) symposium of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, “New Media, New Publics” was held this past March 13-19 at Palácio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal, organized by Charles Hirschkind (UC Berkeley), Maria José de Abreu (University of Amsterdam) and Carlo Caduff (King’s College London). Like all of our symposia, the work presented here will be featured in a future special open-access issue of Current Anthropology!
One thing that’s special about this symposium (and that we’re especially excited about) is that it is the first in WGF history to feature an audio-visual component with the participants themselves. In the coming weeks, expect to see a series of short videos with the organizers, participants and others outlining their particular projects, what the symposium means for the anthropological study of media, and the larger history of the Wenner-Gren symposium program. This is something of a new frontier for the Foundation and the program, so please let us know what you think once they go live!
Read the Organizer’s Statement below for a better grasp of the symposium’s theoretical concerns and goals.