Archive for April 25, 2012

Bob Simpson and “Writing Across Boundaries”

Image courtesy dur.ac.uk

Guest-blogger Bob Simpson is Professor and Chair of the Board of Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University and has participated in past Wenner-Gren symposia. Since 2007 he has been conducting a series of intensive two-day workshops aimed at honing the writing skills of social science PhD students, called “Writing Across Boundaries”.

In 2006, a call came out from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council for projects to support researcher development.  The call prompted Robin Humphrey and I to set about thinking about what was missing from current doctoral training in the UK.   It struck us that whilst there was extensive foundational training in methods and field preparation in place, little was being done about the return from the field and more specifically the business of writing ‘up’.  For many, the very idea of writing ‘up’ is a bit passé;  writing should take place at all stages of the research process.  We would not quibble with this basic assertion, but we both recalled those early stages of trying to write once fieldwork was completed and deadlines for completion began to loom.  This exercise in writing brought its own particular challenges.  How do I go about wringing text from that intimidating pile of notes, interviews, photographs, scribbled memoirs and so forth?  In fact, do I have anything to say at all that is worth saying?   Is my writing too simplistic, too prolix, where to start, where to stop?  Our reflections on this very important part of the process of becoming a fully fledged doctoral researcher resulted in a successful application for funds to run an annual, residential workshop for doctoral students who were using qualitative methods. The workshop had a simple aim: to help those attempting to write post-fieldwork by trying to figure out what the sticking points actually are.

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Tips for Applicants and the Upcoming Deadline

Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute!

Did you know that nearly half of all Wenner-Gren’s online applications for any given season are submitted during the last twelve hours before the deadline?

Spare yourself potential frustration — competing with hundreds of last-minute applicants fighting for limited bandwidth — by submitting your application a day or two early.

Current Anthropology Special Issue: The Biological Anthropology of Living Human Populations

The latest issue of the Wenner-Gren Symposium Series has mailed together with the Current Anthropology April Issue. This is our fifth supplementary issue and the series has been a phenomenal success. The Biological Anthropology of Living Human Populations. Is edited by Susan Lindee and Ricardo Ventura Santos and as with other Symposium Supplements is now available through the CA website as an Open Access Issue. This issue, which is available completely open-access, is the result of the International Symposia held in Teresopolis, Brazil in 2010.

 

The Biological Anthropology of Living Human Populations: World Histories, National Styles, and International Networks

 Current Anthropology Volume 53, Supplement 5, April 2012

Edited by Susan Lindee and Ricardo Ventura Santos

Karl Ernst von Baer, "Principal types of different human races in the five parts of the world", St. Petersburg 1862

This Current Anthropology Supplementary Issue developed from a Wenner-Gren Symposium held in Teresópolis, Brazil, in 2010, and explored the past, present and future of biological anthropology. The papers in this issue aim to understand from a comparative international perspective the contexts of genesis and development of physical/ biological anthropology around the world. While biological anthropology today can encompass paleoanthropology, primatology, and skeletal biology, the symposium focused on the field’s engagement with living human populations. Bringing together scholars in history of science, science studies, and anthropology, the participants examined the discipline’s past in different contexts, but also reflected on its contemporary and future conditions. Papers in this issue explore national histories, collections, and scientific field practice with the goal of developing a broader understanding of the discipline’s history. The work tracks a global, uneven transition from a typological and essentialist physical anthropology, predominating until the first decades of the twentieth century, to a biological anthropology informed by post-synthesis evolutionism and the rise of molecular biology, a shift which was labeled “new physical anthropology”. The papers thus place biological anthropology in a broad historical context, and suggest how the histories documented can inform its future.

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NYAS @ Wenner-Gren: April 30, 2012

Image courtesy benzimmer.com

The last Monday in April marks the final 2011/2012 meeting of the Anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences at the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We’ve had a great range of presenters this season, and for this last session we welcome the first presentation dealing explicitly with linguistic anthropology. Ben Zimmer of ThinkMap, Inc. and the Boston Globe, best known for previously penning the column “On Language” in the New York Times, will discuss the emergent linguistics of digital communication – and the new tools used to study it – with discussants Melissa Checker of Queens College and Rudolf Gaudio of SUNY Purchase.

The New Language Detectives:

Investigating Linguistic Phenomena in a Data-Driven Age

New data-driven techniques of analyzing language have emerged in recent years, opening up lines of inquiry that were previously seen as unapproachable. What linguistic “signatures” do we leave when we open our mouths or type on the keyboard? What subtle cues do we give each other when we change from one style of speaking or writing to another? And how can we plot the large- and small-scale changes in language usage to reveal fresh insights, applicable to fields as diverse as legal investigation, literary analysis, and political marketing? I will tour some of the avenues that researchers are exploring, with powerful new tools at their disposal: both the “microscopes” that can track the smallest shifts in variations in our language and the “telescopes” that can expose the evolution of talk and text over the historical long haul. In their own ways, the “micro” and the “macro” analyses promise to illuminate how we express ourselves and how people come together to build language through social interaction.

As always, the talk will be preceded by a reception and refreshments one hour prior to its commencement at 7:00 PM. Attendance is free, but please contact the New York Academy of Sciences (212-298-8600) in order to register prior to the event.

We will post an audio recording of Mr. Zimmer’s talk in the days after the event. Check out audio from previous NYAS meetings at Wenner-Gren.

Interview with Elise Kramer on “Mutual Minorityhood”

Elise Kramer is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She received a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant in May 2010 to assist research on ‘Mutual Minorityhood: The Rhetoric of Victimhood in the American Free Speech/Political Correctness Debate,’ supervised by Dr. Susan Gal. Below is a short interview we conducted to dig deeper into Kramer’s interest in the complex dynamics of victimhood in American public life.

 

What first drew you to study the ACLU in an anthropological capacity?

It was definitely a case of my topic driving my field choice rather than the other way around. Starting from my observations of mutual minorityhood (see below), I wanted to study the ways that the concept of freedom of speech is invoked in political debates in the U.S., with an eye toward the ways in which accusations of censorship stand in for more fraught and fundamental disagreements over who truly has power in American society. I had noticed that many political disputes in the U.S. seemed to boil down to competing claims of being silenced—and this raised some interesting questions for me about a) why this was an intelligible and persuasive direction to take a political argument, and b) what this focus on censorship can tell us about the nature of the modern American political field.

The ACLU’s place in the political landscape crystallizes many of the seeming paradoxes at the center of my project. In theory, the organization’s guiding principle is the defense of the Bill of Rights, which is a cause one would expect to gather almost universal support among Americans (especially when it comes to freedom of speech). But in practice the ACLU is a highly contentious organization: for some it is the embodiment of unbiased justice for the underdog; for others, an anti-religious stalwart advancing a hegemonic liberal agenda. Studying the process by which which the ACLU’s choices of which issues to take up get refracted and reframed both within and without the organization seemed like a good place to start in tackling such broad and omnipresent questions.

 

Could you briefly explain what is meant by “mutual minorityhood”? How does it manifest itself in American public life?

By “mutual minorityhood” I mean the phenomenon that so often occurs in American politics where each side of a debate perceives itself as a victimized minority and its opponent as a hegemonic majority. There are examples of this pretty much everywhere you look: the immigration debate, the gay marriage debate, the debate between feminists and men’s rights activists, etc. In each of these instances, you will find people on each side of the debate claiming that theirs is the beleaguered—even iconoclastic—underdog fighting a burgeoning superpower.

The phenomenon is worth studying for at least a couple of reasons. First, that the mantle of “true” victimhood would be so appealing and highly-contested raises important questions about American ideologies of power, agency, and dominance. Second, I think it’s vital to have an anthropology of power that is cognizant of actors’ self-reflexive beliefs about their place in the sociopolitical landscape; whatever “real” power dynamics may exist, the ones that people perceive and act in relation to are just as analytically significant when trying to understand the cultural processes in play.

 

Many Americans would hold that Freedom of Speech is a relatively straightforward concept. You propose that the understanding of that concept is shot through with a number of “folk beliefs”. How does your work in Linguistic Anthropology draw this out?

Though freedom of speech may seem like an ahistorical and objective concept, if one looks at even the short history of first amendment doctrine in the United States, one will find that “freedom of speech” has meant very different things at different moments. The free speech clause of the first amendment was originally interpreted as protecting primarily the press and even then only in a “no prior restraint” capacity (it was considered perfectly constitutional to punish someone for printing something so long as you didn’t actively prevent him or her from printing it in the first place). This now seems unbelievably savage to most Americans, who generally see free speech as an unfettered individual right. (See Stephen Feldman’s Free Expression and Democracy in America for an excellent history of the evolving American understanding of freedom of speech.)

As a linguistic anthropologist, I am interested in what language ideologies (taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions about how language works and how people use it) underlie the many ways of thinking about and talking about “freedom of speech” in the U.S. Different rationales for why free speech is important (e.g. the “marketplace of ideas,” self-governance, the self-actualizing nature of civic participation) highlight different “functions” of language, privileging some categories of language and leaving others unprotected. And because language ideologies often link certain “types” of people to certain “types” of language, it is difficult to talk about freedom of speech without implicitly making judgments about who has the right or privilege to speak. Using a linguistic anthropological approach that is sensitive to the hidden assumptions undergirding debates about censorship specifically and about “voice” and power more generally, I hope to render well-worn political stalemates in a new light and maybe even create new possibilities for understanding in an especially fractious climate.

 

Are you a current or past grantee and want to be featured in a mini-interview on our blog? Contact Daniel (dsalas@wennergren.org) to find out more.

Interview with Jessica Hardin on “Exchange and Health: Negotiating the Meaning of Food and Body among Evangelical Christians in Independent Samoa”

typical to'onai, 'Sunday lunch' including meat-based soups, umu, 'earth-oven,' foods like palusami, taro leaves cooked in coconut cream, ulu, 'breadfruit,' and fa'i, 'banana.'

Jessica Hardin is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Brandeis University. In 2011 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Exchange and Health: Negotiating the Meaning of Food and Body among Evangelical Christians in Independent Samoa” supervised by Dr. Richard J. Parmentier. We interviewed Jessica to learn more about the complicated business of food, reciprocity and disease in the Polynesian nation.

 

 

 

I’d like to start with a general question to “set the stage”. In Samoa, how do moral concepts come to bear in the consumption of food?

I think the best way to start answering this big question is with the words of my interlocutor and friend. During an interview, a physician I will call Tina responded to my question about risk and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including type II diabetes and hypertension, by saying  “just being Samoan, that’s the biggest risk factor [for developing NCDs].”  She went on to explain that the risk is tied to the pressures of food consumption and reciprocity. There is no better way to say this than to say that eating, cooking, and serving food in Samoa is complicated business.  Learning who to serve, when to serve, and what to serve are lessons first learned by youth as they crowd back kitchens while elders conduct the affairs of funerals, church openings, or title bestowals. Presenting and giving food gifts comes in two forms: trays of food for consumption and pigs and boxes of tinned food for exchange. On these trays are piles of foods cooked from the umu, ‘earth oven,’ including many different kinds of meat, and sometimes Samoan-Chinese foods. These trays and cases of food define hierarchies and provide individuals and families with a sense of food-based well-being. While anthropologists often focus on the hierarchy-making capacity of food gifts, what I have found striking is the degree to which my interlocutors experience the pressure to be sure everyone has the appropriate portions, and that the aesthetics of the tray are correct, as a moral issue.  When successfully achieved, individuals and their families are offered a sense of embodied wellness.

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NYAS @ Wenner-Gren 3/26

This past Monday marked the second-to-last Spring 2012 meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences’ Anthropology section. Medical anthropologist Dr. Merrill Singer of the University of Connecticut was on hand (with Brooklyn College’s Patricia Antoniello acting as discussant) to discuss “Syndemics and the Contemporary Global Health Transition”.

Listen to a MP3 of the talk now.

Current Anthropology and Communicating Climate Knowledge

We at the Wenner-Gren Foundation are very proud of our sponsored journal Current Anthropology, published by the University of Chicago Press. In honor of the release of the April issue of CA, we’re pleased to announce that the issue’s Forum on Anthropology and the Public will be available for all as a downloadable open-access article.

This interdisciplinary forum addresses the communication of cultural knowledge of environmental change. Titled “Communicating Climate Knowledge: Proxies, Processes, Politics,” the forum is the product of discussion at a Climate Histories conference held at the University of Cambridge in 2011.

The forum features two lead pieces by Simon Schaffer, a historian of science, and Kirsten Hastrup, an anthropologist, which highlight the role of agents and proxies—indicators that enable the representation and assessment of a certain environmental setting.

Hastrup’s article examines the role ice plays in climate knowledge for arctic peoples. She argues that the ice itself makes as powerful a case for a changing climate as science ever could. “I would suggest that the ice is its own argument; it is not for us to argue its case—it would only be a faint echo of its own powerful impression upon the Arctic world,” she writes. “Whatever climate history one wants to tell, it begins and ends with ice.”

Schaffer offers a historical account of mountains as proxies for western understanding of climate. He describes the work of the nineteenth century scientist John Tyndall in bringing his mountaintop discoveries to the public at large. Schaffer argues that the challenge for science then and now is finding ways to communicate knowledge that is often “judged remote, socially, geographically, and temporally.”

The two lead pieces are followed by five interdisciplinary commentaries that engage with the lead articles through new ethnographic material and a set of reflections by leading scholars of different disciplines, including a lead scholar of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We hope these cross-disciplinary exchanges will encourage further conversations and new approaches to action,” Diemberger said.

The forum is available free to all.

In addition to this piece, the entirety of April’s gold-covered Supplementary issue, “The Biological Anthropology of Living Human Populations: World Histories, National Styles, and International Networks” is available as open access.

(Thanks to UChicago Press’ Kevin Stacey for his help with the text of this post.)