Archive for February 25, 2015

Interivew: Andrew Curley and The Changing Nature of Navajo Tribal Sovereignty in an Era of Climate Change

Monument Valley, near Curley's fieldsite in Arizona, USA.

Andrew Curley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University. In 2012 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Changing Nature of Navajo Tribal Sovereignty in an Era of Climate Change,’ supervised by Dr. Wendy Wolford.


Briefly summarize the project that received Wenner-Gren funding.

The project I received funding for examined the attitudes of Navajo coal workers, environmentalists, and government officials about the future of the Navajo coal economy in this era of climate change. I entered the field site knowing that environmental regulation linked to process of climate change were on everyone’s minds, whether you supported coal or not. It was an inquiry to see what these attitudes suggest about the legacy and continued importance of the Navajo coal economy for the tribe and its people.


What initially drew you to this idea?

I initially became interested in the issue of coal in the Navajo Nation when I worked for a year as a research assistant at the Diné Policy Institute at Diné College in Tsaile, AZ. I had returned from a project I did in undergrad looking at fair trade labeling initiatives in Tanzania and Ghana and developed an appreciation at that time for how a single, exportable commodity like coffee, cocoa, or as I discovered in the case of the Navajo Nation–coal–could deeply embed itself into the politics and political system of a place. As I did work at a “policy” organization, which in actual fact was more of a hybrid between policy work, original research, and application of traditional concepts, I gained an appreciation for how prevalent coal was in the Navajo Nation. It was not that I wasn’t aware of the Navajo coal economy before this point. I was used to seeing draglines, hauling trucks, and most distinctly the monstrous power lines that crisscross across the reservation. It wasn’t a new fact so much as I gained a new appreciation for it when I stopped to consider the social movements who worked in many different ways to oppose coal development or propose alternative development projects in the place of coal. I think when I collaborated with my colleagues at the time on a report for the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council about government reform, I tried to incorporate as much as I could the perspectives of members of environmental organizations who felt that the decisions of the Navajo tribal government didn’t reflect their thinking, their interest, or what they thought was the larger interest of the Navajo Nation.

Chapter House Meeting in Piñon, AZ

It was a first crude attempt to think about what some might call civil society within tribal politics. I liked Michael Feher’s term “nongovernmental politics” at the time to describe people and groups who want to affect politics but “not govern,” or not seek formal political office. Thinking through the way members of Navajo environmental groups thought about development and politics revealed a lot about tribal governance in a larger sense. It wasn’t only me but anthropologist Dana Powell who was thinking through these questions at the time. This was late 2007, early 2008 when we worked together on a project to highlight some of these voices. We had similar but different projects at the time and we found there was room for collaboration. I left the Diné Policy Institute and went to graduate school in a sociology program to figure out a way to explain the persistence of the Navajo coal economy that I felt was not well understood or described at the time. I didn’t know what was missing but I felt that dialectical accounts of pro-coal development or anti-coal development missed some larger, structural condition. Again, reflecting on the research in fair trade, the particular commodity like “coffee” and the particular “crisis,” such as the “coffee crisis,” tells us very little about the people and places we often gloss over in description. This is the advantage of ethnography, the kind of research Wenner-Gren funds, it gets to the relational meaning of people, places and their politics (both formal and informal). I don’t think I could get the kind of perspective on coal I did without an embedded approach.


What preconceptions did you bring about coal to the field, and how did your work alter those views?

A preconception I had going in was that coal workers and large energy interests had the same agenda. It was kind of a silly assumption in retrospect. Anyone who thought about class conflict would have thought differently. But I don’t think there has been enough attention on questions of class and class stratification in reservation communities and this is in part a consequence of thinking of Native people as a homogenous group. In fact all political actors involved in questions of coal and development in the Navajo Nation will at one point or another try to speak on behalf of all Navajos, especially when talking about traditional understandings of things. But as I’ve learned through my research and the research of others, “tradition” is not simply contextual it is also actively political. It responds to the political questions at the time.

Another preconception I had was the idea of the environment and how Navajo people thought about the land and their resources. It’s not to say that I was totally mistaken on this. But I didn’t know to the extent that understanding of the land, water, even coal is fixed to anthropocentric ideas of survival and livelihood. This is probably true of coal workers and environmentalists, but especially for Navajo people the issues of nature and the environment and how to best appreciate these are linked to appeal to long-term survival. This is not always the case and in some instances a new ethic related to appreciating human impact on other species and larger environmental process, like the cycles of the planet impacted by climate change, has emerged.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at a meeting with the Navajo Nation and Hopi governments in Tuba City to persuade both tribes to settle their water claims with Arizona.

Perhaps the largest surprise was the overwhelming question of water. In fact I approached the topic of coal and development largely unaware about how water looms large over it. But as I dug into the history and witnessed the popular rejection of a proposed water settlement between the Navajo Nation and the State of Arizona I realized that water is directly tied to coal. This also is not new. And in the case of the former Black Mesa Mine we know that the use of pristine aquifer water for over thirty years to slurry coal was a major motivation for many to challenge the industry. But this is not the water that looms large over coal, it’s the water of the Colorado River that does. So to put it more accurately, water doesn’t serve coal, coal serves water.  I went to the field with a limited scope of the meanings of coal and development in the Navajo Nation. But digging into the history and immediate politics of the question, the need to power water from the Colorado River to central Arizona bore the most impact on the region and on the Navajo Nation. A professor in my department Phil McMichael coined a phrase “incorporated comparison” to think about how the development of one place impacts another. In this case, paraphrasing him and others who have used this method, you can’t understand the Navajo Nation today and its reliance on coal as a large source of jobs and revenue without knowing the history of the Central Arizona Project and efforts to bring water to Phoenix. They are integrally linked. I only realized this during my research.


Could you explain the Navajo concept of t’áá hwó ají t’éego and its relevance to coal? How did you first encounter it in the field?

There’s a lot to say about the meaning of t’áá hwó ají t’éego and although I’m Navajo, because I don’t speak the language fluently, I’ve had to rely on the way others have described its meaning to get a sense of what it means and importantly how it’s used to mean what it means.  In fact in this sense I think not speaking Navajo fluently was an advantage because it has forced me to stop and ask many different people coming from different backgrounds their understanding of the phrase in order to put it into use in my analysis. If I were a fluent speaker I might just give you my meaning of it and not represent its variegated meaning, which I am trying to do in the process of writing my dissertation right now actually. In short, it means, “Do it yourself,” or you are responsible for accomplishing what you want and or need to get done. It’s a historical concept with contemporary meaning. I argue that it’s rooted in subsistence logic, when Navajo people lived under harsher conditions and had to provide for family and ourselves with the resources around us. It’s important to remember that the climate and landscape for the reservation varies from place to place, so Navajo people had to be resourceful and adaptive. We also developed much of this resourcefulness while surrounded by enemies, from Spanish colonialists to today’s border town communities like Farmington and Flagstaff. The concept is rooted in this history of self-sufficiency and survival and continues to carry these meanings. It’s just understood to work in different circumstances today. For many Navajo coal workers, survival and self-sufficiency is working on a dragline, or driving a truck used for hauling, or working as an electrician at the mine. We might disagree with the work for environmental reasons, but we have to respect the work as meaningful for those who participate in it. They see it as providing for the family, paying for their children’s education, or helping out relatives who don’t have work in live under hardship.

coal worker rally outside of the Navajo Nation Council chambers.

I encountered the phrase interviewing a coal worker who used it to describe his motivation for work. It wasn’t something scripted and fed to me, it came out almost accidentally as he pleaded for me to understand why this work was important for him and others at the mine. He only used the phrase once and it was used in service to a longer, more detailed explanation as to why coal work was important to him. It was almost like happenstance, he just blurted out “like our grand parents told us, t’áá hwó ají t’éego or you have to do it yourself,” paraphrasing here, but this is the gist of what he said.


What were some challenges or difficulties that arose during the course of fieldwork? How did you adapt?

I think the greatest challenge was getting anyone to trust me. It was a politically sensitive project. I have family who participate in politics and take certain stances on issues. At times I agree with them. I think some didn’t know if I would disagree with them on how they thought about the issue, or if I would use the material in a way to discredit their work. I could understand their concern even if it frustrated me at times. There are people who write about this same topic and who clearly take a position that supports one group’s arguments over the other’s. I don’t want to insinuate that research should be apolitical or anything like that. But it did cause me difficulty throughout the project. Especially when I moved to Kayenta, Arizona—perhaps the Navajo community most in support of continued coalmining in the reservation. There I was outsider. I didn’t have family or really know anyone from there. When I asked questions publicly like, “should the Navajo Nation extend the lease of the Navajo Generating Station,” the main power plant that purchased Navajo coal and was negotiating a lease extension with that Navajo Nation at the time, some interpreted this question as threatening. I had one coal worker refuse to fill out the survey. But he told me he was a member of the union and took a copy of my survey with him that he said he would show to company officials. Another informant told me that a non-Native reporter from the State of Washington visited the town the year before I arrived, did they same kind of interviewing, but wrote a largely critical piece on the Navajo coal economy that he interpreted as a betrayal of sorts. Now, how do you manage a situation like that?

protestors at McCain's meeting with Navajo and Hopi authorities.

You ask people to spare their time and let you know how they think about issues related to coalmining, a politically divisive issue. But you are expected to write something positive or lose their trust. I told them what my study was about and tried to say that it wasn’t a simply pro-coal or anti-coal report. It was to understand the complexity of the question and the issue. On the other hand, I don’t think members of the Navajo environmental community trusted my research completely because I based a substantial amount of it talking to coal workers. To put it simply, each side’s face scowled when I told them I was interviewing people on the other side of the issue. Now, someone who has a lot of experience in journalism in the area told me, in the context of newswriting, that angering opposite sides of an issue for different reasons doesn’t mean that you got the right story. I think there is some truth to this for sure. On the other hand I think it’s inevitable that people won’t like a story that doesn’t conform to frameworks they have long established and put into practice. So if my point is to move out of these frameworks, I think it’s hard not to write anything that wouldn’t be satisfying for the informants. This is probably the single longest shadow that hangs over anthropology, writing about people in a way that they don’t agree with. At first it was done brazenly, but now much more sensitively and subtlety, but maybe it’s still not right. Perhaps the concerns my informants had about my project were concerns that can be directed at most ethnographers (or journalists for that matter).

I tried to overcome it through honesty and openness. This is what “science” requires: transparency, logic and rigor to methods, but probably most importantly honesty and openness to new approaches and understandings of the situation. I had to get permission from community members who participated in the local chapter house to do my research. I had to tell them what my project was about. I had to tell my informants how they controlled the data they were about to provide.  As I listen to the audio recordings now I can hear how people wanted me to skip over it and just get into asking them questions. But it’s important to let them know the difference between a research project like the one I conducted and other kinds of interview they might give. We will see how well I did when I finish the dissertation. I plan to go back to Arizona and present my findings to members of the community. I am sure at that time people will both agree with me on some points but also disagree with me on others. I am looking forward to getting this feedback.


What’s next for this project? How could you see it expanding or continuing?

I would like to further develop this concept and relate it to some economic anthropology and economic surveys done in the region. That would be the immediate follow up to the project. It would be cool if I could do something with Navajo students in the region. I would like to help develop research in these communities. Obviously I think I would work in the Navajo Nation, but it might be illustrative of these issues to do similar projects in other reservations. The tension between minerals, development, the environment, and livelihood exists in many different tribal reservations. It speaks to the particular legal predicament tribes face within ongoing settler-colonialism that is largely indifferent to indigenous concerns. To build capacity we need to know and solve our own problems. We also need to renew internal intellectual interest in these issues. I think the tribal colleges are a good starting point. Regional universities could do more to connect Native students with research in their communities. I have to first finish this analysis and figure out what might be the best follow up steps to it.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Maureen E. Marshall

Marshall shows participants an example of osteoarthritis of the elbow, Tsaghkahovit

Maureen E. Marshall received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago. In 2010 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Political Subjects: Movement, Mobility, and Emplacement in Late Bronze Age (1500-1250 BC) Societies in Armenia,’ supervised by Dr. Adam Thomas Smith. Last year, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant, which allowed her to make a return trip to Armenia in order to engage with the host community who supported her original research.

When I returned to Armenia this summer for the first time in several years, I was confident that I would meet two out of my three goals.  I had proposed a project titled, “Articulating Ancient Lives,” in which I would engage academic and public communities in Armenia through an academic presentation of the results of my research at the Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography, collaborating on co-authored articles with colleagues who contributed information to the original dissertation research project, and a public workshop in the town Tsaghkahovit. It was this last component of community engagement that worried me.

Despite my trepidation, the public talk turned out to be productive and engaging for both local residents and archaeologists.  Over the past 16 years, local residents from this community have been indispensable participants in archaeological investigations at the nearby site of Tsaghkahovit, a site in central Armenia’s Aragatsotn province that hosted substantial human occupation in the Late Bronze and Late Iron ages (ca. 1500-1150 BC and 640-350 BC).With the organizational assistance of the mayor of Tsaghkahovit and the assistance of an Armenian translator, the public event was held in the community center at the Tsaghkahovit on July 25th, 2014. I was joined by two other members of Project ArAGATS, Dr. Lori Khatchadourian and Dr. Ian Lindsay, who also discussed the findings of their research at Tsaghkahovit. My goals were to share what we have learned about the ancient Late Bronze Age (LBA) community that once occupied their neighborhoods and in doing so to connect the past and present for community members by comparing their own experiences to the diets, diseases, and violence that people lived through in the past.  With this goal in mind, I decided to conduct a “hands on” learning experience by showing examples of arthritis, healed broken bones, cavities etc. on an individual excavated from the Late Bronze Age Tsaghkahovit cemetery.  Given the possible sensitivity to human remains, I was unsure how participants would react.  Yet, as soon as I started unpacking the bones and laying them out in anatomical position people walked up to the table and examined what I was doing.  It wasn’t long before the table was completely surrounded by young students asking questions and taking photos of each skeletal feature that I pointed out and avidly asking questions about everything from pathologies to determining the sex of a skeleton to preservation. In the formal presentation, I briefly discussed the human skeleton, bone chemistry, and what we can learn about societies from ancient human remains. While people related to the topics of dental disease and aging, how the individual was interred and traumatic injuries generated the most interest and prompted a discussion of how we might distinguish injuries sustained in an activity like boxing from those related to warfare or raiding. The workshop not only met, but exceeded my expectations, opening up a dialogue with the students about how they could get involved in our archaeological projects, while giving a teacher the opportunity to relate his own experience discouraging students from digging into the tombs themselves. The public forum thus gave community members a chance to communicate to the archaeologists some of their own feelings and interests in the ancient sites that neighbor their homes. We hope to build on this model with public outreach activities such as a community day and continuing discussions of how our research can contribute to local development and archaeological tourism.

the presentation at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Yerevan

The second part of the project consisted of an academic presentation coordinated by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (IAE) in Yerevan and the American Research Institute of the South Caucasus (ARISC) on July 29th, 2014 at the IAE. I presented the results of my Wenner Gren funded project on the biogeochemical analysis of human remains from Late Bronze Age and Iron I Period tombs excavated in the Tsaghkahovit Plain, Shirak Plain, and Sevan Basin in Armenia. The results of these analyses were used to reconstruct diet, specifically to distinguish types of plants (C3 versus C4 photosynthetic pathway) and animals (terrestrial versus marine) consumed, sources of the energy and protein portions of the diet, and tendencies toward herbivore or carnivore diets. In addition, movement was assessed based on the analysis of δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr. In the presentation I gave examples of how I have combined this information on movement and diet was combined with other osteological analyses such as disease, age, and sex to build rich biographies of individuals living in the LBA. While the issues of diet and mobility are central to LBA archaeology, the majority of comments that I received from the audience had to do with the potential of the bioarchaeological approach and biogeochemical analysis in the archaeology of Armenia.  The director of the Institute pointed out that this type of research on human remains had never been conducted in Armenia before and that he hoped not only that such research would continue but also stressed the need for Armenian students to learn from bioarchaeologists such as myself.

Through this combined engagement with both academic and public communities in Armenia, I was able to share the results of the first biogeochemical archaeological research in Armenia with the people who made the first stages of research possible and foster international collaborative relationships.  By demonstrating what can be learned about how people lived in the past from the bioarchaeological approach, I believe that an important first step was taken in creating an engaged community who is informed about and interested in human remains and their role in anthropological research.

#NationalAnthropologyDay: The Best of Anthrotainment

For too long, anthropology-flavored entertainment has existed in the compound shadow of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. The blunt truth of the matter is that when most people, professionals and lay alike, think of the discipline, their thoughts first turn to the pulpy relic-hunting rollicks of that iconic hero. With nothing against the terrifically entertaining Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, Indiana Jones is, frankly, a terrible ambassador for anthropology, his degree more a passport to exotic locales than integral to his exploits.

In honor of #NationalAnthropologyDay, here are some entertainments that strike at the discipline from different angles, and might even have something interesting to say.


The Last Wave (1977)

Australian director Peter Weir is probably best known for his surreal takes on quotidian existence like The Truman Show and midnight-movie mainstay Picnic at Hanging Rock. He followed up the latter classic with psychological thriller The Last Wave (1977), one of the best films that actually brushes up against ethical and philosophical concerns in the practice of cultural anthropology. Centering on a public defender tasked with representing a group of Aboriginal men accused of murdering a compatriot, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) finds himself increasingly fascinated with the mythology of the tribe to which his clients belong. He devises a strategy to cite the victim’s purported powerful belief in magic, and thereby fear of a recent curse, as the clandestine true cause of death, thus exonerating his kinsmen. As he delves deeper into the case, strange events begin to infest his life, and a greater apocalyptic secret is revealed.

David Burton is not an anthropologist; indeed, there is only a brief, one-scene appearance of an anthropologist in this film. Nevertheless, as he plots his defense and is drawn ever deeper into the supernatural mystery underlying the case, Chamberlain’s Burton comes to exemplify many of the perennial issues that fascinate the discipline. For all his reflexive advocacy on behalf of his clients, his attempts to really understand what went through their minds the night of the murder, how much does David Burton believe the argument underpinning his “ritual” defense? Is he, in the paraphrased words of an interlocutor, just another wealthy, guilty liberal, flailing for a symbolic act of cross-cultural understanding while secretly pitying the primitives? Furthermore, as the story’s supernatural elements begin to unfold, David’s White Savior complex becomes even more literal. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say you’ll find plenty of interesting to chew on while watching this one.


Altered States (1980)

In so many ways, Ken Russell’s 1980 body-horror thriller represents the quintessential anthropological fantasy. Adopted from a novel by legendary television writer Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States scoops out every corner of the disciplinary pop-memory by way of mid-20th century counterculture, weaving together new-age psychedelia, human evolution, and hair-brained academic inquiry with a mad-scientist panache that honors science fiction’s speculative roots.

While researching abnormal psychology, brilliant-but-troubled physiologist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) commandeers a disused isolation tank in his institution’s basement to conduct experiments with an obscure hallucinogen sourced from rural Mexico. An increasingly untethered program of self-experimentation alerts Jessup to the secret correspondence unlocked by the drug’s combination with sensory deprivation – he begins to “devolve” – display the phenotype of an ancient human species. It appears as though racial memory is at the root of this bizarre mash-up of indigenous Mexican ritual and high-tech experimentation – and it could change the world, if it doesn’t destroy him first.

Altered States is made in the spirit of much of the greatest science fiction – the ecstasy of scientific pursuit, and its costs, exist at the center of the conflict. However, in the film’s selection of anthropologists and related experts as the occupiers of the intrepid-scientist archetype, it manages to subvert genre expectations in interesting ways. Despite its scientific protagonists, including Jessup’s physical anthropologist wife and frequent foil Emily (Blair Brown), Altered States’ vision of Cambridge, Massachusetts feels less like a deep-space craft or secret underground laboratory and more like an actual scholarly community. These career academics act like real career academics, sparring with colleagues over margaritas at happy hours and lit joints at house parties, name-dropping potential collaborators and relevant papers in rapid-fire banter, and tinkering around outside the watchful eyes of the IRB. Regardless of what you think of the film’s science-fiction elements, the sympathetic, slice-of-life depiction of anthropologists and allied academics is truly a rare find.


“Darmok” (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (1991)

Star Trek, as a media franchise, has enough examples of anthropology throughout its multi-series history to easily count as a single entry (and more) for the purposes of this list. From its origins as the Wagon Train to the Stars through its later incarnation as occupying imperial power, the colonial, anthropological eye has always been active in these sci-fi allegories of humans encountering the alien unknown. The Original Series’ Enterprise fielded a designated “A&A (archaeology & anthropology) officer” and the learned Jean-Luc Picard was well-known for his love of archaeology and decoding alien mythic systems.

But perhaps no single episode better encapsulates Trek’s abilities to creatively riff on the discipline than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fifth-season episode “Darmok”, in which the crew is tasked with parsing an alien language previously thought unintelligible. Though handy 24th century translation technology allows vocabulary and syntax to pass unassailed, communication between the Enterprise and the Tamarians remains at loggerheads until the key revelation is made: the extraterrestrials lack a human-like sense of self, and make meaning exclusively through the metaphorical manipulation of their own mythology.

The mystery at the center of “Darmok” acts as both a trumped-up sci-fi illustration of how living languages can be pregnant with cultural meanings that escape mere syntax and grammar, but also evokes a sort of Levi-Straussian structuralism that outlines the thinking of the other as completely bounded (one might say hindered) by mythic frames. Regardless of the school of anthropological thought that the plot could be said to mimic, it’s delightful to watch the old sci-fi tradition of scientists solving a problem applied to aspects of culture and language.


Happy National Anthropology Day!

NYAS @ WGF: The Energy and Climate Change Panel

After a winter-weather cancellation last month, the NYAS Anthropology Section triumphantly returns to Wenner-Gren for the next installment of this year’s lecture series this coming Monday, February 23rd, from 7-9 PM at the Foundation’s Park Avenue South offices. The Foundation and the Academy welcome David Hughes, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe; Gökçe Günel, ACLS Teaching Fellow and Lecturer in Anthropology at Columbia University; and Stephanie Rupp, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Lehman College, CUNY, to share their ideas regarding the intersections of anthropology and climate change.

A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Please do not contact the Wenner-Gren Foundation with inquiries regarding registration.


David Hughes (Rutgers University)

How solar became “alternative”: slavery and the making of energy flows

Willem Blaeu's map of northwestern South America, 1635.

Experts who describe solar energy as an “alternative” – that contributes only a small fraction to our oil-driven economy – are measuring the wrong thing.   Every day, the sun gives us 20,000 times the wattage we consume in oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power.  Bizarrely, the entire conventional calculus of energy omits the overwhelming bulk of it, the elephant in a small room.  This paper examines an instance of such forgetting: the transition from solar energy to something like oil in the Orinoco Basin of colonial South America.  In the 1740s, the Jesuit missionary and geographer, Josef Gumilla marveled in the God-given fertility of the tropics. Solar rays and Spanish settlers, he hoped, would turn the Orinoco into a breadbasket for cacao.  Forty years later, the governor of Trinidad, Josef María Chacón proposed a second plan for colonization. On this island of the Orinoco delta, he identified tropical fertility with disease and overly dense vegetation.  Instead of solar rays, Chacón’s promotion of sugar required enslaved Africans, and lots of them.  The governor calculated employment rates per land area, death rates, and replacement rates through imports.  In so doing, he helped create the modern, narrow concept of energy: a transportable, storable commodity unrelated to either the landscape or to God.  One could almost squeeze exploited labor into barrels and sell it by the gallon.  When geologists discovered oil – on Trinidad, in fact, in 1859 – the energy experts were ready for it.  In cultural terms, slaves served as the bridge fuel from solar energy to petroleum.  Remembering this history adds a span to the bridge back in the other direction.


Masdar City under construction, 2012. Photo courtesy Jan Seifert via Wikimedia Commons

Gökçe Günel (Columbia University)

Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Green Business in Abu Dhabi

At the face of growing concerns regarding climate change and energy scarcity, investors and governments started promoting smart and eco friendly urban developments as sites of value production and potential salvation from a seemingly apocalyptic future. As part of this trend, cities built from scratch offer a vision of technologically complex, eco-friendly, and enjoyable modes of living, and serve as engines for economic growth. In exploring this trend more closely, this talk centers on oil-rich Abu Dhabi’s eco-city project, Masdar City. Drawing on seventeen months of multi-sited fieldwork at Masdar, as well as at MIT and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, this talk demonstrates that the Masdar City project attempts to generate “an economy of technical adjustments,” a means for vaulting over to a future where humans will continue to enjoy technological complexity, without interrogating existing social, political and economic relations. Invested in an image of the future drawn from science fiction, the economy of technical adjustments serves as a method for concentrating on modifications that bring forth promissory capital, enabling a multiplicity of actions and nonactions to be taken in the face of global environmental collapse. Yet this talk demonstrates that professionals at Masdar not only advocated such market-oriented technological solutions for climate change, but also consistently crafted justifications for their projects in light of the various contradictions that they saw exist in such a perspective. Analyzing the metaphor of “spaceship in the desert,” which the producers of Masdar City popularized, it inquires into the forms of temporality and spatiality the eco-city engendered. In this way, the talk seeks to draw attention to the alternative futures rendered invisible by the dominant drive for an economy of technical adjustments.


Stephanie Rupp (Lehman College, CUNY)

Blackouts: Illuminating Structures of Power in New York City

power station on Staten Island, 1970s

Energy provides the underlying power of New York City.  Energy runs throughout our city, mediating our work through electricity and technology; connecting us socially to neighbors and networks; sustaining our lives in every more intricate, invisible, and seemingly inevitable ways. Thomas Edison designed the municipal electrical grid in New York City to ensure that urban consumers of electricity would come to consider its flow to be inexpensive and indispensable as the primary force of individual power in society.  Edison’s vision of inexpensive, irresistible energy fueling urban society has been realized to an extent that might have surprised even him.  It is in the context of the absence of energy and the disruption of infrastructure—during blackouts, for example—that lines of social, economic, and political inequality become suddenly visible.  This paper proposes that notions of energy as a physical force, as technological innovation, as political control, as social agency, and as cultural metaphor are intertwined.  Energy is a social, economic, and political issue, as much (or more) as it is a technological issue.  This project illuminates that it is in the darkness of blackouts that these otherwise invisible and ignored structures of power are abruptly made visible. And it is in the blacked-out context of a massive rupture that sedimented relations of agency, structure, and power rise to the surface of individual, public, and institutional awareness, giving us a chance to reconsider and even renegotiate our attitudes towards energy, towards infrastructures that are technical, economic, and social, and towards underlying structures of inequality.

In Memorium: Dr. Pamela Smith

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our colleague, Dr. Pamela Smith.  During her 16 years of service with the Foundation, she made many contributions to the Foundation’s programs and to its mission.  She served as an advisor to three presidents and coordinated the Foundation’s International Programs from 1995 – 2006.  Her greatest passion was helping international students and scholars, both here at Wenner-Gren, as well as through her work at Pace University.  On the occasion of Pam’s retirement from the Foundation in 2006, we received many beautiful notes from former Wenner-Gren Fellows expressing their gratitude for her support and kindness.  As a tribute to Pam, we include an excerpt from one of the letters below.


I am happy to say that Pam has been an anchor in making my career in anthropology what it is today. She embodies the warmth, care, and resourcefulness that makes Wenner-Gren such a great organization. She went out of her way to invite us to gatherings, to send us information about programs and opportunities and to just find out how we are which is rare in many organizations that give rather than receive money. Pam, you are a true friend of global anthropology and I know Wenner-Gren will miss you. But you will remain in our thoughts and our worlds.


- Dr. Mwenda Ntarangwi, WGF Wadsworth International Fellow, 1995-99

(Wadsworth International Fellowship, formerly known as DCTF Program)


On behalf of the Wenner-Gren Trustees and Staff, we send our deepest condolences to Pam’s family and friends.  We feel privileged to have had her as both a colleague and a friend.

Guest Blog: Deflategate, or Ballghazi, and the Conundrum of Expertise

"The Shannon Portrait of the Hon Robert Boyle" by Johann Kerseboom - Chemical Heritage Foundation, Photograph by Will Brown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

We here at Wenner-Gren love to support and bring attention to the latest in anthropology. While that usually entails work down in the scholarly settings of the field or the lab, we also enjoy learning about the more unexpected, ephemeral targets of our colleagues’ analytical eyes. The following post is syndicated with permission from the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC). Michael Scroggins is a Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University and CASTAC Outreach Manager. He lives with a Patriots fan.

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

It is the week of Super Bowl Sunday and I live with a Patriots fan. For the last two weeks all serious conversation in our house has revolved around some aspect of the upcoming game. Unless you have been living under a rock (or inside a book), you can probably guess that most of our conversations center around why a set of footballs used by  the Patriots during the AFC Championship game were found to be under the minimum psi level specified by the NFL. Were the Patriots cheating by manually deflating footballs? Or is there a “natural” explanation for the deflation?

The interesting question from an STS perspective, and the hinge which cheating allegations revolve around, is whether or not the atmospheric conditions at the AFC championship game could have caused a football to deflate what the NFL has called “a significant amount.” The question is a thorny one because it is entirely unclear who counts as an expert on football deflation, where one might turn to find an expert opinion, or even what criteria might be appropriate in determining who is, or is not, an expert on football deflation. Worse, how might one find a deflation expert who does not have a rooting interest for or against the Patriots at this late date? In short,  who may enunciate the truths of football deflation?
Patriots head coach, and noted gridiron alchemist, Bill Belichick was the first to turn to science for an explanation. Like a modern day Boyle, he held a press conference in which he detailed an experiment conducted at the Patriots facility which he claimed demonstrated that natural conditions caused “significant” football deflation at the AFC Championship game. His explanation was detailed and involved a special method of preparing the football for play (that is, getting the correct feel for the quarterback) that can change the psi level without manual deflation.

Belichick’s experiment caused an immediate reaction. Science celebrities Bill Nye, the Science Guy (a well-known Seahawks fan and mechanical engineer) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (a theoretical physicist and perhaps a Giants, or Jets, fan) both weighed in on Belichick’s experiment, the former taking to morning television to rebut Belichick and the latter to twitter to voice his doubts.  The next day support for Belichick’s experiment appeared in the form of three Boston area professors (at least one of whom is a Bills fan).  Not one to miss a bandwagon, the NFL is currently consulting with the physics department at Columbia University (could they be Giants or Jets fans?) about the role of atmospheric conditions on football deflation.

While many mined theory for an explanation, others tried to replicate Belichick’s experiment.  The experimenters at HeadSmart Labs claimed to replicate Belichick’s claims about atmospheric conditions causing deflation. Meanwhile, a series of posts by Chad Orzel on his football deflation experiments are summed up here. The HeadSmart Labs experiment included inflating the football in a 75 degree room, soaking the footballs in water, which they claimed made them expand, then moving the footballs to a 50 degree room prior to measuring psi. Doing this, they claim psi was lowered by .9 to 1.8 psi per football, which is in line with the deflation claimed at the AFC Championship game. Orzel, for his part, notes that the series of experiments he conducted, which did not show significant deflation, were performed using a pressure sensor that measures absolute pressure, not gauge pressure. This is a critical difference when atmospheric conditions form part of the argument. No word on the HeadSmart Labs gauge, but a safe guess is that their gauge did not use absolute pressure.

Throughout this crisis of knowledge, Belichick has proved to be a savvy experimenter with a feel for the difficulties of the experimental method and the role of contingency in knowledge production (theoreticians beware!). Take note of this quote from his press conference on the localization of experimental technique and material, and the difficulty of replication:
When you measure a football, there are a number of different issues that come up. Number one, gauges. There are multiple types of gauges. The accuracy of one gauge relative to another, there’s variance there. We’re talking about air pressure. There’s some variance there. Clearly all footballs are different. So, footballs that come out of a similar pack, a similar box, a similar preparation, each football has its own unique, individual characteristics because it’s not a man-made piece of equipment. It’s an animal skin, it’s a bladder, it’s stitching, it’s laces. Each one has its own unique characteristics. Whatever you do with that football, if you do the same thing with another one, it might be close, but there’s a variance between each individual football.
If this is the state of the atmospheric conditions argument, the argument for human intervention has been moving forward as well. As of this writing the NFL has reviewed video footage showing the movement of the footballs in question prior to kickoff. The investigation has now centered on the 90 seconds a Patriots employee spent in a locked bathroom with the footballs later found to be deflated. Here, it has been argued, in a space free of video cameras the employee had time, opportunity, and motive to alter the footballs. Where the physicist has been the default expert for the atmospheric argument, the detective has emerged as the default expert on human motivation.

Not wanting to be left out, over the last few days, data scientists have weighed in on a statistical analysis claiming the Patriots fumble rate over the last few seasons (very low by NFL standards) cannot be explained by random fluctuation. Hence, as the dim logic of data science tells us, there must be foul play!

American football, as the saying goes, is a game of inches. Increasingly, it is also a game of expert witness.