Archive for October 28, 2015

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Suvanthee Gunasekera

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the final post of a series meeting this year’s cohort (here’s the first and second) we meet Suvanthee Gunasekera. A native of Sri Lanka, Gunasekera pursued her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Colombo and will begin work on a doctorate in Biological Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain.

Although we never see them with the naked eye, microorganisms play an important role in shaping human biology. My fascination with human evolution and variation was ignited during my undergraduate studies in Zoology at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was intrigued by the role of microorganisms in the development of human physiology, and by how the immune system detects and responds to infectious agents.

An interest in the interactions between humans and pathogens was the stimulus to undertake an epidemiological study to detect Human papillomavirus (HPV) in oral and pharyngeal cancer patients where the results of the study suggested HPV as a strong aetiological agent in developing oral and pharyngeal cancer in Sri Lanka. This aroused my curiosity of how infectious agents cause cancers, how such pathogens are transmitted and why they are expressed so variably in infected humans. The project also prompted me to try understand the biological differences in human populations and to investigate the manner in which they have evolutionarily diverged at the level of the immune response.

Soon, it came to my realization that the field of Biological Anthropology would best suit my research goals. Now, it is my desire to be one of the few fortunate individuals studying host-pathogen interactions to better understand human evolution and to produce basic research that can be applied not just to Biological Anthropology/Human Evolutionary Biology, but can also be useful in the development of products and strategies to reduce the global burden of infectious disease. With a particular emphasis on questions relating to human immune system diversification and co-evolution with pathogens, I will conduct research that combines immunologic, genetic, cell biology and bioinformatic techniques to better understanding human evolution. I believe that examining how past pathogen outbreaks and life experience affect present day immune function variation in humans will not only enlighten the study of human evolution, but also help deepen the connection between Anthropology and fields concerned with modern day disease challenges in humans.

NYAS @ WGF, October 26th: “Persistence between the Longue Durée and the Short Purée: Archaeological Perspectives on Colonialism and Indigeneity in New England”

The second installment of this season’s New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series will take place this coming Monday, October 26th, at our offices. We welcome Stephen W. Stillman, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Historical Archaeology Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, along with discussant Bradley Phillippi, Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University.

An anthropological understanding of colonialism and indigeneity in the Americas requires confronting several important questions about the connections between time, materiality, place, and people. How do archaeologists and other anthropologists measure culture change and continuity and at what scale, and why is the question framed in that way? How do people engage their pasts to live through their present and anticipate their future, and why has that been harder to visualize for archaeologists than for cultural anthropologists? What are the implications of these concepts and interpretations on pressing political and heritage issues today? This presentation will explore some potential answers to these questions, using an example of a collaborative archaeological project since 2003 between the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, a Native American community in Connecticut that has occupied its reservation lands since 1683. I argue that a notion of “persistence” may provide some relief to these questions (or more appropriately perhaps, dilemmas), not only as both an interpretive and a lived practice that resolves some tensions of the “longue durée” of indigenous history and the “short purée” of colonialism, but also as a perspective growing out of on-the-ground community engagement with indigenous communities today.

As always, the 7:00 PM lecture will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 PM. Registration with NYAS is not required.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Elif Irem Az

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the second of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows (here’s the first), we meet Elif Irem Az of Turkey, whose work concerns militarism, gender and violence and will be studying for a doctorate at Columbia University.

During my undergraduate studies in Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, my compulsory courses largely focused on quantitative research methods and grand theoretical narratives, which usually disregard the experience and subjectivity of both the subjects of the study and the researcher. As a result of my disappointment towards the mainstream research practice within political science as well as of my active involvement with the feminist movement(s) in Turkey, in the later stages of my undergraduate education, I gravitated towards sociocultural anthropology, a discipline which takes into account the significance of self-reflexivity and textuality.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts program in Cultural Studies at Sabancı University in the fall of 2012 with a full scholarship and teaching assistantship, and received my master’s degree in September 2014. Owing to my experience at Sabancı University, teaching is of great value to my academic life.

My master’s thesis entitled Military Masculinities in the Making: Professional Military Education in Contemporary Turkey was on military masculinities and professional military education in contemporary Turkey, and I have ongoing interests in militaries, militarism, gender and violence.

The connections between the body/self and labor in Turkey are central to my current research interests. In my doctoral work, I plan to focus on the intersections of the ongoing rural transformation in Aegean Turkey, national and international agricultural regulations of the neoliberal era, public discourses and policies on coal mining, and mineworkers’ understandings of the body as the self and as labor, and of life and death. Finally, I hope the interplay between fieldwork, ethnographic writing and fiction to be a fundamental concern of my research and writing.

White Activists in Indigenous Australia: Discussion on Anti-Racism, Solidarity and Humanism

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Robert Samet and “Engaging Journalism”

Robert Samet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Union College. In 2008 while a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Writing Crime: Journalism, Insecurity, and Narratives of Violence in Caracas, Venezuela,’ supervised by Dr. Sylvia Junko Yanagisako. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant.

One year ago Venezuela was at a crossroads. The death of President Hugo Chávez altered the country’s political landscape and there were questions about what the future held. Today it is in crisis. Soaring inflation, plummeting oil prices, and scarcity of goods have helped fuel frustration and political unrest. No one feels the current predicament more than Venezuelan journalists. My dissertation research (2007-2009) examined the press and the politics of urban violence in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. It used crime reporting as a window onto the dynamics of political engagement among journalists, editors, and media owners. I applied for the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct a series of follow-up workshops during the summer of 2014 about the promises and perils of engaged journalism in these times of political uncertainty.

As I prepared for the workshops, it became apparent that the environment for journalism in Caracas had changed dramatically since my last visit in 2013. Political polarization is nothing new in Venezuela; however, there was a heightened sense of professional precariousness among journalists working in both the public and the private sectors. There were good reasons for this. Over the past two years, government proxies bought out many prominent opposition news outlets. This accompanied a wave of firings and retirements, which have shaken the profession. When I began research on journalism in Caracas in 2006, it was arguably the most robust, open, diverse, and politically dynamic media environment in the world. Although reports that “press freedom” is dead in Venezuela are premature, there is no doubt that the space for journalistic engagement has constricted considerably. This should be cause for concern not just for the opposition but for the government as well. Auto-critique was essential to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution, and its gradual disappearance is foreboding.

What kinds of journalistic engagement are possible under the current conditions? Workshop participants discussed a number of different definitions and strategies for engagement, which I highlight here.

 

I. Definitions of Engagement

Over the course of the workshops, journalists offered three different definitions of engagement: engagement as confrontation, engagement as collaboration, and engagement as solidarity. By far the most common definition was engagement as confrontation. Journalists saw themselves as advocates for ordinary citizens against the wrongdoings of powerful persons and institutions. In this capacity, it was essential for journalists to engage publicly with the problems facing the country. However, this particular mode of engagement was becoming increasingly fraught. Consequently, journalists had begun thinking about engagement as collaboration with audiences and their peers.  This took the shape of online forums and reciprocal strategies with other journalists. Finally, some workshop participants argued that professional solidarity was a third way to think about engagement. Journalist unions were crucial to the continued protection of the profession and could offer a mode of engagement that sought to preserve the integrity of their work.

 

II. Outlets for Engagement

1)     Denunciation: In the past, the practice of denunciation was the principal means by which Venezuelan journalists attempted to exercise influence over the political arena. Among crime journalists, denunciations took the form of victims’ testimonies against police corruption, gang violence, and government neglect. It was widely agreed that editors, pressured from above, had begun cracking down on this practice. Although journalists believed that denunciation remained one of their most powerful tools for political engagement, they agreed that it had become necessary to reserve it for only the most extraordinary cases. Whereas before it was common to publish denunciations that were not backed by strong investigation, such testimonies now demanded hard factual evidence. Some even said that this was an improvement over past practices in which the press used victims to launch ad hominem attacks. 

2)     Online engagement: Although Venezuelan journalists have been using social media for as long as their peers in North America (especially Twitter and Facebook), the current situation has amplified the importance of online communities as sites of journalistic engagement. Workshop participants identified three main developments. The first was the rise of peer-to-peer engagements with readers. More than ever, journalists found themselves responding directly to comments and queries from audiences. The second was the incorporation of citizen journalism into the practice of professional reporting. Reporters said that readers and viewers were important sources of information with whom they increasingly collaborated. Third and finally, there was a boom in for-profit online news outlets. Journalists had some hope that these new outlets might at least temporarily make up for some of the license that they had lost in other spheres.

3)     Professional Organization: Within the newsrooms, unions and professional associations were a critical tool of empowerment. In particular, the workers’ unions played a strong role in protecting journalists and fostering professional solidarity. Although reporters were openly divided on the prospects for activism on the part of these unions, it was clear that they were an important locus for journalistic engagement.

4)     Collaboration: Finally, a group of crime reporters argued that collaboration between reporters was also a form of engagement that was too often overlooked or demeaned as “pack journalism.” Among crime reporters, journalists from competing news outlets worked together to cover stories and often shared information. Responding to my own writings on this subject, they pointed out that working in teams allowed them to be more thorough in their investigations, to engage more thoroughly with the victims of crime, and to cover a much larger swath of material than would otherwise be possible.

 

In addition to debates about journalistic engagement, the workshops also provided an opportunity for the participants to offer comments and critique on the research that I conducted with the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2008-2009). Two of my current chapters were translated and circulated in advance. They provided a platform for a grounded conversation about what has changed and what remains the same in the field. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant afforded the rare opportunity for research participants to offer feedback on the framing and execution of the book manuscript in progress.