Maria Theresia Starzmannis Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. She originally was awarded the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2008 as a Ph.D. student at the State University of New York – Binghamton, to aid research on ‘Embodied Knowledge and Community Practice: Stone Tool Production at Fıstıklı Höyük,’ supervised by Dr. Reinhard W. Bernbeck. After analyzing the technological organization of stone tool production at this 6th millennium BCE site in southeastern Turkey, Dr. Starzmann applied for and was granted the Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2013 to develop and present a series of workshops for schoolchildren living in proximity to the research site. In this post, Starzmann shares her experiences educating young people about Neolithic lifeways.
Seen from the present, the ancient world often appears foreign to us. Looking at a Late Neolithic site, the contemporary reader may expect to find functionally differentiated stone tools—an archaeological ‘tool kit’ similar to the implements in a North American kitchen drawer. The absence of such artifacts often comes as surprise: as my research at the site of Fıstıklı Höyük in Southeastern Turkey has shown, Late Neolithic villagers lived with a relative paucity of material items. Up until the late 20th century, this scarcity has led archaeologists to describe the Late Neolithic societies of the Middle East as ‘primitive.’
Against such an ‘othering’ of past social groups, my dissertation research set out from the understanding that the past is more than an impoverished mirror image of the present. Seeking to share my alternative reading of the Late Neolithic past, I applied for a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology grant. The idea was to offer a series of workshops for school children in Turkey, providing local students with an opportunity to explore the ancient world in their own terms. In developing the workshop materials, I believed it particularly important to counter a reading of ancient cultures as ‘primitive.’ The scarcity of artifacts documented at Fıstıklı Höyük, for example, is better understood as the basis for sharing things than as indicative of a primitive lifestyle. Against this background, Late Neolithic communities appear in a different light: while they may have lacked a relatively hierarchical social organization, group cohesion seems to have been established by collective work in the context of ‘communities of practice.’
With these ideas in mind, I returned to Şanlıurfa, where I had carried out my dissertation fieldwork. Two colleagues, both of who had previous experience working in educational projects, accompanied me. Nilgün Çakan, a social anthropologist from Berlin, Germany, and Mina Eroğlu, an archaeologist from Ankara, Turkey, were engaged project partners and precious travel companions throughout our stay in Turkey.
Together, we visited a local elementary and middle school, Özel Şanlıurfa Saraç İlgi Okulları, for the duration of two weeks, where we conducted several workshops with 10-12 year old students. Prof. Evangelia Pişkin of Middle Eastern Technical University (METÜ), who kindly agreed to take on an advisory role in the project as well as establish the contact to the local school, supported the preliminary organization of the workshops. At the school, Mr. Halil Sarac and Mr. Mehmet Tokgöz were attentive and helpful in coordinating the workshops and providing the necessary technical equipment.
In organizing the project, it was crucial that the workshops were interactive. This meant that we provided the space for children to respond to questions and prompts as well as to as ask their own questions. Each workshop was conducted as a conversation with the children. In an instructional session, we first explained some of the basics of archaeological work. Starting from how to acquire an excavation permit to the actual excavation process, we also introduced the students to the documentation, analysis, and curation of artifacts. We had brought with us a small study collection of archaeological artifacts—pottery sherds and stone tools—that the students analyzed.
Based on the archaeological materials, the students were quick to draw comparisons between ancient cultures and contemporary village life in Turkey. Many students told us about traditional cooking and building methods not only to be found in archaeological textbooks but also in rural areas in Turkey: they mentioned the use of the tandır oven for baking bread, or of mud-brick for the construction of the beehive-shaped houses that can be found in the area of Harran, just 20 km south of Şanlıurfa. There was also distinct sense among the children that the past was in many ways different from the present and characterized in particular by the lack of modern technologies. This lack was not perceived in a negative way, however; rather, as one student put it, “People back then were more intelligent, because they didn’t have TV.”
The workshop also included an in-class exercise: inviting the children to travel back in time, we asked them to imagine a typical day in the Late Neolithic village of Fıstıklı Höyük. What would a day in the life of a 11-year old boy or girl have been like at Fıstıklı Höyük? In which ways was past life different from your life today, and in which ways would it have been similar? In answering these questions, the children relied on reconstruction drawings of Fıstıklı Höyük that Toronto-based artist Bryan DePuy had contributed to the project. The images depict Late Neolithic village life—men, women, and children are busy fishing, cooking, and making pottery or stone tools—and they also give a hint about the nature of past social relations.
In their stories, many children actively engaged the idea of a ‘sharing economy,’ with one student stating that “life back then was better, today people are egoists.” This sentiment corresponded to a general understanding among the children that in Late Neolithic societies there might have been more room to accommodate people who “had different talents.” That these talents needed to be passed on between the generations was also of concern to the students: in the reconstruction drawing of Fıstıklı Höyük we see adults sitting with children, leading several students to suggest that “knowledge was shared between father and son.” But according to the students, the status of parents or village elders was not established by way of coercion. Instead, “older people had more authority, because they were more experienced,” and someone who stood at the top of the social hierarchy of the village, maybe a ‘sheikh,’ was “not someone powerful, but someone smart.”
To Mina, Nilgün, and myself, these answers demonstrated that our project was about much more than teaching children about cultural heritage. Initially conceived of as a way of bringing ‘home’ my dissertation work, the workshops soon unfolded into a genuine conversation in which the students shared their ideas about a different world. The children’s stories are beautiful accounts of the possibilities of a world that is inclusive of diversity, communal ways of living, and sharing. The project thus opened up new spaces for talking about history and for learning from each other. Or, as student Doğa put it in her story about living a day in a Late Neolithic village, “I am sure, I could teach [the people from the past] a few things and most likely they would be able to teach me a few things as well.”
As per her request, we have included Starzmann’s summary of her project in Turkish.
Şanlıurfa-Türkiye’de bulunan bir ilköğretim okulunda organize ettiğimiz bir seri atölye çalışmasının hedefi, bölgenin Geç Neolitik dönemi ile ilgili bildiklerimizi öğrencilerle etkileşimli bir şekilde paylaşabilmekti. Arkeologların ne iş yaptıkları ile ilgili basit açıklamalar içeren bir sunumdan ve küçük bir etüdlük eser kolleksiyonunun çocuklarla birlikte analiz edilmesinin ardından çocukları, bir Geç Neolitik köyü olan Fıstıklı Höyük’te gündelik hayatı keşfetmeye ve geçmişe dair kendi yorumlarını ortaya koymaya teşvik ettik. Çocuklarla yaptığımız konuşmalar sırasında eski dünya ve kadim hayatlar rengarenk bir şekilde yeniden hayat buldu. Bunun da ötesinde, çocukların “sorunlu” bazı arkeolojik buluntular üzerine yaptıkları yorumlar, halihazırdaki arkeolojik modellere yeni bakış açıları getirdi: örneğin, arkeologların genelde karmaşık toplumsal organizasyonun yokluğuyla tanımlamaya meyilli olduğu Geç Neolitik dönem toplulukları konusunda çocuklar, “paylaşım ekonomisi” ve komünal yaşam ile karakterize olmuş bir kültür olasılığı üzerinde durmayı tercih ettiler.
Jessica Barnes is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Environment & Sustainability at the University of South Carolina. In 2007, while a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Farming Fayoum: The Flows and Frictions of Irrigation in Egypt,’ supervised by Dr. Paige West. We welcome her to the blog to share her experiences working with our Engaged Anthropology Grant and returning to the field to share her insights with the community.
Over the past years, I have become increasingly comfortable talking about my work in academic contexts. Presentations at the AAA meetings no longer scare me, talks to other colleagues are fun rather than alarming, lectures to undergraduates are not a cause of anxiety. I feel a sense of belonging in the academic world. It is a familiar cultural space in which people “think through” ideas, “work with” certain theorists, say “right?” a lot, and do a funny rotating motion with the thumb and forefinger of one hand as they talk. In my research site within Egypt, I feel a different sense of belonging. I am comfortable walking through the fields with farmers who I have known for years, talking with irrigation engineers, meeting with government officials in the water ministry, and hanging out with international consultants who run water projects. Yet giving a formal presentation about my ethnographic research in these spaces? To be honest, the thought initially terrified me. Would anyone find it interesting? Would it seem abstract and irrelevant? Would it be politically sensitive? Thanks to the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant, I had the opportunity and encouragement this summer to step outside of my comfort zone and bring the results of my academic research to my fieldwork site. It ended up being an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience.
During my doctoral fieldwork in Egypt, in 2007-8, I conducted ethnographic research on water with farmers, irrigation engineers, government officials, and international donors in Fayoum Province and Cairo. This work culminated in a book, Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt (Duke University Press, September 2014). In the book, I argue that Egypt’s water is not a given object of management, but rather, is made as a resource by day-to-day practices that take place across multiple scales. Some of the most active political contestation around water, I propose, occurs not in the realm of international treaty negotiations and large dam projects that has received so much attention in the literature, but rather, around these everyday practices of making the resource in quantity and quality, space and time.
In my engagement project, which I conducted in May-June 2014, my goal was to share the results of my work with people in Egypt who have an interest in the Nile, and to open up some spaces for discussion. Arriving in the midst of the presidential election, it was a fascinating time to be in Egypt. The “CC” graffiti all around Cairo and Fayoum by the time I left reflected the optimism of many about the newly elected President Sisi, but also, the marginalization of many others. While people’s political positions seemed to be deeply divided, a constant refrain I heard was concerns about poverty, livelihoods, and governance of the nation’s resources – issues that my work, with its focus on one of Egypt’s most fundamental resources, speaks to.
I gave my first presentation in Fayoum Province to a group of 20 farmers. I started my talk by explaining that what led me to this research topic was an observation that much of the literature on the Nile gives scant consideration to farmers, even though it is farmers who use 90% of the river’s water. In my opinion, to understand more about what is happening to the water of the Nile, we have to look to the sites where water is actually being used on a day-to-day basis. This idea resonated with those present, who are well aware that they are often marginalized when it comes to water management debates. We had a lively discussion about the practices of farm-level water management that I discuss in the book. I also talked about some of water management practices that are taking place at other scales, which most farmers are not so familiar with. For example, I explained how in times of high Nile flows, when the Lake Nasser reservoir gets too full, the Ministry of Water uses a spillway to divert water into the desert. The evaporation of this water from the desert is a powerful illustration of the irony that while many farmers face water scarcity, in some parts of Egypt the problem is actually one of excess.
I gave my next two talks in Cairo. The first was hosted by the Water Institute for the Nile and Nahdet el-Mahrousa; the second by the Research Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the American University of Cairo. Each event attracted audiences of around 30 people, comprising Egyptian and international researchers, development practitioners, journalists, irrigation engineers, activists, civil society representatives, academics, government officials, and students. Many of these people work on water-related topics and are familiar with Nile issues. Being based in Cairo, however, most of them only have a limited knowledge about the day-to-day practices of water management along canals and in the fields. This was the part of my work that I think they found especially interesting. Many were also unfamiliar with ethnographic research and were struck by my different approach to looking at these issues. My argument that charging farmers for irrigation water and educating farmers are not the best approaches for dealing with water scarcity sparked particularly heated discussion.
Overall, this was a valuable challenge for me to think about the parts of my work that might be relevant to non-anthropologists. I was pleasantly surprised at the interest people expressed and at the vibrancy of the discussions that my work generated – discussions from which I learned a great deal. The engagement project inspired me to continue these sorts of interactions as I move forward in my next ethnographic study of food security, wheat, and bread in Egypt.
Alicia McGill is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at North Carolina State University. In 2008, while a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, she was awarded Wenner-Gren’s Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Students, Teachers, and Community Leaders Negotiating National and Local Heritage Ideologies in Belize,’ supervised by Dr. Bradley Levinson. Five years later, she became one of the very first recipients of the WGF Engaged Anthropology Grant, which enabled her to return to her fieldsite in the Central American country to share the results of her original research.
I received a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant (EAG) to present the results of my cultural heritage-based dissertation research in Belize in summer 2013. In my dissertation research, I examined how constructions of heritage are promoted through public venues including archaeological practice, tourism, and education and how these shape the cultural production of young citizens, specifically in two Belizean villages (Crooked Tree and Biscayne). Through my work, I learned about state efforts (especially in education) to emphasize certain forms of archaeological heritage and cultural diversity over others to reinforce national identity. I also observed ways that messages about the past are interpreted and negotiated by community members as they navigate contemporary identity politics. My research connected with many public issues, especially education policy, archaeological practice, and heritage management, which is why I applied for an EAG.
JOANNE R. NUCHO is a postdoctoral scholar in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. In 2010, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Producing the Neighborhood without the Nation: ‘Trans-Municipal’ Urban Planning in Lebanon,’ supervised by Dr. William Michael Maurer, aiming to study the relationship between urban infrastructure and cultrual politics and identity in post-Civil War Beirut. She recently received the Engaged Anthropology Granttofollow-up her research with a return to the city to conduct a filmmaking workshop.
I conducted my dissertation research between 2010-2011 in a working class neighborhood outside of Beirut, Lebanon called Bourj Hammoud. Bourj Hammoud is an area full of workshops, mostly small-scale shoe and clothing manufacturing as well as jewelers. It is also a bustling commercial center where many Beirut-dwellers come to shop. Bourj Hammoud is known throughout the greater Beirut area as an “Armenian quarter,” it is, in fact highly diverse with members of various Lebanese sects as well as migrant workers living and working there. My dissertation focused on the ramifications of various urban planning initiatives as well as infrastructures and social service institutions on the formation of sectarian identity and a sense of belonging. During the course of my dissertation research, I used photography and videography to document the ways in which people accessed resources and services like education, medical care, electricity and water in various ways, both through sectarian institutions as well as informal networks.
My plan during my fieldwork research was to make an ethnographic video documenting the networks that people navigate in order to access the services so vital to everyday life. However, while filming, I quickly realized the potential for the process of filmmaking to be much more collaborative in nature. At the time, I taught English at a local social service center to a group of young adults. After I arranged some documentary film screenings at the center, the students expressed interest in making their own films, and it was with this group that I realized the potential for ethnographic filmmaking to serve both as a collaborative research methodology, as well as a means for these young people to conceptualize the ways in which urban infrastructures perpetuate sectarian forms of belonging and facilitate discussion within the community through a screening series.
I returned in December 2013 to conduct a filmmaking workshop in Bourj Hammoud with 8 students. The workshop was designed to provide technical training in videography and basic editing skills. However, and perhaps more importantly, I envisioned it as a forum to discuss issues raised by the various film projects. Lebanese artist and photographer Rosy Kuftedjian served as a guest lecturer and allowed us to use her studio space, which enabled us to meet outside of the regular hours of the social service center where I had initially planned to conduct the workshop. Many of the workshop participants worked or attended classes, so flexibility in meeting hours was crucial. We spent the first several sessions on a number of individual assignments whereby each student documented a typical day in their lives. This initial exercise proved to be invaluable both in terms of allowing the students to become more accustomed to shooting handheld video, as well as encouraging conversations about the role of urban infrastructures in creating a sense of meaning and belonging in various social worlds. For example, one of the students documented two journeys across town using different modes of transportation. In one journey, she took a private, informal “van” service and in another, she took a semi-private “bus.” Filming her journey across town and back made her reconsider all of the ways that peoples’ daily experience of transportation, whether in a private car, a van, a bus or on foot, changed profoundly their experience of the city. Navigating her way across Beirut by bus, using routes that were not printed on a map through neighborhoods that she was not necessarily familiar with was a very social experience that involved asking bus drivers and other passengers for ways to connect to other locations. Our conversation around this preliminary exercise helped demonstrate how the camera was much more than a recording device or a mode of documentation. Rather, it could enable moments of reexamination where the mundane was interrupted by looking again, or “freezing time” through the camera’s lens.
Once the students were comfortable using the cameras and were familiar with basic editing techniques, they collaborated to produce 3 films in the remaining weeks. Each group selected a different topic – informal electricity services, the history of a local shoe workshop, and the memories of an eighty-year old resident of Bourj Hammoud. After each group screened some of their rough footage, we discussed how the films could visually communicate the connections between urban space and urban infrastructures and a sense of belonging to a particular community or even a sense of identity. The two films that dealt with various histories helped challenge some assumptions about Bourj Hammoud as a monolithic Armenian neighborhood, even as they highlighted the history of the first generation of Armenian refugees of the genocide in former Ottoman lands who initially urbanized the area. We compiled many of our thoughts from these discussions into a booklet about how the filmmaking process profoundly transformed the students’ experience of their neighborhood.
At the end of the workshop, the students and I organized a screening of the three edited films in Bourj Hammoud. The screening was a great success, and many of the students felt encouraged to continue to make more films and distribute them online. Rosy Kuftedjian has agreed to serve as an ongoing coordinator for the students, allowing them to store and access the equipment in her studio. I also plan to continue my organizing role in the workshop with participants that I maintain long-term correspondence with who would like to continue their filmmaking practice. I hope to return to Lebanon by the end of 2014. The students also expressed interest in training other students in filmmaking techniques. We are collectively planning to show their films in different venues in the greater Beirut area. Thus, the workshop will have an ongoing impact, with the participants continuing to make and share their work with a wider public.
In December 2013 I returned to my fieldsite in Mumbai, India, where I studied the social, cultural, and ethical implications of transnational surrogacy. The practice of transnational surrogacy forms part of a broader phenomenon known as fertility tourism, transnational reproduction, and cross border reproductive care, involving the travel of prospective parents in pursuit of assisted reproductive technology (ART) services such as gestational surrogacy, egg donation, and in vitro fertilization. When I began this research in 2008 I was especially interested in how various actors—including commissioning parents, surrogate mothers, and egg donors—understand and articulate notions of kinship and race as they undergo assisted conception across national, ethnic, and class boundaries. Since then, my interests have expanded to include questions related to power and agency for all actors involved, but especially for the Indian women who become surrogate mothers for foreign clients and wealthy Indians.
These questions are important to consider, particularly as surrogacy remains unregulated in India and the Draft ART (Regulation) Bill and Rules awaits decision in Parliament. As debates continue around how to legislate the flourishing fertility industry, various groups have argued that major gaps exist in the protection of surrogate mothers and children in the current draft bill (Sama 2010). Yet the voices and perspectives of Indian women who participate in commercial surrogacy remain largely absent in ongoing discussions around ART policy and legislation. Because of this, I wanted to return to India to share my research findings, which illustrate the ways in which Indian women do not conform to simplistic stereotypes and binary oppositions between agent and victim. Indeed, these findings demonstrate how women resist dominant constructions of surrogates as powerless victims and express forms of individual and collective agency, albeit within larger structures of power.
In this engagement project, then, my goals were to disseminate research findings and to provide a forum in which Indian women involved in surrogacy could voice their hopes, desires, and visions for the future of surrogacy in India. The aim was to provide an opportunity for surrogate mothers and egg donors to articulate their concerns around the health, medical, social, and contractual aspects of commercial gestational surrogacy. Thus, this engagement project encompassed several activities, carried out in December 2013 and January 2014 in Mumbai, India, including a participatory workshop with surrogates and egg donors and a research presentation with the local scholarly community.
Dr. Lisa Overholtzer is Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at Wichita State University. In 2009, as a doctoral student at Northwestern University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Household Spaces and Everyday Practices at Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico,’ supervised by Dr. Elizabeth M. Brumfiel. In 2013, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and share her research findings with the descendent community.
My Wenner-Gren funded dissertation research investigated the Aztec imperial transition from the perspective of commoner households at the site of Xaltocan, capital of the pre-Aztec Otomí city-state. While ethnohistoric documents suggested that all of Xaltocan’s residents fled when their polity was conquered, and that the Aztec king sent taxpayers to repopulate the site some forty years later, my excavations of commoner houses provided clear evidence of continuity. Houses were constructed and burials were interred in the same spaces from 1240 to 1650 C.E., and radiocarbon dates revealed no gap in occupation. This analysis allowed me to reveal the exercise of power by imperial elites, which involved the silencing of ordinary people and the rewriting of their histories. A bottom-up contextual analysis of multiple lines of evidence—household architecture, domestic refuse, human skeletal remains, and ancient mitochondrial DNA—then offered an alternative narrative based on the histories that commoners inscribed in the material record. My dissertation project took a bottom-up approach not only theoretically, but also in practice. In line with the recent paradigm shift within the discipline away from exclusivity and colonialist modes of research and toward inclusivity and socially self-conscious models of investigation, I engaged descendants through community archaeology. This process culminated in a team-wide public symposium at the end of the field season.
As part of my continued efforts to ensure that archaeological research benefits members of the descendant community, I returned with several students and colleagues in July 2013 to create a more permanent and more accessible mode of dissemination in the form of a new exhibit hall. This extension of the local museum was funded by a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology grant, Wichita State University, the David and Sally Jackman Foundation, and the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology. This project was designed to fulfill community needs by attracting tourists, educating the public about the town’s history and archaeological record, teaching visitors about the archaeological research process, and serving as a permanent interface between archaeologists and the descendant community in Xaltocan.
This exhibit hall, which opened in September 2013, presents narratives of Xaltocan history that are based not on the elite-authored and manipulated documentary record, but on the practices of the subordinated commoners who formed the backbone of the Aztec empire. The central feature of the exhibit is a Replica house, an authentically reconstructed adobe house featuring stone foundations and a thatched reed roof. The Xaltocan replica house brings ordinary people to life, but perhaps more importantly presents archaeological evidence of the occupational continuity revealed by archaeological research. We chose to reconstruct the house occupied precisely during the supposed vacant period in Xaltocan’s history, thereby highlighting the persistence and resilience of ancient Xaltocan families. Rather than presenting a history in which conquered residents had no other choice than to flee when their town was conquered in 1395 C.E., we narrate how Xaltocan families persevered, strategically adapting their daily practices according to their changing social, political, and economic context. We offer an alternative narrative that does justice to the practices of subordinated and silenced commoners in the past, thereby countering the exercise of imperial power.
Building the replica house was an experimental archaeology project involving collaboration with an adobe consultant and reed farmer and weaver brought in from the broader region. It also involved experimentation with materials used in ancient times, but not today, such as cactus juice employed as a mortar binder, as well as avoiding modern materials, such as animal manure added as a binder in adobe blocks, that would not have been available to pre-Hispanic builders. We also replicated the patio and house mound via a wooden platform and displayed the burials of household members in their place under the patio, visible through plexiglass windows. Finally, we furnished the house and patio with replicas of the kinds of objects residents would have had. A backstrap loom, baskets filled with dried foodstuffs, gourds, and sleeping mats were placed inside the house. The grinding stone and griddle women would have used to make tortillas every day were placed on the patio, on top of the graves of their loved ones, demonstrating how ancient residents lived with their dead. The exhibit hall was painted with colors and decorative motifs found on spindle whorls recovered in my excavations.
Together with text panels in Spanish and English, photographs, and exhibit cases filled with excavated artifacts, the replica house teaches visitors about the distinct line of evidence that archaeology can provide. The exhibits highlight how archaeologists date deposits, from stylistic seriation to stratigraphy to radiocarbon dating; analyze human bone and identify sex, age, occupational activities, and chronic illness; and reconstruct gender norms and household philosophies using the material record. The new exhibit hall teaches residents to see the archaeological record not as obstacles to construction, trinkets with monetary value, or simple curiosities, but rather as useful testimonies of the cultural practices of their ancestors. Through this museum and educational programs planned in the Xaltocan cultural center adjacent to the museum—such as summer youth classes on archaeology, Xaltocan history, and technical drawing—local residents can begin to see archaeological resources as sources of history, identity, and possibly future professional study.
Emily Yates-Doerr is a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. In 2007, while a doctoral candidate at New York University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Weight of the Body: Changing Ideals of Nutrition, Health and Fat in Guatemala,’ supervised by Dr. Emily Martin. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to Guatemala and perform engaged activities on ‘Translation in Practice: Obesity, Fatness, and Dietary Health in Guatemala.’ Below, Dr. Yates-Doerr shares her experience working with the EAG and the workshops she conducted“discussing the social lives of nutrition programs and policies.”
Background to the Engagement Project
As reported deaths from heart attacks, strokes and diabetes in Guatemala have escalated, recent public health interventions have aimed to provide education about healthy eating and exercise patterns. My Wenner-Gren-funded fieldwork, which examined several of these interventions, explored how obesity science circulated within people’s lives.[i] Central to my research was the question of how Guatemalans who traditionally associated fatness with health and prosperity were making sense of education that linked weight to potentially dangerous metabolic conditions.
Frictions between diverse ideas of well-being were a focal point of the inquiry. During fieldwork I met diabetic patients who added sugar to their coffee because it was fortified with valuable nutrients; women with heart disease who avoided broccoli because they wanted to lose weight and were familiar with information about child health that linked vegetables and vitamins to (in this case desirable) weight gain; mothers, concerned about microbes in water and pesticides on vegetables, who fed their children chips and sodas to keep them from becoming sick; and so on. As different visions of health collided, the outcomes of interventions often differed from those anticipated by policy makers and educators.
I designed my engagement project to create a space within scientific and education centers to discuss the social lives of nutrition programs and policies. I wanted to share the results of my research with the scientists, nutritionists, and public health educators with whom I had worked, and who were themselves largely invested in an emerging genre of research labeled “translational research” which aims to make scientific results applicable to the population studied. Yet rather than simply report on my findings – a method of knowledge dissemination that I critique in my work as one-sided and, as a result, often ineffective – I organized workshops where various participants could collaboratively discuss challenges that arose through the practice of translation.
I drew from my fieldwork to prepare questions – a scaffold for our discussions – but the participants came with questions of their own.[ii]Many come from a tradition of policy research that values anthropological insight[iii] and they wanted to discuss how ethnographic sensitivity to knowledge production can help evaluate, sharpen, and respond to problems of translation they were encountering in their own research.
Do qualitative methods differ from ethnographic methods? How do you know when you’ve done enough research to validate your claims to authority? How can knowledge based in critical reflexivity be replicated, and if it cannot be replicated, how can it confidently be used to shape policies?
Like much of anthropology, some of the workshops’ most poignant moments arrived in unexpected asides. One of the meetings was attended by a Dutch nutrition scientist. Though I hold a US passport, I have been working in Amsterdam for the past two years. I mentioned in passing the differing beliefs held by the public health systems of the Netherlands and the US when it came to both childhood illnesses and hand sanitizer. She didn’t disagree with the assessment, but she was aghast that I had framed her country’s science in the language of belief.
“Belief? This sounds so pejorative” she said. But then she also noted, reflexively, that our group had just been speaking about Maya views on diet and health as beliefs—a realization that brought to our conversation an introspective pause as we considered the shortcomings of this term.
At the largest gathering of roughly 20 doctors and scientists in Guatemala City there was an extended discussion on the difficulty of crafting a useful public health indicator for hunger.
While everyone who voiced an opinion recognized the political utility of such an indicator – the millennium development goals, in which hunger’s elimination figures prominently, have garnered far more media and policy attention than their architects imagined – they were skeptical about the deployment of a rhetoric of science for such unabashedly political ends.
This raised debate between policy and laboratory scientists about what, if anything, they might be able to say about health. Yet even those nutrition scientists whose research was technical – focused, for example, on the chemical binding properties of iron – recognized that the questions deemed worthy of funding, and the acceptance and dissemination of their research were interwoven into political agendas, muddling clear delineations between science and culture. (And there, of course, is a key lesson imparted by the critical reflexivity of anthropology).
I shared with the workshop participants something I had learned during my fieldwork in the highlands, where many Guatemalans hold fatness to be healthy. There is a tendency among (so-called) educated Westerners to hear this and dismiss it as provincial, erroneous knowledge—the backwards thinking of someone who does not understand the true consequences of weight gain. But this dismissal overlooks a regional distinction between fatness (a desirable sign of prosperity and abundance) and obesity (a measure of weight, that does, indeed, often correlate with illness). In this sense, those who held that fatness was healthy were not wrong;[iv] they were instead engaged in practices of health that differed from those of the (apparently not so) knowing Westerner.
The participants were intrigued by this finding. After all, a plan to combat fatness might easily come across as nonsensical to those for whom fatness is desirable—for whom health cannot be defined by measurable variables.
Several researchers were running into obstacles in their process of collecting data on eating and health. One group was studying how Indigenous beliefs impacted the consumption behavior of post-partum women and was investigating whether women were eating caliente or frio foods after giving birth.
Ethnographic literature makes clear that Indigenous classification of foods correlates to a situated quality of eating and not to a measurable temperature of food. But when coding their data, which had been translated into Spanish and would eventually become translated into English, the scientists could not easily discern whether the reference to caliente or frio was a reference to a quality or temperature. We discussed the problems of coding across languages—of forcing heterogeneous meanings into someone else’s lingua franca, be it Spanish, English or the language of measured calculations.
By the end of the workshop, the questions we had started with about the reliability of ethnographic methods had reversed upon themselves. Now at stake was the question of how to do good quantitative research given that translations do not hold stable.
During the workshops we encountered several situations in which information does not move smoothly from site to site, but becomes transformed as it travels. I want to offer a concluding story that offers a tentative idea of where to go from here.
It was the end of the day. I had accompanied a small group of scientists to a meeting of rural Mam women who had gathered to discuss things they found important, or beautiful, or challenging in their lives.
On other days the scientists collected clear plastic vials of spit, later analyzing this for a biomarker (cortisol) of what many health professionals call “stress.” But the scientists knew that these women did not use this concept and they were curious about the local meanings of the biomarker. The day’s meeting was a preliminary attempt to learn about the perspectives of the women.
As we walked back to the office along the busy road from the bus terminal, I asked the lead scientist what they were hoping to find. She said she wasn’t sure, but three small babies had recently died in a community where they were carrying out their study, and they wanted to develop a richer language for communication so as to better understand what might have gone wrong.
In particular, they wanted to know more about why the women, who largely depended upon midwives or received no formalized prenatal care at all, were afraid of the regional hospital. Many saw it as a space of death and the researchers wanted to better understand the women so that eventually they might more effectively encourage them to seek medical care while also helping the hospital to provide them with better services.
It is a testament to the power of anthropological insight well beyond the domain of the field of anthropology that the scientists recognized the relevance of narrative and cultural perspective to their work. Still, attention to translation in meaning, which is the terrain of cultural competency, can come with sometimes profound limitations insofar as culture, like meaning itself, is treated as “a reified, essential, static thing” (Taylor 2003:160)— a treatment that can elide, rather than engage with, the realities of others.
As Helena Hansen and Jonathon Metzl eloquently argue in their work on structural competency, a focus on difference in culture may not only fail to ameliorate stigma but may bolster the institutional forces that give it life. [v] In this case, I cautioned the scientists that concern for belief might divert attention – and resources – away from the material stratifications through which Guatemala’s landscape is organized. It struck me that beginning research out of a concern that women were not going to hospitals was itself a disquieting place to start. Why not instead ask why midwives and home deliveries are not better supported? Or ask what would change by taking seriously the women’s views that hospitals were a place of death and consider that they might know a better way?
My question was greeted with interest. But then we stumbled into another site of rupture. Fortification and nutrition campaigns are a recent occurrence in Guatemala, dating back no further than a generation or two. Many are directed at pregnant and lactating women, who are understood in public health terms as holding the keys to the doors of human capital. Emerging research suggests that when these campaigns are successful babies will be born much bigger in size. From the standpoint of public health nutrition this outcome is wonderful, just what they want— except for a caveat in which the health of nutrition is undermined by the specter of death.
You see, small women can certainly safely deliver large babies without needing to travel to hospitals, but the risks involved might very well increase. And the same researchers who have promoted the use of fortification to treat dietary deprivations in the past are growing suddenly fearful about what happens when women who measure as stunted in height give birth to babies whose size and shape has been buoyed by these nutrients.
“Genocide at an unimaginable scale” is how one scientist referred to the potential consequences of improving health in a way that neglected to consider its distribution across generational time. Even skilled midwives become weakened by these sclerotic translations.
In keeping with the findings of a rich tradition of anthropological scholarship on global, environmental, and health translations,[vi] my workshops emphasized the need not just for cultural competency – the respectful and attentive translation of meanings from site to site – but for translational competency, which entails the ceaseless work of staying with transformations in structures, and resources, and temporality itself.
A few times participants reframed the examples of the translation transformations I had highlighted as misunderstandings. But the idea that knowledge can ever be understood presumes there to be a stable and correct version of information to be known. Meanwhile the exchanges I drew attention to did not so clearly have a singular right or wrong valuation.
Women who give their children Pepsi because boiled water is expensive and tap water might cause diarrhea do not do so out of ignorance. In a region where stomach cancer among children abounds, eating chips instead of vegetables washed in pesticide run-off may not be a decision made from poor communication but a difficult trade-off of one kind of sickness for another. What is at stake is not – or not only – an exchange of correct meanings, but an exchange of resources.
Many of the scientists who participated in my engagement project were invested in “translational research” and cared about the practical results of their studies. Their work intersects in interesting ways with the Wenner-Gren’s commitment to engaged anthropology—a commitment made material through the development of the grant that made my project possible (see also Low and Merry 2010). But if there’s something other disciplines might learn from the longstanding attention to translation within our field, it is that translation is not a determinate process.
As the conversations that unfolded during my return to Guatemala illustrated, the work of engaging in translational research entails staying close not only to the jagged edges of meanings as they shift from site to site, but also to these meanings as they transform into practices, and to these practices as they endure or fall apart with time. The process is not linear (from the proverbial bench to bedside) but entails dialogue, and rupture, and silence, and further dialogue.
NOTE: This blog has been developed into an article focused on the process of engaged anthropology. See: Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2014. “Obesity Science and Health Translations in Guatemala: Engagement in Practice.” Anthropology Now. 6 (1) 3-14.
Adams, Richard N.
2010 Social anthropology in INCAP. Food & Nutrition Bulletin 31(1):152-160.
Low, Setha M., and Sally Engle Merry
2010 Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas: An Introduction to Supplement 2. Current Anthropology 51(S2):S203-S226.
Metzl, Jonathan, and Helena Hansen
In Press Structural Competency: Theorizing a New Medical Engagement with Stigma and Inequality. Social Science & Medicine SSM-D-12-03037R1.
Mol, Annemarie, and John Law
2004 Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: the Example of Hypoglycaemia. Body & Society 10(2):43-62.
Scott, Joan Wallach, Cora Kaplan, and Debra Keates
1997 Transitions, environments, translations : feminisms in international politics. New York: Routledge.
Taylor, Janelle S.
2003 The Story Catches You and You Fall down: Tragedy, Ethnography, and “Cultural Competence”. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17(2):159-181.
[i] For their support back in 2007 when I was writing the original Wenner-Gren grant, and still today, I thank Emily Martin, Tom Abercrombie, Rayna Rapp, Sally Merry and Renato Rosaldo and the anthropology department at NYU. I also thank my current colleagues at the Health Care and the Body Research Group at the University of Amsterdam.
[ii] Questions included: To what extent can scientists participate in the translation of their research about metabolic health into media reports and public health policy? How might health care workers address negative health consequences of metabolic illness without presuming that only slender bodies are healthy bodies? Can education about eating be developed in such a way that it avoids placing the burden of responsibility for health on individuals? What can educators do to acknowledge the role that women play in feeding their families without suggesting that dietary health is exclusively women’s domain? In what ways might strong and effective national dietary health curricula remain sensitive to nuances in Mayan terminologies? How can educators stay engaged with the effects of their policies and protocols about healthy eating?
[iii] See Adams (2010).
[iv] It should be noted that even from a more traditionally-biomedical repertoire of health they might not be wrong, after all. See http://www.digitalnewsrelease.com/?q=jama_3867.
[v] For more see Metzl and Hansen (In Press).
[vi] In a prescient volume edited by Joan Scott, Cora Kaplan and Debra Keates, Anna Tsing usefully describes translation as a continual negotiation, an “irregular haphazard process in which terms are appropriated from one context to another than then used to do different work” (1997). Annemarie Mol, who directs my postdoc, has also for some time illustrated the contingency of boundaries between meanings and bodies, machines and gestures (see especially Mol and Law 2004).
Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is Lecturer in Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. In 2011, while a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Sherpa Perceptions of Climate Change: Local Understandings of a Global Problem,’ supervised by Dr. John Bodley. In 2013 she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant and returned to her fieldsite in Nepal’s Everest region to start conversations about institutions and researchers involving communities as equal partners in understanding and responding to climate change effects locally.
My doctoral research showed that despite several institutional responses to the effects of climate change being organized in the Everest region since 2004, the northern part called Khumbu and the southern part called Pharak, climate change is still a foreign concept to many. These institutional responses have narrowly focused on extreme events as climate change effects, which have limited our understanding of the wider climate change effects. In some cases, these responses also had unintended negative consequences putting lives in danger. The research also revealed that Sherpas are aware of and are experiencing environmental changes although differentially based on their socioeconomic and occupational backgrounds. Therefore, I developed this engagement project (December 2013 to January 2014) to start conversations about institutions and researchers involving communities as equal partners in understanding and responding to climate change effects locally.
Along with Medinee Prajapati and assistance from Prashidha Yonzon and Lhakpa Chamji, I conducted a seminar at the Environmental Graduates Himalaya premises with academic scholars, a seminar with the Sherwi Yondhen Tshokpa members, two workshops in Pharak, and informal discussions with community members. Two sets of low-cost weather monitoring stations were also installed in Pharak as pilot project to assess feasibility and usefulness. In this report, I focus on the two seminars and alter the names of my informants.
I started the seminar at EGH asking the attendees (40) to describe climate change, its impacts and what we could do to address them. After the discussion, I presented my research showing the need for community involvement in climate change studies as well as the need for the scientists and researchers to work collaboratively with community members as equal partners and stakeholders. Several times during the seminar, I found myself having to defend ethnographic methods and qualitative studies. The seminar concluded with discussions on the application of qualitative research to the study of climate change, which emerged as a topic during our discussion that requires scientific inquiry involving tools such as numbers, graphs and GIS maps.
A week later, the SYT seminar was organized and attended by 19 members from the Everest region, in their late teens or early to mid 20s, currently living in Kathmandu for higher studies. In this seminar, I presented my research questions, methodology, findings, conclusions and recommendations. After my presentation, I opened the floor for discussion.
Dawa from Pharak was the first to comment. He said, “I don’t believe in climate change. I think global warming is real but climate change seems like a phrase that is for others to use to do something.” Mingma from Khumbu then questioned, “Isn’t climate change a problem of the developed and developing countries?” Lhakpa also from Khumbu added, “Since most of the pollution is made by developed countries, what can someone like us do to mitigate the problem?” Instead of answering these questions, I asked everyone what was something they think they need to do and they could do. To this they replied:
“I think we can seek information and learn. Then share the knowledge with others. This is something we can all do,” said Lhakpa. He continued, “If we want to bring climate change awareness to people, we have to run a long-term campaign. It cannot be short-term programs. That will not work.”
Dawa reminded, “Before bringing programs, we should first be clear about what the problem really is. Then, we need to bring knowledge to the local people in practical ways. Our methods need to be different from past climate change activities.”
Mingma explained, “When any program is made or if someone or an institution goes into the community and continue to remind people about what is wrong or what is terrible and ask them to change their ways, of course people are going to be upset…If we need to bring programs to the locals, you have to first [build rapport]. Then only you need to tell them what the problem is. But you also need to offer them an alternative option instead of just telling them what they shouldn’t do. Even worse, people should not be reminded of the same problem over and over again.”
Dawa added, “It has to be in local language. If someone comes and talks in scientific language, it will mean nothing to the people because it will not be understandable and relatable.”
Looking at past climate change related institutional activities, we know that, said Lhakpa, “Just by bringing one or two speakers and speaking for just an hour or two about climate change is not going to make any difference. Especially if the speakers are using different languages and non-local terms, it will do nothing. Instead of that if we run a campaign [and develop course or curriculum at schools that might be more effective.] Also having brochures with pictures might be a good idea. When we were in village, I used to really like colorful brochures and took good care of them. Some people even stick them on their walls because they are good to look at. This way, the message continues to stay with them through the brochures.”
Observation of these seminars among academic scholars and the SYT members show that while both groups realize the need for [investigative] action, there are different perspectives in which such actions are imagined. Among the academic scholars engaged in anthropological sciences, based in Kathmandu and discussing national level climate change, quantitative research and meteorological data are emphasized whereas among educated Sherpa youths in Kathmandu, practical and locally sensitive programs are emphasized. The SYT seminar moreover also showed that Sherpa youths are concerned and informed about climate change issues. They are also actively engaged in their community and thus capable to contribute to climate change studies and programs as equal partners in ways other than how an international scientist, who had been to the Everest region to study Imja glacial lake described to me, a Pharak native, in 2011, “Of course, we will make sure the Sherpas are participating. They can carry the pipes to Imja Lake…”
Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for research on “Factory Hog Farming, Capitalist Natures, and the New Rural American Frontier”, supervised by Dr. Joseph Masco. This Engaged Anthropology Grant project developed from Blanchette’s dissertation workplace research on the interspecies nature of industrial life in the American “factory” farm.
Since 2008, I have been conducting workplace research on the nature of industrial life in a 100-mile radius zone of the U.S. Great Plains, one that is made and remade every day to unlock new value in the hog’s body and mind. After becoming the center of operations for some of the world’s largest pork corporations some two decades ago, this region now annually manufactures almost 7,000,000 pigs across all stages of being from pre-life in breeding to post-death as 1,100 distinct product codes. Within the factory farm’s workplaces, the process is not so simple as merely raising and killing “the pig” as a singular organism. Instead, these operations are premised on developing global sales networks, machines, divisions of labor, statistical standardization, ideologies of life, and embodied craft practices to (re-)industrialize the meat, fat, skin, organs, bones, blood, feces, viruses, reproduction, growth, diets, behaviors, instincts, and sentience of the porcine species. Such a capital-intensive intervention into the fissures of animal life and death has drawn thousands of new residents and created a vibrant – though fragile and unequal – cosmopolitan rural community where 26 languages are spoken in the primary school. Reminiscent of a 19th century company town – yet one that is spread over a wide geographical, political, and ecological expanse – it is a place whereby the vast majority of livelihoods have become socially and economically dependent on the industrial pig. If it wasn’t for the pigs, as some residents liked to ambiguously remind me, “this place would be a ghost town”.
In its dominant mythos, the factory farm is supposed to be a space of total confinement. Industrial agriculture’s dreamworld is one where porcine life is hermetically sealed inside networks of biosecure barns hidden in grain fields, backwater trucking routes, and invisible slaughterhouses. Over several years of ethnographic research, however, residents across social classes helped me sense a region where the massive scale of hog life saturates social experience – a place where struggles for justice, cultural politics, and social practice at times congeal on terrains of animality and its traces. Subtle shifts in town odors indexed a different stage of hog life or death, jarring forth memories of past labor. Former opponents of the factory farm wrestled with the fact that they often sell their crops to the corporation to sustain their livelihoods. Records of the slaughterhouse’s work regime and its repetition were sometimes etched onto workers’ bodies. Employees recounted, with great pride of craft and care, how raising pigs made them re-interpret and value their own human domestic lives (and vice versa). Hog diseases were invisibly omnipresent across the landscape, as people were forced to monitor their habits and sociality outside of work to ensure that illnesses would not transfer across their bodies, and lead to new infections in untainted barns of swine. It seemed that workers or managers could always share their own means of sensing the industrial hog in public space – signs that indexed a subtle reading of the mass-production of life, ranging from its totalizing potential to its tenuous margins of return. Rather than being purely confined in barns, the hog could re-orient everyday social perception whether artificially inseminating sows, manufacturing soup base from bones, or sitting on the couch at home.
The book project that emerges from this dissertation centers on the notion of the “factory” in the factory farm, the politics of lively standardization, and workplace relations underlying the making of the modern pig. However, in the summer of 2013, with support from the Engaged Anthropology Grant, I was able to return to this research site with a photographer to begin production on a series of exhibits developed with reference to residents’ diverse insights into the region’s broader public sensoria. Initial engagements were varied, premised on both learning new ways to depict the region and contributing to ongoing community projects. I conducted discussions of the dissertation’s findings with key informants – especially those who are not from English-speaking backgrounds – eliciting commentary, support, and critique for future iterations. At the same time, many older friends whose ideas and practices animate parts of the dissertation have since moved on to other places. This certainly complicated some planned forms of dialogue and engagement, but it allowed us to contribute to new community efforts that had emerged since 2010. For example, this included writing newspaper biographies and photographs for a festival organized by migrants originally from South Sudan and Ethiopia who had settled in the area. These conversations also served to inform initial approaches to the visual subject matter, whether they depict a boar stud, growing farm, truck wash, a public gathering space, or a living room.
In opposition to both the exposé and the PR image, whereby the camera is marshaled to transparently capture the essence of the factory farm, the goal of this visual project was to intensify the multiple ways of sensing scenes of concentrated human and animal life. While any photograph is both real and constructed, this project embraced the medium’s indeterminacy in order to highlight the cultural politics that are present within the factory farm (and not just launched against it from outside). To differing degrees at each site, managers selected and prepared scenes prior to our visit, making the images partial records of an ideal aesthetic. Workers often posed in modes of embodied intimacy and craft knowledge that industrialization relies upon, and that standardization can never fully eradicate. My photographic collaborator refined a technique that enabled him to adjust and construct minor details of images. Facing each setting for over an hour at a time, he took up to 1,400 photographs of sections of a site – say, from a slaughterhouse’s catwalk – in a way that enables him to later digitally stitch together large-scale and incredibly detailed images (see second and third images), while subtly adjusting the time, tenor, scene, and subject of the interspecies interactions depicted (for example, in terms of a person’s bodily positioning or a knife movement). Indeed, the resulting images can be viewed as drafts subject to an ongoing editing process. We plan to initially exhibit images in this host community (and perhaps others like it) to both build conversations around the broader research through public talks, and to elicit commentaries from employees and residents across social classes and local communities on the depicted scenes and their representation. As part of an ongoing engagement project, these interpretations, commentaries, and reflections would then become central parts of the overarching presentation of future public installations or exhibits in urban locales around the industrialization of human and animal life.
Dr. Ashley Hazel is a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at Stanford University. In 2008, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Sexually Transmitted Disease, Ecology, and Reproduction among the Tjimba/Himba: A Pastoral Community in Transition,’ supervised by Dr. Bobbi Stiers Low. Following her fieldwork research seeking to measure the prevalence of two common STDs—gonorrhea and herpes—and identify significant ecological and behavioral risk factors for disease in her host community, she received Wenner-Gren’s Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her field site and share her findings.