Dr. Frederick Manthi is senior research scientist and head of the paleontology division of the Department of Earth Sciences at the National Museums of Kenya. He has been involved with the Wenner-Gren foundation since 2006, completing several post-PhD research grants aiding investigation of Pleistocene-era Kenya. Beginning in 2007, Dr. Manthi has conducted a series of Human Evolution Workshops in his country with the intent of arming high school teachers with the proper tools to teach human evolution effectively in their schools.
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Julia Chuang is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant to aid research on ‘Scandals of the Absent: Migration, Village, and Homecoming in Rural China,’ supervised by Dr. Michael Burawoy. We reached out to her recently to learn more about her ambitious two-sited ethnographic project.
Whom or what inspired you in choosing your specific research topic or area?
I think it initially reading life that drew me toward rural Chinese life. I love the genre of classic village anthropologies – there is something about the village as a container of endogamous, rich social life that has inspired the old studies of kinship – old-fashioned stuff, to be sure, but still I think the best of ethnographic writing. As a form, the village ethnography is old-fashioned, but rural life is ever important in the contemporary age – despite the fuss over urbanization, still most of the world’s population lives in rural settings, and actually, understanding what’s happening in rural settings helps explain why our urban settings look the way they look. Specifically, my work is about departures, about what happens to the people who go to cities, before they actually get to cities.
Reading that old stuff reminded me of a kind of a reverse analytic move I like which comes up a lot in the classic village ethnographies. It came up in various forms in ethnographies from the 1970s: how can we illuminate things about ourselves we take for granted? – we travel to distant edge civilizations. How can we understand the unspoken social norms of a community? – we look for people who violate those norms. How can we best understand migrations to cities? – we should look at the people who never left the countryside.
Eric Plemons is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His project, “Making the Gendered Face” supervised by Dr. Cori Hayden, received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant in October 2010 and he is currently in the field. His research concerns the practice of Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) in the context of transgender medicine. The Wenner-Gren Blog recently contacted him to answer some questions about his investigations into the construction of gender at the level of surgical intervention.
You hold that skeletal structure is a particularly potent site of articulating gender difference – partially because it is seen as being ‘ahistorical’. Could you elaborate on that?
Both of the surgeons with whom I conducted primary field research as well as those who publish professional articles on the technical practice of Facial Feminization Surgery cite primary and fundamental differences between the facial skeletons of males and females (yes, these are the only salient categories here). It is surgical alteration of the bony structures of the face that distinguishes FFS from other procedures meant to produce ‘feminine’ features. These surgeons describe the differences between male and female faces as absolute, universal and historical: male faces are like x, female faces are like y. Whereas ‘gender’ is a category that is understood to be locally and historically specific—especially by trans patients who tended to present well-developed though somewhat heterogeneous theories of gender—sexual dimorphism is recognized as a characteristic of the human species. The power of the skeleton in this story is pervasive. The human skeleton—and especially the skull—has appeared throughout my fieldwork as not only the analogy for, but the very definition of, the core of the human body. The skeleton is used to stand for the human form: we are all the same on the inside. This notion of the universal and ahistorical human form fits neatly with representations of sex distinction as universal and ahistorical. Although variations are acknowledged to exist, they are just as easily dismissed as a tiny fraction of the population, a simply unimportant variable for a project predicated on the existence and stability of two sexes, such that one can leave one and become the other.
What obstacles or challenges have you encountered so far in your research? How have you adapted?
One of my primary obstacles has been navigating the small network of surgeons who specialize in surgical sex reassignment—both genital and facial—in the United States. This is a well-connected and very small group of roughly eleven people (five who do FFS, and six who regularly perform genital sex reassignment). While they may not always consider each other colleagues, each is certainly aware of the practices of the others. One advantage that I have had in working this network is the reputation and influence of the surgeon with whom I conducted the bulk of my field research. As the most well known and widely respected US-based FFS surgeon, his personal and professional endorsement opened doors to people and places that would have otherwise been difficult to access. At the same time, his endorsement also came enmeshed in the politics of this small group of experts. It has been a challenge to know when and how to leverage the credit that I have through my association with him, and then to know how to assure other surgeons—and their assistants and patients—that I am not personally committed to his practices and philosophies as the ‘right’ way to approach FFS. As I have progressed through my fieldwork and come to better understand the personal and professional stakes of these relationships, I’ve learned how to communicate my personal and scholarly interests in order tread lightly when necessary. I have made a concerted effort to develop individual relationships with each person I encounter in my fieldwork—an effort that is helped most of all by listening more than I speak.
You aim to “start a conversation” between cultural and physical anthropology. In your view, how can the two fields best “speak” to one another?
In many cases, the ‘four fields’ of anthropology remain distinct because they either examine dissimilar objects and/or employ dissimilar methods of inquiry. Though our discipline is bound by a common effort to understand the diversity of humankind, the things that we study and the way we go about studying them are frequently radically distinct. As a cultural anthropologist, one of the things that excited me about this research project was the opportunity to engage anthropological literatures and discourses that were completely new to me. I got to explore the history of archeological and forensic sex determination, and engage more contemporary debates about the role of typically humanities-driven theories of gender construction and enactment in these anthropological sciences.
Facial Feminization Surgery provides a critical point of access between cultural and physical anthropology. In the case of FFS, physical anthropologists’ indications of the sites of the skull’s distinctly sexed structures are not recognized as descriptions, but are operationalized as prescriptions for how to transform one sexed face into another. This is an example of something that has fascinated me throughout this research: FFS is the enactment of many forms of knowledge that have been combined in ways that their producers did not intend, and likely could not have imagined. Here, archaeological and physical anthropological knowledge is being used to (re)make faces, to literally produce gender. Our common object at the heart of this transformative project provides a means for common conversation.
How did the doctors, experts and physical anthropologists whom you encountered react to your background in cultural anthropology and the questions you were attempting to answer? Did you encounter any resistance to your ‘science studies’ critique?
To be honest, I was frequently struck by how quickly my interlocutors dismissed kinds of knowledge—and even kinds of questions—that were not immediately recognizable to them as ‘important.’ During interviews and observations, I tried to remain as neutral as possible, creating space for people to explain to me what they thought I should know about their own practice and experience as experts in a field, or patients undergoing procedures. Despite my sincere efforts to clearly explain the kinds of questions that guided my research, I found that people often simply wanted to tell me what they felt was important. The limitations of interest and of willingness to engage particular kinds of questions were quite enlightening in themselves. Physical anthropologists were not terribly interested in changing understandings of gender; they examined bones. Patients were not interested in the politics of trans embodiment; they were undertaking a very personal project that was about and for themselves alone. Surgeons were not interested in knowing too much about what an anthropological analysis of their practice might be; they were very skillfully performing a task at which they were expert, and were happy to allow me to observe. While I found people almost invariably willing to talk with me, their interests were limited to just that: their interests. The work of synthesizing and thinking across theses various realms of knowledge, experience and expertise is mine alone. This is, I think, what the work of anthropology is about.
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Linda Abarbanell is a Postdoctoral fellow in Education at Harvard. In 2010 she received a Post-PhD research grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to aid research on “Spatial Language and Reasoning in Tseltal Mayans”. Recently we reached out to Abarbanell to learn more about her work in Chiapas, Mexico, examining the relationship between language, culture and thought in the area of spatial language and cognition.
Whom or what inspired you in choosing your specific research topic or area?
I’ve always been interested in knowledge – how it’s structured and learned, how concepts develop and change, where they come from. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, where one of my favorite works was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – all about a priori intuitions of space and time. Later, I worked as a fourth grade teacher in New York City, teaching mostly recent immigrant and second-generation children. I became curious about how context, particularly language and culture, interact with different types of knowledge to affect the learning of each child. When I went back to graduate school, I discovered that cognitive and developmental psychologists were finding answers to the questions that philosophers had debated for centuries by studying how infants and children perceive and reason about the world. I started working as a research assistant in a psychology lab at Harvard, helping with a study that was looking at how children learn spatial words – whether they interpret made-up directional terms like ‘ziv’ and ‘kern’ in terms of their own bodies (e.g., left/right) or the environment (e.g., north/south) – going back in a way to Kant. Because of my interest in language and culture, I was drawn to the cross-linguistic work on this topic, looking at how speakers of different languages use different frames of reference to talk about spatial relationships and whether and how this affects their nonlinguistic representations of space. In particular, I was drawn to a series of studies done with the Tseltal Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson that argued for rather strong effects of these cross-linguistic differences on speakers’ perception of and reasoning about space.
I decided to go to Chiapas the summer after my first year as a doctoral student to see if I could learn this language and to find out if the claims in the literature were really true. My mentor in the psychology lab, Dr. Peggy Li, had previously worked on this question, prompting English speakers to perform like the Tseltal speakers tested by Brown and Levinson by changing the availability of environmental cues. With her help designing the studies, I collected pilot data on that first trip. I remember boarding the plane the day after testing ten participants, watching the mountains getting smaller and smaller. From that first trip, I fell in love with the region, the language, and fieldwork.
You collected data from informants using a number of “fun games”. How did you design these games and how were they received?
With my collaborators, primarily Peggy Li, we adapted tasks that had previously been used with this and other populations, such as the ones used by Brown and Levinson and colleagues, and also designed new tasks based on other studies of spatial reasoning. We’re testing things like memory for small-scale spatial arrays, mental rotation, and navigation, which adapt well to a game-like format. So we do things like arrange toy animals in a pattern, and ask participants to arrange the animals in the same way after moving to a new location and turning to face a different direction. Or we hide a coin in an array while the participant watches, blindfold the participant and rotate the array, then remove the blindfold and ask the participant to find the coin. The games are challenging enough to engage people, but also relatively easy and short so they can be used with children and adults, and with individuals that are less familiar with school-like tasks. Sometimes the tasks are too hard the first time I try them, or the directions are unclear. Designing is always a process of piloting, reviewing and revising. Once I collect reliable data on a particular task, the next step is to analyze it and figure out what to manipulate to address the next question that comes out of the results. I always work with a research assistant that is a native speaker of Tseltal and lives in the community – a woman I have worked with for several years. We go through the instructions and translations carefully and test everything out on family members first. I value her input greatly. I can’t speak for the participants, but I think they enjoy the games and like participating. It is something different and fun and doesn’t take up too much time. At this point, most people where I work know me and will sometimes ask if I am working on something they can participate in.
The biggest challenge, but also one of the greatest areas of interest, has been dealing with cultural and language change, and worrying about how my studies might be affecting the population with respect to the phenomenon that I am trying to study. Almost all children now attend school where they acquire Spanish, which uses an egocentric system (e.g., left/right). They also learn to read and write, where left-to-right and up-to-down orientations are important. And each year I see more and more infiltration of Western media and culture, particularly in the municipal center. You also see more and more migration of younger people to urban areas within Mexico and to the US for work. Many return to their community and families after saving money for several years. It would be inaccurate to portray these as static cultures or languages, cut off from the rest of mainstream Mexican society and the world. My data show that younger bilingual speakers who have attended secondary or high school use a combination of both left/right terms, generally in Spanish, along with geocentric directional terms in Tseltal, depending on the constraints of the task and who they are talking to. Younger children who have not yet acquired the use of a left/right system and older adults with lower levels of schooling who do not generally use a left/right system, provide stronger contrasts with speakers of languages like English, but it is still not clear cut. It is hard to know just how much exposure to Spanish and other cultural and environmental artifacts would be predicted to have an effect on patterns of spatial reasoning. It’s also a concern, where there is a limited participant pool, that participants who have been in multiple studies have been exposed to, or even taught the use of a left/right reference system though all the studies that they’ve done. They are also no longer naïve participants, but may think that I am looking for a particular response where I am not.
There is no easy way to deal with these issues, which are research questions in themselves. I always collect background information on the participants, including their educational level, knowledge of Spanish and literacy skills, and I try to conduct as many comparisons as I can, working with different demographic subgroups within the same general population and geographic region. They aren’t clean comparisons since many factors covary, but they do provide a snapshot of the range of individual variation in the population at this particular point in time.
The notion that language is deeply connected to thought is, as you recognize, the subject of heated discourse in both academic and popular science. What do you think is at stake, politically, in the tension between universals and particulars?
The region where I work is fraught with political tensions and divisions. As a researcher, I try to understand what is, rather than taking a position on what ought to be, but of course, the question of the relationship between universals and particulars is extremely political – or rather, can very easily be co-opted towards political ends. It cuts right to the question of how different groups of people differ as a result of the very things that define them as a group. In addition to the question of translatability and whether there can be true communication and understanding across groups, it’s a slippery slope to the question of whether one system or way of conceptualizing the world is in some way better or more optimal than another. Are speakers at a cognitive disadvantage if they have fewer number words in their language, or because they have no way of expressing “to the left of the tree”? Do such speakers not develop the same capacity to reason about large quantities or to remember where things are from the perspective of an independent viewer? Do mature speakers lose the flexibility to acquire categories and concepts that are not encoded in their language? While innocent in itself, taken to an extreme, the argument that we are locked into how our language and culture conceptualize the world can be used to deepen divisions and further oppress already marginalized groups.
In the region where I work, indigenous children were at one time prohibited from and punished for speaking in their native language at school. Today, individuals may be reluctant to admit they speak an indigenous language after moving to an urban or mestizo region. In the community where I work, parents have expressed that the monolingual schools (where the teachers speak only Spanish) are better than the bilingual ones since their children acquire Spanish more quickly. They know that Spanish is the language of currency if their children are to further their education and advance in the mainstream Mexican economy. Identifying indigenous and minority languages as a barrier to acquiring more Western concepts might further contribute to their devaluation and ultimate loss. On the other hand, we can focus on the range of possibility that different languages and cultures afford, the strengths and advantages of each system as a unique solution to an environmental and communicative problem, and find arguments for maintaining linguistic and cultural diversity, particularly if we take these differences to result in flexible shapings at the margins of a largely shared conceptual core. I prefer to avoid such discussions, both for the sake of remaining true to the scientific process and also because I believe the question of cultural rights is separate from the market value of any particular language or cultural practice. It does concern me, however, that the academic debate in this area has tended to be so polarizing, and in the process, to polarize certain languages and cultures by perhaps overemphasizing differences while overlooking similarities.
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The following is a short interview highlighting just some of the developments that have taken place at the Department of Anthropology, the National University of Mongolia, since it received the Institutional Development Grant in 2009. Professor Bumochir Dulam, one at the professors provided this inspiring information about work taking place in Mongolia, and how the IDG grant allowed them to partner up with the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) to support further training and curriculum and program development in the Department.
Rayed Khedher is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. A graduate of the University of Tunis, Khedher received the Wadsworth International Fellowship in 2008 to aid training in socio-cultural anthropology at UCLA co-supervised by Dr. Sondra Hale and Dr. Susan Slyomovics. We reached out to Rayed to learn more about his education, his research on undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean, and to get an anthropologist’s perspective on recent happenings in his country.
If one day People want to live, Destiny must surely respond
Darkness must disappear, Chains must certainly break
Abu-Al Qacem Al Chabbi
(The Tunisian Poet of All Times)
1. What is the most unexpected way that your research interests have been influenced by your experience at UCLA?
During my four years in the UCLA anthropology Ph.D program, co-supervised by Prof. Sondra Hale and Prof. Susan Slyomovics, I gained a substantial knowledge in key theoretical classical and contemporary trends in anthropology which highly broadened my academic and personal perspectives. I critically re-explored the interplay of theory and ethnography in the development of anthropology into its contemporary form in dealing with socio-cultural research. My experience at UCLA in addition to the events taking place in North Africa, the Middle East and the world today are continuously shaping and re-shaping my knowledge and perspective about my doctoral research topic. For my study, I am investigating the impacts on male migrants of the mass irregular migration to Italy following the 2011 Tunisian uprising. My research interests have evolved in parallel with the recent developments in the North African region especially in light of the massive irregular movements of Maghrebi migrants to Italy. It is totally unexpected for me to deal with my topic in such a very timely context in which events in North Africa and the Arab region are unfolding every minute and every second. In light of what is happening, I am now focusing on the scrutinization of the potential of greater human rights abuses perpetrated by the Italian authorities and the resulting irregular Tunisian migrants’ reactions and strategies for resistance. My objective is to explore the human dimension involved in these trans-Mediterranean Sea crossings by examining two levels of human rights abuse: 1) human rights abuses by the Italian authorities at the point of entry within the police stations and detention centers; and 2) violations of human rights by non-state actors (smugglers, employers and the public) to which the Italian government fails to respond. I discuss this topic by ethnographically exploring the construction of the Tunisian Muslim irregular migrant as the “violent other” and the “potential criminal” or the “hidden terrorist.” I ask whether, in the face of this criminalization (in discourse and practice), the Tunisian migrant is able to turn the discursive power relations and oppression characterizing the host society into a collective form of resistance.
My proposed research on the 2011 post-uprising Tunisian irregular migrants in Sicily explores some of these politically racialized cultural identities and subjective vulnerabilities and investigates whether they lead to xenophobic/islamophobic migration sentiments and further human rights violations. The primary goal of this project is to examine the strategies and tactics irregular migrants employ to convert the stigmatized and criminalized self and crippled identities into collective forms of resistance. I hypothesize that those stigmatized representations could translate into valuable social, cultural and political resources that can be used in various alliances that provide opportunities for the migrant to fight the myriad forms of social violence and discrimination he faces from formal and informal institutions. The existing literature on North African irregular migration, violence and human rights abuse has had little to say about how migrants’ resistance strategies, particularly collective ones might alter their situation. Through in-depth ethnographic research in the field, I propose to fill this gap which has major repercussions for the understanding of the subjective experience of the irregular migrant in ways that touch not only on basic theoretical aspects of migration research, but also on policy. If, as I hypothesize, in a context of socio-political turmoil the vulnerability of the Tunisian migrant is able to develop a sense of agency thanks to changes in the political situation at home, and if he is empowered to act with others to protest or alter intolerable conditions, a whole new way of dealing with the transnsational development of the migrant as a subject emerges.
My training at UCLA consolidated my knowledge of the key theoretical debates in the study of international migration and gave me new tools to examine the interdisciplinary and methodologically pluralist nature of the migratory phenomenon and its connections with the larger conceptions of nationhood, identity, citizenship and the state. In addition to taking classes and TAing, my overall experience at UCLA has been deeply enriched by participating in a number of lectures and various Conferences in anthropology as well as in other disciplines of primary interest to my research. I participated in several meetings of the Migration Study Group and I presented various papers and gave talks on the issues of illegal migration, human rights, social change in North Africa etc focusing on the power of people to stand up against injustice, inequality as well as economic, social and political corruption.
Terra Edwards is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her project, entitled “‘Language, Embodiment, and Sociality in a Tactile Life-world: Communication Practices in Everyday Life among Deaf-Blind People in Seattle, Washington,’ supervised by Dr. William F. Hanks, received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in May 2010. Currently in the midst of conducting her research, the Wenner-Gren blog reached out to Ms. Edwards to answer some questions about her research and academic interests.
Chelsey Kivland is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation project, entitled ‘Of Bands and Soldiers: Performance, Sovereignty, and Violence in Contemporary Haiti,’ is supervised by Dr. Stephan Palmie and received funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Recently the Wenner-Gren Blog reached out to Ms. Kivland to learn more about her work with Haitian ‘foot bands’ before and after the devastating 2010 earthquake. » Read more..