Interview: Dr. Denise Blum

Dr. Denise Blum is Associate Professor in the Department of Education at Oklahoma State University. An educational anthropologist who has been conducting research in the Republic of Cuba since 1995, Dr. Blum received a Wenner-Gren Conference & Workshop Grant to organize ‘Rethinking Public Anthropology through Epistemic Politics and Practice’ at the Hotel Habana Riviera in Havana, Cuba, in collaboration with Rodrigo Espina Prieto and Rosalin Bayona Mojena of the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research. We spoke to Dr. Blum to learn more about this unprecedented collaborative project.

 

Could you talk a little about how this project first got underway? What goals were you hoping to accomplish?

In November 2014 I was on sabbatical in Cuba, doing follow up research about my initial research with 9th graders in 1999 now as 30 year olds to see how their lives had played out. Did they fulfill their aspirations of their high school years? What correspondence did their schooling have with their current employment and quality of life?

I was invited by the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research in Havana to collaborate and receive mentorship on my current project during my sabbatical.

During this time I initiated a conversation with my mentor, the Associate Director of the Institute, about the possibility of applying for a Wenner-Gren grant to bring an anthropology workshop to Havana.

It must be understood that, first of all, no one in Cuba has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, unless they were able to leave the country to obtain it. The discipline of anthropology was eliminated from The University of Havana at the beginning of the Revolution and did not rear its head again until the mid 2000s.  A course in anthropology may serve those in the natural sciences now, who pursue a career in archeology, forensics or health care.  A master’s degree in anthropology was recently created in 2008 and so far two selected cohorts have been able to pursue it——again for the same types of careers aforementioned. Therefore, the career as an anthropologist still does not exist in Cuba.

With this problematic and the desire to collaborate with the United States on this grant, we thought it to be most practical to focus the workshop on applied and activist anthropology. Regardless of recent changes, the Cuban government and society feel strongly about goals of social justice. Anthropological fieldwork, in general, does not always serve this purpose. Therefore, this way we could assure to serve Cuban interests the most, considering differing ideologies and politics, and bring focus to the workshop.

To be efficient with our time together, I advocated for the invited participants to be all Spanish-speaking.

 

How many of the non-Cuban participants had prior experience with the country? 

Surprisingly, out of the 13 participants, only 5 participants had visited the country previously.

 

What were some of the challenges of hosting a workshop in Havana? 

I assumed that all of the Latin American participants would not have any challenges while in Cuba. One really difficult situation is money.  A participant from Brazil called me at 11pm at the hotel and told me that the airport “Cadeca,” or money exchange, would not change her reales and asked me that if she got a taxi to the hotel ($20 USD equivalent) would I be able to pay for it. I agreed and fortunately all of us had enough extra money to pool our funds during the entire time to cover her expenses because nowhere in Havana (banks included) would they change her reales nor could she withdraw money on her bank or credit card.

For others, they brought some cash, thinking they could put many of their expenses on credit card. Very few places take a credit card: typically only hotels and very expensive stores. So people did ask to borrow money from me, and I was glad that I had extra cash. In addition, everything is much more expensive than you can imagine; oftentimes you would pay more than in the United States for the same item.  For example, at a restaurant, it might be difficult to pay less than $10 USD for a sandwich and drink. You have to really know Cuba to find the restaurants in Cuban pesos; then your meal might cost the equivalent of $5 USD.

For clarification, there are two currencies in use in Cuba: CUCs and the Cuban peso. The CUC, or convertible peso, has been in use since 1994, when it was treated as equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Officially exchangeable only within the country, its value is $1USD and is the more dominant of the two, especially for tourists.  The Cuban peso is valued at 22 Cuban pesos to the US dollar and is typically used by Cubans to obtain the limited goods that the Cuban government offers at the bodega, where the ration booklet is in effect, but staples are limited. Most Cubans earn salaries in Cuban pesos (average Cuban salary varies between $20-$30 a month), as they work for the state. They must convert these pesos to CUCs to buy almost everything they need, which are at prices equivalent to stores in the US, take for example, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, etc.

Definitely the most difficult situation for me was the money. I have been traveling to and doing research in Cuba for 20 years and am very resourceful and well networked, but I had never done a workshop before and this brought a couple of major challenges.

First, I was dealing with the logistics with a Cuban scholar who did not have a phone, not to mention internet for Skype. She typically used a pay phone on the street when making phone calls to anyone in Havana or she called from the phone at the research institute. However, neither place is equipped (because others need to use the phone too) to deal with lengthy phone calls (more than 5-10 minutes). This entire workshop was planned via email without ever talking to my contacts in Cuba—-hundreds (if not thousands) of emails Cuba-US. So many details and frequently there were misunderstandings. In addition, I had to communicate with the other 12 participants (3 from the US and 9 from Latin America), organize passport information and information for a Cuban visas, write letters of invitation in Spanish and English, translate wiring forms that were written in English to Spanish so that the Spanish-speaking folks could fill them out and my university could disburse traveling funds to them (there were also mixups with the money not arriving at the proper bank). None of the aforementioned went smoothly. In fact, the scanned passport pages would not pass through email. The Cuba side did not have access to Dropbox, so I had to find someone traveling to Cuba to take all of this paperwork on a flashdrive to the Institute.  There were glitches at every turn, costing more time and energy on my part.  Creating the program was a collaboration that went through many renditions until the day before the workshop. Some of the initial participants dropped out at the last minute. I invited new ones and the process of getting them into the workshop was repeated with these new participants.

In addition, a Dropbox was created so US and Latin American scholars could deposit select research articles, which could be uploaded to flashdrives to share with the Cubans in the workshops. Folders (with paper, program, and pen) were created at my university for the workshop. We had, with 6 Cuban panelists, a total of 22 presenters for the workshop and 38 Cuban scholars attending in the audience.  Everything for the workshop was created with 60 people, presenters and audience, in mind.

The major challenge for me was that I had reservations at the Hotel Riviera via email based on prices I saw on their website at $35 USD per night. When I arrived in Havana 4 days before the workshop began, the hotel told  me that that website operated under a different entity than the hotel and that they could not offer me that price. I contacted the website and they did not have those rooms available any longer.  The hotel was quoting me $144 per night for a double and $125 for a single. The rooms were not paid for —–only reserved—-and I had 12 people arriving in 48 hours to Havana.  Needless to say, I did not have the cash to pay for this. The Latin Americans would not be able to afford the rooms at this price, and all of the other hotels, which were only slightly lower in price, were booked.  We looked for peoples’ homes to place the participants—–nothing available. Finally, I decided to pay for the rooms through the agency. They accepted my credit card because it went through a bank in Amsterdam. I asked all of the Latin American participants to pay me $35 per night (for 3 nights) and the 3 US participants to pay me the full amount.  I never revealed this story to the Latin American participants; I absorbed the cost and was a nervous wreck in the process and broke out in hives that didn’t disappear until the workshop was over.

Other than the various situations with the money, it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, partly because it brought so much meaning to all involved, an eye opener every day. My mentor, renowned cultural anthropologist, Doug Foley, had always wanted to conduct research in Cuba and for various factors in his life, stayed in Texas and accomplished his well-known ethnography on the raza in South Texas instead. He has spent years living vicariously through my research and this was a thrilling experience for him.  When I was able to finally take him to a school compound on our own, where I had connections to the teachers there, we were able to visit several classrooms and hear from students. This was an unplanned visit. What he witnessed and his reaction was so moving to me; it was additional confirmation to me that I had had the best mentor possible in my career as an anthropologist. He said, “This is very emotional. It has touched my heart.”  We all strive to be understood. I’m sometimes seen as fanatical about Cuba’s education system, and finally, the person who had been reading my work all of these years understood me and knew why Cuba’s education system is truly revolutionary. This marked an important moment for me.

 

It was very important for your workshop that you publish on a Cuban press. Could you talk a little about the Cuban publishing process?

Oh my gosh.  Well, since I did the bulk of the legwork on the workshop, the Cubans at the research institute will review the manuscripts. The Juan Marinello Research Institute has its own publication press.  In Cuba, typically you have to pay to fund your book and most Cubans find funding from external sources. We were quoted that $3000 will fund 1000 copies of the book (approximately 250 pages) containing chapters from those participants who presented research and ideas on activist and applied anthropology at the workshop. This will be published in Spanish and be able to have a further reach to Cubans, rather than being published outside of the island. Our manuscripts are due by March 4th and the hope is that the book will be published by September 2016.

 

What was it like working with Cuban anthropologists? Was there anything particular that caught you by surprise? 

That there are no Cuban anthropologists, except Jesus Guanche, who was able to obtain his Ph.D. outside of Cuba.

 

Finally, what did you take from this remarkable (indeed, groundbreaking) experience? Does the group have any plans on working together again in the future?

The Cubans commented on how rich in information the group was and how cohesive we were as a group—-that there a strong, warm personal connection and solidarity—- where few people knew more than one other person besides myself.  Everyone was very very appreciative of this opportunity. Everyone learned something new and has maintained contact.

Charlie Hale, UT Austin senior anthropologist, has talked about having a follow up conference in Austin that might focus on the role of emotion in activist work.

I am bringing 3 Cubans to a conference in Austin in about a month.

 

In Memoriam

Within the space of a few months, the discipline of anthropology lost four major figures, who were also all a part of the history of the Foundation: Ernestine Friedl, Sidney Mintz, Frederik Barth, and Hal Conklin.

Ernestine Friedl died in October 2015 at the age of 95.  She was the first anthropologist to do a full-scale study of modern Greece and among the first to write on gender cross-culturally, proposing hypotheses about the determinants of women’s status in different societies.  She had a long and distinguished career in academic administration, first in the City University of New York and then at Duke University, where she became the first woman appointed as Dean of the faculty.  She was elected as president of several professional organizations, including the American Anthropological Association.  A long-time friend of the Foundation, Friedl served on the Advisory Council (1987-1991) and subsequently as an advisor to the Board of Trustees.

Sidney W. Mintz died in December 2015 at 93.  He had been a professor at Johns Hopkins University, whose anthropology department he founded. One of the principal figures in bringing a historically rooted political economy into anthropology, he was known especially for his groundbreaking research on proletarian populations in the Caribbean, based on his fieldwork in islands of all three of the area’s major languages.  His signature work, Sweetness and Power, was a global view of the connections between the development of empires, slavery, commodity production, and consumer taste. He is also considered the founder of food anthropology. Mintz participated in four International Symposia, where he was memorable for his acumen and wit, and he received four small grants, including one that enabled crucial archival research on sugar in the British diet. (Photo: Johns Hopkins U, Homewood)

Frederik Barth died in January 2016 at 87. The founder of the first department of social anthropology in Scandinavia (in Bergen, Norway), he was enormously influential in both Europe and North America for his processual theories, which stressed agency over structure.  His treatment of ethnicity as a matter of fluid identities and shifting boundaries stood in contrast to the then-prevailing focus on ethnic groups. A prolific and courageous ethnographer, he carried out fieldwork in Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Oman, Bali, and Bhutan. Wenner-Gren played an important part in Barth’s work. The conference on “Scale and Social Organization” that he organized at Burg Wartenstein yielded a pioneering volume, and he was a participant in six other International Symposia. Several of the nine small grants he received supported his diverse field research.

Harold Conklin died in February 2016 aged 89. Associated with Yale University for many years, he was a linguist and a cultural anthropologist with special distinction in ethnoecology, the study of indigenous ways of knowing the natural world. He was interested in Native Americans from an early age, in fact was adopted into the Mohawk Nation while still in elementary school. He did extensive and important fieldwork in the Philippines, first with the Hanunoo; his article on their way of categorizing color became a founding entry into a new field, ethnoscience. He then began his long-term research with the Ifugao and became their foremost interpreter. His ethnographic atlas on Ifugao environment and culture, supported in part by a Wenner-Gren grant, became a landmark of meticulous documentation. He received seven other grants and participated in two conferences at Burg Wartenstein. Conklin was a devoted friend of the Foundation. He served on the Advisory Council (1986-1990) but was also an indispensable informal advisor to two presidents.

 

Sydel Silverman

President Emerita, Wenner-Gren Foundation

NYAS @ WGF [REGISTRATION REQUIRED]: Flying the Yellow Flag of Quarantine! Results of a Preliminary Archaeological Survey at the Philadelphia Lazaretto

This upcoming Monday, February 29th, 7PM, the Wenner-Gren Foundation will host another great New York Academy of Sciences lecture, with Monmouth University’s Richard Veit sharing his recent research in multispecies ethnography. REGISTRATION IS REQUIRED.

The Philadelphia Lazaretto, located on the Delaware River in Essington Pennsylvania, is the oldest surviving lazaretto or quarantine station in North America.It stands as a physical reminder of the horrific impact that yellow fever, an acute viral disease spread by the Aedis aegypti mosquito, had on society in early America. Construction of the grand Georgian edifice began in 1799, in response to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.That epidemic killed 5,000 of Philadelphia’s inhabitants; nearly ten percent of the city’s population. The Lazaretto was one of several public health initiatives undertaken by the Philadelphia city government in an attempt to prevent further outbreaks of disease.In 2015, Monmouth University began a long-term archaeological investigation of the site.Fieldwork is providing new information about the physical layout of the Lazaretto complex and has identified artifact deposits with the potential to provide new information about the lives of the individuals who lived and worked at the site. The Lazaretto is a powerful reminder of how human relationships with other living things, in this case, mosquitoes and the viruses they carry, have shaped and continue to shape society.

There will be a dinner at 6PM (free for students, $20 for others) with the lecture to follow at 7PM. Once again, YOU MUST REGISTER PRIOR TO THE EVENT in order to be admitted to the building.

Institutional Development Grant: Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan

Anthropology of Development students at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is pleased to announce the 2016 Institutional Development Grant Recipient, Bhutan’s Royan Thimphu College! We interviewed the grant’s administrator, Dr. Ritu Verma, to learn more about the institution and the challenges facing the discipline in her country.

 

First can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in anthropology?

Anthropology was always been a subject area that fascinated me, even though I didn’t begin my career as an anthropologist. I actually started my career as a civil engineer, but was a fan of popular anthropological works such as the film “Ring of Fire: an Indonesian Odyssey” by anthropologists and filmmakers Lawrence and Lorne Blair. During my tenure as a professional engineer, I worked on international development infrastructure projects around the world, and was deeply concerned about the social, cultural and environmental impacts of such projects on people, their communities and environments, but didn’t have the knowledge or skills to address them. My engineering degree didn’t provide the tools or the conceptual foundation to systematically analyze the impacts, socio-political relations and resistance to such projects.

Dr. Ritu Verma

This interest drew me to pursue a Masters Degree in International Relations/International Development at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Canada, which was supported by a NPSIA scholarship and the Norma Walmsley Award. Making the transition from the biophysical sciences to the social sciences was one of the most challenging, yet academically exciting times of my life. During that first year of transition, I was exposed to new engaging fields of study such as anthropology and flourished intellectually. I was attracted to the idea of ethnography, and spending extended periods of time on the ground with people who are most affected by development and scientific interventions not of their choosing. My Masters degree provided me the opportunity to learn and engage in anthropological debates (including the deepening and problematization of earlier popular anthropological representations of the so-called “third world”), and to carry out my thesis, my first body of ethnographic research on agriculture, soil fertility and natural resource management in Western Kenya, which received distinction and was published by IDRC in 2001.

From this intellectual awakening, I applied and was accepted to doctoral programmes in anthropology in the USA, UK and the Netherlands. I chose to carry out my Ph.D. at the Department of Anthropology at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and was awarded the SOAS Research Student Fellowship, the Overseas Research Scholarship, the ASA/Radcliffe Brown Trust Fund Award and the Canadian Centennial Women’s Scholarship. My doctoral research on the disconnects between the socio-cultural and working worlds of development practitioners and those of Betsileo farmers in the Central Highlands of Madagascar, indicated how development shapes the lives of so many actors. My subsequent research with international development research institutions in East and Southern Africa and the Himalayas, deepened my interest in development alternatives that value culture and spirituality. Thus, from popular representations, to critical academic and applied perspectives, anthropology has been a strong guiding force in my career that eventually led me to Bhutan.

Dr. Ritu Verma with Anthropology of Development students, graduation day 2015

Who have been the anthropologists that have most influential in your own personal formation and why?

During my Masters degree, I was inspired by and received enormous support from anthropologists such as Dr. Villia Jefremovas, Dr. Joachim Voss, and a critical geographer greatly dedicated to ethnography, Dr. Fiona Mackenzie, author of “Selective Silence”. Seminal works in the anthropology of development such as “the Anti-Politics Machine” by Dr. James Ferguson, “False Forest History” by Dr. James Fairhead”, “Negotiating Local Knowledge” by Johan Pottier, “Laboratory Life” by Dr. Bruno Latour, “Cultivating Development” by Dr. David Mosse, and “Battlefields of Knowledge” by Dr. Norman Long, fundamentally influenced my own thinking about development. Having worked in the development industry, as an engineer and anthropologist – I felt they profoundly captured the socio-cultural, political-economic and ecological effects of development projects on people and their environments. Given that much of development is dominated by the bio-physical sciences, these works illustrated the way scientific facts are socially constructed and power-laden, how power and socio-cultural networks shape the deployment of development, and the way local cultural-spiritual understanding and managing natural environments are marginalized within dominant forms of development. These anthropologists would later play important roles in my academic and professional career. For instance, I received tremendous support, encouragement and invaluable intellectual guidance during my Ph.D. from Dr. James Fairhead, Dr. Johan Pottier and Dr. Christopher Davis. The above themes were at the heart of my Ph.D. thesis about the disconnects within development, and social and cultural relations that shape the development machine. With the mentoring of influential anthropologists and first-hand experience about the failures of conventional development approaches, I have recently been exploring conceptual and policy innovations, as well as gaps in ethnography, of Bhutan’s alternative development path of Gross National Happiness. In turn, sharing knowledge and experiences about the complexities of development and culture with budding Bhutanese anthropologists, in the same wonderful anthropological tradition I have been privileged to be part of, provides great motivation and sense of continuity.

 

Final year students with guest lecturer Lama Shenphen Zangpo during a Buddhist Social Theory class

Can you tell us a little about anthropology in Bhutan? What are the pressing questions and concerns for the discipline there?

Bhutan represents both a relatively unstudied anthropological and ethnographic terrain as well as a country where there is a dearth of anthropological analytical expertise required to support a nation that is facing numerous socio-cultural and development challenges as it negotiates globalized world. It is regarded as the least anthropologically studied belt in the Buddhist Himalayas. The opportunities for anthropologists to carry out research on Gross National Happiness – the country’s guiding philosophy for development that holds culture in equal weight with other domains of development (sustainable and equitable development, environmental conservation, good governance) – are significant. Over the past few decades, tertiary education has evolved and developed in promising ways (with formal national education system and universal education coming into force in the 1950s), albeit with acute under-representation of anthropology. At the beginning of this millennium, anthropology was still in its infancy in Bhutan. Today, Bhutan continues to lag behind in developing the academic discipline of anthropology. There are a handful of qualified anthropologists with Ph.D.s in the country, with new promising scholars about to join its ranks – all obtaining their degrees internationally. Although anthropological research on the impacts of rapid socio-cultural and political-economic change requires urgent attention, the knowledge and capacity available to carry out and analyze such research, train doctoral scholars, and to advise on policy-relevant questions remains a critical gap within the country. As anthropologist Dorji Penjore notes, “if the Bhutanese education planners had exercised their foresights, anthropology, not sociology, should have been a more useful course to study Bhutan, a nation of villages and farmers… If anthropology is the study of human culture and the hallmark of Bhutan’s nation is founded on the national goal of preserving and promoting its unique cultural identity, how paradoxical it is that the anthropology is neither taught at the Bhutanese colleges nor is there a formal anthropological study of Bhutan”. Currently, there exists no doctoral program in anthropology in Bhutan. Within such a context, ethnographic research is extremely rare and the discipline is exceptionally under-represented while facing highly limited resources for its development. At the same time, this gap also represents an important and timely opportunity to develop a doctoral program in anthropology in Bhutan. This is especially pertinent at a time when the demand for a doctoral program in anthropology is increasing with a small critical mass of senior anthropologists who can support such a vision.

 

Is anthropology a subject that attracts students in the Bhutan?  

This is very much the case. Given the unique importance that Bhutan places on culture, and especially cultural resilience and promotion, as enshrined in the conceptual framework of Gross National Happiness, the attraction to anthropology is strong. Also, given the incredible influence of Vajrayana Buddhism in the country, where spiritual and cultural beliefs intermingle in profound ways, anthropology holds a special place. Students who are exposed to concepts and methodologies of anthropology are captured by its history, its ability to represent indigenous voices, and the analytical depth of lived experience captured by ethnography. Through anthropology, they are exposed to different cultural practices, norms and beliefs from around the world. In a country that was isolated from the world until 1959, tuned into television and internet in 1999, and became the world’s newest democracy in 2008, this provides an incredible treasure-house of knowledge and engagement with the world. Although Bhutan values an alternative and middle path to development that challenges GDP, materialism and environmental degradation so often associated with conventional understanding of ‘progress’, this recent paradoxical exposure to the outside world, has also resulted in rapid socio-cultural changes. Anthropology provides a valuable field of knowledge and methodology to view, document, attribute meaning to and protect important cultural practices in the face of globalization. While unemployment rates in Bhutan are not high compared to other countries, when combined with rural-urban migration, rapidly changing cultural identities and economic changes, these issues are of growing concern, and finding jobs is something that increasingly concerns students. The few anthropologists who have obtained Ph.D.s, have gone on to hold important leadership, policy-making, research and tertiary educational positions in the country, thereby making important contributions to nation-building and shaping the country in significant ways.

 

RTC campus

Can you tell us about your department, its specialties and how the award will help your department as it moves forward?

Royal Thimphu College is Bhutan’s first private college, and as such, it strives to do things differently and innovatively. It takes a student-centred approach to teaching and learning, which has yielded important results, including RTC graduates taking all the top positions in the highly valued Civil Service examination in 2014 and 2015. RTC’s faculty and student body is diverse, with lecturers and visiting fellows spanning the globe, and representing many disciplines, including anthropology. The student has slightly more women than men, and is composed of a mix of private tuition, those with scholarships from the Royal Government of Bhutan based on academic excellence and needs-basis, and sports scholarships supported jointly by RTC and the Bhutan Olympic committee. The college was officially inaugurated on July 18, 2009 by Her Majesty, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, Royal Grandmother of Bhutan. RTC has 4 departments, including the department of Sociology and Political Science. RTC is of one of the only colleges offering anthropology-focused courses in the country. Although presently under the Sociology and Political Science Program, anthropology is envisioned to become part of a new Social Science Program, together with Political Science and Sociology. The department currently has seven faculty, two of whom are senior anthropologists with Ph.D.s, and five who have graduate degrees in anthropology and political science (and two of who are in the process of carrying out their Ph.D.s.). Although RTC does not have a graduate or a doctoral program in anthropology, the need for a doctoral program that supports high quality ethnographic research in Bhutan is urgent. The department regularly receives requests for M.A.s and Ph.D.s in anthropology and has hosted international visiting faculty interested in ethnographic research in Bhutan, including a Fullbright Scholar, albeit on a limited and ad hoc basis. Given the lack of an institutional framework and financial resources to further the field of anthropology, it has not been able to systematically develop this aspect of the college. However, it benefits from the valued support of its Deans and esteemed Board of Governors, and most notably, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is the Chancellor of Royal University of Bhutan, under which RTC is affiliated. With the important support of the award, RTC can now dedicate the expertise of senior anthropologists and resources for important enabling activities, for the development of such a program, given the critical gap that exists in the discipline in the country. The Grant has also enabled the establishment of a significant partnership with esteemed anthropologists at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles (Dr. Akhil Gupta, Dr. Nancy Levine and Dr. Sherry Ortner), whose guidance, academic exchange and intellectual resources for the development of the doctoral program are invaluable.

Meet Our 2016 Wadsworth African Fellow: Kefiloe Sello

Meet our Wadsworth African Fellow for 2016 – Lesotho’s Kefiloe Sello, who will be studying at the University of Cape Town.

I am pursuing a PhD in Environmental Humanities under Social Anthropology based on the fact that most times environmental concerns are left to the natural and geographical sciences. With Anthropological background, I am able to merge my understating of environment to human behaviour and offer insight into how moving forward we can implement policies, technologies and behaviours that are ‘environment friendly’. This research is inspired by my own life, my two lives: the life I knew, and the life I was forced to know due to resettlement. The life I was forced to know was professed to give me a better life but instead I experienced precariousness, as my family got battered, scotched and withered. I hope my research will introduce narratives on beliefs and resilience, accounts of  rural souls in urban settings.

I grew up in the highlands of Lesotho. The first time I came across a computer was when I got to university, ultimately I failed the computing course because I did not have enough exposure and experience.  Later on in life I co-founded a foundation (www.herchancetobe.org) which offers scholarships to girls from rural areas of Lesotho an opportunity to go to the best schools in Lesotho, so that they may have a better chance at life and education, and to break the poverty cycle that entraps them.

How I came to know about Anthropology is that while registered for Political Science, beginning of second year at National University of Lesotho, I accompanied a friend to her class. The lecturer was deliberating on women and development. I never went back to my politics. I found Anthropology to be the most practical discipline, addressing social Issues, causations and probable solutions in a manner that can be grasped by all. I have come a long way since then. I was awarded a Margaret McNamara Memorial Grant for commitment to children and Women in 2012 while pursing a Masters degree at the University of Cape Town. I have also co-authored a book on Marginality, Mobility and Reconfiguration of Social Relations in Africa, in which I address issues on women, identity and negotiation of space.

SAPIENS is Live!

 

Today’s the day – SAPIENS is live!

We’ve come a long way, and the Web’s home for everything anthropology is now free and available for you to enjoy. Remember to check back often: You’ll see new content throughout the week.

We hope you like SAPIENS as much as we’ve loved building it. And we’re just getting started!

As with any new website, there are sure to be a few rough spots, so if you come across anything that needs to be fixed, please let us know so that we can continue to improve the site.

Enjoy, and thanks for your support!

The SAPIENS Team

NYAS @ WGF: “The strange case of Homo naledi, our newest extinct relative” [REGISTRATION REQUIRED]

**IMPORTANT NOTE**: Beginning with this meeting, interested parties will have to PRE-REGISTER with THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES prior to attending.

Monday, January 25, 2016

NYAS returns for the first lecture of 2016! It’s a big one, folks. The New York Academy of Science and the Wenner-Gren Foundation welcome William Harcourt-Smith (American Museum of Natural History) and Scott Williams (New York University) to discuss one of the biggest anthropology stories of last year, and perhaps even this century. Our president, Leslie C. Aiello, will act as discussant.

The new hominin species, Homo naledi, was discovered in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system in late 2013 and announced to the world just a few months ago. Based on over 1,500 identifiable remains, ranging from infants to the elderly, H. naledi is known from nearly every bone, and represents one of the largest and most complete discoveries in the field of paleoanthropology. The combination of anatomical features demonstrated in this assemblage suggests to us that it is both a member of the genus Homo and that it represents a new species. The geological and depositional context of the remains is also highly unusual. The Dinaledi Chamber, where the remains were discovered, is both virtually devoid of non-hominin fauna and extremely difficult to access, which are probably related. We discuss the skeletal morphology and inferred evolutionary position of H. naledi, as well as the implications of the unusual context of this discovery.

There will be a dinner and reception at 6PM: free for students; $20 for others.
The Lecture will be begin at 7PM.

Once again, pre-registration is required to attend the lecture.

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ed Wilmsen and ‘Pottery, Clays, and Lands: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Social Dimensions of Pottery in Botswana’

 

Dr. Wilmsen presenting at the workshop.

Ed Wilmsen is Honorary Fellow of the Centre for African studies in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. In 2013, he received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ‘Pottery, Clays, and Lands: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Social Dimensions of Pottery in Botswana’. Last year he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Reciprocal Relations: Expanding the Benefits of Research in the Study Area’ in his former field site of Botswana, working with local potters to increase exposure for their wares, and holding film screenings and seminars to share research with the local populace as well as professional archaeologists.

The initial museum seminar on June 10 included the Director of the Archaeology Unit plus other personnel and was focused mainly on recurrent concerns about the relevance of ethnographic observations for interpreting archaeological data as well as on the potential impact of new legislation regarding access to mineral resources.  Clay is specifically included in this legislation, but the very loose wording of the document makes it unclear if it applies to small scale operators such as the village potters with whom we have been engaged.  Two subsequent UB seminars included Professor Kalabamu, Head of the UB Department of Architecture and Planning, Professor Boipuso, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering, both of whom are actively engaged with developments in minerals and more generally proposals concerning access to resources, as well as Professor Fred Morton (UB History) and visiting Professor Coulson (University of Oslo Archaeology) who has many years experience in the country.  The consensus reached at all these meetings was that future free, or affordable low cost, access to raw materials by potters could be in jeopardy and urgent steps must be taken to clarify the matter.  Wilmsen and Griffiths subsequently consulted Dr. Jeffress Ramsay, Director of Communications in the Office of the President and a doctoral student of Wilmsen, who informed us that this matter was recognized and steps were being considered to exempt small scale producers under specified conditions.  Nonetheless, this remains a matter of concern and needs to be monitored.

Another matter of considerable concern was voiced particularly by a curator in the National Museum Ethnography Section.  This is that, although pottery making inBotswanais undergoing a significant revival, there is an increasing tendency for potters to adopt mechanical, mainly foot or electric powered potting wheels, rather than traditional modes of manufacture.  The fear is that a significant facet of Tswana heritage will be lost to future generations, and the question is how to stimulate sufficient interest – not only among producers but also purchasers – to sustain these traditional modes.

Mr. Kebalo Manase (Right)

The workshop took place in the Little Theater of theNationalMuseumand was opened with welcoming remarks by Mr. Louis Moroka, Deputy Director of Archaeology.  Wilmsen then gave a brief overview of the genesis and progression of our work with potters including a history of its funding by Wenner-Gren and others.  This was followed by the screening of the film.  Griffiths then discussed the key social features depicted in the film including traditional and contemporary constraints on resource procurement as aspects of land tenure.  After which Wilmsen explained the technical steps taken by Pilikwe potters in transforming rotted granite into clay and the analytic procedures we use to trace potting materials to their geologic source and how such data aid in identifying prehistoric social interactions.  Thebe summed up the foregoing in relation to common problems in ethnographic and archaeological research.

The workshop was attended by a total of 54 individuals prominent among whom was Mr. Kebalo Manase, Registrar of the National Land Tribunal, UB professors and students as noted above, all museum research staff, representatives of several Botswana CRM organizations, Botswana Society members, as well as media reporters/photographers including Ms. Rosalind Kwenye, Editor of Women-to-Women magazine.  A lively discussion followed the presentations with the principal issues summarized above receiving the greatest attention; personal discussions continued for some time over tea and biscuits in the museum courtyard.

Potters watching film

Village visits

The village visits produced some surprises, with most of these at Pilikwe.  Five of the potters in this village with whom we worked in 2006-2013 were able to meet with us: Gobotsamang Motonto, Fred Motonto, Balemogeng Motswapong, Batlhalefi Gaobatlelwe, and Gathanang Galenamongwe.  The oldest, Dineo Batsalelwang, has died, and Otsetswe Senonki’s son is in Palapye hospital where she is staying with him.  The youngest two, Moipone Oatametse and Omphile Kakwanda, have taken jobs in Palapye.  This reflects substantial changes taking place in the village where major (relative to the area) infrastructural upgrading by District Council is taking place.  The women who met with us continue to make pots and wish to be able to increase their output but are restrained by lack of access to materials and markets.  They pointed to our 2010 article on their potting in the Air Botswana inflight magazine Peolwane which had brought several tourists to Pilikwe who bought many pots; we were given a new pot in gratitude for this.  Their response to our tale of museum fears for the loss of traditional pot-making was amusing – but telling: “we don’t want to stay ‘traditional’, we want production”, and specified a foot-powered potting wheel and a motor-powered clay grinder as most desirable.  Nonetheless, as their rapt attention to our film testifies, they still have a deep interest in their traditional ways.

The situation in Manaledi could hardly be more different.  There traditional potting is thriving, and Mma Lebonetse has a young apprentice, her niece, Galeboeng, and five other potters have their entire cash income from potting.  The reasons for this difference are largely a matter of geographical location.  Pilikwe is being absorbed in the periphery of the Palapye labor catchment area.  Palapye is now called “Botswana’s Powerhouse” because all electricity generating takes place here, all north-south-west highways and railways intersect here, and the Botswana Institute of Science and Technology with 800 students opened two years ago.  This has brought a newly repaved, widened road to Pilikwe with regular bus service between Pilikwe and Palapye just 34km away; consequently, new employment opportunities have appeared as Moipone and Omphile can testify.  Traditional ways, especially if they entail heavy work as does old style potting, tend to seem less desirable.  In contrast, Manaledi is 65km from Palapye; about half this distance is on a narrow road paved to the village turnoff from whence it is a dirt track.  There is no electricity and no public transport.  On the positive side, Manaledi potting clay is a short walk away and donkey carts are readily available to haul the load home.  Under such conditions, traditional ways seem normal.  Manaledi potters do want more market exposure and among our plans for the future are to devise ways to accomplish this.

Addendum

In addition to the Wenner-Gren funded engagements,Griffithswas able to schedule aa supplementary meeting of her Law and Commerce class in the graduate program in Women and Law at theUniversityofZimbabwein early July at which we screened our film and followed this with a lengthy discussion session.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Karen Rignall and “Transforming Landscapes, Transforming Communities in a Moroccan Oasis Valley”

Karen Rignall is Assistant Professor of Community and Leadership Development in the College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment at the University of Kentucky. In 2009, while a student at the University of Kentucky, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Expanding Cultivation, Land, and Livelihood Transformations in Southern Morocco,’ supervised by Dr. Lisa Cliggett. She used the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to the Mgoun Valley in southern Morocco in early 2014.

I returned to the Mgoun Valley in southern Morocco in early 2014 to initiate a process of collective community-based learning and dialogue about the social and spatial transformations that formed the basis of my dissertation research there in 2010.  My goal was to use a model developed in the refugee camps of Palestine, to support people’s constructive engagement with the social dimensions of landscape transformation rather than to simply present the results of my dissertation. The ensuing year revealed much about how those social dynamics were in even greater flux than during my fieldwork, and how the politics of knowledge production in my research were bound up with these changing social dynamics. The result was an engaged anthropology project that looked very different from my initial plans but that nonetheless produced a sustained dialogue about subsistence claims, land rights, and political representation and engaged a much wider audience than my initial research had. This project produced new and collaborative learning, building my relationships and laying the groundwork for more research in the future.

The initial phase of the project involved working with a local NGO to hold dialogues with different groups to actively reinterpret the spaces in which they live, spaces that had been transformed through expanded agricultural production and housing construction over the past few decades. Rather than work with the local village development association, however, I decided to partner with the Réseau des Associations de Tinghir pour la Démocratie et Développement (RATDED), a province-wide network of NGOs that included the local groups with which I was familiar but engaged in broader collaborative efforts to link community development with substantive economic and political rights. We began the process of community dialogues but found that the project plan — though intended to counter the standard approaches to local development — was still divorced from the social and political dynamics that were already engaging people in my research communities. There were existing sites for people to reimagine their landscapes. People were doing so in the context of existing informal governance institutions, negotiations over land rights in newly opened up frontiers, and social dialogue forums RATDED was already holding. Our meetings began to appear burdensome and in some cases redundant. The Palestinian model remained very compelling to me, but I understood that I would need to be present in Mgoun on a consistent basis, as the Palestinian program is, in order to fully integrate this project into the processes of dialogue already going on. Though I was able to visit for two months in 2014 and one month in early 2015, this was simply not enough to organically link my structured discussions with the often politically charged discussions others were brokering on the same themes.

Rethinking our approach produced interesting insights about the politics of knowledge production. Since the reflexive turn three decades ago, anthropologists have addressed the issue of power and inequality in the research encounter by emphasizing the dialogic nature of our methods and how our politicized understanding of knowledge can mitigate the claims to authority embedded in more strictly positivist approaches. I had thought that framing my research in this critical tradition would resonate with people’s increasingly politicized approach to land tenure and government representation in recent years. But our interlocutors were less invested in the qualitative, interpretive discussions than in the emerging quantitative results from a study I was simultaneously conducting with RATDED. We were doing a household survey in 18 communities to assess poverty dynamics and the impact of out-migration on land ownership, inequality, and wealth over the past fifty years. Whereas our discussions about my dissertation research appeared at times to rehash issues that people were working through in other contexts, a quantitative view of these processes stimulated broad interest. I was surprised at how such a traditional research approach in the end provoked more active engagement. I came to an uncomfortable realization that dialogic, participatory processes may — though do not necessarily — serve more to satisfy foreign researchers’ desire to come to terms with their positionality than address the concerns of people with whom we work. Residents in the valley, whether activists or not, were comfortable with a traditional research product because it offered them a tool using the same authoritative discourses as state agencies (aggregated statistics, charts, etc.) to substantiate claims that government neglect was a form of structural violence perpetuating poverty and inequality.

In the end, we opted for a more orthodox presentation of research results, combining the qualitative insights of my dissertation fieldwork with the preliminary findings of quantitative study were had just concluded. In March 2015, I traveled to the capital city, Rabat, to deliver an academic version of the presentation at the Faculty of Letters. With my Moroccan academic mentor as discussant, I addressed a mixed group of geographer and sociologists, but the main group in attendance was the over 50 undergraduates and graduate students who had organized the gathering. Many of them were from marginalized regions such as the southeastern oases, and they responded to the critical use of quantitative and qualitative data to explain socio-economic transformations they had themselves witnessed. We then held a larger colloquium based in the provincial capital of Tinghir, an hour’s drive from the Mgoun valley. I had initially resisted RATDED’s proposal to hold it there, thinking it needed to be in the valley to facilitate attendance. But when the provincial governor delivered a speech at the opening that outlined his development priorities and a major national human rights figure spoke about economic rights as human rights, I understood the import of bringing some of the region’s most marginalized residents to assert their presence in this government center. Over 150 people attended: research participants from my dissertation period and the current study, activists, NGO representatives, and government officials, and we structured the presentation of results so that the research participants were the true focus of the event. The presenter interpreted the powerpoint charts in Tashelhit, the local dialect of Berber, and used primarily non-technical terms to describe our findings. I had expected the elderly farmers and non-literate attendees to feel detached even from this more accessible language, but everyone was riveted. The hour-long presentation provoked over four hours of sometimes challenging discussions about the causes and consequences of structural poverty and inequality, land conflicts, and the role of the state. Participants told me no researcher had ever returned to the region to present their results or ask them what they thought of the findings. They asked for the research report so that they could use the results themselves; even people who were not civil society activists and had a limited command of Arabic (the report will be in Arabic and French) asked for the report so that they could keep it. I am in the process of producing this non-academic report.

This was one of the most meaningful professional experiences I have had, highlighting the need for us as researchers to remain open to all modes of discourse and to truly listen to our interlocutors to make our research relevant in the ways they find significant. This process of engagement, using what could have felt like a “second-best” strategy when our first one did not work out, did more to further collaborative research in the future that I ever could have imagined. I will be returning next year.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Margaret Crofoot and “Exploring the Jungle in the Backyard”

 

A juvenile capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus) playing shy.

Margaret Crofoot is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Davis. In 2010, while at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to aid research on ‘Do Capuchins Punish Cheaters? Cooperation, Coalitions, and Social Sanctions in Cebus capucinus Intergroup Aggression’. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant, which allowed her to return to her fieldsite and lead field trips bringing children from surrounding communities to observe researchers about their work.

Keeping one eye on the capuchins while listening to the excited voices coming slowly towards me up the trail, I always have a moment of anticipation: will they notice the monkeys over their heads, or will I get to point them out? One of the best parts of studying primate behavior at an easily accessible field-site like the one the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute runs on Barro Colorado Island in Panama is getting to introduce visitors to my study subjects and share my discoveries with them. Monkeys overcome even the most extreme teenage nonchalance, and capuchins are particularly mischievous and engaging.

I’ve been doing research in Panama for more than ten years, and  time and again, when people find out where I work—at dinner parties, in taxis, once in a hospital emergency room—I hear stories about the school trip they took to Barro Colorado Island (BCI), all the things they saw, and what an impression it left. The experience of exploring a tropical forest with scientists seems to resonate and have a large and lasting impact. This is why, when the Wenner-Gren Foundation announced their new Engaged Anthropology program, I saw an exciting opportunity to be able to sponsor field trips for schools that would otherwise be unable to afford to come to BCI.

Scientist/guide Betzi Perez giving an introductory lecture to a group of students. Betzi first came to BCI as part of an internship program for Panamanian students run by the Smithsonian, and is now a Ph.D. student at McGill University in Canada.

In the last year, Oris Acevedo—BCI’s scientific coordinator—and I have worked together to bring over 200 elementary and high-school aged students to this international hotspot for tropical research to explore the jungle and learn about the science being done in their backyard. To reach the island, classes transit part of the Panama Canal. They are met by one of the Smithsonian’s scientist guides, who gives a short talk about the history of the research station, and about the animals and plants the students will see in the forest.

The group then heads into the forest to see what they can find.  The Smithsonian’s guides are extremely knowledgeable about the plants and animals that live on BCI, and the research that has been done on them, so forest walks end up as part-scavenger hunt, part-impromptu mini lecture on whatever the group happens to encounter.

A group of 7th and 9th grade science students from the Centro Educativo Básico General Residencial Vista Alegre in the forest on Barro Colorado Island.

As part of their continuing education, the Smithsonian guides run a monthly seminar series, and they invited me to give two lectures on the behavior and ecology of Panamanian primates, highlighting my work on cooperation in capuchins which the Wenner-Gren Foundation funded.

For me, one of the highlights of this project was hosting a class of students from the Centro Educativo Básico General Residencial Vista Alegre, taught by my former student-intern Nena Robles. Nena worked with me for a year on my Wenner-Gren funded study of group cooperation during territorial conflicts in capuchin monkeys, before going on to get her Masters at the University of Torino in Italy. Helping Nena to bring her students—the next generation of Panamanian scientists—out to the field station where she got her start with research was really the epitome of what I think this outreach project can achieve.