Anthropology Around the Web, Friday 2/17

Happy Friday and welcome to a long-weekend edition of Anthropology Around the Web.

Will 20,000-year-old huts in Jordan challenge the accepted narrative of the development of human dwelling? A new open-access paper from PLoS One has the details.

Some call 3rd President of the United States Thomas Jefferson ‘the first anthropologist’ for the detailed inquiries into local lifeways made in his Notes on the State of Virginia. In honor of Presidents Day, read some of his ethnographic observations in this vintage issue of American Anthropologist

Throughout history, people have used votive offerings in the shape of various ailed body parts such as hearts, lungs and limbs to solicit supernatural aid. Biological anthropologist Kristina Killgrove (@bonegirlPHD on Twitter) takes a look at these stylized anatomical components in antiquity to see what they might have to say about the medical knowledge of the cultures which produced them  

 

Interview with Eric Plemons on “Making the Gendered Face”

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.

 

Are you a current or past grantee and want to be featured in a mini-interview on our blog? Contact Daniel (dsalas@wennergren.org) to find out more.

 

Grant Season Journal, Part 1

Please note: the application procedures described in this article are no longer applicable.  Please refer to the Programs section of the Foundation’s website for current application procedures.

Wenner-Gren’s President, Dr. Leslie C. Aiello, with some invaluable inside tips and hints for those planning on applying for our Spring 2012 season.

Wenner-Gren’s spring 2012 grant season for our major programs is now underway (May 1, 2012 deadline).

Over the next few weeks I will be blogging with tips to help you write a competitive grant proposal. We would like to fund everyone who applies, but the reality is that we only have money to fund 12-15% of the almost 1500 applications we receive each year. My aim is to help you get into that top 12-15% and become a successful Wenner-Gren grantee.

I plan to cover all of the basics of preparing successful grant proposals for Wenner-Gren. Weekly topics will include:

  • How to write winning answers to our project description questions.
  • Resubmitting a previously declined application and how to prepare a convincing resubmission statement.
  • Preparing your budget:  what is fundable and what isn’t.
  • How to be successful in our most competitive grant program, the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship
  • Funding your conference or workshop: The Conference and Workshop Grant

Today’s topic is Basic Do’s and Don’ts in Preparing your Application.  You shouldn’t ignore the following points – you would be surprised how many applicants do so and run into trouble as a result. This information applies to all of our grant programs.

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Anthropology Around the Web

Today I’m experimenting with a new type of post – a small selection of anthropology-related news and articles that have popped up around the internet in the past 24 hours or so. In my duties as the Foundation’s communications assistant and social-media jockey, I get to sample a huge amount of anthropology stuff on a daily basis, and sometimes the fragmented nature of the usual channels (twitter, etc) make me wish there was a place where the most interesting things could be gathered.

And as far as the credibility of my editorial eye goes…don’t worry, I have a Masters. 😉

-Daniel

(Thanks to @BoneGirlPHD, @johnhawks, and others for turning me on to these links)

Albino Jopela is the 2012 Wadsworth African Fellow

We would like to extend our congratulations to Albino Pereira de Jesus Jopela, the recipient of the 2012 Wadsworth African Fellowship. An archaeologist, Jopela will be continuing his studies at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand concerning cultural-heritage management in southern Africa.

I was born in 1982 in Maputo, Mozambique. My research is focused on issues of conservation and management systems of Heritage, especially in relation to rock art sites in Mozambique and southern Africa. I received my BA Honours in History (2006) from Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique); a BA Honours (2007) and Masters Degree (2010) in Archaeology from the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). My Masters dissertation looked at traditional custodianship practises for archaeological sites in southern African heritage management and considered how the social context of heritage management has changed. This research uncovered the mismatch between public policy makers (formal heritage management systems) and local communities’ perceptions (traditional custodianship systems) in terms of the meanings and notions of ‘heritage’ (e.g. the value and meaning of rock art for contemporary African communities). My PhD research at the Department of Archaeology and the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is a direct outgrowth of this research. I have chosen Wits University for my PhD training because Wits is a worldwide recognized institution for its research on Palaeo-archaeology, the Stone Age, pre-colonial farming and herding societies and the formation of modern cultural identities in the last 500 years. RARI is one of the world’s largest specialised rock art institutions and has over 25 years of expertise in rock art survey, recording, interpretation and management.

I hold a permanent position as Archaeologist and lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique). I am also the Director of the undergraduate programme for Archaeology and an active collaborator with the National Directorate for Cultural Heritage of Mozambique, which is responsible for advising on policies and strategies regarding the conservation and management of cultural immovable heritage in the country. I have also worked as a UNESCO Consultant on missions in Mozambique and Angola.

Interested in Jopela and his work? Reach out to him on LinkedIn.

For more information on the Wadsworth African Fellowship and the rest of our grant programs, please visit our Programs page.

Interview: Linda Abarbanell on “Spatial Language and Reasoning in Tseltal Mayans”

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.

 

What was a major obstacle that you encountered in the course of your research? How did you adapt?

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.

Are you a current or past grantee and want to be featured in a mini-interview on our blog? Contact Daniel (dsalas@wennergren.org) to find out more.

IDG Interview: National University of Mongolia

P Chuluunbat and B Tsetsentsolmon, both students in the Anthropology Department, Mongolia National University, at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Study Unit Library, Cambridge University, March 2011

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.

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N.Y.A.S. @ Wenner-Gren 1/30/12

Our president, Dr. Leslie C. Aiello, remarks on the successful Monday evening talk by NYU’s Terry Harrison.

Terry Harrison’s Monday night talk on “The Earliest Human Ancestors” was one of the most successful Wenner-Gren/New York Academy of Sciences (Anthropology section) talks in recent years. We had a record number of attendees and if the questions at the end are any guide, the talk captivated even the social anthropologists in the crowd. The spirit of academic enthusiasm and camaraderie was helped along by a Thai buffet and wine reception preceding the 7pm talk, but the questions about (and interest in) seemingly esoteric fossils such as Ardipithecus  ramidus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and Orrorin tugenensis coming from our general anthropological audience were a pleasant surprise to the palaeoanthropology specialists among us.

Harrison emphasized the difficultly in recognizing human ancestors the further back in time that we go, and these African fossils, which date between about 4.5 million and 6 million years ago (the oldest currently known) present a big problem. How do you recognize an ape ancestor versus a human answer so close to the divergence date between these two lineages? It is not easy, particularly when you view the evolutionary tree from the bottom up (worm’s-eye view in Harrison’s terms) and realize the great variety of fossil apes that were alive just prior to the divergence of these two lineages. The big question is whether these old fossils, currently recognized is the first members of our lineage, are really on early branches of the human tree, or if they are fossil apes with nothing to do with the human lineage. Harrison tends to believe that at least the most complete of these early fossils, Ardipithecus, was one of these dead-end apes, but he realizes that this is not the current consensus view.

We can look forward to continued, lively debate on these and related issues and to future stimulating NYAS/Wenner-Gren evening meetings that are held monthly at the Wenner-Gren New York offices. Topics of the seminars range across the broad field of Anthropology and are open to all. Click here for upcoming events and we hope to see you soon at Wenner-Gren.

Wenner-Gren Grantees make anthropologyworks’ “Best Dissertations of 2011”

Recently the blog anthropologyworks, managed by George Washington University professor of anthropology Barbara Miller, released a list of their favorite dissertation projects in Cultural Anthropology for 2011. We are pleased to announce that seven Wenner-Gren grantees made the list!

  • Botswana as a Living Experiment, by Betsey Brada. The University of Chicago. Advisors: Jean Comaroff, Judith Farquhar, Susan Gal, Joseph Masco.
  • La Violencia Adentro (Violence in the Interior): Gender Violence, Human Rights, and State-NGO-Community Relations in Coastal Ecuador, by Karin Friederic. The University of Arizona. Advisors: Linda B. Green, Mark Nichter, Laura Briggs, Martha Few, et al.
  • Small City Neighbors: Race, Space, and Class in Mansfield, Ohio, by Alison Goebel. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Advisors: Alejandro Lugo, Brenda Farnell, Ellen Moodie, David R. Roediger.
  • Being Closer: Children and Caregiving in the Time of TB and HIV in Lusaka, Zambia, by Jean Hunleth. Northwestern University. Advisors: Karen Tranberg Hansen, Helen Schwartzman, William Leonard, Rebecca Wurtz.
  • After SARS: The Rebirth of Public Health in China’s “City of Immigrants,” by Katherine Mason. Harvard University. Advisor: Arthur Kleinman.
  • Landscapes of Power: An Ethnography of Energy Development on the Navajo Nation, by Dana Powell. University of North Carolina. Advisors: Dorothy Holland, Arturo Escobar, Orin Starn, Peter Redfield.
  • The Weight of the Body: Changing Ideals of Fatness, Nourishment, and Health in Guatemala, by Emily Yates-Doerr. New York University. Advisors: Emily Martin, Thomas A. Abercrombie, Rayna Rapp, Sally E. Merry.

Congratulations to all of the authors, and thanks to anthropologyworks for running one of the best anthropology blogs on the web.

N.Y. Academy of Sciences @ Wenner-Gren: Monday, Jan. 30

Image courtesy of The Center for the Study of Human Origins

As always, the Anthropology Section of the New York Academy of the Sciences will be holding its monthly meeting at the Wenner-Gren Foundation offices, this coming Monday, January 30 at 7:00 PM. For this session, NYAS and the Foundation welcome Dr. Terry Harrison, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at New York University and Director of NYU’s Center for the Study of Human Origins, as he discusses the problems and caveats involved with identifying the earliest specimens of Homo sapiens‘ evolutionary lineage and making inferences about their relationships.

“The Earliest Human Ancestors: Sorting the Contenders From the Pretenders” will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 PM. The meeting is free to attend, but please register prior to the meeting.