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.

Wenner-Gren Symposium: The Anthropology of Potentiality

A note on Wenner-Gren’s most recent symposium.

A Wenner-Gren Symposium on “The Anthropology of Potentiality,” was held from October 28-November 4, 2011, near Teresópolis, Brazil.  Organizers of the meeting were Karen-Sue Taussig (U. of Minnesota) and Klaus Hoeyer (U. of Copenhagen). Eighteen scholars from Denmark, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States explored how anthropology can develop our understandings of the medical practices where potentiality is articulated and how such articulations interact with moral notions of humanness. For a complete report on the symposium and a list of participants, please follow this link.

Interview with Rayed Khedher

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)


Protestors in front of the RCD (Ben Ali's former political party) demanding its dismantling

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.

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Special Guest Editorial – Mark Aldenderfer of Current Anthropology

A special guest editorial by the editor of Current Anthropology, Mark Aldenderfer.

Changes Coming to Current Anthropology

One measure of the success of a journal is the number of manuscripts submitted. Current Anthropology does very well indeed on this criterion: over the past three years, the journal has seen upwards of 200 manuscripts of article length.  I’m pleased that authors see the journal as a publication venue for their research, but this large number of submissions creates new problems in these times of fiscal constraint: a relatively high rejection rate compared to other anthropology journals and a lengthening queue for publication.

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Wenner- Gren’s Institutional Development Grant Awarded to National University of Vietnam – Hanoi

part of a group discussion between doctoral students from the National University of Singapore with students from students from the National University of Vietnam-Hanoi. (Photo Supplied by Professor Van Suu Nguyen)

Congratulations to the Department of Anthropology, National University of Vietnam-Hanoi, recipient of the 2011 Institutional Development Grant. This renewable grant — providing $25,000 per year for up to five years — will enable the development of a doctoral program in anthropology at the University, which currently has an active undergraduate and Masters level program.  Peek below the cut for an interview Professor Van Suu Nguyen on the department and the state of anthropology in his country.

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Current Anthropology Special Issue: The Origins of Agriculture

The Origins of Agriculture: New Data, New Ideas

Edited by: T. Douglas Price (Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin–Madison) and  Ofer Bar-Yosef  (Harvard University)

This 4th supplementary issue of the Wenner-Gren Symposia Series in Current Anthropology  brings together a diverse international group of archaeological scientists to consider a topic of common interest and substantial anthropological import—the origins of agriculture. The volume is the outcome of a Wenner-Gren Symposium, (number 141) held from March 6-13, 2009, at the Hacienda Temozon,  Yucatan, Mexico. The group included individuals working in most of the places where farming began. This resulting volume is organized by chronology and geography. The goal was to consider the most recent data and ideas from these different regions in order to examine larger questions of congruity and disparity among the groups of first farmers. There is much new information from a number of important areas, particularly Asia. Findings highlight at least 10 different places around the world where agriculture was independently developed, and the antiquity of domestication is being pushed back in time in light of these discoveries. The volume emphasizes the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to such large questions in order to assemble as much information as possible and anticipates that the results and consequences of the symposium and this supplementary issue will have long-term ripple effects in anthropology and archaeology. The Wenner-Gren Symposia series is available through Current Anthropology as open access, permitting an international community of scholars to access and share these findings.

See the Table of Contents and access full texts here.