Wenner-Gren Symposium #149: The Death of the Secret

L-R: Don Kulick, Cristiana Giordano, Gwyneira Isaac, Tanja Ahlin, Birgitte Sørensen, Robin Boast, Ravi Sundaram, Junko Kitanaka, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė, Susan Erikson, Mark Davis, Sverker Finnström, Lenore Manderson, Sarah Nuttall, Kimberly Theidon, Leslie Aiello, Laurie Obbink

Wenner-Gren Symposium #149, “The Death of the Secret:  The Public and Private in Anthropology,” organized by Lenore Manderson (U. of Witwatersrand/Monash U.), Mark Davis (Monash U.) and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh (Denver Museum of Nature & Science), just recently wrapped up! It was held from March 14-20, 2014, at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal.

Read the organizer’s statement below, and stay tuned for a future Current Anthropology special issue featuring the papers of this symposium!

 

» Read more..

NYAS @ WGF 3/24: Audio Now Available!

Left to right: Columbia's Brian Boyd, Daniel Lende, Rutgers' Genese Sodikoff, Rayna Rapp

Monday was the penultimate 2013-14 meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology section lecture series at the Wenner-Gren Foundation. We welcomed Daniel Lende of the University of South Florida and the popular PLoS blog Neuroanthropology, and New York University’s Rayna Rapp to discuss Culture and the Brain.

 

Now you can Listen to the audio of the talk and the following Q&A.

April 21st will see the final session of this season’s talks! Stay tuned for further details.

Inside Current Anthropology: Petrobarter: Oil, Inequality, and the Political Imagination in and after the Cold War

The April edition of Current Anthropology is out now. In this issue, Yale University’s Douglas Rogers discusses how petrobarter – the exchange of oil for goods and services – had real implications for the political landscape of post-Cold War Russia, and how, as a practice on the rise, it continues to affect world regions and their populations.

Oil, perhaps more closely and more pervasively than any other commodity, is associated with the circulation of money. From corner gas stations to high politics, from funding for social and economic development projects to global economic forecasts, the relationship between oil and money seems to be everywhere in our societies. But oil and oil products are not always exchanged for money. A new article in Current Anthropology focuses on petrobarter: the direct exchange of oil for goods and services. Petrobarter has been a more common and more significant dimension of local, regional, and global exchange than has previously been understood, as examples from post-Soviet Russia and the global oil trade in the early Cold War illustrate.

Precisely because it avoids global monetary circuits and the political and economic institutions channeling them, petrobarter has often generated imaginations—both dreams and fears—of alternate global or regional orders. Petrobarter has also been an important generator of inequalities, and is a tool that corporations, states, and elites have used to corner markets and accumulate wealth and power. These petrobarter dynamics are especially clear when the examples are drawn from Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, as opposed to the much more commonly analyzed colonial and postcolonial states—from Nigeria to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia—where Western oil companies and their successors have long operated.

In the Perm Region of the Russian Urals in the 1990s, for instance, in the conditions of widespread economic collapse and demonetization that followed the end of the Soviet Union, petrobarter was central to the formation of a new regional political and economic elite. It was, in key part, through the barter of both crude and refined oil for foodstuffs and many other goods that the Perm Region weathered the crisis years of the 1990s and emerged as a significant oil-producing region by the early 2000s. The fact that these exchanges took place through very localized barter rather than through transactions involving state-issued monetary currency made petrobarter crucial to the creation of a new and specifically regional sense of Permian identity.

China, Ecuador, Ghana, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Russia, and a number of other counties have recently proposed or entered into petrobarter transactions, most notably oil-for-infrastructure deals between China and African states and oil-for-doctors exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba. With this type of transaction on the rise around the world, and in the conditions of ongoing global economic instability, it is especially useful to track petrobarter’s long history and its relationship to both patterns of inequality and varieties of political arrangements.

Current Anthropology is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. The journal is published by The University of Chicago Press and sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Lisa Overholtzer

 

Packing adobe mix into wooden molds

Dr. Lisa Overholtzer is Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at Wichita State University. In 2009, as a doctoral student at Northwestern University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Household Spaces and Everyday Practices at Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico,’ supervised by Dr. Elizabeth M. Brumfiel. In 2013, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her fieldsite and share her research findings with the descendent community.

My Wenner-Gren funded dissertation research investigated the Aztec imperial transition from the perspective of commoner households at the site of Xaltocan, capital of the pre-Aztec Otomí city-state. While ethnohistoric documents suggested that all of Xaltocan’s residents fled when their polity was conquered, and that the Aztec king sent taxpayers to repopulate the site some forty years later, my excavations of commoner houses provided clear evidence of continuity. Houses were constructed and burials were interred in the same spaces from 1240 to 1650 C.E., and radiocarbon dates revealed no gap in occupation. This analysis allowed me to reveal the exercise of power by imperial elites, which involved the silencing of ordinary people and the rewriting of their histories. A bottom-up contextual analysis of multiple lines of evidence—household architecture, domestic refuse, human skeletal remains, and ancient mitochondrial DNA—then offered an alternative narrative based on the histories that commoners inscribed in the material record. My dissertation project took a bottom-up approach not only theoretically, but also in practice. In line with the recent paradigm shift within the discipline away from exclusivity and colonialist modes of research and toward inclusivity and socially self-conscious models of investigation, I engaged descendants through community archaeology. This process culminated in a team-wide public symposium at the end of the field season.

Weaving reed mat for replica house (foreground) and building adobe wall (background)

As part of my continued efforts to ensure that archaeological research benefits members of the descendant community, I returned with several students and colleagues in July 2013 to create a more permanent and more accessible mode of dissemination in the form of a new exhibit hall. This extension of the local museum was funded by a Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology grant, Wichita State University, the David and Sally Jackman Foundation, and the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology. This project was designed to fulfill community needs by attracting tourists, educating the public about the town’s history and archaeological record, teaching visitors about the archaeological research process, and serving as a permanent interface between archaeologists and the descendant community in Xaltocan.

Replica house in the finished exhibit hall

This exhibit hall, which opened in September 2013, presents narratives of Xaltocan history that are based not on the elite-authored and manipulated documentary record, but on the practices of the subordinated commoners who formed the backbone of the Aztec empire. The central feature of the exhibit is a Replica house, an authentically reconstructed adobe house featuring stone foundations and a thatched reed roof. The Xaltocan replica house brings ordinary people to life, but perhaps more importantly presents archaeological evidence of the occupational continuity revealed by archaeological research. We chose to reconstruct the house occupied precisely during the supposed vacant period in Xaltocan’s history, thereby highlighting the persistence and resilience of ancient Xaltocan families. Rather than presenting a history in which conquered residents had no other choice than to flee when their town was conquered in 1395 C.E., we narrate how Xaltocan families persevered, strategically adapting their daily practices according to their changing social, political, and economic context. We offer an alternative narrative that does justice to the practices of subordinated and silenced commoners in the past, thereby countering the exercise of imperial power.

Backstrap loom, and reed mat, and gourds inside the finished replica house

Building the replica house was an experimental archaeology project involving collaboration with an adobe consultant and reed farmer and weaver brought in from the broader region. It also involved experimentation with materials used in ancient times, but not today, such as cactus juice employed as a mortar binder, as well as avoiding modern materials, such as animal manure added as a binder in adobe blocks, that would not have been available to pre-Hispanic builders. We also replicated the patio and house mound via a wooden platform and displayed the burials of household members in their place under the patio, visible through plexiglass windows. Finally, we furnished the house and patio with replicas of the kinds of objects residents would have had. A backstrap loom, baskets filled with dried foodstuffs, gourds, and sleeping mats were placed inside the house. The grinding stone and griddle women would have used to make tortillas every day were placed on the patio, on top of the graves of their loved ones, demonstrating how ancient residents lived with their dead. The exhibit hall was painted with colors and decorative motifs found on spindle whorls recovered in my excavations.

Burials placed under plexiglass windows on the replica patio platform

Together with text panels in Spanish and English, photographs, and exhibit cases filled with excavated artifacts, the replica house teaches visitors about the distinct line of evidence that archaeology can provide. The exhibits highlight how archaeologists date deposits, from stylistic seriation to stratigraphy to radiocarbon dating; analyze human bone and identify sex, age, occupational activities, and chronic illness; and reconstruct gender norms and household philosophies using the material record. The new exhibit hall teaches residents to see the archaeological record not as obstacles to construction, trinkets with monetary value, or simple curiosities, but rather as useful testimonies of the cultural practices of their ancestors. Through this museum and educational programs planned in the Xaltocan cultural center adjacent to the museum—such as summer youth classes on archaeology, Xaltocan history, and technical drawing—local residents can begin to see archaeological resources as sources of history, identity, and possibly future professional study.

Replica museum exhibit hall opening

NYAS @ WGF: March Madness Double Feature!

March 2014 is a special month for our annual NYAS Anthropology Section Lecture series, as we’re offering a double-dip of great anthropological programming beginning Friday, March 21, when CUNY Graduate Center hosts Gavin Smith, Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto. And on the following Monday, March 24, join us at the Wenner-Gren offices for an after-work discussion with New York University’s Rayna Rapp and South Florida’s Daniel Lende on “Culture and the Brain”!

Here are the details:

 

Intellectuals and Counter-Politics: Between Reflexivity and Engagement

Friday, March 21, 2014 | 4:15 PM – 6:00 PM
The Graduate Center, CUNY, Room C415A

Dr. Gavin Smith (University of Toronto) argues that the forms capitalism takes is best seen in terms of the dominance of specific power blocs, rather than as an expression of neoliberalism — either as a form of governance or as a kind of capitalist market ideology. He suggests that in the major social formations the conditions for the reproduction of finance capital have to be secured by the hegemonic strategies of this fraction of capital. As a result, we have seen a shift from a kind of hegemony whose ideological authority rested on expansion through a population configured as ideally homogenous, to a kind of hegemony whose ideological authority rests on selectivity and distinctions among the population. The intellectual task for a philosophy of praxis has three foci: assessment of the conditions of possibility, of the potentialities for popular mobilization, and of appropriate strategic actions — identifying key points of leverage.

 

Culture and the Brain: A Panel Discussion

Monday, March 24, 2014 | 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM

The Wenner-Gren Foundation

Rayna Rapp, New York University — “Big Data, Small Kids”

Dr. Rayna Rapp, in collaboration with Dr. Faye Ginsburg, has recently been examining cultural innovation in special education and the rise of disability consciousness. Together they have carried out fieldwork in scientific laboratories on brain research about learning, memory, childhood psychiatric diagnoses, and epigenetics. In this talk, Dr. Rapp tells the story of how she began tracking one set of scientists in a pediatric neuroscience lab looking at Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Disability (LD), and ended up watching the scientists construct international Big Data coalitions as part of a massive undertaking in brain mapping now ongoing across several continents.

Daniel Lende, University of South Florida — “Hooked on the Brain? On Using Neuroscience in Anthropology”

Dr. Daniel Lende areas of expertise include medical anthropology, the synthesis of biological and cultural anthropology, and applied anthropology. His research centers on behavioral health problems, particularly substance use and abuse. Dr. Lende is the co-founder of the Neuroanthropology blog and co-editor of The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT Press). Neuroanthropology is a new field that draws on neuroscience to examine anthropological questions. Using the case study of addiction, this talk will examine both the promise and peril of such an approach, and demonstrate how effective use of neuroscience requires both synthesis and critique.

 

As always, it is FREE to attend these events, but REGISTRATION WITH NYAS IS REQUIRED. Visit the links provided or contact the New York Academy of Sciences for more information.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Emily Yates-Doerr

Emily Yates-Doerr is a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. In 2007, while a doctoral candidate at New York University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Weight of the Body: Changing Ideals of Nutrition, Health and Fat in Guatemala,’ supervised by Dr. Emily Martin. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to Guatemala and perform engaged activities on ‘Translation in Practice: Obesity, Fatness, and Dietary Health in Guatemala.’ Below, Dr. Yates-Doerr shares her experience working with the EAG and the workshops she conducted “discussing the social lives of nutrition programs and policies.”

 

Background to the Engagement Project

As reported deaths from heart attacks, strokes and diabetes in Guatemala have escalated, recent public health interventions have aimed to provide education about healthy eating and exercise patterns. My Wenner-Gren-funded fieldwork, which examined several of these interventions, explored how obesity science circulated within people’s lives.[i] Central to my research was the question of how Guatemalans who traditionally associated fatness with health and prosperity were making sense of education that linked weight to potentially dangerous metabolic conditions.

Many repertoires of health circulate through my fieldsite. Here, a GNC vitamin store connected to a local Walmart advertised “health for all your life.”

Frictions between diverse ideas of well-being were a focal point of the inquiry. During fieldwork I met diabetic patients who added sugar to their coffee because it was fortified with valuable nutrients; women with heart disease who avoided broccoli because they wanted to lose weight and were familiar with information about child health that linked vegetables and vitamins to (in this case desirable) weight gain; mothers, concerned about microbes in water and pesticides on vegetables, who fed their children chips and sodas to keep them from becoming sick; and so on. As different visions of health collided, the outcomes of interventions often differed from those anticipated by policy makers and educators.

I designed my engagement project to create a space within scientific and education centers to discuss the social lives of nutrition programs and policies. I wanted to share the results of my research with the scientists, nutritionists, and public health educators with whom I had worked, and who were themselves largely invested in an emerging genre of research labeled “translational research” which aims to make scientific results applicable to the population studied. Yet rather than simply report on my findings – a method of knowledge dissemination that I critique in my work as one-sided and, as a result, often ineffective – I organized workshops where various participants could collaboratively discuss challenges that arose through the practice of translation.  

 

The Workshops

I drew from my fieldwork to prepare questions – a scaffold for our discussions – but the participants came with questions of their own.[ii] Many come from a tradition of policy research that values anthropological insight[iii] and they wanted to discuss how ethnographic sensitivity to knowledge production can help evaluate, sharpen, and respond to problems of translation they were encountering in their own research.

Do qualitative methods differ from ethnographic methods? How do you know when you’ve done enough research to validate your claims to authority? How can knowledge based in critical reflexivity be replicated, and if it cannot be replicated, how can it confidently be used to shape policies?

This scale, photographed during a meeting with nutritionists, does not just report information but produces new kinds of knowledge.

Like much of anthropology, some of the workshops’ most poignant moments arrived in unexpected asides. One of the meetings was attended by a Dutch nutrition scientist. Though I hold a US passport, I have been working in Amsterdam for the past two years. I mentioned in passing the differing beliefs held by the public health systems of the Netherlands and the US when it came to both childhood illnesses and hand sanitizer. She didn’t disagree with the assessment, but she was aghast that I had framed her country’s science in the language of belief.

“Belief? This sounds so pejorative” she said. But then she also noted, reflexively, that our group had just been speaking about Maya views on diet and health as beliefs—a realization that brought to our conversation an introspective pause as we considered the shortcomings of this term.

At the largest gathering of roughly 20 doctors and scientists in Guatemala City there was an extended discussion on the difficulty of crafting a useful public health indicator for hunger.

While everyone who voiced an opinion recognized the political utility of such an indicator – the millennium development goals, in which hunger’s elimination figures prominently, have garnered far more media and policy attention than their architects imagined – they were skeptical about the deployment of a rhetoric of science for such unabashedly political ends.

This raised debate between policy and laboratory scientists about what, if anything, they might be able to say about health. Yet even those nutrition scientists whose research was technical – focused, for example, on the chemical binding properties of iron – recognized that the questions deemed worthy of funding, and the acceptance and dissemination of their research were interwoven into political agendas, muddling clear delineations between science and culture. (And there, of course, is a key lesson imparted by the critical reflexivity of anthropology).

I shared with the workshop participants something I had learned during my fieldwork in the highlands, where many Guatemalans hold fatness to be healthy. There is a tendency among (so-called) educated Westerners to hear this and dismiss it as provincial, erroneous knowledge—the backwards thinking of someone who does not understand the true consequences of weight gain. But this dismissal overlooks a regional distinction between fatness (a desirable sign of prosperity and abundance) and obesity (a measure of weight, that does, indeed, often correlate with illness). In this sense, those who held that fatness was healthy were not wrong;[iv] they were instead engaged in practices of health that differed from those of the (apparently not so) knowing Westerner.

The participants were intrigued by this finding. After all, a plan to combat fatness might easily come across as nonsensical to those for whom fatness is desirable—for whom health cannot be defined by measurable variables.

Several researchers were running into obstacles in their process of collecting data on eating and health. One group was studying how Indigenous beliefs impacted the consumption behavior of post-partum women and was investigating whether women were eating caliente or frio foods after giving birth.

Ethnographic literature makes clear that Indigenous classification of foods correlates to a situated quality of eating and not to a measurable temperature of food. But when coding their data, which had been translated into Spanish and would eventually become translated into English, the scientists could not easily discern whether the reference to caliente or frio was a reference to a quality or temperature. We discussed the problems of coding across languages—of forcing heterogeneous meanings into someone else’s lingua franca, be it Spanish, English or the language of measured calculations.

By the end of the workshop, the questions we had started with about the reliability of ethnographic methods had reversed upon themselves. Now at stake was the question of how to do good quantitative research given that translations do not hold stable.

 

Photograph of a mural on the researcher’s office wall

Translational Competency

During the workshops we encountered several situations in which information does not move smoothly from site to site, but becomes transformed as it travels. I want to offer a concluding story that offers a tentative idea of where to go from here.

It was the end of the day. I had accompanied a small group of scientists to a meeting of rural Mam women who had gathered to discuss things they found important, or beautiful, or challenging in their lives.

On other days the scientists collected clear plastic vials of spit, later analyzing this for a biomarker (cortisol) of what many health professionals call “stress.” But the scientists knew that these women did not use this concept and they were curious about the local meanings of the biomarker. The day’s meeting was a preliminary attempt to learn about the perspectives of the women.

As we walked back to the office along the busy road from the bus terminal, I asked the lead scientist what they were hoping to find. She said she wasn’t sure, but three small babies had recently died in a community where they were carrying out their study, and they wanted to develop a richer language for communication so as to better understand what might have gone wrong.

In particular, they wanted to know more about why the women, who largely depended upon midwives or received no formalized prenatal care at all, were afraid of the regional hospital. Many saw it as a space of death and the researchers wanted to better understand the women so that eventually they might more effectively encourage them to seek medical care while also helping the hospital to provide them with better services.

It is a testament to the power of anthropological insight well beyond the domain of the field of anthropology that the scientists recognized the relevance of narrative and cultural perspective to their work. Still, attention to translation in meaning, which is the terrain of cultural competency, can come with sometimes profound limitations insofar as culture, like meaning itself, is treated as “a reified, essential, static thing” (Taylor 2003:160)— a treatment that can elide, rather than engage with, the realities of others.

As Helena Hansen and Jonathon Metzl eloquently argue in their work on structural competency, a focus on difference in culture may not only fail to ameliorate stigma but may bolster the institutional forces that give it life. [v] In this case, I cautioned the scientists that concern for belief might divert attention – and resources – away from the material stratifications through which Guatemala’s landscape is organized. It struck me that beginning research out of a concern that women were not going to hospitals was itself a disquieting place to start. Why not instead ask why midwives and home deliveries are not better supported? Or ask what would change by taking seriously the women’s views that hospitals were a place of death and consider that they might know a better way?

My question was greeted with interest. But then we stumbled into another site of rupture. Fortification and nutrition campaigns are a recent occurrence in Guatemala, dating back no further than a generation or two. Many are directed at pregnant and lactating women, who are understood in public health terms as holding the keys to the doors of human capital. Emerging research suggests that when these campaigns are successful babies will be born much bigger in size. From the standpoint of public health nutrition this outcome is wonderful, just what they want— except for a caveat in which the health of nutrition is undermined by the specter of death.

You see, small women can certainly safely deliver large babies without needing to travel to hospitals, but the risks involved might very well increase. And the same researchers who have promoted the use of fortification to treat dietary deprivations in the past are growing suddenly fearful about what happens when women who measure as stunted in height give birth to babies whose size and shape has been buoyed by these nutrients.

“Genocide at an unimaginable scale” is how one scientist referred to the potential consequences of improving health in a way that neglected to consider its distribution across generational time. Even skilled midwives become weakened by these sclerotic translations.

 

I took this picture of a store in one of the rural communities I visted during my engagement project to illustrate how pervasive sodas have become in Guatemala. When on sale (which is often) the large plastic jugs of soda are cheaper than water—which must be bought or boiled.

Continuous Translation

In keeping with the findings of a rich tradition of anthropological scholarship on global, environmental, and health translations,[vi] my workshops emphasized the need not just for cultural competency – the respectful and attentive translation of meanings from site to site – but for translational competency, which entails the ceaseless work of staying with transformations in structures, and resources, and temporality itself.

A few times participants reframed the examples of the translation transformations I had highlighted as misunderstandings. But the idea that knowledge can ever be understood presumes there to be a stable and correct version of information to be known. Meanwhile the exchanges I drew attention to did not so clearly have a singular right or wrong valuation.

Women who give their children Pepsi because boiled water is expensive and tap water might cause diarrhea do not do so out of ignorance. In a region where stomach cancer among children abounds, eating chips instead of vegetables washed in pesticide run-off may not be a decision made from poor communication but a difficult trade-off of one kind of sickness for another. What is at stake is not – or not only – an exchange of correct meanings, but an exchange of resources.

Many of the scientists who participated in my engagement project were invested in “translational research” and cared about the practical results of their studies. Their work intersects in interesting ways with the Wenner-Gren’s commitment to engaged anthropology—a commitment made material through the development of the grant that made my project possible (see also Low and Merry 2010). But if there’s something other disciplines might learn from the longstanding attention to translation within our field, it is that translation is not a determinate process.

As the conversations that unfolded during my return to Guatemala illustrated, the work of engaging in translational research entails staying close not only to the jagged edges of meanings as they shift from site to site, but also to these meanings as they transform into practices, and to these practices as they endure or fall apart with time. The process is not linear (from the proverbial bench to bedside) but entails dialogue, and rupture, and silence, and further dialogue.

 

NOTE: This blog has been developed into an article focused on the process of engaged anthropology. See: Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2014. “Obesity Science and Health Translations in Guatemala: Engagement in Practice.” Anthropology Now. 6 (1) 3-14.

A photograph I took in a market in 2008 was recognized in the AAA photo contest. During my engagement project I brought copies of the issue of Anthropology News in which the image was featured to the people photographed.

 

__________________

 Further Reading:

 

Adams, Richard N.

2010    Social anthropology in INCAP. Food & Nutrition Bulletin 31(1):152-160.

Low, Setha M., and Sally Engle Merry

2010    Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas: An Introduction to Supplement 2. Current Anthropology 51(S2):S203-S226.

Metzl, Jonathan, and Helena Hansen

In Press           Structural Competency: Theorizing a New Medical Engagement with Stigma and Inequality. Social Science & Medicine SSM-D-12-03037R1.

Mol, Annemarie, and John Law

2004    Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: the Example of Hypoglycaemia. Body & Society 10(2):43-62.

Scott, Joan Wallach, Cora Kaplan, and Debra Keates

1997    Transitions, environments, translations : feminisms in international politics. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Janelle S.

2003    The Story Catches You and You Fall down: Tragedy, Ethnography, and “Cultural Competence”. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17(2):159-181.

 



[i] For their support back in 2007 when I was writing the original Wenner-Gren grant, and still today, I thank Emily Martin, Tom Abercrombie, Rayna Rapp, Sally Merry and Renato Rosaldo and the anthropology department at NYU. I also thank my current colleagues at the Health Care and the Body Research Group at the University of Amsterdam.

[ii] Questions included: To what extent can scientists participate in the translation of their research about metabolic health into media reports and public health policy? How might health care workers address negative health consequences of metabolic illness without presuming that only slender bodies are healthy bodies? Can education about eating be developed in such a way that it avoids placing the burden of responsibility for health on individuals? What can educators do to acknowledge the role that women play in feeding their families without suggesting that dietary health is exclusively women’s domain? In what ways might strong and effective national dietary health curricula remain sensitive to nuances in Mayan terminologies? How can educators stay engaged with the effects of their policies and protocols about healthy eating?

[iii] See Adams (2010).

[iv] It should be noted that even from a more traditionally-biomedical repertoire of health they might not be wrong, after all. See http://www.digitalnewsrelease.com/?q=jama_3867.

[v] For more see Metzl and Hansen (In Press).

[vi] In a prescient volume edited by Joan Scott, Cora Kaplan and Debra Keates, Anna Tsing usefully describes translation as a continual negotiation, an “irregular haphazard process in which terms are appropriated from one context to another than then used to do different work” (1997). Annemarie Mol, who directs my postdoc, has also for some time illustrated the contingency of boundaries between meanings and bodies, machines and gestures (see especially Mol and Law 2004).

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

 

Returning from Pharak

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is Lecturer in Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. In 2011, while a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Sherpa Perceptions of Climate Change: Local Understandings of a Global Problem,’ supervised by Dr. John Bodley. In 2013 she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant and returned to her fieldsite in Nepal’s Everest region to start conversations about institutions and researchers involving communities as equal partners in understanding and responding to climate change effects locally.

My doctoral research showed that despite several institutional responses to the effects of climate change being organized in the Everest region since 2004, the northern part called Khumbu and the southern part called Pharak, climate change is still a foreign concept to many. These institutional responses have narrowly focused on extreme events as climate change effects, which have limited our understanding of the wider climate change effects. In some cases, these responses also had unintended negative consequences putting lives in danger. The research  also revealed that Sherpas are aware of and are experiencing environmental changes although differentially based on their socioeconomic and occupational backgrounds. Therefore, I developed this engagement project (December 2013 to January 2014) to start conversations about institutions and researchers involving communities as equal partners in understanding and responding to climate change effects locally.

Along with Medinee Prajapati and assistance from Prashidha Yonzon and Lhakpa Chamji, I conducted a seminar at the Environmental Graduates Himalaya premises with academic scholars, a seminar with the Sherwi Yondhen Tshokpa members, two workshops in Pharak, and informal discussions with community members. Two sets of low-cost weather monitoring stations were also installed in Pharak as pilot project to assess feasibility and usefulness. In this report, I focus on the two seminars and alter the names of my informants.

At a potato field in Pharak

I started the seminar at EGH asking the attendees (40) to describe climate change, its impacts and what we could do to address them. After the discussion, I presented my research showing the need for community involvement in climate change studies as well as the need for the scientists and researchers to work collaboratively with community members as equal partners and stakeholders. Several times during the seminar, I found myself having to defend ethnographic methods and qualitative studies. The seminar concluded with discussions on the application of qualitative research to the study of climate change, which emerged as a topic during our discussion that requires scientific inquiry involving tools such as numbers, graphs and GIS maps.

A week later, the SYT seminar was organized and attended by 19 members from the Everest region, in their late teens or early to mid 20s, currently living in Kathmandu for higher studies. In this seminar, I presented my research questions, methodology, findings, conclusions and recommendations. After my presentation, I opened the floor for discussion.

Dawa from Pharak was the first to comment. He said, “I don’t believe in climate change. I think global warming is real but climate change seems like a phrase that is for others to use to do something.” Mingma from Khumbu then questioned, “Isn’t climate change a problem of the developed and developing countries?” Lhakpa also from Khumbu added, “Since most of the pollution is made by developed countries, what can someone like us do to mitigate the problem?” Instead of answering these questions, I asked everyone what was something they think they need to do and they could do. To this they replied:

With Women in Chumoa, Pharak

“I think we can seek information and learn. Then share the knowledge with others. This is something we can all do,” said Lhakpa. He continued, “If we want to bring climate change awareness to people, we have to run a long-term campaign. It cannot be short-term programs. That will not work.”

Dawa reminded, “Before bringing programs, we should first be clear about what the problem really is. Then, we need to bring knowledge to the local people in practical ways. Our methods need to be different from past climate change activities.”

Mingma explained, “When any program is made or if someone or an institution goes into the community and continue to remind people about what is wrong or what is terrible and ask them to change their ways, of course people are going to be upset…If we need to bring programs to the locals, you have to first [build rapport]. Then only you need to tell them what the problem is. But you also need to offer them an alternative option instead of just telling them what they shouldn’t do. Even worse, people should not be reminded of the same problem over and over again.”

Dawa added, “It has to be in local language. If someone comes and talks in scientific language, it will mean nothing to the people because it will not be understandable and relatable.”

Seminar at the EGH premises

Looking at past climate change related institutional activities, we know that, said Lhakpa, “Just by bringing one or two speakers and speaking for just an hour or two about climate change is not going to make any difference. Especially if the speakers are using different languages and non-local terms, it will do nothing. Instead of that if we run a campaign [and develop course or curriculum at schools that might be more effective.] Also having brochures with pictures might be a good idea. When we were in village, I used to really like colorful brochures and took good care of them. Some people even stick them on their walls because they are good to look at. This way, the message continues to stay with them through the brochures.”

Observation of these seminars among academic scholars and the SYT members show that while both groups realize the need for [investigative] action, there are different perspectives in which such actions are imagined. Among the academic scholars engaged in anthropological sciences, based in Kathmandu and discussing national level climate change, quantitative research and meteorological data are emphasized whereas among educated Sherpa youths in Kathmandu, practical and locally sensitive programs are emphasized. The SYT seminar moreover also showed that Sherpa youths are concerned and informed about climate change issues. They are also actively engaged in their community and thus capable to contribute to climate change studies and programs as equal partners in ways other than how an international scientist, who had been to the Everest region to study Imja glacial lake described to me, a Pharak native, in 2011, “Of course, we will make sure the Sherpas are participating. They can carry the pipes to Imja Lake…”

Interview: Susie Hatmaker and ‘Flooded in Sludge, Fueling the Nation’

 

The "scrubber" - the newest smokestack technology for capturing particulate matter from the smoke emissions. The captured matter goes into a new solid waste holding pond. Image courtesy grantee, 2013

Susie Hatmaker is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 2012, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Flooded in Sludge, Fueling the Nation: Generating Power, Waste, and Change in East Tennessee,’ supervised by Dr. Hoon Song. We reached out to Susie to learn more about her project examining how the 2008 Kingston ash spill, and other changes in Appalachia’s physical environment, are connected to an expose ideas of progress and technical development.  

 

Let’s begin with a bit of background. Could you briefly summarize the project you undertook with your Dissertation Fieldwork Grant?

My project is a genealogy of the largest coal ash flood in US history that traces the intersecting forces that brought it into existence. And, it is a material analysis of the psychological and social processes that render this matter and this event largely invisible.

This grant supported an ethnography of the East Tennessee landscape where the flood took place. I inquired into how the landscape changed over time to accommodate this large body of coal ash waste. I traced various forces that connected in the accumulation of the ash, from ideas about the region’s people, to desires for national power and development. I combined an ethnography of the landscape with archival work at the National Archives and Smithsonian, where I looked into records of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, a government agency that operates as a corporation, and whose Kingston power plant spilled the waste) and the Rural Electrification Administration, which together ushered in major changes in the relationship among landscape, infrastructure, the nation, and rural everyday life during the 20th century.

 

What happened in Kingston in 2008?

On December 22, 2008, over 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash waste flooded out of an unlined, earthen holding pond at a TVA power plant and spilled into the adjacent river. I was drawn to this event because it took place in my hometown. I saw Kingston on the news from my new home across the country, and couldn’t easily critique or place what I was witnessing. It shifted my consciousness. It was not related to the topics I intended to study in grad school, but once the flood happened (during the first year of my graduate program) I couldn’t stop thinking about the region, its history, and wanting to know more about how the coal ash came to exist in the holding pond.

 

How do you connect Science and Technology Studies (STS) and actor-network theory to 20th-century rural Appalachia?

The Kingston plant. Image courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority

This has been the largest challenge in defining this project – that I do not set aside a seemingly “cultural studies” set of concerns about the region’s history (the construction of Appalachia) in favor of my concern with the ash as a physical byproduct and material with its own story. I realized during research that certain ideas about “Appalachia” are essential to both the ways this landscape was developed in the name of modernization, and to the process of rendering this event insignificant, practically invisible. It’s not one of the “major” environmental disasters that we all know by a shorthand name. I hold that there is a key link between culturally salient ideas about “Appalachia” as a relic of the past, something “behind” modern time, and the ways the East Tennessee landscape in its contemporary manifestations is invisible. This is a place of scientific and technological complexity, home to the nation’s largest science and energy labs and a community that formed through the buildup of American modernity, most notably when Oak Ridge (which neighbors Kingston) was built as a Manhattan project site – the place where uranium was enriched for the first atomic bomb.

It is difficult to see a place as critical to American modernity, futurity, and development when it is continually positioned as a place of “backwardness,” and “the past within the present.” While Appalachia is a place where hikers and nature lovers seek rustic authenticity and American heritage, Oak Ridge is today a toxic Superfund cleanup site and the river that links it to Kingston is lined with the radioactive waste.

I use an STS/ANT approach to discuss how cultural narratives of Appalachia shaped the possibilities that planners and the national government could reasonably imagine for this terrain. That is to say, I look at how certain ideas combined with the presence of materials (such as coal, timber, and the many rivers and streams) to physically put materials, people, and terrain into motion.

I consider the invention of Appalachia (to borrow a phrasing from anthropologist Allen Batteau) not as simply a discursive construction, but as a socio-material process that emerged from a combination of human desires and physical realities. I view this as a trajectory in the network of forces that allows for the buildup of the coal ash. In each chapter of the manuscript, I describe physical conditions of everyday life, feelings, and ideas that put this matter into motion. The ash, in my writing, is both real and metaphorical – it is the main character in a story I am writing about the visible and invisible forces that give it life as a residue of the desire for power.

 

While working in the archive, you discovered a sizable collection of “propaganda films” created by the TVA. What was the content of these films? What sort of imagery did they deal in?

photo of an Appalachian family from the TVA archives. 1933

TVA was a major undertaking of the New Deal, and hinged on the creation of a new publicly funded government agency that basically took control over the entire Tennessee River and surrounding valley lands, built over 20 dams in a couple of decades, and later built coal-fired and nuclear power plants. This entailed massive displacements of communities, the creation of a system of huge new lakes, and federal regulation and policing of lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfront properties – all by this new agency, its managers, and its own police force. TVA also spearheaded the spread of electrification in its early days.

To convince the national population of the merits of this unprecedented level of federal control over life and land, there was a major corresponding propaganda campaign. What I found after watching dozens of these films is that they essentially created an origin myth to justify the necessity of intervention. The films repeatedly portray the local population pre-TVA as blighted, backward, and in need of assistance. They do not show things like Friday night dances, where people played live music, shared pies, and had fun. They didn’t show the kinds of active learning that took place on the farms and in schools, or the community as an organized entity that shared resources. The focus of the films was on lack of surplus capital (poverty), dirtiness, lack of “proper” clothing and shoes, etc. These films generally only portrayed the most desperate faces of rural, Depression-era poverty. In the collections of TVA’s in-house photographer, I was able to see a much broader picture of the pre-TVA landscape, including larger farmhouses, buildings, and local technologies that illustrate a more dynamic and economically varied region than the propaganda films allow.

The propaganda narrative focused solely on promoting the notion that this large-scale government intervention was necessary to bring the region into modernity and to spread light and power to the poor. Dam building is shown as a heroic act in the films, and workers appear like soldiers fighting a domestic war. Explosions of earth are heralded with triumphant music to signal a new era for this region. Once the dams are erected, scenes show peaceful panoramas of the newly created lakes and ordered recreation, indicating the ideal configuration of people, infrastructure, and environment.

 

You admit to encountering an overwhelming amount of information during your work in the archive and in the field. How do you decide “which stories to tell”?

landscape view from across the ash holding cells with the smokestacks from the plant in the background.

I faced this most glaringly in the TVA archives. To give an example, TVA has several branches – power, agriculture, biology, geology, and many more. In the files of the power manager alone there are over 900 boxes. Similarly in fieldwork, I have notes on more interesting and compelling moments than I will be able to share. But while I may not get to directly cite all of these stories, reading them, and being immersed in them in the archive and in the field, all heightened my sensibilities about what to say and what is appropriate and accurate.

Recently, when writing a chapter based on my tour inside the Kingston Steam Plant, I found myself writing at length about a painting I saw there, which was noted by my tour guide as his “favorite part” of the plant. I could not stop writing about it, and this essentially became the focus of the chapter. I did not anticipate seeing this painting, nor did I plan to address it in my chapter outline, but in the process of writing, this is the story that worked. I found that through this singular, simple observation and encounter, that I could bring many ideas to life. As I work through the material and outline the writing, I find that it is mostly intuition and instinct that guides me toward figuring out what works, what to include, and what to exclude. It is very important to me that each story in each chapter serves the thesis of the project, and that the stories allow me to highlight the themes that run through the entire work. I have to consistently work to find the balance between rich, deep storytelling and showing a breadth of research. But a compelling story is more interesting to me, even if it is highly singular, than a compilation of copious amount of data and citation. This is especially true if I know that a particular story stands as a great example of a broader theme that recurs in this landscape and runs through the rest of the larger work.

 

What’s next for this project?

Right now I am working to finish writing this as my dissertation. I have an essay (“On Mattering”) out for review with a journal that I am excited about, and will share with the Wenner-Gren Foundation once it is published. After I graduate in May, I plan to focus on finding a publisher for the work and releasing it as a book.

 

Are you a current or past WGF grantee and interested in sharing your experience with us? Contact Daniel (dsalas@wennergren.org) for more information on our blog interviews.

NYAS @ WGF: Becky Schulthies Audio Now Available!

Monday evening, the Wenner-Gren Foundation welcomed Dr. Becky Schulthies of Rutgers University to present her talk “Re-registering Moroccans Mediatized Temporalities and the Politics of Recognition in State Storytelling” as the February installment of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section lecture series.

We are pleased to present an audio recording of the talk and following discussion with Sonia Neela Das of New York University.

Stay tuned to the blog for announcements regarding the next and future installments of the lecture series!

Main lecture / discussant comment

Q&A

NYAS @ WGF: Becky Schulthies and “Re-Registering Moroccans”

image courtesy wikimedia commons

The 2013-14 New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section lecture series resumes for the first talk of the new year on Monday, February 10, 2014 at 7:00 PM, as we welcome anthropologist Becky Schulthies of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and discussant Sonia Neela Das of New York University. Drawing on her research on the anthropology of media reception and the impact of satellite television on family interpretive strategies and domestic cultural production in Morocco, Dr. Schulthies will be presenting a discussion entitled “Re-Registering Moroccans: Mediatized Temporalities and the Politics of Recognition in State Storytelling.”

The talk examines the process by which a Moroccan television producer re-vitalized a public market story-telling register (rhymed prose way of speaking) associated with proverbs and the wisdom of old folks as a vehicle for modernist liberal messaging. It also describes what several instances of Moroccan audience uptake while watching this program reveal about the salient qualities of re-registering.

This event will take place at the Wenner-Gren Foundation Building, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York (at 32nd Street). A dinner and wine reception, free to students, will precede the talk at 6 pm. The event is free, but registration with NYAS is required.