The Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Chicago Press are pleased to announce the publication of Current Anthropology‘s eight installment of its popular Symposium Series, “Alternative Pathways to Complexity”. Based on WGF’s 148th symposium held at Axel Wenner-Gren’s former residence of Häringe Castle, Sweden, this collection of articles traces the evolution of the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens and the complex emergence of anatomically-modern humans.
Engaged Anthropology Grant: Alex Blanchette and ““Factory Hog Farming, Capitalist Natures, and the New Rural American Frontier”
Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for research on “Factory Hog Farming, Capitalist Natures, and the New Rural American Frontier”, supervised by Dr. Joseph Masco. This Engaged Anthropology Grant project developed from Blanchette’s dissertation workplace research on the interspecies nature of industrial life in the American “factory” farm.
Since 2008, I have been conducting workplace research on the nature of industrial life in a 100-mile radius zone of the U.S. Great Plains, one that is made and remade every day to unlock new value in the hog’s body and mind. After becoming the center of operations for some of the world’s largest pork corporations some two decades ago, this region now annually manufactures almost 7,000,000 pigs across all stages of being from pre-life in breeding to post-death as 1,100 distinct product codes. Within the factory farm’s workplaces, the process is not so simple as merely raising and killing “the pig” as a singular organism. Instead, these operations are premised on developing global sales networks, machines, divisions of labor, statistical standardization, ideologies of life, and embodied craft practices to (re-)industrialize the meat, fat, skin, organs, bones, blood, feces, viruses, reproduction, growth, diets, behaviors, instincts, and sentience of the porcine species. Such a capital-intensive intervention into the fissures of animal life and death has drawn thousands of new residents and created a vibrant – though fragile and unequal – cosmopolitan rural community where 26 languages are spoken in the primary school. Reminiscent of a 19th century company town – yet one that is spread over a wide geographical, political, and ecological expanse – it is a place whereby the vast majority of livelihoods have become socially and economically dependent on the industrial pig. If it wasn’t for the pigs, as some residents liked to ambiguously remind me, “this place would be a ghost town”.
In its dominant mythos, the factory farm is supposed to be a space of total confinement. Industrial agriculture’s dreamworld is one where porcine life is hermetically sealed inside networks of biosecure barns hidden in grain fields, backwater trucking routes, and invisible slaughterhouses. Over several years of ethnographic research, however, residents across social classes helped me sense a region where the massive scale of hog life saturates social experience – a place where struggles for justice, cultural politics, and social practice at times congeal on terrains of animality and its traces. Subtle shifts in town odors indexed a different stage of hog life or death, jarring forth memories of past labor. Former opponents of the factory farm wrestled with the fact that they often sell their crops to the corporation to sustain their livelihoods. Records of the slaughterhouse’s work regime and its repetition were sometimes etched onto workers’ bodies. Employees recounted, with great pride of craft and care, how raising pigs made them re-interpret and value their own human domestic lives (and vice versa). Hog diseases were invisibly omnipresent across the landscape, as people were forced to monitor their habits and sociality outside of work to ensure that illnesses would not transfer across their bodies, and lead to new infections in untainted barns of swine. It seemed that workers or managers could always share their own means of sensing the industrial hog in public space – signs that indexed a subtle reading of the mass-production of life, ranging from its totalizing potential to its tenuous margins of return. Rather than being purely confined in barns, the hog could re-orient everyday social perception whether artificially inseminating sows, manufacturing soup base from bones, or sitting on the couch at home.
The book project that emerges from this dissertation centers on the notion of the “factory” in the factory farm, the politics of lively standardization, and workplace relations underlying the making of the modern pig. However, in the summer of 2013, with support from the Engaged Anthropology Grant, I was able to return to this research site with a photographer to begin production on a series of exhibits developed with reference to residents’ diverse insights into the region’s broader public sensoria. Initial engagements were varied, premised on both learning new ways to depict the region and contributing to ongoing community projects. I conducted discussions of the dissertation’s findings with key informants – especially those who are not from English-speaking backgrounds – eliciting commentary, support, and critique for future iterations. At the same time, many older friends whose ideas and practices animate parts of the dissertation have since moved on to other places. This certainly complicated some planned forms of dialogue and engagement, but it allowed us to contribute to new community efforts that had emerged since 2010. For example, this included writing newspaper biographies and photographs for a festival organized by migrants originally from South Sudan and Ethiopia who had settled in the area. These conversations also served to inform initial approaches to the visual subject matter, whether they depict a boar stud, growing farm, truck wash, a public gathering space, or a living room.
In opposition to both the exposé and the PR image, whereby the camera is marshaled to transparently capture the essence of the factory farm, the goal of this visual project was to intensify the multiple ways of sensing scenes of concentrated human and animal life. While any photograph is both real and constructed, this project embraced the medium’s indeterminacy in order to highlight the cultural politics that are present within the factory farm (and not just launched against it from outside). To differing degrees at each site, managers selected and prepared scenes prior to our visit, making the images partial records of an ideal aesthetic. Workers often posed in modes of embodied intimacy and craft knowledge that industrialization relies upon, and that standardization can never fully eradicate. My photographic collaborator refined a technique that enabled him to adjust and construct minor details of images. Facing each setting for over an hour at a time, he took up to 1,400 photographs of sections of a site – say, from a slaughterhouse’s catwalk – in a way that enables him to later digitally stitch together large-scale and incredibly detailed images (see second and third images), while subtly adjusting the time, tenor, scene, and subject of the interspecies interactions depicted (for example, in terms of a person’s bodily positioning or a knife movement). Indeed, the resulting images can be viewed as drafts subject to an ongoing editing process. We plan to initially exhibit images in this host community (and perhaps others like it) to both build conversations around the broader research through public talks, and to elicit commentaries from employees and residents across social classes and local communities on the depicted scenes and their representation. As part of an ongoing engagement project, these interpretations, commentaries, and reflections would then become central parts of the overarching presentation of future public installations or exhibits in urban locales around the industrialization of human and animal life.
The Wenner-Gren Foundation is saddened to report that Deborah Wadsworth, member of the Board of Trustees, died on December 24, 2013. Deborah was a close friend of the Foundation for many years before formally joining the Wenner-Gren Board in 2006. She cared deeply about the Foundation and her contributions to the Board’s deliberations will be missed. We extend our sincere condolences to her family and friends and to all who were fortunate to have known her.
Some highlights from the past twelve months:
We revealed the new Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film, to support innovative anthropologists working in visual media in memory of past president Paul Fejos.
We kicked off hosting the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture series for the 2013-14 academic year, featuring fascinating talks from some of the leading researchers in the field.
In addition to the regular issues, we released a new Current Anthropology Symposium Supplement, Potentiality and Humanness: Revisiting the Object in Contemporary Biomedecine, available as always completely open-access.
It was a great year for Anthropology. Stay tuned for even more in 2014!
Engaged Anthropology Grant: Ashley Hazel and “Communicating Disease: The Patterns of Sexually Transmitted Disease Burden Among Namibian Pastoralists and Why It Matters”
Dr. Ashley Hazel is a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at Stanford University. In 2008, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Sexually Transmitted Disease, Ecology, and Reproduction among the Tjimba/Himba: A Pastoral Community in Transition,’ supervised by Dr. Bobbi Stiers Low. Following her fieldwork research seeking to measure the prevalence of two common STDs—gonorrhea and herpes—and identify significant ecological and behavioral risk factors for disease in her host community, she received Wenner-Gren’s Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to her field site and share her findings.
Hunter College CUNY’s Dr. Herman Pontzer’s recent talk on energetics and functional morphology last month was a rousing success, and now you can listen to the talk for yourself.
The final NYAS Anthropology Section meeting lecture of 2013 (but not of the season!) is upon us, as we welcome the University of Chicago’s Shannon Lee Dawdy and discussant Meredith Linn of Barnard College 7:00 PM Monday, December 9th, to discuss her ethnohistorical research of French New Orleans with Erupting Ruins: Dialectics of the Urban Landscape.
Using the examples of surprising — even disturbing — archaeological preservation in my field site of New Orleans, I explore what it means to understand the landscape as dialectical. Forgotten plantation houses beneath the city’s warehouse district and the sunken remains of bawdy taverns expose non-continuous series of ruptures, disasters, abrupt shifts, but also the unaccountable continuity of unconscious structures.
I argue that the urban landscape is comprised of compacted ruins that both structure and undermine present-day spatial experiences.
A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Attending the meeting is free, but registration is required. Please contact NYAS to reserve your place.
Longtime readers know that we like to announce the upcoming meetings funded through our Conference & Workshop Grant. This January, the Wenner-Gren Foundation is proud to support the 20th Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association!
January 12-18, 2014
Siem Reap (Angkor), Cambodia
The underlying rationale of this 20th Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) is to bring together indigenous Indo-Pacific and other, mainly “Western”, scholars to present papers and hold discussions on diverse themes in Indo-Pacific prehistory. As per IPPA’s normal procedure, convenors will organize sessions around topical themes in Indo-Pacific historical anthropology in the broadest sense, including themes/sessions/papers from archaeology, cultural heritage, the natural sciences, comparative linguistics, cultural anthropology and biological anthropology and genetics. The IPPA region of interest extends west to east from Pakistan to Easter Island, and north to south from Siberia to Australasia, and themes, session and papers concerning any part of this area will be welcome.
IPPA congresses are held approximately every 4 years and are always organised with in-country institutions, most recently with the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi, Vietnam, in late 2009. Past co-sponsors have included the National Museum of the Philippines and University of the Philippines in Manila in 2006, Academia Sinica in Taipei in 2002, and with the National Museum of Malaysia in Melaka in 1998. The 20th conference is co-organised with the Royal Academy of Cambodia and the Khmer Archaeological Society.
Engaged Anthropology Grant: Felicia Madimenos and “Engaging Shuar Communities Through Collaborative Health Education: Enhancing Participant Agency in Indigenous Health Research”
Felicia Madimenos is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York. In 2009, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Lifestyle and Reproductive Effects on Bone Mineral Density in an Ecuadorian Forager-Horticulturalist Population,’ supervised by Dr. James Snodgrass. This year, she was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to follow up her work with Shuar communities and conduct a series of workshops, presentations and family days to disseminate information regarding health issues in the community.
In a remote rural Shuar village located along Rio Morona, an elderly Shuar man, sits in a wheelchair as his wife pushes him along the rocky, unpaved road. As he makes his way closer to the now-defunct clinic space, my colleagues and I can see that his right leg is missing just below the hip. Along with his wife, he is accompanied by his eldest daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. Because of a community-wide meeting we held days earlier, the family was aware that Shuar nurses, accompanied by American anthropologists, were staying in the village and were providing information about basic health issues.
Clearly, there was nothing any of us could do for his leg although initially, he refrained from mentioning his leg at all; he merely wanted information about his general health and well-being. He explained that two years earlier he was diagnosed with diabetes by a doctor from a clinic located three-hours up the road, and the doctor stated that they needed to amputate his leg due to his condition. While plausible, something seemed amiss with the story. As we continued to talk, his son-in-law, feeling increasingly comfortable to talk openly, narrated in detail the events leading to the amputation of his father-in law’s leg. In short, his father in-law had stepped on a rusty nail while working in his garden and it became seriously infected, which eventually resulted in a trip to the doctor. “Can stepping on a nail give you diabetes?,” the son-in-law asked. “No,” we responded firmly, although we wondered whether diabetes exacerbated the infection, or whether there was miscommunication of some kind. As it turned out, the man’s fasting glucose levels were optimal, and based on data we had for him from years earlier, there was no indication that insulin-resistance was ever an issue. Further, the man claimed to have never taken medication for diabetes but accepted the fact that his leg was removed because of it. This type of miscommunication, that stepping on a nail could cause diabetes which warranted an amputation, while one of the more extreme examples, reflects a common theme in my line of research.
This interaction highlighted the critical importance of providing both contextual information and clarifying misinformation about the causes and prevention of illness and disease, and stressed the need to bridge communication barriers. Explanations by medical doctors who diagnose/treat disease and anthropologists who study health are simply not enough because this information gets filtered, forgotten, and lost after people leave the clinic to continue on with their daily lives. Health interviews with Shuar reveal that most people are unclear about what information is relevant to a given condition, and so when given a chance they may often provide an overwhelming amount of information about multiple conditions they have experienced at different times, on the reasonable assumption that it is all pertinent. However, health care workers are busy, and discussions with Shuar reveal that most think many clinicians do not listen to them, making them more inclined to present their most immediate symptoms with no additional information. It goes without saying that for our participants to retain a sense of agency in matters regarding their own health, and for health information to be useful and remain effective over the long-term, this knowledge must be individualized and translated into a tangible, transparent, and accessible form, with ample time for active ongoing individual dialog between participant and information provider.
The funds provided by the Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed me to reconsider how my colleagues and I conduct health research in a non-clinical, non-Western setting and reinforced the importance of the process of disseminating health information. Within the first few days of arriving in this remote village where we had worked during an earlier field season, we organized a community-wide meeting where we re-introduced ourselves and our research. This opportunity provided an ideal platform to field questions and address community concerns and, moreover, it stressed the need for a more personalized interaction with community members. In order to maximize our engagement with participants both old and new, we scheduled family health days where entire families would meet with the team of nurses and anthropologists to ask health-related questions, receive follow-up assessments and updated individualized information on health and prevention. When necessary, we would provide first aid or pass information to local health care providers for diagnosis and/or to dispense necessary medicines.
Prior to our arrival, I designed educational packets, adapting content from public health resources, and synthesized and condensed health information. Whenever possible, I emphasized images rather than written text. Each packet addressed health issues that we commonly encountered in past research and that Shuar participants most frequently report experiencing including anemia, dehydration, urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal issues, and chronic health problems that are increasing in prevalence (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension). Family health days provided an opportunity to personalize explanations regarding health issues and allowed us to distribute these materials to Shuar participants and discuss them individually and extensively. Some families hovered over the educational materials while children giggled at the images, and others asked for additional copies to bring to extended family and friends. Many were visibly excited to take a tangible reminder of this meeting home. “This is good,” says Carlos, a middle-aged Shuar man who came with his wife and eight children. “After you leave, we have this to remind us of the things you told us.” In addition to educational materials, based on consultation with community leaders, a Ministry of Health nurse, and local health promoter, our team donated basic over-the-counter medicines readily available in any Ecuadorian pharmacy, including antibiotics and parasite treatment kits, to be distributed as necessary after we departed.
Over the next few weeks, we participated in a community-wide workshop on family planning, initiated by the area’s Ministry of Health and led by our colleague, a local Shuar community health promoter and nurse. It is not uncommon for Shuar families, particularly in the more remote regions, to have upwards of 10-11 children. In a region where new government education centralization plans will position the nearest primary school two-hours away, where children need money for travel and school supplies, and where a childhood visit to the doctor requires a six-hour walk or two-hour canoe trip, information on family planning is increasingly of critical importance. However, it remains a very sensitive subject. Many participants in the past have shared with us the tribulations of having such large families and while the Ecuadorian government provides gratis family planning services, few Shuar, especially in these remote regions, have immediate and regular access to, or even information on contraception. This educational workshop was essential to establish a comfortable discourse on family planning and to discuss what options are available to Shuar in order to be active agents in matters concerning their own health and bodies. The presentation evoked the notion that larger, overarching factors trickle down and interact to shape individual health and well-being. Feeling like one has control over his/her surroundings, whether by being armed with knowledge that one has choices regarding the size of the family unit, or recognizing that modifiable aspects of lifestyle can shape how one feels from day to day are significant, and often overlooked forces that intimately influence personal health. Whether Shuar who attended this workshop felt this information was useful or not is unclear but we did not observe evidence of tension; participants seemed to be engaged in the discussion, and generally had a positive response. As health researchers, we knew that many participants had privately requested information on birth control, but this meeting appeared to go far towards normalizing an open discussion of these delicate issues and in creating awareness that people’s own health and bodies are in their command.
Lack of information, misinformation, and miscommunication regarding the causes, treatments, and preventative strategies for common and increasingly prevalent health issues warrants action on the part of the health researcher to stave off potential graver health problems in the future. For example, in another community closer to town where we presented health information with a local nurse, it was commonly believed that there was medication that could “cure” diabetes, despite the fact that three elderly people in the town had diabetes and were taking medication to control it. In discussing diet and prevention, it became apparent that one young woman was very knowledgeable about these issues, and yet it was only in the context of this presentation that this came to light, and we could reinforce to others that she was an excellent available resource for information on the topic. In short then, one remedy is for researchers to develop opportunities that empower communities by making accessible the knowledge and information necessary for community members to participate in, and affect informed decisions about their health, but moreover to approach this within the context of resources reasonably available to the participants. It is clear from my experience that for this approach to be successful, collaborations with local colleagues are essential, and individual as well as community-level dialogue is integral.
On Monday, November 11, the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section and the Wenner-Gren Foundation welcome Herman Pontzer, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York. A researcher interested in linking energetics and functional morphology to ecology in the great apes and humans, Dr. Pontzer will be presenting a talk entitled “Life in Slow Motion: Energetics, Aging, and Evolution in Humans and other Primates” featuring WGF president Leslie Aiello as discussant.
Energy is the currency of life, and understanding how humans and other organisms use energy reveals a lot about our evolved strategies for growth, reproduction, and aging. This talk will examine human and ape energy expenditure from a comparative and evolutionary perspective. Surprising new results show that physical activity accounts for only a small portion of the diversity in energy expenditure among mammals. Instead, evolved differences in life history — the pace of growth, reproduction, and aging — play a much larger role in shaping our metabolism.
The 7:00 PM talk will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 PM. As always, NYAS events are free to attend, but registration is required. Please contact NYAS to reserve your spot today.
NOTE: The audio of this lecture will be recorded and may be posted on the WGF website, blog and/or social media accounts. If you choose to participate in the discussion, you are presumed to consent to the use of your comments in these recordings.