NYAS @ WGF 9/26: Making Accessible Futures: from ramps to #cripthevote [REGISTRATION REQUIRED]

Join us Monday evening September 26th at 6 PM at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for the next installment of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series. Faye Ginsburg, and Rayna Rapp, Professors of Anthropology at New York University, will be presenting “Making Accessible Futures: from ramps to #cripthevote”.

Please note that, while the event is free to attend, pre-registration is required for entry into the building.

Since the late 20th century, American medical, legal and cultural institutions have embraced a recognition of disability as a form of life worth living, in contrast to earlier 20th century eugenic ideologies that often removed people with disabilities from public space and from life itself. In NYC locations as diverse as schools, medical laboratories, film festivals, homes and religious institutions, we have learned how families form new kinship imaginaries around the fact of disability; how disability publics emerge through a variety of media forms and activism; how scientists are rethinking cognitive diversity; how schools engage with and too often fail in launching students with disabilities into the world. The number of disabled citizens, currently estimated at almost 20% of the US population, is predicted to increase significantly over the next decade. In our talk, we consider how these materialities place “accessible futures” in constant negotiation, most recently with the unexpected emergence of disability activism as an incendiary issue in the current presidential campaign.

Lecture will begin at 6PM. The event will finish in time to watch the US presidential debate! Free and open to the public. Pre-registration required on the NYAS website.

Pre-registration is required to attend the lecture.

 

 

 

Meet Our 2016 Wadsworth International Fellows: Aleksandra Simonova

Aleksandra Simonova received her undergraduate education at the European University at St. Petersburg. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship, she will continue her training with a PhD in social-cultural anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, supervised by Dr. Alexei Yurchak. Meet the previous two WIF recipients in this series.

I am interested of social implications of science and technology and development of specific urban environment. I am starting my PhD research on post-Soviet cities of science in Russia at UC Berkeley. These settlements were designed for scientific research in the Soviet Union. I consider anthropological approach to be highly valuable for my research, as the latter involves the analysis of spatial organization and architecture elements, practices of city dwellers and state policies concerning the science cities. These heterogeneous elements can be seen as forming the assemblages that are involved in the making of particular urban spaces. I hope to reveal the factors that pushed the development of science cities in different directions during post-Soviet period.

I have a background in political studies and philosophy from Lomonosov Moscow State University where I got my first degree. In 2012 I entered STRELKA Institute for Media, Architecture and Design one of the most promising schools for architecture and urban studies in Russia. My research was supervised by OMA architectural office of Rem Koolhaas. I explored space utopia and how dreams about space influenced political imaginary as well as material environment in Soviet Union.

Simultaneously I discovered the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) that also became a promising framework for my research. I entered MA program in sociology at European university where I became a part of a collective research project on Russian computer scientists at home and abroad. In my research I focused on spaces of scientific and technological creativity called hackerspaces. Along with ethnographic research of Russian hackers’ discourses and practices, I analyzed material organization of hackerspaces, global discourse on hackers’ ethics and identity along with the roots of Russian hackers’ movement in the Soviet tradition of scientific and technological creativity.

At UC Berkeley Anthropology Department I will continue my research on spaces of science and technology. I was impressed by UC Berkeley scientific environment, and I found out that Anthropology Department was a particularly interesting place for me, as its faculty members had specialization in the areas of my scientific interests.

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Stacey Vanderhurst

 

Wenner-Gren awardee Stacey Vanderhurst with some of the presenters and participants at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, August 5, 2015.

Stacey Vanderhurst is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at The University of Kansas. In 2010 while a doctoral student at Brown University, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Victimizing Migration: Human Trafficking Prevention and Migration Management in Nigeria,’ supervised by Dr. Daniel Jordan Smith. In 2015 she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Wanting to Be Trafficked?: A Workshop on Vulnerability in Nigeria,’ 2015, Nigeria.

On Wednesday August 5, Engaged Anthropology Grant awardee Stacey Vanderhurst hosted a full day workshop on human trafficking at the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs in Lagos, Nigeria. The workshop featured academic presentations by several local scholars in addition to a presentation of the grantee’s own research, and it was attended by over 30 participants representing a range of government, academic, and non-profit sectors across the region.

Wenner Gren awardee Stacey Vanderhurst, assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas, offers a presentation of her dissertation research.

Wenner Gren awardee Stacey Vanderhurst, assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas, offers a presentation of her dissertation research.

Vanderhurst’s original Wenner-Gren sponsored research demonstrates how local and international stakeholders overwhelmingly conflate human trafficking and migrant sex work in Nigeria and how, on the basis of this conflation, the Nigerian government routinely stops young migrant women from leaving the country. This workshop was therefore designed to examine how Nigerian women understand human trafficking, sex work, and high risk migration, and how those ideas can conflict with the local, national, and global intervention programs designed to help them.

Scholars and activists have documented similar contortions of anti-trafficking policy around the world. But while research on human trafficking has boomed in Nigeria, these critiques have been marginalized in the public discourse, in policy writing, and in academic publications. The goals of the workshop were threefold:

(1)  To deepen understanding of human trafficking politics, especially from a migrants’ rights perspective

(2)  To improve policy and programming related to human trafficking interventions

(3)  To develop future collaborative research and publication opportunities

Prof. Ogaba Oche (left), Director of Research for the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and MC for the workshop, introduces Prof. Franca Attoh (right), professor of sociology at the University of Lagos and panel chair.

Prof. Franca Attoh of the University of Lagos chaired the session, drawing upon over ten years of research on these topics, including regular collaboration with the federal anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP. Prof. Clementina Osezua of Osun State University delivered a presentation on the history of trafficking discourses in Nigeria, and Prof. Oluwakemi Adesina of Obafemi Awolowo University discussed the changing gender roles and opportunities for women in the high-trafficking area of Benin City. Prof. Vanderhurst completed the session with a presentation of her research, tracing these social and historical trends into Nigeria’s modern anti-trafficking policies.

The NIIA rotunda space promoted open debate throughout the day, balancing time dedicated to formal presentations with roundtable discussion amongst all participants. They included a delegation from the Lagos Zonal Headquarters of the Nigerian federal anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP, who hosted the grantee’s original dissertation research.

Delegation from the Lagos Zonal Headquarters of Nigeria’s federal anti-trafficking agency NAPTIP (National Agency for the Prohibition in Trafficking in Persons), including Zonal Commander Mr. Joseph Famakin (right).

The Zonal Commander, Mr. Joseph Famakin, was an especially active interlocutor, regularly engaging critiques offered by presenters and audience members alike. Two representatives from the United States Consulate responsible for compiling national data in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report made significant contributions to the discussion as well. Other participants included members of the anti-trafficking NGO network NACTAL and various research fellows from the NIIA.

Conversation was lively, productive, and direct. The presentations and discussant comments steadily challenged assumptions about women’s victimhood that often circulate in this community of experts. As Prof. Attoh provocatively claimed, “there are no victims in Benin.” Reactions to these presentations quickly revealed the wide range of understandings of human trafficking itself, from a sense of moral crisis around women’s prostitution to outrage at the plight of Nigerian migrants worldwide.

Representatives from the US State Department challenging participants’ use of human trafficking to describe voluntary migrant sex work, a growing debate in Nigeria.

Challenges in aligning these different approaches to trafficking affirmed the urgency of the workshop objectives and pressed upon participants to advance these conversations further in both academic and policy forums.The workshop thereby concluded with a separate meeting for those interested in contributing to collaborative publication project, drawing out these differences. It was suggested that such an outlet for critical perspectives on human trafficking interventions is lacking not only in Nigeria but across the continent. Edited volumes based on other world regions have made significant contributions to the anti-trafficking work, but participants expressed a need to explore their implication in African contexts. Plans for a future meeting were discussed, and participants look forward to carrying on the exchange.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Jacob Sauer

Poster created for presentation in Santiago

While a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, Jacob Sauer received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2008 to aid research on ‘The Creation of Araucanian Anti-Colonial Identity During the Contact Period, AD 1552-1602,’ supervised by Dr. Thomas Dalton Dillehay. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Presenting the Archaeological Past to Mapuche Communities and the Public in South-Central Chile,’ 2014, Chile.

It was fortuitous that my presentations in Chile to fulfill the Engaged Anthropology Grant took longer than I expected to carry out (I blame my daughter being born), as it happened to coincide with the month celebrating the country’s cultural patrimony. My Wenner-Gren funded research was carried out in the area of Pucón-Villarrica in southern Chile, along the western flanks of the Andes Mountains. I excavated a site known as Santa Sylvia, which had four different occupations, dating to AD 900, 1100, 1585, and 1850. The 1585 occupation included a Spanish “fortified house” that had been previously excavated by Chilean archaeologist Américo Gordon, who focused on the Spanish occupation of the site. My aim was to examine any previous occupations of the area by the Mapuche culture, to see what sort of changes came about in that culture before, during, and after the Spanish arrival.

The Mapuche are Chile’s largest Native American culture with a population of nearly 2 million living primarily in the capital city of Santiago and in an area traditionally known as the Araucanía between the Bio Bio and Bueno Rivers, as well as on the other side of the Andes in the Argentinian Pampa and Patagonia. Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Mapuche lived as sedentary agro-pastoralists, growing maize, potatoes, peppers, and other domestic plants and raising llamas. Later, they adopted the horse and started growing wheat and barley while continuing to live in small communities based on close family relationships that remain to the present. Between 1550 and 1604 the Mapuche fought the Spanish in what is colloquially termed the “War of Arauco,” in which the Mapuche were victorious and maintained control over their traditional territory. Not until the late 19th century were the Mapuche placed on reservations by the Chilean military, a longer span of cultural independence than any other indigenous group in the Americas.

Presenting at the Pontificia Uniersidad Catolica de Chile

I argued in my dissertation and subsequent book The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Araucanian Resilience that how the analysis and presentation of Mapuche-Spanish interactions from 1536 to 1820 and Mapuche-Chilean interactions since 1820 has done a disservice to the archaeological and ethnographic data and has adversely affected the Mapuche today. Primarily, historical research has argued that the modern-day Mapuche exist as a result of Spanish arrival and virtually ignores any pre-1536 information. This has led to the Mapuche losing land rights and standing before the Chilean state, further codified in Chilean law drafted in 1990. My research, and that of other colleagues, demonstrates that the Mapuche have a long and complex history that predates Spanish arrival by centuries, and that despite Spanish efforts the Mapuche were never colonized and managed to maintain strong cultural continuity, limiting the changes to their traditional culture while avoiding the hybridization and syncretism that affected many other Native American societies.

My first presentation on this research was to the Anthropology Department of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago, a growing department with several colleagues who research the modern Mapuche. The presentation had been advertised several weeks prior, with some students coming from as far away as Concepción to listen. About 40 people total came, and the presentation was relatively well-received, though some colleagues took issue with my arguments during the question and answer period, but we are continuing to discuss the points I made.

Two students from the Universidad de Concepción traveled to Santiago to hear my presentation, and afterwards I mentioned I would be in Concepción later in the week. They asked if I would be willing to give a presentation to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, which fortunately I was able to do. The turnout was also very good, made particularly welcome by a number of Mapuche students in the audience who were intrigued by my presentation. We had a good discussion afterwards, which will hopefully lead to student collaborations in the very near future.

Poster for the presentations at the Museo Regional de la Araucania in Temuco

I then travelled to the area of my research, Pucón-Villarrica, to present at the satellite campus of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Villarrica. Fortunately the volcano did not erupt while I was there. I had hoped to be able to meet with several of the Mapuche communities in the area, but the timing did not work out due to some political unrest, but plans are already in the works to meet and present later in the year. In Villarrica, my presentation was attended by students from a nearby High School, the majority of whom are Mapuche. They asked numerous thought-provoking questions (“Wait, you can make a living as an archaeologist?”) and made me rethink some of my arguments related to the development of the Mapuche today.

The final presentation came at the Museo Regional de la Araucanía in Temuco, where the materials from Santa Sylvia are currently housed. I started a series of presentations on the topic of “Dialogues about Mapuche Identity and Resistance” as the last in a series of events celebrating Chile’s cultural patrimony. I presented alongside several Chilean luminaries, including National History Award winner Dr. Jorge Pinto Rodriguez, which was somewhat intimidating. It was well-attended, mostly by members of the public. Several audience members liked the archaeological side of things, which they said is rarely presented to the public in this manner, and also that I emphasized the Mapuche perspective over the Spanish which is often how things are presented in their history books and the media.

Presenting in Temuco

In all, it was an excellent trip and a marvelous experience and served to highlight the need for interdisciplinary approaches for investigating Mapuche culture. The histories as written often lack the complementary (and critical) anthropological information that can deepen our understanding of the long-term development of cultures worldwide, and how those cultures continue to develop today. Many of my Chilean colleagues were impressed that the Wenner-Gren foundation offers the Engaged Anthropology Grant program, and more so that Wenner-Gren funds the research of investigators living outside the United States. Hopefully there will soon be an increase in the number of applications from Chile! Many thanks to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for generously supporting this research.

 

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Chelsey Kivland

Image courtesy Chelsey Kivland

 Chelsey Kivland is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. In 2008, while a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Of Bands and Soldiers: Performance, Sovereignty, and Violence in Contemporary Haiti,’ supervised by Dr. Stephan Palmie. In 2014, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Slam Tambou: Building a Peace Movement through Poetry and Performance,’ 2015, Haiti.

 

The Haitian term angaje issues a stronger meaning than the English engaged. Its referent moves beyond becoming involved or participating to suggest moral judgment and political commitment—in short, taking a stance. To meet the Haitian standard for engaged anthropology, then, is to embrace what Nancy Scheper-­‐Hughes calls “militant anthropology.” This entails a turn away from politically disinterested and socially distanced research. A militant ethnographer would make herself “available not just as friends or as ‘patrons’ in the old colonialist sense but as comrades (with all the demands and responsibilities that this word implies) to the people who are the subjects of our writings, whose lives and miseries provide us with a livelihood.” A first step in this process is to share your findings with your collaborators in the field. A second, more difficult step is to be open to the changes in analysis that this sharing might entail. And a third, even more challenging step is to join in the struggle to usurp the detrimental power dynamics revealed in the analysis.

It was toward this end that I returned this past summer to Port-­‐au-­‐Prince to diskite (discuss)—to share, debate, and revise—the findings of my dissertation research, “We Make the State”: Performance, Politick, and Respect in Urban Haiti. Much of my research has explored the urban youth groups—known locally as baz—that act as de facto political chiefs of their urban blocks. The baz are often dismissed as “gangs” in policy and media literature in Haiti and abroad. Yet, as I argue, they are better understood as an emergent form of democratic politics that seeks to provide political representation and control over public resources for an area that has been both neglected by state institutions and targeted by politicians and aid workers alike as the ticket to political success. Despite their noble aspirations, however, bazes become involved in competitions over state and NGO resources, which incite rivalries between them and often lead to violent conflict. A main contribution of my research has been to reveal how this violence is related to the contradictions of democracy—namely, how democratization promised a more egalitarian society and inclusion in the state but has instead lead to greater inequality and the evisceration of the public sector. While my collaborators in Bel Air might not phrase it in these terms, they often identified the same dynamics in their discussions about disrespect. In Haiti, the notion of “respect” (respè) is the social value used to gauge proper human relations and democratic society. My commitment to articulating my analysis through the idioms and sentiments used by informants is the goal of my research, and it formed the cornerstone of my engaged anthropology grant project.

Image courtesy Chelsey Kivland

I organized a two-­‐part presentation of my research at a newly opened cultural center in Bel Air. The first part of the series was a lecture in which I revealed my novel finding that acts of baz aggression are tied to the multifaceted ways in which disrespect is made manifest in the lives of the urban poor, as well as how peace can be envisioned as a world imbued with respect. In particular, I offered four key forms of disrespect that precipitate baz violence: disparaging authority, injuring another, leveling threats, and accumulating wealth in a dishonest or selfish manner. I then illustrated how all of these precipitants reflect failure to uphold the principle of respect, which encompasses the right to be recognized as a consequential subject, to lead a dignified life, to speak and be heard, and to live in an egalitarian society. The lecture unfolded amid long awaited parliamentary elections, which resulted in clashes between residents, politicians, and poll workers at voting offices throughout the neighborhood. Consequently, much of the conversation revolved around  the interconnections between politics and violence, and the perpetual frustrations baz face when they are treated as pawns in the fight for state power. In fact, a novel point raised during the conversations was that being treated with disrespect over and over again can lead to powerful feelings of frustrations that motivate aggressive actions against those deemed responsible, whether political or personal rivals. Overall, participants reiterated their need and desire for less politicking and more governance, or in other words, a robust and responsible state that provides basic services and a degree of opportunity to the citizenry. This was a response I have grown accustomed to hearing, but it was particularly powerful in the context of chaotic elections, proclaiming enduring aspirations for a truly democratic future.

The second part of the series featured a multimedia presentation of residents’ ideas about how to build a more peaceful society. It centered on showing a film I directed with Haitian filmmaker Moïse Pierre about the annual fête patronale Festival of Our lady of Perpetual Help. The film demonstrated how despite a history of political conflict and interpersonal strife all factions of the neighborhood come together to celebrate the “Mother of Bel Air.” Those who represented these different sectors in the film were in the audience, including religious leaders from different faiths, area leaders of different baz, and notables working in the education, development, and political sectors. Another seventy-­‐five residents joined as well, forming a diverse public of men and women, children and adults, employed and unemployed, politicians and citizens. The film showing was accompanied by a poetry slam that featured four youth poets rhyming about the challenges of building peace and security in a highly unequal world. As well, two local rara groups, the name for Haiti’s politicized street bands, entertained the audience, before, during, and after the slam. The rara groups, one comprising all women and the other all men, provided an electric beat, bringing the audience to its feet and inciting people of different faiths, ages, and political persuasions to commune together in celebration.

The film was well received, with audiences commenting on how it offered another image of the neighborhood from commonplace portrayals of violence and dysfunction. Still, others appreciated how it put the problems that do exist in context so that the actions of residents, and especially baz leaders, are seen as tied to daily struggles of poverty, frustration, and disrespect. The conversations started at the showing continued well after the event. When I finally returned to the hilltop shack where I have made a second home, I found a moving scene. My longtime host had borrowed the baz’s collective television set and was showing the film on it for area children and others who missed the earlier showing. It ran on an endless loop far into the night, with new residents joining at each showing and others watching it over and over again. Amid the celebration, I visited a local “notable” who figured largely in the film. A longtime resident, neighborhood leader, and former teacher, whom residents affectionately address as Mèt, he complimented me on the event, and offered some criticism. The event, he said, would have benefited from more discussion of the historical connection between art and politics in the zone. The point was well taken.

But he then told me that he was very pleased, mainly because I had come to understand something fundamental to Bel Air. As he put it, “Bel Air is place few people understand. But that if you spend time here, with people in the street, you can begin to see that it is not what people think. Li pa yon zòn bandi se yon zòn rabel. (It is not a zone of bandits but a zone of rebels.) That’s a big difference!”

This pithy comment reminded me again of how a truly angaje anthropology is to present your research to your interlocutors in formats that are accessible so as to foster rigorous, opinion-­‐changing debate.

Meet our 2016 Wadsworth International Fellows: Mulky Shruti Kamath

Mulky Shruti Kamath received her undergraduate education at the University of Southampton. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship, she will continue her training with a PhD in physical-biological anthropology at University College London supervised by Dr. Maria Martinon-Torres. Read the previous entry in this series.

Growing up in the port city of Mangalore in South India, I developed a fascination for archaeology exclusively through reading and travel. After completing my secondary education in science, I moved on to attain a BA in history (2014). To learn more about archaeological practices, I took up an online course from the Oxford Department for Continuing Education (UK), which furthered my interest in archaeology and anthropology, particularly of the Palaeolithic.

In 2014, I went on to pursue my MA at the University of Southampton, UK, in Palaeoltihic Archaeology and Human Origins, which took a comprehensive approach towards teaching this subject and helped me gain a greater understanding of the human story. I developed my current research interests during my Masters dissertation, when I was given the opportunity to study morphological features of dental samples using novel methods like microtomography (μCT) and geometric morphometrics. I learned and incorporated these techniques that form the core of virtual anthropology to explore variations in premolars in archaeological and modern human samples ranging from 3.5 million years ago to the current era. My results showed an evolutionary change in premolar morphology caused by distinctive adaptations, genetic influences and dietary patterns.

My doctoral research at University College London (UCL), UK, is a progression of my previous work and incorporates μCT, geometric morphometrics and statistical analysis. Dental traits have high genetic components and are particularly beneficial for phylogenetic studies. This research will offer an extensive investigation of the lower premolar morphology of the Early and Middle Pleistocene hominins from Atapuerca (Spain), as well as other Early, Middle and Late Pleistocene samples from Asia, Africa and Europe. Their comparative analysis will provide a clearer insight into the taxonomy and phylogeny of the European hominins, ultimately characterizing the variability of Pleistocene populations. This project is supervised by Dr. María Martinón-Torres, a renowned palaeoanthropologist, and a leader in dental anthropological research. The presence of such prominent academic staff, the availability of high-end research facilities, and the innovative approaches taken at UCL will undoubtedly help me acquire the necessary skills and expertise to establish myself in the field of palaeoanthropology.

Meet Our 2016 Wadsworth International Fellows: Olubukola Olayiwola

Olubukola Olayiwola received his undergraduate education at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. Thanks to the Wadsworth International Fellowship, he will continue his training with a PhD in social-cultural anthropology at the University of South Florida, supervised by Dr. Kevin Yelvington.

The focus of my scholarship traverses different aspects of application in the field of Cultural Anthropology such as economic anthropology; the anthropology of policy; the anthropology of development; complex organizations; and the anthropology of ethnicity and gender, West Africa.

My current research interest is on grassroots women and the violence of credit mobilization in southwest Nigeria. For my PhD at the University of South Florida (USF), I propose to undertake fieldwork focusing on how violence is implicated in the relationship between local women and microcredit institutions. I am interested in investigating the formal and informal processes that guide the disbursement and repayment of small loans by banks that operate in Nigeria under the Grameen Bank model. My interest is driven by the assumption that local experiences of microcredit loans contrast with the popular tendency to see it as sustainable development intervention especially among the poorest of the poor.

After my first degree, I worked briefly as a Program Assistant with the Development Policy Centre, Ibadan (a Non-Governmental Organization) and was involved with the Monitoring and Evaluation of MDGs projects in Oyo State, Nigeria. As part of this position, I conducted field research in a number of locales in Oyo State. The research included key informant interviews, ethnographic participant observation, and focus group discussions and  provided me with what I can now see as important experience as a fieldworker.

During my MA Program at the University of Ibadan, I investigated the role of ethnic identity and organization of informal trade in urban market clusters in Ibadan’s urban areas. Although the idea of the anthropology of space and place was still implicated in this research, my main interest was the historical and social factors that produced specific trade items as specialized areas in which different major ethnic groups maintained trade dominance. This research led to my 2014 M.A Thesis ‘Ethnic Identity and Organization of Informal sector in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria.’ And the following publication: ‘Culture and Informal Marketing’ In A.J Ademowo and T.D Oladipo, eds., Engaging the Future in the Present: Issues in Culture and Philosophy. Pp. 86-92. Ibadan: Hope Publications (2015)

Finally, and more importantly, with greater conviction that application of anthropological knowledge can solve myriad of socio-cultural problems in any human endeavor, a PhD Applied Anthropology will not only fetch me a career in academics but also avail me a rare opportunity of propagating the ‘gospel’ of Applied Anthropology within the shore of West Africa sub-region and beyond.

Interview: Michael Polson

Michael Polson is a Visiting Professor of Anthropology at American University. In 2010, while a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center, he was awarded the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to study the elaboration and negotiation of social relations and practices in the emerging medical and underground marijuana markets of northern California. We spoke to Polson to learn more about his fieldwork experience.

 

What’s your background in anthropology? How did you become interested in marijuana as a project? 

Prior to graduate school I had two formative experiences that drew me toward anthropology. One was conducting a project as an undergraduate on underground networks of men who have sex with men in Kathmandu at a time when many people I spoke to believed these men didn’t exist. This showed me the importance of inquiring into people’s lives as they are lived, not as we think they live—particularly for people in illicit realms. The other was being a political organizer and co-educator, which taught me to listen to and value the experience of people as they grapple with the world and the expertise they accumulate on their own condition. While other disciplines might view people as a result of knowledge, anthropology views people’s complex, everyday lives as the source of knowledge. This ethical and political stance was attractive to me. I have been very lucky to become an anthropologist as a graduate student and teacher at City University of New York, a school with a rich political history, and, now, at American University in a fantastic department oriented toward public anthropology.

The project on marijuana started as a project on low wage, informal, and illegal work in a gay resort town. Every time I went back, though, my notes were filled up with people involved with marijuana—growing, trimming, transporting, storing, selling, and so on. And things were changing so rapidly in California. Understanding what happened with marijuana provided an important window onto the conditions of poor and working people but also onto much more—medicine, politics, livelihood, social networks, lifestyle, crime. As a student of social change, what really grabbed me was the rapidity that the social field around marijuana was shifting. Other than gay marriage, it’s hard to think of another realm of US society that has shifted as rapidly and totally as marijuana in the last decade. I wanted to know why. Why do some political and social changes take hold and ostensibly succeed? Why now, marijuana? I am thankful for Wenner-Gren support to answer these questions.

 

What sort of sites did your research take you to? What were some of the day-to-day challenges of negotiating the field, and how did you adapt?

I volunteered at a medical dispensary, lived with the coordinator of a patients rights group, stayed at underground farms, observed at a quality assurance laboratory, took a two month class on entering the marijuana business, and attended trade shows, land use hearings, tribal meetings, business conferences, activist gatherings, among other activities. For any door that opened, I walked through if I could. The strategy of “Yes. When and where?” Researching on both sides of the law, though, was a tough balance. I remember being at a courthouse doing archival research on land use patterns when I ran into an informant who was out on bail after a devastating drug bust. As I tried to explain my presence in a building that adjoined the county jail, I could see in his face that our trust was gone—I was now a cop to him. Another time, on a ride-along with a deputy, I remember keeping mum as we did a parole check next door to a house I knew was chock full of marijuana. Perhaps the deputy did, too—such is the work of policing in marijuana country. The crossing between legal and illegal realms contributed to a constant anxiety about confidentiality. I had done everything to protect my data I could imagine but it seemed as if there was a daily beat of new revelations about government spying during my fieldwork. Even if my data was officially protected (I got a Certificate of Confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health), I didn’t want to create a traceable web to be followed by another branch of government. It did not help that during my fieldwork the federal government initiated a multi-year offensive against the medical marijuana industry that instilled a lot of fear and anxiety—not just over governmental action but action by the media. I knew several people from both illegalized and medical worlds that got ensnared in that offensive. I was lucky to have built trusting ties in the years before because there was a shortage of trust after the government began its crackdown. The showed me firsthand how prohibition—and the fear of punishment—really shuts down informational circuits and stymies open intellectual exploration.

 

Your project is somewhat unusual for anthropological fieldwork in that it brought you consistently to the border of legality and illegality. How did this dynamic affect your work, and the ways in which your collaborators interacted with you?

I’ve mentioned some of the more anxious effects this had on my relations but, on the other hand, the border between the legal and illegal is not as stark as many believe. For instance, while one might imagine finding informants might be difficult, particularly in the illegalized economy, all I had to do was to scratch the surface in most places. This might be particular to marijuana—the stakes are not always as high as other illegal activities and it has become a deeply embedded part of the Northern California region. But to actually grasp the pervasiveness of marijuana I had to let go of some basic presumptions about the nature of law—namely that it is the core element of social order and that it applies universally and evenly across space. Perhaps I had that presumption having grown up inside the DC Beltway, where laws are made and then applied to the nation. But there are so many spaces and dimensions of reality where the law never reaches—realms that are hard to see without paying careful attention. Carolyn Nordstrom does a great job in her work of illustrating how illegality and crime shadows legal society in significant and often unrecognized ways. Once I started to see these dimensions, I started to challenge other basic assumptions, particularly about how we produce knowledge of the world—belief in statistics and figures, descriptions of how systems and institutions work, the reliability of cursory data from informants, what the map reveals, and so on. Hanging over all of these things is a shadow, imposed by the law, of what is able to be revealed and what is hidden, what is punishable and what is licit. Without seeing what lies in the shadow of legality we only get part of the story.

The reason these shadows hold sway, of course, is because there are real stakes involved in living against the law. This constantly affected my work. Anthropologists ask questions. When answers threaten a person’s livelihood and freedom, asking becomes fraught. That is how and why I developed a deep respect for the people who answered me. Many of them were compelled (politically, ethically, morally) and sometimes relieved to answer questions—they each had a stake in providing answers. Especially at that moment in time when what had lain in the shadows was coming to light, in the words of one activist I spoke with. That was an exciting thing to share with people. Prohibition imposes silences and breaking that silence was a powerful moment for many.

 

You connect marijuana legalization/medicalization to a much older anthropological discourse revolving around crime and illness. Could you briefly sketch the literature that influenced your thinking?

Thinking of Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Bohannon, Turner, Douglas, Lindenbaum, anthropologists have developed symmetrical theories about crime and illness—namely that they threaten social pollution and their ritual resolution is critical for the maintenance of social equilibrium. Merrill Singer, Ida Susser, Patty Kelly, Phillippe Bourgois and many others have argued criminalization and medicalization, as two modes of stigmatizing certain bodies and establishing social control, often work in tandem. Even within medicalization itself, work by Vincanne Adams, Jongyoung Kim, Cori Hayden, and Mary Cameron has shown how plant-based and alternative medicines can be a source of pollution for (supposedly) pure, scientific biomedicine. But, within and beyond this literature, anthropologists are careful to note the types of agency that medicalized and criminalized people hold. This is especially the case with marijuana prohibition and medicalization. My work focuses on the kinds of socio-political subjectivities people developed amidst processes of criminalization and medicalization. It’s these subjectivities and the political economies they are acting on and within that are guiding the development of and struggle over marijuana’s future.

 

Finally, what does ethnography potentially bring to an examination of drug policy? What “blind spots” do you think your research has identified? 

Ethnography is indispensable in understanding people and knowledges in illicit realms. You will not get the same information in the historical record, the laboratory, the questionnaire, economic indices, law enforcement statistics, or the map. These knowledge forms are so heavily mediated by the state—particularly in the case of prohibited substances—that it is necessary to go to illegalized people themselves. For instance, with marijuana, one cannot do research on the plant without getting permission and samples from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As the name suggests (and as NIDA officials have said), the agency is not concerned with the medical attributes or social value of the plant but with its negative, harmful effects. This limits what we can ask and know. As anthropologists, we know that psychoactive plants have been associated with social liminality and anxiety but this relationship doesn’t have to be punitive or stigmatizing. Rather than seeing marijuana as a vice or a source of harm and moral corrosion, recent research has been finding pretty stunning medical applications for marijuana and thrown serious doubt on its status as a harmful substance. In fact, the complexity and efficacy of marijuana as a whole-plant medicine poses a challenge to pharmaceutical models of medicine and points to a different paradigm for relations between humans and plants. We can’t explore these things under prohibition. Prohibition is the “blind spot”—the blinding spot, the blinders—of drug policy.

That said, let me point to two other blind spots. First, to craft future policy we need to know what came before. Otherwise we have no idea what kinds of social systems and processes new policy interrupts. Under prohibition, for instance, marijuana commerce became incredibly important to deindustrialized regions. Changing its legal status will have a significant impact. My work is a kind of neo-salvage anthropology of the illegal realms that are now threatened with extinction. Before this history is memorialized for a post-legalization public, it is imperative to raise up the voices of the many criminalized people that existed under prohibition.

Second, I am concerned about what I call marijuana exceptionalism—the belief that marijuana, the good drug, was wrongly prohibited and should be extracted from the War on Drugs, which should otherwise remain untouched. Making marijuana exceptional severs marijuana’s reform from broader discussions about the deep problems with the War on Drugs and our criminal justice system. Regardless of what we think about any particular drug, the political debate should not be over what drug is moral or immoral or has good or bad effects. It should be over what kinds of social policies are least harmful and most beneficial, broadly defined. The War on Drugs, no matter what its target, is a socially destructive policy. Marijuana reform is a very important opportunity for ending the government’s broader war on its own people, not to mention peoples around the world.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Michaela Howells

Pago Pago, the territorial capital of American Samoa.

Michaela Howells is Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. While a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Howells received a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘The Impact of Psychosocial Stress on Gestation Length and Pregnancy Outcomes in American Samoa,’ supervised by Dr. Darna Dufour. In 2015, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on ‘Promoting Dialog Between Health Care Providers and Pregnant Women on American Samoa’.

American Samoa is the southernmost territory of the United States. Found under the Southern Cross, American Samoa straddles the reality between a globalized community and one embedded in traditional ideals and values. In 2011 I moved to American Samoa’s big island, Tutuila, to study the effects of prenatal psychosocial stress on pregnancy outcomes of Samoan women. Thanks to the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation I was able to stay for nearly two years and found a relationship between the stressors experienced by low status women and their infant’s low birth weight. This project informs my ongoing research and was made possible by the committed staff of the American Samoan Department of Health (DOH) and LBJ Tropical Medical Center (LBJ) – the island’s only hospital.

Since leaving the island in 2013, I have been awarded my PhD and became an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Although I have spent the majority of the last three years writing, presenting, and teaching about Samoa, I also suffered the disconnect so frequently experienced by professionals leaving their field site. I missed the women I worked with, and the simultaneously wonderful and infuriating island that I called home. Wenner Gren’s Engaged Anthropologist Grant gave me the opportunity to return to American Samoa in order to share my results and skills with the health care community. Inadvertently it also renewed my excitement for field work and strengthened my relationships with my American Samoan colleagues.

Howells and retired NFL player Troy Polamalu

Originally, I had planned to host prenatal care workshops and training programs across the island. However, a week before my arrival, a medical team funded by retired Pittsburgh Steelers player Troy Polamalu had held extensive medical clinics throughout the community. Troy’s program, entitled Fa’asamoa, held free clinics that extended care to many of the island’s hard to reach residents. At the same time, it overextended many of the health care staff and disrupted normal clinic hours. Upon arrival, it was made clear to me that another mode of outreach would be more useful and appreciated.

When I initially worked with the women’s health community of American Samoa, a frequent point of concern was the lack of bilingual women’s health care educational materials. The available education materials were written in English and frequently featured pa’palagis (white people), a minority on island. Taken together, the health care professionals felt that these posters did not reflect Samoan culture and thus missed an important opportunity to educate women. As a result, I launched a collaborative project between the women’s health professionals at the DOH, LBJ, and Women Infant Child (WIC). We decided to develop five educational posters that focused on women’s reproductive health. These posters were printed and disseminated to women’s health care clinics across the island.

Although the mode at which I chose to achieve my goals changed, the core goal of supporting educational outreach regarding women’s health in American Samoa had not. Reframed, I met the four objectives of my Engaged Anthropologist Grant:

Objective 1: Create an additional tier of education regarding women’s health. The medical professionals at DOH, LBJ, and WIC do an outstanding job of educating women on island. The posters we developed work in conjunction with the one on one education that health care professionals are sharing with women during their appointments. These posters simultaneously act to both introduce and reinforce this important information in the target population. I was also invited on a popular morning radio talk show where I discussed my dissertation work, my current project and answered questions about women’s health issues. Finally, our posters were featured in the widely read Department of Health Newsletter.

Howells, center, with Samoan health care professionals

Objective 2: Create culturally relevant, long lasting health care material in conjunction with the DOH, LBJ, WIC women’s health care staff. This work was done in collaboration with Samoan Doctors, Nurse Practitioners, Registered Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses, Nursing Assistants and Nurse Educators. Recognizing that funds and time are equally limited for the women’s health community, it was suggested that I brainstorm with women’s health care professionals at a prearranged Hanson’s disease (Leprosy) workshop. This three day workshop allowed me to further integrate into health care community while having a captive audience for a brainstorming meeting over lunch. On the first day of this workshop I sat with some of the more seasoned nurses and outlined the five poster themes and written materials within those posters. These emerging poster themes included prenatal care, high risk pregnancy, nutrition during pregnancy, available birth control options, and breast feeding. I returned the next day with these notes typed up and spent lunch reviewing these themes with a larger portion of the women’s health care community.

By the end of the Hanson’s disease workshop we had developed the necessary text to create our posters. Over the following three weeks, I shaped the posters with near constant feedback from the women’s health care community. Under the direction of the DOH’s Director of Nursing Margaret Sesepasara, I was able to collaborate with a variety of specialists. For example, our birth control poster was finessed by the Director of Family Planning at LBJ. By working together we were able to create Title 9 approved educational materials that helped them reach compliance in health education.

A poster on breast feeding produced as part of the project

With material support (a high quality camera) from the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office (HPO), and the support of the DOH nursing staff I took photos of pregnant Samoan women, Samoan babies, health care professionals, and clinics. Written permission was garnered before I took the photos. I visited the local farmer’s market and photographed healthy Samoan foods (local fish, vegetables), and with a local store I constructed a photograph of less healthy food choices (corn beef, chips, etc). In addition I chose culturally appropriate colors to illustrate these posters.

Objective 3: Print posters and share them with the four women’s health clinics (DOH and LBJ) and WIC. The cost of printing and laminating these large, colorful posters was more than I had originally budgeted. However, I was able to gain sponsorship from a local sign company, All Star Signs, to offset the costs. As a result, I was able to disperse these posters to the appropriate clinics around the island.

An American Samoan mother and baby

Objective 4: Physically disseminate copies of my original Wenner Gren funded dissertation. Although I had shared components of this research before, I sent packages of materials to leaders at the DOH and LBJ prior to arriving on island. These included copies of my dissertation, abstracts from papers I had given (many co-authored with Samoan colleagues), and manuscripts for upcoming articles.

The posters look beautiful, and were met with great support. However, there was an intangible benefit that came from returning on an Engaged Anthropologist Grant. By returning as a fully vested professional anthropologist with time and money to invest directly into the medical community, I was able to strengthen many of the lines of communication I developed during my original tenure on island. It was empowering to go back to my island home with something to give rather than take and am excited to continue working in American Samoa.

NYAS @ WGF Returns! Fall 2016/Spring 2017 Monday Evening Lecture Series: “Framing”

This year our speaker series “Framing” highlights the multiple and contested processes of cultural construction, critique, and analysis that are part of the anthropological project. Framing can apply to the way in which a research problem is addressed, categories are delimited, theory is understood, and boundaries are drawn or transgressed.  Framing can also be a way of exploring the way we come to see our world in a particular place and time.  In all instances to raise the question of framing is to raise the question of the power, stance, and social position of anthropologists in relationship efforts to understand and explain what it means to be human.

September 26, 2016

Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp

Department of Anthropology, New York University

 

“Making Accessible Futures: from ramps to #cripthevote”

Since the late 20th century, American medical, legal and cultural institutions have embraced a recognition of disability as a form of life worth living, in contrast to earlier 20th century eugenic ideologies that often removed people with disabilities from public space and from life itself. In NYC locations as diverse as schools, medical laboratories, film festivals, homes and religious institutions, we have learned how families form new kinship imaginaries around the fact of disability; how disability publics emerge through a variety of media forms and activism; how scientists are rethinking cognitive diversity; how schools engage with and too often fail in launching students with disabilities into the world. The number of disabled citizens, currently estimated at almost 20% of the US population, is predicted to increase significantly over the next decade. In our talk, we consider how these materialities place “accessible futures” in constant negotiation, most recently with the unexpected emergence of disability activism as an incendiary issue in the current presidential campaign.

This event will begin at 6pm and end at 8pm. Dinner will not be provided, but drinks and other refreshments will be served.

 

October 24, 2016

Didier Fassin, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Discussant, Andrea Barrow, Black Lives Matter

 

“Re-Framing Punishment”

Punishment has been studied for centuries by moral philosophers and legal scholars, with a particular emphasis on its definition (notably to distinguish it from vengeance) and justification (with the classic opposition between utilitarianism and retributivism). Based on ethnographic research conducted over the past ten years in France on policing, justice and prison, the lecture will challenge the normative and idealist approach, trying to analyze what punishment is and how it is justified in actual interactions between officers, judges and guards with their respective publics while illuminating what is often the blind spot of the traditional approach: the distribution of sanctions. This inductive method thus makes possible a critique of punishment that resonates with contemporary issues about law enforcement, the penal system and mass incarceration in the United States, and more broadly the punitive turn in most contemporary societies.

 

 

December 5, 2016

Dennis O‘Rourke

University of Kansas

“Ancient Genomes, Paleoenvironments, Archaeology and the Peopling of the Americas”

 

Traditionally, indigenous American populations have been viewed as descendants of a small subset of the Eurasian population that migrated to the Western Hemisphere less than 15,000 years ago from Asia via the Bering Land Bridge. Recent archeological discoveries indicate that humans occupied high-latitude regions in Northeast Asia and Western Beringia before 30,000 years ago, prior to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). The early settlement of Beringia now appears part of the broader dispersal of modern humans out of Africa and across Eurasia. Recent metagenomic evidence suggests the earliest migrants south of the glaciers likely followed a coastal route rather than an interior continental path between retreating glacial masses.  The merging of the increasingly rich and robust genomic (both ancient and modern), archaeological, and paleoecological records is proving to be challenging in elucidating the origin of a distinctive Native American genome in both time and space.

 

SPRING SCHEDULE

 

January 30, 2017

David Price

Saint Martin’s University

“Re-Framing the Impacts of Cold War CIA Fronts: How the CIA Shaped Social Science”

 

Drawing on two decades of archival and extensive Freedom of Information Act requests, David Price analyzes specific impacts on social science research projects from the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of funding fronts to influence social science research during the 1950s and 60s.  While most of the known two dozen CIA funding fronts were identified between 1965 and 1975 by investigative journalists and congressional investigations, relatively little scholarly work since then has focused on tracing the specific ways that these CIA fronts shaped the production and consumption of social science knowledge. The passage of time now allows access to CIA records as well as archival collections showing which projects were selected or rejected for funding, and establishing how these fronts connected witting and unwitting scholars with larger projects of interest to the CIA and defense establishment during the Cold War. These materials shed light on how the production of specific scientific knowledge was linked to the political economic systems in which it was embedded.

 

February 27, 2017

Timothy R. Pauketat

University of Illinois

“Water and the Big History of the Pre-Columbian Mississippi Valley”

 

In rethinking the ontological bases of pre-Columbian North America, water emerges as the primary substance through which people lived their histories. Simplistic climate change and flood-event scenarios aside, the atmospheric water cycle enmeshed peoples in ways that explain Mississippi Valley agriculture, astronomy, religious practice, political development, and historical ties to Mesoamerica. The linchpin of such arguments is the greater Cahokia phenomenon (AD 1000s-1300s). Beginning with new large-scale archaeological excavations and a refined chronology in that region, I trace water-human relationships through local-to-continent-wide genealogies of maize cultivation, mussel shell use, and American Indian sweat lodges and other “water shrines.” There are theoretical implications for how we understand history and humanity.

 

March 27, 2017

Glenn H. Shepard Jr.

Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi

Belém do Pará, Brazil

“Close encounters: The dilemmas of contact for isolated indigenous peoples of the Amazon”

 

The Peru-Brazil border region harbors perhaps the world’s largest remaining refuge for isolated indigenous peoples, sometimes referred to as “uncontacted tribes.” Over the past few years, an increasing intensity of sightings, encounters and conflicts as well as sensational international media coverage has raised international awareness about their status, their unique vulnerabilities and the growing threats to their territories and ways of life. This presentation pieces together what little is known about the cultural history of isolated indigenous peoples in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, separates fact from fiction in popular media representations about them, analyzes their rapidly evolving interactions with outsiders, and weighs the complex opportunities and threats they face over the next decade.

 

April 24, 2017

Laura Nader

Department of Anthropology, University of California-Berkeley

“Unraveling Disciplinary Mind-sets”

 

The study of disciplinary mind-sets was in part stimulated by Thomas Kuhn’s book on paradigm shifts- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) in which he distinguishes “normal science” from non-hegemonic paradigm free science. The study of the paradigm of science is a rich academic subject for contemporary anthropology as well as for philosophers and historians of science.  The specific focus of my discussion will be the “mind-sets” that inform contemporary Energy Sciences and the challenges that these mind-sets present.

 

Location of the lectures:

Wenner-Gren Foundation

470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor

New York, NY 10016

 

Buffet dinner at 6PM. ($20 contribution for dinner guests/ free for students).

Lectures begin at 7PM and are free and open to the public.