Monday, July 26, 2010

Marvin Harris on holistic anthropology

From Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, page 139 (Altamira Press 1999):
Anthropologists who are committed to holism must come to terms with the risks of making mistakes. In this connection, warning students that the findings of science are provisional and subject to various distortions and biases may help to relieve some of the angst associated with holistic perspectives. Another point to be kept in mind is that the misinformation transmitted through a holistic text or introductory class is not likely to be as remote from current expert opinion as the usual non-academic sources of knowledge about biocultural evolution, such as creationism and New Age necromancy. Bear in mind that only a very small percentage of students take introductory courses in anthropology in order to prepare for graduate school; the great majority are only passing through, and one anthropology course is all they will ever take. Indeed, that one anthropology course may be the only course in the social sciences they will ever take. Given the facts that anthropology has so much to say, that its knowledge is vital for our ability to live as informed and responsible citizens of the world, and that there is so little time and space in which to say it, our students deserve to have us try to give them the most holistic view possible.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Culture" comes to the Naval Academy

Last month, the Naval Academy department then known as Department of Language Studies quietly changed its name to Department of Language and Cultures.
It hardly registers as big news. But to Clementine Fujimura, the lone anthropology professor at the Annapolis campus, the change is "huge."
Why? "Because it's acknowledging that the Navy is accepting that we need to be teaching about culture," she said.
 Yeah, well, I'm not so sure that this is the "huge news" Dr. Fujimura thinks it is. But first, I have a question:
The Naval Academy only has one anthropologist on faculty???  WTF?!?
 Moving on. Here's why I think that this may not be something to celebrate. When academic departments outside of anthropology teach "culture," they generally have in mind a sort of dumbed-down, laundry-list approach to culture:  Look at the exotic foods these folks eat, or their clothing, or the gestures they use for "come here" and "good-bye."  They rarely, if ever, apply the insights that anthropology has developed into the nature and structure of culture as a human adaptation.

Perhaps Dr. Fujimura is happy with this, but she shouldn't be, unless she happens to count herself among the "postmodern" "interpretivist" cultural types who have participated in the trivialization of the culture concept over the last couple of decades.

Here at UNF, our World Languages department (a fine name, I think) has proposed a name change to the "Department of Language, Literature, and Culture." As a group, we in the anthropology program saw this as outlandishly over-reaching (wouldn't the English Department have to be absorbed?), as well as a usurpation of what is, traditionally, the academic domain of anthropology. Since we are now in the middle of summer, we don't know whether World Languages' quest for this name change will be picked up in the fall or not, but there will certainly be some opposition.
And by the way, toward the end of the full WaPo article there is this:
...anthropologists have ever been wary of the use to which their profession might be put by the military, whose purpose, of course, goes far beyond the passive study of other cultures.
Excuse me. Anthropologist have never really been "passive" in their study of cultures.  The central research method of cultural anthropology is not called participant observation for nothing. And E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) referred to anthropology as "essentially a reformer's science... active at once in aiding progress and in removing hindrance" (quoted in Marvin Harris, Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times (p. 62), Altamira Press 1999).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Are jobs more important than health?

Louisiana governor Booby Bobby Jindal published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post today.  Commenting on President Obama's moratorium on deep-water offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, he wrote:
This ill-advised and ill-considered moratorium, which a federal judge called "arbitrary" and "capricious," creates a second disaster for our economy, throwing thousands of hardworking folks out of their jobs and causing real damage to many families.
Uh, yeah: "arbitrary."  A decision to do something relatively timid, compared to what really ought to be done, to help ensure that the environmental and social disaster that just actually happened in the Gulf doesn't repeat itself is "arbitrary."

What Jindal's complaint reminds me of is the argument about tobacco and jobs. We know tobacco products kill people, and not just those who actually use them, by the way. But, we can't just stop growing them, because all those tobacco farmers would lose their "traditional way of making a living." Well, you know what: If your "traditional way of making a living" is bad for people and the planet, you should be told to find another way to make a living.

That applies to tobacco farmers, whose "traditional way of making a living" feeds an addiction that makes people sick and dead, and it also applies to people who "make a living" by drilling into deep water to extract oil to feed our other major addiction.

Of course, I'm not saying that either tobacco farmers or oil workers should simply be thrown on the landfill of history. Surely we, the richest country in the world, could simply pay all these folks to not grow tobacco or drill for oil.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A short dose of irony

This post will be vague, as I don't want to bother looking up the details and I'm relying on an increasingly faulty memory.  Anyways, a couple of says ago I listened to some Republicanoid apologist argue that we should amend the Constitution to make our conditions for citizenship more stringent, like in some European countries. In some of those countries, a child born in the country is not automatically a citizen unless at least one of the parents can establish that they are in the country legally. In the US, a child born in the country is a citizen, regardless of the status of the parents.

So, European policy is good, US policy is bad. And therein lies the irony. It wasn't long ago that these same people were screaming that government involvement in health care, like, you know, they have in Europe, would be evil. The US system, in which capitalist kleptocrats control our access to health care, about as un-European as you can get, was just great.

So, is Europe good or bad?  Obviously, Republicans can't make up their minds.

Fifty years at Gombe

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the research, begun by Jane Goodall, on the chimpanzees that inhabit the Gombe Stream area on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. This groundbreaking, dare I say it, ethnographic study of this community of chimps has contributed enormously to our knowledge about these cousins of ours.

One of the stars of the research was Flo (ca. 1929–1972), the matriarch of the "F Family," pictured here. She is the only chimpanzee to have an obituary published in the Times of London. She's shown here fishing for termites, one of the cultural activities possessed by this community that anthropologists were not aware of prior to this research.

As reported on the Smithsonian Magazine web site, the Gombe chimps have taught us lots of interesting things about chimps, including the following (the bolded lead is from the web site; the comments that follow are mine):
  • Chimpanzees eat meat.  Not all chimp communities do this, but at Gombe and in other places both males and females hunt monkeys, small antelopes, and other game, and then share the meat afterwards.
  • Chimpanzees use tools.  These include chewed up leaves for sponges, plant stems for termite fishing, and even stones for breaking open certain hard-shelled fruits. Again, the exact repertoire varies from group to group and reflects social learning passed on mostly from mothers to their offspring.
  • Chimpanzees engage in warfare.  I'm not sure I'd call it warfare, but yes, the group at Gombe sends out its males from time to patrol the borders of their territory, and they have been known to systematically attack and kill members of neighboring communities.
  • Chimpanzees can be cannibals.  As can humans.  This is apparently extremely rare, though, and involved a mother and daughter stealing infants and killing and eating them.
  • Chimpanzees have complex social relationships.  Chimps live in ranked societies. There is a hierarchy for females as well as males, and the highest ranking males are usually the sons of high-ranking females. The core of the group is a mother and her children. Chimps are promiscuous, and while chimps normally know very well who their mothers are, they do not know their fathers. They also know their siblings, and sex between siblings, as well as between mothers and sons, is very rare. Females frequently seek a male from a neighboring group to mate with.
All in all, the Gombe chimps have shown us that these fellow primates have individual personalities, socially transmitted culture*, and complex lives.  Let's hope we don't send them into oblivion with our homocentric arrogance and short-sightedness.

*Really, proto-culture, that is, culture without language.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The bureaukleptocrats are still at it!

Imagine a university where the following things happen:
  • A "short" summer course is offered, to be taught in July, and students begin registering and paying for it.
  • By early June, only eight students have registered, so some klepto administrator decides to cancel the class. The instructor slated to the teach the class is notified, not in writing, but verbally.
  • The day before the class is scheduled to begin, the class is still listed on the university's web site, and nobody, other than the instructor, has been told that it was canceled.
  • On the first day of class, the course is still online and the eight students are still registered. The instructor goes to the classroom at the appropriate time. Seven students are present. None have been told that the class was canceled. Some are upset to learn this, since the course is required for their major.  When asked whether they had paid for the class, most students answer affirmatively.
  • Finally, the day after the first class, the course is removed from the web site.
  • At least one student was able to get a Late Schedule Adjustment in order to register for a different class.
  • As of this writing, the instructor still has not received official, written word that the course was canceled.
If there seems to be no clear, established routine for canceling classes and informing those affected in a timely manner, this is because the klepto administrators of this university prefer to keep it that way. As one of them was reported to have stated in a faculty senate meeting, they prefer to keep things vague, so that they can be "flexible."  One wonders what this means. We have already learned that one thing it means is that they can decide, after the fact, whether and what to pay a faculty member for teaching a course. Perhaps it also means that they can keep the money students have paid for registration as long as they want to, all the while pocketing the interest.

Apparently, also, this klepto administration prefers to offer students fewer choices in courses, and herd everyone into one large class. In the case described above, they "saved" $1200 (the medieval salary this instructor would have received) by canceling a class that would have brought in at least $3840 in tuition and fees. Based on this evidence, they aren't really very smart.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The 4th of July

Today is our "Independence Day." It seems as though this might be a day to pause and reflect on what we are, and what we could be. If we actually did this on any other day, I would be willing to cut us some slack on this day, but we don't. We seem to be in a perpetual state of self-delusion.
 One of our major delusions is that what we experienced in the aftermath of our declaration on July 4, 1776, was a revolution. But was it, really? In the end the people who were in control on the ground were still in control. The slaves were still slaves, the poor were still poor. Native Americans were on the verge of experiencing, if they had not already experienced it, one of the more egregious cases of genocide and ethnocide* in world history.
The Jamaican historian of the Caribbean Franklin Knight points out, in his The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, that the Haitian revolution, which culminated in 1804, was the first successful revolution in the Americas. In the end, the former slaves were on top, and the former landowners had been killed or fled to places like Louisiana. At the end of the American "revolution," the former elites were still the elites.
Some other delusions we have about ourselves are listed and explained on this web site. Among them:
  • When politicians and regular folk talk about “Protecting our American Way of Life” ™ they are referring to our “freedoms,” our ability to worship the way that we wish to do so, dress the way we wish to do so, and so on.
  • The USA is the best, most desirable place in the world, and everyone in the world, if they had a choice, would want to live here.
  • America and Americans are the most giving people in the world – we help out other countries more so than any other country does.
  • America has the best health care system in the world. Anyone who needs care can go and get it at an emergency room, whether they have money or not.
  • “The Government” (and/or Government employees/employment, and/or “bigger government”) is bad/useless, and private sector employees are always more useful/valuable/productive.
  • The American people have the most civil (and other) rights, freedom and privacy on the planet.
  • Liberals/Progressives and their leaders just want the government to take care of all of their needs, from the “cradle to the grave,” they don’t believe in personal responsibility, they expect the government to somehow magically make everything fair, and they want the population to be controlled by the government. That’s how it is in Europe, and that’s what the Liberals want here too.
Think about it.

*Ethnocide is the anthropological term for destruction of a culture that leaves the people in place. This was the official US policy toward Native Americans, especially late in the 19th century.