Author Archives: Alma Gottlieb

What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 2: An Optimist’s Scenario

Here’s what I imagine could–and should–emerge from this viral nightmare.

Locally, stranger-neighbors will (re)discover each other. Re-appreciate the bonds of co-residence.

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  • Translate that appreciation into forging new relationships, even new neighborhood groups. Friendly elevator chats, book groups, block parties, children’s after-school clubs.
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  • Remember that our common humanity unites us more than our cultural differences divide us.

Online, new connections and groups will form.

  • In this often scary and lonely world, like-minded folks will find their way online to one another, whether as individuals or in groups.
  • The non-tech-savvy will discover their Inner Geek and figure out how to connect virtually.
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Politicians who specialize in policies of the heartless–generously supporting their own kind, and pretending their ilk have a monopoly on being human–will recover their souls.

  • Re-learn empathy for anyone other than their immediate families and business associates.
  • Translate that empathy for other humans into public policy supporting those other humans.

Globally, political leaders will recognize that it is actually possible to band together with parallel, even coordinated, strategies for the common good.

  • Translate that realization into new, viable policies to counteract climate change.
  • Dismantle the fossil fuel industry.
  • Enact international legislation promoting sustainable energy.
  • Invest in civic-minded engineers and their research.
  • Save the planet.

It’s true that I have a reputation for being a bit of a Pollyana in my family.

Still, even I don’t dare hope that any or all the above will happen overnight. Once the microscopic creatures causing COVID-19 chaos have (mostly) died off, we will need time to remember who we were.

But, also, time to think about who we want to be.

This horrible moment provides an important opportunity for us—as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a globalized species—to rethink, well, everything.

What Anthropology Teaches Us about COVID-19, Part 1-Early Thoughts

Lesson 1:

Like the ducks and brants my husband and I see congregating regularly by the dozens along the shore’s edge of Narraganssett Bay near our coastal home, we humans are a social species.  (Audobon’s description of the Brant: “Feeds in flocks at most times of year”),

Whether indoors or out, whether in small numbers or large, whether in person, online, or at a distance, we crave others.  And not only for emotional needs.  Also, for economic and survival reasons.  With precious few exceptions, we modern humans haven’t survived the past ~100,000 years as hermits.

So, it’s no surprise that, when the bizarre daily habitus of “social distancing” becomes the “new normal,” we suffer.  We were meant to.

Lesson 2:

Like the Leonardo da Vincis or Zora Neale Hurstons we read about in chronicles of our most creative ancestors, we humans are a clever species.

Okay, so, we’re not all Albert Einstein or Sappho.  But, whether working at an easel or a computer, whether laboring alone or in a team, whether doing work of the mind, heart, or body, we specialize in problem solving.  We haven’t survived the past 100,000 years as modern humans by walking over cliffs en masse as lemmings do when they run out of choices. 

Yes, life and society have apportioned privileges unequally, contributing to unequal doses of resiliency at the individual level.  That is a heavy burden that psychologists specialize thoughtfully in addressing, even as our politicians ignore their responsibility in producing the structural inequalities that create such unequal apportioning. Once we emerge from this global crisis, even our most heartless politicians should have greater awareness of what it takes at the structural level to sustain a compassionate community.

For now, it’s important for all of us to remember that, collectively, we are a resilient lot.  Unlike every other species, we’ve figured out brilliantly how to safely move through, and even inhabit, every environment on earth, from sky to water, from arctics to tropics. 

Now is not a time for despair. The tiny creatures underlying today’s global crisis will not defeat us.

Lesson 3:

The bad news:

Coping with COVID-19 won’t be fun.  Some among us will suffer more than most—financially, emotionally, logistically. 

Those who survive on daily coffee and lunch dates, and weekly dinner parties or movie outings, may become especially frustrated and depressed.

A very small number of those among the most vulnerable of us–especially the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and those in both categories–will not survive a viral attack.

That is a potential source of collective tragedy we must all work hard to mitigate.

The good news:

We are learning to thoughtfully prioritize scarce resources, with the greater good in mind.

Face masks are for front-line health workers, and for those with disease symptoms, to prevent them from spreading disease when they must go out and about.

Some stores are limiting the amount of COVID-related items they’ll allow shoppers to buy. Hoarders of masks and toilet paper are being shamed in cartoons, and warned everywhere to change their behavior.

Individuals aren’t the only ones being monitored. Stores are, too.

New York City has already issued $275,000 in fines to stores that have charged more than 10% higher-than-usual prices on hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes, and face masks. The fines will apply for at least two months.

The community spirit being promoted by this pandemic has other positive effects. For those with Internet access at home, social media offer us amazing alternatives for remaining in touch with those near and dear to us. They also help us find our way to many new communities that can offer solace.

In the U.S., for those with limited Internet and data access, new options are emerging daily to provide access. Companies are actually offering expanded smartphone data at no charge, creating new Wi-fi hot spots, and offering free international phone calls.

No doubt, these profit-oriented corporations will return to greedy practices once the pandemic subsides.

But for now, at least some of them are actually being part of the solution. Their unusual pivot reminds us that, as a species, we will survive this challenge, as we survived all known pandemics—the Black Death, HIV-AIDS, Ebola and others.

Not only that, but if we live up to our vaunted cleverness, we may actually emerge stronger.

The moment will produce many heroes.  

Front-line health staff will bravely reduce the suffering of patients. 

Humane politicians will offer financial supports.  Germany has “promised companies ‘unlimited’ credit to keep them afloat” in an economic package . . . worth at least 550 billion euros ($614 billion) initially — the biggest in Germany’s post-war history.” Politics will even make strange bedfellows. Mitt Romney has just endorsed Andrew Yang’s proposal (at last for now) for a universal basic income.

Brilliant infectious disease specialists will analyze all available data and translate statistical and arcane knowledge into readable syntheses for ordinary readers.

Medical researchers will eventually create a vaccine.  The EU has already invested an emergency $89.4 million into the project.

And those are only the headline heroes.  We will have far more heroes who will never make the headlines.

On my neighborhood list-serv, someone who loves to cook has offered to bake a loaf of bread, and personally deliver it on foot, to any elderly or quarantined neighbor who requests one.  To be realistic, she clarified the approximate radius of how far she might walk to deliver samples of her kitchen’s output. Another neighbor soon magnified the offer: he’ll drive to pick up the loaves and deliver them by car to anyone farther than the generous baker’s walkable zone.

And that was only Day Two since my state’s governor declared first steps of “social distancing.”

Not convinced of our species’ capacity for creative and even limitless commitment to one another, no matter how far the physical distance required?  Check in soon for more encouraging ethnography, large and small.

Meanwhile, remember: As a species, we’ve got this.

Writing about Coffee

Despite being a lifelong non-coffee-drinker, I somehow found myself reading two fantastic books about coffee recently.

The first, Miriam Sagan’s A Hundred Cups of Coffee, hijacked me from reading the OTHER coffee book I’d just started. Sagan’s series of short meditations inspired by drinking a cup of coffee (and, occasionally, tea) here, there, and everywhere got me thinking profound thoughts as only Miriam (poet extraordinaire) can, about life, death, and everything in-between.

The second–David Liss’ The Coffee Trader–is another wildly compelling read about coffee, but in a totally different register. It’s a historically based novel set in 17th-century Amsterdam and has way more fascinating character development than a book with this good/fast a plot by rights should have.

Beyond the obvious (human) characters, the major, implicit (non-human) character is the relationship among the highly problematic trio of Secrecy, Trust, and Mendacity. I won’t say more about the gripping story other than to predict that if you are a fan of (or are intrigued by) one or more of the following, you’ll probably love this novel: coffee / Sephardic Jewish history / early-modern Europe / Dutch history / the development of global commodity capitalism / Jewish-Protestant relations / a gripping story (with sub-plots within sub-plots).

Enjoy both these each-in-its-own-way-amazing books over your favorite cuppa (fill in the blank).

The Blueberry Wars

In elementary school, the first “robin red-breast” of spring signaled warmer days, colorful flowers, and a promise that the school year wouldn’t last forever. I considered robins my friends.

Of late, I’ve come to perceive those same songbirds as my enemies.

This year, thanks to non-stop April rains, the blueberry bushes in our back yard have burst with fruits as they’ve never done before. My husband and I have inspected the branches daily with equal doses of anticipation and dismay as their output has transformed from tiny, hard, green things, to pinkish-purple promises, to blue balls of deliciousness.

Keeping vigilant over every move toward the berries’ sweet inevitability, we’ve had to do more vigorous battle with their other major, neighborhood fans, the robins.

As a delicate bird alights on a twig, I play schoolyard bully and drive her–or, is it him?–away. (I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t know my adversary’s gender.) The robin flits across my neighbor’s yard, only to return a few minutes later.

Philip wickedly points out that some wild chirping in a nearby tree might signal a nest filled with robin babies, and who’s to say I’m not depriving babies of needed nourishment?

Three baby robins in a nest, with open mouths waiting for food.  Source: http://clarksilerfamily.blogspot.com/2016/06/born-into-family.html.

Despite usually being a sucker for all things baby, I don’t buy this bid for maternal solidarity and return to my war of words.

“Shoo! Go find your meal elsewhere!” I holler, clapping my hands firmly for extra emphasis. The call of a future blueberry clafoutis dominates my decision.

*

My Biology 101 level of understanding of evolution assures me that humans sit comfortably atop something we easily term the “food chain.”

Merriam-Webster defines “food chain” as:

an arrangement of the organisms of an ecological community according to the order of predation in which each uses the next usually lower member.

When I picture the food chain, a very human-centric model readily comes to mind. (You can tell I’m not a vegetarian.)

How can my husband and I be competing as equals with a small-brained creature so much lower on the evolutionary scale?

Maybe my human arrogance is misplaced. Given that we seem to have the same taste in fruit, who’s to say birds and humans can’t be classified as equals, at least when it comes to dessert?

Then I remember an image from some fields in West Africa where I used to hang out. Come the growing season, birds showed up en masse, excited about the feast of tiny baby corn and rice kernels suddenly enticing them. But any success they enjoyed would come at the expense of the villagers–subsistence farmers, whose food supply they were stealing.

So, farmers enlisted children from the age of three on to serve as a young army. From dawn to dusk, groups of children occupied the fields. To entertain themselves during any intermittent periods of truce, the children brought along homemade flutes, drums, and dolls. Whenever some birds showed up, the kids took a break from their play time to shoot little pebbles at the flying invaders. Their aim was impressively accurate, thanks to homemade slingshots. Deployed over the course of a couple of weeks by those youthful armed forces, that simple technology–a Y-shaped piece of wood, with strips of red rubber tied to two ends and linked by a small piece of leather, to cup the pebble–saved the year’s crops.

The Beng knew what every farmer has known since the advent of agriculture. Never mind brain size or evolutionary scales. For that matter, never mind cute images of birds as characters in children’s books. (Think, Make Way for Ducklings). A food competitor is a food competitor.

It’s true that a more “live and let live” approach to the natural world might re-orient the food chain toward a more cooperative image–say, a non-hierarchical circle, rather than a tiered pyramid.

Still, like farmers everywhere, Beng villagers don’t romanticize the quest for food. Once humans figured out how to plant seeds, everything changed. We’re not just digging roots and killing animals wherever we may find them, we’re setting out clearly demarcated territories for what we consider our food sources–and defending those boundaries not only against our human neighbors, but against other species, as well. If that means chasing away cute robins from our blueberry bushes, so be it.

In the U.S. these days, it’s common for urbanites to dismiss rural residents as less sophisticated–at best, country bumpkins; at worst, ignorant racists. But knowledge comes in many forms. From their distant perch in the rain forest of West Africa, Beng farmers–as rural as they come–have, as usual, taught me a thing or two.

Goose Lessons

What can an anthropologist (who specializes in humans) learn from an unlikely species (like a goose)?

Plenty, it turns out.

My husband and I went goose-banding the other day, thanks to my husband adventurous spirit in discovering a creative, public-outreach program organized by our coastal state’s Department of Environmental Management (“DEM”).

Knowledgeable staff from that department’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife instructed a small group of citizen-scientists how to herd geese scattered around a large pond, via a strategically managed caravel of kayaks.  

These three kayakers took one path, while two other kayakers took a different path toward geese scattered around this large pond. Eventually, all five kayaks rounded up some 70 geese and converged as a caravel. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

The geese are moulting their flight feathers right now. For a few vulnerable weeks every summer, they’re stuck in the water and can’t fly. Scientific teams takes annual advantage of this brief, flight-less period to herd them for identification. (Biologists band nearly 150,000 geese in North America each year.)

In early summer, Canada geese lose their flight feathers, revealing these blood-filled ribs bereft of feathers. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

In their temporarily terrestrial state, the birds are easily guided by kayaks that surround them to funnel the creatures ever more tightly into a compact group.

Once nudged gently to a small spot along the shore, our geese found themselves directed into a square enclosure assembled on the spot by more volunteers and staffers. 

Geese herded by kayakers on the eastern edge of Long Island (North Fork, NY) three years ago [photo source here]
Staffers and volunteers building a temporary enclosure to keep the herded geese in a small space while awaiting being banded. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Thus corralled into a manageable space, the geese next endured the more intrepid volunteers among our group learning to wrangle them, one by one.

My husband, Philip Graham, was among the volunteers who risked getting scratched after entering the pen to catch individual geese. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

 The wrangler then gently handed her temporary prisoner off to a staff partner.

This volunteer bravely caught dozens of geese, handing each to a staffer outside the pen, to band the bird. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

The partner then sat with the goose and managed to clip an aluminum band, imprinted with a unique number, around one leg of each goose.

Staffer clamping a numbered band onto a goose’s leg. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Then the goose endured gentle poking around under its tail feathers to have its sex identified.

Two staffers identifying a goose’s sex. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Other volunteers (including yours truly) recorded the tag numbers, along with the bird’s age (adult/juvenile) and gender.  

I found my scholarly niche–recording data. [photo by Philip Graham]

Later that day, the scientists on the team would share the data with a federal registry office staffed by biologists–the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, in Laurel, Maryland.

At some time in the future, if a hunter shoots one of those geese (or anyone encounters one of these geese anywhere), s/he should contact that lab to share the goose’s banded number. Scientists will use the data to understand more about the lifespan, habits, and vulnerabilities of the geese. Perhaps global warming-induced change might be inferred. As the lab’s website explains:

Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.

So much for the day’s mechanics, and the long-term goals of this worthy scientific project.  

As for me, here’s what I learned from thinking about our day’s outing as an anthropologist. 

1. Geese are the subject of powerful human stereotypes.

“Mean,” “stupid,” and “herd-like” recurred as assumptions readily evoked by friends and neighbors who heard about my husband’s and my plan to go goose-banding.

A large flock of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) taking off from the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state

2. Geese are widely reviled in urban and suburban America.

From my non-scientific sample of friends and neighbors, I conclude that geese are commonly condemned for their repulsive, slippery, and pervasive droppings on lawns, outdoor running tracks, and park greens alike. Nor did my friends express admiration for their loud honking.

Goose droppings are the frequent subject of cartoons

In fact, my pals all expressed grave disappointment on learning that my husband and I declined to kill all the geese we encountered at close range.

3. Conflicting stereotypes describe humans’ attitudes toward geese.

Despite their image as dirty, loud, aggressive beasts, geese also enjoy a fleeting reputation for their graceful, “V”-shaped migrating flights. As long as they remain far overhead, humans seem willing to cut them some slack and enjoy their passing beauty.

Classic, “V”-shaped winged migration of Canada geese

4. Geese aren’t as dumb as they seem.

Inside our pens, some birds climbed on top of others, making thoughtful efforts to turn their mates into ladders and escape over the top of their pen.

Well, it’s true that they failed at these efforts. Perhaps their brains required just a few more synaptic connections to discern that they needed one more storey of goose floor to reach over the pen’s top edge.

Still, I admired some of their perseverance.

The goose on the left has perched on the backs of its buddies, trying to scramble out of the enclosure. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

5. Geese don’t just represent factory-like replicas of their species.

The birds we banded actually displayed individual personalities.

When we herded them into the pens, a few squawked mightily. Some even stuck out their tongues and hissed. Others vaguely whined. Some complied with docility. Most remained quiescent, thinking their private goose thoughts.

The goose in the foreground was among the most vociferous squawkers. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

6. Geese feel emotions.

As the kayakers approached the shore, the staffers instructed us to hide quietly behind the marsh grasses.

If the birds spotted or heard us, the staff warned us volunteers, the geese would become scared. That might stress them even more.

Several of us volunteers hid behind these tall marsh grasses lining the shore. From behind this dense green wall, our view was quite limited. Reciprocally, we remained hidden from the view of the approaching geese, to avoid scaring them any more. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

7. Age matters.

While the adults in our pens varied impressively in their behavior, the goslings collectively seemed far less variable. In fact, they all appeared vulnerable. They found themselves easily trapped under the weight of the larger, older geese. I’m sure I even noticed some of them sweating. The biologists in our group became nervous about the risk of the juveniles being crushed to death and instructed the wranglers to extract the babies first.

Thankfully, they were all rescued in time.

*

So what did I learn about humans from my day hanging out with these water fowl?

It’s true that Canada geese occupy a far lower point on the evolutionary scale than do humans.

But that’s precisely what struck me about the occupants of our temporary enclosures.

Even the (evolutionarily) lowly Canada geese are complicated, intentional, worthy of respect for individuals, and defy our essentializing stereotypes.

Shouldn’t the same apply in spades to our fellow humans?





Birth as Ritual/Ritual as Birth

Cultural anthropologist, Robbie Davis-Floyd, is a leading anthropologist in the fields of childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics.

 

A Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, she has studied childbirth practices firsthand in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere, and has promoted the work and legitimacy of midwives around the world.

Robbie Davis-Floyd (back row, right) honored by the North American Registry of Midwives (NARM) for helping create a nationally recognized certification process for professional midwives in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada

 

She has also lectured as a featured, keynote speaker at over 1,000 universities and health practitioners’ conferences in the US and internationally, always taking the opportunity to learn more about the maternity care systems of the countries she has visited.

Robbie Davis-Floyd speaking at the 2014 Symposium of the California Endowment

 

Davis-Floyd serves as a Board member of the International MotherBaby Childbirth Organization (IMBCO) and its new International Childbirth Initiative (ICI): 12 Steps to Safe and Respectful MotherBaby Family Maternity Care. She is also Senior Advisor to the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction, and Associate Editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Considering the cumulative impact of her energetic and creative efforts on many fronts to promote healthy childbirth without unnecessary, high-tech interventions, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Robbie Davis-Floyd has long served as the “public face of anthropology” to the international childbirth movement. Her work has been instrumental in bringing anthropological insights into the global childbirth arena and in effecting humanistic changes in childbirth practices in many countries.  Indeed, given the impact of her work, she is considered a “living legend” among birth activists both within and beyond anthropology.

Despite the enormous impact of her research, writing, and speaking on childbirth practices in the U.S. and elsewhere, birth is by no means the only topic that Davis-Floyd has studied. She’s recently given birth to a delightfully readable, new book, The Power of Ritual, co-authored with neuroanthropologist, Charles Laughlin.

Cultural anthropologist, Claire Farrer, has called the new volume “an exquisite and informative book,” writing:

I wish that this book had been available during my long teaching career–I would have used it in all my relevant courses!

Beyond professors and students, because of its breezy writing style, combined with its captivating examples from common experiences in Westerners’ lives, the book will surely appeal to many “ordinary” readers. Birth educator, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, has written:

Before I read The Power of Ritual, I thought I knew what ritual was, yet now I know that it is so much more–it can be everything from a simple conversation-opener to a powerful healing process, from an individual’s daily habits to full-scale ceremony. I have learned much from this book that I can apply to my own life to enable me to more consciously perform my daily, family, and professional rituals.

Robbie and I recently chatted about the book online. You can read our conversation below.

Meanwhile, you can learn more about Robbie Davis-Floyd’s work on her website here, including her C.V.  You can also find a view of Davis-Floyd’s many published books here, and downloadable PDFs of most of her dozens of published journal articles and book chapters here.

 

RDF: Robbie Davis-Floyd

AG: Alma Gottlieb

*

AG: You’re well known for helping develop and promote the anthropologies of childbirth, midwifery, obstetrics, and reproduction. Your fans may be surprised at the focus of this book on ritual. Yet, your first book (developing from your dissertation), Birth as an American Rite of Passage, used ritual as an analytic frame.

 

In that sense, would you say that The Power of Ritual reprises the conversation about ritual that you began nearly 30 years ago?  Or, takes it in new directions?  Or both?

Put differently (and more broadly), why would an anthropologist of childbirth write a book about ritual?

 

RDF: I’ve come full circle, as I did not start out as a birth anthropologist! My original graduate training was in both Folklore and Anthropology, and my interest in ritual was sparked by one of my Folklore professors, Roger Abrahams, whose writings on ritual I found enticing.

I did my Master’s thesis on the folklore of a Texas madam, Edna Milton, who for many years ran the notorious Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas—featured, after its closing, in the movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The article I wrote about how Edna’s masterful use of jokes and other forms of language manipulation kept her in total control of the Chicken Ranch, its customers, and its employees was published in the Journal of American Folkore and was widely used for teaching for many years, as it clearly shows how jokes and folktales can be used for manipulation, plus it is hysterically funny!

In the middle of my PhD studies, I took some time off to spend a year traveling around Mexico and learning Spanish. I returned to Mexico often and worked with two shamans—Don Lucio, a traditional shaman and “weather-worker” (trabajador del tiempo) from a small village in central Mexico, and Edgardo Vasquez Gomez, a wealthy businessman living in Cuernavaca who had traveled the country in his younger years studying sorcery (brujeria), magic, and traditional healing, and later combined that with the teachings and philosophy of the Russian philosopher, G. I Gurdjieff. Both had large followings, and both could actually manipulate energy and perform what I experienced as magic. If you combined them into one person, you would get someone very like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan.

I know that Castaneda’s work has been discredited, but the two shamans I worked with were real—as were the effects of the (very different types of) rituals they performed. We used to joke that Edgardo was Don Juan. In my doctoral program, I later wrote several long papers on myth, ritual, and shamanism in Mexico and expected to do my dissertation research with those two. (That was before computers, and those papers, sadly, were lost in a house fire.)

But then I had a baby, got “bitten by the birth bug,” and decided, instead, to research women’s childbirth narratives, as I was still in folklore mode. Yet the more women I interviewed, the more one question grabbed me:

Given the highly individual nature of each woman’s birth experience for that woman, why is birth treated in such a standardized way in American hospitals?

I began to research the scientific literature on birth. I soon realized that the vast majority of “standard obstetric procedures” did nothing to make birth safer. Instead, they made it more predictable and controllable—while unnecessarily harming women and babies in the process.

Davis-Floyd has chronicled how fetal heart rate monitors keep women attached to a bed and claim attention on a machine’s readouts, rather than on a laboring woman’s subjective experience

 

At first, I was confused. Like most people, I had assumed that obstetrics was based on science. When I realized it wasn’t, I had to ask the most basic anthropological question: Why? Why would doctors do things to women that didn’t make birth safer? The explanation hit me like a bombshell.

’”Standard obstetric procedures” do not come from the logic of science but, rather, from the logic of ritual. Like most rituals, they reflect the core values of their culture—in this case, the culture of technocratic societies.

They are designed, as so many rituals are, to try to control the uncontrollable forces of nature, to keep fear at bay–in this case, fear of both death and lawsuits. So, I switched from simply analyzing women’s birth narratives to a focus on analyzing obstetric procedures as rituals.

To fully explore this notion, I needed to understand ritual more, and its primary characteristic– the use of powerful symbols to convey meaning. I took a summer seminar at the University of Virginia with Christopher Crocker on what was then called “symbolic anthropology” (now “interpretive anthropology”). I also taught myself medical anthropology, which I had never formally studied.  But I had to become an expert in it, as pregnancy and childbirth had long ago become defined as medical events.

After reading almost everything that Victor Turner, Clifford GeertzArnold van Gennep, and many others had written about ritual, I saw that birth, which used to be a physical and social rite of passage replete with social rituals, had become a completely medicalized rite of passage.  The rituals that characterize birth everywhere had become medical rituals, officially disguised as “standard procedures.”

Dissatisfied with the many definitions of ritual I read, I created my own:

a ritual is a patterned, repetitive, symbolic (and often transformative) enactment of a cultural (or individual) belief or value.

Obstetric rituals enact the core values of what I called “the technocracy”—a term that came to me from Peter Reynolds, via his book, Stealing Fire: The Atomic Bomb as Symbolic Body, but that I redefined:

a technocracy is a hierarchical, bureaucratic, capitalist, and (still) patriarchal society organized around the supervaluation [a word I coined] of the progressive development of high technologies and the global flow of information via those technologies.

I generated a list of what we might perceive as characteristics of rituals: symbolism, rhythmic repetition, order, formality, framing, performance, acting, stylization, staging, and often, intensification toward a climax. In my dissertation (which became my first book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage), in a chapter called “Birth Messages,” I dissected each standard obstetric procedure—its official rationale, the scientific evidence against it, women’s highly varied responses to it—and explained how it acted as a ritual by enacting, displaying, and transmitting specific core technocratic values and beliefs to women, their partners, and their practitioners.

In Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Davis-Floyd analyzes the wheelchair as a powerful symbolic statement conveying the clear message that the woman in labor is “disabled”

 

At first, some ritual scholars like Ron Grimes argued that I was metaphorizing obstetric procedures as rituals, but that they were not really rituals—they were like rituals—because most scholars saw ritual as religion-based. But since the publication of my book in 1992, and its second edition in 2003, my analysis of hospital birthing practices as rituals has held, and its framework for understanding the characteristics of “secular ritual“ (using childbirth as an example) has been widely used.

AG: What a fascinating intellectual history! So, for this book on ritual, how did you decide to collaborate with a co-author who specializes in neurological approaches to human experience?

RDF: From analyzing birth narratives, I saw that women’s perceptions of themselves and their ability to give birth were profoundly affected by technological hospital rituals (such as IVs, electronic fetal monitoring, Pitocin induction or augmentation, episiotomies, immediate cord clamping, etc.). So I knew there was a missing piece in my growing understanding of ritual. It seemed clear that ritual can affect the human brain–but how?

Davis-Floyd’s research has helped document the much higher likelihood of a C-section once a woman’s labor is “induced,” or accelerated, with Pitocin

 

I searched the literature but found no answers until, one day, while browsing the book stalls at the annual American Anthropological Association conference, I saw a book way at the back of the Oxford exhibit booth. That particular book was literally glowing at me—in much the same way that I could often see the reins of energy that Edgardo held in his hands glowing during group meetings. I pulled the book out, and my life changed! It was called The Spectrum of Ritual, and it gave me the answers I was looking for. Here, finally, was the missing piece—the neurophysiology of ritual, the explanations for how ritual works on the brain and, thus, where it gets its power over us humans—starting with its multiple roles among animals.

A few years later, I met one of its authors, Charles Laughlin, at a conference. We both had read everything the other had written, so our meeting was intense and our ensuing friendship equally so. We eventually decided to co-author a book on The Power of Ritual–because I wanted to expand my study of ritual into other arenas besides birth, while Charlie wanted to put his highly esoteric work on ritual (characterized by what he termed ”neurognosis”) in more straightforward language, so he could make it accessible to people with IQs lower than 180.  I kept telling him, “Just dumb it down and tell stories”!

AG: Did you run up against differences in approach?

RDF: Not really. Charlie accepted my definition of ritual as the one we would use.  We also used most of my list of the characteristics of ritual. At some point, though, we realized that some factors on my original list, such as the fact that rituals generally work to preserve the status quo yet, paradoxically, can also be used to generate rapid social or religious change, were actually effects of ritual, not characteristics.

In this book, I finally was able to write about my long-ago work with the two Mexican shamans.  Unfortunately, it was all from memory, since, as I previously mentioned, the graduate school papers I had written about those experiences had all burned up in a house fire.

 

AG: This book begins with a theoretical discussion of how to define and analyze ritual, but it ends with a surprisingly down-to-earth section offering models for how contemporary readers might create their own rituals for important moments in their lives, whether for menarche, meditation, lucid dreaming, prayer, birth (as Melissa Cheyney has shown, homebirthers in particular create lots of rituals for honoring, de-medicalizing, and helping them through the labor process–see her article, “Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance”), death, or other significant events or experiences.

When we think about “engaged anthropology,” we usually have more economic or political transformations in mind.  Would you consider the “how-to” section of the book another variety of “engaged anthropology”?

RDF: Yes! And also of “applied anthropology.” Anthropological understandings gained from studying people and their lifeworlds should be expressed in ways that enable people to apply them to their own lives and use them for their own purposes. We need to come down out of our ivory towers and make our work relevant and useful in immediate ways. That is why Charlie and I put so many personal examples of ritual into our book—to engage readers with those experiences and help them directly apply them, should they wish to do so.

 

AG:  So, what’s next?

RDF: Our refinement of both of our life’s works in this book is now feeding back into the third edition of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, which I am working on now, and which will be a complete revision and update (this time with a co-author, the amazing Missy Cheyney). Another full circle!

But I‘ve never confined myself completely to birth and related subjects. In addition to ritual and symbol, I’ve also intensively studied cults (as described in The Power of Ritual), medical doctors who became holistic healers (as described in From Doctor to Healer: The Transformative Journey), futures planning via global scenarios, and aerospace engineers. But those are stories for another time. That’s one of the great values of anthropology. Once you have the tools, you can study any phenomenon that captures your interest!

AG: Any other future projects in the works?

RDF: Betty-Anne Daviss and I are in the process of finishing Childbirth Models on the Human Rights Frontier: Speaking Truth to Power—a sort of follow-up to our book, Birth Models That Work (2009), which has been called “seminal” (though we would have preferred “ovarial”) because it was the first book to describe truly functional birth practice models that are woman-centered and evidence-based—as opposed to the dysfunctional, non-evidence-based maternity care models that predominate almost everywhere.

 

This new follow-up volume describes models that are way more “out on the edge”—in high-poverty, disaster, and war zones, for example. It also discusses birth models that are more iconoclastic, while addressing professional bullying and competition among doctors, and the de-skilling of obstetricians in techniques for vaginal breech birth.

Our next project will be an edited volume called The Global Witch Hunt: The Ongoing Persecution of Woman-Centered Birth Practitioners. Its purpose is to call attention to the often-intense persecution of some of the most skilled midwives and obstetricians in the world, who will often go out on a limb to honor the wishes for a normal birth of women considered high-risk, by attending them at home or in hospital, but then get punished for putting the woman, not the protocols, first. The “witch-hunted” practitioners will tell their own stories in each chapter, while we co-editors (Betty Anne-Daviss, Hermine Hayes Klein, and myself) will contextualize those stories in the Introduction and Conclusion.

In another vein, for years I have been writing short stories, which I hope to publish some day in a book called Robbie’s Reader: Vignettes of My Magical Life—for my life has indeed felt magical, primarily because my anthropological research and international talks have taken me all over the world, filled my life with adventure, and given me great stories to tell!



When Women’s Laughter Keeps Men in Line; or, What Gathering-Hunting Women of Central Africa Have in Common with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al.

Among the Mbendjele gathering-hunting people who live in the Republic of Congo,

women’s laughter manages to keep men in line.”

Drawing from ethnographic research by Jerome Lewis, anthropologist Chris Knight relates that among the Mbendjele, “senior women exercise a special privilege, seeing it as their enjoyable role to bring down anyone who seems to be getting above themselves.”

To explain what “getting above themselves” might include, Knight enumerates an impressive list:

  • greediness
  • selfishness
  • dishonesty
  • cheating
  • laziness
  • arrogance
  • boastfulness
  • carelessness
  • cowardice
  • intolerance
  • moodiness
  • impulsiveness
  • aggression
  • possessiveness
  • not providing enough to eat
  • threats of, or attempts at, violence
  • chasing another woman
  • not having sex often enough.

Why should we care about Mbendjele women’s complaints about their men’s bad behavior?

Given that all humans began (evolutionarily speaking) as gatherer-hunters in sub-Saharan Africa, anthropologists have long pointed out the special insights that contemporary hunter-gatherers of Central Africa hold for our species history. Expanding on writings by anthropologist Chris Boehm, Knight uses the example of laughing Mbendjele older women to develop a broad-ranging theory of how laughter may have evolved as a unique human pleasure.

Here, my aim is far less ambitious.

Let’s call this a Memo to the [Increasingly Empowered] White-Clad Women of the U.S. Congress: 

Why not learn from your Mbendjele sisters and take up coordinated public laughter at out-of-control men as your next power move?

In fact, our newly-elected women Members of Congress have already gotten a brief but great head start.

I’m guessing that Mbendjele women would recognize their strategy.

Maybe the next group press conference held by our women MoCs critiquing unjust laws and unethical practices (patriarchal and otherwise) will be accompanied by a full-scale, Mbendjele-style laugh-in. Our species’ long evolutionary history might well support it.

 

To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: A Conversation with Daniel Jordan Smith

Daniel Jordan Smith has been conducting research in, and writing about, West Africa since 1995.

Dan Smith in his office

 

 

His first book, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria, was a compelling work narrating the daily experience of interrelations between morality and economy, seen from the bottom up. It won the 2008 Margaret Mead Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology/American Anthropological Association.

His next book, AIDS Doesn’t Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria, was a tour de force of medical anthropology. It won the 2015 Elliott P. Skinner Award from the Association for Africanist Anthropology.

You can learn more about Dan Smith’s work on his website here from Brown University, where he holds multiple positions—as the Charles C. Tillinghast, Jr. ’32 Professor of International Studies, the chair of the Department of Anthropology, and the director of the Africa Initiative for the Watson institute for International and Public Affairs.  You can also find a list of many of Smith’s published journal articles and book chapters here.

Recently, Smith published a fascinating study of masculinity among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria: To Be a Man Is Not a One-Day Job: Masculinity, Money, and Intimacy in Nigeria (University of Chicago Press, 2017). You can find the publisher’s web page for the book here.

 

Robert Morrell has praised the book:

“In this brilliant and highly readable exploration of masculinity, Smith bores down into the lives of his Nigerian friends and informants to find out what makes them tick. Through his interest in and involvement with a local tennis club for a period of over twenty-five years, he has developed a depth of understanding that even for anthropologists is unusual.”

And anthropologist James Ferguson has written:

“Brimming with insightful observations and telling details, this book makes an outstanding contribution to our understanding of a topic of enormous contemporary significance—in Africa and beyond.”

Dan and I recently had a chance to speak online about his new book. You can read our conversation below.

 

DJS: Daniel Jordan Smith

AG: Alma Gottlieb

*

AG: In the past, your work in West Africa has focused on a variety of medical issues, economic questions, and gender topics. If we consider mental health a component of medical anthropology, one might say that your new book combines some of the most important questions you’ve addressed across some 25 years of ethnographic inquiry. What made you decide to write a book drawing together (but also going well beyond) issues you’ve tackled from all these diverse writings?

DJS: In many respects, my decisions about what to study and write about in Nigeria are driven by what seems most salient in the lives of the people I live with and work with there—intersecting, of course, with what I find interesting and important as an anthropologist.

The focus of this book on masculinity in Nigeria–and, specifically, on the relationship between money and intimacy in men’s lives—is the product of having spent much of my time in Nigeria in the company of men. In the places where I work in southeastern Nigeria, social life is quite gender-segregated—not extremely so, but to the extent that, as a man, over the years, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time with men. This book is an attempt to draw all of that experience together and to try to understand men’s lives.

The author during a match with his Nigerian tennis partner, Osofia, in 1989

 

Beyond that, I wanted to use masculinity as a prism or a vehicle through which I could explore social life, and social change more broadly, in Nigeria. I never actually did a research project focused on masculinity, per se—though many of my projects focused on masculinity implicitly in one way or another. But at some point, I realized that I had a huge corpus of material about men and masculinity, and so I decided to write this book.

The author with his Nigerian tennis partner, Osofia, 15 years after their first match

 

AG: Feminist anthropologists have critiqued earlier generations of scholars for focusing exclusively on men’s lives, without acknowledging this gender bias as such. Your study, grounded in the new “masculinity studies,” strikes me as quite different from those early works that discussed men’s lives without really problematizing the gendered nature of their experiences. Can you talk about the premises of the new masculinity studies that underlie your approach?

DJS: As your question suggests, I think one of the key premises of new masculinity studies is that the generations of scholars focusing more or less exclusively on men’s lives almost never examined masculinity “as gender.” By that, I mean that, while men were the assumed objects of study when trying to understand economics, politics, social organization, and culture, masculinity itself was not really examined, problematized, and unpacked in and of itself. The idea that masculinity is socially constructed and performed–rather than simply given—is at the heart of new masculinity studies. So, too, is the idea that there are multiple masculinities, not just one.

                      Portrait of an elderly Igbo man in his village in southeastern Nigeria                        

 

Also central is the recognition that masculinities, like femininities, are relationally constructed—both broadly and specifically in relation to femininity.

 

 Portrait of a vulcanizer (tire repairer) in southeastern Nigeria

 

My work has benefited from all the excellent recent scholarship on masculinities, including in Africa. But my goal in the book is broader than trying to understand masculinity in Nigeria. I try to show that by understanding masculinity and men’s lives, we can better understand wider aspects of social life and social change in contemporary Nigeria. The book’s focus on the complex geometry of money and intimacy in men’s lives is intended not only to understand Nigerian masculinities, but Nigerian society more generally.

Men enjoying a moment of relaxation at Umuahia Sports Club, southeastern Nigeria

 

AG: In the book, you make this connection quite explicit. For example, you document what you call the “changing landscape of intimacy” by providing so many life stories that exemplify how “money has become the essential means to prove one’s value as a man.” In insisting on the deep nexus between emotion and economy, are you trying to make a theoretical point about, say, the mutual braiding between the anthropology of emotion on the one hand, and economic anthropology on the other? And, if so, do you think southeastern Nigeria is an especially apt place in which to make such a claim?

DJS: In connecting money and intimacy (and economics and emotion more broadly), I am certainly building on what I think is an already well-established theoretical point in anthropology—and specifically in Africanist anthropology—about the inextricable intertwining of economics and emotion in social life. But I think my more central conceptual contribution focuses on the way that concerns about morality infuse the intersection of money and intimacy. For example, I argue that men are constantly engaged in projects of what I call “conspicuous redistribution,” whereby they are trying to put money into the service of sociality, even as they show it off. This occurs, I argue, in both large collective occasions, like weddings and funerals, but also in more everyday contexts in which a man shares his money in his intimate relationships—such as with kin, friends, or lovers. At stake for men in these performances of conspicuous redistribution is whether their money is socially productive and morally legitimate.

I think the stakes are particularly high in southeastern Nigeria because money often stands symbolically for social changes about which people are ambivalent at best, including the rise of individualism and the pursuit of wealth. Even more negatively, money symbolizes (and is seen as creating) the pervasiveness of greed and corruption. Men face a double bind. They need money to be good men, yet they often feel compelled to pursue it by socially and morally problematic means. In this context, how they spend it becomes all the more scrutinized.

Portrait of a shop owner in southeastern Nigeria

 

AG: Bringing up the problematic relationship linking money, morality, and men in southeastern Nigeria inevitably leads us to the present moment in the US, where gender relations are an especially fraught topic—with a president accused multiple times of sexual harassment and even sexual assault, and a powerful and growing “#MeToo” movement arising among women to resist intimate practices of patriarchy. (How) would you say your book speaks to this moment in the US? That is, what lessons might American men draw from your discussion of contemporary Nigerian men’s lives, challenges, and frustrations?

DJS: I wrote the book well before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the “#MeToo” movement, so I certainly never intended for it to speak to the US context directly. That said, I think there are always opportunities to reflect on social life in one’s own culture that come in the process of trying to understand another society. For me, one of the most powerful (and in many ways most appealing) aspects of masculine social life in Nigeria is the pervasiveness and importance of homosociality—that is, of men’s social relationships with other men. As I discuss at length in the book, I found this dimension of Nigerian masculinity very compelling. At the same time, it was clear that Nigerian men frequently reinforced and rewarded patriarchal privilege in male-dominated fraternal settings.

I think similar dynamics between fraternity and patriarchy are common in the US. But it seems to me that the masculine enjoyment of male fraternity need not depend on patriarchy to enable men’s social solidarity. I think American men would benefit from more male comraderie, but in both the US and Nigeria it would be preferable to de-couple fraternal solidarity from patriarchy. They are often intertwined, but I don’t think they have to be.

 

AG: What’s on the horizon for your next research and writing project?

DJS: In Nigeria, people have a saying that “every household is its own local government.” By this, they mean that because the state so woefully fails to provide basic infrastructure and services—water, electricity, security, transportation, etc.—every household must figure out how to address these needs and desires. My current research project (and next book) examines the informal economic and entrepreneurial means by which Nigerians cobble together basic infrastructure, and what all this reveals about the state, citizenship, and political culture.

 

AG: That sounds like such an important issue for so many places (not just Nigeria).

Finally, a more personal question. While remaining extraordinarily productive as an author, you’ve held many administrative positions, and you’ve even won a campus award for teaching. Do you have any time-management secrets you can share with colleagues who might assume that being excellent simultaneously in all arenas of the academy (research/writing/          administration/teaching) is beyond impossible?


DJS: It’s very generous of you to pose the question in this way. I am afraid I don’t have any magical time-management secrets, but I can share a couple of thoughts. Most important, I think, is loving what you do, which makes it easier to work hard and work effectively. It sounds cliché, but it makes such a difference to like what you are doing. At least, that’s my experience. So, whether it’s research and writing, teaching, or administration, I try to do work that I want to be doing. That’s obviously easier said than done, especially for junior faculty, but in academia, we have a remarkable amount of freedom to pick what to work on—in administration and teaching, as well as in research and scholarship.

More mundanely, I think the secret to time management in academia is being able to use both huge chunks of time (like summer and winter breaks) and short spans of time (like 45 minutes between a class and a committee meeting) efficiently. Our profession provides an unusually large number of both very long and very brief periods of time that can be managed well or squandered. I always tell my junior colleagues that if you have 45 minutes between things, you can use it to grade some papers, or update a lecture, or read an article (or whatever). Those little chunks add up to a huge amount of time over a year (not to mention, over a career). And they are relatively painless to utilize. Using the big chunks effectively takes more discipline, but if they are filled with work you like (at least mostly), then working is easier and more rewarding.

Irish Writers, Anthropologically Speaking: An Interview with Helena Wulff

Anthropologist Helena Wulff has been conducting research on youth culture and multiple art worlds (especially in Western Europe) for over thirty years.

Wulff’s recent book, Rhythms of Writing: An Anthropology of Irish Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017), brings an anthropologist’s questions to the world of contemporary literature.

In a review of her new book for the Irish Times, Irish literary critic, Anna Fogarty, writes:

Her pioneering investigation nicely balances an advocacy of aspects of Irish cultural traditions which may be taken too much for granted by those living and writing in the country with a shrewd and timely critique of the inbuilt sexism of our public institutions and the provincialism of our general outlook.

You can discover more about Helena Wulff’s work on her website here from Stockholm University, where she is a professor and deputy head of the Department of Social Anthropology. Wulff has also held visiting professorships at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, National University of Singapore, University of Vienna, and University of Ulster, as well as a Leverhulme visiting professorship at the University of East London.

You can find downloadable PDFs of many of Wulff’s published journal articles and book chapters here.  Beyond her many scholarly publications, Wulff also occasionally writes popular articles for newspapers and magazines in Sweden and the UK.

With Deborah Reed-Danahay, Wulff edits the new book series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, and with Jonathan Skinner she edits another book series, Dance and Performance Studies, for Berghahn Books.

She has served as Chair of the Anthropological Association of Sweden and is a member of the board of the five-year, multidisciplinary research program in Sweden, Cosmopolitan and Vernacular Dynamics in World Literatures. With Dorle Dracklé, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, the journal of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), and was also Vice-President of EASA.

We recently had an e-conversation about her new, pathbreaking book about Irish writers. Read the interview below.

*

HW: Helena Wulff

AG: Alma Gottlieb

 

AG:  In your previous work, you’ve written about lots of different topics–dancers, emotions, youth, and ethnographic writing and research practices, among others. This book is about a subject that’s quite unusual for an anthropologist. What inspired you to write a book about Irish writers?

HW:  My love of literature goes back to my childhood and youth. I grew up in a home where reading fiction was a central activity, as well as, importantly, talking about it. The fact that my mother preferred reading stories to me and my brother when we were small, rather than cleaning the house, made a lasting impression on me.

I was soon a voracious and precocious reader. Not only did I devour European classics early on, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but also, in secret, novels my parents said I was too young to read. Literature was my way of finding out about life, history and the world, although my literary horizon was limited to Europe and North America. This was before the idea of “world literature” would include the circulation and translation of literary work from regional or national to global contexts (which I’ll come back to, as that’s my current research.)

Both my parents had been students of comparative literature. As this was such a strong interest also for me, comparative literature was the only subject I wanted to study when I enrolled at Stockholm University in 1973. I had a fabulous year, but towards the end I realized I wanted to do something different from my parents, to develop on my own.

I had learnt from friends who studied philosophy that there was something called social theory, which seemed useful as a way to understand the world around us. So I took up philosophy. On the whole, I enjoyed it–but I missed attention to empirical evidence, and the link between theory and the empirical world. That was when I found anthropology, a discipline that included both empirical evidence/ethnography and theory–and everything fell into place. I became an anthropologist–first focusing on youth culture, and later on ballet and dance as a transnational occupation. My first study of the dance world (published in 1998) was Ballet across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers.   

Then Riverdance, the Irish dance show, made a global splash. I was intrigued by its success in very different countries and cultures. So I set out to do a major study of dance in Ireland–a country that, with its difficult history, artistic vein, and eloquence, was a most rewarding place for anthropological research.

In addition, it was easy and cheap to get there from Stockholm. It didn’t take long before I was doing what I came to think of as “yo-yo fieldwork,” going back and forth between Stockholm and Dublin on a regular basis. I spent one or two weeks at a time in the field—altogether, eight months. My study was published in 2007 as Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland.

It was during the research for this study that I spotted the novel, Dancers Dancing by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, in a Dublin book shop. Thinking it might be relevant for my study, I bought it, read it with great delight, and then was able to interview the author. This was my first contact with the contemporary literary world in Ireland.

I started reading work by Colm Tóibín, Colum McCann, Anne Enright, and Joseph O’Connor–all award-winning writers–and couldn’t stop.

Colum McCann (photo by Bryan Schutmaat for The New York Times)

 

I was impressed by the style and the stories, and I identified an ethnographic presence. I noticed that Roddy Doyle was publishing at a high speed. And, suddenly, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was everywhere, selling like hotcakes.

Pulling together my lifelong love of literature with my anthropological experience of Ireland, I was thrilled to see a new study emerging: one of Irish writers in terms of their craft and career. It was triggered by one basic question: How come the Irish are such skilled writers? This was followed by two more: How do they learn to write? What does the Irish literary world look like—not just the world of writers, but also publishers, with all the attendant breakthroughs and competition?

 

AG:  I’m struck by how seamless your move from one project to another has felt to you, even though all these projects might appear so different from one another to a casual reader.

Can you talk about the interview process you’ve experienced across these projects? For example, dancers are notoriously reluctant to speak about their art. At least, many dancers I’ve known have often said something like, “If I could tell you about it, I wouldn’t need to dance it”! By contrast, for writers, verbal language is their chosen medium. Were the Irish writers you’ve interviewed happier than other interviewees to keep talking and talking?

HW: I wouldn’t say that the writers were happier than the dancers to keep talking and talking . . . but they were more difficult to get an appointment with, in the first place! (The dancers were easier to get hold of, as I spent many months with their companies, so I was around them on a daily basis.)

With the famous writers–just like the famous dancers–once I had them in front of me, I had to break through their shield of expectations, which inclined them to provide routine answers to journalistic questions that weren’t necessarily well-informed. This shield entailed a risk that they would be indifferent to the situation. I had to surprise them in order to get their engagement.

Asking John Banville, one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary Irish fiction writers: ”Why do you write?” was such a moment. He was taken aback and started thinking out aloud, off track. By then, I had established rapport with him.

I didn’t experience any significant differences between interviewing Irish dancers and Irish writers. There’s definitely a fascinating truth in Isadora Duncan’s famous observation:

“If I could tell you what it means, I would not have to dance it.”

But my questions for the dancers would mostly be about the social organization of the dance world–ranging from ”How come you started to dance?” and ”What is good dance?” to ”What do you think of dance critics?” and ”Tell me about camaraderie as well as competition in the dance world.”

I think it also mattered that I used to dance (ballet), myself. That meant that I had the vocabulary and general understanding of ballet culture, which the dancers appreciated. They often see themselves as misunderstood by other people.

 

AG:  That aspect of “native ethnography” was also relevant, to some extent, in your research with the Irish writers. But they may have also perceived themselves as “native ethnographers” of you, as well. Did you ever find yourself reversing roles with them? That is to say, did you ever fear that the writers might end up interviewing you (or just observing you), to make you into a character in one of their books?

HW: Unlike most Irish writers, who are eloquent speakers as well as sociable people, there was one writer I interviewed who told me beforehand, on e-mail, that she was ”a reserved, private person,” and that she didn’t think she’d be able to contribute all that much to my study. But she agreed for us to meet up in a café in Dublin. I told her that I, too, used to be a shy person. I found her really pleasant, and we did connect, even though the interview was a bit slow in the beginning, as I felt I had to be careful. She kept her low-key approach but seemed to appreciate my questions. Then suddenly, she took charge! Amused, I realized that I was replying to her questions–about anthropology, my research, my writing, and my own family–in a more detailed way than I’d ever done before in an interview I was supposed to be conducting. It was funny and revealing to me. I remember thinking that she seemed to be taking the opportunity to do research for her own writing.

I haven’t come across myself as a character in any of her books yet. But I did notice that John Banville featured an anthropologist as a minor character in one of the books he wrote after I interviewed him!

In a similar vein, I did a pilot interview with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne for my research application for the project on Irish writers that I submitted to the Swedish Research Council.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

 

I was delighted to be awarded three years of funding for the research. Talking to Éilís about my plans for a study of writing as career and craft in Ireland turned out to give her an idea for a novel on the social organization of the literary world in Dublin, with all its collaborations, competitions, and even plagiarisms. It was published as Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Blackstaff in Belfast in 2007.

While inspired by certain circumstances in the literary world in Dublin, the novel does exaggerate, in order to make some points–as novels are allowed to do.

Such artistic license is also prevalent in Éilis’ short story, ”A Literary Lunch” (2012), where she satirizes the work of a board that awards literary prizes. In my book, I discuss how literary prizes are considered an important part of a writer’s career, not least because their publishers regard them as evidence that they have selected the right book to publish.

 

AG:  Few anthropologists have chosen either writers or literary texts as their research subject. In the preface, you summarize some of the main points of overlap between anthropology and literature. Any further thoughts about anthropologists who influenced you in your decision to take on this project?

HW:  As a student, I was already aware that Victor Turner and Clifford Geertz had an interest in literature, which I found reassuring. Later, I learned that James Clifford did as well. And when my contemporary, Nigel Rapport, wrote in 1994 about the ”prose and the passion” in the writings of E. M. Forster, I was intrigued and felt an affinity.

Even though I was deeply involved in my fieldwork and writing on ballet as a transnational occupation at the time, a desire to do an anthropological study of literature had already sprung up. It would have to wait, though, until I had completed my study of dance in Ireland. Then it was just a matter of course to stay in Ireland, but move to another topic, a prominent and influential topic in Ireland-–its writers. It made a lot of sense.

This was also when I started attending sessions on literary anthropology at the American Anthropological Association, sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

With pleasure, I had long identified a literary sensibility in a number of anthropologists who are well-known for something else. Now, I was excited to meet and read the work by anthropologists such as Paul Stoller, Kirin Narayan, Ruth Behar, Kristen Ghodsee, and yourself, who were fully engaged in literary anthropology.

 

AG:  What difference does anthropology make for a study of writers?  Can you talk about how the questions you asked about Irish writers’ lives might be different from the sorts of questions that biographers and literary scholars might ask?

HW:  Many contemporary literary scholars consider cultural, political or historical context, but their focus is on the literariness of the text, while anthropologists would focus on the context, while paying attention to the text. Not only for my study of writers, but also for both my studies of dancers, my guiding light has been Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, where he shows that artists don’t work in isolation, but in “art worlds”–in other words, in professional and cultural contexts.

As for biographers, while they might set their stories against a backdrop of culture, politics or history, their focus tends to be on private and/or professional lives. Mine is a study of a profession that sometimes can be understood through private lives–but, even more, through Ireland’s special situation historically.

 

AG:   I’m struck by how you organized the book. In a work about writers, one might have imagined a focus on a single writer in each chapter. Instead, each chapter addresses a component of the literary career, or the social organization of the literary world. Can you discuss what went into your thinking about how to structure the book’s chapters?

HW:  The structure of the book is chronological.  It starts out with learning how to write, then moves to the making of a writer’s career, breakthroughs, maintaining a reputation, drawbacks, and finally demise. This is also reflected in some writers’ career trajectories, beginning with the local literary milieu in Dublin via varieties of translations of their books into films and musical shows in London and New York; America as hope; and, finally, Irish literature and the world.

 

AG:  Given their literary expertise, are you more nervous about your interviewees reading this book than you have been with earlier projects? Has any of the writers (or agents or others in the publishing world) read it and shared any reactions with you yet?

HW:  I’m not more nervous about this book. Ballet dancers, contemporary dancers, as well as Irish dancers were all experts in the fields I was writing about, and I did get really appreciative feedback from dancers who read those books. I felt mutual respect with them, as I did with the writers.

I may hear about other commentaries, but for now I’m very pleased that two of the writers (that I know of) have read Rhythms of Writing and say that they are ”impressed.” Another reaction is a very favorable review in The Irish Times by Anne Fogarty, an esteemed professor of James Joyce Studies at University College Dublin. This was fabulous not only because the review was substantial and very positive, but also because Fogarty, who is a literary scholar, appreciated my anthropological take on her world.

 

AG:  Speaking of reviews: In the book, you profile the structure of the literary marketplace. Do you see any overlaps with scholarly publishing? Any warning signs for us scholars to take note of? Any lessons we scholar-authors might learn?

HW:  Yes, there are overlaps between literary and scholarly publishing, not least in the notion of a prestige hierarchy of publishers. Among Irish writers it’s more prestigious to publish in London or New York with a global conglomerate than in Dublin with a local boutique publisher, even though that’s where most writers start.

A warning sign for us scholars to take note of is the rise and impact of the agent. Irish writers who publish internationally all have agents, but I did hear certain reservations about these brokers from both writers and publishers. There were writers who found that they had to revise their texts according to the agent’s criteria, and these criteria would follow the agent’s predictions of the market, rather than the writer’s own literary inclinations. But then, the agent may actually be right.

For publishers, the agents are necessary, as it’s often agents who spot a new talent. Yet one editor was quite frank with me in his description of how agents put their own interests first, in terms of making money for themselves.

There are, of course, already scholar-authors in the U.S. who have agents, and this might well work for them. Still, for those of us who have a firm engagement in writing as a craft, and take a lot of pride in formulating sentences and keep searching for new expressions, the idea to have not only an editor and peer-reviewers but also an agent suggesting revisions, if not enforcing them, seems scary, to say the least. For in the end, who is the author, then?

 

AG:  Let’s end on a happier note! Can you say something about your new research on  “world literatures” beyond the Euro-American traditions?

HW:  This is an anthropological study of the social world of migrant writers and their work in Sweden. I’ve just published a piece introducing the research–“Diversifying from within: Diaspora Writings in Sweden.” It’s part of a major interdisciplinary research program on World Literatures funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. As with my study of Irish writers, I’m investigating the making of a migrant writer’s career–how these writers learn to write, as well as drawbacks, the publishing industry (including the notion of ”the migrant writer”), their breakthroughs, and their role as public intellectuals.

Sweden used to boast an ethnically welcoming policy, but has now restricted its migration and refugee intake. There is also a growing anti-immigration party. Still, these writers are diversifying Sweden from within. Some of them have international reputations. While the Irish writers were surfing on the mighty fame of their predecessors such as James Joyce and Seamus Heaney, migrant writers in Sweden are not associated with August Strindberg or Astrid Lindgren. So, how is it that the writings of Jonas Hassen Khemiri (of partly Tunisian origin) on terrorism and racism in Sweden have become acclaimed in New York, London, Tokyo and many other places across the globe?

Environmental Anthropology: An Ethnographer’s View of a Cove Cleanup

The curse of the anthropologist: finding culture everywhere in nature.

Publicly posted signs reinvent the medieval European town crier, or the West African village drummer

 

Today, the coastal neighborhood in which my husband and I now live hosted a cleanup in a nearby cove.

 

Of course, this effort was billed as an environmental event. But whenever I bent down to pick up a piece of blue plastic poking up from the sand, or a shard of brown glass glinting under the noonday sun, I couldn’t help thinking of the organization of labor required by clever humans to lug this alarming collection of detritus to a landfill.

 

 

Or perhaps a container ship will transport the bags of sea trash halfway around the world. Someplace in China, rural-to-urban migrant laborers might pick through heaps of American scrap and send the sorted pieces to factories in Shenzhen or Dongguan. There, other rural-to-urban migrant workers (of the sort profiled by the fascinating book by Leslie Chang that I am currently reading, Factory Girls) will make new products from recycled glass and bits of plastic. Maybe next year, those products will make their way on new container ships headed back to the Port of Providence, right up the road from us. And then, I might buy a set of drinking glasses or a plastic spatula at the local mall that boasts, “Made in China.” Was it really? Our work today suggests that such a label might tell only a very partial story.

Or so I fantasized, as I picked out crushed straws and dirtied pencil stubs from the wet sand and stuffed them in my rapidly filling trash bag.

Enjoying a beautiful day for a clean-up; photo by Philip Graham

 

As I joined in today’s collective effort, my mind wandered back to an annual community cleanup that occurred in the small villages of the Beng people in which my husband and I have lived for long periods in the rain forest of Ivory Coast. There, the male chief of every village organizes the event. The goal: to sweep the paths clean that connect village and forest. Farmers walk these paths daily to reach their fields, which are located deep in the heart of the West African rain forest. It’s important to keep the paths clear–otherwise, inattentive farmers worried about this year’s rainfall might forget to look where they’re stepping and tread on a poisonous millipede, a scorpion, or a snake.

Beng villages are designed as discrete clearings in the surrounding rain forest; photo by Philip Graham

 

Once those paths into the forest are cleared, the residents tackle the village itself. The goal: to clear every blade of grass, so no child inadvertently steps unsuspectingly on a green mamba hiding among tall plants while walking to Grandma’s house.

A Beng chief’s word is next to that of god. Beng chiefs are said to use witchcraft to protect their villages, and no sane person would dare deny their annual order to sweep the paths.

A young Beng man sweeps in front of the assistant chief (seated, with a white shirt), while behind him, his older brother, the village chief (seated, with a long, light blue robe) looks on, approvingly; the space is being cleared before a village meeting is convened

 

Moreover, these chiefs occupy a hereditary position. Sure, villagers might dispute the suitability of this or that genealogically qualified candidate, after a particular chief dies. But the basic system offers an official and more or less predictable structure into which individual successors can be slotted.

The neighborhood in which my husband and I now live in Rhode Island lacks such an inherited leader. So how does our annual neighborhood cove cleanup get organized?

As it happens, one woman named Barbara Rubine occupies something of a chief-like position.

Barbara Rubine (left) oversees today’s cove cleanup, along with Andy Gell and Mark Garrison, two Board members of the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association 

 

Living across from the cove motivated her to start thinking clean-up thoughts some thirty years ago, when the discouraging view out her window featured more rubbish than river. To maximize her efforts, she founded the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association, of which she remains president. As the city of Cranston noted when it voted to commend her for work in 2013, Rubine has “coordinated park maintenance, and shoreline and marsh restoration work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Save The Bay, EWPA and the City of Cranston.”  Which is to say, she’s helped secure major grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as local organizations.

Yet, from what I can tell, many volunteers at today’s cleanup don’t know this energetic and visionary woman–even though she is, herself, a veritable force of nature. No, it’s not Barbara Rubine’s moral authority that draws groups of neighbors to add their e-mail address to a list of volunteers, study a long list of labor-intensive tasks, then grab trash pickers and leaf bags and get to work.

 

 

Environmental activist groups sponsoring the clean-up requested e-mail addresses to recruit volunteers for future tasks, then provided supplies for all volunteers to use

 

It must be some collective sense of purpose that, despite its amorphous shape, draws individuals here.

Dean’s grandfather

 

Moreover, many parents clearly aim to model civic engagement for their children.  After all, it takes a village to maintain our neighborhood cove–which, as my five-year-old grandson Dean proclaimed last year (following a tour of Rhode Island’s magnificent coastline), is, after all, “the original, the best, and the most beautiful cove.”

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, behind all this laudable effort to preserve the habitat of shellfish beds in their vulnerable corner of the natural world, the structure and motivation of the human labor on behalf of the mussels somehow claim most of my attention.

Fragile mussel beds benefited from the housekeeping efforts of their human friends

 

The curse* of the anthropologist, indeed.

 

* or blessing

 

. . .

 

[All photos by Alma Gottlieb except where noted.]

 

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