Category Archives: Cultural Anthropology

An Anthropologist at the Women’s March on Washington, Part 1: Finding Communitas, Feminist Style

Mass of Demonstrators in Front of Capitol 1, cropped
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
The doors of our metro car opened and closed, opened and closed with increasingly alarming dysfunction.  On any other day, the many more dozens of people jammed into our subway car than (for safety reasons) should have occupied our tight, air-deprived space would have panicked–jostled, elbowed, and accused one another.  Instead, taking the occasion as an opportunity to befriend new neighbors, we asked from where and how far our companions had traveled, asked where they were staying, asked if the growing-short-of-breath needed water.  In other words, we bonded.
Anthropologists have a name for that feeling of spontaneous community that developed in an unlikely place: we call it, “communitas.”  Coined by the great Victor Turner (one of my long-ago mentors), the term originally referred to feelings of solidarity forged in African initiation rituals.  But anthropologists now apply the word to all sorts of places beyond rain forest groves.  Two days ago, an urban subway offered my first sighting of communitas in Washington, D.C.–but certainly not my last.  On Jan. 21, 2017, feminism and anthropology converged, as women around the country–and around the world–forged a sense of communitas that, unlike many temporary feelings of communitas, may well have lasting effects beyond the day’s euphoria.
Indeed, after it was over, yesterday’s march in the nation’s capital felt, if anything, infinitely grander and more important when we learned of the 600 or so sister marches around the world attracting some 2 million protestors, begun on Facebook and coordinated by the miracle of social media.
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I’m old enough to have intense teenage memories of participating in the huge marches on Washington of the 1960s, supporting civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.  But my anthropologist friend, Linda Seligmann, and I were accompanied to yesterday’s march by three young women (aged 17 to 21 years old) who had never participated in such a momentous event.
A, H, Mina, Charlotte on Subway
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
I watched their wide-eyed wonder with delight as some 500,000+ strangers, mostly women, found a new pink-knit-capped sisterhood.
Mass of Demonstrators, Pink Hats, cropped more
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
My day’s companions had their own somatic challenges.  One became dizzy and nearly fainted in the overcrowded, under-oxygenated metro car we occupied for nearly two hours; another exercised all her willpower to control her bladder, when toilet facilities proved elusive during six hours of enforced standing.  And yet, they never complained, never begged for an exit strategy.  Instead, they felt that strong pull of communitas.
I, myself, felt the tug of an old back injury asserting itself as those six hours of standing activated muscular fatigue.  And yet, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
After three hours of listening to inspirational speeches, many in the crowd became restless. “Start the march!  Start the march!” some began chanting.  And, indeed, some began marching (or, truth to tell, shuffling, amidst the thousands of protesters barely able to move), while others remained at the rally, to listen to yet more speakers.  Yet even that splintering of attention didn’t fracture our sense of common purpose.  Among those who stayed behind and those who forged on, communitas asserted a stronger pull.
Some protest signs and speeches signaled disturbing acts of police abuse across our troubled land.  And yet, even when faced with police officers and security guards trying to direct our unruly numbers, communitas won out, as protesters and cops responded with noticeable civility to one another.
The people who flocked to the nation’s capital looked more diverse than those at any march in my memory.  Judging by what I saw and heard, the event attracted white, brown and black folks; Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus; straight people, gay people, drag queens, and everything-in-between; breastfeeding babies and grandmothers in wheelchairs; sighted walkers and white-caned walkers; people sporting designer clothes and others wearing hand-me-downs; groups of teachers and groups of students; executives and labor union members; English-speaking and Spanish-speaking youth.
Latina Girls with Posters
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)
And yet, despite this extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Muslim Woman Holding Poster (LS Photo) cropped
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
Or perhaps I should say, because of that extraordinarily diverse concatenation of humanity, we forged communitas.
Poster-We Are All Immigrants (LS Photo)
(photo by Linda Seligmann)
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I don’t mean to paint an overly Pollyana-ish portrait of an admittedly extraordinary day.  The challenges to maintaining momentum and organizing such a diverse constituency into a viable political movement are far from trivial.
But in the right circumstances, communitas can also cast a long shadow that can even produce some staying power.  Maybe, just maybe, it may prove powerful enough to help the organizers of these diverse groups–both those with impressive experience, and those just cutting their eye teeth on their first demonstration–mobilize the global energy, incorporating both love and anger, that asserted itself yesterday on all seven continents.

And Our Winners Are . . .

Many thanks to the 1,152 people who entered our publisher’s Amazon Giveaway to receive free copies of A World of Babies, and to Cambridge University Press for sponsoring the Giveaway!

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Enter to Win a Free Copy of “A World of Babies”–Deadline, Jan. 12, 2017!

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To celebrate the official publication of the book, which is January 2017, our publisher is sponsoring an Amazon Giveaway.

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Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read

Kristen Ghodsee’s new book, From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies that Everyone Can Read, was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (in 2016).

ghodsee-from-notes-to-narrative-book-cover

The discipline of anthropology desperately needs good writers.  Our writings are often so dense, jargon-packed, and off-putting that I sometimes fear we deserve our reputation for being abstruse and irrelevant.

That’s a shame!

We promote a comparative perspective on the human condition that no other discipline offers.

We’ve created research methods specializing in deep and long-term immersion in communities and languages that no other discipline offers.

And the cumulative data base we’ve constructed is based on extraordinary amounts of research we’ve conducted around the globe, in communities ranging from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations to elites at the center of power.

We have so much to teach people–from political leaders and policy makers to ordinary citizens curious to understand the lives of their neighbors.

But who will listen, if readers can’t get past our first, boring paragraphs?

no-jargon-allowed

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has some great advice for students and scholars who would like their writing to have an impact beyond their professors, students, and colleagues.

And Kristen Ghodsee’s in a great position to teach us how to write.  Her book, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), won four book prizes.  Another book she co-authored (with Rachel Connelly), Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), has attracted wide attention from reviewers.  And a short story she wrote (“Tito Trivia”) won the 2011 Ethnographic Fiction Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

The author of seven books, Ghodsee has focused her research in Bulgaria, where she’s studied the lives of ordinary men and women, and the effects of political transition on Bulgaria’s Muslim minorities.  Her most recent works have been heavily influenced by humanistic anthropology; Ghodsee has experimented with ethnographic fiction, autoethnography, and photo-ethnography, produce intimate narratives and images of the disorienting impacts of the collapse of Communism on daily life.  She is currently serving as the president of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

kristen-ghodsee

Her latest, short book I’m featuring here, From Notes to Narrative, has fourteen chapters of only about ten pages each. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet it packs a rich punch.

One of our discipline’s best writers, Ruth Behar, has this to say about Kristen Ghodsee’s new book about writing ethnography:

“Thank you, Kristen Ghodsee, for offering an absolutely essential guide to ethnographic writing. I fervently hope From Notes to Narrative will be read by every aspiring ethnographic writer, and, most of all, that its lessons will be put into practice. I can’t wait to read the books that will come from this book!”

And Paul Stoller urges: “[T]his work should be required reading for all social scientists.”

You can find a Table of Contents here.

I recently talked with Kristen Ghodsee about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:

 

Interview with Kristen Ghodsee

 

Alma Gottlieb (AG): What gave you the idea to write the book?

Kristen Ghodsee (KG): The idea first emerged from my undergraduate students. They reacted strongly to certain ethnographic books I assigned in my senior research seminars. My students are smart, motivated, and eager to learn, but they were impatient and critical of books written in what seemed to be deliberately obtuse language. As I removed the offending books from my syllabus, I started to wonder about the conditions under which ethnographies are produced. Ethnographers spend extended periods of time living in communities, but then turn around and write books and articles that members of the community cannot read. That didn’t seem right to me.

 

AG: Have you always loved writing?

KG: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent the entire summer between sixth and seventh grade writing my first novel. I wrote poetry and fiction throughout high school, and I majored in creative writing when I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. I agree with Ruth Behar that many ethnographers are frustrated novelists, but I don’t agree that ethnography is somehow a “second fiddle.” It is a different type of writing than fiction, but good ethnography can be as well crafted, even if its purpose is education rather than entertainment.

 

AG: When you’re not reading anthropology, what do you like to read?

KG: I actually like reading books about writing and creativity, things like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Right now, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style and David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish. Occasionally, I also read memoirs and autobiographies. I just finished Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom, and I can’t wait to dive into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

 

AG: In your new book, one of your chapters is titled “Minimize Scientism.” Since you’re writing for social scientists, can you explain what you mean by that?

KG: Many of the social sciences, but especially political science, economics, and psychology, have been seduced by the language and style of the natural sciences, creating neologisms or producing technical vocabularies. Sometimes these vocabularies are necessary, but often authors use complex words for simple ideas because they think those words make their work sound more “scientific,” and by extension more important. I think ethnographers should try to write their books for broader audiences, saving disciplinary-specific jargon for their conference presentations and journal articles.

 

AG: Another chapter is titled “Embrace Dialogue.” Some social scientists are nervous about writing dialogue –- partly because they’re unsure of the mechanics, but also because they’d be afraid of inaccurately filling in gaps in conversations they didn’t record. What are your thoughts about the space between fiction and non-fiction?

KG: Regarding the use of dialogue: Every ethnographer has to make a personal decision based on her own individual circumstances. There is always the risk of filling in the gaps of conversations they didn’t record, and this is especially true if you are working in a foreign language and translating other people’s words into English. But I think it is possible to be true to the content of a conversation while representing it in dialogue form. The problem is that ethnographers don’t learn the mechanics of dialogue and tend to rely on lengthy block quotations that are less interesting for the reader.

Producing accurate dialogue is hard work, and I understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to do so in scholarly texts. Some books are written for a handful of scholarly peers, and it may not be worth the extra effort. I recently saw the production budget for a book from a major university press, and it assumes that academic monographs won’t sell more than 750 copies in their lifetime. With such a small audience, why invest time in making a book readable? But maybe the reason only 750 people read any given academic book is because they are so damn difficult to read.

 

AG: The penultimate chapter is called “Find Your Process.” That might sound rather funky and even a bit mystical to some scholars. What would you say to social scientists who might be surprised by this chapter?

KG: It sounds mystical, but it is really about finding time to write, and optimizing the conditions under which you write. All of the academics I interviewed had specific writing rituals that helped them work, and this chapter is really about exploring the tips and tricks that people have to make them more productive.

 

AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?

KG: Is it easier to write a book about writing ethnography than it is to write an actual ethnography?

KG: Not easier, but more fun. Writing this book actually made me a better writer, because I have started taking my own advice!

Thinking about Our Shared Common Ancestry–Pausing to Reflect Back on My Career as an Africanist

Honored to have an interview I recently did with Dallas Tatman (an MA student in African Studies at the U of Illinois) unexpectedly show up, to my surprise, on the NPR’s StoryCorps website.

Anthropology and the MidEast Crisis

There’s surely something to offend every political sensibility in a provocative essay, “Let the Palestinians Have Their State,” just published by Liel Leibovitz in The Tablet.  But for that reason, it’s worth reading.  Equal-opportunity-offender essays are bold enough to propose solutions that–dare I say?–might just be viable, if all those who are offended actually considered their proposals.

Anthropology teaches us that we remain comfortable in our preconceived assumptions and prejudices at our peril.  Why not imply the insight to the mess that is the MidEast?
Examine Your Assumptions

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

Donald Trump vs. Blood Magic

Donald Trump has revived old stereotypes in claiming that Fox News commentator/Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly was ruled by her hormones (“bleeding from her wherever”) when she critiqued his multiple sexist statements and stances.  Explaining away women’s anger by reference to the menstrual cycle is an old habit of those who wish to exclude women from decision-making positions.  Let’s see if I become a new target of Donald Trump after being quoted in this NPR blog post by Susan Brink . . .

PMS 5 Beware of PMS

Meanwhile, I’m honored that an essay I wrote about Beng menstrual beliefs and practices was just quoted in an article by Candida Moss, “Weak Men Like Trump Have Always Feared Menstruation,” in The Daily Beast.

(How) Do Anthropologists Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

As an anthropologist, the first thought that comes to mind as we approach an upcoming holiday is typically, How do they celebrate this holiday in X?X being a faraway land where the celebration is likely to look quite different from how it looks in my hometown. The next thought that typically follows: Is this holiday even celebrated universally? And, if not, why not?

Cultural relativity may have taken a bashing at the hands of assorted theoreticians, but it remains a pernicious habit of mind for cultural anthropologists who’ve spent months or years living in places far from home. Once you’ve become used to eating new foods in a new way (say, using the first three fingers to delicately cup a small chunk of cooked yams pounded into a beautifully rounded, elasticky ball, then dip it into a delectable peanut sauce cooked by your West African hostess),

Foutou & Peanut Sauce

or walking down the street a different way (say, bowing your head gently to every stranger you pass on the sidewalk of Addis Ababa, to acknowledge your shared humanity), it’s hard to forget that no matter what folks around you are doing and saying, they might be doing and saying those things differently, if only they had been born elsewhere.

Take the small matter of love. This Valentine’s Day, while relishing the sentimental clichés we may, against all odds, enjoy reading in the greeting cards that come our way, and scanning delectable rows of fancy chocolates in the local gourmet food shop (some of which I have already enjoyed as gifts from my thoughtful husband), I can’t help but think about how love has looked (and felt) in other times and places.

valentines-day-gift-ideas-choclate-hearts

As a freshman in college, I felt shocked to discover that the medieval French love poems assigned by my French Literature professor all addressed adulterous lovers urged to leave the castle before dawn–and before the castle’s mistress, or master, awoke. In medieval Europe, romantic love was alive and well, but rarely within the scope of marriage.

Terry, Lays of Courtly Love

Among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, romantic love is an ideal state for a married couple to attain–but, in this society organized partly around marriages arranged by elders, romantic love is more often seen not as the catalyst for marriage, but as the result of several years of marriage and becoming closer through sharing the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

In any case, by no means does allying romantic love with marriage create happiness. The U.S. divorce rate of ~50% testifies spectacularly to the frequent failure of that effort.

As a new ideal, romantic love in some places may contribute to women demanding rights they previously lacked, as the anthropologist Janneke Verheijen says happens with Guatemalan women when they watch telenovelas. But a new ideology of romantic love may also ally with old problems. In Belize, anthropologist Joan van Wijn describes how local Afro-Caribbean men who romance white tourist women perpetuate all the racism of the British colonial color hierarchy.

In this century, romantic love continues to encounter an almost unthinkable and sometimes brutal array of challenges. In southwest China, anthropologist Shanshan Du has documented how, since the 1950s, unrequited Lahu lovers forbidden by their community to divorce the spouses they did not love all too often made a joint suicide pact while singing tragic love songs at a public gathering . . . producing the world’s highest suicide rate by far.

Elsewhere, ruthless anti-love laws continue to be enforced. In Uganda, gay couples still risk spending their lives in prison if government agents discover their sexual orientation, and marriage remains an elusive hope for many of the world’s gay couples.

Ugandan Anti-Gay Law Protester-Rainbow Mask
In the U.S., interracial couples were forbidden to marry in 16 states until 1967. Thankfully those odious laws no longer govern marriage, but while interracial couples now constitute some 7% of all marriages in the U.S., they still risk having their houses polluted with liquid mercury or their car windows shattered.

Even in such trying circumstances, the very possibility of love remains a luxury not all people can even imagine elsewhere. Do the thousands of teenage girls trafficked every year from Nigeria to Italy, to be forced into sex work, ever have a chance even to conceive of romantic love?

Next fall, I will include a section about sexual slavery when I teach my Women’s Bodies, Women’s Lives course.

The “Ow” of Pain

New research claims that saying “Ow” really can ease the pain.

Why am I skeptical?

Or, rather, why am I skeptical that this works globally?

For one thing, in Côte d’Ivoire, when Beng folks I’ve known slash a finger while chopping wood, or feel the effects of parasites churning in their stomachs, they don’t say “Ow,” they say “Aba” (“Father”)–or, if it really hurts–“Aba-eyyyyyyyy!” (“Daaaaaaaad!”)

But beyond whatever specific words or sounds we might say when we’re in pain, more striking are the cases of people who stringently avoid uttering any sounds, even moaning, when they’re in pain.

That would include many laboring West African women, whose elders teach them that they will bring tremendous shame on themselves and their families if they vocalize pain during childbirth.

Traditionally, Asante women in Ghana were told that going into labor is the feminine version of going to war. Under such training, withstanding pain is not just a matter of personal pride; it’s a cultural necessity. There’s even something about gender parity going on here. In anthropology, the Asante have a reputation for having one of the most gender-egalitarian societies around. Asante queens were fierce political rulers, and kings’ mothers were accorded the highly respected title of Queen Mothers. In 1900, an Asante queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, led a major military rebellion against the British colonial powers. Down the social hierarchy, ordinary market women continue to be respected by all. Showing vocal restraint in the face of pain during childbirth seems to be part of an overall package of demonstrating power over many arenas, including one’s bodily experience.

And let’s not even talk about the common expectation that girls undergoing genital surgery for ritual reasons in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa must remain silent to demonstrate self control . . . and train themselves to withstand the pain they will undoubtedly experience later, in childbirth.

Gendered expectations about complaining about pain operate in Western societies, too. How many men remember being told, “Buck up/be a man/don’t complain like a girl” from a young age? Later in life, alcohol may offer men a socially acceptable means to cope (quietly) with pain.

Beer in Childbirth

I don’t doubt that moaning, screaming, or “Ow-ing” can alleviate pain–in societies that train people to complain about bodily discomfort, as many Western societies train women to do. (I speak from experience here. During the last minutes of my second childbirth, my nurses chided me that I could be heard loudly by their colleagues down the hall.)

But there’s the rub. Our cultural expectations about our most intimate bodily experiences are taught to us from so early on that by the time we’re aware of them, they feel “natural.” And maybe they are–in a culturally shaped way.

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A postscript: A recent NPR piece sensitively explores the hard work of cultural listening required of health professionals who aim to treat people suffering from “depression,” “anxiety,” and other emotional disturbances. What cultural and linguistic forms do such deep-seated experiences take? Three psychiatrists and psychologists profiled in the piece (treating Asian and Asian-American patients) get it.

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