Posts filed under ‘Anthropology’

Anthropology Projects Ripped from the Headlines

The New York Times recently published two articles on gender and sexuality, both of which cry out for further ethnographic elaboration.

In the first article, Choe Sang-Hun reports on how the growth in economic opportunities for women along with government-sponsored public awareness campaigns have helped stem the centuries-old South Korean preference for male children. It would be interesting to see what anthropologists could reveal about the changes in attitudes and family life that contributed to and resulted from these changes.

The changes in South Korea also beg the question of what will happen in China and India where similar preferences for boy babies are resulting in increasing gender imbalances. So far it seems that a lot of the attention paid to this issue has focused on the potential for increased violence when the surplus young men come of age. There will no doubt be a raft of other less sensational social and cultural changes as well. (via Broadsheet)

Then this week Nicholas Kulish reported from Berlin on gay and lesbian Muslims. Part of the anti-Muslim backlash in Europe has been based on the accusation that these immigrants don’t share the tolerant values of their new homelands — a thinly veiled (and, albeit, sometimes justified) accusation of religiously based sexism and homophobia, which renders gay and lesbian Muslims invisible. Fatma Souad, a transgender performer originally from Turkey sums up the perils of a doubly stigmatized identity: “Depending on which part of Berlin I go to, in one I get punched in the mouth because I’m a foreigner and in the other because I’m a queen.”

Of course, anthropologists interested in the intersections of sexuality and ethnicity/religion don’t need to go to Berlin to do fieldwork. Back when I lived in New York, Irish gays and lesbians fought a long and bitter battle with the main Irish fraternal organization over inclusion in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade — a dispute that centered on the role Catholicism should play in defining Irishness.

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3 January 2008 at 22:21 Leave a comment

Anthropology Projects Ripped From the Headlines

I don’t think a week goes by without my finding a great idea for a social/cultural anthropology project in some newspaper or magazine article. (Of course, someone may already be working on these projects, but that’s okay. It seems like there’s no shortage of possible topics.)

After reading a Salon.com review of Scott Weidensaul’s Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, I realized that someone should do for birders what Gary Alan Fine does for mushroomers in his book Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming. That is, an anthropologist should do a sustained ethnographic study of a group of birders, looking at the meanings nature takes on in this specific cultural context, analyzing the stories birders tell and teasing out the complicated (and sometimes overlapping) relationships between amateurs and professionals.

19 November 2007 at 22:03 Leave a comment

Finding My Tribe

Tonight I went to the weekly dinner sponsored by the post-doc fellowship program where I work. These are swanky affairs with sherry and mingling followed by a four-course meal in the program’s private wood-paneled dining room. As a part-time administrator I don’t usually go to these; but one of the fellows, M, an anthropologist had invited some colleagues, one of whom is a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, so I decided I’d attend this week.

When I got there, I introduced myself as one of the program administrators, and M added “And she’s an anthropologist.” I almost contradicted her, but then decided, anthropology is as much a way of being and thinking as it is an occupation, so why can’t I be an anthropologist — even if I’m not yet officially accepted into the program where I’ve been taking courses.

As the evening progressed and I chatted with them, it dawned on me that I really don’t need to be so intimidated. Not only did I understand what they were talking about, I even had things to contribute. The more I hang out with other anthropologists, the more I realize how much I enjoy the field. It all seems new and fascinating and exciting, and even more that that, it feels like I belong.

It’s almost the same feeling I had when I first found out that there were other people (here in the U.S. even) who were as obsessed with Swedish folk music as I was. When I described that feeling for an acquaintance of mine, he smiled and said “You’ve found your tribe!”

12 November 2007 at 23:19 Leave a comment

You Might Be an Ethnomusicologist…

…if you notice a guy on the subway platform rocking back and forth from foot to foot and tooting into a recorder and you actually stop to wonder what unknown (to you anyway) folk tradition his music comes from.

Eventually you realize that it comes from an unknown crazy tradition.

3 October 2007 at 17:20 Leave a comment

Waiter, Is That a Snowclone in My Sushi?

This morning I clicked on a link to a New York Times article on the effect depletion of tuna fisheries is having on sushi chefs in Japan and elsewhere. Just three paragraphs in I found the following sentence:

From maguro to otoro, the Japanese seem to have almost as many words for tuna and its edible parts as the French have names for cheese.

For those of you unfamiliar with them, snowclones are formulaic clichés of the type “X is the new Y” or “have X, will travel”. Snowclones got their name from the ever-popular discussion of Eskimos and their N words for snow. You can read more (much more) about snowclones and their seemingly infinite permutations on the Language Log blog. The crew of savvy linguists there have popularized the term.

The above example is interesting not only because it doesn’t follow one of the typical formulae like “If Eskimos have N words for snow, then X must have just as many for Y,” but also because the Eskimos and snow have somehow been replaced by the French and cheese.

Apart from the usual facile equation of number of words and cultural importance, the tuna and cheese analogy has another problem. The French, to the best of my knowledge (and I spent a year and a half as a culinary student in Paris), don’t have many words for cheese. They have many kinds of cheese, each with a different name. Drawing a cultural conclusion from this seems a little bit like saying “Boy, Americans must really love their families, each of their relatives has a different name.”

Anyhow, snowclone aside, it was heartening to see this article reach the top of the Times‘s list of most-emailed stories for today. Just last week, in a Salon.com interview, Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We eat, lamented the lack of media coverage of the depletion of the world’s fisheries.

My inner anthropologist is also interested in the discussion of what happens when reality (environmental reality in this case) forces chefs and consumers to reconsider the nature of sushi, which is arguably not just a food, but a national symbol for Japan.

In addition to Clover’s The End of the Line, I have three other books about sushi and or seafood in Japan on my pile of books to read:

  • Theodore Bestor’s Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World
  • Trevor Corson’s The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket
  • Sasha Issenberg’s The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

I’ll try to post more after I’ve read these.

25 June 2007 at 12:37 1 comment

Religion in a Time of Crisis

As soon I read the first sentence of this New York Times article on the resurgence of religion in China, I thought of one of the postdocs at work who researches the resurgence of shamanism in Mongolia since the collapse of socialism. Reviving the old religious practices gave the people she studied a way of coping with and explaining economic crisis.

Sure enough, as I read further, I came upon a similar hypothesis about the Chinese revival:

Chinese experts say the growing popularity of religious belief has been driven by social crises involving corruption and the expanding gap between rich and poor.

Naturally, I’m now wondering how much of the US’s current bout of piety has to do with our own wealth gap and sense of economic uncertainty.

4 March 2007 at 23:26 Leave a comment


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