“Introduction: Partial Truths” In Writing Culture- James Clifford

In this introduction, James Clifford puts forth the notion that "ethnographic truths are inherently partial" (7). He's suggesting that a researcher is not able to capture culture as a whole for a number of different reasons. People, society, and culture are dynamic and ever changing. An ethnographer is already limited by the fact that they are researching within a specific time and place. What may be observed during the time of the study, may not have the same relevance in a span of a few years. Ones work is the result of the moment during the time that it is being created.

Additionally, how research is conducted, the ethnographers own subjectivity will affect what information is collected and how it is interpreted. Clifford mentions that the "ethnographer's personal experiences, especially those of participation and empathy, are recognized as central to the research process, but they are firmly restrained by the impersonal standards of observation and 'objective' distance" (13).  He says these experiences influence how a researcher goes about their work, choosing a theoretical framework, language barriers, deciding what questions to ask, what is being focused on, and what the interests of the ethnographer is. Clifford mentions that "indigenous ethnographer" may have a type of privilege in that they have access to areas and information within culture that an outsider may not be privy to. One thing to keep in mind, though, is as a member of the community, there may be practices that are overlooked as interesting studies because it may seem, to the indigenous ethnographer, as ordinary as drinking water.

Clifford is not saying that these limitations should discourage fieldwork as it cannot truly be complete, but it should encourage professional reflexivity within the work being produced, and continued analysis over time.

New Year Thoughts To Begin Again...

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This is my first post of the New Year, 2014! Clearly, I haven't been working on this blog as much as I would have liked to. It doesn't mean that I haven't been writing, though. In fact, that's ALL I've been doing! (Can I get witness from the grad student section on stage right?!) All of the writing that I did during my semester has made me a better writer- at least in the academic world. I regret nothing! Except not writing pieces for this blog.

I could have posted some of my essays and reviews that I completed for my classes, but remember that goal I had about "making the social sciences more social"? Well, if I'm to be true to that, I would need to rewrite those works for a more general audience. Not to say that I would seek to dumb it down, but it is important that I keep things thoughtful, informative, conversational and accessible. So, I just decided that, for now, I would start with this fresh post.

Throughout the year, I came up with lots of nifty topics that I could use the blog to discuss or work through, but I didn't really have a plan for this post. Have you ever heard the saying that 'whatever you do on New Year's Eve/ Day is what you will be doing for the rest of the year'? Well, I believe in this statement. Not because I am a strange anthropologist that is guided by superstition ('cuz that would be weird), but because those sayings and idioms do capture a social truth and expectation of sorts. We often associate the new year as a time of renewal, a clean slate, to do everything and anything better than we did before. Technically, there are loads of opportunities throughout the year that we could easily attribute those same thoughts, but NEW YEAR'S is the big one! It's almost like the rest of those other opportunities serve more as checkpoints or reset buttons on whatever it is we would like to accomplish.

For me, after a long, hard, stressful semester, the New Year feels fresh. Throughout the year, work and school, really cause me to withdraw and neglect other aspects of my life like health, friends, travel, personal development, laundry. This year, I didn't even finish my last assignment until mid day on December 23rd. I was exhausted, depressed about not being with my mom and dog, and I was living in a disaster! Coffee cups cluttered my computer desk, stacks of papers, articles, notebooks laid at my feet, a pile of mail collected in my mailbox, and yet, I still struggled to mail out holiday cards, and shop online to send home gifts. I'm still slightly embarrassed that my sister had to go pick up her gift from Best Buy, but grateful that they had that whole 'site to store' service.

In the last three days of my academic madness, I actually went on a juice fast. This juice fast was provided by Jus by Julie and probably one of the smartest things I've ever done. I'm thinking that it may become a tradition! I worried that I would be hungry and sluggish, but I wasn't. The pre-made juices made it easy to have "meals". I just added water, green tea, and once a day I had coffee. As I worked on limited sleep, I was clear headed, not weighed down by greasy take out student staples of pizza and Chinese take out. I actually felt great. So, when I turned in my last assignment, I danced, napped and felt energetic. Following my end of the year juice cleanse, I decided to extend this cleanse and finally organize my closets, file my papers and research, get my workspace back, take back the life that academia had stolen from me!

It took some work and dedication to get it done, but this was my way of embracing the new year. I spent this day acting purposefully. By 3pm today, I had cooked meals instead of eating out, planned and put a deposit down on a trip to Europe, researched field school locations, ran a solid 5k, connected with friends, and now posting on my blog. 

While this post may not be readily understood as anthropological, it very much is. Anthropology, culture and meaning happens in the tasks that we take on every day, the traditions we uphold, the ways in which our bodies respond to a variety of stimuli. Many of the things that we do every day have become so habitual that we confuse the culture for nature. What I am hoping is that I can learn to maintain this level of balance regularly. Naturally, I expect outside influences and life's curveballs to come at me, but my response to it will be in my commitment to myself- to be more purposeful. Today, I, like many others all over the world, set a precedent of which they hope to maintain and exceed throughout the year. The promise of a New Year is probably one of the biggest shared experiences in the world!

I look forward to sharing it with you! Happy New Year! 

Mummies That Rock Out with their 'What' Out?!

The Presence of Genitalia on Ancient Egyptian Mummies  In the summer of 2011, I was hired at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute for a traveling exhibit called "Mummies of the World". The traveling exhibition contained some of the most fascinating human and animal mummy specimens on the planet! The mummies were part of a larger research project known as 'The German Mummy Project'.

The brilliance of this exhibit was that it brought together technology, culture, environment, medicine and fun to provide a holistic view of mummies and mummy research. I was a 'Mummy Expert'. We received training and talking points from the curators, but we were there to provide plain English explanations, curious anecdotes and our own expertise to the the overall exhibit.

Week after week, I roved the exhibit giving visitors all my awesome mummy knowledge, and it never failed- the giggles, shrieks, blushing, and any other myriad of emotional responses that would occur as visitors would make it to the half way point within the exhibit and spot a proud, beautifully preserved Egyptian mummy, literally, sporting wood. That's right, this mummy had a wooden penis.

I would hear visitors begin to speculate whether or not it was real, be offended, feign modesty, show curiosity. The responses were fascinating! As a mummy expert, I needed to get some knowledge regarding the significance of the mummy's prosthetic piece. So, I hit the iBooks.

Backstory: Although the mummy had been well preserved, his bandages had been removed, and all other material indicators of who he was was missing. The presence of a penis was a very important clue to decoding the mystery of who the mummy had been during his lifetime. It meant whoever he was, he was muy importante.

The cultural practice of mummification was highly important to the belief structure of the early Egyptians. Divine right, lineage, social hierarchy permeated every aspect of their lifestyles. They began planning for their death as early as they could. Mummification is a lengthy practice and the creation of the burial riches and objects that were believed to be an essential component to afterlife comfort, were equally as crucial.

The High Status mummy was radiating importance, and telling a wonderful story even without his bandages and objects of the luxury.

  • - The quality with which the mummy had been preserved indicated that he could afford burial treatments characteristic of individuals with high social status. (Side note: He had amazing teeth and you could see a beautifully preserve tongue! It was crazy!)
  • - His arms were laid across his chest, as opposed to down at his sides. This also would have been typical of a high ranking official.
  • -The big tip off? A penis!!! The actual penis shrivels as it is not real bone. However, the wooden penis would symbolize virility, and the expectation that he would produce offspring to continue his legacy and prestige in the afterlife.

So, the Case of the Mummy Appendage has been solved! But the visitor responses were actually what interested me most. Why is that the presence of a sexual organ turns even otherwise reasonable adults into giggling buffoons? That is another article completely!

"OMG, Cartman, They Killed A Whale!

Understanding Traditional Whale Hunting in the Faroe Islands (and why PETA can't just come through petitions blazing)  

It is amazing what you begin to see once someone makes you aware of its existence. In my historical ecology class, we were discussing the settling of Iceland, and during our module, a PhD student came in to discuss his work in the Faroe Islands. I had not heard of the Faroe Islands prior to his presentation, and so the annual whale hunt was definitely not on my radar.

No sooner than the discussion regarding culture, practice, and context of this whaling tradition ended,  did I start to see PeTA posts about stopping this ‘slaughter’! For various reasons, I am not a PeTA fan, but I appreciate some of the work they do, and understand why they do it. (https://secure.peta.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=911)

But I as I began to read some of this ‘anti’ whaling’ information, and I started to laugh. It was so emotional and offered no explanation of why it was done and why it could stop. It was all, ‘look at the sad faces and blood’. I’m often annoyed by these type of snapshot explanations that take a singular aspect of a much more complex issue and reduce it to a Hallmark card, but I won’t get into that.  It doesn’t matter whether or not I agree with this practice (BTDubs, I have no intention of whaling- I don’t have the heart for it). I won’t insert that commentary here. But it got me to thinking about the ways people go about creating change or ‘manufacturing consent’ within a cultural context.

The literature noted, “the Faroe Islands are allowed to preserve separate laws that allow inhabitants to continue the whale slaughter.” I wonder if they stopped to think about why that was, especially considering that the practice had been outlawed in all other parts of Denmark.

So, I did some more informal research and discovered that this practice is one that goes back over 1000 years, and involves the whole community. Does that mean that it can’t or won’t be changed? Absolutely not. However, this brings up the debate about creating change through forced ideas or practices (law enforcement) without respecting the cultural context of a particular act.

Once upon a time, this whaling tradition was a major part of the diet and economy of this area. In fact, it still is. It probably is the reason that the community was able to exist and grow. There is a community reverence to this practice, however barbaric some may see it as.

Another point that PeTA lovers or the whaling opponents may not want to consider, is that if this tradition has been occurring over such a vast amount of time, there has been an ecological relationship that has developed, and what would be the function or dysfunction if that relationship were to just stop?

The meat of whale has now been deemed ‘unsafe to eat’ because of rising mercury and toxin levels (debatable). So, why does the practice still occur, if they can’t utilize the whale as it once was used? Do you really think a few petitions will change a ritualized, cultural practice developed out of necessity? Well, government regulation of cultural practices has worked in the past to help to move societies “forward”, so it’s not unheard of, but think about the other ways that change has been created through cultural consensus?

This is probably a good time to through in some Antonio Gramsci (http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/hegemony.html) Perhaps this change to end “whaling in the Faroe Islands” will only occur when the folks in power no longer need it to occur, or there is no incentive for it to occur.

So, the question becomes, ‘what is the incentive for killing a whole bunch of whales you can’t eat or do anything with?’ Well, what about the tourism industry? That’s right! People come from all over to watch these whales get dead!

Have they really stopped eating the meat? If not, will this change cause an overall reshaping of the Island’s ability to feed its people? It appears that there is still consumption of the meat despite it being deemed unsafe.

And, I must return back to the community preservation of this tradition. It is STRONG. There is art and literature, division of labor (indicating social roles), a complex communication system developed around it. And the meat is not exported, or sold in supermarkets, only furthering the argument of the community reliance on the practice. Less than 3% of Faroese land is suitable for grain and vegetables. So, tell me, what is the solution?

Why 'The Rockstar Anthropologist'

“I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Well, anthropology is all around me, and so the feeling grows…”

 

This compendium of anthropological brilliance was given life from a comment I made during a meeting of the minds regarding the future of anthropological scholarship. Was that first sentence wordy enough for ya’? Well, that’s what it felt like in that ‘meeting of anthropological minds’ that I mentioned. 

I sat around listening to this group of pretentious, verbose, smug graduate students trying to out ‘graduate student’ each other and soon I tuned out. I found myself staring at their skulls and imagining talking lab specimens, identifying bone pathology, practicing my human skeletal anatomy and what not. Then, just as I was identifying one lady’s very interesting dip in her parietal, someone shouted out, ‘I hear ya talkin’, but you’re not saying anything!”

This meeting had just got real. The astute young man had pointed out that our conversation had gone around in circles, week after week. We were discussing the research of others (not even doing that well), and we never discussed our own work or even tried to develop as anthropologist because we spent too much time name dropping, showing off our reading comprehension skills, and making anthropology seem boring, when it is arguably one of the most fascinating disciplines to exist during one of the most exciting and scary times in modern human history!!

He was looking for the Now! moment in anthropology. And that’s when I realized that I was, too. This led to a conversation about the ‘social’ aspects of anthropology and how we felt the disciplined had long been undervalued. Long story short, I mentioned that we understood the social and cultural value of anthropological training,  but we needed to remember to find that value and its importance in our every day lives. I felt that anthropology needed a swanky new marketing and branding campaign to help put the ‘social’ back into ‘social science’. Scientists, in general, are often publicly undervalued. Every day people dole out millions of billions to have people sing songs about booties and ‘drank’, but here we sit obtaining, researching and analyzing information that may literally save the world, and we are searching the couch cushions to buy ramen noodles and praying for 5 people to read our scholarly articles! We are perceived as boring because we use big words to talk about every day ideas. That’s just how it is in the world of academia. But if there was any group of people with the knowledge and means to change that view of academia from ‘boring and dry’ to ‘vital and awesome’, it would be us anthropologists! “We needed to become rockstars!” 

And, thus, The Rockstar Anthropologist was born! This is not an attempt to dumb down the scholarly work that is occurring in the trenches of anthropology. This is about making sure that work is seen, discussed, and understood with the same passion and vigor as a tight verse on a Jay-Z track. This is about seeing the culture and cultural production that is occurring around us every day. This is about understanding the holistic and necessary nature of seeing the whole picture, instead of the self- serving one. Within, the field of anthropology, we spend so much time studying ordinary people and ordinary things with extraordinary outcomes, and then make our work hard to read and out of reach to help us get that grant money, so that we can keep the cycle going. I’m in no way proposing that we quit doing that. I’m just saying, every now and then, let’s come down off our high horses, and throw the folk a bone!

This blog is meant to be an informal, conversational, safe space to discuss all aspects of anthropology. I may even take a post to define and explain a  single term or phrase, ‘cuz I’m zany like that! Share your thoughts, articles, define a term you enjoy, connect, but no matter what, engage!

 

 

*This message has been brought to you by the letter C’ for ‘culture. Like germs, it’s everywhere!