Category Archives: In the News

What’s going on in the Ukraine?


One thing I’m a bit embarrassed by is how paltry our coverage of the events in Ukraine have been over the past few weeks.  I’m sure I’m not alone in watching from afar and being fascinated with what is happening, but I have no special expertise in the region.  Does anyone from our readership?

One thing that’s fascinated me in particular is how quickly the state of policing shifted, and what this potentially means for how we think about such things as “police,” “state,” “violence,” and “democracy.”  You know, all those classic elements of Police Studies that draw on Weber.

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Thank You Congress for Increasing Funds for the Social Sciences

Welcome to the AAA Blog

Please write to your Senators and House Representatives to thank them for enacting a fiscal year (FY) 2014 appropriations bill that provides increased funding to federal science agencies important to social and behavioral science researchers.  In addition to protecting research budgets, the FY 2014 omnibus bill was free of troublesome policy riders that would have been harmful to the social science research enterprise. Through the Consortium of Social Science Association’s (COSSA) portal, you can find out how your representative voted and send a personalized thank you note.  Please take a moment to thank your elected officials for their efforts to come to final agreement on FY 2014 spending and preserve social science.

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Anthropoliteia in Anthropology news

“Fault Lines in an Anthropology of Police, Both Public and Global” in Anthropology News

Another commentary by yours truly at Anthropology News.  AN format forbids in-text citations and footnotes, but if you’ll follow the links you’ll find a dense web of Anthropoliteia contributors’ work!

Using George Zimmerman as an object lesson in the anthropology of policing

I have a new op-ed on the blog Savage Minds regarding the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman fiasco.  here’s a snippet:

Continue reading Using George Zimmerman as an object lesson in the anthropology of policing

AAA Statement on Marriage and the Family

FYI, y’all:

The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.

Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association


Some thoughts on the French protests against gay marriage

Opponents of the same-sex marriage demonstrate against the government’s draft law to legalise marriage and adoption for same-sex couples in Paris, November 18, 2012. The sign at right reads “No to Homosexual marriage”, the one behind it says “The family is sacred.” REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

There’s been quite a bit of media confusion and consternation about the astonishingly large French protests against gay marriage and adoption that occurred the other day.  In the end, I feel just about as confused as anybody, but I would like to point out a couple of things here:

  1. One of my constant refrains in translating French politics to Americans has been that the version of France that we get here, the New York Times and Washington Post version, is only a very limited perspective on what France is today.  It’s only based on this narrow vision that something like these protests (or, in my own work*, the popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy) seem surprising.  there’s a vast, working class, disenfranchised and non-Parisian French population that most Americans have almost no sense of.
  2. But it’s not only left-leaning American academics who seem to have no sense of the sector of societé, it’s the French technocratic elite as well.  Whether or not Hollande is right about this issue (which he unquestionably is), every account of what’s happens suggests that he and his government were completely taken aback by the reaction–this was supposed to be an easy no-brainer that would slide through.  The very fact that they “didn’t see it coming” is both instructive and indicative of a larger pathology in French political culture: even in my own, limited, anthropologist-as-bumbling-neophyte way, and even while hanging out with (mostly) libertine-esque Parisian artists and leftists, I knew there were strange undercurrents of homophobia; blockages from unexpected people towards thinking about homosexuality as a human lifestyle.  Whether or not I agree with Hollande (and, again, I find it impossible not to), or share many of the same basic assumption about the world (which I probably do), these protests point once again to the fact that France’s technocratic elite are pathologically detached and unaccountable from the people in whose name they govern.  I’m not the first to make that argument–Bourdieu and many others beat me to it–but I have tried to emphasize how this disconnect offers a challenge for French political life while also opening the door to the kind of right-wing populism utilized by Nicolas Sarkozy and his supporters.  You can seen it in the less-than-earnest response by Sarkozy protege Jean Francois Cope, but also in the insistance by Hollande and crew that things will move forward as planned no matter what.
  3. This utter failure by social scientists and politicians to understand a large sector of French (and, I think, American) public life is a shame.  It’s a shame because i think there are real lessons to be learned here about something i really don’t understand.  And I really don’t get it; I really don’t get the affect nor the target.  On either side of the Atlantic (although one thing I do get is labeling it an American conspiracy gets us close to nowhere).  For example: one thing that should be thrown into stark relief about the American version of these debates by the French ones is that whatever this is about (and, again, i have no real clue) it is not merely adherence to a religious tradition.  Since the French have spent the last 10+ years stoking fears of “Islamists” importing religion into the public sphere, the gay marriage debate has largely avoided the issue.  but yet the target and the stance is the same.  Doesn’t tghis make us question how much the U.S. debate is “really” about religion and how much religion is merely the idiom through which the debate happens?  i think it does.  Although i don’t know if this gets us any closer to explaining what’s going on, it sure helps in knowing what kinds of explanations to avoid.

*This article is behind a paywall.  If you have access to it, i prefer you use the above link.  if not, you can find it available here

Universal Moral Grammar?

I imagine that most of the people who read blogs such as this one have developed their own ways of consuming digital media. One of the things that I like to do is listen to podcasts while walking to campus each morning. One of the podcasts I usually like very much is called Philosophy Bites, but the episode that came up in my playlist today left me somewhere between chaffed and flabbergasted.

It featured a scholar named John Mikhail who, modeling his approach after Chomsky’s work on universal grammar (because, you know, it was so successful) suggests that there’s a sort of pre-political, innate moral grammar that all humans share.

Now, the “chaffed” part comes from all the work that he does not discuss in making this claim: Foucault’s work on the emergence of “the human” out of a very particular political formulation, Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on the history of moral philosophy, Lynn Hunt’s (among many many others) work on the history of human rights, in fact most anthropologistswork on human rights discourse that I’m aware of–most of which illustrates not only the degree to which such notions depend on particular conceptions of what it means to be human, but also the ways in which these notions of human-ness are themselves tied to particular discursive and economic structures that are quite clearly “political” and less than “universal”.

Fine.  Scholars rely on different bodies of knowledge.  That’s part of what make contemporary universities so interesting. But the flabbergasted part comes from what he does discuss as evidence: namely, the fact that “everybody seems to agree more or less agree on human rights” (again, what can this truth claim even mean in the era of Guantanamo Bay?!  What mode of life and thought makes it even utterable?) as well as “growing anthropological evidence”. What is he talking about here? I literally have no clue. I would be surprised if someone could point out to be any member of the American Anthropological Association whose work would support the existence of a universal human grammar. I will offer a free dinner to anyone who can show me even one domain where the preponderance of anthropological evidence would support the idea.  In fact the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights issued an official proclamation in 1999 which reads:

Human rights is not a static concept. Our understanding of human rights is constantly evolving as we come to know more about the human condition.

So there’s that, for what it’s worth. I actually think that’s it’s probably a more fruitful question to ask just what in the heck he means by “anthropological” because, whatever he does mean by it doesn’t seem to include, you know, the work of anthropologists.

Again, I just found out about this guy, so I haven’t yet been able to see what he cites for such a claim (or if, for that matter). I suppose if I were a real scholar that’s what I’d do next…

A List of Scholarly Citations Linked To in this Post (really, this is only the tip of the iceberg)

Thomas J. Csordas (2009). Growing up Charismatic: Morality and Spirituality among Children in a Religious Community Ethos, 37 (4), 414-440 D

Michael Dunn,, Simon J. Greenhill,, Stephen C. Levinson, & Russell D. Gray (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals Nature, 473, 79-82 DOI: 10.1038/nature09923

Didier Fassin (2008). Beyond good and evil? Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 333-344 DOI: 10.1177/1463499608096642

MARK GOODALE (2006). Ethical Theory as Social Practice American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 25-37 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.25

Sally Engle Merry (2003). Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way) PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26 (1), 55-76 DOI: 10.1525/pol.2003.26.1.55

Michael Lambek (2008). Value and virtue Anthropological Theory, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1177/1463499608090788

Saba Mahmood (2001). Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival Cultural Anthropology, 16 (2), 202-236 DOI: 10.1525/can.2001.16.2.202

ANNELISE RILES (2006). Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage American Anthropologist, 108 (1), 52-65 DOI: 10.1525/aa.2006.108.1.52

DAROMIR RUDNYCKYJ (2009). SPIRITUAL ECONOMIES: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia Cultural Anthropology, 24 (1), 104-141 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2009.00028.x

The Progressive Roots of American Anthropology (versus the Tea Party last time)

Two seemingly unrelated evens have occurred in my life the last two days which have caused me to think. I spent the day yesterday helping out with the campaigns of some of the local candidates here in Southeastern Michigan. Obviously the overall effect was not as successful as I would have liked. I can’t say, really, how much the election results had to do with the “Tea Party” phenomenon–compared with some of my experiences last year in Central Massachusetts I have to say I ran into relatively few of those types. What I have run into, though, is the idea that, especially in America, things do not get better; and, usually voiced as a more general principle, that any attempt to make things better on the general level (versus on the level of individuals or nuclear families) is impossible.  The immediate effect of these ideas on political will, for example, is that projects like building bridges, formulating a system of universal health care, or, you know, creating and protecting agencies that might help regulate food, education, safety or financial standards for the collective good–all of these are seen as at best misguided fantasies spouting phony accomplishments, at worst infringements of individual liberties.

The other thing that happened was that I sat down, perhaps for the first time, to really read (as opppossed to do the grad seminar preparation for) Lewis Henry Morgan‘s Ancient Society. I had no real reason why, besides it was the first book on my iBook shelf (so thank my iPad and The Gutenberg Project, or was it Google Books?). Now, I’ve taught LHM several times in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses, usually using him as a foil that sets up Boasian Anthropology and, later Malinowskian fieldwork.  But what I don’t think I ever fully appreciatted was both the context in which Morgan’s work was written, and specifically what it was written against.

The first part, the context, is made explicit in the very first words:

The great antiquity of mankind upon the earth has been conclusively established. It seems singular that the proofs should have been discovered as recently as within the last thirty years, and that the present generation should be the first called upon to recognize so important a fact.

Wrap your head around that.  What must have it been like to understand oneself as among the first generation to realize the enormous antiquity of homo sapiens?  There are at least two directions one can move out of that fundamental fact: either you could view that long history as one of gradual decline–a Biblical Fall–or you can take the tack that Morgan believed was supported by the evidence.  In fact, Morgan frames his preface with two epigrams, the first from Whitney’s Oriental and Linguistic Studies:

“Modern science claims to be proving, by the most careful and exhaustive study of man and his works, that our race began its existence on earth at the bottom of the scale, Instead of at the top, and has been gradually working upward; that human powers have had a history of development; that all the elements of culture—as the arts of life, art, science, language, religion, philosophy—have been wrought out by slow and painful efforts, in the conflict between the soul and the mind of man on the one hand, and external nature on the other.”

The second from Kaines’ Antkropciogia:

“These communities reflect the spiritual conduct of our ancestors thousands of times removed… Our wondrous civilization Is the result of the silent efforts of millions of unknown men, as the chalk cliffs of England are formed of the contributions of myriads of foraminifera.”

The point here, and of Morgan’s anthropology, is a certain optimistic vision of humanity, of what makes us human: that bit by bit, generation after generation, together, humans can, and do, inevitably (if only eventually and through purposive  human action), make the world better for themselves.  He is, in other words, a Progressive.

Now, there are of course many things wrong with Morgan’s approach (which any graduate student in anthropology, or attentive undergraduate, will be able to tell you): the surety and singularity of his vision of what is “good” turns out to be both ethnocentric myopia and racist exclusion; his faith in the inevitability of unilateral progress over the long term seems questionable at best (although I’m beginning to wonder how much of that was rhetorical fireworks, marking out his position vis-a-vis the opposite).  But what I appreciate is his fervent insistence on its possibility.

And that’s why when I said earlier that I never fully “appreciated” what Morgan was writing against, I chose that word carefully.  “Known” would too strong a word here–I would have been able to recite most of those theoretical and political nuances before– but now I appreciate it.  And that suggests to me also, a potential place to quarry for answers to  to our current Progressive perplexities: what now?

Some further readings:

Hersey, M. (1993). Lewis Henry Morgan and the anthropological critique of civilization Dialectical Anthropology, 18 (1), 53-70 DOI: 10.1007/BF01301671

White, L. (1960). : Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar . Carl Resek. American Anthropologist, 62 (6), 1073-1074 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1960.62.6.02a00220

Michael A. Elliott, . (2008). Other Times: Herman Melville, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Ethnographic Writing in the Antebellum United States Criticism, 49 (4), 481-503 DOI: 10.1353/crt.0.0041

Service, E. (1988). : Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship . Thomas R. Trautmann. American Anthropologist, 90 (2), 443-444 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.2.02a00410

Image of the day

A fan poses as police officers control the entrance of Green Point Stadium in Cape Town

Police officer screens a fan at the entrance of the Green Point stadium in Cape Town

A fan poses as police officers control the entrance of Green Point Stadium in Cape Town June 11, 2010, ahead of the 2010 World Cup soccer match between Uruguay and France. REUTERS/Oleg Popov (SOUTH AFRICA – Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP)

French municipal police demonstrate during a protest march in Marseille

A fan poses as police officers control the entrance of Green Point Stadium in Cape Town

via A fan poses as police officers control the entrance of Green Point Stadium in Cape Town (Picture-9087530).

UC system libraries vs. Nature Publishing Group

Savage Minds has a nice blow-by-blow of the standoff between the University of California Library System and the Nature Publishing Group, which merits an extended clip:

UC system libraries vs. Nature Publishing Group: The big news in academia this week was the University of California making a stand against journal price increases demanded by NPG, which publishes the uber-prestigious journal Nature as well as many noted scientific and medical journals. UC, like all of California, is under tremendous pressure to make budget cuts and claims that NPG is jacking up the price of its journals by 400%. Baring a return to the lower price, the entire UC system is threatening to drop the journal from their libraries and ask all faculty to boycott NPG by abstaining from submitting publications, resigning from editorial positions on NPG journals, and refusing to conduct peer review for NPG.

* UC throws down the gauntlet: Faculty do all the work for you for free and then you sell it back to us at ridiculous prices.

* Nature’s retort: You can’t mess with us, your faculty needs our prestige.

* Cal responds to Nature: No, our faculty totally got our backs on this one.

* “The bigger, if duller, story here is not that a university library has stood up to the big arrogant publishing house, but that the world’s leading public research university is imploding via budget cuts.”

* finds that Nature has few friends among academic librarians and faculty.

* Even on Nature’s own blog readers are leaving unflattering comments directed at the publisher.

* Coverage from Science is also followed by posts wholly in sympathy with the UC libraries.

* Jason Baird Jackson shares links to insightful blogs and commentary here and here.

via Savage Minds | Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog.