What Anthropologists Do

The strength of anthropology is that we are always learning, gathering data isn’t something we do in a lab or even something we can easily shut off. We learn through immersion, living in the same cultural context as the people we are studying. We call it participant-observation occasionally even deep hanging out in an attempt to over emphasize the causal nature of one of our greatest tools. However, the point remains the same; we need to absorb the social context while simultaneously analyzing the layers of that reality and how they might affect the situation being studied. Then when the moment is right, we start asking thoughtful questions. Sometimes formally in a pre-planned interview setting and sometimes informally while sitting on a couch in someone’s living room or at a local fair in the park. One thoughtfully worded question, placed in the right setting and time, can reveal far more insightful information than a thousand questions asked without context. That is the argument of our discipline.

Call for Papers: Digital Anthropologists’ Current Engagements with 21st Century Publics

Check out the Digital Anthropology Call for Papers: Call for Papers: Digital Anthropologists’ Current Engagements with 21st Century Publics.

 

 

Performance Enhancing Drugs – College Edition

Passing with Pills: Redefining Performance in the Pharmaceuticalized University”  is a very thoughtful and thought provoking ethnographic look in the mirror.  Tazin Karim of Michigan State University did an excellent job applying a critical, medical anthropological lens to academia and the pressures of the rite of passage in America referred to as college.  
When discussing the exportation/globalization of mental illness and Western pharmaceuticals, undergrads in both my Intro to Anthropology discussion sections admitted to knowing a ‘friends’ who used Academic Performance enhancing drugs …  I have to admit my own caffeine dependence could fall in the same category.  American culture in general gives preference to substances which promote productivity and the University is no exception.  A few of my students discussed being prescribed Ritalin and Adderall long before they entered a college campus.  One girl described for us how ease it had been for her best friend to get a prescription, which she used primarily to write papers and make it through finals week.  

I think this is a very serious issue which is largely ignored because it gets the desired results and is socially linked to productivity and achievement.  For my part, some might argue that I am part of the problem, as a graduate student and teaching assistant who was aware of these thinly veiled “confessions.”   But I am 25 years old which makes me only a few years older than most of my students and this time four years ago I was the undergrad who had close friends doing the same thing.  However, it also raises an important ethical issue.  This was information I gained from a semester of building rapport with my students and a safe environment for discussion in my classroom.  In that moment, I saw my responsibility in guiding my students to think critically about the social and structural pressures that make the need for academic performance drugs and in interrogating the problematic dichotomy between legal prescription drugs and illegal drugs.  I pushed them to critically think about any substance they put in their body and I urged them to be accountable for researching these medicines, their purpose and their side effects.  In that classroom, I felt that was the extent of my ability to influence the matter.

But as a medical anthropologist, I think this is definitely an issue which merits further investigation and careful attention to potential solutions that address this “inconvenient truth.”  Karim’s narratives demonstrate the hidden reality on our campuses.  I hope to see more work along these lines in the future.

 

Gunman Suicide – A Social Illness

The media storm follow the Newton school shooting has left our nation with heavy hearts and that unanswerable question “but why…?”  The shooting occurred the day left Dallas heading home for Arkansas to spend my Christmas break with my family.  These incidents which have become all too frequent always leave me initially dumbfounded, but as the social scientist in the family people expect me to have a more educated response than a look of horror on my face.  Within hours of the shooting Facebook and Twitter was aflame with arguments for gun control and explanations of mental illness.  I found myself driving home in the dark and trying to explain to my father on the cell phone that it was “more complicated than that”.

Do we blame guns?  Do we blame mental illness? Do we blame the media or video games?  Do we blame American culture itself?

Part of the reason it is “more complicated than that” for me to explain to my father or most of the people I grew up with for that matter, is that Living Anthropologically’s simple answer “measures to reduce and restrict the weaponry” would begin a debate met by deaf ears.  Saying the word “gun control” to a hunter is the equivalent of saying “Internet censorship” to a member of anonymous.  Certain topics trigger a panicked emotional response that jumps to the worst case scenario first.  I know that restrictions on semi-automatics and hand guns is not the equivalent of a universal gun ban, but both the audience and the bigger picture need to be kept in mind.  The weapon of choice is definitely one way to tackle the problem, especially if you see no use for the device,  but it doesn’t fix the “why” which can always find a new outlet.

In his Neuroanthropology blog Daniel Lende reminds us that “Mentally ill patients are not more violent than anyone else.” and “Guns don’t shoot themselves.”  in his response to the two easy answers which have been put forth by the media and the public following the Newton shootings.

Follow the Aurora shooting, David Dobbs argued that “Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shape those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.”

In talking to my father who is very anti-gun control, I realized that there is a very big difference between a hunter and a gunman.  Friend and follow Arkansan, Justin Snook makes a similar connection in his blog post Guns and Games, when he says “I learned to treat a gun sensitively and reverently whether it was in my own hand or someone else’s.”  Growing up in rural Arkansas my first experience with guns did not come from video games or even TV.  I remember being between 2 and 3 years old and my dad letting me pull the trigger on his .22 while he held the gun.  As I got older both of my parents always re-enforced strict rules and behaviors relating to guns.  Guns were always present in my household, but they were also always serious.  The first rule I remember my mother telling me was to never go near the place my dad kept his guns unless he was with me.  The first rule I remember my father telling me about guns was to never point one at anything or anyone I didn’t want to kill, whether I thought the gun was loaded or not.   Guns were to be respected and were only used to hunt.  My brother, sister, and I were taught that what we did with a gun was our responsibility.  But this is not part of how most Americans are raised.  While hunters-ed is required for hunting licenses it is not required to own a gun.  You have to take two exams to drive a car but all you need is a background check to own a gun.  This means that unlike me, many Americans are taught about guns by TV, movies, and video games.  These media are artistic expressions of our culture so it is hard to blame them in and of themselves.  Films no longer warn that “you’ll shoot your eye out” and instead depict firearm novices becoming epic heroes by picking up a gun.  People who have never witnessed anything larger than a spider die are allowed to own hand guns designed for shooting people and even semi-automatic weapons designed to shoot everything insight.

If the people using them and how they are used, not the guns themselves are at the center of the “but why …?” question, then we that we are to blame.  A cultural dialogue which allows people to assign the blame to others instead of accepting responsibility makes it possible for the gunman suicide phenomenon to become an accepted cultural script.

A young man (statistically most are males) has bad relationships with his family.  He becomes/feels disenfranchised.  He is alienated from his community and he begins to blame all the people in his life for how terrible his life is.  That blame turns to hate and when he cannot take it anymore and is ready to end it all by killing himself he turns to the pre-existing techniques his culture has provided.  Going out in a blaze of glory, maximizing his ability to hurt those who he blames for his state, and regaining control of his life in a hyper-masculine villainous act.   Gunman suicide becomes the last desperate attempt at significance.

Lende argues that “If we’re going to think of violence as a sickness, then it is its own type of sickness, different in kind and in expression from the mental and physical ailments that also possess us. Violence is red in tooth and claw, seemingly primordial, until we recognize how socially regulated it is.”

My best explanation is that the gunman suicide phenomenon is a social illness rather than a mental or physical one.  These gunmen which have become all too common are suffering from a lack of the social components necessary to be healthy in body and mind.  It is a social illness in that these gunmen are men who society has failed and in that the illness harms society itself.  It takes the lives of the incident’s victims, it wrecks havoc on the lives of the victims families and the community, but it also traumatized us as a nation, as a globally connected world.  The gunman is ground zone of the social illness, proving to us that in this hyper-connected and highly visible age a ticking time bomb can still remain in plain sight.

Nationalism, Communitas, and Spiderman…

Considering I was in Ireland for the 4th of July, I decided to get a little imaginative in the way I celebrated America’s Independence Day.  Greg and I went out to eat, I got a milk shake and we watched the late showing of the new Spiderman movie in 3D.  (The 3D is totally worth it on this movie)  Now, one important thing of interest to note is that in Ireland, the Irish celebrate the 4th of July.  Greg was actually a bit surprised by the depth to which the celebration extended beyond simply going out to the pub for a drink to celebrate.

We took the day off, had a relaxing meal at one of our favorite pubs and then headed into Castlebar (the nearest city with a movie theater).  However, it was in this “time-off” that I had a major realization about the connection between Nationalism and Communitas, and it is all thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man.

So what is communitas, you might be asking? The best way to explain it to people who grow up in a Western culture is to say it is that feeling in which your sense of self is fully united with your sense of community.  It is a moment in which your sense of individuality is overwhelmed by a strong feeling of community.  Communitas is in essence community spirit, but a sense of community spirit which deeply resonates within you.  It is found in those moments in which you deeply connect with others because you know in that moment you and a those other people are experiencing almost exactly the same thing.  Anthropologists describe this happening in rites of passage, pilgrimages, and moments of community action.

Communitas is the feeling of oneness, togetherness, solidarity, and deep sacred connection with others.  Now the community can be as small as your cohort growing up or as large a nation.

What does this have to do with the Amazing Spider-Man?  Well, not to give any spoilers, during a particular scene I was flooded with a feeling of communitas.  It was actually a pretty profound moment for me because it was the first time I realized that that perticular feeling was communitas.  I’ve had an intellectual understanding of the term for about four or five years now, and I’ve experienced the feeling numerous times throughout my life without putting a word to it.  Experiencing during a movie, and realizing it, however, opened up a large can of worms for me.

Wow I just felt communitas during a movie…

1) If communitas can be generated, felt, and shared through movies …  then it is possible to share through all forms of digital media I bet.  This reminded me of my friend Jacob Oliver’s honors thesis about music and how people today have come to experience as sense connection to particular pieces of music which were really important to them really hitting home to their situation in the moment in time.  Movies do this as well.  Like it or not, movies, TV, and music connected all of us digitally long before the internet.

2)   Nationalism…  Sitting in a theater in Western Ireland, in a room full of 50 or more people, Gerg and I were the only Americans.  I am not always the most patriotic person, but in that moment, I was an American.  I was filled with patriotic pride and an overwhelming sense of connection to America and Americans.  I argue this is how communitas functions to make self-identity and group-identity unite absolutely, even if it is only for one moment.  The implications for humans as a social species cannot be underestimated.

However, beyond the importance of communitas to community building and group solidarity, I was also taken back at the notion of me feeling communitas while watching  Spiderman and people in New York City.  I was born and raised in rural Arkansas about as far from New York City as you can get and still be in the United States.  Both distance and culture separate me from these people.   I’ve never been to New York City outside of the airport, either.  And currently, I am not even in the United States.

Yet somehow, I was able to experience this deep-connection from Ireland.   Communitas at the national level was never something I considered before that moment, yet as I finished watching the movie it was staring me straight in the face.  Isn’t national communitas exactly what the nation as a whole had experienced in the wake of September 11th?

3)  Spiderman is a hero in American mythology.  Ok, ok… I knew this before but the profoundness of Spiderman as American mythology did not truly set-in until I realized there was a spiritual dimension beyond the “moral of the story.”  For me at least, “real” mythology has to not only guide its readers to culturally specific ideals and heroic behavior, but it also has to unite those readers on a deeper, spiritual level.  I suppose, in essence I am saying that while mythology from all over the world has lessons to teach us, it is the culturally specific mythology which holds the most power over the reader.  It gives us the cultural script of what it means to be heroic and villainous.  The aspect of mythology lost on many Modern Americans, is that the hero does not have to have actually lived to be REAL.  For a myth to truly be American, it must then speak to American culture and adhere to the Religion of America.

The concept of the Religion of America is something Religious Studies Professors and Theologians have put forward and it is something that my mind has toyed with since I took a course on Religion in the US with Dr. Jim Dietrich and Dr. Julia Winden-Fey.  The idea is that beyond the formalized religions and denominations of the United States, there is a separate and distinct Religion of America which is very much tied up with patriotism and matters of state.  The idea is that despite the separation of (a particular) Church and State, politicians, the government, and public events at large still very much acknowledge a form of spirituality which embodies American ideals and is devoid of the sectarianism that might indicate divine preference for one faith over the other.  In other words, the God of America is the God of liberty, equality, freedom of choice, and responsibility of freedom, but this God is no less Mormon than Catholic, no less Christian than Muslim.

Spiderman is an American hero and his story is a heroic epic of American mythology.  When his story is told well, it is capable of inspiring people to achieve the heroic ideals he stands for and it strengthens our connection to one another.

Questions to Ponder:

Did other people experience communitas while watching Spiderman?

Was this feeling of communitas limited to Americans?  How does nationality influence media’s ability to provoke communitas? 

What role does communitas play in social health?  Do moments of communitas impact our sense of social well-being? If so, what are the ramifications for our mental and physical health?

Where do people experience communitas on the national level?  What events, experiences, and media provoke communitas on such a grand-scale?

If you have an experience of communitas you’d like to share with me please feel free to email me at slyeager@smu.edu  I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences.

Also, please take a second and respond to my poll:

Ireland Week 1

Week 1 Ireland – Dublin

Highlights from my first week in Ireland.

First, I think I left out one tiny detail in explaining my plans for Ireland.  I guess I should mention that assisting me in doing all that stuff I mentioned in previous posts, is my travel companion Greg Wright: part-time research assistant, part-time body guard (my mom thinks I need one?), part-time 2 am sounding board, and full-time boyfriend.

We arrived in Dublin around 8 am on Thursday June 7.   While I was still smiling then, I definitely would not advise arriving in a new country in the morning hours if it can be helped.  Unfortunately for me, the cheapest airfare didn’t really give me any options on timing.  If you do arrive in the morning, make sure you’ve worked it out in advance so that you have bed upon arrival.  Everyone may not need a place to crash after a 13 plus hour flight, but honestly it is a good safety precaution either way because even if you don’t pass out you need a safe place for your luggage.  No one wants to be dragging a suitcase any further than necessary.

That said, we got a great deal on a hostel in Dublin and were able to rest up and try to coop with the jet lag.  It was situated in the older part of the city which had lots of interesting things to see while getting adjusted to the country.

We stayed in Dublin near the River Liffey, while I met with a professor at the University College Dublin and explored the UCD’s Folklore Collection as a potential resource for my research.

I spoke with Dr. Ronnie Moore and got clear direction about the possibilities of my research.  These meetings were immensely informative for my research.  Perhaps, the biggest take away for me from our talks was a realization that focusing on “healers” per-say is not really the way to go.  In regard to Irish folk cures, the people who “have a cure” for the most part possess it because of unusual characteristic or circumstance or as a birth right of sorts.  Instead, I think I will give my attention to the knowledge of folk medicine and the use of folk healing by the average person.  More on the contemplation of this talk later.

Home is Where the Heart is…

Listening to “Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros I was inspired to make the following realization:

The culturally prevalent concept “Home is Where the Heart is” which is found throughout American music and literature actually makes neolocality possible.  By valuing the notion that our sense of home is tied to those we love rather than a sense of place or a connection to the land, the nuclear family and neolocal residence patterns are made possible and even encouraged.  Perhaps this is an extension of the long history of American immigrant and migration within the nation.  It has definitely been perpetuated by urbanization, globalization, and the need to relocate for employment.  I think this is an interesting case of the a cultural idom which both is perpetuated by a cultural behavior and actually serves to perpetuate that behavior as well.

Though, I have to wonder if the increasing ability to “work from home” or on the computer/internet will change this cultural need to accept mobility as necessary for success.

OpenSource-Capitalism

While it is frequently difficult to identify paradigm shifts as they are happening, I believe I stumbled upon one tonight.  My boyfriend, Greg Wright, was telling me about this fascinating new project he discovered that will allow people to interact and play RPGs online in the dynamic new way in a world that is ultimately the players creation.  He found this project through a fascinating site called kickstarter, which allows people to share their creative new projects and to follow and fund creative projects posted by others.  Through a system which in many ways mirrors the concept behind microloans, creative entrepreneurs of the 21st-century are funded not by banks, corporations, investment firms, or entrepreneurial capitalist, but instead individual cyber citizens from around the globe. Each project sets a minimum required budget and posts what might be called a “business plan” which includes project related incentives promised each backer according to the financial pledge made.  Individuals can make small donations, most have a minimum of $1, or people can make substantial donations and become more directly involved in the project.  This site allows new business ideas a to flourish or parish based on their ability to convince other people on the Internet of the value of their idea and the utility of the project.

Hearing about the site reminded me of how growing up during the birth of the digital age my generation received innumerable speeches about how we would all be working in “jobs that the yet to be created.”  In my previous blog post, I wrote about the frustration felt by many in my generation about the failure of this promise to manifest immediately upon graduating from college and how in my opinion the occupied movement is a manifestation of my generation’s frustration at this failure and what is even many of the failure of the capital system.  My immediate response to hearing about Kickstarter was that this was the perfect springboard for all of those promised “jobs that have yet to be created” that I generation grew up expecting to make into their careers.

If the occupy movement is a global declaration of the “problem,” then the idea behind kickstarter is the solution.  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the specific website is the only solution.  However, the same way that eBay and its partner PayPal revolutionized online sales, kickstarter’s application of Kiva’s microloans system to creative projects offers creative individuals a means of turning cyber capital into the financial backing necessary for taking projects from imagination to innovation.  In this, I see the paradigm shift which might be categorized as being post-capitalist.  the paradigm shift being generated by the cyber market is not Marxist or Socialist because individuals and companies are definitely capable of making substantial profits. However, the global reality of cyberspace has left governments struggling to keep legislation up to date as evidenced by the recent attempts in the United States (SOPA, PIPA) and the international treaty (ACTA) to legislate against piracy.  Cyberspace has its own morality and self-governing mechanisms which it seems only “digital natives” understand.  cyber capital is intrinsically linked to the ability of a the website, idea, video, picture, or phrase to “go viral.”  going viral can have either a positive or negative impact through the equivalent of the social sanctions of honor and shame. While many people tend to dismiss things happening online as “not real,” viral honor and viral shame can have extremely real world implications.  In the United States, News/Media outlets and general public were focused to acknowledge the “real world” implications of cyber events during the chain reaction of cyber-bullying leading to suicides which led to the It Gets Better movement and the passing of cyber-bullying laws.  But there are other concrete examples such as the temporary stock crash of AT&T, KONY2012, Clint McCance, even the importance of the youth vote and Obama Girl to Obama’s election.

While that guy from the KONY 2012 video miscalculated when saying, “there are more people on facebook today, than were on the planet 200 years ago” that doesn’t mean powerful idea he was trying to monoplize on was incorrect.   The human race is infinitely more connected today despite our ever growing population recently hitting 7 Billion.  Digital communication is so much faster, and frequently more reliable, than the News.  This has actually led to the News reporting about what is being said and done online.  However, the importance of cyberspace, digital communication, and social networking can no longer be ignored or dismissed as a passing childhood phase.  Cyber capital generated by viral honor and viral shame shapes our lives in very real ways.  As more and more people are finding ways to “make a living” in cyberspace this is one subsistence pattern which can no longer be ignored.   This paradigm shifting subsistence pattern is post-capitalism or at the very least post-neoliberalism.  In honor of its importance to the digital age and the because its value system is one of the core cultural value of cyberspace, I suggest we call this new way of getting things done OpenSource-Capitalism.  After all people are still making money… eventually, but this isn’t your father’s capitalism.

What is the Place of Emotion in Humanistic Empiricism?

Recently, someone close to me drew the connection between the demand for the removal of emotion from scholarship and the continued presence of underlying masculine bias in academia. I was taken aback by the implications of this connection and my blindness to it.  In reading Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer and “Believing in Anthropology as Literature,” the relevance of this masculine bias and its demand for anthropology to be devoid of emotion becomes all the more apparent as do the distinct limitations it creates.  Behar warns, “Most efforts to bring emotions and feelings, including love and gratitude, into our work are likely to be dismissed as ‘feminine sentimentality’” (Behar 2011: 110).  Personal narratives, and even life histories of our informants, can be seen as risky within anthropological forms of writing. These forms of writing often have clear emotional components which are paradoxically seen as compelling and unreliably subjective.  In a discipline struggling for a humanistic empiricism, objective detachment is clung to as a means of laying claim to a scientific ideal. Yet experts from any of the hard sciences openly display emotions over their research. Scientists get excited when they make monumental discoveries; their work can also disappoint them, worry them, and even disturb them. The influence of a scientist’s passions for their work over the particular research questions posed receives little critique within the “hard” sciences.  While a geologist’s zealous passion for his or her research rarely impacts the chemical test results run on soil samples, an anthropologist’s empathetic sorrow can influence analysis of interviews. As anthropologists do we claim our fears, our sorrows, our joys as evidence of observable responses to human realities of the worlds in which we work or do we ignore those unquantifiable internal experiences so that we can focus on our observations of the people and phenomena we study?

Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett argued that the motivation behind including life histories and personal narratives in research involving both the social sciences and humanities is connected to the particularly apparent humanness of this data and its ability to generate a direct dialogue between people and the theories written about them (Maynes et al 2008). They write, “One primary motivation is the desire to examine varieties of individual selfhood and agency ‘from below’ band and practice, as constructed in people’s articulation of self understandings” (Maynes et al 2008: 1).The impact of macro-level forces on an individual lives at the micro-level are brought to life, through life histories which can be employed to try the very human realities of macro policies and forces.  Well utilized life histories can be a powerful tool for anthropological literature which allow the author to provoke emotion without being seen as overly emotional him or herself. Life history becomes a “testimonio” in feminist and activist work, which utilizes such stories to empower a person’s story to become a symbol of the movement (Behar 1996: 27). Life histories and personal narratives have the potential to invigorate ethnographic writing with the type of evocative testimony which directs emotional response and supports social change.

The reality of Behar’s struggle over how much of her to include in “Death and Memory” epitomizes the academic compulsion to remove all hints of emotions.  She warns, “to write vulnerable is to open Pandora’s box” (Behar 1996: 19). Often, the human reality of emotional truth is the story we, as anthropologists are unwilling to tell.  As Behar’s Aunt Rebeca reminds us, anthropology is “the study of people” (Behar 1996: 4). If that is true, then how do we tell the story of people devoid of a basic component of what it means to be human? If the anthropologist is the instrument through which human realities are observed and cultural data is collected, then emotional responses which they shape the anthropologist cannot be ignored.