Friday, September 12, 2008

Anthropology 101 in session

Hello all,

After a summer of much-needed distraction from the wonderful field and careers we've chosen, it's time to get focused and use this blog to our fullest advantage. Since the launch several months ago, our contributors have reviewed a few texts straight out of last year's Irvine proseminar, and lucky for us anteaters, most of the syllabus remains intact for the fall. For the rest of you, I'm sure the material won't be that much of a departure (although we will cover a few books by our faculty that aren't even dry from the publishers), so please use this resource to the fullest ability.

To add a little more of a personal touch, I will be transcribing my notes from our Monday proseminar course onto the blog. Since I'm too lazy (and poor) to bring a laptop to class, I am experimenting with an alternative methodology towards my graduate studies: I invested in a digital voice recorder prior to arriving on campus, and I will write summaries of my documented notes and publish them onto this blog. For now, I will only do this for the proseminar course, but if people from my other courses (or any other anthropology-related event that I happen to record) want me to post those transcripts, I will be happy to oblige.

Our first reading of the term is George Stocking, Jr, "On the Limits of 'Presentism' and 'Historicism' in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences". You can view Stephen's excellent article on the reading here. Happy studying!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Savage Minds: The Opposite of Anthropology

Hello everyone,

I was browsing through some of the other posts when I came across this article and another discussion thread on the merit of Christian Lander's blog, Stuff White People Like. Just for the record, I love this blog for its color and nuance, but I also think it raises a larger issue about the way culture around the world is studied. After reviewing Nielsen and Murphy's textbook, A History of Anthropological Theory, I noticed that most social thinkers derive from four countries: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. From these presupposed academic superpowers, scholars then disperse and investigate the far corners of the world, immersing themselves in foreign lands but still observing with a distinctly Western eye.

Lander's blog instantly (and sometimes uncomfortably) transforms the world's historically predominant observer (i.e. white people) into the observed. In conversation with my non-Caucasian friends, we've all wondered whether Lander was also Caucasian or not, because, according to one friend, "no white person would ever realize the things that we see all the time." Then it hit me: what if this blog is actually doing more harm than good? What if we're simply passing the buck of racism from one group to another, rather than opening up a more educated dialogue on the matter? Let's face it: if Lander were to write about "Stuff Black People Like" or something to that nature, he would be branded without hesitation as a white supremacist. So why is writing about white people somehow okay? (I may have answered this question earlier...)

Since it's inevitable that we compare everything to anthropological archetypes, I'd like to continue the matter of armchair anthropology place in the field today. A lot of Lander's writings remind of me James Frazer's trite assumptions on various artifacts collected throughout the globe as written in The Golden Bough, although Lander is far more satirical. Sure, Lander hasn't done the kind of thorough investigate field work that is expected of a true scholar, but it's hard to not acknowledge the "truths" that the site offers, albiet extremely stereotypical and perhaps even offensive. Although racism and comedy have had a long and tumultuous marriage for centuries, I continue to struggle with drawing the line between what brings humanity forward and what sets it back. I'd like to say Lander's work is a step forward, but I'd also like to hear any dissenting voices on the matter.

For the record, I'd like to keep the discussion in the pursuit of clarity and not noise. I'm not interested in pointing fingers and arguing over "who did what to who," but more to reconcile these challenges we face as scholars of humanity. I leave the floor to you.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human" by Tom Boellstorff (2008)

To all friends, contributors, and fans (?) I offer up my sincerest apologies for my prolonged absence from posting. However, I am back, but unfortunately not to write about the pro-seminar readings. Instead, I want to write a review of Prof. Tom Boellstorff's latest book, "Coming of Age in Second Life." Although this post will focus on the theoretical and methodological questions that Boellstorff brings to the study of virtual worlds, I hope that I can also connect it to Lee's latest post on Frazer, so far as his question regarding the role of "armchair anthropology" today.

As Boellstorff states in his opening, he is unsure about the audience that this text will reach. Is it written for academics, for the "public," or for both? Certainly, there is plenty for us anthro-theory-dorks to eat up, but it is also written in a style that should be accessible to those unfamiliar with anthropology, or with Second Life for that matter. What sets this book apart from previous ethnographies of virtual worlds is that it is the first (to the best of my knowledge) to examine a virtual world in its own terms. Boellstorff did not concern himself with the "real world" lives of his informants, and instead focused on "thick description" of the culture of Second Life itself; the symbols and actions that guide interactions between avatars completely within the realm of Second Life.

I don't want to get into too much detail, and I am sure that my review will be biased (after all, he is the primary reason that I decided to attend UC-Irvine!). Instead, I will focus on a few key points, both theoretical and methodological, that he puts into conversation with this book. The first is the philosophical distinction Boellstorff draws between episteme (knowledge) and techne (art), going so far as to declare the dawning of the "Age of Techne" and the birth of "homo cyber." Drawing upon everyone from Plato to Nietzsche, Boellstorff explains how humanity has always been virtual. The emphasis he chooses to focus on is human as intentional creator of virtual selfhood. Especially salient to this point is the story of Prometheus and fire, as well as the shadows dancing on the wall in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." Whereas some theorists have heralded the emergence of virtual worlds as a re-configuring of what it is to be human, perhaps even an emergence of the "post-human," Boellstorff argues that "it is in being virtual that we are human" (pg. 29, emphasis in original). Throughout history, humans have engaged in creative activities that allow them to alter their natural environment in come way, producing what we could call a virtual environment (whether it be the cave drawings in Lascaux or someone in Second Life engaged in "building."). How then is the phenomenon of Second Life all that different from creative activities (those built on techne, not episteme) of the past?

Another important point about the culture of Second Life is how it reorganizes "traditional" understandings of time and space. The phenomena of lag (i.e. when the interface one is using slows down due to a variety of factors, for example an overloaded server) and "afk" (when a "real-world" operator is "away from the keyboard" and yet their avatar remains "in-world" for others to interact with and observe) are just two of the ways in which Second Life reconfigures place and time. Questions of birth, aging, and death, are also reconfigured within the confines of the program, as well as the ability to traverse space in a matter of nanoseconds.

In addition, the phenomenon of "alts" (i.e. an avatar that is distinct from the "primary" avatar controlled by the same "real-world" operator) "[operationalizes] the gap between actual and virtual into a resource for fractal subjectivity, into a kind of 'dividual' (rather than 'individual') selfhood for which persons are 'constructed as the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them'." (pg. 150, Taylor and Mark will note that the quote comes from Marilyn Stathern: 1988). Another point about selfhood within Second Life that I found fascinating was when Linden Labs (the creators of Second Life) decided to add a real-time voice chat function to the world. This decision was met with fierce opposition by many residents because they viewed Second Life as a place where they could create multiple, "dividual," selfhoods and the imbrication of in-world interaction with "real-world" communication threatened the authenticity of these selfhoods. I find it interesting because in the communities of online gamers I have recently observed, the ability to speak with co-gamers in real-time (using Bluetooth technology) often presents a distinct advantage, especially in goal-oriented games such as "Call of Duty 4" and "Grand Theft Auto 4." However, in Second Life, an online community that is not primarily based around achieving objectives, the possibility of voice-chat could actually function as an unwelcome bleeding of the "real-world" into the virtual.

Methodologically speaking, Boellstorff's investigation brings up questions about how to approach an ethnography of a virtual world. He decided to create a single avatar that was much like himself, and never "pretended" to be anything but an ethnographer interested in the culture of second life. In order to explore Second Life in its own terms, he did not seek out "real-world" information about his informants, rather focusing on their in-world selves. He followed similar, established methods, such as participant observation and focus groups, as anthropologists have been using since Malinowski, and as he used in his previous work in Indonesia. Yet here is what I find interesting in regard to Lee's latest post about Frazer: in the "Age of Techne" perhaps "armchair anthropology" does have a place, although I wouldn't equate the two. Certainly, anthropologists in the post-Frazer era have had a guiding ethos of going to the field, but in the "Age of Techne" anthropologists can conduct field research from an armchair with the same methods of field research that Malinowski and Mead employed.

In conclusion, this book does a very good job of toeing the line between techno-enthusiasm and techno-skepticism. As Boellstorff points out, the ability of humans to create in Second Life is vast, yet it also operates within the limits set by Linden Labs. Boellstorff does explain a little about the issues of social inequality in Second Life, although I would have liked to see a more detailed investigation (I understand that this is beyond the purview of what he intended to write). Also, I would like to know more about how "real-world" culture and practice is grafted onto Second Life culture and practice, about the imbrications between the "real-world" and Second Life (again, this was clearly not the point of this investigation, but could be a useful complement). It will be interesting to read this book in tandem with Prof. Thomas Malaby's (UW-Milwaukee) forthcoming book about the culture of Linden Labs; I imagine that the two would be wonderful companion pieces for anyone interested in the anthropology of virtual worlds.

In the coming weeks, I intend to FINALLY do my post on Durkheim, so be patient and I will do my best to break down Structural-Functionalism (of which, I will reveal now, I am not a big fan).

Update: There are a couple of posts over at Savage Minds that are a little less enthusiastic about "Coming of Age in Second Life," if anyone is interested in another opinion.

Later update: Another post of at Savage Minds by Prof. Alex Golub of the University of Hawaii at Manoa regarding the book is definitely worth a read (my apologies to Alex for turning down Hawaii's offer! It was a really tough decision.)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

For British Eyes Only - By Taylor - Added!

Hello all!

Hailing from Cambridge, Taylor, Anthro 101 contributor and future fellow cohort of mine also has his own blog titled "For British Eyes Only." I've glanced it over, and it's pretty phenomenal. It is now available as an RSS feed to the right if anyone is interesting in checking out his work.

If there are any other sexy sites out there to add, please let me know.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sir James Frazer - The Golden Bough - "Sympathetic Magic"

Hello all! I've decided to jumpstart this blog with a small abstract about The Golden Bough. Forgive me if I don't cite any sources, as most of the information is pretty easy to find in countless analyses. (If you'd like your own copy, I found an electronic one on Project Gutenberg. I'm sure I'll be visiting this site in the future!) Prior to my receipt of the 2007 Irvine proseminar syllabus, I never heard of Sir James George Frazer or any of his work, yet after reading him over I've realized it has permeated into my consciousness through countless media over the last century. I'll go into detail about that later.

First, we should get to know the man behind the text. Frazer (b. 1854, d. 1941) was a Scottish social anthropologist and paramount member of the classical cultural evolution tradition during the Victorian era, which hegemonized the field of anthropology at the time. Like Edward Burnett Tylor, considered by some as the "father" of British anthropology, Frazer was interested in the mental progression of religion, from primitive magic to organized religion to science. Also like Tylor, Frazer relied heavily on an armchair approach to anthropology, rarely ever traveling outside of Cambridge. His most famous work, The Golden Bough, was a broad multi-volume analysis of myths, folklore and literature from various regions, understood in conjunction with more modern-day religions such as Christianity. Despite the heavily criticism over the proposition that Christianity had primitive origins as well as the lack of substantial field work to support Frazer's claims, The Golden Bough made a major impression on many schools of thought, even though its influence is probably more apparent in the literary field rather than the social sciences.

What exactly is "sympathetic magic," you might ask? Simply put, it is a form of magic based on imitation and correspondence. To describe sympathetic magic in detail, Frazer provides several examples from around the globe, although his interpretations are somewhat suspect. He mentions the Hindu practice of fashioning a figure out of clay or wax and promptly destroying it to incur harm upon another person. Sympathetic magic can also be used for more amiable purposes, such as the Chippeway practice of pricking the heart of an image of their object of desire. Other comparable examples of sympathetic magic in modern religion still exist in virtually every culture and religion, although the rationale behind the effort has probably changed dramatically. The practice of Vodou in West Africa and parts of the Caribbean offers an obvious one in the use of vodou dolls. The Roman Catholic practice of Communion, for example, where wine and wafers represent the "blood" and "body" of Jesus Christ, embodies more of a symbolic gesture today rather than the literal notion of consuming the anatomy of a prophet.

While many of Frazer's theories have been refuted by anthropologists past and present, his work on defining "sympathetic magic" still remains relevant today. The Golden Bough has also influenced countless Modernist literature, cited often by notable authors of the period such as T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and Ernest Hemingway. One could even argue that this work has had more impact on our understanding of the imaginary landscape rather than the actual world, but I'm not quite ready to make such a bold accusation. Or am I?

In today's practice of anthropology, is it possible to execute a project in the same mode as that of The Golden Bough? Many critics accuse Frazer of overinterpretation in order to meet the field's standards as an academic text. He also never travelled to many of the places he discussed, relying mostly on artifacts and secondary information brought to him. Can anyone cite any other attempts at armchair anthropology that have had some significance in the field in recent memory? Is it even possible that the armchair is more common than I think?

If I have left anything out, fellow contributors, please add to this entry.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

George Marcus: "The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology's Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition"

I just wanted to call everyone's attention to Prof. Marcus's article in the latest Cultural Anthropology (23:1, pp. 1-14) for those who haven't read it already. It ties in well, actually, with the comment thread on the George Stocking post. It is a conversation between Marcus and Marcelo Pisarro, the editor of the Argentine journal Potlach, from February 2006 wherein they discuss the "rupture" in anthropology in the wake of Writing Culture's publication in 1986. There is some fascinating background about the minds behind the so-called rupture, as a reaction by graduate students in the 1970s to the introduction of Foucault, Barthes, Habermas, and Althusser, among others into the discourse of the social sciences. Marcus explains how the Writing Culture critique was a critique of form in anthropology, especially in relation to what constitutes fieldwork, with the traditional four-field approach to anthropology waning in favor of an interdisciplinary approach based on developments in the humanities, especially in literary theory.

Ethnographic methods were central to this critique, especially the idea of ethnography becoming collaborative, rather than a sort of apprenticeship. As Marcus puts it, "As fieldwork has become multisited and mobile in nature, subjects are more 'counterpart' than 'other.'" (pg. 7). The debate that began over the Writing Culture critique gets us back to the question of whether anthropology should be thought of and practiced as its own discipline with a specific set of almost canonical methods, or whether a more interdisciplinary approach is possible, and indeed more appropriate for the type of social research being done today. What I've heard called the "solipsistic turn" in anthropology in the 1980s, that is, the "overuse" of reflexivity on the part of the researcher so much so that the stated subject of research is at times lost, drew a lot of criticism and continues to today. Marcus believes that the question of how to do ethnography is the most important question that we should be discussing today. In particular, he cites the interdisciplinary work between anthropology and technoscience (which naturally excited me on a personal level) as a possible site for the development of new ethnographies.

Marcus argues that while new theoretical sources are appearing in the anthropology curriculum, the pedagogical approach to fieldwork has not been as amenable to change. Even though he says that it is "a progressive, healthy, and productive stance to think of anthropology in long decline," he also admits that "interdisciplinarity seems visionary compared to disciplinary perspective, but most interdisciplinary perspectives have turned out the be just as myopic." (pg. 11) Clearly, there is still work to be done and the debate, even after 22 years, is still not over.

At least, that's my reading of it. If you have a membership with AAA, you can access it through AnthroSource. Also, here's a link to the Center for Ethnography at UC-Irvine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Henry Maine 1861: "Primitive society and ancient law"

Why this reading, why now? Well, I doubt it's because we're supposed to take particularly seriously Henry Sumner Maine's conclusions about the origins of law in "primitive" society (that will be my one allotted "scare quote" for the word "primitive". This post will be far too cluttered, otherwise, and it's a bit of a mess as it is). In a 1950 article Robert Redfield picked over and in many cases rejected Maine's substantive arguments on that front.

(Amazingly, outside the discipline we can see Maine cited with approval for this purpose as recently as 1981--by legal stuntman and "human Pentium" Richard Posner in his book The Economics of Justice.)

And while Maine's accounts of changes in Roman law--he spends a great deal of time discussing the Patria Potestas, the principle of the "Power of the Father", and its changing purview with regards to both adult sons and wives--and the effects of these changes on subsequent European law are fascinating and may or may not represent an accurate reading of legal history (I'm way, way out of my depth on that one), I doubt that this is what we're looking for either.

All of which is to say that we probably shouldn't read Maine as "presentists", looking for present-day utility in his 150-year-old conclusions. Rather, we should follow Stocking's injunction and take a "historicist", affective and understanding approach in reading Maine.

Maine is concerned with the same sort of problem that has exercised anthropologists ever since: how to conceive of and explain the difference between our society and others. In Maine's case, he's interested in the difference between modern, "progressive" societies and "primitive" (and as Redfield points out Maine in many ways allows late and early Roman society to stand in for those two types of society, respectively).

Maine's key contribution to answering this question is contained in his concluding paragraphs: most succintly, with his famous assertion that "the movement of the progressive societies has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract". This shift is such that "from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of Individuals ".

This idea has had a lasting effect in social science. Redfield, for instance, still approved of this as a substantive point in 1950. To some degree Maine's point is mirrored in Tönnies' gemeinschaft/gesellschaft distinction, in Weber's "disenchantment" of the world and his concerns about the "iron cage" of rationalization, and in Durkheim's distinction between mechanic and organic solidarity. I think we can also see Maine's desire to posit a clear break between primitive and "progressive" societies echoed somewhat in contemporary work that depends on the notion of a postmodern "rupture" with the coming of post-industrial, post-Fordist capitalism. (I would put some of the Comaroffs' writings on South Africa--their "Occult Economies" article, for instance--in this category. I believe some of Appadurai's work on Modernity also fits here, as well as a lot of early 1990s work on globalization by Anthony Giddens, among others. Harri Englund and James Leach give a good summary--and critique--of this line of research in a 2000 article.)

Like the fascination with the primitive in general, then, the impulse to identify the characteristics that mark a given society as pre-modern, modern, or post-modern can be problematic. But if it's problematic it's because this type of model seems to have explanatory power, or else people wouldn't return to it again and again.

So thanks, Henry Sumner Maine. I think.

(I'm very open to correction about the genealogies I construct above. Get your sticks out--I fear I may have just hoisted up a plump piñata just waiting for a pummeling.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

More Links for Proseminar A readings

Here are a few more links to readings from the Proseminar A course taught last fall. As useful as it will be to read these, Tom Boellstorff did caution me that he would not be teaching the course this upcoming year (if I remember correctly, Kaushik is the only holdover from last year), so the syllabus will probably be different. At any rate, here they are:

Herbert Spencer: "Progress: Its law and cause"

Edward Burnett Tylor: Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization

Edward Burnett Tylor: Primitive Culture, vol. I: The Origins of Culture (as yet, link not found)

Sir James George Frazer: "Sympathetic Magic" and "Magic and Religion" in The Golden Bough

Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss: Primitive Classification

Emile Durkheim: Sociology in France in the Nineteenth Century,” in Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society

Emile Durkheim: The Division of Labor in Society Book I: “Introduction” (pp.1-8); Chapter I (pp. 11–30); Chapter VI (pp. 126–148); Book III, Chapter I (pp. 291–309); Conclusion (pp. 329–341)

Marcel Mauss: The Gift

James Clifford, “On ethnographic surrealism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23(4), 1981, pp. 539–564 (you can find it on JSTOR if you have access)

That gets us through to Week 4. Since most of these links are to Google Books, there will probably be some pages missing from the free previews. Anyone want to take responsibility for summarizing any of these? I'll volunteer to do Durkheim's Division of Labor since it's sitting at the foot of my bed as I type this. Happy reading! It's a wild night here in Montgomery; tornadoes passing through and I just finished the Alan Moore/David Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen (which is awesome, by the way).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Next reading: Maine, Henry Sumner, "Primitive society and ancient law," Ancient Law, pp. 123-185

Here's an online version of the reading, under chapter 5:

If any of the contributors besides Stephen (who did a great job with the Stocking readings and probably wants a break) wants to take a crack at it, be my guest! If not, I'll post an abstract next week.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

RSS Feeds Added! (Plus some work by Irvine's finest)

Dear All:

I've found a few anthropology RSS feeds to link up to this blog. If there are any other good ones out there, please let us know so that we can add them. I'd also like to add a link to a article by Profs. Tom Boellstorff and Bill Maurer in response to a pseudo-anthropologist's definitions of family and marriage. Enjoy!