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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

RIP Washoe

Washoe, "the first non-human to learn American Sign Language," passed away last night, October 30 2007, at the age of 42. A long life for chimpanzees, and an interesting one for sure.
I just recently read Roger Fouts's book Next of Kin, the primatologist who worked with Washoe from the time she was a year old, and it is amazing what Washoe and Fouts accomplished together. It is always also sad to discover someone so inspiring only to have them die shortly afterward, or to learn that they just died.
I hope Washoe's family is doing okay with the loss of their matriarch. This only inspires me more to make the drive out to Ellensburg and visit the rest of the chimpanzees before they all pass away. I'm fascinated to see how much of their play is verbal vs. signing vs. physical. Maybe for my birthday (they just closed for the season). Rest in Peace, Washoe.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Play Anthropology

Rafe and I attended a very interesting meeting this weekend, and I hope he will put his thoughts down on this experience as well.
It was essentially a pitch for a new business and the audience was supposed to provide feedback on the idea. The meeting, however, was a little different because it was focused on Play. Yes, the fine art and discipline of play.
Frank Forencich, the guy pitching the idea, has been making a living writing books and giving classes on his philosophy of how humans don't move enough and Americans need to start living like Exuberant Animals, and now wants to develop a camp/home base for his classes. All the people who had been invited to hear Frank's pitch for the Exuberant Animal Retreat (the current working name for his idea) - physical therapists, physicians, primatologists, traceurs, trainers, students, artists, yogis, outdoor trip leaders, and a budding anthropologist (me) - were all interested in how people play and how to get people to play more and incorporate it into their lives, and for some had made it their job. The best example of this was Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play (technically it's his "retirement" job, but it's not much of a retirement).
This idea, this concept, of studying how people play, why people play, what they get out of it, and the fact that all those things should be obvious to people and yet it's not, is a really intriguing idea to me. The idea of studying play for a living and helping to promote play has been distracting me since last Wednesday, and it's only getting worse. I only half-joked to Rafe that I should base my master's thesis on watching puppies play with each other.
It was so inspiring to talk to this group of people because it showed me that I could get paid to study play, or at least parts of play. A lot of work is with corporations or doing studies on education, which is fine with me. I would be more than happy to do a study that shows, once again, that kids learn better in school if they have recess, hence taking recess away is NOT going to help them do better on standardized tests! I don't know how that study would qualify as anthropology, since I'm not really looking at any culture per say, but it could fall under human behavior and processing the world; that's close enough. If anybody knows someone who's looking for a play anthropologist, let me know.
What really got me starting to think about this in a cohesive way, almost serendipitously, was an assigned essay on anthropologist Victor Witter Turner. While Turner was known mostly for his work on symbolism and study of religious ritual, his theories of liminality, structure and anti-structure, everyday ritual, and play in general really struck a chord with me. He's one of the first theorists I've come across who have even looked at play and ritual and pretend and considered it as important as I certainly think it is. I'm actually having a hard time with my paper and simply writing an overview of all of Turner's work and not just talking about his ideas on play and how according to Turner play, pretend, and cutting loose is an essential part of being human and functioning in society. I'm seriously considering a paper on that particular subject for one of the anthropological conferences coming up in the Spring.
So, even though I am still stressed and sleep-deprived, even though I feel ragged and worn, the whole experience of the past week has re-instilled a purpose in me. It has reminded me why I'm putting myself through hell to go to grad school, why I fell in love with Anthropology in the first place, and where I can be useful, where I want to put my energy into the world.
"Play" is a perfect category to describe everything I'm interested in: how do people learn, the behavior and ritual in sports, performance of all types (dancing, art, story-telling), identity, photography, people adapting to new environments and technologies, and of course looking at biology and culture combined. All of these have aspects of play, or just straight up are play. Turner's ideas can be applied to all of these cultural actions as well, and can be used to look at and dissect the meaning, the purpose, the reason why we do them.
The only sad thing is, because play is "just play" the subject probably won't be taken seriously by many. Even I have moments of feeling silly about wanting to study the seriousness of play. But it's not silly, it's vital, and knowing that there are other people out there who feel the same way - Rafe, Frank, Stuart, Deborah the primatologist, the traceurs, the yogis and physical trainers - gives me strength in going forward and going after something so passionately.
Thank you!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Interesting cultural media tid-bits

First, this article is an interesting follow-up to my previous mother/father post. This woman looks at why her toddler has bonded more to her husband than to herself, and specifically at the idea that culture tells her it should be the other way around. I know, it sounds like I'm making an "it's all culture" argument, but the author is merely looking at forms of bonding and what our culture says "should" happen.

Then, a recent This American Life broadcast looks at the topic of mapping. The first two acts are also REALLY impressive and interesting sociological and psychological studies; one mapping cultural behavior of a neighborhood, the other looking at modern electronics and how their constant humming and buzzing, each with its own melodic tone, affects our mood.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Malinowski: a forgotten proponent of biological anthropology?

I've been taking an anthropological theory class this quarter, and with all the instrumental and influential theorists we've looked at so far, I was amazed by one theorist' take on human society and wondered why I didn't hear about this stuff in the undergrad theory classes.
He is a strong proponent of the idea of man as an individual and biological creature, and promotes the idea that culture is a construct defined by his biological needs, and in turn man can only be shaped to a certain degree by his culture. This was a a somewhat left-field stance for his time, and it would be considered practically sacreligious to the same cultural anthropologists who swear by his methods (or at least the ones I'm being instructed by this quarter) The theorist: Bronislaw Malinowski.
I was assigned Malinowski as my theorist to present on for the class. He is well known as a landmark ethnographer, and for advocating participant research. He is also considered a leading founder, if not the founder, of functionalism and cultural determinism theories.
Functionalism is pretty much how it sounds: the idea that culture is a social system developed to fill in the biological needs of the individual (these days it refers more to social constructs that fill social needs).
Cultural determinism, however, has come to stand for the "nature" half of the, at least in my opinion, ridiculous argument of nature vs. nurture; the idea that culture solely defines who one is.
Malinowski, however, if you actually read his work, does not go to this extreme. He definitely believes that culture shapes a human, and if you take someone out of their culture they will flounder (Malinowski, 1943:649). But he did not believe that humans were empty jars that culture simply filled up.
“Culture, however, primitive and developed alike, is subject to the laws of physics since human bodies are first and foremost lumps of matter. Hence culture is also largely determined by the biological process within the human body and by the organic needs of man.” (Malinowski 1942:1293)
"We see, thus, that the actual concrete organization of human activities does not follow slavishly or exclusively the functional principles of type activities." (Malinowski, 1939:946-947).
I think this aspect of Malinowski's theories has been lost over time, and it is something which should be recognized. Yes, his main point in all of his papers and books and monographs and reviews was that culture shapes humans. Absolutely. But he also acknowledged that humans are humans and will act on their own accord with their own biological will, and even chided Durkheim for recording humans as automatons (Malinowski 1926:4), and Freud for thinking that humans are purely influenced by their culture (Malinowski, 1927:viii).
Hopefully this will make it into my official essay, but if not I at least felt it should get out there.

B. Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society, Rowman & Littlefield, London (1926).
B. Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Routledge, London (1927).
B. Malinowski, "The Group and the Individual in Functional Analysis," The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 44, No. 6 p. 938 (May, 1939).
Bronislaw Malinowski, "A New Instrument for the Interpretation of Law. Especially Primitive," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 51, No. 8, p. 1237 (Jun., 1942).
B. Malinowski, "The Pan-African Problem of Culture Contact," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 649 (1943).

Friday, October 5, 2007

Modern Views on Parenting

Granted I’ve learned you can’t taking anything too seriously in grocery store magazines (just look at how TIME handled parkour), but Newsweek came out today with two editorials that are actually quite good at analyzing how men and women’s roles in parenting have evolved over the course of a generation or two and what expectations are compared to real life, and I found myself agreeing with both perspectives.

A mom's perspective: When I read this my first thought was, “dear god, this is my future.”
A dad's perspective: The third paragraph summarizes his whole point.

Of course this is all totally a modern Western view. So many other groups would think the parents are making too big a deal of their own situations, and from all scemas. Too much energy spent on the kids, not enough energy, etc. However, being a modern Western woman who plans on having kids someday, I am personally pleased that my culture is still talking and thinking about this and things are moving in this direction. Not just for my own sanity, but for the well being of my future children. I found the statistic in the dad’s article about dads in the 60's only spending a couple hours a week with their kids really sad. Both dads and kids missed out on a lot of possible knowledge and skill sharing.

Anyway, interesting stuff.