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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gene Expression's take on Diamond vs. the Cultural Anthropologists

I'm not sure why this argument has flared up again, but both popular anthropology blogs Gene Expression and Savage Minds are talking about Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and some cultural anthropologists' reaction to it. I say some, because while I agree with a lot of Gene Expression's post and what they have to say, I feel they over-generalize what "cultural anthropologists" think, feel, and say about the book and their philosophy and approach to the sciences in general. Or maybe I just live in a bubble where everyone uses the scientific method and can deal with messy or generalized answers. Probably the latter, from the feedback I've heard from others.

I hope the answer lies somewhere in the middle; that while there are many vocal cultural anthropologists that are completely relativist, there are others who are objective and don't balk at information that doesn't fit into their schema. Or maybe that's just me and I'm in the wrong graduate program.

Journalism vs. Anthropology

A friend asked me the other day why I was changing my career goals from being a journalist to an anthropologist. I couldn’t give her a good answer at the time. I mumbled something about low pay and a competitive drive that I just seemed to lack when it came to the written word.

But it got me wondering and really looking at my reasons why I was switching gears, and now even though the moment is passed, I’d like to answer her question in full:

Being a good journalist and a good anthropologist are actually very similar. You have to find a good question and try to answer it. You must do hours of background research and familiarize yourself with the subject. You must figure out who to ask and what questions to ask them. Then there are more hours of research and compiling your information into one cohesive picture. When you finally think you have enough information to give your readers the right message, you must write it all up in a readable, thought-provoking way, and even then only if you’re lucky will your work be published—unless you’ve been asked by your boss to do this work in which case there’s probably a ridiculously short deadline and it’s not something you particularly care about and you just slap something together and call it a day.

My Journalism teacher in college had his doctorate in Anthropology, and he was one of the best journalists I met, if however also one of the most jaded. Anthropology is the perfect accessory to an aware, mindful journalist, just as journalism and writing are essential skills for an anthropologist who wants to get their findings across to their audience.

Where the line is drawn for me, however, is somewhere among the details. The depth with which you explore the subject matter. The reasons behind why this research is being done. The pace and attitude behind the work. With Anthropology, you are (in theory) painstakingly recording people’s minute behavior and details about their situations. With Journalism you must sum up an entire world event in 1200 words or less (this is a skill, by the way, which is being taught more and more often by social science teachers). Anthropology is more interactive; you have to get to know the people you’re researching. In Journalism you are expected to keep your objective distance and not get involved in your story. To even acknowledge in the story that you were there is considered a bit tacky.

Anthropology seems to emphasize the journey, whereas Journalism emphasizes the destination. For me, an MA in Anthropology offers me the chance to study different topics I love in greater detail, and to apply them to different areas of life, not just in print or other forms of media. An MA in Journalism would have given me a better idea on how to hunt, capture, and skin the story, and not much else. For some, that’s enough. For me, the academic side of me won over the practical side and decided to give the whole researcher gig a shot.

That to me is the final kicker. I remember so often sitting at my computer, typing up all the wonderful stories I’d heard from researchers and scientists into an abbreviated article, and how I kept thinking to myself that I would much rather be the one out there doing the research and being interviewed about it than the other way around. That was why I made the leap. To get out there into the world and see what I could do, not just sit back and write about it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Chinese Authorities Execute 10 Million...Toys

Not really, just an awesome story from the Onion (what? It's cultural commentary!)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Communities and Brains

This was interesting article about how living in larger households, or in this specific study living as a couple versus living separately after a divorce, consumes less resources overall and is better for the environment. Communes for the environment!

Speaking of groups, I found this an interesting use of group loyalty and playing with America's usual perceptions of two supposedly polar opposite institutions, or just a cheap way for the military to get some publicity: Miss Utah, who is also an active member of the military, will be competing for the title of Miss America. What's interesting is the military is actually paying for her training and travel to the competition.

On to brains.

One study has found that a high fever ( > 100.4) reduces symptoms of autism in children. Apparently the fever connects or stimulates nerve cells in the child's brain. I'm curious why they only studied children (2-18) and not grown-ups. Perhaps because grown-ups don't go to the hospital when they have a high fever.

And finally, 5-year-old chimps have better short term memories than college students, according to one study series done by researchers at Kyoto University. What was amazing to me was that the chimps were memorizing things in less than 3/10 of a second sometimes. That seems a) impossible for a human brain, and b) an adaptation to living in a setting of constant potential predation (baby chimps are tasty!). However, and even the researchers admit this, the real test would be to see how the young chimps fare against human kids.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

My teddy bear was named Meano

I am curious to see how other people feel about the controversy surrounding the woman in Sudan who allowed her students to vote for the name "Muhammed" for the class teddy bear. People were calling for her execution, and frankly she was lucky to make it out of Sudan.

First off, I agree that it was culturally insensitive to name the teddy bear, an animal and an icon, after the prophet. However, I think the Sudanese people's reaction to this has been completely overblown and should not have escalated as far as it did. It reminds me a lot of the Netherlands cartoon fiasco that happened a little over a year ago.

Just a random thought here, but what I find interesting is that the students didn't seem to think naming the bear Muhammed was all that offensive. Is it possible that they did not see the teddy bear as an animal or a simple icon but as something a little more real? Kids have the amazing ability to have a gray area of reality/pretend where teddy bears can have feelings, the child is a super-hero, there really is a dragon they have to kill everyday on the way home from school, etc. This aspect of childhood is one we cherish looking back on as grown-ups, and yet at the same time scold children for "pretending" and not seeing things "as they are," and then there are events like this that take something very innocent and playful and - pardon my impartiality here - completely trash it! It's just sad that childhood has become so charged with grown-up problems. Don't even get me started on the poor kids who can't play outside for fear of being shot.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Forced symbolism

Just a little, small, teeny, tiny observation: maybe I haven't read enough interpretivist anthropologists' essays to really get a true feeling of the genre here, but it irks me to no end when such an author takes a fairly large and dominant symbol -- the body, the devil (Douglas, Limon) -- and proposes to show how the culture(s) they're studying use and embody it, then go off on other completely different tangents and every once in a while throw in sentences like "the devil comes in many forms." "It is common for such cults to dance." That is too vague to be of much use. It is an almost painful treasure hunt going through their text picking out where they explicitly examine the symbolism and metaphors.
I suspect because they are not positivists they lay their findings out for the readers and expect the reader to come to the same conclusions they did, but just to be "sure" they'll throw in a little hint now and then: "you might say it's...evil? *Dr. Evil pinky*."
Call me simple, but if an author is going to examine symbols so deeply embedded in our culture, in ourselves, they need to be a little more demonstrative in their writing and analysis of their examples.