Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Critique of Anthropology

I've just finished reading The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacificedited by Philip R. DeVita. The nineteenth chapter is titled: "An Anthropologist as Travel Writer' by Robert Tonkinson. He said something near the beginning of his essay about the realities of Anthropology that made me think of a dilemma in the anthropological world at the beginning of the Iraq/Afghanistan war.

He wrote:

"... anthropologists, the askers of a million questions, have been condemned in some countries as being CIA agents. (Who else would be so nosy?) In others, the close identification of anthropology with the colonial period has rendered its practitioners suspect. And in some cased, the mistaken belief that we study only "primitive" peoples leads to rejection, in favor of those who designate their work "sociological". (p.159)

On war,

"Globalization has long since replaced wars of liberation. Long gone is any moral clarity that earlier anthropologists might have had, or thought they had, to guide them through their ethical dilemmas. There was even a time when anthropologists could volunteer to participate in a “just” war rather than refusing to sanction an “unjust” one. That luxury, most likely, no longer exists in practice." The whole article is here.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) cites that it is up to the individual Anthropologists to decide what is ethical for themselves. Their last amendment to their Code of Ethics recognized this: "1998:
AAA members adopted a new Code of Ethics drafted by the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics, chaired by James Peacock. This code states, “because anthropologists can find themselves in complex situations and subject to more than one code of ethics, the AAA Code of Ethics provides a framework, not an ironclad formula, for making decisions.”"

The discussion came about because of PRISP (Pat Robert's Intelligence Scholars Program). It's described here

Inside Higher has been following the stories from the AAA. On November 29, 2007 they wrote: "A special panel of the American Anthropological Association — after spending more than a year studying the question of whether its ethical standards should bar ties to the military and intelligence agencies — issued a report Wednesday that recommended tighter scrutiny of such work, but explicitly affirmed the possibility that it could be conducted ethically in some cases.

“We do not oppose anthropologists engaging with the military, intelligence, defense of other institutions or organizations,” the report says. “Neither, however, do we advocate that anthropologists actively seek employment or funding from national security programs. We see circumstances in which engagement can be preferable to detachment or opposition, but we recognize that certain kinds of engagement would violate the AAA Code of Ethics and thus must be called to the community’s collective attention, critiqued and repudiated.”

The next day there was a follow-up article discussing the ethics of anthropologists involved in military and intelligence projects.

In December of 2007, Time magazine published an article about the recruitment of Anthropologists and other social scientists for their Human Terrain project in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So where do I stand? I agree that some good could come from working with the military and intelligence agencies. And as you raise/arch your eyebrow at me let me tell you that a good anthropologist can do a hell of a lot better than those trouble-making, culture wrecking missionaries!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Land of Naked People

I just finished reading the book The Land of Naked People by Madhusree Mukerjee. The book describes her research into the Andaman Islanders. They are described as the last Stone Age people.

Wikipedia article on the Andaman Islands

While reading her account and the historical pieces she's added, I couldn't believe that the colonial practices of the past were alive and well today. The book was published in 2003 and at the time of her visit to the islands, 1997, the same practices of forced relocation, introduction of intoxicants and alcohol, settlements of foreigners, rape of the forests and livelihood of the islanders, racist mockery, forced conversions, etc. were still being practiced. The people were decimated by the colonial administration who didn't really care about the welfare of their charges as much as they did their jobs.

She returned in 2003 just before publishing her book to follow up and try to get to the last island, the Sentinel Island. She saw the people left alone and unmolested. She couldn't get to the island because some of the Tribesmen scared her boat off with nocked arrows. She was happy that they had still remained as they were.

The most isolated community in the world is the Sentinelese which inhabits North Sentinel Island. The first ever friendly contact was made shortly in 1991 and only very few contacts have been made ever since. Accidentally drifted fishermen from other islands in the Andamans have been killed in recent years and a helicopter was send to investigate after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which also struck the Andamans - the helicopter was attacked by naked tribal warriors with bows and arrows and left the island before landing – fortunately this event proved that this magnificent culture survived the tsunami. The Sentinelese tribal people, which has been called the last Stone Age tribe in the world, live in temporary huts and both men and women are naked. They lack the skills to make fire and a word to describe a number greater than two. The estimated population is only 100.

A Sentinelese man aims his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over his island on Dec. 28, surveying for tsunami damage.
© Indian Coast Guard/AP
Image Source:

The book is a testament to the hunter-gatherer culture. Their lives are so intricately wound in their environment, that when unbalanced by the colonial intrusion, they began to die off and become barren. As their lush tropical island was denuded of trees and the beach hauled away truck-loads at a time, they too began to decline. The more the colonial government intervened to "civilize" them, the more they began to fade.

The book was enlightening as much as it was troubling. I appreciate her honesty and forthrightness. Dr. Mukerjee didn't gloss over anything.

She wrote the book in 2003. The following year in 2004 the Tsunami struck that part of the world. While many thousands of people perished, the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands survived. Here's one report.

There is good news, at least from the anthropological front: "It will now be our avowed policy to minimise unnecessary and inappropriate contact between the primitive tribes and settlers [from Indian mainland],"

To learn more about the Andaman people, visit the official website.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Great Treasure in Mali

In my readings I have read about how Africa is the "continent without history". For the most part because it was believed that the people of Africa had no written language or history of their own. To that end Africa suffered the ultimate colonial seige during the Scramble for Africa

However, it has been lately proven that the so called "Dark Continent" may not have been as unenlightened as once thought. The Muslim world knew about the great University at Timbuktu in Mali. There are a great number of histories written about life in Muslim West Africa most notably Ibn Battuta and, Al Umari's works. More recently, J.F.P. Hopkins and Nehemia Levtzion's book, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History lists many authors across millenia who have written about Africa. 

The Africans also wrote for themselves. They wrote in Arabic as well as their own languages. The books are slowly being discovered and recovered by various research groups and personal family libraries. The most important is the Timbuktu Libraries project which has over 20, 000 books in their growing collection and they are as old as 500 years! Thanks to the same desert that destroyed the University, the books were preserved in the dry climate. 

You should also travel around the site in the above link to see what has been done to date. 

The books are not only being restored or repaired, but are also being copied into electronic format so they can eventually be accessed electronically. We now have a fresh look into history that has been written by others. We can see what they have to say about their own affairs and those of their neighbours. 

Professor Emeritus John O. Hunwick is a leading scholar in this project. For those history buffs who are interested in the Gothic kingdoms and history, he wrote a paper about finding references in the African writings about the Visigoths.  I suspect that there are more, just not documented. 

au revoir 

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cultural Festivals

This is the August long weekend in Edmonton and that means the Heritage Festival at Hawrelak Park. It has even earned a place in Wikipedia.

The Heritage Festival was intended as a showcase of Edmonton's ethnic diversity. Since its inception in 1974, it has grown from a one-day event to a three day event hosting almost half a million people and according to this year's news release 75 cultures. 

It's staged authenticity. That is, various cultures are recreated far from their original source in an image that is pleasing to the visitors. It becomes a tourist setting. It is actually what tourists want to experience about other cultures without all the negative stuff. Tourists want to feel like the experience was real. They want to feel they have experienced a positive aspect of another culture without the expense and hassle of traveling. 

The participants, those who put on the shows and food and displays, are very happy to share these aspects of their culture. They feel a sense of place within the larger community and show that their culture is just as rich and diverse as everyone else's. 

Chhabra, Healy and Sills (2003) write; 

"In terms of demand, heritage tourism is representative of many contemporary visitor's desire (hereafter, tourists) to directly experience and consume diverse past and present cultural landscapes, performances, foods, handicrafts, and participatory activities. On the supply side, heritage tourism is widely looked to as a tool for community economic development and is often actively promoted by local governments and private businesses." (703)

Oh ya, I forgot about the money. ;0p

Another factor to consider at heritage festivals is that search for authenticity. In travel, tourists try to "get off the beaten path" to experience what Goffman calls back spaces, that is the places that tourists suppose aren't for them, a bit of the authentic. However, Goffman insists that these areas are also staged authenticity. They are designed for those people who deliberately go off the beaten track. There are back spaces at heritage festivals too. You get to see how the participants set up their own spaces, how they use these spaces and what they want you to experience.

If you read your program, you'll see all these elements are in there.

Go! Have fun! Experience something new and wonderful! 

If you've ever traveled to any of the countries represented in the festival, are you able to see the difference? Is there a unique Alberta interpretation to culture?   


Chhabra, Deepak., Robert Healy and Erin Sills. 2003. "Staged authenticity and heritage tourism" in Annals of Tourism Research. Vol. 30, No. 3. pp. 702-719.

Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

MacCannell, Dean. 1973. "Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in tourist settings" in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 79. No. 3 (Nov. 1973). pp. 589-603. Available online

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why the attic?

I've always loved rummaging through old houses, especially the attics. Attics are tiny time capsules of our lives. We store our memories and our connections to our history there.

I find that when I allow myself to be immersed in history it envelopes me and takes me back. That mental journey back allows me to feel and experience the whole journey and know the connections to our present.

There's more than junk in the attic.

As a socio-cultural anthropologist, I want to know about people and how they plug into their place in time and society and their connections.

ciao for now,

C'est Moi