Anthropology

A political scientist in the slaughterhouse

October 1, 2009
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A political scientist in the slaughterhouse

A recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education begins with a description of the five and a half months that Timothy S. Pachirat, one of the contributors to Edward Schatz’s new book Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power, spent working in a Midwest slaughterhouse—”hanging beef livers on hooks,” and using electric prods to move cattle into the holding pens. Such work is not the norm for a PhD in political science. But as the Chronicle‘s David Glenn explains, a few intrepid individuals in political science (taking a cue from anthropologists) have abandoned reliance on statistics and polls, turning instead to ethnographic fieldwork in order to gain a better understanding of how public opinion is really shaped. In Pachirat’s case, Glenn writes, his fieldwork “allowed him to ‘illuminate in tangible ways the political and ethical consequences of the delegation of dirty, dangerous, and demeaning work.’ Only participant-observation, says, can give a full picture of how workers, managers, and federal health inspectors experience power relations.” “If nothing else,” as Glenn quotes another of the book’s contributors, Katherine Cramer Walsh, “such observation might give pollsters intelligent ideas about what questions to ask.” (Walsh’s own fieldwork on political . . .

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Debating end-of-life issues

September 16, 2009
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Debating end-of-life issues

Thanks to a certain former governor from Alaska, “death panels” (and the attendant fear that the Obama administration will somehow decide when and how Americans die) have gained increasing currency in the health-care reform debate. Despite repeated assurances from the administration that the bill calls for no such thing (and evidence from fact-checking organizations that dispute Palin’s claim), a new poll shows that 41% of Americans believe that “senior citizens or seriously-ill patients would die because government panels would prevent them from getting the medical treatment they needed.” This week, Newsweek magazine devoted its cover to an article (not-so-subtly) titled “The Case for Killing Granny.” The piece argues that “the need to spend less money on the elderly at the end of life is the elephant in the room in the health-reform debate” and that in order to rein in health care costs, we, as a nation, despite how uneasy it makes us, are going to need to confront this reality. As the article suggests, “Americans are afraid not just of dying, but of talking and thinking about death. Until Americans learn to contemplate death as more than a scientific challenge to be overcome, our health-care system will remain unfixable.” . . .

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The organization behind the Burning Man

September 9, 2009
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The organization behind the Burning Man

Last weekend Nevada’s Black Rock Desert once again played host to the annual alternative community / neo-pagan festival known as the Burning Man. And since 2005 Katherine K. Chen author of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event has been there, helping to organize efforts to safely and successfully execute the festival—which can attract upwards of 40,000 people—and organize its participants into a temporary alternative community where (according to the official Burning Man website) “transactions of value take place without money, advertising, or hype…” and “care emerges in place of structural service.” In her book, she draws on her own first-hand experiences of the Burning Man event and its unique community, to offer some fascinating insights into how the event’s organizers have managed to pull it off. And beginning this week, she will also be offering her insights on the event as a new guest blogger at orgtheory.net. In her first post she demonstrates how analysis of such “unusual” cases of civic organization such as the Burning Man can be used to understand larger phenomena. Navigate over to orgtheory.net to read. Also, visit the author’s own Enabling Creative Chaos blog. . . .

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From the Earth to the Moon and back

July 21, 2009
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From the Earth to the Moon and back

Where were you on July 20, 1969? Newspapers all over the United States posed this question to readers over the past couple of days, generating hundreds of responses that explain how the moon landing, with its worldwide scale, also had countless much more personal dimensions. “At that moment I had serious doubts about the relevance of our hard work and the ordering of my personal priorities,” remembers a then-student archaeologist. “We had the technology to put a man on the moon,” a Vietnam veteran remembers thinking, “yet here I am, dirty and worn out, fighting like it was 1869.” At the National Review Online, John Derbyshire remembers being at work as a bartender in Liverpool when “in a fragile contraption hurled by a spasm of burning gases across a quarter million miles of empty space (and built, as it happens, less than ten miles from my present home), human beings set themselves down on the surface of another world, in an alien landscape.” Though the unfamiliar landscape he traverses is a bit closer to home, and though the moon he writes of is artificial, Phillip Graham’s forthcoming The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon has more in common with . . .

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A conversation about the looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage

April 20, 2009
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A conversation about the looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage

In April of 2003, in the wake of a violent counter-insurgency, thousands of priceless relics from ancient Mesopotamian civilization were stolen from Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad. Despite the presence of an American tank unit, the pillaging went unchecked, and more than 15,000 artifacts—some of the oldest evidence of human culture—disappeared into the shadowy worldwide market in illicit antiquities. Since then, the looting and vandalism of the world’s cultural heritage in Iraq saw an increase as gangs continued to loot artifacts that had previously been unexcavated, and though on February 23, 2009 the museum was reopened by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, many of its artifacts have yet to be restored. Recently Lawrence Rothfield, author of The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, joined the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s David Glenn to discuss the reasons for the failure to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage and what might be done to prevent it in the future. From the Chronicle: Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003? Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi . . .

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Press Release: Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia

March 31, 2009
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Press Release: Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia

As President Obama begins the process of bringing America’s six-year occupation of Iraq to an end, it’s important that the public and the military alike learn from the mistakes that dogged the war from the start. Of all those errors, perhaps the most preventable—and irreparable—was the failure to protect Iraq’s unparalleled cultural heritage from the wholesale looting and destruction that followed the invasion and continues to this day. With The Rape of Mesopotamia, Lawrence Rothfield offers a detailed, judicious account of the failures of planning, understanding, and initiative that led to the looting of the Iraq Museum and the incalculable loss to human culture that followed. Drawing on extensive interviews with soldiers, bureaucrats, war planners, archaeologists, and collectors, Rothfield reveals the breathtaking incompetence and inadequate planning—originating at the highest levels of the U.S. government—that left the troops on the ground unprepared for and unable to stop the looting they saw occurring all around them. At the same time, Rothfield shows, preservation advocates worldwide were insufficiently vocal about the risks the invasion posed to Iraq’s heritage, while the collectors who inhabit the shadowy worldwide market for illicit antiquities ensured the demand that the looters fulfilled. Ultimately, Rothfield brings his story right . . .

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The “rogue colony” of New Orleans

December 12, 2008
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The “rogue colony” of New Orleans

The December 10 edition of the Nation contains a fascinating article about the long and colorful history of New Orleans that enlists Shannon Lee Dawdy’s new book Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans to help explain how New Orleans acquired it’s “rogue character” and became the unique, multicultural city we know today. Joshua Jelly-Schapiro writes for the Nation: Effectively abandoned by the French crown in 1731, the colony was governed from that time by local elites, its levee becoming a bustling free-for-all of traders peddling everything from Mississippi furs to Martinique sugar and Mexican ceramics and maize. New Orleans’s reputation as a low swamp of race-mixing and sin was present from the start and—as Shannon Lee Dawdy shows in Building the Devil’s Empire, her penetrating study of the colony’s founding—cited frequently as the explanation for its “failure.” In French New Orleans, “smuggling not only helped fill the gaps of collapsed mercantilism,” Dawdy writes, “it was the basis of the local political economy.…” Dawdy shows clearly how Nouvelle-Orléans—with its intra-American trade and tenuous ties to the metropole—became, by the 1740s, a self-consciously Creole place.… That Creole identity informed France’s decision to let the estranged colony go, as Louis XV . . .

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“Who knew Camus had something to say about gardens?”

December 8, 2008
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“Who knew Camus had something to say about gardens?”

If you’re living in the northern U.S. it is likely that your garden is presently covered under several inches of snow, but as a recent article in the New York Times demonstrates, through the long winter months many gardeners never cease thinking about them. Writing for yesterday’s “Sunday Book Review” Dominique Browning offers a list of a few of her favorite gardening books for midwinter reading that includes Robert Pogue Harrison’s new book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Browning writes: The year’s most thought-provoking, original and weighty garden book (though the lightest in heft) is Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. Here the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and The Dominion of the Dead, a book about cemeteries and burial practices, turns his thoughts to the garden as “sanctuary of repose.” Making a garden fulfills, as Harrison puts it, “a distinctly human need, as opposed to shelter, which is a distinctly animal need.” Burrowing into a more refined issue than what makes a garden, he meditates on why we garden. It’s impossible to summarize the answer, overflowing as his book is with eccentric connections and voracious readings, ranging over centuries and . . .

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The “coming home” of the black midle class

September 8, 2008
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The “coming home” of the black midle class

Julia Vitullo-Martin has an interesting review of Derek S. Hyra’s new book, The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville, in Sunday’s New York Post. In his book Hyra looks at the nation’s two most important historic, urban black neighborhoods—New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville—to explore the shifting dynamics of class and race as these two iconic black communities undergo an unprecedented period of gentrification. From the Post review: Hyra’s most fundamental concern: As these neighborhoods come back economically, what will happen to their poor residents? Hyra notes that both Bronzeville and Harlem are “revitalizing without drastic racial changeover.” In the last 10 years, Central Harlem’s white population increased to 2% from 1.5%, and the white proportion in Bronzeville increased to 4% from 2.5%. Yet while Hyra is very worried about the displacement of the poor, he argues that class antagonism is actually important to the redevelopment of formerly impoverished communities. Black middle-class values translate into effective political activity and organizations, including block clubs, planning boards and religiously affiliated community development corporations. The problem, as he sees it, is that the “coming home” of the black middle class will produce a neighborhood in which poor blacks are . . .

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Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been exaggerated

July 17, 2008
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Iran’s nuclear capabilities have been exaggerated

William O. Beeman, whose book The Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other was reprinted last year by the press, teamed up with nuclear scientist Dr. Behrad Nakhai to write an interesting commentary on Iran’s nuclear activity posted yesterday to the New American Media website. In the article Beeman argues against rumors in the media about Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, saying that while “Iran is engaged in peaceful nuclear research” it is still far from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, and suggests that claims to the contrary have been fabricated to bolster Israeli official’s “requests for the Bush administration’s blessing to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.” Read the full article on the New American Media website or find out more about Beeman’s book here. . . .

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