Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas: Palestine and The Other

I'll never forget when my dream of Israel died. I grew up in a family in which we were proud of Israel. We watched "Exodus" with joy. I could not understand Vanessa Redgrave claiming that Zionism was racism. And then came the Israeli massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila. I understood.

How did the dream of a homeland, a place free from discrimination and oppression, become oppression incarnate?

It's evidence, to me, why revolutions don't work. In a Derrida-esque way, the margin becomes the center and carries out marginalization of The Other, in this case Palestinians. Israel as a state, I am sorry to say, learned the wrong lessons from millennia of oppression of Jews - the state learned how to violently control the imagined enemy. That's not to say that some Palestinian groups are NOT the enemy. Clearly they are. But this is to a great extent a created enemy; the state moved from battle with local Palestinian farmers trying to keep their land and life, to the classification of an entire social group as terrorists.

The American valorization of Israel, especially in the 1950s, poses an interesting comparison to the recent U.S. election of Barack Obama. From student papers and overall analysis of media discourse, it's clear to me that even conservatives and others opposed to Obama on the basis of his goals and policies, his vision of civil society, were pleased that he won the election. They were celebratory because it proved that America is "no longer" racist. American support of Israel, I think, arose out of similar social processes. America was anti-Semitic (note our government's refusal to allow Jewish refugees from Europe into the U.S. until after WWII and 'discovery' of the concentration camps). American support of the dream of a Jewish homeland became, similarly, proof that we weren't anti-Semitic.

Does that make it true? Semitism, like racism, runs deeper than politics. Politics express the will of society - but, in a complex state society, only imperfectly because politics is also about power and strategy and compromise in the name of the art of getting things done. How basic cultural ideas are expressed in the political domain do not completely and accurately reflect those cultural ideas work. A conservative can support the idea of a Black president and still be racist in his or her everyday dealings with African-Americans. Similarly, anti-Semitism lies deep in American society. Here, we can use the concept of hegemony. The Christmas holidays permeate American life. Christmas is fundamental to our social and economic relationships - note how essential buying and selling at Christmas is to the American economy. It's the taken-for-granted, so that anyone who chooses not to participate in Christmas is labeled 'wrong' in some way. People who object to Christian nativity scenes are labeled as demanding special rights. The response of people of different subcultures in the U.S. has been to elevate whatever religious ritual they have around northern winter time to a celebration along the lines of Christmas. Hanukkah is a good example of this. Assimilation here means maintain a surface difference that marks membership in a group, but in its key points accedes to and incorporates the larger national ritual (the frenzy of consumerism). Fear of "The Other" (Arabs, Jews, African-Americans) continues, alleviated somewhat by evidence that "they're just like us" if they participate in the national rituals.

And the violence in Israel/Palestine continues. Palestinian children are bombed in their schools; pregnant women can not go to the hospital to give birth; Palestinians are daily harassed and humiliated at checkpoints; a wall is built to enclose "The Other."

So many Israelis support peace and justice. When will this become the dominant mode of interaction? The U.S. is complicit in the violence of the Israeli government. I am ashamed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Do Lefties Blame Soldiers?

I started to respond to today's post on DeathPower, but it was too long to post on someone else's blog.

DeathPower presents the heartrending statistics on the rates of suicide among Iraqi war vets. Great points and an important issue, but I took issue with his statement that "those on the left without such acquaintances often make the horrible mistake of blaming soldiers for the wars they are sent to fight."

It just ain't so.

It hit a sore point with me because of the kinds of urban legends that go around about the treatment of Vietnam War Vets by civilians and anti-war activists. These are used by the right to demonize the left. In fact, stories of returning soldiers being spit on by hippies are apocryphal (“it happened to the cousin of a friend of mine”). I know quite a few Viet Vets (from both sides!) from my work in SE Asia, and their anger is reserved for government policy (and the VFW in the case of Americans, which wouldn't let Viet Vets join because they weren't vets of a formally-designated foreign war!). The cutbacks on services to returning military began then and continue today.

Anti-Iraq war activists, in fact, have made a significant point of making their opposition about policy and the government and not about those who join and carry out the military mission. Sometimes they're a little elitist in their analysis of why people join, but analysis often sounds elitist because it's about looking at the system as a whole. Anti-war activists today are, I think, riffing off of John Kerry's "Winter Soldier" testimony: "We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out." He said the war had made him and his fellow vets into criminals at the behest of the government.

In fact, a bigger issue for the left is the way that the government has left vets hanging – cutbacks in GI Bill benefits, lack of access to medical care, and particularly lack of access to quality and consistent mental health care. PTSD shows up among many people who have experienced violent, traumatic events. Psychotherapy can make a huge difference in their lives. Why isn't money put into that?

We can disagree as to whether people should judge a particular government's actions as immoral, but that's not the same as being anti-soldier. We can probably all agree that, regardless of our politics, veterans are mistreated by the government. That was true of Vietnam War Vets and it's true if Middle East War Vets today.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Nietsche Family Circus

A randomly generated pairing of a Family Circus cartoon and a quote from Neitsche. Strangely and absurdly amusing, especially if you grew up wondering why this inane cartoon has such a long run!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Discussion of AAVE "Savage Minds"

On May 20th, 2008, Kerim wrote about AAVE on the anthro group blog "Savage Minds."

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is something I teach frequently in anthropology classes, both Intro to Cultural Anthro and Anthropology of Communication. It’s a useful ethnographic example as I’ve been teaching in urban colleges and universities, particularly in an arts and media school and a predominantly Black university. Looking at the history and the sociolinguistics of AAVE is a great way to talk about issues of the broader system in which agency takes place.
An initial post-er disputed the idea that “because AAVE exists, it means that there are people who don’t want to [conform] to white culture.” In fact, my observations are that in fact there are people who don’t want to conform to White culture and their use of AAVE can be a very conscious statement of that. That’s not a rejection of economic advancement, it’s a rejection of the terms of economic advancement, which have historically been closed to much of this population. What we, as anthropologists, can do is look at what AAVE does in a range of social relationships.
One point of debate was whether people can choose their dialects. I hold that most cannot. They learn their natal dialect; that is the process of language socialization, and this becomes a child’s first language. For many (by no means all!) urban, working-class African-American children, AAVE is their natal language. They choose this as much as any person chooses their culture. However, people might choose to code switch when that’s socially possible. We need to look at who code switches or not, why, when (in what setting, with whom).
For instance, many of my Black students and friends are very emphatically opposed to AAVE, which they term Ebonics or, more often, ‘slang.’ And yet in their most vigorous defenses of Standard English, you can hear them segue into the phonetics of AAVE, for instance, /aks/ for /ask/. They don’t intend to do this, they don’t want to do this. Upwardly-mobile people might hyper-correct (over-pronounce the /sk/, for instance).
To understand this, I think we need to look at the separate parts of language, some of which are very conscious and some of which are so deeply embedded into our cognition and language that it’s nearly unconscious. Phonetics tends to be deeply embedded; studies of language socialization show that infants can recognize the sounds of their parents’ native language (the one spoken to the infant) within a days of their birth. The human mouth is capable of making 100s of sounds, but most languages use only a small number of those possible sounds (see, for instance, the chapter on language in Nanda & Warms, Cultural Anthropology).
Grammar is also deeply embedded in our cognition, part of the taken-for-granted. An example I give for this is Pijin languages. In the Solomon Islands, I learned Kwaio (an Austronesian language) by first learning Pijin and then gradually slotting in Kwaio words in my Pijin talk (until I morphed into speaking Kwaio exclusively). Pijin was a trade language. The vocabulary was at least nominally English (specifically, British English of the early 20th century), but pronunciation (phonetics) and grammar (syntax) more closely followed the rules of the Austronesian languages spoken in the Solomon Islands, particularly on the island of Malaita. They fit the new vocabulary into their existing language structures, and I made use of that syntactical structure of Pijin to learn Kwaio (a reverse engineering, I suppose).
Vocabulary is much more transient. We all pick up new words all the time, when there is occasion for it (for instance, in a 101 class in university, a big part of what students are doing is learning new vocabulary). Yet, for some reason, both African –Americans and ethnically White people associate AAVE with ‘slang,’ or vocabulary.
These are some of the ‘laws of language’ that create and maintain AAVE.
The political issue is why Black folks still speak AAVE. AAVE is also maintained by the existence of ethnic enclaves. Clearly this is due in large part to historical and present-day segregation. On the level of interpersonal relations, there are social costs to a Black person who chooses to speak Standard English. They are labeled “mama’s girl” or “acting White” and seen as rejecting their social peers. A great example of this can be seen in the film “American Tongues” (produced and directed by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, 1988). This is sociolinguistics. Speaking AAVE conveys information about social relationships among people, it makes someone a member of a group. When you know that you are in a world that rejects you, the security of being an accepted member of your group is significant.
Of course “we don’t make choices outside of history and outside of ideology,” as one post-er put it, but we are active agents within our own system. African-Americans who speak AAVE are no more automatons in the face of structure and system than we are on this list and there is evidence of their intentions. I have attended Trinity Universal Church of Christ; many of my students are members of the congregation and employees of Trinity; and I have in-laws who are African Nationalists. They absolutely reject the hegemony of White culture. That does not mean that they reject economic advancement. They seek, rather, to build the economic base of their own community. I think this is inherently impossible as the economic wealth of their community must ultimately be built on inflows from the mainstream culture, but that is their ideology. And there are unintended consequences to these choices due to institutionalized racism in American culture, for instance, the assumption that someone speaking AAVE is uneducated, lazy, unemployed, working class, criminal, dangerous, “not one of us.”
There is evidence of people choosing to speak Standard English as a political (or class) stance; note the forceful acceptance of the correctness of Standard English by the upper classes of African-Americans (the “talented tenth,” W.E.B. DuBois). Reject of AAVE is a class strategy for upward-mobility.
When I teach, I also place this discussion in the context of the English Only movement in the United States, and here we return to Kerim’s initial post. Think of the huge outcry against “Ebonics” in the 1980s. Why did people care so much and why is it still talked about today? The Ebonics Resolution arose out of work linguists had done on how the teach the reading and writing of Standard English to students who had grown up using AAVE almost exclusively. It was called the Bridge Program and it was very successful. The goal was to educate teachers on the specific phonetic and syntactical features of AAVE so that (1) they would recognize these as linguistic differences and not as evidence of learning disabilities; and (2) to give teachers specific exercises and tools to clearly explicate the differences between AAVE and SE that children needed to learn so as to read and write Standard English. As John Rickford, a linguist specializing in dialects, pointed out, we’ve been using ‘immersion’ for years and it is not working. Huge numbers of young African-American, predominantly male students (young, urban, African-American males are the predominant speakers of ‘pure’ AAVE) are failing. Immersion isn’t working, so why not try something else? This program was also supported by William Labov (a linguist specializing in American dialects). We need to understand this controversy in terms of the ways in which speaking SE is a marker of membership of the community of American citizens, so that speaking a different dialect of English is seen as a rejection of the rights of citizenship.
Most discussion of “Black English” is in the negative – let’s explain how they’re different. But a good anthropologist needs to understand the context of positive cultural values of AAVE. Aside from expressing affection and belonging in social relationships, it is a language that gives free form to certain kinds of metaphor and story-telling. In teaching, I use studies of “The Signifying Monkey” and “Shine on the Titanic” to illustrate traditions of story-telling that extended up through Dolomite (a comedian who is sometimes referred to as “the godfather of rap”) and on to hip-hop. I usually also discuss “signifying” or “playing the dozens,” linguistic forms of competitive insult that are highly positively marked in segments of the African-American community (particularly men, particularly working class men, but by no means confined to this segment).
BTW, Labov and Rickford argue that in fact there’s a national AAVE that show remarkable coherence over time and region; and that the numbers of AAVE speakers have increased with the end of segregation as more urban poor are left behind in the cities.
I’ve lots of references, but here’s a few:
Rickford and Rickford, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, 2000
Labov, William, “Can Reading Failure be Reversed: A Linguistic Approach to the Question,” in Literacy Among African-American Youth, 1995
See also William Labov’s 1997 Testimony to Congress on Ebonics and the Bridge Program
One of the points brought up by a European post-er was this assumption that my statement of diversity and difference was an inherent statement of hierarchy. He didn’t say it in so many words, but that’s what he kept on assuming. Why?
I know that American have a hard time with difference. We say everyone has a right to be different and my students most emphatically believe that they are each unique. In fact, it’s important to reinforce, repeatedly, that recognizing real cultural patterns of difference is not the same as stereotyping. (Why it’s not is a different blog.)

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Partnering Qualitatitive and Quantitative Methods in Environmental Anthropology

This is from a presentation I gave at the 2008 SfAA meetings for a session entitled "Methods Madness."

Partnering Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Environmental Research
Urban Environmentalism in the Calumet Region of Chicago

Urban Environmentalism

Local level environmental activism in an ethnically mixed working class region of Chicago – how are the networks of activism formed and maintained; when and where, if at all, these local-level groups mix; and why they don’t join together on issues of common interest (as stakeholders in the environmental health of the region); how to encourage broader activism.

Further delineating the behavioral factors that contribute to maintaining network boundaries among ethnic groups; core environmental attitudes and interests among different social groups, particularly which institutional resources they use to carry out their goals (toxic waste clean up, industrial emissions, clean water, economic development, etc.).

“Not Good At Partnering?”
Original project
SfAA/EPA Technical fellowship
EPA wanted to know what a ‘legitimate’ community representative was
The “take me to your leader” approach to community outreach
Concern that minority groups were not involved with the EPA
“Communities are too busy with lack of jobs, gangs, drugs, to be interested in environmental issues.”

Why Anthropologists?
Tracing emergent relationships and beliefs that are so significant in political interactions
Often not ‘discursive knowledge’ – not easily consciously expressed
Our Motto: “When you have fuzzy data, you need a fuzzy scientist.”

Why Quantitative Methods?
Policy significance
In a diverse urban setting, numbers speak
Assuring policy-makers that analysis is based on a representative portion of a politically significant population

Goals of the Project
Training students in a mixed methods – the method to suit the problem
Training local people in methods for community service and environmental activism
Calumet Higher Education Environmental Ed Initiative, a consortium for science education in NW Indiana/SE Chicago
Facilitating interdisciplinary cooperation in researching environmental sciences (GCC!)

Goals of the Project
Policy & Education @ Chicago State University
Providing training, data, and tools for analysis to community activists
Fred Blum Neighborhood Assistance Center
Calumet Environmental Resource Center
Putting research and analytical tools in the hands of community activists
When community leaders take their plans to government agencies, they need solid research to support their plans

Research Goals of the Project
Research Topic
Explore the ethnic boundaries enacted/expressed in separation of White Ethnic and African-American community organizations and environmental groups
The everyday practice of difference

Use of Public Space
From Interviews: Original project noted people of different ethnic groups used space differently
Different activities, durations, and spatial and temporal segregation of public spaces

Debates about ‘ownership’ and ‘appropriate use’ of public space are flashpoints in ethnic relations
Definitions of public/private space
Neighborhoods and their parks as extension of domestic space
Issues re: freedom of access/civil rights.
Such green space is often urban people’s main point of contact with ‘the environment’ and is seen as environmental activists as key in encouraging greater interest in ‘greening’ Chicago.

Hypothesis re: Use of Parks
There is a significant difference in use of parks based on ethnicity
Will avoid class at this time as most local people are working and lower middle class

Instantaneous scan sampling based on activity
At set times, follow people on entry to park and record activity as soon as it is clear what they are doing.
Randomized sampling in terms of time, as time of day is a key issue; also need to consider season.
Do across school semester, but then must consider inter-observer agreement if different groups of students collect data over time
Difficulties: park is spread out; age, gender, and race of observer/observed; safety issues for observers
With sufficient # of observations, should be able to determine duration
Training and Education
Useful in giving students ability to gain knowledge, become ‘experts,’ understand research, etc.
Taking control of the production of scientific knowledge / and learning to be scientists …

Meetings & Networks
In diverse urban settings where family/home and work are separated, meetings become constitutive of community (Eve Pinsker)
We observed very different networks of meetings
Original method: snowball sampling
First entry point: Lake Calumet Ecosystem Partnership, carried us into predominantly white ethnic groups
Re-start for entry into Black networks
Role of “brokers” – social positionality congruent with info between multi-group (govt agency) levels and neighborhoods
White ethnic – retired, self-employed, laid off
African-American – ‘welfare mothers,’ ‘unemployable’ men
Each network has links to different sets of agencies
White ethnic – national, regional, and governmental environmental groups
African-American – civil rights groups and govt health agencies

Research Goals
Results for activism, connections with government agencies
White Ethnic more tied into and skilled at negotiating with regional and national environmental organizations and EPA
Activists: teachers, retired, self-employed, downsized (underemployed)
African-American ties with county/state health centers, local non-profits
Activists: “Welfare mothers,” young men unable to get regular employment

That different settings/atmospheres affect communication in multi-group meetings; African-American and White Ethnic are listened to differentially in settings that are mediated by upper middle class professionals and experts
Goal is to see who gets to speak, when, what reactions are, etc., to trace out cultural conflict and power relations as expressed in policy oriented meetings. Whose view gets validated and reinforced, and whose is cut out, and how?
Attention sampling
Observe speaker (demographic characteristics), who listens (length of time of looking at speaker), length of time speaking, interruption
Note of type of meeting
Location / setting
Organizer – who is at the front of the room?
Analysis: Is there a significant difference in attention paid to speakers based on identity of speaker and meeting setting?

Education & Training
Accessible to students
Different sort of behavioral observation experience from scan sampling @ parks
Experience in attending large multi-group meetings (umbrella organizations, government agencies)

Values, Beliefs
Observation and interviews showed different ways of talking about the environment and how people saw themselves in it
White Ethnic working and middle class
Discourse of rehabilitating their place in the interests of community development (regaining strong economic base)
Pride of place
Economic and social vibrancy
African-American working and lower middle class
Physical health, individual control
Community solidarity, community development
Civil rights (environmental justice)

“Hypothesis” (not there yet)
Is there a difference? What is it?
Interviews with community activists on their work, their perception of their environment, how they came to this form of activism, why it is important, desired end goals
Generally open-ended
Analyze the texts for key phrases
‘Discourse’ analysis – how often words/phrases are used and what other words/phrases they are in association with
Secondary: Main focus is members of different ethnic groups, but at another time might be useful to carry out similar set with ‘economic growth’ oriented activists? That is, specialist groups with different sorts of interests in environmental issues
Developers, aldermen, business owners
Extract important or controversial or opposing ideas from interview transcripts, continue to sort into a core of statements
Use this as basis of “fixed form survey” Cf. Kempton et al. (mapping from semi-structured interviews to corresponding survey questions)
Survey questions based on these statements in various forms
Strong, weak, opposite
Agree or disagree?
Which groups to survey?
Endless supply: academics, church-goers, women at Altgeld Gardens, fishermen, people involved in “Good Neighbor Dialogues,” developers, small businessmen, former steel workers (union lodge on 110th), neighborhood organizations
Focus, though, on community organizations

Goal is to determine agreement among individuals and groups – do data fit a cultural consensus model?
Is there evidence of shared knowledge within each group? (That agreement reflects shared knowledge.)
Is there evidence, therefore, of a common culture within these groups?
Provisionally assume there is, but be prepared for heterogeneity!
What patterns of shared cultural knowledge arise?

Methods / Training & Education
Interviews and analysis of interviews
This will be more intensive for students

Also consider: Cultural domain analysis
Free-listing, pile sorting
At entry level, this could be accessible to students and for informants
Especially as we move into study of non-specialist informants

Initial observation: Differences in ways environmental activism took place – interests, issues, partners

The PowerPoint looked better. As you can see, this is a work in progress.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Dissertation: Transformations in Lisu Social Structure


This is about strategies and tactics in a Lisu village in the face of radical changes in their agricultural economy, particularly the end of opium cultivation and the establishment of watershed/forest reserves on the territory they once farmed.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ann Soetaro and anthropology in Hawaii

The NYT of March 14, 2008, has this article about Ann Soetoro, now famous as the mother of presidential candidate Barack Obama.

I meet Ann when we were both graduate students at the University of Hawaii. In the summer of 1986, I was writing my Master's Thesis and she was working on her Doctoral Dissertation. Years later, writing my own dissertation, I thought often of a conversation we had about how different writing a thesis or dissertation was from writing reports on development projects. Both of us were used to writing under a deadline for a project, but this thesis thing was different. As Ann put it, every sentence had to be considered, all facts in that sentence proved - it took a lot longer than either of us anticipated!

She was respected in the Anthropology Department at the University of Hawaii. She was both highly creative and deeply meticulous. She was an excellent scholar and a socially involved human being. I really admired her. This article does a nice job of capturing who she was -- in just three short pages.

I also remember her talking very proudly of her son. Who could imagine I'd be hearing so much about him years later!

I also enjoyed this article because of the quotes from lots of old colleagues, friends, and teachers.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Race as a Cover for Class

Look at these popular websites:



I first learned of these on an mp3 blog, The Music Slut. It's a place to hear the newest in alt-indie music.

These "white people" web sites are funny as commentary on the habits of young people in the upper middle classes rather than Whiteness per se. The targets are yuppies or yuppies-to-be (as are the authors, although I'm quite sure they'd disagree).

What is a yuppie, you ask? I know when I first heard of yuppies -- it was in a Zippy the Pinhead comic around 1981-1982 about how hippies and yippies had transmogrified into totally goal-oriented, ambitious, driven, and materialistic young adults, a comment on the ways in which the free-spirited, anarchistic ideals of the hippies had disappeared. Thus, yuppie, a play on hippy or yippie, meaning young upwardly-mobile professionals. I was struck by this as I had left the U.S. in 1979 and returned in the early 1980s to a fundamentally different world from the one I'd left.

But that's not how it's used today. Today, it is a way to talk about well-to-do white people in non-racial terms. And now, in keeping with post-modern ironic humor, it's become humorous to talk directly about these same sociocultural traits in terms of whiteness. It's the white version of David Chappelle without the anger and the self-critical awareness.

And yet it all still dances around the core issues of who has power and who doesn't have power. It's a way to talk about the wealthy without acknowledging class. Because, you know, "we don't have class in America" and "we're all middle class" (cf. the great PBS documentary by Louis Alvarez, People Like Us).

In fact, it serves to further mystify privilege because if you can make these kinds of jokes about the wealthy dominant group in America, you can't be one of them, so no one can hold you responsible for the system of power from which you benefit.

Initial Post

I'm not really blogging, so sorry to disappoint anyone. I mean, I'd like to, but I'm not one of those keep-up-the-news-every-week kind of people.

Really, I want a spot to occasionally publish things I'm writing so that I can direct people to it and get their feedback. Beats clogging up everyone's email boxes with attachments.

And, as I develop online courses for my university, this ought to be useful.

So, later.