anthro in the news 7/4/16

Presidential woes in Afghanistan

Source: Adam Ferguson/The New Yorker
Source: Adam Ferguson/The New Yorker

The New Yorker carried a long piece describing the role of Ashraf Ghani, who trained as a cultural anthropologist, as president of Afghanistan. It is entitled, Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief, with this question appearing in the subtitle: Can he save his country from collapse? The answer is: likely not, mainly because his presidency is at risk. The article quotes Scott Guggenheim, a World Bank advisor to Ghani: “Ashraf’s biggest problem is not that he’s a bad politician but that he has a twenty-five-year vision and everyone thinks it means next year. He throws out completely unrealistic dates as placeholders.” [Blogger’s note: the article says that Guggenheim is an economist; there may be two similarly named people who work for the World Bank and wear Indonesian shirts, but my guess is that this Scott Guggenheim is actually an anthropologist].

World Bank President on pandemics

Source: Felipe Dana/Associated Press
Source: Felipe Dana/Associated Press

The Washington Post published an op-ed by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, physician, and medical anthropologist. He outlines how “the world” should deal with the Zika virus through improved ways of moving money [Blogger’s note: the World Bank is, after all, a bank]: “Pandemics are a global security threat, and they demand a truly global response…This, in fact, is about to happen. The world will now be able to automatically send money, medical teams and lifesaving supplies to any of the 77 poorest countries to prevent a major outbreak from spreading and escalating. The newly created Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility will leverage money from wealthy countries, capital markets and the reinsurance industry, and use those funds if needed to mount a rapid early response to shut down an outbreak with pandemic potential — and at a fraction of the cost of delayed action.” [Blogger’s note: while moving money may be essential, so is expert knowledge that is socially/locally informed…no money-focused bank can manage that need].

ISIS messaging

The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) reported on the research of cultural anthropologist Lawence Kuzner, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He spent more than two years studying ISIS messaging as part of a Pentagon team. He is quoted as saying, “One can think of ISIS on three fronts, a central organization that occupies parts of Syria and Iraq, affiliates that have pledged allegiance to the central organization and ISIS’s online presence…ISIS has flooded social media and the internet, encouraging hate and violence at an unprecedented pace. This threat will persist long after ISIS is finally destroyed. Once something is online, it is effectively there permanently.”

Anthropologist in the spotlight

The Daily Star (Bangladesh) carried an interview with Sayed Saikh Imtiaz, chairperson of and associate professor in the department of women and gender studies at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and executive director of its Center for Men and Masculinities Studies. “While I was studying for my Bachelor’s in Anthropology [at the University of Dhaka], I came across ‘anthropology of women’. I was awestruck reading on the past and present of women, and their plight. I felt like I was reading about the life of my mother. There was a pang in my heart that urged me to keep studying about this.”  He went on to earn an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of Amsterdam. He is currently working on a post-doctoral appointment on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights with funding from the Dutch Government as part of the NOW-WOTRO scheme. His focus, within gender studies, is in men and masculinity. “I wanted to learn and see how much men can contribute to gender equality. While women have the ultimate role to play, we men have responsibilities too. We need to look past this patriarchy and come up with a way to live in harmony, with equality. I want boys and men to be involved in achieving gender justice.”

Afghanistan’s Hazara people

An article in Al Jazeera discussed the changing roles and status of the Hazaras of Afghanistan, a group long discriminated against socially and politically. The includes commentary from Thomas Barfield, professor of cultural anthropology at Boston University, about the historical context, noting that Hazaras were sold as slaves as late as the 19th century and how, in the late 1900s, Pashtun King Amir Abdul Rahman Khan ordered the killing of all Shias in central Afghanistan, leaving tens of thousands of Hazaras dead. Melissa Chiovenda, an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, notes that despite their growing political presence, many Hazaras continue to feel discriminated against: “Even open-minded non-Hazaras with a high degree of education have admitted to me that they feel a certain discomfort when they encounter Hazaras in certain positions of authority in Afghanistan…They feel they should still be servants and labourers.”

Stateless in the Gulf region

pid_24887-2Foreign Affairs published an article by cultural anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi of Pomona College in California that draws on her book, Crossing the Gulf. She documents the stories of stateless people in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes some of the largest migrant-receiving countries in the world. In the UAE, migrant workers make up 80 percent of its population. In Kuwait, migrants outnumber citizens three to one. Most Gulf States, however, refuse to offer citizenship rights and protection to them, even to those born within their borders.

Essential reading on war, sexual trauma, and narrative978-0-8223-5968-5_pr

The Daily Star (Bangladesh) published a review of Nayanika Mookherjee‘s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Mookerjee is reader in socio-cultural anthropology at Durham University. The review says that her book “…is a much awaited ethnography of trauma, rehabilitation and survival from the violent birth of Bangladesh. While there is an abundance of literature, particularly memoirs, fiction and personal essays written about the Bangladesh Independence War, most of these remain within the circuits of Bengali readership, and to a large extent are framed within a nationalist lens. In relation to such works, Mookherjee’s book is groundbreaking at many levels: it places the Bangladesh Liberation War among the annals of modern South Asian and world history, provides thoughtful and nuanced accounts of survivors’ articulations of their experiences, conceptualises violence and its consequences beyond the spectacular and the singular, situates women and gender as central to nation formation and building, and complicates the landscape of humanitarianism claiming to serve victims of war. Perhaps, one of the greatest contributions of the book is its central argument that there is no singular story of the birth of a nation, neither is there an iconic survivor who represents it.”

Holocaust archaeology

Slate describes ongoing excavations in Lithuania where non-invasive technology revealed a tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners during the early Holocaust. Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, was known as a center of Jewish intellectual and cultural life before the Holocaust. Not far from the city is the Paneriai forest, or the Ponar. Now, thanks to new archaeological technology, the forest is also known as the site at which Jewish prisoners, over the course of three months, used spoons to dig a 112-foot tunnel out of the pit in which they were made to sleep at night. Through this effort, 11 of the prisoners managed to survive the war. This work—undertaken by archaeologists, other scientists and Jewish historians, from Canada, Israel, Lithuania, and the United States—shows how technology can be used to uncover the past without disturbing it. The  challenge of preservation was particularly charged in Ponar, according to team member and archaeologist Richard Freund of the University of Hartford, as “ground zero for the Holocaust” (the mass pits pre-dated the gas chambers). Scott Branting, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida, agreed that it’s a major feat given that “archaeology is a fundamentally destructive science.”

Look to the stars: Many passage graves did

According to an article in The Telegraph, researchers at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David suggest that standing at the center of pitch black tomb, and looking out through the entrance, would have allowed even faint stars to become visible through a simple telescopic effect. The team is studying 6,000-year-old graves in Carregal do Sal, Portugal, where 13 passage graves are thought to be aligned with Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. According to Fabio Silva, a lecturer at the University of Wales, the appearance of Alderbaran signaled the start of the summer migration: “A good proportion of archaeologists and anthropologists have ignored the sky for too long, but the communities that built these prehistoric structures would have lived under dark skies and would have been inspired by it.” Timothy Darvill, professor of archaeology at Bournemouth University, offered a skeptical view: “There are more than a thousand passage graves along the Atlantic coastlands of northwest Europe. How they were used has been a question on the lips of many archaeologists for centuries. Some, including the well-known examples at Newgrange in Ireland and Bryn-celli-Ddu on Anglesey, seem to have been orientated towards either the sunrise or sunset on the summer or winter solstice. But only about 10 per cent of passage graves seem to have these orientations. It would be wonderful if the proposed research could identify patterns that apply to the other 90 per cent.”

In memoriam

Turner_PB_mech.inddEdith Turner died at the age of 95 years. She was a cultural anthropologist known for her contributions to humanist and experiential anthropology. Her research focused on symbols, rituals, religion, healing, and consciousness, especially in Africa. Paul Stoller’s tribute to her work in The Huffington Post focuses on her last book, Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy, which she published in 2011 when she was in her early nineties:

“In the first paragraph of this book, Edie deftly tackled the unenviable task of defining something as elusive as communitas, a silent and sudden sense of social bonding. She wrote:

…The characteristics of communitas show it to be almost beyond strict definition, with almost endless variations. Communitas often appears unexpectedly. It has to do with a sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning….Communitas can only be conveyed through stories….

Here Edie tapped into something extraordinarily significant: the power of narrative to connect writers to readers, the power of narrative, in the words of the psychologist Jerome Bruner, to construct realities — a narrative construction of a reality that is irreducible to formulae…or a set of abstract theoretical principles.”

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