anthro in the news 5/7/18

The ring. Credit Charley Marley/Flickr

sexism and the sumo ring

The Japan Times reported on current debates in Japan about the origins of the rule against women in the sumo ring along with current attempts to abolish the taboo. Some say that the unwritten rule is relatively recent, added sometime after the late 17th century to the sport which dates back more than 1,300 years.  Masataka Suzuki, professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Keio University, observed that during that many ceremonies and taboos were gradually created during that period to “dignify” the main professional sumo league. According to him, the taboo, however, applied only to the professional league. Women were allowed to play sumo matches held at shrines during local festivals. 

bullshit jobs: book extract

The Guardian published an extract of David Graeber‘s latest book, which will be available May 15, called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. “What is a bullshit job? The defining feature is this: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince themselves there’s a good reason for them to be doing it. They may not be able to admit this to their co-workers – often, there are very good reasons not to do so – but they are convinced the job is pointless nonetheless. Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless; typically, there has to be some degree of pretence and fraud involved as well. The employee must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason their job exists, even if, privately, they find such claims ridiculous…These considerations allow us to formulate what I think can serve as a final working definition of a bullshit job: a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

experiencing a rehab facility

WBUR (Boston) published commentary by Rosalind H. Shaw, associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University, on her experiences in a rehab facility in Boston:  “Recently, I fell, fractured my pelvis, and was admitted to the hospital. You have to go to a rehabilitation facility, my case manager told me. She handed me a list of facilities with stars next to them, so I chose the five-starred one near our home. ‘What exactly is a rehabilitation facility?’ I wondered as an ambulance took me over bumpy city roads…I learned some crucial differences between hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Rehab facilities are often added on to nursing homes, sharing their institutional character. I felt more like an inmate than a patient in environments that were more authoritarian, less medically competent and more depersonalizing than anything I’d experienced before.”

making tourism work for the poor

The News Lens (Taiwan and Hong Kong) published commentary that originally appeared in The Conversation by Manini Sheker, doctoral candidate in social anthropology at the University of Sussex. Considering the case of Varanasi, India, she writes: Inclusive ‘pro-poor’ tourism, which creates employment for vulnerable residents is a priority in the government of Uttar Pradesh’s 2016 tourism policy and India’s 12th five-year plan. Yet there is a lack of clarity around what “pro-poor” tourism should actually achieve…[Further] the local government has not thoroughly mapped how much money from tourism goes to the poor in Varanasi, or other areas. Nor has it identified the bottlenecks preventing the poor from earning a greater share, which vary from one destination to another. A ‘value chain analysis’ – which describes the full range of activities required to bring goods or services from conception to completion – could help the government decide whether to invest in skills development or marketing, strengthen local food supply chains or reform local laws.”

remembering the 1918 influenza 

The Missourian carried an article about how, one hundred years later, researchers continue to study the flu epidemic of 1918 and its impact in the U.S. and internationally. The article quotes Lisa Sattenspiel, professor and chair of anthropology at the University of Missouri, whose research focuses on the 1918 flu, specifically in Newfoundland and Labrador provinces in eastern Canada. It’s important, she said, for researchers to study how medics then responded to the flu to help develop new strategies to combat diseases, particularly with the growing modern problem of antibiotic resistance. 

stories matter

An article in BBC News described ongoing research by several social scientists including Daniel Smith, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College London, about the importance of certain types of stories in human evolution and contemporary life. Various studies have identified cooperation as a core theme in popular narratives across the world. Smith’s fieldwork among Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines revealed that nearly 80% of their stories concern moral decision making and social dilemmas. He argues that this pattern appears to translate to their real-life behavior. He found that groups which   invest the most in storytelling were the most cooperative during various experimental tasks. Findings are published in Nature Communications.

daggers made from human bones

A human bone dagger (top) from New Guinea and a cassowary bone dagger (bottom), attributed to the Abelam people of New Guinea: Credit: Copyright Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College; Dominy N. J. et al., Royal Society Open Science

CNN carried a piece about research that provides insight into the reverence with which people of the Sepik River area in northern New Guinea regarded daggers made from human bones. Warriors typically sourced human thigh bones from the skeletons of their fathers who had proven themselves in battle, or other men of status in the community, explained cultural anthropologist Paul Roscoe, one of –authors of the report:  “It was almost like a spiritual aura, like your father was watching over you, and you were carrying him into battle with you.” Biological anthropologist and lead author of the study, Nathaniel Dominy, first discovered a drawer full of bone daggers from New Guinea when “poking around in the underbelly” of the Hood Museum of Art in Dartmouth College, where he is a professor of anthropology. His interpretation is that the bone daggers confer status. The study appears in Royal Society Open Science.


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