Archive for September, 2010

So, I’m “officially” started on my year of self-study. As discussed in a previous post, my core plan consists of reading a review article from the Annual Review of Anthropology each week and writing something about the experience. I have various textbooks for general reference, a few other books, the Internet and the public library. I don’t feel ready or prepared or organized, but here I go. I’ve picked Mondays as the due date for writing a first response to the current article I am reading. I may blog about the article several days during that week or just on Monday.

The Annual Review of Anthropology lists reviews under five main headings: archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistics, regional anthropology and cultural/social anthropology. I won’t try to choose evenly between those topics, but I will read some in all. I’ve chosen my first five reviews to read:

Death:  A Cross-Cultural Perspective
Cultural-Social Anthropology
Phyllis Palgi and Henry Abramovitch

Language and Disputing
D. Brenneis

Hominid Paleoneurology
Biological Anthropology
Dean Falk

The Archaeology of Equality and Inequality
Robert Paynter

India:  Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered
Regional Anthropology
Gloria Goodwin Ratheja

I chose to read “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective” first as someone special to me died suddenly this year. At the time, I found that I had no strong attachment to any particular beliefs about death, and that was a problem. I had decided as a tween that the benefit of rituals and/or spiritual beliefs was not dependent on any connection to truth, so that type of struggle wasn’t an issue. I had just left the matter of death beliefs unresolved. In the short-term I borrowed from the strength of belief of people I respected. I engaged in special prayers and chanting for 49 days in Buddhist fashion. I found it helpful. I’ve started the article. I will write more about it next week.

Anthropologists View American Culture
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 12: 49-78 (Volume publication date October 1983)
G D Spindler, and L Spindler
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the  first page of the article. (Link)

In “Anthropologists View American Culture,” George Spindler and Louise Spindler compile, among other things,  a list of defining features instructive in understanding American culture as found across various global culture studies. I found the description of certain features helpful to my understanding of the concept of “post-racial” in America particularly as described in an article by Matt Bai concerning Nikki Haley as mentioned in a previous post. The features are as follows:

Individualism The individual is the basic unit of society. Individuals are self-reliant and compete with other individuals for success.

Conformity Everyone is expected to conform to the norms of the community or group. Conformity and equality are closely related in that equal can be translated as “the same as.”

Authority Authority, from within a hierarchy or as represented by external power or even expertise, has negative value excepting under special conditions.*

With the above in mind, I look again at Indian-American Nikki Haley winning the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina and Matt Bai’s analysis of that victory. Bai refers to Haley as a post-racial candidate. In the opening paragraphs of the article, Ethnic Distinctions, No Longer So Distinctive, Bai seemingly describes Nikki Haley being stripped of all things Indian: not Nimrata, but Nikki; not Sikh, but Christian; and no, she doesn’t care to talk about her Indian heritage. Bai likens this transition to being released from prison, the prison of ethnic politics. I understand this characterization better now in light of conformity being key to equality. That is, if an individual conforms to the community norms, then that individual should be treated the same as others who conform. In this case the rules of conformity have changed such that skin color or ethnic heritage do not bar inclusion.

In a section titled “Individualism and Conformity: A Key Opposition,” Spindler discusses the finding that rejection of authority seems an integral part of American individualism (61-64). In Haley’s case the fact that she has broken away from certain aspects of her Indian heritage in favor of more mainstream choices, paints her simultaneously as a rebel and a conformist, as an individual and as someone who blends in well with the surrounding community. In rejecting the authority of Indian/family traditions she is able to better conform to local community norms and in the process she may appear that much more “American.” Where Bai seems to conclude that Haley’s campaign and nomination show evidence of a move away from ethnic politics, I believe they show a continuation of ethnic politics with different strategies.

I wonder now about the process by which the rules for what constitutes conformity change…

*Added September 29:  The additional “American” features listed were achievement orientation, equality, sociability, honesty, competence, optimism and work.  In particular, equality was described as follows:  Though born with different attributes and abilities, everyone stands equal before the law and should have equal opportunity to achieve, utilizing one’s individual ability and energy in a self-reliant manner.

Still working on redoing the layout….

Through an unfortunate series of events, I deleted the style sheet for this site.  So, I have to redo it.  At this point, I’m not sure whether I want to redo the design I had up originally or just do something else.  Perhaps I was too tired/distracted to be at the computer.

Being without the net for a few days, I was hit with the realization that I never watch TV news anymore, not even the headlines on CNN or The Daily Show. All my news comes for the net and the occasional foraged newspaper. I have a seemingly intact Wall Street Journal from September 17. While I do learn about bits of TV news on the net, maybe I will try to watch occasionally in an effort to feel less untethered when without the net.

I keep saying that I will get myself a Sunday New York Times and read it all in an effort to feel sorta caught up. That’s the nice thing about a tangible paper — being able to get that sense of having read the whole thing.

And I’m getting my list of English-language newspapers from around the world back together. I used to have a world news blog. I cut and pasted from my old list to create the World News Sources in English page. I still need to check the links and resort the page.

During my net free days, I worked on sorting the list of articles from the Annual Review of Anthropology that I will read over the coming year. I’ll write more about that process in a different post.

I’ve been reading articles in various volumes of the Annual Review of Anthropology.  These articles are reviews of the literature on a given topic.  The writers give a snapshot of trends and consensus.  In thinking about my year of reading anthropology, part of me wants to read as many of these reviews as possible thus creating a collection of snapshots.  The other part of me wishes to focus on a collection of related reviews and read as much of the referenced literature as possible.  As much as I am drawn to the latter choice, I believe I am at a stage where a survey of anthropology might be more appropriate.

Now it’s on to constructing a plan of study.  My initial premise is to read one review a week for a year.  That sounds vaguely reasonable given work and life and all that.  What remains is to figure out how I plan to digest the reading.  Each review could easily spawn months of reading.  I need a clear plan of approach.  Ok, I read the article and write a summary/notes.  Then what?  How do I blog about that experience?  Perhaps, I will be able to figure that out as I go along.  It seems if I try to get it all clear in my head before getting started then I will never get started.

As much as possible, I would like to lift what I can from the review on its face.  However, I imagine that as I read a variety of reviews, certain works will move to the front as essential background reading.  How do I fit those into my reading schedule?  Should the schedule be more flexible?  I think reading one review a week and writing “something” about it will have to be the baseline.  I will have to trust that something meaningful and enriching will come of that.  So, stick to the baseline and be flexible as far as other reading.

Which reviews do I read?  Do I set out the 52 reviews from the beginning or do I schedule them a few at a time? Do I set a tentative schedule of 52 reviews, but remain open to changing them around and/or switching one out for another?  I like the idea of getting a list together.  I hate the idea of being tied to a list, but I know there will be times when I would otherwise spend too long deciding what to read next.  So, I will make a tentative list of 52 reviews, but leave open making adjustments as I go along.

That’s my thinking so far.  Now I have to fight this notion that I have to commit this general plan before getting officially started.  I’m on a test drive.

I will be without internet for a few days. I was pleasantly surprised when the customer service rep offered a discount in consideration of the service-free days without being asked and despite the fact that it was more of an equipment failure than a failure in service. I tried to remember what customer service at the phone company was like before the end of the monopoly and that started me wondering how corporate culture differs in a monopoly. What must it be like to work at a company that provides a universally desired service with no competition?

I’ll have to hunt around the net for info once I’m back connected.

The ease with which I am able to read is returning quickly. The return of vocabulary is fluid in a way that I didn’t expect.  Yes, I’ve spent more time with the dictionary as of late, but it’s more than that.  When I relax and start writing something in my head, I use vocabulary (correctly) with which I am uncomfortable when I stop to think.  “Wait, is that really the right word?” I ask.  Words pop into my head for which I can’t immediately produce a dictionary definition that turn out to be just the word I was looking for earlier or the day before.  Exposing my conscious mind to information appears to unlock so much more beneath the surface.

Oh the joy that comes with greater awareness of subtlety and subtext.  Just now typing the word “subtlety”,  I had doubts that my spelling was correct.   I’m typing in WordPad with no spellcheck, so no red line appears right after typing a misspelled word.  I think inserting my own question mark as opposed to noticing whether a red line appears provides an extra bit of mental stimulation.  Thinking about spelling as I’m typing encourages alertness.  I checked the spelling using  an online dictionary.  I type in WordPad, then I cut and paste into a program with spellcheck.  I don’t do this for every bit of writing, but I find it helpful when I do.

Ha, ha… just cut an pasted and realized that I had misspelled the word “misspelled.”  I only had one “s.”

I’m still in the process of deciding how I want to blog.   I continue to read anthropology blogs and other materials.

Last night I came across this blog: Cicilie among the Parisians, “a blog from Cicilie Fagerlid’s fieldwork research on poetry, anger and cosmopolitanism in Paris.”  Cicilie is a Scandinavian woman  living in Paris and blogging in English.  Most of my person-to-person accounts of life in Paris have come from Americans.   I look forward to seeing Paris from a different cultural perspective.   From a post titled “A Day in Commemoration of Slavery“,  Fagerlid writes the following:

In his speech, President Chirac proclaimed that “the greatness of a country is to take on all its history, the glorious pages as well as the dark parts. Our history is that of a great nation. Look at her with pride. And look at her as she is. That’s the way a people can unite and become more close(-knit).”

(As a foreigner, I do find interesting this constant return to the greatness of the French nation, and I can’t forget another of Chirac’s speeches lately on the issue of nuclear weapons, but be that as it may)

As an American this type of nationalist expression seems very familiar.  I’m not sure this would have stood out to me.   There are many instances of this type of difference in perspective.   From what I’ve seen, Fagerlid writes on politics, literature, city life, diversity, motherhood.  She shares pictures and video — something I’d like to do.  I look forward to reading more of this blog and others like it.

I read  Ethnic Distinctions, No Longer So Distinctive in the Times when it was first published a couple months ago.  I’ve returned to the article several times trying to find the catch.  The article opens:

If anyone still doubted, after President Obama’s election, that candidates are no longer prisoners of their race or ethnicity, then South Carolina’s Nikki Haley offers further proof. Ms. Haley, 38, was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants. Now she is the Christian, Republican nominee for governor in a state with a brutal history of racial oppression.

What’s notable about Ms. Haley’s campaign, like that of Mr. Obama and other candidates, is not just that she has breached a racial and cultural barrier, but that she doesn’t feel the need — or the desire — to talk much about it.

Matt Bai goes on to write:

This blurring of racial and ethnic lines is, for the most part, deeply inspiring, the manifestation of hard-won progress.

Bai appears to celebrate the predictable result of what I’ll call the Color-Blind Ideal, this notion that one can walk into a room of people and just see people and not color (race, ethnicity).   Back in the 1990’s a  professor of mine called attention to the insidiousness of an ideal rooted in not seeing a person.  What does it mean to be color blind?  Is it not possible to SEE diversity, experience diversity, and at the same time treat people fairly and equitably?

So voters can move beyond the fact that Nikki Haley has a mildly brown hue as long as there are no other obvious connections to her Indian, Sikh ancestry and as long as she doesn’t talk about her ancestry… and this represents progress?  For me the article reads like dark comedy.   Que the eighties makeover sequence where Nimrata shortens her name to Nikki, embraces Christianity and doesn’t care much to talk about her Indian ancestry.   Is this a necessary step?  If “Nikki” can be elected today, does that make it more likely that “Nimrata” can be elected in the future?

P. S.
Many critiqued Chris Matthews for his comments following a speech by President Obama, comments that seemed born out of the color blind ideal.  Matthews said that he forgot that Obama was black for an hour and that Obama was post-racial.  (Matt Bai refers to Nikki Haley as a post-racial politician.)   Freedom Eden recaps The Daily Show’s negative critique here. The Take Away interviews David Wall Rice, assistant professor in department of psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who gives a more nuanced critique:

DavidJW left the following comment at The Take Away:

Chris Matthews is okay is my book, his comment simply solidifies the fact that White America are working towards not looking at individuals based on the color of their skin. Come on people, we’re making progress…

As to the above comment, in the past I thought the words “skin color” included reference to a wider cultural identity. Did that meaning change over time or did I misunderstand? Is it skin color diversity (YES) but cultural diversity (No)?

I’ve been reading, but I haven’t been sticking to my loosely defined reading list.  Instead I’ve been tumbling around various anthropology blogs and making lists of things to read.  I’ve been perusing Anthropology Blog Newspaper where they list the title of the blog along with the titles of the most recent posts.  In the process I’m developing my own list of anthropology blogs that I would like to read regularly.

I’ve been reading some French.  Well, put more accurately, I’ve been reading some lists of French words.  I studied French in the past and I’ve returned to study in part as an exercise in brain stimulation.  I’ve been enjoying the free audio lessons at Coffee Break French.     A Scotsman teaches French in 20-minute segments.  Each audio lesson has a page for questions and comments.  They have paid learning materials, but I haven’t tried those.  I have my own collection of French grammar books.

Perhaps I should try to come up with some sort of syllabus.   I’ll look around for some guides on self-study.