Self Study

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

I’m working my way through the article I chose, but it’s taking longer than expected. I continue to refine what I can get done over the summer. I’ve been plugging away at multiple projects – mostly trying to get the projects outlined and started so that I will have well-structured distractions for those times during the next semester that I don’t want to do math or chemistry but need to stay in study mode.

I’ve been listening to online lectures in various subjects including anthropology, and that’s helping me come up with a more workable study plan and reading list. I’ve lost a bit of focus with my anthropology studies, but I’m working myself back to a more defined path.


A Class Act: Anthropology and the Race to Nation Across Ethnic Terrain
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 18: 401-444 (Volume publication date October 1989)
B F Williams
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

It’s quite a different experience to read peer-reviewed anthropology/social science articles than it is to read social science articles produced for or by mass media outlets. I started to read “A Class Act” and I thought articles like these form the basis for falling in love with anthropology. Though all my anthropology professors have seemed well-educated, I also came across anthropologists/social scientists who seemed at best to have been educated at Mass Media U; and that was disheartening. Sometimes it seems like bad social science is winning.

I am excited to finish the current article and comment. With my new schedule it will take me a couple weeks to do so which means it will likely be a couple weeks before I post again. (I’ve had to make some tough decisions about what I can realistically get done over the summer.) Just tonight I learned that the author is a black (African-American) woman. I’ve found a couple interviews of her and will include the links along with comments when I post. Often I look up the author as I start to read an article, but this time I was away from the computer. She speaks in one of the interviews on what attracted her to anthropology and I’m especially interested in reading that.

I do still believe math/physical science culture is a better fit for me. I felt at home during my first semester of math and chemistry (and I made A’s!) , and I feel especially compelled to take more math. I do continue to look for intersections between physics and anthropology…

Yours ever,

Letters to My Tutor…

My dearest Simone,

I finally came up with a list of the next five reviews that I plan to read.  I despair at being behind, but I think that can’t be helped at the moment or in the very near future.  Back in November I started a new type of freelance work and then yet another related type of work in the past couple of weeks.  It’s taking longer than first expected to settle into an efficient and productive schedule.  Though I have been able to maintain my stated minimum of reading one article a week and writing “something” about it, I feel increasingly disappointed with that.

So often it’s difficult to be reasonable with oneself… this is perhaps the hardest part of self-study.  Should I work harder at sucking out a sense of satisfaction from keeping up with reasonable goals?  I think the real answer is that I need to be that much more fearless about saying silly things and wrong things and embarrassing things.  At any rate, here are my next five articles:

Ethnographic Writing about American Culture
Michael Moffatt
Regional Studies

The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution
Linda Marie Fedigan
Biological Anthropology

Functional Anyalysis in Anthropology and Sociology:  An Interpretive Essay
S. N. Eisenstadt
Cultural and Social Anthropology

The Emerging Picture of Prehistoric Arabia
Maurizio Tosi

Marxist Approaches in Anthropology
Bridget O’Laughlin
Cultural and Social Anthropology

I will also revisit a couple of my anthropology textbooks over the coming weeks to touch base with a more structured overview.  I’ve known this to be a good idea for some time, but I’ve failed to implement it.

Warmest Regards,

I had been thinking over the past couple weeks that maybe I should scrap everything I’ve done so far and just have a fresh start in the “new year.” If I had a clearer sense of how to blog about my self-study in anthropology, I might be more inclined to do just that. Though I won’t rush to scrap anything, I will change things up a bit. I’ve been revisiting helpful shaping and learning experiences from childhood — rereading certain books, adding some volunteer community service, being directed more by interest than canon (the important works have a way of making themselves known during the course of foraging). I’ve been reminded of how I often interacted with texts as if either the author or one of the characters were my tutor and/or friend; this often fueled the drive to read more works by and about a particular author. Reading  “Philosophy of Science in Anthropology” really pulled me back into that world of author as tutor, and I enjoyed that feeling and the sense of motivation it inspired. And so, I’ve decided to take a tutor.

It’s not that I’m opposed to the oxygen-breathing variety of tutor. I made some efforts several years back to acquire such, but never with much success. I had a few good conversations and read some things I might not otherwise have read. Perhaps after I have studied more and written more it will be easier to acquire a real-time guide. For now I will go with my childhood technique. It would seem that the desire to return to this technique has been prowling in my subconscious, waiting. In the last review I read, “Women’s Voices: Their Critique of the Anthropology of Japan,” Mariko Tamanoi makes mention of someone I’ve long admired. Tamanoi writes that Simone de Beauvoir considered the body to be a negative concept to be conquered by the mind; Tamanoi disagrees. She argues, “A woman’s mind, situated in her body, knows no separate existence.” This mention of Simone de Beauvoir serves more as illustration in midst of a discussion of feminine personal politics (sexuality and reproduction); it’s not the thrust of a discussion, but it’s one I would like to have. I do not find it as easy to disagree with Beauvoir. Some of my most cherished readings from childhood embrace the mind/body dichotomy.

I’ve long brushed against the works of Simone de Beauvoir, but I’ve yet to read the full text of any of her work. I do not know why I have denied myself this pleasure, but now that De Beauvoir is to be my tutor, I will feast. Well, at least, this is my intention. Additionally, I have hopes that reading De Beauvoir will spur a more rigorous engagement of my French language studies. I intend to blog about my readings in anthropology as if I were corresponding with De Beauvoir. Hopefully, there will be a natural growth of “relationship” as I read. I haven’t kept up a written correspondence with anyone in quite some time as the practice was already in severe decline in my youth, but I love letter writing and I believe this will provide a more comfortable context for me. I’m excited that the local library has volumes of De Beauvoir’s correspondence in addition to her more scholarly work. I came across an old journal with a single entry and decided to start my correspondence…


Just now I looked inside a diary given to me by my recently deceased friend. I made one entry dated 9 May 2008. I noted that Daniel probably bought this for me at the charity shop where he volunteered. I made mention of my desire for a mentor who was female and French. I am certain that I had thought of Madame then, but at that time I had hopes of meeting an oxygen-breathing mentor. I had brushed a reddish-brown hair from the page before starting to write, and I wondered, after my hasty gesture, whether there would be another…it’s just that easy to miss someone, isn’t it? There was a phone number written on the page opposite the front cover and another for “CARL” on the third lined paged. Apparently, I was also thinking of self-guided learning at the time because graduate school seemed quite impossible (and it still does).

I wrote on a cool afternoon during the archaeological dig class. I wish that I could take that class again, but that’s quite impossible as well I think. My short, simple sentences prompted me to pen that I was writing for USA Today. We were waiting for someone to identify bone found in one of the dig units; there was thought that it might be human bone. I didn’t make note, but it turned out to be a deer burial; I believe two deer burials have been unearthed in the same general area.

I made note of having gone to a small party: “Let’s see — I was about to list the attendees, then thought the better of it. Sometimes you don’t want to remember everyone.” I then wrote of Eudora Welty as if she were a friend, as is my habit with favorite writers. I once shared the same four walls with her during an event held in her honor. I prefaced the bits about Eudora by writing that I was off to myself like a good wallflower, observing (during class and probably at the party as well).

I am currently reading a collection of essays on a Eudora Welty short story, “A Worn Path.” I am also reading a biography of Jack Kerouac. Looking at my desk bookshelf I noticed that I have a slender volume titled “An Introduction to Existentialism.” Perhaps I should give that a quick read in preparation for reading Madame’s work? It won’t be my first introduction to existentialism, but I could use the refresher.

I hope this satisfactorily fulfills Madame’s request that I write a brief note about a moment in my day… something that sheds light on the me that I wish Madame to know and guide… something that perhaps reveals a secret that I didn’t at first intend to share.

Yours in mind and spirit,

Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 20: 395-431 (Volume publication date October 1991)
William W. Kelly
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

With reading “Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan,” I felt like I reached the goal I set back at the beginning of November of having the level of comprehension from my first read-through that I only got after a second read-through at that time.  The change came faster and more suddenly than I had expected.  I noticed a marked improvement several weeks ago, but it has taken me a little while to settle into the change.  With this review it hit me that I was once again reading in groups of words; I was seeing the written page differently.  I hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t been doing that until I started doing it again.  I think back to the feeling of mental motion sickness while reading, and of how I seemed to have vocabulary stored in my mind that I couldn’t easily access consciously; and I believe the fact that I was reading word by word played a big part since vocabulary is best learned and understood in context.  It was as if I was breaking apart sentences and attempting to reconstruct them when I saw a period.

I experienced a higher occurrence of that phenomenon where common words all of a sudden seemed very strange.  I would see a word like “door” and stop to wonder whether that were really the word for that thing.  I would mouth the word and say it out loud; and it felt strange and it sounded strange.  Maybe this is what comes from seeing words stripped of context whether it’s because the word is actually standing alone or because I’ve parsed out the word in my mind.

I remember back in elementary school when a kid had trouble reading, he would sometimes use a straight-edge to underline the sentence he was currently reading and to partially block off the rest of the page.  Perhaps having this image in mind led me to think on some level that reading in smaller bits was the way to go when rebuilding reading comprehension.  If I had said to myself, “Hey, stop reading in little bits,” would I have been able to do that… or is it that reading in small bits first is just how you learn and relearn to read.

I’ll say more about the actual content of “Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan” later in the week.  Some of the things Kelly had to say about  Shintoism clarified for me why I felt such a connection to Shintoism when I first learned about it in elementary school.

A couple weeks ago I decided to include more regional studies in my selection of articles in an effort to increase the cross-cultural content in my year of self-study in anthropology.  With that in mind, I chose mostly regional reviews for my next five articles.  Some of them are written by anthropologists who grew up in the region discussed, not that that necessarily makes a difference.

Small Facts and Large Issues:  The Anthropology of Contemporary Scandinavian Society
Regional Anthropology
Marianne Gulestad

Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan
Regional Anthropology
William W. Kelly

Women’s Voices: Their Critique of the Anthropology of Japan
Regional Anthropology
Mariko Asano Tamanoi

Japanese Sociolinguistics
J S Shibamoto

The Caribbean Region:  An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory
Regional Anthropology
Michel-Rolph Trouillot

I have a much easier time reading the Annual Review articles today than I did six weeks ago.  I still don’t grasp as much on the first read-through as I would expect, but there has been significant improvement.  For a while I thought the answer to my sluggish comprehension was to read slower, taking notes as I went.  What I’ve found is that it’s best to have a smooth first read.  As the review articles and other academic articles generally have good introduction and conclusion areas,  I find that things I don’t at first appear to be grasping in the middle section often come together over the course of the article.

The first read gives me a chance to get comfortable with unfamiliar vocabulary.   For instance, in “India: Caste, Kingship and Dominance Reconsidered,” the word “prestation” was used often in reference to gifts made from the king/highest caste to Brahmans.  Despite knowing the meaning of that word, it was still odd to me (it’s not the word I would choose) and it would stick out to me to the disadvantage of surrounding words.  A sentence with the word “prestation” might throw my conscious-level reading comprehension off for a couple sentences afterward.  There’s some amount reading comprehension going on, but it’s as if it is ghosted.  Then when I read the concluding paragraphs, the color, the understanding becomes more vivid again.  So, even though I may feel like I’m reading the article and not quite getting it, it would seem that on some level I am.  The hardest part is to keep reading even when I feel like I’m not understanding as well as I would like.  (The same goes for unfamiliar sentence constructions as for unfamiliar vocabulary.)

The amount of increased understanding on the second read has been steadily growing.  On the second read, I’m able to make more connections with earlier readings.  In “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective” the writers state American funerals are so uniform because Americans value conformity and that syncs up with the discussion of conformity as an American culture trait as discussed in “Anthropologist View American Culture.”  I notice that the authors state that the theory of punctuated equilibria has had an impact on thinking about brain development in “Hominid Paleoneurology” as well as on theories of culture development as discussed in “The Archaeology of Equality and Inequality,” and it adds to my sense of how theoretical concepts move across fields even when there’s not necessarily a perfect fit.  When I saw clearly how parties to an academic dispute lavish praise on academics who tend to agree with them as encountered while investigating “Hominid Paleoneurology,” that changed how I view any praise given by one academic to another even when a dispute is not immediately apparent.  The fact that I had read “Language and Disputing” prior to reading “Hominid Paleoneurology” enhanced my  appreciation of the dispute tactics evident in that article.  These are in-your-face examples, but I sense that I am making increasing numbers of subtle connections as well.

I look forward to a time when my first read-through resembles my current second read and I continue to fight my feelings of frustration that this isn’t already the case.  Since I am going through a period of cognitive recovery following a time of medicated brain fog, I knew this reading would be more difficult for me.  The review articles are written by anthropologists for anthropologists so they are heavy with industry speak.  I considered feasting on lighter reading for a while or reading in a field with which I have greater base fluency such as legal writing, but I think the challenge inherent in the choice I made to read from the Annual Review of Anthropology is actually resulting in bigger and faster gains in cognitive function.

Perhaps I should browse for articles on the best ways to regain cognitive function?  For now it’s back to work looking at “Conversation Analysis.”

Engaging in self-study is a very stumbly process.  I’m grabbing at the corners of tables and squishing my fingers into the edges of seat cushions.  And I wish I didn’t know about falling down.

Reading an Annual Review article once a week is still a little difficult for me, but I continue to believe that it’s a good plan for surveying the field.  I’m getting a better feel for where my interests lie.  Here are the next five articles I plan to read:

Conversation Analysis
Charles Goodwin and John Heritage

Advances in Evolutionary Culture Theory
Cultural-Social Anthropology
William H. Durham

Groups that Don’t Want In:  Gypsies and Other Artisan, Trader, and Entertainer Minorities
Cultural-Social Anthropology
Sharon Bohn Gmelch

Philosophy of Science in Anthropology
Cultural-Social Anthropology
Abraham Kaplan

Professional Responsibility in Public Archaeology
Thomas F. King

When I started writing yesterday, I had in mind still that I would blog for multiple days about reading “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.” It has since become clear to me that, on a practical level, it would be better to have all writing finished by Monday. Otherwise, I will be tempted to linger too long on a subject and likely fall behind on the reading. For now I want to place greater emphasis on getting the reading done, including fiction reading which I think is essential to being able to read. Perhaps as I regain reading and writing skills, it will be easier to be more flexible. I imagine that over time I will naturally return to specific themes and lines of thought illuminated in previous articles.

Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 13: 385-417 (Volume publication date October 1984)
P Palgi, and H Abramovitch
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the  first page of the article. (Link)

My recently deceased loved became HIV positive decades ago at a time when that diagnosis often meant death was imminent.  He had contemplated his own death in a way that many of us have not.  Even though decades had passed, the subject of his death still came up by virtue of his HIV status.  I had contemplated his death, but always with the thought that there would be some illness beforehand.  Upon hearing that his “numbers were good” I always breathe a sigh of relief especially given that he had gone so long having HIV without contracting AIDS.  Even more, just prior to meeting him he had come through a successful bout with cancer, not to mention the successful bout with the hard partying of his youth.  He easily looked ten to fifteen years younger than his age.   He smiled often; he laughed mischievously.  It wasn’t just death be not proud; it was death be gone from here.  His death was sudden and not due to AIDS.  In early conversations, he had forewarned that his family didn’t do funerals.  His body was cremated without public ceremony.

In reading “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” I learned that my reaction to Daniel’s death may be very typically American in part.  At least somewhat consciously the fact that he had in a sense beaten HIV and cancer, feed into my  “culturally sanctioned expectation that technological solutions can be found for all problems on this earth—death not excluded.”   In the end I may have thought his death to be much less likely than that of others.  He was a proven medical success story.  On the other hand, I may be less typically American in that I didn’t feel a need to shy away from him because he was HIV positive.  Palgi and Abramovitch note that one of the manifestations of Americans having a problem dealing with death is avoidance of dying persons.  I’m old enough to remember the days when HIV positive was equivalent to saying “dying person.”

The writers (I don’t really want to write “Palgi, et al.”) refer to a 1968 (American) study by Glaser and Strauss, Time for Dying, that mentions the “dying trajectory.”  Reading about the study, I felt more comfortable with my level of discomfort:

Dying trajectory has duration, shape, and implicit expectations concerning the interrelation of time and certainty.  There are four types of “death expectation”: 1. certain death at a known time; 2. certain death at an unknown time; 3. uncertain death but a known time when the questions will be resolved; and 4. uncertain death at a unknown time.

Impact of various trajectories are discussed in terms of lingering trajectories, expected quick trajectories, and most disorienting of all, unexpected quick trajectory, e.g. suicide or unexpected death during surgery.

Having in a sense prepared for one type of death, being confronted with one that was “unexpected” and “quick” was all the more disorienting.  I had set in my mind that he would die from AIDS after a period of illness.  I felt broadsided.

Along with an expectation of a certain type of death, I may have also had some expectation of a funeral despite the warning I received.  Though Daniel’s sister was very generous with her time and sharing her feelings, there wasn’t a public memorial service at which the family was present.  Writing again on American culture, the authors note the following:

…the thinness of the funeral ritual, together with intensive emotional involvement concentrated on very few individuals, a pattern characteristic of modern nuclear families, leaves an unresolved tension in society.

Local Buddhists conducted a memorial service that was attended by his very local friends.   I think the service helped reduce the tension of those who attended.

Prior to this, most of my death and funeral experiences were very similar.  The writers note that “the available ethnography suggests that American funerals are remarkably uniform.”  My experiences fit the pattern described:

…the basic structure of funerals in the USA includes the following stages:  rapid removal of the corpse to the funeral parlor, embalming (which many individuals believe, incorrectly, is required by law), institutionalized viewing of the cosmetically restored corpse, and disposal by burial…

I remember hearing as a child that viewing the body was an essential part of recovering from grief and mourning.  I fought the strong urge to ask Daniel’s sister, who identified his body, whether she were certain the body was his.  I wonder whether I feel bound to the expectation learned in childhood that I will never be quite right with his death having not viewed his body.

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