Entries tagged with “Annual Review of Anthropology

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

The Archaeology of Equality and Inequality
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 18: 369-399 (Volume publication date October 1989)
R Paynter
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

While reading the discussion of the relationship between complexity and inequality in “The Archaeology of Equality and Inequality,” I began to think about a cultural dynamic that existed among black, white and Chinese in my native region, the Mississippi Delta, where grocery stores frequented by black residents in the area were owned and operated by Chinese residents.  Robert Paynter summarizes the discussion thusly:

The relationship of complexity and inequality produces one of the great divides in social theory. Some theories hold that forces creating social differentiation–such as innate biological differences, naturally occurring ecological variation, geographical isolation, the productive efficiencies gained from the division of labor, etc–entail differential access to resources, and thereby result in inequality. Others see social differentiation arising from the reproduction of social equality–as in the proliferation of differences in systems of reciprocal exchange–or in the reproduction of social inequality–as in the use of divide-and-conquer strategies to maintain political and economic control.  Neoevolutionists work within the theories that derive inequality from complexity.

I thought that the dynamic in the Delta was a clear example of inequality reproducing inequality.  Firstly, I grew up with this dynamic.  I lived it.  Secondly, I had researched this subject in preparation for writing a screenplay several years ago and the sources I came across at that time supported my view.  (Yes, it is quite impossible to live in Southern California for any length of time without eventually working on a screenplay or a treatment for a screenplay.)  When I searched the net recently in preparation for writing a blog post on this subject, I found an article (several actually) that clearly has a more neoevolutionist approach to the Delta dynamic.  Take a look at how two authors, one from each side of the divide, discuss the circumstances that brought Chinese settlers to the Mississippi Delta.  John G. Thornell writes the following in Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual (2008):

The factors associated with the presence of a Chinese population in the Delta can be traced to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The war afforded freedom to four million slaves who had been the cornerstone of an agricultural economy. Planters, faced with the loss of the core of their labor force, responded by experimenting with foreign labor. Chinese and, later, Italians were recruited as part of this experiment.

Labor conventions were held to discuss the possibility of recruiting Chinese workers. In June 1869, at a meeting in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, cotton planters organized the Arkansas River Valley Emigration Company. Its purpose was to attract Chinese labor, who could be obtained in “great numbers and at cheap rates, and made efficient in the cultivation of cotton, and are proof against the malaria of the climate” (Cohen 1984, 78). (link)

So, a labor shortage resulted in an effort to recruit Chinese workers.  An extra layer of complexity, differentiation, stratification came about in an effort to solve an agricultural problem, a production problem.  I believe the writer above is a historian, but the theoretical position is the same as that Paynter ascribes to archaeologists in 1989:  “…most archaeologists have ignored the powerful drive towards differentiation inherent in socially unequal relations(113), instead seeking nonsocial, external sources of heterogeneity and, hence, social complexity.”  Paytner goes on to write that “in the past 15 years, advances in methods,  detailed culture histories, and new theories have called into question this subsumption of inequality within complexity.”  Given her attention to sources, Vivian Wu Wong’s recounting of the arrival of Chinese settlers to the Delta appears to rely more heavily on information derived from original research than does Thornell’s:

Central to this development of the Chinese community in Mississippi was the social and economic relationship which grew between the Chinese and blacks. Many among the southern elite attempted to replace black labor with Chinese coolies, so as to undermine the growing political power of freed blacks (7). Loewen argues that Chinese immigration was encouraged in order to increase “white political power by displacing voting Negroes; for the Chinese. . . would not vote” (8). At the time, Powell Clayton, Reconstruction Governor of Arkansas, believed that

the underlying motive for this effort to bring in Chinese laborers was to punish the Negro [sic] for having abandoned the control of the old master, and to regulate the condition of his employment and the scale of wages to be paid him (9).

Both the Chinese in California, as well as the Chinese in Mississippi, played significant roles in the economic development of American capitalism. One distinct difference however was the fact that Chinese in the South were specifically brought in, as Loewen describes, to displace black labor. One must therefore examine the role that the Chinese played in industries which relied heavily upon black labor, to understand the ways in which the Chinese contributed to the southern economy. (link)

Mississippi ChineseWong’s recounting fits more with an inequality reproducing inequality model and more with my experience.  Wong quotes James Loewen, a source with which I am familiar.  I read Loewen’s, The Mississippi Chinese : Between Black and White when doing background work for my screenplay.  Loewen, a sociologist, did original research concerning the Chinese population in the Delta.  Thornell also references Loewen but mainly to take “Between Black and White” from the title.  Wong and Thornell reference many of the same sources but they do so in light of their differing perspectives.  Might the more neoevolutionist recounts of Chinese presence in the Mississippi Delta illuminate Paynter’s statement that an “increasing number of practitioners now suspect that the relationship between complexity and inequality as traditionally conceived is at best a case of the tail–and possibly the tale–wagging the dog”?

Both Thornell and Wong discuss the case of Lum v. Rice, a case brought in 1924 by a Chinese American after her child was prohibited from attending the white school (under separate but equal, Plessy v. Ferguson).  I lived in Rosedale, Mississippi, the town in which the school was located (but much later than 1924).  The Supreme Court decided that it was legal for the School Board in Mississippi to prohibit Wong’s attendance at the white school, upholding a decision by the Supreme Court of Mississippi.  Wong thought the decision hinged on the ambiguity that could result as regards children of mixed black and Chinese heritage:

However, Cohn points out that the “condition” that was attached to the admission of Chinese children to white schools, reveals the underlying fear that the white community had with admitting Chinese children into white schools. Stating that the Chinese “themselves must see to it that no children of Chinese-Negro blood apply through their community” suggests that Whites were not so much worried about admitting Chinese children into white schools as they were in admitting black children (24).

Thornell does not discuss children of mixed heritage when noting the establishment of Chinese mission schools:

Even in the face of the Gong Lum decision, the Chinese rejected the black schools. Instead, they partnered with the white churches in which they had become members. These churches offered another post-Gong Lum alternative: the establishment of Chinese mission schools in some Delta communities.

Thornell emphasizes the practical nature of the decision to establish the mission schools.  Loewen makes note of the fact that the Chinese population in Mississippi were careful to exclude children of mixed African and Chinese heritage from participation in the Chinese community and that these children were barred from attending Chinese mission schools.  Decades later, Loewen notes that many of the local American Chinese did not approve of the mention of mixed Chinese-African children during the filming of a 1984 documentary Mississippi Triangle, “an intimate portrait of life in the Mississippi Delta, where Chinese, African Americans and Whites live in a complex world of cotton, work, and racial conflict.”  Did Thornell’s omission result from a decision that discussion of children of mixed heritage was not significant or from a sensitivity to the sentiment of the American Chinese community, both, neither?

By the time my aunt was in high school in the 1980s, the school from Lum v. Rice was somewhat integrated.  She attended high school with the children of the owner of one of the local Chinese-owned grocery stores (Buck’s).  My memory is that they were the only Chinese American students at the school attended by black and white students.   Elementary and middle schools were still heavily segregated.    There were two Chinese-owned grocery stores in Rosedale at the time, Buck’s and Wong’s.  Buck, the patriarch, was a lot more socially interactive with black customers than was the proprietor at Wong’s, so it’s less surprising that his children attended the integrated high school.  In recent years, there has been a severe decline in the number of American Chinese in the Mississippi Delta.  The formally Chinese-owned groceries in Rosedale are now owned by black residents.

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)

Proof (Movie) reviewed at Anthropology TimesIn “Proof (2005),” Robert, a brilliant mathematician, dies after extended mental illness.  On the morning following the funeral, Catherine, his daughter, directs his assistant Hal to a mathematical proof locked in a drawer in her father’s desk.  Did the father author this proof during the lucid moments intermixed with his madness or did Catherine, a promising mathematician in her own right?  Given that I continue to digest “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” I was fascinated by the movie’s commentary on death.  What might someone think about how Americans view death when watching this movie?  Robert’s illness and death is heavily present in the movie, but does seeing him in flashback and talking to Catherine in living color from beyond the grave obfuscate this presence? The fact that reviews of the movie make only passing mention of the father’s death, suggests that the answer to that last question is, “Yes!”  The movie “Proof” manages to delve deeply into many aspects of death in American culture while simultaneously presenting a tense thriller about trust, truth and academia.

Palgi and Abramovitch note the following:

Glaser and Strauss commented on the paradox that Americans read daily about death in the newspapers yet are reluctant to face “the process of dying.”  Gerbner goes further and suggest that portrayals of death and dying by the mass media serve symbolic functions of social typing and control and tend on the whole to conceal the reality and inevitability of the event.

Proof” does much to “conceal the reality and inevitability” of the father’s death and death generally.  We hear that Robert died due to a brain aneurysm; we do not see his death.  While we do see his funeral, we do not see his corpse.  Some movies show the typical American funeral with the “…restored image of the deceased as peacefully sleeping (Palgi and Abramovitch).”  In “Proof,” the space that might have been occupied by the coffin, is instead taken up by a string quartet.  So we don’t get a death scene or a coffin.  What we do get is a reaffirmation of Robert’s immortality.  Palgi and Abramovitch direct us to Lifton who writes that one of the ways that society expresses immortality is through work, “…the mode of creativity; one’s human influences, great or humble, which will live on.”  After listing highlights of Robert’s accomplishments as a mathematician, a eulogists says, “We will miss the man intensely, but the work will endure.”

I wonder whether the movie speaks subtly of a possible decline of what Lifton calls the “most fundamental and universal of all modes” of immortality, the biological one, as there is a running commentary on the belief that life is downhill after the early twenties as many mathematicians have produced their best work by this time; many people have not even had children and are only just beginning to cement their adult biosocial connections during their early twenties.  Also, Robert dies from a brain aneurysm, the death of his mind, his ability to do math, whereas in the play on which the movie is based, Robert dies of a heart attack, the seat of feeling, love, family.   Running counter to this possible subtle nod is the fact that Robert’s funeral takes place on Catherine’s birthday which would tend to affirm biological immortality.  Furthermore, on the night of the funeral Robert’s former assistant Hal reminds Catherine that they haven’t had a chance to celebrate her birthday just prior to kissing her, an act which serves as prelude to Catherine disrobing from her funeral frock.  If the viewer were weighted down with a sense that Catherine and Claire had just lost their father, might the rest of the movie seem trite and disrespectful seeing that Robert’s body was barely in the ground before the viewer was pulled into the controversy as to whether the proof found in the desk drawer was written by the father or the daughter.  Birthday sex appears to serve as a shortcut from death-ville.

And speaking of sex and death, Palgi and Abramovitch quote Ariès who writes that the eroticism of death began between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries:

It often took on the character of a fearful and violent event similar to the perception of sex at that time.  In general, death themes became eroticized as seen in motifs in art and literature.  For instance, the new iconography of the sixteenth century showed how “death raped the living.”

With the above in mind, let’s return to the scene in Catherine’s bedroom.  She and Hal are on the bed kissing when they stop for the following exchange:

Catherine: Oh, I feel like I’m gonna crack open like…
Hal: Like what?
Catherine: An egg…or one of those really smelly French cheeses that ooze out everywhere when you cut them.
Hal: Nice. (They go back to kissing.)

Is it me or did she say–my womb is cracked open, so cut me with your knife because I’m ready to ooze? There’s a mix of violent, moldy decay with sex and rebirth.  The bed covering is a patchwork of sweater-like material, pockets visible, reminiscent of Catherine’s attire while taking care of her dying father.  On the night of the funeral, the death bed is transformed into the sex bed.

Apart from the flashbacks and ghostly appearances, and birthday sex, the movie creates distance from Robert’s death by presenting the notion that Robert had been dead for much longer than it appeared.  Catherine is angry when people begin to speak of her father in past tense while he is still alive.  When her university professor, speaking in comforting tones, says of her father, “He was a great man,”  Catherine retorts, “He still is.”  The movie mentions repetitively that Robert was no longer able to work and that he became dependent on Catherine for basic care.  During the funeral Catherine addresses the attendees asking, “Where have you all been for the last five years?  I guess to you guys he was already dead, right?”  The attendees, Catherine’s sister especially, appear distressed and dismayed as Catherine continues, giving details of her father’s abnormal behaviors during the last years.  Palgi and Abramovitch write that Glaser and Strauss question whether people can die socially before they die biologically.  “Proof” says, “Yes, they can.”  Catherine’s resistance to the reality of the social death is presented as an aberration.

Catherine’s views on death are shown to be aberrant in other ways, notably, her beliefs about how her father’s care prior to his death should be handled.  Palgi and Abramovitch discuss the work of Philippe Ariès who examines the changing attitudes toward death in Western history.  While in previous  stages referenced earlier, death becomes eroticized, In the last stage of this history, death has become “invisible:”

Death is no longer seen as natural or beautiful or as socially significant.  On the contrary, it has become dirty and medicalized.  The dying person is expected to die “out of sight” in a hospital where death is brought under full control with the discipline and anonymity of the medical order.  Basically, modern society views death as a “massive admission of defeat.”

In “Proof“, the above is the view of the older sister Claire and it appears to be the view of other characters as well.  On the other hand, Catherine was adamant about the importance of her father dying in the comfort of his home being cared for by family.  She drops out of school and provides that care for five years.  Her sister and others appear to view this as a sign of either weakness or selfish sentimentality.  Catherine’s sister suggests that both her dying father and Catherine may have been better off if he had been cared for in a medical facility.  Catherine’s “aberrant” handling of her father’s illness and death could be seen as a throwback to earlier ideals of death being revitalized in the hospice movement about which Palgi and Abramovitch write the following:

The modern hospice revolves around the old concept of “a good death,” and by awareness of the patient’s feelings and pain level it aims to help him live to the limit of his potential in physical strength, mental and emotional capacity, and in social relationships.  These ideals do not require the erection of costly edifices; on the contrary, they can be activated in a home-care service, provided the philosophy is adopted.

Could the other characters’ lack of approval for Catherine’s handling of her father’s illness be indicative of a backlash toward this hospice movement?  Catherine’s strongest support comes from the dying man through one his last bits of coherent writing a year before his death:

“Her refusal to let me be institutionalized, caring for me herself, has certainly saved my life.  Made writing this possible.  Made it possible to imagine doing math again.  Where does her strength come from?  I can never repay her.  Today is her birthday.  She is 24. I’m taking her to dinner.”

How are we to weight the words of the dying man?  Does the movie serve to affirm the views of the majority of its characters, that since Robert was “socially” dead, he should be placed out of sight in a hospital to meet his biological death, or does the movie condemn such thinking?  Is it possible that the “message?” of the movie is more in line with Palgi and Abramovitch’s assessment of Blauner:

Blauner guides us along to his conclusion that modern American death, characteristically taking place in a hospital, and most times being that of a person regarded by himself and others as no longer useful, is the epitome of the “dying alone” symbolic theme of existentialism as well as the essence of social inappropriateness (emphasis added).

Not everyone is in the position to care for a dying parent in the manner that Catherine did, but should the personal care that she provided be the ideal?  Claire says that maybe Robert would have been better cared for in a medical facility, yet she worked “14-hour days” to pay off the mortgage and other bills that allowed Catherine and their dying father to stay in the family home.  Perhaps the hospice movement has reinvigorated this tension in  American culture.  Maybe the medicalized death is what we want for others because it provides a distance between us and the dead person and the bereaved;  but when we contemplate out own deaths, our hopes are more in line with the sentiment expressed by Robert and desire for personal care.  The words of the dying man are the words we should all be so lucky to speak.

The dead man speaks a lot in this movie.  He speaks to Catherine who seems to be the only character who expresses the emotions generally associated with death and grieving.  She is tearful and sad and angry.  Palgi and Abramovitch write that “according to the psychiatric literature, prolonged but concealed mourning is apparently so widespread today that it is not an individual problem but a social issue.”  While Catherine grieves, Claire gets on quickly and efficiently with handling the business of death.  She makes the funeral arrangements; she arranges the sale of the family house; she packs away the contents of the house; she makes arrangements for her sister’s new housing.  Claire doesn’t grieve; she doesn’t skip a beat.  She takes care of this dying business in the middle of planning her wedding.  In the movie, Catherine’s normal expressions of grief seem cause for her to question her sanity where maybe it should be the other way around.  The other characters’ lack of visible grieving should be cause for them to question their sanity.

But, Catherine speaks to and sees her dead father. Is that normal?  Isn’t that crazy?  Speaking on speaking to dead people, Palgi and Abramovitch write the following:

In this respect, Rosenblatt et al support Blauner’s thesis that while death is less disruptive to modern society, its consequences are more disturbing for the bereaved individual.  They write: “to admit to having a conversation with a deceased person or to having seen a supposedly buried person sitting in one’s living room is very risky in American society.”  Consequently, many bereaved persons may be unable to talk with others about this area of experience and potential anxiety.  Furthermore, many may be led to doubt their own sanity by experiences of ghost cognitions, which only adds to the burden of their loss.

Palgi and Abramovitch point to several sources who affirm that ghost cognition has been replaced in modern society by a sense of feeling the presence of the dead person leading me to wonder whether viewers would tend to interpret Catherine talking to and “seeing” her father as her having a strong sense of his presence.  Regardless of interpretation, whether ghost cognition or feeling the presence, according to Palgi and Abramovitch, this type of experience forms part of the normal mechanisms for dealing with grief in other cultures and with past cultures.

While reviewers gave short coverage of Robert’s death, most did acknowledge Catherine’s grief in sympathetic terms.  A notable exception was Manohla Dargis, the reviewer for the New York Times, who seems, like the other characters in the movie, either unaware or unimpressed by notions of grief and the grieving person:

A martyr to her own choices, Catherine… demands our pity, our attention, our indulgence, our love, while giving little in return but her narcissism.

These demands wouldn’t seem so egregious if Catherine wanted our love because she was lonely or understandably depressed. But we are not supposed to fall for this unpleasant creature because of her human qualities; we are meant to fall for her because she may be a genius and therefore not as human as we are. (link)

Dargis appears fully immersed in the age of the efficient, radicalized death, and champions Claire’s efficient handling of that whole dirty business thus providing a telling example of just the attitude of which the movie appears to be critical.

Proof” is based on the Tony and Pulitzer award-winning play of the same name from writer David Auburn.  Auburn and Rebecca Miller wrote the screenplay for the movie.  I listened to an audio recording of the play available for download at my local public library.  While the movie does give more obvious attention to Robert’s death, many of the elements discussed here are present in the play as well.    The movie is directed by John Madden.

Other Review

  • Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician, on Proof — review lists five myths about mathematicians as portrayed in the movie.
  • Roger Ebert’s review — “It is a rare movie that gets the tone of a university campus exactly right, and at the same time communicates so easily that you don’t need to know the slightest thing about math to understand it.”
  • Philip French’s review — quite the opposite of Dargis from the New York Times in that French is sympathetic to Catherine and views Claire as a control freak.
  • Manohla Dargis’ review — from the New York Times (quoted above).
  • Ty Burrs review — also makes note of the line, “I feel like I could crack open, like an egg, or one of those really smelly French cheeses that ooze when you cut them”

The Movie
Proof (Movie) reviewed at Anthropology Times

Catherine: Gwyneth Paltrow
Robert: Anthony Hopkins
Claire: Hope Davis
Hal: Jake Gyllenhaal

Hominid Paleoneurology
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 16: 13-28 (Volume publication date October 1987)
D Falk
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Having recently read “Language and Disputing” I was immediately struck by the fact that subject matter covered in “Hominid Paleoneurology,” is at the center of a long running academic dispute. Though “Hominid Paleoneurology” appeared in the 1987 Annual Review of Anthropology, the dispute began around 1980 and continues presently.  The dispute is between Dean Falk, the author of the review, and Ralph Holloway, and it involves identification of a feature (lunate sulcus) of the early hominid brain of the Taung child and whether that feature is indicative of a move toward a more human brain structure (Holloway) or more typical of an ape-like brain structure (Falk).  Well, the dispute has to do with identification across a range of early hominid fossils, but more papers have focused on the Taung child.  The New York Times related the highlights of the still-running dispute in a 2007 article, “In Study of Brain Evolution, Zeal and Bitter Debate:”

“The reorganization of the brain became clear,” Dr. Holloway said. “These australopithecines had brains the size of apes, but they were bipedal, their hands were free, some of them might even have made stone tools. You can’t get this kind of behavior without rewiring and reorganization.”

Over the next decade, Dr. Holloway elaborated on these themes. But in 1980, Dr. Falk, then at the University of Puerto Rico, returned from her own trip to Johannesburg and announced a radically different conclusion: the Taung child’s brain and those of a half-dozen other South African australopithecines were like those of apes, not later humans.

Thus began a bitter debate between Dr. Falk and Dr. Holloway. The stakes were high. “The basic question was how far back you can trace the beginning of humanity,” said Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York.

The Times notes that Holloway considers work from 2004 to have effectively ended the dispute in his favor.  The Times gives the impression that most anthropologists agree with Holloway.

I found the language and tactics in the Falk-Holloway dispute interesting and I wondered whether these were typical of academic disputes and/or encouraged somehow by academic culture.   The language and tactics were certainly familiar and ones that I have seen in other academic disputes.  I wasn’t able to identify any of the sources listed in “Language and Disputing” as dealing specifically with academic disputes and there was no discussion of this topic in the body of that review.  Internet searches led to either the long-running dispute regarding linguistics between Noam Chomsky and his earlier students or disciplinary procedures in academia or other aspects of academic culture.  I imagine that literature on this topic is out there; I just need to refine my search techniques.

Generally speaking I noticed that both disputants held firm to his/her position and acknowledged that agreement was not possible;  both disputants called into question the academic integrity of the other; both disputants extolled the virtues of those who agreed with him/her; both disputants framed arguments to his/her best advantage.  Below are examples that give a flavor of the language used.

In a 1989 article from the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Falk accuses Holloway of misrepresenting her data in a paper:

I have identified and illustrated a spherical “dimple” or “depression” on the Taung endocast as indicating the most likely position of the medial end of the lunate sulcus but have not drawn an actual lunate sulcus on Taung because one is not visible. In a recent paper, R.L. Holloway (Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 77:27–33, 1988) drew a lunate sulcus on his copy of the Taung endocast, incorrectly attributed this sulcus to me, and used it to obtain a ratio of 0.254 to describe “Falk’s” position of the lunate sulcus. My published ratio of 0.242 for Taung (Falk: Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 67:313–315, 1985a) was not considered, although the focus of Holloway’s paper was my assessment of the position of the lunate sulcus. Holloway also excluded published ratios for a chimpanzee in my collection from his statistical analysis but, even so, my published ratio for Taung is still only 1.5 standard deviations from his chimpanzee mean. If my chimpanzee brain is included in the sample, the ratio for Taung is 1.2 standard deviations from the mean. Furthermore, one of Holloway’s own chimpanzees (B60–7) has a ratio of 0.241, just 0.001 below my ratio for Taung. There is no sulcus where Holloway has drawn one on Taung, his “F(LS)” is not mine, his 2 mm error is not mine, and the correct ratio for my measurement of Tuang is the one that I published, not the one that Holloway attributes to me. Assessment of Holloway’s chimpanzee data supports my claim that the dimple on the Taung endocast is within the chimpanzee range for the medial end of the lunate sulcus.

In a 2008 article for the Annual Review of Anthropology Holloway accuses Falk of using questionable methods:

My estimate of the Taung endocast volume came out to 404 ml, double the volume of the 202-ml hemi-endocast I had constructed under the scrutiny of both Tobias and his fabulous assistant, Alun Hughes (Holloway 1970a). This value was quite less than the 525 ml previously reported, and I was pleased that both Alun and Phillip did not find fault with my
reconstruction…Of course, nothing is static in paleoneurology, and the Taung endocast volume has been recently deflated (i.e., 382 ml) by Falk & Clarke (2007) in a paper filled with questionable methods, the most grievous being that they never bothered to define a midsagittal plane, an absolute requisite when trying to mirror-image a half-portion of an endocast (R. Holloway, manuscript in preparation). Falk et al. (2000) proposed some minor deflations of other australopithecine endocast volumes, and replies will ensue in the future.

I looked at several abstracts and several articles that were available online either written by the disputants or about this dispute.  I felt unsure how to relate my experience blog-style.  Anyway, the clock was ticking and I needed to get “something” up, so there you go.

Language and Disputing
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 17: 221-237 (Volume publication date October 1988)
D Brenneis
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

“Language and Disputing” is a more sparse review than previous reviews I’ve read in that it is more directive than expositive (and shorter–10 pages of text).  Whereas in “Death: A Cross Cultural Study” the writers list classical schools of thought regarding the study of death followed by a discussion of each, the writer in “Language and Disputing” would direct one to a source in which a good discussion of classical schools could be found along with a sentence or two as to what makes that source of particular interest.  While I learned a lot about the types of literature available in the area of language and disputing, there was less to be soaked up from this review on its face.  Still there was enough to enrich and inform my reading and experiences.

Brenneis’ discussion of a debate between legal anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists concerning which research data is most important to share with the public provides a parallel to a discussion of literary writing.  Brenneis notes that legal anthropologists tend to focus on what is being said believing the language to be fairly transparent, while linguistic anthropologists tend to focus on how it is being said believing that analysis of verbatim language is necessary to interpretation.  A study of literature teaches and reinforces the value of both those views.  When studying the plays of Shakespeare one learns the value of the more transparent story as well as the one to be had in the subtext.  Further, one learns the value of the interaction between the two and how the one informs the other.  Brenneis makes an observation about dispute language that could equally apply to the study of literature:

Understanding the role of dispute language requires attention not only to what is said but also to how it is said and to how various speakers’ performances are linked.

When I read the above quote, I was immediately put in mind of a discussion on Roger Ebert’s blog that lead to the short volley regarding the value of literature mentioned below.  Ebert wrote a posts titled “Video Games Can Never Be Art” with a followup post about an informal poll asking his readers to choose whether they valued “a great video game” over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Video games 13, 823, Huck Finn, 8,088.”  One commenter to the latter post asks, among other things, “How are you improved in any way after reading Huck Finn, as opposed to reading a plot summary of the book?” Ebert gives this response:

Plot summary? A book is not about what it is about. It’s about how it’s about it.

I suppose this sounds “elitist,” but here goes: Based on your comment, you have never learned to read.

Ebert’s response echoes Brenneis’ observation above.  One could write that dispute language isn’t just about what it’s about.  It’s about how it’s about it.  Brenneis continues with echoes of Ebert:

While past events may be discussed and accounted for in court testimony such language is about (Brenneis’ emphasis) earlier stages; it does not reproduce what was actually said.”

Having the details or “plot summary” of a dispute is one part, but the exact wording of the dispute, the pattern of the volley between disputants, the tone, the rhythm, provide valuable interpretive information.  In reading literature one learns about text, subtext, fine distinctions between synonyms, how shades of meaning can create hills and valleys of ambiguity.

Reading Brenneis didn’t just give me insight on the value of good literature, I also found a pithy example of what makes good television good.  Good television comments on and illuminates the workings of culture.  Brenneis writes the following:

Schiffrin’s examination of the characteristics and functions of argument in Jewish American conversation has been particularly effective in showing that apparently contentious speech can further sociability as well as disagreement.

An episode of the television show Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”, provides a perfect illustration of Schiffrin’s findings.  The character Martin says of the apparently contentious interaction between Frasier’s Jewish girlfriend and her mother that it was “all emotional and messy and then they’re hugging and then it’s all over.”  When Frasier and Martin find themselves in a similar conversation, they discover that they lack the (Jewish) cultural skills to arrive at the same sociable result:

A transcript of this episode from season six of Frasier can he found here.

(In case you’re wondering: 1. I believe that video gaming can be art, not to say that there is a good example of that just yet.  2. Currently, I would chose Huck Finn over a great video game.   This discussion over at Ebert’s blog is actually pretty rich with thoughtful commentary and makes for a good place to observe dispute language in action, both high and low brow.  Huck Finn is the book mentioned because Mark Twain delayed finishing Huck Finn in favor of working on a game he was developing,  prompting Ebert to assert that no game would be worth not having Huck Finn.)

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)

After having moved on to other reading, I’ve returned to Death:  A Cross-Cultural Study.  Reading this article and others on the subject, helps give structure to my thinking about the recent death of my friend and I don’t feel as overwhelmed.  I feel I’ve moved on from the initial place of mourning.    I can hear others laugh without feeling mocked.  I can wake up on the day of the week that my friend died and not be immediately inundated with thoughts of the events of that day.  I don’t cry as often.  Palgi and Abramovitch made note of a conclusion made by Hertz that particularly resonated with me:  “Death is rather to be seen as a social event, the starting point of a ceremonial process whereby the dead person becomes an ancestor.”  I’ve been conscious of a reticence to move my friend into that category with others close to me who have died.

I long to be able to think of my friend with the warmth and happiness I feel when thinking of my deceased grandmother, great-grandmother or great-grandfather, but I feel like the moment in time when he was still alive is strongly visible in my periphery.  The buzz around a movie he particularly enjoyed hasn’t faded, yet.  News stories on which he made special comment are still making the front page.  I talked to him everyday on the phone.  Thinking of the sound of his voice excites all my senses; I could taste that sound; touch it; cuddle it around me and see it with my closed eyes.  Someone so present to me cannot be an “ancestor.”  I’m infused with awareness of his liminality.

There’s been a slow transition from thinking about the specific events of his death to contemplating my own death and death generally.  This thinking has aroused a level of anxiety that I think could be ameliorated my cementing my belief as to what lies on the other side of death.  In writing about evolutionary theorists, Palgi makes the following remarks:

Tylor sought evidence for his claim that the origin of religion lay in the collective response to death and related states like sleep and dreaming.  Frazer assembled impressive catalogues of exotic rites meant to document the universality of the fear of the corpse and the belief in the soul and the afterlife .

At the moment my belief in reincarnation is akin to my belief in the law of conservation of energy, and I don’t find that adequate; but I haven’t abandoned the notion that I could find it adequate.  I believe that I need to come to some temporary understanding in order to move through the grieving process.

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.

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.