Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Beringia and Human Migration to the Americas

Anyone interested in the ongoing debates about human migration into the Americas may want to take a look at a recent news article at Science Daily, New Ideas About Human Migration From Asia To Americas. The article reports on a recent study by Ripan Malhi and colleagues at the University of Illinois published in the Public Library of Science.

The following is from the Science Daily article:

“What puzzled them originally was the disconnect between recent archaeological datings. New evidence places Homo sapiens at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Siberia – as likely a departure point for the migrants as any in the region – as early as 30,000 years before the present, but the earliest archaeological site at the southern end of South America is dated to only 15,000 years ago.
“These archaeological dates suggested two likely scenarios,” the authors wrote: Either the ancestors of Native Americans peopled Beringia before the Last Glacial Maximum, but remained locally isolated – likely because of ecological barriers – until entering the Americas 15,000 years before the present (the Beringian incubation model, BIM); or the ancestors of Native Americans did not reach Beringia until just before 15,000 years before the present, and then moved continuously on into the Americas, being recently derived from a larger parent Asian population (direct colonization model, DCM).
“Thus, for this study the team set out to test the two hypotheses: one, that Native Americans’ ancestors moved directly from Northeast Asia to the Americas; the other, that Native American ancestors were isolated from other Northeast Asian populations for a significant period of time before moving rapidly into the Americas all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.
“Our data supports the second hypothesis: The ancestors of Native Americans peopled Beringia before the Last Glacial Maximum, but remained locally isolated until entering the Americas at 15,000 years before the present.”
“The team’s findings appear in a recent issue of the Public Library of Science in an article titled, “Beringian Standstill and Spread of Native American Founders.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Reginald Shepherd on Samuel R. Delany

On his blog, Reginald Shepherd has written an engaging overview of the work of science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, On Samuel R. Delany.

Here’s a quotation from Shepherd’s essay:

“Samuel R. Delany is a prolific science fiction writer, memoirist, self-described pornographer, literary critic, and social commentator. Since the publication in 1962 (when he was twenty) of his first book, The Jewels of Aptor, he has published numerous novels, short stories, essays, interviews, cultural commentary, and memoirs. What's most remarkable about this prodigious output is its consistent quality, wide range, and continual development. Delany has never been one to repeat himself or rest on his laurels. Unlike some writers who, beginning in the genre and subsequently seeking literary respectability, and despite his numerous works in other genres, Delany has always strongly identified himself as a science fiction writer. But his work has always pushed at and expanded the boundaries and conventions of the field, constantly seeking out new forms, ideas, and themes. Indeed, his work has become more challenging and complex over the course of his career.”

I’ve discussed Delany on this blog before (“Uses of Myth” and “Myth, Mythic Literacy, and Contemporary Culture”). Science fiction in general is a genre ethnographers should take seriously, given the parallel ways in which both involve the presentation in textual form of plausible worlds (though with the key difference that ethnography is ideally based on empirical fieldwork). Delany in particular is a science fiction writer worth taking seriously by anthropologists both for the consistently stimulating quality of his work and for the ways in which he takes seriously anthropological ideas and ideas from across the humanities and social sciences and incorporates them into his construction of plausible worlds.

Here is Shepherd again on a Delany novel that may be of particular interest to anthropologists:

Babel-17 (1966), inspired by the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determnism (that our language controls our thought), centers on the efforts of the poet Rydra Wong to crack what is believed to be a military code used by an alien race with whom Earth is at war. What she finally discovers is that this code is a highly exact and analytical language which has no word for “I,” and thus no concept of individual identity. The novel examines the capacity of culture and language not only to control the way people see and act in the world but to determine who they are as persons. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously wrote. Two different words imply two different worlds.”

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Drinking and Cheating

As I noted a few posts ago (“On Why I’ve Not Posted Much Recently”), I recently attended the U.S. Department of Education’s annual meeting on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention in Higher Education. One event I attended at this meeting was a “Town Meeting” (actually a fairly standard panel discussion, with short presentations by several panelists, followed by questions and open discussion) on the topic “Complementary or Contradictory Prevention Strategies: Finding a Balance Between Nonuse and Harm Reduction Messages.”

One speaker I found especially interesting was James Bryant, senior youth program specialist for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving’s UMADD program (basically MADD on university campuses). While most of the other panelists argued for a complementary strategy of emphasizing nonuse of alcohol for underage students, or those not wishing to drink on college campuses, alongside harm reduction messages for students who do choose to drink, Bryant, speaking specifically about underage students, argued forcefully and consistently for nonuse prevention strategies.

Bryant made a number of interesting arguments to this end. He pointed out that 18 – 21 year olds who go on to college have higher drinking rates than those who do not, an interesting correlation whether or not you accept his conclusion from this that there must be something about the atmosphere of college campuses that contributes to this (personally, I think he’s probably right on this), and that harm reduction strategies tend to reaffirm the naturalness of drinking on campuses (I find this claim plausible, but I’m not sure I’d consider it probable, much less proven – see my recent post, “Possible, Plausible, Probable, Proven.”)

His other arguments were basically that since underage drinking was illegal, and since students who don’t drink can’t drink and drive, then there should be consistent use of alcohol nonuse messages.

He then employed an interesting analogy. The rationale of harm reduction messages is that some students will drink anyway, so we should emphasize “responsible drinking” or “drinking in moderation.” He argued that that’s a bit like arguing that since some students will cheat on tests no matter what we do, that we should emphasize “responsible cheating” or “cheating in moderation” – something that, of course, no college campus would do.

While his talk was engaging and provocative, and while I do have the utmost respect for his organization, I ultimately found the analogy to be limited when applied to the university setting. There are two complications to the analogy. First, while underage students who drink might be “cheating,” students who are 21 or over are engaging in legal behavior when they drink – they’re not cheating. (They might do so illegally or illicitly if they drink in prohibited places, but their drinking per se is perfectly legal.) Second, while it’s true that people who don’t drink can’t drink and drive, it’s not the case that people who drink do necessarily drink and drive. That is, “drinking” doesn’t seem to me “cheating” (especially for of-age students) in the same way that “drinking and driving” might be, and harm reduction strategies are better suited to making such distinctions (perhaps in combination with nonuse messages for underage students).

In continuing to think about Bryant’s analogy, in particular the “cheating” side of thing, I actually began to realize that I tend to take a “harm reduction” approach to cheating. Bryant’s right that I wouldn’t ever tell students to cheat responsibly or in moderation, but in practice I tend to structure course assignments in such a way as to mitigate the harmful effects of cheating rather than emphasizing the policing of cheating. For example, I’m aware of how easy it is for students nowadays to copy and paste a document of the web to submit as a paper. When I assign papers, part of the assignment is to produce a number of shorter texts in stages (such as selection of the topic, an abstract, an outline with a detailing of the logical argument and sources of evidence for the paper, a rough draft, and a revised draft). In part, this helps students write better papers, and that’s my main reason for structuring the assignments this way, but it also means that it’s barely worth it for a student to plagiarize a text from the web, because they’ll have to recapitulate the process of having written it in the first place in order to get a decent grade (and they’ll end up learning something despite their best efforts not to).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Economics, Human Evolution, Genetics, and the Obesity Epidemic

At a recent research symposium on Addictive and Health Behaviors Research, I heard an informative talk by Kelly Brownell, co-founder and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Brownell’s talk was titled “A New and Important Frontier: Food and Addiction.” A key topic of his talk was whether “food addiction” is a real phenomenon for some individuals or a bad analogy drawn with addiction to a variety of mind-altering substances. He concluded that, at least for some, food addiction probably is a real clinical phenomenon, drawing on several bodies of evidence: foods high in sugar or fat have been shown to cause dopamine production in a way similar to that of many drugs (i.e. the experience of pleasure from such foods is not just in the taste buds); there’s evidence of addictive behavior around such foods in some lab animals; the narratives and descriptions of favorite foods by “food addicts” mirrors that of drug addicts.

In the process of laying out his arguments about food addiction, Brownell gave an overview of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. over the past few decades. Much of what he covered was generally available knowledge, though his comprehensive synthesis of a vast amount of material was impressive.

These were by no means the only factors he addressed (see the Rudd Center’s website that I linked above for a fairly comprehensive overview of obesity research), but I was particularly struck by his comments on economics and human evolution.

Economics and Obesity

Brownell addressed economics and obesity in several ways.

Agricultural Economics and Obesity

As many are aware, industrial agriculture is heavily subsidized in the U.S. and many other developed countries. In the U.S., corn (maize) agricultural interests are particularly well set up with regard to subsidization of the industry. In its current form, such heavy subsidization dates back to the Nixon era, intended as a way to combat food price inflation.

An effect of this was the tremendous growth of corn and other agribusiness, and the development of a number of at the time unanticipated corn products (greater availability of corn oil and development of high fructose corn syrup), all kept artificially cheap by agricultural subsidies. A result of this is that processed foods high in fats and sugars are often quite cheap, especially when compared to prices of healthier foods, in particular the relatively high cost of fresh produce. So, for example, even while some fast food chains commendably offer healthy salad options, the healthy options tend to be quite expensive compared to the price of a meal of corn-fed-beef patties, potatoes fried in corn oil, and high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden beverages in giant portions.

Junk Food as a Caloric Bargain

High fat and/or high sugar foods tend to nowadays be available cheaply, at least in the U.S. and other developed countries – and increasingly this seems to be true elsewhere as well. Brownell made another interesting point here, though. If we look at food economics not just in terms of monetary cost but calories, junk food is a tremendous bargain. By weight, junk food is typically already cheaper than healthier food, but calorie for calorie, junk food is tremendously cheaper.

Poverty and Obesity

On top of the basic economics of food in the U.S. today, in impoverished communities, high fat and/or high sugar foods tend to be easily available relatively cheaply (even if not as cheaply as the same foods in other areas because of the lower incidence of full service grocery stores), while things like fresh produce are often hardly available at all and at higher prices, contributing to the problem of obesity in poor communities.

Human Evolution and Obesity

I was happy to see Brownell address a topic often left out of debates about obesity: human evolution. There’s strong evidence that humans generally take great pleasure in fatty or sweet foods (those dopamines mentioned above). This is something we share in common with other mammals, and is almost certainly something selected for in our evolutionary history.

This makes perfect sense – foods high in fats and sugars are caloric bargains, but are not particularly common in many natural environments. Animals who take pleasure in eating these foods would tend to seek them out more often and would tend to have an evolutionary advantage over those who didn’t.

But take this evolutionary heritage and add it to an economic environment unlike any our hominid or earlier primate ancestors ever adapted to, with an over-abundance of sugars and fats, and you get the obesity epidemic.

Genetics and Obesity

Both during his talk and during the question session, Brownell spoke of genetics as a factor in order to dismiss it as significant. I had been similarly dismissive of genetics as a significant factor in producing patterns of obesity before hearing this talk, and generally agree with his perspective here, particularly at the level of populations and gene pools: gene pools haven’t changed in the past 20-30 years in any significant way; the food environment has changed in multiple significant and obvious ways; therefore, genetics is not a serious consideration.

Interestingly, as I listened to Brownell present a position similar to that I have tended to take, I began to see the possibility for a change in genetic predispositions as a factor in obesity at the individual level. With increases in rates of obesity, we’re talking about a change to phenotype. Phenotype is always the product of genotype in interaction with environment. In this case, genotypes haven’t changed; it’s a variety of environmental factors that have changed; but that doesn’t mean that changing phenotype is solely the product of the changing environment necessarily, for phenotype is, again, always the product of that relationship between genotype and environment. A genotype that didn’t contribute to increased predisposition to obesity in one context might in another.

Still, I agree with a point that Brownell made during the Q and A session. Regardless of any potential genetic predisposition to obesity that some individuals may have, from a prevention or intervention stand point, it’s essentially irrelevant. At the population level, environmental factors are clearly the directly relevant ones and genetic predispositions aren’t something that can be particularly addressed at that level anyway. But even for individuals, for a person attempting to lose weight, the trick is to expend more calories than are taken in, irrespective of genotype.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Feminism as "F Word"

I’ve written previously of Adelin Gasana. Gasana is an undergraduate student at the University of West Florida, where I teach, and quickly developing his skills as a budding documentary video artist. A couple weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the Semiotic Society of America in New Orleans, he presented part of his most recent video, “The F Word.” This video and others can be found online at his website.

“The F Word” is about feminism, stereotypes of feminists and feminism, and attitudes towards feminism. One thing that particularly struck me when viewing the documentary was that much feminist discourse has become reactionary, responding to backlash and stereotype to emphasize what feminism and feminists are not rather than what they are. (Note that I’m not saying that Gasana’s video is reactionary, but that it depicts a discourse that has often become reactionary.) Speaker after speaker, in responding to questions about what feminism is replied in the negative first – essentially feminism is not a bunch of bra-burning, granola-eating, hairy-legged, clog dancing lesbians on a commune.

I realize that the speakers on the video are not representative of feminism in general. Gasana spoke mainly, though by no means exclusively, with feminists and/or local scholars in Pensacola, Florida. The South in general is one of the more socially conservative regions of the U.S., and Pensacola is arguably located in one of the more conservative portions of the South. This no doubt shapes the experience of feminists and other varieties of progressives. At times, it’s hard not to feel besieged as a progressive in Pensacola.

Still, the speakers on Gasana’s video are not completely unrepresentative of contemporary feminism in general either. There is a variety of contemporary feminism that works primarily in the negative – call it backlash-backlash, or something like that. I’ve not done any sort of systematic survey of the feminist literature, so I can’t say exactly how prevalent it is, but I’ve read enough feminist theory and scholarship that I’ve encountered this form of defining feminism by what it isn’t well beyond Pensacola and the South. In fact, some of the clips featured in Gasana’s documentary feature feminist writers speaking on national news talk shows.

There are two things that disturb me about this reactionary variety of feminism. First, it’s inherently self-limiting. It’s become defined by a conservative opposition’s stereotypes. Second, it’s marginalizing. It reminds me of the sort of gay scholar or activist who, in aiming for middle of the road respectability (and I think Texans might have it right when they claim that there are only dead armadillos in the middle of the road), emphasizes that flamboyant drag queens in pride parades don’t represent the gay community. While drag queens are perhaps not representative, they are important members of the gay community. While I can’t vouch for the bra-burning or clog dancing, I’ve met a number of granola-eating, hairy-legged, lesbians who live on communes who are staunch feminists not deserving to be marginalized in some game of respectability. Conservatives who would deny women or gay males equality are the opposition, not women or gay men who don’t happen to meet middle of the road standards of respectability that are in fact the standards and expectations of that conservative opposition.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Why I've Not Posted Much Recently

In the past month or so, I’ve not posted as much on this blog as I would normally like to have done. There’s a reason for this, and it’s fairly simple - I’ve just finished preparing and delivering three presentations in the last four weeks: “Analysis of Students’ Cultural Models of Drinking and Related Contexts and Activities,” a poster co-written with Debra Vinci and presented at the 2nd annual Symposium on Addictive and Health Behaviors Research sponsored by the University of Florida and held at Amelia Island, FL; “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing” (which I posted recently as a blog post), presented at the annual meeting of the Semiotic Society of America in New Orleans; and a workshop, co-presented with Mica Harrell, Rebecca Magerkorth, and Debra Vinci, “Building Campus Prevention Partnerships: Collaboration of Faculty and Student Affairs Administration in Implementing Evidence-based Alcohol Abuse Prevention,” presented at the U.S. Department of Education’s Annual conference on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention in Higher Education held in Omaha, NE.

It’s been quite interesting in the span of a month to attend three such different conferences (a health sciences research symposium, an interdisciplinary semiotics conference, a conference emphasizing the importance of research and evidentiary base for programming but which was geared primarily to health programming and planning) in three very different places (a secluded resort directly on the Atlantic, New Orleans, and Omaha).

To my surprise, as a place, I enjoyed Omaha the most.

Amelia Island Plantation resort is a nice resort, and its seclusion emphasized a focus on the symposium’s activities, but I’m just not a big fan of resorts. They tend to bore me, and creep me out a bit with the excessive servility that tends to be expected of the hospitality staff.

I wouldn’t say I have a love/hate relationship with New Orleans, but more a love/repulsion relationship. I’ve long been attracted by many aspects of the city and repulsed by much else (such as the shenanigans along Bourbon Street and the endemic poverty that’s never seemed to get any better). Since Katrina, this has been deepened – I’ve been heartened with each visit I’ve made there by the ways in which parts of the city have recovered, but always leave with a heavy heart because of the many ways in which much of the city has not.

Omaha, though, surprised me. My apologies to residents of the city – I assumed it would be bland at best, but instead found a city that was much more interesting (especially in terms of the architecture of buildings and public spaces, as well as food – I enjoyed a good Indian restaurant and a decent Persian one) than I had expected.

In any case, now that I’ve completed an intense month of prepping for and attending conferences, I look forward to posting much more regularly here. I plan a short series of posts, starting tomorrow, to highlight and discuss interesting information and presentations I encountered at these three conferences.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Recent News on Gay Men and HIV

In the past couple days, I’ve encountered two interesting news articles pertaining to current trends in HIV epidemiology among men who have sex with men.

Science Daily has published the article “Lack Of HIV Prevention For Male Sex Workers In The Caribbean Could Fuel AIDS Epidemic.”

The following two paragraphs are a quotation from the article:

“Male sex tourists, largely from the United States and Europe, may be fueling an HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean, and efforts to stop the epidemic will be severely hampered unless HIV prevention dollars are diverted to help male prostitutes, a new study suggests.

“Additionally, the study should serve as call to action for the tourism industry to implement HIV/AIDS prevention programs for tourists and tourism employees, said assistant professor Mark Padilla of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The Caribbean is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in HIV/AIDS cases. The disease has been described as primarily heterosexual, Padilla said. However, Padilla's book shows that sexual contact between Caribbean male sex workers and male tourists may be a much larger contributor to the HIV/AIDS epidemic there than previously thought. Currently, prevention dollars in the Caribbean serve primarily heterosexuals, and this particular population of male sex workers who have sex with tourists is largely neglected. That population of male prostitutes grows larger as the traditional, agricultural jobs dry up. Funding comes from a variety of sources: governments, multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization, and private foundations.”

The Oregonian has published “Guessing about HIV may keep epidemic going.” The following are quotations from the article:

“More than two decades after the first warnings that condoms prevent the spread of HIV, an increasing number of gay men are instead betting their lives on vague conversations and verbal assurances from their partner before having unprotected sex.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nationally, the number of HIV and AIDS diagnoses among men who have sex with men increased 11 percent from 2001 to 2005. Researchers in Oregon and elsewhere say one reason could be that men attempt to sort themselves. HIV-positive men limit their partners to others with HIV; those without the disease avoid sex with those who have it. But some experts say it's more of a guessing game because too few men directly ask or answer, "Do you have HIV?"

“Serosorting is a shaky prevention strategy for healthy men, not so much because men lie to their sexual partners -- most don't, especially not those who are HIV positive. Instead, HIV prevention specialists say, men afraid of rejection or who are embarrassed to talk about sex dance around the topic, behavior also seen in heterosexuals. Gay and bisexual men might drop hints about taking medication, for example, and hope their partner understands they mean HIV medications.

“Some men, aware that anal sex is riskiest for the receptive partner, assume it's that person's responsibility to ask for a condom. Other men who say they're negative cite outdated HIV test results. And 1 in 4 people infected with HIV doesn't know it.”

Friday, October 12, 2007

Luna Shipwreck

Archaeologists from the University of West Florida’s Archaeology Institute and Department of Anthropology (where I teach) have just publicly announced the discovery of a 16th century Spanish ship in Pensacola Bay, almost certainly one of the ships associated with Tristan de Luna’s 1559 expedition to establish a settlement at Pensacola. The find is significant both because of the rarity of shipwrecks from the period in the Americas and because Luna’s expedition was one of the first (although not the first) attempts to establish a permanent European settlement in the Americas north of Mexico and the Caribbean.

As a member of the UWF anthropology department and a resident of Pensacola, I find it quite pleasant to see unqualified good news about the university and the city receiving national coverage. I expected prominent local news coverage of the announcement (see the Pensacola News Journal article here), but I was also pleasantly surprised to encounter Yahoo News picking up the AP newswire account in their U.S. national news section.

Generally, when Pensacola receives national attention it’s because of a hurricane, corrupt politicians, or something else bad. It’s not that plenty of good things don’t happen here – they’re just generally of local interest.

Kudos to the archaeology faculty, staff, and students who helped in making this discovery.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Possible, Plausible, Probable, Proven

I wrote this post for the blog I write for a course, Peoples and Cultures of the World, and originally intended it primarily for a student audience. However, I think it fits well here as well.

“Possible,” “Plausible,” “Probable,” and “Proven” are terms used to indicate rough degrees of statistical probability of something happening or some proposition being true. (My use of the “probable” here reflects the vernacular. When we say that something is probably true, we don’t mean that it has just any level of statistical probability, but specifically that it is quite likely to be true.)

The terms do reflect an ascending order of probability (and a nested one – anything that is plausible is also possible; anything proven is also probable, plausible, and possible), though not in a numerically precise way. They represent a sort of qualitative statistics. When we can realistically indicate precise probabilities, that is obviously a useful thing, but even a rough sense of degree of probability is far more useful than no such sense at all.

Errors in thinking arise whenever we jump up this ascending ladder of probability without evidence, or without sufficient evidence (though admittedly, knowing what counts as sufficient evidence is always tricky business). Just because it’s possible that Bigfoot could be running around the Pacific Northwest or elsewhere doesn’t make it plausible, much less probable or proven.

The Possible

Saying that something is possible simply means that it does not violate the basic laws of logic. In the realm of empirical scholarship, one could also add that it does not violate basic physical laws, that something is both logically and physically possible.

The existence of Bigfoot is possible – it violates no logical or physical rules, but given the overwhelming lack of evidence, there’s no reason to regard Bigfoot’s existence as having anything but the lowest degree of probability. The same goes for claims about extraterrestrial influence in building the Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge or the Nazca Lines.

The Plausible

To say that something is plausible is to indicate that it has a higher probability than the merely possible - it is believable, it makes sense. But claims that are merely plausible (that is, that are not also probable) lack the evidence to be taken as having a high degree of probability of truth.

Thor Heyerdahl’s famous voyage on his Kon-Tiki raft from South America to Polynesia certainly proved that it was possible for people to have traveled from the one place to the other using fairly simple watercraft. He even made it plausible that Polynesians could have made voyages to South America, but his voyage alone did nothing to make such notions probable, much less proven. (See this news article from this past summer from Live Science on both Heyerdahl and more recent evidence of Polynesian voyaging to South America that I’ll discuss below.)

An article I encountered this morning on Science Daily, “Early Apes Walked Upright 15 Million Years Earlier Than Previously Thought, Evolutionary Biologist Argues,” makes what I’d consider a plausible claim. “An extraordinary advance in human origins research reveals evidence of the emergence of the upright human body plan over 15 million years earlier than most experts have believed. More dramatically, the study confirms preliminary evidence that many early hominoid apes were most likely upright bipedal walkers sharing the basic body form of modern humans.” So long as there’s evidence, it’s plausible that hominoid bipedalism might be much older than previously thought, but this is an extraordinary claim, and as such requires not simply a single study with good evidence, but a body of good evidence in order to be taken as probable, much less proven by many scholars.

The Probable and the Proven

To say that something is probable means that it is very likely to be the case, that it has a high degree of probability. To refer to something as proven implies that a claim is definitely true, though given the ever present possibilities of faulty observation (even systematic faulty observation), partial understanding or misunderstanding of empirical materials, nothing (at least outside the abstract realm of pure logic and mathematics) is ever demonstrated to be completely and irrevocably true. Instead, to say something is proven is really to say that it has such a high degree of probability of truth that we can pragmatically assume it to be true (though ideally keeping an open mind towards potential counter-evidence).

When Pizarro and his Spanish soldiers reached Peru, they encountered chickens (an Old World domesticated bird) already there. There are at least a couple ways the chickens could have arrived in the New World – they could have been brought by the very earliest European voyages to the Caribbean and Central America in the 1490s and 1500s and very rapidly diffused southward; or they could have been brought by Polynesian voyagers to South America (the only problem there being, at least until now, a lack of evidence of such Polynesian voyages having actually occurred).

When Captain Cook and other explorers encountered a variety of Polynesian islands in the late 18th century, they encountered sweet potatoes, among other crops being grown. As I understand it, there’s no definite evidence of how these South American plants reached Polynesia. They could have been brought by the Spanish to the Philippines early in the Colonial period and diffused from there to Indonesia, Melanesia, and ultimately Polynesia, or they could have been brought back from South America by Polynesians themselves.

New evidence released this past summer addresses this situation. Chicken bones were recovered in Peru that, according to carbon dating, predate Spanish voyages to the Americas by about a century. Further, genetic evidence links the chicken bones to Polynesian varieties of chickens. (See the previously cited article from Live Science and also this article from New Scientist.)

If the carbon dating and DNA evidence hold up (always an important consideration with important new claims), this proves that Polynesian chickens reached Peru at least on one occasion. Given the highly implausible nature of chickens making the voyage on their own (though not logically impossible), it makes highly probable if not proving claims that Polynesians came to South America on at least one occasion. It makes highly probable that the chickens seen by Pizarro were of Polynesian stock as well. I’d even go so far as to say that this new evidence makes probable the idea that Polynesians brought sweet potatoes back from South America directly, though the distinction between plausible and probable is a bit more ambiguous in this case.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Charles Wagley and Social Race in the Americas

I've just posted an overview discussion about Charles Wagley's article "On Social Race in the Americas" on the blog that I write for a course that I teach at the University of West Florida, "Peoples and Cultures of the World." For those not familiar with the Wagley article, it was originally published in the 1950s and is a foundational piece for the study of patterns of social race in the Western Hemisphere. Anyone interested in topics of race, the Americas, or history of anthropology might be interested in looking at it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing

The following is a revision of an earlier blog post:

Most cultural anthropologists would agree that ethnographic and other anthropological writing should be as clear as possible. A primary goal of ethnographic writing is to communicate a sense or understanding of a particular cultural context. Clear writing facilitates this and unclear or difficult writing obstructs this. When engaging in “public anthropology” and attempting to communicate anthropological understandings to an interested lay audience, the stricture to write clearly is even stronger.

Something that anthropologists have not discussed much, though, is what exactly constitutes “clarity” or “difficulty” in writing. There is a general sense that we should avoid overly complex syntax or particular vocabulary that our intended audience might not be familiar with (or at least to clearly explain complex vocabulary when necessary), but not much consideration that there might be different types of difficulty (and hence different types of clarity) that might call for their own particular responses.

Here, I find the recent work of Reginald Shepherd illuminating. Shepherd precisely delineates types or sorts of difficulty in another genre of writing, poetry. What is difficulty in general? Shepherd argues (and I agree) that difficulty in writing involves in one way or another violating readerly expectations. This can be good or bad, a barrier to grasping meaning and/or a spur to further experience and pleasure, but difficulty in its different varieties always involves this violation of expectations (that the words used will be familiar, that its referents will be clear, that the sense of the text “makes sense,” that the text will have a recognizable and clearly interpretable form).

Shepherd discusses five types of difficulty, which he identifies as: lexical difficulty, allusive difficulty, syntactical difficulty, semantic difficulty (with two varieties – explicative and interpretive difficulties), and formal difficulty.

A major difference in poetic and ethnographic writing has to do with the goals or motivations for writing. With poetry, a primary goal is to create a unique sensuous object with its own qualities to be experienced in itself (something that happens with any text, but something that is a primary function of literary writing, including poetry). The poem may make reference to something in the world outside the poem through the sense of the words, but it need not necessarily do so, and in any case, that is not the main raison d’etre for poetry (and if you want to communicate something directly and clearly about the world, there are far better means than poetry). Ethnography at its best might have poetic or other literary qualities, but that’s not what makes it ethnography. Unlike poetry, a definite connection between the sense of the text and the context in the world outside the text which is its reference is a necessary component of ethnography – it wouldn’t be writing culture if it weren’t writing about culture.

As a result, one difference between my writing about difficulty in ethnography and Shepherd’s in relation to poetry is a difference in attitude toward difficulty. Shepherd is interested in difficulty as an aspect of poetry which is neither inherently good nor bad – since reading poetry is about experiencing the poem as an object of experience in its own right, various difficulties in grasping its meaning are not bad per se, and are often important components in the experience of pleasure from the poem. In the case of ethnography, where communication about something in the world is a key consideration, to the extent it creates a barrier to understanding, difficult writing is often simply something to be avoided – though there are interesting exceptions.

Lexical Difficulty

Lexical difficulty is straightforward – words that are unfamiliar are used, or words are used in an unfamiliar way or at variance with convention. Anthropologists of all stripes commonly use words that are not familiar to the general public; we might speak of agglutinative languages, philopatric social organization among cercopithecine primates, or the differing consequences of avunculocal versus matrilocal residence alongside matrilineality. Recently, a student, after having read a chapter from a textbook on Native North American cultures and reading that some Plateau cultures practiced the levirate, came to me to ask just what in the heck the levirate was. He had even done what I always admonish my students to do when they encounter words they don’t know and had tried to look it up in a dictionary, but unfortunately even his dictionary didn’t help.

We use technical terms all the time that are unfamiliar to most people, and often with good reason – they allow us to very efficiently communicate complex and subtle shades of meaning. The response to difficulty is not to ban the use of “difficult” words – anyone can benefit from encountering new words and learning their meaning. Not knowing the meaning of a word doesn’t prevent learning and understanding it. In the interest of clarity, this is in some ways an easy form of difficulty to deal with. We can avoid the use of technical terms when they aren’t necessary, when less technical terms will in fact suffice, or by clarifying their referent and meaning when they are needed. The difficulty for a writer is judging the potential audience. It’s annoying when reading an article in a scholarly journal to have every technical term explained, given that most anyone who’s potentially reading it is probably familiar with the terminology or at least has an interest in finding out such things for themselves. In writing for a popular audience, lexical difficulty can be overcome simply by providing clear explanations when unfamiliar terminology is useful; e.g. the textbook my student was reading really should have briefly explained what the levirate was.

Allusive Difficulty

Shepherd writes of poetry, “The poem that alludes frequently eludes. The poet refers to something we’ve not heard of, assumes a piece of knowledge we don’t have.” Returning to the previous category, much lexical difficulty in ethnography can be seen as a variety of such allusive difficulty, insofar as the main problem is generally knowledge (of the meaning of a term) which it is assumed the reader has when in fact they may not. As a distinct form of difficulty, though, for ethnography what is meant is allusion to a set of facts or discussions which the reader is assumed to be familiar with. As with lexicon, for the writer this is often a matter of mastering the art of gauging one’s audience. In a scholarly anthropological publication, one could allude to the kula ring, or Geertz’s Balinese cockfight, or potlatching, or Coming of Age in Samoa and generally assume at least a passing familiarity with the allusion on the part of the reader, whereas in works for a popular audience the same assumption can’t be made. As with lexicon, the difficulty for the writer is not so much in being aware that one should write “clearly,” but in successfully gauging an audience, whether popular, scholarly, or specialist scholarly, in order to strike a balance between not assuming readers know something that they in fact don’t (and leaving them lost) and not assuming that readers know less than they in fact do (and leaving them annoyed or bored).

Syntactical Difficulty

Shepherd describes syntactical difficulty as “the obstacle of complex, unfamiliar, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax: one cannot discern or reconstruct the relations between the grammatical units.” In poetry, moving away from conventional prose syntax has often been put to creative and innovative use, but in ethnographic prose, syntactical difficulty is generally the result of plain bad writing. Also, we generally encounter only one subset of syntactical difficulty in ethnography. Except in cases of truly bad editing, dislocated, broken, or incomplete syntax, which can be used creatively in poetry, are not typically encountered in published ethnographic writing, even while they are increasingly encountered in more informal communication, such as email. And blogs. Overly complex, unfamiliar, or convoluted syntax, though, is all too common in ethnography and culture theory.

Semantic Difficulty

Shepherd writes of semantic difficulty in poetry: “We have trouble determining or deciding what a poem means, we cannot immediately interpret it. (It is important here to remember that sense and reference are distinct: sense is internal to the poem, as it is to language itself. As linguist David Crystal elucidates in How Language Works, ‘Sense is the meaning of a word within a language. Reference is what a word refers to in the world outside language.’ From this perspective, it’s more useful to think of the poem as a field of meanings than as a thing that means something else, a container for a vehicle of meaning.)” He writes also, “It is semantic difficulty which readers are usually experiencing when they say, ‘I don’t understand this poem.’” Shepherd further subdivides semantic difficulty into explicative and interpretive difficulty. “In the case of explicative difficulty, the reader cannot decipher the literal sense of the poem.” “In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do.”

Explicative Difficulty in Ethnography

In ethnographic and other anthropological writing, this sort of semantic difficulty, where someone looks at a passage of text and simply cannot make heads or tails of it, often involves in part a concatenation of all the previous forms of difficulty. Take the following sentence from Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (p. 72, emphasis in original):

“The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”

I often emphasize this particular passage when teaching this text because once all the elements are carefully unpacked, you have created a good starting point for understanding Bourdieu’s practice theory. This passage certainly has plenty of lexical, allusive, and syntactical difficulty, but even once its individual elements are carefully considered, the sense of the whole still escapes many a student forced to read Bourdieu for the first time. Even when understanding each individual word, the syntax, and the ethnographic traditions being alluded to, it’s still difficult to grasp the total meaning. Some of that difficulty could be clarified with more careful attention to lexicon, allusion, and syntax, but some ideas we wish to express are in fact subtle and complex aside from any difficulties we might add because of bad writing, and there will always be a certain amount of difficulty resulting from attempting to communicate complex ideas.

Interpretive Difficulty in Ethnography

Shepherd writes, “In the case of interpretive difficulty, one grasps what is being said on the literal level, but doesn’t know what it means, what it is meant to do. John Ashberry’s poems, usually syntactically and explicationally clear, often present this interpretive difficulty. To say that one doesn’t know what a poem means, if one understands its literal sense, is to say that one doesn’t know why it’s saying what it’s saying. The reader asks, ‘Why am I being told/shown this?’” There really aren’t many examples of this sort of difficulty in ethnographic writing. If the sense of the text is clear, the reference and reason for saying what has been said are generally clear also. There are some examples, though, and one that I find often confuses students is the ethnographic treatment of magic.

The convention in writing about magic in ethnography is to write about it as if magic has all the effects that its adherents claim and believe. Sometimes, the ethnographer indicates that people of a particular context believe or claim this or that, or do this or that, but as often as not, magic and its results are presented not as matters of belief and practice but as straightforward elements of natural reality. Students, not previously privy to the convention, are often confused, not knowing how to interpret such accounts, “Do (anthropologists think that) Trobriand witches really fly through the night? Do (anthropologists think that) muisak souls can really take vengeance by causing trees to fall on their killers?” What is often confusing here is a broader convention that encompasses the ethnographic treatment of magic, where cultural contexts are represented in terms of their own underlying premises and arguments.

Formal Difficulty

Formal difficulty involves the lack of recognition or the failure to accept the form of the expression. For a long time, free verse didn’t seem like poetry to a lot of readers, any more than Duchamp’s urinal seemed like art or the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, or Albert Ayler seemed like music. As Shepherd writes, many of today’s readers, raised on the free verse that has long been standard, now have trouble recognizing and appreciating aspects of the form of metrical or rhyming poetry. They have trouble recognizing and hearing the rhythms; they are turned off by or simply miss the rhyme schemes.

Formal difficulty in ethnography involves simply not recognizing some writing as ethnography. This sometimes involves writing that fits into another genre of writing, but which might also be ethnography. Other times, this involves writing that intends to be ethnography, but in an experimental way which violates or plays with the conventions of the genre in some way.

Writing Culture and the Writing of Culture

At least since Writing Culture, there has been widespread recognition that ethnography is “writing culture.” But is all writing of culture ethnography? Some texts that clearly fit into another genre are also writing of culture. Novels such as Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, all evoke a particular cultural setting in detailed ways, yet we wouldn’t normally recognize these or other novels as ethnography (and at the same time, most wouldn’t normally recognize Oscar Lewis’ The Children of Sanchez, which claimed to be both an autobiography of a Mexican family and a novel, as anything other than an ethnography).

Experimental Ethnography

Experimentation with form in ethnography has a long history in anthropology, with an intensification in such experimentation since the mid 1980s. As with atonal music, modern art or free jazz when they were new (or even now when they’re not new at all), many experience difficulty in interpreting how or to what extent some experimental writing is ethnography or why it should be written. Many experimental ethnographies, particularly those experimenting with the form of the genre, have been perennially among the most interesting and thought provoking ethnographic texts, but they are also among the most difficult to come to terms with, to understand, or to evaluate (and it is often largely these qualities which makes them interesting).

Without claiming at the moment to have any clear sense of what precisely defines the form of the ethnography in contrast to other genres and even other genres of writing culture, the presence of such “formal difficulty” spells out a need to more intensively investigate the importance of form for ethnography and other genres. We cannot glibly fall back on something like fictionality, at least not in a simple sense, to define the difference between ethnography and some novels – some “fiction” tells great truths; as Geertz pointed out long ago, ethnography is always a crafted writing; and we should keep in mind the many “fictional” aspects of much ethnography, including pseudonyms for people and places, composite persons, confabulations of place and story, etc. Perhaps an important difference is that ethnography is “writing culture” which has as a primary motivation the understanding of a particular context via a correspondence between the sense of the text and the reference in the world, a sort of iconicity between text and world that need not be adhered to for even the most “ethnographic” of “fiction.”