Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Books By Non-Anthropologists For Cultural Anthropologists To Read

Like most scholars, I have a passion for books. Having enjoyed putting together two posts (here and here) on my favorite books from last year, I’ve decided to begin a semi-regular feature of discussing books I’ve found rewarding that I think other cultural anthropologists (or anyone else) might also find engaging, interesting, provocative, or otherwise worth reading.

The Riddle of the Dinosaur, by John Noble Wilford, Knopf, 1986.

I read this book when I was just beginning to organize the writing of my dissertation. I was reading a wide variety of non-fiction pertaining to an array of topics and disciplines to get a sense of the diversity of ways of organizing the presentation of a topic (a strategy I’d recommend for anyone now writing theses or dissertations). This book didn’t particularly influence my writing in any formal way. Instead it influenced my thinking about my relation to ethnographic data. (It’s also a fun read for anyone with a fascination for dinosaurs.)

You’ll learn a lot about dinosaurs from this book, but you’ll also learn much about the history of the paleontology of dinosaurs. Wilford’s account is essentially an epistemological history, tracing the history of the development of conceptualizations of dinosaurs and methods for studying them (I tend to think of methodology as applied epistemology – and I’ve found thinking about research methods a lot more interesting ever since I started thinking about it that way).

In most ways, paleontology and ethnography have little in common. In reading Wilford, I realized that one thing they have in common, albeit for different reasons, is that they’re both scholarly endeavors that tend to foreground epistemological concerns, if not to exist in a perpetual state of epistemological crisis. As I said the reasons for this are different: with paleontology, one is faced with a paucity of information and a real concern about what can legitimately be reconstructed about the anatomy and physiology, much less lifeways, of these creatures from 65+ million years ago with in most cases minimal and highly fragmented information; with ethnography, the researcher is generally overwhelmed with data, but with concerns about the effects of the researcher’s own prejudices and predilections on interpretations and even observations, and the reader is left with the task of attempting to discern the merits of the ethnographer’s text with no ability to engage in anything like laboratory replicability.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Pantheon, 2003, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, Pantheon, 2004, both by Marjane Satrapi.

Although I’m no expert on the Middle East, much less Iran or Persian culture specifically, I’ve read quite a few books about Iran in recent years, several of them excellent, including Fredrik Barth’s minor class Nomads of South Persia (an ethnography from the 1950s), Michael Fischer’s Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (an ethnography written right after the revolution, and one of the more insightful accounts of it), and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi’s Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution (another insightful account of the revolution focusing on the use of media technology by the revolutionaries).

Satrapi’s two volume graphic memoir (probably already familiar to fans of graphic novels and non-fiction, and recently made into a movie) is the one thing I’ve read, though, that gave me a sense of growing up and being in contemporary Iran (not that the memoir is confined to Iran alone – it also entails an account of Satrapi’s years in a European boarding school, for example).

Reading Satrapi’s memoir, as well as other graphic non-fiction, such as the various works of graphic journalist Joe Sacco, makes me wish I could draw. I don’t think any particular medium is the best way to write or present culture, but the form used here does have the unique ability to draw on the strength of the word and the image and to avoid to an extent some of the pitfalls of each, e.g. the way in which so much ethnography feels enervated, missing so much of the sensual reality of culture (though of course even here, the sounds, smells, and even colors [it’s in black and white drawing] are still missing), or the ambiguous quality of many images – lacking in context and conceptualization without commentary, yet coupled with an often overbearing sense of reality deriving from their visual impact.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

I may be one of the few cultural anthropologists who likes this book. Many cultural anthropologists have criticized this book, mostly as being geographically determinist (which is an incomplete charge at best, given the importance of the availability or absence of domesticated animals to societies in Diamond’s argument) or for reducing the highly various tapestry of cultural diversity to a simple narrative.

If you take Diamond’s account as a sufficient explanation of everything cultural, then it’s a disappointment, because it doesn’t do that, as if any theoretical framework could. Perhaps I’m overly charitable, or just plain wrong, but I don’t think Diamond claims to have explained everything in any case, but just to have laid out a set of arguments that explains much about human cultural history in general.

Insofar as Diamond draws our attention to factors many anthropologists might have otherwise not considered, such as the presence or absence of domesticated animals, directional orientation of trade and other cultural contact networks, or relative ease of transportation over long distances in different world areas, Diamond’s account is useful in making us aware of patterns that over long stretches of time have significant impact on the particular histories of specific societies.

Part of many anthropologists’ resistance to Diamond probably stems from the longstanding particularist bent of American cultural anthropology, the important emphasis on detail on cultural uniqueness, but also a sometimes corresponding resistance to identification of general patterns. (See Kerim’s post on the Savage Minds blog on this topic from about two months ago.)

Part of the resistance likely also stems from an academic turf-war mentality and a resistance to non-anthropologists poaching on anthropological territory. (There’s reason to be wary of the variety of sociobiologists, chaos theorists, meme theorists, economists, etc., who attempt to explain better than anthropologists the topics conventionally seen as anthropologists’ own. [If it makes any difference, Diamond, trained as a geneticist, is also poaching on geography’s turf.] Still, poaching doesn’t always make them wrong.)

There’s also a bit of internecine anthropological squabbling in disguise going on here. Though Diamond’s synthesis is highly readable and insightful, it is ultimately a synthesis of a lot of many scholars’ work from the previous few decades, notably William McNeill’s The Rise of the West, as well as Europe and the People without History by anthropology’s own Eric Wolf. I suspect a lot of the anthropological resistance to Diamond comes from anthropologists opposed to the more generalist approaches within the discipline, whether in the form of political economy, cultural materialism, or structuralism and their various progeny.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In The Long Run, Our Culture Has Good Taste

The continuing fascination with Britney Spears’ apparent meltdown. The success of pop songs like “My Humps” or “The Thong Song” (just to pick two from the past decade) or of movies like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo or Alvin and the Chipmunks (over $200 million at the domestic box office and counting).

There are also examples of pop culture in its various forms that are clearly (or at least debatably) high quality and that are popular. I’d never suggest that popularity is a sign of bad art (or bad or faddish scholarship), but at the same time, no one could accuse contemporary North American culture of having impeccably good taste. (I’ll leave aside for the moment issues of whether cultures can have taste – I’m really talking about the aggregate taste of millions of North American individuals. I’d also note that North America is by no means alone in having a fondness for a mixed bag of profound faire alongside tacky, or even godawful ephemera.)

People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past.

In contemporary society, whether you want to call it the society of late capitalism, the postmodern era, or something else, novelty is relentlessly marketed to all of us as consumers of popular culture and commodities generally. (And I think this basic argument applies as much outside North America as to North America.) Most of the novel things have very short shelf lives, momentarily amusing us or catching our eye, until something else does.

Objects of creative expression (and I would include scholarly expression as much as art here) that maintain the interest of many for very long, though highly various, tend to have objective qualities that reward repeated reflection and rumination (i.e. they’re actually at least somewhat profound) and that are not overly determined by the moment of their creation, allowing them to communicate across temporal contexts.

The art objects and scholarship that we continue to go back to over long periods of time are generally first rate stuff (though I’d leave room for exceptions – and it’s crucial to note that I’m not arguing that over time all instances of good art or scholarship come to be appreciated for what they are, but simply that creative expression that is appreciated over long periods of time is generally worthy of the appreciation).

We can have the impression that movies were better in the 1930s or 1940s because we mainly continue to watch and remember Casablanca or Citizen Kane, and compare them to the full range of good and schlocky movies being made today, forgetting about equally schlocky early movies like Gold Diggers of 1935 or Earthworm Tractors. We remember Frank Sinatra, but most don’t know, or have forgotten, a novelty song he sang with a singing dog, and most who do know about that have probably never actually heard it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Susan Brown, Women, Men, and Agency

The following is something I wrote for the blog I keep for a course I teach, "Peoples and Cultures of the World." I wrote it in response to an in-class discussion I had with students, but I thought it might be interesting here, too:

In “Love Unites Them and Hunger Separates Them,” Susan Brown’s mid-1970s study of family organizational patterns and women’s agency in rural, impoverished sectors of the Dominican Republic (from the collection Toward an Anthropology of Women), Brown argues that many of the choices made by women regarding their households (such as to enter into serial monogamous relationships in a matrifocal household, rather than the more highly valued formal marriage) were not irrational or dysfunctional as they had often been represented by earlier (mostly male) scholars, but involved rational choices to make the best of things in the context of extreme poverty.

Men in this poverty sector don’t come off looking so good in Brown’s account. They seem mainly a lot of drinking, gambling, philandering, cock-fighting, macho lay-abouts. The main criticism I have of Brown here is the lack of a sense of proportion. We’re left with no sense of whether this description characterizes all, most, many, or few of the actual men. Still, it seems from the impressions of women and the choices they make that we’re talking about some sizeable number of men that could be so described, regardless of their proportion to the larger set of men in general.

Part of this pattern, which I’ll simply call “irresponsibility,” lacking a more convenient label, can no doubt be written down to the effects of coping with the physical and mental stresses of extreme poverty, and not always coping in the most functional way possible.

I’d like also to suggest, though, that, just as with Brown’s arguments that women are making choices that may seem superficially dysfunctional but are actually functional in the circumstances, despite the apparent and obvious dysfunctionality of much of what many of the men are doing, for at least some, there may be a rational and functional strategy at play.

It’s useful to keep in mind some of the dynamics of Latin American peasant communities. Eric Wolf described two basic types of Latin American peasant communities (as well as several other minor varieties): the closed and open peasant communities.

A closed peasant community is definitely not what we’re dealing with with Brown’s study community. Closed communities tend to occur in highly isolated areas, e.g. in rugged rural terrain in places like Mexico or Peru. While not completely isolated from regional market systems and state intervention (or else they’d be “subsistence farmers” and not “peasants”), they produce primarily for their own subsistence and tend to promote an ideology of social harmony and equality within the community (but see also the enormous literature focusing on such communities and relation between harmony ideology and practice, the idea of limited good and social equality and tension, etc.).

Open peasant communities, as the name suggests, are more “open,” specifically more open to regional, national, and even global economic networks. Making a living more often involves a combination of subsistence farming, small cash crop farming, and wage labor when it’s available. (With the irregularity of wage work typical in such contexts, many men are “shifty” in part because they must always be “shifting.”) Social inequality, and the open expression of it, is also more part of community life than in closed communities.

The route to upward mobility, even slight improvement of livelihood, is difficult, especially in an environment when, especially prior to Grameen Bank and the micro-loan experiment, access to external capital (to buy another plot of land to farm, to buy a truck, etc.) is generally absent.

The route to upward mobility, at the same time, is fairly clear for men – to cultivate loyalty among other men of the community so that one can draw on their labor (in capitalist terms, to be able to extract surplus value from their labor). How is this done? Largely through active socializing, buying drinks generously, and a variety of other “irresponsible” activities – a strategy that will inevitably fail for most, often at the price of deepening poverty, but that for a few is not only not a dysfunctional strategy, but one of the few that will pay off in expanded production and an enhanced standard of living.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But not Quality)

I’m writing this post partly in response to a comment by the.effing.librarian to my earlier post, “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring.” I decided to post this as a new post rather than a comment, in part because I had more to say than I’d usually want to stick in the comments section, and in part because while my thoughts here are prompted by the.effing.librarian’s comment, only part of what I have to say here directly responds to that comment.

The.effing.librarian writes that one of the important things that punk rock did was to make the point that anyone, regardless of talent or skill, could create, could be involved in the production of art or other creative expression.

I take this point and wholeheartedly agree with it (perhaps my only caveat with regard to punk rock would be to note that though most punk rock is pretty simple music and often sloppily played, most of the notable bands have not been as talentless as they’ve often presented themselves to be – the member of The Ramones or The Sex Pistols consistently played things recognizable as songs, hitting the right notes and chords most of the time).

As the.effing.librarian suggests, I appreciate this in part as a blogger myself. One of the wonderful things about the current online environment is that almost anyone with access to the basic technology (which unfortunately is not as many people around the world as would be ideal) can express what they have to say about things through a blog, on a MySpace page, in online discussion forums, etc.

In much of the world today, there is something like a democracy of creative expression, where most everyone can say what they want about whatever, even if some people are better able to have their voices heard and are more influential. In places where this doesn’t exist, I certainly wish it did and think it should.

More people should be more involved in more creative thought and expression in more forms more of the time.

This raises the related issue of taste and quality.

When it comes to taste or preference, there is a similarly democratic situation, reflected in clichés like “To each his own,” or “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Anyone is entitled to their own preferences, likes and dislikes. I find punk rock boring (even if as I earlier noted, I do find small doses of some punk rock entertaining), while other people love the stuff.

It doesn’t follow that the discernment of quality in creative expression is or should be equally a simple matter of democratic opinion. (Note: I’m not at all suggesting that the.effing.librarian is suggesting this. This, especially, is where my thoughts here were prompted by the comment but are independent of it. I have more in mind sentiments such as that expressed by the character Quagmire on a recent Family Guy episode in discussing a Robert Frost poem and in response to a book club member’s comment on his commentary that because it was poetry, he could think whatever he wanted.)

There’s no single way to evaluate the quality of art, but art and other instances of creative expression do have objective qualities – meaning that they are objects in the world with empirical qualities.

From this follows at least two things:

First, and more obviously, any interpretation that doesn’t systematically pertain to the objective qualities of the object in question (such as Quagmire’s) is no interpretation of the work. It may be a thought prompted by the object (much as most of this post was prompted by the.effing.librarian’s comment, but doesn’t pertain directly to it), and may be a legitimate and interesting thought in its own right, but isn’t an interpretation of the work (just as this post, except in a few places, isn’t a commentary on the.effing.librarian’s comment).

Second, the fact that there’s no single way to evaluate the relative quality of works of art, doesn’t mean that all creative expression is the equal of every other. (You don’t need talent or skill or knowledge to express yourself, but you generally need one or more of these to produce anything of high quality or sustainable interest.) We need criteria for the evaluation of quality, and such criteria are various, but once we have criteria in hand, we can and do make important distinctions between quality.

If we compare Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 or Mozart’s Requiem with the Ramones’ “I wanna be sedated” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” by most criteria, whether originality, synthesis of complex themes, etc., the Beethoven and Mozart are of higher quality, even if you prefer the punk songs. There may be criteria on which the punk songs rate higher, e.g. reduction of music to its minimal components (though here, John Cage’s aleatory music, free jazz, some serial music, or the music of the band “Suicide” mentioned by David Thole in a comment to the earlier post on punk rock would rate higher still).

The important thing is that criteria pertain to the real sensible qualities of the objects at hand, and that an important democratization of expression and preference not override or destroy a discernment of the qualities of creative expressions in themselves.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Identity Politics and Faculty-Graduate Student Relationships

A short while back (a couple months ago if memory serves correctly – which it may or may not), there was a nice section of essays written by anthropology graduate students on the topic of graduate student – faculty relationships published in Anthropology News.

There was one sentence in one of the essays that particularly struck me. (I won’t say which essay, in part because as is typically the case, once I had finished reading the issue, I left it in my department for someone else to pick up and read, and as a result I don’t have it in front of me, and in part because it seems nasty to me to single out a graduate student as if for attack – not really my intent anyway – on the basis of one sentence out of an otherwise nice essay – and in any case, my reactions are more to the sentiment expressed there, which I’ve encountered among other students, too, while the rest of the essay seemed more original or unique in its content.) The sentence basically argued that faculty can’t really understand or fully relate to graduate students because they’re not in the structural position of being graduate students.

Even though I discarded the copy of the issue, I’ve kept mentally coming back to that statement since. I have three sorts of reactions to the sentiment expressed in it.

1. My initial and immediate reaction (and one I still hold, though it’s no longer my sole reaction) was to think something along the lines of, “That’s ridiculous. Of course, faculty can relate to graduate students.” One thing virtually all faculty have in common is that we’ve been graduate students. Many, if not most, faculty can relate to the experiences of current graduate students because we had similar experiences when we were graduate students. And if (a big “if”) understanding or relateability derive from experience of a structural position, faculty are in an ideal position to understand graduate students, even if the reverse is not true, at least not most of the time (I add this last qualification, because part of the experience of graduate school is often the gaining of things like “teaching experience” by partially occupying the position of “faculty member” – the division between graduate student and faculty is more of a graded continuum than a clear and absolute line).

2. My second reaction is that this is a strange position for an anthropologist to take. If direct experience in occupying a particular social position or structural position is a prerequisite for understanding or relating, then the discipline is in serious trouble (and there are many who think it is for many reasons, with a long line going back at least several decades at this point of worrying [or anticipating] that the discipline of anthropology is immanently going to fly apart, implode, disintegrate, deteriorate, or otherwise have big troubles).

If we take the sentiment that faculty can’t relate to or understand graduate students and extend it logically at all, we might wonder how graduate students might relate to one another – they don’t occupy the same exact positions and have the same exact experiences, or indeed how we might really understand anyone at all – a longstanding and still significant philosophical question. If we take philosophy and psychoanalysis at all seriously (and I do – at least much of the time), we might, even must, conclude that we don’t really understand or relate to our selves.

All of this is true, though in a sense operationally and pragmatically false – no one who functions in the world operates as if it is true. Put another way, this is to confuse total understanding with understanding at all, total relateability with ability to relate at all. In pragmatic terms at least, most of us relate to ourselves at least tolerably well; we relate to and understand those around us not absolutely but well enough to function almost as if we did; ethnographers understand something, even much, about their research subjects’ lives without, and without need of, total understanding.

3. I think what the student might have meant was that faculty members might not be able to relate to students in the here and now because being a grad student here and now is different from faculty member’s past and usually spatially/institutionally different experiences.

I often can relate quite well to my students, but it might be provisionally wise to proceed as if my first reaction is not true, and to attempt to relate to graduate students in the same way that anthropologists attempt to relate to research subjects – to stop, look and listen carefully.

Structural positioning doesn’t determine consciousness, experience, or actions deterministically, but it does matter, and my students don’t have the same experiences as I did as a student. Like a lot of scholars, I had experience in more than one graduate institution, in my case earning degrees from one quite large state university (the University of Georgia) and one medium-to-large private institution with lots of money (Cornell University). In some ways, my grad student experiences parallel those of the students I now work with – there are certain commonalities to the grad student experience the characterize most institutions of higher education – but teaching at a mid-size regional state university (the University of West Florida) with much less student funding available than at the graduate institutions I attended (just to identify one, albeit an important, variable – student funding), the students I work with in some ways have very different experiences and concerns than I did as a student.

That is, just as I do think the student writer was incorrect in arguing that faculty can’t relate to or understand graduate students (understanding or relating doesn’t depend on experience of the same exact structural positioning, and in fact in any case faculty have had structural experience as graduate students), having occupied a social structural position or having had experience of a particular identity category (in this case “faculty” or “student,” but the point could apply to identity categories and politics generally) doesn’t translate into automatic or necessarily easy understanding of others occupying the category.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An Interesting Piece on Race in Barbados

I just encountered an interesting discussion of “Race/Colour in Barbados” on the blog What Crazy Looks Like.

The epigraphic quotation from Rihanna, “I was bullied at school for being white…Now I’m in a much bigger world,” was fascinating to me largely in clearly illustrating a fundamental difference in the social organization of race in the U.S. and in the Caribbean, for “being white” is one of the last things Rihanna would be likely taken to be in the U.S.

At the same time, the following quotation from the blog post is a useful set of statements about race anywhere in the Americas, even while the particular details that are relevant in any given place will vary:

“Even when we remind ourselves of just how fluid and contested race is we fail to reveal that race is in itself a fiction.
When we refuse to see the difference between historical racial privilege and racial slurs we foreclose on any opportunity to dismantle the fiction of race.
And when we recognise race as constructed we refuse to see its construction does not make it any less ‘real’.”

Friday, February 8, 2008

On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring

I don’t hate Punk Rock.

I don’t even actively dislike most of it.

I’m sometimes momentarily amused by Ramones’ songs like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “I wanna be sedated,” or even “The KKK took my baby away.”

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was quite amused by Agent Orange’s deconstruction of surf rock (I didn’t actually think of it in terms of “deconstruction” though I think I thought of it in terms not incongruent with deconstructionism).

Mostly I’m terribly bored by most examples of punk rock. The one band that’s sometimes lumped in with the punk label that I’ve consistently liked over the years is The Clash, a band not really fitting the genre, and certainly not confined to it. The other main icons of punk, The Sex Pistols, have always struck me as a snot-nosed, put-together boy band that didn’t even have the virtue of cuteness – and they’ve struck me that way because that’s what they were.

Earlier today I was having a nice conversation about music with my good friend Jonathan Means. We began talking about historic concerts. I decided that if I could have been at one concert ever, I would have liked to have been there for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

I remembered having watched a documentary in honor of the 40th anniversary of the festival last year on VH1. Some of the most interesting footage was of the audience reactions to The Who and to The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

There had been some buzz about both groups among rock insiders in the U.S., but aside from those who had seen them in London, no one in the U.S. had yet seen or heard these two bands when they came on stage in Monterey.

As The Who’s set came toward an end, and guitars began to be smashed and drum kit demolished (ridiculously cliché now, but totally new then), many in the audience appear in a state of shock and fear, unsure whether they’re seeing an act or whether the high-energy band they’ve just seen and heard has gone bonkers. (The only filmed reactions I’ve seen that are similar can be found in the anthropological documentary First Contact, specifically footage of interior Papuans encountering a landing airplane up close for the first time in the 1930s. The degree of apparent shock and fear is more extreme in the First Contact footage, but not dissimilar in appearance.)

The Who were the ultimate manifestation of the Chuck Berry vein of rock and roll. Musically, they rehashed and developed anything left to develop in the Johnny B. Goode variety of hopped-up blues progression based rock and roll, and so were “ultimate” partly in the sense of the end of a line of development. Visually, The Who were the apotheosis of the raucous or “raw” energy so often associated with rock and roll.

Then Jimi Hendrix strode on stage with something completely different, a different rock sound (and if The Who were one of the last to play older style rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix was one of the first to play a musically different rock, largely referred to without the “and roll”). He was, of course, visually stunning as well, playing guitar behind his back, with his teeth, symbolically ejaculating on his guitar with lighter fluid and lighting it, and all the while sounding good. The audience reactions are again telling – a different reaction, not so much shock or fear as looks of wonder or bafflement.

Then the Mamas and Papas came onstage for one of the stranger denouements ever.

In any case, after Hendrix came along, rock was different. Not that he single-handedly changed everything, though he was a major influence on a variety of rock musicians and even Mile Davis in his creation of fusion, but he did present one new way of playing for a musical genre in need of new ideas.

What tends to bore me most about most punk is its intrinsically conservative quality – not that those who played it or who like it are conservative people, but that it’s musically conservative. Musically, most punk songs are a rehash of The Who’s rehashing of Chuck Berry, just sloppily played. In visual style, most punk is again a rehash of The Who and similar bands who acted out aggression and “raw energy.” Mostly punk trafficked in tropes of rebelliousness (with the fact that many punks self-consciously parodied this about themselves not making it any less true), though I would give punk credit for the introduction of at least two new tropes of rebelliousness, Mohawk haircuts and safety pins used as piercings.

Punk Rock was a genre of reduction, subversion, and negation. Those are fine tools, but as tropes or ends in themselves, they’re meaningless. If punk did help subvert prog rock to bring its over-seriousness and pomposity down a notch in the mid-1970s, that was a good thing, but mostly it seemed to consist of reducing rock to its minimal elements, badly played at that, something actually pretty old hat by then. For many, punk simply provided the tropes of rebellion or subversion, while not really doing anything new – musically much less politically.

What music isn’t boring? Music that works positively, not in the sense of “Shiny, Happy People,” but in the sense of producing something new, even if on a modest scale.

From the early 20th century Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, engaging in new rhythmic uses for the full orchestra, or the 1920s recordings of Louis Armstrong on songs like “West End Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” or “Heebie Jeebies,” staking out both a new way to improvise within small band ensembles and a new form of popular singing are prime examples of positively-working non-boring music.

More contemporary with punk, and within the broad purview or rock, there’s Hendrix whom I already mentioned, or a bit later, the guitar style of Eddie Van Halen, which like it or not, produced a new sound and new way of playing the electric guitar (put to best use, in my opinion, on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” where Van Halen’s more restrained than normal playing is impressive enough while hinting at a sort of pent up but boundless energy). The speed metal of groups like Metallica and Slayer beginning in the early 1980s, like it or not, represented a new way of playing rock, that was if anything more akin to Stravinsky’s Rite than other ways of playing rock in using the entire band to focus nearly exclusively on the exploration of rhythm.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Central Tendency Measurement and Non-Enumerative Data

As I suggested in my previous post, statistical measures and concepts are one set of analytical tools that can be useful for a variety of research purposes. This can even be true with regard to research on phenomena that, while quantifiable (all phenomena have quantity), are difficult or impossible to measure in a highly enumerated fashion. (Take the example of kinship. One could measure the presence or absence of matrilineality. One could count up the number of households or family groups practicing matrilineality in a given community. One could assess in rough terms whether filiation is strongly or weakly matrilineal. It’s difficult to imagine how one would precisely measure matrilineality on a numerical scale, though.)

One important statistical concept is that of central tendency, and central tendency measures can be usefully applied to a variety of quantities, including some non-enumerable entities.

For example, in his textbook Traditional Cultures, Glenn King uses the notion of modal patterns as a central measure of broad cultural patterns for a variety of world areas. This is not a “normative” approach to the representation of cultures and culture areas in the sense of presenting universal patterns that inevitably essentialize and homogenize the areas in question. Instead, King is careful to point out the identification of a modal pattern simply means to identify for any particular component of culture the pattern that is more common than any other for the spatial frame of reference at hand, and that almost by definition, to speak of modal patterns is to recognize that there will be exceptions, perhaps copious exceptions, to the identified central tendency.

The mode is a particularly useful central tendency measure for phenomena that are hard or impossible to enumerate. Take kinship again. One could say (and King’s textbook does) that among Eastern Native North Americans prior to European contact, matrilineality was the modal pattern, and that’s a useful piece of information. On the other hand, with this and much other information anthropologists are interested in, I’m not sure how one would usefully apply other central tendency measures – so I’m definitely not arguing for over-statisticalization of the discipline. For example, what would a mean or median kinship system be? (I suppose one could take possible rough measures of degree of filiation, rank them on an arbitrary scale, e.g. 1= strong patrilineal filiation, 2= weak patrilineal filiation, 3=bilateral or bilineal filiation, 4= weak matrilineal filiation, 5=strong matrilineal filiation, and collect mean or median tendencies on that basis, but that strikes me as exceedingly artificial and I’m at a loss to imagine the use for such figures.)

Even in cases where statistical concepts and measures (whether in basic terms as I’ve been discussing or through the use of more complex analyses and tests) are useful, scholarship remains simultaneously intrinsically qualitative.

To assess modal tendencies is to first define what entities are to be assessed as present or not and counted. With something like kinship, different tendencies could potentially be measured depending on whether one focused on individuals, households, or families (with those last two needing careful definition in research planning and interpretation as well). To create a hypothetical situation, I could imagine that many Iroquois communities experienced transformations in the early 19th century, through influence of things like religious conversion and revitalization, inter-marriage with Anglos, the encroachment of white settlers, etc., where within communities there may have been co-presence of many small bilaterally-trending neolocal households alongside a small number of large matrilineal matrilocal households. In some communities at certain points of time, there may have been no clear modal pattern – or rather multiple modal patterns might have co-existed. For example, the modal household may have been small and neolocal, while the modal individual may have lived in a large matrilocal household. For such a purely hypothetical context, both would be important measures that would depend on attention to qualitative details in order to be assessable.

Lastly, I am arguing for transcendence of the false qualitative/quantitative divide in social science and humanities research. I’m also arguing that as part of this statistical concepts and analysis can provide one set of tools for many research purposes, including with data that are not particularly amenable to enumeration.

I’m not arguing at all that statistics are the answer to everything. As with any task, the proper analytical tools to use depend on the task at hand. Something statistics are the wrong tool, and sometimes it’s overkill.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Statistics and Lies

I was recently having a discussion with a group of students, specifically about Marvin Harris’ discussion of the importance of statements of co-variance and his call for a more statistically oriented anthropology in The Rise of Anthropological Theory (affectionately – or disaffectionately – referred to as The RAT during my time as a master’s student at the University of Georgia).

One student objected that “Statistics are basically just lies.”

I was a bit taken aback by this.

Statistics can be used to mislead or distort things. For example, it’s fairly common to encounter figures on median income for U.S. households in the mainstream mass media. There’s no particular reason to doubt the accuracy of such figures in most cases, but one could begin to wonder why reportage of mean household income is much less common, much less why the two central tendency measures are so rarely seen together. But statistics per se aren’t lies.

Statistics involves a set of analytical tools and ways of thinking about sets of data. As with any other tool, statistics can be misused. But saying that statistics are lies because they can be used to lie strikes me a bit like saying that words are inherently lies because words are used to lie. (There are some who think that – but they’re lying.)

Still, there is a real and strong distrust of statistics among many cultural anthropologists and scholars in the humanities disciplines. This seems to me to derive from the now old (and tired) divide between “quantitative” and “qualitative” scholarship and the strong mutual distrust that has permeated that divide.

I’ve written before that this is a false divide. There is no non-quantitative research. All scholarship involves an awareness of quantity, whether in the binary mathematics of presence/absence; rough quantification along the lines of something being present in small or large amount, or happening frequently, continuously, or infrequently; or the highly enumerated quantification of precise counting. There is no non-qualitative research. All scholarship involves choice of what to pay attention to, count, etc.

Moreover, the emphasis on the qualitative/quantitative labels tends to obscure what all good scholarship shares in common, which is measurement and interpretation (see “Measurement and Interpretation”). If one moves past the qual/quant divide (the sort of attitude of “I’m not the sort of scholar who does statistics” or “I’m not the sort who pays attention to anything that can’t be quantified” [by which most mean enumeration, because again, there’s nothing that’s without quantity]) then a whole range of analytical tools and ways of thinking are opened up as possibilities, to be deployed as best fits the research question at hand rather than as best fits an ideological commitment to being “qualitative” or “quantitative.”