Modern “Anthropology”

Over the past couple years of Anthropology Friday, I have tried to highlight works that cast a light on the varied and myriad human experiences. Not all of them are great works of literature, but they show what anthropology can be. We’ve read about the Eskimo in Kabloona, Jane Goodall’s research with the Gombe chimps in In the Shadow of Man, records of prisons and criminal gangs, Appalachia and Siberian reindeer herders. We’ve read first-hand accounts like Isaac Bacirongo’s Still a Pygmy and the Slave Narrative Collection.

Anthropology, done right, makes the alien familiar and expands our understanding of the many varieties of human experience.

Done wrong, well… Here’s the abstract from Professor Dwayne Dixon’s Endless Question: Youth Becomings and the Anti-Crisis of Kids in Global Japan:

This layered, latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three groups of Japanese young people redefine youth through bodily practices, identities, and economic de/attachments. Young Japanese—skateboarders, creative workers, and returnee schoolchildren—embody various relations to the city, visual media, globalized identities, temporary jobs, and education. The dissertation itself is non-linear; it formally enacts the multidirectional, diverse youthful experiences amidst intense global connections, transitioning identities, and uncertain social and economic futures. Multi-media and electronic text create lines of connection between sites and events in the young people’s experiences and larger histories of gender and labor, city life, and global dreams. Against crisis narratives, Japanese youth are creating improvisational, social connections amidst intense change.

Can we translate this into functional English?

Sentence 1: “This layered, latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three groups of Japanese young people redefine youth through bodily practices, identities, and economic de/attachments.”

Translation: This anthropology project follows three groups of Japanese youths, documenting their body piercings, identities, and which brands they eagerly consume or shun.

The word “identity” in this sentence is difficult to translate because it is vague and undefined–sexual identities? gender identities? Japanese identities? Millenial identities?–and more importantly, because most people do not bother to think about their “identities” at all.

Sentence 2: “ Young Japanese—skateboarders, creative workers, and returnee schoolchildren—embody various relations to the city, visual media, globalized identities, temporary jobs, and education.

Translation: Young Japanese skateboarders, artists, and continuing-education students live in the city, watch and make videos, have “globalized identities,” work temporary jobs, and go to school.

“Embody” was a difficult word to translate because it means nothing that makes sense in this context. To embody is to “be an expression of or give a tangible or visible form to” something, eg “Romeo embodies love;” or to “include or contain something as a constituent part,” eg, “Freedom of expression is embodied in the Bill of Rights.” We could use “contain” or “symbolize” as synonyms, but neither “Young Japanese… contain various relations to the city…’ nor “Young Japanese… symbolize various relations to the city…” make sense.

“Identities” makes a second apperance and again contributes very little.

Sentence 3: “The dissertation itself is non-linear; it formally enacts the multidirectional, diverse youthful experiences amidst intense global connections, transitioning identities, and uncertain social and economic futures.

Translation: This dissertation is non-linear because the subjects’ lives are too complex to express chronologically.

(I don’t think “formally” means what he thinks it means.)

Sentence 4: “Multi-media and electronic text create lines of connection between sites and events in the young people’s experiences and larger histories of gender and labor, city life, and global dreams.

Translation: Young people use cell phones to text each other about skateboarding events and post videos of themselves skateboarding on the internet.

Sentence 5: “Against crisis narratives, Japanese youth are creating improvisational, social connections amidst intense change.

Translation: You might have heard that Japanese youth are in crisis, but actually they’re making new friends in the middle of this protracted economic malaise.

Dixon’s original is not only unclear and vague, but parts of it aren’t even grammatical. Strip away the buzzwords, and you’re left with “Japanese youth use cellphones and make friends”–not exactly shocking observations.

Let’s compare with missionary Sidney L. Gulick’s account of Japan, written in 1903, on the Japanese character and effects of modernization:

Many writers have dwelt with delight on the cheerful disposition that seems so common in Japan. …. And, on the whole, these pictures are true to life. The many flower festivals are made occasions for family picnics when all care seems thrown to the wind. There is a simplicity and a freshness and a freedom from worry that is delightful to see. But it is also remarked that a change in this regard is beginning to be observed. The coming in of Western machinery, methods of government, of trade and of education, is introducing customs and cares, ambitions and activities, that militate against the older ways. …

The judgment that all Japanese are cheerful rests on shallow grounds. Because, forsooth, millions on holidays bear that appearance, and because on ordinary occasions the average man and woman seem cheerful and happy, the conclusion is reached that all are so. No effort is made to learn of those whose lives are spent in sadness and isolation. I am convinced that the Japan of old, for all its apparent cheer, had likewise its side of deep tragedy. …

Enough of Japan. Here’s an abstract from Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Modeling Population Health: Reflections on the Performativity of Epidemiological Techniques in the Age of Genomics, by Susanne Bauer:

Risk reasoning has become the common-sense mode of knowledge production in the health sciences. Risk assessment techniques of modern epidemiology also co-shape the ways genomic data are translated into population health. Risk computations (e.g., in preventive medicine, clinical decision-support software, or web-based self-tests), loop results from epidemiological studies back into everyday life. Drawing from observations at various European research sites, I analyze how epidemiological techniques mediate and enact the linkages between genomics and public health. This article examines the epidemiological apparatus as a generative machine that is socially performative. The study design and its reshuffling of data and categories in risk modeling recombine old and new categories from census to genomics and realign genes/environment and nature/culture in novel and hybrid ways. In Euro-American assemblage of risk reasoning and related profiling techniques, the individual and the population are no longer separate but intimately entangled.

Note the preponderance of obfuscatory bullshit phrases: “mode of knowledge production,” “data are translated into public health,” “techniques mediate and enact the linkages between,” “the epidemiological apparatus as a generative machine that is socially performative,” etc.

I will attempt to translate this quickly into English:

People care about health risks. People are interested in whether genetic data can uncover health risks. Medical care and health information on the internet bring health-risk assessment into people’s everyday lives. I observe how European doctors use information about genetic risk factors to help treat their patients. This article examines how doctors interact with their patients. I did a study that mixed up and re-combined categories like “census” and “genomics,” “culture” and “environment” in new ways.* In the West, doctors are now using population-level risk assessments to make decisions about individual patients.

*I am not satisfied with the translation of this sentence, but it didn’t make any sense in the original.

Here is an abstract from the journal of Anthropological Theory, The civility of strangers? Caste, ethnicity, and living together in postwar Jaffna, Sri Lanka:

The question asked by this article is as follows: How do different kinds of people live together in a hierarchical world that has been challenged and transformed through the leveling effects of deep ethnicization and war? … When ethnic mobilization—the possibility of egalitarian mutuality and solidarity as well as the pain, trauma and sacrifice of war, and ethnic cleansing—emerges within deeply hierarchical worlds that continually produce modes of distinction, what kinds of struggles arise within inter-ethnic and intra-caste relations? Given that public life is historically built on unequal participation, and that living together has been a historical struggle, we need to ask how we understand the particular embedded civilities that have made living together such a problem over time. Rather than see civility as an abstract code of prescriptions in relation to the maintenance of non-violent order, I suggest that it is possible to see different modalities of civility produced with regard to specific others/strangers. These modalities can conflict with each other, given that civility can be either hierarchically produced or governed by an egalitarian drive toward public forms of dignity and equality. I propose that civility has a social location, discourses, and understandings in hierarchical worlds that are necessarily different depending on who is speaking.

This could have been an interesting article on life in post-war Sri Lanka, but then it descended into a bunch of post-modernist gobbeldy goop. I find this style of writing utterly self-centered–there is nothing in this abstract about how actual Sri Lankans relate to each other, and much of this abstract could be cut and pasted onto a study of almost any culture without losing anything. Public life in America, Mali, China, and Japan involve unequal participation. Civilities are part of every culture. And, yes, what is considered polite changes depending on who is in the conversation, congratulations, you’ve figured out that people talk to their best friends differently than they talk to their bosses.

The problem with anthropology is that somewhere along the way, someone got the idea that they needed to produce Great and Profound Truths rather than just describe people.

[And here is the point where the rest of this post got accidentally deleted because WordPress updated something in their internal software, causing it to no longer communicate with my 11 year old computer.]

Let’s compare this to the Amazon blurb for Philippe Bourgois’s
ethnography of Puerto Rican crack dealers in NYC:

In this compelling study of the crack business in East Harlem,
Philippe Bourgois argues that a cultural struggle for respect has led
some residents of ‘El Barrio’ away from the legal job market, and into
a downward spiral of crime and poverty. During his many years living
in the neighborhood, Bourgois eventually gained the confianza of
enough Barrio residents to present their hopes, plans, and
disappointments in their own words. The result is an engaging and
often disturbing look at the problems of the inner-city, America’s
greatest domestic failing.

Whether you agree with Bourgois or not, at least you can tell what his
thesis is: cultural struggle for respect leads some people away from
legal jobs and into crime and poverty. (In other words, people don’t
want to do legal jobs that are low-status or lead to others treating
them with disrespect.) By contrast, I’m not sure what the author of the article on post-war Sri Lanka is trying to argue.

Obviously these examples do not represent all modern
anthropology–there are plenty of good and interesting writers out
there (like Bourgois.) But the field is absolutely riddled
with narcissistic crap. Where people should use words that vibrantly
describe their subjects, they instead use vague, nebulous words that
sound erudite but give us no real information. “Study of the crack
business in East Harlem,” sounds interesting, “This layered,
latitudinal (trilateral), anthropological project traces how three
groups of Japanese young people redefine youth,” sounds like you once
dropped your ethnography notes and didn’t bother to put them back in
order again, and “this article offers a phenomenological investigation
of the indeterminate structures of ethical experience,” sounds like
you don’t know the first thing about how ordinary humans think.

Many (if not most) modern anthropologists are deeply motivated by
political concerns that have nothing to do with describing varieties
of human cultures (an anthropologist’s job) and everything to do with
the deep culture of academia (the institution that pays them and
publishes their work.) So of course modern anthropology must be
written to support the anthropologist’s own cultural norms, even if
those norms are at complete variance with their ostensible goal.

Few stories reveal this clash better than Napoleon Chagnon’s. In 1964,
Chagnon began his now-famous study of the Yanomamo, producing what is
in my opinion one of the greatest works of anthropology that I have
not yet read. But I’ll let Amazon tell the story, from the blurb on
Chagnon’s recent book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous
Tribes–the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists:

 When Napoleon Chagnon arrived in Venezuela’s Amazon region in 1964
to study the Yanomamö Indians, he expected to find Rousseau’s “noble
savage.” Instead he found a shockingly violent society. He spent years
living among the Yanomamö, observing their often tyrannical headmen,
learning to survive under primitive and dangerous conditions. When he
published his observations, a firestorm of controversy swept through
anthropology departments. Chagnon was vilified by other
anthropologists, condemned by his professional association (which
subsequently rescinded its reprimand), and ultimately forced to give
up his fieldwork. Throughout his ordeal, he never wavered in his defense of science. In 2012 he was elected to the National Academy of
Sciences.

So if you want some modern anthropology, go read Chagnon and let me
know what you think of it.

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Quick thoughts on the “replication crisis” and calls to make the field more mathematically rigorous

If you aren’t familiar with the “replication crisis,” in social psychology, start here, here, and here.

I consider the courses I took in college on quantitative and qualitative methods the most important of my undergraduate years. I learned thereby a great many important things about how not to conduct an experiment and how to think about experimental methodology (not to mention statistics.)

If I were putting together a list of “general education” requirements I wanted all students to to take in order to declare them well-educated and ready to go out into the world, it’d be a course on Quantitative and Qualitative Methods. (Much like current “gen ed” and “distribution requirements,” the level of mathematical ability required would likely vary by field, though no one should be obtaining a college degree without some degree of numerical competence.)

But the real problem with the social science fields is not lack of rigorous statistical background, but overwhelming ideological conformity, enforced by the elders of the fields–advisers, hiring committees, textbook writers, journal editors, etc., who all believe in the same ideology and so have come to see their field as “proving” their ideology.

Ideology drives both the publication biases and the wishful thinking that underlie this crisis. For example, everyone in “Women’s studies” is a feminist who believes that “science” proves that women are oppressed because everyone they know has done studies “proving” it. You’re not going to find a lot of Women’s Studies professors aiming for tenure on the basis of their successful publication of a bunch of studies that failed to find any evidence of bias against women. Findings like that => no publication => no tenure. And besides, feminist professors see it as their moral duty to prove that discrimination exists, not to waste their time on studies that just happened not to be good enough to find the effect.

In the Social Sciences more generally, we get this “post modern” mish-mash of everything from Marxists to Freudians to folks who like Foucault and Said, where the goal is to mush up long-winded descriptions of otherwise simple phenomena into endless Chomsky Sentences.

(Just reading the Wikipedia pages on a variety of Social Science oriented topics reveals how very little real research or knowledge is generated in these fields, and how much is based on individual theorists’ personal views. It is often obvious that virtually anyone not long steeped in the academic literature of these fields would not come up with these theories, but with something far more mundane and sensible. Economists, for all their political bias, at least provide a counterpoint to many of these theories.)

Obviously different fields study different aspects of phenomena, but entire fields should not become reduced to trying to prove one political ideology or another. If they are, they should label themselves explicitly, rather than make a pretense of neutrality.

When ideology rather than correctness become the standard for publication (not to mention hiring and tenure,) the natural result is incorrectness.

More statistical knowledge is not, by itself, going to resolve the problem. The fields must first recognize that they have an ideological bias problem, and then work to remedy it by letting in and publishing work by researchers outside the social science ideological mainstream. It is very easy to think your ideas sound rigorous when you are only debating with people who already agree with you; it is much more difficult to defend your views against people who disagree, or come from very different intellectual backgrounds.

They could start with–hahahaha–letting in a Republican.