Is it a good idea to fight against female circumcision? Not neccesarily according to Sierra Leonean-American anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu.
In an interview in Anthropology Today (available free as pdf here), she attacks Western feminists, media and anti-Female Genital Mutilation campaigns and accuses them for presenting a one-sided, ethnocentric picture of female circumcision.
A great deal of what is regarded as facts is not true, she explains. Many people think circumcision is a “barbaric tradition” and “violence against women". But Ahmadu does not see circumcision as mutilation. Circumcision is no notable negative effects on your health and does not inhibit female sexual desire either.
The problem with the representation of various forms of female circumcision as ‘mutilation’ is that the term, among other things, presupposes some irreversible and serious harm. This is not supported by current medical research on female circumcision.
But this research (Obermeyer, Morison etc) has not received any attention in Western media:
However, neither Obermeyer’s reviews nor the Morison et al. study have been mentioned in any major Western press, despite their startling and counter-intuitive findings on female circumcision and health. This is in contrast to the highly publicized Lancet report by the WHO Study Group on FGM, released in June 2006, which received widespread, immediate and sensationalized press coverage highlighting claims about infant and maternal mortality during hospital birth.
Supporters of female circumcision justify the practice on much of the same grounds that they support male circumcision, she says:
The uncircumcised clitoris and penis are considered homologous aesthetically and hygienically: Just as the male foreskin covers the head of the penis, the female foreskin covers the clitoral glans. Both, they argue, lead to build-up of smegma and bacteria in the layers of skin between the hood and glans. This accumulation is thought of as odorous, susceptible to infection and a nuisance to keep clean on a daily basis. Further, circumcised women point to the risks of painful clitoral adhesions that occur in girls and women who do not cleanse properly, and to the requirement of excision as a treatment for these extreme cases. Supporters of female circumcision also point to the risk of clitoral hypertrophy or an enlarged clitoris that resembles a small penis.
For these reasons many circumcised women view the decision to circumcise their daughters as something as obvious as the decision to circumcise sons: why, one woman asked, would any reasonable mother want to burden her daughter with excess clitoral and labial tissue that is unhygienic, unsightly and interferes with sexual penetration, especially if the same mother would choose circumcision to ensure healthy and aesthetically appealing genitalia for her son?
It is important to remove the stigma around circumcision, Ahmadu stresses:
It is my opinion that we need to remove the stigma of mutilation and let all girls know they are beautiful and accepted, no matter what the appearance of their genitalia or their cultural background, lest the myth of sexual dysfunction in circumcised women become a true self-fulfilling prophecy, as Catania and others are increasingly witnessing in their care of circumcised African girls and women.
In an article in The Patriotic Vanguard, she describes the term Female Genital Mutilation as “offensive, divisive, demeaning, inflammatory and absolutely unnecessary":
As black Africans most of us would never permit anyone to call us by the term “nigger” or “kaffir” in reference to our second-class racial status or in attempts to redress racial inequalities, so initiated Sierra Leonean women (and all circumcised women for that matter) must reject the use of the term “mutilation” to define us and demean our bodies, even as some of us are or fight against the practice.
Anthropologist Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin comments Ahmadu’s talk in Anthropology Today and criticizes his colleagues:
My own sense, after listening to Ahmadu, is that many Euroamericans’ reactions to the removal of any genital flesh is shaped by parochial understandings and perfectly contestable biases and values concerning bodies, gender, sex and pain.
Many anthropologists, reacting against collectivist social theories and some of the less felicitous entailments of cultural relativism, have joined in the condemnation of female circumcision without first taking counsel from our discipline’s methodological requirement actually to pay attention to what the people we write about say and do about this or that, over an extended period. Listening to Ahmadu, I can no longer condemn the practices of genital cutting in general, nor would I be willing to sign a zero-tolerance petition.
>> Disputing the myth of the sexual dysfunction of circumcised women. An interview with Fuambai S. Ahmadu by Richard A. Shweder (incl. comment by Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin)
SEE EARLIER POSTS ON THIS TOPIC:
It started around 20 years ago: The idea of education as a right was being replaced by a concept of education as a commodity to purchase. Today’s universities are managed like businesses, striving for “excellence", being best, competing for the “best” brains with new logos and slogans like The University of Manchester is pioneering, influential and exciting.
What are the consequences of the focus on competition instead of cooperation, quantity instead of quality, bureaucratic control instead of academic freedom and what can be done about it?
In the new issue of the journal New Proposals, anthropologist Charles R. Menzies writes about the recent developments from his personal experience and explains why the commercialisation also created a space for progressive action.
The search for excellence structures all aspects of the contemporary university environment, he writes:
In its operational mode excellence is little more than a set of quantified indictors—dollar value of grants, number of publications, ranking of publication venue, completion rates of students, and so on. These indicators are tabulated by individual, unit, or university and then ranked accordingly. Deriving from the tautological market principle that those who win are bydefinition excellent, being top ranked makes one excellent. (…) Our work becomes measured by quantity and placement of output: “so long as one publishes with the prestigious academic presses and journals, one’s publications are ‘excellent’” (Wang 2005:535)
Academics in the university of excellence are expected to win grants and publish papers. In this they have a lot of autonomy. For as long as academics in the university of excellence maintain their productivity at the rate being set by their colleagues a limited social space is opened up for progressive activity. He writes that he often says to his students: “Yes we must publish, but we get to choose what we publish”:
For me this has led to a series of articles and films on research methods (2005, 2004, 2003, 2001a) in place of what I may have originally wished to publish. This shift reflects my concern for conducting ethical research and to resist the undue influence of the competitive drive to publish as much as one can. To me, a respectful research engagement means that one takes the time to consult and to work with the people about whom we write. Some researchers, lost in the competitive rush to publish, prioritize their own advancement and desires over the people about whom they write.
He suggests following research topics:
- What are the effects of global capitalism on people’s health and wellbeing?
- How have local/ trans-national elites have gained control over public institutions such as the university of excellence?
- How can we make democratic practice real and what does our knowledge of small-scale societies tell us about the possibility of true participatory democracy?
Interestingly, the recent issue of the journal Social Anthropology deals with the same topic. And the whole issue is available for free.
In their introduction, Susan Wright and Annika Rabo explain the background for the current reforms:
The current wave of reforms anchors both the global north and south in the so-called global knowledge economy where higher education is universally perceived as increasingly crucial for economic development. In today’s political discourse there is less emphasis on higher education as a public right and a means to liberate and cultivate citizens. Higher education occupies centre stage in the discourse on the global knowledge economy because ‘knowledge is treated as a raw material’ (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004:17). Universities are thus sites for both the mining and the refining of this resource.
A second strand in the international policies for university reform derives from the argument that universities are no longer just servicing the economy: now educating international students is itself a lucrative trade. American, British and Australian universities are especially competitive in this global market, and foreign students are Australia’s third most important source of export earnings.
The reforms represent also a “new rationality of governance".
Such reforms involve changing the status of service providers (including universities in many parts of Europe) so that they are no longer part of the state bureaucracy, but are turned into ‘autonomous’ agents, with whom the state can enter into contracts, and through which they are held ‘accountable’ for their performance. In many countries, universities are being treated as a service supplier, just like any other part of the public sector.
What we need is more anthropology of university reform:
As the contributions to this special issue show, an anthropologist’s view of the ‘field’ can combine a critical examination of the keywords, policy discourses and rationalities of governance, with an exploration of how political technologies like accountability mechanisms, performance measurement, and customers satisfaction surveys actually work in practice, with accounts of students’, academics’ and sometimes managers’ diverse ideas of the university and how they act to shape their institution in their daily life.
(A)cademics seem not yet to have reformulated their values and modes of organising into a forward-looking vision for universities. There are plenty of contradictions in the reform agenda that could be exploited to this purpose. For example, why do governments imagine that by creating top-down steered, coherent organisations with a hierarchy of autonomous and strategic leaders they are preparing universities for a knowledge economy? Just to be provocative (and ironic, as we can also see negative sides to this image), why not imagine a future university by drawing on some positive aspects of companies which recognise that their biggest resource is the ideas, imagination and ability of the workers, and where staff take responsibility for their own work, have a weekly ‘free research’ day, and follow their own initiatives through networks of colleagues and short-term project teams in their own institution and internationally? Why not formulate an idea of a university as a kind of flexible, networking ‘knowledge organisation’?
In my opinion, an analysis of the language used in strategic documents would be interesting. Take for example a look at the Consultation document for University of Oslo’s strategy 2010–2020 where we read about universities’ “ role as a growth instigator in the local and global economy” . But a look at the table of contents is enough where we find a list of some of the main goals like “ A quality‐conscious university", “ A ground breaking university” and (being) “The epitome of a good university".
By the way, just a few hours ago, Chris Kelty has written a post at Savage Minds about the new “Stasi like” culture of control at The Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley
(UPDATE: See Beware: No Pecha Kucha allowed without consent from Tokyo) Why reading your paper when there are lot more exciting ways of presenting your research? I have asked Aleksandra Bartoszko and Marcy Hessling to tell us about their experience with a recent experiment at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last december.
They attended a panel where papers were not read but presented via 20 images that were displayed for 20 seconds each. After 6 minutes and 40 seconds the show is over and the discussion can begin.
This way of presenting is getting more and more popular around the world and is called Pecha Kucha.
Pecha Kucha presentations might take more preparation time, but presentations are more focused, there is more discussion as when people want to hear more after 6 min 40 sec, “they will just open their mouth and ask". According to Aleksandra Bartoszko Pecha Kucha style presentations might also be a great way to present anthropology to the non-anthropological public.
“It was the first time ever I was totally focused on all the presentations during the whole session", Aleksandra Bartoszko writes enthusiastically:
It was the first time ever I was totally focused on all the presentations during the whole session:
1) because of the REAL time limit,
2) because of the power point presentations NOT being a text,
3) because of the lack of WRITTEN style of the presentation, the oral style is almost required in this format and in a way natural,
4) because of the lack of word overflow - presentations really to the point,
5) because of the time left for the discussion (real or potential, but still, there is time for that).
I did enjoy this format because:
1) because of the lack of fluency in English I’m not too good in oral presentations, and because of the 20 seconds per slide (in my understanding of the idea, 20 sec per point) it was easier to present something in more “digestible” way to the audience. And because of the pictures, there was a lot of things/descriptions I could just skip.
2) because of the time limit, I really had to think what was the main point I wanted to address to the audience - NOT everything that I had discovered and would like to share with (this is just not working). This time limit is also a good lesson of modesty and self-criticism. I think that this is also a good way to MAKE PEOPLE DISCUSS - I think that usually when “unfortunately we have time for just one short question or comment” most of the people do not want to be the one who talk or “steal” this question, they pull out, especially young scholars. While during an 1 hour discussion more and more people get involved.
Anyway, when I’m done in 6,40 mins and people want to hear more, they will just open their mouth and ask. I think that academia does lack the culture of speaking, talking and discussing. Yes, I do think so :) So, I am for more active meetings.. people are getting so lazy sometimes, both the presenters and the audience.
3) Also, and paradoxically, because of the language issue I prefer the discussion part to the paper. I am just not able to speak so naturally having a paper, and I don’t like the way I usually present (in spite of the fact that this is a tradition etc. It’s just not fun at all, and I guess that most of the participants of the conferences agree, they are just too lazy not to read the excerpts of their books etc). So, that is why I do appreciate every single minute left for a discussion. I believe that any other session I attended could work in this way and the discussion would be great and more fruitful than usually.
4) after fieldwork we have so many photos that never will be used. And I think it is so valuable to see other “fields", other people in work, their “photographical” perspectives, we can learn so much. And I do feel sorry for all those picures stored in our offices, apartments, old albums which will never be used, maybe one of them for a cover to some book, or a nostalgic wallpaper on our laptops.. I don’t know, I just think that the places and people deserve to be seen once they are “captured".
5) this is a great way to present anthropology to the non-anthropological public, to present our results in an understandable but still scientifical manner. Most of the anthropologists (like many other disciplines) just do not know how to speak about anthropology and our work, so it is a good way to start. As one of the participants said “this is the way I can explain my parents what I am doing".
Marcy Hessling organized the Pecha Kucha session. I asked her a few questions:
How was the session? Did you like it? What did the others say?
- I think that the Pecha Kucha format was quite a success at the meeting. I enjoyed presenting, and I am fairly certain the other participants did too. It does take a lot of preparation in advance, which is surprising to some because of the shorter presentation time. But when you just have 6 minutes and 40 seconds to utilize, it is important to be succinct and focus fairly narrowly on a specific issue or topic. And it is also quite a challenge to choose the 20 more relevant, and yet at the same time visually compelling, images.
Why did you decide to organize a Pecha Kucha session?
- I first heard about the Pecha Kucha format a few years ago (probably in 2007, I think or in early 2008) when I saw a Call For Papers for a student conference that was going to be held somewhere overseas. Possibly in Japan. It sounded like a great way for students to present their work. First, because students are generally quite technologically savvy, and second, because students are typically working through aspects of being in the field or creating a project. This format is very audience-interactive (at the end) so it is a way to get some feedback too.
Pecha Kucha means 20 slides a 20 sec. How important is it to follow the rules? Is it ok to use 10 slides a 30 seconds?
- The way I understood the format is that it is important to stay within the 6 min 40 second time limit, and that generally most people do 20 slides for 20 seconds per slide. However, I have heard of some people doing a 6 min 40 second movie too. So I think it depends on the organizers.
Was it easy to motivate people to take part in this Pecha Kucha session?
- There were quite a few people who were initially interested in this format, but it does take a commitment to do the preparation in advance. We had a visual anthropologist act as our discussant, and I really wanted to get the presentations to her in advance of the meeting so that she could speak to them in her comments. She was very impressed with the format, and with the quality of work that the participants brought in.
Will there be another Pecha Kucha session at the next AAA meeting?
- I am not sure if there will be another Pecha Kucha presentation at the 2010 AAA meeting, it depends on the current program chair, and the individual section program editors. I hope that it does continue.
How do these presentations look like? Here are two presentations you can download:
Here are the abstracts and infos about the session (pdf, 78kb).
Aleksandra Bartoszko has written more about her research in her field blog Antropyton (which I found was one of the best field blogs I’ve read). She edited the open access e-book The Patient that includes her article “I’m not sick, I just have pain”: Silence and (Under) Communication of Illness in a Nicaraguan Village. Norwegian readers can download her thesis Vi er ikke dumme, vi er fattige!
Om vitenskap, eksperter, utdanning og barrierer for folkelig deltakelse i en nicaraguansk landsby
And here is a Pecha Kucha presentation about Pecha Kucha
There is a large collection of videos over at www.pecha-kucha.org
AQWorks has made a Guide To Better Pecha Kucha Presentations
Last summer, neuroanthropology had an interesting post about speed presentations.
Thanks Fredy R. Rodriguez Mejia, Marcy Hessling and Aleksandra Bartoszko for your contributions!
UPDATE: It seems there will be similar experiments at the next AAA meeting as well! The AAA blog mentions this post about Pecha Kucha and asks for contributions:
Are you interested in creating a session or special event in an innovative format for the 2010 AAA meeting? Do you want to organize a service activity, walking tour, or an unconference to complement the meeting? Email your ideas to aaaprogramchair [at] gmail.com or aaameetings [at] aaanet.org.
UPDATE 2: Yes, there will be another Pecha Kucha session. See AAA 2010 New Orleans - Call for Abstracts - Graduate Pecha Kucha Session
The tundra ecosystems in Siberia are vulnerable to both climate change and oil/gass drilling. Yet the Yamal-Nenets in West Siberia have shown remarkable resilience to these changes. “Free access to open space has been the key for success” says Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Finland, Environmental Research Web reports.
Forbes and five colleagues from various disciplines (including anthropology) at the University of Joensuu, Finland, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Cambridge, UK, have studied the Yamal-Nenets for more than four years. The research should not only help with plans for the Nenets’ future survival but could also offer tips for other communities.
The ability to roam freely enables people and animals to exploit or avoid a wide range of natural and manmade habitats. The Nenets responded to their changing environment by adjusting their migration routes and timing, avoiding disturbed and degraded areas, and developing new economic practices and social interaction, for example by trading with workers who have moved into gas villages in the area.
“Our work shows that local people have an important role to play, one that is every bit as useful and informative as that of the scientists and administrators charged with managing complex social-ecological systems", Forbes says.
Around half of the Yamal Peninsula’s 10,000 Nenet people are herding reindeers. Average temperatures in the region have increased by 1–2 °C over the past 30 years. The area contains some of the largest known untapped gas deposits in the world.
Their findings were published as open access article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, see High resilience in the Yamal-Nenets social–ecological system, West Siberian Arctic, Russia.
One of Forbes’ colleagues is anthropologist Florian Stammler. He has put several papers online, among others Arctic climate change discourse: the contrasting politics of research agendas in the West and Russia (together with Bruce C. Forbes), The Obshchina Movement in Yamal: Defending Territories to Build Identities? and the magazine article Siberia Caught between Collapse and Continuity (together with Patty Gray)
(Hatiain Children up in the mountains. Image: Matt Dringenberg, flickr)
(post in progress about anthropological perspectives in Haiti and how to help) “Anthropology to me is all about human connexions, about a common humanity", said Dai Cooper from the Anthropology Song. “Being an anthropologist means that when a natural disaster occurs somewhere in the world, a friend may be there", is a quote I found on the blog by urban anthropologist Krystal D’Costa.
“The recent catastrophic earthquake in Haiti has turned my thoughts to our global levels of connectivity", she writes and adds:
Web 2.0 technologies have been activated to create impromptu support networks and share what little information people may have heard. They are proving integral to the management of disasters. And perhaps creating a global community so that when natural disasters strike, anthropologists aren’t the only ones wondering and worrying about the fate of friends.
I had similar thoughts today: First, on facebook, lots of friends posted stories about the earthquake and explained how to help. Browsing the web, it is overwhelming and touching to read about all the activities by people who help. Even without web2.0, people care for each other. True everyday cosmopolitanism.
GlobalVoices - my favorite source for international news - has lots of great overviews, among others about help from the region around Haiti (Dominican Republic / Caribbean) where many bloggers have been active. The Haitian Diaspora has also been active.
This kind help is often invisible in mainstream media. Here in Norway, the focus is of course on Norwegians (or Americans) or other rich countries’ help.
José Rafael Sosa for example writes (translated by Global Voices):
The Dominican people have bent over backwards to help Haiti. What happened in Haiti has no precedent. There is too much pain. Too much suffering. The absurd differences stop here and solidarity is imposed, pure and simple, openly and decidedly. This is the right moment to help our brother nation. Let’s give our hand and our soul to a people that do not deserve so much suffering.
Anthropologists have also contributed online. At Somatosphere, medical anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer explains why helping through Partners in Health might be a good idea. One of the founders of Partners in Health is another medical anthropologist: Paul Farmer who currently is the U.N. Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti.
One year ago, Farmer was interviewed about the hurricane disaster in Haiti where as many as 1,000 people have died and an estimated one million left homeless. Farmer stresses that natural disasters are not only natural but also social or political disasters, they are partly man-made. He addresses Haitis ecological crisies and the way the US has destabilized Haiti. In another interview he challenges Profit-Driven Medical System (more see wikipedia and videos below).
Yes, why is Haiti so poor? Why is Haiti one of the poorest countries on this planet and therefore more vulnerable to disasters like earthquakes? Two anthropologists answer this question. They suggest links between the disaster and colonialism.
Haiti actually has been a rich country, Barbara D Miller at anthropologyworks explains. Haiti produced more wealth for France than all of France’s other colonies combined and more than the 13 colonies in North America produced for Britain. So why is Haiti so poor:
Colonialism launched environmental degradation by clearing forests. After the revolution, the new citizens carried with them the traumatic history of slavery. Now, neocolonialism and globalization are leaving new scars. For decades, the United States has played, and still plays, a powerful role in supporting conservative political regimes.
James Williams at Discovery News interviews anthropologist Bryan Page. Page gives a similar explanation.
After 1804, Haitians were discriminated against by not only the United States, but all the European powers, he says:
That discrimination meant no availability of resources to educate the Haitian population, no significant trade with any polity outside of Haiti. Also, the break up of the plantations into individual land parcels meant there’s no longer a coherent cash crop activity going on within Haiti.
These conditions persisted into the 20th Century:
You still have a population that was 80-90% illiterate – a population that didn’t have any industrial skills, a population that wasn’t allowed to trade its products with the rest of the world in any significant way.
What that isolation essentially meant was that Haiti never had a chance to progress alongside the surrounding civilizations in the region. Complicating the picture even more was a series of despotic rulers that added to the country’s struggles.
[Haiti was] seen increasingly as a benighted, terrible place, in part also because of the collective racism of the white-dominated nations that surrounded them, including Cuba, the United States and the Dominican Republic which occupies the other side of Hispanola.
UPDATE 1: More on Haiti, colonialism and racism on the blog The Cranky Linguist by anthropologist Ronald Kephart
UPDATE 2: Statement by the American Anthropological Association (AAA): The Haitian Studies Association has begun to develop strategies to help Haiti, Haitians, Haitians in the diaspora, and the Haitian academic community. The AAA will provide more information about how to respond to the disaster and ask the Haitian anthropological community for advice.
Hope is not something that one often associates with Haiti. An anthropologist and critic of representations of the island, I have often questioned narratives that reduce Haiti to simple categories and in the process dehumanize Haitians. Yes, we may be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but there is life there, love and an undeniable and unbeatable spirit of creative survivalism.
I am worried about Haiti’s future. In the immediate moment we need help, rescue missions of all kinds. I am concerned about weeks from now when we are no longer front-page news. Without long-term efforts, we will simply not be able to rebuild. What will happen then?
UPDATE 3: Great post by Kerim Friedman at Savage Minds where he explains why New York Times columnist David Brooks is wrong who claims that “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.”
UPDATE 4: Haiti: Getting the Word Out - Janine Mendes-Franco at GlobalVoices gives an overview over bloggers in and around Port-au-Prince who “are finding the time to communicate with the outside world".
UPDATE 5 (16.1.10): Anthropologist Johannes Wilm: Who really helps Haiti? An overview of money given to Haiti: While USA give most per person affected, Norway, Canada and Guyana give most per citizen and (again) Guyana gives most in percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). His main message is that the aid from Western countries is “close to nothing".
Alert by Naomi Klein: “We have to be absolutely clear that this tragedy—which is part natural, part unnatural—must, under no circumstances, be used to, one, further indebt Haiti and, two, to push through unpopular corporatist policies in the interest of our corporations. This is not conspiracy theory. They have done it again and again.”
UPDATE See also post by Keith Hart: Is Haiti to be another victim of disaster capitalism?
UPDATE 7: GlobalVoices: Instances of “Looting,” but Little Confirmed Evidence of Post-Quake Violence: When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts.”
Here is what poor Haitians define as elements of a good society:
1. relative economic parity
2. strong political leaders with a sense of service who “care for” and “stand for” the poor
3. respe (respect)
4. religious pluralism to allow room for ancestral and spiritual beliefs
5. cooperative work
6. access of citizens to basic social services
7. personal and collective security
UPDATE 10: Harvard and Haiti: A collaborative response to the January 12 earthquake: Video with Paul Farmer and his colleagues from Harvard Medical School, Partners In Health
and Brigham and Women’s Hospital
And here an overview about the current situation:
and a lecture by Paul Farmer (first introduction, lecture starts after 8 minutes):
As Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology.net, I was kept awake until late at night by an article in the New York Times Magazine - yesterday for reading, today for writing. It is a fascinating article about a kind of globalisation that isn’t talked about much outside the university, written by Ethan Watters, author of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, released two days ago. It’s about the globalisation of the Western conception of mental health and illness
“We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness", he writes. “We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.” And the idea that our Western conception of mental health and illness might be shaping the expression of illnesses in other cultures is rarely discussed in the professional literature.”
Western conceptions of mental health? Well, as anthropologists stress, illness is not only about biomedicine. It’s not only about parts of the body that no longer work. Our brain is not a batter of chemicals that “needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best” (advertisment for the antidepressant Paxil).
Illness, maybe especially mental illness, is also about culture:
(M)ental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host. (…)
What cross-cultural psychiatrists and anthropologists have to tell us is that all mental illnesses, including depression, P.T.S.D. and even schizophrenia, can be every bit as influenced by cultural beliefs and expectations today as hysterical-leg paralysis or the vapors or zar or any other mental illness ever experienced in the history of human madness. (…)
In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill — doctors or shamans or priests — inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another.
Contrary to popular belief, “Western” biomedicine is not culturally neutral either:
The ideas we export often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection — a penchant for “psychologizing” daily existence. These ideas remain deeply influenced by the Cartesian split between the mind and the body, the Freudian duality between the conscious and unconscious, as well as the many self-help philosophies and schools of therapy that have encouraged Americans to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group.
“Western mental-health discourse introduces core components of Western culture, including a theory of human nature, a definition of personhood, a sense of time and memory and a source of moral authority. None of this is universal,” Derek Summerfield of the Institute of Psychiatry in London observes.
Ethan Watters explains why have American categories of mental diseases become the worldwide standard:
American researchers and institutions run most of the premier scholarly journals and host top conferences in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Western drug companies dole out large sums for research and spend billions marketing medications for mental illnesses. In addition, Western-trained traumatologists often rush in where war or natural disasters strike to deliver “psychological first aid,” bringing with them their assumptions about how the mind becomes broken by horrible events and how it is best healed.
The export of Western biomedical ideas, Watters explains, can have “frustrating and unexpected consequences", for example marginalization of people with “mental heath problems". People with schizophrenia in some developing countries appear to fare better over time than those living in industrialized nations.
Several studies, Watters writes, suggest that we may actually treat people more harshly when their problem is described in biomedical disease terms, when we treat mental illnesses are “brain diseases” over which the patient has little choice or responsibility, when the disease has according this model nothing to do with factors in the outside world like unemployment, racism, larger societal structures that lead to loneliness, despair, depressions:
It turns out that those who adopted biomedical/genetic beliefs about mental disorders were the same people who wanted less contact with the mentally ill and thought of them as more dangerous and unpredictable. This unfortunate relationship has popped up in numerous studies around the world. (…) “irrespective of place . . . endorsing biological factors as the cause of schizophrenia was associated with a greater desire for social distance.”
In Zanzibar, in a group of people with “Swahili spirit-possession beliefs", the illness was seen as the work of outside forces, it was understood as an affliction for the sufferer but not as an identity according to research by anthropologist Juli McGruder:
For McGruder, the point was not that these practices or beliefs were effective in curing schizophrenia. Rather, she said she believed that they indirectly helped control the course of the illness. Besides keeping the sick individual in the social group, the religious beliefs in Zanzibar also allowed for a type of calmness and acquiescence in the face of the illness that she had rarely witnessed in the West.
The article was published last Saturday. The same day, Greg Downey wrote Exporting American mental illness, an example for great anthropology blogging. And the day after another fascinating blog post by Eugene Raikhel at Somatosphere: The globalization of biopsychiatry with lots of links to related medical anthropology studies.
Nearly at the same time, medical anthropologist Michael Tan has written about the same topic in his column Pinoy Kasi in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He writes about “special children", children with what Americans call “global developmental delay” or GDD. This diagnosis does not make sense in the Philippines:
The problem here is defining a delay. (…) For example, around the area of language development, you will find books that say a child should have a vocabulary of around 200 words by the age of 2. I can imagine some of my readers beginning to panic now, as I did when I first heard that standard. Imagine me in the middle of the night doing an inventory of my son’s vocabulary and not even reaching 50 (…)
But the anthropologist in me protested that we don’t have studies in the Philippines that established the norm, and given that all our children are growing up in households with at least two, and often more, languages, there’s bound to be some “delay.” As you might have guessed, my son, who is now 4, cannot stop jabbering, and in three languages at that.
Happy New Year to everybody with a firework from Sydney (photo by Rajwinder Singh, flickr) and thanks for reading antropologi.info, commenting and contributing to this blog and other blogs!
In 2009, when antropologi.info turned five years old, I was especially happy about contributions from you, from readers. In March, Tereza Kuldova has started writing book reviews - the first one about Hindu Divorce: A Legal Anthropology by Livia Holden. The most recent one went online just a few days ago: Photography, anthropology and history by Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards.
Karstein Noremark wrote an report about the Open Access Week in Wellington, and Siham Ouazzif sent me her thesis “Veiled Muslim Women in Australian Public Space: How do Veiled Women Express their Presence and Interact in the Workplace?”. I also received a text by Lykke V. Bjørnøy: Are homosexuals impure according to Sunni Islam?. I was also glad over that I could interview Dai Cooper about her Anthropology Song
On the 1st of May, we celebrated the first Open Access Anthropology Day. Sara at Sara Anthro Blog has taken the initiative to this event. For this occasion, I’ve made a new overview over open access anthropology journals.
Personally, my most important blog post was about The Anthropology of Suicide. It was also the most personal blog post I’ve ever written.
2009 was a very interesting blogging year, and anthroblogging hasn’t stopped during the holidays and new year. Several bloggers ended 2009 or started 2010 with lists. Here are some of them:
Greg Downey has compiled an impressive list of suggestions for how to organize better conferences. His list should be compulsory reading for all conference organizers. He is as he writes “a big fan of the good conference, but I’ve also been traumatized at academic conferences".
Maximilian Forte is “almost ready to resume winding down” his blog Zero Anthropology (started as Open Anthropology) and sums up with Zero/Open Anthropology Top Posts 2009.
Barbara Miller from AnthropologyWorks has written several lists, one of them is Anthropologyworks 10 best of 2009.
“One useful thing about blogs is that they also serve as a kind of ‘digital memory’", writes Julian Hopkins in his post My 2009.
Anthro Turbo-blogger Erkan Saka collected some interesting happy new year images. I really like his introduction:"Special days like New Year’s Eve make me so tense. Social pressure. Such alienation, such loneliness. It all comes back to Durkheim’s arguments in Suicide. I hope it passes very quickly.”
While Language Log discusses the question How to pronounce the year 2010 (67 comments so far!), Gabriele Marranci turns to the anthrosphere with a New Year wish.
In his post Selling lives: Rohingyas face deportation from Bangladesh, he invites his colleagues to focus more on the Rohingya, “highlighting their inhuman condition in Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh, as well as their status of the “gypsies” of Asia":
Bangladesh has signed a deal with Burma to import gas and electricity and export back Rohingya:
Today is the first day of 2010. Many of us have celebrated the new year while 9000 Rohingya, the first of many more to come, are not able to oppose the Bangladeshi decision of deportation without any safeguard to their original home, which, like Nazi Germany for the German Jews, has decided that they are aliens who are as ‘ugly as ogres’. This time, however, it is not the shape of the nose to be singled out, but rather the Hindi features, particularly the skin colour.
Tragically, convoys starting from the Bangladeshi border will soon deport the Rohingya, men, women, young, old, healthy, and unhealthy to a uncertain destiny. No external body, agency or Red Cross will be there to witness the deportation. There only exists the indifference of a world increasingly ready to sell souls for more profitable commodities.
UPDATE: Of course Savage Minds has made a great list, published just a few seconds ago: Savage Minds Rewind: The Best of 2009
Here is the second part of the review of the book Photography, Anthropology and History, edited by Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards.
This time, Tereza Kuldova reviews Ka F. Wong’s article about one of the first Japanese anthropologists, who became popular in Japan because of his use of photography: Torii Ryūzō.
Wong shows in his article how Ryuzo’s photographs illustrate the colonial relationships at that time. Ryuzo went on fieldwork two decades before Malinowski in order to document the indigenous Taiwan population.
Tereza Kuldova questions some of Wong’s conclusions:
Review (Part II): Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame (eds. Morton, Ch. & Edwards, E.), Ashgate. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-7909-7.
Tereza Kuldova, PhD fellow, Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
The article Visual Methods in Early Japanese Anthropology: Torii Ryuzo in Taiwan by Ka F. Wong discusses the beginnings of the Japanese anthropology and the personality of one of the first Japanese anthropologists, who became popular in Japan because of his use of photography, as a ‘scientific’ method of investigation and documentation of the Other, during his fieldwork.
We are talking here about Torii Ryuzo, a truly self-made anthropologist, born in 1870 in Tokushima in Shikoku, he received only second-grade education, but that did not prevent him from reading and educating himself on his own.
Torii was hired as a specimen classifier in the Anthropology Research Institute at the Tokyo Imperial University by the professor in physical anthropology Tsuboi Shogoro. “Under his mentor’s patronage and encouragement, Torii began his anthropological career, first as a fieldworker, and eventually as one of the most prominent Japanese anthropologists of the twentieth century” (Wong 2009:173). Eventually, “in 1922, he became associate professor at the Tokyo Imperial University and succeeded Tsuboi as the second chair of the Anthropological Institute” (Wong 2009:185).
As Wong notes, he was a rather special occurrence in the Japanese anthropology, because he was “a Japanese anthropologist working in the manner of a European ethnographer within a colonial context” (Wong 2009:180).
His popularity and rise as an anthropologist can be related firstly to his use of photography, in the manner of the Western anthropologists, as a tool of scientific understanding and documenting of the Other and secondly it can be related to the emergence of Japan as a colonial power.
Wong focuses on the analysis of the photographic legacy of Torii Ryuzo in the context of the modernization of Japan and the era of Japanese colonization.
Wong tries to view the photographs in the light of their own ‘agency’ and thereby to understand the nature of the contact between Ryuzo and the indigenous Taiwanese. When Japan became colonial power it could “count itself a member of the once exclusive Western club of colonial empires, and the native population of Taiwan provided fresh material for Japanese anthropologists to exhibit their intellectual virtuosity” (Wong 2009:175). Ryuzo thus set out for a fieldwork in Taiwan, two decades before Bronislaw Malinowski, and began documenting the indigenous Taiwan population, mostly within the Western style framework, using the methods of natural sciences, such as anthropometric and statistical techniques. “The camera was Torii’s tool for disseminating a vision of indigenous life of this newly colonized island to wider Japanese public” (Wong 2009:177).
Drawing on the western scholarship Torii divided the indigenous people of Taiwan “along perceived racial lines – such as by physical type, language, costume, body, decoration, architecture and material culture – into nine major groups: the Ami, Bunun, Yami, Paiwan, Tayal, Tsou, Siuo, and Salisan” (Wong 2009:177). Most of the photographs that he took were of anthropometric imagery, but he took pictures of people in various social contexts, pictures of landscape and houses, of material culture and the Japanese presence, as well.
Wong shows in his article how the photographs illustrate the colonial relationships. He points out the anthropologist in Western clothes standing and posing with the natives mostly sitting or squatting dressed in indigenous clothing. He argues, in rather classical manner, that “Torii’s anthropometric images mirrored a legitimized racial superiority in the name of scientific representation, and the subjects thereby became ‘dehumanized’ as ‘passive objects of the study’” (Wong 2009:179-80). He observes that the natives “seem to be purposely lined up in formation or staged for display, implying a power relation at play for the camera. Even those pictures that were meant to capture the natives in their natural milieu seem to project rigidity and theatricality” (Wong 2009:180).
Wong shows how photographs can be perceived as ‘social artefacts’ that convey political and personal agendas of their creator. In case of Torii the visualization of himself on the photographs with the natives certainly helped to establish him as a professional anthropologist.
This being said, I believe that there is one dimension of the analysis of photography that Wong presented, which is missing. That is the consideration of the technical and practical dimension of taking photography at that point of time. Imagine a heavy machine which for a photography to be taken needs immovable objects. If we think about the ‘theatricality and rigidity’, which Wong describes and attributes it to the demonstration of colonial power over the subjects, is it not also a natural consequence of the nature of the technology used in capturing of the natives?
Further, Wong focuses for example on the clothes worn by the anthropologist as compared to the clothes worn by the natives and interprets this in terms of power relations. At this point, the images from my own fieldwork in the 21st century India came to my mind. When looking at them, you can see me definitely dressed differently that the most of the women in India did. On photographs with them, I definitely look as a foreigner. In the end my photographs are not that different from those of Torii, though maybe his are more ‘rigid’ because of the technology he used, while mine may seem more spontaneous, taken in between conversations.
When turning the attention to the ‘postures’, which Wong notes, when I look at my photographs in that way, I must say that I tend to sit with my leg over the other, while some of the women I was working with tended to sit on the bed or floor with their legs crossed under themselves. However, I cannot claim that any of that, can from my viewpoint be interpreted in terms of power relations (at least in the sense of oppressive type of colonial power relations), though someone may frame it within west vs. rest dichotomy and draw some conclusions from that. At the same time, I believe that these would have little to do with my own relations to the people on the photographs.
Now, using the medium of photography, which at that time needed immovable persons, and objects in front of the objective, and thus necessarily appeared more rigid that nowadays, how could Torii possibly otherwise represent what he encountered? Whatever picture he would have taken would be by Wong and possibly by others necessarily interpreted in the context of the era of Japanese colonial power.
Now I do not want to say that this critique or line of thought is unproductive. What I want to point out is that, instead of looking at the photographs of the anthropologist and the natives and judging from his and their clothes or postures, when trying to understand the messages of the photographs which Torii took, we have to look firstly at what he did not take photographs of as compared to what he wanted us to see, as it is there, where the agenda and context lies. This line of thought is somehow present in Wong’s text, but in my view it should have come out stronger, as it is this what gives us the insight into the practices of representation.