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Do anthropologists have anything relevant to say about human rights?

Anthropology News April focuses on the topic anthropology and human rights. Both anthropologists and non-anthropologists have been asked to answer the question: Do anthropologists have anything useful or relevant to say about human rights?

In Gerald F Hyman's view (Director, USAID Office of Democracy and Governance), anthropologists contribute little to the development of human rights themselves or a human rights regime because anthropologists are skeptical of normative claims.

Sheila Dauer from amnesty international makes a similar point, criticizing the idea that human rights are a Western idea and than introducing them might even be a neocolonial act:

When anthropologists support the idea that the changes the changes people are working for on the ground that are based on human rights standards are “Western” or “neocolonial,” they are using the same argument used by governments and others in power to repress less powerful sectors of society—ethnic and racial minorities, women and other groups. Within the human rights movement, conceptualizing human rights standards as universal is now thought of as bringing local meanings into dialogue with human rights standards to mutually reinterpret them and to find ways they can apply locally—a kind of cultural negotiation.

(related see Democracy Isn't 'Western' by Amartya Sen that also was debated on Savage Minds)

Victoria Sanford calls for "activist scholarship":

It is not uncommon within the academy for lived experience to be dismissed as unscientific or not relevant to real, objective scholarship. This is completely backwards because it is the academy that needs to be relevant to the reality of lived experience.

Advocacy and activism do not diminish one’s scholarly research. On the contrary, activist scholarship reminds us that all research is inherently political—even, and perhaps especially, that scholarship presented under the guise of “objectivity” is often little more than a veiled defense of the status quo. Anthropologists can do better than that. We can and should use our expertise to support rights claims in the communities where we work.

She has a nice homepage with lots of pictures and several articles about her conflict and peace research in Guatemala and Colombia.

Veena Das is sceptical. Institutional transformations in the universities in the US and elsewhere are threatening the kind of free inquiry on which critical understanding rests:

I see a far greater threat to anthropology’s capabilities for engaging politically difficult questions based upon good evidence from everyday practices that govern research in universities than from direct censorship.

>> read thw whole article in Anthropology News

UPDATE (9.10.06):
The October 06 issue of Anthropology News asks the question Do Anthropologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Promote Human Rights?


Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights Committee for Human Rights by the American Anthropological Association

"We have a huge responsibility to give back to the places we study from"

Annelise Riles: Anthropology, Human Rights, and Legal Knowledge: Culture in the Iron Cage

Sally Engle Merry: Human Rights Law and the Demonization of Culture (And Anthropology Along the Way)

Conference blogging: "Quit using the word ‘culture’ wherever possible"

On the recent conference by the Society for Applied Anthropology, Mary Odell Butler from Battelle suggested that anthropologists ought to quit using the word ‘culture’ wherever possible, according to Judd Antin at Technotaste who writes:

"The larger and more interesting point she made, is that talking about culture instead of more specific perceptions or processes, is a scapegoat. It relieves us of the burden of talking about specific ideas, habits, and histories. She gave an example that I remember well. Contrast these two statements:

Many African-American women have developed a culturally-based perception that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.


Many African-American women have learned through their experience and that of their friends and family that they will be disrespected in community healthcare clinics.

Culture, in other words, is too often a gloss for actual perception and practice. Why not call a rose a rose?"

>> read the whole post on TechnoTaste

Judd Antin has written two more posts about the conference: Wednesday Morning at SfAA and SfAA 2006: To Start. There was no press coverage (no surprise). Jen Cardew at anthroblogs did some conference blogging, but the notes aren't especially reader-friendly.

Jen made an interesting remark about getting in touch with people at conferences. It's an advantage to be a smoker:

I would like to note that the only people who have approached me, or that I have approached at the conference thus far have been smokers outside on a smoke break. I am actually thankful that I am a smoker right now, what a wonderful social tool! I'm kind of shy, so it is not too often that I approach people to chat.

Jen has also written about Smokers as a Subculture


Emphasis on ‘culture’ in psychology fuels stereotypes, scholar says

The Culture Struggle: How cultures are instruments of social power

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Savage Minds: An old warhorse revisited: Do we need another book about culture?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Why culture should be brought back in

The Secret Society of Anthropologists


  23:57:27, by admin   . Categories: religion cosmology, Us and Them, Europe, migration

Interviews on Christians and Muslims, Class, Immigration History and Black Feminism

Four interviews that I've conducted for the research program "Cultural Complexity in the new Norway" have been translated into English:

The sacred space between Christians and Muslims - Interview with Oddbjørn Leirvik
Leirvik has been involved in inter-religious dialogue since the middle of the 1980s: "I want to investigate the space in between. The space between Christians and Muslims. I wonder whether there is an open landscape which we share and which nobody has control over."

- Class, equally as important as ethnicity - Interview with Ivar Morken
For special needs educationalist Ivar Morken cultural complexity is just as much about class differences in a Norwegian valley as it is about immigration from distant lands.

Collecting immigrants’ life histories - before it’s too late - Interview with Knut Kjeldstadli
In the three volume “Norsk innvandringshistorie” ( A History of Immigration in Norway) the historian Knut Kjedstadli, showed that it is wrong to believe that Norway was a homogeneous society before the arrival of Pakistanis and Somalis.

In pursuit of "black feminism" in Norway - Interview with Beatrice Halsaa
What is the relationship between ethnic Norwegian and non-ethnic Norwegian feminists or immigrant women? This is one of the big questions that Beatrice Halsaa, leader of the Centre for Women's Studies and Gender Research (SKK) is interested in.

  12:49:18, by admin   . Categories: politics, Us and Them, anthropology (general)

Riots in France and silent anthropologists

What anthropologists failed to do, a few thousand burned cars made possible: Public debates on inequality, discrimination and post-colonialism. In the recent volume of Anthropology Today (subscription required), Didier Fassin criticizes anthropologists for their silence during and after the november 2005 riots in France. Anthropologist Keith Hart reminds us in a comment to this article on the marginality of French anthropology and a recent letter to oppose anthropology’s apparent demotion within the administrative structures of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique).

Didier Fassin writes:

During and after the events historians, sociologists, demographers, writers and intellectuals intervened in the public sphere, expressing comprehension if not of the rioters’ actions then at least of the problems they experienced. (...)
Anthropologists remained peculiarly silent. Just as we had done during the impassioned debate on the prohibition of the Islamic veil, we kept quiet when the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, permanent secretary of the Académie Française, suggested that the main cause of the riots was polygamy in African families – a proposal subsequently reiterated by right-wing political leaders. The academically marginal but professionally dynamic Association Française des Anthropologues organized two meetings a few weeks after the events, but significantly invited sociologists to speak.

In Didier Fassins view, anthropologists could have foreseen these events. After having done fieldwork on relations between police and youth in the suburbs of Paris, the explosion and spread of violence was no surprise to him, he writes.

The riots gave French society the opportunity for a public confession of the long-denied policies of economic inequality, residential segregation and racial discrimination. France was beginning to admit that its integration paradigm had become a cover for the denial of its institutional racism. For the first time the French started to consider theirs a post-colonial society. Though long evident to many foreign scholars working on France, French anthropologists were the last to realize what was happening according to Fassin. He explains:

Suddenly, a previously unacknowledged colour bar was discovered. The word ‘ghetto’, previously banned from French vocabulary on the grounds that it reflected a specifically American reality, became common in editorials. Newspaper articles and television reports revealed how difficult it was for Arabs or Black people to get a job or a flat, how they were stigmatized at school and humiliated by the police. What thousands of pages of academic and administrative literature failed to do, a few thousand burned cars made possible.

Anthropologists had little to say on these subjects for two reasons in Fassins view:

(1) Very few anthropologists were working on the banlieues, on immigration or inequality: This relates to the history of the discipline in France and its predominant epistemological position. Anthropology in France is above all the study of the present of remote societies. Even when French anthropologists became interested in their own society, they tended to analyse its traditional aspects:

When a few of us turned to the study of politics, most described it in terms of rituals and institutions, comparing them with the display and organization of power in African societies. Scientific analyses have certainly been rich and sometimes innovative, but seldom related to the issues that we face in our own societies today.

(2) Many anthropologists found their beliefs and the ideals of the French society uncomfortably challenged: Isn't France a secular and colorblind society?

The reluctance of anthropologists to recognize the existence of racial and religious discrimination in France is thus as problematic as the paradigms they do engage with. (...) Many still resist acknowledging this reality and prefer to ironize about what they see as an excessive display of victimhood. (...) Racial and religious issues remain difficult for many of us to raise when it comes to actual practices because they confront our values with a reality we would rather avoid.

Keith Hart comments Fassins article. He explains French anthropology’s weak engagement with ethnic / social inequality among others by "general divisions and elitism characteristic of higher education there".

He compares different national traditions in anthropology:

If French anthropology seems to be beleaguered these days, Brazilian anthropology, having once been confined largely to Amazonia, is now booming as a source of investigation and commentary on mainstream urban society. Scandinavian anthropology offers a flourishing model of public engagement. Anthropology is a major operation in India and Nigeria today, being mainly concerned with ‘tribal’ populations and internal cultural diversity. Anthropologists in the USA and Britain have organized themselves quite effectively as professional guilds, but there is little public knowledge there of what they do (try using ‘anthropology’ as a keyword for email alerts from the New York Times); and the discipline’s relationship to the universities is precarious.

>> read Keith Hart's comment (updated link)


Who Are the Rioters in France? Anthropology News January incl comments by Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Cicilie Fagerlid

More and more anthropologists, but they're absent from public debates - "Engaging Anthropology" (1)

Racism: Five Major Challenges for Anthropology


Popular IT-anthropologists: Observe families until they go to bed

Intel recently advertised four anthropologist openings and had more than 300 applicants, including top-notch researchers from the best schools according to Union Tribune San Diego. The newspaper portrays several IT-anthropologists, among others Anne Kirah who is heading a team of eight anthropologists at Microsoft:

She focused on immigrants and refugees in her anthropology graduate studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. Today, she takes notes on people's daily lives, from Japan to France and Australia, in her role as Microsoft's chief anthropologist. Data from the families she studies led the company to add several features to the Vista operating system, due out next year.

Much of the team's research is conducted without a link to a specific product:

The anthropologists will typically spend two days with people, or families, who have agreed to let them into their lives. Kirah will knock on the subject's door at the hour when they wake up and stay with them until they go to bed.

For anthropologists who wonder if they need to be a computer geek in order to work as an IT-anthropologists: When Anne Kirah was ansked if she was interested to work for Microsoft she "thought Microsoft made chips, and I didn't really know what a chip was."

INTEL-anthropologist Genevieve Bell compares academic and business life:

One of the biggest differences between her Intel research and university studies is that she doesn't have to spend a lot of time writing grant proposals, she said. And instead of teaching in a Stanford classroom, she's introducing social science to engineers in meeting rooms, she said. “I'm doing vibrant, rich, rewarding work that's intellectually exciting,” Bell said. “I'm giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't be in the conversation.”

Also a former suicide-prevention counselor (Kelly Chessen) were engaged by a computer company - that actually specializes in data-recovery:

While the counseling of computer-crash victims might sound humorous, a hard-drive meltdown can create despair on the same level as the suicide hotline, Chessen said. She has taken calls from people who have just been fired over lost data or who are facing the loss of years of work or the demise of an entire small business.

“We've had people talk about taking their lives if their data can't be restored,” Chessen said. “A lot of my job is really just listening to people, even when they're angry and yelling. I help give them hope.”

>> read the whole story in the Union Tribune

Microsoft and the Australian tribe - Interview with Anne Kirah (ABC Radio Australia)


INTEL is hiring more than 100 anthropologists

INTEL and Microsoft conference "a coming-out party" for ethnography

INTEL-ethnographers challenge our assumptions of the digital divide

Office Culture - good overview about corporate anthropology in FinancialTimes


New Ethnography: The Deaf People - A Forgotten Cultural Minority

It is insufficient to understand deaf people as disabled. Most deaf people rather see themselves as members of a cultural and linguistic minority. They are proud of their culture. And they face identity obstacles similar to those faced by many other minority members. Therefore is it important to change the attitudes from the medical definitions and into an understanding of the deaf as a linguistic cultural group. These are some of the main findings in a new book by Norwegian anthropologist Jan-Kåre Breivik called Deaf Identities in the Making. Local Lives, Transnational Connections.

As deaf-activist Asbjørn puts it:

"Why fix healthy deaf children through CI surgery? We do not need that. What we need are more hearing people that want to play on our team - as we are - as Deaf people. we need more people willing to use the key to our culture - the sign language."

See among others this quote by one of Breiviks informants - it might have been told by Native Indians, black people, Saami people etc:

"I did not accept myself as deaf. My family and the local environment did not give me the means to appreciate that side of my self. I was the only local deaf person and what I head about deaf persons was almost exclusively negative. The "deaf and dumb" stereotype was around me and became part of my own experience. I was constantly trying to be part of my hearing environment, but of course I couldn't pass as a hearing person. I was constantly frustrated, never getting access to what the others were speaking about.
At the age of eighteen, (...) I stated to visit the deaf club. Here I also found a new friend. I began to accept my deafness, and gradually I aquired a sense of pride for being deaf.
I felt as if I had been given a new life, when I began accepting myself as deaf. I got more out of life and the companionship with other deaf persons. We shared the same identity, the same culture, that we were facing the same problems of communication and language in society.

Deaf people's identity politics also resemble those of other minority groups. To create a collective identity, borders have to be drawn. But where? This is of course an widely debated issue. There is some kind of hierarchy: Some people are regarded as "more deaf" than others according to Breivik:

Within the Deaf signing community, deafened people are often viewed as suspect figures. This is because they are not accepted as being really deaf, and they are often accused of being too willing to pass as hearing people.

An informant says:

"In the United States, there are extremely deaf conscious, and where you must be second- or third-generation deaf to be counted as a real deaf person."

Many informants fear for sharper boundaries between the deaf and the hearing world. One of them says:

"Deaf Power can be compared to being proud to be from Norway, and be extremely conscious of that. Such self-consciousness can turn into nationalism. This scares me, and I experience this constantly. At each youth camp, there are always some extreme types. Their messages do not differ from other extreme nationalists. It is always us vs. them."

Many deaf people live transnational lives: They travel a lot in order to meet other deaf people. In contrast to many hearing people, deaf people don't link equality and sameness, Breivik found out:

One of the key lessons I have learned, as a hearing person who has been immersed in deaf life through my anthropological research, is that the phrase "being at home among strangers" (Schein 1989) goes to the heart of the identity question. This is about deaf people's frequent departure from biological roots and the hearing, settled world, and their search for "equals" in distant places.

Their language - the sign language is of great help. It is much more suitable for transnational lives than spoken languages. It's quite easy to learn foreign sign languages. Albertine from Norway tells about her time in the USA:

"I was present one month before school started up, and by that time I was able to make myself understood and I could capture most of what they told me. After three months, I was almost fluent in American Sign Language."

Japanese, she tells, is totally incomprehensible. Nevertheless she's convinced that she would have managed Japanese "after a few weeks."

Deaf people embrace the new communication technologies like internet and email. For many of them, the Net is a window toward the world, several informants met their husbands/wives there. On the internet, they are able to communicate with strangers freely without any consideration of hearing status.

I'm halfway-through the book that actually qualifies to become one of my favorite anthropology books. It describes a - for hearing people - totally unknown world and turns some of our assumptions upside down. The book is also an example for good anthropological writing!

>> more information on the book by the publisher

>> read the first chapter of the book


Jan-Kåre Breivik: Global Connections in Deaf Worlds through technology (Working paper)

'I hoped our baby would be deaf' Most parents would be distressed to learn that their child had been born unable to hear. But for Paula Garfield and Tomato Lichy, it means daughter Molly can share their special culture (The Guardian, 21.3.06)


Anthropologist Karen Nakamura is going to publish a new book called Deaf in Japan. It will be out in August 2006.

Grace Keyes: "Hearing has been neglected in studies of enculturation and personality development"

  23:26:50, by admin   . Categories: politics, Northern America, migration, anthropology (general)

Proclaiming the birth of a new civil rights movement

Lots of demonstrations recently - not only in Paris, but also in the USA. According to anthropologist Roberto J. Gonzalez the recent mass demonstration against a tougher immigration policy (bill HR 4437) is proclaiming "the birth of a new civil rights movement":

For many other young people -- those without documents -- the proposed legislation threatened to shatter their American dreams of a better future.
The walkouts are part of a larger wave of mass demonstrations in which immigrants and those sympathetic to their cause have been led by Latino activists. They have been turning out in the hundreds of thousands -- a quarter of a million in Chicago, half a million in Los Angeles, and many thousands more in Phoenix, Milwaukee, Dallas and other cities.

Those participating in the marches are expressing much more than opposition to the xenophobic proposals of a Midwest congressman. They are proclaiming the birth of a new civil rights movement -- a movement seeking to reclaim the dignity of all people living within our country's borders, regardless of color, creed or nationality.


Mass marches, rallies and demonstrations are deeply rooted American traditions in our country, a land of immigrants seeking new opportunities. Howard Zinn's groundbreaking book, ``A People's History of the United States,'' recounts hundreds of cases in which ordinary people -- women, slaves, students, working people, immigrants -- have transformed our country against incredible odds by doing extraordinary things.

>> read the whole story at Mercury News

Roberto J. Gonzalez has among others written the book Anthropologists in the Public Sphere : Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power. For Anthropology News 2003 (AAA) he wrote the text Speaking Out on War, Peace and Power. Towards a Preventative Diplomacy.


Students stage new immigration protests; demonstrations peaceful (OhMyNews, 1.4.06)

Thousands stage second day of demonstrations in California for immigrants' rights (OhMyNews, 26.3.06)


The Five Major Challenges for Anthropology

In her new book Plausible Prejudice: Everyday Experiences and Social Images of Nation, Culture and Race, Norwegian social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad identifies five major challenges for the discipline of anthropology. To understand the problems of the world today, we need to "decolonize anthropological knowledge", she writes.

Anthropological knowledge is needed more than ever as steoreotypes and lack of knowledge flourish about people from other countries. But on the other hand, Gullestad stresses, anthropology is still influenced by its colonial past.

Here are the five major challenges for the discipline of anthropology according to Marianne Gullestad (page 346-347):

1st CHALLENGE: To regard understanding and confronting racism as worthwhile academic and political concerns, and not as a conflict that was resolved long ago.

2nd CHALLENGE: To look historically and ethnographically at race thinking in relation to colonialism and imperialism, political decolonization, economic globalization, the end of the Cold War, and the new role of the United States as successor to the European empires that were defeated in the 20th century.
Traditional nationally oriented historiography and locally oriented anthropology overlook many processes across continents which represent a store of unexpected connections and complex interpretative resources that will no doubt contribute substantially to the understanding of how the imperial and colonial past continues to shape present-day social categories, boundaries and practices.
This framing or research will often involve carrying out multi-sited and transcontinental fieldwork.

3rd CHALLENGE: To examine not only the ideas and practices of self-professed racists (...), but also the conventional wisdom sourrounding racial thinking and its various forms of institutionalization. Racial categories and negative stereotypes are often both intensely familiar and also vigorously denied and forgotten as expressions of racism. They exist as pernicious symbolic resources which in given situations might potentially be employed more or less by anyone, regardless of gender, age, class, and skin color. (...)

4th CHALLENGE: To take seriously the complexity and variability of race thinking, and how it feeds into and is nourished by everyday life. (...) In this respect, my research has shown that ancestry and descent are particularly central. In fact, I argue that the racial coding of the new focus on 'culture' is based on ideas about descent as a form of imagined kinship.

5th CHALLENGE: To do more 'anthropology of anthropology' by locating themes, peoples and perspectives that have largely been ignored as anthropologically uninteresting, such as the social life-worlds of majority populations in Europe and the United States, the experiences of formerly colonized peoples with Europeans (as colonizers, administrators, settlers, missionaries, developmental experts, tourists etc.), and the ideas and strategies of political and economic elites, regardless of their location in the world and their physical features.

>> more information on her book


A very good comment by Bryan McKay (link updated). He writes, these five challenges should not be specific for anthropology:

"Substitute sexism, heterosexism, classism, et cetera for racism (and sex, sexuality/gender, class, et cetera for race) in the above challenges and you have a decent manifesto for any realm of critical cultural studies."

Kambiz Kamrani at anthropology.net writes that he agrees with Gullestad, but:

Anthropology will never succeed until it clearly defines culture. That's right, it hasn't. Anthropology has completely failed the public in not being able to define culture.

>> read the whole post on anthropology.net (link updated, original post no longer available)

Erkan Saka disagrees:

This emphasis on definition is against all I know about social sciences. Not that I am for an all relativistic social science with no substance. But what I know is that an act of defining is part of a power struggle.

>> read his whole post (link updated)

Her book is a kind of "best-of": It consists of a "remix" of ten previously published papers and three new texts, including the post-script that I've quoted from.

Some of these papers are available to download in full-text:

Marianne Gullestad: Blind Slaves of our Prejudices: Debating 'Culture' and 'Race' in Norway

Marianne Gullestad: Normalising racial boundaries. The Norwegian dispute about the term 'neger'

Marianne Gullestad: Fighting for a sustainable self-image: The role of descent in individualized identitification

Marianne Gullestad: Mohammed Atta and I. Identification, discrimination and the formation of sleepers

Marianne Gullestad: Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, nationalism and racism

(I might come back with more posts on this book. I've just returned from the book launch)

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