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

Marianne Gullestad: Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, nationalism and racism

Links updated 2016-06-06

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


Anthropologist observes native academics in their natural habitat

Anthropologists seem to get more interested in academic culture. Not long ago we heard about anthropologists studying students. Now, anthropologist Rena Lederman is doing fieldwork among her her fellow academics. She is writing a book called “Anthropology Among the Disciplines,” which will examine the distinctions among several academic fields and explore how and when those borders become important, according to News at Princeton.

In an era when academia is emphasizing interdisciplinarity, Lederman sees significant differences in how anthropologists, sociologists, historians and social psychologists approach their fields, she says:

"My topic is not conventional perhaps, but my approach is classic participant observation: I attend closely to how disciplinary distinctions come up in everyday conversations. I pay attention to how scholars in one field talk about other fields or how they might defend their own if they feel it’s being challenged."

“She’s one of a handful of people who’s taking the opportunity to reflect ethnographically on the kinds of institutional lives that academics live,” said Don Brenneis, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “It’s complicated for different reasons when you’re working with your own tribe.

>> read the whole story in News at Princeton


Understanding the 'Natives' at a Big University: Anthropologist studies students

To provide better services at the library: Another anthropologist is studying college students

  21:58:40, by admin   . Categories: technology, culture traditions, Asia, books

Ladakh: Emmigration is threatening sacred weaving traditions

Weaving is a tradition dear to the Rupshupa of Ladakh. But the craft is at the crossroads because many youngsters are leaving in search of a better lifestyle, says anthropologist Monisha Ahmed in The Hindu. "There are very few ethnic communities in the world where both men and women weave, and that's what makes the Rupshupa special," she says. She was so intrigued by their weaving tradition that in 1992 she decided to do her doctoral dissertation on the Rupshupa:

In the years since, Ahmed has spent a lot of time roaming and camping in their stark Changthang highlands with the Rupshupa, studying the fabric of their life. She has seen them moving 10 times a year, observed them herding and shearing their livestock, weaving their hair and fleece, playing traditional games, celebrating marriages, mourning the dead and offering worship at their monasteries in Thugje and Korzok, the tiny towns where they have their storehouses.

She has learned their songs and understood their prayers. Her first book, Living Fabric: Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh, Himalaya, won the Textile Society of America's Shep Award in 2003 for best book in the field of ethnic textile studies.

>> read the whole story in The Hindu

Chronicles Women's Social Movements in India

The small groups of rural women in India fighting for change is something the rest of the world needs to take note of, says Mangala Subramaniam, an assistant professor of sociology and women's studies. Since the late 1990s, Subramaniam has studied social movements in India, particularly the women's movement in India and the dalit - poor, rural low-caste women in India - as they organized in their small villages.

Her book The Power of Women's Organizing: Gender, Caste and Class in India will be published this month.

In a press release she says:

"Unfortunately, many people in America and Europe are not aware of or know about the vibrancy of women's movements in Asian countries, such as India. And many people especially do not think about rural women in India organizing to fight for rights such as educational opportunities as well as to challenge discrimination based on social inequities of class, caste and gender. Studies of women's social movements outside of the west - America and Europe - are necessary in this increasingly globalizing world."

>> read the whole story at OneWorld.net

>> Review of The Power of Women’s Informal Networks: Lessons in Social Change from South Asia and West Africa. Bandana Purkayastha and Mangala Subramaniam

>> Information about her dissertation: Translating participation in informal organizations into empowerment: Women in rural India
Mangala Subramaniam

The World Social Forum is a place where social movements meet. Two years ago, it was held in Mumbai, India. I've written a summary: Inspiration from India: Hindus and Muslims eat breakfast together; Christian nuns join Tibetan monks in a chant. See also "Just like apartheid": The dalits are engaged in a fierce struggle to stop the ancient discrimination.

Too engaged anthropology? The Lumpenproletariat on the US-Mexican Border

"The most important information, which we can get out of this study, is how and what kind of action one can take."

How much should anthropologists get involved in changing the lives of their informants? Johannes Wilm didn't limit his research to presenting his findings about the daily life in in Douglas, an US-mexican border town. In his conclusion of his book On the Margins: US Americans in a bordertown to Mexico, he considers several forms for action.

The challenge: More than half of the 14000 inhabitants in Douglas are unemployed, 53% of the under 18 years old are officially living under the poverty line. The main source of income for the town: Smuggling of people and drugs. He proposes among others:

Constantly high unemployment figures can tell us, that an organization of the lumpenproletariat is neccessary in the planning of a world revolution or some more localized struggle for a democratic and economically just society.

It becomes obvious that Wilm works within a Marxist framework. He is an peace and media activist and has been socialized through the globalisation from below movement.

People in bordertowns are especially skilled, he found:

Also, in a border town, knowledge is spread according to a much more heterogeneous pattern, and a group of people cooperating across the various barriers will therefore be likely to build up a great amount of knowledge of how to circumvent the power apparatus of either of the involved states. Just for this, in the planning of a cross-national or global change, towns like Douglas should not be ignored.

In bordertowns, we find more ethnic diversity than in other areas. This might be a hinder? Wilm denies:

While ethnic diversity often has been seen as a hinder to organisation, it seems that combined with unemployment, its force is not as negative. In cases where people are forced to live close together and each person only has access to a part of the things seen as desirable (...), it even integrates rather than segregates.

The inhabitants with Mexican background are often "the better Americans":

And while lots of Hispanics with strong personal ties to Mexico in Douglas seem to believe in the "American way of life", it is Anglos that are the first ones to actively break out of the hegemonic space once they have the chance. (...) It is Anglos that represent resistance and not Hispanics.

He quotes an Hispanic father who has returned from the war in Iraq:

"Seen to many dead children", he explains, while he almost seems to start to cry. However, he finds time commenting on the amount of Anglos in the military. "I guess white people don't like serving their country that much" as he puts it.

Generally, he found, that ethnicity / race or class don't play a role in the daily life in Douglas. That's due to the economic crisis in his view:

Even though Douglas has had a history of segregation based on ethnicity, the complete lack of any kind of job for vast proportions of the population, and consequently the prevalence of the lumpenproletariat, has also done away with the ethnic model of stratification. None of my Anglo informants are in any position of power due to their ethnic background.


Had I been in Douglas during the good days of American capitalism, while Phelps Dodge still was there, they would have been strictly segregated according to race in the earlier period, or according to income layer in the latter period. Keoki, Art and Tim, all with somewhat more of an intellectual background also find themselves in this classless society in which everyone is part of the lumpenproletariat.

While I agree that advocacy is one of anthropologists' jobs, we should, I think, be cautious about presenting final solutions as he does when he describes the problems connected with organizing people:

(...) A fourth problem (...), the amount of Marxist or anarchist literature read by the members of the lumpenproletariat seems quite low, and is often replaced by the Bible, Adam Smith or, in the case of the cultural elite, various critics who are looking at single issues. This means that agitation has to start from the very beginning.
(...) What has to be done, is to develop a generic psychologic strategy to win over people with background from "serving the nation".

>> more information on the book

>> download the whole book (pdf, 30 MB )


  21:17:57, by admin   . Categories: notes, anthropology (general)

How To Present A Paper - or Can Anthropologists Talk?

My wishlist:

1. Tell us your main points and findings before you start ("I will show that the Earth is flat" or so) and sum up your paper at the end.

2. Tell us why we should listen to you. Yes, it's interesting that you have studied childhood in India. But why can your research be interesting or relevant for us who are not specialists in your field? What new insights does your paper give regarding general theories in anthropology and being a human?

3. 20 minutes are 20 minutes. Stop talking when your time is over. Check the length of your presentation a few days before the conference, so that you avoid struggling with the introduction few minutes before your time is over.

4. Don't read from your paper. Talk to and with your audience! By reading from your paper you show disrespect to your audience. This is the most important point and can't be stressed enough. Many speakers at conferences and seminars don't bother presenting their papers in a way that is understandable for us who came to listen. We have discussed anthropological writing. Maybe we should also talk about anthropological talking. Anthropologists can't write. Maybe they can't talk either.


Steve Portigal, a customer research consultant using ethnography, has written a brilliant post about his experiences at academic conferences, among others about a conference with both anthropologists and designers.

Meanwhile, the theory presentations emerged. And here we saw the academic tradition, I believe, where instead of a presentation or a talk, a paper was delivered. Several people in a row stood in, some without any visual aids, and read. For forty-five minutes. They read. At least one person had the ability to jump in and out of his text, make eye contact, and spontaneously offer up a clarification or a hand gesture. But others simply read. It was horrifying. The density of prose was (as with the 7-minute DUX example above) way beyond my ability to parse and it was boring and not engaging.


But back to the reading. What the hell? Is this standard? How is this a way to convey information or start a dialog? I got a lot of grumbling from my colleagues about this; some would have rather read the paper on their own time, rather than coming a great distance to watch someone else read it. Others just stopped coming into the sessions.

A common experience: The speakers go over time. Five minutes before their offical time is over, they still struggle with their introduction. I always wondered why they haven't checked the length of their presentations before.

Steve Portigal writes:

a read paper could not be modified when time ran out, and so facilitators inched closer to presenters in the hopes of having them wrap things up, but no, darn it, I’ve written these 20000 words and I’m going to spit them at you regardless of what time it is. The emphasis was not on making connections between people and other people and ideas. It was really a drag.

>> read the whole post by Steve Portigal


Denise Carter comments:

Reading How To Present A Paper - or Can Anthropologists Talk? had me nodding along in agreement at the wishlist.
I’ve had some experience of conference presentations in various parts of the world with poor presentations that had left me bored and fidgety. Hence I have already decided NOT to write a paper, but instead, to write a presentation around my topic ‘Order and Disorder in the Virtual City’. My intention is that a fruitful and enlightening dialogue will emerge that will clarify some of my ideas – resulting in a more rounded and polished paper that will address some important issues.

>> read the whole post


See also What's the point of anthropology conferences?

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