Why are academic articles so expensive?

Academic paywalls: No access to knowledge. Photo: noboder network, flickr

30 US Dollars in order to read a single academic article? Why? Is it about making money? No. “The high price is designed to maintain the barrier between academia and the outside world. Paywalls codify and commodify tacit elitism”, writes anthropologist Sarah Kendzior in Al Jazeera.

She gives a good overview of some important issues that restrict the circulation of knowledge. Most academic articles are hidden behind paywalls. People without affiliation to a well-off university that can afford to subscribe to (often overpriced) journals are denied access.

Many researchers would like the public to engage with knowledge, she writes. But many are not able to pursue that goal “due to the tyranny of academic publishers and professional norms that encourage obsequiousness and exclusion”.

In todays’s academic world, academic publishing is not about sharing knowledge:

Publishing is a strategic enterprise. It is less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be held (or withheld) and what effect that has on the author’s career. New professors are awarded tenure based on their publication output, but not on the impact of their research on the world. (…)

One of the saddest moments I had in graduate school was when a professor advised me on when to publish. “You have to space out your articles by when it will benefit you professionally,” he said, when I told him I wanted to get my research out as soon as possible. “Don’t use up all your ideas before you’re on the tenure track.”

This confused me. Was I supposed to have a finite number of ideas? Was it my professional obligation to withhold them?What I did not understand is that academic publishing is not about sharing ideas. It is about removing oneself from public scrutiny while scrambling for professional security. It is about making work “count” with the few while sequestering it from the many.

>> read the whole story in Al Jazeera

Sarah Kendzior is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera and other media. She has received lots of attention for her articles, among others about the elitist American academia and academics with salary below the poverty line (The closing of American academia) and The fallacy of the phrase, ‘the Muslim world’ where she explains why is time to retire the phrase “the Muslim world” from the Western media.

On her blog she keeps us up to date with her new publications and the reactions she has received.

She has recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis. The title of her thesis The Uzbek Opposition in Exile: Diaspora and Dissident Politics in the Digital Age.


"Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist": A call for action

Anthropology and the challenges of sharing knowledge online: Interview with Owen Wiltshire

Democratic Publishing = Web + Paper

Interview: Self-publish your thesis!

Danah Boyd on Open Access: "Boycott locked-down journals"

Overview over open access anthropology journals


  14:17:00, by admin   . Categories: anthropology (general), University / Academia, websites

Teenthropologist: Reasons for studying anthropology instead of medicine

“At the age of 18, why do I want to settle down and commit myself to Medicine when I can really investigate for example why there are health differences between the different classes and areas in Britain?”

Teenthropologist is the name of a new anthropology blog, written maybe by the youngest anthro-blogger around. She is 19, from Durham University in Britain. In her opening post she explains why she chose to study anthropology instead of medicine (or before studying medicine sometime later as anthropology provides useful perspectives for doctors).

Interestingly, she also asks “How on earth had we never been told of this course [anthropology] at school before? And why were so few people doing it?”

A very promising blog, I think, with so far two more posts: Train Journey – Class, Caste, Kinship…anthropological heaven? and a review of In Search of Respect (one of my favorite ethnographies…).

I also like the way she defines anthropology in her about page. She does not use the standard and somehow outdated views about anthropology = dealing with “understanding foreign cultures”. Instead, she uses Gillan Tett’s work about the financial crisis and her own study about teenage girls shopping to explain what anthropology is about.

>> visit Teenthropologist

PS: I’m going to update the anthropology blog newspaper at http://www.antropologi.info/blog/ soon. Currently, the overview over new anthropology blog posts at http://www.antropologi.info/feeds/anthropology/ is more up to date


Being radical critical without being leftist: Interview with medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes

AIDS:"Traditional healers are an untapped resource of great potential”

“Ethnographic perspectives needed in discussion on public health care system”


Journal of Business Anthropology: Open Access and "Without Jargon"

“Please write for us, but write in plain English!” The new Journal of Business Anthropology (JBA) does not only provide open access to all articles. It demonstrates that open access should mean more: What’s the point with free access to scholarship when jargon is excluding most people from profiting from its contents?

“When you write [for us], please remember to write in plain English”, the editors Brian Moeran (Copenhagen Business School) and Christina Garsten (Stockholm University) ask in their editorial of the first issue:

One thing that can be said about anthropology in general is that, as a discipline, it has been blessed in the past by good writing, and by anthropologists who have been good writers. This is by no means the case nowadays, when the monograph is being ousted by the journal article, and freedom of expression by all kinds of restrictions.

In spite of all appearances to the contrary in most academic journals, it is possible to express complex ideas in simple language. Theoretical musings can be intelligible, divested of jargon.

And articles in the JBA, unlike articles in most other journals, really ought to say something that is novel, exciting, stimulating and provocative. They ought to strive to reach across to a variety of audiences. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in publishing them in the first place – unless, of course, we are going to play the citation index game, which we’re not. So there!

The journal is not meant to be interesting for researchers only. According to their selfdescription the journal staff hopes the articles may “guide business practitioners in their day-to-day working lives”. A better understanding of organizational structures and interpersonal relations, they argue, “can help in the management of personnel, workplace design, and formulation of business strategies”.

Business is understood broadly, as they explain in the editorial: Business is done both on a Norwegian oil rig or, a Peruvian craft market, a tea plantation in the Himalayan foothills, a Bulgarian rose field or on a camel train in the Saudi Arabian desert. In all those places, people engage “in practices that form many of the building blocks of anthropological theory: material culture and technology; gifts, commodities and money; labour and other forms of social exchange; (fictive) kinship, patronage, quasi-groups, and networks; rituals, symbolism and power; the development and maintenance of taste; and so on.”

The Journal of Business Anthropology adopts “a critical stance towards the commercial exploitation of academic research through the publication of overpriced journals that take advantage of under-budgeted university and educational libraries”:

By adopting a multiple format approach, it also takes a stand against current administrative evaluations of ‘academic quality’. It does not believe in the value of, although it may be obliged to take part in, citation indices. It also makes its contents entirely free. Copyright for all material published on the journal’s Open Access website remains with its authors, who may use it elsewhere as they wish.

Multi-format means there will be both traditional articles (published in traditional issues at specific intervals - two issues in 2012) as well as case studies and field reports that will be published separately as they become available. They will also be supported by blogs to enable the journal’s readers to engage in ongoing dialogues about issues arising from these writings. They also intend to run a news and information section.

One of their aims is also to counter what they describe as an “unfortunate development in the discipline of anthropology” - US-centrism.

“During the past two to three decades”, the editors write, “it seems to us that American anthropology has turned in on itself; its proponents have talked mostly to themselves and often ignored the work of those who live and work elsewhere”:

It is our abiding impression that the anthropological study of business is an American development, and that the businesses studied are themselves either American or located in the United States.

But other anthropologists in other parts of the world have also been conducting research on different aspects of business relations: for example, Norwegian herring fleets (Barth 1966), labour migration in Uganda (Elkan 1960), family firms in the Lebanon (Khalaf and Schwayri 1966), and transnational mining and the ‘corporate gift’ (Rajak 2011).

Their aim in launching the JBA is “to bring together fragmented anthropologies”. In the future, they intend to include an essay on one national or regional anthropology in each of the early issues of the JBA. “It is not simply in its methodology, but in its general approach and attitude, that anthropology needs to be holistic”.

Articles in the first issue:

Melissa Cefkin: Close Encounters: Anthropologists in the Corporate Arena

Marietta L. Baba: Anthropology and Business: Influence and Interests

Allen W. Batteau, Carolyn E. Psenka: Horizons of Business Anthropology in a World of Flexible Accumulation

Barbara Czarniawska: Organization Theory Meets Anthropology: A Story of an Encounter

Annamma Joy, Eric Ping Hung Li: Studying Consumption Behaviour through Multiple Lenses: An Overview of Consumer Culture Theory

Among the case studies we find A Funky-Formal Fashion Collection: Struggling for a Creative Concept in HUGO BOSS (pdf) by Kasper Tang Vangkilde.

The field reports include The Making of Lonely Planet guide (pdf) by Ana Alačovska.

The book review section also contains an extensive bibliography.

So far, there has been little innovation in the field of open access journal publishing. Most of them are based on traditional paper thinking. One of the few exceptions is Anthropology Reviews: Dissent and Cultural Politics (ARDAC).


Overview over open access anthropology journals

George Marcus: Do we (still) need journals?

Used anthropology to predict the financial crisis

How to get more young readers? Associated Press turns to anthropologists

Timo Veikkola at Nokia - The Anthropologist as Future Specialist

“Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist": A call for action

Anthropology and the challenges of sharing knowledge online: Interview with Owen Wiltshire

Interview: Self-publish your thesis!

The need for more spectacle in academic presentations: What anthropologists can learn from wrestlers


  16:07:00, by admin   . Categories: internal notes

I'm upgrading antropologi.info

I’m about to upgrade the blog engine (antropologi.info is powered by b2evolution) and I hope everything will work fine, but you never know, upgrading can get tricky. In any case, the blog will be unavailable for at least for a few minutes during the upgrade process.

I hope I’ll resume blogging shortly afterwards, it has been quiet here too long already!!

PS 18:06 - Upgraded! And everything seems to work as it should, yeah!


  13:26:03, by admin   . Categories: books, persons and theories

Consuming Space: On "blood timber", chewing gum, and free roaming hens

Book Review. Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective edited by Michael K. Goodman, David Goodman & Michael Redclift. Ashgate, 2010.

Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, Oslo

Chicken industry in UK, the violent history of luxury teak wood in Burma, boutique hotels in New York, chewing gum and the ‘tropical paradise’ of Cancun, seduction and commodity fetishism, ethical local and organic food, Chilean wine in UK, internet and consumption…Wondering what they have in common? The answer is: they are all amazingly catchy cases for developing a theory of consumption, production and the role of space – and they are all to be found in one edited volume - Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective.

This edited volume is one of those in which one finds something new and valuable every time one returns to it. It is literally packed with both interesting facts and great theoretical insights. Even though most of the contributors work within the field of social geography, I believe that the volume contains many interesting perspectives for anthropologists.

The focus of the volume is on understanding the ways in which we produce and consume space, as much as ways in which we produce and consume nature – the various case studies all relate to this topic. It looks at the space of social practice, which is “occupied by sensory phenomena, including products of imagination, such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias, which describe and contain consumption cultures” (xi). It looks at how space is made and remade along the trajectories of the social relations of production and consumption, in other words, this volume is an exploration into diverse contemporary capitalist political economies.

I have selected several of the book chapters for the review. It is those chapters that I enjoyed reading the most and that also shed some light on the red thread that goes through the edited volume: the conceptualization of space in relation to consumption and production.

Michael Redclift looks at the ways in which the histories of production and consumption are tied to histories of particular locations in his chapter Frontier Spaces of Production and Consumption: Surfaces, Appearances and Representations on the ‘Mayan Riviera’.

He shows how a place, its nature and social relations were transformed first as a result of the emerging popularity of chewing gum and later on as a result of transforming this place into a globally popular tourist destination. He brings the reader to the Mexican Caribbean Coast and looks at its layered histories that point to the hybridization through which nature and society meet and refashion space.

Redclift weaves together a narrative of chicle – the raw material from which chewing gum was derived – a story that transformed the landscape and ecology of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. He shows that “the boom of chicle production eventually gave way to other forms of production and consumption, notably in the development of international tourism on an altogether more ambitious scale” (86). He then goes on to tell the story of how Cancun, the ultimate tropical ‘artificial’ paradise, was created, how it emerged as a major touristic destination and how it lost its appeal in the 90s.

This chapter shows the importance of setting the space which is consumed in a historical context. He reveals also how the “fortunes of New York are closely linked with those of the Mexican Caribbean, and those of the Caribbean are linked with generations of people elsewhere, especially in Europe and North America, whose daily life depend on connections that they were usually only dimly aware of” (94). The story that Redclift tells is complex and interesting and I encourage anyone with interest in Mexico, Caribbean or the workings of tourist industry, to look into it.

A brief video on the history of a chewing gum:

In The Cultural Economy of the Boutique Hotel: The Case of the Schrager and W Hotels in New York, Donald McNeill and Kim McNamara deal with another kind of space, namely the ‘boutique hotel’. The ‘boutique hotel’ has been one of the biggest stories in the hotel industry since the 1980s and its popularity has spread worldwide. The chapter maps its cultural economy and the processes of the ‘economy of qualities’, where the boutique hotels are perceived as having a life, or a career.

They show how the hotel’s lifecycle is “closely related to the specificities of local markets, the urban economic sectors that dominate central business districts, and the physical structure of existing buildings” (151) and thus how creation of particular spaces is always part of larger processes. They look in particular at the development of Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels in New York, which coincided with the transformation – from the 70s onwards – of the city into a fashion capital and the hub of music, art, design and disco-lit nightlife.

This chapter nicely portrays the shifts in aesthetics and design as much as in consumer demands and the ways in which desires are manufactured. It also portrays how the boutique hotel concept was appropriated by competitors and boutique hotels suddenly emerged all around the globe. I have stayed in many boutique hotels in India and this chapter definitely sets them into perspective for me.

A brief video on boutique hotels:

In Manufacturing Meaning along the Chicken Supply Chain: Consumer Anxiety and Spaces of Production, Peter Jackson, Neil Ward and Polly Russell look at a different dimension of space. They analyze spaces of production in relation to consumption to understand how meaning is manufactured in this process.

They reexamine the contemporary trends of re-connecting producers with consumers, where consumers increasingly wish to make qualified choices, where for instance – those with capital – prefer eggs from free roaming hens, or meat from small local producers. This chapter focuses on “identifying where and how the distinctive cultural meanings of food are created and negotiated” and it argues that “this process of ‘manufacturing meaning’ has direct economic consequences in a commercial climate where food is increasingly ‘sold with a story’” (164).

They thus set out to explore “role of subjective ideas, like myth and memory, within contemporary understandings of food industry” (164). They map the terrain of the intensive (broiler) chicken industry, an industry which epitomizes the recent industrialization of agricultural production.

The interesting question they ask is when and under what conditions chicken becomes perceived as either a sentient living being or as commodity - a question of the commodification of nature. They show how the “food producers are not simply manufacturing a product (broiler chicken) but they are also simultaneously attempting to manipulate the meanings which consumers attach to that product” (169).

They approach this through life history interviews with people who have been for years involved in the chicken industry; some of these interviews are certainly interesting and point to the ambivalent relationships between these people and chickens, which are often understood in terms of profit, as a commodity, but still – a special type of commodity, a living commodity.

These life histories show that “the ‘invisibility’ of chicken production has direct consequences for the way consumers relate to the product” (173) and that “the mechanization and acceleration of poultry production creates a distance from any emotional connection with live chickens intended for slaughter” (174).

They argue that “in managing the risks associated with chicken production, (…) the food industry is faced with a number of tensions most readily apparent in the desire to justify premium prices through revealing more about animal welfare, quality and provenance without making consumers ‘squeamish’ by providing too much information” (184). According to them, consumer anxiety is “an inevitable consequence of the intensification of the industry, a direct result of the commodification of nature and the increasing distance separating consumers from producers” (184).

For an interview with broiler farmers see this video:

In Consuming Burmese Teak: Anatomy of a Violent Luxury Resource, Raymond L. Bryant looks at how space as much as people’s lives have been transformed and even devastated by the desires of elites for luxury wood.

This chapter brilliantly uncovers how the history of the premier world luxury wood – the teak tree – has been implicated in a history of violence, oppression, exploitation, and civil war. He shows the dark side of the story of this luxury commodity which nowadays adores the yachts of the wealthy.

In Burma, “political interests centered on controlling teak forests and their inhabitants. Burma’s rulers – pre-colonial monarchs, British officials, post-colonial civilian and military elites – have all grappled with this problem, even as forest residents – shifting cultivators, villagers, timber traders – have sought to evade central control. In short, teak has been a perennial focus of struggle” (240).

His version of the story of the teak is certainly not the ‘official one’. He calls the Burmese teak a blood timber – “a resource whose record of exploitation can be viewed as a bad thing” (240). The accounts he argues against in this chapter are those “written by and/or for elites”, accounts that “present one particular version of history that is ‘factual’ in tone, partial in scope and de-politicized in presentation” (240).

In pre-colonial Burma teak tree was preferred by the Burmese royalty and nobility; it was used in ship-building and the 18th and 19th century were marked by a thriving export trade. “As a valued timber, there was a royal monopoly on teak from at least the eighteenth century that was enforced in the forests by specially appointed guards empowered to fine or arrest anyone involved in its illegal extraction” (241).

The British in search for new timber supplies to build war ships discovered the potential of Burma, the home to the largest teak forests in the world. And so “from the mid-nineteenth century to the Japanese invasion of Burma in early 1942, the consolidation of British control went hand in hand with the elaboration of the world’s leading export-oriented teak industry.

As such, teak became prime imperial resource” (242).

Teak was shipped to markets in both Europe and British India, where it was used in everything from park benches, railway sleepers to warships. After 1900 the forests in Burma were ‘privatized’ and became dominated by foreign companies, a fact that generated considerable local resentment. “Official revenue earned from the lucrative teak industry was used to sustain the British Indian colonial administration (of which Burma was a part)” (243).

After Burma gained independence, the situation has not changed much, it in fact worsened. “As in pre-colonial and colonial times, post-colonial teak production generates enormous profits that are not reinvested in the economic improvement of the country, but are rather used to improve the lives of those who control Burmese State as well as their political and economic allies” (243):

“Even as teak wood contributed to imperial grandeur and post-imperial fine living by providing a marker of distinction for both the already well-to-do and the socially up-and-coming, it was also the focus of vicious strife in the forests from where it came. (…) Burmese teak extraction has been a brutal and tawdry tale of state repression, local displacement, popular fear and loathing, and out-and-out murder” (248). This story of production of teak, is a story of production “whose anatomy combines extinction and distinction in a way and to an extent that perhaps only violent luxury goods can do” (253).

An interesting older video:

The last chapter which I have selected is – paradoxically – one of the introductory chapters. These chapters are all theoretically oriented and are definitely a must read. Yet one of them stands out in my view and that is The Seduction of Space by David B. Clarke.

All the above case stories suggest the omnipresence of the commodity and the saturation of space with commodity. There is literally no escaping commodity and the market. In this situation, it is most appropriate to reexamine Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, and that is what Clarke does in his chapter.

This notion has become over time unpopular among many social scientists that tend to favor the idea of full consciousness of the consumer eliminating thus any traces of false consciousness. Yet Clarke shows that Marx is “undoubtedly far closer to acknowledging unconscious effects than many recent theorizations of consumption” (57).

Taking this as a starting point he then goes on, using Lacan, to focus on the alignment of the pleasure principle and reality principle. In the final section he looks at the way in which “the reality principle and the pleasure principle have been deflected by their due alignment”, which manifests itself in the “deregulation of the reality principle and the consequent emergence of an unprincipled reality” (58).

To reach to this point Clarke uses Baudrillard’s notion of seduction – seduction, and not consumption, is here opposed to production. Seduction diverts, takes aside, it is everywhere and at all times opposed to production. Clarke then argues that “fetishism has come to saturate social space in its entirety” (59), and looks at the shift from the scene of consumption to its obscenity, from the production of space to the overexposure of pornogeography.

Clarke nicely shows through his chapter that “it is simply not the case that these polarized positions – either full consciousness or false consciousness – are the only alternatives on offer. Indeed the particular framing merely reproduces the terms of a longstanding idle debate – by beginning with the unquestioned premise of a pre-given individual who may or may not be duped, and coming down on one side of the argument or other” (63).

He shows the potential of approaching the issue of fetishism through psychoanalysis, which “acts transversally to this misleading opposition by refusing to begin with a pre-given subject. For psychoanalysis, the subject is constituted as much as it is constitutive and it is never fully present to itself” (63).

This discussion then goes on to attack the core of consumerist logic, in which, as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out, “a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose” (66) and at which “heart lies a fundamental contradiction between the promise of satisfaction and the persistence of unfulfilment, the proffering of pleasure and its withdrawal” (68).

He then goes on to talk about the desire, which is created through the creation of something that the subject supposedly lacks – to repair this lack the subject has to go and shop – for Lacan desire is the metonymy of want-to-be. Clarke argues that the fundamental importance of fetishism lies in its “seductive potential, which relates purely to its form” (74) and so as Baudrillard puts it ‘fetishism is actually attached to the sign-object, the object eviscerated of its substance and history, and reduced to the state of marking a difference, epitomizing a whole system of differences (Baudrillard 1981: 93)’. “It is this characteristic that is responsible for the seductive power exerted by consumerism” (74).

This chapter is all in all a great mixture of Marx, Lacan, Baudrillard and Bauman, and though this little tasting does not do it full due, I hope that it at least draw your attention to it.

Here is a nice video on commodity fetishism:

Baudrillard, J. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign St. Louis Telos.

>> download the introduction of the book (pdf)

>> more information by the publisher (Ashgate)

Tereza Kuldova has written several book reviews for antropologi.info. Some of her recent ones are Lookism: Why we don’t want to be perceived as “ugly” or “different”, No fashion outside the “West"? and Religious globalization = Engaged cosmopolitanism?

  12:40:10, by admin   . Categories: internal notes

Thank You!

Antropologi.info was recently voted as one of the best anthropology blogs.

Jason Antrosio, editor of Living Anthropologically and Anthropology Report asked his readers to pick their three favorites among 120 anthropology blogs. I’m especially happy about the result as I haven’t told anybody about the survey and I don’t use facebook og twitter to “promote” this blog. And his list included also several popular blogs within physical / biological anthropology and archaeology.

So, thanks a lot to everybody who voted for antropologi.info!

It has been quite quiet recently here on antropologi.info. The main reason is that I’m still in Cairo, and this city etc has consumed most of my mental bandwith.

Now, my time in Cairo is about to finish, I will be back in Norway next week. There, I will have to spend most of my time on finding an affordable flat and getting back in my freelance business. Nevertheless, I’ll try to resume blogging and hopefully will be blogging more frequently than last year, including more shorter posts.


  16:12:00, by admin   . Categories: Us and Them, books, media

Lookism: Why we don't want to be perceived as "ugly" or "different"

We are living in a visually biased society. Bonnie Berry has written a book about prejudice and racism based on looks. Antropologi.info contributor Tereza Kuldova has read the book. Here is her review.

Book review of The Power of Looks. Social Stratification of Physical Appearance by Bonnie Berry, Ashgate 2008

By Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

“When we consider the disparity in what we spend our money on, we find the depressing fact that, in the US, more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services. This fact shows the vacuousness of our society, but also may explain why we persist in the mainly pointless behaviors of buying beautifying products and services. If we are not educated, we may believe that physical appearance is more important than being learned, and we may rely on looks to accrue power instead of using our brains” (p.69).

The book The Power of Looks deals with one of those topics that impact all of us in our everyday lives every single day, one way or another. Namely our prejudices and conceptions of beauty and attractiveness and the ways in which we act on those and discriminate people based on their looks.

Bonnie Berry calls this phenomenon ‘lookism’, which is one of the many ‘isms’ we have to deal with in our world, such as racism, or colorism.

The book shows very clearly how the bias towards attractiveness and beauty creates profound social inequalities and determines our access to both social and economic power. It is not news that people who ‘look better’ have better chances to succeed, get jobs, pass oral exams and so forth. In the same way in which beautiful people are positively ‘discriminated’, those not beautiful enough are negatively discriminated.

This appearance bias, the beauty ideal created and supported and perpetuated by the media, advertising and cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, creates a feeling in ourselves, a feeling of ‘not being good enough’, the result is anxiety (p. 57). We tend to constantly fix ourselves, be it through make up, clothes, plastic surgery, liposuction, teeth whitening (and more), in order to be perceived as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’, if not beautiful. Being perceived as ‘ugly’ or different often leads to social exclusion, isolation, economic, social and romantic discrimination as well as lack of access to social and economic power.

What distinguished The Power of Looks from other popular books on this topic, such as the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf or Beauty Junkies by Alex Kuczynski, is that it has a distinctively sociological take on the topic. This is a great advantage over the book Bonnie Berry published earlier, Beauty Bias, which was much more ‘popular’ and part of the same discursive realm as the books mentioned above. The Power of Looks has even two chapters on theory, method and possible approaches to the problem of social stratification based on our looks and to what she calls ‘social aesthetics’, from functionalism to symbolic interactionism. It is no doubt that this book can serve as a great introduction into the topic for students of sociology and anthropology.

For greater awareness about lookism

The most important aspect of this book in my view is however not its originality or its bravado of writing, but it is its message and the aim to build awareness about social stratification and discrimination based on looks. This is a message of acute importance in our world that is too often driven by media images of what is beauty and what it means to be beautiful, messages that fuel our continual sense of inadequacy and force us to recreate ourselves according to these images through consumption of products that often do very little to improve our looks. In the worst cases, these images, ideals and messages drive us under the scalpel where many have died. (See for instance this ABC news story Mother’s Death Highlights Dangers of Plastic Surgery).

The book is important in its focus on and analysis of these phenomena. And since it adopts a sociological approach, it not only builds our awareness about appearance bias and the way it shapes hierarchies and inequality, but it also gives us a conceptual apparatus to grasp these phenomena, to be able to conceptualize them, pinpoint them and talk about them. This is what I consider the greatest contribution of the book. And in line with the message of the book, I wish to draw your attention, in this review, to certain issues that the book raises and that I feel are interesting to think through and reflect about.

The topic of discrimination based on skin color is going through the whole book and it is interesting to think in this respect of the work of Nina Jablonski – Skin: A Natural History, which is a more evolutionary take on the topic of skin, yet definitely interesting – particularly the fact that from a biological perspective, white skin which is considered socially superior is in fact biologically inferior, in that it is easily prone to cancer and other environmentally caused damage. For more you can view a TED talk by Nina Jablonski here

Bonnie Berry also refers on many occasions throughout the book to facial and bodily disfigurement and what life can be like for those people in such a visually biased society. The awareness around this issue seems to be growing. Take for instance the popular show by a British fashion designer Wan Gok called Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice, which speaks directly to the topic of this book

For more on facial disfigurement see this video:

Skin lightening cream commercials - The intersection between racial ideology and capitalist consumer culture

The role of media and advertising in shaping our tastes, likes and dislikes has been already well documented. The interesting thing is how these commercials try to associate a whole universe of meanings with the products they are trying to sell us. The paramount example is the Indian Fair & Lovely commercial for the most popular Indian skin lightening cream. All of the company’s numerous advertisements follow the same logic which we will see in the example below. These commercials reflect and shape notions of beauty and therefore we should be aware of how they are constructed. Let us look at one of their commercials, as this might ‘flesh out’ the book for its future readers, since it tends to focus little too often on the structural and does not include many concrete examples.

Fair skin is in India often associated with higher status. Now watch how this is played out and reconfirmed in the commercial.

It begins with a father sitting and reading newspaper, then he asks for a tea with milk. His wife looks back at him with her sad big eyes and says that there is no milk, since there is no money. The father then goes on to complain: ‘I wish I had a son’ – meaning someone who would be able to provide for them. His daughter overhears the comment and starts crying, then the TV in her room features a Fair & Lovely facial cream commercial. At that moment she spots a newspaper job advertisement for an air hostess. She connects the two together (the same way as the audience is supposed to). After applying the cream, she is beautiful and fair, and therefore empowered. She gets the job and the surroundings suddenly turn glamorous, at the end she sits with her parents at what seems to be an airport coffee shop and her father with a happy face comments: ‘now we can get a tea, I guess’. The message is simple, beauty and fairness equals higher status, happiness and success. This nicely portrays the “the intersection between racial ideology and capitalist consumer culture” (p. 40).

Watch the commercial here:

The book itself points to many examples of prejudice and racism based on looks. An interesting one comes from Japan and the apparent racism against Koreans and Chinese prevalent in the popular Japanese comic books, such as manga. It is especially physical features that are being mocked in these comic books. (see for instance Asia Rivals’ Ugly Images Best Sellers in Japan or Racist Cartoons in Asia - An Example of Japanese Racism Against Koreans).

Looks, poverty and power

It is not a coincidence in this respect that, as Bonnie Berry points out:

“South Korea, incidentally, has had, as part of the new economy of Asia, the largest group of aesthetic surgeons practicing in Asia in the 1990s, primarily doing nose and eyelid alterations. (…) These westernizing surgeries, as undertaken by the middle-class Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans, may be more about signs of achieving middle-class status than achieving and “American identity”, confirming once again that the desire to look a certain way is motivated by the pursuit of economic and social network power” (p. 41, emphasis mine).

This last sentence is possibly the most important here. If you do not look certain way, if you do not conform to the beauty ideals or at least try hard to approximate them, you are prevented from acquiring social and economic power. As Bonnie says:

“For those of us who are not naturally attractive, which is most of us, we must spend time, energy, and funds to make ourselves as acceptable as possible if we want to capture social and economic power” (p. 51)

It is instructive to see how the problems of obesity are correlated with poverty and lack of access to social power:

“The thin ideal is also maintained by social network mobility. Notably, thin women are more likely to marry in an upwardly mobile direction. Heavier women marry men of the same social class or lower” (p. 45).

Another important topic is the surgeries people surrender to in the name of beauty and improvement.

Bonnie notes:

“There have been a growing social acceptance of plastic surgery and growing numbers of people engaging in it. The stigma is gone. Many of us are unhappy with our appearance and we greatly exaggerate to ourselves what we consider to be defects, with this dissatisfaction very likely culturally and socially generated. We compare ourselves to mass media images of beauty; indeed we want to look exactly like them, as it turns out. If full lips are in fashion, we can have them. High cheekbones? Tan skin? Blond hair? Blue eyes? Full lips? No problem” (p. 57).

In her book, Bonnie mentions French artist Orlan who has throughout her career experimented with surgeries and her own body. It certainly does raise questions. That all I leave up to you after watching this video

Succumb to lookism?

As a conclusion, I wish to ask you a question together with Bonnie:

“Should we feel pressure to change and succumb to this pressure? Of course not. But until or unless we are no longer judged and stratified by our appearance, only the bravest of us will not ‘fix up’” (p.63)

“If history is any judge, based on social reactions to other ‘isms’, lookism will remain a discriminating social attitude and behavior, even as it declines in social acceptability. There are signs that appearance bias is being at least discussed. There is greater social awareness. There are a few public policies leveled against lookism. And there are social movement organizations that are making small inroads into consciousness raising and legislation. It will take a long time. Most major social changes do” (p. 125).

Among the books that encourage critical thinking about contemporary world, this one is of those you might like to read.

>> Information about the book by the publisher (Ashgate)

>> download the introduction (pdf)


Here is the Preview of "Hau. Journal of Ethnographic Theory" - New Open Access Journal

It’s Open Access, Copy Left, and Peer Reviewed: Hau. Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Only ten days left, then the first issue will be available online. Yesterday, the preview (=table of contents) of the inaugural issue was posted at http://haujournal.org/

“By drawing out its potential to critically engage and challenge Western cosmological assumptions and conceptual determinations, HAU aims to provide an exciting new arena for evaluating ethnography as a daring enterprise for ‘worlding’ alien terms and forms of life, by exploiting their potential for rethinking humanity and alterity", it is stated on the journal homepage.

Many well-known anthropologists (from the US and Western Europe only, unfortunately) are among the contributors of the first issue. Will HAU become one of the most important Open Access journals in English and promote Open Access publishing or will it end up as a “One Hit Wonder” as the maybe similar journal project After Culture did?

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