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Inside Anti-Crisis

Anti-Crisis-BigMichael Schapira, Interview Editor at Full Stop sits down with Janet Roitman to get an insider perspective on her new book Anti-Crisis. Dr. Roitman, Chair, Department of Anthropology at the New School, examines the cycle of crisis production and thinks critically about the Global Financial Crisis. Below is an excerpt of the interview. Read the entire interview at Full Stop.

Crisis is not a small word. It is meant to raise the stakes of the present moment. We may no longer speak with the grandeur of the Continental philosopher (Rahm Emanuel parroting Winston Churchill —  “never let a good crisis go to waste” — is probably the best known use of the term today), but that doesn’t take any of the immediacy out of the crisis claim. However, what are the grounds of crisis? What allows us to call the 2007-9 economic collapse the “Global Financial Crisis,” and how do we tell ourselves the story of how we got there and where we need to go? As the anthropologist Janet Roitman notes in her excellent new book Anti-Crisis, our telling of events like the Global Financial Crisis has the effect of “permitting and enabling certain narrations and giving rise to certain questions, but not others.” The questions we tend to ask are along the lines of “what went wrong?” (e.g. in our pricing of derivatives or other complex financial instruments), but not “how can one know crisis in history? And how can one know crisis itself?” It is a stretch to say that the Global Financial Crisis has reached any neat resolution, which makes Roitman’s call to think outside of the politics of crisis such an important task for understanding our present moment — in both its limitations and possibilities.

I sat down with Janet on a chilly morning near Lincoln Center to discuss why we need to think crisis differently, why the concept has eluded the critical attention that we give to other terms, and why anthropologists may have something significant to contribute to philosophy and political theory.

Michael Schapira: How did you arrive at the concept of “crisis?”

Janet Roitman: It’s actually a very simple story. I’d published my first book, which was on Central Africa and related to economic anthropology. One of the things that was important to me in that book was to not write about Africa and its pathology. I was very careful not to take the Weberian model of the rational-legal state and then recount the ways that Africa diverges from and doesn’t achieve that model — which is basically what most political science on Africa does. I was teaching in France at the time and got an email from Beth Povinelli at Columbia inviting me to give the Franz Boas lecture. Of course, I was very flattered. So we had this email exchange. Fiscal Disobedience had been out for a couple of years and I didn’t want to just present the book, so I wondered what exactly they wanted me to do. She wrote back saying that the book had been really helpful for thinking about crisis in anthropology. I didn’t know if she meant crisis in the discipline of anthropology or how anthropologists deal with the concept of crisis, but what I did know is that I felt I had failed miserably. In the introduction to my first book, I say why I am not using the terms crisis or failed states, so I thought, “Oh no, I went to all these pains to avoid these terms and here they are asking me to come talk about them.” I was really flummoxed, but I thought about it and realized that Achille Mbembe and I had written this text almost a decade prior in Public Culture called “Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis.” So I went back and reread that text and realized that I was happy when we wrote it, but now totally disagreed with it a decade later. So I wrote the presentation for the Franz Boas lecture that explained why I was in disagreement with it and why my book was supposed to have marked a different direction.

To jump over a lot of stuff, I ended this experience of having given the lecture with the question of how to think Africa otherwise than under the sign of crisis, which was a quandary. As an anthropologist, or at least someone associated with the discipline of anthropology, I had to devise an ethnographic project to investigate this question; but first I really needed to think more about the concept. So I started this work of inquiring into the concept. When I arrived at The New School in 2007, I taught two graduate seminars where we really traced the emergence of the concept in the social sciences and its displacements through various disciplines — from Marxist historiography to economic anthropology to post-structuralism, etc.

Read the entire interview at Full Stop.

New American Ethnologist Virtual Issue on “In/Visibility: Projects, Media, Politics, 2012-2013″

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NEW! American Ethnologist virtual issue on “In/Visibility: Projects, Media, Politics, 2012-2013″ – FREE articles for 2 months. Guest edited by Samuel Martínez, organizer of our 2014 AES spring conference on the same theme.

Articles by Wenzel Geissler, Peter Redfield, Francisco Ferrandiz, Aisha Bello-De Jesus, Suncem Kocer, Micaela di Leonardo, Zeynep Devrem Gursel, Heath Cabot, Madeleine Reeves, Robert Samet, Shalini Shankar, Michal Kravel-Tovi, Julie Soleil Archambault, Lilith Mahmud, Keith M. Murphy, Angie Heo, Shaylih Muehlmann.

Articles available here in Wiley Online Library (free for 2 months).

*The articles in this AE virtual issue set the stage for the 2014 American Ethnological Society spring meeting in Boston, organized in collaboration with the Society for Visual Anthropology. Our theme–

“In/visibility: Projects, Media, Politics, 2012-2013”–joins creative contemporary sociocultural engagements in anthropology to earlier questions of method, meaning, and representation.

Articles in this virtual issue explore shadow, alien, and regulated forms within citizenship and the environment; techniques of legibility and surveillance and their evasion; current public controversies about “dark sites” in politics, national security, and law; visual media’s growing influence; and the hopes and fears pinned on emerging technologies.

Indiana Jones is to Anthropology as Fred Flintstone is to Neolithic Life

Below is a copy of the Letter to the Editor of the New York Times Magazine by President Mullings in response to the recent article by Emily Eakin.

To the Editor,

While we recognize that the figure of Indiana Jones is attractive, it is about as useful for understanding anthropology as Fred Flintstone is for understanding life in the Neolithic. Your article perpetuates an outdated and narrow stereotype of our profession. The 11,000 members of the American Anthropological Association alone actually spend their time doing a vast array of things. Today’s anthropologists can be found in such diverse endeavors as leading the World Bank, designing health care for areas devastated by disaster, or researching  the causes of the 2008 recession or the deaths of 100 boys in a defunct reform school in Florida. The  representation of a field paralyzed by  debates about  ‘science, ’ vs. ‘advocacy ’ is similarly inaccurate, given the non-polarized ways most anthropologists today understand ‘science’, ‘advocacy’ and the nature of the field. The article also misses one of Napoleon Chagnon’s lasting legacies to our field: the reminder to engage in constant reflection about anthropological ethics. The American Anthropological Association recently did just that, releasing its new Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility in October 2012. Finally, we consider lively debate neither dangerous nor self-serving: it is a key to knowledge.

Leith Mullings
President
American Anthropological Association
Distinguished Professor
Graduate Center, City University of New York

Anthropology in The Miami Herald

Yesterday writer Mary Jo Melone wrote an op-ed piece in The Miami Herald in response, or lack there of, by Governor Rick Scott of Florida and the recent findings by forensic anthropologists at the Dozier School for Boys. The piece, entitled Gov. Scott, anthropology and Dozier School for Boys is below:

When it comes to bad news, the truth is always inconvenient. And so it was last week, when forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida reported on the expanding horrors at the now-shuttered Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, where, in the state’s name, boys in trouble were sent for over a century.

The anthropologists found that 96 children and two adults died, including two 6-year-olds. Fifty graves have been found on the property, not the 31 that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reported two years ago. Nothing remarkable about its number, FDLE said then.

Hooey, said the men who still bear the scars of being there.

Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam has asked the FDLE to review the anthropologists’ claims and report to the governor and the Cabinet.

Although the Juvenile Justice Department has said it will cooperate further with the University of South Florida researchers — who suspect the existence of a second burial ground at Dozier — the current occupant of the governor’s mansion has been silent as a stone on the subject.

It may be that Gov. Rick Scott still doesn’t understand that much of a governor’s most important work is symbolic, and that it is vital that the man who represents the state represent its highest moral standards in both action and speech.

Or it could be that Gov. Scott knows that if he speaks about the University of South Florida investigators’ findings about Dozier, he’ll get tongue-tied when it’s time to utter the word anthropology.

Last year, the governor complained about how useless the subject was. He was talking about his desire to shift state university spending away from the liberal arts and put the money into science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields — because that’s where he believes all the jobs are.

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” Scott asked. “I don’t think so.”

There has been much speculation that the governor singled out anthropology because his daughter holds an undergraduate degree in the field. Perhaps he disapproved and extended his ideas of being a dad and of pleasing a dad to state policy.

Whatever it was, Scott earned the wrath of the American Anthropological Association and anthropology faculty across the state.

Moreover, what came off as his disdain for the liberal arts in general created fear over the future of liberal arts.

Those are the so-called mushy fields, like history, English and psychology, in which people reflect on who we are and what and where we’ve been — on other words, on the human condition.

It’s a subject that also affects the governor, who sometimes needs to be reminded of his own humanity. (Remember testing welfare recipients for drugs?)

Now the University of South Florida department website includes a video response to the governor, in which numerous graduate students detail the kind of work they do in all kinds of fields: healthcare for veterans and farm workers, attendance at state parks, homicide investigations, consumer use of technology, and, the grad students said, the development of statistics he has used to support his argument on behalf of STEM education.

With the Dozier investigation, you could also argue that anthropologists peer into the darkest corners of the human experience and Florida history.

Gov. Scott probably won’t send anthropologists any more money. However, given the work the anthropologists did at Dozier, at least he should send the researchers at the University of South Florida a thank-you note.

Mary Jo Melone, a former columnist with the Tampa Bay Times, is a writer in Tampa.

To read the original article, visit The Miami Herald.

Experienced Meeting Goer Provides Presentation Tips To Newbies

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Kirsten Bell. Bell discusses how to present a paper at an anthropology conference.

How to deliver a paper at an anthropology conference

By Kirsten Bell

Academic conferences, as several observers have noted, are a singularly understudied phenomenon.  One of the more profound insights on this topic is to be found in an article by Jacobs and McFarlane published in, of all places, the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.  They note that conferences are sites where inexperienced neophytes learn how to become professionals – how to (quite literally) walk the walk and talk the talk.   While we learn from the practices and attributes of our individual teachers, it is only at our discipline’s most cherished events that we get to see The Anthropologist as a larger species of academic in all of his or her glory.  Thus, more than any other academic pursuit, be it fieldwork, writing or teaching, it’s at conferences that we learn how to inhabit an anthropological habitus.

At some level, we’re all aware of this.  Certainly, for those budding anthropologists who have never previously presented at an academic conference, they can be a nerve-wracking affair.   If not careful, one can become the academic equivalent of a gauche guest at a dinner party, or the Nigel-No-Friends on the playground ignored by other students and picked last for team sports.

I learnt this lesson the hard way at the Australian Anthropological Society conference in 1997, where I presented my first paper.   Having never previously attended a conference, much less presented at one, I turned to my older sister, a geologist, for advice.  Amongst her several pearls of wisdom were the instructions to ‘use PowerPoint. Everyone’s doing it’.[1]  She then gave me her own personalized template (blue background with yellow writing, fashionable amongst scientists in the mid 1990s and heartily despised by the time it finally went out of fashion a decade later) and I diligently made up my slides, paid to get them transferred onto actual slides[2] and took the slide box with me to the conference.

The conference paper was an abysmal failure.  While my unfortunate mispronunciation of the word ‘cacophany’[3] didn’t help matters, I blame the PowerPoint slides for the paper’s poor reception.  Afterwards, the academic who chaired the session politely informed me that while the use of PowerPoint might be de rigueur in scientific circles, it wasn’t at all the thing amongst anthropologists, as our complex and abstract ideas didn’t lend themselves well to bullet points on a slide.  Clearly, my fatal error was asking a geologist for advice on how to communicate at an anthropology conference, which, as it turned out, was rather like asking an ice hockey player what strategies suit competitive netball.

In light of the upcoming AAA Meeting in San Francisco, and in the spirit of offering collegial advice to a new generation of anthropologists forced to navigate the shark-infested waters that constitute the typical academic conference, I’ve compiled a list of how to present papers at anthropology conferences.  However, before I outline these tips there’s one fundamental piece of advice I need to impart.  You must disabuse yourself of any naïve notion that conferences are about disseminating knowledge and sharing intellectual ideas.  It’s precisely these sorts of pie-in-the-sky fantasies that will get you into trouble.  As Erving Goffman pointed out in Forms of Talk, if one’s goal is merely to transmit information, an academic talk is an extraordinarily ineffective way to do it.  We don’t attend talks to actually learn something new but to imbibe the essence of the speaker’s identity. To quote Goffman, “To the degree that the speaker is a significant figure in some relevant world or other, to that degree this access has a ritual character, in the… sense of affording supplicants preferential contact with an entity held to be of value” (p. 187). Continue reading

Anthropology and Middle Class Working Families: A Research Agenda

Did you know that AAA’s Online Store offers a variety of works and books on anthropology?

Anthropology and Middle Class Working Families: A Research Agenda is a guide for anthropologists researching the topic. Edited by Mary Margaret Overbey and Kathryn Marie Dudley, this work is described in the preface:

The Research Agenda marks the final step of a project spearheaded by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to stimulate interest and inquiry among anthropologists in middle class working families and to strengthen this area of research within anthropology. The ending of project we see as a new beginning and resurgence of anthropological studies on the conditions and concerns of middle class working families.

To review the table of contents and place your order, click here.

The Anthropology and Middle Class Working Families: A Research Agenda is available for purchase at a special rate of $5.00 for AAA members. Order your copy, today!

For The Love of Anthropology

Valentine’s Day is one of those tricky holidays that people either love or love to hate. Which ever camp you side with, one thing is certain – your love for anthropology. What is it about anthropology that drew you to the field?

Were you one of those students who started college as an Anthropology major? Or did you have a professor that shared their contagious passion for anthropology with you? Perhaps you now are teaching the next generation of anthropologists or a practitioner leaving your anthropological mark in the most unusual place.

Whatever your love story may be, we want to hear it. Jot down your lines of love for anthropology in the comment section. On Friday, we’ll re-post the compiled love stories here on the AAA blog.

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