The Relevance of Anthropology – Part 1 on the Best of Anthro Blogging 2008

The Best of Anthropology Blogging 2008 shows what we bloggers have done – anthropology has both a public voice and a powerful presence on the Internet. In this post I want to speak to that presence, building on The “Best of Anthro 2008” Prizes and the descriptions of the posts that anthro bloggers selected as their most popular and their best.

The prizes were to get attention, such an important feature of Internet buzz (and it worked!); the descriptions for power browsing. Here I want to bring greater focus on why anthropology blogging is relevant. I hope my summary of the efforts of many helps you explore, learn, enjoy, teach, muse, argue, and share.

In reading over the posts again, I came up with seven categories. They are: (1) Public Relevance; (2) Anthropological Vision; (3) Being Human; (4) Controversy, Commentary and Critique; (5) Empiricism and Scholarship, (6) Language; and (7) Blogging. I’ve highlighted illustrative posts in each category, then provided a list of other good examples. I will cover the first three categories in this post and the other four in part two.

I should say that this is my own subjective reading of the posts, my own way of thinking through them. Someone else would surely do it differently; this is just my attempt at highlighting why anthropology blogging is important.

Public Relevance

Why should anthropology matter to people reading and browsing out there? Here are posts that address issues of public concern, and that show that anthropology can make a difference in myriad ways.

One of my favorite posts was Colleen Morgan’s The Great Abandonment. The contrast of photos of abandoned US homes and quotes from John Kantner’s Ancient Puebloan Southwest proved evocative in the best of ways.

Two late submissions that didn’t make it into the prizes also show how anthropology is relevant. Greg Downey at Culture Matters wrote ‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist, critiquing the May 2008 global media story on the “discovery” of a supposedly unknown indigenous group in Brazil. Karen Nakamura at Photoethnography covered Disability Protests in Japan in this gallery of striking photos and her editorial on the largest protest.

On the biological side, Jim McKenna’s post on Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone covers a prominent medical controversy and provides advice about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, breastfeeding and co-sleeping.

Here is a list of other posts that show the breadth and depth of public anthropology:

Africa on my mind (The Memory Bank)
“An anthropological introduction to YouTube” video of Library of Congress presentation (Digital Ethnography)
A Bizarre British Ritual named Crufts. Constructing Social Status through Man’s (Mutant) Best Friend (Urbi et Orbi)
Culture Wars, Anthropology and the Palin Effect (Brainstorm)
Field notes from Paris: social pathology and the globalization of sentiments (Somatosphere)
How electricity changes daily life in Zanzibar – Interview with anthropologist Tanja Winther (Antropologi)
Language Ownership: Does the French language belong to France? (Linguistic Anthropology)
Maria and Meaning (ethnografix)
Neanderthals Had Language (Babel’s Dawn)
Neanderthals were not stupid (A Hot Cup of Joe)
The Revenge of the Local, the Horror of the Provincial, and Western Cosmopolitanism at Risk (Open Anthropology)
The story behind an HTS picture (Culture Matters)
Studying Sin (Neuroanthropology)
“those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa” (Savage Minds)
When Do Immigrants Learn English? Likely, not when you think (Greg Laden’s Blog)

Anthropological Vision

The gift of anthropology showed in the way bloggers saw, reflected, and experienced their lives. Anthropology implies a way of seeing the world that is often quite distinct from other fields. These posts illustrate that.

In The Revenge of the Local, the Horror of the Provincial, and Western Cosmopolitanism at Risk, Maximilian Forte of Open Anthropology reflects on our notions of “The Other,” people seen as less civilized and inferior and judged against our own supposed superiority. He uses horror films to brilliantly illustrate how movies portray people at the periphery, and contrasts that with an anthropological sense of ourselves and others.

Magnus Reuterdahl in his Testimony of the Spade blog has two posts that show a personal sense of anthropology. Three medieval churches, two rune stones, and a mound takes us with Magnus on his trip through the Swedish countryside with his fiancée. This trip shows us the landscape and history in ways a typical tourist would never see. Poignant images and words fill his post, including this inscription on one runestone, “Bisi placed this stone in memory of Þorgautr … his father.”

Magnus also provides us these vivid photos of craniums from Stockholm’s Osteoarchaeological Research Laboratory. He ends with with this reflection, “Through the bones and other remains of prehistoric or historic humans we as archaeologist/osteologists comes very close to the individuals we work on. The skeletons hold many answers on living conditions, health and in some cases what the individual did for a living. I see it as a privilege to be able to work on such materials and to be able to find out more about what their life might have been.”

Michael Wesch works with his students to produce Digital Ethnography. In this aptly done video An anthropological introduction to YouTube, Mike shows us how he and his students came to understand YouTube. We discover the creativity of people, the power of new media and context collapse, and the emergence of new forms of self-understanding and globalized communication. The play between user-generated content, anthropological interpretation, and participant observation shows a vision of anthropology in action.

That work, and how Mike incorporates it into teaching, is not without controversy. Pamthropologist of Teaching Anthropology writes on What being an anthropologist means to me. There she contrasts her teaching, focused on deep reading, lecturing and engagement with people left out of global communications, with Wesch’s efforts as seen through his own media (most explicitly in his meditative Revisiting “A Vision of Students Today”). The two engage in a debate about teaching, but it is also a debate about what anthropology means – our commitments to others, the ways we can work towards change, the substance of our vision.

There are other powerful examples of anthropology’s vision. I am torn between the desire to highlight each and the need for a post that is not too long to the extreme. Need wins out for now:

Maria and Meaning (ethnografix)
Meditation (Urbi et Orbi)
Son of an Anthropologist (Disparate)
Studying Sin (Neuroanthropology)

Being Human

Anthropology, literally the study of humanity, is a field that contributes significantly to how we define ourselves. Given both our biological and cultural work, anthropology often embraces the role of expanding our sense of our humanity, of what it means to be human for both ourselves and others. Many posts contributed to this endeavor.

John Hawks takes on one of our modern origin myths, that in our recent evolutionary history humans dwindled to a small group before springing back to life, genetically and culturally transformed. Did humans face extinction 70,000 years ago? shows that in both the science and the popular media, the assumption that we once only numbered 2,000 individuals is mistaken.

Blair Bolles and Carl Feagans similarly pierce this origin myth through posts on Neanderthals. Bolles at Babel’s Dawn writes Neanderthals Had Language, covering new evidence about their symbolic abilities. Feagans with his Hot Cup of Joe discusses experimental archaeology and toolmaking in Neanderthals were not stupid, with evidence that shows comparable tool-making skills and technologies between Neanderthals and our cavemen ancestors.

Tim Jones at remote central provides the inside view of La Marche Cave, where drawing and engravings from 15,000 years ago let us see human faces in the past. These were no simple artists: “La Marche breaks all kinds of Stone-Age art conventions. Unheard of for the art, La Marche treats us to human portraits styled as caricatures. Most male faces are clean shaven, but we also see stylish goatees, and moustaches.”

In Africa on my mind, Keith Hart of The Memory Bank provides us the opening chapter to the memoir he is writing about his life as an anthropologist. Against our notions of the importance of formal economies and global civilization, Hart gives us a vision of life lived and negotiated most informally, and the vibrancy of “emerging” areas of the globe and how they break the stereotypes often held in Europe and the US.

Humans like to mark borders at boundaries. But it is never that way. In his Border Patrols description of commodities and consumption, protests and postcards, John Hutnyk of trinketization gives us creativity and criminality through the everyday management of borders.

Finally, Lorenz Khazaleh at Antropologi gives us an interview with the anthropologist Tanja Winther on How electricity changes daily life in Zanzibar. Here technology plays a central role in being human. As Winther says, “electricity is a social phenomenon.” Having access to light 24 hours a day engenders new decisions about work, intimacy, cooking, and entertainment. The technology feeds, literally, into who we are.

And that’s it for this category and this post. The other four categories – Controversy, Commentary and Critique; Empiricism and Scholarship, Language; and Blogging – will come next. For those interested in exploring more, including the original call for submissions in multiple languages, see the hosting page of Best of Anthro.

8 thoughts on “The Relevance of Anthropology – Part 1 on the Best of Anthro Blogging 2008

  1. I must say that I am impressed with your work, just reading all these posts must have taken some time; and at the same time I would like to thank you for the effort and the kind words. Keep up the good work!

    Best wishes

    Magnus Reuterdahl

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