The Relevance of Anthropology – Part 2 on the Best of Anthro Blogging 2008

Here I continue to build on all the passion other anthropology bloggers have put into their writing, their sites, and their preferred media. In Part One I covered how anthropology blogging is relevant using three different categories: Public Relevance, Anthropological Vision, and Being Human.

In Part Two I will cover four more themes: (a) Controversy, Commentary and Critique; (b) Empiricism and Scholarship, (c) Language; and (d) Blogging. As before, these are the categories that came to me as I read the submissions and represent one way to parse the great work others have done. I hope it proves useful for exploration, teaching, fun, and sharing with others what anthropology is all about.

Controversy, Commentary and Critique

Anthropology courts controversy and revels in critique, and we bloggers produce a running commentary on events of the day. Or events of the past, for that matter. Given our anthropological vision we indeed find strength, perhaps even some authority, in offering critique that takes “common sense” and shakes it up, questioning common assumptions through cultural insights, cross-cultural data, and archaeological and evolutionary ideas.

John Jackson at Brainstorm gets us behind the normal political diatribes in Culture Wars, Anthropology and the Palin Effect. Why do people vote the way they do? It’s not all about micro-targeting, as race, gender and class interact in significant ways, often around the sort of American family we imagine for ourselves and others.

Over at Archaeoporn, Thadd Nelson calls the cave giants out in Breitenwinner Cave Giant Skeletons a Hoax. Bad archaeology debunked, Thadd calls his site, and the Breitenwinner “finds” by some American soldiers turn into quite a fish story. As part of the wonder of blogs, some of the soldiers pepper Thadd’s post with comments trying to convince people of their own special discovery.

Eugene Raikhel at the medical anthropology blog Somatosphere gives us Grandma’s little helper. Ritalin, the drug du jour for recalcitrant children (as well as those with serious attention problems), was once marketed to middle-aged house wives. The photos are worth a visit alone; Eugene adds comments about the development of diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

Lisa Wynn at Culture Matters dismantles the marketing campaign for a real product that cannot possibly work in Early fetal gender detection (gender contagion?). Here’s just how sensitive DNA Worldwide’s test is: “The breath or sweat of the male could cause contamination! It is very sensitive indeed!” The comments by alleged doctors looking to promote this approach are chilling indeed.

Ryan Anderson of ethnografix gives us a wonderful, provocative post in Maria and Meaning. The adoration of Maria on a recent Playboy cover in Mexico produced tremendously strong reactions there. Ryan discusses how such images gain meaning through shifting relations, reactions and referents. And then he tacks on some great Maria tattoos as well!

Lots of other posts court controversy and comment on current affairs. Don’t miss out:
A Bizarre British Ritual named Crufts. Constructing Social Status through Man’s (Mutant) Best Friend (Urbi et Orbi)
A Campaign of Condescension? You Betcha! (Linguistic Anthropology)
Cosleeping and Biological Imperatives: Why Human Babies Do Not and Should Not Sleep Alone (Neuroanthropology)
Did humans face extinction 70,000 years ago? (John Hawks Weblog)
Do Politicians and Pundits Think We’re Stupid? (From the Annals of Anthroman)
Neanderthals were not stupid (A Hot Cup of Joe)
Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will (Savage Minds)
The story behind an HTS picture (Culture Matters)
‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist (Culture Matters)

Empiricism and Scholarship

As the field that has been called the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences, anthropology possesses a breadth of scholarship and data to delight a wide range of readers and intellectual interests. I will illustrate that range and still leave worthy posts at the end for further exploration.

One of the posts I admire the most is Second-Worst Possible Fieldwork Result from Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology. With hopes for a medieval manor, Martin finds lesser digs as the initial outcome of his excavations. Here he discusses the travails of science in its many senses.

Over at Neuroanthropology Greg Downey does something often called for but rarely achieved – cross-cultural comparison based on substantive ethnographic work. In Balance between cultures: equilibrium training, Greg compares elite training in dance and sports across several societies and then outlines the important implications for our understanding of skill, behavior, and culture.

Terry Toohill puts Human Evolution on Trail – Technology at remote central. Here we have a good overview of the different tool technologies that appeared through human evolution, with debate and rebuttal on what the types and the changes mean.

Ann Kelly at Somatosphere writes of Mosquito Huts: Wundercabinets and Social Models. These mosquito huts, used to study techniques for mosquito control in Gambia, exist as “a vector between natural and social landscapes.” Ann matches that with reflections on science and ethnography.

Over at Archaeoporn, Thadd Nelson gives us A Review of Methodology in “Biblical Entheogens.” Recent claims that Moses was high on drugs simply are not up to snuff.

Dienekes and his Anthropology Blog look in a meticulous fashion at the math and modeling of evolutionary mutation rates, calling attention to the underestimation of ages of human Y-chromosome lineages in How Y-STR variance accumulates: a comment on Zhivotovsky, Underhill and Feldman (2006)

Finally, Marc Tyrrell discusses Untangling Ethics: a framework for anthropology over at In Harmonium. Using the controversy over the Human Terrain Systems, Marc discusses how to systemically evaluate claims of unethical action based on the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics. Some spirited and informative discussion happens in the comments.

Other Worthy Posts:
“An anthropological introduction to YouTube” video of Library of Congress presentation (Digital Ethnography)
Did humans face extinction 70,000 years ago? (John Hawks)
500K SNP Europe-wide study of genetic structure (Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog)
It gets worse after the middle ages: Bone disease and the Medieval period (Part I) (moneduloides)
Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will (Savage Minds)
Prayer, God’s love, and low bone mineral density (modeduloides)


Language is not just an area of study for anthropology; it is central to our practice, our interpretations, our communication. Some of the best blogging, not surprisingly, is about our speaking in tongues.

In reflecting on the 2008 US Presidential election and the impact of Sarah Palin, Peter Haney of Linguistic Anthropology asks, A Campaign of Condescension? You Betcha! Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s work, Haney discusses how language, gender and class played into Palin’s rise and fall over the fall.

Two posts discuss multiple languages in modern nation states. Alexandre Enkerli of Disparate brings us Stable Bilingualism and Multilingualism in Canada, providing ideas about politics and policy in terms of the threats and accommodations lived through language. Greg Laden at his self-titled blog tells us, When Do Immigrants Learn English? Likely, not when you think. Using research on German immigrants to the US, Greg takes on the melting pot assumption that immigrants have always learned English quickly, and how that plays into stigma today.

Besides its social uses and cultural meanings, language is a subject of study onto itself. In Under the spell of ideophones, Mark Dingemanse of The Ideophone shows how words convey meaning through their structure, particularly how certain words known as ideophones can evoke feelings and help to persuade.

A final entry might surprise some people. Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog covered genetic research on 500K SNP Europe-wide study of genetic structure. This was the most commented on post in all the submissions. In those 136 comments, language is on full display, as statistical clusters and genetic information get turned into debates over ethnicity, the meaning of science, and the history of migrations, nations and peoples in Europe.

For even more on language, you can see these:
Chomsky’s Theory of Language Origins (Babel’s Dawn)
Language Ownership: Does the French language belong to France? (Linguistic Anthropology)
Do you know this feeling? (The Ideophone)
Neanderthals Had Language (Babel’s Dawn)
What’s in a Name? (Brainstorm)
Word Rage and Hartman’s Law (Linguistic Anthropology)


These two posts on the relevance of anthropology have not only been about anthropology. They also show blogging as a new form of public anthropology, scholarly production and discussion, and the formation of connections and community.

Blogging permits creativity and sharing in ways that journals, departments and conferences do not. One blog that demonstrates this well is Middle Savagery. Its popular post on Tactile Maps and Imaginary Geographies shows us 3D wood carving maps by the Inuit and queries the binary between space and place; I would have never known about these tactile maps and accompanying archaeological work without Colleen Morgan’s post. But Colleen takes it further, with the contrast of modern photos of abandoned homes and writings on The Ancient Puebloan Southwest, a synergy easily achieved in a blog. And did I mention her creation of a comic book which clearly demonstrates how experimental archaeology is done and why it matters?

Other posts show this synergy of creativity and sharing. In Do you know this feeling? at The Ideophone, Mark Dingemanse employs whimsical Japanese illustrations to illuminate the symbolic feel of words. Open Anthropology’s The Revenge of the Local uses clips from horror movies and photos from a respected Appalachia photographer to discuss globalization, terror, and cultural prejudices. Spike on Spike brings us directly into a class on Spike Lee’s films, and a reflection on the class visit by the film maker himself. It’s a glimpse of teaching and learning that we would never have otherwise. Finally, Crakes, objects and sounds from Andrew Whitehouse at Listening to Birds is music to the ears, bird song and anthropological reflections and a passion for ornithology all mixed into one.

Blogging also promotes debate, discussion and idea exchange. Chris Kelty at Savage Minds plays to this power in Philosophers Discover Lost Tribe in Jungles of Free Will. A discussion of experimental philosophy and anthropology (including the great line, “anthropology is an empirical philosophy”), Chris highlights why blogging matters:

I think the “x-phi” attitude is part of the same zeitgeist that formed Savage Minds—the possibility of a new form of scholarly organization and interaction, of which blogs are an emblematic tool, that subverts and gets around the conservative edifice of the professionally organized disciplines, without being forced to drop out of academia. Rex has called it “scholarly civil society”; I would tend towards a version of a scholarly “public sphere”; regardless, it’s an excellent example of a new kind of scholarship.

A vivid example of why blogging matters is John Jackson’s What’s in a Name? Here John raises a common concern of young faculty members, particularly women of color, about how they will be tested by students and other faculty in ways that senior colleagues will not. The student in question came in to discuss a grade, blithely using the faculty’s member first name. A lively discussion ensued about professors, students and the politics of teaching over at Brainstorm, part of The Chronicle for Higher Education.

Blogging can promote the development of ideas. Two posts in particular highlighted this function of blogging. Owen Wiltshire, a student with Another Anthro Blog, got excellent feedback on his thesis proposal through his post Sharing Knowledge: How the internet is fueling change in anthropology. John Postill of media/anthropology developed the ideas for a conference paper, from a general critique to a specific application of theory, over two posts: The limits of networked individualism; and Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach.

Theory also comes through in blogging. At Grafos y accidentes, Esteban Salceek takes us through his ideas about economic anthropology, with a focus on rural populations and the use of a systems approach. The result is El ciclo doméstico y la comunicación científica. Over at Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende’s Studying Sin discusses the development of neuroanthropology in relation to a specific example, addiction.

Debates about the field of anthropology can occupy a prominent place in anthropology blogs. Antropologi gives us George Marcus: “Journals? Who cares?”, complete with follow-up comments including the well-known anthropologist himself. As a contrast, media/anthropology discusses a recent statement piece in one prominent journal, Tim Ingold: ‘Anthropology is not ethnography’.

Finally, blogs open up possibilities for anthropologists to report on breaking news and current affairs, often before anyone else does. Here are four examples: Occupation of the New School University, NYC (Open Anthropology) by students there; The symbolism of blogs (anthroblogia) on the walk for media freedom in Malaysia; Breitenwinner Cave Giant Skeletons a Hoax (Archaeoporn), cutting the over-blown media reports on skeletal remains from giants down to size; and Neanderthals Had Language (Babel’s Dawn), reporting on new research about the symbolic capabilities of Neanderthals.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of other posts that show off what blogging can do:
Africa’s urban revolution (The Memory Bank)
Anthropology and culture – call for precision! (toBEintheWORLD)
Bronfman Epiphany? (Critical World Blog)
Community, the internet, and anthropology (Another Anthro Blog)
Did humans face extinction 70,000 years ago? (John Hawks Weblog)
Do Politicians and Pundits Think We’re Stupid? (From the Annals of Anthroman)
Ethnographic fiction (Culture Matters)
Gallery: Disability Japan Protest (Photoethnography)
Juegos y roles en antropología y marketing (Grafos y accidentes)
Language Ownership: Does the French language belong to France? (Linguistic Anthropology)
Never Piss Off a Stripper: the ethnography of reality television (Teaching Anthropology)
Revisiting “A Vision of Students Today” (Digital Ethnography)
Semantically Challenged (Urbi et Orbi)
The Serpent Mound (A Hot Cup of Joe)
The story behind an HTS picture (Culture Matters)
Three medieval churches, two rune stones, and a mound (Testimony of the spade)
‘Uncontacted Indians?!’ — contact an anthropologist (Culture Matters)
What being an anthropologist means to me (Teaching Anthropology)
Writing Diary (trinketization)
The Zodiac (Greg Laden’s Blog)

And that’s it. So long, and thanks for all the fish. But if you do want to know more about the Best of Anthro 2008, you can check out the participating blogs, the entire selection of most popular and best posts from those blogs, and the 2008 awards for the Best of Anthropology Blogging.

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