Glory Days – Anthropologists as Journalists

Brian McKenna, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, has a great piece in the August 2010 newsletter of the Society for Applied Anthropology. Starting on p. 11 (the newsletter is a pdf), McKenna has a piece entitled “Doing Anthropology as an Environmental Journalist.”

He uses his 2002 article in City Pulse, Can Glory Days Return to Lake Lansing?, to discuss how he crafted a very effective piece of reporting that was also a very effective piece of public anthropology.

You just have to love how he uses a great hook at the beginning, and then seamlessly transitions to the broader “this is what this piece is about” while still maintaining relevance. Some great writing:

Lake Lansing just wants to be left alone. In the Prohibition Era, bootleggers raised hell in a house on stilts that sat in the belly of the lake – site of a men’s social club – while a lookout warned of an impending sheriff’s raid. By the time the police boat reached the moated fortress, all alcohol had been hurriedly dispatched into the lake through a trap door.

Over the years, the lake has imbibed more than its share of bad whiskey. Septage, arsenic, fertilizer, dog poop, gull dung, mercury and just about everything that people throw on the ground for miles around the 450-acre waterworld winds up in the lake. “If you spit on the sidewalk,” says Pat Lindemann, the Ingham County drain commissioner, “it goes into the lake.”

But what I really want to highlight in McKenna’s SFAA piece is how he demostrates how to connect core anthropological analysis with journalistic writing. He calls it using “The Anthropological Dozen.”

In every journalistic article I write I try to incorporate what I call “The Anthropological Dozen.” These questions help insure a muckracking result.

Very briefly, here they are: 1) holism (how do disparate phenomenon connect?); 2) fieldwork (from lab tests to participant observations); 3) What’s taken for granted (Did the Ojibwa help create this lake?); 4) culture (how is capital behind what’s behind); 5) cross-cultural justaposition (how did Indians and colonialists use the lake?); 6) Getting the native’s point(s) of view (Who are the natives? What are the ways in which the “native points of view” are ignored, omitted, or supressed?); 7) Contradictions and ideologies (Do people say one thing and do another? Are there dialectical tensions in the terrain of inquiry?); 8.) Origins and history (human origins, the origin of the state, the origin of a nation, the origin of a given institution, the origin of a name, the origin of a place. How have things transformed since the origin?); 9) epistemological critique (Begin with a “reification of names” in your analysis. Do names – like “Lake Lansing” in this instance – accurately capture the idea/object represented?); 10) conformity/resistance (what are the modes of resistance that the less powerful play?); 11) privilege the most powerless; and 12) analyze social change.

McKenna goes on in his essay to provide examples of these various techniques in action, and also to describe how he got the necessary information as journalist/anthropologist through interviews, library research, and the like. And all on a four day deadline!

Here is just one example, focusing on the writing part:

The colonialists originally called it Pine Lake for the stand of beautiful white pine trees on the east side of the lake – the largest stand in Ingham County. But the white pines were soon destroyed for their wood resources in the second half of the 19th century. According to Raphael, the biggest logging operation was conducted by a John Saltmarsh, whose name ironically revealed his intent. He “assaulted the ‘marsh’” in the winter one year, sending the logs over the lake ice on sled runners. They were stockpiled for export behind the new train depot. Saltmarsh also owned a picket mill, to make the fences that would set the enclosures around the new form of land division around Lansing: private property.

Notice how I translated academic parlance into civic voice. This is journalism as a public anthropology, a syncretism (McKenna 2010b). Think of it as converting ethnography into a good story. There are villains, dramatic tensions, metaphors and ample use of quotation to enliven the narrative.

Link to the City Pulse article, Can glory days return to Lake Lansing?

Link to the Society for Applied Anthropology August Newsletter

Brown Food Revolution

Shannon Horst, the CEO of The Savory Institute, has a good editorial, Africa Needs a Brown (Not Green) Food Revolution, over at the Christian Science Monitor. Rather than more artificial fertilizer and genetically enhanced seeds, of exporting our industrial model to them, she argues for a more local model that improves soil and yields, and works with local environments and knowledge.

She’s definitely on the William Easterly side of things, and against a Jeffrey Sachs type approach – White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good over The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time.

Here’s the main part of Horst’s Green Revolution critique:

First, scientists are focusing on how to grow bigger, more, and disease- and pest-resistant plants. Their approach views the soil surrounding plants as a “problem” to overcome, rather than the very habitat in which they can thrive. The entire focus is on how to manipulate the plants rather than how to produce both healthy plants and healthy soil… Some 70 percent of Africa’s landscape is grassland – arid, semiarid, temperate, and some tropical. Kenya, for example, is 80 percent grassland. The practices and inputs required to use revolutionary seeds in these lands are destructive… Turning those lands into crop fields will have the same effect it produced on the Great Plains of the United States – the collapse of the grasslands and the soil, river systems, and the groundwater supplies that lie beneath them.

Horst also points out that human resources, embedded in cultures and specific histories, matter:

Most of Africa’s rural populations are pastoralists or agropastoralists who do not farm. Turning them into “productive farmers,” dependent on foreign seeds and other inputs, is not only destructive to their land, it is destructive to their culture. Millions have already been spent by US and European aid organizations throughout Africa on unsuccessful farming programs. Pastoralists in the Horn of Africa consistently say that these programs have also been culturally destructive.

In contrast, Horst and The Savory Institute push for a brown revolution, one that starts with increasing soil quality, and works with environmental and human resources on hand.

What Africa needs is a revolution that mobilizes people to focus on local inputs and practices that produce food that grows in healthy soil (maybe a “brown revolution”) and that enhances the social and economic fabric of the community and nation. Guess what? That brown revolution is possible and sustainable right now…

They have also achieved successful results over the past five years without spending one dime on expensive research into seeds, genetically modified organisms, root manipulation, climate change adaptation, herbicides, fertilizers, or pesticides, and without special planting or harvesting equipment.

Instead, they focus funds on educating local people in practices that blend some older pastoral knowledge and techniques of animal herding with new understanding of how grazing animals, soils, plants, and organisms coevolved and function in a healthy state. Savory’s approach also means building soils, using the seeds and simple tools already available to them, and enhancing the community’s social fabric.

A brown revolution resonates well with what I know of Lesotho, where development has had negative consequences (see James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine) and where a lack of local employment and farming opportunities, coupled with poor soil and arid conditions, means most Basotho men go to South Africa to work in mines. For more (including photos), see our post on food coping in Lesotho.

So, overall, a very good editorial. There will be roles for fertilizer to improve yields and for plant engineering for greater drought and insect resistance, but imposing such outside solutions simply on the idea that this is what we believe will work, is simply not good enough.

Link to lots of articles that detail the William Easterly vs. Jeffrey Sachs debates.

Link to The Savory Institute – “Leading the Brown Revolution”

Link to the editorial “Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution”.

Finding a Voice: Establishing a Support Network for HIV+ Women

By Katie, Laura, Matt, and Claire

Diane was diagnosed with HIV at eight months old. She was infected through her mother, who was not aware that Diane’s father, her husband at the time, had HIV. He left before Diane’s mother found out that she had HIV and that she had passed it on to her newborn daughter.

Infected with HIV for her entire life, Diane “acts like she doesn’t have it” and “tries to go on with her life” even though she thinks about it everyday.

HIV has had a huge impact throughout Diane’s (a pseudonym) twenty-one years of life. One summer she was given just months to live, and her family, doubtful she would live until December, celebrated Christmas in July. She has survived several health scares, and although her health is currently not great, it is improving as her new medication begins to bring her viral load under control.

The Challenges of Being HIV-Positive… and a Woman

HIV-positive women cope with their disease in ways that are strikingly different from HIV-positive men. Women’s roles as caregivers, mothers, wives, and daughters make their experiences with HIV unique. These roles shape how much they are willing to deal with the disease on a daily basis as many women put the needs of their children and families before their own. Furthermore, their identities as caregivers may conflict with their identities as recipients of care that their HIV status necessitates. Consequently, these women, many of whom are in difficult socioeconomic situations, may not seek the support they need.

To help these women, last year a group of students helped to establish a much-needed HIV/AIDS women’s support group in our Midwestern city (see their post, Just A Place to Talk: Women & HIV/AIDS). It was a success initially. However, the student who helped facilitate the support group moved away this summer, and the support group lost its impetus.

This year our community-based research project explored why women stopped attending the support group, women’s interest in participating in a new support group, and how to develop a support network that addresses the many needs of HIV-positive women. The two most important lessons we learned this semester include the importance of emotional support and the value of resources, such as transportation and childcare, that enable these women to care for themselves and their families while living with HIV.

Seeking Solidarity and Support

Several women expressed a desire to learn from others who are willing to share their experiences with HIV. They think that sharing their stories with other HIV-positive women will lessen feelings of isolation and better equip these women to handle the burdens of the illness. As Joyce, who has been HIV-positive for twelve years, reported, she is interested in the group because she “wants to feel supported.”

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“We Pregame Harder Than You Party!”

By Annette Esquibel, Thomas Mumford, and Jocelyn Rausch

“Why do I pregame?” The third year American History student repeated our question with a bit of sarcasm in his voice. He put down his textbook and then delivered his jovial response:

“Why wouldn’t I pregame?! It makes everything better- bars, parties, dances, football, class, work…”

This is the pregaming mentality expressed by a current undergrad at our mid-Western university. This mentality can be summarized: if you have to go to something, why not be buzzed when you do it?

Across the country, on any given weekend night, college students are often consuming four or five, sometimes even 10 drinks, before they even make it out of their dorm room for a night of partying, the dorm dance, or even the latest sports event.

They consume what many medical professionals construe as dangerous, sometimes lethal, amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Then students often find themselves passing out, throwing up and even being taken to the hospital. And that’s before they even make it to the party.

From an outsider’s point of view, this may not sound like a lot of fun. For college students, pregaming is often the best part of the night. Our question as student researchers was, Why?

Our Research

Due to the recent emergence of pregaming, little is known about the mentality behind it. Working with the university group in charge of helping to prevent and treat alcohol abuse, we aimed to understand the social and cultural bases for high-risk drinking and pregaming. Previous student research on pregaming focused on gender differences, and can be found in the post “College Drinking: Battle of the Sexes?”

The statistics were already clear for the university office in charge of alcohol education and prevention – almost 80% of students who have gotten in trouble for alcohol-related events were pregaming on the night of the incident. Counselors there feared that the high-risk drinking habit of pregaming has become synonymous with students social lives.

Our project aimed at both understanding students’ general attitude towards pregaming as well as why students stop drinking on a given night. These questions could offer insight and clues to effective handling of the problem of pregaming by students and the university alike.

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Obesity Meets Family Medicine

By Kelsey Hitchcock, Anna Pavlov, Ryan Shay, John Villecco and Sara Yusko

For several hours we talked about obesity with the resident doctors at the local family clinic. After covering the typical recommendations for losing weight, such as eating healthy and increasing exercise, Dr. B informed us of the most practical treatment method they use. “I usually ask the patient to complete a food journal.”

According to Dr. B and the other residents, a journal can provide concrete evidence of successes and areas in which adolescents could improve their diets. So we asked about the success of such an assignment. Dr. B chuckled and said, “I’ve never had a patient complete a food journal.”

As soon as he said this, two other doctors in the room added their own experiences. One echoed Dr. B’s statements, and the other told his one and only success story:

“The patient was fourteen years old. He didn’t like how big he was becoming and decided to play sports. After he started playing sports he lost thirty pounds.”

As we explored the issue of adolescent obesity within our community, we found that while the recommendations for losing weight may appear simple, successful results were not easily obtained. Our goal was to better understand the prevalence and treatment of adolescent obesity through patient observation and interviews with resident doctors in this mid-Western city.

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On Reaching a Broader Public: Five Ideas for Anthropologists

By Daniel Lende

How can anthropologists reach a wider audience? Good debate on that question has sprung up in recent weeks at Savage Minds, Culture Matters, and Ethnografix. We’ve also written about this question here. Now it’s time for a synthesis.

Five Ideas for Reaching a Wider Audience

-Write about something specific
-Make our work relevant to readers
-Build appeal
-Move beyond critique
-Provide alternatives and how-to ideas

Write About Something Specific

Sometimes our love of anthropology as a field gets in the way. Most people are interested in specific topics, not the latest theoretical debate. They get engaged by stories and want to learn something concrete or new.

So rather than writing jargon-laden versions of “OMG anthropology is the best ever,” we should write about the topics and stories that capture people’s attention. Once we have their attention, we can also communicate why anthropology matters. We have great material, we just need to use it better.

As Ryan Anderson at Ethnografix writes:

Nobody–or very few people–are going to read books that are ABOUT the discipline of anthropology itself. And it seems to me that many of [our] general audience books are more about anthropology and its UNIQUE perspective and less about an actual subject, event, or issue…

As an analogy, this is like the difference between publishing a book that is ABOUT photography versus publishing a book that is a photographic essay. Huge difference. One will appeal mostly to photographers, and the other might have the possibility to appeal to a much different audience, depending on what it’s about.

To quote Henri Cartier-Bresson:

“Photography is nothing – it’s life that interests me.”

So what does that mean for anthropology? Maybe it means that we need less books about anthropology and more books by anthropologists about the ideas, subjects, events, issues, debates, stories, and experiences they know best.

Anthropologists share that passion with Cartier-Bresson – it is life that interest us. That is our strength. More than any other field, we embrace human life. Rather than foreground our reflexivity or the importance of this theoretical model or that, we should focus on what captures our own attention. Other people outside of anthropology also care about people’s lives, and they want to learn more – focusing on that will build a broader audience.

The proof is in the pudding, the saying goes. And here on, our most popular posts fit this “about something” model. Co-sleeping, barefoot running, and post-traumatic stress disorder all focus on a specific topic.

Make Our Work Relevant To Readers

Some of the recent online debate has centered on what anthropology can learn from journalism. This is an important topic, particularly for learning how to best communicate with a broad audience. But the simple fact remains – we are not journalists, we are anthropologists.

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The Uncultured Project

The Uncultured Project is about fighting global poverty, about one man’s decision to try and make the world a better place. It’s a story told through a website and promoted on YouTube.

Imagine leaving behind your friends, family, possessions, and a full scholarship to a good university – all to go halfway around the world to a third world country just to help the poor.

This is exactly what I did.

And I’m using YouTube to tell my story.

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Funerals and Food Coping in Rural Lesotho

Lesotho Funeral Home
By Brandon Sparks

Imagine you are hungry. You have been hungry for weeks, with no end in sight due to a heavy drought that severely diminished your land’s production. Your gravely ill sister lives with you, as do her two young children, further straining your limited food supply. Then your neighbor dies. You do mourn, but you also feel relief – relief because you will be able to take your family to the funeral. There they will be able to eat.

This post examines food crises in Lesotho and the role funerals play in coping with these food shortages within a rural town and neighboring villages. In my senior thesis written on the costly funerals in Lesotho and the impact of HIV/AIDS on their practice, I found that the local Basotho people use funerals as a food coping mechanism. Lesotho often suffers from periods of drought that place a burden on food resources and force people to look for methods to supplement their daily food.

Lesotho VillageI will begin with a brief look at the factors behind the food shortages, followed by a description of funeral practices and how families are able to use them to for food coping. Lesotho is a small country in southern Africa. Through a quirk in British rule, it remained independent from South Africa and is now the only country to have its entire border completely surrounded by another country. The terrain is mountainous and has earned Lesotho the nickname of “the roof of Africa.” Less than eleven percent of the land is arable and farmers are at the peril of periodic droughts.

Lesotho also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with some estimates as high as thirty-one percent of its over two million population carrying the virus (Brummer 2002). The high percentage stems from Lesotho’s history of labor migration to the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, where Basotho men would contract the disease and then bring it home to their families in Lesotho.

The attraction of mining employment to Basotho (from Lesotho) men comes partially from the lack of opportunities at home. Agriculture production has dropped in the past fifty years due to deterioration of the land through erosion, mono-cropping, and overgrazing, insecurities in the system of land tenure that inhibited farmers from securing their holdings, population pressure that increased exploitation of arable land, and environmental factors like hail, frost, and drought (Murray 1981). These factors, coupled with population growth, mean that the frequency and severity of food crises has increased in the last century.

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Critique – Making a Difference

Critique is option #1 in our Top Ten Ways for Anthropologists to Make a Difference, and the principal way most anthropologists approach being relevant. Relying only on critique can be problematic – it emphasizes passivity over engagement, promotes an academic idea of change, and can keep us from developing ideas and getting data about other ways of making a difference. But critique also has a real-world impact.

Amidst a wealth of work, I have highlighted two prominent books as well as recent examples of putting critique into action. I also cover how critique is often most useful when used to improve our own efforts.

(1) Critique. Our default position, but sometimes it does work. (Just not as well or as often as we hope.)

Jonathan Marks’ 2003 book What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee is an excellent example of critical work in biological anthropology. Marks draws on the breadth of anthropology to produce a trenchant analysis of both science and popular ideas about genetics and human nature. As the American Scientist review says, “A trenchant assault on genetic reductionism and a spirited call for a more critical science, one better informed by the perspectives of anthropology and the humanities.”

James Ferguson’s (1994) The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho is now a classic in the anthropological critique of development. Ferguson shows how poverty and powerlessness are reduced to technical and bureaucratic problems, even as the state extends its realm of control locally. As the American Political Science review puts it, “He strips the development community of its conceptual attire and leaves it naked for all to see.”

Open Anthropology is Maximilian Forte’s admirable effort to put critical analysis to use, both with respect to the field and to the current state of the world. Open Anthropology aims to “transform anthropology into something that is neither Eurocentric nor elitist,” while also focusing on critical issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the military is co-opting social science through projects like the Human Terrain System and Minerva. With Open Anthropology, critique is now online.

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