Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sources on Contemporary Anthropology - 6

From Kevin Birth, Professor of Anthropology, Queens College, City University of New York:

In many ways, questions among the cultural anthropologists I interact with the most have shifted away from descriptions and discussions of particular cultures to the issue of the relationship between societies and the construction of identity/difference. I am particularly struck by this as I prepare by contemporary theory course for this semester. So questions of world view are increasingly tied to how the world view is constituted in response to another world view, and except for the psychological anthropologists who think in terms of the distribution of cultural knowledge, the culture concept is dissolving into issues of hegemony/counter-hegemony. The trendy topics in which to investigate the construction of difference in relationship to globalization seem to be sexuality, violence, and history.

I also feel like there is an increasing disconnect between the anthropology represented in introductory textbooks and the anthropology discussed by grad students. Entry into the field is, to my mind, becoming increasingly difficult for anyone who does not have an anthropologist to teach them.

That said, I shall throw a few titles out because they wrestle with compelling issues, and the significance of these issues might be enough to engage someone who is not an anthropologist enough to sustain them through the various theoretical discussions and postures. All these books deal with the construction of identity/difference in ways that address how people think about themselves and problems in the world.

Briggs, Charles. 2003. Stories in the Time of Cholera: Racial Profiling during a Medical Nightmare. University of California Press.

Foster, Robert. 2002. Materializing the Nation: Commodities, Consumption and Media in Papua New Guinea. Indiana University Press.

Frank, Gelya. 2000. Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America. University of California Press.

Hinton, Alexander. 2005. Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. University of California Press.

I also recommend Max Forte's work (since it has been mentioned), but his work is harder to find and more expensive to purchase than the above titles (as I can attest, the University Press of Florida marketing and sales operation is not very robust).

I'm not including any examples of the literature on sexuality for three reasons. First, most evangelical Christians probably would have a visceral negative reaction to this work; second, I find that much of the work on sexuality unreflectively draws on Queer Theory and feminism in ways that lead to strange, mysogynistic implications about which the author's seem unaware; and third, much of this work raises serious concerns about human subjects' rights and the ethics of research.

[On this third point, on the basis of later discussion, I understand Prof. Birth to be referring to the tendency--not just in this particular subfield--for ethnographic researchers to sexualize their relationships with informants, and for some savvy informants to engage in reverse-exploitation of the social-informational gateways to their communities, to the detriment of all, including the researcher, the informant, the community studied, and the larger anthropological community and those who use the information we generate. -- EZ]

P.S. And of course one can always encourage people to read my books ;) —although they probably are poorly suited for this particular set of questions)

[Note: As of January 2009, the Cornell University libraries listed the following books by Prof. Birth: (1) Any time is Trinidad time : Social Meanings and Temporal Consciousness (University of Florida Press, 1999); and (2) Bacchanalian sentiments : Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad (Duke University Press, 2008). The latter is also available as an on-line ebook though libraries that have bought the appropriate licenses. -- EZ]

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