2014-2015 Anthropology Courses
First-Year Studies: Anthropology and Photography
Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing little spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential dimensions of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of settings. We will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world use, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. We will also consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Each student in the course will engage with these issues through practical research, writing, and photographic endeavors. Each student will also be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world—such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn—in which a combination of words and images serves in the portrayal of that world. She or he will then craft a fully realized “photoethnography” that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography, the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between text and image, and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and Robert Frank’s The Americans. We will also view a number of ethnographic films that explore questions of photographic representation.
The Power of Words: The Linguistic Imagination Between Emancipation and Domination
A long-standing tradition within Western thought has conceptualized language as a symbolic code clearly separate from material reality and aimed at enabling human communication. The language/world divide has dominated scholarship across several disciplines, leaking into common sense: “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” goes the old adage, “but words will never hurt me.” Words, according to this folk view, “are just words”; that is, they are sounds and concepts lacking the potential to affect the world. This yearlong course explores and questions the view (popular and scholarly alike) according to which language is exclusively a system of symbols that stand for and allow speaking about the world. A series of theoretical readings, practical exercises, and ethnographic case studies will generate a reflection on how language partakes in the making of human experience and social reality. Through this journey, language will appear as a form of action endowed with the power to shape the world and structure the production of social constructs such as race, class, and gender. The readings will be organized through two complementary narratives of gloomy domination and hopeful emancipation. During the first semester, we will explore how language contributes to reproducing social inequalities and racial stereotypes. This focus on the dynamics of linguistic marginality will shed light on language-based discrimination, enhancing our awareness of the role of communicative practices in the operations of hegemonic and colonial power. Through these at times discouraging accounts, we will decenter the idea of the sovereign speaking subject and discover how humans are often at the mercy of language. The readings for the second semester will aim, instead, at disclosing language’s creative and poetic potential, opening views on the capacity of words to mediate emotions and affect the world in transformative ways. While reading about linguistic revitalization movements and other language-driven forms of emancipation and resistance, we will learn about the role of language in challenging power relations. Throughout the year, we will engage foundational theories of language and communication, ranging from Saussure’s structuralism and Pierce’s semiotics to Speech Act Theory, from Whorf’s linguistic relativity to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of language, and from Bourdieu’s practice theory to Butler’s insights on linguistic performativity.
A common feature of human societies is the enforcement of rules that determine social relations, particularly regarding kinship: With whom may one be sexual? Whom may a person marry? Which children are “legitimate”? To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close in some societies, but marriage across great differences—such as age, race, culture, or class—can also be problematic. Social rules govern the acceptance or rejection of children in particular social groups, depending on factors such as the marital status of their parents or the enactment of appropriate rituals. During the colonial era, European observers imagined that “primitive” societies had sparse social regulation, as they reported cases of “marriage by capture,” “primitive promiscuity,” and “paternity uncertainty.” In the postcolonial world, anthropologists and everyone else are deeply engaged in questions about kinship that, in fact, strongly echo 19th-century concerns. Now we frame the topics as queer families, gay marriage, unmarried mothers, interracial families, the absence of fathers, transcultural adoption, and new reproductive technologies. In this yearlong seminar, we will draw upon a variety of sources, including ethnography, historical accounts, memoir, literature, archival documents, and film. Case studies will include transnational adoption, polygamy in East and West Africa, cross-class marriage in Victorian England, American kinship systems, incest regulation cross-culturally, and same-sex marriage in Southern Africa. To make sense of such topics, we will draw upon a number of different conceptual approaches, including those from classical kinship studies, theories of evolution, cognitive anthropology, feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory.
Indigenous Rights and Representations
What role do native identities play in global social and political movements? How do ideas about indigenous peoples shape nationalist sensibilities and international projects? How do notions of cultural authenticity and autonomy figure in the discourse of indigenous rights? Attending to the legacies of colonialism, this course addresses postcolonial representations, performances, and politics of indigeneity by indigenous people themselves, as well as by others, in such places as Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and the United States. Through a close look at ethnographic texts on this topic, we will investigate how perceptions about and participation by indigenous peoples have figured in environmental activism, transnational trade agreements, educational reform, nationalist campaigns, multiculturalist politics, and international migration. Our course readings will explore how indigeneity is engaged in struggles such as the Zapatista resistance movement in Chiapas, Mexico; the pan-indigenous mobilization against environmental pollution in Ecuador; and efforts toward social justice in the aftermath of ethnic genocide in Guatemala. We will attend to the role of globalization, transnational mobilities, and technological innovation in emergent social movements, as well as new imaginings of indigenous identity. And we will contemplate the implications of indigenous intellectuals’ increasing presence as key actors in both academic and public debate. At the culmination of the course, interested students may opt to participate in the annual meetings of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Desire Across Boundaries: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Postcolonial World
A common feature of both colonial and postcolonial societies has been the enforcement of rules, both cultural and legal, that determine with whom one may be sexual and whom one may marry. Laws in the European colonies focused most intensively on regulating intimate connections among people of different races; but the nature of those regulations varied over time and by location, depending on the underlying political goals and gendered logics of local governments. For example, subaltern white men were encouraged to form households with colonized women in 19th century Dutch Indonesia and prohibited from doing so in the 20th century. And in the post-independence era, indigenous same-sex intimacies, which were of little concern to colonial governments, have now come under fierce government scrutiny and persecution in countries such as Uganda and Zimbabwe. In this yearlong seminar, we will examine articulations among race, gender, and sexuality in the period from the European scramble for colonies to the present era of post-independence (the postcolonial.) For this exploration, we will mine the works of 19th-century sexologists Freud and Foucault and their feminist critics, the writings of colonizers and anticolonial activists, and ethnographic and historical accounts of race and sex in particular colonial and post-independence settings. We will study the writings and images of anthropologists, filmmakers, historians, novelists, and activists in many parts of the globe.
Mobilities and Moorings
In our increasingly globalized world, there is much talk of people, things, and ideas “on the move.” Over the past decade, sedentarist assumptions within the social sciences that fix people in place have given way to a “mobility turn” that emphasizes flows and movement across borders. In this course, we will attend to intersecting mobilities and immobilities from the vantage point of anthropology and related disciplines, with particular attention to the topic of migration and diaspora. Our ethnographic exploration of this subject matter will take us from Ghanaian fishing villages to Italian cityscapes and from Oaxacan weaving towns to the suburbs of Oregon and the interstitial spaces of Internet cafes in the Philippines and beyond. Such forays will lead us to grapple with a series of related questions: What are the structures and technologies that enhance some people’s freedom of movement while constraining other people’s abilities to leave a place or stay in place? What role does entrapment, enclosure, or expulsion play in the making and reinforcing of material, social, and political boundaries and borders? How might migrants and other travelers invoke creative forms of movement in order to affect social mobility? In what ways do these intersecting actual and virtual (im)mobilities assist us in understanding the relationship between space and place, exclusion and belonging? Students will be invited to conduct original ethnographic fieldwork or service learning as part of their conference work.
Love in the Time of Neoliberalism: Grammars of Affect and Cultures of Capitalism
A deﬁning feature of the contemporary moment has been a radicalization of market ideologies and corporate culture. A series of profound transformations that occurred in the last 40 years have produced a new configuration of the world’s political-economic order—variously referred to as “globalized new economy,” "late capitalism," or “neoliberalism.” Analyses of the neoliberal age usually focus on political, economic, and structural transformations but often fail to consider the impact that these processes have on the everyday and on our intimate modes of experience. This course suggests that there is great analytic promise in the study of how institutional transformations co-articulate with the affective and moral lives of individuals. Moving from the idea that all great transformations “must be affective in order to be effective,” we will thus engage the languages and cultures of neoliberalism and explore how the relation between structures and sentiments has been impacted by capitalist rationality and neoliberal morality. Rather than conceiving neoliberalism as a political and economic doctrine, our anthropological journey into the contemporary reorganization of affect will promote an understanding of neoliberalism as a structure of action—and as a form of practical conduct that is—as a “way of doing things.” Drawing on a series of hands-on exercises and a combination of theoretical and ethnographic readings from various cultural settings, we will discuss how global forces have been affecting public and private expressions of love, friendship, and sexuality. We will explore the novel aesthetics of desires and pleasures emerging in North America and the Global South and the new romantic vocabularies originating from the digital transformations of love and companionship. And we will reflect on the forces underlying the contemporary commodification of emotions. While learning about specific examples of the neoliberal political economy of intimacy, we will engage broader theoretical questions: How pervasive are neoliberal structures of practice? To what extent can neoliberalism be represented as an overarching and coherent global trend externally generated by the homogenizing forces of Late Western Capitalism? Is our moral and affective experience completely shaped by the extension of economic rationality to all areas of life? Or is there a way of looking at the current hypertrophic expansion of market logics that can reveal hidden fissures and unlock a potential for emancipatory expression?
Language and the Poetics of Emotions
How do language and communicative practices shape emotional experience? What are emotions, and how can we study them ethnographically? How do our everyday ways of interacting create emotional meaning? This course focuses on the role of language and communicative dynamics in mediating and shaping emotional experience. Since the early 1990s, influential works in linguistic and cultural anthropology have questioned universalizing views of emotion, advocating the idea that emotions are linguistic and sociocultural constructs grounded in historical and local specific contexts. These studies have challenged approaches to emotions based on binary oppositions (i.e., mind versus body and emotion versus reason) as reflected, for example, in popular and scholarly tendencies of associating emotions with stereotypical images of femininity seen in opposition and hierarchical relations to reason (or rationality). Another line of research has explored the co-articulation between the linguistic expression of emotions and the process of subject formation, highlighting how certain ways of speaking may generate or challenge moral dispositions, domains of experience, and structures of feelings. Throughout the semester, students will engage a series of ethnographic case studies aimed at exploring the nexus of language, emotions, and everyday cultural practices. This course will explore the linguistic constitution of emotional experience and subjectivity, ranging from the relation between ideologies of gender and linguistic styles of affective expression in the Pacific to the intersection of romantic love, marriage practices, and the development of literacy in Nepal; from the connection between emotional ethos and styles of religious devotion in Indonesia and Mexico to the poetic expressions of resistance in Egypt and Nigeria; and from the analysis of the emotion in doctor/patient interactions to the study of dynamics of popularity and exclusion among American teenagers. Our aim will be to explore the linguistic poetics of emotions and the cultural politics of affect to expand our understanding of the significance of language in shaping our world.
Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology
How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand and convey to others the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of interviewing, participant observation, and ethnographic writing.