2013-2014 Anthropology Courses
First-Year Studies: Making Connections: Gender, Sexuality, and Kinship From an Anthropological Perspective
Like Goldilocks in her selections of porridge and resting places, human beings are supposed to choose marriage partners who are “just right.” To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close; but marriages across great differences such as age, race, culture, or class can also be perceived as problematic due to social distance. This question of closeness or distance in marriage prescriptions is particularly timely in light of the current debates about gay marriage and will be one topic of exploration in this yearlong seminar on gender, sexuality, and kinship from an anthropological perspective. Anthropology is a discipline that explores the ways in which people make sense of the world and the social relations in which we engage. In this class, we will explore two parallel themes: the extraordinary diversity in the ways that people understand and enact kinship, sexuality, and gender cross-culturally and changes in the ways that anthropologists have understood and documented (or failed to document) these themes. We will read ethnography, oral history, and anthropological theory, as well as literature beyond the discipline; we will also view some films. Topics under our consideration will include female husbands in southern Africa, hermaphrodism in 19th-century France, institutionalized homosexuality in New Guinea, transnational and interracial adoption, childhood, and sexual rights. Along the way, we will learn to be better writers, readers, speakers, and listeners.
Anthropology and Photography
Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing little spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential glint of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of distinct cultural settings. We will engage in two main efforts: an anthropologically informed inquiry into the phenomenon of photography and photographic endeavors that might be called “photoethnography.” In terms of an anthropology of photography, we will develop an understanding of how peoples throughout the world use, relate to, 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. As for photoethnography, we will consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. 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; pacings of time and memory; the intricate play between text and image and between interpretation and invocation; 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, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica. We will also view a number of ethnographic films that mine questions of photographic representation, including Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours, Judith and David MacDougall’s Photo Wallas, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass.
The Power of Words: Language, Hegemony, and Social Inequality
Language is such a pervasive component of our everyday lives that we often tend to forget the complex power dynamics that are always embedded in humans’ engagements with language. We tend to naturalize and overlook the power-laden nature of communication and assume that language is a neutral and objective system of signs apt at enabling the transmission of information. But what is the relationship between language and social status? What is the role of certain discursive representation of reality in reproducing or challenging the status quo? Why are certain languages considered to be better and more prestigious than others? How can certain conversational practices contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities and racial stereotypes? What were the implications of colonization for the indigenous languages of the populations that experienced Euro-American colonial domination? What is the role of world Englishes in today’s globalized world? Through a series of readings, we will discuss the varied and sometimes surprising interconnections between language, power, and social inequality. Students will explore topics such as the role of linguistic ideologies in the colonial enterprise, the historical production of an official standard language and the construction of hegemonic power, the unequal power relations often at stake in multilingual contexts, the role of language in crafting representations of people’s identities, the contemporary debates on the loss of indigenous languages, linguistic revitalization movements and other activist efforts, the impact of language-based discrimination, the role of linguistic parodies as a form of cultural resistance, as well as the social and political life of words as they travel across global networks of power and meaning.
Spaces of Exclusion, Places of Belonging
How do people construct meaningful places in a Puerto Rican barrio in Philadelphia or in the silk factories of Hangzhou? What should we make of “place-less” spaces or states, such as those instantiated through technologies like social media or Hindu yogic and meditative practice? How should we understand notions of displacement, transborder identifications, or longings for homeland as they play out for Burundian Hutu refugees in Tanzania, Palestinians in Gaza, or indigenous Latin American migrants in California and Wyoming? This course explores issues of identity and difference, locality and community, in the context of transnational mobility and the globalized flow of people, ideas, values, and things. Engaging with recent scholarly work in the fields of anthropology, cultural studies, sociology, geography, architecture, and literature, we will seek to decode sociospatial arrangements to better understand structures and processes of exclusion and marginalization. At the same time, we will observe how people’s navigations through space and their efforts at place-making create sites of collective identity, resistance, belonging, and recognition. Posed in a wide range of ethnographic contexts, our efforts to puzzle through these issues will require attention to the ways in which space and place are, for instance, embodied, gendered, racialized, and (il)legalized. We will likewise attend to the politics and ethics of postcolonial scholarship on space and place and to the meanings of an engaged anthropology that leans toward social justice.
Global Flows and Frictions in Southeast Asia and Beyond
“Globalization” has proliferated in scholarly and popular discourse since the early 1990s as a term referring to both the perception of the world’s enhanced interconnectedness and the increasing circulation of capital, labor, commodities, humans, and ideologies across national borders. For almost three decades, our minds have been preoccupied with defining, understanding, and assessing these structural and cultural transformations: What is unprecedented about globalization, and how does it resemble older forms of interconnection? How does what Ulf Hannerz (1992) called the “global ecumene” impact our historical consciousness? Should we imagine ourselves as the protagonists of a narrative of never-ending progress or as the inhabitants of the ruins of modernity? Drawing on a methodology originally designed to provide holistic, contextual, and fine-grained analyses of small and (preferably) self-enclosed communities, anthropologists have been seeking to explore the cultural underpinnings of global connections. Divided on whether to read globalization as an enhancement of complexity or as a form of cultural erosion, they have been exploring the effects of large-scale global transformations on local identities and on people's everyday lives. What are the aesthetic, cultural, and existential implications of a world where “difference is encountered in the adjoining neighborhood [and] the familiar turns up at the ends of the earth” (Clifford 1988)? Anthropological engagements with these questions have expanded our definitions of culture; rather than conceiving it as attached to and defining of particular groups of people, we have become skilled ethnographers of mobile, unstable, and deterritorialized “global cultural flows.” In this quest for more sophisticated theoretical tools to tackle the dynamics of contemporary cultural encounters, we have been confronted with the option of viewing globalization through metaphors of liquid flows or through the images of the clash of cultures. However, both models have their pitfalls in their incapacity to account for “awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2005). Focusing on global encounters in Southeast Asia, this course will engage intriguing ethnographic examples of what Tsing termed cultural frictions. Rather than postulating simplistic, binary oppositions between clear-cut cultural formations or pervasive and unimpeded flows of goods, ideas, and people, we will explore concrete instances of unequal exchanges emerging from unexpected intersections among global, national, and local forces. We will read about religious conversion and shifting notions of humanity in the encounter between Calvinist missionaries and Indonesian highlanders, changing experiences of sexuality among Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, and contemporary transformations of notions of gender and morality in urban Indonesia. We will explore the impact of the global touristic market on local notions of cosmopolitanism in Thailand and the impact of new technologies on the shaping of new conceptions of the moral person in Oceania. We will discuss instances of spirit possession in Malaysian multinational corporations and development-induced displacement in Laos, as well as the interplay of agreement and misunderstanding in the encounters among North American investors, NGO workers, and the inhabitants of the Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest. Through this anthropological journey, students will be exposed to key debates within the study of cosmopolitanism and will experience firsthand some of the challenges underlying ethnographic engagements with globalization.
Migration and Experience
This seminar will engage an emerging body of anthropological research that asks how the broad sociocultural, political, moral, and economic structures and processes that produce transnational migration affect the thinking, feeling, and sensing of people whose lives play out in the balance. Through our readings and seminar discussions, we will grapple with a series of questions that probe the contemporary experience of migration, such as: What are the felt consequences of living in between “home” and “host” societies and between “traditional” and “transformed” ways of being? How is the migrant/transborder condition differently shaped by the particular intersections of ethnic, class, state, and other boundaries that are crossed? How do different forms of power shape and constrain migrants’ subjective and intersubjective experiences of time, space, embodiment, and self? In what sense is “illegal” versus “documented” status critical to the everyday politics and poetics of migrant life? In our exploration of these and related questions, we will attend to the ways in which migrants draw on cultural resources to create spaces and practices of connection, protection, and continuity despite the disruptive potential introduced by migration. Latin American and indigenous migration will focus prominently in our selection of readings, which will also include forays into ethnographic contexts such as West African and Filipino migrant experiences in Israel and Yolmo Nepali life in Queens. Students may choose to conduct fieldwork or to engage in service learning for their conference projects.
Global Adoptions: An Anthropology of Kinship
We tend to assume that family-building involves deeply personal, intimate, and “natural” acts in making a relationship (marriage) and in becoming parents (sex). But in actual practice, the pragmatics of forming (and disbanding) families are much more complex. There are many instances where a desired pregnancy is biologically impossible: infertility or gay parents, for example. Conversely, there are children born to individuals who will not parent them for a wide variety of reasons. This seminar examines the meanings and processes, cross-culturally, of adoption—defined here as the placement of children to be raised permanently by others. We will explore this process anthropologically in countries and cultures across the globe, including the United States, Australia, Hawaii, Tanzania, China, Argentina, Sweden, Chile, Nigeria, and Korea. As well as looking within particular ethno-local sites, we will pay considerable attention to the global movement of children to adoption. There is great variety in the circumstances of transnational adoption from Swedish people seeking adoptive daughters in Chile to the Kindertransports at the start of World War II and to the North American Orphan Trains of the 19th and 20th centuries. Questions we will examine include: What is the difference between fostering and adoption? Why do people talk about “giving up” a child for adoption? Why is adoption welcomed in some cultures and hidden in others? When and why do adoptive parents attempt to expose their children to their cultures of origin? Why is adoption discourse more about parents getting children than children getting parents? Why are the legal records of an adoption sealed? How do race, class, and gender play out in adoption scenarios? The materials for this class include literature, scholarly articles, ethnographic accounts, historical documents, and film. Conference work may be done on any aspect of the class, as well as on other topics in the anthropology of kinship or in the ethnographies of cultures and places encountered in the course materials.
Telling Lives: Life History Through Anthropology
Through studying life-history narratives (one person’s life as narrated to another), autobiographical memoir, and more experimental forms in print and on screen, we will explore the diverse ways that life courses are experienced and represented. Throughout our readings, we will carefully examine the narratives themselves, paying attention to the techniques of life history construction and familiarizing ourselves with ethical, methodological, and theoretical challenges. We will consider a number of questions about telling lives: What is the relationship between the narrator and his or her interlocutor(s)? How does a life-history approach inform debates about representation? What can the account of one person’s life tell us about the wider culture of which he or she is a part? How can individual life narratives shed light on such issues as poverty, sexuality, colonialism, disability, racism, and aging? The selected texts attend to lives in various parts of the world, including Australia, Great Britain, the Caribbean, East Africa, and the United States. Students will also analyze primary sources and create a life history as part of their work for the course.
Workshop in Photoethnographies
“My pictures are not escapes from reality,” writes documentary photographer Bruce Davidson, “but a contemplation of reality, so that I can experience life in a deeper way.” In this course, we will similarly engage in sustained contemplations of particular social and cultural realities so as to understand better the lives of others. We will engage in this work through combinations of image and text in an effort to think through the methods and possibilities inherent in a photoethnographic approach to anthropological research, in which certain ways of life are portrayed primarily through photographic means. To gain an informed sense of the methods, challenges, and benefits of just such an approach, students in this course will try their hands at photoethnographic research and composition. Each student will 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 photographs play a leading role 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. Along the way, and with the help of photobooks and anthropological writings that are either exceptional or experimental in nature, we will collectively think through some of the most important features of photoethnographic projects such as photographing and conversing with others, the use of fieldnotes and related materials, the interlacing of theory and data, the play of words and images in a photoethnography, and the ethnical and political responsibilities that come with any attempt to understand and portray the lives of others, especially through photographic means. Texts to be considered include those authored by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Walker Evans and James Agee, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Ed van der Elskin, Nan Goldin, Susan Lipper, Marc Asnin, and Philipe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg. Previous course work in anthropology or photography or permission of the instructor is required.