Victor Turner:Isoma

Victor Turner’s Planes of Classification in a Ritual of Life and Death is an analysis of his field work among the Ndembu (Northwestern Zambia).  He provides a definition and description of Isoma, a ritual performed around the occurrence of female reproductive issues, for example Turner says Isoma is a “manifestation of a shade that causes a woman to bear a dead child or brings death on a series of infants” (Turner 17). These issues are believed by the Ndembu to be caused by the sufferer forgetting their matrilineal lineage, as Turner explains the aims if Isoma rites are “to remove the effects of…misfortune or illness due to the displeasure of ancestral shades or a breach of taboo” (Turner 19).

                When Turner speaks of a “union of ecology and intellect” (Turner 27), it is in reference to the musoli tree, which “makes animals appear” due to its fallen fruit. This tree is used in Isoma ritual to “make children appear” (27). My understanding of what Turner is saying is that Knowledge is influenced by and intertwined with environment, the result being a materialized idea. Both human intellect and environment and ecology influence the result of a materialized idea (Turner 27).  Musoli, as a symbol, represents the union of ecology and intellect, because it shows the Ndembu have interpreted a medicine for their environment as making something appear and intellectually use it with that knowledge as a base.

                As for whether this union of ecology and intellect has any effect on the effectiveness of the ritual, I believe it does. I see the ritual system of the Ndembu to be extremely complex (I had to reread several times, and still unsure I fully comprehend the meaning). I illustrate this complexity with a quote from Turner, where it is illustrated the interconnectedness and complexity, of the ritual process:

Liminality, Marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art.  These cultural forms provide men with a set of templates or models which are, at one level, periodical reclassifications of reality and man’s relationship to society, nature, and culture (Bowie 156).

The meaning of the ritual symbols used by the Ndembu would be significantly different if they were in a different environment. I envision a change in the ritual system as traveling down a fuse; affecting every part of the ecosystem.

                Fiona Bowie provides an interesting distinction I would like to comment on, between intellectualists, and symbolists. Intellectualists subscribe to Turners ideas, and view religions primary function as a way to explain the universe. Symbolists follow Durkheim, who heralds that religion reflects society (Bowie 143). To put both views together (an intellectual symbolist) would say that religion is an intermix of both ideas, which can be shown explicitly in the Isoma ritual. For example, Isoma reflects the importance of matrilineal descent to the Ndembu, although they are politically patriarchal.

                The Isoma ritual is symbolically complex, I have not been able to grasp it’s full meaning from this article alone (something to keep in mind for future research, when I am not taking a full unit load). The symbols of a society can provide insight into not only their explanations of the universe, but their reflections on their own society.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes: Catholic Schoolgirl Turned Militant Anthropologist

Those of us who make a living observing and recording the misery of the world have a particular obligation to reflect critically on the impact of the harsh images of human suffering that we foist on the public. ~Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Nancy Scheper-Hughes


This is a biography piece I wrote for my History of Anthropology course. Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a cultural anthropologist, and a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California Berkeley (Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 295). Her life and experiences have had a profound impact on her ideas of what is expected from anthropology. Her exposure, as a civil rights activist and anthropologist to controversial issues such as violence against children and infanticide, as well as trafficking of human organs and genocide had a great influence to her concept of what an anthropologists’ responsibilities should be toward their subjects.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes relayed her life story to Harry Kreisler in a 1999 interview for the University of Berkeley Conversations with History. Her story begins in the year 1944, when Nancy was born into an immigrant section of Brooklyn, New York where she was surrounded by many Eastern European cultures. Her parents raised her to be a devout Catholic, thus she only attended public school for two years before switching to St. Peter and Paul’s Church School. She attended a Catholic high school as well. In 1959, Nancy took part in a school trip to Russia, which not only opened her mind to a different culture, but introduced her to atheism. She then began her undergraduate program in anthropology at Queens College in the 1960’s, where she met her mentor and friend Hortense Powdermaker. During her first two years as an undergraduate, she became increasingly involved in student peace and civil rights movements. In 1962, Scheper-Hughes put her undergraduate studies on hold, and joined Peace Corps on assignment to Brazil. (Kreisler 1).


Nancy recounts in the prologue of her 1992 book Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, that she felt her life had come full circle when she entered into Brazil. She had lived a good deal of her childhood down the street from a sugar refinery, and coming to Brazil allowed her to witness the other side, the sugar cane cutters. There is a high rate of child mortality in Brazil, about one million children under age five per year. During 1976 alone, in her assignment area of Alto do Cruziero there were 350 infant deaths (Spradley and McCurdy 178). Scheper-Hughes worked in a public hospital in Belem do Nordeste, with no running water, treating these mortally ill, dehydrated infants (Death without Weeping 5). Later, Nancy helped in the construction of a child care center, for the cane cutting mothers who could not take their children to work with them (Death without Weeping 8). This experience brought her attention to the considerably high occurrences of infant deaths in the area, but political tension forced her to leave brazil directly after her assigned time was completed (Kreisler 3).

After completing her Peace Corps service, Scheper-Hughes returned to the states and joined the civil rights movement to help bring government programs against hunger in the south. Her group worked on a lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture for “allowing Americans to go Hungry,” although Sheper-Hughes’ role was mainly in identifying the signs of malnutrition. Although losing the case, they had influence on the food stamp program being brought to much of the south (Kreisler 2). I really respect that as an anthropologist, Scheper-Hughes has not only recognized these issues abroad, but in America as well.

These experiences helped shape Sheper-Hughes ideas about humanity, yet at this point, Scheper-Hughes had not yet finished her undergraduate degree. She was invited to become a research assistant at the University of California Berkeley campus, working under her prior mentor from Queens College, Hortense Powdermaker. This was where she finished her undergraduate and Graduate degrees in anthropology. Nancy chose to go to Ireland at this time, because she was still unable to return to Brazil, due to her prior involvement in political issues (Kreisler 3).What followed were a book, and a humbling learning experience regarding an anthropologists subjects of study.

Scheper-Hughes’ first book, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland, was written in 1979, after moving her husband and three children to Ireland, for a yearlong participant observation study in a village she called “Ballybran” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics 6,11). Nancy had originally planned to study sexuality and gender in Ireland. Her mind was changed however, after meeting with psychiatrist David Dunne. He showed her a hospital census, showing that Ireland had high admission rates for schizophrenia. “You Americans are so obsessed with sex,” Dunne coaxed, “Why not take a crack at this puzzle instead?” (Saints, Scholars, and schizophrenics 22-24).

Nancy found in her research, the most vulnerable to mental illness and schizophrenia were the young and middle-aged bachelor farmers. These men were typically the youngest in their families, and unmarried due to the high rates of female emigration to the west. She notes in her book, the combination of influences that lead to mental illness, including:
the current disintegration of village social life and institutions; the remarkable separation and alienation of the sexes; a guilt-and-shame orientated socialization process that guarantees the loyalty of at least one male child to parents, home, and village through the systematic scapegoating of this (usually the youngest) son (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics 60).

As stated earlier, a main part of this cultural disintegration was due in part to the ever lowering ratio of women, and that those who did choose to stay chose modernity, and did not rush into finding a husband. This brought about difficulty in finding a bride, and lead to guilt, shame, and alcoholism (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics 61).

This book was very controversial to many of those she had lived among in Ireland. Upon her return to “Ballybran” some twenty years after writing, she experienced great hostility against what she had written about them. In a preface to the 2001 edition to the text, Scheper-Hughes recollects questioning the ethics of anthropology, and “balancing one’s responsibility to honest ethnography with care and respect for the people who shared a part of their lives and secrets with me” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics Preface 2000). In the Kreisler interview, she expresses the lesson she received from her first ethnographic writing experience,

what I’ve learned after all of my years of writing about communities in which we form deep friendships and relationships is that the process of writing itself is, of course, a form of objectification, and people are never completely satisfied with what you have to say about them. So it’s a relationship built in terms of a kind of a clash of interpretations, a collision of cultures, and I do think that that’s both the value and the danger of anthropology… (Kreisler 3).

Along with feeling like their secrets had been shared, the people of Ballybran were annoyed at Scheper-Hughes’ failed attempt to keep them anonymous. “You think we didn’t, each of us, sit down pouring over every page until we had recognized the bits and pieces of ourselves strewn about here and there” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics Preface 1982). These were a literate people, who had no trouble deciphering who was who amongst the monikers and nicknames. There were those who were grateful for the anthropologist’s work, and recognized her purpose for exposing the less amiable qualities of themselves. As one teacher in the village stated, “We are less naïve now, we can see more clearly what our problems are, and how deep the roots of them go” (Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics Preface 1982). Despite the controversy in Ireland, this book was awarded the Margaret Mead award from the Society for Applied Anthropology.
In 1982, Scheper-Hughes made the journey back to Brazil, to Alto do Cruzeiro the largest shantytown surrounding Bom Jesus da Mata. At first her main objective was to determine the main causes surrounding the high number of “baby die offs,” which she found to be “poverty, deprivation, sexism, chronic hunger and economic exploitation” (Spradley and McCurdy 182). What really caught her interest however, was not only the numbers of deaths, but the explicit indifference from the mothers and communities involved (Spradley and McCurdy 176). What was occurring in Alto do Cruzeiro was what Scheper-Hughes called “mortal selective neglect,” where the “high expectancy of death, and the ability to face child death with stoicism and equanimity, produced patterns of nurturing that differentiated between those infants thought of as thrivers and survivors, and those thought of as born already ‘wanting to die’”(Spradley and McCurdy 179). The women, many of whom worked on sugar plantations and could not take their children with them, would leave their babies at home, with the door securely closed, “and so many also die alone and unattended” (Spradley and McCurdy 178).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes continued the study of violence and maltreatment of children in the United States and Abroad. She has coedited two books on the subject: Child Survival: Anthropological Perspectives on the Treatment and Maltreatment of Children in 1987, which includes essays from anthropologists on infanticide, social trauma, child abuse, and social intervention. In 1998, she coedited Small Wars: The Cultural Politics of Childhood with Carolyn Sargent, ant this volume focuses on child development issues, politics of child survival, and again children and violence.

Scheper-Hughes’ life and experiences have influenced her to push her concept of a “militant anthropology,” the idea of an “active, politically committed, morally engaging anthropology” (Moore and Sanders 506). Through this idea, she urges anthropologists to show a real representation of human struggles, “capable of sinking through the layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith that allow the suffering and deaths to continue without even the pained cry of recognition” (Moore and Sanders 507-508). In other words, it is an anthropologist’s responsibility to shock their audience into becoming active about the issues they are reading about, no to merely shrug it off as “the way things are.”

The responsibility of an anthropologist is to overcome the “basic strangeness” and feelings of difference to other cultures, and to find what is parallel in all human beings. In 1995, in the Primacy of the Ethical, she wrote that “What draws me back to these people and places is not their exoticism and their “otherness” but the pursuit of those small spaces of convergence, recognition, and empathy that we all share”(Moore and Sanders 509). She also discourages fellow anthropologists from trying to mask the issues that may not be the most attractive of some cultures (for example schizophrenia in Ireland, or infanticide in Brazil), and against the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” report. “Anthropologists,” she says, “are accountable for what they see and what they fail to see, how they act and how they fail to act in critical situations,”(Moore and Sanders 511) that “Not to look, not to touch, not to record can be the hostile act, and act of indifference and of turning away” (Moore and Sanders 509).

In the 1990’s, the University of California, Berkeley became involved in a lawsuit regarding the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation act. A Maidu activist, Art Angle requested that the ashes and brain of Ishi, the famed “Last of the Yahi” be returned to his cultural descendants. Her 2001 article Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes: Anthropology and Genocide gives an account on anthropology’s role in Native American Genocide, and Ishi’s relationship with Alfred Kroeber, the anthropologist who found him wandering alone and “rescued” him.

Sheper-Hughes points out in this article that although today’s anthropology “was built up in the face of colonial and post-colonial genocides, ethnocides, population die-outs, and other forms of mass destruction visited on the ‘non-Western’ peoples whose lives, suffering and deaths provide the raw material for much of our work,” many fail to witness it, again the “see no evil approach (Ishi’s Brain. Ishi’s Ashes 12). She agreed with a statement made by Claude Levi-Strauss, that “Anthropology is the daughter of this era of violence.” This statement, she says “is an indictment of those anthropologists who served as bystanders, silent and useless witnesses to the genocides and die-outs they encountered in the course of pursuing their science” (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 13). She continues to maintain her militant anthropologist perspective on this issue into modern times, although the modern manifestations of genocide come in the form of structural violence, such as “poverty, racism, social exclusion and geopolitical displacement, chronic unemployment, ill health, and family disorganization resulting from alcohol and drug addictions” (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 14).
Kroeber was the last of his kind as well as Ishi, according to Nancy. She says he is one of the last anthropologists of his time who strayed away from reporting the violence and genocide he had witnessed, and that had it not been for his wife, Theodora Kroeber, Ishi’s story would never have been written (Kenny 26). She deems Kroeber’s salvage ethnography approach, and his relationship with Ishi a “weak response to genocide,” for although he gained extensive information from Ishi about his people, he was so shook up about his death that he refused to speak or write of him (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 14). Ishi’s death really took a toll on Kroeber. Ishi did not oppose to being an informant and living specimen on his culture, or working as an assistant janitor, for he saw Kroeber as a friend, and he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, and had begun to accept that he could not return to his previous life. Ishi’s death occurred from tuberculosis, while Kroeber was on sabbatical. Although while he was away, Kroeber sent telegrams urging to treat Ishi’s body with respect and not utilize it for science, his wishes were ignored, and Ishi’s brain was removed prior to cremation. For some reason upon his return, Kroeber sent the brain to the Smithsonian for research (Scheper-Hughes suggests he did this as a form of disordered mourning)(Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 16).

In spring 1991, after Ishi’s brain had been located, Nancy Scheper-Hughes was asked to chair the committee to draft and deliver a formal statement from the University of California Berkeley on the situation. The statement consisted of a formal apology from the department of anthropology, and promised the swift return of Ishi’s brain to the Maidu (who were assumed to be the nearest cultural descendants of the Yahi). She then states that a conference or apology is not really enough to settle the mistrust from Native Americans toward anthropologists, which at some point anthropologists must be more than a bystander and co-conspirator toward genocide (Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes 18).

Scheper-Hughes’ recent work revolves around human organ trafficking and transplantation. In 1996 she partook in a two year study, traveling throughout Brazil, India, and South Africa for in depth research which consisted of observations and interviews in clinics, dialysis centers, police stations, morgues, anywhere that may have had involvement in organ harvesting and transplant surgery(The Global Traffic in Human Organs 192). She is also the founder of Organs Watch, an organization dedicated to the research of global human trafficking, as well as an advisor to the World Health Organization on these issues (“Nancy Scheper Hughes” Berkeley faculty page). Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ idea of militant anthropology came from extensive experience in relating to the human condition. Through her work with mental illness in Ireland, infanticide in Brazil, and civil rights in America it can be seen that she does not view other cultures as “others” at all. She views them “not just as friends or as patrons… but as comrades (with all the demands and responsibilities that this word implies)” (Moore and Sanders 512).

Sources: 


Kenny, Alexandra. “Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s AshesThe Complex Issues of Repatriation: A Response to N. Scheper- Hughes.” Anthropology Today. 18.2 (2002): 25-27. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. .

Kreisler, Harry. “Conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes.” Conversations With History. UC Berkeley, 18 jun 2008. Web. 23 Nov 2011.

Moore, Henrietta, and Todd Sanders, ed. Anthropology in Theory:Issues in Epistemology. Malden,Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

“Nancy Scheper-Hughes.” Anthropology Department, UC Berkeley. N.p., 27 nov 2011. Web. 27 Nov 2011. .

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Death Without Weeping. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Print.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “The Global Traffic in Human Organs.” Current Anthropology. 41.2 (2000): 191-224. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. “Ishi’s Brains, Ishi’s Ashes: Anthropology and Genocide.” Anthropology Today. 7.1 (2001): 12-18. Web. 23 Nov. 2011. .

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. 20th anniversary Edition, Rev. and expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Print.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Carolyn Fishel Sargent. Ed. Small Wars: the Cultural Politics of Childhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.
Spradley, James, and David McCurdy. Conformity and Conflict:Readings in Cultural Anthropology. 13th. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc, 2009. 

Spradley, James P., and David W. McCurdy. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

Separation to Re-integration: The Ritual Journey to Shamanism

TOPIC: #7 Rituals and Identity
TITLE: Separation to Re-integration: The Ritual Journey to Shamanism
SOURCE: Margolin, Malcolm. The Way We Lived: California Indian Stories, Songs & Reminiscences. 2nd. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1993.
RELATION: Conformity and Conflict (p. 300)-Definition of a shaman, Cultural Anthro (p. 139) – rites of passage
Although rituals are commonly associated with religious practices, Robbins has chosen to categorize them within his Cultural Anthro chapter on identity (Chapter 6). I find this to be justifiable, because although they are typically in relation to religion and spirituality, the purpose or rituals accomplish a more societal change in identity, so persons in a society can “learn who they are” (Robbins 139). Throughout many cultures, the rite of passage ritual is prominent. These rituals, as conceptualized by Arnold van Gennep, “mark a person’s passage from one identity to another” (Robbins 139). He laid out three key stages pertaining to such a passage:
1. Separation- leaving the old identity behind.
2. Transition (Liminal) – a marginal state of alienation and learning.
3. Incorporation- achieving a new identity and place in society.
A local example can be found in the Shaman training practices of the Yurok tribe of Northern California. A shaman is as Spradley defines, “religious specialists who directly control supernatural power” (Conformity and Conflict 300). I think a more precise wording would be an intermediary between the natural and supernatural world, who uses visions, song and/or dance as a form of healing. The training of a shaman follows the rite of passage formula where there is a separation (sometimes completely isolated from the tribe, sometimes ignored), a liminal state (fasting, dancing, a complete devotion to ritual until attaining a vision), and finally a re-incorporation into the society as a shaman, who is able to use their knowledge for healing (Margolin 104-106).
I think I would classify myself as being in a liminal state, especially with the transition to a university setting. I left home (my separation), and am now completely alienated from my family and experiencing an almost constant state of learning. I would like to think the reincorporation will come with graduation, but graduate studies will most likely begin a new passage.

Some thoughts on anthropology..

Notes from the start of the semester in my History of Anthropology course.

Anthropology is a constantly changing discipline. Human beings are so uniquely complex in not just biology, but our ideas. Because we do not know everything, the processes and ideas of anthropology change with time. The Blumenbach skulls for example, were the idea that humans were separated into four distinct races: African, Asian (Mongoloid), Caucasian, and American Indian. We now know this is not true, that variations can occur, and do most often within a race. In fact there can even be a cline, or shift in phenotype across generations in families. Because we are always acquiring new knowledge and ideas, anthropology is an intellectual discipline.

I agree with Geertz’s statement the anthropologists have a “permanent identity crisis,” it is partly what drew me to be an anthropology major. Because humans are so closely tied to and responsible for everything in our world, we must study a great deal of subjects to get the entire story.

Anthropology as a discipline is most definitely a work in progress. There are millions of questions still unanswered about our past, present, and where we may be headed in the future. Humans are constantly changing the world, so as long as humans exist, anthropology will exist.

I believe Boas’s concerns are similar to those of current anthropologists. The problem with reconstructing human history is that much of it is prehistoric, and in some cases evidence may not exist anymore. Historical phenomena and their sequences may only be known by what is written about them, which may have elements of author bias or political influence.

To be honest my global perspective is very limited. This is another reason I want to study anthropology. I have lived in the same house my entire life, and never left the country. My historical understanding of my world is not much better, but as I expand my knowledge I will have better understanding. Television and books have been my main resources. I think I would have a much better understanding once I begin to travel, and really experience the other parts of this world.

The history and development of anthropology helps us understand ourselves better. We can learn the mistakes and triumphs of those before us, putting modern anthropologists ahead of the game. Those who come after us will draw from our experiences and progress even further.

At this very place! The Actions Accomplished with the Speech Acts of the Western Apache.

TOPIC: #5 Speech Acts
TITLE: At this very place! The actions accomplished with the speech acts of the Western Apache.
SOURCE: Oxford Dictionary of English, and
Article:
“Speaking with Names”: Language and Landscape among the Western Apache
Keith H. Basso
Cultural Anthropology
Vol. 3, No. 2 (May, 1988), pp. 99-130
RELATION: Robbins Cultural Anthro p. 86- Key Metaphors of Geography in Western Apache dialogue; Conformity and Conflict p. 53 Symbols (and class discussion on the same); above article by Keith Basso- accomplishments of speech acts
The Oxford Dictionary of English Defines a speech act as “an utterance considered as an action, particularly with regard to its intention, purpose, or effect. The Western Apache of Cibecue (located in east-central Arizona) can accomplish many such actions with a basic phrase. This “Speaking with names,” as it is called takes a series of sentences, seemingly incoherent to those outside of the language, and with them arrive at a destination of mutual understanding, offering ancestral wisdom, and advice and therapy in topics which may be socially taboo to speak of outright.
The phrase spoken by the speaker typically surrounds a well-known geographic location, for example: “tsé hadigaiyé yὐ ágodzaa (It happened at the line of white rocks extends upward and out, at this very place)!” Geography is the key metaphor, or dominant attribute used to convey the experience (Robbins 86) to begin a pictorial depiction in the hearers mind. The intention of the geographic reference is to not only create a mental image of a specific place in the hearers mind, but to create an association to a known ancestral story that has occurred at the place. To, as Basso interpreted from the Western Apache, “Travel in your mind… and allow the past to inform your understanding of the present.”
There are many things accomplished socially by the Apache in speaking with names, as Basso lays out; it produces a mental image of places, conjures stories linked to such places, brings ancestral wisdom to the conversation, allows a way to “dance around” a taboo social subject, brings personal support, offers advice, change worry into hope, and “heals wounded spirits” (Basso 121).
The English language doesn’t have a single speech act, or even a formal systematic way of speaking capable of accomplishing as much as speaking with Names, but we can accomplish the “Travel in your mind” portion, particularly with our use of symbols. Spradley’s Conformity and conflict defines a symbol as anything we can perceive with our senses that stands for something else (p. 53). For example, if someone mentions Disneyland (assuming one has been there), you’re mind formulates a visual representation of your memory of the place. Likewise with the word “dog” as mentioned in class, your mind develops a representation of a specific dog. But this only fulfills one or two of what speaking with names can do. The western Apache are efficient speakers compared to the variety of words and phrases that would need to be used by American English.

The Price of Knowledge, a Balancing Act Between New and Used Textbooks


TOPIC: #4 Money
TITLE: The price of knowledge, a Balancing Act Between New and Used Textbooks
SOURCE:
Comparison of bookstore and online pricing:
Humboldt State University Bookstore. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sep 2011.
Amazon.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sep 2011.
Breakdown of textbook dollar image:
“Where the New Textbook Dollar Goes.” San Diego State University Bookstore. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Sep 2011.
RELATION: Cultural Anthro (Robbins) p.62 (Capital Conversion- knowledge as a commodity); 70(Market externalization- real cost of used textbooks)
Each semester, I am confronted with a new list of expensive textbooks to purchase. Although recently I find most of them to be resources to hang onto and not sell back, I remember when it was a different scenario. For many of my general education classes, I ran into the issue of attempting to resell my books and being told that I could not; there was already another version being used for the upcoming semester. From my point of view this was annoying, inconvenient and disheartening; I was now stuck with books that were useless to me at the time (I was a dance major, and had no desire to reread books after I passed a course). Why did this keep occurring? What is the point of revising and discontinuing material (sometimes only switching the location of chapters, or adding a few footnotes)? In looking at this issue from another perspective, rather than the college student, I am beginning to grasp the rationale of the phenomena.

My first question is what is the need for the price excessiveness in textbooks (or education in general) to begin with? Knowledge is a commodity that really has no real monetary value; however humans find intrinsic worth in attaining it. This capital conversion (Robbins 62) comes in the form of the educational system and books; conveniently accessible conglomerations of knowledge individuals are willing to purchase. Due to the virtue humans attribute, those educated individuals are considered of high status, and are entrusted with the capability of conveying knowledge to the masses, through their work. But is the price of a textbook really a reflection of the worth of the individual author who produced it? Not exactly, there are many other individuals involved in the publishing and production of books that are also reflected in the price. (This analysis is actually more of the opposite of market externalities, as discussed in the Robbins Cultural Anthro text, because the cost of these “unseen” entities is reflected in the price). The San Diego State University bookstore website has an excellent example of the breakdown for each dollar spent on textbooks. (I realize the breakdown may be different for other institutions, but the same basic idea).


What is the point, as “starving college students” to provide to these companies and corporations who are making so much more than the author or bookstores? I myself have taken to the online used book services (for example, Amazon.com) where I have been able to find my textbooks at a greater discount than a campus store. For example, I was able to find the Robbins Cultural Anthro textbook and Spradley’s Conformity and Conflict for a good amount less than in any bookstore (I could go into specific prices, in keeping with social mystification of money matters, and out of respect to the bookstore, I will keep the numbers to myself). When a book is resold through one of these sources, most of the price goes to the selling source, completely cutting out the author and publisher’s income. This is more of an example of market externalities, because the cost is not a reflection of the work that has gone into the book (I can generally find most of my textbooks for half off or more). While the money may have been an accurate reflection in the first new sale, it is now recirculating with no relation to any company. If this recirculation of used text becomes too constant (if everyone kept reusing the same version), it is a cost to the author, publishers and bookstores. Here we find the source of revisions; a tactic designed to render used books useless and force that income back into business. While it is completely beneficial to me as a student, to have more to spend on housing and tuition, there is now less value on the author to convey their knowledge.
Edit: 12/4/11
Trolling the internet for more anthropology blogs, and I came across this entry. It is about Open Access and E-publishing of books.
I like the questions posed:
“So if the books were cheaper, would they be disseminated and read more? Would more copies end up being distributed? Maybe! Should academics be concerned about the dissemination of their work? Is it okay for people to try and make money off your research at the expense of researchers having easy access to it?”
I think this is an interesting conundrum for social scientists to consider..

Hop on the bus or get left behind: An introductory analysis on the effects of social technology.

Ethnographic Sketch- Technology and Social Media

TITLE: Hop on the bus or get left behind: An introductory analysis on the effects of social technology.
SOURCE: Conversation with Humboldt County local on Public Bus, and Casual conversation with Daniel Cutrone in a van driving to archaeological site.

RELATION: Conformity and Conflict (Spradley) p. 81-82: Relating to benefits of communication technology, Cultural Anthro (Robbins) p. 64: Relating to Robert Putnam’s idea of erosion of social capital.

I was on a bus this past spring, departing from Humboldt State University and headed toward the hotel with my mother. I was fortunate to be able to converse with the local (not an HSU student) who I happened to be sitting next to. She complimented the bracelet I was wearing, and showed me hers, saying she wanted to alter it somehow. We brainstormed various additions and she told me about her life, her relationships, and health issues. She was ecstatic that someone who sat next to her on a bus could actually have a human conversation. When I brought up that I was going to be an anthropologist, we began to explore the idea of why I was the only one on this bus full of people who had taken the time to converse. Looking around the bus, most people were either sitting silently with headphones on, or looking down at their cellphone texting (or possibly playing games, it is hard to tell these days). Many were doing a combination, creating a bubble of their own world. Her story and opinion sparked my interest in exploring whether the expansion of social media and technology is more beneficial or detrimental to the communication of mankind.
This encounter originally directed me with the intention of focusing on the negative effects on society from the increase in technology, there are many benefits. In her essay Technology and Society: Anthropologists Investigate the Use of Communications Technology and Reach Surprising Conclusions (Conformity and Conflict chapter 9), Belle Mellor explores the many uses and benefits of technology. For example, she points out the ability to multitask, that “…there is only so much time you can spend talking.” She elaborates saying that messaging allows “…continuous [contact] during the day.” I agree that for those who maintain a busy schedule can really benefit from this technology, especially in situations where personal contact is irrelevant. Mellor also brings up a fantastic point, that increasing technology allows for greater communication across the globe. Many families and friends can easily keep in touch. She brings up a case of a Spanish girl living with her family in Switzerland, who is able to do homework with her aunt in Spain. This is accomplished for free, through the Skype video-internet service.
Although it is very advantageous to be able to reach others we care for, I do not think this increasing modernity is necessary. During my first field school, my instructor Daniel Cutrone brought up the point that there are wise minds who have a great knowledge to share are often unable to do so, due to the rapidly increasing dependence of the rest of the world on technology. This disconnects their ability to channel that information to future generations. Oral tradition is very important to many cultures, in some cases it is the only form of transmission through eras. In cutting off those elders, we are losing a shoulder to stand on. This leaves the future youth in the dark, or without common sense necessary to decipher the constant bombardment of information they do receive. The architecture of wisdom loses its foundation.
I have personally grown up in this digital revolution, and have experienced the how it was before everyone was expected to own a cell phone. I remember the days where I would collect call my mother from a payphone for a ride, or stay up late on the house phone talking to a friend. Now my cell feels almost like a leash, everyone can reach me at any time. It is convenient but not necessary; I got along fine before they were around. Regardless of my opinion, I do not feel I have the choice to abandon technology. I do know several people who have chosen not to conform, and they have spoken of feeling out of the loop. This displacement is further exacerbated with the utilization of online classes in universities. What was wrong with the traditional method? When I was able to speak with the girl on the bus, I felt a more human connection and a part of her stayed with me. Oral tradition creates a spark of emotion and memory that text cannot. Words on a screen, even if articulately written, are completely up to the reader’s interpretation.
Robert Putnam claims that social capital, or the network of reciprocal exchange between people, is declining. He attributes this mainly to electronic entertainment, especially television, but I see the same can be said about more recent technology. (Robbins p. 64) Although societal influences direct us toward utilization of communication technology, it is ultimately the choice of the individual. Information can be accumulated in more than one way.
Edit: 12/2/2011
Source: Watched this in Anthropology club, it is a little lengthy, but I think it gives a good summary of how some use technology
URL (in case the embed fails): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPAO-lZ4_hU