Review: Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection by Anna Tsing

In her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Anna Tsing utilizes Arjun Appadurai’s framework on Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy and his theory on “scapes” to inform her own work in discussing “friction”. Appadurai’s work provides an analytical structure through which to understand the global imagined landscapes that show the fluidity of a cultural state.

Tsing uses the term “friction” as a metaphor to describe the differences that arise and make up the contemporary world in a political, social, and economic regard. In doing so, Tsing aims to answer questions about global connectedness. For her main argument she uses her fieldwork in Indonesia’s rain forest industry and its environmental and political engagement during the 1980’s and 1990’s as an example. She seeks to answer the questions of “Why is global capitalism so messy? Who speaks for nature? And what kinds of social justice makes sense in the twenty-first century?” (p. 2) These questions are answered through a series of chapters that are named around what Tsing considers metaphors for universals truths: Prosperity, Knowledge, and Freedom, along with seven subchapters arranged within each section to reinforce her points.

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Review: My Cocaine Museum by Michael Taussig

Michael Taussig’s book, My Cocaine Museum, is an experimental text that seeks to explore the “imagined realities” of the cocaine industry in Colombia. Opening with a history of Colombia’s gold industry and its similarities to the cocaine trade, Taussig presents his readers with a “human history as natural history”, stressing the historical and symbolic likenesses between gold and cocaine production. Written in a non-traditional style of ethnographic writing that reads like a fictional narrative, misgivings arise through the course of the text if it is viewed through a strictly traditional lens. Although the majority of the book adheres to a distinct framework in its literal style, at times its linearity becomes hard to follow as Taussig goes back and forth between gold’s significance, cocaine’s relation to gold, and anecdotal stories told by Colombian informants who often seem to serve more as decorative enhancements to Taussig’s main points of cocaine and Colombian history than first-hand sources of information.

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Review: Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story

book cover

Ruth Behar’s book titled, Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story, is a vividly-written text that explores the life of a Mexican woman named Esperanza. Behar, a teacher and anthropologist, chooses Esperanza as her subject of analysis for a variety of reasons. The main one centers on Esperanza’s status as a common Mexican woman, a member of a group which is generally marginalized and glossed over as an insignificant subject of scrutiny in cultural studies. During the course of her work, Behar asks the question, “Can an ethnographer portray her subject, in this case Esperanza, while employing her own voice and experiences as well?”

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Anthropology Reading Journal Series I

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
VI. 10/17/2011: The Body in/and Performance

This week’s focus is a continuation on the Body and the theory of embodiment of culture in performance. It’s a critical review day so we won’t be discussing articles but instead I’ll be reviewing the book, Sensational Knowledge by Tomie Hahn, written by a professor from RPI who teachers dance and performance.

Book #2 Critical Analysis
Hahn, Tomie. 2007. Sensational Knowledge. Middletown CT: Wesleyan UP.

Tomie Hahn’s, Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance, is an ethnographic text that studies Kabuki’s cousin – and lesser known dance style – nihon buyo. By examining the practice of nihon buyo, Hahn explores how culture is passed down and embodied through dance.

In her introduction, Hahn highlights the concept of dance transmission, writing that transmission is “the information between teacher and student, sender and receiver, and embraces the relationship that evolves” (p. 2). She goes on to give historical background on the Japanese concept of mind and body as one. Throughout the beginning chapter, this unity of oneness is emphasized as Hahn builds her case in support of how theory arises from practice. This sets the groundwork for Hahn’s interests and questions relating to embodiment. She begins by explaining to the reader that translating embodied culture and experience into text is wrought with difficulties due to the nature of actual experience. Hahn expresses these concerns by framing them with the surrounding questions of, “How does culture shape our attendance to various sensoria and how does our interpretation shape our individual realities,” (p.33). She references Lila Abu-Lughod’s Writing against Culture as an inspiration for disrupting her insider perspective, enabling her to better convey sensory knowledge through multiple voices.

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Anthropology Reading Journal Series I

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
V. 10/3/2011: The Body in/and Anthropology

This week’s readings centered on the main theme of the body and it’s embodiment of culture.

Reading #1: Classen, Constance and David Howes. 1996. “Making Senes of Culture: Anthropology as a Sensual Experience.” Enthofoor 9(2):86-96.

Constance Classen and David Howe’s “Making Sense of Culture: Anthropology as a Sensual Experience” open their article with three vignettes that discussed multi-sensory experiences and their sensual significance. The first vignette explored the sense of smell in the Andean region of Northwestern Argentina; the second vignette explored the Navajo sand painting experience of physical and visual transference; and the final vignette discussed the Desana of the Colombian Amazon and their visual attributing of color to their way of understanding their physical world. The authors dedicated their article to exploring the senses in anthropology as a way of fully understanding culture. They write that the body is of cultural significance because it is both the basis of physical experience as well as a model in which experience is communicated. Using their first vignette as an example, Classen and Howes note that the sensory experience of a place can be learned through the olfactory senses. They discuss how the natives in the Andean region of Northwest Argentina were able to distinguish between the various herbal scents of plants and their inherent properties through “olfactory classification”.

The second vignette focused on tactile pictures or sand paintings of the Navajo that are created as a medium for transferring divine power to the ill person who comes for healing. It is a ritual performed by a shaman who paints sand around the ill person who is seated. Sprinkling different types of pigmented sand and creating a picture around the ill person allows the shaman to give physical form to the spirits he consults with. The Navajo believe that by performing this ritual and aligning the ill person in the center of this re-created cosmos, allows the sick person to become spiritually centered once again. This visual and physical experience becomes another avenue in which to explore the anthropology of embodied culture.

Finally, the author’s third vignette references the cosmic color use of the Colombian Amazon in which vibrant colors correlate to a symbolic system that “work together to create the cosmos and everything in them.” By exploring this visual sense of the Desana, anthropologists can realize how such a system dictates behavior in their culture. Color and the cosmos are engendered with moral significance and provide an understanding for the Desana in learning about their world. The authors conclude that by studying culture through a multi-sensory approach allows the anthropologist to benefit in a variety of ways.

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Anthropology Reading Journal Series I

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
IV. 09/26/2011: Revisiting “Classic” Ethnography: The Nuer

This week’s readings surround Evans-Pritchard’s and structuralist approach to anthropology. After a review of the related article, you can find my critical analysis on Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography on the Nuer after the first reading.

Reading #1

Coote, Jeremy. 1994. “Marvels of Everyday Vision: the Anthropology of Aesthetics and the Cattle Keeping Nilotes.” In The Anthropology of Art Reader, ed. Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins.

Coote’s chapter on the Nilotes of Sothern Sudan explores the aesthetics of anthropology in regards to these peoples and their practice of cattle keeping. He writes that, “all human activity has aesthetic aspect,” (p. 125) laying groundwork to his belief that art and aesthetic can be treated independently of each other.

Using the Nilotes of Southern Sudan as a case study, he gives in depth descriptions of their cattle keeping process and explains through comparative study, the value in perceptual experience as seen in different societies. Coote goes on to stress the importance of not just making assumptions of what is seen but to see how the subject sees.

Because the Nilotes value cattle as their highest type of possession, Coote examines the details of cattle and the perceptual qualities that are so prized by many of the Nilote tribes. Of the qualities so prized for aesthetic value, comes first is the color of the cattle. He writes that “on discussing the colour patterns of an animal – as they do for hours – the Dinka sound more like art critics than stockbreeders”. (p.130) They value color with symbolic importance.

The second aesthetic value they look for is in sheen. The sheen of the hide can show the appreciation and time given to particular cattle in terms of grooming. Much of beauty that is seen in regards to the sheen of cattle has been spoken about in songs and poetry by the Nilotes. 

Thirdly, the horn shape of the sculpting of the horns is particularly appealing to these tribes. The shaping of the horns while the cattle are still young is a common practice that trainers feel enhances the beauty of their cattle. Much appreciation of cattle and their horns is often expressed, once again, in song. 

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Anthropology Reading Journal Series

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
III. September 19” Ethnography and/as Culture II

This week’s readings are a continuation of week II’s theme on ethnography and culture, though reading #2, Ruth Behar’s except, is more about the writing style that she employs than a critique on how ethnographies have previously been written.

Reading #1: Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Writing Against Culture” In Feminist Anthropology: A Reader. 153-169.

Abu-Lughod’s article explores two critical groups; “feminists and halfies”, groups whose perspectives have been excluded from fully understanding the process of ethnographic writing. She explains that these groups exemplify cultural identities that have multiple origins or perspectives. For feminists, one is both a ‘woman’ and ‘other’, whereas “halfies” are those “whose national identity is mixed by virtue of migration”.

At the heart of the article is her main question, “What happens when you disrupt or disturb the balance of traditional ethnographic practice that so often excluded these critical groups?” Her answer to this question is that when one achieves “writing against culture”, they reflect on the “conventional nature and political effects of distinction and ultimately reconsider that value of concept of culture on which it depends.” (p.466) Writing against culture, thus becomes a method of purposely including and recognizing these dualities or pluristic perspectives in order to reinforce distinctions with the hierarchy that is inherent in anthropology.

Abu Lughod supports her claims by explaining the problem when one is both ‘self’ and ‘other’. She discusses how feminists and anthropologists are different in how they construct knowledge with which to draw boundaries. There is an awkwardness that occurs for the feminists who situate themselves with the other but also feel that they are ‘under attack’ by the other. This is a missing perspective in much of ethnographic writing that cannot be fully captured by the non-feminist/halfie anthropologist.

In conclusion, Abu-Lughod says that because of these split selves, both feminists and halfies are constantly troubled with determining issues related to “speaking for and speaking from”. Though this is troublesome, it allows them to critically assess “positionality, audience, and the power inherent in distinctions in self and other.” (p. 468)

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Anthropology Reading Journal Series

Anthropology Reading Journal Series
II. 09/12/2011: Ethnography and/as Culture I 

As part of a critical reading journal for my graduate Ethnology class, I’ve decided to start documenting my responses to assigned readings in this blog.

It’s my hope that this will serve as an exercise to both develop my scholarly writing as well as to virtually document my time as a graduate student in pursuit of a second masters degree. As a librarian, I find that going back to school has enabled me to keep my mind engaged with some of the same concerns my patrons are experiencing.  

With that said, here are the first week’s worth of readings surrounding ethnography and culture. As a newbie, I found the readings to be overall enlightening. They helped to give me a historical framework for the discipline of anthropology and writing that I hadn’t encountered before.

Following are definitions from

1. ethnography – (noun) a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures.

2. culture – (noun)

-the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits,etc.
that which is excellent in the arts,manners,etc.
a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period :Greek culture.
development or improvement of the mind by education or training.
the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.

Reading #1: Clifford, James. 1980. “Fieldwork, Reciprocity, and the Making of Ethnographic Texts.” Man 15(3):518-532. 

The main topic of Clifford’s article, “Fieldwork, Reciprocity, and the Making of Ethnographic Texts”, is that of participant observation, a key process that involves the ethnographer not merely observing or watching his subject, but actively engaging with the subject, his environment and activities. It’s considered a key component for developing ethnography.

Clifford cleverly uses the work of the missionary anthropologist Maurice Leenhardt, whose ethnographic research took place in New Caledonia during the early 20th century as a way to explain one mode of creating ethnography.

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