29 March 2016

Anthropologists are good for business

At the end of the academic year, I usually take some time with my first-year anthropology students to discuss what the 'take home' points are from the course, and the value of applying an anthropological lens in their lives after the class ends. While a handful of students might become anthro majors or minors, some will perhaps take another anthropology class during their degree, most will simply be happy to have completed their social science credit. In any case it's important to think about what anthropology teaches us about how we (and those around us) think about and act in our social worlds, and how culture matters!

What has surprised me most -- though should really come as no surprise -- is that in the past few years I have been seeing more and more articles about how anthropologists and our ethnographic approach to social research is good for business, including in market research.

In The new buzzword in marketing: Ethnography (2011) and its follow up Lessons for marketing to millennials, Mark Healy surveys the three lessons his firm learned about the power of ethnography to provide meaningful insights in marketing. Similarly, Why companies are desperate to hire anthropologists (2015) explains that
While most execs are masters of analysing spreadsheets, creating processes, and pitching products, anthropologists — and other practitioners of applied social science — can arrive at customer insights that big data tends to gloss over, especially around the role that products play in people's lives.
That information is more valuable than you might think. What customers want from a product and what companies think they want can be totally different, but it can take an anthropological lens to learn why.
This is because anthropologists know that culture matters. Being critically attuned to how culture matters, and individuals' social positions within their cultural context influences people to act, think and feel in certain ways is a valuable skill.

28 March 2016

The Vote Heard Around the (Anthropological) World: American Anthropological Association v. Israeli academic institutions

Our North American association of Anthropologists (not the Canadian association - CASCA - but the Association that many Canadian anthropologists belong to), recently voted in favour of a resolution "calling on the group to boycott Israeli academic institutions by a 1,040 to 136 margin at the association’s annual business meeting on Friday evening"

According to the coverage in the Inside Higher Education article which details how Anthropology professors vote overwhelmingly to back boycott of Israeli universities. Issue now goes to their association membership, "proponents of the academic boycott see it as a way of protesting Israel’s continued hold on some territories occupied in the Six Day War in 1967, and of standing up for the rights of Palestinians." On a website for the boycott movement, there are 1230 AAA members who have signed in support of the resolution.

To the credit of AAA, their recent trade publication Anthropology News has published articles for and against this boycott which can be read here:

Should We Act on Israel/Palestine, or Not? by Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia U)


Beyond Zero-Sum Logics on Israel/Palestine by Michele Rivkin-Fish (UNC-Chapel Hill)

As a discipline, Anthropology often pictures itself as being reflexive of its colonial past and seeks to position itself, according to some, as a discipline of societal critique. I applaud the organization's willingness to publish dissenting positions to its boycott, which I see as tools of seeking closer representation to membership opinion, providing a balanced overview of AAA perspectives on this boycott, and unabashedly demonstrates the diversity (and dissent) found among its membership (it can be argued that the boycott blog also acknowledge the importance of dissent with its page: 'yes...but...').

Whether you agree or disagree, this approach to discussing a VERY political topic is insightful in terms of what Anthropology, as a discipline, is willing to do.

24 March 2016

No Other Discipline Produces as Many Terrorists...Is quite a headline

Rhiannon and I recently came upon a news article about the link between education, namely the discipline of Engineering, and Terrorism (see our previous post on the Anthropology of Terrorism).

What most of you likely don't know is that I'm a cultural anthropologist teaching for a Bachelor of Technology program in a School of Engineer Practice and Technology. My students would be lumped into the larger category of 'engineering students' referred to in this article and therefore, this article is of particular interest to me as an anthropologist and an instructor.

In the article, Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists?, by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the author details the work of two social scientists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog who sought to understand why there are a disproportional number of terrorists who have been educated as engineers. Note, the article, and unfortunately this post, mentions but does not go into enough detail concerning the inherent issues, bias, and geo-politics that are involved when labeling of any individual a 'terrorist'.

The author describes the notable pattern determined through Gambetta and Hertog's research: [Of the 207 viable subjects], 93 of them, nearly 45 percent, had studied engineering. This frequency far exceeded what would be predicted statistically; among male college students from the 19 countries represented in the sample, fewer than 12 percent studied engineering.

Gambetta and Hertog point to the following sociological and psychological reasons as to why engineering students & graduates may be over-represented in this group:
1. Sociological reason: Relative Deprivation. Individuals who 'feel denied their due' when graduates do not receive the lucrative career and status they have come to expect upon graduation.
2. Psychological reasons: Cognitive closure: described as a preference for order and distaste for ambiguity (and also a need for closure and/or related to a systematic thinking that would allow one to compartmentalize the outcome of their actions, and may be accompanied by traits such as self-aggrandizement and low levels of empathy) which, in turn, is related to two factors: (1) the prevalence to accepting prevailing hierarchies and (2) to experience high levels of disgust.
See the article for a more detailed description of these factors.

What the research says: the authors DO NOT argue that engineering education causes tendencies or proclivities toward acts of violence or extremism (and advocate not to profile engineers at airports). The authors belief the chief reason so many violent extremists are engineers is that these programs appeal to a certain kind of mind.

In my opinion, an important take away from the article is the questioning of how students learn in engineering. Other scholars interviewed for the article discuss the apolitical nature of teaching and content in engineering courses as well as the divestment of nontechnical factors as irrelevant to the work of "real" engineering. (...) Engineering education fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering. The article also includes rebuttals to these points with scholars noting the introductory (what I teach) and capstone courses that engage with open-ended questions that foster tolerance for ambiguity as well as communication and teamwork skills.

At the heart of this discussion is whether or not there is a causal link between education and violent, extremist attitudes and although the answer is absolutely not...that finding doesn't make for as good a headline.

Related posts:

22 March 2016

The Anthropology of Terrorism: Learning about threat, fear, and community building in times of loss and anguish

I chose today to write about terrorism as another bomb blast rocks the European world, not because it was any more important than the blasts that rocked Ankara just last week but because the media coverage, and backlash, will be much more pronounced here in Canada and North America in general than what came of the former (see Rhiannon's previous post on who and what makes the news to understand why). It is also another event in a series of terrorist threats and actions that seemingly culminates around the terrorist group ISIS.

Let me ask, do any of the words in the above title of this post strike you as odd? While I'm sure the words threat and fear will be used in media coverage over the next week, as well as loss and perhaps anguish, community building might wait to surface until the aftermath of this event. That is, what happens in everyday life in Brussels after the alarm and urgency of this tragic event have passed (and just a note here, I speak for both myself and Rhiannon when I write that we are both deeply saddened by the loss of life and the wounds inflicted by this event - it is not my intention to only use this event as a set of circumstances to discuss anthropology but instead, to write and discuss the very real and pertinent way this event will/has affect(ed) us all, and how an anthropological perspective can help us make sense of such events that connect local lives with global processes).

In January 2015, Scott Atran, an anthropologist who interviews "would-be and convicted terrorists about their extreme commitment to their organizations and ideals," was interviewed for an article in Scientific American in order to help answer questions that juxtapose religion, European culture and influence from terrorist organizations. Atran is noted as one of the few anthropologists studying in this area and uses this article to try and describe what events could lead human beings to decide to carry out a terrorist attack.

Below are some of the highlights from this interview:
1. ISIS cultivates would-be terrorists by appealing to feelings and experiences of social inequality. They tell them: "Look, you're on the outs, nobody cares about you, but look what we can do. We can change the world."
2. Terrorists must be self-motivated - "Even if people buy into the [ISIS or Al Qaeda] ideology, buy into the values, it’s far from a sufficient condition [to carry out an attack]". Instead, these actions are cultivated over time through a network of similarly-minded individuals: "The best predictors turn out to be things like who your friends are and whether you belong to some action group".
3. Mosques are not fertile ground for terrorist plots. Atran states (and was questioned in relation to the Paris attacks): "In the case of the Kouachi brothers [who committed the Charlie Hebdo attack], [they] had the greatest bonding experience - prison [Atran notes earlier in the article that "France has about 7.5% Muslims and [they make] up to 60–75% of the prison population. It’s a very similar situation to black youth in the United States"]. But it could be soccer, it could be whitewater rafting". This follows what Atran stated earlier in the interview: "Plots never occur in mosques: you have to be quiet in a mosque. They occur in fast food places, soccer fields, picnics and barbecues".

There is a lot of emotion surrounding any terrorist attack (I've been using the word 'event' above as a means to think through what is happening in a less emotional manner). As an anthropologist, one might take a step back to look at events holistically: What is happening at this moment in Belgium or the EU that would lead to the culmination of these events? What would lead these attackers, on a societal level, to commit such acts?  

One might also think about the specificity surrounding such an event. In the news articles coming out of Brussels, many of those interviewed noted that they heard 'yelling in Arabic' before the bomb exploded. An anthropologist might make note of the following:

All Arabic speakers are NOT terrorists
All Muslims are NOT Arabic speakers
All terrorists are NOT Muslims
Individuals commit terrorist acts. Full stop.

Thinking about these perpetrators as individuals committing actions on behalf of a small group (even if they act on behalf of ISIS) is important to remember when thinking about the potential fall out this event could have for those living in Brussels and in greater Belgium (including Muslim Belgians).

As Robb Willer has recently argued, terrorist events drive up feelings of nationalism, particularly in presidential elections. Although it likely comes as no surprise, demagogue Donald Trump has already phoned into right-wing news houses to lay blame at Brussels' feet, he has linked these attacks to the recent refugee crisis, and whipped up more terror and fear among the American public. Willer goes on to note that terrorist attacks not only bring national communities together but create a more sharp dividing line between who is and who is not a part of the national community.

It's with an anthropological lens, and other critical social science theories and approaches, that one might think not only of the short term but long term effects of the actions following such an attack.

My heart and thoughts are with those in Brussels today.

18 March 2016

The Anthropology of Trump: It's getting political in here

Rhiannon and I have been remiss. Despite all the hullabaloo, we have yet to post anything about the political events happening south of the border. Happily, Paul Stoller from West Chester University has done just that in a recent news article entitled: the Anthropology of TRUMP

In this article, Stoller uses what he calls a 'cultural vantage' to understand Trump's (aka. Drumpf) popularity which he speaks of as: "the embodiment of celebrity culture — a world filled with glitz, fantasy and illusion".

Stoller goes on to describe Trump's show time recipe:
Step 1: Trump comes on stage
Step 2: Trump recites his poll numbers
Step 3: Insults his opponents
Step 4: Invites famous supporters to the stage to 'sing his praises'
Step 5: Talks about how bad things are, how he's the man to make things better (all the while) avoiding anything factual
Step 6 (my own inclusion): some lewd or ludicrous joke about genitalia, sweating, vulnerable/visible minorities

Stoller goes on to argue that "[a]t no point does his talk focus upon a program for action, the complexities of policy or the intractability of social, political and economic problems at home and abroad".

As an anthropologist whose work in the Netherlands discussed the everyday experiences of rising Islamophobia, Stoller's point that "[i]n the real world Mr. Trump’s willful ignorance, his undignified behavior and his Islamophobia is both senseless and dangerous" particularly hits home. He goes on to conclude that "[d]espite substantial evidence to the contrary Mr. Trump’s supporters believe his mantra: things are horrible and we need a strong leader — Donald Trump — to fix a broken system", seemingly regardless of the truth or one's ability to manage the complexities of one of the largest nations in the world.

The tools of Anthropology prove to be a useful tool in this scenario to peel back the laughable drama and pomp that surrounds this political circus and help call attention to the real outcomes of Trump's campaign. This article also demonstrates the applicability of Anthropology in various realms.

16 March 2016

If there were only 100 people on Earth

To start off any class in globalization, transnationalism or poverty, I often began with The Miniature Earth video because it never failed to surprise at least half the class (with the statistics, which would often be questioned after) and put what we were talking about into perspective. This video ends with 'Appreciate what you have. Do you best for a better world.' The video director then asks the viewer to contribute to charitable organizations.

This video is often updated with this new version - Link-- written and Produced by Gabriel Reilich. Animation by Jake Infusino.

This version ends different however because it asks us 'if the earth was reduced to 100 people, would we fight harder for equality?'

It might be an interesting question to pose to my class but I would argue, pessimistically, that we'd fight even harder against it.

14 March 2016

Sunderland & Denny: "We Are All Anthropologists Now"

In a recent AAA Blog post, Sunderland & Denny argue that 'if anthropology is good for business' (something they discuss in depth in the post), then business must be good for anthropology.

They go on to ask:
Who else will point to the memes that organize institutional actions or inspire (or constrain) anthropological thinking and practices? Who else can contest and transform and bring anthropology in from within?
An interesting read from the AAA blog post

Appropriating Indigenous Knowledge: Biopiracy or Scientific Colonialism

"Biopiracy: when indigenous knowledge is patented for profit" (7 March 2016) reflects on an ongoing form of colonial exploitation and cultural appropriation.
Historically, biopiracy has been linked to colonialism, with formerly colonised countries having many of their resources forcibly removed. Pepper, sugar, coffee, quinine, or rubber did, and still do, have significant impact on the world economies. All of them have a colonial past.
At the heart of the matter is the idea of ownership. Patents and trademarks are hotly defended by international trade organisations and multinational groups. But for many traditional farmers or indigenous groups, owning a constantly evolving and changing organism is illogical, as is assigning ownership to one person instead of a community of users.
Even though international organizations like the WTO have prompted the development of legal frameworks to protect plant and animal resources in the contexts of pharmaceutical and agricultural development, these legal interventions fall short of protecting or considering the cultural aspects of knowledge. 

11 March 2016

3.57 Degrees of Kevin Bacon?

Facebook does research (they do? yes) using analytics from their social media platform. They recently tested the hypothesis that there are 6 degrees of separation between everyone on the planet. What they found was: "Each person in the world (at least among the 1.59 billion people active on Facebook) is connected to every other person by an average of three and a half other people."

What implications does this have for anthropologists thinking about community building, globalization, or human or item movements?

Or, is Facebook really trying to bring the internet.org (i.e. facebook apps) to every part of India in order to continue to lower these degrees of separation?

STEM vs. Arts? The need for graduates to be 'work ready'

There has been a LOT of talk about the usefulness of certain types of degrees which typically pits the Sciences, Maths, Engineering and Technology (STEM) against the Social Sciences, Arts and the Humanities disciplines. As a socio-cultural anthropologist, I often find myself fighting to articulate the skills and benefits of my degree having been categorized as one of the more social of the sciences.

Yet, it's occurred to me that STEM degrees do not get away scot-free from having to articulate their usefulness to their graduates, employers, and the public.

A recent report spoke of the need to have more graduates who have "skilled digital talent" for the purpose of leveraging digital technology. The report goes on to argue that these graduates, and their talents, will be most useful for medium sized businesses (SMEs) because SMEs "have limited means to train or find a job-ready workforce to respond to the fast changing reality of the global economic landscape". From the perspective of an educator, their call to "ensure that new graduates have the practical knowledge and skills they need to enter the workforce quickly and add value to Canadian businesses" lays the professionalization of students at the doorstep of STEM disciplines. Like 'Arts' disciplines, some of those STEM disciplines have been teaching with more traditional academic ideals, rather than (only having) professionalization and skill-based outcomes in mind.

This revelation (likely only for myself) has got me thinking about the potential opportunities for collaboration with my STEM colleagues for the purpose of sharing what some feel is the increasing burden of the professionalization and skills-training of students.

10 March 2016

Indigenous languages and gender

"Indigenous languages recognize gender states not even named in English" (10 March 2016) explores how our social worlds -- including our understanding and experiences of gender -- are shaped by language. Until the arrival of European colonizers, gender wasn't part of a binary system (man or woman) for many indigenous groups in North America. Rather, gender was something much more fluid with non-binary gendered terms and ways of talking about individuals and social relationships.
Indigenous languages have words for gender states that are not expressed in English, as well ... . In Cree, for example, “aayahkwew” means “neither man or woman.” In Inuktitut, “sipiniq” means “infant whose sex changes at birth.” In Kanien’keha, or Mohawk language, “onĂ³n:wat” means “I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body.”
This article is part of a series exploring culturally relevant First Nations sex education from The Globe and Mail.

09 March 2016

The mutability of language (LOL!)

Despite the racy Kim Kardashian West hook, this article from the Atlantic (9 March 2016) provides an insightful analysis of the evolution of language -- specifically, the trajectory of LOL from e-text meaning "laughing out loud" to its now common use as a new form of punctuation.
So it’s not that LOL, strictly speaking, has gone the way of “ROFL” and “fleek” and “bae”—it’s not that LOL, as The Awl bluntly declared in writing about the Facebook study last year, has died. On the contrary: It is still vital. It is still common. It has simply, like so many other pieces of Internet slang, evolved to encompass more than its original meaning. As the linguist John McWhorter summed it up in 2013: “LOL isn’t funny anymore.”
The Atlantic's culture writer Megan Garber also provides many links to other examples of changing language-use, making this piece a treasure trove for thinking about language as part of culture.

08 March 2016

Who makes the news?

"What is news in the 21st century?" (The Conversation, US. 7 March 2016) The widespread adoption of new social media tools has changed how people relate to one another, but it has also changed not only the question of who makes the news, but what news is. Journalists, who have long been the "gatekeepers" to what we consider news or newsworthy, are no longer the only news-makers.
The audience, who for several generations have largely been sleeping partners in the news production business, have suddenly become more active. In the past, they only purchased news content. And if they were angry after reading biased or inaccurate stories, drafting a “letter to the editor” was their only possible way of showing concern.
Today they have direct access to the editor via Twitter, they directly comment on stories anonymously and instantly, and as alternative players they produce content and share it online. They have also become a legitimate source of information for conventional journalists.
How and in what ways do these changes matter in our everyday lives? How can the stories, opinions, and experiences of 'citizen journalists' via social media reshape what counts as news? How might these alternate accounts become a force for political change (as Bonilla & Rosa (2015) suggest in their analysis of #Ferguson)?

How people use social media

The Economist reviews of some of the key findings of the anthropological, multi-sited “Why We Post” project. This project was conducted by nine anthropologists led by Daniel Miller of University College, London.

Ethnographic research was conducted over the course of
15 months at locations in Brazil, Britain, Chile, China (one rural and one industrial site), India, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey. They embedded themselves within families and their surrounding communities. That, the team believes, let them form a nuanced view of the roles of social media in their study sites which could not be gained by analysing participants’ public postings.
For those of us turning an anthropological lens on the (study of ) media (like Michael Wesch), it comes as no surprise that new technologies, including social media, shape and reshape human relationships, and that cultural context matters. This study "challenges the idea that the adoption of social media follows a single and predictable trajectory."

07 March 2016

Changing immigration legislation and what it means for Canadian (and Anthropology) classrooms

The Canadian government is going to relax legislation in order to make it easier for international students to remain and become citizens in Canada. Immigration Minister John McCallum is quoted as saying:

“If there’s any group in this country who would be good Canadians – they’re educated, they know about this country, they speak English or French – it’s [international students]. So why punch them in the nose when we’re trying to attract them here in competition with Australia, the UK and others?”
This has me thinking - are our classrooms creating good 'Canadians'? Are lecturers equipped to fulfill this secondary goal of post-secondary education (PSE)?

I don't think we can assume that because socio-cultural Anthropologists teach about culture that they will automatically know how to handle the diversity of their students or that they will be uniquely suited to teach students how to 'be Canadian'. While Minister McCallum's thoughts may have very much to do with the amount of time international students spend in Canada in order to earn a degree, it provides an opportunity to think through those secondary goals of PSE that may not always come to the fore.

04 March 2016

Rethinking built space for the Deaf

At the world's only liberal-arts university for the Deaf, a new design movement -- DeafSpace -- is reconsidering how our built environment shapes social relations and our experiences of space. At Gallaudet University, DeafSpace is re-thinking architecture (including the classroom) with its Deaf and Deaf-Blind students in mind. This movement underscores how considerations of space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics have all traditionally privileged the hearing.

This item hits on all kinds of interesting things, including encouraging us to think about taken-for-granted, 'common sense', and cultural experiences of space.

For an in-depth read, check out: How Gallaudet University’s Architects Are Redefining Deaf Space (Amanda Kolson Hurley. 2 March 2016. Curbed)

For a shorter piece: How architecture changes for the deaf (Johnny Harris and Gina Barton. 2 March 2016. Vox)

Both articles have a link to the short YouTube video (4:48) on How architecture changes for the deaf.