27 April 2017

Applying an anthropological perspective in health

We recently came across this interesting article about "Teaching medical students to challenge ‘unscientific’ racial categories." Anthropologists and other critical social scientists have long known that even though race is a social construction, it can have very real impacts in people's lives -- including in accessing health and healthcare.

This article explores how medical students continue to be taught to use racial stereotypes based in biology as shortcuts for diagnosing and treating illness. It also follows the work of Dr. Brooke Cunningham, a physician and sociologist, who challenges these harmful practices in teaching medicine. For Dr. Cunningham and others, the point of these reforms is to push medical students and future health professionals to think critically about race, and how these social categories impact individual health through lived experiences and structures of inequality.

“It’s not that race is irrelevant to health, but it’s not relevant to health because of innate differences. It’s relevant because racism affects people’s health.”

Although medical students are often repeatedly told throughout their education that race should be approached critically and understood as a social not biological construct, what's telling are the reactions of students to Cunningham's lecture based on the authority of medicine over social science:
Students who attended her recent lecture on race said Cunningham’s medical degree gave her added credibility.
“I think if she was just a social scientist, I would be more skeptical of whatever perspective she would bring to the conversation,” said Mac Garrett, a first-year medical student.
These insights raise some important questions to consider in how anthropologists and other social scientists might consider communicating their findings in applied contexts. How might we think about how social science evidence and arguments are interpreted by those we wish to influence, in order to be more persuasive? In order to create social change in applied contexts -- like medical students' training -- should we draw more on the the authority of critical social scientists who also have the clout of a medical degree?

Quick links and further reading:

24 April 2017

Bringing anthropological ethics into the classroom

With the Canadian Anthropology Society Conference next week comes CASCA's Spring issue of the network's newsletter, Culture.

One item that caught our eye in this issue was Eric Henry's description of a case-study discussion activity he created for students to work through some of the potentially thorny issues anthropologists and linguists face in the field: Targaryen Ethics: A Case Study in Linguistic Appropriation Using “Game of Thrones”

Henry writes that in his linguistic anthropology course,
language appears to students to be a relatively uncontroversial topic of research – in what possible way could listening to an oral history or eliciting verb conjugations harm someone?
I wanted to get students thinking about some of the thorny ethical issues surrounding linguistic heritage, appropriation, and ownership.
In this short piece, Henry provides the short text of his case study, where the linguistic anthropologist is approached by the producers of the hit television program about adapting a local (endangered) language to fit one of the show's mythic peoples. Henry also reflects on the outcomes of working through this case-study with his students, including some of the unanticipated issues that students themselves raised about the case, and the role of the anthropological expert in terms of language revitalization, representation, development, and what ethics means in these moments.

Henry's case-study is a great example of an activity to bring an experiential learning element into the classroom through role-playing. How might you adapt this style of case-study exercise in your own teaching?

Quick links and further reading:
Updated 23 August 2017: Henry's article is no longer available via Culture

20 April 2017

Media, language, and social relationships

In teaching anthropology, I always find students to be exceptionally interested on the days that we talk about media. Many of my students consider social media to be an important part of their lives and social interactions, from how they connect to others to how they spend their leisure time. And, in many ways this engagement has actually changed the ways through which students interact with us, as well as the language and forms of address we see in email communications.

To many of us who really care about writing well (and try to teach this skill and sensibility), these shifts are occasionally taken as doomsday signals of the downfall of the English language, or even the future of society in general (when we're being melodamatic, anyway). Yet, to take an anthropological approach, it's interesting to think about how these different forms of media actually mediate social relationships... including between ourselves and our students.

I often like to show the first 12 minutes or so or Michael Wesch's lecture "An anthropological introduction to YouTube" to students when we first discuss media. Wesch really brings home this idea that media is more than just content, and that media mediate social relationships.

So, really, it shouldn't be surprising that engagements through new forms of media have lead to interesting (if annoying) cultural changes in language use and meaning. An interesting example of this is observable in this piece from Newsweek: "What it means when you end your emails with a period." Here, David Crystal opens by remarking how "Regular emailers will have encountered the new styles, and may use all of them. The omission of punctuation marks, avoidance of capitalization, and the use of nonstandard spelling is commonplace." Yet, this kind of language use is also part of our learned cultural context:
These styles are characteristic of informal e-communication. The more formal the interaction, the less they are likely to occur, and the more they will be construed as inappropriate. So it's important for youngsters experimenting with internet styles to realize that breaking the conventions of the standard language is dangerous in certain settings.
Another interesting example of shifting meanings -- this time within and across social media platforms -- comes from this The Sociological Imagination piece, "“Liking” it on Facebook." Javier de Rivera explores the sensibility and standardization of feeling connected to the "like" function on platforms like FaceBook and Instagram. Consider the following statement about the shifting and standardizing meanings associated with functions such as the "like" or "fav" across these different platforms:
The evolution of Twitter seems to be going in the same direction, by experimenting with the Favs and changing them to Likes, establishing the trend – that started several years ago – for using this feature to show appreciation rather than for archival purposes. Here, overlapping is not possible, by choosing Hearts as a mean of social interaction we are deploying its value as an archival resource: our list of bookmarks would be flooded with the less memorable tweets we chose to mark as an expression of appreciation.
How might you bring these examples into your classroom discussions of cultural change, community, meaning, and language?

Quick links and further reading:

17 April 2017

Water Politics Syllabus & Resources

We have been seeing some very interesting discussions and resources emerging around water politics recently.

Image from "The Rights of the Whanganui River" (Peeps)
In addition to the many discussions happening in relation to #NODAPL and the importance of water to indigenous communities and ways of life in North America, the struggles for access to clean and safe drinking water in places like Flint, Michigan and across reserves in Canada, in March, you may have read the news that a Māori community has been successful in their battle to have New Zealand grant the Whanganui River the legal rights of a person. (The anthropological magazine Peeps published a beautiful photo essay on "The Rights of the Whanganui River" in their second issue earlier this year -- unfortunately, not available online.)

In response to these shifts and public spotlights, we offer readers a couple of interesting resources for thinking and teaching about water politics.

First, we'd like to draw attention to the thematic issue of the Canadian journal of anthropology, Anthropologica, published this past fall (Volume 58, Issue 2): An Amphibious Anthropology: The Production of Place at the Confluence of Land and Water, guest edited by Karine Gagné and Mattias Borg Rasmussen. Contributors to this issue draw on their ethnographic research to share insights into water politics and issues in the Himalayas, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Peru, and North America.

Each of these articles from Anthropologica would be a valuable addition and anthropological contribution to this already well-rounded (anthropology, geography, environmental studies) syllabus: "Water Rights and Social Protest: Politics, Governance, and the Meanings of Access" designed by Jake Blanc and Stepha Velednitsky (graduate students at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). 

Quick links and further reading:

13 April 2017

Anthropology against white​ supremacy

In this post from the AAA's Anthropology NewsLuzilda Carrillo Arciniega offers "Six Ways Anthropologists Can Challenge White Supremacy" (27 March 2017).

  1. Create purposeful students
  2. Critique identity politics
  3. Create brave spaces
  4. Break the Silence
  5. Push back against hierarchies
  6. Remain politically engaged

While many of us as anthropologists consistently strive to be critical of identity politics, power inequalities and structures, I think it is really valuable to consider here the banal (but powerful!) work we already do addressed in points 3 and 4 -- as Jennifer wrote about earlier this week.

One of the things that anthropologists are known for is asking those "dumb" questions about things that are otherwise taken-for-granted and common sense and allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable as we learn in new cultural moments and contexts. In our classrooms and beyond, it is important for us to make this space not only for ourselves, but for our students and interlocutors as Carillo argues: "Critical dialogue cannot occur unless individuals are open to being vulnerable. Creating a safe space should not be conflated with comfort, convenience, or personal satisfaction."

Quick links and further reading:

10 April 2017

Building Vocabularies for Everyday Discussions about "Race", racism, and Inclusion/exclusion

I was recently contacted by a student who had taken my Intercultural Competencies course last Fall.

In their email, they asked for clarification on the following topic:
Is it alright to use the terms Afghani or Pakistani or, if I wanted to refer to individuals from these countries, should I say "Afghanistan citizens or Pakistan citizens" respectively?

Their reasoning: I look at other nations such as Australia and Israel which are commonly labelled as Aussies or Israelis and understand that those are accepted in North American society.

They ended with: I would like a professional opinion as to whether I can use a shortened term (even if only in an educational conversation!).

I love getting these requests because as an instructor of Anthropology (and its concepts) and an intercultural competency facilitator, I find that lacking appropriate vocabulary is one of the biggest deterrents from having conversations about "race", racism, exclusion, and the like.

I responded to the email as follows:
Short answer: Yes, you can use these shortened terms is certain situations.
Long answer: In my opinion, and based on the research I conducted, the terms Afghani or Pakistani are absolutely acceptable terms.

For example, "I'm of Afghani or Pakistani origin" is fine.

These terms would also be appropriate if, for example, you talking about larger demographic trends.

For example, "One of the largest refugee group to come to Canada were Afghani refugees..."

The issue is when you start using these terms to stereotype a group of people.

For example, "I think all Afghani (or Pakistani) people are...".

How would you have responded? Tweet us at @anthrolens or email us at anthrolens@gmail.com.

06 April 2017

The Return of Support for Acquiring a Liberal Arts Degrees: An Anthropological Perspective

There have recently been a spate of news articles discussing the importance of liberal arts degrees and graduates' chance for success:
In a recent article by Brock scholars, Norton and Martini (released 2017) argue that: "Canadian university students tend to endorse employment-related reasons for attending university ahead of other reasons such as personal satisfaction or intellectual growth." In their study, first- and fourth-year students placed "a greater emphasis on benefits related to career preparation and economic advancement than those associated with learning and self-improvement." However, when asked to evaluate the importance of a comprehensive list of degree-related benefits both groups of students endorsed the value of many of them, including those related to learning and self-improvement. When discussing why students might focus on so-called employment-related learning, the authors argue that "harsh economic realities and high unemployment rates for young adults, coupled with large increases in the perceived cost of a degree, may also underlie the fact that students endorse career-related benefits above all others" (Norton and Martini, 2017:10).

I read Norton and Martini's work as part of this larger discussion of the usefulness of liberal arts degrees of which anthropology finds itself included, if not closely related. 

As advocates for the use of anthropology and its lessons, literally everywhere, the requirement to prove the usefulness of anthropology as a discipline that makes students ready for the workplace seems ridiculous. But in thinking back to my own education, I was rarely told (if ever) about the skills that I gained through my degree (beyond critical thinking). While we're talking about an education that at the undergraduate level ended just over 15 years ago, neither my Masters or Doctoral training provided me with the ability to articulate these skills either. 

Follow this link to Simon Fraser's page on Skills in Anthropology which you might want to feature on your next resume and cover letter.

Quick links and further reading:

03 April 2017

When Cognitive Mapping and Life Histories Meet

Anthropologists use life histories as a means to shed light on larger systems through the eyes of one individual, over time. Atlas Obscura author Lauren Young recently reminded readers of Michael Druks work, called Druksland. This portrait captures Druks' life story through cartography.
Detail of <em>Druksland</em>, Michael Druks cartographic self-portrait.

Young writes: Outlining the shape of his head, Druks’ conceptual map incorporates features you would see on a topographical map, including coordinates, bodies of water, and a map legend. Yet the map also serves as an unconventional self-portrait, the coordinates corresponding to major life events, significant people, and important institutions. Druks shows how the contours of a face could be a more complex terrain than any geology on Earth.

This is an interesting example of a medium where cognitive mapping and life histories may meet.