Comments on Culture

Photo exhibit: African-American Kentuckians

March 30, 2010
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A new photo exhibit on display at University of Kentucky presents a visual ethnography* of African-American communities in the state’s central region, by Sarah Hoskins.

The Picture Show Blog : NPR.

Exhibit details here.

These images present several layers of identity: Christian, multi-generational, black, agricultural, Kentuckian. I would love to have been along for these photography trips, to ask each person to tell me about their community. I bet I would hear great stories and many more identity markers than listed above.

*To some, ethnography implies studying “the other.” Not here. Its real meaning is “description of culture.”

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DNA identifies new hominin

March 24, 2010
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And the puzzle of human history in Asia has a new piece…

Scientists have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human through analysis of DNA from a finger bone unearthed in a Siberian cave.

The extinct “hominin” (human like creature) lived in Central Asia between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago. The discovery raises the intriguing possibility that three forms of human – Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and the species represented by X-woman – could have met each other and interacted in southern Siberia.

Via BBC News – DNA identifies new ancient human dubbed ‘X-woman’.

Denisova Cave, Siberia

Curiously, the ground layer in which the bone was found also contained a bracelet and tools associated with modern humans. A result of mixed layers, or cultural artifacts from a previously unknown group? Full results are published in Nature.


Buy Local

January 10, 2010
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I’ve been poking around the “Buy Local” movement in Louisville, Kentucky. I was curious about what motivated people here to support local businesses, particularly local food producers. Is it because they find locally produced goods to be higher quality? Is it a form of social activism—a way to go green or to raspberry big box stores? Is it related to the regional identity of an agricultural state? Perhaps it’s simply convenience or habit? I wanted to hear directly from the people doing the growing, the buying, and the supporting before assuming any of these conjectures to be accurate.

So, to the farmer’s markets I went, with the intention of asking questions as customers marveled at pumpkins and fondled peppers. “Why do you come to the farmer’s market instead of Kroger or anywhere else?” Most answers fell into the following three categories: Quality, Knowing the source, and Supporting alternatives to big-box stores. This is the first in a series of posts. You’ll see more analysis in the ones that follow.

Quality

Quality and the variety of foods available were the most commonly cited reasons. I heard many stories of people feeling like they had discovered food for the first time after cooking with fresh, organic produce.

“Real food makes you feel so good,” says Amber, mid-twenties, as she and her boyfriend have brunch at a picnic table in the middle of the market. He smiles at her and tells me that his very favorite thing is when she comes home from the farmer’s market on Saturday morning with fresh eggs and peppers and makes hella good migas. Apparently, it’s the best cure for a hangover. (more…)


Farewell to our dear Levi-Strauss

November 3, 2009
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A well composed article on the contributions of an intillectual icon:

New York Times Obituary


a stand-up gal

November 2, 2009
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Here’s a good summary of Le Guin’s place in our hearts and minds:

Happy Birthday Ursula K. Le Guin | Savage Minds

Le Guin, as many people know, is the daughter of two great anthropologists — Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora. Her fiction, poetry, and essays on writing defy easy classification. Her stories are like pieces of wood furniture — simply and sturdily written, with a beautiful simplicity and craftmanship. They are easy enough for children to read, but have an emotional profundity that gives them great depth. Before her, no one thought to combine Boasian anthropology, Daoist inclinations, and keen sense of place rooted in Northern California, and after her the niche is pretty well filled. Like ethnographies, LeGuin’s best pieces — which for me means Left Hand of Darkness and especially The Dispossessed — ask universal questions through the exploration of particular times and places.

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why so angry?

October 5, 2009
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My, the talking heads of the media are angry these days. The visceral reactions to the healthcare reform debate remind me again that we have a bit of an identity crisis in the U.S.

I’m reminded of a lecture on moral psychology that explains the dichotomy between the values of our two major political parties: Talk. Here, Dr. Jonathan Haidt postulates that conservatives and liberals have different sets of values which drive their decisions and reactions. Haidt says liberals value fairness and inclusiveness for all, even if it means disrupting social order, while conservatives value social order and tradition, even if it means sacrifices for some. These are fundamentally different approaches to community.

Considering this, it might be fair to say that the people of the U.S. have conflicting values: personal success and the success of the community. I find this conflict interestingly timed. In the last month, I’ve heard talking heads frothing angrily on U.S. news programs. They say it’s not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes and choices of others. They say large social programs are un-American. In the same month, I also heard voices external to the U.S. comment on how America is known for taking care of one another, and for having a government that cares about its people.

The external voices cover seemingly disparate cultures, but both involve people who feel their communities have been failed by their government. The first is an article called “Shattered Somalia,” and the second is a documentary about Mexican border communities emptied by migrant labor, “The Other Side of Immigration.” In an interview in “The Other Side of Immigration,” a man who had returned after working for over a decade in the states said that the problem is Mexico. It is crazy. The corruption and lack of resources and support for the people make Mexico crazy. It doesn’t take care of its people the way the U.S. does, so people have to leave. Considering the angry rhetoric mentioned above, I was almost surprised to hear the U.S. described this way. (more…)


Tasty disclaimers

August 26, 2009
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It’s something we hear about a lot, in the news, movies, and while we travel. Americans are perceived by the rest of the world in certain romanticized or despised ways. United States citizens are aware of this very general idea, but we don’t talk about it much.

I asked an Anthropology professor a long time ago if one could specialize in American culture. She replied that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AMERICAN CULTURE, only American cultureS. We are too varied and diverse a people to all fall under one “American culture.” Interestingly, though, every non-academic person I’ve told this to says, “Huh? Of course there’s an American culture.”

I wondered, why are the pro’s missing what the laypeople see? Why is the discipline whose job it is to identify patterns of behavior—values and norms shared by groups of people—missing this seemingly obvious group? Why don’t anthropologists study American culture? (more…)


Warming up the amp

August 26, 2009
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“CNN is supposed to be the best. But, I’m not buying the crap they’re selling lately.”

Now, these two young adults don’t seem to be crackpots. They’re not inadvertently flaunting teenage pot use and think they sound, like really smart, man, when they talk about media conspiracies. No, these are your average college students, people who would be your friends or coworkers or children. People I would talk to. But I don’t; today I’m just eavesdropping.

If they think the crap that the news tells them is either a half-truth or just some fluff line about something they don’t care about… What do they consider truth, to be valuable? What would they want to hear the international voice of America to say?

The individual—that forever targeted consumer, that internationally disdained representative of America, that constituent—what does that person really think? (more…)