Saturday, December 18, 2010

balance, pt. 11: holidays

Confession time: I hate the holidays. Actually, I like the food (and the baking and cooking). I love the music. I enjoy modest, mostly religious, decorations. In an ideal world (i.e., one where everybody was capable of making nice for a couple of days), I would even enjoy all the togetherness with family and friends. But this isn't an ideal world.

Two years ago, after the second-worst Christmas of my adult life*, my husband and I wrote, printed, and signed our own "Contract on Christmas." We put it on the top of our decorations box so we see it every year at this time. The Contract is our attempt to restore sanity to the holiday. Here are a few of the highlights:

Article 1: Travel
1.1 There shall be no travel over the holiday season, unless said travel is to someplace warmer and/or more interesting than our home, and is undertaken for the purpose of fun or research. No travel to visit family is allowed.

Article 2: Decorations
2.1 Decorations shall consist of one 4-ft plastic tree, pre-hung with garlands and lights, one nativity set, and one advent wreath.
2.2 The sole exception to article 2.1 shall be items made by the children of this household, which may be hung or displayed for that season.

Article 4: Mass
4.1 All theists in the family shall attend mass, which shall be the highlight of the Christmas season. Christmas is primarily a religious holiday, and therefore the true story of Christmas, the birth of Christ, and the true story of St. Nicholas, will be told to each child in preparation for Christmas.

Article 5: Presents
5.1 Each member of the family over five shall give each other member of the immediate family one and only one modest, thoughtful gift.

Article 6: Food
6.1 Our family shall cooperate to create a nice meal with whatever Christmas goodies are desired. We shall eat this meal while remaining scrupulously polite to each other.

Some of these sound rather draconian and dour, but they aren't, really. Bunny and I have made some Christmas projects together, including an ice wreath (with evergreen and cranberry) to hang on the front porch, and Christmas cards. She loves to plug in the tree. We're only buying the kids one present each (toys, no socks or clothes or practical stuff. Those aren't presents!) But, their grandparents, aunts, and uncles have showered them with presents. We have a huge stack of boxes in our entryway, three times the size of our daughter. Bunny and I baked all weekend to make Christmas treats. I have my Grooveshark Christmas music playing all day long (as long as Dr. Mr. Palimpsest isn't in the house!) In other words, we have Christmas frickin' cheer, OK? We're just trying to maintain a little balance, and a focus on the important things in life.

* The worst Christmas in my adult life is affectionately known as "The Christmas from Hell" among my family members, and it is the reason why I have refused to visit the family of my birth over Christmas for the last ten years.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a short comment on science

I haven't blogged about the #AAAfail issue, since, honestly, I don't care that much. The AAA is largely irrelevant for most archaeologists, and this incident shows one of the reasons why. I do support a four-field approach. Call me an elitist, ugly American, but I find most American-style archaeology to be more interesting than European-style archaeology. We tend to deal with bigger questions in a way that I find more compelling (but maybe it's just my training). The difference, I believe, comes from our four-field approach. The value of the approach does not negate the fact that cultural anthropology, archaeology, and biological anthropology have been developing in their own directions. That's OK, it just makes it hard for us to be members of one over-arching organization where we all can feel included and valued. Personally, I consider myself a scientist, but I have no problem with more post-modern or humanistic approaches to human culture. I think we can learn from them, as well, I just don't find the methods or conclusions as useful for the questions that I want to ask.

My problem with the changes to the AAA's Long Range Plan comes from the perceived slight to those who are interested in science, particularly in an academic climate where archaeologists and biological anthropologists may be quick to assume the worst motives. It was poor politics, and serves to further alienate factions within anthropology. In my opinion, this is not because of any real or significant change in the AAA's plans for the future, but because of the distrust and dislike that was stirred up on both sides. Contrast these two comments, and you'll see what I mean:

From A Hot Cup of Joe:

In their response, the AAA board says, “[a]nthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture. As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences.”

If by “holistic” they mean it makes use of all the natural sciences to examine and define human culture and history, then that’s fine. Why not simply say so? By why must it rely on or even draw upon the humanities? Just about any definition of “the humanities” you find expressly excludes “the sciences.” This is utter bollocks. The suggestion is that its okay to draw upon religious explanations and speculative post-modern critique to examine human culture past or present. If anything should be excluded and excised from the long-range plans of the AAA it should be this sort of non-scientific codswallop...[W]hy not simply just put back the word science in the Long Range Plan? A word that has far more utility and express intent than the probably post-modernist appeasement of weasel-wording they settled upon.

Now, let's hear from Rex at Savage Minds:

The narrative at work seems basically to be this: for decades real, objective, scientific anthropology has been under assault from interpretivists like Clifford Geertz who do not believe in truth. With the new language in the AAA mission statement, anthropologists have given up on truth altogether.

I wish that this were a parody or simplification of the argument, but it is not — this is honestly as it good as it gets from the critics of the AAA: Clifford Geertz is the thin edge of a wedge inserted into the social sciences by Creationism, Sarah Palin, etc. etc.

The fact that the model used by ‘scientific’ anthropologists has as much complexity as an average episode of WWE Smackdown — with a distinction between the evil ‘fluff-head’ cultural anthropologists and the good ‘scientific’ cultural anthropologists — should be the first sign that something fishy is going on...At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.

Those quotes illustrate the problem nicely: a complete and utter lack of respect between different factions of anthropology.

I really couldn't care less how the AAA defines anthropology, or what it thinks our long-term goals should be as a discipline. Assuming the AAA wants to make a claim to being the professional organization for more than cultural anthropologists, however, it is going about it the wrong way. Deliberately sowing discord in an already uneasy marriage was a dumb move.

Monday, December 13, 2010

U Penn again

I posted before about the repatriation case between the U Penn museum and the Tlingit community. I thought this article was interesting, because it gives more information about the "not-good Tlingit" (as he was called in the last article) who bought the items for the museum. He sounds like a fascinating person; he grew up in a traditional Tlingit community and ended up going to the Wharton business school and working for the museum. I can't imagine the level of personal conflict he must have felt, during a time of incredible change among his birth community. Perhaps he was trying his best to preserve the heritage of his people - an argument could be made for that interpretation - but at the same time, one could argue he was just selling off the Tlingit heritage. I'm glad I've never had to face such a dilemma.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

weekly accountability: Nov. 28-Dec. 4

I'm leaving town tomorrow, and I've done nothing all week except prepare for this trip (oh, and teach, and deal with two major committee assignments). Suffice to say, I didn't make or meet any goals.

I'll be gone until Wednesday, and then I'll be catching up, and then I'll be dealing with the last week of classes and finals. Blogging will probably be spotty for the immediate future.

Have a great end of semester, y'all!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

U Penn to return cultural patrimony

The University of Pennsylvania lost a NAGPRA federal committee review of their bid to keep a collection of some 40 artifacts from an Alaska tribe. I have no problem with the committee's finding - I would like to see institutions err on the side of repatriation - but I did find this comment flabbergasting:

Most of the items were purchased for $500 in 1924 in Hoonah by Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit man from Klukwan who worked for the Philadelphia university. The school's museum added the items to its collection.

"I guess he believed he was doing the right thing by preserving it," review committee chair Rosita Worl said. "Whereas a good Tlingit wouldn't do that. They would see the most important thing is it's used in our ceremonies and see it as sacred objects."

OK, the committee has the right to determine who has the right to the collection, but I don't think they have the right to determine who is a "good Tlingit" and who isn't. Wow.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

caribou management

National Geographic has an interesting article on blending the knowledge of traditional societies with ecological research to help save caribou populations. One of the most important contributions anthropology can make to the world is a better understanding of human/environmental interactions. More specifically, a recognition that almost all environments have a human component to them (yes, I'm on my Historical Ecology soap box again).

Traditional societies of the Arctic have been managing caribou populations for centuries, and doing so sustainably. No, caribou weren't domesticates like in Eurasia, but they have evolved in a context of human-modified environments, and with a certain level and type of human hunting. This is also true of deer in the Eastern Woodlands, or rabbits in the American Southwest. All too frequently, our environmental policies fail to recognize that the landscapes and species we are trying to "save" from humans were heavily modified and managed by humans to begin with. We can't return contingent landscapes to some ill-defined, fictitious "natural state". Recognizing and building on the human component of the environment - playing with the dialectic between people and their landscape - is far better science.

On a totally different topic: this is my 100th post!! Woo hoo!!!