What is Anthropology?

One of the downsides to Anthropology being a less well known field in schools (and communities) means that not a lot of people know what it actually is about other than maybe knowing it has something to do with humans and bones. I say communities because for every person in the British Asian community that I have spoken to that knows what Anthropology is, there has been at least 50 with no idea, and according to some of my Anth friends, this is the same for others too.

So then I get asked by those who want to know, what is Anthropology?

And then there is silence. I still haven’t mastered a proper answer (I really should and memorise it), I just sort of say that it’s an interdisciplinary field that studies humans in a broad context ranging from sociology to genetics to geography. It is both an art and a humanity that involves nearly every field. And then I throw in a few examples that usually gets them interested. Then I realise that this is a terrible answer and I am not doing the subject any justice at all. I just searched around the internet and dictionary (for probably the hundredth time) looking for a better and more succinct definition and couldn’t find the right one. It’s kind of like the word Anthropology being just like one of its analytical categories such as marriage – impossible to define when you really look into it.

So now I get all sorrowful and sad, not just by the fact that I can’t really put into words a description of a subject I am so “passionate” about, but by the fact that I am feeling like I need to find a proper definition, arguably so as to prove to people that yes I am studying a very important academic field that rivals the likes of Chemistry.

A little bit of me now doesn’t really want to find a proper definition. Selfish I know, but I just feel that if I attempt to convince people (note the word convince) of Anthropology who have it imbrained that only the Sciences and Maths are real subjects, I am belittling such a wonderful field. Anthropology doesn’t deserve that.

In hopefully my first proper interactive post, I ask YOU, What is Anthropology? How would you define it? I was going to have a proper poll/answer input but realised that this is for everyone’s benefit/interest so please comment below instead.

I am genuinely interested to see how ‘ordinary’ people would define it. If possible, please also state your relationship to Anthropology, i.e. whether you are just interested by it, whether you are a lecturer etc. You may even just put your favourite definition of what it is as said by someone else.

My personal favourite definition of Anthropology that sadly other people just don’t seem understand so I rarely orally repeat it is by Daniel Miller (an Anthropologist at UCL and author of “Stuff” – a great book, review shall come soon!):

An anthropologist is someone who seeks to demonstrate the consequences of the universal for the particular and of the particular for the universal by equal devotion to the empathetic understanding and encompassment of both.

Thank you in advance!

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A thread of meaning or just a thread

This Thursday marks the celebration of Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu religious ceremony whereby a sister ties a piece of  thread around her brothers wrist as a symbolic gesture of love and care on her part and protection on his. ImageThere are lots of legends behind the history of this ritual, not just concerning Hindu gods and goddesses but Alexander the Great! I’m not Hindu, in fact I don’t really classify myself as being part of any religion but my family are Jains, a relative of Buddhism and Hinduism, and one of the oldest movements in the world but not generally classified as a religion but more of a faith and way of life. Yet we, along with many second and third generation Jains and non-Hindu Indians in the UK celebrate Raksha Bandhan.

My parents were born and raised in Kenya but their parents and descendents were originally from India where they learnt about this ritual from the Hindus in the villages of Gujarat. They incorporated it into their culture, (unfortunately I do not know their main and initial reasons behind this) and now hundreds of years on, we still perform this ritual for the same reason as the Hindus originally did. Except for these days after the sister ties the thread on the right hand wrist of her brother, the brother usually gives her a gift too. The thread cannot be cut with scissors and must fall off naturally. In fact, as families are becoming smaller and smaller, this ceremony no longer applies to immediate brothers but to cousin brothers too.

I appreciate its significance – being an only child it symbolises and signifies the close relationship that I have with my close male cousins who really are like brothers to me and I’m pretty sure that I will pass on this tradition to my children. But, having discussed this with other British East African-Indians born in Britain (what a mouthful!) it seems like I’m not part of a majority with this viewpoint. They argue that with everyone being a lot more independent and brothers and sisters more often than not moving away from each other and leading different lives and having a different sibling relationship than years ago, something like a piece of thread is meaningless. According to them, maybe just meeting up for a dinner or exchanging gifts shows that symbolic metaphor better in this day and age than a string.

My rebuttal to that is surely the meaning behind the ritual and ceremony then stays the same even though its object changes. Much like Christmas being more commonly (and commercially) symbolised by the Christmas tree than Church Services and the advent candles. So then this raises the question of how should we define rituals and at what point do they change and become different?

I think that even if the thread disappears, but brothers and sisters acknowledge their kin with some kind of custom at any point in the year, that custom and exchange should still be regarded as Raksha Bandhan and a “bond of protection” (but not in the literal sense).

Raksha Bandhan is a great example of the mixing and effects of cultures, and shows that there are no boundaries between those components of different cultures.

1904 to 2012 – Anthropology Days at the Olympics

Did you know that at the 1904 Olympic games, on the 12th and 13th August, there were “Anthropology Days” which were a ‘scientific’ experiment by Anthropologists to see how the indigenous and “savages” compared to white men in sports. These were undignified and basically disgraceful events, chosen by the White men who obviously were going to be advantaged compared to the untrained Others. The Olympics founder, Baron de Coubertin, prophetically noted that such a charade

“will of course lose its appeal when black men, red men, and yellow men learn to run, jump, and throw, and leave the white men behind them.”

And look at the Olympics today. We are on the second day of the Olympics and Brazil have 3 medals compared to our British 0. No White 100m Athlete can really compete with Usain Bolt. Hearing about these Anthropology days fills me with disgust, not just by the discriminatory nature of those experiments but by the fact that the word Anthropology is associated with such an ethnocentric concept. What Anthropology really is about is the complete opposite – it is not about the degrading of other nations or studying them like caged, barbaric animals, far from it.

Boris Johnson said that Anthropologists will have a field day at these games and with its effects and legacies for years after, and from reading people’s responses to this I feel that I have to clarify a few things. Yes as the name suggests we study Humans in all aspects but we do not do it in a way that looks to see which nation is better than another. We admire the Olympic Games for the bringing together of so many countries and cultures (there were lots of countries in the opening ceremony that I hadn’t heard of!) and learning about their diversity. In fact as a biological anthropologist I have found it fascinating to see how our bodies can be so adapted for particular sports let alone how far we can push the limits. There are so many subfields of Anthropology that the Olympic Games fits into, but there is no place for ethnocentrism or discrimination.

The world is more globalised than ever and with a billion people expected to watch the Olympics interested in their own countries progress, the competition against other nations and the host city, I hope that 100 years on from the “Anthropology Days” of 1904, people understand and realise the true meaning and importance of Anthropology.

A massive apology again for the lack of posts recently, I can’t guarantee posts everyday  – my London 2012 schedule just won’t permit it but please visit this blog when you can to catch up. I cannot wait to do an ethnography concerning a few Olympic events that I’m going to see and I am still working on some great posts about my time in the Indian slums.

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Babies in the Office

So the BBC have broadcast a two part documentary this week entitled “Babies in the Office” which as the title suggests explores a minicab firm allowing employees to bring their children into work with the arguments of saving on childcare costs, getting to spend time with the little ones, helping their development (hmm I question this too) etc. I don’t quite see why this merits the BBC using up money and resources in creating a documentary about it – surely those clips of babies crying and disrupting work and getting bored so creating havoc is predictable? But they have touched upon something that is very important in the 21st Century, particularly with less and less women being stay at home Mum’s with no childcare worries. For that, I thank the BBC but argue that they could have done this ‘social experiment’ in a much better way that may have been more useful for other companies to learn from. Image

What I can’t seem to understand is why the company’s rational thought is to let the kids be with their parents at their desks whilst they work. Maybe I’m just being unaffectionate but wouldn’t a much better solution be to bring the kids to work but have them looked after in a separate room (a more colourful, stimulating room filled with better child absorbing activities than staplers and Excel Spreadsheets). This way the parent can concentrate on their work and when they can, go and spend time with their little ones, without half heartedly doing their work whilst trying to keep an eye of their child having a play with the shredder. Some majorly big corporations like Linklaters do this (they also have sleeping pods and hairdressers for employees!) and I’m surprised that more companies haven’t cottoned on. 

Not only would this mean that parents could balance their public and private lives in one domain, but employers would greatly benefit too – maybe not in an economical sense but in an efficient and productive one where their employees would be more settled and collectively spend more time at work. Who knows, maybe a quick trip to the nursery and playing with some play-doh might drive a marketing assistant’s creativity. This could work in the same way and reasoning for why some companies offer health insurance and other benefits to their employees – to allow a little leeway in their pay and keep the employees interested in sticking with their employers.

But that said, I’m not completely pro children being in the workplace like that, I’m only really thinking of those extreme circumstances where children are kept from their corporate parents for nearly 13 hours a day. There can be a lot of negativity too, particularly if a parent is having a stressful day at work and that transfers to their child. Also, might be a bit embarrassing if one was to attend a meeting with sick on their shirt and crayon markings all over their trousers.

 

Rain Rain Rain

Again I’d just like to apologise that it has been nearly a week since my last post! Work and everything has been super busy and manic, I’ve barely had a second to myself let alone go on the computer and construct a good post! But here is one now, and I promise that from next Monday once everything gets a bit settled in my diary there shall be posts nearly everyday covering a diverse range of topics. I spent a month living in the slums in Gujarat, India last December (with lions!) and have recently been going over my diary/ethnographies/research, so shall definitely tell you about that at some point soon too.

ImageSo the topic of this post comes as no surprise to any of you that live in London or the UK. Over the past few days we have experienced the most temperamental weather ever. Sunny and hot one moment, then soaked the next second as a bucket of rain comes out of nowhere. Unlike many other cultures around the world such as the Tarahumara of Mexico, we do not have a rain dance (“rutuburi”) and rain does not have such a significance to our lives – our fertility doesn’t change depending on the rain patterns (well that’s what I think) and we are unlikely to go immediately hungry if there is a serious lack of rain. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a massive cultural significance and I propose that it actually may be one of the cores of British culture, perhaps pinnacle to how our society functions.

Stereotypically, London is known for its rain (maybe this huge amount of rain is to show those coming for the Olympics that they are indeed in London). But unlike how many people suggest that miserable weather = miserable emotions and attitudes, it does not mean that Londoners are miserable. Yes we might get a bit grumpy if we are caught out in the rain without any waterproofs/umbrellas, but whether you are a kid or not there is something wholly satisfying about jumping in a puddle of water with wellies on. And anyway, having rain just makes you appreciate the Sun (on those rare occasions when it comes out) even more. But what draws me to rain from an anthropological perspective is the way that it changes people’s interactions and forces social interaction with arguably a boost in the economy (well in coffee shops anyway). Maybe this applies just to the people around me, but I’ve noticed that when there is rain, there are a lot more conversations, usually about the weather (will it clear up, will there be floods etc) and a lot more interaction between random strangers, usually under a bus or shop shelter. I think it also boosts creativity – when “stuck” inside, your thoughts will stay focused but be outside of the box rather than thinking more about the lovely weather outside and how you could be having picnics rather than working.

Rain is also healthy, stress free (to an extent) and a time generator. All those things that I have put off like sorting out cupboards are all the more liberating and motivating when its pouring down with rain outside. There’s also nothing like sitting down to watch a film with popcorn, a duvet and a cuppa when you know that actually there is nothing better to do/no regrets about wasting the glorious weather. As a teenager at university, rain does not bring procrastination, but bonding with flatmates over boardgames and a chance to bake some experimental cakes.

Respect to rain. Without it we would not have quite so beautiful parks, gardens and countryside and without it we would not have a sense of unity with all those others sharing those drips, clichéd chats about the weather and successful coffee shops and cinemas. If you are British, you know that whilst you are not liking this April weather in July when it is meant to be “Summer”, you are secretly proud of, appreciative and love what it stands for.  

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Teenthra-pologies

Dear Readers of Teenthropologist,

I am so sorry for not getting any posts to you in the past few days – it has been immensely busy and I have had a severe lack of internet and computer access! That does not mean that I have stopped my teenthropologist ways though and my mind has been constantly ticking with awesome things I can write about and bring to the blog.

When I do things, I like to do them properly and to a high standard and now that this blog is getting going and moving on from those early stages where mistakes/finding my feet are mandatory, I want to have some really great posts.

So thank you for being patient and I promise that there shall be some posts on the way but I’m afraid I cannot guarantee there being one a day.

Please let me know of any suggestions for posts/topics you’d like me to cover/anything else you would like whether it be book reviews to just some more background about myself.

Thank you so much, your continued readership is much appreciated and there shall be a post coming ASAP!!

Popcorn Part 2

Well fancy that, in today’s Evening Standard they dedicated a whole page to popcorn! It was about three London entrepreneurs, after getting funded from Peter Jones in Dragons’ Den, securing a deal with Waitrose for their upmarket ‘posh’ popcorn to be sold in its stores. The company, “Love Da Popcorn” makes weird and wacky flavour combinations for the popcorn from sweet chilli and line to honey and sea salt.

To be perfectly honest, whilst my previous post told of the growing importance of popcorn in people’s lives, I didn’t really think that this news warranted a whole page (page 27) of the newspaper. Particularly as M&S have done funky popcorn for a while now and the idea of weird tasting popcorn is not new. But perhaps this demonstrates and amplifies my earlier point of the increasing interest of popcorn with the Evening Standard feeling that members of the public would prefer to read about it than local news. Or maybe they are just starting to get bored of the Olympics and eating too much popcorn as they write their articles. 

A popcorn per word/sentence can revolutionise essay/article/blog post writing.

 

 

P.s. in case you did not know, this blog now has a twitter! Follow @teenthropology (not enough characters I’m afraid for teenthropologist!) and keep me posted on your thoughts of how the blog is going

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Popcorn and its effects

In today’s Evening Standard (a free evening newspaper given out across London), it described how Cineworld has blamed their slowdown in revenue growth on the “challenging consumer environment”, with them seeing a 2.1% decrease in spending at popcorn counters in cinemas in 26 weeks till now (a decrease from 4% growth originally at the start of the year). My first instinct was how could Cineworld be surprised considering how expensive popcorn is these days and secondly, why has it only taken till now to realise/place the blame?

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In “The Armchair Economist” by Steven Landsburg (great book for anyone), he explains that whilst the obvious explanation of high popcorn prices are due to the owner’s monopolising techniques/having to cover costs like cleaning, it probably has more to do with the diverse interests of theatre goers and the relationships between liking popcorn and liking movies. I get this I guess but I don’t think it explains anything really new or really give a good explanation – how can a small box of popcorn which probably costs roughly 20p to produce, cost £5 with prices on the increase?

Of course I can’t offer an explanation on this – if Landsburg can’t (and he can offer explanations on nearly everything else in the economic rational world), then I definitely can’t. But what I can say is that if the high prices are to cover those costs like maintenance, surely it would be better to increase actual ticket prices? This might seem odd of me to say considering that my first proper post was based on me being shocked to have to pay high adult fares, but I do think that I would pay an extra £2/3 to see the new Batman film, but not £4 for a bag of popcorn that I can buy for 99p from the Sainsbury’s next door.

So to deviate this slightly and add an anthropological touch I’d like to tell you about the increasing importance of popcorn in teenage lives. You may not be aware of this not being a teenager yourself, or perhaps this just applies to my college at Durham but I have really noticed this year the dependence that teenagers have formed with popcorn. I could even argue that it is replacing the traditional comfort of a cup of tea. Not a day went by without microwave popcorn bags in our bin, nor a revision session. It does have addictive tendencies – have you suddenly got an inkling for some popcorn after reading this post? It became part of prinking, just hanging out with friends, and at times midnight trips to Sainsbury’s just to get some (wow, who would know that Sainsbury’s would get such a correlation with popcorn). I can guarantee that if you go two days with having popcorn whilst watching your evening telly, next thing you know, you will be buying boxes of Butterkist with every weekly grocery shop.

In a world filled with youths up to no good, illegal addictions and riots, it is nice to see that there is hope for new, more fun, healthier (and legal) addictions. Praise Popcorn.

…. but not it’s extortionate prices in the cinema.

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In Search of Respect

For my first book/ethnography review of this blog I thought it only fitting to dedicate it to possibly the most moving and best ethnography that I have read so far – “In Search of Respect: Selling Crack In El Barrio” by Philippe Bourgois (who won a Margaret Mead award). Yes traditionally Anthropology is concerned with learning about other cultures, the Other and reading ethnographies like “The Nuer” that follow in the footsteps of Malinowski and participant observation, but I feel that this ethnography really captures what Anthropology is about. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m more fascinated with how anthropology applies to our lives today, but I really do feel that it just gets to the core of finding out about a very real human culture of addiction, social exclusion and structural-functionalism in a world that we actually live in rather than a far flung island in Melanesia.

It explores the social marginalization of Puerto Ricans living in East Harlem, New York City, USA and was one of the first ethnographies to have an anthropologist establish a trusting friendship with street level crack-dealers.  This friendship is fundamental to the book’s nature; the very intimate (not least illegal) things that the subjects reveal to Bourgois make it extremely honest and give you a full picture for what exactly is happening and their reasoning behind their actions. The title of the book is perfectly fitting as it explains the dilemmas felt by the crack dealers as they choose between having legitimate low paying jobs but a lack of respect from the upper classes or illegal fast money jobs with social mobility where they evoke respect in the community (usually through violence) in which they live.

Bourgois sets out his themes (Gender inequalities, Kinship etc) through transcripts, backgrounds, life stories, and  black and white images whilst explaining his own emotions and thoughts. His honesty and the transcripts especially, which include background noises such as gun shots are central to the books achievement as he leaves nothing out and lets you fully immerse yourself into the situations he is in.

He says early on that:

“I refuse to ignore or minimize the social misery I witnessed, because that would make me complicitous with oppression” (p. 12)

which he sticks with as he does not shy away from leaving out harsh and disturbing events such as gang rape, and in the case of Candy, an abused mother of 5 children who shot her husband. They give a background and reasoning to why these subjects act as they do whilst demonstrating changing kinship and hierarchy patterns. These stories are effectively told with no hint of persuasion or pity, and by being shown in transcripts allowed me as a reader to fully understand the primary evidence void of manipulated judgements. I have to respect Bourgois for this, particularly so for creating such a deeply trusting relationship with the subjects for them to reveal such intimate details that make it a very poignant book.

Whilst the book is honest it does come with many dilemmas, which I must admit would have caused me to fall at the first hurdle. The close friendships between Bourgois and the drug dealers meant that at times he could not be objective and stand back as he saw some of his friends’ lives spiral out of control because of the drugs and did not know whether to intervene. In one case, Caeser, a violent addict, describes how he nearly killed a boy who had cerebral palsy whilst at school and Bourgois’ son had just been diagnosed with this condition, which reduced him (and me!) to tears. Bourgois does often show his disdain at their actions which does question the credibility of the ethnography, but I feel that it just lets the ethnography be all the more honest and perhaps surely it is more credible for him to have been upfront and reflect on his outbursts and its effects on the subjects as he does.

His deep understanding of the underlying social structures of this community meant that he explained a clear picture of how positive change could occur and how the policies of the US Government are failing and are ineffective based on their current perceptions of what life in the area is like. He demonstrated that with his internal knowledge of the area and its mechanisms he probably has a better chance of improving the area than the government itself! He usefully includes an epilogue describing the lives of the main people since his study and whilst one remains happy that Primo (the main dealer and closest friend) has found a legal job and has stopped taking drugs, you do wonder how this transformation took place which is not described.

Whether you are an Anthropologist or not, I have no hesitation in recommending it to you. It is brutally honest, descriptive and will really open your eyes to so many concepts, from kinship to respect to language to functionalism that just by reading it you will undoubtedly become an Anthropologist (even if just for the duration of the book) just from the thoughts that it will cause to swirl around your head.

Also at a time when we can be more inclined to gather quantative data, this book just shows how important qualitative data can be, and how it can offer you more explanations, better information and reasonings than simple surveys, assumptions and mathematics.

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Train Journey – Class, Caste, Kinship…anthropological heaven?

In America there are two classes of travel – first class, and with children.

~Robert Benchley

Today marked a momentous occasion in my life – it was the first time in the history of my existence that I had to pay the full adult fare and purchase an adult Oyster card (needed for cheap travel around London) for my usual train journey into town. No longer were the ticket barriers to double beep as I passed through, no more photo IDs and no more discount. I knew the time to pay full fares was approaching – I’m already paying much more at the cinema and starting back at a paid job in the City I knew I had no excuse. So why is this such a big deal for not just me but any other new 19 year old Londoner?

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I think the answer lies in caste, class and kinship concerning a train/tube journey. I’m sure that any Anthropologist can vouch for you that a simple situation like travelling on a train or plane with new strangers, along the same journey but with very different purposes is an Ethnographer’s heaven. Oh the things you could study – clothing, how they spent their time, who they interacted with, the items they carried, their reasons for travelling… it could fill many notebooks. In fact, for my first ever Ethnographic assignment at University, I chose to study passengers waiting at a departure gate at the airport and I don’t think I have ever filled a moleskine so quickly and had so many things to consider.

For this symbolic rite of passage, as Van Gennep (look him up!) I’m sure would argue, is a form of ritual into adulthood for the common Londoner and means so much to me, as, in short, it is completely symbolic of how my place in society has changed. Up until now I had enjoyed free travel on buses and discounted tickets on the Tube but that had brought with it looks of disgust by other passengers as I sat in seats that they possibly felt were theirs considering that they had paid more for their tickets and arguably had a much harder and more important day at work. Especially when travelling with another non-adult Oyster card holder, from the minute you walk into the carriage, it can be expected that you will be loud, move around and not simply keep to yourself. It’s almost as though we did not fit into the “grown up” daily working routine of the Tube.

Being in professional attire today rather than my bright red school uniform, and picking up the free daily newspaper the Metro (I’m to old to play on loud video consoles, and listen to loud music ey?) the attitudes that people had to me  changed completely it seemed. In fact I think holding a Starbucks coffee even showed some classiness. It was like people knew I was now contributing to the economy and not just living off my parents and society. As I left to get off the train, I had forgotten my umbrella (typical English weather) which the lady sitting next to me alerted me to. Not once in my 7 years of taking the same journey whilst at school had anyone told me of my forgotten Art project, school blazer, retainers and calculator. (Had they done they have no idea of the amount of money and yelling from my parents and teachers that I’d have saved!)

I think there is something endearing though between the slight animosity between the adult and child travellers. In the years after the 7/7 bombings, whilst people became more aware and vigilant, there has been a noticeable increase in the feeling of unity. I think the unified stance against loud music, children, smelly foods etc is simply a way of these travellers, of similar destinations but differing purposes, coming together and keeping routine.

So in my title I have mentioned class, caste and kinship, to name just three. Whilst I have not explicitly referred to these (I had originally intended to), I think you probably get where they fit in to a simple train journey. No, I don’t just mean the First Class carriage (though that is relevant.. perhaps I’ll post about that another time), but the attitudes and ways that the different classes exist on a train journey. The younger class and the older class. And Kinship.. well before I write another essay on that, perhaps you could think about it and leave a comment on how it fits in?

Speaking of which, this is just day 2 of this blog and I am very flattered and grateful for all the views and support so far (The American Anthropological Association, wow!!!!) but do please leave any comments and feedback so that I can learn and make this better.

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