We’re Not Ants..Are We?

As a student of Economics, I am eating up the Barth/Bourdieu discussion about agents basing their actions on rational economic calculation. When discussing culture, one should generally avoids reducing every social interaction as an exchange of some sort. It makes humans appear base, and what’s more, I imagine some would argue that society is not as simple as that. But Economics has a concept of utility to the individual, (which it will usually try to value in dollars using statistics or an analogy) and however imprecise the numbers may be, the economic theories will explain people’s reasons for sacrificing their precious resources, including time. To Bourdieu, who likens social interaction to a game rather than a market, I would ask, “What is a market, but a game?” The difference in belief lies in the particular definitions of words. Is a friend a commodity? Well, while you can’t offer your friend up to a market for cash, you can introduce him/her to other people you deem worthy. You can reward your other friends with this person’s presence. You can invest more time in the friendship, and because of unspoken societal rules, you can expect a return on that investment (with some risk involved). What I’m saying is that, if you can ignore the bad taste in your mouth, you can call a friend a commodity because friendship has a price tag and it grants benefits. They just tend not to be monetary.

Here’s where I think that my vantage point is better than Barth’s: He overstates the market’s ability to resolve inequalities through politics. His theory of transactionalism does not merely reduce societal behavior to transactions, it basically encourages people to ignore inequalities because the theory assumes that the shape of society was chosen based on innumerable fair exchanges of political allegiance and political freedoms. I think his theory is better left for conceptualizing people’s every decision, not for justifying the shape of politics. I think it is useful for attempting to put relative values on things like feeling safe, being well-liked by your peers, or perhaps escaping criticism, because it leads you to see why people make the sacrifices that they do.

Perhaps some people would say that altruism affords the altruist no utility, derailing transactionalist theory. But doesn’t a ‘thankless task’ in the name of someone else’s wellbeing afford us a feeling of joy? Is nature chemically rewarding our brain for following one of our “prime directives”? Is an effort and a feeling NOT an exchange?

We marvel at nature’s strength and beauty. We wonder how the spider knows to make its web. People’s differences in opinion boil down to the definition of instinct. Saying that it is instinct explains nothing, so we keep thinking. Does it know it eats bugs before it ever sees one? It is physically equipped for the task of web-making by virtue of having hatched. Survival consists of impulses experienced by the spider’s senses, expressed with its body. Our senses and faculties, despite their unfathomable depth, are expressions of survivalist impulses. This world was not made for us alone to thrive in. I mean to say that, if you are insulted by the reduction of human culture to transactions, compare yourself to the other animals in the kingdom. Animals do incredible things in the name of survival, sometimes through symbiosis and sometimes by fighting for supremacy. To take our impulse for symbiosis and believe that it is divine simply because of how it feels, or to say that social interaction is more than an exchange for something that furthers our survival, is an arrogant notion that drives a wedge between us and the system of life that we live in. It may not be flattering, but it is the nature of our experience.

“The Persistence of Memory”




Alright, this goes back a little from what we’ve recently been reading about in class, but in chapter six of A Good Book, In Theory by Alan Sears & James Carins, Sears & Carins discuss the concept of time. As the world became more industrialized, and technology advances, there becomes a stronger and stronger reliance on “clock-time”.  The clock literally runs our lives now. We watch this mechanical object as it breaks down time into literally measurable moments and marks them for us. As you sit in the classroom of a long lecture, or you anxiously await the end of your shift at work, your eyes drift to the clock, marking every second that more often than not, seems to move excruciatingly slow. This idea of “clock-time” is socially constructed. As our societies have advanced, we’ve become more reliant on a way to mark and measure time.

In order to understand the concept of time, we have to be able to apply it to history. This is where the concept of historical imagination comes into play. “We begin with the simplest idea: we cannot know the future,” (Sears & Carins, 144). We cannot know the future. Let that resonate with you for a moment. Got it? Alright, so, if we cannot know future, then we must rely on the past to predict what may or may not happen in the future. We go on everyday planning out tomorrow and the next day and the next until we’ve planned out our entire week. But we cannot know that that week is actually going to happen. In the movie, The Vow, a young woman, Paige, ends up in a tragic car accident from which she suffers injuries to her brain. As most patients who suffer brain injuries, she’s kept in a medically induced coma until her doctors see improvement and healing in her brain. When Paige is woken up out of her coma, she’s woken to a world she doesn’t know. Her concept of the present and her recent past is gone. There is a man in the hospital room with her when she wakes up, along with another woman. The man, she finds out, is her husband, Leo. Her memories of roughly the past five to ten years of her life are gone. As the film goes on, Paige tries to put together the pieces of her recent past to see if her memories will come back. She even makes a timeline of some photographs, describing a decent amount of the pictures as being “in the lost years”.

“Our understanding of society and of our own lives is necessarily retrospective. We look back from the present, which is the latest moment in the process of development. We can understand the world around us only by asking how it got to be this way,” (Sears & Carins, 147). Throughout the film, Paige continuously asks questions about her recent past, and the things that she cannot remember. By doing this, she is trying to find ground to stand on in the world she is living in, but does not recall. Children, and adults alike, do this very same thing, often without more than a moment’s thought. As we go throughout our day, we don’t consistently ask, “How did that chair get there?”, “Where did ‘x’ come from?” unless we’re analyzing a new area (or just doing some strange math problems). We know that these things are there and/or that these things happen, because they have been there or have happened in the past, so we understand these things to be a sort of constant. A young child, however, doesn’t have a vast knowledge of history (personal or social), so they continually ask the adults and older children around them questions who’s answers may seem obvious. As such, they are the prime example of how we understand our world only by asking how it got to be this way.

Tying this all together now, we understand time, and life within time, only through the society in which we live. Our concept of time in America is not the same as it is for someone living in a country in Southeast Asia. Our society, our culture, sets up the framework for our understanding of the past, the present, and the future. It is through our memories, our teachings, and our social interactions that we are able to understand time in the way that we do. We know the past is the past because we are told that it has happened before the moment we are currently residing in . However, as Sears & Carins put it “…the past is the present.” We are living off of the events that have happened in order to form a prediction, of the future. Time then, is a method to our madness, if you will.


Note: The above image is of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”. I found the image rather fitting when talking about time, historical imagination, and the past. It reminded me of the concept of time, not just because of the clocks, but because the clocks are seemingly melting. My mind interpreted that image of clocks melting as “Time is slipping away”. Memory is more than essential to being able to understand time. Without memories, it would be rather difficult to sort out what is the present, what is the past, and what the future may hold. Which reminds me a lot of those with dementia and Alzheimers, which is a topic for a later day. Also, the title of the piece seemed rather suiting as well (and I have only borrowed it for this blog post).

Thoughts on Mead

Many criticized Margaret Mead’s work by saying it was “too flowery” or that she was only reporting the details that she wanted. Now, of course, I was not there so I could not testify whether she omitted details or if maybe she was seeing something that others had not. Mead’s analysis on the social and gender roles of the Arapesh caused some drama. She reported that males and females held similar roles and were both important. To our culture at the time, it was fairly clear that males had roles that females couldn’t do and the same went vice versa. Ethnocentrism wouldn’t be a surprising product of this news. We naturally compare something foreign to ourselves in order to try to understand and, unfortunately, this can often lead to irritation and feelings of superiority.

I can also understand why the way Mead wrote bothered other anthropologists, however, her more-casual approach made her work more inviting to the general public. I would think this would be beneficial to anthropology because it would get their research “out there”. What is the research and data collected worth if no one knows about it? Non-academic individuals probably don’t seek out Anthropological journals in their free time so when you write your results in terms the general public can understand, everyone will benefit. She knew that in order to change how her society thought, she was going to have to write to themImage

Mead worked hard, probably much harder than any male anthropologist would ever have to. Her work will always be influential and will always be criticized because of its pioneering qualities. As a professional, she’s a hero and definitely someone to look up to. She helped bring anthropology to normal, everyday people. That effort is truly important because if we can educate ourselves, we can better ourselves and grasp the idea of what it truly means to be human.



Boas in Legoland!


So, trying to express my creative juice in real life figures in Legos, I have decided to explain what I gathered from the Boas readings and his work in this Lego “artwork” (though I tried merging them into the same document but could not get the two to cooperate so I just took a photo of my photos) .  Boas’ work challenged the existing frameworks that anthropologists had worked with; previously cultures were seen to have a unilinear progression, an evolution from simple to complex and Paleolithic to Industrial practices.  The most left photo represents the unilinear progression previously excepted by anthropologists, that all cultures strive to become more complex (even though all cultures are complex in their own way), and Boas’ view of the complex branches of cultures and how all cultures progress differently than others.

The next pair of creations are based on Boas’ critique of cross cultural comparisons.  Boas was highly critical of comparisons between cultures, especially the material culture; he felt that it was creating links between cultures that were not there.  One example he made, was the comparison between masks in two cultures; it would be inappropriate to say that two cultures are similar because they use masks in ritual as one culture may have the masks in ritual to honor the dead ancestors while another may be to protect the mask-wearer from evil spirits.  To represent two cultures that should not be compared, I scoured my house to find a non-Lego piece (something that may be similar to a Lego but is not a Lego) to “compare” to a Lego block.  It would be inappropriate, in a Boasain approach, to compare a Ken-ex piece to a Lego piece, even though they connect to other pieces of their own kind and similarities can be seen in both by their connective abilities.  In the other photograph, I have an arch piece and a square block, once again they share similarities but should not be compared as the same piece.

Lastly, one of Boas’ points was the combination of diffusion and independent invention in cultures that shared geographic areas.  Here he says that just because a culture has similar or the same practice or trait, such as architecture, we cannot determine whether or not the culture invented it themselves or if the trait was diffused from a larger culture or shared via trade and networking.  Here Boas focuses on the individual histories of cultures and how they came across this trait in their own terms; he does not want to focus on a shared history between cultures, rather each history is individual and separate.  This last pair of photos tries to relate the concept that we are not able to always determine whether a trait has been diffused or if it came across through independent invention.  As you can see, I have tried to create different structures but each sharing arches and the smiley Lego piece.  Each have their own function but we cannot say which came first or if each independently created the traits.

Avatar the Last Airbender and Anthropology

       So I am a huge Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra fan and through this class I am now applying these theories to the things I love. The show, Avatar the Last Airbender, is about a world where people can bend the different elements earth, air, fire and water. There are nations and cultures that are related to the elements and each nation is filled with people who either bend that element or don’t bend at all. Then there is the Avatar and he/she is the only one born in each generation that can bend all the elements and create balance between the different nations. Once the avatar dies it is reborn into the next nation in the cycle of elements.

      The show talks about how the FIre Nation felt that they were Superior to the other nation and through the extra boost of a comet they wiped out all of the Air nomads because the next Avatar was to be born in that nation. That takes place a100 years before the show starts by the way. Long Story short the main character Aang was frozen in an ice berg for 100 years and is the long lost Avatar and it is now his destiny to stop the new Fire Lord from conquering all the other nations.

       OK now comes the long awaited anthropology part… Like many cultures that we have in our world each are different and unique to their traditions. The way that they view the world is similar to how Margret Mead and Ruth Benedict viewed our world in that their are patterns in place you wouldn’t normally see as related. They talk about gender roles and how they are formed at an early age and can vary by culture. In the show on of the companions to Aang on his journey is a young waterbender girl named Katara and she is the last waterbender in the South Pole. They both travel to the North Pole to seek training in mastering waterbending. When they get there they get a rude awakening when the find out that female waterbenders can only use their waterbending for healing purposes only. This doesn’t stop her from proving her worth to be a master waterbender. Similar to how Mead and Benedict didn’t let the fact that they were women get in the way of them getting their views of the world out there for all to read. Another example is that the group gets shown that not all people that come from the Fire Nation is bad from what they are lead to believe. They start to see that getting to know people on an individual bases can give you more insight into the culture then what you thought you knew. They found out that sometimes what seemed to be random events and encounters had more meaning behind them. Zuko is a good example of many things, he is the banished crowned Price to the Fire Nation and is only allowed back when he captures the long lost Avatar. Zuko showed that he had a lot of internal conflict inside of him because he founds out that he had lineage to a previous Avatar and to the Fire lord that destroyed the Air nomads. His mother showed him love and support and his father looked at him as he was lucky to be born. Also, you could probably say that Zuko had a little bit of an Oedipus Complex because he hates his father because he doesn’t know what happened to his mother when he was a child. Another thing would be that the Avatar sees the world as divided but equal and learns that it doesn’t have to be that way and that everyone can accept the different thinking that other cultures have.

          Oh and i should tell you that there is Professor Zei, Head of the Anthropology department at the Ba Sing Se University. The episode he is in is Season 2 episode “The Library” and he is so fascinated by everything and wants to find an ancient spirit that has collected a museum of everything. The spirits name is Wan Shi Tong and he is still collecting every bit of information and is a never ending process as we all know. I just thought it was funny the professor and the spirit never stop wanting to learn and for the professor he dies still trying to learn everything he can.

      Sorry if this isn’t too interesting, but this is one of my all time favorite tv shows and to be able to apply something i love to the things i study in school makes it that much easier to learn. Everyone should check it out if you haven’t already.

Conflict Sports

Durkheim’s take on Marx’s conflict theory is comparable to looking at sports. When you look at a sport, when they first start they are not that organized but if you look at the progression of a sport over time it slowly changes. That is because people learn what does not work for the sport and times change and sports tend to change with time. The players in sports have a separation between the more skilled players than the less skilled players. The more skilled players have more power and social status on the team because they know more and become more valuable, while the less skilled players have to learn to become a good player. In order for the less skilled player to become more skilled they must show up to practice and keep doing the same thing over and over again and over time they will get better at it. On the team, everyone works together but some people might play different roles than others, but they all have their functions on the team. The players also work with Durkheim’s view of conformity, as the players that are from a team will look like they belong to the team because the people are following the norms made for that team. New people on a team will not look like they are a part of the group but over time they will learn the group’s norms and start to look like the rest of the team.  Durkheim also believed that conflict in society would go away over time. This is like conflict with players on a team either the conflict will go away with time. A way to contradict this though is the conflict might not go away and will just persist until someone leaves or ages out of the team. Another problem with this comparison is that someone might not conform to a sport but leave the sport or team and decide to do something else. This part of sports fits in with Weber’s idea that people have differences in behaviors so they are a part of them team but they are individuals. Using Weber’s point of view in the conflict theory we can look at teams differently. The team’s members are not just conforming and working together but competing against one another to show who the best is. Weber idea says that status groups are more likely to compete. Looking at it this way the new members of the team are competing to be better than the more experienced ones and the more experienced working to stay better than the less experienced. 

Boas & Faulkner

Moberg writes that Boas collected data with no guidelines and would publish his findings in “unedited form with minimal commentary” (148-149). After reading this, it dawned on me that it sounded very much like stream-of-conscious writing. The first thing that popped into my head was The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. Faulkner’s writing rambles on with very little explanation from the author of what is happening. He switches between characters and it is quite difficult to get a grip on what is going on because by the time you start to understand what one character is doing, it switches and you have to start the whole process of understanding over.

This sounds a lot like Boas’ writings by the way Moberg describes it. Boas strongly opposed generalization of any kind when related to culture. Because of this, he just wanted to collect every single fact that he could. Boas was so concerned with collecting all of the data that he could, he just went around taking down notes and then smashed them all together to publish them. In this way, his notes wouldn’t have a specific point to them and they would be difficult to try and fit together. His writing style probably wasn’t in the stream-of-conscious category, but the ways in which he formatted his data collection sounds like he would just flow from one topic to another. This form of writing can be interesting, albeit sometimes difficult, when applied to fictional literature; however, I would think that when applied to a factual document or research, the reader would just be completely lost to the point that the author was trying to make through all of the data.

People usually think in stream-of-conscious because they have their own inner monologue going almost all of the time. It isn’t correctly punctuated and rarely does someone go back to critique what they just thought about if they aren’t going to say it out loud. When I write, my inner monologue is constantly going but I have to pick and choose what is most appropriate to put down on the page and what should just stay in my head. When I do think of something to say, I have to edit it in order for it to make sense if someone else were to read it. This whole process can be generalizing our own thoughts or working off a theme so our writing makes sense to the reader. Boas just seems to skip this process. It is understandable that he came after the popular theorists who just wanted to generalize everything even if they knew next to nothing about the culture. The problem is that it makes it difficult for others to then go back over his data and try to make sense of it when he skips around so much without a theme to follow.

I guess my whole point is that Boas seemed to write in a stream-of-conscious structure and it probably wasn’t the best idea for him to not follow a theme for his data collections. Without editing and some generalizations, it can be hard to follow or make sense of something, especially if it is in regards to another culture. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Boas, but I think if he had tried to organize his data a little bit it could have been even more useful to the field of anthropology.

Boas: changes in cultural context over time reflected in gender roles in a restaurant setting

I have worked in restaurants since I was sixteen. Three restaurants to be exact and sadly I have to admit that two of them were an Applebee’s. In 2008 I left the corporate chain in Kenosha to earn a better living in a family owned supper club that has stood the test of time. The HobNob opened in 1954 at a time when women were waitresses and hostesses and every other position was held by a man: bartender and chef to name just two. Today, I am one of three bartenders that work there; two out of the three of us are women. Just under decade ago, these positions were extremely gendered and rigid whereas today, they are not only diverse but are addressed with a completely different vocabulary: ie, waitress/waiter = server. Today, in conjunction with the addition of women bartenders, there have been women chefs and male servers and hosts, so, clearly times have changed. Boas would argue that these changes in the cultural context of the restaurant and society in turn change the elements of the restaurant’s culture and their meanings.

In the 50’s, a woman’s role in society was quite clear: an ideal woman cooked, cleaned, looked after the children, and concerned herself solely with the happiness of her husband. This image is rather exaggerated but illustrates the frustrations of the women of those generations and the mentality of men of the time. Bill Higgins was the first owner of the HobNob and would see to it that a waitress stayed well into the evening to serve him dinner in the empty restaurant – because he could. Today, that would be considered totally inappropriate and a form of coercion of an employee by her boss. Over the past sixty years there has been incredible progress in equality of gender and race which can be reflected in the cultural context of this supper club as well as any other place of employment due to the fact that the culture surrounding the workplace is magnified in such a concentrated space.

When the HobNob first opened, women were looked down on and considered a nuisance to most men whether or not they were aware of their reliance upon them. When taking an order, I can imagine a waitress of the 50’s having to just accept the condescending tone of the male patron. In contrast, by today’s standards, to be a male or female server and to be disparaged by a patron of either gender is not only impolite of the patron but also plainly disrespectful. Taking a look at the inner workings of the restaurant, women servers of decades past might have been taken for granted, considering their limited roles and ability to be of value. Today, there may be only two male servers at the restaurant, but they are not considered the “strongest” or the “best”. They are equally as important but the female servers, especially the seasoned ones that have been there for years, are more heavily relied upon to solve problems or answer dire questions. The dynamics of the restaurant have certainly changed over the years in relation to the changes in the culture of the local society. To understand where we are as employees at the HobNob, as Boas would point out, we have to look closely at the history of not only the establishment itself but also of the local society.

Sympathy for an Undiscriminating Collector: or, how I am a Boasian Photographer

I’ve always had a collector’s mentality. When I was little, it was things like Matchbox cars. My parents thought that it was neat the way I’d have dozens and dozens of the things (Hundreds? I don’t remember.), yet I always knew exactly which ones in the store were not yet part of my collection. I think my collecting tendencies could easily graduate to hoarding if I’m not careful. One of the last times I moved, I brought two carfulls of computer parts -I filled the trunk, the backseat, and even removed the passenger seat to make more room for them- to an electronics recycling drive. I’d kept them for the longest time out of some belief that I’d do something with them. That someday they’d be important and useful. In a way, I felt like I was maintaining a sort of museum; that if I didn’t have these things, then they would someday become inaccessible. Lost to the us. I’ve felt this way about many more things over the years: CDs of computer software, Magic and other CCG cards, books [possibly my greatest weakness; I have many more of them than places to put them, so they end up being inaccessible after all, packed away in boxes]), and more.

I’ve gotten better about hoarding physical things, but I still have issues with digital hoarding. I have a file full of basically every program I’ve downloaded from the internet over the past fifteen-plus years, ‘just in case I need them.’ But perhaps the worst of it is my photographs. Whether it’s a trip to New York City, or random shots of the household dog, almost every photograph I make is stored away in redundant copies on two external hard drives, just in case something happens to one. I have a very hard time getting myself to delete photos that are, for instance, out of focus, over-exposed, or near-duplicates. It pains me a little bit to *destroy data* in this way. Because it’s not only the direct data in the photo; it’s the meta-data. Somehow, it feels like I’d be diminishing a whole in some way that could never be restored. I’m getting better about this. On my trip to Mexico, I actually, *gasp*, deleted some poorly shot or composed photos in-camera before even seeing them on a screen! But it’s hard. What if I need that photo later, for some inexplicable reason? I will *never have the chance again* to take that photo. This is why I have something like a hundred thousand digital photos -many, many gigabytes’ worth-, and my ‘to-process’ backlog grows ever larger and more intimidating. I just don’t have the time to effectively process them all.


As I read about Boas’ indiscriminate salvage ethnographies, I felt kinship with him. Here is motivation I can not only understand, but emphasize with. All of these cultures -these actions, behaviours, thoughts, relationships, collected knowledges, these achingly beautiful and unique junctures in socio-cultural space-time- are going away. They’ll be gone forever. We need to preserve everything we can about them before it’s too late. We need everything! Now!


When I start photographing a particular place, I like to start by sitting down and thinking about what it is, what I feel about it, and what I want my pictures to say. But I don’t always have the time. In the brief trip I took through Mayan ruins over Spring break, for instance, I was constrained by external factors like the speed of my group and the schedule. Sometimes, I react to this by thinking less and shooting more. Moving from active creation of compositions to profligate snap-shotting, trying not to miss something neat.  In the same way, Boas (and many anthropologists since) have been constrained in their work by external factors. Archaeology especially is often in these rescue situations, doing as much as can be done with a site before a new building or road is put in. But cultural anthropologists as well must accept that their time in a place is limited, and they can’t know everything.


I think that must have been deeply distressing for people like Boas. It’s distressing for me. What if we miss something critical? That one magnificent photograph, shot almost as an afterthought, or its anthropological analogy, that one almost accidental observation that turns out to unlock something really critical to your work. Nevermind that it becomes a needle in the proverbial haystack of accumulated data. There’ll be time to sort it out later as long as we collect it *now* before it’s too late! Boas and I would likely both benefit from applying a theoretical framework to our data collection. But it’s so hard to know where to start sometimes. Well, maybe we can figure it out later; there are photos to take and data to collect….




A Universal Teaching

A Universal Teaching

I found this cartoon to be quite amusing, especially because we consider ourselves a rare and odd breed, and I thought it would be perfect for the blog because we discussed the advancements in field-work, standardized by Boas.
In my Criminal Justice Research Methods class we discussed participant- observation, and my professor had mentioned that some anthropologists become so consumed by a culture they are studying, they suffer from “going native” while I’m sure she was reciting from research she has conducted on the subject, when I asked her to explain what “going native” meant, it sounded so similar to what is purposefully done to create rapport with the society being examined. It demonstrated how misunderstood anthropological field research really is, and the stereotype of anthropologists to be crazy, as depicted in the picture with the bleeding, injured anthropologist recording his experience.
With so many misconceptions about what anthropologists do, even among anthropologists, based on the various theories many produced about what should drive their own work, it easy to see where people are misled, and that is precisely what led Boas to establish fundamental methods still utilized today, because often speculation is offered as evidence and unfortunately some people will blindly accept it. Boas created a theory that was effectively, and rightly, used to shed light upon the inherent racism produced by popular scientific theories, it is applicable to numerous situations, including personal standards I choose to live by.

Do not blindly agree with another’s interpretation, gather all the facts and make your own conclusion.

It is easy to apply your own feelings to a particular situation, but until you observe and understand the context in which events occurred, you should avoid judging other’s behavior.

Speculation leads to stereotypes, which are harmful generalizations that persecuted many. Boas may have missed key elements by not allowing himself to produce universal laws, but he did create a universal teaching, a standard that can travel beyond the anthropological perspective.

Saraya Kohloff