Deconstruction in a Newer Era

In 1994, William O’Barr published Culture and the Ad: Exploring the World of Otherness in Advertisement. O’Barr attempted to look at how the portrayal of minorities in advertisement had changed over time.1 He particularly looked at print advertising from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. An important aspect to O’Barr’s analysis was the use of deconstruction.

Deconstruction looks to critically read texts to find the latent biases and meanings held within it.2 While the original use was applied to texts, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collin applied it to National Geographic photos and later O’Barr to advertising.3 O’Barr found that in the 1950’s and 1960’s, African American men were primarily bellmen, train porters, elevator operators, or shoe-shine boys and women mainly as domestics and cooks.4 However, this changed in the 1970’s when the portrayal of African Americans started to include executives over those positions previously used. O’Barr attempted to show how cultural views had changed over this period of several decades. It was through advertising that a cultural shift was shown in who could be what and how Americans perceived race.

Can this be applied to our world now? How can O’Barr’s assertion that advertising can show cultural view shifts be seen in advertising today? Let’s look at some more modern ads.


(three ads: from left to right, a Target ad featuring a girl with a physical disability, another Target ad featuring a girl with down syndrome, finally, an ad for Marriott showing a gay couple with their children)

(two ads: from left to right, a Nivea ad that features male based hair and skin products, a Dove ad for body wash that featured a African American woman taking off her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath)


(three ads: from left to right, a Mr.Clean ad with a woman and her daughter cleaning, a Bosch ad showing the evolution of their washing machines and a woman standing to each era of machines, a Dolce & Gabbana ad showing men hovering over a woman lying on the floor)

According to O’Barr, we are able to discern cultural views from each of these ads through deconstruction. The first three ads show inclusivity. These ads include those with both physical and developmental disorders and a gay couple with children. These additions to modern advertising show that views on these aspects of life are not as disregarded or discriminated against as they have been in the past. This shows a cultural shift to be inclusive of several ways of life.

The next two ads focus more on hygiene and beauty products. The Nivea ad shows an African American man with short hair grabbing the disembodied head of an African American with an afro. The text says to “re-civilize yourself”. This could be interpreted that wearing your hair natural as an African American is still looked down upon. There is either a dirtiness or an uncivilized notion associated with it. The Dove ad acts in a similar fashion. It’s an ad for body wash and shows an African American woman pulling her shirt off to show a white woman underneath. While some would say it’s an oversite, it could imply that darker skin is perceived as dirtier than that of lighter skins. These two ads may show that darker skin and natural African American hair is less desirable as a beauty standard.

The final three ads feature mainly women. The first one shows simply a mother and daughter cleaning. Seems simple and innocent enough but women have primarily dominated cleaning and cooking ads. The washing machine ad is like the previous one. However, the interesting fact of this ad is that while the fashion and technology change within it, the idea of a woman being associated with laundry doesn’t. The final ad is for clothing. This shows men predatorially standing and leaning over one single woman. It shows her in a sexual and vulnerable position. This could suggest submissive and sexual stereotypes of woman still remain under the public conscious.

While comparing modern ads to those of, let’s say, O’Barr’s “modern” advertisements, would require a study in its own right, it still provides us with a rich example of the applications of deconstruction. It shows that these ads are not just flat images and videos but rather brief glimpses into cultural ideals. Through deconstruction we can find the stereotypes we’ve held and the others we’ve abandoned. It would be insightful to see how O’Barr’s study could be translated into a newer era.


1- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory a Social and Political History. London: Taylor & Francis, 2017. p. 324

2- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. p. 316

3- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. p. 323

4- Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. p. 324


Trobriand Islands & The United States: Sexual Practices and a Lesson in Cultural Relativism

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For us in the United States, though constantly changing and being challenged, our sexual practices are normal for us. It is a private matter that should take place between those in relationships and while casual sex does occur, it is not something commonly discussed. Sexual partners beyond one’s partner, such as with open relationships, is considered deviant and not particularly accepted. Some believe sexual education shouldn’t occur in education and should purely exist through parent-child discussion. Extensive activism has helped retain sexual education in schools but it is still challenged. If sex is discussed between adults, it is generally something done between close friends. Nudity is rather taboo and even breast feeding infants in public is still met with scorn from some. Nudity will be used in some advertising but it is not public (Billboards, TV Commercials, etc.). However, it is important to note that there are some public displays of sexual behavior but it is limited. Nightlife in the United States (clubbing, going to bars, parties, etc) will have people who do “grind” when dancing or will flirt extensively with interested partners. If a person is to leave with another that they may have just met and proceed to walk back home the next day, this is called a “walk of shame”. Large amounts of sexual partners is generally looked down upon and not encouraged. Communal places for sex is a concept that tends not to be discussed and generally do not exist. Prostitution and any sex work is something that is underground and illegal (except for Nevada which allows it in certain areas).

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This then brings us to the much different practices of Trobriand Islanders. The Trobriand Islands are a set of islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea near Australia. Sex is a normal part of Trobriand Islands culture. Having sex and changing partners frequently is encouraged among adolescents around the age of 13 to 14 years-old. While accepting of science and modern medicine, pregnancy and sex tend to be separated. Imparting knowledge of magic is more constituted as sexual education than anything within the United States. Becoming pregnant is an asexual phenomenon.¹ It is so encouraged that villages will have what is called a “bukumatula” which is a hut designated for pre-marital sex among teenagers and young adults.² This is partially why the islands that have been dubbed “The Island of Love”. Nudity, while generally snubbed at in the United States, is a neutral thing among the Trobrianders. Particularly during festivals, women will dance topless in ornate grass skirts. Many dances are performed by women and men alike during festivals. The “mweki”, an example of these dances, can be described as “ribald performance of pelvic thrusting, buttock‐slapping, hooting and gyrating, often accompanied by sexually explicit lyrics”.³ Such public displays of sexual innuendos within the Trobriand Islands is normal though generally reserved for festivals. Having additional sexual partners after marriage is commonly looked down upon but it is also during festivals that a married couple partake in having “flings” making it acceptable on certain occassions. It is due to this strict views on monogamy that adults encourage adolescents to explore their sexuality as marriage destroys any sexual freedom.

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(The photo on the left is a common sight during yam harvest festivals on the Trobriand Islands. Notice that women are bare-breasted for these festivals and even their grass skirts are short but ornate. The photo on the right is an example of a village bukumatula)

While the differences in cultures are significantly different, the main goal of this post is to display the use of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the idea that cultural practices, beliefs, and traditions should be judged by their own historical and cultural contexts rather than by the criteria of those looking at that culture. This idea, first proposed by Boas, was incredibly progressive for its time and still holds weight today. While maybe not so for seasoned anthropologists, I can personally attest that seeing cultures that do not wear clothes extensively still kind of cause me to double-take a bit. Boas sought to catalog details and observations rather than make generalizations of what those details mean. This was due to the belief that we would never be able to truly understand the context of which aspects of culture existed. It is by this that us as Americans cannot judge based on our own cultural practices. According to Boas, considering their practices of encourage adolescent sex as wrong or immoral would be against cultural relativism. However, the concept also extends to the Trobrianders as well. Trobrianders considering us as prudish or weird would also go against such principles. While some of you reading this may be confused or even shocked by practices of the sexual practices of the Trobriand Islands, this is due to judging their behaviors based on how we look at sex in the United States. True cultural relativism means viewing opposing cultures as normal and natural rather than weird or deviant.

Durkheim, Uncategorized

Durkheim and the Religious Evolution of the Nuer

Emile Durkheim was renowned for his work on religion. Rather than taking a philosophical vantage he asserted that society does not worship God, but rather society worships itself. This meant the concept of God was something that was created by society and fit according to the needs of society. His original study looked at what religions were most popular in “simple” and “complex” studies. He found that “simple” societies preferred polytheistic religions while “complex” preferred more monotheistic religions. Durkheim thought with the change of society, so did their concept of God(s). What we could, or could not, explain ourselves, determined whether we worshipped a God or gods. With control of agriculture, explanations for weather, the advancement of medicine, etc., having multiple gods wasn’t necessary to attempt to control forces we could not explain.

This brings me to my main focus: the Nuer and their religious evolution. When Evans-Pritchard first released his ethnography of the south Sudanese group, religion was mainly a polytheistic one. There resided a God of the sky (Kuoth Nhial) as well as the lesser but still regarded spirits of the sky (such as Deng, the spirit of sickness). They have several religious practices and rituals such as cow or goat sacrifice. At this time, conflict resulted mainly in skirmishes with the Dinka. Medicine was considered crude and generally the Nuer were at the mercy of the seasons.

Modern day Nuer culture hasn’t changed greatly but their witnessing of modern conflict has. Aiming to break away from Sudan to form their own independent nation, South Sudan has been in a crisis. The turmoil of modern day warfare has torn the country apart and caused a refugee crisis. Another development we have seen within South Sudan is the rise of those actively practicing Christianity (mainly due to missionary contact and activism). While it is not the religious majority, Christianity has definitely been gaining head way within their culture.

According to Durkheim, this progression from a polytheistic religion to a monotheistic one is only natural as a country goes from “simplicity to complexity”. Gods are not the only explanations for death once medicine and war are introduced. The difference between famine and feast is not only controlled by gods but by missionary work that assists south Sudanese people. Previously the Nuer main conflict arose from cattle raids by rival tribes such as the Dinka and some governmental intrusion but now the country is in what one would call a civil war with modern day weapons. Between military occupancy and refugees fleeing the country for safety, the Nuer as well as all of Sudan/South-Sudan, are living in a very different environment than that of Evans-Pritchard day Nuer. This slow change from polytheism to monotheism works with Durkheim’s predictions that as society changes from “simple” to “complex” so will their ideas of God. While they are not fully Christian by any means, we are seeing a stark influx of conversions to Christianity and enough to see their presence within South-Sudan.