Julian Steward and My Rage Against Machinery

Ever since we read Julian Steward’s cultural ecology in Moberg a few weeks ago I have been trying to figure out if his theory is able to explain industrial state societies’ cultural adaptations to the environment or if the theory just couldn’t do it.  After a little bit of thinking on my free time (I say that as if that exists, ha!) I decided, though difficult since it was my own culture, to try to analyze the cultural ecology of the United States.  Initially I couldn’t get the theory to work, I tried to come up with different ways to define the climate of the United States as a whole but the variation of weather patterns from region to region was too great; we have hurricanes on the Southern Coasts, earthquakes and droughts to the West, heavy snowfall and fairly long winters in the Midwest and upper East Coast, and tornadoes increasing in the Midwest down to the South.  Even within regions there were different sub-weather patterns, such as heavy wet snow in Michigan whereas Minnesota and Wisconsin get lighter snowfall and lower humidity in the winter!  After mentioning the aforementioned list of different climate patterns in the United States to myself later that week I had that Aha!/face palming moment, obviously the environmental aspect to Steward’s cultural ecology could not be used on a large sample, such as the entire United States.  I had focused on the shared culture core I had embarrassingly neglected how the culture core adapted and was used to address the second half of the theory.  Foolishness behind, I had gotten caught up in the assumptions of my own culture and perhaps one of the premises of being an industrial state society, we use machines!  I was strung up with the idea that we are reliant on machinery and as a result fossil fuels (ironically fueling my hatred for our reliance on it still today) to create our own environments to suit our needs such as houses and schools, roads, factories, entire cities so that we can continue living our lives as usual.  The fascination with creating these artificial environments and neglecting the world around us paralyzed my ability to even think past our usage of machinery and how it can change from the cultural ecology theory’s point of view.  Steward’s cultural ecology theory is looking at specific ways that a culture core adapts to the environment so, given our heavy reliance on machinery, here is how I broke down our general culture core and made it more specific to certain climate types by comparing slight changes in agriculture.  In Wisconsin, we use heavy machinery to plant crops but in our area, we have had (except in recent years) steady rainfall so the majority of the crops in the southeast of Wisconsin are rain fed.  Taking the same technology but placing it in California, our crops would surely die given the low amounts of rainfall; this is why agriculture in dryer places requires a lot of water and so sprinkler systems are manufactured and used to grow the crops.  Taking our modified Wisconsin-California watering system and placing it in an area with a lot of rivers and streams, it would be inefficient to use sprinkler systems even though there is little rainfall, the rivers could be utilized for irrigation systems which would not require pumps or reservoirs to use for sprinklers.  So, with these variations of the use of machinery to plant and sustain crops, the culture core changes with the environmental factors.  Despite my distain for the use of heavy machinery (and reliance on fossil fuels, BOO!) to continue the obscene reliance of  monoculture in the United States, to which one day we shall see that polyculture is far more cost-effective and provides protection from diseases and pests to the plants without the use of pesticides or antibiotics, the use of heavy machinery is essential for an industrial state society to provide large quantities of food to its population. 

Historical Particularism

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.


Shirts, People, and Anthropology

I had originally planned to do a breeching experiment having to do with disturbing the assumptions of apparel in accordance to gender, but my time schedules would not allow me adequate time to do them.  Instead what I had decided to do was similar to a breeching experiment but on a much smaller scale, in fact, it was more of a “watch-people’s-reactions-to-the-slogans-on-my-shirt” kind of observation.  Some of you may have noticed that every Thursday I wear a shirt that has to do with supporting the LGBTQI community; shirts that say “Some Chicks Marry Chicks. Get Over It.” or “Some Dudes Marry Dudes. Get Over It.” as well as a shirt with the symbol for marriage equality; the heart with the equal sign in it.  In addition to wearing these shirts on Thursdays, I also wore them on days that I work or on weekends when I am out and about in public interacting with people.  One of the indicators that people were actually reading what was on my shirts was that many coworkers and peers at school actually stopped me to read what my shirt said or asked me what the heart symbol meant.  Some even got close enough to see the tiny letters of the website I bought them from (FckH8.com).

Now, you may be reading this and yawn to yourself, “Mike, why is this important?  So you wore shirts that supported marriage equality, whippy-do! Just tell us how this is related to the class and get on with your life.”   Well, this does relate to the class in a small way, and I took that small significance and ran with it and made connections with my own experiences that I don’t know if I can explain enough without seeming too disjointed and jumping around everywhere with ideas. But I will try.

About two years ago I was really into listening and watching TED Talks, and through my searches I came across a talk by iO Tillett Wright titled “Fifty shades of gay”.  In this talk, iO addresses how humans interact with one another and when we are first meeting someone we are going through this mental resume based on the answers the unknown person gives, and it provides a framework for our own assumptions about that individual; who they are, what they do, what they are wearing, possibly their socioeconomic standing.  It is in our nature to categorize things we learn and we place them in “boxes” or categories based on the information and inferences we made about whatever we are doing.  What iO is doing is highlighting our perceptions we have of the world around us, and when something does not fit in the box we assigned it, we either have to make a new box or reallocate that information into another box.  This connects with the small discussion in Sears and Cairns (from pages 85 through 93) that we categorize our perceptions and need to constantly reevaluate our reality and assumptions about it.

This leads into my whole shirt observation scheme.  You see, many people will say I am a quiet, calm, polite person, while others will say I am extremely talkative, loud, and hyper.  Most of my coworkers think the former, so when I wear a shirt claiming something loud and against what they have heard from their religion (roughly four-fifths of my work were hired because they had connections with the owner from a Christian church they all attended at one time and, in case you were wondering, I am in the one-fifth and have no previous interaction with the owner), it definitely turned heads.  I got a mixture of responses from my coworkers:  some told me they liked the shirts, others scowled, one high schooler  tried to embarrass me by saying, “So, chickens can get married now, that’s irrelevant and dumb,” other people asked if I was gay or if I had a boyfriend (to that I told them “I don’t know” and “Maybe”).  At Parkside, some peers just smiled at the shirts, while one Thursday, I walked into a philosophy class and those who did not know me read my shirt, and continued to just stare at me throughout the class with looks of confusion or concern (I’m not sure which).  On a weekend I went to a friend’s house and when I took off my jacket, he threw me his sweatshirt and told me that if his parents saw me supporting gay marriage they would probably not want me in their house.

Needless to say, wearing these shirts got people thinking. They may have heard the marriage equality debate (if it really is a debate) and what others have to say, what their religious institutions have to say, and made assumptions based on those experiences.  But when someone they know, someone who isn’t “evil” or wanting to “ruin their sanctity of marriage” (whatever that is), someone they know in the past they could trust, when they see that person support a cause, regardless of their opinions, the wheels in their minds start turning, and they have to redefine their perceptions and assumptions that they had made.  Whether or not they change their assumptions in a way that supports the cause or leaves them with unanswered questions, it still threw a wrench in their overall worldview.  That is the point behind breeching experiments, to get people to think of their own socially subconscious decisions and thoughts and question the assumptions of their reality, and that is what I hoped to demonstrate.

I had so much more I wanted to address about sexuality and how it may relate to law and politics but this post is much too long to begin with (even with edits) so a few last words.  In the final few minutes of iO’s TED Talk, she addresses sexuality as a spectrum (in this talk she is only talking about being homosexual or straight) where being bisexual is the middle, the polar ends are 100% homosexual or 100% heterosexual.  I find it intriguing the discussion she has where laws cannot be specific enough to address the conditions under which, an employer can fire someone under the grounds of being homosexual or conducting homosexual behavior.  If I can figure out how, I will attach the TED Talk; the last 6 minutes are really significant but the whole talk kind-of builds to her conclusions. As a side note, I would like to add that my own view of sexuality is more like a blurred circular pinwheel with 100% of all the sexualities are at the edges and everyone falls somewhere in it.