Little White Lies

Structural-functionalism is primarily interested in the rules of society, it assumes the members of the society simply acted according to these rule and the exceptions to these rules were dismissed as “deviant”  (Moberg 2013, 208). This thinking didn’t consider that “deviant” behavior could be a regular behavior that exists within the society and should be seen as just as important in understand the behaviors of the individuals within (Moberg 2013, 207). In response to this school of thought, Sir Raymond Firth developed a theory regarded as “Anti-structure” according to Mark Moberg in Engaging Anthropological Theory: A social and Political History. This anti-structure finds it important to look at individuals actual behaviors within the society and not assume that they follow the rules. By doing this, he was able to identify that the “deviance” behavior should actually be seen as just as important in understanding a society as you would the structure of society. This theory the same structural-functionalist category of social structures which includes social rules, but added another layer called “Social Organization” which consists of the actual behaviors rather than the assumed behaviors (Moberg 2013, 208). Firth believes that the individuals within a society can and frequently if not regularly reinterpret and manipulate the structural rules to benefit them (Moberg 2013, 208). This theory makes the structure of society no longer rigid like the structural-functionalist viewed, but something more like Silly-Putty. The individuals within a society still have to act within the Silly-Putty, but it can be twisted, stretched, and squeezed into different amorphous shapes.

This manipulation of societal rules is something I found to be prevalent in American society as well. For example this practice can be seen in things as complex as legal matters such as marital practices, gun rights, and business law and as simple as a lying. As a general rule within American society lying is seen as deviant behavior and understood to be bad but there seems to always be exceptions and different ways to interpret what constitutes as lying. Lying is defined as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “to create a false or misleading impression” by Merriam-Webster’s online Dictionary. The vague definition of this word allows individuals to frequently reinterpret what constitutes as lie. There are ways in which children and adults find to circumvent this rule and exceptions that our society has a tendency accepts overall. Examples of these include “little white lies”, “stretching the truth”, or equivocating. Little white lies are still seen as being untruthful but with harmless affects and often benefit both parties. Little white lies are seen as often necessary and wouldn’t be shamed to the same degree as a typical lie. I still remember first learning this and after years of being told not to lie and lying is bad, I found a loophole that many people follow.  A famous example that shows the purpose of white lies is the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” If the dress actually does, both parties would be hurt by an honest response so it’s considered socially acceptable to just say “no”  and spare everyone involved. This example was even used in the following Geico commercial:

Like Firth theorized, there is another layer that needs to be considered when understanding society which is that the individuals can and will play with the rules to benefit the themselves, and lying is just one of the many cases where this can be seen. The mere act of actively manipulating a social rule (like in the example above) validates the person as existing within the social structure —  a.k.a. the Silly-Putty — because they must first be aware of the society’s rules in order to reinterpret them for one’s self-interest. If all acts of lying were seen as deviant, it would lead to an incomplete understanding of the actual function of lying in American society. The ability for the individuals within the overarching culture to reinterpret and manipulate rules needs to be understand as well as the structure in order to better understand societies rather than dismissing all acts outside of the perceived structure as deviance.


Moberg, Mark. 2013. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. New York: Routledge.

-Jessica M. Hebert

The Organic Analogy and Biology

By Jessica Hebert

The organic analogy is an analogy that compares society to a physical organic being. This analogy is used by the social theorists Spencer and Durkheim to make sense of society, but is used in biology to compare living organisms to societal components.

Within this analogy Spencer, a social theorist, compares the individual parts of a society to certain organs within one organic body. He shows how societies can sometimes continue to function without certain elements, organs. For example, if a human loses an arm they can still continue to function. On the other hand, humans wouldn’t be able to function without other organs like the heart. Spencer also compared societal complexities to organic life. Societies that are more complex can be compared to complex life-like mammals or the human body, while societies that are simple can be compared to single-celled organisms or cute little amoebas. This is important because the idea is the more complex a society becomes the more specialization occurs so you end up with specific organs for certain jobs rather than multi-functioning parts of a creature. I am not sure what organs Spencer felt fit which aspects of society best, but I’m sure this would be enjoyable to draw a picture of especially considering my complete failure to understand biology.

This brings me to my second point. I have seen this analogy used often, but most memorably in when learning biology. In contrast to Spencer, the analogy was using society to understand the functions of the internal parts of a cell. Every year in science class and then for the final time in high school biology, I heard this analogy being used to explain the function of the different parts of cells. I remember most that the Golgi apparatus is the post office, and the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.


The analogy was being used in this way because it is assumed that the students would better be able to understand the function of portions of a cell by comparing it to portions of a city. This is where I feel both the social theorists and biology teachers have made a mistake. Now, to understand a cell there needs to be a simultaneous understanding of how a city functions as a whole. There needs to be a fundamental understanding of biology and how organic beings function for Spencer’s analogy to be of any use. If biology is making assumptions to compare society to biology, and sociologists are making assumptions on top of that to compare biology to society, it becomes even more convoluted as the assumptions falsely reinforce each other.

I argue instead of understanding the functions of a cell in the context of a society or the functions of a society in the context of an organism there should be a strive to avoid analogies like this that create confusion and are incomplete in themselves. To use these analogies you have to criticize connections in two separate worlds and make connections which manage to make understanding more complex and oversimplified at the same time. The analogies of course don’t fit perfectly, but even if they did they just make understanding a cell or society more complex than it needs to be. Instead of comparing one to each other they should be explained without analogy. Instead there should be a focus on understanding what a mitochondria does for the cell itself without pretending a cell is a city just to turn it back into a cell again. I may not have had a simple phrase to throw on  but instead understood really what went on inside the cell without having to also understand what a post office does, (which is a lot more than move and sort packages, but just assume these assumptions are accurate for sake of argument.)  

The same applies for Spencer’s analogy. There is less error if a kinship system stays a kinship system rather than having to debate which system of a larger organic body to which it is most similar. Even if the analogies were to fit perfectly, it creates an extra step that needs to be debated and assessed in an attempt to simplify, it only makes the understanding more complex since there would have to be an equally complete of biology as well as society. Analogies don’t help anyone in these cases when there is desire to truly deeply understand a concept and should be avoided. At least I know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of cell, whatever that means. 

Human Nature and Parenting

Alan Sears’ A Good Book, In Theory shows the stark contrast two authors have when it comes to how they view human behavior.  A British man named William Golding wrote the well-known novel Lord of the Flies in 1954, which is about young boys who find themselves in a situation with no parental units. With no authoritative figure to keep them in line, things end up going south quickly. This book ultimately functions under the assumption that human nature is inherently bad and that we need to “tame” ourselves in order to correct and control these human desires. This theory on the human condition portrays people as in need of some form of structure (such as society or authority figures) to control these urges we all have inside – such as greed and violence – and without that structure we would run rampant and destroy ourselves (Sears: 101). This theory is pretty much shown in the movie Purge directed by James DeManaco in 2013 which I found to be completely unbelievable, but in this movie, the government allows for one day a year when there are no laws in place to keep people in check, thereby anything is legal and everyone runs around crazy, slaughtering each other. The movie is definitely on the extreme spectrum of this view.

The completely opposite side of this spectrum is the theory on human nature that states that people can self-govern, and in fact controlling too much can be a negative thing since people – and children especially – need to be given freedom because it allows for creativity and personal growth. Nearly 20 years after Lord of the Flies was written, Marge Piercy, an American woman, published her novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which displays this exact theory where the children weren’t seen as some savages that in anyway needed taming. Instead, the children interacted without restraint amongst the adults and didn’t receive the same level of restrictions because according to this theory human nature is “in essence” creative, not violent or savage. (Sears: 102)

This section of the text resonated with me because growing up, I loved the 2005 romcom titled Yours, Mine & Ours directed by Raja Gosnell. Well, to be honest, it might have just been that my mom played it too frequently, but the movie is about a dad with eight kids from previous marriages who parents his children in a style that is very structured and in every way a military style and a mom who bring her ten children into the marriage and is an artist or designer of some sort and is very hands off and allows the children freedom for their creative growth. This ends up being the source of conflict, which ultimately gets resolved through compromise, of course, but this movie shows exactly the two theories Sears was talking about since the dad’s style is very similar to the belief shown in Lord of the Flies and the mom is similar to Woman on the Edge of Time. I also thought it was an interesting coincidence that the genders of the authors for the novels coincide with the genders of the parents that enforce it in the movie, because in American society there is often the idea that the dad is the firm hammer and enforcer while the mom is more nurturing, allowing the children to grow, or whatever. I’ll have to watch these movies again with these theories in mind for fun soon and read the books Sears mentions for the first time as well.

-Jessi Hebert


Down the rabbit hole with no spoon by Rick Tufnell

In the 1999 action blockbuster The Matrix, Morpheus asks these seemingly simple questions “What is real? How do you define real?” As students of anthropology these questions intrigue because it is our job to observe and analyze people and their culture. Yet, in order to do this we as observers have to answer those very questions.
Morpheus continues by offering an explanation of sorts saying “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” For now let us center on the experiences that we observe in the people we watch. If a young man must pass a test of manhood to be earn his place as adult, and the young man invites us to observe him as he slays the beast. Did we experience the rite of passage as our subject did, or was our experience different? Was it a lesser experience, was it less real?
Later in the film Neo, meets spoon boy; a bald headed young man that appears to be bending a spoon with nothing more than the sheer force of his will. He offers the spoon to Neo and this conversation ensues.
“Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
So I guess it does not matter what is real or how we define real, all that matters is that we find the truth. The truth is something that can only be understood by going through our journeys both as people and as observers of people. It is in these times that we can really free ourselves from that which holds us back.
Remember these parting words from Morpheus as you decide whether to seek the truth or not. “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

All quotes taken from The Matrix and provided by

I’m Going Mental For Anthropology

It seems that anthropology looks at the norms of different societies, but I haven’t seen them look at the abnormal things in societies, such as mental disorders. I am pretty sure that other cultures have mental disorders and clearly deal with them in different ways. Through my classes in psychology we have not only talked about how different tests are designed to help find people with disorders, but also understand the degree of the disorder in both the United State and many other cultures. Although, I highly doubt that they have made a test compatible for a culture such as, I don’t know, the Nuer. I know that any tests that have been created will not work for smaller cultures like the Nuer because they focus on the general population in major societies.

            I know that in “Engaging Anthropological Theory”, by Mark Moberg, he talked about the wonderful Freud and how they took a look at his Oedipus complex based theory.  Moberg also talks about transference and projection and other things like that; but, what I am looking at is mental disorders such as schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. I know that a good amount of them can be transferred through genetics, but I’m sure that these smaller cultures can’t escape some of the disorders. If they could, I am pretty sure that psychologists and anthropologists would jump on how to effectively rid these people from having these disorders. I know that a lot of mental disorders are triggered by stressful events and traumatic experiences, but I just haven’t seen them addressing these symptoms in other cultures in any of the books we have read so far.

            I wondered what people would do if any of these cultures did have someone in their village with a mental disorder? Would they try to faith heal them, exercise or banish them from their village. I know that in the film we watched in class they had a scene where they believed someone to be possessed by a dead relative. I couldn’t help but think: did this person had something wrong with them or did a confirmation bias occur. Oh, if you don’t know what a confirmation bias is, it is when people will favor their beliefs until it becomes their reality even if everyone else views it as wrong (side note: I wonder if a confirmation bias happens a lot in anthropology as it does in other areas).  It is interesting to see how misunderstood people with mental disorders are treated in our society, but at the same time fascinating to see how other cultures view them.

            If you don’t know what some of the major mental disorders are, they include: schizophrenia, border-line personality, bipolar, and character disorders (which include eating disorders, anxiety, OCD, etc.).  If you would like to know more about these disorders, please comment on this post and I can try to explain them to you.

Back to the main point, my question is: do other smaller cultures, such as the Neur, experience any of these disorders? Since I am new to anthropology I am very curious to hear what everyone else thinks about this topic.

A link between Anthropology and Criminal Justice

Dual majoring in Criminal Justice and Anthropology requires me to compare and contrast concepts that are taught in both fields.  While reading the last 3 chapters of A Good Book, In Theory I have seen the most connections between the fields than I ever have before, in my 5 years at UW-Parkside.  In Criminal Justice (CJ) we have four theories we focus on to identify why criminal behavior manifests in certain individuals; Structural Functionalism, Conflict theory/Marxism, Interactionism, and Habermasian, the last two you may not heard of, but Conflict theory/Marxism is what resonates closest to me in connection with this course, and what I’ll concentrate on in this blog post.

The nurture versus nature debate is not so much a debate anymore, as we recognize it is often a combination of both that explains particular behaviors.  In terms of nurture, if we zoom out of the individual level, and focus on the macro forms of nurturing provided by the government (nationally, state-wide, and municipally), we can see the disregard for human life, we can see this oppressive and exploitative force the Conflict Theory suggests, that targets lower classes in the United States.  We see a similar oppressive force when we discuss fourth-world peoples, or those who are often marginalized by a larger entity.  Sears & Cairns discuss, on pg. 128, the types of environmental hazards that are inflicted on the working class, people of color, and the impoverished.  In a lecture series hosted at UW-Parkside last semester called Environmental Racism, one speaker explained the types of establishments that are imposed, toxic-waste dumps, large factories, and major highways.  These establishments not only cause extreme health risks, but lower the value of surrounding property thus making it next to impossible to better the conditions of the area.  The people living in these areas do not have the same opportunities or availability to resources as the middle and upper classes, and have little to no authority to stop these institutions from degrading their neighborhoods.

These anti-nurturing conditions elicit an adaptive behavior, and criminal activity could be a behavior produced.  I am not saying all impoverished, or working class, or minorities engage in criminal activity, just like not all pastoralists love cattle as much as the Nuer, but there is a clear correlation between oppressive forces and criminal activity as an adaptive behavior.  The criminal activity I am referring to is not serial killing, acts of terrorism, or assault, but rather petty theft, burglary, prostitution, and drug dealing or smuggling, crimes that have financial or social gain to support a lifestyle.  The cost of living is rising, but minimum wage has remained static, and with much of the work available to the impoverished and working-class being limited to labor, criminal activity is a way to supplement a low income.  I am not condoning any criminal behavior, or stating it is exclusively caused by oppression, I am just astonished on how a theory in Anthropology shed light and further expanded my comprehension of a Criminal Justice theory.

-Saraya Kohloff

My thoughts on the readings so far

I hope you’ll pardon me if this is a little bit of a ramble. I do feel like there are connecting threads!

As I mentioned in class, one of the things that I found striking in the discussion of theory so far was the way that, in one important respect, positivism and post-modern thought converge when taken to logical extremes. They both suggest that it is impossible to know anything. To be fair, our inescapabable ignorance would stem from very different causes: either we can never make complete enough rigorous observation to make a valid conclusion, or we must accept that our observation is simply incapable of the necessary rigour. But either way, the end result would appear to be the same.

It reminded me of some discussions I’ve had about politics. Something about a theory that, rather than a linear spectrum, political beliefs are actually circular, and that extreme forms of both ‘right’ and ‘left’ politics circle back to meet each other. I wasn’t sure if there was a term for this theory, but some Googling led me to the Wikipedia article on “Horseshoe Theory.” Horseshoe Theory, I learned, proposes not a circle, but a non-linear, though still bipolar, continuum whose warped ends begin to aproach each other, if not to actually meet.

This horseshoe interpretation is, of course, subject to some criticism which I didn’t dig into. But the concept makes me think that the critical approach, as described by Moberg, is best suited for both politics and anthropological theory. (This is a slightly difficult admission for me as someone who is an avowed leftist, and who feels like the viable parties in my country are less left and right than they right and middle. But I digress.)

Perhaps in much the same way that I’m left politically, I also lean toward post-modernism over positivism in coming to an understanding of why things are the way we are and how we know what we know. Yet my inclination toward post-modernism is, for the most part, limited to the humanities. Again, as Moberg points out, it’s important to recognize that some bases for knowledge have greater validity than others. (It helps, sometimes, that one of my partners has a physics degree and was a working science journalist before going back to school; she keeps me a little grounded in reality!)

In matters of theory, and I suspect this may be true for politics or other fields where multiple viewpoints contend as well, I’ve felt for some time that what’s important to consider is not “Which theory works better,” but rather “What does each different theory tell us?” I believe that there is a reality out there to know, but as we move increasingly far from the hard sciences, it becomes more difficult to get at that reality. Each different theoretical approach has its own contribution to make; its own set of conjecture and relationships to serve as a framework for observable phenomona.

This reminds me too of a piece I read in my LGBT Studies class last year by Karen Haraway about the concept of situated knowledge. ( She argues that a major failure of science is its attempt to generate knowledge of a universal nature. In reality, our knowledge is situated in the context that it arises from. We cannot make universal statements because we do not know the universe; only our small part of it. The way to approach something resembling universal knowledge is to combine many differently situated knowledges into something resembling (though perhaps never quite attaining) a whole.

In that way, I feel that each different theoretical perspective is its own bit of situated knowledge. I stand with Moberg in thinking that some may have more validity than others, but I also think they may all have at least a little utility to them, even if only to stand as examples of how things are not. The best way, then, to work toward an understanding of the reality underlying our observations is to look through as many different lenses as possible and compare and contrast the insights gained thereby.