Archive for the 'Anthropology' Category

London life

ScooterCaffeLowerMarshStreetWaterloo

Scooter Caffe, Lower Marsh Street, Waterloo, London SE1 7AE.




The Yirrkala Bark Petition

Australia has just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the Yirrkala bark panels as a petition to the Australian Commonwealth Parliament in August 1963.   The panels are an example of visual art as argument, as I noted here.

Related posts on visual arguments here and here.  

 




Ineffective imperalism

Rory Stewart Bluebells Bookstore Penrith 2009-12-15

British MP, Rory Stewart, has spoken in Parliament of our failure to deeply understand the cultures of the foreign countries we invade, with the consequence that invasion efforts are doomed not to succeed.   His view relates to an argument he has put before, about the failure of contemporary international aid organizations and personnel to reckon deeply with the cultures of their host countries, in a manner profoundly worse than that of 19th-century colonial administrators.   Colonial administrators may have typically been racist and exploitative, but at least they cared for – and sought to understand – the cultures and languages of the countries they administered, and were prepared to devote their working lives to those countries. 

Video here and Hansard Transcript here.  (Note that in his speech, Stewart refers to Gordon Brown by name, but the Hansard reporter has recorded this as, “the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)“.)




Irishness and Jewishness

A friend’s thoughtful meditation on the different natures of Irishness and Jewishness:

Irishness, at least in its North London manifestation, was clearly a much more inclusive category than I had been prepared for.  There were quite a few Black Irish people, and one or two Chinese ones.  There were a couple of others with what looked to me like Jewish faces, though they might equally have been Greek.

I don’t know how everyone in the room felt about this; but I do know that there was no outward sign that anybody had any feelings about it at all. Then and subsequently, I have never come across any handwringing about who the traditional music activities ought to be for, let alone ‘who is an Irish person?’ The activity was Irish in content, and that was enough.  Other, non-Irish people’s participation did not detract from its Irishness or threaten its existence or value.

In our community, interest by others in our culture is rarely taken at face value.  Although discussions about Jewish culture are often shot through with barely-veiled assumptions about cultural superiority, we are usually suspicious about anyone else wanting to partake.  Perhaps it’s because we are afraid that it won’t stand up to much scrutiny from anyone without a sentimental attachment to it; or maybe we are worried that they are only showing an interest so that they can insinuate themselves into our superior institutions. Why else would non-Jews be trying to sneak into our schools?

Either way, there is an all-pervasive obsession with maintaining and policing a boundary, with determining who is and isn’t entitled to come in.  Look at the selection processes associated with admission to Jewish schools, or the application forms for joining a synagogue.  No-one at Meitheal Cheoil ever asked me for my parents’ marriage certificate.

I don’t want to imply that Irish culture is inherently inclusive and anti-racist.  I’m sure that someone else could find plenty of counter-examples, together with joyous examples of Jewish inclusiveness and syncretism.  But I don’t think that the Jewish obsession with boundaries and separation, which make up an enormous proportion of our law and our lore, are merely accidental add-ons to our culture either. In biblical and talmudic Judaism, the principle of distinction and separation, and the importance of keeping things from mixing, is always imbued with a moral and theological dimension.

We are forbidden to mix meat and milk; fish and meat on the same plate; wool and linen in the same garment; and forbidden to yoke two kinds of animals to the same plough.  God does not like it when we mix things, stuff, or ourselves.  It’s worth remembering this next time you get into one of those discussions about the essential ethical core of Judaism.

 




Black Fields Medallists

US journalist John Derbyshire has published a screed comprising racist advice to his son.  Among the tendentious statements contained in it is this one:

(5) As with any population of such a size, there is great variation among blacks in every human trait (except, obviously, the trait of identifying oneself as black). They come fat, thin, tall, short, dumb, smart, introverted, extroverted, honest, crooked, athletic, sedentary, fastidious, sloppy, amiable, and obnoxious. There are black geniuses and black morons. There are black saints and black psychopaths. In a population of forty million, you will find almost any human type. Only at the far, far extremes of certain traits are there absences. There are, for example, no black Fields Medal winners. While this is civilizationally consequential, it will not likely ever be important to you personally. Most people live and die without ever meeting (or wishing to meet) a Fields Medal winner.

It is true that there are no black Fields Medallists.  There are also no women, of whom there are rather more in the world than the 40 million black Americans.   There are also no Canadians, no Spaniards, and no Poles among the winners.    This is particularly surprising given the major and disproportionate contribution that Polish mathematicians, for example, have made to mathematics and related disciplines.   And there are many more New Zealanders and Belgians than their populations would lead one to expect.  Perhaps the list of medal winners more reflects the knowledge and biases of the people awarding the prizes than the ability of the potential candidates.    Such a social construction provides a more logical explanation than what Derbyshire implies.  But of course logic is never a strong point of racists.
 



Underground Languages

Conversations overheard on the London Underground in:

Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, English*, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Gujarati, Hausa, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, isiZulu.

* Overheard regional variants of English from:  Australia, Britain (Brummie, Estuary, Geordie, Glasgow-Scottish, Mancunian, Edinburgh-Scottish, RP, Sarf Lonon, Scouse, Ulster, West Country), Canada, Eire, New Zealand, South Africa, USA (Barst’n, Bronx, Brooklyn, ‘Gisland, Midwest, Northeastern, Southern).




The otherness of the other

In previous posts (eg, here and here), I have talked about the difficulty of assessing the intentions of others, whether for marketing or for computer network design or for national security. The standard English phrase speaks of “putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes”.  But this is usually not sufficient:  we have to put them into their shoes, with their beliefs, their history, their desires, and their constraints, not ourselves, in order to understand their goals and intentions, and to anticipate their likely strategies and actions.    In a fine political thriller by Henry Porter, I come across this statement (page 220):

‘Motive is always difficult to read,’ he replied.  ‘We make a rational assumption about someone’s behaviour based on what we would, or would not, do in the same circumstances, ignoring the otherness of the other. We consider only influences that make us what we are and impose those beliefs on them.  It is the classic mistake of intelligence analysis.’  “

Reference:

Henry Porter [2009]: The Dying Light. London, UK:  Orion Books.

Obscure fact:  Porter (born 1953) is the grand-nephew of novelist Howard Sturgis (1855-1920), step-cousin to George Santayana (1863-1952).




On Getting Things Done

New York Times Op-Ed writer, David Brooks, has two superb articles about the skills needed to be a success in contemporary technological society, the skills I refer to as Getting-Things-Done IntelligenceOne is a short article in The New York Times (2011-01-17), reacting to the common, but wrong-headed, view that technical skill is all you need for success, and the other a long, fictional disquisition in The New Yorker (2011-01-17) on the social skills of successful people.  From the NYT article:

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.”

These articles led me to ask exactly what is involved in reading a social situation?  Brooks mentions some of the relevant aspects, but not all.   To be effective, a manager needs to parse the social situation of the groups he or she must work with – those under, those over and peer groups to the side – to answer questions such as the following:

  • Who has power or influence over each group?  Is this exercised formally or informally?
  • What are the norms and practices of the group, both explicit and implicit, known and unconscious?
  • Who in the group is reliable as a witness?   Whose stories can be believed?
  • Who has agendas and what are these?
  • Who in the group is competent or capable or intelligent?  Whose promises to act can be relied upon?  Who, in contrast, needs to be monitored or managed closely?
  • What constraints does the group or its members operate under?  Can these be removed or side-stepped?
  • What motivates the members of the group?  Can or should these motivations be changed, or enhanced?
  • Who is open to new ideas, to change, to improvements?
  • What obstacles and objections will arise in response to proposals for change?  Who will raise these?  Will these objections be explicit or hidden?
  • Who will resist or oppose change?  In what ways? Who will exercise pocket vetos?

Parsing new social situations – ie, answering these questions in a specific situation – is not something done in a few moments.  It may take years of observation and participation to understand a new group in which one is an outsider.  People who are good at this may be able to parse the key features of a new social landscape within a few weeks or months, depending on the level of access they have, and the willingness of the group members to trust them.     Good management consultants, provided their sponsors are sufficiently senior, can often achieve an understanding within a few weeks.   Experience helps.

Needless to say, most academic research is pretty useless for these types of questions.  Management theory has either embarked on the reduce-and-quantify-and-replicate model of academic psychology, or else undertaken the narrative descriptions of successful organizations of most books by business gurus.   Narrative descriptions of failures would be far more useful.

The best training for being able to answer such questions – apart from experience of life – is the study of anthropology or literature:  Anthropology because it explores the social structures of other cultures and the factors within a single lifetime which influence these structures, and Literature because it explores the motivations and consequences of human actions and interactions.   The golden age of television drama we are currently fortunate to be witness to also provides good training for viewers in human motivations, actions and interactions.  It is no coincidence, in my view, that the British Empire was created and run by people mostly trained  in Classics, with its twofold combination of the study of alien cultures and literatures, together with the analytical rigor and intellectual discipline acquired through the incremental learning of those difficult subjects, Latin and Ancient Greek languages.

UPDATE (2011-02-16): From Norm Scheiber’s profile of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in The New Republic (2011-02-10):

“Tim’s real strength … is that he’s really quick at reading the culture of any institutions,” says Leslie Lipschitz, a former Geithner deputy.

The profile also makes evident Geithner’s agonistic planning approach to policy – seeking to incorporate opposition and minority views into both policy formation processes and the resulting policies.




Syntax Attacks

Thanks to the ever-watchful Normblog, I encounter an article by Colin Tatz inveighing against talk about sport.  Norm is right to call Tatz to account for writing nonsense – talk about sport is just as meaningful as talk about politics, history, religion, nuclear deterrence, genocide, or any other real-world human activity.  Tatz says:

Sport is international phatic but also a crucial Australian (male) vehicle. It enables not just short, passing greetings but allows for what may seem like deep, passionate and meaningful conversations but which in the end are unmemorable, empty, producing nothing and enhancing no one.

Unmemorable?! Really?   What Australian could forget Norman May’s shouted “Gold! Gold for Australia! Gold!” commentary at the end of the men’s 400-metre swimming medley at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.  Only a churlish gradgrind could fail to be enhanced by hearing this.   And what Australian of a certain age could forget the inimitable footie commentary of Rex Mossop, including, for example, such statements as,  “That’s the second consecutive time he’s done that in a row one straight after the other.” Mossop’s heat-of-the-moment sporting talk was commemorated with his many winning places in playwright Alex Buzo’s Australian Indoor Tautology Pennant, an annual competition held, as I recall,  in Wagga Wagga, Gin Gin and Woy Woy (although not in Woop Woop or in The Never Never), before moving internationally to exotic locations such as Pago Pago, Xai Xai and Baden Baden.  Unmemorable, Mr Tatz?  Enhancing no one?  Really?  To be clear, these are not memorable sporting events, but memorable sporting commentary.   And all I’ve mentioned so far is sporting talk, not the great writers on baseball, on golf, on cricket, on swimming,  . . .

But as well as misunderstanding what talk about sport is about and why it is meaningful, Tatz is wrong on another score.   He says:

But why so much natter and clatter about sport? Eco’s answer is that sport “is the maximum aberration of ‘phatic’ speech”, which is really a negation of speech.

Phatic speech is meaningless speech, as in “G’day, how’s it going?” or “have a nice day” or “catch you later” — small talk phrases intended to produce a sense of sociability, sometimes uttered in the hope that it will lead to further and more real intercourse, but human enough even if the converse goes no further.

Phatic communications are about establishing and maintaining relationships between people.  Such a purpose is the very essence of speech communication, not its negation.  Tatz, I fear, has fallen into the trap of so many computer scientists – to focus on the syntax of messages, and completely ignore their semantics and pragmatics.    The syntax of messages concerns their surface form, their logical structure, their obedience (or not) to rules which determine whether they are legal and well-formed statements (or not) in the language they purport to arise from.  The semantics of utterances concerns their truth or falsity, in so far they describe real objects in some world (perhaps the one we all live in, or some past, future or imagined world),  while their pragmatics concerns those aspects of their meaning unrelated to their truth status (for example, who has power to revoke or retract them).

I have discussed this syntax-is-all-there-is mistake before.    I believe the root causes of this mistaken view are two-fold: the mis-guided focus of philosophers these last two centuries on propositions to the exclusion of other types of utterances and statements (of which profound error Terry Eagleton has shown himself guilty), and the mis-guided view that we now live in some form of Information Society, a view which wrongly focuses attention on the information  transferred by utterances to the exclusion of any other functions that utterances may serve or any other things we agents (people and machines) may be doing and aiming to do when we talk.   If you don’t believe me about the potentially complex functionality of utterances, even when viewed as nothing more than the communication of factual propositions, then read this simple example.

If communications were only about the transfer of explicit information, then life would be immensely less interesting.  It would also not be human life, for we would be no more intelligent than desktop computers passing HTTP requests and responses to one another.




History under circumstances not of our choosing

British MP Rory Stewart writing this week about western military policy towards Afghanistan:

We can do other things for Afghanistan but the West – in particular its armies, development agencies and diplomats – are not as powerful, knowledgeable or popular as we pretend. Our officials cannot hope to predict and control the intricate allegiances and loyalties of Afghan communities or the Afghan approach to government. But to acknowledge these limits and their implications would require not so much an anthropology of Afghanistan, but an anthropology of ourselves.

The cures for our predicament do not lie in increasingly detailed adjustments to our current strategy. The solution is to remind ourselves that politics cannot be reduced to a general scientific theory, that we must recognize the will of other peoples and acknowledge our own limits. Most importantly, we must remind our leaders that they always have a choice.

That is not how it feels. European countries feel trapped by their relationship with NATO and the United States. Holbrooke and Obama feel trapped by the position of American generals. And everyone – politicians, generals, diplomats and journalist – feels trapped by our grand theories and beset by the guilt of having already lost over a thousand NATO lives, spent a hundred billion dollars and made a number of promises to Afghans and the West which we are unlikely to be able to keep.

So powerful are these cultural assumptions, these historical and economic forces and these psychological tendencies, that even if every world leader privately concluded the operation was unlikely to succeed, it is almost impossible to imagine the US or its allies halting the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan in the years to come.  Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa may have been in a similar position during the Third Crusade.  Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson certainly was in 1963. Europe is simply in Afghanistan because America is there. America is there just because it is. And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact.