Blog #6: A Conference Critique


My final blog looks at a pre-recorded presentation shown at the AAAs on November 9th, 2011, in Montréal. Australian anthropologist Katherine Gibson’s presentation titled Capitalism, Feminism, and the Politics of the Possible, discusses the affects of community-based economies in Southeast Asia. The following is a short outline about her presentation style, much of which we have already touched upon in class. Tone, content, and visual representation are just some of the attributes well presented here.

The first thing I immediately noticed was her style and tone. Although she did not physically attend the conference her poise and gaze were direct and fixed on the camera. I did however suspect that her ‘on-stage’ behaviour might be different had she been talking in a large room of people, so to test this I viewed one of her recorded lectures. Her style stayed the same. And not only was it similar, she seemed more excited to discuss her research with the audience. Gibson’s tone during her pre-recorded interview somewhat lacked this bit of excitement. Behaviour like this is telling and lends a small element of truth to the idea that performers draw on the energy from their crowds. Maybe more than a small element, no doubt, yet her excited engagement with her lecture audience was too noticeable to overlook. In the end though, her performance was relaxed and conversational, only speaking to the written text in her hands a few times.

The second thing that caught my eye was her visual presentation. Here Gibson provided the viewer with more pictorial representations of her research, drawing little on data arranged in complicated and clustered charts (although she did have one slide showing a sequence of pie charts). Instead Gibson chose pictures depicting the community researchers involved in her project. She depicted their involvement with the local communities in question, ranging from remote areas of the Philippines to the Solomon Islands. Apart from the economic foundation of her presentation, her research also involved gendered perspectives on labour. One of her slides, and a move that I thought was rather crafty, showed the number of male versus female members in their labour force using sticky notes. Although simple, her display showed that not only were the researchers involved in collecting information, but also the community participants of the study.

Gibson’s research is important. It is important because she framed her research towards the future betterment of these Pacific communities. She did this by discussing the big questions regarding the future direction of her research, stating: “How do we create ethical communities that help us survive all together, to build on social commons and surplus.” Her vision is far-reaching, helping to establish community-based organic food programs using recycled materials along with equal equity distribution for those communities involved. Her economic stance thus took an ecological one, suggesting that these de-centralized economic entities would use materials in a sustainable manner by re-using discarded items and saving seed for crop production. This aspect, for me, highly influenced how I viewed her research. Gibson’s holistic integration of economic sustainability with environmental change in this region will surely be unpopular with neoliberal naysayers. Nonetheless, her charged activism with grass-roots organizations are sure to re-claim local markets first destroyed by the liberal policies initiated by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the early 1970s. Furthermore, she has published a book, entitled Take Back the Economy: Any Time, Any Place, which was translated into Spanish and subsequently distributed to educational institutions throughout Latin America.

My general opinion with respect to her presentation style and content is good. I do think she could have expanded a little bit more when she mentioned the dreaded word ‘globalization’, though. It is a loaded term that requires a lot of unpacking. Had she also introduced the viewer to the widespread implications that ‘free trade’ has on local developing economies, implications that are increasingly detrimental today, she might have been in a better position to justify her research aim. By doing this Gibson’s take on the ‘why’ question may have been more forceful: that globalization implies monetary control at an international level, most of which lying outside the control of the average citizen, ultimately in the hands of corrupt dictators that we, ‘the West’, have no problems supporting. Perhaps this would have added more impetus towards her prospective goals. Still, Gibson does a fantastic job in the end.



Blog #5: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Sewell WH. 1992. A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and Transformation. American Journal of Sociology 98 (1): 1-29.

The idea of structure, or structuralism, is a contested yet necessary theoretical concept in the social sciences. Claude Levi-Strauss was the first to apply a structural approach to ethnographic research in Amazonia. Notwithstanding its use in anthropology, the concept of structure as a means to understand recursive, interdependent, and the interrelated nature of cultural constructs (i.e. the dimensions of human kinship, politics, economics, and our relationship with symbols) are extensively discussed in other social scientific faculties, particularly history.

Drawing on the theoretical works of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, Sewell (1992) delivers what I think to be the best representation (or definition) of structure, and how these structures evolve over time. His articulations are quick and to the point, opening his article with a clear definition of what he means by the term ‘structure’. His juxtaposition with Giddens’s tentative description of structure as a dualism (human agency is simultaneously confined and initiated by these structures) Sewell (1992) argued to be vacuous, giving the reader no objective variables to draw upon. To Sewell (1992), Giddens’s idea of ‘structuration’ (thought of as a process instead of an object) is intuited as a conflated abstraction with no measurable mode of operation in society to test.

OK, before I get too carried away with the details of the article, it is important to know two things about Sewell’s (1992) analysis: 1) That there is a problem with the idea of structure and how theoreticians have engaged this concept, and 2) that Sewell (1992) provides those modes of structural reproduction via tangible objects like material resources. From this, it is not hard to see why his approach is more convincing than that of Giddens (Bourdieu is another story altogether).

What was particularly useful to me as a reader was the structure of the paper itself. Sewell (1992) lays out his argument in a very convincing manner. He begins his analysis by defining, in simple terms, the meaning of structure as it applies to all areas of the social sciences. What follows are comprehensive theoretical/historical analyses that define the rules of structure in terms of schemas (abstract structures) and resources (material objects), and the relationships that exist between the two (a rudimentary form of semiotics). In his concluding sections, and instead of dismissing the theoretical approaches of Bourdieu’s habitus and Giddens’s dual structuralism, Sewell (1992) integrates his objective resource outline of the material with patterned behaviour (habits) and the agency-structural dualism of transformation. This attempt to define the complicated and poorly understood idea of ‘structural constructs’ is at worst unfinished and, at best, beautifully articulated.

The Bad and the Ugly

Maschner HD and Jordan JW. 2008. Catastrophic Events and Punctuated Culture Change: The Southern Bering Sea and North Pacific in a Dynamic Global System. Time and change: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives on the Long Term. Oxbow, Oxford, United Kingdom: 95-113.

Maschner and Jordan (2008) argue that environmental and material culture rapidly changed among the Aleut indigenous population of the North Pacific over a 5000-year period. They describe these rates of rapid technological and environmental change as ‘punctuated’ events, much like Niles Eldridge and Steven J. Gould interpreted evolutionary stasis followed by sudden speciation events in the fossil record as periods of punctuated equilibria. Counter to phyletic gradualism, an evolutionary extension of uniformitarianism, these punctuated changes were considered a product of widespread catastrophic change throughout the Aleutian Archipelago. Here they propose that catastrophic events (instead of gradual change) ultimately shaped the lifestyles and livelihood of the Aleut. I am not here to counter this argument; their evidence for such drastic change is founded on a considerable amount of evidence. I do however want to briefly mention how the structure of this chapter failed to capture the main point of their argument.

First, their introduction only briefly summarized previous archaeological research into the cultural transitions that took place over the span of the Holocene in this region. This is extremely problematic since serious archaeological excavations undertaken on the Aleutian Islands began more than half a century ago. By omitting this crucial bit of information, the authors were able to inject their rapidly evolving perspective pertaining to catastrophism, taking the form of inter-tidal and sea level changes, tsunamis, volcanism and earthquakes. Making matter worse they try to integrate these events with zooarchaeological data. All very confusing and complex, I know. Yet they managed to simplify all these environmental, ecological, and biological factors into eight short paragraphs amounting to a total of two pages. Furthermore, Maschner and Jorday (2008: 97) make ridiculous claims about ‘global dynamics’ (a little too broad of a term, in my opinion), stating that: “…the Aleutian Archipelago is indeed one of the most dynamic environments on earth.” If that does not tickle the wrong part of your nerve endings then this will: “…the diversity of resources and their seasonal variation that creates one of the richest littoral environments EVER occupied by hunter-gatherers (emphasis mine).” Really Maschner and Jordan (2008) (?) – ‘ever’ – as in the entire history of human hunting and gathering across the planet; you mean the planet which is apparently subject to this ‘global dynamism’ of momentary catastrophic change and subject to radical punctual periods of cataclysm across space and time? This is all very confusing to me.

The second problem hinges upon the first. In simplifying these processes they fail to include whole sections that should have been devoted to these patterns. Similarly, they should have included (or explained, rather) prior archaeological investigations that looked at material change implicated here. Instead, they label their next section in big bold lettering: CATASTROPHIC LANDSCAPE CHANGE AND SOCIAL RESPONSE, followed by incipient tertiary sub-headings labeled ‘Population redistribution and catastrophic eruptions’ and ‘Paleoseismicity, climate change, and the rise of Aleut towns’.  Two more sections pertaining to these events may have provided more foundation to their discussion.

This mysterious and dichotomous West-East Aleut archaeological tradition they keep mentioning in tandem with the processes listed above continue to make this already complex scenario into a catastrophe itself.

What are your thoughts concerning theory in anthropology? I’m posting this 1 minute or so link because I think Chomsky brings up a good point here. *Note* The title of this YouTube clip is not entirely accurate.