Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dancing His Cares Away—and Spreading Happiness Too: Contagion and Networks

One of the things I love about New York City is that it's full of interesting characters. On any given day, you never know who you'll meet in a subway car or on the sidewalk. And it's a testament to New Yorkers that they don't bat an eye (usually) when confronted by a  character—occasionally you might see a smile or someone shaking her head, but overall the response the minimal.

I have the good fortune to have my very own character who can be counted on to make an appearance 3 - 4 times a week. He dances. That's right, on the 2/3 platform at Penn Station, this guy boogies down to jazz he listens to on giant headphones. I know it's jazz because as I pass I can sometimes hear him scatting under his breath. He moves gracefully too—elaborate twists, turns, dips, all while avoiding people moving around him on the platform.
Image: Gettin' down to jazz on the 2/3 platform at Penn Station. 

I can never pass this guy without smiling. He's so lost in the music. In his head, he could be performing on stage with the rest of us serving as no more than props. He doesn't usually have much of an obvious audience. Most people at Penn don't stop and stare; they're too busy hurrying to catch a departing train—and perhaps he's become something of a fixture. But the ones who manage to catch his performance while waiting for the subway watch with interest. We can't hear his music, but it's obvious he's enjoying himself, and that enjoyment is contagious.

The October issue of Wired featured an article on the contagion effects of networks. You can check it out in full here if you're interested. In a study started in 1948, scientists tracked the effect that social networks (which have actually been around longer than the Internet, believe it or not—though I understand it's hard to imagine life before the Internet at this point) has on group mentalities. The studies revealed that occurrence of obesity within a network increased overall as more members became obese. There's a really neat chart here detailing the influence of network connections and obesity. Networks govern patterns of behavior—as well as acceptable levels of exercise, dietary decisions, and appearance. In essence, we tend to share behaviors and ideas with our networks. For example, the study revealed that smokers are more successful at quitting smoking when others in their networks quit at the same time—sounds like a powerful new argument for peer pressure.

The facet of the study I want to discuss here is the spread of happiness through networks. Tracking happiness both in a real world network and on Facebook, scientists found parallels in rates of happiness in networks (check out the chart here):
  • Happy people tend to have happy friends.
  • Happiness can extend through the network through a few degrees. So good news for one person can be enjoyed and celebrated by friends of friends.
  • Unhappy people at the center of happy networks are more likely to become happy
Using Facebook, the scientists developed a way of measuring happiness through smiles, and found that:
  • Smiling folks tend to have more smiling folks in their networks. 
  • A non-smiler on the peripheral of a network with a predominance of smilers is more likely to eventually post a smiling photo than a non-smiler on the peripheral of a network consisting largely of non-smilers.
Networks provide evidence of a social collective at work. The dancing guy at Penn Station exerts an influence on the collective whether or not he wants to acknowledge that the collective is present in his space. In choosing a public stage, the collective has to witness his actions and take some part of his behavior away with them. The folks who witness his smooth moves, who become a part of his performance as he sidesteps around them, introduce some of their reactions to their own networks. Whether that reaction is annoyance that this guy got in the way as they tried to get to the stairs, or amusement at his enjoyment (because let's face it, different folks can react differently—there is no universal reaction standard; there are just too many variables in a person's day), some part of this reaction/feeling is transferred throughout the network. It could be something as simple as a pleasantry with a train conductor, but it's a ripple that begins with the dancing man at Penn Station.

It's a pay-it-forward principle; it's a gifting concept. Whatever the ripple, we need it—just as we need our networks. Networks define principles for the collective, and the collective in turn helps develop guidelines for social life. The social norms we accept and support originated in networks. They achieve the status of social norm based on how widely accepted and practiced they become through different networks.

If happiness can be spread this way, dance on, man.

Dance on.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Culture in Action: A House Blessing

What would you do if you were invited to a religious event, a mass really, where three bishops and a priest would be performing a blessing at a private home? If you're Catholic, would you be hurry over to be in the presence of these holy men in the hopes of being blessed by them? If you're of another faith, substitute the three men mentioned for three leaders of your own temple or synagogue—what would your response be? And if you don't have a religious leaning, would you go to satisfy a sense of curiosity?

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Culture in Action—my attempt to to bring cultural events to you in your living room using pictures. Whatever your answer to the questions above, whatever your faith, I'm opening the door and inviting you to share in this amazing experience where three Bengali Bishops of the Catholic Church and a longtime family priest visited a private residence and conferred a blessing on those who gathered. Beyond the obvious religious overtures, cultural staples such as tea (chai) and food also reappear. Welcome and enjoy the event!

The Host Family and the Bishops

A Decorated Mary Statue

Mary Again

Listening to Mass

Delivering Mass


Pouring the Tea

The Altar Draped in a Sari

Sari Detail

Offering Plate

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Look for the Culture in Action Series

We're a very visual society. It's one thing to read about cultures, and another thing entirely to see them in action.  I developed the Culture in Action Series to bring you along and help you experience different cultural events—from street fairs to weddings and other events.

The Culture in Action Series are brief photo essays that capture essential moments to highlight traditions, customs, and strength. Look for the inaugural edition of Culture in Action tomorrow, Sunday, September 27th and do something new!

Is It Really Better to Give Than to Receive? A Modern Day Look at Gifting and Mauss

Who doesn’t like receiving gifts? What could be a sweeter gesture than receiving something from someone you love if you’re doing fieldwork and are away from home—or you’re at home and feeling blue? And if you’ve had an argument or disagreement and want to reconcile with someone, doesn’t a gift help smooth away the friction? Gifts are more than just tokens, however, they are symbolic representations of power and relationships.

After a three-hour visit to the doctor, I found myself hurrying to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) yesterday. For those of you non-New Yorkers out there, the LIRR is a commuter train that connects Long Island and some parts of Queens and Brooklyn with Manhattan. It's also a completely different experience from the NYC subway. First, you can usually get a seat with little or no problem (and as an added bonus, the seats are cushioned). There's very little overcrowding and pushing. There are bathrooms in the cars—admittedly gross bathrooms, but bathrooms nonetheless. And riders of the LIRR enforce a social code of behavior (look for more on this idea to come in a future post called, Creating Social Order on the LIRR). Of course, the LIRR is not public transportation for the masses. It's passengers fall mainly within the middle to upper-middle classes. And tickets can get pricey, especially if you need to purchase one on the train and fall victim to the $6.00 surcharge.  

I've occasionally seen people come up short in these types of situations and the conductor will usually ask the person to step off at the next station. Yesterday something different happened: a woman came up short on cash, and another person—a stranger—paid her fare so she could continue her trip uninterrupted. A young woman tried to purchaser a ticket on the train and found she was $2.00 short. She was looking for additional change in her wallet, listening as the conductor told her that she would have to disembark at the next station, when a person leaned across the aisle and handed the conductor enough to cover the entire fare. Both the woman and the conductor thanked the person profusely, who then refused the change from the fare so the remaining money went to the woman. During this exchange, the woman explained she had just changed bags and left her other wallet at home, and that she normally drove into the city but got stuck in traffic this time and needed to get to a meeting. Both the conductor and her generous new friend said they understood, "it can happen." She asked the person for a business card so she could repay her debt and that too was refused. "It's nothing—a gift,” the person insisted. However, a short while later, the person handed over a business card, saying "Tell you what, if you know anyone looking for an --, tell them you know a good one." The person cheerfully agreed. (Note: The profession and gender of the giver were purposefully omitted to drive attention to the gift itself.)
Image: This person did something nice for a total stranger! But was it a gift? Keep an eye out for this good samaritan during your travels.

Would you characterize the payment as a gift? Or is it changed by the business card exchange? Is it now trade? If you think that gifts are given freely and without an expectation of reciprocation, I'd like to argue otherwise. Marcel Mauss (remember him?) proposed that though gifts are supposed to be given freely and willingly, they in fact come with the obligation to give and an obligation to receive. Our social collective imposes the obligation to give—in specific situations it is viewed as tradition and a sign of goodwill and/or good faith to give something, right? This goes far beyond birthdays, weddings, and other such life events, which are marked by celebrations. Whole groups can feel this obligation. For example, to mark the end of disagreements and wars, to cement new alliances, gifts can be offered.

In The Gift, Mauss tells us that  
“in the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly ever finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transactions concluded by individuals. First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon one another … Moreover, what they exchange is not solely property and wealth, movable and immovable goods, and things economically useful,” they also exchange services, such as military service and acts of politeness, such as banquets, rituals, festivals, dances, etc (2000: 5).
We learn from Mauss that gifts should be offered; they are obligatory because they help create and maintain relationships. Gift giving is also an exercise in power. It establishes a hierarchy of giver and receiver. This is most clearly seen in the obligation to receive. Mauss tells us that to refuse to receive  
“is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate, to fear being ‘flattened’ [i.e. to lose face]” (2000: 41).
Honor and credit, he maintains, are never far removed from issues of exchange. There is an element of respect and reputation tied to gift giving. These points reiterate the notion that exchange cements ties between groups.

How does this relate to the person on the train who paid the fare for the woman? How can we understand this event in terms of these ideas of the gift? The person who paid the fare felt an obligation to act. It could very well be that there were others who felt this obligation. According to Mauss, anyone capable to paying the fare or helping make up the difference, should have felt the obligation to help. This person may have chosen to act having recognized the potential to create a useful relationship, whether consciously or not. The giver may have seen something in the woman’s appearance or style that indicated she might be helpful to the giver’s own business—and when you think about it, the same principles apply when creating alliances. The woman in turn was obligated to accept the gift. After all, she could not afford the fare. True, she could have gotten off at the next station and perhaps purchased a ticket using a credit card, but she was also being gifted with convenience.

Once accepted, the gift needed to be reciprocated. She asked for a business card so she could send a payment, but the giver refused repayment, handing over a business card with the request that the woman pass along a recommendation if she learned of anyone needing the services the giver could offer. The recipient is obligated to pass this along if she can. If the two held a closer relationship, there would be no question of reciprocation—it would be mandatory to the relationship.

You may find this unusual. A gift, after all, should not carry requirements with it. But Mauss tells us that gifts are imbued with a hau—a spirit or essence, which works to ensure that reciprocity occurs. Mauss actually says that the hau works to return the gift to the giver, which strengthens the bonds of the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Gifts contain a part of the giver (the hau), and in accepting a gift, you accept a part of the giver as well. You carry this part with you until you reciprocate the gesture. But as a receiver, you also want to reciprocate. Remember that gifts establish a hierarchy between the giver and the recipient.The recipient wants to reciprocate the gift to remove herself from obligations to the giver—to reestablish herself as equal to the giver.

So those Internet offers for a free cell phone or iPod—well, you already know they aren’t free, but now perhaps you understand the mechanisms they use to operate. You are offered something for free, and in return a service is requested of you. It could be a survey, a request to purchase something, or a tracking device planted on your computer—the point is that in receiving a gift, you are obligated to make a return. This psychology is also put to work by charities that send out address labels when requesting donations. Dear Abby discusses this in her weekly column here.

If we read Mauss carefully, the nature of gifts is to create and strengthen relationships, to create balances. These principles have survived and provided the transition towards our own systems of law and economy. Things today have both emotional and monetary value and the unreturned gift damages a person’s standing. We are still obligated to return, Mauss says. For example, the next round of drinks must be larger and more expensive; similarly, we are still obligated to extend an invitation when we receive one.

How can we understand and apply these principles to public giving in the arts, and in our own private and public festivals?

I’ll leave you with a quotation from British anthropologist Mary Douglas in The Gift:  
“A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

Mauss, Marcel. 
2000     The Gift. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Anthropology: Not for the Squeamish

How do you know you have what it takes to be an urban anthropologist—or really, just an anthropologist?

I sat down at my desk this morning and I felt something tickle my foot. I was wearing open-toed shoes so the top of my foot was bare and the feeling was distinct. I looked down and watched in some horror as a large cockroach crawled over my foot. Hold out the three middle fingers on your hand and you'll have an idea of the size of the thing that scurried over me.

Did I scream? Nope. I shifted, it fell off, and met the bottom of my shoe. Then I went and reported the bug to the Admin team, and one of the fellows helpfully disposed of the critter for me.

I can see my NC anthro buddies shaking their heads even as I type this. They can tell you I had averse reactions to the wildlife in NC when I moved there for grad school. New York City subway rats I can handle. Giant cockroaches are apparently no problem. Large, friendly bees on the other hand ... not so much.

The Rush Hour Crush: Staying to the Right and Other Playground Rules

Let's go back to our childhood today. There are certain things we learn on the playground when we're kids that are essential to our social development. For example, we learn that sharing is a great way to make friends. We learn how to identify and manage (and sometimes even avoid) bullies. We learn that sometimes things get messy—and that it's okay when they do, even if we're wearing our Sunday best. In essence, we learn important social principles that guide our interactions with others throughout our adult lives. 

These types of interactions teach us about order in the world. In school we learn to pass on the right. Think back, how many of you remember being told to stay to the right while passing in the hallways or on the stairs? If you went to school in the US, it should have been something you started doing in Kindergarten. And it's a practice that extends beyond the walls of the academy: We pass on the right on the roads and we tend to stay to the right on sidewalks. It's our way of ordering movement in our world. The things we learn on the playground—these life strategies—aren't concrete rules. There aren't any "playground police" who'll swoop in if you don't want to share with your cubicle mate later in life, but these "rules" provide us with tools for problem-solving and for physically navigating our world. What's more, because we learn these rules on the playground, which we all theoretically experience in some form when we are children (whether it takes the shape of the schoolyard or a classroom or an actual playground), they are shared ideas. So we all know and accept on some level certain strategies (i.e., social norms).

During the evening rush hour in New York City, this code breaks down. In particular, the "lanes" of travel seem to disintegrate altogether. People swarm in all of directions. There is no right, there is no left, there are just multiple streams of people all trying to get somewhere, all at once. It's the rush hour crush.  Anyone present at Penn Station at 5:30 pm should have a sense of what I'm talking about.

Image Top: Note individuals walking toward the camera on both right and left of woman in center of the picture.

Image Bottom: Penn Station, NY. Rush hour crowd streaming down both sides of the staircases. Imagine trying to fight that flow so you can get up to the platform!

I want to make clear that I have nothing against thinking against the grain. Thinking outside of accepted patterns challenges us to keep moving forward. However, it's not contrary thoughts that I am concerned with here. I fully accept that there's at least one kid in class who eats glue, and will probably grow up to invent something invaluable to daily life and make millions. What I am talking about are the ways we learn to physically navigate our world. Even the kid who eats glue will walk on the right side of the hall.
The loss of order I'm discussing is not limited to the flow of bodies. It's also present in how people choose to interact with one another. For example, logically speaking, people waiting to board a subway car should let those exiting the car leave first. This creates space for the newcomers. Logical, right? During rush hour, chaos reigns as bodies collide entering and exiting the cars—at the same time! It's a wonder we manage to get anywhere at all!

Image: Subway car entering the station. (I'm surprised the transit police didn't nab me for this shot.)

How can we understand this loss of order and the abandonment of social "rules"? Perhaps it has something to do with the loss of free play. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Scientific American report that free play is important to our development. In fact the lead into the article from Scientific American states:

"Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed."

One of the points of the Scientific American article makes is that children need to interact freely—that is, without parental supervision—with peers in order to learn social competencies (i.e., what is socially acceptable and what is not). Children will not learn these skills under constant supervision because these are not natural situations. Anyone who has ever been on a job interview can surely understand this point: you know you're being watched and so you're on your best behavior. During the job interview, you probably won't make inappropriate jokes or sly comments—these may come after you've landed the position and gotten to know your coworkers rather well (and you're sure that it won't get you fired).

There has been a trend of moving away from the playground though, and subsequently, moving away from free play. What effects will over-scheduling and helicopter parenting styles have on social development? If we move farther away from the playground—or keep children away from it entirely—will we see the demise of social understanding? How will the ordering of our world change? After all, how else are we to learn about cliques, that it's not okay to eat sand from the sandbox, and most importantly, that mom and dad won't always be there to make others play with us? Free play helps us accept others into our space, and it also teaches us how to negotiate our place and presence. Organized sports are great. They encourage teamwork, a healthy sense of competition, and teach kids about sportsmanship (unless your kid is being coached by someone using the experience to relive his or her own lost dreams). But in today's world, organized sports for kids have taken on a false sense of fairness. This is a disservice because not everyone is equal, and there will be some who are more successful than others. People do have a right to claim a space for themselves, which is precisely what we learn on the playground. The idea that we are all entitled, however, is misguided. We do not possess equal skills. What the playground teaches us is how to position ourselves into and within the social fabric using the skills we do possess. We learn how to secure a spot at the sandbox or how to get a place in line for the slide, and we do it without having someone interject on our behalf. We learn when to step back and to assess our environment. Years later, when negotiating a crowded subway car, we draw on these skills, and don't just assume that because we are on the platform waiting for the subway, that we should fight our way into a crowded subway car or flood the stairs. Years later, we can survey and assess our situation. We learn finesse.

Image: Subway car bound uptown. Time approx. 5:15 pm.

If we lose the skills the playground teaches us—the tools for navigating life and our world—do we lose our contextual sense? Can the rush hour crush and its related behaviors be understood as an outgrowth of a loss of socialness? Perhaps it's time to return to the playground. Go ahead, go down the slide, have someone push you on a swing, and play in the sandbox. Reconnect. Get a little dirty—it's okay. Really. Place yourself in the world again. You may find that you can navigate the rush hour crush a little easier.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Invisibility and the Homeless

There are two homeless people I encounter with some regularity as I travel to and from work. The first is a older white woman. She spends her days asking people for help. Her questions never really vary: "Sweetheart, can you help me out? I'm hungry." or "Handsome, can you buy me a hot dog? I'm hungry." Sometimes she'll add a compliment: "Are you a model?" and "You're really pretty." and "I like your tie." have become recent favorites. It's possible that someone at the shelter where she stays counseled her to make this change because her modus operandi was to insult people who ignored her, which in all honesty, included about 98% of the suits streaming by. For example, she told one woman that she should lose some weight, and another that she needed to get her hair done. I personally have not witnessed any insults directed at men, but I have no doubt that she has a few jabs handy. Needless to say, her insults didn't increase the success of her petitions, and she has a reputation in the area; people sometimes intentionally cross the street to avoid her.

The second is an older Black man who rides the 2/3 train. He has a speech and there are parts that I can almost recite with him. He petitions for help for an organization that feeds, clothes, and houses the homeless in a voice that has a rich rhythm, rising and falling with the motion of the subway car. He carries a elongated can that could be an old Pringles canister and offers sandwiches and bottled water in exchange for whatever people can give. To date, I've never seen a single person accept a sandwich or a bottle of water in exchange for quarters, dimes, nickels, and even pennies they unearth from the depths of pockets and purses. In exchange for the small change he collects, he offers a blessing to the givers, and wishes them safety during their travels home.

Homelessness challenges the idea of personhood. The idea of the person is crafted around the place the individual occupies in the social order. Personhood entails all the rights and responsibilities tied to the various roles we as individuals occupy. Personhood is defined by the ways in which we interact with the social order at large. For example, I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a writer, an anthropologist, a reader, an aunt, a mentor, a former student ... and I'm sure there are some I'm omitting. All these positions work together to create my identity, and in fulfilling the responsibilities associated with these roles, I claim a place in society.

When you lose your home, your job, your ability to enter into commerce, you also lose your place in society. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment, an ethnography by Joao Biehl, explores these issues at length. In Vita, Biehl chronicles the life of a mentally ill woman, Catarina, who is left in Vita—an actual place in Brazil described as where the terminally and mentally ill, and the physically disabled are left to die. The structures of society—families and social institutions—are unable to support and assist them. Catarina shows us how a person can cease to be visible to society at large.

To understand this process, we have to review theories from two formidable anthropological figures, Marcel Mauss and Emile Durkheim. (Stop groaning! I'll try to keep this relatively painless.) Mauss conceived of the person as being based in social structure. In The Social Subject Mauss argues that the person has a history, and once this history is exposed, it is revealed that the person is meaningless without society. That is, our history is defined by our roles, which only exist in the context of our social order. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim proposes that an invisible force regulates society and gives meaning to the world. He names this force as religion, or the moral sensibility of the collective. Individuals are extensions of the collective, and all actions are guided and directed by this sensibility. Society operates through the individual to ensure its survival. Therefore, all the roles of personhood—spouse, sibling, parent, worker, etc.—exist solely for the purpose of maintaining social structure.

Essentially, Durkheim and Mauss argue that:
  • A collective force organizes social structure.
  • The individual is an extension of that collective force.
  • As an extension of that collective force, the individual exists to support social structure.
So once the individual ceases to support social structure, the individual ceases to matter to society. Unable to fulfill the roles of personhood, the individual loses her place in society—and consequently loses her visibility.

With the woman I described, people rarely meet her eyes—although she often leans forward in an attempt to position herself in their line of sight. She demands to be seen, but passersby make a conscious decision to not see her. In contrast, people regularly and willingly look into the face of the man on the train. They nod at him as he passes, and indicate that they hear and accept his blessings when he offers them. The ideas of Mauss and Durkheim seem to be in action here. By asking for help and offering nothing, the woman has ceased to provide a useful contribution to society, and is rendered invisible. The man, however, has found a way to author himself as a contributor, and can claim a small sense of personhood. As a result, he remains visible and palatable to the collective. She definitely seeks to author herself as visible, but it is the social order, not her physical presence, that determines her visibility.

Of course, we can't discount the effect of the woman's abrasive approach. I wonder if she would have better luck getting help from the crowd if she changed location so that her vitriolic history didn't continue to hang over her. I have my doubts—because people do not want to be forced to see. If Durkheim is correct, and the collective works to preserve society (and in fact, society therefore works to preserve itself), then this woman's invisibility may arguably be viewed as society's way of preserving itself. Catarina did once exist within the collective social order. She had a place in the networks that constitute social relatedness: she was a mother, a wife, a factory worker—a person. She contributed to social organization via these roles. However, her mental illness rendered her unable to fulfill the obligations of these roles, and she thus fell out of sync with the collective—requiring resources from the social order without the ability to contribute and replace those resources. Surely, this woman that I pass every day has a similar story. And the man? In offering sandwiches and bottled water, in speaking for a social institution, it appears he has found a way to contribute to the social order and maintain his personhood. He has authored visibility for himself.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of the homeless and a commentary on their value to society, but a way to understand how people can be willingly blind in a particular situation.

It's also meant to explore the limits of personhood. Do you think that society operates on the individual? How do we construct our sense of personhood—our identity? And how do the roles we occupy influence our mobility and visibility within the collective? How can we apply this discussion to other groups who are authored as invisible? Let's chat.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Food and Family

I'm Trinidadian. Ten years ago, I married into a boisterous (and sometimes meddlesome) Bengali-Catholic family. While we've certainly had our share of cultural clashes, I have always been amazed at how successful they are at preserving their traditions and beliefs—particularly in an environment that encourages assimilation, and sees successive generations accepting and injecting more and more mainstream American ideas into the cultural foundation.

This weekend I had the immense pleasure of welcoming a long-time friend as an official member of our growing family. As is customary with the South Asian community, the wedding festivities took place over a few days. What made this event particularly unique, however, is that the bride is Gujarati and so the ceremonies also included Hindu elements. Spanning five days, the celebrations were a well-orchestrated melding of different cultural backgrounds, and revealed insights as to how cultures can be preserved in the face of immigration and interfaith marriages.

The celebrations began with a Gaye Holud hosted by the bride. The Gaye Holud is a Bengali custom—celebrated by Hindus and Muslims—where the groom's family visits the bride and presents her with her wedding clothes and jewelry. They also cover her face and body with tumeric (see Gaye Holud link above), which is supposed to purify and beautify her for her wedding day. The bride's family then does the same for the groom. The tradition carries with it a "night before" mentality, and neither bride nor groom is present at each other's ceremony. The tradition was greatly modified for this couple to include only the bride—the groom opted out of the ceremony, which is interesting since the Gaye Holud originates in his cultural background. So in this instance, the bride's family performed their own version of Gaye Holud, and then later in the evening, they followed the tradition as practiced by the groom's family. (Side note: I've been informed that Hindus have a "dye night" where essentially the same practice is followed as described above. If anyone can confirm, please do!)

The following night, the bride then hosted a Mendhi Night, where beloved female relatives decorate themselves with henna in honor of her wedding. Henna, or mendhi, is a reddish brown dye that is used to create intricate patterns on the womens' hands and feet. The bride's henna went up to her elbows in a beautiful, detailed pattern. Her feet well up to her calves were also covered with intricate patterns. Historically, certain patterns are said to have particular meanings. Unfortunately, it seems that some of this knowledge has been lost. While there were many women able to produce the henna patterns during Mendhi Night, when pressed for an explanation on the meaning of the designs, the overall response was that the patterns were decorative. An older aunt did go so far as to say that henna was done for joyful celebrations—Diwali, weddings, births, etc. Bengali's, being of East Asian descent, don't have a formal Mendhi Night, but they do practice the art of henna. Only the groom's immediate family was invited on this night, which is mainly for the bride.

On the day of the wedding, the bride walked down the aisle in a white and silver lengha. A lengha is skirt and blouse combination. They can range from simple to very elaborate designs, with intricate embroidery and beading. The bridesmaids wore different colored saris linked together by gold blouses. The groom positively glowed in his tuxedo, and his groomsmen tied the entire bridal party together with muted gold vests. After the rings had been exchanged, and the bride and groom were married again--in a Hindu ceremony. As is tradition, they took seven steps together signifying seven vows to each other as they begin their life together. They also walked around a small fire. Fire is particularly important in the ceremony as it is representative of the god, Agni, who serves as witness to the ceremony. Agni is an important Vedic deity. A messenger to the other gods, he's reputed to carry sacrifices and offerings to the other world via fire. (Cultural note: Does Agni remind you of any other deities? I wonder if we could trace their roots to Agni.) For this portion of the ceremony, the groom wore formal Indian-wear and the bride wore a traditional, beautiful wedding sari. Despite the religious differences, families from both sides first packed the church and then the hall where the Hindu ceremony was held.

It was a beautiful and moving series of events marked by both joy and sorrow. I was extremely grateful that my relationship with the bride allowed me an additional perspective on the process. It is precisely because I was able to participate on both sides that I truly understand how important a role food played in tying both sides together. Anthropologists have long known that food brings people together—breaking bread with someone is the ultimate act of acceptance, forgiveness, and love. If you don't believe me, check out Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, or any other of the food anthropology shows popping up on cable. (Of course, you could always go watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—after all, Indy has long been accepted as the epitome of an anthropologist, right? In the scene where he and his blond companion crash land in a very poor Indian village devastated by the loss of their lingas, they are offered some very unusual fare which Indy orders his companion to accept. He explains that it is all these poor people have to offer, and it would be extremely offensive to refuse their hospitality.) In any event, this couple's union provided the opportunity for both sides to experience each other through food even though they may not have completely understood the significance of ceremonies for each group.

The bride's family is largely vegetarian, which meant the groom's family got to sample foods that they definitely would not have served themselves at an event. This is a culture, and really a family, that includes meat regularly as a part of their celebrations. And for them to experience vegetarian meals absolutely opened their eyes to another element of Indian culture. They are absolutely aware that Hindus are largely vegetarian, and are also aware that some Indians choose to practice vegan lifestyles willingly. However, there were definitely some grumbles from some of the older members of the family who felt that more "substantial" vegetarian fare could have been offered, but these are likely the same people who would have found something to comment about (quality of the food, saltiness, etc) even if the meals had been entirely familiar to them. (Regardless of culture or religion, there always seems to be a few people like this in the group.)

Cultures define themselves through food, and food remains a portable means of transporting culture when groups immigrate. It allows people to connect to their roots, their history, their traditions—all in a single bite. So it is fitting that a wedding that merged two different religious groups saw ties forged and cemented with food from both cultural backgrounds. Food broke the ice between groups as more the more adventurous of the Bengalis freely asked questions about what was being served and sampled accordingly. Interestingly, these were the folks who seemed more at ease mingling with the bride's family, although custom dictates that all present must socialize (part of the reason for these events is to help family members get to know each other before the big day and help ease the transition for the bride and groom).

So, let's talk about it: How is food used in your cultural background? Are there special meals for special occasions?

And congrats to the happy couple! Wishing you many happy years together!


Friday, September 18, 2009

Greetings and salutations! Put down your pens and close your books ...

Welcome to Anth in Practice. Hah. Sounds like a college course, but I promise not to lecture (too much). So, like most who chose anthropology as their career/passion, I get asked on almost a daily basis, "What is anthropology?" And like others, I've given the somewhat meaningless definition of anthropology — which usually results in glazed eyes, vigorous nodding, and abrupt exits. Rarely has the same person ever asked an anthropological question of me again, so, it's time for a change.

Anthropology is all around us—it's in how we connect with each other, how we interact with our environments, and the ways we use media. Opportunities for anthropological discussion and analysis can strike anywhere. Anthropology is not confined to a classroom full of bored freshmen, or remote areas of the world where people eat unusual bugs, and—most importantly—it's not confined to people who wear Indiana Jones-style hats and carry whips.

What I hope to do here is show how anthropology is woven into everyday life and do it everyday language. Put down your pens and close your books—there's no midterm (and the final is an essay). Let's chat—about life and the reasons we do things we do.

How do you define anthropology? And what do you see as it's purpose?