Monday, February 28, 2011

On My Shelf: The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead

The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead | Ann Fabian | University of Chicago Press | 220 pages | $27.50 (Hardcover)

The term "headhunter" conjures images of tribal drums and gruesome wartime trophies. But in The Skull Collectors, headhunting falls in the domain of science. The father of American craniology Samuel George Morton and his cohort of naturalists-cum-grave enthusiasts collected heads. Skulls, to be exact, which they measured and sketched and analyzed to divide and classify humanity. While for the most part, the objects of their study were taken from the deceased, these men seemed to have taken stock of a fair number of lively potential candidates as well. Their methods of collection raised many questions concerning the treatment of the deceased—particularly concerning those without living advocates with the means of speaking on their behalf.  Still, how else would Morton have gotten his specimens? The real question may be: Why would he have needed these specimens in the first place? What legacy did his science really leave us with? These are the questions that historian Ann Fabian seemlessly navigates in what certainly is a must-read for bone enthusiasts.

The legacy of American craniology revolves around Morton, who is an odd character on his own. Sure, he had friends—science is social after all—but his trade was certainly a morbid one. But what Fabian captures excellently is the way Morton is connected so intimately with others—from scientists to ship captains to generals, Morton's story is truly a global one, reaching all the way to the Pacific and back. It expands into a complex narrative as it collects the histories of people and places and politics, making it easy to look past the more obvious objections to Morton's endowment of scientific racism and more deeply at the intellectual history that Fabian lays before the reader. The Skull Collectors is curious and absorbing—these bones have many tales to tell.

Review copy provided by the publisher.    

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Undergrounds

I have a new post up at The Urban Ethnographer!
Ever since reading Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People as a teen, I’ve been intrigued by the metropolitan underground. Cities teem with life, and change happens at a dizzying pace. But what lurks beneath the streets remains a mystery to many—it almost remains a realm lost to time. Yet, to think of this space as stagnant would be foolish: from Paris to New York City, the subterranean has a life and character all of its own. And if you look closely, you’ll find traces of the urban centers on the surface—almost as though these spaces contain seeds of the personalities that thrive above ground.
Read the rest here.

Femora and Cream Calls for Posts

Reminder: The next edition of Four Stone Hearth will be hosted by Femora and Cream—so please send your submissions to C.I.V!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Editor's Selection: Evolution, Ancestors, Love, and PMDD

Without any ado, here are the social science selections on peer reviewed research for the past week:
  • At Neuroanthropology, Dan Lende provides stellar coverage on an article that challenges the relationship between behavioral modernity and evolution, proposing instead that researchers focus on behavioral variability.
  • Brian Switek's excellent discussion on our evolutionary relationship to early hominid remains is a must read for anthro students -- and anyone interested in fossil history. Brian clearly guides the reader to through the fossil identification process, anchoring the discussion in historical practices that have trickled down to the present.
  • The Neurocritic questions the notion of romantic love -- does it truly exist? For the most part, the answer is yes. However, scientists have yet to determine where it is based in our brains.
  • At Context and Variation, Kate Clancy once again tackles "lady business." This time she delivers a thoughtful analysis regarding a paper on premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), finding that hormonal data leaves room for improvement.
  • Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds provides an in depth look at how research is manipulated to generate policies, using the sex-industry as an example.
I'll be back next Thursday with more selections from the social sciences!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Digital Painting Using a Virtual Social Network

How many people do you know on Facebook? No, I mean really know. Would they be willing to meet you if you randomly called them up and asked them to? Would they give you a memento of the meeting? How would you get past the awkwardness?

Coffee On the Radio

I recently did an interview with Marc Sotkin and Sharon Glassman on The Practical Genius edition of Boomer Alley Radio! The topic ... coffee! Why we love it, why we crave it, and what it really means to us. If you have a moment, click here to listen to the podcast. (The other interviews in this session are fantastic as well, and worth a listen.)

For more on the anthropology of coffee, see the posts linked in the sidebar or view the posts under the coffee tag.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Four Stone Hearth: The Fire Still Burns!

It seems that the fire will continue in the anthropology hearth just a bit longer! Thank you all for your responses to my call for Four Stone Hearth hosts! I've lined up several hosts for the upcoming carnival sessions—but please don't let that stop you from volunteering for a future session.

I am temporarily filling in for Afarensis this month, so if there are questions or you would like to volunteer, please feel free to contact me. Hosts, please let me know when you post your call for posts, and when you make the carnival live. I'll be sure to cross-post here on AiP and via Twitter and Facebook, etc. If you're featured in the carnival, please take a moment to link back either via a short post or on one of the social media channels you belong to. 

I'd also like to open the door to discussions about how we can make this a better endeavor as a community. The suggestions I've received privately are as follows:
  • Make the carnival a monthly feature—easier to find hosts and to find content, etc.
  • Move the carnival to a blog site with an RSS feed so that people can subscribe more easily.
What are your ideas? (I'll share these with Afarensis once the hominin gets back.) Let's not let the fire go out.

Anthropology, How Do I Love Thee?

Let me count the ways.

Rex over at Savage Minds issued a call to the anthropology community to pen (or type) a love letter to the discipline. I'm slightly over Rex's seven-day deadline but I figured late roses are better than those never sent. Mine is a personal story, and I've gone back and forth as to whether it should be shared, but here it is.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Michael Rockefeller and the Asmat: A Story of Balance

Michael Rockefeller (L - Aaron Strand) meets Half Moon (R - David King) after traveling with the Bringing Man (C - David Brown, Jr). © Lia Chang

The beginning of our universe, our world, and everything we know, has often been linked to violence. The force of the Big Bang's eruption of energy echoes in countless creation myths in various forms. For example, the Asmat say:
In the beginning Neso-Ipitj, the man of the wound, convinced his brother Bewir to behead him. As his head fell free of his body, the stars spilled out from his neck and filled the universe. Then, the great carver of wood Fumerew, was drowned while canoeing in a great river. War, the white tailed eagle, found the body and returned it to life by pressing burning embers against it.

Reborn, the first carver built a great lodge. He filled it with the figures of men and women which he carved from trees, and when the work was done he began to play the sacred drum. Slowly, the wood became flesh and the figures became men and women. And that is the story of how we all began.
Theatre reviewer Wendy Caster invited me to attend The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller, an all too brief but brilliant play investigating the disappearance of anthropologist Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea. The play begins with this creation story, as narrated and re-enacted by the Ancestors, a trio of eerily masked figures who largely exist on the periphery as the story unfolds. As an Ancestor brands the chest of the embodiment of Neso-Ipitj with a bloody palm, the audience experiences his death personally—but in this swift moment of death, they too are present as the universe is born. And a crucial theme in the play is communicated: in all things there is balance.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Editor's Selections: Skull Cups, Grave Goods, War, Pirates, and Lucy

It's been a busy week in the science blogosphere—there were lots of posts to read and choose from. Though I couldn't choose everyone, I encourage readers to peruse the Anthropology, Philosophy, and Social Science categories. You're sure to find interesting and informative writing! Here are my ResearchBlogging selections this week:
  • Skull chalices. Do I really need to say more? Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science discusses some archaeological evidence that places these macabre objects in the real world--and he even has some instructions on how they were made. (Though perhaps it's not something you should try yourself.)
  • While we're talking about deathly objects, Chris Campbell questions how best to determine whether a burial was deliberate. Why would we want to discuss this? Well, deliberate burials are used as a marker for soul beliefs. Chris suggests that grave goods are actually what we need to look for if we'd like to consider whether ideas about the afterlife were in circulation.
  • At Smells Like Science, Dan Bailey tries to understand why humans kill each other and engage in war. Research suggests we're actually averse to killing each other. Why do we do it? Perhaps we're just too smart for our own good, and our technological inclinations help us get the deeds done.
  • It's sometimes hard to believe that piracy still exists. But it does, and it's a dark and dangerous affair. Andrew Thaler of Southern Fried Science traces the history and evolution of Somalian piracy, aptly explaining socio-political forces that shaped this livelihood.
  • At, Kambiz Kamrani discusses why news of Lucy's bipedalism is important: it's not that we didn't know she was bipedal, but that we weren't aware of the degree to which she was bipedal. Kambiz also discusses the limitations with this data that are worth considering.
I'll be back next Thursday with more selections from the social sciences!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Four Stone Hearth 112: Rallying the Anthropology Community

Okay, Anthropologists, what's our deal? We aren't as well represented online as some of the other sciences, but we are out there. And what's more, we're good. So why is it that only two of you responded to my call for posts for the anthropology blog carnival? Four Stone Hearth is a fantastic means of tying our community together—it introduces us to each other and helps us promote and discuss anthropology with members of the public. But it's about to die.

No, I'm not being melodramatic. Take a look at the announcement page—we are woefully short of hosts. We're also in need of a temporary administrator as Afarensis has just announced a hiatus. So what's stopping you? Can you volunteer to host? I promise that it's really easy: all you have to do is highlight interesting anthropology posts from around the web. And you don't even need to be a certified, card carrying anthropologist to host. Really. Anyone with an interest in anthropology can volunteer. And since you're here, you  must have an interest in anthropology, right?

But maybe the problem is the carnival itself. Is it time to simply let it go? Is it a waste of time? Can it be a cornerstone for our online community? I admit that I have a soft spot for the carnival because when I first started blogging, it was one of the ways I introduced myself to the web. It is really important to my development and my history online. I would like to save it. But we need to work together—as a community of anthropologists and anthropology supporters. Can we do it? How can we do it? Or perhaps this response is just indicative of the divisions within anthropology? Mull on that for a bit while you journey through this edition of Four Stone Hearth.**

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Social Media Week 2011: New York City Government Gets Social

Left to right: Seth Pinsky, NYCEDC; Carole Post, NYC DoITT; Rachel Sterne, Chief Digital Officer; and Jeanette Moy, NYC Office of Operations (moderator). Credit: NYCEDC Tumblr
Open government is not a new concept; it has long been a cornerstone to the democratic process. However, achieving a truly open government where transparency is more than just a buzzword has been a long time coming. Part of the issue has been how best to transform the data that government has into consumable bits for the public. That means not just generating access, but relevant, meaningful access. There is hope that mobile apps can enhance government, but it remains to be seen just how far this sort of technology will be extended socially.

Monday, February 14, 2011

CFP: Four Stone Hearth 112

The next round of the anthropology blog carnival will be hosted right here on Anthropology in Practice in TWO days on Wednesday, Feb. 16th! Please submit anthropology posts of note that should be highlighted in the carnival.

We are woefully short of hosts for the coming sessions. Please consider giving the wandering carnival a home, so  we can continue to showcase the online anthropology community. It's really easy to do—just drop Afarensis a line.

Is a Kiss Ever Just a Kiss? Decoding the Art of Flirtation

A lingering look. A coy smile. Standing just a bit too close. An accidental brush.

Flirtation is an art. It is also a deftly employed social tool. It marks an exploratory, transformative stage—in a first meeting or an existing relationship—when interested parties look toward a tantalizingly unknown future. We flirt to establish a connection, and to gauge the interest of others in reciprocating that connection. While not all flirting is done with the aim of establishing a romantic or sexual encounter, it does help us determine the social investment potential for romantic relationships.

However, flirtation is not without challenges. Communicating and determining romantic interest in social-sexual encounters are often masked by uncertainty—which is actually a key component of flirtation. Both the message and the interpretation are intentionally vague: uncertainty serves to protect the interests and reputations of participants, and adds an element of anticipation that makes the act seem more like a game, prolonging the excitement and extending the mystery of the encounter.

Despite this uncertainty, are there universals to flirting strategies? Does a lingering glance mean the same in all social-sexual encounters? So much of flirting is dependent on non-verbal cues: a glance, a touch, a seemingly casual movement—can these actions really be interpreted differently across cultures and contexts?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Social Media Week 2011: When Research Goes Social: Community and Engagement

I'm really excited that there have been panels on science and research at Social Media Week this year. It's as if another communication silo has been breached. As Chris Wiggins aptly noted, our current era of science has always been social. However, it has been for the most part largely socially insular. Wiggins, an associate professor of mathematics at Columbia University, was a speaker at Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery (#smwresearch), a session designed to help introduce scientists to social elements on the web. Wiggins maintained that the nature of science dating from the 17th-century has not changed: it continues to rely heavily on peer review and collaboration. This assessment is certainly accurate, and in keeping with one school of thought present at the social media panels this week: a reminder that social is not new—that human nature is inherently social—and what we are largely responding to is the greater visibility of social channels.

However, though the scientific model may remain unchanged, and peer review is a long standing important part of that process, the expectations surrounding scientific communication and collaboration are changing. And that is too important of a point to overlook.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Editor’s Selections: Eating Disorders, Climate Change, Penises, And Free Divers

My ResearchBlogging Editor's Selections for the week:
  • At A Primate of Modern Aspect, the primate has penises on the table for discussion: why does the human penis look the way that it does and does it serve a purpose?
  • Greg Downey of Neuroanthropology has an incredibly thought provoking post up that investigates the relationship between biology and culture via the stories of free divers.
I'll be back next Thursday to highlight research blogging from the social sciences.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Social Media Week NYC 2011: Blurring the Digital Line

Social Media Week 2011 is underway in New York City—as well as eight other global locations. The calendar of events is a diverse, informative mix highlighting both a willingness to share and to learn on the part of several large agencies and organizations headquartered in New York City. This is my third year as a participant, and I’m utterly blown away by how large and truly social this annual event has become. It has taken on a life of its own, which is a fitting development given the nature of its focus.

SapientNitro asked a diverse group of (social) scientists and technologists to consider the impact of the blurring distinction between our real lives and our digital lives, and the ways in which behaviors and the web are adapting to each other. "'Things' have changed (us)," said SapientNitro Director of Marketing Strategy Melissa Read in her opening remarks:
  • The local has become global—everything we do locally can be broadcast to the world.
  • Global has also become local—everywhere is here. There is a wealth of information and services available to us with an immediacy and locality that we didn't have before. As a result, the real world has taken on virtual elements (e.g., shop online if the store is closed) and the virtual has crossed over into the real world (e.g., Farmville credits).
  • We're increasingly comfortable with this crossover though. Life is interactive from the time we are born—kids are using tablets at earlier ages.
  • Privacy is being renegotiated as we come to terms with sharing personal information with our many connections.
All of these elements combine to give us a great deal of power. Read joked that we are now media sapiens, and while this particular buzzword is a bit done, it does describe our sensitivity to technology. To this point, we're no longer a captive audience; we're constantly engaged in media multitasking: we choose the objects of our interest instead of choosing from what is available. But what is the effect of this constant engagement—and has it really changed us?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

If You Can't Say Something Nice ...


Who you tawkin' to?

Yuh caen't pahk yuh cah heah.

Who drank da last o'da cawfee?

Whatsa matta wid you?

Ah, the sounds of New York City! I can identify a New Yorker in conversation in a heartbeat. And it's likely that the rest of the country can as well. Residents of New York City and western Long Island (or Lung Guylan as I am apt to pronounce it—a good friend of mine from the Midwest once told me that I was the only person she knew who could produce such a hard /g/ in front of an /i/) speak a distinct dialect. The elements of the dialect contained within these statements are fairly recognizable thanks to the likes of Robert De Niro and Bugs Bunny. It is often parodied and often in the vein of the extremes apparent in the examples above, even though relatively few New Yorkers have such a hard stereotypical accent. It is also interpreted as aggressive and confrontational. Still, whether these elements are subtle and make appearances in moments of passionate debate or inebriation, or so pronounced as to make the speaker almost unintelligible, the New York dialect is a readily identifiable marker.

New Yorkers are not alone in possessing a specific dialect. New Englanders also have a recognizable way of speaking, as do Southerners and people from the Midwest. Language and identity have a complicated relationship. There is a lot of information that can be passed on linguistically beyond etymology. Language can reflect our social and natural environments and thus reveal a great deal about our daily lives. Linguistic anthropologists are right to view languages as rich cultural resources—and this is one of the reasons the Endangered Language Alliance has been working to collect and preserve the many "dying" languages spoken by immigrants throughout New York City.

However, languages do not constitute the whole of an identity. Languages change as we do; they are far from closed systems. In instances of colonialism and conquest, the language of the majority often absorbs any surrounding dialects or systems. There are hints of this process in the number system found on the Peruvian Magdalena document: The number system was of an unknown language but contained elements of nearby majority languages, suggesting serious contact. These traces of foreign influence tell us that the process of absorption does not occur overnight. During the periods of transition, there is a fair amount of identity negotiation that occurs among native speakers. 

New Yorkers aren't forced to speak the way they do. But what if they were? What if New Yorkers had to drop their /r/s so that others could recognize them? How would their relationship to language change? 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Editor's Selections: Iron Deficiencies, the Slave Trade, Waste Management, and Neuroscience for Beginners

It's still snowy in the north--but it seems that it's now snowy in much of the country as well! Stay safe and warm with these social sciences selections:
  • As Kate Clancy of Context and Variation informs female readers: if your doctor is telling you that you have an iron-deficiency as a result of your menses without having tested you, get a second opinion. The problem may be a gastrointestinal disease that may go untreated as a result of gender bias in medicine.
  • Dirk Hanson traces smoking and the slave trade at Addiction Inbox. Dirk neatly summarizes the ways that tobacco found its way into this economic system.
  • At An Ecological Oratorio, David Buss explores the the outcomes of waste management in Brazil. David describes the assorted afflictions reported by Brazilian scavengers, who comb the open dumps daily as a means of employment.
  • Bradley Voytek of Oscillatory Thoughts has some handy pointers for dissecting science in the media, as well as how to think about science when you pose questions. Bradley's post is an excellent exercise in thinking through the meanings underlying the information shared by the science-oriented media.
I'll be back next Thursday with more research from the social sciences.

The Social Functions of Blushing

It's happened to all of us. The poorly timed remark, tripping over an uneven sidewalk, a torn seam or an open button or zipper, or even the dreaded toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe—embarrassment can strike at any time.

It's easy to feel as though embarrassing things happen only to you. (We tend to over-emphasize embarrassing events, but I'll let it slide if you want to pretend that you're socially savvy.) In fact, earlier this week, I came close to falling flat on my back twice—in boots that were snow and slush appropriate no less—thanks to the slippery conditions that seem to have settled in the northeast. On my way into the office, I lost my footing on a slight downhill slope and felt my feet start to slide. Before I could catch myself, someone grabbed my arm and righted me. When I stepped out for lunch, I nearly fell again: I walked right over a large patch of ice and felt my feet start to slide out from under me. Once more, a quick thinking stranger with awesome reflexes appeared at my side to keep me from connecting with the sidewalk.

Though I thanked my saviors profusely, I could feel my face flush with that telltale sign of embarrassment: the blush. I was really glad that these folks were kind enough to act. But I was also embarrassed. I've been walking for almost three decades—you'd think I would have gotten the hang of bipedalism by now. But feeling embarrassed is fine. Why do others need to know that I'm embarrassed? Why does embarrassment produce visible signals? Do they serve a purpose?