Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mundurucú Culture

The next course reading, “Mundurucú Culture,” is a chapter from an important ethnography, Women of the Forest by Yolanda and Robert Murphy.

Much of the material in the chapter is a straightforward presentation of basic cultural features of the Mundurucú, a Native American society from Central South America, including discussion of the gendered division of labor in horticultural and foraging practices, kinship and marriage patterns, residence patterns, etc.

One key topic to consider when reading and thinking about the chapter is the role of architecture and the social organization of space in shaping interactions between people, especially in relation to gender. The Murphys talk a great deal about the ways in which men’s and women’s houses are constructed and laid out within a village, as well as a concentric organization of social space, with the village the inner circle, the gardens in a ring around the village, and the forest as a nearly purely men’s area surrounding that.

Another key topic is not just the presence of male domination, but the particular way in which it is organized in practice. We discussed in class June Nash’s account of the growth over time of patriarchal male domination in certain class contexts of the Aztec polity. Here we encounter another society characterized in part by male domination, though in a distinct form referred to by some anthropologists as fratriarchy.

Another issue the Murphys address, though more in other parts of their book than in this particular chapter, is the relationship between ideas or perceptions and practices. If we ask whether the Mundurucú society is male dominated, our answer depends in part on our definitions.

My inclinations are generally to define something like “male domination” in terms of regular or typical social practice. In practice, women’s actions and movements are highly restricted while men’s are not; men’s activities are more highly valued (by men, and by women much of the time); men tend to have more influence in the community in general; men occasionally physically control women through physical violence, including occasional gang rapes. At the same time, the Murphys stress that Mundurucú women, for the most part, do not see themselves as oppressed or dominated. If domination or oppression are conceptualized mainly in terms of perception (to be oppressed is to feel oppressed), then Mundurucú women are not oppressed. If domination is conceptualized in terms of practices, the Mundurucú are a male-dominated society (and the absence of publically reported feelings of being dominated can be seen as a further example of male domination in practice, in terms of influence on the culture’s discourse on what is properly masculine and feminine, i.e. women’s lack of feeling dominated in society in which their actions are thoroughly regulated can be seen as an instance of socialization of "false consciousness" – or an instance of hegemonic control, for those familiar with the thought of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci).

Language Extinction and Global Patterns

National Geographic online has posted an interesting (and depressing) article on language extinction, noting the presence of five global “hotspots” for the extinction of languages currently spoken by only small numbers of individuals. These hotspots are: the Northwest Coast of North America, Oklahoma, Central South America, Northeast Asia, and Northern Australia, which is also to say that Native American, Siberian, and Australian Aboriginal languages in particular are disappearing quickly at the present time. As the article discusses, this is a concern not just in terms of the loss of linguistic diversity, but also the loss of knowledge, e.g. of the natural environment, that was thoroughly embedded in each of these languages.

I’d simply note two things in terms of how these five hotspots reflect underlying global patterns. First, these instances don’t reflect just any random languages going extinct. Rather, they reflect particular sorts of interactional histories between quite different sorts of societies. Each is the end result of a few centuries interaction between societies (Native American, Siberian, Australian Aboriginal) with relatively low population densities and technologies that were less efficient for the specific purposes of armed conflict or intensive agricultural production (capable of supporting larger, dense populations) being faced with colonizers from much larger societies (European and Euro-American) with technologies that gave them a distinct edge in direct confrontation. (In the case of the Americas, especially, diseases brought along with Europeans were another major factor in the process of social disruption and linguistic disappearance.)

Second, the current hotspots of linguistic (and cultural) disappearance do not reflect a new phenomenon. They represent the tail end of a now centuries long process of social disruption, cultural loss, and cultural and linguistic assimilation. These hotspots represent remnant areas. What’s happening now in these areas already happened (often long ago) in other areas of the Americas with dense Euro-American settlement, in more densely populated Southern Australia, or in more westerly Siberian areas closer to the heartland of Russian culture.

Tragically, in all likelihood in the near future, very few Native American, Siberian, or Australian Aboriginal languages will remain. The ones that will remain will also not be random. They will in most cases be languages of cultural populations that had relatively high population numbers and densities prior to colonization (e.g. Mesoamerican or Andean languages and a few other North and South American languages), or populations settled in places where the effects of colonization have been particularly light on the ground.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

June Nash and "Aztec Women"

June Nash has been a prominent anthropologist for the past few decades. She has written extensively about contemporary Mayan communities in southern Mexico, but also about a variety of contemporary and ethnohistorical topics related to Mesoamerica or Latin America more generally, as with the current course reading.

Nash’s article, “Aztec Women,” was published as part of the collection Women and Colonization, edited by Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock. The collected articles of this book examined the effects of the transition to a global economic system and of colonialism around the world over the course of the past several centuries on women and gender relationships. Nash’s article focuses on this process in the context of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the colonization of New Spain/Mexico.

Nash is also concerned here with two topics that could be considered for any cultural context: social production and reproduction, and culture change. She considers the role of gender, of women and men, in the production of economic goods and of persons (through socialization, for example) and in social reproduction (of people and of the conditions and materials for social production). She also writes of how gender roles in relation to social production and reproduction changed through time in the Aztec context, both in the century or so preceding the Spanish Conquest and in the Spanish Colonial period after that Conquest.

For more information on June Nash, see her faculty web page at the City University of New York.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

"The Navaho View of Life," by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton

Our next course reading is a selection from a classic ethnography, The Navaho, written by Kluckhohn and Leighton in the mid-1940s.

Both Kluckhohn and Leighton were interested in the Navaho culture (though Kluckhohn also wrote extensively on other cultures as well). Both also shared interests in the relationship between psychology and anthropology, or put a different way the relationship between culture and personality. The two worked together on a couple ethnographic works about the Navaho and their shared theoretical interests.

Of the two, Kluckhohn was the more prominent. In fact, he was one of the most prominent anthropologists of the mid-20th century. His major interests were, as said above, the relationship between culture and personality, and the value orientations typical of specific cultural contexts (with this evident in our course reading selection). (For an extended assessment of his life and work, see the lengthy obituary published in American Anthropologist by Talcott Parsons and Evon Vogt after his death in 1960.)

The following paragraph is a quotation from the Wikipedia (a reference source that should be used cautiously, but which can be useful for background information) entry on Kluckhohn:

“In 1949, Kluckhohn began a long-term study of what he and his colleagues called "Values Orientations" among five adjacent communities in Texas: Zuni, Navajo, Mormon (LDS), Spanish-American (Mexican-American), and Texas Homesteaders. A key methodological approach that he developed together with his wife Florence Rockwood Kluckhohn and colleagues Evon Z. Vogt and Ethel M. Albert, among others, was the Values Orientation Theory. They believed that cross-cultural understanding and communication could be facilitated by analyzing a given culture's orientation to five key aspects of human life: Human Nature (people seen as intrinsically good, evil, or mixed); Man-Nature Relationship (the view that humans should be subordinate to nature, dominant over nature, or live in harmony with nature); Time (primary value placed on past/tradition, present/enjoyment, or future/posterity/delayed gratification); Activity (being, becoming/inner development, or doing/striving/industriousness); and Social Relations (hierarchical, collateral/collective-egalitarian, or individualistic). The Values Orientation Method was developed furthest by Florence Kluckhohn and her colleagues and students in later years.”

In the selected reading, Kluckhohn and Leighton get at Navaho personality, culture, and value orientations through the analysis of cultural premises. Cultural premises can be seen as the basic operating assumptions typical of persons socialized within a particular cultural context. As such, the cultural premises outlined by Kluckhohn and Leighton do not represent a description of what Navajo individuals do on a day-to-day basis in their lives. Rather, they are a description of the operating assumptions that guide Navajo individuals in their choices and actions in both usual and unusual situations as they move through life.

As such, Kluckhohn and Leighton provide a dynamic model for understanding culture and individuals. It doesn’t assume that Navajo culture is static, but provides a way to understand how individuals socialized in a particular sociocultural environment might interact with ongoing and changing circumstances.

Although not many anthropologists today would claim to be “Kluckhohnians,” the approach was influential, and important affinities remain in much contemporary work, such as some varieties of contemporary practice theory (see the course reading by Sherry Ortner) or some more semiotically inclined anthropologists’ work (see the course reading by E. Valentine Daniel).

For more information on the Navajo, see the Navajo Nation’s website, as well as a web page on Navajo history.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Useful Advice For Any Students Contemplating Graduate School

For any students contemplating further studies in graduate school, take a look at this post on the blog Easily Distracted.

Easily Distracted is written by an historian, but the advice is useful for anyone thinking about grad studies in any discipline in the social sciences or humanities.

Iroquois and Other Native American Cooking

For anyone interested in Native American cookery and recipes, check out this site of Native American recipes. The site includes two corn soup recipes from Iroquois or other Northeastern Native groups that I’ve copied in here.

Oneida Corn Soup

Wild rice
Wild greens

Cook corn in water with bits of venison, wild edible greens like cowslip, ferns, or milk weed and a handful of wild rice.

My Disclaimer: Do not start collecting wild greens to cook this soup if you do not know what you are doing. Store-bought greens should substitute nicely.

Winter Corn Chowder

Yield: 1 pot

1 1/2 c Dried corn
6 sl Bacon
4 c Milk
1/2 ts Salt
3 c Broth
2 c Chopped onion
2 ts Sugar

Rinse corn and combine with broth in saucepan; bring to boil. Remove to heat and allow to stand for 2 hours, then cook for 45 minutes. Cook bacon in skillet until crisp. Drain. Cook onion in drippings. Add to corn mixture and simmer 5 minutes. Add milk, sugar, and salt; sprinkle with

Notice that while the first recipe utilizes ingredients that would have been available to Native Americans for quite some time before contact with Europeans, the second recipe demonstrates cultural change in foodways resulting from Native contact with Euro-American culture with the inclusion of Old World ingredients – in fact everything but the corn and salt would have been unavailable to Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans. (I’m assuming the “broth” is chicken, beef, or pork stock – venison stock could have been available prior to European contact.)

Another interesting food and recipe site is specific to Tuscarora cooking. The Tuscarora are one of the six tribal groups of the League of the Iroquois – historically the last of the six to join.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Judith K. Brown's "Iroquois Women"

Judith K. Brown’s article “Iroquois Women” is an important text in the history of ethnography. The article was first published in 1975 as part of the collection edited by Rayna Reiter, Toward an Anthropology of Women. This book was one of the more prominent collections of feminist anthropology (also often called “the anthropology of women” at the time) in the mid-1970s. (Woman the Gatherer and Woman, Culture, and Society were two other important collections of essays and articles. The names of those two books were responses to the titles of two other important anthropological books of the 1960s, Man the Hunter and Man, Culture, and Society.)

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, gender was an understudied aspect of culture and information on women often underreported, as male ethnographers often worked mainly with male informants or presented information collected from men as typical of a culture in general. The collection Toward an Anthropology of Women and the Brown essay were part of a broader project to redress earlier male bias in ethnography and introduce more information about women specifically and the importance of gender as a social factor generally.

Historically, Iroquois women had great influence and status within their communities and culture. Brown’s essay is in part a discussion of this status of women in Iroquois culture and of Iroquois gender relations (so it’s also very much about Iroquois men).

She’s also concerned to examine the social factors that influence gender relations in any culture through the discussion of an Iroquois case study. Among the factors she discusses are economic production, the gender division of labor in relation to production, kinship and residence organization, and the control and distribution of economic goods.

For more information on Judith K. Brown, see her faculty web page at Oakland University.

For more information on the Iroquois, see the web site.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Scholarship and Revision

The following is something I posted for an open discussion forum within the online Introduction to Anthropology I am currently teaching. It's something that readers of this blog and members of the Peoples and Cultures of the World Class may also find interesting. (The second topic/link is not directly relevant for this course and blog, since it deals with paleoanthropology and primate evolution, but it may be of interest to anyone with a general anthropological interest.)

One quality of good scholarship is a willingness to revise what we thought we understood about the world in light of new discoveries. Good scholarship, whether in the sciences or humanities, involves the production of interpretations and arguments that fit the facts, rather than picking and choosing facts to fit preconceived notions. When new facts are discovered, our interpretations and arguments have to change to incorporate this new information. Inevitably, over the course of our semester together, discoveries will be made that force anthropologists to rethink what we know and to revise our understanding bit by bit. (In other words, scholarship is an ongoing, neverending process.) As this happens, I'll do my best to keep you posted on such new discoveries.

Here, I'd like to draw your attention to two new findings. One area of anthropological research in which many new discoveries are challenging previously held ideas has to do with the archaeological investigation of the origins of urbanization. Here is a link to a blog post discussing recent findings in Mesopotamia from Anthropology.Net:

Another field of study where there have been many recent important discoveries is paleoanthropology, the study of human (and non-human primate) biological evolution through the study of the fossil record. In the past few weeks, there's been much discussion among anthropologists of the fossil species Chororapithecus abyssinicus, an East African ape species from around 10 million years ago and possibly a common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, and hominids. The finding of this species helps to fill an important gap in the fossil record, as there have been few fossil finds of apes from this period up until now. The following is a link to a discussion of this species on another anthropology blog, Hot Cup of Joe: