Category Archives: Anthropology

Feminism and Classism in the Context of MTVu in University Public Spaces

I came across this article today on the Serendip forum at Bryn Mawr College. The author posts photos and a transcript of several “napkin notes,” a Bryn Mawr tradition for communicating with the dining facility (which I find fascinating by itself!), which are debating the appropriateness of MTVu in the public space of the dining hall.

Free of charge, MTVu provides televisions and a feed for universities to place in dining halls, recreation rooms, break areas, etc. The idea is that MTV is getting their programming to a target audience -perhaps the target audience: young, college-age, men and women.

But its the extent to which the programming is aimed at women that has recently come under fire, as this ‘napkin note’ suggests:

“I don’t want MTVu in the Dining Halls, because I don’t want to see degrading images of women while eating breakfast. We should be feeling empowered, not overdressed.


Sophia’s voice and others, through ‘napkin notes’ have addressed the inappropriate nature of MTV videos being forced on the students eating at the Bryn Mawr dining hall. In case you didn’t know, Bryn Mawr is a women’s college. Another student posted a ‘napkin note’ in response to Sophia’s:

“Dear Bryn Mawr College Dining Services,

You are all amazing people. To run this dining hall is like running the world. To deal with these dumb whiny bitches is too much! If they are trying to take the television out of the dining hall b/c they say that too many of the music videos objectify women, then they have meaningless and idiotic lives. You shouldn’t take the dumbass bullshit from these privileged students. If they feel as though they are being objectified, they should write to MTV who shows the videos and, most importantly, the artists who produce the music. To complain about music videos and a television?! Most of the women, girls really, who complain, don’t respect the spaces that they live in. They have no reason to complain about this place. Don’t take the TV away. Rather, tell the snooty dumbasses to SHUT THE FUCK UP! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT REAL OBJECTIFICATION IS!!!

c/o 2015

Posse Scholars are academic leaders within the Bryn Mawr student body and, her profanity notwithstanding, the ‘napkin note’ author raises another perspective on the issue, which is one of classism. The Posse Scholar author mentions “privileged students” and “snooty dumbasses.” The key word here being “snooty.” While dumbass is a class of person, it’s the “snooty” description that suggests, as does “privileged” that she considers herself to not be of the same economic or social class as those students who are objecting to MTVu in the dining hall.

Could objectification of women be relative to class?

Click the link above to the original discussion and see the ‘napkin notes’ themselves.

Don’t Be a Rick: Anthropology and Liberal Arts in the Republican Gunsights

So we should clue he and those who think like him in. Spread the word. If you have a blog or a site that can share it, go to the links below and embed this Prezi slide show.


For those that aren’t aware, Florida governor Rick Scott recently derided the science of anthropology as being less valuable and worthy only of cuts in budgeting and funding from the state. This could have a significant impact on Archaeology education as well as research being performed by graduate students in various post-grad and doctorate programs throughout the state. His criticism was essentially that graduating anthropologists were not being prepared for the job market and they did not benefit society. This is what he said:

We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job((Marc Bernier Show, 10/10/2011,

The American Anthropological Association fired off a response across Scott’s apparently ignorant bow:

As an association, we are a group of over 11,000 scholars, scientists, and professionals who are dedicated to studying humankind in all its aspects, including through archaeological, biological, cultural, medical, and linguistic research… Perhaps you are unaware that anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making groundbreaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.

The timing is interesting. As the United States enters a political campaign season for the Presidency, it may be that right-wing conservatives are trying to appeal to their base by spouting rhetoric about jobs and taking digs at academia at the same time. In a state where another Rick (Perry) installed his own “people” on the University of Texas Board of Regents, there was a decision to eliminate several “non-producing” master’s programs, including that of my own anthropology department.

The good news is that I’ll still be able to get my own master’s degree, but the bad news is that it might not carry the weight it would have. The worse news is, the undergraduate population is rather large and many of them were looking toward our graduate program for the future -the graduate faculty are truly top-notch at my university.

There were many flaws in how the Regents arrived at a conclusion that the department was “non-producing” (that was a term that I heard not that I can source, by the way), but they have their own agendas and political alignments that cloud their abilility to see reason.

Why is the Word ‘Science’ Not Good Enough for the AAA?

I recently caught a New York Times article about this and thought I’d share just briefly.

The American Anthropological Association recently revised it’s Long Range Plan, removing all mention of the word “science” and replacing it with softer, feel-good terminology. Where the purpose in the Long Range Plan used to read, “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects,” it now reads, “to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

Huh? How is this better?

The word “science” was previously mentioned in the Long Range Plan of the AAA in three places. Now it is non-existent.

And there’s been some backlash. Boy howdy. Two blog articles that the AAA actually links to are Anthropology Without Science and No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists. I’ve put a few more from just from Zemanta at the bottom.

So the AAA responded, but, to me, it’s every bit as wishy-washy as the decision they’re being criticized for.

In their response, the AAA board says, “[a]nthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture.  As such, it draws on the theories and methods of both the humanities and sciences.”

If by “holistic” they mean it makes use of all the natural sciences to examine and define human culture and history, then that’s fine. Why not simply say so? By why must it rely on or even draw upon the humanities? Just about any definition of “the humanities” you find expressly excludes “the sciences.” This is utter bollocks. The suggestion is that its okay to draw upon religious explanations and speculative post-modern critique to examine human culture past or present. If anything should be excluded and excised from the long-range plans of the AAA it should be this sort of non-scientific codswallop.

They go on to say, “[c]hanges to the AAA’s Long Range Plan have been taken out of context and blown out of proportion in recent media coverage.  In approving the changes, it was never the Board’s intention to signal a break with the scientific foundations of anthropology…” and they go on to cite their What is Anthropology? document as evidence of this.

But if it was “never the Board’s intention to signal a break with” science, why not simply just put back the word science in the Long Range Plan? A word that has far more utility and express intent than the probably post-modernist appeasement of weasel-wording they settled upon.

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Google for the Anthropology Student (Part II)

Google Desktop running on Red Hat Linux.
Image via Wikipedia

Over a year ago, I wrote part one of this two-part (so far) series! I truly intended to write part II long before now, and I actually started it when Google first announced the ill-fated Google Wave. I was trying it out and working with a colleague to test the capabilities and usefulness of it for the student (and even professor) of anthropology when Google pulled the plug on it.

In part I, you’ll remember (if not, click the link, silly!) I talked about some of Google’s key apps: Gmail, Google Docs, Google Scholar, and Google Books. My most used is, without a doubt, Gmail. But my favorite is Google Books. I’m still amazed at the sheer utility of this part of Google. If you think I’m kidding, read the three paragraphs I wrote in Google for the Anthropology Student (Part I?) and then check out my Google Books Library. Browse a couple of the titles there. Some of these I actually own, but I turn to Google Books first to search their pages. Then I crack open the actual text and read from there. Sometimes I just read online.

Here are some other ways Google can enrich and streamline your academic experiences from the perspective of a graduate student of anthropology who is focusing on archaeology.

Google Desktop

About a year or so ago, I downloaded and installed Google Desktop on my main computer, which is a Linux box currently running Ubuntu 11.04. What’s cool about Google Desktop is that it indexes all my files. And I have a lot. If you’re like me, you’re a pack-rat for journal articles and PDF files gathered while researching papers and the like. I have them largely sorted in a subject oriented directory tree, but it can still be a challenge to search a thousand articles and ebooks in PDF for just the right keyword, author, or topic. That’s where Google Desktop comes in.

I tap both CTRL keys on my keyboard at the same time and up pops a little search bar. From there, I type in my search terms -inside quotes if I really want to be specific- and watch the top 6 or so results float to the surface and display in a drop-down box that I can click on. Or, I can click “Show results in a browser window” to see all the results in that familiar Google results format.

Google Desktop indexes web history, emails, media files, Open Office files, MS Office files, PDFs and HTML files. And you can choose to exclude any of these. You can set up the directories/folders you want searched and you can set it to automatically remove deleted files from the search results. Clicking on a result takes you straight to the file (or email, or whatever). Or you can click and use the same search terms on the web just like you normally would with Google.

Oh, and it works with Windows and Mac as well as Linux.
Google Calendar

I used to use Thunderbird and Evolution, and I still use Outlook at my job. But, if I could, I’d even ditch Outlook for Google Calendar and Gmail. Unfortunately, when I’m not a graduate student, I work for a major world bank and they have some strict rules about what applications get used how.

But, for all my non-work needs, definitely all of my academic needs, I use Google’s Calendar. I can save appointments, meetings, input my recurring class schedules, and sync it all with my desktop and many other devices. I still occasionally use Thunderbird to monitor a couple of non-Gmail pop addresses I have (like cfeagans AT ahotcupofjoe DOT net) and I can sync all my Google Calendar entries back and forth. I can also sync my Google Calendar with my Nokia e71, my Nokia tablet, my netbook, my wife’s laptop, and I can access it from just about any computer with internet access (except my work machine, which is hobbled by a very careful IT department).

Google Voice

Every student needs their digits. For voice calls to that special someone, SMS text messaging to that special someone else, ordering pizza, ringing up a parent for more textbook money (you bought the pizza, remember?), and so on.

But with all the new trends in cool cell phone tech that keeps coming out, who wants to be trapped to a single carrier? AT&T is the only place to get that iPhone but T-Mobile and Verizon do a better job with the Blackberry… Then there will be those times when the pizza and textbook money get stretched thin and you’re forced to go with a prepaid phone (but you tell yourself it’s still cool ’cause Jason Bourne used it). So how do you manage all the phone numbers?

With Google Voice, that’s how. I have a single phone number that I give out. That phone forwards to any and all of my other phones (work, home, whatever cell phone I happen to be on) either at the same time or at times I specify. I have an outgoing message on Google Voice and if I don’t pick up at one of the three phones that ring simultaneously, the caller can leave a message. Google Voice then transcodes the message from voice into text and emails it to me. I can then surreptitiously read the message on the Blackberry or Nokia that quietly vibrated in my pocket while in class and know right away that my wife wants me to pick up Chinese on the way home. Pei Wei here I come.

And you can send SMS messages from Google Voice as well. And dial the phone from your desktop or laptop. Who needs a land line? Give me DSL and WiFi and unplug it. Oh, and when you forgot to pay that silly student loan one month (or put it off to get the car fixed), you can put their automated calls on the blocked caller list. You can do the same with that ex-boyfriend who keeps bugging you for a second chance. Another cool feature is “Add a Note” to any call in your history. Very handy for making personal notes about the message or SMS conversation so you can go back and read some of the details or important information.

This is a phone number that you can keep forever (or so it seems so far).

Google Reader

One of my favorite Google Apps. I’ve tried other RSS readers out there, but this is hands-down the best, most useful. You can get to your Reader app just about where ever you can get Google. Even my work’s IT hasn’t restricted it yet (shhh…).

If you’ve never used an RSS Reader here’s what it does: nearly every blog and most other sites have RSS feeds. These are typically XML files that change over time as the content is updated. My blog has a feed, which you can click on in the sidebar. Unless you have a browser configured with a feed-reader, it’ll usually come up as a continuous block of very hard to read text, links and images. But, with a feed-reader, you can sort and manage these feeds in a very orderly, library like fashion. You can get news feeds like CNN and Google’s Top Headlines. You can get feeds for your favorite blogs (like mine, hopefully) and keep up with many blogs in a single, easy to manage space. And with Google Reader, you won’t have to worry about whether or not you’re on a particular machine or laptop. You can get it from any internet capable computer.

There are a lot of cool features in Google Reader, but the three that stand out for me are

  1. Starred Items – reader has the ability to star items as you browse (I like to do this when I see something I want to revisit or perhaps blog about) -you can click on “Starred Items” and see all of them in one spot;
  2. Shared Items: these are items you “share” among others who can see your Google profile; and
  3. Notes -here you can read notes you made about a particular feed entry. These notes are shareable as well and collected in one spot the way starred entries are.

There are a lot of other features that make Reader a useful and powerful tool too: tags, “like this,” nesting feeds in collapsible folders, sorting options for feeds, etc.

That’s it for part II of the (so far) two part series on Google for the Anthropology Student!

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Google for the Anthropology Student (Part I?)

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

I’m a big fan of Google. I know a lot of people tend to get a little paranoid about big corporations like Google, Microsoft, Intel, etc. getting their fingers in everything, but so far everything that Google gets into is practically free to the average user. And, for the anthropology student, free can mean the difference between that $100 textbook and, perhaps more important, a week’s worth of Pizza. You don’t need to be an Anthro student to benefit from these tips, though.


Okay, Gmail is the core of it all. If you have a Gmail account, the rest falls into place. If you don’t have one, start by going to and click the “Create Account” button on the lower-right. This is a must if you want to take full advantage of what Google has to offer and the tips that follow.

Gmail is a very powerful and flexible mail application, giving you access to POP and IMAP. This is useful if you use a mail application like Outlook, Evolution, Thunderbird, Claws, etc. Running an email application like Thunderbird can allow you to access your Gmail and other mail services without having to log into them directly but synchronizing your mail with your desktop application. I prefer Thunderbird and Evolution on Linux and Outlook on Windows, but mostly I just use the Gmail cloud application. “Cloud” because it doesn’t reside on your desktop but in “the cloud” of the Internet (as it were).

Within Gmail, there are many features you can take advantage of such as assigning labels which can act as folders or tags. There are many useful widgets that you can install that enhance the Gmail experience, but I’ll just mention three: Calendar, Chat, and Docs. These each put the Google applications of the same name in your Gmail inbox, making access and viewing information convenient and quick. I’ve only mentioned the barest surface strata of the many layers of features available for Gmail, but let me just add that Gmail’s spam filter is simply the best you’ll ever find.


So you’ve got that term paper to write. 30 pages? Double-spaced? Hanging indents on the references? No problem. Working from multiple computers and keep losing your USB drive? No problem.

At, you can upload MS Word, Power Point, and Excel documents as well as Open Office, PDF and RTF documents. Once uploaded to the Google Documents servers, you can access them anywhere and edit them anywhere as long as you can access Google. Not only will you be able to access them from any Internet connected computer, but you can share documents with collaborators or friends. I’ve uploaded PDF files of journal articles to share with colleagues in order to get their comment or opinion. You can choose who sees the documents and they are quite secure. You can even email documents to your docs space by copy/pasting a rather long email provided by Google, a service that’s handy if you already have a document in your inbox.


You’ve got the great idea for the term paper. Perhaps an outline and an abstract or an introduction… but now that writer’s block has set in. You need more information and the library is closed. You have access to your university’s online databases. How do you find the relevant journal articles? The answer is Google Scholar. As a search application, it’s in Beta testing, but the functionality is solid. You can search diverse set of sources to get citations, abstracts, books and full papers and even see the number of times an article or source has been cited. If you click this link to the search results for “forensic DNA,” you’ll see an example of the results I described.


You say you need some books for your paper? Maybe you have a book, but you want to search for specific keywords within it. If you clicked the link in the preceding paragraph, you should have noticed a link that began with “[book]” which takes you to Google Books about the third link down (though this might have changed by the time you read this). By clicking that link, you might go to this book where you can see the forward, table of contents, introduction and many of the pages of many if not all of the chapters. You can catch the page that carries all the citation information (date/place of publication, title, author, ISBN, etc.). In addition -and this is what’s really cool- you can search the book for keywords. Try this, go to the book link above, find the search box on the left side-bar, and insert “fluorescent dye” without the inverted commas. Then you’ll see the results.

If the page is available for preview, you can click on it and read the surrounding text for good context (no excuses for quote-mining here). If the page is not available for preview, Google Books will still show you what page the term(s) appear on and a portion of the sentence it resides in. You might ask, “meh, what good is it if you don’t have the full page text?” Remember when I said you can search books you own? I’ve used Google Books on several occasions to help me search books I have sitting in my lap. The index might show 7 or 8 results for “fluorescent dye,” but Google Books returns 41. See the value now? You can use Google Books find specific phrases or words that the author didn’t even index. It’ll give you the page number even if the page isn’t part of the preview and you can turn to it in the physical book!

Oh, and you can collect books in a “library” of sorts. Just click the link “add to my library” and, when you’re ready, click the “My Library” link at the top of the page. Just to give you an idea of the books available in preview and the extent of the previews, take a look at my own library. It’s heavily skewed to physical anthropology with a smattering of cultural anth here and there. Feel free to read. They’re your books too!

There are still several Google apps and services that could benefit the anthropology student (or any student, for that matter), so perhaps I should do another part, covering Calendar, Chat, Blogger, Reader, and others to show how they can benefit the anthro-student. If you’d like to see me cover more or if you’d like to start a discussion on Google apps, comment below. Feel free to share your own tips and suggestions.

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Sacrifice and the Anthropology of Religion

Aztec human sacrifice, from Codex Mendoza, 16t...
Image via Wikipedia

Mention the word “sacrifice” in a religious context and, for many people, thoughts of young virgins tossed in volcanoes by a Polynesian King or lying on altars below the obscenely sharp obsidian blade of an Aztec ruler. Or perhaps they’re reminded of the story of blind faith by Abraham who was prepared to murder his son for a god that commanded it.

While human sacrifice is a part of many cultures in antiquity and even, in some unfortunate instances, modernity, this type of sacrifice is relatively rare. There are those that take a Girardian view of ritual and sacrifice and assert that sacrifice is a form of victimizing or scapegoating an individual. The Girardian will often point to the self-sacrifice of Jesus as an example of a god on earth exposing the “scapegoating mechanism.” One of the many faults with this way of looking at sacrifice and other religious rituals is that to do so, one must assume that the intent is to victimize -to create a scapegoat.

While it is certainly true that human sacrifices are victims, it is a very myopic view to assert that they’re all scapegoats (certainly some or even many were), and it isn’t true that, in most cases, the intent of sacrifice is to create a victim.

Sacrifice is a perceived method of communicating with gods or ancestors and is a process that has existed for thousands of years in human history and prehistory. We have evidence of it going back to the time of Neanderthals depending on what you consider to be sacrifice.

For the anthropologist, a sacrifice is a special kind of offering. A mere offering to the gods by the average religious adherent deprives the worshiper of little. A libation of oil here; a tithe of coin there… But a true sacrifice creates a significant cost to the worshiper. In antiquity, we see evidence in both written and material record of sacrifices that truly put the worshiper (the religious adherent) in a situation where piety becomes more important that personal gain, wealth or even well-being. The sacrifice demonstrates that piety with the level of piety directly proportional to the level of sacrifice.

The vast majority of sacrifices in the archaeological record do not involve the taking of human life . Rather they include the offering of first fruits, first lambs, finest bulls or the best ox, significant portions of one’s wealth, etc. The worshiper hopes that the god to whom he is offering a sacrifice will reciprocate, bringing good fortune in the way of rain, keeping the locusts away, etc. The worshiper shows respect to the god or an ancestor in the way he might to a king: there might be a desire that the god would offer forgiveness or perhaps expiation for some transgression.. In this regard, forgiveness is a more abstract concept than simple reciprocity. The worshiper may also seek to show abnegation by demonstrating to the god that he is practicing self-denial and seeking the pity or favor of the god. Very often, the sacrifices come at a time when good-fortune has seemingly been bestowed upon the society in the form of a good harvest or success in battle.

Pascal Boyer (2001)[1] explores several reasons for sacrifice described by ethnographers like Roger Keesing (1982)[2] and notes that while sacrifices are “presented as giving away some resources in exchange for protection, the brutal fact remains that the sacrificed animals are generally consumed by the participants.” The result is a “communal sharing” and a social function that brings people of the community together. The meat is shared and those who can’t afford to provide an animal of their own often still benefit from the sacrifice, receiving meat and gifts.

Sacrifice is often about sharing resources and giving up that which is valuable and nearly indispensable. Even in cases where human sacrifice was practiced. The Girardian would suggest that the sacrificed individual was victimized as a scapegoat, but very often the sacrifice went willing and probably believed the offering of life to be an honor. Even with instances of sacrifice where consent wasn’t possible, as with infant and child sacrifices found in various places of the ancient world such as Peru’s central coast as early as 5000 BCE, the Levant from around 3000 BCE, and Carthage, Tunisia dating to around 800 BCE, the sacrificial “victim” was honored. Great care was taken in Peru, for instance, to place mica over the eyes and a clear quartz rock in place of the heart suggesting magical intent. One doesn’t bother to take such expensive and detailed care of scapegoats.

Human sacrifice, even among the Aztec, doesn’t seem to be about scapegoating or victimizing. A recent excavation at Teotihuacan[3] revealed more than 80 human sacrifices that some have suggested were prisoners of war, perhaps sacrificed to dedicate the temple they were excavated from. But, even here, there has been indication that the “victims” were willing and honored participants, largely due to the positioning of the bodies as well as their adornments. These were among the finest and most skilled warriors of the society at the time.

From the point of view of the sacrificers in cultures like the Aztec, the gods are being repaid a debt. The Girardian would suggest, however, that those sacrificed are the unwanted of society -the expendable. The Girardian would also suggest that human sacrifice is the same as the sacrifice of animals and material goods[4]. But the Girardian misses the point of sacrifice in much of religion. There are undoubtedly religious cults throughout human history that have exploited the “disposable” members of their society for the appearance of pious sacrifices to gods or ancestors. But there are many, many more that place high importance on true sacrifice being that which is vital or most valued to the individual and the society: prize bulls, intricately carved jewelry, ornately plumed birds, fiercest predators, first-picked crops, etc. And, when it came to humans, skilled warriors and virgins were highly valued, thus offered as payment to the gods.

Edit: I just noticed that there’s another post in this week’s Four Stone Hearth that compliments this one quite well. Or, perhaps, I compliment his… Anyway, I highly recommend: Chahokia: Human Sacrifice on the Mississippi, which describes the practice of mass sacrifice by the Mississippian Culture dating to ca. 1150 CE. The blog is Running ‘Cause I Can’t Fly and here’s an excerpt:

As for the female sacrifices, Pauketat said important women may have been chosen because of their status. “These female sacrifices might not have been of unimportant people. This may have been a very honored role to fill. It may have been people who were impersonating some kind of corn goddess,” he said, “And their duty was to die.”

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References and Notes:
  1. Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books []
  2. Keesing, Roger (1982). Kwaio Religion: the Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society. Columbia University Press []
  3. Sugiyama, Saburo (2005). Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge University Press, pp. 226-230. []
  4. Examples of both of these Girardian positions can be seen in Rene Girard‘s Violence and the Sacred, pp. 10-13, J.H. Press 1993 []

Anthropology of Religion

Sacrifice scene, with kalos inscription. Detai...
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t often post on religious topics on this blog. At least not topics related to modern religion like Christianity. I’m more interested in ancient religion and expression of religion and belief in the material record of antiquity than modern squabbles about “belief in God,” etc.

But I took the time to listen to a podcast titled, “anthropology of religion” hosted by the Minnesota Atheists. It was an audio version of their public access television show I believe. Featured were two theologians discussing the anthropology of religion. Or so they thought. I actually took the time to leave a post on the podcast episode’s blog and I thought I’d share it here:


I listened with some fascination and a bit of dismay to the podcast interviewing Chester O’Gorman and Grant Steves. I was particularly shocked at the limited point of view O’Gorman applied to the subject of the anthropology of religion. Clearly his is a position of “theology” and not of science, so I kept telling myself to be patient and forgiving. But I’d still like to post a comment regarding some of his statements.

O’Gorman seems fixated with “victimization” and “scapegoating” in ritual and religious expression. While I’m familiar with the works of René Girard, I’m definitely not an expert. And, while I recognize that O’Gorman is channeling Girard, nearly verbatim in certain instances, I’ll confine my criticism to O’Gorman and not Girard.

O’Gorman’s admittance that his definitions of ritual and myth are “narrow” are one of the few statements I found agreeable. He says that ritual is the means of reenacting the process of victimization and that sacrifice must include a victim. Indeed, his exact words are, “there has always been a sacrifice at the center of ritual.” This is, of course, an absurd statement. There are many rituals that do not include sacrifices: marriage, baptism, the sweat lodge, the visionquest, pipe ceremonies, funerals, feasts, potlach, etc. In some of these, one can make some very abstract connections to sacrifices, but these are hardly the types of sacrifices that O’Gorman is referring to. And each of these rituals existed either long before or in complete ignorance of Christianity, so his remark that “we have them now” (rituals without sacrifice), doesn’t follow.

Sacrifice *can* be seen as including a victim, but it’s more accurately described as showing a degree of piety or dedication by offering personal wealth or otherwise valuable possessions for divine consumption. Wealthy Greeks sacrificed oxen in the Bronze Age by bringing their best stock to the temple and delivering to the priests within the tenemos of the temple where it was butchered and fed to the populace. In this manner, wealth was redistributed (with the priestly class getting the best cuts). This ensured the society as a whole benefited. The remaining bits of meat and skin were burnt on an altar, the gods getting their share via the smoke.

This is quite different from the type of sacrifice O’Gorman was alluding to when he states “things have evolved away from human sacrifice.” Here he seems to be implying that Christian religious doctrines have done away with the violence associated with sacrifice, leaving only the sometimes graphic and violent reenactments of an alleged messiah being sacrificed on a wooden cross. Christians the world over keep such iconography close to them in the form of little crosses on chains, which they periodically raise to kiss, or by mimicking a cross with a hand gesture.

Human sacrifice is actually very rare in the archaeological record and never more prevalent than within the histories of Christianity. O’Gorman says, “it’s only through Christian influence that ritual takes on a new connotation where sacrifice no longer happens.” O’Gorman should either give back his degree or demand a refund of his tuition! While Precolumbian Mesoamericans practiced human sacrifice, we cannot overlook the fact that this practice was halted primarily by Christian invaders who slaughtered these “savages.” While Maya, Incan, Aztec and a few other cultures stand out as including various human and animal sacrifices, their actions pale when compared to early and even modern Christians who burned heretics and witches during the inquisition, poured Kool-Aid for parishioners at Jonestown, ignited themselves at Waco, and took their shoes off for a never ending nap at Heaven’s Gate.

Most other religions, both extant and extinct, show evidence of many, many rituals that exist without any sort of sacrifice except, perhaps, that of time and effort. One of the most significant ritual exercises present in religions the world over is ritual prayer and incantation. While there are sacrifices associated with some (offerings of food, wine, anointments of oil, etc.), the vast majority show no evidence of sacrifice. And to suggest that the symbolism of sacrifice found in the myth of Jesus isn’t technically a sacrifice because a victim isn’t being exploited begs the question since it assumes that the mythos presented in the gospels are both accurate testaments as well as representations of actual events, all regardless of whether Jesus actually existed.

As a graduate student of anthropology whose focus is on the archaeological remains of cult and religious belief in antiquity, I’d have to say I disagree with O’Gorman at nearly every turn of his conversation. Clearly his main focus is “theology.” I suspect he’s genuine in his desire to align his studies with an anthropological perspective, but I also suspect this is tainted by the conclusions one must necessarily begin with when taking on the title “theologian.” Anthropologists are scientists. Scientists do not begin with conclusions to which they seek only data which fit, rather they observe data and arrive at conclusions.

O’Gorman is no anthropologist.

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The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Reviewing an Ethnography

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword

I recently had the pleasure of reading Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an ethnography done in an experimental style just at the end of World War II in 1946. Benedict studied anthropology under Franz Boas and was the friend (and lover, I believe) of Margaret Mead. There’s plenty I could go one to say about Benedict, but I wanted to share my reflections of her book, Chrysanthemum, as well as an article written by anthropologist Sonia Ryang, Chrysanthemum’s Strange Life: Ruth Benedict in Postwar Japan, which is critical of Benedict. I’ll also briefly discuss an essay written by Barbara Babcock, which is appears as a book chapter in Women Writing Culture (1996), titled Not in the “Absolute Singular: Rereading Ruth Benedict”.

I’ve listed each of these at the bottom of this post for those interested.

Each of the readings dealt in some way on the nature of experimental ethnography. Benedict necessarily made use of it, perhaps due in part to her deafness, but primarily because the culture she was tasked with examining was an enemy state at the time she began collecting and analyzing data. She presented her conclusions in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in a narrative well-suited for popular audiences and drew both criticisms and praises for her efforts, which seems, ironically, to parallel her characterization of “but also’s” mentioned on the book’s very first page.

According to Benedict, the Japanese were variously described as “unprecedentedly polite, but also insolent and overbearing.” They were “incomparably rigid in their behavior,” but also willing to adapt to new innovations. According to Ryang, Benedict’s Chrysanthemum was variously reviewed as admirable but also propaganda; “anthropologically valid” but also without “academic value.”

During my reading of Chrysanthemum, I found myself thinking skeptically of Benedict’s methods. How was she able to make the various conclusions she did based on documentary and literary materials and personal interviews of informants removed from the culture? Where these perceptions skewed by an occidental lens of examination and did Benedict rely, consciously or unconsciously, on data that supported her expectations, assigning other data to mere anomaly or ignoring it altogether? As an archaeologist, I tend to take a very empirical and positivist approach to data. Still, the experimental nature of Benedict’s approach to ethnography appealed to me and I found her narrative compelling.

While not entirely abandoning my skepticism, I eventually found myself siding with Benedict’s point of view, trusting her perspective and insight. I read Chrysanthemum with an intent to keep in mind the context of the its contemporary issues: the end of a brutal war with an enemy hated by many Americans; the understanding that Japan was, at that time, a surrendered nation -defeated by an enemy it swore to fight to the bitter end; and the reality that the Japanese people would need to rebuild and press on in a post-war world. I considered that Benedict wasn’t merely a disinterested and objective observer, but that she could also have been propagandizing a case for an Americanized or westernized post-war Japan. I also considered that Benedict was romanticizing Japanese culture, as there was no shortage of entertaining and interesting anecdotes, which related to some aspect of wartime Japan that was otherwise mysterious, alien, or otherwise unexplainable under western or occidental terms.

In spite of my natural skepticism, I couldn’t, however, see Ryang’s point of view with regard to Chrysanthemum. To me, Benedict was making an attempt to understand the beliefs, values, and culture of a nation that differs drastically from her own. To do this, she focused, in my mind, appropriately on gender, class and childhood rearing. As example, this passage seems to illustrate her intent:

The arc of life in Japan is plotted in opposite fashion to that in the United States. It is a great shallow U-curve with maximum freedom and indulgence allowed to babies and to the old. Restrictions are slowly increased after babyhood till having one’s own way reaches a low just before and after marriage. This low line continues many years during the prime of life, but the arc gradually ascends again until after the age of sixty men and women are almost as unhampered by shame as little children are. In the United States we stand this curve upside down. Firm disciplines are directed toward the infant and these are gradually relaxed as the child grows in strength until a man runs his own life when he gets a self-supporting job and when he sets up a household of his own. The prime of life is with us the high point of freedom and initiative. Restrictions begin to appear as men lose their grip or their energy or become dependent. It is difficult for Americans even to fantasy a life arranged according to the Japaneses pattern. It seems to us to fly in the face of reality.

Do you see both points of view?
Do you see both points of view?

Benedict acknowledges the differences between American and Japanese cultures with regard to child rearing, and, seemingly without judgment of which is better or worse, remarks on the difficulty Americans would have even imagining life as a Japanese. Perhaps a passage like the one above can be viewed in much the same way as the illusion of the vase which can also appear as two people facing one-another depending on the mental perspective of the observer.

Ryang certainly seems to see an aspect of the image Benedict illustrates that I do not since she notes at the outset of her paper and again later that her chief criticism is Benedict’s failure to acknowledge “Japan’s colonial and imperial history before 1945.” Had Benedict taken this approach, surely Chrysanthemum would have been a very different book: perhaps more history of a nation and less an ethnography of a culture. Ryang was also critical of Benedict for not discussing Japan’s need to acknowledge its former colonies or even pay them reparations. Again, such an economic or political discourse would seem outside the scope of what Benedict seemed interested in accomplishing. Moreover, one wonders what amount of insight, expertise, or understanding of Asiatic politics would have allowed Benedict to effectively or accurately comment on such matters when one considers Chrysanthemum published just a few scant months following the war’s end.

Babcock presents to the reader, through her work “Not in the Absolute Singular: Rereading Ruth Benedict” (written several years prior to Ryang’s), quite a different picture from Ryang of Benedict. Instead of the propagandizing member of a victorious nation, Babcock describes a Benedict that accepted Franz Boas’s emphasis on empiricism and scientific method in anthropology but also willing to apply a certain measure of abstraction to her data in order to make her ethnographies more palatable to the reader.

Throughout Chrysanthemum, Benedict cites Japanese literature and stories, often including passages to which she offers her own commentary to tie the work in with her conclusions. The stories, along with her distinctive literary style, serve to bring the narrative to life, give it interest, and present an ethnography in a way that it becomes accessible to the average reader and not just the academic. An example of Benedict’s use of Japanese literature is her retelling of the children’s story about Hachi, the cute dog.

Hachi is a cute dog. As soon as he was born he was taken away by a stranger and was loved like a child of the house. For that reason, even his weak body became healthy and when his master went to his work every morning, he would accompany him (master) to the street car station and in the evening around the time when he (master) came home, he went again up to the station to meet him.
In due time, the master passed away. Hachi, whether he knew of this or not, kept looking for his master every day. Going to the usual station he would look to see if his master was in the crowd of people who came out whenever the street car arrived.
In this way days and months passed by. One year passed, two years passed, three years passed, even when ten years had passed, the aged Hachi’s figure can be seen every day in front of the station, still looking for his master.

Benedict uses this story to document both the nature of on, which she refers to as a type of debt or obligation and to also point out that from the time they are children, Japanese are taught their places in the hierarchies of family and society. And it allows her to introduce the concept, as she saw it, of the Japanese obligation to the Emperor.

On is always used in this sense of limitless devotion when it is used of one’s first and greatest indebtedness, one’s ‘Imperial on.’ This is one’s debt to the Emperor, which one should receive with unfathomable gratitude.

This concept of on as a form of obligation or debt is a topic central to Benedict’s desire to demonstrate the hierarchical nature of Japanese society. Ryang comments on this point as she cites some of the sources she used, but, for me, it only served to provide an interesting question about on as a concept.

Folklorist Yanagita Kunio takes a similar line as Minami, although Yanagita is more detailed in counter-examples that are drawn from linguistic data. For example, Yanagita points out that the term on that plays a central part in Benedict’s understanding of hierarchical human relations in Japan is in fact not part of daily language in today’s Japan; the term originated in China. Yanagita suggests that Benedict misunderstood the term on used in state-engineered propaganda as a term used by ordinary people, another point that had already been made by Tsurumi, Kawashima, and Minami. He attributes the cause of Benedict’s misunderstanding to the false self-representation that the Japanese state disseminated to the world through prewar and wartime propaganda.

The questions Ryang’s point gives rise to is what then, truly becomes the significance of on? If the Japanese government borrowed this from China, when and why was it done? Was this accepted by the Japanese citizenry? If we accept that the cause is changed, is the effect still the same?

Other questions that came to mind during these readings had to do with empirical results and positivist approaches to obtaining data. I found that Babcock’s essay reinforced my trust in the information Benedict was providing through her ethnography. This was due mainly to the understanding of how she came to be an anthropologist studying under Franz Boas. I still found, however, that I wanted to know more about the data. What documents did Benedict use to gather information from? What data did she discard, ignore, or find to not useful in her research? What informants did she rely on? What were their backgrounds and qualifications as informants? What biases did the informants have?


Babcock, Barbara (1996). “Not in the Absolute Singular.” In Behar and Gordon (eds.) Women Writing Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Benedict, Ruth (1946). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflen.

Ryang, Sonia (2002). Chrysanthemum’s Strange Life: Ruth Benedict in Postwar Japan. Asian Anthropology. 1(1): 87-116

Religion and the Imagination – Cue a John Lennon Song


According to an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, the very process that John Lennon suggested we use to put religion and other human institutions out our minds might very well be the reason we have religion to begin with.

Imagination, says Maurice Bloch [New Scientist], is what sets humans apart from other animal species. Unlike even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, humans have the unique ability to imagine things that do not exist.

It seems like common sense when you think about it: art, theater, cinema, music, and language it self are each derived from the human imagination. The suggestion that religion is a product of human imagination isn’t necessarily a new one. Modern popularizers of the atheist movement have suggested as links to religion and imagination, though perhaps not as explicit as Bloch.

Daniel Dennett, in Breaking The Spell, tells us that language makes it possible for us to, “remind ourselves of things not currently present to our senses, to dwell on topics that would otherwise be elusive” as we consider our ancestors or other absent and dead people. This is what Bloch refers to as the “transcendental social,” comprised of a group with members one may have never met (clan members, ancestors, gods, deities, etc.).

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, writes, “[c]onstructing models is something the human brain is very good at. When we are asleep it is called dreaming; when we are awake we call it imagination […]”

V.S. Rmachandran, a prominent neuroscientist, describes many ways in which the human brain uses imagination to cope with damage to cognitive abilities of the brain after traumas or injuries. He includes an entire chapter on a syndrome known as anasognosia in which patients who suffer from strokes or brain injuries that result in paralysis of a limb construct elaborate and imaginative denials of their paralysis to the point that they actually believe an otherwise paralyzed arm is perfectly normal and sometimes even stronger than the non-paralyzed arm!

Perhaps the same neurological and cognitive functions that inspired the pages of Rama’s Phantoms in the Brain are related to the neural architecture Bloch believes was developed in humans some 40-50,000 years ago. This is the period of the Upper Palaeological Revolution in which lithic technologies and art “suddenly exploded in sophistication” and where funerary artifacts, rock and cave paintings begin, and stone tools take on new styles that allow for more advanced and diverse uses.

In my studies of the Neanderthal to human switch in Europe, where the dominant species of residence changed from Neanderthals to humans, I’ve often considered that it may have been the willingness of humans to believe and imagine which gave them a competitive edge over Neanderthals. If Neanderthals had a diminished capacity to utilize their imaginations, they would have been less likely to develop or adapt to changing climates or environments. They would have been less likely to migrate and spread out except to put space between rival clans or groups. Humans, on the other hand, are naturally curious and imagine every sort of possibility, giving rise to in-groups and out-groups and a natural drive to explore and migrate, perhaps seeking “the good life” in the next valley, and quickly adapting to conditions ranging from desert to arctic using their imaginaitions.

Given that humanity has had thousands of gods and religions in recorded history alone, it isn’t hard at all to imagine that they are each the result of, well, imagination.

Books mentioned:

Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam.

Dennett, D. C. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Viking.

Ramachandran, V., and Sandra Blakeslee, (1998). Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York: Morrow