Saturday, December 5, 2009

Anthropology Matters: "Fieldwork Support"

I am breaking the radio silence to announce that the latest issue of Anthropology Matters is now online - my last issue as editor.

Anthropology Matters Journal
Autumn 2009, Vol 11(2)
ISSN 1758-6453

The latest issue of the Anthropology Matters Journal features an opening piece by Amy Pollard, which presents the results of her interviews with 16 PhD students concerning difficulties encountered during their fieldwork. The piece is both powerful and provocative, and will hopefully serve as an aid for thoughtful discussions in pre-fieldwork courses, post-fieldwork seminars, and departmental planning meetings. Anthropology Matters invited four academics – Christine Barry, Sara Delamont, David Mills, and Judith Okely – to start the discussion by writing brief responses to Pollard’s account. The journal issue then presents two in-depth accounts of fieldwork, by Larissa Begley and Julie Soleil Archambault. Finally, the issue is rounded off with a piece that moves from PhD fieldwork to collaborative field research with undergraduates, written by Laura DeLuca and five of her undergraduate students.

Anthropology Matters is an open access journal. All articles are available free of charge at the Anthropology Matters website.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last post...

I have not been posting lately. With house moving and a baby on the way, the blog seems to hold less priority. I think this will be my last post (at least for a good while!) But I have enjoyed blogging over the past year or so - and here is one of my favourite PhD comics to round off the last post...

Latest issue of Anthropology Matters: "Fieldwork identities"

The latest issue of the journal I edit, Anthropology Matters, is now online:

Anthropology Matters Journal
Spring 2009, Vol 11 (1)
ISSN 1758-6453

The identities that are attributed to us and the roles we are placed in during fieldwork matter - to the people we study, to us, and to the research process. In this issue of Anthropology Matters, 11 authors reflect on fieldwork identities. Their reflections can be grouped loosely into three categories: reflections concerning perceived inequalities, differences or power relations, e.g. related to race or wealth; reflections concerning people's assumptions about the fieldworker based on the familiarity of his or her appearance, e.g. related to gender or age; and reflections concerning the negotiation that surrounds the role of "participant observer."

Anthropology Matters is an open access journal. All articles are available free of charge at the Anthropology Matters website.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adam and Eve: A mission feminist's take (mid-20th century)

Adam and Eve, c. 1550, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the past few decades many interesting feminist/gender studies of the story of Adam and Eve have appeared. Some of my favourites are Deborah Sawyer (God, gender and the Bible), Kim Parker ("Mirror, mirror on the wall, must we leave Eden, once and for all?"), Mieke Bal ("Sexuality, sin and sorrow"), and Christine Froula ("Rewriting Genesis").

While going through my archive notes and literature on "mission feminists" in Norway, however, I was surprised to find another interesting gendered take on the story. One female theological author in mid-twentieth-century Norway, Henny Dons, seems to have put forward a couple of evolving interpretations of Adam and Eve. Henny Dons was a prolific author but also an activist for greater gender equality within church and mission circles in Norway in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, she was fairly conservative in her views on theology and the Bible. These two positions led her to a seeming struggle as she attempted to understand Genesis 1-3.

First, in the 1928 book Bibelens kvinner (Women of the Bible), she posits that Eve was created as Adam's equal. However, she argues that Eve then bore greater responsibility for the fall than Adam, and therefore God's judgement of Eve included a certain "reduction" or "weakening" of her character ("karakterforringelse"), which was later inherited by all women. This especially applied to all women who lived under "the old covenant" - i.e. women who lived in the vast parts of the world that Henny Dons characterised as non-Christian. It explained why women, and especially non-Christian women in Henny Dons' view, were subjugated to men. This interpretation seems to indicate that gender inequality is in large part due to Eve's original sin and the resulting weaker character of women.

In the same book, however, Henny Dons underlines that Christ is in some sense a descendant of Eve, not Adam. Dons held that Christ was born of a virgin, Mary, and hence did not receive his humanity from a biological father, Joseph. The narrative of salvation that runs from the fall, in the Garden of Eden, to the crucifiction and resurrection of Christ, in the New Testament, is therefore not a narrative that can be traced through a line of men, e.g. Adam-Joseph-Christ. Rather, the narrative of salvation can be traced through a line of women leading to the divine, namely Eve-Mary-Christ.

These are interesting attempts to combine her conservative theology with her fight to increase the role, status and space of women within the church. In the late 1940s, however, Henny Dons seems to have found some of the inconsistencies in her first interpretation of Eve too problematic. She has now started putting forward a different type of interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. In her undated manuscript "Guds ord til kvinnen" ("God's word to women"), she posits that in the Garden of Eden, Eve acknowledged her sin when God confronted her, whereas Adam did not - instead he shifted the blame away from himself. In Henny Dons' view, Eve therefore becomes the carrier of the hope and promise of conversion, as opposed to Adam, who is aligned with the shifty tools of Satan. Based on this picture, Henny Dons suggests that gender inequality in the world is largely caused by the repetition of this same pattern: Satan works through men to subjugate women, hope, and conversion.

Lisbeth Mikaelsson, who has written an article on Henny Dons in which she outlines these and other aspects of her life and writings, notes that it is not clear whether Henny Dons dared to speak about and teach the latter and more radical interpretation of Adam and Eve, or whether it was reserved for her unpublished manuscript.

-- Mikaelsson, Lisbeth. 2002. “Kvinne, ta ansvar og ledelse i dine egne hender”: Historien om Henny Dons [“Woman, take responsibility and leadership in your own hands”: The story of Henny Dons]. Norsk Tidsskrift for Misjon 56(2), 107-37.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Anthropologists on birth and babies

Since becoming pregnant I have started paying more attention to a number of anthropologists who do research on women's bodies, birth, and parents' interaction with their babies.

The first anthropologist I read on this topic was Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, who writes about the symbolism of a "standard" birth procedure in a US hospital in the early 1990s. She maps out various associations tied to the wheelchair that greets a woman in labour at the door, the hospital gown, being hooked up to an electronic monitor, the IV drip, the bed, and the offer of pain medication before the woman requests it. As Davis-Floyd puts it: "all these convey to the laboring woman that she is dependent on the institution. She is also reminded in myriad ways of the potential defectiveness of her birthing machine," namely her own body. "Routine obstetric procedures cumulatively map the technocratic model of birth onto the birthing woman's perceptions of her labor experience" (452, 455). Yet Davis-Floyd points out that within this richly symbolic ritual, as in any ritual, there is also space for women to revise and add their own meanings to the space that they are surrounded by (e.g. viewing the wheelchair as unnecessary, viewing technology as a resource that they are free to utilize or ignore), and to occupy this space differently.

Other anthropologists whose work I have just become aware of are James McKenna, who runs the mother-baby sleep lab at Notre Dame University in the US, and Helen Ball, who runs the parent-infant sleep lab at Durham University in the UK. So much interesting research, there's never enough time to read it all...

--- Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. 2005. Gender and ritual: Giving birth the American way. In Gender in cross-cultural perspective, 4th edition, eds. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent, 449-461. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I have had time to get back into my research project again over the past few weeks. As always, however, when I spend weeks on end filtering through archival material and research notes, translating from the Norwegian sources, drawing out what I think might be relevant, filing it under different themes and sections, etc etc, I am inevitably reminded that this stage of the research process is pretty tedious... In hindsight I forget about the tedium, but when I'm in the middle of it, I have to keep convincing myself that it is worth going on and that it's part of something bigger and more enjoyable.
"It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily."
- Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Diary, London: Harcourt, 1953, on p. 25.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Eat my flesh and drink my blood

One of my first posts on here, about a year ago, was about writing and eating God. I was reminded of that post a few days ago in a Gospel of John study group that we are a part of this spring. We talked about a few verses in John (6:48-60):
[Jesus said,] “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.  
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
What was interesting about the discussion in our group was how strongly most of us reacted to this passage. Even though most people present were church members, and were used to taking part in the Eucharist, the bodily imagery that is used by the author of the Gospel of John still retains some shock value: eat flesh, drink blood. I must admit, though, that I think the shock is well-placed by the author, and that I'm happy he (?) does not fall back onto any facile resolution of it at the end of the passage; rather, he simply leaves the impenetrability.

This is the only text in the Gospel of John that could be said to pertain directly to the ritual of the Eucharist. In other words, the author of John may have given these words to Jesus in the text while thinking about how the Eucharist was already being practiced in the early Christian community of which the author was a part. And it intrigues me that his understanding of the Eucharist is so fleshly and material. He seems to have had a very robust idea of the importance of the bodily aspect of communal rituals - and the bodily aspect of people's ideas of God.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Women's space and housekeping (Marilynne Robinson)

A friend told me that Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson was "strange but beautiful", and she was right. I also found it much more disturbing than I had anticipated!

Housekeeping is about two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who grow up with their grandmother and then with their aunt, Sylvie. A lot of the book is about the house that they grow up in, how it is kept, and how it changes. While their grandmother is caring for them, the house is almost like a little fortress, well kept, clearly demarcated as a separate space from the outside world. There is a clear line between the house's private space and the outside, public space.

Then when their aunt Sylvie arrives, everything starts to change. Sylvie treats the outside world as if she has a right to make use of it. She naps on park benches, she jumps on trains to go for rides. She does not believe in maintaining a separation between inside and outside spaces. When it is dark outside in the evening, she lets it be dark inside, and the girls eat their dinner in darkness. When leaves fall outside, Sylvie lets leaves blow in and gather in the corners of the house, too. Furniture is moved outside and left in the orchard. The house is no longer a separate, private, domesticated, cozy space.

Since Sylvie does not keep her house "properly" - i.e. as a separate, domesticated space, the kind of space that a woman who knows her place ought to keep - she is regarded as crazy by the townspeople. And her two nieces, Ruth and Lucille, are forced to choose between the "proper" type of housekeeping, in which women know their place and create a domesticated environment for themselves (and are regarded as sane), and Sylvie's type of housekeeping, in which women are free to blend private and public spaces and make use of both as they please (and are regarded as crazy).

As the girls make their choice, the reader is forced to either support or reject it - and this is what disturbed me about the book. Because both options available seemed to be so sad. At first glance, conventional housekeeping seems the safer, happier option for the girls - but then the book touches on so many of the inhibiting aspects of conventional housekeeping. On the other hand, the act of breaking with conventional housekeeping seems to bring a lot of sadness too, as social norms and bonds are broken.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Embodying ritual - ritual as a wider life aesthetic (Simon Coleman and Peter Collins)

I have been thinking about how to describe women's religious rituals lately. Specifically I want to describe the all-female rituals, i.e. organized meetings, held by Christian women in Oslo, Norway, in the early twentieth century. They would come together to eat, listen to a devotion, hear news from "the mission field," pray, and talk. It seems to have been important to them that they managed to create this kind of semi-public all-female religious space.

I have been wondering, however, whether I can really describe their meetings as "rituals." I guess the short answer is that it depends on what I mean by "ritual." But I found a slightly longer and more useful answer recently when I came across an article by Simon Coleman and Peter Collins: "The 'plain' and the 'positive': Ritual, experience and aesthetics in Quakerism and Charismatic Christianity" (Journal of Contemporary Religion 15(3), 317-329, 2000). They discuss how religious meetings contribute to the "ritualization of life" (a phrase they borrow from Csordas, Language, Charisma and Creativity, 1997:74). The religious meeting should not just be seen as a ritual separate from everyday activity. Rather, it is part of a process of creating and embodying a wider life aesthetic that marks both the meeting itself and life beyond the meeting.

The aesthetic that Coleman and Collins describe includes both physical and ideological aspects, material as well as non-material elements. And indeed, the early-twentieth-century women I am studying would include all of these aspects in their own descriptions of their meetings too; the meeting minutes may mention what they had to eat, or how the room was decorated, or what kind of flowers were put on the tables, as well as the Bible reading, the prayer topics, and the theme of the devotion. The meetings were different from ordinary life, yet at the same time they were similar enough that the women could carry some of the aesthetic and "feel" of the meetings with them when they returned to their everyday spaces. The meaning of the ritual could be embodied outside of the ritual itself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lévi-Strauss on the possibility of unhitching

Since I missed posting something on Claude Lévi-Strauss's 100th birthday last year, I thought I would start the new year by posting my favourite Lévi-Strauss quote. It is the long and winding and wonderful last sentence of Tristes Tropiques:

"When the spectrum or rainbow of human cultures has finally sunk into the void created by our frenzy; as long as we continue to exist and there is a world, that tenuous arch linking us to the inaccessible will still remain, to show us the opposite course to that leading to enslavement; man may be unable to follow it, but its contemplation affords him the only privilege of which he can make himself worthy; that of arresting the process, of controlling the impulse which forces him to block up the cracks in the wall of necessity one by one and to complete his work at the same time as he shuts himself up within his prison; this is a privilege coveted by every society, whatever its beliefs, its political system or its level of civilization; a privilege to which it attaches its leisure, its pleasure, its peace of mind and its freedom; the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists - Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations! - in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat."