BOOK REVIEW: Social and Cultural Anthropology [VSI] by John Monaghan & Peter Just

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short IntroductionSocial and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction by John Monaghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

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This was one of the most interesting “Very Short Introduction” books — of the many titles in the series that I’ve read. The authors use stories and examples to convey the basics of the subject in way that’s not mind-numbingly dry (i.e. the scholarly norm) – in fact, there’s a fair amount of humor laced throughout the book.

Most of the examples come from the two tribes that these two authors study – i.e. one in Mexico and the other in Indonesia. However, those two groups provide a rich arena of interesting anecdotes, and the authors do use social groups outside their research focus when necessary.

In addition to learning about the nature of ethnographic fieldwork and what anthropologists do, there’s an exploration of culture, the various ways in which people are socially organized (i.e. kinship, castes, societies, etc.,) and how different societies view religious belief, economic activity, and selfhood.

If you’re starting from zero and are seeking an introduction to anthropology, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar

Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

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Culture is a deep and fascinating topic, but a dirty little secret of academia is that there are two words used to signal subjects and courses for the not-so-bright kids: one is “Studies” and the other is “for.” (As in “Math FOR Economists,” a course that I once took that was – I’m sure of it – greatly dumbed down from what Math majors learned. “Economics FOR Business Majors” is a more widely known example; it’s Economics for people who are afraid of equations and who can’t figure out which way is up on a supply and demand curve.) So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guide to “Cultural Studies,” as opposed to a book about, say, Cultural Anthropology, which I believe is the big-boy pants version of the discipline under discussion.

The author is forthright that cultural studies is a bit amorphous and that it struggles to find its place amid the established disciplines that touch upon culture from varying perspectives (i.e. psychology, philosophy, anthropology, etc.) The book begins before there was a “Cultural Studies,” per se, discussing competing definitions of culture and related precursor disciplines, e.g. semiotics. It then describes the evolution of the subject and its varied points of focus and ideas across its major epicenters: Europe, North America, Australia, and South Asia. It investigates colonization and its influence on indigenous cultures, and it looks at how a range of concepts intersect with culture, including: science, technology, race, gender, sexuality, and media. It concludes by reflecting on globalization and the discontents who wish to end or replace this homogenizing force.

I did learn quite a few new things from this book, and if you’re looking to understand culture as a landscape of academic study, it’s worth having a look at it.

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Bad Anthropologist [Free Verse]

Today, I read about an anthropologist
who was living among an isolated tribe, 
[as anthropologists tend to do]
a tribe who believed that twins
weren't really people,
and that twin babies 
should be left to die 
of neglect. 

This anthropologist, 
like all good anthropologists,
was trained to respect 
indigenous beliefs and 
to not go mucking around
and breaking the "Prime Directive"
[well, that term is from Star Trek,
but good anthropologists have similar
directives -- or, at least, proclivities --
i.e. to be objective,
and - to the degree one can't be -
to recognize one's biases and try to 
note the role they might play.] 

This anthropologist was doing a
grand job of being an anthropologist,
until a woman in the tribe had twins...

BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Everyday Life in Imperial Japan by Charles Dunn

EverydayLifeImperialJapanEveryday Life In Imperial Japan by Charles J. Dunn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This interesting little book is invaluable for anyone researching what life was like for people in Japan before the Meiji Restoration. While it’s an essential volume for a writer of historical fiction, those interested in Japan more generally will find it readable and packed with interesting tidbits of information. For example, I would recommend it for those who study traditional Japanese martial arts (i.e. kobudō)to get a better insight into the art they study through knowing the society from which it sprang.

This type of work is relatively rare, but is a writer’s dream come true. It’s not a history book, but–as the title implies–tells one how people of various classes and occupations lived day in and day out. That is, its approach is more anthropological than historical.

The range of occupations in Japan’s pre-modern period were far fewer than in society as we know it, and so the book takes broad job classes as its primary unit of organization. It begins with the group that undoubtedly draws the most interest, the samurai. It proceeds to the occupation which is most numerous in any pre-modern society, the farmers. Beyond that, it covers the lives of skilled craftsmen, merchants, courtiers, priests, doctors, intellectuals, actors and outcasts. The concluding chapter looks specifically at life in the city, and–in particular–life in Edo. Edo is the city that would become known as Tokyō, and which became the capital of the Shogunate in 1603 and eventually the nation’s capital.

Japan’s relative isolation throughout its early history has made for many intriguing national peculiarities. It’s true that Japan’s literary, religious, and philosophical systems were greatly influenced by China, but–in all cases–these cultural elements were forged into a uniquely Japanese form. This uniqueness provides many “ah-ha” moments while reading.

One learns why warriors were required to wear extra long hakama (a very billowy form of pleated pants that look like a long skirt–though having individual pant legs.)One learns about how one got around on the early highway system in a time when infrastructure (e.g. bridges) were minimal, and who was allowed to use the roads–such as the famous Tōkaidō road. The book tells how police went about arresting armed samurai. The roles played by women in society are discussed. While this was obviously a patriarchal society, women weren’t locked entirely outside the domain of power.

This was a feudal society with the samurai owning the land and the farmers toiling in hopes of having a little left over to support their families. While farmers made silk, they were, by law, not allowed to wear it. Farmers sometimes resorted to selling daughters to brothels to make ends meet.

There were many types of craftsmen from saké brewers to carpenters to makers of lacquer-wares. Japan has a long history of appreciation for master craftsmanship as is most apparent in sword-making. The Japanese sword was the cutting weapon perfected. Its folded steel design offered a flexible spine with a hard edge that could be honed to razor sharpness.

Merchants were a class that was both looked down upon and increasingly powerful during this period. Samurai were often barely making a living then, but merchants were beginning to flourish. Japan’s first indigenous money wasn’t introduced until 1636. Prior to that Chinese coins were used, much in the same way that some present-day countries use US dollars for currency–thus avoiding inflation that would be inevitable if they had their own currency and governance. There is an extensive discussion of the early sea trade.

Some of the most interesting careers were those more peripheral. Doctors practiced something akin to Traditional Chinese Medicine. There were wandering street performers and holy men of a wide variety.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in Japan’s history, and would call it indispensable for a writer addressing pre-Meiji Restoration Japan.

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