Matthew J. Salganik on Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age

In just the past several years, we have witnessed the birth and rapid spread of social media, mobile phones, and numerous other digital marvels. In addition to changing how we live, these tools enable us to collect and process data about human behavior on a scale never before imaginable, offering entirely new approaches to core questions about social behavior. Bit by Bit is the key to unlocking these powerful methods—a landmark book that will fundamentally change how the next generation of social scientists and data scientists explores the world around us. Matthew Salganik has provided an invaluable resource for social scientists who want to harness the research potential of big data and a must-read for data scientists interested in applying the lessons of social science to tomorrow’s technologies. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Bit by Bit.

Your book begins with a story about something that happened to you in graduate school. Can you talk a bit about that? How did that lead to the book?

That’s right. My dissertation research was about fads, something that social scientists have been studying for about as long as there have been social scientists. But because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I had access to an incredibly powerful tool that my predecessors didn’t: the Internet. For my dissertation, rather than doing an experiment in a laboratory on campus—as many of my predecessors might have—we built a website where people could listen to and download new music. This website allowed us to run an experiment that just wasn’t possible in the past. In my book, I talk more about the scientific findings from that experiment, but while it was happening there was a specific moment that changed me and that directly led to this book. One morning, when I came into my basement office, I discovered that overnight about 100 people from Brazil had participated in my experiment. To me, this was completely shocking. At that time, I had friends running traditional lab experiments, and I knew how hard they had to work to have even 10 people participate. However, with my online experiment, 100 people participated while I was sleeping. Doing your research while you are sleeping might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. Changes in technology—specifically the transition from the analog age to the digital age—mean that we can now collect and analyze social data in new ways. Bit by Bit is about doing social research in these new ways.

Who is this book for?

This book is for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interested in the hybrid of these two fields. I spend time with both social scientists and data scientists, and this book is my attempt to bring the ideas from the communities together in a way that avoids the jargon of either community.  

In your talks, I’ve heard that you compare data science to a urinal.  What’s that about?

Well, I compare data science to a very specific, very special urinal: Fountain by the great French artist Marcel Duchamp. To create Fountain, Duchamp had a flash of creativity where he took something that was created for one purpose—going to the bathroom—and turned it a piece of art. But most artists don’t work that way. For example, Michelangelo, didn’t repurpose. When he wanted to create a statue of David, he didn’t look for a piece of marble that kind of looked like David: he spent three years laboring to create his masterpiece. David is not a readymade; it is a custommade.

These two styles—readymades and custommades—roughly map onto styles that can be employed for social research in the digital age. My book has examples of data scientists cleverly repurposing big data sources that were originally created by companies and governments. In other examples, however, social scientists start with a specific question and then used the tools of the digital age to create the data needed to answer that question. When done well, both of these styles can be incredibly powerful. Therefore, I expect that social research in the digital age will involve both readymades and custommades; it will involve both Duchamps and Michelangelos.

Bit by Bit devotes a lot attention to ethics.  Why?

The book provides many of examples of how researchers can use the capabilities of the digital age to conduct exciting and important research. But, in my experience, researchers who wish to take advantage of these new opportunities will confront difficult ethical decisions. In the digital age, researchers—often in collaboration with companies and governments—have increasing power over the lives of participants. By power, I mean the ability to do things to people without their consent or even awareness. For example, researchers can now observe the behavior of millions of people, and researchers can also enroll millions of people in massive experiments. As the power of researchers is increasing, there has not been an equivalent increase in clarity about how that power should be used. In fact, researchers must decide how to exercise their power based on inconsistent and overlapping rules, laws, and norms. This combination of powerful capabilities and vague guidelines can force even well-meaning researchers to grapple with difficult decisions. In the book, I try to provide principles that can help researchers—whether they are in universities, governments, or companies—balance these issues and move forward in a responsible way.

Your book went through an unusual Open Review process in addition to peer review. Tell me about that.

That’s right. This book is about social research in the digital age, so I also wanted to publish it in a digital age way. As soon as I submitted the book manuscript for peer review, I also posted it online for an Open Review during which anyone in the world could read it and annotate it. During this Open Review process dozens of people left hundreds of annotations, and I combined these annotations with the feedback from peer review to produce a final manuscript. I was really happy with the annotations that I received, and they really helped me improve the book.

The Open Review process also allowed us to collect valuable data. Just as the New York Times is tracking which stories get read and for how long, we could see which parts of the book were being read, how people arrived to the book, and which parts of the book were causing people to stop reading.

Finally, the Open Review process helped us get the ideas in the book in front of the largest possible audience. During Open Review, we had readers from all over the world, and we even had a few course adoptions. Also, in addition to posting the manuscript in English, we machine translated it into more than 100 languages, and we saw that these other languages increased our traffic by about 20%.

Was putting your book through Open Review scary?

No, it was exhilarating. Our back-end analytics allowed me see that people from around the world were reading it, and I loved the feedback that I received. Of course, I didn’t agree with all the annotations, but they were offered in a helpful spirit, and, as I said, many of them really improved the book.

Actually, the thing that is really scary to me is putting out a physical book that can’t be changed anymore. I wanted to get as much feedback as possible before the really scary thing happened.

And now you’ve made it easy for other authors to put their manuscripts through Open Review?

Absolutely. With a grant from the Sloan Foundation, we’ve released the Open Review Toolkit. It is open source software that enables authors and publishers to convert book manuscripts into a website that can be used for Open Review. And, as I said, during Open Review, you can receive valuable feedback to help improve your manuscript, feedback that is very complimentary to the feedback from peer review. During Open Review, you can also collect valuable data to help launch your book. Furthermore, all of these good things are happening at the same time that you are increasing access to scientific research, which is a core value of many authors and academic publishers.

SalganikMatthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Browse Our Anthropology 2018 Catalog

Our Anthropology 2018 catalog includes a guide to thinking like an anthropologist, an in-depth ethnography of a would-be revolutionary middle school in New York, and a powerful argument that culture is the key driver of the success of humans as a species.

If you will be at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington DC this week, please visit us at booth 408, where you can pick up a copy of the catalog, and see our full range of titles in Anthropology.

Matthew Engelke’s How to Think Like an Anthropologist is a vivid and entertaining introduction to the key concepts and aims of anthropology. If you have ever been asked what it that anthropologists do and why you do it, How to Think Like an Anthropologist is the perfect answer.

How to Think Like an Anthropologist, by Matthew Engelke

Disruptive Fixation, by Christo Sims, examines the efforts of digital disruptors to revolutionize education through the lens of an innovative middle school project, from the earliest stages of planning to the graduation of its first eight-grade class, and analyzes the ways in which these efforts often fall short of their radical ambitions.

Disruptive Fixation, by Christo Sims

Robert Boyd argues that humans are A Different Kind of Animal, and that our growth to become the dominant species on the planet has been driven by our ability to learn from one another, and to establish the social norms that are the framework for human society—in a word, culture.

A Different Kind of Animal, by Robert Boyd

Find these titles, and many more, in our Anthropology 2018 catalog.

Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

10 Facts from How Men Age

AgeIn How Men Age, Richard Bribiescas is one of the first to bring evolutionary biology into the conversation of male aging, describing how it has contributed to the evolution of the human species as a whole. The book makes fascinating reading for anyone who has wondered about the purpose of male post reproductive years. From oxidative stress to loss of hormonal plasticity, here are a few things you may not have known about male aging:


1. Compared to other animals, the human life span is much longer than one would predict. Life span is usually correlated with female reproductive life span; that is, when females cease reproducing, it is usually a signpost that mortality for the species is imminent. However, in humans about a third of female life is post-reproductive.

2. Men tend to die at higher rates at younger ages than do women from infancy, through adulthood, and into old age, regardless of culture or environmental context.

3. Sex ratios in humans at birth are biased towards males, but the reason remains a mystery. There may be an unequal number of X- and Y-bearing sperm, the fertilization process might be somehow biased, or there might be an unequal attrition during gestation, all of the above, or something else entirely.

4. In males, muscle serves two purposes unique to their sex. It augments their ability to reproduce by supporting competition and attractiveness and it is an important source of overall energy regulation. More so than other types of muscle, skeletal muscle is sexually dimorphic, which means that relative mass, form, and function differ between men and women.

5. The type of muscles men tend to have are type II, which supports quick movements and bursts of strength. The muscle tends to be in their upper body, including in their shoulders, arms, and back.

6. Men lost muscle tone as they age because of declining testosterone, lower metabolic rates, and shifts in other areas of the hypothalamic-pituitary-testicular hormone axis.

7. After a certain age, men living more urbanized, sedentary lifestyles exhibit a more notable drop in testosterone compared to other men around the world.

8. Testosterone tends to peak in the second decade of life and then slowly decline until the age of 40, after which it is pretty much stable for the rest of a man’s life.

9. As men age, their bodies become less sensitive to environmental and energetic cues and less malleable and responsive to surrounding change. This loss of hormonal plasticity causes the body to become less efficient at putting on muscle and regulating fat accumulation.

10. Oxidative stress is one contributing factor to aging. Men tend to have higher metabolic rates than women, and therefore have the capacity to generate more oxidative stress over their lifetimes. This might contribute to shorter lifespans in men.

To delve into this engaging subject further, pick up a copy of How Men Age.

Our Anthropology 2017 catalog is now available

Be among the first to browse and download our latest Anthropology catalog:

Of particular interest in this year’s catalog is Making a Good Life by Katharine Dow. It is a timely look at the ideas and values that inform how people think about reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies.

Dow

Also be sure to note the new book by Richard G. Bribiescas, How Men Age.
Popular science at its most compelling, How Men Age provides new perspectives on the aging process in men and how we became human, and also explores future challenges for human evolution—and the important role older men might play in them.

Bribiescas

Don’t miss out on Digital Keywords edited by Benjamin Peters. Digital Keywords gathers pointed, provocative short essays on more than two dozen keywords by leading and rising digital media scholars from the areas of anthropology, digital humanities, history, political science, philosophy, religious studies, rhetoric, science and technology studies, and sociology. Digital Keywords examines and critiques the rich lexicon animating the emerging field of digital studies.

Peters

For details on these and many more titles, check out our catalog above.

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Rogers Brubaker on understanding “transracial”

Brubakers Mainstream society has grown increasingly accepting of various ways of reimagining gender. But what about someone who identities as a different race? Is the concept of “ancestry” losing its authority? In Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled IdentitiesRogers Brubaker explores the controversial idea that one can be transracial and the ways ethnoracial boundaries have already blurred. Recently, Brubaker took the time to answer some questions about his book and shed light on what transracial means.

This book has taken you into new territory. What drew you to the subject?

RB: In the summer of 2015 I became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race in an age of massively unsettled identities. I had planned to spend the summer months working on a completely different project, but this “trans moment” afforded a unique opportunity to think systematically about sex and gender in relation to race and ethnicity as embodied identities that are increasingly – yet in differing ways and to differing degrees – understood as open to choice and change.

You begin with the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the debates about Jenner and Dolezal. One common trope in the debates was that transracial is “not a thing.” Do you disagree?

RB: Of course transracial is not a “thing” in the same sense as transgender: there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. But I do think the term “transracial” usefully brings into focus the ways in which people do in fact move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.

The second part of your book is called “thinking with trans.” What do you mean by this?

RB: The idea is that one can use the transgender experience as a lens through which to think about the instability and contestedness of racial identities. I distinguish three forms of the transgender experience, which I call the trans of migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. The trans of migration – the most familiar form – involves moving from one established sex/gender category to another. The trans of between involves defining oneself with reference to both established categories, without belonging entirely or unambiguously to either one. The trans of beyond claims to transcend existing categories or go beyond gender altogether. I argue that each of these can help us think about race and ethnicity in fruitful ways. Racial passing (including “reverse passing” like Dolezal’s) exemplifies the trans of migration, the multiracial movement the trans of between, and indifference or opposition to racial or ethnic categorization the trans of beyond.

Doesn’t sex have a deeper biological basis than race?

RB: Exactly, but this presents us with a paradox. Morphological, physiological, and hormonal differences between the sexes, although not as marked in humans as in many other species, are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Yet as the debates about Jenner and Dolezal showed, it is more socially legitimate to change one’s sex (and gender) than to change one’s race.

How do you explain this?

RB: The distinction between sex and gender – a distinction that has no analogue in the domain of race and ethnicity – has made it possible to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. Yet according to the widespread “born that way” narrative, this inner essence is understood as natural – as unchosen and unchanging. Changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and classified by others. This usually involves changing one’s self-presentation and may also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. A key part of what is understood as constituting racial identity – notably one’s ancestry – is located outside the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing her racial classification.

The broad sympathy toward Jenner seemed to suggest that transgender, unlike transracial, had achieved a remarkable degree of mainstream public acceptance. Were you surprised by the more recent controversy over transgender access to bathrooms in schools?

RB: Not really. The shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, but it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and milieux. As transgender claims have moved from insulated settings like liberal arts colleges to mainstream settings like public school systems, and as courts, civil rights agencies, and legislatures have taken action to establish broad transgender rights, it’s unsurprising to see a backlash. Controversy has focused on access to bathrooms and locker rooms, tapping into public anxieties about vulnerable children, sexual predators, and the presence of people with penises in girls’ and women’s spaces. It’s also worth noting that to cultural conservatives, especially religious conservatives, preserving sex and gender boundaries is much more important than maintaining racial and ethnic boundaries. So while Dolezal’s claim to identify as black provoked fiercer opposition than Jenner’s claim to identify as a woman, transgender rights are likely to be far more controversial in the coming years than practices associated with choosing or changing race.

Rogers Brubaker is a sociology professor at the University of of California, Los Angeles. He also is the UCLA Foundation Chair at the University. He focuses on topics such as social theory, ethnicity, citizenship, immigration and nationalism. Brubakers is the author of the books Ethnicity without Groups, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town and Grounds for DifferenceHis most recent book is Trans: Gender Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities.

Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

The Work of the Dead: 15 facts on graves, ghosts, and other mortal concerns

The Work of the DeadAs the air becomes crisp and we indulge our appetite for pumpkin-spiced everything, the falling leaves serve as a memento mori, a reminder of death and dying. Fittingly, this fall PUP is publishing Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead, a cultural history examining how and why the living have engaged with the dead from antiquity to the twentieth century. Here are some interesting facts and images from the book to get you in the spirit of the season!

1. Autolysis is the process by which enzymes that once turned food into nutrients begin to break down the body. Bacteria freed from the gut then starts to devour the flesh; in later stages microbes from the soil and air join in.

2. It used to be the case that all graves in Christendom were oriented toward Jerusalem. Around the turn of the 20th century, they began to be oriented toward walkways or bodies of water.

3. Tollund Man was killed in the 4th century BCE and found by peat cutters in 1950. Because of the preservative powers of the bog that was his final resting place, today we can discern the clothes he wore when he died, a cap of wool and sheepskin, and how he died, via strangulation. Scholars say that he was most likely a human sacrifice.

Churchyard

The Work of the Dead, p. 125. 4.1 Southeast view of a church, described as St. John’s of Southwark, showing the churchyard. J.W. Edy after a painting by John Buckler, F.S.A., 1799. © British Library.

4. Certain traditions of modern Judaism insist on rapid burial, even at the risk of burying someone who is not yet dead, because of the dangers of spirits lurking around the body.

5. Christianity has had an ambivalent relationship with ghosts throughout the centuries. Augustine related a story of a dead father returning to his son to deliver vital information, for example, but by the time of the Reformation, Protestant thinkers explained continued widespread belief in ghosts as a holdover from Roman superstition.

6. In early nineteenth-century England, the potentially unquiet souls of those who had committed suicide were silenced by burying the bodies at a crossroads with a stake through the heart.

7. A Harris poll in 2003 determined that 51% of Americans believed that ghosts exist. Only 35% of those aged twenty five to twenty nine were skeptical, but 73% of those older than sixty five did not believe at all.

Hume

The Work of the Dead, p. 210. 4.13 Tomb of David Hume, Old Calton Cemetary, Edinburgh. Carlos Delgado.

8. In Chinese antiquity, thousands of men, women, and children were beaten into the ramparts of the tombs of the Shang emperors so they could serve their lords in death as they had in life.

9. In the seventeenth century, the founder of modern international law, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), compiled a library of opinions and practices from ancient authors in support of his view that the denial of burial was so fundamentally at odds with any conceivable norm—with being human—that it was a just cause for war.

10. In the Jewish tradition, it was God who taught man how to handle the dead. Adam and Eve were mourning the death of their son Abel when a raven fell dead near them. Another raven came, made a hole, and buried his dead fellow. Adam said, “I will do as this raven did,” and buried his son’s body.

pyramid

The Work of the Dead p. 38. 1.2. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Philipp Galle (1537-1612), from the series The Eight Wonders of the World. After Maarten van Heemskerck, 1572. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum. Gift of Robert Bradford Wheaton and Barbara Ketcham Wheaton in Honor of Mrs Arthur K. Solomon, M25955. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

11. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) thought that burial of the dead was one of the three “universal institutions of humanity.” The other two are matrimony and religion.

12. Other than elephants and (it is argued) some insects, humans are the only animals that care for their dead.

13. During the 1790s in France, the Pantheon was built to house the new “gods” of the nation after they died. Mirabeau was the first to be admitted in 1791. Voltaire was interred there later that year.

Marx

The Work of the Dead, p. 20. 1.5. The grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, London.

14. Max Weber wrote in his study of the Protestant ethic, “the genuine Puritan even rejected all signs of religious ceremony at the grave and buried his nearest and dearest without song or ritual in order that no superstition, no trust in the effects of magical and sacramental forces of salvation, should creep in.”

15. Vladomir Nabokov said, “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

For those in the Princeton area, Thomas Laqueur will be at Labyrinth Books on Friday, October 30 at 5:30pm to talk about his book. Mark your calendars!

New Anthropology Catalog 2016

We invite you to scroll through our latest Anthropology catalog.

MushroomCheck out The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, an investigation of Matsutake, the most valuable mushroom in the world and its amazing ability to survive and, indeed, thrive in human-disrupted landscapes. Using the mushroom as an example, she sheds light on the relationship between the darker side of capitalism and collaborative survival.

 

 

 

 

 

RighteousIn Righteous Transgressions, Lihi Ben Shitrit examines how women in conservative religious societies find ways to circumvent strict ideas about their role to engage in the political arena using four groups as examples: the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the Palestinian Hamas.

 

 

 

 

 

YoungFinally, Avi Max Spiegel examines the competition among established Arab Muslim groups to gain the support of the growing population of youths among their ranks in Young Islam. He focuses not only on the work of established Muslim thinkers, but also the growing body of writing from the younger generation to make the case that the nature of Islamist movements is changing.

 

 

 

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PUP will be at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting from November 18 to November 22 in Denver—visit us at booth #310!

Finally, for a limited time we are offering 30% off on select print titles.

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Hamburgers in Paradise: 12 Facts

FrescoDepictions of paradise can be found throughout the centuries, portrayed as an impossible, unchanging ecosystem in perpetual motion that provides an abundance of food, water, and shade to sustain humans and animals in perfect harmony with no effort required. In Hamburgers in Paradise, Louise O. Fresco argues that the idea of paradise as an impossibly stable, diverse, and productive ecosystem has had a profound effect on our thinking about nature, farming, and food, and remains a powerful influence even today. Despite secularization, paradise is a frame of reference for what we think and do in relation to food.

Today at 2:30, Fresco will be presenting her book to Kenneth Quinn, the World Food Prize ambassador, at the 2015 Borlaug Dialogue, hosted by The World Food Prize. You can view the live stream online, and you can join the conversation online using #WorldFoodPrize.

 

A few facts from the book that may surprise you:

  • In most Western European countries, life expectancy tripled in the period 1750-2000, when food began to be available in large quantities.
  • The history of tens of thousands of years of food scarcity explains our preference for foods high in calories, proteins, and other essential nutrients.
  • All religions attribute moral and psychological properties to food. For example, the kingfisher has been seen as a symbol of abundance and prosperity, and so it was not to be eaten. In many religions fasting, or the resistance of temptation for food, is seen as the highest virtue.
  • In the U.S., the tasteless bun of a hamburger is not the norm because Americans don’t know how to bake bread, but because a certain consistency is needed to bring out the juiciness of the meat. The bun is wrapping, plate, and napkin first and a source of carbohydrates to balance out the protein of the meat second.
  • The earliest archaeological evidence of farming comes from 9,500 years ago.
  • Dependence on food introduced from elsewhere is an ancient phenomenon, reflected in the names used and the confusion surrounding them. For example, in Italian corn is called “grano turco” or “Turkish grain,” the word “Turkey” signifying oriental or exotic and not its actual origin since corn comes from Central America.
  • Without the influence of humans, neither wheat, corn, apples, nor lettuce would ever have evolved from their wild ancestors.
  • 30% of the surface of the earth is used as farmland or pasture.
  • Bread can be a symbol of plenty, but it can also be a symbol of want. There are countless examples in literature of the proverbial poor thief who steals a loaf for his family. Victor Hugo used this trope to great effect in Les Misérables.
  • Bread was so important in Ancient Rome that the killing of a baker was punished three times as severely as the killing of an ordinary citizen.
  • Archaeological remains of sieves suggest that cheese may have been made in the Alps more than 5,000 years ago.
  • In the Netherlands no more than 4.5% of people are vegetarians, in Germany perhaps 9%, and in Italy 10%.

Lara Deeb and Mona Harb win 2014 British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies

islamLara Deeb and Mona Harb, authors of Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Mortality in Shi’ite South Beriut, are this year’s winners of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies! The British-Kuwait Friendship Society awards a prize each year to the best scholarly work in English on the Middle East. Of Leisurely Islam, one reviewer wrote,

Leisurely Islam is a superb book, one that surpasses most studies of contemporary Middle Eastern cities with its sensitivity, its aliveness to theoretical exposition, with the coherence and fluidity of its writing, and with its extraordinary contribution not only to scholarship but to our general understanding – both political and social – of what leisure might mean in the context of a given neighbourhood, what the politics of a neighbourhood are, and how youth participate in both quotidian and high-level politics of their time.

The book is instructive for understanding the particular politics of Lebanon (Who are the people who support Hizbullah? What complex social relations and human lives does the term “Hizbullah stronghold” efface? What are the relationships between the youth in the Dahiya and the youth elsewhere in the city? How are sectarian lines drawn and maintained?), about youth politics today (How does the generational categories intersect with class and sect and gender?), and about what piety might mean in practice. In this latter instance, the book is perhaps most important. What it does is to show us the lived versions of piety rather than the one represented most often not only in mainstream media but also in scholarship. The piety and moral adherence in this book is supple, flexible, and bends to neoliberal and modern versions of economic and social life. That Deeb and Harb know their subject so well and provide such deep, rich, and detailed ethnographies and urban maps show us how impoverished a great deal of writing about faith and piety has become when it does not take account of the lived experiences of the pious subjects.

I really do think this book is one of the best books that has come out in Middle East Studies this year and more deserving of the Kuwait prize than any other book I have reviewed for the Prize over the last few years.”

For more information about the award, the ceremony, or the runners-up, click here. Congratulations to Lara Deeb and Mona Harb on the tremendous and well-deserved accomplishment!