The Mysterious Gift

Exchange is strange. What does it mean?

Here are two videos which look at the complexity of the gift from different angles. In the first Sheldon Cooper thinks he’s cracked the code on how to properly exchange gifts, but then is surprised to find that something of no monetary value could be of such great value to him.

The second video is from a British game show called Golden Balls. In the final round of the show, the two remaining contestants are put through a version of the Prisoners’ Dilemma, a well studied problem in game theory. The contestant on the right has done his homework!

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Resources on the Kung

When I was an undergraduate this was one of the first ethnographies I was assigned to read, Nisa, the life and words of a !Kung woman / Marjorie Shostak. There are so many different topics here you are almost certainly guaranteed to find something relevant to any research project you might be currently working on.

Perry Library also provides Internet access to media resources about the Kung you may find interesting.

This is an excellent video resource that I’ve used in class before, The !kung san [electronic resource] / by Claire Ritchie and John Kennedy Marshall.

  • Resettlement — this segment provides video on modern Kung life, particular the difficulties their culture faces in living a sedentary life dependent on welfare. It also demonstrates the prejudice directed at them by white Africans.
  • Traditional Life — this segment has many excellent stories about hunting and gathering, as well as ritual practice and rites of passage

I haven’t spent time with this resource, but it sounds interesting! The music of!Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, Africa [electronic resource].

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MLK on anthropology

As some of you many know, Dr. Martin Luther King began his academic career as a sociology major at Moorehouse College in Atlanta. In honor of his birthday this past Jan 19, Huffington Post ran a piece on King and science. It included this quote demonstrating King’s awareness of anthropology’s contribution to the critique of race as biology.


So men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy…they will even argue that God was the first segregationist. ‘Red birds and blue birds don’t fly together,’ they contend…they turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the white man’s brain. They do not know, or they refuse to know, that the idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits agree that although there may be inferior and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that there are four types of blood, and these four types are found within every racial group.

That second to last sentence is key because it is a variation on the maxim I recite in class that variation within racial groups exceeds variation between racial groups.

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Arranged marriage and polygamy

In this week’s readings we encountered some marriage patterns from other cultures that are markedly different than traditional American marriage patterns. The article “Polyandry: When Brothers Share a Wife” gave us the example of a typical household in Tibet with multiple husbands and one wife, while the article “Kinship in Village India” presented the elaborate rituals that go into an arranged marriage. In the comments section below reflect and react to one of these readings.

In about four sentences, answer the following questions for one of the articles.

  • What seem to be the pros and cons of this marriage pattern for the people who practice it?
  • If you could ask someone from this culture anything about their marriage custom, what would you say?
  • How would you like to be a spouse in such a marriage? Justify your opinion.
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Structural inequality and race

In last week’s class on human variation we stressed how race is never about biology. It is however an idea deeply rooted in the western intellectual tradition from Linneaus and Blumenbach in the eighteenth century, through Galton in the nineteenth, and on into the twentieth century with the eugenics movement.

So all that is ancient history right? Post-Nazi Germany we all saw the error of our ways and it would be unthinkable to advocate for forced sterilization of populations deemed unfit. Uh, not so fast. The idea that reproduction of undesirables is dangerous still holds great appeal for some!

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Race and Comedy

However you slice it you can’t deny that race makes for good jokes. In fact joking behavior was one of the first topics I became interested in as an anthropologist and before I went into field I spent a lot of time doing research on the anthropology of jokes. I wound up studying theater instead, but I still have a soft spot of humor that makes light of what makes us uncomfortable.

The other days one of the students in class sent me this video of South African comedian Trevor Noah and it is hilarious. Check out how he lays out multiple realities of blackness all while his character, himself, is searching for a singular “real” black.

That clip brought back memories of one of my favorite examples of race comedy from Gary Owen. Thy say 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America…

This Dave Chappelle clip on Native Americans, like the Owen and Taylor clips above keeps with the same narrative technique. The comedian’s character has this experience where he is ignorant of the “other” culture and we laugh at him as he makes mistakes, which in turn reveals assumptions that we make about those other people without realizing it.

A couple of years ago there was a troupe of Middle Eastern comedians that went on tour as the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. I was trying to find one the Iranian comedian who says all his friends pretend to be Italian, but this one is pretty good. There’s also a clip out there somewhere where one of the Arab comedians say they’re holding tryouts for a North Korean.

If you’ve got a favorite YouTube clip on the topic of race and comedy share it in the comments section below. Just copy and paste the URL into the textbox and Worpress will do the rest.

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Harry Potter and Magical Thinking

One Sunday this summer I had the opportunity to do something new that was very rewarding for me. I gave a sermon! I’ve included the text of it here. It’s a long read (I had 20 minutes to fill), but if turning cultural relativism into a religion is your cup of tea you might enjoy it. What a treat it was for me to deliver it.


If you’re anti-authoritarian but still nostalgic about church, if you’re interested in your spiritual well-being but can’t stand rules, if you don’t mind a little New Age hugging then check out your local UU. You’ll meet a lot of misfits, hippies, New Englanders, and people who for whatever reason had to walk away from other religions. As my friend Ayla, who grew up in the UU, describes it, “It’s a little bit of Christianity, a little bit of rock and roll.”

Chances are you’ll find other anthropologists, scientists, and professors too. For example my minister has a PhD in physics from Princeton. When I shared with him this story about how some Christian fundamentalists reject Set Theory he said, “Well then, they must object to Godel’s incompleteness theorem as well.” UU’s are a bunch of smartypants.

This sermon was part of a month long series on the theme of Harry Potter…

Harry Potter and Magical Thinking

I must admit I was a little baffled at first when I was invited to give a sermon on the theme of Harry Potter. Why me? Had I lost some kind of bet? I am a cultural anthropologist by training and if there’s one thing we anthropologists are good at it is not feeling uncomfortable in places where we don’t belong and muddling our way through things we have no business doing. “Just figure it out along the way,” is the anthropologist’s maxim.

Imagine that the inhabitants of Hogwarts are like some far-flung tribe and after an exhausting journey from Newport News to this hidden and out of the way place; after having successfully navigated a humiliating and Kafka-esque gauntlet through the Ministry of Magic’s bureaucracy of customs and inspections you, the anthropologist, have arrived in khakis and pith helmet to study this community you know nothing about. You are lonely, far from your friends and family, your bed is hard and the food here tastes funny. You’re a stranger to everyone and can’t seem to make it through a single day without embarrassing yourself by transgressing some to you as yet unknown code of conduct.
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