23 March 2017

Bullshit! Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data Syllabus

We came across this syllabus the other day and can think of many ways in which these open access materials and their analysis can be used in anthropology classrooms, communication skills courses, as well as numerous other applications.

On their homepage, the authors write:

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. 

The authors identify the following learning objectives:

After taking the course, you should be able to:

  • Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.
  • Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.
  • Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.
  • Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.
  • Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

Some of the highlights include:

  1. Robert Matthews (2000) Storks deliver babies (p=0.008). Teaching Statistics 22:36-38
  2. The Principle of Proportional Ink 
  3. How do you know a paper is legit?  
  4. Musicians and Mortality 
These are just a few of the many gems found in this treasure trove developed by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West from the University of Washington.

All open access resources. The latest in 'personal education'.

Quick Links: 

Anthro Everywhere!'s:



20 March 2017

Book Report Entry #2: Beyond Informants

In continuation from our coverage of Luis A. Vivianco's Field Notes: A Guided Journal for Doing Anthropology, he provides a practical appraisal of fieldwork in his second chapter.

In one of his Fieldwork Tips, Vivianco describes the terminology used to identify the people who anthropologists conduct research with. He reminds us that fieldworkers actively select and synthesize with those individuals what actual details will become data, in a process that Fabian recognized was neither objective or subjective but intersubjective, which refers to the joint creation of comprehension and meaning between a fieldworker and the subjects of his or her research.

Below is a list of terms that Vivianco uses to point to the relationship between the researcher and participant:
  1. Interlocutor - speaks to an ongoing conversation between an ethnographer and the individuals involved with their research 
  2. Collaborator - highlights an attempt to find equity between participant and researcher
  3. Consultants - evokes a feeling of seeking out and working with participants as 'experts'
  4. Informant - potential negative associations on account of their use in criminal and legalistic connotation (e.g. police informant)
It's important to realize the position of anthropologists (historically and currently) in relation to their participants - I would argue that this is unique to anthropology within the social science disciplines.

In 2015, Kristina from the cool Anthropology, or so we seem to think blog published a post about the differences between Anthropology and SociologyIn this post, she describes the similarities between anthropological and sociological studies, which is no small feat. Through comparison, the author is forced to frame these disciplines as binary opposites in order to account for their historical impressions; yet, she teases out the important and growing cross-over work by researchers in each of these fields.

An example of this teasing out process is found in understanding the location of a typical field site, which she writes as: Both Anthropology and Sociology have transformed over the last 100 years or so, but their roots are still present in the disciplines today. Sociological studies are most often based in Western or industrialized societies, while anthropological studies have more traditionally been based in non-Western societies. While many, many anthropologists work in Western societies and communities now, this early difference is still significant. 

Kristina doesn't write about the position of researcher in relation to the participant in her post; however, one might argue that anthropologists typically prioritize the voices of their research participants in the write up, and analysis, of their work as is pointed out by Vivianco in his fieldwork tip titled Beyond "Informants"? While there are certainly sociologists who understand their research relationships in the same way, this distinction could be identified as something unique to our field.

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17 March 2017

Special Friday Edition: The Dutch Election, Domino Effects and Wilders' Patriotic Spring

Both contributing bloggers on this website completed their PhD research in the Netherlands. Why? We were drawn to understand the influence of nationalistic Dutch politicians on the everyday lives of ordinary Dutch residents. The platforms and rhetoric of these nationalistic politicians sought to re-define and identify what it meant to be 'Dutch' in an age of (seeming) globalization.

In a recent chapter (Long 2016) for Loring and Ramanathan's Language of citizenship and immigration: policies, pedagogies, and discourses, I introduced the Dutch context as follows:
Following the deaths of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and film director Theo van Gogh in 2004, the Netherlands generated its own brand of Islamophobia that dominated the European landscape, especially when it was led by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politician, Geert Wilders. Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) received significant popular support and became one of three ruling political parties in a Dutch coalition government between 2010 and 2012. Although this coalition dissolved, the PVV is currently ranked at its highest popularity according to national opinion polls (Bolt, 2013). Wilders most recent platform (the platform he ran on and secured the second largest number of seats with) included breaking ties with the European Union and securing social supports for older generations, in addition to his long-standing platform concerning the decrease in non-western migration and a renewed interest in Dutch national identity (Party for Freedom, 2012).
In a recent  article (Mosher 2015) for a special issue in the Journal of Social Science Education, Rhiannon wrote:
Muslims especially have been positioned in the context of the Netherlands as having dramatically different – even incommensurable – cultural, historical, and political values and norms than the national majority (cf. Long, in this issue; Silverstein, 2005; Duyvendak, 2011; Geschiere, 2009; Stoler, 1995). The challenges for the civil enculturation of non-Western adult newcomers have contributed to the consensus across all sections of mainstream Dutch society that the Dutch government is at least partially to blame for the failure of many newcomers to demonstrate an appropriate fit through language and social skills acquisition. At the same time, support for cultural diversity (including religious diversity) has come under increasing scrutiny.
The context for our original doctoral research seems not to have significantly changed since 2009-2010 when we conducted our research. Wilders' warnings against what he calls "the Islamification of Western Culture" had received attention from national and international audiences in the past; however, his (rather monotonous) platform and bid for the top spot in this national election received even more attention because journalists likened him to the divisive politics of the US President. Indeed, international media called Wilders the Dutch Donald Trump, on account of Wilders' "call to Make the Netherlands great again (1), (...) for his increasingly outrageous positions, and his reliance on social media to circumvent the press and speak directly to the people" (Wildman, Vox, 15 March 2017)

Wildman quotes Dr. Sarah de Lange from the University of Amsterdam, who argues that Wilders is different from Trump because:
  1. He's more ideological with a better understanding of society
  2. He's more rational and calculated with a focus on strategy
  3. He's more interested in exerting influence than gaining absolute power
And I would agree - the racism, ill-will, ill-feelings, and questioning that surged through these elections does not dissipate with the fanfare of election night. Instead, this energy digs roots and finds its way into everyday interactions and residents' relationships.

Much of the news coverage of Wilders' defeat has the hallmarks of the 'good triumphed (no pun intended) over evil' story. Yet, Martijn de Koning (on his blog: Closer, March 16, 2017) has argued that
the Dutch did not stop the domino effect of racist populism: the mainstream parties have taken over the racist rhetoric that was the result of the populists strategy of politicizing Islam, integration and immigration. And worse, the rhetoric of the domino effect [which he defines as the outcome of the Dutch elections and its possible influence (i.e. the domino effect) on other racist populist parties running in the French and German elections and set after Brexit and Trump’s election victory] reproduces the invisibility of the racist mainstream as well as Dutch nationalism by directing our attention to Trump’s US and Brexit as symbols of what went wrong and the Netherlands as a bulwark against what PM Rutte has called the ‘wrong kind of populists‘.
While Wilders' party didn't win top place, his form of politics and his bid for influence, rather than power, did triumph. What I haven't heard many scholars discuss however, is Wilders' idea of the Patriotic Spring.

In late 2016, Wilders first used the term "Patriotic Spring" to describe Donald Trump's win and England's vote to leave the European Union. Wilders described this movement as "historic", "a revolution" and tweeted #MakeTheNetherandsGreatAgain for the purpose of taking back the Netherlands.

I think this term would prove to be an important term to unpack in order to more fully understand the role of continued colonialism in Wilders' political ideology and platform.

Alhassan (N.d.) argues that the term “Arab Spring” is 
not a new one and was originally applied to describe a prescient “democratic domino effect” that was expected to spread its “seeds” across MENA after the elections in Iraq in 2005. “Arab Spring” and the metaphor of spring as a time of “renewal” also historically defined “liberal reform” movements that were either short-lived or quickly crushed (like the “Prague Spring” of 1968 that was put down by the USSR).
This continuation of the colonial framework that Alhassan writes about was recently articulated in Sarah Salem's post (thanks to de Koning for pointing out this blog and post) about the Dutch context.

Salem writes about the continued colonial framework that positions racialized identity at the center of Dutch politics and identity-making. She argues that "the Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself." Check out her blog post at the link above for a more detailed overview.

In sum, I think Wilders' use of the term Patriotic Spring is an example of a westernized misunderstanding, what Alhassan has argued as an Orientialist view, of the (dignity) revolutions in MENA since 2005. It is also an attempt however to appropriate not only the populist but perhaps includes an undercurrent of radicalism, dangerousness, and revolution by and for the people. In much of Wilders' dialogue, I see a desire to spark his followers into action. This incendiary approach envelopes a narrative of the Wild- (and Arab) East, a play on words here from the Wild West. If this is the case, Wilders' use of the "Patriotic Spring" works not only to erase its original meaning as experienced by those in MENA, but also continues to build on and appropriate the term as used by Orientalists and conservatives in "the West". It's only difference perhaps is its play on the radicalism and populism that this term evokes.

Note from both Rhiannon and Jenn:
We are interested to see how these relationships continue to unfold. We welcome your thoughts on this (and any other) posts - to get in touch, you can email or tweet at us (see our contact information on the blog).

End Notes
(1) Rhiannon made a great point about this hashtag: It's important to recognize the use of the English language in Wilders' tag, which plays interestingly into the broader language politics and questions of acceptably cultural difference in the Netherlands in a much more banal way.

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16 March 2017

Fieldwork: preparing for the good, bad, and the ugly

From Anthropology Matters come this article by Amy Pollard: "Field of screams: difficulty and ethnographic fieldwork."

As explained in the abstract, many novice field researchers -- here, PhD students -- are often unprepared for the emotional toll of this staple of our discipline: the long-term, immersive field research trip.
Ethnographic fieldwork can be a time of intense vulnerability for PhD students. Often alone and in an unfamiliar context, they may face challenges that their pre-fieldwork training has done little to prepare them for. This study seeks to document some of the difficulties that PhD anthropologists at three UK universities have faced. It describes a range of feelings as experienced by 16 interviewees: alone, ashamed, bereaved, betrayed, depressed, desperate, disappointed, disturbed, embarrassed, fearful, frustrated, guilty, harassed, homeless, paranoid, regretful, silenced, stressed, trapped, uncomfortable, unprepared, unsupported, and unwell. The paper concludes with a set of questions for prospective fieldworkers, a reflection on the dilemmas faced by supervisors and university departments, and a proposal for action.
This piece should be essential reading for all students and advisors, including the concluding "Questions for PhD students" and notes on Supervisor and Departmental Dilemmas.

Quick links and further reading: