20 April 2017

Media, language, and social relationships

In teaching anthropology, I always find students to be exceptionally interested on the days that we talk about media. Many of my students consider social media to be an important part of their lives and social interactions, from how they connect to others to how they spend their leisure time. And, in many ways this engagement has actually changed the ways through which students interact with us, as well as the language and forms of address we see in email communications.

To many of us who really care about writing well (and try to teach this skill and sensibility), these shifts are occasionally taken as doomsday signals of the downfall of the English language, or even the future of society in general (when we're being melodamatic, anyway). Yet, to take an anthropological approach, it's interesting to think about how these different forms of media actually mediate social relationships... including between ourselves and our students.

I often like to show the first 12 minutes or so or Michael Wesch's lecture "An anthropological introduction to YouTube" to students when we first discuss media. Wesch really brings home this idea that media is more than just content, and that media mediate social relationships.

So, really, it shouldn't be surprising that engagements through new forms of media have lead to interesting (if annoying) cultural changes in language use and meaning. An interesting example of this is observable in this piece from Newsweek: "What it means when you end your emails with a period." Here, David Crystal opens by remarking how "Regular emailers will have encountered the new styles, and may use all of them. The omission of punctuation marks, avoidance of capitalization, and the use of nonstandard spelling is commonplace." Yet, this kind of language use is also part of our learned cultural context:
These styles are characteristic of informal e-communication. The more formal the interaction, the less they are likely to occur, and the more they will be construed as inappropriate. So it's important for youngsters experimenting with internet styles to realize that breaking the conventions of the standard language is dangerous in certain settings.
Another interesting example of shifting meanings -- this time within and across social media platforms -- comes from this The Sociological Imagination piece, "“Liking” it on Facebook." Javier de Rivera explores the sensibility and standardization of feeling connected to the "like" function on platforms like FaceBook and Instagram. Consider the following statement about the shifting and standardizing meanings associated with functions such as the "like" or "fav" across these different platforms:
The evolution of Twitter seems to be going in the same direction, by experimenting with the Favs and changing them to Likes, establishing the trend – that started several years ago – for using this feature to show appreciation rather than for archival purposes. Here, overlapping is not possible, by choosing Hearts as a mean of social interaction we are deploying its value as an archival resource: our list of bookmarks would be flooded with the less memorable tweets we chose to mark as an expression of appreciation.
How might you bring these examples into your classroom discussions of cultural change, community, meaning, and language?

Quick links and further reading:

17 April 2017

Water Politics Syllabus & Resources

We have been seeing some very interesting discussions and resources emerging around water politics recently.

Image from "The Rights of the Whanganui River" (Peeps)
In addition to the many discussions happening in relation to #NODAPL and the importance of water to indigenous communities and ways of life in North America, the struggles for access to clean and safe drinking water in places like Flint, Michigan and across reserves in Canada, in March, you may have read the news that a Māori community has been successful in their battle to have New Zealand grant the Whanganui River the legal rights of a person. (The anthropological magazine Peeps published a beautiful photo essay on "The Rights of the Whanganui River" in their second issue earlier this year -- unfortunately, not available online.)

In response to these shifts and public spotlights, we offer readers a couple of interesting resources for thinking and teaching about water politics.

First, we'd like to draw attention to the thematic issue of the Canadian journal of anthropology, Anthropologica, published this past fall (Volume 58, Issue 2): An Amphibious Anthropology: The Production of Place at the Confluence of Land and Water, guest edited by Karine Gagné and Mattias Borg Rasmussen. Contributors to this issue draw on their ethnographic research to share insights into water politics and issues in the Himalayas, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Peru, and North America.

Each of these articles from Anthropologica would be a valuable addition and anthropological contribution to this already well-rounded (anthropology, geography, environmental studies) syllabus: "Water Rights and Social Protest: Politics, Governance, and the Meanings of Access" designed by Jake Blanc and Stepha Velednitsky (graduate students at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). 

Quick links and further reading:

10 April 2017

Building Vocabularies for Everyday Discussions about "Race", racism, and Inclusion/exclusion

I was recently contacted by a student who had taken my Intercultural Competencies course last Fall.

In their email, they asked for clarification on the following topic:
Is it alright to use the terms Afghani or Pakistani or, if I wanted to refer to individuals from these countries, should I say "Afghanistan citizens or Pakistan citizens" respectively?

Their reasoning: I look at other nations such as Australia and Israel which are commonly labelled as Aussies or Israelis and understand that those are accepted in North American society.

They ended with: I would like a professional opinion as to whether I can use a shortened term (even if only in an educational conversation!).

I love getting these requests because as an instructor of Anthropology (and its concepts) and an intercultural competency facilitator, I find that lacking appropriate vocabulary is one of the biggest deterrents from having conversations about "race", racism, exclusion, and the like.

I responded to the email as follows:
Short answer: Yes, you can use these shortened terms is certain situations.
Long answer: In my opinion, and based on the research I conducted, the terms Afghani or Pakistani are absolutely acceptable terms.

For example, "I'm of Afghani or Pakistani origin" is fine.

These terms would also be appropriate if, for example, you talking about larger demographic trends.

For example, "One of the largest refugee group to come to Canada were Afghani refugees..."

The issue is when you start using these terms to stereotype a group of people.

For example, "I think all Afghani (or Pakistani) people are...".

How would you have responded? Tweet us at @anthrolens or email us at anthrolens@gmail.com.