anthropology

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Book Review: Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change by Hannah Knox

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/07/2022 - 7:00pm in

In Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change, Hannah Knox offers a new ethnographic study of the local dynamics of climate change, focusing on the city of Manchester. This detailed analysis of local climate politics illustrates the need for a wholesale reconfiguration of how we think about human-nature relations and act collectively to … Continued

When We Tell Stories, We Know What Happened

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:00am in

Behar spoke with Public Seminar about writing for young readers, how people and their stories are intertwined in both fiction and anthropology, and the importance of telling stories with ethnographic accuracy....

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The Upside Down: Back to the Future

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

John Mitchinson explores why we are hardwired to remember the past, with memories that are made in the moment

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Whatever your relationship to the idea of monarchy, recent weeks have been notable for the intensity of the memories they have summoned up. Remembering what you were doing – or who you were – in 1977 or 2002 was at least as important for most of us as watching any of the formal Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

But what is happening inside your brain may surprise you. 

In the Pixar movie Inside Out, the main character Riley’s memories are coloured orbs, temporarily stored on shelves in Head Quarters before being shipped to Long Term Memory at night. Most of us, if pressed, would still describe memory as a process of filing and retrieving events from the past, which are stored somewhere in our brain. But we are beginning to understand that memory doesn’t quite work like that. 

The key players are a matching pair of slender structures buried deep inside each of our cerebral hemispheres we call the hippocampus, so named from their resemblance to seahorses (hippos, meaning ‘horse’ in Greek, and kampos meaning ‘sea monster’).

It turns out a single memory isn’t a single thing. It can combine sight, sound and smell, with all these elements being held in different parts of the cortex until they are reformulated by the hippocampus into a memory. Memories are made, not retrieved. 

This is the idea that animates one of the most thoughtful of recent books on the subject, Pieces of Light, by the British developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough: “When you have a memory, you don’t retrieve something that already exists, fully formed – you create something new. Memory is about the present as much as it is about the past. A memory is made in the moment, and collapses back into its constituent elements as soon as it is no longer required. Remembering happens in the present tense. It requires the precise coordination of a suite of cognitive processes, shared among many other mental functions and distributed across different regions of the brain.”

This leads us to perhaps the most important question of all: why do we need to remember things at all? The answer, paradoxically, seems to lie in neither the past nor the present, but the future.

Being able to summon up scenes from the past feels like a definitively human activity. The sharing of memories within families and friendship groups helps us lay down the strong neural pathways that allow us to retrieve them more easily. The ability to use this personal database of experience to imagine and shape the future might be the real evolutionary bonus of human memory.

There is empirical evidence for this too. MRI scans show that the underlying brain patterns generated remembering the past and imagining the future are practically identical.

To test this in more detail, an experiment was set by the neuroscience team at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London led by Eleanor Maguire and Demis Hassabis in 2007. Their thesis was that, if amnesiac patients found it difficult to form autobiographical memories, they might also find it difficult to imagine future experiences.

The experiment involved asking five severely amnesiac patients to imagine and describe 10 new experiences using location prompts such as a tropical sandy beach or a museum full of ancient artefacts. In comparison to the non-amnesiac controls, four of the five patients performed significantly less well. Crucially, their descriptions lacked spatial complexity, sensory detail or meaningful emotional content. They had no problem placing themselves in the scenarios suggested – they just couldn’t make a persuasive or coherent story out of it once they were there. Of particular significance was that all five had severely impaired hippocampi. 

As well as logging and encoding memories, the Wellcome research suggested the hippocampus also plays a key role in what the research team called ‘scene construction’. Memory and imagination both require a stage on which to perform. As Eleanor Maguire put it, the hippocampus is “providing the spatial backdrop or context into which the details of our experiences are bound”. Given the hippocampus’ other important function is to help us navigate through space, this seems like more than a neat coincidence.

When we remember a scene from our past, we reconstruct it spatially using our hippocampus and fill it with representations from other parts of our brain to produce the memory. We do exactly the same thing when we imagine our future, only this time we use the constructed scene to help us plan our actions.  

The more we study them, the more we find that the key processes of the brain, like memory, are active on many different levels, running to different time scales, in order to optimise flexibility. This is a key evolutionary adaptation. The faster our brains can learn and adapt, the better our chances of survival.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI

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Book Review: The Religion of the Central Luo by Okot p’Bitek

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 8:01pm in

LSE Professor Tim Allen reflects on the profound impact that Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek‘s The Religion of the Central Luo had on his own approach to fieldwork among the Acholi people and their neighbours in northern Uganda. This insightful and engaging book demonstrates the originality of p’Bitek’s work, which challenged anthropology’s links with colonial rule and thinking and the discipline’s prevailing treatment of African religion, African history and African customs. 

The Religion of the Central Luo. Okot p’Bitek. East African Literature Bureau. Nairobi. 1971.

Some years ago, while researching in an Oxford library, I came across something that took me by surprise. It was a bound copy of a DPhil by the great African poet, Okot p’Bitek. So far as I knew, p’Bitek was never awarded a doctorate. He had died in 1982, not long after returning to Uganda following the fall of Idi Amin and the return to power of his old classmate, friend and rival, Milton Obote. He had been appointed as a professor at Makerere University in Kampala, but there had been no mention of him having a doctorate, although it was rumoured that Oxford University had refused to award one to him. The discovery of the manuscript prompted me to investigate and to discover things about p’Bitek that had been little known.

It turned out that p’Bitek had attended teacher training after completing secondary school and had started to work as a secondary school teacher in northern Uganda. In addition, he was an excellent footballer and was selected to play in the national team. He arrived in England in 1956 with the Ugandan Cranes. They played without boots and lost their first game to Wycombe Wanderers 10-1. They improved as they became used to the conditions, defeating Great Britain’s Olympic team in September 1956, but p’Bitek left the team during their tour, having talked his way into a course at Bristol University. He then applied to study law at Aberystwyth. Apparently, he wanted to prove to Obote, who had taken a degree in law after leaving school, that anyone could do it. He subsequently worked at the International Court of Justice for a period, before deciding to go to Oxford University to study anthropology.

P’Bitek’s experiences in Oxford were very mixed. He enjoyed exchanges with E.E. Evans-Pritchard and other well-known scholars but was appalled at the ways in which Africans were being studied. He strongly objected to the use of the terms ‘tribe’, ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’, and fundamentally disagreed with theoretical approaches to African religion, African history and African customs.

Image Credit: Painting of Okot p’Bitek near his family home on the wall of the cultural centre in Gulu, Uganda. Photograph by Professor Tim Allen.

The doctoral thesis he wrote was referred by his examiners – one of whom was Evans-Pritchard – in 1967. The examiners objected to his spelling, to a lack of clarity about what p’Bitek had observed himself, to when beliefs and practices had occurred and to the thesis title. He was re-examined in 1970, but it was judged that p’Bitek had not made sufficient changes and he was subsequently refused a right to ‘supplicate’. In other words, Oxford University failed the doctorate of one of the most significant of all African writers.

Reading the DPhil manuscript, it turns out to be almost identical to the book p’Bitek published in 1971 as The Religion of the Central Luo. He published it together with another short book, African Religions in Western Scholarship, which is about studying in Oxford and what he viewed as misunderstandings of African religion. Unlike p’Bitek’s epic poetry, which quickly became something of a global sensation from the end of the 1960s, the books are not as known as they might be, largely because they were produced by East African publishers and have not been widely available.

I first encountered both books in 1982 in a Nairobi bookshop. They had a profound impact on my approach to fieldwork among p’Bitek’s Acholi people and their neighbours in northern Uganda. It prompted me to focus on the fluidity of ethnic identities and the sharing of ideas about the spirit world and social life between ostensibly separated groups. At the time, I was largely unaware of how original p’Bitek’s writings were. It was before I studied anthropology seriously as a postgraduate in Manchester and later in Oxford.

It is easy to see why p’Bitek’s examiners found his work difficult to accept. The Religion of the Central Luo is not written in an overtly polemical style, but it is inherently subversive of anthropological approaches to African populations in the 1960s. He was not interested in functional analysis or explaining life in terms of conventional ethnic labels.

His examiners expected him to write about the Palwo, which was understood by his examiners to be a small ‘tribe’ which spoke a version of the Luo language. However, the meaning of ‘palwo’ (or pa-luo) in the Luo language is ‘people of Luo’, and p’Bitek ignored what he viewed to be imposed tribal boundaries created by colonial officials for their convenience. Instead, he wrote about aspects of the spirit world that were experienced, passed around, debated and deployed in changing ways among all the various Luo-speaking groups living in what had become Uganda. That included his own Acholi ‘tribe’ which, in African Religions in Western Scholarship, he explicitly argued was an invention of the British colonial administration in the 1920s. In that second book p’Bitek was much more explicit about his antipathy to the analytical approaches he encountered in Oxford. He went so far as to assert that there is no place for social anthropology in African universities, because it was a discipline that demeaned Africans and reinforced modes of colonial control, including control over the minds of African people.

Okot p’Bitek was writing in this way before the publication of key works by anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s which challenged the discipline’s links with colonial rule and colonial thinking as well as descriptions of African lives within supposedly functional units. His work also prefigures debates about the objectification of the ‘other’ and conceptions of social life in relation to temporal narratives. Reading p’Bitek’s book on religion nowadays, it comes across as modern, insightful and engagingly easy to read. Looking back, it is perhaps unsurprising that his DPhil examiners didn’t know what to make of it – although I do wonder if his thesis would have been failed if he had studied at an English public school and had not been a blisteringly critical black African.

Okot p’Bitek’s prose books have been recently re-published, together with the equally neglected work on the Acholi people by the Marxist scholar Frank Girling, in Lawino’s People, with an introduction to their work by Tim Allen.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image Credit: Okot p’Bitek’s failed DPhil thesis at the Tylor Library, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford. Photograph by Tim Allen.

 

The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/02/2017 - 4:27am in

The book's author Sondra Hausner (Professor of Anthropology, University of Oxford) will explore the issues raised in her book. Every month, a ragtag group of Londoners gather in the site known as Crossbones Graveyard to commemorate the souls of medieval prostitutes believed to be buried there—the “Winchester Geese,” women who were under the protection of the Church but denied Christian burial. In the Borough of Southwark, not far from Shakespeare's Globe, is a pilgrimage site for self-identified misfits, nonconformists, and contemporary sex workers who leave memorials to the outcast dead. Ceremonies combining raucous humor and eclectic spirituality are led by a local playwright, John Constable, also known as John Crow. His interpretation of the history of the site has struck a chord with many who feel alienated in present-day London. Sondra L. Hausner offers a nuanced ethnography of Crossbones that tacks between past and present to look at the historical practices of sex work, the relation of the Church to these professions, and their representation in the present. She draws on anthropological approaches to ritual and time to understand the forms of spiritual healing conveyed by the Crossbones rites. She shows that ritual is a way of creating the present by mobilizing the stories of the past for contemporary purposes.

The book's author Sondra Hausner (Professor of Anthropology, University of Oxford) will explore the issues raised with:
Bridget Anderson (Professor of Migration and Citizenship, University of Oxford)
Diane Watt (Professor of Medieval Literature, University of Surrey)
Chair: Antonia Fitzpatrick (Departmental Lecturer in History, University of Oxford)