Building professional social networks through the American Anthropological Association annual meeting

A few years ago, I’d all but decided I wasn’t going to go to the American Anthropological Association main conference anymore. This was the year it was in San Francisco (111th Annual Meeting, 2012). Ironically, that was a memorable conference. I had several good meals in the Vietnamese neighborhood nearby (it was hosted in the Tenderloin—mm, bahn mis), was part of a great neuroanthropology session convened by Daniel Lende and Greg Downey (and out of which, ultimately, a publication about my lab’s teaching model came out in Anthropology Now), met Sonya Pritzker, who we ultimately wooed to Alabama to become a faculty member in my department, and spent at least two whole days walking around and exploring San Francisco with Max Stein and my best friend from graduate school, Courtney Kurlanska (Courtney likes to remind me about how it appeared that I was courteously pulling her out of the rain when in fact I was pulling her into a spot where I could see the a football game across a street through a sports bar window in which a bizarre set of losses actually led to Alabama getting back into the BCS Championship game to beat LSU).

Among the joys of anthropology, traveling, & conferencing is food, natch. Dinner at The Bachelor Farmer, Mpls, MN. Photo by Michaela Howells.

Among the joys of anthropology, traveling, & conferencing is food, natch. Dinner at The Bachelor Farmer, Mpls, MN. Photo by Michaela Howells.

My main complaint was that there were not enough biocultural anthropology talks or sessions or things where I obviously felt like I fit in. What I failed to recognize was that I was already doing the things these conferences are really for—building my network. But then the next year in Chicago, there were several big biocultural sessions that I felt spoke to me, and Katie MacKinnon, Julienne Rutherford, Robin Nelson, and others reached out to me as a fellow Tweeter and blogger and made me feel welcome. I realized I’d found my people, and things clicked. I’m now going the other direction and trying to get MORE involved in the organization to promote the need for the AAA to better represent four-fieldness, and I feel like part of a cohort of others doing the same.

AAA 2016 Roomies: Marc Kissel, Michaela Howells, Chris Lynn. Photo by Michaela Howells.

AAA 2016 Roomies: Marc Kissel, Michaela Howells, Chris Lynn. Photo by Michaela Howells.

This year, the meeting was held in Minneapolis, MN, and I attended Wednesday, 11/16 through Sunday, 11/20. I shared a room with Michaela Howells and Marc Kissel, who are on the executive committee for the Biological Anthropology Section (BAS) of the AAA. So I tagged along with them to as many events as possible and tried to insinuate myself. Agustin Fuentes has been chosen as chair of next year’s AAA meeting and determined the theme to be “Anthropology Matters” and hosted a get-together in his suite to gather ideas. I think anthropologists have often felt embattled, but for the past 8 years, we have had a U.S. president whose mother was an anthropologist (I shared a bit on this a few weeks ago). I felt the anthropological perspective was implicit in Obama’s worldview and approach to politics and leadership. However, that has changed dramatically (and painfully), and there is urgency to explicitly demonstrate our relevance. The world does need us, and we need to articulate why.

In the Anthropology Dept at the University of Alabama, Lynn Funkhouser and I have developed a fantastic elementary (and middle) school outreach program at Alabama that conveys why anthropology matters. The opportunity to convey an anthropological perspective and influence humans to think about and appreciate diversity is most salient when they are young, before they self-select (in part) for their post-secondary lives. We rarely reach these kids, so most anthropological perspective is taught to largely upper middle-class white kids who go to college and chose to take anthropology courses (and the same is true of evolution courses, since this blog is about evolution—though evolution is one of the foundational theories of anthropology, so when I talk about anthropology, I imply evolution as well). Lynn and I and our students and colleagues have developed a model for teaching anthropology to elementary school students that we administer through a service-learning course to a few local schools, which we’ve received Wenner Gren funding to expand and just published an article about in Annals of Anthropological Practice.

BASAA executive committee dinner that I was allowed to tag along to (thanks, Michaela!). Clockwise from left: Marc Kissel (not pictured---sorry, I couldn't back up enough & clipped you), Rachel Caspari, Milford Wolfpoff, Cathy Willermet, Sang-Hee Lee, Jim McKenna, Andrea Eller, Jim's wife (sorry! name escapes), Melanie Beasley, Karen Rosenberg, Agustin Fuentes, Michaela Howells. Dinner at 102 Eatery.

BASAA executive committee dinner that I was allowed to tag along to (thanks, Michaela!). Clockwise from left: Marc Kissel (not pictured—sorry, I couldn’t back up enough & clipped you), Rachel Caspari, Milford Wolfpoff, Cathy Willermet, Sang-Hee Lee, Jim McKenna, Andrea Eller, Joanne Mack, Melanie Beasley, Karen Rosenberg, Agustin Fuentes, Michaela Howells. Dinner at 102 Eatery.

I was pleased to be able to share our ideas for next year’s conference and to have them so well received. The next day, these ideas came up at an executive lunch and then again at the business meeting, which was open to all members. Agustin, Michaela, and Marc urged me to share our programs ideas in more detail with the entire BAS membership in attendance, which, again, was well received (and also includes the upcoming Kids Evolutionary Perspectives Society pre-conference!). I talked to BAS president Rachel Caspari and BAS web manager Andrea Eller about it in more detail during the reception and to others about coordinating an executive session (contact us if you’re interested or have ideas!). Afterward, I was lucky to be invited to join the executive committee for dinner afterward and discuss these things further, as well as catch up on shared interests and hear several fantastic war stories from Milford Wolfpoff, Jim McKenna, Karen Rosenberg, Agustin, Michaela, and others (Sang-Hee Lee took several good photos that she posted to the BASAA Facebook group, which I encourage y’all to join).

On Wednesday, between these events, was a humbling interjection by keynote Melissa Harris Perry. She is not an anthropologist, but I think that’s good, as we needed some outside voice to give us a shake, I think. Or me. I needed a shake. The message I took away was, ‘White liberals, stop acting so surprised about the election. If anyone had bothered to do a cross-tabulation of female voters in the U.S., you would know that white women vote Republican. Why would the revelation that Trump is a pussy-grabber cause them to change their minds? The only surprise was that Trump got caught on camera saying it. The reality is that almost every woman in the world has had her pussy grabbed and had to deal with it because it’s behavior we all ignore or perpetrate. Many women are married or related to pussy-grabbing men and protect them and apologize for or defend their behavior on a daily basis. We’ve probably all grabbed a pussy, ass, or boob without permission. What does our culture imply about this? That it’s OK. It’s not, but we’re all reacting instead of acting.’ Oof. But yeah.

On Thursday, I was supposed to have lunch with Sidney Greenfield, whose wonderful book Spirits with Scalpels is one of the best sources out there related to the neuroanthropological work I do. Unfortunately, he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t attend the meetings at all, but he asked me to chair a session, show two short films, and read a paper for him for the Society for Senior Anthropologists. The session was on the work of Phil Singer and Greenfield and their efforts to document the process and thoughts of anthropologists who are over 80 years old about their impending death. Although it sounds rather heavy and macabre, it wasn’t. The overarching theme was that people don’t necessarily become preoccupied with thinking about or preparing for their own deaths—most of them seem to continue thinking about work and anthropology all the way till the end. Though a few of the interviewees had recently died, including Phil Singer, which added a sobering element to the session, the message overall was very validating and hopeful. I was glad I could be part of it.

There were several other highlights of the conference that I’ll highlight with Tweets and photos, but I will also summarize them here. I met a few prospective graduate students, which is exciting, as I need to replace the amazing work Max Stein has been doing in my lab. Max is the lead author on another AAP paper that just came out about how we do things (in an excellent special issue compiled by Toni Copeland and Francois Dengah), and he has been instrumental as lab and project manager this year. But he should soon have his PhD in hand and be ‘out there,’ as it were, hopefully with a job in hand (or you should be contacting him if you have a biocultural position opening, because he is awesome).

A row of excellent mustaches and shoes. Photo courtesy Michaela Howells.

A row of excellent mustaches and shoes . Photo courtesy Michaela Howells.

Courtney and I had our annual date (though I missed last year because my grandmother died and I was at her funeral), but we forgot to get a selfie together! We hung with some other UAlbany alumni, braved the yucky Mpls. snow (OK, it melted in a half hour, but I was only wearing canvas shoes) to go have dinner at a local Vietnamese place (with, apparently, everyone else attending the conference), then met up with Francois Dengah and Max Stein for a bit more hanging before calling it an evening. In the process, I realized what The Replacements song “Skyway” was about, after walking through it for several days. Perhaps two other people in attendance appreciated my revelation.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday there were three excellent biocultural sessions convened by Morgan Hoke, including one in which Michaela presented on our work this past summer in American Samoa. In the middle of that, Sonya and I convened a session on biocultural anthropology and linguistics with us, Daniel Lende, Avery McNeece, Mandy Guitar and Sabina Perrino with Jim Wilce and Carol Worthman as discussants.

I thought it went great. Sonya says the editor of Ethos is interested in a special issue about the session. I met a few people with further interest in the work, including Josh Brahinsky, a postdoc in Tanya Luhrmann’s group. We talked after about future collaboration possibilities, which I find exciting. Then there was a BAS-sponsored networking workshop for students organized by Michaela (great photos of that event here) that I was supposed to participate in, but I went to the Zika Interest Group and Roundtables instead, to make sure Michaela and I could get involved with that for our work in American Samoa. Those were VERY helpful.

I also met with several publishers while there to pitch the book I’ll be writing while on sabbatical next semester. It was disheartening but not surprising to hear how much marketing considerations want us to narrow our focus and put us in boxes, while in the biocultural sessions there was explicit commentary on breaking down disciplinary boundaries. After working in music distribution and schlepping music to stores by appeal to genres, this is an obvious intersection of idealism and logistic practicality. However, I do feel that if the AAA wants to represent itself as four-field, the book editors’ narrow focus on cultural anthropology is a BIG problem.

Despite the issue with editors, I got some good books in the book room on the premise that I might someday teach a course that might someday use this or that book. On the other hand, Michaela got this excellent bib, modeled here by her anthro dog extraordinaire Uli, which she sent me when I asked her for relevant photos.

Despite the issue with editors, I got some good books in the book room on the premise that I might someday teach a course that might someday use this or that book. On the other hand, Michaela got this excellent bib, modeled here by her anthro dog extraordinaire Uli, which she sent me when I asked her for relevant photos.

For us, the conference wrapped up with an unfortunately unpublicized and, thus, underattended talk by Frans de Waal. It was mostly the same talk I’ve seen previously, but he’s still one of the best ALLELE lectures we’ve ever had and does a great job articulating a clear message to educated lay audiences and selling a compelling idea about human empathy.

This post originally appeared at on the EvoS Studies blog: Cheap Thrills through Evolution.

Talking about Race with “White Person Bias”

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Author Jo Weaver juggling fieldwork and family in Brazil. Photo courtesy David Meek

Fieldwork. We all do it, yet it seems to be something that’s particularly hard to teach and talk about, especially when so much of the success of fieldwork in any anthropological sub-discipline hinges on a researcher’s ability to form genuine social relationships. I’ve heard people say, “You just can’t teach that” about this keystone of success. Well, Russ Bernard has shown us that many elements of the focused attention required for fieldwork can be taught (see his section on participant-observation from Research Methods in Anthropology, AltaMira, 2011), while books like Tales of the Field (Van Maanen),Disasters in Field Research (Ice, DuFour, and Stevens), and I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Logsdon) speak to the need in the social sciences to share and learn from fieldwork mistakes and misadventures.

I continue to be fascinated by the exigencies of fieldwork, perhaps in part because they are so universal yet typically not prioritized in discussion—so familiar, yet so strange, to quote the theme of the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting in Denver.

Chris Lynn and I have organized a session for the meeting titled, “Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research,” which we designed as a forum for an updated discussion of the practicalities of field research. Our inspiration came in part from Clancy and colleagues’ recent PLoS One study on sexual harassment in the field, which received a lot of press last year (a shocking 70% of the over 500 women they interviewed reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their field research careers, while 25% reported actual assault). Robin Nelson, one of the study’s authors, will serve as our session discussant.

I am especially excited about this session because, although the presenters are all professors, the topics address challenges common at all stages of research and training.Rebecca Lester’s and Eileen Anderson-Fye’s presentations, for instance, will explore how fieldworkers manage and respond to trauma, both theirs and others’, in field research. My presentation will use data from a small study of fieldworkers at various stages of their research careers to explore how they grapple with racial differences between themselves and their informants. Chris Lynn’s and Michaela Howells‘, meanwhile, will discuss fieldwork and family—a favorite topic of mine and one relevant for graduate students and faculty members. There are important lessons to be learned here for students, mentors, and fieldworkers at all stages.

My desire to talk about race and racially charged encounters in fieldwork stems in part from my employment in a largely white department (as most anthropology departments are) in the deep south. Our department’s faculty are particularly concerned with social inequity in health outcomes, which means that our research and teaching often put us in contact with disenfranchised people in the greater Alabama area, many of whom identify with minority racial groups. The ongoing racial tensions in our community, which are more blatant though probably no stronger than anywhere else in the U.S. right now, undoubtedly shape our research and teaching—especially when it comes to understanding and reflecting on how we are perceived by the people with whom we work.

Early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness…It is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past.

 

Last year, when I received a student review that claimed my teaching suffered from “white person bias,” I took the comment very seriously because I regularly teach about social inequality and social justice in the south. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to engage racial difference in an overarching cultural context of racial tension meaningfully, respectfully, and in a way that is useful to all parties involved. Although I thought I was doing this pretty well, my student’s comment reminds me that I have a long way to go. So, my motivation for doing a study of fieldworkers’ engagement with race is partially selfish.

 

This issue is also important from a historic perspective in anthropology. We all know that early anthropologists were often missionaries or colonial representatives working among peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania who were assumed to be inferior because of their non-Europeanness. Typically, when anthropologists read these materials today, we do so with an understanding that we must overlook the racism embedded in these authors’ works if we want to extract their insights. We say that we can’t get caught up in their racism because that’s just how things were back then.

 

But I think it is a mistake to willfully overlook those racial under- (and over-) tones because what we do today still very closely resembles what we did in the past. No matter our intentions, we are still an overwhelmingly white discipline that works with people all over the world who do not identify as white. We are still an overwhelmingly white set of authority figures, and our classrooms reflect much greater racial and ethnic diversity than our anthropology faculties and departments do. We need to talk about these things.

 

So, come to our AAA session and help me figure out how to be a better anthropologist. You might learn something, too.

“Hidden Motivations and Glossed Justifications: Problems and Priorities in Biocultural Field Research”
Invited Session sponsored by the Biological Anthropology Section and the General Anthropology Division
Thursday, November 19 4:00 pm- 5:45 PM

Lesley Jo Weaver (PhD/MPH, Emory) is an Assistant Professor in the Biocultural Medical program and an affiliated faculty member in UA’s Asian Studies program. She studies health and illness in India and rural northern Brazil.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.


This post originally appeared in Anthropology News‘ October 2015 “Knowledge Exchange.”