2023. Fascinating life, flawed memoir: Review of You Have Been Referred by Michael Robinson. The British Columbia Review, 26 July.
2023. A purrfectly useful guide: Review of Purr by Zazie Todd. The British Colubmia Review, 12 May.
2016. Review of addicted.pregnant.poor by Kelly Ray Knight. Somatosphere, 25 February.
2015. Review of Ethical Quandaries in Social Research by Deborah Posel and Fiona C. Ross, eds (2014). Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(3-4): 382-384.
2015. Review of Habits: Remaking Addiction by Suzanne Fraser, David Moore and Helen Keane (2014). Critical Public Health, 25(4): 504-505.
2015. Review of The Social Value of Drug Addicts: Uses of the Useless by Merrill Singer and J. Bryan Page (2014). Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 29(1): b14-b16.
2014. Review of Alcohol in Latin America: a Social and Cultural History by Gretchen Pierce & Áurea Toxqui, eds (2014). Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, 39(2): 324-326.
2008. Review of The AIDS Pandemic by James Chin (2006). Critical Public Health, 18(1): 123-124.
2006. Review of The Making of Anthropology in East and Southeast Asia by Shinji Yamashita, Joseph Bosco & JS Eades, eds (2004). The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 7(2): 184-186.
2005. Review of Living Dangerously in Korea by Donald Clark (2003) & Korean Shamanism by Chongho Kim (2003). Asian Studies Review, 29(3): 313-315.
2004. Review of Laying Claim to the Memory of May: a Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising by Linda Lewis (2002). The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 15(2): 235-236.
Review of Ethical Quandaries in Social Research edited by Deborah Posel and Fiona C. Ross (HSRC Press, 2014) Review published in Anthropology Southern Africa in 2015
As its name suggests, Ethical Quandaries in Social Research focuses on the ethical dilemmas that social researchers face in the field. What makes this edited collection distinctive is that its chapters all focus on the South African context. While the book’s title and blurb are consequently somewhat misleading (the South African focus only becomes apparent in the book’s introduction), I think there is something to be said for the kind of project the editors have undertaken here. As someone relatively ignorant about South Africa, I finished the book with a much clearer sense of the conditions of contemporary life in a country rife with inequalities—and what it is like to conduct research in such a setting.
Although the book is interdisciplinary in orientation and includes reflections by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, social workers, epidemiologists, legal scholars, etc., perhaps unsurprisingly, HIV/AIDS is a prominent focus of many (although certainly not all) of the chapters. Does this geographic and topical focus limit the general utility of the book? There’s little question that this context does raise some fairly specific issues that social scientists working in other regions and on other topics are unlikely to confront, but readers will nevertheless find much that is familiar. The tension between duties to people vs. duties to ‘knowledge’, the complexities of relationships between researchers and their interlocutors in the field, and the sheer inadequacies of existing frameworks and regulations for dealing with ‘on the ground’ ethical issues, are likely to resonate for anyone who has ever conducted fieldwork, regardless of where they work and what they study.
It is not, by any means, a perfect book—by turns I found it both a fascinating and frustrating read, although the former emotion dominated at the end. The core strength of the book is the way it draws you into the immediacy of fieldwork dilemmas as the contributors experienced them. For the most part, authors recount specific events or incidents and how they dealt with them in the heat of the moment, as well as reflecting back on their actions with the benefit of hindsight. I’ve often thought that it’s quite difficult to write about such dilemmas without sounding a bit self-indulgent. However, although a couple of chapters veered down this path, for the most part I found the frank reflections presented in the book to be both compelling and thought provoking. Particularly interesting was the diversity of issues covered: from life or death situations and those where legal and ethical requirements conflict, to more seemingly mundane (but often equally distressing) dilemmas such as unwanted marriage proposals from informants, whether to pay for participants’ stories, and what to do when one dislikes one’s key informants and the values they propound.
As these cases make acutely (even painfully) clear, social researchers are often confronted with situations where there are no clear cut ‘right’ choices to be made. Indeed, as various chapters illustrate, what defines an issue as an ‘ethical’ one is not self evident or universally agreed upon. That said, I couldn’t help but feel that a number of the chapters would have benefited from further engagement with the available bioethical and social science literature. It’s true that the ethical issues social researchers experience “in the thick of fieldwork” (p. 1) have been less explored than those inhering in the written representations that derive from it and that discussions of research ethics regulation have often tended to crowd out discussions of research ethics itself, but many of the issues raised in the book have been discussed and debated at length. Some are even addressed within ethical frameworks and guidelines themselves: Canada’s Tri Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans comes to mind, along with the online ethics training module: “Human Research Ethics for the Social Sciences” (see: http://mq.edu.au/ethics_training/), developed by a team of anthropologists at Macquarie University in Australia.
Although various contributors make a clear effort to embed their chapters within the extant literature (and the editors’ chapters are exemplary in this regard), there is a bit of a ‘reinventing the wheel’ feel to some of the chapters. However, I finished the book feeling that perhaps this to a certain extent inevitable, largely because ‘ethics’ has to be experienced for oneself; it can’t be mandated or prescribed in the abstract. Thus, all the hypothetical case studies and principles in the world (do no harm! respect autonomy!) mean little in the face of the messy realities of fieldwork, where each of us has to navigate a context and set of circumstances that is essentially unique.
This leads me to my core criticism of the book. Reading it, it was clear to me that many of the chapters fundamentally challenge the core set of conceptual equipment we are presented with today in talking about ethics—concepts like ‘informed consent’, ‘beneficence’, ‘coercion’, ‘vulnerability’, and so on. But for the most part, the critique mounted never goes so far as to challenge the validity of the concepts themselves. Likewise, although a number of chapters reveal the inadequacies of existing regulatory mechanisms, the critique never explicitly challenges the value of the mechanisms themselves. Indeed, as the editors note at the outset, “We are, along with all the contributors to this book, in favour of the formal institutional and professional ethical regulation of social research”; their concern is merely with the “hyper-regulation” and “undue technicism” of the current process (p. 3). But what if the act of regulation itself is part of the problem? What if the ‘ethics’ of social research can’t actually be regulated, and the attempt to do so ironically undermines precisely what it sets out to accomplish? It seems to me that there was a bit of a missed opportunity in the book to really challenge some of the core assumptions embedded in contemporary conceptions of research ethics, although I also recognize that this may be a largely idiosyncratic response on my part.
So who will benefit most from reading Ethical Quandaries in Social Research? Obviously, it is essential reading for anyone doing research in South Africa and other regions with a similar colonial history. Anyone working on HIV/AIDS would probably also find it a thought-provoking read, regardless of where they work. Those with an interest in research ethics and research ethics regulation will also find much to like about the book (despite the caveats posed above) and I would also use this text in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in ethnographic and qualitative methods, where I have no doubt that it would stimulate lively discussion and debate.
Review of Habits: Remaking Addiction by Suzanne Fraser, David Moore and Helen Keane (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) Review published in Critical Public Health in 2015
Habits: Remaking Addiction is an intriguing and ambitious book and a timely intervention into prevailing ways of thinking about addiction. Strongly influenced by science and technology studies and the posthumanist turn, Suzanne Fraser, David Moore and Helen Keane challenge the idea of addiction as an anterior entity that exists independently of the terms used to define it, which they argue is a feature of both essentialist and constructivist accounts. Instead, their interest is to explore addiction as an assemblage that is “multiple and contingent, its shape, scale and content dependent upon a range of other equally labile phenomena” (p. 236).
As someone who has co-authored papers with Keane, I am naturally sympathetic to the authors’ agenda. That said, I do think there is much here that will be of interest to scholars working in and beyond the field of addiction, as well as those interested in science and technology studies more broadly. I have no doubt that some readers will find the book challenging, both in terms of the conceptual frameworks on which it draws and its destabilization of the concept of addiction, but I think the intellectual effort is worth the pay off.
The book contains seven substantive chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 focuses on models of addiction and explores several recent developments, namely, the revised DSM, with its new category of ‘substance use disorders’, and the rise of the brain disease model of addiction. The remainder of the book focuses on the ways that addiction is enacted across three distinct contexts: methamphetamines, alcohol, and food. Each of these topics is the focus of two chapters in turn: one that analyzes scientific and policy discourses and one drawing on interview-based research with ‘users’ of the substance in question (meth users, young adult drinkers, and mothers asked to reflect on notions of compulsive eating and ‘food addiction’).
In my view, the authors’ decision to trace the concept of addiction across a variety of substances is the book’s key strength. This comparative focus is productive because of the contrasting ways these substances have been drawn into the realm of addiction. We have an illicit drug that is widely understood to be highly addictive (methamphetamine), a legal and widely used drug that is sometimes seen to cause addiction (alcohol), and a life-sustaining substance that is increasingly being defined as ‘drug-like’ in its effects (food). Thus, the comparisons between these categories serve to crystallize precisely how fragmented the concept of addiction is and the sorts of ‘collateral realities’ it both produces and relies on. Juxtaposing scientific and policy accounts with those of the individuals described within them is also a strength. As Fraser et al. show, while interviewees all engage with prevailing discourses on addiction to varying degrees (depending partly on the substance in question), the object articulated in their narratives is something contingent, diffuse and multiple.
Although co-authored by three scholars, the content of the book feels well integrated and it is lucidly written and argued. My sense is that the book is primarily intended for academics and professionals working in the field of addiction, but it could feasibly be used in advanced undergraduate courses in the anthropology and sociology of addiction, along with those in science and technology studies. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that as the authors are based in Australia, the empirical material they draw on comes largely from this region. Although I don’t think this diminishes the value of the book, as Fraser et al. make clear, there are some national differences between discourses on addiction in Australia, and say, the USA – where the brain disease model of addiction is more prominent. In sum, I strongly recommend the book, which I think deserves a wide international readership.
Review of The Social Value of Drug Addicts: Uses of the Useless by Merrill Singer and J. Bryan Page (Leftcoast Press, 2014) Review published in Medical Anthropology Quarterly in 2015
Merrill Singer and Bryan Page’s The Social Value of Drug Addicts has an intriguing premise, promising to help the reader to understand the “uses” of “addicts”—a group generally deemed to be “useless”. The book’s core message is that it’s socially, economically and politically expedient to have certain groups of people defined as subhuman Others. Ambitious and synthetic in scope, it covers seven main topics: 1) race and gender in constructions of drug use; 2) drug use through the ages; 3) representations of addicts in the British and American temperance movements; 4) depictions of drug users in literature; 5) depictions of drug users in film and television; 6) the legal construction of drug users; and 7) social scientists’ uses of drug users. Although they have decades of ethnographic work to draw on (and this is referenced in passing), Singer and Page’s goal is not to provide an ethnographic portrait of drug users, but to interrogate hegemonic representations of ‘addicts’ and addiction. As they note in the book’s conclusion, “Drug users, after all, are not really a distinct population or group of different people from us; they are our friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbors, our police officers and other first responders, our sports heroes, our warriors, our entertainers, our students, and our children” (p. 218).
I suspect that most readers of Medical Anthropology Quarterly would have no problems with the book’s central thrust and would readily endorse many of its sentiments. Although I wasn’t able to get a handle on precisely who the book’s intended audience is (which seemed to be a bit of a moving target), I assume that it’s primarily aimed at students. There’s little question that it provides a good introduction to the subject and I can see it being a very useful core text in courses on the anthropology and sociology of drugs. As a bonus (for one can’t say this uniformly of texts aimed at the student market), I have little doubt that students would find the book both interesting and eye-opening. I suspect that clinicians working in the area of drugs and addiction would also strongly benefit from reading it. However, if judged as a piece of academic scholarship, as opposed to a student text, I must confess to finding The Social Value of Drug Addicts an interesting but somewhat unsatisfying read. Recognizing that it’s difficult to produce a book that pleases both audiences, and that the authors likely intended to target primarily the latter, I nevertheless thought there were some missed opportunities.
Taken as a whole, the book seems to be more about representations of drug users than an exploration of the “uses of the useless”. In my view, this was a particular issue in the chapters on representations of drug users in literature and film, where the links with the book’s central thrust are not especially clear. Although an attempt is made in the conclusion to draw together the various strands of the book, these ideas aren’t developed enough in the chapters themselves, so the overall volume comes across as lacking in coherence. I think many of these issues would have been resolved with a stronger editorial hand.
It seems to me that the authors start to develop some interesting ideas in a number of places, but don’t follow up on their implications. This was particularly true of the chapter on social scientists’ ‘uses’ of drug users. To their credit, Singer and Page discuss the ways in which social scientists profit from research with drug users. But what I was particularly looking for (encouraged, in part, by the chapter’s title: “Drug Users in Social Science: the Others We’ve Made”), was a discussion of the ways that social and behavioral scientists have helped to actively produce the phenomena they aim to describe and understand. And while the authors discuss the ways in which federal funding is channeled through different organizations, serving to keep research on alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs artificially separate, more could have been said about the ways it serves to reinforce the view of drug use as intrinsically problematic. After all, grant agencies are hardly going to fund research on the social benefits of drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs.
Perhaps my main criticism is that the book tends to treat the Addict Other as a relatively fixed and stable category. However, part of the abjectness of addiction arguably stems from the porosity of this category. This fluidity is especially pronounced in the context of pharmaceutical drugs, where the lines between medical use and recreational ‘abuse’ often become blurred. But the idea that all of us are at risk of addiction is arguably as much an aspect of discourses on drugs as the Othering that Singer and Page emphasize. This view of addiction is pronounced in the American and British temperance movements (as Singer and Page’s account makes clear), although it’s also evident in the ‘stepping stone’ view of drugs (mentioned only in passing in the book) and the ‘gateway theory’ (which doesn’t rate a mention at all). Under such frameworks, the lines between use/abuse are intrinsically fuzzy. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1993) has observed, in light of the split between will and desire upon which the category of addiction is premised, we can’t draw logical boundaries around the concept anywhere.
Considering this aspect of discourses on addiction alongside of the Othering processes they highlight would have strengthened Singer and Page’s analysis. A perfect example is the films they choose to focus on in the chapter on depictions of drug use. Singer and Page tell us that “we avoided discussion of the considerable inventory of psychedelic and so-called ‘stoner’ films because they do not typically deal with the issue of addiction” (p. 121). However, quite a different perspective would have resulted from an examination of films that depict drug use in more normalized ways (and there are plenty out there—Pulp Fiction springs to mind). In these films, lines between ‘users’ and ‘abusers’ tend to be drawn, but not in hard and fast ways. As Cher notes in the movie Clueless: “It is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day”. If the lines between ‘drug addicts’ and everybody else are intrinsically porous, vigilant boundary management is required to maintain the conceptual separation—a point that certainly doesn’t negate Singer and Page’s central arguments, but I think would have served to complicate them somewhat.
In sum, the ‘value’ of The Social Value of Drug Addicts as an introductory text is high. With some further ambition, I think it would also have been a valuable text for anthropologists working in the field of drugs, but given its intended audience this probably shouldn’t be held against it.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky
1993 Epidemics of the Will. In Tendencies. Pp. 129-140. London: Routledge.
Review of Alcohol in Latin America: a Social and Cultural History edited by Gretchen Pierce and Aurea Toxqui (Arizona University Press, 2014) Review published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies in 2014
As I write this review, the 2014 World Cup is currently underway in Brazil. FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the governing body responsible for organizing the World Cup, has received a considerable amount of press in the build up to the Cup, none of it positive. Although FIFA has been criticized on a variety of fronts, one action that garnered particular attention was the Association’s demand that the Brazilian government repeal laws banning the sale of alcohol at football matches – laws that had been introduced in response to alcohol-fuelled and occasionally lethal violence between rival fans. That one of the primary sponsors of the World Cup is Budweiser has not escaped anyone’s notice, least of all the Brazilians, many of whom have taken to the streets to protest FIFA and the World Cup.
In many respects, the ‘Budweiser Bill’ (as the infamous Bill overturning the prior alcohol ban at matches is now widely known) illustrates the central concerns of Alcohol in Latin America, which aims to show that alcohol production, consumption and regulation have become key sites in which much larger social, political and economic issues play out. As Gretchen Pierce and Áurea Toxqui, the volume’s editors, note in the introduction: “each of the contributors uses alcohol as a way to understand bigger topics within Latin American history, such as identity, ethnic and communal bonding, race, class, gender, power relations, state-building, and resistance” (p. 9).
Beer, along with its siblings wine and spirits, has a rich history in many parts of the world. However, although this history has been extensively documented in studies north of the border (i.e., the USA and Canada), according to Pierce and Toxqui, this story has largely not been told for Latin America. Their aim, as they explain it, is to “fill that gap” (p. 9). Is the book successful in this agenda? To my mind, Pierce and Toxqui have produced a fairly cohesive collection that provides compelling insights into the ways in which alcohol in Latin America has become tied up with questions of identity and projects of nation building. The book is divided into three parts that roughly correspond with three historical epochs: the prehispanic and colonial periods, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ten chapters follow the introduction and the editors have provided brief overviews of each of the book’s three parts to contextualize their content.
Mexico is clearly over-represented in the collection, with four out of the ten chapters focusing on the country, although Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Chile and the Andean region are also covered to varying degrees. In light of the book’s subtitle, it should also come as little surprise that historians dominate. However, the collection is buttressed by an archaeological overview of alcohol in the pre-Columbian Andes by Justin Jennings and an anthropological examination of the role of hard cider production in solidifying community bonds in rural Chile by Anton Daughters.
Regardless of their geographic or temporal focus, several themes crosscut many of the chapters in the collection. Some articulate the ways in which alcohol became connected with projects of nation building and the work of carving out a distinctive national identity – e.g., José Orozco’s chapter on Tequila in Mexico and Nancy Hanway’s and Steve Stein’s chapters on wine production in Argentina. Others show very clearly the ways in which alcohol became tied to local and national economies – especially João Azevedo Fernandes’ chapter on colonial Brazil’s reliance on alcohol in the trafficking and pacification of slaves and Gretchen Pierce’s chapter on small alcohol producers in Mexico.
However, perhaps the most prominent theme in the collection is the way that alcohol both crystallized social hierarchies relating to gender, ethnicity and class and equally served to challenge them. In many respects, all the chapters provide illustrations of this, although they are particularly prominent in Aaron Althouse’s analysis of court cases involving drunken violence in rural colonial Mexico and Áurea Toxqui’s chapter on women’s involvement in Mexican pulquería – the small venues selling the viscous, milky alcohol known as pulque. As David Carey Jr observes in his chapter on perceptions of alcohol use and abuse in Guatemala, “Alcohol consumption facilitated such social ills as poverty and violence, but it also served many purposes from filling coffers to maintaining community identities and upsetting social norms. It both upheld and exacerbated such hegemonic relations as men’s exploitation of women and the state’s attempt to control its population” (p. 133). In many respects, this is an apt characterization of the collection as a whole.
Although I think the collection will be of considerable interest to scholars working in Latin America (especially given the ways alcohol intersects with so many other topics of wider concern), along with those interested in the history and anthropology of drugs more broadly, it is not without limitations. It is challenging, to say the least, to curate a collection of offerings under the ambitious title of ‘alcohol in Latin America’; thus, those wanting to learn more about alcohol in countries beyond those previously mentioned will likely be disappointed. However, the editors are clearly aware of the book’s limitations in this regard, noting up front, “Although Alcohol in Latin America was intended to be comprehensive, as the title implies, unfortunately it was unable to include information on every Latin American country, type of alcohol, or potential historical topic” (p. 9). That said, while the book may not entirely live up to the promise of the title, it certainly makes a good start on what is clearly an important and under-researched area and is well worth reading for that reason alone.
Review of The AIDS Pandemic: the Collision of Epidemiology with Political Correctness by James Chin (Radcliffe Publishing, 2007) Review published in Critical Public Health in 2008
The AIDS Pandemic is written by James Chin, a public health epidemiologist with a long history of involvement in HIV/AIDS surveillance. At the beginning of the book Chin confides that he wasn’t sure whether to write a textbook on AIDS or a description of his personal and professional experience in studying the pandemic. In the end it is clear that he decided to do both, although the biographical and ‘personal’ material is officially relegated to the front and back chapters. The technical middle chapters on HIV Infections and AIDs cases, HIV epidemiology and transmission dynamics, understanding HIV/AIDS numbers, and the credibility of HIV/AIDS estimates are suitably acronym-filled, although they are broken up with occasional chatty asides. The result is an interesting but flawed book that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and the academic and personal content sit together somewhat awkwardly.
Chin’s key argument is that HIV/AIDS agendas, policies and programs have been driven more by political correctness than objective, epidemiologically-based analysis and that the field is beset with myths and misconceptions about HIV epidemiology and prevalence. He argues that there has been an exaggeration of the potential for HIV spread – a “glorious myth” perpetuated by UNAIDS and other advocacy organizations partly to avoid the stigmatisation of persons with the highest risk behaviours. Chin clearly wants to ‘set the record straight’ about the AIDS pandemic and his goal is to produce an “objective assessment” unhindered by the constraints of “social and political correctness” (although the twin objects of his attack are never actually defined).
Chin makes a number of valid points in the book in relation to the tendency to overstate the size of the AIDS epidemic, the problematic nature of the statistics generated, and the political interests driving the movement. That a public health movement would be influenced by social, moral and political agendas seems to come as a surprise to Chin, although I can think of few public health movements where the same is not also true – the alleged obesity (or ‘globesity’) epidemic being a case in point. However, instead of sparking a paradigmatic shift in Chin’s view of how scientific knowledge is produced, this realisation merely sparks his indignation that ‘science’ is being ‘compromised’ and leads to his earnest attempt to defend its integrity.
For Chin, epidemic HIV transmission requires human behaviours that involve having either: a) unprotected sex with multiple and concurrent partners or b) routinely sharing needles and syringes with other injecting drug users. He argues that this basic fact has been obscured by well meaning but misguided scholars, activists and organizations who continue to cite poverty as a cause of HIV transmission. Indeed, Paul Farmer, we are told (along with the WHO and UNAIDS), “…may have to assume some responsibility for the current abysmal AIDS situation in South Africa since they continue, without any scientific support, to invoke poverty as a major determinant of high HIV prevalence” (p. 150).
However, here he does the ‘politically correct’ positions he attacks a significant disservice and seems in danger of setting up a straw man to demolish. If I read Farmer correctly, his key point is that HIV transmission is a social process that is embedded in inegalitarian social structures – a view supported by organisations such as the UNDP, which stresses that the relationship between poverty and HIV/AIDS is complex and multi-dimensional rather than linear and direct. The UNDP’s position is that poverty may increase the risk factors (such as survival sex work, labour mobility) that lead to HIV/AIDS transmission, and that HIV/AIDS dramatically intensifies and exacerbates poverty – a view that Chin seems to endorse.
Indeed, in places Chin seems to recognise the importance of this broader social context in HIV transmission, and in his chapter on HIV/AIDS prevention he indicates that countries with low HIV prevalence need to “…monitor all situations that tend to increase sexual risk behaviours… include[ing] commercial sex networks, border areas with extensive population movement, migration and/or travel away from stable social environments such as from rural to urban areas for employment, seasonal workers, migrant workers, military… long distance truck drivers…” (p. 148). Unfortunately, he does not make the link between poverty (or urbanisation or globalisation) and the environments that increase such sexual risk behaviours, choosing to focus instead on sexual behaviours themselves.
In the most problematic section of the book, we are told that while up to 20% of adults in some Western countries have mostly serial sexual relationships with between 1-10 partners on a monthly or yearly basis, 20-40% of people in some sub-Saharan African countries have mostly concurrent sexual partners between 1-100 on a weekly or monthly basis. Unfortunately, Chin does not provide us with a source for these remarkable statistics – a little sloppy in a writer who spends a considerable amount of time berating others for their carelessness with numbers. Lest we are in any doubt, the underlying theme here is sexual promiscuity – a phrase that Chin himself uses, albeit largely in footnotes.
Yet despite the polemic and occasionally prurient tone of the book, my sense was that Chin’s position in many respects was perhaps not so radically different from those scholars, activists and organisations he attacks. The comment by the author of the foreword (Jeffrey Koplan) that “there is probably more agreement than conflict between the author and the ‘mainstream’ authorities” seems an accurate characterisation of the book’s message – muddled though it admittedly may be.
Review of The Making of Anthropology in East and Southeast Asia edited by Shinji Yamashita, Joseph Bosco and J.S. Eades (Berghahn, 2004) Review published in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology in 2006
Anthropology is a thriving discipline in many parts of the world*this is particularly true of East and Southeast Asia. The Making of Anthropology sets out to explore the development of the discipline in these regions, and its relationship to anthropology in the West. Although not entirely successful, the collection raises a number of interesting questions about the contemporary practice of anthropology. In particular, in an era where postcolonial and postmodern critiques might be regarded as having been incorporated into mainstream disciplinary practice, this collection of essays makes it clear that many of the issues raised by such critiques remain unresolved and are, perhaps, irresolvable.
Despite the eclectic nature of the subjects discussed in the collection, and the radically different histories of the countries under examination, the juxtaposition of papers set in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines reveals certain continuities. One of the major themes in the volume concerns the ongoing dominance of American, French and British anthropology and the peripheral status of anthropology produced in Asia. Kuwayama (Chapter 2) finds evidence of a ‘world system’ in anthropology that entrenches structural inequalities between the West and the rest. His argument is confirmed (at least in part) by many of the other contributions, which variously highlight the status that is conferred on Asian scholars with Western training, the widespread assumption among Western anthropologists that good scholarship is synonymous with writing in English, and the necessity of grappling with current theoretical fashions in the West – whatever their relevance – in order to be taken seriously within Western academe.
At the same time, one of the real strengths of the book is the way that contributors endeavour to complicate this picture of Western dominance over the discipline. Authors discuss, for example, the different goals in the production of anthropological knowledge in Western and non-Western contexts. In each of the countries examined, anthropological research has been linked with the project of nation building – which has in turn determined both the focus of study (ethnic minorities, national identity, preservation of ‘national tradition’, etc.) and the style of research undertaken. Studies have had more in common with the fields of folklore and ethnology than anthropology, given the emphasis of these former disciplines on description as opposed to theoretical analysis. And, while the anthropological pursuit of Otherness has not been absent from Asian anthropologies, many early studies in the region were directed towards internal Others, such as the aborigines of Taiwan, the Ainu of Japan and ethnic minorities in China, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Yamashita points out (in Chapter 4) that Japan, given its successful project of colonial expansion, was the only country to step outside its borders in pursuit of the Other. Continuing the Western tradition of colonial anthropology, areas controlled by Japanese imperialism (Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, China, Micronesia and Southeast Asia) formed major sites for Japanese anthropological field research.
Such complexities serve to illustrate the problems with efforts to ‘indigenise’ anthropology and related attempts to distinguish ‘foreign’ from ‘native’ anthropologists. Given that many Asian anthropologists have received Western training and done some work in Western universities, such distinctions are revealed as flawed. Some of the authors (Yamashita, Bosco and Eades in Chapter 1, Wu in Chapter 9, Bosco in Chapter 10 and Kim in Chapter 11) attempt to deal with the complexities of subject position by differentiating ‘indigenous’ from ‘native’ anthropologists according to those writing for a local as opposed to a foreign audience. Others, such as Tan (Chapter 13), seek to problematise such a distinction further. Tan asks: can a Malay from peninsular Malaysia who carries out research on an ethnic minority in Sarawak be considered a ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ anthropologist?
While all the essays are interesting, some seem less well integrated with the major themes, for example Cheung’s chapter (6) on Japanese depictions of the Ainu, Zhuang’s chapter (8) on the Chinese education system and Shamsul’s chapter (12) on the development of Malaysian anthropology. Moreover, given that the bulk of the essays focus on Japan and to a lesser extent China, the book’s claim to explore ‘the making of anthropology in East and Southeast Asia’ is tenuous at best. Indeed, the disproportionate focus on Japan provides further evidence that generalisations about centre and periphery cannot be made too broadly, with Japan certainly a dominant force within Asian anthropology (a fact acknowledged by Kuwayama).
Instead of providing a somewhat superficial nod towards Southeast Asia (via chapters on Malaysia and the Philippines), I think it would have been more productive for the volume to focus exclusively on Northeast Asia and provide more extensive coverage of this region (in particular, through expanding the material on Korea and Taiwan). That said, and despite the relatively superficial coverage of Korea, Taiwan and ‘Southeast Asia’, these inclusions do help establish regional continuities.
All in all, the volume is an interesting collection of essays and will be of value and interest to anthropologists working in the regions explored, as well as those interested in postcolonial theory.
Review of Living Dangerously in Korea by Donald Clark (Ashgate, 2003) and Korean Shamanism by Chongho Kim (Eastbridge, 2003) Review published in Asian Studies Review in 2005
Despite many differences, one theme superficially shared by Korean Shamanism and Living Dangerously is their focus on religion in Korea. Chongho Kim discusses Korean shamanism from his perspective as an indigenous anthropologist, and Donald Clark provides a historical account of Christian missionary life in Korea during the first half of the twentieth century.
A more intriguing similarity between the two books is the fact that they are clearly the culmination of parallel personal journeys undertaken by their authors: Kim as a native anthropologist seeking to understand a ‘paradoxical’ religious tradition and Clark as the son of Christian missionaries – and the grandson of eminent missionary and scholar Charles Allen Clark.
Moreover, both books are clearly reacting to established discourses (on Korean shamanism and missionary activity in the country, respectively) and there is an element of ‘setting the record straight’ in each. Kim seeks to rectify what he sees as misrepresentations produced by accounts of Korean shamanism by western anthropologists, and Clark seems to be writing in reaction to unfavourable scholarly assessments of missionary activity in Korea.
Chongho Kim’s Korean Shamanism differs from previous anthropological studies which provide a largely shaman-centred view of shamanism. Kim’s goal is to understand the clients who seek out shamans – especially given the widespread prejudice against shamanic practices in the country. The key question underlying his study relates to why shamanism is so negatively received in Korean society, given the ongoing strength of the practices.
Kim’s central conclusion is that the low status of Korean shamanism cannot be understood in terms of cultural politics, but can only be explained through reference to the paradoxical nature of the tradition. He argues that it is precisely the “cultural toxicity” of shamanism that ensures its ongoing relevance to the realm of misfortune. In his words, “shamanic healing is a kind of paradoxical healing because irrationality is treated with irrationality.” Although I think that Kim overstates the paradoxical nature of Korean shamanism, the book provides an interesting take on well-trodden ground and provides a useful complement to existing studies of shamanism.
However, one aspect of the book I became increasingly less comfortable with was Kim’s assertions regarding the superiority of his work over scholarship on Korean shamanism by Western anthropologists (in particular, the work of Laurel Kendall). He constantly invokes his status as an indigenous anthropologist both to legitimize his claims of ethnographic authority and undermine the claims made by Kendall in her own studies of shamanism. Somewhat predictably then, Kim accuses Kendall of failing to adequately recognize the ways in which her status as an American affected the context of her fieldwork. Yet Kim is even more unreflexive about his own positioning as a highly educated Korean male in a sphere that he indicates is dominated by lower class women. It seems to me that the difficulties he encountered in his fieldwork were as much a product of his identity as a Korean male as they were a product of the paradoxical nature of shamanism itself.
While it is clear that Kim does not like shamans overly much, I do not think that this represents a limitation of his work given that he is seeking to uncover client views of shamans – which largely echo his own. Thus, despite its flaws Korean Shamanism provides an interesting addition to the literature on Korean shamanism, and a valuable counterpoint to existing studies.
If Kim is guilty of overestimating his personal and cultural attributes as the source of his insights, Clark’s Living dangerously in Korea study does just the opposite. Clark provides a carefully researched examination of Korea through the eyes of Westerners living in the country during the turbulent first half of the twentieth century. While it is clear that his own personal experiences as a ‘Korea Kid’ (missionary kid raised in Korea) have informed his work, he does not discuss them explicitly – preferring to reconstruct a picture of expatriate life based on published accounts and interviews.
The book provides an interesting view from the perspective of foreigners in Seoul at a time of major political upheaval. Nevertheless, while there is some attempt to consider a variety of foreigners living in Korea between 1900-1950 (such as the white Russians, businessmen and diplomats and American military personnel), the book is largely focused on the experiences of missionaries.
The picture painted of missionary life in Korea is fascinating – and provides a clear sense of the motivations that brought missionaries to Korea, as well as the hardships they faced on arrival. While Clark could be accused of painting an overly benevolent view of missionary activity in Korea, he does attempt to acknowledge the paternalistic side of missionisation. He also provides a heterogeneous picture of missionaries themselves and the fractures that developed in the community during the colonial period.
The second half of the book deals with expatriate life in post-colonial Korea up to the outbreak of the Korean War. Although Clark provides compelling accounts of expatriate life in Korea during this period, once again his discussions of the American occupation seem somewhat simplistic. However, given that his goal is to depict Korean events as viewed through the eyes of Western expatriates, this does not seem to be a significant limitation of his work.
All in all, despite their flaws, Korean Shamanism and Living Dangerously are both worth reading and will be of interest to scholars working on Korean religion, history and ethnography.