Ethics of applied anthropology

The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a US military program that ran from February 2007 through until September 2014. Growing out of a ‘cultural turn’ in the US military, it enlisted social scientists, including anthropologists, to provide cultural knowledge during the counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan (Forte, 2011). The argument was that cultural information would be used for military occupations anyway and, by at least engaging with the military, anthropologists could give better information for the military. This could lead to less violence by the military because of better understanding of how local cultures work (2011, p. 150).

While the program was greeted with favourable press at first, it quickly started receiving major criticism, particularly from anthropologists (2011). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) released statements stating that the HTS was incompatible with the AAA’s code of ethics on a range of fronts. In the end, partly because of the efforts of the AAA and others, there were very few anthropologists in the program.

Understandably a very large number of anthropologists were horrified by the concept of ‘embedded’ ethnographers working within the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Particularly given how the discipline sees itself in the wake of the Postcolonial and Marxist criticisms of the discipline in the 60s and 70s: that it was a ‘handmaiden’ to colonialism & imperialism (Forte, 2011, p. 150). While the relationship between anthropological research and colonial administration within colonised countries has been well documented, the complex relationships between anthropology and the military-industrial complex are not as widely discussed.

David H. Price is an American anthropologist who has a series of books looking at some of these varied connections, in the US context, from World War I and through the Cold War. Especially during the two world wars, there were anthropologists who were actively involved with the national intelligence organisations, including as spies, language instructors and strategic analysts (Price, 2008). During the McCarthy era of the Cold War (1940s and 50s), anthropologists were targeted and put under surveillance by the FBI, creating a difficult atmosphere for activist or radical anthropological writing (Price, 2004). As the Cold War developed, more subtle relationships between the CIA and anthropology evolved (Price, 2016),

In Cold War Anthropology (2016) Price discusses what he calls the dual use of anthropology, which has long been a term known to natural scientists (particularly chemists and physicists) in which ‘basic’ research is often used for military and commercial uses, and vice versa. He argues that such interconnection, witting or unwitting, is often not talked about in the case of anthropology. While he discusses one example of a CIA agent going undercover as an anthropologist in the field, a lot of the influence came through the funding opportunities that were shaped by Pentagon and CIA funds, often as gifts to universities channelled through ‘front organisations’ or well-known ‘neutral’ philanthropic organisations. Funding structures can easily shape the kinds of research being undertaken, sometimes to the advantage (or not) of the CIA and US military. In fact the AAA’s first code of ethics was developed in the wake of the ‘Thai Affair’ in which anthropologists contributed to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand in the 1970s (Price, 2016).

Obviously not all anthropologists were involved or complicit in the manoeuvring of the CIA and the Pentagon during the Cold War, but it is a good reminder that the political economy of knowledge production can have profound influences on academic research, including anthropology.


Forte, M.C., 2011. The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates. American Anthropologist 113, 149–153.

Price, D.H., 2016. Cold War anthropology: the CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Duke University Press, Durham.

Price, D.H., 2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Duke University Press.

Price, D.H., 2004. Threatening anthropology: Mccarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Duke University Press, Durham.

Embrace the Serpent: Representing Anthropological Relationships

Karamakate, Theo, Manduca (R-L)

Embrace of the Serpent is a 2015 film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra that shows two anthropological journeys into the Colombian Amazon. It cuts between two timelines, 1909 and 1940, to show two journeys up the Colombian Amazon by Western researchers Theo and, later, Evan—who are based on ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. In the film, the two journeys are connected through the single character, Karamakate, a shaman and their guide. Karamakate is one of the surviving members of a fictionalised tribe, who have access to powerful medicinal plants, that Theo believes he needs to survive. The film blends Amazonian mythology with the diaries and writings of the Koch-Grünberg and Evans Shultes, depicting these journeys from the indigenous point of view as much as the explorers’. In an interview Guerra says that,

in order for the film to be true to that [the indigenous point of view], I had to stop being faithful to the “truth” because, to them, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. (Guerra, 2016)

Guerra worked with local indigenous communities in the writing and production of the film and, after the film’s premiere in Venice, it was screened a number of times in the Colombian Amazon. The film is spoken in nine languages, one of which, Ocaina is only spoken by sixteen people, and Guerra says that it was a powerful experience for them to see their language represented on the screen (Guerra, 2016).

Embrace of the Serpent, while a kind of parable or mythological story, gives a complex depiction of field relationships between the two social scientists and their indigenous interlocutors. They are characters that are sympathetic to the indigenous Amazonians, with Guerra on stating that Koch-Grünberg was, “the first to refer to the indigenous people in humanistic terms as the people of the Amazon” (Guerra, 2016). And they are shown in a very good light in comparison to the other Europeans of the film, who are either missionaries or rubber barons. The gravely ill Theo travels with Manduca, who is local and loyal to Theo because he payed out Manduca’s debt to the rubber plantation. Yet both Theo and Evans, as characters, have a ‘dark’ side to them, they are conceited and can’t full empathise with the local tribes and, at times, their attempt to extract knowledge without considering the indigenous perspective emerges.

In one scene, a tribe that Theo has visited before, and seems to be on good terms with, steals his compass. He confronts them and grabs one of the children pushing him to try and get it back.

Karamakate: You’re nothing but a white 
Theo: Their orientation system is based on the winds and the position of the stars. If they learn how to use a compass, that knowledge will be lost.
Karamakate: You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men. But you can’t understand that, because you’re just a white.

Here Theo’s obsession with maintaining the purity of ‘traditional’ local knowledge turns into a form of paternalism, in which he feels he knows what they should want or need better than they do.

Embrace of the Serpent skilfully balances the complexity of representing historical anthropological research. It depicts multiple relationships that developed and change between the characters, as individuals not just archetypes, throughout these journeys. Manduca and Karamakate are not simply victims, rather they choose to help the white interlopers and, for good and bad, feel like these researchers were their best shot at telling their stories to the colonisers and capitalists that were destroying their communities.

Guerra doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable actions and opinions of the researchers, and yet, these relationships are never ‘black and white’. Well, in a literal sense, they actually are because the film is shot using black and white 35mm film. The decision to shoot without colour was originally inspired by seeing the old daguerreotype photographic plates, which were “devoid of exuberance and exoticism”, and then going to the Amazonian jungle Guerra realised that colour film couldn’t begin to really represent the multiple colours there (Guerra, 2016). It also has another effect, which I found shone through when watching the film:

“[W]hen I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black-and-white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. ” (Guerra, 2016)


Embrace of the Serpent 2015, video recording, Ciudad Lunar Producciones, Colombia. Directed by C Guerra

Guerra, C., 2016. Embrace of the Serpent: An Interview with Ciro Guerra [WWW Document]. Cineaste Magazine. URL (accessed 6.9.19).

Empty Signs / Quotidian Ruptures


Visual anthropology is a broad area of anthropology that encompasses the study of visual systems, the use of (audio)visual tools to do research, and these tools as ways of representing the research (Banks, 1998).

Historically visual anthropology pretty much equalled ethnographic film, but more and more researchers use photography, film and drawing to think about and to represent the field site. Anthropology is still heavily text-based and often images are only illustrative (rather than influencing the argument or research), but there is increasing use of experimental forms to stretch the possibilities of understanding people’s life-worlds (Pink, 2006).


I find photography an important way of paying attention to the things around me – I start to see slightly different. I often build up archives of photos of particular things I notice and photograph over and over.

Such archives become things to think with.

As in the case of these photos of empty billboards I took in Chile in 2017.


Surely much anthropological thought happens in the finding those gaps in the researcher’s everyday life. Fissures between expectation and experience. Things that take you by surprise. Arts of noticing, as Anna Tsing might call it.

For me, these billboards are not only an example of acts of noticing. The more I look at them, the more I see them as visual metaphors for the processes of noticing those things that hide in plain sight. They depict the gaps in the fabric of everyday life, gaps of understanding, that stand out in their quietness. 


These billboards stand out in their emptiness and quiet.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen an empty billboard in Australia.

Whereas I was finding myself asking

 – why are there so many empty billboards in Santiago?

-and why are there so many in Australia?


Is it from a slowing economy? With a slackening of consumerism perhaps, this advertising space isn’t necessary anymore?


Or perhaps Chileans just don’t see it like that? Perhaps they have a much less regimented idea of public space, no need for the ‘completeness’ of an environment.

(Admittedly  I never asked anyone about it, so I didn’t conduct proper research around it).

To me these photos provide a provocation around public space. The shocking lack of advertising makes me realise its total ubiquity. And it provides a kind of visual hope too, that perhaps gaps in the totality of consumerism is possible. I only really notice advertising through when it disappears, and it is replaced with a series of Robert Hunter paintings.

Untitled no. 1, Robert Hunter, 1987

Research(ing) Fields / Anthropology of Food

My honours thesis is about coffee so I’ve been reading a lot about the anthropology of food, which is a larger subfield than I had realised. As a research area it is interesting because it allows for multidimensional research that links together ecological concerns with economics and symbolic and ritual meaning-making. Food studies also directly connects the body with these wider social-cultural-economic systems. Because of the way that food travels, or not, it also can be at the forefront of multi-sited ethnographic research.

In an overview of the subdiscipline, Sidney Mintz describes three areas that the anthropology of food focuses on (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002):

  1. Political-economic value-creation
  2. Symbolic value-creation
  3. Social construction of memory         

Mintz, himself, is the author of Sweetness and Power (1986)a very influential book that gives a history of the modern era through the lens of sugar. As one of the most important global commodities, sugar has always been embedded in colonial economic relationships.  His fieldwork in Puerto Rico with sugar cane labourers led him to think about the history of the commodity in shaping both the producing nations and the consuming nations. He ties together the economics (demand/supply) of sugar with its changing social meaning.

The research field, for Mintz, started in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, but he believed that in order to understand these economic and power relationships required a historical and transnational lens, paying attention to the ways in which meaning is made through use. Mintz sees the production and consumption influencing each other in complex ways, just like the intertwined relationships between the economic, geopolitical and cultural spheres.

In doing so he uses the ‘follow the thing’ research method, which traces a single object as it passes through different exchanges and social spheres (Marcus, 1995). The object in such research is often seen as being made of up a multitude of social relationships.

Studying food is also about the connection between these larger social practices and one’s sensory experience. The sensory experience of food is critical to a fuller understanding of people’s relationships to it. How can anthropology describe sensory experience? One example of the increasing attempts to tackle this problem is Sarah Pink’s ethnographic description of a Slow Food Movement walking tour in Wales (Pink, 2008). Pink takes a cue from the slow food walking tour to propose a multimodal ‘slow ethnography’ that embeds itself in the places sensory experience of being there (Sutton, 2010). This then allows Pink to understand ethnography itself as a “place-making process”, shared between researcher and participants (Pink, 2008, p. 175).


Marcus, G.E., 1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 95–117.

Mintz, S.W., 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.

Mintz, S.W., Du Bois, C.M., 2002. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31, 99–119.

Pink, S., 2008. An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9, 175–196.

Sutton, D.E., 2010. Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology 39, 209–223.

Are We All Pawns in a Simulated Reality? Ethical conundrums in Surveillance Capitalism


I aim to track 10,000 steps daily on Health. Okay Google, what is the weather like in Ballarat tomorrow? I post my #OOTD at 8:30 am so that I can maximise my exposure to my Instagram followers. iPhone’s geotagging is a breeze, saves me the time to tag places and faces. Hey, you know what we were talking earlier today? Facebook showed me an ad about it, amazing! Spotify’s recommendations are so spot-on! So thankful for cloud storage! The Internet of Things (IoT) enables me to control my smart fridge, smart door and smart toilet from my smartphone.

Picture Credit: The Matrix

Do you love the UX/UI features on your digital devices? Hold up. While Wi-Fi enabled keyless doors or the Nest Learning Thermostat amongst many IoTs may give owners the perception and satisfaction that life is functional and integrated, do these products have any serious drawbacks?

The short answer? Yes, it may come at the cost of your privacy. Internet-connected devices or apps could be monitoring you as of this moment. Corporations and other unwelcomed data miners will try to exploit you by placing products or advertisements according to your behavioural data to encourage consumerism. 

Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is the commodification of ‘reality’ and its transformation into behavioural data for analysis and sales. The ‘Big Five’, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon monopolise the largely uncontested power of data generation. Surveillance technologies allow the formation of Virtual Identity (VI) (Henschke 2017, p.185). VI is an informational representation that is linked and personalised to you. Personalising information is made using Thin Information or metadata. Examples of metadata are but not limited to: logs of your IP address across the Internet, locations of individuals in certain GPS enabled apps or even the average length of your phone calls. Your metadata is aggregated across time to substantiate the probability of prediction of your behaviour (Henschke 2017, p.197). Hence, producing recommendations in Spotify or Youtube are, in fact, made up of your quantified metadata, making it hard for you to disagree with the product placed in front of you. It is only after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal that Facebook called for more governmental regulation.

Yeah, but isn’t this a governmental regulatory issue? What is anthropology relevance here?

Just as tech companies try to learn more about consumers (us) unobtrusively, haven’t anthropologists been trying to do the same with the ‘other’ for the last century? We are repeating history and relearning the mistakes again. I want to stress the importance of procedural ethics here. In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon arrived in 1964 to conduct fieldwork with the Yanomami (Eakin 2013, p.1). Chagnon sets out to prove natural selection theories on violence, staging fights to show his findings and exchanging steel tools for blood samples. Such unrestrained methods produced no value to the anthropological canon and served to further notions of biological racism. 

Ethics is relational. It is difficult to thoroughly plan for contingencies and alternatives because fields, contexts and histories of relations are often emergent through social activities or conversations, with each fieldworker producing different meanings through various mediums and methods (Kohn 2017, p.77). With that said, procedural ethics is still beneficial in providing a framework for considering moral thinking and decision-making. It moves away from reductive binary evolutional thoughts to consider a plurality of ways that meanings can be constructed.

Hence, ethics is an essential reflexive tool to balance the interests of the researcher, institutions and most importantly, our informants. Although procedural ethics is notorious for stifling creativity in the pursuit of endless application forms for the sake of audit compliance, it needs to be considered as to not undermine universal values such as freedom, democracy and privacy.


Eakin, E 2013, ‘How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist – The New York Times’, THe New York Times Magazine, accessed June 12, 2019, from <;

Henschke, A 2017, Ethics in an Age of Surveillance: Personal Information and Virtual Identities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kohn, T 2017, ‘On the Shifting Ethics and Contexts of Knowledge Production’, in L Josephides & AS Grønseth (eds), The Ethics of Knowledge Creation, Berghahn Books, New York, NY, pp. 76–97.

See Also:

Lionel’s piece on Technological Mediation

Anatol’s piece on Ethics of Applied Anthropology

Imogen’s piece on Beyond Academia

That’s How You Go Full Tilt: Superstition and Counterfactual Thinking in Gambling

Picture Credit: Roulette Board

There are three types of people when it comes to gambling. The first group relies on mathematical statistics to inform their risk appetite, the second relies on superstition or causal reasoning to justify luckiness and last group abstains from gambling entirely. Make a trip to Crown Melbourne and you may be able to differentiate these groups rather easily. Individuals attempting to hedge bets across the roulette board, a collective of tourists “ganging up” on the dealer slapping large bets on the blackjack table and by-standers observing in fascination and disbelief.

While there are no shortages of tips on the internet to “beat the house”, see how “tilt” can derail even the hardy analytical gambler in Molly’s Game (2017).

Tilt is commonly defined as a temporary cognitive impairment that erases a gambler’s risk calculation strategies in favour of aggressive gambling methods. Tilt is resultant from losing a large bet in a public and humiliating fashion.

From an anthropological perspective, I briefly illustrate how we can “rethink” tilt as a combination of superstition and counterfactual thinking. 

Superstition is a non-empiricist belief resultant from a supernatural or false conception of causation (Chen & Young 2018, p.1098). Many cultural and situational factors influence the tendency to engage in superstition such as stress, feelings of precarity, peer pressures, or even anthropomorphic beliefs (applying human-like traits to nonhuman objects or concepts). For example, getting pooped by birds is often thought to symbolise good luck in many cultures. Informed by this cultural conception, it increases one’s optimism in future outcomes, especially towards ‘get rich quick’ circumstances.

Counterfactual thinking is the process where an individual imagines an alternate event that seeks to console the experience of losing in reality. The individual manipulates his or her emotions and behaviour in downplaying the effects of losing and up-playing the potential to recoup the gambling deficit (Kim, Kwon & Hyun 2015, p.237). In Molly’s Game, Harlan was already on tilt for two nights, but he insisted to Molly that he needed to borrow $500K to gamble back to even. In this case, Harlan is using counterfactual thinking to justify the false conception of causation as well, asserting that he will stop gambling the moment he gets back to even and expressing a belief that luck is now in his favour and affecting his life outcome. To regain control, Harlan harbours superstition as a coping strategy to garner good luck by specifying his goal of making it back to even. In this way, there is a positive relationship between luck, superstition and counterfactual thinking.

Going tilt is often not only a psychological phenomenon but also influenced through a complex of social and cultural factors. I find Paul Bohannan’s “rethinking of culture” as a symbiosis of biological and socially constructed systems to be helpful in drawing an analogy to think about tilt (1973, p.371). Bohannan suggests viewing culture as double coded information, one coded in the brain and another coded through language (1973, p.374). In the same way, we are simultaneously affected by fear from biological instincts that alerts us from dangers and cultural factors such as shame that can allude us to feel low.   

In sum, anthropology can benefit from greater interdisciplinary collaborations involving the body and cultural normativity. This can create a more richly textured ethnography to understand the self. So, the next time you see a friend going tilt in life, use anthropology to “save” him, for better or for worse.


Bohannan, P, Blacking, J, Bock, B, Colby, BN, DeRaedt, J, Epstein, DG, Fischer, JL, Gjessing, G, Hewes, GW, Hay, TH, Markarian, E, Panoff, M, Schneider, DM & Voight, WJ 1973, ‘Rethinking Culture: A Project for Current Anthropologists [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 357–372.

Chen, N & Young, MJ 2018, ‘The Relationship Between Belief in Stable Luck and a Propensity for Superstition: The Influence of Culturally Conferred Agency Beliefs’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 1098–1113.

Kim, SR, Kwon, Y-S & Hyun, M-H 2015, ‘The Effects of Belief in Good Luck and Counterfactual Thinking on Gambling Behavior’, Journal of Behavioural Addictions, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 236–243.

See Also:

Maddie’s piece on What’s the Point of it All?

Dyan’s piece on cultural relativism

Lani’s piece on Magic

Imogen’s piece on Clubbing

Subtle Diasporic Traits

Image Source: BBC

In posting the following memes, there was a discussion of whether I was obliged to ‘decode’ them for the ‘outsiders’. This left me in a complex position as the whole point of Subtle Asian Traits is that these experiences don’t need to be explained for the target audience (to be explored in greater depth below).

To put it succinctly, if not a bit crudely (my apologies) – if you don’t get it then it wasn’t made for you.

As of the beginning of June 2019 the Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits (SAT) has nearly 1.4 million members – one of many Subtle Traits groups inspired by the group Subtle Private School Traits (R.I.P.), it has taken news feeds by storm. Or at the very least, those belonging to the children of Asian diasporas. Created in September 2018 by a group of Melbourne friends who had met in Chinese school, it was merely meant to be a fun distraction from high school exams.

Ok, not to be lame, but this one actually made me laugh out loud. (Image Source: Yahoo)

SAT had humble beginnings: it was simply a small space to share jokes and memes that characterised the Asian-Australian experience; the “little things in our lives that no one talked about before” (Mao 2018), and most wouldn’t understand. Of course, the internet caught wind, and what had begun as a bit of fun instead tapped into something young, complicated and international. It has connected a borderless generation who are gradually coming into their own ethnic-national identity that is typically articulated as “too white to be asian but too asian to be white” (Lin 2018). There is a loneliness to being a diasporic Asian (not to mention a serious lack of representation), and with it comes a lack of belonging, to a nation or ethnic group (Wu and Yuan 2018). The constant bouncing between the culture of our heritage and that of the Western country we call home, and the struggles of being so ungrounded in place and culture is a complicated, exhausting experience to navigate or even articulate. For many SAT is a relief – “it’s a chance to belong for once without having to try” (Kwai 2018), nothing has to be explained, and for once another ‘insider‘ is putting words (or memes) to our experience. Finally, we have found a place that we can truly and unapologetically claim as our own.

This is not to imply that SAT is a perfect, safe multicultural haven. Not only is there a lack of representation of non-East Asians (specifically South Asians), but some critics argue that it perpetuates negative stereotypes (such as the ‘Tiger Mum’ and ‘Model Minority’), reinforces internalised racism and self-hate and makes joke of people’s own legitimate trauma and suffering (Mao 2018).

Anne Gu, co-founder, has responded to these criticisms, seeing the capacity to even express these negative experiences in the first place as “healing through humour” (Mao 2018), with the hope that people will come to have greater confidence and pride in their culture. The group aims to be as inclusive a space as possible, however it is ultimately dependent on the kind of posts people submit. (Image Source: Yahoo)

The idea of the ethnographic field as being “this town” or “this specific place” is becoming increasingly unraveled as space, both digital and physical, are redefined and people move with an increasing amount of frequency across the globe. Almost like an initiation rite in the anthropological academy, being able to understand and talk authoritatively about at least one place (and by extension being able to physically map/bound it) has traditionally been a key point of your academic identity (Kohn 2011). However anthropologists don’t study villages, they study in villages (Geertz 1973, p. 22) – “our real work is with people who happen to occupy a place in space… sometimes understanding [that] is not the most defining element of our encounter with them”. The community is not a static entity and cultural practices and identities are not bound to the ‘local’ (Coleman and Collins 2011). Rather than trying to fixate these communities in one moment of space and time, ’the field’ requires new ways of thinking as it it no longer (or ever was) a geographical location (Strauss 2000). Cultural capital constantly has to be reproduced, embodied and expressed through the individual, not by institutions or specific geographical locations (Coleman and Collins 2011).

It wouldn’t be a true SAT article without at least one boba meme (Source: KnowYourMeme)

For the majority of members of SAT, we have been brought up as hybrid children betwixt and between worlds – neither fully Asian nor fully Western – we have grown up living this experience of an unbounded and unmappable culture as our reality. Through SAT, we are finally getting a chance to articulate it and what it means (Wu and Yuan 2018) and in turn produce our own cultural capital.

Har gow slaps but go off (Image source: KnowYourMeme)

In an increasingly complex world, what a culture and what an ethnicity is is still being contested, and as anthropologists and ethnographers it can be difficult to do justice to that complexity. I think what SAT does is reveal a particular, increasingly prominent mode of cultural and ethnic experience that is not bounded by space or a singular ‘cultural’ distinction, but rather the in-between. These ideas aren’t new – people have always felt dislocated in culture and place through practices such as intermarriage. Rather the extent and breadth of them are becoming more fully realised outside academia. Through the global sphere of the Internet SAT has become a platform that has helped people explore their shared struggles and experiences in a safe space – a reminder that we’re not alone (Wu and Yuan 2018).

“We labeled the group [Facebook category] as ‘family,’ so that’s what the group’s purpose is, to allow people to feel like they all belong to something.” – Anne Gu, co-founder of SAT (Wu and Yuan 2018)

Banner Source


Julia’s article on ‘The Field’

Coleman, S. and P. Collins  2011, Dislocating Anthropology?:  Bases of Longing and Belonging in the Analysis  of Contemporary Societies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge.

Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York.

Kohn, T.  2011, ‘New Ways to Frame an Answer to ‘Where did you do your fieldwork?”, in Coleman, S. and P. Collins (eds.)  Dislocating Anthropology: Bases of longing and belonging in the analysis of contemporary societies, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, pp. 81-95.

Kwai, I 2018, ‘How ‘Subtle Asian Traits’ Became a Global Hit’, Article, New York Times, 11 Dec, viewed 7 June, <;

Lin, K 2018, ‘The Story of the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook GroupLin, Article, The New Yorker, 22 Dec, viewed 7 June, <;

Mao, F 2018, ‘Subtle Asian Traits: When memes become a diaspora phenomenon’, Article, 19 Dec, BBC, viewed 7 June, <;

Strauss, S. 2000,  ‘Locating Yoga: ethnography and transnational practice’, in Amit, V . (ed) Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World, Routledge, London, pp. 162- 194.

Wu, N and Yuan, K 2018, ‘The Meme-ification of Asianness’, Article, The Atlantic, 27 Dec, viewed 7 June, <;

And for a bit of pop culture:

If you want to smile (because we’re finally being represented in Hollywood): peruse through Fresh Off the Boat, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Always Be My Maybe, and Crazy, Rich Asians (probably not a shock to any Asians reading this). Abominable is coming out later this year; and Bao made us all cry last year, and although no other Sandra Oh role will ever be as iconic as Vice Principal Gupta in The Princess Diaries, Killing Eve gets pretty close.

And I know it’s cheesy, but it’s also iconic (I literally only got a Stan account to watch it): Bend it Like Beckham

One Day at a Time, although a show about a Cuban-American family living in LA, has never made me feel so ‘seen’ as a migrant (the queer representation, generational and cultural divides and family structure certainly help). It’ll make you laugh and cry your heart out.

The Astonishing Color of After is a wonderful coming-of-age novel. The Kiss Quotient is a sweet romance, and Ms. Marvel is great for all the superhero fans out there. The Wrath and the Dawn and An Ember in the Ashes are both beautiful fantasy novels, and Warcross is pure, fun sci-fi.

Mauna a Wākea: Whose culture is the most important?

Have you ever felt so connected to a piece of earth that you can feel the appreciation in your heart swell? Or perhaps you envision that place in your mind, recollecting the memories, and become very upset at the idea of it no longer being there? What if I told you that the connection you feel to this land is just imagined in your mind, and has no material precedence and should become developed for Western intellectual pursuits? Would you feel devastated?

I like to keep myself up to date with the controversies surrounding natural and sacred spaces, and their ongoing protection and destruction from capitalist developments. Divergent concepts and understandings of culture around the world have laid the groundwork for multiple controversies surrounding environmental protections, the rights of nature and climate change; from the protection of water at Standing Rock, the scheming of the Australian government to bulldoze 800 year-old sacred Djab Wurring trees, to El Salvador becoming the first country to recognise the inherent rights of natural forests. I think it is important for all beginner anthropologists to consider how different understandings of culture play into these debates.

Recently on October 30, 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii approved the building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the sacred Hawai’ian mountain, Mauna a Wākea. This decision came after years of legal battles between the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ians) and scientists, as well as multiple country stakeholders (India, China, Japan and Canada).

“A panorama of the Milky Way from Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From left, University of Hawaii 2.2 Meter Telescope, Mauna Kea Summit, Kilauea Volcano under cloud cover and Mauna Loa.”
Mauna Kea

The Kanaka Maoli and environmentalists opposed the development of the giant telescope because it would be built on one of the most sacred natural locations in Hawaiian culture. The Mauna a Wākea is a sacred mountain for the Kanaka Maoli. Wākea, sometimes translated as “Sky Father”, is considered the father for many of their peoples and in other respects the “piko, umbilical cord, or centre of existence for Hawaiians” (Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, p.1). The summit is a sacred place for their spiritual connectedness, practices and sense of oneness with the earth – all of which are fundamental elements of their culture (Ibid).

Many of the telescope’s stakeholders failed to acknowledge the importance Mauna a Wākea had in Hawaiian culture and instead, focused on the scientific exploration and commercial production that the telescope would bring. This was evident in the TMT International Observatory’s commitment to “a new paradigm of development on Mauna Kea founded on integrating culture, science, sustainability and education” (TMT 2017, p.1). Their investment in the TMT, as the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, was ultimately embedded in their desire to bolster Western cultural and astronomical contributions.

This opposition between the worldviews and values of the TMT and the Kanaka Maoli brings into question: What counts as culture and who determines what cultural perspectives “win” in developmental conflicts?

The struggle over Mauna a Wākea is a struggle over the meaning and making of sacred places, nature and Indigenous cultures. Native Hawai’ian scholar, Marie Alohalani Brown (2016), describes that the kinship relations between the Kanaka Maoli and the island-world environment are not validated by the West unless they are materially visible. She states, “The Hawaiian Islands…[and] culture is something to be enjoyed as long as it is presented in a form that is palatable, saleable, and consumable” (Brown 2016, p.166). The traditions and sacred elements of Indigenous cultures are recognised insofar as they do not limit the economic and cultural projects that strengthen Western domination.

The western ideologies of scientific exploration and commercial exploitation are imposed on the Kanaka Maoli by the TMT as being for ‘the better good of humanity and culture’. This prioritisation of western thinking is clear in the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s decision to approve the construction of the telescope – it alludes to how scientific discoveries and explorations have become a fundamental aspect of Western culture that is treated with the upmost regard.  This is completely at odds with the spiritual relationship to Mauna a Wākea and the island world that is central to Native Hawaiian culture – the sacredness is not merely a concept or label as perceived by those holding the western ideologies. The sacredness of the mountain stems from their understanding of it as a kin relative – “Sky Father” – which they maintain a sacred and traditional relationship with. The mountain is, in many respects, a lived experience that is representative of the Kanaka Maoli’s connection to the natural and spiritual worlds (Brown 2016, p.166).  

This is evidently a highly contested space, within and beyond, the anthropology discipline. But these cultural complexities leave us with some key anthropological questions to ponder: what ‘counts as culture’ in our Western society? And who decides whether nature is incorporated into these understandings and protections of ‘culture’?


Brown, Marie Alohalani 2016, ‘Mauna Kea: Ho’omana Hawai’i and Protecting the Sacred’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, vo.10, no. 2,150–69.

Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, Sacred Mauna Kea-He Makahiapo Kapu Na Wakea, viewed 5 June 2019, <>.

TMT International Observatory 2017, Thirty Meter Telescope: Astronomy’s Next-Generation Observatory, viewed 6 June 2019, <>.

See Also:

Dyan’s articles: No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide and Mary Douglas’s Garden; Imo and Sarah’s Part I The Anthropo Scene and Part II The Anthropo Scene

Here are some sources to keep up to date with all environmental news, conflicts and controversies:

For subjects relating to the rights of nature (also find them on Facebook): Earth Law Center

Environmental News (also find them on Facebook): EcoWatch

For subjects on spirituality, ecology and and nature (also find them on Facebook): Spiritual Ecology: Emergence Magazine

Do you believe in ‘Magic’? After reading this you just might…

When I was 12 years old I found magic (kind of). Both of my parents are atheists, but I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps so I began searching the web for a religion. I remember coming across a site about paganism and white magic and I instantly knew it was the one for me (it may have had something to do with watching Charmed). I begged my Dad to take me to our local bookstore where he sat in the café next door blissfully unaware that I’d ventured into the religion and spirituality section to find a guide book on white magic. My affinity with white magic lasted about 2 weeks, as did most of my interests at the age of 12. However, I clearly remember one of the rituals about letting go of stress. You were to take a nice long bath with an egg. Upon draining the bath, you were to visualize all of your anxieties being absorbed into the egg which would then be buried in the garden.  

Years later reflecting on my 2 weeks as a white witch I’ve come to realize a great deal of overlap between everyday acts of ‘self-care’ and ‘white magic.’ Taking a bath is still a ritual I do from time to time (minus the egg because I’d rather eat it), but I visualize all my stress being released as the water drains. According to Gmelch (1971) a ‘magic ritual’ is defined as performance of a certain task despite no ‘empirical’ evidence that it will help achieve the outcome. Therefore, rituals are regarded as largely ‘irrational.’ In many ways we are all irrational beings (what constitutes ‘irrationality’ is also context specific). Most of us would have engaged in certain rituals which come under the umbrella of ‘magic’ and yet would be averse to ever labelling our behaviors as ‘magical.’  Words are loaded and so often we get bogged down by words that we are unable to keep an open-mind. 

There are other places you might never have considered to be riddled with magic, like… a baseball field? Gmelch (1971) analyzed the habits of baseball players and found a striking similarity to that of the Trobriand Islanders who used magical rituals when fishing in open water. Interestingly the Trobriand Islanders did not perform these rituals when fishing in the lagoon. It was when the chances of catching fish were more uncertain in the open waters that magic was utilized. Gmelch (1971) realized that American baseball played also engage in rituals, especially when batting as opposed to fielding because the odds are more precarious. Some of the rituals these American players performed were going to the movies on game day, eating a tuna sandwich and drinking two glasses of iced tea, tapping the home plate three times before batting and tugging their baseball cap a certain number of times.  

A study was conducted on first year cultural anthropology students at The University of Western Ontario to see if they used ‘magic’ in their daily lives (perhaps you’ve done the same kinds of things without realizing it!). One student revealed: “The day of my first date with my current girlfriend, now of ten months, I came home and found a [guitar] pick in my pocket. Since then, whenever I am leaving the house, especially if I am with her, I always make sure to carry a pick.” Another student said he always wore the socks he was given on his tenth birthday when playing hockey despite their worn out state and many holes.  

So before you proclaim that magic doesn’t exist, keep an open mind and reflect back on some of tasks you’ve performed over the years – magic might not be as distant as you once thought.   


Gmelch, G 1971, ‘Baseball Magic’, Society, vol. 8, no. 8, p. 39.

Howie, L, Sattin, M, Coutu, S, Furlong, M, Wood, M, & Petersson, E 2011, ‘Some Thoughts on Magic: Its Use and Effect in Undergraduate Student Life’, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 179-189

Hungry for more mystical insights? See also:

Abbie’s article on Mediumship

Lionel’s article on Witchcraft

Holding Out For a Hero: Is Myth Just Spicy Ethnography?

The rise of Marvel’s domination over the box office doesn’t come as a particular surprise to me – we’ve always loved heroes. From Batman, to Indiana Jones, to Luke Skywalker, to Harry Potter, our history and literary canon is saturated with them.

But what is the enduring appeal of the heroic figure? Well, with a little bit of help from the ancient past, maybe anthropology can help answer that question.

The first heroes of the Western canon – Heracles, Odysseus, Achilles – they arguably aren’t so different from those that we know and love in fiction today.

That is, if you consider the ancient and mythic definition of the hero: exceptional humans who operate in a realm more closely connected with the divine than most mortals yet are still undeniably tethered to the human world (Posthumous, 2011).

They possess these god-like capacities and abilities, allowing them to achieve what we could only dream of, and yet they are ultimately always going to be hindered by their inherent humanity and all of the flaws and consequences that come alongside it. It’s not called an Achilles heel for nothing; but these characters are loveable because they’re so imperfect (Campbell 1988).

Operating within this arguably liminal space between the divine and mortals allows us to think beyond the limitations of mortality to ‘what if’ and ‘what could be’ with wide-eyed wonder, taking us out of the mundanity of our own lives and ascending to the realm of the gods. Yet these stories are still firmly rooted in questions of what it means to be human and flawed; to eternal struggles of good and evil, life and death, love and war. To me it is this interplay between the fantastical and the real that captures our attention and our love, and in the process better allows us to understand who we are.

Is this perspective ahistorical? Maybe, but why is so much tension devoted to which side, Light or Dark, people will fall in Star Wars? Why do superheroes always have flaws, whether they be physical (ie Kryptonite) or personal (ie Captain America: Civil War)? Why does Game of Thrones revolve around human politics instead of dragons?

More importantly however, what the hell does myth have to do with anthropology?

The meaning of hero myths is still widely debated. However, Joseph Campbell (1988) argues that “myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth” (p.4). It is the experience of life, and the adventure of the hero that is the adventure of being alive (Campbell 1988).

In the way that myths can help us better understand who we are in our culturally-specific context, such is also the role of the anthropologist, and to me it’s foolish to assume that anthropology is restricted to the realm of the objective, ‘real’ world (Sarah touches upon this in her article on future worlds). As Geertz (1973, p.16) writes, ethnographic pieces “can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned’”; anthropological writings are themselves interpretations (See: Julia’s art vs science article).

“…Reality is not other than the stories told about it” (Rapport 1994, cited in Craith and Kockel 2014) and it is part of the human condition to create these stories – both anthropology and hero myths serve as a medium to do so. As such, they both suffer under the same flaw that their truths are inherently partial and incomplete, composed of blurred lines between reality and imagination. However, this is not “an opposition between truth and falsehood” (Craith and Kockel 2014, p.695), rather, it is a recognition of the human reality of both ethnographic work and hero myths and their aim to tell stories that “ring true” from a human perspective (Craith and Kockel 2014).

So why do we love superheroes? Well… I think because, like anthropology, the best stories, the best myths, the best superhero films, serve to tell of the human condition as they are inherently grounded in it; they just takes you out of the mundanity of your own life and into the magic of the liminal world, allowing you to believe otherwise.

Image Source: Wired


Campbell, J 1988, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, New York.

Craith, M. N., and Kockel, U. 2014. ‘BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN LITERATURE AND ANTHROPOLOGY. A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE’, Ethnologie francaise, vol. 44, pp. 689-697.

Crespi, M 1990, ‘The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell’. American Anthropologist, vol. 92 , no. 4. pp. 1104

Geertz, C 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3–30.

Posthumus, L. 2011, ‘Agents of transformation: the function of hybrid monsters’, Hybrid monsters in the Classical World: the nature and function of hybrid monsters in Greek mythology, MPhil (Ancient Studies) Thesis, University of Stellenbosch.

Sarah’s article on Future Worlds

My article on Liminality

Julia’s article on Art vs Science?

And for those who want a bit more myth in their life:

If you want to dive straight in to the original texts themselves, then consider: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Euripides’ Medea, Hecuba and Trojan Women (my personal favourites); Aeschuylus’ Oresteia; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (for the myth of Cupid and Psyche).

For slightly more digestible myths: Stephen Fry’s, Mythos and Heroes; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

For a more fictionalised retelling: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe; and I know it’s middle grade, but The Percy Jackson series still has the best chaotic good demigod representation I’ve ever read (just don’t touch the films)