Category Archives: Academia

News and observations from the front lines of academia

Sahlins versus Chagnon — at least anthropology is in the news?

The past couple of months have witnessed a modest uptick in popular media discussions of anthropology, thanks to a couple of noteworthy events: first, the National Academy of Sciences elected the divisive anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Napoleon Chagnon as a member.  In response–and also in protest of NAS’ support for military initiatives to incorporate social science into its warfare and nation-building aims–another famous anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, announced his resignation.  The press has focused on the science vs non-science aspect of the story, but Sahlins and his supporters are quick to respond that they aren’t anti-science so much as they oppose bad pseudo-science. The National Academy of Sciences is a pretty elite club: there are 62 anthropologists in NAS, plus a few more foreign associates and emeritus members.  (I have to plug my own university, Washington University, which has a couple of members–an archaeologist and a specialist in Neanderthals. Neither of them have resigned.)  Chagnon recently became a neighbor of ours, taking a job at the nearby University of Missouri. David Moberg provides a nice overview of the situation for Dissent Magazine, followed by an interview with Marshall Sahlins. He includes this pithy quote from Sahlins, in response to a question about the relationship between the dual reasons for his resignation–awarding Chagnon and supporting military research:

“Chagnon’s view of self-aggrandizing human nature is the sociobiological equivalent of the neocon premise of the virtues of American imperialism: making the world safe for self-interest. It is the same native Western ideology of the innate character of mankind. A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.” — Marshall Sahlins

I won’t recount the vast literature that has critiqued Chagnon’s evolutionary explanations for Yanomamo behavior, nor the ethical concerns over his research methods or the violent, often tragic consequences of his depiction of the Yanomamo as a “fierce” warrior people.  There are lots of other blogs covering those issues recently, as well as more scholarly texts (including the AAA’s own task force report on the ‘El Dorado’ incident) — some of which I may link to in a later edit.  I agree in part with Chagnon’s claim that he has been unfairly demonized–at the very least, most of the claims that Patrick Tierney made in his Darkness in El Dorado have been disproved multiple times by independent scholars and institutions (e.g., see Alice Dreger’s open access article here).

I just wanted to add some of my own thoughts, based on how I’ve encountered Chagnon during my own career and training as an anthropologist.  I was assigned Yanomamo: The Fierce People as a freshman in my very first anthropology course (thanks, Julian!), and we later viewed Tim Asch’s The Ax Fight in a class on ethnographic films and film-making.  Asch turned to Chagnon’s usual framework for explaining social relations within the Yanomamo world, namely the inevitable fission/fusion cycles that caused villages to break apart whenever the population rose to an unstable level.  The fight, thus encapsulated, was seen as a sign of competition for scarce resources, between groups that were defined primarily along genetic lines.

Apparently, Tim Asch himself grew somewhat disenchanted with Chagnon’s theoretical explanation as he went about editing the final cut of The Ax FightIn an interview with Jay Ruby, he responded:

“You know the joy of The Ax Fight…is that because Chagnon was so stuck in simple theories that, right away, the film became a real joke. It is funny with its simplistic, straight-jacketed, one-sided explanation….One of the things I liked about it was that it’s a pretty funny film. And it’s a very dated film if you are going to take it as a piece of serious work. It belongs in another era. But I think also that the film is harbinger of postmodernism long before we get postmodernism…and I was feeling, you know, halfway into making the film, this great suspicion of the whole field beginning to fall apart before my eyes as I was putting The Ax Fight together. I had a powerful piece of material and it was suddenly looking kind of foolish. But it was kind of fun.”

I always found it revealing that Asch came to doubt the explanations that his own film conveyed.

Finally, Chagnon has displayed impatience and possibly hostility toward the possibility that his presence–and the presence of a film crew–could have played a role in the Ax Fight, particularly, and in the violence that he recorded between and within  Yanomamo commounities more generally.  See his reaction in this 2007 interview with a BBC film crew for a documentary series about human nature.  On a broader, meta level, his abrupt departure from the set stands at odds with his assertion that the presence of a camera has no effect.

Just some more food for thought… what are others’ perspectives?

Isn’t it good, Norwegian firewood?

Here’s one for the file on ‘interesting cultural practices from around the world.’  A recent Norwegian television program about firewood was so popular, 20% of the country tuned in to watch it at some point.  To put that into perspective, the 2008 and 2012 presidential debates brought in around the same percentage of American viewers, while the Rose Bowl and World Series each only brought in about 5% of the US population.

As Sarah Lyall reports in the NY Times, firewood is a big deal in Norway.  The TV program was based on a best-selling book about firewood; apparently it’s a subject that allows men to open up about their feelings without threatening their stoic masculinity. Because nothing says ‘manly’ like chopping firewood, right?

However, this isn’t what stands out about the program.  After all, we have entire networks devoted to shows about lobster fishing and the lumber industry.  No, the surprising thing is that 2/3 of the program wasn’t even scripted TV:

“My first thought was, ‘Well, why not make a TV series about firewood?’” Mr. Moeklebust said in an interview. “And that eventually cut down to a 12-hour show, with four hours of ordinary produced television, and then eight hours of showing a fireplace live.”

Ahem. Eight hours of showing a fireplace live. This is apparently what makes for suspenseful television in the frozen fjords of Norway.

Of course, my first thought was that this provided some kind of passive, background entertainment like a yule log–we recently discovered, to my fiancé’s delight, that our Roku included a few yule log channels during the holiday season.  I had never actually encountered a yule log before this, but I can understand the appeal of having a visual ‘fire’ to go along with christmas tunes while you’re doing other chores around the house. However, Lyall reports that this isn’t your grandparents’ yule log:

While the Yule log fire plays on a constant repeating loop, the fire on “National Firewood Night” burned all night long, in suspensefully unscripted configurations. Fresh wood was added through the hours by an NRK photographer named Ingrid Tangstad Hatlevoll, aided by viewers who sent advice via Facebook on where exactly to place it.

So there you have it. The combination of very ancient technology–wood-burning stoves–and more recent forms of communication–broadcast television–have merged to provide Norwegians with a comforting simulacrum of tradition, no matter where they now live or how they heat their homes.

This article reminded me of the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal anecdote about how the Inuit supposedly have hundreds of words for what we anglophones simply call ‘snow.’  In anthropology classes, we use this as a handy example of a focal vocabulary, meaning a set of terms and definitions that certain groups of people come to share by way of mutual interest and participation in certain activities.  Other examples include occupational terms–e.g., listen to an episode of any medical drama and you’ll hear the characters throwing around terms (“He’s flat lining! Give me 20 CCs of plasma, stat!”) that normally you would only understand after medical school (or watching a lot of medical dramas). Online gamers have extensive focal vocabularies, often employing a lot of acronyms to quickly and efficiently inform teammates about battle tactics (“That noob is ninja‘ing all the BOP gear” orStack your HOTs on the tank once she aggros those adds).  Incidentally, one of my very favorite wikipedia articles is the talk page behind the entry for Pwn. It pretty clearly demonstrates the level of investment that people are willing to make in debating the meaning and tracing the etymology of language that outsiders would probably find trivial.

Anyway, the popularity of a TV show that basically consisted of eight uninterrupted hours of logs burning makes me wonder if Norwegians have a focal vocabulary for firewood and related things–axes, chopping, etc.  The article delves into the intense public debate among viewers over whether firewood should be stacked with the bark facing up or down (why not to the side? Or facing south?). Like focal vocabularies, the existence of such controversies—and again, the sheer willingness of folks to watch eight hours of burning wood—suggests that this is a domain of experience that Norwegians find particularly meaningful.  If any Norwegians (or experts in the anthropology of Norwegian firewood) happen by, please share your thoughts on the subject.


In Norway, TV Program on Firewood Elicits Passions –