Cooking Data

More attention is being paid to data. In the context of the SDGs, it is the lack of data. In the broader conversation, it is about the quality of data. From these conversations, there is an emerging literature that might might classify as an ethnography of data. A recent addition to this set of literature is is Crystal Biruk's "Cooking Data: Culture & Politics in an African Research World" (2018). The book focuses on heath data in Malawi, but offers insight well beyond. The following are some key points that stood out:

  • "While we tend to think of data as abstract and intangible, these vivid descriptors draw attention to to their materiality and life course. Numbers, of course, come from somewhere. A careful consideration of the social lives of numbers, rather than viewing them as stable and objective measures of reality, provides crucial context for interpreting quantitative evidence that we often deem too big or too technical to wrap our heads around. As an ethnography of the production of quantitative data, this book encourages its readers to be a little bit less in awe of numbers by understanding them as "creatures that threaten to become corrupted, lost, or meaningless if not properly cared for" (Ribes and Jackson, 2013, 147). It also considers how the activities of data collection not only produce numbers but shape personhood, sociality, and truth claims." (p. 3-4)
  • "Along the way, I learned, as well, that my critical gaze was shared by the people I was studying: some demographers , too, are well aware of the shortcomings of their numbers, but keep making for the sake of policy, journal articles, and a faint sense that they might somehow improve the lives of rural Malawians." (p. 17)
  • "Rather than dismissing numbers as simply false, socially constructed, or inaccurate, the book aims to critically examine the criteria and metrics that help numbers attain their legitimacy and authority by presenting a fine-grained account of data's life course and handling by many diverse actors." (p. 26)
  • "In Malawi at the time of my research, the National Health Sciences Research Council (NHSRC) and the College of Medicine Research and Ethics Committee (COMREC) —both local ethics boards discussed in further detail in chapter 3—mandated that research proposals submitted for local review by foreign researchers list a Malawian coprincipal investigator and include a detailed letter of affiliation to a local institution. Research guidelines also provided clear instructions to guide coauthorship of articles produced by research. The contract for collaboration between foreign and Malawian researchers has a wider sweep whereby benefits or resources also flow to the institution where the latter is based. The acting head of the National Research Council of Malawi explained that national review boards were increasingly vigilant about ensuring that proposals submitted by foreign projects put in place solid plans for genuine collaboration; for example, Dr. Jones described how MAYP's initial proposal did not pass review because NHSRC claimed that the institutional collaboration between the American team and a Malawian university was "not meaningful."" (p. 39)
  • "expectations that people should participate in research altruistically or for the public good are in tension with research fatigue, a legacy of exploitation and unfulfilled promises at the hands of global projects, and therapeutic misconception, in which research participants mistakenly attribute therapeutic intent to research procedures...Rather than the cog in the assembly-line machinery of research that demographers imagine soap to be, then, this ethical gift unravels normative ethics and highlights how collecting high-quality data is less a clean assembly-line process than a messy and unpredictable life course."  (101-102)
  • "Research participants employed the metaphor of hunger to accuse Malawian fieldworkers of "eating [their] money": "They come here and instead of fetching food for the children, we sit here wasting time kucheza [talking].... They go home and eat good food, rice, meat.... They leave me hungry and make money as they do so."" (p. 116)
  • ""We can't add a code without messing up things in terms of the past, data we have already collected. We must keep the phrasing and translation of the questions consistent, even if they aren't the most accurate. It's too late-In order to measure change, we have to ask things in the same exact way. We have to have the same codes every wave even if they're not correct. So, just fit those responses [i.e., those mentioned above] into the existing categories." (p. 144)
  • "thirty years after Justice (1980) provided anthropologists concrete suggestions for presenting their findings more effectively to planners, we continue to fail by others' and our own standards: our work has not really revolutionized medicine, global health, or development. In fact, by these metrics, the critical development studies and medical anthropology literature—much of which has, since the 1990s, documented how grand projects fail—is also an archive of anthropologists' own continued failure to be useful in the strong sense we may aspire to." (p. 210)
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Labor and Legality

I spent much of the summer looking for good ethnographies that would be suitable for first year undergraduate students - essentially a book that is not written for anthropologists, not heavy with theory, while still presenting the value that ethnography can offer. Gomberg-Munoz's Labor and Legality (2011) fit that well. The book also provides insight into a contemporary issues, which we encounter in our social media feeds and on the daily news, making it a book that can be quite engaging. If you are looking for an accessible ethnography on the topic of migration to the US (specifically, undocumented migration from Mexico), this is book well worth picking up. It is also quite useful as a book for teaching. Many of the ethnographies I read were more appropriate for graduate students and experts. Labor and Legality works well for a broader audience.

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Growing Up in New Guinea – Margaret Mead

Margaret Mean is one of Anthropology's focal early theorists. She has penned a number of books covering issues of childhood, gender, age and aging and sexuality. Amongst her fieldwork, she worked in New Guinea, during the period between WWI and WWII. The resulting book, "Growing Up in New Guinea" (1930) explores the educational process of infants, children and youth alongside providing a broader picture of the lifecycle and way of life.

Mead seeks to use anthropological study to understand human nature. She explains: "Isolated on small Pacific Islands, in dense African jungles or Asiatic wastes, it is still possible to find untouched societies which have chosen solutions of life's problems different from our own, which can give us precious evidence on the malleability of human nature." (p. 4) The approach was not one to answer a specific research question, but to learn with an open mind, something which has slightly been lost in Anthropology as students and researchers are required to clearly outline research questions in seeking admission and/or funding. Mean explains that she "made this study of Manus education to prove no thesis, to support no reconceived theories. Many of the results came as a surprise to me…" (p. 5).

On the power of culture and impact of education, Mead concludes: "Although education can not alter the fact that the child will be in most important respects like the culture within which he is reared, methods of education may have far-reaching effects upon the development in the child of that sum total of temperament, outlook, habitual choice, which we call personality" (p. 223). Throughout, Mead reflects on the Manus society with that of America, and to an extent Samoa (where she previously did fieldwork). As an example: "If we are horrified to see a baby sitting all alone in the end of a canoe with nothing to prevent his clambering overboard into the water, the Manus would be equally horrified at the American mother who has to warn a ten-year-old child to keep his fingers from under a rocking chair, or not to lean out the side of a car." (p. 27)

On anthropological study and anthropological work, Mead provides some outlines: "With the aid of writing and an analytic point of view, it is possible for the investigator to master in a few months most of the traditions which it takes the native years to learn." (p. 5). This description reads rather ambitiously, if not condescending. A more detailed description in the Appendix explains: "In order to acquire this technique, he has devoted a great deal of time to the study of different primitive societies and the analysis of the social forms which are most characteristic of them. He has studied non-Indo European languages so that his mind will adjust easily to linguistic categories which are alien to our own. He has studied phonetics so that he may be able to recognize and record types of sound difficult for our ears to distinguish and even more difficult for our organs of speech to pronounce, accustomed as they are to different phonetic patterns. He has studied diverse kinship systems and gained speed in handling kinship categories so that the Manus scheme, which results, for instance, in individuals of the same generation addressing each other by grandparent terms, is not a perplexing obstacle but falls readily into a clear and easily comprehended pattern of thought. In addition, he is willing to forsake the amenities of civilised life and subject himself for months at a time to the inconveniences and unpleasantness of life among a people whose manners, methods of sanitation, and ways of thought, are completely alien to him. He is willing to learn their language, to immerse himself in their manners, get their culture sufficiently by heart to feel their repugnances and sympathise with their triumphs." (p. 281-282) 

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Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew

Writing anthropological and ethnographic research can be quite challenging. The experiences are so rich that one may not know where to begin and where to end. In "Two Arabs, A Berber and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco" (2016), Lawrence Rosen provides an exemplary model for anyone grappling with these questions. To do so, he draws on experiences in Morocco over a period of nearly sixty years. The book weaves in a diverse set of literature, from history to political science and works of fiction. Many books are biographical in nature, and at first glance this book might appear to be the story of four lives, which is partly is. However, the author uses these stories to tell other stories (the first delves into Moroccan history, the second a sort of Moroccan cultural Islam 101, the third and fourth cover the lives and experiences of Berbers and Jews). For anyone interested in Morocco, this is an excellent book. And, for anyone interested in how good anthropological and ethnographic research can be made accessible to a broader readership, this is an important read.

What one "feels" as a reader, is Rosen's deep respect for the people with whom he interacts. It is not easy to convey this (although the contrary is easy). For example, he opens the book by stating: "Ordinary people have intellectual lives. They may never have written a book; they may never even have read one. But their lives are rich in ideas, constantly fashioned and revised, elaborated and rearranged." (xi) Small comments throughout give one the sense of the authors love, appreciation, and respect for the people of Morocco. This might be common amongst anthropologists, but difficult to convey in academic works such as this (published by a university press; it, however, lacked in-text references in a number of places, including for direct quotes, which was not expected of such a publication).

Rosen also speaks about, and back to the discipline of Anthropology, throughout. I found these additions quite insightful, and coming from a seasoned anthropologist, quite informative. For example: "Anthropologists, Levi-Strauss once quipped, are radicals at home and conservatives abroad. Whether as the perpetrators or the victims of functionalism - a theory that emphasizes the contribution of each element to the continued working of a whole society but that, as a result, has always had trouble with accounting for change - we anthropologists often have to make a real effort when we study others to note the alterations such theories may obscure. And, wary of appearing judgmental, we often avoid discussions of discontinuities unless we can imagine ourselves allied with the politically correct side in the equation of power. Morocco in particular may not seem to lend itself to a focus on discontinuity. Instead it seems to embrace the continuous - one king for decades, one dynasty for centuries, one religion for millennia. It sometimes becomes an exercise in pressing the limits of predilection and profession, then, to attend to change when neither the subject nor the theories are altogether hospitable to it." (p. 231)

I was recently listening to a Professor in Ethiopia, who explained that often we miss some of the socio-cultural aspects which limit or enable opportunities. In that case, that while opportunities might be granted to certain people, they may not be able to benefit by them is the broader society refuses to purchase from them. A few lines from Rosen also reflected some of this socio-cultural complexity. For example, in a "list of occupations practiced by Muslims and Jews in Sefrou in 1924 is instructive in this regard. Note that all of the tinsmiths and porters, for example, were Jews. This, older Muslims told me, was because the tinsmiths were also plumbers and had to enter a Muslim's house where they would see the women and belongings of the homeowner. But whereas the Muslims were not eager for fellow Muslims to see such things in their homes, the Jews could be expected to remain discreet and, since they were not potential martial partners or political allies, their knowledge of one's household situation was not going to bear on subsequent relationships." (p. 290)

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