Publication of Bullying News Media Analysis [ABIBS Research Update]

Exciting news: My semantic analysis of news articles on bullying, that I presented at the IASESP conference in April, was accepted for publication in the Journal of Contemporary Anthropology Vol. 4! The title of the article, “The Social Construction of Bullying in U.S. News Media,” describes my contextualizing research for my upcoming documentary. I am thrilled to have this validation and exposure for an anthropological approach to bullying, and the boost it will give to the future stages of my research.

Some highlights from the reviews:

The author has provided a thought-provoking and well-written paper on the topic of bullying and the application of folklore and media studies methodologies in the study and prevention of the phenomenon. I think that the paper adds much to the discipline with respect to its multidisciplinary scope. The author does an excellent job of backing up the use of the folklore/media studies approach. The paper is also an important addition to applied anthropology and can serve as a catalyst for further studies related to  bullying and other social phenomena.

This article discusses an interesting topic relevant to our contemporary society, cleverly set
against the backdrop of folklore studies and media culture. Overall the article has a strong potential and
displays a good understanding of related theoretical and contextual framework.

Public and Visual Anthropology (Research Update)

Snapshots of upcoming guest lecture for a section of the Sex Roles in Cross-Cultural Comparison course at the University of Florida:

The problems with women and Hollywood include massive underrepresentation (TV, however is ahead of the curve, and certainly the better for the likes of Fey and Rhimes), a body-image obsession that pigeonholes actresses and largely limits positive roles to “sexy” roles, the assumption that movies need to be drafted for and marketed to each sex, and poorer odds for women to move into executive positions, financially or creatively.

Some films count on a female vote and aren’t ashamed to show it. Consider the fuzzy yellow trailer for “The Help” featuring witticisms by the black leads and a plucky score (a far cry from the actual tone of the film), or the sexy, glittery trailers for “Magic Mike” and “Sex and the City 2”; others are projected to attract men but include images of shirtless men in their trailers, presumably to encourage the wives and girlfriends to come along. Obviously, the equation of female moviegoers’ interest with their desires for friendship  with women and sex with men is as problematic as the equation of female actors’ and filmmakers’ success according to their perpetuation of female stereotypes of personality and social worth. Either way, there are significant economic and psychological impacts on those women who love film. They are neither as uniform in their approach nor singular in their interests nor small in number as andocentric Hollywood would suggest.

Edit: See the final presentation.

See also my essay on institutional sexism and feminism over at Confluey, and my prezi on violent female characters.

Naming Through Name Brands

I have been so busy with papers that I haven’t had enough creative juices left to write a blog post. But the documentary on graffiti artists reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile: branding. Graffiti artists will “tag” their artwork (or just the walls of public restrooms). It may not be known to all who view it, but it is a pictographic signature. As graffiti artists work in a visual medium, this is not surprising. However, a similar process may be seen in social media, as people construct multimedia “signatures” that import and transmit their personality (or what they desire their personality to be; we are what we do).

The modern concept of brands dates back to the 19th century, when manufacturers imprinted their goods before shipping them miles away. Around the turn of the 20th century, companies began to develop advertising based on their trademark. The rise of radio and broadcast television was a natural boon to advertisers, who drafted audiovisual texts to accompany their slogans.

Brand identity describes the psychological associations of a product that purportedly mirror the interests and emotions of the target audience. While the effectiveness of this technique has been demonstrated over and over again in market research studies, few have considered how consumers reappropriate brand identities to describe themselves. Except of course, certain advertisers who observed this brand fandom (e.g. “I’m a Mac”).

In a previous iteration of Facebook, users could install modules on their page that incorporated logos, religious symbols, celebrity images, witty sayings, TV/film quotes and musical lyrics, and other such cultural memes. This capacity is gone on Facebook, but has been renewed with force by Pinterest. Similar to the “biographical collage” projects we had in grade school, but heavily incorporating advertising logos, images from mass media, and TV/film stills, these collages show that users do not mere fall for brand identity, but construct a branded identity themselves.

What symbols do you surround yourself with? Are you a Coke or a Pepsi? A donkey or an elephant? A Trekkie or a Lucas nerd? A Mac or a PC? McD’s or BK? …the possibilities are endless.

Anthropology: the Professional, the Philosophical, and the Practical

When I tell people I am studying anthropology, I quite frequently get one of these responses:

  • “So you dig up pots?”
  • “So you study dead people?”
  • “So you look for dinosaur bones?” (yes, really)

It is probably most indicative of a highly professionalized culture, in which disciplinary alignment rarely intersects with job title, that the term “anthropologist” means little to people, but smacks of something archaic enough that people assume its subject is necessarily archaic as well. It’s also partly due to the paucity of anthropologist characters in popular films and TV shows who vaguely resemble real anthropologists (i.e. not many of the hapless characters in scifi flicks on whom the writers have slapped a random scientist label—hello, Prometheus). And the few that exist, of course, engage in wildly unusual quests and work in exotic or hyper-nerdy locations: Temperance Brennan, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon (symbologist…?).

An anthropology major is number 15 on a list of the majors with the highest unemployment (link).* It doesn’t sound too bad until you review a list of majors at major universities. (here’s my school’s). I wonder if the increasing gap between academia and job placement for the social sciences is at least partly due to a misunderstanding of anthropology. How many jobs have I been turned down for because someone thought I looked at things in the ground? (Hence my necessary return to school.)

Anthropology has a long and, sadly, somewhat sketchy history. It wasn’t until the late 19th century and the likes of Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell that anthropology began to be a matter of ethnology, not armchair anthropology of the exotic, nor evolutionist comparative biological anthropology. Later, the blooming generations of Boasian anthropologists began to work for various government agencies, such as the Bureau for Indian Affairs. This was a good moment to be an anthropologist, if only because their insights into other cultures proved useful in native negotiations and in war time (e.g., The Chrysanthemum and the Sword).

In the postmodernist 1980s in America, a new hyper-relativist, activist trend emerged in anthropology that marked the final phase of anthropology in the job market. We had gone from the self-assured, racist, positivist ethnographer, to the state-sanctioned, exoticist, empirical ethnologist, to the doubtful, self-reflective, cultural detectives. Bolstered by people like George Marcus and Michael Fischer, anthropology in the postmodernist flavor, like the literature and philosophy of the time, questioned everything in order to answer a few things, and managed to insult American sensibilities (both anthropologists and non-anthropologists) in the meantime. It’s my guess that this trend greatly affected attitudes towards anthropology in laypeople, such as my religious, conservative aunt, who once railed against political correctness and expected acceptance of “sinful” lifestyles thanks to anthropologists (without having asked me what I was studying in school). It probably also contributed to a characterization of anthropologists as weird or even non-cultured (like Bones, who has little psychocultural connection to the society in which she lives).

Fact is, in an increasingly globalized yet politicized world, in which most people have anywhere from an occasional to a constant connection to global markets of information and products, it’s more important than ever to understand modern anthropology’s fundamental question: why we do the things we do. The same question permeates all fields of anthropology and gives us a scientific yet practical approach to all pursuits. It may not be reflected in the resumés that land on the hiring manager’s desk, or in curricular requirements in universities, or in popular culture, but the ability to reflect on one’s own behavior and their society, to imagine oneself in another’s shoes, to communicate efficiently with someone of a different walk, and to understand the purpose of one’s own and others’ actions, can benefit people in those top-hired areas—business, medical, education—as well as people in the supposedly unhireable majors of art, architecture, liberal arts, humanities, and history.

After all, anthropology is the study of humanity, and last time I checked, every aspect of your  life involves just that.

* Doesn’t look too good in this breakdown either.


Memetics, Schematics, and Cultural Genetics

Recently I came across a reference to memetics, which I had heard of and frankly dismissed as a conflation of the biological and cultural, similar to UG, in a way that ignores the cognitive processes of culture. Now, though, I’m thinking that as so many things go by different names across the disciplines, that a “meme,” even in a sense as its alternate meaning of “Internet fad,” is not too different from a schema, nor too different from a tradition. One is a symbol, or a symbolic action, one is a neural network, and one is a repeated action. I’m sure there are other concepts that describe a similar phenomenon of human nature, but for the sake of having the time-honored triad I’d like to view these three ideas as a Holy Trinity of culturemaking.

As compiled here:

Biological Definition (from Dawkins): A meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.

Psychological Definition (from Henry Plotkin): A meme is the unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene. It’s the internal representation of knowledge.

Cognitive Definition (from Daniel Dennet): A meme is an idea, the kind of complex idea that forms itself into a distinct, memorable unit. It is spread by vehicles that are physical manifestations of the meme.

“A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds. [snip] It’s one way of looking at things. It’s looking at ideas – memes – as distinct entities in competition for a share of your mind and a share of everyone else’s. When those ideas are harmful… understanding this model can show you how to combat the infection.” (quoted from Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme)

What is a schema, then? A schema, as I learned it, is a set of neural connections that are triggered by physical, social, and internal stimuli and not only inform behavior and perception, but are shaped by internalized ideals and expectations experienced in a sociocultural context. Schema theory is thematically related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and is also called cultural modelling theory to the cultural, especially interactionist, anthropologists.

And what is a tradition? A tradition is more than something people do multiple times. It goes beyond rituals and events, too, and encompasses a society’s basic ontology and epistemology, sociopsychological benchmarks, and patterns of movement. A tradition is a repeated social action or event within a specific cultural context that reflects the society’s psychological, economic, and political needs.

All together, a meme, Internet or otherwise, is a cultural product that evokes a schema, and may become or provide context for a tradition.