Dive Deep into the Story of Jane Goodall in The Ghosts of Gombe

This brilliant narrative will haunt you. Dale Peterson has brought to life the Gombe of the late 1960’s, describing the entwined lives of the chimpanzees and the people studying them. It’s a true story of adventure, danger, and sudden death that makes compelling reading.”—Jane Goodall

Flying over the East African Rift and landing at the airstrip at Kigoma, Tanzania, you arrive in the thick of the Gombe forest. The forest has remained largely unaltered by human presence by its remoteness as well as its cutural traditions. The local people regard the forest as the “sacred lair of their formidable earth spirits.”

However, when Jane Goodall landed in the Gombe forest in 1960, the area was primarily labeled as a British mandate and Chimpanzee reserve. Over the next several decades, Goodall would establish her Gombe research camp and begin her groundbreaking chimpanzee research that would eventually win her numerous accolades and drastically alter the way that humans view the natural world.

The first decade was largely without incident until one day in July 1969. A week prior, Ruth Davis, a young American woman working as a volunteer at Goodall’s research site, wandered away from the camp to follow a chimpanzee and never returned. Several days later, her body was found in a pool at the base of a nearby high waterfall.

Rewinding several months, The Ghosts of Gombe follows the day-to-day experiences of those living in Goodall’s wilderness research camp in the months leading up to this tragic death. Dale Peterson explores the social dynamics and human-chimpanzee friendships and complex emotions flowing through the camp, while also posing questions about Ruth’s death. Was it an accident? Was she pushed, or did she fall to her death? Regardless of the specifics, it would go on to haunt two of the survivors for the rest of their lives.

Click through to the UC Press website to learn more about this unique glimpse into the everyday of the Gombe Stream National Park research camp, and save 30% on all pre-orders with promo code 17W7196.

Dale Peterson is the author or editor of twenty books, including Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined ManDemonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (coauthored with Richard Wrangham), The Moral Lives of Animals, and Eating Apes. Learn more about Dale at his website.


Donald Trump’s Teachable Moments #1, 2, 3 … ∞

By Judith Byfield, co-editor of Global Africa: Into the Twenty-First Century 

A few weeks ago, we were subjected to yet another infamous statement by Donald Trump. His statements—Nigerians live in huts; all Haitians have AIDS; El Salvador, Haiti and African nations are s***hole countries—reflect a long pattern of racist assumptions that are embedded in American culture. While it may be reassuring to think that Donald Trump speaks only for himself, the reality is that he speaks for many people who think African societies lack great thinkers, ancient civilizations, history and religion. Africans somehow managed to exist outside of world history stuck in tradition until slavery and colonialism dragged them into the modern era. Moreover, the political and economic crises that exist in many African countries are the result of their inability to learn how to become Western democracies.

These ideas and assumptions have histories to them, and they continue to do important work. Notions of African racial and cultural inferiority, for example, helped bolster and sustain the institutions of racial slavery in the Americas. They helped slave owners and their descendants to cast themselves as benevolent masters instead of a class of people who crafted systems of sadistic violence in the pursuit of wealth. These assumptions also placed a cloak of invisibility around the human and ecological costs of producing gold and diamonds for fashion statements and ivory for leisure pursuits (piano keys, pool balls). Equally important, they enable Donald Trump and many others to believe that any positive developments in Africa are due to the influence of Euro-Americans and all negative developments are the result of African actions only. Finally, racist assumptions allow Trump & Co. to believe that African immigrants bring no value to the American project. In their calculation, human value correlates to race and only whites, i.e. Norwegians, bring value.

Those assumptions are challenges for those of us who teach about Africa for we have to help our students recognize racist assumptions and the multiple ways in which they are re-invented for successive generations while teaching them about a continent that is dynamic and central to world history. The volume, Global Africa: Into the Twenty-First Century, can be a very helpful tool in the struggle to combat racism and ignorance. The cover alone begins the task for it shows an image of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, at night. This image contrasts with the one in Donald Trump’s mind.

Contributions

The first piece, a profile of Ibn Khaldun and last selection, a photo-essay on a utopian village in Ethiopia, highlight intellectual contributions to the social sciences and the promise of gender equality (1.1 – “Ibn Khaldun: The Father of the Social Sciences” by Oludamini Ogunnaike ; 5.7 – “Awra Amba: A Model “Utopian” Community in Ethiopia” by Salem Mekuria). Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, as Chambi Chachage shows, was also an important thinker on the world stage (2.3 – “Mwalimu Nyerere as a Global Conscience”). Nyerere provided an important critique of the world economy, its interdependence, and the privileges some countries enjoyed at the expense of African nations among others. The economic crises affecting many African countries was not the result of their failure to learn or corruption, it also resulted from policies promoted by the West during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

Politics and Economics

Corruption is often offered as the only explanation for issues on the continent, however, most of us hold a simplistic view of how it works and the parties involved. Masimba Tafirenyika explores the significant role multinational corporations play in exporting US$50 billion every year from the continent to Europe and the US through illicit business transactions (2.6 – “Commerce, Crime, and Corruption: Illicit Financial Flows from Africa”). Africa also exports resources critical to the digital economy and James H. Smith sheds light on the human and ecological costs of acquiring these minerals (4.5 – “What’s in Your Cell Phone?”). The confluence of political and economic decisions in Africa and abroad have made it difficult for many people to create the future they desire for themselves and their children on the continent. Therefore, many leave their homes hoping to secure the future they desire abroad.

Migration

African migration has a long history. Men, women and children have left for many reasons and under different circumstances. Some left as part of forced migrations to the Americas and India as Frank Trey Proctor and Renu Modi demonstrate in their respective chapters (1.5 – “From the Land of Angola”: Slavery, Marriage, and African Diasporic Identities in Mexico city before 1650”; 1.7 “Africans in India, Past and Present”). Modi notes that many Africans also travelled to India as students or medical tourists. Religion informed migration as well. Heidi Haugen shares stories of Nigerians who travel to China to bring the Christian gospel while Cheikh Babou introduces us to Senegalese imams who ventured to the U.S. to share the teachings of Islam (3.3 – “Sending Forth the Best: African Missions in China”; 5.5 “Globalizing African Islam from Below: West African Sufi Masters in the United States”). Mukoma Wa Ngugi helps us understand the complexity of exile for Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Britain and the U.S. provided refuge to Ngũgĩ after he was arrested by the Kenya government for criticizing inequality and injustice in the country (3.5 – “The African Literary Tradition: Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o”). A prolific writer and thinker, Ngũgĩ matches the educational profile of so many African migrants in the United States. The Migration Policy Institute found that sub-Saharan immigrants have a “higher educational attainment compared to the overall foreign-and native born populations.”

Racism

Donald Trump’s racism and the power he now holds to put it into policy threatens scholars and activists around the world who, like Ngũgĩ, speak truth to the powerful in their homelands. His racism hides the many ways in which the U.S. is implicated in the political and economic turmoil that feed migration from Africa, El Salvador and Haiti. It also masks the benefits the U.S. accrues from the capital exported from these countries as well as the educational attainment, skills and sheer determination of immigrants who now call America home. Saddest of all, the racism practiced and promoted by Donald Trump and the greed that accompanies it threatens America itself. Understanding Africa’s past and present may help Americans better grasp what is at stake under this president for the indices he uses to designate these countries s***holes are already in play here.

For further information, see the Census re: Foreign-Born Population from Africa and the Education of US-based African Immigrants


Judith A. Byfield is Associate Professor of History and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Cornell University. She is the co-editor of Global Africa: Into the Twenty-First Century, along with Dorothy L. Hodgson, Professor of Anthropology and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Graduate School – New Brunswick at Rutgers University.


La Perle des Antilles: A Haiti Reading List

Located on the western side of the Hispanola island, Haiti has been a nation plagued by both natural disasters, public health crises, and political unrest throughout modern history. While the current political administration is quick to dismiss the country and its people using racist and vulgar language, it is clear that this complex nation does not deserve such a moniker. We’ve selected several titles from our backlist that dive deep into the country’s history, politics, and struggles, all of which will help one understand the place the French dubbed la perle des antilles.

Haiti, History, and the Gods by Joan Dayan

In Haiti, History, and the Gods, Joan Dayan charts the cultural imagination of Haiti not only by reconstructing the island’s history but by highlighting ambiguities and complexities that have been ignored. She investigates the confrontational space in which Haiti is created and recreated in fiction and fact, text and ritual, discourse and practice. Dayan’s ambitious project is a research tour de force that gives human dimensions to this eighteenth-century French colony and provides a template for understanding the Haiti of today.

 

 

Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora by Elizabeth McAlister

Rara is a vibrant annual street festival in Haiti, when followers of the Afro-Creole religion called Vodou march loudly into public space to take an active role in politics. Working deftly with highly original ethnographic material, Elizabeth McAlister shows how Rara bands harness the power of Vodou spirits and the recently dead to broadcast coded points of view with historical, gendered, and transnational dimensions.

 

 

Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti by Erica James

Democratic Insecurities focuses on the ethics of military and humanitarian intervention in Haiti during and after Haiti’s 1991 coup. In this remarkable ethnography of violence, Erica Caple James explores the traumas of Haitian victims whose experiences were denied by U.S. officials and recognized only selectively by other humanitarian providers. Using vivid first-person accounts from women survivors, James raises important new questions about humanitarian aid, structural violence, and political insecurity.

 

 

Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora by Margarita Mooney

Based on fieldwork in Haiti and in three cities of the Haitian diaspora–Miami, Montreal, and Paris–this study offers a vivid portrait of the power of faith for immigrants. Drawing on extensive interviews and including rich details of everyday life, Margarita Mooney explores the struggles and joys of Haitian Catholics in these three very different cities. She finds that religious narratives, especially those about transformation and redemption, provide real meaning and hope in what are often difficult conditions.

 

 

AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame by Paul Farmer

Does the scientific “theory” that HIV came to North America from Haiti stem from underlying attitudes of racism and ethnocentrism in the United States rather than from hard evidence? Award-winning author and anthropologist-physician Paul Farmer answers with this, the first full-length ethnographic study of AIDS in a poor society.


The Economic, Social, and Emotional Toll of Removing Temporary Protected Status for Immigrants

The Trump administration continues to take steps to remove protections from certain immigrants groups. Today, it announced that it will end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for certain nationals of El Salvador, affecting ~200,000 immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years. They will be returning to a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world as well as a rampant gang problem. Many of the immigrants facing deportation have U.S. born children who now face the possibility of seeing their families torn apart.

Many of these same immigrants play a huge role in farm labor. Farmers are concerned how this, and the loss of other immigration protections, will negatively affect their ability to find laborers to work their crops.

Looking at your own neighborhood and university, which of your neighbors, students, colleagues, friends, and communities are affected by these removal of protections?

Below are books that relate to how immigrants have affected their communities, how immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy, and how immigration and deportation affect children and their families. And consider using the #ImmigrationSyllabus: UC Press Edition to prepare lecture discussions for your courses discussing immigration, labor and work, race relations, families, politics, and much more.

Immigration and Deportation
Labor and Work
Children and Families

 

 


Beyond Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Global Square

This post is published during the American Historical Association conference in Washington, D.C. (Jan. 4-7).  

 

 

Now more than ever, discussions of race, ethnicity, and nationalism must take a global perspective. Cultures, histories, and societies are racialized as more and more people cross borders. The boundaries of each nation are no longer geographical; instead, we find that one culture can profoundly affect another.

The Global Square

The Global Square Series features volumes focused on how regions and countries interact with the rest of the contemporary world. Each volume analyzes the tensions, inequalities, and challenges inherent in global relationships. Drawing on work by journalists, artists, and academics from a range of disciplines—from the humanities to the sciences, from history to public health to literature—these collections showcase essays on the histories, cultures, and societies of countries and regions as they develop in conjunction with and contradiction of other geographic centers.

Latin America

In Jeffrey Lesser’s and Matthew C. Gutmann’s Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century, volume contributors share impact of Latin America on the rest of the world, with the editors using Che Guevara as a small example of how Latin American countries impact our global culture, economy, and politics.

 

 

 

Africa

And in Judith Byfield’s and Dorothy Hodgson’s Global Africa: Into the Twenty-First Century, volume contributors discuss the entangled histories of the region, with the editors bringing to light the racialized divide within Africa—and encouraging how to go beyond it.

 

 

Visit UC Press booth #430 for a 40% discount at #AHA18! And learn more about the Global Square Series.


Rethinking a Global Latin America

This post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check for other posts from the conference. #AmAnth17

By Matthew C. Gutmann, co-editor of Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century with Jeffrey Lesser 

When thinking about Latin America, most people focus on the impact of the rest of the world on the region. But what if we thought about it in a radically different way? Lets flip the orientation and ask (and show)—what is the impact of Latin America on the rest of the world?

As scholars in the field, we attempted to make this shift in Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century, providing researchers, instructors, and students the opportunity to see—and share—Latin America in a new light.

What important experiments in democratic citizenship first developed in Latin America and have now been popularized across the globe? How does Latin America figure in a G20 world in which Brazil is the seventh largest economy and Mexico about to break into the top ten?

How have Brazilian Portuguese, all the Latin American Spanishes, and Latin American indigenous languages affected the way people talk, read, and even think in other parts of the world, including Portugal and Spain? What of the Latin American booms heard around the world in literature, telenovelas, music, and film? When we ask about sex workers and tourists and drugs in the region, it’s often even more fruitful to look from Latin America out and not just from the outside in to understand historic, contemporary, and future relationships.

Another with the former president of Chile Ricardo Lagos shows the global significance of Latin American creations from Che Guevara to Truth Commissions. With contributions from academics, activists, a poet, scientists, a movie star, and manga artists, on topics from the Latin American in the Vatican to Brazil’s trade of water in the form of soybeans to China to the pan-Latin food craze sweeping the earth, Global Latin America offers sharp and spicy chapters written for the general reader and classroom adoption.

Che Guevara image on man’s cap, Shanghai, 2013. Photo: Matthew Gutmann.

As editors we were inspired by explaining how and why the image of Che seemed to confront us wherever we went in the world, from a t-shirt on a football pitch in Palestine to the cap of a Chinese matchmaker in Shanghai. Sure, images of the bearded face and beret were often devoid of deep meaning, but there was his image, and we wanted to make sense of it. Trying to understand global Che led us to the larger meanings of global Latin America.

The history of Latin America is more than the Triple C’s of Conquest, Colonialism, and Christianity, the genocide, slavery, and immigration brought to the continent by rulers from Europe and the United States. This volume, like others in the GLOBAL SQUARE series, serves to remind us that regions are not just victims but also global players – and never more than today.


Matthew C. Gutmann is Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Brown International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI), and Faculty Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.


Taking the Knee

by Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell, co-authors of The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Recent headlines about NFL players “taking the knee” during the national anthem to protest racism in the United States remind us just how important sport can be in our contemporary times. Donald Trump’s irate Twitter responses are clear indications that sport, and what happens in and around sport, places politics front and center, no matter how strenuously some insist that sport should only be about fun and entertainment. It is evident from the furor that the athletes’ actions are not just about conflict between powerful, wealthy white male team owners and the black athletes who play for them, but more importantly about the structures of inequality that run deep in the U.S. and are, if anything, becoming more entrenched.

We need anthropologists to help us make sense of all this—and to serve as watchdogs over the burgeoning global sport industry, headed by non-governmental organizations such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee with budgets and political clout that dwarf those of many nations of the world. Anthropology Matters!, the theme of this year’s annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), encourages anthropologists to talk back to the media pundits, disingenuous politicians, and self-assured economists who dominate public discourse.

This is what The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics, just out from the University of California Press, aims to do. The product of a collaboration between three senior anthropologists (Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, and Thomas F. Carter), the book marks a new phase in our understanding of sport, a sphere of human activity that gained attention in the discipline in the late nineteenth century, but that has not fully coalesced until now. At the AAA meetings, a panel on “Did the Olympics Change Rio? Anthropological Contributions to the Public Debate about Olympic Legacies” demonstrates the importance of micro-level ethnographic research in achieving a deeper understanding of headline-grabbing issues, such as the favela pacification program, urban renewal, security and surveillance, Brazilian nationalism, and massive expenditures of taxpayer money on mega-events.

Two Cameroonian soccer players in the front of the disused roadside tavern they share as living quarters with fellow migrant soccer players in rural Poland, winter 2015 (Paweł Banaś)

The Anthropology of Sport highlights how tried-and-true anthropological concepts shed light on the world of sport—particularly the areas that the bright lights focused on star athletes and sports spectacles throw into deep background shadows. Ethnographic approaches to the gift economy, labor migrations, kinship, gender, sexuality, ritual, nationalism, consumption, capital, and precarity all provide new perspectives on sport in all its manifestations, big and small, festive and tragic, global and personal—explaining practices that often make little sense to other observers. While seeming disconnected, the extravagant cost of Olympic Games and the precarious lives of migrant athletes pursuing contracts in professional clubs are in fact enabled by one and the same structure of global capital, which both underwrites sport mega-events and creates the conditions under which increasing numbers of young men (and sometimes women) and their families in places like Fiji, Cameroon, and Kenya are pinning their hopes for better lives on careers with professional sports clubs in the developed world.

The Anthropology of Sport argues that, ultimately, the ethnographic approach to sport is a particularly productive lens through which to understand the workings of social life and contributes toward a better understanding of the challenging world in which we live.


Niko Besnier is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He has written extensively on gender, sexuality, migration, economic relations, language, and sport. He is editor-in-chief of American Ethnologist.

 

Susan Brownell is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She is an expert on sports and Olympic Games in China, Olympic history, and world’s fairs. She is the author of Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic.


Documenting the Human Costs of the U.S. Security-State, Part 2

This post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd. #AmAnth17

This year’s theme of “Anthropology Matters!” is a call to action that our authors and the Press are proud to support.

Deborah Boehm
Sarah Horton

Authors Deborah Boehm (Returned) and Sarah Horton (They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fieldsshare their thoughts on Anthropology in Unseen Spaces, sharing thoughts on the fate of Latino immigrants due U.S. policies on policing, detention, and deportation.

Earlier this week, as part of their AAA session on Detained on Trumped-Up Charges: Migrants and the Ascendant U.S. Security-State, they focused on various aspects, including how “[m]assive raids in immigrant neighborhoods and workplaces, the apprehension of DACAmented students—often out of retaliation for their speaking out—and the deportations of long-term residents not previously deemed priorities for ‘removal’ have spread anxiety and panic throughout immigrant communities.”

In Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation, Deborah Boehm shares the social effects that migrant Latinos undergo when they return to their homeland, either by choice or by force:

In a conversation about my research on deportation, a friend from the city of Zacatecas—an urban Zacatecano—made an observation that has stayed with me as I have witnessed and tried to make sense of migrants’ experiences of return and being returned. My friend remarked, almost in passing, that the migrants I work with are “ciudadanos perdidos, ” or lost citizens, and then he repeated a refrain I have often heard in my research with migrants, typically from migrants themselves: “No son de aquí ni de allá  [They are from neither here nor there].” When I asked why he chose this specific word—lost —to describe his fellow citizens, he replied that return migrants are not fully part of either country, excluded from the United States but not entirely Mexican. “Of course, they are my paisanos  [fellow nationals],” he explained, “but their lives are very different from mine. It is difficult to know what will become of them.”

While this sentiment of being “from neither here nor there” has framed my ongoing research with migrant communities, “lost citizens” is a category of alienation that signals a new global order of injustice. We do not all have equal access to citizenship and membership in particular nations. We do not all have the same chances to move across borders. As the world becomes a more connected place for some, the disconnections, barriers, and spaces of exclusion grow for most. This label “lost citizens,” like the many categories explored throughout the book, is shifting and relational. My friend seemed to understand this, identifying with migrants as members of the nation but also recognizing the deep divide of experience that separates them.

So, are deportees, returnees, and their family members in fact “lost citizens”? In the sense that their membership is compromised in the nations in which they live, yes, this is certainly the case. So I wonder if these migrants are lost citizens or rather those who have suffered loss, including a kind of “lost citizenship” or absence of full membership.They have lost, or never had—sometimes even in those nations they consider home—the full right to citizenship. Those affected by return are lost citizens in this sense, or perhaps lost citizens might be more aptly understood as those who lose in an era of global movement. The age of deportation is marked by social injustice and striking inequality as subjects move and do not move—forcibly or not, despite and because of state power—across national boundaries throughout the world.

Read the previous part of Documenting the Human Costs of the U.S. Security-State. And learn about the physical and psychological stress that U.S. immigration policies inflict on Latino migrants from Sarah Horton’s They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields.

 


The Culinary Sphere as a Political Arena

by Nir Avieli, author of Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

In a recent talk on my book Food and Power: A Culinary Ethnography of Israel during a visit to the US, I was asked whether my findings were not in contradiction with Jewish morality, and whether my text would not make for ammunition in the hands of anti-Semitic critics of Israel. For example, wasn’t my definition of the Israeli cuisine characterized by large, cheap portions of low quality resonating with the classic anti-Semitic perceptions of “the Jew” as stingy and greedy? And wasn’t my argument that the accusations by Israelis of Thai migrant workers for systematically hunting and eating Israeli pet dogs implying that Israelis were racists?

Food and Power is indeed a political project. It deals with the misuse and abuse of power in modern-day Israel, and exposes antidemocratic, xenophobic, and racist tendencies that taint the political and public arenas. In this sense, it is a stern critique of contemporary Israeli society. It is not, however, a post-Zionist or anti-Israeli project. Rather, it is a critical analysis of an extremely important cultural realm: The Israeli culinary sphere, which has not been approached thus far as a political sphere, enmeshed in power relations.

Do my findings contradict Jewish morality? While I could have argued that academics were not an authority when it comes to moral standards, I responded that there is no monolithic or agreed upon Jewish morality but, rather, multiple interpretations of what Jewish morality was, some of which can only be described as contradictory. And oddly enough, this is exactly what my findings indicate; that different people in different contexts understand and enact Jewish morality in very different ways: Eating as much as you can no matter the quality may be understood as a manifestation of greed, but also as an expression of vulnerability and fear. Accusing the Thais of eating Israeli dogs may be pure racism, but my findings suggest that this myth has emerged as a partial solution for the shame many Israelis feel regarding the employment of foreign workers in a country that cherished “Jewish labor”.

So while Food and Power approaches some of the negative features of Israeli society, including gluttony, greed, ethnocentrism, racism, patriarchal machismo, and other forms of power abuse, I have dedicated this book to my children,  hoping that the prevailing ethno-messianic and neo-liberal ideologies which have been increasingly dominant since the mid 1990’s will eventually collapse due to their essential immorality, internal contradictions, and lack of practical solutions for the problems and difficulties Israel faces.


Nir Avieli is a Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University, Israel.


Robots: The Backstories

by Jennifer Robertson, author of Robo sapiens japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.

Today robots have become, in the words of a Boston Globe headline from 2014, “the 21st century’s must-study subject.” Unless one is living in isolation or off the grid, one cannot avoid noticing that robots are in the news and entertainment media everyday. The scholarly literature on robots has also expanded exponentially, and the field of robotics is front and center in superheated debates about autonomous cars.

All the media attention paid these days to robots makes it a daunting challenge to write about them, as I realized while organizing my field notes and crafting my book. A major task I faced was to finesse the disconnect between actual robots and the robots that populate science fiction comics, novels, and movies. Although technologically complex, the former are clumsy, slow, and underwhelming compared to the latter. Video PR footage of actual robots moving is typically speeded up significantly, sometimes ten to thirty times their original speed, and is heavily edited to create the illusion of smooth, coordinated movement.

I also had to deal with the fact that the field of robotics and related technologies is evolving so quickly and in so many directions that research focused solely on highlighting the newest gee-whiz models quickly becomes out of date. How to keep my book relevant even after the robots featured in it were obsolete was a major concern. In addition, while seeking to analyze cross-cultural differences in attitudes toward robot-human interactions, I was careful to avoid fueling the stereotype of “the Japanese” as gadget obsessed and culturally prone to desiring robot companions over human ones.

My solution to these quandaries was to explore and interrogate the type of national cultural, social institutional, and gendered family structures within which humans and robots are imagined to coexist. I also researched and crafted substantive historical backstories to help contextualize the “imagineering” of human-robot relationships since the mid 1920s when, newly coined, “robot” (robotto) became a household word. Today, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, whose two separate terms in office bookend my work, is a leading promoter of robotizing the Japanese labor force. His 2007 blueprint for Japan, Innovation 25, anticipated the “robot revolution” formally announced in 2015. Abe is keen on making Japan a society in which robots of all configurations are utilized more than anywhere in the world, from agriculture to eldercare. He is also planning to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase robots in a separate “robot Olympics.” Although the robots displayed will be those made for the civilian market, Abe, like his Euro-American counterparts, is keen on parlaying robots in the lucrative weapons economy.

In Japan, the family or household is the place where robots will be domesticated and even given citizenship. Only in the past few years has this scenario become common in the United States and western European countries as evident in advertisements for gendered domestic robots called “Mother” and “Buddy.” Although it was broadcast in late October that Sophia, an android commissioned by the Saudi government, was the first robot to be granted citizenship, the fact is that the first robot to be granted citizenship was Paro, a Japanese robot seal recognized as the “World’s Most Therapeutic Robot.” Paro was added to his inventor’s family registry or koseki in 2010, which is irrefutable proof of Japanese citizenship.

The family or household is also the framework for a list of robot laws drawn up by writer and cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese counterpart and contemporary of Isaac Asimov, whose robot laws are of a more abstract, universal nature. I argue that as Americans and Europeans become more comfortable with the prospect of sociable household robots, they will regard the family as the metaphor and model of human-robot relationships, just as they already do for animal pets.

And, just like in families when a relative passes away, a robot member will be similarly grieved and eulogized. Robot and computer funeral services have been provided by Buddhist temples for several years now. The glum looking humanoid robots on the cover of my book are in a holding cage at Osaka University waiting to be taken to a recycling center. It has never been confirmed if they were memorialized at a temple before being dismantled.


Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. She is author of Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan and Native and Newcomer: Making and Remaking a Japanese City.