Jason De Leon Wins the 2018 J.I. Staley Book Prize

We’re pleased to announce that Jason De Leon, author of The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail is the winner of the 2018 J.I. Staley Book Prize presented by the School of Advanced Research.

The J.I. Staley Book Prize carries a cash award of $7,500 and seeks to recognize groundbreaking works and authors in the field of anthropology.

“Through an examination of the experience of undocumented migrants moving across the U.S.-Mexican border, Jason De León’s The Land of Open Graves integrates archaeological and ethnographic techniques to expose a central tragedy of border-protection policies that turn the harsh Sonoran desert environment into a zone of death. His prose, by turns clinical and intimate, draws readers into a politicized landscape and offers the vivid testimony of people who have survived their desert crossing.  Using forensic techniques and the photographs of Michael Wells and others, De León also reconstructs the stories of those who perished, in the process inventing an experimental archaeology of the present.  A powerful work of witnessing, The Land of Open Graves has profound relevance in an era of vast social displacement and global migration.” – 2018 J.I. Staley Prize Committee

Learn more about Jason and his work with The Undocumented Migration Project here.

Many congratulations to Prof. De Leon!

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.

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.

Make the Han Great Again

by Kevin Carrico, author of The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today

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.

Blame placed upon minorities and foreigners. Calls for isolation from the outside world to protect our way of life. Visions of a lost past, the good old days, needing to be recaptured.

For anthropologists gathering in Washington, DC for the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, these concepts will naturally bring to mind recent developments in politics in the United States. But these are also in fact issues addressed in my recent ethnography of race and traditionalism in urban China, The Great Han.

The Great Han is based in fieldwork across China with members of the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong), a grassroots nationalist group that has emerged in cities across China since 2001. Although “the Han” is China’s majority ethnicity, constituting 92% of the country’s population and playing a dominant role in the country’s political, economic, and cultural life, members of the Han Clothing Movement see the Han as an oppressed people, prevented from realizing their full potential, and thus China’s full potential. Why do these members of a dominant majority ethnicity see themselves as marginalized victims? In my analysis of majority nationalism, I interpret nationalism as an autopoeitic social system driven forward in the tension between boundless national fantasies and inherently bounded national realities, such that the reality of China today is interpreted as not corresponding to a fundamentally impossible yet alluring vision of “the real China.”

In response to this perceived dilemma, movement participants strive to bridge this distance from their “real China,” by promoting a purportedly ancient yet recently invented style of ethnic clothing, alongside reinvented rituals, etiquette, and traditional education. Having established the founding dilemma of Han nationalism in the first half of the book, in the second half I analyse various means by which participants seek to resolve these dilemmas: clothing that stabilizes, naturalizes, and eternalizes a romantic vision of Han identity; ritual that produces sequestered micro-spheres in which their ideal visions can be acted out without interference; and conspiracy theories that provide seamless narratives of Han innocence and goodness. These cultural manifestations of the movement, presented as “traditions,” in fact emerge primarily from the contradictions of the present, serving simultaneously as symptom and fleeting cure.

In tune with the theme of this year’s meeting, Anthropology Matters, I would like to suggest that in this age of newly emerging and revitalized global authoritarianisms, anthropology matters more than ever: a comparative anthropology of nationalism and racism can shed new light on the micropolitics of these troubling new trends, taking critical account of both global dilemmas and unique local experiences.

Kevin Carrico is Lecturer in the Department of International Studies at Macquarie University and the translator of Tsering Woeser’s Tibet on Fire.

Making The “Meat and Two Veg” for Sunday Dinner and Why it Matters

by Amy B. Trubek, author of Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today

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.

Making Modern Meals cooking book coverThe discipline of anthropology has always paid close attention to everyday life, relying on ethnography as the method par excellence. Observations of how we live work like a microscope of the social. Anthropologists take notes on the small and telling details because each one means something, revealing our values, our perceptions, our social selves. Everyday life certainly matters. In this telling, food, for anthropologists, should be a matter par excellence: everybody eats. And to a certain extent this is true. Anthropology, of all the social science disciplines, probably contains the broadest and deepest set of fine grained studies of the complex and contradictory relationship humans have with food. Over the past ten years, a number of ethnographies have looked at the significance of special ritual meals, the meanings of an artisan product, food ways as means for social distinction and social power, the global journeys of ingredients, and more, all resulting in fascinating analyses.

But we have yet to give food its due, especially given the commitment of anthropologists to everyday life and everyday experience. What about all the processes involved in answering that mundane and necessary question addressed fifty years ago by Mary Douglas: What should we have for dinner? As David Sutton, a committed ethnographer of cooking points out, even in Douglas’s famous consideration of the British meal, in this brilliant analysis of the structure of her meal why was “no concern expressed about how the ingredients might be assembled, processed and cooked to create these dishes (“Cooking in Theory” in Anthropological Theory, 2017)?” It is tempting to focus on the finished product, the object of consumption as what matters most. But there is more to put under the microscope. There is eating Sunday dinner but there is also making it. What items must she purchase in order to create the two veg on the side? Where did she get her ingredients? How did she learn how to make that roast? Over the course of my research on everyday cooking in the United States, I realized that so much tacit knowledge stays just below the surface, buried, rarely the focus of attention. What is known but not understood is the next journey anthropologists of food should take. The tiny, the trivial, the barely conscious are in fact grand, powerful and significant. As I witnessed, while dinner gets made – and planned, and eaten, and cleaned up – so to do our social lives and social selves.

Amy Trubek author cooking Making Modern MealsAmy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.

Why I Study Beauty in Brazil

by Alvaro Jarrín, author of The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil

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.

Beauty matters deeply in southeastern Brazil. Everyone has strong opinions on what ideal beauty is, how it can be attained and the effects it has on those who possess it. Popular sayings like “beauty opens doors” reflect a widespread belief that being beautiful can lead to upward mobility, because it provides opportunities in the job market and marriage market that would otherwise be closed. The popular saying “there are no ugly people, only poor people,” on the other hand, implies that no one is ugly by choice, and that those who lack beauty are only that way because they cannot afford the myriad beautification techniques available for purchase. Even for the working class, there are low-cost aesthetic surgeries available at some publicly funded hospitals that double as medical schools, but patients must agree to become experimental subjects for medical residents from all over the world who come to learn new Brazilian surgical techniques. Beauty matters in Brazil not only because individuals value it so highly, but also because the nation has become a global center of knowledge production within the transnational circuits of the plastic surgery industry.

In my book, The Biopolitics of Beauty, I trace the origins of this national concern with beauty to Brazilian eugenics, which began to consider beauty as a measure of racial progress. For the plastic surgeons I interviewed, beauty was still a eugenic enterprise, insofar as it “corrected” what they perceived as mistakes from too much racial mixture, and produced a more homogeneous population. They described their work with working-class populations as a form of charity, and considered it a way to uplift the poor and provide them citizenship by improving their appearance. Patients really admired the surgeons who offered beauty to the poor, but were more critical of the “dictatorship of beauty” they felt they had to participate in. My interviewees at publicly funded hospitals in southeastern Brazil described ugliness as intimately tied to forms of race, class and gender discrimination they had suffered – beauty had meaning for them because it seemed to condense all the ways that appearance trumped their qualifications or their hard work. Patients knew very well that they were running a risk by consenting to become “guinea pigs” for plastic surgeons, but they told me repeatedly that the risks of ugliness were even higher.

As I prepare to present my work at the upcoming AAA Meetings in Washington D.C., I think about this year’s conference theme, “Anthropology Matters,” and the ways in which anthropology can help us understand the world we live in, critique the forms of inequality we see, and yet empathize with people who are caught in power structures that are larger than themselves. Too often, people dismiss the Brazilian plastic surgery rates as an effect of their “culture,” and leave the question at that. Anthropology helped me unpack the complexity behind this cultural practice, and understand how beauty came to feel like a dictatorship for many Brazilians.

Alvaro Jarrín is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross.

Anthropology Matters: Going Back to our Talent for Finding Cracks

by Claudio Sopranzetti, author of Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

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.

The 2010s opened with waves of popular uprisings. Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, cities across the US and Western Europe, Hong Kong, Korea, and—as Owners of the Map narrates—Thailand were all shaken by massive, and largely unpredicted, political awakenings. Established and secure authoritarian regimes, capitalist common sense, and cultural hegemonies seemed to crack under the weight of collective action. Then, as the decade progressed, those awakenings were often followed by authoritarian push-backs, fascist resurgences, diffused fear and repression. Whether in Washington’s offices, in the ballot boxes of Athens, or on the streets of Cairo, Damascus, and Bangkok hopes have been crashed and shivers of change clouded.

The unthinkable happened twice in the course of a decade; as Marx would have said, first as a tragedy than as a farce. Caught in the midst of this open-ended reality, Owners of the Map asks: how can state power be so fragile and open to challenges at one time and yet so seemingly sturdy only a couple of years later? Specularly, how could protesters who had once fearlessly resisted military attacks now remain silent? And finally why, as social scientists, have we completely missed the coming insurrections and their violent silencing?

Trying to answer these daunting questions—central to contemporary political mobilizations around the globe—gets at the core of the theme of the 2017 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association: anthropology matters, a statement that in its grandiose tone is hardly able to silence the unwritten question mark that follows it. Owners of the Map argues that anthropology does matter, provided it re-directs its attention to his strong suits—namely finding contradictions, fractures, and weak spots in political, economic, and theoretical meta-narratives.

In the last decades, unfortunately, our analyses of power have often gone the opposite direction. We’ve too often focused on the sturdiness of power, the invincibility of capitalism, or—at most—on the small and hidden acts of resistance to its triumphal and disastrous march. This has made many of us into the over-systematic thinkers despised by Henry Lefebvre, people who “oscillate between loud denunciations of capitalism and the bourgeois and their repressive institutions on the one hand, and fascination and unrestrained admiration on the other. [Thinkers who] make society into the ‘object’ of a systematization which must be ‘closed’ to be complete; [and] thus bestow a cohesiveness it utterly lacks upon a totality which is in fact decidedly open—so open, indeed, that it must rely on violence to endure.”

Owners of the Map tells a different story, a story of unresolved tensions and continuous attempts to brush them under the rug, of re-emerging cracks and fault lines, of opposing orders striving in vain to impose themselves, and of collective actions that raise significant challenges when aimed at specific weak spots. Letting these stories go unheard, the book argues, does more than losing an intellectual perspective, it promulgates a praxis of political immobility, a position that in times of mass mobilizations and fascist resurgence will not only make anthropology irrelevant, it eventually will put its practitioners on the stand, on the side of those who could have helped but decided to do nothing. As a discipline we have made that mistake in the past, remaining silent and turning our heads to the horrors of colonialism. Are we going to make it again?

Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement.

Visit Us at AAA to Save 40% on New Titles

Attending the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.? No doubt your schedule is already jam packed, but make sure to stop by the UC Press booth (#305) to save 40% on new and bestselling titles in the field. Beforehand, head on over to our conference landing page to see what’ll be on display and take early advantage of our conference discount.

Check Out These AAA Sessions Featuring UC Press Authors:

Wednesday, November 29th:

2:15PM-4:00PM: Politics and ‘The Good Life,’: Negotiating and Making Claims on State Institutions (Alvaro Jarrin)

2:15PM-4:00PM: Mindful Matter (Alaina Lemon)

2:15PM-4:00PM: Detained on Trumped-Up Charges: Migrants and the Ascendant U.S. Security-State (Deborah A. Boehm, Sarah Horton, Angela Steusse)

Thursday, November 30th

8:00AM-9:45AM: The Ethics of Entertaining, Everyday Technologies of Self-Presentation (Alaina Lemon)

Friday, December 1st:

8:00AM-9:45AM: Open and Closed Futures (Jon Bialecki)

Saturday, December 2nd: 

2:00PM-3:45PM: What is ‘analysis’? Between theory, ethnography and method (Eduardo Kohn, Nurit Bird-David)

2:00PM-3:45PM: The Moral Economy of Protest in East Asia (Kevin J. Carrico)

Sunday, December 3rd: 

8:00AM-9:45AM: Did the Olympics Change Rio? Anthropological contributions to the public debate about Olympic legacies (Susan Brownell, Erika Robb Larkins)

10:15AM-12:00PM: How Food Matters in Contested Sovereignties and Resistance (Nir Avieli)

Anthropology News from UC Press

Kate Marshall, our new Anthropology editor!

For more than 50 years, UC Press has been one of the leading publishers in the field of anthropology. We are delighted to share the news that our longtime colleague Kate Marshall is assuming leadership of the program. Kate is preceded by Reed Malcolm, who will now manage our open access initiative Luminos.

Reed Malcolm joined UC Press in 1995 and served as executive editor for anthropology and Asian studies for nearly a decade. While Reed made a significant mark on the anthropology program, he is passionate about open access and eager to expand Luminos, a program created to enhance the global distribution of specialized scholarship by making it freely available to all. Reed will continue to acquire books in Asian studies.

Kate Marshall joined UC Press in 2008 and soon took on our interdisciplinary programs in food studies and Latin American studies. Publishing books by anthropologists has always been a significant part of Kate’s work and she’s excited to devote more attention to the field. Some of her noted publications in anthropology include Jason De León’s The Land of Open GravesHeather Paxson’s The Life of CheeseArlene Dávila’s El Malland Sarah Besky’s The Darjeeling Distinction. Kate will continue to acquire on food and Latin America across disciplines.

Kate or Reed may be contacted through our website. Kate and our marketing colleagues look forward to seeing you at the American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington, DC in a few weeks!