Results tagged “Law and Anthropology”

May 3, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

In this collection of essays, Arjun Appadurai links his role as leading globalization scholar to his practice as activist on behalf of the slum dwellers in his native city of Mumbai (or Bombay, the abandoned name Appadurai seems to prefer). Appadurai redeploys globalization theory (and more generally modernization theory, of which globalization is a part) as an ethical practice. He calls for cultivating the capacity to aspire among the world's poor -- an unabashedly cultural project with political and developmental implications. Appadurai argues that the poor must be enabled to aspire -- these aspirations will, in turn, define new and different trajectories from those promised by the passé globalist.

Globalization has failed in its predictions -- and so has failed as science. Globalization, it was thought, would lead to convergence and homogenization, more democracy and tolerance and less nationalism and violence. Yet the world we now see displays strong (and growing stronger) national states and continued developmental disparities. Those enabled by knowledge migrate; their home countries capture disappointing returns from their educational investments. New digital capacities have been harnessed by jealous ethnic groups to reinforce local identities; they can encourage aggression and conflict.

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March 28, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Napoleon Chagnon's title promises a visit to two dangerous tribes: the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. He provides a disjointed treatment. The larger part of the book takes the form of memoir, a return by Chagnon to the people he studied over the greater part of his career. The later chapters address the academic scandal surrounding Chagnon's work - and his place within the evolving discipline. Chagnon defends himself here - but he does not 'scientifically' study his anthropologist accusers: their violence (as opposed to that of the Yanomamö) is not explained.

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Chagnon made the Yanomamö famous: his monograph (subtitled "The Fierce People') was widely studied (it was a highlight of the undergraduate Cultural Anthropology course I took). And of course the Yanomamö made Chagnon famous.

Chagnon's work was always controversial. He presented the Yanomamö as among the world's few remaining "Stone Age" people, largely isolated in the regions dividing Venezuela and Brazil. From here they subsistence agriculture from ever shifting villages. The Yanomamö were hardly unaffected by encounters with the outside -- they grew plantains and other crops that had been introduced to South America and prefered modern tools (including the machete and shotgun). Chagnon depicted the Yanomamö as a violent society, characterized by treacherous killings, inter-village raids, and systematic abduction of females. The Yanomamö were not Rousseau's noble savages.

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January 2, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a grand intellectual project and a call for action. Graeber's book moves debt to the center of political discourse.

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America is built on debt. Indeed, assuming our fair share of debt can be seen as an American duty. We obtain housing, education, transport and medical services through our use of credit -- and as such we spend most of our lives deeply indebted. The root of our notion of freedom (echoed, as Graeber points out, in religious imagery) is freedom from debt -- and if this is so, then by no means is America the land of the free.

Graeber's overview of 5,000 years of debt demonstrates that debt is not a neutral social instrument. Rather debt is first and foremost an institution allowing for the exercise of power. Debt is the foundation of hierarchy and hence much social structure.

Read my full-length review of David Graeber's Debt in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Follow me on Twitter @jefferyatik

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December 12, 2012

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Mark Pagel addresses the conundrum posed by variegated cultures. Culture -- what we have that monkey's don't (according to a witty formula quoted by Pagel) -- both unites us and divides us. In Wired for Culture, Pagel attempts an evolutionary account for the existence of cultures. His inquiries commence with the mad multiplicity of languages. Language is the prime instrument of cultural transmission and the strongest marker of cultural identity. Yet the intra-group facilitation of communication provided by distinct languages are foreclosed to outsiders. Our languages seal us off from one another.

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Human adaptability to the widest range of niches offers only a partial explanation for the multitude of cultures. New Guinea sports more than 800 different languages within a very small territory -- here mutual unintelligibility seems to be the point. Language operates both to permit and prevent understanding; both these characteristics are necessary. The value of a closed system of communication has long been recognized. Tradesmen, criminals and academics use argot to separate themselves and to keep secrets.

Pagel makes an evolutionary case for the multiplicity of languages; language serves as an identifier of group membership. This is culture's darker role: defining group boundaries. Pagel sees language and other cultural institutions functioning to set limits for altruism. Humans are social -- but only to a degree. We are a species that engages in magnificent cooperation -- yet are capable of inflicting harm on a scale not found in any other species.

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November 30, 2012

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

I was entranced by the prospect of reading Annelise Riles' Collateral Knowledge, given my eclectic (some would say scattershot) interests. Riles delivers a sophisticated and insightful anthropological treatment of the management of various legal questions facing Japanese banks entering OTC swap transactions. Global finance, ethnography, tasty legal theory: what fun!

Riles 2 book cover image.jpgAnd yes, Riles pulls it off. She promises an "ant's-eye view" of these stories, consistent with traditional ethnographic method. While the original intended targets of her observation were Japanese bank regulators, she later realizes the 'back-office' personnel (including the lawyers overseeing the documentation of the transactions) were as central in the process of the law-making.

Riles examines two crucial points of tension in the swap practices of Japanese banks. The first is the utilization (under Japanese law) of the institution of collateral: the posting of property to secure repayment of a debt. The book's title, Collateral Knowledge, plays on this and other meanings of "collateral." All commercial lawyers understand how collateral should work: it should freely pass the pledged assets into the hands of the favored creditor in the event of a debtor's default. And so the mission of a bank lawyer (in this case, one dealing with a Japanese bank) is to assure his principals that these functional expectations are met. This is hardly a simple matter where (in an example given by Riles) the swap is between a Japanese bank and a UK bank, posted to their respective Cayman Island subsidiaries and involving Chinese and Singaporean currencies. The swap raises peculiar difficulties, as neither party knows ex ante whether it will be a net creditor or net debtor of the other -- and so both may need to post, maintain and adjust collateral supporting the transaction. The standard industry forms, drafted by British and American lawyers and routinely used by the Japanese banks, are "literally nonsensical" to the Japanese, according to Riles.

But the forms "work" -- in that they satisfy the lawyers, the banks and their regulators. The art of a back-office lawyer is completing the forms -- the invariable boilerplate, the prompted elections (such as which country's law should govern) and any special terms. Standardization is at work here -- but so too is the exercise of a lawyer's "aesthetic" sensibilities, knowing when the paper looks right. In fact legal certainty may not be a dominant consideration -- at least not in ordinary times. But Riles' fieldwork followed an earlier Japanese financial crisis that set off external anxieties about aspects of Japanese law.

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