Thursday, December 25, 2014

my field work experience :D

Fieldwork is the most treasured practice of anthropology. I was lucky to have gone to a 12 day long field trip with 3 of the wisest physical anthropologists. We went to mount Abu, a small isolated hill station of Rajasthan. It was an immense learning experience that I will remember for life.  Here are the 9 things that I learned from my field trip:

1).Field work is a survival training exercise.
We think that fieldwork is training for budding anthropologists to gain an actual experience of an Anthropologist’s life. You are wrong. It’s about learning to bathe in cold water on mountains in December, eating meals to satiate your hunger and not your taste buds and living under tin roofs, when the temperature is 0 degree. Who cares how you establish your rapport in the village you are supposed to work in, those are secondary things. You must ensure that you use minimum amount of water throughout the day, so that there is some left when you take a dump in the middle of the night. After one M.Sc. fieldwork, you can be sure of your survival skills. 
2).You are not a student in the field, you are an entertainer as well, for which marks are awarded.
When preparing for fieldwork, I would advise that you should learn how to sing or dance. Because every evening there would be a ‘meeting’ to discuss what you did in the field and the problems you faced which is not so important. It would take hardly 10 minutes to discuss the field day of 68 people and after that you have entertain and appease the teachers. The more you appease them, the more marks you ensure. Serenading teachers can even get you the highest marks in dissertation.
3).Blood sample collection is the only thing that a physical anthropologist is supposed to do.
If you have taken specialization in physical anthropology in M.Sc, you are supposed to collect blood samples. Failing to do so will label you as a story teller or , for want of a better phrase, a social anthropologist. Physical anthropologists can do ethnography in one day, and rest of the time should be devoted to collecting blood samples.  If even a single person in the field becomes familiar with your name, you become unfit for physical anthropology. Getting to know people from your field does not suit a physical anthropologist. And by any chance, you take up a questionnaire based study; you become a ‘surveyor’ and not even a ‘social anthropologist’.   
4).Antakshari is more important than data collection. 
 There are dos and don’ts in every activity. During field work, it is more important to play antakshari and if you fail to do so, you might not be able to submit your dissertations. When your teacher reserves one day specifically for picnic and antakshari, you better be ready on time. Data collection is secondary to the things planned for you by the teachers. If you refuse to be a part of the activity, you risk your career as an anthropologist. An anthropologist should always know how to indulge in buffoonery with complete submission. Unfortunately, I forgot songs while playing antakshari and thus I will have to suffer the wrath of examiners for being unprofessional in the field. 
5).When you travel in a group of 70 people, it is okay to travel without tickets.
It is an important lesson for life. When you travel in a group and you have more than 70% berths in a coach, you can take along two three persons along with you for free without reservations. They should be your seniors to show gratitude and affection you have for them. They should get 2 berths each for their seniority and stuff. It does not matter if its illegal because the caring bond you form there is for life. So what if juniors have to share berths even though they have a reserved seat with their name, one should not forget to placate seniors with illegality and free stuff.
6).Consent forms are for namesake only. 
When you go to the field and you have to take blood samples from 10 year old kids, its okay to have them sign the consent form because, like 2 year old babies, they too know all about the genetic research. They understand all about bioethics and willingly participate in every research, even if their blood samples could be used for eugenics. 10 years is the most informed and wise age and they can take every decision for themselves except their dependence on the adults for living.
7).You can always identify the tattletale of the class
Be it a comment about a teacher or a gossip about a class mate or better still, a birthday party where every classmate is consuming alcohol( and breaking the holy law of fieldwork), you can rely on this person to feed every tit-bit to the most revered teacher accompanying you. He or she has a heart of gold, who thinks that teachers are also a part of class and they should know all about the whole class except him or herself.  
8).The time you spend with the teachers should be more than the time you spend in the field.
Fieldwork is just a training exercise in M.Sc. More important is socializing with the teachers for becoming a successful anthropologist. You are asked to go to the field by 9 A.M. and to be back by1.30 p.m. , so that enjoy the hot delicious potatoes from the last night’s dinner, while sitting under the sun with the teachers. It does not matter if you come back with only 5 samples as long as you have washed the plates of one of the teachers. And those who think that working for longer duration would get better data, they need two three lessons of Anthropology from these teachers.  

9).Focused group discussions are the most important part of the field, especially about  the people you know 
Otherwise known as bitching, it is what you learn the most from the teachers. You can always spot teachers engaged in intense FGDs about the dressing sense of the students or the ethnicity and its impact on intelligence. They do not waste a minute in the field. They know about the research topic of every student and they sit for hours, critically evaluating each individual topic with immense pleasure. They were most concerned about every student in the field and sometimes, they invited a student in their room for further discussions. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Day in the Life


Rustling with the canopy of trees, the sun rays finally touched the ground. This meant that it was time to wake up, though, in my whole life, I have never seen it actually happen as I was always the last person to get up in my group. By the time I climbed down from my bed, my mother had already gathered some fresh cocoa nuts for me. She shook my head a little to make me more perceptive of morning. I sat down beside her and we consumed the whole lot in a span of several minutes. Today, I was surely the last person to wake up, because most of our neighbors were done with their breakfast and a few were climbing the trees to break the freshest mulberries.
I decided to go for a stroll to search for fava beans, an after meal snack. I met my friend on the way whom I was meeting after quite some time. We hugged each other, sang our hoot song and then sat down between the bushes of fava beans. Just then, we saw a girl of our age passing through the Fava bean patch. She was quite good looking, especially her hind parts. She saw us looking at her back and yelled at us and ran away from the field. I looked at my friend and we both started giggling.  After an hour or so, I went back home. When I reached there, I saw my mother sitting with a strange old lady. They were sitting near the pond. I was unable to recognize the lady at first. But then I realized, she was my mother’s cousin who used to live with us, a few years back. She hugged me or rather squeezed me and started to kiss me all over my face.  She stopped abruptly in the middle of that outrageous display of affection because she spotted some lice in my hair. She made me sit down in front of her and with utmost concentration she started removing lice. Lice were common in our community. It was an everyday affair to remove lice from each other’s hair. After grooming me for half an hour, she moved on to my mother and spent another half hour on her hair. Then our whole group gathered and planned to go to the other side of our territory in the forest to collect some walnuts and gooseberries.
On our way back home through the forest, we met several members of the other tribe trying to steal fruits from the trees of our territory.  The strongest member of our group yelled at them furiously. His voice was loud and intense, reeking of rage. I knew what happened whenever this call was made: a violent, brutal fight. The adults of our group ran towards them vigorously and simultaneously issuing abuses and threats to them. Most of them scrambled away from the scene swiftly, but our group elders were able to corner a single voracious male who was ready to fight till death. He was defending himself with utmost force. He punched the nearest male on his throat, dug his nails in the hand and was going to bite him. Just then, one male and one female member of our troop attacked him from behind, bombarding him with punches and kicks.  He was struggling for breath but even then, he managed to throw all three of them away from himself. But soon enough, he realized that there was no chance of him winning, as he was outnumbered by twelve to one. Somehow, he managed to slither away from the snatch of the lot. He climbed on the nearest tree where he was followed by three others. He sat down on the topmost perch, eagerly waiting for all of us to leave. Most of the members were retreating back to the group but out of nowhere, that goon made a loud hoot to call his other members. As it was clear that he has not given up, three of the strongest members of our tribe started climbing that tree. They cornered him on topmost perch and beat him black and blue. He fell down the tree and was gravely injured. Unable to walk or even sit, he was very frightened now. After a few minutes, he managed to get up with the support of the tree trunk and limped away towards his territory. I was hiding behind my mother the whole time, peeping occasionally, when they were thrashing him so harshly.
It was twilight when we reached home. This was my favourite time as we would go out and play hide and seek. I met my friends near the pond and today was my turn to find them while the others hid themselves. I had to look for them in the bushy thickets, dense perches and behind the stones. After 15 minutes I found them. We played for another half an hour and went back to our respective homes. I ate some walnuts that we had collected earlier. Then, I climbed on the tree, made a bed of leaves on the perch and slept.

With no thoughts of tomorrow and no worries of today, it is a day in the life of a chimpanzee.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Woes of Capitalism: Kinship, Sociality and Economy

Last semester, I chanced upon reading two subjects, anthropology of kinship and human ecology. There were certain topics in both the papers, which keenly analyzed the nature of human sociality in contemporary times. In kinship, we read about the onset of reproductive technologies and their vis-à-vis impact on kinship in western societies and transformation of the “joint family” in Indian kinship society and in human ecology, we read about the progression of industrial revolution transcending the national boundaries, moving across the world and giving rise to the concepts such as capitalism and globalization. When I was going through the subject matter, I could not help noticing a causal relationship between transformation of ecology and its impact on the kinship system. I will try to present an evolutionary account of the interaction of kinship and capitalism.

Kinship is perhaps one of the fundamental features of human social organization. Lewis Morgan, one of the founding fathers of Anthropology, pioneered kinship studies in the late nineteenth century. Though his conclusions regarding the evolution of kinship are nearly invalid today, kinship has been a cornerstone for anthropological research since then. Kinship refers to a set of social relationships which are patterned in a society through the principles of consanguinity and affinity. Every individual forms a kin group, where he recognizes different relationship. Most of the relationships come with pre recognized etiquettes and norms and every individual have to oblige them as such. Of course, individual variations are there, but on a societal level, a discernable pattern emerges.

In order to understand the significance of kinship in economic sphere of a society, we need to step back a little in time and try to understand its origin.  From an evolutionary standpoint, kinship as a system of group living is highly developed in humans, owing to the social and cultural development. But a curious look at the sociality amongst our primate cousins, we can find some homologies with them. Bernard Chapais, a renowned primatologist, has put forth a cornucopia of examples to demonstrate the various aspects of human kinship systems in various primates. For example, he found among macaques a tendency to favor the matrilineal relatives in terms of sharing food resources, supporting their kin in conflicts and helping other ‘uterine’ relatives to acquire a dominant status in their group hierarchies. Moreover, a discernable pattern to recognize maternal kin, exceeding four generations sometimes, has been recorded. There are various other anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and primatologists who have engaged themselves in understanding the basics of human sociality by meticulously observing the furtive lives of various primates. The primates who practice group living, have some figments of kinship, albeit restricted by biological relations with humans as exceptions who have somehow transcended the bounds of biology in the domain of kinship. Nevertheless, I brought up the fact of kinship in other primates to recognize it as an adaptive strategy for group living. As we can see from the example of macaques, the kinship bonds are used to access and manipulate resources, help each other in various activities and assert their dominance in the group to ensure survival. This example elucidates the role of kinship in primate sociality. Sociality here refers to the capacity of an individual to engage in social activities, which is a prerequisite for group living.

The evolution of sociality in humans has been remarkable. As shown by evolutionary biologist robin dunbar suggested, there is close link between the extent of social relationships found in a society and their neocortex size. Humans have an exceptionally large neocortex which might explain the extraordinarily developed social living in humans. As per his research, humans can have around 150 social relationships. Out of these 150, there are different groups arranged according to the intimacy level. The core group constitutes more or less, five individuals and an extended close group, consisting of nearly fifteen individuals. Beyond that, there are other social relations labelled as friends, acquaintances etc. Dunbar’s work shows us the crucial aspects of evolution of human sociality, both in neurological and anthropological sense. Kinship has been a significant part of human social sphere since its beginning as the group living adaptive strategy manifested itself in the form of kinship.
If we take a look at the preindustrial societies, we find that, what anthropologists refer to as descent group, are the primary element of social grouping. Descent groups essentially work as corporate groups sharing cultural, social and economic responsibilities. A common household, basically composed of close relatives collectively take up the subsistence activities. Take the case of the Nuer, a patrilineal cattle herding group with a distinct Kinship organization to regulate the economy. For example, the Nuer males tend to the grazing and the other related activities, while the females milk the cows and take care of other small animals. A kinship based domestic group caters to the economic organization among Nuers. Different forms of kinship system prevail in different communities with equally diverse ways of regulating economy. The ceremonial gist exchange, bride-wealth, bride-price and dowry are also principally based on the alliance system. Similarly, the concept of “undivided Hindu Joint family” elucidates the role kinship plays in the matter of property rights and economic activities.

The role of kinship has reduced significantly, more so in economic sphere in the post industrial world. Before the industrial revolution, the economic pursuits of every society were primarily a domestic activity involving kinship. But after the emergence of capitalism, a consequence of industrial revolution, the role kinship played in economy has changed. Here, we need to recognize a certain evolutionary force at work. As Darwinism says, there is a constant struggle for survival between individuals of a species for resources. The struggle was taken together by the kin group as a whole to meet their need for resources. But with the inception of capitalism, an indirect means to acquire resources came into force, namely money. A market based economic system, where money can be used to acquire resources changed the way of struggle. Now, a discrete focus on attaining money overshadowed the collective efforts of kin groups. Capitalism not only aided in establishing an easy access to resources, it also created abundant means to procure money and gave rise to the concept of profession. Professionalism, as we understand it today, is a development under capitalistic regime. The competition began for professional specialization to meet the needs of the populations. It has driven the post industrial society to a point where severing kinship ties would not harm one’s access to resources.  Professionalism, unlike kinship, emphasis on talent and output and thus, limits the scope of social ties, which were profuse abundantly in the kinship system. Moreover, the emphasis on individualism also impacts the kinship system directly. A constant need for individual freedom has changed the dynamics of our social organization. Individualism essentially nullifies the role kinship played in economic activities, thus reducing the function of kinship to a symbolic recognition of our normative social ties. A more severe impaction of capitalism on kinship is the struggle it has introduced within the kin groups by the means of commodification of resources. In order to claim maximum resources, a fair Darwinian struggle has ensued in an institution which once served the function to ensure their survival as a group.
The reduction of kinship to a symbolic system has just begun, though its effects can be recognized.

 As I perceive it, the breakdown of the economic function of kinship is followed by instability in the social bonding between humans. Kinship provided both economic aid and social needs. But, capitalism has swept over the economic functions of kinship and thus, profoundly affecting the role it played in socializing. As we are neurologically predisposed to maintain stable social ties, decreasing relevance of kinship in acquiring resources is causing a distress on our minds which is recognized as stress, anxiety, depression and such other disorders. The increasing number of mental ailments caused by unmet social needs is one of the characteristic features of the population residing in metropolitan cities. The social brain that was, once, a corroboration of our success in the living world is becoming a cause of distress. Perhaps, it is the beginning of a new evolutionary discourse or maybe it is an ephemera; we can only guess, we may never know.

Putting the aforesaid views in a Darwinian perspective, every aspect our lives seems to have an evolutionary significance. As the social environment is changing, it is directly causing a commotion in the fitness of individuals. Only those strong enough to endure this shall determine the future of human species

Monday, March 3, 2014

Darwinism and Anthropology

Darwinism, the most profound theory to account for organic evolution, brought in a Newtonian revolution in life sciences. Charles Robert Darwin, in his books, On the origin of species (1859), put forth an explanation, most alluring and most pragmatic in nature, to account for the progression of life on our very earth. The basic tenets of his theory, to put it crudely, were struggle for existence, Natural selection, adaptation and sexual selection, which was purported later in 1871 in his book, “The descent of man”. Darwinism was a result of meticulous work done on immensely diverse life forms across several continents by him as a naturalist. The extension of his theory towards the course of human evolution could be traced in the descent of man. Darwin had realized that the course of human evolution was not purely biological. He noticed the similarities between the great apes and humans and tried to trace the antecessors of human lineage among the primate world. Also, he noticed that culture leaves an indelible impression on human lives, thus considered it as one of the contributing factors in the course of human evolution.
Darwinism in anthropology assumed importance much later. As we all know, anthropology is a distinctive field of inquiry concerned with the existence of humans in time and space. However, till the mid-twentieth century, we find a woeful lack of evolutionary approach in understanding human diversity. Darwinism was adopted veraciously by anthropology only after the prologue of modern physical anthropology initiated by Sherwood Washburn in the year 1951. Before this year, the anthropological investigation was classificatory and descriptive in nature, where primary focus was to delineate the human biological diversity in to races and sub races. The concept of pure races and ideal types flooded the anthropological literature. Washburn directed the focus of anthropology towards an empirical evolutionary framework in the realm of variations and diversity found amongst the human population. The concept of population replaced the concept of races, marking the solemn beginning of Darwinism in anthropology.  An experimental approach and cross disciplinary collaboration ensued in order to explain diversity. Washburn stressed particularly upon the functional anatomy, comparable to Malinowsky’s structural-functional approach and behavior analysis while introducing the expositions of modern physical anthropology. Bio-cultural studies fabricated with evolutionary approach infused Darwinism and anthropology courteously. 
From here onwards, we find an unvarying interaction between Darwinism and anthropology. Advances in the field of skeletal biology, Paleoanthropology, serology together with the exponential developments in genetics, we find a strong Darwinian approach in the inquisition of human variation. However, as genetics advanced, a large number of molecular phenomena were revealed which strayed away from Darwinian processes. For example, Darwinism, or rather Neo-Darwinism assumed that environment has a nearly negligible role on the transmission of genetic material. Variations produced were considered to be random and environment has no significant effect on it. But discovery of Epigenetic mechanisms, referred to as Neolamarckism, have challenged this notion. RNA interference, feedback loop mechanisms, DNA Methylation, chromatin marking systems and other epigenetic processes have severely challenged such assumptions of Darwinism. Similarly, advances in the study mutations have challenged the assumption of Darwinism that a cornucopia of variations exists in the population and natural selection acts upon them. Kimura Motoo has worked extensively to demonstrate the role of mutations in the course of evolution. His main argument was that the most of the mutations are selected by random genetic drift rather than natural selection, as the nature of a large number of mutations is neutral. His work has been extended by Mashotoshi nei, who has shown the positive effect of mutation processes in generation of alleles. Mutations are not merely a substrate for natural selection to act upon; they have the tendency to affect the process of evolution themselves. Another diversion, paramount to anthropologists, is the impact of culture on human evolution. More aptly termed as learned inheritance, humans have a tremendous tendency to abate various environmental constraints using cultural tools. Biomedicine, agricultural revolutions and so many other things have enabled humans to break away from the clutches of natural constraints. So, Darwinism again is heralded by such interventions.
In all the above cases, we find that Darwinism as a theory do not suffice to explain the evolutionary mechanism, especially when it comes to humans. The process of evolution is tremendously complex and the tenets of Darwinism are not the only explanations. But here, I would like to take a pause and try to distinguish between the two facets of Darwinism. As I have explained already, Darwinism as a theory might have shortcomings. As we are delving more and more at molecular level, we find certain departures from Darwinism. But Darwinism as a philosophy to account for the progression of organic world cannot be denied.  It can be compared to the discourse of gravity in the field of physics. Initially it was put forth by Sir Isaac Newton. He described various laws to account for gravity and proposed the process involved.  Surely, his laws have been proved wrong, with advances in the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. But even today, the broader framework of gravitation is still bases on Newtonian principles. Similarly, the tenets of Darwinism might not be able to explain the process of evolutions as a whole, but we cannot depart Darwinian philosophy from the course of any evolutionary study. Darwinism offers an insight in organic world which has the potential to explain the existence of every life form on our earth. Unless we start believing in intelligent design, we have no other option. 
Darwinian philosophy posits that every life from, including humans, had a common origin. Every individual organism becomes an agent of evolution, striving hard to ensure the existence of life on the planet. Every individual competes with others to leave a stubborn mark of his existence by reproduction. Organisms of all kind, sharing the time and space, are racing against each other to prove themselves to be successful. And in between this process, we find the concept of speciation and adaptation. Also, Darwinism respects the anonymity of evolution. When understanding the evolutionary past and future, we can only guess, we may never know. Darwinism states that the course of evolution of any organism is decided by the changing environment. It is not a goal directed process, but a never ending process which will end when life comes to an end. Under the purview of Darwinism human intelligentsia is just a path for survival, similar to the beak of a hornbill or trunk of an elephant. Some organisms adapted physiologically, some anatomically and we adapted consciously. Culture can be considered as the extended phenotype (Dawkins, 1981), an extrapolated expression of human capabilities. So, under this purview of Darwinism, we find that it is implicit every domain of Anthropology.
In contemporary times, the anthropological research has become diverse, very diverse where the bio-cultural interactions and their impact on human evolution are being contrived. I would like to cite a few discourses in anthropology that elucidate the importance of Darwinism in anthropological inquiry. 
A specific school of thought, which embodies the very spirit of Darwinism in anthropological research, is the gene culture co-evolutionary theory. It began in early 90’s where the effects of genes and culture on each other were equated. William Durham, a physical anthropologist, has tried to summarize the interface between genes and culture. He has proposed several comparative modes where genes and culture interact. In certain cases, both enhance each other as in incest taboos which prevent inbreeding favorable for the transmission of genes, reducing the chances of recessive genetic disorders. Sometimes, they oppose each other such as the practice of cannibalism among the Fore people which leads to neurodegenerative disorders. Also, he has proposed two interactive models termed as genetic mediation where genes select among the cultural variants. He elucidated it with the example of mating strategies such as Tibetan fraternal polyandry) and cultural mediation where culture selects among genes, such is the case of lactose absorption. This theory has tried to put together the co-evolution of both genes and culture along Darwinian selection.
Another emerging area of anthropological interest is the resurfaced concept of sexual selection. The concept of sexual selection was subverted by the neo Darwinists as they primarily assumed a panmictic mode of mating. Hence, the concept itself submerged under the circumstances. In last three decades, special emphasis is being given to the effects of sexual selection as it provides a theory of reproductive competition, along the Darwinian lines. Both the phenotypic expressions and cultural displays are being studied by anthropologist to trace the course of sexual selection and its impact on human evolution. Geoffrey F. Miller, an evolutionist, has explained the predicaments of sexual selection in a bio-cultural framework. The selection of light eye colors among the European population might be explained in terms of sexual selection by him, where he regarded that the lighter eyes had no appreciable fitness value, but they were a fitness indicator readily selected in their culture as a preference in the respective mate. Similarly cross species studies in mating behavior are also being done. They are produced in a Darwinian framework where competition ensues for a better mate. For example, a study done by A. H Harcourt, a physical anthropologists from university of California has revealed a correlation between the testis size of males and mating strategies. Relatively larger testes, which produce large quantities of sperm, suggest a degree of polyandry since the sperm from two or more males have to compete in the uterus. Chimpanzees have relatively large testes and low degree of sexual dimorphism and females engage in coitus with multiple males when in estrus, indicating a strong sperm competition. Similarly, gorillas have small testes and a high degree of sexual dimorphism and we find that gorillas do not engage in sperm competition but physical competition, where a male tries to protect his harem. Humans are intermediate between the two in respective body and testis size, suggesting that ancestral human males engaged to some degree in both sperm competition and physical completion while mating.  
Similarly, the human genome project has taken the study of genetics on a whole new level. Various projects such as human genome diversity project and many other are being undertaken by evolutionists, geneticists and anthropologists together to trace the origin and dispersal of various populations on the globe. These studies are also based on Darwinism. Genomic studies can be termed as the quantum revolution in life sciences. The efforts to trace the humans migration is a conflation of genomic studies as well cultural elements such as language. Culture has been with us since the beginning, so it goes hand in hand to a large extent, with biological dispersal. 
One more fascinating example of contemporary anthropological research is to understand the nature of Human sociality and human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists and many others are trying to the trace origin and sustenance of various universal cultural elements which have aided the survival of human. Pascal Boyer, an anthropologists who have worked primarily among the kurus of the fore, has done some excellent work in tracing the psychological predisposition of humans towards religion and have explained how this peculiar understanding have survived overtime in his book the religion explained. Robin Dunbar has tried to uncover the nature of human sociality in terms of neurological adaptation. So, our every endeavor to understand the nature of human evolution entails a Darwinian notion. Hence, in contemporary anthropology Darwinism is as profuse as it ever was.