Posted by: soanstolaf | September 23, 2014

Dance and Anthropology in Bangalore

Lindsey Mornson, class of 2015, didn’t spend her summer at the poolside. A double major in sociology/anthropology and dance, she interned for eight weeks in Bangalore, India working with the Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts. The goal was to promote “traditional performing arts through community outreach projects, coordination of artist support, and marketing and promotion efforts”. Attakalari is a dance school and company, and also organizes dance workshops and lectures in schools around Bangalore, helps with career development, and has a bi-yearly international dance festival.

Lindsey found the internship the old-fashioned way: Google. An internship company based in Bangalore called LeaveUrMark helped her plan her internship, provided an apartment and pre-departure support. St. Olaf helped fund it, with grants from the Ken Olsen fund in the So/An department, the dance department, and the Kloeck-Jenson International Development Scholars fund from the Piper Center.

The work was the perfect way for Lindsey to explore the connections between her two majors and enjoy two things that she loves. Although her day to day work was in an office, drafting funding applications, compiling information for brochures, attending meetings, and helping plan the dance festival for February, she was able to use her anthropological skills daily to see how dance communities function in another country.  “I found it interesting that the way dance was talked about, how the dancers existed together, and how the community functioned (were) as a whole very similar to … back home.”

The internship helped her define what she’s interested in doing in the future as well. While arts management doesn’t appeal to her as much, she learned that she has a passion for learning about the history, culture, and traditions of Indian dance styles. This semester, she’s working on a DUR with Professor Von Bibra in the dance department “looking into how globalization, modernity, and capitalism have influenced Classical Indian Dance forms today.”


The most important thing she learned, however, wasn’t about the specifics of dance, but about how to adapt to a new work environment in a new culture. The biggest challenge for Lindsey was being more flexible about deadlines and getting work done. Her anthropology classes helped her let go of her ideas about deadlines and work schedules and to just go with the flow. “In the end, we accomplished so much in the time I was there. Their work methods were very effective after all.”

As for other So/An majors looking for internships, she offers this advice: “Find something that will really push you out of your comfort zone. I had my biggest learning moments when things went completely wrong or I felt so uncomfortable and out of place.”


If you have questions for Lindsey feel free to email her at

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 18, 2014

Human Trafficking in Minnesota

Human trafficking is a major problem in the United States. Minnesota and the Great Lakes region face the particular issue of the trafficking of Native women, in which we see the intersection of many forms of oppression. Several of our majors are involved with an on-campus group dedicated to raising awareness and ending human trafficking.
You can see a video about this topic here:

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 16, 2014

New Anthropologist: Marcel LaFlamme

The department is lucky to have Marcel LaFlamme with us this year. Professor LaFlamme comes to St. Olaf from Rice University, where he is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology. He recently completed a year of fieldwork with unmanned pilot trainees in North Dakota, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Check out an article about that work here:

Marcel received his B.A. in folklore and mythology from Harvard University, where he wrote a thesis on narratives of masculinity at an all-male boarding school, and his M.S. in library and information science from Simmons College. From 2008 to 2010, he served as the library director for a rural community college in southeast Kansas, where he curated the manuscripts of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Inge.

Stop by and say hello! And keep on the look out for another post about Professor LaFlamme in the coming weeks.

Posted by: soanstolaf | March 17, 2014

Art, Prison, and South Africa

Kyla[Kyla Rathjen, center]

Kyla Rathjen, a senior SOAN major from Eden Prairie, MN, spent her last semester studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa through CIEE, a non-profit organization offering study abroad programs across the world.

Kyla’s experience, a “service-based learning” program, sought to educate students about issues of social justice and ethical citizenship by requiring students to become directly involved in a community-based service organization.  Kyla split her time between the classroom and her service project, spending three days a week studying social science theories and research methods two days a week volunteering at an organization that sought to decrease racial and economic inequalities in Cape Town.

Specifically, Kyla worked with Young in Prison, a non-profit that seeks to give educational and emotional support to youth experiencing incarceration.  Kyla divided her time between the Young in Prison office and Pollsmoor Prison, a large high security prison famous for housing Nelson Mandela.  Working at each location one day a week, Kyla focused on building positive relationships and improving self-esteem through various art projects. 

A large part of the student’s time is focused on the creation and implementation of an end of term “capstone” project.  Working with Young in Prison, Kyla proposed and developed a creative writing project that sought to connect current and former prisoners.  Through writing letters back and forth in a “pen-pal” format, Kyla hoped to help people who had extremely limited human interactions build relationships and relate with someone who had been through a similarly difficult experience. 

Through her work with Young in Prison, Kyla gained valuable insights into both the practical challenges and important functions social justice organizations face.  Kyla learned quickly that one of the most persistent problems of non-profit work is figuring out how to carry out a project in cost-effective and practical ways.  While Kyla developed many potential arts projects for the prisoners, the limited resources of the prison itself often made the implementation of these projects difficult or impossible to achieve. 

Yet, while practical constraints often limited the scope of the projects, Kyla observed that it was not the projects themselves but rather the relationships prisoners were able to form through the arts projects that ultimately had the most long lasting and meaningful effect.  Kyla told me that many current and former prisoners felt a great sense of loneliness and abandonment.  Their art projects, then, allowed them the opportunity to make human connections and build relationships. 

Kyla’s SOAN background helped her both in her transition to living abroad and in the classroom.  First and foremost, Kyla felt as though her SOAN classes allowed her to approach her time abroad with an open mind.  Additionally, her previous experiences studying social inequalities in the United States prepared her to both analyze the social inequalities of South African society at a structural level and confidently discuss issues related to race, class, and gender in a large group setting. 

Kyla stressed to me that her program might appeal to students seeking a slightly less “traditional” study abroad program.  Because many programs go directly through a university, students going abroad often find it difficult making connections outside of their university community.  What Kyla appreciated about her program was the opportunity it gave her to connect to larger, more diverse communities in Cape Town.  Additionally, the focus on service learning placed a greater emphasis on what a student does outside of the classroom.  While Kyla appreciated her time spent engaged in group discussions, she continually reiterated that her internship with Young in Prison had the largest and most meaningful impact on her while studying in Cape Town.

While Kyla hopes to return to work at Young in Prison in the future, she is currently seeking out positions in programs involving youth-centered and arts-based restorative justice initiatives in the Twin Cities.

If you would like to contact Kyla about her experiences working and studying in Cape Town, email her at                                                                                                                                                — Interview by Mac Leydon

Posted by: soanstolaf | February 19, 2014

The Anthropologists at Intel

From the New York Times business section:  “At Intel, an anthropologist’s team travels the globe, trying to learn what customers crave in their everyday electronics.”


Posted by: soanstolaf | February 15, 2014

Anthropologists as Journalists

New Rules for Radicals

How George Goehl is transforming community organizing.

BY DAVID MOBERG (Ph.D in anthropology from University of Chicago)

Published in:  IN THESE TIMES

As a hungry young drifter who had only recently (and barely) finished high school in the late 1980s, George Goehl (pronounced “gale”) got by with a little help from a free soup kitchen in Bloomington, Ind. A few years later, that kitchen served as the launching pad for his dynamic career as a community organizer. For the past six years, as executive director of the community-organizing network National People’s Action (NPA), Goehl has spurred a rapid growth. More important, he is spearheading a dramatic transformation of NPA’s strategy and goals—while helping to unleash more of the progressive potential of the large and uniquely American community organizing movement.

Goehl’s first political awakening came after he had returned to the soup kitchen as a volunteer in 1990. One day, it hit him that many of the patrons from years earlier were still regulars: The kitchen, part of our country’s tattered safety net, had kept them alive, but it had not reduced poverty, generally or individually. He began discussing the root causes of poverty with the kitchen’s patrons. Then, with tips from a mentor he met at a tenants’ organizing conference, he transformed the talkfest into the Coalition of Low-Income and Homeless Citizens. His work caught the attention of Shel Trapp, an organizer and a disciple of Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organizing.

Trapp recruited Goehl to study the craft in Chicago’s hard-pressed West Side neighborhoods in 1996. Goehl dutifully learned the commandments of traditional Chicago-style community organizing: Don’t talk ideology, just issues. No electoral politics. Build organizations, not movements. No coalitions: Protect organizational turf. Focus on neighborhoods and on concrete, winnable goals. Goehl quickly recruited hundreds of new members to Blocks Together, then an allied organization of National People’s Action, his first association with the multi-state network of community groups founded in 1972 by Trapp and the brilliant neighborhood leader Gale Cincotta.

NPA won widespread admiration for its 1977 success in getting Congress to pass the Community Reinvestment Act, which prevented banks from engaging in the practice known as redlining: disinvesting in poorer, seemingly riskier neighborhoods. But Goehl grew frustrated with the limits to his community organizing work. He thought that NPA had become too preoccupied with enforcing its landmark legislative victory and had failed to press onward to bigger goals, such as breaking up the banks or further regulating the industry.

And Goehl grew frustrated, too, with Alinsky-style organizing. Community organizing was dominated by several large networks, each with its own training centers, styles and goals, which had accomplished a lot: helping members deal with local problems and sometimes tackling bigger issues such as homeownership, energy policies or healthcare. But Goehl, like many other critics, thought that these community organizations lacked the ambition, vision, strategy and full arsenal of political weapons needed to roll back decades of corporate conservative victories and to create a more democratic economy and government. One big flaw in traditional organizing was that it was “designed to win the best things possible for a landscape we had not created,” Goehl says.

Goehl left NPA in 2004 for a stint as an organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM). There, he had a second political awakening: “A lot of people came in [to immigrant rights organizing] with a political analysis first, then [learned] organizing,” Goehl says. “For me, my politics developed after my organizing skills. I would be in a room like this”—he gestures to the spartan basement of the NPA’s national headquarters in Chicago—“and almost all of the organizers were immigrants, and their ideas around movements, strategy and political analysis were so different from anything I’d experienced in the Chicago school of organizing— so much more expansive, broad and complicated.” At FIRM, Goehl began to understand the value of flexibility in adopting new tactics and strategies, as well as collaborating with different groups to build movements.

When Goehl returned to NPA six years ago as executive director, he found most of his staff and community leaders open to a bolder strategy. That ambition inspired new affiliations and new organizing, helping NPA’s membership leap to about 90,000 members in 30 groups across 14 states, he says. But Goehl doesn’t think growth alone will enable community groups to rival the networks built by the corporate Right. To win game-changing victories they also need more alliances (with progressive issue groups, unions and other community organizing networks, for example) and a stronger progressive infrastructure (more varied and potent communications strategies and funding sources, including more member donations to end overreliance on foundations).

At the same time, Goehl stresses that the NPA must retain what he sees as the soul of its tradition: “the willingness to challenge corporate power and both parties, [to take] direct action to transform power and transform the human spirit, and to organize from the bottom up.”

With these ideas in mind and with assistance from Richard Healey, a consultant with the nonprofit Grassroots Policy Project, Goehl and the NPA spent the last six years developing a new strategy that the group adopted at its April 2013 convention. The crux: The NPA is no longer satisfied with protesting the powerful and aims to help the powerless take the reins instead— through elections, and also through greater worker decision-making power in workplaces. And it is thinking not just in months or years, but in decades.

The organization now commits itself to a vision of a “new economy”: democratic and public control of finance, and cooperative and alternative forms of business ownership. Beyond using cooperatives to show how worker-run economic alternatives are viable, NPA also envisions giving workers real decision-making power within corporations and giving the public the right to revoke the charters of corporations that provide too little social value.

NPA wants to directly challenge the conservative ideas that limit the American political imagination, such as hyper-individualism, market fetishism and hostility not only to socialism and other alternatives to capitalism, but to government itself. It also emphasizes the need to eliminate the structural racism that impedes any strategy to address inequality. Although “NPA has always worked to advance racial justice,” Goehl explains, it must eradicate any barriers to leadership by people of color within NPA.

“If we fail to win the battle of big ideas, we fail,” Goehl says.

To spread these big ideas and pave the way for a new future, the group plans to advocate concrete structural reforms that shift power from corporations to people. These might include, for example, “democratizing money” by establishing state banks like North Dakota’s or reforming the rules of electoral politics—“people in, money out”—as some statewide affiliates are trying to do. The idea is that, as these structural reforms accumulate, they will lead to a transformation of society, ushering in a new social and economic egalitarianism. A major upcoming NPA campaign will focus on raising tax revenue for local, state and federal governments through a financial transaction tax. When anti-tax crusaders claim the country can’t afford higher taxes, Goehl’s rejoinder is, “We found the money, and it’s not in Grandma’s pension or our children’s classrooms, but on Wall Street.”

While traditional community organizations eschewed electoral politics—unless it was simply to confront an elected official—many have now ventured into direct electoral waters, even endorsing candidates and mobilizing voters for them (as the progressive coalition USAction does). The NPA has established a separate nonprofit 501(c)4 arm, called the National People’s Action Campaign (NPAC), to engage in everything from legislative advocacy to registering voters, and even running candidates.

TakeAction Minnesota, an NPA affiliate with an active electoral politics arm, provides an example of how NPAC may operate. Like many progressive groups, NPAC hopes to be independent of the two big parties but has no plans to form a third party. Being politically independent, says Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, means that candidates for office must be accountable to grassroots members instead of party leaders. TakeAction also has been independently nurturing its own candidates to run in primaries or general elections. Ultimately, Goehl says, the Democratic Party will be “the field of struggle” for most of NPAC’s political candidates, since the Republican Party’s terrain is so far right.

TakeAction Minnesota won a big victory in 2012 when it helped defeat a supposedly slam-dunk referendum that would have required voters to show a photo identification card. This fall, a city council member and longtime TakeAction Minnesota activist, Betsy Hodges, was elected mayor of Minneapolis. Her campaign stressed the need for racial and ethnic equality, and used community organizing tactics to defeat former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew, the candidate favored by many Democratic Farmer Labor Party leaders (even though the party made no endorsement) and by most of the city’s labor unions (except SEIU). That split underscores why a leader in another network, who spoke off the record, thinks that NPA needs to learn how to work more closely with the labor movement to forge common strategies as early as possible.

The ambitious and long-range strategy of Goehl and NPA could greatly alter the progressive movement as a whole, both by adding heft to existing campaigns—for a financial transaction tax, for example—and by initiating new ones.

However, the NPA has its work cut out for it. NPA’s intent to shift power through a series of reforms is appealing, but it is often difficult to develop campaigns that meet all the ideal criteria of structural reform. The nation’s big corporations had a decades- long approach not only to changing policy but also to winning the “battle of big ideas,” in Goehl’s terms. It was certainly easier for corporations with great power to launch a 40-year campaign to regain what little they lost in the progressive reforms of the 1960s and the 1930s, than it will be for progressives to execute a long-term strategy to dethrone the corporations and other concentrations of power and money. But NPA’s work on such plans offers both a counterpoint to the short-term thinking that too often shapes the progressive agenda, and a template for how progressives can make greater gains—perhaps on the scale of the New Deal—as opportune moments arise, whether they are crises like the Great Recession (when many opportunities were missed) or the growing reaction now against extreme inequality.

“The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity,” Goehl says. “So many people—black, white, Latino, Asian—are being pushed down by the current economic order. If there was ever an opportunity for people to get on the same page and go after the real culprits, this is it.” Goehl hopes the organizational grandchildren of Alinsky will move from neighborhoods to national challenges. “Now community organizations not only can win policy campaigns,” he says. “They can change the country.”

Posted by: soanstolaf | November 13, 2013

Professor Nordstrom-Loeb’s Sabbatical Research

While Bruce was on sabbatical, the issue of gay marriage became a topic of increasingly intense political focus.  Within one year, Minnesota went from debating whether it was appropriate to define marriage in the state constitution as being exclusively between “men” and women” to passing a bill allowing same sex couples to legally marry.  While Bruce already planned on conducting research surrounding issues of gender and sexuality in the context of evangelical “Mega churches,” the events that unfolded made his questions even more timely.

With this question in mind, Bruce decided to look into Evangelical Protestant’s beliefs on issues such as gay marriage and gender roles in the twin cities.  Specifically, Bruce was interested in investigating evangelical “Mega churches,” and chose to visit churches with congregations of between 2,000 and 15,000 people.

Attempting to gain a better understanding of contemporary Evangelical Christian beliefs on gay marriage and gender roles, Bruce imbedded himself into Evangelical-Christian culture, visiting 16 different churches over the course of the year.  Bruce split his time between attending services, researching different group programs offered by the churches, examining church literature, and reading up on current sociological studies of evangelical Christianity.

During the course of his research Bruce came to a few rather surprising findings.  Contrary to popular public portrayals, Bruce found that most evangelical “Mega churches” in the twin cities do not actively speak out in opposition of LGBTQ rights.  In the media, evangelical Christianity is often portrayed as being vocally opposed to issues such as same sex marriage. However, in his study Bruce found that only 5 out of the 16 churches gave sermons in which the pastor made negative comments about same sex marriage.  Additionally, the literature most of the churches circulated to their congregations contained few if any traces of anti-GLBTQ rhetoric.  While many of the members themselves may have been opposed to same sex marriage, the vast majority of the churches did not publicly address the issue of homosexuality or gay marriage.

Instead, Bruce found sustaining and supporting heterosexual marriage was the primary concern of these “Mega churches”.  Viewing the institution of marriage as an entity in danger of losing cultural significance, these churches sought to educate their members about the importance of marriage in family life.  While little time or resources were invested in opposing gay marriage, almost all of the congregations Bruce visited had a number of programs that were targeted towards married couples.

In addition to pressure from church leaders, Bruce concluded that changing demographics and attitudes of the members of Evangelical “Mega churches” also created an increased focus on marriage.  Women now make up the majority of church membership, and many of these women also work full or part time.  This increase in responsibility leads many of the female congregation members to seek a “companionship oriented marriage”.  However, these egalitarian beliefs about marriage seemed to contradict the more traditional gender roles traditionally taught by evangelical churches.

Nowhere was this paradox between modern and traditional views of gender roles more apparent than in the many men’s groups and sermons that Bruce listened to.  On one hand, Bruce noted that meetings such as this encouraged “soft patriarchy”.  While never explicitly stating that men should have control over a women’s agency, by encouraging men to assume positions as leaders within their families these churches seemed to be promoting an unequal power dynamic between husbands and wives.  Yet, by challenging fathers to take a more active role in their children’s lives, these churches were simultaneously encouraging their male congregation members to participate in more maternal aspects of child rearing.  Bruce concluded that situations like this highlight the complex, oftentimes contradictory relationship between masculinity and femininity at Evangelical “Mega churches”.

When I asked Bruce if he had any advice for so/an students interested in conducting their own research, he continually reiterated the importance of designing a project that fits your time and resources.  Bruce noted that employing ethnographic research methods was a simple and relatively inexpensive way to conduct individual research and that this was his primary method of data collection for his research on “Mega churches”.

If you would like to know more about Bruce’s research on evangelical “Mega churches”, feel free to contact him at  Additionally, he has office hours on Tuesday 10:00-11:00 a.m., Wednesday, 3:00-4:00 p.m., Thursday 3:45-4:30 p.m. in the Cage, and Friday 10:30-11:30 a.m. and by appointment.  We are extremely excited to welcome Bruce back – his wealth of knowledge of both issues regarding race and gender and cookie recipes was sorely missed!

Posted by: soanstolaf | October 15, 2013

A sociologist looks at the sharing economy

October 14, 2013
New York Times

BOSTON — In Somerville, Massachusetts, just across the line from Cambridge, is an institution called Artisan’s Asylum. At 40,000 square feet, it says it’s one of the largest “makerspaces,” or community craft studios, on the East Coast of the United States. A nonprofit group, it hosts craftspeople, artists and entrepreneurs, analog and digital alike. In addition to classes in traditional fields like woodworking, fiber arts and metalworking, it offers coveted rental space for creative types.

At one end of the space, tech whizzes are building Stompy, a 4,000-pound hexapod — a six-legged robot. At the other is a “bike hacking” collective that repurposes old bicycle frames. In between are the folks who invented a 3Doodler, the three-dimensional pen — it extrudes heated plastic that can be formed into just about any shape. The 3Doodler raised $2.3 million on Kickstarter (far outpacing its $30,000 goal) and is on track to be the next must-have gift item.

Community fabrication spaces like Artisan’s Asylum are becoming popular across the United States and Europe. For many, they represent an appealing vision of the future of work.

Unlike in the classic industrial setting, where the manual and mental aspects of work are separated between blue- and white-collar employees, those tasks are integrated in these “makerspaces.” There’s a commitment to ecological sustainability. There are no bosses or even “jobs,” in the traditional sense. Value is generated, for sure, but as “livelihood” or, in the case of the start-ups, worker/creator ownership.

This shift from employment to livelihood, while far from prevalent, has become a necessity for many in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, which led to the loss of more than 8 million jobs in the United States. At the time, I and other observers predicted that these jobs — a victim of labor-saving technical change, globalization and financialization — were unlikely to return. Five years later, the employment-to-population ratio in the United States, 58.6 percent, is at its lowest since 1983. In much of Europe, unemployment has soared, especially for youth, even as aging populations place pressure on pension and other social welfare programs.

As jobs disappear, people have begun to carve out new ways to gain access to income, goods and services. This is evident not only in the “makerspaces,” but also in what has come to be called the “sharing economy,” which encompasses activities as diverse as car-pooling, ride-sharing, opening one’s home to strangers via Web-based services like Couchsurfing or Airbnb, sharing office space and working in community gardens and food co-ops. Read More…

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 25, 2013

Anthropologist wins MacArthur!

Julie Livingston, a medical anthropologist and historian at Rutgers, was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant for her work in Botswana.

Her bio and a YouTube clip can be found here.

Posted by: soanstolaf | September 25, 2013

Raising children anthropologically


Peter Gray’s new book uses lots of anthropological insights to argue for a better way to raise children.  Above all, he encourages parents to let children to follow their interests and to play without adult supervision, which is what most kids have done through much of human history.

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.