Posted by: soanstolaf | April 21, 2016

About Ibtesam’s sabbatical

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Recently, I had the chance to interview Professor Ibtesam Al Atiyat about her experience doing research in Jordan, during which time she focused on body politics and the legal system in that country. Her research looked at three main topics: family law policies, honor killings, and rape. She was interested in the difference between how these three issues were described legally and how they actually played out in reality.

She began by giving me some background on her area of study and explained some of the different legal and cultural structures that frame the body in terms of politics relating to gender and sexuality.  This is what is meant by the term “body politics.”  She then outlined how the law and legal processes frame issues relating to family law, including marriage, divorce, and child custody.

She noted that Jordan is heavily influenced by postcolonial law, which is a type of hybrid legal system that combines local laws, Western legal practices, and postcolonial traditions. Historically, Islamic Sharia was a negotiable and interactive legal system, but after the laws were written in the style of the Western legal system, Islamic Sharia became more fixed and nonnegotiable. This prevents people from seeking multiple opinions on a legal issue, as they had been able to do before the time of colonialism. Islamic Sharia is clearly subject to time and space, and the impact of colonialism must be taken into account when studying how it is understood today. Civil law (including laws pertaining to theft, fraud, and murder) is separate from the facets of family law mentioned above. Islamic Sharia affects family law by dictating how those laws are constructed and currently understood.

Ibtesam then went on to tell me a bit more about the specific issues she wanted to study. First was honor killings, which she told me have prevalence in certain countries and are viewed by feminists in both the United States and in the Arab world as a priority issue. She wanted to learn how the law frames and regulates honor killings and also look at a sociological analysis of the law in relation to honor killings.  Honor killing, she explained, is not an ahistorical phenomenon that came into existence without context, nor is it merely an ancient practice that occurs in “underdeveloped” societies. Therefore, it is important to see honor killing as a modern phenomenon and not as an historical, outdated tribal practice.

In order to study rape, she interviewed women’s activists, parliamentarians, lawyers, politicians, and police in order to see how each group frames rape and deals with it. She told me about a recent debate in Jordan regarding the amendment of the penal code that governs rape and honor killings. However, the government’s attempt at reforming the penal code did not come out of the belief that the code was insufficient, but instead came from a demand by the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The government was complicit with the demand to reevaluate the penal code in order to further develop Jordan’s economy.

Women’s activism groups in Jordan demand the elimination of the current statutes regulating rape. There is one specific article within the law that defines rape as something that only happens to women; men are excluded from being considered victims of rape. And, according to the law, a rapist can be set free on the orders of a judge if he marries his victim.  If this were the only way that the law worked- in practice and on paper- it would be a double reward for the rapist, since he would get to rape a woman once, and would then be allowed to escape punishment-free after marrying her.

However, in her interviews with police, judges, lawyers, and women at shelters, Ibtesam found a difference in the way the law was written and the actual practice of it. There was a large difference between what the feminist groups identified as being problems and what happens in reality. The activists present the example of a 50-year-old man raping a 13-year-old girl and then being rewarded by marrying her.  While there could be a case like that, the majority of actual “cases” involve teenagers experimenting with sex.  Also, there are other “cases” where women will have consensual sex in order to force their parents to accept their lovers.  In that case, the women are not being oppressed by a law that forces them to marry their rapists, but instead are putting pressure back on their patriarchal families by finding ways to marry the men they love, and are able to find empowerment by using the law to their own advantage.

In cases of incest or pedophilia, judges are of course reserved in their decision to allow the rapist to marry his victim. This decision is treated on a case-by-case basis; there is no way a judge would allow a father to marry his daughter. Neither would he allow the theoretical 50-year-old man and the 13-year-old girl to be married. In cases like these, the legal punishments for rape would be enforced.

This issue therefore is much more complex than what the feminist discourse details. Some feminist activists say that the law allowing a rapist and his victim to marry should not exist on principal because it sets a bad precedence. However, their argument does not really capture the real issue and how the subject matter manifests in reality.

The law needs to change to include both men and women in the rape definition and allow for instances of consensual sex. Then, there should be harsher judgements in cases of actual rape. The wording of the law needs to capture the practices in reality.

From this research, Ibtesam now plans to work on a series of articles that will eventually turn into a book based on her three areas of study: family law, honor killings and rape.  When I asked if she saw any changes in the laws happening in the near future, she said she did not, because the feminist organizations are very influential within the government and in getting international funding. Their way of framing the subject matters around issues of cultural and religious oppression will win the attention of the government and funders. Since her research looks at the aforementioned issues in a more complex way than the current discourses produced by various feminist groups, it may take some time for her research to impact the attitudes of those who have the ability to influence discourse. She says that it is the attitudes of colonialism and postcolonialism that contribute to oppression more than religion and culture; if women and women’s issues are reduced to religion and culture, the complexity of such issues becomes lost and the discourse remains unchallenged.

It was abundantly clear during the time I spent talking with her just how passionate she is about her research.  These are important issues that should not be ignored or simplified, and I was amazed at how much thoughtful work she was able to accomplish in only one semester’s sabbatical time.  If you are interested in knowing more about what she did, just stop in and visit with her.

Posted by: soanstolaf | April 21, 2016

Jaylani Hussein’s visit

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On Wednesday, April 20th, Professor Marc David invited Jaylani Hussein to speak to the SOAN 399 Senior Seminar class and the St. Olaf community in general. Jaylani Hussein is the executive director of The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Minnesota, a non-profit organization that addresses Islamophobic issues.

Jaylani’s family emigrated from Somalia to Minnesota in 1993. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Community Development/City Planning and is currently pursuing a law degree. He has served on the board of directors for various community organizations in the Twin Cities, and is currently on the Advisory Council for U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones. He has served as Secretary of the American Relief Agency for the Horn of Africa (ARAHA) Executive Board since 2004. He has traveled to the Horn of Africa twice on behalf of ARAHA, to open a regional field office as well as to oversee large-scale humanitarian projects in the Somali famine of 2011 (description retrieved from the CAIR website).

Jaylani spent a full, busy day with us at St. Olaf. He attended both SOAN 399 class sessions, had lunch with several senior students, led a Q&A session in the afternoon, and had a public lecture in the evening. Islamophobia is a critical issue to address in the post 9/11 era in which we live. We hear of “Muslim-looking” individuals being attacked, of people equating Islam with terrorism, of individuals asking Muslims why “they won’t just stop ISIS,” etc. The fact that Islamophobia is such a contemporary issue with dangerous real life repercussions makes Jaylani’s visit even more à propos.

Our guest speaker had a lot of important things to share with us. He told us more about the work of CAIR MN. CAIR is an advocacy group with 35 offices and chapters around the United States and in Canada. “Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”

Jaylani also discussed instances of Islamophic occurrences in Minnesota, in the United States in general, as well as in other countries like France. In class, he told us, for example, the story of a Somali Muslim student, whom because of her religious affiliation, was bullied by her fellow students in a high school in St. Cloud and was subsequently expelled for fighting back. CAIR had to intervene to make sure that the Muslim student did not get unfairly punished. As Jaylani explained, high schools are a perfect place to have conversations about social differences, religious, racial and otherwise. It is at that age that kids are more open to having these conversations and actually learning about respect and tolerance.

The problem of Islamophobia is not simply the prerogative of communities and schools. It also has to do with public policy making and civil rights. Jaylani discussed the CVE project in the afternoon Q&A session. CVE refers to Countering Violent Extremism, an anti-terrorism initiative by the U.S. Department of Justice. CVE “aims to deter U.S. residents from joining “violent extremist” groups by bringing community and religious leaders together with law enforcement, health professionals, teachers and social service employees.” There is a problem that arises with this CVE initiative, fueling a lot of opposition from communities in places where the project was carried out: “CVE discriminatorily targets the Muslim and Somali communities, increasing policing and intelligence gathering under the guise of providing social services.” The program instilled stigmatization, fear and mistrust toward law enforcement forces. The following articles provide some more information and insights on CVE and its repercussions.

TED Talk by Trevor Aaronson on U.S.-based terrorism and the role of the FBI:
https://www.ted.com/talks/trevor_aaronson_how_this_fbi_strategy_is_actually_creating_us_based_terrorists

Muslim groups speak against anti-terror program:
http://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/05/01/muslim-groups-speak-against-antiterror-program

The ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ program institutionalizes injustice against Somalis:
https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2015/05/countering-violent-extremism-program-institutionalizes-injustice-against-so

Minnesota Muslims Concerned About New ‘Stigmatizing, Divisive, and Ineffective’ CVE Pilot Program:
http://files.ctctcdn.com/bd15115b001/d068ad69-9ad8-46a0-bdcd-b9d57454ed20.pdf

California Muslim Groups Vote to Oppose Federal CVE Program, Cite Concerns About Stereotyping:
http://www.cair.com/press-center/press-releases/12876-california-muslim-groups-vote-to-oppose-federal-cve-program.html

Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) Oppose CVE:
http://www.journalofamerica.net/html/cve_program.html

Citing Civil Liberties Concerns, 48 Groups Oppose Countering Violent Extremism Act:
https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/groups-oppose-passage-countering-violent-extremism-act-2015-citing-civil-liberties-concerns

Jaylani’s visit was highly informative and critically eye opening. When asked in class what we could do as liberal arts students to counter Islamophobia and ignorance he said “Reading and writing are your tools.” He encouraged us to keep reading (with our critical minds) about what is happening in the world and write about it in a personal journal or even to send to a local newspaper. Jaylani called this “making our own news.” He added that we do not have enough people reacting to all the “antis” in the world, anti-Islam, anti-women, etc. Having this silent majority or passive bystanders is really where the problem lies.

 

 

Posted by: soanstolaf | March 31, 2016

Midwest Sociological Society 2016

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Over Spring Break, SOAN students accompanied professor Ryan Sheppard and former professor Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb to Chicago to present research at the Midwest Sociological Society’s annual conference. The research that was presented was a combination of research completed in conjunction with qualitative and quantitative SOAN research classes and touched on a breadth of topics related to St. Olaf. In addition to presenting their research, students also attended paper sessions and panel discussions presented by sociologists in a variety of professions. Some of the paper sessions had titles such as, “Competing Narratives of Displacement: Ukrainian Refugees in Russian Press” and “Celebrity Activism and Symbolic Capital in Anti-Trafficking Campaigns.”

One of my favorite sessions talked about how Queer Theory and lived-experience come together in the lives of transgender people. Interestingly, one of the speakers at that session stated that, while the gender binary can be a very limiting and harmful thing for many people, it was a necessary tool in her transition. For her, staying gender-queer would have led to many people identifying her as a male, an identity she had been trying to escape for 40 years. This was very eye opening and allowed me to view the gender binary in a new way.

Another session discussed the lack of comprehensive law enforcement training when dealing with identifying victims of human trafficking. What this sociologist found was that current trainings for Texas law enforcement only focused on what she called a “perfect victim,” stereotype. This stereotype consists of a hyper focus on sex trafficking and of victims that fit the “girl-next-door” image. She found that vulnerable populations such as men and boys, LGBT youth, and ethnic minorities were not a significant part of victim recognition training. In fact, these populations were hardly represented in the training literature, after a content analysis was completed.

The group also took some time to visit a show, displaying photography by Professor David Schalliol. This event delved into the ability of architecture and space to shape the lives and environments of a society. After three incredibly insightful presentations by professor Schalliol and others, the conversation turned to the topic of photography as a vehicle for truth. The audience pondered questions about a camera’s inability to capture the photographer’s true intention and how the “truth” we perceive in a photo is actually a work of fiction. This brought about comments that deemed photography to be a way of seeking truth, rather than of defining it. It was stated that while a photographer brings their truth to a photo, it is how people inhabit a photographed space that allows them to bring their own truth to a space. Needless to say, the group was intrigued and overwhelmed by the many topics discussed that evening.

In addition to the intellectual and formal sessions the group attended, they were also able to take in many of the beautiful sights of Chicago. The group enjoyed group dinners, entertaining trivia sessions, and quality SOAN bonding time! It was definitely a very rewarding time for both the students and professors, and gave students greater insight into the realities of becoming a sociologist and the vast array of places their major could take them.

On behalf of all the students who attended the conference, I want to thank Professor Ryan Sheppard for all of her hard work in making this amazing opportunity possible! We cannot thank you enough for your dedication and effort, as it has greatly enhanced our education.

Here are some photos from the conference…

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Posted by: soanstolaf | March 17, 2016

Fun spring break reading

Fam,
As we are all feeling so ready to be on spring break already, here are some fun short articles to help us relax and get us thinking about the upcoming holiday (anthropologically of course). Have a good break and be safe!

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Beyond Ishtar: The Tradition of Eggs at Easter
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beyond-ishtar-the-tradition-of-eggs-at-easter/

You Are What You Eat: Unraveling the Truth in Food Records
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/you-are-what-you-eat-unraveling-the-truth-in-food-records/

Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
http://www.sirc.org/publik/food_and_eating_11.html

The Obligation of Gifts
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/the-obligation-of-gifts/

It’s True: We’re Probably All a Little Irish—Especially in the Caribbean
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/it-8217-s-true-we-8217-re-probably-all-a-little-irish-mdash-especially-in-the-caribbean/

Whose time are we celebrating for the New Year?http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/whose-time-are-we-celebrating-for-the-new-year/

You can find more of these articles on Anthropology in practice. Topics vary from the “laughing-so-much-I-am-crying” emojis to why we stalk others on Facebook. In other words, this blog is a great way to procrastinate!
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/

 

Posted by: soanstolaf | March 15, 2016

SOAN in the news

Sociology and Anthropology are all around us, and fascinating new discoveries in these fields can lead us to understand more about our world and ourselves.  The following articles are just a few that show examples of applications of Sociology and Anthropology in History, Archaeology, Medicine, personal relationships, immigration, and media consumption.

The Sociology of Selfies
Are selfies just expressions of vanity and narcissism, or are they something more?  In this article, sociologists explain the selfie through the lens of identity construction and mass media.  The articles following it continue the debate and provide insight into the idea of the loss of control over our identity once we share that selfie with the Internet, and they also look at the sociology of consumption.
http://sociology.about.com/od/Ask-a-Sociologist/fl/Why-We-Selfie.htm

Girl Stabbed to Death for Saying No to Prom Suitor
This article applies sociological perspectives on gender and specifically constructions of masculinity to the age-old problem of gendered violence. It looks at how masculinity is developed and different ways it may play out in real situations, and what can go wrong when it is expressed in unhealthy ways.  The articles following it on the same page are also related to gender and constructions of masculinity and femininity.
http://sociology.about.com/od/Current-Events-in-Sociological-Context/fl/Girl-Stabbed-to-Death-for-Saying-No-to-Prom-Suitor.htm

Why They Come: The Sociology of Child Immigration
Sociologists look at child immigration through the lens of violence, poverty, capitalism, and globalization.
http://sociology.about.com/od/Current-Events-in-Sociological-Context/fl/Why-They-Come.htm

New Appreciation for Human Microbiome Leads to Greater Understanding of Human Health
Anthropologists are currently studying both the ancient and modern human microbiome (combined genetic material of all the microorganisms in a specific environment) and the role it plays in human health and disease. By applying gene-sequencing technologies to ancient human microbiomes, as well as to contemporary microbiomes in traditional and industrialized societies, researchers are advancing the understanding of the evolutionary history of our microbial self and its impact on human health today.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160214201147.htm

Identity Unearthed: How Excavations in Sudan Reveal the Transformation Egyptian, Nubian Culture
An anthropologist writes about excavations in Sudan that show evidence of the development of transformation Egyptian and Nubian culture. In a middle-class tomb east of the Nile River in what used to be Upper Nubia, a woman offers a glimpse of how two civilizations melded together. Her tomb was Egyptian, but she was buried in the Nubian style. What does this mean for the blending and sharing of cultural artifacts, rituals, and ideals in this time and place?https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160301131316.htm

Internal Dissension Cited as Reason for Cahokia’s Dissolution
Cahokia, located in Illinois near the Mississippi River, is one of the (arguably) most sophisticated prehistoric Native American civilizations and is now a frequently visited historical site. Anthropological and archaeological researchers have presented a new analysis of factors relating to internal divisions that they believe led to Cahokia’s demise.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160223132725.htm

 Easter Island not Destroyed by War, Analysis of ‘Spear Points’ Shows
A new analysis of artifacts found on what we know today to be Easter Island in Chile reveal that these objects were likely general purpose tools, rather than objects used as spear points and other tools of warfare.  This provides evidence contrary to the widely held belief that the ancient civilization was destroyed by warfare.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160216090117.htm

Posted by: soanstolaf | March 6, 2016

A lecture on Egypt since 2013

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Dr. Amr Hamzawy’s lecture blew my mind a little. I went into Viking Theatre with very base-level knowledge (or less than that) of the current Egyptian political arena, and I left Viking with a much more nuanced perspective of what has been happening there for the last 5 or so years, thanks to Dr. Hamzawy. I will try to share the impact of his presentation with you all, and undoubtedly fail, because he was so brilliant, but here we go.

He began by bringing us back to 2011 when the Egyptians rediscovered the power of the street in peaceful protests—they started leveraging this domain to make concrete demands for the ending of human rights violations, for transparency, for free and constitutional voting. And it worked—the former autocratic ruler was removed from power. Shouldn’t everything have moved forward then?

Why has Egypt been backsliding into an autocratic rule? Sure, 20% of the population lives in poverty, they have a 40% literacy rate, there’s a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and the government is unstable/controlled by the military. However, Hamzawy argued that one must go deeper than blaming the structural trends and the fact that Egypt has really become a “republic of generals”—which are both valid causes for this failure. In his attempt to answer the question “why has Egypt failed to democratize” he presented an extremely compelling argument for “homegrown causes” as root issues for this collapse of democratization.

Hamzawy identified 5 root causes that explain why Egypt has failed to democratize, many of them being mistakes within those who were fighting for democracy in the first place. I will try my best to explain these clearly and concisely, and I hope that I caught the gist of Hamzawy’s super nuanced, thought-out arguments.

Root Cause #1: The “civil elites” failed to define/design a path to democracy. While they were fighting for clear, concrete demands, they didn’t set a plan in place to implement after performing the coup. When the military has been established as the ruling power of Egypt, and the people who are leading the revolution don’t have a plan for successful transition or compromise, the transition isn’t going to succeed to the extent to which they desired it to.

Root Cause #2: Democratical political actors got caught up in ideological debates. The protests pre-revolution were not ideological, but after Mubarak stepped down, the public space became a platform to talk about the Islamic, Egyptian identity, and how Christians fit into this picture. Once again, they ignored laying down a path to democracy and they did not sit down with the military generals to hash it out.

Root Cause #3: A socioeconomic issue: the urban/rural divide. In 2011/12, the political actors failed to reach out into rural areas (where 60% of the Egyptian population live) and gain their support. Thus, it was easy for the state to take over because it revitalized lines of loyalty with those rural Egyptians. There was definitely more to this point, you’ll have to forgive me for not completely catching it! There was something to do with the competition between the religious brotherhood and the state. Maybe if someone can speak to that in the comments that would be helpful!

Root Cause #4: Hamzawy discussed this idea of “transitional justice,” in which the young people were fighting for justice for the human rights violations committed in the past. However, there were no dates set for elections. Again this idea of “follow-through” was not present in the aftermath of the revolution. 2013 marked the beginning of an essentially fascist regime—mass killings everywhere, violation of human rights, etc. Ultimately, because nothing positive was happening, the young people ended up feeling (and still do) disenchanted and ended up walking away from the ballot box. So basically, this led to a battle between the state bureaucracy and the Muslim brotherhood, and no one is still being held accountable for human rights violations.

Root Cause #5: The privileges of the military are entrenched in the social fabric of the nation—to imagine that they would be willing to compromise without a clear path set in place was TOO DREAMY!

Okay, so that’s a lot of information, but I hope you gained at least a little bit of a better understanding of what is happening/has been happening in Egypt from 2011ish-on. Feel free to comment below!

Posted by: soanstolaf | February 26, 2016

Dr. Kapila on Darfur Genocide

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Dr. Mukesh Kapila

Dr. Mukesh Kapila spoke with vigor and a sense of urgency: “No genocide has been prevented in history. It is always too late.” Kapila speaks about genocide from personal experience, as he was the whistle-blower on the Sudanese genocide while he served as the United Nations resident coordinator for Sudan. Dr. Kapila spoke in front of a large crowd of Oles, faculty, and community members on Wednesday, February 24, as he shared his stories of and involvement with the Sudanese genocide. As a leader in post-conflict management, chair of Minority Rights Group International, a current professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester, and many other illustrious titles, Dr. Kapila spoke with extensive knowledge on why genocide is such a difficult thing to prevent.

As the Sudanese insurgencies began in 2003, Dr. Kapila saw the ethnic cleansing that was taking place. Although he was not allowed into the country, he flew over Sudan several times and saw that targeted villages were being burnt to the ground all over Sudan. After confronting the Sudanese government about the ongoing conflicts, he was told that it was not the government’s doing. Dr. Kapila then sought the aid of his superior, former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan. Despite urgent and continued communications with him, Annan did not respond. Kapila was assured that the UN Security Council would not support any action in Darfur and that any attempt to do so would not be heard. Kapila realized that he could no longer seek the aid of the world’s governments. Instead, he had to turn to the people.

Kapila stated that the Sudanese genocide was the first genocide to take place in the 21st century, the century of social media and mobile phone cameras. It was these tools, along with a world-awakening interview with the BCC that Kapila utilized to inform the world of the genocide that was taking place. Within hours, the world’s attention was on Darfur. Annan was forced to become aware of this issue and send UN peacekeepers to address the conflict. By then, however, the genocide had already taken its toll. An estimated 300,000 had died from the combined effects of war, hunger, and disease.

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While Kapila was attempting to contact Annan, the latter was stationed in his office on the 38th floor of the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Kapila asked us to think about the view from his 38th floor window. What would the people look like?

“What is the connection between Kofi’s view of the people from the 38th floor and the act of Hutus calling Tutsis “cockroaches” during the Rwandan genocide?” Dehumanization. The reason kind leaders are able to tolerate these injustices is because it gets easier to dehumanize their people,” he says. The distance from the people created by Annan’s office on the 38th floor is indicative of the separation between Annan’s position of power and his interaction with the people he serves. How can a leader fully hear, see, and understand the people referred to in the opening words of the United Nations Charter (“We The Peoples”) from the 38th floor of one of the most exclusive buildings in the country?  

Kapila went on to assert the importance of holding individuals accountable. In this case, he spoke about holding Annan, and other UN officials accountable for their inaction despite evidence that ethnic cleansing was taking place.

“Each and every day, we face our own mini Darfurs,” stated Kapila. “Those who stand by and do nothing are not dissimilar to those who pull the trigger.” It was this principle that Kapila called us to internalize. He challenged us to recognize that every decision is personal and individual. It does not matter how large or complex an organization is. It is important to continue asking questions and asking who should be held accountable for injustices, rather than chalking actions to the complexity of a structure or organization.

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As a SOAN major, I found this message to be very powerful. The major often focuses on the complexity of large social structures and organizations and encourages us to look for the larger picture. But perhaps Dr. Kapila makes a good point in urging us to pay attention to the individual cogs within these great organizations, such as the UN. Although there were problematic aspects of Kapila’s lecture, one being his self-praise, I believe SOAN majors can learn a lot from Kapila’s words, as he urges us to see the Darfur conflict within our own lives. As educated people, equipped with the critical thinking skills our major provides us, let us critically look at our daily lives to see the kinds of inaction we see around us. Let us hold ourselves, as well as others, accountable for too easily believing that nothing can be done to solve a problem of complexity. For it is that inactive thinking, as Kapila would assert, that leads the masses to inaction in instances of genocide.

 

Posted by: soanstolaf | February 18, 2016

An interim in Limón, Costa Rica

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While many of us had to layer up and brave the Minnesota winter this past January, senior SOAN and Race and Ethnic Studies double major Angelina Bergthold was enjoying her last interim in balmy Costa Rica. Coming from a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in the southwest side of Chicago, Angelina developed an interest in the Spanish language. “Being bilingual or multilingual is very important in the world today,” she tells us. After taking a few Spanish courses at St. Olaf, she decided it was time she put her language skills into practice and applied for the ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) affiliated study abroad program to Costa Rica. Angelina went on the program hoping to improve her Spanish but she got a lot more out of her experience than honed language skills.

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Angelina travelled to Limón, an Eastern province of Costa Rica with fifteen fellow Oles under the supervision of Professor Gwendolyn Barnes-Karol from the Spanish department. She stayed with a host family that has constantly received study abroad students from St. Olaf in the past. Angelina fit into her family fairly easily and developed a strong relationship with her host mom. Throughout the month, she met a lot of interesting people from whom she learned a lot. One lady in particular was a source of inspiration for Angelina.

She explains, “I met a woman in Cahuita. Her name is Margery Simmons; she actually was an exchange student here at St. Olaf for a year and she lived in the Spanish house. She is a lawyer and a teacher; she has three different degrees. As a black woman from an underprivileged area of Limón, Margery is using her education to defy all the odds. She explained to me that the economic decline in Costa Rica has highly affected her family and her community. She moved to the capital city, San José, in order to find opportunities that would enable her to make a difference in Cahuita.”

During her time abroad, Angelina also did some sightseeing. She was able to visit the Poas Volcano, the National Museum, the National Theater and Monte Verde. She watched a soccer game, an experience, which she describes as one the highlights of her stay in Central America. She was amazed by the culture around the sport, the importance it holds and the way it brought people together.

 

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As a social scientist, Angelina could not help but pay attention to the social realities in the places she visited. “As a SOAN major, you never lose the lens,” she so accurately points out. In Costa Rica, she found quite a different race discourse from that in the United States.

“There is a lot of Caribbean – and particularly Jamaican – influence in the eastern parts of Costa Rica. One of our guest lecturers insisted that black people did not come to the country as slaves. They came to find jobs building the transcontinental railroad around 1872. In the past, Afro-American populations of Jamaican descent were the main inhabitants of Limón, affording the place a lot of negative stereotypes. In fact, most Mestizos [non-black Costa Ricans] have never visited Limón for that reason. The speaker, however, did not consider this as racism because of the voluntary nature of Jamaicans’ migration to Costa Rica” Angelina shares.

Finally, Angelina finds that her experience abroad helped her both utilize and further hone the critical thinking skills she acquired from her Liberal Arts education. She finds that taking Professor Susi Keefe’s Environment Anthropology class before going on the program was particularly critical. The notions of voluntourism and ethical tourism that she explored in that class accompanied her throughout the activities she undertook while studying abroad. She says, “I think it is critical for every student to take, if not a SOAN class, then a class that encourages the cross-cultural awareness that is characteristic of SOAN classes before going abroad.”

 

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Posted by: soanstolaf | February 14, 2016

Grad School: insights from our professors!

With the start of second semester, I thought it would be interesting to get some more information on the topic of graduate school, specifically Ph.D. programs. Who better to ask about graduate school than others who have already gone there before us? I interviewed the SOAN professors about their experiences with grad school, hoping to gain some insight into what it might be like for those of us who choose to continue on in our education.

I began the interview by asking our professors how they became interested in sociology or anthropology and what drew them to their areas of expertise. Not every professor wanted to take the time to tell me these stories, because some of them apparently took quite circuitous routes to reach their current professions, but the following are just some examples of how an interest in anthropology and sociology can become a career:

As an undergraduate, Professor Keefe took an Intro to Cultural Anthropology course, just as a way to fill a requirement, and as she told me, “it changed my life dramatically. It made me realize that there was another way to think about health, illness, disease, and the world.” She went on to say that as a woman who was good at science, she was encouraged to go into medicine. Anthropology, she said, gave her a whole new way to think about these concepts. After completing research in East Africa during a study abroad trip, she said, was when she knew that she “had to go to graduate school to pursue this!”

Professor Sheppard told me that she was involved with a variety of social change movements in her mid-20’s, mostly focused around issues of homelessness, battered women, and the anti-nuclear movement. Because of her experiences and frustrations as an activist within those organizations, she became interested in sociology and was motivated to return to school. There, she studied sociology, specifically family social science.

I next asked about graduate school, how they found schools, and how they made their selections. In response to this question, Professor Keefe explained, “I had applications out to other places and I withdrew all of them [after I heard about Brown]. I took a year off to gain some real-world experiences, and then applied only to Brown. Luckily, I got in. That year off showed me what I really wanted to do. I just knew that this was the right place…what really matters is that there are professors [at that university] who are doing work that you’re interested in, that connects with what you want to do, either ideologically, theoretically, or practically.” Essentially, she wasn’t going to waste her time with other programs that didn’t have exactly what she wanted when she learned that Brown did.

When Prof. Sheppard returned to school, she attended the University of Minnesota, first taking night classes while working full-time, and then taking day classes she needed for graduation. As an undergraduate, she pushed to do her own research, get research positions where she could research her own interests, but also with professors, and she also coauthored articles and presented at undergraduate and professional conferences, which she said gave her a really good background for her graduate work. She then went to USC to get her Ph.D.

Professor Schalliol said, “I attended the University of Chicago. I chose it for a variety of reasons, including its overall caliber, strong programs in urbanism and education, and location relative to my anticipated research sites.”

Following that question, I asked how they went about applying to and working through their graduate studies. Professor Chiappari told me that he went to graduate school with the plan to study economic anthropology and craft production in Latin America. But during a pre-dissertation research trip to Guatemala with his graduate advisor, he saw how prevalent evangelical Protestantism was there. After a second trip there, he decided to focus on religion, and particularly that on evangelical Protestantism. That research led to his selection of his dissertation topic on conversion. Regarding his former plans, he said, “I completely left economic anthropology behind… That is not unusual to do, to go into the field and have it completely change.” He highlighted the difference between reading about issues and actually seeing how they play out in the field and the real world and how that experience has the potential to change your focus.

Professor Williamson said that during his search, he contacted faculty within each department at the schools he looked at and also went for visits. Regarding the visits, he says they are “critical- absolutely critical. You have to go visit. It’s difficult to apply as a senior because you need that time to visit. Going there blind is not a good path.” Also, he said it is very important to make contact with faculty in the department before sending in an application. It’s best if they recognize a student’s name, because “if they are just hearing from someone cold, that’s not the best way to do it.” It will make an application stronger and more compelling if they recognize the name of the applicant.

When I asked about graduate advisors, Prof. Keefe told me that she had a very helpful mentor, with whom she still keeps in contact; writing letters of recommendation, advising her on job applications, and other such things are ways her advisor still helps her today. Overall, she said that she and her advisor “developed a real bond. That doesn’t happen for everyone, but I was lucky to have that.”

Prof. Williamson said, “everyone has a doctoral advisor, and that advisor is much larger than any undergraduate advisor. They are your critical person, and they can make or break your experience in grad school. They shape the funding you get, the courses you get into, how you write your dissertation, and they can be instrumental in getting you a job.”

On to the issue of funding: Prof. Keefe told me about the fellowship she was able to get. In the first year, she didn’t have to do any additional work for it- it just covered her education expenses. But during the second and third year, as part of the fellowship, she worked as a TA. Being a research assistant or a proctor was also an option, and she said that that kind of work was well incorporated with her studies. When it came time to do fieldwork, she had to apply for external funding, which is not guaranteed, but “that is just what you have to do to fund your research.” She concluded this question with a strong bit of advice: “Don’t spend any money on this degree, and don’t take out loans. It’s not a field that pays well. You don’t do it for the money, you do it because of your interest in the field.”

Prof. Sheppard told me that she was savvy about strategizing for financial aid and asking for assistance. She gave a specific example of when she was working on applying for a National Science Foundation fellowship: She asked to talk with other students who had already gotten it and asked to see their applications, so that she would have a good idea of how to write in a way that was clearly appreciated by the awarding committee. She said she had basically done a “systematic study of what it takes and how to present what I have to offer for this specific audience.”

Professor Schalliol: “My graduate studies were supported through fellowships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and teaching at other institutions. Early on, fellowships and research assistantships were my primary support, but by the end of school, I had a visiting assistant professorship that covered all of my needs. I also participated in a variety of other related consulting and freelance opportunities that supplemented my income.”

Overall, they summed up their experiences by telling me about their favorite and least favorite aspects of grad school.

Professor Chiappari: “Almost all of it… mainly the stress, and trying to figure out lots of things in life. I don’t see the benefit to all that stress. I don’t think it’s helpful. I also had very high expectations of what graduate school would be like. I just didn’t feel that I had much control over it.” Now that he has built up knowledge and experience in the field, however, he says he feels much more confident in what he does.

Prof. Williamson said that his favorite aspect of graduate school was “the other students, and being able to work with such smart people… They were complete nerds about anthropology.” However, he told me that he didn’t like several parts of graduate school, namely the constant feeling of competition. According to him, you will worry about if you will get the money you need, or if you will get a job, and you wonder how your professors feel about you. When asked for suggestions on how to deal with this, he just said that “you just need to come to terms with it. You have to know what you want and know that you are doing the best you can. You’re not always going to hit it off with every professor, you will get some scholarships and not others, and it’s okay.”

Some of our professors had more luck than others in finding a job quickly than others, who bounced from job to job before landing here at St. Olaf. Below are a few examples of how they came to be here.

Prof. Chiappari was very lucky in his job search. Just prior to getting his degree, he found his job at St. Olaf. It wasn’t a tenured position at the time, but was instead a yearly contract which eventually morphed into a tenured position. He told me that he found the job posting on the AAA (American Anthropological Association) website, and that overall, he considers himself to be “very lucky. I was not expecting that kind of luck, and I didn’t know if I would be able to get a job in anthropology. I started thinking about other options because I thought it was likely that I would need to. That both my wife and I found employment in academia, it’s like winning the lottery.”

Prof. Sheppard noted that teaching in higher education is a “really tight market.” She applied for quite a few positions even before completing her Ph.D., but did not end up getting the job. Instead, she shifted her focus and applied to the Civic Education Project, which placed social scientists from the U.S. and Western Europe in teaching positions in the newly independent ex-Soviet countries. She applied for Bulgaria, but was instead offered Lithuania. She accepted, spent a year there teaching in what she described as the “most educative year of my life” and then finished her dissertation when she returned to the States. She then worked for 6 years at St. Thomas, Augsburg and MCTC, plus a semester at St. Olaf, before getting a tenure-track position in Pennsylvania. After getting tenured, she decided to return to MN, where she was able to get a job first at Gustavus and then later at Olaf because of a connection she had kept with the SOAN department during her years in PA.

Finally, I asked if they had any other advice for SOAN majors thinking about grad school. All of the professors shared one similar answer: wait. According to them, in most cases, it can be better to take a few years off to gain some work experience and just generally learn who you are and what you are really passionate about before making the commitment to return to school and pursue a higher degree. Some of them, though, had a few additional thoughts to share as well, which are included below.

Prof. Keefe: “Know that your studies are actually a lot of smoke and mirrors,” in terms of comparison with others and how you should be doing. “Don’t even bother applying to places that don’t offer full funding for your studies. And get creative with your degree- there are lots of interesting jobs that aren’t just professorships and you can apply that structural criticism that you learned from anthropology in a way that is compelling to you and that doesn’t make you feel like you’re compromising your ethics.”

Prof. Chiappari: “Students should not feel like they need to compete with each other. A lot of the competition is in our own heads- we think people are doing better than we are, so we strive to be better. Don’t compare yourself to some kind of mythical Ole.”

Prof. Williamson: “Sociology is very different from anthropology. In cultural anthropology, it is very wise to wait before starting graduate school. You need language ability, and you need to read more. I suggest that students take a year or two off and try other things. See if you do in fact really want to do this. Do you miss school? Do you find yourself reading anthropology or sociology on your own? Then decide to go for it, if you’re willing to spend 6-10 years where you won’t make much money and are deeply involved in academia. If you enjoy sociological and anthropological theory, that’s what it’s like. It can be highly abstract.”

Prof. Sheppard: “Find ways not to dig into your own pocket. Have a plan B. Some people will get hired, but competition is fierce, so if you can’t, have a good, clear plan B option. Sociology is so broad. You can do so many different things with a graduate degree in sociology- higher-level research with policy institutions, organizations that target social change and research. You can get into a lower level position with an undergraduate degree, but to work at a higher level, you will need a higher degree. Also, apply to a range of schools- ‘reach’ schools, ones you think you can get into, and ones that are below that level. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with applying to 10-12 schools. Focus on research and publishing that make you attractive to those higher-level programs and on getting funding.

Prof. Schalliol: “It is important to understand that there are significant differences between professional, master’s, and doctoral programs. Be aware of the potential costs and benefits of a degree, as well as the challenges of the job market. After all, there are many less consuming ways to become a lifelong learner, researcher, or teacher than getting a PhD.”

 

 

Posted by: soanstolaf | December 10, 2015

The Impact of Digital Technology on the Little Ones

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Lately, I’ve been noticing something that is a little unsettling. I see toddlers, all over, who are glued to a digital technology—iPhones, iPads, tablets, you name it—they’ve got it. Some of the applications really are geared towards this age group and concerned with educating them, which isn’t inherently bad. What makes me a little concerned is HOW connected the kids are to these devices, and what is the impact that they are having on their impressionable brains? How is their relationship with this technology impacting the relationships they have in real life? And, really, how is this transforming the reality of an “American childhood?”

It’s weird to think about, but these kids have had access to this technology their entire lives. I had a bookshelf full of tangible books to look through…they have a hundred books on one little gadget. There was a study done in 1999 looking at the impact of television on kids younger than two. It revealed that these kids needed more “direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers.”

Now, 16 years later, access to technology is usually a foot away from mom or dad’s hands. Its accessibility, its ubiquitousness, has changed the game for kids. Sometimes, it almost seems like an addiction…if you take it away, they cry until they have it back in their hands. If they start crying, you first see if they’re hungry, but then just give them an iPhone to quiet them down. It’s a little scary for me, to think that this is the world that I will—at some point WAY in the future—bring kids into. But really, isn’t this what people said about television, about the internet, about any new medium that has showed up in the past?

I checked out a couple articles online that had something to say about the topic and included them below with a short synopsis. I would really encourage you to check them out—I was fascinated and found my perspective challenged. Kids are learning from these applications, they’re not all bad, but I still feel wary about the new “American childhood.” But then again, I look at myself, and who am I really to judge? I am one of those people who stresses out if my phone is missing and tells my friends to call it ASAP. It makes me wonder…am I really any better than a two year old in regards to technology?

“The Touch Screen Generation”

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/the-touch-screen-generation/309250/

Hanna Rosin discusses personal experiences and psychological studies that have been/are being conducted with these little ones. She really challenges her own assumptions and even applies a principle of Marc Prensky to her own child—she put an iPad in his space for 10 days and he played with it constantly. After that, though, he forgot about it for six weeks and now only plays with it every once and a while.

Your Kids’ Brains On Touch-Screens”

http://www.npr.org/2013/03/24/175173111/your-kids-brains-on-touch-screens

An interview with Hannah Rosin about the concept of “screen time” and its affects on kids’ brains.

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