Anthropology in science-fiction

Anthropology in Outerspace

TGA’s exciting new fall series will examine representations of anthropology in science-fiction. Emma, Marie-Pierre and Rayna will discuss cases from various TV series, movies and books and what they reveal about popular perceptions on this science and its branches (archeology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology and sociocultural anthropology).

In preparation for this series, which will be published starting on September 4th, we wish to list examples of representations of anthropologists and anthropology in science-fiction. In this, we need you help dear TGA readers!

Do you remember an anthropologist in a Twilight Zone episode? A description of ethnography in a sci-fi magazine? Margaret Mead being mentioned in a book about little green men? The scenario of a Star Trek or Stargate SG-1 episode introducing perspectives and concepts closely related with anthropology?

List examples you can think of in the comments the Anthropology in Outerspace page we created for this series! Feel free to add examples from other genres of pop culture as well and to share your own work on science-fiction and anthropology!

We look forward to engaging in dialogue with all TGA readers with this series!

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New Journal Alert: Analog Game Studies

Over the past year I’ve been learning some great lessons about interdisciplinarity through conversations with a great group of scholars interested in analog games (centrally, but not solely, RPGs).  These conversations started informally at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association, and have evolved into a new online journal, Analog Game Studies.  Besides the subject matter, which is obviously of interest to TGA readers, I think the format is also something that deserves some notice. AGS is first-rate when it comes to the peer review and editing process, and I don’t mind saying that the editors put me through the wringer in a good way, making the piece much better than my original submission. But at the same time it is also fast, lightweight, and lean compared to traditional journal models.  It is also 100% more free than a traditional journal.  While AGS certainly isn’t the first journal to exist outside of a pay wall (heck, it’s not even the first journal about gaming to do so) I think it is an excellent addition to the field and helps to draw attention to the important area of analog games, which tend to get drowned out by video games.  I hope you’ll check it out and spread the word.

Studying geek culture, not just as a novelty act or a “gee, whiz, anthropologists really can study anything” but as something that can help develop our understanding of basic anthropological questions.

Since I started grad school five years ago I have attended two conferences almost every year: the American Anthropological Association and the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association.  I highly value my experiences at both conferences, although in very different ways.  The AAA meetings, besides being important for keeping up on events within anthropology as an academic discipline, helped to bring me in contact with Marie-Pierre through our Geek Anthropology session last year. That session helped with one of my long term goals, which is to help establish the fruitfulness of studying geek culture, not just as a novelty act or a “gee, whiz, anthropologists really can study anything,” but as something that can help develop our understanding of basic anthropological questions.

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Very similar to my own stats.

At the PCA/ACA, my role has been much the opposite. There, studying geek culture is the norm, but anthropologists are rather rare.  Interacting with the other scholars at this interdisciplinary conference has heightened my understanding of what it means for me to be an anthropologist even more than seeing that demonstrated by other anthropologists at the AAA. The contrast between the two conferences has shaped my identity as a scholar; at the AAA I’m the anthropologist who studies D&D, while at the PCA/ACA, I’m the anthropologist who studies D&D. Learning how to bring an anthropological perspective to an interdisciplinary team has been a growing experience for me and challenged some of my assumptions about what makes anthropology unique. I’m actually still working on that one, because it turns out not to be as simple as hollering about holism and participant observation.

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Review /3: Gendering Science Fiction Films by Susan A. George


1950s B-films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958), or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), might seem to be pure fantasy, just mindless fun. Coming out during the heyday of McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting of suspected communists, you might assume these movies would never get too close to real political issues.

But as Susan A. George points out in her new book Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs, “It is because of their strictly entertainment, low-budget, Saturday matinée status that they became one of the rare sites where cultural, political, and social issues were examined, promoted, or challenged” (3).

George, a lecturer in the Karen Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced, goes through several 1950s alien invasion films and draws on political theory, psychoanalysis, and literary theories in her analysis of how they present gender roles for both men and women, and how those presentations relate to the politics and culture of the era.

George argues that the Cold War produced pressure on the American middle-class to conform, work as part of a team, and trust authority, in order to more effectively resist communism. In 1947 President Truman required federal employees to take a loyalty oath and over 200 federal employees were fired as potential risks to national security. When McCarthy’s hearings began, suspected communists were subject to harassment, blacklisting, and guilt-by-association. McCarthy’s messages were spread far and wide in the media and many Americans became convinced communists were actively working in America and had to be rooted out.

If you wanted to avoid suspicion, you had to conform. A man had to be focused and prove himself through career success and providing for his family. He had to provide a strong paternal role model to his children, but there were limits. There was danger in becoming too much of a maverick, in taking matters into one’s own hands, because challenging authority could raise suspicions about one’s loyalties. Likewise, a woman had to support her husband, take care of her children, and not distract her family with her own ambitions or desires. Of course, conforming was easier if you were white, straight and middle-class.

In this way, George says the U.S. approach to “containment” of communism abroad also meant containing Americans at home (12):

“In the domestic sphere, containment was accomplished through marriage and the establishment of a ‘nuclear’ family residing in the suburbs with a husband as breadwinner and commuter and a woman as housewife and mother.”

The most common roles George identified in 1950s sci-fi movies were the “mystique model” for women and the “team player” for men. (more…)

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Magic & Morphemes: A Conversation with Donna Jo Napoli

Donna Jo Napoli is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and the acclaimed author of numerous young adult and children’s books. I grew up on her stories, including Sirena (1998), Spinners (2001), Breath (2003) and Beast (2004), enraptured by her fantastical and historical settings, many of which are set in foreign countries or have folkloric elements. Last week, I had the pleasure to sit down for an interview with Professor Napoli in her Swarthmore office, to discuss her linguistic research, mythology, violence in storytelling and imaginatively inhabiting other cultural worlds.

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Emma: So first, just for the people that read our blog, can you tell us a little bit about your research in linguistics and maybe give a little bit of background?

Donna: For many years I did what’s called syntax, which is the analysis of sentence structure and phrase structure and I looked at it very theoretically. You need to present a coherent description of the entire way all the sentences of a language work together, so you need to stick to one language, but I would bounce off talking about other languages, and I used English because here that’s our lingua franca. And I did that for years. Most of my research was on Italian, not on English, in fact I did very little research on English. And then I discovered American Sign Language. I had a student who did her senior thesis on teaching deaf children to read. I knew nothing about it before I agreed to be her mentor, and during that period, since I knew nothing, I had to read everything she read to make sure that she was handling it in a way that was defensible. By the end of the semester a fire was lit under me. I was so interested—it’s an enormous problem. Imagine going to China, having somebody plug your ears so you can’t hear, having somebody talking to you in Chinese but you don’t know Chinese, and you’re expected to learn how to read Chinese. It’s even harder than that, because many deaf children don’t have a firm first language. You have a first language, your first language is really strong and you know what reading is all about. They have no idea what reading is all about, they don’t have a firm first language. To me it’s insanely difficult and I have great admiration and respect for the work that deaf people go through to become literate.

I now do theory work on the structure of sign languages. I do a little bit of syntax, but I also do issues of articulation and more and more of the biomechanics of it, the physics of it, as well as word formation. But I also have gotten a lot into the whole thing of reading and deaf literature, so I work on deaf humor. I’ve co-authored a book on deaf humor and I work on metaphor in sign language literature and I write materials, I create materials, they’re e-books that have videos in them. I create materials with a partner at Gallaudet University—which is the only university in the world for deaf people—and we’re trying to make these materials to help deaf people learn how to read. (more…)

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Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women

Two weeks ago, I published a piece on modern monsters and their meanings within contemporary pop culture. Though I dug through the remains of zombies, vampires and kaiju, I intentionally avoided analysis of witches—I wanted to devote an entire piece that would provide me with the space to unpack the cultural resurgence of witches this year. I’m not talking about Hogwarts students—I’m talking toil and trouble, dances with the Devil in the pale moonlight, bad bitches hex magic witches. American Horror Story’s third season, Coven (2013-2014), conjured up a cast of New Orleans witches grappling to manifest the Seven Wonders and subsequently catapulted witches into the pop culture limelight yet again. While I have argued that zombies and vampires speak to concerns about climate change, capitalism and germ warfare, these witches serve a very different cultural purpose. With new shows like Salem (2014) and Witches of East End (2013-) on Lifetime, witches are experiencing their own charmed moment of cultural zeitgeist, one that comes out of ongoing feminist politics. Within the past year or so, women’s issues have gained ascendency in the media and public attention—topics like sexual assault on college campuses, rape culture, #YesAllWomen and equal access to birth control (I’m looking at you Hobby Lobby) are being discussed widely, ushering in a new era in feminism and its visibility. As the general public becomes more aware and educated on women’s issues, witches have pulled up their stockings and reemerged as feminist icons.

Witches have historically been understood and treated as threats to patriarchal forms of power. Many historians who have studied witchcraft throughout the centuries indicate that the women who were targeted for being witches were often outsiders or women who did not fall into the tightly controlled gender roles of the time. The moral discourse surrounding witchcraft accusations often legitimized and reified gendered social hierarchies and political structures, as well as culturally entrenched beliefs about sin and depravity (Douglas 1991). Many of those throughout Europe and America who were accused of witchcraft were women who did not regularly attend Church (an inherently patriarchal institution), were unmarried or widowed, were economically self-sufficient, or dressed and acted immodestly by societal standards of the time. Witches were also often perceived as licentious, sexual creatures who seduced men, lay with the Devil, and could pollute men with their feminine fluids.4261b0afed1a66338670afb8609f1f3a

During the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693), the first three women accused of witchcraft were the cultural others of the Puritanical New England town—Tituba, Reverend Parris’s slave; Sarah Good, who was homeless; and Sarah Osborne, who disrupted land inheritance claims of the time by retaining the land of her deceased husband, rather than ceding it to her eldest son. Most of the women who were tried and executed for witchcraft undermined the conservative gender roles of the time and disturbed social norms of a woman’s place in the domestic sphere. The widespread witch panic was also contemporaneous with the Scientific Revolution, which demonized female healers and condemned the practice of medicine by women. Throughout Europe and America, as Soraya Chemaly indicates, women “were charged as witches because they were successful. Take the case of Jacoba Felicie,who was tried in 1322. Her accusation read, ‘she would cure her patient of internal illness…visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine…in the manner of physicians.’ No less than six witnesses described how she’d successfully treated the when “doctors” had failed” (2013). (more…)