Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: Remotely Global-Village Modernity In West Africa

In keeping with the Anthropology vein of this blog I wanted to briefly review the ethnography "Remotely Global" by Dr.Charles Piot. For those of you who aren't Anthro nerds an ethnography is basically a written account of a researcher's field work along with research from other sources and conclusions derived from deductive logic.

Charles Piot is pretty well known in cultural anthro circles, he's a big shot prof. at Duke actually. He is most-well known for his African research, although he dabbles with African-American studies and is a pretty well known leftist.

Anyway the subject matter is the Kabre people of northern Togo. Piot wraps his thesis around the idea that the U.S. State Dept. as well as previous anthropologists have stereotyped African villages and that colonial as well as postcolonial influences have had as much effect on the Kabre people as anything indigenous.

When I began reading this book I had the distinct feeling that Dr. Piot was trying to hard to grind out a place for himself in this discussion. Basically straw-maning many previous researchers while at the same time setting up his own research to seem as real and relevant as possible. I will complain that he "beat a dead-horse" with his attack against early Functional/Structural theory, since the ideas during the 1930s-1960s were in their developmental phase and much thought has been put in to adjust these ideas. He also seemed to give a bit too much attribute in this book to Marxism, which in fact his a part of his own political baggage and not directly all that relevant to the study of the Kabre people.

Ok now to the parts I found intellectually interesting. Piot writes about the Kabre "Gift Economy" which in essence he says gift-giving in the Kabre community is "always a type of moral inquiry,an interrogation of the other". Gift-giving in this community is a form of control and creates indebtedness in the reciever. Therefore making him subserviant in some regard.Its important to give gifts when meeting strangers since one doesn't know how they will respond this is a good way to gauge their character and intentions by waiting for the response or reciprocation.

Their ideas of "Person" is interesting as well. For example the idea that when a child is born into a family it is considered a stranger until the family can figure out which ancestor or dead relative has been reincarnated. Children in fact are considered androgynous, it is only through initiation rituals that children become"incomplete" or gendered. They become a boy or a girl officially after they have been initiated into that phase of life.

Of course this survey is very brief the book itself is highly theoretical and dry at times but at the same time very interesting and thought-provoking.

I recommend this ethnography to anyone interested in cultural anthropology.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Phatic responses

Sometimes Anthropology examines things that we all identify with. This is quite often the case with Linguistics. Language being a fundamental attribute of humanity, its study sometimes brings to light aspects of our own behavior that we may or may not have been aware of.

For example, often we take part in general pleasantries when coming into contact with other people. Some of these interactions are particularly interesting, I wanted to talk briefly about so-called "Phatic responses".

Two men are passing each other in the hall at their place of employement...

Speaker A:"Hey, how are you?"

Speaker B:"What's up?"

Both walk away contented.

This is an example of Phatic responses. These responses are not considered literal speech and don't expect to be answered as such. Although one can use the same language to ask a response-oriented question. The hearer usually can figure out the difference using pragmatic deduction based on context and other nuances. These "automatic" devices in some ways are utilized at the base level to acknowledge the existence of another person and to conform to accepted norms of Functionalism.
In other words you are performing a social duty which subconciously you feel obligated.

I was reading some of Bronisław Malinowski's very early work on this subject and I thought I'd test the reaction of those around me whom I took literally all their Phatic responses. The results were interesting.

In terms of those that lived with me I saw the least amount of action. These seemed to be the most-likely group to either ignore or naturally adhere to the flow of me taking their responses literally.

When I took this to my co-workers I got a slightly different reaction. In fact two of my three co-workers were thrown slightly off-guard by my three to four sentence responses to their simple "How are you?" and "What's up?" In fact the look on their faces showed confusion and the present of thinking as opposed to the mindless pleasantries.

Strangers who were friendly enough to ask a phatic question when I made eye contact walking by almost always responded with smiles and suprised giggles.

To wrap this up it is apparent to me that phatic responses are an accepted funtion of our language interactions and when an individual responses to them literally it leads to off-balanced and unprepared interaction.