Social Theory and Naughty Kids

As a social anthropologist and a parent, I’m constantly exploiting the backdrop of my domestic life as data for social theory and theorization. Here’s a recent example that involves disobedient children and exhausted parents.

The other day my two-year-old was, to put it simply, not doing what I asked her to. It was the end of a long day of double-duty parenting and research, as a full-time stay-at-home dad who is supposedly writing a dissertation. Which is to say that I had already overseen breakfast and school preparation by the older girls, made and cleaned up after lunch and dinner, done a load of laundry, maintained the inbox, and made several remarkable pages of progress in writing during nap time. By the evening, I was tired and observed from a chair the toddler’s destruction of my momentarily ordered apartment environs. Luckily for me, my child’s resistance to my commands quickly morphed into an opportune illustration of how power and authority work in the (read: my) real world.

After repeating my request several times to no avail, I reverted to an old disciplinary technique that I’m certain millennial parents across the board are familiar with: the countdown. Here’s how the strategy played out that night:

Parent: “If you don’t [do X or Y or Z] right now, I’m going to count to three.” [1]

Child: “No, Daddy, I cccaaaaaaaannnnnttt.” 

Parent: “You better do [do X or Y or Z] NOW.”

Child: “Nooooooooo, Daaaaaaadddddy.”

Parent: “OK, I’m counting. ONE . . .” [Child’s face flushes with worry.]

Parent: “TWO . . .” [Child scurries to {do X or Y or Z}.] 

That, dear readers, is the performance of authority, power, resistance, and legitimization on a very small and simple scale [2]. Here we have a parental authority, authorized by legal systems, kinship norms, sociocultural convention, and force of habit, making a demand of a subject, in this case, the child. The child resists. She stamps her feet. She flails on the floor. She whines. The authority leverages the situation with threat of force: the 1-2-3 Count. The threat of impending discipline, the specter of censure. The child, fearing imagined repercussions, responds in line with the parent’s demands. Her obedience thus legitimates the power and authority of the parent, regardless of how fragile, elusive, and fabricated it was in that moment of resistance. In other words, I had no clue how I would have disciplined her had I reached the dreaded “THREE.” In fact, I was in that moment of exhaustion dreading with all of my being the use of any sort of non-linguistic disciplinary technique (i.e., removal of the child to the designated time-out location) that would  have required me to leave the comfort of the chair. I was imagining, willing, calling forth, even hoping for her obedience. The parent’s obligations to the child. The child’s obligations to the parent. Fragile, fluid, multi-sited power, extended linguistically through a verbal command, at first challenged and resisted, but then under threat of action and censure legitimated and reified at the last moment by an act of resigned obedience.

Unfortunately, this is a theorization of an interchange with a two-year-old. My elementary school children no longer recognize my weakly constructed authoritative appeals to threat of censure. The 1-2-3 Count lost its authoritative weight, for children more cognizant of their ability to resist and strategize their own powers, a long time ago.


[1] X or Y or Z = picking up a toy off the floor, getting off the table, sharing a toy with a sibling, etc. Such configurations vary per day (and sometimes per hour). 

[2] For more systematic, larger scale, and empirically-based theories of power, authority, resistance, authorization, language, rhetoric, and legitimacy, please do consult James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building, Seven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power, among other important works. 

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Bonfire.jpg. 

Media Ideologies: A Gallery


I study and teach about digital media, so I find these frequent artistic criticisms of technology usage useful and fascinating on a number of levels. In a social scientific vein, we might interpret these clever images as intentional media ideologies, that is, as discursive statements about how and when communicative technologies ought to be used. Such digital tools are relatively new, in terms of human social and historical development, so the rules on correct usage (or might we say, ritual correctness or cultural orthodoxy, as the discourses sometimes operate in religious registers) are not yet fixed or determined. Photographic statements such as these constitute proposals for those very rules.

Although I have yet to conduct a rigorous scholarly analysis of this corpus of images, one might delineate a few provisional observations. First, notice Kortaba, Geiger, and Reilly and Farias’s digitally manipulated photographs. Data phone usage, the artists wish to convey, distorts the rituals of daily life. Technology, the pictures suggest, have disembodying effects. Kortaba’s images speak especially on this point, while Geiger’s appear to theorize technology’s distortive, manipulative effects on human persons. The series by Reilly and Farias qualifies communicants as “ghostly” and not quite entirely present in real time. The Banksy image is the most straightforward in terms of content. Two lovers distracted by seductive white screens. Pickersgill’s “Removed” gallery thematically inverses the Banksy painting, to argue that technology, while an “addictive force,” is actually becoming, in an unsettling way, something of a “phantom limb.” Tech design perpetually sharpens and develops. Soon one won’t even be able to see the digital technologies that supplement, extend, and reinforce the tasks of the human body (see, for instance, this iPhone cover. Hoax uses ubiquitous pop culture icons (produced and disseminated by Disney, itself a veritable media empire) to add another level to this body of trenchant media ideologies.

All of this is so anthropologically fascinating. At the very least, it gives me a good deal of fodder for class discussions. What are the media ideologies present? I ask my students. What do the artists wish to convey about media use? What do the photographers find unsettling about contemporary communicative devices and burgeoning communications rituals? And the more controversial questions: Do you (dis)agree with the artists’ criticisms? Is it true that data phones will bring about the demise of society or at least the end of meaningful human interactions? Are the criticisms on to something, or are we living in simply the next stage of human media development? Do data phones make us any more antisocial than, say, newspapers

Lastly, a request for the reader. Have you ran across any other artistic and/or photographic work that constitutes a media ideology? If so, send me a link and I’ll add them to the gallery.


Image credit and/or source links: Kamil Kortaba via designyoutrust; Antoine Geiger’s Sur-Fake gallery (see also Colossal’s take); Eric Pickersgill’s Removed gallery; Saint Hoax’s Contemporary Fairy Tales series; Banksy’s “Mobile Lovers” via My Modern Met; Allison Reilly and Miguel Farias’s Gh0st L1fe series (via Colassal). The uses of the images on this page (i.e., for teaching, criticism, scholarship, and research purposes and not commercial ones) falls squarely under Fair Use parameters as outlined in 17 U.S.C. § 107 : US Code – Section 107.

An Anthropological Critique of Instagram #NoFilter Hashtags

IMG_20140622_165140

What do you think of this Instagram image? Do you like it? How might you describe it? It’s filtered, obviously. A bit impressionistic? Dreamy? Hold those thoughts–I’ll return to this image in a moment.

I like Instagram and use it sporadically. Really, it’s like Facebook with less of the political, religious, capitalistic, and ideological redundancies to wade through on a daily basis. Chalk it up to my being a millennial, or my love of anything imagery-related. Pictures of your foodie exploits, your unbelievably adorable children, your cats lounging about in funny places, your color-streaked sunsets, your stereotypical but envy-inducing Eiffel Tower (and other travel) pictures, your teetering stacks of books beside your bed, your mocha foam art: please keep them coming.

But recently I’ve noticed at interesting phenomenon. More and more people seem to be appending the hashtag #nofilter or #NoFilter to their images. I see it under sunsets, nature shots, outdoorsy light flare-ups where the sun casts that surreal glaze that textures the rest of the image. What these hashtags mean—or at least my social scientifically informed  interpretation of them—is that the picture-taker wishes to make it clear that they by no means used a custom filter, provided by the Instagram smart phone application. The photographer took this picture themselves. They captured the image on their own and managed to be in just the right spot at the right time to do so. Sunlight (and lighting in general) is fickle, as both amateur and professional photographers know, and it’s hard to predict just how luminescence will appear on digital film. Regardless of these technical difficulties, no filter was needed. Thus, #nofilter.

One might analyze the #nofilter phenomenon as a legitimizing mechanism or strategy of authentication. The implication is that a #nofiltered image is more real, more accurate, more authentic, more true-to-life. You get the picture. According The Huffington Post, apparently #nofilter constitutes a veritable “social contract.” (But a contract to or for what? one might wonder. The hashtag is an authenticity contract. A purity contract. #nofilter is a purity pledge in the context of folk photographic practices and online social networking. The irony of my interpretation is that some anthropologists have questioned whether Instagram itself, and other socio-digital photographic applications such as Hipstamatic, are themselves authentification tools to make digital-age photographs appear more like those from the 1980s, the golden age of folk photographic practices.)

I’ve got mixed feelings about the hashtag, partly because as a graduate student part of my research has focused on media, technology, images, lived experience, and how people conceptualize the interplay between these domains. My biggest issue with #nofilter as a claim to realness or authenticity is that it ignores the fact that media studies scholars have long argued that a photographic image itself constitutes a theory of the world. Any photograph—any image—is a theory. A photo is a frame. A photograph is a filter. In my opinion, whether a photo uses an Instagram filter or bypasses the option and hashtags #nofilter instead, is irrelevant.

Go ahead, I guess, take credit for your unassisted, filter-free, photographic skill: #nofilter your Instagram images. #nofilter away. But do realize that by taking a photograph of any kind to begin with, you’ve already provided a filtered “reality” for the viewer. A photographed image—not unlike a video recording lens—is a theory. An Instagram image, #nofilter or not, is a filter.

So, that filtered Instagram image of a #barn I opened with. It’s not really realistic (whatever that means). But when I remember that day–the walk, the scent of the wildflowers flowers, my wife next to me, the bees buzzing by, the humidity hanging in the air–the image in my memory is pretty similar to this one, down to the humid haziness and blurred edges of vision. I’m not sure, then. Maybe this photo is pretty (read: subjectively, emotionally, experientially) realistic. One last thought: Does the medium itself (i.e., Instagram and it’s sensuous frames and filters) shape my memory or does the medium simply do a good job representing what I remember about that day?

I’m not sure. But long live photographs. Long live #filters.

The Social Sciences as Ideologically Loaded, Abstract Constructs (or, The Social Sciences as Leaky Sieves)

Ostensibly engaged in the study of human behavior, the various [social scientific] disciplines parcel out the subject among themselves. Each then proceeds to set up a model, seemingly a means to explain “hard,” observable facts, yet actually an ideologically loaded scheme geared to a narrow definition of subject matter. Such schemes provide self-fulfilling answers, since phenomena other than those covered by the model are ruled out of the court of specialized discourse. If the models leak like sieves, it is then argued that this is either because they are merely abstract constructs and not expected to hold empirical water, or because troublemakers have poked holes into them. The specialized social sciences, having abandoned a holistic perspective, thus come to resemble the Danae sisters of classical Greek legend, ever condemned to pour water into their separate bottomless containers. 

From Eric C. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010 [1982]), 10-11.

An Anthropology of Anthropology

The anthropologist has, as part of his culture, his conceptual scheme, a way of ordering his experience of another culture, a way of constructing the reality he believes he is encountering, and he is not easily shaken loose from that secure, reassuring, comfortable, well-worn common language to which he is committed and shares with his community of anthropologists, and which helps to define his place in that community. The anthropologist lives by his culture just as everyone else does, and it is very unnerving to distance oneself from one’s culture and community, for this leaves one without a firm anchor in some secure way of occupying a known place in a known world and ways of viewing the world.

From David Schneider’s A Critique of the Study of Kinship (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984), 196-197. 

Religion as Analytic Fiction

I thought a lot about the field of Religious Studies over the fall semester. Religion was an important theme in a course I took under ethno-historian Raymond DeMallie, titled History of Anthropological Thought. For my term paper, I traced the use of religion as an analytic construct in North America from the proto-anthropological era of the Bureau of (American) Ethnology up to Clifford Geertz’s famously encompassing definition of religion as a cultural system. I analyzed a number of important definitions of religion from the position of someone training in the methods of anthropology but working primarily from the Department of Religious Studies. I won’t bore you with a summary of that essay here, but I will highlight several theorists I consider relevant to these issues.

While I researched for the essay, I wrestled with a number of questions: What is Religious Studies? What is religion? What has religion to do with society or culture? Does religion produce societies and cultures or is it produced by them? If scholars can reduce religion to some vague postulate to be identified vastly across the spectrum of human socio-cultural formation, does the subject then deserve its own field of study? Is religion really a universalized special form of socio-cultural formation, something that is truly distinct from other analytic categories, such as kinship, politics, economics, and so forth? Like all scholars interested in the study of the study of religion, I wrestle with these questions every time I pick up a book or article themed in this direction. These are in no way new questions, although they are relevant to me at this important juncture of my academic training.

Unfortunately, the word religion has become so sedimented in our academic vocabularies I fear it is rendered meaningless. Is not the word an empty descriptor, a vague signal that has no substantive value with the exception of clarifying a field of study? Consider, for instance, this application of the term from my own university department’s web page. Religion, such a description infers, is universal, ubiquitous, and influential. It is a force that exists before other institutional categories (e.g., literature, politics, art, and economics) and serves to shape and influence said categories. Yet, other than a “major force in human experience” that shapes other important institutions, the description provides no concrete definition. Vague definitions, however, demonstrate another point. Scholars themselves don’t exactly agree about what religion is. I give this example not to criticize my department’s webpage but to show the difficulties in definition and description of contested secondary categories.

Claude Levi-Strauss, in an obscure passage in his Totemism, speaks to these issues:

But the human sciences can only work effectively with ideas that are clear, or which they try to make so. If it is maintained that religion constitutes an autonomous order, requiring a special kind of investigation, it has to be removed from the common fate of objects of science. Religion having thus been defined by contrast, it will inevitably appear, in the eyes of science, to be distinguished as no more than a sphere of confused ideas. Thenceforth, any attempt to make an objective study of religion will have to be directed to a domain other than that of ideas, one which has be distorted and adapted by the claims of religious anthropology. The only approach routes left open will be affective (if not actually organic) and sociological ones which will do no more than circle around the phenomena. . . . Conversely, if religious ideas are accorded the same value as any other conceptual system, as giving access to the mechanism of thought, the procedures of religious anthropology will acquire validity, but it will lose its autonomy and its specific character. . . . This is what we have seen happen in the case of totemism, the reality of which is reduced to that of a particular illustration of certain modes of thought (103-104).

Levi-Strauss speaks conjecturally, here, but his thoughts underscore my questions. Is religion really an “autonomous order”? Should scholars define it “by contrast” to other formative systems? Does religion require “a special kind of investigation”? Modifying his words for my own purposes, I worry that at worst Religious Studies departments constitute nothing more than “sphere[s] of confused ideas.” Bronislaw Malinowski, earlier than Levi-Strauss, warns against such artificial programs of inquiry. “An Ethnographer who sets out to study only religion, or only technology, or only social organisation,” he writes, “cuts out an artificial field of inquiry, and he will be seriously handicapped in his work.” By defining religion (“Religion is x and y and z but not a or b.”) and lifting it up and above and apart from other systems of socio-cultural formation (“I study religion, not economics.”), I worry that scholars construct an artificial field of inquiry.

To clarify, I don’t necessarily feel that religion as secondary term of analysis is a bad thing, although some recent anthropologists such as David Schneider go as far as declaring the “quartet of  institutions” [i.e., kinship, economics, politics, and religion] as “vacuous,” “empty,” and ultimately, useless. For these scholars, scholarly terms of meta-analysis, terms originated during periods of imperialist expansion, lose their meaning. I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s conceptualization of the simulacrum. In media theory, this refers to the idea that images-qua-symbols no longer retain external referents. The images themselves retain symbolic meaning (and possibly) apart from any historical linking to a concept, idea, or presence. This may be what has happened to the construct in focus. Scholars project religion, as a category, onto cultural practices (“This is religion; that is religion. That is not religion.”) and fail to recall that the term itself is second-order. Religion, in a way, is a fiction. It’s etically derived. The real issue, at least from my perspective, is whether or not religion is a productive fiction. Does the term help us? Is it useful? Does the term elucidate or obscure?

Scholars are human, too, just like Levi-Strauss’s anthropological subjects, and we look out into the world and try to make sense of various phenomena via analytical and classificatory systems. As academics, we need useful terms regardless if they are problematic. I think in the pragmatic sense, Religious Studies is important in that it draws together eclectic scholars who are studying analogous things and asking analogous questions of human histories, cultures, and societies. But religion should probably not be construed as anything more than an analytic construct. I don’t really believe in religion proper–religion as some vague thing spread across all human cultures, so to say. But I am committed to religion as a scholarly term of contestation. Religion as an analytic fiction–to be determined and defined per researcher, per research context–is helpful.

Serpents, Novelty, and Academic Fetish

Novelty draws academics. This is no controversial claim. We cluster around the odd, the uncanny, and the strange. We gather around scenes of violence and ecstasy, field-notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously.  Academics peddle novelty. Without novelty, historical accounts blur into the monotonous progression of historical minutiae, just damn things following after other damn things. Without novelty, anthropological accounts suffer the same fate. Without the strange and uncanny—the disconcerting—ethnographies of everyday life cycle into myopic drudgery. Everyday life, as beautiful as scholars such as Robert Orsi paint it, can be terribly dull.

There is good reason for the emphasis of the novel, of course. “Religion is not nice,” comments J. Z. Smith. “It has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” In the laboratory that is religions in America, religious peoples are increasingly exposed to religious peoples. At downtown famers’ markets or on public transportation, especially in urban centers or university towns, one can witness an eclectic blending of cultures only possible in a globalizing world. We are met, face to face, with difference. And difference, while it retains its identity, is novel. Often in American history, groups of people have responded to the novel in similar ways: xenophobic violence.

A form of violence also shrouds a frequent symbol of novelty in contemporary America: the serpent. Snakes, actually, are minor characters in a plot whose protagonists wield the slender bodies of the former, furiously, in scenes of religio-social ecstasy and embodied ferment. Although Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain forever changed the way I think about ethnographic research, it provokes more questions than it answers. What’s the job of the scholar of religion? Where does ethnography end and journalism begin? Where does the line between writing about interesting things and the fetishizing those very things begin and end?

Smith provides some insight. He writes in his provocative essay, “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” that scholars must make intelligible. Scholars can work toward this goal by elucidating mythologies, ideologies, soteriologies, and sociologies. We must extract from the data in front of us its exoticism; we must override its novelty. No “human datum [is] beyond the pale of reason and understanding,” Smith writes of Enlightenment thought, implying that such a modernist endeavor is a more worthy option to “the refusal of the academy” to engage in interpretation.

I’m still thinking about Seth Perry’s recent post, “Adiaphora,” in The Martin Marty Center’s Sightings blog. Perry reflects on journalistic accounts of snake handler Randall Wolford’s death by snake bite, concluding that “we are obligated to respect a faith like this, but not to laud it.” Such discourse, I’m convinced, reinforces novelty and perpetuates intelligibility. “Nothing human is foreign to me,” says Smith, but comments such as Perry’s do nothing to make humanness ordinary or to reduce phenomena to “the known and the knowable.” Perry doesn’t seem to understand what he’s missing, even though it’s there in his post: snake-handlers have facebook pages. Snake-handlers are Americans. They have loved ones. Snake-handlers are human beings.  Respect, lauding, empathy: these concepts seem to me irrelevant, or at best, redundant. They’re mute points. Understand the phenomenon, says Smith. Explain it. Make it human. Use whatever means possible to make it known and knowable.

The issue as I see it is that novelty becomes a protective buffer, a defensive screen, of sorts, by which academics put distance between themselves and the subject matter. I won’t comment on the value of said distance; I’m an ethnographer by method, so you might be able to guess my position when it comes to first-hand, on-the-ground, fieldwork. But, drawing on Bourdieuian theory, I would advise fellow ethnographers and historians that this defensive mechanism is also an advertising ploy, a journalistic tactic. Our task, in Bourdieu’s words, is to “reveal that which is hidden.” Producing novelty does the opposite: it obscures. It hides.

And, of course, the million-dollar, pragmatic question: How? How do we get beyond novelty in our writing and research? How do we actually do it?

What are your thoughts?