Module 2- Don Seeman. How to Read Anthropological (and other) Texts

Dear Student Colleagues,

I hope you have been enjoying our course so far! I have been eagerly reading your blog posts and responses and wanted to take a few moments to address something– how we read the sorts of texts we are encountering this semester, which may  be new to some of you.

The first rule, I think, in approaching any sort of text is to begin by asking yourself some basic questions: who is the author and what methodologies are being used? What basic claims is the author making? Are the methods invoked the right ones to answer these questions? Who is the intended audience? Is there a political or other agenda of which readers should be aware? Did the author actually succeed in doing what they set out to do?

Now, it is really important to read carefully and be alert to details, including possible contradictions. For example, in module 1, several of you wrote that you appreciated Marcia Inhorn’s argument about avoiding stereotypes of Muslim men, especially in the post 9/11 period. This is certainly on its own an important and legitimate argument to make.  But did she really present any evidence that the specific kind of data she was collecting could serve as a response to any widespread stereotypes? What was the relation between her stated political goals and the anthropological argument she was making? Does it complicate her argument in any way that she actually identifies some of the people she was writing about as supporters of Hezbollah, a well-known terror organization according to the US State Department? is she therefore saying that support for a terror organization is outweighed by stated concern for one’s wife? I am not asking this question is order to suggest that her argument is necessarily wrong, but simply to point out  that this is the kind of critical question one ought to ask in approaching a work of this nature.

This week, we are reading Susan Kahn’s book “Reproducing Jews.” I have already pointed out some errors in one of this week’s blog posts which were not noted by others who commented on the blogs. Kahn does NOT for example suggest that use of IVF is illicit according to Orthodox Judaism or rabbinic opinion. Rather, she explains that the rabbis in question require certain kinship rules to be respected when this technology is used, and this leads to interesting political alliances between unlikely partners. Historical traumas and desire to increase the population may be part of this dynamic  but they are by no means the determinative factors according to Kahn.

If these things were not clear, you need to go back and reread those chapters. Is this rabbinic approach more similar to that of Donum Vitae or to the approach of Shiite clerics in Marcia Inhorn’s article? How would you explain those similarities or dissimilarities? These are the kinds of questions I would like you to begin asking.

All texts require patience and care but this may be especially true of ethnographic texts. If you are used to the author simply telling you the argument up front, you need to take a more relaxed attitude and take your time– the evidence in ethnographic texts tends to be presented in more extended, narrative form–and, you need to be careful that the ethnography actually supports what the anthropologist says it does!

I know that we are doing a lot of reading in a short period of time during summer semester but please, take your time and go through the readings carefully. You will benefit from the results!

With very best wishes,

Don Seeman

Module 1 (Jessica Ambroise) Can we trust anthropological work?

This module’s focus on culture interrogates the way in which an outsider’s perspective may be inherently flawed. Inhorn’s work centers Shi’ite Muslim husbands in the Middle East and their ‘’haram” or morally unacceptable decision to utilize in vitro fertilization (IVF). McKinnon’s piece surveys the diverse employment of kinship in various countries across the globe, highlighting that Eurocentric models of family should not be glorified.  Like Geertz, through his call for “thick description,” both Inhorn and McKinnon stress the importance of cultural relativism in their critiques of populations. It was very interesting to learn how the meaning of “mother” has a different meaning almost everywhere outside of the “Anglo-American” system. Surely, having two mothers seems better than one. I am curious to understand why a culture of interdependence is so absent from our society.  Why does biology and genetic makeup matter so much in the U.S? Who made it this way?


Moreover, while Inhorn and McKinnon articulate how definitions of kinship vary by people and place, there is not much said about: 1. why it is easy to and 2. why we are taught to, for example, see Middle Eastern men as “savage terrorists and religious zealots.” I am worried about how explicitly issues of race, sex, gender, etc. are dealt with in such anthropological studies. Inhorn’s piece addresses some of these issues within the context of Middle Eastern societies, however; she fails to critically do so in a U.S. one. McKinnon, while she refers to ethnocentrism, does not go in depth about the various aspects of ethnocentrism and how it informs our views on race, sex, gender, etc.  Although explaining these aspects might have been rudimentary or tangential to the readings, they could help readers recognize notions that affect their ability to see people impartially. Can we effectively critique our ethnocentric gaze on different cultures without nuanced emphasis of these multidimensional status markers? Or would doing that be unnecessary?


Furthermore, the fact that they (McKinnon and Inhorn) had to spend so much time justifying the non-normative (to the Western eye) lifestyles of people of color to not only provide context, but humanize them is interesting. Inhorn’s decision to humanize Muslim men by showing how they choose IVF (a procedure more accepted in the U.S.) despite social standards, seemingly affirms the notion that Western ideas are supreme. Are we only able to see the humanity in others when they do things we are taught to support? Why should we understand one’s beliefs according to his/her culture? Can we not make room in our own cultures to accept others’ beliefs based on our own? Does cultural relativism require us to tolerate other’s cultures rather than accept or support them? Frankly, I am not sure if these questions even make sense.


Nonetheless, I appreciated Shapiro’s bold critique of McKinnon’s work. By highlighting the flaws and inadequacies in her arguments, it reminded me to be cautious when reading anthropological works. Shapiro argues, for example, that McKinnon was wrong in her interpretation of the family structures of various groups, including the Wari Indians.

After reading that, although he provided cited information, I thought—how could we ever know what is true? How often are people from the groups that anthropologists study able to talk about themselves? In the case of poorer communities with little to no access to academia, I would imagine that they rarely get the chance to speak for themselves. With these ideas in mind, I wonder about the ethical responsibility of anthropologists who do field research. Are there people who ensure that they tell stories that people of the groups they survey want to be told? Lastly, how useful is it to reveal the lives of a relatively obscure groups of people? I think it is important to also stress the individuality of people from studied populations. When researchers get caught up in trying to make sweeping observations on a large group, they are likely to overlook people who are different. Subsequently, many readers may be inclined to make harmful assumptions that enforce stereotypes.


Can we trust anthropological work?

Module 1: Classifying Kinship and Familial Relationships – Sylvie Moscovitz

Kinship, or relatedness, is understood by evolutionary psychologists to be directly linked to genetics, and therefore, people who share more genes are generally closer to each other, whether in location, emotion, or interest. Susan McKinnon refutes this claim, saying that kinship and human relationships are much more complex than just genetics, and that scientists must broaden their views to include more than just biology. In her studies, she discusses the roles of gender and family in different cultures.

For example, McKinnon discusses evolutionary psychology’s idea of gendered asymmetry, in which men are concerned with the reproductive resources of women, while women are concerned with the productive resources of men. This links gender roles to biological sex. However, men are understood to also look for productiveness in finding their potential mates as well, since in many societies, women are tasked with certain jobs such as gathering food. There is no perfect division between all of the roles of the male from those of the female, as gender roles vary from culture to culture. One question may be raised: if not from biology, where do these gender roles stem from?

Many societies consider a family to be a mother, father, and their children. However, this is not always the case. In some cases, there are multiple mothers, including an egg donor, a child carrier, and the person who adopts the child. In addition, some cultures link kinship of children with their birth parents, those who raise the children, and those who feed and educate them. Warren Shapiro argues that all other relationships always stem from the biological ones, and proposes that in Western culture, although people have many “mothers,” such as godmothers and grandmothers, they all derive from the biological mother. However, if this were true, it would discount the idea that any person who cares enough could take on the role of adoptive mother in a manner just as loving as a biological mother. This is, seemingly, untrue, and one of the issues in choosing to look at kinship through either a genetic or a cultural lens is that it is easy to follow the guidelines of your means of analysis and forget to think outside the box.

One of the main issues concerning kinship and culture is the way in which raising non-biological children is viewed. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson explain that raising non-biological children is different from raising biological children, because the parent does not have a genetic reason to love them. They even cite the high rates of violence in stepparent-stepchild relationships, compared to their biological counterparts. However, is clear that this cannot be understood as a general rule, and that love is not defined by genetics. In house societies, children are allocated to families, and are loved in by their adoptive parents just as they would be by biological parents. In the United States, many older adopted children try to find their “real” parents and are disappointed in the lack of commonalities found. This is because it seems that the environment that a child is brought up in is what shapes him/her for the future. Some argue that “being” is what makes kinship legitimate, but it seems that “creating/doing,” or the work that is put into a relationship, is what makes a “real” family. It should be recognized that it takes more than giving birth or providing sperm for people to form bonds. One of the main forms of kinship is the spousal relationship, which is not (typically) formed through a genetic bond. It is formed through any sort of cultural traditions, such as a religion that allows a man to take multiple wives, or a society that forbids certain genetic relatives from being sexual partners. The spousal relationship is not defined solely by genetics, but rather on the spouses’ preferences and cultures.

Every culture and society has different views on what is considered a family. In some societies, adoption and gamete donation are seen as legitimate forms of parenting, but in other cultures, the act of raising a non-biological child is frowned upon. This is especially common in the Muslim Middle East, since mainstream Islam prohibits adoption and gamete donation. The religion stresses the importance of the purity of a biological lineage, and links inheritance to biological children. Adoption and bringing up orphans are seen as haram, or illicit, due to the strict moral codes set by the Quran. Many Muslims do not want to partake in these acts, since the child would be seen as either a bastard, or an illegitimate orphan. In the case of adoption or egg donation, the mother must cover herself in front of a non-biological son. Many Muslim men would feel uncomfortable if a daughter of different sperm lived among them, as they have unofficial daughter status, but are legally able to marry him. In the Muslim Middle East, ideas of kinship are fairly set in stone. However, there are always people who challenge the norms and set their own moral codes.

It is easy for Western onlookers to say that the Islamic views on adoption are immoral, yet this is when compared to their own cultures, from their own biases. Things that are considered moral in one culture, such as adoption and gamete donation, are considered immoral in another. This shows that there is truly a broad spectrum of thought, and that although humans are made up of the same materials, people adapt to their surroundings and cultures to create their own opinions and morals. In her article, Marcia Inhorn explains the way in which Muslims in Lebanon interpret their religion to accept the idea of IVF. Although it is forbidden, many of the men whose wives had received/were considering IVF justified their actions by love for their wives, and desires to make them happy. Even within Islam, religious laws differ, like in the way that the Shiite ruler Shaikh Fadallah issued a fatwa (ruling) that permitted egg through a loophole of a temporary marriage, in which a man would temporarily marry an unmarried woman, in order to provide a child that would be his.

Susan McKinnon’s main argument is that of soft cultural relativism. There may be genetics and values that are universal, but there is much more diversity in humanity well above the genetic level. Much of the criticism of her work is that she tries to delegitimize biology as the building blocks for kinship and the family. However, although there are certain factors that seem fairly universal after many studies, such as distaste towards incest, the idea of kin and family is extraordinarily different from culture to culture. But who is it that gets to decide what is legitimate and what is not? Is it the people in the society? Or their leaders? Is it ultimately a higher power? Or based on science?

One of the biggest issues in many scientific fields that contain classification is when people rank things in a hierarchical manner. In the 19th century, the field of anthropology consisted of scientists comparing races and collecting data about technology from different societies, and ranking them based on “primitiveness.” This is a fallacy, as a society with less advanced technology does not indicate lack of knowledge, it simply reflects the needs of the group in the area. One cannot compare kin structures in a judgmental manner, and scientists cannot simply call a group that considers adoption a sin immoral or backwards.

All humans tend to look down upon the “other,” and criticize those who are different from them. However, in a field like anthropology, in which the goal is to understand truths, people should put aside their superiority complexes and accept that different cultures work differently, despite the fact that all people are made of the same genetic material.

Don Seeman (Module 1a): Clifford Geertz: How thick does it get? (Model Blog)

In the advance reading for this class, anthropologist Clifford Geertz explains the philosophical background to ethnography as a research method. Though he tells a complex story about intrigue and sheep-stealing from his fieldwork in Morocco, probably the simplest way to understand what Geertz has to say is through his own analogy of “the wink.” It goes something like this: I see what looks like a wink. But how do I know what it really means? After all, it could be a sign of some shared joke, a sexual innuendo, an unconscious twitch, or it could be directed towards someone else or mean something else entirely that I have not yet discovered (a pre-arranged code for an attack). The only way I can parse this most basic meaning-making, according to Geertz, is through the use of context clues (do I know the person, what is our previous relationship like, what else is going on in the social field and, importantly, are there some shared cultural meanings to winking that I need to know about?). But if this is true even of some simple gesture like a wink, how much more so the complex and nuanced words and behaviors that people use in everyday life! How can I ever be sure I understand what is really going on, especially as shared experience between people or shared cultural background wanes?G

Geertz’s answer to that question is: Ethnography (also known as anthropological fieldwork or participant observation). By increasing the time and intimacy of the relationship between the researcher and the phenomenon they are studying it becomes easier to recognize context clues and more likely to read them correctly. I need to learn not only the local language but the local culture, body language, history of individuals and structural relations between them (who owes money to whom? Who has power here?). Ethnography is the process of learning all of those things through relatively long term participant observation or learning by being and doing in some local setting–and then writing it all down for analysis.

This is the first reading of the semester so there is not a lot to compare and contrast it with, but I am left with some questions. For one thing, Geertz seems to imply that the job of the ethnography is to “thickly” (i.e. with lots of detail and context) describe everything I witness during research. But is this even possible? Don’t I need some way to decide even before I get started what I will pay more or less attention to? If you think about thickly describing “everything” from even a 20 minute observation of your home or classroom you will realize how difficult, even hopeless a task that could be. Geertz is a good writer, but he does not really tell us how he decided to describe what he described out of all the infinite possibilities of description he would have met in the field. He focused for example on sheep steeling, not on people’s sexual relations, the history of Moroccan Judaism and Islam or the environmental factors constraining life in the Atlas Mountains etc. etc. etc. Does he implicitly adopt the view of one group of his informants or does he manage to really position himself outside the fray as a truly objective observer?

This leads me to another  thorny problem. Geertz says that context is everything. But does this mean that nothing has any intrinsic meaning of its own, outside of context? Is everything reducible to culture? Given that we will speaking in this class about seemingly hard and objective matters like assisted reproductive technology and people’s physiological capacities and limitations, do we need another kind of analytic language that does not threaten to go all postmodern on us? Or is Geertz really less postmodern than he seems?

What does any of this have to do with bioethics or human reproduction?


Don Seeman (Module 1). Welcome to our class on Religion and Healing!

Dear class,

Welcome to our Scholar Blogs site. In addition to our synchronous meetings, this is likely to be the most important place where we communicate with one another, share ideas and (importantly!) upload assignments.

Starting next Thursday, a different group of students will be responsible for posting their individual blogs about each week’s readings. These can include SOME summary of the readings, but their more important goal is to analyze, offer context, compare with readings from previous weeks or raise questions for conversations about each module’s reading. In my NEXT post, I will give you an example based on the reading for the first class.

You will also use this site to respond to one another’s blogs each week– offering constructive criticism to help each other succeed and also simply continuing conversations that will help to prepare for and build on our synchronous sessions. You can be funny, creative, whatever you like, just so long as you cover the key points in the readings.

When you post, please follow my example and put your name and module number in the Title window along with any other title you would like to include. It helps me to keep track of who has written.

Here are the assignments for writing Blog Posts. I do not mind if you trade dates with other students for your own convenience as long as there are multiple Blogs for every week of class. Make sure you let me know of any changes in advance.

(Module 1) Due Thursday May 18 (special date; responses due next day)- Jessica Ambroise; Hanna Lee

(Module 2) Due Monday May 22: Courtney Andrews, Jonathan Chay; Suzie Waltzer

(Module 3 ) Due Weds May 31: Tanique MacDonald, Aashreen Puri; Taylor Mehalko

(Module 4) Due Weds June 7: Sylvie Moscovitz; Alana Redden; Kennede Miller

(Module 5) Due Weds June 14: Hayley Rose Keats; Emma Alafe; Mame Kane.


Please consult your syllabus for information about grading and assessment as well as online etiquette or “netiquette.”

best wishes,

Dr. Seeman