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

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