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Offensive costumes and the fetish of the consumer

November 25, 2013

Source: MorgueFile

Halloween has come and gone, but the memories of this year’s crop of cheaply racist, sexist, and misogynistic costumes linger. It has become a seasonal ritual: For some, an awkward intrusion of uncomfortable politics into a lighthearted holiday; for others, a chance to make a point about “freedom” in the face of political correctness – via a set of cloth and plastic assembled by underpaid workers overseas, bought on credit at a store whose employees earn less than a living wage.

In an article titled 6 Most Wildly Offensive Halloween Costumes posted Oct. 30 at, April De Costa takes the fact that costumes like “Sexy Indian Maiden,” “The Freshman 15,” and “Oriental Specs” exist, and proceeds to attack the imagined market, labeling hypothetical consumers as “obtuse jagoffs,” “human garbage,” and “everyday racists.” Her outrage is directed at the consumers, and it is overlaid with class hostility. These “racists” are not consuming the right things in the right way.

De Costa reserves little ire for the companies that directed and funded the production of the costumes in the first place. This is not surprising. Late capitalism, mainstream economics, and the culture industry all insist that production and consumption be treated as radically separate domains. Those domains are not created equal: Seemingly limitless choice confronts shoppers in an endless series of markets, each one promising to create distinction if only the right consumer choices are exercised. If occasionally those choices reveal one to be a racist, sexist, or misogynist, then facing the ire of the De Costas of the world is the price one must pay for “individual freedom.”

Meanwhile, labor is devalued through downsizing, offshoring, and industry consolidation; collective bargaining rights are undermined; and social safety nets are removed in service of neoliberal ideology. Workers, who might be united in the labor of production, are on their own. Consumers dissolve their natural ties of class and kin in pursuit of a distinctive self, validated by capitalism. In service of a consumption-driven ideology, the struggles of workers are erased, while the machinations of consumers are celebrated. More ominously, social ills like racism, sexism, and misogyny appear to arise because products that signify those traits are consumed, but the underlying circumstances of their production vanish.

As an alternative, following Bertell Ollman’s (2003) Dance of the Dialectic, we could interpret these racist, sexist, misogynistic Halloween costumes in light of the internal relations of production and consumption within which they are embedded. This sort of view necessarily considers production and consumption not as separate domains, and not as balanced forces, but as forces in contradiction. It might seem odd to suggest that, say, a plastic mask marketed as a Sexy Osama bin Laden costume is conjured into being by forces of global capitalism, but in fact it both reveals the perniciously mundane ways in which the system reproduces itself, and offers clues to how to fight it. Moreover, to ignore production, to place all the attention (and blame) on the consumer, works to further entrench the privilege that led to the creation and marketing of these racist, sexist, misogynist objects in the first instance.

Behind the masks

As far as I could tell from three hours of web searching, all of the costumes mentioned in the AlterNet article are sold by small, privately held companies based in the U.S., all of them apparently in the business of warehousing and shipping. In no case was I able to find information about country of origin of the costumes themselves, let alone any specific information about their manufacture or components. Emails to three companies inquiring about the place of manufacture of specific costumes went unanswered.

In light of this, I shall consider the Sexy Indian Maiden costume, sold, among other places online, at by a vendor called, to be representative of the lot. is a subsidiary of Best Service Stores Inc., on online retailer incorporated in 2006, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Best Service Stores’ “About” web page helpfully notes that its Lenexa, Kansas, warehouse contains “almost 150,000 feet of … space” and promises that “consumers will typically save themselves the hassle of returns, repairs and disappointment by purchasing the best product the first time around. We only offer products from companies we know and trust.” Those known and trustworthy companies are not named.

It is clear from the online text that Best Service Stores is not in the business of production. It notes “Best Service Stores stands out from other web sites because we determine what consumers want and then find the best products at the best prices.” Manufacturing is not their business. So the costumes must be imported.

The bulk of garments imported to the United States are assembled in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (between 40 and 90 percent, according to 2012 figures from the U.S. International Trade Administration, depending on how “garment” is defined and the raw materials that comprise them). In 2010, the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights reported average minimum wages for garment workers in those three countries are $0.93 per hour (China), $0.52 per hour (urban Vietnam), $0.36 per hour (rural Vietnam), and $0.21 per hour (Bangladesh). In comparison, the Institute reports, the minimum hourly wage for U.S. garment workers ranges from $8.25 – $14.00 (not including benefits).

The “Sexy Indian Maiden” costume was selling on for $21.21 at the time of this writing (shortly before Halloween), marked down from $29 (“You save $7.79”!). Assuming, for argument’s sake, that it takes one hour to fashion the assemblage of polyester into a finished product, the retail price minus labor at the going rate for Chinese garment workers equals $20.28; the same figure at the going rate for U.S. garment workers ranges from $7.21 – $12.96. I do not consider what appear to be plastic-and-faux-wool boots pictured in the image in this calculation, as the web page notes “The boots do not come with this sassy American Indian costume for tweens.”

Regardless, not counting the cost of raw materials and maintenance (?) of the factory, the exporter, shippers, and retailer can split an additional 56% to 181% in profit based on outsourcing production to China over the United States. Naturally there are environmental costs to such an extensive transportation network, and social costs to maintaining underemployment among domestic garment workers, but those costs are externalized – they’re not a factor to the seller, only to the larger society.

In a sense, it’s easy to ignore the circumstances of production of any commodity. They’re radically opaque, and the more you learn, the more troubled you become. The picture doesn’t get much more comfortable when you think about conditions surrounding consumption – going a bit deeper than simply dismissing costume buyers as “racists.”

Blame the ‘everyday racists’?

Halloween in the United States is an occasion for children and adults to fantasize, to playact, to act out in ways that are culturally acceptable. And during this once-yearly liminal period, the bounds of what is “culturally acceptable” are stretched. Costumed playacting is an indulgence rarely granted, and consequently imbued with additional meaning in light of its generally forbidden nature.

Some of the costumes that made AlterNet’s list play off deep-seated stereotypes that one encounters daily in U.S. culture, and others represent prejudices that are somewhat topical. For instance, the growing sense of outrage over racist Native American mascot caricatures like that of the Washington NFL team has led to a backlash in which some seem to revel in racist, colonialist language. In that light, it is easy to imagine (though not excuse) that some fraction of consumers would make a misguided attempt to play dress up in mockery of a topic that is current and controversial.

We are long past the days when Halloween costumes were home creations. It is rare that one has the time (between working multiple jobs, or working a job and going to school, or working overtime to compensate for company downsizing), or the resources. U.S. official unemployment stood at 7.2 percent in September 2013, 40 percent of them out of work for 27 weeks or more, but not counting 2.3 million additional who are “marginally attached” to the labor force (source here). In that light, the pressure on consumers to acquire an inexpensive entre into this meaningful cultural touchstone is intense. Many are driven online, where few questions are asked about conditions of production, and even less information is readily available.

Those who fire up a browser gain access to one of the privileged spaces of late capitalism: The space in which individuality and “freedom” is validated by consumer choice. A shopper who types “Halloween costume” into the search field at finds, at this writing, 295,872 options. It’s dazzling, in its own way. Faced with seemingly limitless options, surely one’s choice represents one’s individuality?

Donning a costume promises two magical moments of self-enhancement: First, the association with the Other that accompanies the wearing; and second, the disassociation from that Other, in which the individual is enhanced and transformed through that double movement. What emerges is both different from one’s self, yet also, through the secret of the fetish, a contributor to one’s new self. One is no longer simply “That guy, John;” he’s now “That guy, John, who dressed up like a sexy Indian.”

That John’s freedom of choice, his validated self, required accepting the trappings of oppression does not bother him. Just as the conditions of the costume’s production were obscure, so were the conditions surrounding John’s consumption of it. This point is made repeatedly by the Frankfurt School critique of the culture industry. Herbert Marcuse notes in One Dimensional Man that the dominant interests of any society demand repression, encode it in consumable products of culture, which are then bought through an apparently free exercise of choice and act to perpetuate that repression. John’s consumption of that costume, regardless of his internal reasons for it, enact for all of society a small drama of privilege and Otherness.

A better (costumed) future

As Marx made clear in Wage Labor and Capital, capital savings through reduction in labor costs force, in turn, greater production to offset lower selling prices, and hence the need to create larger markets to consume those lower-priced goods at a rate that ensures continued profit. This is the key to understanding production and consumption as antagonistic forces: Development of one undermines the other, forcing a quantitative transformation, which reaches but then surpasses the balance point, renewing the whole process.

The “Sexy Indian Maiden” costume is simply an element in that endless, snowballing, cycle of contradiction. That does not mean it isn’t significant, and odious. It merely means that it doesn’t exist because a market of “human jagoffs” is clamoring for it. It exists because capitalism demands that it exist, and capitalism demands that consumers buy it. The particular form of the costume, in all its racist and sexist wonder, is the result of a scattershot attempt to push enough cultural buttons to hook enough consumers to cover the (very low) cost of its production. Anything beyond that is profit.

None of this is meant as an excuse for buying, let alone wearing or dressing children in, what are demonstrably repulsive costumes. It is easy to muster outrage over outfits like these. What the righteous fury misses, however, is the political economy that underlies their production and consumption. Blame for the costumes lies at least as much with those who direct the manufacture and sale as it does with the buyers – buyers who are, incidentally, even harder to find than information on the origin and components of the costumes.

Ultimately, racist, sexist, misogynist Halloween costumes are a (small) symptom of a social-economic system that is working exactly as it is intended to work. If we change the system, better costumes will be just the beginning.

Remembering the dead in Binghamton

July 22, 2013
photo 6

A crowd gathers for a memorial service to mark the 100th anniversary of the Binghamton Clothing Co. fire, which killed 31 garment workers July 22, 1913. The factory stood where the red building is in the background. Photo by John R. Roby.

Monday was a significant anniversary in the history of labor in New York State, as well as in the upstate city where I live. It was the 100th anniversary of the Binghamton Clothing Co. factory fire, which killed 31 people, mostly immigrant women, on July 22, 1913. To this day, it stands as the single greatest loss of life in Binghamton.

A little backstory first, drawn from speeches at the event today as well as the Wikipedia entry. Binghamton was once a significant manufacturing center, and downtown was home to factories making cigars, pianos, and clothing. It’s hard to imagine now, but thousands of people, largely immigrants that formed the Italian, Irish, and Eastern European communities that still exist here, traveled on streetcars to work downtown. The Binghamton Clothing Co. made men’s overalls, some of them treated with chemical waterproofers, and employed more than 100 workers, most of them women.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on that day, a worker noticed a fire in the basement, tried to douse it with a fire bucket, but was unable to stop the spread. It quickly climbed the single staircase up to the third and fourth floors, where the factory was. Within minutes, the building was engulfed by flames that burned so hot that firefighters couldn’t approach within 100 feet, and fire ladders themselves caught fire when they touched the building.

Before the building collapsed 20 minutes later, most of the workers had escaped down the single staircase. Two in particular are remembered to this day in Binghamton: Nellie Connor and Sidney Dimmock helped many escape, Connor by guiding women down the stairs, Dimmock by carrying people out. It cost both of them their lives. As the memorial plaque at the site notes: “Their names are worthy of honor and praise.”

Some women died after jumping from the roof. Twenty of the 31 dead were burned beyond identification: their names are known because the factory’s employee list survived the fire.

I was privileged to attend the memorial service at the site. It was a moving event, with firefighter bagpiping, prayers and a reading of the names. You can see some of the images in the gallery above.

The parallels to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire are eerie. In contrast to that deadly fire, which happened just over two years before, the Binghamton Clothing Co. held fire drills, and there were no locked doors that trapped workers. But in the wake of Triangle, New York State had launched an investigating commission into factory fires. It made a series of reports over the next few years, and the Binghamton fire added a sense of urgency to its mission. The Binghamton Clothing Co. fire was the subject of investigation by that commission, and this event helped the commission eventually put forward 20 regulations that were adopted by New York to establish stricter safety and occupational health rules for factory workers in the state.

Like at Triangle, workers in Binghamton had to die to force factory bosses and money men to spend some money and effort ensuring the most basic safety measures were taken in their properties. The speakers at today’s event took pains to note that the factory owner in Binghamton was heartbroken, and devoted the rest of his life and fortune to caring for the victims’ families. I have no doubt the grief was real. But imagine how different today would have been if, after Triangle, he had taken it upon himself to make improvements in the factory?

Occupying historical archaeology

June 1, 2013

frifeaturelogoI was recently asked by Terry Brock, guru of archaeology social media, to submit a guest post for the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Current Topics blog. After some thought, I decided to write about the points of overlap between Occupy and historical archaeology: specifically, what each can learn from the other.

(As an aside, it was a great pleasure working with Terry. He’s a terrific editor who made a number of suggestions that improved the piece overall. In addition, I’m indebted to Maria Theresia Starzmann, who read an earlier draft and offered her usual thoughtful and trenchant comments. Of course, any errors or omissions in the piece belong to me alone.)

My entry posted Friday; here’s an excerpt:

Occupy has always been a big-tent movement, both in terms of its membership and of the issues its activists raise. This is a hallmark of consensus-based groups. Two themes stand out to me as fundamental to most of those who continue to organize under the Occupy banner: A focus on community formation and reproduction, especially in the interstices of the state; and an accessible, critical analysis of the social implications of global capitalism. In other words, “How do we validate intentional, interest-based social ties between people?” and “How do we demonstrate the ill effects of profit and exploitative labor on the daily lives of people in our communities?” Community-formation and reproduction, and the effects of capitalism, are significant parts of the research agendas of many of us working in [historical archaeology], and Occupy has helped prime the public to be receptive to capitalism-centered theory and praxis in ways that we have rarely seen.

Please check out the entire post here, and leave a comment on the SHA site if the spirit moves you. I’ll be monitoring them and replying.

What the news from Jamestown does (and doesn’t) prove

May 1, 2013

Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 as described by Hans Staden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Reports landed today that skeletal evidence from the Jamestown colony shows, on at least one occasion, cannibalism practiced by the first permanent European settlers in what’s now the U.S.

The announcement came first from the Smithsonian’s Newsdesk, in a posting that contains lots of great images and video clips. A number of big-name media jumped on it: Within hours we got writeups and broadcasts from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the BBC, among others.

From what I can tell, a lot of good archaeology and forensic work went into this announcement. At the Smithsonian link above, you can see images of the cutmarks on the skull and mandible-the evidence of what the anthropologists referred to as “hesitant” attempts to deflesh the young woman. Young woman? Yes: Isotope analysis of her bones indicates a diet high in grains native to Europe, implying she was an immigrant, and other skeletal signs point to an age at death in her early teens.

But one part of this story is, to my mind, overblown. Or at least overextended.

When I teach introductory courses in archaeology and anthropology, I always spend time talking about cannibalism. Students tend to be interested in the topic, and it’s one that anthropologists have spent a lot of time studying, so I have a lot of material to draw from.

I always contextualize the idea of cannibalism: endocannibalism (consuming people in your social group, usually for ritual purposes), vs. exocannibalism (consuming people outside your social group, much rarer, and usually for different ritual purposes), vs. survival cannibalism (consuming people to avert starvation). Furthermore, I note that “cannibal” has historically been a slur (with little or no evidence) used by European colonizers to justify enslavement or genocide against Native people.

The point is that there’s a lot of nuance involved in eating humans, and there are times and places where various groups have socially sanctioned cannibalizing some but not others, and that the charge of “cannibal” has historically been a fraught one.

Moreover, better than a century of anthropological fieldwork (cultural, archaeological, and biological) has demonstrated numerous examples in which human societies routinely deflesh, dismember, or otherwise alter their dead, but do not actually consume them. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Kilgrove has an excellent discussion of several cases in this post.

To put it simply, this evidence from Jamestown doesn’t actually prove that a person was eaten, it proves that a person was defleshed. Big difference. The claim that the colonists then proceeded to consume her flesh is an assumption, not something demonstrated by the evidence presented.

What constitutes evidence of cannibalism? Preserved stomach contents or feces containing markers of human tissue are the gold standard, such as that found through molecular analysis of a coprolite at a site called Coyote Wash (Abstract here, though you have to pay to read the article. Also: Some dispute this analysis).

Now, as assumptions go, this one seems quite reasonable to me. I think it’s pretty fair to assume that in the Jamestown case, eating followed defleshing. The skeletal remains date to a particularly bad stretch of the colony’s early years, when food was short, disease was rife, and death was everywhere. Remember survival cannibalism? We know this has happened, for instance, in lifeboat situations: There’s even English case law to deal with it. When it’s eat our own or starve, it seems we tend to choose the former (though as in the lifeboat case, we may not be judged well when things get back to normal).

Though it might seem a bit pedantic to stress the point, good interpretation in archaeology (and all anthropology) involves clearly identifying those things that are demonstrated by our evidence and those things that result from analogy and assumption. No matter how likely the assumption.

Rail chronicle: Live-blogging a train trip

March 4, 2013

Source: morgueFile

Today, with UNC Wilmington on spring break, I’m heading from North Carolina to New York, with a twist: I’m traveling via Amtrak (officially, the National Railroad Passenger Corp., the U.S.’s partially public intercity passenger rail service).

I thought I’d take the chance to use this long trip (~9 hours on the train, plus a 4 hour bus connection to get me from Wilmington to Wilson, NC) to practice live-blogging via the iPhone’s WordPress app, and to offer some thoughts and comments on the materiality of transportation. That last part’s very much a work in progress; the goal’s to go beyond simply “these seats sure are comfy,” though there will be some of that as well.

Below, I’ll be posting time-marked updates throughout the trip, with the most recent on top. Feel free to send comments my way, either on the post or through Twitter (@JohnRRoby).


9:51 p.m. – I think this will be it for tonight. We’re nearing Philadelphia, and the end’s in sight. So it’s a good time to talk about, well, time.

The time involved is one of the big knocks on long-distance travel by car, bus, or rail over air. I think in two ways, this is a false argument. The first is pretty obvious, the second is maybe less so.

First, all schedules are not created equal. A flight that “takes 90 minutes” doesn’t include travel to and from the airport, the vagaries of security, and the ripple effects of hub delays on increasingly consolidated airlines. The last time I flew from Wilmington to Binghamton, the trip took 7 hours, only about 3 of which were in the air.

That’s obvious. What might be more hidden is the notion of what one’s time represents. This is a way bigger issue than I want to deal with on an iPhone keypad. Briefly, then, two thoughts:
1. Is it worth more time to be more comfy, more dignified, more social? If it’s not, what’s more important?
2. Would there be value in saying “no” to the (very odd) expectation that we could cross a continent in an afternoon? What would that value be?

6:59 p.m. – Briefly, for the record, in response to emailers:

1. Wi-Fi on this train’s only in the Lounge Car. Works fine for my purposes, no drops while I’ve been here.

2. Two 120v outlets at every pair of seats. I’ve spot-checked a half-dozen or so, all work.

3. No dining car, just the lounge. Food there is … unappealing to me (all packaged and run thru a microwave.

6:37 p.m. – More on space, this time less material and more metaphorical.

Obviously, train travel gets you around the increasingly intrusive and bizarre and somewhat arbitrary airport security dance. Obvious yes, but it’s still striking to experience. I got the feeling Amtrak wanted my business, rather than attempting to put up roadblocks to it. That isn’t a totally fair comparison, but no amount of forced “we’d like to thank you for flying X today” can erase the sheer pain of air travel.

There’s a sense of openness – dare I say “freedom”? – to seeing the landscape speed by (or even crawl by). It’s a big, and pretty, damn country. A bird’s eye view, oddly, doesn’t capture that.

Metaphorically, everything from the light to the view to the legroom and headroom to the boarding process to the easy conversation, is mutually constitutive, and reinforcing. One aspect glides easily into another, and it seems welcoming and empowering, in a very unforced way.

I’m beginning to wonder why we don’t expect this sort of travel-as-experiential-spectacle more.

5:53 p.m. – Regarding space. The sense of openness is striking. I think this photo captures the interior openness pretty well.


As mentioned below, I’m 6’1″, and I can comfortably stand. The big windows let in lots of natural light. I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic on planes; I don’t see how that could happen here.

That openness extends to the seating too. They’re quite clever: they have a sort of extendable legrest and they recline. You can get very comfy very quickly. And the seats are generous enough that two adults who aren’t friendly can relax without awkwardness.

Below, I gripe about seat pitch on the bus. Compare this view of my knees, and check that foot of spare pitch.


3:49 p.m. – Time to take stock of the supplies.

Full water bottle, and the coffee thermos I filled at Wilmington’s excellent Port City Java this morning is (amazingly) still hot. But unlike everyone else in the car, I packed no food. Rookie mistake.

Chapstick, yes, hand lotion, no. It’s quite warm and dry.

Copious reading material: oh yes. The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Zizek); Re/Presenting Class (Gibson-Graham, Resnick, and Wolff eds.); and New Directions in Marxian Theory (Resnick and Wolff). On the lighter side, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (Howe) on the Kindle. Hoping to put a dent in all of them this coming week.

3:31 p.m. – Two things strike me already: a feeling of motion and a sense of space. I’ll save space for a bit later.

Motion: This train hauls. Acceleration is quick and smooth, not like a plane or car at all. It feels effortless and fluid.

And passing an intersection, with the guard arm down and flashing, cars lined up and the whistle blowing, is oddly a bit of a thrill.

2:26 p.m. – “All aboard!” I love that they say this.

Scheduled departure from Wilson, NC was 2:23, and we left right on schedule. Compares pretty favorably with most of my recent bus and plane trips.

Briefly, the bus ride from Wilmington to Wilson was fine. Amtrak operates or contracts scores of these “Thruway” routes (on full-size, intercity buses) to connect unserved cities with its train stations. In Wilmington, pickup was from the main city bus station, which was quite convenient for someone like me who is carfree.

The bus made three stops en route. That seems like a lot, and the whole process took nearly 4 hours. I suspect most Thruway routes are shorter. Still, that was made very clear on booking, and it was on time and reasonably comfortable, so no complaints.

Well, one complaint. The seat pitch – the distance between rows – was VERY skinny. I couldn’t sit without my knees hitting the row in front of me. I’m 6’1″, so not everyone will have that issue. This wasn’t an Amtrak bus, but a contracted one, so maybe that’s not the typical Thruway experience.

Dismal “science”

February 3, 2013

The Rhodes Colossus, first published in Punch, 1892. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This semester, I’m teaching a course called Physical Anthropology. It’s one of four core courses for the anthropology major here at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The course is an introduction to that particular subfield of anthropology, and it deals with the theory and mechanisms of evolution, the human evolutionary past, and biological diversity among populations of the human species. Because I’m an archaeologist, this course doesn’t fall directly into my area of interest, though as an anthropologist, I’m conversant and interested in this dimension of the complex whole that comprises humanity.

A primary goal of mine is to demonstrate to my students that though our genes play a role in explaining who and what we are, and why we do what we do, our genetic makeup is just part of the story. Humans are, perhaps alone among all animals, biocultural creatures. You can’t explain anything about being human simply by pointing to our genes. Our DNA gives us certain similarities and differences, possibilities and limitations, but we make sense of all that through culture.

So it’s distressing when smart, well-intentioned people attempt to collapse culture into biology – to explain variation in a group’s cultural-historical past or present in terms of variation in its genetic makeup. That’s the case with a forthcoming article by two economists, who argue that genetic diversity in human populations since the colonial period has had a significant effect on per-capital incomes in modern nations.

The article, by Ashraf and Galor, is set for publication in the American Economic Review. You can download a pdf of what appears to be a draft of the paper here (careful: it’s over 100 pages long).

Culture, biology, DNA, human populations, health, poverty, colonialism, development, history and migration – if you were to scope the landscape of contemporary anthropology, it’d be hard to find anyone in the field whose interests don’t lie in one or several of those categories. It’s reassuring that the discipline has taken notice of Ashraf and Galor. And it hasn’t been complimentary.

The blog site for Wenner-Gren, a private foundation that funds anthropological research (Twitter: @WennerGrenOrg), comments:

[Ashraf and Galor] claim that high genetic diversity (common in African populations) increases the incidence of distrust and conflict, which causes social instability and lower productivity. In addition, they argue that populations that are relatively genetically homogeneous (such as Native Americans) are at an economic disadvantage because genetic diversity increases competition and thus innovation. Ashraf and Galor arrive at the controversial conclusion that colonialism might have had a positive effect on development in Africa and the Americas by changing the genetic composition of the colonized territories.

The current issue of the journal Current Anthropology contains a lengthy response to the economists written by more than a dozen anthropologists, whose areas of interest range from evolutionary biology to cultures of modern Latin America to the history of science. This rebuttal is available for free through JSTOR (I’m not sure how long it will be free, so take a look while you can).

The Current Anthropology article is well-reasoned and copiously cited. The authors summarize the lines of evidence they bring to bear in their critique thusly:

Ashraf and Galor’s study is flawed in three main ways. First, they consistently misuse scientific terminology and concepts; in particular, their understanding of the relationship between migratory distance and genetic diversity is incorrect. Second, their additional data, including population density and various additional variables, are full of factual errors, missing or faulty references, and simplistic assumptions. Finally, their theory is inconsistent with the rich data and robust findings in anthropology, genetics, and sociology on human evolution, cooperation, and innovation, almost none of which they cite.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the anthropology blogosphere replies to this, as there are bound to be many voices bringing their own interests and expertise to bear on particular issues. For instance, archaeologists will likely note the economists’ problematic choice of demographic data for Native American populations before contact. I’ll leave it to others to unpack that more fully (cue my colleague Bob Muckle). In short, there are few areas of americanist archaeology that are more fraught with issues of changing evidence, method, and politics than pre-Contact Native American population size, and relying on a 30-year-old source is, to say the least, questionable.

I’d like to kick off the conversation by looking more closely at the implication of explaining economic competition as a measure of “optimal” heterozygosity – i.e., just the right amount of genetic variation.

It’s striking that the economists identify the level of diversity in the U.S. as “optimal,” on a range from the least diverse population (Bolivia) to the most diverse (Ethiopia). Hence, the U.S. is “optimal” because we have just the right amount of heterozygosity in our population to generate competition, but not so much that discord and distrust will impede economic development. Though our genes undoubtedly play a role in giving us the raw materials to act in conflict or cooperation, it’s culture that channels those abilities. Conflict, cooperation, competition – those are all enormously variable in human populations, an outcome of each culture’s history of interaction with other cultures as well as “sticky” traditions more or less unique to any group.

That means concepts like “competition” are not universal in their contents, functions, or implications. Competition means one thing to an American business executive, another to a Trobriander trying to break into a Kula exchange relationship, and another to a Haida family planning a potlatch.

This article works as a not-terribly-subtle piece of ideology that justifies and validates a particular formulation of success – the kind that’s enmeshed in the logic of contemporary capitalism – by locating the causes of economic conflict and success in the human genome. Solving genetic problems requires genetic solutions, while solving social problems requires social solutions. Collapsing the social into the genetic implies a social problem like poverty is not contingent on a particular culture’s (or nation’s) history, internal dynamics, or position vis-a-vis global structures of trade and exploitation, but rather is an outcome of natural laws and forces beyond control.

Or are they beyond control? The Current Anthropology authors note:

By claiming a causal link between the degree of genetic heterogeneity and economic development, their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity. Ultimately, this can provide fodder to those looking to justify policies ranging from mistreatment of immigrants to ethnic cleansing (especially by groups with real political power, e.g., Golden Dawn in Greece).

It’s reassuring, in a way, to be able to identify a single, proximate cause of some particular ill. Genetic research has led to remarkable advances on that score. Social ills, though, are messy, as human culture is messy. They resist a simple explanation, and often, a simplistic solution. Development and underdevelopment, poverty and wealth, are worth investigating. The history and trajectory of global capitalism can tell us much more about economic differences in Bolivia, Ethiopia, and the U.S., than a few genetic markers in the populations can. And that sort of study also implies ways we can fix the problem.

On energy bars and commodity alienation

December 21, 2012
Looks pretty tasty, regardless of who the branding targets.

Looks yummy, regardless of whom the branding targets.

This is another post in my occasional “Friday Feature” series. Friday Features are published on (surprise!) Fridays, and are longer-form discussions of some aspect of archaeology, history, theory, etc., that doesn’t lend itself to a typical post. Friday Features are archived on a single page, linked at the top, for easy access.

It was early one morning of finals week, and I was short on cash, tummy rumbling. The student union at UNC Wilmington has a very well-appointed convenience store that takes “Seahawk Bucks,” a sort of debit account linked to one’s student or faculty ID card. I had just enough for a coffee and that tasty-looking energy bar over to the left. It had me at “chocolate-dipped coconut.”

Back at the office, I looked a bit more closely at the wrapper. I noticed the print below the flavor: “Whole Nutrition Bar For Women.”

Stay with me. I guarantee this isn’t going where you think it is.

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