SA 103: Gift, Commodity, Fetish

ANTH—UA1 Human Society and Culture
Fall 2015 T/Th 9:30-10:45am
Meyer 121
Prof. Bruce Grant
Office Hours: By Appointment
25 Waverly Pl, Room 601
[email protected]
Updated 5 August 2015
What does it mean to think anthropologically? In this course we consider some of the
historically foundational practices of anthropological thought, and its most influential product,
the ethnography, in order to think practically and creatively along the lines of what constitutes
cultures, societies, translation, and difference. Cultural anthropology has long been considered
the most humanistic of the social sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.
Anthropology shares its subject matter with almost every zone of the academy—the arts,
literature, religion, history, politics, economics, and the natural sciences, most broadly—but its
particular claims to knowledge build on its singular method and practice, fieldwork. At its most
canonic, fieldwork may consist of anywhere from one to two years of protracted immersion in a
given setting for the purposes of helping those unfamiliar with that world better understand its
Ethnography is both process and product: the act of “graphing” the ethnos, in a
nineteenth-century sense of mapping, and the written or filmed result. The method of
ethnography is simple and at times even disarming, for of all the fields that capture people in
their purview—the history of events, the science of politics, the economy of purchasing
predictions, and the psychology of our inner cores—anthropology is the only social science
where you are required to talk to people. This is not purely in the sense of an interview (though
fieldwork may sometimes encompass that), or on the assumption that first person voices accord a
kind of truth-value (they do not). Instead, anthropological method presumes that the
ethnographer uses his or her own mind and body as the units of measurement, tracking their own
degrees of understanding, alienation, and learning as they immerse themselves in someone else’s
world. The late Clifford Geertz called this “deep hanging out.”
The classic fieldwork goal is to document how “cultural knowledge”—that is to say, the
discursive and bodily practices that constitute a sense of the appropriate in any given setting—is
marked at multiple registers by legal codes, “common sense,” unspoken habits, and even
“patterned randomness.” Anthropology’s kinship with common sense is part of the risk at hand:
When no more than a chronicle of what any intelligent member of a society already knows,
anthropology gains the ignominy of being the social science that is perhaps the easiest to do
badly. When done well, by contrast, it conjoins art to science through fine prose, it renders
knowable a world of unspoken habit, and it can reveal motives and suggest explanations for the
most deeply embedded forms of human action, showcasing how the very world of the possible is
politically produced.
However we approach it, the aim is not simply to render the strange familiar and the
familiar strange, but to develop insight into how the seemingly most practical and
commonsensical aspects of any person’s life can be most broadly informed by the cultural and
social contexts of which they consider themselves a part, contexts that shift continually, and that
resist easy scrutiny. Our first goal this semester is to better understand and advance that scrutiny.
Our second goal for this semester’s work will be to better understand the “culture
concept,” with its hidden hierarchies and dependence on savagery (or “primitivism”) at the very
core of perceived civilizing structures. Through a brief tour of the history of the discipline and a
consideration of some more recent ethnographic work, we look at a number of the most useful
ways in which culture, this very moving target, may be paused and better understood.
Evaluation and Grading
In the weekly lectures, in the smaller group sections, as well as in the individual meetings
with your TA, your openness to discussion, and your willingness to share as much of what you
do not understand as compared to what you do will be the basis for a participation grade of 10%,
determined at the discretion of your section leader. Your ability and interest in making yourself a
better writer shares in this rubric.
Your analytical understanding of all material from the lectures, readings, and films will
be tested in two, non-overlapping, in-class examinations, a mid-term worth 15% and a final
worth 30%. Students will be invited to suggest exam questions by email prior to each exam. The
typical exam will consist of several short-answer (1 paragraph) questions and a few longeranswer (3-4 paragraph) questions that invite analyses of broader issues.
Fieldwork Project and Papers
By September 17th, you are asked to email your TA a proposal for a short-term fieldwork
project that you will conduct over the course of the semester. The idea should be to work through
a setting easily available to you—in nearby sections of New York City, or through your preexisting networks—where you find that the cultures and logics of that setting are not easily
understood by all, not least possibly by yourself, and merit explanation. The first paper is worth
15% and the second paper is worth 30%. Papers can be 5-10 double-spaced pages in length.
The papers you will write for this class differ from conventional research papers. What
matters is your ability to integrate questions and ideas from the course readings. The central
criterion for grading is your creative and synthetic use of these readings, rather than the specific
dimensions of the field site itself. We ask you to engage salient moments or arguments from
three course authors (or film directors) in each paper—more so than the specific dimensions of
your chosen field site. The first paper integrates readings from the first half of the course only;
the second paper integrates readings from the second half of the course only.
In each paper you need to offer enough about your topic to identify context, and why
your site is interesting and important. In an average, 7-page paper, this will occupy no more than
about 4 pp. In each installment, the remainder should be a detailed discussion of what you
consider to be key moments from course authors that illuminate or critically engage your topic,
at least one page per each of the three course authors that you introduce. Papers are due at the
start of class on the day assigned, and must be signed on the front page by at least one reader
unfamiliar with the class to certify that at least one non-specialist found your arguments
intelligible. Retain the marked copy of your first paper and resubmit it with your second so that
we can track your writing progress.
As your grade includes an assessment of your ability to organize your thinking and
writing, penalties are accorded to late papers. There are no scheduled make-up tests or
incompletes. Please do not email the professor or TA to request extensions. Exceptions will be
made, in advance only, through email requests directed to the professor by your faculty advisor,
someone from the dean’s office, or in the form of a doctor’s note. Please consult the syllabus
before booking any travel.
Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (New York: Norton,
Meneley, Tournaments of Value: Sociability and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1996)
Myerhoff, Number Our Days: Culture and Community Among Elderly Jews in an American
Ghetto (New York: Simon and Schuster 1980 or Penguin, 1994)
Ries, Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1997)
Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
* Please note that the bookstore removes and returns all course books from the shelves at midsemester.
Articles and Films
All articles are available on the course’s dedicated NYU Classes site, under “Resources.” In the
same folder you will find a Style Sheet for all written work, some recommendations for taking
fieldnotes (filed under the author name, Emerson), and examples of term papers. Copies of all
films in the course are available at the Avery Fisher Center on the 2nd Floor of Bobst Library.
The Bobst Reserve book list for the course can be found line at:
Teaching Assistants
Zeynep Sertbulut
[email protected]
Tyler Zoanni
[email protected]
F 9:30-10:45 BOBS LL142
F 11:00-12:15 TISC LC7
F 9:30-10:45 TISC LC1
F 12:30-1:45 25W4 C14
The Teaching Assistants for the course are directly involved in evaluating your work. They are
available to discuss your writing, exams, and course material individually with you during their
office hours or by appointment. Please take the opportunity to meet with them regularly to
discuss your work. Students may attend only the section for which they are registered.
Section Participation
Paper 1
Mid-Term Examination
Paper 2
Final Examination
Definitions, Problems, Keystones
Sep 3:
Introduction: Four Fields, Anthropology and its Interlocutors
Sep 8:
The Classic Culture Concept
Raymond Williams, “Culture,” in Keywords (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996), 87-93.
The Anglo-American Tradition: From Polygenism, through Primitivism, to “Cultures”
Sep 10:
Edward Tylor, “The Science of Culture,” in Primitive Culture (London: Murray,
1920), 1-25.
Adam Kuper, “The Idea of Primitive Society,” in The Invention of Primitive
Society: The Transformation of an Illusion (New York: Routledge, 1988), 1-14.
Sep 15:
Franz Boas, “The Study of Geography” in Race, Language, and Culture (New
York: Free Press, 1940 [1887]), 639-647.
Boas, “The Potlatch” in Kwakiutl Ethnography (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1966 [1897]), 77-104
Tierney, “Tips from the Potlatch: Where Giving Knows No Slump,” New York
Times, 16 December 2008: D1.
Fieldwork Paradigms
Sep 17:
Malinowski, “Foreword,” “Introduction,” chs. 3, 22 of Argonauts of the Western
Pacific (New York: Dutton, 1950 [1922]), xv-xviii, 1-25, 81-104, 509-518.
Fieldwork Proposal Due by email to TA.
Sep 22:
Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (New York: Morrow, 1961 [1928]),
“Preface,” and chs. 1, 2, 13.
Sep 24:
Screening: How to Do Fieldwork (Siberia 1990)
Alternative Economies
Sep 29:
Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies
Émile Durkheim, “What is a Social Fact?” in The Rules of Sociological Method
(New York: Free Press, 1982 [1895]), 50-58.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Gifts,” in Alan Schrift, ed., The Logic of the Gift (New
York: Routledge, 1997 [1844]), 25-27.
Oct 1:
Jacques Derrida, “The Time of the King,” in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 1-5.
Pierre Bourdieu, [On Misrecognition] in Outline of a Theory of Practice (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 1-15, 164-171.
Oct 6:
Screening: Ongka’s Big Moka: The Kawelka of Papua, New Guinea (1974, 52
Oct 8:
[No class – Jena Conference]
Symbols and Passages
Oct 13:
[No class—University is on a Monday schedule]
Oct 15:
Victor Turner, “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors,” in Richard Schechner, ed.,
Ritual, Play, and Performance (New York: Seabury, 1976), 97-120.
Turner, “Liminality and Communitas,” in The Ritual Process: Structure and AntiStructure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 94-130.
Oct 20:
Barbara Myerhoff, Number our Days, chs. 1-4.
Oct 22:
Myerhoff, Number our Days, chs. 5-Afterword.
Oct 27:
Screening: Number Our Days (d. Lynne Littmann, 1977, 29 mins.)
Paper 1 Due
Oct 29:
In-Class Mid-Term Examination
Language and Social Change
Nov 3:
Whorf, “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behaviour to Language,” in
Language, Thought and Reality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1956), 134-159.
Ries, Russian Talk, Introduction, chs. 1-2.
Deutscher, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” New York Times, 26
August 2010, online at:
Nov 5:
Ries, Russian Talk, chs. 3-4, Conclusion.
Sherry Ortner, “On Key Symbols,” American Anthropologist 75, no. 5 (1973):
Nov 10:
Screening: American Tongues (d. Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker, 1987, 56
Public Spheres and Symbolic Economies
Nov 12:
Meneley, Tournaments of Value, “Introduction,” chs. 1-2, pp. 3-59.
Bourdieu, [On “Symbolic Capital”] Outline of a Theory of Practice, 171-197.
Hirschkind and Mahmood, “Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of CounterInsurgency,” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2002): 339-354.
Vollman, William, “Letter from Afghanistan: Across the Divide—What Do the
Afghan People Think of the Taliban?” The New Yorker (15 May 2000): 58-73.
[Available in digital archive with a subscription].
Nov 17:
Meneley, Tournaments of Value, chs. 5-6, “Conclusion,” pp. 99-140, 180-194.
Nov 19:
Screening: Divorce, Iranian Style (d. Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini,
1998, 80 mins). [Please note: Class begins slightly earlier to accommodate
extended film run).
[Also available online at:
Yong, “Iran’s Divorce Rate Stirs Fears of Society in Crisis,” New York Times (6
December 2010). Online at:
Ziba Mir-Hosseini, "Negotiating the Politics of Gender in Iran: An Ethnography
of a Documentary," in The New Iranian Cinema, edited by Richard Tapper, 167199 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002). Available electronically via Bobst, at:
Nov 24:
[No class – prep final fieldwork and/or reading for next week]
Ethnographies of History and Encounter
Dec 1:
Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities
Perlstein, “The God that Sailed,” Lingua Franca (Mar/Apr 1995): 15-16.
Geertz, “Culture War,” in Available Light (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2000), 97-107.
Dec 3:
Screening: First Contact (d. Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, 1987, 55 mins.)
Primitives and Moderns: Culture as “Sensuous Knowledge”
Dec 8:
Screening Extracts:
Nanook of the North (d. Robert Flaherty, 1922, 79 mins.)
Fitzcarraldo (d. Werner Herzog, 1982, 158 mins.)
The Old and the New [aka The General Line] (d. Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei
Eisenstein, 1929, 121 mins.).
Bourdieu, [On “Habitus”] Outline of a Theory of Practice, 72-95.
Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken,
1968), 69-82.
Rachel Moore, “The Moderns,” in Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 12-27, 32-46.
Dec 10:
Screening: Man with a Movie Camera (d. Dziga Vertov, 1929, 68 mins.)
Paper 2 Due
Dec 15:
In-Class Final Examination
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