Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and writing systems

Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

What’s so improper about fractions?

Posted by schrisomalis on January 15, 2014

Yesterday, as part of the Wayne State Humanities Center brownbag series, I gave a talk entitled, “What’s so improper about fractions? Mathematical prescriptivism at Math Corps”, based on my long-term ethnographic research in Detroit.   For those of you who might be interested, you can watch the video below (or on Youtube itself), and the powerpoint is available for download here.

Posted in Anthropology, Linguistics, Numerals | Leave a Comment »

AAA itinerary

Posted by schrisomalis on November 19, 2013

For the next several days I will be at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings in Chicago, Illinois.  Unfortunately I am once again ridiculously over-committed with committee work and departmental service and other such fun things, but if any of my readers are going to be there, feel free to track me down.   On Friday afternoon, you could check out my panel, Thinking and Talking about Metalanguage and Metacognition (Conference Room 4C).  Friday evening at the Society for Linguistic Anthropology business meeting, my student Sarah Carson will be receiving the SLA’s undergraduate essay prize (announced here).  Saturday from 10am-2pm, you could come to the exhibit hall where I’ll once again be hosting the Wayne State table at the Graduate School Fair (now with more swag for eager passers-by).

There are so many panels of interest (and so many opinions on what counts as interesting) that I can hardly list all the ones I wish I could go to (see above re: horribly over-committed).  But I do want to draw your attention to one really great panel of interest to the subject matter of this blog, unfortunately tucked away on Sunday morning: More than an Utterance: Indecipherable Scripts and the Materiality of Communication (Conference Room 5G) featuring a thoughtful slate of cross-cultural work on undeciphered and indecipherable writing systems.

I’ve promised myself this year to use my Twitter account to good effect, and so if you’re not already following me @schrisomalis, you could follow me and give me a little extra incentive to actually follow through.

Posted in Anthropology | 1 Comment »

09/26 report 2013

Posted by schrisomalis on September 26, 2013

Once again, this year, I am continuing my longitudinal tracking of job postings at the American Anthropological Association website, which I note on September 26 each year.  As a proxy for the health of the job market in anthropology, though, the AAA listings are ideal, since, at least historically, most tenure-stream positions in the discipline get listed there.  So here’s the figure … (drumroll) …

2006: 190
2007: 186
2008: 168
2009: 78
2010: 112
2011: 117
2012: 109
2013: 125

So that’s pretty good, a clear sign of health, but nowhere near the peak of 2006 – 2007 (I got my tenure-track job in the 2007 cycle).    However, having seen where things are at, I think this is the last year that I’ll track jobs as of September 26.  It’s always been a bit ridiculous to measure using only one yearly data point, and I think that over time, the 09/26 date has become increasingly irrelevant.    Really what is needed is a set of data points (perhaps every week in the three-month period from 08/15 to 11/15) which could then show the timing of job postings and better reflect the overall market during the main (tenure-track and senior) job cycle.     Of course, I don’t have nearly enough time to do anything of the sort … but someone should.

Posted in Anthropology | 1 Comment »

CFP – Society for Anthropological Sciences – Albuquerque, NM – Mar 18-22/14

Posted by schrisomalis on September 8, 2013

Call for Papers

Society for Anthropological Sciences Annual Meeting

March 18 – 22, 2014

Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS / SASci) will be holding its 10th annual meeting from March 18 – 22, 2014, at the Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  We invite scholars from any subdiscipline of anthropology, or from allied social sciences, to submit abstracts for papers, posters, or full sessions on any topic in anthropological science, broadly conceived.   

The Society for Anthropological Sciences, as both an independent organization (SaSci) and a section of the American Anthropological Association (SAS), promotes the scientific understanding of humanity through comparative, cognitive, quantitative, and evolutionary approaches. The Society seeks to fulfill the historic mission of anthropology to describe and explain the range of variation in human biology, society, and culture across time and space.  You may join SAS through the AAA website as a section along with your membership, or if you are not a member of the AAA, visit to join SaSci for $10 / year.

This year the Society will be a co-sponsoring organization in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA).  SAS/SaSci allots 30 minutes including discussion for each oral presentation.  Registration for the conference must be done through the SfAA site at , and includes access to all activities at the conference.  Abstracts should be 100 words maximum and should similarly be submitted through the SfAA online system.  The deadline for online registration and submission of abstracts through the SfAA site is October 15, 2013.  When registering for the conference and submitting an abstract or session proposal, it is critical that you select SAS as the co-sponsoring organization to ensure that your proposal is reviewed by our program committee.   

(Note: I am an executive of SaSci and a member of the program committee – please feel free to comment, or email me, if you have any questions.  We especially want to welcome submissions from new members and from students.)




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Selfishness in language and culture

Posted by schrisomalis on September 3, 2013

Well, with regard to the study of California language diversity I talked about a few days ago, my students rightly think that using contemporary satellite images of California vegetation overlaid with potentially-unreliable  colonial-era ethnolinguistic data is probably not a good way to figure out why people 12,000 or 8,000 or 1,000 years ago moved where they did.  And I haven’t even taught them anything about the perils of glottochronology yet.    Also worth noting: no linguists were involved in the writing or evaluation of that paper at any stage, as far as I can tell.

So for those of you following along at home, on Thursday in class we’re going to be tackling yet another rather dubious piece of scholarship (and scholarly reporting) from last month: Patricia Greenfield’s research using the Google Ngram Viewer to study trends in personality in British and American societies as expressed through word frequencies; the study is ‘The Changing Psychology of Culture from 1800 to 2000‘ from Psychological Science and the news article is “Language in books shows how we have grown more selfish” from the Telegraph.   Advance feedback in comments is welcome.

Posted in Anthropology, Linguistics | Leave a Comment »

Explaining Californian language diversity

Posted by schrisomalis on August 31, 2013

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, summarized in a Los Angeles Times news article, argues that there is a strong correlation between the linguistic diversity and ecological diversity of various parts of prehistoric California.   Using satellite images of plant growth in different areas of the state and comparing it with known or hypothesized distributions of linguistic groups, the authors, Brian Codding and Terry Jones, argue that to understand the density of languages in some areas of the state and the relative sparseness of languages in others, ecological variables such as environmental productivity need to be taken into account.   Specifically, they argue that waves of migration to ecologically attractive areas produce dense areas of language diversity, whereas ecologically unproductive environments are less diverse.

Now, I should say right up front that I’m not convinced by this study or by the media account of it.   I’m not going to go into all the reasons here (yet), because my students and I are going to talk about this study on Tuesday.  I think it embodies some of the more serious problems with studies of the language-culture intersection, and some of the more serious problems with science reporting.   Figuring out how to ask relevant analytical questions about material like this is, I believe, a critical step in advancing not only anthropology in the media, but the science as a whole.

Posted in Anthropology, Linguistics | 8 Comments »

Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

Posted by schrisomalis on June 30, 2013

small title imageHuman Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

Stephen Chrisomalis and Andre Costopoulos, editors

Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, which was published recently by the University of Toronto Press, is a book that Andre Costopoulos and I envisioned shortly after the death of our friend and mentor Bruce Trigger, who was my dissertation supervisor.  In helping to sort through his papers, we became aware that he had developed, over several decades, a network of eclectic and important scholars, including many of his own students, whose work did not fit into conventional theoretical or disciplinary categories or whose serious ideas had not received adequate attention.  We also were reminded of how unconventional much of Trigger’s own work was, with articles such as ‘Brecht and ethnohistory’ and ‘Akhenaten and Durkheim’ among his eclectic works.  But the book was created not as a sterile memorial to Trigger, but rather, as a way to think about scholarship that is, “unfinished, unbegun, or even unthinkable, in the present intellectual climate”.

Human Expeditions is a decidedly ‘unfashionable’ book, and we are proud of that fact.  We identified people whose work is poorly characterized by ‘isms’, and asked them to share work that filled gaps in present thinking.  The contributors to the volume come from the philosophy of science, history, and Egyptology as well as anthropology and archaeology.  The result, we hope, will give greater depth to anthropological insights and greater conceptual breadth to the humanistic social sciences.  A number of contributors are very senior figures in their fields, but we believe it is just as critical to include contributions from early-stage scholars, including several who were students of Trigger in his final years.  At minimum, we want to provide immediate venues for important scholarship that lies outside disciplinary norms.  At its most utopian, Human Expeditions allows us to envision, “an alternate history of the social sciences in which conformity to convention is not an expectation,” and to think about different configurations of disciplines than those currently in fashion.   We think that Trigger would have approved heartily.

Posted in Anthropology, Archaeology | Leave a Comment »

Plants (humans?) are incredibly cool, but don’t do math

Posted by schrisomalis on June 23, 2013

There’s a fascinating article on BBC News today, about a really interesting study that proposes that an internal mechanism in the Arabidopsis thaliana plant (which is used widely in scientific experiments as a model organism) regulates starch consumption in the absence of sunlight in a way that requires the plants to be able to mathematically “divide” the numbers of two different types of cells.  Now I’m not a botanist and I can’t say whether the result is correct, but I do take issue with the claim that “They’re actually doing maths in a simple, chemical way”.  The last quote from the article is more accurate: “This is not evidence for plant intelligence. It simply suggests that plants have a mechanism designed to automatically regulate how fast they burn carbohydrates at night. Plants don’t do maths voluntarily and with a purpose in mind like we do.”

All sorts of natural processes can be modelled using mathematics – so, for instance, Fibonacci patterns appear in a variety of plants in the operation of phyllotaxis (the arrangement of leaves on stems).    We don’t say that these plants ‘do math’.    And the same principle applies above to the new finding above.  It’s incredibly cool that these mathematical patterns emerge, and it’s a very interesting question why they emerge biochemically.  But that raises an even more interesting question: what do we mean when we say that humans ‘do math’?

Humans are organisms and thus part of the physical world, and so lots of the things they do unconsciously or without explicit reflection can thus be modelled mathematically.    But this is not the same as saying that all humans do mathematics.  This seems to be what is being suggested in the last quotation: that ‘doing math’ involves conscious, explicit, purposeful reflection on the mathematical aspects of reality.    Being able to throw a curveball is not ‘doing mathematics’; being able to model the trajectory of a curveball is.  And the overlap between the sets of humans able to do each task is minimal.

Let me give another example related to the plant study above.  A child has a pile of 23 candies and wants to divide it among some gathered group of five kids including herself.  She starts to her right giving one candy to each friend, continuing to pass them out until they’re all gone.    When the process is complete, each child will have 4 candies and the three to the right of the distributor will have 5 each.  We could, if we wished to, define ‘division’ as ‘the process of dividing up a group of objects among another group’ and then say ‘thus, the kids are dividing 23 by 5 and getting 4 with a remainder of 3′.  But I think most of us would be reluctant to argue that the first child understands division, or knows how to divide.    Even though distributing the candy is a conscious decision, and even though it requires some general process (one candy to one child), it does not require that the child be able to do mathematics.

For the same reason, I sometimes have some skepticism when my colleagues in ethnomathematics describe the mathematics of some human activity in terms of fractal geometry or the Fibonacci series.   It is, of course, possible that people have some awareness of the processes behind their activities, and ethnographically, when they can talk about that, it is very interesting.   For instance, if the child above says “Well, I know I have 23 candies and so they won’t go evenly, so there are going to be some left over at the end,” then we do indeed know that the child has some explicit knowledge of division.    I worry, in fact, that because so many natural processes result in such sequences, that we confuse the result with the conscious awareness of the process.  In doing so, we fail to investigate the explicit mathematical knowledge that humans do actually encode in all sorts of things they do, and we falsely attribute a sort of explicit consciousness to activities that have no explicitness underlying them (in humans, animals, plants, and even in nonliving things).

Posted in Anthropology, Numerals | 3 Comments »

Lexiculture thanks

Posted by schrisomalis on June 20, 2013

Thanks to all those, either in the comments or elsewhere, who helped with additional suggestions for my Lexiculture project for my undergraduate course this fall.  I now have over 50 words on my long-list for the students to choose from, which should be enough, but more ideas are, of course, welcome, especially if I decide I want to assign this project multiple years.

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Lexiculture redux: new adventures in teaching linguistic anthropology

Posted by schrisomalis on June 17, 2013

Just about three years ago, while teaching my undergraduate Language and Culture course, I ended up poking around the etymology of the word honk and turned up some neat things, leading to the germ of an idea for a student project that I ended up calling Lexiculture.    That term, I did a test run with my students, using the word ‘chairperson’ as a really interesting in-class exercise, and then got to work putting it together as a full class assignment in the fall of 2010.   This was considerably advanced about a month later at the Language, Culture, and History conference in Wyoming, organized by Leila Monaghan, and discussions I had with many of the participants there about how to think about the linguistic anthropology of English words: moving beyond lexicography and etymology towards a real integrated approach to language and culture using words.

When I ran this in 2010, I introduced Lexiculture using an in-class exercise where we jointly researched the surprising history of the local term Michigan left.   I then put together a list of projects for them to choose from (or let them choose their own) and set them to work. I was working under a few impediments: I had never done this before, so I was sort of muddling along.  I didn’t give the students quite enough guidance to undertake research projects with good results.  At the time, I couldn’t find a good text to help the students conceptually or methodologically.  So it turned out to be OK, and we got some good results (I especially liked student papers written on the words wife-beater, bitchin’and ketchup/catsup) but it wasn’t a complete success.    In 2011 I was on sabbatical so I didn’t teach that course, and in 2012 (my last year prior to submitting my tenure file, which is happening now), I decided to focus on some research projects (wisely, I think), and to make the course a bit more traditional.

Well, now it’s 2013, and my tenure file will be set in stone by September, and instead of kicking up my feet and phoning in the last 30 years of my teaching career, I figure it’s time to dust off the notes and put Lexiculture back together.    I’ve had the great fortune to have found a wonderful short, inexpensive text: How to Read a Word by Elizabeth Knowles, which has some good, not-yet-outdated methodological suggestions but more importantly is conceptually critical to get the students thinking about how the history of words intersects with sociocultural change in the English-speaking world.   So using that text, and a revised set of topics, and a stronger methodological introduction to the subject, I’m at it again this fall.

So here are a few of the words / topics on my list for this year:

Information Superhighway: I want to know how this transformed from an index of the speaker’s technological knowhow in the early 1990s, to a sign of outmodedness a decade later.

Stalemate: I want to know by what process this chess term became figuratively adopted for a situation where victory is impossible.

Uppity: What is the metalinguistic discourse surrounding the use of this word in, by, and around African Americans, both in the 19th century and today?

I have a longer list, but I need more, and here’s how you could help.  I’m looking for more English words or phrases  that students could research and that could help illuminate something of social significance.  Some basic requirements:

- The topics need to relate to the last 200-300 years, with a heavy emphasis on post-1900 material. Prior to 1800, the full-text searchable databases / corpora that the students will need are relatively few and inaccessible.
- While the papers will focus on single words or short phrases (i.e. the sort of things that can be researched readily without too much training), I’m not just interested in etymology, but rather, in words or phrases that have cultural significance or whose contextual importance has changed over time.
- The words/phrases could be primarily analyzable quantitatively (using corpora, Google Ngram Viewer, etc.), qualitatively (broader social analysis or close reading of specific textual examples) or both.
- The words/phrases can’t have been over-researched – e.g., tweet and LOL and cool have been researched in such detail that there’s too much risk of plagiarism and not much interest in it for me.

Any ideas for suitable words or phrases would be appreciated in the comments below.  So tell me: do you have a great idea for some lexiculture?

Posted in Anthropology, Linguistics | 7 Comments »


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