Episodes

  • In a global context of widespread fears over Islamic radicalization and militancy, poor Muslim youth, especially those socialized in religious seminaries, have attracted overwhelmingly negative attention. In northern Nigeria, male Qur'anic students have garnered a reputation of resorting to violence in order to claim their share of highly unequally distributed resources. Drawing on material from long-term ethnographic and participatory fieldwork among Qur'anic students and their communities, Quranic Schools in Northern Nigeria: Everyday Experiences of Youth, Faith, and Poverty (Cambridge University Press, 2018) offers an alternative perspective on youth, faith, and poverty. Mobilizing insights from scholarship on education, poverty research and childhood and youth studies, Hannah Hoechner, lecturer at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, describes how religious discourses can moderate feelings of inadequacy triggered by experiences of exclusion, and how Qur'anic school enrollment offers a way forward in constrained circumstances, even though it likely reproduces poverty in the long run. In our conversation we discuss the rural economy of Northern Nigeria, educational options for young boys, the activities of the Qur’anic school, how boys support themselves through domestic service, youth masculinity, poverty and economic instability, politics of respectability, the “prayer economy” and spiritual services, and participatory research and video production.
    Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at kpeterse@odu.edu.
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  • Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life (Wayne State University Press, 2020), by Zev Eleff, challenges the current historical paradigm in the study of Orthodox Judaism and other tradition-bound faith communities in the United States. Paying attention to "lived religion," the book moves beyond sermons and synagogues and examines the webs of experiences mediated by any number of American cultural forces. Eleff lucidly explores Orthodox Judaism's engagement with Jewish law, youth culture and gender, and how this religious group has been affected by its indigenous context. To do this, the book makes ample use of archives and other previously unpublished primary sources.
    Eleff explores the curious history of Passover peanut oil and the folkways and foodways that battled in this culinary arena to both justify and rebuff the validity of this healthier substitute for other fatty ingredients. He looks at the Yeshiva University quiz team's fifteen minutes of fame on the nationally televised College Bowl program and the unprecedented pride of young people and youth culture in the burgeoning Modern Orthodox movement. Another chapter focuses on the advent of women's prayer groups as an alternative to other synagogue experiences in Orthodox life and the vociferous opposition it received on the grounds that it was motivated by "heretical" religious and social movements. Whereas past monographs and articles argue that these communities have moved right toward a conservative brand of faith, Eleff posits that Orthodox Judaism-like other like-minded religious enclaves-ought to be studied in their American religious contexts.
    The microhistories examined in Authentically Orthodox are some of the most exciting and understudied moments in American Jewish life and will hold the interest of scholars and students of American Jewish history and religion.
    Zev Eleff is chief academic officer of Hebrew Theological College and associate professor of Jewish History at Touro College.
    Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, and the author of Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, 2020). Visit him online at ZalmanNewfield.com.
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  • Karen Ruffle's Everyday Shi'ism in South Asia (John Wiley & Sons, 2021) is an introduction to the everyday life and cultural memory of Shi’i women and men, focusing on the religious worlds of both individuals and communities at particular historical moments and places in the Indian subcontinent. Ruffle draws upon an array primary sources, images, and ethnographic data to present topical case studies offering broad snapshots Shi'i life as well as microscopic analyses of ritual practices, material objects, architectural and artistic forms, and more. 
    Focusing exclusively on South Asian Shi'ism, an area mostly ignored by contemporary scholars who focus on the Arab lands of Iran and Iraq, the author shifts readers' analytical focus from the center of Islam to its periphery. Ruffle provides new perspectives on the diverse ways that the Shi'a intersect with not only South Asian religious culture and history, but also the wider Islamic humanistic tradition. 
    Raj Balkaran is a scholar, educator, consultant, and life coach. For information see rajbalkaran.com.
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  • Why do people give to charity? In The Good Glow Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good (Policy Press, 2020), Jon Dean, Associate Professor in Politics and Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University offers a new sociology of charity to explain how charities ask and the motivations of donors. The book situates charity in the context of the global and digital age, as well as thinking through the impact of controversies and political agendas on both charitable organisations, individuals, and society more generally. Rich with theoretical and case study detail, the book will be essential reading across the social sciences, as well as for anyone interested in understanding charity.
    Dave O'Brien is Chancellor's Fellow, Cultural and Creative Industries, at the University of Edinburgh's College of Art.
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  • Yinghong Cheng's book Discourses of Race and Rising China (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) is a critical study of the development of a racialised nationalism in China, exploring its unique characteristics and internal tensions, and connecting it to other forms of global racism. The growth of this discourse is contextualised within the party-state’s political agenda to seek legitimacy, in various groups’ efforts to carve their demands in a divided national community, and has directly affected identity politics across the global diasporic Chinese community. While there remains considerable debate in both academic literature and popular discussion about how the concept of ‘race’ is relevant to Chinese expressions of identity, Cheng makes a forceful case for the appropriateness of biological and familial narratives of descent for understanding Chinese nationalism today.
    Grounded in a strong conceptual framework and substantiated with rich materials, Discourses of Race and Rising China will be an important contribution to international studies of racism, and will appeal to academics and students of contemporary China, historians of modern China, and those who work in the fields of critical race, ethnicity, and cultural studies.
    Dr. Suvi Rautio is an anthropologist specializing in Chinese society and history.
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  • Balut is a fertilized chicken or duck egg that is boiled at the seventeenth day and sold as a common street snack in the Philippines. While it is widely eaten in the Filipino community, balut is frequently used in eating “challenges” on American reality TV shows. At seventeen days, the balut egg already contains a partially developed embryo, and this aspect is sensationalized with exaggerated “performances of disgust” during these challenges.
    In her book Balut: Fertilized Eggs and the Making of Culinary Capital in the Filipino Diaspora (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), Dr. Margaret Magat explores balut as a site of culinary nationalism and identity-making, and its rise in the American consciousness. First, Dr. Magat describes how to eat balut and sip the warm broth inside the egg. In the Philippines, balut vendors sell them in the evening or early morning as snacks at malls, transportation hubs, markets, and just about everywhere. However, Americans were primarily introduced to balut via reality tv shows where contestants were “challenged” to eat it. Dr. Magat explains that like many foods of Asian immigrants, balut was decontextualized and framed through a lens of disgust in these eating “challenges.” But in response, Filipino communities sponsored balut-eating contests that promoted balut with more cultural context and pride in Filipino heritage and identity. More recently, balut has become culinary capital for foodies and celebrity chefs to gain recognition and status as someone with broad tastes. Lastly, we raise the issue of authenticity and its dangers in calling balut an authentic food of the Philippines but as also having an “authenticating” ability to signify membership of a group.
    Dr. Margaret Magat an Asian American folklorist based in Sacramento, CA. Her research focuses on the folk practices of the Filipino diaspora.
    Nancy Yan received her PhD in folklore from The Ohio State University and taught First Year Writing, Comparative Studies, and Asian American studies for several years before returning to organizing work.
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  • The UNESCO World Heritage Convention is one of the most widely ratified international treaties, and a place on the World Heritage List is a widely coveted mark of distinction. Building on ethnographic fieldwork at Committee sessions, interviews and documentary study, 
    Christoph Brumann's book The Best We Share: Nation, Culture and World-Making in the UNESCO World Heritage Arena (Berghahn, 2021) links the change in operations of the World Heritage Committee with structural nation-centeredness, vulnerable procedures for evaluation, monitoring and decision-making, and loose heritage conceptions that have been inconsistently applied. Through richly textured ethnography that goes into the inner workings of one of the most powerful international organisations, The Best We Share is one of the most ambitious studies of the World Heritage arena and a crucial reading for anthropologists and scholars interested in the notion of ‘world-making’ and workings behind global governance.
    Dr. Suvi Rautio is an anthropologist specializing in Chinese society and history.
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  • How rural areas have become uneven proving grounds for the American Dream. Small-town economies that have traditionally been based on logging, mining, farming, and ranching now increasingly rely on tourism, second-home ownership, and retirement migration. In Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream (University of California Press, 2021), Jennifer Sherman tells the story of Paradise Valley, Washington, a rural community where amenity-driven economic growth has resulted in a new social landscape of inequality and privilege, with deep fault lines between old-timers and newcomers. In this complicated cultural reality, "class blindness" allows privileged newcomers to ignore or justify their impact on these towns, papering over the sentiments of anger, loss, and disempowerment of longtime locals. Based on in-depth interviews with individuals on both sides of the divide, this book explores the causes and repercussions of the stark inequity that has become commonplace across the United States. It exposes the mechanisms by which inequality flourishes and by which Americans have come to believe that disparity is acceptable and deserved.
    Stephen Pimpare is director of the Public Service & Nonprofit Leadership program and Faculty Fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
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  • How to Make a Wetland: Water and Moral Ecology in Turkey (Stanford UP, 2021) tells the story of two Turkish coastal areas, both shaped by ecological change and political uncertainty. On the Black Sea coast and the shores of the Aegean, farmers, scientists, fishermen, and families grapple with livelihoods in transition, as their environment is bound up in national and international conservation projects. Bridges and drainage canals, apartment buildings and highways—as well as the birds, water buffalo, and various animals of the regions—all inform a moral ecology in the making.
    Drawing on six years of fieldwork in wetlands and deltas, Caterina Scaramelli offers an anthropological understanding of sweeping environmental and infrastructural change, and the moral claims made on livability and materiality in Turkey, and beyond. Beginning from a moral ecological position, she takes into account the notion that politics is not simply projected onto animals, plants, soil, water, sediments, rocks, and other non-human beings and materials. Rather, people make politics through them. With this book, she highlights the aspirations, moral relations, and care practices in constant play in contestations and alliances over environmental change.
    Caterina Scaramelli is Research Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Earth & Environment at Boston University.
    Alize Arıcan holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is an incoming Postdoctoral Fellow at Rutgers University's Center for Cultural Analysis. Her research focuses on urban renewal, futurity, care, and migration in Istanbul, Turkey. Her work has been featured in Current Anthropology, City & Society, Radical Housing Journal, and entanglements: experiments in multimodal ethnography.
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  • What if we could imagine hierarchy not as a social ill, but as a source of social hope? Taking us into a "caste of thieves" in northern India, Anastasia Piliavsky's book Nobody's People: Hierarchy as Hope in a Society of Thieves (Stanford UP, 2020) depicts hierarchy as a normative idiom through which people imagine better lives and pursue social ambitions. Failing to find a place inside hierarchic relations, the book's heroes are "nobody's people": perceived as worthless, disposable and so open to being murdered with no regret or remorse. Following their journey between death and hope, we learn to perceive vertical, non-equal relations as a social good, not only in rural Rajasthan, but also in much of the world—including settings stridently committed to equality. Challenging egalo-normative commitments, Anastasia Piliavsky asks scholars across the disciplines to recognize hierarchy as a major intellectual resource.
    Lakshita Malik is a doctoral student in the department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her work focuses on questions of intimacies, class, gender, and beauty in South Asia.
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  • Why do people participate in genocide? In The Complexity of Evil: Perpetration and Genocide (Rutgers UP, 2020), Timothy Williams presents an interdisciplinary model that shows how complex and diverse, but also how ordinary and mundane most motivations for participating in genocide are. The book draws on empirical examples from the Holocaust and Rwanda and introduces new data from interviews with perpetrators of genocide in Cambodia. On my latest episode, we discuss all this and more.
    Jeff Bachman is Senior Lecturer in Human Rights at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC.
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  • What is violence? In Violence Toby Miller, Stuart Hall Professor of Cultural Studies, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana–Cuajimalpa, Mexico offers a reconsideration of the concept, along with an overview of how the idea matters across a range of disciplines and social settings. The book ranges from a detailed engagement with how we measure violence in historical and modern settings, through to contemporary cultural, media and sporting examples. Rich with examples draw from across the world, the book is essential reading across social science and humanities.
    Dave O'Brien is Chancellor's Fellow, Cultural and Creative Industries, at the University of Edinburgh's College of Art.
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  • Breaking box office records, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved an unparalleled level of success with fans across the world, raising the films to a higher level of narrative: myth. Michael D. Nichols's Religion and Myth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (McFarland, 2021) is first book to analyze the Marvel output as modern myth, comparing it to epics, symbols, rituals, and stories from world religious traditions.
    Nichols places the exploits of Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, and the other stars of the Marvel films alongside the legends of Achilles, Gilgamesh, Arjuna, the Buddha, and many others. It examines their origin stories and rites of passage, the monsters, shadow-selves, and familial conflicts they contend with, and the symbols of death and the battle against it that stalk them at every turn. The films deal with timeless human dilemmas and questions, evoking an enduring sense of adventure and wonder common across world mythic traditions.
    Raj Balkaran is a scholar, educator, consultant, and life coach. For information see rajbalkaran.com.
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  • The word ‘data’ has entered everyday conversation, but do we really understand what it means? How can we begin to grasp the scope and scale of our new data-rich world, and can we truly comprehend what is at stake. In Data Lives: How Data Are Made and Shape Our World (Policy Press, 2021), renowned social scientist Rob Kitchin explores the intricacies of data creation and charts how data-driven technologies have become essential to how society, government and the economy work. Creatively blending scholarly analysis, biography and fiction, he demonstrates how data are shaped by social and political forces, and the extent to which they influence our daily lives. He reveals our data world to be one of potential danger, but also of hope.
    Noopur Raval is a postdoctoral researcher working at the intersection of Information Studies, STS, Media Studies and Anthropology.
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  • Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court (Princeton UP, 2020) by Matthew Clair is a powerful ethnographic study of the experiences and perspectives of criminal defendants. While many studies have demonstrated the existence of race and class disparities in the criminal justice system, Clair conducted a rare and compelling study that puts heart and emotion into these disparities. As he argues and shows, not only should we care about quantitative inequalities in criminal justice, but "[w]e should [also] be concerned about differences in the quality of the court experience" for so many defendants.
    Clair did extensive interviews with and observed criminal defendants, defense lawyers, judges, police officers, and others interact with each other in the Boston court system. What he shows is a system that operates differently for people of privilege compared to people without. While many criminal defendants face struggles of alienation from societal structures, the underprivileged often resort to crime out of necessity, whereas privileged defendants were more likely to enter the system because of pleasure-seeking or to avoid pain. 
    Once in courtrooms, underprivileged defendants, especially racial minorities, develop profound mistrust of their court-appointed attorneys. These defendants face, and have often repeatedly been represented by overworked lawyers who often refuse to listen or to develop relationships of trust with their clients, which led many of these defendants to "withdraw," as Clair coins it, from the attorney-client relationship. Some resisted the lawyer or the court: complaining openly about the lack of diligence, asking the court to appoint new counsel, or taking it upon themselves (often with group support) to learn the law and make the arguments their lawyers refused to make. Others developed what Clair calls an attitude of resignation, recognizing the futility of their situation, and essentially giving up the fight. 
    The experience is fundamentally different for privileged defendants. These defendants often have broad social circles that include the police or lawyers. Because of those connections, they are able to obtain counsel of their choice. The payment of fees engenders trust in the relationship. These defendants defer to their lawyers, trust their judgment, and feel genuinely satisfied with the representation.
    Clair argues that courts punish those defendants who withdraw from their lawyers and reward those who defer to them. He calls on lawyers to develop more trusting relationships with their clients and to work toward a more holistic style of defense that considers more than just the legal issues in the case. He encourages courts to allow defendants to choose their court-appointed attorney and to encourage a more participatory legal system in which defendants are not punished for expressing dissatisfaction with their lawyer. 
    Clair's study is replete with compelling and personal examples. The narrative is what makes this study especially moving. Clair gives voice to those who repeatedly tried, but failed to get their lawyers and courts to listen. Because of Clair's work, we can now hear them.
    Samuel P. Newton is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Idaho.
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  • Today I talked to Giulia Zampini about her research into drug taking, and particularly about the "People and Dancefloors" project. Based on a participatory action research methodology, People and Dancefloors involves knowledge co-creation with project partners and participants. Led by a team of researchers and impact experts, the project crosses the boundaries between research, film and activism. You can learn more on YouTube and in this article: 
    Zampini, G. F., Buck-Matthews, E., Killick, A., & Salter, L. (2021). "We, ourselves and us: Tensions of identity, intersubjectivity and positionality stemming from the people and dancefloors project." International Journal of Drug Policy, 103096.
    Rachel Stuart is a sex work researcher whose primary interest is the lived experiences of sex workers.
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  • Recognizing the absence of a God named Yahweh outside of ancient Israel, this study addresses the related questions of Yahweh's origins and the biblical claim that there were Yahweh-worshipers other than the Israelite people. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, with an exhaustive survey of ancient Near Eastern literature and inscriptions discovered by archaeology, and using anthropology to reconstruct religious practices and beliefs of ancient Edom and Midian, this study proposes an answer. Yahweh-worshiping Midianites of the Early Iron Age brought their deity along with metallurgy into ancient Palestine and the Israelite people. Join us as we talk with Robert Miller about his latest book, Yahweh: Origin of a Desert God (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2021).
    Robert Miller, II, O.F.S., Ph.D., is Ordinary Professor of Old Testament and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at The Catholic University of America.
    Michael Morales is Professor of Biblical Studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and the author of The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis and Exodus(Peeters, 2012), Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of Leviticus(IVP Academic, 2015), and Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption(IVP Academic, 2020). He can be reached at mmorales@gpts.edu
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  • In Becoming Rwandan: Education, Reconciliation and the Making of a Post-Genocide Citizen (Rutgers UP, 2020), S. Garnett Russell argues that although the Rwandan government makes use of global discourses in national policy documents, the way in which teachers and students engage with these global models distorts the curricular intentions of the government, resulting in unintended consequences and an undermining of sustainable peace. She is assistant professor of international and comparative education and the director of the George Clement Bond Center for African Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
    Susan Thomson is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University. I like to interview pretenure scholars about their research. I am particularly keen on their method and methodology, as well as the process of producing academic knowledge about African places and people.
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  • Portrayed in Western discourse as tribal and traditional, Afghans have in fact intensely debated women's rights, democracy, modernity, and Islam as part of their nation building in the post-9/11 era. In Television ad the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Local Activists (University of Illinois Press, 2020), Wazhmah Osman places television at the heart of these public and politically charged clashes while revealing how the medium also provides war-weary Afghans with a semblance of open discussion and healing. After four decades of gender and sectarian violence, she argues, the internationally funded media sector has the potential to bring about justice, national integration, and peace. Fieldwork from across Afghanistan allowed Osman to record the voices of many Afghan media producers and people. Afghans offer their own seldom-heard views on the country's cultural progress and belief systems, their understandings of themselves, and the role of international interventions. Osman analyzes the impact of transnational media and foreign funding while keeping the focus on local cultural contestations, productions, and social movements. As a result, she redirects the global dialogue about Afghanistan to Afghans and challenges top-down narratives of humanitarian development.
    Wazhmah Osman is a filmmaker and an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Globalization and Development Communication, Media Studies and Production, Media & Communication at Temple University. 
    Reighan Gillam is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California.
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  • How do women claim rights against violence in India and with what consequences? By observing how survivors navigate the Indian criminal justice system, Roychowdhury provides a unique lens on rights negotiations in the world's largest democracy. She finds that women interact with the law not by following legal procedure or abiding by the rules, but by deploying collective threats and doing the work of the state themselves. They do so because law enforcement personnel are incapacitated and unwilling to enforce the law. As a result, rights negotiations do not necessarily lead to more woman-friendly outcomes or better legal enforcement. Instead, they allow some women to make gains outside the law: repossess property and children, negotiate cash settlements, join women's groups, access paid employment, develop a sense of self-assurance, and become members of the public sphere. 
    Capable Women, Incapable States: Negotiating Violence and Rights in India (Oxford UP, 2020) shows how the Indian criminal justice system governs violence against women not by protecting them from harm, but by forcing them to become "capable": to take the law into their own hands and complete the hard work that incapable and unwilling state officials refuse to complete. Roychowdhury's book houses implications for how we understand gender inequality and governance not just in India, but large parts of the world where political mobilization for rights confronts negligent criminal justice systems throughout the world.
    Sneha Annavarapu is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago.
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