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Articles of Interest in Anthropology

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Joined: 27 Mar 2003
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 23, 2017 7:15 pm    Post subject: Articles of Interest in Anthropology Reply with quote

Love, Death, and Other Forgotten Traditions

What we don’t tell our children.

The science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein once wrote, “Each generation thinks it invented sex.” He was presumably referring to the pride each generation takes in defining its own sexual practices and ethics. But his comment hit the mark in another sense: Every generation has to reinvent sex because the previous generation did a lousy job of teaching it.

In the United States, the conversations we have with our children about sex are often awkward, limited, and brimming with euphemism. At school, if kids are lucky enough to live in a state that allows it, they’ll get something like 10 total hours of sex education.1 If they’re less lucky, they’ll instead experience the curious phenomenon of abstinence-only education, in which the goal is to avoid transmitting any information at all. In addition to being counterproductive—potentially leading to higher rates of teen pregnancy2 and sexually transmitted illnesses3—this practice is strange. Compare it to the practices of many small-scale societies, where children first learn about sex by observing their parents!

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 29, 2018 8:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

How feats of endurance cement social bonds

The links between pain, risk and togetherness

Over the next few days many Tamils will take part in the Thaipusam festival, an annual Hindu ceremony. After days of fasting and prayer the keenest participants have their faces pierced by chunky skewers. Thaipusam is only one example of collective endurance of pain and risk in the name of faith. Such practices seem to cement community bonds. Why they persist in our risk-averse age is still a mystery, writes our religious-affairs columnist


The results were striking. The walkers insisted that they had felt calm when performing the feat, during which steps have to be calibrated carefully to avoid horrible burns. But in fact, their heart-rates had soared, and more interestingly, people close to them in the audience experienced a surging pulse in precise tandem. In other words, the endurance of risk creates bonds not only among the risk-takers, but also among their nearest and dearest who are willing them on. In some ways, this confirms what any observer could see. The hugs exchanged by successful walkers with their family and friends spoke for themselves.

Mr Xygalatas used different methods to reach somewhat similar conclusions about the Thaipusam rite in Mauritius. Soon after the proceedings were over, people in the vicinity were interviewed, and then rewarded for their time with the equivalent of two days’ wages. A little later they were invited to hand over part of these earnings to charity. Generosity was greatest among people who had participated in the painful bits of the ceremony, and also among those who had followed the ceremony closely, albeit without being pierced. The experience of pain, whether directly or indirectly, seems to cement community bonds and increase the likelihood of “pro-social” behaviour.

Some might retort that the bonds created by common endurance of pain and risk are so obvious, and so deep-seated in human experience, that the point is really just a matter of common sense. Since the dawn of human consciousness, groups of people, mostly male, have been going out to hunt, fight or fish in stormy seas. A deep sense of commonality among those who experience those hazards was surely both a precondition and a consequence of these activities.

There is still a mystery as to why the collective endurance of pain and risk persists in our risk-averse age. Perhaps the absence of such extremes from everyday life increases their allure. But it is not obvious why such seemingly masochistic practices are considered, in ways that people cannot quite articulate, so vitally important to the identity of communities, be they cultural or religious. Is this just a hangover from a pre-modern, even a pre-agricultural, age?

Mr Xygalatas, who elaborates these ideas in many academic articles, in a Ted talk, and in a recent piece for Aeon journal, thinks not. Even now, new communities are being created by linking pain and pro-social feelings. As an example, he cites the ice-bucket challenge that went viral in 2014. People doused themselves with freezing water as a way of raising money to combat motor-neurone (Lou Gehrig’s) disease. In the words of Mr Xygalatas, it would not have been quite the same if participants had filmed themselves drinking cocoa.

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PostPosted: Fri May 25, 2018 1:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Are Suicide Bombings Really Driven by Ideology?

The surprising anthropology of group identity.

Harvey Whitehouse doesn’t like how New Atheists like Richard Dawkins make religion out to be a mere “set of propositions” amounting to a “failed science.” In a 2013 YouTube video, Whitehouse—the director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford—strolls through a park and says, “Clearly religion is not just that.”1

The point of religion is not to produce a rational understanding of nature, according to Whitehouse. It is “more about building cohesion and cooperation in groups, among other things,” he recently told Nautilus. He does realize that, taken literally, religious tales are implausible or just plain wrong, “and that can be irritating to people like Dawkins.” But the reason people “dig their heels in” against Dawkinsian criticism of their beliefs isn’t necessarily because they’re irrational—it’s because those beliefs help bond them with other religious people. “When you challenge those beliefs,” he said, “you’re not really getting into a debate about what’s true but are just offending people by attacking their identities.”

Dawkins and other New Atheists want to challenge religious beliefs, especially extremist ones, with a mix of rational critique and ridicule. But Whitehouse is skeptical. He suggests another strategy for undermining extremism, based on an understanding of the social cohesion that it can produce.

Nautilus caught up with Whitehouse earlier this month.

Full interview:
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