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"Where sex is work, sex may just work differently" & "the WEIRDest people in the world?"
December 9, 2012 8:07 AM   Subscribe

When sex means reproduction, certain proclivities may simply not be part of cultural models of sexuality: "Barry and Bonnie Hewlett had been studying the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa for many years before they began to specifically study the groups' sexuality... [T]he Hewletts conclude, "Homosexuality and masturbation are rare or nonexistent [in these two cultures], not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either ethnic group.""
Is the strong cultural focus on sex as a reproductive tool the reason masturbation and homosexual practices seem to be virtually unknown among the Aka and Ngandu? That isn't clear. But the Hewletts did find that their informants -- whom they knew well from years of field work -- "were not aware of these practices, did not have terms for them," and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors. The Ngandu "were familiar with the concept" of homosexual behavior, "but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village. Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called 'PD' (French for par derriere or from behind)."

... The finding with regard to homosexuality is perhaps not that surprising. As the Hewletts note, other researchers have documented cultures where homosexuality appears not to exist. If homosexual orientation has a genetic component to it -- and there is increasing evidence that it does, in many cases -- then it would not be surprising that this complex human trait (one that involves non-procreative efforts) would be found in some populations but not others.

Moreoever, sexual behavior -- whether homosexual, heterosexual, or any other type -- is never simply genetically determined in humans. Humans are born with sexual potentials that will manifest differently in different cultural settings. So, about heterosexuality, the Hewletts note that Western cultures' valuing of sleeping through the night probably limits Western heterosexual couples' interest in having sex multiple times between dusk and dawn. In our culture, the work we have to do by day may overtake "the work of the night."

It's also worth noting that Western science specifically distinguishes between three components of sexuality: desire, behavior, and identity. While the Hewletts' research suggests that homosexual behavior and identity are foreign to the Aka and Ngandu, it's entirely possible that homosexual desire does exist in these groups, at least for some of their members (so to speak). A culture that recognizes such desires -- and especially a culture that does not condemn them -- and especially one that involves large groups where homosexually-inclined people can find each other -- is the type where such desires will become openly apparent.
Jesse Bering covers similar ground (with different details) in Slate - Does homosexuality exist in every human society?

Sex and Searching For Children Among Aka Foragers and Ngandu Farmers of Central Africa (PDF, 19 pages) - "[Barry Hewlett] has conducted research with these groups of Aka and Ngandu for over 35 years, and [Bonnie Hewlett] has conducted research with them for over 10 years."

*wikipedia - Aka people
*The Guardian: Are the men of the African Aka tribe the best fathers in the world?

Both the Atlantic piece and the Slate piece reference "a much-discussed 2010 Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper called "The WEIRDest people in the world?" in which the authors argued that far too many sweeping claims about "human nature" are drawn exclusively from samples of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies."

The Weirdest People In The World? (PDF, 68 pages)
Short abstract: Broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on narrow samples from Western societies are regularly published in leading journals. Are such species‐generalizing claims justified? This review suggests not only that substantial variability in experimental results emerges across populations in basic domains, but that standard subjects are in fact rather unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, categorization, spatial cognition, memory, moral reasoning and self‐concepts. This review (1) indicates caution in addressing questions of human nature based on this thin slice of humanity, and (2) suggests that understanding human psychology will require tapping broader subject pools. We close by proposing ways to address these challenges.
*Toronto Star - Why we're the weirdest people in the world
*NYT - A Weird Way of Thinking Has Prevailed Worldwide
*Big Think - The Weirdest People in the World?
*Public Library of Science - Reflections on the WEIRD Evolution of Human Psychology
posted by flex (83 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
There is a reason it was "the love that dare not speak its name," you know....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:33 AM on December 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


Do they have a word for heterosexuality? Or is this study just a nostalgic do-over of good ol' c19 anthropology?
posted by Catchfire at 8:38 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


There's no masturbation, really? So it just happens that no one is ever without a healthy sexually available mate at any time? This is statistically unlikely. What about when adolescents are developing, growing up, prior to finding a mate? Or after the untimely loss of a mate?

Frankly, it's absurd. I won't even get into the preposterous idea that nothing we consider "homosexual behavior" exists in those societies. This is just an idealized projected fantasy.
posted by misery loves company at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


This reminds me of a tumblr post I read the other day where someone was recounting their grandmother asking about the mechanics of lesbian sex and then grandma recounted how when she was young ladies would go to the pharmacy and buy douchbags and use them to get off.

Some things are unspoken and can operate at a level well below the levels of conversation for a long long time.
posted by srboisvert at 8:47 AM on December 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


It does reveal, perhaps, that though we think of some norms are - or should be - universal, they are themselves culturally bounded. We can't quite imagine other worlds.
posted by john wilkins at 8:50 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just because anthropologists haven't gotten their informants to admit that it happens after years of research doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. Last I heard we still have no idea how the Dani people in Papua New Guinea manage to actually procreate, given that men and women sleep in different, communal houses and don't share meals or daily activities with each other. The Dani have not been forthcoming on the subject and to my knowledge it's still an anthropological mystery. Yet obviously the answer isn't just "the Dani do not have sex" because otherwise they wouldn't be around to study.

Just because you don't see it and people aren't talking about it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.
posted by Scientist at 8:50 AM on December 9, 2012 [108 favorites]


Just because you don't see it and people aren't talking about it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen.

This a billion times.
posted by chronkite at 8:56 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The almost 'made to read and keep reading' astounding aspects of the articles sexuality aspects; eh, removes some credence to say the least. But if read; it is an article that gets thought about later. Hey, wanton sex, frequent, and all the time! Yeah.
posted by buzzman at 8:56 AM on December 9, 2012


I'm not sure why we'd assume that every culture (or individuals within a culture) engages in exactly the same sexual practices. There are plenty of people in WEIRD countries that don't masturbate or engage in non-reproductive sex, or who don't participate in any sexual activity whatsoever. That's within the realm of normal healthy behavior.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:58 AM on December 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


I've read a lot of stuff that suggests that homosexual behaviour emerges when there's population pressure, as a way of supporting keeping one's genes going by supporting one's sibling's children (kin selection), where children with several parental figures are going to be more successful, giving one's genes an advantage in a situation with high populations competing for scarce resources. If we accept that homosexuality is a genetic trait, I don't see why it would be unthinkable that it wouldn't emerge in situations where it has no evolutionary advantage, or that there wouldn't be some genetic groupings that simply don't have the trait.

I mean, they could be completely wrong, too, and I think it certainly merits further study before concluding anything. I just think it's possible.

As for masturbation, I didn't see if they spoke with widows or widowers? I may have just missed it. I wouldn't feel the need to masturbate if I had sex four times a night, either. It sounds like they limited their inquiries to married couples?
posted by joannemerriam at 9:02 AM on December 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Maybe it is not a cultural norm to talk about this stuff with the dude who has been hanging around for thirty years asking all these questions.
posted by oflinkey at 9:06 AM on December 9, 2012 [36 favorites]


The Ngandu "were familiar with the concept" of homosexual behavior, "but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village. Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called 'PD' (French for par derriere or from behind)."


This is suspect, to say the least. Pre-internet, an Indian acquaintance (with a PhD, mind you) told me that homosexuality did not exist IN INDIA and that it was a Western aberration.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:07 AM on December 9, 2012 [25 favorites]


I think Occam's Razor needs to be deployed. Which is more likely:

a) These people really have no same-sex attraction and/or masturbation?
b) They do, but they don't have common terms for them?
c) They do, but they dismiss them as "far away things?"*
d) They do, but they won't talk to anthropologists about them?

Now it's worth realizing that same-sex desire, acting on that desire, and the development of a "homosexual identity" are not necessarily connected in the same way by all cultures at all times, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist (although the third, I think, requires a population mass that small agrarian or hunting cultures are unlikely to reach). Still this smacks of a sort of biological determinism, which seems to always lead toward Evolutionary Psychology, which always seems to uphold "conservative values." So I'm skeptical.

* Heck, according to his letters, Lovecraft apparently made it to 30 or so without ever hearing about homosexuality, and he lived in a city on the US East Coast in the 1920s, was reasonably educated, and had gay friends, so imagining that small social groups would be generally ignorant of a relatively common practice is not all that surprising to me....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:07 AM on December 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


Do Bonobo chimps have a word for it? How about penguins, or dogs, or just about every species of social mammal or bird?

God damn it, even stag beetles gay it up like they are full of vodka on Fire Island.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:09 AM on December 9, 2012 [24 favorites]


I'm sure the Aka and Ngandu are noble peoples with proud histories and rich cultural traditions, but they aren't exactly known for globe-spanning empires, are they?

We're all going to have to face up to an uncomfortable fact: history is written by the wankers.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:11 AM on December 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


Men who had traveled to the capital, Bangui, said it existed in the city and was called 'PD' (French for par derriere or from behind)."

That is not correct. The letters "PD" in French are pronounced as the first two syllables of "pédéraste", hence the homophobic slang "pédé".
posted by MuffinMan at 9:14 AM on December 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


On a little more consideration of the main article, there's a part a bit further down that makes me think that the reporter is maybe being just a teency bit sensationalistic about this and maybe isn't doing great service to the work that the Hewlett's are actually doing. Witness:
It's also worth noting that Western science specifically distinguishes between three components of sexuality: desire, behavior, and identity. While the Hewletts' research suggests that homosexual behavior and identity are foreign to the Aka and Ngandu, it's entirely possible that homosexual desire does exist in these groups, at least for some of their members (so to speak). A culture that recognizes such desires -- and especially a culture that does not condemn them -- and especially one that involves large groups where homosexually-inclined people can find each other -- is the type where such desires will become openly apparent.

When I put this to the Hewletts, they replied that indeed, the desire may exist in some individuals in these groups, but we simply do not know. They added that although the Aka and Ngandu live in small groups, "They travel extensively and our studies suggest each person knows about 400-500 individuals," which means that, theoretically, a person with homosexual desires might find another person with the same. But in a culture in which the general idea of a desire doesn't exist, such a desire might remain unarticulated, even if two people who share it find each other.
So what you have here is a little more nuanced than the reporter makes it out to seem in the first half of the article. The Hewletts aren't really saying that homosexuality doesn't exist in these cultures (at least according to the Western definition of sexually desiring those of one's own gender) but rather that the cultures they are studying simply don't have a conceptual framework for it and so it is therefore not something that is discussed or identified by members of those cultures.

I find that a little easier to believe, to be honest. It's hard to get people to talk about things that they have no words for. And I can see how a culture that frames sex as a utilitarian activity (and it seems completely plausible to me for a culture to frame it as wholly utilitarian even if there are still large components of pleasure and desire in the actual individual experience) wouldn't have a place in that framework for masturbation or homosexuality. So homosexuality and perhaps masturbation might exist, but might simply not be identified by these people as being sexual in nature due to the ways in which they conceptualize sex.
posted by Scientist at 9:15 AM on December 9, 2012 [31 favorites]


...which I think is what the Hewletts (and the OP) were saying, but the reporter who wrote that article sure buried it well under a pile of "hey guys, there are no gays here! what's up with that?"
posted by Scientist at 9:17 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


There are plenty of people in WEIRD countries ... who don't participate in any sexual activity whatsoever. That's within the realm of normal healthy behavior.

It's not really healthy behavior, no. Human beings need regular physical intimacy to remain mentally healthy.
posted by crayz at 9:22 AM on December 9, 2012


I dunno crayz, I'm not sure that all human beings need that. I mean plenty of people identify as asexual, and I think there are a lot of nuns and monks who are celibate but who are probably more even-keeled overall than the average person you meet on the street. Not that that's a healthy lifestyle for everyone, but it works for some I'm sure.
posted by Scientist at 9:27 AM on December 9, 2012 [23 favorites]


I could understand the "no homosexuality" claim if you assume the culture simply doesn't have a way of expressing or acknowledging such a thing exists. You can read accounts of gay people in non-Western countries chafing against the strict Western gay-bi-straight labels we attach to people's sexualities. For example, in a number of Middle Eastern countries it used to be common for men to have sex with other men and even have deep intimate relationships, but it was not considered to be "homosexual", just what men did. Maybe people are getting aroused by members of the same sex, feeling deep emotional connections, and not phrasing it as "homosexuality" the way a Western culture might.

But the masturbation thing has me really skeptical. Plenty of little kids figure out "Touching this feels good" before they even know what sex is. It's got nothing to do with an awareness of sexuality or masturbation or any of that and everything to do with touching your body one day and figuring out where the sensitive areas are. That exploration isn't something dictated by culture.

Are they also saying people only engage in PIV sex? It's just hard to believe that with everybody having sex that often they haven't discovered alternative sexual practices, and masturbation plays a part of that.
posted by schroedinger at 9:31 AM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Maybe it is not a cultural norm to talk about this stuff with the dude who has been hanging around for thirty years asking all these questions.

No doubt they think he's a bit of a wanker.
posted by chavenet at 9:45 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


[Whether asexuality or celibacy are normal or healthy is not really the topic here.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:47 AM on December 9, 2012


Metafilter: Some things are unspoken and can operate at a level well below the levels of conversation for a long long time.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 9:47 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Science journalists misrepresenting research and smoothing over nuance in the pursuit of writing an article about wacky Africans who don't masturbate? I'm shocked!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I find that a little easier to believe, to be honest. It's hard to get people to talk about things that they have no words for.

This is just the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. In reality, people are amazingly good at putting words together to articulate new concepts. I think I'll add this finding to the file of interesting, unconfirmed (but remarkably well-publicized) findings in anthropology. And there are plenty of them, from Marget Mead's claims about sexuality in Samoa to the Tasaday hoax.

According to my cursory research, the Aka are reported to have a rich body of ritual. In particular, according to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, "…it is human misconduct which jeopardizes the help of the spirits." Suppose you believed that your personal conduct might jeopardize your entire community and lead to severe reprisals, either supernatural or from the other members of your group. You'd probably avoid talking about those extremely dangerous acts.
posted by Nomyte at 9:54 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


So they don't have a word for gay. But they do, and it's 'PD'. Is that par derrière, or pédé?
posted by TheTingTangTong at 10:04 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Perhaps this is stupid, given my comment that just totally disparaged the author of this article, for which I am sorry, but...)

Perhaps rather than concluding that these two anthropologists who are doing really cool work on biocultural adaptations, children and maternal health, paternity and fatherhood, etc. across Central Africa are totally making things up because they are cultural imperialists and poor scientists stuck in the 1800s (???), it'd be worth reading the article that Flex so kindly linked to. Among other things, it states:
Informed consent in the local language was obtained from each individual. Confidentiality was emphasized.The Aka and Ngandu were very open and willing to talk to us about sexual behavior, but this was in part due to our long-term relationships in these communities.
Both Aka and Ngandu have frequent sex, in large part, because they feel that pregnancy and fetal development are linked to frequent sex. Frequent sex makes pregnancy more likely and enhances fetal development.
The Aka were the most emphatic on these points. One young Aka male said “I am now doing it five times a night to search for a child. If I do not do it five times my wife will not be happy because she wants children quickly.” Aka females had similar feelings as expressed by one woman “I had sex with him to get infants, not for pleasure, and to show that I loved him”. Another Aka woman said, “It is fun to have sex, but it is to look for a child.”
All Aka and Ngandu indicated that homosexuality (gay or lesbian) was unknown or rare. The Aka, in particular, had a difficult time understanding the concept and mechanics of same sex relationships. No word existed and it was necessary to repeatedly describe the sexual act. Some mentioned that sometimes children of the same sex (two boys or two girls) imitate parental sex while playing in camp and we have observed these playful interactions. Ngandu were familiar with the concept, but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village.
The lack of male or female homosexuality and masturbation surprised us. Existing human sexuality textbooks give the impression these are human universals, but it was a struggle to explain these behaviors to all Aka and most Ngandu. Sexual play is common in childhood (e.g., Aka children mimic adult intercourse in the middle of camp, and Ngandu children make human wooden puppets that have intercourse) and sexual activity is a frequent and open topic of conversation. The general egalitarianism and openness about sexuality gave us the impression that homosexuality and masturbation would be common or at least known to most people.
It's certainly fair to question methods and conclusions in cultural anthropology. The history of cultural anthropology as a colonial practice is certainly a real one. But come on, guys. These are people working and publishing in 2012 and they've got a vested interest in doing good science. Anthropology has changed since Margaret Mead made up her data about sexual practices among Samoan girls. Before the castigation, look at some primary sources?
posted by ChuraChura at 10:12 AM on December 9, 2012 [47 favorites]


And there are plenty of them, from Marget Mead's claims about sexuality in Samoa to the Tasaday hoax.

Yes, I was mostly reminded of how Mead was pwned by her Samoan subjects. I'm not an anthropologist, but if I was one, I'd try to keep this in mind: humans lie, especially about sex.
posted by Skeptic at 10:18 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah Chura, I am now regretting the rather hasty comment I made at the beginning of this thread and cringing as I watch the favorites pile up on it. Your points just now are excellent ones and I wish that I had thought twice before just casually disparaging the Hewletts on the basis of what was essentially a misrepresentation of their premise and an extremely uncharitable one at that.
posted by Scientist at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


young ladies would go to the pharmacy and buy douchbags and use them to get off

Judging by some of the guys I've seen my friends pick up in bars, I think it's safe to say that a lot of women still use douchebags to get off.
posted by webmutant at 10:32 AM on December 9, 2012 [28 favorites]


Yes, I was mostly reminded of how Mead was pwned by her Samoan subjects.

It's not necessarily that simple, since Mead's findings became heavily politicized between the original round of fieldwork and the second round of "revisionist" fieldwork 25 years later. The lesson is, basically, "anthropology is hard." On one hand, confirmatory research really matters. On the other hand, confirmatory research is really invasive and dehumanizing and your research participants may not be very pleased or forthcoming with information.
posted by Nomyte at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If homosexual orientation has a genetic component to it -- and there is increasing evidence that it does, in many cases -- then it would not be surprising that this complex human trait (one that involves non-procreative efforts) would be found in some populations but not others.

Born this way. Not born this way. Why do people have so much trouble accepting that people are different?
posted by three blind mice at 10:34 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder if this is just a language barrier thing that's been blown all out of proportion.

I mean, when "sex" means "reproduction," and you ask "Do men have sex (i.e., reproduce) with other men, or on their own," obviously the answer is going to be no.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:36 AM on December 9, 2012 [16 favorites]


Well, humans in cultures that attach shame and stigma to sex in general or particular practices, or cultures that treat sex as a sacred, private activity might well lie about sex, but TFA suggests these societies aren't like that, so I'm not sure what incentive there would be to lie especially when the people are perfectly forthcoming in discussing every other element of sexuality among themselves and with the researchers.

Kissing, for instance, still isn't practiced universally by humans, certainly wasn't by many cultures during lots of human history, and in European cultures, wasn't an overtly sexual activity until, what, the Renaissance or something?
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:37 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


humans lie, especially about sex.

Maybe so, but plenty of documented cultures have traditionally had very little taboo or stigma attached to talking about sex or even having sex in front of others (depends on settlement patterns). The idea that sex is somehow "shameful" or something you "don't talk about" or "lie" about is also not universal.

As an anthropologist, I don't quite recognize the flippant statements here as accurate. If you spend enough years working in one community, you learn a lot about its more intimate and unspoken aspects. I could say plenty about the sexual cultures of the communities I've worked in without having ever engaged directly in research on the subject (they have generally been very Christian, so thus modest about the subject), just from observation. Margaret Mead's informants didn't exactly "lie" to her either. She just misinterpreted what they said and what she saw according to a very western stereotype of indigenous tropical societies. She was more a liar than they were, actually.

I too find it hard to believe any human culture overrides what must be a biologically based propensity for masturbation, found throughout the mammalian class and certainly among higher primates.

But I wouldn't be all hurf durf stupid anthropologists about it either.
posted by spitbull at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2012 [21 favorites]


The Dani people have already been mentioned, but across that area of the world, known as Melanesia, are all kinds of foraging tribes that have sexualities that really don't fit into "homosexual" or "heterosexual" as we understand them. That force us to realize how far human cultures can subvert ideas prevalent in evolutionary psychology that seem so self-evident to Westerners, such as that if men didn't want to have sex with women really badly, they wouldn't be evolutionarily successful.

What if like the Etoro, the men preferred sex with men, but they believed they HAD TO make women pregnant too out of obligation to the semen-life force (which they don't waste on non-reproductive sex with women since they believe that's a waste and shortens your life). But are the men even "gay" in a way that we would understand? They have sex with men primarily out of belief in the fact it strengthens their "life force" after all.

They are surprising and strange. And when you think about how few foraging people are left in this world, and how diverse they are, it makes you think about what the world must have been like when it was covered witdh foraging tribes. Perhaps people had sexualities we haven't quite imagined.
posted by melissam at 10:42 AM on December 9, 2012 [18 favorites]


I'm still skeptical, in part because I'm reminded of the notion that female homosexuality wasn't outlawed in Britain because it was believed that ladies simply didn't do that sort of thing. The emphasis on PIV sex, the more frequent the better, in the original paper mitigates against the idea that non-procreative sex isn't "frowned upon" in any way. (Strictly speaking, any man who has intercourse more than three times in one night is engaging in non-procreative sex, since the seminal vesicles would have emptied themselves out by the third ejaculation.)

Also, of course, there are certain things that some cultures won't talk about with outsiders, no matter how long they've been around.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:45 AM on December 9, 2012


I looked up the impact factor for the journal in which this paper is published, African Study Monographs. It is described by the publisher as a "multi-disciplinary journal which publishes academic articles in all fields of African studies." Its ranking among journals in area studies is -- nonexistent. It isn't ranked at all, among the 66 journals that are listed. I am not an anthropologist or a social sciences librarian, so can't comment on exactly what that means, but I surmise that if this were an important paper, it would have been published in an anthropology journal, or at least an area studies journal with more prestige. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading commentary and critiques from anthropologists, which I'm guessing will be reported in the next few days.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:54 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


One interesting thing from the article is that use of herbal erectile stimulants is apparently common among the Aka. I had been kind of wondering if maybe homosexuality was interpreted as a lack of interest in sex or impotence... if they're all using herbal Viagra it could be even harder to distinguish the two. (Plus if someone is really having five orgasms a night they may not be thinking that much about sex during the day.)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:08 AM on December 9, 2012


I think Occam's Razor needs to be deployed.

I am really quite surprised by the people here whose first assumption is that two fairly widely published anthropology professors at a reputable university, and a journalist who is also a historian of medicine, might just be completely unaware of the possibility that anthropological subjects aren't 100% honest with anthropologists, or that language barriers can complicate the work of anthropology. Doesn't mean the study's accurate or representative, of course. But if you can immediately think of a massively obvious methodological problem with it, it's fair enough to assume that the researchers did too, unless you have evidence to the contrary.
posted by oliverburkeman at 11:11 AM on December 9, 2012 [35 favorites]


Maybe so, but plenty of documented cultures have traditionally had very little taboo or stigma attached to talking about sex or even having sex in front of others (depends on settlement patterns). The idea that sex is somehow "shameful" or something you "don't talk about" or "lie" about is also not universal.

If these particular cultures do make such a strong link between sex and procreation as alleged, "shame" may not be the most important incentive to lie. The questions of paternity, childcare, inheritance, etc. have been a very important source of utter bullshit throughout the ages...
posted by Skeptic at 11:16 AM on December 9, 2012


Speaking as an anthropologist (though a physical anthropologist), there is lots of perfectly legitimate work published in journals that don't have a high impact factor.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:21 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


So far as I know, 'PD' is a slang abbreviation of 'pédéraste' and not 'par derriere'. It is also not socially acceptable.

Can't speak as to the rest of the article/s, but that stood out to me as incorrect.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:23 AM on December 9, 2012


If masturbation doesn't exist, does the researcher go on to ask about bestiality?
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:27 AM on December 9, 2012


Apparently no ones reads the article or the previous comments anymore. Or maybe they do but lack the words that would indicate they have.
posted by ericost at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


oof. just went back through the previous comments for a second time and found where someone else had said the same thing. I must have missed it on the first time through.

I felt that it was important to note it because it was clearly wrong - and something known by a vast number of people who speak French - and that I would have trouble believing other pieces of information in the article based on this single error.

Sketchy.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:39 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't the point that different cultures see things differently, and then time? As I read this thread, I am simultaneously looking at a documentary with various film-clips from the -50's. It includes footage of the current Danish queen bathing and playing topless as a 15-yo. At the time, this was obviously not at all strange or sexed.
With mandatory sex several times each night from a young age, I imagine it would go way down the agenda for everyone, this including sexual preferences.
posted by mumimor at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Hewletts remark that, "the Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex has ... led some researchers to suggest that human sexuality is similar to bonobo apes because they have frequent non-reproductive sex, engage in sex throughout the female cycle, and use sex to reduce social tensions." But, the Hewletts suggest, "The bonobo view may apply to Euro-Americans (plural), but from an Aka or Ngandu viewpoint, sex is linked to reproduction and building a family."

Isn't this "Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex" a very recent development, though? Christian societies are generally all about "sex to make babies" and discouraging masturbation. It was like that for the last 1,000 years or so and still is in many areas. I suppose the theory is that as "sex=babies only" breaks down, for whatever reason, it opens up room for "sex=other stuff, too" to emerge.
posted by bleep at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2012


The English language didn't have a word for it until 1868. That seems hardly indicative.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:48 AM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd also be curious how same sex affection and physical contact in general plays out among the Aka.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:48 AM on December 9, 2012


Isn't this "Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex" a very recent development, though?

Then why would prostitution be called the "oldest profession"?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:50 AM on December 9, 2012


The English language didn't have a word for it until 1868. That seems hardly indicative.

Strictly speaking, this is false. 'Homosexualität' as coined as an neutral alternative to words that already existed and the situation in German was not radically different from that in English.
posted by hoyland at 11:54 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two final comments, and then I'll leave because clearly this is hitting my Defensive Anthropologist Mode. :-)

1. Regarding French slang for homosexuality - there may be differences in translation between French as spoken in France, French as spoken in Central African Republic, and the rest of Francophone Africa, and French in translation between French, Aka or Ngandu, and English. Even if they are mistaken, I'm skeptical that that's really grounds for dismissing an entire body of work, especially when most of the focus of their research for this article is regarding heterosexual, procreative sexual practices among the Aka and Ngandu.

2. In some respects, I think part of the problem here may be that the perfect is the enemy of the good? I'm sure that the Hewletts did not intend their research to be the focus of a kind of incomplete or glossy article in the Atlantic. As they note in their article, sexual anthropology is neither of their specialties. But it's not something that the broader scientific and cultural community has paid a lot of attention to, and understanding the cultural contexts of homosexuality, the general cultural variation in sexual behavior, and human sexual behavior outside of our "WEIRD" societies is a valid, important, and interesting line of research. This is probably the first step in gathering this information. They have not hit every point. They have not adequately discussed every aspect of everything. But isn't it more interesting, and more instructive about humanity, to know a little more about the topic in a few more cultures? Would you rather have a bigger picture with some fuzziness around the edges that people are trying to figure out, or a dominant narrative that never gets questioned and is assumed to apply in all times and places? Personally, I think that we'll never understand the complexity of human behavior without trying to go and Find Things Out.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:05 PM on December 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


I guess I just wonder why they did this. Pondering/researching why people are gay is treating it like it's something that needs to be cured.

It's not. Being gay is, and should be, uninteresting/normal/about-as-fascinating-as-being-straight.

Nobody seems to write articles questioning why people are straight.
posted by taff at 1:20 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty firmly of the opinion that Othering cultural anthropology in which affluent academics travel to "undeveloped" (sic) communities to study the resident "tribes" will always yield sketchy, dubious and kinda creepy results, even if it is 2012. But aside from that, the Atlantic article is terrible.

First of all, it positions itself in the "is homosexuality genetic/natural or cultural/taught?" binary which does LGBT people no favours (see the comments to the article). Second, its only reasonable point -- that what we think of as "sexuality" in the West far exceeds the burdensome act of intercourse itself, and that our understanding of what exactly that constitutes is limited to our sociohistorical moment and thus can't be projected onto other cultures--is immediately undone by the fact that it describes this Other sexuality in our own terms. To underline the obvious point made above that the West didn't have a word for homosexuality until the 19th century (and a word for heterosexuality until a bit later), Sparta didn't have a word for homosexuality either, but they knew it when they saw it.

Moreover, it's completely contradictory to acknowledge that sexuality is part of a larger cultural practice and then to say that the Aka are almost exclusively concerned with sex-as-reproduction. What, you mean like Catholics? There is an actual popular song about penis size yet the researchers draw the hilariously straight-laced conclusion that this culture has a "strong focus on sex as a reproductive tool." Someone is getting trolled.
posted by Catchfire at 1:20 PM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


People focus on the homosexuality/masturbation angle, but the other claim in the article is that Aka men and women have (apparently) satisfying sex, on average, 3 times per day, 3 days per week, and the only help the men need are stimulants made of local plants (and enemas for the Ngandu men). And these folks don't seem otherwise sexually curious (it's strictly PIV, missionary style for the Aka) so there's limited room for bedroom extras. That's something that one could expect from a puritan, sex-is-evil culture, but not from people who claim to have sex 500 times per year and enjoy their engba-di. Now all of this is technically possible (I'm not criticizing the article), but I can't help thinking that there are some elephants hiding in that (bed)room.
posted by elgilito at 1:26 PM on December 9, 2012


"...and, in the case of the Aka, had a hard time even understanding about what the researchers were asking when they asked about homosexual behaviors. The Ngandu "were familiar with the concept" of homosexual behavior, "but no word existed for it and they said they did not know of any such relationships in or around the village."

I think this is interesting. In some of my readings, I've come across ideas that seem to indicate if people have difficult expressing their reality in words, they seem to think that this reality does not exist or they are out of the ordinary. In other words, perhaps homosexuality does exist in their culture, but because there is no way for them to adequately describe it, they cannot discuss it which makes it difficult for it to exist as a reality beyond the minds of those who do experience homosexuality.

Words reinforce reality and also work to show people other realities. If there isn't a word for it, I can't see how it would be conveyed to other people who do not experience it unless it is actively performed in publicly. Maybe this isn't the case and that's why homosexuality seems to be non-existent in their culture.
posted by cyml at 2:23 PM on December 9, 2012


Given the 'Western world' (and monstrous people in general) have a habit of finding something they don't like in a culture and beating the living shit out it this dissonance we're all getting might be some sort of cultural survival trait.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:43 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty firmly of the opinion that Othering cultural anthropology in which affluent academics travel to "undeveloped" (sic) communities to study the resident "tribes" will always yield sketchy, dubious and kinda creepy results, even if it is 2012

Which contemporary anthropologists do you consider the "othering" kind? And what results are "creepy," and what does that mean? Do you know how many people now do ethnographic research in their native communities? Or are you just all set to pronounce a totalizing judgment on an entire discipline that has in general been on the side of indigenous and "underdeveloped" (not an anthropological term of art) societies for the past couple of decades? I'm a cultural (ok, linguistic) anthropologist. I work collaboratively with indigenous educators to help preserve dying languages, among other things. Is that creepy?

Nothing is more "other" than a language you don't speak.
posted by spitbull at 2:46 PM on December 9, 2012 [12 favorites]


And by the way, as opposed to what? Do you believe cultural differences don't exist, don't matter, or aren't significant sources of misunderstanding, conflict, or uneven development? Do you think what works for one culture (let's say capitalist western culture) is uniformly what should work for the world? Is it a priori "othering" to be curious about how someone who speaks a different language or gets food a different way or has a different kinship system understands the world? Better we all stay in our own little cultural bubbles and not try to communicate or translate across cultural and linguistic borders? Are you only allowed to do that if you stay at your same class level?
posted by spitbull at 2:49 PM on December 9, 2012 [15 favorites]


Some of the comments to this tread seem to imply IMHO the idea of truisms. Repeat an idea often enough and with perseverance, and it will become self evident. And yes, I think these people may cast light upon our WEIRD ways!
posted by Nightly at 3:02 PM on December 9, 2012


I actually have no problem believing this, at all. As for masturbation--these folks are apparently having sex three to five times a day, several days a week. That's a fair amount. As for homosexuality--given limiting factors on the gene pool, which may or may not exist in these folks, then I would think it extremely possible. "Sexuality" is, of course, a spectrum and there are social factors, and all of that blather that everyone always goes on about. But I have no doubt that there is a strong, and often dispositive, genetic component determining hetero- and/or homosexuality. It wouldn't surprise me at all if there were many isolated gene pools in which the genetic predisposition to homosexuality simply doesn't exist.
posted by 3200 at 3:43 PM on December 9, 2012


There are any number of non-procreative sexual acts that couples can enjoy. I'd want to investigate the findings further to know if oral, heterosexual anal, manual manipulation, or pulling out were practiced.

I'd also be interested in knowing what, if any, age difference there was between sexual maturity and when they are paired up and begin having sex at the rates cited.
posted by Mad_Carew at 3:49 PM on December 9, 2012


Someone on another thread on Reddit posted that anti-gay religious groups might latch on to this study, but I think it underscores the fact that people have difficulty imagining how different cultures can be. In essence, almost everyone posting on this thread is probably a descendent of various agrarian people that swept up through the fertile crescent and settled much of the Western world. Or from one of the other three groups of people who invented other forms of agriculture and dominated other parts of the world, often driving off, diluting, or killing foragers.

The pygmy people are some of the last remnants of the foraging people, even if they are not true foragers themselves, all tribes engaging in trade with farmers for some of their food. That's probably why they still exist, because the local agrarians are served by them. But genetically they are part of a group that is one of the most genetically distinct among all living humans, having diverged from the peoples who became farmers 60,000 years ago.

We can try to analogize our own behavior to understand, like imagine you and your sexual partner worked from home together AND had sex several times a night. You'd probably not have much opportunity for masturbation. But even that doesn't do it justice. You'd have to also imagine yourself as a pagan animist coming from a very small non-capitalist communal society where men and women pretty much are androgynous in many ways. Where you have a monogamous relationship, but the odds of your partner dying young are pretty high (I once read an essay by a field anthropologist who raised his kids with a foraging tribe and that was one of the hardest thing his kids experienced, was going back in their 20s and finding half their friends were dead), so you might end up with several sexual partners in your life anyway. And that's just the beginning.

I've seen similar problems with trying to apply unusual forager sexualities to Western "gayness," it just doesn't work very well because most of us don't believe in a magic semen life force, that a child can have many fathers , that a eel or certain yam is required to bear children, or that mutual masturbation can be just a form of "play" not sex, or that there is a third sex, among the various cultural beliefs affecting sexualities in that region.

So while I think it's best that we study the issue more, which is hard because there aren't really that many pygmies left and a lot of foraging societies are being Westernized, I'm not going to dismiss something like this simply because I can't imagine a life like that.

I also think it's interesting to see this article written up because I don't often see articles about forager sexuality in the popular press. I think this one captures our imagination because it's about things we think about- like masturbation and homosexuality, whereas when most of us might encounter the idea that there is a third sex or that young men in some tribes feel they need be seeded with semen...well, no pun intended, but that's a bit harder for us to swallow.
posted by melissam at 4:39 PM on December 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


Well said. A few folks in this thread would do well to read some ethnography before generalizing so glibly about the diversity of expressions of human sexuality from deeply naturalized western categories and discourses. Even the abstraction of "sexuality" itself is as much a western cultural category as a biologically isolable phenomenon. From an evolutionary perspective sexuality is an aspect of every damn thing we do. It does not reduce to a separate domain from religion, kinship, art, or subsistence.
posted by spitbull at 5:56 PM on December 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, try not to confuse culture and biology. Biology wants us to procreate selectively. Culture can certainly shape the expression of biological drives and instincts, and even suppress them. More and more it is clear that humans are not "naturally" monogamous, but millions of members of our western tribe seem to manage at least a semblance of monogamy anyway. Indeed, cultures's specific, adaptive channeling of the reproductive drive is why we are not all foragers or subsistence hunters and live in such inhospitable places and create such diverse forms of music and all the rest.
posted by spitbull at 6:02 PM on December 9, 2012


spitbull: And by the way, as opposed to what? Do you believe cultural differences don't exist, don't matter, or aren't significant sources of misunderstanding, conflict, or uneven development? Do you think what works for one culture (let's say capitalist western culture) is uniformly what should work for the world? Is it a priori "othering" to be curious about how someone who speaks a different language or gets food a different way or has a different kinship system understands the world? Better we all stay in our own little cultural bubbles and not try to communicate or translate across cultural and linguistic borders? Are you only allowed to do that if you stay at your same class level?

This mini-rant has little to do with my comment, since I agree with most of it. But I fail to see how its logic leads someone to the conclusion that affluent Western academics should be able to visit any old isolated community with the best intentions and not suffer criticism. Before we continue, let me proclaim that "some of my best friends are anthropologists." Cultural ones, too.

It's hard to respond to your buckshot premises, but I'll try. First, yes: it's not unproblematic for linguistic anthropologists to visit small indigenous communities to "save" their endangered language. I live in British Columbia, Canada, where are there are no less than 8 distinct linguistic groups, and I know many white researchers who have made such a seemingly noble cause their professional mission. I don't doubt their intentions, but they're not saving the language for its original speakers, if you catch my drift.

Second, and to let you know where I'm coming from, I do lots of work with residents of Vancouver, Canada's notorious Downtown Eastside. If you're not Canadian, you might have heard of it because of InSite, North America's first safe injection site. It's a neighbourhood of low-income people with high percentages of disability, addiction, mental health, First Nations and sex work--Robert Pickton committed his crimes there. I bring this up because this neighbourhood is right smack dab in one of North America's richest cities: and no, I don't think that the numerous health care researchers, anthropologists, voluntourists and other "community development liaisons from the two high profile universities here do good work which benefits the residents as much as the residents benefit their research and careers.

I think that we should "communicate or translate across cultural and linguistic borders"; but I think too often this intercourse happens to the privilege of one side (how do the Aka benefit from Westerners treating their sexual practices as fodder for a Gawker article?). I think without transparency and full disclosure negotiability, these relationships will always be "creepy" and exploitative. I know lots of people who do their research with those principles in mind, and their work is powerful, world-changing stuff.

The research in the OP? From what I've seen, not so much.
posted by Catchfire at 6:40 PM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to write anything that can touch melissam's post, but I figured I'd chime in. As a westerner, it seems bizarre that a culture could exist without anything resembling homosexuality or masturbation. But does that make it impossible?

Anti-gay activists might latch onto this study. There's a weird conviction in certain right-wing circles that homosexuality is 100% cultural and those godless libruls are makin' the kids ghey! Which is, of course, ridiculous, and completely anti-science. But I've noticed many liberals have a similar conviction, which states that sexuality is 100% genetically determined, and never influenced by upbringing or culture, and anyone who believes or implies otherwise is a bigoted homophobe. Which is similarly anti-science: there are mountains of evidence, from twin studies to cultural anthropology, that suggest developmental factors play an important role in sexuality.

It's hard to imagine a society where homosexuality doesn't exist, but it's equally hard to imagine a society where boys are considered socially acceptable sex partners for grown men (Ancient Rome, Afghanistan), or where there's a third gender (India.) Culture plays a huge role in the ways we understand and practice sexuality, and may play a huge role in the expression of that sexuality.
posted by Green Winnebago at 6:44 PM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isn't this "Western cultural emphasis on recreational sex" a very recent development, though? Christian societies are generally all about "sex to make babies" and discouraging masturbation. It was like that for the last 1,000 years or so and still is in many areas. I suppose the theory is that as "sex=babies only" breaks down, for whatever reason, it opens up room for "sex=other stuff, too" to emerge.

If I recall correctly, there's considerable evidence that the serious attempts by the Church to clamp down on recreational sex is actually a fairly late development (late medieval/early modern). Before that, Christianity took a somewhat more loose view of sexual mores, partly out of necessity - the institutional forms of secular violence were less encompassing in an age without police forces, effective local bailiffs or regular standing armies - and also because the major focus of sermons, teaching and social regulation was focused on mitigating physical violence, theft, and other social crimes. Even clerical celibacy was rarely and badly enforced.

The strong emphasis on sexuality emerged from a) the slow decline of violence during the period of state formation (perhaps better to say the condensation of violence into brutal but usually rather short and geographically concentrated wars, rather than the low-level but fairly ubiquitous background violence of earlier periods) during the early centuries of state formation, b) the late medieval and Reformation re-emphasis on personal purity and competition between Catholic and Protestant rulers and clergy in demonstrating their competing faiths' success in enforcing such on their subject populations and c) the arrival of syphilis, which had a similar cultural effect at the time as AIDS would have later, by making sexual intercourse more risky and re-activating cultural norms with a strong overtone of guilt (God's punishment on the sexually promiscuous, etc.).

I feel like the Atlantic article was very, very badly researched and overly sensationalized, but like some others in the thread I think the best thing to do about the original research is to sit back and watch how the anthropology community reacts to and critiques it. Because the critiques in this thread tend to be mostly overgeneralizations or guesswork on how these two must have "got it wrong".

It's hard to imagine a society where homosexuality doesn't exist

There have been several societies where, as far as anyone could tell from talking to folks on the street, female homosexuality didn't exist (in some ways, female sexuality as a whole "didn't exist" in the same way in many Western societies until fairly late in the game). The biological reality was there, but it wasn't impinging on the consciousness of those who were talking about and formulating models of their own society. I don't think its possible to overestimate the willingness and ability of an individual to surpress feelings or urges which a) he/she has no cultural/linguistic map to describe and b) appears nowhere evident in the people he/she is surrounded by. Particularly in small groups.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:08 PM on December 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


The research in the OP? From what I've seen, not so much.

For what it's worth, the anthropologists' article does say "Authorization to conduct the research was obtained at the national and local (e.g., village or camp) levels. Informed consent in the local language was obtained from each individual. Confidentiality was emphasized." Though I agree that this is a serious concern.
posted by ostro at 7:19 PM on December 9, 2012


Consent is a tricky thing. We've developed the idea in the West that so-called "informed consent" means that if I furnish you with enough information, you can deliver a quantified "yes" which need not be revisited; instead, I consider consent an ever evolving process which is merely signposted by yesses. But "informed consent" in its contractual form doesn't necessarily reflect an equality of motive and power. For example, medical researchers frequently visit poor neighbourhoods because of high incidents of things like oral cancer, which gives them a great sample population to work with. These populations have no access to proper medical care, so of course they "consent" to being given free dental care. But researchers make their careers (and benevolent reputations) off of their studies, but their patients receive no compensation besides the medical procedures. And, of course, once the study is over, the researchers leave--without setting up any follow-up care or permanent infrastructure.

So yes, I'm skeptical that proper "consent" can be achieved in this case given the power dynamics.
posted by Catchfire at 7:55 PM on December 9, 2012


I don't really have a beef with the concept that they don't have any non-hetero sex. I do feel like there is no way to ask that question without it being pre-loaded with some sort of negative connotation.

I mean, we all breathe. So where the hell are all the cultural anthropologists studying the breathing habits of indigenous tribes and then comparing them to our Western Culture. The fact that very very very few people study this would seem to imply that very very very few people think it's different. One could induce (logical fallacy, yeah, I know) that by acknowledging the binary different/not different we're already putting ourselves into a state of xenophobia.

Besides, I lost interest when the article seemed to suggest that masturbation only happens in certain cultures. I know for a fact that my own version of it happened well before any sort of culture was even aware it existed, and it still would have happened with or without the express written consent of any culture. Heck, it wasn't until this very statement that any sort of culture had an opinion on the matter whatsoever. So the concept that masturbation is a cultural thing just fell on deaf ears.
posted by Blue_Villain at 9:14 PM on December 9, 2012


I looked up the impact factor for the journal in which this paper is published

If you looked at impact factors, you would think that Politics & Society and New Left Review were important journals in political science. You would be wrong.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:16 AM on December 10, 2012


The indigenous consultants I work with are compensated for the interviews to which they consent. That's fairly standard now. My work is approved by tribal agencies as beneficial to the community too.

People who don't know anything about contemporary anthropology sure have a lot of outdated opinions about it. This is not 1925.
posted by spitbull at 9:23 AM on December 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


You should stop taking this personally. Congratulations on your ethical work, but I didn't say anything about it. And stop insulting what you think I know about cultural anthropology. If you are suggesting that all work in your field is ethical, perhaps you should start lobbing your accusations of ignorance at yourself.
posted by Catchfire at 10:04 AM on December 10, 2012


Hard not to take it personally when someone paints my profession with a broad brush as neoliberal cultural tourism. I never suggested all work in my field was ethical. But you suggested, in essence, that the whole enterprise was unethical and "Othering," so congratulations for taking it personally yourself. If you know so much about cultural anthropology, name the "creepy" work you claim is still being produced under a rubric of exotic otherness -- not pop science, mind you, but serious ethnographic cultural anthropology. We've been through a 40 year wildnerness of exploring and responding to the critique you summarily drop on the entire field. You assert that I don't know how much you know. Fire away and let's have at it.
posted by spitbull at 11:28 AM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess you should go back and read my posts for comprehension. I'd be happy to discuss with you, but only if you intend to interact with me rather than the shadowy fantasy who has said the things you've attributed to me.
posted by Catchfire at 11:34 AM on December 10, 2012


Fine words from someone who wrote:

"I'm pretty firmly of the opinion that Othering cultural anthropology in which affluent academics travel to "undeveloped" (sic) communities to study the resident "tribes" will always yield sketchy, dubious and kinda creepy results, even if it is 2012."

You're the one turning it into a personal conflict, Catchfire. What part of that am I not comprehending? Please do explain. To me, that reads like a snide dismissal of cultural anthropology in general, since most of us are "affluent" by comparison to the very often "underdeveloped" places we work with "tribes." The language is incendiary, and anachronistic. That's not at all a fair characterization of the discipline in its present state. You have given no examples of what you find "creepy," and I've not only been responding to you (by the way) but to other caricatures of the field as it is now practiced (like the implication that informed consent never entails compensation, when that is standard practice for many situations). You're talking about my colleagues and friends, and most of us are in this field out of political solidarity with the world's tribal peoples and "underdeveloped" (again, a term that would be anathema to most anthropologists, it comes from policy and economics) communities. There is a giant literature stretching back to the late 1960s, at least, that levels the charge of bourgeoise colonial exoticism, tourism, primitivism, and "othering" discourse at 20th century anthropology. It is an accurate critique of even the best work in the field up until the 1990s or so, when that critique had major influence on ethics, practices, and the kinds of work we do.

The comment is also just ignorant of the fact that a significant number (I'm going to guess at least 25%) of contemporary anthropological ethnography is conducted by "native" anthropologists of various sorts, that anthropologists also study wealthy societies, and that "Othering" and "otherness" are not the same thing.

You're all butthurt about my comments, but obviously if you meant to specify some particular anthropologist or theoretical approach to the field instead of having a defensive fit and babbling about how much you know (but won't tell us), you'd have done so. Talk to me about "creepy" research. What's wrong with cross-cultural research on culture itself? Who are these afflluent academics touristically collecting exotica to come back and spin tales of tribal people for their fellow bourgesoisie? What, in other words, the fuck are you talking about?

If you are going to toss blanket condemnations of an entire discipline out there on no factual basis other than your ideological opinion, expect pushback. You don't get to decide when the conversation is done unless you stop responding.
posted by spitbull at 2:18 PM on December 10, 2012


I guess you should go back and read my posts for comprehension.

And this is pure condescending passive-aggressive snark. No, I've read your posts for comprehension. As a leading figure in the field you're dismissing, and as someone who reads snarky, opinionated, but ill-informed undergraduate-level prose all the time, I can "comprehend" your prose style just fine. So no, if you're interested in making yourself clear, it would behoove you to explain what sort of research you find "creepy," and who did it.

Putting on airs doesn't answer my now thrice-repeated question: what research do you mean? There are certainly research ethics travesties in the recent past; I could name half a dozen off the top of my head if I wanted to. It happens in every field. It happens in medicine. But presumably you don't think medicine is generally "creepy" because the occasional researcher fudges her results or the occasional clinician gives the wrong dosage, right?

I train professional anthropologists all day every day (almost all of whom are themselves developing prominent reputations as ethnographers), I've done it for 20 years, and I went through a professional training myself during the era of the post-colonial critique of anthropology, and I've worked with a wide range of impoverished communities, including current work in several Native American communties where the history to which you refer is still an open sore that must be confronted in every moment. I don't worry too much about being your intellectual inferior on this subject, and you're not going to silence me with clever snark. Read my comments for comprehension and see if you can maybe answer any of my sincere questions about what you're talking about. I'll check back tomorrow.
posted by spitbull at 2:27 PM on December 10, 2012


I certainly had no idea how many armchair anthropologists are on this site, happy to deride the fieldwork of professionals based off one article in The Atlantic.

Mind-boggling. You would think anthropology was invented yesterday. People have been having these conversations - indeed, these conversations have been integral to anthropology/ethnography for literally decades. Yikes.
posted by smoke at 3:23 PM on December 10, 2012


[This is the point at which we have to tell people to quit making it personal. Quit it.]
posted by jessamyn at 4:50 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


[T]he Hewletts conclude, "Homosexuality and masturbation are rare or nonexistent [in these two cultures], not because they are frowned upon or punished, but because they are not part of the cultural models of sexuality in either ethnic group.
So... they're Iranians?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:52 PM on December 10, 2012


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