Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yes, Renee, anthropology can be useful!

Renee is my new friend and colleague in Hawaii and I'm teasing her here because she was giving me a bad time about being an anthropologist when we first met. Anthropology does have a bad reputation in Native American circles . . . but it doesn't mean it has to stay that way if Native peoples use an anthropological perspective to their own advantage, which is the subject of this post: what an anthropological perspective can bring to a problem or issue that is new or unique.

Okay, so I'm gonna toot my own horn here, which is somewhat uncomfortable for me, but because I do think it's important, I'm going to tell everyone about part of my meeting at NSF.

This year, I served on the "AC/GPA" for NSF. (There are lots of acronyms at NSF and in Polar research generally.) The "AC/GPA" stands for the "Advisory Committee for the Government Performance Results Act" and our purpose is to assess NSF's performance to make sure that the investment that the U.S. makes in NSF is bearing fruit. I have to say that I read 60 highlights of NSF-funded research this year - and each of my colleague read about the same number. From my perspective reading these highlights, I was very impressed at the good things that are happening, many of which may have a long-term benefit to society. Of course, we are reading the "best of the best" but since most NSF-funded research is peer-reviewed, it is the "best" that gets funded to begin with.

Anyway, that was only part of what we did there at the committee; our chair also asked us for our collective opinions on what NSF can do to either make their processes better or to figure out better ways to fund cutting-edge, high-risk research, or how funding can be directed to make America #1 again in terms of how we educate our society in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines.

One gentleman, who was from the private sector, said several times (and I'm paraphrasing here to make a point) that NSF needed to direct funds toward projects that would make the U.S. more competitive in the global marketplace and then mentioned how other countries have learned to be more competitive and are progressing faster than the U.S. is.

Now, I have to say that I am anti-big business. I'm a tree hugger (and as someone with metastatic cancer, it pisses me off just what big companies can get away with in terms of environmental pollutants) at heart. I just wanted you to know my bias. I see big companies as greedy and only concerned about money, not necessarily people or the environment.

So, my first reaction to this gentleman's comment was, "sheesh, it's too bad that other countries are following our lead in terms of competition and technological progress, that they have learned our (American) game so well". I reacted this way because I have seen what's happened to indigenous peoples all over the world when confronted with the western/American mentality of competition, the bottom line, money, profits, etc. In general, the western economic model has not been too kind to indigenous peoples. For instance, there has been some research in the north that when indigenous/First Nations people engage in a wage economy, then they tend to keep those funds for themselves; however, when they have subsistence resources (food, generally), those resources are still shared with those that cannot get them. In other words, when it comes to western model, they've adopted a western mindset that that money is for individual, not community, use, which has negative effects on the community as a whole.

A couple of other individuals mentioned projects or ideas that they've been involved with in which collaboration with other people have lead to exciting innovations and another who mentioned that NSF should conduct the "science of NSF" as part of NSF's program SciSIP "the science of science and innovation policy".

After hearing these different opinions, when it was my turn to give advice, I related my reaction to the private industry representative who said several times that we needed to increase our competitiveness in the global marketplace. I said, "I think it's too bad because there is a lot of research in indigenous circles that shows that these ideas of competition and profit-making have had negative effects on those cultures". (Something like that - I'm still paraphrasing here.) I continued, "Competition does have positive effects; being competitive has certainly lead to some great innovations. But rarely in American society do we talk about the negatives of competition. Competition (and hence peer-review) are not the end-all and be-all of science. Making profits is not the end-all and be-all of life." (Another member caught my eye and gave me a silent clap of approval.) I then took several minutes and mentioned that while I am trained as a western scientist and see the world through a scientist's eyes, I also know that there are other ways of knowing how the world works, that there are indigenous peoples all over the world who are scientists in their own right, not necessarily following western science's method of systematic research and western science's preference for replicable results, but who can survive in the Arctic much better than I can. There is value in these other ways of knowing about the world. There is value in operating in a world where community is valued over the individual.

I then mentioned that I met a Hawaiian geographer (Renee, in the title of this blog entry) who gave me a chapter of her dissertation on Hawaiian epistemology and that I know that Maori scholars have been writing about their epistemology and said that these other ways of knowing have value, too.

I suggested, then, that perhaps as the lead scientific agency for the U.S., perhaps NSF should invest more effort in exploring the "science of indigenous/non-traditional sciences", that NSF should explore the ways that other cultures study and understand their worlds, that, in true western scientific fashion, that it seeks to understand, in a systematic way, how other people learn and know about their world. Later, on my way home or yesterday or something, I thought that, much like the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has a branch of alternative and complementary medicine, maybe NSF can develop a branch on "alternative sciences". And, I echoed another gentleman from industry that maybe NSF could develop a fund for collaboration, in which the individuals who get the money not necessarily outline at the beginning what they are going to do, but just get seed money to put their heads together and see what they come up with.

Afterwards, several people told me how much they appreciated what I had to say. And, then, the chair of our committee told me, "Wow, you gave me so much to think about. I don't know very much about anthropology, but I certainly learned something today." I told Scott on my way home that I think I surprised this man - that this man who has had so much experience in industry and at NSF was surprised to actually learn something new and learned a new way of looking at the world and attacking problems from another direction. I think I just converted this man to learning more about what anthropology can offer the world. Yay!

So, I've continued thinking about this issue since my return home. A couple of weeks ago, a couple who were VISTA volunteers in Nome and who worked with the King Islanders from 1969-70 gave me a DVD showing these competitive games that the King Islanders engaged in for their Christmas festivities. My dissertation was on the "Wolf Dance", which was actually a three-day celebration, which included competitive games. These competitions, from an outside perspective, were an opportunity to hone their skills, skills that they needed to survive in the Arctic, while subsisting off the land in the middle of a cold winter. I relate this to say that competition isn't necessarily bad and in fact, forms of competition can be found in any culture and are valuable. The difference is that in our western society, we tend to only acknowledge and reward those who win the competitions, especially in the marketplace and in the economy. Our society also tends to denigrate those who lose, by saying, "well you didn't try hard enough" and "if that person can do it, so can you". There is a strong preference for the individual and if the individual can't make it, then it's that individual's own fault. This then leads to a feeling of despair in that individual because they begin to view themselves as failures. And, if they failed once then they begin thinking that perhaps they will fail all the time and why should they even try. In King Island community, while there is certainly competition and politics, at the end of the day, those who have access to a lot of resources, or who have the skills to gain those resources, must share the results of their hard work with those who do not have the skills or resources. The only way they can continue to be in power is if they are generous and share what they have with those who do not? (Imagine what a better economic position we would be in if the CEO's that got so much money and golden parachutes had shared what they have with those who don't. Well, if you didn't know it before, you know by now that I'm a liberal!)

I know there's a lot of research out there about the welfare system and that there have been efforts to empower those individuals so they don't feel like failures, so that they can get off of welfare.

I have also been introduced more to the problem of substance abuse in this country, because several friends have kids or family members who struggle with the disease of addiction. I have learned a lot about different programs that are out there for these individuals - and realized just how many of them there are out there. In Native America, when discussing the high rate of alcohol abuse, they often say that it's because there's such a high level of poverty, of hopelessness because they have not been given the tools to succeed in our society. Then, if there are so many programs out there for substance abuse, then what does that say about our society? What is it about our society that contributes to the rate of substance abuse in this country? Is there a connection to the valuing of the individual ("pull yourself up by your own bootstrap") and their achievements and the denigration of people who can't win that then leads to the vicious cycle of substance abuse?

Well, these are just thoughts that I've been having over the past few weeks and this meeting at NSF caused them to coalesce in some ideas that I have. I'm under no illusion that this will make things better in our society. But if, just if, NSF decides to create a "science of indigenous sciences and epistemologies" branch, I would love to be part of that effort. I'd be really excited to see what would come of it. What would happen if instead of valuing an individual contribution, we could value a group's or a community's contribution? What if we did something where we didn't compete but collaborated more? What if? : )

Okay, enough philosophizing this morning. It is a summer morning after all. It's cloudy and cool out at present, but it's still summer and time to get out of my brain and engage with the world at large. Right? LOL

1 comment:

mapdr said...

How can I not comment on this one.

First Happy Father's Day to all you fathers out there following Dee's blog. Next, right on g/f. Thank goodness the voice of reason was heard there. While I still think a majority of anthropologists turn their noses at the idea of Indigenous science, I am glad to know at least 3, including Dee, that are willing to endure the snobs and false prophets(or shall I say profits) because they believe, truly believe, they can make a difference.

:) Now if you all can just make an Indigenous specialty group or sub group in the Anthropology Association's annual meeting, you can work together to have an even farther reach...oh wait, I kind of remember someone saying that didn't work out so well, something about getting the paternal pat on the back for "interesting" perspective, but that it wasn't really "science". Well, come on over to Geography. We have a growing membership of young students and Indigenous scholars flocking to hear all about working with and for Indigenous communities as opposed to studying them. :)

Okay, okay, just having some fun. I am glad the chapter is having a positive effect somewhere. Your experience reminds me of an episode on Numbers. I taped it and wrote the phrase down.

"We observe the universe through a limited prism of our senses. Acknowledging the possibility, the very likelihood that there are realities that lie beyond the realm of our senses is not a debate about belief systems, so much as an examination of alternative methodologies. Holding on to the belief 'that science must be provable, verifiable, and repeatable' excludes any and all contradictory assumptions…and that IS NOT science…that is politics."

It just does not abide by the laws Western science has designed for itself to continue to deny all other contradictory assumptions, be it epistemological, ontological, axiological, or methodological. To continue to do so is to acknowledge the greater degree to which Western science has become subsumed by profit mongering politicians. I don't believe it. I don't think any true scientist can continue to hold to the Kuhnian logic of the scientific model at the expense of everything else. All those others are not true scientists at all...they have sold out for glory, fame, fortune or some other egotistical distraction. Please tell me that is not the majority of people at NSF. Please, oh please, great spirit let the match Dee used to bring light to the darkened halls of "Science" spark a bonfire of activity in the minds and hearts of those ready to venture into the unexplored (or rarely explored) wings. I need not "see it to believe it." I know it is an eventuality awaiting opportunity. Dee, thank you for nudging it along.