[scrapbook] the fundamental and the freakish

From Adam Kuper’s Huxley lecture:

Kuper, A. 2008. “Changing the Subject About Cousin Marriage, Among Other Things.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14, 717-735.

Malinowski never delivered a Huxley lecture, but I will give him the last word in mine. In a note for a never completed textbook he remarked that when he came into anthropology the emphasis had been on the differences between peoples. ‘I recognised their study as important, but underlying sameness I thought of greater importance & rather neglected. I still believe that the fundamental is more important than the freakish’ (cited in Young 2004: 76).

“The fundamental is more important than the freakish”.  A good essay topic?


[scrapbook] On the value of comparative anthropology

From: Burton, M, C Moore, J Whiting, A Romney. 1996. “Regions Based on Social Structure.” Current Anthropology 37 (1) (February 1): 87–123.

I often go back to this paper. The analyses themselves are interesting (bottom-up culture regions based on the data rather than geography) but problematic (correspondence analysis on non-phylogenetically-controlled data). But the remarks in the Reply are excellent arguments for comparative analysis.

Scholarly work is by necessity done slowly and carefully. We cannot have an instantaneous image of all of the world’s contemporary societies ready for comparative analysis. There will always be a long lag time from the collection of data to the time when systematic analysis is possible. If our profession allows the findings of long-term projects to be ruled out of court as “old-fashioned,” it will discourage the collection of systematic data in large long-term projects. In our view the trendiness of anthropology is one of the major problems of our field.

And then to end:

The distrust that many anthropologists show toward comparative research is based on misinformation, logical errors, or perceptions of methodological problems that either have been corrected or are in the process of being corrected. While there are always changes in scientific standards over time, the value of cumulative empirical research, which necessarily has a long gestation period, outweighs any possible costs to the use of data that may not have been collected according to a currently fashionable theoretical program. There is no need for false dichotomies between text and numbers, between old data and new data, between description and comparison, or between microscopic and macroscopic approaches.

Upcoming talk: Coevolution in counting and culture

I’m giving a talk tomorrow (Tues 21 Feb) at the University of Bath, for the AI folk in the computer sciences department. My thanks to Joanna Bryson for being adventurous and inviting an anthropologist to speak to CompSci folk!

Counting coconuts for the chief: coevolution in language and culture

Across the world, languages vary in their ways of enumeration. Some languages, but not others, have dedicated linguistic mechanisms for counting certain objects and/or large numbers. Numeral classifiers are words or affixes to nouns that are used for counting certain classes of objects, such as “animate things” or “coconuts”. Specific counting systems go a step further and count specific classes of objects by units greater than one, such as (e.g.) pairs or twenties. Examining Oceanic languages, Bender and Beller have advanced the idea that numeral classifiers and specific counting systems are object-specific, refer to culturally-salient semantic domains, and are often used to enumerate large quantities. Here we test their hypothesis that these linguistic features may have co-evolved with aspects of socioecology, specifically, norms of redistribution such as chiefly tribute that are found in socially stratified societies. We use comparative data across a sample of Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, lexical phylogenies of these languages as a model of population history, and statistical methods from evolutionary biology to (a) reconstruct the most likely model of history of counting systems and social structure and (b) test for causal co-evolutionary processes. Using phylogenetic approaches not only allows us to control for Galton’s Problem but allows us to test these language-culture coevolutionary hypotheses in a framework that delivers estimates of the processes of cultural change. These results speak to broader issues regarding the flexibility of human numerical cognition, as well as shed light on the specific development of counting systems within the Austronesian cultural context.

Details here.

[scrapbook] Morgan’s Question.

From LH Morgan’s introduction to “Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family“:

The tables, however, are the main results of this investigation. In their importance and value they reach far beyond any present use of their contents which the writer may be able to indicate. If they can be perfected, and the systems of the unrepresented nations be supplied, their value would be greatly increased. The classification of nations is here founded upon a comparison of their several forms of consanguinity. With some exceptions, it harmonizes with that previously established upon the basis of linguistic affinities. One rests upon blood, the preponderance of which is represented by the system of relationship; the other is founded upon language, the affinities of which are represented by grammatical structure. One follows ideas indicated in a system of relationship and transmitted with the blood ; the other follows ideas indicated in forms of speech and transmitted in the same manner. It may be a question which class of ideas has been perpetuated through the longest periods of time.

It strikes me that I am working on both Morgan’s Question and Galton’s Problem.

Upcoming talk: the cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour

I’ll be giving the following talk in the Bristol Archaeology and Anthropology Research Seminar on February 8th 2012.

To the Manor Born? The cultural evolution of land tenure, residence and labour in Austronesian societies. 

Cross-cultural differences in norms of land tenure may reflect both individual and population-level adaptations to ecological and social factors. A complex interplay is likely to exist between kinship practices such postmarital residence and descent, the type and division of subsistence-related labour, and the form of land ownership. Here I present work from a number of comparative studies in which we have used phylogenetic and simulation methods to disentangle the (co)evolution of these factors in the Austronesian-speaking societies of the Pacific. This framework allows us to practice “virtual archaeology” to infer past states of social norms, and to test adaptive hypotheses derived from behavioural ecology and anthropology about both the coevolution of kinship and subsistence labour, and land tenure and kinship. More broadly, I hope to demonstrate how these approaches can bring together social anthropology, population prehistory, and evolutionary theory in a new cross-cultural anthropology.

Link and info here.

[scrapbook] suites of correlated characters

The characters used for inferring phylogenetic relationships must be independent of one another (Kluge, 1989). Suites of morphological characters that evolve in concert violate this dictate. Such correlated evolution is most likely to occur when a set of characters underlie a functionally adaptive phenotype or common developmental pathway (Emerson and Hastings, 1998). Such suites of correlated characters can mislead phylogenetic analyses because they track adaptive history instead of phylogeny (Holland et al., 2010; McCracken et al., 1999) or because they are developmentally linked to other characters (Schlosser and Wagner, 2004; West- Eberhard, 2003). In practice, it is difficult to determine the underlying nature of character correlations. This is because a suite of characters that are highly correlated with one another are expected to produce the same result as a suite of independent characters with good phylogenetic signal: strong support for a given clade (Shaffer et al., 1991).

A relevant paragraph that I wish I’d had a couple weeks ago when teaching about the data one can use for phylogeny estimation.

From Eytan et al 2011

Academic Travel 2: Getting There and Being There

This is part two in a series about what has worked for me during a year of busy academic travelling.

The First Great Western trains in the UK now have in-seat entertainment!

Part 2: Getting There and Being There.
In this post I’m going to cover plane (and train) travel, exploiting your accommodation, and your “kit”.

For the previous post: Part 1:  Preparing For The Trip.
[Updated 23/10/2011]

1. Don’t Write Your Talk on the Plane Mrs Jones

While it’s true that you can get a surprising amount of work done while sat in your seat at ten thousand metres up, the nature of that work should ideally never be the talk you’re about to give. Two reasons:

1. Your laptop can and will fail. This happened to me twice this summer: once at the very beginning of the trip, and once halfway through the conference but before I gave my talk. Both times my talk was done and safely saved to my Dropbox (more on that later), and it turned what could have been an absolute disaster into just a small annoyance.

2. Travel is stressful and unpredictable enough without leaving writing your talk until that 2/5/8/13 hour journey. And it doesn’t matter how long the journey, you really only have the battery life of your computer to get it done. You could be using that time to strategise your conference networking, reading papers to flesh out the fine points of your arguments, or watching a Drew Barrymore comedy on a tiny screen.

Continue reading →

Academic Travel 1: Preparing for the Trip

JR ticket from Osaka Umeda to Kansai Airport. The exit gate machines swallow your ticket so I took pictures of each one as I went in order to claim them on expenses.

This year I’ve been travelling a lot for work. It’s been deliberate — I decided that being mid-contract, 2011 was my best year to do all the conferences, talks, workshops, and courses (as both teacher and student) as I possibly could. Getting into the groove of semi-constant travelling, and getting into a routine that meant I wasn’t constantly forgetting my passport or being too jetlagged to remember my name, has been a learning experience. So I thought I’d blog about what has worked for me. I seem to have a lot to say on this topic so this’ll be a series, the first of which is Preparing For The Trip. There’s a lot of generic travel advice in this first bit, but I hope that’s useful too.

In this post I introduce you to:

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheets of Planning and Packing
2. The Delights of Two Pieces of Good Luggage, or, Why I Don’t Admire You and Your One-Bag
3. Packing So Hardcore Even My Naval Dad Was Impressed
UPDATED 23/10/2011

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheet

One of the delights of being an academic is the multitude of transferable skills one has to have (*insert wry grin*), including those of travel agent and event planner. This got a lot easier for me once I came up with the Amazing Conference Spreadsheet (ACS). This is a GoogleDoc spreadsheet with two parts.

The first is a PLANNER where every event, including potential and unconfirmed events, has a column in which I list the details of, and check off, various steps such as “enter business trip request form”, “book hotel”, “submit conference registration form”, “check out location on Streetview”, etc. I can look at this and at a glance see the things that are outstanding for a given trip. I also use it for keeping track of advances, and expenses on the go.

The second is a PACKING CHECKLIST tailored to business travel and includes things like “video cable connector for Mac”, “map of venue”, and “business cards”, but also includes each item I individually take, rather than a generic catchall like “Toiletries” or “Shoes”. If you, like me, are the kind of person who remembers the toothbrush but not the toothpaste, then this level of detail could work for you too. People often think I am organised. I’m not. I just have good coping strategies.

I’m more than happy to share a copy of these if anyone wants one, just let me know.
Continue reading →

The contextual vulva

Research blogging on: Howarth H, Sommer V & Jordan FM. (2010) Visual depictions of female genitalia differ depending on source. Medical Humanities 36: 75-79.

stairwell of daily express by fionajay


Possibly my favourite work email I’ve ever written was the one to the head of IT, notifying her that, in the interests of science, I needed to access websites like pornhub.com and youporn.com. Here’s why:

The internet is an amazing resource for scientists in all manner of domains, one of which is human variation. You might think that after a hundred years of cross-cultural investigations of human diversity, and a much longer period of anatomical observations, we would have a fair idea of the variability in genital morphology. But this kind of information, like so much else to do with our bodies–and especially their sexual characteristics–is just not readily available.

Stemming from that, we asked the question: do visual depictions of female genitalia differ, depending on the kind of source they are from? Are the images that we see in medical textbook illustrations different in proportions from those seen in internet pornography? What about feminist “celebrations” of female anatomy? These are important questions, because we construct our ideas about the range of normal variation through experience, and if women express concern that their bodies are not “normal” in some way, then health professionals need to be aware of how “normality” is constructed. Spoiler: we found differences, as I’ll explain below.

This study was part of a wider project aimed at understanding variation and preferences regarding female genital morphology undertaken by Helena Howarth for her masters thesis at UCL, co-supervised by Volker Sommer and and myself. Only a few studies had measured actual female genitalia to try and get real-world estimates of the range of female morphology. Helena had the insight that readily-available internet pornography wasn’t simply a tremendous source of measurable variation, but that it might be a  contributing factor to our perceptions of normality.

Helena gathered a hefty amount of image data for her project, trawling through libraries, and finding internet images that she could take measurements from morphological landmarks – for example, the length of the labia minora, or the distance from the clitoris to the perineum. For my part in doing inter-rater reliability measurements, I can attest that this is about as far from “oh wow, surfing the internet for porn at work” as one can get.

What did we find? Two major things. First, that labial protuberance–how much the inner labial lips protrude from between the larger labia majora–was significantly less in the online pornography sample compared to that in the  feminist publications, with medical illustrations falling somewhere in between. Second, there was a less varied range in organ proportions in the pornography sample; all the measurements were highly correlated with one another, but this wasn’t the case in the other two sources.

What does this mean? As we stated in the abstract, there are public health implications:

Women and health professionals should be aware that specific sources of imagery may depict different types of genital morphology and may not accurately reflect true variation in the population, and consultations for genital surgeries should include discussion about the actual and perceived range of variation in female genital morphology.

It’s interesting that the feature we found that was most different (labial protruberance) is also the one that is most commonly requested in elective/cosmetic genital surgery. There has been a great deal of media attention paid to the rise in these surgeries in recent years, and responses that somewhat dismissively attribute this to fashion, unattainable body ideals or partner-pressure are not helpful. We suggested that it was important to explore how women arrived at their ideas about normality:

Genital variation is understudied, and we strongly encourage scientific and educational/artistic initiatives that promote clinical and popular understanding of the range of variation in genital morphology. Here, we were concerned with depictions in sources that may shape the perceived range of variation, therefore imagery samples are justified, but measurements of genital morphology should ideally be taken directly from life.

Some of those initiatives include the four great papers below; the work by the New View Campaign challenging the medicalisation of sex; and other public or online initiatives such as All About My Vagina, I’ll Show You Mine, Design-A-Vagina, amongst others I’ve surely missed (let me know!).

Here’s a link to the pdf of our paper. The journal, Medical Humanities, also published another paper by Shelley Wall on normativity in images of genitalia, focusing on intersex conditions, and both were featured in an accompanying editorial piece.

[1] Basaran et al. Characteristics of external genitalia in pre- and postmenopausal women. Climacteric (2008) vol. 11 (5) 416-421
[2] Lloyd et al. Female genital appearance: “normality” unfolds. BJOG : an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology (2005) vol. 112 (5) 643-6
[3] Liao et al. Labial surgery for well women: a review of the literature. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology (2010) vol. 117 (1) 20-25
[4] Schick et al. Evulvalution: The Portrayal of Women’s External Genitalia and Physique Across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals. J Sex Res (2009) 1-9

The tasteful metaphorical picture above is actually the stairwell of the Daily Express building in London.


on culture and language [scrapbook]

If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.

Sapir (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.