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Ethnography in the Articles that Taught Past Cultures

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Anthropology is an interconnected area of study aims to answer some of the world’s most colossal questions. Each of the four subfields of Anthropology utilize each other’s findings to better grasp their respective material and identify interlocking patterns. Remarkably, these interlocking patterns teach us the world we live in today, and possibly the one that our descendants will in the future. At this time we can only theorize how that will be. Plants, animals, and even genetics could be totally unrecognizable from the what we see today. However, one detail from this course that intrigued me was that humans are biologically adapted for culture. Human culture and traditions are developed over time and vary from region. All of them being considered “good” is open for debate. This was evident after reading The Gender of the War on Drugs by Shaylih Muehlmann. In this annual review, Muehlmann explores lines of inquiry in anthropology that closely relate to the theme of drugs and gender. By drawing from intersectional studies of gender, race, religion, and culture, she is able to make distinctions of the patterns akin to her own study. Much like the interconnected work of traditional anthropologists and material throughout our course.

In our Primatology unit we learned of the exceptional intelligence and similarities to our non-human ancestors. Primates have the ability use tools, learn languages, and much more. Yet, the major dividing factor between us and our non-human relatives is culture. This was major point in the work of Susan Savage-Rumbaugh. Susan Savage-Rumbaugh is a primatologist that studied primarily chimpanzees and bonobos. In her examinations, Susan strived to uncover which traits are distinctly human by testing her primate’s ability to complete human tasks. It goes without saying that her discoveries were major breakthroughs within the field. However, she also concluded it is not biology that separates us, but culture. This claim is best described by Robert L. Kelly in, The Fifth Beginning: what six million years of human history can tell us about our future, when he states, “It’s our capacity for culture, to see the world differently, that sets us apart from other primates” (Kelly 36). Humans simply have an adaptation for culture that primates do not.

A human’s cultural identity is developed from birth and is shaped by their environment. Therefore, many who are born into communities overrun by drugs are bound to adopt similar notions of their gender. In The Gender of the War on Drugs, Shaylih Muehlmann recognizes this reality and applies it to masculine culture in inner cities. Muehlmann also includes an ethnography titled, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in the Barrio, that analyzes how inner-city Puerto Rican men in New York City create notions of masculine dignity around interpersonal violence and sexual domination. P. Bourgois, the author of, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in the Barrio, claims that this culture stems from, “Traditional Puerto Rican masculinity comprised through the undermining of patriarchal control” (Bourgois 317). In turn, the working-class masculinity of these men is affected by lack of education and opportunities. Many turn to selling drugs to make ends meet, and violence follows. While culture is considered subjective, it is clear that these concepts have clearly harmed the communities that have accepted them. Yet, culture is a certainly very powerful thing. Some could argue that they are simply a product of their environment.

An ethnography, by definition, is a systematic study of people and their cultures. It is designed to analyze the various cultures of the world from the point of view of the particular subject. This is the primary method for the work of social and cultural anthropologists. The method collects and presents empirical data while taking every aspect of one’s culture into account. As you could imagine, religion is substantial factor. There are numerous religions around the world with distinct cultures that follow their faith. In turn, proving to be an important aspect to the formation of any society. My classmates and I learned this when analyzing the rise of early civilizations. At some point during our evolution hominins became cultural beings and, as Robert L. Kelly puts it, “This is when we became capable of religious thought; when we could tell stories and use metaphors and analogies; when we could create science, art, music, and poetry; when we would become emotional over a speech or a song” (Kelly 36). In turn, we acquired this characteristic that makes us human and paved the way for complex societies.

An archetypal example of this being Tiwanaku (110-1000 CE). Tiwanaku helps us understand urban civilizations as we know it. Members of this community utilized advanced agriculture techniques, the domestication of animals, and even a calendar system for their specific crop seasons. However, arguably the most significant milestone was the rise of religious systems.

We did not see religious systems in the hunter-gatherer period. Tiwanaku marked the period that departed from hunter-gathering and emerged into a new, complex system. Yet, this would not have been possible without the rise of religion. Religion helps justify culture and social structures to keep societies alive. In Tiwanaku, dealing with upwards of 80,000 people needs cohesion and religion was instrumental in finding common ground between people of all classes. This role of religion is not exclusive to the types of “drug culture” that Shaylih Muehlmann elaborates on as well. Much of the activism surrounding the war on drugs is shaped by religious identification. In Latin America and especially in Mexico, many women are taking a stand against drugs due to their practice as Catholics. These individuals have personally felt the devastating effects of the drugs in their country and have consolidated in their faith.

This is also evident in my depth article From Prohibition to regulation: Lessons from Alcohol Policy for Drug Policy by Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman. After reading this article, it is obvious why Muehlmann felt it was necessary to include in her own. Levine and Reinarman dive into the times of prohibition and explain how drug prohibition began as a subset of alcohol prohibition. Nonetheless, activists during this time period still found a connection through religion. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union played a powerful role in fighting alcoholism based off their Christian values. By promoting awareness and advocating policy, the women of this organization saw major success in their movement. The binding force behind their success being their faith, just as the women of Latin America and people of Tiwanaku. Yet, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union also framed drinking as a gendered issue. Members of the organization singled out stereotypical hard-drinking men in their campaign. To Shaylih Muehlmann, this later evolved into the issue surrounding drug prohibition. Aiding to her argument that men and women experience the war on drugs quite differently.

Shaylih Muehlmann theorizes that the gender of the war on drugs is in relation to social norms and power. Just as technology, social structures, and religion have evolved with our ancestors, so have our gender roles. Each culture’s view on gender differs immensely. As we learned in the kinship portion of our course, there is no universal definition for family. Each culture has a different ideology regarding marriage, family, and each person’s role within the family. Melvin C. Goldstein embodies this in When Brothers Share A Wife. In the article, Goldstein outlines the traditional Tibetan practice of fraternal polyandry and what is considered an ideal family to these people.

While it may seem like an exotic or odd practice to us, Tibetans view it as an economic advantage. Moreover, we also have our own traditional concepts of gender and family. The stereotypical and sexist notion being that the man is the breadwinner of family while the wife stays home and takes care of the children. While these beliefs are wrong and we have come a long way as a society to shake these gender norms, Shaylih Muehlmann claims that they are very much alive within the drug trade. According to Muehlemann, “Female roles in the drug economy are sexualized in ways that make women vulnerable” (Muehlmann 321). While men typically take up the masculine role of drug dealing, users of the drug are usually feminized. In turn, because substance abuse violates the societal expectations of women, they are more harshly looked down upon. Sadly, this makes them constant targets of physical and sexual abuse.

Overall, both the articles that I read taught me that culture is both powerful and completely subjective. While culture is what makes us human, it is clear that everyone’s ideology of culture differs vastly. During our course my classmates and I learned about our evolution as human beings, biologically and culturally, in a positive light. We learned about the emergence complex societies, the cohesion of religion, innovation, agriculture and much more. However, these articles uncover the far-reaching hands of what people consider “culture” and put it in a totally new perspective. By analyzing the underbelly of some of our course materials, I was able to better understand the topic as a whole. Shaylih Muelhmann, Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman all utilize different anthropological techniques to better understand the human condition. Which, is the purpose of anthropology and the source of some of life’s outlying questions.

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