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New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section 2010/2011

The New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Meetings are held at The Wenner-Gren Foundation, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Floor, New York City 10016. All panels are preceded by a reception from 6-7 pm. Talks are from 7-9 pm. Both reception and panel discussion are free and open to the public but attendees must register beforehand by calling the NYAS meeting services at 212-298-8600.

NYAS crowd


October 25, 2010 
"American Dreams of Brazilian Racial Democracy:  Is Race to Brazil as Class is to the United States?"
Speakers: Sean T. Mitchell, Rutgers University, Newark
In this paper I examine popular and scholarly conceptions of race and inequality in Brazil and the United States.  I argue that popular conceptions of class in the United States and popular conceptions of race in Brazil depoliticize inequality in closely parallel ways.  This parallel has mostly gone unremarked in the large literature comparing race and inequality in the two countries because most scholars take either US or Brazilian conceptions for granted in their comparisons. 

 I develop this argument partially on the basis of ethnographic data on the land conflicts between quilombola (slave and maroon descended) villagers and the hub of Brazil’s space program in Alcântara, in Brazil’s northern state of Maranhão.  This conflict was conceptualized in class terms two decades ago; today it is increasingly conceptualized in ethnoracial terms.  My analysis of the racialization of this conflict allows me to examine the changing ways in which the links between race, class, and social inequality are imagined by Brazilian elites and non-elites.  I use the framework that I develop in this ethnographic analysis to compare a wide variety of literature and data on Brazil and the United States.

 By contributing to and critiquing the comparative literature on Brazil and the United States, this paper also aims to help to push forward a comparative anthropology of inequality and political identification.

 Sean T. Mitchell is assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark. His ethnographic work focuses on social inequality, ethnicity, violence, governance, citizenship, and technoscience in contemporary Brazil and the United States.

 December 6, 2010
"Emancipation Landscapes and Public Space in Early New York"
Speaker: Christopher N. Matthews, Hofstra University
Histories of slavery and freedom in the northern United States present a counterpoint to mainstream stories that highlight the plantation South. While northern slavery remains not as pronounced, northern emancipation was still greeted with public fanfare and celebration. In parades and speeches, the formerly enslaved seized the urban New York landscape to assert their freedom in a highly visible public space. However, emancipation created other landscapes as well. These reflected an inward focus that came with the spatial and symbolic removal of labor from the white familial household. I argue, in fact, that public spaces used in the demands and expressions of freedom by African Americans and other marginalized people covered for a more subversive white-desired segregation of public from private, mirrored in the segregation of back from white and work from home. Northern emancipation, therefore, was only a partial freedom as it simply involved a shift in the basis of social distinction from legal status to the presumed and practiced capacity for civility, illustrated best in the creation of the home as a civilized private space distinct from the public worlds of work, race, class conflict, and poverty.

Discussant: Jim Moore, Queens College, City Univeristy of New York

January 31, 2011
"From Mass Graves to Mass Disasters: Global Applications of Forensic Anthropology"
Speaker: Dawnie Wolfe Steadman, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Discussant: Zoe Crossland, Columbia University

This presentation explores the contextual, theoretical and practical challenges of forensic anthropology in three different contexts – local case work, national and international mass disasters, and international human rights investigations.  Forensic anthropologists typically serve as consultants to local medical examiners and coroners, forensic pathologists, law enforcement and attorneys to address questions related to personal identity and trauma of skeletonized or incomplete human remains.  An increasing number of forensic anthropologists also apply their expertise beyond local casework.  Forensic anthropological skills are highly valued in mass disaster situations, including transportation accidents as well as terrorist acts, such as those of September 11, 2001.  Forensic anthropologists also form an integral component of international teams who investigate human rights atrocities around the world.  This work was formally initiated in 1984 by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF).  Forensic anthropologists and archaeologists locate, recover and identify bodies from mass graves and provide an objective analysis of the circumstances of death.  One problem is that U.S.-based methods and standards of forensic practice do not always easily transfer to global contexts.  However, human rights work affords much room for theoretical considerations, including the meaning of identity in the context of genocide and the political and social meanings of missing and dead bodies.  Local case studies, the World Trade Center disaster and aviation accidents, and ongoing human rights work in Spain will illustrate the concepts and challenges discussed.  

Feb 28, 2011
"Selfhood, Affect, Ontology. Poultry Husbandry in a Mayan Community"
Speaker: Paul Kockelman,
Columbia University

This essay has three key themes: ontology (what kinds of beings there are in the world); affect (cognitive and corporal attunements to such entities); and selfhood (relatively reflexive centers of attunement). To explore these themes, it focuses on women’s care for chickens among speakers of Q’eqchi’-Maya living in the cloud-forests of highland Guatemala.

March 28, 2011 
Panel : "A Radical Humanist. Franz Boas at the Centennial of The Mind of Primitive Man"

Organizer: Neni Panourgia,
Columbia University

“Mind, Body, and the Native Point of View in Boas’s Mind of Primitive Man”
Speaker: R. Darnell, University of Western Ontario
The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) stands as the primary theoretical manifesto of Boas' anthropology. Reassessment is overdue for at least two reasons: first, the basic point that relational or abstract thought is a universal human capacity has come to be common sense in public as well as anthropological discourse and thus is dismissed as a theoretical position; second, post-war positivism in North America foregrounded descriptive ethnography of a non-mentalist variety and insisted that Boas was a-theoretical. "Mind" was as out of fashion as "primitive" was becoming. The empiricists dismissed Boas' cultural relativism, which came into its own during his anti-racist resistance to Nazi ideology, in favour of material and ecological perspectives that seemed to leave no room for epistemological relativism in the sense of standpoint (a term which he used on occasion). The current theoretical climate of anthropology again turns to questions of what Boas called "the native point of view" or the psychological aspects of culture and cultural experience. This paper will turn to Boas' work as a physical or biological anthropologist and assess the commensurability between his ideas about plasticity of human bodily form and his ideas about the mental or psychological forms of abstract thinking in relation to the diversity of human cultures. I will suggest that Boas moved between the cultural and the biological, sometimes holding one constant and sometimes the other. The theoretical position we might attribute to Boas in 2011 in terms of contemporary interests is implicit in his magnum opus a century earlier.

 “What Boas Beckoned: 1911, and ever since (relatively reread)”
Speaker: James Boon, Princeton University
On p. 220 of the 1938 expansion of The Mind of Primitive Man, Franz Boas applied a rather spirited verb to a process of understanding that clearly bridges “primitive” and “modern.” He wrote: “When primitive man became conscious of the cosmic problem, he ransacked the entire field of his knowledge, until he happened to find something that could be fitted to the problem in question, giving an explanation satisfactory to his mind.” This pivotal insight helps us reconsider the vis-à-vis of myth and science in Boas’s work, revamped over time, as lively successors sought to render receivable to readers his contestation of racisms. I also fiddle with the century-celebration that we have “happened to find” to fit our “problem in question”: how never to forget Boasians.

"Boasian Anthropology and Puerto Rican Migration: A Twenty-first Century Return"
Speaker: Adriana Garriga-Lopez, Kalamazoo College
Craniometries were central among the anthropological tasks Boas carried out in early 20th century Puerto Rico. Boas measured the cephalic indexes of schoolchildren in the coffee-growing hillside towns and those of adults in the coastal plains dominated by sugarcane cultivation. His observations led him to conclude that the head-forms of Puerto Ricans suggested the “instability of the form as expressed by the cephalic index” (Mind of Primitive Man, 95.) This presentation considers the aims and assumptions of Boas’ craniometrical research among Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans as research subjects offered Boas a genetic pool that was highly mixed and contained the variable manifestations, as he saw them, of the effects of migration in terms of the action of environmental factors on the body. He also understood Puerto Ricans as inevitable future migrants to the continental United States. In the absence of further craniometrical evidence among either island residents or mainland migrants to compare to Boas’ measurements, contemporary anthropologists are left to contend with the anti-racist argument that was at the heart of the Boasian project and with the social effects of Puerto Rican migratory patterns, one hundred years later. In the context of recent reports that place Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens by birth and the most numerous of Latinos on the eastern coast of the continental US, at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy, this presentation returns to Boas and his craniometrical research to ask what kinds of anthropological engagements and disengagements with Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans we might be able to identify, call for, or disown today.

“Boas, Freud, and the Meeting that Never Was”
Neni Panourgiá,
Columbia University

This panel is co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.


May 2, 2011 
"Culture, Structural Violence, and Struggles against AIDS in Brazil"
Richard Parker,
Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University
Based on an extended ethnographic case study (carried out on an on-going basis over nearly 30 years), this paper analyzes the social and political dimensions to HIV and AIDS in Brazil.  It focuses on the structural factors and social inequalities that have shaped the Brazilian epidemic over time.  It then traces the historical development of grassroots mobilization in response to the epidemic, and the role of a number of key social movements in shaping both policy and practice in response to HIV and AIDS in Brazil.  It examines the ways in which these developments took shape within a context of an opening in civil society and redemocratization after two decades of military dictatorship, and the ways they have evolved in relation to the changing context of Brazilian social and political history over the course of the past three decades.  While the extended case study is primarily focused on local and national Brazilian experience, it also explores the ways in which these developments have influenced changing approaches on the global level – examining the ethical and political principles that Brazilian actors have increasingly articulated in intergovernmental and transnational political arenas.


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