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Scholarship to Change the World

Books published by anthropology faculty illuminate social issues and foster change

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What good is scholarship if it doesn’t seek to change the world?

This question was at the heart of the Department of Anthropology’s recent book talk, which featured seven anthropology faculty members who discussed their latest books, their work as public anthropologists, and their belief that scholarship can change a world that desperately needs changing.

Each of the books examines and illuminates a different social issue. But they all share the goal of fostering understanding and bringing about positive social change. The topics range from coral reef conservation in Japan, to evictions in San Francisco, to market forces in the West Bank, to the human cost of US military interventions across the world.

“Our Department of Anthropology is right in the vanguard of the College’s commitment to social justice and activism,” said College of Arts and Sciences Interim Dean Max Paul Friedman in his opening remarks. “Thank you for being a living example of how AU helps produce changemakers for a changing world.” 

Scholarship to Change the World: New Books in Anthropology

This special event celebrates recently published and soon-to-be-published books by American University anthropologists.

Professor of Anthropology David Vine moderated the event and presented his latest book, The United States of War: A Global History of America's Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State, which was published last October by the University of California Press. It is the third in a trilogy of books about war and peace written by Vine, including Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2015) and Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009).

The United States of War almost didn’t make it to publication. The book began as material from a prior book that “hit the cutting room floor,” said Vine. But Vine realized that this material (with some additional research) could ultimately become a full history of US wars since Columbus’s arrival in 1494. He went on to complete it, and the book became a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

“I hope this book makes contributions to movements to end the endless wars that the United States is currently engaged in, and to the larger anti-war peace movement to dramatically cut the size of the US military budget, which now is around a trillion dollars a year, and to move money to the human needs that are so desperately in need of funding,” Vine said.

Highlights From Each Author

Asylum for Sale

Siobhan McGuirk graduated from AU with a PhD in Anthropology in 2017. She and Associate Professor Adrienne Pine are co-editors of Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry. McGuirk spoke about the inspiration for the book, which grew out of her PhD dissertation research under Pine’s mentorship. McGuirk was researching LGBQ people seeking asylum in the United States when she and Pine began discussing all the ways that capital was being generated around asylum seekers, from private detention centers, to companies building fences and walls, to lawyers and expert witnesses — and even people working at NGOs, who gain social and professional capital from their work with asylum seekers.

For their book, McGuirk and Pine invited a wide variety of people from all sides, from former asylum seekers and social workers, to lawyers and journalists, to share their diverse experiences and insights. They also chose to include many different ways of telling stories, including paintings, photos, graphic novellas, and even tweets.

Displacement and Resistance

Manissa Maharawal is a co-editor and collective member of the activist Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, which has produced Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance. The book will be published in July from PM Press. Since 2013, Maharawal has been working on the mapping project to document the housing and eviction crisis in the Bay Area. The project’s first map focused on evictions, but it has expanded to more than 200 maps illustrating subjects like police violence and real estate investment. Their mapping work has spread to other cities including Los Angeles and New York.

Maharawal’s vision for the book was a series of essays alongside the maps. Chapters focus on a wide range of related topics, from eviction, to indigenous geographies of resistance, to health and environmental justice, to migration relocation — bringing stories and analysis from activists, Maharawal says. She hopes the book offers “a really deep analysis of this place and the problem of displacement, but also the deep levels of resistance that have been happening over the past ten years.”

Public Anthropology to Re-engage Native Communities

Buck Woodard is the author of Building the Brafferton: The Founding, Funding and Legacy of America's Indian School, which was published in fall 2019 by the Muscarell Museum of Art at William & Mary. Woodward conducted more than a decade of research at William & Mary, mostly surrounding the second-oldest building on campus, the Brafferton, which was originally built as a school for Native American boys.

When the college started a renovation of the building, Woodward said, “that renovation provided us an opportunity for public archaeology to re-engage native communities who had who were descendant communities of the residence at this building, which began a project of several years of doing archaeology around the building and a restoration of the building. Ultimately some of this led to the employment of native community members on campus at this university.”

Broadening the Narrative

Kareem Rabie is the author of Palestine is Throwing a Party and the Whole World is Invited: Capital and State Building in the West Bank, which will be released in early May from Duke University Press. Rabie says he was inspired to write the book because he observed that many media and scholarly narratives about Palestine were not doing justice to whole picture of what was happening there. Accounts, he said, seemed to focus on the obvious, and were framed around the binary of violence and resistance.

With Palestine is Throwing a Party, Rabie explores what Palestinians are doing to formalize the present conditions, and what it might mean for just and humane solutions to the ongoing political problems. He interviewed real estate developers, finance capitalists, bureaucrats, and ordinary people about how privatization is influencing state building. At the end, Rabie’s goal is to tell an under-told story from a different angle. “What I hope I can do is slowly, and in some ways, is influence the production of ideas about Palestine,” he says.

Socially Just Conservation

Annie Claus is the author of Drawing the Sea Near: Satoumi and Coral Reef Conservation in Okinawa, which was published in fall 2020 by University of Minnesota Press. Claus said her book is an institutional ethnography that examines the practices of one of the world’s largest conservation organizations.

The book analyzes how World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has transformed its work, moving away from traditional Western conservation practices that have caused displacement, violence, and undesirable cultural change in the places where they do their work. Claus examines how one conservation field station practices a form of conservation that is more socially just, inclusive, experiential, and collaborative with the people who live around Okinawa’s coral reefs.

“Women’s Work”

Rebecca Gibson is the author of The Corseted Skeleton: A Bioarchaeology of Binding, which was published in November 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan. When asked about her inspiration for the book, she explained that she always had an intense fascination with both skeletons and corsets. But when she proposed the topic as an area of study in graduate school, it was dismissed as “women’s work.”

This only re-doubled Gibson’s determination to figure out why we don’t treat this subject of “body modification and agency” more seriously. Her research for the book focused on the cemetery collection in the Museum of London, which houses more than 125 female skeletons that Gibson studied. She also looked at male skeletons as a counterbalance. “I found that I could bring the unheard voices of this particular community of women to light by looking at the lives that they lived while corseting, the ways that they used their corsets as a form of self-expression, and how they used their agency in the ways that they used their corsets,” she explains.