Feminist Anthropology

The first article in my two-part series on feminist anthropology featured by Lady Science.



Playing Along: Fieldwork, Emotional Labor and Self-Care

My reflections on fieldwork in Fiji during my service as a Peace Corps volunteer and the emotional considerations of living in another culture.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

For any practicing or aspiring anthropologist, fieldwork is the defining, almost qualifying practice of the discipline. As an undergraduate studying sociocultural anthropology, we read the seminal journals of Bronislaw Malinowski, followed by foundational ethnographic research from around the world. Even though the field has ostensibly moved beyond the “exotic”—no longer wholly consumed with discovering new indigenous communities or uncovering a culture untouched by capitalism and globalization—students are still encouraged to conduct their fieldwork in remote, isolated, and, yes, tacitly exotic locations. As my professor lectured during my Anthropology Senior Seminar at Vassar College, you have to conduct your first fieldwork abroad if you want to be taken seriously as an anthropologist. The implication was that if you don’t go somewhere distant and strange, you won’t experience the same level of cultural difference, linguistic estrangement, physical hardship, and existential negotiation that molds the student into a consummate…

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The Character of Sexual Harassment at Cons

My coverage of DC’s 2015 Awesome Con and an overview of sexual harassment at Cons around the country.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

At an event where hundreds of individuals from around the country converge in capes and costumes, the symbols and trappings of heroism, we don’t like to imagine the possibility of violence unless it’s staged to reenact a great scene from Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. But over the past several years, the geek community has come under particular scrutiny for the treatment of women at comic, anime and fan conventions. Well before #Gamergate, movements like Cosplay is NOT Consent brought attention to sexual harassment at Cons. Even though geeks have become increasingly mainstream over the past decade (see our series “Freaks and Geeks”), being a geek still carries with it a sense of stigma. Many self-identified geeks have felt otherized at some point in their lives because of their interests in comic books, otaku, tabletop gaming, LARPing, or the like. Perhaps due…

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Transitional Justice: From Sam Raimi’s Spiderman to Netflix’s Daredevil

My post on the political-historical geekout about comic book movies over the past 15 years.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

It’s hard to imagine, but superheroes weren’t popular 15 years ago. The social baggage surrounding comic books and the “geeks” who read them was still largely stigmatized, even though many of the story lines were politically oriented. Ever since the 1940’s, comic books have steadily crafted an internal mythology, built on certain principles of American exceptionalism, ideological principles of morality and our place within the larger cosmos. The first movie to truly spark the shift toward the superhero inundated pop culture we currently inhabit was Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, released in 2002 not long after the Twin Towers fell and the Iraq War began. It seems to me far from coincidental that the cinematic depiction of superheroes and the resurgence of comic book figures were virtually contemporaneous with the attacks on 9/11 and America’s subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. In the wake of police brutality and public…

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Aliens Among Us: Extraterrestrial Anthropology

I want to believe.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

I’ve always been something of a science fiction geek, but it wasn’t until my senior year at college that I realized the synergy between the science fiction genre and anthropology. Part of the reason why science fiction has been such a boon for anthropology, and why so many anthropological science fiction stories are written, lies in the fact that science fiction is a useful tool to think about culture from an outsider’s perspective. Quite apart from the world building aspects of the genre, the presence of aliens provides readers and audience members with figures, indeed, whole populations, with which to think through alternative notions of humanity. As Slusser and Rabkin write, “The alien is the creation of a need—man’s need to designate something that is genuinely outside himself, something that is truly noman, that has no initial relation to man except for the fact that…

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Anthropology Is Here: National Anthropology Day

Why anthropology matters more than ever.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

Given that the American Anthropological Association has designated today as National Anthropology Day, it seems apropos to reflect on why anthropology matters and why we should even have a day to celebrate the discipline of anthropology. I spent four years of my undergraduate education immersing myself in the study of culture and almost two years out of school negotiating the professional world, trying to figure out what anthropology means outside of academe. Despite the general misunderstanding and misapprehension of what anthropology means and does, I’ve found the discipline absolutely necessary and indispensable to my jobs, as well as prescient issues in public affairs.


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Dis-Ease and Distrust: The Connection Between Anti-Vaccination and Typhoid Mary

The anti-vaccination movement is not a new phenomenon, but its tenacity relies upon the short memories of the public. While some have condemned those who choose not to vaccinate their children as “backsliding into medieval ignorance” (Hiltzik 2014), it is also critical to consider the ideological tensions that drive an individual or a community’s decision not to protect their children from harmful pathogens and to contextualize historical precedents that demonstrate the strain between personal liberties and the protection of public health.

When Edward Jenner first proposed an inoculation for smallpox—based off of newly emergency theories about how diseases are spread and the connection between milkmaids’ immunity to the illness—the public erupted in panic, fearing that the newly introduced vaccination, containing a live culture from cows, would mangle their bodies and deform them into half-bovine creatures (Green 2015). The ultimate success of Jenner’s treatment helped to convince the public of the efficacy of vaccination, but doctors also faced the challenge of communicating complex scientific theories and principles to the public, in a way that had to be neither patronizing nor alienating. Scientific discourses and theories are not necessarily accessible or easily digestible to the general public. For many years the widespread use of vaccinations has relied upon the success of eradicating once pernicious and deadly diseases, like polio, to convince the public, perhaps without comprehensive or convincing public education programs about why and how the vaccinations have been working.

Less than 100 years ago, there was also a much greater fear of disease. The Influenza Epidemic of 1919 reportedly killed more people than World War I, wiping out huge swaths of the American population. Measles killed innumerable children. Fear of disease and the promise of protection offered by inoculation may have combined to vest doctors and scientists with public trust in vaccinations, despite unclear understandings behind the biological mechanisms that inform the intervention. Fortunately, or, perhaps, unfortunately, we live in a time when the threat of disease in the Western world is distant. David A. Grimes writes, “Apathy derives from naiveté; many parents of young children today did not live through the ‘bad old days’ before immunization. Vaccination has become a victim of its own success, and our nation has become complacent as a result. An entire generation of Americans has grown up unaware of the danger of measles” (2015). We have forgotten how recently diseases that could not be tamed or controlled threatened our lives. We live in the aftermath of an extensive and successful multi-sectoral public health intervention that has improved food and water standards, attempted to sanitize urban spaces and ushered in an era of hearty herd immunity. But we also live in a time of suspicion—scientists and doctors are not the well-trusted experts they once were. Many Americans are disaffected by biomedicine or the callous attitudes of the public health system, instead turning to traditional or homeopathic remedies that represent more sensitive, holistic approaches to their health needs. Some Americans may also be blinkered by the normalization of health privileges—it is easy not to fear death or disease when you have easy access healthy food, clean water, a social environment that creates positive conditions for health to, and quality health care facilities that you can afford to use if alternative remedies fail.

Hank Green, The Science of Anti-Vaccination https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g#t=86

Hank Green, The Science of Anti-Vaccination https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rzxr9FeZf1g#t=86

This is not the case throughout the rest of the world, especially in communities so impoverished that their immune systems cannot adequately fight off relatively benign sicknesses. In America, we are all considered “experts” of our own health, but are not necessarily equipped with the critical tools to tell apart medicine from quackery. We value anecdotes over statistics, the triumph of the individual over the sanitized data and hypotheses of biomedicine. Vanessa Wamsley consulted, “Dr. Kristin Hendrix, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, researches how parents make decisions about their children’s healthcare, including vaccinations. ‘It’s a combination of pretty complex psychological factors,’ Hendrix says. ‘Some folks are very predisposed to trust information about others’ personal experience’” (2014). Within this complicated context of dis-ease, it should not be surprising that Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet article connecting MMR vaccinations with autism trigged a wave of hysteria. The article touched a visceral nerve, validating confirmation biases and further entrenching mistrust of government mandated medicine. Seth Mnookin’s book The Panic Virus (2012) provides a comprehensive analysis of the scientific, social and discursive debate that emerged from the paper. Within the age of personalized medicine and without adequate mechanisms to launch a convincing public health education offensive that was comprehensive without being pedantic, we began to lose our herd immunity. And from the wake of the latest measles outbreak in California emerges what may be a familiar debate between the responsibility of the state to protect the public’s health and the sanctity of personal choice.

In the early part of the 20th century, Mary Mallon served as a cook for well to do families in New York City. A single, Irish immigrant woman, Mallon’s choices and opportunities for employment were limited. Perhaps due to her aberrant independence, she was a spit fire by nature, private and self-possessed. She may seem typical in a city full of immigrants clawing after the American Dream, were it not for the other part of her identity that remained hidden until the state of New York intervened—she was a healthy carrier of typhoid. Otherwise known as Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon was initially accosted by public health officials in 1907 when they traced a recent typhoid outbreak to her. As a cook, her profession lent itself to quick yet discrete transmission of the disease. Mary claimed to be entirely healthy, with no symptoms of the illness, and denied the claims that she was a healthy carrier. When she refused the state’s request to discontinued her profession as a cook, she was arrested as a menace to public health and removed to North Brother Island, where she would no longer “contaminate” the upper crust elite of NYC society.

She was eventually released in 1910, under the condition that she find other work apart from cooking, but was equipped with minimal assistance and few other marketable skills to find steady employment. She was eventually discovered under a false name in the kitchen of a family, likely out of desperation for income and the dogged belief that she was not ill, especially considering that she demonstrated no symptoms of typhoid. Previously portrayed to the public as a somewhat sympathetic, if misguided character, the media quickly turned on her, labeling her as a mistress of death knowingly brewing disease in the houses where she worked. Newspapers painted her as a heartless villain who wished to infect those around her. Infuriated by the violation of the terms of her release, New York decided to use Typhoid Mary to set an example. In 1915, they permanently removed her to North Brother Island, where she would live out the rest of her life.

Like the contemporary anti-vaccination community, Mary Mallon did not trust the doctors or public health officials who told her that she carried typhoid. As Judith Walzer Leavitt points out in her book Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health (1996), Mallon’s clinical status represented an ideological schism between public health officials and the infected individual: “[Mary Mallon] insisted she was not sick and had never been sick with typhoid fever. She used her personal knowledge about her own body to argue that since she had no disease symptoms she could not menace anyone else’s health. She did not want to be treated like someone who was sick when she felt healthy and vigorous, and was in fact leading a productive life when she was taken” (86). Her personal experience and bodily knowledge clashed with those of the scientific community, positing alternative approaches to health. Her vexed condition as a menace to public health was further inflamed by the mistrust of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Leavitt also indicates that Mallon’s gender worked against her: “Health officials viewed women carriers of typhoid fever as more dangerous than men in part because cooking, an activity that provided one of the easiest routes of bacilli transmission, was a traditional female activity” (1996: 97). Mallon’s health can therefore be understood as both a biological and a social condition, galvanizing a series of public outcries and institutional responses that also expose belief systems intertwined with health. During the time of Mary’s arrest and removal, the American populace compelled the government to protect public health, a mandate that necessarily involved dictating social order. “In the early twentieth century the law spoke with a single voice and a simple guideline: public health authorities had the medical ability and the legal authority to define a public health menace, regardless of due process or the curtailment of an individual’s liberty and regardless of consistency. The judges were willing to give health departments the power to discriminate among carriers and decide which healthy people who carried pathogenic bacteria in their bodies were to go free and which were to be detained” (Leavitt 1996, 95). The health of the population (particularly the wealthy population) of New York was therefore elevated above the civil liberties of Mary Mallon.

As a healthy carrier of typhoid, Mallon jeopardized the health of those around her, not unlike how the anti-vaccination movement is undermining herd immunity and endangering the lives of those who are either too young to be immunized or the immunocompromised, such as citizens in developing, impoverished countries, unwittingly exposed to carriers through the tourism industry. The United States is not without its own health problems, which means that individuals and families who don’t have access to quality and affordable health care may also be in danger. Mary Mallon was demonized for her actions, and as the measles (declared eliminated in the US in 2000) escalate in numbers and severity, certain members of the public are beginning to treat anti-vaccination as a threat to public health as well. Conor Friedersdorf has made the point that condemning the actions of a group will only solidify their anger and further entrench their actions, especially considering that, “the vast majority [of anti-vaccination parents and proponents] are not, in fact, especially selfish people, and characterizing them as such just feeds into their mistaken belief system” (2015). Mary Mallon’s public health experience transcended the personal into a popular metaphor, one that highlights the perils of conflicting ideological frameworks surrounding health and the compromises that must be made to avert health crises. Biomedicine, though founded upon empirical evidence, also represents an ideology about the body and healing that may be incommensurate with personalized notions about illness.

We are quickly reaching a crossroads when the US government will be faced with a similar dilemma the state of New York confronted in 1907. As Leavitt so cannily writes, ““Because the road from and to the past is a two-way street, we must be alert to how the realities of the present have an impact on how we construct and reconstruct the past […] If we are aware of our present sensitivities, they can help rather than hinder our understanding of history, just as history can help us comprehend our options in the present” (1996, 5). What do we value as a nation—radical individualism or national prosperity and heath? How are our understandings of health shaped by personal biases that are also related to privilege, race, and gender? Are there instances in which public health triumphs over personal liberty?

Works Cited 

CDC (2015). “Frequently Asked Questions About the Measles in the U.S.” http://www.cdc.gov/measles/about/faqs.html

Friedersdorf, Conor (2015). “Should Anti-Vaxers Be Shamed Or Persuaded?” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/02/should-anti-vaxxers-be-shamed-or-persuaded/385109/

Green, Matthew (2015). “The Feverish Roots of Today’s Anti-Vaccination Movement.” The Lowdown. http://blogs.kqed.org/lowdown/2015/02/15/the-feverish-roots-of-todays-anti-vaccine-movement/

Grimes, David A. (2015). “Deniers of Science: The Anti-Vaccination and Anti-Abortion Movements.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-a-grimes/deniers-of-science-the-an_b_6471684.html

Hiltzik, Michael (2014). “The anti-vaccination movement drives measles to a 20-year record high.” LA Times. http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-measles-20140530-column.html

Leavitt, Judith Walzer (1996). Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Mnookin, Seth (2012). The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Wakefield, Andrew et al. (1998). “Retracted: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” The Lancet, Vol. 315, No. 9103. pp. 637-641. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2911096-0/abstract

Wamsley, Vanessa (2014). “The Psychology of Anti-Vaxers: How Story Trumps Science.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/how-anti-vaccine-fear-takes-hold/381355/


The History Behind ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

My analysis of the history behind American Horror Story, analyzing the rise and fall of freak shows throughout the United States.

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

Like Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s previous American Horror Story incarnations, Freak Show (2014) is keenly aware of its precursors. Wednesday’s premier had numerous allusions to the predecessors that inform both the show and what makes freak shows and carnivals so terrifying, calling on established tropes while subverting others. The season premiere of Freak Show is full of metareferences to both the history of sideshows and the media’s representation of freaks, small homages and nods that could deepen your interest or appreciation for season four.

Still from Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Source: http://cdn.filmschoolrejects.com/images/freaks2.jpg Still from Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Source: http://cdn.filmschoolrejects.com/images/freaks2.jpg

Freak Show is set in Jupiter, Florida, 1952, a time in American history when freak shows had fallen out of favor with the general public and existed mainly on the fringes, in isolated, marginalized communities like Coney Island. The freak show’s golden era lasted from roughly 1870 to 1920; dime museums, circuses, fairs…

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Anthropology & Literature

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I double majored in Anthropology and English. Even though I saw myself following in the tradition of fellow Vassar alum Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), my major advisors were frankly baffled by the combination. It seems apt, therefore, that my first panel at the AAA 2014 Meeting this past year was on “Anthropology and Storytelling”.

Convened by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado), Coralynn V. Davis (Bucknell) and Gina Athena Ulyssse (Wesleyan) each presented papers on the importance of narrative in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Indeed, part of what initially spoke to me about anthropology was its emphasis on studying the storied aspects of human lives. As a fledgling anthropologist, I necessarily studied Clifford Geertz’s theories about culture as a series of texts that anthropologists read and interpret over the shoulders of their informants (Geertz 1973)…

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The Biopolitics of BioShock Part III: The Bioethics of Rapture

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

(Spoiler Warning)

“Whatever you thought about right and wrong on the surface, well, that don’t count for much down in Rapture.” -Atlas

 In the past two parts of this series, I have looked closely at the biopolitics of self-determination and free will in Rapture’s economic environment in relation to Ayn Rand’s principles of Objectivism, as well as the new aesthetic moral imperative constructed by Dr. Steinman that compelled new ways of seeing and perceiving beauty, contextualized within the history of eugenics. This final section will focus more broadly on the bioethical dilemmas Rapture’s technological innovations present, and the ways in which technologies like ADAM and plasmids reformulate established notions of humanity. Rapture not only presented its citizens with new economic and political options within the utopian society, but also revolutionized modern technology. Rapture scientists discovered that certain sea slugs contain ADAM, which can be genetically…

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