Re: body mods, Western bias and marginality

Adrienne Dearmas (DearmasA@AOL.COM)
Thu, 18 Jul 1996 11:57:10 -0400

In a message dated 96-07-16 19:50:04 EDT, swyersh@INTERPORT.NET (Holly
Swyers) writes:

> I think my point, though, is worth talking about. At what point can we as
> anthropologists feel comfortable making assertions about some culture or
> another? What is the nature of an informant? Do all cultures have a
> "silent majority"? How do we get past our own biases?

First I want to comment that I am enjoying the theoretical debates of this
issue immensely (and taking copious notes!)

Second, the bulk of my research to date has been in reading as much primary
source material I can get my hands on. Not an easy task. When Holly talks
about informants, I have to throw in "first hand accounts" as recorded by
early "anthropologists" whose biases are very apparent. From the historical
perspective, do we discount early European interactions with nonliterate
cultures simply because their bias is there?

Nevertheless, several problems have revealed themselves, and it is our job
today to sift through and try to analyze the data as best we can.

For example, accounts of interactions between Europeans and Northwest Coast
Indians (notably, Chinook, Salish, et al) describe these tribes as slow,
stupid, uncoordinated and generally less developed than the Europeans.
Western bias against all brown peoples? Or, the effects of cranial
deformation on different parts of the brain, that when caused by trauma in
contemporary society produces similar behavior (Schmieg 1994, pers. comm.)

Early accounts of scarification seem to follow the introduction of tattoos to
Europeans. I say this b/c it is always unclear, unless you know the group and
or area being discussed, whether what the "anthropologist" is talking about
is scarification or tattooing. So right off the bat, there is confusion in
the data we have. It is commonly accepted (Rudofsky, Brain, Thevoz, Hiler,
Ebin, etc) that scarification is to darker pigmented skin what tattooing is
to lighter colored skin. Throw in Dennis Rodman and you get some very
interesting blurring of boundaries).

Marginal informants. I was always taught in undergrad that most informants
are marginal to scoiety (i.e. police informants, or snitches on NYPD Blue).
Not that this means the information an anthropologist is getting is a bold
face lie, BUT this does bring us back to the discussion about the marginality
of bikers, homosexuals, prisoners and their tattoos. Perhaps there is more of
a link between Maori tattoos and those of gang members if one considers the
marginality of an informant and the size of populations (I just think the US
and/or Western culture is too big to adopt any ritual or practice universally
unless it becomes law (and then you are still gonna have your militia types).

> What is boring to Mike Shupp (and I daresay others on this list) is
> fascinating to a rather vocal group here. And I would venture that every
> piece of conversation on this list is so far removed from the daily
> business of living for many people that they would (correctly, perhaps?)
> view it as a horrible waste of time.
The poisoning of our seas, extinction and other seemingly "far removed from
the daily business of living" events and occurrences are still important to
our future. John McCreery is more fascinated with the individual variances of
body modification, but I see a cross cultural, historical phenomenon which I
think will prove insightful to human behavior. Then again, there are
scientists who really think it matters how hummingbirds fly. Not me, so I
accept that the value I attach to this topic is not shared by everyone,
However, just b/c it isn't part of daily life, doesn't make it a horrible
waste of time. (Last week, I played with a six week old Bengal tiger in my
kitchen - who then fell asleep in my lap for about two hours. Waste of time.
You bet!!!!)

- Adrienne