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Anthropologist Killed in Afghanistan

Lorenz at Social and Cultural Anthropology in the News had an item last week about the case of Paula Loyd, an American anthropologist who recently died of injuries she suffered in a November attack. According to the Associated Press article about her death, Loyd had been “chatting with an Afghan man about fuel prices” when he suddenly doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. After the assailant had been subdued, one of Loyd’s colleagues — also an American — shot and killed him.

This case introduces an interesting set of questions about anthropology and war. For starters, Loyd was not simply an anthropologist, but she was an anthropologist working as a military contractor; as part of a so-called “Human Terrain Team,” Loyd was in Afghanistan, working with the US military to “understand local customs,” according to the AP. But what exactly does that mean? In what ways could the US military make use of anthropologists or social scientists to advance their interests/objectives in war? Looking back at the history of the discipline, it’s easy to see that anthropologists were often perceived by imperial nations as possibly “useful” in their efforts to conquer and colonize parts of Africa, Asia, or elsewhere. The United States used anthropologists in the Philippines, or political scientists in Vietnam, to try and gain advantages in those wars. Is this what’s happening here? Are anthropologists in Afghanistan merely serving as tools of conquest? Or are they perceived that way?

On the other hand, we also know that anthropologists often empathize to a great degree with the people they work with and the cultures they study, and they often try to ease conflict and advocate on behalf of the people they live with and know. So perhaps there’s a case to be made that more anthropologists might somehow bring about positive results in the midst of a difficult conflict.

Obviously, we’d need to know more about how these “Human Terrain Teams” operate and what they’ve tried to accomplish in Afghanistan. None of that might help us understand why Paula Loyd died, but it might answer the question of how effective people like Loyd might be in situations like this….


Welcome to SSCI 102

Greetings, and welcome to the course site for SSCI 102.  You can find the syllabus and course readings by clicking the pages below the masthead.  This site will also host the blog that students will be creating throughout the semester.

Most — if not all — students in this course are familiar with blogs, though you may not be aware of the degree to which they’ve proven useful to social science professionals. It stands to reason, though, that if a site can exist that enables people to provide idiotic captions to pictures of their cats, there is a site out there for the handful of people in the world who are really into the evolution of human language.

I have numerous, overlapping motivations for linking this course up to the blogosphere.

The first is simply experimental; that is, I’m interested to see if this format helps students gain a better understanding of the social sciences by reading and writing about them in a less formal context.

My second motivation is pedagogical. I’ve taught this course for the past several years, and I’ve struggled with the problem of improving student participation and “buy-in” — to use an irritating managerial cliche — in a course that almost no one would select if it weren’t required for the BASS major. Not all students prefer to speak in class, some because it terrifies them to do so, and others because they don’t do the readings and thus have nothing to say. Blogging won’t help students who fit into the latter category, but my hope is that it supplements class discussion in ways that less extroverted students will appreciate. I’m also doing this as part of a broader effort to urge students to write and think about the social sciences in a more regular and active fashion — in other words, to avoid the temptation to simply read the articles, show up to class, and write the required papers as near to the deadlines as you can safely manage.

My third motivation is institutional and cultural.  One of the broader missions of UAS is to emphasize a variety of “competencies” — to invoke another obnoxious term — including computer and information literacy.  Blogging and other user-generated web content have become an enormously influential dimensions of our culture, and it would seem a good idea to figure out how best to make these new media work in the service of actual, you know, knowledge and stuff.

With all that in mind, we — and by “we” I mean “you” — will all be contributing to this blog on a weekly basis with posts and comments. These can be posts related to the course readings; they can be posts that react to what you’re reading on other social science-related blogs; they can be posts tied into research projects you’re working on in other social science courses; or they can be posts about social science issues in the news.  The format is wide open.

I’ll be reading, commenting and posting occasionally as well, but my role here will primarily be that of a moderator. If you’ve never used blogging platforms before, WordPress is easy to use. We’ll spend some time in class going over some of the basics (e.g., how to prepare posts, how to create links, how to add media, how to set up RSS readers, how to set up email news alerts, etc.), but you should feel free to experiment.  Just don’t blow up the internet in the process.

In the right hand column, you’ll see a list of blogs from the various academic disciplines in the social sciences.  Begin poking around and see what you find that interests you.  I’ll be adding blogs to the lists as I come across them, but you should feel free to add links when you come across something that seems worth adding to the roll.