Matt Tomlinson on Culture and Theology in the Pacific

I’m very happy to announce that I have a new interview up at New Books Network. This one is with Matt Tomlinson, an anthropologist of the Pacific at the University of Oslo. Matt’s book is a discussion of the role of the concept of ‘culture’ in contemporary Pacific protestant theology. I love the cover image of the book, which features the holy family around a kava bowl. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the Pacific Islands Monograph Series, which published this book. Second disclosure: We’re always looking for more manuscripts. If you have a really Pacific-focused manuscript let me know!

Maile Arvin on Possessing Polynesians

I announce my publications and interviews and things on social media but I have fallen behind on announcing them on my blog, which is supposed to be a more organised and permanent record of what I’m doing. So here is the first of a few posts about my (boreal) summer activities:

Go listen to my podcast over at New Books Network with Maile Arvin, where we discuss her new book, Possessing Polynesians. This new book from Duke Press is wide-ranging in scope and draws on what is now a really robust literature on Pacific indigenous studies. Also, I will not lie, engaging with this book finally taught me once and for all how to spell ‘possess’ correctly.

Cheers!

Nancy Mattina on Gladys Reichard

My interview with Nancy Mattina on Gladys Reichard, ‘America’s least appreciated anthropologist’ is now live over at the New Books Network. Go take a listen! Nancy’s carefully-researched book re-captures the achievements of Gladys Reichard, a woman whose achievements, Nancy persuasively argues, was erased by her contemporaries. Perhaps the closest discipline of both Franz Boas and Elsie Clews Parsons, Nancy presents an image of an incredibly productive scholar with a zest for living whose work was disparaged by the sexism of men like Edward Sapir and Clyde Kluckhohn and the classism of blue-blooded women such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. It’s easy to be put off by Sapir’s misogyny today, but what I thought made this book and our interview so fascinating was Nancy’s portrayal Benedict and Mead not as feminist heroes but as envious of and less-successful than Reichard. In the middle we ask the question: What would have happened to American ethnography if Reichard, carrying Boas’s and Parsons’s style forward, had become hegemonic. It’s a fascinating question! And with Reichard’s wonderful ethnography Spider Woman now available for free download, hopefully more people will be able not only to ask this question, but answer it.

Christina Thompson on Prehistorians of the Pacific

My new episode of New Books in Anthropology is up — it’s an interview with Christina Thompson on her book The Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. It’s a history of European attempts to understand the prehistory of Polynesian and Austronesian migration. It’s a very well written and well-structured story that starts with the Spanish discovery of the Marquesas, goes through Kon Tiki and Hokule‘a, and ends with contemporary work. I was impressed by the amount of work that it covers, and how easily it goes down, and it was blurbed by Pat Kirch at Matt Matsuda so you know most of the details were right. I think this will be a go-to book for people who want to get started understanding the prehistory of the Pacific.

At the same time, I can imagine that some of my colleagues would take fault with the decision to write a book about white people studying the Pacific rather than just focusing on Pacific Islanders themselves. Christina has defended this choice — which I feel is a legitimate one — and notes that she covers people such as Nainoa Thompson and Te Rangi Hiroa. But I still felt this book read very much as a story of a Western project of knowing into which Pacific Islanders were eventually incorporated. I don’t know — maybe this reflects my own concern about how we conceptualise and tell anthropology’s history. Another shortcoming is the inevitable ‘what got left out’ question: While historical linguistics is mentioned, that story doesn’t get told in the detail it could. But of course it’s inevitable that a book tells some stories and not all others (at least, this is a problem all non-infinitely long books have).

My favourite aspect of this book is that it turned me on to the work of the wonderfully-named Willowdean Chatterson Handy. Christina’s section on her inspired me to read Handy’s Forever The Land Of Men, her memoir of doing fieldwork in the Marquesas in the 1920s alongside her husband and Ralph Linton. It is a hidden gem of a book and if you can find a copy I’d highly recommend it. I was particularly interested to see how thoughtful Handy was about the impact of colonialism in the Marquesas and her own positionally as a researcher. Inspired, I asked a friend of mine who studies the Marquesas what he thought of Willowdean.

“She was smarter than [her husband] Handy,” he said to me.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Everything the co-wrote is better than his solo publications!” He replied.

In sum, I recommend Christina’s book very warmly although I recognise it might not be framed in a way that will please everyone. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation!

I’m a podcast host! Go listen to David Varel on Allison Davis

I’m proud to announce that I’ve become one of the hosts for the New Book Network’s New Books in Anthropology podcast! In my inaugural episode, I talk with David Varel, the author of the first-ever biography of Allison Davis. Davis (1902-1983) was a pioneering anthropologist who did ground-breaking fieldwork in the Jim Crow south,  challenged the racial bias of IQ tests, and became the first African American to be tenured at the University of Chicago. In this episode in New Books in Anthropology we talk about Davis’s collaboration with authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Sapir, John Dollard, W. Lloyd Warner Warner, St. Clair Drake, and many others. We also discuss how Davis pioneered concepts such as structural racism and explored the relationship between race and class. David Varel talks about the choices he made as a White academic writing about an African American life, and the importance of widening intellectual genealogies by including ‘lost’ figures such as Davis. I hope you enjoy it!