Michael Agar
Ethknoworks LLC


Home Base

Palafoxiana library from colonial times


I'm not tuning up the web page yet, waiting for the event described below to happen in about a week. But I wanted to add a new bit of writing, a forward for a book in preparation, by Larry Torres, a collection of his popular newspaper columns called "Growing Up Spanglish." Each column tells a story from the perspective of Canutito, a young boy growing up with his grandparents in Northern New Mexico. I've been a fan since the column first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper and was honored to be asked to add a light touch of linguistic anthropology at the beginning. It is downloadable from the top of the column to the left.

Right under that I'm adding the web page for a talk I'm to give at the School for American Research in Santa Fe.

Now back to our regular programming until after the gathering in Ensenada.


Web page tuneup, Juneteenth


Since the last homepage, now moved as usual to the blog section, things have quieted down some. I did go to Puebla for two weeks, the second trip this year, so I’m thinking about that and where to take it next. Couple of pics above.Why Mexico? Well, it’s a long story, starting in the fifth grade when my family, having just moved to the SF Bay Area from Chicago, decided to vacation in Ensenada. My father got into playing chess for hours with Arturo, proprietor of a store, so my kid sister and I wandered into the street. My parents worried, but Arturo told them not to, stepped outside, and shouted something in Spanish. With time I realized that the street was keeping an eye on us, talking to us, giving us something to eat. We were free within a much larger adult social world. It impressed me. Being a kid in Mexico was a lot more fun than being a kid in the U.S.

Since then I’ve been back and forth with Mexico—and Mexican Spanish—for most of my life, including several months in Mexico City writing The Professional Stranger and years later helping start up a U.S./​Mexico business, and doing talks during my drug days at conferences, and many trips to Cozumel where I’d spend a month or so diving and working on some project. And now I live in “New” Mexico, in many ways continuing the same story in post-colonial form. So a couple of years ago, as I moved towards “retiring”—which means working on things without worrying about earning money, the ultimate gift—I decided I wanted to make Mexico an ongoing and coherent part of life. The question was, and is, how best to do that?

After a couple of experiments, a LinkedIn connection with a new colleague started an intriguing conversation. Alison Lee, an American with much work on immigration issues and a bicultural family, is chair of the anthropology department at the University of the Americas in Puebla. She was open to the idea of a brief visit to explore with no specific proposal. I gave a talk out of The Lively Science, met with water specialists in hydrology and chemistry, and visited with the artificial intelligence group. Great chemistry—you should excuse the expression—all the way around, a group of colleagues who fit my dream model of a water research group to mix water, anthropology and agent-based modeling, better than anything I’d been able to do in New Mexico.

So my sig other and I returned for a two week visit in May and things changed. Puebla we enjoyed even more than we had on the first visit. Too many stories to tell. I was interviewed three times by schoolkids on the main square working on their English class projects to talk to tourists, an event preserved by the cameraperson with his iPad. It was easy to answer their question about what I liked, and equally easy to complain about noise and air pollution from vehicle emissions, “noise” being one of those massively important but usually neglected variations on the emic theme. We like the place and the people and plan to return.

But things did change during the visit. The water engineering group had been contacted by the national water commission who wanted to do a project in Puebla, the state as well as the city. They graciously offered me a seat at the table. But the project involved an evaluation of water contamination and a new dam. I won’t bore the non-water-ati among you, but the problems with water contamination—some quick research revealed in no time at all—were well known, and knee-jerk dam building is an old habit that pretty much all the contemporary literature shows needs to be broken. Not my kind of project. We parted friends and I hope I get a chance one day to work on something else with them.

In the meantime, I wandered by one of the many interesting bookstores in the city and found a recently published account of how a local water management group was set up in the neighboring state of Veracruz. It’s a great model of hydrologically sophisticated anthropology in both the sense of research and how the knowledge was used to organize local water management, a goal that most from the UN on down now say is the way to go. The book was published out of an environmental research center at the Puebla branch of another university called Iberoamericana. And then I met briefly with an anthropologist at the local state run “autonomous” university, a fairly traditionally oriented group who were fascinated with the possibilities of application and wanted to hear more. Those two connections happened right at the end of the two weeks, but both promise more conversations in the next visit.

So the story continues. With all three university connections I feel welcome with potential collaborations that interest us all, made much easier by the fact that I’m not looking for a paid position. The next event in this story will be a seminar organized thanks to the energy of the current president of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Roberto Alvarez. A group of U.S. and Mexican anthropologists will meet in September to talk about collaboration in the area of the border. Since a major part of the border is the Rio Grande—Rio Bravo in Mexico—the same river that runs down the center of New Mexico, I’m very much looking forward to that. And the seminar will take place in Ensenada, bringing me back full circle to that first visit I described at the start of this blog. I wonder if Arturo is still around and still runs a shop in the city?

Goes around, comes around. Life is interesting.

Selected Works

Nonfiction
Wonder why studies you read about your world usually don’t get who you are and how you really live? Frustrated that “the numbers” don’t solve the problem? Does it bother you that policies and programs, more often than not, don’t work like they’re supposed to? People, organizations, countries–they rely on information about real human social lives. Usually they don’t have it because they only test what they think they already know in narrow situations of their own design. The results have value, some of the time, but it’s not nearly enough. We need a human social science that begins and ends in the real worlds of the humans that it claims to be about. One has been around for a couple of hundred years. The Lively Science tells the story of its historical roots and the reasons for its neglect, blends in new intellectual tools, and argues that it’s time to get on with a science that changes research objects into human subjects and learns who they are and what they’re trying to do before conclusions are drawn.
Living in a world of linguistic and cultural differences
A personal story of decades of work in the substance abuse field, a story of how our ineffective drug policy came to be and stayed in place. Now available as an e-book at iBook on iTunes and on Barnes and Noble.
The story of the working world of independent truckers in a time of deregulation
Nonfiction, Introductory Text
An introduction to ethnography