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Michael Agar @alcaldemike

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An article in The New Mexico Mercury just came out, a description of a public water policy meeting in Albuquerque to inform decisions about how to use new money and water rights in the Gila River Basin. It highlights the lack of human social science research in the process and the limited view of "stakeholders" and "community" that result. The URL is at the top of the column to the left. Another new bit of writing is 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 touch of linguistic anthropology at the beginning. It is downloadable from the column to the left.

I’m back from the trip to Ensenada for the joint Mexico/​U.S. meeting of applied anthropologists. The city was of course nothing like I remembered it when I was a kid, as I described in the previous homepage, now on the blog page. The conference kept us all pretty busy, but on the Friday night before I left I did play hooky and wandered downtown. Friday night on the weekend of Independence Day maybe wasn’t the best time to savor the city, since at any moment I was surrounded by concentric circles of young people exploding around me like the Big Bang. But, as almost always in my experience in Mexico, an older person is treated well, not like an intruder or figure of fun. In the homepage blurb I wrote before I made this trip, I said it struck me during the 1950s visit that Mexico was more fun to be a kid in. Seems true at this end of the story as well, it’s more fun to be older in Mexico as well.

The conference itself was full of great people with good ideas, though no structure remained at the end to continue the Mexico/​U.S. anthropological collaboration along the border. I tweeted that it’s an anthro problem, like “herding cats.” The conference was in the Museo del Vino, maybe a 45 minute drive into the countryside from the hotel we all stayed in. Beautiful building, built to help develop the now famous wine industry in the Valle de Guadalupe. The only disadvantage is, once you’re out there, you’re a conference captive. I’m the type who needs breaks, time alone, especially with the packed schedule on offer, maybe even a nap. That’s why I had to play hooky on Friday, probably insulting the rest of the colleagues. Well, the time I worked in Mexico City for a summer I’d go to events and then go outside for walks now and then. Later a friend said they’d incorporated my strange behavior into the sentence "está filosofeando," which is exactly what I needed to do.

As we headed for the border crossing to get back to San Diego and its airport, I thought about two things. One was the way the border looked at the end of the two days. There were some exceptions, but by and large the end image was the border as human tragedies, period. God knows there were many horrible stories in the presentations, no question. And it’s probably fair to say that anthros are known to seek out the injustices where they work and make them the focus of their conclusions. But is that all there is? Maybe so, but I wanted to hear some balance, something that was working in the border area, human lives that had something positive and valued and moving in a good direction. At the end of the two days it looked pretty grim, maybe even hopeless.

Another thing I thought about was the lack of much discussion of language and communication. There were some good talks on saving indigenous languages in the border area, true enough. But as an old time language and culture type I know there are—from reading and personal experience working in other parts of Mexico—major differences not only in grammar and vocabulary, but also in what we call “pragmatics,” the ways language is used. For example, one senior colleague at the Ensenada conference, a completely bilingual/​bicultural native of the U.S./​Mexico borderlands, joked at the beginning of his talk that since time was limited he’d speak English (simultaneous interpretation was provided). It would take too long in Spanish, he said. Tell the truth, I was starting to think that a proper “question” in Spanish was actually a new paper from an audience member. I don’t mean that in a mean spirited way, not at all. I found it interesting professionally, just like I had in my Austrian days, where giving and responding to an academic presentation in Austrian German was very different from what I knew from conferences in the U.S. In fact, there was a movement in Austria and Germany to change academic publishing, dominated as it was by English language journals. Their manuscripts were rejected even if written in perfect English grammar because the way they presented their arguments “didn’t make any sense.” I had the same experience with an article co-written with a German student. The German journal said it didn’t make any sense and even made fun of it. The American journal took the English-language version with minimal changes.

Just yesterday I gave a talk at the School for Advanced Research, http:/​/​​index.php, a long-standing center for anthropology and indigenous arts in Santa Fe. (The abstract is in the left-hand column). It was similar to the talk I gave in Ensenada, only with New Mexican instead of U.S./​Mexico frontier examples. It went over pretty well in both places. Believe me, I’ve bombed plenty of times and know the difference. What I’m doing now with talks makes me think of documentaries I’ve seen, one by Jerry Seinfeld developing new routines in clubs after his TV show closed down, another by Lily Tomlin about taking a performance on the road to try it out. In fact I quoted her at the end of Language Shock when she leaned into the camera after discussing a detail with a co-performer and said, “You thought we just came out here and did this, didn’t you?” After a few years of wandering through the unbelievably complicated world of water, I’m finally seeing a framework to help make sense of the voyage into the anthropocene, a place that we know is taking shape even though we can’t be sure exactly what it’s going to look like. Not there by a long shot, but something is emerging from the fog and it seemed to work, partly, for two different audiences. I’ll write more about the framework here once I digest the talks and start in on another I have to give in the UK in a couple of months.

Life continues to be interesting.

Selected Works

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