Signs of the times

Reflections on the state of the world, on a bus journey from Miami to Atlanta.

Miami bus station sits in the shadow of the city’s sprawling, palatial airport. The taxi driver who brought me here said he would never take a bus to where I’m going. When his daughter traveled down from north Florida for Spring Break, he bought her a plane ticket.

I don’t tell him my reasons for traveling by bus, but it’s because I’m trying to minimize my carbon footprint. I’d traveled to Florida from the UK for a workshop on climate change, water insecurity, and migration. The irony of my own contribution to the problems the workshop sought to address was not lost on me.  While I couldn’t easily substitute low-carbon means of transport for the transatlantic flights, I was happy to find I could get to Atlanta (to see family) by bus.

The bus for Atlanta is due to leave at 7AM; the journey takes 14 hours. Nervous about missing the bus, I’d left my hotel without breakfast, and I’m disappointed to find that there’s no coffee shop in the station – only vending machines selling things I don’t want to eat. Caffeine-deprived and slightly dazed, I sit in the waiting room watching coverage of the coronavirus epidemic in Hong Kong, and ads for COPD drugs (two different kinds) and IUDs.

Greyhound bus station, Miami, FL

Once on the bus, I doze most of the way to Orlando, and then spring off in hope of finding food and coffee. Orlando’s bus station is more substantial than Miami’s, but the landscape around it is bleak. A mile or so down the 8-lane highway, I spy a pair of Golden Arches on the horizon. I’ve never in my life been so happy to see a McDonald’s!

Back on the bus with food in my stomach and a cup of coffee in my hand, I notice place-names attesting to the peoples who once lived on this land — Ocala, Apopko, Ocoee, Alachua. On the interstate I amuse myself reading billboards. There are signs for doctors and lawyers (INJURED? Call this number. / THE LEADER in minimally invasive heart surgery…). Biblical signs (There’s nothing too hard for GOD. / FORGIVE. Obey 10 Commandments). And signs celebrating local products – oranges, peaches, pecans, Vidalia onions….


Late in the afternoon, we cross the Georgia state line. The land here is marshy; standing water beneath the slender trees reflects the sunlight. In Tifton, GA, the moon rises over a dilapidated gas station, and a woman drives her children home in a golf cart.

The journey reminds me of things I love about America – the beauty of its landscape, the diversity. It also reminds me of things I deplore – the inequalities, the threadbare social contract. Some of the people on the bus looked in good health, but many looked tired, worn down by life. At our rest stops, the built environment was hostile to pedestrians; walkable public spaces were few and far between.

Hovering over us was the spectre of coronavirus, I wrote in my report on the workshop in Miami. And the virus coloured my reading of the signs I saw along the road. In each sign, it seemed, it was the same smiling White man (in the guise of doctor, lawyer, or preacher) promoting injury claims, heart surgery, and salvation – at a price. Public goods (justice, health, morality) being marketed as commodities. The perversity of this system should be clear to a five-year-old; and yet many of us grown-ups are inured to it, apt to take this rotten set of arrangements for granted.

“Georgia saw its first identified cases [of coronavirus] on Monday, Mar 2…”

As Shirley Lindenbaum has observed, epidemics can serve as sampling devices, highlighting connections that are otherwise hard to see. Coronavirus, which poses greater risks to the lives of those who are already vulnerable (in terms of advanced age, compromised respiratory or immune systems, or difficulty accessing medical care), is likely to show up – like a disclosing tablet – inequalities that have too long been ignored.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the epidemic – like the climate crisis that is continuing in the background – will cause many more needless deaths, and a great deal of suffering.


Outside Atlanta, the freeway is gridlocked. For an hour, we inch along, a chain of tail lights snaking through the darkness.

I remember how, as a child, I found it comforting to watch the lights curl by on car journeys with my father. Back then I didn’t appreciate the dangers of the road. How could it be dangerous? I had a sense (Do all children feel this?) that the way the society around me worked was the right way, the good way.

When did I abandon that? I can’t place it, but at some point I came to recognise that the news on TV was coming to me through some kind of filter. There were contradictions in the stories we told about ourselves and our country. Our leaders weren’t always to be trusted.


In downtown Atlanta, we pass the gleaming dome of the state capitol, and, dwarfing it, the huge edifice of Grady Hospital, one of the largest in the country.

How, I wonder, can a country with so many human and technical resources — with the finest scientists and the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world — how can it, of all nations, fail to rise to the challenges of our time?

— It can fail, a voice in my head tells me. It may well fail. Because science and wealth are not all that’s needed. Because climate change and pandemics are not simply technical problems, but problems of politics.

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A campaign of dehumanisation in Ethiopia

Two weeks ago I wrote about the sad events of the past month in Ethiopia – the violence convulsing some of the cities, and the killing of members of ethnic minority communities in the far southwest of the country, where I have carried out research for several years.

The recent events in South Omo, detailed in a memo by Concerned Scholars for Ethiopia, deserve to be considered in the context of other assaults on local people over the past two decades. For the Bodi (the group that has experienced the majority of killings by state forces) this includes reallocation of land to settlers from outside South Omo, and annexation of land for commercial agriculture projects.

The reallocation of land to settlers began in 2005 when families from the southern highlands were given land in Bodi country by the government as part of a resettlement drive. [1] The annexation of some of the most valuable parts of their territory by state-backed plantations began in 2012. As roads have been built to serve the new plantations and workers’ camps, the Bodi have also experienced an increasing number of injuries and deaths from fast-driving cars and trucks. [2]

On top of this, the damming of the Omo River has prevented the Bodi and their neighbours from practicing flood-retreat farming, their most dependable means of producing staple foods in a semi-arid environment. In 2016, when the reservoir behind the Gibe III dam was filled, the annual flood they depended on ceased. As a result they are now hungrier and more desperate than ever.

It is at this moment that the government has embarked upon a disarmament campaign, accompanied by abuses and killings by the military.

Who is responsible?

Primary responsibility for the cluster of assaults leveled at the people of the Lower Omo rests with the Ethiopian government; that much is clear. Yet to the locals, the government is a remote institution, and how to petition for redress is not clear. From the beginning, the official line was that this was ‘development’; the end of the flood and the establishment of plantations was part of a larger package which locals should accept and to which they must adapt – for their own good.

This self-justifying rhetoric is shared by a broader set of actors – including the Italian engineering firm Salini, which built the dam; the Chinese state bank that provided a critical loan; and Western consultants and donors who gave advice and provided an enabling environment.

All share responsibility.

These institutions are, however, even more remote and hard to influence than the government. So the Bodi and their neighbours have struck out against the most visible and accessible representatives of these projects – the drivers who ply the roads to the plantations, and the migrant workers from the highlands who work there. For example, after a Bodi man was killed by a truck in December 2017, others retaliated by shooting at the vehicle and its passengers, killing at least a dozen people. [3]

A dehumanisation campaign

The response of the local government has been to wage a campaign of retribution, under which soldiers have permission to beat, kill, rape, and plunder. The government has also demanded that communities relinquish their arms en masse. Following the massacres carried out by soldiers in Bodi, multiple, indepenent reports attest that soldiers are forcibly detaining scores of people from the Bodi, Mursi and Suri ethnic groups, subjecting them to beatings and other acts of degradation, and intimidating them into serving as agents in their disarmament campaign.

The policy of forcibly disarming the people of the Lower Omo ignores the fact that firearms are crucial assets. Predation of livestock by hyenas and other wild animals is a constant risk for families who are herding livestock for a living, as is raiding by neighbouring groups, especially at the border with South Sudan. Without firearms, these already vulnerable communities will be less able to defend themselves. As the authors of the memo suggest, “in the absence of proper security provided by the state,” their only recourse will be to seek arms from elsewhere. [4]

When former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the plans for the sugar plantations in the Lower Omo in 2011, he said, “Even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”

The goal of development may be desirable, but the means by which it is being pursued – through dispossession and violence – are surely the wrong ones.


[1] Ayke Asfaw, 2005. ‘Challenges and opportunities of ‘Salamago resettlement’. Forum for Social Studies, Addis Ababa.

[2] The Oakland Institute reports that at least 14 people were killed by vehicles in Bodiland since 2012, and many more injured. See ‘How they tricked us’: Living with the Gibe III dam and sugarcane plantations in southwest Ethiopia, 2019: p. 16.

[3] Oakland Institute, 2019: op cit. p. 16.

[4] Concerned Scholars for Ethiopia. Memo on violence in South Omo areas, SNNPRS, Ethiopia: A call for preventive action and rule of law. October 29, 2019: p. 4.

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Making space for difference

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the toppling of statues of slave-traders and imperialists from San Francisco to Cape Town has opened up new conversations about the-past-in-the-present. Whom do we hold up as examples of what our society stands for? Whom do we honour with the privilege of being remembered? Whom do we forget?

Some years ago, I was invited to speak to the Ethiopian community in London on the occasion of the anniversary of the Battle of Adwa. Adwa was to Ethiopia rather like what the wars of the first half of the twentieth century were to Britain. Both were defining moments in the assertion of modern nationhood; both involved great killing; both have attained, for the people who are heirs to those conflicts, a sort of mythological status.

Right now Ethiopians are engaged in a new collective reckoning of their past, and of their identity in the present, which is part of this global moment of reflection. A statue of Menelik II of Shewa, the king who led Ethiopian forces against the invading Italians at Adwa, has become newly visible, for some, as a symbol of oppression. This has to do not with Menelik as the architect of the Adwa victory, but with what he did afterwards: the wars of conquest that he waged against neighbouring peoples in the Horn of Africa, which pushed the boundaries of the state he controlled far to the south, east, and west of Shewa, more or less to where Ethiopia’s borders lie today.

Statue of Menelik II in Addis Ababa. The statue was commissioned by Haile-Selassie on the eve of his own coronation as emperor in 1930. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Defenders of the statue of Menelik, which stands outside St George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa, may hold all of this up as honourable — as a necessary part of state-building, and as a service to future generations. Or they might maintain that they wish to see him comemmorated for what he did to keep the Italians out of Ethiopia, while conceding that it was wrong of him to subordinate previously independent peoples to his rule.

This move of honouring part of someone’s legacy, while at the same time acknowledging crimes or atrocities they committed, is easy to do in words, but hard to do in statuary. Could a gifted sculptor bring out multiple sides of a character, multiple aspects of a person? Perhaps, but such nuances might be easy to miss. What you usually get is a sculpture that says simply, “Here I am.” “I belong in this place.” And in asserting so emphatically that some-one belongs, we also send a message that others don’t.

A surge of power,’ a statue of demonstrator Jen Reid erected in place of the toppled statue of slave-trader Edward Colson, was removed by Bristol City Council the day after it was installed by sculptor Marc Quinn.
Photograph by Alex Richards CC BY-SA 4.0

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A workshop on climate, water, and migration

Last week I attended a workshop on the relationship between climate change, water insecurity, and migration. Water insecurity is sorely under-researched, and much of the action at the workshop was about how to integrate recent advances in measuring household water insecurity with existing knowledge on climate and migration.

Participants came from institutions in the US, Mexico, and England, and the pooled research experience of the group covered more than 20 countries and several disciplines. The HWISE project, which the workshop organisers are affiliated with, is currently carrying out comparative work on water access in some 30 sites around the world.

It became clear to me in our brainstorming sessions on the first day that the perspectives each of us took on the central issues of the workshop were strongly influenced by the world areas where we work. We all have a tendency to generalise from local experience, and climate change and migration look different in Central America compared to the Mediterranean, and in the Arctic compared to the Caribbean.

From my work in Ethiopia I’m aware that, in the short term, large infrastructure projects are doing more to displace people than climate change is. But everything is happening in the context of climate change. And everywhere, the slow drip of suffering due to unclean or unreliable water supplies is likely to be be a significant driver of migration.

Justin Stoler, convenor of the workshop in Miami

Justin Stoler, our host at the University of Miami, set the tone for the workshop, and demonstrated what gatherings of this kind ought to be like: open and relaxed (as opposed to the formal, even adversarial atmosphere of some conferences) but with enough structure to keep us focused.

Hovering over us all was the spectre of coronavirus. Some colleagues headed on afterwards to the Society for Medical Anthropology conference in Havana. But during the days we were together, news was filtering in of other meetings being cancelled. The day I flew back to the UK, the Trump administration announced the suspension of all travel to the US from Europe.

In the current climate of fear and closed borders, I’m reminded of what a privilege it is to travel around the world to do research and share ideas.

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Working and praying for peace in Ethiopia

Last month Ethiopia’s prime minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Felix Girke and I wrote an article in The Guardian on his achievements and on the challenges that remain.

We applauded his efforts in making peace with Eritrea and opening up political space at home. We also noted the sad irony in the timing of the award, for at the moment when the prime minister was being lauded for securing peace, Ethiopia has been experiencing a wave of violence.

In the last week of October, at least 86 were killed in cities across Ethiopia, and many more injured. People receiving treatment for their injuries in Adama, 100 km southeast of Addis Ababa, spoke of being attacked on account of the language they spoke – or for not joining in attacks themselves. Others said their injuries were due to security forces opening fire on crowds.

The situation outside the cities is harder to follow. In the Lower Omo region, where I have worked, there is little representation by national or international media. News is therefore filtering out piecemeal.

Last week, Concerned Scholars for Ethiopia released a memo documenting the deaths of at least 38 people at the hands of security forces in the past two months.  The youngest victim was reportedly a 10-month-old baby, and the eldest a man around 90 years old.

The victims were members of the Bodi, a group numbering around ten thousand people. The Bodi (who call themselves Me’en or Mela) are one of approximately a dozen ethno-linguistic groups who have lived in the Lower Omo for generations.

Both in the cities and in the Lower Omo, violence appears to be occurring along ethnic lines. This is troubling for many reasons, not least because it threatens the project of ethnic federalism on which Ethiopia’s post-Cold War order was founded.

Although the principle and practice of ethnic federalism have not always matched, it still seems the best option – perhaps the only viable option – for bringing those who live within Ethiopia’s borders together, and uniting them in mutual respect. The success or failure of this project should be of concern to people everywhere.

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Thinking outside the basin

This week I had the honour of delivering a keynote at the first International Conference of Water Security in Toronto. The conference, which also launched a new journal devoted to the topic, brought together 150 people from hydrology, engineering, and the social sciences, as well as folks from institutes dedicated to water studies.

albania banknote dam

The monetization of water. Albanian banknote with image of a hydroelectric dam (1964).

The outstanding talk of the conference for me was by Rob de Loë, professor at the University of Waterloo and advisor to the joint Canadian-US commission on the Great Lakes. Toronto, where the conference took place, sits on the edge of one of these lakes, which together account for some 20% of the world’s fresh water. In trying to protect a resource like the Great Lakes, de Loë argued, you have to think about more than just the people and economic activities in the basin. When it comes to the toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie, for example, the upstream factors include not only the use of phosphorus-rich fertilizers by the region’s corn farmers, but also longstanding US agricultural policies that promote the production of corn for conversion to biofuel (ethanol).

The biofuels policy isn’t conventionally on the radar for “water people”, but it’s arguably one of the most important parts of the problem.

This made me think anew about the work I’ve been doing with the Omo-Turkana Research Network.  In trying to get together as many researchers as possible who work in the Omo River basin, have we been barking up the wrong tree? Would we do better to target people and processes that operate outside the basin, but impinge on it – like the global hydroelectricity industry, or the sugar trade? Clearly, the conversion of the waters of the Omo into globally-tradable commodities — itself one of the most important steps in the process of displacement that’s playing out in the region —  wouldn’t be possible without these interest groups.

And yet to do research on the sugar or hydro industries without attending to the places and people affected by them is also to miss a big piece of the story. The challenge, I suppose, is striking the right balance between the local and the global.

I came away from the conference with a new sense of the urgency of finding a common language for talking about threats to water resources and the people who depend on them – both in conversations between researchers and other members of the public, and within the community of researchers. Each of us holds a different piece of the puzzle.

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Books of 2017

The books I’ve read this year ask some big questions: How can we understand cultural diversity? How do classic works of social science come into being? What makes humans care for and do violence to each other? The issues fall into three buckets, which might be labelled cultural bias, the history of ideas, and human biology. They’ve made me think about how we relate to each other, and how anthropology relates to other disciplines.

1. Cultural diversity

What are the most important ways in which societies around the world differ? If you were forced to give a single answer, you could do worse than saying some value individual freedom over social relationships, and others value relationships over freedom. [1]

A problem with this view is that it takes societies to be homogeneous, whereas some of the most striking ideological divides are found not between societies, but (as Trump and the Brexiteers remind me) within them.

One school of thought that accounts neatly for this state of affairs is the ‘Culture Theory’ school of Mary Douglas. [2] The basic idea here is that viable ways of life can be characterized along two dimensions, hierarchy-egalitarianism and individualism-collectivism. This produces at least four sets of ideals about how to relate to others, and what kinds of power people can rightfully hold. Proponents of this theory call it “a middle ground between [a view that illuminates] what all social systems share in common (not very interesting) and [those that highlight] what is unique to each social system (fascinating but unrelated to anything else).” [3]

I’ve found it useful in teaching medical anthropology this year — showing how the same problem, for example how to secure access to clean water for people who lack it, can suggest strikingly different solutions depending on the ideological spectacles you wear.

2. How to make a canon

Within the egalitarian world-view, one of the most influential traditions is Marxism. If I were recommending one book on this tradition for an interested novice, it would be Francis Wheen’s ‘biography’ of Das Kapital. Rather than taking Marxism, or Marx himself, as his subject, Wheen deals with his magnum opus: how it came to be written (its gestation), its publication (birth), and its reception and interpretation (afterlife). [4]

This could usefully be read alongside other work on what might be called the social lives of books (e.g. da Silva & Bucholc on how Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process gained its place in the sociological canon [5]). The question of what constitutes a “classic” remains a live one. [6]

3. Humans at our best and worst

The other book that marked the year for me deals with human biology, in a broad sense. Like Melvin Konner’s The tangled wing (which he cites as an inspiration), Robert Sapolsky’s Behave contains more food for thought than one would get from most undergraduate courses in anthropology. [7,8]

The material ranges from neuroscience and endocrinology to honour killings and the human tendency to think in terms of Us and Them. The trope Sapolsky uses for tying all this together is the various timescales over which human behaviour is influenced, from hormonal profiles to childhood experience, cultural traditions, and evolutionary history. Under chapter headings like ‘One second before…’, ‘Hours to days before…’ and ‘Back to when you were just a fertilized egg,’ he works backwards from a stereotypical ‘behavior’ (pulling a trigger, or caressing someone’s arm) to the various experiences that influenced it.

Rather than reading this book linearly, I’ve skipped around, and I won’t pretend I can sum it all up. But one strong point is right there in the Introduction. Interdisciplinarity, rather than being a weak position of wishy-washy types insecure in their own disciplines, is actually a vital necessity for a healthy academy, and by extension for a healthy society — i.e. one less likely to be hijacked by blinkered ideologists. One of the things that unites the behaviorism of John Watson, the Nazi eugenics of Konrad Lorenz, and the work of neurologist (and advocate of frontal lobotomies) Egas Moniz, Sapolsky writes, is a tendency to believe too much in the narrow view of the world their discipline (or sub-discipline) affords. All of these thinkers were, he argues, pathologically trapped in their own buckets.

“Be open to new light from wherever it may come”

The more I learn about the history of the social sciences, the more important this process of bucket-making seems. So much academic energy appears to be devoted to boundary-maintenance, attempts to take and hold territory. [9, 10] One of the things I love about anthropology is its breadth – its openness, as Quakers say, to light from wherever it may come. [11] This characteristic of anthropology shouldn’t be taken for granted. Rather, it has to be actively worked at. Just as with human relationships, and relationships between cultures, so relationships between disciplines need to be nurtured to prevent boundaries from hardening, sects from forming.

In this new year, I’m lucky to be working on two new research projects in Ethiopia and Kenya – collaborating with political scientists, geographers, environmental scientists, and peace researchers.

Will we understand each other? Will sparks fly? Stay tuned to find out!



[1] Ralf Dahrendorf called this a contrast between ‘bonds’ and ‘options’. See his book, Life chances: approaches to social and political theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1979).

[2]  Douglas, M. (1978). Cultural Bias. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

[3] Thompson, M., Ellis, R. J., & Wildavsky, A. B. (1990). Cultural theory. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. (p. 171)

[4] Wheen, F. (2008). Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. Grove Press.

[5] Da Silva, F. C., & Bucholc, M. (2016). On the Pragmatics of Social Theory: The Case of Elias’s “on the Process of Civilization.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 52(4), 392–407.

[6] Col, G. da, Sopranzetti, C., Myers, F., Piliavsky, A., Jackson, J. L., Bonilla, Y., … Stoller, P. (2017). Why do we read the classics? HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7(3), 1–38. [open-source]

[7] Konner, M. (2003). The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. Henry Holt and Company.

[8] Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York, New York: Penguin Press.

[9] Meloni, M. (2016). The Transcendence of the Social: Durkheim, Weismann, and the Purification of Sociology. Frontiers in Sociology, 1. [open-source]

[10] Mitchell, T. (2005). The work of economics: how a discipline makes its world. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 46(02), 297–320.

[11] Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. (2013) Quaker Faith and Practice. (Chapter 26: Reflections). London.


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Talking shit

Last week at UCL, Sjaak van der Geest of the University of Amsterdam gave a stimulating talk on the topic of faeces. His point of departure was the great 16th-century humanist Erasmus’ observation that his own shit was “bland” to him – not as awful to behold as that of others.

Why should that be? The principal explanatory framework that Sjaak invoked came from the the social anthropologist Mary Douglas. In Purity and Danger, Douglas argued that ideas of pollution in general are explicable on the basis of the degree to which they violate conceptual order. In Douglas’ terms, it’s not the (fecal) “matter” itself that’s dirty, only “matter out of place”. Since our own faeces are necessary and expectable, we’ll not be offended by them – provided we have access to a more-or-less private place to dispose of them.

Sjaak took this further: Next to our own, he argued, we’re likely to find the shit of our children or partners less disgusting than that of others, and so on. The less intimacy with the shitter, the more disgusting the shit.

Some of Sjaak’s examples of shit being “in place” – and therefore not eliciting feelings of disgust – went beyond the sphere of the intimate. For example, night-soil collectors, plumbers working in sewers, and nurses caring for patients who are incontinent, all may handle the faeces of relative strangers regularly, as part of their work. In a different place (for example on their sandwiches at lunchtime) the same stuff would be disgusting.

But in these cases, one might argue, couldn’t the absence of disgust be explained more parsimoniously by habituation? Or could both kinds of learning be involved?


There are other possible explanations too. The same phenomena Sjaak sought to explain by reference to social relations might also be explained from the point of view of disease ecology. A large literature from behavioural science and public health has looked at faeces from this perspective (e.g. Curtis & Biran 2001). From this perspective, we find our own shit less disgusting than others’, most of the time, because our own is unlikely to contain pathogens that are harmful to us. Those of our nearest and dearest, although they may harbour harmful pathogens, are less likely to do so than those of more distant contacts, because of shared environment.

Raising these alternative explanations isn’t to say that social relations aren’t important. They’re simply different levels of explanation.

This reminds me of Robert Sapolsky’s argument that, where human behaviour is concerned, explanation in terms of any one level of causation is almost always inadequate. Multilevel causation is the norm. Much of what we do and feel is shaped by culture: the network of concepts, symbols and habits that we learn as we grow up. But not all of it. A large part of what we feel and do is not explicable purely in terms of individual or social learning.

Nevertheless there’s a tendency within disciplines to focus on their own favoured explanatory frameworks to the exclusion of others – symbolism for social anthropologists, pathogen exposure for public health folks, and so on. It’s challenging to speak from a position of confidence about what makes humans tick – even about something as at first sight as simple as our relationship to dirt – without denying the validity of other levels of explanation. But that’s the challenge of a catholic anthropology (that is to say, one that embraces multiple ways of thinking about humankind).

This post originally appeared on the UCL Medical Anthropology blog, where it is accompanied by a response from Sjaak van der Geest.


Curtis, V., & Biran, A. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease. Is hygiene in our genes? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44(1), 17–31.

Douglas, M. 2000 [1966]. Purity and danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.

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*New paper* ‘Do our bodies know their ways?’ Villagization, food insecurity, and ill-being in Ethiopia’s lower Omo valley

Some results from my research in Ethiopia are now available, ahead of publication in African Studies Review. The paper, co-authored with Lucie Buffavand, is a product of several years work in the lower Omo valley, where a massive hydroelectric dam and sugar plantations are reshaping the landscape and people’s opportunities to live within it. We investigated the experience of people subjected to a campaign of ‘villagization’ – resettlement associated with the establishment of plantations on lands previously used for farming, herding, and foraging.

At the heart of the article is ethnographic work that Lucie carried out among the Bodi, who were the first people in the region to be displaced by plantations. These ethnographic data are juxtaposed with a survey of food insecurity that I coordinated in the villagization sites and in a community not yet subjected to villagization.

One of our main findings is that the food insecurity survey (which resembles the data that policy makers might use to evaluate the villagization scheme) fundamentally misrepresents the situation on the ground. In government-designed villages, people reported less intense food insecurity, but this was not because the techniques of irrigated agriculture they’d been introduced to were working, but rather because the government was giving them food aid to tide them over. The ethnographic data make it abundantly clear that food security in a broader sense – a sense of confidence about supporting oneself in the long term – was better in those communities still able to make a living from their herds, from rain-fed fields, and from river-bank cultivation.

Ethnography also sheds light on the texture of life in the villagization sites, including the disruption and the isolation that the move entailed. “Do our bodies know their ways?” is a question asked by a man who was struggling to make it in one of the new villages, and who chafed at the conditions imposed by the scheme’s architects. He lamented the loss of old routines. Small pleasures like drinking coffee with your friends take on new importance when the circumstances you live in make them impossible.

shelter from sun

During a break from weeding, workers rig up a makeshift shelter and drink local beer.

The paper illustrates something I stress when I teach anthropological research methods, namely the value of using mixed methods. By holding the household survey data up to the light of ethnography, we got a better sense of what each represented than we would have done had we used one or the other method alone.

Since we carried out our research, things have gotten even more difficult for people in the lower Omo valley. In 2016, completion of the Gibe III dam led to the end of the annual flood that was the lifeblood of the region. Deprived of a reliable source of water for growing their crops, the Bodi and their neighbours are paying the costs of development, while others of us reap the benefits.




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Living on a fault-line

Or, the challenge of thinking geologically.

Last week I attended the Oxford Desert Conference, to bang the drum about work my colleagues and I are doing in the Turkana basin (stay tuned for more on that). I came away reminded of some important ideas that I’d not thought about for a long time.

The stand-out paper for me was about geology and cities. Richard Walker, a geologist who’s carried out long-term research in Iran, showed that several of the country’s cities are located at points of seismic instability. The places where you find the most people, in other words, also tend to be places with the highest risk of earthquakes.

Why? Because that’s also where groundwater is most likely to seep up through fissures in rock. And in arid or semi-arid parts of the world, the major limiting factor for life is water.

This phenomenon – the coincidence of settlements, springs, and seismic instability – is something I’d encountered 20 years ago, during my days as an archaeologist. From a season working on a field survey in north-central Turkey, one of the things that I remember most clearly is that scatters of pottery (the remnants of long-buried settlements) were most common along geological fault-lines.

This stuck with me because I recognized that it was emblematic of an important dimension of human experience that lies beyond ordinary perception. The choice of where to live (one of the most important decisions we make) is rarely one we make independently. And these communal decisions often expose us to substantial risks – risks that are often difficult to quantify, but real ones nonetheless.

Here, as often, global warming comes to mind. Like the tempo of earthquakes, the time horizon on which climate change plays out is longer than the one we ordinarily think with. Perhaps our brains aren’t wired to deal with slow-burning problems like these, as George Marshall has argued. [1]

That we’re vulnerable and short-sighted isn’t news. But we’re better equipped to make decisions (choosing where to live, or how to mitigate the risks of climate change) if we recognize the constraints we operate under.

As Jerome Bruner has written, “We cannot adapt to everything, and in designing a way to the future, we would do well to examine what we are and what our limits are.” [2]


[1] Marshall, G. 2014. Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury.

[2] Bruner, J. 1972. The nature and uses of immaturity. American Psychologist, 27, 8, 687-708.

My thanks to Troy Sternberg for the invitation to attend the conference in Oxford.


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