Between the Lines: November-December 2005

November 30, 2005

 

Pulchritude" is the one word I highlighted with a big, curious question mark in my freshman-year anthropology text, Patterns of Culture. Author Ruth Benedict discusses the value of probing primitive societies, then outlines the puberty rites of the Nandi tribe in East Africa. "In the region where feminine beauty is all but identified with obesity, the girl at puberty is ... fed with sweet and fatty foods, allowed no activity, and her body rubbed assiduously with oils," she writes. "It is not regarded as necessary for the man to achieve pulchritude"--that is, a similar state of comeliness.

Anthropology has become much less focused on the exotic and much more on the edgy. That's one lesson from the case of Yektan Turkyilmaz, described in this issue. Turkyilmaz, a graduate student in cultural anthropology and a Turk of Kurdish descent, spent more than two months imprisoned in Armenia, charged with obscure offenses. Armenians remain bitter about being victimized by Turkey in the twentieth century's first genocide; Turkyilmaz is committed to studying that period.

In an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Orin Starn, Turkyilmaz's dissertation adviser, observes that his student's story points to changes in the field of anthropology. "In the hoary old days of the pith helmet, native porters, and steamer-trunk expeditions to Samoa and Congo," he notes, "anthropologists noted the minutiae of kinship structures and tribal ritual down to the last cowrie shell." Those old-time anthropologists tended to shy away from writing about "less comfortable realities." Now, he continues, Duke students are doing dissertations about Mexico's Zapatista rebels and anti-globalization activism, everyday life and women's rights in Castro's Cuba, and Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon.

Turkyilmaz's experience signals that scholarly investigation can matter. It also accents the risks of asking difficult questions in difficult places.