Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The apocryphal Fernando Pessoa and the imagined Pope Francis

I admire Pope Francis greatly, but the “Being Happy” passage attributed to him and going viral in the Philippines is not by him, but is the English translation of a Portuguese text entitled "Palco de vida" attributed to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Interestingly however, his authorship of this work has also been questioned, and Portuguese scholars believe that the text took a life of its own, beginning with a few lines written by a Brazilian blogger named Nox (see this link for a discussion in January 2006 about the authorship of this text). Rui Araújo writes:

Apparently the phrases took own life and spread throughout Lusophone internet with variations in scoring and attribution of authorship. Then someone decided to take a poem (possibly Augusto Cury, author of Ten Laws to Be Happy), paste such a small piece at the end and distribute everything as if it were the work of Fernando Pessoa. It did not take long for my three phrases start popping the network attributed to Portuguese poet (after all, it is always nice quote a famous Portuguese writer who almost unknown Brazilian blogger).

Fast forward to September 2015, and the Facebook page of a Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle and Mary, Mother of the Church, Catholic group in Kenya, shared the same passages, attributing to Pope Francis - in, as far as I've seen, the first time it's been ascribed to him. See this link for the original post.

This reminds me of the Pope Francis' supposed response to Duterte's "cursing" him. Though it was disclaimed to be "fake news" (see the original source here), the same fake news website noted:
It was made clear by the unknown source that the news regarding the reaction of the Pope to Duterte was all fictional. But that doesn't stop Filipinos from quoting the said website and spreading images of the Pope with the caption:
"I was amazed by the fact that a politician who is aiming at the highest position could be this honest. It was a first encounter for me to see a politician being honest about his concerns for his country other than kissing my hands for the sole purpose of getting the support of the majority of the Catholic population."
If we admire the Pope, let’s not put words in his mouth. And let us be vigilant in this world of social media when all you need is a face and a phrase to put words on people’s mouths.

Here are the original sources of the supposed "Being Happy" words of wisdom by Pope Francis (sourced from this link and checked against other sources):

PALCO DE VIDA (Attributed to early 20th century Fernando Pessoa but widely disputed by scholars)

“Você pode ter defeitos, viver ansioso e ficar irritado algumas vezes,
mas não se esqueça de que sua vida é a maior empresa do mundo. E você
pode evitar que ela vá à falência.

Há muitas pessoas que precisam, admiram e torcem por você. Gostaria
que você sempre se lembrasse de que ser feliz não é ter um céu sem
tempestade, caminhos sem acidentes, trabalhos sem fadigas,
relacionamentos sem desilusões.

Ser feliz é encontrar força no perdão, esperança nas batalhas,
segurança no palco do medo, amor nos desencontros.

Ser feliz não é apenas valorizar o sorriso, mas refletir sobre a
tristeza. Não é apenas comemorar o sucesso, mas aprender lições nos
fracassos. Não é apenas ter júbilo nos aplausos, mas encontrar alegria
no anonimato.

Ser feliz é reconhecer que vale a pena viver, apesar de todos os
desafios, incompreensões e períodos de crise.

Ser feliz é deixar de ser vítima dos problemas e se tornar um autor da
própria história. É atravessar desertos fora de si, mas ser capaz de
encontrar um oásis no recôndito da sua alma.

Ser feliz é não ter medo dos próprios sentimentos. É saber falar de si
mesmo. É ter coragem para ouvir um “não”. É ter segurança para receber
uma crítica, mesmo que injusta.

Ser feliz é deixar viver a criança livre, alegre e simples, que mora
dentro de cada um de nós. É ter maturidade para falar “eu errei”. É
ter ousadia para dizer “me perdoe”. É ter sensibilidade para expressar
“eu preciso de você”. É ter capacidade de dizer “eu te amo”. É ter
humildade da receptividade.

Desejo que a vida se torne um canteiro de oportunidades para você ser
feliz… E, quando você errar o caminho, recomece, pois assim você
descobrirá que ser feliz não é ter uma vida perfeita, mas usar as
lágrimas para irrigar a tolerância.

Usar as perdas para refinar a paciência.
Usar as falhas para lapidar o prazer.
Usar os obstáculos para abrir as janelas da inteligência.

Jamais desista de si mesmo.
Jamais desista das pessoas que você ama.
Jamais desista de ser feliz, pois a vida é um espetáculo imperdível,
ainda que se apresentem dezenas de fatores a demonstrarem o contrário.

Pedras no caminho? Guardo todas… Um dia vou construir um castelo.”


“You may have flaws, live anxious, and sometimes get angry, but never forget that your life is the biggest company in the world. And you can keep it from going bankrupt.
There are many people who need, admire and cheer for you.
I wish that you always remember that being happy is not having a sky without storms, paths without accidents, work without fatigue, relationships without disappointments.
Being happy is finding strength in forgiveness, hope in battles, security in fear, love in disagreements.
Being happy is not only appreciating the smiles, but reflecting on the sadness.
It is not just celebrating the success, but also learning lessons in failures.
Not only having joy in applause, but finding joy in anonymity.
Being happy is recognizing that life is worth living, despite all the challenges, misunderstandings and periods of crisis.
Being happy is no longer being a victim of the problems and becoming an author of history itself. It is crossing deserts outside of yourself, but being able to find an oasis in the secret of your soul.
It is thanking God every morning for the miracle of life.
Being happy is not being afraid of your own feelings. It’s knowing how to talk to yourself.
It’s the courage to hear a “No” and be confident enough to receive criticism, although sometimes untrue.
Being happy is to let the child living within us to live free, happy and simple.
It is having the needed maturity to say “I was wrong”.
It is having the essential courage to say “forgive me”.
It is having the indispensable sensibility to say “I need you”.
It is being able to say “I love you”.
It is having the humility of receptivity.
I want life to be a hotbed of opportunities and that you be happy. And when you go astray, start again. This way, you will find that being happy is not having a perfect life, but using tears to irrigate tolerance. Using losses to refine patience.
Using failures to reach prayer.
Using obstacles to open the windows of intelligence.
Never give up hope.
Never give up the people you love.
Never give up on being happy, because life is a no-miss obstacle, even if it gives you dozens of reasons to demonstrate the contrary.

Stones on the way? I keep them all … One day I’ll build a castle!”

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Notes on Malinowski's contributions in anthropological thinking

Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands 
by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

Bronisław Malinowski, widely regarded as one of the greatest anthropologists of the 20th century, and one of the founding fathers of the ethnographic tradition. His ethnographies, set in Papua New Guinea during World War I, are classics because they are remarkably detailed and comprehensive, setting the standard for anthropologists. Although he is closely associated with the functionalism school of British anthropology which he founded, I can see many ways to relate his work to various schools of thought such as psychological anthropology and neoevolutionism.

Psychological anthropology is an attempt to weave together ‘self’ and ‘culture’, which was previously the exclusive projects of psychology (ala Freud) and anthropology (ala Boas) respectively. Its early exponents were students of Franz Boas: Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir. One early idea was that culture was ‘personality writ large’ and that cultures can have distinct personalities, and modal personalities do exist for particular cultures. Mead’s contribution was that childhood development was a crucial aspect of personality, and therefore is an important stage where culture is inscribed.

I can think of three contributions of Malinowski to this effort. First, methodologically, he calls for ethnography not just to focus on the ‘organization of the tribe’ and the ‘imponderabilia of actual life’ but also the ‘typical utterances, items of folklore and magical formulae’ as ‘documents of native mentality', a nod to the importance of psychology in anthropology. James Frazer, in his preface to Argonauts, recognized the significance of this methodological turn:
He [Malinowski] has wisely refused to limit himself to a mere description of the processes of the [kula] exchange, and has set himself to penetrate the motives which underlie it and the feelings which it excites in the minds of the natives. It appears to be sometimes held that pure sociology should confine itself to the description of acts and should leave the problems of motives and feeling to psychology. Doubtless, it is true that the analysis of motives and feelings is logically distinguishable from the description of acts, and that it falls, strictly speaking, within the sphere of psychology; but in practice an act has no meaning for an observer unless he knows or infers the thoughts and emotiions of the agent; hence to describe a series of acts, without any reference to the state of mind of the agent, would not answer the purpose of sociology, the aim of which is not merely to register but to understand the actions of men in society. Thus sociology cannot fulfil its task without calling in at every turn the aid of psychology. 

Second, he paid attention to the childhood and adolescence of the islanders, foreshadowing Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. From this work on young people, he gives his third contribution, which is to debunk the universality of the Oedipus complex. In Sex and Repression in Savage Society (1927), he presents an entirely different kinship system - matriarchal uncles as "father figures" for boys - as the context in which psychosexual development is different; boys do not develop sexual jealousy for their fathers.

In searching for a number of rationales – from the material to the symbolic - that underline the Kula system, he also foreshadowed the interest of neoevolutionists and cultural ecologists in looking at materialist explanations for social phenonenoma. Moreover, as Moore says in Visions of Culture (p. 144):
Malinowski has been very influential, particularly on lines of anthropological theory emphasizing the adapative significance of culture. The ecological anthropology of the 1960s and 1970s took Malinowski’s basic insights, recast them as hypothesis, and tested them with quantitative data…
Moreover, Malinowski’s functionalist perspective was adopted by Leslie White, with the key difference of looking at the needs of the species instead of the needs of the individual.

Truly Malinowski’s influence is significant and can be seen across various subfields and schools of thought in anthropology.


Malinowski, B., & Frazer, J. G. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific, an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, by Bronislaw Malinowski,... With a Preface by Sir James George Frazer,... G. Routledge and sons.

Moore, J. D. (2000). Visions of culture: an introduction to anthropological theories and theorists. AltaMira Press

Reflections on the Nancy Scheper-Hughes vs. Roy d'Andrade debate

Nancy Scheper-Hughes in action (Photo: Viviane Moos)
by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

One can feel the disgust of Roy d’Andrade in his denunciation of the seepage of a “moral model” in anthropology, especially in the wake of Scheper-Hughes’s Conrad-ian battlecry. It it as if he were a churchgoer made to be feel guilty of not making a donation - or a pedestrian made to feel bad at not giving alms to the homeless when all the others are giving five-dollar bills. “I’m still a good person!” he protests.

In this short response, I will focus my critique on d’Andrade’s usage of “morality”, his simplistic view of what critical anthropologists have been doing all along, and his failure to offer an alternative.

The world is a moral terrain and navigating it doesn’t necessarily make you a “moralist”. d’Andrade’s critique of “oppression-as-badness” conflates “moralizing” with simply seeing things as they are. Oppression is “bad”, but its badness can be incidental to its existence. “Since when is evil exempt from human reality?” as Scheper-Hughes counters.

Moreover, as ethnographers have demonstrated time and again, writing about “oppression” or “suffering” do not generate a “negative view” of the world that d’Andrade fears, but actually, a more textured view of power: there is resistance, contestation, struggle, and unexpected trajectories. Here, d’Andrade forgets that the very strength of anthropology is its microscopic view, its power to animate the ‘field’ but showing its complexity.

More glaring is his carte blanche denunciation of these “moral models” without providing any kind of viable alternative. His piece would have been more powerful had he followed a “show, not tell” approach, that is, by using ethnography to argue for his points, and in doing so, provide a model for the “value free”, “objective” anthropology that he has nostalgia for (here, Scheper-Hughes scores more points). Neither does he reflect on how we can arrive at “empirically demonstrable truths.” Then as now, a thoughtful consideration of what “interpretation” means in anthropology would have been most welcome. But in failing to offer a credible alternative, he himself is guilty of his critique of having  a “model [that] is almost entirely negative in character.”

In fairness to d’Andrade, I think he is warranted in his concern in an "unreflexive assumption that one is a member of an elect that by natural grace knows what is right, and this elect consists of those who hold the current moral model.” A priori assumptions based on clear agendas can definitely diminish the power of anthropology, not just methodologically but in the way people will receive our work. Which is why, in short, neither can I subscribe to Scheper-Hughes view at the opposite pole of this debate.

My stand is to see ethnography not just only a methodology, but also an episteme of my morality/politics as an anthropologist. By simply discovering and then illuminating “what is at stake” for our informants (Kleinman, 1997), I believe that we can preserve our “moral authority” (d’Andrade) but at the same time fulfill our “ethical obligation” (Scheper-Hughes). Let me end, however, with the caveat that given the immanence of politics in the production of knowledge (i.e. in selecting topics for research), this is easier said than done.

St. Louis, Missouri
April 2015

Brief comment: Nancy Scheper-Hughes and the "socially unborn"

By Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

“In the absence of a firm expectation that a child will survive, mother love as we conceptualize it (whether in popular terms or in the psychobiological notion of maternal bonding) is attenuated and delayed with consequences for infant survival. In an environment already precarious to young life, the emotional detachment of mothers towards their babies contributes even further to the spiral of high mortality-high fertility in a kind of macabre dance of death.” - Death Without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (pp. 325-326)

A classic example of a critical-interpretive approach in anthropology, Death Without Weeping illuminates the seemingly-contradictory notions of motherhood and 'passive infanticide' by contextualizing women's lives in a shantytown in Brazil. First describing how this 'lifeboat morality' is experienced by mothers through vignettes and her own reflections in decades, she takes us from the personal to the institutional, revealing at the end of the paper how the state and the church are complicit – or at least, apathetic, to what is going on. Filled with pathos for the babies, Scheper Hughes offers an indictment not of the mothers themselves but of the society that allows such "violence" to take place.

Scheper-Hughes’ work is associated with works on social suffering, “the "collective and individual human suffering associated with life conditions shaped by powerful social forces" (Kleinman) – a theme she pursued in latter works (Scheper-Hughes, 1998). In the latter  This reminds me of the position of Kleinman and Kleinman (1991) that “a central orienting question in ethnography should be to interpret what is at stake for particular participants in particular situations.” In the case of Scheper-Hughes, she privileges the death of infants – the ‘death without weeping’ as the thing at stake in this particular specific situation.

The title, 'Death without weeping', provokes us based on the underlying assumption that all of us expect death to be worth weeping over, and conversely, human life is important. But we know that this is not the case. Life and death, far from distinct categories, are bridged by states of liminality, which has necessitated the creation of terms like 'social death' (Sweeting and Gilhooly, 1997), and in the case, what we construe as the 'socially unborn'. How can anthropology help us reflect - philosophically, critically - on the differential values of human lives?

Brief comment: Words and numbers in public health nutrition

By Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

"In the field of global public health where well being is dominated by the numerical alchemy of measurement, the work of describing that which eludes measurement remains a challenge for anthropology." Complex carbohydrates - on the relevance of ethnography in nutrition education by Emily Yates-Doerr

In her short article about transporting a gift from Guatemala to New York, and reflecting on the significance of that gift - which happened to be some loaves of bread - Emily Yates-Doerr speaks in two levels, both of which are conveyed by the quote I chose.

The first is a call for ethnography in nutrition. People don't really think in terms of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. There is more to food than what it is made of physically. Eating can mean remembering - as in the article, feeling happy, and many more emotions. Significantly, even the implementors of nutrition initiatives concede that the programs don't work. The limited resources make it difficult to. Though  Yates-Doerr doesn't offer anything concrete in terms of what might actually work (which would have been nice, but I also understand the limited goals of such a short article) - she hints at the right way to find out.

Secondly, she reflects on the relevance of ethnography itself, in general terms, and what it can contribute to fields such as global public health, development. What follows my chosen quote elaborates on this: "the challenge of representing aspects of life that will never be fixed is not small, but the value of complexity makes a case not only for the importance of ethnographic knowledge but also for its importance well beyond the field of anthropology."

This role of ethnography in describing complexity also surfaces in Robert Pool's work; in his case the complexity is that of sensation, what is felt, what is experienced. Annemarie Mol's more theoretical peregrination on the subject of taste - incidentally a fine example of an attempt to capture and convey complexity - has an epistemic concern that echo Doerr's anxiety over measurements: "in the act of testing, knowing and intervening intertwine." Finally, as I embark on my own research about height I am sensitized to the importance of meaning over measurements; and how certain physical measures may be magnified in its social construction. The small differences in height among humans, for instance, create difference, which are reproduced in various forms. Measurements are meaningful in ways beyond their power to indicate certain things,  and even when they are seen as such, they are still limited in their ability to express complexity.  Anthropology addresses these by foregrounding words over numbers, a "thick description" of what Malinowski calls the "imponderabilia" of life over a mathematical formula.

Looking at the quote again, I would like to refine its last sentence. It is not only a challenge for anthropology, it is the challenge for anthropology. But how can we anthropologists assert our voices in a world where numbers are more important than words?

December 2013

Brief comment: "Being in the ward" - Patients' perspectives on hospitalization

by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

“To be on this ward means I have to be ready to agree, always pretending I know nothing and that my body does not react to medications in ways that the doctor will interpret as my hidden resistance. Therefore, I may not even ask to change the medicines that are hurting me. (Mr Ndege, 54, multiple myeloma) in "Patients’ perspectives on hospitalisation: Experiences from a cancer ward in Kenya" by D. Mulemi

This quotation - actually from one of the cancer patients interviewed - captures what the author wishes to convey, which is the deprivation of agency and a passive role in the healing process that lead to disillusionment and despair. By demonstrating that the health care providers’ version of care actually leads to a form of hidden suffering that coexists with the suffering brought about by illness, Mulemi makes the point that dissonant expectations between doctors and patients can lead to poor outcomes, construed broadly to include decreased quality of life. Moreover, his insight that "patients’ acquiescence might not be consistent with the medical perspective of compliance” has implications for clinical practice, problematizing notions of compliance and consent even when on the surface it is “voluntary and informed”. 

In reading the text, I am somewhat reminded of Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic in which the hospital was seen a site where medicine and disease blurs in the process of making each other visible. What Foucault lacks in his master narrative, however, is how such transformations of the clinic (and thus of ‘care’) is experienced by patients, and hospital anthropology affords us this view.

The context here is important: the hospital is for poor, charity patients who do not have financial leverage and healthcare choices are very limited. These structural constraints, as alluded to in the paper, can be explored further. Following Geest and Finkler’s contention that “the hospital is not an island but an important part of the mainland” (2004:1998), what social realities does the hospital in this particular setting reproduce? Or is there a relation of power between doctor and patient that is produced independently of their cultural and socio-economic divide -  a uniqueness of place that suspends social relations to some extent, as Taussig (1980) might suggest? I think these questions can be answered by further characterizing the patients in this study, not simply as “poor” but looking into their different backgrounds, as poverty is not a fixed category, but a spectrum of categories. Or perhaps studying other socio-economic classes in the same area. Have poor people, amidst the commonness of their predicament, become a “marginalized majority” (de Certeau, 1984)?

December 2013

Brief comment: Disclosure and silence among HIV activists in Zanzibar

by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

"The desire to live a normal life demands silences in particular social contexts"  - "Faidha gani? What’s the point: HIV and the logics of (non)-disclosure among young activists in Zanzibar by Eileen Moyer

In the advent of antiretroviral therapies in Zanzibar, what are the challenges that are faced by young activists with HIV as they 'live positively'? In this article, Eileen Moyer identifies disclosure and non-disclosure as an important issue for these individuals. Responding to the notion that non-disclosure is a response to stigma, she draws on the life of a couple - Miki and Zainab – to make the point that more is at stake in the ‘silence’ of people living with HIV. This is in spite of the global assumption that disclosure is good and disclosure is a way to flight stigma (p. 68) that the activists themselves ‘subscribe’ to – but Moyer recasts this subscription as more of acquiescence (p. 70).

Moyer points out that "the desire to live a normal life" is a key struggle for people living with HIV, and spends a good part of the article illustrating what a ‘normal life’ means. Components of a normal life she identifies include “marriage, family relations, work and child bearing” (p. 73). Disclosure disrupts these components in many ways. For instance, she cites an informant who says that “informing a loved one of one’s HIV status still brings pain” and she narrates issues of trust and mistrust in Miki and Zainab’s marriage that has to do with their respective (non)-disclosures.

In a sense, there is ‘performativity’ in having HIV/AIDS: disclosure has a (disruptive) social impact even if people already have previous assumptions of what an individual’s HIV status is. Thus, the global discourses on the importance of disclosure notwithstanding, it is understandable that for people living with HIV, there is no point  - Faidha gani  - in disclosure, when what is demanded of them is silence.

What I find interesting in this article is that there is so much at stake in individuals’ notion of what constitutes a ‘normal’ or acceptable life. When Alex Edmonds speaks of a ‘necessary’ vanity in Brazil, he is also drawing on norms of beauty – a ‘particular standard of living’ that makes plastic surgery socially acceptable in Brazil. But with HIV and plastic surgery being both recent phenomena, how do we the chart the genesis – and the evolution – of these ‘normatives’? How does ‘normal’ change? This I believe is an important and enduring question for medical anthropologists as we reconfigure our lenses to deal with both illness and wellness; both suffering and ‘desire’ and as we confront new medical technologies and challenges.


Edmonds, Alexander. (2011). A ‘Necessary Vanity’. New York Times, August 13, 2011 Available: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/13/a-necessary-vanity/?_r=0 Accessed 6 Nov 2013

Moyer, E. (2012). Faidha gani? What's the point: HIV and the logics of (non)-disclosure among young activists in Zanzibar. Culture, health & sexuality, 14(sup1), S67-S79.

Brief comment: Efficacy in the hands of clinical trial participants

by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

"...it is not only medical professionals who are determining the efficacy of these pharmaceuticals. So too are the individuals enrolled in the trial. Any pharmaceutical or medical product will most likely only be used if people consider it to be effective and appropriate." - Gelling medical knowledge: innovative pharmaceuticals, experience, and perceptions of efficacy (Saethre and Stadler, 2009) 

In their paper, Saethre and Stadler (2009) give voice to participants in a clinical trial of a vaginal microbicidal gel in South Africa, saying that these participants and their partners ascribe various parameters to the gel independently of and prior to the establishment of the gel’s effects by the scientists, and regardless of what they were actually getting – the gel itself or a placebo. These parameters, they suggest, draw on local notions of gynecology and physiology, as well as their own ‘felt’ experiences of using the gel.

Theoretically, there is nothing new in this concept of efficacy that has been conceptualized and applied in various settings (Etkin, 1988; Tan, 1999; Nicther, 1995 to name a few examples). As Whyte, van der Geest, and Hardon note: "In real life, efficacies are assessed not by pharmacologists but by social actors." However, the innovativeness of this paper lies in its application of notions of efficacy to clinical trials, which are interesting because they are the site of first contact between novel products and lay individuals. In a more applied and collaborative research, Pool (2011) looks at clinical trials as ‘cultural trials’, asserting the importance not just of controlled measurements but also what the patients feel about the drug in evaluating new pharmaceuticals. Montgomery and Pool (2011) echo the same rationale, essentially calling for ‘representation’ in the process of developing drugs for prevention.

The benefits of this ethnographic voice in making drugs ‘better’ make me reflect on the role of anthropologists in the pharmaceutical industry in general, mindful of the underlying political economy. What guideposts do anthropologists have in this kind of work? How do we draw the line between the anthropology of pharmaceuticals and anthropology for pharmaceuticals?

October 2013

The two waves of sociocultural evolutionism in anthropological thought

by Gideon Lasco, MD, MSc

Social evolutionism (also cultural evolution or social evolution), in the context of society and culture, is the view that societies progress from one stage of development to another, and that culture is an adaptation; a survival strategy at the level of the species. In the history of anthropological thought, this idea gained currency twice, in two similar but distinct forms. The first, which we now term as unilineal or classical evolutionism, developed during the 1870s-1890s, amid much interest in Darwinian philosophy, espoused by Edward Tylor and Lewis Morgan. The second, neoevolutionism, was espoused by Leslie White, Julian Steward, Marvin Harris and others in the middle of the 20th century and to some extent remains influential in contemporary anthropological thought via cultural ecology.

The first wave of evolutionism came during a time when Western thinkers were seeking to explain social changes, heavily influenced by the rapid transformations that were occurring in their society at the time. Industrialization and technological advances were supporting larger cities which in turn created unprecedented social conditions – incidentally also inspiring Marx and Engels to craft their own explanations that eventually led to another evolutionary perspective: historical materialism. The colonial enterprise also introduced Western thinkers to what they conceived as ‘primitive societies’, giving rise to archaeological and ethnographic endeavors and subsequently, comparative studies, which was what Tylor and Morgan engaged in.

The epistemological context at the time was a heavily positivistic one, which held that in the same way that there are natural laws that describe biology, chemistry, and physics, similar laws can also be found for societies. Thus when Darwin’s theory of evolution among organisms spread in the intellectual world, social scientists were inspired to look at similar processes among societies. It was not unprecedented to examine societies in terms of processes. The Scottsh economist Adam Smith did the same one century earlier, offering four stages of social development. The contribution of Edward Tylor was to offer various cultures to support a view of evolution – a comparative method - claiming that cultures follow distinct phases of development, using various features such as religion as markers of that development, much as biological evolutionists would look at bipedalism or mammary glands.

Lewis Morgan developed a similar view, holding that features of culture like kinship, system of government, and concept of property can be used to measure different societies’ stage of development. By adopting a unilineal view of evolution, classical evolutionists assumed that “primitive cultures” such as the tribes in Australia – the site of Morgan’s fieldwork – were in an earlier stage of development.

Classical evolutionism was criticized as unsupported by ethnographic data, vigorously attacked by likes of Franz Boas, but the view that ‘culture’ is an adaptation to the environment, and Morgan’s view that material considerations are the driver of cultural change was resurrected in another generation. The important distinction between this new generation and the old evolutionism, however, was that most of them did not believe that cultures have to pass through the same stages of evolution. Instead, each culture takes a different course depending on its environment. Moreover, instead of the comparative method, they used empirical approaches. Gone were the ‘conjectural histories’ as Radcliffe-Brown described the classical evolutionists of old. Harris, for instance, used calculations of energy efficiency in analysing India’s ‘sacred cow’. Leslie White even placed energy consumptiom as a measure of cultural development.

Eventually, neoevolutionists’ focus on material culture and technology would influence latter-day cultural ecologists.


Harris, M. (2001). The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. AltaMira Press.

Stocking, G. W. (1968). Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Social media and the 2016 elections

by Gideon Lasco

How exactly will social media shape the upcoming elections?

It was US president Barack Obama who demonstrated the usefulness of social media in 2008, when his campaign used Facebook to penetrate young people’s social networks and encourage them to vote. Two years later when Noynoy Aquino ran for president, social media was not as big in the Philippines: in mid-2010, there were only 10 million Facebook users in the country, compared to 40 million today.

The 2013 elections did attract the attention of netizens - remember the Nancy Binay memes - but it was a mid-term election, sans the fanfare that usually accompanies the vote to determine the highest office in the land. With the presidency at stake, 2016 is promising to become the most “trending" of Philippine elections. Here are some ways social media is making its mark:

A more participative platform
Social media is a platform for candidates and voters alike to engage in the political process in a more direct way. Through their fan pages, candidates can directly share their thoughts and photos without being filtered by traditional media. As Mar Roxas learned in his “happy anniversary” faux pas (a topic I addressed in “Social media advice for Mar Roxas”; PDI 09/15/2015), social media engagement has its pitfalls - but it can also be a rewarding way to connect with voters, especially the youth.

Voters, for their part, through their posts, comments, and annotated “shares”, can influence their social networks - a hypothesis that has received support from a 2012 study published in Nature, which demonstrated that what Facebook users see in their “news feeds” can affect their voting patterns. While others have argued that it has only amplified partisanship (i.e. we only read and share the articles we agree with), it has undeniably made the public more involved and aware of what’s happening.

Aside from expressing ideas, the direct access to (and by) the public can be a tool for change - as showed by the anti-pork “Million People March” in 2013, largely organised through social media. Though the “million people” did not materialise, it nonetheless offered a glimpse of what social media can enable.

(Mis)information wars
Websites and Facebook pages can easily be set up, and made to look like respectable news outlets, while subtly espousing an political agenda. Of course, already-established websites and blogs are not immune from the influence of politics and can also contribute to misinformation.

Sometimes, the truth will be sacrificed for the sake of virality. Articles will go for the shareable, the scandalous, the dramatic. They will follow the format of articles guaranteed to attraction your attention (i.e. “Ten reasons not to vote for Binay” or “The shocking truth about Grace Poe”).

But social media can also offer a venue for people to fact check the information they’re overloaded with. In the US, websites like FactCheck.Org are fulfilling this role, and their articles are widely shared in traditional and social media.

Cyber-‘hakot’ and online vote buying
As of this writing, Binay has 230,000 Twitter followers, Roxas has 505,000; Grace Poe has 45,200. In an age when influence is measured by the number of followers you have on social media, expect this numbers game to be closely watched - and contested. Through paid-for “sponsored posts” in Facebook and Twitter - and with the help of online entrepreneurs who “sell” likes and followers - candidates can appear more influential, more famous, and yes, more vote-worthy (everybody loves a winner).

It is not just “likes” and “follows”; even comments can be manufactured or “planted”. One study showed that 1/3 of all customer reviews and comments online are fake, and it won’t be surprising if the same can be said of political comments.

These, of course, are old political tricks, the logical extensions of the “hakot” crowds and actual vote buying employed in traditional politics. But they also raise issues of legality and transparency:  can the COMELEC keep track of campaign expenditures online, and monitor cyberspace for violations?

Will Facebook ‘likes’ translate to votes?
Ultimately, it will be the actual votes, not Facebook ‘likes’ - or Twitter ‘favorites’ - that will matter (that is, of course, assuming that vote buying isn’t a factor). Though it is projected that 60% of Filipinos will have access to the Internet by 2016, it will not be representative of the population: the poor and those living in rural areas will be underrepresented. Thus social media sentiment - or online surveys, for that matter - cannot be taken to be the voice of the nation.

But social media itself can increase voter turnout  by turning the elections into a social, shareable, fashionable activity - a phenomenon that some scholars call “digital peer pressure”. In the same 2012 study I cited above, another key finding was that people were more likely to vote if they saw a message showing their Facebook friends had voted.

How else will social media affect the elections? Will an ingenious campaign jingle, “break the Internet”? Will a YouTube video or a tell-all blog post, revealing a hitherto unseen side of a candidate, go viral days before the elections and affect his or her chances? Because of its relative novelty - and the ever-changing world of Philippine politics - it is unwise to make further predictions.

All we can say at this point is that social media will definitely be a key battleground where the elections will be fought.

Friday, December 11, 2015

What is a rant? Reflections on social media negativity

by Gideon Lasco

Ranting is such a common behavior nowadays that many rants are devoted to ranting. In our age when expressing one’s opinion is as easy as typing a few lines and pressing a button, no one wants to be called a ranter - or a whiner or a hater - but a lot of people actualy rant without acknowledging that they are, in fact, ranting. Thus many people, overwhelmed with the negativity, are distancing themselves from Facebook; while some go on a “social media holiday”. One of my friends has even deactivated his social media accounts completely, lamenting that the world has been ran over by a “generation of ranters.”

But what, exactly, is a rant? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a rant is “to talk loudly and in a way that shows anger; to complain in a way that is unreasonable.” This definition is a good starting point, telling us that a rant is a way of communicating or complaining that is (1) loud (2) angry (3) unreasonable.

How can one be “loud” in social media? The most obvious is the lavish use of ALL CAPS, but there are other ways to be loud. Making use of a photo, for instance, makes one’s message “louder” - images can be very powerful and memes are the poetry of our time. Ranting goes for the dramatic, the sensational.

As for “anger”, we can easily see this with the choice of words. Curse-words - although their currency has been grossly inflated and they don’t have the same gravity anymore - are staple fare for rants. But a rant can also incite to anger by insulting others through witticisms, name-calling, or logical-sounding arguments. Directing the anger at someone also makes it more weighty (so-called “open letters”), and ranting is at its best when it is not just angry, but accusatory.

The crucial test of ranting, however, is whether something is “unreasonable” or not, and this is where its subjectivity lies. Many Filipinos won’t say that the Philippines is ranting about the Spartlys dispute - we would think that our claims are reasonable, and our anger warranted. Neither will many consider as mere “rants” the online posts expressing outrage over repressive regimes that gave rise to the Arab Spring. As these examples show, one man’s “rant” is another’s “grievance”.

Perhaps the non-confrontational attitude of Filipinos makes social media a particularly suitable venue to express our sentiments. Psychologist John Suler termed this the “online disinibition effect”, which draws from the sense of anonymity and distance to free people from their inhibitions, thinking that there will be little backlash for what they would say.

Rants are oftentimes signs of helplessness; people do not rant if they think there are other ways to communicate their message. Indeed, ranting satisfies the need to release one’s negative emotions, while at the same time offering the chance that the addressee would actually listen. On the other hand, oftentimes enmeshed in this need to communicate is a desire to get noticed by the social media universe; the desire to go viral. Thus instead of being a last resort, it becomes the first. Consequently, it feeds a culture of outrage, where attention is validation.


IN THE multitide of ideas and sentiments floated on social media, there are many ways to stand out. You can inspire people with beautiful pictures, enlighten them with a well-written thinkpiece, or make them laugh with your pet’s funny expressions. Psychological studies, however, have shown that “negative emotions are more contagious than positive ones”, as Finnish scholar Harri Jalonen puts in. This “negative bias” makes it understandable that many people resort to ranting.

The criteria for reason, however, should give us pause for what we label as “rants”. While some posts are clearly rants, there simply is no objective criteria we can apply for the “reasonability” of every post. During the APEC week, when people in Metro Manila were thrown into miserable traffic conditions, I observed that the people who experienced the traffic themselves “liked” and “shared” posts that gave voice to their predicament, while those living elsewhere were more likely to dismiss them as “rants”. This subjectivity of what constitutes a rant reminds us that in the act of labeling people's viewpoints (either as rants or “painful truths”; “whining” or “telling it like it is”), we engage our own ideologies, politics, and (limited) knowledge.

We should strive to move away from a “ranting culture” by delivering our messages in a way that does not incite people to more anger. If social media is social, then we must abide by social conventions: respecting others’ points of view, not taking different opinions personally, and if called for, arguing with reason, not with anger. And if social media is media, then we are all journalists now, and if we express outrage, we must do so with a committment to truth and fairness.

As for those who are in the receiving end of a rant, we should likewise exercise restraint - as well as an openness to what might actually be a valid argument. Dismissing something as a “rant” will only inflame its source. Ranting about a “rant”, like fighting fire with fire, is equally unhelpful. The cycle of ranting, ranting about ranting, and so on, ends when someone on the receiving end of a rant reads through the rant and tries instead to find out where it’s coming from.

Do we, then, need a new set of values - in this age of social media? I don’t think so. I think we just need to bring back the old ones - starting with humility.

December 11, 2015