Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Doctoral defense speech: On the meanings and materialities of height

by Gideon Lasco

(Doctoral defense speech delivered at the Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam, 14:00, 23 May 2017)

To my esteemed opponents; supervisors, professors, colleagues, and guests, thank you for gracing my doctoral defence ceremony with your presence.

In my research, I sought to understand the ways in which height figures in Philippine society. What is the role of height, and height differences, in the everyday lives of young people?  And more broadly, how has the dimension of the vertical structured human experience?

These questions tap into very heart of the anthropological tradition, and the enduring debates in our discipline. Looking at humans as objects that occupy a certain amount of primarily-vertical space, but nonetheless retain the subjectivity to reflect on this spatiality interrogates the division between subjects and objects. Relevantly for medical anthropology, the undeniable physiologic and anatomic reality of height, as well as its genetic and nutritional basis affirm its biological contingency, but one that is always predicated on socio-economic factors - not just in its making, but in its measuring, and consequently, in its meanings and materialities.

For a long time, tallness has been associated with superiority. Aristotle saw the unique stature of humans as a mark of divinity. A century ago, physiognomists who believed that intellectual capabilities can be gleaned from physical appearances ascribed superior virtues to tall people, and undesirable ones to those who are short. Economists and psychologists today speak of a height premium, presenting empirical data that suggests that tall people have certain advantages - better jobs, higher salaries, longer life, more sexual partners. The measured body has consequently emerged as a metric of comparison at the level of nations.

Some biologists theorize that tallness was an evolutionary advantageous trait, although studies on islands also suggest that shortness or insular dwarfism can also be adaptive. These studies, however, constitute tall and short people as groups or populations; and do not look at individual experiences that surely differ: not all tall people are successful, just as not all short ones are truly underdogs. With all its tensions, contradictions, and complexities, the topic can surely profit from being approached ethnographically.


In thinking about height, certain premises quickly emerged and found ethnographic footing. The first is that height is always relational: people measure their height not just according to a ruler, but with each other: boys according to other boys and also girls; children according to their parents; individuals according to their peers. I am tall in my field site, above average in my home city of Manila, but short here in Amsterdam.  n the other hand, one of the Dutch tourists I met in my field site complained about the size of the tricycles and the jeepneys, lamenting that “the Philippines is not built for tall people”.

But height is also a ‘body project’; it is not perceived to be certain nor inevitable especially for young people. This lack of finality gives rise to possibility, hope, and a lot of interest in products and practices that are perceived to make children grow taller. Even among adults, one’s height can be modified, and today I am wearing shoes that make me three inches taller; shoes that make my height up to par with the Dutch average of 6 feet. Its mere availability in Philippines shopping malls speaks of how marketable - and commodified - height has become.

Finally, height has value depending on its context. Context, of course, is both ethnographic and historical and I found it necessary to preface my research with a historical chapter. I identified the American colonial period as a significant moment in history where height mattered. Americans and Filipinos, who were called by the colonial power as "little brown brothers”, were juxtaposed as a way of legitimizing the “civilizing mission". Height provided a physical framework by which colonizer and colonized measured each other. Government positions, civil and military, had corresponding height requirements, giving economic value to tallness.

My other chapters looked at the life stages of young people: from child rearing where we see parents’ attention to height to schools where height begins to emerge as a organizing principle - and employment.

“My life would have been very different if I were a few inches shorter,” says a beauty queen who attributes her escape from poverty to her tallness - a tallness that allowed her to be “discovered” by a talent scout and eventually led to her college education.

“I would have gotten an athletic scholarship in Manila, if only I were 5’7 and taller,” laments a basketball player whose incredible skill, unfortunately, was not matched by a height that could overcome the very material limits of the architecture of a basketball court. “We can teach basketball, but we cannot teach height,” explains a basketball coach.

“I would have wanted to be a flight attendant but I couldn’t because I’m short,” says a teacher who also complains that the taller students bully her.

But it is not all resignation; people challenge. “I may be short, but people listen to me because I have leadership skills. They look up to me even if I’m the shortest in our college” a student leader tells me. “Height is a structure,” she adds unintentionally invoking an sociological concept as we chatted in the Palawan State University.

By thinking with the vertical we can gain so many insights about how people see themselves in relation to others and the physical environment. But aside from calling for a broader consideration of what an embodied approach to anthropology might look like, and providing an ethnographic response to views of height as deterministic or a mere metric, my study also hints at the troubling picture of people being made to aspire for something literally beyond their reach, and how height differences may not just reflect -  but also reinforce - societal inequalities.

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