Thursday, November 29, 2012

What is the difference between Religion and religion?

Greetings, and welcome back to another adventure in Dr. Pearl's brain (Hmmm, I think I will change my blog title...).

As always, religion is one of my favorite topics. Last week we covered religion in my Anthropology 210 course (Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology) and student questions prompted me to reflect on a few of the concepts that I usually teach each semester. In the following essay I expand a little on my thoughts.

I am somewhat of an old fashioned cultural ecologist. I look at humans as organisms part of a world ecosystem; complete with competitors, multiple habits, resources, etc. Culture I see as an adaptive tool, helping members of our species adapt the multitude of situations they find themselves in around the world. Every cultural aspect in our world has some sort of functional purpose (functionalism), yet the most important 'function', if you will, is reproduction. If some aspect of culture hurts your chance of reproduction, chances are that you wont believe much in that part of your culture, and it may in fact disappear over time, depending on whether it affects other people the same way. But, realistically, we can say that reproduction is made possible by so many other things, such as food security, partnerships, economic success, and the success of the social institutions in the societies in which we live.

When I look at the numbers surrounding religion, my first assessment is that religion must be immensely valuable to the human species. The vast majority of people on this planet, now pushing 6 billion, have a religious belief system of some kind, and the large majority of them are also members of a formally organized religion of some sort. Ten thousand yeas ago this probably wasn't the case: though I have no doubt that virtually everyone then had "religion", formally organized religion may not yet have been invented. We don't really know, but its an excellent topic for archaeological inquiry. Yet its only in the last 1000 years that its become a global phenomenon. The numbers alone tell me that this isn't something to be taken lightly. There is something incredibly adaptive about religion, but what is it?

What is Religion?

Defining "religion" might be a topic of philosophical discussion to some, but for anthropologists its a key part of their work. Problematically, Anthropologists have offered up hundreds of definitions of religion in their books, lectures, and papers. Indeed, I could offer one of my own right here. However, I don't see how that will help the situation. Rather, I'd prefer to focus on meaning. Definitions don't determine meaning; rather, that are attempts to capture meaning in a concise statement.
Unfortunately, in English, the term religion means a number of different, albeit related concepts. First, there is religion:
a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
 This is what we think of as religious belief, or religious ideology. When using religion in this context the term reflects the personal belief systems of one or more people. But then consider religion:
a social institution, the premise of which is a fundamental set of beliefs and practices, but that also includes mechanisms for social and political organization.
This second concept can be thought of as a religion, or organized religion. Of course, the term religion is also sometimes used memetaphorically to refer to something that someone is extremely dedicated to (like archaeology, Apple computers, or Star Trek), but let me come back to that.

Though they are related, the two concepts above are quite different. The first is an aspect of the individual, whereas the second is an aspect of society.

Religious belief is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it is commonly accepted by anthropologists as a "cultural universal", something that exists in all cultures. Previous generations of anthropologists sometimes referred to the belief aspect of religion as "Magical Thinking" to differentiate it from organized religion. Regardless of whether you call it religion, magical thinking, superstition, or just a belief in the unknown, virtually every person on earth expresses some level of this phenomenon. Contrary to popular opinion, the level of belief in religion or magic has nothing to do with education or technical ability, rather, its almost entirely correlated anxiety and uncertainty of outcomes (See Homans 1941 or Gmelch 1971).

Where do Atheists fit in? Atheists are literally those without a belief in gods. The term is generally understood as those without any religious beliefs, or conversely, to refer to people who believe that religious beliefs are false, or nonsensical. I will, for the sake of the argument, stipulate that they do not have religious beliefs (even though many probably do). By one estimate, self-proclaimed atheists make up slightly less than 2.5% of the world's population. There are no atheist societies, unless you want to define culture liberally as any shared set of beliefs (The American Society of Atheists). Principally, we are talking about atheist individuals; that is, people without religion in the first sense. Even members of the ASA are also members of a larger society that, no doubt, has many religious institutions (religion in the second sense). Consequently, atheism has no bearing on our discussion at all, other than to say in any given place there may be some individuals who profess atheism. Atheism, by definition, is not a religious belief system, but is it possible that groups like the ASA are religious institutions? Unfortunately no; that would be a complete misunderstanding of other religious insitutions, and also of atheists themselves.

Religious institutions provide many social functions: leadership, organization, social welfare, education, solidarity and support systems, etc. They provide a social infrastructure for the perpetuation of these other social institutions and there is good historical reason to believe that organized religion has been a major factor in the growth and evolution of society in general. However, religion does not have a monopoly on any of these facets. Secular social institutions can accomplish most of these functions well enough. By and large, historically speaking, in the last 1000 years religious social institutions have dominated similar secular systems in popularity and success.

Why is this the case? Our human capacity for religion is a powerful adaptation. It doesn't take much effort to see that ideology is a powerful motivator and a major component for cultural solidarity. Unlike strictly political institutions, religious belief systems transcend national boundaries. And whereas religious institutions compete with secular institutions to provide the same social functions, as secular institutions grow in scale they seem to have difficulty maintaining social momentum, possibly due to a lack of ideological fervor. The success of organized religion in promulgating around the world, til upwards of 85% of its population claims to be part of an organized religion is unprecedented (especially considering that 10,000 years ago possibly 0% of the worlds population was involved in organized religion). It adequateness as a social and political instrument is undeniable.

I dont have an answer for the questions I've raised here. However, I do believe that the distinction between religion (with a small 'r') and Religion (with a big 'R') is critical to achieving the answer. The former has probably been around for at least 30,000 as a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, whereas the latter is a recent human invention. Forget the wheel and fire;  Religion has turned out to perhaps be the most significant invention in human history.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Finding Sources for Social Science Papers

Social Sciences cover a broad range of topics so you never know quite what you might be writing about. It could be about culture, psychology, current events, politics, and even economics. Here's a few tips to help you maximize your search efforts.

Primary Sources: Any source that produces new knowledge.
Secondary Source: Any source that summarizes one or more primary sources.
Tertiary Source: Any source that summarizes one or more secondary sources.
Peer-reviewed: Any source that has been pre-screened by a secret council of the author's peers (fellow scholars).
Scholarly: An adjective designating a source published by a press that specializes in literature produced by professional academics (people paid to research; the so-called experts).

When making a credible argument or research finding you are expected to find sources that support or refute your argument that are highly credible. The highest status supporting material you can find is primary source-material, peer-reviewed (if applicable), and scholarly. The further you get away from this model the less authoritative your supporting material is likely to be considered.

Academics have created specialized search engines to seek out the most credible literature. But no search engine is likely to find everything you need. As much as you'd like there to be a one-stop magic-bullet kind of search engine, it just doesn't exist. Consequently, background research is a lot like finding a job. You start somewhere, build leads, develop a network of information, and keep trying.

Step 1: Do you know your subject?

If you were given the choice of picking a subject, you should have either picked a subject that you knew something about, or you should pick a subject that you want to know more about. Research is is incredibly interesting and fascinating when you pick a subject that interests you. However, research is dull and boring if you aren't interested in the subject.

If you know very little about your subject the first step is to get a pretty thorough understanding of the subject basics. I recommend reading a book on the subject. You can ask your professor for a good starting place, or you can browse the virtual shelves of your library or If picking a book from the shelves or Amazon, you might try Googling for "Best books on [your subject]" to see if that helps. You can also read the reviewer editorials on Amazon to help you decide. In any case, there is no substitute for reading. The book you pick doesn't have to be the best or most authoritative. It just have to give you an excellent introduction to the subject.

if you are really pressed for time, resort to Google and Wikipedia for your background information. This is tantamount to reading the Sparknotes for a book instead of reading it yourself. Maybe you should do both?

Step 2: Generate search terms

Finding your search terms is the toughest thing about finding sources. Once you find out what to search on you'll find your trove. For example, if I ask you to write a paper on whaling in Japan. Here's the terms that might get you going:
Japan whaling
Japan IWC
small type coastal whaling
Sea Shepherd
International Whaling Commission Japan
Japan Minke Fin Bowhead
Shonan Maru
Japan Institute Cetacean Research
How did I get those terms? By reading and books and articles and selecting key terms that I think would distinguish sources I want to find from the billions of other sources that might be available. Each of those terms was used in another written source on the subject.

Step 3: Search

Actually, steps 2 and 3 are symbiotic. Searches on term sets generate search results that produce new search term sets, etc. Each of those search term sets produces a slightly different search result with many interesting sources. But where to search?

I start at my University's library website at There is a search box there and I select the "Articles" tab; This reflects my bias towards wanting to use scholarly articles rather than books. You can try searching the "Books & More" tab also, or both. The University search engine is specialized to search mostly scholarly and academic sources, so your search results will be highly biased towards credible resources.

The "Articles" tab is a pretty ingenious tab that actually searches through hundreds of different databases. Sometimes the results are too broad so I select a specific database. My favorite database for basic social science research is "Academic Search Complete", which you would find by searching for "Academic Search Complete" on the "Databases" search tab. Academic Search complete is just one of the many databases that stores scholarly materials, but it has a lot of overlap with hundred of other databases and its results are easier to sort through and filter.

Step 4: Retrieve resources and repeat steps 2 and 3

For instant gratification, download articles right away and get reading! But, don't ignore resources that aren't full-text online. You have to actually go to the Library to get many resources (shock!). Trust me, it's well worth it and an excellent habit to get into. If your Library doesn't have it you'll need to request it via Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Honestly, that's even more gratifying unless you happen to be at Harvard. ILL will get your book or article in a few days and have it waiting for you at circulation.

Note: My style of research is to get as many sources on the subject as possible. I like to have them piled up on my desk as I start and continue working. Get all the sources you can, even if your not sure how helpful they will be. This is why I encouraged you to pick an interesting subject. You may or may not have time to read everything you find, but you can read some and peruse others. It's just so much easier to write effective research papers when you have all the reference materials handy.

Each time you find a source take a look at its author, title, keywords, and biblbiography. Use the former items to conduct additional searches. Use the latter item to look for new sources that you might need to rely on.

Tip: If you can get to the Library to do your research, look at all the books on the shelves near the books you find in the search engines. Quite often there are books on the shed nearby that are relevant.

Step 4B: How to retrieve a specific book or article if you have a citation
If you have a specific book, look for it in your library catalog. If its not there request it from ILL immediately.

To find a specific article, you need the author, title, journal title, year of publication, volume number, and page number. Search for the journal title by name on the "e-Journals" tab of the library website. Follow the various links til you get to a page for the journal. Then navigate to the correct year, volume, and page number. If the journal is not provided by your library's online collections you can look for the printed version in the library catalog. Failing that you'll need to provide the information to ILL so they can request it for you. It only takes a few days to get an article from ILL. Important: Normally you have to be on campus or using the  VPN to access the University's online collections.

Step 4C: Google Scholar (
Sometimes you can bypass the University's search engines by using Google Scholar. It works a lot like the University's amalgamated search engine by filtering out regular websites and focusing more on scholarly sources. Google scholar provides interesting and often useful results. If looking for a single article this can sometimes be more time effective than navigating through the University website. Sometimes Google Scholar directs you to downloadable resources that bypass copyright protections. Google Scholar results are not as comprehensive as the University websites search results. Compare for yourself by searching on the terms provided above.

Step 5: Google (and other generic search engines)

If you really want to see a different set of results, try those terms on regular Google ( Google produces an entirely different type of results. I would not start with Google unless you really don't know all that much about what you are researching. In that case, use Google to get started learning about your subject.

However, Google can fill in significant gaps in your overall coverage of a subject. Three things that Google is excellent for are 1) Finding current events/news items about your subject; 2) finding images of your subject; 3) finding experts on your subject; and 4) finding professional organizations about your subject. Some caveats about those, however:

When looking for news sources try and select those published by the most reputable news agencies. With experience you will learn what these are, but I prefer sources from publications that have been around for a very long time, like the New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times. Keep in mind that an AP newswire story can be repeated with a different title by many different outlets. The top news services are Associated Press and Reuters.  It used to be that their sources were developed into news stories by individual papers, but nowadays many sites just repeat them verbatim. If that seems to be the case you may as well just site the article from their websites ( and Avoid blog entries and editorials. Why? They may or may not be authoritative, but your readers may not have confidence in them as reliable sources. Parroting an opinion from an editorial or blog can give the impression that you can't think for yourself, possibly reducing your credibility.

Assume that any images that you find are copyright protected. Do not use them in your papers and reports unless authorized to do so. If you read the fine print on may websites you might find limited rights are granted if you give proper credit.

DO NOT Assume that experts and organizations have well-rounded coverage on a topic and represent diverse points of view. While this may be the case, you have to consider, especially for controversial or politicized topics, that information is tailored to reflect a particular bias. Just remember, anyone can publish just about anything they want on a website. As you gain expertise in a subject you will be better equipped to recognize authoritative sources from uninformed or misleading sources. Until then, approach every website with appropriate suspicion (cautious optimism?).


Wikipedia is a fantastic resource that I have come to embrace even though for years I was adamantly opposed to it. Start here if you are researching a subject you know very little about. It's accuracy and comprehensiveness is a product of millions of dedicated users, many of whom prize objectivity. It is as good as any source so long as you don't consider it ultimately authoritative. It is, at best, a tertiary source -- very helpful for getting a good summary of a subject or topic, and it may clarify significant viewpoints of the subject that you hadn't considered.  However, its authoritativeness is about at the level of hearsay (i.e. something you heard from somebody else). Every fact on Wikipedia undoubtedly comes from somewhere else. A good Wikipedia entry tells you where. Unfortunately, you don't know if the referring source is the best or most authoritative source for that information either. However, that insight comes with more experience. So here's my recommendation: Wikipedia is like hearing something from an "expert" on TV that you aren't sure is true. You should wonder whether the information is correct, and do some background checking into where they learned it from. When citing the information, cite the sources that Wikipedia is derived from rather than Wikipedia itself (the same as you would information you heard on TV).

I hope that helps you get started just a little.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Real Principles of Exhibit Design and Evaluation

The main measure of success for any museum exhibit is how well it accomplishes  educational objectives. Note that I don’t say “it’s” educational objectives, because we might decide that its educational objectives are weak, non-existent, or otherwise insufficient. I freely admit that this is a subjective pursuit because I am asking the exhibit evaluator to imagine what the objectives should be, not what the exhibitors say they are.
But regardless of what experts say about exhibit design and educational objectives, there is an often overlooked super-principal of exhibit design that ought to be considered above educational objectives, and that is, is the exhibit a hit with the consumer? If the consumer is bored, unimpressed, or otherwise turned off from the exhibit it is doomed for failure.
Ergo, the goal of the exhibit designer is to take educational objectives and transform them into interesting and informational museum experience.
Its’ important to say EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES three times, because you may not make an exhibit with out them (that is, you can make an exhibit without them, but you may not). This is for both practical and ethical reasons. 
First, the ethical reason. By adopting the title of museum you are implying to the visitor that your exhibits will have informative educational content. They may or may not have an expectation to be entertained, but they most definitely feel cheated if you don’t teach them, or their children, something interesting or significant. Furthermore, museums almost always accept the 501(c)3 non-profit tax exemption on the charitable grounds that they provide an educational service to the community.
Secondly, the practical reason is that with educational objectives you are more likely to make a well-thought-out exhibit. Educational objectives provide a nice framework for conceiving of your exhibit design, and if properly executed, results in a sort of “payoff” to the visitor. Once the consumer has gained something they are more likely to have positive feelings about your museum, which may result in return visits and word of mouth referrals. Over time your museum will develop a good public reputation by having strong exhibits that follow these principles.
What is the alternative to basing an exhibit on educational exhibits that you should avoid? I’m glad you asked. This leads me to directly to…
Ten Principles of Good Exhibit Design
In the old days you could get away with an object with a boring descriptive placard, but in today’s museum world that won’t cut it. Museum visitors want to be visually engaged. Employ as many of the good design principles below as possible.
Principle #1 Base your exhibit on educational objectives; not objects.
If you base your exhibit on objects proceed at your own peril. Generally speaking the worst exhibits are those that lack an educational focus. Very few objects speak for themselves. It is the job of the exhibit designer to take educational objectives and transform them into museum experiences that incorporate museum objects effectively, along with other educational content delivery methods. Therefore, begin with what you want your museum visitors to get out of your exhibit.
Principle #2 Use objects to accomplish your educational objectives
However, use objects to accomplish your educational objectives. If you have objects that can help tell you story, feature them with prominent placement and lighting. Show them in a way that creates a sense of respect around them. The truth is, people typically go to museums to see “real” things. While your information panels may do a great deal of the content delivery, they won’t create the sense of awe and wonder which is the raison d’ĂȘtre of the museum.
Principle #3 Think Big
One theme that runs through each of these design principles is “make it easy for your visitor to learn.” Visitors prefer a good size text panel over a dinky one, yet how many times have you been to a museum and there is a panel smaller than 11 x 17, sometimes combining both images and text -- often dwarfed by the wall or artifact it’s illustrating.
Size your panels to take advantage of wall space; if you have an 8’ ceiling, consider an 8’ panel. Although its arbitrary, I have found that panels in the range of 3 to 7’ per side are very affective. Photographs should be big enough to distinguish details at 8 to 10’ away, as should they majority of the text. If you find your visitors need to approach within arms length of a panel to read it or make sense of its visuals, then its way too small.
Don’t make it so big that it looks ridiculous; here are some starting suggestions:
  • Headers 150 point minimum
  • Subheadings 76 point minimum
  • Body Text 48 point minimum
  • images: for main elements no less than 2’ on the shortest side. For minor images you can use your judgment. 10” on the shortest side would be small, but possibly appropriate for a subordinate image that illustrates something in particular in greater detail. The maximum size for images is only limited by whats comfortable for the visitor given the vantage point provided by the display area.
Principle #4 Use Color
Black on white is “ok” for simple elegance, but you might be amazed at how color turns a drab exhibit into an exciting one. Human beings are visually oriented and somewhat moody. If you use black and white, or shades of gray as the main colors on your exhibit, expect to elicit a somber response. I can’t tell you what colors to pick, but go for something that fits the subject matter AND the aesthetics of the display area. If you are able to paint the display area to match your exhibit all the better. Tying the color scheme of your exhibit  to the area is a key technique to give the exhibit a sense of belonging. You can also use color to guide the eye, and even connect different parts of the exhibit together. Thing of creative ways to use colors. 
  • Heres a few tips though:
  • Make sure your typeface contrasts sharply with the background color. Hard to read is worse than boring.
  • Be careful not to camouflage images by picking colors that match your image palette too closely.
  • Picking complimentary colors and being consistent throughout your exhibit will help your visitors feel comfortable.
Principle #5 Use high quality materials
Most of the time you simply can’t do a quality job with your own inkjet printer. It might look alright when you get done printing it, but unless you have specialized equipment, chances are its too small and will readily fade. If you do it yourself and you end up with bubbles in your mounting, or curling labels, you are hurting yourself a great deal. If you do it yourself, get the highest quality materials you can find and take great care to do it just right.
If you don’t have professional grade printing solutions, I strongly recommend taking your print jobs to a print shop. Print shops are surprisingly affordable, can do excellent work, can print on most anything, and when you tell them what you need they should be able to provide you with professional recommendations.
You need something that is physically durable and fade resistant. You can have things printed on paper, foam core, PVC, wood, acrylic… the choices are yours. Discuss it with your printer.
We have found that printing on PVC is an excellent choice (thank you to Nikke Ferre for turning me on  to this); it’s rollable like paper and scratch resistant like acrylic. It doesn't work in all lighting conditions, and it doesn't give you the same depth that form core might. Mounting PVC on a painted wood frame can affordably create a durable panel with a nice thickness that jumps off the wall at visitors.
Principle #6 Layer your content
Your exhibit has to have at least 3 layers of content. 1) Major Headings; 2) Major subheadings and information; and 3) Minor subheadings and information. Why is this important?
Because every visitor does not want the same level of information from each panel. Hopefully you have made your panel large enough, colorful enough, and with a big header, so that someone from 10’ (or more) knows what that panel is for, without having to wonder. The panel has to call to them; sing even, and the lyrics need to be something other than “guess what’s over here.” Don’t make your visitors struggle to get the message. The headers on your panel are the main points of your exhibit. Some people will choose to NOT read the text depending on their time available and level of interest. The header is important in helping them make that decision, so the header should be informative.
If someone has been attracted by the panel or accompanying object, you second level of text provides more details; presumably the most important details about header subject. You don't need to, or even want to, overwhelm the visitor here with text. Remember, you have at least one other level of information, but provide meaningful content in case they choose to not pursue it.
If you have additional details, put them in your third level. This is probably as detailed as you want, but again, don’t write a novel. I think your third level of text is should be largely ancillary (or “extra credit” if you will) to the main point of the exhibit. Your main educational objectives should be met at a higher level than this.
How much content? No more than 3 minutes worth. You will have to figure out what that means based on the size of your panel and the font size.
Principle #7 Use more than one content delivery method
I know we have only really talked about two content delivery methods: the static text panel and the object on display (mentioned briefly in #2 above). Add other content delivery types if at all possible. Including video (a/v), interactives, ambient sound or music, docents, touch carts, free literature or printed guides, etc. You don’t need many of these add ons to make REALLY improve the visitor appeal of the exhibit. 
Principle #8 Layout the exhibit so it flows logically and naturally
Make sure your exhibit is well planed out. It should have a clear beginning and an end, and it should be easy to find the path between the two. The visitor might not even know the intended route, but a well designed exhibit will be structured to encourage a progression through the exhibit that strengthens its ability to get across is educational objectives.
Visitors who feel lost or confused by an exhibit layout are more likely to give up on the exhibit. You have to do this on purpose; exhibits don't lay themselves out.
Principle #9 Pay careful attention to lighting (aesthetically)
We’ll get to preventive conservation in a moment, but for now I want to focus on lighting aesthetics. Design your lighting so to minimize glare, and to direct attention where you want it. You id this easily by dimming the overall lighting, and raising the lighting on the exhibits. This creates a nice respectful ambiance in the museum and also helps with traffic flow (6 above).
Principle #10 Pay careful attention to all preventive conservation
Make sure everything in your exhibit is as protected as is reasonably possible. Obviously this goes for museum objects, but here I am also talking about panels. Quite often I hear that you don’t need to protect panels because they are not “real” things. Au contrere, if you don't take care of your panels they can fade, crack, peel, break, and otherwise deteriorate. As mentioned in the opening of this article, this is bad for your credibility, reputations, and business. Consequently, protect EVERYTHING as is reasonably practicable.
This isn't the place to go over all preventive conservation measures that can be taken, and obviously you can only minimize visitor impacts on your exhibit. But, heres a few oft-overlooked aspects of exhibit management. 
  • Light. If your exhibits are exposed to natural lighting they will fade, that’s all there is to it. Use quality fade resistant materials, minimize exposure to natural light, and position panels to where they will be least impacted. After that, keep your eye on them and replace them when they are faded. You’ll probably need to monitor this because the slow fading that objects on display undergo over long term periods of exposure can be subtle. 
  • Temperature and humidity. Chances are you already worry about this for your objects. If your museum does not have humidity fluctuations in check, or if it has high humidity, you may not want to use paper for your panel mounts, or anything else that could arp or peel. Here again, PVC works well as it isn't particularly affected by humidity or dryness.
  • Physical security. Most information panels will get touched by visitors. Therefore, picking a durable printing medium is important. If you print on paper or foam core, be aware that they damage easily. If you have a high traffic area or an area frequented by children, you might want to use something tougher. Here again, printing on PVC has been a real miracle.
  • By the way, PVC is also resistant to insects, easy to clean, and affordable.
Principle #11 Make sure the exhibit has a payoff!!!
When they are done with your exhibit, will the visitors feel ripped off? While you can’t account for individual tasters, if you have made sure that theres a solid educational core foundation to your exhibit, and its presented in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, chances are you will get favorable results. 
Principle #12 Do not underestimate the visitor
Your visitors are intelligent, have diverse interests and backgrounds, and pick up on details that you might consider insignificant. Visitors might not think about why they like or dislike an exhibit, but they surely can tell a good one from a bad one. If the visitor feels cheated when then leave your museum, you are on on the pathway to failure. You absolutely can not let this happen.
Principle #13 Maintain the exhibit
Check often to make sure that all parts of the exhibit look good. This is way more imperative than most museum personnel realize. Faded images or text, peeling or missing labels, broken interactives ⎯ these things not only make your exhibit look bad, they ruin your credibility with the visitor. It conveys to the visitor that you don’t care (even if its not true). This can easily damage your reputation, destroying repeat visits, and as word gets out, decreases your overall visitorship as well.
Did anyone notice I gave 13 instead on 10 principles? I could’t resist. Maybe I can collapse them in the next version of this document. On the other hand, I might have been able to go on to 20. 
The point is, good exhibits don’t happen on accident. They take careful planning and execution. Anyone can do it, on just about any budget. Take a look at your favorite exhibit. Is it well designed? Does it use my design principles? Maybe you disagree that all these are “good” principles. Send me your comments, and add your own to the list.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The mythology of Roman religion

Even though one of my favorite shows of the last few years is Spartacus, I don't mistake it for historical fiction. The Romans of pop-culture, whether it's Spartacus or some other pop-manifestation are nearly always characterized an an oversexed population where the main form of social organization is structured authoritarianism, and the main vehicle of leadership is fear and coercion. Family values (as we think of them) are virtually unknown, and religion plays almost no role other than to provide epithets.

It's going to take a book or two for me to address these issues, so let me get straight to whats on my mind today: misbelief about Roman religion. Here are some major myths about Roman religion:

  • It was a religion without dogma;
  • It was without teachers and teachings;
  • It was uncreative or unoriginal, or that the Romans were uncreative or unoriginal in adopting Greek gods;
  • Romans were dispassionate about religion;
  • Romans were not particularly dedicated to their beliefs, as evidenced by their adopting of Greek gods and later conversion to Christianity.

These myths are untrue, absolutely. They have been perpetuated in our culture through books, theatre, movies, traditions, etc., which is no doubt the result of western civilization having strong Judeo-Christian roots. Modern pop culture has taken it a step further and portrayed Roman civic life as highly immoral, especially where it comes to human sexuality and respect for the dignity of others.

Religion permeated all aspects of Roman life, from civic to private. Each household had gods, and there was an official organized state religion. Even in the Republican and Imperial periods, where there was a strict belief in the separation of church and state, senators considered augury and divination, both central to Roman religion, were crucial elements of the republic. The belief in gods was a ubiquitous phenomena that even the most stoic philosophers took for granted.

However, the mythologies of the gods -- their fantastic stories, loves, rages, jealousies, and sometimes pettiness, were broadly considered by the well-educated civic populations to be artistic creations of the poets (Virgil, Ovid, and Homer for example), and lead to "superstitious" beliefs and practices.

The Roman elite, including the Roman religious officials, considered superstition to be a dangerous force. They would apply this rationale equally to someone blaming Zeus for throwing a lightning bolt at their house as someone claiming to be a god or demigod, which was the case when the Christians arrived on the scene (or in this case, they knew someone who knew someone who was the son of God).

To call the Romans "unimaginative" because they adopted the Greek mythologies as their own is to misunderstand how religions evolve over time, and the role that mythologies play in religion. All religions have mythologies that reinforce the principles of the religion and the world view or the culture. Roman belief systems were a synchretic blend of Hellenistic beliefs and other pre-existing belief systems on the Italian peninsula. A careful examination of Roman mythologies reveals it is extraordinarily different from Greek mythology. Indeed, one can argue that if it weren't for the fact that the early Italian civilizations found parallels to their indigenous gods in the Hellenistic ones that Greek stories may never have become associated with the later Roman empire.

The Romans had no doubt that the gods existed, but they argued widely about the nature of the gods. Some argued that the gods were manifestations of virtues, others that they were ethereal beings without interest in earthly affairs. Others even that they were human creations overlaying a cosmic reality of some divine power.

In any case, it was considered a major civic and individual obligation to show respect for the divine.  It was widely believed that to neglect religious obligations could result in the collapse of society. It's not a coincidence that Roman archaeological collections are literally filled with artwork commemorating the divine, and that public temples are one of the most enduring of the empire's archaeological survivors. It is not a coincidence that the highest ranking citizens in Roman life were leaders of the church (the emperor himself was considered the highest ranking religious official, much like how in the United States the president is considered the highest ranking military official.).

Perhaps the most important of all rituals was the maintenance of the eternal flame in Rome. This was entrusted to the Vestal Virgins. Tradition had it that this was, in fact, the ritual of all rituals -- that if the flame was not maintained and annually renewed, that Rome would cease to exist as they knew it.

Extinguishing that flame, and keeping it out, was one of the most important acts of the Christian emperors.

Suggested Reading: Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), published in 43 BC. He outlines the major religious schools of thought, but doesn't go into the ritual aspects of religious belief.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why do people believe in magic?

I've never been so disappointed as I was yesterday when I read Dirk van der Elst's chapter in Culture as Given, Culture as Choice, regarding magic and science. The chapter is called "The unquenchable thirst", alluding to humanities seemingly endless thirst for knowledge. The author pits science against magical thinking, stating confidently that "magical thinking results from an inability to extract the operating factor out of a successful behavior sequence" (van der Elst 2003).

This has been the western world's most popular explanation for magic for centuries; a driving force behind 19th century colonial characterizations of indigenous people as "primitive" and "ignorant". One of the first official tasks of the young discipline of Anthropology was to dispel this myth.

Consider the famous opening lines of the 1925 essay Primitive Man and His Religion:
"There are no peoples however primitive without religion and magic. Nor are there, it must be added at once, any savage races lacking either in the scientific attitude or in science, though this lack has been frequently attributed to them. In every primitive community, studied by trustworthy and competent observers, there have been found two clearly distinguishable domains, the Sacred and the Profane; in other words, the domain of Magic and Religion and that of Science."
Bronislaw Malinowski

Malinowski's choice of words like "primitive" and "savage" reveal his 19th century roots (he was born in 1884), but he was destined to help turn Anthropology away from from colonial heritage and bring it squarely into the middle of academia. So don't get distracted by the terms.

Malinowski wanted to test the prevailing idea that magical thinking resulted from incomplete understanding of real causes -- that it resulted from ignorance. He developed a simple hypothesis to test the theory: If profane knowledge trumps sacred knowledge, then the more someone understood about the "real" causes of something, the less likely they would be to have magical beliefs about it.

In 1914 he went into the southwestern Pacific to collect ethnographic data on this and many other subjects. His research there, published in a number of articles and also in the seminal volume, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1925), set the standard for Anthropological fieldwork expectations that exist to this day.

In the village of Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands (near Papua New Guinea), he found a society where magic, magical knowledge, and magical thinking permeated all aspects of life. This was a perfect place to test the old hypothesis. He began documenting the areas in which the Trobrianders had the most advanced technical skills and profane understanding of the natural environment.

The areas where they were undeniably most expert were in fishing, farming, boat-building, and navigation. By anyone's standards they had a highly sophisticated set of secular knowledge of how to do these things, and do them well. They were accomplished open-water navigators, with excellent seamanship skills, understanding of weather patterns and currents, seasons, astronomy, and knowledge of the stresses and limits their watercraft could withstand to make a voyage.

Simultaneously, he collected data on the areas of daily life where people used magic, or depended on magical knowledge the most. He found high incidences of magical knowledge and ritual associated with.... did you guess? Fishing, farming, boat-building, and navigation. This is precisely the opposite of what you would expect if profane knowledge was expected to eliminate or minimize dependence on magical knowledge.

Rather than being associated with ignorance of "real" causes, magical knowledge and magical ideologies were related to uncertainty and danger. Open water navigation was one of the most dangerous aspects of a male adult's life. One mistake at sea when out of sight of land could have deadly consequences. Furthermore, mistakes in reading weather or land signs would be magnified, not only risking your own life but the lives of others. Fishing is an activity with widely unpredictable results. Even the best fishermen can not guarantee results on any given day. Both fishing and farming are critical to survival, so failing at one of these should be considered dangerous.

So how does magic, religion, or an ideology of the supernatural help minimize danger or improve the odds of success? Malinowski couldn't say, but suggested the psychological benefits of these could be immense. Furthermore, ritual can often help people to help transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and serve as mnemonic devices to remember the multitude of successful actions that may need to be taken to be successful in these areas. The co-occurence of magic and technical knowledge in these areas is undoubtedly because both are needed to deal with these dangerous uncertain activities.

Regardless of the reason, Malinowski showed, rather finally, that belief in magic, or religion, is not founded on ignorance. There is literally no chance of a society dispensing with its supernatural beliefs because of science. Perhaps now is not the time to get into it, but religion does too many things for people that science doesn't do, such as provide social support, a local sociopolitical framework, a local educational network, and a fraternity of allies in times of crisis.

At best, science can provide ways of minimizing danger and improving the odds. In this sense, as technology becomes more advanced you might hypothesize that magical ways would become less prevalent. Consider the psychological benefits of Wellbutrin or Effexor? Perhaps with a combination of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, high tech boats with fish-finders, and refrigeration systems the Trobrianders won't need magic anymore.

No, people do not believe in magic because they are ignorant. They believe in magic because it works.

Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London [England] : Routledge & Kegan Paul.

van der Elst, D. (2003) Culture as Given, Culture as Choice. Prospect Heights [Illinois]: Waveland Press.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stereotyping in Anthropology

I had an excellent discussion today in my Anthropology class when a student commented that she hated that we have to stereotype people to answer questions. It was also noted that I stereotype people all the time. The look of horror on my face (that I imagined) may have been apparent. Here's what went through my mind:

Ever since my first day of Anthropology 101 in 1985 I have understood that one of the main themes in Anthropology is to discourage the use of stereotypes to explain human behavior. I realized that I had failed, at least in this one way, to achieve this aim.

Yet I couldn't disagree with her. I routinely talk about this culture or that culture, knowing full well that variation within a culture is often greater that the variation between cultures. I say things such as "the Turkana, whom I studied in the late 1990s, practice polygamy." While that's a true statement, we could probably spend four or five lessons discussion the variety of viewpoints, feelings, and actual behaviors of individuals who I classified as Turkana. That's just an example, but frustrated me that I misrepresented myself and my discipline so badly by, perhaps, not spending enough time explaining my examples.

It's too easy in Anthropology to impart exactly the opposite message that we are trying to give. We want our students to have an appreciation for diversity in the world, and to come to an understanding of the many valid lifeways across the planet. Sometimes though, students come to understand that the world is full of wierdos with strange beliefs, that maybe we could do without. I've got to be more cognizant about using simple examples to make points.

That having been said, I think I also need to develop a lecture about stereotypes as an ideological object; that is, something that we create in our minds. As the message of my course is that human beings are rational, and usually there is an explanation for beliefs and behavior, it's worth discussing the value of our cognitive ability to create and act on stereotypes. Imagine how powerful it was for our ancestors to be able to make quick, life-affecting decisions, often accurately, based on shared experiences. Think of how efficient it makes communication, that when I say I am "an Anthropologist" you might already have  an idea of what that means, even if somewhat innacurate. The trick, then, is to understand the role that stereotyping plays in human life, without giving in to it for explaining the behaviors we observe.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Arrival in Rome

Our flight from the USA went well -- no major issues on the whole. The seating on KLM was crowded, and the seats felt smaller than ever. I would have saved a lot of money and been more comfortable if I had mailed myself in a crate, but the food was very good.

Our apartments are very nice, and the landlady is friendly and helpful. Its a multistory apartment building west of the city. It gives a real flavor of European living, and at a rate much better than a hotel. Each apartment is well-appointed in a "eurostyle" like Ikea, and has free wi-fi. We each have a kitchen and patios with little city views. I have a corner apartment with two such terraces.
We went out to eat, which was both expensive and delicious. We were at an odd hour, so we could only order appetizers. I had salmon and cheese, while others had a variety of interesting appetizers that aren't standard fare at home.
After that I had to sleep. I had not slept the entire journey and had been awake for about 30 hours. I awoke after a few hours (around 11pm local) with a text from Angelina (a student) that she was locked in her apartment and couldn't get out. Apparently most of the others had gone downtown with Mr Lawhon. They returned within the next half hour so I guess all went well.

As an aside, the locks on these doors are high quality by American standards; a single key turn closes 4 separate deadbolts both at the foot and the middle of the door. The doors cant be left open to the outside. I guess we have to be careful to only close the deadbolts when everyone is outside, or when everyone is inside.

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