Anthropology News Tips From Johns Hopkins

June 21, 1996

Although long ignored by most anthropologists, food is a central element of expression in all cultures. In "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture and the Past," Hopkins professor Sidney Mintz, the William L. Straus Jr. Professor of Anthropology, shows how what we perceive as freedom in our choices about food is often shaped by a complex global economy. The book, published by Beacon Press, is due out in August.

The title essay explores the way enslaved Africans' creative adaptation of their cuisine to New World conditions offered a symbolic hope for freedom. Other essays probe contemporary eating habits: why does the average weight of Americans keep increasing as dieting and healthy eating become more popular? Is there such thing as American cuisine? Should it matter?

Mintz will return to Baltimore in early July from Hong Kong where he is writing a book on the history of Hong Kong food habits. Besides the anthropology of food, Mintz is an expert on the Caribbean region, economic anthropology and life history.

Note: For a review copy of the book, write Beacon Press at 25 Beacon St., Boston, Mass, 02108, or fax a request to (617) 742- 2290.

Diaspora done right

How did a group of 300 Senegalese immigrants assimilate smoothly and without resistance into the Italian town of Touba- Turin in the space of just one year?

In Italy, cultural identity is intensely powerful. It is a country where a Sicilian is considered different from a Florentine and a Florentine is different from a Genoese. It is also a country undergoing an unprecedented wave of immigration, resulting in a backlash against immigrants and a movement towards stronger restrictions on immigration. Yet Hopkins anthropology professor Donald Carter spent a year in Touba-Turin following a group of 300 Muslim Senegalese Mourid methodically settle in this northern Italian town. During that year, the Mourid worked with town leaders and even threw a town festival showcasing the food and entertainment of their culture. Ultimately, the group gained the town's blessing despite striking differences in religion, culture and skin color. Carter's book, "States of Grace: Touba Turin Senegalese in Italy," which comes out this summer, explores this phenomena.

Also of note, Carter has also completed a study to be published this winter called "Blue Routes: African, Diaspora Mourid and Elsewhere" which examines the immigration patterns of the Mourid and other African groups into the United States by examining changes in blues and jazz in the United States.

After socialism, what next?

Twenty years ago, Hopkins anthropology professor Katherine Verdery began studying the cultural politics of a rural Transylvanian village. Since 1989, this expert on cultural and national identity in Eastern Europe has shifted her focus to examine the transformation of formerly socialist systems. In her latest book, "What Was Socialism and What Comes Next?" (1996, Princeton University Press) she returns to that same Transylvanian village and examines its struggles through decollectivization and how the notion of "property" of an "individual" are being changed.

Note: Verdery is currently conducting research in Transylvania and other parts of Eastern Europe; she will return to Hopkins at the end of July.

Our nuclear arsenal: who's cleaning it up?

Hopkins anthropology graduate student Monica Schoch-Spana spent a year and a half studying people who had a personal stake in the cold war -- the workers who helped build the nation's nuclear arsenal. The main mission among these workers is now no longer to produce nuclear materials. Instead, the focus is on assessing environmental contamination, potential health threats and cleaning up the residue left over from the nuclear arms buildup. Some employees who have spent the last 30 years working at a nuclear weapons complex don't relish this change, especially when it involves a shift from building things to cleaning up -- a role symbolically linked to women. Schoch-Spana learned to work in an environment most people would find foreign or disturbing. She was trained in handling weapons-grade material, and as a radiological worker. She also worked with the technicians who collect environmental samples to document the impact of plant emissions on the surrounding area.

Ireland and the "New Europe"

Taking the abortion debate as her focus, Hopkins anthropology graduate student Laury Oaks went to Ireland to explore the complex and passionate protests over the country's membership in the European Union. Oaks studied the multiple layers in which the issue of reproduction has become symbolic of gender, nationalism and cultural identity in Ireland. In her research, she played particular attention to the 1992 protests for and against the request of a 14-year-old rape survivor to travel out of the country to receive an abortion. Oaks studied how abortion politics dominate the question of Ireland's relationship to the "New Europe," and the passionate protests over Ireland's membership in the European Union.

Tracking Baltimore's homeless

Hopkins graduate student Felicity Northcott spent two years studying one of urban Baltimore's most transient groups, its homeless. In her study of homeless men diagnosed with mental illness, she examines their relationships with each other, their sense of cultural identity and how that identity is often at odds with the presumptions mainstream America places on them. Northcott's study debunks myths about the homeless and offers new and unusual insights about this growing group in urban America. Often, for example, there is a complete lack of understanding between homeless people and the health care professionals working to help them -- misunderstandings that can result in wrong diagnosis and treatment by even the best-intentioned people.

Johns Hopkins University

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