Category Archives: Anthropology

Emily Miller: ‘Does Britain need a museum of migration?’

Emily Miller, the Head of Learning and Partnerships at the Migration Museum Project, discussed whether Britain needs a migration museum. France, Germany, Portugal and many more countries have migration museums, yet Britain is not among this list, and Emily Miller’s talk focussed on why this needs to change. Migration is a pertinent and sometimes controversial issue, and the intention of setting up a migration museum is to tell personal and evocative stories of immigrants throughout history. It is easy for people to stereotype immigrants, but the point Emily was making is that everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone has a story which needs to be respected and tolerated, rather than faced with prejudice. The Syrian refugee crisis, unfortunately, is one of many throughout history – something that people often remain ignorant to unless they actively go out of their way to broaden their knowledge about the history of migration. What is most frightening is that attitudes to those seen as ‘other’ have changed so little over time. For example, in 1290, Edward I issued an edict which expelled all Jews from England, and as recent as 2016, people have been filmed on high streets in London claiming that they want immigrants to be shot. Education of people to eradicate these prejudices is vital, since a harmonious society cannot result from tensions based on something so small as background and fear of the unknown. The Migration Museum Project so far does not have a location for a physical building, but the need for plans to come to fruition in the future is a great one. For now, they are putting on events and exhibitions in places around London, such as a migration walk, and they have big hopes for the future – so watch that space.

Olivia Mendel-Portnoy

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Tomáš Cvrcek: ‘The Marriage Market – How the Rules of the Game Affect the Outcomes’

Old Chigwellian Dr Tomáš Cvrcek, lecturer of Economics at UCL and admissions tutor for the innovative new degree History, Politics and Economics, treated the Williams Project to an in-depth look at the nature of modern-day relationships, and how one can take basic principles of economics (e.g. supply and demand, market equilibrium and making value judgements) and apply them to ‘the marriage market’. As the talk progressed, it became clear that one can choose to view the ‘dating’ scene with a rather clinical eye, choosing partners based upon a rigid list of preference and weighing up the opportunity cost of choosing someone else over another e.g. Person A may not end up with Person B because Person B places a higher value upon Person C, but may still be able to end up with Person D, who they value to a lesser extent but is the next best option due to the constraints of the market. However, Dr Cvrcek also concentrated on the various historical and cultural factors that affect how ‘the game’ is played – for instance, although we in the UK base the ‘rules of the game’ upon one-to-one relationships, certain cultures may base the ‘rules of the game’ around many-to-one relationships, for example when a husband has multiple wives. Historical factors considered included the nature of middle-upper class relationships in Victorian Britain (where suitable partners were chosen by the parents of the couple in question, hence personal preferences did not hold as much weight) and scenarios such as arranged relationships/marriages. By the end of the talk, a vast array of topics and scenarios had been covered, leaving the audience significantly more enlightened and informed.

Henry Bird

tomas cvrcek and mr lord

tomas cvrcek and mr lord

the marriage game in action

the marriage game in action

Keith Snow: The evolution of our understanding of evolution: the influences on Darwin’s ideas and the development of his theory

keith snow at the wp

On Tuesday the 22nd of September the Williams Project was visited by Keith Snow. He gave a very interesting talk about the development and influences behind Darwin’s theory of evolution, showing us how Charles Darwin himself was not the sole mind behind the theory of evolution. Darwin’s ideas both evolved over time and much was taken from many other people before him. Keith Snow discussed how Darwin took many of his ideas from his lesser-known grandfather Erasmus Darwin, as well as Thomas Malthus, whose ideas also inspired Darwin. Erasmus theorised that all life came from a common ancestor that branched off into all the species that we see today. Even without any time for questions in the library at the end it was a very enjoyed and interesting talk, and I’m sure that Keith Snow would be welcome back in the future.

Alex Wade: “The Happy Consciousness of Pac-Man”

This week’s Williams Project meeting saw Alex Wade of Birmingham City University give a wide-ranging talk on ‘The Happy Consciousness of Pac-Man’. The much-loved, chomping, yellow character was analysed not just as a game but as an influence and reflection of ’80s and modern society, whether it be in his RAVE-like habit of popping pills or in his consumerist desire to never stop eating. We’d like to thank Mr Wade for his excellent talk which enlightened us not just on video games but also gave us an insight into some of the wider aspects of our culture and technology.
Mr Wade started by warming up the audience with some ’80s jokes, before talking about ’80s culture and its parallelism to the game itself. He carefully explained the idea of Pac-Man, that you play as a small, yellow creature who must eat power pellets in order to eat ghosts, all inside a maze from which there is no escape. As you get to higher and higher levels, the mazes become more complex and difficult to escape from. He spoke elegantly about the game’s popularity in the ’80s, and also about how it is perceived by some to be more well-suited to females than males, as the ghosts never die when they are eaten, but merely float back to the “ghost box”, unlike most modern video games in which the characters often die. He also kept the audience entertained with fun facts about the game – for example, he told us that the shape of the character Pac-Man was originally inspired by a pizza with one slice missing.

However, for me, the most impressive part of Mr Wade’s speech was the final part, in which he expanded on his ideas about Pac-Man’s link to capitalism. In a broad, sweeping gesture, he stated: “Pac-Man is all about eating.” And so, he went on to say, is life. Pac-Man must eat power pellets in order to eat ghosts in order to live, so that it can eat more power pellets in order to eat more ghosts etc. In the same way, the population of a capitalist society are trapped in a cycle of consuming for the sake of consuming, buying more and more goods just to thrive in society. A cycle from which escape is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Of course, the hugely challenging question which this point causes us to ask is “is there a better alternative?” Would it be better to have a society with poor consumption (Communism) or one with excessive consumption?

A fascinating message delivered in a clear, confident manner, it is certain that all those who were present at Mr Wade’s talk will be thinking about it for a long time, and many thanks must go to the speaker for a thought-provoking session.

Thomas

Alex Wade at the WP

Howard and Mitchell Essay Prize Presentations and Dinner

At a packed meeting in the Library this year’s winners gave presentations on their essays.

Stuart Innes (‘Have attitudes towards mental health really changed?’) gave a clear historical summary of how societies have responded to and attempted to treat mental illness, framed within a powerful argument for a mixture of approaches. He was insistent that a reductively “scientific”, drug-based, approach was not the answer, but that counselling and therapy had central roles: humans have evolved with the ability to share with others their feelings and thoughts, and we should use this as a strength.

Rachel Maton (‘Why did 16th– and 17th-century Europe experience widespread witchcraft hysteria, and a subsequent peak in witch-hunts and trials?’) discussed in detail the many different theories which have been proposed to explain why numbers of trials increased in an age of supposed rationalism. These ranged from scapegoating and feminism to the invention of the printing press. She concluded with a balanced evaluation, arguing that it was due to a number of factors coming together; she also downplayed the contribution of the feminist argument (that the suppression of witches was allied to an expression of male power): even in England a good quarter of all those condemned were male, and in Russia and Estonia the vast majority were men.

Xiaoxuan Liu (‘Einstein’s special theory of relativity: a general explanation for its formation’) gave a humorous and in-depth explanation of Einstein’s theory, using an alternative method for deriving E=mc^2 than the one she had used in her original essay. She argued that while many people find the dramatic effects of relativity (e.g. time dilation, changes in mass) the most appealing aspects, she preferred the raw beauty of its mathematics.

All three speakers were extremely impressive – they were clear, authoritative and engaging; all were, in short, easy to listen to, despite the (each for different reasons) challenging nature of what they were talking about. They could also deal with questions with confidence and charm.

After a splendid formal dinner Tim Morrison (OC and former Howard Essay Winner, now Head of Classics at Oundle School) introduced most of us to Thales, the first Greek philosopher, and as such the first recorded person in Western Europe to question for himself accepted explanations for how the world worked. Despite being perfectly able to use his intelligence to make money (one year he predicted a bumper olive crop and bought up all the presses), he thought it more interesting and important to study the heavens and think for himself about the world – just the sort of inspirational figure needed by this year’s LVI as they embark on their own Howard & Mitchell essays.

Toby Houlton: Shrunken heads

For the first WP meeting of 2013, Toby Houlton, an Old Chigwellian studying for a doctorate at the University of Dundee, told us about shrunken heads – tsantsa: who produced them, how and why. We learnt about the tribes in Peru and Ecuador where these customs arose, and the religious beliefs behind the custom. Most cultures preserve their own dead and try and erase the memory of their enemies; these SAAWK tribes did the opposite, as they believed that new members of a tribe could only be born if their dead were completely forgotten. Thus they erased all memory of their own ancestors, but preserved the heads of their enemies. They also believed that the enemy’s spirit could come out of his mouth to haunt them, hence the stitching up of this orifice. Toby explained how the heads were shrunk – basically by taking off the skin and chemically hardening it – and made to look stupid by pushing back the nostrils and pulling out the lips. We passed round a pig’s head which Toby, to prove that he understood the method, had shrunk himself.

He then told us about how colonialism had distorted the system: because Europeans were keen to possess tsantsa, the tribes actually went out hunting enemies just to fuel this export market. Europeans also made versions themselves, sometimes to sell as ‘the real thing’. It’s now been banned, so the practice has stopped.

A brilliantly delivered and fascinating account of something everyone has heard about but knows little of.

Picture of shrunken headPicture of shrunken heads worn by tribesmen

Sue Cunningham: Heart of Brazil

Sue and her husband Patrick are photographers who do lots of work for the Indigenous People’s Cultural Support Trust, which seeks to raise awareness of issues affecting tropical forests and their indigenous  inhabitants. Sue is also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and her photographs have been exhibited at the Brazilian Embassy in London and in lots of other places; she’s also travelled to the Amazon with Sting and Anita Roddick.

Sue and Patrick are also both lovely and engaging people, and excellent communicators of their knowledge of and insights into the lives and traditions of indigenous peoples in Brazil. In particular they spoke about their ‘Heart of Brazil Expedition’ project, which involved travelling the 2,500 kilometres of the Xingu river in a small boat, visiting 48 tribal villages, and recording how the Indians are being affected by climate change and the conversion of rain forest to cattle pasture and agricultural land. They clearly showed us see the impact these changes are having on their traditional way of life and cultures.

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