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the garden is a collection of original anthropological, epicurean, and literary observations, excerpts, and rambles by sm.

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Entries in anthropology (53)


not rapunzel's tower

illustration by the cactus garden's in-house artist, nj. cause custom art is always fun.


academia, no lie, is a tough world. 

it’s stressful, it can be cut-throat, and yet it can still be incredibly rewarding.

there’s a reason why it calls so many people across so many cultures; the pursuit of knowledge, the desire to add to our global understanding is a siren. for all its faults, we embrace this world because just as we give to it, it gives back to us. 

when that balance is gone, that’s when we move on.

that’s not a sad thing, though. i think that truth applies to most of our loves and interests in life. life is lengthy and what might interest at one age or in one place, may not in another. the multi-faceted nature of our lives is something to be admired, not feared.  

because of all of this, i find it incredibly sad when i read about academic elitism and boundaries within learning. and whenever someone mentions the “ivory tower of academia” i end up realizing i have a very different idea of what the potential of this metaphorical tower might be. 


the idea of the ivory tower is not a new concept, and the perception of lofty scholars withholding knowledge or looking down (from the top of the tower, of course... it’s a metaphor day, so let’s play) on the rest of the populace is distressingly common. 

the tower is a closed structure. entrance is difficult and selective. financial guards with soul stealing clauses block the way, and even once past those dark entities, the path to the top of the tower is daunting. applicants climb over each other’s backs, clinging to the outer marble façade with only the barest hopes of making it to the top to climb in through the window like rapunzel’s prince. 

why is this? 

when i think of towers, i think of lookout towers. of semaphore flags and great fire beacons lighting the night. towers are tools for the people, their height a boon to perspective. towers share information, not just to those in the towers, but also to those below. standing on the apex of a tower is like climbing to the crow’s nest — there is a responsibility to share the spyglass’ vision with the crowd below. progress is made through the sharing of knowledge and the collaboration of understanding with all peoples, not just with a select few.

so why doesn’t the ivory tower of academia have a door? what benefit does this blockade actually have? how is such a stratified society sustainable?


regular readers of the cactus garden will notice that for all our academic interests, we strive to maintain an accessible and friendly voice. our words are for all audiences, regardless of background, education, or whatever other division. perhaps it’s not the most academic-sounding voice, but it’s important to us. our forum and our self-sufficiency have allowed us to make this call. yes, in our other projects we are more formal, we conform to the expected voice of academia, but that is because it needs to be done. we make compromises for respect, for a place within the faulty world we love. 

as an anthropologist, I find it sorrowful to think that the publication of a new ethnography used to be a big deal to the general public, not just among fellow scholars. i think of the ubiquity of zora neale hurston and how in my undergrad career i read her words in both anthropology and english classes. 


when i first started to write this post, i did pounds of research. twenty academic articles still liter my desktop. i wanted to write this piece with all the citations* in the world, to share my addiction to research and the love i have for such investigation. but as i started to write, to really think my words through, it became apparent that all the references i could have used wouldn’t make the point i wanted. 

i’m not the only person who feels that learning should be open access, that communication and the encouragement of both interdisciplinary fields would benefit us all, that segregation between professed academics and the rest of the world is detrimental to development. to continue to think otherwise will only hold us back. 


so, let’s call in a carpenter

let’s put in that door. 

and let that ivory tower be a source of hope, a lighthouse in the night for us all. 



*Screw it. Here are some of my citations anyway.

Consider it a suggested reading list, or whatever.

And if you’re looking for more on this, this is just a pittance of what I’ve been going through.



Barata, Paula, Sandeep Hunjan, and Jilliam Leggatt

2005 Ivory Tower? Feminist women’s experiences of graduate school. Women Studies International Forum 28: 232-246.


Barry, Jim, John Chandler, and Heather Clark

2001 Between the Ivory Tower and the Academic Assembly Line. Journal of Management Studies 38(1): 87-101.


Bond, Ross and Lindsay Paterson

2005 Coming down from the Ivory Tower? Academics’ Civic and Economic Engagement with the Community. Oxford Review of Education 31(3): 331-351.


Essed, Philmena

1999 Ethnicity and Diversity in Dutch Academia. Social Identities 5(2): 211-225.


Etzkowitz, Henry, Andrew Webster, Christine Gebhardt, and Branca Regina Cantisano Terra

2000 The future of the university and the university of the future: evolution of ivory tower to entrepreneurial paradigm. Research Policy 29: 313-330.


Fetzer, John

2004 Academia: in the ivory tower, surrounded by ivy-covered walls. Analytical & Bioanalytical Chemistry 379: 748-749.


Gallant, Mary J. and Jay E. Cross

1993 Wayward Puritans in the Ivory Tower: Collective Aspects of Gender Discrimination in Academia. The Sociological Quarterly 34(2): 237-256.


Haeussler, Carolin

2011 Information-sharing in academia and the industry: A comparative study. Research Policy 40: 105-122.


Jamie, Angela H.

2003 A Room without a View from within the Ivory Tower. American Indian Quarterly 27(1-2): 252-263.


McKenna, Laura

2012 Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/01/locked-in-the-ivory-tower-why-jstor-imprisons-academic-research/251649/, accessed September 12, 2013.


Miranda, Deborah A.

2003 What’s Wrong with a Little Fantasy? Storytelling from the (Still) Ivory Tower. American Indian Quarterly 27(1-2): 333-348.


Ritchie, Euan and Joern Fischer

2012 Cracks in the ivory tower: is academia’s culture sustainable? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/cracks-in-the-ivory-tower-is-academias-culture-sustainable-8294, accessed September 12, 2013.


Shreeve, William C., William G.T. Goetter, Janet R. Norby, Arnold F. Stueckle, THomas K. Midgley, and Patricia S. Goetter

1988 Changing the Ivory Tower Mentality. College Teaching 36(1): 28-33.


Sprain, Leah

Sending Signals from the Ivory Tower: Barriers to Connecting Academic Research to the Public. http://www.com.washington.edu/graduate/assets/publicservice/ps_sprain.pdf, accessed September 12, 2013.


Wang, Sheng and Raymond A. Noe

2010 Knowledge sharing: A review and directions for future research. Human Resource Management 20: 115-131.


academic gluttony 

the other night mr and i were hanging out and just chatting about life, the universe, and everything, when i mentioned that i had fallen down into the research black hole that morning.

"you're such a nerd!" she laughed at me, and i couldn't help but laugh, too.

it's true, though. i have a habit, like so many of my academic friends, of finding myself on a library website or google scholar or something, compulsively downloading articles and noting possible sources for future research. a good portion of the time i don't even have a specific idea of what i want to do with the information, i just know i want to read it. it's an addiction.

when i do have a research question or thought in mind, however, it's even worse. the pdfs pile up and my brain starts whirring so quickly it needs an exhaust fan. i suppose that's why we have air conditioners on in the summer - otherwise we'd all explode from thinking too hard.

so this past weekend, as i watched the list of downloads clog and stall with each "get article" click, plotting and planning like a cunning baldrick, i realized i had a problem. too many ideas leave you scattered, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and say this. this is what i'm working on. no more extraneous search terms until you're done. 

it's difficult, and i might have a few relapses, but it's about the quality of the thought, not the quantity of the research. so, i've picked a topic that i've been thinking about for a while now, it's a theoretical piece looking at the relationship between anthropology and doctor who. i know it's moving away from food for a bit, but hey, everyone needs a break every now and then.

and, as mr says, i'm such a nerd. 



welcome to my thesis, part five

i've had to make the difficult decision over the past month or so to take a step back from finishing this series. this decision stemmed from both the family health issues i mentioned back in april, when my mother and grandmother underwent rotator cuff surgery (all of which became more complex when my grandmother broke two ribs in the beginning of june), and from the realization that a different writing project was taking precedence. when you realize you've written almost fifty pages in the span of about two weeks, maybe less, it makes sense to stick with what you're doing because it's probably something right.

so, while i'm only about half-way through that great other writing project o' mine, i've finally hit a nice plateau where i can take a few minutes to finish up this thesis discussion and free up future posts to whatever topics jump into my head. (i have an excellent idea about who the best worst anthropologist is, that i want to tell you all about soon.)

in any event, this will be the last post in this series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year. if you're joining the party late, here are links to posts one, two, three, and four.

please note that the abstract for this paper is published in the first post, so if you just want the simplest run-down, that's where to go.

or whatever.


difficulties and discoveries within research, and final thoughts

in part four, i discussed some of the difficulties i had focusing my research and understanding what my work was actually about. in this installment, i want to acknowledge some of the more concrete difficulties i faced, what i learned from them, what i would do differently in future research, and what i've taken away from it all.

the two most outstanding challenges i faced researching drinking holidays were temporal and geographical issues. namely, i had very limited windows to conduct my participant-observations. because of this, my one-shot ethnography was limited to not just when i could work, but also the practical logistics of where i could go. knowing where to go in a new city, getting there, and even just figuring out how long to stay (or not!) in a given spot were serious issues i grappled with.

holidays are, in themselves, a state of mind. if we did not acknowledge them and celebrate them, they would not be. (such is much of our socio-cultural lives.) in considering this, i was able to reconcile one question in my mind, specifically: when does a holiday begin and when does it it end? it's very easy to just point at a calendar and say: there! that's it. cinco de mayo is may 5. midnight hits, and we're done. it's may 6 now. everyone go home.

but that's not how things work. 

midnight hits on these holidays, but the bars don't close. the drink specials (if there are drink specials) don't suddenly stop. decorations aren't immediately packed up.

no, the celebration continues. 

it was this series of thoughts that led me to consider the temporality of a holiday to be more of a state of mind rather than a set calendrical fixture, determined by intent rather than some autocratic clock. as long as celebrants considered themselves to be celebrating the holiday in question, i was still observing/participating in the holiday. 

of course this understanding didn't solve my larger temporal problem, which i addressed during my thesis defense: to truly have done this work well and properly, my ethnographic field work would have to have ranged over multiple years, during which i would return to the same sites. even more thorough research would have also included dedicated time spent at field sites before and after the holidays, in order to explore the differences between the every day and the celebratory. such a scope of research, however, would be better presented and realized in a book or a dissertation, not a masters thesis. i, sadly, did not have the social or economic luxuries needed to pursue such a study.


returning to my thoughts on geography, i already mentioned the practical difficulties i faced above, but i'd like to switch gears and share one of the (i think) really awesome elements that emerged in my analysis. 

this paper ultimately explored the processes of assimilation and acculturation that takes place throughout out these secular holidays, but it examines them through the idea of ritual. this is specifically seen in ritualized actions, behavior, and materials. in considering these ideas, however, i ended up talking about a type a of ritual i had not originally considered to be relevant to my subject: pilgrimage. 

while pilgrimages are traditionally considered religious in nature, the extension of the definition of pilgrimage to include the secular is a growing trend among academics, as evidenced by n. collins-kreiner’s flexible notion of pilgrimage (2010:440) and in simon coleman and john eade’s reframing pilgrimage: cultures in motion (2004). in reframing pilgrimage, motorcycle pilgrimages and tourism pilgrimages are given equal importance with those of a religious nature. the journey of celebrants from bar to bar, from party to party on drinking holidays reflects the conception that pilgrimages can be ritualistic processes that are not necessarily religious in origin. the trek from neighborhood to neighborhood via bars on st. patrick’s day was predetermined with an ultimate destination in mind. material artifacts, such as the mustache straws brought out on st. patrick’s day or the beer ponchos taken home on cinco de mayo, were produced specifically to connect celebrants to the event. on these holidays, bar-hopping is imbued with meaning: it is a “kinetic ritual” (turner and turner 1978:xiii) concerned not just with a final destination, but with the experiences and individuals encountered along the excursion. 

finding this element and ascertaining it's importance was an "ah-hah!" moment for me ― one i could not have had without the help of am the elder, who specifically stopped me at one point when i was trying to talk out all my spinning thoughts and literally said, "it sounds like you're talking about pilgrimage." 

secular pilgrimage was a concept i was completely unfamiliar with which, considering the new-ness of it and the traditional religious origins generally associated with pilgrimage, is rather unsurprising. while there is a growing movement within academia addressing secular pilgrimage (and it's differences and similarities with tourism), resources are still somewhat limited. (there is one book i wish i could have used as a source, gary vikan's from the holy land to graceland, however it was published just as i was concluding my work. it's first on my list to read right now, regardless whether i decide to return and expand upon my original paper.)

ultimately, exploring the elements of pilgrimage within these holidays was incredibly rewarding, and it addressed some of the recurring themes and patterns i observed within the celebratory framework. i believe not addressing pilgrimage would have been a mistake. it would have meant neglecting a whole set of practices and embedded meanings that inform and direct celebrants over the course of the holidays.


so, i guess to conclude all of this, i'd like to sum up my thoughts on my whole thesis researching-and-writing experience. i certainly learned some important lessons along the way, lessons i'm seriously considering framing and hanging up over my desk:


  • research ideas can come from the most unexpected places, and sometimes they have to ferment a bit before they taste right.
  • the work you think you're doing isn't always the work you're actually doing.
  • it's okay to get things wrong, just acknowledge it when it happens and remember. also, apparently everyone breaks down and you are likely not the first person to cry in your thesis advisor's office (sorry, rb!)
  • the names of two segments of the hobbit, an unexpected journey and there and back again, apply incredibly well to academia and research. tolkein was a genius.



making the decision and then going on to write a thesis instead of completing a smaller project or taking a couple extra classes was one of the most wonderful, enlightening, stressful, harrowing, excellent, overwhelming, opportune, frustrating, sensibly foolish, ridiculously smart choice i ever made.

i'd do it again in a heartbeat.



welcome to my thesis, part three

this is the third post in a series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year.

you can read the first part of this series and my paper's abstract here.

and the second part can be found here.


alcohol and participating in the observations

i learned early on that there are two sorts of reactions you get when you tell people you’re writing your master's thesis about drinking holidays. 

people who celebrate, who like drinking holidays, or are just generally receptive respond with a fascination and a glee — an almost infectious exuberance. i get excited about my work all over again just explaining it to these people.

and then there are the people who don’t get it. they look at me like i’m crazed, and no amount of explaining will change their minds. perhaps the best word to describe their reactions is incredulous? at the best, i get a wary “sounds… interesting.” at the worst, i’ve gotten accusations of being an alcoholic looking for an excuse to drink. i find these people… interesting. luckily, for my self-esteem and stamina, the people in this second category are fewer and further between.

writing about alcohol is difficult, within academia and without, and there are inherent problems in conducting ethnographic fieldwork focusing on alcoholic consumption. in my paper, i write:

keeping in mind possible dangers i might encounter, i made a definite decision before all three holidays to avoid taking any shots of alcohol. i also made a concerted effort to try to stick to one drink an hour to avoid impairing my observations. despite those efforts, however, i understood that alcohol would affect my perceptions and ultimate analysis. when possible, i took notes en route between destinations, as well as at the bars. i also took photos to attempt to provide some balance between experience and memory. recognizing that my alcohol intake, although controlled, may have affected my cognizance, i approached my notes with heightened reflexivity. this meant being aware of how my comprehensions of events may have been altered and how those understandings might influence my conclusions, while still understanding that consuming alcohol was a key component of the celebration and the participant observation. the altered state of consciousness from alcohol consumption was therefore a necessary part of the research, one that allowed a lived understanding of the ritual.

the truth is, when you drink alcohol, it affects your perception of events and happenings. and the more you drink, the more effect it has. there’s no way to get around this. 

conversely, to conduct an ethnographic study of a drinking holiday and to not drink would also be problematic. the resulting work would be “observation,” not “participant observation.” 

complicating this is that fact that celebrations are communal events. to not drink on a drinking holiday is to not participate, to be atypical, to stand apart. 

playing a primary role was the importance of group dynamics and groupthink on individual behaviors. celebrations are inherently communal activities and, whether celebrated with friends or families or strangers just met at a bar, they provide opportunities to interact with others and encourage a sense of conviviality and connection. while sharing a pitcher of harpoon ale with my companions at the stadium bar & grill, our second stop in the early afternoon, one of my friends turned and pointed out a girl sitting alone in a booth, keeping her head down and doing her best to avoid interacting with anyone else.

"what do you think is wrong with her?" timothy* asked. 

this question highlighted the importance of the group and emphasized social interactions: participation requires companionship. not having companions on a holiday is in itself atypical, however, this sort of deviance, exemplified by this girl, implied to my friends a rejection of celebration and participation. susanna barrows and robin room iterate this notion, stating: “the essentially social nature of drinking is indicated by the fact that solitary drinking is commonly considered to be a problematic symptom” (1991). isabel gonzález turmo considers the question of whether or not drinking alcohol is a social or individual act, suggesting instead that drinking is simultaneously both a social act and a solitary act (in de garine and de garine, eds. 2001:131). the meanings and intents embedded and imbued within the prescribed actions and performances create social connections that can cross cultures and language boundaries. in this way "[d]rinking is always an individual act, since each drinker necessarily has to situate himself, more or less consciously, according to the change of emotions produced by the ingestion of alcohol;" and yet, "[i]t is also a social fact, even when drinking alone, since it is loaded with socially assumed meanings. it is a language that, on many occasions, needs neither words nor expressions" (gonzález turmo in de garine and de garine, eds. 2001:131). my companion’s observation of the lone drinker emphasized the silent language of ritual behavior and the ways those messages could be perceived.

* all names have been changed


welcome to my thesis, part two

this is the second post in a series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year.

you can read the first part of this series and my paper's abstract here.


choosing the holidays

in our origin story, i mentioned how i missed out on using halloween as part of my study. no lie, that was a bit of a bummer.

in many ways, though, i’m grateful i didn’t end up using halloween; partly because the holidays i ended up studying ended up having some fascinating connections of their own, but also because halloween in boston in 2011 was cold and wet and gross. i’m incredibly grateful that my graduate career is not commemorated in an ode to how i froze my feet off as i waited in line for hours trying to get into the cambridge brewing company, as the freezing rain turned to snow. just saying.

when i sat down to look at my proposed timeline, three holidays made sense to me: st. patrick’s day, cinco de mayo, and the fourth of july. 

a lot of people have asked me why i didn’t include new year's eve in my study. to be frank, the original reason was timing. having only just started my graduate degree in september and given the proximity of the holiday to the end of semester deadlines, along with the fact that i had only just turned in my thesis proposal in the beginning of december, there was no sane or sensible way to include new year's eve in my research.

instead, i lied and told my parents i couldn’t come home to baltimore for the holiday because i was going to use new year's eve as one of my participant observations, then snuck home to baltimore and hid in am the elder’s apartment, and surprised our parents at our normal friends and family party. that wasn’t a convoluted sentence at all. 

in picking st. patrick’s day, cinco de mayo, and fourth of july as my holidays, i ended up providing a framework myself that was incredibly useful later. here’s how i describe how and why i chose these holidays in my paper, and how i proposed to go about studying them:

my plan was to conduct participant observations of three holidays — st. patrick’s day (march 17), cinco de mayo (may 5), and american independence day (july 4) — in boston, massachusetts. i hoped to observe how these ethnic and nationalistic holidays were interpreted through celebratory drinking in order to better understand how holiday drinking practices engender and reinforce concepts of community. i chose these holidays for their perceived ethnic and patriotic associations that have been appropriated and subsequently reinterpreted by the american public. the participant observations would all start in the morning and range into the early hours of the following day. i intended to observe the relationship between ritual drinking and the celebration of the holidays: who was celebrating, by gender, ethnicity, and age; how celebrants were dressed to represent the holiday; what they drank and how much they drank; what their celebratory behaviors were, both sober and intoxicated; and how drinking served as an embodiment of the holiday for the celebrants. being relatively unfamiliar with boston, i primarily chose field sites based on perceived popularity among drinkers in their 20s and 30s, as opposed to specifically ethnically self-identified bars. i would spend st. patrick’s day in south boston with a group of friends, cinco de mayo in faneuil hall and allston, and independence day in somerville. south boston was chosen for its strong irish american neighborhood identity. faneuil hall and allston were chosen for their perceived popularity among young celebrants. somerville served as a contrasting residential neighborhood. i planned to conduct informal interviews with participants i would meet throughout the holidays about why and how they were celebrating.

i will admit, choosing secular holidays rather than religious holidays was a conscious choice. there is a lot that has been written about religious ritual in relation to alcohol consumption. there is a lot more that can be written about religious drinking holidays. my choice of secular holidays primarily came from a spatial factor: i was looking at public spaces, bars, etc. i don’t know if i’ve ever seen anyone out having their customary four glasses of wine for passover in their local pub. (that would be mad impressive, though. now that i think about it, i might need to be the first. or not.)

i also shied away from the religious holidays from a practical feasibility point. there is a lot of work that has been within alcohol studies focusing on the religious; it’s a bit overwhelming and it’s difficult to know where to start and where to end. certainly the amount of material there is book-length, not master's thesis length. (though, i will admit, given more time and more research, i could see book-length material developing from my finished thesis.)

alternatively, secular holidays also held a certain attraction to me simply because there was less work already written about them. the secular drinking holiday is a phenomenon that i feel has flown largely under the radar. it’s there, academics know it’s there, but for whatever reason, there’s less of a draw to write about them.

i’d like to address a few points specifically about each of these holidays, because i’m sure some of you out there have concerns with my defining each of these three holidays as a secular drinking holiday. and for those of you who don’t — maybe they didn’t occur to you, maybe you’re not accustomed to this sort of academic discussion, whatever (it’s okay, i know we have all sorts of readers here in the garden. nobody’s judging anybody) — there are reasons why you should want me to fully explain my definitions. primarily, i, like all researchers, should be held accountable for my work. and if i can’t explain what i did or why, i’m not doing my job.

firstly, this was an ethnographic inquiry. the research i completed was all here-and-now. yes, my literature review included the historical perspectives of these holidays. however, the primary focus was to gain a better understanding of current practices.

and so of course it’s important to acknowledge the fact that st. patrick’s day began as a religious holiday. however, in the here-and-now, the celebrations i observed were of a secular nature. 

this here-and-now perspective also applies to the whole “drinking holiday” aspect of my observations. none of these holidays were founded with the intention of selling more guiness or providing a venue for sombreros on college campuses. (at least, i’m pretty sure they weren’t.) however, it is the intent of the participants to drink on these days that transforms these holidays into drinking holidays. 

thus, by this reasoning, i consider st. patrick's day, cinco de mayo, and the fourth of july all to be secular drinking holidays.


my next post in this series will discuss questions and concerns dealing with actual alcohol consumption and participant observations.