Author Archive

February 1, 2012

For all you teachers out there

by johnmccreery

Courtesy of Robert Paul on lit-ideas.

Excerpt from a comment in the daily

‘The so-called “No Child Left Behind” policies have given us a crop of students nearly incapable of drawing conclusions on their own–so to teach critical thinking, we have to teach what thinking is first.’

January 30, 2012

Describing Tradition: A Problem in Anthropological Method

by johnmccreery

The following remarks are cross-posted from Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). It seemed serendipitous to receive a message reminding me that not yet a year ago we were discussing postmodern Christianity. Suppose that you are an anthropologist. You observe and participate in a local festival. Then you have to explain it.

It’s that time of year again. Mitsusawa High Town, the condominium complex in Yokohama, where my wife and I have lived since coming to Japan in 1980, has once again held its annual omochitsuki (pounding of the rice cakes). On Saturday I pitched in and helped to pull the necessary equipment out of the storage shed and get it washed and ready for use. That was a job for the men to do, outside, scrubbing and rinsing with cold water. Inside the High Town’s public meeting room women were gathering, bringing down pots of glutenous rice that had been parceled out among them for soaking overnight, chopping and wrapping sweet potatoes, first in damp newspaper, then in tin foil, ready to become yakiimo (roasted sweet potatoes) the next day, then chopping the vegetables that would go into the tonjiru (pork soup). A lot of people showed up. Many hands made light work, and the preparations were complete well before noon.

Sunday was the day of the mochi-pounding proper. A few hardy men were up to start the fires at 7:00 a.m. I drifted in around 8:00 a.m. and joined a crew busy pulling nails from the used lumber being used as fuel for the fires. The yakiimo crew had already started roasting sweet potatoes. The big wooden usu (mortars) and kine (wooden mallets) were already in place. After the nails were pulled, I drifted out and saw that the big steel soup pot (I’d guess 50 gallons or so) full of tonjiru was starting to bubble. The first batches of rice were steaming. The ladies in charge of distributing the finished mochi treats were setting up their table. Others were back in the meeting room, getting ready to assemble the treats. The former, who got to stand in the cold, looked younger than the older women who were making the treats in relative comfort.

An older man, locally regarded as the expert on mochi-pounding was teaching the art to a couple of younger men. The process begins (1) when a mass of steamed glutenous rice is placed in the mortar. Then it’s time (2) for one or more guys to grind it, pushing down hard as they rotate the heads of the mallets through the rice. This is the hardest work to be done. Next comes the pounding. The proper form involves a man who wields the mallet, raising it over his shoulder and slamming it into the rice, while a woman reaches in between strokes to fold the mochi back onto itself. Men will step in to do this if a woman is not available. Finally, (4) the pounded mochi is taken off to the meeting room where the older women shape it into mochi treats that reappear on platters delivered to the younger women at the outdoor tables, who are dipping in them in ground radish sauce (a savory version), rolling them in kinoko (ground soy bean) powder, or coating them with sweet azuki (red bean) paste. People who want to eat the mochi line up and pick the varieties they like.

By 10:00 a.m. or so, the men in the back, tending the fires, have already dispatched two large bottles of sake. Everyone is in a happy mood. The crowd is growing, filling up with people who come just to enjoy the festivity and free food. By noon the food is gone. The younger children, both boys and girls have had a chance to try their hand at wielding the mallet (a smaller one, their size). The festival is over. The organizers bustle about cleaning up. Both men and women participate in the clean-up. The division of labor is again along the lines of the men taking care of the outdoor equipment, the women the utensils used in preparing the mochi treats. Everything is tidy by 1:00 p..m., when the whole crew gathers in the meeting room for the uchiage “finishing up” party. The tables are laid with party snacks, mostly Japanese junk food, plus a few homemade items, and lots of beer, shochu (white liquor) and sake. The men congregate at one end of the tables, the one closest to the kitchen and back door that leads to the space where the men were doing their thing cooking the rice and sweet potatoes in the morning; the women at the other, the one closest to the front. Symbolic significance? Unclear. Should ask someone about that. The party goes on until 3:30 p.m. when most of the women and some of the men leave. A hard core of men, mostly members of the former softball team, hang around to finish off the booze. When I stagger home a bit after 5:00, I expect to be hungover the next morning.

Think of this as a field note. How does one proceed to extract information about “Japanese tradition” from what is described above?

Given that this is the 21st century, an obvious place to begin is a Google search for “omochitsuki.” It turns up 147,000 items. At the top of the list is the Wikipedia entry for mochi. It seems consistent with what I have observed. Ditto for a site designed to instruct Japanese-Americans on what this Japanese tradition entails. Things get more interesting when I start looking at other items, especially YouTube videos. Here I find an elaborate ritual that begins with a blessing from a Shinto priest in full regalia; then there is one with only a couple of guys in T-shirts, in what seems like an impromptu effort. I note how many of the videos depict what seem like all-male activities. I wonder what that’s about. I see stone mortars as well as wooden ones. Rice cooked on gas burners instead of wood-burning stoves. I could spend days checking and mapping the variations documented in this one source.

Therein, of course, lies the question. Is “Japanese tradition” an ideal type, imperfectly realized in all the variations? Performances whose nuances shift depending on actors, stagecraft and direction, while remaining fundamentally the same play? A grammar that allows a variety of equally legitimate forms, while excluding others as improper? An on-going series of bricolages/assemblages, to which new bits and pieces are constantly being added and subtracted?

Which is the better starting point? And which provides the best guidance when it comes to what to include and what to discard in writing up the final analysis?

December 31, 2011

Less than three hours until 2012

by johnmccreery

Here in Yokohama, it is less than three hours until midnight, the end of 2011 and the start of 2012. Ruth and I are sharing a quiet night cocooning at home. Around 11:30 we will turn on the TV and listen for the temple bells on NHK. As the last of the 108 bells rings, we should also hear the ships in the harbor sound their foghorns. If we were younger, we might head out to the local shrine to participant-observe in the hatsumode prayers for the new year. If we were lucky, the shrine might be serving amazake (sweet sake) to those who come to pay their respects to the god. More likely, we will just go to bed.

I wonder what other Voles will be up to on New Year’s Eve and wish everyone here a happy, healthy, productive and prosperous 2012.

December 15, 2011

How do you manage anger?

by johnmccreery

I’ve done it again, second time in as many weeks. I’m looking at an email about something important. My head is aching. I misread something, blow up and reply with a nasty, totally off the wall message. Fortunately, I’m dealing with adults. I cool down, acknowledge that this was my bust, things are back on track again. But why is this happening?

Is it alcohol poisoning? It’s bonenkai (forget the year party, i.e., office-party season in Japan). Excess encouraged by open bars does have consequences.

Is it frustration because my research and writing have hit a wall? OK, there was the chorus trip to Geneva followed by a nasty bout of flu. Ruth is probably right that I’m being too hard on myself. I will likely bounce back.

Is it aging? This is the scary one. Am I going to turn out like my dad, more prone to anger the older he got?

Whatever, getting really, really angry, in a black Irish way that my ancestors are notorious for, is something that has always terrified me. I mean real terror, so much I tend to go passive and change the subject in most social situations and channel my nastiness into academic snide on the net. When I blow up, I feel physically sick for hours.

Exercise helps. Yoga helps. Then come those moments when everything, alcohol, exhaustion, frustration, changing brain chemistry come together and I lose it.

Do you have this problem? How do you cope?

July 23, 2011


by johnmccreery

“Charette.” I had never heard the word before. It is, however, a common term of art in design and urban-planning circles. The process to which it refers is being explored as a new approach to teaching ethnography. See what it’s all about at a site called Ethnocharette. Let me know what you think.

July 19, 2011

On Freedom

by johnmccreery

Chris Kelty has started an active thread on Savage Minds, starting from the observation that anthropologists, in contrast to their colleagues in history and political science, rarely talk about freedom. MTBradley brought up the notion that the Western idea of freedom is different from that in Eastern martial arts traditions where submission to the master is a given and the goal to liberate the self. I added the following comment.

“We should,perhaps, remember that Western ideas of freedom and domination evolved in contest defined by monotheistic religion and the notion that those who stand in loco parentis, the father in the family and the ruler in the state, are God’s representatives on earth. Thus the question becomes one of submission or rebellion in relation to external authority.

“In contrast, the martial arts traditions to which MT refers are rooted in Daoist/Buddhist ideas in which the primary form of liberation is liberation from desire, ultimately the attainment of a state of no-self in which questions of submission or rebellion are moot. In this context, freedom is not liberation from external authority imposed from outside the self. It is, instead, liberation from the desires that constitute the self, leaving the body free to go with the flow of nature instead of fighting against it.

“Just once in my own life did I have an experience whose memory resonates with these thoughts. As an undergraduate, i was taking a judo class to satisfy a PE requirement. A complete novice and not in great shape, I was paired with an advanced student who was also larger and stronger than I was. When we stood up to fight and grasped the collars of our gi (judo jackets), I gave up and relaxed as totally as I could, hoping to minimize the pain of the fall. The next thing I knew my opponent was flying over my shoulder. That never happened again; I was always too self-conscious about getting into the right mood. But in that moment, I and the universe were one. I did what came naturally, as free as I have ever been in my life. But, of course, ‘I’ wasn’t there. The self that worries about submission or rebellion was absent.”

July 1, 2011

Practical Thoughts About Research

by johnmccreery

If you have ever wondered what I do with my copious free time….

There are, it seems to me, three distinct approaches to social network analysis.

1. The Mathematicians

2. The Social Scientists

3. The Anthropologists and HIstorians

The mathematicians, who now include physicists and computer scientists, develop the algorithms and complex modeling techniques on which we all depend. For the rest of us, the critical question is not so much how do they work as what do they do for us.

The social scientists are driven by a vision in which interactions between network vertices result in network parameters that can then be treated as independent variables in causal analysis. Sampling and statistical inference are critical issues here.

What, then, of the anthropologists and historians? My prototype is a presentation by Dr. Lothar Krempel and a group of German historians I heard at my first Sunbelt conference at St. Pete Beach, Florida, in 2008. The problem was to map the social networks generated by the correspondence related to  the Newton-Leibniz controversy over who had invented the calculus. The focus of the presentation was neither a new algorithm nor an attempt at causal explanation. Here SNA was used to enrich our understanding of an already heavily studied bit of intellectual history.

I was struck by this presentation because my own project is an experiment in using SNA in a similar way, to trace the history and enrich understanding of the creators who are members of teams whose ads have won awards in one of Japan’s major advertising contests. As someone who has worked in and around the industry for nearly three decades and knows many of these people personally, I bring an ethnographic perspective to the project. I am also working in a heavily documented field; books by and about Japanese creators, a lively and active trade press that has published hundreds of pages each month for, in some cases, more than a half century, a wealth of government and other statistics—the historical context is there for the reading. It just takes time. What SNA brings to the table are tools that let me quickly and persuasively demonstrate connections among, just in my current database, among over 4000 winning ads and over 8000 creators who were members of the teams that created them.

My preferred tool is Pajek. Exploratory Social Network Analysis with Pajek gave this newbie to the field a quick and effective introduction to the basic concepts of SNA, along with instruction on how to use the software. I have nothing against other packages; just don’t have the time, energy, or compelling motivation to switch to something else with another learning curve.

When I think of where I am with Pajek now, I recall the piano lessons that I took as a child. I have learned my scales and a few basic chords and am now beginning to explore new techniques. I do not aspire to be a composer (Mathematician). Nor do I want to confine myself to a particular modernist style (Social Science). But a certain level of competence, a bit of improvisation, adding a new twist to my understanding of an industry in which I have spent a large part of my life. That seems doable.

June 25, 2011

The Virtues of Ambiguity

by johnmccreery

The following comment was written in response to a remark in a debate about ambiguity on lit-ideas. Some here may find it a topic worthy of note.


Ambiguity in language is just as much a useful tool as precision. There are times when each is to be preferred, but surely we use language to increase ambiguity as well as reduce it, even in non-poetic contexts.

Yes, indeed. Here’s an example.

In the early/mid 1990s I was recruited by Paul Guilfoile, the best account executive I ever worked with, to help with the pitches that won Hakuhodo Lintas the relaunch of Coke Light and, later, the launch of Caffeine Free Diet Coke in Japan. Together Paul and I worked out three important rules for working with Coca-Cola.

1. Use Coca-Cola language and respect their taboos. Back then, for example, the adjective “refreshing” could be applied only to classic red can Coke. Using their language the way they used it demonstrated our familiarity with their business and corporate culture.

2. Say something unexpected. Simply repeating what they told us would lead to their concluding, quite properly, that we were adding nothing of value to them. The art was in finding a new angle or line for development that they hadn’t thought of themselves, but presenting it to them in language that they would find familiar and, thus, reassuring.

3. This was Paul’s contribution, and I will always remember it. Appear to speak as concretely as possible—but be sure to leave some wiggle room. The rationale, in the context in which we worked, was persuasive: Planning and producing advertising, especially TV commercials, requires input from all sorts of people with different skills, and the better they are at their jobs the more they insist on their own “creative input.” So our presentations had to leave room for on-the-spot modifications, in location, direction, costuming, narration, dubbing, editing—modifications that would not be seen by the client as violating the promises made in the presentation storyboards. Changing, for instance, the cut of the model’s dress might be acceptable; replacing Coke red with a pinker or more orange red that caught the director’s or stylist’s eye—that was definitely out.

I have since come to believe that this sort of what we might call “strategic ambiguity” is an essential part of business and political activity, and one whose importance grows with the size of the organizations and the diversity of interests involved. I would even go so far as to suggest that it plays an important role in academic life as well. After all, to become a “big idea,” an idea has to start out with sufficient ambiguity to allow disciples and colleagues to develop and refine it. Perfect solutions are, I suspect, more often than not, simply forgotten, clearing the way for new debates.

Some of these speculations may seem over the top. But the example, at least, may serve to illustrate John Wager’s excellent point.

May 13, 2011

The costs of war

by johnmccreery

I have spent much of the last three days translating material for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Tsuneo Enari, who for nearly 40 years has been obsessed with documenting the human cost of Japan’s wars in Asia and the Pacific, in the twelve-year period from the Mukden Incident on September 18, 1933, which provided Japan’s excuse for the invasion of north China and August 5, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies. He was, he says, drawn to this work by encounters with Japanese orphans, abandoned during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the end of the war and raised by Chinese foster parents in China. This led him to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to his most recent project, “Islands of Wailing Ghosts,” photographing the remains of the war on islands in the Pacific, where some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought. “Wailing ghosts” is a reference to a Tang Dynasty Chinese scholar’s report on imperial battlefields where the restless spirits of the unburied dead were said to wail at night.

Today’s translation was of a piece by historian of modern Japan Daikichi Irokawa, who was a student mobilized during the closing years of the war to command a torpedo boat packed with explosives and intended to make a suicide attack on the American fleet that was soon expected to arrive in Japanese waters. His sailors balked and the war ended before he had to carry out his mission.

In his essay, Irokawa describes an incident during a 1974 trip to Saipan, whose fall marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese empire in the Pacific. He writes,

From Marpi, at the northern tip of the island, I drove to Galapan. In the astonishing glow of a South Pacific sunset, the red flowers on the flame trees seemed soaked in blood. In the passenger seat was a young hitchhiker, humming through his nose, who knew nothing about what had happened here. This, however, was the road along which, just 30 years before, the surviving Japanese soldiers had died during their last banzai attack. I was choked up and my hands, gripping the steering wheel were shaking. Now this place is called Harakiri Gulch. 

The gap between his own response and that of the young hitchhiker, for whom the war is only a distant memory, is striking. Near the end of the essay, he summarizes data on the human cost of the war.

Yoshida Yutaka, an historian of modern Japan, has recently proposed that the number of Pacific War dead should be, at a minimum, 3.1 million: 2.3 million Japanese soldiers, 300,000 Japanese civilians killed overseas, and 500,000 Japanese civilians in Japan killed by allied air raids.  To these we can add more than 10 million Chinese soldiers and civilians, 200,000 Koreans, 1.11 million Filipinos, 30,000 Taiwanese, 100,000 Malaysians and Singaporians. Combining these with the dead from Vietnam and Indonesia, the total rises to over 19 million. By far the largest number of victims of this war started by Japan were Asian (Yoshida Yutaka 2007, Ajia Taiheiyo Senso (The Asia-Pacific War), Iwananami Shinsho). 

From a domestic perspective, the Pacific War is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the Japanese people. One man in four was conscripted; when Japan surrendered there were 7.2 million Japanese soldiers, of whom 2.8 million were killed or wounded. Half of all Japanese households had sent soldiers to war, a proportion on a par with Germany.  The than three million Japanese who were killed were members of one in five households, mourned by more than 20 million family members.  A million wives lost their husbands; millions of children lost their fathers; millions of parents lost their sons. The war produced countless widows, widowers and orphans. 

About 3.5 million Japanese who had emigrated overseas lost their homes and were left with nothing but what they could carry on their backs. Fifteen million people had their homes destroyed. Five million were left unemployed; 3.5 million students were mobilized; three million women worked in factories.    Countless people died of sickness and injury following  air raids, atomic bombings or war-caused famine.

I think about America’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quick Google searches bring up Iraq Body Count figures that indicate a total of 150, 726 reported  casualties between the years 2003 and 2010, though as the report cited indicates, many deaths may have gone unreported (some estimates are upward of one million). In contrast, the total number of U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq is 4,770, fewer than were killed in the battle for Saipan alone.  Quick calculations indicate that U.S. casualties are about 3.2% of the total in Iraq, while Japanese deaths accounted for 16.3% of those during the Asia-Pacific War. Will historians see our current wars as wars, or only skirmishes? How will they treat the difference between an experience like that of Japan, where everyone was affected directly or indirectly, and that of American civilians for whom domestic issues loom far larger than wars that take place somewhere “over there” in the distance and, unless we have service members in the family, affect us directly not at all?
April 25, 2011

Simmel on Rembrandt

by johnmccreery

Someone, I seem to recall that it was on OAC, mentioned that Georg Simmel wrote a book about Rembrandt. Now I’m reading Georg Simmel, Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art. It’s being an interesting experience. To me Simmel was, first, the author from whom Lewis Coser took his ideas about the role of conflict in social life. Then he was idol of social network analysts, for whom his essays on the dyad and the triad are the origin of all sorts of notions about such topics as structural holes and brokerage. But here is a new Simmel who suggests a new twist on the old distinction between naturwissenschaft (natural science) and geisteswissenschaft (spiritual science), the latter being the intuitive, interpretive, inside-out understanding that assumes a subjective perspective instead of objective understanding of natural law grounded in scientific method.

But, no, that’s not quite right. Both Max Weber, with his ideal types, and Alfred Schutz in The Phenomenology of the Social World wind up (at least in the straw man versions that pop into my head) saying that there is no direct understanding of the ceaseless flux and flow of reality, the endless becoming that is life. To understand requires concepts, and concepts are at best snapshots that purport to show something timeless while reality is all about time: Parmenides’ infinite solid purporting to explain Heraclitus’ river in which the observer never stands twice.

And here is Simmel making a case that Rembrandt’s paintings, especially his portraits and, in particular, his self-portraits embody an intuitive understanding of becoming that is visibly distinct from the ideal typing of Renaissance portraiture. There the background is fixed and stable; the actors who appear on its stage are portrayed as types, personalities conceived as timeless essences. In Rembrandt’s portraits, the spaces are defined by the interactions of the personalities who, according to Simmel, are captured in moments of becoming, realizing inherent potentials, which are real but not timeless and determined by pre-existing forms.

Part of me wants to write all this off as metaphysical blather; but when I look at the paintings (most are available on line if not via my iPad’s Art Authority app), I can see what he’s talking about. Are his words shaping my perceptions? My perceptions confirming his words? Very unsettling, this; but interesting to think about.

Any thoughts?

April 11, 2011

Energy and Curiosity, the Wisdom of Robertson Davies

by johnmccreery

I am in one of those fey moods where I find myself rereading books that, after a long waiting, have spoken to me and demanded to be read again. The book now in question is Rebel Angels by the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. No one to my mind does academic comedy better. One thing that makes his books worth rereading is the bits of wisdom that pop up here and there. I thought of Carl again as I read the following passage.

Energy and curiosity are the lifeblood of universities; the desire to find out to uncover, to did deeper, to puzzle out obscurities, is the spirit of the university, and it is a channelling of that unresting curiosity that holds mankind together. As for energy, only those who have never tried it for a week or two can suppose that the pursuit of knowledge does not demand a strength and determination, a resolve not to be beaten, that is a special kind of energy, and those who lack it or have it only in small store will never be scholars or teachers, because real teaching demands energy as well. To instruct calls for energy, and to remain almost silent, but watchful and helpful, while students instruct themselves, calls for even greater energy. To see someone fall (which will teach him not to fall again) when a word from you would keep him on his feet but ignorant of an important danger, is one of the tasks of the teacher that calls for special energy, because holding in is more demanding than crying out.

April 5, 2011

Humanizing the classroom, enhancing the value of teachers

by johnmccreery

Carl is a brilliant role model for the interactive teacher who eschews the usual lecture and test format. But if I read him right, his approach is the teaching equivalent of chronic guerilla war. He can irritate the system; but as long as what he does is confined to his own classroom, the system won’t change. Could technology change that? Salman Khan thinks so, and, yes, that is Bill Gates who introduces him and asks the questions at the end of Khan’s TED talk.

March 31, 2011

Remembrance of times past

by johnmccreery

I turn and look out my window. It’s crisp, spring morning in Yokohama. The sky is blue, the air is clear, looking down on the scene in the valley below our office, it looks like any other day. If, however, I turn on the news, read a newspaper,  or look for news on the Internet, I am instantly reminded that Japan is dealing with catastrophe “on a scale not seen since World War II.” If I walk down to the station or, for more impact, take a cab back at night, as we did last night around 10:00 p.m. It is clear that things are not  normal. There are no express trains on the train and subway lines. Half the escalators are turned off. Stores are shutting early, around 8:00 p.m. instead of 10:00 or 11:00. The cab driver echoes a comment from a member of my chorus that people are coming home earlier; fewer are working late or coming home drunk after socializing with their workmates. It has been announced that the rolling blackouts, which are expected to intensify this summer as demand for air conditioning rises, will likely continue for at least two years.

But something less dramatic also happened this week. I was thinking of going into Tokyo to ADMT, the Advertising Museum Tokyo, to get working again on my research. But before I set out, I thought to check once again what I might be able to find on the Net. On the website for Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, I found the Dentsu Kokoku Nenpyo (Dentsu Advertising Chronicle). This single source provides nine to eleven pages densely packed with information about Japan’s economy, the advertising industry, consumer behavior, hit products, films, books, TV and radio shows, for every year from 1945 to 2009. I carefully download all sixty-four PDFs, gird my loins and start to read them (translating important bits from Japanese to English), starting in chronological order from 1945. The following are just the top notes, translated from the section on economic conditions, for the first four years.


As a result of Japan’s losing WWII, economic activities became extremely chaotic. The standard of living fell and a huge number of people were unemployed. Food was in short supply and black  markets appeared. Inflation accelerated, resulting in loss of real income and extreme reduction in desire to work. Conditions were bad, but the economy began to revive as much as permitted by Occupation policies. Economic democratization resulted in a shift of labor to agricultural production, but the rice harvest was poor.


Defeat has resulted in economic devastation and social chaos. Japan’s economy, isolated from the global economy, is shrinking. Signs of an economic crisis deepened as 1946 began. GHQ was pursuing an extreme demilitarization policy, existing stocks were drying up, shortages of coal and electricity reduced production. As a result the economy seemed caught in a vicious inflationary cycle. Extreme poverty and anxiety continued, but as year’s end approached, priority production measures pointed the way to industrial redevelopment.


Tension between the US and USSR is growing. Economy conditions  change dramatically for the better as a result of aid policies aimed to revive Japan’s economy. But steps to prevent inflation fail, production remains sluggish.


As conflict between the US and USSR intensifies, the tempo of changes in US policy toward Japan accelerates. Vigorous aid program aims to promote Japan’s economic independence.  Mining and industrial production rise 50%, reaching 60% of prewar level. Controls on interest and borrowing block inflation.

I find myself thinking, if things look bad now, what was it like back then, to people like my parents just starting young families (I was one year old in 1945). The “biggest catastrophe since WWII” now looks more like a setback than the looming end of the world.

February 25, 2011

Smart Critiques. Stupid Creates.

by johnmccreery

This is one of a whole series of ads created by advertising agency Anomaly for the Diesel Jeans “Be Stupid” campaign. If you’re looking for irony or exploitation of popular stereotypes, that is what you will find here. But, just as an experiment, let’s make an anthropological move. For the sake of argument, assume that there is more than a grain of truth in this advertising. What would be the implication for our understanding of education and its role in contemporary society?

February 24, 2011

Asia’s lost generation

by johnmccreery

In a mad bit of self-indulgence, I am not going to repeat myself. Instead, I would like to draw your attention to the piece I just posted on Open Anthropology Cooperative in response to the top story in this week’s China Daily/Asia Weekly. It puts a lot of our concerns about how the world is changing and what that means for education into a global context.

February 12, 2011

Art, Science—or Engineering

by johnmccreery

The intersection of our thread on talking with fundamentalists and various threads now active on the Open Anthropology Cooperative, reminded me of Henry Petroski’s classic To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. There, right at the beginning of chapter 4 “Engineering as Hypothesis” (1985:40), I found the following.

Every issue of The Structural Engineer, the official journal of the British Institution of Structural Engineers carries prominently displayed in a box on its contents page this definition of its subject:

Structural engineering is the science and art of designing and making, with economy and elegance, buildings, bridges, frameworks, and other similar structures so that they can safely resist the forces to which they may be subjected.

Since some engineers deny that engineering is either science or art, it is encouraging to see this somewhat official declaration that it is both. And indeed it is, for the conception of a design for a new structure can involve as much a leap of the imagination and as much a synthesis of experience and knowledge as any artist is required to bring to his canvas or paper. And once that design is articulated by the engineer as artist, it must be analyzed by the engineer as scientist in as rigorous an application of the scientific method as any scientist must make.

I now find myself wondering, when we heavy thinkers get caught up in debating whether what we do is art or science, aren’t we ignoring another possibility, i.e., engineering. There is to be sure a nauseous feeling associated with the notion of “social engineering”  these days. But at the end of the day, aren’t we still succumbing to the ancient prejudice that people who actually make things are doing something “below” us? Wouldn’t we and our students both be better educated if we got our hands dirty a bit?

January 31, 2011

Winners’ Circles (Continued)

by johnmccreery

I’m ready now to start moving beyond the preliminaries and get to work on the substance of the study.

UPDATE 8: Establishing the context

UPDATE 9: Visualizing networks with Pajek

UPDATE 10: Analyzing networks with Pajek

January 7, 2011

Maybe if you get especially pithy bits you could post them?

by johnmccreery

Thanks, Carl. I will, if I may, try something a bit different, an experiment in a different kind of self-publishing. You will, if you are patient, see the whole thing emerge, chunk by chunk, as the first draft is written. I have already set this experiment in motion on the Open Anthropology Cooperative Site, with a blog post that currently reads as follows


It has been three years since I began work on my current research project, Winners’ Circles…. Last fall saw a major breakthrough, when I was able to secure interviews with three of Japan’s top creatives. There is still a lot of research to do, and I am hoping to arrange more interviews this spring. It is, however, time to start writing, for at least in my experience research only starts falling into place when I start writing about it. Procrastination will no longer do.

I will be posting what I write on the  “Consuming Japan” blog that is part of the company website for The Word Works, Ltd., the translation and copywriting company that my wife Ruth and I run in Yokohama. I would very much appreciate feedback and welcome any thoughts and comments you might have as the work unfolds. Clicking here will take you to the introduction I just posted.

UPDATE1: How being a participant in the industry affects the research

UPDATE2: Anthropological background and how the book is structured, revised 10 January 2011

UPDATE3: Why social network analysis?

UPDATE4: Assembling the data

UPDATE5: Designing the database

UPDATE6: Getting started with network analysis

UPDATE7: Network and other perspectives


If everyone is agreeable, I will continue to mirror the updates here. I would be honored if you have the time to read what I write, and feedback incorporated into the final ms will be properly cited.

December 28, 2010

Questions about Gramsci: Carl, over to you

by johnmccreery

On OAC, a smart young scholar named Toby Locke has started a thread on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Being no expert on Gramsci, but knowing we have one here, I reproduce his opening statement below, in the hope that Carl will offer some more informed answers than I am capable of.


I have been examining Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. There are a few areas of this idea that I am unsure of and would like to hear others opinions on the meaning of this concept and its physical manifestations. The below quote comes from Gramsci’s prison note books:

“What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major superstructural “levels”: the one that can be called “civil society”, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private”, and that of “political society” or “the State”. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and “judicial” government. The functions in question are precisely organisational and connective. The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government.”

Now, in referring to hegemony my understanding is that he is referring to the ideologies and morals of any given society; the ideas which are common most world views and thought patterns of individuals within a collective group. He appears to be implying that the hegemony is somehow a construction and tool of the ruling classes which enables the perpetuation of power over the masses. When this method fails judicial action is used. He also seems to be stating that the intellectual culture of the time is instrumental in the development and utilisation of hegemony.
Asides from the Marxist context, is there a distinct difference between hegemony and Durkheim’s collective consciousness?
Can something like hegemony, which to me would appear to have a cyclical relationship between itself and society, really be used as a tool of domination? Or is it beyond the control of the ruling classes? Obviously the advent of mass media changes the likely answer to this somewhat.
Are all intellectuals architects and actors of hegemony? Surely they are in the same cyclical relationship: hegemony influences and acts upon their work and visa versa.


December 23, 2010

Christmas Past and Present

by johnmccreery

I don’t know about you, but Christmas has changed a lot for me in the past sixty years. I have dim, shinning memories of waking up real, real early on Christmas morning, eager to see what was in the stockings and under the tree. The more vivid memories are from later; somewhere between ten and sixteen. The big Christmas events were the midnight service at our Lutheran church, in which I sometimes wound up playing trombone in a brass ensemble. After church there would be the party at a neighbor’s house: eggnog, fruitcake, Christmas cookies, other treats. Once that was over, it was already Christmas morning, so we’d open our presents before going to bed, to allow sleeping in later in the morning. The morning was salty slices of Virginia ham, decorated with dabs of  Dijon mustard, in Mom’s fresh baked yeast rolls and Mom’s fruitcake, more dried fruit than cake. Then, the day would drift toward Christmas dinner.

This year, Ruth and I are by ourselves in Yokohama. The daughter, son-in-law and grandkids will be with the son-in-law’s family in New York. It’s their turn and, after three months with the grandkids in Cambridge, MA, this summer, we really can’t complain. Tomorrow I will be turning out for a Roppongi Men’s Chorus Christmas Eve concert that follows the 6:00 p.m. candlelight service at the Akasaka Kyokai, the church where we practice every Wednesday. The concert is payback for being allowed to use the church for our practices. The result is that, if things go as expected, there will be 72 of us performing in a very small sanctuary (we come close to filling it when we practice). We’ll be dressed in dark suits and white shirts and wearing our signature bright green ties. My best guess is that there may be as many as six Christians in the chorus, and we’ll be singing a program dictated more by what we know than the season: Joy to the World in Japanese, O Tannenbaum in German, an Ave Maria in Latin, Amazing Grace and Let All Men Sing in English.

On Christmas Day, Ruth and I will be turning out to attend a performance by the chorus to which one of our associates belongs. It’s Christmas, it’s Japan, so what are they singing? Mozart’s Requiem. It’s a funny place in a funny old world we live in.

Anyway, Best Wishes to All. May your holidays be happy ones and your New Year healthy and prosperous.

And, by the way, what about your Christmases, past and present?