Archive | January 2014

Hilary: The Brain Initiative and Public Values

Hello! Hilary Whitney, here. I am in Washington D.C., finishing up my second and final FWT. That’s because I transferred into Bennington as a second-term sophomore, and I’m about to begin my senior year. So far, my undergraduate studies have focused on brain and cognitive sciences, and—since joining Bennington—the realm of public action. I’ve really taken interest with ‘the social life of brain science’. For example, I just wrote my final paper for David Bond’s course, The Anthropology of Science and Technology, on the issue of public literacy in neuroscience—what do most people understand about and learn from fMRI images?


Our office on Connecticut Avenue. CSPO is a part of Arizona State University (ASU).

Here in D.C., I am working with the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (check it out: In particular, I focus on a project called Public Value Mapping (PVM). It’s a method for analyzing public programs and their societal impact. The central question of PVM is: What are the public values that justify public investments in scientific research, and what is the capacity of a given research initiative to yield outcomes that support and advance those values?

I got to design my research this FWT, so I am asking Read More…


Caroline: Nature in New Orleans

I arrived at my interviewee’s home mildly sick and bundled against the chill of this unusually cold New Orleans winter. I was welcomed in, preoccupied with how I would suppress my coughs for the sake of the audio recording, and was pleasantly surprised by a warm and welcoming tea spread in his living room. We chatted and the interview got started, taking a familiar trajectory right off the bat.

“Nature for me is something that I’m not connecting to in New Orleans and so I- when I think about it I almost feel lost […] Nature for me is- in this area is, the swamps and dangerous and kind of scary and uncomfortable.” We continued to talk, covering topics from the mostly invisible but groaning Mississippi to the museum-like Audubon Park, this feeling of disconnect following through. “You know, we’re sealed off from the river. We don’t- we have this big wall that goes down, so we can’t even really see it unless Read More…

Noah: Youth and the Future of Afghanistan

The 11 candidates for the Afghan presidency do not inspire much hope for change in Afghanistan.  They are all of an older generation.  Most of them led militias in the fight against the Soviets, all worked in the Karzai government and all have become (or have had their families become) immensely wealthy and powerful during the years of the American intervention.  Even with more than half the population below the age of 20, political power in Afghanistan still belongs to the old.

Despite this, change could be on the horizon.  A new generation of political leaders is beginning to emerge and I have spent some time over the past 10 days interviewing some of them and went to a US embassy hosted forum on civil society.  One of the young men that I spent time with Read More…

Jiray: Religion, Identity and the Diaspora

If answering any theoretical questions about diaspora communities is difficult, imagine trying to locate those communities. It is easy enough to find individual members, to ask them about their lives, and to try to shed some light on the elusive diaspora identity (if such a thing can be singled out and studied). If you’re lucky, maybe they see themselves as part of that immensely complex community. Maybe that connection lies only in the label others place on them. While these conversations have been immensely helpful in gaining a keener understanding of Armenian identity within the diaspora, especially in light of the Karabakh conflict, they have left something to be desired. Where are these identities being formed? Reformulated? Maintained? What I have gathered from conversations with individuals in the Armenian diaspora is that there is a constant sense of searching, of transition, of adaptation. This is not to say that a sense of “home” can never be achieved. Rather, that sense of home is constantly being negotiated within the past, present, and future.

As I’ve learned over the past month, the role of the anthropologist is not simply to have conversations. Some of the most important elements in any ethnographic project come from participant observation. Within this framework my line of questioning has evolved from “Who do I talk to about the Karabakh conflict and Armenian identity within the diaspora?” to “Where are these identities being constructed and reconstructed?” and “How do I (physically and geographically) contextualize these experiences?” These questions became all the more complicated when, in a phone interview, I asked a man if he knew of any expatriate populations, or had a personal relationship with expats in his area? He told me Read More…

Kate: Singing in Dublin

I’ve finally arrived in Ireland and my research is going better than I could’ve hoped for!  Already I’ve been to two singing sessions, one in the heart of Dublin and another in the seaside suburb of Howth, as well as a concert put on by a more mainstream Irish singer inside a beautiful church in Dublin.  The next session I’m aware of isn’t until this Friday, so my task until then is to start scheduling and carrying out interviews.
The sessions have been fascinating thus far, consisting of people sitting around the pub drinking pints and taking turns sharing songs.  It is apparent that everyone is there to have a good time, but there is little talking and the songs are listened to with a sense of great seriousness.  People often close their eyes and seem to be almost in a state of meditation, only breaking the silence to say words of encouragement or maybe sing along for a phrase.  I saw a lot of the same faces at both sessions and was amazed by the encyclopedic memory of some singers- many seemed to be familiar with almost every song and I probably heard close to 100 songs!

I was also the youngest person there by close to 20 years, and many seemed amused that a young American girl traveled all this way to Read More…

Scott: The Bennington Sustainable Food Project

This winter I have had the opportunity to have some really fantastic conversations in the interviews I have been conducting with members of the Bennington Sustainable Food Project (BSFP) and administrators at Bennington College.

I have been hearing about the experiences my friends and peers have had here at Bennington and with the BSFP, and have been overawed by their excitement and enthusiasm for Bennington and the educational opportunities offered hereAnd in talking with administrators I’ve been able to pick the brains of the people who shape the Bennington educational experience in a very real way, and see how they think about how students are and should be taught here. The timing of these conversations could nobe better, as I begin to reflect upon my own time here and prepare for my final term. All in all, I count myself lucky as I cherish the opportunity I have been given to conduct this research, have these conversations, and hopefully have a positive influence myself on the education here, all because of how Bennington is structured and the focus that is put upon student driven education.

I very much look forward revisiting these conversation (quite literally as I go back and code my recordings) and to seeing where they take me, it has certainly been a great ride so far.

Grace: Refugees in Maine

Drawing from my past work in anthropology, political science, and public action, I am conducting a yearlong thesis examining the health issues faced by refugees and immigrants in and around Portland, Maine. There are a number of organizations in my home state of Maine working with the new refugee populations (many of whom are from Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Rwanda, and the DRC) that have come to settle around the city of Portland.

During my independent study this Field Work Term I will conduct an informal information and data-gathering project (including surveys, participant observation, and interviews) on the refugees in and around Portland and the organizations and institutions serving them. Ultimately I want the information from this project to help organizations working with these refugees to be more effective in addressing the population’s health needs. This requires that I take a broad look at the different challenges and influences surrounding the health of these refugee populations (e.g. healthcare, housing, food, heating, employment, etc.). Most importantly, I want to include refugee communities and the organizations working with them in the discussion, information gathering process, and the possible knowledge-based action that could come out of the research.

With my last term in the spring, I will further build on the last two terms to create a final piece of work. This piece will take the form of an ethnography, and both analyze how these organizations working with refugees in and around Portland Maine are having an impact on the health of the community, as well as identifying resources for them and supplying a series of recommendations of how they can better impact the health of the refugees. This will allow me to tie all my work together into a succinct form, and would complete the Plan Process for me at Bennington College by allowing me to use the tools I have acquired in anthropology and political science, and apply them to real-world issues through public action.


While living in Portland is growing on me, after a week in the city Read More…

Noah: Conspiracy Theories and Elections


Conducting interviews in the winter in Afghanistan is never as fun as in the spring or summer when things are in bloom (you can see the cold garden of my compound below).  Luckily there is plenty of political gossip in Kabul these days to keep things interesting.  With a little more than 3 months until the date when voting is supposed to happen for the next Afghan presidential election (they may still be delayed even though officials are denying it), one of the fun things about my Field Work Term includes collecting conspiracy theories from both Afghans and internationals on what is going to happen in the lead up to the election.  Afghan politics are rarely transparent, candidates rarely make policy statements, and the 11 remaining candidates appear to be in a protracted dance with each other, forming secret alliances, breaking them and then coming back together.  This all allows plenty of room for the imagination to run wild.


One of the most common right now is that Karzai is not signing the Bilateral Security Agreement between the US and Afghanistan (the basic terms for leaving US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014) until the US government agrees to support his brother during the election.  This is interesting, of course, because Read More…

Scott: Winter Driving

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This week I’m want to talk a little bit about what I did this winter before I got back to Bennington this winter.

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As someone who splits residency between Bennington and the West Coast, I have flown across the country a good many times, And every time I find myself staring out the window at 30,000 feet, I find myself wondering what it really looks like down there on the ground. This winter I finally got the chance to see, when my girlfriend and I drove cross country in a mad dash against the weather, to make it back to Bennington in time for our respective Field Work Terms.

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The drive was fun, beautiful, and a real eye opener in terms of how big this country is. And we didn’t even hit bad roads until Chicago, and the snowstorm that pummeled much of the midwest the first week of January. Read More…

Grace: First Week with Catholic Charities, RIS

For the past week I have been working at Catholic Charities Maine Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS), as their Community Outreach and Capacity Building volunteer. During the past 30 years, Catholic Charities Maine, RIS have resettled over 12,000 refugees from more than 25 countries. RIS is Maine’s only active resettlement program, with contracts from the U.S. Departments of State and Health and Human Services, and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Besides the fact that RIS is the state’s only active resettlement program, one main reason why I was drawn to the organization is because they are working to identify and address potential problems where support services for refugees may be culturally inappropriate, or where those services do not exist (which correlates directly with my research questions).

One of the projects I have been working on this week is finding funding for their Elderly Services program. This has included grant research, phone calls to community members, and the design of a phone survey. This survey could turn into home visits with elderly Iraqi refugees in the area in order to gather information on what programming would be most beneficial to provide in the event that we obtain a grant.


I have been reading through the Portland Press Herald for articles on new Mainers, and found this piece published on Christmas Day:

Additionally, here is another article from the Portland Press Herald on a proposal by LePage that would prevent asylum seekers and some other immigrants from receiving General Assistance: