Whats Up in the World? - Weekly Digest 8/04/2016 Written by Harriet Lane-Tobin.


I start this week's digest with a question of value. One which has been occupying my social interactions from the moment I started studying it: Humanities. Why is this field important and why should we study it? For me it was always about learning more about my place in the world, and how I could use this position to better relate to, and understand others within it.

Heidi Bostic takes a similar approach in her article "The Humanities Must Engage Global Grand Challenges in the Chronicle of Higher Education, detailing the importance of the social scientist in what she notes as the worlds “grand challenges”. Within the article Bostic emphases the importance of the social scientist in creating the awareness which allows us to best respond to these challenges. She suggests anthropologists can create, “narratives [that] could direct and motivate action, foster solidarity, and help us reimagine who, when, and where we are: earthbound, sharing a fragile planet and an uncertain future” (Bostic 2016). Leaving one with the perception it is not one discipline's responsibility to enact change, but all must engage in order to find a common ground of how and when these challenges should be seen to. Humanities helps to bridge the gap that science has overlooked or created, illustrating a key element of its value.

So how can we apply this to other subjects within the arts? What do they allow us to have that the other academic schools do not? In Tracey Moore’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece she discusses this in relation to theatre degrees and what we can learn from them in a digital age. Within Moore’s article she draws parallels to Bostic, most eloquently when she declares “as technology and machines consume more and more of life, perhaps theatre can help us remember what it means to act like a human” (Moore 2016). Something, Bostic tells us, that Anthropologists also help us to do.

The second point I raise in this week's digest is around how the body can act as a metaphor. I wish to highlight this in relation to my ever growing interest in cultural understandings of hairstyles; how hairstyles can be imbued with meaning for different cultural groups with great symbolic significance, and the issues that are raised when they are misapproriated. 

This Michaela Davis's Huffington Post piece "Braids Will Always Be a Powerful Symbol of Black Girl Culture" addresses the ever present debate on the appropriation of hairstyles. In this instance she discusses the box braid. Davis here argues for African-American women it is not just a hairstyle but a “cultural marker” which she references in relation to strong characters seen through popular media, highlighting its value both in and outside of that sphere.

Leigh Alexander shows exactly that in her Guardian piece "Do Google's 'unprofessional hair' results show it is racist?" She grounds her argument in relation to the work of an MBA student, Rosalia, who found that a simple Google search around “professional” hairstyles perpetuated racialise discourse against black versus white women. However the question must be raised around the power of the internet in perpetuating stereotypes in such a format. Is it simply a fault in the algorithm not casting a wide enough net when determining what we see, or, something more explicit about what people really ‘want’ to see?

It is important to remember this isn't just an issue over social media and body image, these affect people's lives. So I close this digest with a short documentary by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson entitled ‘A Conversation With Black Women on Race.’ The documentary is from a series in the New York Times on experiences of different ethnic groups in the USA. This one is from the perspective of Black Women and their lives in the USA as a starting point to think about how we use elements of other cultures in our daily lives, and the impact this can have.