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The Koko: Truth, Reality, and a Chimera

“In my tradition,” Ayisoba said, “we pour a libation before things begin.” It was the start of the dry season and early in my fieldwork with several Nankani communities in Northern Ghana. This was my first formal interview with Ayisoba,* although we had chatted several times before. The savanna air was comfortable. Families’ granaries were …

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Against the Slavers: An Account of Resistance

In an earlier essay, I described how some Nankani families exchanged their children for food during times of need. This essay offers a perspective on how the Nankani experienced and resisted slave raids [1600 words]. “The Ashanti were coming here for us,” said Asingya, an elder that gave me Nankani history lessons. He was describing …

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Of House or Bush: The Cultural Psychodynamics of Infanticide in Northern Ghana

My latest article was accepted for publication in Current Anthropology. It has been a long ten years in the making. Infanticide, Oedipus, projection, family conflict, scapegoats, and narcissistic injury--all the makings of a good drama. I'll be posting a link to it after some final edits. For now, the abstract (summing up the 12,000 word behemoth) and …

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A Brief Note: Bourdain and Anthropology

I rarely react to celebrity deaths. And I avoid the social media detritus strewn in their wake. I don’t identify with the famous. Perhaps what makes my sentiments around Bourdain’s passing different is that he was one of ours. We won’t admit it, but despite some quirks, many anthropologists envied him. His fieldwork. His voice. …

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On Personhood and its Subjunctivity

This post reflects on tentative and malleable forms of personhood--a construct we often consider to be given and fixed throughout life. This is an enhanced version of material originally appearing in Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. [1,300 words] Elijah and I sat chatting with three elder men outside a compound. Earlier we …

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A Brief Reflection on Learning and Doing Ethnography

I'm not big on business clichés and recycled quotes. However, I found an interesting statement by someone describing Bruce Lee's method. It's pointless in isolation, but when I applied it to thinking about ethnography, it made me consider the value of learning and doing "classic" ethnography (immersion and long-term participant observation). Doing so is a luxury. …

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Narrative Transformations: Reflections on Frey’s “Carry Forth the Stories”

My commentary on Rodney Frey's latest ethnography, Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition, was reciently published. It was an honor to be able to review and comment on his book. Rodney was my first mentor and MA advisor. Much of what he taught, and what his mentors showed him, shaped who I …

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On the “Reality” of Witchcraft

The following are some thoughts I shared with my Culture, Health, and Disease students on belief and reality. [950 words] “Why would anyone admit they are a sorcerer or a witch?” is a question that arises when I teach topics related to witchcraft, sorcery, and belief. This is a well-trod theme for anthropologists. However, it …

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An Introduction to Spirit Children: The Case of N’ma

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. The following ethnographic vignette introduces the spirit child phenomenon through the case of N’ma. [2,600 words] Outside his office one morning Joe was urgently awaiting my arrival. With a notebook and mobile phone in hand, he quickly …

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Rituals for Suspicion, Rituals for Fate

This piece moves further into how culture shapes our our interpersonal concerns. [2,900 words] I must have seemed unhinged. I was in the midst of an extended period of fieldwork and appearing irrational, anxious, and paranoid to outsiders. Julien, a visiting Swiss vaccine researcher, joked that I might "go bush" if I was not careful. …

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Spirit Children and Family Misfortune: The Case of Victor

The following is a second excerpt from my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. Within rural Northern Ghana, the Nankani people describe how disabled or ill children and those whose births coincide with tragic events are spirit children sent from the bush to cause misfortune and destroy the family. Upon identification, …

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The White Man is My Driver

I'm working on a collection of essays and experimenting with different forms of writing. Readability and narrative will be privileged over theory and abstraction. In other words, the book consists of mostly the good parts. [1800 words] In rural Northern Ghana if you have a vehicle you likely hold a powerful position or are successful. Using …

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An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Anthropology: Perspectives (2/2)

This is the second post (of two) on psychoanalytic anthropology. The previous post, which discussed background details, is located here. There is significant diversity in how anthropologists have engaged or adopted psychoanalytic methods and theory in their ethnographic research and writing.  To summarize these perspectives, I grouped these approaches into four categories.  While presented as …

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An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Anthropology: The Background (1/2)

There has always been a kinship between anthropology and psychoanalysis, however uneven, from Freud’s interest in anthropological data and his attempts to link the psyche with social forms, to more contemporary shared theorizations of the self and subjectivity in culturally diverse contexts. Psychoanalyst and anthropologist Elizabeth Bott-Spillius believed that while the content and expressions between …

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What is Cultural Psychodynamics?

I frequently refer to parts of my research and writing as working from a "cultural psychodynamic" perspective. What is this? In short, it is a theory and methodology that brings together perspectives from cultural phenomenology and psychoanalysis (culture + psyche). It emphasizes the complexity of cultural subjects and examines the ways in which culture and …

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Risk, Hope, and Help-Seeking: The Case of Leah

The following is an excerpt from my recent book, Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana. I present Leah and the challenges that her family had while caring for her. Experience-near, ethnographic accounts provide a much needed "human" and "lived" dimension to the oft-sterile health statistics and stereotypes that are used to inform …

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Theories of Culture in Uncertain Times: Anthropology and the Rise of Financial Risk Culture

This post originally appeared on Linkedin. At the time, I intended it to be the first in a series exploring the role that anthropology can play in risk culture. I remain interested in this area; however, due to other priorities it will likely be sometime before I write more on this theme.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, …

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Reflections on the 2016 Boyer Award

This was originally posted on the Society for Psychological Anthropology blog. In it, I summarize my award winning article.  While most scholarly accounts of divination focus on its social functions, in A Psychodynamic Phenomenology of Nankani Interpretive Divination and the Formation of Meaning, I emphasize Nankani divination’s meaning-making features and explain how divination shapes people’s subjectivity …

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Finding Empathy Through Troubling Stories

This reflection was originally posted on the University of Wisconsin Press website to mark the publication of my book, "Spirit Children: Illness and Poverty in Ghana." As I wrote about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional …

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