Air Guitar: An Art Form?

The fact that there is an air guitar world championship seems to me as understandable as table tennis being included in the list of Olympic sports: that is to say, irrationally silly. However it is this silliness that makes air guitar so appealing, asserts anthropologist Paul Mullins. In his article “Pleasure, community, and air guitar,” he explains that because the act of playing an imaginary guitar is so goofy and embarrassing, “air guitar performances can be exhilarating and bonding…they bond performers and audiences in a community that encourages and celebrates each other’s performances.”

Air guitar is very connected to dance, in my mind, because they both involve movements to a beat. So that leads to the question: why do we like dancing so much? Certainly no other animals do it. You don’t often see a monkey waltzing or attempting to twerk. So why have we, as humans, created hundreds of different types of dancing, all of which can express different situations or sentiments?

Neurologist John Krakauer attempts to explain why dancing was created in steps. “First, people speculate that music was created through rhythmic movement—think: tapping your foot. Second, some reward-related areas in the brain are connected with motor areas. Third, mounting evidence suggests that we are sensitive and attuned to the movements of others’ bodies, because similar brain regions are activated when certain movements are both made and observed.” So, by his research, dancing activates the reward center of our brain through our motor movements as well as the movements of others. Therefore, through his assertion, to become most pleasurable dancing must be an inter-personal activity.

I find this especially interesting when compared to air guitar because it is a form of dance that completely relies on individualism. There are no boundaries other than the constraints of the song the air guitarist is miming and the fictional instrument they are playing. It relies solely on the player’s imagination and individualism—especially in the world championship, where they are on stage, alone.

The fact that this individualism goes exactly against our inclinations to dance with others may be part of the reason it is so exhilarating. As well, it’s an extreme display of play and expression with very little boundaries. It is extremely popular in Finland, where, Mullins observes, the society is somewhat constraining. He ruminates that possibly “what the unleashed Finnish kids’ performances reflect is the pleasure many of us take in the release from restraint, rationality, and self-consciousness.” Thus, the popularity of air guitar may be a reaction to the relative seriousness prevalent in every day society. Some people have gone so far as to call the extreme silliness and amount of confidence it takes to perform air guitar an art form, which, if we’re talking about forms of expression, definitely qualifies.


“Pleasure, community, and air guitar” by Paul Mullins

“Why do we like to dance–and move to the beat?” by John Krakauer


Adversity and Community

It is clearly times when people are under the most duress that they show the greatest tendency to work together. I clearly remember periods of my childhood when an argument quickly turned into a united defense when a parent walked into the room. People find common ground in their shared struggle.

Homeless people in Buenos Aries, Argentina, are working together to build a better life for themselves. When no one would help them, and when they were thought to be the lowest of the low, they found a way to rely on each other to get the help that they needed, and to start creating changes.

Understanding how people make meaning and create community when those in power or the majority don’t allow them can give important anthropological insight into human culture. This kind of look at making meaning, communities, and communities of practice could be useful to apply to disabled or mentally challenged people, or those with diseases. Understanding how these people work together to create meaning even when they’re not allowed to or supposed to, is an important anthropological look at the world around us. How do people make meaning when they are told they can’t?

Reference: Self-Organization, Integration and Homeless People by Ana Inés Heras

Feminism and Autonomy

The female body in Western culture is both traditionally and currently surrounded by controversy. There are many parts of the female body that are simply unacceptable, yet desirable in only a sexual manner. In contrast, the male body is completely acceptable and desirable, but in many ways other than sexual. Essentially women are regulated down to their sex organs, without being allowed to have any other state of personhood. How then can women claim bodily autonomy if their bodies are everything that they are judged upon? A woman with sexual power is still sexualized. Women who try to stay away from being sexualized by doing “unacceptable” things like refusing to shave or wearing baggy or male clothes are trivialized. And no matter what they wear, whether it be revealing or completely covering, women will always be sexualized. As a feminist I think it is very important to study how women, and Western women specifically in this particular instance, make meaning through their bodies when all of that has been taken from them. Being “feminine” and dressing “feminine” is seen as one of the most demeaning things in Western/American culture. This is why it is acceptable for women to dress “masculine” (i.e. pants, button down shirts, suits), but unacceptable for men to dress “feminine” (i.e. dresses, skirts, high heels, tights). Understanding how women make meaning through defiance or compliance or something in between these norms could be very beneficial and a practical use of anthropology, especially since we are now beginning to recognize women as human beings, and not as a mystifying sexual entity.

Reference: Amar El Pueblo: The Embodied Politics of Autonomy by Christopher Loperena

Solitude in the City of Lights

One of my friends recently had an internship over the summer in New York City. I recall talking to her one night and she said she felt very isolated: her job was demanding, her roommate was a crazy cat lady with very few social outlets, and she had nowhere she felt comfortable to go and meet other people her age. I found this a little concerning because out of all my friends, she was the most social and could make friends the easiest. She ended up joining a dating site so she could meet other New Yorkers her age around her.

What I find interesting is that in one of the largest and most populated cities in the world, it was necessary she join a virtual place—a place outside of space, so to speak—in order to truly find contact with someone else.

Anthropologist Erin B. Taylor tries to explain this phenomenon in her article “Alone in the city: How we create personal space in the maddening crowd” by asserting that “talking with strangers increases our urban workloads, giving us more obstacles to navigate, and distracts us from what we are trying to achieve. We expect others to respect us by leaving us alone.” She also describes the impossibility of making friends with strangers in the city because the amount of information around us is simply too much to comprehend when at the same time trying to focus on a specific task—such as catching the subway.

I am reminded of the first time I ever visited New York City. I was about 9 or 10 years old. I remember a lot of sounds, a lot of lights, and a lot of people’s backs. I lost my mother’s hand in a crowd at one point on the sidewalk and immediately became incredibly disoriented—my suburban life had not prepared me for the influx of sensory stimuli I experienced. Also it is difficult to orient yourself when the most prominent landmark you can see happens to be the harried (and very mobile) businessman blocking your vision.

However, because I was with another person at this time and did not reside in the city for any length of time, I was unable to experience the loneliness of city life. But the expression “alone in the crowd” comes distinctly to mind when I remember my friend’s troubles last summer.

New York City is often described as “cold”. I’m not sure if I completely and totally agree with the statement that unfriendliness in the city is attributed to the amount of extra stimuli in the environment, although I do believe it is a factor. And once it has become normative to sit alone, walk quickly, avoid eye contact and hide behind books or phones or newspapers it becomes very difficult to break the social norms without appearing odd at best threatening at worst.

Erin B. Taylor, “Alone in the city: How we create personal space in the maddening crowd”


#selfie: A Culture Obsessed with Social Media

The Obama girls take a selfie.

The Obama girls take them, Justin Bieber takes them, The Pope takes them, just about everyone takes them: selfies. It seems as if the selfie has taken over social media, there’s even a song about taking selfies. According to recent findings from the Pew Research Centre, teenagers in America are sharing more information than ever about themselves on social media. Of those studied, 91% post photos of themselves online – up from 79% in 2006. The selfie has become a big part of the American culture. In fact, the selfie has become such a big part that even phone companies began making products with front facing cameras, for the purpose of taking selfies. The question now is why? Why are we so obsessed with taking pictures of ourselves, whether in a group or alone?

Part of the answer is that taking a photo of yourself and posting it to social media is a way to prove that you were somewhere or did something; and another part is that it is a way to communicate. Instead of having to say where you are or what you are doing, you can just take a picture of yourself wherever you are, doing whatever you are doing.

One type of selfie in particular has become a popular way to communicate with others: the Snapchat selfie. Snapchat allows you to send a picture to friends and write text on it as well, so you could have a minimally verbal conversation with someone. This type of communication, through social media, has increased along with parents’ ideas about how anti-social the young people of today have become. However, we are being social, just not int he ways that most older people were used to when they were young. Personally, I prefer to see friends in person, and I feel most other young people do, too. However, in an increasingly busy and restricted world, it isn’t always easy to get together with friends in person. In Danah Boyd’s book “It’s Complicated“, she talks about the decreased freedom that young people have: “Today’s teenagers have less freedom to wander than any previous generation.17 Many middle- class teenagers once grew up with the option to “do whatever you please, but be home by dark.” While race, socioeconomic class, and urban and suburban localities shaped particular dynamics of childhood, walking or bicycling to school was ordinary, and gathering with friends in public or commercial places—parks, malls, diners, parking lots, and so on—was commonplace. Until fears about “latchkey kids” emerged in the 1980s, it was normal for children, tweens, and teenagers to be alone. It was also common for youth in their preteen and early teenage years to take care of younger siblings and to earn their own money through paper routes, babysitting, and odd jobs before they could find work in more formal settings. Sneaking out of the house at night was not sanctioned, but it wasn’t rare either”. Because young people today are so busy trying to do as many extracurriculars as possible to make their resumes seem more appealing to increasingly competitive schools, there is hardly time to meet up with friends. On top of this add hobbies, geographical restrictions, parental restrictions, homework, and jobs, and it’s amazing there is even time to socialize online.

However, the idea of the selfie also goes beyond proof and communication; the selfie is a way to get attention, and as James Franco put it, “attention is power”. Whether you gain attention because you posted a silly picture, a sexual picture, or just because you are a celebrity, that attention becomes power. The more followers and likes you have, the more influence you hold over others. For example, if someone is seen as fashionable and has a lot of followers, the clothes they wear are more likely to be copied by others, over someone who is less well known.

This influence and power isn’t only used by individuals, but in many cases can be used by certain groups to relay a message to others. For example, during riots, war, protests, etc., people turn to social media to show the rest of the world what is happening where they are. Selfies like the one below take people who normally recieve little attention, and therefore have little power, and bring them to the foreground where they can receive the attention and power they are seeking.

If the event shown in the picture is something that people find wrong, then they will most likely rally behind whichever side they support. This gain of supporters provides power to the group facing that certain event. These types of pictures will sometimes influence others to share that picture or news of what is happening. When a photo or news of these types of events reaches people with even more influence, such as celebrities and popular social media personalities, the influence grows, and so does the power.

All in all, the selfie and social media itself is a way for young people to connect with others in an increasingly busy world. Also, no matter if you are taking a picture by yourself, with others, or during a major event, you are sharing your experiences with the rest of the world. The more your selfie is shared or liked, or the more followers you have, the more attention you gain; and when you gain more attention, you begin to have more influence over other people. This influence can be positive or negative, but either way, you are creating an impact on others that you might not otherwise have.

Redefining Normal

Every culture around the world has ideas about what is normal and what is not. Unfortunately, here in America people with physical disabilities are seen as not normal. What I mean when I say normal is something that adheres to what is usual, typical, or expected within a certain culture. Because they are not considered normal, we do not usually see them in photo shoots that take up numerous pages in magazines, there are close to no clothing ads with handicapped models, and few – if any – TV shows where the main character is handicapped.

In the article entitled “The Handi-Capable Body” by Kris Castner , she talks about having a sister who is handicapped. In this article, Kris brings to light the fact that often times we look upon handicapped people with pity and we only see what they can’t do. As Kris said in her article, When I look at how people with physically disabled or challenged bodies are often portrayed on television, in ads, in photographs or in book series, it makes me more sad than angry. It makes me sad that some people can’t, or have never learned, how to “see” people with “disabilities” for who they truly are. There always seems to be this hang up on “making them better.” On “making their bodies normal.”…Regardless of the body, what each person has to offer comes from within it….there is nothing wrong with physically challenged bodies. It’s what you do with your body that matters, and that is a problem faced by everyone with, well, a body…I endeavour not to think of them as “a person who is physically challenged,” but to come to know them as a “person who is physically enlightened.””

Although we may see a handicapped person as disabled, the person who is handicapped may not see themselves that way. A great example is Nick Vujicic. He has no arms or legs, yet what he can do is amazing. Below is a link to a video about him.


Also in Kris’ article, she talks about an “initiative to increase public acceptance of disabled bodies”. This initiative of promoting acceptance of not only disabled bodies, but all types of bodies in general is something that needs to happen soon. Eating disorder rates are rising rapidly because people don’t feel that their body is good enough. Dove has an initiative to promote body positivity, and more magazines and clothing lines are incorporating plus sized models into their magazines.

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign

I feel as though if more and more companies begin to promote body acceptance, that the meaning of normal will be redefined to include not just one type of body. This normalization of various bodies will lead to more self confidence in many people, and possibly even lower eating disorder and self harm rates. This inclusion would also benefit the companies themselves; by showing that their products can be consumed by all different types of people means that they are opening up their markets to a wider group of people, and could potentially generate more income for themselves.


It seems like we hear about a new fatal car crash every day. One of the ways we are notified of these deaths, other than in the news, is by public memorials set up along roadsides. In the article “The boulevard of death: Ghost bikes and spontaneous shrines in New York City” by Paul Mullins, he talks about bikes that are painted completely white and are set up along the sidewalks in NYC as shrines to bicyclists killed along a specific road.

Many people are okay with having public memorials set up, but as the article talks about, some states have certain laws about having them up only for a certain amount of time, or even not at all. Even with all these laws and restrictions, it seems as if the number of roadside memorials increases each year. The question is why? One of the answers is tradition. Sylvia Grider, “a professor emerita of anthropology at Texas A&M University“, commented on a New York Times opinion article from 2009 entitled “Should Roadside Memorials be Banned?“. In her comment, Sylvia stated that “[t]he custom of placing small decorated crosses or other memorials at the side of the highway to mark fatal car accidents has spread from regions of the United States, like the Hispanic Southwest, where they are known as descansos, or resting places, throughout the country and even worldwide. The custom of marking the place of death with a small cross was brought to Mexico and the southwestern United States by Spanish colonists in the 17th century. Later settlers in the region expanded the custom to include leaving small crosses at the spots wherever a casket was set down on the way to the campo santo, or burial ground. Today many people regard roadside crosses as sacred but not necessarily religious”. However, where you live, and your culture can heavily influence your opinion on these memorials. Sylvia states, “unlike the state of New Mexico, which has made it a misdemeanor to remove or vandalize these homemade shrines, in other parts of the country where the custom is not deep-rooted, many people are offended by them and regard them as an unwanted intrusion into their personal space or a violation of the principle of separation of church and state”. But no matter where you live, many of these memorials are considered sacred because they are a part of tradition, and as Sylvia goes on to state, “[t]radition is a powerful force in society”.

Traditions such as placing roadside memorials can also be seen as rituals. As described on the website Cultural Anthropology, rituals can be anything “from the Olympics to the commemoration of national tragedies; cyclical gatherings, from weekly congregations at the local church to the annual turkey carving at Thanksgiving to the intoxication of Mardi Gras; and personal life-patterns, from morning grooming routines to the ways in which we greet and interact with one another. Ritual is in fact an inevitable component of culture, extending from the largest-scale social and political processes to the most intimate aspects of our self-experience”. What all these rituals have in common is that they help provide a sense of identity for people, and help us figure out who we are. For example, a roadside memorial may encourage people to really understand and identify with the fact that we are not immortal. Also, especially when the memorial is a cross, it can strengthen one’s identity and belief in their faith.

All in all, these roadside memorials are a part of a tradition that has been passed down for centuries. This tradition can help many to strengthen their identities, beliefs, and so on. So next time you are driving down the road and see a roadside memorial, just think what it means to you. Would your family be a one of the ones that would set up a roadside memorial for someone? Does it have anything to do with your culture or geography?

Name Change: Cultural Chameleons

In Alisse Waterston’s article World on the Move: Migration Stories, she recounts the numerous names her father took as he traveled around the world: “Across one century, my father Mendeleh from Jedwabne, Poland became Miguelito in Manguito, Cuba, Miguel in Havana, Michael in New York, and don Miguel in San Juan, Puerto Rico” (Waterston).

This statement got me thinking about name changes across cultures not only in the past, but how they affect people today.  I recently read a different article about a man in the United States of America named José Zamora, who had been looking for a job for months. On a whim, he changed the name on his resume from “José” to “Joe”, and within the week “his inbox was full” (Matthews). What I find interesting that correlates between the two men is that they both had to change their name to conform to the standards of whatever culture they lived within. Without the name change, life for both of them would have most likely been much more difficult, as José Zamora experienced firsthand.

My own last name is Parant, which I am assuming is some type of derivative of the word “parent”. If my name has been formed from another word or meaning, I’m not sure when—it could have been when my ancestors came to America, or even some time before then.

I’ve heard of many names that were changed once people entered the United States through Ellis Island, a practice I find fascinating. A friend of mine of Eastern European descent lost a number of consonants on the tail end of their last name, for example, presumably because it was too culturally distinct from the American culture. As well, another friend went to study abroad in China recently, and he had to change his so-called American name to one that fit the Chinese culture better.

In order to fully experience the benefits of living in a society, it seems it is necessary to fully conform to that culture, insomuch as changing one’s own name, a supposedly constant identifier.  Thus, these people are not only identified as themselves, but also as having a similar cultural background as the people around them.

Alisse Waterston, “World on the Move: Migration Stories”
Cate Matthews, “He Dropped One Letter in His Name While Applying for Jobs, and the Responses Rolled In”

Understanding Biology Through Anthropology

Nature vs. Nurture is an immediate phrase that comes to mind when considering human biology through the lens of anthropology. In fact, it is one of the driving forces in understanding human beings and human nature. But what more and more anthropologists as well as scientists have been discovering is that our biology is far far more influenced by culture than we previously thought. Samuel Taylor-Alexander attended a conference about biodeterminism and wrote an article outlining some of the questions asked and topics explored by presenters at the conference. These questions and topics argued the idea that perhaps human beings are less controlled by biology than previously thought.

This makes me wonder how much of me was and is created by culture, and not by simple and un-alterable pre-determined biology as I was taught. My social anxiety, my gender, my sex; how much of this has been determined by the culture around me? As Taylor-Alexander pointed out in his article, conviction of already having the answer is one of the most dangerous and debilitating hinderances to science. Teaching people that aspects of their human-ness are defined by things that simply cannot be changed might be very harmful, but many see no problem with it because it’s what’s always been done.

If steps are taken to look at what was previously understood to be pre-destined by genetic makeup through an anthropological lens, new answers could be found as to the way our bodies and our sense of self are composed. We should not limit ourselves to one way of thinking simply because that’s the way we’ve always thought. Nurture might have more power over nature than we thought.

Reference: Conference Synopsis: The End of biodeterminism? New Directions for Medical Anthropology by Samuel Taylor-Alexander

Abstracts from the conference from the AARHUS University website

Have you taken Anthro in High School?

Before taking Anthropology this semester, I can tell you for sure that I had no clue what it was about. I thought it meant the study of culture and people and that was just about all I knew. But now I know that it is much more than that. It is making a difference in our world by exploring the greatness and wonders of cultures. I know for sure that I would have not been familiar with Anthropology back when I was in high school.

Nowadays, high schools are incorporating this subject as part of the student’s curriculum. This helps to shape their minds around culture and to broaden their understandings of the world. Writer of “Anthropology in the High School Classroom”, Eric Dean visits a High School Anthropology class which was being taught by Dexter Chapin. He interviews Chapin to learn why he believes it is important for high school students to learn about Anthropology and how it will make an impact in their lives.

One highlight from this interview was the ” Worldview Paper”. This is an extensive  assignment that students must write about in order to rethink about the world that they have never thought about. It serves as a way for them to begin how dynamic and cultural our world is.  Dexter emphasizes the importance of thinking outside the box and to become open minded, especially at a high school level. I for one, think this is fantastic because it helps to create an environment where everyone can make everyday changes in our world.