Category Archives: ACYIG Blog

Reindeer Magic

by Cindy Dell Clark

Mythology is a living entity of culture in which cross-generational discourse can play a lively role. American Christmas and its Santa Claus mythology are a case in point. My early fieldwork on Santa Claus (conducted in the Midwest in the late 80s) showed that children’s perceptions of Santa and his reindeer carried impact on how family ritual was carried out. This is how I wrote about this issue in the book Flights of Fancy, Leaps 51bPxyu8W-L._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_of Faith (University of Chicago Press, 1995) as specifically applied to Santa’s red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph.

Children have mythologized Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, who guides Santa’s sleigh with his bright red nose, an element of the Santa Claus myth often overlooked by adults. To leave out Rudolph seems mistaken to most children, who have embraced this misfit hero as so real that they often leave Rudolph an offering of a carrot or apple on Christmas Eve. (Rudolph conforms to a motif common in children’s folklore – the “ugly duckling” motif; in that motif, the very trait that makes someone a misfit is found to yield outstanding talent or specialness.) Rudolph was left out of the story in the movie 51cANbd9MuL._SX428_BO1,204,203,200_Ernest Saves Christmas, a fact about which juvenile moviegoers (in the audience I observed) complained aloud. When recalling how they once looked up in the sky and saw Santa’s sleigh, informants sometimes said they saw Rudolph, too.

Children’s collective belief in Rudolph is all the more remarkable given how recently this cervid creature entered the Christmas lexicon, not via poetry or art (as Santa was shaped by Clement Clark Moore’s famous 1823 poem and Thomas Nast’s 1863 illustrations) but via commerce – Rudolph was a character in a flyer distributed by the mail order catalog Montgomery Ward. rudolph-cover-2Rudolph’s invention dates to 1939, buoyed on in 1949 in a popular song written by Johnny Marks. In less than two generations, Rudolph has a hold on the mythological imagination of the young, as a character with whom they identify.  Children write notes and letters to Rudolph. The idea that Rudolph’s “special
power” derives from the red nose that made him a social anomaly
resonates with American children (“If there’s a big fog he can light up his nose and then show Santa the way”). These same kids are also fans of other mutants-turned-superheroes, exhibited by the sustained popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, and many more. Rudolph is a self-actualized hero because he is true to his individual specialness, a trait important to young folk in the world’s most individualist society. Santa is God-like, the source of much magic, to young believers. Less directly, Rudolph taps into enchantment by being true to his individual calling. Rudolph,_The_Red-Nosed_Reindeer_Marion_Books

Immediately after Christmas in 2014, I conducted interviews with Jewish kids aged 6 to 8 years and their parents. I found that Rudolph was a compelling figure within the mythopoetics of Christmas, even among kids who celebrated Chanukah, not Christmas. Jewish children’s beliefs about Santa
varied.  Some discounted Santa’s reality, others believed in Santa’s reality despite the fact that he doesn’t visit Jewish kids’ homes. A few who believed in Santa envied the kids he visited. Even among non-believers, though, Rudolph was a compelling figure.

keep-calm-love-rudolph-moose-reindeer-christmas-AccessoriesJudy, an eight-year-old girl who lived in a neighborhood with many other Jewish families, had told her mother (the week before Christmas) “I wish we were Christian to celebrate.” Judy was familiar with Christmas, since her maternal grandparents (who were in a Christian-Jewish marriage) celebrated the Christian holiday, including presents on December 25. Judy, like other kids being raised in Jewish families, couldn’t help but be intimately familiar
with the entire iconography of Christmas, given its saturation in the majority culture. Jewish kids watch movies about the North Pole, Santa, his elves, and his reindeer for these are both hard to avoid at yuletide, as well as good entertainment even for non-believers.

By sheer exposure to Christmas movies and hype, Jewish kids left out of the Santa ritual still learned all the nuanced details of the Santa Claus mythology, but through a more marginalizing lens. Judy, for instance, was quite aware that Rudolph played the role of “Santa’s head reindeer.” In recounting stories (and a song) about Rudolph, she remembered best the way that others made fun of Rudolph, the fact that his exceptionality (red nose) led to being socially marginalized by peers. “Santa felt bad for him,” she recalled, suggesting that Santa’s sympathies lay with the outcast rather than the others who rejected and teased Rudolph.

Another mother I interviewed in 2014 drew a direct association between Rudolph and the actual lives of her children. When considering narratives about Rudolph, she revealed, her kids “notice how Rudolph might be sad, or be pushed aside … because he’s different.” This mother’s face showed a lingering sadness and her eyes filled with tears, as she explained that both of her two children had known the experience of being treated in a mean way by other children. Her son Randy, age eight, did not mention being ostracized when I talked with him. But he volunteered that he related to the
poetic trope of Rudolph as a large“misfit.” He prceived Rudolph as admirable, a figure who by virtue of exceptionality had attractive adventures. “Red noses are awesome,” Randy intoned, because “then you can see in the dark.”

Without exception, the Jewish children I visited had been taught not to disturb the beliefs of others who regarded Santa and his reindeer as real. Along the divide between Jews and Christians, Christmas is a both a test of and opportunity for pluralism. From navigating the Christmas dilemma (as one mom called it) kids who are members of a minority religion learn how to live and let live. The magic of Rudolph, it would seem, lies ultimately in the capacity to remind us that exceptionality is valuable in the American cultural context, perhaps especially so to those who are in the minority.

Guatemalan youth navigate life and labor in Los Angeles

By Stephanie L. Canizales

Americans often associate factory work—and the violence and exploitation of manufacturing industries—with distant nations like China, Vietnam, India, and Cambodia. While stories of workers “transported like pigs,” trapped behind barred windows and locked doors, and protected from death by suicide nets trigger broad concern, they tend to ultimately be cast off as the problems of “foreign” societies.

The Emmy Award-winning documentary Made in L.A. brought the narrative of garment worker exploitation back to U.S. soil, but the film focuses on the experiences of adult women. My research thus addresses a critical and unexamined space of inquiry: It moves beyond media attention and scholarship on garment workers abroad or adult laborers in the U.S. to center on the experiences of garment working immigrant youth. This project uncovers the conditions these young people encounter and the ways labor exploitation affects the long-term integration of unaccompanied immigrant youth. 

Youth at work

Since 2012, I have conducted research with Guatemalan Maya young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. Most arrived alone in the U.S. between four and 19 years ago. Although violence and poverty push some youth to emigrate, others migrate because years of violence and poverty have led to political insecurity as well as broken educational and occupational structures. In other words, for some the primary motivation is less immediately about violence or poverty than it is the lack of education and job opportunities in Guatemala. Some youth are further motivated by the desire to prevent the replication of their own suffering in the lives of their younger siblings.

Read more at the Youth Circulations Blog…

Notes from the field: Humanitarian discourses, systemic erasures, and the production of victimhood in “Child, Bride, Mother”

By Briana Nichols and Lisette Farias

The following is a dialogue between cultural-linguistic anthropology and critical occupational science written by two PhD students working in Guatemala.

Briana: What initially struck me about the image was her vacant stare.  The caption below the photograph explains, “Aracely was 11 when she married her husband, who was 34. Now 15, she is raising her son on her own.”  We see a girl, seated, her blue jean skirt, purple shirt, and her toddler son’s red shorts brilliantly contrast the weathered wooden shack behind her. With her son on her lap, she prepares corn. And perhaps intended to be most shocking to the non-Guatemalan viewer, she is breastfeeding.

So what are we, the western, global north, New York Times consumer, supposed to understand from this image?  What emotions is it meant to evoke?  What is made visible, and what is obscured when images of the “developing world” are published for outside, selectively contextualized consumption?

This photograph is one of fifteen in the “Child, Bride, Mother” exposé “documenting the issue of Child marriage” in Guatemala.  It is part of a larger transmedia project, “investigating: the world of prearranged child marriage,” by photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair entitled “Too Young to Wed”(Sinclair directs a non-profit organization by the same name).

As an anthropology PhD student working in Guatemala, I wonder about the power of the outsider, myself included, in the representation of the other, the unfamiliar, the shocking. When a photojournalist chooses to focus on child marriage, the subjects of her photographs are presented within that specific framing—a framing situated in discourses of childhood, human rights, and victimization. We often take for granted the nature of childhood, its implicit innocence, and the inherent need to protect children as vulnerable and non-agentive social beings (Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007Poretti et al. 2014Rosen 2007).  Fassin (2013) demonstrates how this global rhetoric of childhood is often viewed as common sense, despite its historically constructed and culturally situated nature. With this naturalization comes a legitimization of vulnerability, rendering children as the only “pure victims” and eclipsing the realities of sweeping structural violence and inequity.
Read more at youthcirculations.com

Staying Close to Look Deep: Teaching Childhood Studies

by Lauren Silver
Associate Professor of Childhood Studies
Rutgers University-Camden

Six years ago, I remember beginning my new faculty role with excitement and trepidation. I was joining an interdisciplinary Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. What unique attributes of a course in Youth Identities, for instance, could be communicated through a childhood studies lens? Needless to say, I haven’t discovered a formula; but I want to share a couple of principles—proximity and changing the narrative—that have guided my scholarship and approach to teaching childhood studies.
Jason Murphy, 2009. https://flic.kr/p/eYP6Cn. Creative Commons Attribution License.
Image: Jason Murphy, 2009.  Use under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

I borrow these principles from Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He explained in his 2015 Rutgers Camden Convocation speech that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; it is justice. Bryan Stevenson believes that we can make the world more just but in order to do so, we must get close to those who are most oppressed in our society—to pay attention to suffering, poverty, exclusion, and injustice. Through proximity, there exists the potential to know others better and to tell stories that honor human dignity and complexity. Bells went off for me: yes, proximity has always guided my teaching and research! In order to get close to youth marginalized through race, poverty, gender, location, and sexuality—to understand their worlds in depth—I began a journey many years ago as a feminist ethnographer. Continue reading Staying Close to Look Deep: Teaching Childhood Studies

Black Bodies Seen: Meditations on Mobility, Betrayal, and American and Dominican Haitian Youth

By Dr. Cynthia Lubin Langtiw

In the past two years I have been jarred by disturbing images of assaults on young Black bodies in the American media.

In each tragedy, I am saddened and troubled that the representatives of the very system intended to protect Black youth instead violated these individuals’ corporal integrity. Our law enforcement system did not view them as children to be protected, but as the enemy from which society necessitated protecting.

As a clinical psychologist, I cannot help to think of the impact of these widely publicized events on the psyche of Black youth in America. How can they develop a sense of belonging and well-being as they move through the world knowing the dangers of living in their skin?

This week I was jarred by another image: Dominican born youth of Haitian ancestry protesting their impending “statelessness.” As a Haitian American woman, my heart resonated with the plight of my magnificent diasporic sisters and brothers. These Dominican Haitian youth are not hiding in the shadows. They are demanding to be seen.

Read more on youthcirculations.com

Parent Education & Vaccine Preventable Diseases

Parent Education May Be a Risk Factor for Measles and other Vaccine Preventable Childhood Diseases

by Elisa (EJ) Sobo

We may not be able to legislate a shift in parenting style, or to mitigate the income gap that provides some with more privilege than others, including access to higher education. But we can build a strong national curriculum for information and scientific literacy into all bachelor’s programs. Doing so may be one of the soundest public health investments we can make.


“Nothing screams ‘privilege’ louder than ostentatiously refusing something that those less privileged wish to have.” So writes Dr. Amy Tuteur in a provocative piece regarding “anti-vaccine” parents.

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Yet, the recent Disneyland measles outbreak wasn’t driven simply by “conspicuous non-consumption.” Privilege may be necessary to vaccine refusal or delay, but it isn’t sufficient. The minor trend toward non-vaccination among tiny subgroups of the elite that fueled it may actually be (in part) an artifact of exceptionally high self-confidence rather than simply privilege. Let me explain by telling you about two research projects.
Continue reading Parent Education & Vaccine Preventable Diseases

Ebola Response & the Anthropology of Childhood

Eight Ways that Ebola Response Efforts can benefit from the Anthropology of Childhood

by Jean Hunleth

I peg myself as an anthropologist of childhood. I’m not trying to put myself in a box with this label. I like the label because it emphasizes my firm belief that we need to understand children’s perspectives to truly comprehend the problems in our world. I see value in paying attention to children’s perspectives on many social issues. Insert most news items and I’m thinking: How are children experiencing and responding to this issue? How would understanding children’s perspectives change our own perceptions and responses? In what ways can we best make sense of children’s experiences and talk with them about this issue? And so, when I receive my daily Google updates on “Ebola and children,” I can’t help but think that anthropologists of childhood should play a tremendous role in assisting organizations and funding agencies in their relief efforts aimed at children in the Ebola outbreak.

Population figures alone demand that we pay attention to children in the Ebola outbreak. Children under the age of 15 years old make up more than 40 percent of the population in each of the West African countries most heavily affected by Ebola- Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (Population Reference Bureau). Children have borne direct effects of the outbreak. UNICEF estimated that 2,542 children had been infected with Ebola by December 2014. More than 10,000 children have lost one or both parents. Even children who haven’t been directly impacted by Ebola experience Ebola in other ways: through public health protocols, humanitarian efforts, school closures, stories and rumors, to name just a few.

Photo by Melissa Minor Peters
Photo by Melissa Minor Peters

The urgency of humanitarian efforts to address children’s needs in Ebola-affected areas is unmistakable. However, the best ways to support children are not always self-evident. Sometimes the most self-evident interventions can cause more harm than good. For this reason, I have made a quick list of eight reasons why anthropologists of childhood should be involved in Ebola response efforts. Some of these are very general, and most researchers in the anthropology of childhood subscribe to them. Others are more particular. They come out of my research with children living through the tuberculosis and HIV epidemics in southern Africa and my reading of the anthropological research with children in Africa. Of course, there are many specifics I am also leaving out because Ebola is not tuberculosis or HIV and West Africa is not southern Africa. …read more at Jean Hunleth’s blog. 

Interrogating the Wave: Media Representations of African Migrant Youth

by Stephanie Maher

“Images are not just a particular kind of sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution”– (W. J. T. Mitchell 1984, 504)

Media representations are powerful. Not only do they embody the appealing veneer of journalistic impartiality, which seems to objectively reflect world in unadulterated ways, but also they help to generate public opinion and thus create consensus when crafting and mobilizing particular policy responses.

Such an image-policy nexus is exemplified in the hyper-mediatized phenomenon of clandestine migration out of West Africa during 2006 and 2007. While the Western route was effectively crippled by the implementation of border controls and surveillance technologies, the images we see today of boat migrants leaving North African shores bear a striking similarity to those circulated nearly a decade ago.

In order to highlight the productive relationship between image and policy, this photo essay explores some of the visual and rhetorical representations of West African boat migrants that circulated widely in the European and American press during what was called a “wave” of clandestine arrivals in the Canary Islands.   …read more on the Youth Circulations blog.

2006, Juan Medina / Reuters
2006, Juan Medina / Reuters