Alumni Dissertations

 

Alumni Dissertations

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  • Forsaken Generation: Stress, Social Suffering and Strategies among Working-Class Pensioners in Post-Socialist Moldova, Romania

    Author:
    Gerard Weber
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Jane Schneider
    Abstract:

    This dissertation examines the lives of working-class pensioners in post-socialist, Galati, Romania. Its central thesis is that the transformation of Romania from socialism to capitalism beginning in 1989 has led to an "epidemic of stress" among retired, working-class people in the city. Marginalized by their age, class and location in the relatively economically underdeveloped region of Moldova, they have been among the hardest hit by the changes brought about with the introduction of neoliberal capitalism. Long familiar with life in a relatively stable economy, they have faced dramatic changes in this area since the revolution, including massive price instability and widespread unemployment. Used to being cushioned by a social welfare system, today they live with the withdrawal of many of the certainties under socialism, including adequate pensions, access to free or low-cost health care, affordable housing, cost-free education and much more. Anticipating that their kin would be near them and their communities would be a reliable presence as they grew older, they have experienced the departure of family for work in distant places and they have watched as many of the ceremonies and ritual practices that once held their communities together have become rarer. This "social suffering" manifests itself in the stress epidemic, pensioners not only experiencing stress chronically but also making sense of the changes they have undergone since socialism by talking about stress. Retirees respond to these changed conditions by engaging in moral commentary against the people - the newly rich - whom they frequently blame for the decline in standard of living. They cope with the stress epidemic through a range of strategies, including building new social ties, complaining publicly about their difficulties, finding inexpensive or free sources of food, begging, borrowing money, pawning cherished heirlooms and much more. And they mobilize politically to bring about real improvement to their deteriorated situation, testing the limits of their young demoncracy by organizing and speaking out publicly, sometimes winning as a result of such efforts. In spite of such success, working-class Moldovan pensioners cannot be left to fight on their own to improve their standard of living, however. The state needs to step back into the lives of this disadvantaged population, addressing their needs through concrete initiatives, including offering pensions that meet the cost-of-living, pursuing economic policies that bring more secure employment to Romania and tackling high-level corruption that too often robs average citizens of a higher quality of life.

  • "We Went to the Hills": Four Afghan Life Stories

    Author:
    James Weir
    Year of Dissertation:
    2010
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Vincent Crapanzano
    Abstract:

    This dissertation examines four Afghan life stories for prevalent micro-historical perspectives on shared Afghan macro-historical experiences. The introduction explains my background, motivations and objectives for conducting life history research in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005. The first chapter outlines an approach applied to examining life stories that addresses three interrelated questions: first, how the narrator's presentation is related to the memory of the actual events narrated (biographical chronology), second, how a narrative image/s of a person's past is established in relationships to individually significant audience/s (narrative self / audience), and third, how interrelationships between the individual life and the socio-historical context are expressed by troubling or valued dimensions of the past (existential orientation). My examination focuses upon significant historical and interpersonal concerns as they manifest across individual life narratives. Each chapter begins with background on the circumstances of the interview, followed by the interview transcription, and concludes with an extended analysis of the life story. I conclude with ethnographic interpretation of each life story in light of recent Afghan history and speculate about the meanings of violence and the limits of trauma for contemporary understanding of Afghan culture and history.

  • The Digital Diaspora in Sunset Park: Information and Communication Technologies in Brooklyn's Chinatown

    Author:
    Sarah Williams
    Year of Dissertation:
    2013
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Michael Blim
    Abstract:

    My thesis is that, contrary to expectations that working-class Chinese immigrants would have less access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and fewer skills in using them, struggling immigrants to Brooklyn's Chinatown are skilled at using ICTs and do so on a daily basis, in ways that enrich their relationships and transnational participation. They are able to do this despite the severe limitations that ethnic enclave employment places on their time and opportunities, in part because of heavy use of affordable internet cafes in the neighborhood. Building on a growing body of literature on new media and diaspora, this thesis explores the implications for citizenship, belonging, identity, and kinship of the adaptive ways that working- class newcomers in Sunset Park find to acquire and use digital technologies. While the access they manage to achieve connects them to a larger circle of news, ideas, people, and learning opportunities than they would otherwise encounter, it does not eliminate the oppressive structural disadvantages they face. Much of the existing research on overseas Chinese in the U.S. (as well as mainstream media) focus either on elites, especially on their high educational attainment, or, on the other hand, on the economic struggles and systemic obstacles faced by Chinatown residents. These miss some of the richness of the everyday patterns and strategies, the sacrifices and ingenuity that `downtown Chinese' -- in this case residents of Brooklyn -- use to squeeze more out of their limited resources and leisure time and to construct new lives that remain connected to the past. The high level of computer use and ownership I found is connected to the emphasis people place on nurturing family ties and ensuring the success of the next generation. The chain migration process links families, and sustaining the transnational ties that made immigration possible is a big part of the communication styles in this community. These include placing voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls at a higher rate than the national average and even buying computers with that purpose in mind. This dissertation documents the intensity and sociality of ICT use in Sunset Park, which rarely occurs in the workplace, accentuating the importance of home ownership in the process, and of internet cafes, especially for young men. I also take up the censuring discourse about cafes, its connections to China and to the specter of internet addiction, analyzing the negative imaginary surrounding activity in these public spaces. There is an age and gender divide on evidence in the youth and masculinity of the internet cafes, but this does not reflect actual computer use in the home. That is documented with a `day in the life' portrait of a typical extended, three-generation household, which shows how sharing computers and using them in shared space can create a family bond. Statistical data from the National Science Foundation have previously shown that Asians have the highest rate of computer use of any ethnic group in the U.S., across all income levels, and this `portrait' demonstrates what that looks like by documenting the daily media practices of low-income Chinese in New York. Levels of formal education in the community are generally quite low; many lacked the resources to complete a secondary school education, yet still learned enough to have a relatively high rate of digital literacy. Reading Chinese-language newspapers was the number one activity people reported doing online, and many read print newspapers as well. Other specific online behaviors are part of my analysis, including competitive gaming as a social experience and learning opportunity, along with the differences between the first and second generation in the ways they communicate. There are also some important limitations on how Sunset Park residents use computer technology, with more of a focus on entertainment and social media than national averages and less interest in cultural capital enhancing activities. This secondary digital divide is explored, along with related language issues. I found people to be very active on the Chinese social networking service QQ and avid consumers of Chinese language media, which help them stay informed and maintain close ties with friends and family but can also perpetuate a focus on existing social networks and limit development of English language skills. Heavy use of QQ's services may also limit exposure to information not readily offered by this `gatekeeper' portal, similar to the way that America Online did for English-speaking users during its dominant years in the early days of the internet. Overall, I conclude with a cautiously positive assessment of the role of the internet in working-class immigrant Chinese communities. Notwithstanding the hurdles people confront in their everyday lives and employment - and the negative discourse surrounding the youthful clients of internet cafes -- my data from Sunset Park, collected in both these cafes and in homes, demonstrate a range of benefits from internet use. Informants reported daily online activities and computer-mediated communication practices that enhance their limited leisure time and personal relationships. This high level of ICT use is no panacea, however, for reducing a structured social inequality that is a fact of life in ethnic enclaves like Sunset Park.

  • With Mixed Feelings: Negotiating Coloured Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa

    Author:
    Janette Yarwood
    Year of Dissertation:
    2011
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Leith Mullings
    Abstract:

    Mixed Feelings: Examining Coloured Identities in Post-Apartheid South Africa is a study of the historically "mixed-race" group that was officially classified as coloured under apartheid. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the racial hierarchy that regulated social relations in white-ruled South Africa has broken down, undermining basic assumptions and practices at the foundation of this ethno-racial category. This dissertation explores the diverse ways that coloured people construct and reconstruct colouredness: appropriating and layering various aspects of the past and the present--race, class, ethnicity, place and popular culture--to fashion identities that invoke apartheid constructions of coloured identity while affording opportunities to forge new identities that respond to the new, post-apartheid moment. The dissertation is based on two years of ethnographic research conducted in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg between 2005 and 2008. In Mixed Feelings, I approach the study of coloured identity on multiple levels. I am interested in how the coloured community identifies from within as well as how it is identified from without; thus, in addition to extensive interviews, I analyze census data, published reports concerning the current economic profiles of different racial groups in South Africa, crime statistics, as well as data gathered from media sources such as local television, newspapers, and websites. This dissertation, focusing on race, ethnicity, class, globalization, and popular culture in South Africa, seeks to place these historical dynamics in a broader context through comparisons with both the United States and the Caribbean. Based on this data, I address the particular techniques coloured people use to negotiate the coloured category within the new social, political and economic realities of contemporary South Africa. I am also concerned with understanding the strategies used by coloured activists and organizers and other South Africans to keep coloured people locked within the coloured category. By revealing the challenges coloured people face as they try to negotiate colouredness in contemporary South Africa, this dissertation contributes to theoretical discussions that ask how people negotiate their identity under conditions that limit their choices.

  • Reimagining politics: Video and indigenous struggles in contemporary Bolivia

    Author:
    Gabriela Zamorano
    Year of Dissertation:
    2009
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Marc Edelman
    Abstract:

    This dissertation examines indigenous video production and circulation as a means by which indigenous organizations and mobilizations articulate new claims on national politics. Specifically in the current efforts for refounding the Bolivian state with the participation of indigenous peoples, videos produced by native people contribute to recounting stories that build upon social reality in order to bring attention to what indigenous media makers see as necessary, possible, imaginable, or desirable. The uniqueness of Bolivian indigenous video production is most evident in the remarkable alliance between the non-governmental "National Plan of Indigenous Communication" (Plan Nacional Indígena Originario de Comunicación Audiovisual), and the powerful peasant and indigenous confederations. My argument is that indigenous communication constitutes a central feature of new political practices of struggle in Bolivia. In order to understand how this happens I examine two aspects related to indigenous communication. One is its definition as a site of politics, namely, a space which generates debate, negotiation, and disagreement about reality in order to envision alternative national futures. The second one is about understanding the Plan Nacional as part of a major engagement of civil society -organized into powerful social movements- with the national project and with the contentious Bolivian state. By making reference to the political past, challenging the present, and imagining possible futures, fictional and documentary videos reenact the continuities and ruptures of national political projects in particular ways. Such representations constitute political uses of history that are central to the claims that indigenous mobilizations make on the state. Five central questions guide the research (1) How are political language, traditions and practices recreated, challenged or imagined in both documentary and fictional videos? (2) How do indigenous media makers situate themselves in relation to dominant cultures and the state? (3) How do training, funding, and circulation influence both the production process and the narrative structure of videos? (4) How are images of the Indian depicted in videos built upon other forms of representing indigeneity and contribute to challenging or reproducing the dominant ideologies? And (5) how do the history, goals, and strategies of video production relate to the recent history of indigenous movements?

  • Wild NYC: Building Biodiversity in Fresh Kills and City Parks

    Author:
    Melissa Zavala
    Year of Dissertation:
    2014
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Michael Blim
    Abstract:

    This dissertation is an anthropological field study of the work of urban ecological maintenance being conducted in New York City through the analysis of the reclamation and biotic restoration of the Fresh Kills landfill, located in the borough of Staten Island. This landfill was once the largest urban dump in the United States. Its 2,200 acres of trash buried in four mounds have polluted an area historically noted for its natural beauty as a collection of marshes and woodlands bordering the Kill Van Kull, a tidal strait that flows into the New York Harbor. The current plan for park and nature reserve introduces rolling grassland habitats otherwise extirpated in the region and re-introduces native plants to enhance the area's biotic diversity. The site's large acreage will also link up with and expand the Staten Island Greenbelt. Fresh Kills, once transformed, will become one of the largest urban nature preserves in the city. This dissertation also explores the essential maintenance work performed by researchers, city workers, and volunteers alike for creating and preserving wild spaces in New York City. Despite the ecological benefits envisioned in the Fresh Kills conversion, there are challenges ahead for implementing sustainability. Chief among them is the scarce funding for land reclamation in light of competing urban priorities. The substantial commitment to convert the world's largest landfill into an urban park and nature preserve, however, holds important lessons for public and non-profit agencies interested in urban environmental improvement.

  • The Effect of Population History on Hominoid Intraspecific Cranial Shape Diversity: Combining Population Genetic and 3D Geometric Morphometric Data

    Author:
    Julia Zichello
    Year of Dissertation:
    2014
    Program:
    Anthropology
    Advisor:
    Michael Steiper
    Abstract:

    Cranial shape diversity within hominoids has been previously studied with the aim of understanding how levels of diversity in extant species compare with extinct hominin specimens. This dissertation addresses the question of why cranial shape diversity differs among extant hominoids. Levels of intraspecific cranial shape diversity are highly varied among hominoids. For example, Sumatran orangutan cranial shape diversity is more than twice that of all living humans. Here, the population history of each species, or sub-species, is considered as a force potentially structuring phenotypic variation. It is already well established that population history has shaped patterns of modern human cranial diversity across the world. Yet, to date, no one has considered that the independent population histories of other apes may have also influenced their cranial diversity through evolutionary time. Genetic data from non-coding loci reveal the population history of each taxon. Nucleotide diversity levels reflect non-selective evolutionary processes--such as mutation, drift, migration or fluctuations in population size. For each taxonomic group in this study, genetic diversity and the effective population size (Ne) are compared with cranial shape diversity to determine the strength of the relationship between these two data-types. 3D cranial landmark data are divided into two separate analytic units, which represent independent developmental modules. Shape variance of the cranial vault, and the face, are evaluated together, and then separately. The following taxa are included in this work: Homo sapiens, Pan paniscus, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, Pan troglodytes verus, Pan troglodytes scweinfurthii, Gorilla gorilla gorilla, Pongo pygmaeus, Pongo abelii, Symphalangus syndactylus, Hylobates moloch, Hylobates pileatus and Hylobates klossii. Results show a strong positive correlation between intraspecific cranial shape diversity and nucleotide diversity across all taxa. Species that are more genetically diverse, and have larger effective population sizes, show more cranial shape diversity. The relationship between cranial vault shape diversity and genetic diversity is stronger than in the face. Variation in the face is likely driven by sexual dimorphism in certain species, which may overwrite any signal of population history. This work provides new evidence of the strength of non-selective pressures--such as random mutation and genetic drift--on skeletal elements such as the cranium. Traditionally, biological anthropologists have looked to adaptation by natural selection as the primary explanation for patterns of skeletal diversity. The advent of large population genetic data-sets--which document random evolutionary changes in the genome--have enabled genetic variability to function as the null hypothesis for explaining phenotypic diversity. If phenotypic diversity mirrors neutral genetic diversity, non-selective evolutionary forces may sufficiently explain patterns of phenotypic diversity without invoking a selective explanation. This project increases our understanding of extant hominoid cranial evolution and therefore elucidates the complex framework within which extinct hominin species diversity should be evaluated.