Interview with IGS Faculty: Dr. Janet McIntosh

What is your current research about?

My past research was based on ethnic tensions in East Africa and my first book was on Islam and ethno-religious boundaries on the Kenya coast. My second project that is a book in progress is about White Kenyans and their peculiar dilemmas because just as they try and fit in as good Kenyan citizens in this post-colonial world, it seems like the colonial unconscious rears its head. However, when they try to be good Europeans, it turns out they have in fact been more acculturated to African life ways than they are necessarily comfortable with. So I am writing about the interesting dilemmas that they face.

How does your research speak to contemporary global issues?

There has been quite a lot of scholarly attention paid to subaltern groups particularly colonized groups. My research is a slightly unusual perspective on the post-colonial condition because I am looking at elite Whites who used to be in power and held sway across much of the globe. However, now they find themselves a foundered elite and I am wondering how they try and find a place in a world that has judged colonialism so negatively. My work speaks to the currents of liberal humanism moving across the globe and challenging old regimes, by asking what happens to the former destabilized elites. White Kenyans think of themselves as capaciously multicultural but it is their very multiculturalism that is considered a problem from the vantage point of some Kenyans who think citizenship is linked to race. So White Kenyan dilemmas and identities are intricately linked up with contemporary global questions about national identity and race and ethnicity.

What IGS classes are you teaching?

ANTH 1A Introduction to the Comparative Study of Human Societies. This course provides an overview of just how many ways humans can arrange their societies. We go freely across the globe from Africa, to New Guinea, South America, Asia and we look to some degree at the US. This gives IGS students important empirical and theoretical ways of approaching socio-cultural diversity.

ANTH 26A Communication and Media. This course starts by looking at why human language is so special when compared to animal communication. Then we look at non-verbal kinds of communication like self-adornment; clothing; visual images; advertisements; and mass media. This of course leads to discussions of technological transformations across the globe and in fact, the last major unit in the class addresses questions of global imperialism and cultural relativity.

ANTH 139B Language Ethnicity and Nationalism. The starting point of the course is to take on categories of tribe and ethnicity and relate them to contemporary politics and struggles over resources. Then we look at language politics and really question the neat mapping between ethnic or national identity and linguistic identity. We also look at the global present where there is so much multilingualism and code switching and at the same time there are attempts to standardize and ‘purify’ linguistic practices.

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