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Review: GMOs Decoded

GMOs Decoded

Krimsky, Sheldon. (2019) GMOs Decoded. A Skeptic’s View of Genetically Modified Foods. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 161 pp. + 9 pp. References Cited. Forward by Marion Nestle. ISBN 9780262039192

Ellen Messer (Tufts University)

“What risks are acceptable and at what cost?” (p.14). These are the motivating questions of scientist-philosopher Sheldon Krimsky’s latest writings on GMOs, for which his findings can be summarized: much remains “uncertain.” As a corollary, he questions the widely touted “scientific consensus” of the benefits and safety of GMOs, rejected by European publics and policy makers who resist more widespread GMO approval and usage in the absence of greater certainty. This short book considers what additional evidence must be supplied before he and other skeptics would join the consensus.

The book is well organized. In an eight-page introductory overview, Krimsky lays out recurring questions that characterize the debate pitting GMO proponents against opponents, then chapter by chapter clarifies the logic of the frameworks, arguments, and evidence favoring one or the other viewpoint. Chapters 1 and 2 define and explicate, respectively, “traditional” vs. “molecular” plant breeding, and chapter 3 evaluates the “differences … and their significance for evaluating crops”. The next four chapters consider the evidence for qualities and safety of “early products in agricultural biotechnology” (Ch.4) and Herbicide-Resistant, Disease-Resistant, and Insect-Resistant crops (Ch’s 5-7). He explains how initial products included Calgene’s high-solids content, delayed ripening tomato, which was produced by “antisense technology … a small step in the move toward genetically engineered (GE) crops. No new genes were introduced into the tomatoes: the gene for one enzyme was removed and inverted” (p.34). The selected agronomic traits, by contrast, were constructed by engineering gene-transfers into multiple crops. Krimsky’s critical risk assessment comparing and contrasting molecular versus traditional breeding encompasses all GE.

Chapters 8 and 9, “Genetic Mechanisms and GMO Risk Assessment” and “Contested Viewpoints on the Health and Environmental Effects of GMOs” systematically probe the many uncertainties that still surround these manipulations of plant biology, genetics, and transformations, after more than thirty years of scientific evaluations. Krimsky is selective in citing sources for his skeptical analysis; for example, he finds particularly useful three points raised by David Schubert, a geneticist at the Salk Institute: (1) the same gene introduced into two different types of cells can produce two very different protein molecules; (2) the introduction of any gene can change gene expression and phenotype of the recipient cell (and by extension, organism); and (3) enzymatic pathways that synthesize small molecules (e.g., vitamins) can interact with endogenous pathways and produce novel molecules. All serve to question whether “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) or “substantial equivalence” evaluations are adequate to judge identity and safety of GMOs (pp.69-70). Krimsky additionally uses Schubert’s uncontested scientific reasoning to argue that all products produced by molecular breeding, including gene editing that does not involve foreign gene transfers (GMOs), should be safety- regulated by method of breeding rather than final product. This is because molecular breeding entails potentially more unexpected changes in the new GE product; new molecules or enzymatic pathways resulting from genetic introductions or rearrangements may not be so easily recognized by the laboratory or commercial breeder who is not looking for such variants. U.S. and European authorities largely disagree on how to respond to all these uncertainties. U.S. regulators have moved more quickly in the direction of deregulation of additional plant varieties and products that involve processes and outcomes that have previously been judged GRAS or substantially equivalent to conventional products whereas European authorities have decided to withhold safety approval until risks, including GE procedures that do not involve foreign gene transfer, can be exhaustively evaluated. Such contradictory judgments call for additional chemical-component compositional and ecological analyses, animal feeding trials, or both.

There follow three short chapters summarizing: (10) the arguments for and against GMO labelling, (11) the carefully balanced evidence and concluding uncertainties of the largely pro-GMO 2016 National Academies Study on agricultural biotechnology, and (12) “The Promise and Protests of Golden Rice,” the one crop designed to meet micro-nutrient nutritional needs of low-income consumers in developing countries. Chapter 13 shows where “Science Studies” cultural-political arguments against GMOs diverge from the preceding science, and provides a good summary of the social issues in which conflicting views on GMOs are embedded. These public and social-science positions can be summarized that (1) there is no value-free science so “it is neither unreasonable nor irrational for there to exist disagreements because the value judgments are not premised exclusively on scientific authority”; (2) non-scientists appeal to religion, folk wisdom, family values, among other “non-scientific beliefs … “ in their judgments; and (3) “individuals who are inclined to follow scientific advice exclusively on matters of risk and health benefits may accept the knowledge claims or statements highlighting uncertainty by outlier scientists who(se) … views fall outside the mainstream.” (p.xviii). Krimsky throughout embraces the principle that “The history of science teaches us that minority positions sometimes become validated and should not be discarded at the outset, especially when questions remain unresolved.” (Ibid). Carefully and thoroughly, he shows how GMO proponents have done their best to squelch any negative findings reporting risks, either of gene transfers into non-target crops, health damages to experimental animals, or unanticipated gene products and outcomes.

The final chapter summarizes answers to his initial questions. Scientists and the general public and policy makers disagree with each other on the risks and implications of GMOs, he concludes, because they are asking different questions and framing the issues and requirements for supporting information in different ways. Critical public discourses are not based exclusively or mainly on authoritative science, but motivated by cultural and political-economic, including “food sovereignty” considerations and public opinion. It follows that “science-based” evaluations on the safety and advisability of GMOs in general or specific food-crops in particular, can never satisfy all scientists or the public at large.

As someone who began exploring agricultural biotechnologies in the mid-1980s, with the motivating question, “what opportunities might GMOs present for ending world hunger?” I found Krimsky’s presentation both lucid and frustrating. As scientist and philosopher, he carefully defined terms and analyzed ecosystem, organism, cellular, and molecular dimensions of transgenic processes and products in exquisite detail. These specifics showed the relative controllability of each step in the transformation process, and indicated how uncertainties arise in GE products, outcomes, and impacts. New transgenic seed varieties that have been extensively but not exhaustively tested are attractive to farmers because they promise higher yields with lower labor, chemical, and environmental costs, which potentially raise incomes. As anthropologists, among others, have shown, such alleged benefits appear to atrophy over the longer term, because the pests particular transgenics were designed to protect against develop resistance, or the introduction of new GE varieties paired with agricultural chemicals raise new ecological challenges. These foreseeable consequences put the farmers and the product developers on a dangerous treadmill that, in addition to making farmers dependent on additional products of ever more concentrated seed-chemical companies, may increase, rather than decrease, chemical loads, costs, and damages.

The thoroughness of his hypothetical questions and answers, however, offer the reader little guidance to answer the overarching questions. How much information is enough? Complete biochemical compositional analysis might be desirable; but would anything less suffice? Scientists and policy makers obviously disagree about how much uncertainty is tolerable, so what should non-experts think? For example, he insinuates that animal toxicity studies are always flawed. Yet his uncertainty assertions keep harking back to animal studies that indicated GMO toxicity, but which have never been replicated. Similarly, how valid are assertions that new allergens must always be considered a threat in GE products because the scientific community understands and has identified only a narrow range? Polarization on the dangers posed by known vs. unknown allergens continues; Krimsky gives no guidance on how to negotiate this divide.

Some arguments against GMOs, which Krimsky cites as worthy, can also be applied to non-GMO agricultural innovations. Changes in soil microbiome composition, for example, could be expected to accrue not only from GMOs, but from all new varieties and many of the new non-GMO seed dips, whose aim is to transform the microbial mix and benefit plant growth in expectable ways. Most frustrating, I wished that Krimsky had considered more carefully the management and monitoring issues. As a case in point, the virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii not only required development of protective seeding materials by molecular breeders, but also precise and vigilant management. Planting strategies kept ringspot viruses at bay by positioning more and less vulnerable and resilient varieties that successfully created buffers to virus co-evolution.

On balance, I finished the book with a clearer understanding of the debates, renewed skepticism about the scientific consensus, but the above frustrations. Ultimately, I think GE will be limited by the unsustainability of particular products and processes and farmer push-back against Big Ag industry strong-arm tactics and influence on farmer decision-making and management. In addition, health and environmental claims against the companies that produce GE seeds matched to ag-chemicals like glyphosate can be expected to multiply, along with damages connected to excessive, injudicious, wider-spread, and longer-term usage.

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Review: Greek Whisky

Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity

Tryfon Bampilis. Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity. Berghahn Press. New York: 2013. ISBN: 978-0-85745-877-3.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

The Greeks do not make whisky, but they surely drink a lot of it. Why they do and how that came to be is the subject of Tryfon Bampilis’ wonderful book. Greeks, Bampilis contends, have come to associate whisky with things “modern.” Whether it be in Athens or Skyros, an island in the Northern Aegean, whether it be in a modern restaurant or a traditional gathering place, Greeks are showing their connection to a larger world of sophistication. They arrived at this point as they became more oriented towards Western countries, especially after World War II, and also because well-crafted advertising and merchandizing helped this change.

Bampilis first sets his discussion by placing Greek whisky consumption in the larger issue of modernization and commoditization. It is an excellent discussion, and I would recommend it to people unfamiliar with this literature. Bampilis places whisky alongside other items in Greece as a growing marker of how, where, and when a person chooses to establish both a statement and a preference for this drink. He sees drinking whisky as a statement of a stylistic identity, of a person saying: “This is who I am.” Moreover, this identity is established, often regardless of the individual’s ability to maintain a lifestyle that the identity of drinking whisky entails. In other words, many people spend more on whisky than their incomes can support. (p. 18, et seq.)

How did the Greeks get to this place? Largely till the period before WWI, Bampilis argues, Greeks drank “traditional” spirits, such as ouzo–a licorice liquor, and they drank them in traditional settings, such as neighborhood bars and music venues. If the drinking was outside the home, it was mostly men who drank in these settings. Men generally drank the harder liquors. When women drank, they sipped sweeter liquors, and they did so at home.

Yet many Greeks also had an historical and spiritual connection with England, dating, in part from the early nineteenth century War of Independence and England’s help in it.   Things English began to be considered as modern and sophisticated. That included whisky. As the drinking of whisky became more widespread, Greek advertising featured English text in addition to Greek text in its promotion of whisky (see, for example, p. 41.)

Bampilis sees the popularization of this drink arising in many ways, adding to the richness of this book. The ways included movies, music, the increasing inclusion of Greece into the Common Market. Movies featured sophisticated men and women dressed in Western clothes, sitting in bars, drinking whisky. Bampilis reviews the history of the Greek movie industry to show precisely this association of whisky and modernism. He ties it to the history of Greek contemporary music as well, and he situates each kind of music in different settings where whisky is consumed. This discussion is fascinating in and of itself, for it features the ways in which media can and do change tastes–and styles.

Furthermore, he places all of this discussion within the larger history of the last several centuries. After the Second World War and the Greek Civil War, the conclusion of which saw Greece remaining within the Western sphere of influence, more Greeks identified themselves as part of the West. Greece became part of the larger European trading block and large corporations edged out smaller distributers of Western spirits. As the subtitle of the book suggests, many distributors targeted not just the modernization aspirations of more affluent and urban Greeks, they also featured local ways of appealing to these markets.

One intriguing discussion is the way in which the drinking of whisky brought together two contradictory styles and traditions. After the First World War, most Greeks living in Turkey were forced to move to Greece in the “Population Exchange” following the defeat of the Greek Army in Asia Minor in 1922. These Greeks played different types of music from what had existed in the country before. Initially, many Greeks saw these ‘musics’ as ‘tainted,’ affected by Turkish music and not suitable for people exploring their own traditions. Over time, however, these different styles of music came to be played not just in lower-class venues but eventually in nightclubs where Greeks came to display their taste for sophistication. Images of this were featured in ads and movies were set in these venues (p.112, et seq.) Bampilis’ discussions of Greek movies and music are delightful and informative, especially to people not familiar with Greek history and culture.

Bampilis then delineates how gender roles, stylistic presentations, and rituals accompanied these transformations in drinking and changed over time. He goes into substantive detail first about the drinking life in Athens. Bampilis, who claims he is Athenian on one side of his family, and Skyrian on the other side, used his family and school contacts to investigate Athens and Skyros for his informants and for their locales.

The picture he paints of the role of whisky and other drinks in the drinking life of Athens is complex and nuanced. In Athens, those men who drink whisky do so to signify modernism and masculinity Moreover, these men compete in several areas–spending money on the liquor itself, on how much liquor they can consume without appearing out of control, (p.141,) and of spending money on associated rituals, such as throwing flowers onto the stage for the performer (p.142.) The flower ritual, in recent times, replaced an earlier ritual of breaking bottles. Women who consider themselves modern also consume whisky, often as their sole drink (p.135.) As a general rule, single malt whiskies are the drink of choice. In addition, little food, except for nuts and similar edibles, is consumed when drinking whisky.

Bampilis paints a different role of why whisky and other alcoholic drinks are consumed on Skyros, his other research site. He presents a detailed portrait of an island from an historical and ethnographic perspective, giving both the specialist and non-specialist a rich view of the social life of the island. Despite its small population of less than three thousand, there are many public and private venues for liquor consumption, including whisky. The choice of liquors to drink and where to drink them is another debate between modernism and traditionalism (p.177.) For the most part, traditional Greek liquors are drunk in the home and for certain occasions. Women drink ” …a sweet liqueur, which is homemade and is considered a female drink…(p.173.)” Alcohol consumed in the home is accompanied by different kinds of foods. Meze on Skyros is usually local cheese, olives, and bread and is “…consumed outside the home…(pp.174-5.)” It is symbolically opposed to “real food” which is “…made in the household by the housewife (p.175.)” The household is the domain of the “feminine (p.175.)”

The above examples are just a small picture of Skyros’ social life and the role of alcoholic beverages in it. Bampilis covers older families, people who have spent time in Athens, shepherds, laborers, single men, single women, married women with children, married women without children, and prostitutes. Each group has its own choices of drinks, how much one can drink, what to eat with which drink, and what music to listen to when doing all the above. As Bampilis notes, “The modernism of whisky on Skyros Island in the North Aegean is associated with an imagined Athenian style, which opposes the values of shepherhood [sic] and domesticity and is widely shared by the laborers of the island pp.210-11.)”

Moreover, gambling is one of the ways men engage in competition and reciprocal exchange in Skyros (and, as Bampilis notes, other North Aegean islands (p.189 et seq.) Like drinking whisky and other beverages, men play different card games in different venues, with different kinds of interactions, including how to deal with the people who lose at cards. It is also a way for laborers “…to make their style with ksodema (spending) and identify with the popular culture of Athens (p.197.)” Bampilis concludes his analysis of the role of whisky in Skyros society thusly: ” [whisky consumption} is for those who want to break apart from the matrifocal rules and extended matrifocal kinship obligations (p.213.)”

Greek Whisky is of importance for those anthropologists studying the ways food and other products become both globalized and localized in neo-liberal economies and societies. It is of further importance because of the ways in which Bampilis portrays how politics and media create reinforce these lifestyle changes, how they become genderized, how they express styles of identity, and how they relate to social life, including different kinds of food, movies and music. It is also useful for students of economics and business, and it is appropriate for upper division undergraduates. And it is a delight for the general reader. One suggestion for future editions of this book is that, given the large number of Greek words, a glossary be provided in addition to the Index.

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Review: Baking, Bourbon and Black Drink

Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink: Foodways Archaeology in the American Southeast. Edited by Tanya M. Peres and Aaron Deter-Wolf. The University of Alabama Press. 2018. ISBN: 978-0-8173-1992-2

Kimberley G. Connor
(Stanford University)

As Tanya M. Peres and Aaron Deter-Wolf point out in their introduction to Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink: Foodways Archaeology in the American Southeast, it is no longer sufficient for archaeologists to just identify food remains in the past; they must “look beyond the data tables and pursue the larger picture of food and its role in human cultures—that is, the foodways of past societies” (2018:1). In practice, this is a difficult task. The nine chapters in this edited volume show both the great potential for using archaeology to study social practices and cultural meanings related to food, and the challenges for those who try to move beyond ‘laundry lists’ of animal and plant species.

Baking, Bourbon, and Black Drink responds to a growing interest in modern and historic cuisine from the Southeastern United States (from the Atlantic Ocean into Arkansas and Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio River Valley), but expands the genre by introducing a range of archaeological approaches and increasing the time-depth to include the past 14,000 years. The temporal and methodological diversity of the chapters is one of the great strengths of the book, although that multiplicity also makes it difficult to bring them all together in a coherent narrative. While the chapters are arranged thematically in sections—feasting, social and political status, food security and persistent places, and foodways histories—the divisions often feel rather arbitrary.

The first section on feasting contains only one chapter by Megan C. Kassabaum on the importance of integrating ceramic, faunal and botanical datasets for studying feasting. The evidence she presents from Feltus, a Woodland period ceremonial mound site, raises questions about the role of feasting in pre-agricultural societies with low levels of social differentiation. This poses a challenge to traditional models which assume that agriculture is necessary for large-scale feasting, and that feasting is inherently linked to the creation and maintenance of social inequality. The emphasis on quantity rather than rarity of food items is welcome, although it is difficult to rule out the presence of labor-intensive foods without more evidence about food preparation techniques.

The second section deals with social and political status in southeastern foodways. Two chapters, one by Tanya M. Peres, and one co-authored by Peres and Kelly L. Ledford, provide zooarchaeological evidence for social stratification at Moundville in Alabama. One of the great highlights of the volume is Thomas E. Emerson’s chapter on Black Drink, a beverage made from caffeine-containing yaupon holly and very hot water used as both a social drink, and as an emetic for ritual purification. Emerson combines historical and ethnographic accounts with ceramic analysis and iconography to contextualise recent residue analysis which identified Black Drink at Cahokia. Following on in the vein of beverage studies, Nicolas Laracuente provides a strong introduction to the archaeology of whiskey production in Kentucky. As Laracuente notes, the role of women and enslaved African Americans has been sidelined in histories of the distilling industry and it would be very interesting to see a development of archaeological work which could illuminate the contributions of those groups.

The third section deals with food security and ‘places which persist’ as food preparation and consumption areas for long periods. Stephen B. Carmody, Kandace D. Hollenbach and Elic M. Weitzel use a diet breadth model—which predicts that foragers will preferentially go after higher ranked food products (based on the net cost of the caloric return minus the cost of energy to acquire and process it) but that as resources become rarer they will turn to a broader range of lower ranked products which provide less calories and/or require more processing time—to suggest that foragers at Dust Cave, Alabama shifted from a more general subsistence strategy to intensive mast collection and processing during the Middle Archaic in response to a changing climate. Meanwhile, Lauren A. Walls and Scot Keith look at the transformation of earth ovens from Woodland Period sites in Tennessee and Georgia as a sign of broader social changes.

Finally the section on foodways histories contains two chapters using “new methods of examining foodways to challenge the idea of monolithic cultural continuity during the Woodland and Mississippian periods” (9). Both deal much more with meals and cuisine than do the previous the chapters. Neill J. Wallis and Thomas J. Pluckhahn use shifts in the size and wall thickness of ceramic vessels to suggest changes in food preparation techniques that have not yet been recognised using faunal or botanical studies. The importance of considering food preparation techniques is reinforced by the final chapter, by Rachel V. Briggs on different forms of the hominy foodway. She uses a historical anthropological approach to demonstrate why the Native American technique of nixtamalization for maize was adopted within the African American hominy foodway, but not the European one.

The chapters which really stand out in this volume, especially those by Emerson and Briggs, are those able to really get at what Briggs calls “the vital relationship between what we eat and who we are” which “is not simply that we make choices about what we eat, but that the practices involved in what we eat, those we reproduce every day, are also generative” (161). It is no coincidence, I would suggest, that it was the chapters focusing on meals, cuisine and cooking rather than diet and subsistence which were particularly successful. Offering an excellent overview of archaeological work in the region, this book will clearly be important for those studying or teaching about southeastern foodways. However, it is also an interesting model for any archaeologist trying to figure out not just what was eaten in the past but what it means.

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Review: The Unending Hunger

The Unending Hunger by Megan A. Carney

Carney, M. A. (2015). The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN: 978-0520285477

Rachael McCormick
University of South Florida

In The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders, Megan Carney frames the city of Santa Barbara, California’s paradoxical problem as “hunger in the land of plenty.” Despite the region’s affluence and agricultural wealth, food insecurity occurs at a high rate. Carney attributes this problem to a neoliberal food regime which views food as a commodity – able to move across the southern border – while people lack both mobility and food. Rather than addressing the structural causes of food insecurity (evidenced by the high rates among women and people of color), food assistance typically consists of emergency relief and handouts.

Carney argues state approaches to food security, as to migration, are embedded in biopolitics. Food assistance agencies act as proxies of the state, bringing up questions of deservingness and surveillance. In the neoliberal context, the burden of procuring food falls on the individual. But not all individuals experience this burden equally: women, as the primary performers of caring labor, are tasked with feeding their families.

Carney, a critical medical anthropologist, is a faculty member at the University of Arizona with interests in migration, food systems and biopolitics (Carney, n.d.). The Unending Hunger is based on her dissertation at the University of California – Santa Barbara. Since then, her interest in migration has expanded into the Mediterranean region.

In The Unending Hunger, Carney characterizes her position as both insider (referring to her food-related activism during graduate school) and outsider (in relation to migrant women). Participants in her study were adult women who had migrated from Mexico or Central America and had experience with U.S. food assistance. Carney uses semi-structured and life history interviews, focus groups, dietary surveys and participant observation with both the population of interest as well as public health and nonprofit professionals. She draws heavily on feminist methodology, especially in her use of empowering methods like photo elicitation and focus groups. Based on these data, Carney found that concern for food is a central part of the migration experience for women. This was reflected in the terms alimentarse and comida saludable which women use when talking about the caring labor they perform. Carney also reports that subjectivities are altered through post-migration suffering and its embodied effects. Food insecurity in the migration context interacts with existing health vulnerabilities, increasing social suffering. However, rather than focusing on lack of food access, Carney calls attention to the ways she observed women strategically “making do,” cooperating, and resisting.

Carney’s book has a particularly strong gendered perspective which seeks to address a gap in the literature on migration: the experiences of women, as care workers, in addition to men as laborers. In some ways, The Unending Hunger can be thought of as a counterpart to Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (2013). Holmes analyzes the health consequences of farm labor on migrant men engaged in food production, while Carney turns to women as consumers whose “caring labor” is not valued by a capitalist system.

Carney’s heavy-handed critique of the neoliberal food assistance paradigm seems unproductive at times. There is plenty of room for improvement in both the overall structure of food assistance as well as the individual sites where it is implemented. However, food assistance in its many forms (consider food banks, faith-based organizations and federal programs) is a vital support system for food-insecure populations. While Carney acknowledges the limits imposed upon these organizations by bureaucracy, donor funding, and policy, a more productive critique might include concrete ways for food assistance services to improve their interventions.

In The Unending Hunger, Carney provides a nuanced view of mobility – both of people and food – that brings in the under-analyzed gendered elements of migration and food procurement. The book will be of interest to medical anthropologists, food system planners and other professionals engaged in food security projects. It may not be received as warmly by the organizations Carney criticizes; these would benefit more from research that generated specific suggestions for mitigating food insecurity within the neoliberal context. Nevertheless, Carney’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on migration, gender and health.


Works Cited

Carney, M. (n.d.). About Megan Carney. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from

Holmes, S. (2013). Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.



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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food security, hunger, migration

Review: From Virtue to Vice

From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia

Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik. From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia. Food, Nutrition, and Culture Series. V. 4. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015.  ISBN: 978-1-78238-455-7 hardback; ISBN: 978-1-78238-456-4 ebook

Richard Zimmer
Sonoma State University

Richard O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik have written an excellent and very readable book on anorexia nervosa using anthropological perspectives.  Anorexia occurs when a person “obsessively chooses” not to eat. A person then puts her/himself at medical and psychological risk. It is extremely difficult to treat. Because anorexia relates to food in general and to many foods in particular, and because anorexia is a very “modern” disease (as is explained by the authors) this book is of importance to those interested in the anthropology of food and nutrition, as well as in medical anthropology and psychological anthropology.  It is also of use to medical and behavioral personnel treating patients/clients with anorexia.  Lastly, because of the way it is formatted, it can serve as a helpful resource for people struggling with anorexia, including those recovering from it.

Before proceeding, I need to make several disclosures.  The first is that I am an anthropologist and a licensed psychologist. In the latter role, I have treated many clients with anorexia.  Whatever the procedures are for treating anorexia, the standard of care mandates that the clinician work with the client’s/patient’s physician because of the health risks involved, including malnutrition.  Furthermore, I also do pre-surgery psychological assessments for gastric bypass surgery for people with severe obesity. This assessment is a necessary pre-condition for getting the surgery. In the near future I will be reviewing another book in the Berghahn series about obesity.  Moreover, I have been a long-time board member for an agency which services people with disabilities–Disability Services/Legal Center, in Santa Rosa, California.  As a board member, a psychologist who works with people with disabilities and as an advocate for people with disabilities, it should be known that the politically correct and acceptable term is “a person with anorexia,” not an anorectic person, the term employed in the book. The reason is simple: the focus is on the person first, the disability second.  For the sake of simplicity and readability, however, I will use “anorectic” or “anorectic person” in this review. Lastly, the question arises: is anorexia a disability?  According to our agency’s legal center, it is, when it actually impacts major life functions.

By taking an anthropological and historical focus, O’Connor and Van Esterik bring a holistic, person-centered, and behavioral dimension to understanding and treating anorexia. Before detailing how they do this, it is important to review some current understandings about the causes and treatments for anorexia–which they review.

1. There is no single accepted etiology for anorexia.
2. There is no single, acceptable cure/treatment for anorexia.
3. Certain kinds of approaches can backfire, worsening the situation.
4. Anorexia is believed to have become a recognized issue in modern times, seemingly starting in the nineteenth century.
5, Anorexia seems to be more common among children/adolescents who are affluent and been given educational opportunities.
6. Conversely, it seems to be less common among less educated and less affluent and in minority communities.
7. While often portrayed in the media as a feminist issue, anorexia is found among teenage boys and young men at significant rates, although it is less prevalent than among teenage girls and young women.
8. While anorexia is often understood as an extreme reaction to modern ideas about body image, especially for girls and women, the subjects/informants that O’Connor and Van Esterik interviewed were less concerned and less influenced by contemporary images. Rather, they were motivated by other considerations, as will be discussed shortly.
9. O’Connor and Van Esterik situate their discussion about anorexia in a larger discussion of the emergence of Cartesian dualism and its effects of splitting mind and body. Anorectics thus act on this split, using mind over body. Coupled with this, anorectics preoccupy themselves with cleanliness, following Mary Douglas’ ideas about purity in general. This preoccupation is complemented with rituality in preparing and eating foods.

These considerations revolve around the idea of control.  Briefly, the young person who is becoming anorectic becomes entranced by the idea of control over her/his body, about the idea of perfecting this control, about the daily process of not eating, of getting “high” from a self-reinforcing feedback loop in the same way the authors say that ascetics do.  The anorectic person eventually loses control of the ability to control–control becomes an end in itself.  The anorectic withdraws from much social interaction, usually rejecting any parental, friendship, and sexual interaction.  According to the informants, this, too, becomes self-fulfilling.

The informants interviewed in this book were drawn from Canada and the US.  The authors give these informants the opportunity to express themselves at length throughout each chapter, addressing different aspects about their anorexia, including their family life, their starting point for not eating, their social life, their decision to address their condition, and their recovery. They all said that they enjoyed experimenting with food, including eliminating fats, sugars, and eating more vegetables and fruits.  To paraphrase the authors, the anorectic becomes what s/he eats and does not eat.

Because this is a contemporary study, these anorectics indulged in “Virtuous Eating (Chapter 10.)” They thus shared the modern preoccupation with food–what to eat, what not to eat, how many calories, how large the proportions should be, and the provenance of the food. As Poulain notes, the anorectic fits into the category of the “fearful eater” (2017:165.)

This preoccupation with the kinds of food one ate in the West arose from historical movements begun in the early nineteenth century, such as those started by William Kellogg and Sylvester Graham:  “Diet reform emerged from a distrust of 19th century medical practices, as well as the temperance movement led by Protestants which gained popularity in the United States at the same time (” Moreover, as Jonathan Kauffman notes throughout his book, Hippie Food (2018), modern and post-modern society promotes experimentations with food as a virtue in and of itself.  Consequently, the anorexia informants in this book talk endlessly about which foods to eat and how much of them they eat.

These extremes of virtuous eating were coupled with religious beliefs and asceticism. For many they were tied up with ideas about “purity” and “danger,” after Mary Douglas. They were also tied up with notions of attractiveness and thinness (Chapter 12). Thinness became another virtue for people, particularly women in many Western societies after WWI.  One need only look at the Flapper craze in the 1920’s.

The authors note that the informants said that they began their practice of control in their adolescence.  Whatever the causes, the informants noted that they saw their practice as an emerging practice of creating identity, one that differentiated them from their families and friends because of the prime focus on what they ate and did not eat.  So-called “traditional” societies, where one has a socially given identity and close monitoring, do not see the presence or rise of anorexia as modern societies do.  Furthermore, the authors note that the prevalence of anorexia increased in post-modern times in part because the number of different identities available to an adolescent multiplied. The anorectic person is the one who does not eat, just as the Goth dresses in black.  What is striking, from a psychological point of view, at least for the informants in their survey, is that they were all “good” kids, not prone to rebellion, successful in school, and most were involved in sports or dance.

The informants the authors have chosen have all recovered. They do note that their sample is skewed. (It would probably be difficult to find anorectics who have not recovered and who would be so willing to talk about their history, a point they address as well). The lessons learned from this sample, because not all anorectics do recover fully or partially, are that recovery is an individual choice.  No one intervention worked to get someone to change.  Overmedicalization and stigmatization were counter-productive.  Sometimes it was just “accidental”–the person decided one day that not eating was not working for her or him.

These lessons are clinically useful because they enable the physician and therapist to see the person as a whole trying to form an identity, rather than as a problem with medical issues.  The professional can have the anorectic strike a path forward that s/he chooses, giving that person agency.  The self-reports of the informants give those who treat anorectics sensitive ways to help the person.   The case examples, including statements about reasons to change and successful outcomes, provide resources that speak to the anorectic in language and sentiment to help her/him become their own change agent.



n.d. (accessed March 5, 2019.)

2018 Kauffman, Jonathan. Hippie Food: How Back-To-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Ways We Eat.  Harper Collins. New York.

2017 Poulain, Jean-Pierre. The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society.  Bloomsbury: New York.



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Review: Authentic Italian

Di Maio, Dina M. Authentic Italian. The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.  ISBN#13:978-0-9996255-0-7

Francesca Gobbo
University of Turin


With her book Authentic Italian (2018), author Dina M. Di Maio aims to disseminate The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, as the subtitle explains, among American readers (and, presumably, also diners).  She wants to dispel the prejudices and biases about Italian immigrants and their food by demonstrating and reclaiming the authentic Italian identity of the dishes prepared and cooked in the kitchens of Americans of Italian descent—as she calls them. The chapters’ titles (What is “Italian” Food?: The Italy They Left; Is Cucina Moderna the True Food of Italy?; They Came to America; Spaghetti and Meatballs; Italian Food in America; Pizza; Italian Food Around the World; Italian Food in Italy; The Legacy of Italian Food) well describe the ample itinerary undertaken by the author. For Di Maio, the story of food and foodways of Americans of Italian descent cannot but intertwine with the history of the Italian South and its people, the emigration of millions of Southerners to escape poverty and lack of prospects in their homeland, the exclusion and prejudices suffered by those who landed in the United States (and that are still suffered by their descendants, according to Di Maio). It also includes the cultural resilience and creativity they practiced by succeeding in making their cuisine popular and highly appreciated by Americans. Thus, though she warns readers that “Italian history is convoluted,” and reminds them that the unification of Italy was achieved only in 1861, Di Maio thought it necessary to go into it in order to give “an understanding of how this history pertains to the food history of the early Italian immigrants”. Most of her references are the works of English authors, since not many Italian texts about the history of Southern Italy or Italian foodways are translated in English: her decision seems unavoidable, but I think that the contributions of Italian historians to the study of the post-unification conditions of the South would have been very valuable.

With regard to immigrants’ foodways, they brought them to the new land, as Di Maio documents, and initially they kept their cooking traditions within the family and neighborhood circles. Immigrants also grew their own vegetables and fruits (a habit some of them still maintained in 1974, when – to my surprise – I was able to buy some Roman chicory from an old man in New Haven). Furthermore, accustomed as they were to olive oil for cooking, they started to import it from Sicily as early as 1907, together with other specialties. Later the production of American made Italian food was launched, and restaurants and pizzerie were opened. Most of the enterprises were family based, capable of making and distributing products of high quality, and of impacting positively on the food industry in the United States, until “the local Italian-American business became corporations or died because of competition from corporations and quality subsequently degraded”. Many of those newly arrived to American shores shared the cooking and eating traditions of the South. Yet the Italian immigrants were a diverse group, both in terms of social status and specific history, as is testified by Di Maio’s research among the descendants of the Waldensian immigrants. The latter – as the Author explains – came from the steep valleys of Piedmont where they, as an Italian religious minority, had settled in the XIII century. The dishes that the descendants of the early immigrants still prepare testify of the strong relationship with the Piedmontese food traditions, notwithstanding their long exclusion from the surrounding Catholic society. And it is with a communal lunch, after a religious ceremony, that every year, on February 17, in the valley “capital” Torre Pellice, the Italian Waldensians  celebrate the civic and political rights (Lettere Patenti), granted to them by the Savoia Carlo Alberto in 1848.

Di Maio’s commitment to attest that “spaghetti and meatballs make up the story of the Italian people in the United States” is inaugurated by asking if such a dish, as well as pizza or eggplant parmesan, are perceived as authentic Italian, rather than as Italian American. The latter is a mistaken perception many Italians run into (especially if they are from the North) and it is due – as she explains – to the characteristics of the Italian cuisine that is divided by North and South, is regional, and characterized by important variations in produce and recipes, engendering a certain confusion with regard to the authentic origin of the dish. In fact, I can testify that, as a Northern Italian student in the United States in the early 1970s, I shared that confusion. It ended only when, in 1976, the Arberësh family from which I rented a room during fieldwork in Calabria decided to prepare a special treat – to wit: spaghetti and meatballs. Thus, that meal was not only tasty, but it also gave the ethnographer the opportunity to learn about the diversity of Italian food and the limited familiarity many Italians had with dishes prepared and eaten in other Italian regions.

However, things are changing, as Di Maio notices, and the concern of the Italian government  to validate “authentic products” underlines how the Italian food identity (or authenticity) is transmitted not only by recipes or internationally popular dishes such as pizza. This also happens now through the DOC and DOP designations (as well as those of the Slow Food Presidia) of local or regional products that thus become known and appreciated both at the national and international level. Pizza is one such dish, and the pages the author devotes to it and to its diffusion are quite interesting, though her claim that “the Southern Italians brought it to the United States who in turn brought it back to Italy” does not do justice, in my view, to the many Neapolitan families who introduced pizza and pizzerie in the towns – big and small – of Northern Italy.

Di Maio’s aims, in short, “to prove that the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in the United States is indeed Italian cuisine based on real dishes from Italy”. And further, “to show that classifying and interpreting the cuisine of Americans of Italian descent in any other way but as ‘Italian’ is discriminatory”. This goal required not only research among the food habits of those Italian Americans, but also an exploration of Italian food cultures, cooking and eating practices, and of the changes they and the Italians have undergone in Italy. Her research places the topic of Italian American foodways and their authenticity in a wide perspective that comprises not only the past but also the present of Italy, and provokes memories as well as questions in Italian readers. While her efforts are devoted to establish the authenticity of the food of Americans of Italian descent, an Italian reader would point out that immigrants from all parts of the world are now part of the Italian population. Many of them collect tomatoes and oranges in the South (and the padrone system the Author mentions is remindful of the caporalato and of the heavy toll it takes from the field laborers), so that traditional food such as pasta al pomodoro or other dishes requiring fresh or processed tomatoes are now maintained also thanks to them. It is possible – as happens in the oldest pizzeria of Padova (in the Northeast of Italy) – that pizza is made to its usual perfection by a young Indian immigrant, or that Bangladeshi sellers of fruits and vegetables extol the freshness of the radicchio varieties, the tastiness of the fondi di carciofo (artichoke bottoms) as ably and convincingly as the next stalls’ local vendors who celebrate their goods in local dialect. With very few exceptions, neither grow the vegetables and fruits they sell as was often common in the 1960s and 1970s, however the immigrants too have learned to shave the artichokes and keep them in fresh water for the satisfaction of the customers. If the authenticity of the pizza or of the fondi di carciofo cannot be questioned when they reach the table, regardless of who cooked or prepared or sold them, will the meaning of “authentic” widen or, on the contrary, remain exclusively defined by historic origins? In my view, the etymology of “authentic” (from late Latin authenticus, and from the Greek authentikós, derived from authéntës, author, doer, master, cfr. Devoto 1968, Onions 1966) suggests that what is proved as true, genuine, or not false, implies the recognition of a maker, and of his/her activity, who relates to the original source in terms of inspiration and creativity rather than of respectful replication.



Devoto G. (1968), Avviamento alla Etimologia Italiana. Dizionario Etimologico, Firenze: Le Monnier.

Onions C. T. ed. (1966), The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.









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Filed under anthropology of food, Authenticity, food history, Italy, migration

Review: Against The Grain

James C. Scott Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. ISBN #: 9780300182910

David Sutton
Southern Illinois University

With his 5 decades of writing on questions of local resistance to state control and state planning, James Scott has been anthropology’s favorite political scientist. In groundbreaking books including Weapons of the Weak, Hidden Transcripts, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott traces an approach that suggests the many ways that ordinary people evade the mechanisms of power, rather than submitting to hegemonic structures. And he explains why scholars have largely ignored these acts of resistance and hidden transcripts, indeed precisely because they are meant to remain “under the radar” of official accounts and practices of accountability. Scott’s “ordinary people” often refers to peasant life and agriculture. In his first book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Scott first develops arguments and critiques of the concept of false consciousness in the context of looking at peasant relations with land owners and the “moral economy” of traditional definitions of acceptable subsistence and peasant calculation of acceptable risk and reward.

So Scott’s work has a particular and longstanding relevance to food studies scholars. Perhaps all the more so with his most recent book. Against The Grain, which enters into what has become a popular discussion in venues such as The New Yorker of the so-called Neolithic transition to agriculture and its implications for human health and well-being. This discussion has reached popular consciousness in anarchist circles and in debates about the “Paleo Diet,” and recently the discovery of 14,000-year-old “bread-like” substances at a hunter gatherer site, made, it seems, from wild grains and tubers, sparking another round of popular discussions of “the diet of our ancestors” and its implications for contemporary health.[1] Popular or scholarly, this ongoing debate concerns the implications of grain agriculture in the story of human history. Scott’s contribution in some ways adds weight to the critique of the development of grain agriculture as human staple, but in other ways adds considerable complexity to how we might approach such questions. Scott wants to blur boundaries of institutions and processes that have been thought to imply each other. Scott separates the state form both from domestication of agriculture and livestock and the former two from sedentism. Sedentism could arise without domestication, as Scott shows with multiple examples of niche construction, and exploitation of diverse food sources in rich, wetland environments. This often involved niche construction through fire and other techniques of sculpting the environment.  He notes, ““Unlike optimal foraging theory that takes the disposition of the natural world as given and asks how a rational actor would distribute his or her efforts in procuring food, what we have here is a deliberate disturbance ecology in which hominids create, over time, a mosaic of biodiversity and a distribution of desirable resources more to their liking” (40). Major sculpting was not always necessary, however. In the Southern Mesopotamian alluvium wetland marshes would have provided “an exceptionally rich riparian life” which drew all kinds of animals “preying on creatures lower on the food chain” (50), thus making sedentism perfectly feasible in the absence of agriculture. Many of the practices of hunter-gatherer-forager-pastoralists, as Scott sees them, were not inherently different in conception than agriculture, insofar as they involved planning for “delayed returns”—from landscape sculpting to preserving through drying and fermenting. Thus, the introduction of small-scale agriculture did not necessitate the creation of different “kinds of people,” another blurring that Scott suggests: “To treat those engaged in these different activities as essentially different peoples inhabiting different life worlds is again to read back the much later stigmatization of pastoralists by agrarian states to an era where it makes no sense” (62). Indeed, Scott argues that evidence suggests a common shifting between different subsistence strategies “along a vast continuum of human rearrangements of the natural world” (71).

Scott also argues that the shift from this situation to the Neolithic Revolution in which agriculture became predominant in some communities held many disadvantages. While it allowed for greater concentrations of human and animal populations in smaller spaces, it at the same time encouraged the possibility of zoonoses, all the diseases transmitted to humans and domesticated animals from agricultural pests of various kinds and from the concentration of human waste. The literal meaning of “parasite,” Scott is pleased to point out, is “beside the grain,” and most human infectious disease developed in this context beginning 10,000 years ago, thus playing into the pun in Scott’s book title. The Neolithic Revolution also, in Scott’s view, led to a vast deskilling of human populations, as the flexibility and knowledge that was part of shifting subsistence strategies was lost in the specialization of agriculture. Indeed, he intriguingly suggests, but does not develop, the notion that among the de-skillings that he associates with the Neolithic Revolution, we should include ritual life: “let us at least say that [the Neolithic revolution] represented a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life” (92). This is because of what he imagines as the centralization or funneling of ritual around the harvest (and eventually its centralized control by elites), as opposed to the multiple tempos, and presumably multiple localized rituals, of shifting subsistence. As suggestive as this is, one wishes that Scott further developed these ideas, and suggested what evidence we might want to see for them. All of these problems of concentration make up one of the reasons why agriculture does not lead to states in some inexorable way as old evolutionary theories might have argued. Rather agriculture (and sedentism) were necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of states, and that is why there tends to be a time lag of hundreds or thousands of years between the development of agriculture and of states in different parts of the world.

Scott sees grain as key, however, to this eventual development, because it afforded certain possibilities that other crops did not. Without cereal grains, Scott notes, one might get sedentism and urbanism in certain alluvial, well-watered areas, but not the state.  In particular, the fact that cereal grains ripen at the same time and above ground was crucial for early state building, as it made them assessible, measurable, and thus taxable. It is here that Scott’s argument in Against the Grain intersects with much of his best-known work on the state as constantly attempting to produce legible populations for the purposes of surveillance and control.[2] He thus sees that the development of writing was first and foremost a technology of tax assessment and accountability, making possible the measurement, storage and rationing of resources. Scott also seems aware of the functionalist and determinist sound of some of these arguments, and so includes questions, such as why couldn’t lentils or chickpeas have been bred for simultaneous ripening (133)? This is a question which he doesn’t attempt to answer. Scott’s insistence on blurriness of social categories for long periods of human history also dovetails with recent formulations that argue that different pre-state social arrangements are better seen as temporary collective projects rather than different types of fully-formed “societies” (Graeber & Wengrow 2015).

As to the issue of why anyone would want to live in a state (aside from those who controlled it), Scott’s book is in essence a dismissal of long-held arguments that states provided more security, better health, or better amenities than non-states. In the latter chapters of the book, Scott describes the fragility of the early state based on the notion that many people would have simply fled from its exploitative and dulling routines. Slavery was thus a key aspect of shoring up the state, as slaves, according to Scott, would have been a key source of the state’s agricultural labor force, (while not, of course, being absent from non-state societies). This also means, in Scott’s narrative, that the “Barbarians” living outside of state control were as likely to be refugees from state-making processes as much as they were pristine primitives living untouched by the state (231-2). Those groups living outside the boundaries, but on the margins of states, might often have various interactions with states, from trading, to creating protection rackets with particular states, to selling captured populations as slaves to states to fill labor needs.  Scott suggests that in shoring up states in various ways, these “Barbarian” polities may have eventually been squeezed out, contributing to their own demise, though one that happened over a very long time span.

As noted, this work fits into Scott’s larger project of questioning the top-down, synoptic and abstract mechanisms of control and categorization that he argues are at the base of state projects.  In Against the Grain, Scott once again suggests that scholars contribute to such views by favoring the legible, in this case, the fact that early states, as opposed to non-state groupings, left many more records for historians to ponder. The bias for “civilization” over “Barbarians”, then, reflects the fact that, winners and losers aside, we read history from the point of view of the writers, or in this case, the states (even if some of this “writing” took the form of stone monuments).

Scott always hedges his claims, though, not arguing that non-state societies were some kind of utopias and that writing and abstraction represented a “fall of mankind” as in the works of some anthropological primitivists,[3] even if everything in his argument suggests that life must have been substantially better for non-state peoples. Thus, Scott offers up only “Two Cheers for Anarchy,” in a recent collection of essays which includes thoughts on the petite bourgeoise,[4] which he sees as potentially resistant to state control and the forces of organization, abstraction and modernity. This comes alongside a plea for generalized everyday rule-breaking, or what he calls “Anarchist calisthenics” (2012). And Scott is eager to dispel the idea that his work should give comfort to Libertarians in their critiques of the state, even if the Libertarians at the CATO institute seem to disagree and offered a published volume in his honor (Scott n.d.).

In terms of offering a final answer for the question of why states arose, given the factors Scott arrays against them, readers may not be satisfied with the lack of a tidy solution. What he suggests, as discussed above, is a combination of force and chance which led to the possibility of states being successful given the degree of human exploitation, disease and general misery that they imposed. So Against the Grain doesn’t directly address questions of how inequality might have arisen, although Scott’s approach typically, in giving credit to the understandings of the oppressed, tends to suggest less of a role for hegemony (in the sense of consent of the governed) or false consciousness (thought not, as noted, unintended consequences).

The value of Against the Grain, then, lies not in its providing radically new theories or new data on the old question of the origin of the state. It is rather Scott’s synthesis of current existing materials and approaches that food studies and other scholars may find most useful. In particular, Scott reveals how these materials can be read in terms of the critique of state abstraction processes, and the lengths many people have gone to avoid or to thwart them—themes he made famous in his earlier work.[5] The focus on abstraction and legibility is certainly all the more relevant to the monocultures and general commodification of agriculture that we are familiar with from the legacy of the Green Revolution and the ongoing demands of contemporary capitalism.[6] Against the Grain helps us to see this as also part of a broader struggle of the very long durée.


Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Scott, James C. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, James C., et. al.  n.d.. Seeing Like A State: A Conversation with James C. Scott. Cato Unbound Series. Cato Institute.

Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. “Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’: Ritual, Seasonality, and the Origins of Inequality.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21: 597-619.

Wilson, Peter Lamborne. 2016. “Abdullah Ocalan.” In Dilar Dirik et. al (eds). To Dare Imagine: Rojava Revolution, pp. 33-42. New York: Autonomedia.

[2] This is where Scott’s argument can also be seen in relation to neoliberalism and its regimes of audit and assessment which he explicitly critiques in education (see Scott 2012)

[3] See, e.g., Wilson (2012) which draws a line from Ancient Sumer to contemporary anarchist movements in Northern Syria.

[4] In which he includes small farmholders and artisans.

[5] Scott 1998, 2009

[6] Themes that he has also explored in Seeing Like a State.

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Filed under agriculture, anthropology, anthropology of food, archaeology, Origins of the State