Tag Archives: research

The yam question

My thanks to those brave few people who actually answered the yam survey. (For those who had no idea there was such a thing, please consult http://bit.ly/en05b4 and answer the questions!) I did promise Felice Wyndham I’d post the results, so here’s what I uncovered.

The whole haggis hunt was set off by the need to prepare a Māgh Saṃkrānti feast at our house in Aberdeen. That’s one of the only solar, as opposed to lunisolar, feasts in the Newar ritual calendar, and among other things one should eat ही [](in Newari) or तरुल [tarul](in Nepali)—that is, Dioscorea root. Bhāwanā and I had a long conversation about exactly what plant was involved, and what other tubers might be confused with it.

Particularly confusing to me was the listing in several Newari dictionaries of a term चकु ही [caku hī]—that is, a sweet Dioscorea—referring to Ipomea batatas. Neither Bhāwanā nor her father had ever heard that term (even though it was listed in Sugat Das Tulādhar’s little dictionary from the 1950’s) and both were sure that Ipomea was the wrong food. Strangely, K Shrestha’s Dictionary of Nepalese Plant Names didn’t give any Newari word for Dioscorea or Ipomea, though to be frank, it’s not much good for Newari language terms. It made formal sense that in Newari, Dioscorea was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas thus became a ‘sweet Dioscorea’, while in North America, Solanum tuberosum was the reference tuber and Ipomea batatas was thus a ‘sweet Solanum tuberosum’ — except that it was only dictionaries, and not real people, who actually had the term. When we talked about Ipomea batatas with the Nepal family, everyone used the Nepali word शकर खण्ड [śakar khaṇḍ] and my suspicion is that चकु ही is a hyper-Newari back formation associated with the Newar language movement, much like च्वसा [cvasā] for pen instead of the ‘Nepali’ कलम [kalam](actually from the Persian قلم (ghalam), so predating the much-resented Gorkha conquest).

Being a Californian, to me Ipomea batatas was either a ‘sweet potato’ or a ‘yam’ – I had no English word to refer to Dioscorea spp. tubers. English language dictionaries confirmed this: although ‘yam’ should refer to Dioscorea tubers or plants, for North Americans, ‘yam’ was an orange-fleshed Ipomea batatas and a ‘sweet potato’ was one with white flesh. That was news to me: I had never encountered either with anything other than orange flesh. Since we’re reading Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s The Yearling at night just now, I’m hoping among its other intricate descriptions of animals and crops she’ll let slip a hint of whether the Baxter grew and ate white or orange Ipomea…but I’m getting distracted here.

I trundled down to our local Asian shop on King St., by a little bit worried that I would get the wrong thing.

When I got there, this is what I saw (with apologies for quick iPhone shots and messy stitching):


From left to right, what you are seeing are the roots of
Ipomea batatas, Manihot esculenta, Dioscorea spp., and Colocasia esculenta.

Of course, I had no idea what word they would use to refer to ही so I just pointed, and that’s when it got interesting. Given that the staff at City Spice, who are a mix of Scots, Bangladeshi and sometimes also Nepali, need to sell this range of tubers in English (or Scots) to folk from Scotland, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, they have unambiguous words for each. For them, what you have here are:
Sweet potato, cassava, yam, and taro.

The shopkeeper confirmed that a significant number of customers used the word ‘yam’ to refer to Ipomea batatas and he thought they were mostly North American.

I bought my ‘yam’, after a long conversation about names for these, trotted home, and wrote the survey. It seemed to me that migration and changing foodways might well be driving a change in how people distinguished these roots. It made sense that the proprietors of shops that sourced and sold foods to a wide range of migrant populations would need to have clear distinctions, but would that also apply in urban centres elsewhere as global cuisines began to spread? I assumed that the sorts of people who would answer the survey—because I publicized it through my own social networks—would be unusually mobile, highly educated, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and have a wide exposure to different foods. Would there be a clear consensus?


To begin with, I had only 9 responses. To those of you that saw my pleas to do the survey and moved on, well, fine. I guess I shall simply have to write more appealing surveys. I was able to follow up with a handful of those responses. Here’s a brief summary:

1. One respondent had never encountered ‘yam’ at all, whether as food or as commodity, and before the survey had suspected it was a fruit.
2. Three of the respondents distinguished between ‘yam’ and Ipomea batatas; two identified it as Dioscorea, and one was sure that it was not a ‘sweet potato’.
3. Two respondents said that ‘yam’ was a sweet potato or a variety of sweet potato.
4. While I had hoped to pick up further distinctions through asking ‘What other tubers are like yams’, this didn’t work the way I had expected. Seven respondents, including some who said yams were sweet potatoes, listed sweet potatoes among tubers like yams. One person used this answer to record their confusion as to whether a yam was a sweet potato; another used the ‘when you last ate a yam’ question to do the same.
5. Three respondents distinguished yams by country of origin, and two also by similarity to some other tuber. Responses included (a) ‘Old World version of American sweet potato’; (b) ‘South American tuber’; (c) ‘potato-like tuber of African origin’.
6. Almost everyone saw their yams in supermarkets. One person saw theirs in a CSA delivery box.

7.Three respondents had cooked their own; two of these identified it as Dioscorea and one as Ipomea batatas and all were confident of their answers.

8. Of the remaining six respondents, four had been fed by a relative or friend and were less sure of their answers. One had eaten it in an Indian restaurant, and was sure it was not a sweet potato.

Just from this, it is clear that among the respondents there is still a division in the use of the term between kind-of-Ipomea and Dioscorea. Three answers were markedly confident, but for the rest, just asking these questions exposes respondents to considerable doubt as to their answers.

In one response where I was able to ask further questions, it became clear that the respondent had learned what a ‘yam’ was through playing Farmville, on Facebook—and thus although they were not from North America, had internalised ‘yam’ as a kind-of-Ipomea through virtual agriculture (!).

Without a much larger response pool and a more carefully crafted survey, not much can be done; but I suspect as a result of this exercise that there are two trends at work. One is, as I suggested above, the movement of foodways through migration and globalisation. The other—which I didn’t expect—is the possibility for unfamiliar terms to acquire a firmly held definition through internet or mass media socialisation wholly divorced from the actual crop or food item.

However, if anyone does care to pick this project up, I propose that seeking changes in just the English terminology would be comparatively unrevealing. Given that the hard work of constructing immigrant foodways often happens in retail transactions at ‘Asian shops’ (where I often meet as many African cooks as I do South or East Asian) it would make sense to look for changes in several languages where those languages are the lingua franca of shopkeeper or hotelier networks, such as Cantonese, Punjabi, Bengali, or Spanish. In each of these communities there will have to be adjustments to a wider inventory of food types as well as a complex clientele; will they move in parallel within each major urban region?

(With thanks to those of you who responded, and thanks to the kind staff at City Spice Shop.)

Broad writing

Here’s a piece in Seed Magzine that sweeps across lots of developments in the field, including Maffi, Holling, the Barcelona conference and a raft of other topics.

A cup of tea.

There are very few people out there that I specially want to meet. Talking to ordinary folk on the bus or the beach is enough. When I hear an interview with Professor X on the radio, or read a posting by Joe Bloggs, I am glad to know them that much, but only rarely think, I’d like to meet you.

I regret never having met John Cage. I have no idea what I would have said to him, but every report I have ever read suggests he was wonderfully easy to talk with, a man with no pretension or prejudice. His writings, films, and recordings are deeply inspiring and I regard him as an unintentionally significant figure in West Coast Buddhism—although Simon Wickham-Smith and I disagree over his ‘place’ in Zen.

Here are some available resources on the net:

Ubuweb’s Cage sections: film, sound, historical. Recently they have also put up a long film.

There is a mailing list for Cage studies, called Silence-L.

It’s also a good thing to celebrate a Cage Day in any year when it is possible. On this day, a group of people agree to use a toolkit for chance determinations that will guide their actions for that day – so, for example, one might use avispexy (assuming there were birds to be seen) to guide which direction one travelled, how far, and by what means; then again to decide what one did en route or on arrival (sing, dance, write, interview, sit quietly &c.).


I’ve been exploring Second Life for a teaching project at Aberdeen. There are a staggering number of good and helpful people and resources out there, and it would be immoral not to record them as I encounter them.

This is a very thoughtful essay by Diane Carr of the London Knowledge Lab on adapting to Second Life as a teaching environment.

NPRIL (see the blogroll o’er yonder) is a wonderful demonstration of what new things a virtual environment can offer.

Sadly, I have not yet encountered a sustained critique, in the vein of political ecology, of Second Life. The underlying trans-Ayn-Randy capitalism is depressing in the extreme: I know of no way to link, say, a farmers’ co-operative to economic practices within Second Life. It’s funny how the internet community has, as one of its underlying social behaviours, the assumption that everything should be a commodity. Taussig would be thrilled.

Subversion, Conversion and so forth:

I’m on the train home after an intense conference on using anthropological and design tools to thwart planned obsolescence.

Another view of the conference used ThoughtMesh to build a picture based on the abstracts, and yet another was Daria Loi’s beautifully designed response, but neither of those is online yet. There were a number of good sessions and a few extraordinary papers and discussions. Precisely because it was a strongly interdisciplinary conference there were places where I lost the thread (and David Turnbull wants me to think about threads very carefully). I hope other views of the conference emerge that help make sense of it.

One of the simplest rewards for me was seeing projects that succeeded. I worked with lots of people and collectivities through the 80s and 90s to wrest control of ICT from defence and financial networks and give it to those people whom it usually served to disenfranchise. Jerome Lewis gave an understated presentation (here’s the paper) on icon-based PDAs for non-literate Congo Basin hunter-gathers that enabled them to negotiate with multinational logging interests and even to record illegal logging. The image of three young Mbengele gathered around a elderly man, all working together as they use the tool to protect the forest: perhaps not revolutionary, but it gives hope.

Some of these successes were also theoretically subtle. Jim Enote talked about the work that A:shiwi and the Cambridge Museum are doing together began with Jim talking about how much of the inventory being catalogued was set aside, not for public viewing. When he came to talk about the A:shiwi mapping project in Zuni, one of the initial decisions was which places and names not to put on the map. Marilyn Strathern, in her opening remarks, contrasted ICT networks to kinship networks. This useful tool was reused several times during the conference.

  • Resistance to neo-liberal flattening commodifying ‘openness’ that treats all records as equal and all nodes as the same
  • Attending to locality
  • Kinship-like networks rather than ethernet-like networks
  • Noncoherence (a useful notion introduced by Helen Verran : not incoherence, which is simply a species of coherence, but purposeful recognition of incommensurability, diversity, and resistance to global systematicization. See this article by John Law.)

…these topics resurfaced and were reworked and tossed back into the pot.

The thing/use or material/social divide resurfaced over and over again, and when overtly noticed it was refused. So too, the model of ICT as a (neutral) technology providing (free) access to (passive, external) information (whether that access is being mobilized by producers, consumers or prosumers (!)) was made visible and criticized. The best criticisms of the social/material or access-to-content models were not the discursive ones (like mine); people who really attended to the problem used the mode or style of their presentation to expose and interrogate the problem.

Thus the opening of the conference was a water ritual of connectedness, offered by gkisedtanamoogk, was offered through iChat from John Ippolito and Joline Blais’ home in Maine. He chose water as a ritual block in order to attend to the distance and its connectedness. Drinking water at the end of his ritual he remarked that even though we could not actually drink the water with him, it would eventually come to us. In the background of the iChat window people moved around, noises emerged and people in our room wondered if the sounds were here, there, intentional, accidental in the best Cageian tradition. That accidentality took the apparently controlled iChat sociotechnical frame and tore it open. Participants at both ends of the pipe did not know whether they were participants, did not know where noises were coming from, in exactly the same way that a shared space is defined by shared environmental uncertainties.

Laura Watts performed her presentation—well, all presentations are performances, aren’t they—but she read a poem in four parts against the slides moving by themselves. Given the locality and intimacy of the Orkney places and communities she was describing it worked very well. As she pointed out later, there’s an active poetry writing community in Orkney.

It’s also true, though, that we all listened. Various members of the conference, especially when talking as or about First Peoples, had emphasized the importance of respect. The organizers regretted that gkisedtanamoogk had not been able to come and actually begin the conference as a talking circle; but perhaps because there was heaps of good will, or because James and Lee took a huge risk in opening the conference with gkisedtanamoogk’s ritual, or perhaps because many of us had learned enough to know when respect is appropriate, we listened to Laura’s performed piece with the same care as we did the more traditionally delivered presentations.

When gkisedtanamoogk closed the conference with a ritual—a travelling song, he said—that really was the end of the conference. There was no felt need for an additional frame closure, a ‘ok now we’re turning the computer off and thank you’. We all thanked each other, including gkisedtanamoogk and that was the end. In the same way people stood up from their seats and fuffled their papers, the iChat link was turned off and Joline and gkisedtanamoogk left the conference through the dimming screen.

What, so what, what for?

I discover with delight that my stated purpose here has aroused comment – over at Jinajik I’ve been chided for an apparent attack of despair. Now, Jinajik himself should know better than to question the relevance of ethnoecology to Newar Buddhism. As I will argue in Heidelberg in May, there are important and very deep connections between the landscape of Newar Vajrayāna and its praxis. The goad makes sense, though, and with apologies to him for using it as an excuse I will try to justify recent developments in my research. In short, both my recent criticisms of certain, but not all, conservative strands in Newar Vajrayāna and my return to work in ethnobiology are nothing more than owning up to the responsibilities of my particular ethical predicament.

Here in Aberdeen we’re supervising undergraduate and postgraduate research on Himalayan Buddhism, including ‘high’ Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhism, as well as lived Gurung, Ladakhi, Tamang or Newar Buddhism. I use ethnographic and textual sources to make it abundantly clear to the students here, and anyone else who will listen, that Newar Vajrayāna is alive, kicking, and must be accorded equal status as a distinctive type of Buddhism if we are to understand Vajrayāna. In research, I’m working on a series of articles, under the ‘Shared Shrines’ rubric spearheaded by Glenn Bowman at Kent, on the way in which Pharping Newars manage the refusal, by recently arrived Tibetans, to ‘do’ inclusive religion – why they reject ‘polytropy’ as defined by Carrithers; and still plodding on with work on Mahāyāna texts used in Newar Vajrayāna. Other lines of research—on ritualized literacy, on the regional identity of 7th-13th century Himalayan Buddhism, on trade in animal and plant materials—all derive from Newar material put into comparison or relation with neighbouring societies.

So when I declare myself to be working on Anthropology of Religion, things Himalayan, and ethnobiology I certainly don’t mean that I’ve abandoned work on Newar Vajrayāna. Fieldwork in that community is frustrating, certainly; and along with others (Todd Lewis in the 1998 Conference on the Preservation of the Buddhist Culture of Nepal Mandala; Rev. Takaoka in the 2004 conference of the same name) I have publicly deplored a particular conservative strain in Newar Vajrayāna. (For the curious, that deploration is in a 2007 issue of Matinā.). As a practising Buddhist with insider/outsider relations to the Newar Vajrayāna tradition, I deeply regret the hidebound failure of some of the Newar Vajrācāryas to leave behind the brutalities of caste, gender and race. As an anthropologist and historian of Newar Buddhism, those same prejudices are historical features of Newar society which ‘make sense’, but as a Buddhist scholar in conversation with the Newar Vajrayāna tradition it’s my moral duty to reject those attitudes.

There are problems in the Western academy as well. Where Jinajik worries about me, I grumble about the AAR panel on Tibetan and Himalayan Religions or the mission statement of the Aris Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies – neither of which appeared to notice that the Himalayas is much, much bigger and more complex than ‘Tibet’. To that end Lauren Leve, may Jñānaḍakiṇī magically multiply her research funding!, has roped several of us into a panel at the AAR asking just why the North American academy seems so very determined to marginalize Newar Buddhism as a domain of enquiry.

On a different front, some Western scholars of Newar Buddhism have hung on to the rather Victorian idea that the problem is the Vajrayāna of it. Thus studies of Newar Theravāda often contain explicit or implicit comparisons of the Buddhist-ness of Newar Theravāda versus the Vajrayāna: the Theravāda is more egalitarian, a purer form of Buddhism, what have you. This seems to me a tragic failure of scholarship, insider, outsider or otherwise.

But let me get back to the question: why ethnobiology in particular? Four reasons, at least for now:

(1) Because it’s a return to a beloved domain of research: I was a ‘biologist’ playing with bones and learning to graft long before I was an ‘anthropologist’, ‘Himalayan specialist’ or even, so far as I understood the label, ‘Buddhist’. One of the privileges of working at a research university is, unsurprisingly, having the freedom to widen one’s research—and here I am retrieving an interest I had to suppress in order to get through writitng the DPhil, publishing the book and landing a proper job.
(2) It’s a natural development of my long involvement with Engaged Buddhism. When Franz Metcalf asked me why I was working on ethnobiology I cheerfully borrowed the title of his own book as an explanation. Would a Buddha these days teach Buddhism in a university? Somehow I think that’s just asking to be swallowed whole by the necessary hypocrisy of language – just the sort of thing Nāgārjuna meant by prapañca — and since I do actually teach Buddhism in a university, and mutter vows about somehow becoming a Buddha some æon, then it seems to me necessary to do find a way to do engaged research as part of a life teaching Buddhism—just as it seems to me necessary to refuse the automobile, to oppose wars, and all those other other obvious decisions.
(3) Because an anthropology which refuses to draw lines between human society and the wider community of which it is part is the first step towards a properly Buddhist anthropology.
(4) Actually, you can’t possibly understand Newar religion at all without a clear understanding of how it is situated in its ecology and its landscape. Where else are swifts considered gods? So it’s not despair—it’s delight.

Forward in all directions

While I strongly doubt anyone actually reads this blog, I’ve re-loaded lots of old entries that got lost as a way of marking time today. They date back to March 2007.

I admit, I thought twice—well, seven or eight times—before re/committing to the GoogleBorg. I may yet find another home for all this; the very principle of inserting advertising into your ordinary socialization, as happens on Google searches or Facebook, disgusts me. It is not enough to commodify our own internal, and perfectly ordinary, sufferings and call them neuroses in order to extract payment for their remedy (Freud the bourgeois capitalist!); now our own ‘face’ in cyberspace has been colonized by adverts. But for now there is now choice; I can’t afford to pay for yet another subscription cyber-service.

Do we pay to have a face? Do we subscribe to our clothing? To be able to speak? But we pay for premium online presence, for programming tools, for ringtones. Late capitalism indeed. FOSS it all! Though even that has infelicities

It’s been a few months since I was at the British Library. They’ve instituted a bag search at the door. Given the recent brouhaha over British Transport police searching Scottish of some other sort, I began to wonder if the BL was being viewed as a target or as a hotbed of dissension. It could go either way, really; the BL of necessity employs a wonderful range of people – over lunch I had a lively conversation with Ramesh Dhungel about the Hodgson archives in Nepali and heard the usual two dozen languages around me in the Africa and Asia reading room. So is it the priceless holdings of the BL, or the suspicious foreigners that hang around there? At this point I am so confused and ashamed by the anti-terrorism mania that I cannot guess.

Now, my university—Aberdeen—has developed a habit of hiring ex-BL staff to major appointments – both the new head of IT and the new head of the library are ex-BL people. Hmm. I will have to watch the security policy at the new library verrrry carefuly indeed.

Frustrating then, to find that of all the books and articles I needed, almost none of them were available, even at the BL!. If anyone out there has issues of Maha Bodhi, the journal of the Maha Bodhi society, from 1955-65, do please let me know. Otherwise I will have to go begging for funds to buy them on microfilm.