Archive for the Research Category

Calculating Culture

Posted in First Encounters, NOLA, Research with tags , , , , , , on February 1, 2010 by lexis2praxis

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here.  A lot has happened, both in regard to the progress of my research and life in New Orleans.  I’ve been wondering how best to approach this blog: there are already so many great NOLA bloggers out there.  While I still want to blog about New Orleans as an engineered landscape, and about the use of levees and walls as the primary means of flood protection, nothing that happens here – culturally speaking – is removed from that.  And given the fact that I’ve learned that the degree to which New Orleans is protected is nearly entirely based on the calculation of economic assets, I think it’s important to write about what it’s like to live here.  Is there something to be said for protecting New Orleans because it is – economic assets aside – New Orleans?  In other words – is it really valuable, in a countable way, as a “cultural wetlands”?

So I will blog about the “culture” of New Orleans, an important component of which, of course, is engineering; and what it’s like to live with walls and water.

Maybe I’m just adding, and preaching, to the choir, but the outsider’s voice is different.  I’ve been practically all over the United States and several other countries, so I have some basis for comparison in terms of personal experience.  A recent transplant to New Orleans, I can speak to the way the place can capture you.  I also have no qualms about how this will “bias” my research.  All research is biased; all results are products of interactions and complex histories.  Plus, the process of study – learning – is really just allowing oneself to be changed.

On the Relative Purity of Dirt

Posted in Research, Technologies with tags , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by lexis2praxis

There’s a great deal of talk about debris found in levees along Lake Pontchartrain.

The skinny is this: Levees are made of dirt.  Prior to Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers made some levees larger by adding additional dirt.  Back then, it is said, contractors were told to use what they call the “visual inspection” method.  This is the technical term for “eyeballing”.  Contractors were required to look at the dirt they were using to build levees and make judgment calls about how much debris was there.  If they saw debris, they were supposed to remove it.  The reason for this is that levees require a type of clay-based soil that falls within certain requirements in terms of liquid content, plasticity, and consistency.  Too much debris can break up the tensile strength of the soil.

The problem is, dump trucks carry tons of dirt to a site when building a levee.  Just eyeballing, one can’t possibly see all the chunks of concrete and bricks (or as one informant put it, “kitchen sinks and everything”) inside the dirt.  Post-Katrina requirements on levee testing revealed that debris content exceeded restrictions in these locations.  Now, all dirt must be formally tested for debris content; the Corps says it is only using trusted borrow sites (a borrow pit is where they get their dirt); and the compromised portions of levee are being replaced.

How Should Recovery Funds Be Used?

Posted in Research, Technologies with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2009 by lexis2praxis

Money to modernize ports could come from unused federal Katrina-recovery funds.

What is a Levee? (Part 1)

Posted in Research, Technologies with tags , , , , on November 9, 2009 by lexis2praxis

The London Avenue canal levee and floodwall

An excerpt from an academic paper (for a list of the references used, please contact me):

Levee [French levée, from Old French levee, from feminine past participle of lever, to raise; see lever.]

The primary meaning of levee, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a reception held by a person of distinction on rising from bed”.  This is a custom still practiced in Canada, where it is a general New Year’s celebration, a social affair in which people recount the past year and anticipate the next one.  The use of the term to describe a social event originates with the Levée du Soleil, the Rising of the Sun, a custom of King Louis XIV (1643-1715).  Apparently the King was in the habit of receiving male subjects in his bedchamber after waking, a custom that was then passed down to subsequent monarchs and later, heads of state and other leaders.  These gatherings were long restricted to men until recently, and now includes women and children in most cases.

The secondary meaning for levee is, perhaps, no longer secondary since Hurricane Katrina, which propelled the term into media and international conversation.  According to Merriam-Webster a levee is “an embankment for preventing flooding, a river landing place, a continuous dike or ridge (as of earth) for confining the irrigation areas of land”.  Petroski defines it as a “natural or artificial slope or wall to prevent flooding of the land behind it … often parallel to the course of a river or the coast” (Petroski 2006:7). A few people (outside of the Delta, of course) have told me that they don’t really know what a levee looks like, and can’t really imagine one.  Of course, people who live with and depend on delta engineering know all about them; in fact, the technology as well as the word entered the U.S. through the Mississippi River delta. Continue reading

On the Anthropology of Levees

Posted in First Encounters, Research, Technologies with tags , , , on October 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

I’ve been struggling with how to talk about my research, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to post questions that people ask me, and respond to them here.  One of the most common ones I get is, “But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

This usually follows the question, “What are you doing in New Orleans?”  I answer something like, “I’m studying the reconstruction of the levees.  I’m looking at the history of the flood protection system, what’s involved in building levees, and the politics around all of that.”

“But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

An anthropology 101 lesson would introduce the fact that there are four main subfields in anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural or sociocultural anthropology.  After that, it’s easy to say that anthropologists are really able to study just about anything.  But that doesn’t answer the question very well.  Once I establish that I’m in the social science part of things, it remains to be explained why I’m interested in levees.

Recently I told a friend, “Levees are social.  They seem like passive, benign, even benevolent mounds of earth.  But like anything else, they are shaped by histories, and by controversy, and are political.  When they break, or when people argue about them, they become social.”  And then I said something about how that’s all related to larger themes like the local, and maybe the American, relationship between people, technology, and the environment or what’s called “natural”.

So my friend said, “Does that mean you’re comparing how people used to build levees with how they’re building them now?”  I’m not sure where that came from; maybe he thought anthropologists always focus on the past.  I’m not sure.  I tried to explain that I’m basically living in New Orleans, recording how levees are important and social by doing archival research, reading the news, talking with people, and so on, and how all of this is revealing a lot about what the competing ideas are about the city, what the city should be, whether it should be protected from floods, what protection means, and so on.  I must have gotten somewhere with him because then he asked, “How is what you’re doing different from sociology?”

There’s debate about whether there are any real differences between sociology and anthropology at this point.  Anthropology these days is usually less location-based and more topic-based, and there is some movements toward such things as experimental ethnographies, multi-sited ethnographies, and so forth.  But I still think that anthropology is in some ways unique, at least historically, although this doesn’t mean that sociologists can’t be more anthropological and vice versa.  I think that we’re more likely to use a particular methodological strategy, that is ethnography, and rely more heavily on qualitative research, while quantitative and survey-based approaches are more common in sociology.  This is a very blurry distinction, and it is certainly possible to use all kinds of methodologies in either field, but I think it’s still an important one.  Anthropologists often talk about things a little differently than sociologists do, and so we tend to get at different aspects of things in different ways.

What that means for me is that as an anthropologist, I’m always working.  Every time I go out to a coffee shop, or a club, or buy groceries, I’m participating and observing and “generating data” — to borrow a phrase from Professor Charles Harrington, who likes to emphasize that since all “data” are products of an interaction between the ethnographer and the ethnographed, we actually “generate” data rather than “gather” them, meaning that the data weren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the taking before the ethnographer got there.

My ears perk up especially when I hear something about levees, or floodwalls, or engineering, or Katrina, or “events”, and various other “keywords”, and in daily life here, learning about the city and viewing its art and movies and so on, I record notes about values and practices that are expressed on a daily basis in this engineered and waterlogged landscape.  Of course, I interview people and read books and look at the archives and such, but so much can be learned just by living here.  Anthropologists have made a profession out of the richness of everyday life, where an event like Katrina — and the breaking of the levees — continues to live long after the deluge itself.

Mission Statement

Posted in Research with tags , on August 31, 2008 by lexis2praxis

I am among those anthropologists interested in how social science can be at once accessible to, and engaged with, the public.  This blog will serve as

1) a place of dialogue about Katrina, the levees, the rebuilding effort in New Orleans, and related matters

2) a place where I can share excerpts from interviews (confidentially, of course) and field notes

3) a resource of information for readers

4) an ongoing ethnographic and public anthropology project