News & Public Engagement

The latest news, announcements, publications and public engagements from USC's Department of Anthropology faculty, staff & student body. 

Posthuman Folklore by Tok Thompson


Can a monkey own a selfie? Can a chimp use habeas corpus to sue for freedom? Can androids be citizens? Increasingly, such difficult questions have moved from the realm of science fiction into the realm of everyday life, and scholars and laypeople alike are struggling to find ways to grasp new notions of personhood.

Posthuman Folklore is the first work of its kind: both an overview of posthumanism as it applies to folklore studies and an investigation of “vernacular posthumanisms”—the ways in which people are increasingly performing the posthuman. Posthumanism calls for a close investigation of what is meant by the term “human” and a rethinking of this, our most basic ontological category. What, exactly, is human? What, exactly, am I?

There are two main threads of posthumanism: the first dealing with the increasingly slippery slope between “human” and “animal,” and the second dealing with artificial intelligences and the growing cyborg quality of human culture. This work deals with both these threads, seeking to understand the cultural roles of this shifting notion of “human” by centering its investigation into the performances of everyday life.

From funerals for AIBOs, to furries, to ghost stories told by Alexa, people are increasingly engaging with the posthuman in myriad everyday practices, setting the stage for a wholesale rethinking of our humanity. In Posthuman Folklore, author Tok Thompson traces both the philosophies behind these shifts, and the ways in which people increasingly are enacting such ideas to better understand the posthuman experience of contemporary life.

USC Center for Visual Anthropology Launches MVA Collection


The Department of Anthropology is delighted to announce the MVA Collection (, published by Alexander Street in Ethnographic Video Online Vol. IV and streaming via USCLibraries. As part of this volume featuring films from major ethnographic festivals and programs worldwide, the MVA Collection continues a 40-year tradition of ethnographic film production at the University of Southern California, Center for Visual Anthropology.

The MVA Collection launches with 33 thesis films made in the one-year MA in Visual Anthropology program between 2010 and 2017, with plans to add new films regularly. Researched and produced in contemporary, multicultural contexts—primarily in and around Los Angeles—these short documentaries engage viewers in timely topics from popular culture (videogames, graffiti art, K-pop) to religious practice, gender fluidity, ethnic identity, and transnational diasporas. All 20 to 30 minutes in length, these films are ideal for classroom use and available online to students who miss class screenings.

MVA thesis films have screened in major ethnographic film festivals (SVA, RAI) and won wider recognition with MVA graduates garnering screenings, fellowships and sponsorship from the International Documentary Association and Sundance Institute | YouTube New Voices Lab, among others. We are excited to bring this rich body of contemporary ethnographic cinema to students and faculty at institutions around the world.

Closer to home, we are eager for USC faculty to use these works of original student research in their teaching and are available to suggest readings or contact MVA filmmakers for guest speaking engagements. Please contact Jennifer Cool ( with inquiries about the MVA Collection.

Why seeing marginalized communities in pop culture matters


Anthropologist, playwright and author of a new book on race and the arts, Dorinne Kondo of USC Dornsife, Department of Anthropology, weighs in on why representation is vital:

"Identities are formed by watching sports, theatre, TV, and YouTube; by playing video games, dancing, and listening to music. Those are more than just forms of entertainment, they stage “visions of possibility” for what and who we can become. Because marginalized populations have fewer role models in the workplace and society in general, we need more expansive and generous visions of possibility that tell stories of people from different races, genders, sexualities, classes, abilities, cultures. Everyone should have the opportunity to be recognized as fully human."

Kondo theorizes the racialized structures of inequality that pervade theatre and the arts in her latest book, Worldmaking: Race, Performance and the Work of Creativitypublished by Duke University Press.

Mits Kataoka, Communications Designer, New Media Visionary


Discover Nikkei, a project of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), recently published a two-part profile of communications designer, Mitsuru “Mits” Kataoka by faculty member Jennifer Cool. Although new media technologies are most closely associated with the Internet and Silicon Valley, Cool, a media anthropologist, is documenting pioneering electronic media work done in Southern California in the 1970s. Decades before YouTube and smartphones—and fifteen years before the MIT Media Lab opened—Kataoka, founded the first video research laboratory for art and design at UCLA. Bringing her research into the classroom, Cool invited Matthew Purifoy (MVA 2018), then a student in the Masters program in Visual Anthropology, to videotape an interview with Kataoka. Clips from the interview are archived on the Discover Nikkei site: they tell of Kataoka’s long career as a designer and influential teacher of interactive media; and of his experience during World War II when, as a second-grader, he and his family, together with approximately 112,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, were evicted from the West Coast and incarcerated at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming.

Tok Thompson on "Why believing in ghosts can make you a better person"


Originally published by The Conversation, Tok Thompson (Associate Professor (Teaching) of Anthropology) suggests that belief in the realm of the dead and ghosts can help instruct us in important lessons on how to lead moral lives.

Americans might love Cinco de Mayo, but few know what they’re celebrating


Lecturer of Anthropology, Kirby Farah, describes the origins of how and why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the United States, in this revealing article from The Conversation.

Nicole Miyahara expands her MVA thesis with “The Making of a King”


As professor Jennifer Cool drew the blinds on a full house, the Anthropology Department's conference room darkened and those in attendance on this evening in mid-April settled in to see a work-in-progress from ethnographic filmmaker and MA in Visual Anthropology (MVA) alumna, Nicole Miyahara (MVA 2013). With two successful crowd-funding campaigns, Miyahara has expanded her MA thesis film, The Making of a King, into a feature-length documentary, the first alum to do so in MVA program history (so far).

While producing feature films may not be the goal for all MVA students, Miyahara saw that potential from the start: “[the MVA] program prepared me for the rigor and intensity it would take to make a feature.” Exploring the lives of drag kings (or, male illusionists) in Los Angeles, The Making of a King follows these entertainers as they fight for visibility and acceptance, as well as equality within the drag community itself. A fine cut of the film was screened for current undergraduates, MVA students, and faculty to provide constructive feedback on the work-in-progress and engage them in the kind of critical discussion that, as Miyahara recalls, initially shaped her student thesis six years ago.

“Finishing that thesis and having all the feedback I got from people who were really excited about the film and just wanted to learn more – that feedback helped give me the confidence to make a bigger version, in the hopes that I would be able to share [the drag kings] stories more widely,” Miyahara remembers. “I really wanted to make a bigger impact, share the work that I had done and share their stories. So, this was everything. I'm so grateful for this program. This was the start of it all.”

Miyahara’s perseverance in independently producing a feature documentary—along with the richness of her fieldwork and palpable trust of the people whose diverse life stories she brings to the screen—serves as inspiration for the 2019 MVA cohort (the program’s tenth) as they make plans to complete thesis films this summer.

“Nicole has demonstrated what it takes to realize an MVA project's full potential,” says Kayla Sotomil, 2019 MVA candidate. “Through her fortitude and determination, she has achieved something that our cohort can only dream of at this stage. I really admire her dedication to the film and the reverence with which she treats her participants and their community. I was very grateful to be at the screening because it gave me hope for my own MVA project and its possible futures.”

For more information, please connect with The Making of a King on social media. The film can also be found on Instagram and Twitter at @dragkingmovie

Two new chapters on historical archaeology from Dr. Tracie Mayfield


Dr. Tracie Mayfield has recently published chapters in two new edited volumes: Technology and Tradition in Mesoamerica after the Spanish Invasion and Archaeologies of the British in Latin in America.

Both chapters, “Cane and Consumerism: Nineteenth-Century Sugar Growing at Lamanai, Belize” and “From the Canopy to the Caye: Two of Britain’s Colonial Ventures in Nineteenth-Century Belize” look at the daily lives of British colonists, labor populations of Chinese and African descent, and Indigenous groups operating within the Central American colonial-industrial complex.

Of note, Dr. Mayfield’s photograph of the sugar mill at Lamanai, Belize (taken in 2010 during her fieldwork) is featured on the cover of Technology and Tradition in Mesoamerica after the Spanish Invasion.

About the books: Technology and Tradition in Mesoamerica after the Spanish Invasion (Edited by Rani T. Alexander, March 2019) "This impressive volume features the work of archaeologists who systematically explore the material and social consequences of new technological systems introduced after the sixteenth-century Spanish invasion in Mesoamerica. It is the first collection to present case studies that show how both commonplace and capital-intensive technologies were intertwined with indigenous knowledge systems to reshape local, regional, and transoceanic ecologies, commodity chains, and political, social, and religious institutions across Mexico and Central America." (From University of New Mexico Press)

Archaeologies of the British in Latin America (Edited by Charles E. Oser, Jr., 2019) "This volume includes chapters by historical archaeologists engaged in original research examining the role of the British Empire in Latin America. The archaeology of Latin America is today a rapidly expanding field, with new research being accomplished every day. Currently, the vast amount of research is being focused on the Spanish Empire and its agents’ interactions with the region’s indigenous peoples. Spain, however, was not the only international power intent on colonizing and controlling Latin America. The British Empire had a smaller albeit significant role in the cultural history of Latin America. This history constitutes an important piece of the historical story of Latin America.

Archaeologies of the British in Latin America presents the results of original research and begins a dialogue about the archaeology of the British Empire in Latin America by an international group of archaeological scholars. Fresh insights on the complex history of cultural interaction in one of the world’s most important regions are included. It will be of interest to historical archaeologists, Mesoamerican archaeologists engaged in pre-contact research, Latin American and global historians, Latin American anthropologists, material culture specialists, cultural geographers, and others interested in the cultural history of colonialism in general and in Latin America in particular." (From Springer International Publishing)

Oscars 2019: Beyond the stats, why diversity matters


USC Department of Anthropology professor and author of Worldmaking: Race, Performance and the Work of Creativity, Dorinne Kondo reflects on identity-making at the box office, and why diversity matters with this year's Oscar nominees.

Constructing a kingdom: Architectural strategies and the nature of leadership at Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico


Kirby Farah (Archaeology) explores the diverse motivations, limitations, and political strategies that informed the architectural decisions made by the Postclassic (ad 900–1521) leaders of Xaltocan, Mexico. “In the early 13th century—a period of political florescence at Xaltocan—local leaders embarked on an ambitious building program that included the construction of a monumental adobe platform which served as a base to the residential structures of Xaltocan’s leaders. This paper investigates the significance of adobe bricks as a construction medium and outlines the various economic, social, and political factors that influenced the architectural decisions of Xaltocan’s leaders. Analysis of these factors reveals the diverse strategies employed by Xaltocan’s leaders to establish their legitimacy among their regional peers, assert their political dominance over their constituents, and foster a sense of unity within their home community.” From her article, "Constructing a kingdom: Architectural strategies and the nature of leadership at Postclassic Xaltocan, Mexico."

Why the Present Matters: The Importance of Community Outreach and Public Engagement in Archaeology


Published by Anthropology Now, Tracie Mayfield reflects on the importance of community engagement as it relates to archaeology; “Why the Present Matters: The Importance of Community Outreach and Public Engagement in Archaeology.”

From her article: “The academic and personal outcomes of community engagement and public outreach are always worth the time and effort. Archaeologists must get out, lean in and listen to what people have to say. There are many ways to begin the process of engaging with the public, such as going out to restaurants, shopping near the site, making friends at local bars and reaching out to school teachers and administrators. Archaeologists must always be ready to stop and talk to anyone who visits the site and must prepare their students to do the same. Our job is two-fold: study the site’s past and understand what that past means to the people who still experience that same landscape in present times.”

From Crystal Skulls to the Caste War: Intersections of Tourism, Archaeology and Heritage in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico


Published by Anthropology Now, Kirby Farah and Kenneth Seligson's article, "From Crystal Skulls to the Caste War: Intersections of Tourism, Archaeology and Heritage in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico," dicusses the complex history of the Maya beyond the parameters set forth by the reigion's tourism industry.

From their article: "The history of the Maya is complex and extends far beyond the parameters set forth by tourism. However, because the tourist industry caters almost exclusively to international expectations, narratives or histories that run counter to the marketable Maya archetype have been pushed aside or hidden. The onus to generate knowledge about other Maya histories falls, at least partially, to archaeologists who work in the region. The production of archaeological knowledge influences how archaeological sites as artifacts of heritage are reconstructed and marketed to the public. Consciously or not, archaeologists are in positions of power and play an important part in producing knowledge about indigenous pasts."

Visualizing ethnography in Japan: Chandler Zausner & the hikkikomori


From the American Anthropological Association: "Chandler Zausner is an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, where he is pursuing a double major at The School of Cinematic Arts (media arts and practice, ‘20) and USC Dornsife (visual anthropology, ‘20). He is interested in documenting unique, marginalized, and disenfranchised communities and recently traveled to Japan for his first international research project on hikkikomori, a culture-bound syndrome of extreme social withdrawal. This is Chandler’s reflection on some of the challenges he faced."

The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin


Congratulations to Craig Stanford on his latest book, The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin.

From Harvard University Press: "Recent discoveries about wild chimpanzees have dramatically reshaped our understanding of these great apes and their kinship with humans. We now know that chimpanzees not only have genomes similar to our own but also plot political coups, wage wars over territory, pass on cultural traditions to younger generations, and ruthlessly strategize for resources, including sexual partners."

"In The New Chimpanzee, Craig Stanford challenges us to let apes guide our inquiry into what it means to be human. With wit and lucidity, Stanford explains what the past two decades of chimpanzee field research has taught us about the origins of human social behavior, the nature of aggression and communication, and the divergence of humans and apes from a common ancestor. Drawing on his extensive observations of chimpanzee behavior and social dynamics, Stanford adds to our knowledge of chimpanzees’ political intelligence, sexual power plays, violent ambition, cultural diversity, and adaptability."

"The New Chimpanzee portrays a complex and even more humanlike ape than the one Jane Goodall popularized more than a half century ago. It also sounds an urgent call for the protection of our nearest relatives at a moment when their survival is at risk."

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