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Dangerous Laughter: Egalitarianism And The Batek Of Peninsular Malaysia
Tuesday, May 28, 2019 - 19:00
In the Batek’s forest, laughter and mockery are often subject to taboo, and inappropriate laughter or mockery can cause storms, madness, ill-health, or even death. However, although these taboos are viewed and described with utmost seriousness, people also find great pleasure in laughing together and making jokes. In fact, this pleasure is often intensified when the laughter or joke is forbidden and risks catastrophe. This sets up a dynamic whereby it is largely up to individuals whether they choose to follow the taboos, or to ignore them and succumb to the pleasure of sharing in subversive laughter. Speaking to debates on power and ethics, this paper therefore both outlines the Batek’s laughter taboos, and asks how managing the conflicting demands of laughter shapes people’s ethical values, particularly in relation to power, authority, and egalitarianism.
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The Hadza foragers of Tanzania, one of the world’s few remaining hunting and gathering populations, are currently experiencing large scale shifts in their ecological, nutritional, and socio-political landscapes. Climate change, increased interaction with aid organizations, heightened participation in ethnotourism, and the expansion of wildlife conservation areas have led to conspicuous changes in their identity, patterns of subsistence, and degree of market integration. Despite a long standing (and ever growing) interest in conducting research among the Hadza, very few data are available on how such changes are impacting subsistence and mobility. Here, I discuss my recent trip to Tanzania where I worked with Hadza community members who acted as data collectors and research informants. We collected baseline information on ecological change, land rights, food and water insecurity, and the implications of sharing an ever-shrinking amount of land with an ever-growing number of people (both from within their community and outside). These data not only act to dispel the myth that foragers remain immune to the products and processes of modernization, but also contextualize contemporary variation in subsistence regimes and highlight the resiliency that foragers exhibit in the face of change.