Structure and Agency in Starbucks

Sierra is a recent graduate of our B.A. program with a double major in Anthropology and Religious Studies and a minor in Spanish, and she plans to continue working with us to pursue an M.A. in the Fall. She has previously produced independent research on cemetery artwork and the category of myth at the University of Alabama and worked as a research assistant for a variety of groups and projects at UA during her undergraduate career.

Recently, I was denied closure at a Starbucks drive-thru when a specific group, working within the structures of society, interrupted my daily caffeine ritual. As my 1997 butter-colored vehicle creaked to the pick up window, the hand that usually supplied me with my beverage was instead holding a bright card with bold turquoise lettering that read “Something extra to show you God loves you.” Operating within the structures that favor standard American English, my barista briefly explained my purchase had been taken on by a third party as my drink mechanically moved from their hand to my cup holder and I pulled away. Continue reading

Messing Up at Starbucks, or the Ritual Order of Choice

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I’m a regular customer at Starbucks. Several times a week, I walk into one, order a drink, wait for it, say thank you, and walk out. I’m sure many of you do the same thing pretty often, if not every day, without even thinking about it.

But I once failed miserably at this banal procedure. It was my first year in the US and I had just arrived from Japan, so many things were still new to me. But Starbucks was definitely not new. I had spent so many hours there studying as an undergraduate student in Japan that it felt like my habitat, even though I was now in Boston. I walked into one store and everything looked familiar – the menu, employees’ uniform, and interior.

“What would you like, ma’am?” It was my turn to order. “Café misto, please?” I answered (or something of the sort). Then the employee – a nice young woman – said something that I had never heard before: “holetoopercetskimhaffanhafforsoy.” Continue reading

Agency, Structure, and the Myth of the Immaculate Perception

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National Public Radio on the weekend played a story (an interview with Neal Gabler, the author of an Atlantic article on the same topic) about how hard many in the US have it economically. Continue reading

On The Passive Voice and Nonexistent Agency

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Thomas J. Whitley is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can read more of his work on his blog and you can follow him on Twitter for the daily minutiae of his life @thomaswhitley.

“C.I.A. Funds Found Their Way Into Al Qaeda Coffers” — so read the New York Times notification I received Saturday. The circumlocution was amusing. “Found their way” — or “ended up” as this NYT article puts it — is about as neutral a way of stating this as possible. The article is careful not to assign blame in its telling of how the money from the C.I.A. was used to pay off Al Qaeda in 2010. Continue reading

“A Reluctance to Put the Religious Label”

Picture 2Did you hear about the White House summit this past week? It was in the news a fair bit and was on “countering violent extremism” — not just those attributed to Muslims but, because such adjectives as Islamic or Jihadist are often glued pretty tightly, at least in some North American and European media and politics, to the words violence or terrorism, that angle on the event has received a lot of attention. Continue reading

Critical Thinking with Izzy, Episode 1: Structure and Agency

IzzyAnyone who is a virtual or actual friend of mine knows that we have a dog, Izzy — a 7 year old boxer that we’ve had for 6 years. (Ok, let’s just be honest: she has us.) Why? Coz I’ve posted a pick or two of her over the years.

She’s cute, what can I say?

Last night, seated in the living room, it occurred to me what a great illustration she provides of how we can talk about structure — as in social structure — and agency, and doing so in a way that doesn’t emphasize the one to the exclusion of the other, as if we are all mindlessly determined by forces larger than ourselves, on the one hand, or, on the other, as if we are all following our bliss and freely inventing ourselves every moment of the day. For it is surely somewhere in the middle, no? As I’ve said on plenty of other occasions, none of us invented the grammar that was pounded into us as children but, in the midst of using it, we can tweak it too — ain’t that right? And if we’re successful in the tweaking, then those who come after us will think that’s just one more of the rules they ought to be following.

But back to Izzy…

Continue reading

Info, Info Everywhere, But Which of it to Drink?

About a week ago, a friend at Ursinus College, in Pennsylvania, brought to my attention an online article written by his colleague in their Department of Politics and International Relations, about enrolling in a MOOC (massive open online course) to see what all the fuss was about. You may have heard about these courses–hosted by companies, such as Coursera, that have entered into agreements with schools, they provide the content for courses at some of the country’s leading universities–for free. (Fearing that they were behind this curve was among the apparent reasons why the University’s of Virginia’s Board of Visitors ousted–temporarily–their President this past summer.) Continue reading