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Are we Neandermans or Neandumans?

12 April, 2014

Neanderthal DNAScience and Nature have just published research that supports a hypothesis about Neanderthal-human hybridisation that I published with Professor Roger Valentine Short in 2011. The recent popularity of the hybridisation theory was also reported in Nature newsFox News, and National Public Radio.

I was first inspired to think deeply about patterns of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans while teaching Human Evolution and Diversity at Macquarie University in 2010. I approached Roger Short from Melbourne University with some of my ideas and we ended up writing a paper together. Famous for his work on elephants, Roger has also worked on hybridising camels and lamas. His work on Haldane’s law was a crucial part to building our Neanderthal-human hybridisation hypothesis.

Africans do not have Neanderthal ancestry. Interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans occurred as some groups migrated outside Africa between 80,000 years and 50,000 years ago. Looking at experimental studies of nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA from both humans and Neanderthals, Roger Short and I have hypothesised that Neanderthal men mated successfully with female humans but not vice-versa. Turning to Haldane’s law, we conjectured that the offspring were predominantly female hybrids. Male hybrids were uncommon, absent or sterile. Beyond the evidence from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, this hypothesis also gels well with data from the Y chromosome that indicates that the human Y chromosomes came entirely from Africa. The recent experimental work published in Science and Nature bolsters our excitement in the hybridisation hypothesis. Great-Great-Great Grandma, as it turns out, was likely the hybrid offspring of a Neanderthal male and a female human.

In science, the method of naming hybrid offspring usually follows the rule that the first half of the name comes from the male parent and the second half comes from the female parent. For example, a liger is the offspring of a male lion and a female tiger, a cama is the offspring of a male camel and a female llama, and a zorse is the offspring of a male zebra and a female horse. Given this conventional naming practice for hybrids, should humans living outside of Africa actually call themselves NEANDUMANS? What do you think?

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List of Predatory Publishers 2014

6 January, 2014

Jaap Timmer:

Here’s an interesting list of allegedly predatory journals, but even more interesting is the troll of comments below the list. While I tend to agree with those who talk in favour of open-access forums, I would, when searching for a journal to publish my article, check this list and of course do some careful research on the journals that attract my attention.

Originally posted on Scholarly Open Access:

By Jeffrey Beall

Released January 2, 2014

The gold (author pays) open-access model has given rise to a great many new online publishers. Many of these publishers are corrupt and exist only to make money off the author processing charges that are billed to authors upon acceptance of their scientific manuscripts.

There are two lists below. The first includes questionable, scholarly open-access publishers. Each of these publishers has a portfolio that ranges from just a few to hundreds of individual journal titles.

The second list includes individual journals that do not publish under the platform of any publisher — they are essentially standalone, questionable journals.

In both cases, we recommend that researchers, scientists, and academics avoid doing business with these publishers and journals. Scholars should avoid sending article submissions to them, serving on their editorial boards, reviewing papers for them, or advertising in them. Also, tenure and promotion committees should…

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A day of mourning for Shiites: Ashura during Muharram

14 November, 2013

The Islamic New Year has already begun. Around the globe, Shiites are observing ceremonies to commemorate the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Hussein in the battle of Karbala. These ceremonies are central to Shiite identity globally. The rich variety of these traditions worldwide provides a window into the diversity of Islamic religious expression.

Muharram Procession through the Old City of Hyderabad, India. Photograph by Paul Mason copyright 2012.

Muharram Procession through the Old City of Hyderabad, India. Mourners by their thousands lament the death of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala. Photograph by Paul Mason copyright 2012.

Last year, I travelled to Hyderabad, India, to observe local ceremonies during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. I had previously documented Muharram ceremonies in Indonesia in 2009 and I was inspired to see what present-day Muharram ceremonies looked like in India. The ceremonies in Indonesia originated in India. Sepoy Indians under the command of the British in the nineteenth century transported the ceremonies throughout Southeast Asia. The ceremonies proved popular throughout the Indo-Malayan archipelago, but believing that the ceremonies had connections to Mohammadean secret societies and Chinese Triads, British colonial powers sought to extinguish the event. Muharram public rituals survived only in two locations, Pariaman and Bengkulu along the Western coast of Sumatra, but only because Sumatra was handed over to the Dutch in 1824. In other locations Muharram ceremonies might have continued but they changed to become unrecognisable from their Indian origins. In Pariaman and Bengkulu, Sunnis and Shiite Indian descendants have continued contemporary interpretations of Muharram ceremonies that have come to include diverse performing arts and symbolic processions.

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Breaking news: Women can now drive in Saudi Arabia without going to jail! (But they risk getting a ticket.)

8 October, 2013

Saudi artist Saffaa just alerted me to a critical news item that the English-language media is not covering at all: women in Saudi Arabia can now drive without going to jail.  The only penalty the Saudi government will now impose on women caught driving is to issue them a ticket for not having a license.  

As Saffaa put it, 

So women can now drive in Saudi without going to jail. Why isn’t Western media all over this news? Are they sleeping or this news isn’t as sensational as women going to jail for driving? Ah and yes no one had to burn a bra. Not a single one … 

The news item in Arabic is here, reporting that the Kingdom’s Traffic Authority Director (I’m not exactly sure how to translate “mudeer `aam al-muroor“) General Abdulrahman Muqabbel has clarified to Sabq (the news agency reporting this) that women caught driving will only be ticketed for a traffic infraction (mukhalifa murooriyya faqat).  Previously women caught driving were taken to the local police station where they were held until their male guardians came to pick them up.

Here’s a YouTube video taken by a woman in Jeddah driving and encouraging other Saudi women to get in their cars and drive.  She says, “Right now, I’m on Malak Street, and I’m driving, and there’s nothing, nobody is stopping me, nobody is cursing me, nobody is photographing me, I’m just taking this video to say to girls, Let’s go, darlings, out to drive… but you must have a [male] guardian in the car with you!  Ours is behind me [the camera shifts to the back seat and a male voice says, “yeah”]…”

There are multiple similar videos now going up on YouTube of women driving and urging their compatriots to do the same, and many more Saudi women who are not taking videos but who are out driving, exploring the new boundaries around Saudi women’s use of public space.

Streams of Light: Shin Buddhism in America

1 October, 2013

Tricycle has a preview of a new documentary film on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in America. Looks like it will be a very interesting film.

In 1898, a group of young Japanese immigrants founded the religious association “Soko Bukkyo Seinen-kai” (Trans. “San Francisco Buddhist Youth Association”). Responding to their request, the Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, headquarters of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha school of Buddhism, began to dispatch Japanese priests known as Kaikyoshi to the USA the next year. In the years that followed, a national organization called the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA) would take shape, eventually growing to become one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the United States with over 60 temples nationwide.


Via Tricyle

US politician helpfully suggests keywords you can use when looking for research projects to attack

20 September, 2013

It seems that Australia’s Coalition politician Joe Hockey has an intellectual brother in the Republican Party!

Historian Zach Schrag (who has published a groundbreaking book on the history of ethics review, Ethical Imperialism) just told me about an American politician who is encouraging his constituents to search through National Science Foundation grants and highlight ones that they believe are a waste of tax dollars.  Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor promises that with his YouCut Project, “Together, we will identify wasteful spending that should be cut.”

What’s more, Cantor helpfully suggests several keywords that you might use to search through the NSF database for “wasteful” research, including:

  • culture
  • media
  • games
  • social norms
  • museum
  • leisure

And, of course

  • lawyers

I’m not even kidding.

Australian government attack on government-funded social science and humanities research

10 September, 2013

Last week, during the final throes of election campaigning, Tony Abbott and the Coalition attacked four Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded research projects as “futile” and “wasteful,” and promised that such research would not be funded under a Coalition government.  My project on sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt was singled out for particular ridicule.

In so doing, the Coalition inadvertently highlighted the absurdity of having politicians judge the merits of academic research.

My ARC-funded research project that the Coalition has criticised looks at how medical authorities and religious authorities in Egypt interact to influence Muslims’ opinions about reproductive health technologies.  I’m looking at 3 technologies, specifically: emergency contraception (a.k.a. the morning after pill), erectile dysfunction drugs (e.g. Viagra), and hymenoplasty (hymen reconstruction surgery, usually undertaken to make a woman appear to be a virgin when she marries).  These are somewhat controversial topics in Egypt because they’re connected with sexuality.

Now, new reproductive health technologies tend to elicit debate in society because they trigger existential questions: about when life begins, about what right humans have to meddle in natural human processes, about women’s sexuality and gender roles, and about the relationship between religion and medicine.  IVF and cloning are good examples of this.  

The more a technology is connected with (a) the beginning of life or (b) sexuality, the more controversial it is.  And the more controversial it is, the more public debate crystallises around it.  That makes these 3 technologies good case studies for understanding a society’s beliefs about not only sexuality but also women’s rights and religion.

These case studies boil down to a fundamental question: to what extent do religious leaders affect what the average lay Muslim does and thinks about sexuality and reproductive health?  If, for example, a religious authority says that hymenoplasty is permissible or not permissible, do people listen?  Do they care?  

My preliminary research suggests that no, they don’t — at least, not when it comes to hymenoplasty.  Most lay Muslims I have spoke with either don’t know or don’t care what their religious authorities say about hymenoplasty.  

In Egypt, three leading Muslim clerics have issued controversial fatwas on hymenoplasty.  Thomas Eich describes these in his article “A tiny membrane defending ‘us’ against ‘them’.”  The first was former Dean of the Women’s Islamic Law (shari`a) Faculty at al-Azhar University, Su`ad Salih, who ruled in February 2007 that hymenoplasty should be allowed not only for survivors of rape (which religious authorities had already approved), but also for women who had had sexual intercourse consensually and then ‘repented their mistake.’ Controversy ensued, along with attacks on Salih’s authority and ability to interpret Islamic law.  

A week later, the Grand Mufti — Egypt’s leading authority in interpreting Islamic law — backed up Salih’s ruling, and said that hymenoplasty could be used as a tool for a woman to save her marriage. Mufti Ali Goma`a reasoned was that a woman who married without a hymen would be judged by her future husband, and that it was not the husband’s place to pass judgment on his wife. Only God could know if she had fully repented after violating Islamic law (i.e. by having premarital sex), and a husband did not have the right to interfere in that private relationship between a woman and God. 
When Sheikh Khaled El Gindy, a member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies, was interviewed by the Egyptian newspaper The Daily Star in the wake of the controversial ruling by the Grand Mufti, he argued that hymenoplasty levelled the playing field for men and women, rectifying an inequality conferred by nature—namely, the fact that men had no hymeneal equivalent that society could use to judge their sexual purity. El Gindy told the Daily Star that ‘Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men… Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife’s hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin.’

In short, we have three leading Egyptian clerics saying that hymenoplasty is permissible under Islamic law.  And yet when I conducted on-the-ground research in Egypt in 2012-2013, almost every single lay Muslim that I interviewed claimed that hymenoplasty was both religiously forbidden and a sin!

In other words, Egyptian Muslims tend to only follow fatwas that accord with what they already believe about religion.  

Now, it’s not hard to see the relevance of this research project to Australia, because it’s a case study that boils down to a very fundamental and interesting question: how much do religious authorities influence what Muslims think and do?    Considering that Australia has 350,000 Muslims, I would think even the Liberal Party would like to know the answer to that question.
Of course, my research focuses on Egypt, but there are analogies for understanding how lay Muslims in Australia might interact with their local religious leaders.  
What’s more, Egypt is an influential centre of Islamic learning in the Muslim world.  It has the world’s oldest Islamic university, Al-Azhar University, and Al-Azhar has an affiliated institution, Dar al-Ifta, which produces all official fatwas (i.e. non-binding interpretations of Islamic law) issued in the country.  Dar al-Ifta has an online, multilingual, searchable database of these fatwas that is accessed by Muslims from all over the world, including Australia.  
So this research project can help us understand a very populous country that’s in turmoil right now (and one of the things being debated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents is gender roles), and it can also help Australians to understand part of our own multicultural society.  
Thanks to the ARC, and also thanks to funding that I received from Macquarie University prior to winning the ARC grant, I’m one of the few Australian social scientists to have regularly been visiting Egypt before, during, and after the revolution (I have made on average two trips a year to Egypt over the past four years; my last trip was in April 2013).  It’s an extraordinary opportunity to document what impact the revolution there is having on women’s rights and reproductive health.  I would think that the Coalition would appreciate the value of having a social scientist on the ground, increasing Australian (and global) knowledge of what is happening in the Middle East during a period of considerable upheaval in the region.
But even if I were doing a project that had no obvious application to Australian domestic or foreign policy, it still would have benefit to Australia, because tertiary education is a major income generator for Australia.  Australia imports university students from all over the world.  At Macquarie University, for example, about a third of our students are international students.  They pay considerably higher fees than domestic students.  They contribute to the strength of the Australian economy.
These international students come to Macquarie — and to Australia — because of our international reputation.  That will only continue to happen as long as Australia has a reputation for world-class research — in whatever field, whether it’s diabetes or 18th century German existentialism.  Because, let’s face it, not every student studies medicine or engineering; some students want to study arts and philosophy — and you’d think that Tony Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar who got a master’s degree in arts, would understand that.
And as the ill-informed Coalition attacks on my research project demonstrate, politicians are not the right people to be evaluating what constitutes worthwhile and world-class academic research.

Sago Palm: A Representation of People from Maluku, Indonesia

30 August, 2013

by Veronica Escalante, who is doing the Master of Applied Anthropology and just returned from fieldwork in Ambon where she focused on children’s narratives about the religious other.

Over the last decade, Moluccans have given fuel to their age-old reputation for being rough and inclined to bellicosity, due to a protracted regional conflict between Christians and Muslims since 1999. This reputation has a long history but has emerged with new force throughout Indonesia since the conflict. Also people in the region employ this stereotype to explain the violent clashes in this out-of-the-way province of the nation. In contrast, traditions of siblinghood such as pela and current local efforts at reconciliation challenge the stereotype. While aggressive behaviours and attitudes can often be observed in the region, acts of kindness and support are just as visible. A representation of this dualism in the behaviours and attitudes of Moluccans is the sago palm, which has a hard trunk covered by spines on the outside and a soft white inside, from which people make a starch that is the base for sago porridge (papeda), a traditional staple.

Sagu palm

The waitress came over and saw the four-month-old baby lying in her mother’s arms, smiled and bent over to kiss him on the forehead. The mother welcomed the gesture and started chatting about how she had been. The waitress only knew the mother from the coffee shop, but by looking at them interacting you would have thought they were family or at least very close friends. This type of interaction between people is not uncommon in Ambon. The anthropologist Bartels (1977), among others, has described mechanisms of support that occur in the region. The most well known is the communal practice of pela. This tradition comprises alliances between villages that are sealed by drinking each other’s blood, and through which the villages swear to protect and support one another. Such practices established a sense of community that was further strengthened by handing down historical narratives of siblinghood within Maluku and by songs such as the popular song titled Gandong (‘brotherhood’).

While these practices have attracted considerable interest from academics (Huwaë 1995; Sholeh 2013), little has been said about the new stereotypes of Moluccan character that have emerged since 1999 conflict. Because of the riots and people’s attempts at reconciliation, Moluccans acquired at least two new narratives about their character: the first is of being a bellicose and conflict driven people; the second tells about a strengthened identity of kinship. While both narratives existed before the conflict, they have been partly reaffirmed and, at the same time, taken on slightly new meanings. Both descriptions of Moluccans can be related to the behaviour of people in the region as well as to their attitudes towards conflict and reconciliation. These behaviours have lead to the idea that there is a contradiction or dualism of Moluccan character. Jack Manuputty, a pastor and peace activist in Ambon calls this the dualism of Moluccan character. It is similar to the binary relation between land and sea, anger and joy. Stanley Ferdinandus, founder of the local NGO Heka Leka ( refers to sago trees as being a key symbol of this dualism.

Moluccan character in daily behaviour

Narratives of Moluccan identity as violent are apparent in everyday occurrences. In a recent research trip to Ambon it did not take me long to learn about the reputation people from the Moluccas have in Indonesia, and even between themselves, as being untameable people. An informant whose family served in the Dutch colonial army described that this notion was already common even before the Dutch colonised the territory. She described how her grandparents told her that people from the Moluccas were actually recruited by the Dutch to serve in the military and work as security because of their belligerent nature. Similar ideas are still common in Indonesia. For example, an informant from Sulawesi who moved to Ambon when she was 18 years old described to me how she did not want to live there because of this reputation of the Moluccans. She thought that Moluccan men were stubborn, aggressive, and rough. To many outsiders this stereotype is easily confirmed by the way that Moluccans talk and move. They tend to be loud and make relatively excessive arm movements. As a newcomer one may see such gestures as expressing anger and next wonder why people would be so upset. On the streets, almost without exception drivers of vehicles continually honk their horns, and ignore transit lanes and traffic lights. However, when getting to know people they appear to be very warm, hospitable, emphatic, and kind.

Mutual support and empathy in Ambon go way beyond common courtesies. For example, while I was there, everyday someone would accompany me to where I wanted to go and help me with translations while not accepting any financial compensation I offered. Moreover, people would often invite me to eat and sleep in their houses. They even went out of their way to take my husband fishing while I was doing research. On a daytrip with some friends from Ambon to Saparua Island we encountered a couple of tourists from France. My Ambonese friends invited them to stay in their house on the island free of charge, showed them around all of the twelve villages there, and even organized activities in and around Ambon during the following days. These kinds of courtesies are not only offered to foreigners but are part of everyday actions between Moluccans. For example, in the urban neighbourhood of Galunggung the Holle family hosts free English classes for all kids in the neighbourhood twice a week. During Ramadan they even invite lots of children to break the fasting in their home.

The living of the Holle family with children from the neighbourhood breaking the fasting together

The living of the Holle family with children from the neighbourhood breaking the fasting together, Ramadan 2013

The Sago Palm

The apparent dualism in the character of Moluccans can be symbolised by the sago palm. The sago palm has spines from stem up to the outer branches. Looking at the tree you would not dare to come near it, much less touch it. However when you cut the tree and split the trunk you will find that it is very soft inside. The inside is filled with starch that is used for making sago porridge, a popular staple in the region. With the recent conflict came a narrative of Moluccan identity that may be represented by the sago trees. The conflict began in 1999 and was officially ended in 2003 but violent clashes and bombings still occurred until 2011. The conflict generated a common perception of Moluccans of being prone to conflict. Even though scholars have examined the multiple political and economic reasons for the conflict (Von Benda-Beckmann. 2007: 284; Bertrand, 2001: 58-88), as well as the external interventions that maintained the conflict (Stern 2003: 63-84), the conflict generated clear divisions between Christians and Muslims and new visions of these communities (Turner 2003: 258).

People from the two religions now live completely segregated and there is a constant fear that the conflict may resurface not so much because of religious differences but because of the belligerent character of Moluccans. For example, the notion that Moluccans are a fierce people is also very popular among youth. While asking young child soldiers involved in the 2011 violence about the reasons of their involvement, Jacky Manuputty, a local pastor and peace builder, was told: “You had your turn to fight, now it is ours”. However, conflict also made it necessary to strengthen the idea of brotherhood and the meaning of kinship for forging a sense of community. The dream of peace and return to traditional practices of pela and gandong began to flourish during and after the conflict. However, pela and gandong took on new meaning as alliances between the two religions (Bartels 2003: 14). The intention of achieving a Moluccan brotherhood after the conflict can even be discerned in the musical productions of youth. They created songs referring to unity in identity, such as Satu Darah, meaning ‘One Blood’.

The aim of achieving unity is not exclusive to ethic Moluccans but expands to embrace people who are not ethnically Moluccan to avoid the ethnic discourse that was present in the beginning of the conflict in 1999. One example of the efforts to include non-ethnic Moluccans is in the adaptation of pela to soa as described to me by the Baileo Maluku Network. While pela only applies to people who are ethnically Moluccan, the village of Paso generated a similar alliance called soa with people who were not ethnically Moluccan. Similarly, efforts to bridge the now segregated Muslim and Christian groups also demonstrate the importance of siblinghood in Moluccan identity. For example, the organization Heka Leka that facilitates various activities to unite people from both religions recently joined seven groups of children both Christian and Muslims to celebrate Ramadan. The Centre for Interreligious Dialogue is doing similar efforts with teachers, government officials and youth. These efforts include overnight stays at each other’s houses, giving experiences of siblinghood a whole new meaning.

A reconciliation initiative comprising an inter-religious market

A reconciliation initiative comprising an inter-religious market

The contradiction of a reputation of violence and brotherhood as the main attributes of the people from Maluku is present in conflict and attempts for peace. Just as a sago tree, when observing recent actions of Moluccan people, on the outside all we see is the conflict, but deeper probing reveals the vulnerability of a people who dream of brotherhood.

The culture of Moluccans is neither violent nor peaceful; it does not reflect conflict or brotherhood – it is both. Moluccan behaviour resembles the sago palm, which can harm and injure, while the glue found inside the trunk can unite people of all ethnic groups and religions. The narratives that define Moluccan identity have changed since the conflict of 1999. Not only have they contradicted the belief of Gandong being at the centre of their behaviours, giving way to a discourse of bellicose Moluccans; but they have also generated the possibility of the emergence of a discourse of Moluccans as peace builders and brothers. Their recent history has reshaped the way in which they are seen and understood, generating a new horizon of possibilities of actions of violence and kinship.


Bartels, D. (1977) Guarding the Invisible Mountain: Intervillage Alliances, Religious Syncretism and Ethnic Identity among Ambonese Christians and Moslems in the Moluccas. Ithaca: Cornell University

Bartels, D. (2003) ‘Your God is No Longer Mine: Moslem-Christian Fratricide in the Central Moluccas (Indonesia) After a Half-Millennium of Tolerant Co-Existence and Ethnic Unity’, in: A State of Emergency: Violence, Society and the State in Eastern Indonesia. Sandra Pannell, ed., pp. 128-153. Darwin: Northern Territory University Press

Turner, K (2003), ‘Myths and Moral Authority in Maluku: The Case of Ambon’, Asian Ethnicity, 4, 2, p. 241, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 26 July 2013.

Von Benda-Beckmann, F. and von Benda-Beckmann, K. (2007) Social security between past and future: Ambonese networks of care and support, Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Bertrand, J. (2001) ‘Legacies of the Authoritarian Past: religious Violence in Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands’, Pacific Affairs. Ontario: University of Toronto, pp. 57-85

Stern J. (2003) ‘Demographics’ in: Why religious militants kill: Terror in the Name of God, New York : Ecco, pp. 63-84

Huwaë, S. (1995) ‘Divided Opinions About Adatpela: A Study Of Pela’, Cakalele, Vol. 6 (1995), Pp. 77–92


Sholeh, B. (2013) ‘The Dynamics of Muslim and Christian Relations in Ambon, Ea  Indonesia’, International Journal of Business and Social Science Vol. 4 No. 3; March 2013

From our wardrobes to market stalls in Africa

19 August, 2013

by Eleni Christou (one of our former Master of Applied Anthropology students at Macquarie University)

Our clothes are travelers. Born to factories in distant lands, most of our clothes have already travelled thousands of kilometers by air, land and sea before settling in our wardrobes. Consumers are fairly aware of where clothes originate, but the continuing journey of our used clothes is less publicised. The majority of Australians donate their old clothes to charity or textile recycling organizations. However, after undergoing a stringent selection process determining their future path, our used clothes begin new travels across suburbs, states, and to locations a far as market stalls in Africa.  Clothes are far from lonely when they travel. Sources vary, but approximately half of what is donated to charity organizations will journey to exotic destinations some of us can only dream of. With the popularity of low priced, rapidly produced and ostensibly cool Fast Fashion, the volume of clothing and distance they travel is set to increase. The redistribution of used clothing to people in need, to the wardrobes of ethically driven (and often fashion conscious) consumers or to textile recycling plants is imperative. The extensive travelling of our clothes owes not only to advances in manufacture and design, but a shift in consumer purchasing behavior. Use value and longevity of a garment is not the only criteria consumers assess, fashionable capital is also a quality on which we base our clothing decisions.

The following article will discuss the influx of clothing circulating in the marketplace, mainly due to the disposable nature of trendy fashion in the last decade. Arguing that the throwaway nature of Fast Fashion clothes creates challenges for textile recycling and redistribution, this article will discuss the charity store donation and sorting process. With a large proportion of used clothes exported to overseas, excessive fashion consumption is influencing a decline in indigenous and local textile industries of developing countries.

Fast Fashion Dies Young

Eighty billion garments are produced worldwide every single year (Siegle, 2011:74). As the production and design processes of the Fast Fashion industry evolve and progressively become more sophisticated, volume is set to increase year on year. Fast Fashion has revolutionized the clothing industry, accelerating the design and manufacturing stages of production. Expressed through low priced clothes mirroring current trends from catwalks and style setters around the world. Fast Fashion’s design and production model seeks to transform ‘high fashion’ style into common trend, convincing consumers that what is demonstrated on the catwalks actually represents popular fashion. With an emphasis on rrefurbishing looks on a weekly rather than seasonal basis, Fast Fashion brands render a limited life span on the garments they sell.

Fashion brands in Europe and the USA are world leaders in the Fast Fashion industry. In particular, Zara, Topshop, H&M and the low end store Primark, are labels all renowned for recreating and selling runway trends and cutting edge designs.  In order to respond to every single modification in popular trend, time to market, (the period in which clothes are designed, produced and couriered to the retail store) has been reduced from weeks to days. Topshop has cut their production time from nine to six weeks. H&M, launching fashion that was effectively disposable, cut its lead-time from design to rail in just 3 weeks (Siegle, 2011:21). Spanish fashion monopoliser, Zara dominates the Fast Fashion industry. Zara manufactures small quantities of each style, ensuring its collections are considered ‘exclusive’ and thus creating an anxiety among consumers that they may ‘miss out’. Zara stores receive new fashion pieces twice a week. Each style is only received once and Zara does not reproduce past designs. The limited range of Zara styles encourage consumers to visit stores frequently, and replace their wardrobes just as often.

Hidden workers and planned obsolescence: Fast Fashions bread and butter

Competition between retailers means that high fashion clothes and styles are being produced at affordable prices, making trendy clothes accessible for most budgets and tastes. However there is a human face behind rapid manufacture. Fashion brands go to great lengths to distance their product and the consumer from the people that actually make these clothes (and their skills which are often attained through heritage and traditions). Even though workers possess the unique craftsmanship to produce such clothes, it is most likely they will never be able to afford them, nor experience them displayed in department stores and boutiques across the world. Branding, labeling and trends tend to hide or eliminate any evidence of the lives and history of the workers.

This multimillion dollar fashion export industry is powered by an approximate forty million garment workers, working out of 250,000 garment export factories (Siegle, 2011:41). This army of workers covers the vital point of the production process where the clothes are actually made – the crucial element that makes the nature of these clothes both fast and cheap. Bangladesh produces 1.5 billion jeans every year, India manufactures 7 billion pieces of Western clothing annually and in China, by 2002, 20 billion garments were being manufactured each year (Siegle, 2011:39). Workers in garment factories, or sweatshops, are subject to dangerous working conditions, long hours, low pay and lack union representation. Additionally, clothing manufacture is often outsourced to ‘home workers’. This employment is often hard to trace back to a particular brand due to the employment of faceless middlemen and a complex production line created by the Fast Fashion industry.  Home workers represent the unseen, the isolated and the bottom rung of the global fashion industry, they are responsible for sewing, beading and embellishing many thousands of garments every month (Siegle, 2011:51).

Keeping Fast Fashion alive, the sweatshops churning and the home workers employed is the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’. This is the practice in by which goods are designed and produced to have a limited lifespan yet still need to be replaced regularly. The trend of throwaway fashion owes much to the increases in clothing purchase frequency and a real reduction in price levels (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211). The Fast Fashion industry excels in the implementation of planned obsolescence.  Minor embellishments and amendments to designs are made at ever increasing intervals, ensuring their time as ‘cool’ is limited; marking indelibly if a piece was purchased during an earlier fashion cycle. In fact, Fast Fashion retailers such as H&M, Topshop and Zara sell garments that are expected to be used less than ten times, at very competitive price points, further contributing to the disposal of garments that may have only been worn a few times (Birtwistle and Moore, 2007:211).

Charity stores and the redistribution process

This disposability of clothing has resulted in a number of challenges for charity and textile recycling organisations. Donations have increased in size and in frequency. But, while the volume is increasing, the quality of the donations is decreasing. Charity stores are now competing with the low prices of Fast Fashion clothing and struggling to sell excess stock. Based on my research among two Australian national charity organizations, the following section will provide a general description of the textile recycling process in Australia and the challenges disposal fashion has imposed on the industry.

Clothes and accessories available in charity stores are sourced in four ways: corporate donations, third party recycling firms and public donations. In an attempt to contribute to the overall appearance and profit of the store, some charity organizations also purchase heavily discounted new clothes and accessories from brands eager to rid themselves of slow sellers and inter-season stock. Products acquired, include shoes and handbags utilized to compliment current stock and trends. All donations, or purchased stock undergo a stringent grading process. Clothes are assessed for their resale value and thoroughly checked for rips and stains and sorted into three categories, A, B and C grade. A grade garments are in good condition or valuable, making them suitable for resale on the shop floor. B and C grade garments are those which are soiled, deemed too old or washed too many times. B and C grade garments are transferred to recycling centers where they are inspected and either reincarnated for industrial purposes (such as rags) or sold on to third parties specializing in exporting clothing worldwide.

The sorting stage is a lengthy process and most sources of stock come with their own set of challenges. Corporate donations, although they could be perceived as a gesture of goodwill and a contribution to the overall profit of the charity, are effectively a means of disposal for companies with excess or faulty stock. Corporate donations are often samples, end of season stock, or over runs (excess stock of a particular style). Conditions of corporate donations often require charity stores to remove the clothing brand tag before resale. The sourcing of clothing from third party is also a gamble. Stock is received in secure bags and charity stores are unable to view the contents prior to purchase, meaning clothes received could be damaged or unpopular.

Donations from the public reveal the impact of disposable fashion on charity stores. Firstly charity stores are receiving an increasing amount of poor quality items. A representative of an Australian charity organization found that, in the last 5-6 years, the quality of worn clothing is deteriorating as the life span of a garment is reduced.  The low prices of disposable fashion present strong competition for charity stores, challenging their position in the affordable fashion market. Fast Fashion clothing also has an environmental impact. Due to the nature of Fast Fashion material, much of what is donated is synthetic, difficult to recycle and products that are cotton based are hard to reuse (Britten, 2008). The receipt of unworn clothes with price tags still attached is increasingly commonplace for some charity organizations, suggesting consumers are tiring of clothes at a faster rate and before they are even worn. Although these may pieces may be valuable for resale within charity stores, such excessive consumption is sustaining demand for the Fast Fashion industry. Furthermore, as clothes enter and exit the fashion market rapidly, their belonging to a particular trend is easily identifiable.  Once clothes are donated, they may have long lost their appeal.

Exporting clothing

The proportion of donated clothes retailed through charity stores differs slightly, depending on the source. According to Siegle (2011:218), only 10% of UK donations are sold through stores, while 50% is exported to developing countries.  Lee (2006) states that 25% of what recycling companies buy from charities is used as a commodity in an international trading economy. Hansen, Transberg (2004:3) suggests that charitable organisations are the largest single source of the garments that fuel the international trade in second hand clothing, consisting of between 40 and 75% of trade. Distributed via export and shipping firms, the lowest quality clothing goes to Africa, the medium quality to Latin America, while Japan receives the highest proportion of top quality items (ibid).  A simple google search reveals the number of Australian companies that export used clothing and accessories to countries such as Africa and the Pacific Islands.

Shipping and exporting firms make serious profits from the international used clothing trade due to a demand for European style clothing and fashion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Karen Transberg Hansens’ research: Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia (1999) details the demand for Western clothes in developing countries. Second hand clothing is seen in Zambia as a very special commodity, in fact it has its own name, Salaula. The term specifically refers to the process of imported used clothing from the West and sold in local markets. This term also graphically captures the practice of consumers selecting garments to satisfy clothing desires and needs (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). In Zambia, this type of clothing is seen as exclusive and an important imported commodity. For the anthropologist, the clothing offers special exposure on the interaction between the local and the west and because of the way, as dress, it mediates both individual and collective identities and desires (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:343). However, in order for the process to be successful, the sorting of clothes must adhere to specific guidelines. Developing countries are increasingly faced with the issue of receiving clothing that does not suit their climate or style (Siegle, 2011: 220). For example, African countries receiving European winter clothes that do not suit the continent’s warmer climate.

However, there is an adverse effect exporting used clothing imports on the domestic textile and garment industries. Many African countries originally had fairly well developed indigenous markets for textiles and clothing, particularly for handcrafted or hand tailored clothes. Sadly, these markets have virtually disappeared in the last few decades (Lee, 2006). Due to the poor quality and high price of locally produced garments, Zambians from most walks of life have continued to shop from Salaula throughout the 1990s (Hansen, Transberg, 1999:350).  In order to prevent a decline in local textile industries, some countries have taken drastic measures to end the importation of used clothing. Many countries strictly forbid the import of used clothing, while others restrict the volume or limit it to charitable purposes rather than for resale. Used clothing imports are banned in Indonesia because of the threat they pose to local garment production (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). Mali charges import tariffs on second hand clothing, seeking to reduce its volume, with the aim of protecting the domestic textile industry (Hansen, Transberg 1999:348). However, these measures have birthed an illegal second hand clothes trade and exporters now attempt to smuggle used clothes countries with restrictions. The Nigerian customs service has seized numerous containers of prohibited goods, including used clothes entering with false customs declarations (Hansen, Transberg 2004:4). The impact of disposable fashion is evident when countries treat the illegal ferrying of used clothes in the same manner they would view the importation of illicit substances or arms.

Regulating Fashion

The allure of Fast Fashion is increasingly evident in our everyday lives. In January 2011, Kmart launched a low budget line of jeans priced at $10. By August 2011, Kmart had already sold almost half a million pairs (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Similarly, retail grocery giant Coles, launched a budget clothing line in August, 2011, with the majority of clothes priced below $25 (Baker, 2011).  Although these jeans may pass Australian quality standards, do they meet ethical standards? Kmart’s $10 jeans were produced and manufactured in China and Bangladesh (Collier and Winslow, 2011). Incidents such as the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, killing almost 1000 workers suggests the manufacturing process remains largely unregulated.

There are some brands taking measures to gain accreditation from ethical fashion industry bodies, claiming transparency within their production processes, such as the fashion industry advocacy body Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA). Ginger & Smart, Collette Dinnigan and Cue are among companies involved in long term ECA efforts to encourage fashion companies to become transparent with their production processes.  Additionally, the ECA also requires companies to become compliant with its accreditation and labeling systems (Safe, 2011). Accredited brands are able to display an ECA trademark on Australian-made products, providing consumers with a way to identify and support ethically manufactured garments. On an international scale, clothing companies have taken similar steps in the last few years to become more transparent. Major brands such as Nike, adamant they have applied enough pressure on issues such as child labour, insist it is in decline in the garment industry (Siegle, 2011:60). To the merit of morally conscious consumers and advocacy groups, there are numerous movements dedicated to the eradication of sweatshop culture and the slowing down of consumerism. Some examples include; War on Want, Labour Behind The Label, Buy Nothing New and No Sweat.

Pledges to regulate the garment manufacture industry are integral to the workers employed, ensuring safety at work, ample payment and regular working hours. However, excessive consumption sustains the disposable clothing industry. Fast Fashion has created a new formula for how fashion is manufactured and available, perpetuating an expectation among consumers; for clothes to be low priced and delivered quickly. Reassessing our purchasing behavior, and buying clothes, when they are necessarily, ensuring they are durable and made to ethical standards could slow down Fast Fashion. But, while demand exists, our clothes will continue their extensive travelling, with their redistribution directing their journey, often passing by or settling in the regions they originated from.


Baker, Michael. 2011. Coles: a wolf in cheap clothing? The Age: 26.08.2011

Birtwistle, G and C.M. Moore. 2007. Fashion Clothing – Where Does It All End Up? International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management 35(3):210-216.

Britten, Fleur. 2008. Is Recycling Your Old Clothes Worth It? Times Online: 25.05.2008

Collier, Karen and Elouise Winslow. 2011. Discount Denims fool fussy fashionistas. Herald Sun: 06.08.2011

Lee, Mike. 2006. The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up. ABC NEWS (USA) 21/12/2006.

Safe, Georgina. 2011. Protection For Those Behind The Seams. Sydney Morning Herald: 29.09.2011

Siegle, Lucy. 2011. To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? London: Fourth Estate.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 1999. Second Hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia: Global Discourses, Western Commodities, and Local Histories. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 69(3):343-365.

Tranberg Hansen, Karen. 2004. Helping or Hindering: Controversies Around the International Second-Hand Clothing Trade. Anthropology Today 20(4):3-9.

Buy Nothing New Month:

Ethical Clothing Australia:

Labour Behind The Label:

No Sweat :

War on Want :

Open access rising

26 March, 2013

Is it just me or is the push towards an open access mentality in academia gathering steam? Recently, we’ve had the encouraging news that the Australian Research Council has introduced an open access policy for research it funds and the Obama administration has backed open access for federally-funded research.

It also seems that academics are becoming increasingly unwilling to participate as free labour in a system that generates extremely high profits for the big academic publishers. Most recently, the entire editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration quit in protest over the licensing agreement imposed by the publisher, Taylor & Francis. According to the agreement, authors had the choice to either wait up to 18 months to put their work in an open repository or pay a $3,000 fee to “unlock” their work.

In the field of anthropology the journal Cultural Anthropology has announced that it’s going full open access by 2014, the OA journal HAU appears to be going from strength to strength and there are a range of new journals seeking to make anthropological research public. One example is Global Ethnographic, a new OA journal that seeks to convey anthropological perspectives to as wide a public as possible. In contrast to most journals they seek contributions of no more than 3,000 words, preferring even shorter ones. They would appear to be trying to fill a niche between a more traditional peer-reviewed journal and an anthropological blog, encouraging more digestible chunks of writing with more popular appeal. I was also very happy to see that one of the first contributors was Macquarie’s own Paul Mason, with a piece on Intracultural and Intercultural Dynamics of Capoeira (PDF).

Along the same lines, but even closer to the popular end of the spectrum is the resolutely upbeat Popanth (Hot Buttered Humanity). Publishing articles in the 800-100 word range, they are aiming to provide bite-sized, and easily digestible, chunks of anthropological goodness.

On the whole I think this is all very encouraging, and it also shows the great diversity of attempts to openly communicate non-monetised anthropological knowledge, from traditional journal formats through to publications that are experimenting with niches somewhere between the established journals and the anthro blogosphere. It goes to show that we shouldn’t generalise too much about such things as the relationship between quality and open access. There are just too many different models being tried out right now. But I think we can generalise about a broader cultural shift in which we are seeing the reinvigoration of the idea that scholarship is a public good and should therefore be “out there” in whatever form that might take.



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