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The Capital Ethnography Project
By Jesse Cheng
Capital Cases columns.
In 1978, Colin Turnbull posed a question to his fellow anthropologists: Could anthropology, as the discipline that purported to make sense of humankind, see the humanity in those whom society has condemned to death?
“[T]he approach of anthropology is dual — or should be,” he said. “As a science it looks for organization, structure, consistency…As a humanity it is concerned with values and with people. In this latter respect we have to deal with whether capital punishment is cruel and unusual.”1 If anthropology was to hold itself out as the academic spokes-discipline for the value of life — any life — and the need to understand all of humanity, then it had to start with those most vilified “others” right here at home.
For Turnbull, the question was a rhetorical one; the cruel and unusual nature of capital punishment seemed obvious to him. In his investigations of prisoners on death row, what he saw were bodies languishing in physical captivity — but what he witnessed was the human spiri
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