About

My name is Ben Belek, I’m a PhD student in social anthropology at Cambridge University. (You can also view my Hebrew profile here).

A few words on what this blog is about:

Where I’m from, people aren’t always sure what anthropology actually means. So I’m used to having to explain it immediately after uttering the word, and amusingly, I never seem to come up with exactly the same answer twice. This puts me in an interesting position, because I get to reinvent my work every time I’m asked what I do; and anthropology can be so many things.

Well, this blog is one example what anthropology can be, and of what it is to me.

Anthropology is the study of people. What motivates us, what intrigues us, how we perceive the world, how we make sense of our lives, what we do, why we do it, why we believe, what are our values, how we tell right from wrong, who we care for, what matters to us; (uh oh, there’s more…) What we say, why we choose to say it, what we hold back, and who we consider our friends. What is belief? What is shame? What is a self? What makes a person? What do we all have in common? Why are we so different? Why are we so much alike?

I know I know, doesn’t that just encapsulate EVERYTHING? Well, yes, it does. That’s why I love anthropology, and that’s why there are so many of us anthropologists out there (there really are, in case you were wondering. You might miss us because we’re crouched over our laptops more often than we would like, but we’re out there). And we’re not even close to answering all those questions. The reason for that is because people… well… They tend to be very different from one another. So understanding something about one group of people might take you a long way, but it hardly allows you to draw the same conclusions about any other group of people. So the questions really never end. It’s not a particularly easy job, but we love it.

Anyway, there are lots of different kinds of different people. I don’t just mean there are lot of different people; I mean there are lots of different kinds of differences. People can differ culturally (be from different countries or speak different languages), socially (be rich or poor, for example), or ethnically (same country, different ethnic background); they can differ in age, gender, education, medical condition, social status, political affiliation, etc. etc. Anthropologists are into these differences. They are what make people, as a whole, interesting to study.

My research is mostly concerned with another type of difference – neurological difference; the difference between people with a typical brain structure and people whose brain structure is atypical, or divergent. In other words, I study people with autism. But I should rephrase, because I hate the way that sounds. I don’t study autistic people the way a botanist studies orchids. Mostly because orchids don’t speak back. They don’t have intellect, they don’t have their own ideas, and they’re generally not more knowledgeable about orchids – as well as about a bunch of other stuff – than the botanist is (although that may be debatable). So no, I don’t “study” autistic people. A better way to put it, perhaps, would be to say that I learn from autistic people. That’s closer to the truth, but to be honest, that kind of downplays my own part in all of this. Because knowledgeable as people can be about themselves – and about a whole lot of other stuff – they don’t usually think of themselves as subjects of analysis and study. Well, not in the way anthropologists are trained to, anyway. What I mean to say is, anthropologists get used to thinking about people with a profoundness and intensity that comes with spending years in lecture halls and seminar rooms and libraries, learning how to do just that. That’s why we’re good at it. Well, some of us are.

So my point is, that yeah, I study autistic people, and I learn from autistic people, and there’s a whole lot of collaboration going on, and it’s really a joint effort that we all do together. Why am I doing this? Well first – and I’m going to be brutally honest here – because it’s interesting. Autistic people are (well, to the most part), just really interesting people. And I don’t mean it in that “they’re so exotic and unique” way. No. But what they do have is stories and experiences that are somehow different. Different how? Well, that’s kind of hard to say. Maybe after a few more years of research I’ll be able to answer just that. But they’re definitely different. For better or worse. And you know what? The autistic people I’ve met were just really kind people. And I liked them. So I decided to see how well equipped anthropology is to create knowledge –knowledge about people as a whole (so not JUST about autistic people)- out of these people’s stories. So that’s my project. I’ve been doing it for over three years now, and there’s no end in sight. It’s a challenge, and also great fun.

Another thing: Anthropologists don’t only have to be politically correct; Anthropologists literally INVENTED political correctness. Well I don’t know if that’s true, but we definitely had a big part in it. When your career is to talk about other people, and I mean Other people with a capital O (you know, minorities, foreigners, indigenous, marginalized, or oppressed people) being sensitive about it is kind of important. Also, anthropologists (and I’m talking about recently, because this wasn’t always strictly the case) usually tend to be among the first to realize how unfair, unequal, and intolerant society can be to people who are different. Not only that, our job is to figure out why that is, and to sometimes try and offer solutions. You know what a common suggestion is? Stop behaving like assholes to these people (I’m talking about any such “these people”). Show respect, listen, don’t prejudge, don’t generalize, don’t feel superior, don’t condescend. You know, the usual ‘how to not be an asshole’ drill. Some people call that being politically correct. But it’s basically just being a decent human being.

My point is, that it’s not always easy to talk about Other people (notice that capital O again?) without coming off as disrespectful, condescending, or plainly wrong. You do what you can to avoid it, but there’s always a risk that someone you’re talking about might disagree with you or be offended. The only way to avoid that entirely is to not talk about Other people. But like I said, that’s kind of what anthropologists do; if we stopped doing that, anthropology would cease to exist. And it would a shame, because anthropologists do some amazing stuff. And I don’t just mean interesting – I’m talking important. I guess what I’m saying is that if someone gets offended by something I write – so a) know that offending what never my intention, and b) come out and say it. Like I said, this is a collaborative thing. Reading people’s comments is the main reason for why I’m doing this blog in the first place.

Ah, finally I get to my point. What is it, exactly, that I’m doing? Well, my research is about autistic people, and about neurotypical people, and about the interaction between them, and among them, and about society – a society of which both autistic and neurotypical people are a part. And it’s about the anthropology of autism: autistic spectrum conditions as understood and explained by anthropological analyses and theories (without referring too much to the theories or theorists themselves, so as not to be boring. If you are interested, ask about the specific authors or ideas in the comments section). In order for me to talk about all this and still be clear and hopefully interesting, I’m going to talk about movies and series that feature autistic characters, and ‘anthropologize’ them, as they say. I will then ask for your opinion. This blog is 100% about leading a discussion. So respond, share, argue (respectfully), add or suggest; whatever you feel about a post, I want to hear it. It just might make me change my mind about something – and that’s really the whole point.

Can’t wait!

P.S. While I have a million things to say about Rain Man, it will not feature in this blog. This would be my small protest of the film’s overshadowing presence in every single discussion on the depiction of autism in film in, like, forever.

20 thoughts on “About

  1. JALBN 2.0 Ishmael Received

    That’s fascinating. I don’t tend to read ‘about’ pages – if you were to read mine, you’d know precisely why. I’m an autism and write about about it constantly; I just don’t mention it by name beyond the odd title or two. With so many blogs reducing the condition to lists of symptoms and difficulties and advice to ‘fit in’ or 1001 ways to skin an NT, sometimes with a fellow aspie – all the while telling the world how different are thinking was and how ‘wonderful’ we are, something had to be done. No one was demonstrating how differently we think! It was almost as if, if you’re autistic and have a blog, the discourse convention was to have your own survivor story, not show the world the nature of how imaginatively creative and differently you process information and look at the world – as such I rarely look beyond ordinary things. Perhaps I’m not an ordinary autistic – I guess since I don’t identify as being autistic, rather it’s just something I have contributing to how I am perceived, I don’t feel the need to make it more important than it is. Who knows, no one ever asks. Anywise. This was fascinating.

    Reply
    1. Ben Belek Post author

      Hi JALBN (Ishmael?), thanks so much for this comment and for following my blog. I’m really glad you find my project interesting, and I can’t wait to read your thoughts on some of the things I discuss here. I’ve had a look at your own blog in the meantime. It’s really engaging and intriguing, and I’m very excited to read more.
      It’s true that many blogs by autistic people discuss autism traits or offer advice for managing them (haven’t come across the one about skinning NTs yet! I might need to read that just as a precaution). But I actually did find quite a few that are very sophisticated in talking about the experience of being autistic – thinking, sensory processing, socializing etc. None of them is quite like yours, though. Which is about showing the difference, I guess, instead of telling about it (did I get that right?). Really good stuff.
      Since you brought it up (alright, and also since this is basically what I’m doing for my PhD) I’ll go ahead and ask you some questions, if that’s ok (to be used in my study, but without ever mentioning your name or username without your explicit permission): What do you mean by “I’m an autism”? what do you mean when you say “I rarely look beyond ordinary things”? And since you claimed no one ever asked, I obviously can’t help but ask this last question: don’t you think that autism is very significant in shaping who you are?

      Reply
      1. JALBN 2.0 Ishmael Received

        None of them is quite like yours, though. Which is about showing the difference, I guess, instead of telling about it (did I get that right?).

        That’s right – it’s about ‘showing’ not ‘telling’. I embed my writing with to attempt to recreate the micro-overprocessing that occurs in autistic brains – but I vary the techniques from piece to piece. The most important thing for me is to keep the voice consistent. I wanted to establish a good following before writing about certain topic, as I feel I could have something to offer. Who knows – maybe you could help there!

        Since you brought it up (alright, and also since this is basically what I’m doing for my PhD) I’ll go ahead and ask you some questions, if that’s ok (to be used in my study, but without ever mentioning your name or username without your explicit permission):

        It’s Dan and you’ll more than welcome to use anything, even my name – if you wanted to email or phone, that’d be fine too. Anything that will help others.

        What do you mean by “I’m an autism”?

        This for me has always been a language thing – particularly since, but not owing to the absorption of AS in the revised DSM. Spectra by definition are infinite and quite simply: if you can accept (arbitrarily) that no two people can be alike, it stands to reason that no two autistics are alike. If you can then accept that autism is a processing disorder, than you have to accept that autism also affects perception. So no two autistics are likely to experience the same thing, therefore there are an infinite variety experiences – an infinite number of autisms.

        I’m afraid I haven’t really done that justice, but I think you get the point. It’s just, I’m very much conscious of the p>never having met a feminist, but having met a thousand of people who say they’re one – because every-time feminism is described to me it’s different. I’m afraid that invalidates any meaning for me, the term is meaningless. Now, I’m not saying that the ‘autistic’ label is meaningless, however the ASD diagnosis: spectrum NOT Asperger Syndrome – could cause similar issues, so the article helps address this. It’s non-specific specificity.

        It’s like the introduction to The Naked City, ‘There are 8 million stories in the naked city – this has been one of them!’


        what do you mean when you say “I rarely look beyond ordinary things”?

        As far as ‘ordinary things’, you can describe a lot of the topics, as opposed to the themes I write about as mundane: everyday things – because all too frequently I read people writing about ‘inspiration’ and ‘imagination’ and ‘being creative’ and looking for ‘something extraordinary’ – to make a point, because autistics aren’t supposed to be imaginative (I’ve heard this so many times), I like to take things we see everyday or have heard a hundred times and look at it from a different vantage point – the way I see it, it’s analogous to being autistic – we see all the same things, except we see them in a slightly different way. It’s a kind of metalepsis.

        And since you claimed no one ever asked, I obviously can’t help but ask this last question:

        don’t you think that autism is very significant in shaping who you are?

        This is a dificult one because I grew up in a world without autism, without AS – much in the way that everyone born today and tomorrow and the next will live in a world without AS too – perception, language ‘things’ – most of my degrees are language-based and most of the work I’ve done has been the same, so this is essentially a language problem – I think AS is a language problem. I wasn’t diagnosed until my thirties and not before I was lecturing on language aquisition, development, paralinguistics, sociolinguistics – which is anthropology of a kind, at least in the same ballpark as pragmatics; speech act, communication theories.

        I bring this up because my interests and pursuits, lifelong obsessions and work are in areas which are ‘impaired’, however I have deep levels of understanding of these areas which balance that impairment – in other words, I can comfortably intellectualise to compensate for any social deficiency because I’ve study and worked in that field for so long – it’s essentially something called style-shifting.

        Now obviously, once diagnosed and you start to think and understand the condition, you can’t escape the paradigm shift that’s inevitable. In some ways you could argue, you’re not autistic until you’re diagnosed – at least from a conscious perspective. So in that respect, yes, it does shape me now – but it didn’t prior to that, because I wasn’t aware of it.

        Anyway, I hope that helps in some way. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have further questions.

      2. JALBN 2.0 Ishmael Received

        You’re quite welcome – I’ve read your email a few times and have begun to respond to it – you have some pretty good ideas – in fact one of them with regards to issue of autism being as a construction of its perception as much as the symptoms, is fascinating, because I can point you in the direction of something which can support that.

        I wrote something on this using one of the issues I used to come across whilst teaching as a framing argument http://justalittlebackgroundnoise.com/2013/10/22/if-teaching-facts-makes-you-a-bad-teacher-does-rocking-when-youre-not-stressed-makes-you-a-bad-autistic/

        I’ll be sure to get back to you in the next few days – I’m having a murderous time getting back into a routine – I’m sure that’s not new to you.

        However I’m philosophical about these things these days and just trust nature to return things to their rightful place… It’s just taking much longer than I’d like.

        I blame the England cricket team – I don’t mind them losing but the manner with which they are is ruining my sleep!

      3. Ben Belek Post author

        Hi Dan,

        I hope everything settled back to normal, and that you had a nice holiday!

        I’ve read the post you linked to. Really interesting stuff! I love that question – “does rocking when not stressed make you a bad autistic”? I think it encapsulates so many of the issues around autism that aren’t usually the focus of discussion, like labels, and power dynamics, and identity politics, and stereotyping. The main question that comes to my mind is this: is pressure to conform, typically a common “trait” of NTs, similarly common in autistics as well? Is it a different sort of pressure to conform? Is is exactly the same?

        Anyway, I’m still very much looking forward to reading some more of your thoughts on email!

  2. Carla at Loves Moose (@LovesMoose)

    Hi Ben …

    We “met” via Twitter where I’m known as @LovesMoose. I have Aspergers and am launching my blog soon at http://www.LovesMoose.com. It’s not intended as a place for political commentary or theorizing on the how’s and why’s of autism. I may present a long list of how Aspergers displays itself in my life. But aside from that, my writing will stand as one example of how someone on the spectrum views and interacts with the world.

    Your focus is much more on pure autism. We are all straddling the same spectrum, though. So I’d like to encourage you to stop by and browse what I imagine will be very colorful and vivid posts on my moose world.

    When it’s ready, I’d suggest starting with the About page, where you will learn more about my thing with moose.

    Carla

    Reply
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  6. anne rose

    Hi Ben, Dan: Find your discussion re: autism spectrum fascinating and dead on, including hit’s a construction of social perception. At same time, I lived with a highly intelligent man for 22+ years, a man I thought of as eccentric (and I like so-called eccentric people . . albeit another social construct, I think), but eventually those eccentric behaviours were too much. Eventually I figured out that these behaviours were on the autism spectrum, though as Dan points out no two autism presentations are exactly alike, so putting a label on this spectrum of behaviours isn’t easy in high-functioning cases, I believe. But as a partner, I feel having a ‘label’ of some kind is extremely helpful in accepting the others’ behaviours and/or at least understanding better what’s behind them and what can be expected. So easy, otherwise, to get angry, or hurt, or extremely frustrated in response. Reality is that in relationships we base much of our connection on some kind of cultural/social norm roadmap, and when that’s not there, or has major holes in it, it’s tough to relate; and relationships are tough enough as is just based on differences in personality, temperament, etc. And with autism spectrum (for lack of better descriptor), it complications the relationship process exponentially, it felt like — and especially if the person isn’t buying that they fit this spectrum and/or doesn’t realize just how ‘different’ they are. As well, relationships aren’t as much about a philosophical discussion but about negotiating the reality of day-to-day life, and autism spectrum behaviours can make that enormously challenging when one partner perceives things and processes info so differently. Guess I’m saying that I really empathize with the struggle over labels and social perceptions of these behaviours, the spectrum, etc., but my hard-won experience of loving someone in this situation has me believing that some kind of label, education around, understanding of etc. is helpful, including when kids are involved. Unfortunately the discussion and understanding of such labels has been pretty limited and facile, I feel . . . i.e, your comments here have been one of the most sophisticated I’ve come across. p.s. loved Saga character in The Bridge, too . . . . reminds me of how easy it is to laugh at some of those social ‘gaffs’ now, but as a partner when you’re in the moment and don’t know why they’re happening, it can be painful, or embarrassing, or infuriating, etc. cheers/

    Reply
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  11. Rachel's Writings

    As a female Aspie who is also majoring in Anthropology (interested in Cultural) that list of names and studies sounds very enticing. I’ll read the comments above but if you have a list I will take as many names as you’ve got. Also, you have my highest respect. Anyone who can find a way to research such a reclusive bunch deserves it.

    I wonder if I’d be an Aspie in the UK? I will have to research this. Of course, being AS and being a Cultural Anthropologist seem to mix like oil and water, as I’m sure you can imagine. It’s very interesting and easy to “obsess” over but I doubt I’ll continue on to Grad school.

    I would be interested in assisting if you ever need it.

    ~Rachel T.

    Reply
    1. Ben Belek Post author

      Hi Rachel,

      Thank you for this comment. There are quite a few recommendations and links scattered around the various posts in the blog which you might find interesting. I should probably make a neat list of all the relevant sources – when I find the time! Let me know what your research yields about whether you would be an Aspie in the uk. I’m assuming you’re referring to variations in the diagnostic criteria?

      As for being on the spectrum and being a cultural anthropologist being analogous to oil and water – I’m not sure about that. I think anthropology has a really nice way of being inclusive to very different approaches, tendencies and so forth. So I wouldn’t rule out this possibility!

      Thanks for following the blog, I hope to be in touch. Feel free to pick my brain if you want any anthropology tips.

      Ben

      Reply
  12. Lucy Clarke

    Hi Ben,

    I’m currently doing an MA in anthropology at UCL and I’m very interested in the work you do as I did my undergraduate dissertation on autism and the neurodiversity movement. Looking forward to diving into this blog! Are you in the process of writing a thesis?

    Thanks,

    Lucy

    Reply

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