Category Archives: public anthropology

The Decline of Rural and Small-Town America and its Social Implications

Photo credit: Creative Commons Zero–CCO

Last fall I spent several weeks in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where I had lived for more than three decades prior to my relocation to a new job in Santa Fe four years ago.  Berkshire County is the farthest west and most rural county of Massachusetts.  For New Yorkers and Bostonians, the Berkshires are known for their fields, forests, and outstanding cultural amenities, including the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, the Clark Art Institute and Williams College in Williamstown, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

These are all wealthy, world-class institutions, yet under the glitz lies a darker reality.  As a recent article in the Boston Globe points out, poverty in Berkshire County has risen by nearly a third since 2000.  The median age is rising as younger people leave for places with better job prospects, meaning that the population will continue to be older and sicker and poorer in the coming years.  I caught a glimpse of this in a visit to Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro, the only major shopping center within 30 miles of Williamstown.  Having been away for awhile, I was shocked by the mall’s post-apocalyptic vibe now that most of its anchor stores have packed up and left.  The county’s economic decline helps to explain why the value of the house that my wife and I still own in Williamstown has declined by as much as 20 percent in the past five years.

To some extent the hollowing out of a place that I love has been under way for decades.  In common with many once-prosperous smaller towns and villages in the northeast, the factories began to close nearly a century ago, a process that accelerated in the middle of the twentieth century.  In the Berkshires, manufacturers of textiles, shoes, furniture, plastics, and electronics moved south, then offshore.  Despite this change, in the 1980s and 90s, real estate prices rose dramatically.  The Great Recession put a stop to that, and the economic arc has trended down ever since.


Journalists and to a lesser extent social scientists have now begun to take notice of this situation and assess its implications.   (For examples, see this and this.)   What caught the eye of many of them was the impact that rural and small-town voters had on the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  According to the Washington Post, rural counties favored Trump by 26 points, whereas urban ones voted for Hillary Clinton by a 32 point margin.  (Berkshire County was an exception to that pattern, favoring Clinton 67.5% to 27%, a majority consistent with Massachusetts as a whole.)

So far, I haven’t seen much ethnography focused on dying towns and rural areas.  Notable exceptions include Christina Walley’s Exit Zero (which documents the travail of a deindustrializing urban neighborhood rather than a rural one) and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s much celebrated Strangers in Their Own Land.  Reaching back to a time before the current political kerfuffle are books like Katie Stewart’s memorable A Space on the Side of the Road (1996).  There are doubtless other insightful works with which I’m not familiar.  Still, it’s hard not to get the sense that most ethnographers prefer to embed with embattled urban minorities—African Americans, Latinos, heroin addicts, LGBTQ youth—rather than with alienated and often angry white people hunkered down in blighted communities.  There is little question, though, that their sense of economic and social abandonment is a major factor in our nation’s current political malaise.  People who feel that they have nothing to lose aren’t likely to put much stock in the niceties of civil debate and dignified leadership.


For an upbeat view of a small American town that has managed to maintain its vitality despite the social and economic headwinds, don’t miss Larissa MacFarquhar’s article on Orange City, Iowa (“Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” published in the New Yorker in November 2017).  As MacFarquhar points out, Orange City is about as politically conservative a place as one can find in the US, yet it doesn’t seem to have embraced the bonkers anti-government and anti-immigrant ideology that has gained traction in other parts of the country.  Therein lies a ray of hope.


Addendum, 2/19/2018.  Just happened upon a new book by sociologist Robert Wuthnow that addresses the sense of abandonment that afflicts much of rural America.  Wuthnow is one of the most prolific and reliably insightful sociologists of America working today.  A book not to be missed for anyone interested in this issue.

Time to Kill the “Anthropology of X” Meme

It’s usually a bad idea to vent pet peeves in a blog, but I’m going to do it anyway.

My complaint is about the persistent use of “The Anthropology of X” in the title of books and articles.  Feel free to insert the X of your choice:  disability, food, work, policing, lowriders, cell phones, rock videos, lawn care . . .  This usage is arguably the laziest intellectual move in our profession and one of the reasons why I sometimes despair for the future of anthropology, a discipline that needs all the help it can get at a political moment increasingly hostile to what we do and how we do it.

This regrettable disciplinary tic has a long history, going back at least to the mid-nineteenth century.  The early use of the term made sense because it was usually applied to places, as in “On the Comparative Anthropology of Scotland” (1865, a paper authored by Hector Maclean).  This is forgivable because the discipline was still in its infancy, and the author needed to communicate the fact that new methods were being deployed to shed light on the history and culture of a particular region.

The notion that “the anthropology of” communicates something specific retains a vestigial validity, I suppose, if one accepts that the document so named is likely to take a comparative, cross-cultural approach and that it’s based on ethnography to a greater or lesser degree.  (Today many anthropologists would disagree even with that minimalist characterization of anthropological methods, especially comparison.)  Mostly it says, “This was written by an anthropologist.”

And therein lies the problem.  Most general readers—and, I suspect, many academic readers as well—couldn’t care less about a writer’s disciplinary affiliation.  They care far more about whether the author brings a fresh, insightful perspective to an important topic.  Alas, this isn’t conveyed at all by “The anthropology of X” except in the increasingly rare case when the topic under consideration has never before been explored by an anthropologist, as in The Anthropology of Puff Pastry.  For all I know, an anthropologist has already written about that, too.


I came to this distaste for “The Anthropology of” during three and a half decades of collaborating with sociologists in a joint undergraduate department whose relations were mostly cordial and creative, largely because both wings were committed to ethnographic methods.  Although we maintained two separate majors, for administrative as well as intellectual reasons we decided to downplay the disciplinary divide except in a handful of courses—e.g.,  SOC 101 Invitation to Sociology.  So a course that at other colleges and universities might be called “Medical Anthropology” became “Illness & Healing in Comparative Perspective.”  A course that could be labeled “The Sociology of Consumer Society” became “Culture, Consumption, & Modernity.”  This liberated faculty and students from disciplinary constraints while encouraging everyone to focus on a range of analytical approaches relevant to the issues.

Ironically, this downplaying of disciplinary boundaries made our majors more rather than less attractive to graduate programs in those cases when students decided to pursue advanced degrees.  After all, doctoral programs generally do a good job of refashioning students into anthropologists, sociologists, etc.  But at the admissions stage, they want broadly educated applicants with demonstrated skills in thinking, writing, and research methods.


The most creative writers in anthropology avoid the “Anthropology of” meme, especially if they want their books to be widely read.  Sahlins and Graeber could have titled their recent book The Anthropology of Kingship, but they wisely settled for On Kings.  Tanya Luhrmann could have called her much-praised 2012 ethnography The Anthropology of Evangelical Prayer (yawn!) rather than When God Talks Back—although I’m confident that her editor at Vintage would have nixed the “Anthropology of” title in a nanosecond.

What’s at stake isn’t just titles, although they matter.  It’s making the effort to broaden one’s audience and write in a way that reaches them.  When writing for a journal with a narrowly disciplinary audience, “The anthropology of” is fairly harmless even if it flirts with cliché.  For work that aspires to broader impact, however, it qualifies as a missed opportunity.  Let’s lay it to rest in a remote cemetery devoted to expired memes.

Anthropological writing for troubled times

editingWhen I made the shift from college teaching to the world of fundraising in support of anthropology and Native American arts, I quickly learned something about which I’d previously had only a vague suspicion: that as an occupational group, anthropologists do a poor job of making a case for the importance of our work.

In offering such a sweeping judgment, I’m mostly referring to cultural anthropology, my own subdiscipline.  Biological anthropologists have the advantage of being increasingly involved in genomics research as well as studies of human growth and development that have scientific cachet and often some practical utility.  Archaeologists can draw on consistent popular interest in cultural history.

If you ask an average American what recent work of anthropology he or she has read or at least is aware of, the reply is likely to be something by Jared Diamond, who isn’t an anthropologist at all.  (He was trained in physiology and now holds an academic position in geography.) This causes no end of consternation to anthropologists, who with few exceptions find Diamond’s work simplistic, derivative, and often wrong-headed.  What accounts for his popularity?  I’d say two things: the clarity of his writing and his willingness to explore big ideas. These qualities earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Guns, Germs, and Steel in 1998.

Clarity of expression and big ideas are not easy to find in the everyday writing of anthropologists.  There are occasional exceptions—one is David Graeber, whose work I’ve written about before—as well as the writers recruited by the website Sapiens, whose success since its founding in 2016 is a tribute to the vision of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the leadership of the site’s editor-in-chief, Chip Colwell.

These exceptions and a handful of others aside, I’ve come to think of anthros as living in a dream-world in which we take for granted the importance and moral urgency of what we write without seriously considering its off-putting characteristics for the public we aspire to reach.   This suspicion was confirmed by the campaign to hold public readings of work by Michel Foucault to protest the inauguration of the current occupant of the White House.  I’m casting no aspersions on those who venerate Saint Michel, only noting the improbability that anything written by him would change the hearts and minds of Americans in a time of marked coarsening of our national discourse.

What do I mean by off-putting characteristics?  There is little point in belaboring the problem of jargon, which afflicts all academic disciplines. (Addendum, 2-24.2017.  That said, don’t miss this essay on academic BS by Maximillian Alvarez.)  But anthropology seems more prone than most to embrace weird linguistic tics, such as the compulsion to pluralize everything (“anthropologies,” “sexualities”) or claiming to “theorize” an issue when the author is simply undertaking comparison or offering inductive generalizations.  These are normalized in the discipline but are likely to baffle readers who aren’t dues-paying  members of the club.

More substantive problems include frequent, plodding references to the structure of one’s presentation—”In this paragraph I talk about X; in the next I discuss Y,” thus presuming that the reader is too dense to figure out where the author is going and why, which might indeed be the case if the prose is weak.  Or the now almost inevitable declaration that the author’s goal is to “complicate” an issue.  Some questions merit complication, of course. Many don’t.  One could even make a case that a good piece of writing is obliged to simplify or at least offer a concise interpretation of the complexities that it addresses.  Equally distracting is the perceived need to cite Big Theorists as a way of displaying cultural capital rather than illuminating an argument.  (Maximilian Forte discusses this in his video lecture “Beyond Public Anthropology,” beginning at the 36 minute mark.)

Brevity is an underrated virtue in contemporary anthropological writing despite the shift in the culture at large to ever shorter forms of written expression.  I’ve lost count of the number of ethnographies I’ve read in recent years that would have been twice as powerful if they’d been half as long.  As many gifted writers have noted, what one leaves out of a book or article is often as important  to clarity of expression as what stays in.

I was prompted to think about the future of anthropological writing by a recent message from a longtime supporter of the institution for which I work.  He heads a family foundation that funds a number of cultural institutions and progressive causes.  The present political crisis is leading him to shift his support in the direction of organizations that can effect positive social change and counter the nation’s turn to the populist right.  His advice to me: “No more esoteric stuff.  Deal with real issues and offer answers rather than narratives.”  He urged me to come out of what he called the “academic cave.”

Even if we discount the urgency prompted by recent events, his view has merit.  For anthropology to survive and prosper, its practitioners must become much better at bringing informed perspectives to issues of broad import, writing about them with impeccable clarity, and proposing practical solutions when appropriate.  This doesn’t limit work to applied or engaged or activist anthropology, although these are certainly valuable contributions to the field. There remains a place for big-picture research—on deep history, human evolution, ancient cultural traditions, and the like—that helps to contextualize current preoccupations within a larger frame.  This work has to be clear, inventive, and engaging.  If we can’t make this transition, we’ll be abandoned in our academic cave, reading Foucault by the flickering light of a dying fire.

_________________________________________________________________________

A short but useful blog post on writing and editing, drawing on the pithy advice of the late William Zinsser, can be found in the website of Bhaskar Sarma.

The March 2017 issue of Harper’s includes an amusing review by Nat Segnit of the latest crop of writing guides.  Not all of the review is relevant to non-fiction writers and social scientists, but it’s worth a look, especially Segnit’s witty editorial critique of the preamble to the United States Constitution.

The spectrum of cultural appropriation: Recent cases

Inuit_sweater_design
http://gizmodo.com/is-this-1-000-sweater-a-rip-off-of-a-sacred-inuit-desi-1744798184

 

Just when I’d begun to hope that egregious appropriation of indigenous cultural productions was beginning to decline, new cases are making headlines.  Nearly as troubling as the persistence of such acts of injustice is the viral spread of the “cultural appropriation” meme and its invocation in situations that flirt with triviality, a trend that risks undermining the term’s moral force.

In late November 2015, a UK fashion house was called out for selling very expensive sweaters that featured a design copied from a the parka of a long-dead Inuit shaman from Nunavut.  The shaman’s descendants complained, the story hit the media in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, and the company withdrew the product from sale after issuing a rather tepid apology.  Why a publicity-attuned corporation would think that their design theft would go unnoticed in a digitally interconnected world is anyone’s guess.

A more complicated case involves a group of Boy Scouts from southern Colorado who since 1950 have been performing Native dances that they identify as originating in the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, arguably one of the Indian nations that has most energetically defended its traditional religious knowledge and practices.  There is little question that the “Koshare Indian Dancers,” as the dance troupe is called, began as a romantic act of homage to Native Americans.  Over the years, the group has performed across the United States in highly publicized and celebrated events.  The director of the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, has recently protested the performances, which Hopis regard as culturally insensitive because, among other things, the performers have no true understanding of the social and religious meaning of the dances.  Hopis are presumably offended because the dances—however unintentionally—threaten and implicitly show disrespect for Hopi religion by distorting traditional rituals and invoking spiritual powers about which the dancers are themselves completely ignorant.  Denunciations from other Pueblo communities are likely to follow.   (A recent article on the controversy, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, includes a short video of the dances.)

Is the case of the Koshare Indian Dancers more or less troubling than the theft of an Inuit design by a commercial fashion house?  The latter was done solely for commercial gain, which doesn’t seem to be a factor for performers in the Boy Scout dance troupe.  In that sense, the Inuit case is a cruder form of theft.  The Boy Scouts apparently mean well, and they insist that their dance expresses appreciation for Native American culture.  But their dancing is perceived by Hopi people as hurtful and misguided rather than as admiring.  A case can be made that ongoing public performance of the dances constitutes a greater harm to the Hopi, who number around 20,000, than the sale of a handful of overpriced sweaters is to the more numerous Inuit people, although I don’t feel that I’m in a position to say whose hurt might be greater.

Then there’s the recent claim that teaching and practicing yoga by Americans, Canadians, and other people not native to South Asia is a form of cultural appropriation.  This made international headlines when a group at the University of Ottawa canceled a yoga course after concluding that teaching yoga in Canada was ethically fraught because the South Asian societies that developed it “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”

Michelle Goldberg convincingly demolishes this argument in a piece in Slate.   She notes that Indian nationalists enthusiastically supported the introduction of yoga in the West to demonstrate the richness and sophistication of Indian culture.  The engagement of Indian advocates of yoga with Western audiences changed the discipline significantly.  The emerging, cosmopolitan version of yoga has become so identified with India, Goldberg reports, that in 2015 “Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, succeeded in getting the United Nations to recognize International Yoga Day on June 21, which was celebrated with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide.”

The final stop of this tour of widely publicized recent allegations of appropriation is a protest by Oberlin College students who claimed that the apparently inauthentic or substandard ethnic food served in the college’s dining halls was not just unpalatable but represented a form of harmful cultural appropriation.   A Japanese student, among others, resented the poor-quality sushi served in Oberlin’s cafeteria.  She was quoted as saying, “When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture.  So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

Most of the published comments that I’ve seen on the Oberlin tempest-on-a-sushi-tray are unsympathetic, even snarky, and justly so.  But the students’ denunciation is not just silly.  It is a classic case of misusing a moral claim in a way that degrades its meaning and power in much the same way that the casual, uncritical invocation of terms such as “racism” and “ethnocide” distorts their meaning and threatens their legitimacy.  When cultures collide, there is bound to be friction and boundary-infringement of many different kinds, some of which may be unjust and destructive, others of which are merely annoying.  Still others, of course, evoke delight and mutual appreciation.   For a multicultural society to survive and prosper, citizens need to learn to make critical distinctions and exercise judgment about what kind of injuries are worthy of complaint and which are best shrugged off as the price one pays for cultural difference—a price well worth paying.


Additional sources.

The IPinCH project at Simon Fraser University continues to lead the way toward sensible thinking on this topic.  Don’t miss their recently posted “final exam” on the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing.

The Santa Fe New Mexican has just published a comprehensive article by Khristaan D. Villela on the circumstances surrounding the 2015 publication of a book documenting Acoma Pueblo’s origin myth by Penguin/Random House, the sale of which is being vigorously contested by Acoma’s traditional authorities.

For aggregated links to other stories  related to cultural appropriation between 2003 and 2014, see the Who Owns Native Culture? website, updating of which was suspended in mid-2014.

Can anthropology fund itself?

anthronews

The American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology News has just published a short piece of mine under the title “If Not Us, Then Who?”  It addresses a strange blindness shared by many academics about how their research activities get funded now and how they are likely to be funded in the future.  In the United States, at least, the state  is steadily backing away from its former role as a major funder of social science research.  Worst still, demands by influential politicians that government-funded studies be consistent with “American values” or produce immediate economic returns are making it increasingly difficult for some branches of sociocultural anthropology to find financial support.   A few private foundations have moved into the breach, but there is little doubt that philanthropy by individuals—some quite wealthy, others less so—remains the single largest source of charitable giving in the United States.

I never thought about this much when I was a working professor, although my home institution for more than three decades was a college famously successful at soliciting donations from its loyal alumni.  Now that I head a research institution supported almost entirely by charitable donations, I have little time to think about anything else.  (Any reader who has worked for a not-for-profit organization will know what I’m talking about.)  Without ongoing support from individual donors, my institution would be forced to close its doors within a few years, thus ending a century-old record of supporting innovative research in anthropology, archaeology, history, and Native American Studies.

So my AN essay asks: Now that many Baby Boomers are benefiting from the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, shouldn’t we be thinking about giving back so that the scholars  who follow us will have the same opportunities for professional growth that enriched our careers?  And shouldn’t those research opportunities be as free as possible from the influence of the national politics of the moment?

Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

bureaucracy Today anthropologists talk constantly about the need for “public scholarship.”  There are programs that promote it and a handful of anthropologists who successfully publish in popular venues such as the Huffington Post (e.g., the indefatigable Paul Stoller).  The problem is that the textual tics and high-mandarin vocabulary  of contemporary social science are hard to unlearn after decades of trafficking in them.  This makes it especially challenging for academics to write theoretically rich accounts capable of engaging ordinary readers.  We think we know how to do it, but few of us succeed.

An exception is David Graeber, an anthropologist and self-described anarchist who moved to a position in the UK after a high-profile departure from Yale a decade ago.  Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, was widely reviewed in the trade press and is described as an “international best-seller,” although what that means in actual sales isn’t clear to me.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that it doubtless beat the average lifetime sales of a typical work of anthropology (well under a thousand copies these days, I’m told) by several orders of magnitude.  Not every review of Debt was glowing—a book covering so much history is bound to violate the understandings of some experts—but many reviewers found it witty, accessible, and convincing.

What is distinctive about Graeber’s writing, aside from its anarchist underpinnings, is its conversational quality.  He sometimes grapples with the work of major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Jameson, Weber, Marx, etc.) but always manages to represent their thinking with refreshing clarity.  Whether critics find his arguments right or wrong is less interesting than is his ability to make the ideas seem worthy of contemplation because of what they tell us about contemporary realities, including the multiple ways that capitalism shapes our experience and understanding of the world.  And he’s often funny, which helps.

These gifts are on display in Graeber’s latest work, The Utopia of Rules, a collection of  essays on bureaucracy—its history, key features, and impact on societies and individuals.

Continue reading Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”