Category Archives: Social change

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-apocalypse 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.

Digital Awajún

NuwaThe rapid improvement and falling price of electronic equipment have put video in the hands of indigenous peoples worldwide and made it easier for film crews of modest means—whether indigenous or not—to document native  music, stories, rituals, and political aspirations.

In Amazonia, work on this front was pioneered by the late Terry Turner, who introduced video equipment and training to the Brazilian Kayapó, who use it to document their culture and fight for their rights to land and a voice in Brazilian politics.

The Awajún of Peru have been uploading videos to YouTube for at least a decade.   Based on my admittedly unsystematic survey, I’d say that a solid majority of these are music videos showcasing Awajún rock bands specializing in música tropical, especially cumbias.   (See this one from the Alto Mayo community of Shimpiyacu, for example.)  None of these are strong candidates for an MTV video award, and I’m not sure that they provide much reassurance that the Awajún are protecting their traditional heritage—but then young Hopis of Arizona have long been fans of reggae, which hasn’t prevented their Indian nation from being one of the most religiously conservative in North America.

In the last few years, however, some video material focused on other aspects of Awajún life has begun to emerge.  The production quality varies but appears to be improving.

The 30-minute video Awajúnti Takatji, “Awajun Style,” includes songs, myths, and views of everyday life in the community of Chipe-Cuzu.  A shorter video entitled Yumi (“Water”) focuses on the environmental threat to Awajún territory posed by government-approved mining activities.  For hard-hitting indigenous political messages, it’s hard to beat this raw but effective video that draws on rap music and images of violence taken during and after El Baguazo (2009).


A recent Paris Review interview of Sarah Thomason, a linguist on the faculty of the University of Michigan, focuses on “language leakage”—how words move from one language to another, or don’t—as well as the factors that cause languages to persist or respond positively to efforts to renew them.

I’m no longer close enough to the pragmatics of spoken Awajún to comment on how the language is dealing with new lexical demands (names of car parts, say, or terms used when working with computers), but I remain cautiously optimistic about prospects for continued use of the language in general.  The Awajún were among the earliest groups to work with missionary-linguists of SIL/WBT, and bilingualism has been central to Awajún primary education since the late 1940s.  Their cultural pride and large population bode well for the language’s viability in the immediate future.  It’s harder to say how the language will fare farther along, however.  Even large Indian nations in the United States—notably, the Navajo—struggle to ensure that young people continue to speak their native language.

IdiomaAwajunA short video demonstration of spoken Awajún, part of a series called “Todas las voces,” is available here.  Among the increasingly educated Awajún there is ongoing debate about whether the Awajún alphabet developed by SIL effectively represents the language’s sound system.  Fermín Tiwi Paati, a young Awajún intellectual whom I interviewed for Upriver in 2012, discusses proposed alternatives here.

It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next five years or so there begin to emerge Awajún videos with higher production values and more ambitious goals.  Like many expressions of modernity, the rise of globally accessible media is a double-edged sword for Amazonian peoples.  It exposes them to powerful outside images and ideas that may lead young people away from traditional values and modes of expression.  At the same time, it potentially offers small indigenous communities the opportunity to communicate their experience and aspirations to a global audience.


Minor Awajún-related media footnote.  A 54-minute feature film about the life of Church of the Nazarene missionaries Roger and Esther Winans, The Calling, is now available on YouTube thanks to the Oklahoma Historical Society.  Roger Winans established the first Protestant mission among the Awajún in the 1920s.  The video was made from worn 16mm film, and everything about it is low-budget.  Still, it expresses a particular moment in Awajún (and U.S.) history.  The Awajún portion begins at about the 30-minute mark.

Is your attention span too short to get you through this blog post?


Short Attention Span Bar & Grill...Happy moment, 5ish!
Short Attention Span Bar & Grill…Happy moment, 5ish!

There’s a point at which political communication speeds past the last stop where democratic deliberation, the genuine consent of the governed, is possible.  An instant poll, of that sort that pops up on your screen while you’re attempting to read debate coverage, encourages snap and solitary judgment, the very opposite of what’s necessary for the exercise of good citizenship.--Jill Lepore, “The Party Crashers,” The New Yorker, 2/22/2016.

If you’re an American, you’re probably tired of the incessant nattering about presidential politics that is all one can find on  CNN, MSNBC, and Fox during this season of party primaries.  And we’re still months away from the actual election.  At the same time, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off the slow-motion train-wreck that U.S. politics has become.

A quick glance at serious journalism reveals a long list of explanations for why this is happening: the corrupting influence of moneyed political-action groups; the fragmentation of media, which invites people to pay attention only to those sources of information that pander to their prejudices; the hyperbolic End Times rhetoric of the 21st century Republican party; the anxiety or simmering rage of working- and middle-class Americans who feel, with considerable justification, that they are being abandoned by our social system, and so on.  All of these theories have a degree of merit.

Our current political reality is, as the mandarins of social theory like to say, “overdetermined.”  Still, I often cycle back to the allegation that promoting much of this chaos is our declining attention span, which produces an unwillingness  to ponder and assess the claims that politicians of both parties make during their campaigns, to think slowly and deeply about the character of the men and women who are asking for our votes.  No one seems to care that the tax-cutting schemes pitched by candidates on the right are, when appraised carefully by economists, judged certain to increase the national debt far beyond its present lamentable state.  However much one may admire Bernie Sanders, how plausible is it that the policies he advocates can provide a free college education for every American who desires one?

Aspects of the claim that new media are changing human cognition were explored prominently in Neil Postman’s prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) and in a somewhat different way by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011).  And it’s not just the Internet: cinema studies have shown that since 1930 the average shot length has declined from 12 seconds to 2.5.   This process attracted public attention (for only a nanosecond or so) with the publication of a study purporting to show that goldfish have a longer attention span than humans.


I was obliged to think about this recently when the organization I direct undertook a revision of its mission statement.  The statement I inherited ran to nearly 120 words and consisted of long, boggy phrases that were mostly lists of things we did and for whom.  To be fair, the organization has an unusually complicated mission that reflects a complex history.  We run academic seminars, manage anthropology’s biggest book award, steward a spectacular collection of Native American art from the Southwest, offer resident fellowships for scholars and Indigenous artists, etc., etc.  It’s thus not easy to come up with a concise statement of the mission that would be suitable for the legendary “elevator pitch.”  The elevator pitch, I gather, emerged from Silicon Valley and refers to the thirty seconds or so in which entrepreneurial supplicants must convince a venture capitalist to provide them with millions of dollars to turn an idea into a viable business.

With the help of several board members, I drafted a punchier version of the mission statement that was about half the length of the original.  It was duly approved by the full board.  Yet even before the digital ink was dry, a visiting team of investment consultants had scornfully dismissed the new, shorter statement as unacceptably long.  A study of mission statements insists, based on a review of 50 prominent non-profits, that their average length is 15.3 words (“excluding brand references”) and that the top 20 examples average only 9.5 words.  The winner is TED, whose mission statement consists of two words, “Spreading Ideas.”  OK, but what kind of ideas?  To whom are they spread and how?  Does anything happen after these ideas are disseminated, or does TED simply move on to the next?  A mystery.

Reflecting on this comparative work, I’m prompted to ask, Why should a complex institution be expected—indeed, required—to account for more than a century of history in ten words or less?  The main reason seems to be the brevity of attention spans in a noisy world of competing claims.  Persons and institutions are now reduced to “brands” not unlike breakfast cereals.  Attention must be captured quickly before the consumer/potential donor moves on to the next shiny box on the shelf.  Failure to formulate a pitch capable of grabbing this attention is now seen as evidence of institutional disarray or incompetence.

No surprise, then, that politics and many other arenas of modern life have been reduced to a marketplace of slogans that have powerful emotive force (“I’m a true conservative.”  “Make America great again.”) without evoking deeper questions about the why, the how, the when.

Which suggests that I’ve got work to do to improve this blog.  My honest if unstated mission statement would be something like “Stuff I write to amuse myself at 5 a.m. before another day of strategic planning meetings and reviewing fund-drive spreadsheets” (20 words).  That clearly won’t do.  How about “Making anthropology great again!” or “Traveling upriver to profound truths”?  Not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.


On the ecology of attention, don’t miss a smart essay published in the Pacific Standard on February 23, 2016:  Caleb Caldwell, “A Better Way of Talking about Attention Loss.