Regional Anthropology

Ethnographic Writing about American Culture
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 21: 205-229 (Volume publication date October 1992)
Michael Moffatt
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…. (Fiction writing to aid learning)

My dearest Simone,

When I chose to read “Ethnographic Writing about American Culture” I had forgotten that I didn’t have a copy your American travel journal, America Day by Day. It was out at the library when I last went. I’ve only just now remembered that I had forgotten that. I’m sure I’ll revisit this review and others as I read your work.

Reading Michael Moffatt I was reminded of a favored childhood pastime. Moffatt writes briefly about considerations involved when anthropologists study at home, noting that while familiarity may allow for greater access to and openness from informants, it also limits objectivity and creates blind spots. This brought to mind to me how children are often painfully aware of the workings of culture. Childhood concerns with issues of fairness, often spotlight times when cultural requirements diverge from truth and practicality. Leaves me wondering whether children’s perspectives might offset whatever it is that adult ethnographers lack when studying at home. I loved testing some of the requirements and constraints of small talk and casual conversation as a child.

Take for example, “How are you?” as a greeting. Tone and manner and differences in word stress on the part of the asker often gave clear indicators of the type of response expected. The typical response was, “I’m fine. How are you?” Imagine the little kid saying, “But you were just crying a minute ago…” Anyway, the asker might, for example, elongate and stress the word “are” to indicate familiarity with a recent situation, such as the respondent’s new job or recent childbirth experience–How aaarrrrreeeee you–eliciting more specific and personal responses such as “I’m fine, but tired,” or “I’m getting used to all the new things at work.” Sometimes the asker would leave a bit of ambiguity in the tone and manner of the “How are you?” in order to gauge how the respondent viewed the intimacy level of their relationship by using the intimacy/detail level of the response. These variances that generally melt into the background for adults are often confusingly obvious to children.

Sometimes I would answer in a manner different than expected just to note the response. Childhood is the perfect time for such things because you’re granted a wider margin. Like many children I detested small talk and thinking of the whole enterprise as a chance for careful observation was the only thing that made it bearable. My memory is that people often seemed starved for intimacy and generally appreciated a more open, and personal response even times when they reacted negatively.

Hmm, I’ll stop there at the moment. I have some work to finish before bed. Will continue talk of America and Americans after reading your book. I didn’t just recommend some new form of child labor, did I?

Thanks for your patience,

The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 21: 19-42 (Volume publication date October 1992)
Michel-Rolph Trouillot
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dear, sweet Simone,

I don’t know that it makes sense, but I feel a small happiness at the thought that I was on Earth breathing at the same time that you were on Earth breathing. The small pleasures make for a deeper and more secure happiness, n’est-ce pas? I find that I miss my recently deceased friend the most during the small pleasures. Often times characters in movies speak of missing a deceased loved one during big life events like graduations or weddings or promotions, but those are the types of experiences that have the support of shared culture. The thing I miss is that my friend would have recognized the significance of little changes and little moments in my life. It’s strange how the little changes in life, the little ups and downs, are the most pervasive, but at the same time it’s harder to share the little joys and sorrows of them; we all have them, but it takes a familiarity to share in them. I found that at about the six-month mark, my grief was smaller in many ways, but more impactful. By then it was more clear that the whole world wasn’t upside down, only mine. By then others are less likely to treat you as if you’re in grief–no polite silences when you enter the room, no light brushes to the shoulder, no speaking to you in hushed tones. By then, others in your circle of acquaintances may have experienced a similar loss… which in a way makes you feel less alone, but at the same time makes your loss seem more real because others are experiencing that same loss. I think less now about the reality of my friend’s death and more about how I miss him.

I do believe that I was to say a bit more on Trouillot’s review. Staying on the subject of family structure from Monday, Trouillot writes that when R.T. Smith coined the word “matrifocality,” he did not mean female-headed, but rather he meant to underline the role of women as mothers. That word was definitely used as a cattle prod for misogyny in my little corner of Mississippi. Trouillot notes that Smith might despair at this misuse of the “notion of matrifocality.” I remember hearing as a child that the female-headed household was a major problem for black families and for black men. I believe this had a profoundly negative effect on how black men viewed black women and women generally. I saw it with my father and others. My grandmother had been married, but her husband died. And although my father maintained a respectful and admiring attitude towards his mother, I think anger at the notion that he couldn’t be quite right having grown up in a female-headed household was transferred to women generally. The same goes for non-black men who grew up in similar households.

Also, the notion that female-headed households was a problem was explicitly used to encourage submissiveness among women in more “traditional” nuclear family households. Subservience to the man in the household was necessary for the healthy development of the children present. While I think this had some measure of success in black communities, it may have impacted non-black communities even more given that there was a higher expectation of conformity to this ideal in those communities. I had a culturally diverse mix of friends growing up and I know the issue of matrifocality was discussed in various types of households.

Going back to Smith’s notion of matrifocality as a term that underlines the role of women as mothers, I see how this might be a point of focus for black families in the Americas. What must it have been like for a young black woman who had been recently freed from slavery to give birth? Certainly the specter of children born with price tags on their toes didn’t disappear overnight. Something to ponder at a later date. Also, I don’t know what the current thinking on matrifocality in black families in the Americas is among social scientists and the like.

I started on a new, paying project this week, so I didn’t get as much reading in as I had hoped. The days since Monday have been a blur. I need more of your voice in my head. Perhaps I should set a weekly minimum number of pages to read?

Your ever gracious pupil,

The Caribbean Region:An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 21: 19-42 (Volume publication date October 1992)
Michel-Rolph Trouillot
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor

My dear lady,

I’ve been thinking this week that I haven’t been Americana enough, haven’t maintained the upbeat-enthusiastic-everything-is-possible attitude.  I’m not sure I ever was a good representative of that mindset, though I’ve been chastised for it in the past by friends who were ever more fatalistic.  I’ve been away from reading this week, and with every missing page, my sadness grew and grew; and with thoughts of all the pages in all the books, my sadness grew and grew.  But I worked at making money, so that gives me the right to live a little longer, to be a proper person.  If one does not make money, then one should pay the world a kindness and just die… that’s how it seems.  I will read more tonight and work for money tomorrow and work for pleasure the next day.  I did go for volunteering tonight; that was a pleasure, but once again I find myself in a rush to write to you.

I felt an instant recognition in reading about anthropology in the Caribbean.  I could not stop thinking of home and childhood.  When Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote of Caribbean culture being born out of genocide and colonialism and slavery, I felt that he was describing my world growing up in the Mississippi Delta.  There’s such a shared history and circumstance.  But as time is limited, I will write of one specific thing for now, and perhaps more later in the week?

Trouillot wrote that some officials “saw Afro-Caribbean families as ‘deviant’ simply because they did not fit the nuclear folk-model of Western consciousness.  Just as in the United States, these bureaucrats’ views were echoed by social scientists who wanted to explain–or explain away–such ‘abnormalities’ as ‘missing fathers.'”  I grew up with this discussion swirling, this label of my family life as being deviant.  I’ve written many times of how I greatly prefer the family structure I knew as a kid to the “nuclear folk-model.”  I had this enormous, enveloping extended family experience.  I knew the intimacy that comes with mundane interaction with respect to  great-grandparents on both sides of my family.  I shared a household with a great-grandparent.  Did I ever share a household with my father?  No.  Were my mother and father ever married?  No.  However, speaking with people who grew up in the nuclear unit, I’ve come to believe that I shared something more with my father than what many experience after spending their entire childhood in a home with mom-dad-sibling.   Since I had intimate access to the same people who shaped my father growing up, I think I “know” him in a deeper and more significant way than those in many non-“deviant” families.  I may not know his favorite cereal or the way his takes his coffee, but I know the types of information that would allow me to decide whether I could be friends with him;  times when I’ve spoken to him about his views on women or “race” or religion, I had a near instant understanding of milieu from which those views were born.  I understood him.  Many had “present” fathers who were a lot more “missing” than mine.

This is not to say that I would not have preferred the physical presence of my father along with the other that I did have.  I just grew up in a culture where the value of knowing and being around your “people,” your extended family, was greater than the value of knowing or being around any one or two particular family members.  This “way” may have been born in part as a result of slavery where knowing and being around particular family members may not have been an option due to sales concerns;  it could also be part of an older tradition.  I think there is a wonderfulness to it that was often overlooked by “bureaucrats” and “social scientists.”

OK, now, I will post this while it is still officially Monday in my land.  I will read more of your letters and your work this week.  I must also finish some of the books that have been stacked on my desk for longer.  I read a couple of your letters just this night.  When you chastised Nelson (Algren) for not being a good French student, I felt the sting as well.

Devoted as ever,

Women’s Voices: Their Critique of the Anthropology of Japan
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 19: 17-37 (Volume publication date October 1990)
Mariko Asano Tamanoi
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

During law school, we law students were regularly encouraged to “think like lawyers,” and I feel I know what that is and what it means.  At this point in my anthropology readings I’m starting to wonder what it would mean to “think like an anthropologist.”  How would an anthropologist view a scene differently than, say, a sociologist or psychologist; there’s so much overlap with and borrowing from those two fields.  I’m not completely clueless, but I have no where near the grasp that I do with regard to lawyering.  I think this question comes to me more strongly given that the regional studies concern themselves more than others with discussions of “what” and “how” anthropologists study.

In her discussion of “Women and Family” Tamanoi contrasts sociological studies with anthropological ones.  I wondered whether her conclusions were part of a broader commentary on how anthropology differs from sociology or whether they were more specific to the groups of studies discussed.  Are there clues to how to think like an anthropologists?  She writes that while both emphasized the power of Japanese women (particularly in the domestic sphere), anthropologists paid closer attention to the way women spoke and how they spoke about being female:  ”And since ethnographers pay specific attention to the very language these women speak, the informants’ voices emerge more clearly:  They are not spoken for, they speak.”  She notes that the sociological studies consisted primarily of studies by American female sociologists who conducted fieldwork among urban middle-class housewives; the anthropologists had a broader range of informants.

Is Tamanoi saying that anthropologists are less ethnocentric than sociologists?  Is she saying that anthropologists are more likely than sociologists to use methods that mitigate ethnocentricism?

Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 20: 395-431 (Volume publication date October 1991)
William W. Kelly
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

With reading “Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan,” I felt like I reached the goal I set back at the beginning of November of having the level of comprehension from my first read-through that I only got after a second read-through at that time.  The change came faster and more suddenly than I had expected.  I noticed a marked improvement several weeks ago, but it has taken me a little while to settle into the change.  With this review it hit me that I was once again reading in groups of words; I was seeing the written page differently.  I hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t been doing that until I started doing it again.  I think back to the feeling of mental motion sickness while reading, and of how I seemed to have vocabulary stored in my mind that I couldn’t easily access consciously; and I believe the fact that I was reading word by word played a big part since vocabulary is best learned and understood in context.  It was as if I was breaking apart sentences and attempting to reconstruct them when I saw a period.

I experienced a higher occurrence of that phenomenon where common words all of a sudden seemed very strange.  I would see a word like “door” and stop to wonder whether that were really the word for that thing.  I would mouth the word and say it out loud; and it felt strange and it sounded strange.  Maybe this is what comes from seeing words stripped of context whether it’s because the word is actually standing alone or because I’ve parsed out the word in my mind.

I remember back in elementary school when a kid had trouble reading, he would sometimes use a straight-edge to underline the sentence he was currently reading and to partially block off the rest of the page.  Perhaps having this image in mind led me to think on some level that reading in smaller bits was the way to go when rebuilding reading comprehension.  If I had said to myself, “Hey, stop reading in little bits,” would I have been able to do that… or is it that reading in small bits first is just how you learn and relearn to read.

I’ll say more about the actual content of “Directions in the Anthropology of Contemporary Japan” later in the week.  Some of the things Kelly had to say about  Shintoism clarified for me why I felt such a connection to Shintoism when I first learned about it in elementary school.

Small Facts and Large Issues: The Anthropology of Contemporary Scandinavian Society
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 18: 71-93 (Volume publication date October 1989)
M Gullestad
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

“Small Facts and Large Issues:  The Anthropology of Contemporary Scandinavian Society” is a good start on the type of cross-culturalism that I had hoped to infuse into my self-study of anthropology. Marienne Gullestad begins the review with talk of the need for more cross-cultural studies, more specifically the need for Americans and Europeans to study their own cultures in similar fashion to how they have studied “other” cultures, and the need to look more at how anthropologists and social scientists in those “other” cultures view them and themselves.  Perhaps this would be the path to creating something better that just an understanding that exotic is a relative concept?  Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual of the Nacirema” comes to mind.  I remember a similar discussion of “us” versus the “other” from “Anthropologists View American Culture.” I didn’t get a chance to revisit that review, but I hope to do so as there were several similar discussions.

Comparing the discussions of what anthropologists study when they study “at home,” I again was left with the sense that Scandinavians are less nationalistic than other Europeans and Americans.  When Gullestad discussed community studies versus national studies, I was left with a sense that community studies or other types of studying-part(s)-to-understand-the-whole studies had a wider margin of preference in Scandinavian culture studies than in American ones.  I first got a glimpse of this reduced nationalism when reading the blog of Norwegian anthropologist Cicilie Fagerlid living in France and noting how proclamations of French nationalism stood out to her.

Gullestad also discusses how it may be that Scandinavians view “equality” as “sameness” and how having this view is not necessarily at odds with valuing individualism.  I was much reminded of that same discussion from “Anthropologists View American Culture” and how that informed my thinking of what it means to be “post-racial” in the United States.   Edited to add:  Looking  more specifically at how New York Times Columnist Matt Bai seemed to define post-racial–the idea that as long as there is the appearance of the same religion, style of name (in that case Anglicized), social views, etc.,  then differences in skin color or ethnicity wouldn’t matter so much–Gullestad seemed to echo the same:

The Norwegian egalitarian tradition involves not necessarily actual sameness but ways of under-communicating difference during social encounters… In their personal lives, Norwegian men and women like to “fit in with” friends, neighbors, and relatives.  Two people define each other as alike by being accessible to each other.  Inaccessibility, on the other hand, is a sign of perceived dissimilarity.  Social boundaries between classes and groups do not disappear but become subtler and more hidden through graded distancing and avoidance.

Picking up on the idea of being more hidden and “graded distancing and avoidance”… this is similar to Matt Bai’s assertion that when minority political candidates in the US downplay their ethnic backgrounds to be more accessible, they may, in the end, also be less knowable.  Ethnic distinctions don’t go away; they are downplayed. All and all, there’s a lot to go back and compare and contrast.

Apart from the similarities, I was happily introduced to names I don’t remember hearing before this.  And who knew one could write a review of anthropological literature without once mentioning the name “Franz Boas.”  I took particular notice of Gullestad’s discussion of the work of Thomas Højrup.  Gullestad’s summary follows:

Højrup sees society as composed of a number of contrasting “life-modes” that cannot be defined independently of each other.  The three main types are the self-employed, the ordinary wage-worker, and the career oriented life-modes.  A fourth type, the bourgeois life-mode, is not analyzed.  These life-modes are fundamentally different in terms of their place in the economic and political structure, and each has its own outlook on life.  Their interrelationship is one of opposition, competition, and mutual misinterpretation.

Google books has a preview of Højrup’s book, “State, Culture, and Life-Modes: The Foundations of Life-Mode Analysis.”  Or if you prefer the book in Danish, Google has a preview of that, too.  Gullestad gave enough of an introduction and critique to pique my interest.  I’ve added the title to a list.

India: Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 17: 497-522 (Volume publication date October 1988)
G G Raheja
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

In “India: Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered,” Gloria Goodwin Raheja discusses how understanding of Indian caste, kingship and dominance were unduly influenced by colonialism.  She speaks specifically of a seminal work by Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus, and how the views expressed in that work have a long prehistory entangled with British colonial rule and their interpretations of local elitist traditions:

As they elevated Brahmanic formulations to the level of hegemonic text undergirdling all of Hindu society, the British were simultaneously misinterpreting and devaluing indigenous ideas of sovereignty and authority.

Raheja writes that the British were interested in aspects of Indian culture mostly for the purpose of making colonization go more smoothly and of how that interest and the ideology it supported shaped the types of questions asked during surveys and other types of data collection–information then conveyed in the “district-level land settlement reports, in the district and imperial gazetteers, and in the reports of the Census of India” that formed the source materials used by early writers of volumes on caste.   And doesn’t this make for a tidy package?  The conquerors write the data of history and leave it to others to write the story.

Reading of this intersection of colonialism and anthropology put me in mind of a recent post at Zero Anthropology that was critical of Margaret Mead:

To be perfectly frank, I am no fan of Margaret Mead. Had she been born a while later, she probably would have been the Senior Social Scientist at the Human Terrain System. I once heard a colleague describe her, in supposedly positive terms, as one of anthropology’s “war horses” –which seems all too true on many different, unflattering, levels.

That speaker in positive terms could well have been my first anthropology professor who held up Margaret Mead’s wartime efforts as proof that anthropology wasn’t for sissies or some such (… it was way back in the 1990s).  How might the intersection of war time strategy and anthropology affect/distort our view of the cultures involved, both our own and others?

Read more about the Human Terrain System: Army Enlists Anthropology In War Zones

Anthropologists View American Culture
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 12: 49-78 (Volume publication date October 1983)
G D Spindler, and L Spindler
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the  first page of the article. (Link)

In “Anthropologists View American Culture,” George Spindler and Louise Spindler compile, among other things,  a list of defining features instructive in understanding American culture as found across various global culture studies. I found the description of certain features helpful to my understanding of the concept of “post-racial” in America particularly as described in an article by Matt Bai concerning Nikki Haley as mentioned in a previous post. The features are as follows:

Individualism The individual is the basic unit of society. Individuals are self-reliant and compete with other individuals for success.

Conformity Everyone is expected to conform to the norms of the community or group. Conformity and equality are closely related in that equal can be translated as “the same as.”

Authority Authority, from within a hierarchy or as represented by external power or even expertise, has negative value excepting under special conditions.*

With the above in mind, I look again at Indian-American Nikki Haley winning the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina and Matt Bai’s analysis of that victory. Bai refers to Haley as a post-racial candidate. In the opening paragraphs of the article, Ethnic Distinctions, No Longer So Distinctive, Bai seemingly describes Nikki Haley being stripped of all things Indian: not Nimrata, but Nikki; not Sikh, but Christian; and no, she doesn’t care to talk about her Indian heritage. Bai likens this transition to being released from prison, the prison of ethnic politics. I understand this characterization better now in light of conformity being key to equality. That is, if an individual conforms to the community norms, then that individual should be treated the same as others who conform. In this case the rules of conformity have changed such that skin color or ethnic heritage do not bar inclusion.

In a section titled “Individualism and Conformity: A Key Opposition,” Spindler discusses the finding that rejection of authority seems an integral part of American individualism (61-64). In Haley’s case the fact that she has broken away from certain aspects of her Indian heritage in favor of more mainstream choices, paints her simultaneously as a rebel and a conformist, as an individual and as someone who blends in well with the surrounding community. In rejecting the authority of Indian/family traditions she is able to better conform to local community norms and in the process she may appear that much more “American.” Where Bai seems to conclude that Haley’s campaign and nomination show evidence of a move away from ethnic politics, I believe they show a continuation of ethnic politics with different strategies.

I wonder now about the process by which the rules for what constitutes conformity change…

*Added September 29:  The additional “American” features listed were achievement orientation, equality, sociability, honesty, competence, optimism and work.  In particular, equality was described as follows:  Though born with different attributes and abilities, everyone stands equal before the law and should have equal opportunity to achieve, utilizing one’s individual ability and energy in a self-reliant manner.