Entries tagged with “Anthropologist View American Culture

I have a much easier time reading the Annual Review articles today than I did six weeks ago.  I still don’t grasp as much on the first read-through as I would expect, but there has been significant improvement.  For a while I thought the answer to my sluggish comprehension was to read slower, taking notes as I went.  What I’ve found is that it’s best to have a smooth first read.  As the review articles and other academic articles generally have good introduction and conclusion areas,  I find that things I don’t at first appear to be grasping in the middle section often come together over the course of the article.

The first read gives me a chance to get comfortable with unfamiliar vocabulary.   For instance, in “India: Caste, Kingship and Dominance Reconsidered,” the word “prestation” was used often in reference to gifts made from the king/highest caste to Brahmans.  Despite knowing the meaning of that word, it was still odd to me (it’s not the word I would choose) and it would stick out to me to the disadvantage of surrounding words.  A sentence with the word “prestation” might throw my conscious-level reading comprehension off for a couple sentences afterward.  There’s some amount reading comprehension going on, but it’s as if it is ghosted.  Then when I read the concluding paragraphs, the color, the understanding becomes more vivid again.  So, even though I may feel like I’m reading the article and not quite getting it, it would seem that on some level I am.  The hardest part is to keep reading even when I feel like I’m not understanding as well as I would like.  (The same goes for unfamiliar sentence constructions as for unfamiliar vocabulary.)

The amount of increased understanding on the second read has been steadily growing.  On the second read, I’m able to make more connections with earlier readings.  In “Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective” the writers state American funerals are so uniform because Americans value conformity and that syncs up with the discussion of conformity as an American culture trait as discussed in “Anthropologist View American Culture.”  I notice that the authors state that the theory of punctuated equilibria has had an impact on thinking about brain development in “Hominid Paleoneurology” as well as on theories of culture development as discussed in “The Archaeology of Equality and Inequality,” and it adds to my sense of how theoretical concepts move across fields even when there’s not necessarily a perfect fit.  When I saw clearly how parties to an academic dispute lavish praise on academics who tend to agree with them as encountered while investigating “Hominid Paleoneurology,” that changed how I view any praise given by one academic to another even when a dispute is not immediately apparent.  The fact that I had read “Language and Disputing” prior to reading “Hominid Paleoneurology” enhanced my  appreciation of the dispute tactics evident in that article.  These are in-your-face examples, but I sense that I am making increasing numbers of subtle connections as well.

I look forward to a time when my first read-through resembles my current second read and I continue to fight my feelings of frustration that this isn’t already the case.  Since I am going through a period of cognitive recovery following a time of medicated brain fog, I knew this reading would be more difficult for me.  The review articles are written by anthropologists for anthropologists so they are heavy with industry speak.  I considered feasting on lighter reading for a while or reading in a field with which I have greater base fluency such as legal writing, but I think the challenge inherent in the choice I made to read from the Annual Review of Anthropology is actually resulting in bigger and faster gains in cognitive function.

Perhaps I should browse for articles on the best ways to regain cognitive function?  For now it’s back to work looking at “Conversation Analysis.”

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.