Am I For Real? Academic authenticity and the future of anthropology

Posted in anthropology on September 12th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

by Emily S. Channell and Kara Newhouse

Last week, I did an interview with my anthropology life partner, Kara Newhouse, on the future of anthropology. I’ve decided to share it here in full, and you can read the original post at Rogue Anthropologist.

Last week an anonymous person using a fake email address left a comment on one of my posts declaring that an undergraduate degree does not make me an anthropologist. In fact, I agree. A degree (bachelor’s or graduate) doesn’t necessarily mean a person will adopt and utilize anthropological perspectives. Rather, it is my ability to employ critical thinking about culture, socialization, power, and human relationships in my life and work that makes me an anthropologist.

Nevertheless, the comment did bother me. I am open to discussion and debate but not with people who leave derogatory comments anonymously. (Leaving a fake email means that the person wouldn’t receive notifications of any follow-up comments.) I find that to be as petty, offensive, and unproductive as the jerks who shout out truck or car windows at bicyclists just for the thrill of scaring them.

But rather than dwell on that negativity and waste my time defending my authenticity to an audience who likely agrees that education is about what you actually learn not the letters after your name, I decided to have a more positive conversation with my dear friend/anthropology life partner, Emily Channell, about the relevance of anthropology as well as its future. Emily is a PhD candidate at City University of New York, where she also teaches undergraduate anthropology courses.

KN: In our initial discussion about the comment on my blog, you noted that anthropology is seen as a dying discipline and said, “If we reject all the various forms of anthropologists, then we condemn anthropology to death.”

Why is anthropology considered a dying field, and what non-academic forms of anthropology do you find exciting?

EC: The question of whether or not anthropology is a dying field has been through a lot of debate. If we think of anthropology as the study of “culture,” then I think we can see both how it might stagnate and also the potential for non-academic forms of anthropology. If it remains exclusively for academia, then eventually anthropologists will run out of places to go, people to study, and things to say. But it also has an incredible ability to change over time.

I think kinship is a great way to look at the way anthropology can change. People studied kinship since the 19th century, then in the second part of the 20th century people considered it dead until David Schneider studied American kinship in 1968 (somehow no one had really thought of doing that before) and then critiqued the whole idea of kinship in 1984. And now kinship has been revisited over and over again to make it still relevant.

So anthropology has this amazing ability to reinvent itself. But, most of the time that reinvention remains in the ivory tower. This means that the image the public typically has of anthropologists is still that of Margaret Mead or Bronislaw Malinowski, even though our ideas are significantly different than theirs. I think anthropology is a dying field because it insists on being so bounded and remaining within academia—as if people on the streets can’t understand culture!

So the non-academic forms of anthropology that I find exciting are the ones that challenge any understanding of “culture” that anthropologists might have. It’s the way that any person can become an anthropologist if they look at the world with a critical eye. You don’t have to be able to draw a genealogy to do that—but you can understand that being “related” often more frequently means relying on someone when you need them, even if society doesn’t consider them your “kin,” for example.

KN: Hmm, so perhaps anthropologists a hundred years ago wouldn’t have considered David Schneider’s kinship studies legitimate?

EC: No, because they didn’t see studying the U.S.—except for Native Americans—as anthropology. Anthropologists then only wanted to study the “other,” the “exotic.” Studying the developed/urban/industrialized U.S. was the domain of sociology. Which leads to the point that only when anthropology and sociology stopped thinking of each other as mutually exclusive did studying the U.S. as an anthropologist become legitimate. And this led to very different conclusions than sociologists ever made.

KN: Trying to say what a field of study is and isn’t is so limiting! What do you think recent technology developments (video, blogging, etc.) have brought to anthropology? Besides new human behaviors to study of course.

EC: I think blogging is great! For me, it gives me a forum to have fulfilling and inspiring conversations with people—both academically trained and not!—in a way that I can’t do in an academic setting. It’s not to say that academic conversations are bad, but they can be frustrating because there’s always a sense of competition, even with your best friend, because you’re all trying to get the same publications and mentors and tenure. With blogging, you get a broader spectrum of opinion without the same focus on name-dropping and jargon.

As far as video technology, anthropology has relied on that for a long time, but as with other parts of the discipline, the significance of it has changed a lot. For people like Mead and Malinowski, it was another way of proving “they were there,” which was the basis for the authority of anthropology for a long time. Now I feel like people use visuals like video and photo to delve into another realm of anthropology. It’s yet another way we use our senses to critique the world around us, which I think is really integral to the continued relevance of anthropology.

KN: Good point about the long-time use of video and how it’s changed. What do you mean when you say people today use visuals to “delve into another realm of anthropology”?

EC: Previously film and video was used to prove authority and also the “exoticness” of people. Now that anthropologists have recognized the problems associated with that kind of voyeurism, photography and video have to be used as critique. So for example, in an ethnography about Native Alaskans, a picture of a “totem poll” and “cabin” aren’t used to show primitive dwellings—it’s a photo that shows state-sponsored “nativism” as tourist attraction because the house was built in the 1990s in a place where Native Alaskans don’t even live. So photos are used to enhance the arguments made by texts. It’s still used as another kind of proof, but proof of critique rather than strangeness.

KN: You noted that writing your blog gives you chances to have different conversations from the ones you have in class—are there ways that things your read from other blogs (anthropologists or otherwise) influence how you think about anthropology in the academic setting?

EC: I wish I could answer yes to that question, but if I’m honest then not really. Reading other blogs does two things for me.

The first is that it makes me think about my work in different ways, but these ways are often at odds with what academic anthropology thinks I should be doing. For academic anthropology, my ideas are my own until I publish them in a book or maybe share them in a small forum of other like-minded people. Putting my precious ideas on the internet for everyone to see is completely counter to the really possessive nature of academics. And I don’t really feel comfortable in classroom settings bringing up blogging or the conversations started there because you’ll inevitably get into a debate about whether blogging counts as anything at all. The academics who consider blogs anywhere near legitimate are very few and far between.

The second thing reading blogs does is just make me mad that academics have this attitude of superiority—that no matter how many blogs I write that are well-received or start great conversations, they are never going to “count” in the way publishing does. So it can be frustrating to get too excited about blogs sometimes, because for academic anthropology I think it’s a dead end. For anthropology in general, though, I think blogs are playing a significant role in keeping the discipline vibrant.

KN: That’s sort of depressing, but your distinction between academic anthropology and anthropology in general is really important, and that’s the part that’s optimistic! Can you elaborate more on the importance of an anthropology that isn’t limited to the academy?

EC: I always see anthropology as the study of the world around us — but the “around us” part doesn’t have to mean around the high-ranking institution.

Anthropologists are one set of people who are critical of inequalities. But even as we recognize that the U.S. doesn’t have equal access to education, we keep anthropology for ourselves, making it exclusive to those who have the means to access it. To me, this runs counter to the fundamental motivations of doing anthropology, and this is what has the potential to kill the discipline. If anthropology remains in the hands of those who are most powerful now — which, let’s face it, are white men, with a few women and people of color thrown in for equality’s sake—then it will become stagnant.

But opening the idea of anthropology to be something that anyone can use and do not only makes the discipline relevant, but it keeps it constantly shifting, changing, dynamic—all words anthropologists have used to describe culture, people, and history. I think we need to apply our own ideas to our discipline—we can absolutely believe that anthropology has its own epistemology, but that epistemology tells us that there isn’t one right way to think about the world. So letting more people “be” anthropologists is just one way to keep the discipline going, and going down an interesting path.

KN: Hell yeah! I sometimes forget that our undergrad training was uniquely rooted in the perspective that anthropology can and should be used to address the inequalities we study. I’m really grateful that we had professors who support and fight for that.

EC: Me too—they are a lot more difficult to find than I realized.

KN: Now that you’re a professor, what are some examples you like to share when talking about public anthropology with students?

EC: Well, mostly I start with trying to relate what anthropologists write about with their daily lives. I always try to focus at least partly on the U.S.—exotic examples can be fun, but only if students also make the connection between those “weird” people and the people they see every day. I try to recommend using an anthropological lens to look at problems they see with the world, to look at the structure that creates inequalities rather than just making generalizations about this type of person or that type of person.

As far as translating that into action, this is a dilemma I feel like all students right now are facing. They can see the uses of anthropological critiques, but where do they—and we—go from there? I think anthropologists of all shapes and sizes need to work on answering that question together, because not having a direction to apply what we learn can also really threaten the discipline.

KN: Yeah, I see what you mean about the dilemma students face over how to use their critical thinking skills. I like to tell the story of how when people asked what I would do with my anthro degree I’d respond “whatever I want!” Which was partly me being feisty but also partly that same crisis of not really knowing.

Now, two years later, I have followed that idea and found my anthropology training highly important to being a reflective journalist and teacher, but my younger self probably would’ve benefited from hearing from someone like me who still identifies as an anthropologist but isn’t in academia (or working at an international development agency, *shudder*).

In other words, attention public anthropology professors, I’m totally willing to be a guest speaker in your class!

EC: Haha, I really like what you say, though, and that it’s feisty. That’s a huge reason I want to do anthropology. I love teaching and research, but I can teach and research anything I want! And that’s amazing! That’s the greatest thing about anthropology.

But the biggest lack is the detachment between “academic” and “applied” jobs, the latter of which tend to just be development organizations or NGOs, like you say. And that can be really limiting to people who think through anthropology but don’t want to remain in the academy—they don’t get much respect from academics, so they’re resigned to a minimal variation in jobs they can actually use anthropology for. We need to make that change.

KN: Amen/women! Maybe we should write a paper about it.  …Just kidding!

EC: It’s funny you say that, because it’s so often the go-to answer for academics. Think outside that box!!

KN: Maybe I should start interviewing folks who studied anthropology and are doing other things and compile the responses here on my blog…

EC: That’s an interesting idea.

KN: Yeah, I think I would’ve appreciated it as a student.

EC: Doubts about anthropology are so often about relevance, and people in academic anthropology need to think about that or they will be really marginalized, no matter how smart and prolific they are.

KN: Powerful. Any other final thoughts or issues to address?

EC: Just that I think it’s a collective task—no one anthropologist is going to revitalize the discipline and bridge all the gaps that exist. We have to recognize the situation and think about how to make positive change together. And that future has the potential to be really, really bright!

KN: I agree. My rogue side has a tendency to strike out as an individual, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled when I find others who are trying to accomplish the same goals…with our powers combined, and all that Captain Planet jazz.

EC: Yeah! And I think there are a lot of us who have the same goals.

KN: Here’s hoping that some of the others chime in on this discussion—and continue it in their corner of the world.

There’s still no such thing as a natural disaster

Posted in anthropology, law, mine safety, politics, union on April 5th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Not in the mines, anyway.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, in which 29 miners died. As I wrote then, the investigation is ongoing – there is no consensus on what caused the explosion, nor on what should be done to prevent another. The chairman of Massey Energy, the company responsible for the Upper Big Branch facility, called the explosion a “natural disaster”.

Whether such a thing exists at all is up for debate (on this, I highly recommend Neil Smith’s article pertaining to the “naturalness” of the effects of Hurricane Katrina). But in the coal mines of West Virginia, where production is still valued over miners’ lives, this disaster is the furthest thing from natural. Describing it as such is just Massey’s most recent attempt to absolve itself of accountability for miners’ deaths.

Exactly a year after the explosion, my article critiquing mining disasters, safety laws, and corporate responsibility has been published in the April 2011 issue of North American Dialogue, the journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America. For those who wish to read a condensed version, here is the short article I attempted to publish in online news journals (you may recall my failure on this account) which comes from the same research.

I won’t invoke the “never again” that has become a cliché in times like these, because, unfortunately, this will happen again. It will happen as long as we consume coal. More important, I think, is that these men never be forgotten and their deaths never, ever be erased by being called “natural.”


Martinsburg, WV (my hometown), photo by author

Mine! mine! mine!  How corporate self-interest trumped civic responsibility in Montcoal

by Emily S. Channell

Millions of gallons of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico since April 22 quickly swept aside news of the deaths of 29 miners in the April 5 mine explosion at Montcoal, West Virginia. Outside of the state, reporting on the details of the explosion and its causes has been minimal. A May 17 Newsweek article on the Deepwater Horizon spill even misreported the number of dead miners at Upper Big Branch to have been 25. The bad behavior of BP executives has trumped that of the top dogs at Massey Energy, the company that owns Upper Big Branch, even as a criminal inquiry into the explosion unfolds.

Industry executives present coal to energy consumers as a cheap, clean, domestic power source. This ignores the danger coal mining creates for miners and the destruction it causes to the natural environment. The demand for coal in the United States is enormous. According to the National Mining Association, half of U.S. electricity is coal-generated, and 90 percent of coal mined in the U.S. is used domestically. Mine owners stand to benefit from increasing production as the U.S. becomes more dependent on coal, and safety laws remain a barrier to their operations.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch was the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years. How can a coal mine, particularly one owned by the largest, richest coal mining company in West Virginia, allow such a disaster to happen? Both corporate leaders and government agencies benefit from a culture of impunity in mining regulations. The people who control the coal industry, like Massey CEO Don Blankenship, are above the law and are not held accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the law itself is not working. Miners have little power against such huge corporations, and the miners’ union is largely absent from underground mines in West Virginia because of company-led anti-union practices. Neither the government agency responsible for the laws (Mine Safety and Health Administration) nor the miners themselves can hold owners and operators accountable for their practices. This impunity is directly responsible for mining disasters and disregard for miners’ lives throughout Appalachia.

The Legacy of Archaic Regulations

The Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1969 and its 1977 amendments remain the standard for safety regulations in coal mines today. These laws require annual inspections for both underground and surface mines to monitor ventilation, methane levels, and coal dust prevalence, three factors that likely contributed to the explosion at Upper Big Branch. Coal production has tripled since 1970, but these standards have not been revised to reflect increased coal production. Additional laws created in 2006 in response to the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners in West Virginia institute emergency planning and preparation standards in underground mines but do not change any regulations for coal mines. As coal corporations have consolidated into near-monopolies in Appalachia, owners and operators find numerous ways to get around safety laws both old and new.

Mine disasters still happen largely because federal mine safety regulations are insufficient and unenforced. The Upper Big Branch mine has received 124 citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for safety violations so far in 2010, on top of 515 citations in 2009. Most of these citations remain unresolved. Massey Energy contests 74 percent of the violations its mines receive from MSHA. The appeal process takes around 500 days to settle. During this process, the owners pay no fines and are not required to deal with the problem the citation targeted. Massey Energy amassed almost $1.2 billion by March 31 of this year, and the company was only charged $1.1 million in fines since January 2009. Because Massey can easily afford to pay the fines, its owners are not pressured to make their mines safer for workers.

The State of the Union

In West Virginia, where most people’s income is 24 percent below the national average, coal mining is still the most lucrative industry. Even for people with college degrees, coal mining offers the greatest income and benefits among available jobs in the southern part of the state, while most service-sector jobs are concentrated in urban hubs or in the Northern and Eastern Panhandles. Corporations such as Massey take advantage of this situation to keep their mines anti-union because they know people need the work and the money mining jobs provide. Miners who show interest in unionizing are frequently threatened or lose their jobs, as several miners testified at Congressional hearings in May of this year. Miners fear reporting obvious safety violations and taking measures to fix them for the same reasons.

Upper Big Branch was a union mine until 1993, when Don Blankenship bought it for Massey Energy. Blankenship disbanded the union until 1997, when the option to unionize was put to a vote. Massey ran a successful anti-union campaign, wherein the company threatened to fire miners who supported the union. The miners voted against union affiliation. In this climate, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) faces dwindling numbers of underground miners in West Virginia and across the country. In most of Massey’s 23 coal mining operations, where only four percent of miners are unionized, the UMWA has lost much of its power to protect laborers and to demand better practices from mining companies.

Will Further Inquiry Yield Change?

It would be far too hopeful to suggest that Massey risks going out of business based on a few criminal trials, but the company’s safety record is currently under serious scrutiny by West Virginia lawmakers as well as the federal government. The FBI has demanded a criminal inquiry into the explosion at Upper Big Branch. This investigation will examine the existence of negligence or reckless disregard on the part of Massey, potentially targeting the corporation and Don Blankenship directly.

As the inquiry plays out, the potential for new mine safety legislation and a real questioning of corporate impunity in West Virginia presents itself. The current administration should consider rewriting the 1977 mine safety laws to target insufficient legislation and loopholes that make enforcement nearly impossible. The laws should not let corporations and their leaders get away with unsafe practices that put miners’ lives in danger daily.

Lest We Forget

How quickly we forget, however, the relevance of the coal mining disaster to our daily lives. It is easy to rely on coal. It is easy to demand that West Virginia continue to produce coal because Appalachian coal is understood to be domestic, cheaply mined, and an efficient energy source. It is easy to forget that many in West Virginia may have no other option than to work in the mines and to encourage their family members to work in the mines.

It is easy to forget that miners in the 1920s gave their lives to win their right to form a union and that miners today give their lives because they do not have the right to challenge the safety practices of a gigantic corporation that is their best source of livelihood.

It is easy to ignore the structures of corporate power that make men such as Don Blankenship immune to justice. It is easy to see the human and environmental destruction done by Massey and BP alike as accidents rather than predictable results of the power of corporate capitalists to neglect people’s interests and escape governmental oversight. When we fail to challenge the structures that lead to these disasters, when we erase these memories, we contribute to the culture of impunity that caused 29 men to die at Montcoal in an entirely preventable disaster.


Building rapport with research

Posted in anthropology, Labrador, research on March 19th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Labrador flag

I returned from my travels at the end of February. It has taken me almost the entire month of March to readjust to the life of a student (as well as to non-freezing temperatures), but I finally feel ready to share a little bit about my experience and the post-return processing I’ve been doing. Not many graduate students get the opportunity to do research in their second year of work, if they ever get such a chance. While to some, it might seem useless to go to a place where I don’t want to focus my dissertation, I learned many valuable lessons about research in general. This is a tremendous insight for me to have, because it’s one of those aspects of being in academia that no one ever really tells you about. All the methods classes and mini-ethnographies in the world can’t actually place you in a funded, rigorous research setting in which the work has real impact on multiple levels.

The project I worked on in Canada is a social networks analysis of people’s connections to one another. In the two weeks I was there, I did nearly 50 interviews with people from all walks of life, some with lots to say and some with nothing to say. Spending 30 minutes in a room with a stranger who you, as researcher, have decided has something to say is an incredibly useful skill to develop. Many of the people we interviewed were a bit flabbergasted that anyone, especially a bunch of New Yorkers, would care at all about what they had to say. And some of them didn’t really have much to say. Here is the value in doing such a huge number of interviews: while there certainly are people who don’t share a lot of information, more people, who might shy away from interviews because they think their opinion is insignificant, actually have a lot to say if you can figure out how to get them to open up. We call it “building rapport” in anthropology, and it’s one of those things that you develop in a context like this one. Our interviews used the same form each time, but the best interviews weren’t from the people whose answers filled in the boxes best. They were the ones who told me a little about themselves, and then I picked up on something to get them to open up. Then, you’re  just having a conversation.

Those conversations are the spaces in which your ideas about a place develop. Doing research for someone else’s project, I don’t get much say in the direction of the work. But some of my better interviews showed me that sometimes, asking the same structured questions over and over aren’t actually going to get you anywhere, even if that’s “the project.” Part of doing research is allowing the research to do itself: why force someone to tell you who they drink with when what they really want to tell you is how they stopped drinking, got out of their bad relationship, and are now bringing up their daughter and taking care of their mother? Sometimes, it’s better to know how to maneuver a question to get someone to talk rather than how to utter a series of words so that you get an answer. That is when you actually learn something. And no one ever tells you that in class.

sunset over the Churchill River

While developing interviewing skills was a big part of the trip, simply being in a small town as a researcher is itself an experience. Going to the grocery store and seeing people you interviewed is itself a unique part of research. Setting aside your critical mind to go skiing or explore the country a little is also part of research, even if you’re in a place you already know. And for someone like me, who wants to do research in the place she came from, this could prove to be particularly interesting. How are things there going to seem different when I’m looking at them through the eyes of a researcher? What kind of relationships will I build with people there?

It’s important to note that I struggled with adopting the researcher’s eyes. No matter how “postcolonial” anthropology may think itself, the work that we do is still skewed by our interests, and we impose those interests where we do research. The questions we ask out interlocutors are informed by our biases, and learning how to ask questions better once you’re sitting across a table from someone doesn’t change the fact that the questions often don’t make sense to them and they way they live. Questions about traditions and customs are second nature to anthropologists, but when was the last time we thought of our lives in those terms? I enjoyed working as a researcher, and I’m looking forward to doing more of it in the future, but I’m also still coming to terms with what that means. I hope that most young anthropologists think about this process, though: we can’t just put on our researcher suits and churn out knowledge. Becoming a good researcher is a complex process, and it takes a lot of self-inquiry. I can’t say that one project has gotten me there, but I think I’m off to a good start.

Northern Lights

Posted in anthropology, Labrador on January 11th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

The new year started with sad news, that of the death of Judy Bonds, one of West Virginia’s most respected, famed, and generous activists. Unfortunately I was never lucky enough to meet Judy, but her spirit and dedication permeate the movement against mountaintop removal in Appalachia – her memory will be a guiding light for the years to come.

There are a few West Virginia-based issues I’m thinking of writing about in the coming weeks, but for now, my energy has been focused north. Just about as north as you can imagine, really…

This semester, I have the great opportunity to travel with Professor Kirk Dombrowski (who I’ve worked with at John Jay College for about a year and a half) to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the “hub” of Labrador, Canada, where he’s doing a research project in the town of about 8,000 people. Last spring, Kirk was in Nain, the northernmost town of Labrador, doing a study of social networks among a mostly Inuit population. In Goose Bay, we’ll be doing a similar study where we discuss different types of social networks – food sharing, traditional knowledge, kinship, alcohol co-use, housing, etc. – that people have in a bigger town with a much more mixed population (Innu, Inuit, Inuit Metis, white, etc.). I’ve been generating background research about the region for the entire time I’ve been working with Kirk, and now I’m in the process of analyzing the kinship data from the Nain project. Now I’ll be adding data from Goose Bay and hopefully expanding this network study.

I’ll be doing interviews with folks in Goose Bay for two weeks in February, which is not only a great chance to stretch my researcher wings but also to experience a really remote and misunderstood place. I say this because anthropologists have been dealing with Native American groups for nearly two centuries, and it’s only really maybe in the past two decades that we’ve really been able to portray them in a way that reflects the impact of white settlers on their populations. Because of relocations and land claims, most native groups in the US and Canada have been uprooted and squeezed onto small tracts of land with government-run schools and minimal job opportunities – rates of unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide are all quite high. Furthermore, extraction companies are recently attempting to come up with new land use agreements with native groups and the Canadian government that will allow them to mine for resources like uranium and nickel, providing some jobs but greatly impacting land and environment. By looking at people’s social networks, we’re hoping to try to understand a community based on the way that they see and use it, not the way that the Canadian Government has decided it should work.

While I doubt I will have much time for blogging while I’m there, I will definitely put a write-up of the experience here when I return. In the meantime, I highly suggest reading Anastasia Shkilnyk’s A Poison Stronger Than Love, which is about the Canadian Ojibwa and is an amazing book depicting the changes this group faced and the truly hideous things that happened to them again and again.

Rednecks are Stupid, and other important facts I learned from Anthropology

Posted in anthropology, environmentalism, race on November 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Sometimes Anthropologists need some little reminders:

We often forget that the discipline was initially founded on the tenets of scientific racism.

We often think we’re smarter than everyone else because we’re so critical of the way the world works.

You can probably imagine what happens when someone forgets both.

I recently joined the Environmental Anthropology listserv, which typically has some pretty interesting discussions about the nature of environmentalism, conservation, climate change, and other relevant topics. Recently someone posted a link to a really interesting and provocative (because of its incomprehensible conclusions and misuse of anthropology) evolutionary psychology article which suggests that people who stay up later and are productive during the night hours are simply smarter and more evolved  than those who don’t (i.e., those who live in “undeveloped” countries where lack of electricity means people sleep when it’s dark and are productive when it’s light). Because of its really problematic application of “anthropology” to describe how different cultures have typically “used” the hours of dark, it received a nice trouncing on the listserv that I thoroughly enjoyed reading until one post happened, which I’ll quote in full:

“Not to reopen debate on this issue, but I have traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people, and likewise have read much literature and other works from an extremely diverse amount of cultures. Now, shouldn’t everyone be in basic agreement that every single group of people in this world, no matter which way they try to push or pull it, in fact has some smart people, and a blisteringly, overwhelming amount of dumbasses? (Pardon my French; the more blithely the point put forth, the more I tend to speak French)

Kind of like how every country in this planet has a small core of “sophisticants” and an American dessert portion gram-cracker coating of rednecks? Even checking out Wikipedia it states “with the median set score at 100, and a standard deviation of 15″. Egads! I didn’t exactly score genius level on any standardized tests, but I was smart enough to look up that, on the whole, excellence in standardized testing proves that you are extremely capable of standardized testing (but doesn’t show much else).”

I’m not sure if it was the haughty reference to being more well-traveled than most people or the use of “cracker” in the same sentence as “redneck,” but this just pissed me off (in plain English. As someone later pointed out, the euphemistic pardoning of one’s French doesn’t excuse one of being disrespectful). And so my entry into the world of listerv participation was this:

“So now poor, rural white folks are not just backwards and ignorant – which are bad enough stereotypes as it is – they are the marker for what it means to be stupid in this country?

There are many ways to describe how thoughtless a statement like that is. I’ll just take one example: two Goldman Prize winners in the past decade are women you’d probably call rednecks. Having “traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people” doesn’t absolve us of our biases, especially toward the groups we think we know the best.”

I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself for only writing four sentences, none of which stooped to the level of calling this person a dumbass right back, but it is unfathomable to me that a person who describes her or himself as an anthropologist does not recognize the problems with such a statement. It’s one thing to actually think rednecks are stupid. It’s entirely another to pretend that you know more about everything than anyone else because a. you’re smarter and b. you’ve had a good education and c. you’re well-traveled and still be suggesting that there is something inherently stupid about being poor, rural, and white. It sickens me that anthropologists (and other academics, to be sure) so often think so highly of themselves that they think they no longer have any prejudices, and then they fail to see the ones right in front of them.

Maybe this person doesn’t know the interesting history of the word “redneck” or how poor whites were long part of the list of groups targeted by eugenics proponents with (as described by another respondent) “such bad ‘genetics’ as alcoholism, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, having twins, being a migrant worker, single-parent family, pauperism, homelessness, being of Franco-Canadian descent, being of Indian or African-American descent” and that in the 1920s it was suggested they be sterilized along with the other groups mentioned to stop breeding among “bad” sorts of families. Or maybe this person doesn’t recognize the important work women like Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe have done in places like Appalachia and what their presence means to so much of what environmental anthropologists tend to care a lot about. (I also don’t wish to assume that Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe self-identify as rednecks, though they very well might. I think I’m probably safe in guessing, though, that the uninformed poster would categorize these women as such, being rural white folk and all.)

Then the poster had the nerve to relegate the response to the lengthy conversation about the “redneck” comment to a post-script:

“PS: I think I see where some hot buttons were – “rednecks” and “sophisticants”, which immediately dredged up socio-economic concepts. Please disregard – I was attempting to state that there is no segment of any society in the entire world that does not possess individuals of high intelligence. This includes rural regions. “Redneck” was a poor choice of words when posting to a listserv filled with individuals who exercise precisely named categories for groups.”

Disregard. No, I won’t apologize, or suggest that I might have offended someone, or recognize that I might not understand the complications of this term that I so carelessly flung about, or – dare I reference the great Pierre Bourdieu – that I misrecognize my own assumptions about what it means to be poor and white, therefore perpetuating the stereotype that they really are the stupid segment of our society and certainly don’t deserve a place in all this academic talk.

There’s a reason we “exercise precisely named categories for groups.” Maybe it annoys you, poster. But it annoys me that you’re careless enough to think that such statements aren’t examples of how deeply embedded such stereotypes are. Yes, pop culture loves to portray rednecks as dumb, but apparently, some anthropologists still think they are too. Redneck was a poor choice of words here, period.

Anthropology has come a long way from studies that measured brain sizes to confirm that African-Americans were less developed than Whites, and most of us recognize that there’s still a long way to go to really get to an anti-racist anthropology (on this topic I highly suggest Leith Mullings’ 2005 “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology” in the Annual Review of Anthropology (vol. 34)). But I have to insist that we take this criticism further, because it’s obvious to me that people still do associate stereotypes with people of certain races and from certain places, and one of the easiest targets of such stereotypes is the rural white poor. Maybe they’re the least exotic, and that’s why they’re the most ignored group by anthropologists. They’re the most invisible and therefore the least complicated. We think we already know everything about them, so they are useless to us and our significant academic contributions (though Eliza Darling’s work is an exciting intervention into that last bit).

I’ve always liked anthropology because of its ability to provide critical perspectives on the assumptions we have about the way society works and the way we think about one another. But I wonder if this discipline is guilty here of its own misrecognition (according to Bourdieu, “the fact of recognizing a violence which is wielded precisely inasmuch as one does not perceive it as such”). Anthropology recognizes the violence we’ve done to other groups of Others that we’ve constructed as counter to our Selves, but we miss out on the fact that just saying we do violence doesn’t mean we stop doing it. Or, just because we recognize that anthropology was long complicit in constructing racism doesn’t mean that we still don’t have really awful stereotypes about people that we continue to accept without question because we think we’re past all that. We’re critical enough of everything else that if one group gets left out, it’s no big deal. We don’t see that such unchallenged assumptions, such acts of misrecognition perpetuate the invisibility of groups like the rural white poor and therefore allow inequalities and subjugation to remain ignored.

I sure do hope I’ve used that ‘misrecognition’ thing right. Otherwise they’re going to kick me out of that ‘sophisticant’ category and into the American-dessert portion graham-cracker redneck group of dummies.

Then again, would that really be so bad?


Posted in activism, anthropology, representation on October 26th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Most people who know me know my politics. And I like it that way.

Most people who know me and know that I do anthropology also know that I do a very politically-oriented sort of anthropology. Among the many parts of my life that I have been thinking about since I started grad school has been how to represent a volatile political situation in which a(n admittedly) biased researcher does in some sense want to give credence to a multi-faceted story; that is, how can I depict a situation in which I have my own political interests in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, including those with whom I disagree?

Last week, my environmental anthropology class had a guest lecturer, Paige West, whose book Conservation is Our Government Now presents a discussion of the effects of conservation programs developed in the west and imposed in small villages in Papua New Guinea. While I won’t attempt to do her amazing and beautifully written book justice here, it does not have the overt, manifesto-like political action arguments that anthropologists have tended toward writing recently and toward which I typically gravitate. She made an active effort to explain and to problematize conservation in a way that would allow her work to be read by conservation biologists, among others – while she clearly challenges the effects their programs had on the Gimi people she works with, she never condemns their projects outright.

In her lecture, however, Dr. West discussed that she has major political opinions of conservation, of the conservation biologists she met in PNG, of the mining projects that have become common in PNG, and of broader neocolonial efforts of westerners to tell “Third Worlders” how to treat their nature as well as their selves.  But she didn’t want this to be the focus of the book, for numerous reasons, and she is working toward the idea that anthropologists shouldn’t necessarily view their research sites and subjects through our own politics.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past week, and it came up again in our class. The facilitator of the class is Melissa Checker, whose work on an environmental justice group in Georgia has been one of the most influential enthnographies shaping my own work. Her work very clearly is of the activist anthropology genre, though she doesn’t completely exclude the perspective of the people against whom the group she write about are working. I don’t mean that these these two women are at odds with one another, but I do see two types of ethnography here. At what point do we try not to privilege one group over another, at what point do we attempt not to alienate diverging groups, and at what point do we sell out? When we’re talking about political issues, who are we most obliged to represent? Clearly, in both cases – and probably in most instances of political action and impact – one group has already been privileged. In my own work, coal companies have more power than activists or workers to propagate their own interests – but this doesn’t mean I can write them off and only talk to miners or environmentalists if I want to write an ‘accurate’ account of a situation. Indeed, I do hope that I will be able to talk to mining company representatives because this is a complex picture, and in some sense all these different perspectives are valid ones, even if I don’t agree with what a person or group is doing to achieve their ends. That said, can someone such as myself even access this group (who will surely know of my political leanings before agreeing to an interview), let alone write in a way that doesn’t simply attack them for their life’s work, which I might full well see as totally destructive? Does attempting to show all the sides take away from what I think is most important, which are the impacts of such destruction on less powerful people’s lives?

This brings to mind Laura Nader‘s seminal piece, “Up the Anthropologist”: Nader suggests that “studying up” and focusing on those in power can provide a different sort of insight than the one we gain from studying the powerless, one which anthropologists have neglected throughout the discipline’s history. This essay was published in 1972, and I think anthropologists still haven’t done justice to her idea – myself included. If our obligation is legitimate representation, then these are the sorts of complications to grapple with, no matter what our political leanings may be.

In the end, though, how much impact can an ethnography have? As Dr. West suggested, a book that doesn’t overly privilege one political agenda over another will be more widely consumed, though a more activist-style work may instigate more controversy and discussion within the discipline. If we want anthropology to leave the Ivory Tower, is it more important to be more politically loud in a more public way, or should we temper ourselves and attempt to challenge the worldview accepted by the interlocutors we view as negatively impacting a view of a group? Either way, we see ourselves as holding the knowledge of a certain kind of truth that only we are privy to and that we have to share with others – we’re really only choosing an audience.

Full References:

Checker, Melissa. 2005 Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town. New York: NYU Press.

Nader, Laura. 1972 “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up” in In: Dell H. Hymes (Ed.) Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon Books: p. 284-311.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation is our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.

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