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.

Representing Courage

Posted in mine safety, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I hoped for a while that writing this paper about the Upper Big Branch disaster would be a cathartic experience in which I could begin to stop being outraged and to end my period of mourning. But the more I learn, the angrier I get. The more I realize how important it is to really and truly learn what’s going on and what specific processes of law, of politics, of economics, and of history come into play to allow disasters like this to happen (and ignore consistent smaller incidents in which one or two miners die, as the events in which three more miners died in Kentucky and in West Virginia since the explosion at Upper Big Branch). For me, this is just the beginning: the next decade or so of my life will be dedicated to these mining communities, and if this keeps up, this will only be the first of many disasters and deaths I will have to deal with.

My mom made a comment to me the other night when I was telling her about my deep emotional involvement with this project that eventually I’d work through it to get to the objective perspective I need as an anthropologist. Now, I’ll never be objective in the truest sense of that word, and I don’t think anyone can really expect me to be. My bias will always be in favor of the people, the brave men and women who work underground, knowing that the slightest spark could end their lives; their families who support them endlessly and who make their lives in the coalfields; those willing to speak out against the wrongs of the coal companies; those who have already given their lives for coal and those who died for the rights of miners. Whether I support strip mining, underground mining, or no mining isn’t even relevant; it’s a privilege that I have as a West Virginian who is not tied to the coalfields to make that kind of judgment.

What’s important is that people continue to mine coal, above and below the ground. Sometimes it’s a choice: mining jobs are well-paid, compared to other options, and sometimes it’s an obligation where no other jobs exist. Either way, coal is people’s livelihood, and that’s undeniable. That’s the starting point. The question then becomes why this is the case: what factors have made coal mining people’s best or only option? And how is it that the mining companies get away with considering the miners an expendable resource? What keeps people so attached to this land that they stay and accept the daily dangers of living in mining country – and can that sentiment even be put into words? In terms of my own position as anthropologist, I am an outsider academic as well as being inherently connected to the people of West Virginia and knowing their attachment to that land because it’s my land, too.

But how can I maneuver representing a group of people who have been so negatively stereotyped in this country? How can I write about people who make a decision I would never (and would never be forced to) make for myself without making them seem like foolish pawns of the industry? How can I show that people are making a choice both because of obligation and because of tradition while at the same time explain how the industry works in ways that leaves people with no choice at all? Furthermore, how can I simplify this complexity in a way that my interlocutors can gain something from that insight?

In the end, what I want to avoid in my quest for some kind of more objective perspective is losing sight of the people I’ve learned to admire and respect (albeit from afar, for now) for their courage and their commitment in the face of so much adversity: poverty, corporate exploitation, physical danger…it’s these people I am writing for, and it’s their troubles I am writing to confront. It’s for them that I’m angry, and it’s to them I dedicate this work.

Repost: Blankenship vs. Kennedy vs. Tree Sitters vs. Science

Posted in activism, environmentalism, representation on May 7th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted January 23, 2010)

A lot of interesting things happened in West Virginia at the end of January. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, and Robert Kennedy, Jr. held a public debate on MTR and climate change at the University of Charleston while a tree-sit protest against Massey’s intended blasting of Coal River Mountain lasted for nine days, including the day of the debate, before the protesters descended and were immediately arrested. Earlier in the month, the journal Science published an eleven-author peer reviewed article condemning MTR, which, while significant, really only confirms the effects of MTR most people already knew. Hopefully this article does mean that a different realm of academics will take notice of MTR, but honestly I’m not sure there will be much more of an impact than that.

What I think is more interesting is the concurrence of this hugely important debate and the tree-sit protest. The debate is a long conversation but definitely worth listening to.

Now, I’m clearly not Don Blankenship’s biggest fan (if you read my last post, you can start to see why), but frankly I am not much impressed by Kennedy, either. Ever since I saw his film “Crimes Against Nature,” based on his book of the same title, in a large part I think I’ve had the same reaction to him that a lot of West Virginians have to outsiders who come into the state and think they have to speak for us because we can’t do it for ourselves. It doesn’t help that he loves to reinforce how much of a free-market capitalist he is; rather than considering alternatives to capitalism as much as he considers alternative energy sources, he’s convinced that pure capitalism would hold producers accountable for all the costs of production, and I just don’t think that’s feasible.

This debate began with Kennedy’s attempt to legitimize his presence in West Virginia in the first place, which doesn’t really extend much further than JFK’s War on Poverty beginning in the state and his own love for the mountains, and I certainly do appreciate his passionate plea to save the state I love, too. But of course, Blankenship knows the industry better than Kennedy, and he’s not a stupid guy: he’s able to talk about coal and its role in the growth of the US and that, if coal made us prosperous, we’ve got to keep mining to continue to prosper, which is something a single-industry state like West Virginia does like to hear. For much of this debate, these men are really just talking about completely different things – a lot of people have responded that Kennedy won the debate outright, but really there is absolutely no common ground and Kennedy is simply the more loquacious of the two.

This debate is just one element of a new discovery I’m having about Don Blankenship. People who are on his side like him because he’s from West Virginia, he’s worked in mining for six decades, and he’s only at the top of the coal chain because he got there himself. But he is also a liar; he also supported the apartheid state in South Africa; he also blames all the problems of the coal industry on the “enviros” like the out-of-state tree sitters. Not only did he state during the debate that strip mining causes no meaningful pollution (which was solidly disproven by the Science report on MTR), he also claimed that coal provides more to West Virginian communities than it takes away – even if that means paying people more than their homes are worth to get them to leave so Massey can blast more mountains. I’m pretty sure that mostly profits the absentee landowners who Massey leases the land from in order to be allowed to blast and mine it – there’s just about nothing in it for the West Virginia communities.

Last week I also got the chance to watch a great documentary called Mine War on Blackberry Creek (it’s only 30 minutes and really insightful) about a strike against Massey in 1984 in which Blankenship tries to justify Massey’s investment in multinationals who send jobs to South African mines to “help the people,” despite the fact that they must be paid less than American workers (otherwise why would they export the jobs at all?) and despite the fact that they are working in conditions of slave labor. Considering how he treats mine workers in West Virginia today, his statements through this documentary enlighten viewers to Blankenship’s longstanding obsession with productivity and profit.

It’s hard to tell with Blankenship: has he really kidded himself into thinking that these lies he’s telling himself are true, or does he know better and is really only speaking in the name of the coal industry and money? Somehow I think the latter is a bit more likely, especially considering that his conclusion in the debate was that the EPA’s regulations are unreasonable and that sustainable environmental policy and productivity are irreconcilable. But of course, that’s all because MTR doesn’t create any significant pollution…

But Kennedy is probably kidding himself when he says sustainability and productivity go hand in hand, at least if his definition of “productivity” is the same as Blankenship’s – which, considering how this debate went, it’s probably not. Kennedy’s correct in his facts about the coal industry’s decline as well as about alternative energy opportunities. He really does speak passionately about the destruction caused by MTR, and he certainly doesn’t ignore the human impact it has. Kennedy is more eloquent than Blankenship and probably is the best counterpart to Blankenship in this dominant-male style argument. But I think when Blankenship brings up the activists who aren’t from Appalachia who participate in direct action protests (like the tree sitters and their supporting cast, who came from as far away as New Orleans and Chicago), he’s including Kennedy in that realm of non-native folks who don’t actually get it. And this just brings me back to my first point: why does it have to be someone else speaking for West Virginia?

This choice seems to me to be a gender and class issue in large part. Why not have Blankenship debate with one of the people who has lived through the effects of his company’s practices and who knows Kennedy’s statistics equally well, if not more, and who work with organizations who aren’t just spouting rhetoric about alternative energy sources but actually organizing campaigns for them (like Coal River Mountain Watch – check out their great video)? Is it because many of them are women? Is it because many of them are poor? Is it because many of them are less educated? Is it because of his status as a wealthy white male that Kennedy is seen as of an equal to Blankenship and more fit to meet him in a direct debate (and let’s not forget the mediator, Dr. Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston and a white man in a stable economic situation…)?

Kennedy may be smart, passionate, and a man with the means to speak out about MTR, but he’ll always be an outsider. And until Don Blankenship has the balls to get up on a stage in front of an enormous audience and on West Virginia public television and tell the people of Appalachia that Massey hasn’t polluted their communities, hasn’t forced them out of their homes, hasn’t stolen their jobs, and hasn’t destroyed their livelihoods – all without lying – then nothing has changed. And until it’s West Virginians sitting in the trees on Coal River Mountain at least alongside the “enviros” from out of state, then those actions remain ineffective. It’s time to stop putting on shows to prove how radically we all are convinced of our positions, Blankenship and Kennedy included, and actually do something to effect sustainable change in West Virginia. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Blankenship’s and Kennedy’s net worth combined and redistributed to the people of Appalachian coal towns, for starters…but I guess that wouldn’t be “purely capitalist” enough for either of them. At least there’s one thing they can agree on.

Skip to toolbar