Archive for the 'anthropology' Category

He must know better

January 10, 2014

I wrote a comment to David Brooks’s column today about developments in conservative thinking that got me thinking.

I pointed out what looks to me like a contradiction in a conservative view that worries about the breakdown of the family and then advocates relocation of the unemployed;  isn’t that going to fracture families, and family structure (especially with regard to extended families), further?  There are even studies that show the negative and unintended consequences of rehousing poor people and disrupting their familial and economic networks in the process.

David Brooks spends time prowling the literature and halls of social science.  If he’s spent that much time in the company of social science thinking, why doesn’t he see the contradiction in this conservative relocation idea?

I’m not going to argue “cornpone ‘pinions,” the idea I am familiar with from Mark Twain that one picks up the perspective of the people one spends time with.  I’m going to go with the sententia that it’s all just words, what my friend Elinor would say is someone “just talking.”

I think people who don’t anchor their thinking in enough experience can miss the import of what they are talking about.  Scientists test their hypotheses, and in so doing, they develop their sense of what actually goes on in the petri dish.  The viruses may not have gotten the memo that they are supposed to behave in a certain way humans have thought they might.

I think I’ve read that David Brooks styles himself a man of ideas.  Therein, in my most humble opinion, lies the problem.  Ideas need not just reality checks, but commitment to their consequences.  I think good teachers may take a piece of education theory — an idea — and then notice the reality of how it works out when it is implemented in practice.  I don’t see how a person does this kind of thing as a person of purely of ideas.  Perhaps some people of ideas maybe draw on experiences they had before they took to becoming an observer.

David Brooks is a keen observer of the life that he knows.  He’s also often really funny when he describes it and interprets it — and insightful.  (“Trenchant” is a word that comes to mind.)  He’s got good skills and tools, not to mention talent — including, of course, in communication — he just seems to reserve them for the contexts he is willing to inhabit.  I wonder what he would write if he actually experienced contexts that have no such voice.  I’m not talking about reporting or tourism or slumming, I’m talking about really taking in a situation in the first person, not because that is somehow a morally admirable thing to do, but because a person who does, actually is privy to something different from a person who doesn’t, and will experience cognitive dissonance if they try to play fast and loose with how things actually work in reality if they themselves have something at stake (including at emotional stake) in the situation, if their money and their mouth are in the same place.  I think Margaret Mead said something about how a very young child knows more about their culture than an anthropologist ever will.

Something like that.

I don’t know what exactly David Brooks has experienced and not experienced.  Some of us never write directly about things we know from experience, for example out of concern for compromising someone else’s privacy.  So I don’t want to be misunderstanding him.  I certainly don’t like it when people do that to me.  But what I’ve written is what I see from this remove.  And, in case it isn’t clear from the way I’ve written it, my intentions are kind (it’s hard for me to get that across the great cyber divide sometimes, sometimes it’s even hard for me to get that across face to face, if I forget to smile, for instance — I get so caught up in trying to communicate the content, I give the packaging short shrift).


March 3, 2012

In addition to introducing me to the work of Robert Graves, my high school Latin teacher introduced me to the discipline and approach(es) of anthropology (I think he was getting a master’s degree in it at the time).

I used to try to apply anthropological analysis to classical and medieval law and history.  I liked it the way it allowed me to make sense of things that hadn’t looked sensible before — like finding that there were patterns in succession to the Visigothic throne, that “morbus gothorum” did not do justice to what was going on (it was part of, and the impetus for, my original dissertation topic, which I chickened out of, in favor of one that had originality built into it but for which I didn’t have much enthusiasm — that one had to do with 14th-century dower in England, and I wrote a paper on Livy’s telling of the story of Lucretia and the validity of coerced consent in Roman law, instead).

I was thinking this morning about the Republican race for president, about conservative thinking on moral decay and strengthening the family, and about the factor of religion in the primaries.  One of the things that passed through my mind was how Mormonism, I think, sees itself as trying to make good on Christianity’s promise, and how its sometime embrace of polygamy might fit into whatever project of reform it is engaged in.  From another angle, I was thinking about kinship groups other than the nuclear family and the roles they sometimes play in social and economic networks.

So, what came out of this mixture of thoughts was the idea that maybe our insistence in our current culture of relying on a nuclear family is a point at which we might intervene when we try to identify what’s not working in our society and how to address those ills.  I forget why we came to live as nuclear families either in fact or in terms of an ideal that then influences our expectations.

Maybe work is already done in this regard, about what might be a more natural living arrangement for groups of people of different generations, genders, abilities to contribute to the unit either through caretaking or through bringing in resources like income, in our current society.  If it is, maybe we could please hear more about it in those places in the media in which we hear what the psychologists, sociologists, biologists, neuroscientists, and other favorites are doing.

Social ills, II

February 10, 2012

I dug out my old anthropology course paper on the rehousing case study I referred to in my previous post.  My concluding paragraph reads,

When the urban, matrilocal Bethnal Greeners are transplanted to suburban housing estates, their family structure is altered from one of three generations to one of two.  The emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship is eclipsed by that of husband and wife.  Young and Willmott sense this is not a desirable state of affairs, in which women are very dependent on their husbands and very lonely, and in which the three generations cannot exchange services to their mutual benefit.  Yet they do not seem to see the close ties between women, especially between mother and daughter, as stemming from positive economic motive implying female control over home industry, but rather as a reflection of job insecurity in the public sphere dominated by men.  Whatever social organization is “better” for both men and women and whatever the economic and residential arrangements that this would require would be, it is clear that these three spheres are inextricably intertwined.  We cannot examine kinship relationships except in the context of past and present economic and environmental circumstances.  Perhaps in this way we will discover how to manipulate a system in which both men and women will enjoy equal access to both the domestic and public spheres.

The case study, or ethnography, I was writing about was Family and Kinship in East London, written by Michael Young and Peter Willmott, and published by Penguin Books in 1962.  I wrote my paper in December of 1977 for an anthropology class, and I called it, “The Effect of World War II on ‘Mum’ and the Family.”