Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Lameness of Otherness

I recently read the book Reversed Gaze:  An African Ethnography of American Anthropology by Mwenda Ntarangwi.  I encourage serious anthropologists to use it in graduate seminars as a discussion piece. 

Follow up essays

The book describes Ntarangi’s maturation in Anthropology from graduate school to being an associate professor.  Along the way, he discusses racism, class, and power structures in Anthropology.  One of his main points is that American Anthropology is focused on studying the Other, or Alterity.  You learn much about Ntarangwi and that it must be hard to come to America from Africa and then write about Americans.  It makes one wonder about the validity of all ethnography.  It’s not that Ntarangwi is ‘wrong’ so much as his culture critique perspective misdirects his understanding of American anthropology.  I have several comments.

First, I’m not bothered by being reminded that racism exists in America and in Anthropology.  I was surprised that Ntarangwi seemed surprised (or disappointed) by this fact.  Did he buy into all the equality mumbo jumbo our culture throws out to the world?  I guess he had a rude awakening similar to Rabinow’s in Morocco (1977) who was told by a Muslim friend that Jews (i.e. Rabinow) will always be seen as inferior by Muslims.  Chinese born and raised Francis L. K. Hsu lived with it too (Hsu 1973; 1979; Claes 1996).  American history is incomplete without the racism discussion.  Our Civil War with 600k dead may have ended slavery but not racism.

In addition, it seems that Ntarangwi came to the US with an exalted view of American Anthropologists and scholars in general.  It seems he expected them to be pillars of collegiality and equality; and, that they, somehow, could be above it all.  Unfortunately, academic tribes (Adams 1988; Becher and Trawler 2001) are not paragons of virtue.  They can be as low as any other aspect of our culture.  Anthropologists, and all scholars, are human beings.  They have all the virtues and vices, all the grace and pettiness, of the class.  In typical human fashion, they make we/they distinctions that are not always fair or socially graceful.  It is nice to think well of others--but ethnography requires deeper insight than that.

Americans can be very judgmental of each other and hard on themselves.  I never bought into the in-your-face “Anthropology as culture critique” perspective that began in the mid 1980s (Marcus and Fisher 1986).  My judgment then was that it seemed overly judgmental rather than constructively critical.  In my ethnography of archaeologists (Moore 1986) I rejected culture critique because I viewed it as “self flagellation,” something I was not then, or now, interested in doing.  Trencher (2002) views it as having been obstructive as well.

Today, I view culture critique as one expression of Baby Boomer henpecking and politicking that is so divisive.  This style of communication did appear in American popular culture in the 1980s.  The best example is in comedy.  When the Johnny Carson show was running the humor was always about Carson (Silent generation) making fun of himself, and there was a classiness about it.  He made his guests look good.  Then came the David Letterman and Jay Leno shows, both of which provided Boomer henpecking, with guests verbally slapped around and made to look stupid.  Culture critique demeans and damages what it studies.  It also forces people to take sides.

Ntarangwi plays this too.  On page 42 he describes how he enjoys having his students read Horace Minor’s 1956 essay on the body rituals of the Nacirema (American spelled backwards).  He doesn’t tell them until afterwards that the study is about 1950s America.  So, he gets frustrated comments from his class.  This is him playing a gotcha moment and putting the class at a psychological disadvantage.  I would rather have seen him tell the class what the essay is about up front and that they should write an essay on how they think things have changed.  This would send the message that America has culture that can be studied, and you also make the students engage it.  

The culture critique folks acted like Anthropologists had not done enough research on American culture.  I suspect that Marcus and Fisher underestimated, or ignored, the depth and breadth of anthropological research into self and American culture.  Mead (1942) and Gorer (1964) had already provided idealized versions of Middlebrow culture, and Henry (1965) provided heavy hitting constructive criticism.  By the early 1980s there were excellent readers available on the Anthropology of American culture (Spradley and Rynkiewich 1975; Messerschmidt 1981).  In 1992 Moffett was able to review over 160 anthropological monographs that had been done the previous decade about American culture.  The process continues:  Gusterson (1997) updated the idea of Studying Up and today we have Karen Ho (2009) writing about Wall Street.  By having bought into the culture critique perspective, I suspect that Ntarangwi also underestimates or ignores the vastness and quality of this literature.

When I was in grad school in the early 1980s some of us joked about the “we have met the Others and they are us” phrase that was then popular.  Everyone knew it was a spin-off of the old saying “we have met the enemy and they are us.”  Unfortunately, the culture critique crowd fell hard for it.  They are the ones who escalated Otherness into a poplar term in Anthropology.  They missed the joke and took it seriously—we are the enemy, shame on us, take sides.

Table 1:  Google Ngram for “Otherness” in American English, 1900-2008. Click on image for bigger view.

Otherness and anthropology come together in American Anthropology with the work of Levi Strauss.  In 1963 his Structural Anthropology was released in English and by the 1970s structuralism was the new fad in the social sciences and literary circles.  In 1983 Fabian published his famous Time and the Other and many went gaga about it [I suspect he would take some of it back if he could (Fabian 2006, 2011)].  Next, came Marcus and Fisher (1986) and the pump was primed much further.  On Table 1 it’s clear that Otherness takes off as a popular idea in the 1980s and then peaks in the late 1990s with a subsequent fall off.

Culture critique and its obsession with self/otherness is not a good foundation from which to study another culture or even some aspect of one’s own culture because it is demeaning to those studied.  Culture critique is always a “gotcha” mentality, a game of one-upmanship.  The culture critique crowd love to say “gotcha America” and “gotcha anthropologists” for being the hypocrites you are.  The title of the book says “gotcha” from my “reversed gaze.”  One should never fall in love with a phrase.
The duality "Reflexivity/Otherness" is the post modern version of the old "we/they" duality.   American Anthropology is interested in it because all of Western Civilization debates it.  The culture critique crowd use the we/they binary to demean American culture and it institutions; they criticize to tear down.  The professional stranger (Agar 1996) approach offers constructive criticism with the intent of no further action (a take it or leave it attitude) or seeks to improve American culture.  As they used to say:  "America-love it or leave it".   The cc crowd won't leave.

Fortunately, as Table 1 suggests, the study of Otherness, and by extension the culture critique approach, is a dying trend.  When you have researchers comparing the elderly to others (Hazan 2009) you know that the silly point has been reached.  Also, it never became universal across the profession or across cultural anthropology.  Marvin Harris and Otherness don’t go together and historical archaeologists would give you a blank stare if you asked them about it.  Otherness is just a weird contemporary Western idea and many non-Western cultures would not understand it (cf. Gruen 2010).  There are other ways to conceive of anthropology and ethnography.  I prefer the ethnographer as professional stranger  concept.

Table 1 actually reveals more than I have suggested.  It is a depiction of word usage in American English not just anthropological works.  Prior to 1960 Otherness was mostly a theological, philosophical and ethical concept.  It remains so today.  The most common usage of Otherness is in theology, usually with reference to the Otherness of God.  American Christians are very interested in discovering the Otherness of God and they know that you find God in other people.  The best example of this is Martin Buber's (1923) I and Thou.  It plays out as I/you, we/they, and civilized/savage in Western culture.  In 1979 Giles Gunn published The Interpretation of otherness:  Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination, a nice analysis of how Americans are focused on identity issues, especially the self/society conflict, as portrayed in fiction.  But, it’s not just that they want to be rugged individuals in society they also want fellowship with others.  The quest for fellowship is the quest for God.  Finding God in another culture is no different (Headley 1983; priest and anthropologist).  Any theologian or mystic would recognize that the post modern Anthropologists studying Otherness are basically looking for some version of God.  Very few are reflexive enough to know that they are.
As an observer of all this I have to say that American culture is pervaded by Christian beliefs and values.  Americans who become Anthropologists also carry with them these basic perspectives even if they themselves are atheists.  Christianity is embedded in American Anthropology at a meta level.  The big bubble on Table 1 indicates that Americans used the term Otherness as they lived out the Fourth Great Awakening (here) that spanned 1960 to 1990.  Certainly, there was some hangover that made it last a little longer.  This is what one should expect as the fundamentalist mentality of modernist Anthropological scientism was replaced by the fundamentalist post modern democratic Anthropology during those same years.  Now that post modernism is the norm in Anthropology the aggressive henpecking of the culture critique-ers need not continue; Table 1 suggests it is waning.

As one who lives at the intersection of agnosticism and mysticism, I was never looking for God.  To me the whole Otherness issue is lame.

Ntarangwi is lucky.  America is a land of people reinventing themselves all the time.  He can do this too; he can have a Do Over.  It's part of his personal evolution.  I suggest he restart the project from a different perspective.  He said many times that he is interested in the holistic approach of Anthropology.  Therefore, he should actually take such an approach because the part he is most familiar with, cultural critique as anthropology, is not the whole.  He’ll also find that the “ethnography of archaeology” literature (Edgeworth 2006; Sandlin and Bey 2006) is useful, providing parallel discussions.  Further, he needs to embrace Applied Anthropology because 70 percent of all newly minted PhDs end up working outside of academia.  The profession is not really an academic one when most of its students end up doing applied work.  He should also read the basic references in the anthropology of anthropology genre that he ignored (Herzfeld, 1989; Khare 1990; Kim 2002; Sangren, 2007; & Trencher 1993, 2000).

Lastly, I do think that Ntarangwi is on a good path.  He seems inquisitive and willing to persevere as he struggles to define his own identity.  Good ethnographers are always monitoring the cultural landscape, they have situational awareness, and they know when to take a break from it all.  Reminiscent of Nash’s (1964) idea that ethnographers are always strangers Robert Murphy (1980:11) wrote

…the agonizing process of ethnography is always incomplete; we skim off the top and come away, if we have done our jobs properly, with a sense of loss and unfulfilment.

You will never find yourself if ethnography is your sole means of searching, and, your identity is greater than the part called Anthropologist.

Happy Easter


Adams, H.
 1988  The Academic Tribes.  Second edition.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Agar, Michael H.
1996  The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography.  Second edition.  Academic Press.

Becher, T. and P. Trowler
2001  Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Discipline.  Second edition.  Open University Press.

Claes, Tom
1996  Theorizing the West:  A Second Look at Francis L.K. Hsu.  Cultural Dynamics 8: 79-99.

Edgeworth, Matt, ed.
2006  Ethnographies of Archaeological Practice: Cultural Encounters, Material Transformations.  Lanham: Alta Mira Press.

Fabian, Johannes
1983  Time and the other:  How Anthropology makes Its Object.  New York:  Columbia University Press.

2006  The other revisited: Critical afterthoughts.  Anthropological Theory 6 (2):139-152.

2011  Cultural Anthropology and the Question of knowledge.  Royal Anthropological Institute, London, The Huxley Memorial Lecture, here. Listen to it.

Gorer, Geoffrey
1964  The American People:  A study in national character.  Revised edition.  New York: Norton.

Gruen, Erich S.
2010  Rethinking the Other in Antiquity.  Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gunn, Giles B.
1979  The Interpretation of otherness:  Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Gusterson, Hugh
1997  Studying Up Revisited.  Political and Legal Anthropology Review 20 (1):114-119.

Hazan, Haim
2009  Essential others: anthropology and the return of the old savage.  International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 29(1-2):60-72.  

Headley, Stephen C.
1983  Recognizing God in Another Culture. International Review of Mission 72(285):75-80.

Henry, Jules
1965  Culture Against Man.  New York: Vintage Books.

Herzfeld, Michael
1989  Anthropology Through the Looking-Glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe.  Cambridge University Press

Ho, Karen
2009  Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.  Duke University Press.

Hsu, Francis L. K.
1973  Prejudice and Its Intellectual Effect in American Anthropology:  An Ethnographic Report.  American Anthropologist 75(1): 1-19,

1979  The Cultural Problem of the Cultural Anthropologist.  American Anthropologist 81(3): 517-532.

Levi-Strauss, Claude
1963  Structural Anthropology. Translated by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Khare, R. S.
1990  Indian Sociology and the Cultural Other.  Contributions to Indian Sociology 24(2): 177-199. 

Kim, Choong Soon
2002  One Anthropologist Two Worlds:  Three Decades Of Reflexive Fieldwork In North America.  University of Tennessee Press.

Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fischer
1986  Anthropology as Culture Critique:  An experimental moment in the human sciences.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, Margaret
1942  And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America.  Berghahn Books.

Messerschmidt, Donald A., ed.
1981  Anthropologists at Home in North America.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Minor, Horace
1956  Body Ritual among the Nacirema.  American Anthropologist 58(3):  507-507.

Moffatt, Michael
1992  Ethnographic Writing About American culture.  Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 205-229.

Moore, L. E.
1986  Patterns Without Rhythm: Social Structure Ambiguity in an Archaeological Field Camp.  Master’s Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Montana, Missoula.

Murphy, Robert
1980  The Dialectics of Social Life: Alarms and excursions in anthropological theory.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Nash, Dennison
1963  The Ethnologist as stranger:  An essay in the sociology of knowledge.  Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 19:149-167.

Rabinow, Paul
1977  Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sandlin, Jennifer A. and George J. Bey III
2006  Trowels, trenches and transformation:  A case study of archaeologists learning a more critical practice of archaeology.  Journal of Social Archaeology 6:255-276.

Sangren, P. Steven
2007  Anthropology of anthropology? Further reflections on reflexivity.  Anthropology Today 23(4):13-16.

Spradley, James P. and Michael A Rynkiewich, eds
1975  The Nacirema: Readings on American Culture. New York: Little Brown & Company

Trencher, Susan R
1993  Toward an anthropology of American anthropology: an analysis of fieldworker ethnographies.  PhD Dissertation, Catholic University of America.

2000  Mirrored images: American anthropology and American culture, 1960-1980.  Westport: Bergin & Garvey. 

2002  The Literary Project and Representations of Anthropology.  Anthropological Theory 2(2):211-231.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lewis Binford & James Deetz as Innovators

Earlier this week archaeologist Lewis Binford (1930-2011) passed away.  He was famous in the 1960s-1980s era due to his innovations in theory and method.  While I never cared much for his work I do enjoy thinking about people’s careers.  Also, Binford is a nice contrast to James Deetz (1930-2000), who did influence me.  Both were cast as rivals in the 1970s and 80s.  I worked with Deetz in the summers during 1980-1984. 

These two archaeologists can be compared using David Galenson’s two categories, Young Geniuses and Old Masters [1].  I wrote about his work previously, here.

Galenson identified two types of innovators, Conceptual Innovators and Experimental Innovators. 

Conceptual Innovators are young geniuses whose work communicates discoveries and ideas.  They are deductive, plan their work carefully, have clear ideas in mind, work quickly to complete a project, and know when they are done.  Conceptual innovators peak early in their careers, before age 35, and their later work is less inspiring.  Conceptual painters regard experimental types as mere artisans, lacking in intelligence.  Conceptual innovators are “rationalists” who disregard other forms of thought as being useless; they view themselves as exceptional. 

Binford was a young genius and he peaked in the years 1962-1972.  He did a lot of work after that time that was very un-interesting (although his disciples can't get enough of it).  His writing style was also hard to follow so many folks preferred not to read him.  He undertook many projects but never really changed much theoretically.  He had a conceptual hammer and everything was a nail.  Here is a list of his important papers that started an intelectual movement in archaeology:

1962  Archaeology as Anthropology, American Antiquity 28(2):217-225.

1964 A Consideration of Archaeological Research Design, American Antiquity 29(4):425-441.

1965  Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process, American Antiquity 31 (2): 203-210.

1967  Smudge Pits and Hide Smoking: The Use of Analogy in Archaeological Reasoning, American Antiquity 32 (1):1-12.

1968. New Perspectives in Archaeology, Chicago, Aldine Press. (edited with Sally Binford)

1972  An Archaeological Perspective, New York, Seminar Press.

He became the most famous advocate of the New Archaeology that followed a strict form of hypothetico-deductive model based in logical positivism.  

He advocated one type of science and did not deviate from it, even while the profession moved beyond his ideas. The stuff he wrote in 2001 could easily have been done in 1962.  Galenson’s description of unbridled arrogance describes Binford very well.

Experimental innovators become Old Masters; they work inductively; planning is unimportant because they make their important decisions while working; they stop a project only when they cannot see how to continue it;  they view their enterprise as research, they need to accumulate personal knowledge and require that their techniques emerge from careful study;  they distrust theoretical propositions as facile and unsubstantiated; they work at an incremental slow pace; they have total absorption in the pursuit of ambitious, vague, and elusive goals, and they are frustrated with self perceived lack of success, and fear they may not live long enough to attain their realization.  Their career is an evolution.  Their best work is done later in life, usually after age 40.  Experimental painters consider conceptualists as intellectual tricksters, lacking in artistic ability and integrity.  Old Masters are intuitive thinkers who have learned to appreciate and integrate other types of thought. 

James Deetz was an  experimental innovator.  His career is a collection of interesting projects from slightly different perspectives, suggesting he was constantly changing and refining his own ideas and methods.  He seems to have gone through several stages, as reflected in various publications.

1. A broad based Anthropological archaeologist and artifact analyst willing to try new approaches to artifact analysis; he worked in both historic and prehistoric archaeology:

1960    An Archaeological Approach to Kinship Change in Eighteenth Century Arikara Culture. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 

1964    A Datable Chumash Pictograph from Santa Barbara County, California. American Antiquity 29(4):504-506. 

1965    The Dynamics of Stylistic Change in Arikara Ceramics. Illinois Studies in Anthropology, No. 4. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Il.

1967    Invitation to Archaeology. Natural History Press [Doubleday] for The American Museum of Natural History, Garden City, NJ. 

1970    Archaeology as a Social Science. In Current Directions in Archaeology, Bulletin of the American Anthropological Association 3(3), pt. 2:115-125.

Deetz, James, and Edwin S. Dethlefsen

1965    The Doppler Effect and Archaeology: A Consideration of the Spatial Aspects of Seriation. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 21(3):196-206.
1967    Death's Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow. Natural History 76(3):29-37.

2. Master Historical Archaeologist; he focuses on European settlement in North America:

1968    Late Man in North America: Archaeology of European Americans. In Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas, Betty J. Meggers, editor, pp. 121-130. Anthropological Society of Washington, Washington, D.C.

1972    Ceramics from Plymouth, 1620-1835: The Archaeological Evidence. In Ceramics in America, Ian M. G. Quimby, editor, pp. 15-40. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.
1974    A Cognitive Historical Model for American Material Culture, 1620-1835. In Reconstructing Complex Societies -- An Archaeological Colloquium, Charlotte B. Moore, editor, pp. 21-29. Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 20.

1977    In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Doubleday, Anchor Press, New York.

3. Negotiator; he merges and reworks ideas from different perspectives, and becomes an emissary for historical archaeology in South Africa under and after apartheid:

1983    Scientific Humanism and Humanistic Science: A Plea for Paradigmatic Pluralism in Historical Archaeology. In Historical Archaeology of the Eastern United States: Papers from the R.J. Russell Symposium, Robert W. Neuman, editor. Geoscience and Man 23: 27-34.

1987    Harrington Histograms versus Binford Mean Dates as a Technique for Establishing the Occupational Sequence of Sites at Flowerdew Hundred, Virginia. American Archaeology 6(1):62-67. 

1988    History and Archaeological Theory: Walter Taylor Revisited. American Antiquity53(1):13-22.
1988    American Historical Archaeology: Methods and Results. Science 239:362-367.

1989    Archaeography, Archaeology, or Archeology? American Journal of Archaeology 93(3):429-435.

Scott, Patricia E., and James Deetz

1990    Building, Furnishings and Social Change in Early Victorian Grahamstown. Social Dynamics 16(1):76-89.

Winer, Margot, and James Deetz

1990    The Transformation of British Culture in the Eastern Cape, 1820-1860. Social Dynamics 16(1):55-75.

4. The Old Master, at the top of his game:

1993    Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619-1864. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. 

1994    Foreword. In A Chesapeake Family and Their Slaves: A Study in Historical Archaeology, by Anne Elizabeth Yentsch, pp. xviii-xx. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 

1998    Discussion: Archaeologists as Storytellers. In Archaeologists as Storytellers, Adrian Praetzellis and Mary Praetzellis, editors. Historical Archaeology 32(1):94-96. 

1999    Archaeology at Flowerdew Hundred. In "I, Too, Am America": Archaeological Studies of African-American Life, Theresa A. Singleton, editor, pp. 39-46. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

5. Folklorist; reflecting on a life well lived:

Deetz, James, and Patricia Scott Deetz

2000    The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. W.H. Freeman, New York.

Deetz started out as a modernist archaeologist, a blend of cultural historian and structuralist, a believer in science.  He became a raconteur, banjo player, and humanist.

                                  Deetz at Flowerdew Hundred, May 1984. Photo by Carlen Luke.

1.  David W.  Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses:  The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Princeton University Press, 2006.  

Saturday, April 9, 2011

While you're living beyond all your means

So, we averted the great government shutdown.  Meaning, I go to work on Monday.

Meanwhile , everyone is broke, especially the US.  See here.  Gold has made a move to the upside and it is killing the bankster’s plans of ruling the world.  Screw them.

Here is some old music that seems prescient, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys from the 1971 album of the same name (lyrics; wiki).

If you see something that looks like a star
and it's shooting up out of the ground
and your head is spinning from a loud guitar.
And you just can't escape from the sound
don't worry too much, it'll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys.

And the thing that you're hearing is only the sound
of the low spark of high-heeled boys.

The percentage you're paying is too high priced
while you're living beyond all your means.
And the man in the suit has just bought a new car
from the profit he's made on your dreams.
But today you just swear that the man was shot dead
by a gun that didn't make any noise.
But it wasn't the bullet that laid him to rest
was the low spark of high-heeled boys.

Yes, the low life's of our society always try to appear as being above us.

And, this one needs no introduction

Enough said.