Monday, February 25, 2008

Susan Brown, Women, Men, and Agency

In “Love Unites Them and Hunger Separates Them,” Susan Brown’s mid-1970s study of family organizational patterns and women’s agency in rural, impoverished sectors of the Dominican Republic (from the collection Toward an Anthropology of Women), Brown argues that many of the choices made by women regarding their households (such as to enter into serial monogamous relationships in a matrifocal household, rather than the more highly valued formal marriage) were not irrational or dysfunctional as they had often been represented by earlier (mostly male) scholars, but involved rational choices to make the best of things in the context of extreme poverty.

Men in this poverty sector don’t come off looking so good in Brown’s account. They seem mainly a lot of drinking, gambling, philandering, cock-fighting, macho lay-abouts. The main criticism I have of Brown here is the lack of a sense of proportion. We’re left with no sense of whether this description characterizes all, most, many, or few of the actual men. Still, it seems from the impressions of women and the choices they make that we’re talking about some sizeable number of men that could be so described, regardless of their proportion to the larger set of men in general.

Part of this pattern, which I’ll simply call “irresponsibility,” lacking a more convenient label, can no doubt be written down to the effects of coping with the physical and mental stresses of extreme poverty, and not always coping in the most functional way possible.

I’d like also to suggest, though, that, just as with Brown’s arguments that women are making choices that may seem superficially dysfunctional but are actually functional in the circumstances, despite the apparent and obvious dysfunctionality of much of what many of the men are doing, for at least some, there may be a rational and functional strategy at play.

It’s useful to keep in mind some of the dynamics of Latin American peasant communities. Eric Wolf described two basic types of Latin American peasant communities (as well as several other minor varieties): the closed and open peasant communities.

A closed peasant community is definitely not what we’re dealing with with Brown’s study community. Closed communities tend to occur in highly isolated areas, e.g. in rugged rural terrain in places like Mexico or Peru. While not completely isolated from regional market systems and state intervention (or else they’d be “subsistence farmers” and not “peasants”), they produce primarily for their own subsistence and tend to promote an ideology of social harmony and equality within the community (but see also the enormous literature focusing on such communities and relation between harmony ideology and practice, the idea of limited good and social equality and tension, etc.).

Open peasant communities, as the name suggests, are more “open,” specifically more open to regional, national, and even global economic networks. Making a living more often involves a combination of subsistence farming, small cash crop farming, and wage labor when it’s available. (With the irregularity of wage work typical in such contexts, many men are “shifty” in part because they must always be “shifting.”) Social inequality, and the open expression of it, is also more part of community life than in closed communities.

The route to upward mobility, even slight improvement of livelihood, is difficult, especially in an environment when, especially prior to Grameen Bank and the micro-loan experiment, access to external capital (to buy another plot of land to farm, to buy a truck, etc.) is generally absent.

The route to upward mobility, at the same time, is fairly clear for men – to cultivate loyalty among other men of the community so that one can draw on their labor (in capitalist terms, to be able to extract surplus value from their labor). How is this done? Largely through active socializing, buying drinks generously, and a variety of other “irresponsible” activities – a strategy that will inevitably fail for most, often at the price of deepening poverty, but that for a few is not only not a dysfunctional strategy, but one of the few that will pay off in expanded production and an enhanced standard of living.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An Interesting Piece on Race in Barbados

I just encountered an interesting discussion of “Race/Colour in Barbados” on the blog What Crazy Looks Like.

The epigraphic quotation from Rihanna, “I was bullied at school for being white…Now I’m in a much bigger world,” was fascinating to me largely in clearly illustrating a fundamental difference in the social organization of race in the U.S. and in the Caribbean, for “being white” is one of the last things Rihanna would be likely taken to be in the U.S.

At the same time, the following quotation from the blog post is a useful set of statements about race anywhere in the Americas, even while the particular details that are relevant in any given place will vary:

“Even when we remind ourselves of just how fluid and contested race is we fail to reveal that race is in itself a fiction.
When we refuse to see the difference between historical racial privilege and racial slurs we foreclose on any opportunity to dismantle the fiction of race.
And when we recognise race as constructed we refuse to see its construction does not make it any less ‘real’.”

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mundurucú Culture

The next course reading, “Mundurucú Culture,” is a chapter from an important ethnography, Women of the Forest by Yolanda and Robert Murphy.

Much of the material in the chapter is a straightforward presentation of basic cultural features of the Mundurucú, a Native American society from Central South America, including discussion of the gendered division of labor in horticultural and foraging practices, kinship and marriage patterns, residence patterns, etc.

One key topic to consider when reading and thinking about the chapter is the role of architecture and the social organization of space in shaping interactions between people, especially in relation to gender. The Murphys talk a great deal about the ways in which men’s and women’s houses are constructed and laid out within a village, as well as a concentric organization of social space, with the village the inner circle, the gardens in a ring around the village, and the forest as a nearly purely men’s area surrounding that.

Another key topic is not just the presence of male domination, but the particular way in which it is organized in practice. We discussed in class June Nash’s account of the growth over time of patriarchal male domination in certain class contexts of the Aztec polity. Here we encounter another society characterized in part by male domination, though in a distinct form referred to by some anthropologists as fratriarchy.

Another issue the Murphys address, though more in other parts of their book than in this particular chapter, is the relationship between ideas or perceptions and practices. If we ask whether the Mundurucú society is male dominated, our answer depends in part on our definitions.

My inclinations are generally to define something like “male domination” in terms of regular or typical social practice. In practice, women’s actions and movements are highly restricted while men’s are not; men’s activities are more highly valued (by men, and by women much of the time); men tend to have more influence in the community in general; men occasionally physically control women through physical violence, including occasional gang rapes. At the same time, the Murphys stress that Mundurucú women, for the most part, do not see themselves as oppressed or dominated. If domination or oppression are conceptualized mainly in terms of perception (to be oppressed is to feel oppressed), then Mundurucú women are not oppressed. If domination is conceptualized in terms of practices, the Mundurucú are a male-dominated society (and the absence of publically reported feelings of being dominated can be seen as a further example of male domination in practice, in terms of influence on the culture’s discourse on what is properly masculine and feminine, i.e. women’s lack of feeling dominated in society in which their actions are thoroughly regulated can be seen as an instance of socialization of "false consciousness" – or an instance of hegemonic control, for those familiar with the thought of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci).

Central Tendency Measurement and Non-Enumerative Data

As I suggested in my previous post, statistical measures and concepts are one set of analytical tools that can be useful for a variety of research purposes. This can even be true with regard to research on phenomena that, while quantifiable (all phenomena have quantity), are difficult or impossible to measure in a highly enumerated fashion. (Take the example of kinship. One could measure the presence or absence of matrilineality. One could count up the number of households or family groups practicing matrilineality in a given community. One could assess in rough terms whether filiation is strongly or weakly matrilineal. It’s difficult to imagine how one would precisely measure matrilineality on a numerical scale, though.)

One important statistical concept is that of central tendency, and central tendency measures can be usefully applied to a variety of quantities, including some non-enumerable entities.

For example, in his textbook Traditional Cultures, Glenn King uses the notion of modal patterns as a central measure of broad cultural patterns for a variety of world areas. This is not a “normative” approach to the representation of cultures and culture areas in the sense of presenting universal patterns that inevitably essentialize and homogenize the areas in question. Instead, King is careful to point out the identification of a modal pattern simply means to identify for any particular component of culture the pattern that is more common than any other for the spatial frame of reference at hand, and that almost by definition, to speak of modal patterns is to recognize that there will be exceptions, perhaps copious exceptions, to the identified central tendency.

The mode is a particularly useful central tendency measure for phenomena that are hard or impossible to enumerate. Take kinship again. One could say (and King’s textbook does) that among Eastern Native North Americans prior to European contact, matrilineality was the modal pattern, and that’s a useful piece of information. On the other hand, with this and much other information anthropologists are interested in, I’m not sure how one would usefully apply other central tendency measures – so I’m definitely not arguing for over-statisticalization of the discipline. For example, what would a mean or median kinship system be? (I suppose one could take possible rough measures of degree of filiation, rank them on an arbitrary scale, e.g. 1= strong patrilineal filiation, 2= weak patrilineal filiation, 3=bilateral or bilineal filiation, 4= weak matrilineal filiation, 5=strong matrilineal filiation, and collect mean or median tendencies on that basis, but that strikes me as exceedingly artificial and I’m at a loss to imagine the use for such figures.)

Even in cases where statistical concepts and measures (whether in basic terms as I’ve been discussing or through the use of more complex analyses and tests) are useful, scholarship remains simultaneously intrinsically qualitative.

To assess modal tendencies is to first define what entities are to be assessed as present or not and counted. With something like kinship, different tendencies could potentially be measured depending on whether one focused on individuals, households, or families (with those last two needing careful definition in research planning and interpretation as well). To create a hypothetical situation, I could imagine that many Iroquois communities experienced transformations in the early 19th century, through influence of things like religious conversion and revitalization, inter-marriage with Anglos, the encroachment of white settlers, etc., where within communities there may have been co-presence of many small bilaterally-trending neolocal households alongside a small number of large matrilineal matrilocal households. In some communities at certain points of time, there may have been no clear modal pattern – or rather multiple modal patterns might have co-existed. For example, the modal household may have been small and neolocal, while the modal individual may have lived in a large matrilocal household. For such a purely hypothetical context, both would be important measures that would depend on attention to qualitative details in order to be assessable.

Lastly, I am arguing for transcendence of the false qualitative/quantitative divide in social science and humanities research. I’m also arguing that as part of this statistical concepts and analysis can provide one set of tools for many research purposes, including with data that are not particularly amenable to enumeration.

I’m not arguing at all that statistics are the answer to everything. As with any task, the proper analytical tools to use depend on the task at hand. Something statistics are the wrong tool, and sometimes it’s overkill.

Statistics and Lies

I was recently having a discussion with a group of students, specifically about Marvin Harris’ discussion of the importance of statements of co-variance and his call for a more statistically oriented anthropology in The Rise of Anthropological Theory (affectionately – or disaffectionately – referred to as The RAT during my time as a master’s student at the University of Georgia).

One student objected that “Statistics are basically just lies.”

I was a bit taken aback by this.

Statistics can be used to mislead or distort things. For example, it’s fairly common to encounter figures on median income for U.S. households in the mainstream mass media. There’s no particular reason to doubt the accuracy of such figures in most cases, but one could begin to wonder why reportage of mean household income is much less common, much less why the two central tendency measures are so rarely seen together. But statistics per se aren’t lies.

Statistics involves a set of analytical tools and ways of thinking about sets of data. As with any other tool, statistics can be misused. But saying that statistics are lies because they can be used to lie strikes me a bit like saying that words are inherently lies because words are used to lie. (There are some who think that – but they’re lying.)

Still, there is a real and strong distrust of statistics among many cultural anthropologists and scholars in the humanities disciplines. This seems to me to derive from the now old (and tired) divide between “quantitative” and “qualitative” scholarship and the strong mutual distrust that has permeated that divide.

I’ve written before on my main blog (see link below) that this is a false divide. There is no non-quantitative research. All scholarship involves an awareness of quantity, whether in the binary mathematics of presence/absence; rough quantification along the lines of something being present in small or large amount, or happening frequently, continuously, or infrequently; or the highly enumerated quantification of precise counting. There is no non-qualitative research. All scholarship involves choice of what to pay attention to, count, etc.

Moreover, the emphasis on the qualitative/quantitative labels tends to obscure what all good scholarship shares in common, which is measurement and interpretation (see “Measurement and Interpretation”). If one moves past the qual/quant divide (the sort of attitude of “I’m not the sort of scholar who does statistics” or “I’m not the sort who pays attention to anything that can’t be quantified” [by which most mean enumeration, because again, there’s nothing that’s without quantity]) then a whole range of analytical tools and ways of thinking are opened up as possibilities, to be deployed as best fits the research question at hand rather than as best fits an ideological commitment to being “qualitative” or “quantitative.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"The Navaho View of Life," by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton

For the in-class section of the course, our most recent course reading is a selection from a classic ethnography, The Navaho, written by Kluckhohn and Leighton in the mid-1940s.

Both Kluckhohn and Leighton were interested in the Navaho culture (though Kluckhohn also wrote extensively on other cultures as well). Both also shared interests in the relationship between psychology and anthropology, or put a different way the relationship between culture and personality. The two worked together on a couple ethnographic works about the Navaho and their shared theoretical interests.

Of the two, Kluckhohn was the more prominent. In fact, he was one of the most prominent anthropologists of the mid-20th century. His major interests were, as said above, the relationship between culture and personality, and the value orientations typical of specific cultural contexts (with this evident in our course reading selection). (For an extended assessment of his life and work, see the lengthy obituary published in American Anthropologist by Talcott Parsons and Evon Vogt after his death in 1960.)

The following paragraph is a quotation from the Wikipedia (a reference source that should be used cautiously, but which can be useful for background information) entry on Kluckhohn:

“In 1949, Kluckhohn began a long-term study of what he and his colleagues called "Values Orientations" among five adjacent communities in Texas: Zuni, Navajo, Mormon (LDS), Spanish-American (Mexican-American), and Texas Homesteaders. A key methodological approach that he developed together with his wife Florence Rockwood Kluckhohn and colleagues Evon Z. Vogt and Ethel M. Albert, among others, was the Values Orientation Theory. They believed that cross-cultural understanding and communication could be facilitated by analyzing a given culture's orientation to five key aspects of human life: Human Nature (people seen as intrinsically good, evil, or mixed); Man-Nature Relationship (the view that humans should be subordinate to nature, dominant over nature, or live in harmony with nature); Time (primary value placed on past/tradition, present/enjoyment, or future/posterity/delayed gratification); Activity (being, becoming/inner development, or doing/striving/industriousness); and Social Relations (hierarchical, collateral/collective-egalitarian, or individualistic). The Values Orientation Method was developed furthest by Florence Kluckhohn and her colleagues and students in later years.”

In the selected reading, Kluckhohn and Leighton get at Navaho personality, culture, and value orientations through the analysis of cultural premises. Cultural premises can be seen as the basic operating assumptions typical of persons socialized within a particular cultural context. As such, the cultural premises outlined by Kluckhohn and Leighton do not represent a description of what Navajo individuals do on a day-to-day basis in their lives. Rather, they are a description of the operating assumptions that guide Navajo individuals in their choices and actions in both usual and unusual situations as they move through life.

As such, Kluckhohn and Leighton provide a dynamic model for understanding culture and individuals. It doesn’t assume that Navajo culture is static, but provides a way to understand how individuals socialized in a particular sociocultural environment might interact with ongoing and changing circumstances.

Although not many anthropologists today would claim to be “Kluckhohnians,” the approach was influential, and important affinities remain in much contemporary work, such as some varieties of contemporary practice theory (see the course reading by Sherry Ortner) or some more semiotically inclined anthropologists’ work (see the course reading by E. Valentine Daniel).

For more information on the Navajo, see the Navajo Nation’s website, as well as a web page on Navajo history.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Judith K. Brown's "Iroquois Women"

Judith K. Brown’s article “Iroquois Women” is an important text in the history of ethnography. The article was first published in 1975 as part of the collection edited by Rayna Reiter, Toward an Anthropology of Women. This book was one of the more prominent collections of feminist anthropology (also often called “the anthropology of women” at the time) in the mid-1970s. (Woman the Gatherer and Woman, Culture, and Society were two other important collections of essays and articles. The names of those two books were responses to the titles of two other important anthropological books of the 1960s, Man the Hunter and Man, Culture, and Society.)

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, gender was an understudied aspect of culture and information on women often underreported, as male ethnographers often worked mainly with male informants or presented information collected from men as typical of a culture in general. The collection Toward an Anthropology of Women and the Brown essay were part of a broader project to redress earlier male bias in ethnography and introduce more information about women specifically and the importance of gender as a social factor generally.

Historically, Iroquois women had great influence and status within their communities and culture. Brown’s essay is in part a discussion of this status of women in Iroquois culture and of Iroquois gender relations (so it’s also very much about Iroquois men). She’s also concerned to examine the social factors that influence gender relations in any culture through the discussion of an Iroquois case study. Among the factors she discusses are economic production, the gender division of labor in relation to production, kinship and residence organization, and the control and distribution of economic goods.

For more information on Judith K. Brown, see her faculty web page at Oakland University.

For more information on the Iroquois, see the web site.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

John Kicza and Native American Societies

Our first course reading is "The Native Societies of the Americas before contact," from John E. Kicza's book Resilient Cultures: America's Native Peoples Confront European Colonization, 1500 - 1800.

Here's a link to Kicza's website at Washington State University, where he's the chair of the history department:

Kicza uses a somewhat different terminology from what I have introduced thus far in class to characterize general types of societies in the Americas. Specifically, he frames his discussion in terms of "sedentary imperial societies," "semisedentary societies," and "nonsedentary or nomadic societies." To translate this into terms more frequently used by anthropologists, Kicza's "sedentary imperial societies" would correspond to agricultural states, "semisedentary societies" would correspond to horticultural tribes and chiefdoms, as well as a few relatively sedentary intensive foraging societies, and "nonsedentary or nomadic societies" would correspond to nomadic foraging bands.

Are Society and Culture Uniquely Human?

In an online discussion in the online section of this course, I had asked students whether "society" and "culture" were uniquely human or not. The following is my perspective on the question.

Society is clearly an important component of human life and experience, but just as clearly not unique to human beings. Many animal species have some form of social organization, some regular patterning to the way that individuals within a population interact with one another.

Examples of non-human societies would include wolf packs, lion prides, chimpanzee troups, colonies of “social insects” such as honey bees or ants, pods of whales or dolphins, etc. Some animal societies may include members of more than one species, such as some bird flocks comprised of multiple bird species that often utilize slightly different food resources but help one another through mutual defense, e.g. through alarm calls or mobbing potential predators. Some animals, and especially domesticated animals, include humans in a multiple species society. For example, domesticated chickens in a farmyard are social animals with a literal “pecking order,” but they couldn’t be said to comprise a society on their own, as they are dependent on humans for provisioning of food, which is to say that their human keepers are an essential component of their society, and various domesticated animals in turn are a part of our own human societies.

Human society can differ from non-human societies in a quantitative sense. Human society is typically much more complex than non-human social organization, but the presence of social organization alone doesn’t particularly distinguish us from many other animals.

Whether culture is uniquely human is a more complicated question. It does largely depend on how we define the term. If “culture” is defined in a minimalist way (as some cultural anthropologists and many primatologists or animal ethologists tend to do), such as “Culture consists of learned and shared lifeways,” then it is not a uniquely human trait.

Many mammals and birds have some aspects of their way of life that are learned and shared behaviors, i.e. behaviors that are not instinctual or biologically determined. Chimpanzees regularly use simple tools, with individual chimps learning their use through observation and trial and error, and different chimpanzee troups using different sorts of tools. Corvids (the group of birds that includes crows, jays, and ravens) have shown themselves to be quite clever in learning new behaviors. Many songbirds learn their songs from neighboring individuals, with regional “traditions” or “dialects” in the form of their songs. These are all examples of culture in that minimal sense of “learned and shared lifeways.”

Many cultural anthropologists tend to define culture in less minimalist ways. I previously said that I tend to think of human culture along these lines: “(Human) culture consists of learned and shared ways of life transmitted primarily through language and other forms of symbolic communication.”

These two strategies for defining culture (you could call them minimalist and maximalist strategies) often have particular aims. Some scholars have an interest in emphasizing commonalities between humans and non-human animals, and tend to use more minimalist definitions to do so. Others are more interested in emphasizing distinctions, and tend to use the other sort.

Personally, I find it useful to employ both sorts of definitions. It is important to recognize that learned, cultural patterns are an important aspect of the lives of many animals, and that they share this in common with us. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that human culture is both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from non-human culture. Human culture is far more pervasive a quality in our lives as humans than anything we see in other species. The use of language and other symbolic communication to transmit culture makes us qualitatively different, e.g. we’re the only animals that we know of that could have a conversation about whether culture is unique to our species or not.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Defining Society and Culture

Part of what I post below I wrote as part of an online discussion in a purely online section of the "Peoples and Cultures of the World Course." It also relates to an in-class discussion yesterday about "society" and "culture" in a more conventional "live" section of the course.

Society and Culture are really the two big topics of this course and of much scholarly inquiry in sociocultural anthropology and related social science disciplines. There has been long-running debate about how to conceptualize and define them. There is no single, set definition for either. Most every anthropologist or sociologist would offer a slightly different (but not wildly different) perspective and definition.

The following is my “take” on what society and culture are. (What I address are the conventional anthropological senses of both words. As with many words, both have multiple possible senses or references. “Society” could refer to a semi-secret group, such as a Moose Lodge or the International Order of Odd Fellows that function as “secret societies.” It could also refer to people of the upper class, as in “high society.” Neither of these senses is what anthropologists usually mean by “society.” Likewise, “culture” could also refer to the habits and manners of a mainly upper class set of people, as in “high culture,” or it could refer to bacteria in a Petri dish, and neither of these is the sense I’ll talk about.)

A society is in part a group of individuals. It’s not just any group of individuals, though, but a group who, taken together, are organized in such a way as to provide for their productive and reproductive needs, i.e. a group that functions as a population.

Society also involves the organization of interactions between those individuals. Individuals who together comprise a society don’t interact with one another randomly, but in patterned ways. The elements that comprise this social organization will be among the recurring course topics for us.

While there is considerable disagreement about how to precisely define culture and/or human culture, most definitions include the minimal elements of “learned and shared ways of life.” For humans, ways of life or lifeways includes a wide variety of things (also to be a key course topic throughout the semester), such as beliefs, values, worldview, ethos, customs and traditions, etc. What makes them all cultural is that they’re learned and shared – they’re not components of who we are as human beings that derive largely or wholly from our biological nature.

I would tend to define human culture a bit more elaborately, e.g. “learned and shared ways of life transmitted mainly through language and other forms of symbolic communication.”