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.”