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.