Re: Relevance?

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Mon, 5 Feb 1996 14:06:21 -0500

In a message dated 96-02-03 22:27:48 EST, JLM@TWICS.COM (John McCreery)

>While reading [about the social effects of downsizing] I have also become
>aware that there is a larger political debate of which it might
>form a part. What we might call the classic cold-war
>framework for political debate on how economies ought to
>Here, if anywhere, is a
>debate to which anthropologists, with our specialized
>knowledge of variation in forms of community organization
>should be able to contribute.

John, *this* is interesting material. Sorry to be late in responding to your
earlier query... In my view, anthropology should be doing more along these
lines. Arguably, the field is now less about what is happening to "others"
and more about what is beginning to happen to all of us in a post-modern,
post-industrial world that is looking grayer by the minute for anyone outside
the fast track -- in any country. The trick will be to see where it's all
really headed, and to make a difference for the better where we can safely do
so. In the end, it's not just the Japanese or the Mayans, it's our own necks
as well. How many anthropologists are already underemployed or about to be
downsized? How secure will jobs and pensions be if employers close their

Anthropologists are perhaps best known for providing detailed accounts of
people and small communities. But these cameos often need placement in
broader cultural and historical contexts if they're to be fully appreciated.
People want to know not merely what is happening somewhere but why. They
wonder whether the same chain of causes and effects could impact their lives.
Anthropology has got to do a better job of bringing the meaning of events
near and far home to its audience. Until then, we'll be on the margins of
the great debates of our times, and maybe deservedly so.

This won't be easy because it involves generalizing beyond the social facts
that many of us are used to handling. It's the problem of setting knowable
communities -- and, I would argue, knowable events or trends -- in larger
systems that George Marcus and Michael Fischer refer to in _Anthropology as
Cultural Critique_ (Univ. of Chicago 1986).

"...Raymond Williams...has posed basic issues applicable to this kind of
experimentation with ethnography. Williams has been concerned with the
increasing difficulty in realist fiction of representing whole worlds and
complex social structures within the limited narrative frame of a plot and a
set of characters. With the great skill of a Charles Dickens or a Thomas
Hardy, this kind of representation was still achievable in the
nineteenth-century world of industrial capitalism, but the complexity and
scale of late capitalism in the twentieth century seem to offer a much more
formidable task for the politically and historically sensitive realist.
Experiments are needed to merge knowable communities conceived by novelists
(and observed by ethnographers) with the "darkly unknowable." (Marcus and
Fischer 1986:77).

The task then is to make the "darkly unknowable" knowable. Marcus and
Fischer offer a number of suggestions, including combining texts describing
people and events at different levels of the system (as Williams recommends).
The list also includes collaborating with other scholars more familiar with
the terrain and incorporating the findings of political economists and
historians into anthropological works so that the ethnography can speak to
broader issues. The Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa had a great idea: in
_Roshomon_ he allows narrators with varying motives drawn from different
social strata to describe the same event, a killing in which they were all
involved. Surprisingly, they produce very different accounts of what
"really" happened. Each one reveals and conceals something about the
incident. Couldn't the same idea be applied to a "killing" on Wall Street or
in the Tokyo exchange?

In fact, that's what downsizing is, isn't it -- a "killing" designed to boost
profits by cutting wage costs and, often simultaneously, by substituting less
costly technology in their place? But would the downsized offer the same
interpretations of the event as the downsizers? Do interpretations condition
reactions to the event? One would think that downsizing would be a
tremendously difficult thing to come to grips with in Japan, with its concept
of "lifetime employment." But is this the case? Or is there some other
traditional notion legitimizing downsizing that can used to "explain" it to

In addition to reading downsizing "up and down" synchronically, it might also
be read diachronically. Why are companies in so many countries shedding
workers now? "We do it to better compete in the world economy" will go only
so far in explaining it. Other factors, including greed, will soon have to
be seriously considered.

Let me offer a reading of this phenomenon for the US. Downsizing is an
affirmation of capitalism triumphant, a sign that it is finally free of
certain constraints. At least since the Reagan years, I think the American
public has been rooting for the private sector in the belief that it would in
some straightforward way produce more jobs and greater prosperity. They
generally seemed fed up with the public sector, the so-called "Nanny State,"
because of its cost in taxes, holier-than-thou attitude, apparently skewed
values, and propensity to either overregulate or regulate poorly. The
welfare mess being a case in point. Accordingly, the public reverted from a
more skeptical view of big business characteristic of 30s and 40s to one of
confidence in the "stewardship" of capital to lead us out of the morass.
However, the current waves of downsizing are causing many Americans to
rethink that notion. We may be returning to a more skeptical view. Hence
the current weakness of Gingrich and the Contract with America.

Is there a parallel movement in Japan?

Again, thanks for opening up this topic. I'd enjoy hearing more about the
effects of things like downsizing, at home or abroad, from other members of
the list. Not to mention how we incorporate these momentous events into our


Mike Cahill