Do we read what we write?

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 26 Jan 1996 14:09:02 +0900

Dear Friends,

Have you ever wondered if anyone reads what you work so hard
to write and publish? As I was thinking over our long discussions
of scientific vs. interpretive anthropology last year, I realized
that I couldn't recall even one reference to the articles published
on this topic in the Anthropology Newsletter, American
Anthropologist, or other journals. Was this, I wonder, just a
matter of timing, that the journals came and we didn't get around
to reading them until our conversations on the Net were over? Or
is it, alas, that we publish in journals to score the points we need
for tenure and promotions but write with little expectation that
anyone, besides the reviewers, will ever actually read what we
write? If the second is the case, why should we ever expect to
influence public debate on the major issues of our times?

If you read this message, I would like to urge you to write a reply
in which you (a) mention a piece that you've read lately that you
found impressive and (b) why you found it impressive. To get
things going, I offer "Mexico: Cultural Globalization in a
Disintegrating City" by Nestor Garcia Cancini in American
Ethnologist, vol. 22, no. 4.

While addressed specifically to urban anthropologists and
concerned directly with cultural consumption in Mexico city, this
article speaks eloquently to issues that concern us all.

"A number of anthropologists have rebelled against the retreat of
their discipline into the realm of small causes and effects. Why
should we confine ourselves to speaking only about the
neighborhood while remaining silent about the city? Why repeat
a village concept of social structure in the great urban centers?
Some think that to narrow the horizons of anthropology in such a
way is a failure to examine what is essentially urban. The
formation and life of the city escape us if we cannot show to what
degree the narrow relationships we document
in case studies are conditioned by the broad structures of society
(Ribeiro Durham, 1986)."

At this point, one is inclined to say, "Of course, haven't we all
learned that the places we study are embedded in larger regional
and global systems that shape their destinies?" But here we have
a passionate meditation on the difficulties of combining the
sweeping perspectives of large-scale quantitative research with
the intimate fragments produced by anthropological fieldwork.

"For megacities like Mexico City the issue of what is said and
what is left unsaid by urban subjects, and what sociology says
about these subjects and what anthropology hears them saying,
has recently been complicated. What happens when we cannot
understand what a city is saying--when it becomes a Babel and
when the chaotic polyphony of its voices, its dismembered spaces,
and its scattered individual experiences dilute the meaning of the
total discourse?"

Here, too, we find a startling case, a cultural festival involving
more than three hundred events which turns out to be a unity
and a subject of interest as a whole only to its organizers and the
press who publicized it. The audiences for particular events were
often completely unaware that whatever event they favored was
part of a larger whole. (Not unlike anthropologists who obsessed
with their local projects lose sight of thelarger whole.)

It is more than a piece that I found enjoyable to read. It is one
that I will teach and meditate upon for years to come. I'd love to
hear other responses to it.

John McCreery