open discussion

Fri, 4 Mar 1994 12:19:52 -0500

James Carrier has written a very thoughtful letter concerning hiring
practices at universities, which I largely agree with. However, he
discusses a somewhat altered phrase I used in one of my letters to
argue against essentialism. He argues that
".... If `adequately represent' means `analyse and discuss the
social location of', then I see no reason why any given white,
middle-class male is debarred from representing. Occupying a social
location does not, so far as I can tell, make one privileged as an
analyst of that location. I live in Virginia.I know less about
Virginia than I do about London shopkeepers in 1800 and than I do
about Manus villagers in the 1980s. The mere fact that I have lived
over half of my life in Virginia does not make me particularly
qualified to`represent' Virginia."

While one cannot but agree that any particular individual might be
able to analyse a particular question, might even be able to
effectively express points of view he/she has not individually
experienced, it is unlikely to be the norm. As someone who comes
from the "lower class" (prefer working class myself) of a major
urban center, the degree of lack of understanding of the conditions
and sentiments dominating working class life from my colleagues,
even those well-meaning and sympathetic, has truly amazed me. Could
someone not of that background both adequately teach about such
communities and be sensitive to questions relating to that world of
experience? Perhaps. (I will, however, never forget my being
advised by a well-meaning colleague that I was wasting my time with
my concern for the working people of the ancient world--I am an
archeologist--because workers in the past are the same as today's.
They wake up, go to work, and come home and have, otherwise, little
effect on history, he told me. Or another case, when I was told that
in a particular country that everybody has servants, asking myself
did the servants have servants.). Does this mean that every
individual coming from an urban, working class background will
integrate those experiences into his/her academic life? Of course
not! But who is more likely to do so?

I did not suggest that the views of middle class white males were
meaningless, or of a single mold. I merely stated that
" The real question, I suggest, is whether an all male, all white,
often middle class faculty can adequately represent these multiple

Let me just suggest that even in Carrier's case that background
might influence what he sees. Carrier says he knows less about
Virginia than London in the 1800's and that he is not particularly
qualified to represent Virginia. But the fact that you are a white
Virginian is likely to give you a different view of daily life in
Virginia than what might be experienced by many African American
Virginians (I AM NOT saying that all Black Viriginians or all White
Virginians have the same experiences!) and that view is likely to
influence the kind of questions you ask about your research, or
convey in your classes. Aren't women more likely to be asking about
London shopkeepers' families and the position of middle-class women
in London, given their experiences in the US.? Aren't women more
likely to raise questions relevant to woman and aren't they more
likely to encourage other woman to enter anthropology? This is not
to say there is a single woman's voice. Empowerment means allowing
the many experiences within communities and the multipliciy of
community experiences to find expression. Anthropology, more than
most fields, needs to actively ensure that those voices find
expression. Does that endanger white males? The vast majority of
hires remain white males despite the many affirmative action
programs. The real danger is not exclusion of white males but that
very little changes despite the rhetoric.
A. Zagarell/Anthropology/Western Michigan University