Remembering Zora, Writing Women’s Worlds

Feminist anthropologists striving to bring women’s voices forward through life histories and personal narratives and auto ethnography are “walking in Zora’s shoes” as Irma McClaurin’s title suggests (McClaurin 2011).  Although, in some circles of anthropology Zora’s work is forgotten and ignored, she pioneered important realms of anthropological study and writing.  Anthropologically informed creative writing can be traced back to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God (McClaurin 2011: 120).  McClaurin situates her own work with women in Belize as an attempt to “witness gender through life histories” and she draws on Zora’s work as a guideline for doing so. McClaurin presents life histories as a writing technique which allows for women’s voices to come through with the anthropologist’s role as a writer becoming the finder of “de inside meanin’ of words” as Zora called it (McClaurin 2011: 122).  Zora Neale Hurston’s work represents a different way of doing anthropology which individual anthropologists have returned to in their own way.  Geertz’s interpretation of meaning through thick description, James Clifford and George Marcus’s writing worlds, and the utilization of life history and personal narrative by feminist anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Caroline Brettell, Marjorie Shostak, and Irma McClaurin all draw upon methods and writing techniques pioneered by this frequently forgotten student of Boaz (McClaurin 2011: 121; Brettell 1999: 224-225).

For anthropologist and writers who were impacted by Zora’s work, her writing carries a personalized form of authority rooted in “situated knowledge,” which stands in sharp contrast to the “view from nowhere” or authoritative generalizations employed by many anthropologist of her era (Kirksey 2009: 150).  Zora’s “integrated strategy” of presenting situated knowledge is powerful in its own way, however, is leaves readers with a personalized sense of the author which is demonstrated by McClaurin’s as well as my own use of Zora rather than Hurston in our references to her (Emerson et al 1995: 179; McClaurin 2011; Hurston 1935, 1937, and 1938).  What degree does her personalized style of writing influence what Dr. Brettell refers to as “the politics of audience reception” (Brettell 1996: 3)?  Can feminist anthropologists of the 21st-century successfully walk in Zora’s shoes without diminishing their position within academia?  Or as the professor of my Current Anthropological Literature course, Nia Parson, asked me in response to the first draft of this post (which was an assignment for her course), can we walk in Zora’s shoes at all?

Brettell (1997: 224) explains that the recent “reconsideration” of the utility of life history in anthropological writing has emerged from feminist anthropology.  Life history brings to life women’s voices which had been previously silent in ethnographic writing (Brettell 1999: XVII).  In Writing Against the Wind: A Mother’s Life History, Caroline Brettell tells her mother’s story.  She situates herself both personally as her mother’s daughter and academically as a scholar who can provide context to Zoe Browne-Clayton Bieler’s life.  She writes, “I have both the proximity and the distance to see interest in her life and to set it into the social, historical, and literary contexts that it deserves” (Brettell 1999: XI).  Both in We Have Already Cried Many Tears and Writing against the Wind, Brettell utilizes life history to demonstrate women’s lived experiences.  In these two books, she inserted her anthropological voice and in the later her voice as daughter throughout the text creating clear distinctions of life history, anthropological analysis, and personal narrative (Brettell 1997: 227; 1999; 1982).  This multi-vocal style of presenting “situated knowledge” and analysis by employing an “excerpt strategy” gives Brettell’s writing in Writing against the Wind both personalized authority and analytical authority throughout her presentation of her mother story. Maintaining both these forms of authority is ideal for contemporary feminist anthropological writing. 

Paper Writing vs. Bloging

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I’ve been having a case of writer’s block all day…  That is to say, I’ve already written 3 posts on my blogs and started planning a new project for my boyfriend and I to work on this summer.  So, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a multitasker but who isn’t these days.

So now, instead of actually getting down to business I’m writing another blog post.  But this time I actually have productivity in mind.  I’m going to do an experiment for my next post.  The section of my paper I’ve been trying to finish for the past 24 hours, should be fairly easy to write because it is something I know a lot about.  So as a sort of  “free writing” meets blogging experiment, I’m going to trying writing this section of my paper as a blog entry and see if it frees up my writers block.  If if it works out well, I may be on to something very useful for my fieldwork and dissertation writing.

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What is the Place of Emotion in Humanistic Empiricism?

Recently, someone close to me drew the connection between the demand for the removal of emotion from scholarship and the continued presence of underlying masculine bias in academia. I was taken aback by the implications of this connection and my blindness to it.  In reading Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer and “Believing in Anthropology as Literature,” the relevance of this masculine bias and its demand for anthropology to be devoid of emotion becomes all the more apparent as do the distinct limitations it creates.  Behar warns, “Most efforts to bring emotions and feelings, including love and gratitude, into our work are likely to be dismissed as ‘feminine sentimentality’” (Behar 2011: 110).  Personal narratives, and even life histories of our informants, can be seen as risky within anthropological forms of writing. These forms of writing often have clear emotional components which are paradoxically seen as compelling and unreliably subjective.  In a discipline struggling for a humanistic empiricism, objective detachment is clung to as a means of laying claim to a scientific ideal. Yet experts from any of the hard sciences openly display emotions over their research. Scientists get excited when they make monumental discoveries; their work can also disappoint them, worry them, and even disturb them. The influence of a scientist’s passions for their work over the particular research questions posed receives little critique within the “hard” sciences.  While a geologist’s zealous passion for his or her research rarely impacts the chemical test results run on soil samples, an anthropologist’s empathetic sorrow can influence analysis of interviews. As anthropologists do we claim our fears, our sorrows, our joys as evidence of observable responses to human realities of the worlds in which we work or do we ignore those unquantifiable internal experiences so that we can focus on our observations of the people and phenomena we study?

Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett argued that the motivation behind including life histories and personal narratives in research involving both the social sciences and humanities is connected to the particularly apparent humanness of this data and its ability to generate a direct dialogue between people and the theories written about them (Maynes et al 2008). They write, “One primary motivation is the desire to examine varieties of individual selfhood and agency ‘from below’ band and practice, as constructed in people’s articulation of self understandings” (Maynes et al 2008: 1).The impact of macro-level forces on an individual lives at the micro-level are brought to life, through life histories which can be employed to try the very human realities of macro policies and forces.  Well utilized life histories can be a powerful tool for anthropological literature which allow the author to provoke emotion without being seen as overly emotional him or herself. Life history becomes a “testimonio” in feminist and activist work, which utilizes such stories to empower a person’s story to become a symbol of the movement (Behar 1996: 27). Life histories and personal narratives have the potential to invigorate ethnographic writing with the type of evocative testimony which directs emotional response and supports social change.

The reality of Behar’s struggle over how much of her to include in “Death and Memory” epitomizes the academic compulsion to remove all hints of emotions.  She warns, “to write vulnerable is to open Pandora’s box” (Behar 1996: 19). Often, the human reality of emotional truth is the story we, as anthropologists are unwilling to tell.  As Behar’s Aunt Rebeca reminds us, anthropology is “the study of people” (Behar 1996: 4). If that is true, then how do we tell the story of people devoid of a basic component of what it means to be human? If the anthropologist is the instrument through which human realities are observed and cultural data is collected, then emotional responses which they shape the anthropologist cannot be ignored.

Occupying the Future

A Vision of Students Today

This video is a little old, in internet terms at least.  It came out in 2007 while I was still in undergrad.  The video was made before college graduates of class of 2009 entered “the real world” to find by in large there was no place for them.  Here’s an old news report about it on ABC News.

The economic crisis hit home, when college graduates all across the nation realized there were no jobs waiting on them.  One of the outdated messages in this film says “when I graduate I will probably have a job that do not exist today,” it was a line we were told repeatedly growing up. In many ways, at the time at least, that statement seemed like the promise of tomorrow, the promise of a technological future.   However, we graduated and found those promised jobs we worked so hard for through high school and college, they still don’t exist.  I am not personally involved in any of the Occupy Movements, but as an anthropologist and a person that has lived through this moment in time, I’d like to point to this as the explanation and cause.  You can blame us I suppose if it makes you feel better, but anyone with a 21st century college degree isn’t lazy, dumb, or “whinny.”  College graduates of 2009, 2010, 2011, and those soon to graduate in 2012 worked hard fulfilling their obligation to Weber’s the “Protestant Work Ethic”.  Just to be admitted to college, young people of the 21st century were taught how to jump through many hoops our parents and grandparents never faced and arguably could not have passed even as adults.  We emerged from the “No Child Left Behind” Era labeled as “over achievers” in spite of ourselves.  If you don’t want to believe my biased insider view, the emic view for anthropologists, then that is fine: check out Alexandra Robbins’ book The Overachievers  or at least consider the New York Times book review of it.

Seven years down the road, I’d say we’ve fallen from grace because no matter what degree of concern adults expressed over the negative repercussions of this “overachieverness,” they were proud.  Sure it was a sign of neurosis on the national level but, hey, we were excelling at the hard-work end of the American Dream, surely it would pay off.  Yet seven years later, we are being depicted as throwing a nation-wide temper-tantrum.  Foxnews labels it a “passing outburst” in this online report and it is only one among many.  Even those who try to take the middle road seem to either find the movement unreasonable or totally missing the point.  In a Forbes article written to explain the movement to its readers, Peter Cohan proves he missed the point in this statement arguing for OWS activist to meet corporations in the middle, where he writes, “Corporations provide many benefits to society — they use people, capital, and technology to create value for consumers, employees, shareholders, and communities.”  He openly, perhaps without realizing it wrote “they use people.”   But, I’m getting off point.

My point is that the 2005 overachievers did everything asked and expected of them and more.  They graduated in 2009, if you follow the 4 year collegiate model,  then faced great difficulty getting jobs, particularly in getting jobs in their chosen field.  The United States was in no way unique in this: my first graduate school paper was on a very similar crisis in the Republic of Ireland which pushed many young people to emigrate for work.  However, I was one of the lucky ones.  I did not get a job in my field but I did find a graduate program, which I began in the fall of 2010.  This was not the case for many of my fellow graduates.  For those who might think this failure to find work is the result of laziness or a lack of earnest effort, please consider the rate of unemployment from 2009 to 2012 and the fact that most of those who have graduated during the recession are not drawing unemployment because they were students and never were employed at a full time job.  There is a gap in time between the lack of employment of college grads in May 2009 and the OWS movement which began in the summer 2011.  Despite the global economic crisis, college grads continued to look for work or apply to graduate school/law school/med school or volunteer for non-profit organizations and NGOs.  But like everyone else looking for a job, those who found an opening were lucky.  When the OWS idea was first proposed it found incredibly fertile ground and the movement spread like wildfire, to mix metaphors.  It is my hope and prayer that from the ashes, a new and better America can grow and blossom.

While this movement can in many ways be described most affectionately as organized chaos, the motivation and meaning behind it sends a message of hope for the future of America. In many ways, I think it is time to realize we’ve entered adulthood and had the weight of the world put on our shoulders, but  let’s get over the shock, disappointment, frustration, and anger…  Collectively, our generation has resources, assets, and skills beyond the wildest imaginations of our parents and grandparents, I want to see us do something. The protests and boycotts across this nation and aboard are evidence of our determination and powerful sense of right and wrong.  I am not asking for the protest to end, but I have to think this is only the beginning.  I am calling for further collaboration.  Corporations and political/governmental organizations utilize think-tanks all the time with dramatic innovative results.  We are connected in a way generations before us could not have dreamed of.  We’ve occupied the streets, now what?  There are plenty of social, political, financial, and environmental issues to go around.  Let’s put together an online think-tanks to address them.  Why let our intelligence, our education, and the energy of our youth go to waste?  Collaboration, especially online collaboration, can take place anywhere and anytime (as long as you have power and signal).  Why should we wait for anyone else to organize us?  Those jobs that we were promised, the ones that don’t exist yet?  The only solution is that we have to create them ourselves.  Our parents, our teachers, and our government, they can’t really help us with this.  So many problems have been put off by those who came before us, and put on to our shoulders.  It’s time to face those problems head on.  We’ve all got unique and invaluable skill sets and the technology and social networks to make this happen.  So pick a topic: social inequality (pick a type), the energy crisis, government encroachment on civil liberties and human rights globally and at home, chronic illness, cancer, HIV, the US health care system, global hunger/malnutrition, debt and balancing the budget (on the personal, household, institutional, and governmental levels), social change toward social accountability and respect of human dignity, citizenship and national boarders, improving US international relations, environmental repercussions of pollution and resource exploitation…  the list is endless.  Create online discussions of these issues, everyone knows you can occupy and post to blogs and facebook at the same time.  Make us of Google Plus’s “hangouts” and really get the conversations going.  Make blog post about your ideas, possible solutions, and give each other feedback.  After all, everything on the internet is peer-reviewed, so show the world that means something.  For the young people who are currently unemployeed, unemployment doesn’t mean you can’t be occupied.  Young people still in college, in graduate school, or starting your first job: we have to stay connected, no matter how busy things get.  We each have a unique and valuable skill set and set of resources to offer.  We have to build for the future, come up with practical solutions and get interdisciplinary with it.  A chemist, a political scientist, and a writer could come together and create a whole new way of seeing the world.  History shows us the great leaps forward which can be made by a person looking at a problem from more than one angle: Renee Descartes, Johnannes Kepler, Issac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Boas, Albert Schweitzer,  Edward Said, Theodore Roosevelt, and Leonardo De Vinci to name a few.  We are facing a very important moment in time and a great deal of potential energy has been built up hover now is the time to direct that energy toward creating the type of future we want for ourselves and those who come after us.

Digital Anthropology…?

Recently the discussion of digital anthropology has really begun to take off.  The history of digital anthropology is lined out in Daniel Lande’s blog  http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2012/02/23/on-forming-a-digital-anthropology-group/  Four days ago, Matt Thompson put forward his vision of digital anthropology and pushed for the formation of a digital anthropology interest group within the American Anthropological Association.  http://savageminds.org/2012/02/21/alright-how-about-a-digital-anthropology-interest-group/comment-page-1/#comment-718935    The response to this idea has been rather exciting.

From the comments that followed Matt’s blog, it became clear that the term digital anthropology is still rather unclear.  Three distinct issues are being encompassed within the concept of Digital Anthropology.  The first is anthropology which utilizes digital technology, digital formats, and includes a new form of Public Anthropology which is available on the internet.  The second anthropological issue brought up is anthropology which is done digitally or looks at cyberworlds.  This is any anthropological research examining video games, online communities, computer-mediated communications (such as blogs, facebook, and instant messengers like skype) and all the rapid social changes and social complications caused by this shift in social realities on a global scale.  Daniel Lande addresses this issue and how it was discussed at a recent AAA panel in this blog entry.  http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2011/11/28/digital-anthropology-projects-and-platforms/   The third, issue being addressed is Open Access specifically in regards to Open Access publications of anthropological research. This is the issue which I know the least about, having had no personal experience with Open Access beyond the use of Open Office software.  There as been a bit of contraversy over the use of Open Access software in anthropological publications and the impact the lack of using it has on libraries.   Again Daniel Lande’s blog informs as well as Jason Jackson http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2012/01/31/american-anthropological-association-takes-public-stand-against-open-access/  and http://jasonbairdjackson.com/2012/02/03/another-world-is-possible-open-folklore-as-library-scholarly-society-partnership/  This controversy, which was spurred by a letter sent by the Executive Director of the AAA, seems to actually be the driving force behind the push to create an interest group for Digital Anthropology within the AAA.

In responses to Matt Thompson’s call for brainstorming on the matter, I am posting my own suggestions for the future of Digital Anthropology.  This is partially a re-post of my comments on that blog, but I wanted to put forth both my support of Digital Anthropology and my suggestions for a practical plan for implementing an organizational structure to Digital Anthropology.  I situate my own interest in Digital Anthropology in three ways. First and foremost, I am a digital native by all accounts.  My first science fair project was written on a computer when I was 9.  I got my first email account at 10 (email account = access to most websites, a frequently no adult supervision).  Technology was an integral part of my academic career, never turning in a hand written academic paper past the 8th grade.  Digital communication and cyberworlds have also greatly influenced my personal as well.  Secondly, early in my academic career I conducted research on computer-mediated communication (texts, emails, instant messenger, online forums, facebook, etc).  I plan to come back to this research later in my career.  Finally, the importance of online publication of anthropological research can not be understated.  It allows publication and feedback on preliminary findings.  It is communicates research findings to the broadest audience possible.  From the beginnings of my anthropological research in undergrad, I have utilized online publications to disseminate my research to the general public.  The importance of Public Anthropology to the long term impact of anthropological research of utmost importance in my mind. Digital Anthropology allows anthropologists to make an impact beyond the classroom and the possibilities are ever growing.

The possibilities of a Digital Anthropology organization are only limited by the foundations we lay for it at this moment of initiation. With that in mind, one of the first recommendations I would like to make is organizational. In alignment with the principals behind Open Access, Digital anthropology should be organized with the openness and connectedness of the cyberworld. Digital anthropology needs a social networking site which will allow for the free and open discussion of its goals, agendas, and progress. In addition to allowing for social networking between anthropologists interested in both digital anthropology and the anthropology of cyber worlds, this site should include an open forum to discuss the issues relating to both as well as the progress being made in individual projects. Finally, the site could also include a collection of open access publications and links to anthropological blogs. In regards to Daniel Miller’s concern about the American exclusiveness of this project, I find it rather bizarre to imagine a cyber community limited by national boarders. Perhaps, I am examining this question as a digital native rather than as an American Anthropologist, but such limitations would only serve to stunt the growth of this project. Instead, I suggest the digital anthropology community could sponsor an interest group for the AAAs as more of a “delegation” to represent Digital Anthropology’s interests at the AAAs, however, members of the Digital Anthropology community could also form interest groups in other national and regional anthropological associations. Beyond, the goals of Digital Anthropology within academia, the group should also be of value to the general public. After all, writing anthropological blogs has always been about sharing our ideas and knowledge with the world.

Recommendations:

1) Social Network Site- open to all anthropologist and other scholars interested in the topic

2) Create a Online Forum connected to the social networking site- this will allow open international discuss of current issue and new ideas/ research findings

3) The site can also be a repository for Digital Anthropology and Anthropology of Cyberworlds- hosts both original posts and links to various blogs

4) Create Professional connections- example Interest Group for AAAs

5) Create a Public Anthropology digital database resource, and promote online publications/blogs as the Public Anthropology of the 21st century

The first question of course is where are we going to get the funding for this website, to that I have no idea. I am grad student and in no position to find a solution to that part of the problem.  However, I am very interested in the development of this project. I would love to continue brainstorming as this project develops.

Please share any suggestions and ideas about the future of this project in the comments section.

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