The notion of a “theory” comes from science. As such, the term conveys all the legitimacy upon which the scientific method relies. It should not be tossed around casually like a frisbee in the park.
The so-called “Great Replacement Theory” we are now reading about in mainstream publications is not a theory. Therefore, it should not be called a theory. And it should not be graced with capital letters. Both these practices suggest unearned legitimacy. And, unearned legitimacy carries great risk.
We now know that repeatedly making false claims will train people to slowly accept those false claims. Recent research by a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists warns us that we humans tend to increase our belief in any claims—true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, likely or unlikely—the more often we hear or read about them. So, as we repeatedly encounter something being called a “theory,” we become more easily inclined to agree that it IS a theory. Once that happens, it moves into the realm of science. As such, we begin to attribute it truth status.
What does it mean that a “theory” is grounded in the scientific method? Here’s one statement from Scientific American:
A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing.
A theory not only explains known facts; it also allows scientists to make predictions of what they should observe if a theory is true. Scientific theories are testable. New evidence should be compatible with a theory. If it isn’t, the theory is refined or rejected. The longer the central elements of a theory hold—the more observations it predicts, the more tests it passes, the more facts it explains—the stronger the theory.
What is now being called the “great replacement theory” has nothing of the attributes of a theory. It has not been “substantiated through repeated experiments.” It has not been “substantiated through testing.” It does not “explain known facts.” It is not “compatible with new evidence.”
Jews are not “replacing” Christians. (As one Jewish studies scholar notes, “America’s Jewish birthrate has fallen, and Jews are barely replacing themselves, let alone the white population as a whole“). Nor are people of color “replacing” white people. True, the demographic profile of the U.S. is changing. But that is nothing new. In fact, it has always been the case. Since the founding of the Republic, new groups of refugees (starting with the Pilgrims), followed by newer groups of immigrants, have continually brought new languages, new musics, new cultural practices, new cuisines, and new religious traditions to these shores. Given this history that undergirds all American history, it should not surprise us that, as one recent study notes, most Americans do not care about the “changing” demographic profile of the American population. “Change” is the one constant of U.S. demographic history.
With fear a powerful motivator, these invented “replacement” plots slip easily into the vaunted category of “fact,” once they are covered with the veneer of science . . . simply by being called a “theory.”
Journalists and politicians: please stop mindlessly repeating the offensive, misleading, and dangerous phrase, “Great Replacement Theory”!
When referring to this notion—which has inspired all too many recent massacres, from El Paso to Buffalo—don’t be afraid to use more words, if more words are required for accuracy. Call it out for what it is. How about . . .
the dangerous claim known as “great replacement theory” that is rooted in racist and anti-Semitic paranoia.
The last time I heard anyone utter the name, Przemysl, I must have been ten or eleven years old. In his thickly Yiddishized English, my maternal grandfather must have been telling me something about his early life. And I must have been listening more intently than I realized.
I don’t recall exactly what he was recounting. Maybe it was something about his parents requiring him to drop out of school after third grade so he could spend his days on the streets with a pushcart, selling stuff and more stuff to contribute to his family’s meager household income. Maybe it was something about his decision in 1911 to leave that unpromising life of poverty and anti-Semitism and somehow, at age 19 or 20, make his way to Hamburg and, thence, board a ship (as a stowaway, as I found out decades later — maybe, like many other young Jewish men around him, creatively escaping conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army?) that was bound for New York.
What I did recall was that strange-sounding name. Przemysl. Only decades later would I find out how to spell it.
I had to hire a professional genealogist friend to find out where my grandfather was born. (Thank you, Joy Kestenbaum!) It turns out, it wasn’t in Przemysl but a town some 50 miles to the east, with another odd-sounding name I’d also heard during my childhood. I remembered it as Zeluzutz; my brilliant genealogist friend identified it as Zaliztsi.
There had also been talk of another town that I remembered sounding something like Tarnopol. My memory wasn’t too far off on that one. Joy identified it as Ternopil.
And another city that I remembered as sounding like Lavuv — in, I now know, its Russian pronunciation. That turned out to be Lviv — as the Ukrainians call it.
Throughout my childhood, all these hard-to-pronounce toponyms belonged to another era. I wasn’t sure how they fit together, or to which countries they belonged — sometimes my grandfather said Poland, sometimes Austria (by which, I later figured out, he meant the Austro-Hungarian empire)— or which one my grandfather had called home. But I knew he had some relationship to all these distance spaces.
A week or two into my senior year in high school, I mentioned to my grandfather that I’d just started taking a beginning course in the Russian language. Immediately, my grandfather switched to speaking in Russian. Where did that come from? I wondered. All he said, in a faraway voice, was that he’d picked up some Russian along the way.
“But I thought you were from Poland,” I vaguely protested.
“The border was always changing,” he mumbled. “Sometimes Poland. Sometimes Russia. Sometimes Austria.” Then he must have changed the subject. Or gone silent. All I remember is no explanation.
It would be some years before I read enough history to understand the painful complexities of that perplexing statement.
Along the way, I discovered more languages that my grandfather could at least get by in. There was Yiddish, of course — his first language. And Hebrew, from all his time in the synagogue. (As an adult, there was one across the street from his apartment building in the Bronx.) Was Polish his third language, and Russian, his fourth? Or was it the other way around? He knew some German, too, I discovered later. Either way, he would have picked up English as his sixth language, from his long-ago, emergency needs as a new immigrant. Unless he spoke some Ukrainian, as well. (Did he? Now, I imagine it quite likely.) In that case, English would have been #7.
All those early tongues must have forged plenty of neuronal pathways that demanded more traffic. During the 50 years that he worked as a waiter in various Jewish delis in New York’s Lower East Side, my grandfather spent his lunch breaks scouring the trash cans along the Bowery, looking for books. The French and Spanish grammar texts he found lodged between discarded newspapers and half-eaten sandwiches served as sources for his independent study of yet two more languages. Later, my husband-to-be borrowed that beat-up Spanish primer as he crammed for the foreign language exam he would soon take, to complete his graduate program in creative writing.
My grandfather was that strange mix of working-class cosmopolitan with untapped skills. An elementary school dropout who could have excelled in a university. A polyglot who could have become a linguist. A tinkerer who could have become an engineer. A mandolin player who could have become a musician. A refugee who could have become embittered. He became none of those things.
Instead, my ever-calm grandfather (I never once heard him raise his voice or even scowl) enjoyed his one cigar a day. Beyond that indulgence, he led a frugal but fulfilled life. He and my grandmother raised my mother and my aunt in a one-bedroom, rent-controlled, third-floor-walk-up apartment that they rented for 50 years. Their frugality helped fund my expensive college education.
It was to these thoughts that I turned when I heard Przemysl featuring in a news broadcast this week. Of the 700,000-and-counting Ukrainians fleeing a land suddenly turned treacherous, most, the journalist claimed, were crossing the border into Poland. Indeed, most were massing at Lviv, the western-most city on the Ukraine-Polish border, waiting to cross — from towns such as Ternopil — into Przemysl, the Polish city on the other side of that border.
Was it from there that my grandfather continued trekking for another 221 hours (with stops along the way) the 1,085 additional kilometers to Hamburg, maybe hitching a ride or two from a farmer in an oxcart before he reached Berlin? And, lacking both a GPS and money, how did he find his way from there to Hamburg?
These trajectories of early 20th century challenges seemed to belong to an alien era until last week, when Vladimir Putin decided brutally to revive them.
New histories of suffering are now being forged, creating new generations of refugees, Jewish and otherwise. A world away from my comfortable American life, those emergency refugees feel like unexpectedly kindred spirits as I imagine my grandfather in the spaces that fleeing Ukrainians are now negotiating with increasing desperation.
Yes, if we are lucky, we make our lives anew. That, after all, has been the promise of America for thousands of immigrants to these shores. But even as we claim to forge selves from our own goals and grit, the ghosts of our ancestors hover around us, remind us of their histories, and both haunt and heal us, one traumatic story at a time.
I began interviewing authors of fabulous new anthropology books for this space back in 2016. While completing 11 interviews, I also amassed a backlog of more terrific books whose authors I planned to interview. One thing led to another, and my embarrassingly accumulating backlog fell hostage to a pandemic. I’ve finally harnessed my guilt and bundled these beauties into a group. No author interviews this time (who has time for that in a pandemic?), but below, you’ll find capsule descriptions of why I love every entry in this archive.
To be sure, my selection is idiosyncratic. I don’t claim that these books are the only works in anthropology worth reading that were published in the past few years. Yet, individually, each of these books grabbed my attention because of its brilliant analysis of some topic(s) I judge to have critical importance to the world. Plus, the writing in all these books is oh-so-readable. Collectively, they remind us: Anthropology is not only alive and well, the discipline continues to offers unique insights into vexing issues in ways that only long-term immersion can produce.
Acknowledgments: In curating this collection, I’m inspired by Philip Graham‘s “Some Books You May Have Missed” posts for the literary/arts magazine, Ninth Letter, for which he serves as Editor-at-Large. (You can read his latest literary rundown of great new fiction and creative non-fiction here.)
So, here goes.
C. Richard King, Redskins: Insult and Brand (University of Nebraska Press)
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, one of the many critical lessons that at least some of white America has learned is this: Representation matters. In that sense, Richard King‘s brilliant book provided an overdue argument that at least one sports team has finally heard. In 2020, the Washington Redskins at last acknowledged the racist foundation to their team’s name, which they changed (temporarily) to the Washington Football Team (with a new name soon to be announced here). The placeholder name may be boring— but boring is better than offensive. For its part, King’s scholarly exercise in a theoretically and historically informed argument can now be considered a paragon of engaged, critical anthropology. A review in the Chicago Tribune called this a “must-read book.”
Amy Starecheski, Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in New York City(University of Chicago Press)
Over the past two pandemic years, real estate stories have dominated the news, from personal tragedies (eviction stories following job loss) to personal triumphs (the privileged few scooping up “deals” outside major metropolitan areas). Lurking behind those individual tales chronicling the human joys and costs of gentrification lies a broader story of economic trends (falling prices in some markets, skyrocketing prices in others). In that sense, this book by anthropologist/oral historian Amy Starecheski remains more timely than ever. A beautifully crafted narrative balances individual tales of urban squatters’ experiences across three decades of New York City’s increasingly unaffordable housing market with “big-picture” trends of macroeconomic, political, and legal developments in New York and beyond. This book contains so many lessons about where and how to make a livable space for “home.” A “recommended” book by Choice.
Rosa De Jorio, Cultural Heritage in Mali in the Neoliberal Era (University of Illinois Press)
Rosa De Jorio‘s early research in West Africa concerned women’s political participation in Mali. In this book, De Jorio focuses on the same country but has switched gears to focus on cultural heritage. Political scientists rarely pay attention to artistic and cultural performances, while art historians rarely focus on political structures. In a broad sense, this book might be characterized as an engagement of political perspectives with humanistic spaces. As such, I take this work—based on careful field research in urban Mali over the course of 16 years—as a model for how scholars working elsewhere might unpack the questions De Jorio asks here surrounding the politics of culture and the culture of politics. Jean-Loup Amselle calls this book “in the tradition of Michel Foucault’s work.” The title appeared in the Interpretations of Culture in the New Millenium series (now closed), edited by Norman E. Whitten, Jr.
Jane C. Desmond, Human-Animal Relations in Art, Science, and Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press)
Some years ago, I made a case for an anthropology of infancy. In this book, Jane Desmond makes something of a similar case for an anthropology of animals. In both arenas, subjects communicate with us in ways that we adults/humans understand only partially, and with difficulty—as if through a scrim. Of course, the same can be said for all communication among human adults . . . but the barriers appear more extreme and daunting with both human infants and non-human animals. In a provocative set of thematically linked essays (think: pet cemeteries, taxidermy, roadkill), Desmond makes a persuasive case for developing a robust ethnography of non-human animals and, perhaps more broadly for an inter-species ethnography. An NPR review called it “an important and moving book.” The title appears in the terrific new Animal Lives series at Chicago edited by Desmond.
Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes (eds.), Affective Circuits: African Migrations to Europe and the Pursuit of Social Regeneration (University of Chicago Press)
If the predominant narrative of Covid-19 emphasized immobility, that memo didn’t reach African migrants. Over the past two years, refugees fleeing Africa’s multiple postcolonial catastrophes have continued to seek more hospitable living spaces. This rich collection co-edited by Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes thus speaks to continuing hemispheric challenges, even as it centers personal experience. Moving discussions humanize the dehumanizing images, statistics, and political directives that dominate so much discussion of African migrants in Europe. Eleven case studies range from intimate topics such as child fostering, bi-national marriages, and coming-of-age rituals to explorations of the ways that government actors, laws, and policies shape migrants’ lives. As such, this volume serves as a welcome, “bottom-up” corrective to the “top-down” trope of “migrant crisis” that too often frames both government policies and journalists’ stories coming out of the EU. The book won the Most Notable Recent Collection Award from the Council on Anthropology and Reproduction.
Andrew Bank, Pioneers of the Field: South Africa’s Women Anthropologists (CambridgeUniversity Press)
The notion of a “scholarly canon” is a bit of an oxymoron. Do what passed as the great works in any given field in the past still deserve pride of place today? By contrast, in re-reading “the classics” year after year, what hidden treasures might we have overlooked because of unconscious biases surrounding what “counts” as quality scholarship . . . and who “counts” as serious scholars? The brilliant scholars who have become so demonized by the U.S. right of late in promoting critical race theory prompt us to recognize the importance of regularly revisiting “the canon,” to rethink our understanding of history with new eyes and new questions. In Pioneers of the Field, historian of science Andrew Bank has done our discipline a great favor by reminding us of six brilliant women scholars of the early/mid-20th century whose work had a major impact both within and beyond South Africa. If you’re an Africanist up on your early British social anthropology, you might at least have heard of Audrey Richards, Monica Wilson, and Hilda Kuper, but if Winifred Hoernlé, Ellen Hellman, and Eileen Krige weren’t even on your radar, they will be now. Elizabeth Colson called this volume a “major contribution to intellectual history.” No History of Anthropology course should neglect this correct-the-record book.
Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, Thunder Shaman: Making History with Mapuche Spirits in Chile and Patagonia (University of Texas Press)
There’s a good reason this marvelous book received Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award for Anthropology offered by the Association of American Publishers. Ana Mariella Bacigalupo challenges stereotypical images of shamans as either extinct or anachronistic religious practitioners long left behind by history. Based on extraordinary research that Bacigalupo conducted from 1991 to 2015, the book serves, at once, as a biography of a single Mapuche shaman who accepted the author into her life in a deep, cross-cultural friendship; and an argument for a reëxamination of how we define what counts as “religion” in the modern world.
Naomi Leite, Unorthodox Kin: Portuguese Marranos and the Global Search for Belonging (University of California Press)
When I lived in Lisbon in 2006-07, I found myself shocked and appalled at the extent to which the nation’s long, rich, and traumatic Jewish history had been rendered virtually invisible. In this riveting book, anthropologist Naomi Leite profiles a small group of Portuguese who are actively reclaiming their ancestral Jewish ancestry hidden from them, and from the nation, for centuries. With its beautiful narrative writing allied with a thoughtful analytic engagement linking hyper-local spaces in Lisbon with hyper-global spaces of international Jewish tourists, it’s easy to see why the book won two awards and was a finalist/honorable mention for two more:
Timothy R. Landry, Vodún: Secrecy and the Search for Divine Power (University of Pennsylvania Press)
This intriguing work offers another fascinating look at international religious tourism. In this case, Western tourists travel from the U.S. and Europe to Bénin, homeland of the famed religion of Vodún (a.k.a. “voodoo”), in search of a West African spirituality. Becoming apprenticed to a Vodún priest, Timothy Landryoffers, at once, an outsider’s and insider’s look at Vodún practice from the intertwined perspectives of practitioner, acolyte, seeker, and casual tourist. Along the way, he engages with issues ranging from the challenges inherent in representation of a stigmatized religious tradition to the ethical quandaries inevitably brought on by participant-observation. The book won the Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. It appears in the Contemporary Ethnography series that I edit for Penn Press.
Michelle Johnson, Remaking Islam in African Portugal: Lisbon—Mecca—Bissau (Indiana University Press)
Grounded in rich fieldwork in both Guinea-Bissau and Portugal conducted across 20 years, this book is an ethnographer’s dream. Oozing with gorgeous ethnographic details, the book at the same time tackles all the issues one could hope to think about concerning West African Muslims’ lives in Europe. Challenges of racism. Challenges of Islamophobia. Challenges by mainstream Muslims of heterodox practices. All these big-picture issues frame the stories Michelle Johnson exquisitely tells. Those stories center stunning discussions of life-cycle and other rituals—including a never-before-described practice of “writing on the hand” to initiate young students into learning the Qu’ran. Along the way, Johnson explores how immigrant African women and men rethink and adapt rural practices of female genital cutting, pilgrimages to Mecca, and funerals to urban neighborhoods in a European capital. Paul Stoller predicts: “Given the depth of its analytical insights and the grace of its presentation, this is a work that will be read, savored, and debated for many years to come.” This fabulous book appears in Indiana’s Framing the Global series.
Cati Coe, Changes in Care: Aging, Migration, and Social Class in West Africa (Rutgers University Press)
Hot off the press, this new ethnography, like Johnson’s, sings with all that contemporary anthropology can offer. Over the course of 20+ years, Cati Coe has lived and conducted research for long periods both in Ghana, and in the U.S. with Ghanaian migrants. The result is just the sort of rich ethnography that centers global flows, while also remaining deeply grounded in knowledge of intimate practices of the local. A short film accompanies the book, available online here. The book appears in Rutgers’ wonderful Global Perspectives on Aging series, edited by Sarah Lamb.
If they didn’t, they would just be like other, ordinary stuff.
If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t fight over them. As in, people burning or otherwise desecrating flags when they’re mad at their government, and other people fuming at the sight or even thought of such actions.
If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t protest when the wrong symbol appears in the wrong place for the wrong reason—say, a statue of a Confederate leader in a public square, visually celebrating the institution of slavery. As in: Why is there STILL a statue of Jefferson Davis in the “Statuary Hall” section of the U.S. Capitol?
If symbols didn’t matter, we wouldn’t proclaim the need for the right symbol that never appears when it should—say, an image of a Black woman on a piece of currency.
As in: The new quarter featuring legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou on the back of the quarter that bears George Washington’s image on the front.
There are two notable components of this new quarter.
First, on the “heads” side, we see George Washington. Founders of nations are a big deal. No matter who they are, they carry their own symbolic weight. Anything occurring with them borrows some of their power. The semiotician would point out: It’s a metonymic transfer, its own type of magic. Sound too theoretical? Here’s a more down-to-earth way of making the same point. Anything, or anyone, appearing on the flip side of George Washington announces: I am worthy of sharing space with this venerable ancestor . . . and becomes even more important, the minute the space is shared.
There’s also the irony that the nation’s founder was, himself, a slave owner. In the double image on the new quarter, the author of I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings could also be said to be rebuking our collective father for his moral failures.
Second, Maya Angelou isn’t just appearing on a coffee cup, a shoelace, or a fencepost. She’s appearing on money. For a capitalist system, that’s also a big deal.
Money is, literally, the object that signifies value par excellence in a capitalist system. Since money serves as the symbolic foundation of any capitalist economy, whatever images gets stamped on its “legal tender” is chosen very, very carefully.
If mostly the faces of men, or of White people, show up on coins, that makes statements about who we value. And, those statements are seen every day by Americans. According to the U.S. Treasury, a given coin will circulate for a good thirty years or longer. Quite a lot of people will see and hold it. That’s another reason that who shows up on coins is subject to a lot of thought.
Announced this month, a new American Women Quarters Program will feature a series of notable (but under-appreciated) American women on the “tails” side, beginning with Maya Angelou.
This may be the biggest teachable moment in any contemporary schoolteacher’s career. Teachers: grab it! What might new syllabi look like?
Crafting active-learning exercises across 45 years of teaching college students has inspired me to rethink current pedagogical challenges. Let’s imagine some Covid-inspired curricula.
History: In what ways did, and didn’t, the Covid pandemic replicate the 1918-20 influenza pandemic? The Black Plague? What lessons do past pandemics hold for the future? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Math: Teach students to read charts tracking Covid infections and vaccinations. Compare the utility of different ways to visualize quantitative data. Do tables or bar graphs best illustrate certain kinds of data?
Do pie charts better illustrate other kinds of data? Are all published tables equally accurate? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Biology: How do viruses infect people? What are all those spikes on the Coronavirus, anyway, and why is it called a “coronavirus”? How do vaccines work? How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Geography: Map supply chains for product shortages students experienced. Brainstorm new technologies to halt climate change. How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Art: How can artists powerfully express their own engagements with the past year and speak movingly to others? For inspiration, check out the Plywood Protection Project. Have students scavenge materials and recycle them into artworks to promote social justice.
Beneath all the specific subject matter ripe for discussion, notice the refrain?
How should students evaluate divergent data, rival interpretations, and competing claims?
Denmark’s public health system is so comprehensive, so systematic, so thoughtful, and so FREE, that it’s hard to imagine them NOT having the highest vaccination rate of children age 12 and up. According to the Borgen Project, here are some of the laudable features of Denmark’s public health system:
“All citizens in Denmark enjoy universal, equal and free healthcare services. Citizens have equal access to treatment, diagnosis and choice of hospital . . . . Healthcare services include primary and preventive care, specialist care, hospital care, mental health care, long-term care and children’s dental services.
Denmark organizes child healthcare into primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare systems. The primary level is free for all Danish citizens.
Tax revenue funds healthcare in Denmark. The state government, regions and municipalities operate the healthcare system and each sector has its own role.
The healthcare system runs more effectively than other developed countries, such as the U.S. and other European countries. For instance, experts attribute low mortality in Denmark to its healthcare success. . . . Denmark spends relatively less money on healthcare in comparison to the USA. In 2016, the U.S. spent 17.21% of its GDP on healthcare, while Denmark only spent 10.37%. By contrast, in 2015, the life expectancy at birth in Denmark was 80.8 years, yet it was 78.8 years in the U.S.
The high-quality healthcare system increases life expectancy. Danish life expectancy [even] slightly exceeds the average of the E.U.
Healthcare in Denmark sets a good example for elderly care in other countries. . . Danish senior citizens have the right to enjoy home care services for free, including practical help and personal care, if they are unable to live independently. Similarly, preventive measures and home visits can help citizens above 80 years old to plan their lives and care.“
The U.S. doesn’t have anything like any of the above systems. Instead, we value individual choice and effort over any notion of either community health or collective rights. That sounds good — until a pandemic reminds us of how lethal that value can prove.
Is it any wonder that Denmark is doing such a better job than the U.S. in vaccinating its teens against Covid?
This past month, the swans have taken up residence in our local cove, for the first time in the six summers we’ve lived here.
What could be a more beautiful way to celebrate the birth minute of my husband’s milestone birthday than a sunrise with swans?
What smiles the swans have brought to all who pass by. Plus, they’ve provided a great opportunity for conversations with admiring strangers. (“We just counted 81! How many did you count?”)
They’ve also motivated me to do some quick online research.
Turns out those oddly-shaped black blobs that sometimes rest on their backs are a leg. One leg. What’s going on with that? Does one webbed foot suddenly get tired and need a rest? Does resting a leg on a back stretch out taut muscles tired from too much paddling? Does a wet foot on some overheated feathers add a cooling touch under the hot sun? And how do they manage to navigate, anyway, without going awry from having only one limb for paddling? (Yes, I’ve seen them locomoting with a webbed foot lying on their rump.)
The anthropologist in me is frustrated no end that I can’t ask them for a direct response to these growing questions. I’ll have to keep testing out my theories using that other classic ethnographic method (which I honed while studying babies in West Africa): observing behavior and ruling out unlikely hypotheses. I wonder how likely this experiment in inter-species ethnography is to succeed.
Meanwhile, never mind their human fan club. Oblivious of us, and despite their reputation for nastiness, the swans that have taken up residence in our local harbor have co-existed happily all month with geese, ducks, egrets, seagulls, and terns.
Dare I hope the waterfowl offer a model for us bickering humans to re-gain a sense of community spirit?
We needed to find a new plumber. I called around. The first business that seemed willing to clean our boiler and replace a problematic hose spigot had availability soon. Before settling on a date, I remembered to ask the woman answering the company’s phone–let’s call her, Mary–a non-plumbing question: Will the plumber who comes into our house to work on the boiler for a few hours be fully vaccinated?
That inquiry took us to a place I hadn’t prepared to enter while finding the right vocabulary to explain our garden issue. Indeed, Mary’s unwelcome answer brought us into one of those difficult conversations we all dread these days. Here’s my best memory of how it unfolded:
Mary: I can’t guarantee that the plumber would be fully vaccinated.
Me: Are SOME of your company’s plumbers fully vaccinated?
Mary: We don’t require our staff to be vaccinated. The owner can’t force them. We’re not legally allowed to do that.
Me: Absolutely. But, the owner doesn’t have to keep paying people’s salaries if they won’t get vaccinated. That’s not forcing, that’s just his legal right to hire whoever he wants to hire. He’s got that freedom.
Mary: He won’t require it.
Me: But, are ANY of the plumbers who work for you vaccinated?
Me: Hmm. In that case, I’ll probably wait to use your services until after the pandemic is over.
I sensed that Mary was struggling to refrain from going into a political tirade about how Democrats and scientists were lying to Americans, and the vaccine would make people magnetic or sterile or digitally trackable or . . .
A normal person would have ended the conversation there. But I’m not a normal person. Suddenly, this conversation offered new possibilities for engaging with someone outside my usual social circle. The anthropologist in me was activated. I forged on.
Me: My husband and I are both vaccinated, but this aggressive Delta variant is now causing some mild, breakthrough cases that people might pass on without knowing. Since we have young grandchildren who can’t yet get the vaccine, and we’ll soon see them, we’re being extra-cautious.
Now the citizen in me was activated. Reckless, I plunged ahead.
Me: Meanwhile, since only the unvaccinated are dying from Covid now, you might want to recommend that your plumbers get vaccinated–not only to protect themselves, but also your customers.
Mary: We won’t do that.
Re-enter the anthropologist.
Me: Ah. [Pause.] Out of curiosity, I’m wondering why you don’t urge them to get the vaccine.
Mary: All our plumbers are very healthy and have great immune systems. They won’t get sick.
Me: Oh, that’s wonderful that they’re so healthy. [Pause.] Still, I keep seeing videos of people in the hospital with Covid, on ventilators, who said exactly that. This Delta variant seems to be extra-contagious and is getting so many people sick who had strong immune systems. The vaccine is a great way to protect your plumbers.
Mary: My husband and I don’t believe in the vaccine. We’re not vaccinated, and we don’t want our employees to get the vaccine, either.
Me: Really? Why’s that?
Mary: [Hangs up.]
So much for my long-honed interviewing skills. I’d have to grade myself an “F.”
But I’m never one to take failure lightly. The anthropologist in me wanted to call back and see if I could gently persuade Mary to explain her opposition to a vaccine that has so much overwhelming scientific evidence supporting its efficacy. Exactly what unfounded fears had grabbed Mary’s imagination? Who, or what, was her source of information? Why did she trust that source?
Still, the plumbing issues beckoned. Rather than re-engaging with Mary–trying to conduct instant phone ethnography that was, undoubtedly, doomed–I sighed and returned to an inventory of plumbers recommended on a neighborhood list-serv.
Phone call #2 produced an outcome at once similar, and worlds apart.
The woman answering the phone of the second business I rung up–let’s call her, Carol–offered a complicated reply that invited a conversation. Here’s what I remember of the non-plumbing portion of our exchange.
Me: Will the plumber who comes into our house to work for a few hours be fully vaccinated?
Carol: Probably, yes.
Me: Ah, that’s great. My husband and I are, too. But since we have young grandchildren who can’t be vaccinated yet, we’re being extra-cautious. Are all your plumbers fully vaccinated, then?
Carol: All but one. But, I can make sure that the one who isn’t vaccinated isn’t the one who comes to work in your house.
Me: Thank you, I appreciate that. [Pause.] Out of curiosity, is your boss encouraging that plumber to get the vaccine, to protect himself and your customers?
Carol: Actually, he’s already gotten the first shot. He just hasn’t gotten the second one yet.
Me: Oh, great.
Carol: Yeah, our boss is very big on the vaccine. He’s encouraged everyone in the company to get it. I’m the only one who hasn’t!
Me: Oh. [Pause.] Well, since you won’t be coming to work in my house, that’s not a problem for me. [Pause.] But, would you mind me asking why you haven’t gotten it, if your boss is encouraging you?
Carol: I’ve heard there are a lot of bad sideeffects. Did you have any bad side effects after your shots?
Me: Well, after my second shot, I was tired for a few hours, and the spot on my arm where I got the shot hurt a lot for about a day. But, really, it was no big deal. I’d much rather have a sore arm than die from Covid!
Carol: Oh! [Giggles, pauses a few seconds.] But,I have underlying conditions, and that’s what makes me very nervous about the vaccine.
Me: Ah, I can see that would make you nervous. Have you discussed your situation with your doctor?
Carol: No, I haven’t. I’m just reading stuff on social media.
Me: Maybe your doctor might have more information about whether your condition would make you a good candidate for the vaccine — whether it would be safe for you.
Carol: I guess so. But, I had [pauses] cancer some years ago, and I wouldn’t want the vaccine to bring that back. That was a nightmare. The treatment was so awful. And, the vaccine’s so new, no one knows what it will do, years later.
Me: I hear you. My husband was actually in treatment for cancer the past year, and his oncologist urged him to get the shot as soon as possible. He got it very early. I was online every day for a few hours, starting in January, looking for an appointment for him.
Carol: Wow, really?
Me: Yes. My husband got the first shot as soon as he could. Even though he’s now completely recovered from his cancer, now that booster shots are available, he’s going to get that third shot as soon as he’s eligible. His doctor thinks that’s a good idea.
Me: Yes, there’s a list of underlying medical conditions that make you more vulnerable to catching Covid, and suffering more, if you do. Cancer is one of them. Diabetes and asthma and obesity are some others. That’s why people with those underlying conditions were being urged to get the vaccine early on, before other people.
Carol: Hmm. You sound very knowledgeable. [Pauses.] Maybe I should consider it.
Me: Just this morning, my husband was almost in tears when he read a profile of an ER doctor in Los Angeles who is so, so frustrated with her Covid patients. None of them was vaccinated, and now, many of them are dying. As a doctor, she wants to do everything she can to help people survive, and she can’t believe that people are refusing to get vaccinated, since the vaccine pretty much guarantees that, even if you come down with Covid, it’ll probably be mild, and you won’t end up in the hospital and won’t die from it. Just about everyone in the hospital with Covid now is unvaccinated.
Carol: Where did your husband read that story?
Me: I think he said it was in the Los Angeles Times. If you like, I can ask him and maybe send you the link.
Carol: Oh, yes, please, I’d like to read that.
Me: Sure, I’ll send that to you as soon as I can.
We scheduled our plumbing appointment and Carol dictated her e-mail address so I could send her that newspaper article link. A few minutes after ending the conversation, Carol called back to double-check our street address. But first, she said, “I haven’t gotten that link yet. Are you still going to send it?”
I reassured her I would, then told her some updated statistics about Covid’s ravages that I’d read in the past few minutes. Carol eagerly resumed our conversation.
Carol: You sound so knowledgeable. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.
Me: Thank you. Same here!I do spend a lot of time every day reading updates, since the pandemic has taken such a toll.
Carol: I think I need to stop looking at social media and stop listening to people telling me not to get the vaccine.
Me: I know there’s a lot of claims out there about how the vaccine is unproven or dangerous. But, there’s definitely a lot of scientific evidence now that shows that the vaccine is super-safe and super-effective to keep you from dying from Covid. So far, something like 200 million Americans have gotten the vaccine, and no one has died from it. But we’ve had over 600,000 deaths from Covid.
Carol: Wow, really? [Pauses.] I think I’ll get it soon.
Me: That sounds like a good decision for you.
Carol: Yeah, I’m sure I’ll get it, now.
On the surface, the two women I spoke with share a lot of demographic characteristics. They’re both white. They both sounded within about 10-15 years of each other (I’d say, in their 40s to 50s). They’re both part of the working class. From a variety of speech styles and other markers, I’d guess they both stopped their formal education after high school. They’re both native English speakers. They’re both American. And they’ve both resisted getting the vaccine to protect themselves, their families, and their communities against Covid-19.
But, that’s where the similarities end. Together, Mary and Carol occupy two distinct points on the non-vaccinated spectrum in the U.S.
To put the contrast at its starkest . . .
Mary opposes the vaccine for political reasons; Carol opposes it for personal reasons.
Mary is angry about the vaccine; Carol is afraid of it.
Mary is sure in her decision; Carol is uncertain about hers.
Mary refuses to listen to counter-evidence that would challenge her decision; Carol is willing, even eager to listen to counter-evidence that might impel her to rethink her decision.
What does this tale of two women tell us about the people who have yet to get a free vaccine in the U.S. against COVID-19, despite incredible effectiveness and widespread availability? True, they’re only a sample of two. I can hardly claim that’s a scientifically representative group. But between them, these two women cover a lot of fascinating territory that I think is important, and instructive.
I draw some admittedly big lessons from my conversations with those two plumbing company receptionists. At the ethnographic level:
The “vaccine-hesitant” are not a single, homogeneous block. They include a variety of people who have arrived at their caution–or refusal–from a variety of subject positions.
If Mary and Carol offer strikingly different reasons for rejecting the Covid vaccine, they still do not represent the full range of reasons. Notably . . .
Some undocumented immigrants remain nervous about deportation, in case they have to show an ID at a vaccine clinic (as with some in the Cape Verdean community I research in Rhode Island);
Some blue-collar laborers work such long hours that they don’t find time or energy to go get a shot (as with the Stanley Steemer employee who came to clean our carpet earlier this spring, pre-Delta);
Some young people find it impossible to imagine that they could die (who among us hasn’t been there?);
Some “gig economy” workers live so precariously, from paycheck to paycheck, that they can’t risk missing a single unpaid day or two of work (why can’t the federal government address this with direct compensation?);
Some people of color retain such deep distrustof a medical system steeped in racism that they see no reason to let down their guard now (happily, physicians and nurses of color are starting to effectively address these concerns).
At the pragmatic (or, should I write, methodological?) level: Because “vaccine hesitancy” has many, diverse foundations, addressing it requires a multi-pronged approach.
“Meeting people where they are” has recently become a catch phrase among some in the medical community. That pithy motto is really just a simple way of signaling that what’s needed is an army of anthropologists. Who better to plumb people’s hidden, implicit values?
If the Biden administration were on the ball, they’d be recruiting anthropologists left and right for their medical team.
At the truly big-picture level: Education matters. Without research skills training us to evaluate the clearly false from the potentially true from the absolutely true, we are at the mercy of anything passing for “fact” that crosses our screen. Whatever the grade level, whatever the class subject, whatever the instructor’s expertise, every teacher’s first task should be to teach basic skills to evaluate evidence. The story of Mary and Carol makes it clear: our lives depend on those skills.
Meanwhile, here’s a rash prediction. This Monday, the F.D.A. is said to announce full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine. For some of the under-informed and mis-led Carols of the world ruled by a troubling combination of fear, misinformation, and eagerness for reliable advice founded in facts that regularly evade them, that authorization should provide some assurance that may motivate them to roll up their sleeves for their first shot. In short, I anticipate an enormous wave of new vaccine doses in the coming week or two, as several dams of hesitation break.
And, a wish. Maybe, just maybe, as the Marys of the world watch more people they know and even love die needlessly of Covid, at least a few of them may find some face-saving cover in the F.D.A. move and finally decide to go for a shot. After all, joining the pro-life camp of the vaccinated will confer the ultimate freedom.
The great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, organized his nearly-80-year-long career around a single, foundational principle: “culture” basically comes down to classification. If something is “this” (whatever “this” is), then it’s not “that.” Reciprocally, if something is “that,” then it’s not “this.”
If that observation seems banal, we rarely dwell on it precisely because it seems so obvious that it becomes invisible, like the air we breathe. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful lesson that summarizes quite a lot about the human condition. In a nutshell, our relentless urge to classify the world is one of the most important (if not first-that-comes-to-mind) features that distinguishes us from other intelligent species.
Perhaps nowhere is this species marker more sensorily evident than in an ordinary space that seems far removed from deep philosophical tenets — a garden.
True, what we choose to plant depends a great deal on soil composition and rainfall patterns. But it also reveals our values, as well as the power structures buttressing those values.
Planting a flower garden? That requires the rare privilege of having enough leisure time to value labor expended for no economically useful payoff, just sensory and aesthetic pleasure.
And, not just any flowers. A riotous garden crammed full of mixed wild flowers produces one effect.
A clearly delimited plot of begonias or rose bushes neatly lined up next to a carefully trimmed lawn produces quite another.
As for a vegetable garden — that project may result from a careful calculation to provide dinner ingredients for a small fraction of the cost of supermarket prices. Or it may derive from a busy, weekend gardener’s passion . . . or a bored retiree’s new hobby.
Likewise, the selection of exactly which seeds to sow rests on whole worlds of cultural values, conjoined with economo-political structures. Pierre Bourdieu might as well have devoted a whole chapter in his book, Distinction, to analyzing what a rare breed of Japanese eggplant versus a common variety of iceberg lettuce signals about a gardener’s educational level, financial resources, and social network expectations — all of which shape our (seemingly) personal palates.
Not only that — we like to think about gardening as a paean to life. But, to be honest, we should acknowledge the reality of the euphemism we politely term “weeding.” Gardening relies on at least as much destruction as nurturance.
All those gardens (whether filled with dinner-worthy tomatoes or vase-worthy hydrangeas) require regular “weeding” — clearing space for “this” plant to derive enough nutrients from the soil to thrive, while “that” plant sacrifices its existence for its neighbor. The decision of what to “weed” announces our values about what we consider worthy of life, and what we feel justified to kill.
All of which is to say: Today, when I decide to spend half an hour “weeding“ our backyard, every plant I choose to uproot will also make a cultural statement. Indeed, in my (culturally influenced) classificatory calculus, perfectly lovely plants meriting space in the garden take on another identity when they invade the narrow gap between cobblestones lining our driveway. That, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas would have termed it in her magnum opus, Purity and Danger, is clearly “matter out of place,” and won’t evade my trowel’s ruthless digging.
We can take the cultural foundations to gardening (suburban U.S. style) even further, seeing in it a veritable political parable. The delicate blades of Kentucky bluegrass count (for me) as worthy of life; those tall, thick stalks of “crabgrass” that threaten to crowd out their frailer neighbors merit death. In our garden, the never-ending drama of colonial domination and resistance plays itself out, one blade of grass at a time.
What can anthropology contribute to the critical conversation about race in America, following the welcome jury decision in the Derek Chauvin trial?
After they amassed and presented a week’s worth of technical details–medical, anatomical, temporal, legal–in the end, the prosecuting attorneys’ case against Derek Chauvin rested on a simple claim: A “reasonable” police officer would have removed his knee from George Floyd’s neck well before the excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.
Miraculously, a jury of 12 peers unanimously agreed with that argument.
He didn’t put it in quite that way. In analyzing the legal system of the Barotse or Lozi people of Zambia, he wrote:
“as Barotse judges define the reasonable man, they bring into their definitions many facets of Barotse life which are not ostensibly part of the law. These facets include a variety of social and personal prejudices. I believe the same process can be detected in the decisions of our own judges and juries.”
From: Max Gluckman, “The Reasonable Man in Barotse Law,” in Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa (New York: Free Press, 1963)
Those “prejudices”–which we might as well consider equivalent to “values”–dictate what members of particular societies consider what is, and is not, “reasonable.” Like most cultural values, these cultural models are neither universal nor unchanging.
Last week, a jury in Minneapolis gave America a gift. Suddenly, the racist justification for (white) police officers easily killing (Black) civilians is no longer a basis for a “reasonable” decision.
As Black commentators have been pointing out since the moments after the verdict was handed down in court, it will take far more than one trial to change cultural values. For, in the end, cultural values are at stake–and such values do not change quickly or easily.
Yet, thanks to the past year of BLM events remaining front and center around the country (even the globe), racism is one cultural value that no longer holds primacy in the white American imagination. Now that the eyes of the nation were trained on the Minneapolis courtroom, there is no going back to assuming that a white officer killing a Black civilian is, automatically, “reasonable.”
We must, of course, keep pushing for accountability in all police killings. Even more importantly, we must keep pressing for structural change not only to put murderous police officers on trial, but to retrain all police officers in de-escalation tactics. Re-labeling them as “peace officers” or “safety officers”–emphasizing their potential for nurturing rather than violence–might be a good, discursive start. Incorporating mental health professionals and social workers into their departments–as the city of Santa Fe did last week with their new “Alternative Response Unit”–would be a great, more tactical start.
Meanwhile, I remain proud of my discipline. The late Max Gluckman fundamentally got it right when he argued that, ultimately, legal systems rest on cultural values.
But, community standards of “reasonableness” hold sway–until they don’t. If he’d been around to hear last week’s verdict, I’d like to imagine Gluckman breathing his own sigh of anthropological relief as he nodded approvingly.