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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 3 (1996)
Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement, edited by Shepard Forman. 1994. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. xii, 314 p.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Briody, Ph.D., General Motors Corporation and President, National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.
The contributors to this volume skillfully identify
and document issues of political participation, industrial work, downward
social mobility, stress, and household functioning in the United.States
context. The data selected for discussion are drawn from historical and
current sources including interviews, participant observation, surveys,
the U.S. Census, and previously published work. Linking micro analyses
to the larger macro political and economic environment enables the authors
to develop powerful models of cultural behavior. Five detailed, largely
empirical analyses are prefaced and followed by theoretical discussions
concerning American cultural values and
This volume is the result of a collaborative and interactive
project funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation. Members of a panel on disorders
in industrial society appointed by the American Anthropological Association
met over a period of two years to exchange ideas, critique each other's
work, and produce this value-oriented discussion. The authors not only
describe how groups of people are affected by a variety of external forces,
but aim to present "a theory as well as a
Jim Peacock's chapter discusses the changing relationship
between the historically grounded value of individualism and the increasingly
pluralistic character of American society. Through a lengthy and careful
review of ethnic, kinship, folkloric, and other studies on American soil,
he reminds scholars and policy makers that the core cultural values are
changing. His aim is to enrich our understanding of diversity, particularly
in an examination of the relationships among multiple groups in society.
Beyond such documentation, he argues for the prescription and creation
of core values in order "to sustain diversity and [the] rights of
Carol MacLennan reviews the scholarly work on political culture and democratic participation. Arguing that the questions of the 1990s are focused on barriers to participation in formal political institutions, she proposes a dual-pronged approach to explore obstacles to citizen involvement and local responses to such exclusion. In particular, she advocates a research agenda that is inclusive of history, which describes powerful institutions and citizen counteractions to them.
Focusing on America's declining competitive position in the automotive industry, Frank Dubinskas proposes an explanation based on the social relations of work. He describes an industrial culture based on inequality, authoritarian control, and the subdivision of complex work into precisely defined individual tasks (i.e., Taylorism). Dubinskas argues that work and learning flexibility, along with cooperation and collective responsibility by all personnel, will characterize the successful firms of the future. In citing success cases from the United States and Scandinavian countries, he indicates that the values of democracy and egalitarian participation can be accessed in creating alternative organizational relationships.
Kathleen Newman's chapter addresses the social and
cultural consequences of economic dislocation. Her discussion documents
a variety of issues surrounding downward social mobility among the urban
poor and within blue and white collar communities. Skepticism in the so-called
"American Dream" is on the rise, while opportunities for employment,
and for employment at the same level of income, decline. How individuals
and households respond to this "deindustrialization" crisis
is an area ripe for research.
The goal of Michael Blakey's piece is to formulate
a biocultural theory of stress that integrates the physiological consequences
for the individual with socioeconomic explanations. In one stress study,
he found that income and "helplessness" were negatively correlated.
He suggests that
Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez documents key differences in values, social organization, and work between Mexican-American and "mainstream" American communities. He discusses the economic and cultural ramifications of "clustered households" multigenerational, extended family groupings that function to limit economic risk and create supportive and trusting environments for members. Ethnic identity and cooperation are valued, as is a proactive stance in the search for work. In his chapter he recommends a reexamination of broader policies that devalue cultural pluralism and assume an ethnic underclass.
The final chapter, by Roy Rappaport, offers a theoretical
discussion of disorders in relation to the concepts of adaptation and
maladaptation. He argues for the need to recognize maladaptations, or
structural disorders, provide a critique of current policies and programs,
and recommend alternative plans. Thus, he emphasizes "correctives"
based on thorough and rigorous exploration of the particular social issue
In addition to the substantive concerns facing a pluralistic
and sometimes not-so-democratic United States today, the book emphasizes
the importance and relevance of "engagement" in these issues
with the broader American public. Although many disciplines have long
been active in raising the public's consciousness and debating key social
issues, anthropology has not been as visible at least since the days of
Margaret Mead. Therefore, many of the individual chapters, as well as
The volume focuses on the topic of disorders pathologies
and the barriers to full participation in American society. The authors'
in-depth knowledge of the issues positions them to enter the public debate.
Nevertheless, this a priori emphasis on pathology has the potential to
bias data gathering and analysis. If one sets out to study a particular
problem, one is likely to find it. By contrast, if one sets out to study
a complex social phenomenon, including its extralocal linkages, there
is a greater likelihood for an accurate and inclusive portrayal. Vélez-Ibáñez's
criticism of the concept of underclass illustrates one aspect of this
point. A related issue concerns the holism or overall balance of the research.
MacLennan seems to overemphasize the obstacles
to political participation. Yet, are there facilitators to political participation?
Under what conditions is political behavior expressed? Are political energies
ever channeled into nonpolitical activities that benefit the community?
Similarly, Newman discusses the downside of deindustrialization. Yet,
what about the relationship between the "disadvantaged" and
the advantaged, the employee receiving a pink slip and the one who continues
to work for the firm, and the residents of the ghetto and the worlds around
them? Providing more context for the particular phenomenon under investigation
should provide a more complete and holistic view of the phenomenon as
it reverberates through society at large.
The anthropologists recommend broadening one's conceptual
and methodological tool kit to be able to understand and converse with
those from other disciplinary backgrounds. Knowledge of
The anthropologists call for increased collaboration
between the subjects of the research project and the investigators. This
collaboration should be present during the data collection, in the eventual
framing of the issues, and in the development of solutions. They argue
that it is critical to work to solve problems in conjunction with community
members. Translating the community's partnership into action is not explored
in the volume. When the subjects represent opposing interests and hold
multiple views of the same issue and its potential solutions, application
becomes very difficult and
The anthropologists also indicate the importance of
moving beyond the particular findings to generalize their results and
their applicability to society at large. With the exception of some broadly
framed recommendations by Dubinskas, Velez-Ibanez, and Rappaport, the
articles lack organizational or policy-level specificity required for
Developing actionable steps that organizational leaders, community leaders, and public officials can take is a skill the prerequisite of which is practical experience with the issues and context. The development of such a skill can be enhanced by observing and working with practitioners already "engaged" in application. Related skills involve learning to communicate the appropriate amount of information verbally and in writing to special audiences (e.g., radio listeners, magazine readers, television viewers) so that understanding is attained, debate enriched, and impact felt. This area is clearly one where the academic community can learn from those whose professions place them on the front-lines of organizational change, community initiatives, and public policy.