Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Subject: negatives of sociology and anthropology

Date: June 16, 2000

Dear Dr. Pedelty and Dr. Jacobs,

Thank you for your replies to my question regarding the social sciences at General College. I have one follow-up question. Dr. Pedelty emphasized the benefits of his discipline while Dr. Jacobs looked at strengths and weaknesses of sociology’s definitions of culture. Dr. Pedelty, what are some of the negative aspects of your discipline for a student interested in popular culture and music? Dr. Jacobs, is there a big weakness of sociology overall for a student like me?

Thank you,

George P. Burdell



Subject: RE: negatives of sociology and anthropology

Date: June 17, 2000

Dear George,

I am very glad that you asked this question. Indeed, there are many limitations to anthropology for a student interested in studying popular culture. And, there are many problems with the discipline of anthropology, in general. I’ll cite a few here. Pardon me if I get a bit long-winded. We anthropologists have a tendency to rip apart our discipline. And, ultimately, I believe that is literally what needs to be done to the discipline.

But, as you read this, please remember that these are just my views, not necessarily those of the field as a whole. One of the things that you will learn in college is the importance of turning opinions into actual arguments and supporting each thesis with evidence and a cogent line of reasoning. Hopefully, the arguments I present here will help you decide which discipline best matches your interests.

Let me start my critique of cultural anthropology by citing the strengths of sociology. Sociologists are particularly good at identifying the major problems in large scale, contemporary, Western, capitalist societies. Although anthropologists may suggest alternatives based on comparative study of small scale, non-Western societies, past and present, sociologists usually offer more detailed and engaged critiques of the types of social contexts most of us actually experience in our daily lives. Sociology is thus often a more practical discipline, contributing more to social change on regional, national, and global scales than anthropology. Anthropology often deals with more marginalized people and problems. Although these problems are important, they may not relate as directly to the experiences of many students as the issues tackled by sociologists.

Sociologists are also good at looking at issues of scale. Anthropological work is generally focused on small-scale collectives, such as rural villages or urban neighborhoods. Anthropologists are often not so hot at putting such local realities into national, regional, and international contexts. With important exceptions, the discipline has only recently turned significant attention to larger scale issues, such as the affects of globalization on national cultural sovereignty and identity. Sociologists have made such issues the bread-and-butter of their discipline for decades.

Likewise, cultural anthropologists are sometimes accused of being cultural determinists. Cultural determinism is the tendency to reduce all explanations to matters of culture. In fact, archaeologists and physical anthropologists often critique cultural anthropologists for overemphasizing the role of culture. Indeed, the emphasis on symbolic reality may cause anthropologists to act as if all of reality is simply constructed, denying any sort of material reality beyond that which is formed via human interpretation. Complex systems of interaction between the physical, social, and cultural worlds may all be reduced to issues of interpretation and “text.” As a result of this theoretical bias toward culture, material systems of production and power may be ignored in some anthropological studies. This has negative theoretical and political consequences, particularly for those who suffer the most within these very real material systems. Culture is not everything.

So too, the smaller scale focus of anthropology may have negative moral and political consequences. Although studies involving interpersonal and intercultural misinterpretation noted earlier present an important contribution to the study of social behavior, they may fall short if not combined with more large-scale sociological and historical research. Such large-scale sociological and historical contexts are as, if not more, socially significant than the study of localized interactions. Sure, these studies might help us learn how to engineer more effective interpersonal and intercultural relations, but to what end? Will more effective interpersonal communication really lead to less intercultural and international domination? What of our interactions with the billions of people we never meet, including those who assemble our cars, sew our clothes, or pick our vegetables? Given that the readership of academic anthropology is mainly middle to upper class White people in Europe and the United States, isn’t such knowledge concerning the other simply enlightening and thus further empowering the powerful?

Furthermore, what good is smooth intercultural and interpersonal communication, if we are still part and parcel of a much larger social apparatus that privileges most of us living in rich nations? We often prosper at the expense of millions whom we never meet (e.g., every time we buy clothes, shoes, or electronic goods mass produced in Third World sweatshops). Might we not simply mistake good interpersonal relations for actual intercultural and international accord? In other words, the study of how people communicate across cultural boundaries in local and interpersonal contexts is important, but so is the study of the larger class, race, and gender-based systems of economic exploitation we all take part in, whether we realize we are doing so or not. Just as society is made up of much more than interpersonal community interaction, so too should our research do more than simply document the local lives of individual communities.

Sociologists have been better at studying large-scale systems of exploitation. Sociologist Jonathan Kozol’s (1991) Savage Inequalities, a critique of the educational system, is a good example. Although anthropologists have been good at helping a mainly Western readership understand the cultural lives of those in other societies, they have tended to do less in terms of studying social power and inequality in the contemporary world. Therefore, although my colleagues in anthropology would cringe if they read this, I would have to recommend sociology, in general, if you are interested in issues of social power and inequality. As for sociology and anthropology at General College, however, you are as likely to study these issues in either course.

Which brings us to the problem of colonialism. Although it is becoming one of the most diverse disciplines in academe, anthropology has traditionally been dominated by White men, like me (although the rest of them tend to dress better). For this and other reasons, the discipline has been correctly criticized as “colonialist.” Vine Deloria’s (1969) Custer Died for Your Sins presents a brilliant and humorous critique of anthropological exploitation. I would recommend reading that if you want to gain a critical view of the history of anthropological research in North America.

Public critiques like Custer Died for Your Sins became fairly common in the 1960s, as activist groups in the Third and Fourth World (indigenous communities) began to gain a public voice. Ethnographic research began to be viewed as a form of cultural exploitation and appropriation (i.e., borrowing from another culture for personal gain). Many anthropologists, such as Gerald Berreman (1981), began to publish such critiques from within the discipline itself. The participation of several anthropologists in the Vietnam War and other questionable international programs likewise brought the issue of anthropological ethics to the fore.

Unfortunately, the anthropological response has been less than adequate, in my opinion. Anthropologists have tended to modify theory and rhetoric, but not their basic practices. Although India, Mexico, China, and many other countries have strong anthropological traditions, the field is still mainly comprised of First World academics going out to study Third World peoples. Even when guided by a sense of empathy or political solidarity, the basic social structure and practices of the discipline remain largely unchanged. The sort of critical, inter-subjective research Laura Nader (1972) called for in “Up The Anthropologist” is still rarely enacted. The research “gaze” is still very much top-down. Anthropology is still about relatively privileged people studying relatively oppressed people, although many anthropologists have added White guilt to their theoretical tool kit. Although a handful of us have turned the ethnographic gaze on elites in our own ethnographic work, those in power still remain largely outside the ethnographic gaze.

Yet, there is hope for anthropology. I compare anthropology’s colonialist conundrum to Los Angeles’ pollution problem. Los Angeles releases about the same amount of pollutants per capita into the air as any other city in the United States. Yet, because Los Angeles is situated in a mountainous coastal basin with prevailing westerly winds, a great deal of its pollution hangs over the city, rather than blowing off into the desert. Los Angelinos are forced to live in their own pollution. To bring the analogy home, anthropology is probably no more colonialist than any other Western academic profession. All Western academic disciplines have a colonialist tradition, be it by omission (e.g., historians, musicologists, sociologists, and others have tended to undervalue non-Western cultures) or commission, as is the case with anthropology. However, because anthropology is dedicated to the holistic study of human diversity, the discipline has had to come to grips with the issue earlier than others. Anthropologists can ignore the problem of colonialism no more than Los Angeles can pretend it has no air-quality issues. Yet, given this legacy of colonialism, and continued vestiges of intercultural domination within the field, does anthropology deserve to exist? I have been asking myself that question for 18 years, and I am no more certain than when I first posed the question.

Which brings us to the problem of cultural relativism, the attempt to understand the cultural perspectives of others. Whereas I cited this concept as one of the positive aspects of anthropology, it can also become a negative. Cultural relativism certainly has its methodological place. After all, even if one is studying a heinous cultural practice, it is useful to first understand its cultural context and intent. If one were concerned about a ritual involving nonconsensual and painful physical mutilation, for example, the best way to stop such abuse might be to gain a clearer understanding of its cultural context and causes.

The problem comes in, however, when cultural relativism is mistaken for moral relativism. Some would believe that an outsider must never take a moral or political stand on cultural issues. Fortunately, most anthropologists now make the distinction between cultural and moral relativism. Although we use cultural relativism to study societies, both foreign and familiar, as human beings we must also take moral and political stands. In fact, the consideration of difficult cultural and moral dilemmas helps us to rethink the difficult questions concerning who can really be defined as “outsiders” or “insiders” in a globally integrated world, when we are all increasingly liminal (i.e., in between) in terms of social practice and cultural identity.

Furthermore, no person or culture is completely bounded. We are all members of multiple, overlapping and intersecting cultural “flows,” to borrow a term from anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996). There are, therefore, divergent views and dissenters in all societies. As people who have studied cultural problems, we not only have the right but also an obligation to take a position on cultural issues. But I digress. The main point, George, is that cultural relativism has had positive results when applied as a research method, and negative consequences when conflated (i.e., confused) with moral relativism.

Sorry about the earful. You only wanted to know which course to take, and I now I have presented a treatise on my discipline. Regardless, I hope that this will help you choose which discipline best matches your interests. Thanks for sparking this dialogue.

And, by the way, please call me Mark.



Subject: RE: negatives of sociology and anthropology

Date: June 17, 2000


Once again, Mark has beaten me to the punch with a richly nuanced answer to your question! Mark gave you some more insights into sociology in addition to revealing new information about anthropology. His e-mail was a long one and you may still be digesting it, so let me add just a brief nugget to piggyback on Mark’s point about moral and cultural relativism. My advisor at Indiana University, Tom Gieryn (1994), wrote:

To be objective is not just to tolerate another’s epistemic culture, but to engage in cross-the-border conversations, selectively borrowing what works for you, perhaps seeking to persuade the other of the utility of your knowledge for their projects (success at this can not be guaranteed), never imposing your epistemic culture by force of gun or pretensions of privilege (i.e., rationality, truth, moral purity, standpoint), and using the encounter to examine ceaselessly the foundations and implications of one’s own knowledge-making practices. (p.325)

Basically what Tom is saying is that throughout life you will encounter people with radically different perspectives from you, but your job is (a) to try to make sense of where they are coming from, and (b) to combine elements of both perspectives to empower yourself, other people, and the communities around you while rejecting elements that threaten this project. College is a great place to learn and practice this process, and it is central to both the anthropology and sociology courses here in the General College. Although there are problems with the lessons of both disciplines, we believe that once you’ve completed both courses you’ll be a more well-rounded person. We look forward to working with you over the years…



Subject: Is there a Socio-pology?

Date: June 18, 2000

Dear Walt and Mark,

Thank you for the information and advice. I’d like to take both courses, but I wonder if I can fit them both into my schedule? Sounds like the perfect course for me would be something that combines the strengths of both sociology and anthropology. Too bad there isn’t a Socio-pology course or something like that!



Subject: RE: Is there a Socio-pology?

Date: June 19, 2000

Dear George,

Although this is coming from Walt’s e-mail account, we are both writing this to you. We are in Walt’s office, but Mark is doing most of the typing.

There actually is a field of study dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of contemporary culture. It is called “cultural studies.” Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field that draws theory and methodology from several disciplines, including anthropology and sociology. Walt mentioned it in his first e-mail; we’ll explain more about it here.

Although there are certainly problems with cultural studies as well, we both believe cultural studies successfully integrates the various strengths of our fields. This is not only the case for the study of popular culture, but for the study of contemporary societies in general. Whereas anthropology can be faulted for focusing overwhelmingly on the study of Third World and rural cultures, sociology can be faulted for its over-emphasis on social research in Western societies. There has been much too little critical, comparative, and cultural study of dominant institutions in the contemporary world (e.g., governmental organizations, corporations, mass media, new technologies).

Cultural studies has attempted to fill that gap. Anthropology and sociology have slowly begun to recognize their respective oversights, however. The sociology of culture and the anthropology of globalization are just two of the areas in which such a growing synthesis is evident. The overly simplistic binary oppositions upon which both fields were organized are rapidly falling apart. We can no longer speak of Western versus Eastern cultures, First versus Third Worlds, society versus culture, or make many similar distinctions without obscuring much more than we clarify. For better or worse, the social and cultural world is being reorganized and integrated in ways that challenge simplistic notions of culture, society, and identity. As these trends continue, sociology and anthropology will undoubtedly continue to change as well. We believe that cultural studies will be a shared discussion point as these sister disciplines continue their discussion concerning the nature of social reality in a globally integrated world.

Therefore, we are working on ways to make our courses more interdisciplinary and relevant as well. Cultural studies is one of the ways we are trying to do this. We believe that this will not only strengthen our courses, in general, but that interdisciplinary social study will also be more useful to General College students as they move on to enter a diverse range of majors and career paths. Interdisciplinary courses also allow us to adapt course content to the desires and needs of students, rather than discipline them from the outset of their college experience. As has been true in other multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary departments, cultural studies is emerging as one potential means for integrating a diverse curriculum at the General College, not only within the social sciences, but in the humanities as well.

The General College is the University of Minnesota’s developmental education unit. Following recent discussion about the purpose of developmental education to establish a pluralistic and discursive framework that builds on students’ existing knowledge and practices, instead of one that focuses on standardized deficits and remediation (Lundell & Collins, 1999), we believe that a cultural studies curriculum should provide students with flexible tools to understand and shape a rapidly evolving world. Michel de Certeau (1997) argues that “spectators are not the dupes of the media theater, but they refuse to say so” (p. 31). Similarly, students in the General College are not passive dupes of media (as well as other social) theaters, but often will not question their surroundings. A cultural studies perspective is powerful in that it seeks to make interventions in existing social conditions, at the level in which students are living instead of in the abstract, as in the case of more traditional sociological and anthropological practices.

Eventually we’d like to eliminate “sociology” and “anthropology” designations from our social science courses, renaming them “cultural studies.” Further, we’d like to experiment with the very nature of “course.” Rather than having 40 or more students meet with one instructor for 16 weeks to broadly cover a single subject area, we will explore possibilities of a modular system in which students are with instructors for shorter periods to study narrower subjects in depth before moving on to other units taught by different instructors. We also hope to experiment with a variety of classroom structures and practices to optimize learning possibilities.

We will begin work on this integrative curriculum design during the 2000-2001 academic year, so it won’t appear until the 2001-2002 school year as the earliest possibility. In the meantime, both of us incorporate cultural studies into our current sociology and anthropology courses. Cultural studies demands that individual practices and products, like those of popular music, be examined from multiple perspectives. As discussed in his first e-mail, Mark uses multiple methods (e.g., interviews, participation, observation, comparative analysis) to learn and teach Mexican music in his Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. Walt’s freshman seminar on “Living in the Electronic Information Age” is built around the “circuit of culture,” (du Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay & Negus, 1997) which says that examining a practice or product from the perspectives of production, consumption, representation, identities, and regulation provides individuals with a very rich tool kit to explore contemporary life. Given our deployment of strategies such as these, you will find our courses relevant to your interests in popular culture and music. Check out our web pages for syllabi and other information.

Have a good summer. We look forward to teaching and learning with you this fall!

Mark and Walt


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Basso, K. (1970). “To give up on words”: Silence in Western Apache culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26, 213-230.

Becker, H., & McCall, M. (1990). Symbolic interaction and cultural studies. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Bellah, R., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W., Swidler, A., & Tipton, S. (1985). Habits of the heart. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Berreman, G. D. (1981). The politics of truth: Essays in critical anthropology. New Delhi, India: South Asian.

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de Certeau, M. (1997). Culture in the plural. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

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du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Mackay, H., & Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage.

Dunbar-Hall, P. (1997). Music and meaning: The Aboriginal rock album. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1, 38-47.

Fish, J. (2000). Mixed blood. In J. Spradley & D. McCurdy (Eds.), Conformity and conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology (pp. 250-260). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books.

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