Thursday, October 20, 2011

Students as Individuals and Consumers

Yesterday, my administrative duties included conducting a classroom observation of an adjunct faculty member. These observations have the potential to become very uncomfortable, cringe-inducing experiences. Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those situations. I observed a seasoned instructor who had an easy rapport with students and was clearly in command of the material he was presenting, which he made quite interesting and engaging. Another pleasant surprise was the level of active participation from students in the class (unfortunately, the completely passive class does exist).

While my methodological training is in archaeology, I’m increasingly seeing classroom discussion as an opportunity for ethnographic examination of the cultural worldview of my students, who are largely lower to middle-middle class who’ve grown up in the suburbs of New York. They do provide an intriguing window into how this local population internalizes and embodies larger cultural discourse.

Back to the class observation. Another surprising element was how clearly those vocal students adhere to the cultural values of individualism and consumerism. In this Human Geography course, the instructor was exploring the similarities and differences between folk and popular culture. In particular, he questioned the class about the critique of popular culture which views it as passive, undemocratic, asocial and culturally homogenizing, while folk culture is local, participatory and resists domination from the outside. Several students did offer nuanced responses that articulated a more complicated vision that linked the potentially positive results from mixing folk and popular culture. But, all of these responses were framed in terms of individual, consumer choice. In this perspective, the folk/popular mix allowed a greater variety of options for individuals to choose among for consumption. In fact, the most vivid defense of this view employed the example of the diversity of dishes found at a mall’s food court as a microcosm to describe the benefits popular culture. Again, an individual choosing among a wide range of alternatives for consumption was seen as an example of meaningful human progress. From this sampling of student opinions, the only human social connections that seemed important was that between customer and retailer.

While the following paragraph’s inclusion here is a bit contrived, I came across the following discussion while thinking about this post last night and it did seem somewhat appropriate (so I’m shoehorning it in). I’m in the midst of reading David Graeber’s quite impressive, Debt: The First 5000 Years (I didn’t plan it this way, but you’ll quickly see a trend of quotes). In his discussion of the emergence of commercial economies and their impact on human economies, he notes how slavery was critical to the development of monetized, commercial economies as it increasingly made possible the complete severing of individual human beings from the webs of social relationships that had previously defined their existence. According to his analysis, one of the final steps in this process is the internalization of the master/slave dialectic within individual humans as expressed through the dichotomy of mind/body.

At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. (pg. 209-210, emphasis added)

Student opinion did appear to support the idea that they viewed themselves and other humans as isolated individuals tied together through commercial exchange and the consumption of objects, food and experiences.

What’s an Anthro 101 Teacher to Do?
As I’ve noted in other posts , progressively minded social scientists have their work cut out for them in dealing with traditional age college students. From my experience at a community college, the vast majority have bought into the ideology that human society must be built on the basis of a consumerist, free market economy--because “the economy” is a force of nature, not a human institution. Poverty and inequality are simply unavoidable byproducts that we must live with because we can’t change the basic nature of existence This is the definition of hegemony: the society-wide internalization of elite values, even when enacting those values benefits only the elites and erodes the living conditions of the many at the bottom (and middle) of the social structure.

The students at my college are the same demographic that is facing the increasingly bleak future that has catalyzed much of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In a recent post, David Graeber underscores this point, describing the constituency of the OWS movement as

at core forwards-looking youth movement, just a group of forward-looking people who have been stopped dead in their tracks

However, unlike the protesters, the students I was observing haven’t yet seen that other possibilities exist. Continuing with the theme of quotes from David Graeber, he wrote in an op-ed piece in The Guardian:

Everything we'd been told for the last decade turned out to be a lie. Markets did not run themselves; creators of financial instruments were not infallible geniuses; and debts did not really need to be repaid – in fact, money itself was revealed to be a political instrument, trillions of dollars of which could be whisked in or out of existence overnight if governments or central banks required it. Even the Economist was running headlines like "Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?"

It seemed the time had come to rethink everything: the very nature of markets, money, debt; to ask what an "economy" is actually for. (emphasis added)

As much as I can, I approach class material from neutral-ish political perspective as I’ve found that students can get defensive and alienated from the class if I come across too partisan. However, at its core, anthropology examines the many ways of being human and that alternatives to our own social context have existed, continue to exist and can be perfectly viable options to provide a meaningful human life. I leave it up to the students to judge if other options might be more viable than our own.

I’m a big fan of Daniel Lende’s recent post , particularly the following passage:

one derived thing that distinguishes us (humans) from ants, and even from chimpanzees, is a synthesis of emotion and value and social convention, coupled with our ability to reflect on the future and to exercise agency towards something better for ourselves. That is our anthropological nature, revealing the possibility of many anthropologies – or ways of being – for ourselves. (emphasis added)

While neoliberal economics has tremendous cultural power--as demonstrated by the student responses discussed above--a hegemonic project is never complete, and it’s my hope that anthropology, in its many forms, can contribute to letting people in on the secret that humans don’t have to live in a world at the mercy of seemingly impersonal market forces, but can be remade in ways that put more value on individual and social human welfare.

References Cited
Graeber, David
2011 Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House.


  1. This is a really inspirational post- I like the idea of continuing to use your students as a source of ethnographic data.

    Although of course any good teacher will not force his political views on students, I would encourage you to open your students' eyes in any way you find possible/permissible to their close-mindedness...OWS seems like a good point of connection because it is a cultural phenomenon that is very close to home yet also questions the culture/structure of the very "home" it takes place within. Even to point out to these students (I understand it wasn't your class in this case) that their lens for thinking about folk vs popular culture is entirely commerically oriented might open someone's eyes even a little bit to the pervasive and insidious influences of American culture on the lives of individuals.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with your point that at its core, things like OWS specifically and anthropology in general illustrate how our current world is shaped by particular understandings that help a few an harm many more. I feel that that message of anthro--that the way we live isn't the necessary or only way to live--is one of the most powerful ways for people to begin questioning the status quo. And I definitely do point that out when I'm teaching (though it's a difficult thing for some to accept).