Monday, September 23, 2013

Leveling and Non-Leveling Mechanisms

As is my M.O. on this blog, this post is partly inspired (positive peer pressure) by a recent tweet by Jason Antrosio pointing readers to an older post of his that reflects on the use of Shakespeare in the Bush in teaching lower level anthropology courses. I saw said tweet just after I had finished using another anthro-reader classic, Richard Lee’s “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” in my 101 section, which worked well as a successful device to talk about important aspects of participant-observation.

This piece describes Lee’s attempt to show gratitude to his Ju/’hoansi hosts for putting up with him for the previous year. To demonstrate his thanks, he bought a big, fat ox to eat at an upcoming celebration. Seeing his generous act from a different perspective, his hosts interpreted the gift as an ostentatious display that highlighted the well-known power differences between them and him. They proceeded to talk all kinds of shit about the gift, demeaning it and the giver.

In an earlier online discussion/thought experiment, a student had brought up the ways in which anthropology can’t be an experimental science. In this live-class portion where we discussed Lee’s piece, the same student noted how Lee’s gift was a kind of experiment (no, not formal) that introduced a novel action into a specific social and cultural context with unexpected consequences--at least for Lee. At the same time, though, that novel act highlighted the regular cultural practice of deflating potential arrogant behavior from the get-go. The collision between Lee’s understanding of gratitude and basically “getting along” with others vs. the Ju/’hoan sense of modest behavior resulted in much more nuanced understanding of both perspectives.

This article has become the classic exposition of "leveling mechanisms" in anthropology (so classic, it's even cited in the Wikipedia entry on "leveling mechanisms"!!!)

Another reason I like the article is that the folks criticizing Lee’s gift were kind of acting like dicks. While I appreciate and highlight the many admirable features of the foraging lifestyle and the people that have pursued it, as detailed by Lee, I also want to steer clear of crafting romantic, noble savage-like pictures for students. So, I like to point out that the people being studied by anthropologists are people and people are complicated. And those complications sometimes include acting in dick-ish ways.

Speaking of dick-ish behavior, Lee’s account provides a funhouse mirror of current attempts to reduce funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) in which recipients are represented by folks like Paul Ryan as dozing in a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Cultural tropes of individual incentive, success and failure are targeted at perceived deviants, just as Ju/’hoan hosts piled on accusations of arrogance on Lee’s assumed attempts at self-aggrandizement.  Political attacks at food stamps, while presented as a kind of leveling mechanism, work to eliminate such social forces and exacerbate current levels of non-levelness.

Reference Cited
Lee, Richard Borshay. “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.” In Conformity and Conflict: Readings to Accompany Miller, Cultural Anthropology, 4 ed., ed. Spradley and McCurdy. Pearson, 2008, Chapter 2.

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