Sociocultural Aspects of North America Research Paper

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For five centuries peoples from Europe and Africa and those native to the New World have interacted in North America within continually shifting spatial and political arrangements. From the mid-nineteenth century onward these interactions became more complex following abolition of slavery, incorporation of Latin American populations of variously mixed ancestry, immigration from Asia, a closed settler frontier, and expanded citizenship rights for people of color and women. Sociocultural anthropologists have studied communities, subgroups, issues, and processes within this multicultural landscape through ethnographic fieldwork and by ‘upstream’ ethnohistorical research. They have also formulated more wide-ranging conclusions about structures of power and trajectories of change.

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1. Colonial And Early National North America

Some five million or more speakers of hundreds of tongues (belonging to at least six language families) inhabited native North America in the 1490s when English, French, and other Western Europeans began to explore southward along the Atlantic coast from Labrador, and Spaniards northward from Florida, and later Mexico. By 1800 the more than four million whites and one million blacks living on the eastern seaboard far outnumbered the remaining 600,000

Native Americans, most of them now beyond the ‘frontier’ of white settlement. This demographic reversal involved free migration from Europe, enforced transportation from West and Central Africa, and massive population decline among American ‘Indians.’

New World peoples bore no immunity to Old World diseases, and scores of smallpox, cholera, influenza, and other epidemics decimated them. Moreover, a cycle of change set in motion by the fur trade led to warfare over hunting and trading territories, and devastation from European-introduced guns and alcohol. In addition, permanent mixed farming in the north and middle colonies, and plantations in the south, left decreasing room for Native American corn–bean–squash swidden agriculture. The first Indian reservations were created in New England during the 1600s, and following the independence of the United States in 1783 (Canada remained a British dependency), Indian policy was placed in the Department of War. In 1830 the Indian Removal Act authorized the US president to relocate eastern groups west of the Mississippi River; overt ethnic cleansing later occurred in Texas where entire peoples were exterminated, and in California where numerous shootings and massacres followed the 1849 Gold Rush.

Unlike Indians, whose thinning numbers were welcomed by white settlers, African-Americans were induced to multiply, particularly after the overseas slave trade became illegal in 1807, and by 1850 their numbers reached 3.6 million. Of diverse languages and cultures (like the Indians), they were not deliberately divided by ‘tribe’ but rather experienced pressure to acculturate into a homogeneous enslaved population. African languages, and most now-unpracticed skills and conventions of African forms of life, were lost. The scattered free black populations, amounting to 400,000 by 1850, were all English speaking, though traces of Africa remained in music, folk-crafts and lore, and interpersonal behavior.

As elsewhere in the New World, numerous white males impregnated enslaved African women, but in North America a ‘one drop rule’ prevailed under which any known African ancestry classified a person as black, a situation that persisted after slavery and into the present. White and black North Americans became accustomed to observing a range of skin colors and facial features within the ‘Negro’ or ‘colored’ population, and to detecting African ancestry among light-skinned persons who were members of black communities or who attempted to ‘pass’ into the white population (Harris 1964).

White North Americans numbered 20 million by 1850. Mainly of British Isles origin, they included other northern Europeans who by the 1800s had ‘melted’ into the English-speaking majority, but also a persisting French-speaking Canadian enclave. (Spain was displaced from Florida in 1819.) The northern and mid-Atlantic family-farm pattern accompanied whites expanding into the ‘middle west’ between the original colonies and the Mississippi River, and steadily shifted from subsistence to market production (mainly of wheat); large-scale white-owned commercial plantations worked by enslaved blacks spread across the south to Texas, interspersed with ‘poor white’ small- holdings on less productive land.

Along the Atlantic coast, industrial production in mill-towns and urban factories proliferated during the early nineteenth century. Some skilled artisans and inventors joined commercial investors in a solidifying capitalist class, while others, with laborers, deskilled ‘mechanics,’ and farm-family offspring, moved into a proletarian zing and geographically mobile working class; smaller numbers of clerks, now located in offices separated from workplaces, fell in between. White lifestyles increasingly diverged by class, especially for women—upper-class women managed household staffs, family visits, and charity efforts; working-class women performed the tasks of reproducing male labor, and often worked for wages or took in boarders as well. By the 1840s a moralistic evangelical Christianity was entrenched that extolled the rich for their successes, sanctified hierarchy, and blamed the poor for their own condition (Wallace 1978).

2. 1850s–1920s: Red, Black, And White Americas Engaged

In 1851 Morgan published his League of the Hode-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois; combining fieldwork, a comparative perspective, and theoretical interests in political organization, this book was the first full-scale anthropological ethnography. Though Morgan included sections on ‘intercourse with Europeans’ and ‘future destiny of the Indian,’ the volume concerned primarily Iroquois institutions and customs, in particular the dispersed matriclans (or ‘tribes’) and the overarching council of sachems uniting the five Iroquois ‘nations.’ Morgan, however, devoted a chapter to ‘The New Religion’ proclaimed by Handsome Lake five decades earlier, a revitalization movement (Kehoe 1989) formed in the wake of depopulation, conquest, and reservation life.

Further ethnographies of Native American institutions and customs did not follow until the US Bureau of American Ethnology was created in 1879, and works on the Zuni by Cushing, Omaha by Dorsey, and Inuit and Kwakiutl by Boas appeared in the 1880s and 1890s. Meanwhile, the buffalo-hunting Plains culture, itself a post-1600 development following the diffusion of horses from Spanish Mexico, were being harried out of existence by settlers, soldiers, receding reservations, and nineteenth-century epidemics which reduced the US Native American population to its nadir of 250,000 in 1890. That year more than 150 Sioux were killed at Wounded Knee by US troops, Indian resistance ended, and the frontier ‘closed’ (Kehoe 1989). Most studies of Native Americans published through the 1920s were ‘salvage ethnography’ aimed at reconstructing prereservation life-ways, but an exception was Radin’s Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1920). This ‘life history’ followed a man born about 1880 from his Wisconsin youth of hunting, canoe travel, and fast-induced vision questing, to an adulthood of craft sales to whites, farm and railroad wage labor, wild west show employment, federal annuity payments, alcoholism, attacks from whites, imprisonment, and conversion to the Christian-influenced pan-Native American peyote religion.

In 1887, attempting to transform reservation land tenure from collective to private ownership, Congress had passed the Dawes Act which defined as ‘Indian’ only persons who were at least ‘half bloods’ (later replaced by a ‘one-quarter blood quantum’ standard); Native Americans’ own kinship and participation-based criteria of societal membership were nullified (Jaimes in Gregory and Sanjek 1994). This restrictive logic of who could be Indian contrasted with the ‘one drop rule,’ which was ratified in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that Louisiana could compel a white-appearing, one-eighth black passenger to ride on ‘colored’ railroad cars, and which legalized racial segregation for the next six decades.

Following the abolition of slavery and bestowal of citizenship on African-Americans after the Civil War, oppression in southern states had intensified, lynching proliferated, and racial segregation expanded. The first ethnography of black Americans, The Philadelphia Negro (1899) by DuBois (Baker 1998), was influenced by the British and American urban survey and settlement house movements, and reflected its author’s training in history as Harvard’s first black Ph.D. It depicted life in an inner city neighborhood, relations between southern migrant and northernborn African-Americans, and the ever-present realities of white–black inequality; extensive interviews were combined with participant observation on ‘the function of the Negro church’ and ‘social classes and amusements.’

Inspired by the same sources as DuBois, sociocultural research on white North Americans and European immigrants (39 million had arrived in the US and Canada between 1850 and 1924) began a dozen years later at the University of Chicago. There monographic studies continued through the 1930s of itinerant ‘hobo’ workers, youth gangs, dancehall employees and patrons; Poles, Jews, French Canadians (and Mexicans and Chinese); and central city ‘gold coast’ apartment, artist colony, and rooming house dwellers. The first participant–observer community study—of Muncie, Indiana, a town of 35,000, and 85 percent ‘native white of native parentage’—was conducted in 1924–5; crediting anthropologists Rivers and Wissler for its holistic methodology, Middletown (Lynd and Lynd 1929) detailed work, family life, education, leisure, religion, and government in this glass industry-dominated town.

During the 1850s–1920s decades, Mexicans incorporated into the US after the 1846–8 Mexican–American war, as well as later cross-border immigrants, were illegally denied political rights by being classified as ‘Indians,’ who collectively were granted US citizenship in 1924 (Menchaca 1993). Puerto Ricans, US subjects since the 1898 Spanish–American war, became citizens in 1917; and during this widening of the citizenship pool, women achieved the right to vote in 1920. Asian immigration was severely restricted after 1882, and naturalization denied; it was not until 1952 that all Latin American and Asian immigrants were permitted to become US citizens.

3. 1930s–WWII: Projects And Regions

Coordinated teams and research schemes marked the energetic North American ethnographic fieldwork of the 1930s and early 1940s. Warner during 1930–5 led a Harvard team studying ‘Yankee City’ (Newburyport, Massachusetts), a town of 17,000, and authored five volumes (condensed in Warner 1963). He identified a six-tiered status system of ‘social classes’—the ‘upperupper’ old-family aristocracy, and ‘lower-upper’ newly-wealthy (together just 3 percent of Yankee City); ‘upper-middle’ professionals and managers (10 percent); the ‘lower-middle’ and ‘upper-lower’ ‘level of the common man’ (together 61 percent); and the ‘lower-lower’ poor (25 percent). While later criticized for presenting a top-down view (the common man admittedly made fewer distinctions), Warner and colleagues did document social class in town geography, associations and cliques, churches, aspirations of non-Yankee white immigrant groups, politics, and public ceremonies.

A more intensive, if one-person, study of an immigrant and second-generation Italian neighborhood in Boston was conducted by Whyte during 1936–40, with advice from veterans of the Yankee City team. Perhaps the richest of all North American ethnographies, it challenged the ‘disorganized slum’ model of Chicago sociology, and focused on unemployed ‘corner boys’ in their 20s, their ‘college boy’ rivals, and gambling racketeers with ties to police and machine politics. (For the 1955 edition of Street Corner Society Whyte added a revealing 80-page autobiographical appendix on research methods.) Meanwhile, Warner initiated a team study of ‘Jonesville,’ a mid-western prairie town; despite the absence of upper-uppers and only two ethnic groups—Norwegians and Poles—the findings were similar to Yankee City, and Warner highlighted national similarities at ‘the level of the common man,’ now valorized by service in World War II.

The third leg of Warner’s regional comparative scheme was a study of Natchez, Mississippi, a half- white, half-black trade center with an 80 percent black rural hinterland. In 1933–5 he dispatched one white and one African-American couple to study its two ‘color-castes,’ as Warner termed the polarized racial structure which he contrasted with the individual and group class mobility available to white ethnics. In his view, the emerging three-tiered class structure among blacks was overshadowed by race; in the future, he proposed, black education and wealth levels would approach the more elaborate, six-tiered white class structure, and then the caste bar to intermarriage might erode (Warner in Davis et al. 1941). North America was (and is) not there yet, and his students documented how interpersonal etiquette and economic and political institutions, legally and extralegally, operated to maintain white dominance.

Warner also sponsored a study of African-American life in Chicago conducted by a predominantly black team during 1935–8. Acknowledging inspiration from DuBois, the resulting 800-page volume, Black Metro-polis, surveyed northward migration; the ‘color-line’ in housing, employment, marriage, and public accommodations; black upper, middle, and lower class life; and Chicago’s ‘intricate web of families, cliques, churches, and voluntary associations,’ concluding that ‘Negroes do not usually think of their institutional life as something ‘‘inferior.’’ In fact, they express considerable pride in it’ (Drake and Cayton 1962).

A comparative project of rural community studies conducted under the US Bureau of Agricultural Economics’ auspice during 1939 (Leonard et al. 1978) included four variants of the white family-farm pattern: small-scale New Hampshire dairymen (and their underemployed working-class ‘floater’ neighbors); Iowa commercial feed-grain and livestock growers; capital-intensive Kansas wheat producers employing a plethora of specialized machinery; and low-tech Pennsylvania Amish pietists whose agrarian innovations over two centuries had diffused widely in Europe and North America. Two other studies documented in-equities faced by Spanish-speaking New Mexicans displaced from stock-grazing lands by intrusive Anglos, and a racially-segregated Georgia county where white dairy-farm owners offered ‘milk-hand’ employment to the black local majority of tenant cotton-farmers barely surviving in the post-boll weevil economy. Everywhere New Deal farm assistance and job programs were intrinsic to rural life, and except for the Amish, New Mexicans, and black Georgians, the same radio programs, popular music, and movies enjoyed nationwide had displaced locally-produced entertainment.

Following Mead’s 1930 participant–observer study of contemporary Omaha reservation life, acculturation research on Native Americans blossomed at Columbia University, and also at the University of Chicago where an Indian Education, Personality and Administration Project begun in 1941 resulted in several monographs with strong acculturational and psychological content, emphases evident as well in Native American life histories produced by Yale anthropologists. A number of white participants in the Warner and Native American research schemes were among the 21 anthropologists employed as administrators and researchers by the War Relocation Authority which during 1942–6 supervised 10 concentration camps for 110,000 Japanese American citizens and their Japan-born parents. (Canadians of Japanese ancestry were also incarcerated.) Coincident with the beginnings of ‘applied anthropology’ in US industry and government administration, this wartime episode led to no sustained anthropological focus on Asian Americans during the next two decades, but did generate persisting questions about fieldwork ethics and responsibilities (Starn 1986).

4. Postwar To 1950s: Corporatism And Stocktaking

While Warner had studied the takeover of a Yankee City factory by a national company, and Bureau of Agricultural Economics rural fieldworkers documented mass media influence, only after World War II did corporate power and mass culture became central topics in sociocultural fieldwork. Unfortunately, however, the volume of North American research now shrank as anthropologists had greater funds and opportunities to do research abroad.

In rural California, Goldschmidt (1978) contrasted the dampening of community life by corporate agribusiness with the greater civic participation and lesser economic and racial stratification in locales characterized by family farms. Large-scale production in fact depended on federally subsidized irrigation which by law was intended for family-size units; when Goldschmidt’s findings threatened their noncompliant water use, agribusiness growers employed political influence to vilify and suppress his (and other rural) research, and to maintain control of irrigation resources. (By 1975 the number of US farms had fallen from 6.5 million in 1920 to 2.8 million, ‘vertical integration’ of the food industry through production contracts between corporations and family farms was widespread, and low-wage, proletarianized farmwork was on the increase.)

Powdermaker (1950) studied movie producers, writers, directors, and actors during a year of fieldwork in Hollywood, focusing on the ‘big five’ studios’ decisions about film content. Concerned with the ‘models for human relationships’ and ‘folk heroes’ presented to the mass North American audience, and the frustration of creativity within the industry, she identified the sources of power behind the ideological messages and standardization in Hollywood’s ‘assembly line’ films: conservative Christian censors who threatened boycotts and profit-motivated ‘front office executives’ dedicated to least-common-denominator formulas. Since the vertically integrated studios also controlled film distribution, their decisions determined what was seen.

During the 1950s more and more food products and films were consumed in burgeoning suburbia. (By 1970 more North Americans lived in suburbs than in cities.) Studies appeared of working and lower-middle class Levittowners, and of upper-middle class ‘exurbanite’ and ‘organization man’ commuters. The richest of these ethnographies, Crestwood Heights (Seeley et al. 1956), described an affluent Toronto suburb where households valued privacy and possessions, leisure and vacation activities were tightly scheduled, gender differences between career-centered husbands and home-centered wives were magnified, and parents and child-rearing experts encouraged ‘responsible’ adult-like child behavior, which the schools reinforced.

In 1955 the American Anthropologist, North America’s leading anthropology journal, published a special issue on ‘The USA as Anthropologists See It’ (Lantis 1955). Arensberg placed the harvest of 1930s–1940s community studies within a historical and regional typology, and outlined the emerging metropolitanarea configuration of central city and suburbs. Schneider and Homans stressed the impact of class mobility on cognitive kinship maps. Several authors (most ingeniously Mason) assayed writings on American national character and values, but none tied the ‘traits’ of independence, competition, conformity, faith in progress, and professed equality of opportunity to their white, male, and frontier familyfarm business-owner roots; nor did they discuss alternative values of women, workers, people of color, and pietists who were denied realization of, denigrated by, or rejected this ‘dominant value profile of American culture’ (see Spindler and Spindler 1983, Mullings 1997, Wallace 1978). Japanese and Mexican Americans were ‘ethnic groups’ like Poles and Jews; African-Americans were not; and Native Americans surfaced only in an article on language. Little in this 1955 special issue presaged what the 1960s were about to unleash.

5. 1960s–1980s: Subcultures, Ethnicity, Diversity, And Power

The rebirth of North American ethnography in the 1960s began with a dozen books on African-Americans (Hannerz 1975); if offering narrower views of black class differences than DuBois or the 1930s studies, this work was attuned to the movement for racial equality, and answered a call for ‘relevance’ within anthropology. Ethnographies of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, urban Indians, schools, and crime followed in the 1970s, and of workers, health care settings, gays and lesbians, white ethnics, rural life, homeless persons, and immigrants in the 1980s. Aims and theoretical frameworks varied as political and policy interests, and in-group documentation and vindicationist goals, intersected with undercontextualized notions of ‘subcultures’ and ‘adaptive strategies’ in the 1960s, an ethnicity boom in the 1970s, and exploration of gender, sexual, generational, occupational, and religious cultural diversity in the 1980s. Expertly crafted ethnographies—new classics—appeared concerning mentally retarded adults by Edgerton, alcoholic ‘urban nomads’ by Spradley, a school principal’s milieu by Wolcott, dying children by Bluebond-Langner, male factory workers by Halle, Japanese American kinship by Yanagisako, and female hospital employees by Sacks. Between 1980 and 1992, Moffatt estimated, the volume of research on North America (excluding Native Americans) surpassed all that had come before (Moffatt 1992, Spindler and Spindler 1983).

In addition, established anthropological interests in family and kinship, and new ones spurred by the 1970s feminist movement, received attention. Clark and Anderson (1967) pioneered ethnographic research on the growing elderly population, redefining this ‘social problem’ to include study of kinship and friendship networks, lifecycle transitions, counterproductive American values, medical and economic institutions, and political advocacy. Reacting to a spate of cognitive studies of American kin terms, Schneider’s controversial American Kinship (1968) distilled the ‘enduring, diffuse solidarity’ of ties among relatives by blood and by law, here understood as ‘a system of symbols, and not … at any other level.’ (A little-known 1975 volume usefully analyzed his empirical kinship data.) Rapp (1987) synthesized historical, ethnographic, and feminist writings to clarify work, exchange, and gender patterns among poor, stable wage-earner, affluent middle-class, and trans generationally-wealthy households and families; an efflorescence of research expanded this terrain during the 1980s (Ginsburg and Tsing 1990), demonstrating that ‘gender is not just about women; it is about the social relationship between men and women and the … cultural construction of femininity and masculinity’ (Mullings 1997).

Religion, a topic of passing attention in many ethnographies, was the focus of Sinha’s research (1966) in mid-western ‘Mapletown,’ one of few studies in the US or Canada by a non-North American anthropologist. Noting how Christianity was intertwined with American patriotism as well as class-stratified by denomination, he contrasted its ‘rigid’ and ‘attenuated’ qualities with the more transcendental and pervasive Hinduism of his native India. (By 1980, Hinduism was an ethnographically documented North American religion.) Fundamentalist Christians were less than 5 percent in Mapletown, but their increasing national numbers and influence by the 1980s drew the attention of Spuhler (1985), who analyzed the beliefs and organization of Bible-based ‘scientific creationism,’ a viewpoint endorsed by President Ronald Reagan and accepted by 44 percent of Americans, and Harding (1987), who studied the politically activist Moral Majority, focusing on the ideology and process of ‘born again’ conversion, and on anti-abortion efforts.

A plea to ‘study up’ into government and corporate bureaucracies, the upper classes, and the organization and abuse of power in the US—a call for an anthropological political economy to anchor reborn ethnographic energies—was registered by Nader (1972); for Canada, see Hughes (1964) and Sweet (1976). A fascinating commentary on these issues was the ‘fleeting glimpses of America’ of Fei, a Chinese anthropologist whose 1979 visit to the US was his first since 1944. Fei noted the now dominant, and federally subsidized, automobile–highway–supermarket–suburb complex; telephone communication organizing personal life; computerization of information, and of public and private decision-making; the rise of technical and managerial personnel to comprise one-quarter of the labor force; the power of government’s corporate-contractors; the one-sixth of Americans below the poverty line; persisting and disproportionate unemployment among African-Americans; and a shortage of ‘scholars who are trying to understand the entire society.’ As the 1980s closed, Nash (1989) came nearest to absorbing Nader’s charge and Fei’s observations in her historically-attuned, well-contextualized ethnography of downsizing and gentrification in a Massachusetts factory town.

6. 1990s–Twenty-first Century: Transitions And Polarizations

By the year 2080, the historic white US majority will fall below 50 percent, and people of color will comprise the majority. Rising intermarriage rates for whites, Latin Americans, Asians, and blacks will complicate government-imposed categories of race and ethnicity, while continuing immigration will replenish ethnic and racial populations. Against the rising pace of multiracial, multiethnic encounter, wealth is more polarized than ever before, and white migration from cities and coasts to suburbs and interior states is dividing the white population (Sanjek 1998). Countering the 1950s and 1970s emphases on ethnicity, historically-grounded understandings of the racialization of blacks, Latin Americans, and Asians in North America underscore the value of both race and ethnicity as analytic concepts (Gregory and Sanjek 1994, Menchaca 1993), a position advocated by Warner in the 1930s. The situation of Native Americans remains unique: while populations are growing, intermarriage rates exceed 50 percent, and, paradoxically, as Native American languages face extinction, control of reservation land in the US, and both rights and acreage in Canada, are increasing.

Ethnography in the twenty-first century will continue to focus on rights and representations—workplace and language rights of immigrants, civil rights of sexual minorities, rights to healthcare for the elderly and poor, rights to adequate education for children, ‘taxpayers’ rights for the affluent, rights for Christians opposed to abortion and evolution, housing and employment rights for African-Americans, ‘colorblind’ rights for whites in an increasingly color-full North America—and representations by corporate mass media, by school curricula and cultural institutions, by grassroots protestors and their advocates, and by members of diverse constituencies themselves (Mullings 1997, Zavella in Gregory and Sanjek 1994).


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