Welcome to Contexting, a blog that comments upon contemporary life with an anthropological bent.   Why?  As an anthropologist, that’s what I’ll do even if I don’t plan to, so I might as well just tell you.  Discussion is welcome.

Why bother with contexts?  Isn’t this the age of “Big Data,” with algorithms that permit us to dig deep to ferret out individuals to buy products, elect candidates, and otherwise become products themselves in this electronic age?  Yes, and yet people still have bodies that hug, punch, shield, shout, whisper, march, make things, break things, and wave them around.  I am thinking about the 2016 presidential election and the surprise of its context.

How was it possible that Democrats and pollsters were surprised that huge sections of the United States felt dispossessed by globalization processes?  Or maybe that it mattered enough to act on it?

Once chronic unemployment in manufacturing was known as the British disease, when mills in Great Britain were supplanted by others abroad, with cheaper labor and access to raw materials.  The American revolution meant that we no longer had to buy finished goods from Great Britain and send them our raw materials. Globalization is in our national DNA.  In Britain’s Edwardian age (think Downton Abbey), American farm products sold cheaply in England hastened the end of the landed gentry. Wealthy American debutantes married and supported British aristocrats.  Winston Churchill loved his American mother! About that time my ancestors from all over Europe arrived in New England to work textile mills that were beginning their own death spiral–labor was cheaper in the south after the Civil War.  Immigrant labor, including women and children, kept things going in New England awhile longer. My great-grandfather died of TB contracted in the mills, despite efforts on the part of immigration officials to keep the disease out of the country.

Today, it’s a far more complicated picture.  But those mills keep on moving in pursuit of low-cost inputs. Today’s workers can’t eat free apps or shelter from the blizzard inside of them. Paychecks are necessary. We also need purpose and meaning. We desire families and places to gather for community.  We need others around us.

Tomorrow, not only truck drivers but doctors and lawyers will face competition from software.  Online, sports articles are already written by software.  Our factory workers and miners are the canary in our economic coal mine.

So, why are so many  so-called “elite liberals” surprised that ordinary Americans in rust belt states, with no affirmed racist or  anti-immigrant sentiments, turned away from “their” democratic party?  This is the crisis of not just today, but of tomorrow.

Let’s talk about assumptions.  There’s a nasty little bias that underlies many liberal and conservative assumptions.  It found its place during the mid-nineteenth century wave of European immigration, when the impoverished, uneducated, malnourished and diseased came to work in mills and build our modern infrastructure.  They brought Catholicism, an alien and degraded religion to Americans of the time. These workers were a blight on our American utopia in the making.

At the same time, a nasty little idea was generated in jolly old England.  A man by the name of Herbert Spencer was not of the nobility but wanted in on  its elitism. He argued that it was ability and success that should make one elite–not birthright.  He, not Darwin, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  This idea was perfect for the US society, where it festers still.  It’s past time to put a stake in Social Darwinism.

According to Spencer’s way of thinking, if one is elite, one is a better quality human being.  Liberal elites are still elites.  And class based societies segregate so that we don’t interact in meaningful ways.  We don’t share each other’s lives. “Lesser” folk become invisible. Hence liberal elites can forget that massive social transformations can displace workers permanently; elites don’t have to notice that retraining is often a waste of time; they have the luxury to forget that with structural economic change comes the need for not just new policies, but new ways of understanding society itself. Policies shaped for 20th century inequalities may not be relevant to the seismic technological shifts in current globalization processes.

Elites only pay attention to working class folks when elite interests are at stake. Thank God for elections.

What I have learned through my professional and personal experience is that class difference is also language difference.  Regardless of class, people have strong insights into the dynamic contexts of their social lives. If the elites who shape policies regarding the displaced working class know how to listen across language and social boundaries; if these elites know how to collaborate effectively with not only displaced workers but other stakeholders; if we first learn how to notice people who are invisible to those of higher status; then we can truly shape a democratic, fair society that works for us all.

Democracy is a discussion; it is also action.

Yup, a long polemic. Sorry, it was the election.  Later postings will be shorter and hopefully sweeter.




2 thoughts on “Welcome to Contexting

  1. Speaking our class…and its biases:

    Sociolinguists investigate the relationship between speech and the nature of the society. A classic study (Edwards 1979) still taught in introductory sociolinguistic classes explores the way in which social class filters our perception of others when listening to people speak.

    Edwards explores the ways in which gender is differently communicated by studying how adults assign sex to the speech of pre-pubescent children of both working class and middle-class backgrounds. The sex of these children cannot be “heard” when they are so young.

    One interesting finding was that, among working class children, girls were mistaken to be boys more often than boys were mistaken for girls. The reverse was true for middle-class children. How can that be?

    Among the working class, tough masculinity is associated with covert prestige. That masculine prestige is communicated through employing non-standard speech forms. In the middle class, standard speech forms are the norm.

    In the study, young working class girls were sometimes misidentified as boys because of their use of non-standard speech forms. These girls were thus perceived as rough and masculine. Middle class boys were sometimes misidentified as girls because they used standard speech forms, which our culture also associates with femininity. Speech marks both class and gender.

    When we speak, our social assumptions operate under the radar of our own consciousness.

    Imagine especially an elite woman seeking a leadership position from working class people who unconsciously are listening for signs of working class male speech forms to validate that status.

    And the motto, “Stronger together?” Not very tough.
    ‘Social Class Differences and the Identification of Sex in Children’s Speech’, _Journal of Child Language_, 6 (1979), pp. 121-7 (Cambridge University Press).


  2. “Park it at the door!”

    (Also titled: On working class vs college grad speech learned the hard way.)

    These are the words my father would command me, one outstretched arm pointing to the door, when I’d return from college and start to open my mouth. What he meant was that I was violating the sociolinguistic norms of our family and was coming across as an elite snob.

    I didn’t mean it. I had fallen into the habits of conversation known as “collegial.” To my working class family, I radiated condescension.

    I had to learn to switch back to my family’s speech, to say the same thing in shorter sentences, pausing more often for feedback and using more day-to-day vocabulary.

    That didn’t mean that my father was intellectually flawed. In fact, we spent my breaks debating what I had learned that semester. Dad’s powerful logic made our debates far livelier and more challenging for me than those at my liberal arts college. Plus, the bell never signalled the end of class. It was exhausting.

    A high school dropout, Dad was enamored of American history and philosophy. The machinations of our founding fathers captivated him. He would have loved the musical, “Hamilton.” He’d always remind me that our nation was much more than a person’s strategic wrangling. It was the promise of far greater possibilities that we owed to our children.

    Second generation Americans, my uncles served in the army in World War II, then signed up again in the Navy for the Korean War. My father, the youngest, found his proudest years to have been his military service during and after the Korean War.

    Park your assumptions of class superiority at the front door. Our working class Americans have much to teach us about life…if we care to engage.


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