Committee on Minority Issues in Anthropology

ChapterVI

Research on Minorities

One of the major areas which the Committee believed had an important impact on minorities in the discipline concerned the research that has been conducted on minority populations by anthropologists. A main complaint heard by minority students is that most of the research conducted on their particular ethnic group contained errors and distortions, and the goal of many minority students is to work to correct these distortions. Three questions, 21, 22 and 23, focused on this issue and attempted to derive an assessment of how respondents viewed the quality and usefulness of anthropological research for minority groups. The questions follow:

Question 21:

Do you feel that anthropological studies in the past has rendered service or disservice to minority groups in American society? Please include specific examples you may know of in your answer.

Question 22:

A. How do you assess the research which has been conducted on your minority group? B. Do you think such work can be improved? Please comment.

Question 23:

Can you suggest ways in which anthropology can be used to serve the needs of minority groups in the United States?

The majority of the respondents answering Question 21 (15 of 20) indicated that research on minority groups has been a disservice to their group (see Table 32, Appendix C). Ten replied that it was both a service and disservice, and 5 interpreted research on minority groups as a service.

The 5 people (3 Asians and 2 Blacks) who felt that studies on minorities had rendered a service rather than a disservice, identify the value of the service aspect as providing descriptions of the differences among groups, good ethnography and promoting understanding among people. One remark by an Asian respondent indicated that anthropological studies seemed to be of more service "since 1960." Another noted that the concept "cultural relativism" was a service factor. One person remarked that anthropological studies seemed to be a "service to the majority" with an orientation to ethnic "adaptation to white middle-class." Spanish-speaking respondents were not as precise as a group. One had "not followed the literature," one was neutral, a third "felt strongly" about research on Latin America but said nothing more. These are atypical respondents. Some Spanish speakers indicated they were not socialized as members of a native born American ethnic group, but because of their surnames, were treated in a distinct manner within the profession. In the service area, Blacks felt that anthropological studies "increased sensitivity" and emphasized the "common biological heritage" of the human species.

Of the 15 answers referring to the disservice performed by studies on minority groups, American Indians and Blacks spoke in terms of exploitation, fallacious interpretations, and speakers "for my tribe." Disservice statements included the following: American Indians were often seen as "exotics," "problems," "my people," and as "training grounds" for anthropologists. Anthropologists were labeled as "involved in tribal affairs," "expert witnesses," presenters of "embarrassing" reports, carriers of "contagious diseases," "policymakers," producers of "fatherless children" and causers of "social chaos." Blacks, on the other band, tended to be exceedingly precise about those anthropological works and authors whom they felt did a disservice to their group. Many were able to state impressions regarding other groups, particularly American Indians. Blacks generally felt that the work on Black American culture perpetuates the stereotypes of inferiority and matrifocality and assessed this work before the 1960s as being heavily biased. Other responses stated that anthropological studies explain and justify certain attitudes and sets of values of the majority society and that such studies were "handmaidens to racist thought."

A dominant theme among those who believed anthropological studies render a disservice to minority groups is the negative implication of the basic concepts and assumptions underlying these studies. Several comments by respondents on this issue follow:

There is a growing acknowledgement in the Asian American studies field that anthropological studies of Asian-Americans have focused on how the minorities have adapted to or accommodated the dominant society. For example, Caudill's and Devoss' studies of the Nisei have emphasized those features of Nisei character which fit the white middle class pattern, claiming that these features enable the success of the Nisei in American society. No one says that their analyses are wrong. But, at another level of analysis, one can see that choice of such a problem (economic acculturation of Nisei) itself is consonant with the quote "melting pot" theory of American society, which is not so much an idea that all groups melted create a blend, as an idea that all minorities melt and are to be cast in the mold of the majority. It is a social theory which is counter to the generally held anthropological tenet that each culture is to be respected for what it is. By writing approvingly about successful Nisei accommodation to the dominant American society, these anthropologists have unwittingly subscribed to the "melting pot" theory and ignored cultural relativism. For would they not regard at least relevant those features of Nisei life which characterize their distinct culture, e.g., see their midsummer dance, their liking for rice and fish; their habit of eating rice with chop sticks; their distinct dialect which heavily mixes Japanese nouns and verbs in their English, etc. Such cultural features are no less important for the Nisei.

Also effects of prejudice and discrimination by the majority on Nisei and Sansei character have not been studied by anthropologists. Those anthropologists have done more service to the dominant society, by upholding their values in their research, than service to the minorities. It is about time to recognize their cultural distinctness and dignity and make them a serious study (e.g., study of how Japanese retain their own uniqueness, while succeeding in the economic system). Such a study will help to establish a more secure place for the minority in overall society.

Much of the so-called acculturation studies are useless because they do not tell us to what the minority groups are acculturating, because anthropologists have little knowledge of White American or English or European culture.

A further problem is that the work contains (generally reading) unexamined premises which are too easily translated into social policy decisions (e.g., Madsen's notion of `fatalism' as an explanatory construct).

A net result of the preceding approach to the literature of the family, as presented by anthropologists, is that it renders a disservice to Black Americans by perpetuating the traditional stereotypes including "inferiority" and "matrifocality."

Another important topic which emerged from the comments related to the relationship of anthropologists to policymakers:

By far, the greatest disservice has been in the area of "expert witness," as in Indian claims cases, where precedent-setting cases are rising to plague Indians in the area of land use and occupancy.

Some anthropologists prevent natives" from speaking themselves, assuming that only anthropologists have "qualifications" to speak "for" what they consider "my tribe."

Behind every BIA organization there's an anthropologist. Behind British colonial policy, there's an anthropologist. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, ad infinitum. Would things have been worse without the anthropologists? That would be hard to imagine, so much for policy.

And finally the focus of the research itself concerned some people:

. . . the fact that anthropologists usually focus on the most exotic of the local customs to highlight, and the most exotic segment of the local: group to underscore, while other aspects of the life of the group as well as other segments of the population are untouched, or at the most mentioned only in passing.

With the American Indian studies which have been the basis for American anthropology, I feel a great disservice has been done by concentrating on past conditions rather than present ones and trying to remain above politics in many cases.

I think Herskovits in his Myth has done the same with Blacks.

The 10 individuals who responded in the category "both service and disservice" listed the positive as well as the negative contributions anthropological studies have made. Two of these comments follow:

Basically, anthropological studies have rendered a service to Blacks. The works of Herskovits, Raymond Smith's The Negro Family in British Guinea, Liebow's Tally's Corner, Valentine's Culture and Poverty, Harris' Patterns of Race in the Americas, Tannenbaum's Slave and Citizen and Boas' statements on Race, Language and Culture, all are rather serviceable. Carleton Coons' Origins of Races is a disservice as he moves from genes and fossils to IQ's and cultural achievement in the later pages of his works.

Anthropology has provided a disservice to minority groups in that, in the past, it has been a handmaiden to racist thought in our society. It helped to perpetuate popular views of "primitive" societies as savage, brutal and inferior. It focused on the weird, the deviant and strange, the gruesome and bizarre; and only recently have anthropologists considered other human societies in the totality of their daily lives as having some resemblance to the so-called "civilized" societies.

On the other hand, the service rendered is clearly the knowledge that the discipline has provided us about ourselves and others. All of the anthropological knowledge thus far gathered could serve as the basis for re-ordering of our world view, and reconstructing Western Society along more humane lines. Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen.

Then there were the reflective, more neutral points of view expressed, which did not feel strongly about the service-disservice aspect of minority studies, but tried to relate their answers more to anthropology as a discipline. For example:

I know that minority students and even some minority faculty claim that certain anthropologists have stereotyped minority members and thus damaged their lives, jeopardized their chances for improvement, etc. I find it often that the persons who raise loud complaints have not understood well the author (e.g., Oscar Levis), have taken personally descriptions which were meant to apply to a small group (Madsen's work, for example), or simply have a different idea of what anthropology should be doing, instead of what it is attempting to do today.

In a sense, these recent voices have a point: anthropologists have neglected areas of research which have to do with minorities. It is also true that the so-called "applied anthropology" is still struggling for a more solid theoretical foundation and better methodological tools. But why should anthropology develop along those roads necessarily, and why should it serve these utilitarian purposes IN ORDER to qualify as an acceptable discipline in the eyes of the minority? There should be a great deal of flexibility both ways.

When I read past theories in anthropology, I am not so much concerned about the injustices they did to ethnic minorities or people of the Third World. What impresses me is the fact that what were regarded as "theories" yesterday sound like folk stereotypes today. It is a problem of the intellectual or theoretical history of anthropology.

Question 22 consisted of two parts. The first part asked the respondent to assess the research which had been conducted on his own group. The second part asked if the work could be improved. The answers to the first part of the question seemed to indicate a lack of knowledge of the literature by most respondents as a whole. The largest number (13) did not answer, 10 felt there had been no significant work, one was unfamiliar with "the group," 3 felt the work was good, 6 that it was bad, and 4 that it was both good and bad (see Table 33, Appendix C).

The responses to the second part of the question seemed to reflect stronger opinions than did answers to the first part. Sixteen persons felt that work on their minority group could be improved, 3 indicated research did not exist on their group, none opined that it could not be improved, and 18 did not answer (see Table 34, Appendix C).

In commenting, respondents indicated that native peoples could provide more direction in the improvement of research, and that a better knowledge of the group's language was needed by anthropologists. Other comments were that an assessment of the field should be done by a panel of Black and non-Black anthropologists and that research should include the application of findings.

Most of the 4 American Indian respondents assessed work on their group as both good and bad. Two comments were especially appropriate:

The research on the Native American has been extremely variable. Many early studies, Skinner, Wallis, McKeel, McGregor have been well done. More recent collections, as Nurge, Wax, and Bryde (social psychologist) have been extremely superficial. Schusky, Kemnitzer and others have tended to be more careful in their work.

I can only reiterate that when reading what anthropological research has been done on "my" group, I find it unfamiliar; I could be reading about a group of people I've never heard of before, much less am related to. This conclusion leaves me three alternative evaluations: (1) I'm too poor an anthropologist to understand my own group; (2) I have a false idea of what anthropology should be; (3) such work could be improved. Obviously I'd opt for the latter.

American Indian respondents made the following suggestions for improvement of research on their group:

I think a greater awareness of the work written by members of the group . . . could have given a greater direction to the present day studies.

Of course. [More] native anthropologists with moral responsibility to the communities.

American Indians are a body of people who've suffered genocide over the centuries; research now should be highly charged with even revolutionary ends in mind!

Answers to this question by 4 Asians who responded were brief. Respondents claimed that little work had been done in the United States on Asian minorities, and what had been done was "skimpy," and "irrelevant or distorted; for example using outsider's categories." One person responded: "I must admit that I have not kept abreast of the literature on my own minority group, so I cannot really judge." Three of these respondents suggested that research on their minority group could be improved by (1) promoting joint research projects between minority and non-minority scholars, (2) improving language abilities of the researchers and testing "recently proposed hypotheses," and (3) employing members of the minority culture as researchers, being careful to "select those who are as little contaminated or brainwashed as possible by the `training' of standard anthropologists."

Answers given by 7 Spanish-speaking respondents, like those given by the Asian respondents, were brief. Considering aspects of each answer as multiple, 3 responses indicated no research had been done on their particular Latin minority culture, and 4 indicated that research could be improved. For example:

I think the work on Chicanos is, by and large, barely worth reading. I think that training Chicanos to do such work should (hopefully) raise standards as much by providing a more articulate and demanding set of critics as by any special "insights" which they may have to offer (without minimizing the potential value of the latter).

Two of these respondents commented that they did not have a minority group, referring to their Hispanic ancestry as other than Chicano:

I am concerned with Latin America, which does not concern your question.

I am a member of a minority group in this country, but not in mine.

The 6 Blacks who answered the question linked an assessment of the literature and work on their group with suggestions for its improvement. Assessment of work on Blacks in this country was rated as "abominable," "racist oriented," "shoddy," "shallow," "ill-informed," "arrogant," "naive," "one-sided," "heavily biased," "distorted," and "designed to equip the ruling class with perpetual authority." Samples of the responses from Blacks follow:

The most recent works emphasize the most glaring differences between Black and White, neglecting the complex historical realities affecting, creating and maintaining these differences.

A great deal of the work that has been conducted on Blacks in the United States appears to be racist oriented. For example, most of the literature dealing with the White family concerns the White middle-class American while the literature that deals with the Black family in America concerns the working class. "Lower class" is used in reference to the lowest socioeconomic group among Blacks; White "working class" is used in connection with the lowest White socioeconomic group. Studies on the Black family mainly concern authority patterns with matrifocality underlines, while studies of the family regarding Whites only occasionally deal with matrifocality. Instead, studies on Whites focus on the masculine image of the White male, kinship system, kinship terminology, etc.

The real work has only begun. Culture and Poverty and Afro-American Anthropology, as well as Tally's Corner, signal a turning point.

As a graduate student, I felt that the work on Blacks done by White social scientists (and the occasional anthropologist such as Powdermaker) was heavily biased. There was considerable emphasis on internal problems and psychological and social maladjustment with very little attention paid to the wider society's impact on conditions under which Blacks lived (recently. this viewpoint has been articulated by Valentine in Culture and Poverty). The tendency seemed to be to exaggerate deviation from White middle class norms. The total picture was rarely presented, or presented in context. I still feel that most of the current work from Keil to Liebow to Keiser et al. tends to "refine stereotypes," to borrow a phrase from Valentine. This is useless as far as Blacks are concerned.

In short there has been too much intellectual exploitation of minorities by White (and some minority) anthropologists. The work done has tended to confirm dominant culture stereotypes. The time may not be too distant when there shall be no opportunity for research in minority communities unless it meets certain criteria imposed by members of the community. This situation is already operative in countries like Tanzania with regard to alien researchers.

It seems to me that most work done by anthropologists on "minority"groups, especially those considered "racially" different, is basically distorted as is our whole approach to physical variations in the human species. Most of it perpetuates the false notion that there are such things as discrete, fixed races, even when we point out the "overlapping," that these "races" are, or ought to be associated with distinct cultures or life styles, and that therefore there is some rationale to associating yet undiscovered variations in mental endowment or intellectual capacity to the different races. Such studies never seem to incorporate the first and fundamental lesson of anthropology that culture is learned behavior, independent of the physical attributes of the carriers. There seems to be a mental stumbling block to realizing the ramifications of this lesson which we nearly all so glibly expound.

Anthropology is quintessentially designed to study the natives in order to equip the ruling class with perpetual authority. Example: In the Black breakaway group of the African Studies Association they published a paper that showed dangerous aspects of anthropology. The U.S. Defense Department had a work done called "Magic, Witchcraft and Religion in the Congo and its Implications for the U.S. Military."

I consider the research to be very shallow. The studies have assumed what I consider to be an outdated theoretical perspective and politically dangerous (the culture of poverty). Few studies have grasped what it is like for an individual to be Black and poor in this society.

Among the ideas for improving the quality of research on the Black community was the suggestion that studies be done by committed Black anthropologists and that these studies be geared to the needs of the Black communities, that studies be explicitly oriented towards facilitating far reaching change. A conceptual reorientation was also proposed by one respondent:

Some improvements would be brought about if we stop talking about such things as "Black culture," and the matriarchal Caribbean peoples," etc. An urban northern ghetto is not culturally the same as a community of tenant farmers in the Mississippi delta, or small-town-decent-working-class-illiterate-but-pious folk from Roanoke, Alabama. Blacks have a common political/social cause, but not a homogeneous culture, elements of which are exclusive to those designated as Black.

Question 23 asked our respondents to suggest ways for making anthropology more relevant and useful to minority groups. This question resulted in a greater number of responses from our sample of 37 than the others considered in this section. Thirty responded, only 2 respondents had no comment, and 5 did not respond (see Table 35, Appendix C).

A few persons responded with general observations. For example:

Anthropology needs to help both the minority groups and the dominant group understand each other. A large majority of the population does not understand and a larger majority does not even know about the mechanics of culture. Anthropologists should try to take a larger part in educating the public about the mechanics of culture. Then, perhaps, everyone will develop a toleration, if not acceptance, for other cultures.

Suggestions on the way in which anthropology can be utilized to serve the needs of minority groups will be discussed under appropriate headings, as follows:

Funding

Four respondents made suggestions about funding. It was proposed that research funds be controlled in some manner by the group to be studied. In one case, the suggestion was made that funds be controlled by the community; in the second case, they would be controlled by minority member anthropologists.

Training and Education of Minorities

Two people commented on the training of minorities. The suggestion here was that anthropologists should train members of the group not to be professional anthropologists but "to meet the needs of the people and the administrators with whom they must deal." In addition, "anthropology must train students in the institutions of higher learning to be more aware of contemporary society."

Educating the Public

Eight people believed that educating the public was a good way for anthropology to serve the needs of minority groups. Disseminating anthropological material to the general public through the mass media and the education of school teachers received the greatest emphasis. Examples:

Knowledge of anthropology can be used quite effectively if anthropologists focus more attention on the public education and develop curricula for high schools and grade schools in which minority groups are presented properly, not as "Uncle Toms" or "Red Devils."

Teachers of anthropology could devote some time to discussing race, minority groups, problems of prejudice, etc. in their standard introductory anthropology courses. (And also try perhaps to do more in the way of "educating" high school and primary school teachers who may deal with minorities either as a topic of instruction or as a problem they must cope with in classrooms.)

We need to go on the road. I am currently hoping to take my work to the high schools in this area, generating interest through offering a course for secondary school teachers. Here we will try to place similarities and differences between peoples in perspective of history and tradition in a humble spirit. We will try to stimulate the kind of useful curiosity and even guilt in students (though this is their own matter) that can truly develop a critical attitude in them rather than a simple voyeuristic chortling gaze at the bizarre.

New Research Directions

Ten people emphasized the importance of new directions in anthropological research. The most dominant theme that emerged here was that anthropologists should study the pattern of authority and domination and turn away from the study of minority groups. Examples:

Study American institutions to find out why minority peoples are treated so poorly. Quit studying the minorities.

Anthropologists should realize that knowledge can be and should be used for betterment of mankind. There has been plenty of lip service but little real action. There should be willingness to make value commitments, to declare something undesirable, establish goals and use their theoretical know how to achieve the goals, rather than remain dispassionate and ivory-towerish, oblivious to happenings in the real world.

Conduct systematic research on bureaucratic and majority sub-cultures for the benefit of both those studied and the minority groups who must deal with them.

Research White racism as a cultural pattern in the Western Hemisphere.

Relationship with the Minority Community

Four respondents made suggestions concerning the relationship between the researcher and the minority community. Essentially, the anthropologists should work closer with the community in the planning and execution of the research and should see that the results of the research are made available to the people.

Government Agencies and Programs

Five respondents suggested that anthropologists should participate more in policy-making decisions. The anthropologists should, "seek to provide institutionalized roles for anthropological researchers and advisers in all government agencies with minority group responsibilities."

Anthropology and the University

The recruitment of minority students and the "hiring [of] teachers and researchers on equal status" in anthropology was the focus of the 6 responses which fill-in this category.

Suggestions for Minority Anthropologists

The main suggestion here by 7 anthropologists was to "create a Third World anthropology" and to engage in activities to improve the number of minority anthropologists as well as the conditions of minorities in this society.

What emerged from the results of these three questions is that minority scholars are generally displeased with anthropological research on their groups. However, most people visualized the positive or potentially positive benefits of anthropology and remain relatively optimistic. In fact, a relatively strong sentiment for changing the focus of the discipline emerged. The perceived biases and distortions cause many minority anthropologists a great deal of difficulty. When one is a member of a group that has been characterized by a study in terms of such concepts as disorganization, fatalism, etc., it is difficult not to take this personally and set the task for oneself "to correct all the damn lies anthropologists have written about us."

It was observed earlier in this chapter that American Indians and Blacks were the most familiar and often the most critical of works on their respective groups while Asians and Spanish-speakers seemed relatively unfamiliar with writings on their group. Earlier, in Chapter I, it was observed that Blacks and American Indians had lived the minority experience in America to a much greater degree than the Spanish-speakers and Asians in our sample. Thus, Blacks and American Indians, as native American minorities, have participated more in the social movements that took place in this country in the last decade, which placed great emphasis on knowledge and pride in one's ethnic background.

Among the Black and American Indian respondents, many characterized specific works in positive or negative terms. What is interesting to note in this respect, is that different individuals characterized the same book, for example, Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner as a service and a disservice. What this fact may indicate more than anything else is that a great deal of variation will exist among the members of any one particular minority group as to what direction a "Third World" anthropology should take.

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