(Whitehead) congratulated Russell on his brilliant exposition "and especially on leaving ... unobscured ... the vast darkness of the subject."

All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices-and thereby to obscure-the vast darkness of the subject. It is a game in which the scientist uses his explanatory principles according to certain rules to see if these principles can be stretched to cover the vast darkness. But the rules of the stretching are rigorous, and the purpose of the whole operation is really to discover what parts of the darkness still remain, uncovered by explanation.

But the game has also ... [the purpose of making] clear some part of that most obscure matter-the process of knowing.

Bateson 1958 [1936, 280]


Toward an Anthropology of America:

Dangers, Challenges, and Opportunities

The following is not a review of the work anthropologists have produced over the past half-century.1 But a brief discussion of the kind of work that has been published will help me place more accurately what is presented in this volume. In particular, I want to explore the processes that have led anthropologists to focus where they have so far generally focused. Bateson, optimistically, warns us about the cover-up games scientists play. He challenges us to look at the uncovered darkness and wonder at the analytic operations that have prevented its covering. By doing so, he suggests, we may be able to clarify (cover up?) the process of knowing. Anthropologists of American culture have proudly announced that "by investigations of . . . simple societies [they are] able to equip [themselves] better for the analysis of more complex forms of human society" (Warner and Lunt, 3). It is only fair that we also look for what can be missed when a society -- any society - is studied "from an anthropological point of view". To do so, as Warner himself suggested, there is no better method to look at what has been done, for "an account [of 'facts' and 'results'] is also an implicit statement of the changes taking place in the thinking and other activities of the researcher" (Warner and Lunt, 1941, 6).

What anthropologists have done, above all, is to look at small towns, small neighborhoods, and subgroups that are clearly differentiated from the mainstream because of regional isolation, ethnic separateness, odd occupations, and the like. This was a great advance, for it made audible voices of people who were easily forgotten by those for whom "culture" was a privilege of the elite, to be studied solely in the great literary, political, or religious texts of the time. However, there was also a danger in this democratization of cultural research when anthropologists failed to establish the connections that cannot fail to exist between the different voices as they struggle and as some win. This has made the anthropology [America slightly eccentric compared with the activities of the other disciplines that deal with the culture (sociology, history, philosophy, literature, "American studies," "popular culture," etc.). This makes the relevance of many anthropological analyses debatable: Is it really true, we may ask, that we learn something about the general issues that concern us - issues of political power, economic doctrine, racial strife, educational failure, life and death-when we read about drunks (Spradley 1970), rock stars (Montague and Morais 1976;Drummond, chap. 4), and Memorial Day rituals (Warner 1953)? My answer to this question is yes, but I am aware of the dangers involved. It is with these dangers that I want to start.


As I see it, two major temptations confront anthropologists on their way to proper anthropology of America. There is first the temptation of exoticism. There is also the temptation of parochialism. By the temptation of exoticism, I mean the movement toward those forms of life in the United Stattes that to intellectual, middle-class eyes seem almost as exotic as the people anthropologists normally study. By the temptation of parochialism I mean the tendency not to place anthropological analyses in the context of the work on America that has been done by other disciplines. "America" is by no means virgin territory, particularly for those interested in imagination and symbolism. There is much to be learned from the abundant work produced by the disciplines that have occupied the territory until now.Fifty years and more of work in what has called itself "American studies" is not to be dismissed, particularly when we come to realize how closely the evolution of this work parallels the evolution of culture theory in anthropology.2 There cannot be much use in rediscovering "individualism" unless we can also specify how our statement of the pattern is more useful than the traditional ones.

Anthropologists, however, generally do not start from, or return to, the performances that are the symbolic focus of American uniqueness. They rarely look at literature, art, or religious thought, the staples of work in American Studies and in much anthropology of the non-American. It may even be that this lack of interest in performances that other scholars find so interesting is a deliberate political act - as finding them interesting is for the others. Doing anthropology is often said to be an act of rebellion. Anthropologists are sometimes described, and like to describe themselves, as people who stand slightly outside their own culture, who are more comfortable with the foreign than with the familiar. They are "marginal natives" (Freilich 1970).

In this context, the familiar within which one is not comfortable is the kind of everyday life that is strongly marked rhetorically as the "American way": the suburb, the shopping center, genteel liberal Protestantism, polyester administration. More often than not, a student will choose to work in anthropology because the discipline offers an escape from America. If fate (in the form of funding agencies, faculty advisors, etc.) pushes this student into working within the United States, the temptation is strong to search for the most exotic within the nonexotic: the regional poor, the ethnic, the drug addict. It is then easy to recapture the dominant anthropological attitude: the researcher places himself between "his people" and an audience. He assumes that the audience will be shocked and that it must be educated to a proper understanding of the rationality of exotic lifestyles. Alternatively, the temptation will be to look at items of the "popular culture," - movies, the mass media, mass entertainment, and sports precisely because they challenge elitist tendencies within the disciplines that hold mirrors to the United States and construct America.

It would be too easy to caricature the heroic stance that anthropologists can take when defending "their" people against ethnocentric, elitist attacks. There is a strong dose of hyperelitism in certain critiques of elitism. In fact, the work on what is exotic to middle-class consciousness within the United States has the value of ethnographic research in general. As Geertz would say, it "makes available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus [allows us] to include them in the consultable record of what man has said" (1973b, 30). It is work that makes our imaginary museum more complete. Given the prejudice against lower-class and fringe ways of life, the demonstration that such lives have a complex structure at least partially controlled by the people themselves has a clear political role. Labov's research on Black English (1972) is paradigmatic of the work that will have to be done again and again. Similarly, there is a definite value in demonstrating that products the masses appreciate have in fact a definite expressive power (Drummond, chap. 4).

Pure ethnographic work, polemic demonstrations of rationality in difficult circumstances, and the demonstration of popular wisdom are not, ever, enough to establish the anthropology of America. To understand we must go back home all the way to those areas that are US. "We" tropologists and other such intellectuals who like to place themselves at the margin) are not at the fringe, we are the center. An anthropology of America must be an anthropology of the center. It must be an anthropology the center because the center is an ethnological location and we want to enter it into our "consultable record" of what men said there.

Above all, an anthropology of America must be an anthropology of the center because, whether we like it or not, America is, if not "the" center of cultural life on the globe in this second half of the twentieth century, at least one of the two or three most powerful centers. To study the center of America is, by implication, to study the whole world, since in a very direct sense the whole world is constrained by what happens there. Indeed, one cannot understand the fringe, as fringe, unless one also understands what makes it a fringe. The problem for Black English, for example, is not that it is not a full language. It is that it is a language in relation to an institutionalized language. Without understanding the place of Standard English in the economic and political institutions of the United States, we will not see what hides behind the popular argument that Black English is not a "good" language. Above all, we may not understand why a linguistic demonstration that Black English is just as useful for personal expression as Standard English is does not have the political consequence, in schools and out of that we might expect such a demonstration to have.

To do the anthropology of the center of America is to do something that has immediate political implications. Such implications will always be critical, whatever the writer's political orientation. We need only look at Warner's heroic efforts at arguing that his class analysis is not an attack on the American political system (Warner et al. 1949, 297-98) to see how difficult it is not to be critical even against our will. There is, however, a methodological paradox in doing a proper anthropology of America. Whether or not Malinowski was able to achieve it, he will remain in the history of anthropology as one of those who taught that to learn about a people is to live their life in their own terms. To learn we must empathize. We are after the "native's point of view," initially at least, and that means we must mute our criticism, fight against our prejudice. Even if we do not like our natives, we must act as if we did.

Above all, we must analyze the behavior of our American "natives" in terms of an institutionalized, cultural rationality. For American anthropologists this, interestingly enough, is what is most difficult to accomplish. Most anthropologists of America have probably been tempted to write something in the style Miner adopted for his analysis of American "body rituals" (1975 [1956], 1956). This parody of anthropological analysis is itself a caricature of what too often happens on the way "back home." Miner tells us that "The Nacirema [American spelled backward] are people who are . . . punctilious about care of the mouth." And yet they have "a rite involving a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures" (1975 [1956], 11).

The natives, of course, call this ritual "brushing the teeth." It is certainly cultural, and Miner is right to point this out. But must he also imply that the only value of the "ritual" is the value that magic has among all primitive men (1975 [1956], 13)? Given the struggle anthropology has conducted to show that men are never "primitive," that all men are somehow rational within their constraints, must we now be told that Americans are primitive, irrational, and given to magical incantations?

Miner, I believe, does not want to suggest that Americans do not make sense. But he does not tell us how they do make sense. Above all he does not tell us how his observations about body rituals might possibly relate to the issues that must eventually interest anthropologists if they are to participate in the scholarly and political discussions that justify the work in its own context. How is brushing teeth related to democracy, capitalism, social class, children's failing in school? These are the questions addressed by the other disciplines that deal with America. Anthropologists cannot ignore them even if they do not answer them in the traditional vocabularies.


There are two steps to a full return to US, at the center of America. First, we must actually go to what I would like to call the "symbolic suburbs" of the United States, those places where the dominant political institutions of America play themselves out most smoothly - at least superficially. There we must learn to listen as sympathetically as anthropologists try to listen anywhere else. We must do this not simply because the center is the center, but also because the analytic problems that confront us are fierce. As we listen sympathetically while nice suburban ladies tell us abouttheir difficulties with their teenage children, as we try to transform what we have heard into an account that is relevant to what we are seeking, we soon discover that the traditional phrasings of anthropological theory are inadequate. We then discover that our analyses lead us to concerns that are shared by many in other disciplines, and that we have something to say. It is at this point that the real difficulties arise, for we still do not quite know how to contribute to the scholarly and political discussions at whose periphery we are now standing. Learning to participate in those discussions is the second step toward a full return to US. Look, for example, at what happened with the publication of David Schneider's "American Kinship" (1980 [1968]). Schneider tells us that he talked almost solely to "white, urban, middle class informants." And yet he dares to use the word American. He tells us that, though the fieldwork that was the first stage in the work produced six thousand pages of notes, and though he has a compilation of all the quotations that support his generalizations, he refuses to incorporate them into the published analysis because he is afraid they might be taken as proof - which would be cheating, since there is no way he could specify how the examples were chosen (1980, 123-24). His analysis, like the analyses by all other cultural anthropologists, must thus stand on its internal coherence and on its fit with the theory of culture and action that underlies it.

One does not have to be a cold-blooded empiricist to realize that in making such statements Schneider is tackling many sacred cows. He is pressing the attack on many fronts at once, and the attack is all the more controversial because the field is middle-class America. Schneider's even daring to write about "American" kinship challenges any theory of culture we wish to espouse. The arguments we can use against him are not simply the arguments of theory ("This doesn't make sense") or of ethnographic particularism ("My natives don't do it that way!), they are the arguments of the participants: "My mother doesn't do it that way!" No analysis of American material can hide itself behind the eyewitness defense, "I was there and you weren't." When we read Leach's critique of Malinowski's analysis of tabu among the Trobriands (1958), only four or five of us can match it to a direct experience with the Trobrianders. When we have to consider the relationship between father as a "kinship" term and father as a "religious" term, the traditional disputes about primary meanings and metaphorical extensions take on a very different character. For an anthropologist to deal with American phenomena is thus always doubly dangerous: the professional critics are also the natives.

What is more, some of these critics have themselves produced an extensive body of writing that is not very different in genre from anthropological writing. Anthropologists are newcomers to the direct study of America, a field with a long history. As newcomers with a mission often do, they easily adopt a superior know-nothing attitude toward most of the work done on the United States in history, sociology, political science, and so on, as if this work were irrelevant to the kind of study now to be conducted. In fact, a vast amount of altogether good "anthropology" already exists not only in sociology, but also in history, American Studies, popular culture, and education. Anthropologists cannot reinvent the wheel and rediscover "individualism," for example. It will initially be difficult to improve upon complex statements on the relationship between individualism and the search for community such as those made by Riesman (1955; Riesman, Glazer, and Denney 1961 [19501), Bellah (1970, 1975, 1985), Marty (1970), or McDermott (1976, 1983) in sociology, theology, and the history of philosophy. Anthropologists of America cannot ignore forever the traditional disputes in history about the early Puritan settlements and the extent to which they foreshadowed modern institutional organization (Higham 1974; Murrin 1972). They should know about the ongoing disputes about the role of nineteenth-century schooling in keeping American society open (Ravitch 1977) or closed (Katz 1971; Bowles and Gintis 1976).


If anthropologists cannot participate in these conversations, they will remain on the periphery. To converse with historians, sociolinguists, or literary critics, however, should not mean uncritically surrendering to the terms of the conversation as traditionally constituted. When addressing sociologists, for example, particularly with the dominant "empirical" forms, care must be taken not to succumb to the suggestion that all generalizations must be based on trait analysis. Unhappily, much ethnographic writing carelessly suggests that the "proof" of the analysis lies in a statistical observation. This may work when addressing other anthropologists, but it is catastrophic in the context of American studies. Ethnographic work can only produce "bad" trait analysis ("four out of my sample of five say that x is y, for which I deduce that saying so is characteristically American"). Either we abandon ethnography or we deal with the need to make a general argument that is not statistical. Similarly, while historians have found it useful to organize their observations in the shape of community studies (Lockridge 1970; Zuckerman 1970), it is also the case that anthropologists can contribute to their theory of social action (Varenne 1978).

In such confrontations lie great opportunities. When traditional phrasings are applied to American phenomena, their inadequacy soon becomes overwhelming, and the search for new phrasings can only be good for all the disciplines involved. I have repeatedly discussed the difficulties involved in talking about America as a structure constraining all who live in the United States. Clearly, we cannot do it by a commonsense reference to "shared values." Few natives, few scholars in the other disciplines that deal with the United States, will accept it. As Moffatt shows (chap. 8), one of the features of Americanness may be the refusal to accept group identification apart from a projected act of individual agency (or "choice" as it is phrased in the language of advertising investigated by Beeman, chap. 3. How can "we" be described as "sharing values" if some of us are Democrats and others Republicans, some liberals and other conservatives, some white and others black, some Catholics and some Fundamentalists? That these questions can be phrased in the language of "scholarly" debate (e.g., Feinberg 1979) cannot make us forget that they are also asked outside such debates, and often in terms of this concept of "culture" that we believe is our own when it is clear that it is also one of the dominant symbols of the American conversation. We can try to escape the implications of the debate by talking about pluralism, regionalism, multiculturalism, ethnicity, and subcultures, but this only postpones the problem. No talk of black, Irish-American, Catholic, or southern (sub)cultures in the traditional modes can stand very long before being challenged by some person who can claim participant status and refuses the postulated generalization. At this point, either we proclaim the "death of culture" or we go back and try to reformulate our traditional intuitions about cultural determination and difference.

I addressed these questions earlier (chap. 1). Let me finish by restating what I think will be the contribution of anthropology to the general conversations about America. Anthropology is about what has come to be known as "culture," a concept through which we attempt to capture the arbitrariness of human adaptations to the environment and the constraints placed on further action within this environment. Practically, this has meant a constant concern with variability and comparison and also with the details of everyday life. The fundamental insight is that variability of adaptation is not an abstraction. Rather, it is a constraint on the humblest acts. Given culture, we must analyze "how to ask for a drink in Subanun" (Frake 1980), for there is no way for us to know what is involved in getting the drink.

Given such a stance, Miner's interest in toothbrushing is not so farfetched. It is not that his conclusions are strikingly new. Other observers of America have come to the conclusion that "the fundamental belief underlying the whole system [of body rituals] appears to be that the human body is ugly" (Miner 1975 [19561, 10). The simple fact of the custom does not allow the probabilistic statements he derives from it: "[The Nacirema] believe that, without the rituals of the mouth, their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them" (1975, 11). How would he know what the Nacirema really believe? The usefulness of the analysis lies rather in the demonstration that a detail of everyday life is powerfully constrained by arbitrary forces. There are Nacirema who do not brush their teeth or use deodorants; there are powerful voices that criticize the use of these devices. But they are still used because using them is a rational response: black teeth and bad breath do put you at risk of having your friends desert you. In "another culture" this may not be so. But people in the United States, whatever their background and personal belief system regarding the body, do not live in "another culture." They live in America. It is American culture that is consequential for them. And, in late twentieth-century America there are probably no dirtier four-letter words than "body odor."

We can go further. Besides translating Miner's reference to "magical beliefs" into a reference to an intelligent response to a constraint, let me suggest how we might in fact relate everyday rituals of the body to more general issues regarding American culture. First, brushing teeth is not simply an exercise intended to disguise natural bodily processes such as odor, decay, and fall; the process has a distinct mechanical aspect: to prevent odor, decay, and fall, it is necessary to treat the body directly, on its own terms, that is, "scientifically." The body must be treated as a machine so its processes can be disguised. Furthermore, the disguise of body processes is accomplished by attempting to maintain the body at what is considered the peak of its "natural" state: the ultimate goal is to keep teeth looking like those of a healthy sixteen-year-old. One does not disguise teeth by decorating them. One does not disguise the rest of the body by scarification, body paint, and so on. Thus it is not only that "Americans do not like body odor," it is that "body odor" itself is constructed through the activities that eliminate it.

We can go still further. It is well known that American culture is "dualist." It separates the body from the soul, the material from the spiritual, the evil from the good, the mechanical from the human, sex from love, and so forth. Such accounts are generally made in the philosophical mode. They rarely specify how such generalizations abou tAmerican ideology are lived out in everyday life, except perhaps by suggesting, as did Miner, that it is a matter of "values." What anthropology can contribute, if it remains true to its ethnographic roots, is the demonstration that general themes are indeed lived in the routine of everyday life. I do not want to say that toothbrushing is a significant expression of the "great tradition" in America, but I do want to say that even the routine, apparently unimportant incidents of everyday life are constrained in very specific ways that raise the same issues that are raised when cultural consciousness is pushed to its breaking point at the most sacred, least routine moments.

In fact, the best in the anthropology of America has always done this. Warner's inquiries into the daily experience of class as his informants came home from cocktail parties, his unpacking of symbolic processes in parades (1959; Warner and Lunt 1941), Mead's linking details to "the American way to war" (1965 [19421) - debatable as it is in the form she uses - all point us in the right direction. The best of recent American anthropology continues to operate in this tradition. The power of ethnography has probably rarely been so well displayed as McDermott's linking the single gesture of a child volunteering to read in such a way to avoid getting caught not knowing how with the arbitrary cultural constraints that make it consequential to fail in school - a rational consequence in a meritocracy completely organized on individual competence (McDermott and Gospodinoff 1979; McDermott and Tylbor 1983). And while we might wish Schneider had given more thought to what would constitute the "proof" of his analysis, it may be that we do have this proof in Garfinkel's analysis (1967) of what is at issue when an ambiguously sexed person attempts to pass for a culturally appropriate "woman."

Part of anthropology's role is to demonstrate that America is indeed integrated and that the intuitive generalizations we can make from limited cases or texts do correspond to active constraints on the conduct of everyday life. Democracy is not simply an ideal, relevant only to philosophical musings and ritual speech. It is also a constraint on everything that happens in the United States, down to the level of casual greetings. The role of anthropological research is to demonstrate the performative relevance of America - that is, the usefulness of thinking in cultural terms about behavior in the United States.

Anthropology, in fact, will do more for studies of America. Funny things can happen on the way back from everyday life. It may seem naive to say that democracy is relevant to everyday life in America. It certainly would be naive to say that American life "is" democratic. It may be much more disquieting to say that in confrontation with everyday life what emerges most clearly is the ambiguous nature of something like "democracy." Life everywhere is uncertain and problematic. The conditions of life can be described. Democracy is a condition of life in the sense that individual merit is always at issue in school, that personal involvement - "friendliness" (Varenne, chap. 10), "love" (Canaan, chap. 9) - is always at issue when people greet or court. Describing these conditions is the first task of anthropologists.

Such descriptions do not exhaust what anthropologists can contribute. Unless they blind themselves, they will also see their informants' struggles against the conditions and the first signs of the transformations that are to take place. Toothbrushing may be something most of us do without thinking about it, but it is also something that can be brought to consciousness - when we go to the dentist, for example, or while watching commercials for toothpaste or denture adhesives or reading newspaper articles about fluoridation. At such times the questions about nature, machines, and the dominance of the spiritual over the material become concrete and easily contradictory. After all, if the body is to be invisible through being culturally manipulated into its natural state, we must treat it like a machine. To treat it like a machine we must know how it works, and this requires that we make the body visible. But making the body visible is precisely what we do not want. What are the makers of denture cleaners or adhesives to do? They must be offensive (mention odors and toothless gums) so we will not be (not smell and display youthful teeth that are not recognizable as dentures). But the more they make dentures a mentionable subject, the more they transform the institutional consequences of tooth loss.

That we are so intimately concerned with the tension between man and machine may explain why, in our explicitly mythological life, the dynamic tension between the two is a dominant theme. Drummond's essay on James Bond and his gun, John Henry and his sledgehammer (chap. 4), is an example of the next step in the analysis that will allow us, eventually, to move from the small details of everyday life to the great concerns of history and philosophy and to do so in a manner that will transform these concerns. Using an approach related to Moffatt's (chap. 8), Drummond does not simply say that James Bond movies "are" American. He says that the Bible responses to the expression of certain themes put those themes in danger of change.

The task outlined here is a huge one that the work of the contributors to this volume does not pretend to fulfill. Anthropological work on America is still preliminary. But what has been done holds the promise of breakthroughs that could transform our understanding of America.