The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness

The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness

by E. Paul Durrenberger


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The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness by E. Paul Durrenberger

Presenting prehistoric, historic, and ethnographic data from Mongolia, China, Iceland, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States, The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness offers a first step toward examining class as a central issue within anthropology. Contributors to this volume use the methods of historical materialism, cultural ecology, and political ecology to understand the realities of class and how they evolve.

Five central ideas unify the collection: the objective basis for class in different social orders; people's understanding of class in relation to race and gender; the relation of ideologies of class to realities of class; the U.S. managerial middle-class denial of class and emphasis on meritocracy in relation to increasing economic insecurity; and personal responses to economic insecurity and their political implications.

Anthropologists who want to understand the nature and dynamics of culture must also understand the nature and dynamics of class. The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness addresses the role of the concept of class as an analytical construct in anthropology and how it relates to culture. Although issues of social hierarchy have been studied in anthropology, class has not often been considered as a central element. Yet a better understanding of its role in shaping culture, consciousness, and people's awareness of their social and natural world would in turn lead to better understanding of major trends in social evolution as well as contemporary society. This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of anthropology, labor studies, ethnohistory, and sociology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607321569
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 12/15/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.35(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

E. Paul Durrenberger is professor emeritus of anthropology at Penn State University and is the coauthor of several related books.

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The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness

By E. Paul Durrenberger

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-157-6




There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange.

STEINBECK, 1939:477

Steinbeck was writing of California. We write about the world as the processes he described in The Grapes of Wrath have overtaken the planet. He outlined the processes (1939: 324–325):

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in to few hands it is taken away.

And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history.

The land fell into fewer hands, the number of dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.

In the twenty-first century the processes have become globalized, as Paul Trawick discusses in his paper in this volume. And now the dispossessed in California come not from Oklahoma and Arkansas as they did in Steinbeck's day, but from Latin America where great corporations have replaced the great owners of Steinbeck's time and have exacerbated all of the processes he described. Today we cannot even find the face of the owner, for it is a corporation. And, as Griffith discusses in his work in this book, it is no longer just California that receives the refugees from corporate rapacity but many other areas of the United States as well as other lands.

Wherever ethnographers do fieldwork, we see these processes at work. We see them in the great cities as the burgeoning informal economy (Smith 1990; Hart 1973, in press) or young peasant women working in factories in China and Southeast Asia (Pun Ngai 2005; Mills 1999; Wolf 1994) or Mexican people reorienting their lives from production on their own land to industrial agriculture (Zlolniski 2010) or factories (Heyman 1991) and in whole regions as they adjust to the new economic structures (Narotzky and Smith 2006).

The global flows of capital escape ethnographic attention because they are not localized to any one place for us to see (Durrenberger 2004; Durrenberger and Erem 2010). But we see the results wherever we look (Lewellen 2002; Truillot 2003; Nash 2007; Nordstrom 2004, 2007). When we can look ethnographically at Steinbeck's "batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss," (1939:317) as Gillian Tett did, we can see their thought processes at work if not the results of their actions as they try to create wealth out of nothing (Tett 2009). These financiers succeed in benefiting themselves richly at great cost to the rest of us, leading to increased global repression, hunger, and war as the works of Carolyn Nordstrom (2004, 2007) graphically illustrate.

In increasing the disparities of wealth and income both within countries and among them, the processes of globalization have highlighted the distinctions between the local and global owning and working classes. Corporations have become more powerful as they control not only local and national economies but global processes (Bakan 2005; Anderson, Cavanagagh, and Lee 2005). In the United States they have forged a cultural revolution to make these processes appear to be natural and inevitable (Doukas 2003; Fones-Wolf 1995) and to encode these tenets in a mindless media state (deZengotita 2006). The owners have learned the third of Steinbeck's historical lessons. While one of the chief instruments of mind control of ancient states was to insist on belief in counterexperiential religious doctrines (Durrenberger and Erem 2010), modern corporations rely on media manipulations of reality that they can own. Classes vanish in this fog, and all too often contemporary scholars willingly follow the corporate lead.


Today's globalized political economy accentuates the inseparability of class and culture. As anthropologists who want to understand the nature and dynamics of culture, we must also understand the nature and dynamics of class. The way people understand life is determined by their daily experiences, which are in turn determined by their class positions in their political-economic systems. As Marx famously put it, the windmill gives us feudalism while the steam mill gives us capitalism. The microchip gives us a global economy and a global class system.

The place where I lived in central Pennsylvania in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States is a graveyard of dead economic systems, its landscape cluttered with stone ruins of iron-smelting furnaces, canals and systems of locks, lime kilns, and place names incorporating the words "furnace," "port," and "mill." More recent artifacts such as the mammoth Bethlehem Steel plant go the way of the water-powered weaving factories of Lowell, MA, becoming museum artifacts on a greater scale than the pyramids of Egypt and leaving behind the appellation of "rust belt" for a whole region. The displacement of such a massive industry as steel making — which seemed such a permanent fixture of the landscape and the economy — left a region in shock with a generation of unemployed workers. When US white-collar workers began losing their jobs in the 1980s, awareness of a new economic system slowly began to spread.

In the past some such changes have been so slow that they did not become obvious within a generation. The much accelerated pace of change that has accompanied the microchip revolution reveals these processes and connections more clearly and swiftly, and a generation has entered the twenty-first century with no expectation that they could follow their fathers into the mine or mill for a lifetime of work, a job.

Now not only in the rust belt but all over the United States and much of the rest of the world, both parents work "outside the home" in unstable employment situations to try to make enough money to sustain their households. Neoliberal rhetoric has become the language of expectation as a generation has been taught that it is natural and legitimate to think of people and jobs as disposable and that people need to be flexible to meet the demands of markets, while loyalties of class, family, kinship, region, and other groups are at best passé and at worst an unrealistic and illicit betrayal of self-interest in a neoliberal market system. When everything is a market commodity, there are no collective interests, only individual ones. It is difficult for people who have grown up in the neoliberal "ownership society" to imagine that it was through collective action that preceding generations achieved the work conditions, wages, and benefits that they look back on with envy and perhaps resentment. They may then turn that resentment on unions as somehow causes of their misery rather than potential liberators.

In the United States we hear much about a middle class that, after the economic crisis of 2008, was increasingly guarded about its prosperity. Around the world, we hear much of starvation and the major part of the global population that lives on meager incomes. But the middle class of the global North and the sweatshop workers of the global South are linked in a single global system. The privileges of the one are contingent on the misery of the other, though paradoxically, they have more in common than is immediately apparent to either because they share the same structural position with respect to capital.

To understand these similarities, though, we have to be able to see beyond what is obvious to the people inside the systems, what Marvin Harris (1974) called the cultural dreamwork that obscures the realities of their lives. While some cultures may leave this dreamwork to individuals or make it collective, in the United States it is an industry (deZengotita 2006). Americans live in — and in terms of — a culture that has been manufactured during a long and hard-fought cultural revolution to propel market sensibilities, the gospel of wealth — that capital creates wealth — into consciousness and to erase from that same consciousness such realities as class and the gospel of work — that labor creates wealth (Fones-Wolf 1995; Doukas 2003; Durrenberger and Doukas 2008).

Anthropologist Sherry Ortner (1998, 3–7; 2005) participates in the dreamwork when she recognizes the reality of class but then dismisses it as objectivist discourse and discusses it as "a culturally constituted identity." To insist on focusing on the manufactured "native categories" is to contribute to the problem, not its solution. Such a rhetorical move is akin to the magician's trick of directing our attention to what the left hand is doing while the obscured right hand does its magical work to deceive the eye. This sleight of hand leads Ortner into long discussions of other identity issues such as race and gender, which, while they may also be economically constituted (Brodkin 2000), are not equivalent to class any more than any other issue of identity is.

To say as Ortner does that, culturally, race eclipses class is to ignore, as Schwartz (1998, 15) put it, that "class is no less real than the moon when it is being eclipsed." For Magellan to infer the shape of the earth from its shadow on the moon required that he focus on the earth that cast the shadow and not get lost in the shadow itself. If we want to understand the dietary practices of Hindus, we must understand the ecological and economic role of cattle, not their role in the dreamwork of sacred cows (Harris 1974). If we want to understand class in the United States, we must understand its role in the structure of the political ecology and not its role in the American dream. Thus, what Americans think, if anything at all, about class is not relevant.

To break out of these ideological "native" constructs requires the kind of conscious empirical and theoretical work that the contributors to this volume have done. We mean this book to make class visible to anthropologists and to move toward an adequate anthropological treatment of class both theoretically and empirically.

The contributors have worked together using the classic means of anthropology — ethnographic and archaeological description, holism, and cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparison — to address a series of issues in terms of their separate ethnographic and archaeological experiences to explicate the relationships among people's daily experience and how people understand their worlds — consciousness — and how each of these relates to class — their position in the economic system. Thus, class and consciousness.

The work we make available here in one place brings together historical and ethnographic reference points for meaningful comparisons. While the contributors span the globe from Mongolia to China to Iceland, Mexico, and Brazil, most of the works are anchored in the United States. This moves anthropology away from the comfortable sites of exotic peoples and remote times into the everyday worlds of many of our readers.

Because class is ideologically so prominent, especially by its energetic denial in the United States, China (Pun Ngai 2005), and other contemporary state societies, we all focused on the distinction between the outside realities of class — the etic — and the internal views of class — the emic. In this volume we explore the processes by which class is related to culture and how people think — what we call consciousness.


Discussing matters of class in the United States, editor Lewis Lapham (1988, 3) said:

Within the free-fire zones of the American language the uses of the words 'money' and 'class' shift with the social terrain, the tone of voice and the angle of the sales pitch. Few words come armed with as many contradictions or as much ambivalence.

In 1901 at its organizing convention, the Industrial Workers of the World proclaimed there were but two classes, the employing class and the working class, which had nothing in common. By the 1950s, the claim that there were any classes in the United States had been labeled as communist-inspired ideology to be avoided at the risk of being un-American. The official American ideology proclaimed a classless society, and people who thought otherwise could be persecuted from their teaching posts and rejected by publishers (Ehrenreich 1989, 25). Some anthropologists today act as though it might still be dangerous to discuss class or to understand it.

Ironically, this was one ideological component that the United States shared with communist nations, which saw any discussion of class to be anticommunist. Sociologists could not deny inequality and could discuss stratification and socioeconomic status along with "roles" that were characteristics of individuals, like gender and occupation. Whether one was a bank president or a janitor was a matter of one's choice of role. At the same time, while American sociologists, with few exceptions, denied the existence of class as a meaningful category, they described various socioeconomic statuses and gave us the endearing term "socioeconomic status" or SES as a proxy. Their reference point was their own shared experience of the managerial middle class in terms of which all other class or role behaviors were somehow deviant (Ehrenreich 1989, 25–29).

By 2005, as the rich became much richer and the workers became poorer (but with wider access than ever to consumer goods produced by even poorer workers around the world), the United States appeared less class bound than ever because religion, race, and possessions were not sure guides to a person's place in the social hierarchy. But statistics showed stark class contrasts. Class had become a clear predictor of lifespan, health, residential location, choice of marriage partners, and of who got into universities, much less "good" ones (Keller 2005, xi). As class divisions were becoming greater and more apparent to those who were looking, class became more invisible to most Americans. The stronger the phenomenon, the more we have denied it.

By our inattention to these processes and by our complicity with the process, some anthropologists have contributed to the denial of class, to making it invisible as it becomes more undeniable. With this book, we hope to help reverse that process.

Capital is wealth that that does not have to be consumed, that can be used to produce commodities that can be sold on markets. Some people own capital; most do not. By expanding the meaning of the term capital metaphorically to incorporate knowledge (cultural capital) and social relations (social capital), we have performed an ideological magic trick akin to the financiers' magic of creating wealth out of nothing — we have made capital seem universally available.

Everyone has some knowledge and some social relations. If knowledge and social relations are forms of wealth, or forms of capital that can produce wealth, everyone has some and everyone is an owner of capital, a member of the capitalist class, and class divisions disappear. But we are left with the nagging facts of disparate health, longevity, residences, and security not to mention opportunity (Durrenberger 2002, 2006). In the traditional sense of the word, there are still those with disproportionate access to and control of capital, but they have become camouflaged among all the other owners of capital, just like everyone else, not a separate class with distinct interests.

August Carbonella and Sharryn Kasmir (2006) argue that for a historical moment in the second half of the twentieth century, the industrial workers of the United States merged into a culture of consumption that successfully bought them off and disguised their subordinate status with the appearances of prosperity.

Ehrenreich suggests (1989) that the "middle class" is that part of the working class to which the capitalist class has granted perquisites and privileges in return for managing the work of the others. The ideology of meritocratic individualism assures these people that they deserve their privileges because of their talent, hard work, good individual choices, or other measures of merit. At the same time, the less privileged deserve their fates because of some lack of merit or bad individual choices. The work of Katherine Newman in the 1980s (1988) shows how this self-justifying ideology supported those who fancied themselves denizens of this middle class to justify their own access to privilege and then betrayed them when they lost their jobs. Thus, people who thought of themselves as members of this middle class participated in a cultural illusion, part of the dreamwork created to distract them from the realities of their own and others' lives.


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Table of Contents


ONE. Introduction E. Paul Durrenberger,
TWO. Thinking Political Communities: The State and Social Stratification among Ancient Nomads of Mongolia William Honeychurch,
THREE. Dividing Land and Creating Class: The Development of a Landlord-Tenant Political Economy in Medieval Iceland Douglas Bolender,
FOUR. Fried's Evolutionary Model, Social Stratification, and the Nuosu in Southwest China Ann Maxwell Hill,
FIVE. Class and Consciousness in the "Antiglobal" South: On Poverty, Climate Change, and the Illusion of Creating Wealth Paul Trawick,
SIX. Crash, Collapse, and Catastrophe in Postindustrial North America Dimitra Doukas,
SEVEN. Class and Consciousness: The American Farmer's Daughter Barbara J. Dilly,
EIGHT. Immigrant Heterogeneity and Class Consciousness in New Rural US Destinations David Griffith,
NINE. Class Consciousness in a Complicated Setting: Race, Immigration Status, Nationality, and Class on the US-Mexico Border Josiah Heyman,
TEN. Difference and Dispossession: Considerations on the Making and Unmaking of a Labor Elite at Saturn Sharryn Kasmir,
ELEVEN. Do Hair and Class Gel? Kate Goltermann,
TWELVE. Dreams, Illusions, and Realities: Conclusions E. Paul Durrenberger,
List of Contributors,

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