Friday, April 21, 2006

The Final Straw and Doctor Jay

Guys, it's finals, and I've gotta tell you that I'm awfully frustrated. After talking with my Anthro Methods professor (whom I really like as a professor - smart, personable, and really helpful), I feel like I need to revamp my whole theoretical question - and therefore my research question. This kind of got dropped on me the last week of classes, and I've got final stuff to do! And while I see the value of rethinking, I'm awfully frustrated to have missed the deadline for turning in the final research proposal for the course on Wednesday. So last night, after finishing a big ol' French paper and a bunch of stuff for my India prep course, I sat down again (I'd already worked on this thing for hours!!) and tried to hack some stuff out. Then I emailed it to Jay, my India-prep instructor/facilitator/TA, and he replied. Here's our conversation.

My email to Jay:


"This might take a little effort to wrap your head around and appreciate. I'm sorry about the time it might take, but I really am thankful for your willingness to help.


"A considerable and important divide separates two theoretical approaches to studying refugees. On one side stands Geiger (2000), whose approach to refugee studies appeals to common understandings of the problem by recalling refugees' apparent purpose in leaving their homelands. Having worked with Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines, Geiger asserts that becoming a refugee represents "a decision to try, by migrating, to preserve something of what people have learned life can be." (68) The refugee, living in what are hoped to be temporary conditions, is actually subjecting him or herself to temporal instability in order to maintain a sense of permanence – cultural, linguistic, biological in the case of survival, or otherwise. (Then I expand on that for a couple paragraphs using some thought experiments. The point in these expansion paragraphs is that it's not the leaving in groups that matters, but the settling as a group that serves to maintain culture. Back to my words now...)

"On the other side of the theoretical divide sits an amalgamation of core ideas coming from Lévi-Strauss (1969), who theorizes broadly on a culture-versus-nature dichotomy, and from Massey (1995), whose observations lend themselves to bringing Lévi-Strauss' ideas into refugee studies. When considered together they indicate that, ironically, a refugee leaving his or her homeland will actually lose original culture rather than preserve it. (Actually Massey's stuff might do it alone, so here's the gist of what she has to say...)

"Massey, in considering a sense of home, theorizes that one's sense of place is not a sense just of space, but also of the interactions related to that space. Leaving place means, therefore, not just leaving space, but leaving the interactions occurring across and within that space. Leaving place means leaving culture.

"Lévi-Strauss' creates a Culture-Nature dichotomy (with intentionally capitalized C and N) and says (in the context of the sex act) that leaving the cultural is approaching the animal or natural. Under that assumption, the only place one has to go to when leaving culture is nature.

"Okay, it's obvious refugees are leaving their culture behind. Are they leaving capital-C Culture as well and heading for a rule-free, Culture-free natural? Aren't they entering into a place where some kind of small-c culture exists anyway, like Tibetans among Hindus or New Orleanians among Chicagoans after Katrina? (HERE COMES THE MAIN POINT!) Well, it depends on whether there is a psychological tie between place of enculturation and one's sense of Culture. If I was born in Lhasa, Tibet, and there received formal and informal education, would I necessarily connect that place with the idea of rules and Culture (Lévi-Strauss connects the two), and exclude other places from being Cultural places for me? Am I more animal in those places? In short...

"Is there a link between place of enculturation and one's sense of the Cultural?

"(Some side notes, mostly for myself: Does Massey's position have the strength to stand alone in opposition to Geiger, and more importantly does the contrast between the two open up the theoretical space to examine leaving culture and leaving Culture?
What's missing here is that link. Is that my research question, whether or not that exists? But that's too, too big for two months. Is there a smaller piece of the theoretical puzzle to work on now, with the promise of more to come? What I mean is, how much can I break down the theoretical question I have – into how small of pieces? That's probably what I'd need the most personal help with; I need a sounding board to help me ask the right questions to break down the question of Culture-with-a-big-C's link to place of enculturation.)

"This is a bit confusing I guess. I'll have to clarify it and make it more logical in my proposal. Thanks again for working with it.


... and here's Jay's reply:

"This actually looks really good. As far as "opening up the
theoretical space," I think this does the trick. You'll have to
decide yourself whether Massey is an even match for Geiger ... just
reading these few paragraphs, where you give them each pretty equal
stage time, it's actually Massey who comes across to me as being a bit
more advantaged because he's not alone in his argument--Levi-Strauss
backs him up. Even if you think Massey's position is strong enough on
its own, I would still mention Levi-Strauss: "Massey's perspective is
reminiscent of Levi-Strauss's assertion that leaving the cultural (he
is discussing the act of sex) means a move towards the animal or
natural" ... or something to that effect.

"You have cleared a lot more ground than you'll be able to cover in two
months (a better situation than not having cleared enough). I think
you need to define a bit what's going on with this big question (Is
there a link between place of enculturation and one's sense of the
Cultural?)--have a clear definition of terms, clarify what you mean by
enculturation, culture of both the little and big C varieties. Ask
yourself what the indicators of these processes are--think a bit like
a scientist and ask yourself what is measurable--not that you're
necessarily converting these concepts to numbers, but if you ask
people's feeling about their homes in India, will their responses in
some way demonstrate what is going on with some aspect of your
question? What would be some characteristics of leaving culture and
moving towards the natural (do Mauss or Levi-Strauss discuss some?) I
think as you do this clarification work, that more detailed,
articulated questions will likely become apparent, and you'll see some
specific direction to go with this. You may, for just some random
example, study individual participation in religious rituals or their
attitudes towards ritual as an indicator of whether they are more in a
state of Nature or in a state of Culture. We were brainstroming about
education with you the other day--that might be another direction. Or
you might do something completely different. What kind of link are
you looking for, and what would it look like if it was there? But you
need to identify the indicators of your big question before seeing
what elements of the culture you feel are significant to your study.

"This may mean more reading for you, but I don't think it necessarily
has to. Let me say that 1) even this last minute scrambling is
valuable to you--you've gotten a lot done in the past couple of weeks
that will be impossible in the field, and 2) especially having
identified a larger research question at this point, you have a
workable field experience before you--you will be articulating your
question throughout your time in India, and that's fine. Last summer
we met a PhD student who was talking about a survey he was developing
in the field much like you talk about your project now--confusion and
bewilderment tend to be the lot of ethnogrpahers for most of the time.
You don't need to be afraid that you won't be up to par, just because
it all isn't clear before you at the moment.

"Nuff said. I'm glad you're going. You'll have to tell me what you
think when you get there and how things are going (what IS your blog
address?). And at any time they come up, feel free to email me
questions, concerns, problems, whatever--whether it be tomorrow or a
month from now.


Jay's such a good guy!

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