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Friday, November 4, 2011

Prairie Ethnography—Introduction

[a] Ethno/botano-pophagy RF

I was born in North Dakota and came of age in Wisconsin and Minnesota. I went to graduate school in Chicago before I started to explore the wider world, from Tainan and Yokohama to Waterville and Presque Isle. I eventually settled in southern Wisconsin, where I teach history and anthropology at Beloit College, right on the “stateline” border between Wisconsin and Illinois. I continue my archival and ethnographic research on East Asian topics, and thoroughly enjoy teaching courses such as “Cosmology and Historiography in Early China” and “Social and Cultural Theory.” Most of my interests are esoteric, and I am grateful that I am paid to talk about culture and the human past year after year.

Still, just a little something has been missing. In China and Japan, not to mention France and Germany, my mind churns with questions about why people behave in certain ways (and write about it in others that are not always “the same”).

Then I return to my day job, and Beloit ain’t Chengdu.

Bowling alleys and tattoo parlors replace street markets and noodle shops. Still, when I am “back home,” the anthropological musings keep on rumbling in my mind. I am used to thinking, for example, about “religious energy” in the context of Chinese temples. People buy incense sticks and toss them in churning furnaces in a display of religious power that varies considerably in a society that is officially secular and nominally less so. I am not used to thinking about the same concept in Lutheran churches in southern Wisconsin. To use another example, I am used to contemplating microeconomic choice in haggling sessions outside storefront shops in East Asia. How much for the duck? No—too expensive. Oh, a little less. Maybe. Back-forth-back-forth. Sold. I don’t notice even slight parallels while I am in Cub Foods. And that got me thinking. Why should I apply my ethnographic analysis only to distant and “foreign” locations? Why should I spend all of my ethnographic energy, so to speak, in distant lands? Isn’t there plenty of fascinating stuff going on in these here parts?

And then I agreed with myself. Why not “study” the world in which you grew up?

[b] Amber RF
I thought about it for days, and could not sense a downside. To be certain, there would be problems. It is way too familiar. It might even be the kind of world that I seek to defend against criticism from regional others. I have already had the quite common challenge of explaining what I see as the rich and nuanced context of Midwestern life to unreflective “Easterners” who seem not even to try to understand. I might just be a little defensive. Not good. Think about that (I said to myself).

On the “other” hand, I might—as a native—be rather more eager to attack that life than I would be if I were studying, say, the Miao ethnic minority in southern China. It is easier for me—once a lad raised on a peculiarly kinship-centered Lutheran libertarianism (figure that one out, and a small prize will await)—to take an ironic stance with regard to my people. Because I am from “around here,” I do not feel the same compunction to be “fair” if I have a strong opinion. This could also be a problem.
[c] Observation RF

You wish for an example? O.k. Just a few years ago, in USA Today, a front-page article focused upon a few small towns in North Dakota. They interviewed several patrons of roadside diners, almost all of whom spoke out against immigration (particularly Latin American) in their communities. I was already disturbed, but the articles went further. One coffee drinker was quoted (prominently, on page one) as saying that he would rather see his little (dying) town shrivel to nothing before it would integrate with Latin American immigrants.

What? I was appalled. If the article were on Pakistan…or Arkansas…I might have held back, at least just a little. But here…here I was a native. I am a child of the tribe that (supposedly) rejects immigration (and living communities). Yes, the nuclear family moved away when I was young, but this is my territory; this is who I am. I didn't recognize anything like that sentiment in my own family discussions.

I teach anthropology, so I brought it up in class. In what kinds of situations, I asked, do you feel comfortable criticizing groups you feel are “your own?” In what kinds of situations do you hold back, saying—more or less—that you aren’t “qualified” to respond?” And, finally, in what kinds of situations do you respond anyway, even though you feel (deep down) that you would not ordinarily do so?

Well, this was one of those “easy” ones. Does North Dakota just want to die? Do Scandinavian immigrants enjoy their, ummm, particular qualities to such an extent that they are willing to say “just turn out the lights when the last Norwegian (Fin, Swede) leaves town? Is that the future for the small towns of my youth? When I read the article, I hoped not. Then I became angry, and precisely because I thought I could. I didn’t feel “guilty” to express contempt. I felt (decide for yourself) that I had a right. I was born there, and it was my homeland.

Here was my response. You don’t want Latin American influence? You want to stick with your Scandinavian-American culture (some of which even Scandinavians struggle to understand—such as why these odd Midwesterners love to eat codfish soaked in lye)? You want to deplete your population, as is happening all over eastern North Dakota, from 1000 to 800 to 600 to 400…to barely operating? This is a common regression from, say 1950 to 2010. I have a solution. Get over it; I am a native.

I want lutefisk tacos.
I want the homeland to prosper.
[d] Participant RF
This is all a circuitous way of describing something I choose to call “prairie ethnography.” I seek to understand what for many of us is familiar, but for others seems more exotic than all but a few locations on earth. I have already noted on this blog that students are generally unimpressed by my world travels (they are not disdainful, to be sure, but they more or less assume that traveling in East Asia and Europe pretty much goes with my line of work). When they hear that I am from North Dakota, though, the room falls silent; they are transfixed. Few things have ever sounded so exotic.

That I have missed the opportunity all these years to “do a little anthropology” with these materials is unfortunate. I aim to remedy that on Round and Square by exploring several of the outposts on the prairie, along with more than a few things that are so obvious that…we almost always miss them. We will dig into Norwegian food, NASCAR numbers, and bowling, not to mention used car dealerships, high school sports, and the most exotic location of all—diners.

[e] Prairie dialogic RF
Join us on Round and Square for this a series of posts that will take us all along the prairie and far, far beyond. You see, “prairie” is just a word to get you interested. These posts will, in time, weave their ways through almost all of American culture. “Ethnography” is their stable epistemological pivot. “Prairie” is meant to be read with all seriousness, on the one hand (I care about my homeland), and with a little bit of bitter irony (it was all prairie…of a sort…before waves of settlers made it their own in often cruel fashion). It is not without a sense of this irony that I note one of the (seemingly serious) names for a town not far from here—Deforest, Wisconsin. Take away the comma and it sounds like an ideology...or business plan.

It is here that we will begin. I have no axes to grind (trunks to sever), but I approach these topics very differently from the way that I do topics in, say, northern Japan. I might have an opinion, as I do with regard to sustaining the communities of my childhood, but I also might just be a little defensive about that life—shielding it from the most (as I see it) ignorant urban criticism. In other words, it is (almost) the opposite of (almost) everything I do for a living as an anthropologist and historian. I am much more willing to be critical and, at the same time, a good deal more nostalgic than I am with any other topic.

This could be messy—and interesting. Let’s see where it goes.
[f] Interpretive journey RF

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