There has never been a moment in history when class inequality has been so extreme and conspicuous. Yet, paradoxically, class as a category and frame for understanding the world seems to have lost its luster. Class power structures life in absolutely fundamental ways, yet public discourse and even most academic debate is remarkably resistant to serious discussion of class as a concept and analytical tool.
The various contributors to The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness take this contradiction head on by exploring the relationships between how people experience their worlds, how they understand those worlds, and how those experiences and understandings are connected to people’s class locations within the broader capitalist system. The collection, then, is less a theoretical treatise on class and more an explication of how class works.
This is part of what makes the book so timely. At a moment when many have come to assume that people, jobs, and basic services are disposable and defined solely in terms of the market, it is useful to understand both how neoliberal market forces work and how different groups of people come to understand them in certain ways and not others.
In the introduction, Paul Durrenberger looks at class not only in terms of how it structures the world, but why it remains so “invisible” within American public life. He also argues that ethnography, as a method that situates detailed first-hand observation within larger systems of power, is a very useful tool for the absolutely essential task of making class more visible.
The rest of the contributors take these questions on within the context of case studies that move across time and space, with the first three (more historical) chapters looking at the relationship between class and culture in pre-historic Mongolia, medieval Iceland, and southwest China over a several hundred year period. The remaining eight chapters are decidedly more contemporary and focus on the Americas. We move from discussions of the “Antiglobal” South and the rural U.S. to the U.S.-Mexican border, the auto industry, and even the beauty salon.
What the reader is ultimately left with is a collection that helps us understand connections—connections between how people experience the world, how they understand it, and how and why those experiences and understandings differ so significantly from one another. Like all quality anthropology, and perhaps all good scholarship, part of this process involves interrogating capitalist ideology in order to understand the reality behind the mask. The authors do this well in part by listening closely to what real people have to say.
As the title suggests, The Anthropological Study of Class and Consciousness is very much grounded within the discipline of anthropology. Yet, this is a readable book, with more than half of the case studies focused on the Americas. Consequently, it can be read with great benefit by scholars of American Studies or anyone interested in how the world works and is understood. [End Page 107]