The Paradox of Relevance
Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States
Publication Year: 2011
Between 1990 and 1996, the U.S. Congress passed market-based reforms in the areas of civil rights, welfare, and immigration in a series of major legislative initiatives. These were announced as curbs on excessive rights and as correctives to a culture of dependency among the urban poor—stock images of racial and cultural minorities that circulated well beyond Congress. But those images did not circulate unchallenged, even after congressional opposition failed. In The Paradox of Relevance, Carol J. Greenhouse provides a political and literary history of the anthropology of U.S. cities in the 1990s, where—below the radar—New Deal liberalism, with its iconic bond between society and security, continued to thrive.
The Paradox of Relevance opens in the midst of anthropology's so-called postmodern crisis and the appeal to relevance as a basis for reconciliation and renewal. The search for relevance leads outward to the major federal legislation of the 1990s and the galvanic political tensions between rights- and market-based reforms. Anthropologists' efforts to inform those debates through "relevant" ethnography were highly patterned, revealing the imprint of political tensions in shaping their works' central questions and themes, as well as their organization, narrative techniques, and descriptive practices. In that sense, federal discourse dominates the works' demonstrations of ethnography's relevance; however, the authors simultaneously resist that dominance through innovations in their own literariness—in particular, drawing on diasporic fiction and sociolegal studies where these articulate more agentive meanings of identity and difference. The paradox of relevance emerges with the realization that in the context of the times, affirming the relevance of ethnography as value-neutral science required the textual practices of advocacy and art.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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The dominant political art in the United States of the 1990s was a new language of liberalism keyed to the market as the most promising arena for social justice. It emerged in the 1980s as a language of opposition—honed against grassroots demands for the renewal of federal civil rights remedies, as federal courts began to curtail the broad access to law that the landmark legislation...
1. Relevance in Question
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By the 1990s, the term postmodernism had become highly coded as a critical touchstone across the human sciences. Reading the reviews of the time, one quickly gains the sense of a discipline divided between those who saw so-called postmodernism as a diversion from the real work of anthropology, and those who saw it as its corrective. Methodology thus became a roomy basket for a host of questions about other things. Anthropologists writing about...
2. Templates of Relevance
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The raw material for this book comes from textual resources that contributed to shaping the revival of anthropological community studies of the 1990s. The community studies were keyed to a particular formulation of a national society and its implicit warrant for federal action—and in this sense the book offers a reader’s guide of sorts to the themes and tenor of the times. In context (as discussed above), this means that it is also necessarily an inquiry into the relationship...
3. Texts and Contexts
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The public policy issues that dominated the Congress in the 1990s were shaped on the one hand by the rhetorical appeal of the New Deal and the Great Society, and on the other by the political appeal of neoliberalism. The new keywords were efficiency and competitiveness, as market values suffused debate over government programs and accordingly—in material ways—the meaning of citizenship...
4. Textual Strategy and the Politics of Form
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In the 1990s, as key elements of New Deal liberalism faded from the federal U.S. legislative arena, they remained objects of interdisciplinary dialogue and academic debate—often indirectly, re-routed as questions of theory and method. As ethnographers called for attention to narrative in their texts, their coding of voice as the means and ends of critical agency drew from the politics of representation that the new neoliberal mainstream had made its discursive foil. The new attention...
5. The Discourse of Solutions
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The community study of the 1990s revived one of anthropology’s classic literary forms. As such, it was also part of a broader literary revival featuring anthropology, sociology, and diasporic fiction as publishers reprinted numerous works from the 1960s for new markets in U.S. cultural studies—including several works discussed in this book. Those monographs, novels, and essays lived again in the 1990s...
6. Democracy in the First Person
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The discourse of solutions was a significant form of interdisciplinarity, drawing ethnography into fields well beyond anthropology. Anthropologists and sociolegal scholars alike—though not always known to each other—turned to the novelistic tropes of identity and narrative voice to articulate new means and ends for their professional visions of equality as a function of mutual understanding and acceptance. In this chapter, we juxtapose examples drawn from anthropology...
7. Gendering Difference and the Impulse to Fiction
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The “distaff voices” (in Marcus’s pregnant metaphor; 1991a: 127) of the new ethnography of the 1980s and 1990s self-consciously conjured the possibility of an anthropology reconfigured around new ethnographic relations—relations reframed around new meanings of difference. The negative elision of race and culture in the national political discourse coincided with anthropology’s internal critique of these same terms on essentialist grounds. For ethnographers...
8. Markets for Citizenship
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My concerns so far have been with literary practices drawn into ethnography from circuits of wider circulation with the mainstreaming of neoliberalism, particularly with respect to the mutual implications of identity and federal power. The discourse of solutions and federal subjectivity name key junctures where the mutual contingencies of identity and the scope of federal power are especially visible as textual practices. Those practices also link...
Envoi: Empirical Citizenship
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Before scholars talked about “identity,” there was not one word but many other words: race, class, sex (gender came later), ethnicity, culture, subculture, custom, colonialism, independence movements, new nations, developing countries, inequality, legal pluralism—among others. Identity came belatedly to refer to all of these at once, encompassing (and refusing) the older, separate frames of reference, and evoking their common stakes.1 As a term in usage in the United...
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Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2011