Friday, February 25, 2011

The Urban Folk

Again, coincidences are uncanny.  After a deliberation on Tuesday about how “rural” music has found hotspots within urban centers where people of all origins can relate to country, folk, bluegrass, blues, and other stylings otherwise deplete in the “popular” music scene, an article discussing just this phenomenon popped up in the New York Times today.

"From City Folk, Toe-Tapping Country Sounds" -Amanda Petrusich

It appears that although these styles of music are traditionally associated with rural, country settings they have found a niche even within the most urban of all metropolises: New York City.  One venue focuses on freestyle jam sessions in which the entire audience is invited to participate in the music-making, whether through singing, clapping, stomping, or even bringing along an instrument to jam along with.  This distributes the “performers” throughout the audience instead of confining them to a space in front and separate of those they are performing to.  It’s reminiscent of the informal performances associated with rural settings, where interaction between performer and audience is common.  It seems to me that perhaps this relationship is cultivated inadvertently, since the performers tended to be community members themselves, thus severing the formal performer-audience relationship we see today with popularized shows where performers play on a stage clearly separated from the audience.  During these performances, the musicians often attempt to “play” for their audiences, using general bits of trivia about the specific community for which they are performing that night but rarely ever truly connecting with the audience members.  The jam session counters this trend by utilizing what the article contends is a “front porch roots” feel—one that “feels like home.”   The jams are not limited to a specific genre of music either, but are instead open forums where participants can bring in any particular styling so desired.  Bars that do try and promote a specific genre have reported that the latest trend is to bring in songs otherwise not associated with the genre, thus broadening the genre’s accepted repertoire by borrowing elements from other stylings and proving that these musical exchanges are leading the movement for musical heterogeneity.  Although the musicians are combining sounds and elements from across the genres, the resulting sound continues to be a unique one, serving as an exploration of genre boundaries as opposed to a demarcation of them.  Other boundaries, such as ethnic preferences, are also challenged by these communal jams.  Though the article lumps the genres mentioned before under the tidy heading of “Americana,” it is clear that these freestyle jam sessions can reach across national divides: one of the audience members interviewed remarked how she appreciated the music because it reminded her of her church experiences growing up as a child in Norway.  In this case, it becomes more about how the music is performed rather than the sound:   “In our church, there was no choir — everybody played guitars and sang harmony,” she said. “That’s what we would do, get together at people’s houses and play. This feels exactly the same to me.” 

What fascinates me about these jams is the fact that it seems to attract both young and old generations of music appreciators.  So often music can serve as a division between these generations: parents complain that they don’t understand their kids’ music these days while teenagers lament about the stale nature of their parents’ musical preferences.  As one audience member points out, however, these public jams seem to attract people of all ages.  It leads me to wonder if perhaps the element of making music as opposed to just listening to music has anything to do with it.  Having been a part of bands and choruses while growing up, I can remember intense moments of connect during performances.  It happened quite frequently, in fact, not only during formal performances but also during rehearsals.  As a listener, however, although often moved by a performance, I often felt alone.  Making the music established a relationship with my fellow musicians, forming us into a community.  Perhaps this is why music is such a pragmatic tool for building and establishing culture: its creation breeds strong bonds between the performers, forming a single identity of a conglomerate mass.  Cultures that make music together can use this act as a way to reiterate their connection and historical traditions.  To be sure, listeners can form bonds through music too, but it’d be curious to find out if these bonds are as strong as those who perform together.  Americana (folk) music is inextricably tied to collaborative performance, and this could explain why it has persisted so strongly throughout the years.  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Musical Membership

I was reminded of a story today while we discussed folk music and its role in rural identity—a story about a fellow volunteer in Senegal who embraced his love of music and used it as a tool to integrate into his community. 
He loved to drum, my friend Paul, and he was fortuitously assigned to a small Sereer village where drumming played an important role in daily life.  He quickly established friendships with those in the village most serious about drumming, and they were happy to teach their traditional rhythms to such an enthusiast pupil.  Paul was talented and liked to bring his newly learned beats to the communal regional house where he would sit a few of us willing participants in a circle and teach us what he’d learned.  I never got to see Paul drum with his village, but his zeal for sharing his djembe experiences and the rhythms his village friends passed on to him lead me to believe that he cherished those times with in the village drum circle.  The first thing he’d share with us when he walked through the door of that house was this ‘awesome’ new beat he’d just picked up, one reserved for a special ceremony, and he’d immediately throw his baggage on the floor and gravitate towards the drums.  The thing we all admired about Paul, however, was not just how much he loved the drumming itself but how he had used the music as the perfect ‘in’ with the community.  He was a required element of his village’s drumming crew—they had immediately accepted him as one of their own, simply because of his fervor for that certain aspect of their culture.

Other volunteers used dancing as a way to integrate—the Senegalese loved to dance, and they particularly loved it when a volunteer would dance.  They danced in ways of thanks, and if the volunteer danced with them it was received as a form of welcome.  The Senegalese also danced at baptisms and weddings, and volunteers were often encouraged by their host family and friends to join in as a way of connecting with the community.  The griots—the bards of West Africa—often incorporated the volunteer into the singing and festivity, sometimes as a way of teasing but also as a way of recognizing the volunteer’s presence as an important time in the family and village history.  If a volunteer embraced these musical moments, she often found herself being appreciated as part of the village’s collective identity, and certainly with her host family’s identity.

We were shocked the day Paul came into the regional house bearing all of his personal djembes he’d been keeping at site, announcing that he had given up drumming with his friends in village.  He’d been there for nearly a year and a half at that point, and the drumming had been one of the highlights of his service thus far.  He was reluctant to talk about it at first, but by the end of the day the story began to unravel.  His friends—the griots—had still wanted him to join their drumming sessions, but apparently his host father—the village chief—had expressed concern over Paul’s drumming obsession.  The griots belong to one of the lowest castes in Senegal—castes being determined primarily through birthright and heritage—while the village chiefs tends to be toward the higher end of the spectrum.  The fact that Paul, an ‘adopted’ son of the village chief, was choosing to align himself with the griots through identifying with their music created a great source of tension within his family and the community.  Paul was already the village “other” on account of his race, but this “other” was upheld by the community as a respectable “otherness.”  The griots on the other hand, while appreciated within the community for their musical, oral, and historical contributions (especially during ceremonies and rites), were still identified as a different sector—a subculture—of the community culture.  This challenged Paul’s  initial “otherness” and placed him in danger of becoming depreciated within the village, thus potentially hampering his role as an “agricultural extension specialist” as well as bringing shame to his host family.  And so Paul stopped drumming with the villagers, and we volunteers all came to realize how music in Senegal served not only to bring people together but to pull them apart as well.  The village could dance and sing together with the griot during times of celebration but only because this was the griot’s prescribed role within the culture.  Otherwise, the griot’s music (and specifically drumming) was to be confined to that caste, and to break that boundary risked blurring the lines of identity that had been drawn for hundreds of years. 

Paul took his drums back with him to America once he completed his service.  He was interested in finding groups in America that were exploring the West African music scene, which coincidentally pay tribute to the griot tradition…but with no class division or caste markers.  It makes sense to think that this music, so culturally defined in its homeland, might be less inhibited by cultural parameters and more easily shared and exposed to those outside of the defined cultural setting of the griot, but out of relation to its cultural context the strength of the tradition wanes.  For those of us not privy to these particular sub-cultures, perhaps this is the only chance we get to dabble within…as Paul so unfortunately discovered in his small Sereer village of Bouf Poupaye.           

Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Ode to the Old Ways

While studying English as an undergraduate, I took the opportunity to enroll in a course called “Literature and the Natural World.”  It was a course that ultimately changed my path of study, as it introduced me to an emphasis known as “Environmental Inquiry” that in turn led me to pursue a minor in Geography.  I came to call the course “Wilderness Lit,” as we spent a good deal of time dissecting the differing definitions of wilderness as the essence was addressed through time by various nature writers (conservationists, preservationists, transcendentalists alike) and as it was addressed by us personally.  We read works by those arguing that true nature was wilderness—the most pristine of the pristine yet untouched by humans—and also works by those arguing that nature, although not wilderness, was still nature even when altered by human activity.  I do not recall today the exact piece we read by Wendell Berry, but his name has remained locked in my memory as one of those arguing for the pastoralism of humanized nature and for the magic of agricultural preservation specifically.  His name has come up a number of times in class with Dr. Wright as well, and I found myself curious to refresh myself with his writing.

Coincidentally, one of first poems I found was “At a Country Funeral,” first published in 1973 in Berry’s The Country of Marriage and later reprinted in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry in 1998.  It is not a new poem, but the theme Berry addressed struck me as if he had written it today in response to our readings last class dealing with old timers and newcomers to rural communities.  Berry is a farming man, and he embraces the small-time, old-school methods of horse and plow over the agribusiness, big-time farming he argues has led to the decline of rural, small-town community culture.  “At a Country Funeral” is an eloquent appraisal of this old-timey culture, complete with a romanticization I’m sure Salamon would welcome wholeheartedly. 

At a Country Funeral
                   By Wendell Berry

1                       Now the old ways that have brought us  
2                      farther than we remember sink out of sight  
3                      as under the treading of many strangers  
4                      ignorant of landmarks. Only once in a while  
5                      they are cast clear again upon the mind  
6                      as at a country funeral where, amid the soft
7                      lights and hothouse flowers, the expensive  
8                      solemnity of experts, notes of a polite musician,  
9                      persist the usages of old neighborhood.
10                    Friends and kinsmen come and stand and speak,  
11                     knowing the extremity they have come to,  
12                     one of their own bearing to the earth the last  
13                     of his light, his darkness the sun’s definitive mark.
14                    They stand and think as they stood and thought  
15                     when even the gods were different.
16                    And the organ music, though decorous  
17                     as for somebody else’s grief, has its source
18                    in the outcry of pain and hope in log churches,  
19                    and on naked hillsides by the open grave,  
20                    eastward in mountain passes, in tidelands,  
21                     and across the sea. How long a time?  
22                    Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide my  
23             self in Thee. They came, once in time,
24                    in simple loyalty to their dead, and returned  
25                    to the world. The fields and the work  
26                    remained to be returned to. Now the entrance
27                    of one of the old ones into the Rock
28                    too often means a lifework perished from the land  
29                    without inheritor, and the field goes wild  
30                    and the house sits and stares. Or it passes  
31                     at cash value into the hands of strangers.  
32                    Now the old dead wait in the open coffin  
33                    for the blood kin to gather, come home
34                    for one last time, to hear old men
35                    whose tongues bear an essential topography  
36                    speak memories doomed to die.
37                    But our memory of ourselves, hard earned,  
38                    is one of the land’s seeds, as a seed
40                   is the memory of the life of its kind in its place,  
41                    to pass on into life the knowledge
42                    of what has died. What we owe the future  
43                    is not a new start, for we can only begin  
44                   with what has happened. We owe the future  
45                    the past, the long knowledge
46                   that is the potency of time to come.
47                    That makes of a man’s grave a rich furrow.
48                   The community of knowing in common is the seed  
49                   of our life in this place. There is not only  
50                    no better possibility, there is no
51                     other, except for chaos and darkness,  
52                    the terrible ground of the only possible
53                    new start. And so as the old die and the young  
54                    depart, where shall a man go who keeps  
55                    the memories of the dead, except home  
56                    again, as one would go back after a burial,  
57              faithful to the fields, lest the dead die  
58                    a second and more final death.

The first lines are strikingly similar in sentiment to Salamon’s contrast of old timer and newcomer: Berry explicitly references “the old ways” being trod upon by “many strangers/ignorant of landmarks,” or in other words who have no connection to the symbolic meanings and time-treasured physicalities attached to the land.  He goes on to contrast these “strangers” with “friends and kinsmen” who attend a country funeral (line 10), who return to their roots to honor the old lifestyle and to reminisce with and listen to “…old men/whose tongues bear an essential topography/speak memories doomed to die” (lines34-36).   Berry’s use of the word topography is surely not incidental, for he elicits imagery of hillsides, fields, and log churches—all rather romantic rural appeals—in addition to tying memory to land (lines 37-38): he is making clear connections between the people, the land, and the culture that binds the two.  This culture is endangered by the other of “the stranger,” for with their intrusion is the loss of the way of life linked to the land.  When Berry writes of “…a lifework perished from the /without inheriot, and the field goes wild /and the house sits and stares.  Or it passes/at cash value into the hands of strangers,” (lines 28-31)  he is lamenting this very loss of culture, a culture built on tradition passed from generation to generation: “We owe the future/the past, the long knowledge/that is the potency of time to come” (lines 44-46).      

Lines 53-54, “And so as the old die and the young/depart” seem to signal Berry’s own departure from Salamon’s line of thought.  He is not claiming that only the best and brightest leave a rural community but that is the whole of the young generation who make an exodus.  This seems slightly incongruous with Berry’s earlier lines about those who “come home/for one last time” (lines 33-34) until we realize it is the dead themselves waiting for this return, and that it is the memory of these dead that will keep drawing the departed youth back home again.  Ultimately, however, this cycle should end once all the youth who have departed die themselves, but without that that connect to the land that will draw the present youth back to hear the memories of the culture and pass it on.  So here again I am presented with what I see as a troublesome view on the cycle of coming and going: who are these “strangers” or newcomers that both Berry and Salamon speak of and what are their cultural backgrounds?  Berry paints an extremely bleak future for his beloved rurality—that there are only those who go, returning only for a quick lesson in culture before leaving permanently once more.  Salamon asserts that newcomers have no culture near the depth of the old timers’ culture, and therefore threaten to encroach and erase the core of community culture.  Either way, Salamon and Berry seem in conversation with each other: tight-knit rural communities—the most wonderful kind of community—are in danger of dying.  Berry’s “country funeral” may not necessary be one taking place in the country, but in fact the funeral for the country itself.      

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rural Brain Drain

I’ve often struggled with my rural hometown roots, although I’ve developed a certain affection for these roots as I’ve grown older.  In fact, all through high school I anticipated the freedom and anonymity that awaited me in college—the time when I could finally move away and leave behind the reputation and socialize d history I had cultivated from first grade through graduation.  Many of my friends shared this mindset, and today—like me—they are scattered across the country, mostly in urban areas either for work or education purposes.  I do have a few friends who still live in my hometown: some who never went to college, some who went to a local college, and some who went away for school and have since returned.  Of my friends and the rest of my graduating class still in the area (the majority of my class), most fall within the first two categories. 

Since I’ve left, I’ve often pondered why it is that the majority of my friends, my two siblings, and I have all decided to abandon our hometown in favor of living elsewhere.  We were arguably the “top of the class”—repeatedly recognized in the classroom, in the arts, in sports, in civic engagement, etc.—and our success largely depended on the strength of our school district’s teachers, despite the fact that the district lacked the financial resources of suburban schools within the county.  While I may have been impatient to leave, to this day I wrestle with an enormous sense of guilt in my snubbing of the very community that made it possible to leave.

Upon reading Sonya Salamon’s “Newcomers to Old Towns,” I was struck by her assessment of this “rural brain drain” as based on others’ research:

Recently we have begun to understand that the social resources available in agrarian communities make them exceptional incubators for youth development…The accepted wisdom is, of course, that the best and the brightest always leave the agrarian towns, taking with them the valuable resources of the community investment in them and their energy and talent, which are of potential benefit to the community….When an agrarian-community identity connects a population, and rich social resources are present, a positive community effect is visible in the development of children, who benefit from this strong, caring social environment.  Despite a continuing exodus of the best and brightest, those (bullheads and suckers) who remain annually produce a crop of bright youth, whom they bemoan losing.     

This assessment clearly contradicts itself—if it is indeed “bullheads and suckers” who remain then how are they capable of consistently raising the “best and brightest?”  This quick analysis attaches a certain demeaning lack of intelligence to those who remain within the community—a charge that surely cannot be accurate if the community can then reproduce another “best and brightest” generation with each passing year. 

My biggest problem with this assessment, however, is with Salamon’s further application of it.  If these “best and brightest” are deemed as such due to their strong sense of community and social network, how do they subsequently apply these cultural values after having left the rural communities for what we may presume to be urban ones?  Salamon consistently pits agrarian life against the urban, lamenting with the agrarian old timers (those who have stayed behind as insiders) when “newcomers” (outsiders) arrive and begin applying urban constructs to rural spaces.  She argues that “newcomers” lack the community culture of the old timers…but it must surely be the case that a portion, if not most, of these “newcomers” are in fact the “best and brightest” who left years before and are now seeking to return to their roots.  In my experience, there are many people who begin their lives in rural places, move away during their youthful adult years, and then return later to raise families of their own, seeking the sense of community and romanticized idyll of the rural experience.  So how do we compromise the assertion that these “best and brightest” who benefited from and understand the importance of community effect have now become “newcomers” who are otherwise ill-equipped to integrate and embrace this very same community effect?

We could suggest that perhaps the romanticizing of their youths and the shock of discovering a community that has changed (as all communities inevitably do over the years) in their absence perpetuates the “newcomer” mentality and alienation from the old timer’s community culture.  We could even suggest that somewhere during their years in urban places, these “best and brightest” lose that sense of community that fostered them so favorably during their childhoods.  If we look at it this way, it would appear that the “best and brightest” redesign their cultural tool kits while engaged in their urban lifestyles.  This could be—to argue otherwise would be to challenge the power of space and place in defining culture—but I find it hard to believe that those “newcomers” who began as the “best and brightest” completely rewrite their tool kits.  Perhaps the problem is not so much that the “newcomer” disapproves of the old timer’s lifestyle, as Salamon would have us believe—that “newcomers” tend to segregate themselves because they have little or no interest in engaging in the deep community culture of the old timers.  Perhaps, instead, part of the blame lies in the old timers themselves and their rigid intolerance of “newcomers” who they perceive as lacking appreciation for community culture.  The two factions play off of each other—one rejecting the other without fully understanding the depth of the other’s cultural values despite the possibility that a similar cultural base may exist in both.           
It could be, however, that I am still fighting to justify my role in the “brain drain.”  If I’m to be completely honest, I am still squeamish at the thought of living within a tight-knit community where my every action is subject to neighborly scrutiny.  I respect and treasure what my experience in a rural community has given me, but I am still relieved to no longer live there.  But in my heart of hearts, I cannot imagine living the rest of my life in an urban setting.  Niether can I fathom living within one of Salamon’s despised subdivisions, but perhaps I shall fit perfectly in her assignment of post-agrarian communities.  Perhaps I, too, will want the charms of the agrarian lifestyle without sacrificing the urban amenities I’ve come to expect, thereby perpetuating the blurring of rural-urban boundaries and further confusing the future of rural studies.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Reluctant Rurality?

I’d been to Grand Ledge several times before this weekend but most often as a patron of the Log Jam, a downtown restaurant with excellent breakfast and brunches.  My aunts and uncle live about 12 miles southwest of Grand Ledge, and when my family visited during summer breaks we’d typically indulge in a Log Jam breakfast.  Technically they live in Charlotte, but my aunts and uncle repeatedly assert that they would much rather have their address be Grand Ledge.  They claim that Grand Ledge has more going on than Charlotte, and according to the Grand Ledge citizens we met with today, they are not alone in that sentiment.

It makes sense that the Mayor of Grand Ledge Kalmin Smith and his wife Marcia are enthusiastically pro-Grand Ledge.  They are self-proclaimed Grand Ledge residents “by design,” meaning they intentionally relocated to Grand Ledge after having chosen it as their ideal small town.  A focus group of women from Grand Ledge concur with this image of their town as an ideal—citing the Grand Ledge community as safe, supportive, active, and aesthetically beautiful.  Interestingly, these are exactly the same attributes interviewees in a rural Norwegian town list as reasons they chose to live in their town.  More interestingly, neither of these groups of citizens labels their communities as rural, opting instead to identify themselves as small towns.  In the case of Grand Ledge, the focus group seemed to maintain that this clarification is extremely important. 

Why is this small town label so significant?  Why is it so important for these communities to identify themselves as something besides rural?  The traits catalogued as positive attributes of small town life by the communities are traits that some would classify as benefits to living in a rural setting.  For example, many of the focus group participants praised the beauty of their Grand Ledge community, specifically the beauty of the town’s parks, riverside property, and namesake rock ledges.  To be sure, urban sites may be described as beautiful as well, but the areas indicated by the Grand Ledge citizens are generally those that only a rural community could enjoy as separate from urban structure and context. (I must note here that another similarity should be drawn here between the Grand Ledge focus group and those Norwegian interviewees—the focus group was composed entirely of women, and it was the female interviewees who concentrated on the aesthetic components of their own settings.  It could prove interesting to have a range of citizens rank a series of attributes according to matter of preference and see if aesthetic appeal is considered more important among women than men when deciding where to settle.) 

Both the GL mayor and the focus group repeatedly noted the strong sense of support, how the community is extremely friendly with one another as well as strangers, and how tightly connected the community is.  This is exactly the attitude of community I would apply to rurality, except I’m also aware of how exclusive these communities can be of initial “outsiders” until the “outsiders” prove their right to belong.  (When I was five, my family moved to a rural farmette; although the new house was but a few miles from our old residence, the “neighborhood” had consisted of the same families for generations, and our alien presence was keenly felt and demonstrated through obvious concentrated efforts by our neighbors to avoid acknowledging us when passing on the road.  This continued for several years, until the road gradually became more developed and suddenly we were no longer the newcomers.)  The mayor suggested that perhaps in Grand Ledge this hostility manifested itself in the political arenas between the “good old boys” and the newcomers, but that when it came to civic engagement and neighborly relations Grand Ledge citizens tend to ignore the insider-outsider construction and allow genuine interest to rule community interactions.  

When attaching the descriptor “safe” to their community, the GL focus group repeatedly compared the town to the nearby urban area of Lansing, declaring that the smallness and closeness of Grand Ledge encouraged neighbors to entrust house keys with one another while out of town—a behavior these same citizens wouldn’t dare engage in should they live in a city like Lansing instead.  This smallness and closeness becomes central descriptors, as these same women went on to relate stories of how life today in more isolated, specifically rural communities (in which, again, Grand Ledge did not qualify) does not involve this level of trust and camaraderie.  While a rural resident might consider a household over two miles away her “neighbor,” the spatial isolation restricts her from trusting in this neighbor in the same way a Grand Ledge citizen trusts the neighbors on her street.  This level of proximity changes a community from a rural community to a small town community.  People in Grand Ledge itself choose to live there for the companionship and the social cohesion, whereas people in rural places might choose to live there in order to be left alone.

The “active” descriptor for Grand Ledge is rooted in the town’s affinity for festivals, parades, programs, etc.  These events are inevitably ways to draw the community together but also serve to lure outsiders (non-Grand Ledge residents, whether far or near) to the town for special occasions.  This descriptor alone seems to embody the “small-townness” (as opposed to “ruralness”) the focus group seemed so intent on attaching to Grand Ledge, especially since these festivals, parades, and programs seemed to have just as much to do with boosting the town’s economy as they did with boosting the town’s community spirit. 

It feels as if Grand Ledge serves as an example of the ever-blurring lines between rural and urban.  The town sits outside of the political urban boundaries of Lansing, but its citizens still see the town as more urban than those truly rural areas lying outside of Grand Ledge’s political peri-urban boundaries.  The scale of rurality continues to go undefined, with the descriptor “rural” being attached and reattached to those spaces further along the rural-urban continuum.  In other words, there is always some place more rural, as if “being rural” is admitting to some sense of backwoods, countrified existence.  We came to Grand Ledge this weekend to find out how a rural community defined and identified itself: it turned out that this rural community denied being as such.  It might prove that the rural-urban division is even muddier than expected, or it might prove a certain stigma attached with the term “rural,” but it definitely proves that to understand rurality we will have to examine multiple interpretations and constructs as to what exactly “being rural” means.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Culture of Nature

It amazes me how coincidental life can be at times.
Last Tuesday, February 1, I sat through class where we discussed Ann Swidler’s theory on culture as a tool kit—“a style or a set of skills and habits” and how it explained behavior and action in broader terms than as only defined by values and a “set of preferences or wants.”  In her article “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” Swidler illustrates her argument with an example of the culture of poverty.  She compares the behaviors of “lower class” and “middle class” individuals and suggests that the difference in these behaviors cannot be defined as driven by incongruent value systems but rather by incongruent knowledge sets. 

If one asked a slum youth why he did not take steps to pursue a middle-class path to success (or indeed asked oneself why one did not pursue a different life direction) the answer might well be not “I don’t want that life,” but instead, “Who me?”  One can hardly pursue success in a world where the accepted skills, style, and informal know-how are unfamiliar.  One does better to look for a line of action for which one already has the cultural equipment.

While this holds true for the majority of population, I find myself wondering how this can be applied to those who completely ignore their cultural tool kits and step outside of this zone of familiarity to become someone and to do something no one expected or even thought possible.  These stories are often marked by tales of hard work and extreme trials, perhaps proving Swidler’s sentiment that to “pursue success in a world…unfamiliar” is indeed no easy task, but nevertheless these stories exist.  It seems, then, that in these cases culture has failed to exert its hold over behavior: these are stories of individuals who clearly pursue values outside of their tool kit, and I wonder how much external influence has been exerted in these cases.  Perhaps this is the answer—that another culture, an outside culture, has moved in and altered the course of action.  But to argue this seems to argue that culture can then be defined by values and preferences alone, and the tool kit becomes less important in governing behavior.  I’m reminded of an argument I had with my fellow volunteers in Senegal regarding how to organize a girls’ camp and who to invite.  Urban volunteers championed that the camp should cater to girls with already strong academic background and an obvious diverse range of opportunity open to them in years ahead while rural volunteers wanted to expose village girls with no real access to education or opportunity to experience life outside of the village.  The urban volunteers argued that unless the girls were already literate then certain activities such as journal writing were impossible and that those without an idea of life beyond the village would not be able to benefit from goal-setting exercises and other “empowering” activities.  This was exactly what the rural volunteers wished to address: village girls and their families were not even aware of such activities, and unless we helped to expand their values then they would never have goals other than that of getting married by fourteen and having as many children as possible.  This opens another whole can of worms as to whether or not we were morally correct in assuming these families wanted to change their values (and essentially their culture), but Peace Corps is billed as an organization fostering cultural exchange so we considered the act of “presenting opportunity and choice” as the least culturally destructive  agendas to adopt. 

But alas, I digress—I have yet to address the true “coincidental” element of February 1.  Upon leaving the classroom with Ann Swidler’s “tool kit” theory fresh in my mind, I stopped at the kiosk of newspapers on the first floor of the building and snagged myself a New York Times.  There, on page D2 of the Science Times section, was an article on New Caledonian crows. 

New York Times Article: Nurturing Nests Lift These Birds to a Higher Perch (Natalie Angier)

These crows are one of a kind.  The New Caledonian crow might have the largest brain size among all of its relatives, and it possesses incredible ingenuity when it comes to manipulating inanimate objects to perform specific tasks.  The amazing discovery, though, is that while all New Caledonian crows possess a tool-making ability, it appears as if different styles have developed specific to region and that these styles have been maintained and specialized long enough among the regional populations (mostly due to the crows’ tendencies to live in a “nuclear family arrangement”) to lead scientists to claim these “crows have their version of culture.” 

These crows have a very defined (an unusual) tool kit.  It’s ironic that their tool kit should include actual tools, or at least a tool-making ability, but this irony does not detract from the reality that these skills are passed from generation to generation, thus creating a specific set of behaviors among crows within a given region.  It is nearly impossible to argue that these crows have some sort of different set of values than other birds—that is, they are still primarily focused on gathering food for themselves and their family and do not aspire to an otherwise un-birdlike agenda of world domination or the gift of human tongue.  However, the social structure of the New Caledonian crow is dissimilar to that of other birds in the family, and this provides a major clue as to how the development of their “tool kit” is perpetuated through generations.  While it could be argued that the familial structure (juveniles remaining with the parents for up to two years) is necessary for the juveniles to learn the tool-making skills from the parents, it could also be argued that the familial bonds indicate a different set of values amongst the crows, and that this set of values then allows for the cultivation of such tool-making skills, thus rejecting Swidler’s tool kit theory as a behavior-shaping phenomena. 

The latter seems to be the article’s angle on culture, that the skills of the New Caledonian crow as a cultural phenomenon are derived from their social structure that is derived from a set of values, in this case unusual young-rearing preferences.  However, the article indirectly supports Swidler’s theory as well—these preferences led to a development of a tool kit that now demands the continuation of behavior in compliance with the social structure, lest the skills and knowledge (in essence, the culture as Swidler sees it) go by the wayside.  So perhaps cultural values and preferences and cultural skills, habits, and styles cannot be so easily substituted one for the other when defining culture.  Instead, it becomes a “chicken or the egg” conundrum, where both are so intricately entwined that the cause and effect of both on the other is nearly impossible to delineate. 
Then again, perhaps this is an article on birds…and potentially irrelevant to the discourse on human culture?  But then that’s a whole other pickle…    

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Nature of Culture

Culture is hard to define: it’s one of those concepts that seems to change identities when applied in different circles.

For example, one in the humanities might see culture as an example of “the best” of civilization—fine arts such as sculpture and painting, symphonies’ and orchestras’ renderings of musical compositions, a restaurant practicing elegant gastronomy.  This culture is one of tradition—a static representation of a piece of “the good” in society to be preserved as is for future generations. 
One in the social sciences, however, might see culture as a “cultural whole” where it is tied to society in its entirety, not just the elite.  Since the activities of this society are constantly subject to change as the society adapts to its situation in place and time, these activities cannot be preserved as is.  And here, even within the social sciences, varying theories abound as to the correct way to characterize the ilk of culture.  Clifford Geertz, a heavily referenced 20th Century American anthropologist who explored a theory of “thick description,” argued that while culture is represented through actions of symbolic behavior it is the import behind these actions that will provide the greatest insight and understanding of the culture they derived from.  Others then expand on this, questioning whether it is culture that defines behavior, behavior that defines culture or a cryptic combination of both.  Behavior itself is then questioned: is action the means to an end as determined through cultural values or is there more to culture than just values that drives culture?  Michael Schudson, an American sociologist, maintains that at times culture does indeed drive behavior but that the success of culture as impetus relies on the strength of the cultural symbols and values employed.  Ann Swidler, an American sociologist at UC Berkeley, suggests that perhaps culture is defined, in addition to values, by a certain set of skills and knowledge she labels a cultural “tool kit.”  This tool kit can explain why values (or ideologies) and behavior do not always match: if an individual possesses no tools in his tool kit that allow him to act in recognition of a certain value, then subsequent behavior will most likely be adverse to the value in question.    

So the theories as to “what is culture” are complicated—repeatedly diversified, deconstructed and reconstructed—and to apply these theories in order to define the culture of a society is not any easier.  During my experience in Senegal, West Africa with the Peace Corps, we talked often of culture and how it affected our daily lives.  Our trainers tried their best to familiarize us with “Senegalese culture” before setting us loose to experience it on our own, but in reality this sensitization training only served to alert us as to how far we were out of our own element.  The trainers were part of urban Senegalese culture, whereas most of us volunteers were sent to live in remote villages in rural settings, and we often found that their lessons didn’t jive completely with culture as we experienced it.  For instance, our trainers imposed strict rules of dress while we stayed in the city at the training center, arguing that Senegalese took pride in their appearances and that if we did not dress appropriately we could be written off as unprofessional.  However, upon entering the village sites, it became clear that most people dressed for function—they had no money to spend on clothes (except for major holidays) and often wore the same work-worn outfit several days in a row, especially during the farming season.  If a volunteer didn’t wear similar work-worn clothing, the community considered them incapable of hard, physical labor, and for volunteers in agricultural extension this created major problems.  Urban volunteers benefitted from the training, but rural volunteers found themselves having to adjust to a different set of cultural values.  According to the space and setting, the culture varied—even within a bound region subscribing to an overarching national culture—so that the Senegalese rural belonged to a culture of their own. 

This separation isn’t unique to Senegal, but perhaps this was the first time I truly thought about the differences in culture according to places.  I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but rarely did my friends and I sit down and talk through what it meant to be a part of rural Pennsylvania culture.  It wasn’t until I was removed from my own cultural context and trying to learn another that I realized the full power that “place” had in determining who I was—my values, my behavior, my tool kit.  They say volunteers often suffer from “reverse culture shock” upon their re-entry into the American way of life, but I’m not so sure this is the case.  Perhaps it is simply an emerging interest in exploring their own roots—a notion they may never have really had to think about before.  Some may have questions about American culture in general.  I, in addition to the latter, have questions about American rurality as a piece separate from yet contained within “American” culture.