An Anthropologist Looks at the United States

We need to look in the mirror, or be remembered as living in a mirage.
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Written by Dr. Laura Nader

In 1949 Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn published his prize winning book A Mirror for Man. In his book, Kluckhohn has a chapter "An Anthropologist Looks at the United States." Anthropologists had worked in the WWII war efforts on many geographic fronts and Kluckhohn himself was a regular advisor to the State Department during the Korean War and on American-Soviet relations. He had firsthand experience in Washington, D.C., at the State Department and other agencies, with how his own government functioned especially in relation to foreign policy.

Recently, I reread his chapter on the United States and was impressed by his gentle assessment of what makes our country run, or not. His tone was perceptive, his comments poignant. Much of what he said then bears contemplation in these days of the Great Recession and American Empire, if only as a way to assess where we have been and where we are going -- there are virtues to looking in the mirror once in a while.

Kluckhohn begins by asserting that ours is a business civilization -- as opposed to a military, ecclesiastical or scholarly one -- one that has a love for physical comfort, cleanliness and finance capital. According to him, we are a people outgoing and enthusiastic for change, or what we call progress, with the determination to help others make the world over on the American model. We moralize about a world in which effort is rewarded. "You can't keep a good man down," means, "It's his own fault if he doesn't make it." Failure to succeed is a personal failure. Conformity is approved. The Golden Age is in the future and "Youth is the hero of the American dream." He tries to grasp why it is difficult to get Americans to understand other cultures. Today he might be astonished by the extent to which American ideas of imperialism have increased to the point that we invade countries about which we know little. Some outstanding features Kluckhohn mentions include the "American emphasis" on technology and wealth, a strong trust in science and formal education, the discrepancy between theory and practice, a people "contemptuous of ideas but amorous of devices." For Kluckhohn, machines and money, -- materialism -- are close to the heart of this frontier society -- "Go West, young man, if you have lost your job in the East."

Why do Americans feel unanchored? He asks. His brief assessment -- there is insufficient attention to the human problems of an industrial civilization, the impersonality of cities, social and physical mobilities, and the cultural dislocation of emigrant groups. The anthropologist keeps returning to issues stemming from a certain kind of technological development, noting that "a disproportionate technological development has provided constant overstimulation that throws people into a perpetual state of neurotic indecision." He returns repeatedly to questions of fixation on technology as the mother of all solutions, a failure of techno love to improve decision making -- an indecisiveness I sometimes refer to as fried brains. The inability to connect the dots has become even more acute since 1949 with the over-valuation of specialization, absent a larger frame. He speaks of theory and practice as hopelessly out of line: "For all our talk about free enterprise we have created the most vast and crushing monopolies in the world?" Such gaps for him result in disillusioned cynicism. There is a bumper sticker I see around that reads: "The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe in it."

For Kluckhohn, the United States is the only country in the world in which ever larger numbers of people cling to laissez-faire principles in economics and government, what he calls an unrealistic, phantasm of our past. Black Americans and Spanish-speaking communities constitute oppressed groups due to intolerable contradictions, as in housing and discriminating practices. About women, he says, we interest women in careers, but make it difficult for them to succeed in one.

Clyde Kluckhohn was my graduate advisor at Harvard. I had gone to study with him because of Mirror for Man. He was a scholar with scope in addition to specialties, something to be especially appreciated today as we contemplate the consequences of over-specialization, or what the business world describes as silos. Much of what he writes is general, and we might find exceptions as with all "big" pictures, but it is useful nonetheless to stimulate our critical thinking processes. He missed President Eisenhower's insights on the rise of the military industrial complex, but he was correct about the American inability to see beyond blaming the victim. Consider how our Congress deals with joblessness in an increasingly jobless economy what with the downsizing of industry and outsourcing jobs. We bail out banks but don't deal with people's housing crises; we cut food stamps for the hungry, yet can't pass an increase in the federal minimum wage law. On the other hand, Kluckhohn might not have predicted the war on the young. After all what country that was future oriented would saddle its youth with 1.3 trillion in student debt? And he might not have thought of a cross-class/cross-gender/cross-race movement such as Occupy in calling attention to economic inequalities. But the issues he does call attention to are contemporaneous and urgent.

In conclusion, Kluckhohn reminds us of the challenge. The United States was the first country to dedicate itself to the idea of a society where the lot of the common man would be made easier. The American Dream was something new under the sun, a vision that is admired worldwide. Here we can make our greatest contribution to the world. Scientific humanism he called it -- a noble society, "a vision of humility in the face of complexity" -- science, not as the provider of the agencies of weaponized barbarism, but to "ease our precarious dependence one upon the other." He was worried about the Cold War and the possibilities for world peace, or survival. His reflections are useful to think about on a cold winter evening. This is a moment for new syntheses and renewed civic engagement, in a world that is both interconnected and disconnected, on a planet where long-term survival is at risk. His overall message is critical. We need to look in the mirror, or be remembered as living in a mirage.


Laura Nader is professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her current work focuses on how central dogmas are made and how they work in law, energy science and anthropology. Critical publications include: Energy Choices in a Democratic Society (1980); Harmony, Ideology, Injustice and Control in a Mountain Zapotec Village (1990); Naked Science, Anthropological Inquiry into Boundaries, Power and Knowledge (1996); The Life of the Law: Anthropological Projects (2002). In 1995 the Law and Society Association awarded her the Kalven Prize for distinguished research on law and society.