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Victoria Kline
February 23, 2005
Seminar in Ethnology
Dr. Pérez

Articulating Hidden Histories: Week 5

Part I Introduction

Chapter 1 Introduction: The Analytic Strategies of Eric R. Wolf by Jane Schneider

Schneider explains the title of the book, “Articulating Hidden Histories,” as being a description of “Wolf’s theoretical orientation” (9). Then gives brief summaries of all the 20 other essays within the volume. Eric Wolf influenced each author in some way and all contributed writings to the volume with the intention of honoring him. Schneider also mentions many of the books and essays authored by Wolf, and discusses some of the ways in which he influenced others. Wolf is an ethno historian. In discussing any analysis of culture, he first looks to the historical background of the people. And he is most interested in those marginalized peoples about whom history was not officially written. He takes apart the worldwide system of Capitalism to show how our own system of economics is good for some and bad for others and is unstable as it is built on systems of overextended credit and relies on mass volume of money exchange through the market.

Other areas that Eric Wolf was interested in and sought to understand were those of memory, the closed corporate peasant community, mining of historical records for clues to the lives of the less fortunate and undervalued in society.

Chapter 2 Writing a History of Power: An Examination of Eric R. Wolf’s Anthropological Quest by Ashraf Ghani

In the beginning of his essay, Ghani describes Wolf’s work as “cumulative” and a series of “ever-expanding connective circles” (31). Ghani says he reads and rereads Wolf’s works in chronological order, what an inspiration Wolf must be to return to his work again and again. Ghani limits his discussion to four themes that repeat throughout the work of Wolf, and then he gives them each a section for development. Very organized writing with a good map for the reader

First Wolf’s works are all unified in concept. His discourses are about relations of power and how these relations have formed the history of the present (32). Second, relations of power are his units of analysis (31, 35). Third, Wolf particularly focuses on structural and tactical power in his work (31, 39), and fourth, the way his ethnographies are written are unique in content and in form in order to demonstrate his claims through his unique viewpoint.

Part II Peasants: Concepts and Histories

Chapter 3 The Cultural Histories of Peasants by William Roseberry

An excellent essay by Roseberry compares the work of Julian Steward, mentor and teacher to Wolf and Mintz. These three and others were involved in an early project together, Steward as project leader, Mintz and Wolf as graduate students. Together they observed and wrote about the people of Puerto Rico. In this collaboration, differences in theoretical focus became evident. Whereas Steward’s focus was on finding the universals between social groups and labeling groups in a classificatory scheme, Wolf was convinced that each group was unique depending on the history of relations within the power structure. Roseberry then partially deconstructs and then compares an early ethnography by Henry Sumner Maine (1872) to the work of Eric Wolf. Roseberry shows that Wolf was influenced by Alexander Lesser and his idea of webs or nets of connection, and social fields which Wolf construes as fields of power (57).

Chapter 4 Capital, Ritual, and Boundaries of the Closed Corporate Society by James B. Greenberg

Greenberg references two of Wolf’s early articles on peasants in Latin America, Mesoamerica, and Java to emphasize Wolf’s influence in thinking about the transformative power of peasant cultures. In Greenberg’s studies of Mixe culture in Oaxaca there are elements of the cargo system, fiestas, civil-religious hierarchies, and rituals for the approval of the gods in entrepreneurial endeavors. Greenberg visited the village of Tamazupalam in 1973, then revisited in 1990 and noted the changes that had taken place, yet what had remained the same as in the ritual observations for those wish to open businesses and the concept that money can be good or evil. This is such a good essay. There is much dependence of Mixes in Tamazulapam on diviners, curing rituals for business, and other rituals for luck and the health of the community. These rituals for business are class sensitive – in how much the businessperson must shell out to please the gods – and serve to circulate resources throughout the community. In his latest visit, the building up of capital was OK, just not at the expense of everyone else in the community. Their way of doing business values the customer (my kind of business!).

Chapter 5 Conacre: A Reevaluation of Irish Custom by Joan Vincent

Joan Vincent is a political anthropologist, Professor Emerita at Barnard College, Columbia University, and has interest in historical ethnography and the anthropology of gender. In Vincent’s discussion of an early Irish custom that was practiced up until the Great Famine in 1847, “conacre” was the agricultural practice of renting out small plots of land that were due to lie fallow. A land-poor peasant could gain use rights for one year on a plot, the main planting had to be potatoes and that allowed him to grow subsistence for a year.

Vincent says this construction is one of classical political economy, and that popular political economy would not construct the definition of conacre to appear to be equally beneficial to both sides: small farmer and landless peasant. She describes a popular view of conacre here that reveals the practice of conacre as the exploitation of peasant labor, and capitalism as a crisis provoking economic system. Conacre, she says, was not just one person but also a conacre family. Accepting conacre provided stability and reproductive possibility for a family within a locality even if only for less than a year at a time. Over time, leading up to the Great Famine the custom of conacre changed leading to a system of necessary seasonal migration for wage work practiced in order to raise rent for the conacre. This was usually the only money seen by rural poor in Ireland at the time. Other exchange was done in goods. There is much more to this very well executed essay.

Chapter 6 The Prussian Junker and Their Peasants by Hermann Rebel

This essay looks at another peasant landlord configuration this time in German history. In this look backwards, there was a system of rent that consisted of turning over to the landlord and the state a portion of the harvest, and donate a half or whole day a week in the service of the landlord. The landless peasant farmer could keep the rest of the grain crop. In sixteenth century this practice was changed. The landlords lowered the rent so not so much of the grain crop was taken, but the landlord required more labor days, and the peasant was to supply the horses for plowing putting the burden of growing feed grain on the peasant. The trade was uneven with the landlords coming out much better.

Rebel brings in the work of Hagen and his positive position of the affects of the Prussian Junket on peasant societies. Hagen said that when the terms of the Junket changed, the Prussian peasant was advantaged by the change, that the new apportionment of the grain from his labor greatly outweighed the cost of labor days that he now had to devote to his master’s operations. Rebel says that Hagen essentially produces a slight of hand in his calculations and that the trade off of more grain for the peasant compared to the amount of labor he then had to contribute was highly exploitive and did not render the peasant more solvent but less. But, then Rebel brings in other evidences that prove Hagen’s formula is flawed.

Eventually it is explained that the aristocracy mandated this change in the policy of Junkers, as the country was going bankrupt and needed the manpower and thus earning power from their labor to keep the country afloat financially (106). I had the most trouble reading and translating this essay. The language and convolutions in the wording may have blocked me from comprehending his message. This one seemed to be well written, and I am being marginalized if I am expected to have the same reading and comprehension speed as other graduate students that have had different histories and different power relationships.

Chapter 7 Prefigurations of the Vietnamese Revolution by David Hunt

Nicely laid out essay that first analyzes Wolf’s work as it related to peasant studies and its evolution from the 1960s, and how Wolf’s contribution was open minded in considered peasants as innovators and not just victims of the onslaught of Capitalist economic interests. Wolf gave a different view of the peasants of Vietnam during the war crisis that was counter to that which Americans were aware. Then, Hunt writes on the contributions of several scholars that were influenced by the works of Eric Wolf. They include Paige, Scott, and Popkin. Paige did not agree with Wolf in that he saw Vietnam peasants as powerless and “defenseless within a grid controlled by their exploiters and made no autonomous choices” (113). Scott referenced Wolf’s “Peasant Wars” in a book entitled “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” in 1976. But, as Hunt points out seemed to diverge from Wolf’s sentiments and methods. Samuel Popkin also wrongly quotes Wolf on the fixedness of agrarian values with a quote from Wolf that clearly “states that peasants could deal with crisis” (115) revealing his idea of fluidity in reaction to outside influence. Finally, Hunt talks about his observations of Vietnam today and how on a tourist excursion to the once imperial city at Hue, in the ruins of the Citadel, peasant farmers grow crops in an illegal maneuver by peasants that is for now tolerated by the urban powers.

Part III In the Market’s Web: Risk and Response

Chapter 8 From Jibaro to Crack Dealer by Philippe Bourgois

This guy moved his wife and little son into Spanish Harlem in New York for three and a half years so he could do his ethnography on Puerto Rican immigrants and the problems the young men are facing and why so many are turning to illegal activities to make ends meet. The power struggles they get into, the airs they put on in the streets, and the impotence they feel in the entry-level jobs they do not fit into were all explored by Bourgois. Bourgois describes six stages of “modes of production” (126) that Puerto Rican workers have had to adapt to over three or four generations. They came from small agricultural subsistence farming that evolved to large plantations enmeshed in capitalist enterprise for which they were required as wageworkers.

When Puerto Ricans first arrived in New York City, factory and then light industrial jobs were available for them that they readily adapted to with the production-oriented work. But during the 1970s through the 1980s the factories began to close. The new economy of New York City became white-collar type in nature, office workers, desktop publishing, etc. This new wave of employment does not suit the Puerto Ricans as they haven’t the education or social skills for it, and the power structure of the corporation is foreign to them especially with so many women in superior positions. Having failed at fitting into the new job sector, the Puerto Ricans of New York City have taken to dealing in illegal drug trafficking. This succession is well explained and elaborated in this essay with individual examples of predicaments and their ultimate manifestations. Bourgois recognizes the Puerto Ricans as an extremely vulnerable group. The turn to illegal activity as subsistence activity is both understandable through his view and also the cause of further devastation to the Puerto Rican family in New York City. This is a form of non-conformism or rebellion to the status quo is it not?

Chapter 9 The Great Bambi War by Edward C. Hansen

A refugee from New York City moves into rural New York forest. There he finds many people like him (self), employed in NYC and commuting, out in rural NY because the property is affordable for their middle class budgets, they all have high mortgages and live on credit. There is also another group of culturally different people out in the woods and they were there first. For generations this group has lived in rural New York, houses passed on from generation to generation, so the property belongs to them and not the bank. They use the forest for the resources like deer and firewood. The women cultivate acreage in vegetables and put up food for winter. Their close community is much more self-sufficient than that of the semi-professionals that commute. The middle class commuters make much more money that the backwoods “woodchucks” as he calls them, but without mortgages, growing and hunting for their own food, and having practical skill sets they can hire out to the commuters for cash under the table makes them at least equal in the amount of disposable income they have available which makes them better off! The woodchucks are not chasing the Capitalist American dream, they have the desired economic stability through land ownership, ownership of their own time, abilities that are necessary for survival such as hunting, growing of vegetal foods, and maintenance work skills. Should the inevitable Capitalist recession hit, the woodchucks are in better financial shape that their new, rural wage slave, snooty neighbors with the big mortgages and new cars. 

Chapter 10 In the Shadow of the Smokestacks by Josiah McC. Heyman

This is the story of a company town in Douglas, Arizona and the conflicts that ensued through the dispute of the townspeople against a powerful company. The company (Phelps Dodge corporation) ran a copper smelter, which had no protection for pollution. The company employed many of the townspeople, and also influenced many businesses in the town. The company owned a store through which workers could run up credit accounts for goods purchased there. So in essence, they could spend their paycheck before receiving it. From outward appearances, it looked as though the townspeople owed the company a lot. But, actually the pollution the plant spilled into the atmosphere was a concern of many. When the EPA required that the plant correct the deficiencies in pollution control or cease operations, the town’ people and environmental organizations combined to shut the company down. In the meantime, it was worthwhile for the company to continue operation of the plant for as long as possible as the plant was efficient and a profit maker. In the end, the company merely pulled out of town, the town and the town’s people meant nothing to the company and its administrators if the town was unwilling to compromise their health for jobs.

Chapter 11 Risky Business by Reina Rapp

This is about the testing of amniocentesis for genetic defects and the way in which pregnant women are presented with the information about the testing. Risk and the concept of risk is examined by Rapp, to show how risk is assessed and interpreted by people of differing backgrounds in reference to decisions made when faced with the possibility of a positive assessment in genetic testing that is now a common means of exposing birth defects that may potentially negatively affect a family and their ability to work within society. This is another excellent essay. 

Chapter 12 From Trash to Treasure by Harriet Rosenberg

Non-working housewives mobilize to stop toxic waste dumping in their areas. There is no compromising with the women on the issues of toxic waste; they do not want anything around that may harm their children. This essay refers back to Love Canal, a situation that I am familiar with, where a housing tract was built over a buried toxic waste dump. In the ensuing years, the fumes that rose to the surface emanating from the wastes buried deep in the ground began causing serious health problems for the occupants and owners of those houses. Rosenbery relates this case and others concerning pollution to “the history and the rise of the expansion of industrial capitalism” (191). Eric Wolf’s “Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century” becomes the theoretical base through which Rosenberg shows how “disempowered housewives, like peasant insurgents” (190) became the backbone of the movement against environmental pollution.

Discussion Question: Eric Wolf has a way of blending history into the analysis of present economic states. How are we to know which lines to read between, or if we are getting an appropriate vision if we bring history into ethnography since we are so enmeshed in the Capitalist system of economy?

Discussion Question: How is risk assessment related to the powerless yet resistant peasant studies of Eric Wolf? (Chapter 11 Rapp)

Discussion Question: Chapter 8 by Philip Bourgois, although I loved the writing, was extremely uncomfortable to read. First of all, he brought his wife and child into a dangerous living situation, putting him in the position of total protector, kind of a real man situation that I did not like. He was marginalizing his own family for his own gain in my opinion. Second, in the margins of the text, my comments were, in answer to some of the gripes that the young make Puerto Ricans made in excusing their incredibly poor choice to sell drugs making them exploiters of their own social network and neighborhoods, I just think that it a totally self-centered avenue to pursue. I hate people that think they are entitled to “things” whatever those things may be. These young men’s only worry is whether they are being respected, and my margin notes said things like “Gee too bad” if they had a woman boss that said they were illiterate. They were illiterate! My answer to them is “Get literate!” They don’t have the social skills. “Get some social skills!” They become a burden to society instead of contributors when they (and this is as mostly a problem of young men) seek to destroy rather that to build.


Schneider, Jane, and Rayna Rapp eds.
1995 Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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last updated on June 13, 2011