[Cross-Posted from Dead Voles]

As we think about the human economy or whether there is life outside of academia, we might consider looking more closely at some of the people around us. The events described below took place during the last two days.


Italian-American, male, age 53, married, five children. Lives in northern Virginia, USA, a few blocks from where he was born and grew up. Raised Catholic. Independent who leans Republican.

Stop for moment. Ask yourself what you think you know about my new friend Chris. Did you imagine that his parents are both Ph.D.s? That having turned down an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, he spent two years at Georgia Tech, decided he didn’t like it and came home to start his own business?

Listening to Chris describe his businesses is to hear a picaresque tale. Having learned car repair from a German neighbor, he started with a small gas station that barely paid its way. His next idea was to buy, repair and rent out used cars. That, too, didn’t get very far. Then he noticed that people who stopped by the gas station to ask directions were frequently looking for a place to fill up propane tanks for their outdoor grills. He got into the propane business, and there he prospered. The business was going so well, he was looking to expand. He found a parcel of land in an area zoned in a way that, it appeared, would allow him to operate a petroleum distribution business on it. Then, however, he ran into problems with the county government and zoning board, which denied him the right to park his propane tankers on the lot. That got him into politics. Over the past several years, he has run unsuccessfully for several different offices, from school board to county executive, and is thinking of taking a shot at Congress. Meanwhile, he had this land and the buildings on it, in to which he had sunk a lot of his capital. He was also concerned that the propane business is seasonal. The strongest demand is in the winter, for home and construction site heating. That meant having trucks and employees underutilized during the slower rest of the year. He noticed that the building boom in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in norther Virginia had created demand for stone, for fireplaces, facings, walls, and other applications. So he bought some big stone slicing and milling machines, installed them in the buildings on the property he had purchased and went into the stone business. Now, however, the economic downturn of the last few years has crushed demand for decorative stone. That business is now running at a loss. The propane business is also weak. This year’s warm winter has reduced demand in that market, too. So, what is Chris doing? He is looking for other opportunities. In the stone business, a long-time friend and best employee has self-taught himself robotics. Chris has acquired a used FANUC industrial robot that used to work on an auto assembly line. Mike, the employee, has adapted and reprogrammed it to cut stone into complex three-dimensional shapes. The company is now working on some test pieces as it goes after a contract to supply replacement stonework for the National Cathedral in Washington, which was damaged in last year’s earthquake. That will, if it comes through, put the business back in the black. Meanwhile, Chris is still constantly looking for new ways to use his equipment (trucks, forklifts, storage facilities) and employees. He is currently excited about the scrap recycling industry, envisioning use of his once-upon-a-time gas station as a deposit point and unused space at the stoneworks for storage and bailing. Why was he showing me around his businesses? He had learned from my daughter that I live in Japan and know some Chinese, and he’s heard that there is a big market for scrap in China. Who knows? I might be useful.

Today, Chris drove his biggest propane tanker to a propane terminal located about two hours from the neighborhood where he lives and I am spending a couple of months helping out with our grandchildren. He asked me if I’d like to come along. The ethnographer in me couldn’t resist. If the heart of cultural anthropology is learning how others see the world when they have very different assumptions about it, this was a great opportunity. First, there was the experience of riding in a big, cabover truck with a big propane tank on the trailer it was pulling. I was seeing Virginia highways from a perspective that years of driving on them in a car had never provided. It was, however, riding with Chris that provided the real revelation. To me, driving the same highways, trucks were just part of the traffic, an obstacle to getting where I wanted to go. To Chris, trucks are commerce. He is constantly noting where trucks are based, checking their license plates, noting the direction in which they are moving and — wherever possible — noting what they were carrying. When we stopped for diesel fuel and then at the terminal, Chris immediately started chatting with other truck drivers, asking in a friendly way where they were from, where they were going, what they were hauling, how was business these days. Back in the cab of his own truck, he explained that truck drivers are an incredible source of intelligence, valuable information for his business. He gets ideas, hears how other businesses are doing. This is one of the reasons that he likes driving his big truck himself. The other is that, while he drives, he has a space in which he think about what he is seeing and develop new plans. That is why he doesn’t usually listen to the radio and hasn’t installed CB radio with which he could chat with other truck drivers while driving. He likes being able to see and think without interruption.

To me, Chris is fascinating. Our life stories run in diametrically opposite directions. His parents had Ph.D.s and expected him to go on to higher education. He dropped out and did what he has done, instead. My parents had associate degrees from junior colleges and credentials from nursing school (my mother) and a shipyard apprentice school (my father). They expected me to go to school, study engineering (my father’s dream) and settle close to home. Philosophy, anthropology, living more than half my life in Asia—that was never their dream. Good thing, though, I had that time working in the Japanese ad agency, so I’m comfortable talking about his business with Chris. He has spent most of his life within a hundred-mile radius of where he was born. I live half a world away. But we can talk to each other. I can even imagine that understand what he’s talking about.

What were you thinking as you read the opening of this message? What are you thinking now?

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Comment by Keith Hart on March 4, 2012 at 7:54am

Sure, John. I don't like the permission culture either, but it was nice of you to ask.

I mustn't run away again, but the key is in that much-quoted, but not well understood sentence: For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. For me this means: racism is the opaque mirror of our own twisted insecurities which we project onto others using the colour of their skin, for example, as a substitute for knowing them. How much better to get to know them as human beings, starting out from the premise that they are fundamentally like us as well as infinitely varied.

When I started out as an anthropologist, I lived with poor black people in a slum with a criminal culture. I soon found out that if I didn't escape from the us/them stereotypes (I was a white, rich, overeducated kid and very lonely), I would be dead, figuratively and maybe even really. Connecting personally at a human level was a necessity and that's what I think the best fieldwork is.

Oh and I always wanted to be a truck driver, to be up there steering that massive machine, oiling the wheels of commerce, on the road, runnin' down a dream. But I never got out of school.

Comment by John McCreery on March 4, 2012 at 1:40am

Keith, your comment speaks very powerfully to a conversation I have been engaged in on Savage Minds with a young black anthropologist who calls herself "Discuss White Privilege." May I have your permission to cross-post your comment there?

Comment by Keith Hart on March 3, 2012 at 8:35pm

This post interested me when I first saw it, John, but I was spending a week with my family in the Swiss mountains. It goes very deep for me and I don't really know where to stop. First, my doctoral research was based on accumulating some 70 life histories of individuals like Chris in Ghana. It never occurred to me to present my material in any other way. But later I engaged with development economists and came up with more abstract propositions like the informal economy. Between the wars, Manchester University had the only British economic history department devoted to German methods focusing on individual business case studies. After the war both the Germans and the British bought into American social science with dubious results.

I was brought up in Manchester to eschew classification as a matter of principle. Don't think you know who someone is by the label -- Jew, Catholic, Irish, whatever, I was told. Judge him on the basis of how he treats you as an individal. Probably the single most powerful text I know is the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I think of this as an ethnographer's charter. Most of the time we are trapped in a sort of everyday racism, thinking we know people on a superficial basis. But just think what it would be like if we encountered them as they really are!

πίστις, ἐλπίς, ἀγάπη, the last coming to us through Latin as caritas, a superhuman love of humanity as equals, something to aspire to and indispensible to good fieldwork!

Of course words abstract from particulars and we would be hard up without language. But I do feel that lazy reliance on objectified cultural categories is a contemporary disease. Look at the abuses of profiling or the stultifying manufacture of consumer classes. Bureaucracy would be impossible without all this and in principle bureaucracy is a good thing. But...

I hate being typecast and I don't like an ethnographic method that relies on grouping people into classes for purposes of analysis. That's why I look to German intellectual history from the late 18th to the early 20th century. It schooled Boas, Kroeber, Lowie and their brilliant successors in American cultural anthropology. Something has gone badly wrong since then and it isn't anthropologists who are even mainly to blame.

Comment by John McCreery on February 27, 2012 at 6:58pm

Why, academically speaking, did I post this description of my new friend, Chris, on OAC? When I think about Chris in relation to anthropology, two points stick out. Chris is both problematic for anthropological theory and a role model for ethnographers.

Why problematic for anthropological theory? I find it easy as an anthropologist to talk about the state, corporations, societies, cultures or markets in terms of binary oppositions that contrast a powerful elite with a powerless, unless aroused to revolution, majority. In this conventional framing, it is hard to find a place for someone like Chris, who rebels against the socialization he received from his parents, refuses to settle down as a wage slave or serf, and does not content himself with symbolic gestures of resistance to the status quo. Instead, he looks for opportunities in the status quo and figures out how to exploit them. If we stop to think about it and take a look around us, most of us live in places where there are lots of people like Chris, entrepreneurs who start and grow small businesses, refusing to be intimidated by the powers that be, unwilling to simply do what is expected of them.

Why a role model for ethnographers? As noted in the blog post, Chris isn't content to sit at a desk and analyze whatever information his newspapers, TV or computer screen deliver to his desk. He is a participant observer who wants to see for himself what is going on in the parts of the world that interest him. He demonstrates exceptional skill in selecting and building rapport with informants, turning conversations at truck stops into market intelligence and constantly deepening understanding of the social and geographical spaces in which he operates. 


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