Pride and Mother-in-Law Relations

Pride Goes before the Fall—of the Discipline?

As anthropologists, we pride ourselves on exposing injustices and fighting for what is right. So, why have we not better organized as individuals, the AAA, and anthropology departments to right the wrong of overproducing PhDs in a rapidly shrinking job market where exploited adjuncts do half the teaching?

Dear Pride,

To be a bit Beastie about it, you’ve got to fight for your right to anthropologize.

The problem is well-defined. Our tragicomic tale of disenfranchisement, devaluation, mass overproduction, and industry destabilization has filled the pages of this venerable publication, Anthropology News, for decades. We are, as a field, poor, broken, powerless, and competing for terrible jobs.

The gatekeepers to resources gaslight us by asking, “Why should we use anthropology?” We take their question too seriously. Our department webpages, editorials, projects, and grants are filled with encomiums about broader impacts, the need to be “with the people,” and proclamations about the virtues of qualitative research. In the meantime, other disciplines embraced our methods and our theories and mapped them onto their own training programs, thereby filling the anthropological slot. So then what are we? How do we fit into the rest of the world that holds needed resources?

Instead of answering the question “Why is anthropology important?” anthropologists need to shift the frame to ask, “How is anthropology going to work in this situation, to fill this need, at this time?” Anthropologists can organize around the question of “how” to best serve a broader objective in any given scenario because the material, discursive, and institutional constraints are knowable, and therefore actionable.

This fight should be the work and the goal of social science policy. There is a well-defined place in the world for science policy, economic policy, and social [welfare] policy—all of which put the service of the discipline to the systematic redress of real-world challenges. Anthropological activism needs to be wedded to solutions, and taking the hard risks that come with mucking about in the space of politics. We can be critical and independent, and still be of service to goals greater than our own.

To get there, we need to know what we stand for; which principles are non-derogable. Is it open access to research? Early integration into national policy development? Better academic working conditions? Ivory tower independence?

Whatever the answers are, we know the old ways aren’t working. I stand with you in the fight. Fight on, Pride. Fight on.

AnthroVice


Rules for Mother-In-Law Relations

Can anyone provide any explanation or references on the widespread practice of mother-in-law avoidance in tribal societies?

Dear Avoidant,

The old structuralists considered the mother-in-law relationship to be one that was inherently morally dangerous and filled with instability. Mother-in-law avoidance was meant to be a way of maintaining respect, and avoiding danger. Some cultures have special words just for the relationships between in-laws, like the Yiddish concept of “machetunim”; while others have highly structured rules for engagement in the fraught mother-in-law relationship.

But perhaps we should recast the question, especially in light of the recent winter holiday season—a time when mothers-in-law abound in every corner of our cozy little hearths and homes. Either mother-in-law avoidance isn’t solely evident in tribal societies, or all societies are inherently tribal, because it’s everywhere in this society.

Consider these lovely chestnuts from the United States:

“Behind every successful man is a proud wife and a surprised mother-in-law.”
—Hubert Humphrey

“Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.”
—H.L. Mencken

“I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said, ‘Get the hell off my property.’”
—Joan Rivers

Mothers-in-law are powerful, formidable keepers of the heart of the one you love. Mothers-in-law have valid social claims to most of your resources, including your children, home, and time. A few words from her can turn an otherwise competent man into a whiny five year old or turn a strong, capable woman into a tremulous preteen. Perhaps this is the reason why mother-in-law avoidance—and mother-in-law tributes—are such pervasive practices.

AnthroVice

Cite as: AnthroVice. 2018. “Pride and Mother-in-Law Relations.” Anthropology News website, February 12, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.765

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