The year was 2005. I was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working on my BA in anthropology. This was my second year, I think, and I was taking a class called "Latino Migration to the United States." One of the main texts assigned was by anthropologist Leo Chavez. The book is called "Shadowed Lives," and is about undocumented migrants in Southern California. I spent my entire life in this part of the state, so the book was immediately intriguing. What could this anthropologist really have to say about Southern California, of all places? What's anthropological about that? I opened the book, flipped through some of the pages, and began to read what Chavez had to say. Then I noticed that he was talking about San Diego County--my county. It was getting more and more interesting, and closer to home. It gets even closer: Chavez then proceeded to mention the name of my hometown, which is one of the main settings for his ethnographic study. The book was published in 1992, when I was just another kid in high school. But these histories--the stories of these unknown people--may as well have been from another part of the world.
My copy of "Shadowed Lives," by Leo Chavez. Notice the mention of San Diego County and a few key cities in the opening lines of this chapter.
Chavez's book explores the struggles of people who lived in migrant camps tucked away in the hills. These were the landscapes that surrounded my childhood. They were always there, laden with unspoken histories and meanings that don't end up in high school classrooms. Sure, I took classes in history and social studies during high school, but the people in Chavez's book were strangely absent. This, even though they were a vital part of the community, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not. Back in 1992 I was 17 only years old; I knew a little bit about these migrant populations, but not much. They were like secrets, left on the edges, swept aside since they were a bit uncomfortable or disconcerting to think about. Their stories opened up unwanted reminders about inclusion, exclusion, justice, and power. What defines a community? Who belongs, and who is cast aside? These were stories that didn't exactly fit the narratives that my town liked to tell about itself. Our historical society liked to talk about the origin story of the city itself in a way that avoided any sort of critical look at the past. It all sounded so nice, progressive, and clean--from the 1800s to the present it was one smooth, glossy story. There wasn't much mention of Native Americans, let alone the intertwined histories with the people who came from our southern neighbor, Mexico.
Such silenced histories serve particular purposes, of course. Reading Chavez's book was frustrating, shocking, intriguing, and inspiring at once for me. It was frustrating to learn more about the lives of those people thirteen years after the fact. Why had I never heard about any of this, I often wondered? Where were these stories and histories when I was filling in bubble sheets and taking ACT tests in high school? But the experience was also a game-changer for me: If Chavez could tell me this much about my own hometown through anthropology, then imagine what else could be done. Reading that book was decisive, and it helped to completely transform how I think about the relationships between history, politics, and community.
For me, Chavez's book dramatically expanded my social and political world. It literally took a place that I thought I had known so well, and told me about a whole layer of hidden histories. It blew apart the myopic, sanitized histories of my own past, my own community. To me, this is the purpose of anthropology. Precisely. Sidney Mintz once argued that anthropologists might be able to solidify its "sense of purpose" through deeper "studies of the everyday in modern life" (in Sweetness and Power, 1986: 213). I could not agree more--this is exactly what Chavez accomplished with his studies about migrant populations. The purpose of anthropology is to interrogate the boundaries that separate the people with history from the People without History. We have an imperative to ask why these boundaries exist, and to detail the structures that keep them in place. Even more, the goal is to seek out the cracks and passageways that exist in these self-imposed social walls, and to find ways to break through the social, historical, and geographic divisions that pervade our contemporary lives. As Mintz and Chavez powerfully demonstrate, such a project can begin the seemingly innocuous details of our own communities and backyards--and extend outward from there. That, for me, is the purpose of anthropology, and it is what gives the discipline a relevance for audiences far beyond the halls of academia.
The rest of this issue explores the purpose of anthropology from a wide variety of perspectives. We have essays from Daniel Lende, John Sherry, Simone Abram, Jason Antrosio, Sarah Williams, John Hawks, and Jeremy Trombley. We also have an interview with Adam Fish, which explores some of his thoughts about the discipline of anthropology, and the intersections of media, power, and technology in his research. I am also adding an open thread section where readers can join in with the discussion (in addition to the comments on each post), and add their own views about the "purpose of anthropology" (here's the link again, just in case you missed it). Use this page to post your own answer to this question..whether in 10 words or 2000. You can even post anonymously if you wish. But I encourage you to take part in the overall conversation here--and continue it elsewhere. That's the whole point of a project like this. Also, I wanted to say thanks to everyone for taking part in this issue. I know that life is really busy around this time of year, so I appreciate you all taking the time to help out with this project. Last but not least, thanks Sarah and Veronica for all of your continued help with all of the ideas, editing, and organization of these issues. Thanks!