Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

A review of my 2012 book Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy: Bureaucratizing the Child was just published in Contemporary Sociology. The book review was generally pretty nice—so I recommend people read it (sorry to non-university people, it’s mostly behind a paywall). The reviewer highlighted Chapter 4 which is about child development in the context of standardized school grades as being particularly noteworthy. Here is a brief extract from that chapter.  You can read a pre-publication version of Chapter 1 here.


Leaky First Graders, Defiant Teenagers, Jocks, and Nerds

 Standardizing Childhood and Normative

Childhood Development


There are formal and informal curricula in schools. The formal curriculum is typically spelled out in the form of standards, goals, objectives, rules, laws, and other bureaucratic markers that Durkheim described as pedagogy. But the pedagogy also includes an implicit hidden curriculum as well. The hidden curriculum is focused on reproducing society, including the status quo with its preexisting power relations as a coherent system in which citizens generate a faith in its basic moral orientations.


This includes what Bourdieu called practice and habitus, and it is discussed in some of the short-hand terms described in this chapter, like leaky first graders, defiant teenagers, jocks, and nerds….


Normative Child Development

The standardized school curriculum has embedded in it implicit assumptions about what a normative childhood will be. Rooted in it are moral assumptions about social development, learning capacity, and even brain development. Within this moral calculation, particular types of social relationships, learning, and brain change are regarded as age appropriate and normal, while the exceptions are defined as abnormal or even deviant. But this is always a contested realm, as the habitus of past identities and “group position” remembered by the powerful adults who create the schools. For this reason “child development” is always defined relative to a broader cultural standard. These are all embedded in what Durkheim called values and morality.


A useful way to ask about this is to focus on the basis for normative behavior. Where do ideas about what is normative come from? Look inside an adult, and the socialization that defined them as a child: perhaps a leaky first grader, cute third grader, cliquish middle schooler, or defiant hedonistic teenager remain. These preexisting categories are waiting in the habitus of the culture to be passed on to the next generation as surely as literacy, numeracy, and patriotism. Politicians and school administrators, not scientists, are charged with identifying what is regarded as normal child development and, by implication, what is abnormal. The consensus they develop is the basis for the planned scientific curriculum, which is age-graded so it can be adapted to the goals of the school. Ultimately it is a sociocultural assertion about what is normal, i. e., the “One Best System of Childhood” (see Fuller 2007, xi–xiii). This in turn is embedded in a school bureaucracy in various forms including calculable test scores, rationalized rules, and law.


In the rationalized United States, this resulted in typologies that tie specific ages to normative developmental skills. Underpinning this are patterned social and physiological changes, with which any curriculum—explicit or hidden—must negotiate. In turn are created cultural expectations that are embedded in the ostensibly scientific curricula, school rules, and education policies. Thus created is a paradox in how schools and childhood are administered. Bureaucracies assume predictability and constancy in human behavior because such an assumption is well suited to bureaucratic action and is rooted in behavioristic expectations. In this context, incentives and sanctions are so readily adaptable to bureaucratic planning. Bureaucratic planning embedded in such behaviorism happens even though the most modern insights of physiology, learning theory, psychology, and sociology indicate that human development cognition, inequality, etc. are more central to understanding human behavior than behaviorism. Thus the models that one is likely to learn in a university class based on “the latest research,” are different than the ones assumed by a school principal trying to maneuver a school of dozens of teachers, and hundreds (or thousands) of students through the days of the school year….


Goldstein et al (1996, 9) describe why children are different from adults in their book The Best Interests of the Child: The Least Detrimental Alternative :


1) Unlike adults, children change constantly, from one stage of growth to another. They change with regard to their understanding of events, their tolerance for frustration, and their needs for and demands on parents care for support, stimulation, guidance and restraint . . .


2) Unlike adults, who measure the passing of time by clock and calendar, children have their own built-in time sense, based on the urgency of their instinctual and emotional needs, and on the limits of their cognitive capacities . . .


3) Unlike adults, young children experience events as happening solely with reference to their own persons . . .


4) Unlike adults, children are governed in much of their functioning by the irrational part of their minds—their primitive wishes and impulses . . .


5) Unlike adults, children have no psychological conception of the bloodtie relationships until quite late in their development . . . What matters to them is the pattern of day-to-day interchanges with adults who take care of them . . .


(Slightly edited version of pp. 81-83 Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child by Tony Waters, 2012.  And a brief note to fans of Herbert Blumer: Yes, the mention of “group position” is a reference to Blumer’s 1958 article, “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.”)




Mission Statements: Elite Harvard, Middle-Class Chico, and Working-Class Butte College

Schooling Childhood Cover

Education is an inherent paradox. At its most explicit, it assumes that students are trained for a fair, meritocratic, and competitive labor market in which learning is valued without reference to who they are or their social connections. This is why fair markets are “anonymous”….

But schools do not operate in anonymous markets. Schools emphasizing the visible honors of academic achievement, teacher-student relationships, are often the opposite. The tensions between the utility of skills in an anonymous labor market while monopolizing the distribution of visible status honors in the broader community is at the heart of the educational enterprise (see Weber 1920/2010).

As anyone who has ever perused US News and World Reports college rankings issue knows, raw anonymous human capital is not the only thing peddled at elite colleges—so are “connections,” status, and habitus of elites. Ross Douthat [currently an influential New York Times columnist], in fact addressed this tension—that between visible honors and the anonymous labor market in which productivity is the measure—at Harvard University. He concluded that any success he would have in the future was related to connections as much as anything else:


I understood the secret of Harvard’s success—which is that it doesn’t end with college, that it still exists out in the wider world, and that all of my adult life, all the people I would know, the jobs I might have, and the worlds I would conquer, would be nothing more than an extension of my four years in Cambridge . . . Harvard had made me to be elite and connected, and successful, to be inside, you might say . . .(Douthat 2005, 250).


[For Douthat, being inside included an internship at the National Review, and a trip on William F. Buckley’s boat where they went skinny dipping together, a rite of male bonding]  In other words, education at Harvard is not simply about the creation of skills, brain power, and the wisdom as sorted out in an anonymous meritocracy; it is, as Bourdieu wrote, also about the dominant preserving the dominant. Elites depend on institutions like Harvard to create the habits and symbols with which they can recognize each other. These symbols determine which worlds can be conquered. The Harvard pin is ultimately about inclusion for insiders who share and recognize a style of life, and exclude the rest of us.

And such habits echo downward in the stratification system. Just like the Harvard pin, the symbols, habits, and styles of life of working and middle class lives described in Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods:


Class, Race, and Social Life reproduce social class among middle- and working-class children in Pennsylvania. The difference is that the elite set the standards that reflect the overall shape of the status pyramid. Harvard sets the tone for the game; what is valued at the top reflects downward, shaping the habitus of those lower down and what they think, say, and do.


Mission Statements: Elite, Middle Class, and Working Class

Despite Ross Douthat’s bluntness about understanding ”the secret of success” being rooted in Harvard’s role in sorting people, there is nothing about elite exclusivity in the mission statement of Harvard College. Instead qualities like productive cooperation, full participation, and even the liberation of students (or at least Harvard’s students) is emphasized, even as they try to sneak in a statement about “self-reliance.” In fact the entire subject is missing of elites, buried in abstract statements about the centrality of advancement, encouragement, and rejoicing about responsibility:


The Mission of Harvard College

Harvard College adheres to the purposes for which the Charter of 1650 was granted: “The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the . . . youth of this country. . . .” In brief: Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities. To these ends, the College encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought; to pursue excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions. Harvard seeks to to remove restraints on students’ full participation, so that individuals may explore their capabilities and interests and may develop their full intellectual and human potential. Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead. The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built: Harvard expects that the scholarship and collegiality it fosters in its students will lead them in their later lives to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society. (http://www. harvard.edu/siteguide/faqs/faq110.php)


Harvard’s latent mission is very clearly an elite one, untethered to the pragmatic utilitarian goals of a more anonymous marketplace as, say, the community college system, where the message is about “skills,” and not “responsibility.”


Butte College provides quality education, services, and workforce training to students who aspire to become productive members of a diverse, sustainable, and global society. We prepare our students for life-long learning through the mastery of basic skills, the achievement of degrees and certifications, and the pursuit of career and transfer pathways.


Or at the middle class Chico State where I teach, just down the road from working class Butte College, where a middle ground is sought in which graduates will both assume responsibility and also be “useful”:


California State University, Chico is a comprehensive university principally serving Northern California, our state and nation through excellence in instruction, research, creative activity, and public service. The University is committed to assist students in their search for knowledge and understanding and to prepare them with the attitudes, skills, and habits of lifelong learning in order to assume responsibility in a democratic community and to be useful members of a global society. (emphasis added)


…[But] [t]he missions of Butte College and Chico State do not exist in a vacuum, because middle-class values are profoundly influenced by the actions, wants, and needs of those above them and even those at social distant Harvard. Robert Frank’s book Falling Behind (2007) is among the most articulate in describing the very nature of economic inequality and the ideological interrelationships that develop in a fashion that, in Bourdieu’s words, “are identical to the interests of the dominant.” In other words the values of Chico State satisfy the needs of Harvard for midlevel managers who will be “useful members of a global society.” And finally down to the graduates of Butte College who can do the tasks that require “mastery of basic skills” and are needed by those above them in the system of hierarchical dominance….

Source; Tony Waters, Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Palsgrave Books 2012.  Pages 112-115.

Gallows Tale V: Did Tanganyika’s Hangmen Go on Strike in 1924-1926?


Gallows File I The Extra “Whack”

Gallows File II Escape?

Gallows File III Are We Hanging the Right Man?

Gallows File IV The Advantages of Executing Locally!

Gallows File V: Did Tanganyika’s Hangmen Go on Strike?


It must be remembered that quite apart from the question of gallows, the difficulty of persons to carry out the executions is exceedingly acute. A great number of people have the greatest abhorrence of the job, and no compulsion can be used where there is any conscientious objection. In Kenya, the Prison staff decline altogether to undertake the work and they have the greatest difficult in finding a hangman. It has always been surprising to me that so many of our staff have undertaken the work without complaint, as I now the majority dislike it. At Bukoba it has been found impossible to carry out the executions on the gallows there for the last two years, because the Prison officials who have happened to be stationed there have had strong scruples against acting as executioner.

This is my last of the Gallows Tales of Tanganyika Territory, at least for a while. And as with most endings, there is a surprise. Which is that, after enthusiastically designing, gallows with humane trap doors, calculating the savings from having hangings done locally rather than across Lake Victoria, worrying about hanging the wrong man, and speculating that a man marched five weeks to the gallows might be a flight risk, the bureaucrats of the Office of the Commissioner of Police and Prisons missed one thing that could break down the whole system: The lack of hangmen. You see, after an enthusiastic push to construct gallows (stationery and mobile), and proceed post-haste with executions, they soon found out that the job of hangman was objectionable—and that the fees they paid were inadequate to keep the trap doors swinging downwards.

In the memo below from 1926, the Commissioner of Police and Prisons laments this condition, which according to some documents was due to an insistence that only a European operate the trap door (Africans were used to truss and bind the prisoner as well as position him on the trap door—but the final flip of the trap door was the responsibility of a European). But no Europeans could apparently be found to do this, at least for a short time. So thus after the enthusiastic kick off of hangings in Bukoba in 1923, by 1924 a de facto moratorium was declared due to the lack of willing hangmen. The same happened in British Kenya, according to the memo.

This was not of course the complete end to hanging in British East Africa (i.e. Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika). Indeed, a whole book, The History of the Hanged, has been written about how enthusiastically the British executed purported Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s. But at least in this small corner of East Africa, apparently the strike of the hangmen led to at least a temporary moratorium in 1924-1926. The memo is below. Tony Waters.



DAR ES SALAAM 11TH January 1926



Telegrams: Crime                                                      Registered No. H.Q. 27/71

Telephone: No. 73


The Hon’ble


The Chief Secretary to the Government,



Execution Gallows


With reference to your 3093/56 dated 8/1/26, gallows have been erected at Morogoro, Lindi, Tanga, Mwanza, Bukoba, Songea and Tukuyu.


  1. The following list shows the districts which they serve:-


Execution Gaol Districts Served
Morogoro Daressalaam, Bagamolyo, Kilwa, Utete, Morogoro, Kilosa, Dodoma, Iringa,
Tabora Mahenge and Kigoma ?Ufipa
Lindi Lindi
Tanga Tanga
Mwanza Mwanza
Bukoba Bukoba
Songea Songea
Tukuyu Tukuyu


  1. There should of course, be a gallows at Dar-es-Salaam, but with the present construction of the gaol it is impossible as there is no space available, and the situation in the middle of the commercial and partly European residential area makes such a course undesirable.


  1. I think that perhaps a permanent gallows might be erected at Tabora to serve Tabora and Kigoma and Ufipa districts; otherwise, so far as the stations off the line are concerned at which there are no gallows, the number of executions is negligible. It would be possible, also, to keep a portable gallows at Dar-es-Salaam for transport, as required, to Bagamoyo, Utete, or Kilwa, but in other cases I do not think the number o executions, elsewhere, makes such a course necessary.


  1. It must be remembered that quite apart from the question of gallows, the difficulty of persons to carry out the executions is exceedingly acute. A great number of people have the greatest abhorrence of the job, and no compulsion can be used where there is any conscientious objection. In Kenya, the Prison staff decline altogether to undertake the work and they have the greatest difficult in finding a hangman. It has always been surprising to me that so many of our staff have undertaken the work without complaint, as I now the majority dislike it. At Bukoba it has been found impossible to carry out the executions on the gallows there for the last two years, because the Prison officials who have happened to be stationed there have had strong scruples against acting as executioner.


  1. In conclusion, I consider the present unsatisfactory position cold be ameliorated by erecting another gallows at Tabora; (this will entail erecting a new building completely) and by providing a portable gallows at Dar-es-Salaam




signed (illegible)

Tanganyika Polic

National Adjunct Walkout Day #NAWD

I started adjuncting in spring 2006, about two weeks after turning in my MA thesis at California State University, Chico. I was hired to teach sociology by an Anthropology professor I’d taken in grad school who was also the chair of the social and behavioral sciences (SBS) department at Butte Community College. I reread my journal from that time and oh man, I was so happy to have a job right out of grad school.

But my happiness lasted only a brief period and right away I learned how easily adjuncts are hired and fired. The Friday before the spring semester began, the SBS department secretary called me and left me a voicemail at home stating that I was not going to be able to teach that Monday, no reason given and no request to call back if I wanted more information. I got on the phone quick, spoke to the chair of SBS at Butte College and learned I was deemed not “equivalent” because my MA was in Social Science not Sociology.

This was my introduction to the world of adjuncting. I was lucky, I knew a thing or two about California law and contracts and I had already signed mine, so I pushed back. I spent my first semester on pins and needles trying to gain equivalency to teach in the field I studied. I was granted equivalency in fall 2006, but only after fighting and writing lots of emails.

Today, adjuncts across the United States are staging walk-outs, teach-ins, and other types of action to bring attention to the adjunct plight. Adjuncts are precarious workers and even though I had no clue I was an adjunct when I was hired, it didn’t take long to learn I was on the shit end of the stick. I worked in low wage service work before I went back to school in my 30’s; I know what precarity feels like.

Precarity feels like shit. Dignity and shame are emotions adjuncts have to manage. It hurts them, hurts students, and is an illustration of the tremendous inequity in higher education; it is a two-tier system where (in this case) a set of workers do the exact same job but one group for far less in earnings and benefits; Weber called this status inconsistency: “a situation where an individual’s social position have both positive and negative influences on his or her social status.” For example, professor’s have a positive image imbued with respect and prestige, things that enhance status. At the same time, they earn little money and lack benefits and power.  Sound familiar?

I miss teaching though, I quit in June 2012, which you can read about here (good old fashioned quit lit). I’ve tried to get back into teaching (with eyes wide open, whatever that means) but no such luck. I did get a call from one of my old Dean’s in January; he’s working at Woodland Community College now. They needed someone to teach 1 soc class (and Woodland is a 90 minute drive from my house). I also got a voicemail from their 1 fulltime soc prof, “Hey Julie, this is so-and-so, I’m calling to talk about this position, really hoping you can help us out.” Help them out, hmpph. I sent a text to my former dean, “if you had more than one class…” and then I felt like shit. Why couldn’t I just say ‘No” or “Are you shitting me, you want me to drive 3 hrs a day for a hundred bucks minus taxes?”

Anyway, I came across this old rant I wrote in 2008, 2 years into teaching and in the thick of my growing consciousness about inequality in the academic workplace. I’m sure there are some inaccuracies but I certainly captured the frustration I felt and saw then and I see in other adjuncts now. Reasonably so, no one tells us about aduncting in grad school, we get worked by our tenured profs and every year fresh-faced, excited academics get churned into the murky waters of contingent labor for the system to feed off of like chum. And yeah, some tenured folk get it but for the most part, they are as rare as unicorns. If the tenured really want to help then please challenge the apathy and comfort zones of your tenured colleagues and administrators. Being an ally means you’re gonna get dirty, you might even get yourself stigmatized like us; but at least you’re doing the right thing.

Wages, Benefits, and Respect…oh my! (2008)


Here’s the facts: Temporary instructors earn less than fast food restaurant managers and slightly more than some of our students. The students don’t know the difference between a temporary worker and a full-time prof until I tell them this: Last year, I worked an average of 50 hours a week teaching, preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading papers…I earned, for all these efforts, about $21,000 and zero benefits, save the two personal days we’re allotted each year. And I’m one of the lucky ones, privileged to be married to a guy who makes a decent income so I can do what I love. I think about my part-time colleagues, raising families as single parents, spouses laid off, some teaching 7 classes at three colleges and holding office hours when we are paid for only 4.5 hours a semester, literally, educators as grunts, working the front lines of this system.

We know the system doesn’t give a rat, many of us don’t expect it to…but our full-time colleagues, oh how it hangs in the air between us. Someone said to me recently, “You’ll see when you get a tenured position.” In other words, selling out is inevitable…but is it? So many of these folks are Boomers who fought for civil rights, labor rights…now they drive BMW’s and Mercedes and say they’re “too busy,” or “swamped” to share my concerns, what the hell happened? I’m Gen X, so let me tell you, they got a “taste.” And when you get a taste, the money, the status…it must all be too much…for some.

But back to my point…if we temps are treated unequally–and the pay and benefits are only a piece, lack of respect within the system is abundant–how does this affect students? though I love teaching, I think the tenure system and concurrent part-time pool work against student success. I know TENURE, what the hell am I thinking attacking that when I might have it some day? Usually, the words, “Would you give up your academic freedom?” follows this comment. Yes, we part-timers are limited in that area anyway but this is not an academic freedom issue, it is a labor issue.

The Ultimate Privilege

My mother would have called me a picky eater, if the term had been popular when I was a kid in the early 1980s; instead, people often said I was spoiled. I turned my nose up to onions, didn’t care for orange juice, and had a physical aversion to ground meat (that was my mother’s fault, though; she brainwashed me to believe, from a very young age, that ground meat was dirty). Many years later, and after a couple of near death experiences, I realized that my aversion to onions was actually an allergy and oranges cause anaphylactic response in me. It only takes a few times of not being able to breathe after inhaling orange vapor that the light bulb clicks on and you realize maybe you shouldn’t eat oranges. Or be near them. Or be in the same room when someone is peeling one.

Even my three children, as young as 4 years old, notify servers at restaurants, “no onions or oranges on my mom’s plate, please. She’s ‘lergic.”

Food allergy is real and deadly; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

When I was a kid, food allergies were often seen as children being “spoiled” and ungrateful. They were terms I didn’t understand. I had violent physical reactions to certain foods; why would anyone think that I was “spoiled” if I didn’t like oranges because they made me vomit?

I know food allergies. Let me make this clear: the following is NOT about people with food allergies.

We’ve largely lost the term “spoiled” when describing a child who refuses to eat certain foods, mostly due to a better understanding of food allergies, and I would argue that that is a positive step forward for kids everywhere. But I’ve noticed a trend since my daughter was born almost 7 years ago that has made me rethink the phenomena of picky eaters. I used to think that picky eaters were like me: they didn’t like a certain food because they probably had an allergy or sensitivity to the food. But more recently, “picky eaters” seem to be everywhere, and at a much higher rate than what is statistically possible to account for food allergy. An estimated 1 in every 13 children in the U.S. has a mild to severe food allergy; in the real world, I see a much higher rate than that of children who refuse to eat certain, common foods in America. My theory about picky eaters having undiagnosed food allergies just doesn’t fit.

I’ve spent the last quarter century raising and feeding children. No, I am not a nutritionist, but I am a sociologist who studies the Sociology of Agriculture and Food; I watch for patterns in food consumption both at the macro and micro level. I’ve watched my kids and other children’s food habits long enough to notice different patterns.

My kids have fairly broad palates, despite my own issues with certain foods, and in fact, they’ll actually tease me about how tasty burgers are and laugh when I say, “no thanks!” They’ll eat everything from Octopus to hot dogs at the ball park, Brussels sprouts to beets and everything in between. I’m grateful that my kids have broad palates.

But in other kids, I see, what I would identify, as narrow eating patterns.

As example, my husband and I visited family members a few years ago and the only thing their 5 and 8 year old children would eat were things that were orange. And protein shakes. Grilled cheese sandwich? It’s orange: yes. Quesadilla? It’s orange: yes. Mac and cheese? Yep. Chicken nuggets? Of course, they’re orange, but only the ones that come frozen in bags. So while the parents and my family (except me, I just ate salad) ate amazing homemade meat loaf, the mom made grilled cheese sandwiches for the kids.

I thought this family was an anomaly, and then I started hearing stories and complaints from other families. Many of my friends with children report feeling like short order cooks, because they make different meals for each family member, every night, because no one will eat the same thing as another family member. Child only likes chicken nuggets and carrot sticks? That’s what he or she has every night. For a year. Narrow eating. 

Look at a child’s menu in most American restaurants and you’ll see the same, unhealthy items repeatedly, despite going to restaurants of varying national or ethnic origin. What are the most common menu items at major chain restaurants in the U.S.? Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken tenders, french fries, and macaroni and cheese. Narrow eating.

But guess what? At home, children eat largely those same foods: pizza, chicken nuggets, and pasta (macaroni and cheese) are among the top ten most common foods children eat in America.

We’ve created a generation, or maybe two generations, of narrow palates where children and adults prefer to eat only a narrow scope of food, and because we live in the land of plenty, we have the ability to turn our noses up to other food.

A few years ago, I started feeling weird about this trend, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable with children refusing to eat food that was offered to them in the course of a regular meal if they didn’t have allergies to that food. For what it’s worth, I do make accommodations for my kids, as long as they still eat what I serve at dinner. You don’t like ranch dressing on your salad? Fine, you get to choose your own dressing. But you’ll still eat the salad. And no, there is no other food option in the house.

A few nights ago, I served my family beef stew with cooked carrots, potatoes, and celery. As I set a plate of food in front of my nearly 7 year old daughter, a very interesting thing happened.

“Do I have to eat the carrots?” she asked me, her arm draped across her forehead in despair. I stopped serving the other plates, and had an epiphany moment and realized, ‘ah, this is why I am uncomfortable with children refusing food. This child is ungrateful. She is privileged, and is ungrateful.’ The thought occurred to me, ‘this is what it means to be spoiled. This is what everyone was talking about when I was a child. They didn’t realize certain food made me sick; they thought I was ungrateful for what was offered to me.”

That epiphany moment began several months ago, when I happened on a book I was reviewing for one of the classes I teach. I am interested in Southeast Asia, and so when looking for new books on the topic, found a memoir titled, When Broken Glass Floats. The book begins in Cambodia just prior to the Khmer Rouge occupation in the mid 1970s. For 5 years, the book follows a pre-teen girl as she is forced from her comfortable city life, into the work camps under the Khmer Rouge, and finally, to freedom. I thought I would learn about the politics of the Khmer Rouge, but instead, I learned about real privilege, or the lack thereof. The book is a testament to the will to survive, and a stark glimpse into the tactics of starvation and work used by the Khmer Rouge to control the people of Cambodia. It is a heartbreaking account of children stealing away from their huts in the middle of the night to hunt for food, of pilfering more broth to curb their growling stomachs, of praying for death to end the suffering. It is here, in these pages, that I cried at the thought of my own three children being worked and starved to death, separated from their family.

Slowly, we wade in, with both hands stretching the mosquito net open. The pan floats in front of the net, guided by the arching top of it. Our plan is to scoop the net up beneath the branches. The fish are usually there during the day when it’s hot. Under her breath, Ra whispers urgently to me to hand over the pan. After pushing the pan to Ra, I reach out to touch the dark shadow in the center of the net, wondering what we’ve caught.


“Prawns, lots of prawns!” Ra’s excited.


The thought of prawns lifts up my spirit. I can’t wait until we finish fishing. Hungry, Ra and I eat some. I grab a few from the pan and shove them in my mouth. They struggle, their tails flick against my tongue. Some are the size of my little finger. Others are bigger.

But it is also here that I saw how privileged we are, that we have a safe home, and abundant food. And that is a privilege.

My children will often try to bargain with me to not eat certain foods, and eat other food instead (“no carrots, but I’ll eat the potatoes, Mom”), and even decline healthy meals at home if they know they are headed to school, where they will be offered more palatable food. They know there will always be enough food, and so they decline food; that is privilege.

As my daughter stared disdainfully at the plate of food I had prepared for her, a plate that will likely never be empty, I contemplated how to respond to her.

I wanted to tell her, “Evelyn, darling, you are privileged. You are so privileged that your belly has never felt the real pangs of hunger, that you’ve never had to go without a meal, that you’ve never had to beg for food, that you have the choice of a hundred different items of food in our home. You are so privileged to live in a home where your parents have been privileged with the opportunities presented to them, so they could provide for you. You are so privileged, that you turn your nose up to food when millions of others would grovel for a bite, just one bite, of what you have.”

As I suppressed my urge to tell my daughter of her privilege, I realized that “picky” eating, narrow eating, is not picky at all: it is privileged. My children, and I, have the luxury of choosing not to eat, if the smell is off or the texture is wrong or the temperature is slightly too cold. There will always be more food to choose from either now or in the very near future. We are privileged.

“Evelyn, be grateful for what you have,” I tell my daughter, “others don’t have even this.” She stares at me uncertainly, picks at her food with her fork, and finally eats her carrots.

It is a privilege to reject that which would sustain life for others, and to look disdainfully on it, and be ungrateful in the face of it. That is the ultimate privilege.

The Order of the Eternal Social Conscience, Part 4

The Order of the Eternal Social Conscience, Part 4


A Ghostly Play in Five Acts


Karl Marx, of London, England

Max Weber, of Heidelberg, Germany

Emile Durkheim of Paris, France

W.E.B. DuBois of Atlanta, USA


Special Guest Appearance

Charles Dickens of London


As Narrated to Jerri Bedwell of California, USA

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Act 4



…Strictly in a business point of view… (A Christmas Carol)

            This perhaps the most haunting part of our tale when Scrooge, who by now we have come to sympathize with, learns what a mess he has made of his life and what his impact on others has been. He learns that those businessmen he tried to seem so upright for, barely acknowledged his passing.

            “He knew these men, also, perfectly. They were men of aye business: very wealthy, and of great importance. He had made a point always of standing well in their esteem: in a business point of view, that is; strictly in a business point of view.

            “How are you?” said one.

            “How are you?” returned the other.

            “Well!” said the first. “Old Scratch has got his own at last, hey.”

            “So I am told,” returned the second. “Cold, isn’t it.”

            “Seasonable for Christmas time. You’re not a skater, I suppose?”

            “No. No. Something else to think of. Good morning.”

            Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.” (Dickens)

“The lessons, of having wasted his life and misused his power and influence are starting to set in” observes Weber:

            “This answer is indeed the single actual motivation, and it immediately renders obvious the irrationality, from the point of view of one’s personal happiness, of this way of organizing life: people live for their business rather then the reverse. (Weber, The Spirit of Capitalism, p. 31)

“The man is seeing the error of his ways,” ends Weber.

Dickens goes on to describe how those that take the most intimate care of Scrooge, upon learning of his death, take all that they can to sell, all the while gossiping and passing judgment on him. Scrooge still does not quite realize at this point — or perhaps doesn’t want to realize — that he is witnessing his own possible future. As he is confronted with his own shrouded corpse, you feel sorry for the grouchy old man and yet horrified when he asks the specter of the future:

“If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death,” said Scrooge quite agonised, “Ahow that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you.” (Dickens)

What does he receive as an answer to his request? He is taken to a family, who is able to take comfort in his death because they know whoever becomes their new creditor is likely to be kinder then Scrooge was. Scrooge learns of Tiny Tim’s death, and still he cannot accept his own passing until he is face to face with his grave. Then in a plea for his soul and his life, his sacred and profane selves, his desire to shed his evil misdeeds and make right to society he calls out:

            “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!” (Dickens)


Act 5

The Leaving


We must leave this place

            The thinkers postulate over whether or not one must face death for redemption, or if it is possible simply to learn from ones mistakes. They acknowledge that in Dickens’ tale, the transformation was complete for Ebenezer. They wish society and politicians and moguls could all undergo such transformations. The conversation continues as we begin to fade. We know that change is possible and that all is seldom lost. We know that Tim and Scrooge live long and happy lives and we feel blessed, every one of us. We have now become members of the Order, with our minds and hearts filled with knowledge. We must leave this parlor and make our own transformations happen.

The End


The PhD as an Existential Question???

Originally published here at e.com in August 2012. 

To PhD or not to PhD, that is that a question for you?  Well, at Ethnography.com we have years of unsolicited advice to those of wondering if all the uncertainties of grad school are for you or not.

For example those of you have lousy grades for any number of reasons, and question not your own capacity, but that of your chosen profession to give your application a second look, check out “Can Bad Grades and Graduate School Go Together?”  The answer of course is a resounding YES!  But it is not so YES! As if you had better grades.  But what is done is done, so push on.

But let’s say that you’re already in grad school, have a stellar g.p.a. and the luminaries of anthropology are throwing research assistantships, graduate fellowships, and closing in on the Master’s.  Is it ok to bail, and take another path? For you, too, we at Ethnography.com have.  Check out “Why I chose not to get a PhD” by one of our more erudite bloggers.

Or maybe you’re an adjunct faculty member, working in a community college or as a university lecturer. No matter how excellent a professor or how hard you work, you are treated as a second class citizen by tenured peers and administration alike. If this is you we here at e.com know your pain and alienation, our blogger Marianne Paiva writes about this in “Second-Class PhD.”

Finally, perhaps you are finally closing in on that PhD and realize that the brass ring of tenure track employment is perhaps just that—only made out of brass, and not gold.  Family, the job market, and life in general is keeping you from the step of casting yourself on the national or international job market, and your life is just fine where it is, thank you Herr Dr. Big Shot Major Professor! Let our blogger assure you that there is nothing inherently essential to life in “PhD or not PhD.”