The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States

By Carol J. Greenhouse | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Discourse of Solutions

The community study of the 1990s revived one of anthropology’s classic literary forms. As such, it was also part of a broader literary revival featuring anthropology, sociology, and diasporic fiction as publishers reprinted numerous works from the 1960s for new markets in U.S. cultural studies—including several works discussed in this book. Those monographs, novels, and essays lived again in the 1990s but in very changed times. Important distinctions between the older and newer studies include the new works’ evidence of the social isolation of individuals and families, the difference between capital insertion and social inclusion, and the strain on the very concept of relevance—as mainstream political discourse spun away from older ideas of relief. In this sense, the revival of the community study in the 1990s can be read as an ironic commentary on the classic community study of the previous generation—borrowing its form, setting, and themes, but conspicuously not the arc of the story line after the book ends.

The community study—in the earlier period or more recently—makes plain the promise and limits of aligning social description with the discourse of federal political debate. I call that project of alignment the discourse of solutions. The classic examples of the discourse of solutions are Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1995 [1945]) or the Moynihan Report (U.S. Department of Labor 1965)—assessments of “the Negro problem” in terms that undertake to inform federal policy as an exercise in social engineering. Closer to the tone, form, and critical implications of the 1990s ethnography, however, were the works strongly critical of Myrdal and Moynihan in their own times. In this chapter, we sample both eras.

We begin with critics—represented here by novelist Ralph Ellison and an-

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The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Prologue 1
  • Chapter 1 - Relevance in Question 23
  • Chapter 2 - Templates of Relevance 46
  • Chapter 3 - Texts and Contexts 74
  • Chapter 4 - Textual Strategy and the Politics of Form 107
  • Chapter 5 - The Discourse of Solutions 142
  • Chapter 6 - Democracy in the First Person 174
  • Chapter 7 - Gendering Difference and the Impulse to Fiction 200
  • Chapter 8 - Markets for Citizenship 230
  • Envoi - Empirical Citizenship 256
  • Notes 269
  • References 279
  • Index 307
  • Acknowledgments 319
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