History in Person: The Mutual Constitution of Endemic Struggles and Enduring Identities

Advanced Seminar

October 8–12, 1995

All over the world there are places where social relations and the persons situated in them are disputed, unsettled, unresolved, “unfinished.” This seminar examined the relationships between these enduring social struggles and the identities that are forged in them. A group of nine anthropologists and sociologists discussed their ethnographic studies of female IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland, African-American neighborhoods in Queens, New York, women's groups in Nepal, British families in Portugal, minority leaders in the United States, Brazilians of Japanese descent living in Japan, Rwandan refugees in Montreal, Mayan activists in Guatemala, Mixtec Indians traveling between Mexico and the United States, and factory workers in the English midlands.

Holland and Lave defined “history in person” as the personal or intimate formations resulting from the practice of identity in specific times and places. Their study of the historical production of persons is situated in enduring local struggles over entitlements to material and social resources and in inner dialogues about race, gender, class, ethnicity, and violence. “Our initial proposal envisioned comparing endemic struggles across the terrain of nations, regions, and ethnic groups with endemic conflicts in the everyday,” Holland said. “But during the seminar the group realized that all struggles have everyday, ‘on-the-ground’ dynamics as well as connections to the state. All struggles entail symbolic violence and the possibility of physical violence.”

How significant are enduring conflicts in the historical production of persons? Seminar participants found that persons and social formations are very much mutually constitutive. “Looking at people’s engagement in everyday practices, we found that they act in ways that are affected by and also affect historical structures,” said Lave. As conditions change, altered cultural forms—the media through which identity is enacted—lead to a reformulation of identity.

The constant struggle to redefine conflicts and their participants was, in fact, one of the chief—and most surprising—conclusions of the seminar. It is not possible, the group found, to assume that the parties to a conflict are static, fixed, and unchanging, as they are perceived in resistance theory. Enduring social conflicts and their inner, intimate manifestations continuously configure and reconfigure. “This is a dynamic process that is going on all the time,” Holland asserted.

Begoña Aretxaga, Chair Department of Anthropology, Harvard University Constructing Gendered Ethnic Identities: The Sexual Games of the Body Politic
Dorothy Holland, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill From Women's Suffering to Women's Politics: Re-Imagining Women's Problems after Nepal's 1996 Pro-Democracy Movement
Jean Lave, Chair Graduate School of Education, University of California at Berkeley Getting to be British in Porto
Steven Gregory Department of Anthropology, New York University 'Moving People': The Political Construction of African-American Identity
Michael Kearney Department of Anthropology, University of California at Riverside Theorizing Transnational Personhood and Community in the Age of Limits
Daniel T. Linger Anthropoloy Board of Studies, University of California at Santa Cruz Are Brazilians in Brazil or is Brazil in Brazilians?
Liisa H. Malkki Department of Anthropology, University of California at Irvine Nation, Genocide, Dystopia: The Social Imagination of the Future by Hutu Exiles in Montreal
Kay B. Warren Department of Anthropology, Princeton University Enduring Tensions and Changing Identities: Mayan Family Struggles in Guatemala
Brackette F. Williams Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University The Ethno-symbolics of 'Suffering' and 'Contribution': Some Implications for the Doctrine in the United States
Paul Willis Reading Culture

Sponsored by The Wenner-Gren Foundation

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