In this article I look to a critical episode of recent labor history, the national air traffic controllers strike of 1981, in order to illustrate how a cataclysmic event crystallizes polarities in American culture between self-interest and self-sacrifice, between money and honor, between loyalty and betrayal, between private good and public virtue. My interest lies both in elaborating these tensions and in exploring what I take to be a fruitful fusion of cultural analysis and laborhistory, an approach characteristic of more recent work on the history of the American working class (Montgomery 1979; Wilentz 1984). There is, of course, a body of literature in symbolic anthropology that examines the ways in which interpretive frameworks are invoked to mobilize support during conflicts (Cohen 1974; Landsman 1985; Turner 1975). The anthropological focus revolves around rituals (Cohen 1979) and ceremonies (Moore and Myerhoff 1977) as domains within which private sentiments are given public meanings, which in turn have political consequences during crisis situations.
By focusing on the aftermath of the controllers' strike, this article explores a related issue: the retrospective construction of political events as a process whereby actors come to understand the long-term consequences of conflicts or crises in culturally meaningful ways. Readers will note a certain affinity between this approach and that elaborated by Marshall Sahlins (1981, 1985) in his studies of Hawaiian history and the cataclysmic events surrounding the appearance of Captain Cook. Sahlins (1985:145) is concerned to show how "cultural concepts are actively used to engage the world," and in particular how events in the present are understood as instances of preexistent patterns embedded in the past. The problem discussed here is somewhat different: it is to show how interpretations are forged after the fact, after the events have transpired, as participants are coming to grips with the consequences of their actions and are actively searching for a cultural framework that makes sense out of their experiences. (Newman, 319-320)
About the Author
Katherine S. Newman, a widely published expert on poverty and the working poor and an experienced academic administrator, joined Johns Hopkins in September 2010 as the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
Newman was previously the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes '41 Professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Sociology at Princeton University, where she had taught since 2004. From 2007 until her departure from Princeton, she directed the university-wide Institute for International and Regional Studies. She founded and chaired the university's joint doctoral program in social policy, sociology, and politics and psychology.
Previously, during eight years at Harvard University, she was the first dean of social science at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. While there, she designed a university-wide research program in the social sciences, promoting collaboration among faculty from the arts and sciences, public health, medicine, law and education.
Newman also has served on the faculties of Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Newman, who has written or co-authored 11 books and has one more in progress, has focused much of her scholarly work on the lives of the working poor and mobility up and down the economic ladder. She also has investigated the impact of tax policy on the poor, the history of public opinion's impact on poverty policy, school violence, and the impact of globalization on young people in Italy, Spain, Japan and South Africa, among other issues.
Her most recent book (in collaboration with Rourke O'Brien) is Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged(University of California Press, 2011), an analysis of the impact of regressive taxation on poverty-related outcomes.Â Her forthcoming volume, The Accordion Family (Beacon Press, 2012) examines global competition in youth labor markets and the prolonged stay in the natal home that is unfolding as a result in Western Europe, Japan and the United StatesÂ Newman's current research focuses on the first generation to come of age in democratic South Africa (in collaboration with Ariane Delannoy) and on the labor market trajectories of graduates from low performing high schools in New York City and Tokyo (in collaboration with Mary Brinton).
Newman graduated from in 1975 from the University of California, San Diego, where she majored in sociology and philosophy. She earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1979 from the University of California, Berkeley.