Speaking of Tradition and Modernity: A Review Essay on Habits of the Heart and Other Recent Works on American Culture

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

Sightreading the contemporary counterpoint between United States' traditions and current thought is a preoccupation of scholars in an "American studies' genre that includes social scientists, historians, and literary scholars. Their interpretations, listened to by scholars and a middle-class public alike, suggest patterns in relationships between history and values, between events and their meanings. In framing matters otherwise remote, opaque, and inchoate, many of these interpretations come to have long tenure as themselves ideologies. Such broad vision and critical works in the American studies genre are doubly interesting therefore: they tell students of cultures what some influential Americans see as being "culture," "structure," and "history," and they manufacture social thought before our very eyes.

My concern is with one detail of this interpretive process: the systems of meaning governing American cultural critics' apprehensions of the relationship between tradition and modernity. How do their understandings of the nature of that relationship influence the interpretations they produce? What kind of "opposition" do they posit? In ethnographically reading such works as a distinctive kind of Western cultural discourse built around a tradition/modernity distinction, I want to ask what the semantic and semiotic dimensions of a discourse might reveal beyond or about announced topics and methods. (Perin, 425)

About the Author

Constance Perin received her AB and AM in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, a master's degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from The American University. The author of three other books, since 1983 she has conducted most of her research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a Visiting Scholar in Anthropology. Among her honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a two-year National Science Foundation research award, a research and writing award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a Fulbright Fellowship, two residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni, and visiting appointments at other universities here and abroad.

"As a cultural anthropologist, I've specialized in the study of professional work, knowledge, and value systems and how their differences affect the ways specialists collaborate. Fellowships, grants, and colleagues' invitations to participate in research projects have made possible my career as an independent scholar. Most recently, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Program in Global Security and Sustainability awarded me a grant for Research and Writing and the National Science Foundation earlier made a two-year individual award for field studies." 

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