This post builds on the research article “Between Cinema and Social Work: Diasporic Turkish Women and the (Dis)Pleasures of Hybridity,” which was published in the May 2006 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Interview with Katherine Pratt Ewing
Roseann Liu: What are some theoretical contributions your research has made to the anthropology of youth?
Katherine Pratt Ewing: In my article “The Illusion of Wholeness” (Ethos 1990), I demonstrated how a person’s self representation can shift from one moment to the next, generating inconsistencies that the person is usually unaware of because of an illusion of the self as cohesive whole. These selves are highly context-dependent, emotionally charged, and often mutually inconsistent. I demonstrated this approach to the self by analyzing the utterances of a young woman in Pakistan who was struggling with her parents about whom she should marry. At some moments she presented an image of herself as a good, obedient daughter who will hopefully become a good wife. At other moments she evoked self images of a "politician" who can employ various strategies to meet her personal needs and wishes. In each case she deployed cultural images that, while based on inconsistent premises, were both embedded in Pakistani cultural understandings.
When I presented this theory in public lectures, I found that students from immigrant backgrounds would often come up afterwards to tell me that this approach captured an important aspect of their self experience while mainstream American students tended to deny that their “self” was anything but a cohesive whole. Far from these self-reports being an affirmation of cultural hybridity in immigrant youth and its absence among youth born into the cultural majority, I maintain that being from an immigrant family or otherwise inhabiting a minority subject position simply makes it easier for an individual to recognize and label the sorts of shifts that we all engage in. I have personally found that being a professional woman and a mother generates an analogous awareness of shifting selves—especially when the kids show up in the office!
RL: If you were to write this Cultural Anthropology article today, what arguments would you continue to make, and what would you change?
KPE: In the article I argued that the trope of hybridity, though not a useful model for analyzing how youth negotiate the integration process, is nevertheless celebrated in popular culture for its productive power to open up new social spaces, identities, and dynamic cultural forms. The concept of hybridity rests on and perpetuates the assumption that immigrant youth must somehow cross the boundary between two distinct “cultures” in order to integrate successfully. The article explores some of the negative effects of this powerful trope of hybridity and of the underlying assumption that cultures are bounded and static. One key effect is that negative stereotypes of the minority culture are perpetuated and even reinforced. These negative stereotypes can in turn “script” family conflicts in ways that make them seem unresolvable. I focused on how stereotypical representations of submissive Muslim women can make it difficult for young women of Turkish background growing up in Germany to identify with their mothers or to negotiate the restrictions that their families may impose on them, resulting in crisis and family rupture.
This article was published while I was I the early stages of writing the book Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslims Men in Berlin (Stanford 2008). While I would continue to make the argument I foregrounded in the CA article, the book (which includes a later version of this article) went in a new direction. I focused more directly on the ways that Muslim men are stereotyped and stigmatized through the perpetuation of exaggerated images of male brutality and the oppression of women. I argued that this process of stigmatization is obscured in German public discourse because these stereotypes of men are presented in terms of the need to rescue Muslim women from their families. I examined an array of strategies that young men deployed as they struggled to distance themselves from these negative scripts for ostensibly traditional Turkish masculinity.
RL: In your article, you point out that the hybrid youth is a powerful figure that has been taken up in popular discourse, but also note that anthropologists have critiqued the hybrid figure because it presupposes a false dichotomy between traditional Turkish Muslims and the modern values of a democratic German state. What alternative “figures” might anthropologists offer that would have more analytic utility, or do all models inherently presuppose binary oppositions?
KPE: I suggest the figure of “shifting selves” as an alternative to the idea of the hybrid. As I discuss in the article, “hybrid” is a biological metaphor that foregrounds the mixing of two different breeds. This is a metaphor that perpetuates a potentially dangerous slippage between race and culture and distorts the fluidity that characterizes cultural processes. The figure of shifting selves not only avoids a binary opposition between two cultures; it also foregrounds the recognition that inconsistencies in self presentation, while they are an important aspect of immigrant experience, are also a fundamental aspect of everyone’s life as we negotiate complex social worlds. Youth of both minority and majority backgrounds enact shifting selves as they negotiate their relationships with others and move across different social settings (I think of the times I used to drop off my teenaged children at school and watched them transform as they got out of the car.)
Furthermore, youth have identities and allegiances that transect multiple lines of difference. The concept of micropolitics is particularly useful for tracing these negotiations of self, identity, and relationships among youth of diverse backgrounds and incomes who go to school together, work on common projects, jockey for status among their teachers, friends and members of the opposite sex, and go home to different neighborhoods and families, where they negotiate different sets of relationships and expectations.
RL: To address the problem of minority stereotyping, you suggest tracing out the micropolitics of everyday life as a way of interpreting and assessing conflicts, rather than drawing conclusions based on assuming homogenous collective identities. In addition to social workers, what other practitioners do you think would benefit from adopting this approach, and how might your approach need to be adapted by different practitioners?
KPE: Rather than assuming that specific cultural forms or practices are “pathological” or inappropriate in a modern or urban setting, I stressed in the article the need to examine families in terms of micropolitics that are generated from multiple sources: a specific configuration of personalities and the array of culturally informed but usually fluid and inconsistent scripts, habits, and practices that they perform; stresses that arise from structural inequalities and discrimination; and life’s contingencies such as unemployment, illness and death. Outside the family, practices of discrimination and stigmatization also play out most powerfully at this level of micropolitics. It is, therefore, important for teachers and other school personnel to recognize the complex sources of specific behaviors rather than attributing them to “traditional” culture. For example, with the rise of Turkish street gangs in Germany, an act of violence in the name of honor is likely to have more to do with transnational media images and the social structure of the gang than with “Turkish” or “Muslim” family expectations.
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. On page 267, what kinds of citizen-subjects does Ewing argue is being made by the German government? In this context, what is the process by which power and governmentality is exercised?
2. Although hybridity has been critiqued because it presupposes that culture is a bounded entity and that different "cultures" exist in binary opposition, what aspects of hybridity do you think are still useful and can be recuperated? Do you think Ewing's alternative model of "shifting selves" can be taken up in popular discourse and in media? If so, how?
3. Why have youth been particularly linked to the trope of hybridity? How has hybridity helped and hindered our conceptualization of youth as cultural agents?
4. How can religion both reinforce and disrupt a series of polarities that produce ossified stereotypical depictions? What kinds of alternative modernities can religion offer?
5. On pages 282-283, Ewing discusses the case of Derin to highlight the restrictiveness of explaining conflict based on cultural reasons. Through one dimension of micropolitics--i.e., an understanding of the stresses of migration and discrimination--Derin comes to reinterpret her parents' relationship. What other dimensions of micropolitics can be used to better analyze a situation of conflict? (e.g., time-scale and recognizing that people change over time is another way of analyzing a situation that does not depend on cultural explanations, but instead leaves room for reconciliation).
6. While the concept of micropolitics may at first seem to elide shared patterns of discrimination caused by structural inequality, a close reading of Ewing's article and her interview in the supplemental page shows that she does indeed include an analysis of structural inequities. How does structural inequality fit into her concept of micropolitics?
Select Works by Katherine Pratt Ewing
2011. “Naming our sexualities: Secular constraints, Muslim freedoms.” Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 59.
2010. “Religion, spirituality, and the sexual scandal." The Immanent Frame. August 2. Available at: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2010/08/02/religion-spirituality-sexual-scandal/.
2010. “The Misrecognition of a Modern Islamist Organization: Germany Faces “Fundamentalism” in Carl W. Ernst and Richard C. Martin, eds. From Orientalism to Cosmopolitanism: Changing Approaches to Islamic Studies. University of South Carolina Press.
2009. “The Muslim Child.” In Shweder, Richard A., Thomas R. Bidell, Anne C. Dailey, Suzanne D. Dixon, Peggy J. Miller, and John Modell, eds. The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2008. Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
2008. Co-author with Marguerite M. Hoyler. “Being Muslim and American: South Asian Muslim Youth and the War on Terror.” In Ewing, ed. Home and Abroad: Being and Belonging among U.S. Immigrants from Muslim Countries after September 11. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
2008. “Stigmatisierte Männlichkeit: Muslimische Geschlechterbeziehungen und kulturelle Staatsbürgerschaft in Europa.” In Mann wird man: Geschlechtliche Identitäten im Spannungsfeld von Migration und Islam, Lydia Potts and Jan Kühnemund, eds. Bielefeld, Germany: transcript Verlag.
2008. "Emine: Muslim University Student" in Berlin, in Muslim Voices, Muslim Lives,Frances Trix, John Walbridge, Linda Walbridge, eds. McGraw Hill.
2006. "Revealing and Concealing: Interpersonal Dynamics and the Negotiation of Identity," with comments by Dorinne Kondo and Sidney Mintz, and my response. Ethos34(1): 89-131.
2005. "Immigrant identities and Emotion." In Conerly Casey and Robert Edgerton, eds. Companion to Psychological Anthropology: Modernity and Cultural Change. Blackwell Press.
1990. "The Illusion of Wholeness: "Culture," "Self," and the Experience of Inconsistency." Ethos 18,3: 251-278. (Winner of L. Bryce Boyer Prize for 1990).
Eksner, H. Julia. Ghetto ideologies, youth identities and stylized Turkish German: Turkish Youths in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Muenster LIT Verlag, 2007.
Griffin, Christine. “Imagining New Narratives of Youth Research, the `New Europe' and Global Youth Culture.” Childhood 8.2(2001): 147-166.
Maira, Sunaina. “Identity Dub: The Paradoxes of an Indian American Youth Subculture (New York Mix).” Cultural Anthropology 14.1(1999): 29-69.
Vestel, Viggo. “Limits of Hybridity Versus Limits of Tradition?: A Semiotics of Cultural Reproduction, Creativity, and Ambivalence among Multicultural Youth in Rudenga, East Side Oslo.” Ethos 37.4(2009): 466-488.