The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Cobble Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Cobble Hill.

With its tree-lined streets and beautiful brownstones, Cobble Hill is a desirable, picturesque neighborhood, and a favorite strolling destination for visitors. The neighborhood also offers affordable (and historic) housing options for residents. Along Hicks Street are distinctive condos that have been a part of the neighborhood for many years. Now renovated, these residences capture the spirit of the past at a reasonable price:

In the 1870s, a sturdy, well-designed group of buildings were constructed for lower-income residents on Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets. About 140 years later, we see that they have withstood the test of time. In their renovated state, with beautiful brick exteriors and inner walkways, they are for sale, with an as outside the building proclaiming, “Landmark Condos for Sale.” Known as the Columbia-Hicks Buildings, they are an excellent example of how well-built housing can be renovated and improved to provide mixed income housing, containing both open market and affordable housing.

Cobble Hill also happens to be a popular destination for filmmakers looking for townhouses that capture the “quintessential New York City” backdrop. Helmreich chatted with one resident who provided his home:

New York City is a major venue for filmmakers, and those looking for elegant townhouses to use as settings in their films can usually find them with the help of location scouts. Cobble Hill is a place where those townhouses can be found, as I learn from a conversation with Raphael Linder, a Brooklyn College graduate and software engineer. He made his home at 53 Cheever Place available for a film: ‘They used my home for a 2015 film starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, and Renee Russo called The Intern...’

Another way in which areas acquire cachet is when famous people are associated with them. A good case in point is 426 Henry Street, a four-story brick Greek Revival structure, nice but not especially distinctive. Its claim to fame is that it was formerly home to Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother… Churchill visited the Henry Street homein 1953, at age seventy-four, amid some fanfare by appreciative locals.

Brooklyn’s oldest functioning Jewish house of worship, the Kane Street Synagogue, can be found in Cobble Hill:

Founded in 1856, it has undergone various incarnations, from traditional, to Reform, to Conservative-Egalitarian, serving congregants from all over north Brooklyn. Music history buffs might be interested to know this is where Aaron Copland was bar-mitzvahed.

If you’re looking for a great place for a bite to eat, Sam’s is an Italian restaurant known for its delicious cuisine along with its history and atmosphere:

For those who like their dining experience to include a touch of history, Sam’s on Court Street, near Baltic Street, serves mostly inexpensive Italian food. The setting features red and white checked tablecloths and matching red leather booths; it takes you back to the post-World War II period. The place has been around for more than ninety years, and I found it fun to hang out with the old-time Italians who eat there regularly.

And, if kids are coming along for the trip, they won’t be disappointed:

Cobble Hill has six toy stores (as of 2015), quite a few for an area this small. One of these establishments is Mini Max Toys and Cuts, at 152 Atlantic Avenue, owned by four mothers. It’s a rather unique place that offers haircuts for kids and also toys.

Toys and haircuts under one roof? This could catch on.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Cross-Cultural Responses to Discrimination

This post originally appeared at Harvard University’s WCIA Epicenter website and is reproduced with permission.

A Q&A with Michèle Lamont

Racism and discrimination are daily realities for members of marginalized groups. But what does it look like at the ground level, and how do individuals from various groups and countries respond to such experiences? Drawing on more than 400 in-depth interviews with middle class and working class men and women residing in the multi-ethnic suburbs of New York, Rio, and Tel Aviv, and representing five different racial “groups,” a team of sociologists examine how people deal with and make sense of the various forms of exclusion that are ever present in their lives.

Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil & Israel opens up many new perspectives on the comparative analysis of race and identity.

Lamont

© Martha Stewart


Q: What inspired you and your colleagues to write Getting Respect, and how does it connect to your past scholarship?

A: Back in 2000, I published a book called The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. It was based on interviews with African American and white workers in New York, and native white workers and North African workers in France. I asked questions about what makes people equal and was surprised to discover that in France workers never talked about money making people equal, whereas many white and black American workers believe that “if I can buy a house, and you can buy a house, we’re equal.” There is very little in the literature about “everyday” conceptions of racial inequality. We wanted to get at how people in different parts of the world understand similarities and differences and to learn about what kind of thinking racism is based on.

Q: In writing Getting Respect, what new insights have you learned about racism in the United States?

A: One of the main findings is that African Americans use confrontation (speaking up or calling out someone’s behavior) in response to discrimination more frequently than any of the other groups studied—black Brazilians, and Ethiopian Jews, Mizrahim and Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel. Asking why it is that they confront so readily made us understand African Americans through a different lens. We found that black Brazilians confront as well, but they’re equally as likely to stay silent.

Among African Americans, not responding to a discriminatory incident is half as frequent as confronting. So our question became: What are the conditions that legitimize this confrontation in the United States?

Another finding was that African Americans are more likely to “name” racism than the members of other groups. This speaks to how readily available narratives or scripts about group discrimination are in the United States, compared to Israel and Brazil. In contrast, Brazilians were far more hesitant to say that they experienced racism.

Q: How did you select groups for the study?

A: When we first started, we thought we’d pair black Brazilians, for whom group identity has traditionally been described in the literature as not salient, to a group with strong boundaries, Arab Israelis. We weren’t sure where African Americans would fall yet. Then we added the Mizrahim (Jews whose families immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern and North African Muslim and Arab countries) and black Ethiopian Jews who are even more recent immigrants. It transformed our project, because now we had two groups who had very strong group identification (African Americans and Arab Israelis, and to some degree, Ethiopian Jews) and two groups with weaker group boundaries (black Brazilians and Mizrahim). So this really brought home the issue of how the sense of ‘groupness’ influences the experience of racism.

We found that, because you belong to a strongly bounded group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are more confrontational. Although they are “strongly bounded,” Israeli Palestinians living in Israel are not very confrontational because they have little hope of being recognized. They are often viewed as the enemy within, suspected of being allied with Hezbollah or Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and they believe their treatment is ultimately tied to this larger conflict, so are much less likely to speak up, as it would be pointless. After all, they are an unassimilated minority living in conditions of deep segregation within the Jewish state.

As to the weakly bounded group, the Mizrahim, they clearly suffer from underrepresentation in academia, institutions of high culture, top political circles, and so on, while being over represented at the bottom of the social scale. That is, they are clearly discriminated against by all standards. However, in contrast to the other groups, they are the demographic majority in Israel’s Jewish population. They have strong sentiments of belonging to the Jewish state and often downplay discrimination and prefer to tell stories of how well integrated they are.

Q: Your book suggests that black Brazilians differ from African Americans in that they don’t zero in on race as a basis for exclusion, but rather on their presumed low socioeconomic status, or poverty.

A: That’s the traditional observation about concepts of race in both countries. However, our Brazilian collaborators bring a lot of wrinkles to this story. Their respondents identified themselves as being black, and by blackness they point more to skin color than to a shared culture. In part this is because black Brazilians are half the population of Brazil, but also because they don’t think they have a distinctive culture because their culture is the majority culture. So that’s a very big difference from how ‘blackness’ is understood in the United States, where our African American interviewees experience their shared identity as having a strong cultural component. It’s also very different from the Israeli groups we studied.

Q: So, if you want to eliminate segregation based on skin color, wouldn’t the best path be to promote intermarriage? Is this what happened in Brazil?

A: Well, historically that was what happened in Brazil; that’s one of the reasons why group boundaries are so much weaker there. The old ideology of the “moreno,” which was part of the Brazilian national ideology of racial democracy, celebrated intermarriage as the origins of the country. Moreover, spatial segregation in Brazil is based more on socioeconomic class than race. Even if the few upper-middle-class neighborhoods are nearly all white, the working-class and poor neighborhoods are much more racially mixed. In the United States a number of middle-class blacks live in lower-middle-class and working-class black neighborhoods partly out of choice, but also because the spatial racial segregation is extremely strong here.

Q: How did you select for skin color in Brazil?

A: In selecting our black respondents in all three countries we did not take into consideration actual skin color. But we did ask people if they identified themselves as black. In Brazil, we chose people who self-identified as pretos and pardos (black and brown). There are many other words in Brazil that indicate pale blacks (e.g., morenos) and those people were not part of our study. This broad color spectrum is present all over Latin America. They have many categories and words to talk about skin color, many more than we do in the United States, where the ‘one drop’ rule continues to prevail in the minds of many whites. Nevertheless, we found that our Brazilian interviewees increasingly identify with the political term “negro,” especially among the middle-class respondents.

Q: You describe the Arab Palestinians in Israel as being the most “excluded” of the groups you studied. Why is this the case?

A: The situation for the Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel today is problematic because they are so clearly segregated as a group. They are excluded from many job opportunities, have separate schools, housing discrimination is rampant, and most live in segregated villages or towns separate from the larger society. However, we should keep in mind that they are an unassimilated minority. The strong social boundaries between Palestinians and Jews are maintained by both. In other words, we are not talking about a shared civil space where Arab Israelis, the majority of whom are Muslims, are interested in crossing national and religious boundaries. A simple example is that intermarriage is inconceivable on both sides. The Arab Palestinian citizens are not drafted into the military, which is a known path to upward mobility and social integration. There is a growing middle class and upward mobility within the Arab sector, but ultimately they will always be excluded in a state where symbolic belonging to the community depends on whether or not you’re Jewish. This makes it harder for them to respond to stigma and exclusion by focusing on individual self-improvement.

Q: All the groups your team interviewed experienced unfair treatment and responded in different ways. One type of response you label “individualistic.” Can you explain what this means?

A: It means “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “work harder,” “get your education,” “be upwardly mobile,” et cetera. It’s the individual’s behavior that’s considered a determinant for success. A more collectivist response is oriented toward social change, as illustrated by the amazing outcomes of the civil rights movement in the United States, where people agitated and lobbied and actually changed the law. In our interviews, when we asked, “What are the best tools that your group has had at its disposal to improve its situation?” the majority talk about individualistic solutions. And the group that most frequently answered this way was the African Americans, second were Ethiopian Jews, then Mizrahim.

The individualistic response implies: “Don’t blame other people and don’t blame racism. You should do your thing and try to be upwardly mobile.” African Americans all experience discrimination; it’s very much part of their daily lives. But at the same time a large number think the (normative) solution is not necessarily to moan and to decry injustice, but to try to create the conditions for personal advancement. This response is particularly present in the United States, but also among the Mizrahim and Ethiopian Jews, despite neoliberalism being more influential on this side of the pond than in Israel. But it’s also an indication of having a sense of national belonging: it’s easier to feel self-improvement is a viable strategy when you feel like you belong.

Q: Because African Americans have the cultural history of the civil rights movement, wouldn’t you expect them to say collective mobilization is the best tool for their group?

A: There’s a real tension there because the great gains of the 1960s were achieved through collective mobilization and have come to be largely taken for granted, even if some are contested at the level of the United States Supreme Court. But at the same time the generations that we interviewed had a lot of experience being told that to blame racism is to make excuses. And we all know that many white people decry reverse racism. Therefore a number of our African American respondents believed there’s only so much you can gain by denouncing injustice. It’s in line with the American dream, the main tenets of which are if you work hard you will “make it,” and that’s how you gain social membership. So that’s the sacred value of this society—not all societies are organized around the same notions.

In addition, neoliberalism has had a much greater impact in the United States than it has in Israel and Brazil. And by neoliberalism I mean the idea that market mechanisms should guide all forms of social arrangements, government should remove barriers to the circulation of goods and people, limit the impact of unions, et cetera. This is connected to the widespread notion that our value as human beings is tied to how successful or competitive we are. Such views may seem quite absurd outside the United States, whereas here they are largely taken for granted by a huge portion of the American population.

Q: You found that intergroup relationships were quite different in the United States compared to Brazil.

A: In Brazil the dominant myth, has been, historically, that of racial democracy. Even if few of our respondents believe Brazil is a racial democracy, there’s a strong emphasis put on racial coexistence. My collaborators found that many of their interviewees believe that being in people’s faces confronting racism all the time is an antisocial behavior that is very destructive to society. They prefer to gently “educate the ignorant.” Even as we were putting our interview schedule together, this affected which questions we could ask. In the United States one of our questions was, “Do you have friends of another racial group?” which is an obvious question to ask. And surveys show that roughly 75 percent of Americans don’t. My Brazilian collaborators argued that we could not ask this very same question in Brazil as our respondents would view it as a deeply insulting question. Most people there claim to have friends from a range of racial groups. This is based not only on preference but is also tied to one’s chances of meeting people from other racial groups in their neighborhood, at work, and in public spaces, especially when you come from a working-class background. Interestingly, however, a few middle-class black Brazilians said most of their friends are white, and point out the small number of blacks in their work and educational environments. This also challenges any absolute understanding of Brazil as racially mixed and the United States as racially segregated. In professional work environments, it seems to be the other way around.

Q: Is there anything in your personal background that drew you to the study of inequality?

A: I am a Québécois, and I grew up during the peak of the nationalist movement there, a time when we saw massive political mobilization, and at the cultural level, assemblies with folk singers and people working to celebrate and transform Québécois identity. And having worked with a number of African American students, I was taken by the many similarities in the quest for equality across national contexts—even though in Québec, of course, the stigma is language and culture, whereas in the United States it’s skin color.

After the English conquest, the French population was controlled by a small French Canadian elite made up of members of the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, professors). The majority of the French population was not educated—they were farmers and blue collar workers. The English Canadians had a strong sense of their superiority over the colonials, and the French, of course, fed that as well. The Québec movement for independence turned out to be an important and very successful social movement aimed at transforming both intergroup power relations and the meaning associated with being Québécois. I was born in 1957, so my youth was shaped by this social mobilization. It is interesting to me that while anticolonial and antiracist discourse about Latinos and blacks are widely available in the United States, such is not the case for French Québecois identity.

Q: What impact do you hope Getting Respect will have?

A: The book should make it more obvious what stigmatization is about. It argues that stigmatization is a crucial dimension of inequality that is often ignored, as economists and sociologists so often focus on the distribution of resources. People experience stigmatization deeply and it affects their sense of self, certainly as much as being deprived of resources does. I think that claims for recognition should be taken very seriously by policy makers and social scientists. We have yet to understand how inequality and stigmatization articulate with one another.

Policy makers of all kinds should be much more attuned to how the policies (such as welfare) and laws (such as gay marriage) they pass can be stigmatizing or destigmatizing. It’s also important to think carefully about each form of redistribution both in terms of impact on material resources and also in terms of construction of the self. My hope is that by reading this book, white people—and other non-minority members—will gain a much better understanding of the wear and tear that comes with living as the nonmember of the dominant group. It’s important to realize that dealing with this kind of challenge and assault on your worth all the time takes a toll. And if we look at massive racial disparities in health in this country, that foundations like Robert Wood Johnson have documented and addressed, our book is totally in conversation with the agenda they are setting. It’s necessary to look at the daily experience and cost of dealing with exclusion on people’s lives.

Q: Reflecting on your decades of work on inequality, can you draw conclusions about which social or institutional conditions lead to more equitable societies?

A: How do you achieve a society that is equitable? Well, the classic approach has to do with the politics of recognition and redistribution. Take the Nordic response for example—let’s have a strong state that taxes wealthier people and redistributes resources. That works very well for Nordic societies, which have oil money and all kinds of other resources, and historically have had a fairly homogeneous population. But it doesn’t work across the board.

Another response is the politics of recognition. Canada and to a lesser extent the United States do this better than other countries, by proclaiming very loudly that diversity is a strength and resource, and that it is something that we value as a society. Many societies don’t do this as well (France and Israel, to name two examples). Through this message of diversity, those countries have achieved greater equality through the legal process for women, people of color, and other groups. The rapid legalization of gay marriage stands out particularly starkly.

Q: It sounds like you believe collective movements are the most successful way to effect change.

A: In the United States, there’s no doubt that the determinant of social change is the fact that Americans can activate the legal process to redefine rules of coexistence for greater social justice. This is how they have imposed new rules on people who were resistant (e.g., Southerners who refused racial desegregation in schools). And this has been extremely powerful over time, but it also has many limitations.

In the French context there’s been far more resistance to recognizing diversity by the state. In contrast to the United States, France promotes secularism to reject any form of expression of religious identity in public life. The recent incidents with the government’s attempt to ban burkinis (a full body unitard that Muslim women wear at the beach) are constant reminders to minority Muslim groups that they have to lend themselves to the rules of the majority, which is quite different than what we’re experiencing in the United States.

In Canada, the ideology of multiculturalism has had a very positive impact in pushing immigrants to be much more emotionally and cognitively invested in their society, and even to run for political office. Today, Trudeau has a number of Muslims in his cabinet, which is quite different from the American political context.

So, I believe we can create inclusion in the context of the law, through narratives, through social policy, and by using institutional tools and cultural repertoires together to create shared notions of solidarity. In some ways it starts at the top, but then change is also produced by ordinary people responding to racism. Does a country create a climate for people to organize and to be heard? That is the crucial question.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Getting RespectWeatherhead Center Director Michèle Lamont is the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. A cultural and comparative sociologist, Lamont studies culture and inequality, racism and stigma, academia and knowledge, social change and successful societies, and qualitative methods. She is the coauthor of Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel, with Graziella Moraes Silva, Jessica S. Welburn, Joshua Guetzkow, Nissim Mizrachi, Hanna Herzog, and Elisa Reis.

 

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Coney Island

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Coney Island.

From classic roller-coasters to a nice boardwalk along the beach, Coney Island is one of Brooklyn’s most historic and well-known neighborhoods. It was the site of three famous theme parks that were all affected by fires (many are now used for other purposes, such as housing.) Some old rides remain with the addition of new ones, but the history of Coney Island lingers in the air:

Beautiful artwork by sculptor Deborah Masters is a must-see while walking around Brooklyn, and Coney Island has a piece that shouldn’t be missed. A terra-cotta relief of patrons enjoying Coney Island graces the surface of a supporting viaduct under the tracks of the Ocean Parkway, embodying the fun spirit of the peninsula.

I came face to face with a large, unglazed, brownish-red, terra-cotta-colored relief made of cast concrete, dubbed “Brooklyn…” It consists of a group of people, some standing, others seated in a roller-coaster. Most are wearing bathing suits. To the left on a separate pane is a bare-breasted mermaid.

Of course, Coney Island is famous for its amusement park rides, and Helmreich reflected on his time as a young boy visiting the park with his family. Though some of the park has changed, there remains a sense of the past:

For me, everything about going there, and we went there numerous times, was memorable. Some of the rides, especially the bumper cars, where you could crash into other cars with gusto but with no consequences except for a dirty look or minor retaliation in kind, are indelibly imprinted on my consciousness. The same for the boardwalk, where we delighted in staring at the waves as they crashed ashore, and consumed all manner of delectable treats—potato knishes, hot dogs, and ice cream in crisp, dark sugar cones.

Some of the old rides are still operating, but they exist in a setting that’s a cross between venerating the old and embracing the new.

Coney Island is home to the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. If you find yourself craving delicious franks and salty crinkle-cut fries with a dash of history, be sure to stop by this famous eatery.

Nathan’s, which turned one hundred in 2016, is still there, the signage recognizable as well as the menu, offering many of old standbys—the crinkle-cut fries and hot dogs, frog legs, ears of buttered corn, and Chow Mein on a bun, but not the real glasses in which orange drinks were once served.

At the end of Coney Island is one of New York City’s oldest gated communities, (one of only four in the city.) Sea Gate is the destination for those seeking a quiet area with private beaches.

Sea Gate, which begins on W. 37th Street, is part of Coney Island, but, as the name implies, it’s a gated community, one of four in the city. The others are Silver Beach Gardens and Edgewater Park, in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx; and Breezy Point in the Rockaways portion of Queens. Sea Gate is the oldest, established in 1898, and the most integrated of the four. It has the feel, if any case, of not being a part of greater Coney Island. It’s quiet, has its own beaches and a visitor needs permission from a guard to gain entry. People who live here have an opportunity to feel they live in an exclusive community…

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City. 

Katharine Dow: Can surrogacy ever escape the taint of global exploitation?

making the good life jacket dowSurrogate motherhood has a bad rep, as a murky business far removed from everyday experience – especially when it comes to prospective parents from the West procuring the gestational services of less privileged women in the global South. So while middle-class 30- and 40-somethings swap IVF anecdotes over the dinner table, and their younger female colleagues are encouraged by ‘hip’ employers to freeze their eggs as an insurance policy against both time and nature, surrogacy continues to induce a great deal of moral handwringing.

The Kim Cotton case in 1985 was the first attempt to arrange a commercial surrogacy agreement in the United Kingdom. It set the tone for what was to come. Cotton was paid £6,500 to have a baby for an anonymous Swedish couple, and her story provoked sensational press-fuelled panic. British legislators, too, saw surrogacy as likely to lead to exploitation, with poorer women coerced into acting as surrogates out of financial need, and with intended parents taken advantage of by unscrupulous surrogacy brokers. Their action was swift: within just months of the Cotton story breaking, a law was passed banning for-profit surrogacy in the UK.

With the growth of an international surrogacy industry over the past two decades, worries over surrogacy’s fundamentally exploitative character have only intensified. Worst-case scenarios such as the Baby Gammy case in 2014, involving an Australian couple and a Thai surrogate, suggest that surrogacy frequently is exploitative. But that’s less because paying someone to carry and bear a child on your behalf is inherently usurious than because the transaction takes place in a deeply unequal world. The Baby Gammy case was complicated by other unsavoury factors, since the child, born with Down’s Syndrome, seemed to be rejected by his intended parents because of his condition. Then it turned out that the intended father had a previous conviction for child sex offences, which rather overshadowed the potential exploitation experienced by Gammy’s surrogate – and now de facto – mother.

I am not arguing for a laissez-faire approach to regulating surrogacy, but for thinking more deeply about how surrogacy reflects the context in which it takes place.

We need to step back and think critically about what makes people so driven to have a biogenetically related child that they are prepared to procure the intimate bodily capacity of another, typically less privileged, person to achieve that. We should also listen to surrogates, and try to understand why they might judge surrogacy as their best option. Intended parents are not always uncaring nabobs, and surrogate mothers are not just naïve victims; but while the power dynamic between them is decidedly skewed, each is subject to particular cultural expectations, moral obligations and familial pressures.

As for the larger context, we increasingly outsource even the most intimate tasks to those whose labour is cheap, readily available and less regulated. If we think of surrogacy as a form of work, it doesn’t look that different from many other jobs in our increasingly casualised and precarious global economic context, like selling bodily substances and services for clinical trials, biomedical research or product testing, or working as domestic staff and carers.

And surrogacy is on the rise. Both in the UK and in the United States, where some states allow commercial surrogacy and command the highest fees in the world, increasing numbers of would-be parents are turning to the international surrogacy industry: 95 per cent of the 2,000 surrogate births to UK intended parents each year occur overseas. With the age at which women have their first child increasing, more women are finding it difficult to conceive; and there’s now greater access to fertility treatments for single-sex couples and single people. In addition, surrogacy has become the option of choice for gay couples, transgender people, and single men wanting a biogenetically related child.

For me, as someone who has studied surrogacy, the practice is problematic because it reveals some of our most taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of family. It also tells us much about work, gender, and how the two are connected. This is why it is so challenging.

At a time when parent-child relationships often appear to be one of the few remaining havens in an increasingly heartless world, surrogacy suggests that there might not be a straightforward relationship between women’s reproductive biology, their capacity to produce children, and their desire to nurture. The usual debates that focus simply on whether or not surrogacy is exploitative sidestep some of these uncomfortable truths, and make it difficult to ask more complicated questions about the practice.

There is a parallel here with abortion debates. Trying to define and defend the sanctity of life is important, but this also obscures highly problematic issues, such as the gendered expectation that women should look after children; the fact that women typically bear responsibility for contraception (and the disproportionate consequences of not using it); the prevalence of non-consensual sex; and the pressure on women to produce children to meet familial obligations.

Surrogacy is a technology. And like any other technology we should not attribute to it magical properties that conceal its anthropogenic – that is, human-made – character. It’s all too easy to blame surrogacy or the specific individuals who participate in it rather than to ask why surrogacy might make sense as a way of having children at all. We should give credit to intended parents and surrogate mothers for having thought deeply about their decisions, and we should not hold them individually responsible for surrogacy’s ills.Aeon counter – do not remove

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Making a Good Life.

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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Rogers Brubaker on understanding “transracial”

Brubakers Mainstream society has grown increasingly accepting of various ways of reimagining gender. But what about someone who identities as a different race? Is the concept of “ancestry” losing its authority? In Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled IdentitiesRogers Brubaker explores the controversial idea that one can be transracial and the ways ethnoracial boundaries have already blurred. Recently, Brubaker took the time to answer some questions about his book and shed light on what transracial means.

This book has taken you into new territory. What drew you to the subject?

RB: In the summer of 2015 I became fascinated by the intertwined debates about whether Caitlyn Jenner could legitimately identify as a woman and Rachel Dolezal as black. The debates were dominated by efforts to validate or invalidate the identities claimed by Jenner and Dolezal. But at the same time they raised deeper questions about the similarities and differences between gender and race in an age of massively unsettled identities. I had planned to spend the summer months working on a completely different project, but this “trans moment” afforded a unique opportunity to think systematically about sex and gender in relation to race and ethnicity as embodied identities that are increasingly – yet in differing ways and to differing degrees – understood as open to choice and change.

You begin with the pairing of “transgender” and “transracial” in the debates about Jenner and Dolezal. One common trope in the debates was that transracial is “not a thing.” Do you disagree?

RB: Of course transracial is not a “thing” in the same sense as transgender: there’s no socially recognized and legally regulated procedure for changing one’s race or ethnicity comparable to the procedures that are available for changing sex or gender. But I do think the term “transracial” usefully brings into focus the ways in which people do in fact move from one racial or ethnic category to another or position themselves between or beyond existing categories.

The second part of your book is called “thinking with trans.” What do you mean by this?

RB: The idea is that one can use the transgender experience as a lens through which to think about the instability and contestedness of racial identities. I distinguish three forms of the transgender experience, which I call the trans of migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. The trans of migration – the most familiar form – involves moving from one established sex/gender category to another. The trans of between involves defining oneself with reference to both established categories, without belonging entirely or unambiguously to either one. The trans of beyond claims to transcend existing categories or go beyond gender altogether. I argue that each of these can help us think about race and ethnicity in fruitful ways. Racial passing (including “reverse passing” like Dolezal’s) exemplifies the trans of migration, the multiracial movement the trans of between, and indifference or opposition to racial or ethnic categorization the trans of beyond.

Doesn’t sex have a deeper biological basis than race?

RB: Exactly, but this presents us with a paradox. Morphological, physiological, and hormonal differences between the sexes, although not as marked in humans as in many other species, are biologically real and socially consequential. Nothing remotely analogous can be said about racial divisions. Yet as the debates about Jenner and Dolezal showed, it is more socially legitimate to change one’s sex (and gender) than to change one’s race.

How do you explain this?

RB: The distinction between sex and gender – a distinction that has no analogue in the domain of race and ethnicity – has made it possible to think of gender identity as an inner essence that is independent of the sexed body. Yet according to the widespread “born that way” narrative, this inner essence is understood as natural – as unchosen and unchanging. Changing one’s sex or gender does not mean changing one’s identity; it means changing the way one is recognized and classified by others. This usually involves changing one’s self-presentation and may also involve transforming one’s body to bring it into alignment with one’s identity. We have no cultural tools for thinking about racial identity as an inner essence that is independent of the body and knowable only by the individual. A key part of what is understood as constituting racial identity – notably one’s ancestry – is located outside the self and is open to inspection by others. An individual who identifies with an ethnic or racial category to which she is not entitled by ancestry cannot intelligibly make use of the “born in the wrong body” narrative to justify changing her racial classification.

The broad sympathy toward Jenner seemed to suggest that transgender, unlike transracial, had achieved a remarkable degree of mainstream public acceptance. Were you surprised by the more recent controversy over transgender access to bathrooms in schools?

RB: Not really. The shift toward public acceptance of transgender has been astonishingly rapid, but it has been uneven across regions, generations, institutions, and milieux. As transgender claims have moved from insulated settings like liberal arts colleges to mainstream settings like public school systems, and as courts, civil rights agencies, and legislatures have taken action to establish broad transgender rights, it’s unsurprising to see a backlash. Controversy has focused on access to bathrooms and locker rooms, tapping into public anxieties about vulnerable children, sexual predators, and the presence of people with penises in girls’ and women’s spaces. It’s also worth noting that to cultural conservatives, especially religious conservatives, preserving sex and gender boundaries is much more important than maintaining racial and ethnic boundaries. So while Dolezal’s claim to identify as black provoked fiercer opposition than Jenner’s claim to identify as a woman, transgender rights are likely to be far more controversial in the coming years than practices associated with choosing or changing race.

Rogers Brubaker is a sociology professor at the University of of California, Los Angeles. He also is the UCLA Foundation Chair at the University. He focuses on topics such as social theory, ethnicity, citizenship, immigration and nationalism. Brubakers is the author of the books Ethnicity without Groups, Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town and Grounds for DifferenceHis most recent book is Trans: Gender Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Williamsburg

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods.  Today we take a look at Williamsburg:

What was once a largely industrial site in the nineteenth century, a diversified neighborhood in the early twentieth century and a considerably dangerous area in the ’90s, Williamsburg has become a highly sought after and trendy neighborhood.

Once considered a dangerous part of Brooklyn, the neighborhood has gone through a “rebirth” in the northern and eastern sections, with apartment prices “skyrocketing.” It is perhaps the largest rejuvenated neighborhood in New York and one with easy access to Manhattan.

Williamsburg

Porkpie Hatters epitomizes Williamsburg’s “hipster culture.

Many neighborhoods have murals that decorate the buildings along the streets. While walking, Helmreich found stunning murals at the intersection of Meserole and Waterbury Streets:

Those in the know come from all over the world with cameras to view and photograph the murals, many created by well-known graffiti artists like Shepard Fairey, Dasic Fernandez, Werc, Icy and Sot, and Giant Robot. The murals change quite frequently, but they are almost always interesting.

Williamsburg is home to one of the best-known motorcycle shops in the country, Indian Larry Motorcyles, located on Union Street. The shops owner Indian Larry, born Lawrence DeSmedt, was famous for his chopper creations.

His nickname came from a chopper brand that he rode… his creations were featured on the Discovery Channel and in Easy Rider Magazine, and he won all sorts of awards and was therefore widely known to cycle enthusiasts. Inside are beautiful bikes, including two very expensive choppers with stupendous, intricate designs that sell for $350K and $750K. The second one, featured in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, is known as his “Wild Child”.

Williamsburg 2

St. Vincent De Paul Church was built 145 years ago and now houses condos.

Famous for being an industrial site, Williamsburg has preserved the history of its once industrial neighborhood:

Williamsburg’s industrial area is a perfect place to discover what the city looked like in the early twentieth century, when heavy industry and manufacturing dominated — streets like Waterbury, Stagg, Morgan, Ten Eyck, Gardiner, Scholes, and Meadows, among others.

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Greenpoint

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will be running features on some surprising facts about each of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Don’t miss Bill Helmreich at the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, September 18! If you visit our booth and tell him your street, he’ll tell you something you didn’t know about it. Our booth is #406 and Bill will be there 11-12:30 (There may even be ice cream.)


Helmreich begins with a look at the neighborhood known as Greenpoint, which sits at the northern-most part of Brooklyn:

Greenpoint was once heavily populated by Polish immigrants, and some of the streets of the neighborhood are lined with Polish stores and restaurants. Although the Polish influence has grown less concentrated, one can still get a sense of the Polish cultural influences.

The area was already home during the (the nineteenth century) for Polish establishments. The Polish-owned establishments are dwindling, slowly receding into the history of the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Yet one still sees Polish men, likely immigrants, trudging home in their work boots, wearing faded shirts and trousers, at the end of the day, and carrying their knapsacks, usually filled with the tools of their trade. Their weather-beaten faces are creased with the lines of hard work and perhaps the assorted worries and even disappointment that have marked their tansition from the old world, an ocean away.

If some parts of Greenpoint look familiar, that may be because parts of the neighborhood have been used in TV shows and movies. While Helmreich was walking, he saw where The Good Wife was currently being filmed.

On nearby Diamond Street, I pass by Blue Bloods Productions. There’s a trailer that’s been driven here all the way from Universal Studios, California. Right now they’re filming The Good Wife. But in a week or a month it could be another series or film. Greenpoint has, in fact, become a popular location for film/TV studios, and there are quite a few scattered throughout the area.

Helmreich takes note of a garden that is full of a variety of flora. What makes this an interesting garden is its location near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). The juxtaposition of the garden’s scenic environment against the expressway contributes a unique feel to the atmosphere of the park.

(Lentol Garden is) named after former assemblyman and state senator Edward Lentol. The garden, surrounded by an eight-foot-high black steel fence, features juniper and holly trees, a Chinese dogwood, roses, tulips, black-eyed Susans, and other flora and fauna. Inviting looking, wooden benches line a landscape path where you pass by a birdfeeder and a birdbath. I notice that one side of the park border is literally attached to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway… It’s an oasis in a metropolis where every inch of green space counts, even if it’s hard against a major expressway.

Along Hausmann Street, Helmreich noticed that every house, exactly 73 of them, had American flags flying in front of them. A woman he met while admiring the homes explains the reason why:

“The flags have been here since after 9/11, honoring those who fell there, especially Catherine Fagan, who lived here. We keep them up until they get dirty and then we replace them. Most of the owners have lived here for many years and they just decided to do it.”

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

An 816 mile walk in Brooklyn, an interview with William Helmreich

HelmreichIn The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, William B. Helmreich draws on the hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey through all 816 miles of Brooklyn. From gentrified neighborhoods to neighborhoods lost in time, the book is filled with fascinating facts and stories, creating an unforgettable chronicle of one of New York’s hottest boroughs. Helmreich recently took some time to answer questions about the various neighborhoods, how they’ve changed, and what he found interesting on his journey.

You’ve walked so many miles, 6,000 for the first book and now another 800 for the Brooklyn volume. How did this idea come about? 

WH: When I was a kid growing up in New York, my father invented a game called “Last Stop.” to keep me occupied. Every weekend we’d take a subway to the last stop. And then we’d walk around whatever neighborhood it was in. When we went to Canarsie, I looked at what was then just marshland and remember how my teacher told me he’d send me to Canarsie if I didn’t behave. And when I saw how desolate the area was in those days I became a more obedient student. In Throgs Neck I saw people pulling fish out of the water. So that’s where they came from. I said to myself. I had assumed they just came from the tank in the fish store. I was a city kid. I went on these trips from the age of 7 until 12. And that’s how I came to love NYC.

Brooklyn has so many varied neighborhoods. DUMBO and Boerum Hill are gentrified and they’re nothing like Gravesend or Flatlands. What unites them? 

WH: One thing that unites them is change. Boerum Hill is gentrifying, with many young people moving in. Flatlands is becoming home to larger numbers of Orthodox Jews and Gravesend has a growing Russian populations. DUMBO has more professionals moving in as opposed to the earlier generation of artists. 
 
Were you afraid when you walked in unsafe areas like East New York or Brownsville?
 
 
WH: Not really. First of all, even areas thought of as dangerous are relatively safe by day. We have 300 murders a year as opposed to the 90s when over 2,000 people were being killed. Also, 80 percent of these murders are at the hands of people who knew each other. Another important reason was my approach. Most people think they have to put on a tough-guy face when they’re in these areas. That’s wrong. You’re not going to scare people. They can see through you. When ever I saw bad-looking types and in general, with anybody, as soon as I made eye contact, I smiled and greeted them with a big hello. “How ya doin?” I’d say. And this was such a counter-intuitive approach that they melted. 
 
How has Brooklyn changed demographically over time?
 
 
WH: In the old days Italians, Jews, and Irish were the major groups. Today, the main groups taking over Brooklyn are Asians, mostly Chinese; Blacks, especially West Indians and Africans; Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim; Hispanics, most notably Puerto Ricans and Mexicans; and, finally, gentrifiers. 
 
What were some of the most interesting things you saw in Brooklyn? 
 
WH: There were so many things. The man in Bergen Beach who put 1,140 stuffed animals on his tree; the Greenpoint park devoted to plants and trees that produced materials used in industry; the man in Gowanus who kept the grocery store sign in large gold letters in the first floor window of his brownstone out of respect for his Italian grandfather’s struggle to earn a living in America. 
 
Is gentrification good for Brooklyn? 
 
WH: That depends how you look at it and who you are. Let’s say, you’re a black homeowner and you want to make a killing. A white gentrifier offers you 15 times what you paid for it. Suddenly you’re rich and you can buy that farm in North Carolina and retire. But what if you’re a black homeowner living in Bed-Stuy and you want the neighborhood to preserve its history as a center for black history and culture? Then you might feel uncomfortable selling to a white buyer. Gentrification often prices working class-people and the poor out of a neighborhood. But it also results in improved services with respect to sanitation, police patrols, etc. because the gentrifiers have clout. What if new developments have affordable housing units? Is that bad or good and for who? One thing we know nothing about is where those displaced by gentrification went? Did they go to other parts of the same neighborhood? Did they go South or West? Are they in Long Island? We need to know these outcomes if we’re to understand what’s happening here.   

William B. Helmreich  is professor of sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. He has written numerous books and is an award winning author. He is the author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, which won the the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

William B. Helmreich on The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

HelmreichThis September, Princeton University Press is thrilled to release The Brooklyn Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich. You may remember that Helmreich, a professor of sociology, walked every block of New York City to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he’s back, and has re-walked Brooklyn—all 816 miles—to write this one-of-a-kind walking guide to the borough that’s hot with hipsters and rich in history. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with the residents of this diverse, booming, ever-evolving borough, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows captures the heart and soul of the unique city blocks that define cool around the world. In the coming weeks, PUP will be featuring blog posts that highlight a number of the neighborhoods in the book. Don’t miss Helmreich at the upcoming Brooklyn Book Festival, where you can tell him your street, and he’ll tell you something you didn’t know. But first, an introduction to our Brooklyn blog series from William Helmreich himself:

Brooklyn is one of the world’s greatest outdoor museums with something to interest everyone. I took an 800 mile walk through the city’s hottest borough and found that even though neighborhoods differed from each other there were certain things they had in common.

The first is self-image, a belief that Brooklyn is a place on the move, one that has become a world destination. This idea has captured the imagination of Brooklynites wherever they live—not only in the trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg, DUMBO, or Cobble Hill—but the quieter and less well-known communities like Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay, and Gravesend.

Second, Brooklyn is a borough that is constantly changing. Puerto Ricans experience it in South Williamsburg and in Bushwick, when they see gentrifiers moving in. Poles in Greenpoint feel the same when they see gentrifiers arriving on their block. Hasidim and Chinese immigrants get a taste of it as they compete fiercely for homes on the Sunset Park-Borough Park border. Long time residents living in modest ranch homes look on in wonderment as wealthy Russians build McMansions in Mill Basin.

 Third, these changes have resulted in a need for engagement. Groups living near each other are exposed to other peoples’ cultures. Whites become part of the West Indian Parade; Hispanics and whites line up in front of trucks in Red Hook to eat pupusas and quesadillas. Blacks in Crown Heights look on with curiosity as Lubavitcher Hasidim celebrate the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah by dancing in the streets. An African American pokes his head into a Cambodian temple in Flatbush, while an Albanian immigrant in Bensonhurst tries her best to decipher a front lawn filled with statues of American icons—Batman, Al Capone, Iwo Jima, Betty Boop, Elvis Presley, and a photo of Ebbets Field. Of equal importance, Brooklynites meet in the elevators of their buildings, in block associations, churches, in parks, and on beaches. In a crowded city, no man can be an island.

This engagement leads to a fourth aspect of Brooklyn—the incredible diversity of its people. Those who live here come from more than one hundred nations, speaking many different languages. They represent the most of the world’s religions. New Yorkers don’t really have to travel to other countries to experience what’s happening there. Want to know about Russians? Come to Brighton Beach, or as it’s also known, Odessa by the Sea. Want to experience how devout Haitians express themselves religiously? Step into an East Flatbush Church. And if visiting a seaside community is your thing, walk through Gerritsen Beach.

The book I wrote is intended to be a guidebook for those who want to experience Brooklyn in real time. It’s different from other guidebooks in a very important way. It doesn’t focus on the well-known aspects of the borough—famous restaurants or nightclubs, festivals, hotels, bridges, and the like. Rather, its goal is to find the hidden things that people don’t know about.

For example, there’s a man in Bergen Beach who has a tree outside his home from which hang 1,140 stuffed toy animals. In Lefferts Gardens, a man from the Caribbean quietly creates boats, birds, bracelets, and other items from animal horns. He’s a hornsmith, possibly the only one in the country and if you want he’ll tell you about his craft and why it’s special. Stand atop Sunset Park and you’ll see an amazing sunset.

Step into World Class Aquarium on Flatbush Avenue in Marine park and listen as the owner tells you why he loves what he does even if it’s a hard way to earn a living.Travel to East New York and enjoy the delectable cakes and cookies that have been prepared there since 1927.  The place is Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery and they claim the famous recipe for Junior’s cheesecake was stolen from them. Maybe, maybe not, but their version is pretty good. Watch some of the best handball games in the country on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

These are only a few of the many discoveries awaiting those wishing to explore Brooklyn from the ground up. The coming blog posts highlighting neighborhoods featured in The Brooklyn Nobody Knows will give you a real taste of what’s out there.

—William B. Helmreich

Digital Keyword: “Algorithm”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the many uses of the recent keyword algorithm, on loan from Arabic. It is at once a trick of the trade for software programmers, a synecdoche standing in for entire informational systems and their stakeholders in popular discourse, a talisman used by those stakeholders for evoking cultural authority and avoiding blame (e.g., to blame “Facebook’s algorithm” can implicitly shift responsibility away from the company that designed it), and shorthand for the broader sociocultural shift toward, as Gillespie argues, “the insertion of procedure into human knowledge and social experience.”

In rich conversation with Ted Striphas’ essay on culture and Stephanie Ricker Schulte’s essay on personalization, Gillespie clarifies and multiplies the ways the current media environment extends a larger bureaucratic revolution central to modernity.

Tarleton Gillespie: Algorithm

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Katharine Dow on the complex ethics of assisted reproduction

making the good life jacket dowAlthough many don’t know the full scope of current reproductive technologies, opinions and judgments on the ethics involved abound. Katharine Dow explains the intrigue and controversy in Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction. Touching on fears about environmental degradation and the rise of the biotechnology industry, the book offers a new approach to researching and writing about nature, ethics, and reproduction technologies, from IVF to surrogacy. Dow recently agreed to answer a few questions on understanding the impact these technologies have had on our culture.

How did you first become interested in assisted reproductive technologies?

KD: It’s funny because when I first started looking at these issues, during my doctoral studies, a lot of people in my cohort were studying things that they had some personal connection to, and I had no personal experience of IVF, surrogacy or egg or sperm donation. Though, as I discuss in the book, I do have experience of having some rather complicated family relationships like my father’s adoption and discovery of long-lost sisters! I first became interested in assisted reproduction when I was an undergraduate and I had a few lectures on it. I found the thorny philosophical and ethical issues that they raise completely fascinating and so when I came to think about what I would like to research myself, my thoughts turned to assisted reproduction.

Initially, I was particularly interested in surrogacy and I think the reason for that was firstly that it is so obviously to do with gender, which is a perennial interest of mine, and secondly, that it touches on so many taboos and I suppose I’ve always been fascinated with those kinds of things that set off people’s ethical antennae, because then you know you’ve really hit a cultural nerve. I think these sort of taboo subjects can be a great way of digging deeper into how people think. But, as you can tell from the book, I’ve also come to realise that reproduction is often treated as being marginal, yet it is absolutely fundamental to how we think, whether or not we have children – it’s so closely linked with ideas about life, the future, ethical values and even complex concepts like nature, and that’s really one of the overarching points I want to make with the book.

Making a Good Life is unusual in that it looks at what people who are not using assisted reproductive technologies themselves think about these technologies. What do you think that brings to our understanding of assisted reproduction?

KD: Well, first of all, I should make it clear that I think there is enormous value to all the clinic-based ethnographies of assisted reproductive technologies out there, which were instigated early on by feminist theorists wanting to better understand what it was like for people – mostly women – to undergo IVF and so on. That is so important.

Having said that, I am also very aware that most people aren’t personally involved in assisted reproduction, but they are frequently exposed to it through media coverage and public debates and so I felt like a really important part of the puzzle was missing – which is what people think about assisted reproduction and how they respond to it as an ethical ‘problem’. As I say in the book, it’s not that I think patients aren’t objective enough or anything like that, but it’s about recognising that reproduction has very important effects and implications for life more generally and that asking people to really discuss in detail what they think the ethics of assisted reproduction are is a way of getting at some deeper cultural assumptions, which might well be different if you’re not personally invested in the technologies.

So, from an empirical point of view, it’s about filling in a gap in our understanding of these technologies, which are actually crucial to the time we’re living in, in terms of how IVF has provided the platform for a whole biotech industry and what that has done to forms of labour and medical treatments, how they’ve opened up parenthood to gay, lesbian and single parents and so on. But also, it’s questioning the received wisdom about how we social scientists learn about medical technologies. So, I was also interested in playing with the ethnographic method and trying something different.

A sense of place seems to be an important aspect of your book. Can you describe what it was like to do ethnographic research in Spey Bay, this small village in northeast Scotland?

KD: Oh, I often think about Spey Bay, even though it’s quite a few years since I left now. What immediately comes to mind when I think of the place is the look and feel of it – the crunch of pebbles underfoot, the feel of the wind in your face. I think of shared laughter, the scent of woodsmoke and the scrunching sound that Gore-Tex jackets make while you walk. It’s certainly quite different from London, which is where I lived before fieldwork and where I live now.

I started fieldwork as a shy 23-year-old and constantly worried that I wasn’t doing it right. I thought I would hate fieldwork, because it would mean having to be obtrusive and not worrying about whether I looked like a fool if I asked the wrong questions. And of course there were moments like that, but I found an incredibly warm and open group of people there who never seemed to mind me asking them questions or challenged my right to live amongst them. Of course the close – and genuine – friendships I cultivated with people in Spey Bay meant that it was quite difficult to write about them afterwards and I wonder whether they will object to how I’ve represented them, but thanks to them, I really enjoyed fieldwork in the end.

Do you think we are in an age of heightened attention to ethics?

KD: Yes and no. I think we are currently in the midst of a really exciting repoliticisation of public life. I particularly see it amongst students and especially in relation to questions of gender, race and sexuality. In the book, I am writing about people who explicitly think about ethics every day, especially in relation to the environment and I think the ethical living movement has been a really important way of mainstreaming environmental concerns. I accept the criticisms about it not doing enough to challenge capitalism, which is what is really required if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change (as well as ameliorating the myriad inequalities that capitalism is responsible for). But, I also think that there is an ideological move at stake in assuming that a movement or campaign that presents itself as primarily ethical has nothing to do with politics. So I am wary of the idea that an ethical turn is necessarily a turn away from politics. Also, while I’m all for overturning the central assumptions of neoliberal capitalism, I think climate change is tricky because, pragmatically, it requires a global effort and so radicals do have to bring more conservative and moderate people on board and framing the argument in terms of ethics can be a really powerful way of doing that.

So, what’s next for you after completing Making a Good Life?

KD: I’ve been at the University of Cambridge for a couple of years now, where I work in a fantastic research group of people who all work on reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies. In terms of my current research, I’ve been taking some of the themes from Making a Good Life in two different directions. Firstly, I am in the middle of a research project on how the British media represented IVF, particularly focusing on the 1970s and ’80s. It’s been really rewarding to broaden my experience by doing research from more of a cultural studies angle and to do historical and archival research. The public debates about assisted reproduction were a very important backdrop to Making a Good Life, so it’s great to get the chance to look at them in more depth. Secondly, I am working on a new collaborative project with my colleague Janelle Lamoreaux, which looks further at connections between reproduction and the environment. Related to that, I’m currently developing a new multi-sited ethnographic project that looks at informal seed saving and seed swapping in the UK, which I’m really excited about pursuing over the next few years.

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She has written Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction.

Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.