Situating Knowledge Systems – A Summary

Western thought, knowledge, and education systems differ from Indigenous ways of knowing. What this means is that there are certain assumptions that originate from Western European society’s culture, history, and ideology that are quite different from the knowledge systems that are based on the traditions, history, and philosophies of non-Western cultures. Western rationalizations have largely excluded the knowledge systems of the colonized ‘other’ in their discourse, and by this, they produce conditions of social injustice. Dr. Bagele Chilisa has intimate knowledge concerning both the dominant knowledge systems and that of the colonized ‘other’. This is because Dr. Chilisa was born and raised in Botswana, Africa (a former British colony), and educated in a Western academy at Pittsburg University, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and is currently a social science research expert at the University of Botswana. Therefore, with a firm foundation in each worldview, and as an informed response to the prevalence of Euro-Western intellectual domination and the suffering that results, Dr. Chilisa has authored a text, Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012), in which she has placed the philosophies of these two worldviews in conversation with one another in order to form a new framework that she describes as a postcolonial indigenous research paradigm.

Situating Knowledge Systems, the title of chapter one of Indigenous Research Methodologies, provides a framework for understanding the differences between Western and non-Western philosophies and worldviews. In this chapter, Chilisa discussed the need for the decolonization of Western research methodologies, and then she examined various cultural assumptions concerning ontology (the nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of knowledge and truth), and axiology (cultural values). To do this, she compared and contrasted three research paradigms: the positivist, interpretative, and transformative, within the context of a non-Western worldview. Then, Chilisa suggested the integration of relational indigenous ways of knowing with aspects of Euro-Western research paradigms for the dual purposes of decolonizing social science research and legitimizing indigenous knowledge and value systems by constructing an indigenous research paradigm. Thus, situating knowledge systems, concerns the need to examine the cultural assumptions that shape various social science methodologies, and appropriately make changes that will decolonize the hegemonic Western approach by shaping an alternative postcolonial indigenous integrative and relational research paradigm and methodology.

The decolonization of Western research methodologies is necessary in order to give voice to historically silenced perspectives. Western research methodologies move toward decolonization when the research paradigm becomes inclusive of the relational indigenous perspective. Thus, decolonized research methodologies value relationships, and therefore, they recognize and embrace the notion of interconnectedness. They are formulated and framed within indigenous ways of knowing and they are simultaneously respectful of the Indigenous ownership of indigenous knowledge. They open discourse space to topics that have been historically invalidated or silenced. The dismissal of what might be labeled sorcery, or the avoidance of the discussion of colonization, are examples of such silencing. They also adhere to “ethical standards such as the informed consent of the researched” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 3, 4.). Thus, research approaches have a postcolonial indigenous paradigm and method when they are participatory in that they create a ‘third space’ in which to consider the history, experience, perspective, values, needs, and rights of the researched; and when they shift power in such a way as to direct it toward social justice by meeting indigenous goals including the recognition of a relational reality and the right to Indigenous self-determination.

In order to meet the goals of an indigenous research paradigm and methodology, it is necessary to establish a context for understanding how such compares and contrasts with predominant and hegemonic Western research approach. For this reason, Chilisa documented cultural assumptions concerning the nature of social reality (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology), and ethics and value systems (axiology) within three Euro-Western research paradigms: the positivist, interpretative, and transformative. She discussed them and their associated cultural assumptions in detail by scrutinizing each paradigm’s philosophical underpinnings, their ontological assumptions, where each places cultural values in the research process, their assumptions concerning the nature of knowledge and the meaning of ‘truth’, the methodology each employs, and the techniques each uses for gathering data. Each of these cultural values are relevant, yet especially important to consider, though, is the purpose for which each research paradigm has been designed, because the purpose (and the world view that informs it) shapes what is and is not included in the other cultural assumptions. With this context, Chilisa also suggested an alternative framework for an indigenous research paradigm and she listed the cultural assumptions from which it was developed.

Thus, the positivist/postpositivist approach to social science research has been designed in order to discover natural laws that are generalizable and which are universally applicable. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as the scientific method, which is informed by the philosophies of realism, idealism, and critical realism, which in turn, state that there is one objective reality that is (because of human imperfection) only knowable and expressed in terms of probability. The scientific method, because of its universal applicability, is free from cultural values, except when choosing a research topic. Knowledge, in this way is objectively determined where the truth is based on observation and measurements that are verifiable. Positivist/postpositivist research designs use quantitative, correlational, quasi-experimental, experimental, causal comparative, and survey methods. Scientists gather data, primarily through questionnaires, observations, tests, and experiments (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). A shortcoming of this approach is that this sort of research is designed to meet the needs and goals of the researchers, and it may not necessarily address “questions of relevancy” or issues of ethics and morality, but instead further reinforce the dominant group and their particular paradigm (Chilisa, 2012, p. 31.)

On the other hand, the interpretive approach to social science research has been designed in order to understand and describe human nature. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as informed by the philosophies of hermeneutics and phenomenology, which state that reality is socially and multiply constructed where each social group determines its own value system. Knowledge, in this way, is subjective and idiographic where the truth is dependent on context. Interpretive research designs use qualitative, phenomenology, ethnographic, symbolic interaction, and naturalistic methods. Researchers gather data, primarily by the use of interviews, participant observation, pictures, photographs, diaries, and documents (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). A shortcoming of this approach is that this sort of research has a history of unequal power relations, where the researcher has also been the colonizer, and where the result is that indigenous knowledge is likely to be suppressed in favor of Euro-Western paradigms, thus the worldview and practices of former colonized societies might become excluded from the dominant system of knowledge production with the interpretative research paradigm (Chilisa, 2012, pp. 34-35.).

In addition, the transformative approach to social science research has been designed in order to destroy myths and to empower people to change society radically. Chilisa (2012) described this approach as informed by the philosophies of critical theory, postcolonial discourses, feminist theories, race-specific theories, and neo-Marxist theories, which state that multiple realities exist, which in turn, are shaped by human rights values, democratic and social justice values, and political, cultural, economic, race, ethnic, gender, and disability values. Knowledge, in this way, is dialectical in understanding, which is aimed at critical praxis and is informed by a theory that unveils illusions. Transformative research designs use a combination of quantitative and qualitative action research, and participatory research. Researchers gather data by using culturally responsive techniques of data collection (pp. 40-41, paraphrased.). The transformative approach to social science research has addressed shortcomings of the positivist/postpositivist and the interpretative methods, yet is still not indigenous because it is not culturally situated in Indigenous ways of knowing.

On the other hand, the indigenous approach to social science research has been designed with a very different purpose that is shaped by a very different worldview. The indigenous approach is designed to “challenge deficit thinking and pathological descriptions of the formerly colonized and reconstruct a body of knowledge that carries hope and promotes transformation and social change among the historically oppressed” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). What this means is that the indigenous approach is much the same as the transformative research paradigm in that it is informed by the empowering philosophies of “critical theory, postcolonial discourses, feminist theories, critical race-specific theories, and neo-Marxist theories” but it is distinct in that it is also informed by indigenous knowledge systems (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Therefore, an indigenous paradigm and methodology integrates what is useful in Euro-Western paradigms with indigenous ways of knowing in order to create a new paradigm and methodology that is uniquely designed to meet the needs of Indigenous people.

Additionally, the indigenous paradigm is similar to the interpretive and transformative research paradigms in that it assumes multiple realities, yet it holds the further distinction that communicates the indigenous worldview. Thus, indigenous assumptions about reality hold that there are “[s]ocially constructed multiple realities” that are “shaped by the set of multiple connections that human beings have with the environment, the cosmos, the living, and the nonliving” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Knowledge, in this way, holds that “all research must be guided by a relational accountability that promotes respectful representation, reciprocity, and rights of the researched” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 40.). Therefore, an indigenous paradigm and methodology recognizes interconnectedness, human rights/animal rights/environmental rights ethics as integral to the nature of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, and this shapes the approach.

Thus, indigenous research designs are unique. They use “participatory, liberatory, and transformative research approaches and methodologies that draw from indigenous knowledge systems” (Chilisa, 2012, p. 42.). Unlike western methods, researchers using an indigenous paradigm and methodology gather data using “techniques based on philosophic sagacity, ethnophilosophy, language frameworks, indigenous knowledge systems, talk stories, and talk circles” and they use these in conjunction with techniques adapted from Western paradigms (Chilisa, 2012, p. 42.). In this way, indigenous methodology situates first, the indigenous worldview and ways of knowing and integrates this with what is useful from the Western academy when conducting social science research with indigenous and otherwise marginalized populations.

Thus, Dr. Bagele Chilisa has, in order to decolonize social science research paradigms and methodologies, put forth a postcolonial framework for indigenous research. This framework is inclusive of the Western worldview and methodologies, but it is critical in that it examines the purpose of each of three Western paradigms, understanding that each has its unique notions concerning what it values, and what is real and true. For this reason, the positivist/postpositivist, the interpretative, and the transformative paradigms are not truly effectual for Indigenous social science research, because indigenous ways of knowing are distinct. Thus, in order to give voice to traditionally silenced ways of understanding what is real, true, and valued; Chilisa has shaped a postcolonial indigenous research paradigm and methodology. This paradigm creates a space to conduct research that is not only about Indigenous (otherized) people, but instead is inclusive of Indigenous life experience, worldviews, and ways of knowing. In this way, Chilisa has situated Indigenous ways of knowing at the front, yet along with Western knowledge systems, blending the past and the present across multiple ways of knowing, in order to shape a new future where social science research methods legitimize the experience, perspective and wisdom of historically oppressed Peoples within and without the Western academy. An indigenous social science research framework fosters hope and creativity in order to shape strategies designed to meet Indigenous goals and needs.

References:

Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE Publications.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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A Stereotypically Objective Paradigm

To be objective is to hold assumptions about reality and the nature of truth without considering context. This is the scientific method, and it is imperfect in that it is generally understood that because of human error, truth can only be known and expressed in terms of probability when discussing human behavior. The scientific method eliminates what the researchers find to be false in order to ‘bring knowledge closer to ‘the’ truth,’ rather than proving something true. This is the reason for expressing scientific knowledge about human behavior in terms of probabilities. Furthermore, when context is taken into consideration, the generalizations that the scientific method produces may no longer hold true in individual cases. What, then, is produced by scientific objectivity in the social sciences?

Objectivity produces a mind that thinks in terms of generalizations. Classifying the world in this way also results in what social science research expert, Dr. Bagele Chilisa (2012) described as a “paradigm that becomes essentialized, compelling thought along binary opposites of either/or,” and that way of thinking underlies notions of ‘us and them’ when thinking about people (p. 25.). What this means is that when we generalize about people, thinking in terms of either/or, we are very likely to ‘otherise’ people. Otherizing takes place when we think in terms of generalizations about individuals (others), who we perceive (and maybe incorrectly so) to belong to certain groups, who we then perceive (and maybe incorrectly so) to hold certain characteristics, and this way of thinking can block the way of truly getting to know and understand individual particularity. Objectivity, then, we can reason, produces a mind that is likely perceive and classify individuals in general terms concerning characteristics that we have attached to certain groups; in other words, obective thinking likely leads to the stereotyping of individuals.

Chilisa, B. (2011). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE Publications.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How to Think Straight about Psychology by K.E. Stanovich – A Summary

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Keith E. Stanovich, PhD., Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, has authored a classic titled, How to Think Straight About Psychology (1986). Introductory courses in psychology, critical thinking, statistics, and research methodology often use this text, currently in its tenth edition (How to Think Straight, n.d.). According to Stanovich, and perhaps the primary reason for writing the text is the fact that, the public’s understanding of psychology is quite different from psychology as a modern science that explains the underlying functions that shape human attitudes and behavior. That is to say, to many people, the field of psychology is not a real science, but a pseudo-science instead. To think straight about psychology, then, is to understand that the field is, indeed, based on the scientific method, as are other sciences. Thus, this text describes people’s many misconceptions and reservations about the field of psychology and it offers its readers a true representation of the field as a modern and scientific psychology and it explains how this science functions.

How to Think Straight about Psychology (2010) opens chapter one with a discussion of what Stanovich named The Freud Problem, which is a general perception that psychology primarily consists of Freudian-style psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) based his approach to psychology primarily on theories that he developed by examining case studies that did not involve scientific empirical evaluation. Stanovich’s response to this public misconception about psychology in general, was to document the great diversity that exists in the field of psychology. The field of psychology includes more than fifty-four different divisions, where psychoanalysis is perhaps only about ten percent of the whole (Stanovich, 2010, p 3.). Additionally, he discussed how the scientific method, which uses systematic empiricism, publicly verifiable knowledge, and testable theories, describes the majority of the psychological studies that occur today. In this way, Stanovich made clear that the relatively new science of psychology is, in fact, a legitimate and true science and he provided much detail throughout the remaining chapters in order to convey this fact to his readers.

Stanovich first discussed how scientific psychological research uses the falisifiability criterion when formulating a scientific hypothesis. The falsifiability criterion establishes that “scientific theories must always be stated in such a way that the predictions derived from them could potentially be shown to be false” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 20.). This notion, perhaps, sounds counterintuitive at first, if one is thinking that an experiment ought to prove something true. In reality though, because the body of knowledge increases and changes over time, it is better to understand that the scientific method works to eliminate what is false in order to bring psychological knowledge “closer to the truth” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 34.). Therefore, a good hypothesis is a based on a testable theory, and it poses specific predictions of outcomes. Predictions that are more specific result in stronger support of the theory. False confirmations lead to new theories and new hypotheses, and in this way, they too, add to the body of scientific knowledge. A good hypothesis also interconnects with other scientific knowledge. In contrast to scientific falsifiable research methods that include specific predictions, Freud’s theories were case studies where theories were established after the observed behavior. The lack of scientific evidence is the reason that Freudian methods have generally fallen out of favor. Thus, an important aspect of scientific psychological research concerns the principle of falsifiability, which does not always result in finding the truth, but instead allows psychological analysis to get closer to the truth.

For that reason, a scientific psychological theory is not the same as essentialism, which requires finding an ultimate explanation of phenomena. Instead, “science advances,” according to Stanovich (2010), “by developing operational definitions” (p. 35.). Developing operational definitions is another concept that may be easily misunderstood. Scientists who are developing operational definitions are not coming to an agreement on the definition of words. Instead, an operational definition links concepts to observable and measurable events. This allows for replicability in experimentation that is also publicly verifiable. Operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated, facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge.

There are some obstacles that interfere with people’s ability to understand the importance of a scientific psychological explanation of human behavior, though. One is the prevalence of the general population’s faith in personal testimonies and case studies as providing valid explanations. Yet, both personal testimonies and case studies have limited usefulness in scientific psychological studies. This is because there may be biases present in personal testimonies, such as the vividness effect, where the vividness of information makes select information more accessible from memory (Stanovich, 2010, p. 59.). Furthermore, the placebo effect may negatively affect and invalidate case studies and testimonials. For these reasons, testimonials and case studies are not scientific psychological studies. Therefore, testimonials and case studies may be useful in the development of theories and hypothesis, but because of their limitations, any evidence, regardless of how vivid and convincing it may be, might be invalid, and therefore such evidence calls for further scientific testing.

Another often-misunderstood concept concerning what shapes human behavior is the difference between correlation and causation. That is, the relationship between two variables is a correlation and there may or may not be a causal relationship between the two. It could be that there is no causation. Or else there may be a spurious correlation, where there exists a third variable, which is the causation (Stanovich, 2010, p. 76.). Additionally, correlations do not account for biases, such as a selection bias. Neither do correlations indicate the direction of causation, if such causation exists. Fortunately though, scientific experimentation, in which researchers manipulate variables, can determine whether a causal relationship exists in addition to detecting the direction of causation while at the same time ruling out selection bias when concluding the causes of human behavior.

Thus, scientists create experiments in which they manipulate variables to investigate correlations in order to discover causation. To elaborate, in an experiment, a scientist manipulates only one variable and holds the others constant while observing for effect. This eliminates the possibility of a third variable. To illustrate this, Stanovich (2010) told an interesting story about Clever Hans, which was a case where experimental control proved to be especially valuable in explaining a curious animal behavior (pp. 96-99.). Clever Hans was a horse who seemed to have superior intelligence in the area of mathematics. That is, clever in math only until observation revealed that Clever Hans was only as accurate as was the person testing him. Further scientific testing revealed that what Clever Hans was especially good at was reading human body language, and for this reason, he responded to subtle cues when tapping out ‘results to mathematical problems’. This story explains why scientific testing can reveal information about behavior where human intuition falls short. Experimentation, then, is essential in psychological research, yet, the necessary method of manipulating variables in order to reveal causation of behavior is sometimes difficult to perform in a natural setting, therefore scientists find creative solutions.

This is the reason that scientists create special conditions for the purpose of experimentation. The purpose of most psychological experiments is to test for “the underlying mechanisms that influence human behavior” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 120.). In this type of theory-driven research, it is not necessary to test in a real life situation, but rather with basic research of this sort, artificial situations prove beneficial. Less stringent random samples and representative situations (e.g. using college sophomores or even mice as the subjects of research) can be adequate. In contrast, direct application research requires more rigorous research samples and other methods such as cross-cultural research. Thus, the purpose of the psychological experiment determines its design such that theory-driven research requires less stringent samples and methods, than does direct-application psychological research.

It is also good to know that scientific psychological research has a different sort of framework than do other types of science. That is to say, an Einstein-like “breakthrough model of scientific progress” is not the best model for describing causes of human behavior (Stanovich, 2010, p.123.). This is because psychological research uses a framework that can be described as a “gradual-synthesis model,” which adheres to the connectivity principle and expresses converging evidence. Gradual synthesis describes the notion that science is “a cumulative endeavor” . . . “that is characterized by the participation of many individuals, whose contributions are judged by the extent to which they further our understanding of nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 126.). Thus, in scientific psychological research, instead of producing ‘breakthroughs’, each experiment, although it may not be a definitive explanation, connects with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rules out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth.

Another important aspect that needs consideration with regard to scientific psychological research is that determinants of human behavior are never singular in cause. Stanovich cautions his readers to remember that human behaviors are “multiply determined” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 145.). Thus, because of the complexity involved in human interactions, studying human behaviors in isolation could result in misleading outcomes. Therefore, it is important to remember that human behaviors do not have only one single cause, but instead the determinants of human behaviors consist of complex interactions, and for this reason, a scientific theory and explanation will recognize that behaviors have multiple causes.

Sometimes, thinking about psychological analysis of human behavior poses difficulty in that the reasoning involved in scientific conclusions is, at times, difficult to understand. This is because the probabilistic conclusions of scientific psychological research are generalizations about human behavior, and therefore do not apply in all cases. Additionally, when thinking about probabilistic information, it is critical to take into consideration sample size when analyzing the information (Stanovich, 2010, p. 161.). It is important to remember that a larger sample size provides greater accuracy. Furthermore, when thinking about probabilities, some people tend to see correlations where none exists, such as what takes place in gambling (Stanovich, 2010, p. 163-164.). Vivid testimonials can seem more compelling than statistical information, too. Even with the challenges in understanding scientific probabilistic information, the generalized information about human behavior that it provides is nevertheless useful in that it can predict group trends, even when such does not apply to individual cases.

A final obstacle that sometimes impedes the correct interpretation of scientific psychological predictions of human behavior is the probability of chance. The role of chance in psychology is often misunderstood. A degree of chance and coincidence play a role in the accuracy of predictions, and for this reason, individual predictions about human behavior are therefore impossible. Therefore it should be strongly affirmed that, “[c]linical prediction doesn’t work” (Stanovich, 2010, p. 180.). Thus, it is necessary to know that scientific psychological predictions are not accurate for individual cases, but instead, such predictions express aggregate group statistical trends, known as actuarial predictions.

With all of these misconceptions concerning the field of psychology and the nature of the science it employs for its research, it is not surprising then, that the discipline suffers from a negative image. Popular culture, for example, shapes negative stereotypes concerning the field of psychology, e.g., the prevalence of parapsychology and self-help literature presented as psychology in mass media outlets – “pseudoscience masquerading as psychology” as Stanovich named it (Stanovich, 2010, p. 186.). So too, does the fact that many psychological studies are interdisciplinary in nature, and when critical new knowledge is shared with the public, it is sometimes presented as being the findings of a more ‘respectable’ science. The evidence of the effect of television violence on children’s behavior presented by the American Medical Association is one such example (Stanovich, 2010, p. 192.). Not only that, sometimes psychologists, themselves, engage in behaviors that give the discipline a negative image, too. Stanovich (2010) noted, “psychology has a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality” where “[e]xtremely rigorous science exists right alongside pseudoscientific and anti-scientific attitudes” (p. 199.). Psychologists, then, need to actively work to improve this negative image of the discipline of psychology.

Other areas of society have established a means to improve psychology’s image. Stanovich (2010) wrote that the Supreme Court has led the way in the effort to improve psychology’s image when it established, in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow, that four factors must considered when deliberating to allow expert testimony; paraphrased, they are:

  • The ‘testability’ of the theoretical basis for the opinion (falsifiability)
  • The error rates associated with the approach (probabilistic prediction)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach concerning the opinion has been based on peer review (public knowledge)
  • Whether or not the technique or approach is generally accepted by the scientific community (principle of converging evidence) (p. 204.).

In this way, “unscientific and unfounded claims concerning human behavior, such as introspection, personal experience, and testimonials are all considered inadequate tests of claims about human nature” (Stanovich, 2010, p, 204.). This court ruling helps to ensure that when people visit a psychotherapist, or when a school counselor tests a learning-disabled child, for example, they are not engaging with unsubstantiated pseudo-scientific treatments, but they are engaging with therapies based on scientific evidence, instead.

Thus, although the discipline of psychology is often misunderstood and currently carries a negative image, it is in fact, a true science that provides valuable benefits to society. Scientific psychological research investigates solvable problems by the use of empirical methods to falsify what is untrue in order to get closer to the truth concerning the determinants of human behavior. To do this, the scientists develop operational definitions, which link concepts to measurable and observable behavior that can be publicly replicated; and by this, they facilitate the growth of and widen the spread of the body of scientific knowledge. Science is different from testimonials or case studies in that it uses experimentation, in which variables are manipulated in order to test theories and hypotheses, which can determine whether a causal relationship exists in correlations. Scientific psychological research integrates the results of each experiment with other conclusions that act in a collective fashion that rule out some reasons, and by this, scientific psychological research brings explanations of human behavior closer to the truth. Scientific theories and explanations developed by psychologists will recognize that determinants of human behaviors are complex and that they have multiple causes and their findings will recognize this. That is why their findings are represented as generalizations and probabilities that are useful in the prediction of group trends only. Understanding how to think about psychology can help each of us to better evaluate psychological claims that we encounter in popular culture, so that we may distinguish between true scientific psychological research and that of unfounded pseudo-scientific claims. In this way, the scientific discipline of psychology can help all of us to better understand the underlying causes of human behavior in addition to the world events that take place around us.

References:

How To Think Straight About Psychology. (n.d.). Psych Central.com. Retrieved September 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/how-to-think-straight-about-psychology/0007892

Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Indian Identity, Transformation, Continuity and Resilience

 

Wilma Mankiller (1045-2010), Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, gave a speech at Sonoma State University in 2008, in which she spoke about the misconceptions held by many in mainstream society, of Native American Peoples.  She provided a brief review of American history in order to help clear up common misconceptions of Indian identity, transformation, continuity and resilience.

Folks in mainstream U.S. culture sometimes think of Indians as a cultural relic of the past, as rather an artifact or as people in need of ‘advancement’.  Mankiller spoke of the importance of context, such as time and place, in relation to understanding Native American Peoples. Native American Peoples are diverse groups of people still living who enjoy modern lifestyles.

Clearing up the common misconception of a singular ‘Indian’ identity, Chief Mankiller discussed some of the 550 plus tribal groups, speaking of their distinct political structures, their unique histories, languages, beliefs, customs and ceremonies. Many in mainstream U.S. culture are unaware of the cultural and historical complexity of Native American societies.

Mankiller provided her audience context for understanding Native Americans living today with a brief discourse on Indian Nation and U.S. relations. She pointed out that many people in mainstream U.S. society do not know the full details of American history, including the Native American perspective, whereas Native Americans have been compelled to learn and adapt to the dominant culture’s perspective and lifestyle. Ignorance about both the history and the current reality relative to Native American people can lead to the misunderstanding of the issues with which Native Americans currently struggle.

Native Americans embrace and hold onto their unique cultural heritage while they also work to adapt to the dominant culture. Sometimes adjusting is difficult, but Mankiller spoke of maintaining a positive attitude as key to living a happy and productive life. She stressed that it is important to remain positively focused because, as she said, “It is hard to see the future with tears in your eyes or anger in your heart (Mankiller).”  Thus, Chief Mankiller showed us that Native Americans are a resilient people; they find positive ways to adapt to change.

In this speech, Chief Wilma Mankiller demonstrated for the audience that Native Americans, are a resilient, living modern people who are adapting to their new circumstances while at the same time they embrace their unique cultural heritages and lifestyles.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Haudenosaunee Peacemaker: Originator of American Democracy

There is an ancient legend that tells how the Haudenosaunee (commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy) was formed. Today, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy consists of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and the Tuscarora American Indian Nations. These nations historically inhabited the lands that surround the North American Great Lakes, known as the Eastern Woodlands cultural area. This is in the area of North America that is now known as the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in the U.S. and the southern regions of the Maritime provinces of Canada.

Oren Lyons, the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, on July 3rd, 1991, spoke with journalist Bill Moyers telling him about The Legend of the Gai Eneshah Go’ Nah (the Great Law of Peace), which was given to his people by a man who they call The Peacemaker.

In this interview, Mr. Lyons explained that over a thousand years ago the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and the Mohawk people had been engaged in constant conflict with one other. Violence and bloodshed had become a way of life. Then a spiritual man, known as The Peacemaker, came to the Five Nations and gave them instructions on how to live together in peace.  Later, the Tuscarora people, who because of the negative effects of colonization, migrated from the south and joined the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The instructions that The Peacemaker gave are known as The Great Law of Peace, which governs the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to this day.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was the first American democracy, and it is the one after which the ‘Founding Fathers’ patterned the U.S. Constitution.

Yet, the notion of ‘democracy’ has a slightly different meaning for the Haudenosaunee people than it does for the dominating U.S. culture. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a rather egalitarian form of government, a specific type of direct democracy called a participatory democracy, in which there is a belief in the need for consensus and the sharing of power. The Haudenosaunee people believe that law, society and nature are equal partners, each holding important roles.  While in a similar yet distinct way, the U.S. form of government is a representative democracy, where, essentially, the majority rules in a power-over fashion within a system of hierarchical power structures. Thus, in America, the term ‘democracy’ is a shared symbol that embodies different meanings, depending on the worldview of the people using the term.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Examining My Assumptions About Money, Wealth, Possessions

I have come to understand that how mainstream U.S. culture has taught me to think about money, wealth and possessions (that is, to highly value those things and to desire them increasingly more and more) as something that is likely to promote violence. The reason that I say this, is because of how I ‘heard’ a Native American view, which was the expressed opposition to overvaluing money. Specifically, Aleck Paul, a Chippewa, explained in Our Stock of  Food and Clothes (Nabokov, 1999, pp. 85-87.)

When the white people came, they commenced killing all the game. They left nothing on purpose to breed and keep up the supply, because the white man don’t care about the animals. They are after the money. After the white man kills all of the game in one place he can take the train and go three hundred miles or more to another and do the same there (Nabokov, 1999, p. 86.).

What Mr. Paul was expressing was that when the European immigrants came into Chippewa territory, they would exploit the resources without regard for maintaining environmental sustainability. Their only concern was to make as much profit as possible from their exploitations of the environment, and then move on to do the same elsewhere once the resources were depleted. This was different than the Chippewa way.

In contrast to this sort of environmentally devastating behavior, Mr. Paul explained that the Chippewa act differently. They do not need government regulation concerning hunting. This is because the Chippewa “must protect the game or starve,” Paul said (Nabokov, 1999, p. 87.).  In other words, the Chippewa people do not need governmental regulation because they act with self-regulation.

After gaining this Native American perspective on resource management, I question the assumptions that I have learned about the capitalistic ideals of competition and profit and consumption. I now see that if a person’s priority is to ‘get ahead’, and get wealthy, that person may be too focused on those goals in order to be able to see that such actions are detrimental in the long term. Therefore, when a society is culturally taught to overvalue wealth, competition and consumption – and especially acquiring beyond one’s need, it is likely that resources will be depleted in such a way that others are unable to have their needs met. Then, unmet needs increase competition such that conflict is likely to result – thus the need for governance.

In essence, what I have concluded from Mr. Paul’s story is that when people act with self-regulation there is likely to be less conflict and less need for other-governance. Yet, if some people are competing in order to get ahead, those who self-regulate will be ‘left behind’. This too can cause conflicts. Therefore, self-regulation promotes peace only when everyone self-regulates. The two different life-ways are incompatible.

References:

Nabokov, P. (1999). Native American testimony: a chronicle of Indian-white relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-2000. Penguin Group USA.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

American History: Facts, Legends or Myths?

I have recently discovered that for much of my life, what I have known about U.S. history has been based on partial truths. This is because much of what mainstream U.S. culture ‘knows’ of American history is based on legends and myths.

According to anthropologist, Dr. Rhianna Rogers, A legend is a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person.  Legends have important meanings or symbolism for the culture in which they originate. They include elements of truth, or are based on historical facts, but they also have ‘mythical qualities’.  They can involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originated.

Rogers also stated that a myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has deep symbolic meaning. Myths convey ‘a truth’ to those who tell them and hear them, rather than necessarily recording a true event.  Myths may be accounts of actual events that have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Often, myths are used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years. Examples of such myths are certain creation stories.

‘American’ myths include the myth of Manifest Destiny, for example. Manifest Destiny was the notion that it was the duty of the ‘enlightened’ European people to bring ‘civilization’ to the ‘savage’ inhabitants of the ‘New World’ that they ‘discovered’. I now know that myths, such as these, began as a way for Europeans to justify the taking of the land and their attempt to exterminate the people who lived in the New World, and many of these myths have persisted over time, even to this day.

Myths, such as those related to the Manifest Destiny, many times, began as works of art that were created by non-Natives and they presented a simplified and romanticized version of the conquest of the continent and also of the Native Americans.

Image Source:  http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180

As students begin to describe what they see, they quickly realize that they’re looking at a kind of historical encyclopedia of transportation technologies. The simple Indian travois precedes the covered wagon and the pony express, the overland stage and the three railroad lines. The static painting thus conveys a vivid sense of the passage of time as well as of the inevitability of technological progress. The groups of human figures, read from left to right, convey much the same idea. Indians precede Euro-American prospectors, who in turn come before the farmers and settlers. The idea of progress coming from the East to the West, and the notion that the frontier would be developed by sequential waves of people (here and in Turner’s configuration, always men) was deeply rooted in American thought.For example, American Progress (circa 1872), a painting by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the good that was supposedly inherent in the westward expansion of European notions of civilization.  This was shown by portraying the progression of technology and economic activity. Historian Martha A. Sandweiss of Amherst College explained,

Consider, also, this portrait of westward expansion, Attack on an Emigrant Train, from an advertising poster, ca 1910.

Image Source:  http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/46.html

In this way, certain artifacts – that is, works of art created by artists who held biased views – became a sort of ‘objective’ record of history that future novelists used to expand the myths. An example of such is Beadle’s Half Dime Library. New York, Beadle and Adams. Vol. XIV, No. 350. (Mass Market Appeal 2 of 19), which according to the Bancroft Library, stereotyped Native/non-Native encounters stating that, “Amid kidnapping, drinking, and wilderness pursuits”,  author Ned Buntline introduced “Indian warriors who succumb to the wiles of ‘fire-water’ and tobacco and others who carry out a heartless massacre that forever separates the young lovers.”This is a portrait of a “Madonna-like mother and child, a Florence Nightingale version of a young woman tending to a wounded man, the heroic ‘white father’ leading the pioneers’ defense, a black man offering assistance, and the ever-faithful family dog straining to meet the attackers” (Bancroft, Mass Market Appeal 19 of 19). By representing the European immigrants as the victims and Native people as bloodthirsty savages, the creators of such works also portrayed colonial imperialism as ‘promoting peace’.

Image Source: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/04.html

Later, popular culture and mass media expanded the myths even more. Consider the stereotyped image of the ‘savage warrior’ as it was represented in popular magazines such as Western Story.The caption for the cover illustration reads, “SUDDENLY, THE WHIZ OF AN ARROW WAS HEARD, AND THE ARM OF THE WRETCH WAS LITERALLY PINNED TO THE TREE.  Stereotypical characters assist in the generation of the ‘us against them’ narrative that creators of dramas rely on in order to engage their audiences.

Image Source:  http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/05.html

Consider, also, the stereotypical representations of the American cowboy that appeared in cinema, such as the 1934 motion picture film, The Lawless Frontier, a ‘cowboy and Indian’ action picture,  which starred ‘Western’ film icon John Wayne.

Image Source:  http://www.mikeclinesthenplaying.com/2011/09/june-1935-movie-listings.html

Consider also, the stereotypical Indian princess in the 1995 Disney animation film, Pocahontas.

Image Source:  http://www.tripleclicks.com/detail.php?item=55967

Stereotypical notions of the ‘savage warrior’, the ‘American cowboy’, and the ‘Indian princess’ dominate mainstream mass media and therefore public notions of such figures in history. Images such as these are so pervasive, that, many times, we hardly notice them:

Image Source: http://www.lemhi-shoshone.com/salmon_savages_mascot.html

Image Source: http://www.old-ads.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Marlboro_ad.jpg

Image Source: http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/4219/2912/1600/landolakes.jpg

Until someone demands our attention:

Then, perhaps we begin to see. Much of what mainstream U.S. culture ‘knows’ about Native Americans comes from sources that are less-than-credible: Our knowledge, for the most part, consists of stereotypes of American historical figures that have been commodified and perpetuated such that our ‘remembrance’ of the past is now less-than-accurate. I have come to see that, for the most part, there has been precious few portrayals of Native people as intelligent actors, who were defending their homes, family and heritage. More portrayals of Native people in all the roles in which they engage would help to balance perceptions of these marginalized, objectified, and for the most part, socially excluded group of American people.

Works such as Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-white Relations From Prophecy to the Present (Nabokov, 1999) offer their readers a much needed historical view from the Native American perspective.

Image Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54990.Native_American_Testimony

The description from the back cover reads,

In a series of powerful and moving documents, anthropologist Peter Nabokov presents a history of Native American and white relations as seen through Indian eyes and told through Indian voices: a record spanning more than five hundred years of interchange between the two peoples. Drawing from a wide range of sources – traditional narratives, Indian autobiographies, government transcripts, firsthand interviews, and more – Nabokov has assembled a remarkably rich and vivid collection, representing nothing less than an alternative history of North America. Beginning with the Indian’s first encounters with the earliest explorers, traders, missionaries, settlers, and soldiers and continuing to the present, Native American Testimony presents an authentic, challenging picture of an important, tragic, and frequently misunderstood aspect of American history.

This book has drawn me into a world and a history that, until now, I had not known existed. This is expanding my knowledge of American history.  I am no longer relying quite so much on the semi-true stories, of heroic characters of ‘American’ lore, or the creation myths of America’s origins that have dominated ‘American’ history.  I am now able to compare and contrast the stories told by many narrators, in order to develop a more complete picture of a very complex social order.  It is interesting to see that many of the Native narratives in Nabokov’s book contain the very same elements of legends and myths in the Native historical record, as exists in mainstream U.S. culture. I think that now, when I read different views of the past, I will be less interested in knowing ‘the facts’ and more engaged in seeking out ‘the truths’ that people hope to share when they create such stories.

Works Cited

 “Mass Market Appeal (2 of 19).” Mass Market Appeal (2 of 19). N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/04.html&gt;.

“Mass Market Appeal (19 of 19).” Mass Market Appeal (19 of 19). N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/46.html&gt;.

Nabokov, Peter. Native American testimony: a chronicle of Indian-white relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-2000. Rev. ed. New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Rogers, Rhianna. “Interpreting the Past and Present: Myths and Stereotypes in US History.” U.S. History Throuogh Ethnology. Empire State College. May 2013. Reading.

Sandweiss, Martha A.. “John Gast, American Progress, 1872.” Picturing US History All. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180&gt;.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Stereotyping Native Americans

The view of native people by the mainstream and dominating culture of the U.S. has changed over time.  The composers of early images and descriptions of native people in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkley, for example, tended to overtly objectify the subjects of their compositions, presumably with full support from mainstream society.  One way that the native people were objectified in this way is that they were not necessarily represented in an accurate way, but rather they were represented as an exotic novelty, and their way of life and their image (accurate or not) was something which could be consumed as a form of interesting entertainment by the dominating mainstream culture.  Sometimes this consumption took the form of education as in the example of the Lantern Slides Relating to Ishi, ca. 1911-1916 (n.d.).  Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yano (Yahi) group of Native Americans.  The caption that described this image of Ishi explained that he was posed and that the many photographs designed in this way “may tell us more about the photographers than they do about the subject” (Lantern Slides, n.d.).  Other times this sort of cultural consumption took the form of stereotypical notions of native people as a means to sell products, as evident in the image on the advertising labels for “Mountain Chief”, which offered a romanticized and noble depiction of North American natives as a positive image for selling oranges (Schmidt Lithograph, n.d.).

These are only two examples of the many ways in which native cultures have been historically ‘consumed’ by a dominating culture that wishes to capitalize on their uniqueness. More recently, the mainstream and dominating culture in the U.S. has become more aware of the harmful nature of this sort of attitude and actions toward native people.   This is evidenced in the recent negative attention given to team mascots that represent native people in unwanted fashion.  No longer does mainstream society so readily embrace the overt exploitation of ‘others’.  In response to this new understanding, there is effort to represent native people “simply as people” and “like any other people” with “strengths and weaknesses as well as valuable contributions” to society (Sutton, 2012, p.17.).  Even though many of the stereotypical notions and exploitation of native people still exist in contemporary society, awareness and change toward a more accurate representation, a greater equality and social justice for all is finally beginning to take shape.

Sometimes, different historical views may conflict with one another, perhaps one may be considered more ‘accurate’ while another has been proven to be a less-than-accurate depiction of past events such as the above mentioned stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans.  Yet, thinking in terms of accurate or inaccurate depictions of history may be a stumbling block in an effort to gain a deep understanding of the past.  What I mean by this is that when looking at historical artifacts, it would be good to think of them not so much as truth or untruth, but rather as perspectives of a larger historical record (only a small part of a more complete story).  For example, the paintings by George Catlin of romanticized and idealized Native America and Native Americans, which are displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Campfire Stories, n.d.), are an example of the perspective and purpose of the specific man, George Catlin. We can learn from those paintings about one perspective that can then be compared and contrasted to other perspectives of both then and now.  Perhaps Catlin’s work can be compared to other ‘American’ artists or other male artists, and likewise they can be contrasted to Native-American or feminine depictions of the past and/or of the present, this, in order to discover similarities and differences in the many historical perspectives.  Compiling and combining information in this way, and comparing and contrasting the many perspectives or stories over time, allows for a more complete picture of a very complex social reality.  Therefore, it may at first seem logical to disregard historical views that have proven to be less-than-accurate, but to do so would limit our ability to learn about and learn from the past.  Instead of disregarding certain aspects of the historical record, we can understand that there are many historical views of history and when these differing views are combined, a more complete understanding of both the past and the present may then emerge.

Reference:

Campfire Stories with George Catlin.  (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum:  Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 23, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html

Lantern Slides Relating to Ishi, ca. 1911-1916. (n.d.). The Bancroft Library:  Portraits of Native Americans – Early Ethnography. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/23.html

Schmidt Lithograph Company Records. Advertising Labels, Volume VI., ca. 1950.. (n.d.). The Bancroft Library:  Portraits of Native Americans – “ Mass Market Appeal. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/35.html

Sutton, M. Q. (2012). An introduction to native North America (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Understanding Artistic Representations of Native Americans

George Catlin and other non-native painters offered viewers of their works of art a glimpse of their own perspectives concerning native people. Catlin’s works of art, which are displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Campfire Stories, n.d.), for example, were designed for multiple purposes. Catlin stated that he wished to capture the life and culture of Native-Americans before they (as he supposed they would) disappeared altogether as a result of displacement and genocide.  It appears that Catlin attempted to portray natives as close to what he presumed they were like before the disruption of Western European invasion.  Most of the paintings show idealized images of the landscape and of native people and very few of his paintings offer images that show the negative impact of colonization on these people. One of the few paintings by Catlin that offers a depiction of a Native-American impacted by the colonizer is of Wi-jn-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington (n.d.).

Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From Washington

In a less than flattering fashion, Catlin described Wi-jn-jon’s appearance on his return trip from Washington, as dressed in what Catlin supposed were garments of a fine military costume, given to him by the President.  Interestingly though, as evidenced in his painting, Theodore Burr Catlin, in Indian Costume, (n.d.) he sees nothing perverse with people of European descent dressed in Native-American costume and engaged in native themed ‘reenactments’, as it was his custom to put on such ‘Wild West’ performances (he called them “tableaux vivants”) in order to capitalize on the events (Theodore Burr Catlin, n.d.).

Theodore Burr Catlin, in Indian Costume

 

Catlin’s other and unstated purpose for painting the life and culture of Native-Americans before they were gone, then, was to capitalize on their unique culture as his own means for economic survival in a competitive, capitalistic society.  In this way, the representations of Native-Americans were truer than what might first appear on the surface.  The representations of Native-Americans by painters such as Catlin are a record of how European-Americans imagined everything (including people) in The New World to be objects for their own exploitation and capitalistic gain, and they made their imaginations become reality.

 

References:

Campfire Stories with George Catlin.  (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum:  Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 23, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html

Theodore Burr Catlin, in Indian Costume. (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum:  Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html

Wi-jn-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning. (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum:  Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Good Neighbors

On May 28, Kristina Bravo reported in takepart that for the first time in sixteen years, the Colorado River has reached its final destination, returning to the Gulf of California. Finally, we in the U.S., are learning how to be good neighbors. For years, we have been denying our southern neighbors their right to fresh water. We have done this by building dams and diverting the Colorado River to places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. This has prevented the river from flowing into Mexico as it once did, naturally and historically. This action violated treaties between the U.S. and Mexico, and has caused drought conditions, the loss of crops, the loss of livelihoods, poverty and many other social ills for the Mexican people.

In addition to limiting the availability of fresh water in Mexico, the U.S. also disrupts Mexican food markets in other ways. This is because the U.S. federal government subsidizes U.S. grain producers. That means that the taxpayers of the U.S. fund the grain producers, so that the prices of grain are kept artificially low. By this arrangement, commodity traders are able to flood the world markets with ‘cheap grain’, thereby displacing the farming economies in other nations, such as Mexico. These U.S. policies have negatively impacted the wellbeing of our Mexican neighbors in many ways.

The consequences of U.S. economic policies, such as these, are the impoverishment of our neighbors. Farming families in Mexico become no longer able sustain themselves, as they once did for generations.  Therefore they flock to border cities, to maquiladoras, the manufacturing facilities in the so called Free Trade Zones. They go to the maquiladoras looking for factory work. The Free Trade Zones are areas in Mexico where ‘American’ factories are set up in order to capitalize on cheap ‘foreign’ labor. Yet, these new jobs in the maquiladoras do not provide the Mexican people with an adequate compensation or means for survival.

The major labor force, in these maquiladoras, is that of young female workers, because they will work longer and harder, for less money, and with less protest than men will. This is the typical situation in any industry where the main labor force is that of women. In any industry that is mainly sustained by the labor of women, with very few men laborers, you can be fairly certain that the working conditions are such that men refuse to tolerate them. This is because young women are more willing than men to work in oppressive and exploitative conditions for poverty wages, and this is a perfect opportunity, for those with the power and desire to do so, to profit from capitalistic gain at the expense of vulnerable others.

Furthermore, the living conditions that surround the maquiladoras are meager. They are slums, without adequate housing, plumbing, electricity or fresh, clean water. This condition exists because too many displaced farming families have fled their homes hoping to find an economic means of survival elsewhere, but the jobs that they do find do not compensate them adequately so that they can improve their living conditions. It might be questioned why the displaced Mexican farmers migrate to such areas. An important consideration in this forced migration situation is asking where ‘elsewhere’ might be if one’s skills for their traditional way of life do not easily transfer to a new economy. What are the options that exist for the Mexican people in light of the affects of U.S. policy?

In order to survive, some Mexican people have risked their lives to come to the U.S. looking for work. The work that they find is generally in industries that citizens of the U.S. refuse. That is, many immigrants become migrant workers, working in dangerous conditions, harvesting crops that are grown here. Likewise, many become domestics, cleaning the homes of the privileged who can afford such luxuries..  These are professions that are essentially working in servitude.

Regardless of the work that they do find, the professions they take on are generally those of hard, backbreaking work for very little pay. This means that others benefit from their labor, while they barely survive. Because of U.S. economic policy, many Mexican people have found themselves trapped in a situation that offers them few choices and very little opportunity.

Therefore, it is clear that U.S. taxpayers subsidize the oppression, exploitation and abuse of the Mexican people, in order that we, as a country, may profit from commodity trading, and the cheap goods produced elsewhere, and also the cheap labor here for those tasks that we prefer not to do. It is good to see that our policy and actions are beginning to change. Restoring the Colorado River to more closely resemble its natural flow is a move in the right direction. Yet, restoring 1% of the river’s pre-dam flow is not enough. More still needs to be done, if we are going to become good neighbors.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.