On the Anthropology of Levees

I’ve been struggling with how to talk about my research, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to post questions that people ask me, and respond to them here.  One of the most common ones I get is, “But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

This usually follows the question, “What are you doing in New Orleans?”  I answer something like, “I’m studying the reconstruction of the levees.  I’m looking at the history of the flood protection system, what’s involved in building levees, and the politics around all of that.”

“But what do levees have to do with anthropology?”

An anthropology 101 lesson would introduce the fact that there are four main subfields in anthropology: biological anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and cultural or sociocultural anthropology.  After that, it’s easy to say that anthropologists are really able to study just about anything.  But that doesn’t answer the question very well.  Once I establish that I’m in the social science part of things, it remains to be explained why I’m interested in levees.

Recently I told a friend, “Levees are social.  They seem like passive, benign, even benevolent mounds of earth.  But like anything else, they are shaped by histories, and by controversy, and are political.  When they break, or when people argue about them, they become social.”  And then I said something about how that’s all related to larger themes like the local, and maybe the American, relationship between people, technology, and the environment or what’s called “natural”.

So my friend said, “Does that mean you’re comparing how people used to build levees with how they’re building them now?”  I’m not sure where that came from; maybe he thought anthropologists always focus on the past.  I’m not sure.  I tried to explain that I’m basically living in New Orleans, recording how levees are important and social by doing archival research, reading the news, talking with people, and so on, and how all of this is revealing a lot about what the competing ideas are about the city, what the city should be, whether it should be protected from floods, what protection means, and so on.  I must have gotten somewhere with him because then he asked, “How is what you’re doing different from sociology?”

There’s debate about whether there are any real differences between sociology and anthropology at this point.  Anthropology these days is usually less location-based and more topic-based, and there is some movements toward such things as experimental ethnographies, multi-sited ethnographies, and so forth.  But I still think that anthropology is in some ways unique, at least historically, although this doesn’t mean that sociologists can’t be more anthropological and vice versa.  I think that we’re more likely to use a particular methodological strategy, that is ethnography, and rely more heavily on qualitative research, while quantitative and survey-based approaches are more common in sociology.  This is a very blurry distinction, and it is certainly possible to use all kinds of methodologies in either field, but I think it’s still an important one.  Anthropologists often talk about things a little differently than sociologists do, and so we tend to get at different aspects of things in different ways.

What that means for me is that as an anthropologist, I’m always working.  Every time I go out to a coffee shop, or a club, or buy groceries, I’m participating and observing and “generating data” — to borrow a phrase from Professor Charles Harrington, who likes to emphasize that since all “data” are products of an interaction between the ethnographer and the ethnographed, we actually “generate” data rather than “gather” them, meaning that the data weren’t exactly sitting around waiting for the taking before the ethnographer got there.

My ears perk up especially when I hear something about levees, or floodwalls, or engineering, or Katrina, or “events”, and various other “keywords”, and in daily life here, learning about the city and viewing its art and movies and so on, I record notes about values and practices that are expressed on a daily basis in this engineered and waterlogged landscape.  Of course, I interview people and read books and look at the archives and such, but so much can be learned just by living here.  Anthropologists have made a profession out of the richness of everyday life, where an event like Katrina — and the breaking of the levees — continues to live long after the deluge itself.

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