Why is it so hard to make it in America?
December 26, 2013 3:11 PM   Subscribe

How would you put together a reading list that helps answer the question "how do Americans' present-day struggles for wellness, independence, and community compare to humans who've lived in other places and times in the ethnographic record?"

I hope this is not hopelessly vague! I'm specifically looking at surprising and helpful cross-cultural comparisons that can be made in order to recontextualize what feel like very individualistic struggles in American society (how do you find wellness? How do you become an independent individual?) I'm thinking specifically of the struggles and experiences of individuals as they try to "make it" in their socieities, including societies where the cultural script for social membership and participation is nowhere near as individualistic. I found shades of this in Debt by David Graeber, but I'm looking for something more oriented around wellness and subjective experience rather than economic systems, if that makes sense. Thanks!
posted by elephantsvanish to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
You could do a lot worse than Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Beautiful Struggle.
posted by General Malaise at 3:15 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed might be a good candidate for your list.
posted by box at 3:19 PM on December 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

The terms of your question remind me of Connie Perin's Belonging in America, and for ethnographies about wellness, struggling to make a living, and independence in other societies, a few titles that come to mind are Unni Wikan's Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living, Robert Desjarlais's Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas, Dorinne Kondo's Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace, Fred Myers's Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines, and Paul Willis's Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.

I could go on. Maybe the best and shortest answer I can think of is Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction, which is excellent and loaded with relevant anecdotes.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:29 PM on December 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Gosh, I don't know if you could do any better than Ann Fadiman's wonderful The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down, which is specifically about the differences between the Hmong view of epilepsy and its treatment in California's Central Valley. You see the little girl's family wondering WTF the doctors are doing by stealing her blood (of which there is presumed to be a finite amount) and the little girl's Western doctors wondering why her family won't give her the meds that will prevent seizures. Fadiman's book raised awareness of the miscommunication inherent in inter-cultural exchanges and now "traditional" healers partner with Western doctors in a number of hospitals and care facilities in the area. It's also compulsively readable.
posted by janey47 at 3:56 PM on December 26, 2013

I don't think there was enough social mobility in most pre-modern societies to make a very meaningful comparison to contemporary conditions, but there are some times and places that may be interesting to compare. The Roman Republic, for example, while originally controlled by a small number of aristocratic families, had to expand political and social power to lower social classes, and a phenomenon called the "new man" emerged: people who had become wealthy enough, and/or connected by marriage enough, to make a run at political office. The orator Cicero, who eventually won the consulship, was among this class.
posted by thelonius at 3:56 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading Americanah which is about Nigerian immigrants in the West (specifically, American and England) and how difficult it is for a first-generation immigrant to "make it" here. Very, very good. Probably the best book I've read all year. It's fiction, but it is inspired by author Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's direct experience as a Nigerian woman who immigrated to the United States at the age of 19 in 1996.
posted by Brittanie at 4:15 PM on December 26, 2013

I suggest his work here all the time, but Sudhir Venkatesh has a pair of books, Off the Books and Gang Leader for a Day that I think would be really informative. Both focus on Chicago, and in particular, one specific housing project. He writes about all the ways that people struggle to just get by, while knowing that they probably won't "make it" in the sense of the American Dream. For many, the hope remains that they'll be the ones to get out.
posted by bilabial at 4:39 PM on December 26, 2013

For this to be a complete inquiry, you need to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Tocqueville. The inside and outside view of the notion of Americans (and America) as self-created and self-governing.
posted by MattD at 4:42 PM on December 26, 2013

I'd definitely suggest David Simon's The Corner (which inspired the Wire), which is pretty much a guide to people in a very poor urban area trying to make it and, usually, failing.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:50 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oooh I also recently read Americanah and I think it fits your requirements, and is also a well-written, enjoyable book.
posted by radioamy at 5:26 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ah thank you all! An eclectic, rad mix.

@janey47, The Spirit Catches You is a great call! I read it a little while ago and consider it one of my favorite nonfic books, but a rereading may be in order. I worked in a heavily Hmong community for two years and so some of the conflicts and misunderstandings in the book really hit home.

@Monsieur Caution way to throw down some solid anthro, love it.

I think I have a solid eight months of reading ahead of me (I might just have to start with Americanah), will report back. And keep ideas coming!
posted by elephantsvanish at 7:29 PM on December 26, 2013

The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke by now Senator Warren and her daughter.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:59 PM on December 26, 2013

Maybe Studs Terkel--_Working_, perhaps?

Robert Putnam _Bowling Alone_.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 9:51 PM on December 26, 2013

I second the suggestion of Bowling Alone.

Also one obvious point of comparison to the America of today might be the America of yesteryear. And since all of these cultural questions ultimately derive from economic conditions (e.g. nobody expected home/car ownership as a standard of middle-class success when these things were unaffordable to the middle class), I might suggest some economic history. This is a good lecture by Richard Wolff about American economic history over the past century, focusing on the Great Recession.

For more primary sources from contemporary America, perhaps see Gawker's unemployment stories.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 10:28 PM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a sort-of sequel to Working called Gig that you might also enjoy.
posted by box at 5:26 AM on December 27, 2013

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