The University of Chicago Magazine February 1996
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The long way home

On cassette tapes, Ortner captures the voices of her Newark classmates-both the "haves" and "have-nots."


Yet, more than most of the other women in this pantheon, Ortner has expanded her scholarly reputation well beyond the feminist niche. The wider appeal she enjoys is partly an accident of her own academic history. When she began training as an anthropologist at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, the concept of feminism "was just not on the map," she says. "There were no women at all in the anthropology department's faculty." But there was Clifford Geertz, already something of a legend in the field for his approach to interpreting culture through "thick description" of the way people behave in everyday life.

Ortner became a disciple of Geertz, applying his methods to her own studies of Nepal's Sherpa people, famed mountaineers who have settled to the south of Mount Everest and whose lives she has studied intermittently for the past three decades. Ortner further confounded those wishing to peg her to work to a specific theme when, in 1992, she embarked on her "Newark project," interviewing a hundred members of her own New Jersey high-school graduating class.

Even when addressing strictly feminist issues, Ortner has often distinguished herself by refusing to follow the party line. The paper she is reading to her Hilton audience revisits her first published foray into feminism in 1975. That paper--titled "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" and considered required reading among anthropologists--created a huge stir with its argument that male domination is universal to all cultures. The explanation for this "universal" imbalance: Men are equated with "culture," the human attempt to tame nature, while women are equated with nature itself. Those propositions, Ortner now wryly explains to her audience, were anathema to feminists who "thought our society was patriarchal but were counting on anthropologists to have a reassuring stock of examples of matriarchy in other cultures."

Twenty years later, that same paper continues to provoke debate. Beyond Ortner's wildest expectations, it seems to have a life of its own. "I didn't set out to write a classic--I was just a young, white, middle-class academic trying to figure out how to live as an embodied woman while embarking on a career as a disembodied mind," she says, drawing a laugh of recognition from her audience. "I guess it just touched a chord."

"That was very important-this image of the intrepid young woman in the fieldwith a tape recorder."

Ortner often touches chords with her ideas--not because she takes extreme positions, but because she so often refuses to be extreme. Among colleagues, she's known as someone who marches to the center: a keen observer of developments in the field who asks questions that bring opposing ideas into focus.

"One reason Sherry's so well-known is that she frames issues very clearly, in a way that has made a lot of productive debate possible," says Paul Rabinow, AB'65, AM'67, PhD'70, a friend from Ortner's U of C days who now teaches with her in the anthropology department at the University of California at Berkeley. "People may not agree with her, but the debate always seems to come back to how she poses it."

Framing debates can be a tough balancing act in an arena as fragmented as anthropology. The field has seen a dizzying proliferation of theoretical factions during the past 30 years--structural Marxism, Levi-Straussianism, political economy, and so on--and the mix has become more volatile with the addition of feminists, African Amercians, gays, lesbians, and others for whom defining culture has direct political consequences.

In part, Ortner's centrism may be a function of her personality: She is easygoing, approachable; seemingly more neighborhood than geopolitical. But it's also a product of her intense focus on what anthro- pologists call the ethnography--field data about how people speak and behave in everyday life.

"Sherry doesn't satisfy herself with theoretical ruminations," says her former U of C mentor Geertz, now professor of social science and founder of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. "She doesn't take the easy way out; she wants to understand what's out there, and she explicates what's really going on."

That's not to say Ortner doesn't work within a distinct theoretical paradigm. Linking her seemingly disparate intellectual interests is something she calls "practice theory"--a blend of Geertzian thick description and a more politicized view of culture that focuses on the relationship between individuals and the overarching social and economic structures that organize their lives. She wants to know how people's daily behavior--like eating, shopping, or working--perpetuates or changes the "hegemony," or dominant social order.

Much of her work looks at changes resulting from interactions between the powerful and less powerful, whether these "asymmetries" occur between Sherpas and Western mountaineers, or between the upper-middle-class Jews and poorer ethnic groups who made up her Newark high-school class. There's a multicultural aspect to her work as well: Ortner believes that in the modern world, all cultures are part of the same "ethnoscape" (a term borrowed from the U of C's Arjun Appadurai, AM'73, PhD'76). She focuses her work on the boundary areas, those places where different classes or cultures clash or come together.

For example, in a recent paper on the Sherpas, Ortner describes how the arrival of the first all-female Western climbing expeditions in Nepal in the 1970s ultimately changed the position of women in Sherpa society. The more militant feminists among the climbers began requesting Sherpa women as their porters. Initially, the Sherpa men opposed this, but their wives and daughters persisted--sometimes openly rebelling, as in the case of Pasang Lamu, a Sherpa who organized her own expedition on Mount Everest and ultimately died at the summit. More often, however, the women compromised, working in partnership with the men by accepting the more subordinate role of supplying expeditions at the foot of the mountain.

To Western feminists, this less confrontational strategy might seem to give away too much. But for the Sherpa women, Ortner argues, compromise offers the best strategy for keeping their men while improving their own social and economic standing.

Does that mean Ortner herself advocates a less direct, more "feminine" approach to changing gender roles?

"I think we need both," she answers. "I may be less confrontational personally, but that's not a political preference. The more integrative, less confrontational style is kind of stigmatized in the U.S., whereas, in a lot of Third World feminism, it's more the norm. I guess I was just trying to say to Western feminists, `Look, this is a legitimate feminist stance and it shouldn't be dismissed as some kind of low consciousness.'"

Ortner vividly recalls the day in 1966, during her first fieldwork in Nepal, when she opened up the pages of Newsweek Asia and saw her hometown in the throes of brutal race riots.

"There were dead bodies in the city streets," she recalls. "I could see the street signs, and I knew where they were."

There is a sense that this "other Newark" of the Newsweek photos was, and is, a shadow presence for Ortner--a funnel through which the Sheri Beth Ortner described in her high-school yearbook as lighthearted and carefree became Sherry Ortner, the feminist ethnographer with Marxist leanings.

"I think I always saw myself as escaping a certain kind of identity in life," the anthropologist says of her years in the Newark neighborhood where she grew up. Her family, which Ortner describes as "completely conventional middle class," lived in a comfortable, Jewish enclave. Her father ran a packaging-supplies business, which her younger brother recently relocated to Colorado.

"And my father was a Republican," Ortner volunteers with an ironic smile. "Which is relevant, because I feel like what radical politics I now have were hard earned. I didn't come with a red diaper."

Ortner began earning her "radical" credentials at Bryn Mawr College. Learning that it was "okay to be smart as a girl," she also became involved in the civil-rights movement, participating in lunch counter sit-ins and making weekend visits to the Newark housing projects with a local branch of the Students for a Democratic Society.

"There were rats, holes in the ceiling," she remembers. "It was my city, but I came from this comfortable, clean, white, other part. It was like entering a different universe."

There's a similarity in Ortner's language when she talks about her reasons for becoming an anthropologist: "I loved the idea of this privileged, Jewish, urban--I wouldn't say `princess,' but someone who had never really done anything very hard or uncomfortable--going out in the field to live in these difficult conditions," she says. "That was very important to me, this kind of Margaret Mead image of the intrepid young woman in the field with a tape recorder."

When it came time to go out in the field, Ortner--along with her fellow student and first husband, Robert Paul, AM'66, PhD'70 (now an anthropologist at Emory University)--chose the Sherpas almost by accident. In Nepal, their original plan was to study the relationship between the Shamans, who were local folk healers, and the Buddhist lamas. But they quickly discovered that the Shamans had essentially been put out of business by the Buddhist religious establishment. They decided to study village rituals instead, and ended up living in a remote Sherpa village for 14 months. Ortner recalls it as the most difficult period she ever spent in the field.

"I think about how young I was," she says. "I felt, in retrospect, that I wasn't old enough, I wasn't wise enough or deep enough. I thought, God, it's amazing that they put up with this shallow young person who had almost no life experience.

"For example, while we were there, there were seven deaths and funerals in this village of 200 or so people. And I had never lost a close person to death. So I played the little anthropologist. I went to all the funerals, taking notes and not really recognizing people's feelings. And sometime later, after my mother died, it dawned on me, `Oh, this is what they felt.'"

In the Sherpa village--with the nearest city, Kathmandu, ten days away on foot--Ortner suffered a loss of identity. "In your own culture, your identity is a stable object because others affirm it." But in the field "no one knows who you are, what your motives are, how to read you--or has any prior reason to think you're a nice person or a smart person, or anything else. And I began to feel like I was going slightly crazy."

If Nepal was a culture shock, it was nothing compared to what awaited Ortner back in America. The race rioting she saw pictured in Newsweek was continuing around the country. Within six months after her arrival home in February 1968, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were slain, the Chicago Democratic Convention unleashed a counterculture nightmare, "and then the next thing was feminism. That was another kind of explosion for me, because--I mean, this is going to sound bizarre, but it had never occurred to me to think about that problem.

"And so when various pieces of the feminist movement began to take shape and go public--you know, Simone de Beauvoir went out in the streets of Paris and said she'd had an abortion--well, you just went, `Oh! I could do this, too. I don't have to do this shit anymore!"

Ortner laughs and shakes her head. "It was just an extraordinary time to live through. I mean, the real world was massively present somehow."

Coming from a scholar who once defined the "real world" as anything other than her childhood home, Sherry Ortner's latest project sounds like an aberration, or even a joke. Chatting up some old high-school chums at a class reunion is one thing. Ortner is studying her class to discover central truths about the human condition.

Her interviews with these classmates--a group that includes Portnoy's Complaint author Philip Roth, AM'55--cover life's peaks and valleys: "success and failure, marriage and divorce, crime and punishment, love and hate, friendship and enmity, religious conversions, affairs, kids, work, politics, nostalgia, death...."

Going into the project, Ortner's specific intention was to examine the role of class structure in American life. "I take classes to be real in the standard Marxist sense: classes are objective structural positions within a capitalist economic order," Ortner wrote in "Ethnography among the Newark," an essay about the project that appears in a 1993 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. "It is the positions that carry the consequences: things like the differential rates of smoking and lung cancer between the middle class and the working class; or the fact that when the state of California has to cut its higher-education budget, the community colleges, which have a high percentage of the working-class and lower-middle-class students, are the first to go; or even the impact of natural disasters, as when a hurricane primarily destroys mobile homes, most of them uninsured.

"Thus class is real like the squares on a board game, and landing or staying on these squares has real consequences."

Ortner believes that when Americans--scholars and laypersons alike--discuss these consequences, they "displace" the discussion onto other divisions, such as ethnicity, race, and gender. For example, some lower-mid- dle-class whites demonize blacks--not, Ortner says, because blacks are competing for their jobs, but because blacks as a group have even less wealth and power than they do, and therefore represent their fears of what they might become.

Ortner ran into precisely this form of displacement during interviews with her Newark classmates. Of the 304 people in her class, she interviewed 100, as well as 50 of their children. The ethnic backgrounds of her interview- ees roughly mirror the ethnic backgrounds of the class as a whole, which is 80 percent Jewish, 13 percent other white ethnic groups, and 7 percent black.

When Ortner brought up issues of class, all of these groups phrased the problem in terms of ethnicity. Many of her Jewish classmates saw their material success as a direct result of a superior work ethic they associated with "Jewishness," while many non-Jews remembered a social hierarchy at Weequahic High that featured Jews at the top; Italians, Poles, and others in the middle; and blacks at the bottom.

Initially, Ortner resisted this emphasis. In an early grant proposal for the project, she didn't even mention that most of her study population was Jewish. "I wasn't trying to hide anything. I just thought, well, no, this project is about class. And people said, `Are you crazy? Don't you think you really ought to mention the fact that for the natives themselves, it's paramount?' And, of course, they're right."

Yet Ortner says she still wants to write about class "because it's sitting there and people aren't talking about it," and also because she wants to keep the project from being "put over on this shelf called Jewish studies. Whereas I think I'm saying something about American culture, about its class structure, about the middle class, in particular, that's broader than Jewish studies.


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