Anthropology: Unfinished Revolution

The Discovery of Sidney Mintz

I delivered this paper at the 2016 meetings of the American Anthropological Association. The panel was titled “The Legacies of Sidney Mintz: Discovering Political Economy from the Evidence of Fieldwork.” My thanks to fellow panelists for inspiring papers and to a very encouraging audience. An alternate title: One year without Sid. (See also the earlier In Memoriam, 1922-2015.)

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is still Sidney Mintz’s most famous publication. Type “Sidney Mintz” into Google and the next thing that pops up is “Sweetness and Power.” Then comes “Sweetness and Power pdf,” “Sweetness and Power summary,” “Sweetness and Power pdf download,” surely search suggestions brought to us by tuition-strapped students.

Although Sweetness and Power in 1985 seemed the culmination of Sidney Mintz’s academic life, it can now be seen as a kind of mid-point to Mintz’s academic engagement. It emerged three decades after his debut publications, but Mintz’s work and academic engagement continued in various forms for three more decades.

But more than a chronological mid-point, Sweetness and Power has been seen as a watershed. Sweetness and Power would launch what Mintz became most famous for in the public sphere: the Father of Food Anthropology (See Food Anthropology for a collection of articles in tribute to Mintz’s work on food). In George Baca’s memorial article, with Sweetness and Power Mintz “broke free from anthropological and Caribbean circles” taking his ideas “beyond the specialized audiences who had consumed his scholarship for three decades.”

Sweetness and Power as Breaking Away?

Not everyone was happy about how Mintz “broke free” from his traditional scholarly base. Micaela di Leonardo has argued that when Mintz was discovered by a public audience, it structurally buried his work on political economy so that he “appears most often in American print media as the foxy old expert on Our Fascinating Foodways” (Exotics at Home 1998:352).

In some sense, two versions of Sidney Mintz emerged. To put it too crudely, it was the Gritty Ethnographic Marxist Mintz versus the Wine-and-Dine Foodie Mintz. For the Wine-and-Dine Foodie crowd, the Marxist Mintz provided just enough grit and ethnographic gravitas to make it palatable without choking. But the admirers of Marxist Mintz worried that either Sid had lost his way or that his message was being lost in the trendiness of ethnic gastronomy. (See this 2012 post when Mintz won the Franz Boas Award in Anthropology for a selection of anthropologists inspired by various aspects of Mintz’s work.)

But there is little evidence Mintz himself felt or endorsed this watershed division. In some ways, he perhaps felt food was a way to eventually sell a more radical agenda. If people became interested in food, then they would inevitably learn about global interconnection; about history; and about power. And Mintz never really left the Caribbean behind. His final published book from 2010, Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations based on his Du Bois lectures at Harvard, takes us deep into ethnography and history as a personal story that also illuminates larger structures. [See my Teaching Latin America 2019 course for using Mintz’s Three Ancient Colonies.]

For Mintz, food would be the ticket to introduce wider audiences to his discovery. Mintz demonstrated how the colonies, and especially the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, both fed and fueled the emerging working class as well as provided a template for factory organization. Mintz believed this revisionist history had become firmly established. As Sarah Hill quoted his 2013 e-mail in the Boston Review, “My point–it is now absorbed into what is called ‘common knowledge’–was that Western civilization really first ‘rose’ in its colonies; and of all those colonies, the first were the sugar colonies.”[See endnote #1]

Whose Common Knowledge?

But like the slippery slope of “common sense” it is crucial to inquire about “common knowledge.” Whose common knowledge was Mintz talking about? It does seem that Boston Review readers have a peculiarly wonderful access to this common knowledge. In addition to Sarah Hill’s justly-touted Boston Review retrospective, there was Colin Dayan’s Remembering Trouillot from 2012, which echoes Mintz’s own Remembering Haiti, one of the most insightful pieces written after the 2010 earthquake. In October 2016 Boston Review readers were treated to Walter Johnson’s To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice which features an extended discussion of how Du Bois “scuttles the orthodox separation of slavery and capitalism.”[See endnote #2]

So, I’m not sure exactly what is going on at the Boston Review, but I want the whole country to be there. Alas, if we take a few steps beyond Boston, we find a very different common knowledge. In a 2016 interview with The Nation, Donald Trump aide Milo Yiannopoulos put it bluntly:

It seems to me inarguably true that Western civilization—by which we mean the modern Western liberal capitalist democracies that we live in in Europe and America—has produced all of the best stuff. It has done that through a combination of freedom of speech, capitalism, property rights. Those things created the conditions for the best art, for the best financial systems, for the best ordering of society.

So much for common knowledge. Perhaps the only consolation is that he couldn’t say the modern West has produced the best food. As Mintz told his introductory anthropology courses, all the best domesticated plants were from outside Europe: “What did Europe contribute? The Brussel Sprout.”

Now, you could tell me these types of Republican are morons. I don’t disagree. Moreover, direct confrontation is a lost cause. They don’t care. The facts are irrelevant, bowing before what is “inarguably true.” They are trolls, and it is not a good idea to get into an internet argument with overgrown adolescent boys on keyboards.

Common Knowledge & Anthropology Textbooks

What disturbs me more is that we can turn to the anthropology textbooks and find pretty much the same thing. Or, better put, undergraduate anthropology textbooks either elide or misrepresent the crucial points Mintz was making about colonialism, capitalism, and slavery.

A 2014 Cultural Anthropology textbook by Welsch and Vivanco is a prime example. They get colonialism wrong, saying it “flourished from the 1870s until the 1970s” (7) thus missing the most crucial moments between say 1500-1800. Consequently, they also get industrialization wrong, portraying it as the rise of American and European factories which subsequently “affected peoples in European colonies” (5). When Eric Wolf finally enters the scene, it is mostly to say that people in the periphery have “resisted” capitalism (142). And there’s no mention of Mintz at all. While obviously these authors do not share the values of the Trump Trolls, there is really little in their textbook to tell a different story. [See also my critique in How Did Anthropology Begin.]

My plan at the 2016 anthropology meetings was to visit the booksellers and do an analysis of four field textbooks. I would look at each textbook and evaluate them on two items: First, Colonialism. Did they mention the Iberian Reconquista? Spanish and Portuguese empires? The American silver mines that were so crucial to creating the first global trade networks? The Caribbean? Sugar? Second, Industrialization. Did they mention slavery? Plantations? Again, Sugar? Textile production in India?

What I found was worse than I anticipated. First, the biggest textbook sellers of four field anthropology aren’t even here. I could only find three four field textbooks. One is from University of Toronto press, Through the Lens of Anthropology. It is very accessible, I love these authors, but they have zero on these issues. There are two titles from Oxford University Press: Lavenda & Schultz, which I have used, and which is OK but not great on these issues.

Oxford University Press published another four-fields offering in 2017: Agustín Fuentes has joined the Welsch & Vivanco team to produce Anthropology: Asking Questions about Human Origins, Diversity, and Culture. Unfortunately, this team completely reproduces the follies of the original Cultural Anthropology textbook I’ve just described. So I am mighty worried now that this will become the four-field flagship, which effectively takes a step backward from Lavenda & Schultz.

But at least these two presses are here. The true empires, McGraw-Hill & Cengage don’t even bother. Now, Kottak’s textbook empire, perhaps because of Kottak’s rooting at the University of Michigan, has been a bit better on these issues. Still, Kottak’s world systems chapters occur at the end of his textbook. And I think if we consider that Michigan is both at the epicenter of the three states which gave the election to Trump, and that Michigan is the epicenter of the Kottak model of Introduction-to-Anthropology, we do need to wonder how effective this version of anthropology has been (but see the postscript below).

For those of us who have the privilege of teaching anthropology, this is a dire issue. I was going to say it is our most dire issue. But for November 2016 I qualified that statement to echo Melissa Harris-Perry that the very most pressing issue is for academic anthropologists to consider whether our colleges and universities might become sanctuary campuses. After that, we need to look at the textbooks.[See endnote #3]

This may seem too modest, but it is the responsibility that comes with our positions in academic institutions. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in 2003, “Anthropology’s primary response as a discipline cannot be a political statement, however tempting or necessary that solution is in critical circumstances. While the primary context of our practice as professionals remains the academic world, the ultimate context of its relevance is the world outside, usually starting with the country within which we publish rather than with those that we write about” (114).

This solution is also completely in accord with what Mintz would urge that we do. And so in the spirit of my “What Would Sid Do?” bracelet, here are three recommendations:

1. Teach Introduction to Anthropology

Teaching a four fields comprehensive introduction to anthropology was important to Sid from the beginning of his teaching career at Yale to his last courses at Johns Hopkins. Sid taught Intro when he was an assistant professor, at mid-career, and after he had reached the super-distinguished heights. This is an example we should all follow. We must resist the temptation as we rise through the ranks to teach fewer courses, fewer students, and only sign up for the upper-level seminar. And it may be worth noting that although the adjunctification of higher education makes this more possible and more tempting, this has long been an issue in anthropology. Sid told about how in the late 1960s he was going on sabbatical from Yale and couldn’t recruit anyone in the department to teach Intro, which at that time had grown to a 700-student lecture. As he put it:

My department was not at all interested in what I was doing; they seemed blissfully unaware that it mattered, even to them. I read it as my colleagues thinking that it was an indication of my intellectual limitations if I could talk intelligibly to so many young people twice a week. (Thomas 2014:8)

Mintz asked Margaret Mead to come up from New York City and teach the course. Mead at that point would go anywhere with a podium and a crowd, but she didn’t want anything to do with the grading: “I’m going to give them all As” she said. Sid agreed.

Now, legend had it (as did I in my original paper) that this was the only course that George W. Bush got an “A” in during his Yale years. But Jackie Mintz messaged to correct the historical record:

The course that George W. Bush took was not Sid’s Anthro 20 course; it was Anthro 25-Archaeology. . . A notorious gut. It’s true Margaret Mead taught Anthro 20 the year we were away and true that she gave everyone B+ or A- but that was not the course W took. (e-mail 12/28/2016)

2. In that introductory course, provide a dose of global history, and especially of the interconnected history of colonialism, capitalism and slavery

This is a history that people do not seem to be learning or comprehending. They are not getting it in high school. They are not getting it from the other social sciences, which have always bought their own nation-centric self-contained myths. And they are not getting it from history courses anymore, since the requirement of a survey course has mostly gone away and the history curriculum has in general become just a scattershot selection of narrow topical seminars. So if we don’t do it in Anthropology 101, no one is going to do it.

3. Write outside of anthropology (the Sidney Mintz secret)

This will flow naturally from the first two points. If we are teaching Introduction to Anthropology, and writing textbooks for that class which convey global history, then this experience provides us with the tone and style to write for public audiences. I believe teaching intro was a key secret to how Mintz’s writing was so accessible.

To return to Sweetness and Power, here is Sidney Mintz’s own assessment of teaching undergraduate introductory courses as compared with his book:

Sweetness and Power has affected a lot of people, but it’s really for adults. When you teach an introductory course, the students are at a much earlier point in their lives, and the kind of impression you can make on them about thinking is much more fundamental–and, ultimately, possibly much more useful. (Thomas 2014:9)

But in the end I find myself unable to conclude on a completely optimistic note. Although many of us feel that Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf forever reoriented or changed anthropology, it does not seem to be a change that was deep enough or complete enough. It does not seem to have affected Mintz’s favorite class, Introduction to Anthropology. As a discipline, we had the potential for a pretty big megaphone, as Mintz showed us at Yale. But we neglected what may have been anthropology’s biggest public outreach. We now seem to care so little about Intro-to-Anthropology that the two largest textbook companies don’t even come to the anthropology meetings. I have to wonder what next: will we also lose the privilege of teaching Intro to Anthropology?

So, first task, think about the possibility of sanctuary on your campus. Second task, think about the possibility of sanctuary for Anthropology 101. It’s our only chance to teach about the co-production of colonialism & capitalism in the sugar colonies.

Anthropology must do more than simply valorize other countries & cultures. We must accurately explain the interconnection that has produced contemporary power structures & inequalities.Click To Tweet

Endnotes (click note number to return to text)

Note #1. According to Jackie Mintz, Sid thought that Sweetness and Power “was really a book about early industrial capitalism, not about sugar! And that’s what he always thought about the book. The hope always was that some of the important historical lessons would get through to people!”

Note #2. Admittedly this article is mostly about historians and does not mention anthropological contributions like Sidney Mintz or Eric Wolf. Thanks to Discuss White Privilege for sending the article.

Note #3. In a 12/28/2016 e-mail from Jackie Mintz: “The most important award he ever received was the William Clyde DeVane Teaching Medal at Yale–it was the Phi Beta Kappa teaching award, and perhaps the only teaching award he ever got, but it was certainly the most significant to him.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2016. “Sidney Mintz and Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 26 December 2016. Revised 4 March 2024.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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