Karen Brodkin

Karen Brodkin, anthropologist, is part of a historic transformation of anthropological practice. She, along with a cohort of other female anthropologists, brought the insights of the women’s movement into the classrooms and lecture halls of the university.  Building from political study circles and action groups she was among a generation who understood that commitment was more than a word, it was an act.

My first encounter with Karen Brodkin was through chapter, “Engels Revisited” published in the celebrated book, Women Culture and Societyabout fifteen years after it was written. By the time I was reading Brodkin’s work as an undergrad the terrain of anthropological research had already been transformed. However, the intense political struggles that Brodkin and her colleagues had been engaged in had been sidelined in the mainstream discipline by an easier textual struggle in which how one wrote was considered as (if not more) important than what one wrote.  For those of us coming from working class and colonized social worlds, however, we found inspiration in the writing of people like Brodkin.

I have found two articles of particular help in my own thinking about doing anthropology that pays attention to social class. Toward a Unified Theory of Class, Race, and Gender (AE 1989) is a clear statement of Brodkin’s socialist feminism.  This paper helps us think through the ways in which social class is not innocent of social categories like race and gender, but how those concepts are integral to making sense of class. Her paper Women, Work, and Karl Marx (AWR 1998) provides a critical overview of how an earlier anthropology of women and work “helped develop a coherent research agenda within anthropology: it attends to the ways and sites at which people resist global capitalism, to what works and what does not, the relationship between the cultural constructions of identity and how, when and in what ways they do and do not work for mobilizing social change.”

Early in my appointment at UBC I was able to get funding for a research conference that allowed me to bring in a host of academics that I admired.  Karen Brodkin was on that list. Other well established progressive scholars also invited included: Gerald Sider, Gavin Smith, Brigit O’Laughlin, and Deborah Fink.  It was a three day event in which all we did was talk about issues of gender, race and their intersection with social class.

For close to four decades Karen Brodkin combined community-centered social activism with exemplary scholarship that highlighted women, work, and the possibilities of a better world. During the decades of navel gazing scholar-activists like Brodkin kept the pressure on.  Today, as we turn back toward engaged scholarship, Brodkin’s work is even more important then when she wrote it.


Some Other Online Sources

An interview with the Savageminds Blog. 

Finding aid for some of Karen Brodkin’s research materials

Oral history interview with Karen Brodkin (click and scroll to the bottom of the list)


Books by Karen Brodkin

2009: Power Politics: Environmentalism in South Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press (Youtube video of book talk)

2007: Making Democracy Matter: Identity and Activism in Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press.

1998: How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America. Rutgers University Press. (Honorable Mention, 1999 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award).

1988 Caring By The Hour: Women, Work And Organizing At Duke MedicalCenter. University of Illinois Press(Conrad Arensberg Award, Society for the Anthropology of Work and Honorable Mention Staley Prize in Anthropology)

1984 My Troubles Are Going To Have Trouble With Me. co edited with D. Remy.New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

1979 Sisters And Wives: The Past And Future Of Sexual Equality. Westport: Greenwood


An Indigenous Guide to Respectful Research

The following is a draft introduction to a book that I am currently working on. Comments appreciated.


Respectful research involves more than a good methodology and a pleasant demeanour. I think of respect in that sense where by one refrains from violating, harassing, or obstructing. Put in an affirmative light it is to treat with consideration. Ultimately respect, as an active process, means to value. In terms of research respect leads us to place value in the integrity of our process, to honour and not cause harm to those with whom are research involves, and to be honest with our intentions.

This book is an Indigenous guide to respectful research. My examples are drawn from my own research within, and in collaboration with members of, my home community of Gitxaała. That this book is based upon an Indigenous experience with research in no way should be understood to restrict the utility of respectful research only to Indigenous settings. In fact, I am certain that I am not alone in advocating respectful research across the domains of social science research. As an Indigenous anthropologist my emphasis may well place more attention on ensuring community engagement than might normally be anticipated. That being said, this is also the way in which my ongoing research in western Europe is also conducted (Menzies 2011).

Social science researchers have long been concerned with research methodology. This concern originally was restricted to ensure appropriate and robust methodologies (Boas 1920; Malinowski 1922). Only late in the history of social science research did matters of the ethnical treatment of research participants become part of the discourse. The implications of Nazi experiments on unwilling prisoners during World War II and the horror felt once the full enormity of their actions where revealed created the conditions for more humane and ethical treatment of human research subjects. Sadly, the atrocities committed by the Nazis were not unique examples of political authorities conducting medical and psychological experiments upon unwilling subjects.

Canada’s own history of residential schooling includes the same type of cruel and inhumane medical experiments being carried out on young children. While the oral history of residential schools has consistently documented wide ranging and systemic physical and sexual abuse recent historical research indicates that government sanctioned medical experiments were also being conducted on aboriginal children who had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into residential schools run by Christian church authorities (Mosby 2013). Medical research into nutritional supplements was conducted in the 1940s and 1950s by researchers who appear to have had little regard for the individuals they were experimenting upon. Even with awareness of the Nazi medical experiments this type of research increased, rather than decreased, following World War II (Mosby 2013:166).

Continue reading pdf of full Introduction here.


Social Justice, US Anthropology and BDS

It’s big news (in anth circles) right now.  The business meeting of the AAA voted by about 1000 to 150 to put a motion on the ballot of the general membership supporting BDS this spring. It really was the talk of the meetings.  Every where I went friends and colleagues were discussing it. They weren’t unanimous in the positions.  Some were opposed to it, others were unconditional in their support, still others took the hold your nose and vote yes approach. I opted out of participating in the vote.

I find much to agree with Maximilian Fortes‘ position on the AAA resolution. Here’s a key quote from his detailed blog post:

My point is that there is a surplus of misdirection, mendacity and hypocrisy at work among AAA members who support the academic boycott of Israel, and that the boycott is being supported using not just specious reasoning, but also by endorsing imperial political and moral narratives. The wrong conclusions are being drawn from preceding AAA actions, so as to better take the AAA on a new turn: international arbiter of human rights and protector of endangered others (and only those who are endangered by others). The same logic used in the pro-boycott petition could justify calls for regime change and sanctions against other nations that are the targets of US imperialism. All of the markers of an imperial narrative of protection and intervention are present in the motion to boycott Israel: support for “civil society” (thus reinforcing the neoliberal undermining and bypassing of Palestinian national authorities); and, asserted universals about “human rights”. The notion that violations of Palestinian rights can be traced to the work of Israeli universities—while downplaying the role of the US universities in the same endeavour—is fraudulent. I am also accusing the AAA of serving not just as an agent for imperialism, but as an agent of imperialism in its own right—by reasserting the US’ neo-feudal hold over Israel (and reminding its leaders of their proper place in the international hierarchy), and by validating US anthropology’s sense of its own superiority and indispensable centrality. The exercise is ultimately one of legitimating “American Exceptionalism,” and it almost certainly has nothing to do with concern over “human rights violations”.

. . .

“I think the AAA has damned itself, and its supposed support and solidarity for Palestinians. Dishonest gestures guided by ulterior motives hardly serve Palestinians, at least not as much as they may insult their struggle. What is best served by this motion, however, are (neo)liberal politics and a vindication of “American Exceptionalism”. The motion is effectively and primarily one that expresses US solidarity with US anthropology.”

Fortes’ critique is direct, definitive, and damning. The issue lurking beneath the AAA resolution (one that did not really come out in the discussions reported by colleagues and through social media) is that this is really more about a variant of US Imperialism.

In the early 1980s central american support activities were a big issue amongst leftist activists in Vancouver. We were all familiar with groups like the FMLN (El Salvador) or the FSNL (Sandinistas, Nicaragua). The actions of the US government in supporting the contras  and fueling counter revolution were soundly decried. We saw in this class struggle a clear and obvious set of choices: either support or struggle against US imperialism and destruction of the lives of working people and agrarian poor. This sense of the struggle manifest itself in the brief emergence of a home-grown militant group, Direct Action (also known as the Squamish Five).  At least two milieu activists also ended up joining the struggle directly and were sentenced to long jail terms for their efforts. The underling idea for all of us was that real social transformation included social justice struggles at home (to change local exploitative settings) and political campaigns of support for fellow militants in theatres of armed and intense social struggle. Boycotts were conceived as a weak and low order tactical choice. More direct engagements, focussed in sites of production and at locales of governance were considered the more strategically appropriate approach.

This was also the moment in which the South African divestment and boycott campus movement started up. While the underlying issues were similar – local struggles against oppressive situations- the support movement activities were of a different order.  Whereas the central american support activities were based in a shared idea of class struggle at home and away, the campus south african divestment/boycott movement elided concerns with class struggle and focussed instead upon moral issues and an inherently anomic tactic of corporate divestments and individualized consumer boycotts.

In the contemporary BDS debates the south african example is held up as an example of a successful deployment of tactics like divestment and symbolic boycotting. Such a conclusion is curiously ahistorical. The role played by the collapse of the Soviet Union , the rising tide of neo-liberal austerity measures and liberalizing of international trade and capital flows is quite likely a far more reasonable explanation for the end of minority rule in South Africa. While correlations can be made between south african capital and US university divestment the overall set of causes can not be strongly linked to the divestment campaign.  Though, the story of divestment leading to majority rule in south africa is an elegant tale that gives juice to current fiscal activists who find it easier to support neo-liberal economics than getting their hands dirty in real social struggles that build better social just communities.

The current BDS campaign simplifies the issue into a narrative of two great actors: the Imperialist Israeli State and the Oppressed Palestinian. The antagonists are reified and held in an almost ahistorical amber of cultural entrapment.  Much like an old style anthropology monograph on a ‘village’ the only possibility of change is seen to come from outside.  Thus enters the possibility of a white crusader from the west.  This is a strange parody of a fight within the semitic family: Jew/Muslim/Christian. The reality lives far away from this simple story spun by BDS advocates. To a large extent the possibility of their being both an Israeli and a Palestinian identity has only conceivable in recent centuries. These modern fraught social identities are ones that have emerged  out of a common historical moment and they seem to rely upon the continuation of the other for their own existence. Perhaps the only real solution is to transform these separate identities into one common identity, one nation without religion?

There is much that is wrong with our world. There are a great many people who will stand up to say that this struggle, that concern, is the most important. What I have seen as I move through my life is that the further away – socially, intellectually, geographically, etc- an issue is then the more intense the rhetoric around it. At least that’s what it looks like from my vantage point.  Point is we can’t solve every problem everywhere.  We need to focus, to select, to be discerning.  Ideally we should also be consistent. For me that leads to focusing on community activism at home and within arenas that I have some small modicum of potential in making what I hope are positive changes.

So when a major national professional association makes a decision with potential global reach we need to think very carefully about this. At the most simplistic, if it is right to divest from Israel and to boycott Israeli cultural and academic institutions why not other nations as well? One also needs to ask if the tactic that is being advocated will have the desired outcome. What are the underlying principles that are being activated to make all of these decisions?

My sense is that a vague combination of liberal guilt (the worry that despite being progressive one is also implicated in oppression), a desire to be ‘on the right side of history,’ and a sense of wanting to do something that might ‘make a difference,’ came together in a room in which 1000+ members of the U.S. Association of Anthropologists voted to initiate a boycott and divestment campaign.  I’m not convinced BDS is the elixir that will make our world a better place.