The conversation about ‘culture shock’ has continued at Savage Minds and seems to have refocused on the question of the transformation of consciousness. I’ve just written a longish comment over there that I’ll carry over here for convenience:
… it’s that critical distance from second nature that’s looked for, the transformation of consciousness from naive ethnocentrism through a kind of Copernican revolution of mind that enables responsible (self-) criticism.
The problem is that like the Marxists trying to figure out how class consciousness happens, we don’t have a very good idea how these transformations actually occur, and so the tendency is to think magically. If we just throw people at the right kind of experience they will be transformed, abracadabra. ‘Education’ is the usual incantation, which makes all those Nazis with university degrees hard to swallow.
So somehow anthropologists are uniquely positioned to decenter their own cultural presuppositions because they go where people are really, really weird. But this corporate ideology does not work for at least two reasons: one, as Rex and John point out (some) sociological ethnographers, historians and tourists somehow manage to get the point of otherness without the epistemological grandstanding; and two, Euro (and Chinese, and Japanese, etc.) colonialists lived elbow-to-elbow with the Big Blue Others and managed (mostly) not to get the point, as for that matter some anthropologists haven’t.
For the latter reason I’m afraid Greg’s earlier gesture at the lamentable disconnect between white grad students and African Americans won’t actually get us far. No whites in history have been closer to African Americans than the slave owners and Jim Crow racists. You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness (or may do so in undesirable ways).
Yet people do wake up from their dogmatic slumbers and become more mindful, critically responsible participants in human community. What are the conditions and moments of this process?
One classic answer is educator Jane Elliott’s famous exercise, as documented in the Frontline “A Class Divided” (you can watch the whole thing there and it’s well worth it). Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Elliott decided she needed to do more to transform the racial consciousness of her white Iowan elementary school kids. To this end she divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed kids, declared one group superior and the other inferior (and then, the reverse), and chillingly succeeded in recreating among her students all the nasty interpersonal dynamics of racism (with emergent structural properties) in no time at all. As a consultant she now works on adults, with the same effects.The exercise is frightening because of how well and how quickly it works, and because of how thoroughly it blurs the lines between teaching, activism, brainwashing and unethical research on human subjects. The kids are tossed this way and then that; they are spared no indignity of subordination, or excess of power; their worst impulses are elicited, encouraged and then ruthlessly dissected. Yet, the experiment was a smashing success. Years later members of the class report an inspiring level of sensitivity to others and critical self-awareness. They are happy and well-adjusted. If they were ‘broken’ by Elliott’s procedure, the new them that was created seems to be far preferable.
It seems to me that the key was not mere exposure to otherness, nor even momentary participation in otherness, although both are necessary. The kids were all deprivileged in turn, stripped of their sense of power and legitimacy, made aware of themselves through a lens of radical inadequacy. That step created anger and resentment; stopping there creates Klansmen and Nazis and terrorists in the wild. Elliott’s brilliance is in the reprivileging debriefing that follows the exercise. Elliott shows the kids the supportive empathy she wants them to learn, but only after demolishing their sense that they were entitled to it. Having torn the kids down and turned them on their heads, she puts them back on their feet, dusts them off and leads them in an analysis that reaffirms every value of themselves they had previously taken for granted, while stepping sideways and looking at it all from another angle. The dialectic of their transformation, then, is emergent in the sense that all of the materials for it were there already; what has been changed is their configuration.