Understanding the “Complex Good” rather than the “Narrowly Pathological”
It is thrilling to be receiving this fellowship honoring the wonderful work of Margaret Mead, whose pioneering scholarship crossed theoretical, disciplinary, geographic, and cultural boundaries, whose writing spoke to broad and diverse audiences beyond the Academy, and who blended the roles of scholar and activist with a passion and a determination that left her singular imprint on the world. As a graduate student, I remember being immediately drawn to Mead’s writings, to the largeness of her mind, to her curiosity about things big and small, to her clarity of voice, to her determination to make a difference, and to her optimism about the human spirit and our capacity to create a better, more just world. I loved her impatience, her courage, and her pragmatism. I loved her womanly wisdom.
I am sure that Mead’s medium and message have seared their way into the ways I have shaped and defined my own scholarly activities, the questions I have chosen to pursue, the audiences to whom I hope to speak, and the public discourse I have joined and helped to shape. For the last 30 years I, too, have crossed boundaries, working at the margins in the in-between spaces where the ambiguities, ironies, contradictions, and paradoxes of human experience often reside. I have wanted my writings to be informative and inspiring, speaking to the head and the heart, focusing on the complex good rather than the narrowly pathological; inciting identification and self-interrogation among readers. I have wanted to offer a counterpoint, a challenging voice of dissonance and contrast to many of the preoccupations and rituals of social science scholarship.
A principle vehicle I have used to navigate the boundaries and to deepen the conversation in the public domain has been through methodological innovation. Through “Portraiture,” the joining of art and science, the blending of literary narrative and empirical description I seek to join private, intimate storytelling with the public discourse that it hopes to impact. I work to connect the voices of the storyteller, the narrator, and the audience and draw the continuum between analysis and solidarity. The power here lies in the explicitly humanistic impulse. It embraces analytic rigor, a perspective that is distant, discerning, and skeptical, and community building, acts of intimacy and connection. Social historian Joseph Featherstone speaks about my work as a “people’s scholarship,” a scholarship in which, as he puts it, “scientific facts gathered in the field give voice to a people’s experience.” And he says the “methodologies are inseparable from the vision.”
But deepening the conversation and broadening the audience are not only acts of analysis and solidarity, they are also inevitably acts of intervention. In the process of creating portraits, we come as supplicants, witnesses, translators, griots. We listen for the authority and the insight of the indigenous folks. We enter people’s lives, engage in acts implicit and explicit, of social transformation. We create opportunities for dialogue, we pursue silences and, in the process, we face empirical, relational, and ethical dilemmas and a great moral responsibility. This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality. This is exciting work that can instigate positive and productive change.
When I visited the faculty of one of the schools I portrayed in my book, The Good High School to talk with them about their response to reading the layered narrative I had produced about a place they knew much better than I, a place they inhabited every day, the principal introduced me. “You know,” he said with tears in his voice, “reading your portrait of our school was like watching our own open heart surgery.” A biology teacher, who spoke about her devotion to scientific rigor, described what she called the terrifying and enlightening experience of reading her school, as she said, like a “complicated cultural text,” and beginning to see for the first time the strange in the familiar, the exotic in the ordinary. These responses laced with poignancy and pathos, defensiveness and insight, self-reflection and self-protection, began a rigorous conversation that moved from the particular to the general, that bridged research and practice an unruly, surprising, productive conversation that, like so many others I have participated in over the last three decades, echo with Margaret Mead’s purpose, passion, and perspective.
Lawrence-Lightfoot is the 2008 AAPSS Margaret Mead Fellow. These remarks were delivered upon accepting her Fellowship on May 8, 2008.
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