Commentary & Forums, Pedagogy

Steering the Teachable Momentum of the Gates Arrest in an Anthropological Direction.

Public discussion of the Gates arrest is all over the place: people with a stake in race issues insist on speaking about race, analysts of governing technologies attempt to bracket race and focus on procedure, libertarians focus on citizen rights, etc. The aggregate effect has been to generate an argument in which the various sides work on reinforcing their respective positions by talking past each other, seemingly avoiding confrontation over any potentially conclusive point of direct disagreement.

For the purpose of teaching anthropology, I think this public cacophony could be channeled into a good class discussion of the nature of social facts, and some of the ways that “symbolic relays” operate in contemporary American culture to structure the outcome of politically tense situations.

For example, we could take a page from the sociology of policing and start from a theoretical distinction between what the police do and what policing does. This means that we can look at “the police” ethnographically – as individuals acting in real-time contexts – and thereby describe them as engaged in an order of interaction (Goffman’s “interaction order”) which exists at several removes from the larger institutional level in which “policing” functions as an element in the reproduction of macro-historical social order. This distinction is a useful framework for asking questions about how these two levels of phenomena – real-time social action and institutionalized social facts – actually relate to one-another in particular instances. In this case, we have a situation where a central point of dispute is whether or not the social fact of race is relevant to the situation on the ground. To focus discussion of the event onto the cultural dynamics by which larger issues are made relevant to social action, we can usefully borrow Marshall Sahlins’ concept of the “symbolic relay,” i.e. symbols which are deployed to “endow the opposing local parties with collective identities and the opposing collectives with local or interpersonal sentiments. In the occurrence, the small-scale struggles are transformed into abstract and irreconcilable causes-to-die-for, their outcome depending now on the larger correlation of forces” (quoting here from the abstract to his short 2005 paper in Anthropological Theory titled “Structural Work,” (password required) more extensive discussion of the concept can be found in his 2004 monograph Apologies to Thucydides). It is, in other words, cultural work that imbues day-to-day events with larger historical significance.

A classroom exercise could be developed around analyzing how various tropes and categories are mobilized by various commentators and participants in the event as “symbolic relays” to frame the larger historical significance of the event of the arrest itself as being “about” race, common-sense, civility, class, citizenship, police procedure, etc. As cursory examples, consider:

“This isn’t about me; this is about the vulnerability of black men in America,” (Gates).

“[Y]ou probably don’t need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who’s in his own home,” (Obama)

“Gates, as a citizen, has the right to challenge the authority of the police – all Americans have that right.” (

“Gates automatically “profiles” white men in uniform as a threat to his outsized ego, even when they are trying to protect his own house!.” (

“A good cop respects your rights when you show them their rights. A bad cop tries to convince you to do something stupid so they can put you in jail… They will take advantage of your belligerence, they will take advantage of your anger, they will take advantage of your fears.” (

“The report alleges that Gates became belligerent and yelled at the officer that “this is what happens to black men in America.” The report further states that Gates called the officer a racist and declared that the officer had no idea whom he was ‘messing with.’ Assuming the prosecution could establish that those factual allegations are true – which Gates vehemently says it could not – it does not appear the government would have any realistic chance of proving its case in a courtroom.” (

From the obvious point that people disagree as to what this event is “about,” we could move to a finer-grained discussion of how and why various accounts diverge, what kinds of audiences they might be aiming for, and what kinds of pragmatic purposes they might be intended to serve. Ideally, the discussion would leave students with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the socio-cultural processes which are involved in forming prevailing interpretations of the larger significance of events, and how the work of cultural mediation (i.e. the deployment of symbolic relays) is embedded in and inflected by political and economic circumstances.

Cited references available online

Sahlins, M. (2005). Structural work: How microhistories become macrohistories and vice versa Anthropological Theory, 5 (1), 5-30 DOI: 10.1177/1463499605050866