American academia is in mourning and in search of relevance. The economic debacle that has diminished and may demolish the sancta sanctorum of the University -- from Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the entire system at the University of California -- is an essential element of this sense of loss. At a time when huge problems -- from the cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico, to the disaster in Afghanistan, to the collapse of the Greek economy -- beg for the full, muscular engagement of scholars and scientists, most of what the American academia has to offer is rachitic, self-aggrandizing, and blatantly irrelevant. The increasingly deforming professionalization, hyper-specialization, and miniaturization of academia reveal a scholarly emperor without any teeth let alone any clothes. Scholarly inquiry is ever more rarefied, decontextualized, and dependent on dubious abstractions and pretty theoretical constructs detached from the everyday miseries and mysteries of the world.
The recent and unprecedented ascendancy of economics in the hierarchy of prestige and resources speaks to the academy's malaise: complicity, on the one hand, and unsoundness on the other. Mesmerized by the seductive beauty of ever more abstract mathematical models, academic economists became the high viziers of global capitalism, gained dominance in the social sciences, and soon relished the role of shamans who would diagnose and cure our most intractable societal ills. Infant mortality and adolescent homicide in Oakland and Baltimore rival that of Central America? Blame all those un-incentivized single mothers and deadbeat Dads. Poor minority kids are not learning English and Math? Not a problem! All you need to do is devise a clever payment schedule and poor immigrant and black kids would do their homework and show up to school. When Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, then senior Professor at Harvard, invited the University's then new President, famed economist and essential architect of the Washington Consensus, Larry Summers to the Rockefeller mansion at Pocantico for a retreat on globalization, culture, and education, invitees had to sit through an insufferable performance, with equal amounts of chutzpah and lack of tack, with Summers pontificating, inter alia, about the perfect economic logic behind paying obscene salaries to Wall Street executives. Never mind that was not the topic he was asked to address. Should we laugh or cry?
The unbowed academic hubris is mind-boggling. Never mind that a generation ago academic economists could not imagine, let alone predict, the collapse of the Soviet Union until its ruinous economy landed in their laps. Never mind that a decade ago, Harvard-trained economists had been complicit in the destruction of the Argentine economy a destruction that would forecast much of what the world saw in 2008. Never mind that a generation later the Harvard, Yale and Princeton faculty trained most of the young scholars and Wall Street practitioners that brought us a brave new world of phony financial instruments and then stood by stupefied and speechless with the demise of Lehman Brothers and, with it, the meltdown of the global economic system they had birthed, the same system that was once predicted to be the only path to bring wealth and prosperity to every corner of the world.
But there are other reasons for academia's increasing irrelevance. The rise of "Academicus LeBronicus" is another cause: the self-serving free agent careerist in pursuit of individual gain in the currency of grants, publications, and fame. This sort of academic star is averse to broad and democratic collaborations and engaged projects spanning continents, disciplines and languages.
This was not always the case. This week a corner of the American academy mourns the passing of George A. DeVos, ("the Fox" in his ancestral Flemish). De Vos, like the wise fox (kitsune) of ancient Japanese mythology, was everything other than the self-serving careerist. Fiercely intelligent, wise, and fully engaged as a scholar and as a global citizen, DeVos embodied an earlier era and academic sensibility that made the American University the envy of the world. A ferociously independent mind, De Vos played the role of citizen-scholar with a characteristically disinterested and impartial persona during several crucial moments in recent history: as arguably the most creative interpreter of Japan during the critical years when the world needed to understand Japanese culture in its own terms; as an expert witness during the dramatic trial of Sirhan Sirhan; as a prophetic voice of caution on the vast consequences of mass migration -the malaise now plaguing nearly all of the European countries struggling with the adaptation of the children of migrants. De Vos was an academic without borders, a cosmopolitan intellectual, fully grounded in the word and fearlessly committed to bring light into even the darkest and most intractable human problems.
George A. De Vos died at home in Oakland, CA on the evening of July 9th 2010 of congestive heart failure, at the age of 87. A profoundly interdisciplinary scholar, De Vos took all his degrees at The University of Chicago, but in three different subjects, earning a B.A. in Sociology, an M.A. in Anthropology, and a Ph.D. in Psychology. He was an embodiment of the interdisciplinary vision fostered at Chicago's Committee on Human Development and Harvard's Department of Social Relations. De Vos' career spanned a variety of professional roles, which included: Japanese language and area training specialist (intelligence) for the US army during the crucial years (1943-1946); chief psychologist and director of psychological intern training at Elgin State Mental Hospital in Illinois; Assistant Professor of psychology at the University of Michigan; Associate Professor of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley; Professor of Anthropology at Berkeley in 1965 and Professor Emeritus in 1991. The role George loved most, which he played throughout his life, was the intellectual trickster, a coyote - the American relative of the European fox - figure and a gadfly to some of his colleagues and to generations of anthropology graduate students.
De Vos was a one-man collaborative, interdisciplinary perpetual motion machine. His collaborative efforts were global before we had the language of globalization. He is best known for his path-breaking work with Hiroshi Wagatsuma but there were many, many other critical collaborations. He was a pioneer in immigration studies in the early 60's, having caught the bug at The University of Chicago where Robert Park and colleagues in sociology had done some of the earliest and most influential studies of immigrant assimilation to the U.S. He worked in the early 1960s with Franco Ferracuti and Otto Klineberg (then living in Paris) on internal migration and delinquency formation in Italy - a work that today reads as a prophetic cautionary statement on the problems of anomie and alienation among the children of immigrant is Europe; with Francois Raveau of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales and the Sorbonne on Francophone Caribbean and African immigrants in Paris; an with Eugeen Roosens of the Catholic University of Leuven on Spanish, Italian, Moroccan and Turkish migration to Belgium, to name but a few. At a time when academics yawned at any mention of immigration studies, DeVos set a generation of younger scholars on a trailblazing path.
George De Vos worked with Horace Miner in writing the book Oasis and Casbah (1960). The research for that book and De Vos' unique-and never again replicated-ability to bridge psychodynamic psychology and cultural anthropology provided the background for his dramatic expert witness work in the Sirhan Sirhan trial. George was one of the expert witnesses for the prosecution -- along with Seymour Pollack, MD and others. The entire world was looking at the trial. It is hard now in retrospect to get the full sense of how much was at stake. The psychological and psychiatric consultants predictably-- turned the results of the psychiatric testing into an intricate debate on the validity of psychometrics. Did Sirhan's responses to the so-called ink-blot test show him to be paranoid schizophrenic or was he suicidally depressed? Was he malingering? Was it a political assassination or simply part of a massive prosecutorial fantasy? Or was it all just his culture? The critical moment came when it was time to ask if these western psychiatric tools, especially the Rorschach could even be used and would work across and beyond cultural boundaries (Shirhan Sirhan was a Palestinian immigrant who came in to the U.S. when he was a child). DeVos's classic work (with Horace Miner) on the Rorschachs of Algerian males provided the key to unlock the case. Years latter during his unforgettable bootleg Seminars at Berkeley De Vos would often reflect on that case - for him the evidence was strong that Shirhan was a paranoid schizophrenic who had taken a mail order self-hypnosis course and was in a kind of self-induced trance when his killed Robert Kennedy. Sirhan vehemently rejected this diagnosis and argued that he was sane but intoxicated and for this reason had no memory of the murder, though he claimed responsibility for it, at one point stunning his own defense team by delivering a venomous monologue on the conflict in the Middle East as motive. Decades latter, after the bombings in London and Madrid, George had a knowing sense of despair.
With Art Hippler, De Vos introduced the concept of "Cultural Psychology," a tool now widely used in the Social Sciences as an essential way to conceptualize the self and identity in en ever more interconnected global world. He worked with Changsoo Lee on the psycho-cultural struggles of Japan's other disparaged minority group - the Koreans; with L. Bryce Boyer on Native American cultural psychology, and with Dorothea Leighton on Navaho culture and personality. With Lola Romanucci-Ross, De Vos introduced the term "ethnic identity" which instantaneously became an indispensible and widely used tool in the social sciences. Taken together these contributions reveal the keen mind of a globally conscious citizen at the service of the engaging the urgent issues of the day.
Both brilliant and irreverent, De Vos would make one laugh even as he was taking down a formidable opponent several pegs. He was endowed with a gift of the absurd about all things human. When in the early 1970s structuralist approaches to understanding human behavior predominated, George mused about Mary Douglas's celebrated analysis of New Guinea subincision rites (the ritual splitting of the penis lengthwise) as an inscription of the bifurcated moiety system on the bifurcated body. "But why do symbols have to be so bloody painful?" he asked playfully. He once said that his years of dedication to understanding and unraveling the human psyche had led him to think that God, too, must be a trickster and that human creation was invented in a divine belly laugh. When a few days before he died George commented to a kindly nurse, "This time the joke's on me", Suzanne DeVos had to explain the reference to the confused care-giver.
In the Berkeley Kroeberian [Alfred Kroeber] tradition that dominated American Anthropology for half a century, De Vos's extensive bibliography-perhaps rivaled only by Berkeley Anthropologists Alan Dundes and John Ogbu-brought international recognition and respect for the field of culture and personality studies, psychological anthropology, and the cross-cultural application of psychological projective tests (the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) and the Rorschach). The intellectual breadth and heft of De Vos' bibliography, with its more than 200 articles and 20 books, edited volumes and monographs, brought fear, trembling, and trepidation each time the Anthropology department had to form an internal committee to review him for promotion. The admonition was to "watch your lower back", for George's latest promotion "case" would come in several heavy box loads.
The book Japan's Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality (with Hiroshi Wagatsuma, 1966) was a landmark of interdisciplinary scholarship. It became a critical lens to view Japan in the aftermath of the war. The book shattered longstanding Western assumptions about cultural homogeneity in the island nation, by exposing a public secret in Japan, namely that a cultural minority, the Burakumin, whose official status as outcastes was abolished at the end of the 19th century, still suffered from discrimination and disparagement until the end of the 20th century. As anthropologist Margaret Lock reflects, the book shattered longstanding Western assumptions about cultural homogeneity in the island nation, by exposing a public secret in Japan, namely that a cultural minority, the Burakumin, whose official status as outcastes was abolished at the end of the 19th century, still suffered from discrimination and disparagement until the end of the 20th century. This work was an inspiration for the early years of feminist writing in Japan, and for an entire genre of research focused on the many forms of conflict, resistance, and rebellion that pervade Japanese society. (Margaret Lock, 2010). In this book De Vos also argued that caste relations can be found not only in India, but also in Japan and the in some forms in the Southern United States.
The wise Fox saw the essential elements of caste to be expressive in nature, and rooted in psychodynamic processes, as well as being instrumental and economic. While Marxist theory may be helpful in the analysis of class oppression, De Vos saw much more than economic and political forces behind race, class, and gender ideologies. He considered caste relations to be grounded in a logic of exclusion based on fairly "primitive" (he often referred to them as "mammalian") psychological mechanisms, projections and other defenses related to ideas about dirt, contamination and pollution, and feelings of disgust and revulsion. Above all, he thought, one must account for the human tendency to debase that which one simultaneously fears, hates, and desires. He believed that ideologies of racial and sexual purity are derived from patterns of early socialization, or what we have later come to call "habitus." That is, the unconsciously absorbed beliefs and rituals related to the uses of the body and its desires, modes of intimacy and interpersonal relations, and the embodied experience of what is deemed proper, pure, and sacred-versus what is deemed profane and polluting. These symbolic representations are diffusely internalized and pervade our experiences of self and other. They appear (or "pop up like gargoyles" as De Vos once said) when we least expect them, and are marshaled in the defense of the invisible barriers erected between individuals of different social groups, whether races, the sexes, or ethnic minorities. Scheper-Hughes a former student and colleague noted that she "long suspected that there was something missing in Marx's view of social inequality, and after reading George's brilliant article "Purity and Pollution as Related to Social Self-identity and Caste", in conjunction with George Orwell's provocative essay, "The Lower Classes Smell" she knew that the answer lay in these unconscious and early-learned and embodied representations of self and other."
Socialization for Achievement (1973, with contributions by Hiroshi Wagatsuma, William Caudill, and Keiichi Mizushima) and Heritage of Endurance (1984, co-authored with Hiroshi Wagatsuma) are monumental works of detailed social-scientific scholarship, devoted to describing and analyzing the social and psychological experiences of the post World War II Japanese. The basic research that went into the making of these books was massive, rare then, and almost impossible to fathom today: it was interdisciplinary, multi-sited, and comparative scholarship in the service of lifting veils and clarifying urgent social problems across huge cultural divides. Margaret Lock has stated, DeVos's contribution to research in Japan was path breaking. He worked against the grain of much of the anthropological research being carried out in the early postwar years by giving emphasis, above all, to early childhood socialization within the family. His argument was that motivation for achievement in adult life was not based on independence and self-reliance, so highly valued in American society, but rather on an inter-personal dependency fostered in infancy and throughout childhood that extends into adult life, with the result, ideally, that group well-being is given priority over individual interests. Well known researchers working in Japan in the second half of the last century, among them William Caudill, David Plath, and Takie Lebra, elaborated on and were at times provoked by DeVos's position, resulting in a large body of literature about inter-personal relationships and the idea of 'self' that continues to influence comparative anthropological and psychological research. (Margaret Lock, 2010). He argued that the motivation for achievement in Japanese adult life was not based on independence and self-reliance, so highly valued in American society, but rather on an inter-personal dependency, close personal ties, fostered in infancy and throughout childhood that extends into adult life, with the result, ideally, that group well-being is given priority over narrow individual interests. Leading researchers working in Japan in the second half of the 20th century, among them William Caudill, David Plath, and Takie Lebra, elaborated on and were at times provoked by De Vos' position, resulting in a large body of literature about the nature of human relationships and the idea of "the self" that continues to influence comparative anthropological and psychological research in Japan. Socialization for Achievement was widely acclaimed as the major work in the field of Japan studies since Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum and the Sword. For De Vos, Benedict's text had been both an inspiration and a foil, against which he argued that the Japanese are a deeply interiorized and guilt-ridden people and not motivated by external emotions rooted in social shame as Benedict had described. But it was De Vos' deep analysis of the extraordinary achievement motivation of the Japanese that is the most enduring contribution of this work.
In Heritage of Endurance, De Vos and Wagatsuma once again challenged the widely shared illusion of Japan as a harmonious, homogenous society-a position taken by perhaps the majority of researchers at the time. The book, both scholarly and empirical in its scope, explores the historical, social, and psycho-cultural processes that produce individuals labeled as delinquents. It explores the shape and expression of social deviance, personal alienation, and criminal and delinquent behavior in Japan. These were subjects generally ignored by other social scientists because, compared to other advanced industrialized nations, delinquency was believed to be a rare phenomenon in Japan's tightly integrated and homogeneous society. The wise Fox was there to unmask an unpleasant but enduring reality.
De Vos' path-breaking volume, Ethnic Identity: Creation, Conflict and Accommodation, (1975) which he edited with Lola Romanucci-Ross, has been revised and updated several times, to reflect the global changes that have transformed the meanings of ethnicity, minority status, and resistance since the original 1970 Wenner Gren Conference on ethnicity that led to its publication. It was at that famous Wenner Gren Conference- at the Burg Wartenstein Conference Center in Austria- where De Vos invited Margaret Mead, the grand dame of social anthropology, to dance a spirited polka, which she refused, a sure sign, said De Vos of Mead's unreconstituted Yankee WASP-ness. The polka exam was one of De Vos' back-pocket projective tests.
Finally, in what he called his "last task before the long voyage home", De Vos, with his son Eric, produced a two-volume work that De Vos hoped would serve as a definitive statement of the value of projective tests as a window into psycho-cultural processes. Basic Dimensions in Conscious Thought (2004) spells out the full details of De Vos' method for using the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) as a comparative method. The second volume Cross-Cultural Dimensions in Conscious Thought (2004) is a collection of papers, many of them provided by De Vos' former students and colleagues, that provide cultural case studies illuminated by the use of the TAT. These two companion volumes were the last major publication of De Vos' prolific career
One of George De Vos's most important gifts to the field of cultural anthropology was his unassuming and non-ideologically motivated certitude that anthropology belonged to the world, not just to France, England and the U.S. He knew at a gut level that anthropological research could not be a one-way mirror, an outsider-looking-in at the exotic other. Anthropological research required constant correction through collaboration with scholars coming from other cultural and scholarly traditions. In many of his writings-as in his constantly shared office spaces-George invited collaborations, making his publications decidedly multi-cultural before that term was popularized and bowdlerized in and outside the academy. Among his most fruitful collaborations were those with Japanese scholars but there were also joint projects with Koreans, Latin Americans, and various Europeans. Remarking on this, Stanford Anthropologist George Spindler in his essay in his book The Making of Psychological Anthropology (1978) described George De Vos as a "model for all of us in his early and consistent collaboration with his 'indigenous' colleagues."
Over the five decades of his career as a psychological anthropologist, De Vos brought to Berkeley scholars from Japan, Korea, France, Belgium, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, and many other places to work with him and his students, and facilitated numerous collaborative projects between his doctoral students and the visiting scholars. De Vos attracted numerous international and American minority students to study anthropology with him at Berkeley. In his day, he trained many Ph.D. minority students in the social sciences at UC Berkeley.
George De Vos was able to be an extraordinary mentor to generations of graduate students, younger scholars and junior faculty because he drew inspiration and insight from remaining in touch with his own youth and young adulthood. Having grown up the child of Belgian immigrants in the multi-ethnic Chicago, he was acutely aware of his own ethnicity, his own family's internal conflicts over social status, and his sense of alienation from the Catholic Church in which he had been raised. He profoundly understood young adult problems and anxieties around achievement, authority, rebelliousness and anomie. Nonetheless, he was a hard taskmaster, insisting that his students be well grounded in the classics-Weber, Durkheim, Freud, and Marx, as well as Kroeber, Kardiner, Erik Erikson, and Piaget, carrying forward the intensity and scope of intellectual exploration fostered at his alma mater in Chicago. He insisted that his students be disciplined field workers and researchers and that they learn some of the tools and techniques of psychological testing-especially, of course, the cross-cultural uses of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) and Rorschach-as a way of measuring the effects of culture on individual and group development and on the formation of personality and social self identity. (Not surprising his Ph. D. students landed the best jobs: at Harvard, at Berkeley, and at major research university all over the world. ) But De Vos was also a strong critic of the misuse and fetishization of these same psychological instruments. They were only one tool in a larger social-scientific kit, and their use in psycho-cultural research was only as good as the anthropologist or cultural psychologist who employed them in the field.
De Vos' brilliance was matched by his wicked wit, indefatigable work ethic, and encyclopedic knowledge of ethnicity and ethnic groups the world over. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco recalls the day when he walked into De Vos's office for the first time over thirty years ago and was peppered with questions about the Basques and Galicians, the Welch and the Russian-Germans of Argentina. "He took my breath away. When I brought him to Harvard twenty years later for his long-awaited debate with David McClelland (author of The Achieving Society -- the phantom behind the curtains of George's monumental "Socialization for Achievement") the two lions-after quickly seizing each other on the stage at the Askwith Auditorium-went on to dazzle the standing-room only crowd in an unforgettable interdisciplinary tango whose sweet music reverberated for weeks in those magical auburn fall days of Cambridge."
De Vos was famous around Berkeley for what he labeled his free-wheeling extra-curricular "bootleg" seminars-which he held in the little WWII vintage green bungalow across from Kroeber Hall-as well as in his gracious Berkeley Hills home. One did not have to be a true believer in psychological testing to enjoy the brainstorming sessions around a new set of fresh TAT results coming in from an Israeli kibbutz, from rural Mexico, or from highland New Guinea. The stories told in response to the TAT pictures were treated as cultural productions-equal to the analysis of dreams, cock fights or shadow plays-not to be mined for evidence of individual pathologies, but to become data for comparative psycho-cultural analysis.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes recalls that she and her esteemed professor often disagreed-sometimes fiercely and vociferously-on the best interpretation of Irish responses to TAT card 1 (boy and fiddle), that is how to account for all those sad stories of broken fiddles and sour tunes given by her Irish adolescent research informants in response to card 1. They both agreed that the Irish responses spoke eloquently to a profound sense of social malaise-whether derived from sexual inhibitions, repression and castration anxieties (De Vos' view) or from a sense of living in a dying 'peasant' world (Scheper-Hughes' view). Following a return to rural Ireland, 25 years after the fact, Scheper-Hughes learned how incredibly sensitive the TAT really was, and that both interpretations were spot on! They need not have quarreled at all.
De Vos' son, Eric ultimately also became his father's student. Himself a psychologist with a Ph.D. from The University of Chicago, Eric finally acquiesced to his father's insistence that he learn to use the TAT for psycho-cultural research. Thereafter Eric was invited to collaborate as co-author and editor on De Vos' final volumes. Eric recalls that it was through this process that he finally understood his father's unflagging commitment to fostering his graduate students and to furthering the goal of an integrated social sciences. He finally understood the excitement he had witnessed as a child when the "bootleg" seminars were being held in the family's home. Only by learning to use the tools De Vos provided, and by working with such an energetic and intellectually demanding individual, could one fully understand the integrative complexity of his scientific genius, the global scope of his vision and agenda, and the affection and devotion still felt for him by those from whom he has now departed.
The Fox is now gone and with him a sensibility and engagement with the broad and urgent problems of the times. But is he? The ancient Japanese believed the fox, kitsune, became wiser and more powerful as he became older - and grew more tails! They also believed that foxes always lived in close but ambiguous proximity even if they could not always be seen. Sometimes the mythical old foxes had to take human form, to trick us out of our complacency, the self-illusions and banalities. Today, more than ever, the American academia needs more wise Foxes like him.
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