by Fernando Quintero
Her eyes are dark, her hair is too
But her heart is light, her cares are few
--from Sherry Ortner's senior portrait in the Weequahic High School yearbook
When professor of anthropology Sherry Ortner attended her 30-year high school reunion in 1988--her first since she graduated from Weequahic High in Newark, N.J.--it wasn't nostalgia that brought her back.
The new faculty member went to see about using her graduating class as the ethnographic population for a major study on class and culture in America.
It seems the brown-eyed girl who served on the prom bids committee and headed a host of other clubs is not as carefree and light-hearted as she used to be.
Ortner, who was recruited last fall from the University of Michigan, is among the movers and shakers in cultural anthropology whose early work in feminist theory made her a pioneer in her field. "She's one of several stars the campus has recruited," said The Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ.
While at Michigan, where she taught anthropology and women's studies for 17 years, Ortner received numerous honors and awards including MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. She has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992. She is listed in "Contemporary Authors" and "Two Thousand Notable American Women."
Ortner first came to prominence in the early '70s with her controversial argument that male dominance was universal.
"The belief at the time was that there was egalitarianism. It was argued that cultures existed where women had an equal role as men. I said that in a larger context, male dominance persisted," she said. In 1981, Ortner co-edited the book "Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality," which reaffirmed her theory. Then, in 1993, Ortner published "Gender Hegemonies." A retraction, sort of.
"I said the critics were more right than I admitted early on. If you look at the issue a certain way, you come up with male dominance. You get a more complex picture of dominance. You can see societies where women have strong roles. Overall, I believe there is a trap in putting societies into boxes," she said.
In cultural theory, Ortner has done extensive fieldwork among the Sherpa people of northeast Nepal. She has studied village social relations and their religion, including an oral history project on the causes and effects of the founding of the Buddhist monasteries in the early 20th century. She has even conducted interviews with mountaineering Sherpas--including women--in Katmandu.
"I'm very committed to anthropology," said Ortner about her motivating force.
"It's in the process of remaking itself. It's trying to hang on to a concern with other people's experience as well as the here and now. On one hand, we don't want to be known as just someone who studies exotic natives somewhere in a distant land. On the other, there is a real commitment to cross cultural and international perspective. If we aren't thinking about indigenous peoples of the fourth world, who will?"
In her look at the daily lives of her former classmates, Ortner uses a "documentary" approach in an effort to understand "the lived worlds of real people in real time and space."
"I framed the project in thinking about the middle class," said Ortner. "People were asking, 'Is the middle class going soft? Is it shifting to the right? What are we looking at?"
With tape recorder in hand, Ortner traveled throughout the country to interview members of her graduating class: mostly white, middle-class; 80 percent Jewish; 13 percent other whites; and 7 percent minorities, mostly African-Americans.
She met them at work, at home, in bars and restaurants. She asked them to tell her the story of their lives.
"I must say hearing these stories has been an overwhelming experience," she wrote in a paper published in the Michigan Quarterly Review two years ago about her fieldwork. "For they tell about everything under the sun: success and failure, marriage and divorce, crime and punishment, love and hate, friendship and enmity, religious conversions, affairs, kids, work, politics, nostalgia, death and more."
More importantly, the intimate slices of life Ortner was able to record afforded her the opportunity to examine how large-scale forces work themselves out in everyday life.
Ortner said preliminary findings of her research show the American class system is alive and well.
"Overall, what I see is a very strong mechanism of class reproduction. When the middle class is successful, it really watches out for itself.
"For many of my classmates, that means a shift rightward."
Ortner has gone on to do fieldwork on the children of the Class of '58. "The Generation X group," said Ortner.
"For most of my classmates, they think of everything in terms of their kids. Their kids are a key symbol of what they're doing economically, politically and socially," said Ortner. "It is the future as seen through their kids. It's time to look at the future."