FSEM 100A1 | American Ideas of Inequality

This section of FSEM is designated as an honors course and satisfies the requirements for students enrolled in the University Honors Program.

This FSEM explores the idea of equality from the perspective of cultural anthropology. You will learn just enough anthropology so that you can acquire this perspective, and then collectively we will try to figure out what equality means in America. To understand the American idea of equality, and its shadow, our notion of personal freedom, we will focus on Thomas Jefferson’s writings about race and personal freedom; we will use his writings about education to educational opportunity today, and we will use his lifestyle to think about consumption and class in America today.

Photo of Eric Gable, Professor of Anthropology

Eric Gable, Professor of Anthropology

I received my Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Virginia and my B.A. in anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. I have done ethnographic fieldwork among Laujé of Sulawesi, Indonesia, Manjaco of Guinea-Bissau (and in Lisbon), and Americans working in and visiting Colonial Williamsburg, one of the biggest open-air history museums in the world. My central concern was how people experience inequality and wrestle with its implications, as I looked at, for example, the beliefs and practices associated with the Manjaco local king and chiefs as those institutions were dramatically affected by colonialism and a violent revolutionary struggle for independence. I explored similar issues among Laujé—ethnically and religiously marginalized citizens in a (typically) peripheral region of one of Indonesia's peripheral islands—citizens who continued to pay allegiance to a king whose kingdom had long since dissolved into the nation-state and citizens who continued to practice certain forms of religiously inspired curing ceremonies that put them at odds with Muslim religious orthodoxies and the modernizing imperatives of the Indonesian state. I studied (with Richard Handler) Colonial Williamsburg’s museum administrators and guides who use a "community of memory," recreated out of clapboard and brick, to talk about the roots of racial and class inequalities in a society supposedly founded upon the ideals of a universal egalitarianism (see our The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg). I also wrote a book Anthropology and Egalitarianism: Ethnographic Encounters from Monticello to Guinea-Bissau) that uses Thomas Jefferson and Monticello juxtaposed with material from fieldwork among Laujé and Manjaco to tell the story of the birth and development of anthropology and the emerging American idea of pluralistic ethics of equality of opportunity. At present I am working on a book (Anthropology and Art: or Image and Object as Act) that extends the idea of equality to the art world by exploring the relationship between anthropology and art as a cosmopolitan project produced and consumed in comprehensive art museums, bringing together art from different eras and cultures around the world.