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Sidney Mintz

Sidney Mintz

By Erika Kuever

Posted May 2006

 
Sidney Mintz has been called our “foremost scholar on sweetness” for his landmark work on the role of sugar in the world system. He is also, we must not forget, a great scholar of power; of the way it has operated historically and dialectically in shaping world history and human experience. Sweetness and Power, his best known work, represents not so much an apex, but a useful mid-point in Mintz’ distinguished career. It embodies many of the ideas he sought to advance in his early career while serving as a fulcrum in directing his later work. Over more than half a century as an anthropologist, Mintz’ work has covered multiple interests and regions. He has been influenced by other anthropologists as well as by scholars outside of the field, and his influence has been widely felt.
 
Mintz received his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1943 and continued his graduate work at Columbia University under the supervision of Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict. He was one of the founding members of the Mundial Upheaval Society, a Columbia graduate student group that included Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond, Elman Service and Morton Fried, all of whom would have large impacts on the discipline (Brittanica online). Mintz’ first fieldwork was in Puerto Rico in 1948, working as part of a team headed by Julian Steward on a large-scale project on modernization. The work was published as The People of Puerto Rico in 1956, and was co-authored by Steward, Robert Manners, and Eric Wolf, among others. One reviewer of the book at the time of its publication singled out Mintz’ contribution and praised his conclusion that the “plantation economy” and its consequences “be studied profitably across cultural boundaries” (Opler 1957: 125).
 
Mintz’ challenge to the geographical and intellectual boundedness of traditional anthropological research was to become a theme throughout his work. His involvement in the Puerto Rico study also proved a fertile ground for sharing intellectual reflections with his classmate and co-author Eric Wolf. In the bibliographic notes for his book Europe and the People Without History(1985), Wolf credits much in his discussion of plantations to an interest shared with Mintz on “the dialectic between plantations and peasantries” originating more than thirty years before. Wolf’s approach has much in common with Mintz’, who, throughout his long career has attempted to “wed the anthropological concepts of culture to historical materialist scholarship” (Johns Hopkins University 2006). How successful has he been in this attempt? What influences has Mintz’ had on the discipline of anthropology and in the wider realm of both academic and popular studies of culture and history?
 
Having had an auspicious career as a graduate student, Mintz joined the faculty at Yale University in 1951, remaining there until 1974. During this time he published a book on the Puerto Rican rural proletariat (1951), a Puerto Rican life history (1960) and several texts on the Caribbean peasantry. Mintz also did extensive fieldwork in Puerto Rico (1948-9, 1953, 1956), Jamaica (1952, 1954), and Haiti (1958-1959, 1961), enabling him to develop a framework which sought to account for the broad historical processes of European colonial expansion and the development of the Caribbean peasantry. Approaching ethnography with a historical perspective, Mintz’ work highlighted the unique character of the Caribbean region. His 1974 book Caribbean Transformations received very positive reviews which praised his vast experience in and knowledge of the region. Owing to his extensive fieldwork and study, one reviewer suggested that Mintz was “particularly well-equipped to provide in this volume what no one else has attempted to do so far: to deal with the region as a whole, to delineate its special, distinctive features, and to set it within the larger framework of the Americas, of Afro-America, and of the Third world” (Bourguignon 1975: 790). Mintz’ usage of the comparative perspective was seen as a “major contribution by a distinguished anthropologist to our understanding of one significant area of the modern world” (Bourguignon 1975: 791). While Julian Steward may have influenced Mintz’ strong grounding in the comparative perspective, Mintz’ own contribution was to use a historical materialist approach which held in tension the dialectical interaction between large processes of capitalist expansion and their local cultural responses.
 
Mintz came to Johns Hopkins University in 1975, where he helped to establish its department of anthropology. With American historian Richard Price, Mintz co-authored the 1976 text The Birth of African American Culture. In a review of a reprint of the book, Roediger noted its “significant contribution” and status as “an underground classic among historians and anthropologists” (1993: 953). Many themes that have recurred in Mintz’ work are exemplified by the book, which is otherwise quite different from most of his publications. Arguing for the grounding of cultural studies in history, Mintz and Price insisted that the development of specifically African American institutions could not be explained by social context or cultural traditions alone.  They advanced a thesis that various African cultures are structured by deep “grammatical principles” which shape the institutions of kinship and religion and which inform everything from gender relations to bodily comportment. For its time, the book also made prophetic statements about anthropology itself. The authors challenged Herskovitz’s notion of a “culture area” and insisted on broadening the “field” of anthropological study. They also acknowledged that in addressing issues of race, power, and inequality, their discussion had a “clear political coefficient.” In their preface to the 1992 edition, Mintz and Price reflected on the influence of the book, stating, “the importance of focusing on process in the development of African American cultures, of examining different kinds of blends and mixtures, has gradually become recognized and acknowledged” (1992: x).
 
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mintz continued to publish and edit work on slavery and the peasantry in the Caribbean, solidifying his reputation as one of the foremost authorities on the region. Mintz was the editor of a 1975 book of essays on Slavery, Colonialism, and Racism.The book featured contributions from scholars writing on the contemporary and historical experiences of people of African descent in the Americas and in Africa. According to one reviewer, the works demonstrate that “the richness and breadth of the black experience cannot be fully appreciated when viewed in isolated national contexts,” a classic contention of Mintz’ (Roucek 1978: 463). Another reviewer called Mintz’ chapter on the Caribbean the “liveliest and most broadly based” contribution to this historically approached multidisciplinary work (Macdonald 1976: 489).
 
Caribbean Contours, a 1985 volume edited by Mintz and Sally Price received laudatory reviews by Caribbeanists and others who saw it as filling a gap in the scholarship of the region. The book included a chapter by Mintz published in 1984 as a pamphlet by the Wilson Center. From Plantations to Peasantries in the Caribbean was a synthesis and elaboration of peasant studies in the region by historians, sociologists and anthropologists. In it, Mintz argued for the distinctiveness of the various peasantries which typified the Caribbean. He noted that the importance of the peasantry had been underestimated by scholars who tended to describe it as “no more than a castoff social product of the plantation, rather than as an adaptation in its own right” (1984: 8). Although peasantries emerged alongside of industrialization, Mintz stressed that this did not occur as a merely economic adaptation. He found great national and individual variation among both peasantries and “rural proletarians” and stressed that “for centuries independent cultivation offered to the Caribbean masses the most important and dignified alternative available to plantation wage labor or migration” (1984: 26). In attending to history and process, Mintz also looked to the future, noting political and economic changes that could lead to the deterioration of the historically persistent peasantry.
 
Mintz’ best known book, Sweetness and Power, was published in 1985. Its ambitious task was to develop a cultural, economic, and social history of sugar which revealed the complex way in which sugar production was connected to the development and organization of slavery and capitalist expansion. As in previous works, Mintz used anthropological methods and insights on historical texts in his analysis of the growth of sugar consumption and its ties to social status among the European classes. As sugar gained in popularity, capitalists needed to find sources of cheap labor for the cane fields, leading to the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean. Mass consumption of sugar was also linked to the growth of the laboring classes, who readily adopted it as a source of cheap energy heavily promoted by commercial interests. Although greatly influenced by a Marxist perspective, Sweetness and Power represented an inversion of historical materialism as it had been traditionally formulated. Mintz argued that the social as well as the economic importance of tea and sugar in eighteenth century Great Britain shaped British colonial policy, not the other way around. The notion that consumption could drive change would later gain favor in theories of the role of the “new consumer” in the construction and persistence of global commodity chains. Miller’s (1995) argument that the first world housewife has become a “dictator” over third world producers is one which is indebted to Mintz’ earlier work.
 
Scholarly reviews of Sweetness and Power were generally quite critical. One reviewer called it “an odd, odd book” and noted an “absence of sustained argument” in its movement from subject to subject (Goldfrank 1987). Another suggested that readers curious about the linkages of sugar to the development of capitalism “might be better advised to read a good economic history” (Roxborough 1986). The text, however, became a classic of historical and economic anthropology. This lasting influence was due in part to Mintz’ attempt to shape an “anthropology of the present” that challenged taken for granted institutions by treating them as historical processes. Sahlins argues that Sweetness and Power “dared to take on capitalism as a cultural economy” (1996: 395). In his 1994 Sidney W. Mintz lecture, later published in Current Anthropology, Sahlins claimed that the book produced “a concentrated rush of intellectual energy, especially among anthropologists” because it revealed “the historical relativity of our native anthropology” (1996: 415). Anthropologists in the eighties and early nineties were questioning their political legitimacy as observers to speak for cultural “others.”  Sahlins built on Mintz’ work to perform what he called “an “archaeology” of mainstream social science “discourse”” (1996: 395). He argued that in economics, “human misery had been transformed into the positive science of how we make the best of our eternal insufficiencies” (1996: 397). Economic man, he insisted, was “still Adam… the same scarcity-driven creature of need survived long enough to become the main protagonist of all the human sciences” (1996: 397). While this argument indicted anthropology along with those other social sciences originating in Judeo-Christian societies, it also rescued the discipline by providing a way to acknowledge and perhaps break free of the model.
 
Mintz’ work stands out in the field not only for its scholarly contributions but for its broad and relatively popular readership. Sweetness and Power has a sales rank of 20,832 on Amazon.com, an impressive number when compared to Geertz’ classic Interpretation of Cultures as 75,447, or Sahlins’ Culture in Practice, at 551,324. Obviously, prestige within the discipline does not always translate into book sales. Reviews of the book posted on its sales page reveal that it is indeed being read by non-anthropologists and even laymen. Several reviewers champion Mintz’ political science or economistic perspective, and one notes that the book is “a worthwhile endeavor, and for anthropology, actually almost a fun read” (Amazon.com). Also revealing is the linking of Mintz’ text with Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History as a package buy. Mintz’ own take on his work on sugar may go some way in explaining his positive popular reception. On his personal website, Mintz writes:
I’m awed by the power of a single taste, and the concentration of brains, energy, wealth and, most of all, power, that provided it to the world in such stunningly large quantities, and at so terrible a cost in life and suffering. I want to know what will happen with sweetness next: how its desirability will confront the costs it poses in health, physical appearance, the environment, and the world order. How do we get from one child’s sweet tooth to the history of slavery and war and corporate lobbying of the Congress? — and how do we get back again, to the significance of that child’s sweet tooth? [http://www.marcelloworld.org/sugarpage.html]
 
While his work is strongly grounded in extensive fieldwork and academic research, Mintz’ own enthusiasm for the curious power of taste and desire comes through clearly in his work, giving it an accessibility too rare in works of anthropology.
 
Mintz’ interest in sugar, along with those other commodities which stimulated colonial empire, has developed into an abiding interest in the anthropology of food. His most recent book,Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past (1996), uses a causal framework similar to that of his sugar studies. The text is a collection of essays which broadly examine the role of American tastes in shaping the American cultural landscape, and make rather bleak predictions of their social and environmental effects. Scholarly reviews of the work have been mixed, although they do acknowledge Mintz’ broad contribution to the field. Couhnihan calls Mintz a “pioneer in the historical-anthropological study of food habits” (1998: 27), while Lipartito broadly terms him one of the “foremost anthropologists of food” (1998: 145). His apparent stature is echoed in the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on the anthropology of food, which places Mintz’ work in the company of that of such luminaries as Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and Marvin Harris. Fine’s review of Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom highlights the accessibility of Mintz’ writings, noting that the essays “assert that humans invest their consumption choices with meanings about who they are and about what they believe” (Fine 1997: 1487-8). In so doing, Mintz’s work attends not only to history and political economy, but to the lived experience of man as a symbolic and cultural animal.
 
In nearly sixty years as an anthropologist, Sidney Mintz has published hundreds of scholarly articles. The Social Sciences Citation Index records 105 of these articles, measuring their impact by how often they are cited in other works. Not surprisingly, older pieces score higher, as they have had more time to percolate up into the ivory towers and throughout the academy. More recent pieces, which may yet become important contributions, often rank much lower. One such example is a 2002 article co-authored by Mintz and Christine Dubois on “The Anthropology of Food and Eating.” Though it has so far been cited only once, it is significant that this citation occurs not in a work of anthropology, but in an article on nutrition and aging in the journal Physiological Reviews. While this may be related to the greater connections of the anthropology of food to other disciplines, it is hardly the only instance in which Mintz’ work has found influence outside of his primary discipline. In part this is because Mintz has often worked outside of anthropology, publishing in history, political economy, and area studies journals. A 1995 article entitled “Can Haiti Change?” was published in Foreign Affairs and garnered citations from Human Organization, the Journal of Canadian StudiesStudies in Comparative International Development, and Annals of the Association of American Geographers.
 
Mintz’ most cited, though we must be cautious to note, not necessarily most influential work, is found in his oldest published material. His top-cited article, co-authored with Eric Wolf, is “Haciendas and Plantations in Middle America and the Antilles.” The high score of this piece, cited an impressive fifty-one times, is likely due to its pioneering scholarship on the region. Mintz’ second most influential article, according to the SSCI, was published as “Men, Women, and Trade” (1971) in Comparative Studies in Society and History. Again, this was a relatively early and unique piece, cited thirty-nine times not so much for its theoretical contribution but for its pioneering attention to women traders in the Caribbean.
 
Many of those issues to which Mintz has returned throughout his career are represented in his most cited works. A piece on the “So-Called World System – Local Initiative and Local Response” (1977), received thirty-four citations, most of them in anthropology journals and many of which used the work to argue with Mintz against a simplistic view of historical change as a one-way trajectory from the nations of the rich to those of the poor. Published in Dialectical Anthropology, the essay advocated an interactive and processual perspective. The article was also used to cite Mintz’ argument that the Caribbean was the first truly “modern” region, the distinctiveness of which was too often disregarded by scholars, both because of its lack of ‘fit’ with prevailing assumptions about world historical processes and its incompatibility with anthropology’s toolkit. This is the use to which “Enduring Substances, Trying Theories: The Caribbean Region as Oikoumene” (1996) has also been put in its fourteen citations. Many of Mintz’ more influential articles deal more generally with the Caribbean, particularly issues of slavery and the peasantry. The most popular of these works “Slavery and the Rise of the Peasantries” (1979) has been cited sixteen times, with eleven of these citations occurring in journals of history and only one in an anthropology journal.
 
Another topic on which Mintz’ work has been repeatedly cited is in the field of anthropological practice itself. His 1998 article “The Localization of Anthropological Practice – From Area Studies to Transnationalism” has already received twenty-one citations. While this topic is related to his challenge to geographically and temporally bounded research, it also addresses the more practical issues of fieldwork in a globalizing world. An earlier article cited also salient to the critique of anthropology has been cited eleven times. “The Sensation of Moving, While Standing Still” (1989) is a rather personal essay about the relationships between ethnographers and informants, and the difficulties and necessities of recording the life histories of cultural “others.” Similarly, Mintz’ 2000 essay “Sows Ears and Silver Linings” acknowledges the complexities of modern fieldwork, but insists that it remains central to the ethnographic project, arguing that if anthropologists do not value its centrality, they will not only lose their grounding in field-based data, but will be supplanted in the project by social scientists in other disciplines.
 
Mintz’ reflections on fieldwork are highlighted as major contributions to the field in the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on “Cultural Anthropology,” which asserts that his 1996 American Anthropological Association Distinguished Lecture illustrated a move away from a focus on gender, discourse, and postmodern writing towards the reaffirmation of “field-gathered ethnographic data.” The entry further holds that the Mintz lecture, published in 2000 in Current Anthropology and in the reference volume Handbook of Methods, “recalled earlier anthropology with its application and impact beyond academia, adapting unpopular postures in defense of the legitimacy of traditional ways of life and cultural practices” (Brittanica online). This clearly demonstrates the popular perception of Mintz’ contribution to the discipline; a surprising one for an anthropologist so committed to issues of history and political economy. Mintz’ influence in the academic world, as represented by the Social Sciences Citation Index, is not nearly as great as that of Clifford Geertz or Arjun Appadurai, whose articles may garner between fifty to a hundred citations, but a higher percentage of his work has been taken up by others scholars and his citation statistics are considerably higher than those of many working anthropologists. It is thus apparent that Mintz’ work is widely read and quite influential both in and out of the field.
 
Another way to measure Mintz’ influence in the field is to review his illustrious career as reflected by his professional positions. Mintz has been a visiting professor at MIT, Princeton, Berkeley, the Collège de France, and in Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong. He is a member of American Ethnological Society and was President of that body from 1968 to 1969, and has been a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Mintz was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1957, a Social Science Research Council faculty research fellow from 1958-59, and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow from 1978-9. He received a Fulbright senior research award in 1966-67 and in 1970-71, and a William Clyde DeVane Medal from Yale University in 1972. All of this acclaim derives primarily from Mintz’ ethnographic work and publications. He is not known for his theoretical contributions, but for his valuable insights into Caribbean and European history and society which have been based in extensive fieldwork and comparative study. In his 84th year, Mintz is still publishing and remains in the position of Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University.
 
 
Sources Cited
 
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