Emory Report
February 13, 2006
Volume 58, Number 19


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February 13, 2006
MARIAL study focuses on Barbados middle class

BY Rachel Robertson

Anthropologists historically have focused on the poor and working class of a developing country, but Carla Freeman, associate professor of anthropology and women’s studies, is taking a different approach. She has launched a study of the emerging middle class in Barbados to determine how globalization is affecting the group on the tiny Caribbean island.

The research, funded by the MARIAL Center, focused on the customs and habits of 85 men and women who live on the island. Barbados was uninhabited when the British settled the island. As a result, the country’s culture has been defined largely by the colonizers and the slaves they brought with them to work on the sprawling sugar plantations.

Slavery’s end meant Barbados had to devise new ways for its residents to enter the workforce and become productive citizens when the country’s education became a pathway available to all its residents.

The path of upward mobility was understood very clearly to be through the medium of education, and ideally through the embrace of the professions, such as law and medicine,” Freeman said.

She found that many in the country’s expanding middle class are bucking the traditional system and broadening the parameters for upward mobility. On the island’s rugged east coast, one entrepreneur in Freeman’s study started an outdoor adventure business that specializes in team-building training for corporations.

She is a young Afro-Barbadian woman who grew up in a household where her father left the family when she was a small child, and she was raised by her mother, who was a domestic worker,” Freeman said. “She worked for a couple of hotels and for a bank—the quintessence of a respectable, good job that her mother was really proud of—and chucked all that in favor of starting her own business.”

Freeman believes this current road to upward mobility is rooted in the march of globalization, though it is anchored in the vestiges of the country’s plantation-slavery system. This is best illustrated by the “higgler,” a traveling market trader akin to a small business owner in the United States. (Higglers and rum shop operators are important cultural icons in the region.) Freeman said the higgler was typically a large, strong woman who wore a colorful head scarf and carried a bountiful tray of produce. She also represented a symbol of female independence. The rum shop, a gathering place for men, was often operated out of one section of the owner’s house. However, such businesses had little prestige and were not seen as a way to break into the middle class.

Neoliberalism, or more generally, globalization, was often seen as being imposed upon developing countries by such powers as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Those agencies are supportive of the type of entrepreneur Freeman studied.

Neoliberalism means the free market reigns, and flexibility is everything. These are ideologies and economic practices that have been in existence and proudly hailed as deeply Caribbean for 300 years,” Freeman said.

It is interesting to note that these practices, now in favor with the dominant economic order, were developed in reaction to the oppressive colonial system of slavery.

In the few cases where anthropologists have examined the middle strata, Freeman said, these groups have often been portrayed as less “authentic” culturally than their poorer kin and likened in many quarters to economic predators who take advantage of poorer people to advance their fortunes.

She hopes that, by using ethnographic research to gain a deeper understanding of this group, anthropology can inform other social science disciplines about how the middle classes might be contributing to the economic and cultural changes in their societies.

A number of anthropologists, myself included, now find ourselves turning toward the middle classes, not as culturally bereft, but as people who are successful evidence of mechanisms of development and who are utilizing local culture in new kinds of ways to propel themselves into a new economic and social strata,” Freeman said.

Her close examination of entrepreneurs in Barbados has convinced Freeman that more needs to be done to incorporate ethnographic research in the study of globalization, a task she has taken on in her undergraduate seminar this semester. Freeman said the wealth of data compiled through ethnography can add depth that could be missed in macro-level analysis—for example, the role gender plays in how people make job choices can complete the research picture.

Ethnography offers an indespensible tool, in conjunction with these other methodological approaches, to demonstrate the meaningfulness of place and of historical and cultural specificity within processes of globalization,” Freeman said.