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.
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
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
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
Freeman believes this current road to upward mobility
is rooted in the march of globalization, though it is anchored in
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
the International Monetary
(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
oppressive colonial system
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
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
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.