Elizabeth Chin, associate professor and chairwoman of the anthropology department at Occidental College, has been awarded a Graves Award in the Humanities.
The $8,500 prize will allow Chin to spend six weeks this summer in Haiti, where she will compile a trio of ethnographies to be included in her current book project: “The Consumer Diaries (My Life With Things).”
Administered by Pomona College, the biennial Arnold L. Graves and Lois S. Graves Awards are made to faculty members under age 42, or those in their first decade of teaching, at private, non-denominational liberal arts colleges in California, Oregon and Washington. Chin is one of 11 recipients this year.
In “The Consumer Diaries (My Life With Things),” Chin, who has taught at Occidental since 1994, will set out to explore the “things” in her life that illuminate some unexamined facet of consumer life. Portions of her diaries, which are expected to be published this year, have already appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio.
“Working on ‘The Consumer Diaries’ over the last two years has begun to transform my life in powerful, unanticipated ways,” Chin said. “It has forced me to reevaluate various aspects of my relationships with the world, and particularly with teaching.” Specifically, the project has spurred her to develop a new course, “The Ethnography of One,” which she will teach in the fall.
“Enlisting feminist approaches to teaching and learning, the course will focus on ethnographies that each explore an individual life, but also a particular culture,” Chin said. “What is the relationship between one person and an entire culture? What is the relationship between author and research subject? Whose voice speaks in such ethnographies?”
In Haiti, Chin will spend two weeks in the port city of Miragoane, where she will investigate pepe, a generic term for any used item – from underwear and refrigerators to Happy Meal toys and shoes. Chin will watch such items arrive on ships. “This focused time on thinking about and following pepe will be a way for me to capture and explore consumption in an economic and social context that is worlds away from the one that rules most of my life,” she said.
She will next investigate the institution of restavek, a persistent form of child slavery. “Here the work will be terrifyingly intimate, as a close friend of mine has such a child in her own home,” Chin said. “This mini-ethnography will focus on my friend and her household, taking me deeper into our own friendship, the hardship she faces, explorations of the bitter hierarchies of Haitian life, and what it means to consume the labor of other people while at the same time being their only source of survival.”
Finally, Chin will explore the life of a market vendor named Dedette, who sells produce in upscale Petionville. “Anthropologists have a well developed tradition of engagement with market women, who, as independent entrepreneurs, often appear to be socially and sexually ambiguous: female but powerful, womanly but public, feminine but economically independent.” But it is Chin’s relationship with Dedette that will form the backbone of the ethnography.
Chin’s other published work includes “Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture” (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), which was a finalist for the C. Wright Mills Award.