Culture and Diversity in the United States
So Many Ways to Be American
Jack David Eller
London: Routledge, 2015
Paperback. iv+342 p. ISBN 978-1138826694. £29.99
Reviewed by Élodie Chazalon
Université de La Rochelle
An Associate Professor (Emeritus) of Anthropology at the Community College of Denver, Jack David Eller provides us with a very handy book entitled Culture and Diversity in the United States : So Many Ways to be American. Eller’s work is more likely to appeal to students and scholars in American studies who would like to gain further insight into such debated concepts as those of culture, diversity, and their variables – race, ethnicity, class, and gender – as well as the ways these notions have evolved, interacted and intersected through US history.
Not only does Eller offer an historical overview and critical analysis of these common, sometimes over-used terms, but he also goes further by delving into less-expected “categories” – the word, alongside “categorical thinking,” is questioned in the book – like age/generation, religion, health / (dis)ability, and language. The twelve well-argued and richly documented sections of the book aim, according to some of their titles, to go “beyond” the “binary” oppositions that are characteristic of our Western way of understanding the world and of approaching cultural diversity.
The overall architecture of the book pays off: “diversity” is analyzed extensively and is reflected via a wide range of sources and study areas. On the one hand, figures, charts, surveys, and photographs – all listed at the beginning of the book – coming from the US Census Bureau, the National and Getty Archives and the Library of Congress collections are the backbone of Eller’s work and enhance its accuracy. On the other hand, Eller’s interdisciplinary and intersectional approach is backed up with major theories and extracts from mainstays in history, sociology and social history, anthropology and politics such as K. Marx, H. Ellis, E. Durkheim, M. Mead, R.E. Park, M. Weber, C.W. Mills, M. Foucault, E. Goffman, T. Gitlin, J. Butler, to quote but a few.
The sections of the book do not bear the label “chapters” or “parts,” something that goes in line with the author’s circumspect approach to categorization. Moreover, Eller never writes the “United States of America” but uses either “America” or “the United States” which serve as a foil to the “so many ways to be American,” as the subtitle of the book indicates.
In both the preamble (“About the book”) and introductory section (“1. Thinking About Diversity”) Eller questions the notion of “Americanness” and the homogeneity of “the American experience,” insisting on the “many more dimensions of diversity” and on the “additional angles of American diversity” [xii], usually overlooked, but which are an integral part of the American cultural heritage. More specifically, the first section lays emphasis on the transversal and overlapping notions previously mentioned and gives a first glimpse of the newly explored variables of age / generation, sex(uality), religion, health / (dis)ability, and language, which are the added value of the book. What may primarily appear as name-dropping actually reflects the author’s will to make the book both compelling and reader-friendly. This is also obvious in the “Companion Website,” the “Glossary” and “Index,” and in the clear-cut pattern of the sections, which all feature an overview/history of the terms under study and an analysis of the diverse and manifold ways one can tackle diversity.
Thus proceeds the demonstration, with an historical overview of inter-group relations that discusses general notions like pluralism, assimilation and cultural conflicts. The section, which maps out a “short history” of diversity in the USA, goes further by exploring identity politics, multiculturalism and its variables in the more contemporary history (2. “Inter-group Relations and the History of Diversity in the US”). The same goes with the third section, about “Race and Racial Thinking,” which brings forward a history of race and of the struggle for Civil Rights in the USA. Quoting De Tocqueville as well as anthropologist Manning Nash’s concept of “ideology of race” , this section moves away from the categorical thinking applied to race, color, segregation and integration to concentrate on the transience of racial composition and racial thinking.
Eller’s distanced viewpoint is further enhanced in sections 4 (“Ethnicity. Beyond The Race Binary”), 6 (“Sex and Gender. Male and Female”) and its counterpart, section 7 (“Sex and Gender. Beyond the Gender Binary”). All provide comprehensive definitions and histories of ethnicity (vs. race), sex and gender, and present some contemporary approaches, theories, and cultural-historical facts that question their relevance.
The sections that follow are about “Language” (section 8), “Religion” (section 9), “Age” and generational category (section 10), “Health and (Dis)ability” (section 11) and “Region and Geography” (section 12). Among these, section 8 is particularly interesting: it raises the issue of “language” (“What is a language?” ) and questions American English as a homogeneous language. The section underlines the plurality of “linguistic communities” and of “sublanguages, dialects, and other lects, and situational linguistic specialties”  and emphasizes gender, ethnic, race and class language stratifications in America, with many theoretical underpinnings.
About thematic coherence, one wonders why “Class” (section 5) has been placed between “Ethnicity. Beyond The Race Binary” and “Sex and Gender. Male and Female.” Nevertheless, one particularly appreciates the fact that, although fraught with sources, figures, and references, the book is never pompous and turns out to be user-friendly. Each section having more or less the same pattern, the reader, therefore, does not have to follow scrupulously the order of the sections to get to the heart of the book.
The reading is made even more pleasant thanks to the many examples drawn from literature (H. Fielding, M. Wollstonecraft, W.E. Du Bois, V. Woolf), the middlebrow press (Esquire, The Ladies’ Home Journal, etc.) and from popular culture through iconic figures (Rosie the Riveter, the Flapper, Marlene Dietrich’s movies and her gender-crossing, etc.) Many other examples drawn from the fields of sports, entertainment and leisure, business and marketing contribute to the academic value and topicality of the book.
Eller’s work succeeds in demonstrating that multifariousness is inherent in American culture, and that any tiny element is essential to understand “the diversity of diversity”  which is probably one of the most challenging and fascinating aspects of American studies.
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