Not About White Workers: The Perils of Popular Ethnographic Narrative in the

The essay below is part of my on-going work on the explanatory power of the “white working class.” In it, my co-author Ryan Brownlow and I raise three concerns about popular contemporary ethnographies that focus on the rural and white “working class.” First, these ethnographies are not treated as partial accounts of cultural experience but are instead taken as straightforward political and economic analyses. Second, these ethnographies amplify an “empathy mandate,” which demands that our political actions center on trying to understand misunderstood populations—in this case, the so-called “white working class.” Third, by disarticulating the cultural markers of “working classness” from the material conditions of class, these ethnographies obscure the political significance of “working class.” Ethnographies of “white working class” experience may be useful only if we treat them as small openings that lead to bigger and broader stories, rather than as complete and transparent explanations of what is going on.

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