Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Q&A with Edward C. Green




Edward C. Green is the author of the new book On the Fringe: Confessions of a Maverick Anthropologist. An anthropologist, he is a former senior research scientist at Harvard University.


Q: What inspired you to write On The Fringe?


A: I have reached the post-retirement age when a number of my colleagues are writing their memoirs. I noticed that very few of them delve into problem areas, or negativity. They seem to be enumerating one achievement after another while saying little of nothing about the kinds of problems we professionals actually face.


I started this memoir by promising myself that I would be honest in revealing my fully human, highly flawed life, the outer and the inner, the lows as well as the highs, the good, bad, and ugly, the paranormal, the ontological, and the downright embarrassing.


So I describe some really bad job interviews (I imagine all of us have had at least one of these), periods of depression and professional failures, and the imposter syndrome, where I have a persistent feeling of being a fraud, of not living up to what I imagine people expect of me.


I felt that book such as the one I have written would be helpful for younger anthropologist and public health professionals because they will see that they're not alone with their feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. (If no one else has ever felt this way, well then, all bets are off!)


Q: The anthropologist H. Russell Bernard said of the book, “In this equally disturbing and uplifting book, Edward C. Green lays bare the self-doubt that dogged his decades of high-powered and highly effective public health consulting.” What do you think of that description?


A: Russ Bernard has been my mentor since the early 1970s. In fact, I was telling my dissertation advisor (a different person) over a lunch meeting about an interesting observation I was having in my fieldwork in the Suriname rain forest, and Russ jumped in with the suggestion that I “write it up! Get it published!” That exhortation turned in becoming my very first published article.

Dr. Bernard was right to say that my book is equally disturbing and uplifting….but that it should be read. He told me or warned me that my book will “not be everyone's cup of tea.” Some in my field will think I go too deeply into problems that might sound neurotic to some outside our field. But I think his description is great.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?


A: I guess the impact on myself that writing my book has had is that it was cathartic to lay bare my problems in an honest fashion. Like, OK, I have spilled all my beans, I probably have nothing more to add.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It may sound odd but I don't remember exactly how and why I came up with the title. I first came up with the subtitle, Confessions of a Maverick Anthropologist, and I played around with different adjectives before settling on Maverick.


Regarding the title, I have always regarded myself as a fringe character, someone far from the mainstream of my discipline. So it seems very strange—at least to me-- that I have won various accolades in recent years.


I have always been someone who has felt I was on the fringe of anthropology rather than in the mainstream.


But then I found a great quote from Walter Goldschmidt in his address to my professional association, where he reminded us that most anthropologists tend to possess special traits rooted deep in our psyches.


We distrust all sources of power, influence, and wealth. We loathe authority— indeed, we shrink from the prospect of finding ourselves in positions of authority.


Our “escapist tendencies” find expression in xenophilia, the romanticization of all things foreign and exotic, along with the belief that emancipation from our oppressive culture lies in adopting another. We are unfit for most kinds of employment because the usual passions don’t motivate us. In short, we are marginal characters.


I didn’t come across this great quote until a few years ago, but it helps explain how I became attracted to anthropology.


Towards the end of writing this book, I realized that there are not many lines of work I could have gotten into that would have been as satisfying as (medical) anthropology. I was interviewed a few years ago and I heard myself repeating a phrase that I might have read somewhere, in which I say, “I somehow stumbled into Bliss.”


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Over the past few years I've struggled with cancer, back surgery, and a couple of strokes. I'm not sure where I go from here but I would certainly like to get my health back to where it used to be.


So I am not working on anything right now, except supporting peace in the Middle East (through two nonprofit groups).


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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