Book Review: Sociology of the American Indian by Gerry R. Cox

Sociology of the American Indian by Gerry R. Cox, Edwin Mellen Press, ISBN 9 781495 503191

Guest post by Dr Sue Thompson

The discriminatory treatment of minority groups is something that still exercises us to this day, but it has a long history. A significant part of this history is the way Native American nations were displaced and marginalised by the European settlers. Much has changed since those early days, but the legacy of those events is still with us.

In this important text, sociologist Professor Gerry Cox provides a fascinating and thought-provoking overview of a range of key issues relating to the life experiences of contemporary American Indian groups. At over 600 pages it is a lengthy tome that offers a wealth of insights spread across twenty-five chapters. Topics covered include the complexity of Native American cultures, ways of dealing with loss, spiritual practices, family, afterlife practices, healing, beliefs and traditions, burial practices and the erosion of tribal languages.

The author clearly has extensive expertise in this area and shows great sensitivity to the life experiences of the peoples he discusses. What comes across very clearly is a strong commitment to highlighting important issues and the complexities involved, and, in so doing, moving away from the stereotypes and oversimplifications associated with dominant cultural representations of American Indians.

As the title indicates, the subject matter is approached from a sociological perspective, and this is an important part of what makes it such an interesting read. The author brings important elements of Native American lives into focus with his sociological lens.

This book is an important counterbalance to the simplistic distortions of the cowboys and Indians mentality that has suffused so much of the popular representation of American Indians. It will be of interest to anyone interested in the richness and diversity of human cultures.

Love (and respect) yourself

To be described as a ‘narcissist’ is generally to be insulted. Narcissus was someone who was in love with himself. But being ‘in love with’ yourself and loving yourself are two different things!

In my career I have been called upon to help and support a number of people who are struggling with depression. From that experience I noticed certain recurring themes or characteristics. One of them was the tendency for people who are depressed to be harsh on themselves – for example, to be very critical of something they have done when they would not have been anywhere near so critical if it were someone else who had done it.

But, of course, it isn’t just people wrestling with depression who can have a negative view of themselves. Self-esteem is a consideration here too (and indeed an important factor in depression). People who have a low level of self-worth (in other words, people who do not love themselves) can create a range of problems for themselves (not least being unduly harsh towards themselves and being hypercritical).

One such problem is that, if we are giving people the message that we have a negative picture of ourselves, we are, in effect, inviting them to adopt a negative picture of us too (and if they do that, then that is likely to reinforce our low sense of self-worth – creating a vicious circle). This is part of assertiveness. Trying to negotiate win-win outcomes when we are, in effect, doing ourselves down, becomes much harder than it needs to be.

But loving ourselves isn’t just about self-esteem or self-worth. It is also about feeling comfortable with ourselves, comfortable ‘in our own skin’ as it were. So, in this sense, it is a spiritual matter, part of our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. Many people (those who have been traumatised at some point or who are wrestling with unresolved grief issues, for example) can find this very difficult, but it is a worthwhile goal to pursue none the less.

To love someone does not mean that you have a perfect relationship with them and the same applies when it comes to living ourselves. It does not mean that we will feel entirely comfortable with ourselves or will have no aspects of ourselves that we are not happy with. But what it boils down to is that, if we do not love ourselves despite our flaws and imperfections, then why should anyone else feel able to love us?

But as well as loving ourselves, we need to respect ourselves. Saying yes when we mean no, not objecting to things that bother or diminish us or telling ourselves we can’t do something before we have even tried does not reflect an attitude of respect. We are back to the theme of being harsh on ourselves – often we treat ourselves with a low level of respect that we would not feel comfortable in applying to others. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that respect for others can and should begin with self-respect.

So, while we don’t want to go to the self-indulgent extreme of being ‘in love with’ ourselves, nor do we want to miss out on the benefits of loving and respecting ourselves by going to the other extreme of adopting a negative attitude towards ourselves.

Think global, act local

On the one hand, it is very easy to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the bigger picture – to not see the wood for the trees. On the other hand, though, it’s also very easy to have an understanding of the bigger picture and struggle to put that understanding into practice in concrete practical ways – it can be difficult to translate that big picture into smaller, manageable steps.

So the political slogan of ‘think global, act local’ may not be as easy as it initially sounds – but that is no reason to abandon it, as it is an important principle, not only for eco-politics, but also for our lives more broadly. So, what is involved in thinking globally, acting locally?

‘Think global’ basically means that we need to consider the wider and longer-term consequences of our actions (at the macro level) and not just focus on the here and now of our current circumstances (the micro level). This is why the slogan has been adopted by the environmental movement – each time we switch on a light we don’t need or throw away something that could have been recycled we are contributing to the global picture of the gradual destruction of our habitat. But, of course, most people don’t think about this as they go about wasting precious natural resources. So, the idea is that our actions (what we do at a local level) need to be informed by the global picture.

Not only is this vitally important in terms of preserving our habitat, but it is also a wise lesson for how we live our lives more broadly, in the sense that there is much to be gained from being clear about how what we do at a local level has an impact on our lives in a number of ways. If we have no sense of what our actions at a micro level are doing in terms of their impact on the macro level, we may be acting against our own interests. If I have no sense of where I am going in my life or what I am doing with it, I may do things that are against my long-term interests. For example, I may commit one or more offences and thereby get a criminal record that closes off career opportunities that I might have wanted to pursue.

Many people would recognise this as a feature of spirituality, part of how we develop and maintain a sense of purpose and direction and thus meaning. It also reflects the spiritual notion of ‘connectedness’, the awareness that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, whether that be culture, society, religion or one or more political causes. Religious doctrines tend to provide a more global, macro picture to guide their adherents, but, of course, it is not necessary to subscribe to a religion to get the same benefits, the sense that there is a ‘global’ that our ‘local’ is a part of.

So, the idea of ‘think global, act local’ is not only a useful ecological strategy. It is also a way of making sure that what we do makes sense in terms of the wider picture of our lives and is not just an uncritical reaction to the circumstances we may find ourselves in at any time. It gives us a firmer basis for making sure that we are enriching our lives, rather than just being carried along on the waves of circumstance.

Get the balance right

The mantra of being ‘balanced in all things’ is a well-established idea, but there is a paradox here. If we are aiming to be balanced in all things, doesn’t that mean we are being extreme (and therefore unbalanced) about being balanced? Shouldn’t we be trying to find a balance between being balanced and unbalanced?

But, however we tackle that philosophical riddle, the value of seeking balance remains strong. This can apply in a number of ways. For example, there is considerable wisdom in balancing head and heart. This means that we should not let our heart rule our head (which could get us into all sorts of difficulty!), but nor should we try to be entirely rational beings as if emotion is a problem to be solved (rather than a key part of what makes us human). As the old saying goes: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.

There is also a balance of ‘self and others’ to be struck. If we are entirely selfish, we can find ourselves isolated, unsupported and struggling. If we go to the other extreme and become totally ‘other directed’ (to use the technical term), then we are neglecting our self-care, which can also be highly problematic. The philosopher, Voltaire, wrote about ‘enlightened self-interest’ by which he meant helping ourselves by helping others – that is, we can meet our own needs by helping other people to meet theirs. This is not only the basis of the idea of community, but also a very effective way of achieving a balance of self and others.

But, just to complicate matters further, we also have to be aware that there is a subjective element to what is seen as a balance. What one person considers to be extreme another person may see as balanced. For example, someone who is committed to social justice and tackling inequality may see certain political steps as reasonable and justified, while for someone who sees inequality as natural, inevitable and even desirable, such actions may be dismissed as left-wing extremism. What this means, then, is that there is no absolute sense of balance – it is a matter of what is balanced for you, what works for you in your circumstances.

A key point to note is that being balanced means looking at situations more holistically, seeing the big picture. Focusing narrowly on one aspect of a situation will give us a very unbalanced view. This can happen in relation to risk issues sometimes. For example, someone weighing up the risks involved in a particular set of circumstances can easily make the mistake of seeing only the dangers involved. They can fail to take account of the range of factors that can make the chances that the danger will materialise very slim indeed. The result can then be an over-reaction that, ironically, can introduce new risks into the situation.

So, the notion of getting the balance right is not as simple an idea as it may originally seem. But it is still an important one. We shouldn’t be looking for simple answers to the challenge of finding a balanced approach to whatever it is we are tackling. What is likely to be much more helpful is a well-thought-out approach that takes account of the complexities involved – and which gives us a richer and more well-rounded picture of the challenges we face.

Develop your body language skills

Communication is so fundamental to most of the things we do in our work as well as in our private lives. One of the most potent forms of communication is body language, the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways in which our body gives off signals or ‘messages’. Sometimes body language reinforces what we are saying – for example, when we say yes and nod at the same time. At other times, body language undermines what we are saying – for example, when, in response to being asked how we are, we say: ‘I’m fine’, but the look on our face says we are anything but fine.

We learn the basics of body language as young children, so it becomes ingrained in our behaviour and our interactions with other people. It becomes normal and natural. However, we can go beyond this if we choose; we can take those basic, everyday skills to a new level. We can develop advanced-level non-verbal communication skills if we put in the effort.

This can involve both ‘reading’ body language and ‘writing’ it – that is, using body language effectively to get our point across. When it comes to advanced-level skills in reading body language, this involves picking up subtle cues that most people will miss. It means being very sensitive to other people’s gestures and movements. In terms of using body language to get our message across better, it is a matter of knowing precisely what is effective in reinforcing our point. For example, if we want to come across as confident, then we need to be clear about (i) what forms of body language communicate a message of confidence; and (ii) which ones undermine any such message. We can then try and make sure that we do much of the former and little or none of the latter.

By being more tuned in to what other people’s body language is telling us (for example, about their emotional state) and being more effective in what messages we are trying to put across we can be far more skilful and successful in our interactions with others – and that can bring us significant benefits in our personal lives as well as in our work roles.

What can get in the way of developing such a level of effectiveness is the very fact that we are so used to body language; it is part and parcel of our daily lives and has been for as long as we can remember. This means that we can (and generally do) become blasé about it. So, what is needed, then, is a greater level of self-awareness. To become more effective in our use of body language we need to raise our level of self-awareness, to be more tuned in to the signals other people are giving off and more alert when it comes to the signals we are giving off.

People vary considerably in their ability to use body language. You may have met people who are so skilled that you immediately feel comfortable with them; their ability to ‘tune in’ to you and put you at your ease is at quite an advanced level. You may have also met people who are pretty clueless when it comes to body language – they fail to ‘connect’ with people and totally miss important information that is there for them to use if only they would tune in to it.

A simple example is smiling. A smile generally means ‘I am pleased to be with you’ and can therefore be a very positive message. By the same token, not smiling can give a very negative message. I once came across a student who had spent 200 days on a work placement and her supervisor had not smiled once during that time, giving the student a very strong message that she was not welcome. Thankfully, the student had not allowed this to get in the way of her learning, but it could easily have been very different and highly problematic.

All forms of communication, including body language, are complex, so it is not just a matter of saying ‘smile more often’. It is more about building up your skills over time, knowing when it is helpful to smile and when it is not. Just relying on the habits that you developed in early childhood gives us far less control (and thus far less effectiveness) when it comes to communication.

 

Be careful about who you can trust

It is often said that trust needs to be earned, and that implies that we start off not trusting people until they reach the point when they have done enough to convince us that they are trustworthy. But is it really that simple?

How realistic is it to withhold trust until we feel that the risk of having that trust abused is at a low enough level? Of course, it isn’t realistic at all. To a certain extent social interactions would not be possible if we did not begin with at least a degree of basic trust. Imagine totally mistrusting everyone we encounter unless and until they have done enough to convince us that they can be trusted. That would surely make life extremely difficult all round. So, we need to have a certain amount of trust as the basis of our society.

But does that mean that we should just abandon ourselves to trusting all people all of the time? Of course not. That would be a potential recipe for disaster. Unscrupulous people would have a field day in exploiting others if we automatically trusted everyone in all circumstances. There’s also unreliable people, those who don’t intend to exploit us, but who cause us problems because they do not deliver – they either have no compunction in letting us down or they are in some way incapable of making sure they do what they have promised to do. In all of these situations we would be unwise to trust people unconditionally.

So, how do we handle this? Well, to my mind, there are (at least) two sets of issues to consider: degrees of trust and circumstances of trusting. Let’s consider each in turn.

The question of ‘degrees of trust’ is basically a matter of how far you are prepared to be trusting in a particular situation. For example, while certain retail outlets may trust customers to pay for their newspaper by putting the correct amount in the ‘honesty box’ provided, I can’t imagine a car dealership ever allowing people to pay for their new car in that way. To what extent we are prepared to trust will depend on a number of factors. It can be very helpful to be clear about what those factors are before making a decision about trust – especially in those situations where the stakes are high.

Then there are the circumstances of trust to be considered. One obvious aspect of this is somebody’s track record. Have they proven trustworthy in the past? But that’s not the only factor to consider. If you are concerned about whether you can trust someone to do something as agreed, how much evidence is there that they have the ability, resources and commitment to deliver? How serious would the consequences be if they did not deliver? These and other situational factors can be important considerations. Assessing the circumstantial factors involved won’t give us a fool-proof way of managing trust-related risk issues, but it will give us a much stronger and safer basis than just relying on gut feelings or putting everything down to chance.

Finally, then, how do we know who to trust and who not to? The short answer is that we don’t. Each episode of trusting someone is a risk, a gamble. There is no guarantee that we will get it right. Sometimes we will not trust someone when there was nothing to be concerned about and perhaps a good opportunity will have passed us by. Then there will be times when we trust people and later regret it, having had our fingers burned. What we need, then, is the same as what we need in relation to any risk issues: a balanced approach. Complete, unconditional trust will leave us vulnerable, whereas minimising trust will narrow our horizons considerably. A balanced approach means avoiding these two extremes and that means weighing up degrees of trust and the circumstances of trusting.

Don’t make decisions when feelings are running high

As human beings, we are, of course, emotional creatures just as much as we are rational, if not more so. This means that any attempt to understand human actions without taking account of the emotional dimension is likely to be, at best, incomplete and potentially totally misleading. Part of the reason emotions are so significant is that our emotional response to a situation can actually change the way our body reacts. For example, if we are anxious, angry or frightened, there can be increased levels of adrenaline in our blood stream (the classic ‘fight or flight’ mechanism) and this can have a powerful effect on our behaviour. In effect, our emotional reaction has triggered a biological reaction that is preparing us for action of some sort. It is an important protective measure to keep us safe from harm. We would struggle without it.

However, this can also backfire on us at times, in the sense that being in an emotionally charged state can have the effect of distorting our perception of the situation we are in. For example, at certain times we may not be in danger at all – it just seems that way in the circumstances – and that could possibly lead to an overreaction, or even a panic reaction. It can work the other way too, in the sense that we may be very happy about something that has happened, feeling very good about a positive development, but we may not spot one or more dangers involved in the situation. Our positive feelings are leading us to focus on one side of the situation, but not the other.

The idea that we should not respond in anger, that we should count to ten, is well established and is wise counsel. However, it isn’t just about how we respond to people at the time. The balance of our blood chemistry can remain out of sync for an hour and a half or more, and that can mean that, if we make any decisions during that time, we may not be doing so with a balanced picture of the situation. I know full well that I have made mistakes in my life by making decisions at a time when emotions are running high and then regretted it later – and I am well aware from conversations in both my personal and professional lives, that this is a very common phenomenon.

For example, someone who has been hurt in or by a particular situation may decide: ‘Right, I’m not doing that again, I will not allow myself to be in that type of situation ever again’. So, it is, in effect, the emotional pain that is making the decision. But, by withdrawing from the type of situation that was hurtful on that occasion, we may be missing out on all the other occasions when it wasn’t hurtful and would actually have been very positive and enriching.

I am not suggesting that decisions should be entirely rational, with no emotional elements at all, as that would be unrealistic and would not reflect the reality of what it means to be human. But if we go to the other extreme and make lasting decisions when we are emotionally worked up (‘aroused’ to use the technical term), we may well regret doing so later – whether the emotions we are feeling are positive or negative or a mixture of the two. I suppose that what it boils down to is a lesson I was fortunate enough to learn many years ago: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.

 

Extend, recover, renew

A widely accepted way to build muscle strength is to exercise just beyond what you are comfortable with (extend), give yourself time to get back to normal after the exertion (recover) and then start the process again when you are ready, so that it is a constant process of renewal. If you don’t extend, you won’t build muscle strength; if you don’t allow time for recovery you risk muscle strain and potentially serious injury. If you extend and recover just the once, you will not make much headway in terms of muscle development, so renewal needs to be part of the process too.

The same logic can be broadly applied to other aspects of our development in terms of thoughts, feelings and actions. That is, we can follow the same process to feed our development more holistically and not just physically. Consider the following:

Thoughts

Extend: This is about not just sticking with familiar, well-trodden paths of thought – being prepared to explore new ideas and perspectives. A closed mind is no basis for learning.

Recover: Link the new ideas to our existing understanding; make connections. That way, we are not constantly exploring new territory and potentially getting lost and confused – a form of mental strain equivalent of muscle strain.

Renew: But then, when you are ready, you can extend your boundaries of understanding just a little further and thereby begin the process once again. This is all part of the process of developing your thinking skills.

Feelings

Extend: We can play it safe and attempt to stay within our emotional comfort zones – for example, by not trying new experiences in case we get hurt or disappointed. But then we will get no emotional growth; we will be ‘stuck’ and then potentially ill-equipped to rise to future emotional challenges. We can, however, extend our emotional range a little, without doing it so much that we get emotional strain.

Recover: Again we need to get back to safe, comfortable emotional territory (and that is where social support can be very useful), giving us time to recover from our emotional exertions.

Renew: We now have the basis of emotional intelligence by learning how to gradually extend our emotional ‘repertoire’ and become more confident in dealing with feelings – our own and other people’s. This can also be a springboard for developing emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back from emotionally difficult situations.

Actions

Extend: We can try new approaches and explore new perspectives just beyond what we currently feel comfortable with.

Recover: We can connect the new approaches to our existing strengths so that not everything is new (and that way avoiding the equivalent of a muscle strain where we feel overwhelmed by too much change).

Renew: We then begin the process again, so that we are constantly getting the benefits of learning without creating problems for ourselves by taking on too many new things at once. This is the basis of lifelong learning.

So, there is much to be gained from adapting the extend, recover, renew process from physical fitness to other aspects of our personal and professional growth. It Is not an easy answer or a mechanistic process to follow unthinkingly, but it is a framework of understanding that can offer useful insights and opportunities for taking our learning further.

Be realistic

Positive psychology and its promotion of optimism have become firmly established in the popular imagination now. The idea that people who are optimistic will fare better than people who are pessimistic has received a great deal of coverage and has become widely accepted – despite the fact that it grossly oversimplifies the complex dynamics of human experience.

The self-help and self-improvement literature are full of examples of simplistic approaches to personal problems and challenges, and the uncritical acceptance of optimism as the way to go can now be added to that list.

So, what is wrong with being optimistic? ‘Nothing’ is the short answer, provided that optimism is justified in the particular circumstances, provided that it is reasonable to focus on the positives of the situation at that time. But sometimes – often even – optimism is not justified. In fact, there will be times when pessimism is by far the better approach to certain circumstances. Hoping against hope in situations where there are no grounds for hope can serve only to distort the situation and present us with a false picture of what we are dealing with. There are clearly times when it is wise to give up and accept the negatives of the situation, rather than naively disregard them by focusing narrowly on the positive elements.

So, should we adopt a pessimistic outlook, then? Negative psychology rather than positive psychology? ‘No’ is the answer to this, as that would amount to falling into the same trap of adopting a distorted, one-sided view of human experience – except this time from a negative point of view, rather than a positive one.

Where does that leave us? Well, that is where a realistic approach comes in. Realism, in this context, means recognising that there are positive and negative features to life in general and to every specific situation we encounter as we live our lives. Optimists see the glass as half full; pessimists see it as half empty, each focusing on just one aspect of the positivity-negativity continuum and failing to see that the glass is half full and half empty. Optimism and pessimism involve seeing only one side of a complex picture, while realism involves getting a more balanced overview.

As is so often the case where complex issues are oversimplified in the quest for straightforward answers to life’s challenges, it boils down to the fundamental mistake of seeing the situation in ‘either or’ terms, rather than ‘ both and’. The technical term for this is ‘reductionism’ – complex, multilevel phenomena are reduced to simple, single-level answers. This is a potentially very dangerous mistake to make, as it can lead to some very unwise, unbalanced decisions that have not been based on a careful consideration of what is involved.

Realism, then, involves adopting a more flexible approach to the situations we are called upon to deal with and to make balanced decisions about the positives and negatives involved, so that we have a fuller picture of the challenges we face. Unthinkingly adopting either a fully optimistic or a fully pessimistic approach simply serves to produce a one-sided picture. Realism, by contrast, provides a foundation for reflective practice in which we can weigh up the positives and negatives and develop a more balanced understanding.

Realism will not present us with simple, straightforward answers, but then we should be wary of any approach that tries to convince us that there are simple, straightforward solutions to life’s challenges. Assuming that there are such things out there for us to stumble across is, in itself, far from realistic.

To thine own self be true

The idea that we should be true to ourselves has a long and honourable history, and also has much to commend it. However, much depends on how it is interpreted. A very common interpretation is that it involves being clear what your ‘true’ self is and then acting in accordance with that. This entails digging deep into yourself to find out what your ‘true’ or real self is.

This is highly problematic, as it is based on an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. The technical term for this is ‘essentialism’, because it is based on the false idea that everyone has a fixed ‘essence’, an unchanging underlying personality or identity. This is what is seen as a ‘true self’ – the ‘real me’, as it were.

So, what is wrong with this assumption? Why is it problematic? The short answer is that it is just too simplistic to account for the highly complex processes that shape who we are. It also assumes that we are fixed entities that stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. It therefore fails to appreciate the dynamic nature of selfhood. If our ‘true’ self were fixed, then no one could change, and yet we see evidence of people changing all around us.

What we need is a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. One such approach is to see our ‘self’ not as a fixed entity on a journey through life, but to understand our self to be that journey. This means understanding human existence as a constant process of ‘becoming’. This is not only a more accurate picture of selfhood (in so far as it fits more closely with the reality of people’s lives), it is also a more positive one. This is because the idea of constantly ‘becoming’ offers much greater scope for change, growth and development.

And this is where the notion of being true to yourself comes into its own. It is not about finding the real you, but more a case of becoming the you that you can be – fulfilling your potential. In other words: don’t try to find yourself, make yourself! Of course, that’s not necessarily easy, but trying to be who or what you want to be is what being true to yourself is all about.

A key part of this is the concept of ‘self-disempowerment’. It refers to the ways in which we prevent ourselves from moving forward. We can question our own ability, undermine our own confidence by relying on negative self-talk and generally convincing ourselves that there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances. Defeatism and cynicism are extreme forms of this, but milder forms are very common. For example, many people will not try a new experience because they have already convinced themselves that it is not for them. Similarly, many people are not open to learning; they stick to their existing views and perceptions and are not prepared to consider alternatives.

These are not just individual characteristics; these patterns are often ‘taught’ through social experiences. For example, sexist structures and cultures can make women and men feel trapped within their own gender roles. Similarly, the education system can, for many people, give strong messages about what they are and are not capable of – creating unnecessary barriers to self-fulfilment (or what the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, called ‘self-overcoming’ – which can be seen as the opposite of self-disempowerment).

So, with these thoughts in mind, we can see that there is far more to being true to yourself than finding your ‘true’ self. ‘To thine own self be true’ challenges us to embrace the opportunities for growth and development we have and not write ourselves off (or allow societal prejudices to write us off).