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The Brian Ferguson Interview

Margolis interview transcript


Maxine Margolis is Professor Emerita at the University of Florida and senior research scholar Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University.

Like Brian Ferguson who I interviewed previously, professor Margolis was a student of Marvin Harris and her work is informed by his preferred research strategy, cultural materialism. 

I spoke to Professor Margolis about her career and her work with Marvin Harris.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Margolis wrote the introduction to the updated edition of Marvin Harris's most important scholarly work, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (RAT), a history of theories of culture. She wrote: "although the RAT is not an easy book to read, it would undoubtedly make any list of classics in anthropology."

She also said that the book's "...most enduring achievement is its introduction of cultural materialism as a theoretical paradigm and novel research strategy."

I asked Maxine Margolis to talk about her introduction to cultural
materialism and her evolving relationship with Marvin Harris, first as a student and graduate student and then later as a colleague who campaigned to bring him from Columbia to the University of Florida.


Marvin, I took his course in the history of anthropological theory maybe my second year in graduate school I just I inhaled cultural materialism. I
t just always seemed to me the best way of explaining behavior cross-culturally.

When we were in Brazil he was kind of in charge of the graduate students and we were in Salvador Bahia. Which in the old quarter it's a lot of cobblestones and I remember going out to dinner with Harris and other students and I was wearing heels but like little tiny heels and was having trouble walking on the cobblestones and he told me I walked like a crippled chicken.

I've seen him be - rant and rave at his students I mean usually over theory not personal not you know he was very set in his ideas and he
was willing to espouse them and defend them in strong terms and he never - other than the crippled chicken remark he never said anything bad to me I mean I always -

And after he came to Florida I mean it was a huge campaign, it was there were people in my department who did not in no way wanted him there and we had a secret group meeting plotting how is this one gonna vote how is that one gonna vote how's the third one gonna vote - really it was like a political campaign and we won. And he came It was a great coup. But none of the candidates was anywhere - I don't remember who they were anymore but none of them had the stature of Martin, it was ridiculous. And Marvin came and he mellowed, that's the word I want, he really mellowed, he got along with people even who he didn't agree with theoretically and he got along fine.


Dr. Margolis is the author of many books on culture and gender including "Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed" published in 1984.

She has just published in 2020 "Women in Fundamentalism: Modesty Marriage and Motherhood" where she compares three distinct patriarchal cultures. Cultures she discusses are fundamentalist communities which represent extreme examples of the world's major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


I have been noticing these really striking parallels in the treatment of women and ideas about women and three very distinct fundamentalist communities: polygamous Mormons in the southwest US; another, Brooklyn Hassidim; and the third one which are not a religious group I mean they're Muslims, in fact the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan which are the Pashtun who practice a brand of Islam what I would call fundamentalist Islam on top of their tribal traditions which are extremely misogynistic. They're patriarchal in the extreme and so and all three cases that's true. Women are the brood mares that's the title of one of the chapters. Well I think the catalyst for the treatment in all three cases is this emphasis on reproduction. For the Sathmar and. other Hassidim it is in part an answer to Hitler and there's power numbers:
the Rebbe tells them who to vote for, the Prophet tells them who to vote for. They vote in lockstep and they're both very successful at getting food stamps all kinds, you name it they get it.


I also spoke to Professor Margolis about her work on Brazilian studies. She's written about Brazilian immigrants in books such as
"Little Brazil: an Ethnography of Brazilian Immigrants in New York City" which was published in 1994 and An Invisible Minority: Brazilian Immigrants in New York City. That book was reviewed in the June 2011 edition of the Latin Americanist by Niyi Afolabi who said "Margolis has given us a true classic in migrational dynamics and politics as it affects Brazilians."

In the next clip Dr. Margolis also discusses the racial classification system of Brazil and how it is very different from the one used in the United States.


In 2013 I published a book called "Goodbye Brazil: Emigres from
the Land of Soccer and Samba" which was also published in Portuguese the same year, and it is based partly on my own research in New York on Brazilian immigrants which was published in a book called "Little Brazil" in 94. But also after I - and I was the first person to study Brazilian immigrants, nobody knew there were Brazilian immigrants and they called me "A mae dos imigrantes brasileiros"
- the mother of Brazilian immigrants - Better than the grandmother of Brazilian immigrants!

Since I did the original work in that early 90s there been all kinds of research on not only on Brazilians in the US and various parts in
Massachusetts, in Connecticut, in California but also in Japan - there is a huge Brazilian emigration of Japanese Brazilians, people of Japanese descent who are there illegally, which is a whole other story about race which is kind of interesting, but - so this book, this last book on Brazilian immigration was a compilation of all this research that has been done on Brazilian immigrants.
In terms of all kinds of themes, in terms of social class and identity and race of course is always an issue, how race is seen and how Brazilians are received in the US and what are they - there's been a lot of researching on that actually - how Brazilians perceive themselves. You know in Brazil "one drop" doesn't mean anything but 

I have my current student Fernalda, she's getting a PhD at Teachers College Columbia, would be definitely considered Afro-Brazilian. She's a mulatta, so Brazilians find that well maybe they're not really as white as they thought they were in Brazil, because of the any admixture of any kind - There is an expression in Brazil if somebody has "um pe na cozinha" - a foot in the kitchen - that means somebody has some African ancestor, you know Africans worked in the kitchens. According to Gilberto Freyre the famous Brazilian anthropologist, Brazil was a racial paradise. That's been shown to be in error - however it is indeed true Brazil never had a history of legal segregation, the way of defining race in Brazil is very different from the US, there is no "one drop rule" in Brazil.
Brazil has always classified people by two things: how they looked, so that full brothers and sisters could be classified differently in terms of race, if one was lighter skinned and the other was darker skinned. So how people look. Not who their parents no less grandparents, but also socioeconomic status. Darker people tend to be poor in Brazil, lighter people tend to be wealthier in Brazil. People who are mulattos, who are mixed-race tend to be
seen as lighter if they are educated and of a higher social class. 

And Brazil has many, many racial categories not two, like in the US. And there is something like forty different racial terms in use in Brazil, based on how people look, their features, their hair type, their skin color, their lip type, etc. There are all kinds of combinations.

And the consciousness of race I think in America, it's much less in Brazil than in US. I think what Harris's analysis in "Patterns of Race in the Americas" is accurate - you have very different demographics: in Brazil slaves always outnumbered Portuguese, free people of color outnumbered Portuguese, and until the late 19th century when you had an influx of immigrants to Brazil from Europe, people of color and that's the term used in Brazil as the general category "gente de cor" which literally means gente is people
and de cor is of color. They'll say "preto " which means black
but, they don't use that very much, but I think the bottom line difference is the difference in demographics. Even in in Mississippi which had the highest percentage of African-American slaves of any place even there they were a minority, whereas that was never true in Brazil. So the way free people of color were treated in Brazil was very different in the US.

Thanks to Maxine Margolis for the interview and for her work in
anthropology on gender and Brazil.
This is Nancy McClernan for Pinkerite.
You can also find Pinkerite at pinkerite.com and on twitter @pinkerite1.
Thanks for listening.