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Sidney Mintz earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College in 1943 and his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University in 1951. Starting in 1948 in Puerto Rico on a now-famous collaborative research project directed by Julian Steward, Mintz’s historical ethnographic research in the Caribbean laid the foundation for significant contributions in anthropology and history. His wide-ranging oeuvre addresses and helped to stimulate research and debate in various topical areas, including plantation societies, slavery and rural proletarianization, race and colonialism, peasantries and internal market systems, life history, and the anthropology of food and eating. Writing against the habitual tendency to view social systems as relatively self-contained and internally coherent, Mintz’s anthropology—influenced by the German political philosopher Karl Marx and global in its implications—underscores the dialectical interconnections between seemingly distinct regions and peoples in the modern world; between the rich and the impoverished. With ethnographic data from the Caribbean, Mintz has examined sociocultural dimensions of European colonial capitalist expansion and its consequences for both regions.
Mintz’s study of sugar plantation agriculture in Puerto Rico, and the changes brought about by the consolidation of family-owned estates into capital-intensive, corporate-owned latifundia, contributed to shifting anthropology away from its near-exclusive focus on socalled traditional societies and, correspondingly, helped establish the compelling need for the discipline to attend to the impact of European and North American power. One product of this research, Worker in the Cane (1960), is also celebrated as an early example showing the value of the life history in ethnographic writing.
Insistently comparative and historical in his approach, Mintz followed upon his Puerto Rico research with fieldwork in Jamaica and Haiti in the 1950s and early 1960s. His studies of rural small farmers and market women who traded these farmers’ produce in local marketplaces led to various seminal contributions. Among them was the notion of the “proto-peasantry,” a term Mintz coined to characterize the informal agricultural and marketing economy that grew up in the very teeth of slavery, laying the foundation for vibrant rural communities that developed after slavery ended in many Caribbean societies. A few of Mintz’s choicest essays based on research in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Haiti are collected in his Caribbean Transformations (1974).
A hallmark of Mintz’s scholarship, then, is its relational quality, that ability to show how seemingly distinct, sometimes distant, social worlds shape one another. For example, in The Birth of African American Culture (coauthored with Richard Price, 1992), the authors eschew conventional models prevailing at the time that posit relatively monolithic “African” and “European” cultures coming into contact, and the primacy of these prior cultural traditions in shaping their descendants’ adaptations to the New World. Instead, Mintz and Price proposed a more dynamic model that emphasized the formative role social conditions in the Americas played in shaping complex processes of amalgamation and change Africans and Europeans underwent, with their vastly different access to power. Through their everyday, sometimes intimate interactions, blacks and whites remade each other. This and others of Mintz’s generative contributions to the study of New World slavery relied on his grasp of the contradictions in the institution of plantation slavery itself, and his ethnographic appreciation for the determined inventiveness with which slaves exploited those systemic paradoxes to assert their dignity and humanity.
In his benchmark study, Sweetness and Power (1985), Mintz provided an expanded view of the complex, centuries-long, fundamentally transforming processes of capitalist globalization. There, the view from Caribbean cane fields that shaped Mintz’s earlier work is joined with a corresponding examination of European workers, consumers, and owners who were mollified by and profited from the labor of Caribbean plantation workers. As one follows the profound changes that the colonial sugar economy brought about in diet, consumption habits, and social/ cultural meaning in England and the Western world, customary antimonies between production and consumption, plantation slaves in the Americas and the European working class, the “West” and its Caribbean “Others” are called into question and undermined.
- Guisti Cordero, Juan 1996. Para leer a Mintz … en Puertorriqueño: Una Approximación bibliográphica y crítica. Fundamentos 3–4.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Caribbean Transformations. Chicago: Aldine.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Boston: Beacon.
- Mintz, Sidney W., and Richard P 1992. The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Approach. Boston: Beacon.
- Scott, D 2004. Modernity That Predated the Modern: Sidney Mintz’s Caribbean. History Workshop Journal: 58.
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