The Peoples’ Anthropology of Sam Beck


The city is a structure composed of milieux; the peoples in the milieux tend to be rather detached from one another . . .they do not understand the structure of their society.

– C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth. 

Sam Beck has had the uncanny ability to be in world hot spots when history was being made – Titoist Yugoslavia, Iran under the Shah, and Romania under Ceausescu, where he was blacklisted for his anthropological work on ethnic economic specialization. Born in Shanghai, the son of Jewish parents, his father immigrated to Israel with the family in 1949 – after Mao’s victory – but soon left.   “My father wasn’t interested in buying a piece of the desert.”

From there it was on to Vienna, his father’s birthplace. They found Austria populated by former Nazis and bombed out buildings, not a hospitable place for Jews. So, when Beck was ten, his family immigrated to the United States. There he was to make his mark.

For the past twenty years Beck has directed one of the most remarkable applied anthropology programs in the United States, Cornell University’s Urban Semester in North Brooklyn, New York. He recently received the 2013 Daisy Lopez Leadership Award from Churches United for Fair Housing in recognition of his service to North Brooklyn communities. This interview took place on June 2, 2014.

BMcK – Tell me more about the housing award.

SB – We are fighting and taking advantage of gentrification, It’s ironic. There’s a waterfront with abandoned factories and warehouses, among which is the Domino Sugar factory. A developer intended to build luxury housing. Government encourages this kind of development by giving a 25 year tax break but requires that 20% of that housing be affordable for low and moderate income people.  We were able to increase that to 30%, a deal that brings 600-700 units of affordable housing into the community.

BMcK – Will the less expensive housing be like that old public housing, though? Separate and unequal?

SB – No, and here’s what’s remarkable. It’s all in the same building. There’s no separate entrance. It’s called inclusionary housing meaning that people from different classes and ethnicities will interact.

BMcK – You’ve had a rich and highly activist career as an anthropologist. At the same time, you are highly critical of anthropology, which has often aligned itself with the dominant culture. Finding a good deal of censorship and self-censorship in U.S. education and academic settings, you decided on a non-academic tract, positioning yourself “at the margins where public scholarship is accepted and encouraged.” Is that what activist anthropologists must do, find spaces at the margins to do progressive work?  And where are those margins today?

SB – As a graduate student I read about Sol Tax’s efforts to introduce action anthropology. I was a teaching assistant for Sylvia Forman who taught an applied anthropology course at UMass.  I worked with John W. Cole who influenced my thinking about anthropology as a political device and the importance of critique in furthering anthropological thinking. Joel Halpern made me think about the use of photography as a different approach than texts for communicating information.

My critique of anthropology falls into line with a long appreciated history in the discipline. I do not see this as unusual. It is risky especially in a world where even in university settings where you are supposed be able to speak your mind (you know, freedom of speech), those in power can curtail this. My interests in the Roma drew negative comments from one provost, two deans, and a powerful senior scholar in different institutions of higher learning. Censorship and self-censoring is a standard of behavior when you join any organizational culture if you want to fit in. This may not be pleasant, but it is part of the “fitting in” process as a member of a social group. Where it can get ugly is when the rite of passage is meant to exclude you as a member and mobbing occurs. The McCarthy era produced such an ugly environment for academics that had lasting impact, some would argue that it turned the academy inward, away from the kind of public activity that was possible in the more distant past.  The hyper-competition that takes place among academicians also has created structured systems of exclusion that limit intellectual risk taking and innovation. The idea that higher education is dominated by liberals is hogwash. A wide political swath is silenced.

BMcK – How has the Urban Semester changed over the years?

SB – I became the Director of a program made up of two components, internships and community service. As I retooled myself intellectually, I developed an expertise in experiential learning, I read in various literatures, community service learning, learning theory, how the performance of experience is transformational and how we can use it as an educational tool. Of course, as you know the work of John Dewey and Paulo Freire are very much concerned with this. There is Wilhelm Dilthey’s and Victor Turner’s work as well. My program forces me to adjust course content as student interests shift from one part of the economy to another. Students understand that their professional directions are greatly predicated on where the job market is located. Medical and health related work continues to expand. Students come to my program because they gain access to what they call the “real world” and because learning from experience is so much more powerful than sitting through lectures. This also fits the pedagogy used in medical schools in the second and third year and of course during residencies. I am challenged to puzzle over how to reach each student at their particular point of intellectual development and enable them to expand their vision and understanding of the real world. We do this through a structured system of critical reflection. It is a very different way to teach, dialogic and open-ended.

BMCK – You have about 20 students each semester. Tell me, what do your students major in? 

SB – Well, these days two thirds of my students are pre-med.

BMcK – That must give them a leg up for getting into med school, being in your program.

SB – Oh yes, my Dean told me awhile back that 100% of the pre-meds from my college who apply get into medical school. He sees what we do as a model for a Land Grant University, research, teaching, and community engagement.  This is what the program does.

BMcK – I’ve looked at the wide variety of internship and service possibilities for your students and am struck by the amount of diversity. Your website includes over 50 recent placements including Ghetto Film School, Churches United for Fair Housing, Reconnect, Nuestros Ninos, Beginning with Children School, the Center for Immigrant Rights, multiple medical rotations in neurology and pediatrics as well as public health. But you also have students intern for Comedy Central, Museum of African Art, SHO20 Gallery, CBS “48 Hours,” and the Village Voice. What kinds of critical inquiry do you do with those kinds of internships? 

SB – We explore organizational culture, the culture of production, the division of labor, leadership development, the idea of service, professionalism, how a particular industry fits into the economy more generally, and how all of this relates to capitalism. You ask about the importance of Paulo Freire. You know the whole program is based on Freire. Students at Cornell are “illiterate” about a lot of areas. Many have never interacted much with people in poverty or people from other ethnic groups. This illiteracy oppresses them. I don’t mean illiteracy in a bad way, but in a critical way. All of us are illiterate in some ways. We present opportunities for intensive engagement with difference, and hope that this experience will alter their futures. I’m committed to personalize learning. Academia has to stop treating students like they’re empty vessels, not allowing them to create and recreate themselves, even to innovate. This semester offers students an open place where they can more fully express themselves, allowing them to explore and integrate different parts of themselves in a new way.

BMcK – Yes. You know many of those who worked with Freire (e.g., Henry Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz) are now looking at the sociologist C. Wright Mills for ways to create communities of publics. I’ve been reading a lot of C. Wright Mills lately and he has this wonderful essay on education in which he says that our task as teachers is to create communities of publics, which are currently under siege. In “Mass Society and Liberal Education” (Mills 2008:107-122) he says a “public” (as opposed to a mass) is where as many people express opinions as receive them. He said the purpose of education is to keep people from being overwhelmed from the burdens of modern life. Mills said self-development is more important than job advancement, and that education should create a certain sensibility, which ultimately results in students being auto-didacts, integrating the multiple pressures of their lives into a more coherent story, or identity, to keep them from being overwhelmed.  Educators perform the roles of mentors, coaches, even therapists in helping bring this about. It sounds like that’s what you’re doing.

SB – Integration is a key. A challenge for me is how to relate what students are learning in their community service that relates to their primary interest, their internships. This is referred to as integrative learning. Of course, living in New York City presents many other challenges to a group of college students coming from the Ithaca campus. I am able to work with students in seminar style using a dialogic pedagogy to help them make sense of their experiences, teaching them to reflect and think critically, and providing them a broader context in which to understand their experiences and the knowledge they are producing. At the end of the semester, many of my students tell me that it is the best Cornell University experience they have had.  They tend to leave with a stronger sense of who they are and where they want to go.

BMcK – Did you ever have an ah-hah! moment in your work , a moment of clarity which caused a sudden change of direction, and nearly changed everything?

SB – My developing understanding of Romania and the State provided me with a deeper understanding of the United States.  This was particularly so as I worked on my Cape Verdean project during my Brown University post-doctoral research in Providence, Rhode Island: slavery, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, actually existing capitalism, and the State. In the US oppression takes on a different form from communism. It is disguised by a hyper-individualism based on social Darwinian principles of meritocracy. It made me think harder about the nature of inequalities in societies and what we, as academicians, can do to surface the conditions, forces and processes that generate these.  In a place like the United States, for example, there is no rational reason why people are put into the position of having to live in poverty.

BMcK – You were influenced by Dimitrie Gusti, with the Bucharest School of Sociology and Nicolae Gheorghe who developed a form of advocacy research, working with the Roma to empower themselves. You worked with Gheorghe on a regular basis. That must have been very risky. How is your work today like or unlike their work?

SB – Dimitrie Gusti was a Romanian sociologist, educated mostly in Germany before World War I and rose to prominence in Romania in the 1930s.  He served as Minister of Education in 1932 – 1933.  In 1944 – 1946 he became President of the Romanian Academy. What interested me about him was his monographic work about village life.  He and his research group did fieldwork. There were agronomists, folklorists, sociologists, and so on. The area where did fieldwork was intensely researched by Gusti’s multi- and interdisciplinary research team. What was particularly compelling was that the peasants were involved in the research and worked with researchers to identify areas in their life that could be improved, everything from culture, education, water, to agricultural development. One of Gusti’s students and collaborators was Henri H. Stahl, an important sociologist in his own right. Nicoale Gheorghe was one of Stahl’s students.

BMcK – What are the best things to read by Gheorghe?

SB – He didn’t publish much, unfortunately. However he was instrumental in maintaining a rich Romanian intellectual tradition at the University of Bucharest. As a matter of fact I just served on a doctoral committee of an anthropologist who was strongly influenced by Gheorghe. Nicoale died of cancer last August, a great loss. He created Roma institutions among which is the Centre for Social Intervention and Studies, the Working Group of Roma Associations, and a Romanian Roma Museum. He left a trove of unpublished material. He did extraordinary work over the course of his professional life. When I got to know him, he was beginning to deal with his own identity as a person of color, a Rom, in a country where Gypsies were easily identified by their color, poverty, attire, the nature of their work and products they produced, and by their family names. Keep in mind that he was working in a communist country with a highly developed security system and their informants.

BMcK – That must have been difficult. 

SB – Gheorghe found a way to do research on Romanian Roma and in the process started to organize the different groups who did not necessarily identify themselves with each other. This intrigued me, especially since this work was taking place in a communist country whose organizing principle was based, at least ideologically, on the working class, not ethnicity. At the time, when I was doing research, Romanian nationalism was prominent, a paradox that created tensions with the well-organized ethno-national groups, particularly the Saxon Germans and the Hungarians, ethno-national groups who had histories that date back hundreds of years. This is significant because of what is happening in the Ukraine today. Borders that separate States from each other are not immutable. Romania’s borders have changed repeatedly in the last two World Wars and one way to hold on to the last border designation is through ethno-national identity.

BMcK – Anthropology’s borders keep changing too. Do you think that this urban program could be a model in some way for anthropology programs across the U.S.?

SB – I believe that anthropologists have to become much more reflexive about the nature of their teaching and pay greater attention to how students produce knowledge to more effectively teach “skills” that fit new roles being assigned to the social sciences and humanities.

BMcK – What advice do you have for anthropology students?

SB – What I tell all my students is that they need to pursue their passions.  Anthropologists have found their place in many areas of work.  Restricting oneself only to an academic career may be limiting the choices that are possible.  I would even say that at this time in history we need more anthropologists playing a role in advocacy work to reduce violence of all sorts, find solutions to the abject poverty to which millions of people are subjected, to work on creating sustainable communities, provide solutions for living with an increasingly hot planet, reduce the impact of pandemics, provide opportunities for our young to make their important contributions in our societies, and so on.  We need anthropologists who have an understanding of policy making and implementation.  For example, New York City Mayor de Blasio appointed Lilliam Barrios-Paoli as Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services.  She earned her PhD in Anthropology from the New School.  Clearly only a very few anthropologists will find places in institutions of higher learning.  Academic careers should not be the only, or even the primary, goal for students studying anthropology these days.

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

An earlier version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, June 2014, Jason Simms, editor.



Beck, Sam (2010) “The Persecution of the Roma, the Scapegoats of Europe,” Counterpunch. September 10-12.


Beck, Sam and Carl Maida, eds. (2013) Toward Engaged Anthropology. New York:Berghahn.

Boscia,Ted (2013) “Beck Honored for Brooklyn Service Projects,” Cornell Chronicle, February 28. http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2013/02/beck-honored-brooklyn-service-projects

Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn. Information on low income housing, Wikipedia. Accessed June 4, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domino_Sugar_Refinery_%28Brooklyn%29

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Mills, C. Wright (2008) The Politics of Truth, Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills. Oxford:Oxford university Press.

Schensul, Jean (2010) Podcast of Malinowski Address: http://sfaapodcasts.net/2010/04/04/malinowski-lecture-jean-schensul/

Schensul, Jean, Marlene Berg and Ken M. Williamson (2008) “Collaborative Anthropologies in Challenging Hegemonies: Advancing Collaboration in Community-Based Participatory Action Research.” Collaborative Anthropologies Vol. 1:102-137. See also: http://www.incommunityresearch.org/about/staffbios2/jschensul.htm

Urban Semester at Cornell University (2014)





Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

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