Barbara Ehrenreich: Stuntwoman or Scholar?

Over at Slate this week, there’s been a discussion on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch, the followup to her book Nickled and Dimed. This time around, Ehrenreich has moved up the class ladder, pretending to be middle-class and trying to land a job in media or public relations. She goes by her maiden name. She refuses to use any and all contacts, let alone friends for financial or moral aid (although she does allow herself to use references).

The book has been given to various economists to assess and what’ s interesting is the personal nature of their criticisms. Results? They claim that the book is not so much about the middle-class people around Ehrenreich, but Ehrenreich herself. In particular, Alan Wolfe opines, “The construct of the book borders on the unethical; social scientists would never permit an experiment with this much faking. But it also renders the book uninteresting. Who cares what happens to a person who does not exist? You don’t, Tyler, and, frankly, neither do I.”

So the real question here is whether Bait and Switch a stunt similar to Morgan Spurlock’s and whether an empirical approach is now the only way to convey an issue to a mass audience. If it is, this raises an interesting question: Is putting one’s self through various hardships the new form of “scholarship” for a popular nonfiction title? Further, have we reached a point where polemics must be driven by a personality (in this case, the self-styled Barbara Alexander) rather than the bigger picture (burgeoning unemployment among middle-class professionals)?

[UPDATE: Over at Galleycat, A.J. Jacobs weighs in on so-called “stunt writing.”]

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  1. I think these types of “research” though anectodal and hardly scientific may be valuable in at least raising an interest/awareness on an issue John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, being a classic example. Yet their greatest strength may be their greatest weakness – the personal narrative, crossing the bounds of “hard science” into the more touchy-feely terrain of personal experience can make them enticing to casual observers, but prejudices of polemics can make them discountable or malleable to ideologues looking for a poster child for their causes.

    Propaganda, all of it! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    I’m waiting for the next wave: Christopher Guest-ish style mock-polemics. I think this would be highly entertaining but with a more obvious detachment that may allow for more critical discussion as opposed to mere sentimental reactions.

  2. I read the Slate take on Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest and I found it silly and sophomoric — I can’t decide if this admission is a bold stroke or just plain dumb

    “I did not expect to like Barbara Ehrenreich’s new experiment, recounted in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream ,but even so I am disappointed… ”

    Did I miss the sense and meaning of this graf :

    “Our sleuth makes a mistake analogous to the one that marred Nickel and Dimed . In that earlier experiment, she entered life as a low-income worker, yet without many support systems. She had no church, no family, and no reliance on friends for financial or even moral aid. It is no wonder she found life so tough and capitalism so demoralizing. She lived an ordinary “lower class” life, yet with upper-middle-class, modern, academic morals and methods. ”

    Let me confess: I am a long standing fan, devotee, besotted admirer of Sister Ehrenreich.

    This infantile 8th grade book report on Bait and Switch and the references to Nickel & Dimed could be excused if somehow this dimwitted writer gave any sense of Ehrenreich’s humor, compassion and intelligence.

    Shame on Slate for thinking this piece was for adults and not the Weekly Reader.

  3. I, too, am an ardent admirer of Ehrenreich. Her Fear of Falling, for one, is a great book. Even so, I groaned a little when I first heard about this new book, if only because it seemed like a less-likely-to-succeed follow-up to Nickel and Dimed. Despite this, I have to agree with Birnbaum. The Slate exchange is pretty silly.

    More interesting, I think, are Scott McLemee’s review of the book and his subsequent interview with Ehrenreich:

  4. My IDt colleague Birnbaum gets it right, above. This is about what I would expect from the likes of Slate and all the Slate lookalikes. The attacks on Ehrenreich are petty, sophmoric, and completely ignore the point of her work: this shit IS real, this IS how people live in our country today. The Slate piece is, in effect, a bait and switch all of its own. I’ve had it about up to here with snappy media writers. Fuck off; Ehrenreich has more integrity, balls, and — frankly — point to her life in her little finger than your entire staff has collectively.

  5. I was pondering Brother Christian’s terrible swift sword stroke and I realized that it’s not the Slate iconclastic attitude that bothers me—that’s its main attraction—it’s the piss-poor, juvenile execution.

    it’s one thing to go “Nah, na, na ” it’s another thing entirely to do it with panche and such— so far Hitchens and Noah and Litwick are the only Slate writers worth any salt.

    Read Shafer’s latest mental paroxysm if you want an example of what I mean.

    In his defens he does know how to stack an argument.


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