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Culture Cults

The Paths of Culture: A General Ethnology

by Kaj Birket-Smith
University of Wisconsin, 538 pp., $10.00

Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist

by Hortense Powdermaker
W.W. Norton, 315 pp., $6.50

The publishers describe The Paths of Culture as “a general ethnology translated from the Danish” which has been “long accepted as an anthropological classic”; they refer to its “timeless appeal,” but they do not otherwise indicate its history. The original Danish two-volume version, Kulturens Veje, in fact appeared as long ago as 1941-42 and, apart from an odd footnote or two, a few extra paragraphs, and considerable modernization of the last few pages which deal with New World archeology, very little has happened to it since. Some of the results of this conservatism are very odd indeed. The book is avowedly a study in “historical ethnology” which rests on the proposition that “development itself is the essential problem of cultural research.” Its subject matter is the whole of human culture from China to Peru and from Adam until us. The author modestly admits that other viewpoints are possible and that there are limitations to his encyclopedic knowledge of the facts, nevertheless there is a clearly implied claim that the book is fully up-to-date—at page 472, for example, there is a reference to an archeological discovery first reported in 1963. It is therefore disconcerting to find that scarcely any American anthropologist under the age of seventy even merits a mention. My own countrymen do no better. Admittedly a crumb or two of approval is offered to “the younger generation of British ethnologists,” but this term is actually applied to “men like C. Daryll Forde, Raymond Firth and E. E. Evans-Pritchard”—distinguished scholars indeed, who in 1967 are all on the verge of retirement from their respective University Chairs. Birket-Smith himself is now aged seventy-three. It seems an odd quirk of academic publishing that a period piece such as this should first appear in English dress twenty-five years after its original publication, but its sponsors presumably know what they are doing.

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BOOK is to depict human culture in its entirety” and although this objective may seem ridiculous there are dozens of other introductory textbooks to general anthropology which claim to do no less. The Paths of Culture strikes me as being a good deal worse than most, partly because the outlook of the author is so exceedingly old-fashioned, partly because of the lack of any coherent viewpoint—the arguments presented are a general jumble of the various fashions in ethnology current in Europe between 1900 and 1925—and partly because of the lack of cross-reference. Although there is a forty-page bibliography which is described as “not a source-list but a help for further reading,” the great majority of the items date from long before 1940 and the relevance of these to details mentioned in the main text is hard to disentangle. The sections of the book labeled “Social Organization,” “Social Life,” and “Spiritual Life” are, by modern standards, quite atrocious. No anthropologist of the younger or more recent generations now imagines that the basic facts of social anthropology can be expressed by cramming hundreds of snippets of ethnographic information into a hundred and twenty pages. Whatever may have been the case in the heyday of Sir James Frazer and Pater Schmidt, a random catalogue of customs can no longer be of any possible interest to the academically minded general reader, however naive. In the sections dealing with material culture and with archeology the authors underlying diffusionist preferences have more scope, and the argument makes better sense. There is much learned information about the conjectured history of various artifacts and domesticated animals. The content overall is a closely packed mass of trivial details and guesses about hypothetical origins, some ludicrous, some plausible. Why it should be worth while guessing at all is not explained. The following are sample items:

Skirts:

The skirt is chiefly a feminine garment, and is found all over the earth. In Melanesia and Africa, for instance, it is made of grass or strips of leaves. Finds from Danish oak coffins have proved that a string skirt was also part of the costume of the Bronze Age woman in Denmark. The Sumerian men were dressed in sheepskin skirts and in the Old and Middle Kingdoms the Egyptian men wore a brief linen skirt which, moreover, was retained much later as part of the king’s official dress. At present, circularly woven skirts (sarong) are used in large parts of Indonesia, and similar skirts are found in South America. Erland Nordenskiold thinks they are derived from the shoulder strap in which mothers carry their infants, but this cannot be accepted as definitely proved.

Plows:

The connection between the plow and the ox gave Hahn a fantastic idea about the way in which domestication occurred. Plowing was simply a symbol of the fecundation of Mother Earth and the ox was consecrated to the Moon Goddess; it was originally tamed so that it would always be at hand for offering in the event of an eclipse of the moon, but subsequently it was always hitched to the Sacred Plow!

Sheep:

The early domesticated sheep were fur-bearing, with long thin tails and horizontal, twisted horns, and the same ancient breed is still to be found among the tribes along the Upper Nile, in the Sahara, and among the Hausa in the Sudan. The wool-bearing, spiral-horned, broadtail sheep which are still common in China, Central Asia, and the Near East were first introduced to Egypt in the beginning of the New Kingdom. The shorttailed, fat-rumped sheep, which occur in Arabia, and East and South Africa should not be confused with the above. Like the sheep, the tame goat has a diverse origin.

Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécouchet could hardly have done it better! But learning is a wondrous thing. What worries me is that when the publishers say that this book is “a lively and stimulating account for the general reader” they are really hoping to project it into the laps of some unfortunate college students. Indeed a recent cordial piece by Professor Sol Tax in The New York Times Book Review expressly suggests that this is the book’s proper destination.

Initiation:

In America the main emphasis is sometimes placed on the endurance of pain so that the initiation becomes a question of an actual test of manhood, even though the magical background is retained.

Any young persons whose teachers ask them to read this stuff should be warned accordingly. Adults will get much more fun out of reading Hortense Powdermaker’s autobiography.

SHE TOO is an anthropologist—younger than Birket-Smith it is true but not all that much—but, oh, what a different world! Born in Philadelphia into an upper-middle-class German Jewish background, she was from the start a rebel against the conventional. While still at college she got herself mixed up in left-wing union politics and soon afterwards moved off to the London School of Economics which in those days also had a markedly left-wing flavor. Here she became one of Malinowski’s first graduate students in social anthropology, along with Raymond Firth and E. E. Evans-Pritchard who have been mentioned above. And ever since then she has been practicing and teaching social anthropology in its most lively and enterprising modern forms. She went to New Ireland in Melanesia in 1929 and was thus one of the first women to conduct intensive social anthropological research of a modern type under genuinely primitive conditions. Her book Life in Lesu was published in 1933. Her next assignment was research into race problems in the Deep South which provided the basis for two further books. Then in 1946 she used her anthropological techniques to make a micro-scale sociological analysis of Hollywood. Finally in 1953, when on sabbatical leave from Queens College where she is Professor of Anthropology, she went to Northern Rhodesia and tackled research into some very difficult problems related to the psychological adjustment of Africans working on the Rhodesian copper-belt.

Professor Powdermaker’s present intention is not simply to write an autobiography but to give the reader insight into the methods of anthropological research of a modern kind as seen from the inside, and also to explain how her own attitudes to research problems have developed in the course of her eventful life.

Running through the whole is a problem which is of persistent interest to the practicing anthropologist. The anthropologist’s objectivity depends on a degree of moral detachment. He can observe social facts “as they really are” only if he remains in certain respects a stranger. Yet in other ways the subtlest insights of the modern anthropologist come from the close intensity of his constant day-to-day contact with his informants. But as soon as the anthropologist becomes “a participant-observer” he finds himself a friend rather than a stranger. He becomes emotionally involved in the situation which he is trying to analyze. His vaunted objectivity goes by the board. There is no easy answer to this kind of research problem and Professor Powdermaker claims only to exhibit her own private solution. Others may have different answers but our author shows us what the questions are.

IT IS ESPECIALLY the final section entitled “Epilogue” which is relevant here, and the following points are given special emphasis: (1) Communication between observer and observee in a field-work situation depends on many other factors beside that of knowing the local language. “In spite of the fact that no language problem existed in Hollywood, communication with informants was less than in any of the other field experiences.” (2) There may be a conflict between the anthropologist’s curiosity and his respect for his informants as human beings. “Several anthropologists, whose personality is fundamentally more reticent than mine, have told me that they find it impossible ever to as really personal questions. If they forced themselves to do it, the resulting tension in them might adversely affect communication.” (3) Social systems are fields of social tension; how can the observer avoid taking sides? “Some fieldworkers identify so completely with the underdog that they are unable to make effective contacts with those on the top…” (4) The psychological stresses which the fieldworking anthropologist himself undergoes are extremely complex. Professor Powdermaker shrewdly observes that the relationship between anthropologist and informant may have elements of that between psychoanalyst and patient, but it also resembles that between pupil and teacher. The best informants are eager to teach the ignorant anthropologist! The sensitivity with which she writes of these matters shows that at all times she herself must have been a most excellent fieldworker.

The contrast between the two books which we are considering is complete. Birket-Smith’s volume is about Culture, it contains no human beings, it tells us little or nothing about what has happened to anthropology since 1925. Powdermaker starts at that date and her book is all about people. She is constantly looking forward and even adds a tailpiece which is full of excited anticipation of what anthropological field research might become in the future. Professor Powdermaker’s paths and my own have crossed from time to time and some of the places which she writes about are known to me personally. All I can say is that, wherever I can check up, the impressions which her book conveys are thoroughly authentic. The publishers say of it that “field work in its personal and objective dimension is placed under a kind of microscope. The book is a must for all field workers in the social sciences.” That claim does not seem to me excessive.

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