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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.