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Anthropology Upside Down

Reinventing Anthropology

edited by Dell Hymes
Vintage, 470 pp., $2.95 (paper)

The enigmatic title of this antitextbook may best be explained by an analogy. In the flush of radical enthusiasm which was briefly dominant in England between 1645 and 1660, left-wing religious sectarians—Diggers, Seekers, Quakers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchy Men, and what have you—vied with one another to reinvent Christianity. They proclaimed a “world turned upside down,” a New Heaven and a New Earth. Mutual recrimination apart, the vitriolic pamphlets, sermons, and denunciations of these reformers have much in common; there is a universal flavor of witch-hunting paranoia, an insistence that the new Christianity must be relevant to the mundane affairs of seventeenth-century rural England, an extreme intolerance of past orthodoxies of all kinds, a marked provincialism and lack of sophistication in the theology.

The teachings of these hot gospelers had derived from radical Continental theologians of the previous century, men such as Zwingli and Thomas Münzer, but the English enthusiasts showed hardly any interest in the history of their dogma. They were committed to the belief that what they were saying was of immediate relevance and entirely new. For their purposes history was not a record of what had actually happened but simply an instrument for political propaganda. If necessary the facts of the case could be turned completely back to front. King Charles I was tried and executed by the Puritan-dominated Parliament in 1649; in less than a decade “sober and eminent persons” were saying that the whole episode had been engineered by the Jesuits as part of a Papist plot!

The new anthropology is very similar. Dell Hymes’s contributors are of diverse sectarian affiliation but all tend to quote from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach with the same glib out-of-context reverence which their seventeenth-century predecessors exhibited toward passages of Holy Writ. They do not describe the virtues of the New Jerusalem in any detail but imply them, by contrast, simply by reciting a dreary catalogue of the vices of Vanity Fair. The anthropology about which these authors write is provincial and exclusively American. All concerned display an amazing ignorance of the European foundations of the doctrines that they proclaim. In consequence Franz Boas is mentioned more than fifty times but Marcel Mauss and Edward Evans-Pritchard do not appear at all; Emile Durkheim and Raymond Firth are mentioned in passing once. In compensation the editor invents for our consideration a wholly imaginary character, “the early ethnologist Elliot Rivers,” evidently an ellipsis of W. H. R. Rivers, the founding originator of British social anthropology, and his close friend, the anatomist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith.

Likewise, just as the seventeenth-century sectarians interpreted their Bible reading in the homely context of contemporary rural England, so also these modern authors transpose the writings of the classical ethnographers into the anachronistic setting of twentieth-century America. William S. Willis, Jr., for example, who is an American Negro anthropologist, moves Melanesia to Mississippi. Preoccupied with the racial prejudices of his white colleagues past and present, he repeats the allegation that Malinowski, in a private diary, “confessed a ‘need to run away from the niggers.’ ” In fact Malinowski’s diaries were written in a polyglot of Polish-German-English-Kiriwinan. The word translated as “niggers” in the published text is the Polish term for “blacks,” a word which is repeatedly used by Dr. Willis himself in passages where he clearly believes that he is writing without racial prejudice. I would not want to deny that anthropological writing is full of white middle-class bias but it is naïve to imagine that everything will be put right if we turn the world upside down and extol the virtues of black lower-class bias.

As for the misuse of history, I will mention only that Stanley Diamond blandly assures us that “certainly nothing could be clearer than that imperialism was the source of the idea of the inferior savage” in a context which identifies “imperialism” with the “nineteenth-century bourgeois colonialist epoch” (p. 409). How should one refute such a fantasy? Will Shakespeare suffice, whose prototype savage, Caliban, “gabbles like a thing most brutish”? Or Daniel Beeckman, writing of Hottentots in 1714 as “these filthy creatures [who] hardly deserve the name of rational creatures”? But to what end? For mere ignorance is not the issue; it is simply that Messrs. Diamond and Co., like religious zealots everywhere, feel that they are entitled to mold their history to suit contemporary objectives. All references to the past are means by which the new anthropologists may “declare themselves partisans in the movements for national liberation…and social reconstruction” (p. 426).

But millenarian enthusiasm apart, what is the argument all about?

Most of the assembled authors are middle-aged professors of anthropology in American universities, and I can only assume that many of their sillier statements are no more than shibboleth utterances designed to appease student militants. There is an excessive larding of the text with Marxist rhetoric, e.g., “Anthropologists…may now decide to turn to the arena in which the generality of men, notably peasants and primitives, the conventional ‘objects’ of study, are now re-creating themselves as subjects of the revolutionary dramas of our time.” But meshed in with the slogans there is in these essays matter of more serious moment. Let me try to decipher what these worries are.

The basic complaint is that, somewhere around the beginning of this century, American cultural anthropologists and their British counterparts set themselves the goal of establishing a science of social man. From the beginning of recorded history literate travelers have delighted in recording the quaint customs of exotic peoples. This is not a European peculiarity. Herodotus had his Chinese and Indian equivalents. Likewise, from the days of Plato and Confucius onward, moral philosophers have been prone to cite ethnographic evidence to illustrate, as in a mirror, both the frailties and the virtues of literate civilization. The intellectual fashion of the present century has been different. From the start, Boas in America and Rivers in England, in their contrasted styles, set out to create a scientific anthropology which would take as its model the experimental laboratory research that is normal in the physical and biological sciences. The new watchword was “objectivity.” It was taken for granted that, as a scientist, the anthropological observer could be, and should be, in a position of privileged detachment, external to the material of his observation.

The cosmology implicit in such attitudes is crudely materialistic. Nature, out there, is presumed to consist of hard facts, organized into patterned structures governed by natural laws. These laws are ultimately mathematical; they are open to discovery by human minds but they are not open to manipulation. The Cartesian dichotomy between the mind of the observer and the stuff which he observes is absolute. The purpose of research is to discover the true nature of the facts and their interrelations, uncontaminated by errors introduced by the observers’ fallibility or defects in the over-all experimental situation.

The immediate consequence of applying such an ideology to the study of ethnography was to sharpen the distinction between the “civilized” observer and the “primitive” observed, and, as these writers often point out, to reinforce existing forms of racial prejudice by implying that native peoples in subordinate political positions could properly be looked upon as laboratory animals rather than as human beings who can make rational choices and tell lies. The culture which these anthropologists sought to study was traditional culture; its essence was that it was static, remote, and irrelevant to the observer’s normal existence.

However, as this scientific ethnography developed in sophistication, a contrary trend became apparent. As a legacy from Malinowski, all modern forms of social anthropology are based on field research involving “participant observation.” In this case the anthropological observer tries to understand the ramifications of an exotic alien culture by involving himself at first hand in the activities of those who are providing him with information. And whether the anthropologist likes it or not, the alien culture is in this case immediate and emergent, an element in the totality of twentieth-century human society. As Malinowski himself discovered—and as Mr. Hymes’s contributors have been rediscovering—there is a radical incompatibility between the demands of scientific objectivity and the personal human involvement which participant observation necessarily entails.

Because of local circumstances American anthropologists were slow to recognize this paradox. For most of the first half of the century, American anthropological research was heavily concentrated on the study of North American Indians. Its explicit purpose was historical reconstruction; the anthropologist aimed at producing a description of how “traditional” Indian society had worked, on its own, before it had been crushed by the frontier wars of the nineteenth century. The object of study was thus already remote; participant observation was seldom an option that was open to the white investigator, and there was no stimulus to look closely at the uncomfortable political realities of present day life on Indian reservations.

Outside America the setting of anthropological research was very different. Throughout the first half of this century British ethnographers in Africa, Asia, and Oceania operated as specially protected persons under the aegis of the paramount colonial power, but the autonomy of action of their tribal “objects of study” was of quite a different order from that which existed in North American Indian reservations.

Like their American contemporaries the British anthropologists usually ended up by writing monographs about idealized “traditional” societies, but they were much less oblivious of the social realities of the de facto situation. As early as 1936 they had begun to explore the sociology of colonialism.1 In many well-known cases their pupils were to become the leaders of post-colonial independent governments. The latter included the present president of Kenya, whose 1938 PhD thesis was dedicated “to all the dispossessed youth of Africa.”2

The trouble with all the essays in Hymes’s collection is their denial of historical reality. The authors have been shocked by the fact that, in Southeast Asia and South America, professional anthropologists have functioned as intelligence agents on behalf of the CIA and the American armed forces, from which they have inferred that a politically neutral anthropology is an impossibility. They take it for granted that the “others” whom anthropologists study are, by definition, in a state of political subjection. Since they hold that attempts at objectivity in social studies are positivist illusions, it follows that the anthropologist must always be “involved” in his research situation. He then has a simple moral choice; he can side either with the oppressors or with the oppressed. From this it is readily deduced that it is always morally deplorable to serve any established authority and always morally virtuous to side with liberation movements. That sympathies may be divided or solutions elusive does not seem to occur to these writers. All the anthropologist’s actions must be immediately relevant to the manifest problems of those whom he observes.

If this kind of “relevance” is accepted as dogma, all the existing textbooks can be thrown away. We must change the whole curriculum. E.N. Anderson puts it this way:

Some establishment of priorities is needed. Is cross-cousin marriage really a more vital issue than the world food problem? If not, why do we not change editorial and instructional policies which imply this?

Well one of the reasons is that it is the function of mature scholars to warn their students that altruism and enthusiasm are not enough. Until we adequately understand the fundamentals of the situations in which people live—which we do not—we are not likely to get very far with solving anything. Direct assault is not a sensible strategy in intellectual war. Very few major advances in human understanding have come about as the result of a conscious effort to solve a particular practical problem. It may indeed turn out that an understanding of cross-cousin marriage bears on the problem of food production. The conditions of creativity, in learning as well as in art, are not predictable in advance. We would not now be better off if someone had persuaded the altruistic Einstein that he ought to devote his great abilities to the design of farm machinery.

But the malaise of which these essays are a symptom is very general. In English universities anyway, anthropology is today a very “popular” subject, but it is not only the students who feel that there is something radically wrong with the syllabus of anthropology as it is now taught. I feel that way myself and I fully sympathize with the frustrated exasperation of Hymes’s contributors. The fragmentation of the Study of Man into component “subjects,” as in the dissection theater of an anatomy school, dehumanizes the whole enterprise.

I go along with the reformers when they argue that the central problem is how to convey the idea that in learning about other societies we are, at one remove, learning about our own. Most certainly every budding anthropologist must understand that the observer is part of the scene that he observes. But God forbid that we should propose the search for mystical experience as a proper substitute for the pretensions of objectivity. I have no wish to muddle up my scholarly concerns with the ethics of a Franciscan friar. So I am quite unmoved by the self-flagellation with which Robert Jay declares that his earlier work has been a “shallow, distorted, even arrogant effort at understanding the problems” of his informants and that “in future fieldwork I shall place first a mutual responsibility to my whole self and to those I go to learn from.”

The purpose of such rhetoric is to generate fervor and commitment but, like the monotonous din in a Tibetan temple, the ultimate effect is soporific; the words flow on and on….

…the process of comparative differentiation and discrimination does not itself suggest any compelling criteria for critical judgment. If these are to be found at all, I would advocate that we seek them in the normative and emancipatory interests of anthropological praxis, that is, in the degree to which anthropological activity violates or sustains pertinent “life-preserving” values and in the extent to which it inhibits or realizes human freedom.

And then on the next page:

The emancipatory interest is not only integral to anthropological praxis, the latter also contributes to making that emancipation possible.

And on the next:

The comparative understanding of others contributes to self-awareness; self-understanding, in turn, allows for self-reflection and (partial) self-emancipation; the emancipatory interest, finally, makes the understanding of others possible.

So writes Bob Scholte. But what does this repetitive circular argument actually imply for “anthropological praxis”? Simply that we turn the clock back 120 years and take our inspiration from The Communist Manifesto. “Its empirical and analytic function would be to provide causal explanations for cultural processes, to suggest hypothetical predictions of sociohistorical events and to define the infrastructural determinants of human behavior.” None of which would be subject to any sort of empirical verification. If this is anthropology reinvented, give me cross-cousin marriage every time.

The interconnections between the Puritan ethic, which expressed itself in the sound and fury of the seventeenth-century Ranters, and the Spirit of Capitalism are still a matter for debate. The rantings of the twentieth-century anthropological Puritans may likewise be symptomatic of things to come, but just what will emerge from such turmoil none of us can tell, except perhaps that it will not be what we expect.


End Games of Empire? October 17, 1974

Insult & Injury July 18, 1974

  1. 1

    See papers reprinted in Africa, Memorandum XV (1938).

  2. 2

    Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (London, 1938; Random House, 1962).

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