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 …

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Letters

End Games of Empire? October 17, 1974

Insult & Injury July 18, 1974