A History of Anthropology
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A History of Anthropology

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Finn Sivert Nielsen

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eBook - ePub

A History of Anthropology

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Finn Sivert Nielsen

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This is a thoroughly updated and revised edition of a popular classic of modern anthropology. The authors provide summaries of 'Enlightenment', 'Romantic' and 'Victorian' anthropology, from the cultural theories of Morgan and Taylor to the often neglected contributions of German scholars. The ambiguous relationship between anthropology and national cultures is also considered. The book provides an unparalleled account of theoretical developments in anthropology from the 1920s to the present, including functionalism, structuralism, hermeneutics, neo-Marxism and discourse analysis. There are brief biographies of major anthropologists and coverage of key debates including totemism, kinship and globalisation. This essential text on anthropology is highly engaging, authoritative and suitable for students at all levels.

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Pluto Press



How long have anthropologists existed? Opinions are divided on this issue. The answer depends on what you mean by an anthropologist. People around the world have always been curious about their neighbours and more remote people. They have gossiped about them, fought them, married them and told stories about them. Some of their stories were written down. Some were later criticised as inaccurate or ethnocentric (or flatly racist). Some stories were compared with others, about other people, leading to general assumptions about ‘people elsewhere’, and what humans everywhere have in common. In this broad sense, we start an anthropological enquiry the moment a foreigner moves into the neighbouring flat.
If we restrict ourselves to anthropology as a scientific discipline, some would trace its roots back to the European Enlightenment during the eighteenth century; others would claim that anthropology did not arise as a science until the 1850s, others again would argue that anthropological research in its present-day sense only commenced after the First World War. Nor can we avoid such ambiguities.
It is beyond doubt, however, that anthropology, considered as the science of humanity, originated in the region we commonly refer to as ‘the West’, notably in four ‘Western’ countries: France, Britain, the USA and Germany. Historically speaking, this is a European discipline, and its practitioners, like those of all European sciences, occasionally like to trace its roots back to the ancient Greeks.
Thanks to research carried out by anthropologists, historians and archaeologists, we today believe that ‘the ancient Greeks’ differed quite radically from ourselves. In the classical city-states, more than half the population were slaves; free citizens regarded manual labour as degrading, and democracy (which was also ‘invented’ by the Greeks) was probably more similar to the competitive potlatch feasts of the Kwakiutl (Chapter 4), than to the institutions described in modern constitutions (Finley 1973; P. Anderson 1974).
Going back to the Greeks is thus a long journey, and we peer into their world through cracked and smoky glass. We catch glimpses of little city-states surrounded by traditional Iron Age farmland where family and kinship formed the main social units, connected to the outside world through a network of maritime trade relationships between urban settlements along the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. The trade in luxury goods and the free labour entailed by slavery brought considerable wealth to the cities, and the citizens of the polis, with their distaste for manual work, had at their disposal a large surplus, which they used, among other things, to wage war, and to build temples, stadiums, baths and other public buildings, where male citizens could meet and engage in philosophical disputes and speculations about how the world was put together.
It was in such a community that Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484–425 BCE) lived. Born in a Greek colonial town on the south-west coast of present-day Turkey, Herodotus began to travel as a young man and gained personal knowledge of the many foreign peoples that the Greeks maintained contacts with. Today, Herodotus is mainly remembered for his history of the Persian Wars (Herodotus 1982), but he also wrote detailed travel narratives from various parts of western Asia and Egypt, and (based on second-hand information) from as far away as the land of the Scythians on the northern coast of the Black Sea, the Ethiopians, and the peoples of the Indus valley. In these narratives, far removed as they are from our present world, we recognise a problem that has pursued anthropology, in various guises, up to this day: how should we relate to ‘the Others’? Are they basically like ourselves, or basically different? Most, if not all, anthropological theory has tried to strike a balance between these positions, and this is what Herodotus did too. Sometimes he is a prejudiced and ethnocentric ‘civilised man’, who disdains everything foreign. At other times he acknowledges that different peoples have different values because they live under different circumstances, not because they are morally deficient. Herodotus’ descriptions of language, dress, political and judicial institutions, crafts and economics are highly readable today. Although he sometimes clearly got the facts wrong, he was a meticulous scholar, whose books are often the only written sources we have about peoples of a distant past.
Many Greeks tested their wits against a philosophical paradox that touches directly on the problem of how we should relate to ‘the Others’. This is the paradox of universalism versus relativism. A present-day universalist would try to identify commonalities and similarities (or even universals) between different societies, while a relativist would emphasise the uniqueness and particularity of each society or culture. The Sophists of Athens are sometimes described as the first philosophical relativists in the European tradition (several almost contemporary thinkers in Asia, such as Gautama Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tze, were concerned with similar questions). In Plato’s (427–347 BCE) dialogues Protagoras and Gorgias, Socrates argues with the Sophists. We may picture them in dignified intellectual battle, surrounded by colourful temples and solemn public buildings, with their slaves scarcely visible in the shadows between the columns. Other citizens stand as spectators, while Socrates’ faith in a universal reason, capable of ascertaining universal truths, is confronted by the relativist view that truth will always vary with experience and what we would today call culture.
Plato’s dialogues do not deal directly with cultural differences. But they bear witness to the fact that cross-cultural encounters were part of everyday life in the city-states. The Greek trade routes stretched from the Straits of Gibraltar to present-day Ukraine, they fought wars with Persians and many other ‘barbarians’. The very term ‘barbarian’ is Greek and means ‘foreigner’. To a Greek ear it sounded as if these aliens were only able to make unintelligible noises, which sounded like ‘bar-bar, bar-bar’. Similarly, in Russian, Germans are to this day called nemtsy (the mute ones): those who speak, but say nothing.
Aristotle (384–322 BCE) also indulged in sophisticated speculations about the nature of humanity. In his philosophical anthropology he discusses the differences between humans in general and animals, and concludes that although humans have several needs in common with animals, only man possesses reason, wisdom and morality. He also argued that humans are fundamentally social by nature. In anthropology and elsewhere, such a universalistic style of thought, which seeks to establish similarities rather than differences between groups of people, plays a prominent role to this day. Furthermore, it seems clear that anthropology has vacillated up through history between a universalistic and a relativistic stance, and that central figures in the discipline are also often said to lean either towards one position or the other.
In the classical Greek city-state, conditions were perhaps particularly favourable for the development of systematic science. But in the ensuing centuries as well, ‘civilised’ activities such as art, science and philosophy were cultivated all around the Mediterranean: first, in the Hellenistic period, after the Macedonian, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) had led his armies to the northern reaches of India, spreading Greek urban culture wherever he went; then later, during the several centuries when Rome dominated most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and impressed on its population a culture deriving from Greek ideals. In this complex, multinational society, it is not surprising to find that the Greek interest in ‘the Other’ was also carried on. Thus, the geographer Strabo (c. 63–64 BCEc. CE 21) wrote several voluminous tomes about strange peoples and distant places, which sparkle with curiosity and the joy of discovery. But when Christianity was established as state religion and the Roman Empire started falling apart in the mid-fourth century CE, a fundamental change took place in European cultural life. Gone were the affluent citizens of the cities of Antiquity, who could indulge in science and philosophy, thanks to their income from trade and slave labour. Gone, indeed, was the entire city culture, the very glue that held the Roman Empire together as an (albeit loosely) integrated state. In its place, countless local European peoples manifested themselves, carriers of Germanic, Slavic, Finno-Ugric and Celtic traditions that were as ancient as those of pre-urban Greece. Politically, Europe fell apart into hundreds of chiefdoms, cities and autonomous local enclaves, which were only integrated into larger units with the growth of the modern state, from the sixteenth century onwards. Throughout this long period, what tied the continent together was largely the Church, the last lingering trustee of Roman universalism. Under the aegis of the Church, international networks of monks and clergymen arose and flourished, connecting the pockets of learning in which the philosophical and scientific traditions of Antiquity survived.
Europeans like to see themselves as linear descendants of Antiquity, but throughout the Middle Ages, Europe was an economic, political and scientific periphery. Following the rise of Islam in the seventh century, the Arabs conquered territories from Spain to India and, for at least the next seven centuries, the economic, political and intellectual centres of the Mediterranean world lay in sophisticated metropolises such as Baghdad and Cordoba, not in the ruins of Rome or Athens, nor in glorified villages such as London or Paris. The greatest historian and social philosopher of this period was Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who lived in present-day Tunisia. Khaldun wrote, among other things, a massive history of the Arabs and Berbers, furnished with a long, critical introduction on his use of sources. He developed one of the first non-religious social theories, and anticipated Émile Durkheim’s ideas about social solidarity (Chapter 2), which are today considered a cornerstone of sociology and anthropology. In line with Durkheim and the first anthropologists who utilised his theories, Khaldun stresses the importance of kinship and religion in creating and maintaining a sense of solidarity and mutual commitment among the members of a group. His theory of the difference between pastoral nomads and city-states may, with the wisdom of hindsight, be said to have been centuries ahead of its time.
A contemporary of Khaldun, Ibn Battuta (1304–1369), was in his way just as significant for the history of anthropology. Not a major social theorist, Battuta is considered to be the most widely travelled person of the pre-industrial world. Born in Tangier in present-day Morocco, Battuta’s travels brought him as far east as China and as far south as present-day Tanzania. Battuta’s main work, the Rihla (‘Travels’), was completed in 1355. Although later scholars doubt the authenticity of some of the journeys described in the book, it is considered a major source of knowledge about the world known to the Arabs at the time, and of prevailing interpretations of other cultures.
In spite of the cultural hegemony of the Arab world, there are a few European writings from the late medieval period, which may be considered precursors of latter-day anthropology. Most famous is Marco Polo’s (1254–1323) account of his expedition to China, where he allegedly spent 17 years. Another example is the great journey through Asia described in The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, compiled by an unknown author in the fourteenth century. Both books stimulated the European interest in alien peoples and customs, although the reliability of their accounts must have been questioned already then (Launay 2010).
Then, with the advent of mercantilist economies and the contemporaneous Renaissance in the sciences and arts, the small, but rich European cities of the late Middle Ages began to develop rapidly, and the earliest signs of a capitalist class emerged. Fired by these great social movements and financed by the new entrepreneurs, a series of grand exploratory sea voyages were launched by European rulers. These journeys – to Africa, Asia and America – are often described in the West as the ‘Age of Discovery’, though the ‘discovered’ peoples themselves may have had reason to question their greatness (see Wolf 1982).
The ‘Age of Discovery’ was of crucial importance for later developments in Europe and the world, and – on a lesser scale – for the development of anthropology. From the Portuguese King Henry the Navigator’s exploration of the West coast of Africa in the early fifteenth century, via Columbus’ five journeys to America (1492–1506), to Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe (1519–22), the travels of this period fed the imaginations of Europeans with vivid descriptions of places whose very existence they had been unaware of. These travelogues, moreover, reached wide audiences, since the printing press, invented in the mid-fifteenth century, soon made books a common and relatively inexpensive commodity all over Europe.
Many of the early travelogues from the New World were full of factual errors and saturated with Christian piety and cultural prejudices. A famous example is the work of the merchant and explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose letters describing his voyages to the continent that still bears his name were widely circulated at the time. His writings were reprinted and translated, but his descriptions of the Native Americans (who were called Indios, Indians, since Columbus believed he had found a route to India), reveal a much less scrupulous attitude to facts than in Herodotus’ or Khaldun’s writings. Occasionally, Vespucci seems to use the Native Americans as a mere literary illustration, to underpin the statements he makes about his own society. Native Americans are, as a rule, represented as distorted or, frequently, inverted reflections of Europeans: they are godless, promiscuous, naked, have no authority or laws; they are even cannibals! Against this background, Vespucci argues effectively for the virtues of absolutist monarchy and papal power, but his ethnographic descriptions are virtually useless as clues to native life at the time of the Conquest.
There were contemporaries of Vespucci, such as the French Huguenot Jean de Léry and the Spanish clergyman Bartolomé de las Casas, who gave more truthful and even sympathetic accounts of Native American life, and such books also sold well. But then, the market for adventure stories from distant climes seems to have been insatiable in Europe at this time. In most of the books, a more or less explicit contrast is drawn between the Others (who are either ‘noble savages’ or ‘barbarians’) and the existing order in Europe (which is either challenged or defended). As we shall see in later chapters, the legacy of these early, morally ambiguous accounts still weighs on contemporary anthropology, and to this day, anthropologists are often accused of distorting the reality of the peoples they write about – in the colonies, in the Third World, among ethnic minorities or in marginal areas. And, as in Vespucci’s case, these descriptions are often denounced as telling us more about the anthropologist’s own background than about the people under study.
The conquest of America contributed to a veritable revolution among European intellectuals. Not only did it provoke thought about cultural differences, it soon became clear that an entire continent had been discovered which was not even mentioned in the Bible! This potentially blasphemous insight stimulated the ongoing secularisation of European intellectual life, the liberation of science from the authority of the Church, and the relativisation of concepts of morality and personhood. As Todorov (1984) argues, the Native Americans struck at the very heart of the European idea of what it means to be human. The Native Americans were humans, but they did not behave in ways that Europeans considered ‘natural’ for human beings. What was then human? What was natural? During the Middle Ages, philosophers assumed that God had created the world once and for all and given its inhabitants their particular natures, which they had since retained. Now it was becoming possible to ask whether the Native Americans represented an earlier stage in the development of humanity. This in turn led to embryonic notions of progress and development, which heralded a radical break with the static worldview of the Middle Ages, and in the later history of anthropology, notions of development and progress have at times played an important role. But if progress is possible, it follows that progress is brought about by the activity of human beings, and this idea, that people shape their own destinies, is an even more enduring notion in anthropology.
Thus, when the Europeans examined themselves in the mirror held up by the Native Americans, they discovered themselves as free, modern individuals. Among the most striking expressions of this new-found, subjective freedom, are the Essais (1580) of the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). With an open-mindedness and in a personal style that were unheard of at the time, Montaigne speculates about numerous issues large and small. Unlike nearly all his contemporaries, Montaigne, in his writings about remote peoples, appears as what we today would call a cultural relativist. In the essay ‘Of Cannibals’, he even concludes that if he had been born and raised in a cannibal tribe, he would in all likelihood himself have eaten human flesh. In the same essay, Montaigne invoked le bon sauvage, ‘the noble savage’, an idea of the assumed inherent goodness of stateless peoples, which is another part of the common heritage of anthropology.
In the following centuries, the European societies expanded rapidly in scale and complexity, and intercultural encounters – through trade, warfare, missionary work, colonisation, migration and research – became increasingly common. At the same time, ‘the others’ became increasingly visible in European cultural life – from Shakespeare’s plays to Rameau’s librettos. Every major philosopher from Descartes to Nietzsche developed his own doctrine of human nature, his own philosophical anthropology, often basing it directly on current knowledge and beliefs about non-European peoples. But in most of these accounts ‘the others’ still play a passive role: the authors are rarely interested in their lifeways as such, but rather in their usefulness as rhetorical ammunition in European debates about Europe, or about ‘Man’, usually synonymous with a ‘Male European’.
A famous example was the great seventeenth-century philosophical debate between rationalists and empiricists. The former position was held by René Descartes (1596–1650), a Frenchman of many talents, who made substantial contributions to mathematics and anatomy, and is widely considered to be the founder of modern philosophy. Among anthropologists Descartes’ name is almost synonymous with the sharp distinction he supposedly drew between consciousness and spiritual life on the one hand, and the material world and the human body on the other. However, the clear-cut ‘Cartesian dualism’ that is often criticised by anthropologists is a caricature of Descartes’ thought. Descartes distinguished two kinds of substance: that of thought and mind, which had no spatial dimensions, and that of the spatially organised world. The latter could be partitioned up, measured and made subject to the laws of mathematics so its true properties might be revealed, the former could not. But by critical reasoning one could identify ideas that were axiomatically true.
The primary task of philosophy was to identify ideas that would form an unassailable basis for scientific knowledge of the external world. To achieve this, Descartes assumed an attitude of ‘radical methodological doubt’: any idea that may be doubted is uncertain, and thus an unsuitable foundation for science. Not many ideas survived Descartes’ acid test. His famous cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’) expressed his primary certainty: I can be sure that I exist since I k...

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