Essays on Cultural Transmission
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Essays on Cultural Transmission

Maurice Bloch, Maurice Bloch

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Essays on Cultural Transmission

Maurice Bloch, Maurice Bloch

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This book brings together recent work by Maurice Bloch which explores the highly controversial territory between the cognitive and social sciences. The essays are of broad, theoretical interest and aim to combine naturalistic approaches to cognition with a recognition and respect for the cultural and historical specificity of ethnography. All the essays illustrate Bloch's characteristic approach to the relation between anthropology and cognitive science, where cognitive science is used to criticize anthropological assumptions concerning such key topics as religion, kinship, belief, ritual, symbolism and art.

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Informations

Éditeur
Routledge
Année
2020
ISBN
9781000323641
Édition
1
Sous-sujet
Ethnopsychology

CHAPTER 1
WHERE DID ANTHROPOLOGY GO? OR THE NEED FOR ‘HUMAN NATURE’

Maurice Bloch
I was recently asked the question: ‘Where did anthropology go?’ by a psycholinguist from a famous American university. She was commenting on the fact that she had tried to establish contact with the anthropology department of her institution, hoping that she would find somebody who would contribute to a discussion of her main research interest: the relation of words to concepts. She had assumed that the sociocultural anthropologists would have general theories or at least ask general questions, about the way children’s upbringing in different cultures and environments would constrain, or not constrain, how children represented the material and the social world. She was hoping for information about exotic societies and about those groups which she had already learned should not be called primitive, but that is what she meant. She was hoping that her enquiry about a topic that is inevitable in any discussion about culture would be equally central to the three disciplines of psychology, linguistics and anthropology, and would therefore be an ideal ground for constructive co-operation, that is, one where the different parties could articulate and challenge the theories on which their different disciplines are built.
In fact she found that nobody was interested in working with her, but what surprised her most was the hostility she perceived, caused not only by the suggestion that cultural social anthropologists were interested in simple exotic societies, but even more by the idea that they might be interested in formulating and answering general questions about the nature of the human species or that their work could be compatible with disciplines such as hers.
The lack of any generalizing theoretical framework within which her research interest might find a place is not surprising when we look at what kind of thing is done in many university departments under the label social or cultural anthropology. Take for example the interests listed on the web site of the anthropology department of the University of California at Berkeley (which incidentally is not where our psycholinguist came from). Here are some:
Genomics and the anthropology of modernity, Science and reason, The anthropologies of education, law, tourism, Food and energy, space and the body, Post-soviet political discourse, Violence, trauma and their political and subjective consequences, Social and cultural history, (Post) colonialism, Social mediation of mind.
I do not intend here to criticize the value of the studies which lie behind these titles. In fact, I know that many are excellent and interesting, but one need not be surprised that our psycholinguist got so little response to her request for a coherent body of theories from anthropologists. What possible core of shared questions and interest could departments of this sort have to which her interest might then be related?
This incoherent fragmentation, in any and every direction, so long as the topics will find favour with funding bodies and seem relevant to the concerns of the moment, makes the existence of anthropology departments as working units difficult to justify intellectually. Indeed, this is what Eric Wolf already complained about shortly before his death, and led to the near destruction of anthropology at Stanford University.
But are we dealing simply with a problem internal to the ways in which universities function, simply an accidental result of the way the discipline has evolved in the academy, yet another illustration of the inevitable arbitrariness and shift of boundaries within science? The frustrated hope on the part of our psycholinguist that she could obtain guidance to her questions from professional anthropologists might indeed seem a rather limited problem of communication within modern universities where, after all, it is common for people from one discipline to misunderstand the nature of another.
I shall argue here that there is much more at stake, because the negative response to our psycholinguist’s request for a discipline, such as what anthropology might reasonably be expected to be, is far from an arcane missed appointment, internal to the cloistered world of academia.
Let us consider a very different situation.
One evening, in early 2004, I was doing fieldwork in the little village of Ranomena. This is a place deep in the Malagasy forest, cut off from all modern means of communication and only reachable on foot. I was sitting in near total darkness in the tiny house of the family who have been my hosts, on and off, during several periods of field study, scattered over almost thirty years. The evening meal had been eaten and consequently the fire had burned down. This was, as is usual at this time, a rare moment of relaxation and reflection, in which I joined freely. The conversation soon turned, as it often did, to questions of a philosophical nature, though it had begun in a less general way. People had been imitating, remembering and making fun of the accents and the vocabularies of other ethnic groups in the huge and culturally very varied island of Madagascar. The people of the village, the men at least, are experts in linguistic and cultural diversity since, when they are young and vigorous, they go as wage labourers to many different parts of the country, where they work for several months at a time as woodcutters or carpenters, and where they are often employed by merchants originating from different parts of the Indian subcontinent. After many anecdotes about the linguistic variations they had encountered on their travels, the conversation rapidly took on a more theoretical turn. If people used different words, did they understand the phenomena they designated so differently in the same way? If we are all related, how had this variation come about? Were the speakers of unrelated languages fundamentally different types of moral beings? And if they were, as some maintained, was this due to the language they had learnt, or was the language the manifestation of a deeper cause? In order to grapple with this problem the discussants proposed a thought experiment. What about the children of those Malagasy who had emigrated to France and who only spoke French? Were they in any sense really Malagasy in their social morality, in their ways of thinking and working and in their emotions? Would their skin be whiter than that of their parents? And, if not, as everybody seemed finally to agree, if they came back to live in Madagascar, would their dark skin mean that they would learn Malagasy more easily than, for example, I had, or the children of Europeans? Thus the question of what is learnt and what is innate was formulated and reformulated in many, often completely abstract, forms.
The seminar continued.
If there was so much variation and mutability, could one say that all humans were one species or several? Were there discontinuities in racial and cultural variation or only a continuum? If we were all one family and, at bottom, all thought alike, how could it be that the histories of different groups of mankind had been so dissimilar and had given rise to such differences in technological knowledge and wealth? Why were the people from overseas, which the people of Ranomena tend to consider all much of a muchness, continually fighting, when they, by contrast, were all so peaceful? And, given that there is only one God (it is a Catholic village), how could it be that in the world there are people like the Hindus who do such completely exotic, unthinkable things as burning their dead?
These were the questions I recorded in just one evening, but these and other related ones are a familiar feature of intellectual life in Ranomena. People argue among themselves over these matters, whether I am there or not. However, because I was there, and because by now, after much explaining, the villagers of Ranomena have some idea of the kind of subject I teach, they turned to me for advice and expertise. After all, as they often tell me, I had seen and read about many more different people in the world than they had, I had studied long and hard and had gathered in myself the wisdom of many other knowledgeable people who had been my teachers. So, what could I say about these crucial questions? Well, I answered as best I could. But, what strikes me most clearly, as I reflect on such pleasant and interesting evenings, is that my co-villagers, in spite of their lack of formal education, were coming to the subject of anthropology with much the same questions as we might expect from anybody who turns to our discipline in a country such as Britain, whether as students, as readers of learned publications, or as practitioners of other disciplines in the academy. Indeed, as you may have noted, the very same question was being asked by the psycholinguist of people who call themselve anthropologists as did some of the Malagasy villagers.
The point I want to stress through these anecdotes is that there is a widespread, perhaps universal, demand for a subject such as anthropology and that this demand exists irrespective of culture, degree of education and intellectual tradition. People ask these questions of anthropologists because anthropology would seem to be the kind of discipline which might provide answers. It is to get answers to questions such as those that preoccupied the villagers of Ranomena, that people in Britain, or indeed anywhere, choose to study anthropology.
But, had the villagers of Ranomena actually penetrated the portals of the academy, would they have to face the same disappointment as our psycholinguist? The answer is probably yes. And, in order to understand how and why this state of affairs has come about, I attempt here an extremely brief overview of the academic history of the discipline. One, which will inevitably involve gross oversimplification and will ignore many counter-currents and eddies. I want to understand how and why the anthropology which others seek is becoming absent from anthropology departments. I want to argue that it is this absence which makes interdisciplinary co-operation and disciplinary coherence impossible.
The late nineteenth century was a time when a number of highly influential anthropological books were published. These purported to give a general account of the history of humanity in terms of general evolutionary laws. Thus, general characteristics of human beings were seen to be the cause of human history, which, therefore, had a necessary and unilineal character. These types of book were not new, but what was new was the fact that these general accounts were to be supported by a scientific research enterprise, the aim of which was to collect empirical evidence in support of the different theories. This became the justification for setting up university chairs and ultimately whole departments of anthropology in many European and American countries; indeed, this was the case at LSE.
The discipline was to operate a bridge between the history of life, up to the emergence of Homo sapiens, the subject matter of zoology, and the history of mankind, from the invention of writing, by which point historians could take over. Evidence to account for what had happened during this gap was to come from the four fields approach, still evident in many contemporary anthropology departments in the United States. The four-fields were archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistics and what became social and cultural anthropology.
The role of social or cultural anthropology in this schema was to provide evidence for the reconstruction of the history of mankind through the study of primitive people. The study of these people was relevant because of a familiar, but fundamental, assumption. The different groups of mankind advanced along a single necessary line of progress, from one stage to another. Technological or intellectual advances were the driving force for forward movement, but this was along a road which was traced by the internal potential of a shared human nature. The itinerary regarding politics, kinship, religion, morals and anything else, was thus universal and what varied was how far different groups had got pushed along. This being so it followed that finding a living contemporary group of people using a certain type of primitive technology, for example hunting and gathering, a study of their political organization, their kinship system, their religion, and so on, would yield information about the politics, kinship, religion and morals of our distant ancestors at the time when they had reached the same point along that single road. By this means, anthropology could discover the immaterial aspects of the life of those forebears whose material prehistory was being only gradually revealed by archaeology.
This general method was shared by most anthropological accounts of the time, although, of course, the evidence produced in this way was far from clear and, therefore, a number of competing accounts of the early history of mankind were produced. All these, however, shared an amazing confidence in the ability of the subject and its methods to fulfil the vast programme which it had outlined for itself. These theories are usually described as evolutionist or more precisely as unilineal evolutionist theories, and they all rest on a largely unexamined and simple notion of human nature which it was the purpose of the subject to flesh out.
The period about which I have been talking may be referred to as that of the founders of anthropology. It produced an ordered image of the history of mankind and of cultural and social variation. It is because of this that, in many ways, it was the heyday of anthropology’s popular success.
Consequently we may consider what happened next as its twilight. In fact, there is not one but two accounts to be told about this subsequent history of the dimming of the evolutionist light. The first concerns the reputation among anthropologists of this moment of confidence in their subject and the other its reputation in the wider world beyond.
Very shortly after its establishment, evolutionist anthropology was destroyed by an obvious but fundamental criticism, which took very different forms but is always ultimately based on the same objection. This is usually called the theory of diffusionism. I shall use the term here much more widely than is usually done to stress the fact that, in spite of superficial differences, we are always dealing with the same point. Thus I include under the term ‘diffusionism’, such trends as Geertzian culturalism and ‘postmodernism’ which all rest on the same foundation. The basic point of diffusionism – the basic objection to evolutionist anthropology – is that human culture does not proceed along a predetermined line, following a limited number of ordered stages. This is because human beings have the ability to learn from each other and can then pass on acquired traits through communication. This enables them to further build, transform, modify and combine what others have learnt and passed on to them. It is thus possible to argue, perfectly validly, if somewhat simply, that it is human contacts and thus ultimately history which, in great part, make people what they are, rather than their ‘nature’. For the diffusionists it is not fundamental essential characteristics of human beings that explain history but the accidents of whom we are with and have been with. Unlike animals to whom evolutionary laws apply and who are, in the long term, determined by their biological inheritance, humans, for their part, are determined by other individuals; in other words, they are determined by culture.
The implications of focusing on the ability of humans to imitate and borrow information and then to pass it on to another by non-genetic means is genuinely far-reaching. It is what makes culture possible. Since people borrow cultural traits one from another, they can individually combine bits and pieces from different individuals. It follows that there are no naturally distinct social or cultural groups, tribes, peoples, etc. And since these combinations arise from anywhere, anybody and in any order, there are no general predictable laws of history. Because, unlike other animals, humans can transmit acquired characteristics across and within generations, the history of culture becomes an entangled, disordered, infinitely complex mess, quite unlike the ordered procession envisaged by the evolutionists. And since the past was this tangled directionless web, so will be the future; therefore it cannot be predicted. Thus diffusionist theory, by emphasizing a fundamental aspect of the species, seemed at the same time to have done the opposite – that is, to remove internal human nature as the determinant source of what happens in history and to replace it by factors which are external. It is as though the ability of humans to communicate and to pass on what they have learnt to others made all innate natural capacities irrelevant to the study of human history. A point of view exemplified in Geertz’s uncharacteristically bad-tempered and sarcastic lecture ‘Anti Anti Relativism’ (Geertz 1984).
Diffusionism was, therefore, made to seem a knock-out blow against the original ambition of a science that was going to explain what had happened in human history in terms of a necessary evolutionary sequence. No subsequent theoretical criticism has ever had such an impact. Indeed, the point is so fundamental that it has simply been repeated ever since in many different forms. Talk of ‘construction’ in the social sciences is a reformulation of diffusionism, and the miasma (Hacking 1999) surrounding both ideas is the same. More particularly, the emphasis on the ‘construction’ of ‘the individual’ or ‘the person’ shows us where diffusionism always leads by means of a kind of theoretical slippage which I shall go on to discuss. Thus the work of such writers as Weber, Durkheim, Dumont, Foucault and many others is evoked again and again to ‘unmask’ the historical specificity of the notion of the ‘Western individual’, a point wh...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Preface
  9. 1 Where did anthropology go? Or the need for ‘human nature’
  10. 2 Why trees, too, are good to think with: toward an anthropology of the meaning of life
  11. 3 Questions not to ask of Malagasy carvings
  12. 4 Commensality and poisoning
  13. 5 What is passed on from parents to children: A cross-cultural investigation
  14. 6 A well-disposed social anthropologist’s problems with memes
  15. 7 Are religious beliefs counter-intuitive?
  16. 8 Ritual and deference
  17. 9 Kinship and evolved psychological dispositions: the mother’s-brother controversy reconsidered
  18. Index