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Roger Caldwell considers the quest of anthropologists.
When the young Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), then a bored teacher of philosophy in Paris, received an offer to work in Brazil, he embraced the opportunity to remake himself as an anthropologist, conducting fieldwork among the remote tribes of the Mato Grosso. He thus exchanged what he saw as ‘the claustrophobic Turkish-bath atmosphere’ of philosophical reflection for the ‘open air’ of ethnography. Later, though, he came to realize that he had never truly broken with philosophy. In the end, he felt, ‘we’re always doing philosophy’.
In Search of Us (2022) by Lucy Moore covers the heroic period of social anthropology between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, when it matured into the discipline we recognize today. The succession of portraits of male anthropologists in the tropics wearing baggy shorts and bearing quinine and kerosene lamps is interspersed with a number of female figures, among them Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), who conducted her fieldwork in New Orleans as the first black woman anthropologist.
As social anthropology professionalized itself as an academic discipline during the twentieth century, fieldwork became its distinguishing mark, and was seen as an essential rite of passage for anyone who was to regard himself or herself as an anthropologist. This ideally involved ‘total immersion’ – in a society untainted by Western civilization as far as possible. The fieldworker lived as a sort of uninvited guest in this society, learning to speak its language and temporarily adopting its way of life as far as possible, and relying on native informants to learn about its social practices and religious beliefs. The indigenous people were sometimes prone, whether out of malice or a sense of mischief, to deliberately mislead the anthropologist. Thus it has been argued that Margaret Mead was deceived by her young native informants into believing in a paradise of sexual freedom, which she went on to portray in her highly influential Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928. Whatever the merits of its ethnography, the book went on to have a liberating effect on sexual attitudes in America.
Such an effect was indeed part of Mead’s purpose: she saw anthropology as providing a sort of mirror, bringing back knowledge from far-away places ‘so that Americans may better understand themselves’. Studying another society, that is, helps to shed light on one’s own. In the early days of anthropology, however, when a model of Western progress was in full force, the so-called ‘primitive’ peoples were seen rather as precursors of modern ‘civilized’ humanity. Such peoples, with their reliance on witchcraft and magic, on totem and taboo, were seen as stuck in a pre-rational stage.
However, rather than explaining the primitive world with reference to the civilized world in this way, anthropologists were eventually to discover that there were not two worlds to begin with. ‘Primitive’ belief systems were at least as sophisticated as those of the missionaries who came to convert the natives to Christianity. Franz Boas (1858-1942), whose fieldwork was in the harsh Arctic conditions of Baffin Island, proposed that ‘the mental processes of man are the same everywhere’, and that the differences between people were cultural rather than biological. Indeed, it can hardly be otherwise. In recent years we have seen in Papua New Guinea how within a generation people have moved from an essentially Stone Age way of life to being airline pilots, as the historian Jared Diamond reminds us in Collapse (2005).
But it took many years of work for notions of an essentially ‘primitive’ mentality to be exploded – for the declaration of Marcel Mauss in 1901 to the effect that there were no ‘uncivilized’ people to finally strike home. On the contrary, anthropologists have frequently noted the disastrous effects of so-called civilization on indigenous cultures. Moore herself notes the observations of W.H. Rivers in 1912 on the ravages of colonialism in Melanesia, which brought venereal disease, alcohol abuse, and the desecration of a way of life.
Woman, Karo Tribe
Rod Waddington 2015 Creative Commons 2
Moore’s biographical approach makes for compelling and informative reading: but in the course of her narrative she invites questions that she never answers, or even discusses. What is it to understand another society? Does one necessarily describe it in biased terms taken from one’s own society? Moore writes, for example, of Bronisław Malinowski’s (1884-1942) work on the Kula Ring – a complex system for the exchange of gifts spanning the whole of the Trobriand Islands. Having studied it intensely, Malinowski claimed a superior knowledge of its sociological function; a knowledge not shared by any of the Islanders themselves, who only had a partial view of the system. Malinowski may well have been correct in this; but there remains the challenge of explaining how it is possible that the anthropologist, as an outsider, can justifiably claim to understand a society better than those who actually live in it. But this isn’t the place to go for an evaluation of the comparative method in anthropology.
There is also the question of what features we are practically able to take from primitive societies to the supposed advantage of our own. As the Mead case indicates, sexual mores play a prominent part in this discussion. Often sexual practises in primitive societies were seen as more enlightened, or simply more imaginative, than our own. For example, in his somewhat sensationally-titled The Sexual Life of Savages (1929), Malinowski introduces us to the practice of mitakuku, translated as ‘the tender biting off of a lover’s eyelashes’. And Westermarck noted back in 1906 that “even between inversion [homosexuality] and normal sexuality there seems to be all shades of variation.” And in the context of current controversies, it is worth noting that in many societies, anthropologists have recorded the presence of individuals who are born as members of one sex but identify with the other. Typically, such individuals are allotted a special role in their society, and they’re often seen as potential shamans. However, before seeing this as a more enlightened stance than is found in our own society, advocates of ‘fluid sexuality’ should note that in these societies there are nonetheless still strictly defined gender roles.
Moore has a certain insouciance when it comes to theory. She is certainly not the first to find difficulty in understanding Lévi-Strauss; but to describe a work of his as ‘reassuringly difficult’ is not to tell us much. And to any reader of Émile Durkheim, the assertion that he saw religion as ‘the collective outpouring of excitement by a crowd’ must raise a gasp of disbelief.
Back at the end of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), saw the principal questions of philosophy as converging round the question Was ist der Mensch?, that is, “What is a human being?” Moore doesn’t tell us how far anthropology has advanced towards answering that question. But in more general terms, although anthropologists have often found it necessary to consult philosophy, philosophers have less often consulted the findings of anthropologists – perhaps to their cost.
© Roger Caldwell 2023
Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Smoking Opium in Moscow, is published by Shoestring Press.
• In Search of Us: Adventures in Anthropology, by Lucy Moore, Atlantic Books, 2022, £17.99 pb, 321pp