Thursday, 27 March 2014

Why I'm also quite glad I studied social anthropology

I said earlier that I regret studying social anthropology, and this is still true. It wasn't the best choice. But it wasn't a total waste of time either, and there's a lot to be gained from reading ethnographies and becoming familiar with different groups of people around the world - which was, to be clear, a large part of my motivation for studying it in the first place.
I often think about what I would do if I were given free rein to create my own academic course (for imaginary students of exceptional motivation, intellect, and verve, naturally). I would focus on prehistory and pre-industrial societies - the world before the Industrial Revolution or before the Columbian Exchange, before things really started homogenising. I would include a considerable amount of formal training in historical linguistics, population genetics, cognitive science, source criticism of ethnohistorical writings and historical documents, and archaeology (both interpretation and excavation, the latter of which I confess I know little about in terms of how-to), but I would put in a lot of ethnography, too.

I realise that it's somewhat heretical to say this in modern anthropology departments, but I'm much less interested in how to do ethnographic fieldwork than in the evidence about human life gleaned from its use.  Students of my hypothetical course would have to read and understand ethnographic information - not in a vague way ('the Etoro force their male children to drink the men's semen!  Ewww!' or 'African tribal people have amazing rituals and whatever, I love their dances!') but in-depth, getting to grips with how the people in that society live(d).  It would be about what people in different societies do, or did, and why they do or did it.  That's the basic purpose of anthropology, and I see accurate ethnographic work as central and vital to this - as are linguistics and archaeology, if you want to really get the whys of human behaviour.

In discussing prehistory and society with people who have never studied the discipline, I am often struck by how little they know about how non-industrial and non-literate societies function. I am also struck by how lacking in curiosity they are about the real lives and livelihoods of people in pre-industrial societies, as if their only function is to be found in mirroring or in some way leading to us, to the world today. I see all kinds of amateur investigators of prehistory who are only interested in large-scale patterns and peculiar inter-regional exchanges - but not in the real substance of life in any community. I think both topics are interesting and deserve full treatment.

I'm glad I studied anthropology to the extent that I got to grips with some fascinating ethnographic works and spent hours every week interpreting and better understanding them. It gave me a much more complete view of what people are like, and I only regret studying social anthropology to the extent that course content, lectures, and exams failed to capitalise on the fascinating original subject matter of the discipline.

I should also say that, in discussing the same topics (prehistory and so forth) with social anthropology students, I have often been struck by their lack of awareness of prehistory and the methods that bring it to life, which is why my imaginary course would include a lot of content on those methods. Nothing about that, though, tells me that we need to give up on ethnography as a key component of a modern course in anthropology, and I would recommend reading good ethnographic research any day. It functions as a perfect antidote to vague, prejudiced, and simplistic thinking about non-industrial and non-literate human societies, and it doesn't deserve to rot in departments that have turned their attention to other things.


  1. @ A J West: "I am also struck by how lacking in curiosity they are about the real lives and livelihoods of people in pre-industrial societies, as if their only function is to be found in mirroring or in some way leading to us, to the world today."

    I don't think one way of thinking precludes the other. I'm fascinated by pre-industrial societies, and feel very sorry for the loss of variety and "humanity" that adopting the one way (i.e.: the Occidental way) implies. I loved Everett's book about the Pirahãs ("Don't sleep, there are snakes" -- that's how they say "Good Night and have good dreams!" in their language, hehe); I loved Gibbon's masterpiece and Ceaser's account of the Gallic wars (including the blood, the treason, the foolishness, the grandeur, the cruelty, the courage, the brilliancy, the pre-christian morality of it all); I felt a powerful frisson while visiting the Assyrian reliques on the British Museum. I loved your post about pre-columbian Marajo, and plan to pay a visit to that island with my fiancée, not on small part influenced by what you wrote (and by what a colegue from Belém said about their fish dishes -- it pays to be near the sea and the mouth of the mighty Amazon (15% of all the river water that flows to the sea passes through Marajo, for god's sake), all at the same time!). The seven thousand languages on the forests of highland Papua New Guinea, some of them thousands of years apart, even though their speakers live only some miles from one another?

    How can we see all this immense diversity and do not feel awed? I'm an Human, and nothing of what Humans do is (completelly) uncomprehensible to me. "The end of History" does imply a real loss.

    But there is no arguing on this issue: only one kind of "doing things" -- only one kind of civilization -- can result on things like tolerance, modern medicine (no more headaches), life expectancies of eighty years, healthy, unpaiful lifes for most of it and heavy metal or Mozart (i.e.: very complex, very labor division intensive art). If given the chance, most people SIMPLY choose to occidentalize (the Pirahãs are very happy, and an exception to this rule, said Daniel Everett on that book that I've just mentioned).

    -- Anônimo.

  2. Dear A.J. West: This is a meta-critical comment prompted by the long thread on the origin of technologies a few days back. So you may not, indeed, almost certainly will not, like it. Nevertheless I offer it in the (misplaced?) hope you will take it to heart over time and, what almost never happens in debates between people with alternative world-views, modify your own to a considerable degree.

    My criticism is simple: you seem over-committed to cultural explanations. This is hardly surprising in a social anthropologist, not least because it gives you opportunities to employ your impressive stock of ethnographic knowledge to say nothing of show-off your Oxford degree. I would be tempted to do the same were I in your shoes.

    The trouble is that, to the unbiased observer, you come across as a special pleader who is dogmatically committed to a particular hypothesis. To a general reader, such as myself, who is far from hostile to your cultural point of view, this has rhetorical as well as real disadvantages: tiresomeness, predictability, unprofitability, leading ultimately to a loss of interest. It would be so much more engaging if you would attempt a synthesis of biology and culture, one that takes into account the flood of new evidence poring in in the wake of the genomic revolution and the continuing expansion of the Darwinian revolution.

    But, hey, I'm just an old man. My mind leaks like a sieve, and I am way over the hill in so far as my mental abilities are concerned. I can't even write a good English sentence anymore. You, on the other hand, are at the peak of your powers. You can look forward to several decades in the prime of your intellectual life. For your own sake as well as the sake of your readers you need to expand your horizons. Instead of having the courage of your convictions you need to (to borrow the words of my least favorite philosopher) make an attack on your convictions in the faith that what does not kill them will make them stronger. More specifically, I think you could profit by coming to grips with Steve Sailer.

    Please don't reply. thanks

    1. I'm going to reply, because I think that your comment is completely full of shit. First, you're employing the tired motif of being a folksy old man with a bit of wisdom - but this is assuming that your backward views on human biology are wise, and that I'm less critical of my own views by dint of being younger than you (and, of course, evidence suggests that older people are more likely to be stuck in their ways and less open to change than the young). Second, you think that I reject stupid theories (like those of hbd chick, JayMan, Steve Sailer, etc) on ideological grounds or because I studied social anthropology, or even because it gives me an opportunity to show off. This is insulting and untrue. The fact is, their groundless speculative hypotheses are no more reasonable than phrenological theorising and are no more appropriate for twenty-first century social science than the telegraph is for modern communications.

      Of course there's room for a synthesis of biology and social science, but by far the most important aspect of that is accounting for humankind's phylogenetic inheritance, not speculating wildly about the minor and frankly uninteresting variation between human groups - variation that very rarely has a demonstrable impact on outcomes or behaviour, despite what you may have heard from bloviating reactionary pseudo-scientists.

      I think it would be fair to say that I do know quite a lot about the ethnography, ancient history, and archaeology of the human species. I know more than most. When I reject the arguments of HBD nutcases, it is primarily because I'm familiar with the real world that their mad speculations attempt to describe. In this field, it isn't old-timey wisdom that cuts the mustard, but knowledge, and it is knowledge that IQ-obsessed HBD loons lack.

      Perhaps it would be wise for HBD-types to re-assess their biases and look critically at their own views. HBDers might find that they're more politically motivated than they believe at first.

      HBD is classic pseudoscience; it appropriates a scientific veneer, but it's all rotten reactionary garbage underneath.


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