“The time is now ripe for anthropologists to consider the concept of freedom and the empirical manifestations of freedom in culture. What more significant and urgent task is there for the anthropologist than that of launching a concerted inquiry into the nature of freedom and its place and basis in nature and the cultural process? Such an inquiry would provide in time a charter for belief in those values and principles indispensable to the process of advancing culture and to the ideal of a democratic world order dedicated to the development of human potentialities to their maximum perfection.” (preface to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology ed. David Bidney, 1963 p. 6)
Thus did David Bidney valiantly launch the investigation into freedom by anthropologists only to immediately then admit: “I realize that hard-headed, realistic anthropologists, including some of the participants in this symposium, would not find themselves in agreement with this anthropologic dream. There is danger, they will protest, that you are reifying Freedom into an absolute entity, just as culture once was. Freedom they will object is a non-scientific, political slogan which betrays its ethnocentric, Western and American origin…”
Freedom, as concept, still evokes this suspicion. That it is “nothing more” than a political slogan; or that it masks the reality of domination, oppression, slavery and power. As well it should given how promiscuously it is exploited.Or, as Edmund Leach so characteristically puts it in his contribution to the same volume: “To prate of Freedom as if it were a separable virtue is the luxurious pursuit of aristocrats and of the more comfortable members of modern affluent society. It has been so since the beginning.” (77)
What Leach expresses here, in part, is the descriptivist bias of anthropology of the time, and specifically of political anthropology: that the goal is comparative analysis without a priori reference to any normative political ideals. This, I think probably resonates with most anthropologists, who would be much less likely to be interested in Freedom as a concept that delimits a certain relationship between action and governance, more more likely to see it as a slogan that has been used as a warrant in colonial, imperial and global economic endeavors; as a tool used to transform existing arrangements in its own name (and secretly in the interests of a global elite). At a first cut this is undeniably so if one simply listens to the way the word is used in the news, and by politicians especially.
Indeed, it is my probably hasty opinion that the whole of “political anthropology” (at least in it’s 1930s-1970s form) shares this bias, despite the fact that it would seem to be this domain to which one would immediately turn for help in understanding the variations in the nature of Freedom. Instead, freedom is excluded from investigation insofar as it contaminates, confuses or otherwise confounds the exploration of objective political structures. Georges Balandier’s account of the development of political anthropology up to the mid 1960s (Political Anthropology) clearly shows how the questions of state formation, legitimacy and domination, kinship and power, status and power and so forth have been investigated. But he never mentions the word freedom. This is not so curious if freedom is understood as an outcome of a normative theory of the state, in favor of a descriptive, comparative science of political systems. Come to think of it, Weber never really talks about freedom either, and for similar reasons: the goal of a scientific sociology is not to articulate the ought of political systems but the is. It does not appear as a subject in Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma, nor in Meyer Fortes and EE Evans-Pritchard’s collection on African Political Systems.
What Bidney was proposing therefore, probably looked far too universalist in its appeal (as if Freedom were inevitably to be found in the struggles of people everywhere) and worse, potentially dangerous (insofar as it imposes a normative vision of freedom on those it seeks to understand). The properly anthropological way to think about “an anthropology of freedom”, therefore, would be to look at it from the perspective of the rest of the world and how it perceives the imposition of “freedom” on it.
There are probably a lot of attempts to do something like this. As I mentioned in a previous post, few of them tag these attempts explicitly with the word ‘freedom’–for whatever reasons. Two in particular that might be explored for this are Paul Reisman’s Freedom Among the Fulani and the great short piece by Caroline Humphrey, “Alternative Freedoms” (thanks again Morpheus!). Neither of these expresses allegiance to or appears similar to what we think of as “political anthropology.” Riesman, interestingly, was a student of Balandier (and the son of David Riesman of The Lonely Crowd fame), but he explicitly avers any deep engagement with political anthropology in his book, which is dedicated instead to Dorothy Lee.
Humphrey’s short piece does more or less does exactly what I was claiming no one in anthropology was doing. In it she outlines three concepts of freedom, starting from the closest linguistic analogues in play, in order to show why it might be that Russians today, hearing a speech of Bush or Blair of Obama crowing triumphantly about freedom, might view such promises with suspicion or fear. At the end of the article she puts it bluntly: “The three ideas of freedom have come to inhabit very different worlds of value. None of them is identical with Western ideas of freedom. But after all, Russians are far from alone in this. Much of the world is culturally different in this regard.” (9) 
The first idea is Svoboda, which contains elements of a version of freedom as access to a privileged sphere, a bit like Arendt’s account of the ancient Greeks and their distinction between a sphere of privation and slavery (the household) and a sphere of freedom and publicness, the polis. According to Humphrey, the root is svoi, (self, ours) and so shares some of the meaning of “our way of life” and leads to a particular sense of freedom as “our kind of freedom”–not universalist at all. Thus a hearer in Russian might not hear the word “freedom,” translated as svoboda, as a universal value. The second use is the peculiar Mir (like the spacecraft) which means universe, humanity, the world, but also, ‘peace’ (after the Soviet linguistic reforms). Mir has aspects of a “will of the people” sort–a “universalized community” and Humphrey says of her explanation “I hope this helps explain the deeply non-intuitive fact (to us) that there are Russian villagers today who identify freedom, precisely with Stalinism.” Finally there is Volya, which carries a meaning similar to “will” and expresses that aspect of freedom which is associated with volition and intention.
That there are three words for freedom is nothing new (English boasts Freedom and Liberty), and that the words have a variable semantic range is also unsurprising. Nonetheless, Humphrey is demonstrating how the concept looks different not only linguistically, but in terms of history and political structure. There is an extensive discussion about the tension produced by the transition to capitalism, and the ways in which freedom comes to be associated with lawlessness, banditry and the unconstrained exploitation of Russian resources by a few elites. But this is, in some ways, the same debate about liberty that has occupied political theory since at least the French, if not the English revolution. Liberty is always in tension with some other notion such as stability, tradition, security, etc.
Paul Riesman’s book is a different take on the problem of freedom or liberty. The book is probably better remembered for its experimental character. It is divided into two sections, the first of which cleaves very closely to a classic monographic form detailing aspects of Fulani life; the second is, arguably, one of the earliest experiments in “reflexive” ethnography in which “life as lived” and the encounter of Riesman with Fulani social life is organized through his own experience of coming to an understanding.
Because Riesman is avowedly uninterested in the political structure of Fulani society, the notion of Freedom he is interested in probably ends up looking much more like a question of “agency” (a term he does not use, though Paul Stoller and Lila Abu-Lughod count among his acolytes) than freedom in the political sense. In the first part, he attends at length to the problem of the terms Pulaaku and Semteende–words that circumscribe the experience of custom, obligation, honors, shame and sanction. In this sense, the kind of freedom Riesman is concerned with is in fact the relationship of structure and agency more than anything else. In the second part, Riesman explores more theological notions of freedom (Man’s freedom and Allah’s power) and the notion of freedom as “self-mastery,” which corresponds in a loose way to some of the questions often lumped under “autonomy” (and which has the delightful literal meaning of “He who possesses his own head” ). Riesman spends a good deal of the last part talking about how children come to be autonomous or free, a subject that clearly obsessed him, since his second book published posthumously (First find your child a good mother) is concerned with disproving the psychological and psychoanalytic claims that certain kinds of child-rearing practices affect the outcome of adult personhood.
Both Riesman and Humphrey are good examples, I think of the confusion that attends the concept of freedom for more than the simple reason that it is an ideological slogan. As a philosophical concept, the term denotes something that is both political (concerning the structure of governance, rights and the relation of people to each other) and psychological (denoting a relationship to will, autonomy or acting). Both accounts show (but in different ways) how the integration of these two aspects might differ in different settings.
None of this settles the question for me of why Freedom is particularly uninteresting to anthropologists, but it has opened up for me a set of related questions (Another Post! I am Unstoppable!) about two recent attempts to address something related to freedom: the anthropology of the will, and the anthropology of ethics. To be continued…