Sunday Open Thread: Not enough anthropology?

I tried an open thread here on SM a while back, and it worked out pretty well.  Time for another one?   Let’s give it a go.

So…a couple of readers have posted new comments (here and here) about the content here on SM.  They argue that there has been a bit too much coverage of issues relating to academia, and not enough anthropology.  One reader asked us: “Where’s the beef?”

What say you readers?  Too much about academia and not enough anthropology?

Feel free to share your thoughts, and also post comments and links about all things anthropology on your mind.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

76 thoughts on “Sunday Open Thread: Not enough anthropology?

  1. John: “Could you share a few more details of your analysis? For me the big question would be how the evidence for social integration, fairness and equality squares with other evidence for primate pecking orders.”

    Well, John, I guess one of the most important things to understand is that I have a very different approach from that of anyone else who’s ever considered such questions. Instead of basing my theories on assumptions regarding certain universals of either the human mind or language or music or history itself, I operate more like a detective trying to figure out who dunnit. You might call it anthropological forensics. The age-old mystery of the ancestral culture can therefore be seen as the oldest “cold case” of them all.

    Many years ago an important clue fell into my lap that got me really excited. A musical clue. But I didn’t know what to do with it. Then, more recently, another huge clue turned up, from the realm of population genetics. Putting the two together enabled me finally to cobble together a method for investigating this “crime,” and pinning down the ones responsible for perpetrating it. Since nature provided me with a surveillance camera, I was even able to get hold of a picture. And thanks to my musical clue, we can actually hear what they sounded like.

    As I see it, the problem with all other attempts to reconstruct the ancestral culture, is the assumption, modified by this or that set of variants, that hunter-gatherer societies in general can stand in for “stone-age” humans. And if all such societies were alike that would be a reasonable assumption. Only they are not alike, and in some cases very different, so it’s a weak assumption.

    The clues I unearthed point to three specific populations of hunter-gatherers that are far more likely to be representative of the ancestral culture than any others. So that’s my starting point. But all these groups have certainly changed over the years, and all are certainly different from one another in many respects, due to such changes. In order, therefore, to formulate reasonable hypotheses based on the study of these populations, I decided to look for what they all have in common — tossing out those commonalities known to be of relatively recent origin.

    That’s basically it. For the details, I invite you to read my book: http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/

  2. How, for instance, can we really define “non-western” people? It’s a really, really untenable division.

    Which is probably why no one ever used it. They said ‘primitive’ instead, or more recently, ‘pre-industrial’ (a far better term). That includes all of humanity up to a certain point – everyone who has ever lived in a pre-industrial society, including ‘western’ people, Chinese people, subsaharan Africans, Amazonians, and everyone else. I think the broadest conclusions that we reach about humans should apply to both Wall Street bankers and Jivaro head-shrinkers, but I also think that there are some aspects of pre-industrial life that warrant a different sort of analysis. Investigating life on Wall Street and investigating life in a Jivaro village require different skills and different knowledge.

    That’s also why different levels of theory are necessary. You can’t expect to understand modern developed nations using the specific theoretical terms used to describe pre-industrial societies – because yes, they are that different. Whether post-marital residence in Waiwai villages is preferentially uxorilocal is useful in understanding society in Guiana; it isn’t so useful to compare post-marital residence among WASP families in Massachusetts, because it doesn’t adhere to the same kind of rules and isn’t the same of variable. We need different theoretical principles in each case.

    But you can link up the theory of pre-industrial society and the theory of industrial and post-industrial society up to a general theory of human society based in an understanding of human cognition.

    Different skill sets are needed as well. Questions in the study of prehistory, or of pre-literate populations – like how we can identify linguistic affiliation from an archaeological culture – are useless to people studying Wall Street, a place so literate and so well-studied, both academically and in the popular press, that you could compile an account of three years of banking activity using only newspaper clippings and never finish the analysis. Prehistory needs different skills and different lower-level theories. Saying that ‘anthropology studies all humans’ is pointless, because that’s not possible, not realistically. If the same people are expected to study Wall Street and Jivaro – not as educated amateurs viewing each from outside its typical domain, but as the primary researchers on these topics – then they have to undergo a Herculean regimen in order to tackle the theoretical angles, the empirical points, and the nature of the evidence. They’re different in each case.

    And it seems like this has been ignored in favour of viewing ‘ethnography’ as just an alternative methodology, and as the very basis of anthropology. When it began, ethnography was the only way of finding out about certain topics. You couldn’t go into the archives to find out about life in highland New Guinea. Someone had to go there and have a look before writing it down. Now, it just seems like a gimmick – people studying the same topics as sociologists and economists, but doing it ‘anthropologically’, by conducting an ‘ethnography’.

    If social anthropologists are expected to have a realistic subject matter, then it cannot include all humans. It has to be more limited. Broader insights – like the cognitive nature of human society – should of course apply to all humans, but the basic theory of anthropology – the stuff you would study on a course specific to anthropology – cannot feasibly apply to all people. Otherwise, you end up with a bad theory – a theory that purports to explain everything and actually explains nothing. On top of this, anthropology cannot be limited to ethnography.

    Well, it’s all a jumble now, of course.

  3. Yes, I agree with Al, it’s become a jumble. And I must say I wonder how many of us originally fell in love with anthropology while reading Wall St. “ethnographies.” Or studies of the tourist trade, or neo-liberal economics for that matter. I venture to guess that most of us originally fell under the spell of the myths, legends, rituals, art, music, architecture, and other traditions of non-Western peoples, or else the archaeological remains left behind by their (and our) ancestors. And wondered what it all meant and where it all came from.

    And then discovered, to our disappointment, that anthropology had “moved on” from “that sort of thing” to a new “postmodern” outlook, in which anything and everything has become grist for the academic mill.

  4. Al, Victor, you’re disappointed. I get that. The question is where we go from here. And the one thing that I am absolutely confident of is that going back is not the way forward. For the reasons sketched in my previous message, we no longer live in a world where the classic program to which you guys are so strongly attached is likely to survive as the core of an independent discipline. So what are we to do?

    I can imagine Victor reaching out to fellow musicologists and population genetics folk, and beyond them to others looking for new ways to study cultural forms, in art, literature, poetry or folklore for example. I can imagine Al developing a research program that examines variations in kinship and community organization among hill tribes in Southeast Asia. But here I would have two reservations.

    First, I am a student of Arthur Wolf, who spent his life trying to increase our understanding of Chinese families. The first steps were easy; to demonstrate
    that not all Chinese families conform to the classic multi-generation, ancestor-worshipping, patriarchal ideal type was simple. The proposition, based on Meyer Fortes work with the Tallensi, that as families fissioned at the death of senior members and new families then expanded, most Chinese would live in a reasonable approximation of the ideal at some point in their lives, looked promising. There were tons of data to work with, especially in Taiwan, where the Japanese colonial era household registration system had been continued under the KMT regime of the Republic of China on Taiwan. The data blew the theory away, demonstrating the presence of far more variation than any theory tested had predicted. Meanwhile, however, a new generation of social historians took up issues raised by anthropological research, and we now have a much more detailed knowledge of the historical origins of the lineage estates that support ancestor halls shared by members of already divided families and the laws that determine how their property is disposed of. Still lots of work to do; but no single community study is likely to produce new evidence or insight that upsets the major conclusions of the work already done. The game is still there to be played; but further advances will come with people who combine serious grasp of the Chinese language and Chinese history with deep expertise in demographics and population modeling.

    Second, while there exists a substantial ethnographic literature on Southeast Asian hill tribes, most of it is now way out of date and needs to be reanalyzed using the historian’s critical skills in assessing documentary evidence. Fresh ethnography would be great; but the regions in question are now war zones (northern Burma), controlled by opium producing criminal gangs (former KMT troops in northern Thailand, or overrun by missionaries and or international NGOs promoting various development schemes. The chance to examine topics like matrilineal kinship in the innocent isolation imagined by those who expected anthropology to become a natural science of primitive humanity is gone—as dead as the dodo.

    Let us agree, a lot of what goes by the label “postmodern thinking” is what computer programmers call thrashing. Once-established procedures have run up against realities with which they were never designed to cope. People are casting about, looking for new ways to address a world that once seemed understandable if not yet fully understood. A lot of what we dream up is nonsense. To imagine, however, that the world will once again be understandable if we only go back to classic, scientific approaches and ideas formulated in the 19th and 20th centuries—that is nonsense, too.

  5. Al,

    “I think the broadest conclusions that we reach about humans should apply to both Wall Street bankers and Jivaro head-shrinkers, but I also think that there are some aspects of pre-industrial life that warrant a different sort of analysis.”

    Sure, some aspects of pre-industrial life may require a different sort of analysis. But this doesn’t explain why anthropology can’t be about humanity as a whole.

    “You can’t expect to understand modern developed nations using the specific theoretical terms used to describe pre-industrial societies – because yes, they are that different.”

    Can you explain how “pre-industrial” societies are so different that they, and only they, fall within the purview of anthropology? I think you are making a lot of assumptions about the effects of industrialization, as if it produced separate groups of humans that are so fundamentally different they must be approached on completely different terms. So if some subsistence farming community shifts into participating in an industrial economy, are they suddenly not proper subjects of anthropology? And if they suddenly stop (let’s say the industrial economy crashes), and go back to subsistence farming, are they once again back in the scope of anthropology? It’s almost as if you assume that there are certain essential differences between industrial and non-industrial societies…and you seem to forget all of the connections, overlap, and changes that have taken place throughout human history.

    “…but I also think that there are some aspects of pre-industrial life that warrant a different sort of analysis. Investigating life on Wall Street and investigating life in a Jivaro village require different skills and different knowledge.”

    Well, studying life in a Jivaro village and a village of subsistence fishermen in Mexico may require different preparation, skills, knowledge, and quite possibly a different sort of analysis. But according to you both are cleared as proper subjects of anthropology because they are “pre-industrial,” as if that explains away the different details and histories between the two. But life on Wall Street doesn’t fit in your scheme, for some reason. As if participation in an industrialized economy somehow fundamentally changes people to such a great extent that they cannot possibly be understood alongside those other “people without history.” I disagree. I think you have bought into a whole set of assumptions about humanity and history that are completely untenable.

    “And it seems like this has been ignored in favour of viewing ‘ethnography’ as just an alternative methodology, and as the very basis of anthropology.”

    Ethnography is one of the main methods of socio-cultural anthropology. It’s not one and the same with anthropology, and it does not define anthropology.

    “Now, it just seems like a gimmick – people studying the same topics as sociologists and economists, but doing it ‘anthropologically’, by conducting an ‘ethnography’.”

    Have you read Karen Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street? Not a gimmick. It’s solid ethnography, whether or not you are open to accepting it.

    “…but the basic theory of anthropology – the stuff you would study on a course specific to anthropology – cannot feasibly apply to all people.”

    First of all, I don’t think there is one unified theory of anthropology. Second, I absolutely do think that anthropology applies to all of humanity. Looks like we have a very different view of the discipline.

    “On top of this, anthropology cannot be limited to ethnography.”

    Well, I agree with you here.

    Here’s a nice quote from the late Eric Wolf to end with:

    “If sociology operates with its mythology of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, anthropology all too frequently operates with its mythology of the pristine primitive. Both perpetuate fictions that deny the facts of ongoing relationships and involvements.

    “These facts clearly emerge in the work of anthropologists and historians who have specialized in what has some to be known as ethnohistory. Perhaps ‘ethnohistory’ has been so called to separate it from ‘real’ history, the study of the supposedly civilized. Yet what is clear from the study of ethnohistory is that the subjects of the two kinds of history are the same. The more ethnohistory we know, the more clearly ‘their’ history and ‘our’ history emerge as part of the same history.”

    -Europe and the People Without History, 18-19.

  6. I’m not advocating going ‘back’, whatever that means. And because I don’t think ethnography is necessarily the core of anthropology, I’m not so bothered that the ethnographic method can no longer apply so brilliantly in many areas. I think both Victor and I have been pretty clear: the future for anthropology lies in the synthesis of population genetics, physical anthropology generally, historical linguistics, archaeology, ethnography, and much more. Putting all of this together to answer questions about the past, about the totality of human history, about people in general terms – that’s the future. And also the present.

    There are some parts of southeast Asia where the ethnographic method is still useful, by the way. It’s not ‘innocent isolation’ – it never was – but the important thing is that there are many undocumented groups living on islands in Indonesia, and many of them practice matrilateral cross-cousin marriage and kerbau sacrifice. It is still possible to discover more about the variation in social structure on an eastern Indonesian island using the ethnographic method, surprising as it may seem. My research interests are in maritime southeast Asia, by the way – not ‘hill tribes’ so much as coastal… well, not necessarily ‘tribes’ either.

    Anyway, it is possible to conduct reasonable ethnographic fieldwork in island southeast Asia – and in many other places – to find out more about cross-cousin marriage, the diversity of marital customs in the region, the religious ideas held by the people themselves, and so on. Yes, in many areas it is difficult to do this, but ethnography is still incredibly productive in large parts of Indonesia and the Pacific. It isn’t true that simple societies, and consequently the method used to study them, have all gone the way of the dodo.

    If you think we’re advocating a return to 19th and 20th century positions, then you’re attacking a strawman. I’m just advocating a focus on pre-industrial human society, studied using as many methods as are open to us, not only the ethnographic approach of the past (except in areas where it is still productive). And of course, the synthesis could quite easily be the core of an independent discipline.

  7. Victor,

    “And I must say I wonder how many of us originally fell in love with anthropology while reading Wall St. ‘ethnographies. Or studies of the tourist trade, or neo-liberal economics for that matter.”

    Well, you can count me among those who were drawn to anthropology for this kind of work. But then, I have never seen a problem with the idea that anthropology can and should be equally applicable to the “west” and the “rest.”

    “I venture to guess that most of us originally fell under the spell of the myths, legends, rituals, art, music, architecture, and other traditions of non-Western peoples, or else the archaeological remains left behind by their (and our) ancestors.”

    That’s your assumption, based upon what you think is acceptable and desirable for anthropology. I was drawn to anthropology via archaeology. Specifically the archaeology of southern California, which is where I am from. My early training was in archaeology–survey, excavation, analysis, and so on. I had the chance to do a lot of archaeological work all around southern California. I remember doing survey work out in the desert where there are some truly fascinating archaeological sites–rock rings, cleared circles, rock art. Quite amazing stuff. At the same time, I always found more recent traces of human activity just as fascinating, whether we’re talking about historic period sites or even more recent camp sites out in the desert. I really thought it was fascinating to see all of these kinds of material traces on the landscape. When it came to site analysis, some of the same question and methods could be applied to a 5,000 year old hearth feature as some fire pit from the 1970s or even last year. Of course there are all kinds of differences, but the questions are no less interesting to me.

    This is the kind of perspective that pushed me toward cultural anthropology–although I still maintain tremendous interest in archaeology. I find humanity pretty fascinating, and see no reason why anthropology can only apply to one subset of humans. I see no reason why anthropology cannot apply to the “west” or industrial society. In fact, one of my favorite parts about anthropology is that it covers such a massive range of human experiences. So, in the end, I’ll venture to say that the anthropology I was drawn to looked quite different from yours.

    “And then discovered, to our disappointment, that anthropology had ‘moved on’ from ‘that sort of thing’ to a new ‘postmodern’ outlook, in which anything and everything has become grist for the academic mill.”

    I truly do not understand your disappointment. I don’t think it’s a case of moving on, or pushing certain kinds of anthropology aside in favor of another. I do think it’s a case of finally opening up, and realizing that the anthropological study of humanity is about just that: humanity as a whole (rather than just pre-industrial “others” who were deemed the proper subjects of anthropology long ago). We’re all part of the picture, and I see no reason why anthropology should not reflect that.

  8. Sure, some aspects of pre-industrial life may require a different sort of analysis. But this doesn’t explain why anthropology can’t be about humanity as a whole.

    Yes, it does. Simply because of the division of labour. You need different skills, different theories, and different knowledge in each case, and gaining expertise in the theories, knowledge, and skills required for either pre-industrial or post-industrial societies takes a long time. It would be difficult to be expert in both. So Anthropology (with a nice big ‘A’) can be about people as a whole, but a subdivision of it like social/cultural anthropology has to have a narrower focus. I don’t think this should be controversial, unless anthropologists want to be perpetual amateurs.

    As if participation in an industrialized economy somehow fundamentally changes people to such a great extent that they cannot possibly be understood alongside those other “people without history.”

    You will note that throughout this discussion I have been emphasising the role of history and how we can investigate the histories of groups without written history using a combination of linguistics, archaeology, and population genetics. I’m not neglecting history at all.

    It’s simply because of the division of labour that we need specialisation. This seems reasonably obvious. Archaeology is a complex subject! So is linguistics. Investigating the past of non-literate societies is a subject so vast and so difficult on its own that it should warrant a separate discipline and a separate university course. I’m not saying that these groups are essentially different – only that they are sufficiently different as to require different methods, skills, and knowledge. Unless you think you can master an understanding of the nature of life on Wall Street and the terminological and theoretical problems in investigating human life in pre-industrial societies, you have to concede that there is a necessary academic division of labour. If anthropologists were superpeople, it would work: we would be able to investigate all humans and have expertise on their ways in all aspects and at all times. But anthropologists are not superpeople. They’re just people. And they need to focus. Knowing about post-marital residence is sufficiently different to knowing about a banking economy as to make it difficult for anyone to become a bona fide expert in both topics.

    I have been writing a history of the world. Seriously. It’s my little project, partly for my own private benefit – to gather knowledge about all parts of the planet – and partly as a book to be published. I’ve been writing it for the better part of a year, and I’ve been researching it for much longer. It’s a short history of humankind up to the year 1500, before Europeans began to dominate everything (a slightly arbitrary division, I admit). I fully appreciate the connectedness of human life and history. Believe me. Manioc, first cultivated in western Amazonia, is now eaten as a staple of considerable cultural importance in west Africa (so is Xanthosoma, what west Africans call the ‘cocoyam’). The early Portuguese navigators used a lateen sail derived from those used on Arab dhows (and that was possibly derived from Indonesian sailing canoes). There are lots of connections like that. All sorts of ideas, technologies, and lifestyles have spread across the earth, and our lives today are the products of far more than just a European tradition or anything like that.

    But in approaching the vast topic of human history, human life, and the interconnections between different groups, we have to divide it up a little. It’s a big task, understanding all of humanity. The skills, knowledge, methods, and theories needed to make sense of present-day New York and a Waiwai village are different enough that including them on the same course will be very tricky. The present state of affairs, with an amateurish approach to ‘all of humanity’, is not good for knowledge, not good for the academy, and not good for the employment prospects of anthropologists. Better to specialise.

  9. I don’t think it’s a case of moving on, or pushing certain kinds of anthropology aside in favor of another. I do think it’s a case of finally opening up, and realizing that the anthropological study of humanity is about just that: humanity as a whole (rather than just pre-industrial “others” who were deemed the proper subjects of anthropology long ago). We’re all part of the picture, and I see no reason why anthropology should not reflect that.

    In principle, I agree wholeheartedly. In practice, I’m a bit more pessimistic. I find myself asking the businessman’s question, where are the resources (people, funding, organization) coming from? I remember John Murtha, the Andeanist at Cornell when I was there in the late sixties, remarking after a colloquium that people had avoided the real issues—office space and whose students got grants. I recall the quarter I spent teaching at Berkeley in the spring of 1972, where I heard people talking about how much the department was like the Mexican villages George Foster analyzed in terms of “the image of the limited good.” It had been a cool place where everybody got to do his or her own thing—West African folklore, baboon social structure, Mayan linguistics, all good—as long as the funding kept pouring in. But it wasn’t any more and the place was rife with the functional equivalents of treasure tales and witchcraft accusations.

    So, while I like Al’s vision of what anthropology might become, I don’t just know that it isn’t for me—I’m old and too committed in other directions. I wonder who is going to do the recruiting, organizing and funding required to make it happen.

  10. I guess what most frustrates me is my growing awareness that many of the oldest and most exciting human themes, of the sort that inspired anthropologists from the beginning, are being renewed and revitalized, thanks largely to advances in population genetics, but also some very promising developments in archaeology and historical linguistics. And yet, ironically, just at this propitious moment of rediscovery and potential renewal, anthropology has “moved on” to other concerns, to the point that most anthropologists today automatically reject these exciting new developments as a mistaken attempt to renew an embarrassingly “romantic” past, based on myths about “pristine” savages, and misguided kulturkreis style theories.

    So we now have a strange bifurcation in which truly revolutionary developments of the sort that at one time would have been central to anthropology have been for all practical purposes banished from it, with “population geneticists” publishing, for the most part, in biology journals, and “anthropologists” moving ever closer to sociology, economics and politics in their concerns.

    It’s not that there is anything wrong with applying the methods of anthropology to contemporary urban life, it’s just that a great opportunity is being missed.

    The reason that older approaches such as kulturkreis were abandoned was that 1. there was usually too little evidence; and 2. the methodology, as such, was often naive and unscientific. By now, however, the situation has changed drastically. Thanks to the efforts of so many fine ethnographers and archaeologists over the last 50 years and more, not to mention the data collected by the geneticists, there is now an abundance of evidence. And thanks to some truly revolutionary advances in modern biological science over the last 30 years or so, the methodology is far more sophisticated and powerful.

    I must admit I’m something of a romantic after all, and the age-old themes that inspired anthropologists from the beginning still hold me in their spell. On the other hand, I find it difficult to get excited about anthropological studies of Wall St., the tourist trade, etc., just as I am bored to death when my fellow ethnomusicologists write about Bollywood and the popularity of country music among native Tibetans, Australian aborigines, American Indians, etc. And I suspect that most contributors to this blog have similar difficulties, or we’d be reading more about this sort of research and less about academic issues on this blog.

  11. to weigh in, i ended up in the discipline because i became acquainted with the lives of people who found themselves incorporated within state projects of modernization that necessarily connected them with industrial societies while those societies created knowledge about them as if these people were pre-industrial. that said, the notion that anthropology looks at pre-industrial societies strikes me as not merely naive but also dangerous. it forces us within a box in which we are complicit with colonialism, at least discursively. perhaps one can feel comfortable with such complicity if one hides within the methods of population genetics or other “scientific” approaches. but i think that our confrontation with the Other should demand much more from us both ethically and epistemologically. but then again, i am one of those humanist ethnographers who thinks that anthropology should be a type of philosophical inquiry

  12. Hey Al, I finally found your comment. Sorry about that–not sure why you get hung up sometimes. Sorry it took while…I had to sift through the queue a bit to find it. Anyway, if a comment ever gets lost or you can’t post, you can always email me as well (this applies to all readers). My email address is listed under my tagline.

  13. Mr. Grauer writes

    ” I venture to guess that most of us originally fell under the spell of the myths, legends, rituals, art, music, architecture, and other traditions of non-Western peoples, or else the archaeological remains left behind by their (and our) ancestors”

    This is a fair assumption. My particular case in some respects reflects that of Al’s–Anthropology provides the cover from which I investigate diachronic and synchronic matters with particular tools:(historical) Linguistics, Archaeology,Sociocultural Anthropology, among others. However, the basis of my initial investigations were not to study Humanity in general but only parts of it and for a practical end, that is to guide my understanding of the contemporary situation of Indigenes of Mexico, but also on how to relate it to those in N & S America, and create solutions to certain problems. This project also necessitated a foundational investigation of the West. So, my questions derived from my personal lived experience as a Native, but my interest in Anthropology was not solidified until I became aware of the works dealing with institutions of the Western Industrial world in so far as they relate to my own project.

    As far as the present and future of the discipline goes, Mr. McCreery seems on point. There is, however, at least one department–quite possibly there are more–that follows the four-field tradition (a place where you WILL study just about everything mentioned by both Al & Mr. Grauer). To my knowledge this seems to be the exception.

    @ AL, how is “pre-industrial” defined? Surely we can point back in time and easily locate such humanity, but the question in my mind is how do we do so in the present? Do “pre-industrial” human societies currently exist?

  14. Thanks, Ryan! Sorry you had to go and do some digging.

    Do “pre-industrial” human societies currently exist?

    Well, it’s a more-or-less arbitrary division, for the purposes of labour more than anything. But yes, there are societies consisting of people whose lives and livelihoods are determined less by states and industrial farming and more by clans and subsistence farming or fishing, or similar activities. The division is somewhat arbitrary, but people’s lives have changed a great deal as a result of industrialisation. There are extant groups of human beings whose lives are best understood using theories developed to understand pre-industrial life. Usually you’ll find them wearing t-shirts and drinking Coke, so they’re only arguably ‘pre-industrial’. The point is the division of labour, not an absolute difference between human groups, and clans and moieties are sufficiently different to nation states and investment banks as to require different lower-level theories, I’d say.

    As for complicity in colonialism, I have no idea how you, DJ Hatfield, could come to such a conclusion. I’m not saying that pre-industrial human populations are primitive or in need of saving or development, and I’m not endorsing an absolute divide between industrial and pre-industrial peoples. It’s just a division for the purposes of investigation. No one is hiding behind population genetics, either.

  15. A word about “population genetics.” I know only in the sketchiest terms what you are talking about, and I am a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who subscribes to Science magazine. Of recent advances in archeology and historical linguistics, I am, I must confess, utterly ignorant. Why do I mention this? To make a point about communication in the Age of the Internet.

    When, like Al or Victor, you point to advances in fields that no one has been referencing in the forum to which you hope to make a persuasive contribution, assuming that your audience has the same understanding as you do of what you are talking about is a big, big mistake. Even those of us who received four-field training likely got only a basic familiarity with what the four fields had to offer when we received that training—in my case, over four decades ago. Those trained in departments that specialize in social or cultural anthropology may simply have no clue, when it comes to anything outside the particular corner of the field in which they specialized.

    Does this mean that you have to give up on communicating your vision? Not at all. What it does mean is that, except for forums confined to people who share your interests, you have to accept the fact that, as tedious as it may seem, you have to start by assuming that your audience has zero understanding of what you are talking about and ask yourself what they need to know to be persuaded that you have something important to say.

    Take me, for example (the one I know best). That big-picture vision of anthropology as a natural history of humankind to which biology, linguistics, archeology and the study of society and culture all have something to contribute? That’s where I got my start, and I still love it, too. But when somebody says “population genetics,” I know that there is a whole field of specialized knowledge to absorb before I can say anything worth saying about it. At the moment I am preoccupied with social network analysis, another field in which, after five years, I am still just getting my feet wet. I am also increasingly involved in business anthropology and writing about the work on what they call the anthropology of administration by some of our Japanese colleagues at Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology. I also have a business to run and clients to keep happy…yada, yada, yada. So if you want to get me from “sounds cool” to “I’d better spend some time learning more about that,” you need to give me more than the claim that population genetics has a lot to offer. You have to bait the hook by providing a tasty example or two of what you are talking about. And I’m me, a sympathizer already. To reach people who may not have a clue, how are you going to do that? One thing is for sure, simply pointing to something and saying “You ought to study that” won’t be enough.

  16. Okay. Here we go.

    To simplify it to an absurd extreme, population genetics is predicated on the idea that people vary genetically, that these variations can be meaningfully sorted into groups, and that the distribution of these groups can give some indication of the ancestry of human populations. Individuals have consistent groups of genes called haplotypes; these haplotypes hang out together in consistent ways called haplogroups; haplogroups in certain parts of the human genome (mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA) can give some indication of human ancestry.

    Haplogroups are given a letter of alphabet – ‘R’, for instance – and then subdivided into haplogroups using combinations of numbers and letters. R1a, for instance, is a well-known haplogroup found in Eurasia. Of course, genes found in living populations don’t necessarily give an indication of which past event caused the distribution, so R1a has been associated by different scholars with a number of different migrations separated by thousands of years. Only more data can provide an answer to the question of how R1a was propagated – and so can synthesising the data from population genetics, archaeology, linguistics, etc.

    Historical linguistics is predicated on the notion that words have ancestry – that most, if not all, of the words we use have an etymology, that they come from a source that is potentially knowable. Using regularities in sound changes, it is possible to compare the vocabulary of different languages – say, English and German – and to see if their words are related. So you might look at the word ‘word’: in German, it is Wort, which seems similar enough. In Dutch it is woord, and Norwegian ord. Well, they all look similar, so they’re probably related – they probably come from the same ancestral word. Linguists have reconstructed this word, using known regularities in sound changes, as *wurdan. And the language they have reconstructed it to is called Proto-Germanic. The reconstruction of a proto-word is just the ‘residue’ of a successful comparison; if the words are related, then the sound changes should give an indication of the past pronunciation. Hey presto, we have an ancient word, unattested in any written tradition. More data will produce a more accurate reconstruction. By doing this with a large number of words, linguists can reconstruct the unattested vocabulary and grammar of prehistoric languages spoken at some point in the past.

    This is especially secure in some areas. Scholars have been reconstructing Proto-Indo-European for a long time, so its vocabulary and accidents, among much else, are particularly securely identified, and Proto-Polynesian (and other subfamilies of Austronesian) are also well-reconstructed. It’s also predictive, by the way. Ferdinand de Saussure, whom you’ll probably recognise, made a prediction that Proto-Indo-European must have had a set of laryngeal consonants lost in most of the daughter languages. The laryngeals were the only things that would make sense of the sound changes in Indo-European vowels (again, using known regularities in sound changes). He made this prediction in the early twentieth century, before the discovery of Hittite (the earliest attested Indo-European language). Hittite had precisely the set of laryngeals Saussure had predicted.

    So, using linguistics we can reconstruct proto-languages and their vocabulary. We can then look in the archaeological record to see whether the vocabulary fits certain archaeological cultures. This is called the Woerter und Sachen method; if the proto-language has words for ‘wool’ and ‘wheel’, or ‘herd’, ‘cattle’, ‘rustling’, etc, then we can assume that the speakers of the proto-language lived in an area with wheeled vehicles, herds of cattle, and woolly sheep, and that they may have conducted cattle-raids. So we’d look in the archaeological record for a group of wagon-riding pastoralists living in a plausible area. Ideally, we would then look at the distribution of the archaeological culture and its changes over time in an attempt to map the transmission of the language family to the spread of the archaeological culture.

    We can then look at the distribution of the a) related languages, b) archaeological cultures with plausible linguistic affiliations, and c) haplogroups to make some sense of human prehistory. (It also adds an extra layer of data that we can use even in the presence of written evidence.)

    This is a fraught process. It is difficult, and many claims are contentious. The genetic data is also a little weird – R1a might have come from India, or it might have entered India. Similarly, geneticists have proposed that the Austronesian languages must have spread from the Moluccas (eastern Indonesia), because the associated haplogroups show a northward spread from a site in the Moluccas. But the archaeological and linguistic evidence all points to a migration of Austronesian from Taiwan/southern China at some point in the Neolithic, bringing pigs and grains with them.

    But by working away at the associations between languages, haplogroups, and archaeological cultures, we can start to make some sense of the past. As this has been going on for a while now, the results of the synthesis are reasonably clear (although the picture isn’t unanimously accepted). The genetic evidence is still in its infancy to some extent, but as more comes in, the picture will become clearer and clearer. It seems to be that the transmission of genes, language, and other cultural traits have occurred simultaneously in a sufficient number of places to allow us a sophisticated glimpse into the prehistoric past.

    Well, I hope this has been informative. Honestly, I had assumed that this stuff was common knowledge! But I suppose it isn’t if you haven’t made a concerted effort to wade through it all.

  17. DJ Hatfield: “the notion that anthropology looks at pre-industrial societies strikes me as not merely naive but also dangerous. it forces us within a box in which we are complicit with colonialism, at least discursively.”

    First of all, I don’t like “pre-industrial” because, as you imply, it presumes a teleological view of certain peoples as “not yet having attained” a certain level of technological advancement, which is clearly ethnocentric. On the other hand, both “we” and “they” need some sort of defining term that enables us to better understand and even honor their traditions and values, and enables them to defend their traditions and values from the encroachments of the industrialized world. If we insist that they are “no different” from us, as in the old “melting pot” model, a great deal is lost, both from the anthropological and the “indigenous” perspective. I often find myself using “indigenous,” despite the very real problems associated with that term. If there were an ideal term with no possibility of misunderstanding or harm, I’d use that — but apparently there isn’t.

    “perhaps one can feel comfortable with such complicity if one hides within the methods of population genetics or other “scientific” approaches.”

    The above sentence is useful as it encapsulates much in the post-modern view that I find questionable and even objectionable. First of all, there is an assumption that through the use of certain terminology and certain types of research one is being complicit with colonialism, which is a huge assumption.

    Second of all, it assumes there is something questionable about “scientific approaches” per se, reflecting the well known p.m. position that science is as much a social construct as any other aspect of culture. I have no problem with that so long as one is willing to admit that anthropology too, no matter how you define it, along with just about any aspect of “industrial culture” one could name, is also a social construct, including postmodernism itself.

    By attacking science in this manner, one implies that there is some “higher” standpoint one could achieve that would not be a social construct and would thus enable us to get above such limitations to attain some absolute truth. And this high and mighty all knowing position has supposedly been attained by postmodernism itself, though no one has ever explained precisely how this magic has been achieved. No matter, because card carrying postmodernists have always seen themselves as self-appointed guardians of righteousness, in the “best” puritanical/ inquisitorial tradition.

    As far as science is concerned, one big problem lies with the assumption that science makes certain claims to absolute truth and knowledge, claims which imply a superiority on the part of “industrialized” as opposed to “non-industrialized” societies. While it’s true that such claims have been made, in my view they are misleading. As I see it, science is fundamentally a means of exploration of the world around us, no different, at base, from any other such means employed by any other society down through the ages.

    What makes “our” approach different is that we insist on certain self-correcting methods that are, or should be, independent of any belief system. In other words, the scientific method always already reflects precisely a sensitivity to the “social construct” issue raised by the postmodernists. It does not see itself as something perfect and above all criticism, as does p.m., but as a never ending process of continual exploration and self-correction.

    “but i think that our confrontation with the Other should demand much more from us both ethically and epistemologically. but then again, i am one of those humanist ethnographers who thinks that anthropology should be a type of philosophical inquiry”

    Interesting. But vague. I’m not sure what you mean by anthropology as “philosophical inquiry,” so perhaps you will elaborate.

    In any case, for a clearer picture of my views on such matters, I refer you to the following blog post, especially the long quotation from Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan: http://music000001.blogspot.com/2007/07/68-even-more-still-on-kalahari-debate.html

  18. First of all, I don’t like “pre-industrial” because, as you imply, it presumes a teleological view of certain peoples as “not yet having attained” a certain level of technological advancement, which is clearly ethnocentric.

    A fair point. ‘Non-industrial’ might be better, as it implies the same kind of thing as ‘non-literate’ (ie, an outright statement of technological capacity rather than a statement of superiority). But in any case, the terminology is only truly problematic if it is used as the basis for actions – if someone assumes that using the word ‘pre-industrial’ implies that ‘industrial’ people ought to get in there and make those pre-industrial people adopt industrial civilisation. I see no reason to accept this.

    It isn’t necessarily ethnocentric to claim that certain groups of people haven’t attained a certain technology. It may simply be true. Not possessing certain technologies shouldn’t be taken as a sign of inherent inferiority, and saying ‘pre-something’ doesn’t necessarily imply valuing the ‘post-something’ world. Our world is currently a pre-8,000,000,000-human-world; one day it will probably be a post-8,000,000,000-human-world. Saying this implies no particular valuation of pre- or post-8,000,000,000 life. But either way, ‘non-industrial’ may be better.

  19. I want to thank Al West for his excellent explanation of certain fundamentals of population genetics, a topic that most anthropologists, as John suggests, know very little about, unfortunately. It’s useful to know that this term is often used interchangeably with “anthropological genetics” or “genetic anthropology,” and that many population geneticists are trained anthropologists as well as biologists.

    For a more detailed introduction, see the second chapter of my book, which contains a historical review and some phylogenetic trees based on the genetic research: http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/2011/02/chapter-two-view-from-trees.html

    I’d like, also, to recommend the book that got me especially excited about both pop. gen. and the Out of Africa theory stemming from the genetics research: “The Real Eve,” by Stephen Oppenheimer. (British version is titled “Out of Eden.”)

  20. Oppenheimer has a poor reputation among archaeologists and anthropologists, primarily because of his book, Eden in the East. He is in fact that source of the claim that Austronesian developed in eastern Indonesia, a claim rendered somewhat more dubious than it already is by his simultaneous claim that the first Austronesian speakers were responsible for the introduction of civilisation to the Near East. I suspect this might be more believable if you accept the literal truth of the Noachian deluge. I believe his views on the peopling of Britain are similarly unorthodox. Oh, and he has a habit of turning up at professors’ doors unannounced.

    Out of Eden (as I know it) is a good book, but I’ve heard Chris Stringer’s The Origin of Our Species is a superior account. I’ve bought a copy but not yet started it. I will probably review it when I’m done, but I’m currently reading David Meltzer’s entertaining First Peoples in a New World, a really brilliant account of the peopling of the Americas (and the debate surrounding it).

    Very interesting chapter, by the way.

  21. I’d recommend Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the America’s before Columbus.

    An interesting factoid to consider while assessing “population genetics” is that mitochondrial haplogroups are maternal. More aptly put only the mother’s mother’s mother’s (and so on) genetic contribution is represented as a haplogroup. You can see who is left out: mother’s father’s mother; or her mother; or the father of her mother; or anyone on the paternal side. This is not to say that the information is devoid of value, far from it, but it is worth contemplating exactly how this information is being put to use and for what purposes.

  22. First, let me join Victor in thanking Al for his summary of what’s going on in population genetics, archeology and historical linguistics. Very useful, indeed, at a basic-introduction level. Allow me, however, to suggest pressing on a bit. Precisely because it remains at a broad, introductory survey level, this summary doesn’t answer the question raised by the claim that there have been important advances in the three fields in question and what they tell us about humanity.

    In my case, since I started in anthropology by learning about the four fields and how they were supposed to be connected with each other, I am happily open to the proposition that advances in population genetics, archeology and historical linguistics have significantly revised the way we think about humans. But how, precisely? That is the question. That anthropologists combine results from biology, archeology and linguistics to develop theories of migration, diffusion, or human evolution is an old story. I’m looking for the new twists. Can you give me a hand here?

  23. T,

    Very good point. That’s one of several reasons why genetic evidence has to be used with a pinch of salt at this point, and why we should be reluctant to endorse genetic claims that contradict the linguistics and archaeology.

    And Mann’s book is excellent. I loved it, especially when Mann was discussing developments in Amazonian archaeology.

    John,

    Firstly, this is now a very advanced process. I think that’s important: we now understand prehistory better than ever before, and we can investigate not only archaeological remains but also something about the beliefs of the people who left them (due to linguistics). We can get a better handle on ethnic divisions, boundaries, and mutual influences in prehistory. We can understand where our different ideas, cultigens, practices, words, and genes come from, which is awesome. We can see how ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ work over deep time (seems to me that it’s emergent from individual agencies). We now have such good knowledge of the past that a lot of fringe claims can be dismissed. Kooky nationalists, ‘patriots’, and racists have no leg to stand on (not that they did before, but their empirical claims can be addressed much more simply today).

    Secondly, I don’t think it’s going to revolutionise how you think about people. I don’t even think that is possible. The only work capable of having that impact was published in 1859.

    Thirdly, my point is that both the methods and the empirical data from genetics, archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, and others, should be taught to anthropologists, not that it’s some major philosophical school we need to chuck into the mix. With this background, anthropologists would have a better grasp of the world, which is important, and a stronger empirical base. Everything would be put in context. We’d also have way more interesting course materials, which would attract more and better students. And I honestly think employers would prefer to have educated people capable of dealing with multiple methods and data streams than people striving to turn their ethnography into business acumen.

    I’m not saying that the synthesis will revolutionise how you think about people as a whole. Only how you think about particular places and times, and about the transmission of genes, language, ‘culture’, technology, cultigens, and words over the course of thousands of years. I’m satisfied with that.

    I believe this has the capability to answer certain sorts of questions, as well – like why certain groups of people do certain things. Why do people on the island of Adonara behead enemies and take the heads back home with them? The short answer is that they are descended, culturally and linguistically if not genetically, from a population of Austronesian-speaking people who took heads, a seemingly ancient practice in island southeast Asia. We can have a look into the deep past to ask just why people do what they do. Why do people have traditions, why do they follow them, why do some practices continue for thousands of years (with variations) and others don’t? Can this apply to fields like social structure? How does this operate in a literate context? I think this is quite valuable.

    And it’s really cool to get such a clear glimpse into the past in some many corners of the planet. That shouldn’t be downplayed. It’s really, really cool.

  24. “An interesting factoid to consider while assessing “population genetics” is that mitochondrial haplogroups are maternal.”

    Yes. But pop. geneticists consider not only mitochondrial DNA, but also Y chromosome DNA (male lineage only), as well as nuclear DNA (male and female components combined). And recently the X chromosome has been added to the list.

    It’s not always easy to reconcile the various different DNA types, but these different sources can provide a system of checks and balances that can potentially make the results more accurate. Also more confusing, as male and female lines may originate with two different populations (as for example, when one group attacks another and takes female slaves).

    All in all, I’d say the mitochondrial (mtDNA) results tend to be more useful in reconstructing ancient migrations since the number of offspring produced by a single female is limited, while a single male can, theoretically, produce dozens or even hundreds of offspring. In some populations, the history of the female line can be very different from that of the male line, and that too can provide very interesting clues.

  25. Also more confusing, as male and female lines may originate with two different populations (as for example, when one group attacks another and takes female slaves).

    This can be very confusing. In eastern Indonesia, there are both Austronesian (AN) and Non-Austronesian (NAN) language. Most of the latter are confined to Timor and, IIRC, Pantar. Genetic studies indicate a really curious mix, with almost no correlation between haplogroups and languages. Haplogroups from Taiwan and Melanesia were present, as were a pair of haplogroups that were (again IIRC) unique to the region, but Melanesian haplogroups correlated no more strongly with NAN languages than did Taiwanese ones. Two haplogroups found in Flores and Adonara had previously only been found in Australia. On top of this, despite the prevalence of Austronesian languages and the apparent invasion of the region by belligerent headhunting Austronesian-speakers, the out-of-Taiwan haplogroups were most common in the mitochondrial (matrilineal) DNA (specifically, B4a1a). See Mona et al (2009) ‘Genetic admixture history of eastern Indonesia as revealed by Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA analysis’, Molecular Biology and Evolution. The paper also has a summary of why Oppenheimer is wrong about the Moluccan origin of Austronesian.

    In addition to DNA from X and Y chromosomes and mitochondria, by the way, it’s also possible to look at the genetic evidence from human-specific bacterial parasites. I’m sure a study has been done on Helicobacter pylori (the stomach ulcer bug), which is human-specific, providing evidence for an origin of Austronesian speakers in Taiwan. So there’s a lot of evidence that can be used. T is still correct that whole lines can be left out by the most common methods, though.

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