Vale Ward Goodenough

As some readers out there may know, Ward Goodenough passed away this week. A Micronesianist who had done a little work on Papua New Guinea, his death prompted an spate of remembrances on the Pacific Anthropology list I belong to. By any account he was a remarkable man — a prolific author, a careful fieldworker, a mentor to a whole generation of anthropologists, and an innovative theorist to boot. At a certain point in anthropology’s history a lot of people looked at him and saw the future of anthropology. Now that he has passed away I thought I might ask — respectfully — how and why it happened that Goodenough is remembered as an area specialist and not a theorist. It’s an interesting question partially because of what it says about the twists and turns of anthropological theory, but also because of how it speaks to the way our discipline is configured today. So I should say up front that I’m interested in talking about him and why he is important, even if he is not the road that anthropology took. I don’t want to use his passing to speak ill of him.

 

Goodenough was a Yale man — his father taught there, and he got his Ph.D. there. He came off the edges of the Boasian tradition. Like Julian Steward, he went through Cornell before heading off to Yale to do his degree. He missed Sapir and ended up taking courses from Malinowski, Linton, and Murdock. Murdock became his mentor, he came out of Yale ready to turn anthropology into a Real Science. It was a good time for it: the cold war was on, and anthropology was ready to Apply itself. People like Goodenough, Frake, Conklin, Lounsbury, Romney, and others were interested in making anthropology more quantitative, and brought a lot of energy to that task.

They ended up being sidelined, however. I think of the post-war period in anthropology as a series of overlapping moments. The componential, formal modeling, ethnoscience, cognitive sort of moment of Goodenough got started just a few years before Geertz (and a bit later, Turner) got going on symbolic anthropology. Goodenough’s paper on “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning” was (iirc) in 1956. Geertz began publishing interpretive stuff in the early 1960s. Neoevolutionism also got going in the early 1960s. Structuralism, that genius school of social thought, managed to look like kinship algebra to the ethnoscience people, myth interpretation to the symbolic anthro types, and structural Marxism to the evolutionists. So as a result everyone read Lévi-Strauss.

And yet by the early 1970s Marxism was in full effect, emerging from the evolutionary cocoon it had disguised itself in. Symbolic and interpretive approaches had proved quite compatible with the counterculture. I’m doing a research project at the moment on the influence of anthropology on Berkeley in the 1960s. When I asked one of the founders of SCA why they read anthropology and not just medieval history, the replied “strange worlds. That’s where we were headed.” Wider Murdockian ambitions, on the other hand, had been marginalized. It is only now, with the rise of the NSF Method Mall, that all of those people who spent years combing over HRAF to publish papers in the journal Cross Cultural Research are now receiving kudos from so much of the anthropology blogosphere, which in the US at least seems very behind a program of more rigor, more methods, and more four fields.

I wasn’t there, but I suspect that people like Goodenough, who worked with the military (was a drill sergeant apparently) just got hit by a tidal wave of cultural change and moved off of people’s radars. But I think there are probably other reasons as well — like a lack of computing power which stymied the development of their work. What’s more, the program that a lot of ethnoscientists were pushing required a lot of training and a lot of specialization — something that was not easy to disseminate. In fact, it may have been something that Murdockians wanted themselves. The picture Stephen Murray paints in his wonderful, concise article “The Dissolution of Classical Ethnoscience” is of a bunch of people who looked at a future laboring away at very small bits of cultural taxonomy and said “no thanks, I’d rather be a generalist”.

It’s worth noting the Goodenough himself was hardly a white room ethnographer. He wrote a massive book on applied anthropology. His book on Micronesian cosmology is straight-up, old-school ethnography. At the end of the day, people might have realized that once they could achieve their aspirations for science, they didn’t actually want to. I feel that this is what happened with the Manchester school of the J. Clyde Mitchell variety: given the option to do social network analysis, very few of them actually decided to go there. To this extent, anthropology is not a pre-paradigmatic discipline in the Kuhnian, it it post-paradigmatic.

There is more to say about Goodenough — that culture is not like phonemes (which apparently are not like phonemes in the 1950s) so componential analysis is theoretically problematic, that he reduced shared meaning to internal cognition, and other critiques of his work — but he deserves to be remembered for the solid, intelligent work he did, and for the movement that he did (or didn’t) spearhead. It’s only by returning to the past that we can see some possible options for our future. And if anyone wrote work that is relevant to the future of anthropology today, it is Ward Goodenough.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

9 thoughts on “Vale Ward Goodenough

  1. There is more to say about Goodenough — that culture is not like phonemes (which apparently are not like phonemes in the 1950s) so componential analysis is theoretically problematic, that he reduced shared meaning to internal cognition, and other critiques of his work — but he deserves to be remembered for the solid, intelligent work he did, and for the movement that he did (or didn’t) spearhead.

    Yeah, generative phonology is about features and processes happening in the mind. I know that Zellig Harris and Floyd Lounsbury provide some of the bridge from structural to generative linguistics. I don’t know how Goodenough might fit in there, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did given the association with Yale.

  2. This is a nice account of a scholar whose impact was enormous across many subfields. Partly the difficulty with a figure like Goodenough is the tendency to learn the history of anthropology (say, for qualifying exams) as an association of names and theories: e.g., “Goodenough = componential analysis”, and since componential analysis is marginal today even in kinship studies, to dismiss the scholar entirely.

  3. If anthropology is post-paradigmatic, what, pray tell, was the paradigm? My memories of graduate school theory courses in the 1960s are being introduced to a series of incomplete projects, each of which had, for a time, attracted a handful of adherents before someone came along with the next shiny new idea. It was, of course, great fun, sneering at evolutionists, rolling eyebrows at diffusionists, trying to figure out whether the cognitive, symbolic, or structuralist gangs represented the future. What about Marx and materialism and, of course, phenomenology? Evans-Pritchard had written about “the dead hand of competence” that suggested a local UK-based paradigm, but one that was dying on its feet. Psychological, economic and political anthropology all had their adherents. Linguistic anthropology looked promising, cross-referencing both cognitive and structuralist anthropology and having the nearest thing there was in the field to a scientific method: the study of minimal contrasts as guides to significance. Did anybody, even the strongest “four-field” advocates, have the kind of authority to define a set of problems and methods that everyone would focus on? Not as I recall.

    There may be a clue here in, “But I think there are probably other reasons as well — like a lack of computing power which stymied the development of their work. What’s more, the program that a lot of ethnoscientists were pushing required a lot of training and a lot of specialization.” It was much, much easier to go literary, pontificate about “theory” and cherry-pick anecdotes for a living. Much safer, too, for career-building, until the academic bubble burst. After all, whipping off a few pages of “critique” is so, so much easier than the hard work of crunching numbers by hand or learning enough about seriously alien languages and customs to make a small but solid contribution to a collective enterprise with grandiose aspirations to understand everything.

    The outcome of the interpretive turn wasn’t a paradigm at all, let alone a post-paradigm. It was, in the best sense, finding a license to pursue interesting hobbies and acquire a bricolage of interesting bits of knowledge — a bit about African folklore here, a bit about Chinese bronzes there, rice paddies, baboons, queer ideas about multiple souls, and challenging ideas about Inuit child-rearing, not to mention state formation, exotic kinship systems, feuds, vendettas, and Leopard-skin chiefs, loosely clustered around knowing a bit more than most people did about some part of the world where we’d spent a year or two, privileged to poke around and ask questions about whatever seized our imagination.

    It was great, great fun until someone turned off the funding spigot and the jobs got scarce. A scientific paradigm? No way.

  4. The outcome of the interpretive turn wasn’t a paradigm at all, let alone a post-paradigm. It was, in the best sense, finding a license to pursue interesting hobbies and acquire a bricolage of interesting bits of knowledge […] loosely clustered around knowing a bit more than most people did about some part of the world where we’d spent a year or two, privileged to poke around and ask questions about whatever seized our imagination.

    Hmm. Everyone seems so excited about a life spent making that small contribution to that grandiose aspiration when they go off to do fieldwork. Most do when they return, too. But from what I have seen, most of those who make it into a tenure track end up recapitulating what you describe here. Could it be that what they always wanted was something more conventional and comfortable? Or is it more about the structure and demands of academia pushing people towards that?

  5. Speaking personally, one side of what I wanted was, indeed, conventional and comfortable, a tenured position where, while I might not get rich, I would be free to study and teach whatever I liked. But the choice of anthropology involved a rejection of what my parents saw as conventional and comfortable, an engineering degree, a family, a church, a home and car I owned. What could be more rebellious for a pious Lutheran boy that going of to study first philosophy and then anthropology and write a dissertation on Daoist magic, with its idols, incense, and offerings, and a candidly manipulative approach to spiritual powers.

    One must remember, too, that the structure and demands of academia were changing. Had I been born in, say, 1941 instead of 1944, I would very likely have wound up a tenured professor, not such a big deal in the sixties when a couple of articles in reputable journals and being an amicable colleague was sufficient to achieve tenure. By the time my tenure decision was made and I was off the academic track, the baby boom-driven expansion of higher education was ending, conditions were stiffening and the clueless, tactless, self-centered young prick I was didn’t do himself any favors. Everything I’ve heard or read about sense suggests that the academic marketplace has only gotten worse. People have to work insanely hard even to be considered for tenure, and with lots of talented people competing for every tenured position, the smallest perceived character flaws can be a guillotine in waiting. This perception lies behind my analysis of the interpretive turn. The new academia is no place for someone who will need a long time to digest large amounts of either quantitative or qualitative evidence to produce something solid. To succeed you have to be a hustler with a gift for gab and spinning minor insights into what looks like a big deal. And, like I said, it is much, much easier to write critique than do what serious scholarship requires.

    That said, there are corners of even anthropology where good stuff is produced. A lot of good work has been done in East Asia, where Asian studies folk from different disciplines often collaborate and read each other’s stuff. Work like Ted Bestor’s _Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World_ or Ellen Oxfeld’s _Blood, Sweat and Mahjong_ haven’t made any huge theoretical waves — they are too solidly focused on detailed empirical data—but I am confident that both will continue to be read fifty or a hundred years from now, when the current buzzwords are dust in history’s ash bin.

    How did work like this get done? Recall the Vietnam War, the years when it looked like “Japan as No. 1” was the fate of the world economy, the emergence of China as the world’s factory, the world’s largest market for automobiles and a whole lot of other stuff, and a serious new contender for super power status (Why was it, I wonder, that the Western news services appear to have totally ignored China’s latest effort in space, the flawless flight of three astronauts and a smooth as silk docking with China’s own space station, just last week?) Can you say corporate and political interest? In this part of the world, academia has not been immune from the funding squeeze and the crisis of too many graduates pursuing too few jobs, but the downturn has, in relative terms, only begun and in some areas, business anthropology in China, for example, signs of growth are still perceptible.

  6. I interviewed for an archaeology position in the Anthro Dept. at Penn in the late 1980s. I was struck by the separation among the subdisciplines. Archaeologists in the department didn’t seem to care much about the other anthropologists, and no one attended my lecture who was not an archaeologist. Ward Goodenough was the ONLY non-archaeologist who set up a meeting with me. I had read some of his papers in a grad seminar, and we had an interesting chat. I appreciated his broad view of anthropology and scholarship, which was apparently out of touch with his department at the time.

  7. The new academia is no place for someone who will need a long time to digest large amounts of either quantitative or qualitative evidence to produce something solid. To succeed you have to be a hustler with a gift for gab and spinning minor insights into what looks like a big deal.

    I want to think that doesn’t have to be the case. Where else are the primary documents going to be edited for publication and the dictionaries of languages with 250 speakers going to be put together (neither of which tends to garner as many tenure points as does a single peer-reviewed journal article, I am told)? I want to think that some of those self-promoters are only doing the work of getting their foot in the door for their big project and that they won’t succumb to their own cleverness. But you know what they say about the monkey house…

  8. I think we should start a blog entitled “I once gave a job talk at….” and every week Michael could describe a great anthropological personality 🙂

    @John: so when you write “To succeed you have to be a hustler with a gift for gab and spinning minor insights into what looks like a big deal.” You’re saying we _have_ become like bench scientists? 🙂

  9. Rex, thanks for the giggle. Seriously, though, we have become like most “knowledge workers” these days. To me it looks like a straightforward result of the democratization of education and an oversupply of people trying to scramble up the ladder of higher education. Competition stiffens, the value of degrees declines, the aristocratic luxury of pursuing scholarly interests at your own pace becomes an increasingly rare commodity. We dream of Plato’s academy and forget the slaves who did the dirty work. We imagine communes, but history suggests that one that lasts more than a decade is a rare beast, indeed.

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