Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography (book review)

Thomas Hylland Eriksen. 2015. Fredrick Barth: An Intellectual Biography. London: Pluto Press.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen has a well-earned reputation for writing good, short books on large, intractable topics. His introduction to anthropology, history of the discipline, and books on globalization and ethnicity and nationalism have given the Norwegian anthropologist an international profile. We ran a preview of Eriksen’s new book on SM a while back (and have mentioned Barth more than once). So does Eriksen’s biography of Norway’s Greatest Anthropologist live up to the hype? Yes. But interestingly enough, in reading it you come to appreciate the author of the biography slightly more than you do its subject.

True to form, Eriksen has given us a concise book. Biographies can get big  — for instance, this book is 496 pages shorter than Michael Young’s Malinowski biography (or should I say the first volume of that biography!). One reason the volume is concise is that it is an insider biography, written by someone who is very familiar with Barth and his world. The book is not dripping in citations and little archival work appears to be done. Eriksen goes very light on background as well, giving us a page on Cambridge here and a page on structuralism there. Most readers will appreciate these deft and competent sketches of Barth’s contexts, but those with a scholarly interest in the history of anthropology will be disappointed that, for instance, that Barth does not shed much light on the world Cambridge, where he earned his Ph.D.

The exception is the book’s close coverage of the development of social anthropology in Norway. For English language readers (and perhaps Norwegians as well?) this is the first and perhaps only monograph which covers this history — something that is not surprising, given that this book was originally written in Norwegian for a Norwegian audience. As someone who often deals with Norwegian colleagues, I appreciated the potted history that Eriksen provides here. But other readers might find certain passages a bit of a slog.

One of the dangers of insider biographies is that they can often pull their punches in order to protect their subjects. This is particularly a challenge in this case, since Barth is still alive, although retired and in managed care. Eriksen, perhaps aware of this danger, does a thorough job of describing both the positive and negative aspects of Barth’s life. Moreover, although Eriksen does not delve deep into an analysis of Barth’s psyche or personal motivations, one nonetheless emerges from the book with a clear idea of what the man is like, warts and all. Eriksen manages to show us why Barth deserves to be remembered without lionizing him, an impressive feat that not all biographers manage, especially with living subjects.

Really, commemorating Barth is Eriksen’s goal, rather than producing a scholarly contribution to the literature on the history of anthropology. Eriksen walks us through Barth’s life confidently, explaining the context that produced Barth’s monographs and articles. Eriksen does a good job providing potted descriptions of Barth’s books, as well as frank evaluations of their strengths and weaknesses. By the time you finish this book, you are eager to read more Barth. But, on the other hand, you don’t really have to. This scholarly skeleton key to Barth’s work is really a sort of guided tour of possible future reading for those will really want to, for instance, have a deep conversation with Tony Crook about Barth’s theory of ritual innovation in Bolivip. But for 90% of humanity,  you already know everything you need to about Cosmologies in the Making just by reading Eriksen.

There are places where I would have liked to see a bit more. For instance, Eriksen brushes over Barth’s austerely technical Models of Social Organization. I would have appreciated a more detailed exposition of this work, and Barth’s concept of ‘generative models’ more generally. Although Eriksen does provide an overview of these concepts, at times I felt they were more often invoked than explained – or at least I imagine that’s how they would feel to a reader who was not already familiar with them. Also, I would have liked more coverage of Barth’s reception by area specialists. What is the relationship of his work to that of Ashraf Ghani, anthropologist and now head of state of Afghanistan? True, Eriksen does describe criticisms of Barth, but I would have appreciated more bibliography here to help guide my reading not just of Barth, but of his scholarly reception.

Barth was one of the key figures in anthropology after World War II, and remains on the list of top anthropologists of that period. But saying why is difficult because Barth was so protean.  As a theorist, he argued for a kind of scientific modeling of social process. But he also wrote about ethnicity and ecology, and later on in his career pursued the sociology of knowledge. Ethnographically he was all over the map, conducting his best-known fieldwork in what is now Afghanistan and Iran, although the complete list of his field sites includes Oman, Norway, Bhutan, Bali, and Papua New Guinea.

In many ways, Barth’s work was designed to make him famous: dense technical writing on social organization that everyone respected but nobody read, one article (on ethnicity) that everybody read, and then a smorgasbord of articles on ecology, knowledge, and politics in variety of field sites that ensured that pretty much everybody would at least hear of him. Barth’s omnivorousness provides an interesting contrast to his contemporary Ward Goodenough,  who is less remembered today than Barth, perhaps because Goodenough put all of his eggs in just a few theoretical and areal baskets.

Still, I came away from this book with less respect for Barth than I had for him before I read it. In the brief time I’ve spent with Barth — mostly chatting at receptions — he struck me as a genial and diplomatic figure, something at the time I, perhaps mistakenly, attributed to Oxbridge refinement and not Norwegian reserve.  The man in Eriksen’s biography, on the other hand, comes across as highly driven and slightly self-centered.

The fifties and sixties were a time of massive, massive expansion for anthropology and the global economy more generally. Anthropologists of Barth’s generation, born in the late 1920s and early 1930s were members of an extremely small cohort that was showered with tremendous resources and ended up training the generation born after World War II. Even the recession of the 1970s didn’t effect Barth, whose country came into North Sea oil revenue just as other first world economies began stalling. It is interesting, then, to see what Barth did with this freedom.

Eriksen paints Barth as a charismatic academic entrepreneur, but reading between the lines, one also gets a sense of Barth as self-absorbed artist. Barth turned down a prestigious — but challenging — position in the United States for the safety (and control) of founding Bergen’s anthropology department. He left his wife for a younger woman (admittedly, in the late sixties, which was the high season for this sort of thing). He worked as an administrator for a time, but (it seems) never really aimed to build an institution or social network that would be more than a base from which he could work. This makes him very different from, say great academic politicians like Edmund Leach.

Reading this book, one also gets a sense of the limits of Barth’s accomplishments, both theoretically and ethnographically. An ethnographic wanderer, he lack a deep immersion in regional literature or even local languages. This also meant he never opened himself to the ethnographic vulnerability that deep entanglement with a field site entails. The chief reason Barth appears to be successful are that he worked in areas that were not described, and his ethnographies were published in a pre-Internet age, when anthropologists could make a reputation out of relieving an information bottleneck. He also relied extensively on key informants/assistants who Eriksen wisely credits — people who today might be scholars themselves (this is a polite way of saying: enabled by colonialism). And, of course, they were short.

It’s also not clear what his ethnographic accomplishments are. His work in Oman and Papua New Guinea was not particularly successful, and his research on Bhutan was never really published. Barth’s ethnographies of Swat and the Basseri are valuable, but they are also very short, and they lack the sort of deep scholarship we’d expect today — or at least some of us expect today! But I don’t think you see the in-depth case studies and analysis that you see in other ethnographers such as Turner. Rather, the holistic but also very general level of coverage reminds me of Nadel’s Black Byzantium. But shorter.

Barth also comes across as far less theoretically impressive than you might expect. In the 1950s many shared Barth’s ambition of trying to produce a social anthropology that was more rigorous and scientific, and which studied social relations while giving due to individual agency. Barth never deepened his commitment to his project the way J. Clyde Mitchell did, trying to realize the sort of social anthropology which social anthropologists claimed they wanted to do. Barth did not want to end up doing sociology, economics, or political science and, like many to come before and after him, gestured to an empirical and theoretical project that he never really ended up taking up.

Rather (perhaps in a bow to fashion) he pivoted in the direction of ‘meaning’, following a trajectory similar to (but less famous than) Victor Turner’s. His work in this period is very interesting, but one also gets a sense that it was impoverished by his theoretical isolation. Barth refused to read theoretical work that didn’t interest him, turning away from the great debates of his time because they didn’t personally suit him. In retrospect, opting out of the late Lévi-Strauss and the enthusiasms of structural Marxism is certainly understandable. But it also had its costs.

By never throwing his hat into the ring Barth missed a chance to enrich his own work and the work of others. Just think: a focus on agency and its limits, instrumental action and knowledge practices — Barth was supposed to be what Bourdieu became. And then, to make matters worse, he never read Bourdieu.  Barth, like Bourdieu, even worked in the tribal hinterlands of the Muslim world. Complaints about jargon aside, Outline of a Theory of Practice deserved the attention it got because of the way it moved social anthropological debates about agency, structure, and process forward by retheorizing the key terms of the debate.

Ultimately, one gets a sense that Barth began life as a big fish in a small pond, and then gradually lost the plot as the pond increased in size by two orders of magnitude. He is someone with aspirations to science, but also someone who found his intellectual style slightly out of place in a fully professionalized discipline. Of course, he stayed famous and continued to do good work. But ultimately lived his life for himself and not the institutions or intellectual projects around him. I don’t know. Perhaps you can’t expect someone to live in any other way.

At any rate, all of these ruminations are as much a result of Barth’s life choices as well as my own post-tenure mooting of The Point Of It All. But they are also the result of something else: Eriksen’s skill in telling Barth’s story. For indeed, while I came away from this book with my image of Barth slightly tarnished, I also had really come to respect Eriksen as an author.

Eriksen’s books feel like extended avuncular office hour with that one faculty member you always wished you got to spend more time with, but didn’t. Scattered amongst the volume are recommendations for further reading and nuggets of wisdom that are actually pretty nuggety. It’s 85% about Barth, but also 15% about being a good anthropologist as well. Perhaps most infuriatingly, Erikson always manages to write clear prose in an equanimous voice. And this despite the fact that his sentences are full of the constant hedging and passive voice constructions which makes the prose of others so unreadable. Or, perhaps as Eriksen would say, “it seems likely that many would say this book was well written.”

In sum, Eriksen’s well-written, balanced, and concise biography gives you a real chance to engage both Barth and his work. As anthropology moves on and Barth’s work seems more distant than ever from the axes ground by the current generation, Eriksen provides a convincing account of the relevance of the past, and offers a fitting memorial to an anthropologist whose life — warts and all — should not be forgotten.

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

0 thoughts on “Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography (book review)