The Barth Solution

It’s like the Bourne Supremacy, but without Matt Damon.

I was recently emailing back and forth to one of my colleagues in my department about how to put together the reading lists for grad students taking their comps (or quals or whatever you want to call it). There was a bit of confusion at one point about whether we were talking about Roland Barthes or Frederik Barth. This then led to a discussion of their relative merits and we ended up hitting upon a solution to the arduous process of having students compose their reading lists and then have one professor insist Foucault ought be on it, another insist that Foucault not be allowed but V. Gordon Childe is a must, and so forth: Simply make the Complete Works of Frederik Barth the single mandatory reading list for all graduate students.

Of course this was supposed to be funny, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. Think of the range of ethnography that you’d get: Afghanistan, Bali, Papua New Guinea, Europe. And while Barth’s intellectual trajectory is not incoherent, he has managed to embrace several different moments in anthropological theory. And he’s a clear writer.

So there you have it: The Barth Solution — try it today!

Rex

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

5 thoughts on “The Barth Solution

  1. sure, we could use the Barth solution if we’re willing to accept the sheer idiocy of one of anthropologist’s most prominent proponents of liberalism — ethnic group identity is solely a individual rational choice based on maximizing economic and social benefit (“Pathan Identity and Its Maintenance,” in his ed. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries)? um, okay, that’s helped to provide the intellectual ammunition to deny the salience and survival of Indigenous cultures and societies in North America (i.e., the welfare state has made it profitable to be Indigenous, so people will choose that as an identity for personal gain rather than accepting their position in the wider polity…let’s think about that: people will choose to be marginalised and discriminated against because there’s federal money in it). he’s one of those scholars whose perspectives people use / parrot without necessarily knowing where it comes from (it’s pretty common in non-Indigenous commentary on Indigenous groups here in Canada, including among anthros).

    of course there’s always the Sahlins Solution; i had one prof who said somewhat facetiously that the history of anthro theory can be studied through his career: evolutionism, structuralism, the turn to language, etc.

  2. Wow, I wasn’t expecting a lot of venom over Barth. But actually proposing a Sahlins solution instead does raise an interesting question: if yo ucould choose just one…

  3. bq. ethnic group identity is solely a individual rational choice based on maximizing economic and social benefit (“Pathan Identity and Its Maintenance,” in his ed. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries)? um, okay, that’s helped to provide the intellectual ammunition to deny the salience and survival of Indigenous cultures and societies in North America

    To be fair, I think the above is an example of the unintended consquences of intentional action (and thus a way to teach Weber by reading Barth?)…but I had the Sahlins solution thought myself. 😉

  4. Very interesting…I had had a similar conversation with a friend from grad school a few years back when I was designing a contemporary theory course & we had both concluded that if we were going to do it with a single author, Fredrik Barth would definitely be the one.

    I am teaching Barth’s essay in Fox and King, _Anthropology Beyond Culture_ (2002) in my intro. class tomorrow — IMHO there is no more succinct and readable statement of the many contradictions in the concept of culture.

Comments are closed.