The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 1

It should come as a surprise that, as James Laidlaw says, “freedom is a concept about which anthropology has had strikingly little to say.” I’ve been thinking about the problem since giving a paper last year at the AAA on “Digital Liberalism” and the problem of Freedom as it relates to liberalism and technology. I’ve decided to break my radio silence at SM and post a series about Freedom, now that the fireworks are over, in part to see what reaction it provokes here, if any.

Why does Google think this is the universal image for freedom?

In fact the number of works that directly address freedom as either an anthropological problem for investigation, or a tool for making sense of ethnographic data, can be held in one hand. There are lots of other concepts that are similar to or related to freedom (enough that I defer to a second post on the subject), but as for the problem of freedom, a term which has more ideological and rhetorical use and abuse today than any other, anthropologists have been largely silent.

Contrast this with the fields of political theory, philosophy and history where one could be buried alive several times over with the number of detailed treatises on the problem of freedom? Why this dearth, this differential unconcern?

It should also come as a surprise that the dean of English language anthropology, that Polish-born fieldworker, scientist of culture and diarist extraordinaire, grandfather Malinowski ended his career, and his time in this world, at work on a book about Freedom, Freedom and Civilization. It is a book almost no one has read or cited (I have found only one or two sustained scholarly assessments of it), and a book that was compiled by his wife and rejected by the first publisher. It’s a book that is heavily influenced by the situation of the War and Stalinism, and barely contains it’s ideological fervor for the rejection of totalitarinism at the same time that it attempts to construct a general science of culture around the concept of freedom. Malinowski was aware that anthropologists had not approached the concept, and rather uncharitably informs us: “As far as I know, however, no anthropological contribution to freedom has yet been made. An article by Professor Franz Boas recently published cannot be considered as in anyway satisfactory.”(vii)

It is true that Boas had written an article about freedom. It appears in one of a (totally awesome) series of books “planned and edited” by Ruth Nanda Anshen, this one called “Freedom: Its Meaning” and including contributions from Croce, Thomas Mann, Whitehead and Russell, Dewey, Einstein, Haldane, Bergson, and Boas, among many others. Boas’ piece is called “Liberty Among Primitive People” and asserts somewhat unsatisfactorily, it is true, that “Freedom is a concept that has meaning only in a subjective sense. A person who is in complete harmony with his culture feels free.” Philosophers would argue, to say nothing of marxists. But Boas is articulating one of the most common conceptions of freedom: freedom from constraint, and in this case constraint means cultural customs. As such, he even goes so far as to say “With all this, the concept of freedom is not found in primitive society.” We can have negative liberty in advanced societies because we recoginize and question cultural custom, but the primitive “in complete harmony” has no use for the concept. To his credit, Boas carves out space for “intellectual” freedom, a project that Paul Radin explored briefly in “Primitive Man as Philosopher” (Chapter 5).

Beyond Boas’ and Malinowski’s contributions, the approaches have been few and sporadic: Raymond Firth briefly mentioned the concept in a Marret lecture on “The Anthropology of Values”; David Bidney organized a conference and publication in the 1950s that led to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology, a book of essays by the eminient and the unknown, in which Freedom is a starting point for some, rejected as a meaningful concept by most (Edmund Leach most forcefully) and ignored by the rest. Bidney hammered on the subject a bit more in his (1960) textbook, Theoretical Anthropology, where Freedom is offered in Malinowskian spirit, but is largely a re-hash of some philosophical problems and not a presentation of either anthropological work on the concept or indigenous uses of something similar.

In 1959, Dorothy Lee published a collection of her essays called Freedom and Culture which comes about as close as anything to constituting a sustained engagement with freedom and its problems, specifically in Whorfian linguistic terms. The next clear but more oblique attempt came with Paul Riesman’s 1978 Freedom in Fulani Life, which is less about the concept of freedom per se, and more an attempt to pinpoint a difference between French and Fulani liberty. After that, there is a brief review of “anthropology’s engagement with freedom” by Peter Loizos (1995), who points out Eric Wolf’s 1990 essay on the subject; one article by Neil Maclean (1994) on freedom and autonomy in Melanesia and then Laidlaw’s 2001 Malinowski lecture “For an Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom”, which mentions Malinowski’s posthumous magnum opus in roughly the polite way that one refers to beloved relative’s unfortunate, debilitating dementia. Then nothing.

Or at least, nothing that really focuses on the shiny object that is freedom. All this suggests that either anthropologists think the concept irrelevant or unenlightening, or that they substitute other concepts that seem to be more appropriate. Indeed, if one takes freedom not as a coherent concept, but as a kind of umbrella term, then the number of different problems taken up in anthropology appears much more fruitful. As I say, there are lots of other concepts (agency, autonomy, domination, resistance, etc) that have captured anthropologists attention (and in the next post, I’ll lay them out in more detail), but I think it curious that there is direct engagement with what some might say is the central and most important concept in political philosophy. What gives?


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

13 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 1

  1. Anarchists don’t spend a lot of time talking about freedom, either. Perhaps the reasons in both cases have to do with the greater utility of talking about power, hierarchy, systems of privilege, and other limiters of freedom than in talking about freedom or liberty as a thing in itself.

    That said, it is odd, for a discipline concerned in some part with the lived experience of human life to not have examined the experience of liberty. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    (As a side note to my first sentence, sometimes it seems like the people who spend the most time talking about freedom are those with an excess of it who perceive their privilege as baseline freedom, and fear losing it—but, apologies, I digress.)

  2. Not actually true. Anarchists love to talk about Freedom, but they share with (some) anthropologists the theory that society and social relations come first

    Man completely realizes his individual freedom as well as his personality only through the individuals who surround him, and thanks only to the labor and the collective power of society. Without society he would surely remain the most stupid and the most miserable among all the other ferocious beasts…. Society, far from decreasing his freedom, on the contrary creates the individual freedom of all human beings. Society is the root, the tree, and liberty is its fruit.

    Michail Bakunin

    whether they talk more or less about freedom than other socialists is an interesting question though… and yes I agree that people who have it, tend to obsess about it more… but is this a version of what Boas was saying about primitive people?

  3. While the notion of freedom (waking up in the morning with a realistic expectation your body won’t be subject to another human’s arbitrary commands) utilized in a number of publications by historical archaeologists is admittedly not all inclusive freedom is indeed a going concern for those who do anthropology that way.

    In Iroquoian studies, the corner of anthropology I know best, consideration of freedom is dare I say foundational. I would think this could not be otherwise given Iroquoian social life but the fact that Edward Sapir sat on Bill Fenton’s committee should also be taken into consideration.

  4. Whatever one makes of its argument, Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, particularly its opening chapter, ‘The Subject of Freedom,’ is by any standard an indispensable and sophisticated (and quite explicit) contribution to an anthropology of freedom. Is there a reason it wasn’t mentioned?

  5. From a technological perspective (pardon me while I break from the academic discussion) this quote exemplifies to me why, Mac users don’t complain about the constraints of the Apple environment:

    “Freedom is a concept that has meaning only in a subjective sense. A person who is in complete harmony with his culture feels free.”

  6. @MTBradley. Pretend I’m an idiot. (Okay, maybe that’s superfluous): why do you say this about Iroquoian studies. I know nothing: school me.

    @brian. Mahmood appears in post #2, along with other Asad students. I think of that genre as “anthropology of secularism” though, more than a direct investigation of freedom.

    @Tac: interesting, not unrelated. words like ‘usability’ ‘intuitive’ and ‘user-friendly’ are often valued higher than ‘freedom’ which is generally treated as an abstract ideal of little use to the average word-processing mortal. 🙂

  7. “As I say, there are lots of other concepts (agency, autonomy, domination, resistance, etc) that have captured anthropologists attention (and in the next post, I’ll lay them out in more detail), but I think it curious that there is direct engagement with what some might say is the central and most important concept in political philosophy.”

    Ya, it is pretty interesting that anthros haven’t really done all that much with this term. I’d like to see some ethnographic work on certain political movements here in the US to get more insight into what, exactly, people mean when they use the term (and some seem to use it for just about every other word). Are they talking about freedom in a moral and political sense? An economic sense? Or what? The term is thrown around so often in contemporary political discourse that it often becomes little more than a mantra, really.

    I also think this would be a fascinating term/concept to explore because of the ways in which the followers of Hayek, von Mises, and of course Milton Friedman (e.g. “Capitalism and Freedom”) have employed it.

  8. Would it, I wonder, be useful to consider freedom in relation to games? When a game is played according to official rules, freedom takes on two quite different meanings. The first is freedom within the game, to make any move allowed by the rules. The second is the freedom to change the rules. The former is “pure” in the sense that, if a move is allowed by the rules, an individual is free to make it, for whatever purely selfish, instrumental reasons seem to make sense to that individual. The latter is “political” in the sense that nobody gets to change the rules unless others affected by the rules are coerced, bribed or persuaded to agree.

    In Two Bits Kelty describes a striking case, the open software movement, in which a “recursive public” consists of individuals who are all empowered to implement changes to the system that is the necessary condition of that public’s existence; but the changes implemented survive only if others embrace them. (Chris, do correct me if I’ve got this wrong).

    The Netroots that Adam Fish describes are a different kettle of fish. The movement is full of people with ideas who demand to have their say. Since, however, more than technical expertise is required to (borrowing Paul Wellstone’s terms) “mobilize, energize and organize” a political movement, the possibility of implementation by me, myself and I alone is ruled out from the start. Only a small minority also have the savvy and will to mobilize the support necessary to implement their proposals. The usual pattern—leaders, followers, and hangers-on—seems inevitable.

  9. why do you say this about Iroquoian studies. I know nothing: school me.

    There is a long-standing interest in the decidedly non-hierarchical nature of Iroquoian political life. The world’s first ethnography was entitled League of the Ho-de′-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois, after all. The recognition of a clearly defined sense of self and of expectations of individual autonomy are also of long standing (e.g., Tony Wallace’s “Dreams and wishes of the soul”). I know little of how political philosophers conceptualize or discuss freedom within their own ranks so I have no idea if such things count as ‘freedom’ to them, but to Iroquoianists they are taken for granted.

  10. This is useful for making a distinction. On the one hand there is the question of comparative political systems, which is at the heart of political anthropology, in which paramaters like hierarchical/non-hierarchical, segmented/nonsegmented are important, so that one can ask questions of, for instance, a Weberian form about the type of domination exhibited in a particular society.

    On the other hand there is the content of the concept freedom, which though much debated, is about integrating a theory of individual action with a form of political organization in order to achieve a state of non-interference in individual and collective life.

    I think you are suggesting at least the former about the iroquois: that they exhibit a form of organization which we associate with (some definition of) freedom. I’d be happy if you were also saying that the Iroquois have a *theory* of how their society is organized and why–which many societies do. Whether that form of organization and theory together look like a theory of freedom is the kind of question I think anthropologists have not explicitly asked, though they could.

    It would be interesting to try to make a list of societies which anthropologists hold up as examples of this sort (i.e. exhibiting, at least intuitively, some elements of freedom such as non-hierarchy, equality, non-interference, autonomy, political participation etc. ).

  11. Just thought it would be worth mentioning, in case you haven’t come across it yet, that Gellner does include some interesting discussion of Malinowski’s Freedom and Civilization in his (also posthumous) book “Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski, and the Hapsburg Dilemma”. I haven’t seen much reference to Freedom and Civilization elsewhere, and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, which is quite shameful seeing as I’ve tried to put together a seminar paper on freedom myself. It really should have been higher on my to do list.

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