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.
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?