The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 3

“The time is now ripe for anthropologists to consider the concept of freedom and the empirical manifestations of freedom in culture. What more significant and urgent task is there for the anthropologist than that of launching a concerted inquiry into the nature of freedom and its place and basis in nature and the cultural process? Such an inquiry would provide in time a charter for belief in those values and principles indispensable to the process of advancing culture and to the ideal of a democratic world order dedicated to the development of human potentialities to their maximum perfection.” (preface to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology ed. David Bidney, 1963 p. 6)

Freedom Hof-style
You and me both, pal.

Thus did David Bidney valiantly launch the investigation into freedom by anthropologists only to immediately then admit: “I realize that hard-headed, realistic anthropologists, including some of the participants in this symposium, would not find themselves in agreement with this anthropologic dream. There is danger, they will protest, that you are reifying Freedom into an absolute entity, just as culture once was. Freedom they will object is a non-scientific, political slogan which betrays its ethnocentric, Western and American origin…”

Freedom, as concept, still evokes this suspicion. That it is “nothing more” than a political slogan; or that it masks the reality of domination, oppression, slavery and power. As well it should given how promiscuously it is exploited.Or, as Edmund Leach so characteristically puts it in his contribution to the same volume: “To prate of Freedom as if it were a separable virtue is the luxurious pursuit of aristocrats and of the more comfortable members of modern affluent society. It has been so since the beginning.” (77)

What Leach expresses here, in part, is the descriptivist bias of anthropology of the time, and specifically of political anthropology: that the goal is comparative analysis without a priori reference to any normative political ideals. This, I think probably resonates with most anthropologists, who would be much less likely to be interested in Freedom as a concept that delimits a certain relationship between action and governance, more more likely to see it as a slogan that has been used as a warrant in colonial, imperial and global economic endeavors; as a tool used to transform existing arrangements in its own name (and secretly in the interests of a global elite). At a first cut this is undeniably so if one simply listens to the way the word is used in the news, and by politicians especially.

Indeed, it is my probably hasty opinion that the whole of “political anthropology” (at least in it’s 1930s-1970s form) shares this bias, despite the fact that it would seem to be this domain to which one would immediately turn for help in understanding the variations in the nature of Freedom. Instead, freedom is excluded from investigation insofar as it contaminates, confuses or otherwise confounds the exploration of objective political structures. Georges Balandier’s account of the development of political anthropology up to the mid 1960s (Political Anthropology) clearly shows how the questions of state formation, legitimacy and domination, kinship and power, status and power and so forth have been investigated. But he never mentions the word freedom. This is not so curious if freedom is understood as an outcome of a normative theory of the state, in favor of a descriptive, comparative science of political systems. Come to think of it, Weber never really talks about freedom either, and for similar reasons: the goal of a scientific sociology is not to articulate the ought of political systems but the is. It does not appear as a subject in Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma, nor in Meyer Fortes and EE Evans-Pritchard’s collection on African Political Systems.

What Bidney was proposing therefore, probably looked far too universalist in its appeal (as if Freedom were inevitably to be found in the struggles of people everywhere) and worse, potentially dangerous (insofar as it imposes a normative vision of freedom on those it seeks to understand). The properly anthropological way to think about “an anthropology of freedom”, therefore, would be to look at it from the perspective of the rest of the world and how it perceives the imposition of “freedom” on it.

There are probably a lot of attempts to do something like this. As I mentioned in a previous post, few of them tag these attempts explicitly with the word ‘freedom’–for whatever reasons. Two in particular that might be explored for this are Paul Reisman’s Freedom Among the Fulani and the great short piece by Caroline Humphrey, “Alternative Freedoms” (thanks again Morpheus!). Neither of these expresses allegiance to or appears similar to what we think of as “political anthropology.” Riesman, interestingly, was a student of Balandier (and the son of David Riesman of The Lonely Crowd fame), but he explicitly avers any deep engagement with political anthropology in his book, which is dedicated instead to Dorothy Lee.

Humphrey’s short piece does more or less does exactly what I was claiming no one in anthropology was doing. In it she outlines three concepts of freedom, starting from the closest linguistic analogues in play, in order to show why it might be that Russians today, hearing a speech of Bush or Blair of Obama crowing triumphantly about freedom, might view such promises with suspicion or fear. At the end of the article she puts it bluntly: “The three ideas of freedom have come to inhabit very different worlds of value. None of them is identical with Western ideas of freedom. But after all, Russians are far from alone in this. Much of the world is culturally different in this regard.” (9) [1]

The first idea is Svoboda, which contains elements of a version of freedom as access to a privileged sphere, a bit like Arendt’s account of the ancient Greeks and their distinction between a sphere of privation and slavery (the household) and a sphere of freedom and publicness, the polis. According to Humphrey, the root is svoi, (self, ours) and so shares some of the meaning of “our way of life” and leads to a particular sense of freedom as “our kind of freedom”–not universalist at all. Thus a hearer in Russian might not hear the word “freedom,” translated as svoboda, as a universal value. The second use is the peculiar Mir (like the spacecraft) which means universe, humanity, the world, but also, ‘peace’ (after the Soviet linguistic reforms). Mir has aspects of a “will of the people” sort–a “universalized community” and Humphrey says of her explanation “I hope this helps explain the deeply non-intuitive fact (to us) that there are Russian villagers today who identify freedom, precisely with Stalinism.” Finally there is Volya, which carries a meaning similar to “will” and expresses that aspect of freedom which is associated with volition and intention.

That there are three words for freedom is nothing new (English boasts Freedom and Liberty), and that the words have a variable semantic range is also unsurprising. Nonetheless, Humphrey is demonstrating how the concept looks different not only linguistically, but in terms of history and political structure. There is an extensive discussion about the tension produced by the transition to capitalism, and the ways in which freedom comes to be associated with lawlessness, banditry and the unconstrained exploitation of Russian resources by a few elites. But this is, in some ways, the same debate about liberty that has occupied political theory since at least the French, if not the English revolution. Liberty is always in tension with some other notion such as stability, tradition, security, etc.

Paul Riesman’s book is a different take on the problem of freedom or liberty. The book is probably better remembered for its experimental character. It is divided into two sections, the first of which cleaves very closely to a classic monographic form detailing aspects of Fulani life; the second is, arguably, one of the earliest experiments in “reflexive” ethnography in which “life as lived” and the encounter of Riesman with Fulani social life is organized through his own experience of coming to an understanding.

Because Riesman is avowedly uninterested in the political structure of Fulani society, the notion of Freedom he is interested in probably ends up looking much more like a question of “agency” (a term he does not use, though Paul Stoller and Lila Abu-Lughod count among his acolytes) than freedom in the political sense. In the first part, he attends at length to the problem of the terms Pulaaku and Semteende–words that circumscribe the experience of custom, obligation, honors, shame and sanction. In this sense, the kind of freedom Riesman is concerned with is in fact the relationship of structure and agency more than anything else. In the second part, Riesman explores more theological notions of freedom (Man’s freedom and Allah’s power) and the notion of freedom as “self-mastery,” which corresponds in a loose way to some of the questions often lumped under “autonomy” (and which has the delightful literal meaning of “He who possesses his own head” [226]). Riesman spends a good deal of the last part talking about how children come to be autonomous or free, a subject that clearly obsessed him, since his second book published posthumously (First find your child a good mother) is concerned with disproving the psychological and psychoanalytic claims that certain kinds of child-rearing practices affect the outcome of adult personhood.

Both Riesman and Humphrey are good examples, I think of the confusion that attends the concept of freedom for more than the simple reason that it is an ideological slogan. As a philosophical concept, the term denotes something that is both political (concerning the structure of governance, rights and the relation of people to each other) and psychological (denoting a relationship to will, autonomy or acting). Both accounts show (but in different ways) how the integration of these two aspects might differ in different settings.

None of this settles the question for me of why Freedom is particularly uninteresting to anthropologists, but it has opened up for me a set of related questions (Another Post! I am Unstoppable!) about two recent attempts to address something related to freedom: the anthropology of the will, and the anthropology of ethics. To be continued…


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.

10 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 3

  1. There is some more interesting questions about freedom, the particular ways in which it is defined and understood, in David Graeber’s latest research on the debt. For example :

    Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian and Babylonian kings periodically announced general amnesties. All outstanding consumer debt was declared null and void (commercial debts were not affected), all land was returned to its original owners, and debt peons were returned to their families. Before long, kings made a habit of declaring such amnesties upon assuming power. (The sovereign saw himself as literally re-creating human society, so he was in a fine position to relieve all previous moral obligations.) In Sumerian, these were called declarations of freedom. The Sumerian word amargi is the first recorded use of “freedom” in any language; it literally means “return to mother,” since this is what freed debt peons were allowed to do.

    And here :

    The institution of wage labour, for instance, has historically emerged from within that of slavery (the earliest wage contracts we know of, from Greece to the Malay city states, were actually slave rentals), and it has also tended, historically, to be intimately tied to various forms of debt peonage – as indeed it remains today. The fact that we have cast such institutions in a language of freedom does not mean that what we now think of as economic freedom does not ultimately rest on a logic that has for most of human history been considered the very essence of slavery.

    It is indeed hard to deny that “freedom” is often thought of as something that is literally owned, and can thus be sold “freely” (part or full time), just like any other piece of property. While for long periods of time, and in a lot of places, the fact that one could be bought was almost the definition of slavery.

  2. @Jérémy Good stuff… this is very much the Nietzschean approach to freedom, which is part of The Anthropology of Freedom, part 1001, or at least a story intimately related to the geneaology of morals… but I love the notion of freedom meaning “return to mother”…

  3. What is not really addressed fully here is how Anthropology engages with universality.

    This is important because the appeal of “Freedom” is not inherent in the concept, but in the historical moment of American and French Revolution and it’s carry through into decolonisation. It came to be universalised for historically specific reasons.

    As such, the Anthropological wish not to start with “freedom” is valid, it makes sense to situate it, but so must the discussion in these posts be situated within a wider debate on how Anthropology copes with univeralising.

    In this sense Marxist and New-Marxist discussions of hegemony and universalising are relevant, from Laclau to Zizek to Badiou, as well as debates on Humanism in Marxism.

    One of the core tensions in Anthropology is how it relates to its own universalising ideals. There is a certain type of liberalism written into the idea of the ironic Anthropological subject, something that has been promoted in a positive mode by writers such as Ernest Gellner.

    I think this causes a certain amount of embarassment amongst Anthropologists, as the mode of Political Anthropology has been to treat beliefs as objects of study. So the ways in which the Anthropological subject is positioned in relation to particular ideas and histories of freedom becomes problematic.

    Therefore a discussion of how Anthropologists relate to “Freedom” requires a discussion of the relationship between Anthropology and universalising ideals, both in terms of objects of study as well as how we construct, within the discipline, our analytical language and our academic subjecthood.

  4. @Daniel. Really? Do we have to? I was kind of hoping to move on to engaging philosophers, political scientists and economists directly on the subject of freedom rather than undergoing a kind of psycho-analysis. Forgive me for being blunt, but I’m not convinced that understanding my “academic subjecthood” will contribute to this at all. It certainly won’t be interesting to anyone other than anthropologists, and probably not many of them.

    What I’m trying to work out here is how one can approach freedom as universal in a very specific sense: in what “technical” sense does it possess coherence as a concept which is not conditioned by either its origins or its appearance in particular places. This does not mean that it is natural, inevitable or inherently good or bad. In many ways Weber accomplished the same thing with “economic rationalism”–to show how it had become universal, an iron cage whose origins in Protestantism are significant but not determining.

    And if it possesses this limited form of universality, what difference would the empirical investigation of anthropologists make to a debate about it with philosophers?

  5. I have suggested that treating social life as games, with rules that allow some moves, prohibit others, and may br subject to change might be one place to begin. Another is the history of concepts or policies that shed light on how people have thought about what we call freedom. It has long been a commonplace in studies of East Asian cultures, for example, to note the priority given to obligations over rights, with selfish being the primary meaning of terms used to translate “freedom” to native speakers if local languages. A third is too begin with the socialization of children, who must learn when it is or is not appropriate ti say “No” and how to say it politely.

  6. @John I think what you are gesturing towards here is a facet of the ordinary meaning of freedom which has to do primarily with the questions of structure and agency, and within anthropology at least, is very much in the Durkheimian tradition. (I think Riesman’s book is in this domain as well). Insofar as social facts, such as customs, laws, languages money, etc, produce obligations and orient people towards those obligations by providing forms of sanction (Shame!), then freedom can be reduced to a problem of conformity and to the possibility of “agency” (at least in the proactive, practice theory sense of that term). Agency then might encompass something like “the capacity to change the rules of the game.” Or it might, as in the cases you mention, simply be marked as a negative (as I think it is in Humphrey’s case as well) in which the privileged value is conformity to the order and stability created by obligation, rather than the “selfish” freedom of the one with “agency.

    I guess I am trying to figure out whether there is more to “freedom” than the question of agency. Such a focus strikes me as unquestioningly focused on a split between the individual and the collective, but perhaps that is all there is to it…

  7. Chris, are you familiar with Robert Bellah, et al’s Habits of the Heart? The topic is American individualism. Given, however, that our current preoccupation with freedom begins with the Protestant Reformation and the individual’s right to read and interpret scripture for him or herself, it may be relevant. Bellah and his colleagues identify four strands of individualism. In two classic modes, the religious and political, individuals define themselves (and, thus, I suggest, the limits of their agency) in relation to what are perceived as external realities, God and the nation-state respectively. In the two more recent forms of individualism, the locus of self definition becomes internal, in the private purposes and values envisioned by theories of rational choice, the instrumental mode, or in the emotions, feelings, unique perceptions envisioned by romantic theorists, the therapeutic mode. Might be something to build on here.

  8. Maybe the only way in which “freedom” ever makes sense is ultimately in “challenges to the prevailing ‘social order,'” or, the desire to exist in an altered social order.

    And then, the only reasons “freedom” is an enduring concept in “modernity” is the extent to which, 1) “modernity” comes out of historical struggles to change a social order, struggles which used “freedom” as central to their being and thus embedded “freedom” deeply in the new social order as part of its raison d’etre; 2) the new social order is as oppressive as the former, leaving freedom paradoxically central to people’s hopes & dreams even as the social order insists they have it, or promises it to them eventually.

    Which I guess means I’m still siding with Boas’ “harmony with culture.” But perhaps it lends a sort of ability to evaluate or analyze a culture based on how many consistently feel at odds with it? All the more difficult with a culture that incorporates “feeling at odds with society” as part of its own narratives of potential, acceptable ways to be in the world?

  9. @ckelty No of course you don’t have to, but if you don’t examine your positioning, you are not really an Anthropologist, sorry to be blunt.

    “in what “technical” sense does it possess coherence as a concept which is not conditioned by either its origins or its appearance in particular places. This does not mean that it is natural, inevitable or inherently good or bad. ”

    Well, sorry, ideas are not technical objects. They are far more often”cyborgs” in that they become a part of you over the longer term more often than not. You might want to look at the literature on Communities of Practice to understand how closely learning and becoming in terms of a sense of self in relation to group are connected.

    This idea of a “toolkit” of ideas that one picks up and puts down avoids the very issue of longer term positioning and investments that you seem to be opting out of.

    Now you could look at an apriori analysis of Freedom as an Idea to look at the logical possibilities of its consistent articulation, but of course logic is based on the articulations of logical units, words, idea concepts, which is where the ethnographic work enters such an apriori analysis. So a ‘technical’ approach to the idea will only yield you an abstract field of possibility, and one that cannot in itself determine practice. This is especially so with an idea that operates so clearly as a tendentially empty signifier like “freedom”. There is a reason, in terms of social practice, that it is hard to pin down, and that in many ways, the sets of institutions, social arrangements, political communication relations and histories, these material, historical and enacted things that exist at both large and small scales, they are more interesting than the apriori content in many ways, because they give rise to the emptiness and thus allow a fairly empty articulation of sameness.

    So I sense that you are in danger of losing the woods for the trees by attempting to treat ideas as technical objects.

  10. @Daniel. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand you. But that’s probably because I’m not an anthropologist 🙂 So perhaps this can go nowhere. However, it seems to me that you are suggesting that there is in fact no content to the concept of freedom–that it is a “tendentially empty signifier.” This conflicts profoundly with my sense of it as one of the core problems of philosophy for at least the last 400 years. As I said, the library is filled with shelves and shelves of books about the problem, many of which are in general agreement about its content, even if they 1) argue about its particulars and 2) denounce its general ideological usage. So I guess I can’t go there, if that is what you are suggesting.

    Would it help if I used the word “precise” instead of technical? I do think of concepts as objectified in that they have existence in the world, I am a realist about this. I do not believe that they exist only in people’s heads or only in the interaction of people, whether in communities or not, so if that further expels me from the camp of anthropology, I guess I’ll have to go back to the city. But this is a metaphysical problem.

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