As some readers out there may know, Ward Goodenough passed away this week. A Micronesianist who had done a little work on Papua New Guinea, his death prompted an spate of remembrances on the Pacific Anthropology list I belong to. By any account he was a remarkable man — a prolific author, a careful fieldworker, a mentor to a whole generation of anthropologists, and an innovative theorist to boot. At a certain point in anthropology’s history a lot of people looked at him and saw the future of anthropology. Now that he has passed away I thought I might ask — respectfully — how and why it happened that Goodenough is remembered as an area specialist and not a theorist. It’s an interesting question partially because of what it says about the twists and turns of anthropological theory, but also because of how it speaks to the way our discipline is configured today. So I should say up front that I’m interested in talking about him and why he is important, even if he is not the road that anthropology took. I don’t want to use his passing to speak ill of him.
Goodenough was a Yale man — his father taught there, and he got his Ph.D. there. He came off the edges of the Boasian tradition. Like Julian Steward, he went through Cornell before heading off to Yale to do his degree. He missed Sapir and ended up taking courses from Malinowski, Linton, and Murdock. Murdock became his mentor, he came out of Yale ready to turn anthropology into a Real Science. It was a good time for it: the cold war was on, and anthropology was ready to Apply itself. People like Goodenough, Frake, Conklin, Lounsbury, Romney, and others were interested in making anthropology more quantitative, and brought a lot of energy to that task.
They ended up being sidelined, however. I think of the post-war period in anthropology as a series of overlapping moments. The componential, formal modeling, ethnoscience, cognitive sort of moment of Goodenough got started just a few years before Geertz (and a bit later, Turner) got going on symbolic anthropology. Goodenough’s paper on “Componential Analysis and the Study of Meaning” was (iirc) in 1956. Geertz began publishing interpretive stuff in the early 1960s. Neoevolutionism also got going in the early 1960s. Structuralism, that genius school of social thought, managed to look like kinship algebra to the ethnoscience people, myth interpretation to the symbolic anthro types, and structural Marxism to the evolutionists. So as a result everyone read Lévi-Strauss.
And yet by the early 1970s Marxism was in full effect, emerging from the evolutionary cocoon it had disguised itself in. Symbolic and interpretive approaches had proved quite compatible with the counterculture. I’m doing a research project at the moment on the influence of anthropology on Berkeley in the 1960s. When I asked one of the founders of SCA why they read anthropology and not just medieval history, the replied “strange worlds. That’s where we were headed.” Wider Murdockian ambitions, on the other hand, had been marginalized. It is only now, with the rise of the NSF Method Mall, that all of those people who spent years combing over HRAF to publish papers in the journal Cross Cultural Research are now receiving kudos from so much of the anthropology blogosphere, which in the US at least seems very behind a program of more rigor, more methods, and more four fields.
I wasn’t there, but I suspect that people like Goodenough, who worked with the military (was a drill sergeant apparently) just got hit by a tidal wave of cultural change and moved off of people’s radars. But I think there are probably other reasons as well — like a lack of computing power which stymied the development of their work. What’s more, the program that a lot of ethnoscientists were pushing required a lot of training and a lot of specialization — something that was not easy to disseminate. In fact, it may have been something that Murdockians wanted themselves. The picture Stephen Murray paints in his wonderful, concise article “The Dissolution of Classical Ethnoscience” is of a bunch of people who looked at a future laboring away at very small bits of cultural taxonomy and said “no thanks, I’d rather be a generalist”.
It’s worth noting the Goodenough himself was hardly a white room ethnographer. He wrote a massive book on applied anthropology. His book on Micronesian cosmology is straight-up, old-school ethnography. At the end of the day, people might have realized that once they could achieve their aspirations for science, they didn’t actually want to. I feel that this is what happened with the Manchester school of the J. Clyde Mitchell variety: given the option to do social network analysis, very few of them actually decided to go there. To this extent, anthropology is not a pre-paradigmatic discipline in the Kuhnian, it it post-paradigmatic.
There is more to say about Goodenough — that culture is not like phonemes (which apparently are not like phonemes in the 1950s) so componential analysis is theoretically problematic, that he reduced shared meaning to internal cognition, and other critiques of his work — but he deserves to be remembered for the solid, intelligent work he did, and for the movement that he did (or didn’t) spearhead. It’s only by returning to the past that we can see some possible options for our future. And if anyone wrote work that is relevant to the future of anthropology today, it is Ward Goodenough.