Tag Archives: Anthro Classics

Notes and Queries on Anthropology

Notes and Queries on AnthropologyGoogle Books now makes it possible to download pdf’s of public domain works, like this copy of our namesake Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1899). Alas, the text — which Google must have a plain-text version of in order to do keyword searching — seems not to be embedded in the pdf file. Here, to the best of my typing ability, is a little taste of “Notes and Queries” to whet your appetite:

It is almost impossible to make a savage in the lower stages of culture understand why the questions are asked, and from the limited range of his vocabulary or of ideas it is often nearly as difficult to put the question before him in such a way as he can comprehend it. The result often is that from timidity, or the desire to please, or from weariness of the questioning, he will give an answer that he thinks will satisfy the inquirer. If time serve, these difficulties can easily be overcome by friendly intercourse, and a careful checking of answers through different individuals (87 – 88).

Needless to say, this work is of historical interest more than practical interest. Still, it’s good to see this history preserved and available; I also downloaded a copy of Franz Boas’ The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), which is of rather more interest to me.

There is no “master list” of downloadable texts, or search flag that will return only results that have pdf’s attached. The trick is to click the “Full View Books” radio button under the search form, and then hope. In “Advanced Book Search”, you can set a date range — I’d think that limiting the publication date to years before 1925 would be a good idea, as current copyright law only covers back to 1926 or so. But, of course, there is public domain work published after 1926 — anything published by the US government, for example — and there is still some material that was published earlier that may not be public domain (e.g. works in translation, where the rights are/were held by various parties and now nobody’s quite sure who owns what).

Imagine if we had some sort of reasonable copyright laws — we could access much more recent scholarly work, most of which is locked up in the storerooms of university libraries where nobody will ever see it.


I tend to think of culture as collated qualia, the systematic structuring of sensory perception(s) into ‘meaningful’ relations. While obviously cultures consist in diverse narrative, symbolic, textual, institutional, and interactional modes and media, I am rather more attracted to analyses of “form” over and above those of “norm.” This is probably true for a lot of us. We gravitate to the ritualized, the ceremonial, the dressed-up. The beautiful (or the monstrously ugly).

It’s unsurprising then that one of my very favorite books in the history of anthropology is Andrew and Marilyn Strathern’s amazing Self-Decoration in Mount Hagen (1971). I have had to purchase my own copy because too often, library-held editions have been brutalized by people cutting out the full-color plates in the back. To my mind, if one wanted to get a feel for social life in highland New Guinea — for the vibe which animates it — this volume is a stellar guide. It is one of the most serious and comprehensive studies of adornment that I know of. It carefully records ways in which social form is encoded in structured relations between, for example, colors or bush materials. I recall myself seeing a koi wal (feather plaque from Hagen) for sale once in Goroka market and knowing something about it (for example, its name) precisely because of this text.

The color plates of throngs of greased and shining bodies, or spectacularly feathered warriors and wig-wearers, are simply dazzling.

I allude to Marilyn Strathern’s later reflections on ‘the ethnographic moment,’ that encounter that lives on as an image in your mind, guiding your analysis because it is so phenomonally real or present long-after the fact. She writes: “It is worth remarking… that special knowledge which inheres, say, in theological or scientific expertise has never held quite the place in anthropological accounts as materials which appear esoteric *because* they require revealing (beg immediate interpretation). An initial surprise becomes a suspension, a dazzle, and some kinds of ‘special knowledge’ are more likely to dazzle than others” (Property, Substance, and Effect, pp. 10-11).

One can see, reflecting on a text like Self-Decoration, how Hageners might indeed have that effect. The language feels appropriate, and Strathern narrates an interruption: of her pursuit of rudimentary research in gardens and on genealogies by her first sight of mounted pearl shells. Star-struck: the glimmering white center of the ruddy mounting board dazzles also Hageners.

For me, what begged interpreting was the emotional quality of a ceremonial exchange I witnessed. The occasion was a gift of cash in the name of an elderly man to his mother’s kin, and in particular to her brother. The gift giver clutched the recipient to him in a submissive gesture and cried sorrowfully, wailing the word ‘mother’ over and over. It is one image I cannot remove from memory, and I return to it again and again when I think about highlands sociality.

Dazzled and mesmerized. Thought it was a tremendously demanding experience, I am frequently grateful that my research in New Guinea yielded the sort of encounter that animates and moves one’s thought, even years later.

Between Subjectivation and Subjection: Making ‘Kinship’ Feasible

I have been working through some ‘ancient’ anthropological topics with students, in particular, variations in kinship terminologies cross-culturally, an area of research founded principally by L. H. Morgan in his Systems of consanguinity and affinity in the human family (1871), and molded into an evolutionary ‘grand theory’ in his Ancient Society (1877). Starting out a course on kinship with Victorian anthropology is, I realize, a risky gambit. In a response paper, one student suggested that the view from the windows of 19th-century anthropology was ‘rather grey.’ What could be more arcane than revisiting Iroquois or Crow-Omaha kinship terminologies? Whether or not they are a boring topic, varieties of kinship terminologies are also not easy to wrap one’s head around. To the extent that they divide up a seemingly commonsensical world in an apparently non-commensensical way (for those of us reared in so-called ‘descriptive’ systems, the ‘classificatory’ can be jarring), they challenge our assumptions quite directly. Of course, recognition of this difference is what ignited anthropological interest in the subject and has sustained it through the years. But how to give these topics a contemporary twist?

We have also visited, among other things, Trautmann’s work, especially his recent article on “The Whole History of Kinship Terminology…” There, Trautmann criticizes contemporary models of transformations in kinship terminology, and in doing so suggests that comparative kinship studies might be one avenue into studying the very longue duree of human history. A broadly regional and deeply historical comparative framework may yield advances in ethnological history: “…the deep history that lies between, say, the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the Victorian era, is not thickly populated by anthropologists, especially cultural anthropologists… For all the contemporary commitment of cultural anthropology to history, the deeper past is greatly neglected.” Trautmann suggests that attention to this sort of history would help correct biases built into certain functionalist or synchronic accounts.

So that is one call to give kinship studies a contemporary cast: give kinship a deeper history.

Even so, there are other languages or rhetorics that might make kinship terminologies a hot topic. (I leave aside, for the time being, the sexy and important topics of ‘biotech’ and ‘body’ in contemporary kinship studies.) If, for example, anthropologists of contemporary governments wished to sample of forms of interpellation that precede and exceed the normative force of state power (recalling here the policeman yelling at you on the street), they could do little better than to track the distributions of kin designations in everday practice and in legal discourse. This is precisely what the earlier SM discussion on adoption and ICWA points us toward: divided sovereignties (competing regulations of forms of life) along several axes — the indigenous and liberal, the minority and the majority, ‘kindred’ versus ‘citizens,’ to say nothing of men and women. Beyond the discourse of experts that is a focus of the current analytics of governmentality (whether neo/liberal, totalitarian, or whatever), anthropologists have rich and varied models for how populations are regulated in extra-state circumstances: precisely through the interpellation of subjects in self-perpetuating systems of signification we call kinship terminologies.

It is true that citizens of Melanesian states, for example, are ‘produced’ to some extent by the legacy of foreign rule in the form of the postcolonial state (such as it is in some places). Far more consequential, however, for how people conduct themselves in everyday life and for how they sustain themselves materially are the identities iterated and reiterated in daily, habitual, commonplace encounters with each other. In places like Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) eastern highlands, title to land, for example, is secured only in and through one’s affiliation with a clan that holds in a coprorate fashion the land. ‘Membership’ in a clan is manifest, is elicited, is ‘performed’ through the eventful (ceremonial exchange, committments in battle), but also, and more thoroughly, through the everday modes of address through which people interact (the relatively uneventful). Though I lived in a village, built a house there, ate food there, for my adoptive family, the most important thing I did was to call my kin by their proper terms (e.g., mama, papa, etc. or “ieno” and “ahono” in the local language). Doing so locked me into a structure of social relations that was both utterly constraining, inaugurating all kinds of obligations and protocols pertaining to moral conduct, and enabling. I could engage in action of a consequential sort only by being called into being by ‘reciprocal’ (I mean this in a nontechnical way) address. Kinship terminologies provide examples for two varied interpretations of the productive power of discourses: either the ‘subjection’ favored by Judith Butler and others or the ‘subjectivation’ favored by James Faubion and others. (See their brilliant work in Antigone’s Claim or The Ethics of Kinship.)

Perhaps its a stretch to tie these observations to a previous discussion, but I do wonder sometimes when anthropologists struggle to find languages for thinking about social regulation in the contemporary period (as for example ‘governmentality’) why ‘the market’ springs to mind quite readily while that old workhorse of anthropology — kinship — doesn’t (so often). There are, I imagine, either intricate and important reasons why not, or perhaps simpler ones.

Places and Frames: Reading Bruno Latour on Holiday

If anybody fancies some heavy but rewarding reading try Bruno Latour’s recently published book on Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. I took it on holiday, along with a pile of other books , including Friction and Global Shadows. In the event, or lack of it, I only managed to struggle through the Latour. And once I had read it the other books didn’t seem as inviting, although they are probably a more engaging read. Latour’s book seems to be directed not at the experience of reading so much as the consequence of having read. It takes the reader on a mental journey over difficult terrain, the terrain metaphor resurfacing throughout the book via a play on the acronym ANT and the notion that ants are somehow grounded and hence capable of dealing thoroughly with whatever minutiae are blocking their paths
to unspecified destinations.

Reassembling the Social is one of those books written against in order to work out what it is for. In this instance, its directed against sociologists, whom Latour divides into two types: sociologists of the social and those who claim to practice critical sociology. Latour argues that both kinds of sociology and their practitioners do not conform to what might be the expectations of scientific approaches to the study of society. This is because they rely on pre-existing notions of what the social is and does to account for what people do and why they do it. The idea of society in such accounts fails to explain the very thing which is the object of study. As a consequence the motivations of social actors are always silenced and ignored. The silenncing of social actors is paradoxical for what claims to be a science of the social which ought to be able to demonstrate how things happen or rather how happenings are made. The making is the social process which is both material and symbolic. There is then no break between material culture and cultural material. The object of study includes objects, the subject object divide is collapsed and the sociology of the social superseded by a sociology of association, that is the relations through which actors achieve agency to effect happening.

Latour says much more than this of course in this complicated text, some of which reiterates previous insights and ideas. He makes pertinent points about the sociology of the social’s preoccupation with context and place, hence the eternal return conceptually to the analytical split level of the global and the local. I will try and think more about this when I get around to reading Friction as an `ethnography of global connections’. But in the meantime I think that Latour’s arguments about place are worth exploring for the way they jog ones’ perspective and decentre comfort zones about where we are and what we are claiming to describe when we set out to describe other places. Latour proposes that there is nothing intrinsically contextual about place, that place is simply a staging or framing for traces and associations, near and distant, past and present. Context as such does not exist as a factor which explains or accounts for a place. Placeness is brought to a situation through framing, and only part of this situation is localised.

There is some truth in this way of thinking. As write this I am in what I had on first contact thought of as a post Augean non place, not Manchester although I am sure that others consider it so, but a holiday island in the Mediterranean, the kind of island so subjected to the onslaughts of package tourism and the internationalization of consumption that it seems to no longer have any real identity or sense of location. Among the Irish pubs, the West African street traders selling carved elephants, the Mexican, Chinese and Indian themed restaurants , the International Herald Tribune on the newsstands and the televisions broadcasting UK news and sport, you have to actively look for faint signs of some other more original identity. Latour’s account makes me reconsider my position. If place is frame rather than context then what I am witnessing is a framing of wider traces, some place.

Is the Magic Fading?

The recent debate around FGC on Savage Minds raised some important questions about the political implications of how we choose to perceive social practice. It also raised the issue of agency in our selection of the analytic positions through which we situate practices relationally, and hence within particular political frames of argument. The key point here is not what the issue is, so much as with what other issues is it represented as being articulated in various ways. This articulation may be represented either within a particular social context, as in for example the relation between forms of practice and social outcomes, for which in the recent example read gender. Or, adopting the kind of argument put forward by Marilyn Strathern in her Partial Connections, it may be about how the issue is related through ethnography to what are represented as equivalent examples of social practice across social contexts, that is within anthropological theory or social theory more generally.

The ways in which issues become relationally articulated within anthropology is fundamental to establishing the legitimacy of what become accepted, or acceptable, responses to social phenomena within the discipline, some of which, despite anthropology’s claims to reflexivity and to the consistent examination of constructivist positions, seem remarkably persistent. The disciplinary representation of witchcraft is a case in point. Not only is witchcraft represented persistently as a problem of knowledge, rather than a problem of power, terror, inequality and violence manifested differently at different times and places. It is commonly represented as related to Zande practices of the late 1920’s as somehow paradigmatic, if not in terms modalities of divination then in terms of the essential logic and systematicity of Zande witchcraft cosmology.

Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic provides an account of the place of witchcraft in Zande society and the interrelationship between the persistence of witchcraft beliefs and oracular authority as mediated by princely rulers themselves subjected to Anglo- Egyptian colonial power. This book, a classic of functionalist ethnography and one which posits as its centre the question of the rationality of belief, continues to be a staple of anthropology reading lists, certainly in the UK. It also remains widely cited within the anthropology of religion, science studies and philosophy. This strikes me as somewhat surprising. What Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic actually describes is not so much the rationality of belief in witchcraft, as a political system in which the powerless are liable to be accused of involuntary murder and then forced to pay compensation for the deaths of alleged victims. To suggest that the comparative value of Evans Pritchard’s text lies in the power play of witchcraft as a weapon of violence working in conjunction with regimes of power is not to underplay the salience of ideas and world views in effecting social practice, merely to question why certain interpretations become established. Some of this has to do with what they are brought into relation to. Can disestablishment follow on then from new juxtapositions and new relations?

Anthro Classics Online: Geertz’s Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

Perhaps one of the most widely read anthropological essays, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz is available online in standard HTML format, as well as a PDF file. The continued popularity of this piece is due in no small part to Geertz’s fluid prose, sharp observation, and self-depreciating humor. (Self-mockery seems to be an essential ingredient for making an anthropological classic.) But I think the real appeal of this article is the way the reader is drawn into the process of anthropological discovery.

The article starts with a heart-pounding chase. Cockfights are illegal and the sudden appearance of the police during one of the first fights Geertz and his wife witnessed sent everyone scurrying home:

On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves.

This story serves two purposes: The first is to draw the audience into the society along with the anthropologist. Just as this event led to Geertz making the transition from “outsider” to “participant,” so too does it make the audience feel as if they are active participants in the drama. The other purpose is to establish the subjective authority of Geertz’s account. Geertz can tell us what this ritual “really means” because he was there. Not only was he there, but he was embraced by the members of the society who loved his clumsy ways.

Does Geertz’s effective prose lull us into a false sense of interpretive complacency?
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Anthro Classics Online: Shakespeare in the Bush

When I asked for suggestions for how this blog should move forward, one issue that was raised was the lack of discussion targeted at anthropological novices. For this reason I am starting a new series linking to classical works in anthropology which are available online. The idea is to both encourage newbies to read some classical anthropological texts as well as allow those with Ph.D.s in the discipline to debate the contemporary value of these works.

Today’s entry is Laura Bohannon’s essay “Shakespeare in the Bush.” First published in 1971, reading this essay in high school really turned me on to anthropology. It explores how difficult it is to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet into the cultural idiom of the Tiv in West Africa (the Tiv are mostly located in Nigeria). While the article takes on a straw-man argument (the idea that there is something universal about Shakespeare’s plays overlooks just how hard it is for even American school kids to learn to appreciate Hamlet), it is a well written article which I believe holds up to the test of time. With Bohannon playing the fool, we follow along as she struggles to explain European notions of kinship, ghosts, and justice to her Tiv audience. It works so well because it is Bohannon who is the butt of the joke, not the Tiv (although the self-assurance of the Tiv elders that they know better than Shakespeare how this story should be told is part of the story’s charm). Despite its whimsical tone, I think we actually learn quite a bit about Tiv culture and society in this short article.

Reading this article again just now I was struck by the fact that her audience consists of respected elders. My guess is that she would have found the audience much more receptive to Shakespeare’s narrative if they had been lower status members of society, such as children. In other words, I don’t think it is simply a case of the Tiv failing to understand Hamlet. Rather, I suspect that these elders perceive Bohannon’s narrative as a threat and are eager to “correct” her in order to neutralize that threat, whereas children or other members of the society less threatened by narratives suggesting alternative social structures would have had considerably less trouble understanding Bohannon’s retelling of Hamlet. This suspicion comes out of my own understanding of ideology as what Zizek calls the “active refusal to know.” According to such an interpretation of Bohannon’s article, there is nothing specific about Tiv society which prevents them from understanding Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but her storytelling is frustrated by the “will to ignorance” of the elders. Sure, even Tiv children would have been confused by many aspects of the story, just as American children are, but I’m simply suggesting that they might not have rejected the very premise of the story in the way that the elders did. Of course, we would probably have learned much less from such an exchange.