Various bits of social media began vibrating rapidly recently when it was discovered that white supremacists had fooled Google into providing inaccurate information about Boas and cultural relativism. The situation is now apparently resolved, but it isn’t a new problem. Old-timey internet veterans will remember that martinlutherking.org has been run by Stormfront for, like, decades. But this latest kerfuffle should give us the opportunity to think about our priorities as anthropologists writing for the general public today. In a previous post, I argued that there is a difference between the older ‘heroic’ public anthropology and ‘new’, more important public anthropology. Today I want to expand on this point and emphasize that we need shift our conception of public anthropology away from older, moribund genres and to newer, more important, but less familiar ways of reaching the public.
The alternate title for this post was going to be “Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas walk into a bar…”. This is a little autobiographical passage from pages 46-48 of History, Evolution, and the Concept of Culture: Selected Papers by Alexander Lesser. In it, Lesser (a vastly under-read and under-appreciated author) describes what it was like to be a graduate student in the 1920s. It’s a fun little vignette that says something about the limits of functionalism… and academic networking! I’ve condensed this account down a good deal — if you’d like to see the full version, check out the book.
I first met both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in 1926 or 1927. It was the first occasion of their both being in New York at the same time. Pliny Earle Goddard was very anxious to have Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski meet Boas. He believed they would both discover that Boas was driving at the same thing they were driving at, that there really weren’t any fundamental conflicts. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were invited to what was a large living room in Ruth Bunzel’s parents’ apartment, somewhere near Riverside Drive. There were only about ten of us: six graduate students, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas.
When the time seemed right, Goddard invited Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown to say something. Radcliffe-Brown started off by giving extemporaneously a fifteen minute exposition of what he considered to be the meaning of meaning. It was, from a verbal standpoint a beautiful performance. Boas simply looked at Goddard, and looked at Radcliffe-Brown, and nodded his head. And that was all. Then Goddard turned to Malinowski and asked him if he wanted to say anything, and Malinowski gave an exposition of his concept of functionalism. After he got through with his fifteen minutes, Goddard turned to Boas, expecting him to say something… and then there was utter silence.
After the silence had gone on for as long as I could stand it, I asked a question. I was scare to death, of course. I asked Malinowski if he meant it when he said that every thing, every item in culture, had a vital function. He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “In the back of my hat here’s a little bow which is sewn on to where the seam comes. Now if you go to a store and try to buy a hat, you’ll find it has a little bow on it.” I asked him what its function was. The binding of the hat is sewn together at the back end very tightly; the bow doesn’t hold anything. If it isnt’ there, nothing will happen. And yet if you should happen to buy such a hat in a store, and it didn’t have the bow, the salesman would say, “wait a minute, I’ll have the bow put on.” But what function does it have? Well, Malinowski looked at me and said, “Well….” He thought first of course that maybe it held the hat together, and I showed him it didn’t. So then he said, “Well, maybe it’s decorative.” I said, “How? You can’t even see it.” We went on like this, for some time, but he finally said, “Oh, I’m interested in important matters.” He simply dropped it.
Now, where did I get this item? I happened to be indexing the first forty volumes of the Journal of American Folklore – that’s how I was earning my way through Columbia, for fifty cents an hour. If you start trying to index a thing like that believe me, as you go through a volume it becomes damned boring. So every once in a while, you say: “Oh, what the hell, at fifty cents an hour I’ll read a paper.”
There were several papers by a man named Garrick Mallery. He was an American ethnologist, and he was particularly interested in survivals. In regard to the hat bow, his explanation was that this was a survival of something which had once been more functional. At the back end of the hat ribbons were attached, and one wore the hat with ribbon streamers; style had gradually dictated that these become smaller and smaller, until they were finally stuck up inside the hat, and disappeared into the bow. So much for hats and Malinowski.
In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.
So where does Boas fit into all of this? Continue reading
The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.
This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:
Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.
While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.
I’m delighted to feature this, our dozenenth SMOPS, for readers. These papers provide an excellent example of anthropology’s long term commitment to social justice, public outreach, and a critique of incorrect folk theories of heredity and race. The real gems of this paper are not Boas or Herskovits or even Sapir, but the sparkling, penetrating papers by Hendrik Willem Van Loon and, especially, Konrad Bercovici. Read them first.
I’m also delighted that this issue of SMOPS is the first to feature an introduction by someone other than me. I’d like to thank Richard Handler, a distinguished historian of anthropology, for providing a brief introduction to this issue.
The pieces here are reproduced in full. Numbers in brackets indicate page breaks in the original. I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.
Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!
Wisconsin and the Amazon
RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?
EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork. And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school. Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading
The anthropological linguist possess proficiency in linguistic analysis of the sort falling under the umbrella of Basic Linguistic Theory. To put it crudely, s/he can solve problems in phonology, morphology, and syntax.
The anthropological linguist conducts fieldwork in order to collect data in the service of the production of a linguistic description. This has always meant that s/he has an at least decent ear. Nowadays it also implies has some ability to utilize digital audio recording technology and to construct RDBs.
“The methods of ethnology” is among the two most taught and anthologized essay by Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, and I include it here to give you a sense of who Boas was and what he thought. Boas is famous for doing ethnography, not talking about it. As a result it is extremely difficult to find explicit theoretical statements from him regarding what anthropology is or should be. There are three main texts that represent Boas at his most explicit: “the study of geography” is Boas’s earliest and most general statement, followed by “limitations” in the 1890s. “Methods” was written in 1920, and represents Boas’s views at the time that he had finally achieved institutional dominance in anthropology.