working, you say?

Some days I would like to re-animate George Peter Murdock and have a beer with him. G.P., I’d say, after shaking his hand vigorously (although not too hard, because, you know, zombie corpse) G.P., you would have really liked the concept of the computer database, and maybe if you’d had one, you mighta got out for a Sunday drive or a game of darts once in a while, because how you did all this proto-spreadsheet stuff without an actual spreadsheet is admirable.

I bet he was the kind of nerd who remembered everything about the ethnographic materials he categorised, too, and would always know the Haha exception to the rule (Ah, but in Haha society they have matrilateral cross-cousin marriage AND make their tents from goatskin).

Anyhow. Endless recoding of variables according to the hypothesis under question is tedious enough. The really hard part is trying not to become swamped by overwhelming self-censure regarding categorisation and classification of complex human group behaviours. I can deal with 90% of social anthropologists disagreeing with the cross-cultural comparison approach, because the hypothesis that cultures are not to be understood except on their own internal terms is to me, simply that: an hypothesis, and one that most anthropologists have put aside testing.

Part of having an evolutionary approach to human behaviour is taking on board the notion that there are some broad patterns in human behaviour, including social life, and that one can discover those with the tools and models from evolutionary biology. Note to new readers: this does NOT mean some sort of old-fashioned sociobiology assuming a genetic/biological/essentialist/stupid nature-nurture dichotomy approach to behaviour. Traits do not have to be genetic to evolve. Boyd & Richerson have written extensively on cultural evolution for an introductory audience if you need to wrap your head around that.

Where was I? Part of the requirement involves operationalising the variables under study, so complex forms of behaviour become things such as “avunculocal postmarital residence“, which obscures a multitude of individual behaviours: those that choose other forms of residence, and those individuals that change within their lifetime. It also obscures the dynamic changes, through time, of the population as a whole.

So part of my work routine involves telling myself that folks like G.P. weren’t simply doing the ethnographic equivalent of stamp-collecting when compiling databases of cross-cultural information like the Ethnographic Atlas and the Outline of World Cultures. Those labels mean something more than they don’t mean something. And they are the best information currently (and probably that we’ll ever have) available for large-scale cross-cultural analysis.


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