Category Archives: Anthropology

[scrapbook] On generalizing from case studies

Köbben (1970 and in other papers) was concerned with the folly of making general statements based on case studies.

In his study of the Siriono of Bolivia, Holmberg (1950) concluded that hunting and gathering tribes tended to be underfed and obsessed by food. From his celebrated study of Western European nations during the 1880s and 1890s, Durkheim (1951 [1897]) concluded that in general social isolation tends to drive a person to suicide. Hauser’s study (1959) of the Thai led him to believe that in general the more atomistic a society, the more it would resist modernization. Raulin (1959), studying the people of Gagnia and Daloa, concluded that uprooted peoples would be more interested in modernization than those still at home in the land of their ancestors.

But, Needham, (1954), studying the Punan of Borneo, concluded that hunting and gathering tribes were usually well fed and unobsessed by food. Asuni (1962), studying the people of western Nigeria, concluded that social isolation had nothing to do with suicide. Adair and Vogt (1949), studying the Zuni, concluded that the less atomistic a society, the more it would resist modernization. De Waal Malefijt (1963), studying the Javanese, concluded that up-rooted peoples would be less interested in modernization than would stay-at-homes.

Köbben, A. 1973 [ 1970] Comparativists and Non-Comparativists in Anthropology. In A Handbook of Method in Cultural Anthropology, Eds. Naroll, R. & Cohen, R. pp. 581- 596.

There’s an interesting discussion of Köbben’s approach to comparison, along with other 20th-century Dutch anthropologists in this chapter:

de Wolf, J. J. 2002. Conditions of comparison : a consideration of two anthropological traditions in the Netherlands. In  Anthropology, by comparison. Eds. Gingrich, A. and Fox, R.G. London; New York : Routledge.

[scrapbook] the fundamental and the freakish

From Adam Kuper’s Huxley lecture:

Kuper, A. 2008. “Changing the Subject About Cousin Marriage, Among Other Things.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 14, 717-735.

Malinowski never delivered a Huxley lecture, but I will give him the last word in mine. In a note for a never completed textbook he remarked that when he came into anthropology the emphasis had been on the differences between peoples. ‘I recognised their study as important, but underlying sameness I thought of greater importance & rather neglected. I still believe that the fundamental is more important than the freakish’ (cited in Young 2004: 76).

“The fundamental is more important than the freakish”.  A good essay topic?

 

[scrapbook] On the value of comparative anthropology

From: Burton, M, C Moore, J Whiting, A Romney. 1996. “Regions Based on Social Structure.” Current Anthropology 37 (1) (February 1): 87–123.

I often go back to this paper. The analyses themselves are interesting (bottom-up culture regions based on the data rather than geography) but problematic (correspondence analysis on non-phylogenetically-controlled data). But the remarks in the Reply are excellent arguments for comparative analysis.

Scholarly work is by necessity done slowly and carefully. We cannot have an instantaneous image of all of the world’s contemporary societies ready for comparative analysis. There will always be a long lag time from the collection of data to the time when systematic analysis is possible. If our profession allows the findings of long-term projects to be ruled out of court as “old-fashioned,” it will discourage the collection of systematic data in large long-term projects. In our view the trendiness of anthropology is one of the major problems of our field.

And then to end:

The distrust that many anthropologists show toward comparative research is based on misinformation, logical errors, or perceptions of methodological problems that either have been corrected or are in the process of being corrected. While there are always changes in scientific standards over time, the value of cumulative empirical research, which necessarily has a long gestation period, outweighs any possible costs to the use of data that may not have been collected according to a currently fashionable theoretical program. There is no need for false dichotomies between text and numbers, between old data and new data, between description and comparison, or between microscopic and macroscopic approaches.

[scrapbook] Morgan’s Question.

From LH Morgan’s introduction to “Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family“:

The tables, however, are the main results of this investigation. In their importance and value they reach far beyond any present use of their contents which the writer may be able to indicate. If they can be perfected, and the systems of the unrepresented nations be supplied, their value would be greatly increased. The classification of nations is here founded upon a comparison of their several forms of consanguinity. With some exceptions, it harmonizes with that previously established upon the basis of linguistic affinities. One rests upon blood, the preponderance of which is represented by the system of relationship; the other is founded upon language, the affinities of which are represented by grammatical structure. One follows ideas indicated in a system of relationship and transmitted with the blood ; the other follows ideas indicated in forms of speech and transmitted in the same manner. It may be a question which class of ideas has been perpetuated through the longest periods of time.

It strikes me that I am working on both Morgan’s Question and Galton’s Problem.

on culture and language [scrapbook]

If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.

Sapir (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

on the use of anthropology [scrapbook]

From 1936:

“Anthropology shares with history the feature of never having seriously held the opinion it is of practical utility, but of assuming that its end of understanding is sufficient justification in itself.”

A.L. Kroeber, “So-called Social Science”

on cultural determinism [scrapbook]

Benedict, in Patterns of Culture

” Society in its full sense […] is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it. No individual can arrive at even the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates.

It is largely because of the traditional acceptance of a conflict between society and the individual that emphasis upon cultural behaviour is so often interpreted as a denial of the autonomy of the individual. […] Anthropology is often believed to be a counsel of despair which makes untenable a beneficent human illusion. But no anthropologist with a background of experience of other cultures has ever believed that individuals were automatons, mechanically carrying out the decrees of their civilization. No culture yet observed has been able to eradicate the differences in the temperament of the the persons who compose it.”

1989 (1934), p. 253

A game from 3000 years ago

I came across this great paper today*:

CONNAUGHTON, S. P., TACHÉ, K., & BURLEY, D. V. (2010). Taupita: A 3000-year-old Shell Game in the Lapita Cultural Complex of TongaJournal of Social Archaeology, 10(1), 118-137. DOI:10.1177/1469605309354400  [link]

Abstract: Recent excavations at the archaeological site of Nukuleka on Tongatapu in the Tongan Archipelago have yielded the largest Lapita collection of perforated Ark (Anadara) shells known to date. In this article, we focus on the unusually large collection of modified Ark shells from Nukuleka in an attempt to unravel the ambiguity that surrounds their functional interpretation. Former interpretations of perforated Anadara as shell net weights may only explain one possible cause of their construction. We proffer, through relational analogy, that we are witnessing a 3000-year-old Lapita shell game.

These shells-with-holes in the 3000-year old archaeological record for Lapita have long been thought of as weighting material for fishing nets. But! The authors describe how during the field season on Tonga the local field assistants would, in their breaks, play a shell-based game (Taupita) – and the “debris” from this game matched that of the so-called net weights. Some lovely experimental archaeology later, and while they can’t discount the idea that the shells were used as net-weights, it’s certainly just as plausible that they were the pieces in a ancestral game resembling Taupita.

From the paper: Left: Playing Taupita Right: Anadara antiquata shells

This is groovy. I often mention in talks that one of the reasons for using phylogenetic methods on cultural and linguistic data is for the purposes of “virtual archaeology” – being able to infer something about social life in the past in the absence of appropriate material culture from archaeology. But there are of course some aspects of human behaviour and social life that combine both of these things: they leave some trace through artifacts, but there are missing pieces of the puzzle in terms of cognition, communication, or other cultural/behavioural aspects that remain outstanding. Games are a really good example – and often overlooked by both anthropologists and archaeologists. In the discussion the authors say:

As a community of archaeological scholars in pursuit of ‘big’ questions and larger anthropological themes, we sometimes lose sight of the day-to-day aspects of a society, including leisure time games which are rarely mentioned (but see Culin,1975; DeBoer,2001). Games are a social mechanism that can provide a unique opportunity to develop a skill, educate, make a tool,and/or potentially create a better understanding of one’s self. Games are also fun and part of the human experience.

Pacific anthropology has pulled its weight here, I think (no pun intended) – from the earliest late 19th century descriptions games were frequently mentioned, and there were detailed descriptions of string figures in a number of classic Pacific ethnographies, many published by the Bishop Museum. Honor Maude’s wonderful book on Nauru comes to mind here. I’d love to see more comparative and historical work on games – let me know if you have suggestions.

*So great I wanted to blog about it straight away, causing me to deviate from the master plan for today … but at least now I won’t go and do unnecessary research for this post all afternoon?

JPS online!

That’s the Journal of the Polynesian Society, if you were wondering.

It’s been a sad wrench for me at UCL, browsing the e-journals list of our library and always feeling a little empty spot in my heart right here:

The Society is only up to the 1930s, but seeing as the really good ethnographic stuff is mostly pre-1950, it’s a goldmine already.

JPS is one of my favourite journals. It’s regional, obviously, but its coverage within the Oceania remit is a real four-field anthropology, with history, sociology, economics, and geography as well. When I was an undergraduate nerd and used to actually go to the library and read journals I would invariably find at least one or two articles in JPS worth a read. They always seemed chatty and fascinating, especially the dusty ones.

new site: bad archaeology

In the spirit of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site (who linked to this), Bad Archaeology:

Bad Archaeology is the brainchild of a couple of archaeologists who are fed up with the distorted view of the past that passes for knowledge in popular culture. We are unhappy that books written by people with no understanding of real archaeology dominate the shelves at respectable bookstores. We do not appreciate news programmes that talk about ley lines (for example) as if they are real. 

I look forward to posts debunking such theories as the drowned civilisations of South East Asia.