Sunday, 8 July 2012

A Short Rant

The posts I've written so far have addressed things usually unaddressed in anthropology departments.  Indo-European studies, Afrocentrism, and Indian history have their place in anthropology departments, but it seems to me the wrong one.  Instead of studying the subjects themselves (say, the linguistic situation of ancient Egypt), anthropologists study the non-academics who take an interest in them.  Instead of trying to find out as much as possible about pre-Christian Celtic religion, for instance, anthropologists today will research Celtic revivalism in Texas.  There are some excellent academics who take an interest in both - Ronald Hutton is one of those, and he has published on both Druidic religion and neo-pagans today who believe they are following the original.  Hutton takes a suitably sceptical approach to both things.

It's hard to see the point of studying the modern movements as a major part of the discipline - as more normal than studying the ancient things.  It can't be motivated by money or funding, because most of these books are densely written and often based on a lot of continental twaddle, making them impenetrable for many people.  The Celtic revivalists (or whoever else) will not find the books interesting, because they're not interested in their movement, as such; they're interested in apeing, as far as possible, the "true" religion of the ancient Celts.  That they usually fail in this task is not necessarily an indication of their lack of interest.

The motive of the academics seems to be the usual relativism, taking the uninspired and clearly incorrect view that the revivalists are, in some way, just as "correct" as the academics seriously studying the problems.  Unseat the "Western" view from its place of priority, that's the chief aim of this species of anthropology, and never mind that the notion of a "Western" view is itself a moronical strawman.

Here's the thing: there's a lot for anthropologists to study.  I've mentioned before how much there is to learn in order to be able to forge reasonable answers to anthropological questions, and it's a simple fact that courses do not teach these skills.  It's been known by archaeologists and ethnologists for decades that historical linguistics is a vital link in the chains of argument about prehistory or preliterate groups.  It is both an enormously productive and incredibly sophisticated tool for finding out things otherwise lost to us, like the social organisation of preliterate people before the rise of ethnography.

It takes time to learn and requires some dedication to grapple with the techniques.  But it has allowed us to take an astounding, mind-broadening peek into the prehistory of many of earth's populations, from the western Pacific to Nevada and the Yellow River, and it's something of immense value - a major scientific achievement all on its own.  It is, in effect, one of the things that allow anthropologists to show that those people white racists used to believe had "no history" do, in fact, have a great deal of it.

I am interested (and eccentric) enough to have studied a lot about historical linguistics on my own, albeit ever-so-slightly haphazardly, but as David Anthony notes in the first and second chapters of his The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, neither archaeologists nor social anthropologists are trained to use or understand historical linguistics.  Neither are linguists, nor most social anthropologists, trained in the interpretation of archaeological data, or even in how to understand the arguments made by archaeologists.  There is simply no course you can take, whether at undergraduate or graduate level, that will enable you to understand pre-industrial peoples using the tools of all three disciplines, and this is bizarre in an age when most of the top scholars in wrestling with these issues use tools from all three of them all the time.

I would like there to be a department or a discipline that provides a course integrating the tools and techniques of all of the relevant disciplines.  I don't care whether it's called anthropology or archaeolinguanthroponomy or spleg.  What matters is the content and direction of the course, not the name, or the history, of it.  It would just be wonderful if linguistics and archaeological interpretation could become second nature to anthropologists of all flavours.


  1. Hey Al, I'm glad I found your site! You know, you have been mentioning this book by Anthony, and I'm thinking I need to read it. Anyway, see you around these parts, whether here or at SM. Oh, and my site is here:

    ...but right not most of the stuff is cross-posted at SM. When I get the anthropologies thing going again I will have some other content there too. With fieldwork and all the blogging stuff has kind of gone to the wayside for a bit.

  2. I'm really interested in comparative ethnology at enormous time depths - particularly Austronesian ethnology, but also Indo-European and to some extent Uto-Aztecan - and that's why I picked up Anthony's book. I wasn't all that surprised to discover that it's good, but it examines things that I really didn't think it would, like theories of borders and ethnicity, as well as the traditional tasks of correlating archaeological cultures with proto-languages, etc. Uses some great examples, too, from Leach, Fredrik Barth, Eric Wolf. Very good stuff. Might be very dull if you're not interested in the Indo-European expansion, though.

    I'll keep checking your sites for posts. Also, SM still seems to be swallowing my comments - oh well.

    1. Hey Al,

      The book sounds great. I am a big fan of approaches that are based upon enormous time depths, as you say. Hence the reason why I really appreciate Eric Wolf and William Roseberry's calls for more history in anthropology. I am always getting in trouble with my committee because my automatic response is to start talking about history when it comes to any issue with my fieldwork!

      Oh, and about SM. I found and rescued another of your comments--not sure why you keep ending up in spam, but I will keep up with that and see if we can fix it. You can always email me and I can check:

      Anyway, if I keep marking your posts as "not spam" I think it will eventually stop. I had to do this with one other regular commenter as well and it eventually worked. Sorry--I know it's kind of a pain.

    2. Well, I think Anthropology (with a big A) should include any and all data, everywhere, in answering general questions about people. I'm not too concerned with whether my interest in writing systems is part of anthropology or history, because they're all fundamentally the same. But definitely, within social anthropology as a narrower specialism, historical data is incredibly important, and for many groups anthropologists study, the only historical data we have is from historical linguistics and archaeological digs. The thing is, that makes for very good evidence, but a lot of people are suspicious of these things. They're both excellent methods for finding things out. They can even make testable predictions. Historical linguists do this all the time, and whenever written data has appeared it has confirmed the arguments they've made. I just wish this stuff were more widely known by students of humankind generally, not just the odd archaeologist who has made it their aim to study the methods of historical linguistics.

      I'd also recommend the work of Patrick Vinton Kirch if you like this method. He's an archaeologist of the Pacific. Lots of great books by him, mostly on Polynesia and ancestral Polynesian society, including a really great recent book on Hawaii's native kingdoms. His On the Road of the Winds and the earlier Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms are classics of the field, and the former work represents pretty much the state of the art. He takes the idea of using all the evidence available and runs with it, using genetics, oral history, linguistics, digs, everything. It makes for a compelling and accurate history of the past.

      One day I'll do a big ol' post on why I think the historical approach is so important. Right now I'm going to debunk, mostly for my own benefit, a few crazy ideas from "Ancient Aliens" and that sort of thing.

      Thanks for the tip re:SM. I'll let you know if it happens again - thanks a lot for kicking the spam filter into line!


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