Tuesday, 8 January 2013

'The People of Alor' and Anthropology

I've been filling up the Kindle with books and articles, and managed to find - for free! - the classic work, The People of Alor (1944), by the American anthropologist Cora DuBois.  DuBois was one of those early twentieth-century American anthropologists fascinated by personality and the effect of culture and experience on the psychological welfare of the individual - quite a noble project in its aims, of course, but not necessarily framed in the most politically-correct way.  She decided to go to Alor, an island north of Timor, to study what she thought were the psychological pathologies of the Malayan peoples, although she did realise, in the course of fieldwork, that Alorese people are not so culturally similar to people in the western side of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago.  (In fact, she ended up writing a bit on Abui, a non-Malayo-Polynesian language of Alor.)

Anyway, DuBois begins the book with this paragraph:

[...] Essentially the problems of anthropology are the same as those of the other sciences dealing with human beings.  Anthropology differs from these only in its subject matter, which is primarily the cultures of non-literate peoples.  This subject is of paramount importance, however, since it presents a series of independent attempts by men to live gregariously.
We can quibble about whether human societies are ever truly 'independent' of one another, and clearly it isn't only men who live in human societies (women, gay folk, etc).  But this is still a great reminder of what anthropology's purpose once was: to study human societies that aren't recorded in written traditions.  Before arriving in Alor, DuBois could have had little idea of what to expect; that was the point of conducting fieldwork there in the first place.  It seems to me as if anthropologists have forgotten that ethnography only developed because there were no other methods available.  There were no detailed texts on Alor (at least in English) before DuBois's fieldwork.  Ethnography, which really amounts to nothing more than going to live with or near a group of people in order to collect information on their lives, was the only possible way of finding out about the lives of Alorese people.

This had a truly revolutionary effect.  It is hard to believe that Durkheim and Mauss would have had the data to fuel their theoretical ideas without the existence of ethnographies from previously unstudied parts of the world.  And in the wake of ethnography, it was no longer possible for educated people to sincerely believe that 'primitive' - or non-literate, non-industrial - societies were populated by stupid, foolish, or illogical people.  (See, for instance, the Carnets of the French philosopher-anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in which Levy-Bruhl struggled with the idea of the pre-logicality of 'primitive' life, finding that it had no justification in the literature.)

Somewhere along the line, ethnography became something else.  The method of going to live in other places to study some facet of human life was turned on industrial and post-industrial societies, about which there is (inevitably) an enormous amount of information from other sources.  There are ethnographies of Wall Street, London suburbs, and even - to stretch the idea to an absurd extreme - 'ethnographies' of single marketing firms.  To some extent, this is quite reasonable.  There is a lot to be said for directly observing events and seeing how people actually do things.

But it has to be remembered that in the beginning, ethnography wasn't simply a supplement or alternative to other methods of data collection, one with a particular view on things.  It wasn't part of some characteristic anthropology perspective that anthropologists are supposed to be able to bring to the table as a result of their work.  It was simply the only method that could be employed in certain locations.  The point was the collection of some sort of data for the purposes of anthropology, viz, the study of non-industrial, usually non-literate, societies and cultures.  The focus on ethnography is a new turn, and not one that has any explicit justification anywhere (except the frankly weak and silly claim that 'anthropology can be done anywhere', which presumes what it seeks to demonstrate and conflates anthropology with ethnography).  So what we've got now is a discipline called 'anthropology' that, instead of being based on the study of a particular subject, like non-literate or non-industrial life, is based on the application of a particular method, ethnography, that was originally founded as a last resort.  Bit of an odd change, if you ask me.

This has partly followed from the turn from anthropology being a descriptive discipline concerned with describing and understanding human life to anthropology being a prescriptive discipline concerned with vaguely-defined, generally left-wing, notions about 'increasing social empathy'.  Ethnography in this prescriptive setting becomes a method of empathising with people instead of finding out about their lives.  So we end up with 'ethnographies' (Righteous Dopefiend being one example) of groups of people whose lives could be studied and understood through any number of existing avenues.  This is because the purpose of this type of 'ethnography' is not to provide useful information about human life for, say, comparative purposes, or to better understand human life, or to contribute seriously to major debates in descriptive social science.  The purpose is to make us feel friendlier towards crack addicts in San Francisco, and more generally in the world.  The objective is moralising, not describing.

I'm not inherently opposed to this - as I spend quite a lot of time engaged with under-privileged groups of people (I work with asylum seekers and refugees in the UK in my spare hours), I think it could be quite valuable, to an extent.  But there are two problems with this.  One is that such works preach to the converted; it seems unlikely that conservative thinkers are going to pick up a work by a left-wing scholar about the lives of crack addicts, not least one entitled Righteous Dopefiend (or similar).  This is unlikely to happen voluntarily.  That sort of defeats the purpose of the work.  (Moreover, there are inherent problems with promoting empathy as an end in itself.  Steven Pinker's discussion of this in The Better Angels of Our Nature [571-592] is one of the best on this topic, and that entire chapter should be compulsory reading for modern anthropologists.)

The other problem is more serious, for anthropology at least.  It is that this sort of work isn't anything like anthropology before the 1980s.  It is related, in that it is a book on human beings, but that applies to almost any academic work on human beings.  The 'ethnographic' work of Righteous Dopefiend is clearly not the same activity as DuBois's work on Alor.  Only an arbitrary conflation - the very arbitrary conflation that has taken place in anthropology over the last half-century - could make anyone believe otherwise.  I'm not opposed to the left-wing empathetic prescriptive view in totality; it could be a useful thing to have around.  But it isn't the same subject as anthropology - not even close, really.  And to have them both appearing on anthropology exam papers, funding boards, theoretical works....  It's mad, really.  It would be a bit like geology being half about the history and nature of the earth and half about the composition of concrete (mostly written about using a lot of jargon and deliberately obfuscatory language).  They're related but not at all the same thing, and their conflation would be lamentable.  It is truly surprising to me that this isn't the dominant view - why aren't there conferences where people spend their time discussing how to more rationally divide the academic disciplines so that this arbitrary lumping doesn't occur?


Here are two lighter points to conclude on.  I was working this morning at a school in the UK and on my way there, I saw a beauty parlour.  I noticed right away that the word 'holistic' was in its very name.  It's pretty amazing how this word has infiltrated the beauty and 'alternative healing' trade, such that even a basic beauty parlour in a poor urban neighbourhood would include it in the name.  Compare that to the attitude taken in the List and Spiekermann article I linked to a couple of posts ago (pp.4-5):
The term “holism” was coined by the controversial South African politician and part-time academic Jan Smuts in his 1926 book Holism and Evolution. The association with Smuts may have given the term a bad repute. He notoriously supported South Africa’s racial segregation (but also co-authored the preamble of the UN Charter, corresponded with Einstein, and advocated humanitarian values abroad). Nowadays the term is often used by its critics as a label for implausible metaphysical claims. We nevertheless use “holism” to refer to the opposite of individualism, without any negative connotation intended.
 Strange that 'holism' and 'holistic' have such positive connotations in anthropology, though.

The final thing I want to say is that this book exists.  Yes, this is an entirely real book.  No lie.

The Dene and Na-Dene Indian Migrations 1233 A.D.: Escape from Genghis Khan to America

That the title manages to pack in so much fail is almost a guarantee that the contents will be comedy gold.

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