And she said that people do all kinds of stuff now - just look at Japan (a place she studied and is still studying). Look at kawaii culture, all of the sub-cultures, all the responses to American movies and animation and so on. The world is full of people, and it's bound to be diverse because they're all exposed to different things.
And then we were interrupted, as far as I can remember. But what I wanted to say was that while Japanese people (and people in general) are certainly creative these days, and while they respond to all kinds of events in novel ways, and while we have the internet now, indisputably changing our lives at a fundamental level, it seems pretty unlikely that human sacrifice will ever come back.
|Not coming back.|
The death penalty as practiced in some countries is arguably a form of human sacrifice, so I don't know if the entire concept has gone away, but it has certainly receded. And I hope/expect that the death penalty will disappear completely within a few decades, at least outside of Saudi Arabia.
Either way, people don't seem to want to kill one another as much as they used to, and that's a relatively new thing. It means we can't investigate human sacrifice ethnographically. In order to get some handle on why people used to cut out hearts and crush their children, we have to use historical documents, excavations, and comparative ethnography from around the time of such events or soon after (among other methods, if there are any). Human sacrifice is documented ethnographically, by the way - Fay-Cooper Cole witnessed and described such a killing in Mindanao in the early twentieth century, and Bernardino de Sahagun's descriptions of Aztec practices (post hoc and post-conquest), including human sacrifice, arguably constitute the first proper ethnography of a non-Eurasian society. Or maybe any society.
Headhunting isn't coming back either, but it went on for at least four or five thousand years in island Southeast Asia. It was an absolutely crucial practice in the societies in which it was undertaken: men usually needed heads in order to get married; they often took slaves and stole food alongside the heads that they took; and marriage alliances came to be of central importance in a world in which enemies might come to cut off your head at the end of the dry season if you didn't have make them your relatives. It's also interesting academically in that it seems to have spread with Austronesian language and to have changed in character in the different environments in which Austronesian speakers found themselves.
Ethnographic fieldwork can no longer answer questions about this fundamental aspect of human life in that area, and I think the lesson from that should be that ethnography is just one tool that anthropologists can use.
We've also got to take into account the obvious fact that 'ethnography' in New York City is completely different to ethnography in a village in New Guinea (to take the most stereotypical example of anthropological fieldwork), and that a lot of what counts as anthropological fieldwork is sociological fieldwork under another guise. Yes, in both cases you meet people and, yes, you interview them - but in New Guinea you'd live with them, wake up in their presence, eat breakfast with them, rely on them for food (paying for it, of course). You'd spend almost your entire time in that environment, surrounded by people. And you can find out some extremely valuable things about how people in smaller-scale societies go about their day, even if they are increasingly being incorporated into the post-industrial world.
Doing fieldwork in NYC, you'd be able to buy your food from people who have no idea that you're doing 'ethnographic' fieldwork and from people you have no other business with. You'd almost certainly wake up alone and eat breakfast away from your informants. Your research questions will be different, too: less marriage alliance, less inheritance, more stresses of the 9-to-5, more homelessness. It's a totally different thing, whether anthropologists today like to admit it or not. They're different kinds of societies, and I think the idea that anthropologists can do ethnographic fieldwork with businessmen in the modern USA is a little odd. They can do some useful kind of research with them, but it's not really the same thing - and this elision of 'ethnography' and 'any qualitative study' is just to pretend that a word like 'ethnography' can be made to mean whatever you want it to mean.
Obviously, though, there's a problem with what I'm saying here: most anthropologists just don't care about these topics anymore (by which I mean: human sacrifice, headhunting, marriage alliance, inheritance), at least not in the same way, and the discipline is being torn in several different directions by people with fundamentally incommensurate views on what anthropology is supposed to be. I get the impression sometimes that the only thing holding anthropology together is a shared misapprehension about the meaning of the word 'ontology'.
I went to Turkey a couple of years ago, and while it was a really lovely trip, and while Istanbul as a whole was magical, I was a little perturbed that on an after-dinner stroll in Gülhane Park one of the first people I saw was singing Gangnam Style and dancing like he was riding a horse. Is it really diversity (in the really interesting sense) if people are responding in slightly different ways to exactly the same media? And should studies of this Turkish Gangnam dancer be placed in the same academic department as studies of human sacrifice? I have to say that I don't think so, and I find anthropologists' justifications for this elision extremely weak.
Not that it affects me directly: I only have one short degree in the discipline, not a career in it. But I still read plenty of ethnographies, and ultimately I want to do linguistic fieldwork, which isn't wholly dissimilar to classic ethnography. And I'd also like students today to be able to study a total human science that takes into account a wide variety of findings, not just those acquired using one method. Oh well: I'm happy enough to shout into the wind about it.