On Perilous Ideas

by Jonathan Friedman, Aidan Southall
On Perilous Ideas
Jonathan Friedman, Aidan Southall
Current Anthropology
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Volume 35, Number 2, April 1994 / 173

-. 1981. "Stone Age visiting cards: Approaches to the study of early land-use patterns," in Patterns of the past. Edited by

I. Hodder, G. L1. Isaac, and N. Hammond, pp. 131-55. Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press.

-. 1983. "Bones in contention: Competing explanations for the juxtaposition of early Pleistocene artefacts and faunal re- mains," in Animals and archaeology, vol. I, Hunters and their prey. Edited by J. Clutton-Brock and C. Grigson, pp. 3-19. Brit- ish Archaeological Reports International Series 163.

-. 1984. The archaeology of human origins: Studies of the Lower Pleistocene in East Africa, 1971-198 I. Advances in World Archaeology 3:1-87.

semblages: An experimental model. [ournal of Human Evolu- tion 16:763-87.

WALKER, K. R., AND R. K. BAMBACH. 1971. The significance of fossil assemblages from fine grained sediments: Time aver- aged communities, Geological Society of America Abstracts and Programs 3:783-84.

On Perilous Ideas

1986. "Foundation stones: Early artefacts as indicators of activities and abilities," in Stone Age prehistory. Edited by


G. N. Bailey and P. Callow, pp. 221-41. Cambridge: Cam-

Department of Social Anthropology, University of

bridge University Press. ISAAC, G. LL., 1. W. K. HARRIS, AND F. MARSHALL.1981. Lund, Box II~,22100 Lund, Sweden. 22 IX 93

"Small is informative: The application of the study of mini- sites and least-effort criteria in the interpretation of the early Pleistocene archaeological record at Koobi Fora," in Las indu- strias mas antiguas (XCongreso, Union International de Cien- cias Prehistoricas y Protohistoricas). Edited by J. D. Clark and

G. L1. Isaac, pp. 101-19.

KIDWELL, S. M., AND W. J. BOSENCE.1991. "Taphonomy and time-averaging of marine shelly faunas," in Taphonomy: Re- leasing the data locked in the fossil record. Edited by P. A. Allison and D. E. G. Briggs, pp. 115-209. London: Plenum Press.

KROLL, E. M., AND G. LL. ISAAC. 1984. "Configurations of artifacts and bones at early Pleistocene sites in East Africa," in Intra-site spatial analysis in archaeology. Edited by H. J. Hietala, pp. 4-30, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MURRAY, T. 1993. "Dynamic modelling and new social theory of the mid to long term," in Dynamic modelling and the study of change in archaeology. Edited by S. van der Leeuw and J. McGlade, chap. 22. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

POTTS, ~.1984.Home bases and early hominids. American Sci- entist 72:338-47.

I find little with which to take issue in Wolf's very con- genially phrased yet serious warning (CA 35:1-12). Most interesting perhaps is the reminder of Boas's stalwart critique of the notion of cultural integration as a self- evident phenomenon homologous to the concept of peo- plehood. The general tendency to associate ethnic group with culture with race is surely a very profound aspect of Western essentialism. It has been powerfully criti- cized by the entire literature on Orientalism, the ten- dency to essentialize the other. What has not perhaps been consistently taken into account is the more gen- eral essentialism that has characterized our own self- representation as well (Carrier n.d.).

Racism, culturalism of a certain kind, and ethnicity are in such terms expressions of the same basic phenom- enon, the tendency to identify culture with a particular social group which, in virtue of being thus identified,

-. -.

1988. Early hominid activities at Olduvai. New York: Al- becomes an ethnicity. The attribution of specificity to dine de Gruyter.

a particular population is the basis of the culture, race,

1991. Why the Oldowan! Plio-Pleistocene toolmaking

and ethnicity concepts. Boas's opposition to such no-

and the transport of resources. [ournal of Anthropological Re-

search 47: I 5 3-76. tions is all the more interesting in that so much of an-

SCHICK, K. D. 1986. Stone Age sites in the making: Experi- ments in the formation and transformation of archaeological occurrences. British Archaeological Reports International Se- ries 314.

-. 1987. Modeling the formation of Early Stone Age artifact concentrations. lournal of Human Evolution I 6:789-807.

, ,

SEPT, J. 1992. ~rchaeolo~ical evidence and ecological perspec- tives for reconstructing early hominid subsistence behavior. Ar- chaeological Method and Theory 4:1-56.

STERN, N. 1991. The scatter-between-the-patches: A study of early hominid land use patterns in the Turkana Basin, Kenya. Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

thropology is founded on an essentialism traced to the Boasian tradition. It is the integration aspect of culture that has come to represent the concept in general, even though for Boas integration was a secondary phenome- non imposed upon the disparate elements available to a population at any one time and very much a product of psychological mechanisms. It bears comparison with the culturalist assumptions concerning culture that are most clearly expressed in the textualism of Geertz and some of his co-workers and have been so severely criti-

-. -.

1993. The structure of the Lower Pleistocene archaeologi- cal record: A case study from the Koobi Fora Formation. CUR- RENT ANTHROPOLOGY 34:20I-25.

n.d. Report on fieldwork undertaken at the blue tuff local- ity, Okote Member of the Koobi Fora Formation, June-July

1993. Unpublished report presented to the Office of the Presi-

dent, Government of Kenya.

THOMAS, D . H. 1986. Refiguring anthropology: First principles of probability and statistics. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.

TOTH, N. 1982. The stone technologies of early hominids at Koobi Fora, Kenya: An experimental approach. Ph.D. diss., Uni- versity of California, Berkeley, Calif.

-. 1985. The Oldowan reassessed: A close look at early stone artifacts. [ournal of Archaeological Science I~:IOI-20.

cized in the self-ransacking work of Clifford, Marcus, and others and, perhaps more important, in the work of Keesing, Barth, and Wikan. It might be interesting to consider whether the critique of ethnographic authority

might not be the expression of a return to Boas.

Boas's insistence on the mixed nature of culture in terms of its origins as opposed to the way in which it is integrated is a lesson for the current "discovery" of cul- tural hybridization on the part of some anthropologists who see the recent trend toward creolization as a prod- uct of globalization. The latter has been going on, as even Boas could demonstrate, for many an age and has


1987. Behavioral inferences from early stone artifact as-

little to do with the current capitalist world system as


such. And Boas himself was quite clear about the nature of the processes themselves, that all populations worlied with corpuses of mixed origins but still managed to inte- grate the disparate elements into a consistent whole.

The current trend to ethnification or even balkaniza- tion is perhaps nothing that can be dealt with at the level of cultural constructs themselves. It is a question of identification itself rather than the content of iden- tity. One cannot malie headway in ethnic conflict by trying to convince the adversaries that the contents of their identities are quite mixed up. Perhaps one ought to shift the entire discussion to the practice of identity rather than its products. Wolf suggests that this ought to be done, but the recognition of its necessity implies that it is the context of identification rather than iden- tity itself that is the major problem. This would suggest that the categories of race, ethnicity, and culture are products of a specific social practice common to West- ern capitalist societies and that other categories might be forthcoming in other kinds of social forms. This is not to say that "race," "ethnicity," and "culture" are recent creations. Rather, the particular meanings that they have for us are very much a part of our current state of social existence rather than universal truths.

We might distinguish here between the use of culture as a way of identifying difference and the genetic sense of the term-the capacity to go about life in specific and alternative ways. It is the first sense that has become the more dominant during the past decade. It has, as Wolf suggests, stressed precisely that aspect of culture that Boas was most wary of, that which associates it with ethnicity and race-the specificities of a popula- tion that thereby becomes a people. One approach to anthropology has stressed precisely the alterity implied in culture, one that existed as a property of Homo sapi- ens and is entirely at odds with an essentialization im- plied by ethnicity. The other is very much an abstraction of difference itself and reflects the nature of Western practices of self-identity.

We might also distinguish between the use of the term "culture" to identify specificity from the outside and its use to refer to projected models of social be- havior and thought, that is, as self-identity or self-representation. The act of identifying specificity among others is not the same as the kind of identity associated with either self-representation or ethnic identity. The former need not have anything to do with representa- tions at all. The way people play rummy in a particular fishing village need not have anything to do either with their self-identity or with the way others identify them. Yet it is precisely the conflation of these two practices of identity that provides the basis for the equivalence of culture, ethnicity, and race. The essentialist notion of culture somehow became conflated with the notion of representation, making it possible to identify culture with ethnic identity. Thus what is contained in self- representation or representation by another becomes the essence or totality of what one is. It would certainly be well to study the social bases of the culture concept and its vicissitudes. In all of the passion to deconstruct the traditional concepts of anthropology, surprisingly little has been done to dislodge the notion of culture, which is invoked as a tool or even explanation rather than sub- jected to critical analysis. Perhaps it is too close to the core of anthropological identity.


Le Roudier, Lisle, 24350 Tocane St. Apre, France.

5 IX 93

Wolf's stirring call to relevance in face of racial hatred, cultural prejudice, and ethnic terrorism is true to his respected moral stance but lacks conceptual and theoret- ical coherence. He bows to the tidal wave of antitheoret- ical postmodernism without conviction, while calls are heard for a return to relevant theory. Turning the clock back is unlikely, but it is time that anthropology brolie out of the unending sequence of fashionable models fe- verishly adopted, precipitately swallowed half-tested, and abandoned for the next novelty.

For Wolf's admirers this is a disappointment, weakly structured and unclear in purpose: to celebrate Sidney Mintz, certainly, and further honor him as intellectual descendant of Boas on the 50th anniversary of the lat- ter's death. But the three "perilous ideas" are unevenly treated: race most, culture less, peoplelethnicity hardly at all-as if Wolf deferred to current intellectual fashion and found himself somewhat at sea. Ideas come first, as in the title, race as ultimately inherited from the Greelis and Romans and perpetuated by medieval Christendom almost to our day. Avoiding ideas lilie class or exploita- tion, once "perilous," now infamous, he lets the people speak, following the civilized/barbarian/monstrous tripartite scheme of the ancient world reflected in the la- phetlShem1Ham classification and modernized in Lin- nCts virulently biased quadripartite scheme. Trying to give the people's view rather than professional theories and (as in his previous work) adopting a wide compara- tive perspective proves an impossible contradiction. The former can only be descriptive and voluminous or patchy and poetic. In neither case is comparison or meaningful interpretation possible without the profes- sional tools of definition and theory which have been cast aside. So Wolf is in the end unsatisfied, for "what anthropologists tend to relegate to the junk pile of their professional history remains live tinder in the world be- yond academe," and "cultural ordering requires leader- ship, control, influence, and power, but the phenomena of power wielding in the cognitive and symbolic sphere are poorly theorized, and thinking on these topics usu- ally proceeds quite separately from inquiries into cul- tural meaning," while "much of the discourse about agency and construal" seems "unduly voluntaristic."

Caught between voluntarism and determinism, Wolf does not wish to use the modified Marxist framework of Europe and the People without History (1982). He dismisses Marx and the main anthropological models for treating culture as secondary. Yet he also trivializes culture as "composed and recomposed of diversely shaped elements" rather than a "dense tapestry." He is ambivalent about Marx, first dismissing him, then ele- vating him as "an older anthropologist" and reasserting the core proposition that "men malze their own history, but they do not make it just as they please." He escapes from "modes of production" by concrete reference to slaves and peasants, warriors and priests. This avoids controversy without advancing understanding.

He opens with race, culture, and people (ethnicity) as three notions on the same dimension but treats them very differently. He traces race through "the great ar- chaic civilizations of the Old and New World," empha- sizing "differential location on a spatial continuum," with differentiation of life-styles and physical appear- ance in the "dominant civilizational schemata." The Yanomami, introduced for contrast, lack the latter but share the former and surprisingly, in Wolf's version, malze finer discriminations than the archaic civiliza- tions do. Dubbing the Yanomami "egalitarian tribal" clearly has evolutionary implications, despite the em- phasis on spatial continuum, and cannot but suggest the discredited Service evolutionary scheme that the latter himself was forced to abandon.

Instead of treating culture and ethnicity on this wide canvas, Wolf returns to the professional categories which at first he avoided. After briefly contrasting French Enlightenment universalist rationalism and Ger- man romantic uniqueness in Volksgeist passion and emotion, he seems to conflate the two by tracing the Greek Volksgeist through Winclzelmann's beguiling po- esy to the model of Western Classical education, ideal- ized as a wholly integrated culture of perfection. So flowed the intellectual tradition of an "ideational ho- lism at the root of culture," according to Wolf, through

HumbO1dtl Nietzschel

Hegel, Frobenius,

and Spengler to Ruth Benedict, as the very approach which Boas opposed. Such a glittering genealogy defies brief analysis and so is hardly open to question.

Wolf sees discourse on race predominant in the 19th century and discourse on culture increasinnly so in the zoth, with ethnicity emerging as a "hot topic" in the eighties and nineties as world events also forced renewed attention to it. The trouble is that he introduces ethnicity first simply as "people," then as "peoplehood1 ethnicity," conflating abstract and concrete but nowhere even broaching the vexed question of how culture and ethnicity are differentiated. Doing so would precipi- tate theories of political economy which he seelzs to avoid. He sees definitions of ethnicity shifting to "for- mulas of cultural distinctiveness" as though the two were almost synonymous. Tracing these notions in the public arena seems to leave the anthropologists' own ideas hopelessly confused.

Fearing charges of determinism, writers now employ a bewildering variety of evasive metaphors for what might be in danger of being thought to be causation. In the present piece we find "shape," "reshape," and "shaped," "laying down," "preside over," "gave rise to," "has implications for," "prompted by," "limited by," "permitted," "one of the main causes" (great boldness

Volume 35, Number 2, April 1994 1 175

here), "because," "wider implications," "prompt or con-

strain," "the how . . . but not yet the why," "organiza-

tional armatures around which cultural forms . . . form,"

"agency," "feeds back," "produces." Is this rich plethora

justified by meaning, rhetoric, or euphony?

The public horror of racial-cultural-ethnic terrorism in Bosnia, however much media-manipulated, demands a responsible and theoretically coherent approach from anthropology. It is a geopolitical and religious situation bearing a close analogy with that of the small states in Germany which Engels said it would be ridiculous to explain in terms of economics even though Prussia arose from historical, ultimately economic causes. It is only the ultimately determining element in history which is the "production and reproduction of real life," perhaps a yet more perilous idea than the others. Political and philosophical ideas, religious beliefs, and the "traditions which haunt human minds" (culture and ethnicity) also influence historical struggles "and in many cases pre- ponderate in determining their form" (Marx and Engels 1977:487). We follow writers such as E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams in their understandings of deter- minism, base and superstructure, productive forces, and means of communication as means of production (Wil- liams 1980:32, 34, 50). This approach in no way margin- alizes culture in human life. If it is in any way made secondary, it is only in the ultimate perspective. Culture remains potentially preponderant in the ethnographic present.

References Cited

T. Editor. n.d. Occidentalism. MS. MARX, K.,AND F. ENGELs. 1977. selected works. ~ol.3. MOS-cow: Progress Publishers. WILLIAM,,RAYMOND, 1980. Problems in materialism and cu1. ture. London: Verso. WOLF, ERIC R. 1982. Europe and the people without history.

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. . Perilous ideas: Race, culture, people. CURRENT ANTHRO


On Human Egalitarianism: An Evolutionary Product of ~achiavellian Status Escalation?

School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews,

St. Andrews, Fife KYI~~IU, Scotland. 8 IX 93

Egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies continues to present an evolutionary puzzle. It is not yet clear what social-psychological processes are responsible for lzeep- ing egalitarianism in place or how they evolved. The papers of Knauft (CA 32:391-428) and Boehm (CA 34: 227-54) represent important advances in understanding both in their recognition of the unique puzzle repre-

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