+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com

After carefully reading chapters 1-4, participating in our class discussions, and reflecting on your class notes you will prepare 2-3 well-written pages (500-750 words) (12pt font, double-spaced) for your reading response. The assignment will consist of three distinct sections, each meaningfully engaging with a concept from the chapters, class discussion and the world.




concepts/ideas from the readings that are interesting to you (each concept must come from a


chapter (chapters 1-4).



of your three concepts do the following: First, select a brief quote from the chapter (1-2 lines – please include page number!) that captures that idea. Explain in a few lines what this idea is and why it is interesting to you.

Next, briefly relate this idea

to something specific from our class discussion

(even if we didn’t directly discuss the idea you selected).

Finally, select something else from the real world (a personal experience, a newspaper article, a documentary, etc – be sure to provide a link to this is appropriate) that helps you explore the idea further (with new insights, challenges, questions, etc). Explain why they relate and show your engagement with the material from class.

Stories of culture and place: an introduction
to anthropology
Kenny, Michael; Smillie, Kirsten
University of Toronto Press, 2017
9781487593704, 9781487593728
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Stories of Culture and Place
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An Introduction to Anthropology
second edition
Michael G. Kenny and Kirsten Smillie
BK-UTP-KENNY_HE-170243-Kenny.indd 3
06/10/17 6:54 PM
Copyright © University of Toronto Press 2017
Higher Education Division
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without prior written
consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying, a licence from Access Copyright (the Canadian Copyright
Licensing Agency) 320–56 Wellesley Street West, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 2S3—is an infringement of the
copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Kenny, Michael, 1942–, author
Stories of culture and place : an introduction to anthropology/Michael
G. Kenny and Kirsten Smillie.—Second edition.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-4875-9370-4 (softcover).—ISBN 978-1-4875-9371-1(EPUB).—
ISBN 978-1-4875-9372-8 (PDF)
1. Anthropology—Textbooks. 2. Textbooks. I. Smillie, Kirsten, 1979–,
author II. Title.
GN25.K46 2017   301   C2017-903610-6
We welcome comments and suggestions regarding any aspect of our publications—please feel free to contact
us at news@utphighereducation.com or visit our Internet site at www.utorontopress.com.
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Printed in the United States of America.
List of Illustrations vii
Acknowledgements ix
Preface xi
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
The Story of Anthropology: The “New” World 1
History in Context 29
Culture Shock 53
Making a Living 73
The Ties That Bind: Kinship and the Social Order 91
Symbol, Myth, and Meaning 115
Health, Medicine, and Society 139
Gender and Social Expectations 163
Race, Science, and Human Diversity 185
The Politics of Culture 211
Anthropology, Cultural Change, and Globalization 237
Conclusion 265
Glossary 267
References 273
Sources 291
Index 293
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1.1 Hawaiian Temple 8
1.2 James Teit and Lucy Antko 12
1.3 Robert Fitzroy 14
1.4 Charles Darwin 15
1.5 Indigenous Fuegian 16
1.6 Indigenous Australians 19
1.7 Lewis Henry Morgan 24
2.1 Bronislaw Malinowski 32
2.2 Franz Boas 42
2.3 Margaret Mead, with Manus Mother and Child 45
3.1 Anthropologist Charlotte Whitby-Coles in India 55
5.1 Cave of the Patriarchs 98
5.2 A.R. Radcliffe-Brown 100
5.3 Trail of Tears 109
6.1 Marcel Mauss 120
6.2 A Dinka Man: South Sudan 121
6.3 Ruth Benedict 123
6.4 President Obama and Emperor Akihito 125
6.5 Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard 127
6.6 Émile Durkheim 131
7.1 Cover of a Ministerio de Sanidad y Asistencia Social (MSAS) Health Education
Pamphlet on Cholera 157
7.2 Drawings That Appeared Side by Side in a Health Education Pamphlet by the
Venezuelan National Guard 158
8.1 Children in Gender-Specific Hallowe’en Costumes 169
8.2 Hijra 178
9.1 Evolutionary Tree 188
9.2 Anthropometry 189
9.3 Races of Europe 190
9.4 Mtesa 201
9.5 King of Rwanda 203
10.1 Nootka Village 215
10.2 Nootka House 216
10.3 Nuu-chah-nulth Whaler’s Shrine Figure 219
10.4 Makah Whaler 222
10.5 Gitksan Village 225
10.6 Greenpeace Protester 231
11.1 Burmese Refugees Waiting to Be Registered by a Thai Policeman
11.2 Korean Children with Their American Parents 248
Cook’s Third Voyage 6
The Pacific Northwest: Simon Fraser’s Journey
Zambia 34
Samoa 44
Iraq 59
Venezuela 155
Haiti 253
Madagascar 256
5.1 Iroquois Kinship
We first of all acknowledge Anne Brackenbury, our editor at the University of Toronto
Press, for her enthusiasm and encouragement over the course of this project. Fulsome
thanks to the team at University of Toronto Press for their input and feedback, and to
the anonymous reviewers of the first edition.
Kirsten Smillie would like to thank Dusty, Georgia, and Charlie for all their love
and support.
Michael Kenny thanks Angela Tai for being there, and his long-time colleagues in
the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University for their
intellectual stimulation over the years.
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This book aims at providing you with an overview of social and cultural
anthropology—its origins, its distinctive methods and concepts, and its place in the
contemporary world. Anthropology is a rich and diverse subject, so it’s difficult to give
a precise definition of just what anthropology is. We think this end is far better served
by seeing what it does, and that is our goal. You can then judge for yourself. However,
to get things started, we should at least say the following.
What we now know as anthropology arose out of contact between western
Europeans and the strange new worlds that were encountered during the great age
of overseas exploration and imperial expansion. Previously unknown societies were
“discovered,” the true map of the globe outlined, new trade routes established, and
colonies founded. It was suddenly a much bigger world, and those events are the
prelude to the story we want to tell. In its beginnings, anthropology is inevitably a
Eurocentric story, but that would change.
Travelers, empire builders, missionaries, and scholars asked themselves how these
new peoples and their unfamiliar customs fit into the broader scheme of things—
their place in history, their status as human beings, and the value of their cultures.
Anthropology as an academic discipline emerged from attempts to answer questions
such as these. Encounters with human diversity provoked reflection and stimulated
further inquiry; these new worlds turned out to be incredibly diverse, ranging from
small bands of hunter-gatherers to centralized empires.
As for theory, it shapes the questions one thinks worth asking, so theory, observation, and practice are intimately related. Even in the early days it came to be seen
that much could be gained by comparing societies with one another in a systematic
manner—that light could be shed on human nature and history by doing so. Anthropology was in the process of becoming a scientific endeavor, and this entailed the
development of methods for analyzing, classifying, and comparing.
The most natural way to go about it was by comparing other societies with
one’s own. But difference, after all, is in the eye of the beholder! Conceptions about
the nature of the non-European world were therefore an inverted mode of selfperception, seeing oneself through the other. One expression of this was a tendency
to place particular societies on a scale ranging from the “primitive” to the “civilized.” This progressive scale had a historical dimension. Europeans imagined that
so-called primitive peoples resembled what their own ancestors had been like in the
distant past, which, in turn, raised the question of what historical processes were
responsible for differentiating peoples, making some more “progressive” and others less so. This scale was a fertile but misguided idea. Be that as it may, so-called
primitive peoples were once the distinctive object of anthropological inquiry, studied with the hope of casting light on earlier stages of social evolution, or even on
the essence of humanity in its purist, simplest, most natural form. They were seen
as a laboratory of human possibility, the beginning point for everything that followed. That is still a common stereotype about our subject, and it’s not entirely
But the world has moved on, and so has the discipline: it has gone global and,
as an academic discipline, is now found everywhere with a much broader range of
interests than its traditional subject—tribal societies. Contemporary anthropologists
regularly turn their research lens on those who are “just like them,” and they thus
contribute to a better understanding of social issues that plague contemporary times,
such as poverty, discrimination, and environmental degradation. Anthropologists are
also regularly employed outside the world of academia, in fields including development, health, government, and law. In this text we will explore how the history of
anthropology has shaped the discipline into what we see today, and how the lessons
learned along the way have contributed to the development of a social science that
is relevant, critical, and pertinent to understanding the world we live in. As you will
see, some of our examples are taken virtually from yesterday’s news. Of course, the
world moves on, and what counts as newsworthy moves with it. We encourage you,
therefore, to think about contemporary events from an anthropological perspective.
Our Approach
The typical introductory anthropology textbook is fat, heavy, expensive, and attempts
a comprehensive overview of the field with many examples illustrating particular
issues. Our experience suggests that students (and instructors!) often find such an
approach deeply boring, so we have opted for another. For many of you, this may be
your first and last formal contact with anthropology. No hard feelings; that’s often
the case with introductory courses, and then you move on to other things. What we
hope to leave you with is a sense of what anthropology is all about and of its relevance
to other aspects of life and academic endeavor. But some of you may be stimulated to
go on and find out more; if so, all the better.
Given those facts of life, our view is that a few well-chosen examples are better
than many superficial ones that can be memorized and quickly forgotten. Therefore,
in each chapter we focus on a few specific cases that open up a discussion of the intellectual themes and wider anthropological issues involved. Each chapter of this book
will follow a similar mode of presentation: beginning with a statement of what we
intend to accomplish, followed by examples and discussion, concluding with a summary of the main points.
Chapter 1: The Story of Anthropology: The “New” World What anthropology is
all about, a few key terms, and a brief overview of sub-disciplines; narratives of three
early “first contact” encounters between European explorers and non-Western cultures;
an overview of the social evolutionary approach that characterizes much of nineteenthcentury anthropological theory.
Chapter 2: History in Context Continues the historical account in Chapter 1;
including the twentieth-century British anthropological approach known as “functionalism,” and the emergence of “cultural anthropology” in North America.
Chapter 3: Culture Shock Examines the nature of the anthropological experience
through examples of life in the field.
Chapter 4: Making a Living Anthropological studies of economic life; basic concepts such as exchange and reciprocity; “cultural ecology”; hunting-gathering; ceremonial exchange; working.
Chapter 5: The Ties That Bind: Kinship and the Social Order The importance
of the study of kinship to anthropology; how we view and construct human relationships; kinship systems; kinship in our own time.
Chapter 6: Symbol, Myth, and Meaning Culture as a cognitive system; the social
construction of the world and our place in it; the problem of language.
Chapter 7: Health, Medicine, and Society The origin and nature of “medical
anthropology”; concepts of illness and their practical implications; biomedicine as a
cultural system.
Chapter 8: Gender and Social Expectations Problems of definition; biology,
sexuality, and gender; gender roles.
Chapter 9: Race, Science, and Human Diversity Why “race” matters; the rise
of genetic essentialism; eugenics—taking control of evolution; the anthropological
critique of race; race in the post-genomic age.
Chapter 10: The Politics of Culture Human rights; cultural identities and cultural property; alternative histories; land claims; applied anthropology; anthropologists as advocates and activists.
Chapter 11: Anthropology, Cultural Change, and Globalization We’ve always
been global; the global and the local; colonialism; “modernization” and “development”; information technologies old and new; migration; caught between worlds;
implications for anthropology as a discipline.
Preface to the Second Edition
The first edition of this book was published in 2015 and very favorably received.
Nevertheless everything is capable of improvement. To that end, the University of
Toronto Press sought the input of a number of outside reviewers with experience in
teaching introductory anthropology who have kindly provided comments on our text.
They made some valuable suggestions that we have incorporated into this edition. Our
account of the history and development of anthropology follows a more chronological
approach than previously, and some new material has been added. It was also thought
that the book would benefit from inclusion of chapters on economic life and medical
anthropology. This we have done (Chapter 4: Making a Living; Chapter 7: Health,
Medicine, and Society). Otherwise the text is largely unchanged, though there have
been some rearrangements or abridgements and the chapter sequence has been altered.
Michael G. Kenny
Kirsten Smillie
The Story of Anthropology:
The “New” World
learning objectives
After reading this chapter, students should be able to
• describe the four major sub-fields of anthropology and identify what makes
cultural anthropology unique as a discipline;
• identify and explain the key research methods of cultural anthropologists,
including participant observation, fieldwork, reflexive thinking;
• outline the historical context that helped give rise to the anthropological
perspective on cultural difference;
• explore the relationship between theory and observation of the social world—
what is seen and how it’s seen;
• explain the difference between the persectives of early colonial explorers and that
of anthropology;
• understand concepts like “civilization” and “savagery” in the earlier history of
our subject;
• understand the significance of the nature of history and social evolution to the
development of anthropology;
• understand the “comparative method” and the kinds of insights that can be
gained by comparing one society with another;
• explain why the question of “meaning” is important to anthropology, and how
difficult the problem of “interpretation” can be;
• outline how Darwin’s experiences with the people of Tierra del Fuego were
central to his understanding of social progress;
• describe the “myth of the savage” and its influence on eighteenth-century
anthropology, including its biblical origins and interpretations by the
philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau;
• discuss how social theorists used observations of peoples such as the Aboriginal
Australians and the Fuegians to illustrate social evolutionism; and
• summarize the work of Lewis Henry Morgan and explain what differentiates his
theory of social evolutionism from other social evolutionists.
key terms
linguistic anthropology
physical anthropology
reflexive thinking
social memory
State of Nature
social evolutionary scale
“We cannot escape history”—Abraham Lincoln (1862)
Society is a moving target, and anthropology has moved with it, undergoing its own theoretical development in the process. In this chapter, we will provide a brief introduction to
the discipline, with some key terms including a description of the four fields, the broad
aim of cultural anthropology and the research methods employed. We will then consider
the historical background to a number of important trends in anthropological thought,
and provide examples of each as they took shape in actual research. We should point out,
however, that we’re emphasizing the story of how anthropology developed in the Englishspeaking world, and make relatively little mention of other national traditions.
It is our hope that, by the end, you will have acquired a fair overview of what
modern socio-cultural anthropology is all about, and will be in a position to ask
anthropological questions yourselves. We seek to illuminate the history and nature of
a discipline and to document the emergence of a particular way of seeing. Call it the
anthropological perspective. But we won’t try to define just what that is. As we said
in the Preface, that end is better served by seeing what anthropology does—through
examples of anthropology in practice.
What Do Anthropologists Do?
What do anthropologists study? And what do they do with their findings? Most popular representations of anthropologists have them digging bones and fossils in exotic
locations, or studying secluded tribes in the South Pacific. While both these portrayals
are true, they do not begin to describe the diversity of subjects that anthropologists
turn their lens on. The term anthropology encompasses four sub-disciplines that, on
the surface, appear to have very little in common with one another. What unifies
these sub-disciplines, however, is a desire to understand humankind. We will focus
exclusively on social and cultural anthropology, the study of human culture, social
organization, and behavior. Because it is just as useful to know what one is not studying as it is to know what one is studying, we will briefly define the three other major
areas associated with the discipline.
Physical anthropologists seek to understand human variation, adaptation, and
change. Physical anthropology was once preoccupied with questions about the nature
of “race,” with classifying people according to their perceived physical types and
explaining what such differences mean in historical terms. Physical anthropologists
have moved on since those days, and, as you’ll see, a critique of the concept of race
was one of the formative influences on anthropology as it is practiced now. Today’s
physical anthropologists can be found studying nutritional issues in Africa, examining
pre-human fossil remains, or using genomic evidence to reconstruct ancient human
migrations. Two sub-fields of physical anthropology include primatology, the study
of non-human primates and how their behavior and genetic composition compare
with those of humans, and forensic anthropology, the focus on human skeletal remains
found at crime scenes and at the site of accidents. Archaeology shares many research
interests and methodological approaches with physical anthropology. Broadly speaking, archaeologists study the material remains of past cultures, but not exclusively.
“Garbage Archaeologists” on Staten Island near New York City, for example, have been
examining the Fresh Kills landfill to understand recent consumption practices and
the rate of decomposition of materials. Finally, linguistic anthropology explores the
relation between culture and language. Linguistic anthropologists explore everything
from the structure, origin, and development of languages to the relationship between
language and social interaction. Linguistic anthropologists are also interested in exploring how communication is influenced by technology, such as email, social media, cell
phones, and text messaging.
The focal points of the four sub-fields of anthropology are clearly very different
from one another, and as one might expect, the methods employed to collect, analyze, and interpret these data also vary considerably. Socio-cultural anthropology is
primarily regarded as a social science, a classification based upon the type of research
questions asked, the research methods used, and the approaches employed to analyze
data. Throughout this text, we will explore these research components as they relate to
pertinent topics such as gender, race, religion, and globalization.
Cultural anthropologists want to know how the elements in a cultural system are
related to one another, and how they are expressed in individual lives. When we try to
account for the behavior of other people, what we are really asking is: What does their
behavior mean? What do they intend by it? What institutional structures constrain
and direct it? What makes it sensible, rather than just random or crazy? Culture is a
system of meaning; it provides the standards of value through which action is judged
and is usually an unconscious, taken-for-granted reality for the people who share it. It
is one thing to experience a new city or country, meet new people or try a new activity,
and quite another to consider how one will interpret or manage these experiences and
findings so that others can make sense of them. For many anthropologists, considering
how their own opinions and beliefs influence the way they see the people and activities
around them is as important as considering how their participants might view these
things. This is called reflexive thinking, and in a discipline in which the researcher is
the instrument, it is extremely important.
Contemporary anthropologists seek to understand the similarities and differences
between human cultures. Deconstructing the social world to fit into neat patterns
and simple governing laws, as was the approach of early anthropologists, has largely
been abandoned. Anthropologists conduct fieldwork in a specific location or with a
specific group of people to gain an understanding of why they behave the way they do.
Through participant observation, or joining and engaging in the culture and customs
of the people who are the focus of one’s study over an extended period of time, the
anthropologist gains a holistic understanding of how the group works. How are social
institutions related to one another in society? How does the economy impact the
political system, and vice versa? Is religion a prominent feature in society, and why or
why not? Is society highly stratified along class lines, or is it fairly egalitarian?
The presence of an anthropologist in a community has a recognized impact on
the way in which people act. Any account of an event, issue or group of people is a
re-telling by a person who has their own values, beliefs, and experiences that influence
what they see and how they see it. No matter how long one stays in the field and gets
to know one’s participants, one’s own life experiences and worldview will affect what
one deems important to document and discuss, and what one does not. Many cultural
anthropologists will identify how their own life experiences and biases impact their
The best way to gain an understanding of what anthropologists do, and how they
do it, is to explore the product of their fieldwork and research. This is often presented
as ethnography, a theoretically informed description and explanation of a way of life or
activity. We will explore a number of ethnographic studies in this book, but before we do,
we will consider the origins of the discipline itself, in terms of the philosophical thought
that governed the day, the key players who were exploring new and exciting areas of study,
and the topics that ignited their interest. In order to understand contemporary anthropology, we must consider the foundation on which the discipline was built.
The New World
This may well be your first encounter with anthropology, and so we begin with stories
of three first-contact experiences: that of Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy with
the Hawaiians in 1778; of the Canadian fur trader, Simon Fraser, with the Indigenous
inhabitants of interior British Columbia during an 1808 journey down the great
river that bears his name; and finally that of Charles Darwin’s encounter with the
Indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America during the famous voyage of HMS Beagle in 1832–35. Encounters such as these altered
the course of history.
Cook, Fraser, and Darwin were not anthropologists. The emergence of our subject was in their future. At their best they were meticulous observers, and this tells
us something about the difference between their perspective and that of modern
anthropology. There’s little sense of how Indigenous peoples viewed them, and what
their own world looked like from within. It’s mainly a one-sided story that these
explorers tell, from a “superior” outsider’s perspective. Of course these were travelers
who didn’t come to stay. True enough, but we will show that this perspective was
built into how Europeans of their time saw the world and its history. That would
change as anthropology developed as a discipline and as the world changed around
it. Broadly speaking, it can be said that the “anthropological perspective” has evolved
from observation of “the others” to both collaboration and advocacy with regard to
human and environmental rights.
The Islands of Paradise
On Monday, January 19, 1778, Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy unexpectedly
came across the Hawaiian Islands during his third Pacific expedition. The first two
voyages (1768–71; 1772–75) had been sponsored by the British Royal Society, which
was founded in the 1660s to promote the advancement of natural knowledge, and still
exists today. These trips made Cook a famous man; their by-product was the expansion of the Empire into Australia and New Zealand. The third voyage was aimed at
establishing whether or not there was a usable northwest passage: an ice-free sea-route
across northern Canada to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe. This time, commercial
interests had a hand in the game, notably the Hudson’s Bay Company, which sought
to advance its fur trade in the region.
Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, made landfall in Hawai’i on their way up
from Tahiti. Their goal was the northwest coast of North America and the Bering
Strait. Even though the Spanish had long been sailing the Pacific from Mexico to
the Philippines, no Europeans had ever crossed at this latitude. No one knew of the
Hawaiians, not even the closely related peoples of Tahiti and the other Polynesian
Islands to the south; nor did the Hawaiians know of them, and it is possible that there
had been no outside contact for hundreds of years (Beaglehole 1974: 574). Cook first
stopped at the island of Kaua’i, these days a popular tourist destination:
At this time we were in some doubt whether or no the land before [us] was
inhabited, this doubt was soon cleared up, by seeing some Canoes coming off
MAP 1.1 Cook’s Third Voyage
from the shore towards the Ship .… There were three and four men in each and
we were agreeably surprised to find them of the same Nation as the people of
Otahiete and the other islands we had lately visited. […] I never saw Indians
so much astonished at the entering of a ship before, their eyes were continually
flying from object to object, the wildness of their looks and actions fully express’d
their surprise and astonishment at the several new objects before them and
evinced that they never had been on board a ship before. (Cook 1967: 263–64)
Cook then went ashore himself near the present town of Waimea, where his statue
now stands. He found the Hawaiians very hospitable and ready to trade just about
anything for pieces of iron: “The very instant I leaped ashore, they all fell flat on
their faces, and remained in that humble posture till I made signs to them to rise ….
This, as I afterwards understood, is done to their great chiefs” (Cook 1967: 269). He
had encountered a hierarchical society of a type already familiar to him from other
Polynesian islands (1967: 284). Noting many similarities of language and culture,
Cook asked himself, “How shall we account for this Nation spreading itself so far over
this vast ocean? We find them from New Zealand to the south, to these islands to the
North and from Easter Island to the Hebrides; an extent of 60° of latitude … and 83°
of longitude … how much further is not known” (1967: 279).
James Cook was a meticulous observer, with a keen eye for religious practice and
other things:
We observed at every Village one or more elevated objects. It proved to be a
[heiau—a ritual enclosure] which in many respects was like those of Otaheite .…
It was 4 feet square at the base and about 20 feet high, the four sides was [sic] built
of small sticks and branches …. On each side … stood erect some rude carved
boards …. At the foot of these were square places, a little sunk below the common
level and inclosed with stone, these we understood were graves. About the middle
of the [heiau] were three of these places in a line, where we were told three chiefs
had been buried; before them was another that was oblong, this they called …
taboo and gave us clearly to understand that three human sacrifices had been
buried there, that is one at the burial of each chief. (1967: 270)
There were two effigies of goddesses in a nearby structure, and the whole place
was surrounded with an aura of taboo: “sacred, dangerous, set apart”—a term that
entered the English language via the Polynesians, its first recorded use by Captain
Cook himself in 1777. The British had stumbled into a complex symbolic world of
myth and ritual, as became evident when Cook was treated like a god on the Big
Island of Hawai’i upon his return from the north Pacific in November 1778.
What happened in the meantime is a story in itself. Resolution and Discovery
departed Kaua’i with an ample supply of fresh water and foodstuffs that they had
traded for with the Hawaiians. They reached the coast of North America near the
Straits of Juan de Fuca between what is now Washington State and Vancouver Island
in British Columbia. Cook missed the strait and sailed up the west coast of the Island
to Nootka Sound, where they met the people who now know themselves as the
Nuu-chah-nulth (“along the mountains and sea”). They lived in houses made of boards,
mainly subsisted on the products of the sea, and also had a keen interest in acquiring
metal. We will return to them again.
Cook’s ships then passed through the Aleutian Islands and circumnavigated
the Bering Sea up to the edge of the Arctic ice pack. After encounters with local
Indigenous peoples and with Russians on the Siberian side, Cook headed back to
Hawai’i before winter set in. This time it was to the Big Island, where the British
were astonished to find snow-capped mountains (Mauna Loa, 10,000 ft.; Mauna Kea,
13,000 ft.). They went ashore in Kealakekua Bay, on the famous Kona Coast.
What happened next raises persistent questions about just what sort of being the
Hawaiians took James Cook to be. His own diaries become spotty at this point, but
they are supplemented by the journals of his officers, in this case by Lieutenant James
King of the Resolution. Cook had established some degree of rapport with local men of
evident importance, who now wanted him to participate in a ceremony:
We landed on the Beech, & were receiv’d by 3 or 4 men who held wands tipt
with dogs hair, & who kept repeating a sentence, wherein the word Erono was
always mention’d, this is the name by which the Captn has for some time been
distinguish’d by the Natives. At the [north] end of this beach is a Village, on
the other an oblong pile of Stones & between a grove of Coco nut trees, with a
stone wall separating it from the Beech; Not a Soul but those I have mention’d
were to be seen on the beech, but close round the huts we saw numbers of
the Inhabitants Prostrate, as they were at our first Visit at [Kaua’i]. We were
conducted to the top of the pile of stones …. There was a stout Railing all
round, on which there were stuck 20 Skulls, the most of which they gave us to
understand were those of [Maui] men, whom they had killd on the death of
some Chief .… There were 12 Images ranged in a semicircular form & fronting
these opposite the Center figure was a [rotten] hog, placed on a stand …. On
one side were two wooden Images; between these the Captain was seated ….
[The priest] kept repeating in a very quick tone some speeches or prayers, to
which the rest responded … till at last he repeat’d only two or three words at
a time & was answerd by the Croud repeating the Word Erono. (Cook 1967:
The Lieutenant and his Captain were obliged to attempt to eat morsels of the
rotten pig. King was mystified by “this long, & rather tiresome ceremony, of which we
could only guess at its Object and Meaning, only that it was highly respectful on their
parts, & seemed to promise us every assistance they could afford us” (1967: 506–7).
Lieutenant King’s puzzlement about what was going on here raises a central anthropological issue: the problem of meaning and interpretation. How is a ritual of this
sort to be understood? What is the nature of a concept such as “taboo”? Who or what
was “Erono,” and why was Captain Cook associated with this being in the eyes of the
Hawaiians? As Cook’s biographer wrote, “we may not unnaturally ask … why Cook
should have received such extraordinary notice at this particular island” (1967: 657).
We’ll return to such questions in Chapter 6.
PLATE 1.1 Hawaiian Temple
These questions take on added force given the unfortunate events that followed.
After Captain Cook had been treated virtually like a god, the Resolution and Discovery
took their leave but were forced to return within a week because of a broken mast.
This time things didn’t go well at all. Cook ended up in a dispute with the locals over
the theft of a small boat; he and several others were killed in an attempt to get the boat
back. His body was taken inland and dismembered, and his shipmates were only able
to retrieve some of the parts. What was left of Captain Cook was put in a coffin and
buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, which had been placed under a do-not-enter taboo by
a local lord so as to prevent further hostilities. As Lieutenant King reported, “we now
assurd him we were entirely their friends, & as the Erono was buried all recollection
of the affair was also buried” (1967: 567). A monument to Captain Cook now stands
near where he was killed; it is considered extra-territorial British property.
As for Hawai’i itself, in 1810, the islands were unified into one kingdom by
Kamehameha the Great. In 1893, the kingdom was overthrown in a bloodless coup
organized by a group of American planters and merchants (see Daws 1968). In 1959,
Hawai’i was admitted to the American Union as the 50th state. If you travel around
the islands these days you may occasionally see the original Hawaiian flag flying by
the roadside. A local man explained that it was to protest the illegal American seizure
of the islands and to agitate for the restoration of the kingdom. On his t-shirt was
written, “My people killed Captain Cook.” Over the years Cook became for some
“a symbol of the colonialism, dispossession and oppression that sometimes followed
in the wake of his explorations” (Williams 2008: 172). As one radical said, “the best
part of Cook’s visit was that we killed him … we can defend our honour by declaring
that we rid the world of another evil white man” (Williams 2008: 170, 172). In 2015
Native Hawaiian protestors and their allies effectively blocked the construction of a
huge telescope at the observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, which they regard as
a sacred mountain; the project may find a new home on the Canary Islands off the
west coast of Africa.
Simon Fraser’s Journey
River geography was of great interest to fur-traders, such as Simon Fraser. He was
born in 1776 in New York State, moved to Quebec as a teenager, and was commissioned by a Montreal-based fur company to search out new opportunities in the far
West. He knew about the discoveries of previous expeditions, but what lay between
the Prairies and the coast remained unclear. There had been reports of a major river
beyond the Rockies, and Fraser undertook to determine whether or not it was in fact
the Columbia, which had been partially explored by George Vancouver in 1791–92
and the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805–06.
Fraser and his party traveled by canoe down that uncharted river in the spring
of 1808, encountering numerous Indigenous groups along the way. Fraser regarded
himself as “English” and he called his canoemen “Canadians”; they were probably
Métis, men of mixed French Canadian and Indigenous ancestry. He kept a detailed
journal, while Native people living in the vicinity of the present town of Lytton kept
alive memories of the first European they had ever seen. The following quote records
Fraser’s reaction to their encounter.
At 8 A.M. set out … The natives ferried us over a large rapid river [the Stein
River]. I obtained, for an awl, a passage to the next village, a distance of three
miles through strong rapids. The others who went by land met some of
the Indians on the way who were happy to see them. The Indians of this village
may be about four hundred souls and some of them appear very old; they live
among mountains and enjoy pure air, seem cleanly inclined, and make use of
wholesome food. We observed several European articles among them, viz. a
copper Tea Kettle, a brass camp kettle, a strip of common blanket, and clothing
such as the Cree women wear. These things, we supposed, were brought from
out settlement beyond the [Rocky] Mountains. Indeed the Indians made us
understand as much.
After having remained some time in this village, the principal chief invited
us over the river. We crossed, and he received us at the waterside, where, assisted by several others, he took me by the arms and conducted me in a moment
up the hill to the camp where his people were sitting in rows, to the number
of twelve hundred; and I had to shake hands with all of them. Then the Great
chief made a long harangue, in course of which he pointed to the sun, to the
four quarters of the world, and then to us, and then he introduced his father,
who was old and blind, and was carried by another man, who also made a
harangue of some length. The old man was placed near us, and with some emotion often stretched out both his hands in order to feel ours.
The natives have many chiefs and great men, appear to be good orators, for their
manner of delivery is extremely handsome. We had every reason to be thankful
for our reception at this place; the Indians shewed us every possible attention and
supplied our wants as much as they could. We had salmon, berries, oil and roots in
abundance, and our men had six dogs. Our tent was pitched near the camp and we
enjoyed peace and security during our stay. (Fraser 1960: 86–87)
In 1900 the story of Fraser’s visit was recounted to James Teit, a Scottish immigrant who had married into a local family. Teit was a self-taught anthropologist who
became an associate of Professor Franz Boas of Columbia University in New York, and
wrote extensively on the interior peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Boas was a central
figure in the early history of North American anthropology, and we’ll see him again
in Chapter 2. The following quotation gives us an Indigenous perspective on Fraser’s
1808 account. It was related to Teit by Semalitsa, a woman of the Slaka’pamux First
Nation, who was living near the present town of Lytton, BC.
MAP 1.2 The Pacific Northwest: Simon Fraser’s Journey
My grandmother told me that when she was a young girl she was playing
one day in the summer-time (about the time the service-berries get ripe) near
the river beach at the village of [Stein], when she saw two canoes, with red
flags hoisted, come downstream. She ran and told her mother, and the people
gathered to see the strange sight. Seeing so many people gathered, the canoes
put ashore and several men came ashore. Each canoe carried a number of men,
and many of them wore strange dresses, and everything about them was strange.
Some of the men looked like Indians, and others looked like what we call white
men. Among them was a Shuswap chief who acted as interpreter. Our people
were not afraid of the strangers, nor were they hostile to them. The strangers
produced a large pipe, and had a ceremonial smoke with some of our men.
After distributing a few presents, they boarded their canoes and went on to
Lytton, where they were presented with food of various kinds, and gave in
PLATE 1.2 James Teit and Lucy Antko
exchange tobacco, beads, and knives. The Lytton chief … went up the east bank
of the Fraser, and conducted them to his place with considerable ceremony. All
the Lytton people were assembled to meet them, and before they left they had
many talks and smokes with the Indians. The Spence’s Bridge chief ran on foot
all the way [to Lytton] and arrived in time to see the strangers and to deliver a
great speech. The Lytton chief at this time was also a great orator. The Spence’s
Bridge chief was presented with some kind of metal or brass badge, and a hat
worn by the leader of the strangers whom the Indians called “The Sun.” He was
called this because of some kind of shining emblem he wore on his hat or cap,
which resembled the symbol of the Sun. The Indians applied names to most of
the strangers, all taken from some feature of their appearance or from certain
marks or emblems on their clothing. (Wickwire 1994: 8–9)
Fraser had noted unfamiliar cultural practices, such as the speech in which the
orator pointed to the sun and the four quarters of the world. He could not know that
later generations in the Lytton area would call him “The Sun” or that some would
remember him as having traveled in company with Coyote, Moon, and Morning
Star. “Coyote” was a powerful figure among interior peoples, the trickster-transformer
who gave the world its present form and was a central character in many local tales.
Some said that Fraser’s visit was foretold by prophets, and even that Fraser was himself
Coyote: “This is the only time Coyote has appeared since the end of the mythological
age” (Wickwire 1994: 10). A more recent and quite different account recalls that some
member of Fraser’s party, perhaps even Fraser himself, had molested a local woman
(Wickwire 1994). That is possible of course, but it may also reflect the tensions that
have arisen between whites and Indigenous peoples since Fraser’s time. History gets
rewritten or retold in the light of present circumstances.
When Fraser’s party reached the river’s mouth, he took latitude measurements and
determined that this new river could not be the Columbia, but was well to the north
of it. They found that things were tense because of raids by the “Indians of the Sea,”
and so headed back upriver again. In years to come the peoples Fraser had encountered
along the way would be confined to small reserves, a tiny fraction of the territory they
had once used freely. The river now bears Fraser’s name.
The contrasting stories of Semalitsa and Fraser point to the topic of social
memory—the social factors affecting recollection and forgetting (see Fentress and
Wickham 1992; Connerton 1989). The written accounts of Cook, Fraser, and
Darwin are stories too—told from the point of view of a particular time and place
and with a particular audience in mind. Sometimes the “truth” of historical accounts
is difficult to judge, and a lot may depend on it. In Semalitsa’s account we see a
process at work whereby long-ago events were assimilated into a First Nations style
of storytelling. Memories of events, by being told and retold, change their shape over
time. Events happen, but what do they mean? By themselves nothing much, unless a
place is found for them in a narrative. It might be tales of heroic deeds, or something
as everyday as shared memories of a family holiday. Things that happened long ago or
even occurred at entirely different times may get absorbed into one story and take on
“mythological” qualities. Much is simply forgotten and lost. The making of “history”
can itself be a very political process, and we’ll revisit that topic in Chapter 10.
Time Travel
In 1826 the British Admiralty dispatched two ships—the Adventure and the
Beagle—to survey the southern coasts and peninsula of South America. This first
voyage of the Beagle lasted four years and took its crew to Tierra del Fuego at the
far southern tip of the continent. They returned home with four native Fuegians
on board, three young men and a girl. Other travelers had encountered Fuegians
before, and had formed an unfavorable opinion of them. These hunter-gatherers
lived in small and sometimes mutually hostile bands, and subsisted off the products of both sea and land. Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, described them as
“… wrapped in rough skins, with their hair hanging down on all sides, like old
thatch, and their skins of a reddish brown colour, smeared over with oil, and very
dirty. Naturally petulant and quarrelsome, they are also ever intent upon mischief;
fear of punishment alone restraining them; their extremely dirty black hair half hides
yet heightens a villainous expression of the worst description of savage features”
(Fitzroy 1966, v.1: 216, 319; v.2: 137).
Nevertheless Fitzroy noted that “unwilling as we may be to consider ourselves
even remotely descended from human beings in such a state … [  Julius] Caesar found
the Britons painted and clothed in skins like these Fuegians” (Fitzroy 1966, v.2: 121).
After another incident involving the theft of a boat, the British picked up the four
Fuegians as hostages, but found it impossible to drop them off again. Robert Fitzroy
assumed personal responsibility for their welfare, and vowed to return them on a
subsequent trip. His views on their abilities changed for the better with greater familiarity: “During the time which elapsed before we reached England, I had time to see
much of my Fuegian companions; and daily became more interested about them as I
attained a further acquaintance with their abilities and natural inclinations. Far, very
far indeed, were three of the number from deserving to be called savages [he wasn’t
PLATE 1.3 Robert Fitzroy
PLATE 1.4 Charles Darwin
so sure about the fourth]. They look forward with pleasure to seeing our country, as
well as to returning to their own” (Fitzroy 1966, v.2: 1–2, 6).
In the end he became quite fond of his four guests and saw them as possible cultural ambassadors; they were even introduced to King William IV (Queen Victoria’s
predecessor) at the monarch’s own request. Fitzroy was true to his word, and the
Fuegians were returned on the second expedition (there were now only three;
the other had died of smallpox in England). This time a 22-year-old Charles Darwin
rode along as expedition naturalist on a five-year journey around the world. The
role of that trip in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution is well known,
and we’ll return to it. The immediate product of the expedition was his popular
travel narrative, The Voyage of the Beagle (originally volume 3 of the official report of
the expedition, published in 1839). On Christmas Day, 1832, he first encountered
the “savage” Fuegians:
PLATE 1.5 Indigenous Fuegian
The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild
and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into
my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed
with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement,
and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any
arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government,
and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. (Darwin 1966: 642)
Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world .… The tribes have no government or
head, yet each is surrounded by other hostile ones, speaking different dialects;
and the cause of their warfare would appear to be the means of subsistence .…
Whilst beholding these savages, one asks, whence have they come? What could
have tempted, or what change compelled a tribe of men to leave the fine regions of the north, to travel down … the backbone of America, to invent and
build canoes, and then to enter on one of the most inhospitable countries
within the limits of the globe? (Darwin 1966: 235–37)
But Darwin was also shipmate with the Fuegians whom Fitzroy had adopted, and
that gave him occasion to reflect on racial difference and the nature of civilization.
That concern stayed with him throughout his life, and he returned to the theme
30 years later in his 1871 book The Descent of Man: “The Fuegians rank amongst the
lowest barbarians; but I was continually struck with surprise how closely the three
natives on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ who had lived some years in England, and could
talk a little English, resembled us in disposition and in most of our mental faculties”
(Darwin 1998: 66).
When Fitzroy and Darwin looked at the Fuegians they saw a living image of our
remote ancestors. As a devout Christian, Fitzroy turned to Adam and Eve to identify
our common parents, and traced the subsequent settlement of the earth back to the
events described in Genesis 9–10. Leaving the truth of the biblical narrative aside,
what he was trying to get at remains a problem today: the nature and timing of human
settlement in the Americas (Fitzroy 1966, v.2: 640–66).
By 1871 Darwin had read widely in the anthropology of his day, and extended
his comparison between Fuegians and the English to all the peoples of the world. He
concluded that, no matter how different local varieties of humankind may seem on
the surface, “the close similarity between the men of all races in tastes, dispositions
and habits” shows that all humanity is a single species with similar psychological qualities. Darwin concluded that all humanity had a common origin in the not so distant
evolutionary past and branched out into the varieties we see today. Just how remained
a question.
Racial diversity puzzled him, and Darwin grappled unsuccessfully for a way to
explain it. When thinking about the various peoples of the world he saw many superficial
differences, but when looking more deeply he found much greater similarities both with
regard to physical structure and cultural capacity. The nature of physical and genetic
remains an issue for anthropology and evolutionary biology, as does the problem of
how the human capacity for culture arose. Many think the concept of “race” has no
scientific validity and should be abandoned entirely, but it remains very much a part of
our everyday worlds. We’ll look at these issues more closely in Chapter 9 and will now
turn to the history of socio-cultural anthropology as we understand it today.
Prelude: Back to Nature
Anthropology emerged out of the pre-history described above. An increasing flow
of information about human diversity was certainly part of the equation. But there
were also philosophical and political questions that European intellectuals believed a
comparative and historical approach to human affairs might help them address. One
way of getting at these problems was by imagining a primitive “State of Nature”
before society itself came into being, a world of essentially solitary individuals. By
stripping away all the things we think of as features of a “civilized” way of life, perhaps
things can be seen as they really are. The myth of the “savage” was employed to help
distinguish between what is natural and what is artificial in the human condition—a
creation of society itself. The German word for “primitive peoples” is Naturvölker,
“natural peoples; peoples of nature.” The French term sauvage has similar connotations, “natural; undomesticated” (as in riz sauvage, “wild rice”). How such people
actually live might cast light on basic questions about human nature and the origin of
society. Even now the news media get excited by reports of a previously un-contacted
Indigenous group turning up somewhere, usually in Brazil. But of course there is
always the danger of projecting pre-conceived attitudes onto these peoples. Widespread
interest in them tells us something already.
The Garden of Eden tale in the Hebrew book of Genesis is one version of the State
of Nature myth. God gave physical structure to the world and then made the creatures
that inhabit it. First came the plants, fish, and animals, then human beings, molded
out of the earth itself. Adam and Eve were naked and lived off what nature provided
them. But they disobeyed God by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and
learned that they were naked. The first “cultural” act was therefore the invention of
clothing. As punishment for their disobedience, God cursed them and threw them
out of the Garden; childbirth, work, death, and patriarchy have been our fate ever
since: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for
out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3: 19).
History as we know it begins with the exile from Eden, and it’s been a pretty bloody
affair ever since. Genesis is quite literally a creation story, and explains, like many
others of the sort, the emergence of our complex world; it provides an explanation and
justification for why things are the way they are.
James Cook was generally level headed, but emotion seems to have gotten the
better of him when writing about the Indigenous Australians he met on the coastline
of what became New South Wales:
The Natives of this country … are of a very dark brown or Chocolate
Colour with lank black hair, they are under the common size and seem to be
a timorous inoffensive race of Men …. Men women and children go wholy
naked. It is said of our first Parents that after they had eat of the forbidden
fruit they saw themselves naked and were ashamed; these people are Naked
and are not ashame’d; they live chiefly on Fish and wild Fowl and such other
articles as the land naturly produceth, for they do not cultivate one foot of
it. These people may truly be said to be in the pure state of Nature, and may
appear to some to be the most wretched upon Earth: but in reality they are far
more happier than … we Europeans. They live in a Tranquility which is not
disturb’d by the inequality of condition, the Earth and Sea of their own accord
furnishes them with all things necessary for life. (Cook 1968, v.1: 508–9)
This style of thought is associated with Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(1712–78), who examined the origins of society and the nature of human inequality.
“In order to form a proper judgment of our present state,” he imagined a time before
PLATE 1.6 Indigenous Australians
people lived in societies, and speculated about what being raised in such a condition
would be like (Rousseau 1992: 13). He concluded that, if people appear to be wicked,
it is only because they live in wicked societies based on gross inequalities of wealth
and status. In his hands the myth of the State of Nature was used to imagine what a
just society would be like if we were free to go back and start again from scratch—to
form a democratic social contract based on natural human sympathy and rational
self-interest. The implications were revolutionary.
Rousseau was arguing against a very different view associated with the seventeenthcentury English political theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). His image of the
“savage” was one of self-centered violence, a war of all against all. This was a very
real issue at the time, since he was writing in the wake of the English Civil War
of the 1640s, during which the foundations of society had been seriously shaken
(think about Syria today, and Rwanda or Bosnia in 1994 and 1995). Hobbes took
events of that sort to be the modern equivalent of the violence supposedly typical
of primitive society, and summed it all up in a famous passage that resonates to
this day:
[In the State of Nature] there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof
is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation; no
commodious building; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of
time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and
danger of violent death and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and
short. (Hobbes 1962: 100)
The fundamental role of government, and for that matter society itself, is therefore
to protect us from one another through the rule of law, backed up by the threat of
force exercised by a sovereign ruler. Only then is there any possibility for social progress. This contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau shows that the myth of the savage
can be used for exactly opposite ends. Real-world examples can be found to support
either position, and both have had an influence on the development of anthropology
and social thought more generally. The concept of the “savage” provided an inverted
image of the European world itself.
How “primitive” peoples were judged therefore reflected how social theorists
and satirical writers regarded the worth of their own societies. If they saw their own
societies as progressive in nature, the “savage” represented what had been outgrown
and surpassed; if their own societies were seen as unfair and corrupt, then the savage
represented primitive simplicity and equality. Looked at either way, a central question becomes how this primitive simplicity gave rise to the complexity and variety
the world actually contains. Both logic and history require that we think of huntergatherers as the ancestors of us all. They provide an image for setting the zero point of
history—a baseline for inquiries into how and why social change has taken place, and
to anticipate its future direction.
The Idea of a Social Science
There is no single “scientific method,” but there is the underlying hope that seemingly
complex phenomena hang together in a law-like way, and that these laws are accessible
to our understanding and manipulation. Social life is a complex affair, with many
factors all in play at the same time. A nineteenth-century French philosopher named
Auguste Comte (1798–1857) coined the term sociology to help define the kind of
study that social phenomena seemed to call for. His “sociology” included what we
now think of as “anthropology.” From his point of view, it came last in the historical
development of the sciences because it is the most difficult and the hardest to separate
from prejudice and superstition. Comte’s new science was to be comparative and historical in nature, charting the evolutionary progress of knowledge, while also providing
insights into the practical administration of society—a serious concern in an age of
revolutions, class division, and chronic social instability.
For anthropology as we know it to emerge, there first had to be an understanding
that society can and should be studied scientifically, using methods that had already
been proven fruitful in other areas of inquiry. Comte helped set the stage for this.
Physical science provided one model for how it might be done: construct an experiment to test a hypothesis, manipulate the variables, and see what happens. Of course
that’s difficult with societies, but there are many natural experiments already at hand.
Humans live in an extraordinary variety of situations, and the variability of these
conditions provides many opportunities for comparative research. History does as
well—a vast laboratory of human experience.
Biology offered a somewhat different model. Organisms are composed of parts, and
the parts must work together to sustain a living creature. There has to be a high degree
of functional integration. Is it possible to think of societies in the same way? Individual
persons belong to groups such as families, clans, social classes, or some other collective entity. The arrangement of these relationships and groupings constitutes the
social structure—the anatomy of society. The next step is to observe the system in
motion to see how the life of the social organism is (or is not) sustained and
changes over time—how the various parts relate to one another in the context of the
whole, how they function or fail to function together.
Evolutionary concepts add the time dimension, long durations in which historical
tendencies have enough room to work themselves out and produce structural change.
Darwin’s great book The Origin of Species (1859) applied this kind of thinking to the
animate world; in his vision evolutionary change is slow, incremental, and driven by
adaptation to conditions. Nineteenth-century social theorists came up with various
evolutionary schemes to classify types of society, and proposed various causal factors to
explain how the differences between them arose (Burrow 1968). They were searching
for the underlying dynamic of world history and where their own societies stood in
relation to it. They wondered what the next steps would be. We wonder what they
would have made of globalization and the Internet.
The Evolutionist Paradigm: Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan
The concept of “primitive society” provided a logical starting point for anthropological
speculation and research. The term “primitive” has a double meaning: (1) “primitive” as in “backward,” but also (2) “primitive” as in “original,” the starting point for
some kind of future development. Social evolutionists were very taken by the idea of
progress, the sense that history was in fact leading onward and upward and that they
had the key to understanding it.
The 1870s and 1880s were a fertile period in the history of our subject. In 1871
Darwin published The Descent of Man in which he publically spelled out what he had
in fact believed for many years: that humankind has evolved from a more primitive
form. But, as we’ve mentioned, he also emphasized that humanity is essentially one
species, no matter how different local varieties may appear. Darwin cited anthropological writers to buttress this point, and mentioned a work entitled Researches
into the Early History of Mankind (1865) by an Englishman, Edward Burnet Tylor
(1832–1917). Darwin commented that “he who will read Mr. Tylor’s … interesting
works can hardly fail to be deeply impressed with the close similarity between the
men of all races in tastes, dispositions, and habits” (Darwin 1998: 185), something
that Darwin had already noted with regard to his Fuegian shipmates on the Beagle.
Their stance reflects a lively debate at the time about whether the races of humankind have one origin or several (Stocking 1987). Darwin and Tylor emphasized human
similarity rather than difference; in essence it was a plea for human equality. Darwin’s
own family and associates had a long history of involvement in the British anti-slavery
cause (Desmond and Moore 2009). One of Darwin’s main concerns in The Descent of
Man was the nature and origin of human racial difference (see Chapter 9).
Tylor is a central figure in the emergence of anthropology, and what cemented
his reputation was a large and wide-ranging book published in the same year as The
Descent of Man. It was simply entitled Primitive Culture, and in its first chapter, “The
Science of Culture,” Tylor detailed what he thought such a science includes. He begins
with a comprehensive definition of culture itself:
Culture, or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex
whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any
other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. The
condition of culture among the various societies of mankind, in so far as it
is capable of being investigated on general principles is a subject apt for the
study of laws of human thought and action. On the one hand, the uniformity
which so largely pervades civilization may be ascribed, in great measure, to the
uniform action of uniform causes; while on the other hand its various grades
may be regarded as stages of development, or evolution, each the outcome of
previous history, and about to do its proper part in shaping the history of the
future. (Tylor 1903: 1)
That statement packs a lot in: it sets an agenda for his book, but is also a statement
of Victorian faith in the power of science and the progressive nature of history. It also
makes a crucial assumption about human psychology—“the laws of human thought
and action”—namely, that no matter how odd or superstitious the result may seem,
humans apprehend the world in similar ways. “We may accept the theory of the unity
of mankind as best agreeing with ordinary experience and scientific research” (Tylor
1891: 6). Tylor’s definition of “culture” applies to all humanity, not just elites. It’s a
species characteristic; everyone’s got it and, likewise, the potential for further development. The general course of that development has been directed by “the uniform
action of uniform causes,” a principle that also underpinned Darwin’s argument in The
Origin of Species. Evolutionary change is driven by natural selection: the survival and
reproduction of those best adapted to the conditions around them.
The essence of Tylor’s method was to identify the origins of various customs and
then track their worldwide development. For example, he did personal research on
spontaneously developed sign language in schools for the deaf—then drew parallels
with the gesture language of primitive peoples. Tylor thought he was witnessing the
probable origins of language itself. However, outside of a youthful journey to Mexico,
he did no on-the-ground research, or fieldwork in the modern sense, nor did he
engage with political or social structural questions. Instead he assembled information
from folklore, material culture, mythology, and linguistics and used it as evidence for
his evolutionary sequences. The first British academic post “in Anthropology” was
created for him at the University of Oxford in 1884.1 Tylor’s legacy to the discipline
was his conceptualization of the term culture, and his pioneering of the comparative
method, an approach taken up by anthropologists who followed.
Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–81) is in the more direct line of development leading
to anthropology as it’s practiced today (Trautmann 1987). Not only did Morgan come
up with a comprehensive evolutionary scheme to explain the advance of civilization,
he was highly influential in initiating the anthropological study of kinship (Chapter
5). Morgan was not an academic or a man of letters, but rather a lawyer and businessman in the upstate New York town of Rochester. The crucial influence that led to his
research was his interest in the Iroquois and his close friendship with a number of
them—one of whom, Eli Parker (1828–95), rose to high rank in the Union Army as
an aide to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War. Of course the Iroquois
were already well known because of their role in the struggle between Great Britain
and France for control of North America. But, by Morgan’s time, their power had
been broken and the population divided between the United States and Canada as a
result of events during the American Revolutionary War.
The first product of Morgan’s labors was a sympathetic historical and ethnographic
study entitled The League of the Ho-Dé-No-Sau-Nee, or Iroquois (1851). As Morgan
noted, “Among the Indian nations whose ancient seats were within the limits of our
republic, the Iroquois have long continued to occupy the most conspicuous position. They achieved for themselves a more remarkable civil organization, and acquired
PLATE 1.7 Lewis Henry Morgan
a higher degree of influence, than any other race of Indian lineage, except those of
Mexico and Peru” (Morgan 1851: 3). In historical times the Iroquois had grown into
the powerful Six Nations Confederacy, and Morgan saw this process as analogous to
similar events in the early history of Israel, Greece, and Rome. He had read widely in
history and political theory, and by 1851 he was already thinking of the Iroquois in
terms of the classical Greeks and their republican city-states.
Morgan was also well aware of the great diversity of social organization and social
complexity among Native peoples themselves; he had what appeared to be an evolutionary sequence laid out before him—a sequence leading in specific stages from savagery to
civilization, with the Iroquois somewhere in between. Morgan assumed, as did Tylor and
Darwin, that the working of uniform causes will lead to uniform effects—that societies
placed in similar situations will develop in similar ways—and asserted that the Iroquois
of recent times lived in much the same way as Europeans once had done:
Since mankind were one in origin, their career has been essentially one, running
in different but uniform channels upon all continents, and very similarly in all
the tribes and nations of mankind down the same status of advancement.
It follows that the history and experience of the American Indian tribes represent,
more or less nearly, the history and experience of our own remote ancestors
when in corresponding conditions. Forming a part of the human record, their
institutions, arts, inventions and practical experience possess a high and special
value reaching far beyond the Indian race itself. (Morgan 1877: vii)
In his 1851 book Morgan showed how Iroquois social institutions and economic
practices are related to one another as parts of a whole. He came to see this problem
in broadly theoretical terms and, in his classic work Ancient Society (1877), generalized these notions to the entire world by dividing human history into what he called
“ethnical periods.” The major periods were Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization, each
having internal gradations (lower, middle, upper) characterized by technological innovations, particularly those related to food production.
He envisioned intellectual progress as a feedback loop, the brain and mind expanding “with the production of inventions and discoveries” (Morgan 1877: 37). Where a
people ended up on the social evolutionary scale depended on local circumstances,
and so, given the wide variation in local conditions, every position on it save one
was represented by “tribes still existing.” The only exception was the “lower status of
savagery,” when “mankind were then living in their original restricted habitat, and
subsisting upon fruits and nuts” (1877: 10).
The Iroquois were placed in the “lower status of barbarism,” having acquired agriculture, the bow and arrow, and pottery. For our purposes, the most important part
of his theory was how he correlated a given stage of evolutionary progression with
particular modes of kinship, political organization, and property rights. When the
Iroquois were still a free people, they depended on maize cultivation and hunting.
Like many tribes of eastern North America they were matrilineal (see Chapter 5). They
traced inheritance through the mother’s side of the family, lived in communal longhouses, followed complex religious practices, and had a council form of government
governed by leaders known as sachems. These were hereditary office holders, but they
could hold their titles only if judged by their peers to be fit for the job (Morgan 1851:
62–63). As Morgan saw it, the Iroquois had an essentially republican social order based
upon relative equality of status, not unlike his idealistic vision of the United States
itself. Tendencies to despotism were thwarted because power was distributed among
the sachems and the tribes of the Confederacy.
Morgan thought that the place of a given society as more or less advanced along
the evolutionary scale reflected technological innovation. Such progressive changes
were accompanied by increasing individualism and erosion of group identities, which
in turn were correlated with the rise of individual property rights, patriarchal authority, and monogamous marriage. Therefore the broad sweep of history demonstrates a
transition from clan-based societies based on personal relationships to state structures
“founded upon territory and upon property” (Morgan 1877: 7). Tribal confederations
such as the Iroquois represent a stage in this upward movement. Karl Marx (1818–83)
and Friedrich Engels (1820–85) thought highly of Morgan’s “materialistic” evolutionary scheme and adapted it in their analysis of the social processes at work in precapitalist societies (Marx 1965; Engels 1972).
The Iroquois were taken to illustrate a particular stage in the development of the
human spirit. Morgan’s scheme was based on what turned out to be a very fruitful
and more complex idea: that the various aspects of a society at a given stage of its
development cohere together as a package: “Each of these periods has a distinct culture
and exhibits a mode of life more or less special and peculiar to itself. This … renders it
possible to treat a particular society according to its condition of relative advancement,
and to make it a subject of independent study and discussion” (Morgan 1877: 13).
Morgan’s sweeping scheme of linear social development proved to be too simplistic an explanation for the diversity of human cultures; history is too complicated to
yield to that approach. Nevertheless, Morgan and others were working toward the
idea that social institutions are bound to one another in a systematic and law-like
way, functioning together to compose a working whole. That perspective underlies
the development of fieldwork-based anthropology of the British functionalist school,
which we’ll consider in the following chapter.
The first contact accounts we’ve outlined above are the product of the age of
European imperial and commercial expansion, in which nations competed with each
other for access to the resources then considered valuable—gold, furs, spices, trade
routes, sites for new colonies. A by-product of all this activity was an ever-increasing
flow of information about the world’s peoples, a vast database for what would become
anthropology. How this came about is the subject of our next chapter.
But for now let’s identify a few themes that have emerged from the discussion
thus far:
The Nature of History An important element in our story is the idea that
history has a meaning and a direction. For example, the concept of “evolution” also entails a theory of history—that what we see today has grown out
of what came before, that there are reasons for this, and that can be identified
by scientific means. Fitzroy and Darwin supposed that their own nations must
have arisen from some more primitive condition like that of the Fuegians. The
question was how? What is the dynamic that propels some nations in a more
progressive direction and leaves others behind? That kind of question—the
question of cultural evolution—is central to the nineteenth-century emergence
of anthropology as a recognizable and distinct subject. Getting at the answers
called for a comparative method of approach.
The Problem of Meaning European travelers were constantly encountering practices that seemed to them strange or barbarous. Observers like James
Cook didn’t simply write them off, but asked how they fitted into a particular
worldview. The concept of culture as we understand it today implies the presence of a system of meaning, something like a language in which one element
in a sentence only makes sense in relation to others. Concepts such as taboo
have to be understood in a similar way, in relation to other local cultural elements. More on that in Chapter 6.
Observer Bias Everyone brings their preconceptions into interpreting what
they observe. Our three explorers were embedded in what might be called a
“progressive” idea of history—that in some sense they were more “advanced”
than the peoples they were observing. Even Simon Fraser, who generally had a
very matter-of-fact approach to his encounters with Indigenous peoples, wasn’t
above referring to them as “savages” when he was having a bad day! This kind
of problem is a central one with regard to anthropological method. Everyone
has a point of view; it can’t be avoided. The trick is to be aware of it and avoid
projecting one’s own cultural understandings onto others, taking one’s own
culture as the gold standard through which others are judged. Only in the case
of Semalitsa’s account of Fraser’s visit do we get a sense of local people looking
Globalization James Cook was searching for the Northwest Passage, Fraser for
furs, and the Beagle expedition for knowledge of the South American coast so
as to further British commercial and strategic interests. Those endeavors were
enabled by the consolidation and competition of European nation states along
with the emergence of financial institutions capable of funding such ventures.
They are early episodes in the long process that we now call “globalization,” and
will be the subject of Chapter 11.
Tylor was affiliated with Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum of Ethnology. It
had been endowed by a British military officer with the wonderful name of General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers to house his vast collection of artifacts. These
artifacts are displayed by type—musical instruments here, weapons there, and so
on—and are arranged in sequences “displayed to show how the same problems
have been solved at different times by different peoples” (http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/
pittrivers). The museum itself is a remarkable piece of Victorian architecture, and
the displays are still in their original form. You can explore its collection via a virtual
tour (http://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/virtualtour). General Pitt Rivers’ great-grandson
Julian became an anthropologist remembered for his research in Spain and Mexico.
Study Questions
What economic and political circumstances led the Europeans to go out in
search of the new worlds that we’ve described? How is this related to the history
of globalization?
How did what the Europeans found in these new worlds influence their perception of the history of their own societies?
How would you go about understanding and interpreting things such as
Hawaiian “taboo” practices? What else would you need to know in order to
understand them?
What changes in society did Charles Darwin believe were necessary for social
progress? Give an example.
Compare and contrast the political beliefs of Hobbes and Rousseau and explain
how the “myth of the savage” can be applied to both extreme understandings of
human nature.
How does Cook apply Rousseau’s concept of the “State of Nature” when
describing the Indigenous peoples of Australia?
Summarize what Cook and Darwin failed to observe about the complex societies of Indigenous peoples in Australia and the people of Tierra del Fuego. Explain how the “myth of the savage” interfered with their understanding of these
Explain Lewis Henry Morgan’s approach to anthropology. What aspect of the
social world was he most interested in? Why?
Discussion Questions
Discuss the concept of human nature. Given your understanding of human
diversity thus far, do you think there is a basic and universal “human nature”?
Or is much of what we take to be human nature actually the product of culture
and circumstance? Use examples from what you’ve learned to illustrate your
Human curiosity has always been the motive behind anthropology. As the
world becomes more accessible through the Internet and affordable travel,
we are aware as never before of the diversity that makes up humankind. How
might anthropology help in understanding this new world? What future roles
do you see for anthropology in the global community?
Why did Cook and Darwin fail to see the complexity of the societies they
Social context always creates a bias for the observer. How do you think future
anthropologists will contextualize the work of today? What biases do you think
you might hold in the field?
History in Context
learning objectives
After reading this chapter, students should be able to
• outline the British school of anthropology and identify its major figures;
• summarize and explain Richards’s use of structural functionalism and her
contributions to anthropological methodology;
• outline the American school of anthropology and identify its major figures;
• describe how the work of Franz Boas helped to move anthropology away from a
biological understanding of racial difference and social evolution; and
• summarize Mead’s work in Samoa, her methods and findings, and their effect
on the discipline of anthropology.
key terms
historical particularism
inductive approach
purposeful sampling
qualitative research
structural functionalism
In the last chapter we examined the social and intellectual climate in which anthropology developed as a discipline. If we were to characterize the nineteenth century by the
theme of social evolutionism, where societies were thought to pass through stages of
development, starting with the “primitive” and ending with the “civilized,” the twentieth century would be characterized by the consideration of “culture” over biology in
explaining human diversity. In this chapter we will look at the direction that anthropology took at the beginning of the twentieth century. We will briefly examine the
development of two prominent schools of thought: the British school, as led by Arthur
Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), and
the American school, pioneered by German-born Franz Boas (1858–1942).
Malinowski was instrumental in establishing fieldwork as a main component
of anthropological enquiry. We will take a look at the work of one of Malinowski’s
students, Audrey Richards, to see the structural-functionalist approach applied in a
fieldwork setting. Boas, along with many of his students, was influential in dismantling the racist ideology that was used by academics and politicians alike to restrict
immigration and maintain racial segregation in America. We will consider Boas’s
most famous student, Margaret Mead (1901–78), and her best-selling ethnography
Coming of Age in Samoa to explore how this way of thinking about the world was
applied in ethnographic research. Finally, we consider where anthropology sits today
as a discipline, both theoretically and methodologically. It is our hope that by gaining an understanding of where anthropology has come from and how the political
climate of the time influenced what was deemed important to study, you will better appreciate where anthropology is positioned today. One small caveat before we
proceed: we have selected what we believe to be compelling times and figures in the
discipline’s history. This is by no means intended to be a history of anthropology.
Rather, we offer a brief look at some influential figures and approaches to understanding culture and society.
We’ve used the awkward term “socio-cultural anthropology” to describe what this book
is about. The need for such a term stems in part from a kind of split that developed
in the early twentieth century between the way anthropology was thought about and
practiced in Great Britain and in North America. In both cases a few charismatic
personalities set the stage for much of what was to follow: Arthur Reginald RadcliffeBrown (1881–1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) in England, and Franz
Boas (1858–1942) in North America.
The British version of our subject came to be called “social anthropology” and
the North American variant “cultural anthropology.” These alternatives were not
mutually exclusive, and indeed how could they be? It’s more a question of emphasis, and in any event there was a lot of trans-Atlantic interchange between these
scholarly communities, such that the distinction became muddled and more or less
The British tended to focus on social institutions, institutional structures,
social dynamics, and the relationships between them within given “social systems.”
Radcliffe-Brown characterized social anthropology as “micro-sociology.” Following
Boas’s lead, the North American approach was more pluralistic: archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology were often brought
together under one tent and taught within one academic department. British social
anthropology tended to avoid psychological issues, whereas some of the Americans
embraced psychology as a necessary part of the wider picture, seeing that individual
psychology, language, and culture are intrinsically related. We’ll return to Boas and
his students shortly.
The British turned away from speculative social evolutionism and emphasized
the status of anthropology as a science, one that should be based on the in-depth
ethnographic investigation of living societies. Here a leading figure was A.R. RadcliffeBrown, who became interested in anthropology while a student at Cambridge
University. He was greatly influenced by French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–
1917), and came to think about society in structural and functional terms (for more
on Durkheim see Chapter 6). One result was an innovative ethnography called The
Andaman Islanders (1922), which was based on his fieldwork with a tribal people in
the eastern Indian Ocean. He then shifted his gaze to Australia and concentrated
for a time on Indigenous Australian kinship systems. Radcliffe-Brown taught at the
University of Chicago in the mid-1930s and was Professor of Social Anthropology at
Oxford from 1937 to 1946.
The concept of “system” is at the core of what came to be called “structural
functionalism”—it’s a simple idea, though complex in practice.
The social life of the community is … defined as the functioning of the social
structure. The function of any recurrent activity, such as the punishment of a
crime, or a funeral ceremony, is the part it plays in the social life as a whole
and therefore the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the structural
continuity. The concept of function. … thus involves the notion of a structure
consisting of a set of relations amongst unit entities, the continuity of the structure
being maintained by a life-process made up of the activities of the constituent
units. (Radcliffe-Brown 1952: 180)
This approach combined analysis and synthesis: identifying the groups and
activities (“unit entities”) of which a given society is made—clans and lineages for
example—and then putting the parts back together again to form a picture of the
working whole. Radcliffe-Brown saw cross-cultural generalization as an essential goal,
though whether he ever came close to it himself is debatable (Radcliffe-Brown 1957).
Nevertheless, his approach took hold among his students on both sides of the Atlantic
and guided a great deal of fieldwork, much of it in Africa. A fundamental concern of
Radcliffe-Brown’s students was with the sources of stability and instability in social
systems. Tribal society was the laboratory setting for working through such issues.
Societies without chiefs or formal governmental institutions were of special interest
because they seemed to be self-regulating, rather than disintegrating into the kind of
anarchy that Thomas Hobbes had feared.
Bronislaw Malinowski was the other major figure in the formative period of British
social anthropology. He too was a “functionalist,” though of a somewhat different
variety than Radcliffe-Brown. Malinowski’s father was Professor of Slavic Languages
at the University of Cracow in Poland, and Malinowski developed a keen interest in
language that served him well during his fieldwork in the southwest Pacific, as well as
anthropology. In 1910 he began studies at the London School of Economics, to which
he would return as a professor himself. His fame was largely derived from “epochmarking fieldwork” on the Trobriand Islands, which lie off the northeastern coast of
New Guinea (Stocking 1995: 255). The major outcome was a study of a system of
ceremonial exchange known as kula, as described in Malinowski’s influential ethnography Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). We’ll take a closer look at Malinowski’s
fieldwork experiences in Chapter 3 and his analysis of the kula in Chapter 4.
Malinowski’s theoretical focus—as outlined in his book A Scientific Theory of
Culture (1944)—was on “basic needs” and how culture as an adaptive mechanism
functions to supply them; some of these needs are biological in nature—nutrition,
PLATE 2.1 Bronislaw Malinowski
sexuality, control of aggression, nurturance of the young, care of the aged—while others are seen as intrinsic to culture itself, such as the coordination of activities so as
to achieve at least a minimal degree of coherence in social life. Malinowski said that
his version of functionalism was “meant primarily to equip the field-worker with a
clear perspective and full instructions regarding what to observe and how to record”
(Malinowski 1944: 145).
That’s all a bit abstract, so a concrete instance of the functionalist approach in
action will be helpful at this point. Our example is the work of one of Malinowski’s
students, Audrey Isabel Richards (1899–1984), who studied with him at the London
School of Economics in the 1920s. She applied his method to the letter in her study
of food production, distribution, and consumption among the Bemba people of what
was then the British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now the independent nation
of Zambia). She was in a doubly advantageous situation—treated by influential
men as an honored outsider and by women as one of their own. Indeed, her work
with women led to Chisungu, a groundbreaking study of a female initiation ritual
(Richards 1956).
The preamble to the Bemba research was her Ph.D. thesis, which was based on
the existing ethnographic literature concerning food practices in southern Africa.
It was subsequently published under the very “Malinowskian” title, Hunger and
Work in a Savage Tribe: A Functional Study of Nutrition among the Southern Bantu
(Richards 1948).
Malinowski wrote the preface, in which he noted that Richards was something of
an anthropological pioneer, venturing into a field that had never been systematically
dealt with before. What he said about Richards’s book could apply to the study of
food practices anywhere (think of your own friends and family): “[A central motif ] in
Dr. Richards’ book is her thesis that the traditional tribal or cultural attitudes towards
food are among the most important cohesive forces in the community, which unite
its members to each other and differentiate them from the surrounding tribes. The
attitude to food, table manners, customs of common eating—the morals of food, as
we might call it, the things permitted, forbidden, and enjoined—all form a complex
and developed ideology of food” (Richards 1948: xv).
When Richards arrived in Northern Rhodesia in 1930, the Bemba lived mainly in
small villages widely dispersed throughout a deciduous forest with an economy based
on shifting cultivation. Her fundamental method was meticulously recording what
went on in the daily life around her and making connections between the various
facets of what she observed or was told. Like many central African peoples, the Bemba
were matrilineal and matrilocal, village residence being determined by kinship established through women. The men of the village generally married in from elsewhere,
and a new husband had to spend an extended period of time providing labor for
his in-laws. He helped produce raw food for them, while they in turn provided him
with cooked meals, a type of arrangement characteristic of social relationships between
people of unequal status.
Stories of culture and place: an introduction
to anthropology
Kenny, Michael; Smillie, Kirsten
University of Toronto Press, 2017
9781487593704, 9781487593728
49 to 96
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MAP 2.1 Zambia
The Bemba were dependent on one staple crop—finger millet—and suffered from
periodic scarcity. The population density was very low, and yet the Bemba were politically fixated on their Paramount Chief, who was seen as having mystical powers with
regard to the prosperity of both land and people: “The power of the chief rests ultimately on his people’s belief in his supernatural powers over the prosperity of the land
and the welfare of his individual subjects. By his inheritance of the guardian spirits of
the line of dead chiefs, and his possession of the sacred relics of the tribe, he has power
of approach to the tribal deities and he is responsible for the economic rites on which
the food-production of these people is thought to depend” (Richards 1939: 25).
Food, of course, was one of Malinowski’s “basic needs,” but, as Richards found,
the value of food went far beyond mere nutrition. It was the general focus and glue
of social life; social relationships were created and defined through its production and
consumption. By observing how people dealt with and talked about food—which they
did incessantly—Richards was arriving at insights into the entire Bemba social order.
Food was wealth, and there was little else to be had until the coming of the Europeans
and the beginnings of the mining industry. Food meant followers, and much of the
power of the Paramount Chief was traditionally based on its re-distribution, particularly in the form of beer:
This giving or receipt of food is part of most economic transactions, and may
come to represent a number of human relationships whether between different
kinsmen or between subject and chief. For this reason the whole question of
handling or dividing food acquires tremendous emotional significance … and
discussions of personalities or legal relationships tend to be ultimately expressed
in this idiom .… For us it requires a real effort of imagination to visualize a state
of society in which food matters so much and from so many points of view,
but this effort is necessary if we are to understand the emotional background of
Bemba ideas as to diet. (1939: 45–46)
Richards’s use of the term “idiom” is an interesting one; it implies a manner of speech in which one thing is talked about in terms of another. For
the Bemba the idiom of food was a largely unconscious way of talking about
the quality of social relationships, and it contained fundamental notions of justice and reciprocity—“obligations to share and to give,” the Bemba version of the
Golden Rule (Richards 1939: 200). There were supernatural sanctions to back this
up, since a relative who died with a grievance in his or her heart could visit misfortune on those who had provoked it. And if you offend the living, there’s always the
danger of witchcraft.
This sketch can only hint at the richness of Richards’s ethnography. She systematically investigated the kinship system and village structure of the Bemba, their land
tenure arrangements, the details of their agricultural practices, the place of ritual, their
ideas about the natural world and the nature of chieftainship. How she went about
this shows what the “functionalist” approach to social life was capable of, and there
are other studies like it from that period. Rather than just recording a collection of
unconnected facts, Audrey Richards saw a social system at work, each element related
to every other in sometimes very subtle ways. Of course, that is also how she chose
to tell her story, and this was not one that could have been told by anthropologists of
earlier generations. The anthropological movement known as functionalism was based
on a theory of a very particular kind, with a history of its own (Stocking 1984). As
always, theory shapes perception.
Richards’s work is transitional. In some ways it reads like a study of a more or less
isolated and coherent tribe. But, as she knew very well, by the 1930s Bemba society
was far from isolated and was in fact becoming increasingly incoherent. The very fact
that she chose to study nutrition was due in part to Malinowski’s influence, but also
to concerns that had arisen from within the colonial bureaucracy and the mining
industry about the health of the Native population and its suitability as a workforce.
Bemba villages were being sucked dry of younger men as they departed for the mines
and rapidly growing multiethnic towns of southern Africa….
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