Do anthropologists now doubt that peoples and cultures are different from one another?

Increasingly, it appears to be incorrect to suggest that peoples and cultures are not all the same, that peoples and cultures are to a greater or lesser degree different from one another. To argue that peoples and cultures have different lines of thought is skating close to condemnation.

Partly, this appears to be a resistence to any kind of generalization about a population or culture. Now anthropologists seem to believe that it is only possible to speak only of individuals. Any generalization, however accurate and well documented, is open to the accusation of "essentialism," particularly if the characteristics identified are not admirable. Anthropologists apparently have now adopted the principle, "if you can't say anythng good, don't say anything at all" (although this principle does not apply to the West).

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Eric's speaking up raises an interesting question for me. What happens to anthropology when and if anthropologists include more individuals with military experience?

I was trained at Cornell in the late 1960s by mostly male anthropologists who had mostly served in the military during WWII or Korea. Jack Roberts was rumored to have won a silver star for valor in combat. The passing of that generation and the rise of the Baby Boomers meant that the discipline came to be filled with people without military experience, many of whom had been part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Could this have affected the character of the discipline? If so, can its effects be distinguished from those resulting from increasing ethnic diversity and the growing proportion of women among anthropologists?



Eric R. Price said:
John,

Even those outside of academia fall victim to the same sorts of 'moral panics'. My last tour in Iraq with the Kurds made me keenly sensitive to the plight they have suffered since before the Ottoman Empire. It was troubling to see these brave fighters marginalized by the Iraqi Army because they aren't Arab, and because they are seen as outsiders that are just biding their time until they can again push for independence. Now those views may be true, but the fact is that the Kurds have suffered for centuries and though they deserve a place of their own, they have been willing for the last six years to aid in the establishment of an Iraqi state that supports Kurd, Arab, and Turkomen alike.

It was hard for me as an advisor, to tell them to grin and bear the indignities laid upon them by the Ministry of Defense, when I sympathized with them so. So I had to do both. That is, I had to advise them as professionals to follow orders and to push their legitimate complaints up the chain, and at the same time I commiserated with them as a friend and colleague over chai and cigarettes.

If I manage to get into a grad/post-grad program for anthropology, I hope to do my fieldwork in Kurdistan because I have great respect for them as a people and would like to bring more understanding about their culture and their plight to the rest of the world.
Good question, John. I have been thinking about the "feminization" angle, and am going to put something up on Anthropology of Anthropology on this question. Would you want to put something on A of A about attitudes toward the military?
I quote: "Anthropologists apparently have now adopted the principle, "if you can't say anythng good, don't say anything at all" (although this principle does not apply to the West)",
Exactly, and that's why - for example - a lot of topics related to Anthropology and anthropologists in our society as well are now debated and treated by Sociologists and Social Psychologists. That's for the notion of "individuals" you mentioned. Focus is now far from that of "community/communities", the most proper anthropological topic enabling us to speak. Globalization is actually a great problem for ethnologists and a lot of topics currently under fire - i.e. migrations, acculturaltion/enculturation due to migration process, omologation/globalization culture, etc. - can be studied with a bit of difficulties by anthropologists, due to their (our) methodological and theoretical curricula.
I think the question is no more between relativism vs. universalism, but relativism vs. globalization. The call for a changing paradigm in our science and maybe methods would probably help us be more present in our society (I speak expecially from an italian point of view. We are now facing a total failing in anthropological sciences here).
You have raised some interesting questions with your post and I am of two minds on the matter. I remember sitting around a campfire with some Bushmen hunters that I know fairly well. At this point it was my 6th trip to the community and I had some new students with me. They were asking about hunting practices and how hunting had been stopped by the government through the issuing of licenses. One of the hunters starts telling a hunting story to the students and I had a little revelation. I had heard this story every year I had come to the community and I thought to myself oh god here we go again. Hunters the world over seem to brag about their prowess and I literally thought here we are united by our bullshit. It was through these little banalities of life one could see past the mysticism and romance that surrounds the image of the Bushmen and see the common humanity at the core. But then when I went to the old hunting grounds with these same men I felt our worlds were really different. Hunting was not just about meat and they imbued the antelope and the land with spiritual significance. And film-makers that have made documentaries about the Bushmen are loved and hated with equal measure for essentialising the image so one treads softly in making statements about their society and beliefs to avoid that charge. I sometimes find the concern stifling.

So I think we can and indeed must to have any relevance make some assertions about the community we study and the patterns that inform their lives. What I find problematic about the post-modern turn is that taken to extremes nobody can say anything about another, and as you state it must be good. Thus there was a whole serious of work done on power and counter-power (ala Foucault) but very little done that included ethnographic detail. I find I can read some ethnographic work and learn nothing about the people under study.

So I have tried to find a balance in my own research. I have attached a paper of mine that discusses a ritual in a community that maybe you'll find interesting as I do make some claims about the people under study.
Attachments:
Michael,

I very much enjoyed the paper. It has been too long since, stuck as I am in East Asia, I have read African ethnography. As, albeit, alas, only briefly, student of Victor Turner, I felt a real rush of nostalgia. Which brings me to a question. Can you tell us a bit more about the symbolism of the eland and how it differs from the symbolism of the ox used in Zulu sacrifices?

John



Michael Francis said:
You have raised some interesting questions with your post and I am of two minds on the matter. I remember sitting around a campfire with some Bushmen hunters that I know fairly well. At this point it was my 6th trip to the community and I had some new students with me. They were asking about hunting practices and how hunting had been stopped by the government through the issuing of licenses. One of the hunters starts telling a hunting story to the students and I had a little revelation. I had heard this story every year I had come to the community and I thought to myself oh god here we go again. Hunters the world over seem to brag about their prowess and I literally thought here we are united by our bullshit. It was through these little banalities of life one could see past the mysticism and romance that surrounds the image of the Bushmen and see the common humanity at the core. But then when I went to the old hunting grounds with these same men I felt our worlds were really different. Hunting was not just about meat and they imbued the antelope and the land with spiritual significance. And film-makers that have made documentaries about the Bushmen are loved and hated with equal measure for essentialising the image so one treads softly in making statements about their society and beliefs to avoid that charge. I sometimes find the concern stifling.

So I think we can and indeed must to have any relevance make some assertions about the community we study and the patterns that inform their lives. What I find problematic about the post-modern turn is that taken to extremes nobody can say anything about another, and as you state it must be good. Thus there was a whole serious of work done on power and counter-power (ala Foucault) but very little done that included ethnographic detail. I find I can read some ethnographic work and learn nothing about the people under study.

So I have tried to find a balance in my own research. I have attached a paper of mine that discusses a ritual in a community that maybe you'll find interesting as I do make some claims about the people under study.
In brief the symbolism of the Eland comes from Kalahari ethnography via rock art books of David Lewis-Williams. In the Kalahari some Bushman/San communities see the Eland as a spiritual figure or animal - there is generally no divide between the spirit world and the real world - one unified world. In some Kalahari ethnography the eland is venerated and appears in some creation myths and often offers itself up as a sacrifice. Also it is one of the most often hunted on foot as a healthy man could run one down on a hot day (see the film The Great Dance for more detail on that). The community in question are Zulu speakers who are of San descent so in trying to reclaim their San heritage they sought a sacrificial animal that they believed represented respect to their San ancestors. The eland also appears in rock art of the area as the most prominent figure depicted. They also run wild in the reserve and they obtained permission to slaughter one that was shot when it left the reserve (part of a program for crop protection where farmers are allowed to shoot a certain number of eland as compensation for crop loss). They read up about Kalahari peoples that they felt were still authentic Bushmen and tried to amalgamate their own spiritual beliefs about their ancestors and what they saw as an important animal. In some way it was a little forced as they transplanted Kalahari beliefs into Zulu practices but it really was a wonderful syncretism. By replacing the sacrificial bull or cow with an eland they felt that both sides of their ancestral family would be honoured and pleased with the ceremony. It was a great day and the party went for a couple more days - I never ate so much meat and drank so much traditional and regular beer. (I think it is these moments that actually really make fieldwork wonderful but you really shouldn't admit that as you risk exoticising the people you work with).



John McCreery said:
Michael,

I very much enjoyed the paper. It has been too long since, stuck as I am in East Asia, I have read African ethnography. As, albeit, alas, only briefly, student of Victor Turner, I felt a real rush of nostalgia. Which brings me to a question. Can you tell us a bit more about the symbolism of the eland and how it differs from the symbolism of the ox used in Zulu sacrifices?

John



Michael Francis said:
You have raised some interesting questions with your post and I am of two minds on the matter. I remember sitting around a campfire with some Bushmen hunters that I know fairly well. At this point it was my 6th trip to the community and I had some new students with me. They were asking about hunting practices and how hunting had been stopped by the government through the issuing of licenses. One of the hunters starts telling a hunting story to the students and I had a little revelation. I had heard this story every year I had come to the community and I thought to myself oh god here we go again. Hunters the world over seem to brag about their prowess and I literally thought here we are united by our bullshit. It was through these little banalities of life one could see past the mysticism and romance that surrounds the image of the Bushmen and see the common humanity at the core. But then when I went to the old hunting grounds with these same men I felt our worlds were really different. Hunting was not just about meat and they imbued the antelope and the land with spiritual significance. And film-makers that have made documentaries about the Bushmen are loved and hated with equal measure for essentialising the image so one treads softly in making statements about their society and beliefs to avoid that charge. I sometimes find the concern stifling.

So I think we can and indeed must to have any relevance make some assertions about the community we study and the patterns that inform their lives. What I find problematic about the post-modern turn is that taken to extremes nobody can say anything about another, and as you state it must be good. Thus there was a whole serious of work done on power and counter-power (ala Foucault) but very little done that included ethnographic detail. I find I can read some ethnographic work and learn nothing about the people under study.

So I have tried to find a balance in my own research. I have attached a paper of mine that discusses a ritual in a community that maybe you'll find interesting as I do make some claims about the people under study.

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