From the 1970s, Marxist anthropology became a major force in English speaking academia, whether under its own name, or as "critical anthropology," "political economy," or "cultural materialism." The citation of Marxist authors and literature in anthropological articles and books became common, and debates and concepts originating in Marxist political circles were widely rehersed and invoked.

Except for a small cadre of aged diehards and dead enders, this ceased abruptly with the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather surprisingly, the failure of the Soviet Union seemed to discredit Marxism in the eyes of previously dedicated anthropologists.

And yet it would be unrealistic to imagine that the ideas and sympathies that carried Marxism into English speaking anthropology would disappear with the Warsaw Pact. How have these been carried forward into the new milennium, and how are they manifested today? What neo-Marxist or post-Marxist concepts and ideas have arisen in anthropology to carry on in the anthropology of 2009 and beyond, the spirit that enlivened the 1970s & 1980s?

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Me, too. Not an anthropologist, but Daniel Little at Understanding Society has an interesting thought experiment to offer: If Marx had been born in Shanghai.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Very good points, John. I suppose we can say the same about the idea of culture from Boas and Benedict, the emphasis on meaning from Parsons and Geertz, and so on. I wonder how many contemporary anthropologists realize that Geertz's emphasis on culture as meaning came pretty directly from Parsons, with whom Geertz studied in the Harvard Department of Social Relations. And, of course, that Parsons was drawing on Max Weber.

But I do think some current approaches are more fully Marxist in content, one being postcolonialism. It appears to me that there are others that can be identified, but I want to hear what other people think.
I am not sure, Keith, exactly what in our discussion about the current recession (a subject you, not I, raised) inspired you to post an abusive comment. But it does seem clear that contemporary anthropology's considered reservations about master narratives are not shared by you. Nor do you appear to accept that some views will be contested, and that folks have a right to alternative accounts. I am not sure that your offering pejorative adjectives to describe the view of another really advances the discussion. But just for the record, my emphasis is shared by the Financial Post, which you may wish to call other things, but "amateur" and "parochial" would be obviously inapplicable. If you disagree with my views, that is understandable, as I find many of your views unacceptable. I think we shall just have to agree to disagree. However, I do not doubt your sincerity or that you may have some arguments and evidence to support your views. In the case of what exactly led to the rapid fall of Marxist anthropology, I have a different impression than you do. Neither of us presented any evidence, and I do not think ranting more emphatically makes a stronger case. If you would care to offer some historical evidence, I would be happy to see it. To end, allow me to say that your presence is most welcome at Theory in Anthropology.

Keith Hart said:
It is only because of your parochial view of political and economic history, Philip, that a discussion of Marxism and anthropology has degenerated into this amateur discussion of the causes of the credit crunch. Against Nikos, I would claim that the essence of Marxist method is to locate ideas in a specific version of economic history. So I suggested that your attempt to explain the marginalization of Marx by the failure of the Warsaw Pack (sic) was anachronistic and false to boot. So you came back with this reductionist line about sub-prime mortgages, as if the US Congress was the world. It is pointless to direct you to alternative sources (e.g. CDOs and CDSs and Gillian Tett's fine book on how the market for credit derivatives to which AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Bros and a number of others succumbed), since you are only interested in making cheap jibes. You clearly have no interest in a serious discussion of Marxism and anthropology, which makes me wonder why you launched it. I left this group because I found your behaviour intolerable. I returned because of the topic, only to find that nothing has improved.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
With respect, John, there would have been no toxic assets if there had not been a flood of subprime mortgages. For the part of the government in this, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_policies_and_the_subprime_m....
Would it be useful to offer more specific questions?

Allow me to ask whether, to what extent, and in what way the following current theoretical approaches or fields of study have been influenced by earlier Marxist anthropology:

1. postcolonial theory

2. political ecology

3. the anthropology of human rights

4. the anthropology of indigenous rights

or any others that could be identified.
I agree with others that this discussion has quickly devolved into an oversimplified discussion about the role of Marxist thought in anthropology. There are, of course, a myriad assortment of meanings attached to what "Marxism" is, and this thread does a good job of collapsing them all pretty quickly.

PCS wrote:

"Except for a small cadre of aged diehards and dead enders, this ceased abruptly with the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather surprisingly, the failure of the Soviet Union seemed to discredit Marxism in the eyes of previously dedicated anthropologists."

Ha. I think there is a big difference between being a "Marxist" and finding certain aspects of Karl Marx's thinking about social science and history useful. We all cherry pick ideas and aspects of thought from a range of people. Also, there is a difference, in my view, between Marx the political theorist (and his teleological ideas about human history all leading to communism) and Marx the social scientist. Ironically, even Marx had issues with some of the "marxists" who followed him.

But then, Darwin would have probably taken issue with a number of Darwinists who followed him. There's a lesson in there somewhere...

"What neo-Marxist or post-Marxist concepts and ideas have arisen in anthropology to carry on in the anthropology of 2009 and beyond, the spirit that enlivened the 1970s & 1980s?"

Dialectical analysis that goes beyond mere cause and effect. A focus on the importance of politics and power relations. A focus on material conditions. An emphasis on the importance of history. Oversimplified list, but you get the point. And no, I don't assume that Marx was the "father" of certain kinds of thought. Everyone's ideas are a conglomeration of the past and present realities.

Of course there are plenty of shortcomings in the work of Marx: his evolutionary and teleological conception of world economics and politics is just one. His overly reductive conception of class systems is another. His tendency to assume that what he was seeing in Europe at that time could be applied to all of "man" is another shortcoming. There are plenty of those. But then, pretty much every social theorist had their set of failures, miscalculations, and drawbacks--from Boas to Malinowski to Weber to Levi-Strauss. We all pick and choose what works for us, and I think that sometimes these little labels--of being a neo-marxist or a structuralist or whatever--only gets in the way.

My understanding of social theory and anthropological theory come from a long history. My point: while I find certain aspects of Marx's ideas useful and applicable in my understanding of humanity, I am by no means a Marxist. And I'm not a Boasist, Geertzist, Foucaultist, functionalist, or post-modernist either, despite the fact that I find aspects of all of these "isms" useful in some way or another.

Sometimes reducing long histories of social thought to mere labels and slogans obscures more than it reveals.

In the end, Philip, I am not sure if you actually wanted to talk about any of this, or if you just wanted to start a one-sided thread about a subject that you take issue with by disguising it as a real prompt. You tell me.
Ryan, one aspect of the history of ideas is tracing the influences from one frame of thought on subsequent frames. The point of such analysis is that it goes beyond labels and slogans. I agree that people often pick and choose to suit their interests. But people also invent new labels and advocate the views that they think those labels represent. Because our thinking is to a degree social, we look for people thinking along the same lines and develop our thoughts in conjunction with them, and so sometimes a theory or a school or an "ism" develops. I have recently been reading research proposals in which some of the labels mentioned above were invoked as sources of wisdom. So these labels are part of the discussion, and a way that people identify what they are doing. The question I am raising is how people using these labels have drawn on one stream of thought. The folks using the various labels I mentioned have, or might have, selected certain but not other aspects of Marxist anthropology to incorporate, as well as ideas from other approaches, which are also important to understand. I would like to hear from others what they see has the ingredients of these approaches. I imagine that each of these approaches differs from the others, in drawing on different aspects of previous theories. So I think we need to go beyond assertions of global syncretism and look at the particular streams of thought that our fellow anthropologists are pursuing today. What are the constituents of each of these approaches?
"But people also invent new labels and advocate the views that they think those labels represent."

Yes, they do. And they often use the same terms in a variety of ways.

"So I think we need to go beyond assertions of global syncretism and look at the particular streams of thought that our fellow anthropologists are pursuing today. What are the constituents of each of these approaches?"

Sounds like an interesting interview project to me.
Sounds like an interesting interview project to me.

Indeed, it does. But, as a practical matter, how should we proceed? To (1) identify "the particular streams of thought" and (2) "the constituents of each of these approaches"? I must confess that the notion that a broadcast call for contributions, on OAC or in other on-line venues, would produce anything like a representative sample seems implausible in the extreme.

There is, of course, the old-fashioned approach via social science indices and reading representative works identified by, for example, frequency of citation. Or it might be better, perhaps, to take advantage of the techniques and technologies of citation networks research, which is currently a flourishing field of social network analysis.

How else might the problem be approached? What would you say to a graduate student who wanted to do some serious research on this topic?
Explanations from those working with a particular paradigm, or from those familiar with the literature deriving from that paradigm, could both be informative.

Let me give an example of a brief encounter with an unfamiliar paradigm that I had. When my book on pastoralism had been accepted, my editor wanted the title to be Pastoralists. I argued that the title should be The Political Ecology of Pastoralists, because it would give the book more cachet in the discipline. I'm not sure where I had heard the phrase "political ecology," but as my book had a lot of political and ecology in it, I thought it apt. My editor reluctantly agreed. But then I thought I had better have a look at the recent literature on "political ecology." What struck me in the literature was that political ecology appeared to be a close sibling of political economy, and thus of Marxist anthropology. As I could not really claim that my book was an example of Marxist anthropology, I decided that my proposed title would be misleading. So I abjectly crawled back to my editor begging to change the title back to his preference, Pastoralists.

But I am still a bit in the dark about political ecology. Presumably it gives more attention to environmental factors than did classical Marxist anthropology. (Didn't Marvin Harris add environment as well as demography to his Marxist inspired "cultural materialism"?) And why exactly the emphasis on "politics" rather than economics? I would be happy to hear more from those working with political ecology or those conversant with the literature of political ecology.
"But I am still a bit in the dark about political ecology. Presumably it gives more attention to environmental factors than did classical Marxist anthropology. (Didn't Marvin Harris add environment as well as demography to his Marxist inspired "cultural materialism"?) And why exactly the emphasis on "politics" rather than economics? I would be happy to hear more from those working with political ecology or those conversant with the literature of political ecology."

Well, I am definitely no expert on Political Ecology by any means, but I will take a stab at answering this. Political Ecology is kind of a mixed approach that is basically about using methods and ideas from both the social and natural sciences. But, like lots of other "approaches" or theoretical positions or whatever you want to call it, the actual implementation has been pretty, well, varied. Blaikie and Brookfield defined political ecology wrote: "The phrase 'political ecology' combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself" (from the book "Land Degregadtion and Society," 1987).

So political ecology is a conglomeration of approaches from human geography, anthropology, environmental history,and ecology. Some people have emphasized certain aspects over others--but that's not really a surprise since pretty much everyone is selective in some way. But the overemphasis of the "political" lead folks like Peter Little and others to argue for a re-emphasis on the ecological in political ecology (this was a chapter in the book "African Savannas" by Bassett and Crummey). Also, economics is part of the approach as well--I just think that actual word economics was dropped out to facilitate the phrase political ecology--which clearly sounds like a take off from political economy and cultural ecology, if you ask me. And both are part of the foundation for this approach.

Anyway, it's something that I find appealing, especially the interest on interdisciplinary work and the interest in both social science and natural science approaches. Many people are all over the place, and focus on one aspect or another. But that doesn't bother me...I will just take what I want from it and leave the rest behind. For me it makes sense to look at politics, economics, and ecology as interrelated, as opposed to assuming that power and money and access have nothing to do with things like development, conservation, and so on. What about ecology? Well, with all of the talk about conservation and biodiversity and nature and sustainability, it makes sense to look at what ecologists and other natural scientists are saying about some of these issues--for that reason the idea of collaboration is really promising to me, so that different disciplines are informed by one another.
All good points, Ryan. I wonder, have you found any of the specific works produced under this label particularly illuminating, or at least illuminating beyond earlier approaches, and, if so, could you tell us a little bit more about it?
As long as 'inequality' and 'study of inequality' exist, Marxism will never die. It will reborn in different avatars! The history of anthropology is too short! We need to wait! What happened to Culture of Poverty?
Well, yes, as long as you assume that "inequality" is unnatural, antisocial, and an injustice, as Marxism has taught. But the reality is that people are different from one another, or "unequal" if your prefer, on all kinds of grounds. Some are brighter, some more talented, some more creative, some more ready to take risks, some more hard working, some more tenancious, some more sensitive, some more caring, some stronger, some faster, etc. etc. Nothing is more obvious to a teacher than that students, however much we try to help them all to move forward, do not have all the same resources and capabilities. Should they all receive the same grades?

And, if you assume that life is like a race, with some lined up ahead of others, whether for natural or material reasons, then "inequality" bears on the outcome. But nothing could be more crass than to liken life to a race, and to reduce human prefences and desires to one dimension. People want different things, and shape their lives in different ways. The reductionism of naive notions of equality flouts the diversity of human wishes and qualities. Before celebrating the reincarnation of Marxism, you might wish to consider the reasons for the human disasters that have resulted from attempts to implement it in practice. Otherwise, you put yourself in a position of trying to justify almost endless slaughter, torture, and the limitless abuse of power that have been the keystones of Marxist regimes.

Ranjan Lekhy said:
As long as 'inequality' and 'study of inequality' exist, Marxism will never die. It will reborn in different avatars! The history of anthropology is too short! We need to wait! What happened to Culture of Poverty?

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