Synopses & Reviews
This debate-style reader is designed to introduce students to controversies in cultural anthropology. The readings, which represent the arguments of leading anthropologists and educators, reflect a variety of viewpoints. Each reading has been selected for its liveliness, substance, and relevance to the topics included in college-level study of cultural anthropology.
Table of Contents
PART 1. Theoretical Issues
ISSUE 1. Should Anthropology Stop Trying to Model Itself on the Natural Sciences?
YES: Clifford Geertz, from The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973)
NO: Robert L. Carneiro, from “Godzilla Meet New Age Anthropology: Facing the Post-Modernist Challenge to a Science of Culture,” Europaea (1995)
Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz views anthropology as a science of interpretation, and he argues that anthropology should never model itself on the natural sciences. He believes that anthropologys goal should be to generate deeper interpretations of cultural phenomena, using what he calls "thick description," rather than attempting to prove or disprove scientific laws. Cultural anthropologist Robert Carneiro argues that anthropology has always been and should continue to be a science that attempts to explain sociocultural phenomena in terms of causes and effects rather than merely interpret them. He criticizes Geertzs cultural interpretations as arbitrary and immune to disconfirmation.
ISSUE 2. Was Margaret Meads Fieldwork on Samoan Adolescents Fundamentally Flawed?
YES: Derek Freeman, from Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Harvard University Press, 1983)
NO: Lowell D. Holmes and Ellen Rhoads Holmes, from Samoan Village: Then and Now, 2d ed. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1992)
Social anthropologist Derek Freeman argues that Margaret Mead was wrong when she stated that Samoan adolescents had sexual freedom. Hecontends that Mead went to Samoa determined to prove anthropologist Franz Boass cultural determinist agenda and states that Mead was so eager tobelieve in Samoan sexual freedom that she was consistently the victim of a hoax perpetrated by Samoan girls and young women who enjoyed trickingher. Cultural anthropologists Lowell D. Holmes and Ellen Rhoads Holmes contend that Margaret Mead had a very solid understanding of Samoanculture in general. During a restudy of Meads research, they came to many of the same conclusions that Mead had reached about Samoan sexuality andadolescent experiences. Meads description of Samoan culture exaggerates the amount of sexual freedom and the degree to which adolescence in Samoa iscarefree but these differences, they argue, can be explained in terms of changes in Samoan culture since 1925 and in terms of Meads relativelyunsophisticated research methods as compared with field methods used today.
ISSUE 3. Should Anthropologists Abandon the Concept of Culture?
YES: Lila Abu-Lughod, from “Writing Against Culture,” in Richard G. Fox, ed., Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (School of American Research Press, 1991)
NO: Christoph Brumann, from “Writing For Culture: Why a Successful Concept Should Not Be Discarded,” Current Anthropology (Supplement, February 1999)
Cultural anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argues that the concept of culture exaggerates the distinctiveness, boundedness, homogeneity, coherence, and timelessness of a societys way of life. In her view, cultural descriptions also place the Western anthropologist in a position superior to the non-Western "other." She suggests that we use descriptions in terms of practices, discourses, connections, and the events of particular peoples lives. Cultural anthropologist Christoph Brumann argues that the problems attributed to the culture concept are not inherent in the concept, but are a result of its being misused. He regards culture as a valuable concept for communication and one that is valid as long as we do not exaggerate the degree to which learned concepts, emotions, and practices are shared in a community.
ISSUE 4. Do Native Peoples Today Invent Their Traditions?
YES: Roger M. Keesing, from “Creating the Past: Custom and Identity in the Contemporary Pacific,” The Contemporary Pacific (Spring/Fall 1989)
NO: Haunani-Kay Trask, from “Natives and Anthropologists: The Colonial Struggle,” The Contemporary Pacific (Spring 1991)
Cultural anthropologist Roger M. Keesing argues that what native peoples in the Pacific now accept as “traditional culture” is largelyan invented and idealized vision of their past. He contends that such fictional images emerge because native peoples are largely unfamiliar with whatlife was really like in pre-Western times and because such imagery distinguishes native communities from dominant Western culture. Hawaiian activist and scholar Haunani-Kay Trask asserts that Keesings critique is fundamentally flawed because he only uses Westerndocumentsand native peoples have oral traditions, genealogies, and other historical sources that are not reflected in Western historicaldocuments. Anthropologists like Keesing, she maintains, are trying to hold on to their privileged position as experts in the face of growing numbersof educated native scholars.
PART 2. Some Specific Issues in Cultural Anthropology
ISSUE 5. Is Ebonics (Black English) a Distinct Language from Standard English?
YES: Ernie Smith, from “What Is Black English? What Is Ebonics?” in Theresa Perry and Lisa Delpit, eds. The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children (Beacon Press, 1998)
NO: John H. McWhorter, from “Wasting Energy on an Illusion,” The Black Scholar (vol. 27, no. 1, 2001)
Linguist Ernie Smith argues that the speech of many African-Americans is a separate language from English because its grammar is derived from the Niger-Congo languages of Africa. Although most of the vocabulary is borrowed from English, the pronunciations and sentence structures are changed to conform to Niger-Congo forms. Therefore, he says, schools should treat Ebonics-speaking students like other non-English-speaking minority students. Linguist John McWhorter counters that Black English is just one of many English dialects spoken in America that are mutually intelligible. He argues that the peculiar features of Black English are derived from the dialects of early settlers from Britain, not from African languages. Because African-American children are already familiar with standard English, he concludes, they do not need special language training.
ISSUE 6. Are San Hunter-Gatherers Basically Pastoralists Who Have Lost Their Herds?
YES: James R. Denbow and Edwin N. Wilmsen, from “Advent and Course of Pastoralism in the Kalahari,” Science (December 19, 1986)
NO: Richard B. Lee, from The Dobe Ju/hoansi, 3rd ed. (Wadsworth, 2003)
Archaeologists James R. Denbow and Edwin N. Wilmsen argue that the San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa have been involved inpastoralism, agriculture, and regional trade networks since at least 800. They imply that the San, who were hunting and gathering in thetwentieth century, were descendants of pastoralists who lost their herds due to subjugation by outsiders, drought, and livestock disease. Cultural anthropologist Richard B. Lee counters that evidence from oral history, archaeology, and ethnohistory shows that the Ju/hoansigroup of San living in the isolated Nyae Nyae-Dobe area of the Kalahari Desert were autonomous hunter-gatherers until the twentieth century. Althoughthey carried on some trade with outsiders before then, it had minimal impact on their culture.
ISSUE 7. Does the Natural–Supernatural Distinction Exist in All Cultures?
YES: Roger Ivar Lohmann, from “The Supernatural Is Everywhere: Defining Qualities of Religion in Melanesia and Beyond,” Anthropological Forum (November 2003)
NO: Frederick (Fritz) P. Lampe, from “Creating a Second-Storey Woman: Introduced Delineation Between Natural and Supernatural in Melanesia,” Anthropological Forum (November 2003)
Cultural anthropologist Roger Ivar Lohmann argues that a supernaturalistic worldview or cosmology is at the heart of virtually all religions. For him the supernatural is a concept that exists everywhere, although it is expressed differently in each society. For him, supernaturalism attributes volition to things that do not have it. He argues that the supernatural is also a part of Western peoples daily experience in much the same ways that it is the experience of the Papua New Guineans with whom he worked. Lutheran pastor and anthropological researcher Frederick (Fritz) P. Lampe argues that "supernatural" is a problematic and inappropriate term like the term "primitive." If we accept the term "supernatural," it is all too easy to become ethnocentric and assume that anything supernatural is unreal, and therefore false. He considers a case at the University of Technology in Papua New Guinea to show how use of the term "supernatural" allows us to miss out on how Papua New Guineans actually understand the world in logical, rational, and naturalistic terms that Westerners would generally see as illogical, irrational, and supernaturalistic.
ISSUE 8. Is It Natural for Adopted Children to Want to Find Out About Their Birth Parents?
YES: Betty Jean Lifton, from Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness (Basic Books, 1994)
NO: John Terrell and Judith Modell, from “Anthropology and Adoption,” American Anthropologist (March 1994)
Adoptee and adoption rights advocate Betty Jean Lifton argues that there is a natural need for human beings to know where they came from.Adoption is not a natural human state, she asserts, and it is surrounded by a secrecy that leads to severe social and psychological consequences foradoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents. Anthropologists John Terrell and Judith Modell, who are each the parent of an adopted child, contend that the “need” to know onesbirth parents is an American (or Western European) cultural construct. They conclude that in other parts of the world, where there is less emphasisplaced on biology, adoptees have none of the problems said to be associated with being adopted in America.
ISSUE 9. Do Sexually Egalitarian Societies Exist?
YES: Maria Lepowsky, from Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society (Columbia University Press, 1993)
NO: Steven Goldberg, from “Is Patriarchy Inevitable?” National Review (November 11, 1996)
Cultural anthropologist Maria Lepowsky argues that among the Vanatinai people of Papua New Guinea, the sexes are basically equal, althoughminor areas of male advantage exist. Men and women both have personal autonomy; they both have similar access to material possessions, influence, andprestige; and the activities and qualities of males and females are valued equally. Sociologist Steven Goldberg contends that in all societies men occupy most high positions in hierarchical organizations and most high-statusroles, and they dominate women in interpersonal relations. He states that this is because mens hormones cause them to compete more strongly thanwomen for high status and dominance.
ISSUE 10. Has the Islamic Revolution in Iran Subjugated Women?
YES: Parvin Paidar, from “Feminism and Islam in Iran,” in Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives (Syracuse University Press, 1996)
NO: Erika Friedl, from “Sources of Female Power in Iran,” in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Syracuse University Press, 1994)
Iranian historian Parvin Paidar considers how the position of women suffered following the 1979 Iranian Revolution because of the impositionof Islamic law (sharia), as interpreted by conservative male clerics. She contends that the Islamic Revolution marked a setback in the progressivemodernist movements, which had improved womens rights during the secular regime of the Shah; new rights and opportunities have emerged since 1979only in opposition to conservative interpretations of Islamic law. American anthropologist Erika Friedl asserts that men in Iran have consistently tried to suppress womens rights since the 1979 IranianRevolution. Despite these efforts to repress them, women in all levels of society have access to many sources of power. In fact, argues Friedl, womenhave considerably more power available to them than either Western or Iranian stereotypes might suggest, even though they must work within Islamic lawto obtain this power.
ISSUE 11. Are Yanomami Violence and Warfare Natural Human Efforts to Maximize Reproductive Fitness?
YES: Napoleon A. Chagnon, from “Reproductive and Somatic Conflicts of Interest in the Genesis of Violence and Warfare Among Tribesmen,” in Jonathan Haas, ed., The Anthropology of War (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
NO: R. Brian Ferguson, from “A Savage Encounter: Western Contact and the Yanomami War Complex,” in R. Brian Ferguson and Neil L. Whitehead, eds., War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare (School of American Research Press, 2000)
Anthropologist and sociobiologist Napoleon A. Chagnon argues that the high incidence of violence and warfare he observed among the Yanomamiin the 1960s was directly related to mans inherent drive toward reproductive fitness (i.e., the innate biological drive to have as many offspring aspossible). For Chagnon, the Yanomami provide an excellent test of this sociobiological principle because the Yanomami were virtually unaffected byWestern colonial expansion and exhibited intense competition for wives. Anthropologist and cultural materialist R. Brian Ferguson counters that the high incidence of warfare and violence observed by Chagnon inthe 1960s was a direct result of contact with Westerners at mission and government stations. Fighting arose in an effort to gain access to steel toolsthat were increasingly important to the community. Ferguson asserts that fighting is a direct result of colonial circumstances rather than biologicaldrives.
ISSUE 12. Is Ethnic Conflict Inevitable?
YES: Sudhir Kakar, from “Some Unconscious Aspects of Ethnic Violence in India,” in Veena Das, ed., Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia (Oxford University Press, 1990)
NO: Anthony Oberschall, from “The Manipulation of Ethnicity: From Ethnic Cooperation to Violence and War in Yugoslavia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies (November 2000)
Indian social researcher Sudhir Kakar analyzes the origins of ethnic conflict from a psychological perspective to argue that ethnicdifferences are deeply held distinctions that from time to time will inevitably erupt as ethnic conflicts. He maintains that anxiety arises frompreconscious fears about cultural differences. In his view, no amount of education or politically correct behavior will eradicate these fears andanxieties about people of differing ethnic backgrounds. American sociologist Anthony Oberschall considers the ethnic conflicts that have recently emerged in Bosnia and contends that primordialethnic attachments are insufficient to explain the sudden emergence of violence among Bosnian ethnic groups. He adopts a complex explanation for thisviolence, identifying circumstances in which fears and anxieties were manipulated by politicians for self-serving ends. It was only in the context ofthese manipulations that ethnic violence could have erupted, concludes Oberschall.
ISSUE 13. Is Islam a Single Universal Tradition?
YES: Francis Robinson, from Islam and Muslim History in South Asia (Oxford University Press, 2000)
NO: Veena Das, from “For a Folk-Theology and Theological Anthropology of Islam,” Contributions to Indian Sociology (July-December, 1984)
Historian Francis Robinson argues that Islam is a single, universal tradition, whose proper practices and beliefs can best be understood from the study of religious texts. Islam as practiced in many local communities in India may have numerous syncretic elements borrowed from Hinduism. But these syncretic elements should best be understood as errors in belief and practice that will eventually be weeded out from the single, authentic religious tradition. Indian sociologist Veena Das counters that the numerous syncretic traditions of Islam found in India and other countries represent important religious differences. Emphasis on textual analysis misses the point that religion as lived and practiced is fundamentally different in various local traditions. Such differences are not likely to disappear through continuing contact with religious leaders in Mecca or other Islamic centers because interpretation will always introduce religious innovation and variation.
ISSUE 14. Do Some Illnesses Exist Only Among Members of a Particular Culture?
YES: Sangun Suwanlert, from “Phii Pob: Spirit Possession in Rural Thailand,” in Willilam Lebra, ed., Culture-Bound Syndromes, Ethnopsychiatry, and Alternate Therapies, vol. 4 of Mental Health Research in Asia and the Pacific (The University of Hawaii Press, 1976)
NO: Robert A. Hahn, from Sickness and Healing: An Anthropological Perspective (Yale University Press, 1995)
Physician Sangun Suwanlert from Thailand asks whether or not one particular illness he observed in northern Tai villages, called phii pob, corresponds to Western diagnostic categories or is restricted to Thailand. After documenting how this condition does not fit standard psychiatric diagnoses, he concludes that phii pob is indeed a "culture-bound syndrome" that can only occur among people who share rural Thai cultural values and beliefs. Medical anthropologist Robert A. Hahn counters that the very idea of the so-called culture-bound syndrome is flawed. He contends thatculture-bound syndromes are reductionist explanations for certain complex illness conditionsthat is, explanations that reduce complex phenomenato a single variable. Hahn suggests that such conditions are like any illness condition; they are not so much peculiar diseases but distinctive localcultural expressions of much more common illness conditions that can be found in any culture.
ISSUE 15. Do Museums Misrepresent Ethnic Communities Around the World?
YES: James Clifford, from The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Harvard University Press, 1988)
NO: Denis Dutton, from “Mythologies of Tribal Art,” African Arts (Summer 1995)
Postmodernist anthropologist James Clifford argues that the very act of removing objects from their ethnographic contexts distorts themeaning of objects held in museums. He contends that whether these objects are displayed in art museums or anthropological museums, exhibitionsmisrepresent ethnic communities by omitting important aspects of contemporary life, especially involvement with the colonial or Westernworld. Anthropologist Denis Dutton asserts that no exhibition can provide a complete context for ethnographic objects, but that does not mean thatmuseum exhibitions are fundamentally flawed. Dutton suggests that postmodernists misunderstand traditional approaches to interpreting museumcollections, and what they offer as a replacement actually minimizes what we can understand of ethnic communities from museum collections.
PART 3. Ethics in Cultural Anthropology
ISSUE 16. Did Napoleon Chagnon and Other Researchers Adversely Affect the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela?
YES: Terence Turner, from The Yanomami and the Ethics of Anthropological Practice (Cornell University Latin American Studies Program, 2001)
NO: Edward H. Hagen, Michael E. Price, and John Tooby, from Preliminary Report, (Department of Anthropology, University of California Santa Barbara)
Anthropologist Terence Turner contends that journalist Patrick Tierneys book Darkness in El Dorado accurately depicts how anthropologist Napoleon Chagnons research among the Yanomami Indians caused conflict between groups and how Chagnons portrayal of the Yanomami as extremely violent aided gold miners trying to take over Yanomami land. Anthropologists Edward Hagen, Michael Price, and John Tooby counter that Tierney systematically distorts Chagnons views on Yanomami violence and exaggerates the amount of disruption caused by Chagnons activities compared to those of others such as missionaries and gold miners.
ISSUE 17. Should Anthropologists and Linguists Be Concerned about Losing Endangered Languages?
YES: Ken Hale, from “Endangered Languages,” Language (March 1992)
NO: Peter Ladefoged, from “Another View of Endangered Languages,” Language (December 1992)
Linguist Ken Hale contends that the loss of endangered languages represents a major tragedy for humanity, because each language that goes extinct reduces the worlds linguistic diversity. The pace of extinctions has increased over the past century, mostly because government policies routinely encourage language loss. While linguists have a responsibility for recording and documenting endangered languages, they also have a role to play in influencing government policies that can encourage retention of these minority languages. Linguist Peter Ladefoged accepts the fact that endangered languages are disappearing, but feels that the position taken by Ken Hale and his colleagues is unacceptably paternalistic. He contends that while it is a good thing to study linguistic diversity, the people who speak endangered languages have just as much right to participate in their nations affairs as anyone else, even if it means their children will learn the metropolitan language, not the endangered language.
ISSUE 18. Should Anthropologists Work to Eliminate the Practice of Female Circumcision?
YES: Merrilee H. Salmon, from “Ethical Considerations in Anthropology and Archaeology, or Relativism and Justice for All,” Journal of Anthropological Research (Spring 1997)
NO: Elliott P. Skinner, from “Female Circumcision in Africa: The Dialectics of Equality,” in Richard R. Randolph, David M. Schneider, and May N. Diaz, eds., Dialectics and Gender: Anthropological Approaches (Westview Press, 1988)
Professor of the history and philosophy of science Merrilee H. Salmon argues that clitoridectomy (female genital mutilation) violates therights of the women on whom it is performed. She asserts that this operation is a way for men to control women and keep them unequal. Professor of anthropology Elliott P. Skinner accuses feminists who want to abolish clitoridectomy of being ethnocentric. He states thatAfrican women themselves want to participate in the practice, which functions like male initiation, transforming girls into adult women.