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Today’s crisis in anthropology


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At the time when African countries were gaining their independence, it seemed anthropology was about to fall victim to a dual conspiracy, fostered by the people hostile to it and those becoming extinct. What is the role of antropology in the modern world? Claude Lévi-Strauss replies in the November 1961 Courier.

Claude Lévi-Strauss replies

The important place social anthropology holds in the contemporary thinking may seem paradoxical to many people.  It  is  a  science very  much  in  vogue: witness  not  only  the fashion  for  films  and books about travel, but also the interest of the educated  public  in books on anthropology.

Towards the end of the 19th century people were apt to look to the biologist in their quest for a philosophy of man and the world, and then later to the sociologist, the historian, and even the philosopher.

But for the past several years, anthropology  has  come  to  play the same role, and today it too is expected to provide us with deep reflections  on  our  world  and  a philosophy of life and hope.

It is in the United States that this approach to anthropology seems to have begun. As a young nation intent on creating a humanism  of  its  own,  America  broke with  traditional  European  thin-king.  It  saw  no  reason  why  the civilizations of Greece and Rome should be admired to the exclusion of all others merely because in   the   Old   World   of   the Renaissance, when mankind came to be considered the most proper and necessary study of man, these were  the  only  two  civilizations sufficiently known.

Since  the  19th  century  and especially  the  20th,  practically every human society on our planet has  become  accessible  to  study. Why then limit our interests? And indeed,  when  we  contemplate humanity in its entirety we cannot fail to recognize the fact that for 99/100ths of mankind’s existence, and  over  most  of  the  inhabited globe,  there  have  been  no  customs, no beliefs, and no institutions which do not fall within the province  of  anthropological study.

This was strikingly emphasised during the last war with the struggle waged on a worldwide scale. Even the most obscure and remote corners of our planet were suddenly catapulted into our lives and consciousness and took on three-dimensional reality. These were the lands where the last “savage” peoples on earth had  sought  safety  in  isolation  – the  far  north  of  America,  New Guinea, the hinterlands of south-east  Asia,  and  certain  islands  in the Indonesian archipelago.

Shrinking world

Since the war, many names, once charged with mystery and romance, have remained on our maps but now they designate landing spots for long-distance jet liners.  Under  the  impact  of aviation  and  with  increase  in world population, our planet has shrunk  in  size,  and  improved communications and travel facilities  permit  us  no  longer  to close our eyes or remain indifferent to other peoples.

Today there is no fraction of the  human  race,  no  matter  how remote and retarded it may still appear,  which  is  not  directly  or indirectly in contact with others, and  whose  feelings,  ambitions, desires and fears do not affect the security  and  prosperity  and  the very existence of those to whom material progress may once have given a feeling of ascendancy.

Even if we wanted to, we could no longer ignore or shrug off with indifference, say, the last head-hunters of New Guinea, for the simple reason that they are interested in us.  And  surprising though  it  may  be,  the  result  of our  contacts  with  them  means that  both  they  and  we  are  now part of the same world, and it will not be long before we are all part of the same civilization.

For  even  societies  with  the most widely divergent patterns of thought and whose customs and mores took thousands of years to evolve  along  isolated  paths, impregnate  one  another  once contact is established. This occurs in many, devious ways; sometimes we are clearly aware of them, often we are not.

As they spread throughout the world,  the  civilizations  which (rightly or wrongly) felt that they had reached the height of development,  such  as  Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, and on a different  level  the  technological civilization  that  unites  them, become  tinged  with  the  “primitive” way of life, “primitive” thin-king  and  “primitive”  behaviour which have always been the subject of anthropological research. Without our realizing it, the “primitive” ways are transforming these civilizations from within.

For the so-called primitive or archaic peoples do not simply vanish into a vacuum. They dissolve and are incorporated with a greater or lesser speed into the civilization surrounding them. At the same time, the latter acquires a universal character.

Anthropology:  a science without an object?

Thus, far from diminishing in importance, primitive peoples concern us more with each passing day. To take only one example, the great civilization the West is justly proud of, and which has spread its roots across the inhabited globe, is everywhere emerging as a “hybrid”. Many foreign elements, both spiritual and material, are being absorbed into its stream.

As a result, the problems of anthropology have ceased to be a matter for specialists, limited to scholars and explorers; they have become the direct and immediate concern of every one of us.

Where then, lies the paradox? In reality, there are two –insofar as anthropology is chiefly concerned with the study of “primitive” peoples. At the moment when the public has come to recognize its true value, we may well ask whether it has not reached the point where it has nothing more left to study.

For the very transformations which  are  spurring  a  growing theoretical interest in “primitives”  are  in  fact  bringing  about their  extinction.  This is not really a new phenomenon.  As early as 1908, when he inaugurated   the   chair   of   Social Anthropology at the University of Liverpool, Sir James Frazer (author of the monumental Golden Bough) dramatically called the attention of governments and scholars to this very problem. Yet we can hardly com-pare the situation half a century ago with the large-scale extinction of “primitive” peoples which we have witnessed since then.

Let me cite a few examples. At the beginning of white settlement in Australia, the aborigines numbered 250,000 individuals. Today no more than 40,000 are left.

Official reports describe them herded in reserves or clustered near mining centres where in the place of their traditional wild food gathering parties they are reduced to sneak scavenging in rubbish heaps outside the mining shacks. Other aborigines, who had retreated deep into the forbidden desert, have been uprooted by the installation of atomic explosion bases or rocket launching sites.

Protected by its exceptionally hostile environment, New Guinea with its several million tribesmen may well be the last great sanctuary of primitive society on earth.

But  here  too,  civilization  is making  such  rapid  inroads  that the  600,000  inhabitants  of  the central  mountains  who  were totally unknown as mere twenty years  ago,  are  now  providing labour contingents for the building of roads. And it is no rarity today to see road signs and milestones parachuted into the unexplored jungle!

But with civilization have come strange  diseases,  against  which “primitives”  have  no  natural immunization  and  which  have wrought  deadly  havoc  in  their ranks. They are succumbing rapidly to tuberculosis, malaria, trachoma, leprosy, dysentery, gonorrhoea, syphilis and the mysterious disease known as Kuru. The result of primitive man’s contact with civilization, though not actually introduced by it, Kuru is a genetic deterioration  which  inevitably ends  in  death  and  for  which  no treatment or remedy is known.

In Brazil, 100 tribes became extinct between 1900 and 1950. The Kaingang, from the state of Sao Paulo numbering 1,200 in 1912, were no more than 200 in 1916, and today have dwindled to 80.

The Munduruku were 20,000 in 1925 – in 1950, they numbered 1,200. Of the 10,000 Nanmbikwara in 1900, I could trace only a thousand  in  1940.  The Kayapo of the river Araguaya were 2,500 in 1902 and 10 in 1950. The Timbira 1,000 in 1900 and 40 in 1950.

How can this rapid decimation be explained? Foremost, by the introduction   of   Western diseases against which the Indian’s body had no defence.  The tragic fate of the Urubu, an Indian tribe from north-eastern Brazil, is typical of many others. In 1950, only a few years after they were discovered, they contracted the measles. Within a few days, out of the population of 750 there were 160 deaths.  An eyewitness has left this stark description:

“We found the first village abandoned.  All the inhabitants had fled, convinced that if they ran far away they would escape the sickness, which they believed was a spirit attacking the village.

We discovered them in the forest, halted in their flight. Exhausting  and  shivering  with fever  in  the  rain,  nearly  all  of them  had  fallen  victim  to  the disease. Intestinal and pulmonary complications had so weakened them that they no longer had strength to seek food.

Even  water  was  lacking,  and they  were  dying  as  much  from hunger  and  thirst  as  from  the  disease. The children were crawling about on the forest floor trying to keep the fires alight in the rain and hoping to keep warm. The men lay burning and paralyzed by fever; the women indifferently thrust away their babes seeking their breast.”

Indigenous superseded by indigent

In 1954, on the Guapore at the border of Brazil and Bolivia, a mission was established and four different tribes were incited to form a single group. For several months, there were 400 people there, all of whom were exterminated by measles shortly thereafter...

But in addition to infectious diseases, vitamin and other nutritional deficiencies are also an important problem. Motor-vascular disorders, eye lesions and dental decay, unknown to primitive man when  he  lived  according  to  his ancient  ways,  make their appearance when he is confined to villages and must eat food which  does  not  come from his native forest. Then, even the old and tried traditional remedies, such as charcoal dressings for severe burns, prove useless. And simple diseases to which tribesmen have long been accustomed, become extraordinary virulent.

The  decimation  of the  Indians  is  due  to other, less direct causes, such as the collapse of the social structure  or  pattern  of  living.  The Kaingang  of  Sao  Paulo  already mentioned,  lived  by  a  series  of strict  social  rules  with  which every anthropologist is acquainted. The inhabitants of each village were divided into two groups on  the  principle  that  the  men from the first group could marry only  women  from  the  second group and vice-versa.

When their population diminished, the foundations permitting their survival collapsed. Under the rigid system of the Kaingang, it was no longer possible for every man to find a wife and many had no choice but celi-bacy unless they resigned them-selves to mating within their own group – which to them was incest, and even then, their marriage had to be childless. In such cases, a whole population can disappear within a few years. [These observations on the disappearance of the Indians of Brazil are drawn chiefly from a study by the noted Brazilian anthropologist,  Dr  Darcy  Ribeiro,  entitled “Convivio  et  Contaminaçao” published in “Sociologica”, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 Sao Paulo, 1956].

Bearing this in mind, need we be surprised that it is more difficult not only to study the so-called primitive peoples but even to define them satisfactorily. In recent years, a serious attempt has been made to revise existing thinking regarding protective legislation in the countries facing this problem.

Neither language nor culture nor the conviction of belonging to a group, are valid as criteria for a definition.  As enquiries of the International Labour Organization have emphasized, the notion of indigenous people is being superseded by the concept of indigence. [ILO, The Aboriginal populations. Geneva, 1953].

Peoples who refuse to be the object of study

But this is only half of the picture. There are other parts of the world where tens and hundreds of millions of people live, who were traditionally the subject of anthropology. These populations are increasing rapidly in number in Central America, the Andes, southeast Asia and Africa.  But here too, anthropology faces a crisis.  Not because the populations are dying out but because of the nature of the people involved.

These peoples are changing and their civilizations are gradually becoming westernized Anthropology, however, has never yet included the West within its competence or province.  Furthermore, and even more important, there is a growing opposition in these regions to anthropological enquiries.  Instances  have  occurred where  regional  museums  of “Anthropology” have been forced to  change  their  names  and  can only  continue  disguised  as “Museums  of  Popular  Art  and Tradition”.

In the young states, which have recently obtained independence, economists, psychologists and sociologists are warmly welcomed by universities.  The same can hardly be said of anthropologists.

Thus, it would almost seem that anthropology is on the point of falling victim to a dual conspiracy.  On the one hand are the peoples who have ceased physically to lend themselves to study but are simply vanishing from the face of the earth. On the other are those who, far from dead, are living a great population “explosion”, yet are categorically hostile to anthropology for psychological and ethical reasons.

There is no problem about how to meet the first of these crises. Research must be speeded up and  we must take advantage of the few years that  remain  to  gather  all  the information  we  can  on  these vanishing  islands  of  humanity. Such information is vital for, unlike the natural sciences, the sciences of man cannot originate their own experimentation. 

Every type of society, of belief or institution, every way of life, constitutes a ready-made experiment for which preparation has taken thousands of years and as such is irreplaceable.  When a community disappears, a door closes forever, locking away knowledge, which is unique.

That is why the anthropologist believes that it is essential, before these societies are lost and their social  customs  destroyed,  to create sharper observation techniques, rather like the astronomer who has brought electronic amplifiers into play to capture the weakening  signals  of  light  from distant  stars  racing  away  from us.

The second crisis in anthropology is much less serious in the absolute since there is no threat of extinction to the civilizations concerned.  But  it  is  much  more difficult  to  deal  with  it  out  of hand. I wonder whether it would help matters if we tried to dispel the  distrust  of  the  people  who were formerly the anthropologist’s field work by proposing that our research  should  henceforth  no longer be “one way only”. Might not anthropology find its place again if, in exchange for our continued freedom to investigate, we invited African or Melanesian anthropologists to come and study us in the same way that up to now only we have studied them?

Such  an  exchange  would  be very desirable for it would enrich the  science  of  anthropology  by widening   its horizons,  and set  us  on  the road  to  further progress. But let us have no illusions this would not  resolve  the problem,  for  it does  not  take into  consideration  the  deep motives  underlying the former colonised  peoples negative  attitude  to anthropology. They are afraid that under the cloak of an anthropological interpretation of history what they consider to be intolerable inequality will be justified as the desirable diversity   of mankind.

If I may be permitted  a  formula which, coming from an  anthropologist, can  have  no  derogatory connotation even as pure scientific observation, I would say that Westerners   will never  (except  in make  believe)  be able to act the role of “savages” opposite  those  whom they once dominated.  For when we Westerners cast them in this role, they existed for us only as objects –whether for scientific study or political and economic domination. Whereas we, who in their eyes are responsible for their past fate, now appear to them inevitably as directing forces and therefore it is much harder or them to look at us with an attitude of detached appraisal.

By  a  curious  paradox,  it  was undoubtedly a feeling of sympathy that prompted many anthropologists  to  adopt  the  idea  of pluralism (this asserts the diversity of human cultures and concomitantly  denies  that  certain civilizations can be classified as “superior”   and   others   as “inferior”)

Science “from without”, anthropology becoming science “from within”

If  therefore,  anthropology is to survive  in  the  modern  world, there can be no disguising that it must  be  at  the  price  of  much deeper change than a mere enlarging of the circle (very restricted it is true up to now) by the rather childish  formula  of  offering  to lend our toys to the newcomers provided they let us go on playing with theirs.

Anthropology must transform its very nature and must admit that  logically  and  morally,  it  is almost impossible to continue to view  societies  as  scientific objects, which the scientists may even wish to preserve, but which are  now  collective  subjects  and claim the right to change as they please.

The modification of anthropology’s subject matter also implies modifications in its aims and methods. And these fortunately appear quite feasible for our branch of science has never defined its purposes in the absolute but rather as a relationship between the observer and his subject. And it has always agreed to change whenever this relationship has been modified.

Doubtless, the property of anthropology has always been to investigate on the spot of “from within”. But only because it was impossible to investigate at a distance or “from without”. In the field of the social sciences, the great  revolution  of  our  times  is that  whole  civilizations  have become  conscious  of  their  existence,  and  having  acquired  the necessary means to do so through literacy,  have  embarked  on  the study of their own past and traditions and every unique aspect of their culture which has survived to the present day.

Thus, if Africa, for instance, is escaping from anthropology, it will not so easily escape from science. In place of  the  anthropologist  –  that  is  the  outside analyst,  working  from  the outside – study of the continent will be in the hands of African scientists, or foreigners who will use the same methods  as  their  African colleagues.

They will no longer be anthropologists but linguists, philologists, historians of facts and ideas. Anthropology will gladly accept this transition  to  richer,  more  subtle methods than its own, confident that it has fulfilled its mission  by  keeping  alive  so much of the great riches of humanity on behalf of scientific knowledge, so long as it was  the  only  branch  of science able to do so.

Diversity, anthropology’s reason for being

As to the future of anthropology itself, it seems to lie now at the far extreme and the near extreme of its traditional positions. At the far extreme, in the geographical sense first, since we must go further and further afield to reach the last of the so-called primitive populations, and they are getting fewer  and  fewer;  but  in  the  far extreme  in  its  logical  meaning too, since we are now interested in the essentials.

On  the  near  extreme,  in  the sense  that  the  collapse  of  the material  foundations  of  the  last primitive civilizations has made their intimate experiences one of our last fields of investigation, in place of the weapons, tools and household  objects  which  have disappeared. But also because as Western civilization becomes more complex  with  each  passing  day and spreads across the whole of the earth, it is already beginning to show signs of the sharp differences  which  anthropology  has made it its business to study but which it could formerly do only by comparing  dissimilar  and  widely separated cultures.

Here no doubt, lies the permanent function of anthropology. For if there exists, as anthropologists have always affirmed, a certain  “optimum  diversity”  which they see as a permanent condition of human development, then we may  be  sure  that  divergences between  societies  and  groups within  societies  will  disappear only to spring up in other forms.

Who  knows  if  the conflict between the old and  new  generations, which so many countries are  now  experiencing, may  not  be  the  ransom that must be paid for the growing  homogenization of our social and material culture? Such phenomena seem to me pathological but  anthropology  has always been characterized by  its  ability  to  explain and  justify  forms  of human  behaviour  which men  found  strange  and could not understand.

In this way, anthropology at every phase has helped to enlarge the currently held and always too constricting view of humanity. To picture  the  disappearance  of anthropology, one would have to conjure up a civilization where all men  –  no  matter  what  corner  of the  globe  they  inhabited,  and whatever  their  way  of  life,  their education, their professional activities, their ages, beliefs, sympathies and aversions – were, to the very roots of their consciousness, totally  intelligible  to  all  other men.

Whether one deplores it, approves it, or merely states it as a fact, technical progress and the development of communications hardly seem to be leading us to this end.  And  as  long  as  the  ways  of thinking or of acting of some men perplex  other  men,  there  will  be scope for meditation on these differences; and this, in a constantly renewing form, will be the abiding province of anthropology.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Known for his studies and research at the University of Sâo Paulo in Brazil and the Institute of Ethnology in Paris, Claude Lévi-Strauss was formerly Deputy Director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He was the director of research in the religious science section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Secretary-General of International Council of Social Sciences in Paris.