One of the more dismaying aspects of growing old is to find old ideas reappearing in new clothes–like the tricycle you had long ago got rid of showing up at a garage sale, badly repainted. Consider for example the currently popular cliche: “subtext.” It is what we used to call “subliminal message.” The difference is that one took its meaning from then popular Freudian psychiatry while the other is borrowed from literary criticism. Since there is more intellectual meat in psychiatry than in litcrit, I prefer the older term, though it carries its own subliminal message; namely, that it is subliminal because psychological processes make us want to keep it from being overt. But this is a minor matter; one of words, not theories.
I want to discuss the habit of recycling ideas because I think it displays a serious flaw in anthropological teaching, in anthropological research and in anthropological thinking. It is not the way to achieve scientific progress. The ideal of scientific investigation is to establish a dialogue between theory and empirical research: theoretical formulations leading to research programs; the research testing a hypothesis and, if found inadequate (as is usually the case), altering it to fit the new data; which in turn is to be tested. This is the way the “hard” sciences work and in this we should try to emulate them.
This paper in its original form was presented at a session of the Senior Anthropologists’ Association at the Annual Meeting of the AAA in 1990.
Anthropologists do not cast their theoretical formulations as testable hypotheses. I recall asking Kroeber, in the second summer of my graduate work at Berkeley, for funds to test a thesis relating to values, status and economic conditions. It was far too complex and should have been turned down as being beyond the scope of a summer’s work (perhaps even a lifetime’s). Instead, as Kroeber said “Goldschmidt, I don’t believe in going into the field with a hypothesis.” (P.S. He gave me the money anyway and I had a rewarding experience among the Hupa; I am still struggling with the “hypothesis.”) Of course, I understand that he feared that I would shape my data to fit my preconceptions, forgetting that everybody does so and that it is better that these be explicit rather than covert.
Anthropologists usually act as if they had no hypotheses; they go into the field looking for facts and expecting them to speak for themselves. Facts don’t speak for themselves, they must be spoken for. Nevertheless, we characteristically go into the field and “discover” the nature of reality. This blind man approach often results in important insights only because the elephant we are groping at is so vast and complex that there is an almost infinite number of reasonable things that can be said about it. (The current mood seems to be that it doesn’t exist at all, but is merely a figment of our ethnocentric imagination. This idea will soon fade away, else it will destroy the very basis of our existence–like parasites consuming their host.) When we do admit to hypotheses we generally borrow them from some other discipline; evolution and ecology from biology; “culture and personality” studies from psychiatry; structural- functionalism from sociology.
Since we do not frame our theories in terms of testable hypotheses, we never validate them, which means that we cannot invalidate them. This is far more serious because they therefore never die but stay around to haunt us whether they have any validity or not. Our paradigms may get lost, but they show up again. I shall illustrate this anthropological characteristic with three examples: evolutionary theory, psychological anthropology and social anthropology.
We all “know” that evolutionary thought was “killed” by Boas and his students. Their recognition of cultural relativism and the historical uniqueness of each and every culture were insights of great value to the advancement of sociological understanding as well as for the formulation of social policies. It is not clear, however, why the Boasians had to deny evolution in order to establish these essential elements of human reality even though, to be sure, there was a lot of nonsense in classical evolution that needed getting rid of.
But just as surely, there was a basic truth to the notion of evolution; nobody, least of all the Boasians, doubted that culture began simple and became more complex; that this complexity was a product of growth, and so on. They did not fail to see that the development of nations and empires in the two hemispheres had similar trajectories. They certainly believed that the contemporary foragers were more like man’s earliest societies than, say, Dahomey. But evolution implied progress; progress meant better and worse; this evaluation reinforced racial prejudices, and these were what had to be eradicated.
There is a subtle slippage in this syllogism. The progress does not mean better human beings, nor even better culture in some moral sense, but only more effective technology; that is, greater capacity for survival, which is what evolution is all about. But it was hard to see this a century ago.
It was a short generation before the dead and buried evolution was disinterred and quickened; taking on a new lease in life. It is a nice irony that Robert Lowie, who is generally credited with giving classical evolution the coup de gras with his Primitive society said in his later textbook that he himself was something of an evolutionist. The cycles in anthropological thought are so short-waved that they overlap the academic generations.
The return to evolutionary thought was initiated by Leslie White, whose contribution was motivated by antagonism, and therefore was less important than that of Julian steward. White merely tried to revive Morgan, while Steward was changing the evolutionary paradigm by introducing the important and seminal notion of ecology. (This is the way we should always work: you stick with the problem and change the paradigm.) I tried to develop evolutionism further in my Man’s Way by showing that technology was inherently progressive, in the sense that it enabled more people to survive on a given piece of land, that it therefore had demographic consequences and that larger and denser populations called for increasingly complicated social systems.
The transformation of evolutionary thought brought about by the recognition of ecological adaptation gave evolutionary theory a much-needed impetus, and ecological ideas have suffused much of current discourse in ethnology. The recognition of ecological types, especially hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and peasants has led to some valuable, if cautious, generalization. Inasmuch as ecology is a process, giving time depth to the analysis (for instance, Tim Earle’s work on the emergence of chiefdoms and my own on the adaptive process in the shift between pastoralism and horticulture) has transformed it from the sterility of such ad-hoc explanations as Rappaport’s analysis of the pig rituals among the Maring and efforts to explain warfare as a “spacing mechanism.” (To justify modern warfare as a population control mechanism would lead to justifying genocide on the same grounds.)
We do not have to read Stephen Gould every month to remember that ecological adaptation is also an historic process; that the process of adaptation involves the use of materials already at hand–whether biological or cultural. Yet there is already a visible effort to discredit ecology–to be sure, largely by those who eschew all paradigms.
Though anthropology has from the outset had ties with psychology, the heyday of psycho-anthropological research took place in the thirties and forties. The basic issue was: if human variation was cultural rather than biological, then there must be some mechanism for the transmission of culture. Teaching and imitation could account for the transmission of the rules and techniques that constitute the most obvious elements in culture, but they could not explain the transmission of those more complex and subtle aspects of behavior that had begun to capture our attention–the variation in the moral and intellectual quality of different peoples that was still being thought of by many as “racial.”
It is not surprising that the anthropologists turned to Freud for their inspiration, not only because he was the dominating intellectual influence of the time, but because he was addressing both the unconscious in human behavior (which is what the subtle aspect of culture was) and the process of infantile development (where, obviously, such transmission had to take place).
Neo-Freudian psychiatrists like Horney, Fromm, Sullivan, Kardiner and Erikson, to name the most prominent, began to look at other cultures while anthropologists like Mead, Benedict, Sapir, Linton and Kluckhohn began to test psychiatric notions and adopt such techniques of study as the use of “projective tests.” Sometimes, as with Mead’s work, the studies were of dubious quality, but some of the research was superb ethnography and methodologically sound and innovative.
I might say that the best model for such work remains the largely overlooked study of Balinese character by Bateson and Mead, though if you disregard some of his theoretical legerdemain and concentrate on his observation, Erikson’s analysis of Yurok childhood is a close second, while Thompson and Joseph’s The Hopi Way is a neglected classic, and William Caudill has shown the greatest methodological sophistication.
This line of investigation came to a sudden and surprising halt in the fifties. There are a number of reasons. One was the outrageous conclusion of Geoffrey Gorer that the Russian character was “caused” by infant swaddling. (Actually, Gorer found that the peasants of Russia did not place great value on having children, as most peasants do, and that they didn’t like their children much, either. This is a more interesting and theoretically relevant observation.) Another was that many of the practitioners in this group died relatively early in life; notably Sapir, Benedict, Linton, Kluckhohn, and Caudill, while others turned away from this kind of research for diverse reasons, notably DuBois, Hallowell and Tony Wallace.
But I think that the basic cause of its decline lay in the fact that the Freudian paradigm, especially the notion of the erotic stages of infantile development on which so much research had been based, simply did not withstand the test of cross-cultural research. Kluckhohn expressed this quite clearly when he found he could not reconcile adult Navaho paranoia and depression with the mild and supportive nature of Navaho treatment of their children.
Whatever the reasons, anthropology simply walked away from the problem. Here was a program of study designed to uncover the single most important question in cultural anthropology: how are the elements of culture transmitted? It was the cultural- anthropology equivalent to genetics for an understanding of biological evolution. Nobody said: “Hey! This problem is important but our theories are wrong; lets see how we have to change our theories to bring them into line with what we know.” Those who remained in anthropology turned to other issues, and the problem of cultural transmission was left lying dead on the field.
When a group of us brought about the rebirth of psychological anthropology by creating Ethos nearly 25 years ago and later organized the society for Psychological Anthropology, we found it dominated by cognitive psychology and everyone seemed to have lost sight of the central issues: How are the subtle aspects of culture transmitted? What creates the ethos, the genius, of people? Why do people cope differently with the recurrent problems of social life? The only hold-overs from the early days of influence from psychiatry are Beatrice and John Whiting, who have concentrated their attention on the later stages of childhood, and Mel Spiro, who has carried the torch of Freudian perceptions of the subconscious in human behavior.
Very little work has been done on early infancy; the work of the psychiatrist Bob Levy and of Jean Briggs on the Inuit being notable exceptions. Briggs is a pioneer of the reflexive approach to anthropology and has given us a very intimate view of the child-rearing process, but she is not herself interested in the broader explanatory potential of her work. To her, as to those who are following her reflexivity, each cultural encounter offers a unique experience so that no generalization is possible.
Of course each culture, each experience, each individual is unique. Yet Inuit raise their children in a peculiarly Inuit way, and this is different from that of the Tahitians, the Yurok, and so on. This is the very stuff of culture. The issue is how and why. Enough work has now been done on the ethology of childhood, on the delicate dialogue between infant and mother, that we have a basis for going back to these essential questions. Child development studies have shown that the neonate is pre-adapted to learn certain kinds of things, that it is socially responsive and proactive at a very early age, and that a subtle form of discourse takes place between the infant and its caretakers.
In my The Human Career I suggest some of the parameters by which the universal human trait of affect hunger is subtly influenced in this dialogue and that this sets the tone for what is to come. As in all matters subjected to scientific scrutiny, the process is far more complex than the simple-minded notion of erotic stages postulated by Freud.
Anthropology has not looked at cultural variation in these matters because we have not been willing to look at a modern, ethology-oriented paradigm of cultural development. I found one instance where psychologists tried to look at cultural variation and, as they so often do, confused culture with nationality and found, not surprisingly, that there was as much variation intra-“culturally” as between “cultures.” I found one of these internal variations most interesting; parent-child relationships, as shown by attachment studies and other data, were warm in Bavarian Germany but hostile in Westphalian Germany. Both are a part of Germany, but Bavaria is Gemutlichkeit country while Westphalia is Achtung! country. Same nation; different culture.
For about four decades in mid-century, anthropology in the united States was dominated by social anthropology and in Great Britain totally consumed by it. Everything was structure and function, and two memories of my days as editor of the American Anthropologist remain: one was the need to reject papers whose functional theses were so tautological that they reflected the outlook of of Dr.Pangloss, rather than the theories of Durkheim; The other was the compelling temptation to declare a moratorium on articles dealing with kinship.
Nowadays it is almost as hard to find anyone in England who will admit to ever having been a social anthropologist as it is to find a former Nazi in Germany. The English now talk about culture in the pages of Anthropology Today and even Man, the products of the Royal Anthropological Institute; a far cry from when it was a taboo word, as I learned when Evans-Pritchard apologized for using it at a meeting of the Society for Social Anthropology, as if he had farted. They also discuss psychological anthropology and applied anthropology as if they had invented them.
It is a relief to be free of the excessive involvement with social anthropology and yet we must realize that it contained a set of ideas that were absolutely essential to the understanding of human behavior; a set of ideas that now seem self-evident but were entirely foreign to both the preceding generation of British anthropologists and contemporary American ones.
My generation of American Anthropologists were just beginning to be influenced by American sociology when the functionalist movement was brought here by both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. Hostility toward sociology at Berkeley was clearly expressed by Kroeger, who, according to Berkeley lore, prevented it from being taught there in the twenties.
The demise of social anthropology is too recent for its reappearance now, but you may confidently look for its rediscovery in a decade or two.
I have reviewed the roller-coaster pattern of anthropological history in order to urge a new approach to the way we do the business of anthropology. I am saying that we must focus on the problems that anthropology is designed to solve rather than to give homage to theoretical formulations; that we must shape our theses in such a way as to make them amenable to empirical testing, to design research that will offer evidence for our explanations or disconfirm them, and when they do the latter to readjust our theories to fit our findings.
When we do this, incidentally, we will see that most of the paradigms that are valid do not contradict one another, but are complementary. There is no inherent confrontation between the evolutionism, ecology, psychology and social anthropology; they deal with diverse parameters of a multidimensional reality. As I said earlier, the elephant is big enough for all the blind men to find something of value; ultimately, however, we want to see how the whole beast looks. I will conclude with a few generalizations on how to proceed with the task of making anthropology both productive and fun. To begin with, most controversies in anthropology are confrontations between personalities rather than issues. Most conflicts in theory are false, for the validity of paradigm ‘A’ rarely depends upon the falsity of paradigm ‘B’, and so on. Indeed, one can usually show that one of them is a hidden presupposition of the other. Second, we should keep our eye on the ball, which is to understand two interrelated things: the nature of human nature and the causes of the variation in institutionalized social behavior. Those of us who think of anthropology as a science should act like scientists, which is to say, we should formulate our ideas so that they are testable, make every effort possible to test them and change our ideas in conformity to empirical evidence. Finally, it would be well for students, young or old, to read history before they return from the field shouting: