Reading Anthropology

I don’t do a great deal of reading in the anthropological literature, and lately it seems that most of the books I’ve talked about in this space have been either fiction or politics, when they are not about art. But every once in a while I’m struck by how little I really know about the discipline of cultural anthropology. I recognize important titles, and names of great theorists are dimly remembered from the couple of courses I took as an undergraduate. In the past year I’ve started reading the discussion list of the Australian Anthropological Society and have subscribed to Anthro-L, a primarily American forum. And so I’ve been inspired to try to stretch my reading lists outside the realm of Indigenous Australian studies to see what I can learn.

I spent a considerable amount of time looking for a good introduction or overview to the discipline’s history and made numerous false starts. Most of what I could find were collections of case studies that have clearly been prepared as textbooks for undergraduate courses that assumed some degree of guidance in the form of a lecturer who could place the discussion in context. But the context was what I was looking for.

I finally came across an excellent, short introduction, illuminatingly called What is Anthropology? (Pluto Press, 2004) by Thomas Hylland Eriksen of the University of Oslo. One of the most refreshing aspects of this short (180-page) primer is that it is not overly weighted towards either side of the Atlantic, but gives, as appropriate, equal time to the British and American schools of thought in the last century, while not neglecting the contributions of the French, either.

The book is divided into two sections, “Entrances” and “Fields.” The former present a history of anthropology, an overview of research methods (fieldwork), and discussions of a broad range of “theories.” This last chapter comprises discussions of structural functionalism, culture and personality, agency and society, and structures of the mind. This brief overview left me far clearer than I had been on the contributions of Boas, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Levi-Strauss, and Geertz, among others.

The second half of the book appeared at first to be highly selective in its choice of fields of inquiry: reciprocity, kinship, nature, thought, and identification. But as I worked my way through each of them, I realized how much of the literature that I’ve read in recent years is subsumed under these five topics. Each chapter ends with two or three suggestions for further reading that taken together form just the kind of basic bibliography that I was searching for in the first place.

I was feeling emboldened by my new course of study to the point that when someone on the Anthro-L list made a passing comment about the function of secrecy in the creation of knowledge as described by Fredrik Barth in Cosmologies in the Making: a generative approach to cultural variation in inner New Guinea (Cambridge University Press, 1987), I headed straight for the library’s stacks to check it out. It proved to be a humbling corrective, but a fascinating foray nonetheless. I’m sure I understood about 50% of what Barth had to say.

Barth, who was also at the University of Oslo when this book was written, was cited by Eriksen as a theorist who stressed the importance of individual agency, or “methodological individualism”: the notion that “all societal phenomena can be studied by looking at individuals, their actions and their relations to other individuals” (Eriksen, p. 67).

Cosmologies in the Making is an attempt to account for the ways in which variations in ritual practice and knowledge have developed among the Ok of the mountainous interior of Papua New Guinea, close to the border with Irian Jaya. Different communities, often separated by distances of only tens of kilometers, display marked variation in protocols relating to sacrifice, sacred decoration, temple construction and adornment, and the degrees to which myth plays a role in ritual. Barth is interested in constructing a model which can account for these ontological variations.

In part, he ascribes differences to the secret nature of ritual, and to the restricted access to only a select few elder men in each of the communities. There are multiple levels of initiation of younger men into these rituals, and in some cases, a ritual may not be performed more than once in a decade. During the intervening years, the knowledge of the particulars of the ritual performance remain sealed, as it were, in the mind of one man, and perhaps his close confederates. 

During that period, the essentially metaphoric nature of ritual knowledge is acted upon by the individual consciousness and is susceptible to interpretation and “subjectification.” When time comes for the ritual to be performed again, details may have become obscure, to the guardian of the secret knowledge himself, as well as to his cohort or other senior men who have been through the ritual themselves in the past.

Barth postulates that the efficacy of ritual lies in its ability to imbue understanding of the sacred in those who witness it, and in its metaphorical means of communication, the end effect or result, rather than scrupulous recreation of previous enactments, is the measure of its success and appropriateness. Thus variations can be expected to occur and traditions diverge over space and time.

I was intrigued by the reference to Barth’s book, as it came close on the heels of hearing Fred Myers talk about painting among the Pintupi in the 1970s and 80s as an assertion of their knowledge, and thus of their status within the community. For those old masters, the fact that they were able to paint their Dreamings stories–able in both senses of having the requisite knowledge as well as the permissions–was de facto an assertion of identity. Among the Pintupi, secrecy acts to secure that status, much as it does among the Ok. Whether there are lessons to be transferred from Barth’s analysis to studies of ritual among Indigenous Australians is a topic I plan to pursue in the literature, and would welcome comments on. There don’t seem to be obvious connections, but the point of this set of reviews is to establish my naivete on the general subject of anthropological research.

Naivete is the dominant theme of another monograph that I recently encountered in a serendipitous search of my library’s holdings in Aboriginal art. Peggy Reeves Sanday is an anthropologist on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and a consulting curator in the Asian Section of the Penn Museum. She has recently published Aboriginal Paintings of the Wolfe Creek Crater: track of the Rainbow Serpent (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2007). Sanday has stepped outside her usual focus of scholarly interest (gender studies) to write a brief book that is part memoir, part family history, and only part anthropology.

Sanday’s father, Frank Reeves, was a geologist on the 1947 expedition that first spotted the Wolf Creek Crater during an aerial survey of the country near Halls Creek. (The first thing that I learned from perusing this volume is that there is no single commonly accepted spelling for Wolf(e), although it was named for Robert Wolfe, the gold prospector who reputedly founded Hall’s Creek.) Drawn to the site by a complicated family history, Sanday began her investigations into the local significance of the Crater with a desire to honor her father and her family, and to pierce what she saw as a veil of misinformation suggesting that the place did not figure in the local Dreaming lore.

The result is a lightweight foray into the history, natural and human, of the area, organized in its latter half around a series of paintings commissioned by Sanday that depict her informants’ stories of the crater. There is a certain guileless charm to her quest to marry the stories–Djaru tales and her father’s “discovery” of the crater–and her emotional connection to the site comes through clearly. But the art is dreary, apart from plates of crayon drawings collected by Tindale in 1953, which still shimmer. In the end, the book is disappointing in that it offers the promise and perhaps even the appearance of depth. But it turns out to be Sanday’s story, not the crater’s, and not that of the Djaru and their neighbors.


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