The Importance to Studying the Nuer

In our class, as we read and study The Nuer by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, I am always left at the end of class time reflecting on my other classes I have taken and thinking about other tribes we have studied. The Nuer are by far the most interesting. Applying Durkheim’s theory to the functionality of the Nuer and their culture it is absolutely interesting how they function so well as a community.

With Durkheim’s theory,” He viewed industrial society as a stable, self-renewing entity.” The Nuer in order to function as a society, they all have their own jobs they do in order to thrive and function. The biggest way they function in their community is through their cattle. They raise their cattle, use their cattle to create products they will use, they tend to them on a day-to-day basis; they even use their cattle in trades when their children get married. The cattle essentially is the property of the man, but the woman/wife is to help tend to them, and through tending to them it is also theirs as well. While the men take them out to pasture, the women help maintain them, by getting the milk from them. Their cattle is what makes their whole world revolve.

In their society, they also believe they cannot force someone to do something, that the person should be convinced on their own free will to do what they believe is the right thing. Their society is so in tune with one another, it’s incredible. It makes you wonder why even in today’s modern society, why can’t we function like that? Durkheim placed a strong emphasis on “function” within a society, that the Nuer have perfected this functionality over the many years they have been around. They hunt together, eat together, they tend to every day tasks together that they have it truly down to a tee.

In our society, we take a lot for granted. It’s becoming harder and harder to come together as a community, when everyone seem’s to be divided. Unity is becoming a far gone entity in our society and meanwhile. Tribes like the Nuer and even the Yanomamo tribe in South America have figured out how to get along with one another through 100’s of years. In a society where we work ourselves to the bone and it seems rare that anyone has our back, we strive to be better, but we can’t seem to quite get it. Going to work becomes trivial and even calling to talk to a friend on the phone seems like a hassle.We unfortunately have become so use to the new and improved ways of life that we forget we are actually human beings and that we have a lot more in common then we think. Religions, where we come from, education ( a large majority of us), how we think about politics and so much more. Why is that tribes who have come in to contact with modern day people are still able to maintain their harmonious ways of life and show each other compassion and meanwhile, we are unable to work together to create a safer world when we actually created such a dangerous one?

Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social  and Political History. Moberg, Mark. Published in 2013.

The Nuer. Pritchard, Evans, E.E. First Published in 1940.


Through the Looking Eyes

As we discuss anthropological theory we have on particular lenses that help us perceive our world around us. In order to perceive the theories and cultures we are immersing ourselves in we have to practice cultural relativism, not our standard bias of ethnocentrism.  Cultural relativism can be defined as the practice of perceiving another’s culture within their through their own eyes, not your own culture’s eyes. Unlike, ethnocentrism where we perceive another’s culture through our own biased eyes which have been submerged within our own culture. When observing another’s culture like Evans-Pritchard did within when he lived with the Nuer, he had to view their lives within the practice of cultural relativism, from their viewpoint, not his own.

The previous image of evolution is how I perceive the following quote from E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s  ethnographic book the Nuer.

“A man must judge his labors by the obstacles he has overcome and the hardships he has endured, and by these standards I am not ashamed of the result (9)”.

In its original context, this quote is in response to how Evans-Pritchard views his time and ultimately his understanding of the Nuer society. However, for me, I feel that this quote better relates to a possible mantra that society could follow.

In addition, when we look at images with our eyes whether or not we view the cultural objects in the cultural relativism or ethnocentric perspectives our brain analyzes and process them differently. Within Donald Hoffman’s TedTalk named Do we see reality as it is? we see states of images as our consciousness perceives them. Within our class we watched a documentary when Nuer men were making cuts on their faces, ultimately making scars on their faces. As an individual in your ethnocentric eyes you see him harming himself, you see pain and am unsure why anybody would do that. Your conscious self is confused. What you don’t see is that is a specific dynamic individualizing characteristic of the Nuer people.

Everybody on this planet comes from different backgrounds, yet we cannot begin to understand each other without looking first at where we came from and where we are going. We should all become less emerged in our own ethnocentrism and try to look at another’s culture through the practice of cultural relativism.


Evans-Pritchard, E. E. The Nuer: a Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

“Cultural Evolution.” Theory Anthropology [Licensed for Non-Commercial Use Only] / Cultural Evolution, anthrotheory.pbworks.com/w/page/29531638/Cultural Evolution.

Hoffman, Donald. “Do We See Reality as It Is?” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, Mar. 2015, http://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is/transcript.

In-text Citation

~Kate Grabowski


… Returning soon for the Spring 2018 semester!

Right on schedule, we’ll be exploring anthropological theory again starting in January 2018. Stay tuned for more insights from the students of ANTH 302 – yes, you read that right, it’s no longer SOCA 302. Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside now has its own designation. We’ve also merged with the Geography department and are searching for new faculty, so I’m pretty happy about that!

See you in about 6 weeks!


We’re on Hiatus because …

… this is a class web site. I’m offering the class again in Spring, so come back for more insights!

And thank you so much for your comments and pingbacks. The authors here are undergraduates studying anthropology, and these are often their first attempts at making sense of social theory. Your comments mean so much to me. I’ve send on links to the students (some of whom have graduated) because it matters that we are speaking to each other.

Sincerely – “Dr. Kate”

General Theory

Little White Lies

Structural-functionalism is primarily interested in the rules of society, it assumes the members of the society simply acted according to these rule and the exceptions to these rules were dismissed as “deviant”  (Moberg 2013, 208). This thinking didn’t consider that “deviant” behavior could be a regular behavior that exists within the society and should be seen as just as important in understand the behaviors of the individuals within (Moberg 2013, 207). In response to this school of thought, Sir Raymond Firth developed a theory regarded as “Anti-structure” according to Mark Moberg in Engaging Anthropological Theory: A social and Political History. This anti-structure finds it important to look at individuals actual behaviors within the society and not assume that they follow the rules. By doing this, he was able to identify that the “deviance” behavior should actually be seen as just as important in understanding a society as you would the structure of society. This theory the same structural-functionalist category of social structures which includes social rules, but added another layer called “Social Organization” which consists of the actual behaviors rather than the assumed behaviors (Moberg 2013, 208). Firth believes that the individuals within a society can and frequently if not regularly reinterpret and manipulate the structural rules to benefit them (Moberg 2013, 208). This theory makes the structure of society no longer rigid like the structural-functionalist viewed, but something more like Silly-Putty. The individuals within a society still have to act within the Silly-Putty, but it can be twisted, stretched, and squeezed into different amorphous shapes.

This manipulation of societal rules is something I found to be prevalent in American society as well. For example this practice can be seen in things as complex as legal matters such as marital practices, gun rights, and business law and as simple as a lying. As a general rule within American society lying is seen as deviant behavior and understood to be bad but there seems to always be exceptions and different ways to interpret what constitutes as lying. Lying is defined as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” or “to create a false or misleading impression” by Merriam-Webster’s online Dictionary. The vague definition of this word allows individuals to frequently reinterpret what constitutes as lie. There are ways in which children and adults find to circumvent this rule and exceptions that our society has a tendency accepts overall. Examples of these include “little white lies”, “stretching the truth”, or equivocating. Little white lies are still seen as being untruthful but with harmless affects and often benefit both parties. Little white lies are seen as often necessary and wouldn’t be shamed to the same degree as a typical lie. I still remember first learning this and after years of being told not to lie and lying is bad, I found a loophole that many people follow.  A famous example that shows the purpose of white lies is the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” If the dress actually does, both parties would be hurt by an honest response so it’s considered socially acceptable to just say “no”  and spare everyone involved. This example was even used in the following Geico commercial:

Like Firth theorized, there is another layer that needs to be considered when understanding society which is that the individuals can and will play with the rules to benefit the themselves, and lying is just one of the many cases where this can be seen. The mere act of actively manipulating a social rule (like in the example above) validates the person as existing within the social structure —  a.k.a. the Silly-Putty — because they must first be aware of the society’s rules in order to reinterpret them for one’s self-interest. If all acts of lying were seen as deviant, it would lead to an incomplete understanding of the actual function of lying in American society. The ability for the individuals within the overarching culture to reinterpret and manipulate rules needs to be understand as well as the structure in order to better understand societies rather than dismissing all acts outside of the perceived structure as deviance.


Moberg, Mark. 2013. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. New York: Routledge.

-Jessica M. Hebert


Abu-Lughold & Guests of the Sheik

Lila Abu-Lughold is an anthropologist from Columbia University who believes that ethnographies should as a story from the perspective of the anthropologist than generalizing an entire society (Moberg 2013, 322). By telling only from the perspective of the anthropologist and only stating what he/she has seen readers can see where the author is coming from when writing or stating certain scenes in certain ways.

When I was in my Cultural Anthropology class, we read an ethnography that followed Abu-Lughold’s method. The book was called, Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and in her introduction of her book she explains who she is. By doing so, before diving in the book, the readers can see where Fernea is coming from. She was a newly wedded wife who spent her first years of marriage in an unknown place.

Having no experience in Iraq, one can possibly say her feelings were genuine. Writing her book in first point of view, she also does make it like a story so when I was reading her ethnography, I was more engage than E.E. Evans Pritchard’s book, The Nuer. Both book have their pros to but, for me personally, it was easier to digest Fernea’s writing and what the culture of the Iraqi village was compare to Pritchard’s.

Reading her book, I felt that it was literally a story and if I did not know if an ethnography was I would of still thought this was a really well written novel. The way she wrote her book, in first point of view, it really connected me to her life experience living there than The Nuer. By having dialogue between her, the village women, etc. made it more believable in my point of view.

I think if ethnographies were to be told as a story than a third party perspective, it would be easier to connect to the author and their experience.