Once again, I find myself thinking about the names of theorists that I keep adding to the pile of people that we have learned about this semester. Marvin Harris, Edward Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowshi, Franz Boas, and more. Just looking at the names alone can make my head spin but as I do a quick review of each person I remember the things we have learned so far and it starts to make more sense the more I look over them. Not like it’s a light bulb going off though. I think I am starting to understand because I am starting to be able to connect what they are saying with what I have learned throughout college with anthropology but on my terms.
During one of my anthropology class, Archaeology of North America, it had turned out that while Franz Boas, an American anthropologist, was never mentioned his theory was there. For example, we recently learned about the Makah people of Ozette and the event that happened there. In 1966, an archaeological extraction happened there that uncovered over 55,000 artifacts. Once they had the artifacts they wanted to make sure they stayed in their own context while at the museum and in the records, so they categorized them under their original language during the time period they were from. This is an example what Boas’s theory was about. Boas said, according to Jerry D. Moore in his book Visions of Culture, cultural practices were understandable only in specific contexts, and that, “ethnographic collections should be “arranged according to tribes, in order to teach the peculiar style of each group. The art and characteristic style of a people can be understood only by studying its productions as a whole” (Moore, pg. 31). While I do not agree with his word choice of “peculiar style” I do believe this thought is very important. Take for example, what if Nuer artifacts were found from the same time period as Makah artifacts and all ended up in the same museum records and the artifacts were categorized only by their appearance. While they might both look like, for example, hammers, you would not know that because the Makah are from the Northwest Coast North America. Those hammers could be used for a completely different reason than the Nuer. You will only truly be able to understand artifacts and culture within their own context.
Boas was also very keen on language. In fact, he studied in the Norwest Coast to learn the native languages. This relates back to his main theory, cultural practices were understandable only in specific contexts. Just like the Makah of Ozette, the only way to preserve and display their culture was through language because of their oral tradition. This would apply to the Nuer as well. In order to truly understand their culture you have to study their language and see their culture through their context. While this idea is something I don’t think twice about, that is because it was something that has been taught to me my whole life. Little did I know that Boas had an effect on my learning without me ever knowing.
Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture. 4th ed., AltaMira Press, 2012.