… 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.
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.
When taking into consideration the ways in which past structural functionalist such as Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard have attributed particular elements of a society into their framework, it is necessary to remember that these models are not a real thing. They reiterate time and time again how people’s behaviors are motivated by the ‘needs’ of this so-called ‘social structure’. Several anthropologists have employed this structural functionalist abstract model for particular societies and have accepted this ‘logical fiction’ (Moberg 2013). This can be recognized as a form of reification. Reification can be defined as, “creating a concept that helps to understand a society and then attributing real force to that concept in peoples’ actions, even though they themselves are unaware of the concept” (Moberg 2013). Structural functionalists make use out of this from an outsider’s perspective looking in on the ‘other’. This idea reification can also be attributed in a non-structural functionalist way and be applicable within a society where the ‘other’ could be peers.
Take the concept of virginity for example. Virginity is not a real thing (or a biological thing), rather it is a constructed idea meant to categorize people in society a particular way. Historically the concept of virginity was meant to serve as a social or religious marker that symbolized purity, chastity, and innocence. Disobeying particular societal norms about virginity could have lead to conflict or the ostracizing of people. The concept was rooted in personal beliefs that were reinforced by the group as well as stemmed from within that group’s ‘norms’. Unlike the previously mentioned definition of reification, in terms of virginity a society such as ours is aware of the concept. This idea however was taught and learned, along with any significance associated with it.
Today we still adhere to the reified concept of virginity. People continue to attribute real force to the concept and associate certain behaviors and actions with it. Our culture has taught us to place value and significance on virginity while simultaneously emphasizing the opposite of it. In this way we are our own structural functionalists. We found a ‘logical fiction’ and gave it meaning as a way to invisibly categorize ourselves and others in a form of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ perspective. Although we can divide people through this idea, we still view virginity as a very individualized thing, making it impossible to analyze it completely from the view points of anthropologists like Radcliff-Brown. The reification of virginity has given this concept power and made it ‘real’ for us.
Many social theorists use society as the standard unit for determining the cultural characteristics of a group of people. But what exactly is ‘a’ culture. A simple definition of culture I will use here is learned and shared behavior by a group of people. First off, what is a ‘group’? This could be two individuals, a family, a society, or multiple societies, or even a mix between them. The following equation helps explain how some different cultures can exist:
Each letter represents a group of people who learn and share behaviors with each other. So, if culture ‘A’ interacts with culture ‘B’, and both cultures learn and share a particular behavior while interacting, them both cultures would create a new culture, culture ‘C’, combining cultures “A’ and ‘B’. Therefore, it seems that culture is by nature an abstraction and depends on where you draw the line for a ‘group’. That is, culture can take on multiple forms depending on the particular circumstances of an interaction. The problem with pigeonholing culture is that culture can have many levels, ranging from two individuals to the total global human population. The limitation of using society as the standard unit is that it pigeonholes culture to only one of these levels. The diagram above shows an example of a social theory (structural-functionalism) that utilizes only one these levels of culture. Why is society the standard and not the family, or cross-societies? Both of those levels also have a culture.
By acknowledging the abstractive nature of culture, we can see the limitations of certain social theories. Structural-functionalism did not see conflict as existing in a society because the view was that the culture of societies functioned to produce cultural cohesion. But when we look at cross-societal culture, it is difficult to argue that there has not been conflict between societies. Therefore, it matters how one defines culture in a social theory and that can reveal limitations to the theory itself.
The end of the semester is upon us once again and so naturally, procrastination has begun to distract me from studying. Instead of changing my procrastination habits to stop watching Netflix and to work harder, I decided to work smarter. While streaming Netflix and trying to find something to watch, I decided on Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove. To my surprise and relief, I found that the charactersfit well within the framework of what Fredrik Barth advocates for, called Transactionalism. Unlike British Structural Functionalists like Radcliffe-Brown, who see the people within a society as having a shared moral census, Transactionalism views social behaviors as transactions between individuals who are all pursuing their own self interest. Fredrik Barth believes that people are guided by their own wants and desires, not exactly following the rules of the society. New social rules are constructed by people for their own benefit. In that respect, Barth sees that what British Structural Functionalists see as deviant is actually normal. Additionally for Barth, the explanation of behavior in Transactionalism gives us a way to analyze things that a British Structural Functionalist could not. We can notice the variability of behavior, viewing how people can act manipulative and even break cultural rules instead of just obeying them. A key part to Transactionalism is that there is no equilibrium in society and there is a continuous change occurring, this change allows for strategic behavior from members of the society. Lastly, Barth assumes that each person in an exchange are receiving equal value from the interaction. This exchange and value from the interaction being called a prestation (any tangible or social reward from one person to another).
The first character that fits Transactionalism is Kuzco. Throughout the majority of the film, he is concerned with his own self interest and does not think about society as a whole whatsoever. He is only working toward his own benefit. For example, Kuzco has a man named Pancha, from the village, meet him at Kuzco’s palace to speak to him about the land Pancha lives on. This conversation between Kuzco and Pancha is directed towards Kuzco’s self interest of building a pool, Kuzcotopia, on that land and destroying village homes in the process. As for Pancha in this situation, he acts in his own interest trying to get Kuzco to not build Kuzcotopia where his home currently resides. Their interaction continues through the film. Once Kuzco is stranded with Pancha, Kuzco agrees to not build his pool where Pancha’s home is and Pancha agrees to help him back to the palace. Now, through a bit of manipulation on both their parts, they receive equal value from their interaction, Kuzco gets home and Pancha gets to keep his home from being turned into Kuzcotopia.
Throughout the film we also see Yzma acting towards her own self interest. The very first scene we see her in, she is acting as the Emperor, sitting in Kuzco’s throne and conversing with ‘mere peasants’, as she calls them. Kuzco fires her and to get revenge, she plans on killing him but her assistant, Kronk, screws up the poison and ends up turning Kuzco into a llama. The interactions between Yzma and Kronk are transactionalist because they are both taking part for their own self interests and receive equal value from the exchange. Yzma needs the help of Kronk because he is the strength behind her plans, and Kronk gains the respect from Yzma in the interaction. Another self interest that Kronk works towards is getting Yzma to like his spinach puff recipe.
However, seeing that Yzma tells Kronk she has never liked his spinach puffs, it kind of goes against Barth’s statement that everyone receives the same value out of the interaction. Nevertheless, there are many instances in The Emperor’s New Groove where there are similarities to Transactionalism. In conclusion, the motives of Kuzco, Pancha, Yzma, and Kronk can be well explained usingBarth and Transactionalism.
Just for fun…
Why did Fredrik Barth cross the road? For his own personal self interest, and it didn’t hurt that there was a Train ‘Pre’station on the other side.
This joke is meant to be a metaphor for the view that Radcliffe-Brown took to British structural functionalist theory. The question that I seek to answer in this blog post is whether or not participant observation is necessary. Obviously, to Radcliffe-Brown the answer is no. In contrast, Malinowski would state that the observation was important. Malinowski himself spent several years of of his life in the Trobriand islands doing participant observation research (Moberg 2013, 187). By comparing these two theorists, I hope to better understand the reasons for this difference, and determine which one is a more effective technique.
Let us first take a closer look at Radcliffe-Brown. He was born to modest means in Britain, but soon took on an aristocratic image (Moburg 2013, 186). He was one of the original theorists that created the British structural functionalist theory. This was built off of Durkheim’s, using the organic analogy. The main difference is that instead of using this analysis for industrial societies, he would focus on the less intensive societies, such as pastoral or horticultural societies (Moberg 2013, 179-180). This would be one of the reasons why Radcliffe-Brown had such an interesting view of culture.
Radcliffe-Brown had very little interest in studying culture. He considered it pointless to study. In his own words “Radcliffe-Brown contended that culture was only “thoughts”. Because “thoughts” can’t be observed, it would be impossible to formulate a scientific study of them… (Moberg 2013, 187)”. This is a vastly different view of how culture your functions, in comparison to someone like Boaz. To most anthropologists, culture can be easily studied by observing how the society interacts with itself. You can find out what someone is thinking. All you need to do is ask, and trust that the person knows the culture they reside in.
In contrast, Malinowski did a massive amount of participant observation. He did this in the Trobriand Islands for two years. This exile was not self-imposed. He had been forced to remain there with the outbreak of the First World War (Moberg 2013, 187). During this time, he studied the vast trading networks of the native Islanders. He was able to observe all of the different aspects of the male trading enterprise (Moberg 2013, 188). Something like this would have been impossible to theorize, such as Radcliffe-Brown would have done.
So, to truly answer the question we posed at the beginning, you should look at the differences in these two theorists. With Radcliffe-Brown, culture was unimportant. It was merely the nonsense that people came up with in their head. It was impossible to study scientifically, therefore it was useless. I believe that this misses the point about culture. Malinowski demonstrates why theorizing from an armchair is not helpful. One cannot simply come up with every possibility that a person can create. Without his long observation on the islands of the South Pacific, there would have been no possible way someone would have come up with a system as complex as the one he observed. This is why participant observation is so important. Reality is often stranger and more amazing than the fiction we create in our head.
Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. (London: Routledge, 2013.)
Julian Steward brought together the study of cultural ecology into a different light. Cultural ecology is the way of viewing the cultural practices around a society and seeing how the individuals of the society alter their previous behavior to their newly changed environmental surrounds. Julian Steward says that cultural ecology “distinguishes different kinds of sociocultural systems and institutions, it recognizes both cooperation and competition as processes of interaction, and it postures that environmental adaptations depend on the technology, needs and structure and on the nature of the environment.” (Moberg 2013:229) With this in mind we can recognize that Steward looks at the environmental factors that could shape our way of adapting to new areas. This can be applied to many different situations, especially in Disney movies.
I like to relate Stewards work to Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, as ridiculous as this sounds, let me just explain…the easiest way to view Stewards work is to look at Ariel’s transformation from mermaid to human. She desperately wants to change so she can be with her beloved Prince Eric and experience everything that human’s experience. So what does she do? She makes a deal to get legs, but at the cost of her own voice. I can say that this can also be related to many choices that people make while changing their environments, they might get what they want, but in the end lose something else in its place. It was Ariel’s culture to live in the sea even though she changed environments she still had to adapt to the land. With her new surrounding Ariel had to learn now to walk, dress and eat like a human. Ariel adapted well to her new surroundings, well after a few issues with getting her voice back, but all in all I believe this a good comparison to use with Stewards theory.
Steward also stated that the culture core of a society has an affect on the society, as well as the cultural ecology. The culture core is looking at “…two societies that have adapted to similar environments with similar culture cores, other aspects of their environment should be similar as well.”(Moberg 2013:220) Back to the Ariel, the different environments she was apart of both have similar parts, although one is underwater and the other is on land, both ecosystems have individuals living and using the environment for survival.
Although I sure Steward didn’t intend for his work to be associated with a Disney movie, it’s a comparison that can be used to explain his theory from a more recent time and generation, plus it’s just fun to watch Disney movies in general!
Why did Steward cross the road?………Due to the environment he had to culturally adapt to a migratory pattern!
Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History.
The Hmong people are group of people who came to the United States because of the Vietnam War. Due to the movement, many cultural traditions did not transition well. Because some customaries could not be done in the United States, the Hmong people had to borrow traits that were customary in the United States in order to carry on what they could do.
An example of this is the sacrificing of black dogs. From my parents views on dogs, they were not valued as much as they are in the United States. Since there is no high value of dogs in the Hmong culture then, it was not look down upon to use a black dogs for spiritual sacrifices. Now that the Hmong people are in the United States, that custom could not carry over because of the values that Americans had for dogs. So instead of using dogs now, they are able to use black dog stuff animal instead. Even though the Hmong people do not use real dogs now the belief is transferred into the black dog stuff animal. This is an example of the diffusionism that has happened with the Hmong people. Since chickens, cows and pigs are more seen as food compare to dogs, that custom of using them for rituals still happen because of the same value American culture and Hmong culture share.
Another example of diffusionism in the Hmong culture is the Bride wealth that occurs. During the wedding process, it was customary for the groom’s side of the family to give some sort of payment to the bride’s family such as silver, animals, and other valuables. Since coming to the United States, the value of bride wealth has alter because money today in American society is more value than animals so the Hmong people has changed their value of bride wealth which has cause some commotion within the culture because the value of what bride wealth was in Laos and Thailand cannot compare to what bride wealth should be in the United States.
These two examples are of diffusionism that has happened within the Hmong culture after coming to the United States.
Since discussing Franz Boas and his creation of the idea of cultural relativism I have been thinking of what I could relate cultural relativism to that was modern. I decided to use it in relation to an activity or belief that is sometimes subject to stereotypical generalization. Many things came to mind but I decided to go with off-grid living. This is a practice that seems to be becoming more and more popular. The picture above shows a driveway that is part of a semi-off-grid property. There are a large variety of reasons that some people choose to live a life off of the grid.
Just to name a few, there are those who live off-grid for environmental reasons. They might want to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint by using independent energy sources like solar or wind and maybe grown their own food in a sustainable way. Another person might live exactly the same way except for worries of global economic or governmental collapse. There are also people who believe a zombie apocalypse may be coming, and try to prepare for it by living off the grid. Spirituality is another reason people might live off-grid to help them connect with nature. Others might live off-grid because they were raised in that type of environment and continue to live that way.
I have heard of a question people who live off-grid are sometimes asked: are you gun toting or granola? Granola apparently means an environmentalist who lives off-grid. This question is obviously not open-ended and very limited as to the reasons why someone would live off-grid. But whether living off-gird for reasons of environmental sustainability, economic worries, governmental insecurity, zombie apocalypse, spirituality, or many other reasons, lacking a culturally relative mindset can lead to quite inaccurate, stereotypical conclusions.
Though I am unsure of the origin of the sayings, I remember my mother always quoting things like “until you walk a mile in another person’s shoes”. And now aside from my mother, when I hear or read something similar, I think Weber. Maybe this is the reason I felt a likeness towards his ideas when I first read about Weber.
Let me explain. Weber focuses on naturalistic accounts of behavior, meaning he sticks to the naturalistic tradition, not the positivist. Naturalistic tradition is the belief that we cannot justify or explain another person’s actions or motives in ways that cannot be understood by human agent. He argues that a person’s explanation for their behavior cannot be thought of as incidental to the behavior. Unlike Durkheim, who believes society imposes behavior through a collective conscience (collective conscience being the shared values and beliefs of a society that influences the behavior of people), Weber stressed the importance of a person’s stated motives being included in part of the analysis. This belief leads to Weber not making generalizations about human behavior but instead, seeking Verstehen.
The idea of seeking Verstehen which Weber uses means obtaining a deeper, more empathetic, understanding of human behavior. Verstehen lead me to the idea of not judging someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Both ideas focus around empathetic tendencies as well as reaching an understanding for an individual’s behavior. I think they resonate well with each other because they imply that just because the same actions are executed by different people, does not necessarily mean both people had the same reasons behind their actions.
Likewise to “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”, in Weber’s explanation as to why Protestants have a high work ethic, I made a connection to quotes like “see the ball, be the ball”. The doctrine of predestination for Calvinist’s says that a person’s eternal destiny is decided even prior to birth and only a small number of people (the “elect”) are expected to go to heaven. Anyone who accepts this understands that there is nothing for them to do to change their fates. Weber argued that people have a desire to know whether or not they are part of the “elect” which leads people to look for signs of God’s favor. He also mentions that due to the uncertainty that the doctrine of predestination gives, people who follow it will be driven to find evidence of God’s favor. With looking for evidence came working hard as well as going to church and doing other good things. This makes sense because though a person would not be able to know if they are an “elect” or not, they do know an “elect” would do certain things like going to church, and in keeping their own chances of becoming an “elect” open, they too would do things an “elect” person does. I find that Weber’s explanation for the Protestant work ethic and quotes like “see the ball, be the ball” and “monkey see, monkey do” apply nicely to his idea since both the quotes and the Protestant work ethic have an underlying quality of idolizing something in order to be more like the person/object being idolized.
Lastly, while thinking about Weber’s explanation for the Protestant work ethic, I saw a similarity in how a student may work towards becoming an A student. In a similar way to a Protestant doing thing an “elect” would do in order have a possible better chance of becoming an “elect”, a student may emulate an A student, doing things an A student does (like studying more or asking questions in class, etc.) to have a better chance of becoming an A student.