places, large issues
introduction to social and cultural anthropology
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Pluto Press 1995/2001
(2nd, revised, updated & slightly expanded edition – 3rd, revised and updated version 2010)
Ranging from Pacific islands to the Arctic north and from small
villages to modern nation states, this concise and accessible introduction
to social anthropology reveals the rich global variation in social life
and culture. Also providing a clear overview of anthropology, Dr Eriksen
focuses on central topics such as kinship, ethnicity, ritual and political
systems, offering a wealth of examples that demonstrate the enormous scope
of anthropology and the importance of a comparative perspective. Dr Eriksen
emphasises the need to establish interrelations between action and social
atructure and between social organisation and cognitive aspects of culture.
Unlike previous texts on the subject, Small Places, Large Issues broadens the study to incorporate the anthropology of complex modern societies,
thus providing a unique key text for all students of social and cultural
The book is distinct from the Norwegian edition in a number of important
ways. Most obviously, it is much shorter and more concise (and therefore
more affordable in the bookshop). In addition, a number of topical changes
have been done. A new secion on the concept of the person has been added,
the chapters on politics and the economy have been reorganised and updated,
the chapter on economy and ecology has been rewritten extensively, and
so on. As I literally rewrote the book, every paragraph has been modified
to a greater or lesser extent, although the overall structure will be
familiar to readers of the Norwegain edition.
The sample chapter is taken from the first (1995) edition.
1. Social anthropology: Comparison and context
2. Fieldwork and interpretation
3. The social human
4. Local organisation
5. Person and society
7. Marriage and alliance
8. Gender and age
9. Caste and class
10. Politics and power
12. Production and technology
13. Religion and ritual
14. Modes of thought
15. The challenge of multiple traditions
17. Nationalism and minorities
18. The local and the global
Epilogue: And so what?
14. Modes of thought
Animals are divided into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed,
(c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray
dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied,
(j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l)
et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that
from a long way off look like flies.
-Jorge Luis Borges (quoting from "a certain Chinese encyclopedia")
Whorf's hypothesis and the problem of translation
Benjamin Lee Whorf was an insurance salesman in the USA in the 1920s.
A recurrent problem in his job concerned the interpretation of words;
the precise meaning of words was often extremely significant concerning
indemnity payments. What did it mean, for example, that a fire was
self-inflicted? And what did it mean that a drum of petrol was empty?
In some cases, it could be empty of petrol, but full of petrol gas
and highly explosive. A fire which was caused by an empty petrol
drum exploding could, however, not be defined as self-inflicted.
Whorf's company lost a bit of money on this kind of cases.
Some years later, Whorf would develop an hypothesis on the relationship
between language and the non-linguistic world, which has enjoyed
great influence in anthropology. Whorf's teacher in linguistic anthropology,
Edward Sapir, had a part in the development of the idea, and the
hypothesis is sometimes named the Sapir--Whorf hypothesis, but I
shall speak of it as Whorf's hypothesis (Whorf 1956). It postulates
that there is an intimate connection between the categories and
structure of a language and the ways in which humans are able to
experience the world. Whorf paid special attention to the language
of the Hopis, which nearly lacked nouns as we know them, and which
also lacked the standard verb conjugations common to Indo-European
languages. Since the language of the Hopis had these peculiar characteristics,
Whorf argued, they would experience the world in a fundamentally
different way from the descendants of European settlers in North
America, who had brought their languages and grammars to the continent.
The language of the Hopis was process-oriented and oriented towards
movement whereas English and other European languages were oriented
towards things and nouns in general.
Whorf argued that there was an intrinsic connection between the
life-world of a people and its language; that every people will
develop the linguistic tools it needs to solve tasks perceived as
necessary, and that the language of a people will therefore be a
significant source of knowledge about their mode of thought, their
cosmology and their everyday life.
An immediate implication of Whorf's hypothesis is the problem of
cross-cultural translation, one of the perennial problems of anthropology.
Is it necessarily possible to translate say, the life-world and
culture of the Azande to English? Or could it rather be that their
form of life is so closely connected with the Zande language that
such a project is doomed to fail - because we will always be forced
to interpret them in our own terms, and not in theirs, when we try
to describe them in a language other than their own? Whorf did not
himself hesitate to describe the differences between the Hopi language
and English in comparative, or "etic", terms, and in practice
he thus carried out cultural translation. Such translations are
necessary for anthropology to be possible, but they are not unproblematic.
The notion of the pre-logical mind
This kind of issues are fundamental to anthropology as a comparative
social science. They do not concern research methodology only; they
also deal with the question of whether all humans think in roughly
the same way, or if there exist culturally specific modes of thought
which follow different logics and cannot be faithfully reproduced
in a foreign language. When the German explorer von den Steinen
reported, in the late 19th century, that the Bororo of Amazonas
described themselves as red macaws, many - among them Lévy-Bruhl
- drew the conclusion that they were clearly unable to think logically.
For how can it be possible to think that one is a parrot and a human
being at the same time? The Bororo mode of thought thus had to be
pre-logical; they violated Aristotle's principle of contradiction,
which states that an object cannot both have and not have one and
the same property at the same time and in the same respect. One
cannot, in other words, both believe and not believe that one is
a parrot. (Later it has become evident that the Bororo by no means
contradicted themselves, but rather spoke metaphorically in a way
incomprehensible to von den Steinen. He interpreted them in too
literary a sense.)
The general problem of translation is still with us, although it
has been reformulated many times since the early 1930s. The problem
has three main aspects. First: Do "primitive", nonliterate
peoples think in a fundamentally different way from ourselves? Secondly:
If so, is it possible to understand their life-world and to translate
it into a comparative anthropological terminology? Thirdly, is the
anthropological terminology inherently culturally embedded, or does
it represent a kind of context-free, and therefore comparatively
useful, kind of language? There are many ways to approach these
issues, and the only answer nearly all anthropologists agree about,
is that any differences in modes of thought are not innate - they
are not caused by "racial" differences. We must, therefore,
study and compare culture and social organisation, even when the
topic is the relationship between abstract modes of thought among
The mental unity of humanity
One of the central dogmas of anthropology is the principle of the
mental unity of humanity. This indicates that the innate characteristics
of humanity are roughly the same everywhere - not in the sense that
humans are identical, but rather in the sense that inborn differences
to not account for cultural variation. If, for example, one had
believed that the "races" had varying degrees of intelligence,
one might have accepted that there might be inherent genetic causes
for the fact that Africans in colonial times were illiterate and
engaged in ancestor worship whereas British gentlemen drank port
and quoted Shelley. If this had been correct, the entire modern
anthropological endeavour would have been superfluous, since it
would have been futile to search in culture and social organisation
for causes of human variation.
The scientific grounds for claiming that different human groups
have systematically varying mental faculties, has never been convincing.
The variation within each group has frequently been shown to be
greater than the variation between the groups. Within any random
sample of individuals, there will be some "smart" and
some "stupid" people, some enterprising and some lazy
individuals, and so on; but it cannot be shown that say, Sami are
intelligent whereas Mbuti are stupid. This is to say that human
groups worldwide are endowed with roughly the same innate faculties
and potentials, and that cultural variation must be accounted for
by referring to events taking place after birth.
Many kinds of cultural variation have been accounted for in this
way in previous chapters. Neither the Kula exchange of the Trobrianders,
the ancestor cults of the Kaguru or the agricultural technology
of the Dogon have been explained through reference to inborn characteristics
of the "races". This chapter focuses on variations between
different cultural modes of thought, which are some of the most
difficult cultural differences both to understand and to account
for in comparative terms. I shall begin by discussing whether it
may be reasonable to believe in witches, and will then move on to
classification, cultural knowledge and the relationship between
thought, power and social organisation.
Witchcraft and knowledge among the Azande
The Azande are a patrilineal people of agriculturalists who live
largely in southern Sudan, a few hundred kilometres south-west from
Nuerland (Evans-Pritchard 1983 ). Their cosmology presumes
(in the ethnographic present tense) the existence of a number of
spirits of different kinds, including ancestral spirits. In addition,
the institution of witchcraft is central to their daily life and
worldview. Witchcraft is seen as the individual ability to create
misfortune for others in spiritual ways. Only some Azande possess
this ability. Unlike magic, which involves medicines and magical
formulas, witchcraft is a purely spiritual, generally involuntary
activity: the witchcraft power frequently commits its acts while
the carrier (the witch) is asleep.
Death and other unfortunate circumstances are usually seen as caused
by witchcraft. Traditionally, witches were executed ritually, but
at the time of Evans-Pritchard's fieldwork in the late 1920s, this
practice had been abandoned, although the belief in witchcraft continued,
and even decades later, when many Azande had been proletarised,
witchcraft beliefs were common (Reining 1966).
The witchcraft institution provides answers to important questions,
and explains why people suffer misfortunes. The notion of witchcraft
cannot explain why one catches a fever from snakebite in general,
but it does offer an explanation for why a certain person was bitten
by a certain snake on a certain day. The scientific doctrine about
cause and effect cannot provide explanations of this kind: it cannot
tell why the granary had to collapse just when several Azande were
resting in its shade. Although the poles supporting the granary
were destroyed by termites, the victims held that the accident was
ultimately caused by witchcraft.
The notion of witchcraft is not incompatible with a belief in causality.
A Zande might agree that certain diseases are caused by bacteria
in the drinking water, but he would also want to know why he became
ill when his neighbour did not. He would look for the cause in his
enemies, whom he would suspect of witchcraft.
Evans-Pritchard suggests that witchcraft is invoked as an explanatory
principle "whenever plain reason fails". When somebody
is accused of witchcraft, a prince or a witchdoctor consults an
oracle to decide the matter. The most important oracle is the poison
oracle, which consists of a portion of poison and two fowls. The
first fowl is served poison; if it survives, the accused is innocent,
but if it dies, he or she is guilty. Then, one double-checks the
validity of the verdict by administrating the poison to a second
Evans-Pritchard took witches more seriously than anybody had done
earlier, and was concerned to show how the belief in witches made
sense, and was perfectly rational, within the Zande world. He was
among the earliest to criticise, and discard, the idea that there
existed a specifically primitive, "pre-logical" mentality.
His aim was to explore the interrelationships between thought and
social structure, but not to reduce the former to the latter.
However, at two important points Evans-Pritchard indicates that
when all is said and done, the Azande are wrong in assuming that
witches exist. First, he introduces a sharp distinction between
the witchcraft logic and the scientific logic, and frequently makes
statements to the effect that "obviously, witches do not exist".
He also distinguishes clearly between mystical notions, notions
based on common sense, and scientific notions. Since witchcraft
is invisible and (in "our" view) supernatural, a cosmology
based on such beliefs falls sqarely into the first category, and
must be less valid, on objective grounds, than scientific notions.
Secondly, Evans-Pritchard's monograph ends with a primarily structural
functionalist explanation of the witchcraft institution: the belief
in witches and similar institutions exist, ultimately, because they
contribute to social integration and check deviant behaviour - not
because they produce valid insight and understanding.
The philosopher Peter Winch, reacting against Evans-Pritchard's
distinction between mystical and scientific notions, started a lengthy
and heated debate on comparison, rationality and cultural translation
when he wrote a paper, in 1964, titled "Understanding a Primitive
Society" (Winch 1970).
Winch rejects the idea that there are universal standards available
to compare witchcraft beliefs and science. To him, science is just
as much as witchcraft based on unverifiable axioms. Winch also claims
that Oxford professors are scarcely less superstitious than Azande;
they, too, trust blindly in forces they do not fully understand.
One of his examples is from meteorology. How many of us really understand
the principles of meteorology? Yet, we watch the weather forecasts.
Winch agrees that ideas and notions must be tested in order for
their validity to be justified. This, he argues, is done both in
scientific experiment and in the Zande consultation of poison oracles,
and there is no difference in principle between the two procedures.
Further, Winch claims that scientific experiments are meaningless
to someone who is ignorant about the principles of science. For
this reason, science - like witchcraft - is not inherently meaningful,
but makes sense only within a particular, culturally created frame
of reference. Actually, he compares the helplessness of an engineer
deprived of his mathematics with the predicament of a Zande without
access to his oracles.
To Winch, it is also important to note that the lives of the Azande
seem to function well; that their relationship to witchcraft makes
their existence meaningful, and that the system by and large is
The disagreement between Evans-Pritchard and Winch ultimately amounts
to divergent views of science. Whereas Evans-Pritchard holds that
the Azande are wrong, Winch argues that all knowledge is culturally
constructed, and that it can therefore only be deemed right or wrong
within its own cultural context. Winch questions the assumption
of anthropology to the effect that our comparative concepts are
culturally "neutral" - when all is said and done, he suggests,
even anthropology is a cultural practice.
Winch draws extensively on Ludwig Wittgenstein's theory of language
games (Wittgenstein 1983 ), where the latter argues that knowledge
is socially created, and that different systems of knowledge (language
games, or in Winch's sense, cultures) are incommensurable and can
therefore not be ranked hierarchically nor, strictly speaking, compared.
This line of reasoning, which Winch applies not only to anthropological
analysis, but also to the anthropologists themselves, can be glossed
as a strong version of Whorf's hypothesis, and it seems to render
different cultural universes incommensurable for want of a neutral
language of comparison.
Let us pose the question differently. Why is it that anthropology
as an academic discipline developed in Western Europe and the USA,
and not, say, in the Trobriand Islands or Zandeland? As an experiment
in thinking, we may imagine a Zande anthropologist who arrives in
Britain to look into the local cosmology and cultural perception
of death. He would quickly discover that the witchcraft institution
is absent in that country, something which clearly must be accounted
for. If he is a faithful structural functionalist, he might search
for functional causes for the strange denial, on the part of the
British, of the existence of witches. Perhaps he would eventually
draw the conclusion that the denial of witchcraft, the blind faith
in "natural causes of death", strengthened social integration
in British society, since it prevented open conflict between families
This kind of argument seems to lend support to Winch's relativist
position. However, social anthropology did as a matter of fact not
develop in Zandeland, but in Britain and other northern countries,
and this must also be taken into account. Perhaps the hypothetical
example of the Zande anthropologist is best seen as warning against
simplistic functionalist explanations, but not as an argument against
anthropology as a generalising, comparative discipline. Later in
this chapter, I shall suggest some reasons why the Zande did not
develop their own comparative science of society and culture.
Durkheim and Mauss were among the earliest to explore the interrelationship
between social organisation and patterns of thought. The basic idea
in their book Primitive Classification (1963 ) was that thought
is a social product, and that different societies thereby produce
different kinds of thought. (Unlike Winch, they did not question
the privileged position of scientific thought.) A great portion
of the book discusses primitive systems of classification, and since
its publication, the study of classification has been a central
concern in anthropology.
Classification, in the anthropological sense, entails dividing objects,
persons, animals and other phenomena according to socially pre-established
categories or types. The system of classification is an important
part of the knowledge system of any society, and knowledge is always
related to social organisation and power. I have just presented
arguments against the notion that some kinds of knowledge are "objectively
and universally true", and in exploring systems of knowledge,
it is necessary to be aware of the interrelationship between knowledge
and other parts of the social world, and this includes one's own
Just as witchcraft beliefs may seem "irrational" to the
ethnocentric observer, alien systems of classification may seem
unsystematic to someone who takes the Western system for granted.
Ethnographic studies have revealed great variations in the ways
other people classify. One famous example is the Karam of highland
New Guinea, who do not classify the cassowary as a bird (Bulmer
1967), although Linnaeus (the founder of the scientific system of
plant and animal classification) would definitely have classified
it as a bird. The cassowary resembles an ostrich: it has feathers
and lays eggs, but does not fly. Therefore, the Karam do not consider
it a bird. On the other hand, the Karam classify bats together with
birds (as flying creatures), even though we "know" that
it is "really" a mammal.
For a long time, anthropologists tried to show that the logic of
systems of classification was intrinsically connected to the usefulness
of plants and animals; that it was simply a functional device for
the material reproduction of society. This idea eventually had to
be abandoned, and we now turn to showing why.
The Lele of Kasai (in present-day Zaïre) distinguish meticulously
between different classes of animals (Douglas 1975). For example,
birds are characterised by feathers, their ability to fly and the
laying of eggs, and are thereby distinguished from other animals.
However, there are certain animals that do not fit neatly into this
logic. The monitor lizard and the tortoise are examples of such
exceptions: they lay eggs, but walk on all fours and lack feathers.
Douglas describes such "deviant" creatures as anomalies;
they fail to fit in. The anomaly, like the liminal phase in Turner's
model of the ritual process (Chap. 8), is both outside and inside;
it threatens the established order. Anomalous animals are subjected
to certain rules; one can only eat them under specific circumstances,
women are not allowed to touch them, and so on.
The most important anomalous creature among the Lele is the pangolin
(manis tricuspis). It has, the Lele explain, the tail and body of
a fish, and it is covered with scales, but it gives birth like a
mammal. It has four small legs, and climbs trees (Douglas 1975,
p. 33). This animal, it turns out, has an important place in the
mythology and ritual life of the Lele. There is a cult of fertility
centred on it. The reason, argues Douglas, is that the pangolin
is anomalous in a crucial way: in addition to everything else, it
gives birth to only one offspring at the time. In this regard, it
resembles a human more than an animal. Just as the parents of twins
and triplets (who are also anomalies on this score) are seen as
mediators between the human and the spiritual worlds, the pangolin
is seen as a mediator between humanity and the animal world.
Anomalies are usually associated with danger and pollution. One
example, described by Douglas elsewhere (Douglas 1966), is the pig
in Middle Eastern religions: Being a cloven-hoofen but not ruminant
mammal, it was not classified as edible since edible animals ought
to be both cloven-hoofen and ruminant - it was an anomaly. The rather
more positive status of the pangolin is caused by the fact, Douglas
argues, that the Lele have succeeded in turning a potential curse
into a blessing, exploiting the ambiguous status of the animal to
their advantage. The pangolin is not economically important, and
yet it occupies a central place in Lele cosmology: the pangolin
is a mediator.
When the Bororo spoke of themselves as red macaws, to the bewilderment
of von den Steinen, they referred to a system of classification
known in the professional literature as totemism. Totemism - the
term is of Ojibwa origin - is a knowledge system whereby each social
subgroup in a society, usually a clan, has a special, ritual relationship
to a class of natural phenomena, usually plants or animals. Totemism
has traditionally been particularly widespread in Australia and
the Pacific, the Americas and in Africa. For example, the totems
of the Algonquin in Quebec include the bear, the fish and thunder
in a symbolic system whereby natural phenomena are seen to correspond
to aspects of society. The question posed by many anthropologists,
from Frazer onwards, was the exact nature of this correspondence.
Malinowski, writing on totemism in the Trobriand Islands, held that
totemic plants and animals were chosen because they were inherently
useful to the maintenance of society (Malinowski 1974). Radcliffe-Brown,
who developed a more complex view on totemism, drew on Durkheim's
notion that the attitude towards a totem was caused by a special
relationship between the totem and the social order, and that the
ultimate function of totemism was to maintain social integration
(Radcliffe-Brown 1952 ). The totem is thus a tangible identity
marker for a group; Durkheim himself mentions flags as a kind of
Radcliffe-Brown then poses the question of why certain animals and
plants are chosen as totems. Like Malinowski and others before him,
he assumes that there must be a practical reason, so that, for example,
experts in bear hunting take the bear as their totem. In this way,
totemism could be seen as a symbolic expression of the division
of labour in society.
In a later article, Radcliffe-Brown (1951) raises doubt about his
earlier assumption that totemic animals were economically useful
to society. At this point, he rather focuses on their symbolic meaning
in society. However, he fails to draw a clear conclusion, and Lévi-Strauss
is generally credited with resolving the enigma of totemism in anthropology
(Lévi-Strauss 1963, 1966). Drawing on an enormous mass of
recorded ethnography, largely from North America and Australia,
Lévi-Strauss shows that there is no inherent connection between
the utilitarian value of a creature and its significance in the
totemic system. Instead, he argues, certain animals are chosen because
of their mutual relationship - that is, not because of their direct
relationship to groups in a segmentary society. The differences
between totemic animals (the way they are perceived by the people)
correspond to the differences between groups in society (see Fig.
11 --sorry, not available in the electronic version).
Totemic animals contribute to the creation of order; up to this
point, Lévi-Strauss agrees with earlier theorists. But, as
he puts it, they are not chosen because they are good to eat, but
because they are good to think (bons à penser)!
The system of totems and the clans in society are further connected
symbolically in two complementary ways, through metaphor and metonymy.
A metaphor is a symbol which stands for something else, in the way
the milk tree among the Ndembu stands for fertility among women
(Chap. 13). A metonym is rather a part which symbolically expresses
a whole. Metaphorically, the king may be represented by a lion,
metonymically by the crown he wears on his head. The relationship
between metaphor and metonymy can be said to correspond to the relationship
between melody and harmony (see Leach 1976, Lakoff and Johnson 1980).
A metaphor acquires its meaning through its association with the
object it represents, while metonymy consists in using a part to
represent the whole.
In a totemic system, therefore, each totemic animal stands metonymically
for the whole chain of totems, just as each clan stands for the
whole society (just as a single word may represent the whole sentence).
Simultaneously, of course, the totems are metaphors for each clan.
The relationship between the bear and the eagle corresponds to the
relationship between the bear clan and the eagle clan. Now, the
totems themselves - say, the bear and the eagle - are arbitrary;
what counts is the relationship between them.
A main concern in Lévi-Strauss's work on totemism was to
invalidate notions to the effect that there existed a "pre-logical,
primitive mode of thought" - although he follows a different
path from Evans-Pritchard. The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss
seeks to reveal not similarities in actual reasoning, but universal
underlying principles for thought and symbolisation.
In La pensée sauvage, "Undomesticated thinking"
(misleadingly rendered in English as The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss
1966), the fundamental cognitive processes among modern and non-modern
peoples are seen as identical. People everywhere think in terms
of metaphor and metonymy, and above all, they think through contrasting
pairs, so-called binary oppositions. This general model depicting
organising principles of thought resembles Bateson's theory of information
(Bateson 1972, 1979), where he argues that only differences that
make a difference can create knowledge. Both Lévi-Strauss
and Bateson are concerned to show that what is essential are relationships
rather than the objects themselves.
Lévi-Strauss argues that fundamental thought processes are
identical everywhere, but he also indicates that people with different
kinds of technology at their disposal will express their thought
in very different ways. People who depend on script and numbers
clearly think along different lines than nonliterates, he says.
Lévi-Strauss compares the literate and nonliterate styles
of thinking, and describes the latter as the science of the concrete
(la science du concret). When a nonliterate person, living in a
society with no script, is to think abstractly, he is forced to
align his concepts with concrete, visible objects. Spirits, for
example, are abstractions described in terms of their visible manifestations;
this explains why many early explorers and missionaries erroneously
thought that tribal peoples "worshipped trees and rocks".
Originality, in this kind of society, is possible through novel
juxtapositions of concepts referring to familiar objects. Lévi-Strauss
describes this thought operation as bricolage (a bricoleur can be
translated as a handyman, a jack-of-all-trades). This creative,
associational and "playful" mode of thought is contrasted
with that of the engineer; the abstract science dominant in Western
societies, imprisoned and disciplined by writing and numbers.
However, the bricoleur has a limited repertory of symbols at his
disposal. The engineer, who creates abstractions from abstractions,
may rather try to transcend the familiar. He is tied up - his thought
is tamed or domesticated - by writing and numbers, but at the same
time he is liberated from the direct communication with natural
objects enforced on the "untamed thought" of the bricoleur.
The distinction between bricoleurs and engineers should not be seen
as absolute. Today, most societies in the world are "semi-literate",
and even Lévi-Strauss himself admits that some modes of thought
reminiscent of bricolage, notably in music and poetry, exist even
in throughly literate societies. Still, the distinction can be a
useful starting-point for an exploration of the interrelationship
between knowledge, technology and social organisation.
Writing as technology
In La pensée sauvage Lévi-Strauss distinguishes
between what he calls "cold" and "hot" societies.
Cold societies see themselves as essentially unchanging, while hot
societies are based on an ideology perceiving change as inevitable
and potentially beneficial. This distinction corresponds not only
to the bricoleur--engineer dichotomy, but also to the distinction
between "traditional" and "modern" societies.
For the sake of the argument, I shall overstate the contrast between
these societal "types" here, but the reader should keep
in mind that "modern" and "traditional" are
ideal types, and that real societies on the ground are much more
complex than this simple dichotomy implies.
The role of script as a form of technology has been discussed by
generations of anthropologists (see e.g. Goody 1968, Ong 1982, Finnegan
1988, Street and Besnier 1994). In a number of books, Jack Goody
has argued that the introduction of writing may have fundamental
effects on thought as well as social organisation, and his idea
of the "Great Divide" between nonliterate and literate
societies is close kin to Lévi-Strauss' studies of totemic
versus historical thinking and the bricoleur--engineer contrast
- characteristically, one of Goody's books on literacy is called
The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Goody 1977). It could be said
that just as Marx turned Hegel on his head (or on his feet!), Goody
tries to operationalise and sociologise Lévi-Strauss. Controversial
among anthropologists who hold that this kind of distinction is
simplistic (e.g. Halverson 1992), Goody's main arguments nevertheless
merit to be outlined.
The introduction of writing, Goody argues, enables people to distinguish
between concepts and their referents. Writing enables us to turn
words into things, to freeze them in time and space. Speech, by
contrast, is fleeting and transient, and cannot be fixed for posterity.
In this sense, writing entails a reduction of speech: the two are
not "the same", and the written version of a statement
lacks the extralinguistic context for the statement - facial expression,
social situation, tone of voice etc. Writing can indeed be seen
as a kind of material culture; like artifacts, it is solid and enduring,
and it can be analysed as objectified subjectivity (T. Barth 1991).
Writing arguably liberates thought from the necessity of mnemotechnics;
one does not have to remember everything, but can look it up instead.
By implication, writing makes the cumulation of vast amounts of
knowledge possible in ways orality is unable to. Writing also narrows
the meanings of thoughts in the sense that it lends itself, Goody
argues, to accurate critical examination in ways which oral statements
do not. One may isolate a small bit of human discourse and subject
it to thorough examination in ways which cannot be achieved in societies
which lack writing. However - and this is a criticism which has
repeatedly been levelled against this kind of theory - there are
many examples of literate societies where criticism (in the scientific
sense) is not encouraged. On the other hand, one may retort that
writing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for science
as we know it. This argument, one may agree, goes a long way towards
explaining why the Azande did not develop their own comparative
science of culture and society - but it does not alone explain why
many literate peoples have not done so.
Writing also has great potential importance for social organisation.
It has been noted that writing was used at a very early stage (ancient
Mesopotamia) for lists, inventories of the amount of grain in the
granary, the number of slaves and animals in the city, and so on.
As the Christian evangelists witness, censuses were also used very
early in the history of writing. Writing thus facilitates not only
analytical thought, but also the surveillance of vast numbers of
people. It can therefore be regarded as an important kind of technology
in the political administration of complex societies.
Finally, a main use of writing in most literate societies has consisted
in the building of archives, some of which eventually become history.
Lévi-Strauss, commenting on the "totemic void"
in Europe and Asia (Lévi-Strauss 1966), concludes that these
societies have chosen history instead of totemic myths. He does
not see history as inherently "truer" than myth, but rather
as a special kind of myth.
The difference between literacy and orality should not be overemphasised:
there is by no means a clear-cut distinction. It is nevertheless
obvious that the uses of script form an important part of the technology
of a society. An abstract ideology such as nationalism, for example
(see Chap. 17), is scarcely imaginable without the information technology
of writing, which enables members of society to disseminate ideas
over a vast area, thus creating bonds of solidarity between millions
of individuals who will never know each other personally.
Time and scale
Abstract time, that is the kind of time represented in clocks and
calendars, may have effects analogous to those of writing. In the
kind of society where most of the readers were raised, it is generally
believed that time is something one may have much or little of;
something which can be saved, something which "is money",
something which can be measured independently of concrete events.
Concepts like "one hour" or "one week" are meaningful
even if we do not say what they contain by way of events. Time,
in this kind of society, is conventionally conceptualised as a line
with an arrow at the end, where a moving point called "the
present" separates past and future. This kind of abstraction
is a cultural invention, neither more nor less. In a certain sense,
clocks do not measure time, but create it.
Societies lacking clocks do not "lack time", but rather
tend to be organised according to what we may call concrete time
(although, as usual, there are very important variations). In this
kind of society - historically speaking, the vast majority of human
societies - time exists only as embedded in action and process,
not as something abstract and autonomous existing outside of the
events taking place. Rituals do not take place "at five o'clock",
but when all is ready - when the preparations are completed and
the guests have arrived. In clockless societies, time is not a scarce
resource, since it exists only as events. One cannot "lose"
or "kill" time there.
Past and future take on a different meaning in societies with and
without an abstract concept of time, respectively. Obviously, peoples
without dates and calendars do not date previous events in the same
way that we do. Bourdieu, further, has written of the Kabyles that
they were shocked to learn of the way the French related to the
future (Bourdieu 1963). "The French see themselves as greater
than God," they said, "for they believe that they can
control the future. But the future belongs to God." Many peoples,
further, do not conjugate verbs in the future tense. One philosophically
sound way of explaining this may be that events in the world create
time, and since no events have yet taken place in the future, the
future cannot constitute a time (Tempels 1959).
Linear, quantified, abstract time is not detached from social organisation,
but it did not arise mechanically in response to "societal
needs". Just as writing, a tool for political control and the
advancement of science, was first developed for ritual purposes,
the first Europeans to use clocks were monks who needed them to
coordinate their prayers. However, abstract time has taken on an
important place in the social organisation of contemporary societies.
Lewis Mumford has written that the most tyrannical and authoritarian
device developed in modern societies was neither the car nor the
steam engine, but the clock. The philosopher Henri Bergson, writing
in the early decades of this century, was concerned to save the
subjective experience of time, la durée, which was threatened
by quantified, mechanical time.
Why is it that people living in modern societies have become slaves
of the clock, as it were, while others seem to manage perfectly
well without it? The answer must be sought in the social organisation
of society. If I wish to travel, say, from Oslo to Prague, it would
have been extremely inconvenient to have to go to the airport and
wait for a day or two so that a sufficient number of passengers
to Prague might find their way to the airport. It seems more reasonable
that the airline states that the departure will be at 11 a.m., that
all of the passengers agree on the meaning of 11 a.m., and thus
appear at the airport more or less simultaneously. In other words,
the concept of abstract time and the omnipresence of clocks makes
it possible to coordinate the actions of a much larger number of
people than that which is possible in a society with no shared,
quantified notion of time. In other words, both script and abstract
time makes social integration at a very high level of scale possible.
Knowledge and power
Evans-Pritchard once wrote that he believed his studies of Azande
witchcraft might contribute to the understanding of Communist Russia
(Evans-Pritchard 1951). What he meant was that an understanding
of the ideological underpinnings of the knowledge system of one
society may give clues as to similar structures elsewhere. Definitely,
knowledge systems create a particular order in the world, and this
does not only concern ideologies of gender, caste, class or ethnicity
as dealt with in other chapters, but also the very structuring of
experience. In his celebrated novel 1984, George Orwell (1949) describes
a society where the language has consciously been changed by the
power elite, in order to prevent the citizens from critical thought.
In "Newspeak", the word "freedom" has thus lost
its meaning of "individual freedom", and can only be used
in sentences like "the dog is free from lice". Although
such conscious manipulation with language may be rare, there can
be no doubt that the kind of insight introduced by Whorf may profitably
be used to study ideology and power structures. In our kind of society,
the shift from "chairman" to "chairperson" (or
simply "chair") and similar changes in language use indicate
a growing consciousness about the ideological character of language
A different approach to the relationship between knowledge and power
is exemplified in the study of so-called secret societies. Initiation
into such societies, common in several parts of the world, is accompanied
by the acquisition of esoteric, highly valued knowledge. In some
societies, such as dynastic China, literacy was seen as esoteric
knowledge and kept away from the masses. In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu
(1988) actually describes academic knowledge as a political resource
of a similar kind. He describes the inaccessible language spoken
by academics, the pompous rituals and conventions surrounding academic
life in France - allegedly necessary for the "advance of science"
- as expressions of symbolic power.
The relationship between knowledge and social organisation can be
illuminated in many ways. For example, it is common to assume that
culinary differentiation, particularly the development of haute
cuisine, is connected with social differentiation and hierarchy.
Everything which is taken for granted has a social origin, be it
totemic classification, dogmatic belief in the blessings of liberal
democracy, belief in God or the idea that one should eat with a
knife and a fork. Karl Marx was profoundly aware of this kind of
relationship when he wrote, in the mid-nineteenth century, that
even the functioning of our five senses is a product of the whole
of history up to this day.
This chapter has discussed a number of simple contrasts frequently
invoked by anthropologists (especially in the past), between witchcraft
accounts and scientific accounts, between the bricoleur and the
engineer, between literacy and orality, between abstract linear
time and concrete time, and ultimately between large-scale, "modern"
and small-scale, "traditional" societies. This kind of
dichotomy, which never provided a satisfactory empirical description
of the world, has been maintained for generations, at least partly
because it facilitates the classification of social and cultural
phenomena - if not entire societies. In the remaining chapters,
this kind of dichotomous modelling will be subjected to critical
scrutiny, and both its strengths and limitations will be made clear.
Suggestions for further reading
E.E. Evans-Pritchard: Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande,
abridged edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1983 (1937).
Alfred Gell: The Anthropology of Time. Oxford: Berg 1992.
Jack Goody: The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press 1977.
Edmund Leach: Lévi-Strauss. Glasgow: Fontana 1970.
Gisli Pálsson, ed.: Beyond Boundaries. Understanding, Translation
and Anthropological Discourse. Oxford: Berg 1993.
©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1995