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Neo-Evolutionism and Cultural Ecology
A major theoretical shift occurred in American
anthropology in the late 1940s and 1950s
antievolutionary perspective of the Boasian school
competes with the new and more sophisticated
evolutionary approaches of Julian Steward and Leslie
similarities between cultures could be explained by
parallel adaptations to similar natural environments
not all societies passed through similar stages of
cultural development i.e. unilineal models of evolution
were too sweeping.
Julian Haynes Steward
1902 - 1972
central figure in the
introduction of
ecological concepts into
social and cultural
“cultural ecology”
Cultural Ecology
“Cultural Ecology is the
study of the processes by
which a society adapts to
its environment. Its
principle problem is to
determine whether these
adaptations initiate
internal social
transformations of
evolutionary change”
Cross-cultural parallels in social patterns
could be explained as adaptations to
similar environments
3 basic steps for a cultural ecological investigation
1. Analysis of the relationship between the material
culture and the natural resources
2. the behaviour patterns involved in the
exploitation of a particular area by means of a
particular technology must be analyzed
3. how behaviour patterns entailed in exploiting the
environment affect other aspects of culture
This three step approach identifies the cultural core “the
constellation of features which are most closely related to
subsistence activities and economic arrangements
Cultures with similar core features belong to the same culture type
culture types can be arranged into a hierarchy by complexity
Steward’s original ranking was family, multifamily and state-level
societies - later refined by his followers into band, tribe chiefdom
and state.
Shoshone Women
with large baskets for
carrying gear and
collecting wild foods,
flat baskets for
preparing seeds and
nuts. In the Great
Basin Desert circa
Band  Tribe  Chiefdom  Ag. State  Industrial State
Hallmarks of Difference:
Band: -H/G
-Complex kinship
Chief: any individual who
held leadership role in a
non-western, stateless
-Intermediate b/w tribe
and bureaucratic gov’ts.
-1 (or >1) descent group
gains dominance
-hierarchical  social strata
- 1,000’s  10,000’s
Ag. States:
-bureaucratic gov’t
-dense populations (urban)
-food surpluses
-many economic roles
-writing systems
-public works (labor)
-10,000’s  Million(s)
Materialism versus Idealism
2 opposite philosophical approaches, underlying 2 corresponding
opposed theoretical tendencies in anthropological theory
MATERIALISTS hold that the proper way to make sense of human
social and cultural phenomena is to analyze them broadly as natural
systems and in terms of their material conditions:
e.g. how particular social and cultural systems relate to their
environment — i.e. how they transform it, extract energy from it,
distribute the captured energy among their members,
in this analysis, the members’ own mental concepts and ideas are
treated as dependent variables — that is, they are passive reflections
in human consciousness of material processes, and not autonomous
causal forces in their own right
IDEALISTS hold that human cultures are shaped primarily by processes
of shared human consciousness, ideation, and imagination — processes
which cannot be reduced to purely material causes
1979 Cultural Materialism:
The Struggle for a Science
of Culture
culture = a system of
energy-transfer between
nature and human
populations (use of standard
energy measures: calories,
cultures viewed as systems
of energy transfer and
By focusing on observable,
measurable phenomena,
cultural materialism presents
an etic approach
Marvin Harris 1927-2001
Basic Premise
Cultural Materialism is "...based on the simple premise
that human social life is a response to the practical
problems of earthly existence..."
that a society's mode of production (technology and work
patterns, especially in regard to food) and mode of
reproduction (population level and growth) in interaction
with the natural environment has profound effects on
sociocultural stability and change.
A good deal of Harris' work, therefore, is concerned with
explaining cultural systems (norms, ideologies, values,
beliefs) and widespread social institutions and practices
through the use of population, production, and ecological
Example: India’s “sacred cow”
• a firmly-established “culture complex” of ideas and practices
linked to Hinduism, based on the cultural premise of the sacred
status of cattle as symbols of holiness
• cattle are kept and cows dominate the physical landscape, even in
densely populated urban neighborhoods
Delhi's 13 million residents share the streets with an estimated 40,000 cows
Respect for animal life has been a central theme in Hindu life.
Some trace the cow's sacred status back to Lord Krishna, one of
the faith's most important figures. He is said to have appeared 5,000
years ago as a cowherd, and is often described as "the child who
protects the cows.“
Another of Krishna's holy names, Govinda, means "one who
brings satisfaction to the cows.“
Other scriptures identify the cow as the "mother" of all
civilization, its milk nurturing the population.
Idealist interpretation: a distinctive
complex of ideas and practices which
grew up and became institutionalized,
following an inner “symbolic logic”
which requires to be understood in
(emic) cultural terms. Ihe practices
follow from the ideas
cattle utilized as a source of milk,
butter, traction, and dung (fuel) but
the meat is not consumed
(“inefficient” usage of resources, by
Western standards)
why for a Hindu is beef taboo,
whereas in Canada and the U.S.A.
and most of the Western world is it
considered to be a very honorific and
delicious food
it is inadequate to say Hindus
don’t consume beef because their
religion prohibits it.
This is no explanation, you must
also ask, why Hinduism has this kind
of reverence for cattle but Islam,
Judaism, and Christianity do not
Materialist interpretation: a cultural complex adapted
to a specific ecological setting characterized by plow
agriculture and vast populations:
require oxen (castrated male cattle) to draw
plows — in chronic short supply
also, cows convert marginally useful resources (garbage,
odd patches of grass) into useful resources (milk, butter,
the ideology grew up to support the practice, which was
ecologically necessary to sustain the vast population
Materialists place the stress on the priority of the material
factors (“functions”) over the ideological factors.
 do not deny that an ideology of the “sacred cow”
emerged and flourished
 but take the position that the ideology is the
dependent variable (the “effect”), while the overall
ecological adaptation is the independent variable
(the “cause”)
“folk models” usually
reverse the sequence of
causation and hence folk
models are rarely adequate
accounts of any situation
can we be so dismissive of the informant’s emic viewpoint if
culture is rooted in values and meanings held by
What does it say about individual free will and purpose
oversimplification via reduction
 Is it ethnocentric?
Postmodernists view: science is itself a culturally
determined phenomenon that is affected by class, race and
other structural variables
Do all food taboos have functional explanations; are such
explanations intrinsically more satisfying than symbolic ones
Symbolic or Interpretive Anthropology
1960s –1970s general reevaluation of cultural
anthropology as a scientific enterprise
From function to meaning
from materialist theories to idealist theories
shift toward issues of culture and interpretation and
away from grand theories
increased emphasis on the way in which individual
actions creatively shape culture
Most “symbolicists” would agree on these two points:
1. culture is, fundamentally, a symbolic system and
so analysis of cultural symbols provides the
natural point of entry into a cultural universe
2. If culture is symbolic then it follows that it is used
to create and convey meanings since that is the
purpose of symbols.
 If meanings are the end products of culture then
understanding culture requires understanding the
meanings of its creators and users
Thick Description Toward and
Interpretive Theory of Culture
“The concept of culture I espouse…is
essentially a semiotic one. Believing,
with Max Weber, that man is an
animal suspended in webs of
significance he himself has spun, I
take cultures to be those webs, and
the analysis of it to be therefore not
an experimental science in search of
law, but an interpretive one in search
of meaning”. (Geertz The
Interpretation of Cultures 1973:5)
Clifford Geertz 1926-
Geertz’ Interpretive Anthropology:
PREMISE: “man is an animal suspended in webs
of significance he himself has spun” and our name
for those webs is culture
CONCLUSION: “the analysis of it therefore is not
an experimental science in search of law but an
interpretive one in search of meaning”
Deep Play: The Balinese Cockfight
It is not just cocks that are fighting but men
Cocks are masculine symbols
The word cock is used metaphorically to mean bachelor,
lady-killer, tough guy etc
The Balinese
cockfight, is
fundamentally a
of status
nothing really
happens at a
The conflicts, alliances, wins and losses are all symbolic of
things that happen elsewhere.
In the cockfight all action is symbolic.
The real causes lie elsewhere, presumably in material
If cultural knowledge is inherently interpretive, how can we
invalidate the truth of an interpretation since there are potentially
as many true interpretations as there are members of a culture?
I.e. If ethnography is interpretation how can we know that
interpretation is correct.
Most of us cannot go to Bali and check the interpretation
if all such claims are equally valid, then the most anthropology
can hope for is to create a rich documentary of multiple
interpretations, none denied and none privileged.
This means that it cannot be a science since it cannot generalize
from truth statements or tests the statements against empirical
data; the nature of culture precludes this
Geertz triggered a profound rethinking of the
anthropological enterprise
forced anthropologists to become aware of the cultural
contexts they interpret and the ethnographic texts they create.
He is also touched off a major debate in about the
fundamental nature of anthropology
These Issues arose against a backdrop of a changing world
and world view
As independence movements transformed former colonial
subjects into new national citizens, inter-group conflicts
intensified as power was reconfigured and new governments
exerted their control
For the first time, Anthropology directly criticized as
the ‘handmaid of colonialism’...
 assisting in the pacification of peoples
 use of ethnographic information about them in
their own subjugation
 providing justifications for the colonial system
1978 Orientalism
 scathing analysis of Western scholarship on
the Middle East
 this scholarship = an ideological tool of
 the West creates a simplistic stereotype of
the Orient and subsequent scholarship
studies not the Orient but rather reaffirms
the stereotype
 the ‘other’ presented as timeless, changeless,
essentialized (in contrast to Westerners’
concept of themselves as individuals in
particular historical contexts)
 the power relationship between the
constructing subject and constructed object
Edward Saïd
 ignores the variability of Middle Eastern society and substitutes a
single ‘mentality’ to stand for the Orient
 evidence selected to fit the schema and contrary evidence ignored
 the construction of an ‘Other’, not like ourselves, but
fundamentally different
 The ‘oriental’ of Western scholarship is constructed as exotic,
driven by hidebound Tradition, thinks ‘differently’ from
ourselves, is envious of the West, but at the same time incapable
of shuffling off the (sometimes rather charming) superstitions
which make his society backward
Subtext: they need our help to attain their full potential
literally means “after modernity
An extremely diffuse concept
Provided a major focus of debate and commentary
Postmodernists challenge modernist assertions
believe that objective neutral knowledge of another
culture, or any aspect of the world is impossible
Postmodernist view of Fieldwork
Fieldwork is crucial in the creation of ethnographic
anthropologists can never be unbiased observers of all
that goes on in culture
Fieldworkers must of necessity be in specific places at
specific times.
As a result they see some things and not others
The particular circumstances of fieldwork, the
political context in which it occurs, the investigator’s
preferences and predilections, and the people met by
chance or design all condition the understanding of
society that results.
Postmodernist view of ethnography
Writing ethnography is the primary means by which
anthropologists convey their interpretations of other
Traditionally written as if the anthropologist was a
neutral, omniscient observer
Postmodernists claim that because the collection of
anthropological data is subjective, it is not possible to
analyze the data objectively.
Postmodernists question the validity of the author’s
interpretations over competing alternatives
And examine the literary techniques used in the
writing of ethnographies
Throughout the history of anthropology anthropologists
have claimed to be authorities on other cultures
this claim fortified with emphasizing the mystique of
fieldwork and by explaining other cultures to their
audiences through written descriptions.
The hermeneutic and deconstructionist approaches led
many anthropologists to ask a variety of questions about
the relationship between the ethnographic texts and the
fieldwork experience upon which those texts are based.
the filtering of exotic otherness through the constructions
of social theory is exposed as a literary excursion disguised
as scientific reportage
Ethnographies have traditionally followed some basic
literary conventions
rather than saying “I am writing my interpretation
of what the natives were doing” authors claim to
represent the native point of view.
But the anthropologist chooses who speaks for the
society and in his or her translation of the native
language decides what words are presented to the
Writers also claim to describe completely other
cultures or societies, even though anthropologists
actually know only the part of a culture that they
personally experience
Ethnographic authority was characteristic of ‘the Modern’ — it
was the official narrative explaining the significance of the
antecedent cultures out of which the National-State cultures of the
Modern era were composed
Its tools: monographs, museums, and research institutes.
example, at major museums like the American Museum of
Natural History, authoritative accounts of Polynesian cultures are
determined by the curator
The ‘whole’ represented by a few artifacts selected by the
curator, usually with an eye to the predominantly Western
aesthetics of the audience...
James Clifford
Postmodernity in Anthropology
therefore has focused on
1. an examination of the power
relations according to which the Other
has been constructed
2. examinations of the rhetorical
devices and preoccupations of
ethnographers themselves
With what to replace objectivity?
Consensus solution: reflexivity — not the unintentional
mirroring of the author’s culture in a descriptive work
about the Other, but a self-aware reflexivity:
•detailed disclosure of the terms and conditions of the fieldwork
•discussion of interpersonal relationships with informants that
led to acquisition of the knowledge reported
•self-analysis of author’s motives, agendas, and self-doubts
•the knowledge presented situated in terms of how the
ethnographer collected it
reflexive ethnographies tend to read more like diaries or
autobiographies than the conventional ethnographic genre
Renato Rosaldo, Ilongot headhunting, 1883–1974
Ilongot explanation of headhunting:
“He says that rage, born of grief, impels him to kill his fellow
human beings. He claims he needs a place ‘to carry his anger’
The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables
him, he says, to vent and, he hopes, to throw away the anger of
his bereavement... To him grief, rage, and headhunting go
together in a self-evident manner.”
October 1981: Michelle loses
footing on steep trail, falls to
her death...
“Immediately on finding her body I
became enraged. How could she
abandon me? How could she have been
so stupid as to fall. I tried to cry. I
sobbed, but rage blocked the tears...
This anger in a number of forms, has
swept over me on a number of occasions
since then, lasting hours and even days
at a time...”
In other words, his own subjective experience (and not
any amount of reasoning) enabled him to grasp the
connection between grief and rage... and only by
alluding to the personal account of Michelle Rosaldo’s
death could he communicate it to the reader
Critiques of Postmodernism
Taken to its logical extreme postmodernism
comes close to turning anthropology into a sub
field of literature.
If all writing is nothing more than
interpretations of interpretations then
ethnography is fiction
And no conclusions can ultimately be reached
about anything
anthropology is a representational genre rather
than a clearly bounded scientific domain
Schools and
analytical theories
in abeyance
Main duality:
Political Economy
Interpretive &