The Haunting Past of Anthropology: Why it is important for the present

Steven Liu
BSc Anthropology

When I was asked about my major in university in front of a room of relatives, everyone at the dinner table fell into an embarrassing silence. It is impossible to find a concise, one-sentence definition, given that anthropology, literally the study of human beings, has an ambitious yet ambiguous etymology. A year of institutional education complicated such task further, rendering any simple, technical definition incapable of communicating anthropology’s perplexing historicity, ethnography as a multimodal and widely contested methodology, and even my naïve reflections upon the moral and intellectual consequences for anthropological studies. 

The earliest form of anthropological theories in the “west” emerged from the combination of travel writings and social philosophy, benefited to and from colonialism (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001). Travelling provides an intuitive yet amateur account of the life of exotic cultures, in turn constructing travelers’ cultural identification in a wider context. As Wolf (2010: 5) argues, the “west” is not an independent existence with its own genealogy, but the “encounter with ‘the other’ stimulated European intellectuals to view society as an entity undergoing change and growth,” unfortunately, under a unilinear evolutionary narrative (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 9). Subsequent diffusion of European culture was shaped by new power relations formed through colonial administration, and anthropologists also contributed to the political agenda of understanding the local society for the sake of governing. Such influence continues to haunt anthropologists, from inter-World-Wars period when anthropologists study the political system of various African groups as an intellectual and political project and hoping to “be of interest and of use to those who have the task of administering African peoples,” (Forte and Evans-Pritchard 1940: vii) to a “modern” institutionalised movement of decolonizing the university curriculum, ranging from de facto representation of more “non-European thinkers” to radical reconceptualisation within academic disciplines (SOAS 2017). 

The conceptualisation of “material cultural” during the nineteenth century was influenced by materialistic and evolutionary social philosophies during the nineteenth century, which serves, according to Victor (2002 3), a cultural scheme under which a “super-category of objects” of various groups ranks them by their level of “technical and social sophistication,” misplacing Victorian Europe at the top and hunter-gatherer cultures at the bottom under a narrative of modernity and progress. The collection of “native materials” and the establishment of national ethnographic museum are (Eriksen and Nielsen 2001: 15) important “preconditions” for the birth of anthropology, and the latter had more profound influence in the construction of nationhood even after the systematic collections of native objects and the idea of artefacts as a text for social complexity was demystified within the academia, as ethnographic monograph soon replaced museum as the “objectification of authoritative knowledge” about the world (Victor 2002: 4).  

African artefacts on display at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris. Photo by Patrick Tourneboeuf

Although the umbrella term “culture” occupied the centre for analytical and interpretative theories throughout the development of anthropology, as well as being a pivot in explaining certain “invisible social facts” (Malinowski 1966: 317), the definition for the term remains widely contested. Tylor (1871: 1) defined culture in its ethnographic sense as the “complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” implying that members of different societies can be cultured to different degrees. Tylor (ibid., 16) also proposed the concept of “survivals,” isolatable cultural traits or behaviours that are no longer functional yet remains in the society, by which the historical development of primitive cultures can be outlined. Thus, a scientific method is possible by empirically observing and classifying individual traits. Despite still taking an evolutionary stand (ibid., 6), the scientific endeavour for a systematic discipline provided the foundation for the transformation of early regional studies such as sinology from gathering intelligence to understanding the local societies (Wang 1997: 3). 

A theoretical concern focusing on “culture” does not mean anthropologists create and utilise a field of abstraction of their own, yet methodologically, the discipline is distinguished with other “field sciences” by ethnography, characterised by participant observation. As a pioneer, Malinowski (1966: 317) objects “a passive registering of facts,” advocating for the active construction of relationships through observation in order to discover the “invisible facts.” He argues for a holistic understanding of culture by claiming that land tenure system must be put into relationship with the local economy, myths, and kinship. By summarising his observations into a “Table of Claims” related to land use, group organisation, and political structure, Malinowski (1966: 335) concluded that a few interrelated doctrines like the rule of first emergence, exogamous and patrilocal marriage, and magical leadership “controls all the practices referring to land.” 

The need for radical improvement is as obvious as the significance of such methodology, primarily, as Malinowski (1966: 339) himself reflected upon it, “bald and abstract.” It is ambiguous whether such scheme of interacting doctrines represent an idealised norm for organisation or it describes the individual’s praxis accurately. More important, the role of certain groups, such as the economic activities of women were largely ignored, hardly making it a complete analysis for “local knowledge.” Geertz (1973: 10) used a detailed story in central Morocco during French administration to illustrate that ethnographers are confronted with mainly interpretative works rather than observation, starting from an “actor-oriented” description from which larger context of culture are comprehended in a certain space and time. Geertz (1973) acknowledges the gap between cultural reality and ethnographic account of it, but reassuringly argues that such distinction comes from the explications performed upon unfamiliar facts. Thus, Geertz (1973, 14) argues that an aim of anthropology is to enlarge the human discourse and understanding others’ “normalness without reducing their particularity,” more or less a form of cultural translation. The “thick description” leads to new problems, as “ethnographic descriptions, like all cultural translations, necessarily involve an element of transformation or even disfiguration” (Holbraad et al. 2018), calling for greater reflexivity and conceptualisations that allow different ontologies for seemingly universal notions or structures. 

A large, recently constructed mall near the old site of the migrant village near Beijing where Xiang Biao conducted his fieldwork. Photo by Yin Xiyuan

A pedantic explanation of “ethnography” as “writing about people” imperils the methodology by oversimplification, as individuals or communities are not omnipresent in ethnographic writings. Influenced by structuralism, the investigation into meaning was influenced by linguistics (Wolf 2010: 16), particularly the theory of language and utterance, as a system of meaning, shape discourses without individuals’ consciousness, and the structure of which is comparable to cultural phenomena (Lévi-Strauss 1963: 19). By reviewing a wide range of major scientific texts, Martin concludes that the cultural stereotype of gender also extends itself to scientific language on reproductive biology, a field which claims an absolute objectivity. 

In his ethnography of a migrant village in Beijing, Xiang (2000) actively re-conceptualises the term “relationship (guan xi)” in a “Chinese” context shaped by history of marketisation, and rural-to-urban mobility, while rejecting the idea that this notion is particular to China. He focuses on, borrowing from Holbraad and Petersen (2017: 4), an “ontological relativisation” of “relationship” as a folk perception, instead of objective doctrines, about the social structure and the idea of “being human”, which is particular but not exclusive to certain Chinese communities. He found that the village is unable to be described structurally, and people hardly exercise any symbolic rituals, and its contextuality is nearly the opposite of traditional Chinese villages (2017, 19). These encounters forced him to readjust his imagination on the “totality” of the place, trying to allow ethnography to “dictate its own term of engagement” (Holbraad and Petersen, 2017). 

I expect and also hope in the future, I will confront similar situations as well, given not only a lack of operational contact with ethnography, but also limited theoretical agility in reconsidering the mostly “western” theories that I have had contact with this year by “social facts” within cultural contexts that I am more familiar with. More attentions and long-term commitments are required even ethnography is becoming increasingly more multimodal. There are more questions emerged than the puzzles already answered, as I am still confused by how to deal with the ethical problems brought by anthropologists’ intrusive gaze and participation, and whether my primary concern should be crafting an ethnography of or for the people with whom I study. It is true that anthropology is not required for joining the global struggle of many minority groups, but could it do more both politically and intellectually? If so, how should the methodology of ethnography also be re-conceptualised and re-crafted? If not, should we just dismantle the institutions that allow anthropologists and anthropological theories to reproduce within an enclosed discipline?

Title image: ‘The Far Side’ by Gary Larson, 1984.

  1. Buchli, V. 2002. Introduction. In: V. Buchli, ed. The material culture reader Oxford: Berg.
  2. Eriksen, T. H. and Neilsen, F. N. 2001. A history of anthropology. London: Pluto Press.
  3. Geertz, C. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Holbraad, M. and Pederson, M. A.. 2017. The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Holbraad, M., Pedersen, M.A. and De Castro, E.V. 2014. The politics of ontology: Anthropological positions. Cultural Anthropology, 13.
  6. Lévi-Strauss, C. 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. 
  7. Malinowski, B. 1966. Coral gardens and their magic. London: Allen & Unwin.
  8. Martin, E. 1991. The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female rolesSigns: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 16(3), pp. 485-501.
  9. Sahlins, M. Stone age economics. London: Tavistock Publications.
  10. SOAS. 2017. Decolonising the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?. SOAS Blog, [blog] 18 January.
  11. Wang, M. 1997. Social anthropology and its studies in China. Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company. 
  12. Wolf, E. R. 2010. Europe and the people without history. London: University of California Press.
  13. Xiang, B. 2000. Transcending boundaries: Zhejiangcun: The story of a migrant village in Beijing. Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company.

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