0.189: Stanley Diamond & Claude Lévi-Strauss on the Nature and Future of Anthropology

Two relatively short articles from the 1960s that I found useful, especially in connection with the previous post, provide a number of insights that exceeded the scope of that post. I want to share some of my “notes and quotes” from those two articles, with limited commentary aside from my headings — think of it as an extended footnote to the last post.

“A Revolutionary Discipline”

By Stanley Diamond
Current Anthropology
, Vol. 5, No. 5 (Dec., 1964), pp. 432-437

Anthropology: “off the mainstream

Although careerism and slick professionalism have made their inroads among us, we are still largely self-selected to study people off the mainstream of contemporary civilization (p. 432).

We speak for others:

we speak for societies that cannot speak for themselves (p. 432)

Only the civilized outsider can document, create the idea of the primitive:

it is only a representative of our civilization who can, in adequate detail, document the differences, and help create an idea of the primitive which would not ordinarily be constructed by primitives themselves. (p. 433)

There is, then, no final or static or exclusively objective picture of primitive society. We snap the portrait, using film of different sensitivity for different purposes. Moreover, there is no really sophisticated portrait of primitive society which can be transmitted to us by an actor from within the system, precisely because it is our experience of civilization that leads us to see problems (for us) where he perceives routine, and to pose questions that the primitive person is unlikely to ask about his own culture. (p. 433)

“Anthropology: Its Achievements and Future”

Author(s): Claude Levi-Strauss
Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), pp. 124-127

Anthropology = the study of always disappearing primitives

The day will come when the last primitive culture will have disappeared from the earth, compelling us to realize only too late that the fundamentals of mankind are irretrievably lost. (p. 124)

It has become the fashion in certain circles to speak of anthropology as a science on the wane, on account of the rapid disappearance of its traditional subject matter: the so-called primitives.  (p. 124)

It is precisely because the so-called primitive peoples are becoming extinct that their study should now be given absolute priority. (p. 125)

the physical disappearance of populations that remained faithful till the very end to their traditional way of life does, indeed, constitute a threat to anthropology (p. 125)

Human nature is singular, the expressions are diverse (or how differences are superficial)

enlarging our narrow-minded humanism to include each and every expression of human nature (p. 124)

it is already certain that the outer differences conceal a basic unity (p. 127)

we may never again be able to recognize and study this image of ourselves (p. 127)

The futility of a native anthropology

The suggestion has been made that in order to render anthropology less distasteful to its subjects it will suffice to reverse the roles and occasionally allow ourselves to be “ethnographized” by those for whom we were once solely the ethnographers. In this way, each in turn will get the upper hand. And since there will be no permanent privilege, nobody will have grounds to feel inferior to anybody else. At the same time, we shall get to know more about ourselves through the eyes of others, and human knowledge will derive an ever growing profit from this reciprocity of perspective.

Well-meant as it undoubtedly is, this solution appears to me naive and unworkable, as though the problems were as simple and superficial as those of children unaccustomed to playing together, whose quarrels can be settled by making them follow the elementary rule: “Let me play with your dolls and I shall let you play with mine.” (pp. 125-126)

Having natives do anthropology, does not change anthropology

if native cultures are ever to look at anthropology as a legitimate pursuit and not as a sequel to the colonial era or that of economic domination, it cannot suffice for the players simply to change camps while the anthropological game remains the same. Anthropology itself must undergo a deep transformation in order to carry on its work among those cultures for whose study it was intended because they lack a written record of their history. (p. 126)

Anthropology: an outsider’s science

anthropology is the science of culture as seen from the outside and the first concern of people made aware of their independent existence and originality must be to claim the right to observe their culture themselves, from the inside. (p. 126)

Anthropology in the future might not be “Anthropology”

Anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish in order to be born again under a new guise. (p. 126)

And within a century or so, when the last native culture will have disappeared from the Earth and our only interlocutor will be the electronic computer, it will have become so remote that we may well doubt whether the same kind of approach will deserve to be called “anthropology” any longer. (p. 127)

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5 thoughts on “0.189: Stanley Diamond & Claude Lévi-Strauss on the Nature and Future of Anthropology

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  2. Max, in your opinion, what is Levi-strauss precisely refering to when he writes “the same kind of approach” (in the last quote) ?

  3. Hello, good to see you again!

    The words that precede that quote are as follows: “anthropology’s traditional problems are assuming new forms while none of them can be said to be exhausted. The distinctive feature of anthropology among the human sciences is to look at man from the very point where, at each period of history, it was considered that anything man-like had ceased to exist. During antiquity and the Middle Ages, this point was too close to permit observation, since each culture or society was inclined to locate it on its neighbour’s doorstep.”

    I am hoping that by “the same kind of approach” refers to a humanisitic approach to finding “man” where “it was considered that anything man-like had ceased to exist”…because if it does not refer to that the preceding paragraphs on physical anthropology, crop yields, and science versus the humanities, sheds little light on his meaning.

  4. I think you are right Max, « the same kind of approach » refers to « look at man from the very point where, at each period of history , it was considered that anything man-like had ceased to exist ».
    But, if I accept his predictions about « the disappearance » of other civilizations, or native cultures, I still have some difficulty with his metaphor. In Lévi-Strauss’ words :

    « within a century or so, when the last native culture will have disappeared … it [the point where it is considered that anything man-like have ceased to exist] will have become so remote … ».

    But, if the last native cultures disappear (around 2066), and if these native cultures harbored (if I understand correctly) « the point where it was considered that anything man-like had ceased to exist », will that point exist anymore ? If every member of humankind is considered as human – because they are (/considered to be) just like westerners, or civilized people – , is there still any such a point anymore ?

    Further, I don’t really understand why he wrote that the electronic computer will then be our only interlocutor. Or do I ? Was he in fact thinking about some kind of refined artificial intelligence which will allow for some human-like discussions ? Is it that kind of AI which will then constitute the « point where it is considered that anything man-like have ceased to exist » ? Is that why, in this case, the approach might not deserve to be called « anthropology » anymore ?
    If Professor Levi-Strauss, by any chance, stumble upon this blog’s post, we might hope he will enlighten us.

  5. Excellent questions. I tend to think that when I read something by a senior intellect, that I do not understand or find confusing, that it must be my fault (and surely that must be true at least some of the time). However, in this instance, you seem to be finding the same statements to be confusing, except that I muted what I thought was confusing. It’s not clear at all where he finds anthropology will continue to have a place, unless he really means that some onslaught of computerization and mechanization will make disappearing natives of us all. Alright, if so…but then why would this not deserve to be called “anthropology”?

    So my quotations tend to magnify what I found most useful from this article, but the selectivity is clearly an issue. On the other hand, and I forget who said this, if reading is always partial, like grazing, we all make use of the bits and pieces that stimulate us most, even if we lose sight of the whole…the confusing whole in this instance.

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