Five Key Concepts in Anthropological Thinking

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9780130971401: Five Key Concepts in Anthropological Thinking

This highly readable introduction discusses anthropological theory in a manner accessible to lay readers, yet does not oversimplify the material. Addresses five key concepts—evolution, culture, structure, function, and relativism—rather than individual theorists, and conveys the sense that their theory and associated debates can be interesting despite their complexity. Presents a balanced view of varying theoretical positions to pique readers' interest and avoid confusion. Uses clear, straightforward language, avoiding esoteric jargon. Critiques certain theoretical positions, including 19th-century racist theories and contemporary post-structural and postmodernist approaches. Includes a glossary of key terms that are highlighted throughout. A thought-provoking reference for anyone interested in learning about anthropology.

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For many students the most intriguing aspects of anthropology are descriptions of various cultures, explorations of prehistoric civilizations, or the mysteries of the human fossil record. When it comes to theory, intrigue is not quite the right term. Apprehension and aversion might be more accurate.

Much of this attitude no doubt arises from a sense that theoretical issues are arid and abstract at best, and perhaps still worse, that they have little to do with "reality." It may not be evident that even the most engaging narratives of cultural descriptions, reconstructions of prehistory, or interpretations of the fossil record present reality from one or another theoretical perspective, whether that perspective is explicit or not.

As the elders among the anthropology faculty know, any serious student of anthropology needs to have a good grasp of the history of the discipline and the development of its central ideas. This is especially so nowadays when sociocultural anthropology, in particular, has come under serious criticism—much of it based on erroneous perceptions of what anthropology is. Anthropology students need to know what anthropology is about, how it came to be that way, and why. They need to have a good sense of current perspectives, including the self-doubts and internal critiques that have always characterized anthropology and continue to do so. They should also have a good familiarity with the mistakes of the past and why we now consider them to be mistakes.

Students need to be conversant with the faltering and often unsuccessful attempts to account for the human experience—not only to avoid covering old ground and repeating past errors, but to develop a clear distinction between the past and present states of their field. They need, in other words, to be able to distinguish valid critiques of present theory from specious claims that confuse outmoded assumptions with current anthropological thinking.

This is not all drudge-work and duty. Faculty old timers are aware that theory has been among the most contentious, and therefore among the most interesting, aspects of the anthropological enterprise. Anthropologists have always loved a good debate.

After more years than I care to disclose of teaching undergraduate courses ranging from the introduction to cultural anthropology to a senior-level seminar on the history of anthropological theory, it has long been apparent to me and my students that we need more texts on theory that they find accessible. Marvin Harris's Rise of Anthropological Theory, a theoretical landmark in its own right, is now over three decades old and presents a massive challenge for undergraduate students, though it is well worth their efforts (Harris 1968). Other texts less comprehensive than Harris's have come and goner many of them now out of print.

What most of these books have in common is an emphasis on "great names" in anthropological theory. Although this has been useful for certain purposes, this book takes a somewhat different tack. We will pay due attention to our theoretical ancestors, but we will start from the premise that as great as many of these names may be, the most valuable focus for students is the flow and development of ideas. Ideas and their implications, over and above their authors, will receive the major focus here.

On the other hand, this book is certainly not intended to be an alternative to reading the original works of theorists. The purpose here is to discuss their ideas in the context of other ideas—to juxtapose, compare, and contrast. But the fact remains that to develop a full understanding of what various people have had to say, there is no substitute for reading what they wrote. The idea of this book is to complement readings of major theorists, which are available in excerpted form in such collections as Bohannari s and Glazer's High Points in Anthropology (1988), and McGee's and Warms's Anthropological Theory (2000), or in the original works of the theorists themselves.

It has been a characteristic of anthropology that many of its important ideas have persisted, some of them altering in the process, some returning as old hardware with new polish, influencing and competing with one another throughout the past two centuries. This peculiar nonlinear interweaving of ideas and concepts has made the history of the discipline difficult to teach and all the more important to understand.

To grapple with this tangle of ideas, assumptions, assertions, and questions, this book focuses on five concepts that have constituted major strands in the fabric of the discipline. These concepts are evolution, culture, structure, function, and relativism. Each of them touches to some extent on others—sometimes with considerable sparks—and each leads into a range of tangential issues. Together, they offer a substantial framework for comprehending the nature of current anthropological thinking and exploring how it has reached its present state.

I happily acknowledge that this book is the product of many people's efforts. Most profound, perhaps, is the debt to the many anthropologists of the past who devoted their lives to shaping and debating an understanding of what it means to be human. I owe many thanks to the following reviewers for their careful and thoughtful reading of the manuscript: Michael Angrosino, University of South Florida; E. Paul Durrenberger, The Pennsylvania State University; Mark Moberg, University of South Alabama; Ratimaya S. Bush, Wright State University; Kelly D. Alley, Auburn University; Geraldine Gamburd, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. They offered some excellent criticisms and extraordinarily useful advice. I am grateful as well to my dad who, though not an anthropologist, seemed to feel that some of the book, at least, made sense. I also thank Nancy Roberts and Lee Peterson of Prentice Hall for their congenial encouragement and Mary Araneo for her production work.

Most immediately, however, I express gratitude to Alice Pomponio, my wife, department chair, and professor of anthropology at St. Lawrence University, who was willing to read through this manuscript more than once and make some excellent suggestions for revision. Inspired by our time in Kenya a few years ago, I have promised to roast a goat in her honor.

I seize this rare opportunity also to thank others in Kenya: Mike and Judy Rainy; Ngangan Lesorogol ("Pakuo"), who made us at home in his boma in Samburu District and brought us into the house of his wife Mama Lalasi; and David Kitawi and his brother Christopher Fumbu, whose homes were warm and welcoming and whose companionship made hiking the trails of the Taita Hills a pleasure.

In closing, finally, I cannot fail to thank the St. Lawrence anthropology majors of my senior seminar in 2000 and 2001. They allowed me to "field test" earlier drafts of this book on them, and they devised the discussion questions that appear at the end of each chapter. Specifically, thanks and best wishes to Ross Ackley, Jon Ainslie, Jeff Arango, McKenzie Barnes, Leah Barth, Megan Bronson, Katie Ciuffo, Rhianna Cohen, Erin Dennison, Kelli Ehrensbeck, Victoria Engel, Jen Fonda, Shannon Glazer, Zach Green, Andy Grossman, Tanya Justham, Shara Korn, Renee Koster, Jake Lamarine, Chris Little, Sarah Lott, Matt Marshall, Brynn Martusiewicz, Johanna Miller, Rob Murano, Owen Murphy, Jessica Niven, Corey Null, Matt O'Brien, Margaret Sandrof, Andrew Solod, Matt Sukeforth, Andy Tefft, Kelly Thayer, and Hope Thornton.

Richard J. Perry

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