Today's Crisis in Anthropology

Article excerpt

Today's crisis in anthropology

THE important place social anthropology holds in contemporary thinking may seem paradoxical to many people. It is a science very much in vogue: witness not only the fashion for films and books about travel, but also the interest of the educated public in books on anthropology.

Today there is no fraction of the human race, no matter how remote and retarded it may still appear, which is not directly or indirectly in contact with others, and whose feelings, ambitions, desires and fears do not affect the security and prosperity and the very existence of those to whom material progress may once have given a feeling of ascendancy.

Even if we wanted to, we could no longer ignore or shrug off with indifference, say, the last head-hunters of New Guinea, for the simple reason that they are interested in us. And surprising though it may be, the result of our contacts with them means that both they and we are now part of the same world, and it will not be long before we are all part of the same civilization.

As they spread throughout the world, the civilizations which (rightly or wrongly) felt that they had reached the height of development, such as Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, and on a different level the technological civilization which is now bringing them together, are all tinged with "primitive' ways of life, "primitive' thinking and "primitive' behaviour which have always been the subject of anthropological research. Without our realizing it the "primitive' ways are transforming these civilizations from within.

For the so-called primitive or archaic peoples do not simply vanish into a vacuum. They dissolve and are incorporated with greater or lesser speed into the civilization surrounding them. At the same the latter acquires a universal character.

Thus, far from diminishing in importance, primitive peoples concern us more with each passing day. To take only one example, the great civilization the West is justly proud of and which has spread its roots across the inhabited globe, is everywhere emerging as a "hybrid'. Many foreign elements, both spiritual and material, are being absorbed into its stream.

As a result, the problems of anthropology have ceased to be a matter for specialists, limited to scholars and explorers, they have become the direct and immediate concern of every one of us.

Where, then, lies the paradox? In reality there are two--insofar as anthropology is chiefly concerned with the study of "primitive' peoples. At the moment when the public has come to recognize its true value, we may well ask whether it has not reached the point where it has nothing more left to study.

For the very transformations which are spurring a growing theoretical interest in "primitives' are in fact bringing about their extinction. …