The Forager King

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, September 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Forager King

Bower, Bruce, Science News

A celebrated anthropologist surprises and inspires his biographer

Colin Turnbull led one of the most distinguished, unconventional, and controversial lives in the past century of anthropology. He effortlessly ingratiated himself to African foragers and Florida death row inmates--and just as easily infuriated professional colleagues.

In the 1950s, after undergraduate schooling in England and straight from a spiritual quest in India, Turnbull launched the study of African pygmies and wrote two bestselling books about them. Those books remain required reading in many high schools and colleges. By translating his fieldwork into vivid morality tales, Turnbull stepped into a worldwide spotlight of fame as what might be called a public anthropologist. Only a few others in his discipline, such as Margaret Mead and Louis Leakey, have gained more widespread recognition.

What's more, few anthropologists have shared Turnbull's skill at inciting passionate scholarly denunciations. Many critics disputed the objectivity and reliability of his field observations, foreshadowing current anthropological concerns about the ability of any fieldworker to rise above personal preconceptions and impartially describe another culture. Some anthropologists now view ethnography, or fieldwork in a local setting, as a type of storytelling rather than as science.

R. Richard Grinker is an anthropologist who sees ethnography as having more potential than being simple storytelling. Although he started out his career by dismissing Turnbull's work as biased and inadequate, Grinker has taken a closer look at the eminent anthropologist's life and emerged with a newfound respect for what Turnbull accomplished.

Grinker's transformation began in 1985, when he lived among central Africa's Efe pygmies and their farming neighbors, the Lese. Grinker hoped to demolish Turnbull's portrayal of forest-dwelling foragers as being isolated from the outside world and living in harmonious societies. Indeed, Grinker's research joined a growing body of literature on foraging groups that challenged Turnbull's conclusions, if not his book sales.

"I saw Turnbull's work as romanticized crap," Grinker says. "I was also jealous of his success in selling books."

By the time of Grinker's fieldwork among the pygmies, Turnbull had retired from academic life. In a twist of fate, Grinker had filled Turnbull's former post in the anthropology department at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

There, Grinker began to learn about Turnbull's background from people who knew him well. His curiosity piqued, Grinker decided several years after Turnbull's death in 1994 to write a biography of his disdained predecessor.

As he combed through archives of Turnbull's letters and interviewed the anthropologist's surviving family, friends, and colleagues, a remarkable life began to take shape. Grinker's book In The Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull (2000, St. Martin's Press) explores the complicated links between Turnbull's personal history and professional pursuits. Turnbull emerges as an exasperating charmer and a bold thinker. He made his share of mistakes, yet his work still offers valuable insights into both the nature of humanity and the practice of cultural anthropology, Grinker says.

"There's a willingness these days to do ethnography from a more personal viewpoint, as Colin did," says Robert Humphrey, the former head of George Washington University's anthropology department. He had hired Turnbull in 1976 and became his close friend and executor of his estate. "[Grinker] captured about as much of Colin as it's possible to do in a biography," Humphrey says.

In his writings and in discussions with colleagues and friends, Turnbull expressed no desire to be an objective scientist or mainstream scholar. He said that he wanted to find the goodness, beauty, and power in oppressed and ridiculed people and thus expose what he saw as the corrosive effects of Western civilization on the human spirit. …

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