Subtle Matters of Theory and Emphasis: Richard Lee and Controversies about Foraging Peoples

By Patterson, Thomas C. | Anthropologica, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Subtle Matters of Theory and Emphasis: Richard Lee and Controversies about Foraging Peoples


Patterson, Thomas C., Anthropologica


Keywords: foraging societies, social theory, Kalahari peoples

When I think about the professional career of my friend Richard Lee, I first think about his contributions to the study of foraging societies and his commitment to the development of a critical, socially engaged, integrated anthropology. Then I think about the controversies and debates in which he has been involved over the years. This is not to say that Richard is a particularly combative person: Feisty perhaps; always ready and eager to engage in critically constructive dialogue and debate; but definitely not combative. He is a person who has held strong opinions at least since our days as graduate students together at Berkeley in the early 1960s. A careful look at those controversies and debates, especially at the theoretical underpinnings and matters of emphasis of their participants, is overdue. It will tell us a good deal about anthropology and its practitioners in the late 20th century. Such an inquiry was, of course, launched by feminist social critic and theorist, Donna Haraway (1978a, 1991; 1978b, 1991; 1989), in the late 1970s, but the particular articles to which I refer and am indebted have rarely been cited by anthropologists. They certainly do not inform our understanding of controversy and debate in late 20th-century, anglophone anthropology, even though they should be required reading in courses that deal with the history of anthropological theory.

Studies of foraging societies in the last half of the 20th century were marked by an adherence to liberal social thought from Sherry Washburn's (Washburn and Avis, 1958: 433-434; Washburn and Lancaster, 1968) "man the hunter" and Sally Slocum's (1971, 1975) "woman the gatherer" to Napoleon Chagnon's (1968) "fierce people" and Ed Wilmsen's (1989) "political economy of the Kalahari." The shared theoretical framework of these writers carries with it a number of assumptions, mostly implicit, that have not been adequately scrutinized. Richard Lee early adopted a Marxist theoretical perspective that contrasted with the liberal viewpoints of his contemporaries. It is my contention that this theoretical divide as well as the differences in emphasis and meaning between Lee and the writers building on liberal social thought have underpinned the controversies concerned with foraging communities, their relations with surrounding societies and their place in the modern world. Let us examine how liberal social thought underpins the writings of the authors mentioned above and how their perspectives contrasted with the positions inspired by Marxist and Marxist-feminist social theory that Lee honed and refined over the years.

From the mid-1950s onward, Sherry Washburn elaborated a complex picture of the development of human society. It was underpinned by the idea that the fundamental universal pattern underlying human life was the hunting adaptation. Washburn and Virginia Avis (1958: 433-434) depicted its impact in the following way:

Hunting not only necessitated new activities and new kinds of cooperation but changed the role of the adult male in the group....The very same actions which caused man to be feared by other animals led to more cooperation, food sharing, and economic interdependence within the group.

Washburn and Lancaster (1968: 293-301) elaborated this thesis in the late 1960s. They wrote that

the general characteristics of man...can be attributed to the hunting way of life....It involves divisions of labor between male and female, sharing according to custom, cooperation among males, planning, knowledge of many species and large areas and technical skill....Within the group of nonhuman primates, the mother and her young may form a subgroup that continues even after the young are fully grown. This grouping affects dominance, grooming, and resting patterns, and, along with dominance, is one of the factors giving order to the social relations in a group. …

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