Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World. (Books Reviews: Theory)

By Gledhill, John | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World. (Books Reviews: Theory)


Gledhill, John, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


WOLF, ERIC R. Pathways of power: building an anthropology of the modern world. xx, 463 pp., illus., bibliogr. London, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001. [pounds sterling]38.00 (cloth), [pounds sterling]15.95 (paper)

As Sydel Silverman points Out in her Preface to this collection of essays, Eric Wolf insisted that anthropology advances by building on the cumulative achievements of generations of scholarship. Those unfamiliar with the range of Wolf's contributions or who understand them largely through the (often superficial) critiques of others will benefit considerably from careful reading of this volume. Those for whom Wolf was a source of inspiration will still find things to rediscover in the work of a mentor who so frequently proposed radically new ways of conceptualizing issues, yet remained so generous to the achievements of other scholars even as he exposed the limitations of their approaches. Wolf was a tireless builder of the discipline. He strove to transcend the dichotomization of the material and symbolic at the same time as he offered the devastating deconstructions of conventional understandings of 'culture' and 'society' which figure prominently in this book. A cosmopolitan intellectual who possessed a pro found knowledge of European history and thought, he reached for the broadest level of comparative understanding of the way the North Atlantic world contrasted with that of, for example, Islam or China. He resisted retreat into 'specialization' and an ethnographic focus that luxuriates in describing 'real people doing real things' (Ortner) in terms of experience-near' categories (Geertz) without embracing 'the quest for explanation'. For Wolf, knowledge should lead us towards increasingly ambitious questions.

The collection is divided into four parts, following an intellectual autobiography drafted shortly before Wolf's death. The first contains essays that reflect on the development of anthropology in its broader intellectual and political context, and the last, 'Concepts', contains challenging critical essays from the 1980s and 1990s. In between the two sections in which Wolf dialogues with the discipline at large, we have two sections headed 'Connections' and 'Peasants'. These focus on his substantive contributions to the study of 'complex societies', state and nation formation, and the understanding of local developments in terms of larger historicized processes ('the global', in a sense that Wolf succeeded in nuancing far better than most and did not reduce simply to the history of capitalism). The volume includes classics such as Types of Latin American peasantry', as well as both the original 'Closed corporate communities in Mesoamerica and Java' and his own retrospective evaluation of the strengths and we aknesses of this much misrepresented contribution, published a quarter of a century later. It also includes samples of his work on agrarian revolution and papers on nation-building and identity. These include a less well-known piece from the 1950s on the Virgin of Guadalupe as a national symbol, which, along with the classic 'Aspects of group relations in a complex society: Mexico', highlights the way that Wolf's rethinking of the anthropological project in this much-studied country was central to everything that followed. The six previously unpublished essays include a paper on the Second Serfdom and a brilliant analysis of peasant nationalism derived from his work with John Cole in the southern Tyrol. Wolf's early contributions on ethnicity and nationalism were to prove of more than passing relevance to subsequent developments in Europe. Although the analysis in Europe and the people without history (1982) of the 'peripheral populations habitually studied by anthropologists' is slightly less well represente d, enough is offered for the reader to grasp the significance of this period of Wolf's work. One of the essays unlikely to have been widely read in its original place of publication, his 1984 Westermarck Memorial Lecture on 'Incorporation and identity in the modern world', is particularly useful for refuting the charge that Wolf's approach strips agency from the colonized. …

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