Structuralism and comparativism

Yesterday one of anthropology’s most influential and controversial figures, Claude Levi-Strauss, celebrated his one hundredth birthday. Virtually no one is an unalloyed structuralist these days, but Levi-Strauss is nonetheless a figure of unparalleled influence on world anthropology and indeed on much of the humanities and social sciences, more broadly construed. In anthropology, his influence has centrally been in the study of religion and myth, but ranges across fields, from Ian Hodder’s archaeological account of Balkan agricultural origins in The Domestication of Europe (Hodder 1990) to Charles Laughlin’s neurologically-informed biogenetic structuralism (Laughlin and d’Aquili 1974).

I’ve never been much of a fan of Levi-Strauss’ work, which I find too arcane to be of much use to me personally (Levi-Strauss 1963, 1966). I do have a background in structuralism, but it’s the British-influenced structuralism of Rodney Needham, which is more accessible to the novice (Needham 1980, 1983). And I’ve also taken to heart the (equally controversial) criticisms of Dan Sperber, who argues forcefully in Rethinking Symbolism (Sperber 1975) that the patterns Levi-Strauss observes are understandable within a cognitive science of religion and myth, one that seeks to transcend simple issues of ‘culture’ and ‘meaning’ and to understand how human beings process information. No one has ever demonstrated to my satisfaction that the ‘structures’ that Levi-Strauss proposes actually exist in the mind or anywhere else.

But, for me, the real value of Levi-Strauss’ work, one that is too often ignored by structuralists and non-structuralists alike, is that it is an attempt (however imperfect) to build anthropological theory through the comparative use of anthropological data. It is neither a narrow particularism, focused solely on single social contexts, nor does it relegate anthropology to be a constant borrower of grand theory in order to explain its evidence. Instead it takes as a foundational assumption the idea that anthropology is a comparative science, and understanding systematically the similarities and differences among human myths can tell us something about the human condition that cannot be learned otherwise. The (literally) hopeless particularism of much of contemporary anthropology leaves us little to contribute to other disciplines, if we have no use for our data except as part of a general enterprise of data collection.

I am an unapologetic comparativist, and in that fact I feel a real kinship (pun intended) with Levi-Strauss and his work. I believe that it is imperative that anthropologists systematically develop a set of comparative methods to allow us to draw reasonable conclusions about patterns of human behaviour, past and present. Until we do such comparisons, we have no way to judge whether such patterns are common or rare; the retreat into particularism is unjustified, absent the sort of work that Levi-Strauss and others have undertaken. For my part, in my own little realm of number systems, I have, I think, put together good evidence that there are patterns, even (dare I say it?) cultural laws, and if these are not in any sense structuralist laws, they nonetheless bear a great debt to the man whose centenary we are celebrating.

Works cited

Hodder, I. 1990. The domestication of Europe. Blackwell.
Laughlin, C. D., and d’Aquili, E.G. 1974. Biogenetic structuralism. Columbia University Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1966. The Savage Mind. University Of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1963. Structural Anthropology. Basic Books.
Needham, R. 1980. Reconnaissances. University of Toronto Press.
Needham, R. 1983. Structure and sentiment. University of Chicago Press.
Sperber, D. 1975. Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge University Press.

Genes, languages, and archaeology

John Hawks has a new blog entry entitled ‘Gene-culture models and reductionism‘, which is a thoughtful response to a 2004 letter in American Anthropologist. The letter adopts a highly skeptical view towards the possibility that genetic information can tell us much about prehistoric population history and specifically that it can tell us much about cultural and linguistic prehistory. Hawks, in contrast, takes a more moderate view that leaves open the possibility that we can use genetic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence in tandem, while acknowledging that naively using one as a proxy for the other two is a serious error. Read it, then come back here. It’s short, and I’ll wait.

This is a subject of some interest to me, as a historically and prehistorically-minded linguistic anthropologist (or a linguistically-minded archaeological anthropologist, I don’t care which). The late Bruce Trigger and I published a chapter in 2004 (perhaps we could have found a better venue for it) in which we talk about the naive ways in which Iroquoian studies have used archaeological evidence to attribute ethnic identification (esp. ‘Iroquoian’ vs. ‘Algonkian’) to sites, and linked this problematic issue to broader problems in the use of archaeology to reconstruct language and ethnicity (Chrisomalis and Trigger 2004). The AA letter rightly points out that identifications of tribes or fixed social structures that correlate with genetic populations – or, unmentioned, languages – is problematic, and the notion that any of these must correspond with overarching ethnic identities is doubly problematic, as Barth (1969) argued persuasively decades ago. And yet …

It has long been recognized (since the 19th century at least) that language families are organized phylogenetically and that biological taxa are phylogenetic. This is partly a reflection of reality, and partly a reflection of the mutual reinforcement of phylogenetic models in linguistics and biology through academic interdisciplinary discourse over the past couple hundred years. But the problem noted by Hawks (and which no one interested in the subject can ignore) is that biological transmission (excepting some viruses) is vertical – you get all your genetic material from your parents alone – whereas cultural and linguistic transmission is both vertical and horizontal – that is, you get a lot of your culture from non-kin, including people who may not be part of your ‘tribe’. This is the sort of work that people like Steve Shennan (2002) are doing, and while I am not always convinced by the answers he reaches (particularly, I remain unconvinced that vertical, parent-child linguistic and cultural transmission is as important as he thinks it is), the research deserves more attention than it is getting.

On Tuesday, I am introducing my class to this subject through Colin Renfrew’s (2000) paper ‘At the edge of knowability: towards a prehistory of languages’. Again, I’m not always in agreement with Renfrew (I’m more of a skeptic than he is), but I’m thrilled that people are asking these questions. As social scientists and humanists, linguists and archaeologists need to forcefully assert the relevance of their data, and not let themselves be run roughshod by geneticists who treat their apex of the triad as the cornerstone of all knowledge in the field. One of my hopes for this blog, and for my research in general, is to be able to contribute to ongoing discussions on this issue. This post is, at best, a preliminary introduction to a topic which I suspect you will see here very often in the months (dare I hope for years?) to come.

Works cited

Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown.
Chrisomalis, S. and B.G. Trigger. 2004. Reconstructing prehistoric ethnicity: problems and possibilities. In In J. V. Wight and J.-L. Pilon (eds), A Passion for the Past: Papers in Honour of James F. Pendergast, pp. 419-433. Mercury Series, Paper No 164. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Renfrew, C. 2000. At the Edge of Knowability: Towards a Prehistory of Languages. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10(1): 7-34.
Shennan, S. 2002. Genes, memes and human history: Darwinian archaeology and cultural evolution. London: Thames & Hudson.
Wildcat, D., I. Sumi and V. Deloria Jr. 2004. Commentary: A Response to Doug Jones. American Anthropologist 106, no. 3: 641.

Back in business

Apologies for the recent lack of posting; I was out of town in Montreal last week for meetings with co-editors and contributors to two edited volumes, as well as a reception for a teaching award I won last year.  But I’m back now!

Anyone who ever knew or worked with Bruce Trigger also was exposed, by proxy, to the work of the archaeologist and social theorist V. Gordon Childe, and in particular to his popular book, Society and Knowledge (Childe 1956).  This is as close to epistemology as I can normally bear to get; Childe is aiming to reconcile the imperfection and imperfectibility of human knowledge with the fact that we, as individuals and as societies and as species, have survived and thrived.

Childe begins with the notion that we adapt to the world not as it is, but as we imagine it to be.  This is idealism, at least in its moderate form, and Childe freely acknowledges the influence of Kant and Hegel in his thinking.  All perception is mediated through cognitive construction.  But then, following Hegel’s principle, “The Real is rational and the Rational is real”, Childe insists that there must be some fairly robust correspondence between imagined reality and external reality, or else we would not have survived (Childe 1956: 64).  Childe asserts that, “In fact mankind’s biological success in surviving and multiplying affords empirical evidence that useful knowledge of the external world – of man’s environment – is attainable.” (Childe 1956: 64).  If it were otherwise, we would not have survived.   Controversially (today though not in the 50s) Childe goes still further, linking this notion to cultural change, arguing that the intergenerational transmission and accumulation of knowledge, such as the ‘cumulative accretion of the world of science’, plays into this, ensuring that what is learned is retained in some way (Childe 1956: 66).

For me, this is not just an epistemological argument, but also an evolutionary one.  It explains why we have the sorts of thinking brains we have, why we have the sorts of concepts we have, without falling either into pure idealism and presuming either that our thoughts are all that is knowable, or a naive realism that presumes that reality is just as we perceive it to be.  And it is in the interstices of cognitive error: those neat little places where we misconstrue the world just enough to tell us about how our minds work, but not enough so that our minds don’t survive – that I see real hope and interest for a cognitive, linguistic, and evolutionary science of anthropology and archaeology.

But enough from me. What do you think?

Works cited

Childe, V. Gordon. 1956. Society and Knowledge: The Growth of Human Traditions. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Ig Nobel 2008

Last Thursday, the 2008 Ig Nobel awards were given out, recognizing scientific achievements “that first make people laugh, and then make them think” (    I am pleased to announce that once again, anthropological knowledge (irrespective of the affiliations of the researchers) has made a substantial impact on the field of weird research, with no less than three awards given in three very different areas of research:

Evolutionary anthropologists will be thrilled to hear that Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan won the Ig Nobel for economics for their article ‘Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers‘, in which they demonstrate that strip club dancers earn significantly larger tips while in estrus than while menstruating, but that those who use contraceptives show no peaks and valleys in their earnings.   This represents the first time that human estrus has been demonstrated empirically to have economic effects in the real world.

In archaeology, Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and Jose Carlos Marcelino have won the Ig Nobel in archaeology for their insightful, ‘The role of armadillos in the movement of archaeological materials‘.   For the first time, we know not only that armadillos do play such a role, but specifically what sorts of post-depositional activity can be attributed to the critters.

Of relevance to linguistic and organizational anthropology, David Sims has won the Ig Nobel for literature for ‘You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations‘.  This is a fascinating study of interpersonal relations gone wrong in the workplace, using ethnographic and linguistic methodologies to demonstrate how and why certain people are demonized as ‘bastards’.  I’ve known of this article for a while, and am using it next term in my Language and Society course.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Works cited

Mello Araujo, Astolfo G. and Jose Carlos Marcelino. 2003. The role of armadillos in the movement of archaeological materials: an experimental approach. Geoarchaeology 18(4): 433-460.

Miller, Geoffrey, Joshua M. Tybur and Brent D. Jordan. 2007. Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior 28(6): 375-381.

Sims, David. 2005. You bastard: a narrative exploration of the experience of indignation within organizations. Organization Studies 26(11): 1625-1640.

Four Stone Hearth

Much to my great surprise and immense pleasure, Glossographia has been mentioned in the latest Four Stone Hearth, the four-field anthropology blog carnival, hosted this time by Clashing Culture.  Welcome to all new visitors; I promise lots of four-fieldery for all anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and evolutionary scientists out there, wherever your disciplinary home or identity may lie.

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