Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"The Navaho View of Life," by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton

For the in-class section of the course, our most recent course reading is a selection from a classic ethnography, The Navaho, written by Kluckhohn and Leighton in the mid-1940s.

Both Kluckhohn and Leighton were interested in the Navaho culture (though Kluckhohn also wrote extensively on other cultures as well). Both also shared interests in the relationship between psychology and anthropology, or put a different way the relationship between culture and personality. The two worked together on a couple ethnographic works about the Navaho and their shared theoretical interests.

Of the two, Kluckhohn was the more prominent. In fact, he was one of the most prominent anthropologists of the mid-20th century. His major interests were, as said above, the relationship between culture and personality, and the value orientations typical of specific cultural contexts (with this evident in our course reading selection). (For an extended assessment of his life and work, see the lengthy obituary published in American Anthropologist by Talcott Parsons and Evon Vogt after his death in 1960.)

The following paragraph is a quotation from the Wikipedia (a reference source that should be used cautiously, but which can be useful for background information) entry on Kluckhohn:

“In 1949, Kluckhohn began a long-term study of what he and his colleagues called "Values Orientations" among five adjacent communities in Texas: Zuni, Navajo, Mormon (LDS), Spanish-American (Mexican-American), and Texas Homesteaders. A key methodological approach that he developed together with his wife Florence Rockwood Kluckhohn and colleagues Evon Z. Vogt and Ethel M. Albert, among others, was the Values Orientation Theory. They believed that cross-cultural understanding and communication could be facilitated by analyzing a given culture's orientation to five key aspects of human life: Human Nature (people seen as intrinsically good, evil, or mixed); Man-Nature Relationship (the view that humans should be subordinate to nature, dominant over nature, or live in harmony with nature); Time (primary value placed on past/tradition, present/enjoyment, or future/posterity/delayed gratification); Activity (being, becoming/inner development, or doing/striving/industriousness); and Social Relations (hierarchical, collateral/collective-egalitarian, or individualistic). The Values Orientation Method was developed furthest by Florence Kluckhohn and her colleagues and students in later years.”

In the selected reading, Kluckhohn and Leighton get at Navaho personality, culture, and value orientations through the analysis of cultural premises. Cultural premises can be seen as the basic operating assumptions typical of persons socialized within a particular cultural context. As such, the cultural premises outlined by Kluckhohn and Leighton do not represent a description of what Navajo individuals do on a day-to-day basis in their lives. Rather, they are a description of the operating assumptions that guide Navajo individuals in their choices and actions in both usual and unusual situations as they move through life.

As such, Kluckhohn and Leighton provide a dynamic model for understanding culture and individuals. It doesn’t assume that Navajo culture is static, but provides a way to understand how individuals socialized in a particular sociocultural environment might interact with ongoing and changing circumstances.

Although not many anthropologists today would claim to be “Kluckhohnians,” the approach was influential, and important affinities remain in much contemporary work, such as some varieties of contemporary practice theory (see the course reading by Sherry Ortner) or some more semiotically inclined anthropologists’ work (see the course reading by E. Valentine Daniel).

For more information on the Navajo, see the Navajo Nation’s website, as well as a web page on Navajo history.

1 comment:

John said...

I think that the Navajo way of life, marriage and kinship practices are highly interesting in a reflection oh the way in which certain aspects parallel and the go beyond our own, such as with the nadles. Or their mannerism of conformity is an interesting view point, as we as americans seek some sort of conformity on a certain level and then rebel against it in all others and are solely concerned with our individuality as opposed to what is good for the group. If we had a navajo government what would it look like... would special interest groups exist... would we destroy the environment seeking oil...