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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Judith K. Brown's "Iroquois Women"

Judith K. Brown’s article “Iroquois Women” is an important text in the history of ethnography. The article was first published in 1975 as part of the collection edited by Rayna Reiter, Toward an Anthropology of Women. This book was one of the more prominent collections of feminist anthropology (also often called “the anthropology of women” at the time) in the mid-1970s. (Woman the Gatherer and Woman, Culture, and Society were two other important collections of essays and articles. The names of those two books were responses to the titles of two other important anthropological books of the 1960s, Man the Hunter and Man, Culture, and Society.)

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, gender was an understudied aspect of culture and information on women often underreported, as male ethnographers often worked mainly with male informants or presented information collected from men as typical of a culture in general. The collection Toward an Anthropology of Women and the Brown essay were part of a broader project to redress earlier male bias in ethnography and introduce more information about women specifically and the importance of gender as a social factor generally.

Historically, Iroquois women had great influence and status within their communities and culture. Brown’s essay is in part a discussion of this status of women in Iroquois culture and of Iroquois gender relations (so it’s also very much about Iroquois men). She’s also concerned to examine the social factors that influence gender relations in any culture through the discussion of an Iroquois case study. Among the factors she discusses are economic production, the gender division of labor in relation to production, kinship and residence organization, and the control and distribution of economic goods.

For more information on Judith K. Brown, see her faculty web page at Oakland University.

For more information on the Iroquois, see the Iroquois.net web site.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

John Kicza and Native American Societies

Our first course reading is "The Native Societies of the Americas before contact," from John E. Kicza's book Resilient Cultures: America's Native Peoples Confront European Colonization, 1500 - 1800.

Here's a link to Kicza's website at Washington State University, where he's the chair of the history department: http://libarts.wsu.edu/history/faculty-staff/kicza.asp

Kicza uses a somewhat different terminology from what I have introduced thus far in class to characterize general types of societies in the Americas. Specifically, he frames his discussion in terms of "sedentary imperial societies," "semisedentary societies," and "nonsedentary or nomadic societies." To translate this into terms more frequently used by anthropologists, Kicza's "sedentary imperial societies" would correspond to agricultural states, "semisedentary societies" would correspond to horticultural tribes and chiefdoms, as well as a few relatively sedentary intensive foraging societies, and "nonsedentary or nomadic societies" would correspond to nomadic foraging bands.

Are Society and Culture Uniquely Human?

In an online discussion in the online section of this course, I had asked students whether "society" and "culture" were uniquely human or not. The following is my perspective on the question.

Society is clearly an important component of human life and experience, but just as clearly not unique to human beings. Many animal species have some form of social organization, some regular patterning to the way that individuals within a population interact with one another.

Examples of non-human societies would include wolf packs, lion prides, chimpanzee troups, colonies of “social insects” such as honey bees or ants, pods of whales or dolphins, etc. Some animal societies may include members of more than one species, such as some bird flocks comprised of multiple bird species that often utilize slightly different food resources but help one another through mutual defense, e.g. through alarm calls or mobbing potential predators. Some animals, and especially domesticated animals, include humans in a multiple species society. For example, domesticated chickens in a farmyard are social animals with a literal “pecking order,” but they couldn’t be said to comprise a society on their own, as they are dependent on humans for provisioning of food, which is to say that their human keepers are an essential component of their society, and various domesticated animals in turn are a part of our own human societies.

Human society can differ from non-human societies in a quantitative sense. Human society is typically much more complex than non-human social organization, but the presence of social organization alone doesn’t particularly distinguish us from many other animals.

Whether culture is uniquely human is a more complicated question. It does largely depend on how we define the term. If “culture” is defined in a minimalist way (as some cultural anthropologists and many primatologists or animal ethologists tend to do), such as “Culture consists of learned and shared lifeways,” then it is not a uniquely human trait.

Many mammals and birds have some aspects of their way of life that are learned and shared behaviors, i.e. behaviors that are not instinctual or biologically determined. Chimpanzees regularly use simple tools, with individual chimps learning their use through observation and trial and error, and different chimpanzee troups using different sorts of tools. Corvids (the group of birds that includes crows, jays, and ravens) have shown themselves to be quite clever in learning new behaviors. Many songbirds learn their songs from neighboring individuals, with regional “traditions” or “dialects” in the form of their songs. These are all examples of culture in that minimal sense of “learned and shared lifeways.”

Many cultural anthropologists tend to define culture in less minimalist ways. I previously said that I tend to think of human culture along these lines: “(Human) culture consists of learned and shared ways of life transmitted primarily through language and other forms of symbolic communication.”

These two strategies for defining culture (you could call them minimalist and maximalist strategies) often have particular aims. Some scholars have an interest in emphasizing commonalities between humans and non-human animals, and tend to use more minimalist definitions to do so. Others are more interested in emphasizing distinctions, and tend to use the other sort.

Personally, I find it useful to employ both sorts of definitions. It is important to recognize that learned, cultural patterns are an important aspect of the lives of many animals, and that they share this in common with us. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that human culture is both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from non-human culture. Human culture is far more pervasive a quality in our lives as humans than anything we see in other species. The use of language and other symbolic communication to transmit culture makes us qualitatively different, e.g. we’re the only animals that we know of that could have a conversation about whether culture is unique to our species or not.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Defining Society and Culture

Part of what I post below I wrote as part of an online discussion in a purely online section of the "Peoples and Cultures of the World Course." It also relates to an in-class discussion yesterday about "society" and "culture" in a more conventional "live" section of the course.

Society and Culture are really the two big topics of this course and of much scholarly inquiry in sociocultural anthropology and related social science disciplines. There has been long-running debate about how to conceptualize and define them. There is no single, set definition for either. Most every anthropologist or sociologist would offer a slightly different (but not wildly different) perspective and definition.

The following is my “take” on what society and culture are. (What I address are the conventional anthropological senses of both words. As with many words, both have multiple possible senses or references. “Society” could refer to a semi-secret group, such as a Moose Lodge or the International Order of Odd Fellows that function as “secret societies.” It could also refer to people of the upper class, as in “high society.” Neither of these senses is what anthropologists usually mean by “society.” Likewise, “culture” could also refer to the habits and manners of a mainly upper class set of people, as in “high culture,” or it could refer to bacteria in a Petri dish, and neither of these is the sense I’ll talk about.)

A society is in part a group of individuals. It’s not just any group of individuals, though, but a group who, taken together, are organized in such a way as to provide for their productive and reproductive needs, i.e. a group that functions as a population.

Society also involves the organization of interactions between those individuals. Individuals who together comprise a society don’t interact with one another randomly, but in patterned ways. The elements that comprise this social organization will be among the recurring course topics for us.

While there is considerable disagreement about how to precisely define culture and/or human culture, most definitions include the minimal elements of “learned and shared ways of life.” For humans, ways of life or lifeways includes a wide variety of things (also to be a key course topic throughout the semester), such as beliefs, values, worldview, ethos, customs and traditions, etc. What makes them all cultural is that they’re learned and shared – they’re not components of who we are as human beings that derive largely or wholly from our biological nature.

I would tend to define human culture a bit more elaborately, e.g. “learned and shared ways of life transmitted mainly through language and other forms of symbolic communication.”