Ethnography and ethnographers of the 1930s: a fieldnote-like footnote on W. Lloyd Warner et. al.



W. Lloyd Warner’s 1937 ethnography, A Black Civilisation: study of an Australian Tribe, was one of two ethnographies that I took into the field with me (the other being Ian Keen’s Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion). It remains one of the few ethnographic texts that I keep ever at-hand while writing as a reference tool of kinds.

I am quite sentimental about Warner’s ethnography to be honest, perhaps because it is an early classic (read: ‘epic’) ethnography, based very near my own field-site or, perhaps, because – on account of this fact – I like to day-dream about being somehow descended from the same ethnographic lineage. And Bree does like to day-dream as much, because it is upon this basis (alone) that she can claim Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown as her apical ancestor.

Warner’s ethnography, to be serious for a moment, is actually dedicated to Radcliffe Brown (as the image above suggests). In the preface, Warner writes in part,


‘My deepest obligation is to the Murngin people themselves, who gave me a fine, whole-hearted hospitality. I am particularly indebted to one of them, Mahkarolla, one of the finest men I have had the good luck to count among my friends. I sometimes wonder at the futility of so-called progress when I think of him.


I wish to thank my friend and first teacher, Robert H. Lowie, one of the few great American social anthropologists, for first taking in hand my rather difficult human material and molding out of it, if not an anthropologist, then at least the semblance of one. He did this not only by his great learning and keen intelligence, but also by his generous friendship.


To A. R. Radcliffe-Brown I feel a similar gratitude; as his friend and pupil I was fortunate indeed in receiving his wise and ever helpful direction of my research in North Australia. For these reasons as well as many others I have taken the liberty of dedicating this volume to him’ (p. x).


In addition to Radcliffe-Brown I might also claim ties of patrifiliation to Malinowski and, at a rather cheeky stretch (even for day-dreams), to Mr. Marcel Mauss. It is really quite something though, to think that Mauss was Professor (at the Collège de France I believe) at the time Robert Lowie wrote the ‘Introduction’ for Warner to A Black Civilisation. (Nostalgic for dead, white males . . . I don’t know what’s come over me.)

I have reproduced the ‘Introduction’ to A Black Civilization below – as written by Robert Lowie in 1936. It reads as an anthropological artifact in many ways, or an ‘artifact of the discipline of anthropology,’ rather. It is interesting not only as an overview of W. Lloyd Warner’s theoretical influences and mentorship, but for what it reveals about the state of politics or politicking in the academy at the time. Anyhow, enjoy. Bree thinks it lovely.


‘In his theoretical approach Professor Warner represents a novel fusion of ideas. He received his early anthropological training at the University of California and thus imbibed the brand of theory dispensed by Professor A. L. Kroeber and myself, respectively. I am not fond of catchwords, so I will not label it as “American.” My conviction grows that there are nearly as many “American points of view as there are American anthropologists; and that individual temperament and aptitude count for far more than does adherence to a scientific profession of faith. Classification into such a group seems in most instances a barren procedure. I, for example, am reckoned a conservative right-wing ethnographer in America, but have been described abroad both as a functionalist and as virtually a member of the Kulturkreis school. Yet I am not conscious of begin a split personality.


However this may be, in Berkeley Mr. Warner was exposed to the tenet that tribal contacts and chronological relations are matters of scientific concern; and this position was not foreign to his purposes when he reached the Murngin. Accordingly, there is here a summary or archaeological work, meager as its finding turner out to be. Far more significant is the discussion of Malay contacts. There has already been indicated in Ratzel’s “Volkerkunde”; but it is the present author’s merit to have discriminatingly reduced these salient influences to their proper proportion.


During the summer of 1926, Professor Bronislaw Malinowski lectured in Berkeley, and Mr. Warner was thus brought face to face with a consistently functionalist philosophy of culture. Soon Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown was able to afford him an opportunity to study in Australia some people still approximately living a life undebauched by white civilisation, and the several years of field-work under his supervision gave Mr. Warner still another outlook on the subject. Specifically, it intensified a nascent devotion to kinship nomenclatures and introduced Mr. Warner to the French sociologists led by the late Professor Durkheim and nowadays most authoritatively represented by Professor Mauss.


These several influences explain the deviations of this treatise from the norm of monographs printed in this country. Much unquestionably coincides in aim with what trained ethnographers of whatever school would endeavor to secure. It also seems to me that the fruitful attempt to correlate specific aspects of Murngin culture with one another – as in the chapter on Warfare- is closely paralleled in general aim by Dr. A. H. Gayton’s study of the interweaving of Yokuts shamanism and chieftaincy and by Dr. Cora Du Bois’ recent demonstration of how the wealth concept integrates culture in southwestern Oregon. On the other hand, there is also in Professor Warner’s approach a good deal that differs in organization and the statement of problems, in fact, in the very nature of the problems themselves. To these portions the reader’s response will inevitably vary with his attitude toward the sociological philosophy from which the author has drawn his inspiration. It may, however, not be superfluous to add that, as the discussion of magic proves, he cannot be considered a servile follower of Durkheim. Altogether, American anthropology has in the past been preponderantly molded by British ad German influences, and except on one or two writers sociology as a distinct discipline has been without discernable effect. The advent of a French – and, at that a sociological – flavour is thus not without piquancy.


Personally, I prefer to judge anthropological productions without reference to their author’s “political” affiliations. Consequently, I will content myself with mentioning several features of this book that have appealed to me. I have already referred other section on Malay-Murngin intercourse, which I am convinced is not mere sop to the historical-minded, but a recognition of the part played by contacts in the shaping of culture. From the sections on family and kinship I get a sharp picture of the workings of the Murngin system and from my more limited reading accept Professor Radcliffe-Brown’s verdict that it embodies the clearest report available on Australian conditions. The description of supernaturalism brings out forcibly the patterns that shape it; and the definite way in which myth and ritual are related is striking and, indeed, surprising.



There seems to be here a solid mass of factual material that bears testimony to Professor Warner’s zeal and skill as an observer, not to omit his obvious sympathy with his subjects. And anthropologists will eagerly watch the synthesis toward which the manifold trends that have molded his professional development are tending.


Robert H. Lowie


University of California Berkeley




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Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology, Ethnography

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