Category Archives: Anthropological Awesome

Sexy Hot Damn Anthropology: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism




It’s true that I often get excited by anthropological theory, but it’s rare that I am this excited and impressed. If you haven’t yet come across ‘Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism’ by Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing and Sylvia Yanagisako, then I highly recommend it.

Gens here refers to ‘a collective with feminist ancestry for the study of capitalist inequality.’ The manifesto is published in Cultural Anthropology as part of their Generating Capitalism series. The manifesto begins as per below: Continue reading


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Quoting: Sahlins on Mauss


From the Pantheon of Anthropological Awesome


As fellow anthropologist Jamie Coates remarked today, you need to be writer – not just an ethnographer – to write good ethnography. And gracious me, does Sahlins write beautifully sometimes.


‘There is a link,’ [Mauss] wrote, ‘a continuity, between hostile relations and the provision of reciprocal prestations. Exchanges are peacefully resolved wards and wards are the result of unsuccessful transactions’ (1969, p. 67; cf. 1943, p. 136).


But this implication of The Gift is, I think, even broader than external relations and transactions. In posing the internal fragility of the segmentary societies, their constituted decomposition, The Gift transposes the classic alternative of war and trade from the periphery to the very center of social life, and from the occasional episode to the continuous presence.


This is the supreme importance of Mauss’s return to nature, from which it follows that primitive society is at war with Warre, and that all their dealings are treaties of peace. All the exchanges, that is to say, must bear in their material design some political burden of reconciliation.


[ . . . ]


And from this comes, in turn, all the basic principles of an economics properly anthropological, including the one in particular at the heart of succeeding chapters: that every exchange, as it embodies some coefficient of sociability, cannot be understood in its material terms apart from its social terms.’



– Sahlins (quoting Mauss in part) 1972: 182-183.





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Quotations of Note: Geoffrey White on the A’ara word for shame




‘The A’ara word for shame, mamaja, is polysemous: used to signify both the feeling of shame and to refer to genitalia. There is clearly some connection between these senses of the term, because public exposure of one’s genitals is an immediate cause of shame. Yet, interpreting the A’ara notion of mamaja on the basis of this sort of scenario would miss the most important or culturally salient meanings of the term. Rather than signifying an internal feeling of discomfort evoked by an exposure of the self or by a violation of societal standards of comportment, mamaja is fundamentally about social relations. Fleshing out a bit what is meant by “fundamentally about social relations” provides an example of the type of cultural model of emotions associated with interpersonal selves. Mamaja is typically evoked in situations in which a person behaves in a way that breaches or upsets an important or valued social relation. In such situations, both parties are likely to report feeling shame (or, more correctly, being shamed). The prototypic context for eliciting or experiencing shame is the violation of expectations surrounding the sharing or non-sharing of food. Food is a symbol of social relationships. To give or exchange food is to affirm the value of enduring relations. To move about with ease and share food is to not feel shame, to feel constricted and observant of the proper distance or respect associated with a relationship is to feel shame.


The close proximity of mamaja (be shamed) and di ‘a nagnafa (be sad, literally, bad heart) in Figure 1 reflects the similarity of the event schemas that underlie their meaning. To oversimplify, both are associated with moral transgressions between the self and another person with whom the self is in an important, valued relation. Unlike “be angry” (di’a tagna), which is ideally not expressed between closely related people and which implies some form of rupture or break in the relationship, both mamaja and di’a nagnafa pertain to close relations in need of repair. In the logic of emotional meaning for these terms, it is the state of the relation between two persons that is the object of prediction, not the individual and not two individuals. Talk of mamaja constitutes a kind of relational calculus that works to calibrate or mark intersubjective distance and boundaries in social relations.’



 – Geoffrey M. White 1994, ‘Affecting Culture: Emotion and Morality in Everyday Life’ (in) Kitayama, S. & Markus, H. R. (eds) Emotion and Culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence, American Psychological Association, Washington DC, pp. 219-239.





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Anarchism in Anthropology: Kenneth Maddock on the intellectual relationship between Kropotkin and Radcliffe-Brown



Emeritus Professor Kenneth Maddock (1937–2003) was an eminent anthropologist in Australia and respected, rigorous scholar of ‘Australian Aboriginal societies.’ He was also an anarchist.

Until recently I had only come across one piece that Maddock wrote for a general audience on anarchism, namely Pluralism and Anarchism, which is available online. However, with the kindly assistance of a few folk in the anarchist community, I have come into the possession of a collection of articles that Maddock wrote for the anarchist journal Red and Black: An anarchist journal. You can probably imagine how stupidly excited I was, not least to see if, how, and the extent to which he integrated his ethnography with his thoughts and writing on anarchism and related topics.

Many things. One thing. I had to stop myself from throwing one of the journal issues across the room I was so excited to discover that Maddock evidently spent a great deal of time tracing the intellectual relationship between Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. The former was a Russian zoologist and anarchist, now considered a ‘classic’ theorist and writer in the anarchist tradition. The latter was, of course, the eminent anthropologist that we all know and love whose works are now considered ‘classics’ in anthropology.

Not only is this exciting in itself – Maddock having made this connection and found a great deal of evidence to support the claim the Radcliffe-Brown was heavily influenced by Kropotkin – but following Maddock’s train of thought as a fellow ethnographer, ‘Australianist’ anthropologist and anarchist, has been something really quite special. I feel that we would have had a lot to talk about were he still alive today. As well as the many questions I’d like to ask, I would love to tell him about the somewhat parallel intellectual relationship that I have been speculatively tracing between the thought and ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Émile Durkheim and his nephew Marcel Mauss.


Anyhow, may you rest in peace Mr. Maddock, I think you are wonderful.


And on that note, a note from Maddock himself:


‘For the mature Radcliffe-Brown social anthropology involved the description of “forms of social life”, the aim being to discern “general features” in the midst of the  “immense multitude of actions and interactions of human beings.”(14) In the case of the Australian Aborigines, for example, he recognised “three principal types of relationship between persons or groups”. There were relations of “simple solidarity,” relations of “emnity and strife” and relations of what he called “opposition”. It was Radcliffe-Brown’s opinion that some of the “simpler societies” showed a virtual “absence of all conflict” – here he presumably had in mind relations within the group of people who shared a common territory. (15)


The condition of simple solidarity or absence of conflict would seem to correspond to Kropotkin’s mutual aid, expressed in the rule of “each for all.” The condition of emnity and strife would seem to correspond to Kropotkin’s conception of relations with “outsiders,” the persons who do not share membership of the tribe (or other relevant group). Radcliffe-Brown’s distinction between two “principal types of relationship” can accordingly be correlated with Kropotkin’s “double conception of morality.” But what of this third principle type, the relationship of opposition? To see how this might relate to Kropotkin’s theory it is necessary to give further consideration to his treatment of solidarity.


Kropotkin thought that progress required the double conception of morality to be eradicated. But though “we have in some measure extended out ideas of solidarity . . . over the nation, and partly over other nations as well, we have lessened the bonds of solidarity within our own nations, and even within our own families.” (16) It was a though the widening of solidarity diminished its intensity. The point appears to have become plain to Radcliffe-Brown some time around his 1910-12 work in Western Australia, if we can judge by the jottings in a notebook from that period which is now held in the Sydney University archives.’



– Maddock, K. (1994) ‘Through Kropotkin to the Foundation of Radcliffe-Brown’s Anthropology,’ Red and Black: An anarchist journal, No. 24, pp. 14-15.†





† ‘Red and Black: An anarchist journal‘ was founded by Jack Grancharoff in 1965.



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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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Quoting Ian Keen: himself quoting a Yolŋu man talking about waŋarr

SugarBag, Dula Ngurruwuthun


This passage was translated from a mixture of Dhuwala tongue and English by Ian Keen, and included in his 1994 ethnography, Knowledge and Secrecy in an Aboriginal Religion, published by Oxford University Press (pp. 44-45).

T’was spoken by a Yolŋu man, explaining to Ian here, the nature of the relationship between waŋarr (‘ancestral forms or figures’), associated madayin (sacra including songs, proper names, ceremonial forms, painted designs etc.) and associated living people. I love this passage – it captures a significant ‘something’ about the poetic obliquity in Yolŋu talk.


‘Here am I at the beginning, a man; a man; and at the beginning I am an animal. I ‘turned’ from being Honeybee: here am I am man-that is my madayin now. I am a Possum too, in the beginning a long time ago, a Possum. Later I turned, and I am a man. Here I sit, a man, like this. I turned each time: Honeybee, Possum, Catfish. I turned and I man a man who speaks Dhuwala tongue. That is the story: here I am a man, just the same. Here I sit, a man. That is all. From this animal, that animal, that animal, that fish, that animal, whatever animal- I am a man. I have Emu, perhaps I have Catfish, Possum, Darter: there is the design, and here is the waterhole. From there-from the Catfish, Possum, Honeybee-I have the madayin now, everything; I am a man. I have a song there, I have a song there, a song there and a song there because we come from there. I am from there. I am a man. That is all.”


If you haven’t read Knowledge and Secrecy I suggest you do (and that you’re likely to love it). It is a rich and memorable ethnography, which is also somehow very generous (as in ‘kind’, insightful and thoughtful).



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Katherine Frank on Agency and Intellectual Easter-Egg Hunts

The burden of agency (?)

The following excerpt is from Katherine Frank’s paper ‘Agency’, which featured in a special issue of Anthropological Theory on ‘The Missing Psychology in Cultural Anthropology’s Key Words.’

The whole issue is full of greatness actually, but this excerpt particularly memorable for the Easter-egg quip (shelved in my memory alongside Strauss & Quinn’s ‘meaning is not in a cloud hovering over Cincinnati’ funny).


‘All of these trends have also ushered in a focus on the paradigmatic example of agency as resistance to power, or on the discursive contradictions and tensions that frame and constitute subjectivity (and thus to readings of people’s tendencies to or instances of ideological conformity as evidence of either a lack of agency or as forms of subjectification through disciplinary discursive regimes).


In the introduction to a collection of articles on agency, for example, Wimal Dissanayake argues that the concept of agency is not a ‘transdiscursive or nonproblematic category’. He writes: ‘Our emphasis should be on the historical and cultural conditions that facilitate the discursive production of agency, and on useful ways of framing the question of agency so that we would be in a better position to understand the contours of the cultures that we study’ (1996: ix). His definition of ‘the human agent’ is ‘the locus from which reconfirmations or resistances to the ideological are produced or played out’, which he argues is not equivalent ‘either to the individual or to subjects’ (1996: xi). Resistance, he argues, grows ‘out of the interplay of multiple subject-positions’ (p. xiii). Continue reading

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Quoting Burbank on Empathy and Ethnographic Methods


‘Though she disavows a complete dismissal of the psychobiology of human emotionality, Lutz casts emotions as “preeminently” cultural (5); emotion words provide “an index to a world of cultural premises and scenarios for social interaction” (210). Here emotions become cognitions in the commonsense meaning of the term, cognitions about self and social interaction. Thus, it is not surprising that Lutz sets empathy aside, in favour of translation. Empathy is not particularly useful because emotions are not, as she puts it, “universal, nature and precultural” (42). She agrees with Rosaldo (1984) that the fieldworker can draw upon prior interpersonal, and by definition, emotional relationships, “to create a shared emotional understanding” (217). But empathy doesn’t get us very far because emotions are really about relationships and “The ethnographer’s position in the field would often seem to prevent the full development of the central conditions necessary for emotional understanding which is a shared social position, and hence a shared moral and emotional point of view” (217).


Hollan and Throop (2008) remind us of a long-held anthropological suspicion of empathy as a research tool. I think, however we should ask if Lutz was only thinking when she felt surprise. To my eyes she has clearly used her own feelings – an important step in evaluating the validity of one’s resonance with another (Kirmayer 2008) – to great effect in producing what might be described as a “preeminently” empathetic treatment of emotional life on Ifaluk. Following her example, though counter to her methodological position, I count empathy as an important tool in my research, which is not, of course, to claim a perfect accord with any person at Numbulwar. Continue reading


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Quoting Sahlins on the Morals and Mechanics of Exchange

'Give or Take' by Louise Bourgeois (1990)


The featured sculpture by late Louise Bourgeois is not directly related to the following quotation. Tis a simple affair that they happen to pair a dovetail this afternoon. The following is a quote that I must have written and re-written in tens of notebooks over the last few years. I like to carry it around with me.


‘It ought to be recognised from the beginning that the distinction of one type of reciprocity from another is more than formal. A feature such as the expectation of returns says something about the spirit of exchange, about its disinterestedness or its interestedness, the impersonality, the compassion. Any seeming formal classification conveys these meanings: it is as much a moral as a mechanical scheme’


~ Marshall Sahlins 1974, Stone Age Economics, Tavistock Publications, p. 192.


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A cheer of congratulations and thanks to Michael Tomasello

Professor Victoria Burbank† introduced me to the work of Michael Tomasello during my honours year at the University of Western Australia – having set ‘The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition’ (1999) as the key text for the theoretical component of the course.

I must admit, it is not the type of book I would previously have been drawn to. By semester’s end, however, I was trying to lend my copy to anyone who would listen. I subsequently lost my copy to the centrifugal forces of the borrow-sphere actually, which probably serves me right.

It is the type of text that offers kindle for small revelations about what it is that makes us human – as well as kindle for small moments of outrage of the ‘I cannot believe I didn’t know this before now’ kind.

All this is to say that Michael Tomasello has been awarded the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize (see below) and I can completely understand why. Go Tomasello (and thank you).

‘On December 2, 2011, Michael Tomasello was awarded the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in a ceremony held at the University of Zurich. The prize included an endowment of 1.2 million Swiss francs, which will  support Tomasello’s research on cooperation between young children.


By studying 1- to 4-year-old human children as well as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, Tomasello has provided groundbreaking insights into cooperation and how it influences cognition. He suggests that 2-year-old humans relate to their environment in a similar way that 2-year-olds from other great ape species relate to it. The key difference between young humans and their closest ape-family relatives is that humans are better at communicating and collaborating with others.


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