There is always a risk when setting up debates such as this one. The danger lies in attempting to produce compelling arguments without yielding to the tendency to create contrived oppositions. As such, the only real indemnity lies in the participation of the audience whereby participants may be able to launch informed positions of their own and which affords us an opportunity to introduce new ideas .


(Questions that were submitted that do not appear here will be proposed in subsequent debates.)




Ethics (defined as): The philosophical study of moral values and rules; the principles of right and wrong that are accepted by an individual or a social group.




Are markets (or states) on the whole a good or a bad thing?


Is money the root of all evil?


Do all human beings want to be good?




Metaphysics (defined as): The philosophical study of being and knowing.




Are we social creatures before individuals?


Is development of the world's poor regions to a level comparable with the rich sustainable?


Is the mass killing of the twentieth century likely to be a historical aberration?

What is (are) the parameter(s) of good and bad, holy and evil, sacred and profane, development and underdevelopment, poverty and prosperity?


Are we connected to the past by our similiarities or by the overall historical process of social life?




Anthropology (defined as): The science that studies the origins and social relationships of human beings.




Is it likely that anthropology's future will outshine its past?



One of the crucial problems that exist in anthropology is the lack of understanding in terms of the manner in which we  perceive social or cultural life and the way in which we represent it.  At the heart of this problem is the dichotomy between the academy or theory that is produced by way of academic practice, and the kind of knowledge that is the practice and experience of fieldwork. In an attempt to present this profound problem, I will pick up where we left off on the recent discussion concerning reflective analysis.


Jacob began with;


Recently I posted a link to a very interesting essay by Alan Fiske "Learning a culture the way informants do: observing, imitating, and..." (2000). The paper generated a fair amount of back and forth on whether or not members of any culture reflect on their own cultural practices in equal degree, so much so that Alan Fiske was asked by Neil Turner to justify some of Fiske's observations and arguments presented in the paper.


Fiske states:

"In some cultures, people do describe and discuss their rituals with each other. However, like many other peoples in Africa, the Moose have no indigenous tradition of reflective analysis of their own practices. They have a rich, elaborate religion, but no theology. They have a complex society, but no ethnosociology. Like many other African peoples, they have virtually no mythology or cosmology. They have a sophisticated political system, but no political science. They live their lives in practice, but without any great interest in reflecting on it, analyzing it, or trying to explain it."


I immediately asked my friend Scott Scott MacEachern for his views on the matter.


(Scott has been  doing archaeology and ethnoarchaeology in the northern Mandara Mountains of Cameroon and Nigeria since 1984, with work ongoing: this included 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the late 1980s among Plata and related Mandara montagnard communities, and approximately 3.5 years of fieldwork in the area in total. I was reasonably capable in Plata at that time, although my skills in that language have deteriorated as I worked in other areas of the mountains and switched back to doing mostly archaeologyHe offered the following viewpoint to be published at the OAC in response to this discussion, the essay, and Fiske's aforementioned response.)


”There’s no doubt that Plata and related populations reflected on lives that were often difficult and sometimes tragic. I was among other things interested in montagnard religious conceptions, because these are reflected in particular realms of material culture. I talked to montagnard people about their religious beliefs, in conversations that ranged from the silly to the not-so-silly: about where gods and spirits came from, and why they would want to inflict suffering on humans; about why good and bad fortune are distributed unevenly among people; about whether, if twins are so dangerous, a woman can humanly bear triplets; and about why certain supernatural forces are indentified so strongly with particular places. In the course of those conversations, montagnard people reflected upon those questions with at least as much insight and inquisitiveness as I’ve seen when I’ve had similar conversations in the West. (Perhaps more so: what the original author [Alan Fiske] seems to be doing is mistaking professionalisation for reflective analysis: under his terms, the vast majority of people in Western societies arguably have no theology, no cosmology, either.)”


Nicholas Sarkozy’s little lecture to ‘the Africans’ in Dakar from a few years ago (translated from the French)

“The tragedy of Africa, is that the African man has never really entered history. The African farmers, who for millennia, living with the seasons, including the ideal life is to be in harmony with nature, knows only the eternal cycle of time punctuated by the endless repetition of same gestures and the same words. In this imaginary world where everything again always there is no place for human adventure, nor the idea of progress. In this universe where nature commands all, man escapes the anguish of history that grips modern man but the man remains motionless in a fixed order or seems to be written in advance .... "


Fiske also states:


“However, a good advanced education certainly trains people to reflect, analyze, theorize, and ask probing questions.  Obviously some people in all cultures obtain such an education in the modern world.  What I wrote about was village or band or camp life in traditional societies, not the experience, practices, or cognition of the educated elite. “


QUESTION:  Do traditional societies in Africa or other parts of the world reflectively analyze their cultural practices; and if so, is that process limited only to the more educated of those societies?





Views: 221

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion


I think I might be to blame, here. My first response was to make a distinction between reflecting on one's culture and reflecting on one's condition.

To reiterate, I claimed that all conditions are, in one way or another, cultural, but that condition and culture are nevertheless not the same thing.

My training in anthropology and sociology tells me that we can expect underprivileged persons to reflect on their conditions, even intensely so; but reflecting on one's condition is not the same thing as reflecting on one's culture.

By condition, I most especially mean to invoke the issue of social problems. For example, I understand that the animistic beliefs of the Dayak peoples of internal Borneo are not recognized by the Indonesian state as an official religion. I’m sure Dayaks have pretty well-defined opinions about the exclusion of their spiritual beliefs from the small list of official religions sanctioned by the state.

As a further thought, it struck me that maybe not all cultures have a word or concept that directly correlates with...well... the word “culture.” I then asked if there were any native speakers of languages that are not European in origins.

Ranjan and M's responses were most instructive, as the etymologies behind the correlates to the word "culture" from their own native languages shows significant divergence from the English word, at least.

My point was to add a dimension to the debate by pointing out that not all peoples will have equivalent (please don't read "will not have equal") cultural tools with which to evaluate their customs, beliefs and practices, etc. It seems to me that that cultural diversity must be taken into account when we are debating in such broadly generalized terms.

Keith Hart said:

I don't know what the debate is about and from the posts above, it seems that no-one else does. Shouldn't the debate take the form of a clearly posed question?

I believe Neil's intended interrogative is as such:

"QUESTION: Do traditional societies in Africa or other parts of the world reflectively analyze their cultural practices; and if so, is that process limited only to the more educated of those societies?"

M Izabel said:
Ohhh... I apologize too. I did not know that the post was a debate. I thought a debate should start with an interrogative proposition without theoretical pretexts or subtexts. It is up to the debaters to theorize and textualize.

Reply to Discussion



OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service