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Systems-Thinking and Robert Redfield November 9, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Robert Redfield

Robert Redfield (1897-1958) earned his degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1920.  More than any anthropologist of his generation, argues Clifford Wilcox, Redfield adopted a “pronounced sociological approach to anthropology.” According to Wilcox, two broad intellectual currents influenced Redfield’s development: “the deep-seated critique of civilization that emerged among European and American intellectuals following World War I,” and “his father-in-law, University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park ” (Social Anthropology, xiv.)

In contrast to the assertive Victorian belief in progress, in the period following the First World War, intellectuals began to “question the nature not only of Western civilization, but of civilization itself, particularly the equation of civilization with progress.”  Among those who penned withering critiques of civilization were Oswald Spengler and Edward Sapir.

Robert Park was “one of the principle theorists of the ‘Chicago School’ of American sociology.”  Park studied under John Dewey, William James at Harvard, finally earning a PhD in Germany after studying with Georg Simmel and Wilhelm Windelband.  Park “derived the notion that the human sciences could be divided into two distinct branches, the ideographic, characterized by a focus on historical and cultural particulars, and the nomothetic, which focused on the elaboration of causal law-like explanations” (xv.)

Robert Redfield’s innovation was in the attempt to use the sociological emphasis on social change from an anthropological perspective.  Redfield wished to reorient anthropological methods to “study phenomena previously considered almost exclusively by sociologists.”  Redfield used the anthropological technique of fieldwork to collect data while using a sociological framework to interpret the data.  Redfield significantly sought to move beyond the salvage anthropology of Franz Boas and his students emphasis on the sufficiency of inductive reasoning.  Instead, much like Leslie White, Redfield underscored the importance of community studies for the discovery of law-like regularities, “nomothetic explanations of social and historical processes” (xvii.)

Redfield was not the only social theorist to look for general laws which would describe the dynamics of civilization.  In the nineteenth century, French, German, and British social theorists, sought to determine why some civilizations embraced liberty and the market, while others did not.  Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Spencer, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Durkheim, Weber, and J.S. Mill, among others, were all concerned with the conditions guiding the development of modern cultures into economic and political modernity: the beneficial effects of commerce, increasing suffrage, declining rates of mortality, industrialization, the organization of labor, the decline of the feudal order, and the centralization of the authority of the state.  Discussions of Orientalism, of “primitive accumulation,” or “Asiatic despotism,” were likewise categorizations of the conditions in those parts of the globe where the conditions of liberty and the development of the market did not obtain. As important for all of these social thinkers was the study of the effects of modern civilization upon traditional beliefs and value systems.  Durkheim’s account of the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity in the Division of Labor or Max Weber’s notion of the religion and the rise of capitalism both considered the impact of economic modernity upon traditional, even tribal belief systems.

In the twentieth century, this type of “systems-thinking,” the inquiry into laws which privileged a view of reality which was law-governed, was pursued in earnest by Ellsworth Huntington and Leslie White.  The “salvage ethnography” of Boas and his school was too an inquiry into “systems-thinking” through its repudiation of grand theory and evolutionary postulates. Robert Park, drawing on Simmel and Windelband and working within the tradition of sociology Ferdinand Tönnies and Emile Durkheim, sought to understand the distinction between modern and pre-modern mentalities as well as the impact of material circumstances upon behavior.

As Edward Shils noted Park believed the collective conscience  to be a prominent feature of urban life, though not as prominent as in the folk societies of Tonnies.  For Park, human beings always hovered between complete assimilation and constant conflict.  Park’s philosophical anthropology lead him to believe that although technology and urbanization would lead to a greater integration of groups of individuals, individuals would always carry with them a remnant of their descent from an original primordial group.  Park argued that the moral order of society existed alongside technological and ecological structures, i.e. the spacial distribution of structures within cities and individual adaptation of natural conditions through the use of technology.  Modern society in this way never broke free of its tribalism however urban it became.

Robert Redfield, much like Leslie White, allowed his inquiry to function on multiple levels of analysis while also entertaining a number of basic conceptual distinctions.  Redfield’s analysis was tied first and foremost to an epistemological progression.   In his essay, “An Ecological Community,” Redfield observed that the anthropologist, the “student of the human community,” “begins to put pieces of knowledge together to make new, larger organizations of understanding,” thereby making new “wholes,” understanding how and why there is an interconnection between parts.  This intuited knowledge of the whole and its relation to the parts becomes intermixed with empirical knowledge that is then subject to proof.  The peasant or primitive community is first intuited “as a whole.”  Later on there begins to occur the discernment of particulars.  From then there is an appreciation of the connections between particulars, which Redfield concieves  as “systems,” a small number of which defined the life of a community (The Little Community/Peasant Society and Culture, 18.)

Much like Leslie White, Redfield suggested that each study of the village community could begin naturally with the interaction of the individual with the land, of the primitive or peasant’s use of technology and his interaction with nature ( 18-19.)  The activities of preparing the field to be farmed, the planting of seeds, the harvesting of crops, and bringing those crops to the market, form links in a chain, which in turn make up a system of activities and interactions between the individual and his environment as well as between members of the community.  Upon further study, Redfield discovered that the “activities of the Indians were in part reflections of the regularities and irregularities of nature” (21.)  These activities and the importance attached to them furthermore revealed the existence of “general and comprehensive patterns of thought,” which in turn revolved around “a limited number of prevailing and influential general ideas about the nature of things” (23.)

As with many nineteenth and twentieth century social thinkers, Redfield, finally, was concerned with the impact of modernization and commercial society upon diverse individuals and how commerce and urbanization affected material and intellectual circumstances.  In his essay, “The Peasant View of the Good Life,” Redfield noted that the “peasant” occupied a liminal position between the primitive and the civilized individual.  The peasant was distinct from the primitive in his dependency upon the civilized life of the town.  For the peasant “there is another dimension of life, outside the village, in that powerful manner or that alarming town.”  The peasant, furthermore, “keeps the integrity of his positions by making compromises,” by not being “self-sufficient in his moral or intellectual life” (74-5.)  For Redfield, the peasant understands that outside of the village there stands civilized life, with its own norms and procedures which compete with village life.  The task of the anthropologist was to study the ways in which the “incomplete cultural, social, and value systems of the peasant are completed by the relations and conceptions which the gentry and town provide” (77.)

Redfield’s account of the impact of modernity upon traditional behavior mirrors that of Weber and Tonnies.  Like Durkheim, Redfield was also concerned with how material reality influenced mental structures, morality, and religious beliefs.  Much like White, Park, and Huntington, Redfield was a “geographic” and a “technological” determinist insofar as he considered the interaction between individuals and the land and individuals and technology as important factors  in the development of the cultural, material, and mental life of a people.


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