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Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown June 30, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Like nearly all sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and social theorists in the twentieth century, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (born 17 January 1881 in Birmingham – died 24 October 1955 in London)  spent much of his career describing what his anthropology was not.  Adam Kuper similarly attempts to disentangle the misunderstood Radcliffe-Brown from the true theorist.

While the misappropriations of Radcliffe-Brown’s theories are not interesting from the standpoint of the anthropologist or ostensibly to the student of the history of anthropology, as Kuper explains, Radcliffe-Brown’s influence among subsequent national generations of anthropologists is. Kuper laments that Radcliffe-Brown has been ridiculed as a “displaced naturalist” who mistakenly applied physiological and physical models to the study of social structures.  What matters more for Kuper was the “direct inspiration” his kinship studies had on the work of Fred Eggan, Meyer Fortes, and Sol Tax. Radcliffe-Brown also  emerged as the “hero” of Levi-Strauss’ Totemism as well as “strongly influencing” Victor Turner and other important later twentieth century anthropologists.  In conclusion, Radcliffe-Brown’s “profound” yet in many cases second-hand or indirect influence on subsequent generations has made his work difficult to objectively apprise.  His “structural positivism” while “unfashionable” was not necessarily “untenable” (The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown , 1977, p. 1) (more…)

Cosmology and “Synoptic” Intellectual History September 23, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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The influence of anthropological ideas on historiography is widely acknowledged, if too often boiled down to a slogan: “approach history as a stranger,” or “know the past on its own terms.”  On this blog, Chris Donohue has been revisiting the problems informing the interpretive approaches of Malinowski’s “functionalism” and Lévi-Strauss’ “structuralism”.  By grounding ritualistic behaviors in issues of social cohesion and cognitive strategy, these approaches bring sense to activities that, on their surface, seem arbitrary.  Applied to familiar societies, they also form part of a trend stretching over a century that makes our own social behaviors seem less explicitly rational, if not altogether less rational.  For historians of science, this is of great interest, because it helps reanalyze scientific practice in ways removed from overt scientific reasoning.

Moving beyond scientific practice as simply a particular mode of reasoning was part and parcel of the Great Escape from the philosophy of science.  But I’d now like to move beyond the limitations of abandoning philosophy, to concentrate more on the generative ideas in the same historiographical period (roughly, the fabled ’80s), which have ceased to be articulated now that that period’s gains have themselves been boiled down to basic slogans.

The most important anthropological concept that has vaporized into the atmosphere is the cognitive cosmology, an idea which holds that every society, or really every individual, necessarily creates their own sense of what is in the world and how the world works, which allows people to cope with their surroundings.  I’d like to very roughly sketch out a preliminary sense of how this idea worked in the historiography. (more…)

Primer: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Problem of Mind July 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908-), according to the well-known anthropologist, the “functionalist” and  student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Ronald Leach, is the most famous representative of the first of dual traditions of social anthropology.  The founder of the first tradition was the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941).  According to Leach, Frazer was a man “of monumental learning who had no first-hand acquaintance with the lives of primitive people about whom he wrote.”  (Claude-Levi Strauss, 1)  Rather than study a culture in minute detail, Frazer wished to understand the primitive consciousness on a world-historical scale.  The progenitor of the second tradition was Bronislaw Malinowski who “spent most of his academic life analyzing the results of research which he had himself had personally conducted over a period of four years in a single small village in far off Melanesia.”  Malinowski was far more interested in how an individual communities social systems “functioned” than in developing a grand narrative of the primitive consciousness.  Although not in the “style” of Frazer, Levi-Strauss is more concerned with the discovery of true “facts” about a general “human mind.”  He is less concerned, according to Leach, with the “organization of any particular society or class of societies.”  For Leach, this difference is “fundamental.”

Leach, while disagreeing with much of Levi-Strauss’ work, nonetheless had a sound understanding of Levi-Strauss’ argument.  According to Leach, structuralism begins with the biological faculties, quite similar to the philosophical anthropology of Hans Jonas and Arnold Gehlen in Germany, articulated around the same time.   The phenomenon perceived by the human mind, “have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it.”  As man is consistently (more…)