February 29, 2012

Ethnoscience and Symbolic Anthropology

While many anthropologists in the early postwar years, especially in Britain, rejected attempts to turn anthropology into an accurate science, others went in the opposite direction. This was not only the case with the American cultural ecologists and the British methodological individualists, but also –perhaps surprisingly – with people working within the broad framework of American linguistic anthropology. Several of Sapir’s successors explored semantics and language structures in traditional societies in an accurate way. Some of these devised quantitative methods tailored to measure frequencies and connections between native terms, and worked closely with psychologists, linguists and others engaged in the emerging interdisciplinary field of cognitive science. Among the foremost of these were Harold Conklin, Charles Frake and Ward Goodenough, who all contributed to the development of ethnoscience in the 1950s.

Ethnoscience was concerned with describing ‘cultural grammars’, through identifying the building-blocks of semantic universes or systems of knowledge. They drew on both the culture and personality 100 A History of Anthropology school’s interest in socialisation, on formal linguistics and on the comparative study of classification, where both Sapir and Whorf (and, before them, Durkheim and Mauss) had done ground-breaking work. In its most technical form, ethnoscience appeared as componential analysis, which combined linguistic anthropology and quantitative methods with the general 1950s concern with kinship. In its original form, ethnoscience died out some time during the 1960s, but the general issues it raised have been pursued later in cognitive anthropology (see D’Andrade 1995; Shore 1996). Regardless of methodology, they largely concern the relationship between the universal and the culturally specific in human knowledge systems. Colour classification was an early,
and relatively simple field, which was explored in this way. There were also interesting parallels between the concerns of ethnoscience and the emerging rationality debate in Britain on the one hand, and the concerns of Lévi-Straussian structuralism on the other hand. However, unlike both Winch and Lévi-Strauss, the ethnoscientists worked inductively, amassing huge amounts of data which were processed by the massive, sluggish computers of the day.
After Boas’s death, the pater familias of American anthropology was Kroeber. In 1952, he published, with Clyde Kluckhohn (1905–60), Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, which discusses 162 definitions of culture, and ends by recommending the abandonment of Tylor’s and Boas’s all-embracing concept in favour of a definition limited to cognitive (symbolic, meaningful) culture.In the 1950s, American anthropology was still largely dominated by Boas’s students, who produced rather predictable work in the culture-andpersonality tradition, often merged with Durkheimian and Weberian ideas, which were gradually gaining acceptance in the USA, largely through the work of Parsons, who collaborated with several of the leading American anthropologists of the day. One of the most interesting monographs of this period was Kluckhohn’s Navaho Witchcraft (1944), which resembles Evans-Pritchard’s Azande monograph, in that it attempts to combine a sociological,functionalist analysis with a psychological perspective.The swing towards the study of meaning which took place in British anthropology hadits parallel in the USA, not least thanks to Parsons’s influence. Parsons, the leading social scientist in the USA in the 1950s, had monumental visions for the social sciences, andwas well connected with funding agencies.
He suggested a ‘temporary division of labour’ between sociology and anthropology, in which the sociologists would study power, labour and social organisation, while the anthropologists (in accordance with the new, cognitive definition of culture) would focus on the symbolic and meaningful aspects of social life. In an article jointly authored by Parsons and Kroeber in 1958, this ‘truce’ (as the authors themselves called it) was programmatically endorsed (see Kuper 1999: 69). Although twentieth-century American anthropology had always concentrated chiefly The Power of Symbols 101 on the symbolic, this development entailed a further narrowing of the subject – or, at least, part of it.