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Anthropological Thinkers

Franz Boas

Franz Boas (1852-1942) was born in north-western Germany. Studies in anthropometry by Franz Boas led to certain conclusions which influenced public policy. In his time race was considered as a fixed biological entity and individual races were thought to be marked by specific physical, mental and cultural characteristics. Boas studied the head forms of over 17,000 immigrants in USA and showed that cranial form was not stable. This feature was the outcome of his finding differences in skull-form between immigrants and their American-born children. He demonstrated that traits which were earlier considered fixed and genetically inherited were modified by environment.

He applied the results of his studies to racism which was then a social problem in the American society. He argued that variations among individuals were greater than between races. He concluded that biological differences between races were small and there was no reason to think that one race was superior to another in intelligence, emotional stability and will power. His rejection of racism was fortified by his personal experience of anti-Semitism.

Boas put forward that there were no biologically pure races and demonstrated that intermarriage between different races did not lead to harmful consequences in the descendents. He attacked the social concept of race prevalent in USA and was an early critic of Nazism in Germany.

Boas considered cultures as integrated wholes resulting more than specific historical processes than from universal evolutionary stages. He asserted that all human beings were biological equals and differences among human societies were the result of culture.

Boas along with his students interviewed elders in many Native American tribes, collected religious lore and described the tribe's ceremonial practices. He produced a mass of ethnographic data concerning the Pacific Northwest Area. He underlined the importance of gathering ethnographic data on specific cultural systems in order to preserve the status of anthropology as a science discipline.

Raymond Firth

Raymond Firth was concerned with the nature of individuals and the choices they make. He focuses on observed activities as he sets out his impressions on structural-functionalism. He made distinction between social structure and social organization. While the arrangement of parts or elements constitutes social structure how people in the society get things done constitutes social organization.

Firth in his book – Elements of Social Organization emphasizes the necessity to distinguish between social structure and social organization and says that the more one thinks of the structure of a society in abstract terms as of group relations or of ideal patterns the more necessity it is to think separately of social organization in terms of concrete activity. Generally the idea of organization is that of people getting things done by planned action. This is a social process, the arrangement of action in sequence in conformity with selected social ends. These ends must have some elements of common significance for the set of persons concerned in the action.

Social organization implies some degree of unification, a putting together of diverse elements into common relation. To do this advantage may be taken of existing structural principles or variant procedures may be adopted. This involves the exercise of choice, the making of decisions. Firth sums up –the fulfilment of the moral obligations laid down by structural requirements is conditioned by individual interests.

Meyer Fortes

Meyer Fortes regarded social structure as the foundation of the whole social life of any society.Social structure is not an aspect of culture but the entire culture of a given people handled in a special frame of theory.

In his article – The structure of Unilineal Descent groups Fortes has analysed the African kinship groups. His analysis of the lineage organization has come mainly from Radcliffe Brown's formulation of the structural principles found in all kinship groups.Fortes regards these as among the most important generalizations According to Fortes the social structure should be thought of in terms of levels of organization. He says that we can investigate the total social structure of a given community at the level of local organization at the level of kinship at the level of corporate group structure of government and at that of ritual institutions. These levels are connected in some sort of hierarchy. It is important to perceive and state the fact that all levels of structure are involved in every social relationship and activity.

Fortes believes that the study of the unilineal descent groups as a part of total social system means studying its functions in the widest framework of social structure and that of the political organization. He shows that descent is fundamentally a jural concept. He sees its significance in the connecting link between the external political or legal aspect of unilineal descent groups and the internal or domestic aspect. The dynamic character of lineage structure can be seen most easily in the balance that is reached between its external relations and its internal structure. Maintaining the stable condition in the social structure is one of the chief functions of lineage systems.

Fortes concludes that this frame of reference gives us procedures of investigation and analysis by which a social system can be apprehended as a unity made of parts and processes that are linked to one another by a limited number of principles of wide validity in homogenous and relatively stable societies.

Ralph Linton

Linton's primary anthropological interests centred on personality structure, social and cultural processes and material culture. He is best remembered for his abilities at synthesizing diverse anthropological data and his formal introduction of the concept of status and role. His number of works are published which includes- The study of man (1936), the cultural background of personality (1945) and the Tree of Culture (1955).

After studying the cultural behaviour of different societies Linton noted three types of culture

  1. Real culture actual behaviour
  2. Ideal culture( philosophical and traditional culture)
  3. Culture construct (what is written on cultural elements)

According to Linton a real culture consists of the sum total of the behaviour of the society members so far as these behaviours are learned and shared. A real culture pattern represents a limited range of behaviour within which the response of a society's members to a particular situation will normally form. Thus various individuals can behave differently but still in accordance with a real culture pattern.

Linton believed that there was a difference between the way of life of people and what we study and write about. Both are different dimensions of culture. The former is reality and the latter our understanding of the same. If the former is called culture the latter can be called culture construct. It is an abstraction from the reality which is the actual human behaviour.

Linton defines personality as the individual's mental qualities the sum total of his rational faculities, perceptions, ideas, habits and conditional emotional responses. He says that there is a close relation between personality and culture of the society to which the individual belongs .The personality of e very individual within the society develops and functions in constant association with its culture. Personality affects culture and culture affects personality.

Linton also discussed about different types of role refers to rule of behaviour appropriate to a given status or social position played by an individual in society and identified two kinds of criteria including ascribed and achieved roles.

Linton suggested that an individual had to make responses in a stimulus way in order to satisfy aggregate needs and he studied these responses which are now known as Linton's Stimulus Responses Principle. These responses help the individual in the formulation of personality.

S.F Nadel

Nadel produced two theoretical books – The Foundations of Social Anthropology and The Theory of Social Structure. Both revealed a synthesis of structural-functionalism.Nadel's central argument was simply that the structuralist orthodoxy was inadequate by itself – it has to be wedded to a functionalist perspective.

Nadel feels that when describing structure ,we abstract relational features from the totality of the perceived data, ignoring all that is not order or arrangement in brief we define the positions relative to one another of the component parts. Structures can be transposed irrespective of the concrete data manifesting it; differently expressed, the parts composing any structure can vary widely in their concrete character without changing the identity of the structure.

Nadel now translates all this into the language appropriate to the analysis of societies. To begin with societies are made up of people; societies have boundaries people either belonging to them or not and people belong to a society in virtue of rules under which they stand and which impose on them regular determinate wave of acting towards and in regard to one another.

For determinate ways of acting towards or in regard to one another we usually say relationships and we indicate that they follow from rules by calling them institutionalized or social relationships. We identify the mutual ways of acting of individuals as relationships only when the former exhibit some consistency and constancy since without these attributes they would merely be single or disjointed acts. Most relationships lack this simple constancy or uniformity. Rather the concrete behaviour occurring in them will always be diversified and more or less widely variable intentionally changing with the circumstances it will be constant or consistent only in its general character in its capacity to indicate a certain type of mutuality or linkage.

Nadel concludes that we arrive at the structure of a society through abstracting from the concrete population and its behaviour, the pattern or network of relationships obtaining between actors in their capacity of playing roles relative to one another.

Claude Levi- Strauss

In recent years Claude Levi-Strauss has become a dominant figure in anthropology. In The Elementary Structure of Kinship Levi –Strauss only hints at the more philosophical view of the world that his analysis of kinship implies. Most of his book examines the varying levels of social solidarity that emerge from direct and indirect bridal exchanges among kin groups. The Elementary Structure of Kinship is a transitional work between his intellectual debt to Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss.However there are also clear departure from Durkheim and Mauss for Durkheim and Mauss had argued in Primitive Classification; human cognitive categories reflect the structure of a society. In contrast Levi-Strauss believes that structure of society is but a surface manifestation of fundamental mental processes.

Levi –Strauss also borrows from the early 20th century linguist Roman Jakobson the notion that the mental thought underlying language occurs in terms of binary contrasts such as good-bad, male-female, yes-no, black-white and human-nonhuman.

Moreover drawing from Jacobson and others Levi-Strauss views the underlying mental reality of binary opposites as organized or mediated by a series of innate codes or rules that can be used to generate many different social forms:language,art,music,social structure,myths,values,beliefs and so on. Thus Levi-Strauss's structuralism has become concerned with understanding cultural and social patterns in terms of the universal mental processes that are rooted in the biochemistry of the human brain. Levi-Strauss's structuralism is mentalistic and reductionistic. According to Levi-Strauss. The empirically observable must be viewed as a system of relationships among components-whether these components are elements of myths and folktales or positions in a kinship system.

It is appropriate to construct statistical methods of these observable systems to summarize the empirically observable relationships among components. Such models however are only a surface manifestation of more fundamental forms of reality. These forms are the result of using various codes or rules to organize different binary opposites. Such forms can be visualised through the construction of mechanical models which articulate the logical results of various rules to organize different binary oppositions.

The tendencies of statistical models will reflect imperfectly the properties of the mechanical model. But it is latter that is more real. The mechanical model is built from rules and binary oppositions that are innate to humans and rooted in the biochemistry and neurology of the brain.

Exchange Theory
In rejecting Frazer's interpretation of cross-cousin marriage Levi-Strauss first questions the substance of Frazer's utilitarian conceptualization. Frazer he notes depicts the poor Australian aborigine wondering how he is going to obtain a wife since he has no material goods to purchase her and discovering exchange as the solution to this apparently insoluble problem men exchange their sisters in marriage because that was the cheapest way of getting a wife. In contrast Levi-Strauss emphasises that is the exchange which counts and not the things exchanged. For him, exchange must be viewed in terms of its functions for integrating the larger social structure. He attacks Frazer's and the utilitarian assumption that the first principles of social behaviour are economics. The social structure is an emergent phenomenon that operated in terms of its own irreducible laws and principles. He emphasizes that humans possess a cultural heritage of norms and values that separates their behaviour and societal organization from that of animal species. Human action is thus qualitatively different from the animal behaviour especially with respect to social exchange. Exchange is more than the result of psychological needs even those that have been acquired through socialization. Exchange cannot be understood solely in terms of individual motives because exchange relations are a reflection of patterns of social organization that exist as an entity sui generis.

Levi-Strauss's work represents the culmination of a reaction to economic utilitarianism as it was originally incorporated into anthropology by Frazer.He began to indicate how different types of direct and indirect exchange are linked in different patterns of social organization.

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