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From Bones to Beliefs: Evolution of Anthropology and its Stories

OrganizedKhaos's picture


                          (Hilazon Cave)

            Within our class and small discussions these past few weeks we have looked at the way in which evolution occurs outside the realm of Biology. One example explored this week is the idea of culture, how it evolves and the way in which humans interact with it. In addition to the way culture has changed, its meaning alone has gone through changes in its definition. But in order to look at culture, I feel it is only appropriate to dissect it through the lens of anthropologists, whom have spent years exploring numerous ones.

             Anthropology is a study of humanity. The term, rooted in Greek, breaks up to mean “the study of man”. Its origins come from the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities which have come to form a discipline that is rather well rounded with sub disciplines in culture, linguistics, and biological. For some time this study did not have its own place in the academic arena and through time, it was able to evolve. Through this paper I will briefly explore the way Anthropology has changed as a discipline but most importantly how anthropological stories evolve from ethnographic research. Looking at Margery Wolf’s A Thrice Told Tale, one can see how evolution occurs on a macro (Anthropology as a discipline) and micro (the stories written) scale.

             When we look into the start of this discipline, names that come to mind are Franz Boas, Malinowski, and Mead. Of course many others exist but these were some of the movers and shakers of the discipline. Boas and Malinowski are known for bringing Anthropology to the science forefront. Researchers such as Lewis, describe Boas’s passion for eliminating the idea of the other, which existed in previous works of ethnography, as one of the main reasons for anthropology’s growth. Boas pushed for people to understand that instead of the “systematic enumeration” of standardized beliefs and customs of a tribe (Lewis, 461). Anthropology needed to document how individuals react to their entire social environment and to the difference of opinions and mode of action that occur in these “primitive” societies to push for the changes that occur (Lewis, 448). 

         Web of Meaning

          Seeing how before many viewed these societies as static Boas wanted to show that everything evolved. With Malinowski’s help, though often written off as ethnocentric and racist, Anthropology moved out of the realm of “storytelling” and into a more empirical research based part of academia. Malinowski’s push for data and research based evidence is what the discipline needed to change the way people looked at culture. Through this more empirical form of data collection, they were able to see that culture was not a static entity that many had claimed before. We discussed the fluidity between culture’s influence on us and our influence on culture. Like our model in class, anthropologists and those within the discipline began to understand that agency exists and though the activities of the individual are largely influences by his social environment, his own activities influence the society in which he lives, and may bring about modifications in the cultural form.

             In addition to Boas and Malinowski, anthropologists like Mead led the way for women who had almost no foot in the science to take part in influencing the way the world viewed and come to understand other parts of cultures that the men seemed to miss.

Margaret Mead

              Mead, had the opportunity to study various cultures where she looked at the role of gender and sexuality. Seeing how women and men fit into certain molds in the US she wanted to know whether this was a universal. Her goal to disprove the current theory that the masculine and feminine roles were innate and unchangeable proved successful. She found that the masculine and feminine attributes were determined by the systematic effort from the parents, not the product of the sexually identifiable distinctions (Kottack, 12). Her reports about the attitudes towards sex in different cultures amply informed the 1960s sexual revolution.

            This move in feminist anthropology paved the way for more women to come into the field. It has been said that due to the rebellious nature of Margaret Mead and fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict women have been able to open anthropology to a new frontier much like Margery Wolf has done with her text A Thrice Told Tale. Margery, the wife of an anthropologist spent much of her time traveling with her husband. During this time she very often spent her days with the women of these societies. Wolf just like Meade was part of the postmodernist era of anthropology where the methods, ethics, and standards of the discipline were being interpreted and criticized. This movement was also grouped with the feminist who believed that anyone could practice anthropology.

            Through her text Wolf showed that there were many different ways to write ethnography and no one way should be valued over the next. She conducts ethnographic research in a small Taiwanese village in the way ethnographic method had evolved after Malinowski but she shows the evolution of her data and what it can become. She writes a fiction piece, a field note section including much of her raw data, and lastly an article style piece on her findings. This three pronged approach gives voice to the view of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, considered a founding member of postmodernist anthropology, who states that, “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations and second and third ones to boot” (Geertz, 15). Much like our discussion in class we found that stories are interpretations of observations and differ from people to people and culture to culture.

            We also looked into whether one story is more important than another an issue that arose for many women anthropology writers like Wolf. She stated that when “women were using the experiential approach to ethnographic writing” like she did with the Hot Spell, the fiction portion of her text on the events that occurred in the small Taiwanese village, “much of it was dismissed as self-indulgence” but when done by men in the discipline it was categorized as “experimental” (Wolf, 50). I found this interesting because of the discussion we had around cultural change and how it came about. We talked about change occurring when one deviated from the norm and had a crowd or following but never thought about gender and how that played a big role in how societies and culture change. It seems, through Wolf’s argument in her text that women , though having the ability to create new things, have minimal opportunity to make major changes unless men are behind them.

            I find that Wolf’s attempt to experiment and think out of the box like Margaret Mead and the anthropologists beforehand has clearly made a change in the culture of anthropology as a discipline and how texts within are written. It shows that individuals do have a stake in what culture evolves to be whether the change is immediate or not. I can imagine that these anthropologists did not think their contributions would amount to this much for this long and become cultural memes in a sense in the realm of their discipline. Wolf who has also shown that stories and the outcomes of observations are up to the interpretation of individuals depicts how evolution exists in many ways outside the realm of biology in other disciplines as well as in every day life.



Wolf, Margery. A Thrice Told Tale. 

Lewis, Herbert S. “The Passion of Franz Boas.” American Anthropologist. New Series, Vol. 103, No. 2. June 2001. Pages 447-467. Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Anthropological Association. JSTOR.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretations of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc. (pp.15)



Anne Dalke's picture

Making Gender


Of particular interest to me here is your decision to scale this project as both macro and micro: looking both @ the evolution of anthropology as a discipline and @ the evolution of the sorts of stories written by its practitioners. Since Paul and I have set up this course as a "two-cultures" dialogue between science and the humanities, it's a very real pleasure to get some contributions to the conversation from those of you who are working in the social sciences. We've had lots of discussions in class about the use-value of evolutionary theory for literary studies, and vice versa, but not much discussion about the use-value of both of these sets of ideas for anthropology --which is where your own work so usefully enters the picture (you should locate yourself in this essay, btw, as a senior anthro major! Reveal your location, as a good anthropologist always does, yes...?)

In fact, it is also of particular interest to me that this essay steps off from your last one, in which, as "a Roman Catholic anthropology major," you looked @ the intersection of science and religion. Here you note the intent of the first generation of anthropologists, like Boas and Malinowski, to make anthropology more "scientific," more grounded in empirical collection of data. But you don't explain how the feminists positioned themselves w/ regards to that project....

...and it is really with the feminists  like Mead, Benedict and Wolf that you most have my attention. Last year, when I was teaching the core course in Gender Studies here, I brought BMC alum Sherry Ortner to campus; in preparation for her visit, we read her essay on "The Problem of 'Woman' as Analytic Category," which argues that analysis focusing on a polarized male/female distinction may produce distortions as problematic as those which ignore women and gender in the first place. The other essays that we read from her classic collection on Making Gender all emphasized the complex unpredictable intersections and interactions of social life: there was nothing deterministic there!....

and a repeated recognition of "elementary structure of agency," the multiple ways in which resistance lurks within unstable power relations. Much more hopeful than Wolf's account, which you report on here, of women's "minimal opportunity to make major changes"--which would make, I think (do you?) a very bleak "end" for feminist anthropology!