George Walford: Ideology in Anthropology

THE new series, One World Archaeology, presents the proceedings of the World Archaeological Congress held at Southampton (UK) in 1986. It has provided Robin Fox, University Professor of Social Anthropology at Rutgers, with the occasion for an article raising several issues of interest to IC. [1] All quotations here come from that source.

Professor Fox shows uncommon readiness to blow the gaff on his colleagues, saying this conference marks a departure from their former activities. These have included huge and extravagant social events, disguised as international meetings, which served no serious intellectual purpose, the papers presented being usually boring, pointless and skimpy, seldom including anything not already known, and having no purpose other than to secure a travel allowance for the presenter. Most of their published ‘proceedings’ went straight onto library shelves, to lie there undisturbed.

Systematic ideology argues from the foraging communities which have been directly studied by anthropologists to those formed by the first human beings, treating the modern communities to some extent as living examples of the paleolithic. This procedure sometimes gets challenged, and indeed its validity is limited to features of a particular type. So far as this method goes we have to ignore any which vary between one modern foraging community and another, treating only those common to all; since every detailed feature does vary the method works only with with general ones, and only these does s.i. ‘carry back.’ Robin Fox speaks of this as the Comparative Method, and remarks that it fails only when used with a spurious degree of specificity. ‘There is no reason why, at some very general level… we should not assume that modern palaeo-tribes are substantially like true palaeo society.’ The method rests on ‘the perfectly sound premise: that contemporary social structures provide clues to past structures at the same level of techno-economic development.’ [1]

Before our Marxist readers jump to their guns, firing off salvos of ‘So the economic does govern the ideological,’ let us point out that so far as questions of determination go, ‘techno-economic’ can be replaced by ‘ideological.’ The historical record confirms that contemporary social structures provide clues also to past structures at the same level of ideological development, the ideology of expediency consistently going with a non-hierarchical social structure, the ideology of domination with an oligarchic or monarchic one, the ideology of precision with a formally democratic one. The reason for the direction of argument in the present case is simply practical; over the span of time from the palaeolithic till today, the techno-economic has left visible traces while the ideological and social-political have not. From the spoil-heaps left by the early humans specialists can tell how far their diet consisted of domesticated animals (and thus to what extent they depended upon foraging) but we have no correspondingly direct evidence of the degree (if any) of hierarchy in their communities, or whether they conceived of a spiritual world. These features have to be deduced from the behaviour of modern palaeo-tribes.

The bare fact, that modern foragers live in non-hierarchical communities (‘egalitarian’ would carry a false implication of conscious purpose) does not, of itself, justify us in believing their early forebears to have done so. The argument involves two intermediate steps: First, that by living in this way they show themselves identified with the ideology of Expediency. Second, that this major ideology, like the others, determines the main outlines of the political-intellectual-social activity, as well as of the behaviour in economic affairs, of those identified with it. [1] Anthropology Today Volume 9 No.5 October 93.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.