This short book (155 pages) by John Monaghan and Peter Just from Oxford University Press is a really good introduction to this subject. Although it does not transcend a bourgeois worldview it will give you the needed information to cope with literature in this field.
The book cuts to the heart of a scientific discipline too many people shy away from as too difficult, remote, or bazaar. The book is part of an Oxford University series designed to make any subject matter easily accessible to anyone interested enough to read a short, very short, introductory text that will, nevertheless, give the reader a grasp of the main points of the subject under discussion along with excellent bibliographic references for further independent study. This volume will be a welcome addition to anyone's library on ‘Third World’ issues, or more importantly, on those of the ‘Fourth World’ of indigenous peoples restricted to the margins of the world imperialist system.
Anthropology deals, historically least, with the cultures and social institutions of pre-industrial, pre-state, and pre-literate peoples. This book is designed to provide an understanding as to how such societies function, and how they relate to, and are being destroyed by, the modern world system of imperialist globalization (my term, not the authors).
I suggest this book for all activists with no prior exposure to anthropology: the more we know about Third and Fourth World peoples, especially the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific islands, the more we can understand the scope of the struggle against imperialism and the way to win allies against a common enemy.
Social and Cultural Anthropology, useful as it is as an introduction to a complicated social science, is yet a product of the bourgeois US university system. I will outline some of the problems that Marxists must keep in mind while reading this book. First, you might not be getting the names of real persons and places in anthropology books. This is because anthropology is used by the US and other repressive governments to keep tabs on groups that may be a “problem.” Wounded Knees are still a daily occurrence for indigenous peoples, and the same US government which sponsored the original is tacitly behind the replicas throughout the world.
Second, the author’s discussion of “Cultural Relativism” is muddled and weak. They seem to confuse two different concepts: Different cultures have different values, and all cultural values are equal.
For example, the authors discuss the practice of female genital mutilation (they call it “female circumcision”) practiced by the Hofriyati people of the Northern Sudan. They say: ” We may find the consequences of such practices repellent, but we are hard pressed to find a moral basis for advocating its suppression that does not also violate the cultural autonomy of the Hofriyati. One wonders , ultimately, if it is logically possible to simultaneously subscribe to both the notion of universal human rights and a belief in the relativity of cultures.”
I remember being told in a carpet factory outlet in India that objection to children laboring sixteen hours a day in a factory was Western cultural inference with Indian traditions. I wonder when maximizing surplus value in factories became part of the Indian tradition. In any event, I refer the authors to another book in the Oxford series, Logic: A Very Short Introduction, for the resolution of their logical conundrum.
Third, the authors use a lot of “post-modern” terms, which they don’t define and are quite meaningless, such as the “post-industrial” West. Is the West also “post-pollution”?
There is an interesting section on Marxism and ‘’neoevolutionary anthropology’’ where the older categories of Morgan and Engels — savagery, barbarism, civilization — are replaced by the now more generally accepted “four basic patterns of human society”— namely, foraging societies, tribal societies, chiefdoms, and states.
This scheme is also the one used in a book previously reviewed here, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and both should be compared to The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Engels which was based on Henry Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society.
Other subjects discussed in this book are religion as it relates to social structure, gender as defined in different cultures, and the “positive” side of relativism.
“When someone begins a peroration with the phrase ‘but of course it’s human nature to…’
start looking for the exit! Because what you are about to hear will most likely reflect the speaker’s most deeply held prejudices rather than the product of a genuine cross-cultural understanding. Every time anthropologists have attempted to generate universal rules governing human behavior, the rules have either been proven empirically wrong or are so trivial as to be uninteresting.”
I suggest this short book to anyone who has an interest in other cultures and peoples outside the ambit of “Western Civilization” — of course with the caveat any Marxist must keep in mind when reading a bourgeois, even a progressive bourgeois, work, namely to be en garde.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.