Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe?

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Two young boys are having an argument while their fathers, resting in hammocks, look on. The argument is over something silly but escalates until the dads decide to intervene. They equip each boy with a small pole and position them face to face, explaining the rules of the game. Each child has the opportunity to whack the other with the stick, in turn. The boys can continue to carry out this ritualized but stingingly painful combat until one of them gives up, handing victory to his opponent. Eventually, these boys will grow into men, and this sort of combat, using either long poles borrowed from the nearby dwellings or bare fists pounded on chests, will become a normal (though infrequently used) way to settle significant disputes between men. Dueling is part of the culture in which these children are being raised. Those who demonstrate the most bravery will likely rise in status, perhaps take on a leadership role, have a better choice in marriage partner, and perhaps have more than one wife.

Thousands of miles away, …

Click here to read my post that just went up in Slate!

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7 thoughts on “Are Anthropologists a Dangerous Tribe?

  1. Well, that was a great read!

    My dad is friends with “Nap” Chagnon (i swear that’s what they call him, not making it up just to be overly familiar or to impress) and we’ve had a number of discussions about how both my dad as his friend, and Chagnon himself, feels about his reputation. How deserved it is was very relevant to the discussion, since when i learned of the friendship i’d recently graduated from MSU with a minor in anthropology. At that time i’d receieved the fully judgemental version of his research with no mitigating context. Having the entire landscape of anthropology, ethics, consent, and relevant history in one essay provides a sense of balance that was missing from earlier writings, like the incredibly biased textbook i still have in a box in my basement somewhere.

    So thank you for that thought provoking piece!

  2. If anyone cares to read an alternative perspective on the Yanomamo– the degree to which they have been disrupted by the outside world, their demand for steel tools and other Western goods, and their war–they can go to “Publications” on my department web page, “A Savage Encounter” summarizes the social impact of contact in the area where Chagnon worked. From my book “Yanomami Warfare: A Political History,” the posted chapter “Maneuvering into War” covers the capture of Helena Valero, and the chapters “The Yanomamo and the Missionaries” and “The Yanomamo and the Anthropologist” cover the conflicts discussed in Chagnon’s “The Fierce People.” If your interest is in the theoretical debates, there is the chapter “Explaining Yanomami Warfare: Alternatives and Implications.”

  3. Brian, thanks for that comment; I heartily second the recommendation. In particular, “Yanomami warfare” is on the short list of things anyone who wants to explore the Yanomamo/i and related issues needs to read.

    I actually had an “additional reading” section on the Slate piece which got cut for space/length considerations and your book was on it. I’m preoccupied taking care of Huxley today but I’ll probably post that full list tomorrow AM.

  4. I’ve been looking forward to your piece, David Plotz told me it was in the works. I appreciate the balanced approach you present, neither demonizing Chagnon nor making him out as a hero, and showing how these debates tie into long-standing tensions within anthropology. It was important to point out how much anthropology itself has changed in the ensuing four decades, though it’s also worth noting that the Yanomami and other indigenous peoples have changed just as much if not more. You might enjoy reading my own post about this story, “An Ax to Grind.” Thanks for your provocative piece, Glenn Shepard

  5. Then again, that line about, ” A good portion of the history of anthropology involves extracting accurate descriptions from local informants without upsetting people” is a bit over the top. Anthropology is not espionage. That’s why we have a code of ethics, at least now we do.

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