Re: On the word "Primitive"

Warren Sproule (Warren.Sproule@SOCIOL.UTAS.EDU.AU)
Sat, 3 Aug 1996 19:34:35 +1200

Usually, and particularly in teaching, I take a number of tacks. The
simplest is to refer directly to specific societies by name - Tikopian,
White Hmong, !Kung, etc. More generically, I favour classification by
organisational type - hunter-gatherer/forager, tribal, statist, etc. At
higher levels of generality, when I need to talk in terms of larger
taxonomic groupings, I use the word "amodern", or borrow extensively and
use terms like Wallerstein's 'reciprocal mini-systems' or (mostly as
expectation-shakers) Marx's 'primitive communists' or Sahlins' 'original
affluent societies'. As a way of bringing in comparisons, I'll employ some
of the old dichotomies - gemeinschaft/gesellschaft, hot/cold,
simple/complex, oral/literate - each of which requires careful
elaboration...At no stage of the game do I avoid or abandon the use of the
word "primitive": I find it far too useful to consign to the scrapheap. It
says very little about the groups it's applied *to* (it's loose, sloppy,
imprecise and offensive), but says much about those applying the label, and
those engaged in subsequent campaigns of linguistic cleansing. If, eg, I
encounter terms like "pre-literate" or "pre-modern", I'm aware of the
evolutionary/developmental approach in what I'm hearing or reading - closer
investigation may confirm or deny this first impression. Why toss out the
connotations? I've always believed in the retention of such words, a
thorough analysis of their usage, and their placement within larger
contexts of action. PC too often blurs issues I prefer to keep clear. My
line would be to retain "primitive", but handle with care/use *creatively*