Re: Swyers' questions on Power <long>

Holly Swyers (nesn-info@CCE.ORG)
Thu, 14 Mar 1996 19:38:58 GMT

r. -

I knew at some point my naivete would give me away :>}.
I thought long and hard about some of your comments, and now I can't think of
a way to launch into my questions...
Here goes:

On March 13, Thornton states:
Rivers was a socialist, and was
guided by his political orientation, and wanted very much for there
to be a primiitve communism that would serve as a kind of positive
proof of conflict-free society which, ideally, we could all become.
Most of these arguments however, ignore completely the question of
scale. There is absolutely no sense in `comparing', say, Trobriand or
Bushman `society' with `English society', Western society' or
`Capitalism'. These are entirely different levels of integration and

I agree with you that there is a definite issue of scale at work, and that
the idea of "primitive communism" is naive and self-serving for a socialist
leaning theorist. I have mixed feelings about your statement that there is
no sense in comparing various "societies." Where do you fall on the issue of
the existence of human "universals," or traits which link all members of
mankind as human (beyond physiology?). Would you accept that there are
traits which we could recognize as identical (although not necessarily
manifested in identical fashions) across humans of any culture, society or
whatever, or would you contest that the search for universals is yet another
folly ridden product of 19th century thought? (please read this as a curious
question, not a sarcastic one). If there are universals to be discovered,
are there ways to uncover them without comparing cultures/societies/whatever?
I'll admit that the "western" (for lack of a better word) mode of inquiry by
its nature limits the value of such comparisons, but shouldn't there be a way
to look at people across cultures in a general sense? Or, if you do not
think that there are human universals, what is the purpose/value/reason for
practicing anthropology? (again a curious question - I am still not certain
of whether there are universals or if there is a good reason to study

Thornton: Moreover, the reification and essentialisation of `The West' or
of `Society' that is invloved here makes the concept of `comparison'

In terms of this debate about power - I'm getting from your statements that
what has been constructed in this debate is a definition of power that is a
very specific "Western" one. I was hoping to find a definition of power
which was less specifically geared toward "complex societies" and more in
line with understanding what power means to people in general. I asked in my
original question - "who decides?" I am as interested in how power becomes
an issue to a band, group, society, etc as I am in understanding existing
power structures. Do humans require hierarchal structures to make sense of
the world (probably not, but maybe?)

Thornton: Thus, I would not agree that `complex societies evolve
eventually from egalitarian societies'. What happens, is
that simple, face-to-face societies are gradually
agregated and incorporated into larger complexes, while
specific mechanisms for exercising power evolve.

I don't believe that egalitarian societies must eventually evolve into
complex societies - but complex societies had to come from somewhere. Here
my lack of knowledge/experience becomes obvious: where do complex societies
come from. I somehow got the impression that somewhere in the deepest
darkest history of modern "Western" society there are several egalitarian
groups. I don't think your statements refute that. Actually, if I use your
language, the question I was getting at makes sense - how do specific
mechanisms for exercising power evolve? Who decides that the specific
mechanism for exercising power adopted by one individual is culturally
acceptable? On March 13, Mike Salovesh points out that "there is NO power
without the consent of the governed." I agree with him. My question is -
how do people figure out exactly how much power the 'governed' will consent
to, and how does this inform the evolution of power mechanisms?

Thornton: I think the
covert versus overt contast is useless.

Maybe, maybe not. I think there may be a better pair of words to express my
thoughts on this, but I don't think the contrast is meaningless. Where
exactly does our definition of power stand now (would someone on the list
care to take a stab at summarizing where we are?)? I am thinking that there
are types of power that are not valued by society and are hence ignored - so
I guess covert isn't exactly what I mean. Teachers are traditionally
undervalued and considered powerless in many ways in the US (sorry to use
America, but I can't speak for other countries). However, in many cases a
teacher spends more waking hours with a given child than the child's parents
can. This gives a teacher an awful lot of power to shape a child's ideas
(which is probably why teaching creation vs. evolution is such a hot debate
in some parts of the US). So while the teacher does not have DIRECT power
which is recognized by political forces, they do have some INDIRECT power.
This may not be the best example of what I'm getting at, but if someone else
can see my point and help me express it more clearly, I welcome your efforts.
I wrote the word PUPPETS in large letters on the print out I made of your
comments. Again, maybe covert is not the right word, but what of those
powerful people who are really puppets for someone else? I think there are
many occasions where people exercise power indirectly by influencing the
decisions and opinions of someone who is PERCEIVED as powerful.

In a different vein, I got the general impression that you felt that
everything said/thought/written/expressed in the 19th century was just wrong
and should be buried. This truly confuses me. Shouldn't we be using the
understandings or misunderstandings of the 19th century to inform our own
modes of inquiry? Yes, maybe Marx presents an overly simplistic view of the
world, but that does not invalidate all of his ideas. Even if it does,
someone had to present Marx's ideas before we could realize that maybe they
were not the best model for thinking about society.
I am intrigued by your challenge to the terms matriarchy and patriarchy.
Can you give me your definitions of them? And can I hear some others? What
exactly do we mean by these words, and does it have anything to do with power
(and who has it)? I don't think we can discount discussions of gender when
we talk about power. Gender is one us - them relationship that we have to
put up with to survive - or does someone know of a culture where gender is
completely irrelevant in determining roles, rituals, behaviors, etc?

Finally, you wrote that you thought McCreery's question about powerful =
villains or fools (for which I was mistakenly given credit - sorry, John
McCreery) was a "largely American response." This seems to be a negative
thing in your mind, but I'll take it positively and turn it around to re-ask
one of my original questions:

Can we as anthropologists sufficiently distance ourself from our own
culturally learned definitions of power to accurately and fairly consider (or
discover) the definitions of power that exist in other cultures?

During my stay in Southern Africa, I ran into many different reactions to the
"American way of thinking," most of which correspond to your comments. I
learned to acknowledge that yes, I am a product of my culture and can never
be entirely free of the biases that come from growing up in the US. But
neither can the people raised in any other culture be free of their own
biases, and part of the joy of learning from one another is that we all have
different insights. I look forward to hearing more from others on this list,
and eagerly anticipate learning still more....

-Holly Swyers
(yes, the final "s" is an integral part of the name)