Re:Ecological Functionalism (was Different patriarchy Model)

Daniel Rosenblatt (
7 Dec 1994 11:54:39 GMT

Gerold Firl ( wrote:

: As human groups begin to compete with one another for resources, a
: situation will be reached where the costs of waging "war" (meaning violent
: attacks against other groups) will be more than compensated by the benefits
: in terms of both short-term and long-term gains. The former consists of
: booty and the spoils of war, with perhaps an additional benefit due to the
: elimination of population surplus. The long-term benefits are due to an
: expansion in lebensraum *and* a temporary respite for the ecology, as
: Harris so eloquently shows for the Maring of new guineau. The Maring have a
: unique form of ritualised warfare centered around a highly developed
: spiritual relationship with the pig which results in an approximately 10-12
: year period between wars. Harris argues (convincingly, as far as I'm
: concerned) that the stability of this system is due to a resonance between
: this cycle and the fallow time required for slash-and-burn jungle clearings
: to avoid long-term deforestation. When the inhabitants of a particular
: village site have begun to exhaust the soil, their pig-rearing capability
: begins to drop. This makes it difficult to recruit allies for war against
: neighboring groups, since allies are recruited at the great pig-feasts held
: on these 10-12 years periods, and people who have not produced the
: customary surfeit of pigs are considered poor allies. Thus, they tend to
: fare poorly in "war" (generally a low-casualty affair, desultory by
: civilised standards), and thus must abandon their primary habitation sites.
: By the time these sites are re-inhabited (often by the previous
: inhabitants, but sometimes by the victors), a sufficient fallow period has
: passed to allow the land to regenerate.

: The reason this system has evolved such a level of ritualised conflict is
: that new guineau is small and isolated. The situation on the eurasian
: landmass is much more open-ended and fluid. The same logic applies,
: however. Males are at a premium, since they are much more effective than
: women at hand-to-hand combat. harris cites a typical male-female sex ratio
: of about 1.5 for juveniles in primitive cultures, tending back towards 1.0
: past adulthood as male attrition thins the ranks through war. Female babies
: are either killed outright, or "accidentally" attrited through neglect or
: inattention. To do otherwise would be to invite attack from cultures which
: skew their population distribution toward higher male ratios, giving a
: larger fighting force.

: Now, Harris wrote this in 71, yet people still prattle about nomadic vs
: agricultural peoples. Eisler does look pretty silly; is she ignorant of
: Harris, or does her ideology blind her?

If you want to accept ecological functionalist explanations for human
social institutions, fell free to do so but please don't suggest that
those of us who don't are ignorant or blinded. A basic problem with
Harris' approach (with *any* functionalist account) is that it explains
institutions without regard for any of their particular features. This
is not an attempt to support Eisner, with whom I am unfamiliar, nor do I
want to get into the specific's of Harris' argument as outline above,
although it seems pretty full of holes. What I would like to point out
is that the mode of explanation Harris adopts renders most of what is
under investigation as epiphenomenal: what is the logic of the ritual
system, how does war fit in. Why do people fight (from their point of
view)? The point is also *not* that anthropological explanation must
proceed within the terms of the culture in question, but it needs to have
a place for those terms. (In this respect the point is similar to that
Bourdieu (1977 _Outline of a Theory of Practice_) makes with regard to
structuralist notions of exchange). For a good critique of functionalist
explanations in anthropology (and an examination of their roots in western
culture) see Marshall Sahlins' _Culture & Practical Reason_ (1977).

Daniel Rosenblatt <>
University of Chicago
Department of Anthropology

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