Re: Review of How 'Natives' Think by Marshall Sahlins (anthro)

Gerold Firl (
21 Sep 1995 18:11:50 -0700

In article <43nnp5$ml1@CUBoulder.Colorado.EDU> (Steve Brock) writes:

> Sahlins, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of
>Chicago and noted authority on Hawaiian and Polynesian people, has
>written his reply to the award-winning "The Apotheosis of Captain
>Cook" (1992) by Gananath Obeyesekere, where he was denounced as an
>ethnocentric imperialist who had no business speaking for non-
>western people.

Wow ... sounds like Obee kinda went over-the-edge there. An
ethnocentric imperialist? Sheesh.

>confused by native rituals and beliefs. While Sahlins makes many
>good points, he never comprehends that no matter how much academic
>training and skills of interpretation one possesses, they are
>worthless without containing understanding of, compassion for, and
>even identification with cultural differences, that no amount of
>satire will conceal.

Interesting statement. "...compassion for, and even identification
with, *cultural differences*..." (emphasis added).

They say that to understand is to forgive all - luckily,
anthropologists aren't in a position of having to forgive. An
anthropologist need only understand, and should be objective enough to
accept the reality of cultural differences.

At the same time, anthropologists are human beings, often particularly
sympathetic human beings, and *do* identify with the people they study.
That does not mean that they can not see the destructive and damaging
aspects of culture, nor does it absolve them of their responsibility to
behave in an ethical way. The conflict is created by the fact that
different cultures have different ethical systems.

I recall a paper by obeyesekere on a sri lankan village, which
described some fairly disfunctional customs. I wonder if he identified
with them? He described how men would commonly threaten to punish
disobedient women by inserting hot chili peppers into their vaginas;
while obeyesekere never helped to hold a woman down for such an
operation, or even witnessed such an act, I cannot believe that he had
any "compassion" for that kind of "cultural difference".

What Obeyesekere was really objecting to is the anthropological
assumption of *perspective*; the idea that anthropological training
allows one to take a supra-cultural view obviating the hidden
assumptions of different cultures. But really, without this,
anthropology is nothing more than a travelog. If a study of the various
forms of human culture does not confer sufficient perspective to
understand the *weltanschaung* of people in other cultures, then
anthropology can never succeed.

I reject this view. While there may be certain emotional resonances
which the foreign observer can never completely capture, it is by no
means impossible to "understand" other people, even if they come from
another culture. Trying to argue that the hawaiians did not take Cook
to be Lono is fine, but such a discussion should be carried-out
rationally, using the data and reasonable inference, rather than
slinging charges of "ethnocentrism" and "imperialism". That is just
plain dumb.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf