Pluck and Culture Change

Mon, 22 Apr 1996 10:09:05 CST

I too am interested in the assertion that culture changes only through
the determination of small groups of dedicated individuals; I too have
seen this attributed to Margaret Mead, but without a citation. Without
denying that determined individuals are *necessary* for many forms of
culture change, I would like to assert the recurrent *insufficiency*, of
plucky persons, to work their will in the realm of culture. Actually,
all I want to do is quote a remarkable passage, from a book that should
be read (and reread) by anyone with a serious interest in
anthropological theory:

Clearly the consciousness-raising process has been an important
instrument for liberating women from the role of domestic drudge. But
one cannot argue that political-ideological stuggle by women was
responsible for the vast shifts in technology, production, demand for
cheap labor, rise of cities, and increased costs of rearing children,
and so forth--all of which provide the functional infrastructural
conditions upon which the propagation and amplification of modern
feminist political-ideological struggle is premised. In order to grasp
the asymmetrical nature of the causal relationships between
superstructure and infrastructure, let us suppose that somewhere
isolated groups of men are beginning to engage in idological and
political struggle aimed at the revival of nineteenth-century sex roles.
Can one assert that the decisive factor in their success or failure will
be their commitment to their goal--their degree of political-ideological
struggle? Scarcely, because in effect their viewpoint is not likely to
be propogated or amplified as long as the present urban industrial
infrastructure holds sway. (Marvin Harris, *Cultural Materialism*, p.
73 (Random House/Vintage,1980))

Following up on M. Hill's suggestion about Mead's *Redbook* columns, I
skimmed through the collection of those columns edited by Rhoda Metraux.
I did not find the quotation in question; I wouldn't be too surprised if
Mead never wrote this. On the other hand, I did find an affirmation of
belief in God, and an intimation of belief in free will. (She herself
always had felt free to do whatever she put her mind to.) So it seems
quite possible that she wrote some such thing. I must say, the belief
that an individual can make anything of herself/himself, or that a small
group can make anything it wants of the wider culture, seems not only
infantile, but also detrimental to social science: under these
assumptions, the ultimate answer to every question lies right at hand:
The lives of people, and the conditions of culture, are as they are
because that is what people want! Belief in free will and the power of
pluck, which may pose no threat to the science of, say, chemistry, thus
becomes pernicious indeed for the science of anthropology. --Bob Graber