reply to Golden

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Mon, 5 Dec 1994 11:53:50 CST

In a succinct, well thought-out, beautifully written note, Michelle Golden has
laid out the guts of the issues Bjorn has raised. [The issue of sati is a
troublesome one, as I understand that when the British prohibited the practice,
thousands of Indian women marched in protest. This datum is the kicker in the
wise ones deciding for the "tribals." We get surprised and hurt when the
people we're trying to help don't appreciate our efforts. There are lots of
other examples of this sort of thing in the ethnographic literature, though
sati is certainly one of the more dramatic.]

Both Fillitz and Golden point out dangers in the relativist position. My off-
line question to Michelle is one that I'll put to all of you. Is there a way
of avoiding another sterile polemic between absolutism and relativism by
somehow shifting the terms of the debate? What I have in mind is something on
the order of integrating anthropological findings into workable public policy.
As Michelle pointed out, these issues are "layered," that is, specific
cultural practices are manifestations of underlying cultural premises on the
one hand, connected to other cultural practices on the other, and part of a
larger set of contexts that include the natrual environment to which practices
are adapted, the intergroup social context in which both social and natural
adaptations are played out, and the larger economic-political orders that can
and often do constrain the local-regional orders. Within each level, there is
a good deal of variability from place to place. One size fits all is, for
practical purposes, wishful thinking. But does this mean that there is no way
to take a general construct like human rights and make it flexible enough to
be adaptable to specific situations?

Not to complicate the issue any further, I would have to add that specific
solutions based on general principles still would have to be sustainable. This
means that hard-nosed ethnography would have to be a prerequisite for any
proposal for specific change. This would inevitably involve the local people
deciding what THEY want. (What if we don't like it?)

Mike Lieber
have to be sustainable