humn rights, etc.

Thomas Fillitz (thomas.fillitz@UNIVIE.AC.AT)
Tue, 6 Dec 1994 14:47:06 +0100

Obviously, the whole debate now hit a sensitive nerf of anthropology. In
challenge are not only absolutism VS relativism, but also utilitaristic
theories, the "functioning" of societies - tradition as preservation, the
right to intervention for scientists.

If women like Nawal al Sadaawi in Egypt, or Fatima Mernissi in Morocco are
fighting for women=B4s rights (against circumcision, etc.) in Muslim
societies, we should take that serious, i.e. reflect why we "simply" report
on the functioning of marital practices... - especially, as the ideological
argument always runs with Islam, Islam - in its principles - is
"unfortunately" not guilty for these practices!

Why don=B4t we consider the dimension of Sahlin=B4s "Culture and Practical
Reason" in which he clearly states that it is culture which constitutes
meaning, that culture constructs constraints which the members have to
follow. Considering these assumptions, we should try to look for
explanations of phenomena not in utilitaristic theories, but it seems more
appropriate to consider conceptions of the individual, of gender, what
moral principles are common, etc. Possibly, some conceptions might turn out
as being ideological, having nothing or few to do with some considerations
of any need for the "functioning" of a given society (in such a concern we
also cannot speak of any politically "incorrect" view).

The point about absolutism and relativism is always this "either / or".
With absolutism we definitely fall into "eurocentrism", but with a
relativism, there is no level or possibility of criticising. My field
experience is that people talk with me, tell me their opinion (critique)
and also wanted me to tell them what I was thinking of customs of theirs.
And, pushing further, isn=B4t it a mistake of us to believe that traditions
are equivalent with preservation? Who tells me, who tells them that there
current traditions were really those from a hundred years (or more) ago? In
many case I do argue that traditions are pretty strongly re-elaborated in
the present - see the kastom debate in Melanesia -, see those societies in
which there are conflicting groups. Godelier showed in his analysis on the
Baruya that some perceptions changed quite a lot after having got access to
women=B4s domains and ideas! (who asked the Yanomamo women about their

I would suggest that Republicans and Democrates in the States perceive
quite differently American history!

Luis Medina stated that anthro-studies start with us - they truly start
with our thinking, perceiving, our norms and values which we for ourselves
have to reflect in our work - also in ethnography (not only practicing
fielwork in our countries, I don=B4t want to forget all the other societies)=
That=B4s according to me the only way to handle between absolutism and

=46inally, I really feel uncomfortable with a "world commission" - objective
in their right to defend life (see Ania Lian) - is there a real moral

Thomas Fillitz Institut fuer Voelkerkunde University of Vienna