Re: seeking refs on comparative work

Robert Snower (rs222@WORLDNET.ATT.NET)
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 21:07:05 +0000

At 02:29 PM 7/31/96 +0000, Wade Tarzia wrote:
>Hello -- I'm seeking opinions and references on the use of comparisions or
>analogies in anthropological research (esp. folkloric, but not limited to
>it). By all means, speak to me in general or specific terms. This is my
>request in a nutshell. What follows is the context for my request, which
>probably isn't critical reading but may focus the issue for some.
>I am aware that the making of ethnographic analogies is risky and seems to
>be quite out of favor. Since I sometimes work on medieval folklore, which
>is recorded in manuscripts and is thus of uncertain origin (ie, we know
>little of context, oral or literary basis in creation, what mixture of
>traditional and nontraditional elements, etc.).
>When I was a graduate student I was prone to making many kinds of analogies
>-- for example, I wondered if study of modern African
>warrior-cattle-herding people might illuminate the actions of heroes
>depicted in medieval Irish sagas (which depicted warrior-cattle-herders).
>In publishing some of this work I ran into peer reviewers who reacted who
>reacted with extreme distaste as well others for whom the issue did not
>seem critical (at least in the way I had stated it). Since I took my PhD
>out of an English department, the issue *then* wasn't an issue because the
>professors were either (1) intrigued by the comparisons and my
>anthropological approach or (2) entirely mystified by why I had strayed so
>far from Shakespeare ;-) and were thus out of the picture from the start.
>(now I wish I gone through an anthro dept. -- there are no jobs in either
>discipline, so why not? But that's another story.)
>I was lucky enough to recruit an archaeologist for my dissertation
>committee, who kept me out of serious trouble, but still the issue has not
>evaporated for me. Though I recognize the roles of contingency and
>tradition-dependence in human behavior, I have imagined the similar working
>of the human mind (in at least very broad terms) and somewhat similar
>social parameters (for example, the needs of chiefdom societies with a
>pastoral component) can produce similar responses within some range of
>options (ie, both medieval Irish saga and modern Arabic R'wala nomads used
>the concept of ritualized raiding involving attacks deemed honorable or
>dishonorable -- is this coincidence or a useful control over conflict in
>societies with somewhat fluid social links operating through kinship, such
>that reduction of conflict might avoid kinship conflicts? etc., etc., just
>an example, don't focus on this specific).
>Please make me aware of publications that may have treated the use or taboo
>against making analogies between societies separated by time and space.
>And opinions are welcome, either public or private. Thanks.
> --wade tarzia

You don't understand cultural relativism. The various cultures around the
globe are like various flavors of ice cream. They are all equally
delicious. Objectively, they are all equal. Objectively, one is as good as
another. It is a matter of taste. The differences between them are
strictly subjective. If you go and find analogies between them, you are
getting objective. It means some have something in common the others do not
have, and someone might ask why. That is dangerous, because a common
feature implies a common origin. Now you are talking evolution. Evolution
means higher and lower, hierarchy, and that means dominance, racism, and
imperialism. Since evolution presupposes competition, you have got to
embrace collectivism, and you have got to condemn the culture whose soul is
competition, namely Western culture, or you are necessarily an evil man who
endorses dominance, racism, and imperialism.

Cultural relativism deletes the time dimension. It taboos the great
anthropologists--Frazer, Jane Harrison, Jessie Weston, Cornford, Shapiro,
others--as evolutionists. It puts sociobiology in the closet, and even
intellectual journals rail against Darwin, in this day and age. It condemns
objectivity, extols subjectivity, turns empirical observation into wishful
thinking, and talks about the Sociology of Science. It condemns the free
market, and sometimes, the democracy of self-interest.

Now this might be all well and good, it might be argued, because it is being
done in a good cause: to eliminate dominance, racism, sexism, and
imperialism. But this is a delusion. There is a catch-22. Cultural
relativism is making a huge error. Its condemnation of competition at the
individual level in favor of ethnic collectivism creates a very dangerous
situation. It automatically lifts the competition to the group
level--ethnicism, I call it. And this is what really equates to racism,
sexism, and imperialism, i.e., the wrong kinds of competition.

Best wishes. R. Snower