Return to Laughter - Laura Bohannan

Laura Bohannan’s anthropological novel Return to Laughter (1954), originally written under the pen-name of Elenore Smith Bowen, is my favorite book to discuss the institutionalization of fieldwork as the core of US professional anthropology in the 1940s and 1950s. Bohannan’s novel reveals how fieldwork could and should have been the fulfillment of the Boasian concept of culture. Yet fieldwork, and especially the resulting ethnographic monograph as the ticket to a doctoral degree, becomes one of the most potent ways that culture becomes reified. Culture becomes homogeneous, static, and ahistorical, cut off from the global flows that made fieldwork possible in the first place.

Laura Bohannan’s account in Return to Laughter vividly lets us feel how anthropologists went from ideas about difference to truly experiencing and living that difference. Return to Laughter shows how even our most basic notions about time and space are not given in nature or geography, but are deeply patterned by human experience and learned behavior. On time:

Already time had taken on a more individualistic and yet more seasonable aspect than I had been used to. . . . The rains began when it began to rain; when it began to rain, people started to plant. One could say that a man had done his planting late, but not that the rains had come late. (1954:68-69)

On space and social distance:

There was no way, other than going myself, by which I could learn how many miles I was being asked to walk. One “not far” excursion put me to bed for a couple of days after a twenty-five mile round trip without food or water, whereafter I set out on a “far” journey equipped with lunch and water, only to find it less than four miles in all. At first I thought that their use of these words was incontrovertible evidence that they had no idea of distance. Then I figured out that “far” referred not only to space, but to time and social distance as well. (1954:52)

And, as might be expected from the author of Shakespeare in the Bush, very interesting insights on language and social meaning.

Return to Laughter, Social Organization, and Kinshipology

One of the things that has always interested me about Return to Laughter is how the discoveries of fieldwork, in all of its multifaceted messiness, seem to often get jammed back into the categories that anthropologists had already been developing. In particular, Bohannan’s character makes the extremely interesting discovery that she has acquired the kinship term mother:

“You feed Ihugh, therefore you are his mother.” Udama corrected me firmly but quite patiently now that she saw I meant no insult. “Listen, Redwoman, if a woman dies, do her children become motherless? Is not the woman who feeds them and cares for them their mother? Therefore these are not merely matters of birth. They are matters of deed as well.” . . . I wrestled with the implications of this dual aspect of kinship, by birth and by deed. (1954:126-127)

In other words, years before Pierre Bourdieu was writing about misinterpreting genealogical records as the “fallacies of the rule” in Outline of a Theory of Practice (see John Thiel’s comment on culture), Laura Bohannan was well positioned to question the basics of all those kinship charts anthropologists had been gathering.

Yet just a few pages after that discovery, Laura Bohannan’s character asserts the dominance of kinship and blood: “Here people looked for little in marriage. A man would turn to his sixteenth cousin twice removed before he turned to his wife. Here the important ties were between blood relatives” (1954:131).

In What Is Anthropology?, Thomas Hylland Eriksen talks about how “in the early 1950s, in the heyday of British structural-functionalism, kinship studies were in fact so dominant that outsiders spoke ironically of [anthropology] as kinshipology” (2004:102). Bohannan, an American but trained in British anthropology, reasserts kinshipology, even as the fieldwork facts seem to be saying something quite different–and surely the reckoning of a “sixteenth cousin twice removed” speaks to us more as British kin-classification!

This seems to be something anthropology must constantly visit and revisit: how the lessons from fieldwork can be so easily jammed back into the categories we had already been looking for; how counteracting one stereotype (“they live in anarchic disorder!”) so easily leads to another (“they live by kinship!”).


For teaching about kinship in an Introduction to Anthropology course, see Is Kinship Important?

For an update on teaching this material in a Cultural Anthropology course, see Kinshipology: Blood and Kinship in Anthropological Fieldwork.