Anthropology Beyond Cultural Relativism

We read the first half of chapter 1, “Culture, nature, environment” in Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment and discussed the need for anthropology beyond cultural relativism:

The lecture was for the 2022 course on the History of Anthropological Thought. Originally, the material was for Cultural Ecology 2020.

Anthropology Beyond Cultural Relativism

Tim Ingold’s Perception of the Environment, begins with the example of a caribou (or reindeer in Europe) turning to face its pursuer. Biologists explain this as an evolutionary adaptation to wolf predation. For human hunters, however, this moment presents an easy opportunity for a kill:

Biologists have explained this behaviour as an adaptation to predation by wolves. When the reindeer stops, the pursuing wolf stops too, both of them getting their breath back for the final, decisive phase of the episode when the deer turns to flight and the wolf rushes to overtake it. Since it is the deer that takes the initiative in breaking the stalemate, it has a slight head start, and indeed a healthy adult deer can generally outrun a wolf (Mech 1970: 200–3). But the deer’s tactic, that gives it such an advantage against wolves, renders it peculiarly vulnerable when encountering human hunters equipped with projectile weapons or even firearms. When the animal turns to face the hunter, it provides the latter with a perfect opportunity to take aim and shoot. For wolves, deer are easy to find, since they travel with the herd, but hard to kill; for humans, to the contrary, deer may be hard to find, but once you have established contact, they are rather easy to kill. (13)

The scientific explanation frames this as an evolutionary mismatch. However, Indigenous perspectives, such as those of the Cree, interpret this differently. For them, the caribou’s gaze represents an act of giving itself up, participating in a cycle of regeneration equated with love and reproduction. This contrast in interpretations sets the stage for Ingold’s critique of standard anthropological approaches and his push for anthropology beyond cultural relativism.

Diverse Western Thought vs. Standard Anthropological Response

In class I contrast the two typical responses to such Indigenous hunting stories:

  1. Mainstream Western scientific thought: Often reacts with “cynicism and incredulity” (Ingold, 13-14). Scientists might view these stories as irrational or allegorical. “Are the folk who tell these stories mad, lost in a fog of irrational superstition, or simply having us on?” (14).
  2. Standard Anthropological Response: Suspends disbelief, attempting to explain the cultural context and worldview that makes these stories meaningful.

While the standard anthropological response appears to challenge some Western scientific perspectives, Ingold argues it actually results in a “double disengagement” (15). To classify hunting stories as “cultural construction” is a double disengagement which: 1) take humans out of nature: humans have culture, other creatures don’t; 2) Take anthropologists out of culture.

This critique forms a key part of Ingold’s push for anthropology beyond cultural relativism.

Towards a New Anthropological Approach

Ingold urges us to go further, to “retrace the two steps in the reverse direction” (16) and “level the ranking” (16) between Indigenous accounts and scientific explanations. This means truly taking other perspectives seriously, not just as cultural constructions, but as potential sources of insight about the world.

To illustrate this approach, Ingold re-examines two giants of anthropological thought: Gregory Bateson and Claude Lévi-Strauss. This re-examination is crucial to understanding how anthropology can move beyond cultural relativism.

Lévi-Strauss, despite attempting to dissolve boundaries between mind and world, ultimately reinforces a separation where the mind decodes information from an external world.

Bateson, however, explicitly sought to dissolve this boundary. His example of “the blind person’s cane” (18) illustrates how perception involves active movement through the world, not passive reception of information. For Ingold, this aligns with his view that we apprehend the world through movement and engagement, not by decoding pre-existing information.

Rethinking “Environment” & “Nature”

In his push for anthropology beyond cultural relativism, Ingold argues that “environment” is always a “relative term” (20), existing in relation to the organisms that inhabit it. He rejects the concept of “nature” as something separate from human beings. The environment is a relative term, and the organism and environment are an “indivisible totality” (20), always in process.

This perspective aims to place humans back within the world, not apart from it, challenging both mainstream scientific views and standard anthropological approaches.

Anthropology’s Unfinished Project

Anthropology has developed the concept of “perceptual relativism” (15), which Ingold describes as: “That people from different cultural backgrounds perceive reality in different ways since they process the same data of experience in terms of alternative frameworks of belief or representational schema” (15).

For many anthropology courses, this relativizing project would be sufficient to challenge mainstream assumptions. However, Ingold pushes for anthropology beyond cultural relativism, arguing that this approach still maintains a problematic separation between humans and the world they inhabit.

Ingold proposes an alternative that sees humans as actively engaged in and part of their environment, not just observers or interpreters of it. This approach dissolves the nature-culture divide that persists even in many relativist anthropological perspectives.

Reconsidering Lévi-Strauss

Interestingly, Ingold’s view of Lévi-Strauss evolved, illustrating the ongoing process of pushing anthropology beyond cultural relativism. While critical in his earlier work, Ingold praises a new translation of Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée Sauvage as Wild Thought:

This new translation of Lévi-Strauss’s masterpiece is a revelation. To read Wild Thought is to marvel in the curiosity not only of its illustrious author but also of the countless people whose conceptual wizardry spills out onto the pages. In engaging and delightful prose, Wild Thought lets Anglophone readers at last relish the sheer joyousness and ingenuity of an unparalleled intellectual adventure.

This shift highlights how translation issues have affected the reception of French theorists in the English-speaking world. The original title, poorly translated as The Savage Mind, obscured Lévi-Strauss’s core argument about the brilliance and equivalence of Indigenous thought systems.

As I was entering graduate school, I encountered an intriguing perspective from my mentor, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Despite critiquing anthropology’s “Savage Slot” in his famous essay, Trouillot praised Lévi-Strauss for attacking the Savage slot. This apparent contradiction always puzzled me: I now think that Trouillot, a scholar from Haiti and a French speaker, was reading Lévi-Strauss in the original French, and so did not need to worry about a badly-translated title.

Trouillot recognized that Lévi-Strauss’s work, far from reinforcing the idea of “primitive” thought, actually demonstrated the sophisticated logic and structure of Indigenous knowledge systems. By doing so, Lévi-Strauss challenged the very foundations of Western intellectual superiority that had long justified colonial attitudes.

Conclusion: Implications & Potential Critiques

Ingold’s work pushes us to reconsider not just our understanding of other cultures, but the very foundations of how we think about human beings in relation to the world. It challenges us to move beyond cultural relativism to a deeper engagement with diverse ways of knowing and being in the world.

This approach has significant implications for contemporary anthropological practice and theory. It suggests that anthropologists should not merely document or interpret different cultural perspectives, but actively engage with them as potential sources of insight into the nature of reality and human-environment relationships.

Recap: Anthropology Beyond Cultural Relativism

We read the first half of chapter 1, “Culture, nature, environment” in Tim Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment and discussed the need for anthropology beyond cultural relativism:

The lecture was for the 2022 course on the History of Anthropological Thought. Originally, the material was for Cultural Ecology 2020.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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