Margaret Mead & Jared Diamond

Update 2018: Paul Shankman’s article “The Public Anthropology of Margaret Mead: Redbook, Women’s Issues, and the 1960s” appears in the February 2018 issue of Current Anthropology. See Open Marriage Anthro for my comment on Shankman’s article, and see below for comments on the conference version.

Public Anthropology

In 2013 I had the honor and pleasure to be discussant for a panel on Margaret Mead and Jared Diamond. Alex Golub organized Past Publics, Current Engagements for the 2013 American Anthropological Association meetings. I read and commentted on papers by Alex Golub, Nancy Lutkehaus, Ira Bashkow, Maureen Anne Molloy, Jim Roscoe, and Paul Shankman. I focused my comments on Jared Diamond and the future of public anthropology.

Jared Diamond as Public Anthropology

With the publication of The World Until Yesterday you could now teach a four-fields Introduction to Anthropology using only Jared Diamond. Start with The Third Chimpanzee for biological anthropology, move to Guns, Germs and Steel for archaeology, then The World Until Yesterday for cultural anthropology, drawing across these works for a smattering of linguistics, always a sub-theme for Diamond. You could even throw in Collapse as a tale of political-and-moral obligation around climate change. And apparently, according to Gillian Tett’s interview with Jared Diamond, there is yet another big book on the way, bringing us all the way back to the modern world: “In the next couple of years, Diamond plans to write a blockbuster analysis of how modern civilisations ‘manage’ the process of change and crisis.” Great.

While most anthropologists would shudder at Jared-Diamond-as-Anthropology, it is pretty much standard for how the undergraduate-level audience gets their public anthropology and world history. As is obvious from these papers, Jared Diamond may now be a primary conduit for how people think they know what they know about culture and cultural relativism.

Anthropological reactions to Jared Diamond have always varied tremendously. Most anthropologists have ignored him, which is one reason he has been able to construct an anthropology-esque empire. Some urge us to continue ignoring him, simply substituting good anthropology for bad. However, perhaps as most saliently noted in the papers by Nancy Lutkehaus and Jim Roscoe, ignoring the people who are public figures–or attempts to ignore the fact that anthropology has been ignored–is something we do at our peril.

Other anthropologists have attacked, and even though anthropologists are hardly alone in scolding Diamond–indeed arguments from historians and geographers can be sharper and harsher–anthropology has earned a reputation of uniquely hating Diamond. As I have myself learned, attacks on Jared Diamond often fall into a kind of rehearsed pattern–you’re just jealous; you’re a small-minded academic versus a really big thinker; and so on. It’s a pattern that Roscoe’s paper alludes to when he talks about the main directions contemporary anthropology has moved–it is difficult to put the critique of Diamond simply, and even if done well it is easily button-holed into counter-accusation: You’re a deconstructionist! You’re an advocate! You’re seeking complexity for complexity’s sake!

This set of papers really takes us into a much more sophisticated level of engagement. First and foremost, by brilliantly pulling in Margaret Mead, they make us wrestle with the history of anthropology, both as an academic discipline and in its most dramatic outreach as public anthropology. This allows us to turn away from lists of individual foibles and scholarly deficiencies to where we most need to go: understanding the structural character of Diamond’s argument, and the conditions of possibility that have resulted in this Jared Diamond effect. In fact, that’s what Nancy Lutkehaus has already done in analyzing the structure of possibility of Margaret Mead as an “academostar”–a result of savvy promotion but also a media world that needed a Mead. Here, I would completely agree with Lutkehaus’s analysis in her paper that in Diamond we have a revival of what Trouillot called the Savage Slot–in part because people still want and need that slot, in part because anthropology in some sense did not attack the thematic as much as ignore it or turn to other points. As Bashkow said, we are “past all that,” but we moved past-all-that without dismantling the Savage Slot in public.

Pulling in the public role of Margaret Mead also introduces us to new facets of public anthropology, like Paul Shankman’s fascinating analysis of Mead’s Redbook columns. We might have thought this was the closest any anthropologist ever got to writing an anthropology blog in the 1960s: Mead’s style, focus, what she talked and did not talk about, are nothing short of revelatory. Plus, finding out that two anthropologists wrote a book called Open Marriage that sold 35 million copies in 1972. That’s worth knowing about.

Similarly Maureen Molloy’s paper takes us into keyword searches for the first mention of anthropology in the New York Times as well as an overview of relations among disciplines and news coverage since the early twentieth century. As an opening salvo in an ongoing project, we can hope for more, perhaps including the keyword searches now available on Google books and other digitization outlets.

My main aim is simply to encourage the effort. We might be tempted to dismiss this as a cute endpoint to wrap-up the Jared Diamond year: draw some unexpected parallels to Margaret Mead and then let it be. Rather, this needs to be a starting point for a larger engagement. The tactic of ignoring Diamond–or again, the structures that make a Jared Diamond possible–cannot be sustained.

Jared Diamond & Ruth Benedict

Toward that end, I would like to push the panelists a bit. My overall suggestion is to bring in more of Ruth Benedict. As brilliant as it is to make the parallel to Margaret Mead, and as the papers have shown, as fruitful as the connections are in primary fieldsite material as well as personality comparisons, if we submerge Ruth Benedict we accomplish the trick of exaggerating the importance of Margaret Mead. This was a feat Mead pulled off herself, even in relation to Benedict, but we want to be careful not to fall for it here. As Sidney Mintz said about Benedict-Mead: “Benedict was Mead’s teacher, but if you listened to Mead, it was the other way around.”

That said, I don’t want to be the person who is simply here to say, “but you forgot Benedict!” Instead, the Benedict example may be used to sharpen and elaborate themes across the panel and for individual papers.

Golub’s location of Diamond’s coming of age, of his allegiance to a scientific project that culminated just before anthropology’s turn in the late 1960s to history, interconnection, and power, strikes me as precisely correct. As Golub notes, this turn to history, interconnection and power had a certain hegemony within the discipline, and it is the people who still live from that moment, and their intellectual heirs–and it is my dream to be considered an intellectual heir to that moment–who are the most exercised about Diamond. Of course, even by invoking Bourdieu and Eric Wolf, Golub is perhaps himself signaling an allegiance to that moment and the kinds of analyses which flowed from it. But we might immediately question whether the turn to history, interconnection, and power, as significant as it was, ever truly became hegemonic. There was Clifford Geertz; there was Writing Culture, and it isn’t like Levi-Strauss had entirely quit the scene.

Differently said, and going back to Lutkehaus on the academostar, even if the turn to history, interconnection, and power became quite dominant within the discipline, they were always fighting a rearguard action and did little in the public sphere to attack the Savage Slot head-on.

In this sense, Diamond is not exactly a Boasian, but a manifestation of a possible Boasian program. Ruth Benedict was also such a manifestation, and in her Patterns of Culture we find a similar impetus to consider cultural wholes, isolated from the currents of history and power, and very explicit statements that other peoples were the laboratory of the anthropological experiment. Of course when other anthropologists tried to duplicate this emphasis on cultural wholes in a pristine laboratory, it became apparent that the world didn’t work like that–which is one of the reasons for the turn to history, interconnection, and power.

Interestingly, when we do look at Diamond’s edited volume on Natural Experiments of History, and especially to the chapter he wrote for that volume, it seems to my very quick reading that Diamond acknowledges how his overall schema falls apart. Easter Island was Diamond’s most famous example, as “the Earth writ small.” However, my read of Diamond’s chapter is that when he actually digs a bit into the history, he begins to understand (although not completely) that each island and society cannot be understood apart from each society’s particular history and insertion into the colonial regime: “Thus Easter became deforested not because its inhabitants were especially shortsighted or did especially strange things, but because they had the bad luck to find themselves living on one of the Pacific’s most environmentally fragile islands, with the lowest regrowth rates of trees” (Natural Experiments of History, 133). So I would push Golub a bit on these details–is this book in fact the Jared Diamond, Footnoted which quietly upends the Diamond paradigm?
(See the October 2017 update below for a much more devastating critique of the “ecocide” charge with regard to Easter Island.)

I’m also quite curious about the relation of Benedict to Reo Fortune and Margaret Mead, as described in Ira Bashkow’s paper. Fortune, of course, could have used the popularity of what Benedict did with his Dobuan material in order to catapult into the public frame. If, as Bashkow says, public audiences are made, not found, he would have had a kind of ready-made audience to write a sequel: “Patterns of Culture II, The Devious Dobuans.” Baskow suggests, however, that Fortune was quite faithful, perhaps too faithful to the people he was studying, and apparently Fortune did quietly disavow Benedict’s tale about Dobu, similarly to how Fortune eventually contradicted Mead on the Arapesh.

Benedict may have more lessons for Bashkow’s distinction between responsiveness to the reader and responsiveness to the subjects. While this is a very insightful way to think things through, I wonder if it too much addresses a public anthropology that should no longer be. For example, if we look at Benedict’s other bestseller, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, it was roundly critiqued as ethnography but found a huge audience in Japan, and is therefore an early example of a work that cross-cuts the categories of people-who-read and people-who-are-studied. It seems that a public anthropology–and I am here in accord with Roscoe and Bashkow that there may not ever be a “public at large” or a “monolithic public”–needs to think about the people-who-are-studied as the primary people-who-read. Taking this step would also encourage anthropologists to take much better account of local scholarship–people inside and outside of academia, in our fieldsites, who produce commentary and knowledge about their societies. Or in other words, we resolutely must maintain responsiveness to our subjects, but we have to find out how our subjects are themselves readers and writers, and who may also have concerns about public anthropology and the purpose of anthropology.

In that way, Benedict also offers a potential counterpoint to Jim Roscoe’s trilogy of clarity, narrative arc, and character development. Now I don’t want to speak against clarity, or against narrative, or characters. We can all do better at those things, and there are a number of contemporary anthropologists already doing it well. But Benedict was a bestseller who was also a bit messier, with long paragraphs, and some narrative density. I fear that if we always say public anthropology is going to need to be simpler, it may induce a certain despair or cookie-cutter model, when in fact there could always be multiple models. As Lutkehaus relates, Mead was also a great public speaker who could pontificate from 3×5 notecards. But again, do not despair–Benedict sold a lot of books with a very different public speaking persona. Or, as Golub more recently enjoined us, consider using the complexity of Game of Thrones as a model.

Maureen Molloy crucially identifies the 1930s as the key moment in popular appropriations of the culture concept. Certainly Benedict’s 1934 Patterns of Culture sits squarely in that moment, and tied to developments in psychology and psychoanalysis. Admittedly Benedict as keyword fares low on the list in comparison to Boas and Mead, even in 1939. Nevertheless, given that this list is before the publication of the pamphlet by Benedict and Gene Weltfish on the The Races of Mankind, later marked as subversive propaganda and getting Weltfish ousted by McCarthy, the popular pamphlet speaks to what Malloy distills as a salient theme in these years.

My “bring in Benedict” idea does not work so well with Paul Shankman’s analysis of Mead in Redbook. Benedict died in 1948, and Mead would go on for another 30 years. We don’t even know what Benedict would have done with the 1950s, let alone the 1960s. Still, it seems Benedict might have been a bit less staid than the Mead of Redbook. Here is Benedict in 1934:

Our fears over even very minor shifts in custom are usually quite beside the point. Civilizations might change far more radically than any human authority has ever had the will or the imagination to change them, and still be completely workable. The minor changes that occasion so much denunciation today, such as the increase of divorce, the growing secularization in our cities, the prevalence of the petting party, and many more, could be taken up quite readily into a slightly different pattern of culture. Becoming traditional, they would be given the same richness of content, the same importance and value, that the older patterns had in other generations” (Benedict, Patterns of Culture 1934:36-37)

Nevertheless, the advantage is still that when we bring this panel to public anthropology, Benedict is a less polarizing figure than Margaret Mead, someone who potentially pulls people more into the history of anthropological thought rather than encourages the kind of stereotyped back-and-forths that Shankman wants to avoid by analyzing Redbook, and what we want to avoid by diagnosing, and going beyond, Jared Diamond.

I wish to again emphasize how excited I am by these papers, and to encourage that this be a starting point for wider tactics of engagement as public anthropology.

Updates on Public Anthropology & Jared Diamond

See The truth about Easter Island: A sustainable society has been falsely blamed for its own demise by Catrine Jarman (October 2017) for a devastating critique of Jared Diamond’s ecocide argument:

The real answer is more sinister. Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining. . . .
Perhaps, then, the takeaway from Rapa Nui should not be a story of ecocide and a Malthusian population collapse. Instead, it should be a lesson in how sparse evidence, a fixation with “mysteries”, and a collective amnesia for historic atrocities caused a sustainable and surprisingly well-adapted population to be falsely blamed for their own demise. (Note: This article was reprinted January 2018 in Sapiens as What Really Happened on Easter Island?)

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2014. “Public Anthropology: Margaret Mead, Jared Diamond, and Onward.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 21 July 2014. Revised 15 April 2018.

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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