Anthropology’s Paradox

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we read three selections which ended up highlighting anthropology’s paradox:

These readings were For The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after reading section two, “On Methods of Fieldwork“:

  • Bronisław Malinowski, “The Essentials of the Kula” (1922)
  • Marcel Mauss, Excerpt from The Gift (1925)
  • Ruth Benedict, “The Science of Custom” (1935)

Next: Logics

Summary: Anthropology’s Paradox

Social Upheaval & Unilineal Social Evolutionism

The 19th century was a time of tumultuous change and social upheaval, with revolutionary figures like Marx, Engels, Lucy Parsons, and Frederick Douglass. Despite this upheaval, the idea of unilineal social evolutionism became more entrenched, as expressed in Lewis Henry Morgan’s work. Although Lewis Henry Morgan’s framework was not necessarily based on race, the more racist versions of unilineal social evolutionism suggested that people’s capabilities and place in the world hierarchy were determined by their race or physical environment.

Franz Boas & Historical Particularism

Franz Boas questioned this overarching social structure through historical particularism, the idea that each society must be explained in terms of its own history and development rather than on an evolutionary scale. Boas promoted fieldwork, suggesting that social evolution should be tested as a hypothesis rather than accepted as an organizing principle. This led to the promotion of culture and cultural relativism.

Margaret Mead & Coming of Age in Samoa

Margaret Mead’s 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, became a bestseller and made her a household name. Mead studied adolescent life in Samoa, focusing on the experiences of teenage girls. She argued that, in contrast to American teenagers, Samoan girls had relative sexual freedom and did not experience the same adolescent rebellion. This suggested that adolescence was not a universal biological stage but a product of culture and environment. (See Open Marriage Anthro for a contemporary update on Margaret Mead.)

Ruth Benedict & Patterns of Culture

Ruth Benedict’s 1934 book, Patterns of Culture, also became a significant bestseller. In contrast to ideas that EuroAmerican forms were by nature universal, Benedict argued that “this worldwide cultural diffusion has protected us as people have never been protected before from having to take seriously the civilizations of other peoples. It has given to our culture a massive universality that we have long ceased to account for historically” (74). She emphasized that “no man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking” (72). Boas, Benedict, and Mead formed a cohort asserting that culture, rather than biology or environment, explains human differences. This was a revolutionary idea in the United States during the heyday of eugenics and scientific racism. (See Anthropological Concept of Culture in Cultural Anthropology 2023.)

Bronisław Malinowski & the Kula Ring

Bronisław Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist, studied the Kula Ring in the Trobriand Islands:

The Kula is a form of exchange of extensive intertribal character; it is carried on by communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form a closed circuit. Along this route, articles of two kinds, and these two kinds only, are constantly traveling in opposite directions. In the direction of the hands of a clock, moves constantly one of these kinds–long necklaces of red shell, called soulava. In the opposite direction moves the other kind–bracelets of white shell called mwali. (64)

Malinowski compared these objects to the crown jewels in England, emphasizing that societies give value to things in strange ways, not just based on usefulness or beauty. Despite sometimes using problematic language, Malinowski sought to elevate the status of the Trobriand Islanders, calling them the Argonauts of the Western Pacific. (Although I do not discuss Malinowski very much on this blog, some earlier comments on the idea of admixture might be instructive.)

Marcel Mauss & The Gift

Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist, argued in his book The Gift that there is no “natural economy” in which people only exchange utilitarian items. Instead, many societies function on the idea of reciprocity, with obligations to give, receive, and give back. Gifts often serve as a way to influence others or achieve status and prestige through generosity.

The Paradox of Anthropology

While anthropologists like Boas, Benedict, and Mead argued for making room for human differences, they were not always willing to embrace more radical perspectives, such as those of Zora Neale Hurston. Malinowski believed that the anthropologist, as an outside observer, was the only one who could truly understand a culture, stating that “they have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure. They know their own motives, know the purpose of individual actions and the rules which apply to them, but how, they, the system and its rules, link up and integrate–this is beyond their mental range” (65). In contrast, Hurston valued people’s stories and experiences on a personal level, seeing them as experts in their own right.

This paradox in anthropology is exemplified by Hurston’s case. Despite her extensive fieldwork and literary acclaim, she was not fully accepted in the academy and died in obscurity. It was Black literary figures such as Alice Walker, not anthropologists, who later recognized the importance of her work.

Recap: Anthropology’s Paradox

In Anthropological Theory for the Twenty-First Century: A Critical Approach we read three selections which ended up highlighting anthropology’s paradox:

These readings were For The History of Anthro Thought 2024 after reading section two, “On Methods of Fieldwork“:

  • Bronisław Malinowski, “The Essentials of the Kula” (1922)
  • Marcel Mauss, Excerpt from The Gift (1925)
  • Ruth Benedict, “The Science of Custom” (1935)

Next: Logics


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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