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Anthropology by other means: Searching for the canon of anthropology in classical studies

 “Anthropology by other means: Searching for the canon of anthropology in classical studies”

Proseminar in Social and Cultural Anthropology

Spring 2013

Ian Bensberg Maurer School of Law


Definition of the canon


In order to find the canon of socio-cultural anthropology, it is first necessary to have an idea of what to look for. The canon is the set of texts or authors that are canonical, that is, the set of those works that serve as a kind of standard or authority. I propose that, within this idea of the canon in the academic context, four different senses are further distinguishable. A single author or work may be canonical in one, several or all of these senses.

A craftsman’s canon: I propose ethnography as the model object of this kind of canonicity. An ethnography is a very particular kind of academic work, having its own logic and standards as work, and these may be followed poorly or well. A canonical ethnography in this sense teaches (or used to teach; this kind of canonicity may be obsolete in modern anthropology) other anthropologists how to write good ethnographies. E.g. Evans-Pritchard, Abu-Lughod.

A social-professional canon: Works that may or may not actually be read, but familiarity with which constitutes a kind of signifier of professional legitimacy, a signifier that one is an anthropologist, and a real anthropologist. The texts of this canon and the discourse surrounding it can function to reproduce the normative biases of a discipline’s social and intellectual conditions. E.g. Wilamowitz in classical studies.

An architectonic canon: Works or authors canonical in this sense have served to constitute an academic discipline according to the terms under which its practitioners now stand. They have defined the discipline as a discipline, as a field preoccupied with certain kinds of subjects, according to certain habits of thought, within a certain horizon of possibility, etc. E.g. Weber, Mauss, Fraser.

A programmatic canon: Works or authors canonical in this sense have broadly defined a positive program of research or a methodology for the discipline to whose canon they belong. Still going concerns, programmatically canonical works have set broad agendas within which individual practitioners undertake concrete research projects. E.g. Wolf and political economy in anthropology, Tuhiwai Smith and decolonizing anthropology; this kind of canonicity characterizes most or all of the works we read this semester to a greater or lesser extent.


Hypotheses and method


My first hypothesis was that something like a programmatic canon exists in cultural anthropology, and that its content is of immediate practical concern to anthropologists as practitioners. My second hypothesis was that examining work in a discipline cognate to anthropology, classical studies, will grant a special kind of access to anthropology’s programmatic canon. To the extent that classical studies constitutes a formally and functionally separate discipline, it is largely free of the concerns that animate the social-professional, architectonic, and craftsman’s canons in anthropology. To the extent that classical studies and anthropology have, for much of their histories, shared a similar object, namely the life of pre-modern or non-modern humanity, the kinds of questions being asked in anthropology, the kinds of arguments made and the kinds of evidence adduced can bear directly on the work practitioners of classical studies undertake.

I conceived three approaches of finding out the programmatic canon: 1) An analysis of a small but durable genre within classical studies of studies of the type “Anthropology and Classics”. The following works were reviewed, with greater emphasis on later writing: Anthropology and the Classics, R.R. Marett (1908); Anthropology and the Classics, Clyde Kluckhohn (1961); Anthropology and the Greeks, Sarah Humphreys (1978); James Redfield, “Classics and Anthropology” (1991); Paul Cartledge, “The Greeks and anthropology” (1994); Marcel Detienne, “Back to the Village: A Tropism of Hellenists?” (2001). 2) Searching in a sample of five major journals of classical studies for ten major figures in anthropology. Journals searched were Arion, Hesperia, Classical Quarterly, Hermes, Mnemosyne; I searched for references to F. Boas, C. Levi-Strauss, M. Foucault, E. Wolf, M. Harris, M. Sahlins, B. Malinowski, C. Geertz, K. Polanyi, M. Mauss. 3) A review of two major works by classicists published within a few years of one another and acknowledged to have helped inaugurate an “anthropologizing” of classics: E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and The Irrational (1951), and M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (1954).




Working through the three approaches outlined above in order, I was consistently unable to find what I had set out to look for. I found this a paradoxical result, to the extent that the self-understanding of contemporary classicists seems characterized by an awareness of a mounting debt owed to anthropology. This awareness, however, has taken the form, not of sustained engagement the work of few or many anthropologists, but of sustained engagement with classical scholars who themselves give careful attention to anthropological texts, particularly those of Mauss, Polanyi, Malinowski, and, for those working in a more or less separately defined French tradition, Levi-Strauss.

The article or book in the genre “Anthropology and Classics” typifies this tendency, to the extent that they show themselves to be much more interested in the classics than in anthropology, even when written by practicing anthropologists (Kluckhohn 1961). In broad outline it is possible to trace a movement that, under the direction of anthropological work, moves away from a division between ancient societies as the expositors of “civilization” and indigenous societies as “natural” or “savage”, but this kind of tendency is not the programmatic canon as I defined it.

Reviewing references to figures in anthropology within journals of classical studies produced similarly ambiguous results. Methodologically it proved difficult to rigorously distinguish substantive references to a certain text from casual name-dropping and generalizing allusion. Clear at least was the predominance of an author whose status in anthropology is itself ambiguous, Michel Foucault (more than 100 citations). Malinowski and Polanyi form a second tier, but this is traceable to the intervention of M.I. Finley reviewed below; Mauss and Levi-Strauss figure in similar numbers in a tradition borrowing more directly from French critical and social theory (fewer than 30 citations). Boas, Wolf, Sahlins and Geertz earn fewer than 15 citations each, and Harris none at all.

The books of Dodds and Finley continue to generate responses within classical studies, but this is much less meaningfully true for the anthropological work they borrow from. Finley borrows does engage with Mauss, Polanyi and Malinowski in sustained attempts to understand ancient economic life, but their work is ineligible for inclusion in the canon of contemporary anthropology (if this is defined post-1970), and are not in any way at the forefront of anthropological work today. Dodds works in a serious way with the notions of shame and guilt culture, but this approach proved more fruitful for philosophers (e.g. Bernard Williams) than for contemporary anthropology, which has since moved well past these concepts.