Essay, Research Paper: Anthropology


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Transcending the Barriers "My primary interest is to explain something out
there that impinges me, and I would sell my soul to the devil if I thought it
would help." Eric Wolf, 1987. Eric Wolf's interest into the realm of
anthropology emerged upon recognition of the theorist- imposed boundaries,
encompassing both theories and subjects, which current and past anthropological
scholars had constructed. These boundaries, Wolf believed, were a result of
theorist tending to societies and cultures as fixed entities–static, bounded
and autonomous, rather then describing and interpreting societies within a state
of constant change, ceaselessly vulnerable to external influence, and always
interconnected with other societies. Yet to transcend current anthropological
theories and boundaries, and to explain this interconnectedness, in attempt to
understand the world, Wolf believed three criteria must be met: 1) To trace the
world market and the course of capitalist development, 2) To develop this theory
of this growth and development and finally, one must be able to relate both the
history and theory of that unfolding development to processes that affect and
change the lives of local populations Wolf, 1982:21) By tracing the formation of
Wolf's theory through these criteria, from Marxist and beyond, one can see how,
although Marxist in orientation, he goes beyond current anthropological theory
and attempts to diminish the boundaries, by suggesting that a political economic
theory laden with history in a macrocosomic context is the only means in which
one can begin to attempt to understand the world. Capitalist Development The
influence of Lewis Henry Morgon and his unilinear version of social evolution
posed as the backbone for Karl Marx and Fred Engels. Yet rather then
transcending from the primitive to the civilized upon "the classification
of cultures into seven distinct ethical periods" based on the development
of subsistence techniques (Kuper, 66), Marx and Engels based their course of
creation from primitive communism, through to feudalism and capitalism judged in
terms of the "Modes of Production" which dominated each stage. It was
these "Modes of Production", referring to the specific technologies,
which form the base or the "infrastructure" of a society. From this
base, Marx purposed a "Superstructure Theory" in which the base
determines the superstructure, that is laws and government, while both the
Superstructure and the Base determine the ideology, the philosophies, religion
and the ideals that are prevalent in society. In other words, the economic base
provided the cultural superstructure, thus culture could only be understood by
drawing upon the changing nature of human production and reproduction, which
inevitably is controlled by those in which power is invested-read the ruling
class. Change or advancement towards the teleological goal of civilization
therefore became a class struggle, those with little power, against those with
power. To maintain this power, Marx believed, the ruling class will resort to
whatever means they can, especially through futility in ideological
mystification, resulting in the construction of a false consciousness, or a
false belief of the lower class. This false consciousness and false belief
resulted eventually in a conceptualized delusion, subjecting them [the lower
class] unconsciously to the dominant ideals of society-a concept also known to
Gramsci as "Hegemony". Growth of a Theory Wolf adapted this Marxist
approach in his theorizing, that is paying attention to the fundamental dynamics
of change and phenomena such as exploitation, domination and colonialism from
the get- go of his anthropological inquiry. In his Ph.D dissertation (1951)
while probing into the lives of Puerto Rican societies and cultures he suggested
that communities and their socio-cultural traits could not be completely
understood without analyzing the impact of existing forces such as national
power relations, international trade and world markets (Abbink, 95) It was
through these forces which he saw us as all interconnected. From his fieldwork
with peasants he discovered that these smaller communities form a central
component of larger, more complex societies. Therefore occurrences at local
levels needed to be understood in terms of reactions of the local people to the
economic and political forces expelled from the larger societies, as it is these
larger societies which are subjecting the smaller societies to a false
consciousness based on the ideology of those in power. Communities which form
part of a complex society can thus be viewed no longer as self-contained and
integrated systems in their own right. It is more appropriate to view them as
the local termini of a web of group relations which extend through intermediate
levels from the level of the community to that of the nation. In the community
itself, these relationships may be wholly tangential to each other (Wolf, 1956).
This notion of interconnectedness between small communities and large
"power centers" therefore allowed Wolf to view society as
heterogeneous and interacting across boundaries, rather then as simply a bounded
system of ordered relations (Wolf, 1988:757). His model of a society henceforth
developed as one vulnerable to a continual process of change and structuring
subjected by the people in the "outside world" and the capitalist mode
of production, emphasizing the power exerted to produce ideology, ultimately
unintentionally dominates each member of society. making Wolf's theory a process
of politics and economy, of structural power and Marxist Mode of production
Beyond Marxism As illustrated above Wolf views society as
"interpenetrating, complex and interconnected" (Wolf, 1988:753) , but
the world is interconnected on a much deeper level then that simply purposed by
mode of production and Marxist theory. Therefore he argues, it is important to
see the world and societies, and their interconnectedness framed in a
macroscopic historical context, as the history itself is like a "organized
flow-process of fusion and fission" (Wolf, 1988:757). By calling attention
to the history of a society it allows one to look at the processes unfolding
over time, these processes of change and refashion are seen then more clearly
once they are immersed with an all encompassing macrosetting where each society
is seen as connected to those in its periphery. The combination of these two
vices thus allows changes, such as those imposed by capitalist penetration upon
communities, as in the instance of the full-out erosion of kin based social
order as a result of secularization of beliefs, or simply the use of kinship
systems as ideologies, more specifically as ways to regulate social labor, and
cover-up exploitation, to be recognized (Wolf, 1982) It is only with this
recognition, and the dismembering of "ahistorical functionalism" that
Wolf believes will bring down the barriers between the traditional and the
modern spheres, also known as the "West and the Rest." Conclusion
Cultures are not integral wholes carried by social isolates. We must distinguish
between reality culture and ideology-making, and recognize that the creation or
dismantling of cultures always goes on within extensive social fields,
structured by the dominant modes of production (Wolf, 1984:393) Wolf's angle of
theory demonstrates a cornucopia of processes and ideas, ultimately illustrating
the relationship between society, culture, ideology and modes of production.
Although backboned by a Marxist ideology, his drive to illuminate the
interconnectedness between anthropologically constructed spheres, demonstrates
his desire to stem away from rigid distinctions which "pure" Marxist
thought offers. It is this desire which pushes him beyond simply an economic
based theory towards one that is also political, situated upon the structural
power exerted in society, ultimately making his analysis one of economic and
political processes, only seen through macroscopic historical lenses.

Abbink, Jan and Hans Vermeulen. History and Culture: Essays on the Work of
Eric R. Wolf. Amsterdam, Het Spinhuis, 1992. Kuper, A. The Invention of
Primitive Society. London: Routledge, 1988. Friedman, Johnathan. "An
Interview with Eric Wolf" Current Anthropology 28 (1987) 107-118 Wolf,
Eric. Europe and the People Without History. Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982. "Culture: Panacea or Problem?"

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