Monday, July 26, 2010

Marvin Harris on holistic anthropology

From Theories of Culture in Postmodern Times, page 139 (Altamira Press 1999):
Anthropologists who are committed to holism must come to terms with the risks of making mistakes. In this connection, warning students that the findings of science are provisional and subject to various distortions and biases may help to relieve some of the angst associated with holistic perspectives. Another point to be kept in mind is that the misinformation transmitted through a holistic text or introductory class is not likely to be as remote from current expert opinion as the usual non-academic sources of knowledge about biocultural evolution, such as creationism and New Age necromancy. Bear in mind that only a very small percentage of students take introductory courses in anthropology in order to prepare for graduate school; the great majority are only passing through, and one anthropology course is all they will ever take. Indeed, that one anthropology course may be the only course in the social sciences they will ever take. Given the facts that anthropology has so much to say, that its knowledge is vital for our ability to live as informed and responsible citizens of the world, and that there is so little time and space in which to say it, our students deserve to have us try to give them the most holistic view possible.


  1. So much to cover in an introductory class. What core facts and concepts do we want them to take away from the class (the kind that will stick with them long after wards, and perhaps occasionally sow that seed of doubt that Saul Alinsky though so important: "One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.' If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually

  2. Jacob, I think we can easily develop a set of facts and concepts that we agree that we hope they take away: the inclusive concept of culture (mental and behavioral); all humans have Culture; all humans have Language; there are no "primitive" humans, languages, or cultures, etc. Some notion of cultural universals might be nice, as well as some understanding of the human place in the natural world. I'm sure we can think of some others.

    We might also hope that they take away a skeptical and critical perspective, so that when they hear idiotic assertions about humans or human nature, alarm bells go off.


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