True Intellectual Assimilation


Considering the difficulty we have just in seeing through the eyes of our neighbor, much less a Dayak farmer in Borneo, it may never be that an ethnographer will be able to “see the world through the eyes of others”. For decades, anthropologists have struggled with the nagging suspicion that while they may do everything in their power to understand the culture they are studying, they may never achieve the kind of intellectual assimilation they desire.

Not that the anthropologist, like any good scientist, doesn’t try. By the ethnographic method, that is, the immersion of the investigator into the culture that is being studied, and by participant observation, or, the active participation of the investigator in the lives of the people being studied, the anthropologist hopes to achieve this melding, but in the end, this is only a hope.

 Claude Levi-Strauss, a leading French anthropologist of the twentieth century, thought that this hope was a forlorn one at best, as investigators could never become completely immersed in the native culture, primarily because they could never completely divorce themselves from their own unique cultural perspective. (Robbins, 2001) The idea that the representation of reality is relative to culture has been voiced by many, including anthropologist Franz Boas, who, in the Preface to Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, wrote: “Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.” (Boas, 1928) Decades earlier he had written that “…the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” (Boaz, 1887)

  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict cautioned against bias, and the preferential view of Western civilization natural to investigators. “…scientific study requires that there be no preferential weighting of one or another items in the series it selects for its consideration… In this way we have learned all that we know of the laws of astronomy, or of the habits of the social insects, let us say. It is only in the study of man himself that the major social sciences have substituted the study of one local variation, that of Western civilization.” (Benedict, 1934)

Philosopher John Cook extended this realization to a more problematic, ethical level when he said that because of an investigator’s natural ethnocentrism they lose to the right to judge other cultures. “…although it may seem to them that their moral principles are self-evidently true, and hence seem to be grounds for passing judgement on other peoples, in fact, the self-evidence of these principles is a kind of illusion." (Cook, 1978)

Some anthropologists accept the possibility of cultural misrepresentation as a trade risk and trust that future ethnographers will usually do better than those who preceded them. In an article for American Anthropologist, John R. Bowlin and Peter G. Stromberg said:

…many contemporary anthropologists express uneasiness about cross-cultural inquiries that trade in truth, inquiries that evaluate the ontological commitments and moral sentiments of other peoples. So long as one considers meaning an intention that can be represented in language or expressed in performance, so long as there are competing languages and multiple modes of expression, meanings will be threatened with distortion as they are transposed from their domain of origin into new domains...No doubt we often fail to understand this or that concept. When we try to mingle with native speakers, they chuckle at our clumsy efforts. But notice we do not need a grand theory about multiple languages, representation, and unavoidable distortion in order to explain this difficulty. We need not resort to apocalyptic talk of crisis. Both tempt unnecessary despair. We simply need to point out that some concepts are unfamiliar (e.g., charmed quarks in quantum physics) or complicated (e.g., nunuwan in Ifaluk moral psychology). The important ones tend to be both. Understanding the latter sort of concepts, using them as native speakers do, will often require much attention and reflection, as well as repeated tinkering with our dictionaries, occasional revision of entrenched belief, and bursts of linguistic innovation. Good ethnography has no other way of proceeding…(Bowlin and Stromberg, 1997)

It is undoubtedly true that an individual can never eliminate all vestiges of their own culture, nor should they wish to, as it is the culture to which they shall return that must be told of the investigator’s findings. For the investigator, the purpose of the experience is the sharing of insights gained while sojourning in another culture. It is this cross-cultural interpretation that is the payoff for good ethnography. Without an original culture to return to, the investigator is an interpreter for no one, and his or her work becomes nothing more than a personal amusement. Therefore, to be a truly functional anthropologist, one must exist in at least two cultures simultaneously.

 It must also be understood that there is common ground between even the most divergent cultures and that as humans, we share some common elements of humanity with each other. That realization underscores the fact that when we study “Others”, to varying degrees we study ourselves. In his article The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Consequences, Herbert Lewis said:

… In other words, The Other R Us, and for that reason, in studying others we are not studying some exotic life forms but ourselves in different settings. If we fail to consider peoples and traditions other than our own we distort our understanding of what it means to be human. It is precisely to guard against the very natural human assumption that what "we" do, based on "our" culture and history, is the natural, the only, the universal way, that we try to include as much of the range of human behavior in our accounts and theories as possible…(Lewis, 1998)

George Marcus and Michael M.J. Fischer believed this as well, saying “The other promise of anthropology, one less fully distinguished and attended to than the first, has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves. In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions.” (Marcus and Fischer, 1986)

By studying other cultures, and then comparing them with their own experiences, investigators can often arrive at a clearer view of things, a view which can only be beneficial to society if they remain in society. Rather than expend themselves trying to extricate their minds from their culture, or worse yet become discouraged at the inevitable bias they see within themselves, ethnographers must be willing to press on, admitting the bias and being ever vigilant against its influence in their work.

Will one day an ethrographer succeed in shedding his or her culture and becoming completely immersed in another? Perhaps. But if he or she ever did, it would be our loss, because then we would have one less anthropologist to help us come to grips with the tremendous diversity of the world; a world we find ourselves sharing with Paris Hilton and a Dayak farmer in Borneo.






Works Cited


Ruth Benedict [1934] Patterns of Culture Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1959.



Boas, Franz. Preface. Coming of age in Samoa. New York: Laurel, 1968. Reprint of 1928 ed.



Boas, Franz. [1887] "The Principles of Ethnological Classification," in A Franz Boas reader ed. by George W. Stocking Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1974.



Bowlin, John and Stromberg, Peter. “Representation and Reality in the Study of Culture.” American Anthropologist. New Series, Vol. 99, No. 1, (Mar., 1997), pp. 123-134.



Cook, John. "Cultural Relativism as an Ethnocentric Notion." The Philosophy of Society. Ed.  Rodger Beehler and Alan R. Drengson. Routledge: 1978.



Lewis, Herbert. “The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Consequences.” American Anthropologist. New Series, Vol. 100, No. 3, (Sep., 1998), pp. 716-731.



Marcus, George and Fischer, Michael. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: The Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1986.



Robbins, Richard. Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach. Itasca: F.E. Peacock, 2001.


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