On Fredrik Barth: Hero of cultural anthropology

By Sean Carey

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. He is the author of numerous books, including Ethnicity and Nationalism, A History of Anthropology, Small Places, Large Issues, Tyranny of the Moment, Globalization and Common Denominators. His latest book Fredrik Barth, is an intellectual biography of his fellow Norwegian social anthropologist. It was recently published in the U.K. and will be released in June in the U.S. Here, AW contributor Sean Carey interviews Eriksen about the book.

Fredrik Barth

SC: When many anthropologists (and other social scientists) think of Fredrik Barth, ideas of ethnicity tend to spring to mind. What was it that was so original in Barth’s thinking in this area, and why has his influence been so long-lasting?

TE: In a way, you could say that what Barth did, back in 1967 (the book Ethnic Groups and Boundaries came in 1969), was to systematise and clarify ideas that had been circulating for some time, especially in British anthropology, among people as different as Edmund Leach and Max Gluckman. So the degree of originality could always be questioned. However, he showed, more clearly than any earlier author, the absurdity of the view that ethnic differences were simply a product of cultural differences; that what mattered were social boundaries, usually propped up by mutual stereotypes. Later developments in the bustling industry of ethnicity research have introduced concepts of creolisation and hybridity and thus problematised the concept of the boundary; the state has been brought in, as have concepts of inequality, power and hierarchy that were weakly developed in Barth’s initial statement. However, these are elaborations on his perspective, not refutals.

SC: You mention the state. Is Barth the godfather of progressive multiculturalism? Furthermore, does his analysis of ethnicity lend itself to the formulation of practical social (and economic) policies in developed and developing societies?

TE: The perspective from Ethnic Groups and Boundaries has doubtless seeped into a general public, or intellectual, understanding of what matters in ethnic relations; what it tells us, among other things, is that we should look beyond cultural differences and stereotypes, focusing instead on what people do and I suppose the structural features of society. So yes, there are practical applications of this perspective, but Fredrik would be loath to consider himself a godfather of any kind of multiculturalism. He is not a very political man, you know; yet, an implication of his view, which many have developed in a more applied way, is that a society may well contain considerable cultural diversity without becoming totally fragmented, as long as it is socially cohesive. If you give people the same de facto opportunities within a shared public space, cultural differences come to appear as less relevant, or perhaps even a positive element. The latter has certainly been my view. Just think about what English, or Norwegian, food used to taste like before the new diversity.

SC: Do you think that Barth’s contribution to the field of ethnicity and ‘race’ relations has overshadowed his contributions to other areas of anthropology, including, for example, his novel insights into ritual and other forms of symbolic behaviour which grew out of his fieldwork amongst tribal peoples in New Guinea?

TE: I think the answer is yes, but then again these things are unpredictable, and the world is not always just and reasonable. Ethnicity was only one of Barth’s many theoretical interests. Although his writings over the decades contain a scattering of texts about ethnic relations and, later, complexity – from his 1956 article on ethnic relations in Swat to a 1994 article assessing Ethnic Groups and Boundaries after 25 years – he would see his contributions to political anthropology and ‘transactionalism’, and to the anthropology of knowledge, as being more important.

SC: I see. It’s interesting that Barth’s early work on political organisation and leadership amongst the Pashto-speaking Pathans of northern Pakistan’s Swat Valley was more influenced by the British ‘social action’ perspective pioneered by Edmund Leach and others rather than the structural-functionalism of Radcliffe Brown. Did Barth’s transactionalism come about because of his personal relationship with Leach, or do you think other factors were at work?

TE: There were definitely other factors. Leach was just moderately interested in the theory of games, for example, and remained less willing than Barth to throw overboard the concepts of society and social structure. Curiously, when Barth returned to Oslo in 1950, after his studies in Chicago, he was a warm admirer of Radcliffe-Brown, and somehow his respectful dialogue with structural-functionalism continued at least up to Models of Social Organization in 1966. However, he would later be influenced by Leach, but also by Raymond Firth, and firmly belonged to the ‘Malinowskian’ lineage, or sub-lineage, throughout his early career, emphasising social process and agency rather than structure and social cohesion. The great hero of his youth was the naturalist Niko Tinbergen, whose maxim ‘watching and wondering’ Barth continued to cite for many years. There was, in other words, a strong inductivist bias in his approach – even now, he would emphasise that we need to go out and ‘see what is actually there’ without a strong theoretical bias. The fact that Barth also fell out with Evans-Pritchard in the early 1950s might also have been a factor, though not a major one.

SC: Unlike Leach, however, it appears that Barth was not so impressed with the type of structuralism propagated by Claude Lévi-Strauss.  It prompts the question: was Barth a more thoroughly British-type empiricist than his intellectual mentor?

TE: Well phrased! Yes, you could say that. Leach, like Mary Douglas, became something of an intermediary, trying to explain to the British what Lévi-Strauss and the French were up to; while Barth remained a rather clear-cut anthropological version of the analytical philosopher. He wanted clarity and logical consistency, and was frustrated by the lofty speculations and untestable assumptions he saw in Lévi-Strauss.

SC: Barth was also influenced by Erving Goffman. How so?

TE: They were students in Chicago at the same time, you know, and knew each other then, at least a bit. But it was years later, upon reading The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) that Barth discovered that Goffman’s microsociology, and his ability to turn tiny observations into fully-fledged social analyses, that Barth discovered a kindred spirit in Goffman. They both believed in observation (and not just conversations) as a means of collecting data, and were adamant that society is best understood through minute and meticulous attention to fine-grained social life.

SC: It’s clear, then, that Barth places a high value on concrete, observational fieldwork as the basis for theorising, rather than the other way round. In fact, in your book you refer to Barth as ‘something of an anthropologist’s anthropologist’ in that sense. Can you comment further?

TE: Not everybody is likely to agree about this formulation of mine. But let me put it this way: Last year, our department in Oslo celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, and we organised various events, roundtables and that sort of thing, to celebrate ourselves. We disagreed about lots of things, and had some lively discussions about ‘ontology’ and ANT, methods of comparison and so on. But we agreed on one major thing, namely that good anthropology always has an ethnographic component. So we shared the conviction that detailed descriptions of people’s lives are the kind of high-octane data anthropology can bring to the table. This remains a very fundamental aspect of what we do, and Barth excelled in it. He was simply an extraordinary ethnographer.

SC: Barth sees himself as a scientist and humanist. But what sort of science and what sort of humanism?

TE: These are big questions, Sean, and I try to discuss them in the book. For one thing, Barth’s science is not a positivist one, although he has a weakness for explanation and not just interpretation. The reason is that he has always been aware that fieldwork has a strong interpretive element. You cannot just register ‘what is out there’ when you study other people’s meaningful universes. I’d say that his science is modelled on the natural sciences, but with a strong hermeneutical element. When it comes to his humanism, Barth was never a very political man; but what he has tried to tell us for sixty years is that all human lives have value, and that there are many roads to the good life. And the bad. This simple, but fundamental wisdom from anthropological thought and knowledge comes through in particular in his popular books, which — alas — have only been published in Norwegian.

SC: If Barth did not exist would we (including his critics) need to invent him?

TE: Erm, that’s a good one! Well, actually, in the 1950s and 1960s, he arguably made his critics better and contributed to improving the quality of anthropological debate by shaking things up a bit. The old guard and the new alike (I’m here thinking about Marxists and structuralists) had to sharpen their arguments and rethink their assumptions. The transactional perspective of Models, phrased in a deliberately polemical way, produced a clear theoretical position that people had to relate to. At the end of the day, few embraced it wholeheartedly, not even Barth himself, but it was a position that was very good to think. I really don’t know what to answer. But I see him as one of a handful of anthropologists from the latter half of the 20th century who really made a difference to the discipline, through his work on ethnicity, political strategies and knowledge, but primarily through his insistence that you should know what you’re talking about, especially if you happen to be talking about people who are not present.


One thought on “On Fredrik Barth: Hero of cultural anthropology

  1. Pingback: Watching and wondering: What we can learn from Fredrik Barth | Savage Minds

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