How Social Anthropology Developed?
From the very beginning of human life, people have been wondering about themselves and their surroundings. Therefore, it is futile to talk about the beginning of the study of man. For the genesis of systematic thinking all usually refer back to the Greek Civilisation especially to the writings of Herodotus in fifth century B.C. Some also call him ‘the father of Anthropology’. He did not merely record what he saw, and what people told him about the different countries around the shores of the Mediterranean. He asked some basic questions which at present is the subject matter of social anthropology like ‘what made people so different?’
To trace the development of social anthropology, we will talk about the scholars whose pioneering works gave the shape to the present day discipline ‘Social Anthropology’. But to begin with, we will go through the works of different travelers who actually collected the basic data which eventually build the foundation of Ethnographic study. Many early social anthropologists followed these travel accounts to frame their social anthropological study.
Every age of geographical discovery has seen a burst of interest in the new kind of society that the explorers have found. The travelers and also the colonisers considered these newly founded societies as “other culture”. The first and foremost thing they recognised about these new society or cultures was that these were completely different from their own society and culture. The explorers and colonisers being accustomed to their own ways, set the standard of what people ought to be like, were always prompted to ask why other people were so unlike themselves. The sixteenth and eighteenth century were such periods. The French essayist Montaigne (1553-92) was much interested in the apparently paradoxical constraints between the customs of his own country and others. Theoretical arguments were also there at that time whether people with brown skin who wear no cloths could really be descendants of Adam.
Eighteenth century Europeans were less certain than sixteenth century ones that all the advantages were on their side. North America and Polynesia became the point of interest. Rousseau described the Indians as ‘noble savage’ of the golden age of natural man and interestingly these same people were described by the Spanish missionaries as people having no soul. Hobbes in the seventeenth century had already thought the American Indians approached pretty closely to his imagined state of nature where every man’s hand was against his neighbours and man’s life were ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’
During this period only, the reports of the manner and customs of distant lands collected by these travelers and missionaries began to be treated not just as interesting information about other cultures but a data for constructing historical schemes of the development of society. Some writers started the history of the comparative ethnography with the Jesuit missionary Lifitau, who in 1724 published a book comparing American Indian customs with those of the ancient world as described by Latin and Greek writers. A little later Charles de Brosses wrote on parallels between ancient Egyptian religion and that of West Africa. In 1748 Montesquieu published his Esprit des Lois, based on reading and not on travel, and thus became for some the first theorist of social anthropology. He considered that differences in legal systems could be explained by relating them to differences in other characteristics of the nations which possessed them, population, temperament, religious beliefs, economic organisation, and customs generally, as well as to their environment. Considering this we can entitle him to be the first functionalist.
Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith from Scotland based their generalisation, as did Montesquieu, on the widest reading about the institutions of different societies that was available at that time. This perspective of evolution became popular with the discovery of Darwin’s principle of natural selection in the evolution of biological species. It greatly influenced the study of society and culture. Before this also the concept of evolution was there. People like Henry de Saint Simor, August Comte, and Herbert Spencer spoke about evolution in philosophical terms. But they didn’t offer any empirical evidence of how evolution had taken place. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century we find a set of scholars both in USA and UK who are concerned with the stages of evolution.
According to some historians, the origin of social anthropology is traced to David Hume and Immanuel Kant who were the first philosophers to define social anthropology. As already mentioned some consider, Herodotus as the father of Anthropology, who did raise some basic questions of social anthropology. But, it is believed that the systematic History of social anthropology rightly begins from Henry Maine and Lewis Henry Morgan. These two thinkers are considered as founding father of social anthropology. They also followed the works of travelers and missionaries.
The 19th century social anthropologists were greatly influenced by the work of Darwin and his associates. They established that the origin of man has passed through several stages from apes to Homo Sapiens. The Anthropologists tried to follow the logic of Darwinism and applied it to establish the origin of social institutions. This trend prevailed throughout the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century.
The definitions of social anthropology given by social Darwinists is a landmark in the development of this discipline. The foundation of present Anthropology goes back to Henry Maine’s Ancient law (1861) and Lewis Henry Morgan’s books, including Ancient Society (1877). Both of them were the profounder of evolutionary theory in Anthropology. This theory is considered to be the theoretical beginning in social anthropology. Maine worked in India. He proposed a distinction between status and contract societies. In status based or traditional societies, Maine argued, kinship was usually crucial in determining one’s position in society; in a contract-based society, it would rather be the individual achievements of persons that provided them with their positions.
On the other hand Morgan’s contribution to early Anthropology formed the theoretical background. It resulted into the formation of evolutionary theory. It supports the notion of social evolution stating that human society has passed through the stages of savagery, barbarism and civilisation. Each stage has also been characterised by a certain economy. Savagery had an economy characterised by subsistence. During this stage man earned his livelihood through hunting and food gathering. Agriculture and animal husbandry were the source of living at the stage of barbarism. While those societies which reached the stage of civilisation, developed literacy, technology, industry and the state. This theory expounded by Morgan got support of many other scholars. Westermarck set out the theory of human marriage while Briffault propounded the theory of family. Evolutionary theory of religion also came out with the study of Tylor. Evolutionists like W.H.R. Rivers, Sir James Frazer, A.C. Haddon and Charles Seligman contributed to different fields. All these early social anthropologists defined social anthropology as a science of social evolution.
When evolutionary theory emerged in Anthropology many schools came up with an anti-evolutionary idea. They criticised evolutionists for depending on travel accounts, which they claimed to be unscientific. This school of thought is often referred to as structural–functional school of thought represented by the work of British Anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown. Another school that came up before this was the school of diffusionists. They were also critics of evolutionary school, who were not convinced by the concept of evolutionary progress of society and culture. According to their view, culture not only developed, but it also degenerated. Again, they followed that man was basically uninventive, and important inventions were made only once at a particular place from where it was diffused, migrated, borrowed and initiated, to the other parts of the world. There were three schools of diffusion – British school, German school and American school of diffusion. Smith, W.J. Perry, Rivers, Franz Boas, Clerk Wissler, Kroeber etc. were the scholars of this school.
Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski are regarded as the first modern Anthropologists, who argued the necessity of doing fieldwork. Boas, a profound critic of classical evolutionists argued the necessity of doing field work. He emphasised in collecting empirical data and conducted fieldwork in USA to study American Indians in 1880. He founded Modern American Cultural Anthropology. He began to study the influence of culture on personality and vice versa and ultimately formed a school. The pioneers of this school are Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Linton, Kardiner and Cora Du Bois. Boas contributed substantially to the field of Anthropology.
The most important contribution seems to be the doctrine of ‘cultural relativism’. It is the concept which argues that each group should be studied according to its own culture. In other words, culture is specific to a group. Today also, Boas’ contribution of cultural relativism is considered to be an indispensable Anthropological tool of social and cultural anthropology. Boas defined anthropology as a social science of culture study. This is one of the aspects of modern Anthropology.
Malinowski, founder of functional school of thought is known for his work on the Trobrianders living in the island of New Guinea. He conducted fieldwork among these tribals between 1915 and 1918. According to Malinowski, social anthropology is concerned with the interrelationship of various parts of tribal society.
In other words, tribal economy, politics, kinship etc. are all interrelated. According to him,
social anthropology is interested in studying functional relations among the member of tribal society. Malinowski contributed a lot to the fieldwork tradition in anthropology. His ethnographic account based on his fieldwork ‘Argonauts of Western Pacific’ is a landmark publication in Anthropology. The concept of participant observation was developed by him. He emphasised the importance of studying the interrelationships of various aspects of society, and therefore held the view that intensive field study was absolutely necessary.
Radcliffe-Brown, contemporary of Malinowski, developed the social structure concept to explain forms. It is another important development in social anthropology. According to him, social structure deals with the study of status and role of a person within an institution. In other words, it deals with network of social relation within an institutional framework. Radcliffe-Brown, criticising classical evolutionists said that the study of change is also essential. But, unlike classical evolutionist study, these must be based on reliable document. He said that classical evolutionism was based on conjectural history. It is nothing but a conjectural speculation of the life of the people. He called it pseudo historical. So, he argued that classical evolutionism has no place in scientific investigation.
Anthropologists study pre-literate society. Therefore, whatever knowledge, they have of their tradition; it exists on the oral level. The oral history may mix up with myth and other stories. Therefore, it may not be totally relied upon as an authentic source. The early twentieth century scholars, those who are critical of evolutionary theory thought rather than studying how society has evolved, all must study how society lives and functions. It is a shift of paradigm. The approach which was born out of it is popularly known as structural–functional approach. The founder of this theoretical trend argued that instead of understanding a diachronic study of society social anthropologists should carry out synchronic study – the study of present society.
Radcliffe-Brown called anthropology as the study of here and now. He also stressed upon doing first hand fieldwork. Thus, social anthropologists started studying present social structure focusing on interrelationship of social institutions and their functions. But this trend also faced certain criticisms like –
(1) it does not account for social change. It is concerned with order.
(2) Whatever it has considered change, the change is adaptive. But every society goes through a process of change.
Sometimes change comes following a revolutionary path. So, structural functional study was unable to cover this area and it opened the door for criticism. Therefore, by 1940s anthropologists revived the need to study evolution. The approach of neo-evolutionism was introduced in the field of archeology. V. Gordon Childe, Leslie White and Julian Steward represent this school of thought. They defined social evolution with new perspective. Various new approaches to the study of evolution called attention to the question, how to combine particulars with general. The issue became sharpened by the writings of Marvin Harris who emphasised upon Radcliffe-Brown’s earlier distinction between nomothetic and ideographic approach to the study of culture.
In between, Robert Redfield introduced the study of civilisation to social anthropology. Redfield developed the concepts of folk–urban continuum and great and little traditions which were very useful concepts for studying a civilisation and its various dimensions such as tribal, folk, semi-urban and urban. Thus, village, town and city studies were introduced. The other scholars who contributed to this field are – Morris E. Opler, Milton Singer, Meckim Marriot, Mandel Baum etc. Like any other discipline Anthropology has also been experiencing many new trends.
In the theoretical dimensions many new theories like symbolism, new ethnography etc. have come up with new promises. This field has been continuously expanding with many other new theories and ideas. Along with this applied aspects, social anthropology has also been expanding. Developmental studies in social anthropology are occupying a major area. New field methods and techniques are also coming up enriching the research pattern. Ideas like postmodernism are creating new platform for the social anthropologists to explore. Several Anthropological sub-fields are coming up, stressing separate and specific cultural aspects and all using the prefix ‘Ethno’ to indicate their alliance with culture, such as ethno-science, ethno musicology, ethnopsychology, ethno-folklore and so forth. Thus, social anthropology has constantly been developing as a branch of Anthropology.