Tag Archives: Anthropology

Primitive Myth vs. Modern Science

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On the one hand, there is the viewpoint of myth that it has no literal interpretation. On the other, there is the viewpoint that there is a literal interpretation of science. Bridging between the two is philosophy, which is open to both the non-literal and literal interpretations. Robert Segal’s article, "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor" questions not only the relationships between myth, philosophy and science, but also the relationship between the primitive versus modern mentality. Segal provides the positions of various theorists to build the case for or against Tylor’s assertion that primitive myth is separate from modern science.

Tylor, like many of his colleagues, assumes that there is a distinction between myth, science and philosophy. He assumes that "primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion" (18), and that there is no science in the primitive world. Primitive religion in this model is the counterpart for science "because both are explanations of the physical world" (19). The role of myth, according to Tylor, is to explain why the gods do what they do, whereas religion states that they do it (19). Furthermore, this assumes that the primitive mind is no less interested in manipulating the physical world than moderns, and that science belongs only to the realm of the theoretical. In the primitive realm, there is no conscious need to separate science from myth, religion and philosophy. Primitive science teaches the community how to survive within the environment. Primitive "scientists" could better understand the rhythms of the world, a perspective from which Tylor seems divorced.

If primitive religion functions in order to make sense of the physical world, then it would follow that the purpose of primitive religion is linked to that of survival. In contrast, modern thought is influenced by new discoveries in science and technology, and religion is not linked with survival but with coping. The ethnocentrism that plagues Western thought has traditionally recognized primitives as lesser beings: interesting for study but in no way related to "civilized" beings. Segal seems to support the argument that the primitives are of a different developmental caliber than moderns, and are crucial for understanding the core of archetypal and metaphorical thought. An understanding of primitive myth from this perspective yields an understanding of human myth. Because of Tylor’s ethnocentrism, he fails to see the relationship between primitives and moderns. Perhaps the modern generation is so concerned with preserving primitive myth because these populations are dying out or were greatly altered as a result of colonialism.

As the theoretical paradigm shifts out of the post-modern era, more and more students attempt to shed the old ways and embrace perspectives better suited for the shrinking global market, one digitally linked with more cultural exchange than imagined following the World Wars. As food shortages and natural disasters top the world news, the need for myth grows stronger as communities need explanations for why god or gods do what they do. Science has tried being the voice of reason, but it lacks a universal audience, because it can only explain so much.

The post-Enlightenment eras have focused on finding a universal truth, and this fever is still strong through the modern and post-modern eras. Segal’s article demonstrates that there are as many answers as there are thinkers, who are as varied as snowflakes. What Tylor’s claim is not prepared for is the post-modern, holistic thinking that believes that there are many answers for every question and no universal perspective, but, rather, many perspectives for the same thing.

Works cited

  • Segal, Robert A. "Myth as primitive philosophy: The case of E. B. Tylor." Rpt. in Thinking Through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Kevin Shilbrack. New York & London: Routledge, 2002. 18-45.

Feminism, Ethnography and Religious Studies: Problems of Method

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I write about feminism as a non-believer; yet, I am able to see its usefulness to the greater improvement of the Western world. Without feminism, the conversation about women would be greatly reduced, especially in the male-dominated social sciences. Within anthropology, feminism allowed for and encouraged a new way of looking at peoples, which vastly improved the overall quality of ethnography.

Ethnography, or the writing about a specific culture or sub-culture, is a central component to the field of anthropology. It collects the data about a culture and organizes it into a concise form. Initially, the founders of the school based their writings on reports brought home by missionaries and other travelers. My cultural anthropology professor called them — with a degree of scorn — “armchair anthropologists,” because they were not actually entering the field and making observations about people. Instead, they simply gathered data that may or may not have been objectively reliable into authoritative editions used to help justify the West’s dominance upon the rest of the world.

As fieldwork was integrated into the ethnographic process, anthropologists were expected to do their own research. Fieldwork relies upon observation and informants, both having major design flaws. Observation is limited to the anthropologist’s abilities and what he or she is permitted to see by the society. Informants provide a double problem. On one hand, they may or may not impart information with any reliable accuracy; on the other hand, the information they do divulge is, more often than not, skewed through translation. Despite these problems, the ethnographer maintains an authoritative stance about the complete culture, even when the report about the culture is incomplete.

Margery Wolf admonishes this behavior, claiming that the job of ethnographers is “not simply to pass on the disorderly complexity of culture, but also to try to hypothesize about apparent consistencies, to lay out our best guesses, without hiding the contradictions and the instability" (355). The feminist movement within anthropology, she further suggests, initiated new methodology for writing ethnography by encouraging researchers to decentralize and defamiliarize themselves from their subject matter. This entails recognizing that one’s personal self is not the same self that interprets culture in order to write the ethnography.

When writing about myth or religion, especially outside one’s own spectrum, it is essential to recognize to what end that spectrum influences the interpretation. Wolf encourages a small degree of personal reflection in the writing to allow the opportunity to address those influences before the ethnography becomes a power play rather than a report about a culture. It is not enough to simply repackage existing biases in a more politically correction fashion. All this does is enhance the power elements of the relationship between the researcher and the researched, especially with regards to women. To truly defamiliarize oneself means to make these biases manifest in some fashion throughout the work, rather than presenting oneself as an authority on a skewed perspective.

This ultimately means that pure objectivity within anthropologist, and indeed for all socio-cultural research, is impossible. The timbre of the research changes with this awareness. The feminist movement brought this methodology to awareness, with the hope that the researcher can strive to deliver a clearer understanding of the culture being studied, and hopefully avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Works cited

  • Wolf, Margery. "Writing Ethnography." The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader. Ed. Russell McCutcheon. London & New York: Cassell, 1999. 354-361. Print.