Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading :: The Savage Mind

The Savage Mind
By Claude Levi-Strauss

This summer I've been reading some of the classics of anthropology, especially ethnographies. Since I don't have a background in anthropology, I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to unravel these books in theoretical or analytical terms. I'm just enjoying them.

But I confess I didn't enjoy this one as much. Partly that's because, rather than a coherent ethnography, it pulls from many published ethnographies to discuss the question of the supposed lack of abstract thinking in primitive cultures. Levi-Strauss attacks this notion, arguing that like science, "the thought we call primitive is founded on the demand for order" - and "sacred items ... contribute to the maintenance of order in the universe by occupying the places allocated for them" (p.10). Magic and science are parallel and independent forms of gaining knowledge (p.13).

Levi-Strauss famously introduces the notion of the bricoleur here, the craftsman or jack-of-all-trades whose "heterogeneous repertoire, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited" (p.17). According to Levi-Strauss, mythical thought is bricolage: it "builds up structured sets, not directly with other structured sets but by using the remains and debris of events" (pp.21-22).

Through the rest of the book, Levi-Strauss extends this thesis by drawing from a wide array of existing ethnographies. These examples are often interesting, but we can understand his fervent wish for a computer in the far future that can disentangle these many connections by examining the raw transcripts of field notes (on punchcards!) (p.89). Yes, I'd like that too.

I've only scratched the surface of this book, and I think that someone with an anthropology background could probably articulate its value much more than I can. But perhaps not: the reviews on the back claim that "no precis is possible" and "no outline is possible." So that lets me off the hook. I'll end by simply recommending the book - at least the first chapter if you're mildly interested, and all of it if you have intense interest in anthropology.

Reading :: The Nuer

The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people
By E.E. Evans-Pritchard

The link above goes to, where you can download this book in PDF, Kindle, text, and other formats. It's OCR'd from the 1940 book, and you'll find some scan errors, but the book is generally intact and generally quite interesting. The first in a trilogy on the Nuer, an African people living in the Sudan and Ethiopia, this book is also a classic of structural-functionalism.

Unfortunately, I'm not an anthropologist and can't provide a good discussion of structural-functionalism or evaluate Evans-Pritchard's work in those terms. But I can recommend The Nuer as an intriguing and at times amusing book. Evans-Pritchard's self-deprecating discussion of methodology, for instance, reads like the trials of Job: "an adequate sociological study of the Nuer was impossible in the circumstances in which most of my work was done," he allows, professing to be amazed that the book has appeared at all.

When he visited Tribe A, they stole the game he shot to feed himself and only spoke to him to demand tobacco. Moving to Tribe B, he began to gain their confidence, only to be stymied by a Government raid. At this point he had only done three and a half months' work among the Nuer.

Later, he visited Tribe C, discovering that "Nuer are expert at sabotaging inquiry": they would visit his tent, demand tobacco, and give him the runaround when he asked questions. He dubbed the resulting condition "Nuerosis." Giving up, he moved to Tribe D, began making progress - then had to be evacuated due to malaria.

On a third trip, he had planned to study another people, but "as delay was caused by diplomatic chicanery I spent two and a half months" near the Nuer; an imminent invasion compelled him to give up on these studies and join the Nuer for another seven weeks. "My total residence among the Nuer was thus about a year," he tells us, admitting that this timespan was inadequate.

Inadequate or not, Evans-Pritchard manages to paint an intriguing portrait of the Nuer, herdsmen who love cattle more than themselves, subsist primarily on milk, millet and meat, and "strut about like lords of the Earth, which, indeed, they consider themselves to be." They "tend to define all social processes and relationships in terms of cattle. Their social idiom is a bovine idiom," he argues. This fact impacts their social structure: "since milk is considered essential, the economic unit must be larger than the simple family group." They consider it repulsive to eat most reptiles, all birds, and all eggs. (We in turn would most likely not want to sample their cheese.) Their devotion to cattle also impacts their estimation of value: a man without cattle is not considered a man, something that probably affected Evans-Pritchard's earlier inquiries since he acquired his own cattle only later.

As "lords of the earth," the Nuer do not serve each other or order each other around; their societal structure is generally decentralized and based on lineage. ("By structure we mean relations between groups of persons within a system of groups.") The tribe is segmentary, based on "complementary tendencies toward fission and fusion."

Overall, the book is fascinating. Without a stronger background in structural-functionalism, I'm certain I missed many implications of this work. But as a standalone work, it is insightful and well worth reading.

Reading :: The Great Reset

The Great Reset: How the Post-Crash Economy Will Change the Way We Live and Work
By Richard Florida

I'll make this a quick review. Florida's The Great Reset tackles the question of what's going to happen to our economy post-crash. He presents his argument in a series of very short chapters, often as short as four pages, in which he grounds his points in interesting stories and statistics. It's like visiting a tapas bar.

Essentially, Florida presents a wave version of economic development in which economic crises function as "resets" that broadly and fundamentally transform the economic order. Previous resets were the Great Depression of 1929 and the Long Depression of 1873, both of which remade the US economy through technical innovations, systems of innovations, upgrades in education, and changes in the way we live. Florida argues that before a crash, innovation slows down because the system doesn't reward them properly; a Reset changes the incentives and releases innovation.

Florida looks at a number of indices to understand what might be at the other end of this Reset, and he comes out hopeful. He believes that cities will be bigger than ever, that trends such as collaborative consumption will intensify, that fewer people will buy their homes (since home ownership makes less sense without lifelong employment), and that innovations will generate new kinds of prosperity. I hope he's right.