Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Reading :: The Invention of Primitive Society

The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion
By Adam Kuper

"This book is a history of the ways in which anthropologists have thought about primitive society," Adam Kuper declares on p.1 of this book. Kuper argues that, although the study of primitive society in the late 19th century and beyond tended to invoke Darwin, it was actually Lamarckian in its interpretation: Darwinism doesn't imply any sort of progress, but Lamarckian ideas of evolution do. And early anthropologists seized on the notion that societies were progressing, more or less universally, from one state to another (p.2).

Indeed, Kuper argues, Europeans looked around at their society in the late 19th century and saw fundamental transformations from the familiar "traditional society" to the "new world" (industrialism, capitalism, bureaucracy). And "behind this 'traditional society' they discerned a primitive or primeval society," Kuper tells us (p.4). But
in practice primitive society proved to be their own society (as they understood it) seen in a distorting mirror. For them modern society was defined above all by the territorial state, the monogamous family and private property. Primitive society therefore must have been nomadic, ordered by blood ties, sexually promiscuous and communist. There also had been a progression in mentality. Primitive man was illogical and given to magic. In time he had developed more sophisticated religious ideas. Modern man, however, had invented science. Like their most reflective contemporaries, in short, the pioneer anthropologists believed that their own was an age of massive transition. They looked back in order to understand the nature of the present, on the assumption that modern society had evolved from its antithesis. (p.5)
By the end of the 1800s, most anthropologists believed that

  1. "The most primitive societies were ordered on the basis of kinship relations." (p.6)
  2. "Their kinship organization was based on descent groups." (p.6)
  3. "These descent groups were exogamous and were related by a series of marriage exchanges." (p.6)
  4. "These primeval institutions were preserved in fossil form," i.e., if one were to find a relatively untouched society in a remote place, their society could be taken to represent ancient societies that predated the state. (p.7)
  5. "with the development of private property, the descent groups withered away and a territorial state emerged." (p.7)

He adds:
But hardly any anthropologist alive today would accept that this classic account of primitive society could be sustained. On the contrary, the orthodox modern view is that there never was such a thing as "primitive society." Certainly no such thing could be reconstructed now.  ... Human societies cannot be traced back to a single point of origin, and there is no way of reconstituting prehistoric social forms, classifying them, and aligning them to a time series. There are no fossils of social organization. (p.7)
Nor could it be generalized. Even "surviving hunter-gatherers certainly do not conform to a single organizational type" (p.7). He further argues that ecological variations affect social organization, so "there must have been considerable differences in social structure between the earliest human societies" (pp.7-8).

He concludes: "The theory of primitive society is on a par with the history of the theory of aether. The theory of primitive society is about something which does not and never has existed" (p.8).

The rest of the book is Kuper's attempt to examine how the theory of primitive society developed, how it spread, and why it persists (p.8). Throughout the book, he describes the history of this theory in anthropology, examining its persistence through patriarchal theory (Ch.2), Lewis Henry Morgan's notions of ancient society (Ch.3), totemism (Ch.4-5), taboo (Ch.6), the Boasians (Ch.7), Rivers and his critics (Ch.8-9), and descent theory (Ch.10). I'm often interested in these sorts of metatheoretical histories, so I found the discussion riveting, especially since it put many of my anthropological readings in relation to each other and to a shared timeline.

Let's close with one intriguing passage. In Ch.6, "Totemism and Taboo," Kuper examines Durkheim's impact, especially his evolutionism, which "owed much to Spencer and nothing to Darwin." And:
Spencer believed that all societies shared a common point of origin. Moreover, the original institutional forms were never lost, but were simply recombined in various, more complex, new forms. (This was a form of social Lamarckism. ...) Durkheim further concluded from these premises that institutions could be most easily understood in their simplest, original form, and that if they were studied in a primitive state their relations with other institutions would be most readily apparent. (p.114).
 A thought-provoking book, well written and with a broad sweep. I'm still processing it. If you're interested in anthropology, societies, or societal organization, take a look.

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