I’ve been doing a very dorky thing lately. I’ve been listening to anthropology lectures while walking around Cambridge, and deliberately walking rather than cycling so I have more listening time (and because I’m too nervous to listen to my iPod while cycling).
Yesterday I was listening to the Oxford University anthropology podcast, and in particular a lecture called “What is social anthropology?” (number 65 in the previous link) by one Professor Marcus Banks. (It’s an excellent podcast; lots of stuff for anthropologist wanna-be’s and beginners like me, and lots of stuff, it seems to me, for those who are deeper into the field as well. I’m enjoying it immensely.)
In the introductory lecture I listened to yesterday, Professor Banks told a story that reaffirmed for me the relevance of taking an interpretive approach to certain social research questions (particularly my own); solidified even further my high level of skepticism with regard to modernization theory; had me contemplating the way we perceive similarities and differences between cultures and the assumptions we make about others; made me think about the literal translation that occurs when studying another culture without adequate context; totally turned on that part of me that is fascinated with metaphors and language; and made me laugh.
In short, Professor Banks told of a French anthropologist in the first half of the twentieth century who picked up on the observations of a German traveler who wrote about the Bororo of Brazil. The German writer observed that the Bororo believed themselves to be red macaws. Literally.
So the German writer assumed, based on the “scientific” knowledge of the day, that because they were so different from Europe, the Bororo were closer to earlier forms of human life in general — i.e. “primitive,” or “original” people. He stated that the Bororo believed themselves to be red macaws because their brains were in an earlier stage of evolutionary development, and therefore they conflated the categories of macaws and humans — they couldn’t tell them apart. The French anthropologist took these observations at face value and included them in his studies about the “primitive” mind. However, the German traveler didn’t probe the matter, and, as far as I can tell from the lecture, the French anthropologist that cited him never bothered to go to Brazil himself.
The people there told the German traveler, quite explicitly, “we are red macaws.” It reminded me a bit of the way some Nuer (in Sudan) talk about cattle. Cattle are so special, and so critical to the survival and social organization of the group, that they’re tantamount to human members of the group. This is part of the reason why the Nuer will not accept cash in lieu of bridewealth cattle; it has no blood, it cannot reproduce. And cattle are so integral to Nuer society that accepting cash in their place would be, in a sense, unethical, like accepting cash for a human being. That’s why the attempts of the colonial government to commercialize cattle only half succeeded. (See this book by anthropologist Sharon Hutchinson for more really good stuff on the Nuer and their fascinating and deep relationship with cattle.)
So, in the short time Professor Banks elaborated, I thought about the kinds of metaphors and alternative realities that might be informing such a statement as “we are red macaws.”
As it turns out, anthropologists living with the Bororo in the latter half of the twentieth century noticed that it was only the men that made statements about being red macaws. Bororo society is matrilocal; so when a couple marries, the husband goes to live with the wife and her family. Many Bororo women, as it happens, are fond of keeping red macaws in cages as pets. Professor Banks says: “Therefore when men say, ‘we are red macaws,’ what they are doing is using, amazingly, irony, and describing themselves as [being] like pets, because they are so much dominated by their wives and their wives’ families in terms of social organization, economic behavior, etc. etc.”
The Bororo macaw metaphor is amusing and easy to relate to (“She’s got him on a short leash,” for example), despite the vast differences between Bororo culture and my own. But, beyond that, the story of the French anthropologist and the German traveler, and their efforts to interpret this culture, got me thinking about the ways in which a social researcher’s own cultural ontology can inform their interpretation and really muck up their analysis if they don’t examine it. Most obvious is the ontology of gender relations; could a European envision or accept the existence of a “primitive,” matrilineal society where the men had a sense of humor about giving up a certain amount of power when they join their wives’ families?
More broadly, a story like this should lead people (everyone, not just social researchers and academics) to ask themselves what kind of assumptions they’re making about other cultures or societies when attempting to assess them or a particular aspect of them. I’m aware this is not a revelation, in general or for most people I know, and in a way the story kind of makes me scoff. (“What, is it that hard to imagine that the Bororo can have a sense of irony?”) On the other hand, there are a lot of people I know who would indeed be astounded by this story.
Ultimately, though, it reminds me of the imperative I’ve set for myself to keep questioning my own knowledge of the way things are; or the way I think they are. For the German traveler and the French anthropologist that cited him, I’m pretty sure that even if they had figured out the macaw metaphor, it wouldn’t have altered their underlying understanding of the “truth” that certain human beings were evolutionarily, scientifically, unquestionably less developed than others (the latter “others” being themselves — what a coincidence). So, I ask myself, what do I take for granted that, similarly, may be skewing my interpretation of the way I understand people, particularly those with different life experiences than me?
This is the reason why I struggle with the entire typology of “development.” We’ve stopped referring to other countries, peoples, places, and cultures as “backward” or “underdeveloped,” but we still talk about “developed” and “developing” countries. And I’m not sure I know what that even means these days, to be honest. So the red macaw story, I think — for students of anthropology, and those like me who appreciate its approach and/or recognize its utility — is less about the actual ironic metaphor and more about the context in which anthropologists finally really understood it. That is, what does the story of the French anthropologist (and all his peers who accepted his statements) say about the nature of scientific “reality” and what academically or professionally trained people take for granted? Extending the same inquisitive line to another field, what does the story say about the questions “development” experts should be asking? What is implicit and explicit in “development”? And what might “development” experts take for granted about these categories?