Social organization: essays presented to Raymond Firth.

FREEDMAN, MAURICE (ed.). ix, 300 pp., front., illus., bibliogr. London: Frank Cass, 1967. 3 15s.

 

(reviewed by Clifford Geertz)

 

 

To death and taxes must now be added, for eminent anthropologists, yet another natural necessity-a festschrift. That for Professor Raymond Firth, perhaps the fmest ethnographer, one of the foremost theorists, and certainly one of the greatest teachers to have appeared in the last quarter century, has just been published. It is an indifferent work.

 

For reasons which seem to stem more from diplomatic considerations than scholarly ones, Maurice Freedman, the editor of the volume, decided not to call upon the more creative of Firth's friends, contemporaries, students, and admirers to honour him, but to include only papers from 'those who both worked for higher degrees under [his] supervision and now teach social anthropology in the universities.' As a result, of the thirteen essays included, only four approach a level of excellence appropriate to their object, six are routine performances, not without value within their limited contexts but without much general interest, and three are merely poor. The book as a whole has no overall unity, or even thematic consistency. Neither an adequate biography of Firth, a general evaluation of his work (more diplomacy?), nor a bibliography of his publications is included.

 

The excellent essays are by W. E. H. Stanner on 'Reflections on Durkheim and aboriginal religion,' Anthony Forge on 'The Abelam artist,' Cyril Belshaw on 'Theoretical problems in economic anthropology,' and Edmund Leach on 'The language of Kachin kinship: reflections on a Tikopia model.' Stanner combines a compressed but incisive intellectual history of Durkheim's major notions in the field of religion-the concept of the sacred, and the theory that God is 'only society transfigured and symbolically expressed'-with an informed and telling critique of their inadequacies, concentrating particularly on Durkheim's 'short circuiting' of 'the symbolizing process' and his 'allconsuming ... sociocentric fixation.' In contrast to Stanner's rather generalised argument, Forge's paper is a model of careful ethnographical analysis and of the way in which an anthropologist can raise universal questions-here in the field of aesthetics-in terms of extremely parochial data. Concentrating on the decorative art associated with a typical 'big man' cult in New Guinea, and describing it in fine detail, Forge manages at the same time to arrive at some highly suggestive notions about style, fashion, and innovation, about the relations between the perception of beauty and the sense of power, and about the audience's control of the artist's creativity. Belshaw's paper consists of a systematic review of the approach to economic anthropology stemming out of the 'social transactions' model of human behaviour elaborated by, among others, Malinowski, Mauss, Parsons, Homans, Blau, and, of course, by Belshaw himself. His is the most resolutely theoretical paper in the book and among the most debatable. But what is lost by an absence of reference to concrete material and the abandonment of the securities of conventional wisdom is more than made up by the gain in analytical power of systematic, logically integrated argument provided in a field more than usually beset by ad hoc hypotheses. As for Leach, he provides us with another of his close semantic analyses of kinship terms, concentrating this time on the relationship between kinship terms and nonkinship words, and arguing that the former cannot really be understood as an autonomous domain independently of the latter, and that therefore Firth's 'functionalist' approach to kinship, which mixes levels of anthropological analysis, is not ouly not 'antistructuralist' but a pre-requisite to a determination of structure at any particular level as such. This is true and important. So too is his statement: 'All this [analysis of Kachin kin terms] is so tortuous that the sceptical reader might reasonably complain that by such arguments one might "prove" anything.'

 

As for the rest: Lorraine Baric discusses two 'levels' of kinship organisation-the corporate and the natural network-in Yugoslavia; Burton Benedict describes different forms of conjugal relations in the Seychelles in an effort to clarify the concept of sexual equality; Maurice Freedman reviews the data of Chinese worship in relation to variation and changes in Chinese kinship and family structure; Phyllis Kaberry questions, in the light of New Guinea material, the primacy of descent principles in social organisation which anthropologists have 'too often' claimed for it; Kenneth Little discusses voluntary organisations in Freetown, wondering why migrants of some tribal origins make use of them and others of others do not; Adrian Mayer reviews the nature and mechanisms of the relationship between Indian communities in Fiji, Trinidad, British Guiana and Mauritius, and the larger societies of which they are a part, erecting two ideal types of such relationships-those mediated by 'brokers' and those by 'patrons'; H. S. Morris presents some material on Sarawak shamans and relates it to the social system in which it occurs; M. G. Swift describes the increasing concentration of wealth in contemporary Malay society and reflects on some of its social implications; and Barbara Ward describes what has happened to a group of Hong Kong 'boat people' since they have gone ashore to live-they have become, or are becoming, assimilated to the general Chinese population.

 

CLIFFORD GEERTZ
University of Chicago

 

 


Book Review, in: Man, New Series, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jun., 1968), pp. 325-326.


 

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