Anthropology Of Values Research Paper

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The importance of values in anthropology was recognized by the mid-twentieth century by the designation of two chapters on this topic in Alfred Kroeber’s Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory (1952). Both chapters were written by philosophers, F. S. C. Northrop and David Bidney, rather than practicing anthropologists, which perhaps suggests a sense that the topic should be grounded in a humanistic tradition. Both authors trace philosophical underpinnings while also discussing issues still current such as the debate between cultural relativism and human rights. While the present essay is much briefer than the two noted, they serve as a baseline against which we can note new developments.

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Values, in the sense of ‘conceptions of the desirable,’ (Kluckhohn 1951) definitions of the good, the moral, enter anthropology both as an object of study and as an aspect of the anthropologist’s own experience. Treating values as the object of study, anthropologists have taken either a cultural or a sociological approach, either emphasizing the patterning of values in themselves, and the power of values as cultural conceptions which shape experience or, mutatis mutandis, emphasizing the interrelationship between values and the sociological context.

Examples of the first approach come largely from cultural anthropology in the American tradition (which has philosophical roots in German idealism). Early examples are based on configurationalism: that is, holistic analysis of values which define broad themes of a particular culture. Benedict (1934), Patterns of Culture, is the classic example. She distinguished Appolonian and Dionysian values among plains compared with pueblo Indians. Later, during and following World War II, Benedict, Mead and others applied the same approach to whole nations, depicting dominant values and psychological patterns of Japan, Germany, and Russia; thus was created the national-character school in anthropology. Recognizing the somewhat undisciplined, sweeping holism of these anthropological studies, Kluckhohn, Vogt, and Albert (1966), Kluckhohn and Strodbeck (Kluckhohn 1951, Kluckhohn and Strodbeck 1961) refined the approach, explicitly centering on values, defining dimensions for comparison (for example, past vs. future orientation in relation to time or dominant vs. submissive attitudes toward nature) and made systematic comparisons of particular ethnic or regional groups within America. Clifford Geertz adopted a Parsonsian definition of culture (values, symbols, and ideas) that further refined the older configurationalistic notion, then pursued a Weberian project in his Religion of Ja a (1960) where he distinguished the major divisions within a complex culture according to distinctive values. Habits of the Heart (Bellah 1985) applied this approach to America, producing an influential critique of American individualism and calling for a return to earlier values that recognized societal responsibility. As with the early configurationalists, German influences remained important in these later, Weberian-inspired works; the leitmotif is that values, as a manifestation of culture, have meaning and significance not reducible to any societal context.

The second approach gives more importance to the societal context, which is viewed as a crucial source and ground of values. Examples of the second approach come classically from the British social anthropological tradition which had philosophical roots in France especially Emile Durkheim. In Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915), he argued that thought generally, including religious belief and values, derive from society in both its normative and experiential aspects. An excellent application of this thesis is Campbell (1964), Honour, Family, and Patronage. Campbell demonstrates cogently how bilateral family patterns explained conceptions of honor expressed by the Sarakatsani of Greece. Honor is an ultimate value, for which the Sarakatsani man will sacrifice his life. Yet honor is grounded in kinship; in this society where seven out of ten name a kinsman as best friend, and a bastard child, lacking kin, is left on the mule path to die, one’s honor depends on one’s kin. The values derive from and sustain the family. Campbell’s analysis is one of the best in showing the intricate functional integration of value, and social organization. Building on this particular analysis Pitt-Rivers (1983), Peristiany (1992), and others also showed how the concept of honor can be seen as a Middle Eastern and southern European value, somewhat transcending particularities of social organization but also grounded in a regional cultural and social pattern they termed ‘Mediterranean.’

An effort to reduce the first approach to the second was Douglas’ Cultural Bias (1978). Douglas distinguishes two dimensions of social life, group and grid, which (though varying in definition) pertain to setting boundaries between in-group and out-group, and defining the inner networks and classifications internal to a group (grid). Utilizing her social variables grid group, Douglas argues that many cultural values—conceptions of time, of health and disease, of nature—depend on which particular social con- figuration is dominant. Thus, by knowing the social pattern, one can predict which cultural value will dominate; the societal explains cultural values.

Since the peak of the cultural and social anthropological structural-functionalist approaches to value, anthropology has developed in a myriad of directions. One is pursuing the nature of human rationality (see Overing Reason and Morality (1985)) and even returning to questions about human cognition (as with Quinn and Holland (1987)). Further exemplifying the sociological emphasis, but with a Marxist twist, one anthropological approach treats political economy as the driving force of culture. This approach tends to diminish the role of values. Values are treated as false consciousness, as ideological constructions motivated by class interests or a drive to power and profit. Studies of colonialism and postcolonialism illustrate this approach, for example, Comaroff’s Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance (1985), where religious movements and their accompanying values are contextualized within a colonial and postcolonial framework in South Africa.

Studies of transnationalism and globalism likewise tend to ignore or diminish the place of values, emphasizing the capitalistic and corporate forces that construct global culture. However, human-rights formulations of value loom as one of the crucial forces tempering the global market process that has exploded since the Cold War.

While anthropologists who emphasize political economy moved values from center stage, the topic has migrated to other disciplines, especially those concerned with globalism and international relations. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996), for example, reifies certain value configurations, notably the Islamic and the Western, then foresees the clash between them, replacing the ideological conflict during the Cold War. Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998) also focuses on the power of values, notably rationalization, when coupled with the state, to shape human life and thought.

Turning to the place of values in anthropology and for the anthropologist, the basic debate is between engagement and objectivity. While Weber’s ‘valuefree social science’ concept converges with positivism to express at least an ideal of objectivity, his ‘Vverstehen’ converges with a Gadamerian postmodernism to acknowledge the role of values (what Gadamer terms ‘prejudice’) as projected by the analyst into the process of analysis. These Weberian nuances can still inform the anthropological debate (see for example, the debate between D’Andrade and Scheper-Hughes (1995)). Like Weber, anthropologists agree in acknowledging the role of values in their research and lives but they debate whether the analyst should attempt to control the influence of values, i.e., strive toward objectivity, or should embrace their influence, i.e., become engaged. Engagement means that the analyst should express rather than suppress values, whether those of one’s informants, one’s own, or others’ (e.g., of some ideology or vision of the good). Objectivity means that the analyst should control or suppress expression of values (other than that of scientific or accurate description and analysis).

At an organizational level, two formulations by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), one on professional ethics, the other on human rights, illustrate the issue. The ethics statement boils down to a version of the Hippocratic oath ‘Do no harm.’ That is, above all else, do not endanger the people one studies. The Human Rights Declaration takes a more engaged and activist stance, calling for the anthropologist to intercede if human rights of a group are violated. In either instance, the anthropologist is engaged, but in the professional ethics statement the frame is set as within the research. Concern is especially with the group among whom one is doing fieldwork. With such a group of individuals, one has a ‘covenental’ relationship and an ethical commitment not to do harm to them as a result of carrying out the research. However, the ethics statement abstains from a positive injuction ‘Do good’ or even from an activist call to ‘prevent harm’ to the group, in case they should come into harm’s way.

As proposed by the AAA Committee on Human Rights for vote by the AAA membership, a more activist commitment is implied. The Declaration reads as follows:

As a professional organization of anthropologists the AAA has long been and should continue to be concerned whenever human difference is made the basis for a denial of human rights, where ‘human’ is understood in its full range of cultural, social, linguistic, psychological, and biological senses.

The Committee further comments as follows:

Support of the Declaration will allow anthropologists to participate more centrally in one of the most significant human-values debates of our time. Suppression of diversity by powerful states or factions with a claim to superior values has led to such horrors as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yet, ‘culture’ has been used to justify not taking a stand on actions which human rights NGOs consider gross violations of human freedoms.

The history of the AAA attitude toward human rights intertwines with the history of the anthropology of values. In the mid-twentieth century when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being formulated, AAA declined to join the process of formulation on the ground that the ethics of human rights violated cultural relativism by claiming universal values. By the 1990s, AAA was re-engaging the conversation, acknowledging and affirming basic human rights while also emphasizing collective and cultural identities and their concomitant dangers e.g., genocide and ethnic cleansing.

While the complex issues of objectivity and engagement cannot be plumbed further here, this example illustrates part of the spectrum between a model of objectivity (analyst detached from object of research), a model of engagement (analyst obligated to intercede on behalf of endangered groups) and shades in between, illustrated by the ‘do no harm,’ injunction, which presumes a research objective tempered by an ethical constraint.

In the late twentieth century, efforts toward defining the place of values in the discipline of anthropology, display three major streams. The first affirms positivism and objectivity. The second affirms subjectivity, an interpretive, post-modernist stance leading toward reflexivity—explicit acknowledgement of one’s values as part of one’s analysis. The third also affirms the place of one’s values, but leads not so much inward as outward, minimally toward ethical behavior in relation to those among whom one does research, maximally toward engagement and practice: a mission of reform and change of the world.

This debate about the proper place of values in the experience of the anthropologist is important within the discipline, but insofar as the debate is within the discipline, it is limited in its direct impact on the wider world. Arguably of greater impact is the first topic of this essay: the anthropological study of values as expressed by humankind.

Anthropology should count as one of its major contributions, to scholarship and to the world, the recognition of, study of, and affirmation of the worth of human values, both in their common aspects and in their distinctive emphasis by varied groups or cultures. This is an abiding contribution, worthy of perpetuation into the next epoch of the discipline.


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