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The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945.

Anthropologists presume that all cultures are suitable subjects of study, yet they have been much less successful in treating western as distinct from non-western cultures. Similarly, historians, especially in cultural and social history, have treated more recent periods less successfully than the more remote past. In The Savage Within, Henrika Kuklick takes on the interesting but doubly daunting task of providing a social history of British anthropologists in the recent past of 1885-1945.

As the title, The Savage Within suggests, Kuklick contends that the social background of British anthropologists shaped their perceptions of other cultures. The author links three generations of anthropologists with three successive cultural theories: evolutionism in the late Victorian period; diffusionism prior to and during World War I; and functionalism in the 1920s and 1930s. Through a statistical analysis of practising anthropologists, Kuklick creates a social typology of each generation. The amateurs and professionals in the late Victorian period came from a broader range of social strata and had more diverse links with the national political elite and cultural intellgentsia. With the growth of professionalism and employment almost entirely within the universities, the post-1914 generation came almost exclusively from the professional middle class, and had fewer links with political or intellectual leaders outside their academic ranks. In this sense, Kuklick's statistical study, of admittedly a very small sample (the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute had only thirty-two members), confirms both the fears of eminent Victorians about the breakup of a common culture, and of T.W. Heyck and others about the character of the new professional intelligentsia.

All three generations shared a middle-class belief in a meritocracy in which ability not birth determined social status and influence. As befitted the more open social mobility and diversity of the Victorians, the evolutionists espoused a liberal belief in progress, and presumed that change and not stability was the norm. They sought to explain how societies evolved independently toward a higher stage, measured by advances in material culture, and best represented by Victorian England itself. In contrast, the diffusionists, reflecting Edwardian concerns about national efficiency and decline, and the functionalists, reacting to the horrors of World War I and the social conflict of the 1920s, were more pessimistic about human rationality and progress, and presumed that stability and not change was the norm.

In the most original part of the study, Kuklick examines the link between diffusionist anthropology and the origins of modern psychology out of the pioneering fieldwork of the Torres Straits Expedition of 1898. W.H. Rivers, who developed tests of sense and motor functions, found little difference between the responses of Papuans and Europeans. This evidence plus an emerging theory which depicted the human personality as a result of the complex interplay between subconscious psychological needs and the social environment stressed the continuities rather than discontinuities within a given culture. So-called primitive cultures seemed frozen in time, and progress toward civilization required some form of powerful external shock. In this vision, the Nile became the one generating centre for civilization. By implication, European colonialism delivered a similar external shock to moribund non-western cultures.

The practical application of these ideas developed not in anthropology but in psychology. Rivers's work as a psychologist led to a more humane treatment of shell-shock victims in World War I, and in peacetime found application in the new science of management in the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. Although not overlooked, more emphasis might be placed on the link between physical anthropology and the statistical study of human populations pioneered by Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and other eugenists. By the 1920s, these pursuits also found a home in psychology where Cyril Burtt and others led the quest for a measurement of human intelligence.

Following World War I, under the leadership of Bronislaw. Malinowski at the London School of Economics, functionalism became the predominant cultural theory. The functionalists captured the academic patronage of the Rockefeller Foundation and the newly founded International African Institute. Kuklick argues that the functionalists proclaimed the "apolitical" scientific character of their studies, and this stance reassured the Rockefeller Foundation that they would not interfere with colonial administration. Malinowski accepted the limitations colonial officials imposed on fieldworkers, and held out the possibility that his students' work might have practical applications. In practice, fieldworkers often pursued esoteric interests having little practical utility.

This discussion of anthropology and colonialism is enriched by Kuklick's knowledge of West Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, but it draws the reader away from the book's social history. The treatment of the politics of the anthropologists' perceptions also becomes increasingly a matter of conjecture rather than evidence. Kuklick attempts to establish a correlation between the functionalists' politics and their view of cultures as rather static organic wholes capable of adaptation to preserve their continuity. This view fits with Lugard's policy of Indirect Rule, and yet the anthropologists mere increasingly critical of colonialism, and abandoned the practical claims once made for their discipline. Consequently, Kuklick sees the anthropologists, exemplified by Evans-Pritchard's study of the stateless society of the Nuer, driven by a nostalgia for a more stable and harmonious past as envisioned in a conservative myth of the folk democracy of Anglo-Saxon England.

These correlations are fun to play with, but they need to be buttressed with a different kind of evidence. As critics of colonialism, how did the anthropologists define "African interests" and what was their relationship to the African nationalists? We also need to know more about what the anthropologists thought about their own British society and culture. Unfortunately, Kuklick too often can give only an interpretative reading. The difficulty is that anthropologists, like historians, often say a great deal about other cultures and times, and precious little about themselves.
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Author:Lorimer, Douglas A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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