Watching and wondering: What we can learn from Fredrik Barth (Savage Minds)

May 29, 2015, by Rex

(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent two part interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)

On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.

That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.

Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.

Thanks to a new book by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth – An Intellectual Biography (Pluto Press), the Norwegian veteran will appear less of a mystery – and yet ever more captivating.

An anthropologists’ anthropologist

In 1951, 22-year-old Fredrik was invited to join an archaeological expedition to present-day Iraq. When his colleagues had finished digging and went back home with hammers and brushes, he stayed behind chatting to the Kurds living in the area. Thus began a 60-year long career as an ethnographer. In his new book Hylland Eriksen follows Barth’s journey, from the deserts of the Swat valley to the plains South Persia, from coastal Norway to south Sudan. After a pit stop among his academic tribes, he’s off again, to secret initiation cults in the misty highlands of New Guinea, and onward, to Bali, Oman, China and Bhutan. Most anthropologists agree that ethnographic research is the core of our discipline. But none have hammered the point home quite like Barth. It is said that there are three types of anthropologists: Those who have done fieldwork in one place, those who have done fieldwork in two places, and Barth.

The 60s A-team

Based on source material from formerly unpublished interviews, as well as some conversations with the main character, Hylland Eriksen paints a sympathetic portrait of Fredrik Barth. The book also gives life to a cast of characters who shaped British social anthropology, and partly also the discipline as it is known today: The arrogant but razor sharp Edmund Leach, who Barth in his own words «fell in love with» at first sight. Evans-Pritchard, who was his antagonist and likely played a part in refuting his doctorate at the University of Oslo. The radical Gluckman of Manchester, the mighty Fortes of Cambridge, and the gang’s diplomatic middleman, Firth, who stayed friends with all without having to take sides.

It was Firth who ensured that Barth gave the first Nuffield lecture at The Royal Society in Britain in 1965, representing social anthropology for the first time among other sciences. In Hylland Eriksen’s words, the Norwegian stepped onto the podium as the «flag bearer» of British social anthropology. Barth has called it the highlight of his career.

«Study process, not form»

Part of what he argued for at the RSA is today taken for granted. He was skeptical of «deep structures», be they social, cultural or mental, as found in Radcliffe-Brown, Geertz or Levi-Strauss. He was one of the most vocal – but not the first – to depart with the notion of culture as a bounded entity. It was, Barth argued, the processes of social life that should be understood, not its hardened form. What meaningful strategies do people follow? What set of concrete opportunities and limitations influence their behavior? And out of this, what aggregate phenomena emerge?

These ideas lay behind his introduction to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1968), which was for years on the top 100 on the social science citation index. Here, Barth proposed that there is no one-to-one relationship between cultural differences and ethnic differences. It seems so obvious today: Ethnic identity does not grow naturally out some shared cultural mass. It is rather the result of a social process of inclusion and exclusion.

For better or worse, Barth didn’t have much interest in «cultural stuff», and the interpretation of symbols, which so excited Geertz. When Barth became head of the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo, a rumor has it that he suggested that they sell the whole collection of artifacts and rather spend the money on sending anthropologists to the field.

Strictly business?

For all his inductive reflexes, however, Barth seemed to assume one thing: that most human behavior is based on the same basic logic: we are goal-seeking animals, prone to act as we see best. Hylland Eriksen discusses the critiques that have been leveled at this position. When opponents charge Barth for relying on a formalistic notion of homo economicus, theyare wrong, argues Hylland Eriksen. Barth claims not that humans per definition are egoistic and strategic, but rather that «it is strategic behavior, done by persons in some capacity or another, which generates regularity and social form» (p. 202). People will everywhere try to do the best out of their situation. But what makes up «the best» varies immensely, and is for the anthropologist to figure out.

Hylland Eriksen spends little time on the personal aspects of Barth’s life. The book describes briefly the marriage to anthropologist Unni Wikan, which he claims made Barth «less macho, more ambiguous», and directed his curiosity towards knowledge and rituals rather than economy and politics. It does not offer any wholehearted account of Barth’s inner life. Which is quite all right. What makes the book a good read is not its scant psychologizing, but the way it narrates – with some of the same adventurous spirit as its protagonist – the bewildering breath of an anthropological career.

Lessons to be learnt

The biography argues implicitly that there is something important to learn from Fredrik Barth. I agree. For one, he has a refreshing distaste for academics that align themselves too closely with pre-empirical projects. In a seminar in Lund University in Sweden in the 70s, Barth is said to have exclaimed to a self-proclaimed Marxist student: «You don’t need fieldwork, you have the answers already!»

Barth’s inductive attitude is reflected not only in his texts, but also in his reference lists. In an essay collection that sums up his life’s work, there are only five pages of references, many of which are to his own texts. This of course has to do Barth writing in a different time, with different norms for publishing. Besides, he went to places where few had gone, and there were fewer texts to quote. However, it also serves as a reminder: To be theoretically ambitious is not the same as having an endless reference list. Open a monograph today and one encounters 15 to 30 pages with references to other texts. At times, it seems that empirical patterns are in danger of collapsing under the weight of the quotations of fashionable thinkers. As students we are told to «apply» theory on our materials. Barth would have it another way. He trusted his own observations more than established theory.

His attitude was apparent in more than just writing. In the early 60s Barth turned down a professorate at Columbia University in order to build up a new anthropology department in the peripheral Norwegian town of Bergen. Soon, Bergen was no longer peripheral. Hylland Eriksen observes that a much-used textbook from 1968, written by Marvin Harris, holds the two great power centers in current anthropology to be Paris, under the leadership of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bergen, under Barth.

Watching and wondering

86-year-old Barth is now retired from academic life. I visited him some months ago to talk about plans for fieldwork in Southern Africa. «Good luck», he replied, and added friendlily: «But don’t become a ‘proper Africanist’. Remember that it is the general questions that push our discipline forward. And those you can find anywhere».

In the end, I think this is what we can learn from an old-timer like Barth: To be more concerned with watching and wondering than with conceptual fashion walking. To rely more on our observations than the concepts of others. And to define the frontier of anthropology not only by reading new books, but by going to new places.

I can still recall how Barth ended that lecture back in 2008. He had spent two hours telling us about the characteristics of anthropological research: The power of understanding people on their own terms; of regarding every new finding as a provocation, and a call to rethink our assumptions and our models. But beyond this it was an open question as to what social anthropology should be in the future. Barth looked at us freshman students and said: «It is for all of you to find out».

Fredrik Barth – An intellectual biography is already available in Norwegian, and will be published in an English translation by Pluto Press in June 2015.