Anthropological Warning Signs and How to Spot Them

[Originally posted on my blog.]


I’m engaged in research mode right now for the second book of Isabella’s memoirs. But this isn’t the focused, targeted research of the Onyx Court series, where I know my time and place and am looking for details; I’m trying to decide what time(s) and place(s) I’m going to be drawing from to begin with. Since the general sphere of this second book is going to be “sub-Saharan Africa,” that means doing a fair bit of 101-level familiarization, before I decide where to dig down further.

One of the books I just read had me rolling my eyes at certain obvious flaws, and I figured that when I write up my “books read” post in a few weeks, I’d dismiss it with a flippant sentence that would make certain friends laugh, and move on with my life. But then it occurred to me that the flaws I see as obvious actually may not be. I spent ten years in anthropology and related disciplines; I’m familiar with the ways in which anthropological writing can go wrong. Not everybody else is. And it might be useful for me to talk to more than just the anthropologists in my audience.

So here, with an illustrative example, is how to look critically at the genre. This isn’t in-depth technical stuff, where you need to know the region or the theory to spot where it’s going wrong; this is just critical thinking, of a mildly specialized sort. But the flaws are a type that can slip under the radar, if you’re not accustomed to them.

The book in question is The Kingdom of Benin in the Sixteenth Century, by Elizabeth M. McClelland. And I should say — before I begin slicing it apart — that it actually served my purpose to some extent, despite its flaws. That’s because my purpose right now is to ask, “what do I want to use as the foundation of my invented culture?” Do I want to use the kingdom of Benin? I wasn’t sure, so I read this book. And it gave me some details that were helpful. Not very many, since the entire book is a whopping fifty-one pages long, but some.

(Note: although the book focuses on a historical period, I still count it as anthropology, because it’s more concerned with how people lived, rather than events. “Historical anthropology” is a recognized specialization within the discipline, and it kind of overlaps with archaeology, which is one of the major sub-fields of anthropology.)

McClelland’s book started off well, which is why I brought it home from the library. A bit of historical context, about how Europeans came into contact with Benin in the sixteenth century, and then it uses their accounts to describe the geography of the kingdom, and the city of Benin itself. Given the use to which I’m going to be putting this information, I don’t particularly need Archaeologist Brain to quibble with the decision to term Benin a “city;” it doesn’t matter to me what size or population density or kinds of infrastructure it had, and whether it does, in fact, meet the archaeological criteria for analyzing a population center as urban in nature. (These criteria do matter, when you’re trying to answer questions like how urbanization happens.) Me, I care more about what the houses looked like, and how the place was laid out. I can extrapolate from there.

But I do notice, as I read, that McClelland hasn’t really explained to me where she’s getting her information from — not in detail. We are apparently drawing on the records of Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French traders — who are they, and when were they visiting the area? Which details are drawn from which record? She only clarifies this in a few places, not nearly enough. We also benefit from archaeological work, but not very much of it; this book was written in 1971, and the excavation that had been done back then was very scanty. (And yes, I’m taking the time period into account when I criticize this book.)

Of course, this is popular nonfiction; I don’t expect in-line citations for every last detail. But I notice, as I go along, that McClelland’s few references are overwhelmingly skewed toward one particular Dutch writer, identified only by the initials D.R. It makes me wonder how much of her info comes from his single account. (I suspect quite a lot.) Nobody seems to know who he was, which means I have no context for his observations; McClelland must know when he wrote his account, but she doesn’t even tell me that. No bibliography, either. Hrmph. Your rigor, it does not impress me.

But okay. There are maps — this is good — and photographs of artifacts and excavations, and reproductions of historical engravings. There’s a floorplan for a chief’s house that looks like it may have been adapted from an archaeological diagram. The caption for one of the engravings notes inaccuracies in the image; the roof does not match with what’s known of actual structures at the time. These are good signs! We are documenting our sources, and noting places where they don’t match up. Five points to Gryffindor!

Then the book moves outside the city of Benin and into the countryside, where it begins talking about village life. And here’s where it gets more dubious.

McClelland launches this section by talking about rural houses. Here we get, not archaeological diagrams or historical illustrations, but photographs. But okay; when you get down to it, this kind of architecture is often quite conservative, because it draws on local materials and answers local needs, neither of which tend to change all that rapidly. (If you live in a hot and humid area and have wood to build with, your houses will look like X. If you live in a hot and dry area and have dirt to build with, your houses will look like Y.) McClelland tells me that “people have lived in houses like this for hundreds of years,” and I’m willing to accept that as true enough to be going on with. I’d like to know if we have archaeological data to back up the assertion that these modern houses are like the historical ones, but for now, I’m okay.

Then she gets into rural society — how it was governed, how markets were run. Did D.R. or some other Europeans go out into the countryside, or hear from people in the city that markets were held every fourth day? McClelland doesn’t say. Then she gets into the daily labor of Benin society, how hunting and farming and fishing were done (useful to me, since it helps build an ecological picture in my mind), and weaving and pottery —

Gee, it’s nice of those European traders to describe in detail such mundane practices as the firing of household pots! And wait, what’s this? More photographs! Of modern people!

Okay. There is, in fact, a recognized method in anthropology/archaeology of taking things modern people do and using them to understand what people did in the past. This is both common and very tricky to do right. In the Bad Old Days of the field, writers assumed that those primitive people over there were stuck in earlier “evolutionary stages” of human culture, and therefore one could TOTALLY use them as a window into the past. Whee! Yeah, not so much. But at the same time, you can learn things by looking at how current people live. Nobody carries out a 100% hunter-gatherer lifestyle anymore, untouched by sedentary societies, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in looking at how far modern foragers walk in search of various resources, or how they diversify their subsistence strategy to make sure they’re not excessively dependent on one food source. If you’re careful with your data, and think about it critically, this can be a very useful technique.

It’s possible that when McClelland talks about firing pots, and shows photos of modern women doing that work, what she means is that somebody has looked at the archaeological evidence of pot-firing in the past — kiln pit construction, scorch marks, chemical composition of the soil, etc — and compared it against the evidence left behind by modern techniques, and found they’re very similar. It’s possible. McClelland doesn’t give me any reason to believe it, though. So she is committing the anthropological sin of filling in the historical gaps with modern evidence, assuming that twentieth-century Beninese are Just Like their sixteenth-century ancestors.

Um. No.

I’m almost entertained, in a perverse way, to see that she pairs this with the inverse (which is not the same thing as the avoidance) of another anthropological sin. There’s a thing known as the “anthropological present,” which has to do with the way ethnographic writing tends to describe its object in the present tense, obscuring chronological gradations, and generally giving the hazy sense that the people under discussion live in some kind of timeless, unchanging state. McClelland’s book employs what I can only call the anthropological past: she says that “The Yoruba women were especially skilled in making patterned cloth by preventing the dye from reaching certain parts of it,” and then goes on to explain the process of tie-dying (which I guess was still new-fangled in the U.K. in 1971? Dunno).

That paragraph sits directly across from a color photograph of a woman in the process of tie-dying some cloth.

I can’t even tell if we’re talking about historical Benin anymore. Did they wear tie-dyed garments? There’s no references to indicate whether they did or not; just the use of the past tense, amid a sea of other details that tell me McClelland is taking all her evidence from modern-day West Africa. It simultaneously asserts that the present is totally like the past, and erases that present, by treating it as if it were over and done with. And then, at the end of this temporal mess, we get this:

The photographs that illustrate this chapter were taken only 10 years ago. The weavers and potters of the part of Nigeria around Benin still practise the same skills as did their sixteenth-century ancestors.

No. You don’t drop a pair of sentences at the END of your chapter to patch over the giant leap you’ve been making for the past ten pages or more, without any supporting evidence that were you were justified in leaping at all.

If you have to do this sort of thing — and you often don’t, but okay, your book is only fifty-one pages, and if you skipped this part for lack of evidence, you’d have no book at all — then you START your chapter by saying, we don’t have a lot of archaeological or archival documentation of how these things were done back then, but we do have X, Y, and Z that make us think we can probably look to modern practices to shed light on the past. Here are some weavers from ten years ago; their spindle whorls and warp weights look a lot like the ones found in excavations of historical Benin. Here are some quotes that indicate historical Beninese wore tie-dyed cloth, and some photographs showing how tie-dying is done today. The plants used for the dyes are common in the area, so we think those are probably the same. Here is how they fire pots nowadays, and we have no idea whether that’s how it was done back then because nobody’s dug up a kiln pit yet, but the pottery they produce looks like the shards that have been dug up, so there’s that.

Always, always be clear about where and when the information comes from. If you have to analogize between periods several centuries apart to bridge the gaps in your knowledge, own that fact. Don’t write about modern Yoruba women in the past tense, and hope I believe you’re talking about people in the sixteenth century.

Even for 1971, this is not very good.

So, to recap: McClelland’s book commits several basic sins of anthropological writing. It

  1. seems to rely heavily on a single documentary source of uncertain origin and dubious reliability,
  2. fails to signal when it abandons historical evidence for modern,
  3. makes no attempt to show a convincing rationale for using modern evidence, and
  4. deliberately erases the present in its attempt to talk about the past.

If you read books of this kind, watch out for such things. Ask yourself where the evidence comes from. Pay attention to what tense the author is using, and whether that obscures temporal gaps in what’s being described. Any time something outside the scope of the discussion gets brought in for puposes of analogy or proof, give it the side-eye, unless the author makes a good argument for why it’s justified.