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Armchair Anthropology and Its Role in Research

  • Category: Science
  • Topic: Anthropology
  • Pages: 5
  • Words: 2150
  • Published: 10 October 2020
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The beliefs and customs of other cultures have fascinated adventurous, travels and explorers throughout History. It is this fascination to understand cultural diversity that brought about the rise in Anthropology. However Anthropology in the second half of the 19th century, known as ‘armchair anthropology’, was very different to what would recognise and find acceptable today, and was very much dismissed by anthropologists in the early part of the 20th century. In this essay I will be exploring the rise of ethnographic fieldwork in particular the response to the ‘armchair anthropology’. To do this I will begin by looking at early anthropologists and how they collated their data when they were not in the field themselves, and comparing it with the work of some of the leading founders of social anthropology and critics of armchair based anthropology such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and Alfred Cort Haddon (1855–1940). I will not be including theoretical influences behind early anthropologists such as Functionalism, Structuralism and Marxist theories, since it is not necessary or relevant for exploring the idea of ethnographic field work as a response to armchair anthropology. As I will argue that armchair anthropology despite its limitations was invaluable to later anthropologists through their ground-breaking work rather than theoretical influences.

Armchair anthropology as it were to become known was a reference to scholars of the late 19th century who came to ‘anthropological’ conclusions without the need to do fieldwork. That is they did not travel to other countries to gather their data for their Ethnographic study. Certain scholars of the time such as James George Frazer, Edward Burnett Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan were some of the most prominent of the time. George Frazer (1854-1941) was writing articles for Encyclopaedia Britannica when he was introduced to Tylor’s book, Primitive Culture (1871) and was soon compiling anthropological papers. Frazer would go on to be the first professor of ‘social anthropology’ in Britain. His career would be influenced by his work in religion, myth and ritual, culminating in his book ‘The Golden Bough 1890’, a study in comparative religion. He was one of the first to study religion as a social function that could be compared and contrasted, and has often been regarded as one of the founders of contemporary anthropology. Despite his achievements Frazer would receive criticism for adding nothing original to the field as it was noted that almost all of Frazers work was from other researchers, anthropologists and missionaries he regularly corresponded with. He published many pieces based on notes he had taken but rarely researched anything based on his own data, essentially the quintessential armchair anthropologist.

American lawyer and anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) was very much influenced by social evolution. Morgan was particularly interested in ‘kinship’ and looking at how societies and culture developed and would be known as a pioneer in his field through this work (white, 1948) He studied native peoples, specifically north American Indian people the ‘Iroquois’, indigenous people who were removed from their lands after the revolutionary war. He argued that human advancement could be identified by means of progression in cultural evolution. In his most famous book ‘ancient society’, progression of human advancement ranged from savagery, to barbarism through to civilization, the subtitle to his book. Another advocate of cultural evolutionism was Edward Tylor (1832-1917) who also worked with data acquired from the study of indigenous people, and for his book that inspired Frazer, Primitive Culture. Culture was defined by Tylor as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” which was partly influenced by Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, offered an anthropological definition of culture and is still a key concept in the foundation of cultural anthropology today. Tylor like Morgan never actually studied in the field and like Frazer relied on second hand data from explorers and missionaries.

One of the first to challenge armchair anthropology was one of the founders of modern British anthropology Alfred Cort Haddon (1910), he argued that armchair observation lacked critical reflection and that it relied on unreliable sources for its information and that field work was the surest method for collecting data on different peoples. For Haddon anthropologist could only produce accurate accounts by travelling to locations and observing indigenous populations first hand. He wasn’t alone and the opening decades of the 20th century other anthropologists argued similarly about armchair studies. The most iconic figure within the British community to promulgate fieldwork as the corner stone of the discipline’s practices was Bronislaw Malinowski. During WW1 the polish born Malinowski was interned as an enemy alien in Australia and because he was unable to return to Europe he ended up residing in the Trobriand Islands for two years, and it was also by living amongst the islanders that Malinowski became to recognise the importance of doing fieldwork. In the introduction to his book ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’(1922), he argued that it was important for researchers interested in human diversity to discuss the methods they used in the field when collecting ethnographic materials. It was only by outlining in detail these rigorous practices that researchers would be able to demonstrate the scientific standards of the discipline, as with Haddon, Malinowski also argued that it was essential for Anthropologists to raise the scientific criteria on which they collected analysed and represented their data. In essence the Trobriand Islands would become Malinowski’s laboratory where he would develop his research programme and transform the observational practices of all future anthropological researchers Malinowski’s persuasive rhetoric convinced many anthropologists to prioritise field based studies over other methods of observation, and in the early part of the 20th century practitioners identified fieldwork as a necessary component of anthropological research. This period in Anthropology has since been canonised as the founding years of the modern discipline.

In response to armchair anthropology, younger generations of naturalists, such as Haddon began to challenge techniques that were used by the older generations. Haddon was initially trained in zoology he soon became an authority in anthropology after participating in an expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898. The expedition was also canonised as a key moment for the discipline by members of the British anthropological community, by studying Indigenous people by being directly among them. It was because of this experience of spending an extended period of time living amongst the Islanders in their natural environment that Haddon became vocally critical of early Victorian armchair anthropology for their lack of time spent in the field. Therefore they had limited opportunities to collect data that was substantive and this criticism was reflected in many of Haddon’s books and reviews. “As the investigators travelled over such an extensive area and often had but a limited time in places that they visited the original observations must be considered as being more as the nature of a survey than a detailed study”. He also wrote that scientists without direct experience in the field were simply “retailing second hand goods over the counter”. Haddon clearly felt the armchair anthropology was very out dated and unreliable.

Haddon wasn’t the only one to attack the “armchair anthropologist’s”, practices as antiquated his contemporaries WH Rivers and CH Reid were equally concerned anthropological methodologies. Coincidently at the time of Haddon and others concerns at the beginning of the 20th century, changes were developing within British Academia. Most notably funding afforded many discipline’s a great opportunity to develop their new research techniques. Academic Institutions were now recognising the importance of funding scholar’s careers. As noted by Henrika Kuklick in her book the savage within, “university reformers undertook to professionalise scholarship determining that the advance of knowledge required that individuals be able to make lifelong, remunerated careers developing their specialised expertise just as independent professionals did”. One of the first to benefit from this economic upturn in institutional funding of the time was Malinowski who through his expedition to the Trobriand Islands where he best known for the use of ‘participant observation’ that is the basis for all modern ethnography we see today. However like Haddon and others he too was vocal regarding what they perceived us unreliable analysis used by armchair anthropologists. As Kuklick explained “As the natural history specialties differentiated, their practitioners determined that naturalists must break their long-established habit of relying on theories articulated by armchair scholars, that scientists could not do credible analysis unless they had themselves gathered the data on which their generalisations rested”. A strong sense of a need to move away from the old data collection techniques used by the older generation of armchair scholars, to new more credible analysis such as ethnographic fieldwork.

Barabar Tedlock in her article, The Emergence of Narrative Ethnography 1991, has written extensively of fieldwork practices. In-particular ethnography, she wrote “Participant observation would lead to “Human understanding” through a fieldworkers learning to think, see, feel and sometimes behave as a native”. Tedlock reinforcing the importance of participant observation as a way of being in tune with the people you are studying. Tedlock also argued that “the mythic history of anthropology is populated by four architects, the amateur observer, the armchair anthropologist, the professional ethnographer and the gone native field worker”. It could be argued that rather than challenging this mythologised depiction of a disjointed discipline, Tedlock is more endorsing it with an emphasis on a pronounced division between the amateur armchair anthropologist’s contributions of the late 18th and early 19th century and the professional field based ethnographers from the early 20th century. Tedlock is thus acknowledging that explorers, missionaries, and colonial officers were the soul providers for the armchair anthropologist’s material of the early 19th century, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that academically trained ethnographers travelled and undertook a recognisable form of intensive fieldwork and collected their data, and that the armchair anthropologists played their part in the development of anthropology and was not all down to Malinowski and Haddon.

In his book, from physics to anthropology and back again, Professor Simon Shaffer argued that the history of anthropology is full of myths for instance canonising early leading figures such as Haddon and Malinowski as revolutionist’s within the discipline, has obscured the story of anthropology. The disciplinary transformations that scholars have associated with the early 20th century are misleading because it blurs the connection between 19th century and 20th century methodologies. Shaffer moves away from the usual historiographical tradition, and instead shows how important figures of early ethnographic figures such as Haddon were not so much ground breaking more they had built up their observational techniques based on methodologies that were already pre-existing. Haddon’s zoology and biology training in the laboratory and out in the field was a major factor in shaping his observational practices, just as he had gone to the Torres Straits to study Zoology, he recognised an opportunity when sitting with the natives round the campfire to ask what life was like before white men came, Haddon became convinced if he neglected this ethnographic opportunity it was likely be lost forever. To build on Shaffer’s point further it is important to examine how observational practices of anthropologists transformed during the 19th century.

It has often been suggested that armchair anthropologists contributed very little to the field of anthropology as they rarely did any fieldwork of note and gathered their data from missionaries, explorers, colonial officers and the like, using second hand information and relying on untrained informants, as fieldwork was seen as dangerous, dirty and unfit for gentlemen, essentially they were every part the quintessential armchair scholar. However, if as per Schaffer’s point, we look deeper into the early armchair anthropologist’s studies that were being widely condemned. Each one has made major contributions, Frazer was the first to study religion as a social function that could be compared and contrasted, and would go onto become one of the founders of contemporary anthropology. Morgan would go on to be described as a pioneer in his field of ‘kinship’ and looking at how societies and culture developed. Tylor offered an anthropological definition of culture and is still a key concept in the foundation of cultural anthropology today; all would inspire other scholars in each of their fields.

We also need to look at other events that prompted the likes of Malinowski to go off to remote places and do ground-breaking ethnographic fieldwork. Such as funding, this played a big part as Frazer, Morgan and Tylor had jobs to hold down so funding themselves was not an option. There is no doubt the response to armchair anthropology was emphatic and monumental in the discipline of Anthropology from the likes of Malinowski, Haddon and many others in the early 20th century, but what cannot be ignored is the ground work that was already in place for them by armchair anthropologists who were essentially the corner stone of Anthropology.

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