Book: Essays in Social Anthropology

by E. E. Evans-Pritchard

I was inspired by Think Like an Anthropologist so I decided to read some real stuff. E-P is a major classic in the field–I remember him mentioned multiple times as a college student in only a minor in anthropology.

The book is technical but accessible. It’s actually maybe ironic. Think Like is so general and so marketed to a non-specialist audience that I actually feel like it stayed with me less? I feel as though I remember more from E-P’s more technical, more academic language, and his more specific, narrower focus than I do from Engelke.

There are 9 essays included in the collection. The first three cover general theory. Two cover the relationship of anthropology to history and the other covers social science’s historical attitude toward religion. The next three are, in E-P’s words, of “literary analysis,” and the final three of “field research.” There was much, much more resemblance between the latter two groups than between them and the first three. This may be in part because they were differences of technique and not of focus (this is an issue E-P insists on). “Literary analysis” and “field research” are different forms of data, but the anthropologist is asking the same questions of both, because the anthropologist is more or less a historian of living peoples. (E-P’s assertion.)

I have two reactions to the book. The first came to me today, as I was in a lecture and thinking about trying to examine the Estonians anthropologically. I forgave myself a little bit. I don’t feel as though I’ve been able to really isolate Estonianness and even aspects of it, and it is very hard for me when around Estonians to keep such issues in mind. I was reminded today in thinking about E-P that anthropology has spent centuries trying to get good at that, and anthropologists spend decades.

Second, I was impressed by E-P’s discussions of anthropology and religion. Since reading War and Peace I have spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between causality and free will. This is something social scientists have also struggled with. E-P was himself Catholic, and he seems to have found, if not directly from his Christianity if from Christian thinking in general, a way to accommodate both.

“Once it became accepted that the controversies of the past for the most part lacked both significance and substance, once also a climate of indifference prevailed, it is understandable that a spirit of mutual tolerance should bring to an end disputations between the religious and the natural scientists. But this was only possible because fundamentally there never were any real grounds for dispute between what natural science teaches about the nature of the physical world and what the Churches teach about faith and morals. After all, there cannot be a stronger assertion of natural law than belief in miracles. But this is not the case between the claims of social scientists, or very many of them, and those of the Churches. Here then there is still conflict, and there is bound to be, for, as Mrs. Linton’s character saw, sociological determinism and the teachings of Jesus are irreconcilable.”

E-P, like all good anthropologists, emphasizes particulars and draws them into patterns. He makes no attempt to codify laws. This perhaps is the solution to Tolstoy’s asteroid. The asteroid is a bad analogy because animal wills don’t work like asteroids. They are not subject to laws in the way bodies moving through space are subject to laws. There are generalized patterns of behavior and choice, but none of it can be codified into universals. That may be the greatest available evidence of free will: if there were no free will, we would expect to find such laws. As we do not seem to be able to, it is reasonable to assume a miraculous free will.

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