Stop, Drop, Study! Jan 13-24

Hey all! I’ll be starting a new post series called “Stop, Drop, Study” where I recap some things I learned at school over two weeks. This is kind of more just for me but I do learn some pretty cool things so I hope you’ll join me for the remainder of my post-secondary journey!


Malinowski and the Trobiand people.

Fieldwork: participant observation/observant participation

  • Off the Verandah (film, 1985): anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski lives among the Trobiand people off the south coast of New Guinea in an attempt to produce a more hands-on, in depth study of a native group
    • He pioneers the practice of anthropological fieldwork. This involved living with the Trobiand for an extended period of time, learning their language, and keeping detailed notes and photographs.
  • Fieldwork is an extension to the previous ways of collecting information on distant groups (i.e. reports of encounters with these people by European explorers)
  • It produces a more complete ethnography (description of a culture; an attempt to understand them from their point of view)
    • E.g. Malinowski learns that the Trobiand practiced magic not because they lacked scientific knowledge or because they were “primitive”, but because it was a way of life for them. Science and magic are two separate concepts that are not associated.
  • Thick vs. thin descriptions:
    • Thin descriptions take gestures/acts at face value (e.g. a wink from an outsiders p.o.v. may look like a secret between two people, but it could have been a twitch, mockery of something, etc), whereas thick descriptions are more anthropological as they make an attempt at understand the meaning behind gestures (i.e. asking the winkers what they meant by the wink).

Malinowski and the Trobiand people.

History of Anthropology, beg. 19th century

  • Anthropology originated as largely an “armchair” discipline. Anthropologists had limited first hand experience and mostly, as stated earlier, studied reports of encounters of “primitives” by explorers
    • These reports were by no means systematic but rather highly fragmented
  • Early anthropology was also largely influenced by Darwinian theory of biological evolution which was applied to the study of social evolution (=WRONG!)
  • L.H. Morgan’s (1818-1881) stages of social evolution: all societies are organized in a linear progression from less to more progressive
    1. Savagery: hunter-gatherers
    2. Barbarism: horticulture/agriculture
    3. Civilization: use of an alphabet, European
  • Each stage is associated with a certain way of thinking (e.g. magic/science), type of marriage, technology, etc
  • Morgan’s imagined ladder of development was based on cultural differences between the West and the “others”
    • Others” were defined by what they “lacked” (e.g. West = state society, therefore “other” societies were non-states)
  • Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (1983): geographical distances have been translated as temporal distances (i.e. popular thought was that the farther from Europe = more primitive)
    • “Others” have not been seen as coeval (living in the same time period)

Colonialism is based on the 3 C’s: civilizing, commerce, and Christianity.


  • Centered on inherently exploitative relationships and the control of resources utilized by “others” (incl. land and labour, also known as: means of production)
  • Double-minded: colonizing for profit but also to “enlighten” (Christianity, European standards, etc)
  • Based on capitalism and commodity (everything, incl. means of production is transactable + everything has an attributed value)
    • Pre-capitalist exchange is not mediated by money; products are exchanged for other products. Land and labour are negotiated through personal relations
  • Colonization extended the European capitalist system across the globe
  • Colonialism and anthropology: England employs Sir Evans-Pritchard (1940) to live with and study the Nuer of South Sudan. It was thought that more information about these people was needed in order to successfully subdue them



  • Facets of inequality:
    • Innate/perceived human differences
    • Social value judgement about differences
    • Continuum of differential access to or monopolization of resources
    • Institutional mechanisms for maintaining inequality
  • Status is always relative to another’s prestige/perceived self-worth/dominance
  • Prestige is freely given to an individual by a social group; this individual is listened to because their opinions are valued or esteemed
    • Prestige is associated with authority (the ability to channel the behaviour of others without the use of coercive action)
  • Dominance is enforced through agonist behaviour and is based on fear; individuals who assert dominance are not necessarily esteemed


  • Often associated with dominance because power is usually exercised over another but it is more complex than this…
  • There are many ways power can be expressed
  • Wolf 1999, Modalities of Power
    • Inherent power: enables interpersonal dominance (e.g. a person’s strength or personality)
    • Social power: the ability to impose you will through social interactions
    • Tactical power: the ability to direct the operations of certain organizations or systems
    • Structural power: the ability to form, finance, or structure an organization or system

Classifying Societies

  • Egalitarian/Unranked
    • Equal access to positions of prestige and means of production
    • Status is fluid inter-generationally
    • Informal, lacks permanence
    • Leadership is situational
    • Power is expressed as either inherent or social
  • Ranked
    • Differential access to positions of status/prestige
    • Positions are permanent but may be accessed through achievement or ascription; leaders enjoy prestige, authority, and status but don’t exercise tactical/structural power
    • Equal access to means of production and fundamental resources
    • Inequality is institutionalized
    • Individuals ranked according to kin system
  • Stratified
    • Differential access to status positions and means of production
    • Limited group of individuals enjoy tactical and structural power
    • Ranking is no longer defined by kinship; social classes are now defined by similar status
  •  Transegalitarian
    • Characterized by private ownership of resources, low levels of sharing
    • Institutional hierarchies based on wealth
    • Typified production/transformation of food surplus, economic competition between aggrandizers, feasting, etc
  • Hierarchical
    • Some groups controlling whatever is of interest (i.e. wealth, politics, ritual)
    • Social-organizational structure like that of military command – generally assoc. with control from the top
  • Complex
    • Permanent social inequality (i.e. ranked/stratified)
    • Enduring forms of social differentiation

Misconceptions About Inequality

  • Population pressure was the prime mover of inequality
  • Food production is a necessary precondition to institutionalized inequality
  • Elites are problem solvers. Stratification decreased human suffering and allowed for better management of resources
  • Social inequality and complexity are the same
  • Social inequality and complexity are epiphenomenons of one another
  • Social inequality is irreversible
  • Most early societies were organized in more or less the same way and could therefore by categorized as either a chiefdom or a state

Wow that was actually more than I thought. Phew..

See you on the next one!



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