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Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony Hardcover – November 2, 1992


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; y First printing edition (November 2, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0029089255
  • ISBN-13: 978-0029089255
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #964,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Robert Edgerton, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of the department of anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles and the author of several books, including Like Lions They Fought, Sick Societies, and Warriors of the Rising Sun.

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4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

63 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Jean-Francois Virey on August 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In *Sick Societies*, Robert B. Edgerton argues against tworesilient premises of modern anthropology: cultural relativism and adaptivism.
Cultural relativism is the doctrine that there are no universal, objective criteria for evaluating societies, and that cultural beliefs and practices can only be judged from within, relatively to the culture in which they inhere.
Adaptivism is the assumption that whatever long-standing beliefs and cultural practices can be observed in a given society must contribute to the adaptation of the members to their environment, otherwise either the beliefs and practices or the society members themselves would have perished.
Against these two doctrines, Edgerton argues that it is possible objectively to evaluate all existing societies, based on how well they serve human needs and therefore contribute to the longevity, health (both physical and mental) and happiness of their members. Societies are more or less efficient at serving man's life, from the unsurpassed rationality and productivity of modern western societies, to the superstitious, taboo-ridden and dismally poor communities which anthropologists tend to admire.
Examining dozens of examples of so-called "folk" (i.e. small and primitive) societies, Edgerton shows that, contrary to popular belief- and scientific propaganda- they are not necessarily more socially cohesive, peaceful or healthy than the urbanized populations of the West- quite the contrary in fact. More importantly, he demonstrates how the cultural beliefs and practices of the society members themselves are responsible for the evils individuals endure, from depression to sexual mutilation, suicide, starvation, alcoholism, homicide and madness.
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40 of 46 people found the following review helpful By "mcgee22" on December 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Edgerton presents cultural research on several "primitive" cultures, detailing their warfare, famine, subjugation of women, suicide, irrational beliefs, poor hygeine, and often depravity. These case-studies end the myth that "all that is primitive is bliss, and all that is industrial is sickness". With this, he demonstrates the fallacies of thinking that each society has acheived its unique balance. He shows the irrationality of cultural and moral relativism. He shows that cultures CAN be judged from the outside, and that all cultural differences ought not to be respected by default.
Proving the adage that "madness is more common in groups than in individuals", Edgerton provides case after case of cultures gone awry.
What position are WE in to evaluate and pass judgement on another culture? If we value freedom, health, productivity, social stability, knowledge, growth, and peace, we are in a good position to criticize the evils and mistakes of any culture.
My only negative criticism of the book is a part in the beginning, in which Edgerton praises relativism for providing us with a much-needed dose of skepticism and wariness. Relativism has indeed made us cautious about passing judgement, but with the categorical refutations Edgerton has collected in disproving the major thrust of relativism, why make concilliations regarding its benefits? Because of his equivocation, I withhold the final star...
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Bradd E. Libby on August 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
In the opening and closing chapters, Edgerton makes it clear that he rejects a central tenet of cultural relativism which states that all aspects of a culture are necessarily 'adaptive' and therefore beyond criticism by any other culture's system of beliefs. He then fills the intervening chapters with example after example of practices from every corner of the globe that, if not to the detriment of the health and well-being of many or most members of the culture, are at least without apparent benefit, including: human sacrifice and environmental destruction among native Central and South American tribes, institutionalized gang rape among Papua New Guinean cannibals, sanctioned indolence among Tazmanian men and female genital mutilation in Africa. It would be difficult for a die-hard cultural relativist to explain the 'adaptive' value of say, footbinding, epidemic alcoholism or spousal abuse, which is Edgerton's point exactly. Those who are inclined to reflexively call the author racist should note that even modern American and European cultures, with their widespread belief in astrology and tendency to wildly misestimate certain health and environmental risks, don't escape his focus.
Though the main body is short (a little over 200 pages) and easy to read, the text quickly begins to feel like an extended laundry list, which I suppose makes it an excellent reference for shattering the politically correct myth of social and environmental harmony among non-Western cultures. Even the bibliography, which runs 40 pages, though now a little out of date, is a goldmine.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By John Blackstone on September 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have it that man in his primitive or original condition is good and noble, and that he is flawed by over-sophisticated institutions. "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains". Dr. Edgerton dips his pen in acid and refutes that notion.
The previous reviewers have commented accurately on the case Dr. Edgerton makes against adaptivism and cultural relativism.
Dr. Edgerton is a strong corrective against the Margaret Mead's utopian philosophy. He demonstrates madness, fetishism, mutilation, cannibalism, irrational beliefs, and just plain evil in primitive societies.
In contrast, western civilization does not look bad.
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