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63 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The case against adaptivism and cultural relativism
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...
Published on August 25, 2000 by Jean-Francois Virey

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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why societies are sick?
I read this book and agreed with the author that "all societies are sick, some are sicker than the others". But I couldn't find where he explained why they are sick, well, or at least it seems that in each maladaptive case there was either a highly specific (and irrational) reason, or in some cases, the reason was simply forgot.

After a exhaustive and...
Published on November 25, 2010 by L. Chang


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63 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The case against adaptivism and cultural relativism, August 25, 2000
By 
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (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.
*Sick Societies* sometimes reads like a catalogue of cultural maladaptation and expert opinion, and would have benefited from a more rigorous organization of its material, a more transparent outline and a better classification of the phenomena described. Though he rarely errs, Edgerton makes the mistake of package-dealing actual cases of exploitation (involving force or political power) with alleged cases of economic exploitation, implicitly giving credit to Marxist dogma. Some of his statements are also very curious: "Child abuse is often a nonrational behavior" p80; "The exploitation of children... has been... exploitive" p81.
Despite these very minor flaws, the book is a wonderful case for an objective anthropology, which will fill you with amazement and horror at the extremes of human folly and brutality. I was particularly stunned by the description of the 238 state-supported inhabitants of Duddie's Branch, whose degenerate community could have originated in the dystopian visions of an Ayn Rand, although had she invented it, she would have been accused of political caricature and man-hating hysteria.
As companions to this volume, I recommend Keith Windschuttle's *The Killing of History* and Ayn Rand's *Return of the Primitive*. END
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41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars full of evidence although sometimes needlessly conciliatory, December 16, 1999
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (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
4.0 out of 5 stars Edgerton puts the myth of 'adaptivism' to bed, August 23, 2002
By 
Bradd E. Libby (Amherst, MA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (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
4.0 out of 5 stars What they don't teach you in anthropology class, September 7, 2000
By 
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (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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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anthropology Redeemed, June 11, 2004
By 
Alex Myrick (Seattle, WA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Hardcover)
Anthropologists don't get any academic accolades for identifying a behavior or custom as maladaptive; Rather they feel compelled to demonstrate they have shed their own ethnocentrism by going through empirical and interpretive contortions to define virtually all primitive conduct, regardless of how perverse it is, as adaptive. UCLA Professor of Anthropology and Psychology, Robert Edgerton understands this, and courageously takes his colleagues to task in an erudite, readable and gracious manner.
The anthropologically inclined will find his global survey of primitive cultures fascinating. Those not so inclined may find the repetition of the theme somewhat morbid. Nevertheless, Edgerton's case would be less compelling without the multitude of ethnographic evidence he presents.
Although the author doesn't say so, moral relativism leads to cultural relativism, which leads to a bogus multiculturalism, which, in turn, results in a slandering and denigration of Western civilization. Anything that breaks this chain is a much needed contribution, and Edgerton does a masterful job of demolishing the link of cultural relativism. The discipline of Anthropology is much in his debt.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes some excellent points, October 22, 2004
By 
Jill Malter (jillmalter@aol.com) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Hardcover)
There's a tendency to criticize behavior that's different from ours. But when we're trying to be impartial, we often overcompensate and apply less criticism than warranted. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that we'd prefer to be fair, in the hope of being judged fairly ourselves. That makes us lean towards leniency in judging others. Another is that when we deal with other societies, we can argue that what we think of as strange behavior has probably helped them last long enough to be criticized.

This has resulted in some misunderstandings about actual problems with other societies. Symptoms of this, as the author explains, are beliefs by many modern Western scholars in "cultural relativism," and claims that "primitive" societies were far more harmonious than modern ones.

Edgerton points out that while selective forces have sometimes forced societies to adapt, get absorbed by others, or become extinct, "more often there has not been enough competition among societies to bring about major social or cultural change." That is, once one's society can survive and maintain itself, it can keep a number of counterproductive customs and beliefs. He asserts that some of what we can rightfully judge as maladaptive may be inherent in human nature: desires for variety can lead to taking unnecessary risks, while desires to cooperate can lead to accomodating dangerous group beliefs and superstitions. On top of that, he claims that many societies have indeed perished at least in part due to maladaptive behavior. This puts him at odds with those who feel that to first order, societies are forced by selection to act adaptively.

The author does admit that some kinds of behavior that appear maladaptive, such as preferring death to slavery (or defeat) may in fact be adaptive (making sacrifices to save the rest of one's society could indeed be adaptive behavior for the society). One example he gave (of the Jewish Zealots at Masada) seemed unconvincing to me. But I do think that examples of sacrifice in successful wars of defense, or simply by police and firemen in times of need could be cited here.

Anyway, this is the book to read if you think there is something wrong with certain kinds of superstitions, xenophobia, racism, male chauvinism, and a large number of other kinds of behavior that drag down the quality of life in a society. We can and should judge ourselves. And I don't see how we can do that if we're afraid to judge others.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sorry Things Go Wrong All Over, March 25, 2001
By 
Robert Rouillard (Rochester, MN USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Hardcover)
Robert Edgerton had obviously been keeping notes for decades on something that was bugging him about the state of academic anthropology. Namely, he was annoyed by the idea that some societies are primitive and idyllic, and that technologically advanced societies are the bad guys of the planet.
Certainly, Edgerton admits that modern societies have problems. The only thing that allows us to think that things used to be better than they are now is wishful thinking coupled with ignorance. If we were not ignorant we would know that life was cruel, socially, physically, and economically - of which he gives dramatic demonstration. If we were not ignorant we would know that the position of women and children was abysmal, say what New Agers will.
The only thing bad about Sick Societies is that it pulls the wool from our eyes. For me, I realized that things are getting better, not ever-decaying as one would gather by way of the Noble Savage Myth. "Things used to be so great and now look," the Noble Savage Myth states. There was never a golden age. We are drawing ever closer to it, by the measures laid out by Edgerton. This positive take is purely incidental to reading the book, but the conclusion is inescapable.
For anyone who wishes to seriously engage the discipline of anthropology this book is a must.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable but..., May 13, 2007
By 
Wayne A. (Belfast, Northern Ireland) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Hardcover)
I genuinely enjoyed this book, sympathize with the author's thoughts, and believe them to be important. However, it is a largely reactive work, and, as one can see from the reviews, it fills a need for "payback" on the part of a lot of thinking people justifiably fed up with the hypocritical politicization of the social sciences.

I say hypocritical because no Western advocate of these inane ideas has ever been caught applying them to their own culture. To exempt the West from all this open-mindedness and cultural tolerance is a vile and malignant form of Euro-Centrism; the same intellectual who "defends" cannibalism will just as readily launch into a hateful diatribe about Evangelical Christians or anti-gay Conservatives. Aren't these cultures as worthy of respect as any others?

No, they're not. But if you pass judgement on them, you have to be able to pass judgement on other cultures too. You can't have it both ways, and you can't escape the contradiction, as many intellectuals attempt to do, by extending special dispensation to the West by defining it as the Great Oppressor in a world endlessly broken down into oppressor/victim dualities. Historians and social scientists of this stripe bend history all out of shape, or ignore vast chunks of it, to keep those Oppressor and Victim labels in place, especially to make certain the big Oppressor label stays attached to the West. I just watched a DVD documentary that attempted to trace the Victim-status of the Middle East back to the First World War while completely ignoring the previous Oppressor status of the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks, mercilessly brutalized by Ottoman rule until their liberation in the 19th Century were (had to be) depicted as Imperialists for attacking post-Ottoman Turkey. No mention was made of what had happened to the Greeks. This sort of nonsense is too common.

The problem is that this new way of thinking, this perverse non-judgemental social science mind-set, needs to account for itself. It has not eliminated value-judgement, it has simply directed it all at a mutually agreed upon demonized culture--it's own--in order to spare itself the ordeal and the responsibility of critiquing other cultures. There is nothing logical or scientific about this and that should be no surprise since the roots of cultural relativism and ideas about adaptive-ness can be found in anti-Western Leftist politics, not responsible academic thinking.

This is a swell book--more fuel for the flames--but what we really need are new, fresh, responsible and REALISTIC ideas about how we approach other cultures. The old patronizing ways are dead (and they were never as bad as many critics say they were--it's stunning how respectful older anthropologists and sociologists were to other cultures, but nobody reads those older works any longer) but this new way of thinking stinks far worse, and it's only been able to stay in force by threats, mob pressure, and diktats, another sign that something was wrong with it from the get-go.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fall of Cultural Relativism, November 7, 2001
By 
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Hardcover)
This is unquestionably one of the most important works in anthropological theory in the last half of the 20th century. Edgerton's Sick Societies forces us to question the basic assumptions of cultural relativism that have dominated anthropological thinking for most of the 20th century. The Star Trek prime directive not to interfere in the cultural evolution of a society, and the anthropological assumption that societies can only be judged by their emic criteria (from which the Star Trek prime directive was based) is demonstrated to have no relevance or validity. What I particularly like about this book, outside of its enormous intelligence, is the way that it demolishes the rationale of postmodernism while laying a strong foundation for a viable applied anthropology. A masterpiece!
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the most intelectualy stimulating reads., August 26, 1996
By A Customer
This review is from: Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Hardcover)
Every now and then I venture outside my chosen
field (systems engineering) and hike into the forest
of "New Possibilities" by going into a section of the
book store I wouldn't usually go into.
While "Sick Societies" was not my first introduction to
anthropology, it was my most exciting by far.
Although Mr. Edgerton is overly defensive of his stance, he
has excelent arguments for abolishing the
"total non-interference" policy adopted by modern
anthropoligists.
I liturally (pun) could not put this book down.
I read half of it while at the store, the other half
that evening. The plethora of example studies will floor
the reader and at times completely shock.
It's great to know we are still an exciting species.
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Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony
Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony by Robert B. Edgerton (Hardcover - November 2, 1992)
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