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The Most Important Book Ever Written About Human Nature In the 20th Century
on September 22, 2005
This anthropological classic is important on a number of levels. Leading by example, Turnbull provides a lesson for anthropology students about the bravery required to embraces one's biases, instead of just pretending they do not exist. On a deeper level, he chronicles the disintegration of a culture through starvation to reveal the human nature that underlies all cultures. He describes, through the story of one people, what all people are capable of in dire circumstances.
Many people would prefer to read ethnographic accounts where the anthropologist sugar coats their real opinions. Indeed, this is what the scientific community expects. In many cases, the ethnographic writer poisons their own writing that comes out of bad experiences by superimposing a fase, insincere gloss of respect and understanding on top of a culture that they clearly feel superior to.
Turnbull does not feel superior to the Ik, but he is bluntly honest with himself and his readers about his pessimistic outlook and his view that the remainder of the Ik culture should be disbanded. Readers have complained about Turnbull's "bias" when in fact they simply disagree with the conclusions he reached. Many readers' complaints betray vast ignorance about ethnographic fieldwork, anthropological research methods and accuse the author of hypocricy while practicing it themselves.
Indeed, some people imply that Turbull led a cushy life among the Ik because he eat (in private, hiding in his Land Rover) while the Ik starved for two years. What an evil, greedy man, say the critics. Why didn't he do something? Well, he DID do something. He brought their plight to the attention of the world. What was he supposed to do, starve to death along with them? That would have been a futile, empty gesture that served no one and nothing except the ego gratification of one person. Instead, he spent two long, lonely years living among and trying desperately to understand people who were dying, and who constantly attempted to manipulate him and kill him. In one instance, they attempted to push him off of a cliff. In many other instances, they laughed mercilessly when he seriously injured himself. They let lions take their children away to be eaten. No sane human being could ever realistically come to a pleasant, poltically correct middle ground of love and admiration under these circumstances. The fact that Turnbull did not shamelessly kow tow to these sorts of empty headed demands makes his account of the Ik one of the most authentic, humane ethnographies ever written. Just in case anyone thinks Colin Turnbull is incapable of admiring or respecting another culture, read The Forest People and then judge.
People who chide Turnbull for not "doing enough" do not understand that anthropologists are not U.N. aid workers. Anthropologists enter the field to do their best to learn from and understand another culture--not save it, destroy it or alter it in any fundamental way. If anthropologists intentionally set about doing any of those things, then they have ceased to perform real ethnographic fieldwork. Instead, once the anthropological mission is over, then the anthropologist can become an activist and aid worker on behalf of the culture that hosted them--and most do. The humanitarian credentials and compassionate intensions of most anthropologists are perpetually debased but those who make judgements based on ignorance, past stereotypes, and a desire to hurl cheap shots based on the state of the discipline fifty or more years ago. Granted there are still jerks and racists in the profession, but I haven't met any (after five years of being taught by anthropologists) and nobody I know who actually knows an anthropologist can say anything bad about any specific individual--even ardent critics of the disicipline. I think its finally time to put to rest the tiresome notion that most anthropologists are unfeeling representatives of cultural imperialism. Maybe a few are, but most are not.
As for the complaints about the last chapter in Turnbull's book, people are free to agree or disagree with his admittedly controversial conclusions about what ought to be done with the Ik, long term. I think his intension there was to begin an honest debate, not close the door on the subject. I have to wonder if the people who think Turnbull was suggesting destroying the Ik culture read the rest of the book. If you believe his observation, then it appears that there was nothing left of Ik culture. He suggested relocating individual people in an effort to save their lives even though their culture was lost. I don't think the Ik would have minded that, although a fair criticism is that Turnbull does not spend much time speculating about what they would want for themselves. But thats the whole point. The culture disintigrated to the point where there was no "they" anymore, just a bunch of individuals fighting against each other.
As for Turnbull's "bias" in the last chapter of the book, well...what do you expect from an essay that concludes and summarizes? Thats exactly what he does and he does it well, after demonstrating ample professional restraint in his observations throughout the rest of the book. I think people dislike the fact that Turnbull displays opinions that are not couched in the irrelevent, luke warm, uninsightful, psuedo-intellectual clap trap of conventional social scientific writing. The important thing is that Turnbull offers an intelligent, well-reasoned defense for his opinions and he clearly differentiates his opinions from his observations. So tell me then, where is the bias? If people disagree with Turnbull's conclusions thats okay but if they feel he never should have drawn any conclusions I would ask what the point was of doing the fieldwork in the first place if he wasn't supposed to think about it and have insights? Furthermore, Turnbull did something not even a tenth of a percent of Americans and Europeans will ever do in their lives: he spent two years living among, witnessing and trying to understand the experiences of starving, dying people. That alone is an act of bravery. Turnbull earned the right the come to any conclusions he made about the Ik more than any of us have earned the right to negatively judge him. Therefore, let any further disagreements proceed on intellectual grounds alone, and wisely leave character attacks out of the equasion.
This is a truly superior, thought provoking book that haunts me and resonantes with me years after reading it. Read it even if you think you will disagree.