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The Mountain People
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68 of 74 people found the following review helpful
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.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 1999
Colin Turnbull's, Mountain People, is a study and commentary on the dark side of human nature. Easily readable, and at times humorous, this account of Turnbull's fieldwork with the Ik will not produce warm fuzzies, or reestablish one's faith in the innate goodness of mankind. Anyone with an interest in anthropology, psychology, or sociology will appreciate the observations made by Turnbull. He takes a controversial stand in the book, advocating the separation and relocation of the Ik people. His reasons for making such a shocking suggestion are fully developed in the text. It is also of interest to note that Turnbull's fieldwork was done in the 60's, and much water has passed under the bridge since then... for the Ik, and the world in general.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2005
In exposing the Ik situation Colin Turnbull documented the impacts of land use decisions on people who are left out of the decision making. To those of us who support conservation efforts it is an ethical touchstone.

I read this book and wept. It provides, through an on site, in depth study of the Ik, one of the clearest definitions of being human that I have ever read. It is horrible, beautiful and very frightening. It describes how fragile humanity is among human beings. It made me face that we are collectively responsible for maintaining the social contexts for being good people.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 1999
Was course material that I dreaded initially, but after reading it, I could not stop thinking about the Ik, the changes overcoming their existence and their adaptation to their circumstances. Must tip my hat to Turnbull (now deceased) for a well written, can't put down book on a subject I had zero interest in prior to devouring it. 5 stars well deserved.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 1999
The Mountain People is the work of an anthropologist who spent two years studying the Ik, a small tribe in Uganda. This is an outstanding book that is easy to read and understand. A must read for any anthropology major. Knowledge of African geography is not essential to enjoying this book, but might be helpful if you are one who thrives on such details. In summary, I found his comparisons between the Ik and our own society to be very provocative and insightful. Perhaps we are not so compassionate as we say we are...
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2006
Colin Turnbull's "Mountain People" is a chilling narrative of cultural disintegration, the account of a once proud tribe of hunter-gatherers forced off their hunting grounds by misguided government policies. Turnbull only came into contact with the Ik long after the catastrophe had happened, and he only saw them at their worse. It is possible that what he saw affected his sanity. His recommendations at the end of the book are draconian at best, fascist at worse. There are parallels with Swift's "Modest Proposal" and Kurtz in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" with his cry of "Exterminate all the brutes." Like Hunter K. Thompson in his Hells Angels book Turnbull got too close to his subject for his own good and suffered the consequence. Nonetheless, this is a powerful and courageous book and I can't agree with those who castigate the author as hypocritical or racist. For another side of Colin Turnbull I would recommend "The Forest People," a beautiful and deeply moving account of the Pygmies of the Congo Rain Forest written years before Turnbull's encounter with the Ik. Turnbull clearly loves the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and knows what a travesty any attempt to "civilize" these people is. Certainly the history of the Native Americans in our own country is full of examples of the same phenomenon.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 1998
The Ik, forced from a hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary existence in a drought-stricken, region not suited for agriculture, detriorate as a society into a collection of individuals whose main goal has become a quest for survival on a day-to-day basis. The author cites example after pathetic example of the deterioration of societal values, such as culture, religion, morals, as food becomes scarcer and scarcer and the people literally starve to death one by one. And no one cares, except that there is less competition for precious food. Kids are put out to fend for themselves at age 3! Misfortune of others is grounds for laughter and delight. There is no longer any love, nor any hate. No remorse, no hope. There is only survival. Food, when obtained, is consumed secretely and quickly. This is a tragic story, but one which needs to be read by all to see the depths to which humans, at least the Ik, can plunge in times of dislocation and deprivation. Well written and most sobering.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull gives anthropolical "proof" of how tentative and fragile are the things that we like to think make us human. In Turnbull's study of the Ik tribe in northern Uganda, he shines a bright light on a couple of items. First, his facts bear out how conceited the "civilized" world can be about their social and cultural values; it is easy to treat our fellow people nicely as long as our bellies are full. Indeed, the examination of the Ik shows just how much our morality and good nature is a luxury, added on to make us feel self-important. The conclusion to this observation is further proof that our morals are tentative and made-up. By no means are they universal or written in our brains by God, as religion suggests. Second, Turnbull makes another strong point about how similar we are to animals. The differences between animal behavior and human behavior are very slight and subtle. To him, this is not a bad thing. I suppose the book would be quite shattering for one who shallowly believes in the superiority of humanity over all else. Of course, because the book is so well presented, one could draw different philosophical observations. Generally, Turnbull refrains from philosophizing, and presents his accounts of the Ik without judging them.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2003
I'm surprised that the other reviews haven't been more critical of this book. Yes, it is captivating, the sort of book that engrosses you and that you can't wait to pick up again to continue reading. But its worth mentioning that in the end the author, an accomplished anthropologist, concludes that these Mountain People are worthless and should be forcibly disintegrated as a society. He finds them to have become basically inhuman, not as caring as animals, and recommends that the government launch a military style operation to forcibly remove them far away so that they can't return to their lands. And to break them into small groups of 10 or so individuals and purposely break up the family groupings and deposit them among people of other cultures (in Uganda), so that they will lose their language and culture and finally cease to exist. Since the government didn't like this idea, he hopes that the people's sheer isolation will cause them to die out forever.
Now, its worth reading the book to see how someone can come to these conclusions, and he's got a decent argument. I don't disbelieve what the author saw, and I've spent years working in Africa myself. I know that people can be treacherous and deceitful, and had to accept that their moral system was not my own. I'm glad that Turnbull exposes just how nasty and awful to each other people can be. This is normally glossed, painted and plastered over when people write about Africa, and its refreshing to see someone really give an non-romanticized account of day to day life. But the author constantly passed judgements on the people in this book, something I try hard not to do because its important to see out of the boundaries of one's own cultural beliefs.
What happened to scientific impartiality, and how can an anthropologist be so ready to judge this odd culture and deem them absolutely worthless and in need of anihilation? The conclusions voiced in the final chapter made me reexamine the views expressed throughout the book, and wonder about bias.
The society and humanity of the Ik disintegrated as they were pushed into starvation, in large part because their traditional hunting grounds were turned into a national park and they were shut out. I'm not sure why the anthropologist didn't recommend (since the government asked) that they be given some limited subsistence hunting rights, or be integrated into the tourism economy, so that they would regain food security and possibly start changing for the better. In the end the most puzzling thing was the author's unhidden hostility toward the Ik--who do sound horrible, but this is no impartial anthropological work. It made me wonder about background and personal biases or agenda of Turnbull, who grew up and began his career in the days of colonialism.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2003
This is a profoundly disturbing book. The author's reflections on what he saw of a completely disintegrated society - the Ik people of Africa are chilling. The ultimate implication is that human nature is not so tightly bound to inherent goodness as one might wish to think. The newspapers daily play out isolated, but ever more frequent stories of the Ik in our midst ... of the Ik within us all.
ofs
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