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Pathways of PowerBuilding an Anthropology of the Modern World$

Eric Wolf

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780520223332

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520223332.001.0001

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Perilous Ideas

Perilous Ideas

Race, Culture, People

(p.398) 28 Perilous Ideas
Pathways of Power

Eric R. Wolf

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter raises questions about the provenience of the key anthropological ideas of race, culture, and peoplehood or ethnicity, as well as about their conceptual reach and continued efficacy in changing times, focusing on the concept of race, because it remains a major source of demonology in this country. It also considers the concept of culture, especially the idea that humans depend heavily on behavior which is learned, not inborn, and that this capacity for learning has fostered the proliferation of quite varied bodies of thought and action. The study briefly discusses the notion of peoples, envisaged these days as social entities—ethnic groups or nationalities—that are conscious of themselves as owners of distinctive cultural traditions passed on along the lines of shared descent. The relation between professional dialect and more general discourse needs to be understood as part of the wider interplay between anthropology and other kinds of public understanding.

Keywords:   race, culture, ethnicity, social entities, professional dialect, anthropology

In 1992 I was invited to deliver the inaugural Sidney W. Mintz Lecture of the Department of Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, which was presented on November 16. In the lecture I raised questions about the provenience of the key anthropological ideas of race, culture, and peoplehood or ethnicity, as well as about their conceptual reach and continued efficacy in changing times.

Each endeavor to understand humankind works with a set of characteristic ideas that orient its inquiries and justify its existence, and for anthropology ideas about race and culture and—more recently—about peoplehood or ethnicity have played that guiding and legitimizing role. Franz Boas, who stands at the beginning of American anthropology, taught us to be especially attentive to issues of race and culture. It is appropriate to address these issues today, not only because 1992 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Boas's death but also because one of the important lineage segments in anthropology reckons intellectual descent from Franz Boas to Alexander Lesser to Sidney Mintz, whom this new lecture series is designed to honor. I will attend especially to the concept (p.399) of race, because it remains a major source of demonology in this country and in the world, and anthropology has an obligation to speak reason to unreason. This, too, is something that Mintz, Lesser, and Boas have insisted on and that we must heed. Thus, I intend to focus on the concept of race, notions about the biological variability of the species and about the possible implications of this variability. I will then consider the concept of culture, especially the idea that humans depend heavily on behavior that is learned, not inborn, and that this capacity for learning has fostered the proliferation of quite varied bodies of thought and action. Finally, I will take up briefly the notion of peoples, envisaged these days as social entities—ethnic groups or nationalities—that are conscious of themselves as owners of distinctive cultural traditions passed on along the lines of shared descent.

These notions are, of course, not our exclusive professional property; they form part of the stock of ideas of much wider publics who discuss them in more extended and less academic terms. This was true even when they first came into usage. “Race” has been traced to generatio, “generation,” from the Latin generare, “to beget.” “Culture” was first used to talk about cultivating a field and only later transferred to cultura animi, “the cultivation of minds or souls.” Greek ethnos once designated just a “bunch,” without reference to descent or political cohesion; Homer spoke of a flock of animals or a swarm of bees, as well as a bunch of people (Benveniste 1969: 90). Used in our time, moreover, these words carry a heavy freight of shame and fury. Contrary to the popular saw that “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you,” these words—as Morton Fried said—can injure mind and body. The race concept has presided over homicide and genocide. To accuse someone of lacking culture, being a bez-kulturny (as the Russians say), a redneck or hayseed, a jíbaro or indito, one who has not been to the right schools, is to declare that someone lacks cultural capital and should not be allowed into the Athenaeum or the Escambrón Beach Club. And one of the ways of manifesting ethnicity is now to don a camouflage suit and grab an AK–47.

This relation between professional dialect and more general discourse needs to be understood as part of the wider interplay between anthropology and other kinds of public understanding. The discipline did not spring Athena-like from the head of Zeus; it comes out of the cauldrons of conflict that cooked up much of the toil and trouble of past centuries, and it responds—must respond—to these forces even when it strives for professional distance and dispassionate neutrality. It is precisely because (p.400) it is both offspring and critic of our condition that it bears a special responsibility to examine the commonplaces of our thought and the fighting words of our speech and to subject them to resolute analysis. I hope to contribute to that task here.

Each of these three concepts—race, culture, and ethnicity—has a societal background, and that background has implications for how we conceptualize and use them. I think of ideas as “takes” on the phenomena of this world and as instructions about how to combine these takes to ascertain their connections or, contrariwise, to hold them apart, to beware of asserting linkages that are false. I also think that particular takes are prompted by background conditions and limited by these conditions. Thus Marx put forward the interesting argument that Aristotle was unable to conceptualize a common denominator in all human labor because, as a member of a slave society, he thought of the labor performed by slaves and that performed by freemen as being qualitatively different. “The riddle of the expression of value is solved when we know that all labor, insofar as it is generalized human labor, is of like kind and of equal worth; but this riddle can only be unriddled when the notion of human equality has acquired the fixity of a popular conviction” (1946 [1867]: 31). One could not think of different kinds of work done as forms of labor in general as long as slaves and peasants, warriors and priests were thought to perform qualitatively incommensurable kinds of work, but rendering labor power universally exchangeable by means of money as a common denominator permitted this new way of thought. Similarly, there could probably be no anthropology of religion or study of comparative religion as long as the religions of believers, heretics, and heathen seemed wholly incommensurable and as long as the symbolic value of an object or an act was thought to be an intrinsic, essential, inseparable aspect of it—God's truth and not man-made hocus-pocus, in the trenchant phrasing of Robbins Burling (1964). Only when it becomes possible to divorce signifier from signified, symbol from referent, can one talk about Christian communion and elite Aztec cannibalism as convergent forms of communication with the divine.

I am therefore interested in what the concepts of race, culture, and ethnicity allow us to think. I am also interested in how they allow us to think. It is one thing to be impressed by the spirituality and holiness (baraka) of a Berber holy man and quite another to ask how this spirituality is constructed, portrayed, engineered—what kinds of credentials, knowledge, and skills of performance are required to be a convincing agurram. Some concepts are essentialist; they are takes on what are assumed (p.401) to be the enduring, inherent, substantive, true nature of a phenomenon. Other concepts are analytic, suspicious of holisms, interested in how seemingly whole phenomena are put together. Periodically raising the question of whether the unities we define are homogeneous or whether they are better understood when they are disaggregated and disassembled not only allows us to evaluate concepts we have come to take for granted; it also allows us to think better.


One useful way of getting a purchase on the race concept is to trace it to the great archaic civilizations of the Old World and the New World. Most of them developed models of the cosmological order in which an exemplary center—a metropolis, a mother city—occupied the pivotal point of intersection of all the directions of the cosmos, where they enacted collective rituals to maintain the order of the world and from which they deployed the power to ensure it (Eliade 1965; Wheatley 1971; Carrasco 1982). Beyond the civilizational core areas lay the lands of the barbarians, clad in skins, rude in manner, gluttonous, unpredictable, and aggressive in disposition, unwilling to submit to law, rule, and religious guidance. The Greeks and Romans saw these people as not quite human because they did not live in cities, where the only true and beautiful life could be lived, and because they appeared to lack articulate language. They were barbaraphonoi, bar-bar speakers (Homer, Iliad 2.867), and in Aristotle's view this made them natural slaves and outcasts. Beyond the lands of the known barbarians, uncouth and threatening but identifiable through contact in trade and war, lay the country of “the monstrous races,” whom the Roman Plinius catalogued for medieval posterity, both Christian and Muslim: men “whose heads grow beneath their shoulders” (Shakespeare), people with one eye in the middle of their foreheads, dogfaces, ear furlers, upside-down walkers, shadow foots, mouthless apple smellers, and many more (Friedman 1981; for Islamic parallels, see al-Azmeh 1992).

These hierarchically deployed and ranked schemata may be compared with those of more egalitarian tribal people. For example, the Brazilian Yanomami, according to Bruce Albert (1988), also begin their sorting of people with a local cluster, in their case of four or five local groups that intermarry, ally with each other in war, and attend one another's funerary rites, in which all partake of each other's vital substance by drinking down the ashes of the honored dead in plantain soup. (p.402) Among these allies one can expect sorcery—but of a garden variety manageable through ordinary shamanistic cures. Beyond this core of allies live active enemies whom one does not marry, with whom one does not exchange or feast, and from whom one is separated first by raiding and counterraiding and second by warpath sorcery (raids in which pathogenic substances are supposedly deposited in each other's camp). Still farther on lie the settlements of potential enemies who are said to perform aggressive sorcery at a distance (see Chagnon and Asch 1973), and beyond these live little-known though inimical Yanomami whom one fears not so much for their sorcery as for their inadvertent potential killing of one's alter ego destiny animals, which like to graze in these far-off forest glades. In this scheme all people are seen as equally benevolent and malevolent and similar in comportment and bodily form; it is their differential location on a spatial continuum that identifies them as friends or hostiles.

The dominant civilizational schemata, in contrast, assign differential valuations to salient distinctions in lifestyle and physical appearance, as well as to the geographical zones in which these lifestyles and bodily forms are manifest, from the true and beautiful centers of urbanity to the demonic hilly crags and caverns of the monster world. In addition to external barbarians and misshapen people, there were also civilizational schemata for ranking internal “others”—exemplary representatives of the civilized way of life against hoi polloi, “the many.” Proximity to rulership, participation in the work of the gods, projection of values and idealized styles of comportment and performance—a proximity at once geographical and social thus instituted a ranked scale of valuation from the paragons to the stigmatized.

This should not be taken to mean that everybody in civilization marched in serried ranks according to the dominant schema at all times. The Roman Tacitus wrote his Germania in part as an indictment of profligate Rome in contrast with supposedly still pristine and virtuous barbarians—flogging moral decay and family values is an old theme in history. Similarly, there were strains in Chinese Taoism and Buddhism that offered a critique of rulership and moral corruption by advocating a retreat into the “mountains and marshes” inhabited by non-Chinese indigenous peoples or that inverted the schema of civilization to look for “blessed lands” of refuge and immortality beyond the confines of the Middle Kingdom (Bauer 1976). Yet the centripetal tripartite scheme held fast for long periods of time, if only because it corresponded to a tangible, experienced distribution of social power in geopolitical space.

(p.403) Within the context of Europe, Christendom inherited the schemata of Classical antiquity and transformed them to fit its own logic and understandings (see Jones 1971: 381). The trichotomy of civilized, barbarians, and monstrous humans was transformed into one of the faithful, the unredeemed, and the unredeemable. Slavs, Germans, Vikings, and Saracens could be made to fit more or less neatly into the barbarian category; a subcategory of really vicious barbarians, very close to monsters, was constructed to account for the pastoralists on horseback who came charging out of the East to threaten the integrity of Christendom—Huns, Avars, Magyars, Mongols, and Tartars. The Arabs constituted a special problem, because they appeared to be civilized and yet had been seduced by Mohammed; the solution was to declare Mohammed a false prophet and the Muslims Christian heretics (Jones 1971: 392). The advent of the Turks once again simplified the classificatory problem; they were retrofitted into the subcategory of vicious barbarians, in which guise they kept appearing before the gates of Vienna and most recently as Gastarbeiter in Germany.

Beyond the barbarians lay the lands of the monstrous races (Friedman 1981). Opinion on these strangely formed creatures was divided. Saint Augustine thought they were still capable of salvation, no matter how odd in physical form or language, as long as they were “rational mortal” creatures, hence human and descended from “the one who was first created,” Adam. Others saw them as fallen creatures, misshaped by sin or guilt, “displaying on their bodies what their forebears had earned by their misdeeds” (Vienna Genesis, A.D. 1060–1170, quoted in Friedman 1981: 93), probably descendants of Cain or of Noah's son Ham, who had sinned against God and were thus supposedly fit for enslavement.

Although Ham was occasionally represented as the forefather of the Saracens, of the natives on islands of the Indian Ocean, of “ungentle churls” (Friedman 1981: 102–3), most sources associated him with Ethiopians or Africans. This association gained intensity as a rationalization of the slave trade when Africa replaced Europe and the Levant as the main source of supply for coerced labor. In the early Middle Ages, it had been northern and eastern Europe that sent slaves to the Islamic Near East. In the later Middle Ages, the current reversed, and Europe increasingly imported slaves from the Russian-Turkish borderlands around the Black Sea. In 1453, however, the Ottoman Turks cut off this source of supply with the conquest of Constantinople, and their move into North Africa soon barred Europeans from easy access to the eastern Mediterranean. Slavery existed, but it was not then color specific.

(p.404) By the mid-fifteenth century, however, the Portuguese had expanded their trade for slaves down the West African coast as far as Ghana, and from then on Africa south of the Sahara became a main area of supply both for Iberia and for the New World (Verlinden 1970; Greenfield 1977; Phillips 1985). One of the main causes of the intensification of the trade was undoubtedly the rapid decline of the American Indian population in the wake of the Spanish and Lusitanian conquests and the increasing demand for labor on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, about which Mintz has written so eloquently.

As Spaniards debated whether to enslave the Indians of the Americas, they also resurrected the arguments about the nature of the monstrous races of long before. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that the Indians were natural slaves because they were more likely beasts than men, wicked in their lusts, and cannibals to boot. Bartolomé de las Casas, arguing in contra, replied in Saint Augustine's terms that they were rational and hence redeemable.

It is important to remember how long the biblical texts continued to provide the main paradigms for the interpretation of human events, how long it was held that the world was only 6,000 and some years old, and how long scholars of repute as well as laypersons clung to the belief in human descent from Adam and Eve and in the tales of Noah and his sons and of the Flood. In the fifteenth century, maps still showed how Noah redistributed and repopulated the world by dividing it among his three sons: Japheth was given Europe; Shem, Asia; Ham, Africa (Friedman 1981: 93). In the eighteenth century the great classifier Karl von Linné, who was willing to group humans together with apes and monkeys as anthropomorpha, still asserted his belief “on divine testimony” in the descent of all humans from Adam and Eve, while Johann Blumenbach made the Caucasian, the “white,” race “primary among all other races, because he believed in human descent from a common stock through Noah, who landed on Mt. Ararat in the Caucasus, and because he thought that the Georgians of the Caucasus might have been the first post-diluvians” (Bernal 1987: 219).

With Linné and Blumenbach we are, however, into race making of the modern kind (see Slotkin 1965: 176–81, 187–91). Linné categorized the races of Homo into Americans, reddish, obstinate, and regulated by custom; Europeans, white, gentle, governed by law; Asians, sallow, severe, and ruled by opinion; and Africans, black, crafty, and governed by caprice. This classification exhibits some enduring characteristics of raciology—its obvious bias and the conflation of physical traits, temperament, (p.405) and political-moral behavior. Blumenbach, however, was no obvious racist. He held that humans were descended from the first couple created by God and differed from animals in their possession of reason. He also argued specifically against the imputation that Africans were basically different in physique and deficient in rationality. He understood, moreover, that human varieties “so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.” Yet he did set up the Caucasians as the original race from which the others sprang by variation. Although he himself did not interpret variation as degeneration, others did. Once the game of racial classification began, permutations and combinations thereafter multiplied the number of races, eventually to the point of absurdity.

Raciology was marked by several convergent lines of thought. First, scholars believed that by sorting people into physical types one could gauge their temperamental and moral dispositions. Second, if some types could be shown to be more pure or better endowed than others, then one could fit them as superior and inferior elements into the larger cosmic scheme of “the great chain of being,” understood as the God-given hierarchical chain of organisms that reached from the lowliest creatures to those most perfect in their physical and psychological refinement (Lovejoy 1964: 59). Thus, the different human races could be placed upon a ladder to perfection, with the “gentle whites, governed by law,” clearly superior to the other anthropomorpha. Third, the ranking of races from those least perfect to the most exalted gained ground because it corresponded to the ways in which many people began to comprehend the reshuffling and reorganization of society in the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century.

Scholarly literati began to interpret national histories as accounts of struggles among races, with the victors showing racial superiority over the vanquished or the defeated rising up in righteous wrath against their corrupt and effete overlords. (On history writing during the periods of romanticism and nationalism, see Barnes 1963: 178–238. On France, see Huss 1986; Blanckaert 1988. On England, see Hill 1964a; MacDougall 1982; Morgan 1988; Simmons 1990. On Germany, see Barnes 1963; Mosse 1964. German “historicism” drew on romantic political economists, legal scholars, and sociological folklorists, as well as on Prussiacentric historians.) At the same time, colonial expansion and imperialism carried European flags to the four corners of the globe and fueled ideologies that portrayed the European victors as energetic, dynamic, active, masculine, forward looking, and goal oriented and the (p.406) vanquished as backward looking, low in energy, passive, feminine, sunk in sloth and living for the moment, retarded, and regressive and thus in need of being lifted up by the standard-bearers of progress.

Biomoral thinking and the increasing tendency to understand history as a struggle of races for dominance received reinforcement from the development of new orientations in physiology. This new physiology hoped to overcome the old conceptual split between mind and body by focusing on the way the brain and the nervous system connected all organs and muscles in the body (Jordanova 1986). This new focus would, it was hoped, provide a materialist link between brain functions and temperament. It drew many physiologists to pay attention to the work of Franz von Gall, the initiator of phrenology (McLaren 1981). In the early years of the nineteenth century Gall taught that mental activity had a physical basis; that this physical basis was the brain; that the different parts of the brain had different functions; and—most relevant for the development of raciology—that these functionally specific components of the brain in turn influenced the shape of the skull that contained the brain, with the result that measuring bumps on the head would reveal clues to the head owner's personality and character. Predictably, Gall's books were prohibited by the Church for trying to do away with the hypothesis of a soul separate from the body; yet precisely for this reason, phrenology also appealed greatly to anticlerical believers in true science. Generalized to entire populations of skull bearers and elaborated through ever more sophisticated techniques of measurement, the new science of phrenology generated an avalanche of craniometric studies that strove to correlate cranial morphology with assumed racial characteristics. The apotheosis of this effort was reached with a scholar who eventually applied more than 5,000 separate measurements to the skull.

Despite doubts and occasional criticisms, however, this century-long attempt to define the varieties of humankind as enduring morphological types, each equipped with a stable biomoral essence, perdured well into our times. It reached, of course, a new paroxysm with National Socialist “racial science.” Even in the United States, the “old physical anthropology” remained in place until the mid-1950s, when Ernest Hooton and Wesley Dupertuis at Harvard University typologized 9,521 Irish males into nine separate morphological types and labeled each type a distinctive and separate race (Hunt 1981: 344–45). Only then did a more dynamic physical anthropology begin to replace the old racial essentialism with studies of genetic distributions, environmental adaptations, (p.407) growth and development, and evolutionary processes. In 1962 Frank Livingstone confidently announced that “there are no races, there are only clines”—that is, gradual changes in traits and gene frequencies displayed by members of a species along lines of an environmental transition (1962: 279). Yet some have not yet heard or have opted to treat the issues with decorous silence. It should give our colleagues pause that the one recent systematic book on the subject, Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981), was written by an evolutionary biologist and not an anthropologist.

In the United States, it was primarily Boas who raised these questions, often against staunch professional opposition. Having demonstrated an unexpected variability in head form in successive generations of European immigrants, he then not only attacked essentialist typological thinking in human biology but assailed in similar terms the resulting conflation of history, biology, physiology, psychology, linguistics, and ethnology. His driving conviction that correlated phenomena do not need to be causally related led him to the conclusion that “any attempt to explain cultural form on a purely biological basis is doomed to failure” (Boas 1940 [1930]: 165).


Just as Boas had disaggregated racial typologies and scrupulously severed considerations of race from considerations of culture, so he argued against the common presupposition that each culture constituted a distinctive and separate monad sui generis. Because all cultures could be shown to be interconnected and continually exchanging materials, no culture was due to “the genius of a single people” (Stocking 1968: 213). Because cultures were also forever breaking up and differentiating, it was not very useful to speak of culture in general; cultures needed to be studied in all their plurality and particular historicity, including their interconnectedness. Moreover—and this was a major Boasian point—cultural integration could not be assumed; where it was asserted, it had to be demonstrated. “Have we not reason to expect,” he asked, “that here [in so-called primitive cultures] as in more complicated cultures, sex, generation, age, individuality, and social organization will give way to the most manifold contradictions?” Given both the heterogeneity and the historically changing interconnectedness of cultures, he did not see how attempts to develop general “laws of the integration of culture” could “lead to significant results” (Boas 1940 [1933]: 447, 267).

(p.408) These arguments had wider implications. It had become quite common, especially in Germany, where people opposed the universalist rationalism of the French Enlightenment, to assert the uniqueness of each people and of its Volksgeist, or “folk spirit.” That spirit was believed to be anchored in passion and emotion, not in reason, and manifest in art, folklore, and language. Educated Germans, especially, found it attractive to accept such unifying and holistic perspectives on other cultures, because they had been imprinted with admiration of one such model of the Volksgeist, the paideia of ancient Greece propounded by the art historian Johann Winckelmann (see Butler 1958; Bernal 1987: chaps. 4, 6). Rewritten and reimagined versions of Greek history and life became a mainstay of upper-middle-class aspirations and the foundation of an education celebrating Hellas as a wholly integrated culture that had known perfection and was thus worthy of emulation. A major tradition of intellectual thought and work—extending from Wilhelm von Humboldt through Georg W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Matthew Arnold, Leo Frobenius, and Oswald Spengler to Ruth Benedict—has employed the guiding notion of an ideational holism at the root of culture.

To this kind of approach Boas was opposed. He understood that breaking down cultures into atomistic traits and studying them as aggregates of such traits compounded from here, there, and everywhere would not yield useful comprehension of how they might hang together. But he did offer the beginnings of a strategy for thinking about how this might work by referring to what he called “psychic processes.” His chief example of such processes was the notion of “secondary interpretation,” which implied that people build up complex networks of connotations upon initial denotations and that it was incumbent upon anthropologists to examine these “psychic processes” in constructing the internal interdigitations of a culture.

After an interlude that focused on culture-and-personality studies, American anthropologists began again, in the 1950s, to address some of the Boasian themes and queries, this time with a concern for the cognitive and symbolic dimensions of culture. They wanted to look at culture not as a typological given but “as a constitutive process.” They also hoped to direct their studies toward a better understanding of how people create or modify their collective representations and how traditional modes of representation might prompt or constrain these efforts at rendition. In pursuing these interests, they drew heavily on studies of literature and linguistics, focusing especially on the mechanics of symbolic (p.409) representation through the use of metaphors, metonyms, synecdoche, tropes, genres, and deictics.

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney has characterized these endeavors in terms of a professional division of labor (1981). Cognitive anthropologists have dealt primarily with the ways in which sense images and sound images can be combined to produce concepts or “memory codes.” Symbolic anthropologists, for their part, have concerned themselves mostly with how memory codes generated in different domains are combined and coordinated through the elaboration of analogy codes and then how these combinations are given condensed representation in the form of icons. Both processes—the construction of memory codes and the elaboration of analogy codes—need to be studied together to understand how people arrive at cultural orderings of their worlds.

Such cognitive and symbolic strategies have indeed yielded much work that is rich in description and evocatively integrative. These studies go some way toward engaging Boas's problematic about how ideas in culture are brought into association with one another—the how of association and coherence but not yet the why. The whys still elude us. Anthropologists have worked with a number of different models to represent organizational armatures around which cultural forms could be said to take shape—a framework of social structure, a basic personality structure, a cultural ecological core, a Marxian productive mode dialectically combining infrastructure and superstructure. But all these approaches rely on defining the basic armatures or cores in terms that render culture secondary, as filigree or ornamentation, rather than acknowledging its strategic work in laying down the culturally particular and yet potent terms of personhood and gender, descent and authority, rank and rulership, class and race, nature and the supernatural. Treating culture as secondary also re-creates, time and again, the seeming contradiction between earthbound material processes and the free-floating zigzags of the mind.

Anthropologists have also taken seriously Boas's point about oppositions and contradictions in culture but have done little thinking about how these heterogeneous and contradictory perspectives and discourses can intersect, how divergent interests and orientations can be made to converge, how the organization of diversity (Wallace 1970) is accomplished. Notions of a common cultural structure underlying all this differentiation sound a little too much like a cultural homunculus built into everyone through the process of socialization or a Maxwell's demon (p.410) capable of sorting divergent messages to create negative entropy and order. I suspect that cultural ordering requires leadership, control, influence, and power, but the phenomena of power wielding in the cognitive and symbolic sphere are poorly theorized, and thinking on these topics usually proceeds quite separately from inquiries into cultural meaning.

Peoplehood and Ethnicity

Although anthropologists talked much of race in the nineteenth century and then, increasingly, of culture in the twentieth, ethnicity emerged as a hot topic only at the beginning of the 1960s. This happened, I submit, for good reasons. “Ethnicity” addresses in ways that “culture” does not the fact that culturally marked entities form parts of larger systems. Only rarely did the older literature on culture contact and acculturation raise questions about power differentials in discussions of cultural borrowings from one culture to another or of the modification of existing cultures by novel introductions from outside. Furthermore, the new emphasis on ethnicity fastened on the ways in which such groups and entities arise and define themselves as against others also engaged in the process of development and self-definition. There is hardly a study of an ethnic group now that does not describe how the locals use “agency” to “construct themselves” in relation to power and interest. This is, I think, much to the good. It transcends the bland, power-irrelevant relativism of much of the talk about “culture.” It moves us a considerable distance away from essentialist perspectives on culture toward a constructionist, compositional point of view. I suspect that “culture” is composed and recomposed of diversely shaped elements, much as Boas saw it, rather than being like a dense tapestry imbricated with repetitive standardized designs.

At the same time, much of the discourse about agency and construal strikes me as unduly voluntaristic, like the “little-engine-that-could” of American children's literature—the little locomotive that can accomplish feats of strength through the application of willpower. To quote an older anthropologist, “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.” There is too much talk about agency and resistance and too little attention to how groups mobilize, shape, and reshape cultural repertoires and are shaped by them in turn; how groups shape and reshape their self-images to elicit participation and commitment and are themselves shaped by these representations; how groups (p.411) mobilize and deploy resources but do not do this “just as they please,” either in the course of mobilization or in the wake of the effects they so create.

Resource mobilization is easiest to perceive when our eyes are fixed on political and economic resources, which, notoriously, are embedded in relations of power. But it can also be observed in the way cultural repertoires are differentially distributed within a culture-bearing population. Some symbolic codes and ways of enacting them are monopolized by dominant elites through their privileged access to state and economic apparatuses; they constitute what Pierre Bourdieu has called “cultural capital.” Other symbolic codes and pantomimes, less highly valued or not valued at all, belong to groups of lower ranks and statuses, who also exercise less social power. There are ongoing struggles over the distribution and redistribution of such high-profile symbolic goods, and success or failure in these struggles has painful or exhilarating effects on people's self-definitions.

There are also historic changes in how ethnicity is understood out there in the nonacademic world and how ethnic claims are advanced that need to be recognized and confronted. There has been a marked shift in definitions of ethnicity from racialist phrasings to formulas of cultural distinctiveness, coupled with a stress on how difficult or impossible it is for people of different cultures to live together in one city, in one region, or in one nation-state. There is a shift from the idea of common descent as defined by hereditary biological essence or a hereditarily exclusive gene pool, as under the “old” racism, toward the idea of common descent as a transgenerational vehicle for the transmission of an authentically rooted culture. “We have roots here by virtue of descent—you others have your different way of life, rooted elsewhere, not here.” This novel combination of culturalism and ethology Verena Stolcke calls “cultural fundamentalism,” a new and more virulent way of staking out ethnic claims to precedence and power (1992). This occurs precisely at a time when an ethnic division of labor grows more intense worldwide and when transnational migration is moving ever larger numbers of people across national frontiers. My point is once more a Boasian one—that claims to ethnicity are not the same everywhere and at all times. They have a history, and that history—differentially stressed in different situations and at different points of conjunction—feeds back in various ways upon how people understand who they are and where they might be at any given point in time.

(p.412) Conclusion

It is Franz Boas's enduring legacy to have made us think more clearly about the issues posed by race, culture, and peoplehood or ethnicity. These issues present a challenge to us now and to an anthropology of the future. We have taken note of Boas's critique of typological thinking about races; we must remind ourselves of his contribution as we confront the intensifying racisms of our times. What anthropologists tend to relegate to the junk pile of their professional history remains live tinder in the world beyond academe. We should draw on physical anthropology to help us in our task but also encourage its transformation into a more contextually aware human biology that can engage the development of human bodies in growth and maturation, reproduction and mortality, illness and health, as these processes interact with the changing conditions of our world. In cultural anthropology we need to take much greater account of heterogeneity and contradictions in cultural systems and to explore the ways in which this differentiation produces a politics of meaning and not merely an automatic repetition of inherited forms. In studies of ethnicity we can welcome the changes of perspective that place cultures within larger intra- and interconnected systems but note also that this makes of cultures a problem and not a given: a culture is a changing manifold, not a fixed and unitary entity. It also means that ethnicities come in many varieties and that to call a social entity an “ethnic” group is merely the beginning of the inquiry. Just as macrosystems come in many shapes and sizes, so do the ethnic groups subsumed by them. This understanding is especially vital at the moment, when notions of cultural particularity have become major ideological weapons in political strife. We have learned a great deal in anthropology, but we are nowhere near the end of the task. Much remains for all hands to do.