Wednesday, November 07, 2018


Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norwegian text 2013, author's English translation 2015)

A book I picked up last week in a charity shop in Yate and have just finished; I found it thrilling. But not because I knew anything about anthropology: in fact this was a marvellous way of learning something about it.

Fredrik Barth (1928-2016) was an ethnographer renowned for his wide-ranging fieldwork, and a social anthropologist with a strongly empirical belief in observing behaviour, and in society as a dynamic and unstable entity that is best studied through the actions and local notions of individuals: generative processual analysis.

His Wikipedia entry begins by calling him a formalist, but this needs to be understood in the specific sense used in social anthropology to distinguish substantivists (system-oriented, studying systemic processes) and formalists (actor-oriented, studying agent transactions). (An opposition Barth himself regarded as not very helpful.)

Barth was instrumental in building up Norway's impressive tradition of social anthropology.

"...Fieldwork is very time intensive. Since the anthropologist in the field ideally does not ask leading questions, but waits for informants themselves to raise interesting issues, speeding up data collection is not recommended. When the ethnographer speaks with their informants, they try to have an ordinary conversation with them, and the informants may well ask as many questions as the anthropologist. They, too, may be interested in understanding another culture...

..In addition, anthropologists do not assume that listening to what people have to say is enough. They also need to see what people actually do. Generally, therefore, there are two kinds of data in ethnographic fieldwork: interview data based on conversations between ethnographer and informant; and observational data, including informal conversations between informants. Regrettably, contemporary anthropological research is increasingly dominated by interview data, which can quickly be collected through conversations, and which can relatively easily be edited and written out -- unlike social interaction and other kinds of observational data, which must be understood, contextualized and, not least, translated into language. This shift towards interview data is probably largely a result of time constraints and the mounting pressure to publish fast and in large quantities.

Barth's anthropology is, perhaps more than anything else, a demonstration of the importance of making observations ..."

Barth's fieldwork:

1. Among farmers near Sollia in central Norway (1950).  This was home territory for Barth; as a teenager he had several stays in nearby Engerdal during the occupation. Barth treated this assignment as a trial exercise, to find out if he was cut out for the demanding work of field ethnography.

2. Among Kurds in the Zagros mountains and Mesopotamian plains (1951), investigating social organization in relation to the different social forms of kinship-based mountain autonomy and plains feudalism. "Barth was not yet 23 when he returned from Kurdistan in the autumn of 1951, but he had set out a course for himself and even deviated from a couple of conventions in the main currents of the anthropology of the day. At this time, anthropologists tended to study single societies, while Barth had done short stints of fieldwork in several villages with a view to discerning variation and producing comparative analyses. Additionally, he had an interest in individuals and their strategies, which was unfashionable on both sides of the Atlantic, for slightly different reasons..."

3. In Solør, near Kirkenær on the Norwegian/Swedish border, studying social organization of the Romani in Scandinavia (summer 1952).

4. In the Pashto-speaking Swat valley in the essentially ungoverned territory of NE Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan (1954). Barth's research concerned political leadership and stability in stateless societies ; i.e. without a central authority, monopoly of violence, etc. Barth prepared by learning Pashto; he was taught by the linguist Georg von Munthe af Morgenstierne. His research shone a light on conflictual strategies for ambitious landowners (and, accordingly, unpredictable outcomes). He also studied the relationship of saint and landowner, two forms of power that can benefit each other. Because of the region's strict gender segregation his work was exclusively in a male context. A trip into mountain territory beyond Swat brought him to a borderland between Pathans, Kohistanis and Gurjars, between feudalism and nomadism, between the subcontinent and central Asia: Barth's interest was in ecological adaptations at cultural frontiers, the development of non-overlapping niches allowing coexistence. Following one of several revisits to Swat, Barth later undertook the biography of the aging wali (prince). (And much later, he was in high demand for his views on the Taliban.)

5. With the Basseri, nomadic pastoralists in Iran (1958). The work was funded by UNESCO, and was founded on the Iranian government's wish to persuade nomads to settle. Barth, however, found that his hosts had a high quality of life: happiness, simplicity, good health, and easygoing ways (no gender segregation here). Besides, they had a cultural antipathy to sedentarism. Rich Basseri often used their surplus wealth to invest in land (there was a practical upper limit on the size of their herds), but they leased it out and had no desire to settle on it themselves. (Eriksen makes the point that nomadic pastoralism evolved only after sedentary farming; it was in the latter context that animals were first domesticated.)

6. On fishing-boats out of Møre in NW Norway (with Ingrid Rudie) (1961-ish). Interaction of status (skipper, fishermen, net-boss) with role behaviour and strategic choice.

7. At Darfur in S. Sudan (1964 ish), investigating economic spheres in Fur agricultural communities; i.e. where goods can be exchanged within one sphere, but not for goods in the other sphere. (Much later, from 2003 onwards, Darfur has become the scene of terrible conflict, indeed genocide.)

8. With the Baktaman in the New Guinea highlands. (1968) The Baktamans consisted of only 183 individuals, and had been "contacted" only four years previously. It rained nearly every day. Life expectancy was low, apparently due partly to violence and partly to diseases that would be easily cured elsewhere. The cultural centre of the men's world was a life-series of seven secret initiations; women were excluded and viewed with suspicion. As a grown man, Barth was fast-tracked to the fourth grade and eventually underwent the seventh. Barth's interest was in knowledge-systems but his approach was actor-oriented: "by bringing his own understanding as closely as possible to the actors, their interpretations and their actions, in order to discern what rituals actually meant to them. With the native point of view as his point of departure, he would then try to find out exactly which aspects of the rituals enabled them to express their inherent meaning-content". Their life had changed little in perhaps 10,000 years, and Barth admitted "they have a ritual life which is teeming with activity, and yet, after a short while I could feel that it was excruciatingly boring". The rituals gave significance to Baktaman existence; "The rituals of initiation establish contact between the novices and abstract entities such as invisible spirits, emotions and inner power, the cosmos and the inevitability of death..." Yet "What troubled him most was the feeling that they based their seven-layered mystery cult around an insight -- the ultimate truth -- which at the end of the day turned out to be fraudulent. At the lower grades, novices were fed secret truths, only to be told, when they reached the higher grades, that they were untrue. And the big truth, which was to be imparted at the seventh grade, did not exist".(Barth returned in 1981, initially to advise on the cultural consquences of gold-mining in this once isolated area. The modern world had arrived in spadesw with the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine: wage work, mass-produced goods, cyanide poisoning, and football. Barth did some more fieldwork with his wife Unni Wikan, comparing the cosmologies of the Baktaman and the seven other Mountain Ok groups.)

[Afterwards, things got worse. The mine's tailings dam collapsed in 1984, and since then the Ok Tedi mine has been dumping monumental volumes of untreated mining waste straight into the Fly River system. ]

About Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea:

9. At Sohar in Oman, with Unni Wikan (1974). About the dynamics of complexity and boundary maintenance in a highly plural society. Barth's focus on the close and observable, Eriksen suggests, fell short of the challenge in Sohar, where transnational groups, e.g. Indians living only part of their lives in Sohar,inhabited social worlds that only partially interacted, and where full understanding of an individual's social network would involve much that was not locally observable.

10. Initially a study of Muslim and Hindu villages in the Buleleng province of Bali, with Unni Wikan (intermittently, from 1983 - 1988); subsequently a broader account of diversity and internal variation in another highly complex environment. "Bali was arguably a pleasant place to be, yet Barth has described fieldwork there as extremely tiring. The reason is, paradoxically, the very friendliness of the Balinese. He experienced it as intensely social and the hospitality as exhausting. Since an anthropologist depends on the goodwill of their informants and has to use themselves as a research instrument, it was difficult to get away; it was nearly impossible to be left alone. Besides, Balinese culture was ritualized in such a way that one always had to stay calm in social settings. Gestures and displays of emotion were considered an indication that one was out of balance."

11. In Bhutan, with Unni Wikan (intermittently, from 1989 - 1994). In the end Barth never published from the Bhutan fieldwork. Eriksen reports a conversation with Barth: "He peered at me above his glasses and answered that it had been dreadfully tiring. 'It is the Middle Ages, you know, and the Middle Ages can be pretty uncomfortable'. Then he spoke in some detail about the Bhutanese passion for lukewarm tea with rancid butter in it".

Eriksen's book was written while his friend Barth was still living; though now in his late eighties, and in sheltered accommodation. Perhaps that accounts for the deeply engaging mixture of fondness, respect and honest criticism.


Fredrik Barth, "Overview: Sixty Years in Anthropology":

Scandinavian academics and intellectuals tend to be fluent in English, and (depending on the audience) often choose to write in it. Barth's overview is in his own English. Likewise Eriksen translated his own book about Barth into English. Regular readers may recall that I recently read the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski in English... Again, the translation was his own.

On close reading, none of them writes quite like someone for whom English is their mother tongue: you'll probably spot instances in the quotations. In fact this is what the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto called "second-language English". Lehto exploited it consciously and with a sense of fun. The others were not doing this, but their language equally deserves attention, not as something lesser than perfectly idiomatic or "correct" English, but as a widened English that can often enrich careful readers by its expression of Scandinavian (or Baltic) ways of thinking.

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