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Cultural Anthropology Book Report

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Classical Readings on Cultural Anthropology


Gary Ferraro

What do we have to learn through the study of different cultures? I was hoping for some wonderful revelation in the collection of writings. I may have found one. This book was a difficult read for me. I am not sure whether it's my age or my inexperience with classical readings. I also found it difficult to formulate a report on a collection of readings, the last report I did was on Laura Ingall's Little House on the Prairie. This reading was a little more challenging. The main point that seemed to jump out at me is that perceptions change, our theory of reality changes with every viewpoint. Every culture can seem primitive, self destructive, nonsensical, immoral or just wrong, depending on who is doing the observation and what perspective they are observing from.

In the first reading, Narcirema, points very clearly to the fact that our own culture could seem very odd, irrational, and ritualistic to an outsider. But aren't we all outsiders to everyone else? Don't we see ourselves as "normal" and everyone else as "abnormal"? I think it is human nature more than ethnocentrism. My daily rituals would seem very irrational to another woman of my age in different circumstances. That's where the saying comes from that you don't really know a person till you walk a mile in their shoes.

The second reading of "Queer Customs" gets right to my point that culture is an abstraction; therefore each person doing the viewing views it differently. Culture is pointed out as being a "way of thinking, feeling, and believing" and since I have never met anyone who thought exactly the way I did about everything, one would have to conclude that we each have our own culture and our own views of other cultures.

I wasn't really sure that the next reading really fit in with the others in the book. Rapport-talk versus Report-talk seemed insignificant to the other passages. It is a well-known fact, in all walks of life that men and women of any race, creed, or culture are different and that we have different and sometimes contrasting ways of communicating with each other. I was surprised to find this seemingly simple theory in this book. Yet again back to my question; am I getting the intended message from the author?

The Christmas Ox story made so much more sense to me and had great importance when I read the passage on Potlach. This helped solidify my thinking about how perception and perspective changes reality. When Richard Borshay Lee wrote about the conundrum with the ox, he was writing from the perspective of hurt feelings. He had spent a year with these people and they humiliated him and hurt him and he needed to find out why. Then along comes someone else, Marvin Harris, and he uses the exact same incident as an "amusing story" to point out the need of the peoples to curb the ego. I don't think Mr. Lee thought is was amusing at the time, however that is how Mr. Harris perceived it.

I don't think that either of these stories belonged in the Economics and Ecology section. It appears to me that Mr. Harris has taken his theory way beyond the economical points of world cultures. He seems much more interested in exploring the theory of why we work at jobs and are not just self-sustaining. He gives much credence to the fact that if we would return to the hunter-gatherer state that we could work less and be better off.

Next we move into the Marriage and Family Section, with a writing from Melvyn C. Goldstein. This was a much easier read for me - less technical or scientific terms that I am as yet unfamiliar with. This was an interesting story of why one woman would take on many husbands in the Tibetan culture. I thoroughly understood this passage and appreciated the insight given by the author. It appeared non-judgmental and non-condescending like some of the other passages I had read to this point.

Death without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes takes you on a journey through the impoverished peoples of a Brazilian shantytown and the plight of infant death. As a mother this is difficult for me to understand, how could someone continue to get pregnant only to let her child die? Where are the fathers in this story, why continue to get pregnant if you cannot even care for yourself? I try to understand their culture and the society that has shaped their practices but still I am angry and hurt for those children and for their mothers. There are many things that could be done to change things in their situation but not knowing their culture and their ways of thinking, who I am to say it shouldn't be that way?

Two things stick out in the story of Society and Sex Roles, the first is that the relationship of obligatory giving and receiving has once again jumped to the forefront. Those who have control over the giving and receiving of goods are the dominant ones; those who are able to create obligations are the leaders. At the beginning of this writing there is a reference to a culture that beats women for being to slow to cook. I wonder what the difference is between these men and dictators like Sadamm Hussein. Why don't the women's activist groups do something about this? Why is this allowed in our advanced society today? I understand that this is not happening in suburban America but we have gone off on other "humanitarian fights" why would the world today allow such torture?

The story of the !Kung men and women was interesting reading. Seemed to come directly from an American Soap Opera. It appears that drama is a worldwide addiction, divorce, separation, adultery are rampant in many other cultures than ours so why are we so surprised when our divorce rate is so high. It seems that men and women of all cultures and societies have difficulty in making partnerships last a lifetime. I wonder if this is one of the cultural universals that we can't seem to free ourselves from. I do feel a little better now about my two divorces and happy that I didn't have to suffer they way Nisa did.

Once again I see that we have commonalities with such vastly different cultures. Reciprocity is yet again at the forefront in the Kpelle Moot. We have much



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