Anthropology in its Formative Period (1900-1950) As the Study of Presumed Isolated and “Primitive” Societies Rather Than as The Study of Global Urban Relations

Why did anthropology, in its formative period (1900-1950) develop as the study of presumed isolated and “primitive” societies, rather than as the study of global urban relations?

The advancement of anthropology as a fully-fledged discipline occurred during the first half of the 20th century. World-renowned researchers such as Margaret Mead (1901-1978), Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), Franz Boas (1858-1942) and Mary Douglas (1921-2007) carried out their field studies during this period with an attempted study various human societies.  A common denominator in all studies conducted during this period was the fact that they were based on isolated societies rather than examining urban relations. This essay explores this phenomenon and the reasons why it was rooted in anthropology during its formative period.

Anthropology probes human demeanor across societies. The inquiry process explores the past and the present in search of plausible answers to the question being posed. Social, cultural and linguistic anthropology delve into the human condition and, in particular, that of presumed isolated or “primitive” societies. Such undertakings were arduous, painstaking and expensive for the researchers as compared to if they were carried out on urban dwelling participants. This affinity to isolated communities was based on the assumption that they were not, as yet, introduced to components of the modern world and would act as a textbook control group. These include technological innovations, political systems, and social constructs are mostly non-existent in the case of isolated societies (Kolluoğlu-Kırlı, 2015). Seeing as these resilient people braved the difficulties that they faced throughout the years, they were thus ideal candidates for anthropological studies. The study of values, norms, language and the biological development of various races across the globe was simplified, serving as a peek into human society.  A large majority of residents living in metropolitan areas are in their present localities as a result of rural-urban migration that soon followed after modernization (Kunso, 2014). Successive generations of individuals born in urban areas often find themselves at a disadvantage with regard to receiving knowledge passed down from previous groups. Coupled with the hassles of daily life in urban centers that revolves around making a living, it becomes quite unlikely that such individuals will have enough time to fully grasp the societies they hail from. Wacquant contends that anthropologists need to enter the subject’s world if they are to obtain vital information about human societies (n.d.). Through this approach, isolated societies became the crux of anthropology between 1900 and 1950, with studies into their prototypical or rudimentary lives going on to explain human evolution.

Secondly, a rise in imperialism across the globe prompted European powers to come into contact with isolated ethnic groups prompting interest in their groups. The global expansion of Western European powers meant that they had to expand their spheres of influence to include swathes of territory that were, until then, unexplored. As a result, various regions in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and America were annexed and inhabitants expected to seek protection from the conquerors. Industrialization and the growth of global commerce made colonies important assets that would further prompt a flood of new information of native people encountered in these frontiers. It soon became apparent that the colonialist’s explanations to explain the existing state of affairs and global dominance. These little-known societies were suitable for these studies since urban populations could not assure them of accurate results. Their contact with the modern world would render the studies inconclusive since they would be confronted by missing links. A common myth amongst leading anthropologists was that societies in different locations evolved naturally over the course of time in a single trajectory. A common origin suggests that there a number of simple components that they all developed along the way which makes studying isolated societies the best chance in debunking these mysteries. The common belief among anthropologist during this time was that these individuals represented vestiges of human society from the past. They would, therefore, go a long way in revealing how Western cultures lived in the distant past and what might have caused the divergence that later heralded the great leap forward. Bourdier studied African dwellings of the Fulbe in an attempt to understand early human societies (Boudier& Trinh, 1997). His research ultimately allowed him to comprehend the significance of an abode to isolated societies and other communal undercurrents tied to this aspect of human life.

In finality, early researchers between 1900 and 1950s exhibited an uncanny preference for studying isolated societies as opposed to urban relations. Their desire to acquire authentic information about the development of human societies directed their work, which would have been complex if urban dwellers were included. It is only through this process that the missing links were connected in humanity’s long history.


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