Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kinship or Citizenship?

It’s hard to remember back to the Margaret Mead era when cultural anthropology was the neuroscience of its day, the glamor subject for aspiring middlebrows. During the early Cold War, more than few Americans diligently tried to take an intelligent interest in the vast array of foreign cultures that were suddenly deemed of strategic importance to the new American empire, so the insights of anthropologists were in popular demand.

Unfortunately, cultural anthropologists soon lost sight of the forest for the trees, leading to a glut of unreadably detailed studies, such as our current President’s mother’s 1,043-page dissertation on Indonesian blacksmithery. In turn, the public lost interest in alien cultures. Barack Obama, for example, who had been raised to be a diplomat or international affairs scholar, moved to insular Illinois in hopes of becoming mayor of Chicago.

This decline in attention paid to exotic mores has cost America dearly in the post-Cold War era, as America’s leaders blundered into countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya with little awareness of how radically alien their cultures are. The successes of postwar American occupations in Germany and Japan turned out to be irrelevant in Iraq, a fundamentally tribal land where roughly half of all married couples are also first or second cousins by blood. Saddam Hussein proved not to be a Hitler at the controls of a terrifyingly well-organized state, but an aging bullyboy who had scared a fundamentally fractious population, divided into countless family mafias, into temporarily refraining from drilling holes in each others’ heads.

The withering of public respect for cultural anthropologists has opened the door for a handful of outsiders, such as ornithologist Jared Diamond, to offer the public readable accounts that try to draw broad lessons from the seeming trivia of anthropology. A worthy entrant in this genre is law professor Mark S. Weiner’s account of the continuing global appeal of clannishness: The Rule of the Clan.

The subject of how people align themselves with relatives beyond their nuclear families is central to traditional cultural anthropology, but academics frequently get blinded by what renegade anthropologist Robin Fox calls “ethnographic dazzle.” Each individual’s family tree extends outward almost indefinitely to countless relatives, so different cultures have different rules for which relations matter most. Researchers tend to get lost in the thickets of whether a culture emphasizes ties with the paternal or maternal extended families, in-laws or nephews, cross or parallel cousins, and so on.

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