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Week of 13 December 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 15

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CAS prof gives keynote address to international conference
Barth urges fellow anthropologists to recognize the power of individuals

By David J. Craig

As a young anthropologist living among indigenous New Guineans in 1968, Fredrik Barth posed questions that many social scientists might have asked: how are boys in the isolated tribe initiated as men? and, what cultural traditions get passed on from generation to generation?

Fredrik Barth Photo by Vernon Doucette


Fredrik Barth Photo by Vernon Doucette


Simple queries, but Barth’s observations helped chart a new path for anthropology. The meaning of male fertility varied substantially among the tribe’s 180 people, Barth found, because elders improvised complex male initiation rituals to make them colorful and compelling. His findings challenged prevailing structuralist social theories, which saw cultural knowledge as being transferred relatively smoothly between generations.
“I showed that people don’t simply act out their culture, but make decisions that have important historical consequences,” says Barth, a CAS professor of anthropology. “It would not have been enough to simply draw a correlation between what appeared to be the regular features of the tribe’s initiation rituals and its ideas about fertility. By considering how people navigate and maneuver within social structures, you can see how cultural history shifts and changes.”

Barth drove home that same message to some 4,000 colleagues last month at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans. Delivering the international conference’s prestigious keynote address, Barth called on anthropologists to focus their research “on the processes that happen between people, not abstract structures that we extract from them.”

Among the people
While anthropology has moved away from “the gross structuralist analyses” that dominated the field 40 years ago, Barth says, even today too few anthropologists give proper attention to variations in social processes because it is difficult to do without getting bogged down in details. “It’s easier, and still considered proper,” he says, “to do structuralist analyses.”

Barth certainly has the credentials to advise colleagues on how to approach research: few anthropologists have conducted as much fieldwork or worked in as many places. A native of Norway who built the anthropology department at Norway’s University of Bergen from scratch in the 1960s, Barth has written ethnographies based on his firsthand research in Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, New Guinea, Oman, Bali, Bhutan, China, Norway, Britain, and the United States. He is best known for his work on ethnicity: his seminal 1969 book Ethnic Groups and Boundaries describes how dynamic group identities tend to be.

And while many anthropologists give up field research to concentrate on theoretical work upon receiving a senior academic post, Barth has barely slowed down. “I’d rather be out on an adventure than building up my authority in one area so that I can have my own turf to defend,” says Barth, a warm, unassuming man who turns 75 this month. “I guess I just have this curiosity about the world.”

So today he spends several months of the year in the isolated Himalayas of Bhutan, which he says is “the last place in the world where the traditional Buddhist monastic system is still fully in place and functional.” His next book will focus on how Buddhist traditions are disseminated among the society’s classes, including “very sophisticated monks, illiterate people, and everybody in between.”

Barth lives in extremely primitive conditions during his two-to-three-month stays in Bhutan, sleeping on wooden floors in small, unheated shacks, and eating little more than dried meat and tea flavored with rancid butter. He likes to work alone and brings no other researchers, except occasionally his wife, the anthropologist Unni Wikan.

“The Bhutanese people, like many isolated people, are remarkably hospitable,” Barth says when asked to describe the satisfactions of his work. “I can arrive unannounced and unknown and just move in with them. And then there is the kind of gambler’s thrill you get in the field from knowing that at any point you can make a mistake and end up collecting inadequate information. Sometimes it’s a matter of making the right guesses to get what you need, and that’s exciting to live with.”

Anthropological lessons
Barth’s prominence in anthropology results also from his theoretical contributions, which were mostly developed early in his career. While living with nomads in what today is southern Iran during the late 1950s, for instance, he developed a complex theory of “generative processes” to explain how populations of nomads fluctuate in accordance with the availability of green pastures and other economic factors. The theory was useful to social scientists who subsequently studied the demographics of nomads in the Middle East.

In addition, Barth prides himself on being a spokesman for his field, which he believes should contribute to public policy discussions. At BU, where he has taught every fall since 1997, Barth encourages students to extract lessons from their research that apply to current political issues and to speak out. (When not in Boston, Barth splits his time between Bhutan and Oslo, where his wife teaches.)

“I think anthropologists are in a unique position among social scientists because our subjects aren’t numbers in a demographic chart or survey respondents,” says Barth, who frequently gives public lectures and writes op-ed pieces. “Rather, we live with them and learn their problems, attitudes, and priorities.

“Anthropology has a tremendous amount to share because most people know their own worlds and not other people’s worlds,” he continues. “The challenge for anthropologists is to do fieldwork and come home and not only write about it for other anthropologists. We need to identify important policy debates going on and join them.”


13 December 2002
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