The Scope of Social Anthropology
Macmillan and Co., Limited St. Martin's Street, London 1908
The Scope of Social Anthropology
The subject of the chair which I have the honour to hold is Social Anthropology. As the subject is still comparatively new and its limits are still somewhat vague, I shall devote my inaugural lecture to defining its scope and marking out roughly, if not the boundaries of the whole study, at least the boundaries of that part of it which I propose to take for my province.
Strange as it may seem, in the large and thriving family of the sciences, Anthropology, or the Science of Man, is the latest born. So young indeed is the study that three of its distinguished founders in England, Professor E. B. Tylor, Lord Avebury, and Mr. Francis Galton, are happily still with us. It is true that particular departments of man's complex nature have long been the theme of special studies. Anatomy has investigated his body, psychology has explored his mind, theology and metaphysics have sought to plumb the depths of the great mysteries by which he is encompassed on every hand. But it has been reserved for the present generation, or rather for the generation which is passing away, to attempt the comprehensive study of man as a whole, to enquire not merely into the physical and mental structure of the individual, but to compare the various races of men, to trace their affinities, and by means of a wide collection of facts to follow as far as may be the page 4 evolution of human thought and institutions from the earliest times. The aim of this, as of every other science, is to discover the general laws to which the particular facts may be supposed to conform. I say, may be supposed to conform, because research in all departments has rendered it antecedently probable that everywhere law and order will be found to prevail if we search for them diligently, and that accordingly the affairs of man, however complex and incalculable they may seem to be, are no exception to the uniformity of nature. Anthropology, therefore, in the widest sense of the word, aims at discovering the general laws which have regulated human history in the past, and which, if nature is really uniform, may be expected to regulate
Hence the science of man coincides to a certain extent with what has long been known as the philosophy of history as well as with the study to which of late years the name of Sociology has been given. Indeed it might with some reason be held that Social Anthropology, or the study of man in society, is only another expression for Sociology. Yet I think that the two sciences may be conveniently distinguished, and that while the name of Sociology should be reserved for the study of human society in the most comprehensive sense of the words, the name of Social Anthropology may with advantage be restricted to one particular department of that immense field of knowledge. At least I wish to make it perfectly clear at the outset that I for one do not pretend to treat of the whole of human society, past, present, and future. Whether any single man's compass of mind and range of learning suffice for such a vast undertaking, I will not venture to say, but I do say without hesitation or ambiguity that mine certainly do not. I can only speak of what I have studied, and my studies have been mostly confined to a small, a very small part of man's social history. That part is the origin, or rather the rudi- page 5 mentary phases, the infancy and childhood, of human society, and to that part accordingly I propose to limit the scope of Social Anthropology, or at all events my treatment of it. My successors in the chair will be free to extend their purview beyond the narrow boundaries which the limitation of my knowledge imposes on me. They may survey the latest developments as well as the earliest beginnings of custom and law, of science and art, of morality and religion, and from that survey they may deduce the principles which should guide mankind in the future, so that those who come after us may avoid the snares and pitfalls into which we and our fathers have slipped. For the best fruit of knowledge is wisdom, and it may reasonably be hoped that a deeper and wider acquaintance with the past history of mankind will in time enable our statesmen to mould the destiny of the race in fairer forms than we of this generation shall live to see.
Ah Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's desire!
But if you wish to shatter the social fabric, you must not expect your professor of Social Anthropology to aid and abet you. He is no seer to discern, no prophet to foretell a coming heaven on earth, no mountebank with a sovran remedy for every ill, no Red Cross Knight to head a crusade against misery and want, against disease and death, against all the horrid spectres that war on poor humanity. It is for others with higher notes and nobler natures than his to sound the charge and lead it in this Holy War. He is only a student, a student of the past, who may perhaps tell you a little, a very little, of what has been, but who cannot, dare not tell you what ought to be. Yet even the little that he can contribute to the elucidation of the past may have its utility as well as its interest when page 6 it finally takes its place in that great temple of science to which it is the ambition of every student to add a stone. For we cherish a belief that if we truly love and seek knowledge for its own sake, without any ulterior aim, every addition we may make to it, however insignificant and useless it may appear, will yet at last be found to work together with the whole accumulated store for the general good of mankind.
Thus the sphere of Social Anthropology as I understand it, or at least as I propose to treat it, is limited to the crude beginnings, the rudimentary development of human society: it does not include the maturer phases of that complex growth, still less does it embrace the practical problems with which our modern statesmen and lawgivers are called upon to deal. The study might accordingly be described as the embryology of human thought and institutions, or, to be more precise, as that enquiry which seeks to ascertain, first, the beliefs and customs of savages, and, second, the relics of these beliefs and customs which have survived like fossils among peoples of higher culture. In this description of the sphere of Social Anthropology it is implied that the ancestors of the civilised nations were once savages, and that they have transmitted, or may have transmitted, to their more cultured descendants ideas and institutions which, however incongruous with their later surroundings, were perfectly in keeping with the modes of thought and action of the ruder society in which they originated. In short, the definition assumes that civilisation has always and everywhere been evolved out of savagery. The mass of evidence on which this assumption rests is in my opinion so great as to render the induction incontrovertible. At least, if any one disputes it I do not think it worth while to argue with him. There are still, I believe, in civilised society people who hold that the earth is flat and that the sun goes round it; but no sensible man will waste time in the vain attempt to convince such persons of their error, page 7 even though these flatteners of the earth and circulators of the sun appeal with perfect justice to the evidence of their senses in support of their hallucination, which is more than the opponents of man's primitive savagery are able to do.
Thus the study of savage life is a very important part of Social Anthropology. For by comparison with civilised man the savage represents an arrested or rather retarded stage of social development, and an examination of his customs and beliefs accordingly supplies the same sort of evidence of the evolution of the human mind that an examination of the embryo supplies of the evolution of the human body. To put it otherwise, a savage is to a civilised man as a child is to an adult; and just as the gradual growth of intelligence in a child corresponds to, and in a sense recapitulates, the gradual growth of intelligence in the species, so a study of savage society at various stages of evolution enables us to follow approximately, though of course not exactly, the road by which the ancestors of the higher races must have travelled in their progress upward through barbarism to civilisation. In short, savagery is the primitive condition of mankind, and if we would understand what primitive man was we must know what the savage now is.
But here it is necessary to guard against a common misapprehension. The savages of to-day are primitive only in a relative, not in an absolute sense. They are primitive by comparison with us; but they are not primitive by comparison with truly primaeval man, that is, with man as he was when he first emerged from the purely bestial stage of existence. Indeed, compared with man in his absolutely pristine state even the lowest savage of to-day is doubtless a highly developed and cultured being, since all evidence and all probability are in favour of the view that every existing race of men, the rudest as well as the most civilised, has reached its present level of culture, whether it be high or low, only after a slow page 8 and painful progress upwards, which must have extended over many thousands, perhaps millions, of years. Therefore when we speak of any known savages as primitive, which the usage of the English language permits us to do, it should always be remembered that we apply the term primitive to them in a relative, not in an absolute sense. What we mean is that their culture is rudimentary compared with that of the civilised nations, but not by any means that it is identical with that of primæval man. It is necessary to emphasise this relative use of the term primitive in its application to all known savages without exception, because the ambiguity arising from the double meaning of the word has been the source of much confusion and misunderstanding. Careless or unscrupulous writers have made great play with it for purposes of controversy, using the word now in the one sense and now in the other as it suited their argument at the moment, without perceiving, or at all events without indicating, the equivocation. In order to avoid these verbal fallacies it is only necessary to bear steadily in mind that while Social Anthropology has much to say of primitive man in the relative sense, it has nothing whatever to say about primitive man in the absolute sense, and that for the very simple reason that it knows nothing whatever about him, and, so far as we can see at present, is never likely to know anything. To construct a history of human society by starting from absolutely primordial man and working down through thousands or millions of years to the institutions or existing savages might possibly have merits as a flight of imagination, but it could have none as a work of science. To do this would be exactly to reverse the proper mode of scientific procedure. It would be to work a priori from the unknown to the known instead of a posteriori from the known to the unknown. For we do know a good deal about the social state of the savages of to-day and yesterday, but we know nothing page 9 whatever, I repeat, about absolutely primitive human society. Hence a sober enquirer who seeks to elucidate the social evolution of mankind in ages before the dawn of history must start, not from an unknown and purely hypothetical primæval man, but from the lowest savages whom we know or possess adequate records of; and from their customs, beliefs, and traditions as a solid basis of fact he may work back a little way hypothetically through the obscurity of the past; that is, he may form a reasonable theory of the way in which these actual customs, beliefs, and traditions have grown up and developed in a period more or less remote, but probably not very remote, from the one in which they have been observed and recorded. But if, as I assume, he is a sober enquirer, he will never expect to carry back this reconstruction of human history very far, still less will he dream of linking it up with the very beginning, because he is aware that we possess no evidence which would enable us to bridge even hypothetically the gulf of thousands or millions of years which divides the savage of to-day from primæval man.
It may be well to illustrate my meaning by an example. The matrimonial customs and modes of tracing relationships which prevail among some savage races, and even among peoples at a higher stage of culture, furnish very strong grounds for believing that the systems of marriage and consanguinity which are now in vogue among civilised peoples must have been immediately preceded at a more or less distant time by very different modes of counting kin and regulating marriage; in fact, that monogamy and the forbidden degrees of kinship have replaced an older system of much wider and looser sexual relations. But to say this is not to affirm that such looser and wider relations were characteristic of the absolutely primitive condition of mankind; it is only to say that actually existing customs and traditions clearly indicate the extensive page 10 prevalence of such relations at some former time in the history of our race. How remote that time was, we cannot tell; but, estimated by the whole vast period of man's existence on earth, it seems probable that the era of sexual communism to which the evidence points was comparatively recent; in other words, that for the civilised races the interval which divides that era from our own is to be reckoned by thousands rather than by hundreds of thousands of years, while for the lowest of existing savages, for example, the aborigines of Australia, it is possible or probable that the interval may not be greater than a few centuries. Be that as it may, even if on the strength of the evidence I have referred to we could demonstrate the former prevalence of a system of sexual communism among all the races of mankind, this would only carry us back a single step in the long history of our species; it would not justify us in concluding that such a system had been practised by truly primæval man, still less that it had prevailed among mankind from the beginning down to the comparatively recent period at which its existence may be inferred from the evidence at our disposal. About the social condition of primæval man, I repeat, we know absolutely nothing, and it is vain to speculate. Our first parents may have been as strict monogamists as Whiston or Dr. Primrose, or they may have been just the reverse. We have no information on the subject, and are never likely to get any. In the countless ages which have elapsed since man and woman first roamed the happy garden hand in hand or jabbered like apes among the leafy boughs of the virgin forest, their relations to each other may have undergone innumerable changes. For human affairs, like the courses of the heaven, seem to run in cycles: the social pendulum swings to and fro from one extremity of the scale to the other: in the political sphere it has swung from democracy to despotism, and back again from despotism to democracy; and so in the domestic sphere it may page 11 have oscillated many a time between libertinism and monogamy.
If I am right in my definition of Social Anthropology, its province may be roughly divided into two departments, one of which embraces the customs and beliefs of savages, while the other includes such relics of these customs and beliefs as have survived in the thought and institutions of more cultured peoples. The one department may be called the study of savagery, the other the study of folklore. I have said something of savagery: I now turn to folklore, that is, to the survivals of more primitive ideas and practices among peoples who in other respects have risen to a higher plane of culture. That such survivals may be discovered in every civilised nation will hardly now be disputed by anybody. When we read, for example, of an Irishwoman roasted to death by her husband on a suspicion that she was not his wife but a fairy changeling, 1 or again, of an Englishwoman dying of lockjaw because she had anointed the nail that wounded her instead of the wound, 2 we may be sure that the beliefs to which these poor creatures fell victims were not learned by them in school or at church, but had been transmitted from truly savage ancestors through many generations of outwardly though not really civilised descendants. Beliefs and practices of this sort are therefore rightly called superstitions, which means literally survivals. It is with superstitions in the strict sense of the word that the second department of Social Anthropology is concerned.
1 This happened at Ballyvadlea, in the county of Tipperary, in March 1895. For details of the evidence given at the trial of the murderers, see "The 'Witch-burning'at Clonmel," Fotk-lore, vi. (1895) pp. 373-384.
2 This happened at Norwich in June 1902. See The Peopled Weekly Journal for Norfolk July 19, 1902, p. 8.
1 I say "an enlightened minority," because in any large community there are always many minorities, and some of them are very far from enlightened. It is possible to be below as well as above the average level of our fellows.
I have been led into making these remarks by the wish to explain why it is that superstitions of all sorts, political, moral, and religious, survive among peoples who have the opportunity of knowing better. The reason is that the better ideas, which are constantly forming in the upper stratum, have not yet filtered through from the highest to the lowest minds. Such a filtration is generally slow, and by the time that the new notions have penetrated to the bottom, if indeed they ever get there, they are often already obsolete and superseded by others at the top. Hence it is that if we could open the heads and read the thoughts of two men of the same generation and country but at opposite ends of the intellectual scale, we should probably find their minds as different as if the two belonged to different species. Mankind, as it has been well said, advances in échelons; that is, the columns march not abreast of each other but in a straggling line, all lagging in various degrees behind the leader. The image well describes the difference not only between peoples, but between individuals of the same people and the same generation. Just as one nation is continually outstripping some of its contemporaries, so within the same nation some men are constantly outpacing their fellows, and the foremost in the race are those who have thrown off the load of superstition which still burdens the backs and clogs the footsteps of the laggards. To drop metaphor, superstitions survive because, while they shock the views or enlightened members of the community, they are still in harmony with the thoughts and feelings of others who, though they are drilled by their betters into an appearance of civilisation, remain barbarians or savages at heart. That is why, for example, the barbarous punishments for high treason and witchcraft and the enormities of slavery were tolerated and defended in page 15 this country down to modern times. Such survivals may be divided into two sorts, according as they are public or private; in other words, according as they are embodied in the law of the land or are practised with or without the connivance of the law in holes and corners. The examples I have just cited belong to the former of these two classes. Witches were publicly burned and traitors were publicly disembowelled in England not so long ago, and slavery survived as a legal institution still later. The true nature of such public superstitions is apt, through their very publicity, to escape detection, because until they are finally swept away by the rising tide of progress, there are always plenty of people to defend them as institutions essential to the public welfare and sanctioned by the laws of God
It is otherwise with those private superstitions to which the name of folklore is usually confined. In civilised society most educated people are not even aware of the extent to which these relics of savage ignorance survive at their doors. The discovery of their wide prevalence was indeed only made last century, chiefly through the researches of the brothers Grimm in Germany. Since their day systematic enquiries carried on among the less educated classes, and especially among the peasantry, of Europe have revealed the astonishing, nay, alarming truth that a mass, if not the majority, of people in every civilised country is still living in a state of intellectual savagery, that, in fact, the smooth surface of cultured society is sapped and mined by superstition. Only those whose studies have led them to investigate the subject are aware of the depth to which the ground beneath our feet is thus as it were honeycombed by unseen forces. We appear to be standing on a volcano which may at any moment break out in smoke and fire to spread ruin and devastation among the gardens and palaces of ancient culture wrought so laboriously by the hands of many genera- page 16 tions. After looking on the ruined Greek temples of Paestum and contrasting them with the squalor and savagery of the Italian peasantry, Renan said, "I trembled for civilisation, seeing it so limited, built on so weak a foundation, resting on so few individuals even in the country where it is dominant."1
1 F. Renan et M. Berthelot, Correspondence (Paris, 1898), pp. 75 [unclear: sq]
Thus from an examination, first, of savagery and, second, of its survivals in civilisation, the study of Social Anthropology attempts to trace the early history of human thought and institutions. The history can never be complete, unless indeed science should discover some mode of reading the faded record of the past of which we in this generation can hardly dream. We know indeed that every event, however insignificant, implies a change, however slight, in the material constitution of the universe, so that the whole history of the world is, in a sense, engraved upon its face, though our eyes are too dim to read the scroll. It may be that in the future some wondrous reagent, some magic chemical, may yet be found to bring out the whole of nature's secret handwriting for a greater than Daniel to interpret to his fellows. That will hardly be in our time. With the resources at present at our command we must be content with a very brief, imperfect, and in large measure conjectural account of man's mental and social development in prehistoric ages. As I have already pointed out, the evidence, fragmentary and dubious as it is, only runs back a very little way into the measureless past of human life on earth; we soon lose the thread, the faintly glimmering thread, in the thick darkness of the absolutely unknown. Even in the comparatively short space of time, a few thousand years at most, which falls more or less within our ken, there are many deep and page 18 wide chasms which can only be bridged by hypotheses, if the story of evolution is to run continuously. Such bridges are built in anthropology as in biology by the Comparative Method, which enables us to borrow the links of one chain of evidence to supply the gaps in another. For us who deal, not with the various forms of animal life, but with the various products of human intelligence, the legitimacy of the Comparative Method rests on the well-ascertained similarity of the working of the human mind in all races of men. I have laid stress on the great inequalities which exist not only between the various races, but between men of the same race and generation; but it should be clearly understood and remembered that these divergencies are quantitative rather than qualitative, they consist in differences of degree rather than of kind. The savage is not a different sort of being from his civilised brother: he has the same capacities, mental and moral, but they are less fully developed: his evolution has been arrested, or rather retarded, at a lower level. And as savage races are not all on the same plane, but have stopped or tarried at different points of the upward path, we can to a certain extent, by comparing them with each other, construct a scale of social progression and mark out roughly some of the stages on the long road that leads from savagery to civilisation. In the kingdom of mind such a scale of mental evolution answers to the scale or morphological evolution in the animal kingdom.
1 J. Boswell, Lift of Samuel Johnson9 (London, 1822), iv. 315.
In boundless oceans, never to be passed
By navigators uninform'd as they,
Or plough'd perhaps by British bark again.
The Task, book i. 629 sqq.
More than that, it is the public duty of every civilised state actively to co-operate. In this respect the United States of America, by instituting a bureau for the study of the aborigines within its dominions, has set an example which every enlightened nation that rules over lower races ought to imitate. On none does that duty, that responsibility, lie more clearly and more heavily than on our own, for to none in the whole course of human history has the sceptre been given over so many and so diverse races of men. We have made ourselves our brother's keepers. Woe to us if we neglect our duty to our brother ! It is not enough for us to role injustice the peoples we have subjugated by the sword. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to posterity, who will require it at our hands, that we should describe them as they were before we found them, before they ever saw the English flag and heard, for good or evil, the English tongue. The voice of England speaks to her subject peoples in other accents than in the thunder of her guns. Peace has its triumphs as well as war: there are nobler trophies than captured flags and cannons. There are monuments, airy monuments, monuments of words, which seem so fleeting and evanescent, that will yet last when your cannons have crumbled and your flags have mouldered into dust. When the Roman poet wished to present an image of perpetuity, he said that he woyld be remembered so long as the Roman Empire endured, so long as the white-robed procession of the Vestals and page 23 Pontiffs should ascend the Capitol to pray in the temple of Jupiter. That solemn procession has long ceased to climb the slope of the Capitol, the Roman Empire itself has long passed away, like the empire of Alexander, like the empire of Charlemagne, like the empire of Spain, yet still amid the wreck of kingdoms the poet's monument stands firm, for still his verses are read and remembered. I appeal to the Universities, I appeal to the Government of this country to unite in building a monument, a beneficent monument, of the British Empire, a monument
Quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
Possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
Annorum series, et fuga temporum.