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Napoleon Chagnon, a most controversial anthropologist

Chagnon's writings on the Yanomamo make broad and lurid claims that are dangerous misrepresentations.

Last Modified: 08 Mar 2013 11:48
Lori A. Allen

Lori A. Allen is Lecturer of Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics and Society at the University of Cambridge.
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Media declared Chagnon's description of the Yanomamo as living "in a state of chronic warfare" as being perhaps the "most contested" phrase "in the history of anthropology" [Reuters]

At the centre of a recent controversy involving anthropologists is Napoleon Chagnon. A rare moment of public exposure for anthropology. And the discipline might be catching a cold as a result.

In brief, Chagnon is a man with a long history of writing despicable descriptions of the Yanomamo, a group of tribal people who live in Brazil and Venezuela. He's been the subject of ethical investigations for possibly trying to prod more violence out of this supposedly naturally savage race, and for worsening a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo for research purposes. 

Although one inquiry let him off the hook on the measles charge, many of his anthropologist colleagues still think he's a destructive twit. He's just written another book about it all, including his life among the "dangerous tribes" - anthropologists and the Yanomamo. (Full disclosure, I am one of the former.) 

Like a little sister teased by a big brother beyond her endurance, anthropologists have taken the bait and started jumping up and down about it all over again. The news media is gleefully prodding the rivals along, giving extraordinary inches of column space opening to the story of their feud. 

While the spotlights momentarily shone on this sparring ring, the work of tens of much more peaceable anthropologists, and their attempt to help make sense of today's debt crises, the Arab uprisings, the global economy, go mostly unremarked. 

It is a gloomy fact that, in a discipline of scholars who have so much to say about war and violence - why it happens, how people live with it, how it persists, how regular people manage to re-assemble once it's over - Chagnon should become the famous anthropologist, and his blarney the one pseudo-anthropological explanation for violence that some non-academics are going to hear.

The New York Times declared Chagnon's description of the Yanomamos living "in a state of chronic warfare" as being perhaps the "most contested" phrase "in the history of anthropology". That's a hard thing to tally. Anthropologists are a loquacious and contentious lot.

Dangerous misrepresentations

Probably the most contested aspect of Chagnon's writing has been his tendency to make broad and lurid claims which, according to others who know the Yanomamo, and to those who are inclined not to believe such sweeping generalisations about any people, are dangerous misrepresentations. 

But is this the contestation that should pique the English-reading public's attention? 

Granted, the name at the centre of this recent press commotion, Napoleon Chagnon, is dramatic, perhaps even soap opera-worthy. Napoleon Chagnon: the character it conjures is eye-catching and evocative of the dramas that come from little men with big ambitions. Such an old, tired human theme, but it's one that the world seems happy to recreate and get excited about several times every generation - and that's not just Italy. 

Chagnon is a fedora-wearing, bearded man's man. A scholar of the exotic in an exotic scholarly discipline that, thanks to Indiana Jones and CSI TV, to most of the world is a profession of digging up old bones and murdered bodies, or talking to humans barely worthy of the name stuck in their primitive slots

So Chagnon's the one the media pays attention to because he fits the script. And now, thanks to this drama, anthropology just got another coat of the bizarre. A sparkling patina of the freaky and mysterious, smeared upon it by this outdated professor's outdated, self-servingly melodramatic story-telling about his fantasy of a crazy, backwards, murderous, forest-dwelling group of isolated tribesmen with quaintly bobbed hair in the Amazon (if only they were cannibals too!). 

"The most inexplicable thing to me in all of this was that they were fighting over women," he is quoted as saying of the Yanomamao. With his shocked sensibilities he's also astounded by the way they fought and batted each other (and not just any fighting, but fighting "fiercely") or got wacked out with their hallucinogenic shamans. 

"To be sure, the stories of hundreds of thousands of people forcibly displaced, whether within Sri Lanka or out of Palestine, are not so amusing as those of the Indiana Jones-wannabes shadow-boxing their violent illusions."

Sex - check. Violence - check. Drugs - check. We have publicity lift-off.                       

What is most inexplicable to me, in all this, has been the fate of the not-in-our-name responses of self-respecting anthropologists working in highly esteemed institutions of higher education. 

So many have been printed in highly esteemed institutions of popular education - NPR, the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Beast. Several times it has become part of all the news fit to print in the New York Times. Even the Guardian got in on the act. (The last time I checked, its coverage of this kerfuffle among the anthropologists was standing at number three among their website's "most viewed".) All being venues far much more important to the shaping of public understandings and misunderstandings than the upper class-reproducing classes of universities.

Somehow the fights among anthropologists - those who are deemed by most funding agencies to be less impactful and world (read business) relevant than the "hard" sciences and political science, and therefore less fundable - are suddenly such important news. 

Maybe Chagnon and news editors cannot be blamed for fuelling this momentary hullabaloo. They both work in saturated markets, eager to stand out from the crowded, streaming flow of the earnest every day. Academics or news professionals, we're all trying to get ahead, make a buck, make a name for ourselves in the constellated, constipated star-systems that demand a world-wide esteem and, in the UK, 4-stars for departmental funding. 

And Chagnon's hyperbolic text and the anthropologists' witty retorts are sound-bite delicious: "burly, naked, sweaty, hideous" are his natives. The book is a "paranoid romp through the thick jungles of the Amazon and the thicker tangles of academic and religious intrigue," leading Columbia University anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli to pronounce the "pulp mill" as its appropriate resting place. 

The media and anthropologists

Apparently the wild and weird is wonderful when it takes place in these far away, inconsequential places among "inconsequential" people. 

But why are anthropologists apparently so incapable of making any dent in this circle of gawking at the exotics gawking at the exotics? We step up to the plate and swing and swing and swing, lots of strikes, not a few bunts, and the occasional ball that flies high and then… it turns out we're in this tiny batting cage. And as was foreordained, the balls are caught in the net and plunk to the ground without effect or meaning beyond the exercise. No points scored.

To be sure, some have tried to set the record on anthropology straight. The president of the anthropologists' professional association, Leith Mullings, put a funny title - "Indiana Jones is to Anthropology as Fred Flintstone is to Neolithic Life" - in her sensible reply to one of the five articles in the New York Times on the subject. Though I haven't seen her rejoinder published, it is dutifully posted on that professional association's website. On the net. In the batting cage net.

Spitting in the wind and we wonder why we're all wet?

Meanwhile, real people, not fantastical imaginary people, really are living in something close to a state of chronic warfare. These are wars to put food on the table or survive with no insurance or doctors; wars of people to be free to represent themselves. These are not wars caused by the combatants' inherently nasty, jealous and high natures.

As anthropologists have shown, these struggles occur because, for example, people in Chicago are living with the legacies of deindustrialisation. Or with decades of US-funded authoritarianism and neoliberally privatised healthcare in Egypt. These are attempts to cobble together a democracy out of the sludgy dregs of decades of apartheid in South Africa. Or they are efforts to be free of military occupation in Palestine.

But poverty, illness, apartheid and occupation are not always so exciting. They produce slow, painful battles, the consequences of which are far reaching and take a long time to tell. And they're often depressing.

To be sure, the stories of hundreds of thousands of people forcibly displaced, whether within Sri Lanka or out of Palestine, are not so amusing as those of the Indiana Jones-wannabes shadow-boxing their violent illusions. Not so fun to read as the creatively snarky critiques of books like Chagnon's. But they are important, useful stories nonetheless. Useful for understanding the human condition. Important for making sense of the protracted violence that circumscribes so many people's lives.

I wonder how anthropologists can sneak these darker sagas past the infotainment censors. The media and anthropologists could make better use of each other and let their reading publics see beyond the sensationalising dramas and distorting stereotypes, to have a greater awareness of how people live and struggle for better lives.

Lori A Allen is Lecturer of Contemporary Middle Eastern Politics and Society in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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