June 30, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)


The traditional anthropological description is like a book of etiquette. What you get isn't so much the deep cultural wisdom as the cultural cliches, the wisdom of Polonius, conventions in the trivial rather than the informing sense. It may tell you the official rules, but it won't tell you how life is lived.

Renato Rosaldo, 1986

The subject of anthropology, the study of the behavior of groups of people, became popular with the publication of Margaret Mead's book Coming of Age in Samoa. Anthropologists usually study the behavior of people in isolated areas. One objective of this type of work is to shed light on human behavior in general.

Actually, in order to study human behavior a person doesn't have to go to a remote part of the world. One need only sit back and watch what happens in one's own family, neighborhood and country. Some people have done just that, but they have run into snags that do not afflict scientists who study people on remote islands. The principle problem is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to discard all of the prejudices that come with being a member of a culture. Sigmund Freud attempted to do this with himself and others. He would have been the first to admit that he was only partly successful.

Another problem that afflicts people who study people, is that the people studied are sure to be offended when they are faced with a cultural mirror that paints a clear picture of how they behave. The best-selling fictional study of the Italian Mafia culture, The Godfather, by Mario Puzzo fascinated the reading public. However, many Italians viewed Puzzo as a traitor, a squealer or worse. The fact that he got rich on it was just more salt in the wound.

The excellent book about the Jewish culture, The Jewish Mystique, by psychoanalyst Ernest Van Den Haag, was mostly ignored by the Jewish community.

More light has been shed on the behavior of people by fiction writers than by scientists. Shakespeare's insight into the behavior of people and of cultures is profound. His The Merchant of Venice and Othello hold up a mirror to the cultures of the time and, in some ways, to the cultures of today. So are the writings of D.H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck and many others. A Jewish psychiatrist who was undergoing a training psychoanalysis told me that he got more insight into his own mind by reading Philip Roth's book Portnoy's Complaint, than he did from the analysis. The fact that he was looking for insight into himself probably induced him to read about Portnoy.

When everything that you see when you look in a mirror is beautiful, looking into a mirror can be a delightful experience. Unfortunately, a mirror shows the truth, which often includes blemishes and scars that one would just as soon not see. This is the basis for a universal aversion to the truth about ones self. Of course, the truth about others is fascinating and can be used to say, "Look at those slobs, and look how wonderful we are." This is the basis for an old saying, "Tell the truth and run." But it is only telling the truth about one's own culture to people in that culture that will get you into trouble. I guess that that's why Margaret Mead went to Samoa. Studying relatively primitive cultures, and even studying wild animals, is fraught with less peril than studying one's own culture.

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