The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






This is an edited version of a list of quotations from two anthropologists, prominent in the history of the discipline in Europe and North America.

Two relatively short articles from the 1960s that I found useful, provided a number of insights that serve to bolster some of the other essays on this site. These are merely my selective “notes and quotes” from those two articles, with limited commentary aside from my headings—think of it as an extended footnote. A short commentary follows at the end.

Stanley Diamond, “A Revolutionary Discipline”. Current Anthropology, Vol. 5, No. 5 (Dec., 1964), pp. 432–437

Anthropology: “off the mainstream”

“Although careerism and slick professionalism have made their inroads among us, we are still largely self-selected to study people off the mainstream of contemporary civilization” (p. 432).

We speak for others

“we speak for societies that cannot speak for themselves” (p. 432)

Only the civilized outsider can document, create the idea of the primitive

“it is only a representative of our civilization who can, in adequate detail, document the differences, and help create an idea of the primitive which would not ordinarily be constructed by primitives themselves”. (p. 433)

“There is, then, no final or static or exclusively objective picture of primitive society. We snap the portrait, using film of different sensitivity for different purposes. Moreover, there is no really sophisticated portrait of primitive society which can be transmitted to us by an actor from within the system, precisely because it is our experience of civilization that leads us to see problems (for us) where he perceives routine, and to pose questions that the primitive person is unlikely to ask about his own culture”. (p. 433)

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Anthropology: Its Achievements and Future”. Current Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), pp. 124–127.

Anthropology = the study of always disappearing primitives

“The day will come when the last primitive culture will have disappeared from the earth, compelling us to realize only too late that the fundamentals of mankind are irretrievably lost”. (p. 124)

“It has become the fashion in certain circles to speak of anthropology as a science on the wane, on account of the rapid disappearance of its traditional subject matter: the so-called primitives”. (p. 124)

“It is precisely because the so-called primitive peoples are becoming extinct that their study should now be given absolute priority”. (p. 125)

“the physical disappearance of populations that remained faithful till the very end to their traditional way of life does, indeed, constitute a threat to anthropology” (p. 125)

Human nature is singular, the expressions are diverse (or how differences are superficial)

“enlarging our narrow-minded humanism to include each and every expression of human nature” (p. 124)

“it is already certain that the outer differences conceal a basic unity” (p. 127)

“we may never again be able to recognize and study this image of ourselves” (p. 127)

The futility of a native anthropology

“The suggestion has been made that in order to render anthropology less distasteful to its subjects it will suffice to reverse the roles and occasionally allow ourselves to be “ethnographized” by those for whom we were once solely the ethnographers. In this way, each in turn will get the upper hand. And since there will be no permanent privilege, nobody will have grounds to feel inferior to anybody else. At the same time, we shall get to know more about ourselves through the eyes of others, and human knowledge will derive an ever growing profit from this reciprocity of perspective”.

“Well-meant as it undoubtedly is, this solution appears to me naive and unworkable, as though the problems were as simple and superficial as those of children unaccustomed to playing together, whose quarrels can be settled by making them follow the elementary rule: ‘Let me play with your dolls and I shall let you play with mine’”. (pp. 125–126)

Having natives do anthropology, does not change anthropology

“if native cultures are ever to look at anthropology as a legitimate pursuit and not as a sequel to the colonial era or that of economic domination, it cannot suffice for the players simply to change camps while the anthropological game remains the same. Anthropology itself must undergo a deep transformation in order to carry on its work among those cultures for whose study it was intended because they lack a written record of their history”. (p. 126)

Anthropology: an outsider’s science

“anthropology is the science of culture as seen from the outside and the first concern of people made aware of their independent existence and originality must be to claim the right to observe their culture themselves, from the inside”. (p. 126)

“Anthropology will survive in a changing world by
allowing itself to perish in order to be
born again under a new guise”

Anthropology in the future might not be “Anthropology”

“Anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish in order to be born again under a new guise”. (p. 126)

“And within a century or so, when the last native culture will have disappeared from the Earth and our only interlocutor will be the electronic computer, it will have become so remote that we may well doubt whether the same kind of approach will deserve to be called ‘anthropology’ any longer”. (p. 127)


Stanley Diamond speaks to a history of anthropology that exclusively involved “civilized” outsiders studying “primitive” insiders, and then purportedly speaking on behalf of those primitive insiders. Without even dwelling on the hierarchy of differences that this creates—which is the basis for the professionalization of inquiry into a discipline—the question is this: How are we able to speak for “primitives” when we admit, as Diamond did above, that no “primitives” would ever describe themselves the way we describe them? What lies behind the apparent contradiction, I think, is not so much that we have ever been in a position of speaking for others, or that we ever wanted to be in such a position. The position we wanted, instead, is one that allowed us to create our own favoured explanations, without being interrupted by the natives whose lives we were supposedly explaining, to ourselves. Diamond appears to be confusing speaking about others with speaking for others.

Diamond added another observation: we problematize what is routine—but only that which is routine for others. The assumption is that an insider can never be detached enough to see that what is familiar to us can instead be seen as strange. This is an untested, or at least an unexamined assumption, one that fails to take into account the many alienated “insiders” who can see their surroundings in a different light. Diamond assumes perfect social integration, equality and homogeneity, political unity, and inter-personal harmony—conditions which if they ever obtained in our society, now seem remotely distant.

Claude Lévi-Strauss also underscored the fact that anthropology was about the civilized studying the primitives of our world, who were always assumed to be in the process of vanishing. Anthropology, it seems, has always been the study of peoples assumed to be headed toward extinction. Anthropology built itself up on such foundations—Lévi-Strauss is plain and clear about this. In addition, anthropology never treated difference as fundamental: difference was always understood to be superficial. But what would have resulted if we instead took difference to be fundamental, and what was similar between societies was superficial?

Yet Lévi-Strauss believes that anthropology itself would have to be fundamentally transformed if it were ever taken up by natives. He appears to be contradicting himself, and yet he is also on the right track. An anthropology that served the ends of the colonized could never look like the anthropology of the colonizers.

Perhaps the most striking statement from Lévi-Strauss comes at the very end, in the form of a prediction: when the computer becomes our only interlocutor, then what we do will hardly be recognizable as anthropology any longer, and will not deserve to be called “anthropology”. For different reasons, and using different assumptions, Lévi-Strauss was an early zero anthropologist.


Image: Photo of the interior of Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, from the second floor facing away from the entrance (September, 2015), by Geni. From Wikimedia Commons.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.