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University of Michigan Press
Ecology and the Sacred: Engaging the Anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport

Ecology and the Sacred: Engaging the Anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport


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Ecology and the Sacred commemorates and advances the anthropology of Roy A. (Skip) Rappaport. Rappaport was an original and visionary thinker whose writings, like these essays, encompass ecological theory and method; ritual, the sacred, and the cybernetics of the holy; the structural study of social maladaptation or "the anthropology of trouble"; and a policy-engaged anthropology that addresses social complexity and structural disorders in modern contexts. The contributors, who are leaders in anthropological studies of the environment and of religion, address themes emerging from Rappaport's pioneering ethnography of Papua New Guinea through his engagement with contemporary social problems. In addition to presenting significant new ethnographic data and sharp critical perspectives, the collection demonstrates the essential holism of anthropology as represented by Rappaport's contributions and legacy.

At a time when anthropology is fractured by debates over whether it is a science or a humanistic tradition, theoretical or applied, this festschrift testifies that a unified anthropology is both possible and necessary for the understanding of humanity and global transformations. The volume will be of interest not only to anthropologists, but to geographers, sociologists, scholars in science-studies, historians, and experts and practitioners in religious studies, as well.

Ellen Messer is Visiting Associate Professor, Tufts University. Michael Lambek is Professor of Anthropology, University of Toronto.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472111701
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 05/22/2001
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

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Ecology and the Sacred: Engaging the Anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport

By Michael Lambek

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2001 Michael Lambek
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472111701

Thinking and Engaging the Whole: The Anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport

Ellen Messer

In a 1994 essay succinctly entitled "Humanity's Evolution and Anthropology's Future," Roy A. Rappaport assessed the discipline's theoretical and moral foundations and its mission for human survival. He highlighted its comparative advantage over the narrower concerns of other social sciences and the humanities and praised both its "scientific" and its "cultural" directions, which together create the holistic discipline whose subject matter is humanity. This is vintage Rappaport at his inspirational best: theoretically innovative, comprehensive, and committed to solving humanity's problems.

Inside and outside anthropology, Rappaport will be remembered as one of its great original thinkers, whose work had a lasting impact on its orientation and organization. Starting with his 1960s essays on human ecology (1963a, 1963b, 1968a, 1969b) and his pathbreaking "systems" ethnography, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (1968; 2d ed., 1984, hereafter, Pigs)--reprinted several times and in multiple languages--his ideas on human ecology and ritual regulation of environmental relations drew a wide following. Thereafter, he devoted the better part of his life to understanding why ritual should order ecosystems and human life and drew connections linking adaptation, the structure of human communication, and ritual life in Ecology, Meaning, and Religion (1979) and finally Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999).

Along with these theoretical inquiries, Rappaport grappled with the disorders and troubles of American society, especially the impact of national and global environmental resource management schemes on local peoples (1993a, 1994b). Significantly, he never lost sight of what he considered to be the obligatory public role of the anthropologist--to address the large, serious issues of human survival. More professional public servant than popularizer, Rappaport's own public policy engagements involved mainly environmental issues, specifically energy use and its human impact, but they also included follow-up fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1981-82 and consultations on social welfare concerns in Michigan, where he spent his entire professional life as an anthropologist. As president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) from 1987 to 1989, he was able to encourage similarly engaged research by convening and nurturing AAA panels on anthropology and public policy (1988-90) and by supporting AAA task forces that used anthropological theory and methodology to address social problems, again with an emphasis on the contemporary United States as well as the developing world, anthropology's more typical domain.

Such wide-ranging activities were possible because Rappaport maintained a unified theory of humanity evolving in global ecosystems that infused his anthropological research, teaching, policy networking, and professional service. In the rest of this introductory overview, I briefly review this holistic perspective in Rappaport the professor, in his evolution as a professional anthropologist, and more extensively in the ideas and activities of Rappaport the scholar-activist over his professional lifetime from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Professor Rappaport

Like several of the other contributors to this volume, I first met Professor Rappaport ("Skip") as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Michigan (in 1970), where he directed the mandatory graduate "core" course in ethnology, team taught Ecological Anthropology with ethnologist Kottak and archaeologists Ford and Flannery, and offered Anthropological Approaches to Religion as a window onto his emergent ideas about the role of the sacred in human evolution. Elsewhere at the time American anthropology was in ferment; cognitive anthropologists wrangled with phenomenologists, behaviorists, and cultural materialists, and ethnographers and linguists sought separation from archaeologists and physical anthropologists housed in the same departments (Hymes 1969). Accompanying these schisms were considerable posturings over "new" methods and frameworks of analysis, notably the "new ethnography" by linguistic anthropologists and the "new archaeology" by prehistorians seeking greater scientific rigor in data collection and interpretation (although both new and old criticized functionalism as tautological). In the human ecology track at Michigan, however, we saw no need to "reinvent anthropology" (Hymes 1969) because the organic four-field unity in its American anthropological approach maintained cohesion. Moreover, the breadth of Rappaport's courses and vision assured students that anthropology was a universal discipline that studied not only small-scale societies but the structure of the social problems, institutions, and bureaucracies of large-scale complex societies such as that of the United States.

Memorable qualities in Rappaport's teaching were his brilliance and his scientific and philosophical rigor, which occasionally were mixed with flashes of self-effacement. (If I could discover a systemic logic linking ritual to ecology in highland New Guinea, he humbly informed his students, then any schm_k could!) He also communicated a deep, earthy identification with fellow human creatures, especially when drawing on his experiences among the Maring. Although students had come to expect his lectures to contain huge concepts and an erudite vocabulary, he usually devoted one session to descriptions of ritual subincision that were deliberately designed to make students squirm, to force them to feel as well as think about the situations of fellow human beings as part of an analysis of the nondiscursive dimensions and bodily truths communicated in ritual. Rappaport was a persuasive intellectual leader also because he exuded charisma; he had the special gift that allowed him to focus intently on and listen seriously to whoever was on the other end of a communication. Dashing across campus, his long black cape flying around him, his visual image was part Count Dracula, but his demeanor was always more that of a zaddik, a traditional wise person- rabbi, a term of address that, with all his ambivalence toward his ancestral Jewish religion, still held a certain attraction.

Consistent with this latter image, two additional characteristics stood out in Rappaport's relationships with students and colleagues. He eschewed the common academic game of ferreting out weaknesses in others' positions for the purpose of using such insights to publicly humiliate them. Instead, he was willing to admit in certain cases that he might have been wrong--or at the very least misunderstood--and constantly moved his own argument forward, clarifying it while taking into account any criticism. Second, he was willing to mentor and support students who had chosen serious social issues (later termed "engaged anthropology") as their principal area of research, even projects that some of his colleagues deemed peripheral to anthropology.

Outside of classes and the seminar room, Skip was a person who sincerely enjoyed the pleasures of good food and drink and generously helped his colleagues (especially his students) do the same. He loved poetry and art, and in his own life approached nature and cosmology as a poet as well as an ecologist. He was also a serious correspondent who in a nontrivial way reflected on the complexities of life and worked into these personal missives his latest professional understandings of "meaning." In retrospect, Rappaport was, as we say in the United States, "an original," but above all he was an anthropologist whose outlook was flavored by his historical experience as an American, his professional identity as an academic citizen of the world, and his prophetic and mystical Jewish heritage. From all these fonts he drew strength as a human being, someone deeply committed to social justice and saving the world. The wide range of topics and scholarship presented here is eloquent testimony to the breadth and depth of his insights and his abilities to inspire and nourish disparate and often conflicting interests within anthropology.

Professional Background

Already close to forty after having been a soldier in World War II, an alumnus of Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, and then an innkeeper, Rappaport embarked on graduate study, in his own words (1994c: 166), in order to understand his own alienation. He chose anthropology after probing discussions with Kai and Erik Erikson, who fortuitously were close friends who frequented his inn. Significantly, he entered Columbia University (not because he desired to study with anyone in particular but because it had a School of General Studies, which accepted him) in the throes of the turbulent 1960s, as the currents of ecology, civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the threat of nuclear war heightened public debate on politics and ecology. With "Think local, act global" the reigning paradigm, the time was ripe for anthropologists, especially of an antimodernist bent (Dove 1997), to learn more about the ways so-called primitives managed local environments and how such knowledge could improve their chances for global survival.

In Columbia's anthropology courses, Rappaport encountered the exciting and often competing ideas of Harris's cultural materialism, Conklin's ethnoscience, Mead's understandings of fieldwork, Arensberg's political anthropology, and Vayda's, Barth's, and Conklin's interpretations of anthropological ecology. Exposed to Leslie White's "general evolution," as it was presented by Fried, he developed his own ideas of ordered general systems, a lawful and unified order underlying the apparent multiplicity of human structures and events. Presented with Conklin's ideas on ethnoscience and ethnoecology, he developed his own comparative units of "cognized" and "operational" environments, which incorporated aspects of Harris's materialism. He moved Arensberg's focus on the formal characteristics of political hierarchies and their operations toward ideas about structure in adaptive systems. Drawing on all of the above plus readings in biological ecology, with Vayda he moved beyond Steward's cultural ecology to a human ecology that removed the conceptual separation between the subsistence culture core and secondary peripheral features.

His Polynesian fieldwork commenced with four months of archaeology in the Society Islands, which provided firsthand knowledge of Polynesian landscapes and suggested the explanatory potential of general ecology (1967a). Fieldwork helped him formulate a comprehensive synthesis of the relations between human populations, social and cultural structures, and the environment (1963a, 1963b), in which he critiqued previous functionalist and materialist interpretations, including that of Sahlins (1958). There followed fourteen months of ethnological-ecological fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, as close to a pristine environment as he could find. Working closely with his wife, Ann Rappaport, and with nearby colleagues Vayda and Lowman-Vayda, he developed ideas about the role of pig rituals in regulating human-environmental relations, which became the subject of his dissertation (1966a) and Pigs. Although he had embarked on a study of a PNG population with the aim of treating the human population in the same terms that biological ecologists studied animal populations in ecosystems, he found he could not avoid focusing attention on the ritual cycle, and this piqued his interest in ritual and the sacred more generally. These topics continued to occupy him for the rest of his life.

In 1965, Rappaport joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he established roots, served as chair (1975-80), was elected a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows (1975), and became director of the university's Program on Studies in Religion (1991). His most important early influences at Michigan, by his own account (1994c), were Meggitt, Sahlins, and Wolf, although the archaeologists (Flannery, Ford, and Wright) also figured importantly in the development of his adaptative systems argument and Kottak, and later Fricke, carried on and updated ecological studies and courses. The most profound influence over the course of his lifetime, however, was Gregory Bateson, whom he met in 1968 and whose ideas on adaptation and evolution as informational processes infused his work thereafter.

The details of Rappaport's intellectual biography are best recounted in a history of his own ideas, which moved seamlessly from ecological theory and method to ritual, the sacred, and adaptation; then maladaptation, trouble, and engaged anthropology; and finally religion, science, and humanity's future. The following account, organized according to these overlapping themes, concludes with Rappaport's professional and institutional commitment to unifying in a single discipline self-identified scientists and humanists and to training theoreticians who were also activists and fieldworkers who were also philosophers.

Ecological Theory and Method

Rappaport's key conceptual and methodological insights, the ideas he used to explore the basic "contradiction between naturally constituted physical law and culturally constructed meanings" (1968: 241) by comparing and then contrasting the overlap and structure of "operational" and "cognized" environments, were already well developed in his earliest writings (1963a, 1963b; 1979). The operational, or law-governed, environment was based on Marston Bates's citation of Mason and Langenheim: "the sum of those [physical-environmental] phenomena that enter a reaction system of the organism or otherwise directly impinge upon it to affect its mode of life at any time throughout his life cycle" (1960). The cognized environment was defined as "the sum of the phenomena ordered into meaningful categories by a population" (Rappaport 1979: 6). For ecology as a whole, Rappaport emphasized: "The relationship of these culturally constructed meanings and values to organic well-being and ecosystemic integrity is the central problem for ecological anthropology" (1967: 241). For his landmark study (Pigs) in particular, the central organizing question was: "What is the relationship between the reference value or ranges of values of the cognized model and the goal ranges of the operational model?" (1968/1984: 241), emphasis in the original). The conceptual framework, methods, and findings were summarized in "Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations among a New Guinea People" (1967b) and presented in their entirety in Pigs for the Ancestors (1968). Rappaport further detailed the specific advantages of this human ecological method in five articles (1968a, 1969b, 1971b, 1971a, 1972a), which were reprinted in different locations and widely circulated and cited. Collectively, these works became benchmarks for teaching ecology and environmental anthropology (see, e.g., Moran 1990; and Milton 1993, 1996), for finding the roots of environmental degradation in "ecological imperialism" (1971a), and later for exploring the linkages between global ideologies and local ecological practice (see Hornborg, this volume; Escobar 1999; and Brosius 1999a, 1999b). Together they established Rappaport as an innovative thinker whose work sought to integrate the findings of a rigorous inquiry based on ecological methods drawn from the biological and physical sciences with careful social and cultural analysis based on anthropological methods.

Rappaport's work was groundbreaking both for its ethnographically based "systems analysis" and for its focus on ritual, which by the early 1970s he was analyzing as the cybernetics of the sacred. Drawing on general systems theory (von Bertalanffy 1968) and applying known principles of biological ecology to a human population (Odum 1959/1963), he clearly specified his units of analysis (the "human population" not the "culture"), gave goal ranges and reference values objective measures, and backed up all assertions about the human and environmental impact of human activities with objective calculations (1984: 363). Like a good scientist, he used quantitative procedures (censuses, weighing, counts, surveys) to determine the current state of each of the variables in units that corresponded to those of accepted biological ecological theory and methods. He published all the operational data in ten appendixes, which allowed other scientists to view the data and critique the interpretation (see, e.g., nutritionist McArthur's 1974 and 1977 critiques, to which Rappaport responded in his addendum to the 1984 edition of Pigs). All of these scientific procedures were intentionally introduced to get beyond the vague social structural-functional formulations and simple functionalist or materialist arguments (which were tautological) that characterized most ecological anthropology. The goal was to study not ritual's function but its adaptive value in maintaining empirical ("reference") values in ecological terms: carrying capacity, persistence of biological species population in the environment, human nutritional well-being, and frequency of warfare.


Excerpted from Ecology and the Sacred: Engaging the Anthropology of Roy A. Rappaport by Michael Lambek Copyright © 2001 by Michael Lambek. Excerpted by permission.
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