In this work, based on conversations with Richard Handler, Schneider tells the story of his days devoted to anthropology—as a student of Clyde Kluckhohn and Talcott Parsons and as a writer and teacher whose work on kinship and culture theory revolutionized the discipline. With a master’s sense of the telling anecdote, he describes his education at Cornell, Yale, and Harvard, his fieldwork on the Micronesian island of Yap and among the Mescalero Apache, and his years teaching at the London School of Economics, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. Musing on the current state and the future of anthropology, Schneider’s cast of characters reads like a who’s who of postwar social science. His reflections on anthropological field research and academic politics address some of the most pressing ethical and epistemological issues facing scholars today, while yielding tales of unexpected amusement.
With its humor and irony, its wealth of information and searching questions about the state of anthropology, Schneider on Schneider not only provides an important resource for the history of twentieth-century social science, but also brings to life the entertaining voice of an engaging storyteller.
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About the Author
David M. Schneider, one of the key figures in twentieth-century social science, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His books include American Kinship and A Critique of the Study of Kinship.
Richard Handler is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia and author of, among other works, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec
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Schneider on Schneider
The Conversion of the Jews and Other Anthropological Stories
By David M. Schneider, Richard Handler
Duke University PressCopyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Work of the Gods in Tikopia, or, A Career in Anthropology
DMS: I thought that times had changed, and that now you really got where you got on the basis of your merit and your merit alone; and that there were no people behind the scenes pulling strings and colluding, that this business of placing protégés was all over; only to realize—how can I say?—well, I guess it was from 1945 or '46 to 1990 or 1989. In 1989, facts came to my attention that revealed to me how little I understood as to what the hell was going on.
Now that's a story, okay? So I thought I could tell you the story of my career. It started with Cornell and went through I got this job, and I got that job, and so on and so forth, and at various points along the line, we could take off from that—like, What was it like in London?, like, When you came back from London you wrote, you got involved with George Homans's book—then I'll tell you the George Homans's book story. When I was teaching at Berkeley I decided to leave and go to Chicago—then I have the Kroeber story, and along with the Kroeber story, why did I leave Berkeley? and was I right to have made that choice? which is also, I think, an interesting story full of moral—it's a cautionary tale for young people, yes?!
Should we give that a go and see if it works?
RH: Okay. But let me ask one thing. Do you want me to interrupt you, or should I take notes and then ask you questions?
DMS: Either way you want. I don't mind being interrupted.
RH: I think I'll start by taking notes, and see if we can get you to tell this whole story about which you just did a metastory.
DMS: That's it. This will be the first metastory. Then, you see, you can use that as a take-off point. That also implies that I'm not going to tell you about "I was born" and so on. I have another nice story about my relationship to my family, and the fact that my brother was born when I was six, and I saw no need for him around the house, and I fucked up, and all kinds of stuff like that. That's another story.
RH: We can come back to that.
DMS: Okay. I started—I wanted to be a bacteriologist. And I suppose it's of some interest that I read these books by Paul De Kruif—The Hunger Fighters and The Microbe Hunters. I wanted to study loathsome diseases and cure the world and be good and do good things. But I had no money, and my family had no money. So a very wise cousin said, "Why don't you go to New York State College of Agriculture? and you can learn agricultural bacteriology, and that will be your step into bacteriology, and then you can help rid the world of loathsome diseases."
So I went to Cornell, New York State College of Agriculture, but I never could manage to pass organic chemistry. I got put on probation. I got a D average, and I was told that to get off probation I had to raise my grades. A couple of my friends said, "Take rural sociology. Anybody can get A's."
And they were right. I took rural sociology, I got A's, I got off probation. But in the course of doing that—that was my last two years, my junior and senior years—I took a course from an instructor in economics who was an anthropologist, R. Lauriston Sharp. And that way I got interested in anthropology. He suggested I stay around for one more year, to learn a little more anthropology, and then go on to graduate school.
So I stayed around for one more year and got an M.A. Addy [Adeline Bellinson] and I got married June 17,1940, which was the day we both graduated from Cornell. She graduated from the arts college, and I graduated from the ag school, and we stayed on that next year, and I got an M.A. in anthropology.
Sharp then told me that the best place to go was Yale. And I went to Yale, but Yale was ... that's where another whole story picks up. So from Yale I got offered a job in Washington for $1,620 per annum. I took that, because we were broke. It was the Division of Program Surveys of the Department of Agriculture. And I got drafted from there. Now I've left out another whole part, but that's all right.
At Yale I met Geoffrey Gorer, and he was a good buddy of Margaret Mead. Geoffrey Gorer was very friendly, very interested. I had been studying primitive dreams. He sort of revealed psychoanalysis and Freud to me, which I found very interesting, but hard to understand, and I wasn't sure I enjoyed it or felt all that sympathetic. But, you know, he was a nice guy—it was very good.
When I went to Washington, he told me to go see Margaret Mead. I went to see her. We struck up a kind of friendship—very casual, very brief. Then I got drafted.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey Gorer had urged me very strongly that if you really want to be an anthropologist, there's your opportunity to do field-work while you're in the army! Keep notes, all that stuff. So I did.
Margaret Mead, meanwhile, through the Institute for Intercultural Studies, was circulating papers, which I read. These were some of the early studies of culture at a distance. Gorer did one on Russia, [Ruth] Benedict did one on Thai, somebody else did one on—no, Russia or Poland, I'm not sure what Gorer did. Anyway, there were a bunch of those.
So I got drafted. I kept notes in the army, and, indeed, my very first two publications were while I was still in the army, but just getting out. One was "The Culture of the Army Clerk," the other, "The Social Dynamics of Physical Disability in Army Basic Training."
RH: Did you deposit those notes in Regenstein Library?
DMS: No. I believe I still have them. However, interestingly enough, a guy who did a study of gays during the Second World War happened upon my papers—those two papers—and he commented in his book that they were very interesting and revealing. I hadn't realized that I'd been such a sensitive observer!
So, I got out of the army. I'd been married—you know, Addy followed me to Camp Roberts and then to Fort Lewis. Then I said, well, if I could get an SSRC [Social Science Research Council] demobilization award, I would go back to school. Otherwise, I was through.
RH: When did you get out of the army?
DMS: 1946. So Margaret Mead told me to apply for it, but I didn't get the demobilization award. When I complained to her that I didn't get it, she said, "Well, you got Geoffrey Gorer to write you a letter of recommendation. In the first place, you've got to get eminent, important, powerful people to write you letters of recommendation. And in any case, you shouldn't get somebody that nobody really respects. I mean, nobody really likes Geoffrey Gorer."
Well, the lesson wasn't much help, because it was too late. Anyhow, so she said, "Go see my friend, Clyde Kluckhohn, at Harvard. He owes me an academic favor. And you tell him that you are my academic favor."
So I went to see Clyde Kluckhohn, but I never told Kluckhohn that Mead had sent me. That's a gold star in my favor!
Kluckhohn said, "Fine. We're just starting a new Social Relations Department. I hope you'll be interested. You sound like a natural. Why don't you just go across the street there to the graduate school and fill out the application blank. Everything'll be okay."
So I went out and I filled in the application form and I went back to ... I was living with Addy's family at that time. Next thing I knew, I got a phone call from Clyde Kluckhohn. "David! You didn't tell me that you had a D average."
"Well, I didn't think it was important."
"Well, of course it's important! Harvard does not let in anyone without an A average."
So I said, "Oh, I suppose I'm done."
"No," he said. "I have managed to persuade them that if they let you in on probation, and you get straight A's for the first year, you may stay."
So I said, "Well, thank you. I'm very very grateful" and so forth. And so I showed up, and, lo and behold, I got straight A's.
RH: Do you know why he did this?
DMS: No, I don't know why he did it. It may well be that he called Mead up, that she called him. I just don't know why he did it. But you see, I assumed that anyone could see that I was a person of great promise, had considerable merit. You see, I had given him those two articles to read, and he'd liked them both. No—he only saw the culture of the army clerk article, but he saw the manuscript of the physical disability article.
So, I got to Harvard and I got straight A's. And then came the opportunity to go to Yap. Now that's another big story. Went to Yap. And when I went to Yap, I sent all my field notes back to the Peabody Museum, but on the very explicit understanding that Clyde Kluckhohn would see them. Now, it so happened that at that time, Kroeber was there at Harvard in a visiting appointment.
RH: When was this?
DMS: 1947-1948. I know that Clyde and Kroeber not only saw my notes—at least, I knew they had access to them—that's really all I knew. But they also watched the movies. I took a lot of movies, and I sent them back, and apparently Clyde and Kroeber would get together on an evening when they had nothing else to do and show my pics!
RH: You took movies?
DMS: That's right. They were Bell and Howell cassettes. All you did was stick it in the camera and point the camera correctly and then, mostly, you got something. Of course, I was really awful. People complained that watching my movies made them seasick—motion sickness, all that stuff.
And this, of course, is where the story really begins. I came back and I started writing my thesis. I went to Yap on the Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology, which George Peter Murdock had put together. And there's an interesting story there that goes back to my year at Yale—you see, before I went to Washington, before I went into the army.
Anyway, Murdock and those people were offering a $500 bonus if you wrote up your report real quickly. There were four of us who went to Yap, and I did my part promptly, and the other guys did what they had to do, and in it went. We got our 500 bucks and I started writing my thesis. I had gotten myself involved with the kinship stuff. Well, I didn't find a problem, I didn't find a special topic. I wrote a long narrative called "Kinship and Village Organization of Yap." Kluckhohn didn't know beans about kinship, said he didn't know, said he didn't like it, so he said, "You send the material to Murdock, and if he approves, it's okay with me."
Now, in the meantime, I had thought that I had found double descent on Yap, and I made a big production of that in this preliminary report, and in the final report. And then a few years later, one of the first papers I did on Yap made the point that I thought that it was double descent. You see, previously it had been established by the German ethnographers that they were patrilineal.
Now, unfortunately, I hadn't read much of the literature before I went. I didn't really know very much. All I had before I went was a course in kinship from Murdock at Yale, which I had not understood, had not liked, had rejected wholeheartedly and completely. Exactly why I got into kinship on Yap, I ... I can probably figure something out, but I'm not at all clear on it. Leave it.
Murdock, at that point, wrote me a long—I think it was maybe a page, page-and-a-half—letter saying that the material I had presented was unlike anything he had ever seen in any ethnography in his life. It was essentially unbelievable. And he knew that if I'd only go back over my notes very, very carefully, I would be able to put together a coherent account.
RH: So, in other words, he would not approve your thesis.
DMS: He would not. But, he was not asked to approve or disapprove, he was just asked for comments. And Kluckhohn said, "When he makes his comments, we can tell whether he approves or doesn't approve."
Now, the stuff that Murdock boggled at was the kinship terminology. The double descent part he made no mention of. But the kinship terminology part was problematic because I insisted that the Yapese word, for example, for father was only applied to one particular person at one time. But if that person died, there was a kind of reservoir of people from which you could then pull another father out. So there was a kind of active and passive father, and an active father was a live person. He acted the role of father, and then this reservoir was full of other fathers, whom I, of course, ran down to be father's brother, father's younger brother, father's other brothers, patrilineage male ascending generation types.
Murdock didn't like that. Not only didn't he like that, but there were kinship terms for people that were never "used." He said, "It is just logically impossible to have a word which isn't used." You know, in a way, it makes sense.
But I said, "It's used in the sense that they keep them in a reservoir."
And he said, "Look, if it's not used, I don't believe it."
And he didn't believe it!
Well, I stuck to my guns pretty well. Kluckhohn said, "Well, what the hell! Kinship terminology—who gives a shit!" He accepted my thesis, Parsons accepted my thesis, Doug Oliver accepted my thesis, and that was it.
So off I went to the London School of Economics. Raymond Firth gave me a job there. I taught there for two years. But I went there on a senior Fulbright, 'cause that really paid enough money, including passage over and back—the amount of money it paid for the first year permitted me to stay two years.
When it was obvious that I had to leave England—Addy's father died, and everything else, so we had to come back. At that point I sat down and I wrote a letter to, I don't know, fifteen departments saying I had my degree from Harvard, I was coming back, I needed a job. And I got absolutely no replies except for one, from E. Adamson Hoebel, who wrote me a very sweet letter saying, "Dear David, we don't hire people who write us letters this way."
RH: Did you know the people before you wrote them?
DMS: No. I just took a list. But there was nothing. And of course, when I came back—the cliché is, I had a wife and child and no visible means of support.
RH: So Jonathan had been born.
DMS: Jonathan had been born in 1949, just before we went over to England. So I wrote ahead and said to Kluckhohn and Parsons that I was coming back, that I had no job. And I went up to Harvard and saw them. And they were very wonderful—they pieced together bits of money, and they pieced together this and that and the other thing, and they brought me to Harvard to teach for a year. I was a lecturer.
So I stayed there for a year on that money. Then the next year, they put together another piece of money for me. That was 1951-'52 and '52-'53. And there was '53-'54. I've probably got the dates screwed up. I was at Harvard from '51 to '55.
RH: Always on soft money?
DMS: Always on soft money, a lecturer, then assistant professor—I don't know. Then, the last year, I think Kroeber was there on a visiting appointment one of those years again. And by then I had written a paper on American kinship terminology. Now let me go back a minute, okay.
The Yap Kinship terminology stuff that Murdock wouldn't swallow, I was absolutely, profoundly, positively, unequivocably convinced that I was dead right on. You know, I didn't speak the language really eloquently. The Yapese when I left complained I couldn't recite poetry, I couldn't make up poetry. They allowed as how I showed the promise of a sort of a young boy. But that, given time, I'd be all right. But, you know, I didn't speak Yapese that fluently, but I spoke well enough to be able to be understood and to understand most of what was going on. But you know, everybody has that fantasy, even if they can't speak the language! But still ... so I was dead sure of that.
Moreover, I had not liked the way Murdock did kinship, and I hadn't liked the way Murdock did kinship terminology, and I have a feeling that there was, in my mind, a great misunderstanding. You see, the big division in kinship terminology was always between referential and vocative. And since vocative was address, and referential was "I talk to you about that person," it seemed absurd, and manifestly absurd, to me that that was all there was to it. You know, it depended on who I talked to you about. It depended on—even address, if I were addressing somebody in an offensive way, or addressing somebody in a friendly way, there'd be variations.
RH: When you say that this had always seemed absurd to you, were you going all the way back to Kroeber 1909, or had that not entered the picture yet?
DMS: It doesn't really enter the picture because I don't think I read Kroeber 1909 until after I came back from Yap.
But the first real screwup is that there is a technical meaning in the philosophy of language about referential meaning that does not simply confine it to "I talk to you about that." But rather, that this is the formal, proper name for this kind of an object. And I hadn't understood that. I had taken referential in the same—what would you call it?—at the same level as vocative, namely, as a form of address.
RH: But for a different context.
DMS: Exactly. And I had not quite gotten the idea that "referential" also meant the proper name for or the correct name for. I think referential doesn't just mean the correct name for, but it's very close. So I kept going through this kind of—what would you call it?—action or interaction definition of the situation, and so, coming back from Yap I report to Murdock, "This is what the people really did. These were the many different contexts in which they used the word. Hence, there is no single referential meaning, nor was there a single vocative meaning. But it depended on, you know, if your own real father was alive, you called your real father 'real father.' And then if he died, somebody stepped into his shoes." And all that. In fact, if I had really explored ritual contexts more, I would have found other, ritual contexts in which these kinship terms were used. But I didn't. So I think that that was part of it.
Excerpted from Schneider on Schneider by David M. Schneider, Richard Handler. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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