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Marissa Lingen

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What year is this again? [Mar. 26th, 2011|11:39 am]
Marissa Lingen
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I have just quit reading a Native American history published in 2010, because in the first five pages, it directly equated civilization with white people at least five times and referred to the First Nations people in question as "primitive" at least twice.

And it's not that I believe all cultures are equally civilized. But when you're making the Europeans/civilized, Indians/not civilized assumption, that has gone so badly wrong in so many cases in the past that I feel it needs some pretty thorough justifying in the specific case you're discussing, or I am likely to wonder what else you have a cranial-anal interface issue with, and I will stop reading your book.

Seriously. It is 2011 now. No more referring to Native American women as squaws. No more assumptions that anybody whose ancestors are not recently European must be dirty savages. No. More.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: auriaephiala
2011-03-26 05:31 pm (UTC)
"Primitive" is such a loaded word when used to refer to societies -- and so unclear as well -- that I think it should just be dropped completely.

You could refer to a society's level of technology, for example, or what type of political organizations it has, or the level of hierarchy or equality among classes and between genders, or how it treats the disabled or children or the elderly -- and base that on actual observation.

But that would require work and analysis. rather than just making an overarching value judgment like "primitive".
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2011-03-26 05:38 pm (UTC)
As well as I can recall, (I finished as an undergraduate over 30 years ago), among anthropologists, "civilization" is a term of art, and is a descriptor for human cultures that have become urbanized. Therefore, the Aztecs, however unsettling their religious practices and however limited their metal-working, were a civilized society. So were the Incas and the Mayas and the folks at Cahokia. The Germans Tacitus wrote about, the Mohawk confederation and the various groups of Sioux were not. I realize that not all the social sciences share term definitions, but I've found the relatively moral-value neutral anthropological usage helpful. "Civilization" /= "nice people Justlikeus"; "civilization" = "people who have a society based around urban areas". This book sounds like the sort of thing Francis Parkman committed, except that in Parkman's time it was imperative to justify the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in case anyone decided it might be time to stop killing, robbing, and otherwise abusing the Indians. Also, Parkman died over a hundred years ago and historiography has, as it were, moved on.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2011-03-26 05:44 pm (UTC)
Also, I have examined a Clovis point, and while it is a stone tool, it cannot, in the course of lithic tool design, be considered primitive. The Cahokia mounds took some thought as well.
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[User Picture]From: hbevert
2011-03-29 07:09 pm (UTC)
I went to the Cahokia mounds last weekend. Reading about them ahead of time, I found out that they are not just large grassy hills (what they look like now) but that they were constructed in layers of different types of earth for a good balance of water drainage and moisture retention so they would keep their shape well over time.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-26 05:55 pm (UTC)
Do you have a sense of why anthropologists choose to use a loaded term in this way rather than using "urbanized"? Do they use "urbanized" for something different? Is is that they want the noun civilization and then the other forms of the word follow? I know that technical usage often has a very good internal reason that is opaque from outside the field, so I don't want to assume that there isn't a reason just because I don't know it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-26 06:02 pm (UTC)
Sure, that makes sense.

In popular usage, of course, one is still stuck with the rest of the baggage it's acquired over centuries.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-26 06:29 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I don't think "should they change because common usage has altered the meaning?" is a question with one answer for every example where common usage has done so. It's a problem I encountered a lot in my physics training: many of the terms we use in physics have fairly specific technical meanings that are not quite the same as common usage, and there would be no easy way to replace them all with words that had less baggage. And if there was, things would sound even more impenetrably "jargony"--people get confused about "energy" and "uncertainty," but they also get confused when a sentence has too many instances of "quark" and "baryon." It's no wonder it's hard to find writers who can translate well between specialists and the general population.

In this case, I have no problem with anthropologists using "civilization" in that value-neutral way (or hypothetically value-neutral--I expect some anthropologists approve more of cities than others), as long as anyone who attempts to use it that way in popular discourse flags their usage appropriately so as not to get themselves confused with racist jerks.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2011-03-26 09:36 pm (UTC)
And how, especially since the anthropologists only got to it after it had centuries of the value-weighted usage. The same root gives concepts like "civility" (the manners of the people who live in cities), "civic" as in civic virtues, civic spirit, and so on. Of course, when the Romans and the Greeks (whose word for city, "polis", gives us such terms as "polite" and "politic" and "politics") were trying to describe were the habits and attitudes one needed to cope successfully with urban (see also"urbane") as opposed to rural or pastoral life. Since they were city people, however much they might have talked up the virtuous habits of the small farmer, they did mean "people a lot like us", who had worked out how to live in large groups, with things like formal law codes and taking your issues with the neighbors to law, instead of having a feud over it, and probably also with a state religious cult instead of, or in addition to, personal devotions, a state-based military system instead of private war-bands, and other little details as well. While I personally find the anthropological usage helpful in clarifying my thoughts, I suspect that words like "civilized" and "civilization" are too weighed down with baggage to be employed when less burdened terms are available. I am also reminded of Gandhi's response to the person who asked what he thought of Christian civilization.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-03-26 06:04 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's definitely one where usage has diverged! My farm cousins would correct you rather firmly if you called them pagans, and my pagan friends would be completely baffled if you thought they were all from rural areas. That's a fun one.
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From: swan_tower
2011-03-26 06:42 pm (UTC)
By the time I got into anthropology, "civilized" was no longer the standard term. We instead talk about small-scale societies, state-level societies, etc. Terms that refer to the degree of socio-political organization, rather than some kind of implied moral judgment.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2011-03-26 09:12 pm (UTC)
I'd wondered if there had been a push to move to more specific (and less value-suggestive) language. I can see why there would be; by the time anthropologists got down to business, the term had already been employed in a value-derived sense since the day of the Romans.
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From: orbitalmechanic
2011-03-26 10:44 pm (UTC)
Seriously. It is 2011 now.

Okay, but that book was probably composed back in 2008!
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