Volume 69 1960 > Volume 69, No. 3 > Action anthropology, by Ralph Piddington, p 199-214
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Professor Piddington, who is professor of Anthropology in the University of Auckland, discusses in this article several alternative approaches to applied anthropology. In particular he examines the principles of “action anthropology” developed by Sol Tax and his associates among the Fox Indians, and discusses their relevance to current problems of applied anthropology in the Pacific. This article is a revised and expanded version of a paper read to the Anthropology Section of the Ninth New Zealand Science Congress, Wellington, 1960.

ATTEMPTS HAVE BEEN made to apply anthropology to practical problems of human welfare in a variety of situations—consider for example the widely differing types of contribution which have been made by such anthropologists as G. G. Brown, John Embree and Edwin Smith. In this paper I shall confine myself to what is the most common and the most important type of situation—that in which a non-European group of alien culture or differing sub-culture is affected by administrative policies deriving from governments which form part of Euro-American culture. Such situations would include colonial administrations in Africa or Melanesia, the problems of the Maori of New Zealand and those of Amerindian groups such as the one which will be described later.

The relations between anthropologists and administrators in such situations have been ably summarised by Homer Barnett, who reaches an unpalatable but correct conclusion when he writes: “No matter how tactfully it is phrased, the truth is that anthropologists and administrators do not, on the whole, get along well together.” 1 He points out, moreover, that in spite of the numerous projects for collaboration between anthropologists and administrators, the number of anthropologists engaged in such projects at any one time has not been impressive. The effect of anthropology on administration has probably lain more in the dissemination among administrators of an understanding of broad general principles than in giving them concrete advice on ad hoc practical problems, though the contribution in this field has been far from negligible.

The relative failure of anthropology as an applied science, in the ordinary sense of the term, has been due to a variety of factors, among which the following may be mentioned: The expense of long and thorough investigations of particular situations without which the advice of the anthropologist (even if he were willing to give it) would - 200 usually be worthless; the consequent delay in taking decisions which to the administrator may be matters of immediate urgency; occasional examples of misguided judgment by anthropologists which attract more attention than they would in such fields as medicine or meteorology; the stereotype in the public mind of the anthropologist as a student of “bizarre, dead and primitive humanity”, 2 as a conservative antiquarian yearning for a romanticised picture of a primitive Golden Age; and the tendency of some administrators to regard the anthropologist's activities as a threat to their authority or positions either by bringing to light administrative errors or by usurping their functions.

But the most significant obstacle to effective collaboration is inherent in the present situation and can never, I believe, be wholly eliminated. I refer to the essential difference between anthropologists and administrators not in regard to what they think but in regard to what they say and do, in other words the roles which are assigned to them by our culture. It is largely a matter of social personality, in Radcliffe-Brown's sense, not one of individual personality involving merely subjective attitudes and evaluations. The anthropologist is a scientist and like all scientists he is expected to have a deep interest in his subject matter; this usually extends to some measure of personal affection for non-Europeans as individuals and esteem for at least some features of their ways of life. As holder of a university appointment or research grant the anthropologist is free to say publicly what he thinks—to criticise governments, administrators, missionaries and economic interests. He may regard this freedom of speech as a responsibility as well as a right and if so he is perfectly free to become a whipping boy for the Pacific Islands Monthly.

Contrast the position of the administrator. He is the servant of a government which, whether blatantly or not, is in the last analysis concerned with vote-catching. He must carry out a policy which has been conceived within the framework of Euro-American institutions and values and which is rarely inspired by a profound knowledge of alien cultures, let alone a sensitive appreciation of the significance of non-European values. And he must be forever conscious of a variety of individuals and pressure groups whom his actions may offend, ranging from the local trader or missionary through the public press of his own country to world-wide agencies of the United Nations. All these and many others must be placated so that, whatever he may think, he must act and speak (so far as he speaks at all) as though non-European values and aspirations were of secondary importance compared with those of the dominant European-type culture. The inherent differences between anthropologists and administrators, let me repeat, lie in the field of speech and action and not necessarily in that of belief and sympathy. Many administrators have as sensitive an appreciation of non-European cultures as the average anthropologist. And some anthropologists, particularly when they think of economic development and material progress, are sometimes as culture-bound in their own way as any bigoted missionary of the old school.

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The dilemma, then, is this: It is admitted by all but the most impractical of practical men that anthropology can be of value in dealing with problems of human welfare. Yet because of the institutional framework within which he must operate, the anthropologist can in fact make only minimal and sporadic contributions to the solution of such problems.

Owing largely to this dilemma, anthropologists are sharply divided among themselves as to what role they should play in human affairs. Some hold that they should retire to an ivory tower and divorce themselves from practical issues which they cannot effectively influence and which, some believe, distract attention from fundamental research problems. Still others hold that the anthropologist should concern himself with practical problems, but only as a fact-finder. He should aim to provide the administrator with facts relevant to the carrying out of a given policy, but should play no part in the formulation or criticism of policy itself. He should refrain from advocating decisions which are necessarily based largely on his own value judgments. A third school of thought holds that the anthropologist is the person most intimately aware of the human problems, both general and particular, which are involved. He should therefore shamelessly make pronouncements on administrative policies and should provide facts relevant to the carrying out of policies which he approves.

The first of these views, being essentially negative, can be dismissed as irrelevant to our problem. The second school of thought represents a point of view which is widely held in relation to other social sciences besides anthropology—what might be called the schizoid interpretation of the role of the social scientist. According to this view the social scientist should keep his value judgements rigidly distinct from his scientific work. When not on duty as a scientist he may indulge himself in the human luxury of value judgements, but when he is carrying out research or speaking of practical issues his mind should be as free from emotion or sentiment as that of a biologist studying newts. Actually, of course, all significant social science research involves value judgements if only in the selection of hypotheses for testing and methods of research. 3 The third view is attractive and would work well if non-European peoples were governed by a benevolent dictatorship of anthropologists. But because of the characteristics of administrative institutions, mentioned previously, it is not likely to achieve widespread effectiveness. The administrator may be willing to accept help in doing his job but he is not prepared to be told what his job is or ought to be.


A fourth approach to practical problems has been termed “action anthropology”. It was developed in the course of a project of Sol Tax and his associates of the University of Chicago among the Fox Indians at Tama, Iowa. The work at Tama started in 1948 as a field training situation for research workers, that is as a project in “pure” science.

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As the work advanced, the research workers became interested in the human poblems of the Fox and were attracted to them as people. From this arose a desire to help in the resolution of their practical difficulties, and the formulation of a policy and a set of techniques designed to achieve this.

The Fox (also called Mesquakie) came originally from Wisconsin. With the westward expansion of white population during the nineteenth century they moved to Illinois, Iowa, and subsequently to a reservation in Kansas. Being a woodland people, they did not like the treeless plains of Kansas where they felt their land rights to be insecure. By selling their horses they were able to purchase land near Tama in southern Iowa in 1854. Their present settlement of about 3,000 acres thus differs from the ordinary Indian reservation allocated by Government, though it has a school administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which also supplies minimal medical services. The soil of the settlement is poor and the working men commute to Tama and other neighbouring towns where they are largely employed in unskilled occupations. The standard of living is consequently low. At present there are about five to six hundred Fox living in the settlement.

The religious life of the Iowa Fox provides a paradigm of their adjustment to contemporary American civilization. Some are Christians but most of them, including nominal Christians, adhere either to a modified version of traditional Fox totemic religion or to one of two adjustment cults borrowed from other Indian groups. One of these is the widespread peyote cult. 4

The Fox, like many other Indians, want to make their religious life something essentially their own and essentially Indian. This feeling is reflected in a contemporary myth which tells of a Chippewa reincarnation of Christ: “About eighteen years ago the daughter of an old Chippewa couple, who lived off in the woods by themselves, became pregnant. The mother, knowing that her daughter had had no chance to see boys, accused the father of making the girl pregnant. When the baby was born, she raised an axe to kill the (as she thought) incestuous child. At this moment the child spoke, saying, ‘I was born to the whites across the sea and they killed me; are you going to kill me too?’. Raising His hands He showed her the stigmata on them.” This boy will soon become a religious leader of the Indians, as his Predecessor did for the white man. 5

The social logic behind the refusal simply to accept the white man's religion in its entirety is revealed in another item of contemporary Indian folklore: “Once there was an Indian who became a Christian. He became a very good Christian; he went to church, and he didn't smoke or drink, and he was good to everyone. He was a very good man. Then he died. First he went to the Indian hereafter, but they wouldn't take him because he was a Christian. Then he went to heaven, but they wouldn't let him in because he was an Indian. Then he went to Hell but they wouldn't admit him there either, because he was so good. So he came - 203 alive again, and he went to the Buffalo Dance and the other dances and he taught his children to do the same thing.”

The action anthropologists were, of course, keenly interested in race relations at Tama. Their interpretation of the socio-economic position of the Fox vis à vis the surrounding white population is summarised in a diagram prepared by Fred Gearing which is reproduced in modified form in Figure I.

FIG. 1

In this diagram, items in circles refer to behavioural phenomena, or inferences from them; items in squares refer to ideas and attitudes. Where the two overlap, the meaning is that the ideas and attitudes spring from the behavioural phenomena. Thus, starting at the left hand side of the circle, we have first a set of behavioural phenomena characterised as “Fox self-organization”, that is the system of drives and motives which go to make up the self of an individual in relation to the outside world. The training of white Americans, like that of most people in Western civilizations, tends to develop in each individual a conception of a perfected, ideal self consisting of a more or less clearly defined collection of virtues. According to our value system the life careers of all individuals are, or ought to be, marked by a constant effort to make the real self, reflected in actual behaviour, coincide with the ideal self—“above all else to thine own self be true . . .”. The Fox, however, do not seem to construct such an ideal self but to accept themselves as they are. They tend to be motivated by external rather than internal moral sanctions—the desire for public approval, the fear of condemnation, material considerations, magico-religious sanctions and others familiar to anthropologists.

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“The effects of this contrast are great. White individuals, if psychologically healthy and not self-consciously marginal, can engage in a sustained effort in a single direction over a long period of time, and—here is the crux—they can do so more or less independent of their group. In contrast, a Fox is guided almost exclusively by his moment-to-moment relations with others; he bridles under long-term, rigid work schedules; he becomes listless in situations requiring isolated selfdirection.” 6

The popular white interpretation of this situation is, understandably, that the Fox are unreliable and lazy. Laziness reflects a lack of what is regarded as one of the most essential virtues in a civilization geared to progress and material achievement. And for the whites the situation is aggravated by the educational and medical services provided for the Fox by Government. These are seen as an intolerable burden upon hard-working Iowan taxpayers. And—since an intolerable situation cannot continue indefinitely—there arises, as we move clockwise round the vicious circle, the belief that the Fox are temporary, that sooner or later they will abandon their distinctive characteristics and so cease to be a burden. This in turn leads to attempts to speed the “inevitable” assimilation, particularly by withdrawing the special educational facilities which the Fox enjoy and by urging them to take decisions which will bring them into line with white American ways and institutions. In fact, such decisions are not taken, for two reasons: Firstly because the Fox, like most cultural minorities, value their way of life and resent any threat, real or imagined, to it; and secondly because they fear failure.

“They fear failure because they have often failed. They have often failed because white society demands, in effect, that the Fox do things the white way. And there are basic structural reasons why the Fox simply cannot. The Fox can undertake the tasks—they run a pow pow each year which clears several thousands dollars and involves the coordinated efforts of at least 200 persons. But they must do it their own way.
“[The] basic structural reasons are the Fox authority system. In Fox social organization, authority roles are all but non-existent . . . The Fox cannot effectively choose a course of action except in the absence of all overt opposition.
“Fox tribal government under the Indian Reorganization Act is based on majority rule. Majority rule means that majorities exercise authority over minorities. It doesn't work. White men have gotten the Fox started on co-operative handicraft production and sale, based on majority rule. That didn't work. The pow pow organization has, on paper, a host of grand-sounding, authoritative positions such as president, treasurer, etc. But the organization actually functions the Fox way—by leisurely discussion until overt opposition disappears. That works.”

The Fox have failed, then, in white-initiated ventures because these have been organised along white lines and are not adapted to the Fox way of life. “Failing repeatedly and having mixed feelings about what - 205 the white man calls progress in the first place, the Fox have settled down to a grand strategy of holding the line. Having set on that course, they tend, through time, to become more of a financial burden. So the beginning of the vicious circle is rejoined.” 7

The main attempts which were made by the action anthropologists to break this vicious circle were twofold: Firstly, informal “adult education” work among whites through pamphlets, newspaper articles, personal contacts and correspondence with the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and secondly, measures intended to help the Fox to help themselves. The first was designed to enable the whites to appreciate the social realities underlying the difficulties of the Fox. It includes a simple charter for policy making: Any policy which is to be of value must work. It will not work unless it is accepted by the Fox. Therefore no policy which is not acceptable to the Fox can be of value.

This adumbrates the most significant distinction between action anthropology and applied anthropology as ordinarily conceived. It emphasises the right of Fox self-determination or, as Sol Tax bluntly puts it, the freedom to make mistakes. The Fox are faced with the need of making decisions relevant to their future. The function of the anthropologist is not to impose his own decisions, much less those of administrators and other whites. His function is to act as a catalyst, to help clarify issues for the Fox and to make available to them possibilities of choice which may not have occurred to them, or which might not have been available to them apart from the programme of action anthropology. In the light of such clarification, any decision reached by the Fox is by definition the right decision. Any lines of action, including those which appeal to the action anthropologist, must be rejected if they are not acceptable to the Fox. And this policy works in practice. Thus factionalism in Fox society has rendered abortive many attempts by whites to improve their condition. 8 Yet factionalism is hardly significant when the Fox are dealing with their own problems in their own ways. An example is the annual pow pow, previously mentioned, which is at the same time an exciting social occasion and an economic mechanism for extracting money from tourists. The organisation of this event is usually smooth and efficient, with few difficulties arising from factionalism; nor have the action anthropologists found factionalism a serious obstacle to their programme.

The effects of this programme are exemplified in the Tama crafts project. The anthropologists discovered a young Fox called Charles - 206 Pushetonequa who had high artistic ability. He had left the Fox community for a while and received some training in art. But he preferred to sacrifice his artistic aspirations in an alien community and to return to Tama to take up unskilled employment. The Fox, with the assistance of the action anthropologists, organized a small group which, with Indian style designs drawn by Pushetonequa, produces highly ornamental and original ceramic tiles and greeting cards. The project has been a commercial success and its effects have been threefold: Firstly it has added to the self-esteem of the Fox, has made them feel that they can operate effectively within the American economy, and has added substantially to their income. Secondly it has made the whites aware that the Fox are capable of taking practical steps to help themselves and so has modified the stereotype of them as a burden; last, but by no means least, it has provided Charles Pushetonequa with a career in which he can realise his artistic aspirations without losing his identity as a member of the Fox community.

The same sort of effects have been produced by the action anthropologists' project in higher education. Using funds contributed by various institutions and individuals, they arranged for a number of young Fox graduating from High School to proceed to institutions of higher education—something unprecedented in the history of the Fox. As had been anticipated, the success of this scheme has been moderate but significant, its failures being largely due to the difficulty experienced by the Fox in adapting themselves to the unfamiliar environment of American universities and colleges. But the academic successes of the scheme in its initial phases are not a reliable index of its value, for it has achieved two important collateral effects: Firstly it has inculcated in the minds of Fox youth the idea that higher education is a goal which should be sought. Practically all Fox graduating from High School since the inception of the scheme have taken part in it, and one of the few who did not do so was at pains to apologise to the field director because personal circumstances made it impossible for him to participate. Secondly the project is providing the Fox with a number of young people who, whether academically successful or not, will be in a position to act as mediators between them and the wider American culture which they so imperfectly understand. 9

Returning to the philosophical basis of action anthropology, it should be noted that it is not an “applied” science in the sense of being divorced from “pure” research. On the contrary, as we have seen, it emerged in a context of pure research and holds the pursuit of this to be an aspect of the work complementary to the practical programme. Neither is given priority, and they are not mutually incompatible. As - 207 increasing knowledge enlightens action, so the social changes produced in action provide new data on the nature of Fox society and shed new light on its fundamental characteristics through the process which has been called “learning through action”.

As a scientific discipline action anthropology is clinical rather than predictive. It does not aim to apply general anthropological principles directly to a body of observational data existing at any one time so as to produce a “blueprint” for the future of the Fox. Instead, by picking up a series of cues (in the light of general principles, of course) it allows concrete plans for action to emerge progressively from the ongoing processes of social change among the Fox.

An incident described by Sol Tax illustrates two important principles which have been mentioned in connection with action anthropology: Firstly that, far from being inconsistent with “pure” research, action anthropology from its very nature provides new opportunities in this field; 10 and secondly that the action anthropologist must be ready to abandon willingly and graciously any of his proposals for action which do not meet with ready acceptance by the community. As regards the first of these Tax writes: “I suppose that everything we learn in anthropology we learn from experience—things that happen—events. One special thing about action is that it greatly increases the frequency of events of which the anthropologist is aware. It is not, however, only the frequency that increases. The quality changes; the quality of the events for the anthropologist is quite different because they are important to him.”

The incident described by Tax occurred in the summer of 1956 when the Native American Church—an institutionalised pan-Indian development of the peyote cult—held its national convention at Tama. Sol Tax was invited to attend, and it occurred to him that it would be a good idea to make a documentary film of the whole proceedings, including the peyote ceremony itself. The object of this was to impress upon white people (some of whom contemplated restrictive action against the Church) that the convention was that of a legitimate church and that far from being an orgiastic ritual, the peyote ceremony is sober and highly sacred in character. After meeting many practical difficulties, Tax arranged for a moviemaker, sound truck, crew and supplies to assemble at Tama and in due course put his proposal to the convention. Some members spoke for it and some against. Their dilemma was this: It was clear to all that white objections to the Church would be minimised if it could be shown to be the expression of a genuine and serious religious faith and if peyote could be revealed as the sacrament they felt it to be. But there was a fatal objection to filming the ceremony itself. Not only would the ritual inevitably be disturbed by technical activities, but they simply could not envisage themselves engaged in the very personal and sacred activity of prayer - 208 in front of a camera. During the discussion the issue became plain to all, including the anthropologist: Whether to defile a single ritual to save the Church. Finally the president of the convention said that if others wished to have a film made he had no objections, but he begged to be excused from the ceremony. Tax continues:

“Of course this ended the movie, and the sense of the meeting was clear. It was over, and then the realization seemed to come over the Indians that I must be hurt; for all my good and unselfish intentions, and high hopes, and hard work my reward . . . was a clear rebuff. They had suffered through their dilemma, and had made the painful choice that should have relieved their tension. But they realized now that their peace with themselves had been bought at our expense, and they began speeches painfully to make amends.
“They were wrong, of course. As their decision was being made I understood that what I had proposed was akin to asking a man to deliver his wife to a lecherous creditor to save the family from ruin. Now, therefore, I arose to speak, and could with genuine sincerity apologize for having brought so painful an issue to them. I had meant to be a friend, but had hurt them. I agreed with their decision. I would be a poor friend indeed if I resented their deciding an issue for their own good.
“Relief was great; the euphoria was instantly restored; and it was evident then and in the days that followed that they were more genuinely grateful to me than any Indians have ever been to me for any material or moral help, and felt closer rapport with me.” 11

The approach to practical problems embodied in action anthropology is undoubtedly attractive to most anthropologists, resolving as it does many of the ethical and scientific problems with which they are faced. But there are circumstances which must for many years limit its general application. In the first place it calls for complete independence from Government control, and therefore from Government finance. Secondly, specific kinds of action (such as the higher education project) may call for funds on a scale not usually available to the anthropologist. Thirdly, as originally conceived, it might not apply in communities, for example some groups of Australian aborigines, where the original culture has almost completely disintegrated and where “community goals” might be well-nigh impossible to define. The fact that the Fox have successfully maintained their “Foxness” accounts in large measure for the success of the Chicago project among them. Fourthly, as Sol Tax admits, action anthropology would be difficult to apply in situations where there exists a fundamental clash between the economic interests of different ethnic groups—in Kenya, for example. And, finally, it is difficult to see how it could be consistently applied in situations where the indigenous culture includes features which are morally repugnant to Euro-American standards, such as cannibalism, infanticide or human sacrifice. It should however be pointed out that such instances are comparatively rare today.

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The limitations as well as the potentialities of action anthropology, as outlined in the preceding paragraphs, must be borne in mind when we consider its application in the Pacific area. It is unlikely that any formal programme, comparable with that carried out at Tama, will be possible in this part of the world in the immediate future. Yet the general principles underlying action anthropology should constantly be stressed because they have potential applications in particular situations.

Such a situation arose when Raymond Firth, accompanied by his associate James Spillius, revisited Tikopia in 1952. The object of the visit was to restudy the community in order to assess the changes which had occurred since Firth carried out his original field work in 1928-9. But the anthropologists found themselves faced with a critical situation which called for action going beyond the limited field of pure research. A disastrous hurricane and drought had drastically reduced food supplies and finally produced famine conditions. In 1928-9 Firth had refrained from advising the Tikopia on their practical problems, which were in no way acute at that time. But in 1952

“the hurricane and threat of famine on the one hand and our possession of radio-telephonic communication on the other, made it almost impossible for us to hold aloof from the decisions of the Tikopia on practical problems. We reported to the Government on the situation, as it developed. We reported the intentions of the Government and transmitted the questions of Government to the Tikopia. This involved two things: it meant deciding on the most effective channel of communication and reply, in particular deciding on what subjects Tikopia should be asked for views to be transmitted to Government. It also meant assisting the Tikopia to put their point of view in terms most easily understood by Government. There was also a further development. When the Government decided to send relief supplies of food, they also decided that in the absence of a fully established local administrative system, we must supervise the distribution. This involved an active intervention in Tikopia affairs, which needs no justification by ordinary humanitarian standards, and is fully defensible on purely scientific grounds inasmuch as, without it, the continuance of our work would have been impossible. Such intervention was continued and extended by Spillius after I left, when the lessening of public order through widespread theft of food supplies seemed for a while to have imperilled the stability of Tikopia society, and when the Tikopia eagerly sought guidance on Government policy and actions. But for the most part our role was that of prime consultants or social catalysts. We helped the Tikopia to explore the possibilities of a situation and decide for themselves what was best to be done in the light of the fuller knowledge we could give them. In the last resort, as Spillius has pointed out, even when the food situation was most desperate, and social order seemed most in danger, it was the Tikopia who eventually decided what should be done and carried out their decisions.” 12

The last sentence underlines the vital distinction between the principles underlying action anthropology and those of applied anthro- - 210 pology as ordinarily understood. The latter could have been employed quite easily and effectively in the Tikopia situation, in fact it is probable that no anthropologist has ever been in a better position than was Firth to draw up a “blueprint” for action. He was thoroughly familiar with the socio-economic system of the Tikopia, which had not changed basically since 1929. He could easily have tried to persuade them what to do, and have influenced the Government to implement his policy by administrative action. It is possible that, in terms of material welfare, this might have produced even more beneficial results than were actually attained. But it is certain that relations with the Tikopia would not have been so satisfactory; that they might well have been driven to resist suggestions because these were put in mandatory form and were backed by the authority of Government; and that the principle of self-determination would have been violated by quasi-dictatorial methods, however well-intentioned and potentially beneficial.

Firth repudiates the suggestion that the work done in connection with the practical problems of the Tikopia amounted to a programme in action anthropology. 13 And, since the project was not planned and executed with the dual and complementary goals of learning and action in mind, he is correct in doing so. But the results achieved by Firth and Spillius illustrate how, under appropriate circumstances, the principles of action anthropology can fruitfully be employed to promote the human welfare of a community without doing violence to their values and aspirations. 14

It must be emphasised, however, that the situation on Tikopia was singularly propitious for the kind of work done. The community was small and closely integrated; contacts with Europeans and with the external world were minimal; the stringency of the needs of the Tikopia under famine conditions made them receptive to suggestions which might mitigate their sufferings and the urgency of the situation was not conducive to seemingly interminable discussion and procrastination; finally, and most important of all, the indigenous culture was still vigorous enough to allow new adaptations to emerge from it by the process which I have called emergent development. 15 In highly detribalised parts of the Pacific (Rarotonga, for example) this would not be true. But it must be remembered that imponderable though significant phases of indigenous culture (such as implicit values and patterns of inter-personal relationships) have a way of surviving unnoticed by European observers who are apt to be over-impressed by such obvious processes of acculturation as the adoption of European dress and other artefacts, the introduction of a money economy and religious conversion. In Samoa, again, though much of the indigenous culture still flourishes, the problems are vastly more complex than in Tikopia. But it can safely be predicted that, under complete political - 211 independence, action anthropology is the only kind of anthropology with a practical orientation which has any chance of achieving results in Samoa.

In Fiji the problems are also complex and are rendered more difficult by the numerical predominance of Indians over Fijians. But here too the action anthropologist may have something to say. He explicitly repudiates the idea of social blueprints, and by implication reserves the right to ask questions about the blueprints of others. In Fiji, such questions badly need asking.

Consider, for example, the most recent, most comprehensive and most scholarly summary yet published on the economic problems of the Fijian people. 16 In offering certain criticisms of sections of this report, we must at the outset draw attention to its terms of reference: “I was not asked to describe the social organisation of the Fijians; I was asked ‘to consider how far it may be a limiting factor in their economic activity’.” 17 The author's terms of reference might quite as well have read: “To consider how far actual and potential lines of economic development threaten to deprive Fijians of the non-material satisfactions inherent in their traditional social organisation”. 18 This would have been a much more difficult task and would have taken infinitely longer to accomplish. But if carried out with the scientific thoroughness and objectivity shown by Spate, it would almost certainly have led to a different analysis of the situation, particularly as regards the sections of Chapter II dealing with rank and kinship. As regards the former, Spate writes as though the major pristine functions of chieftainship (leadership in war and the settlement of land disputes) were the only ones; and as they are no longer discharged, he implies that the rank system is obsolete. Yet practically any system which is based on ascribed status has at least two advantages over one based on achieved status (though these advantages may, of course, be outweighed by disadvantages) : Firstly a form of psychological security; psychologically, it is probably more healthy to believe that one is a serf once and for all than to be constantly worried as to whether one is effectively keeping up with the Joneses. 19 Secondly, a hereditary system usually provides educational mechanisms which tend to produce in those destined to succeed both the skills and the moral sentiments appropriate to leadership. Thus we read of an eminently successful economic venture organised by a traditional mataqali leader whose three sons “are already groomed for their allotted roles”. 20 In particular cases such grooming may or may not be effective; but if it is, it is likely to produce more effective leadership than that of an upward mobile person of lower status.

Again, in considering the traditional Fijian kinship organisation, Spate points out that this did take care of the sick, the old, and the - 212 orphaned though today it cannot provide such benefits as proper medical care and higher education. But do such purely utilitarian prestations exhaust the satisfactions provided by non-European kinship systems? Most anthropologists would answer in the negative. It is not merely a matter of material advantages provided and practical services rendered. An important point is how, by whom, and in what spirit this is done, of the essentially personal character of kinship prestations in closely knit kinship systems. Thus in modern society, with its degenerate 21 kinship organisation, many old people are relegated to geriatric wards in hospitals not because they need medical care but because nobody is interested in looking after them. No doubt they have in hospital, in material terms, treatment as good as or better than they would receive from loving relatives. But clearly this does not tell the whole story.

The balance sheet of satisfactions and frustrations—material, social and psychological—which kinship produces is of course a matter for empirical investigation in any given society. But such investigation cannot be based merely on verbal statements in brief interviews carried out through an interpreter but must include a thorough study of kinship behaviour and attitudes. Spate includes kinship among the “burden of obligations” of which Fijians complain. Presumably informants were speaking of their own obligations. They might have been asked whether, when exercising their rights, they thought of themselves as imposing a burden on others. In any social system, individuals are apt to take different views of a given prestation according to whether they are discharging an obligation or claiming a right.

Spate's overall picture of the tensions, anxieties and conflicts existing in modern Fijian society is convincing and illuminating. But these phenomena exist in all underdeveloped non-European societies which value features of their traditional culture yet long for the material benefits and social advantages of more fortunate segments of the population. There are certainly plenty of them at Tama. 22 They are a necessary and painful part of the process of emergent development whereby such peoples modify, more or less successfully, their traditional ways to meet new material conditions. Adherence to such ways is not merely a matter of obstinate, irrational conservatism. It results from the very real satisfactions which they provide. To imply, as Spate does, that material advancement is the pre-eminently significant criterion by which social welfare should be measured is to beg the question. But that is the fault of the Fijian Government for begging it in the first place.

There is, then, plenty of room for action anthropology in Fiji to help the Fijian people to make up their minds as to how their problems should be solved, rather than accepting prefabricated answers in terms of material advancement alone. But, so far as the Pacific is concerned, it is probably New Zealand which offers the most promising field, - 213 because well-informed Maori leaders already see fairly clearly the main outlines of the problems involved and are solving them neither by blind adherence to tradition nor by passive acquiescence in total assimilation to the Pakeha way of life. This has led to the development of a number of new institutions which are partly derived from modified forms of traditional Maori culture and partly from European practices and beliefs, likewise modified. 23 This happy, though by no means Utopian, state of affairs has been produced largely by the efforts of people whom Schwimmer calls “mediators”, belonging to both ethnic groups. 24 The reader will at once perceive certain similarities between Schwimmer's mediators and action anthropologists. Yet there are also important differences. The motive of pure research is not an essential feature of the mediator's work. “He may be a teacher, clergyman, doctor, public servant or social worker or simply a special person to whom the community has become attached.” 25 Persons in each of the categories specified have a particular goal in relation to members of the community, who must be taught, evangelised, cured and so on. This means that most mediators necessarily enter the community with certain pre-conceived (though not necessarily incorrect) ideas as to what is good for it; the mediator “has to win acceptance first for himself, then for his ideas” though “the effect of his work is that the community of its own free will accepts certain innovations which are already features of the dominant culture”. 26 This sounds like the “blueprint” idea of applied anthropology as ordinarily understood, the idea of imposing on the community, however gently and solicitously, a programme of action which is not primarily of its own making. This is not to denigrate the work of mediators but merely to suggest that, even though they may have no anthropological training, they might well bear in mind the more objective, more passive, approach of action anthropology.

In the application of action anthropology in New Zealand and in the Pacific generally there are of course many difficulties, some of which have been mentioned at the end of Section 2. But these difficulties should not blind us to the very real value and practical importance of the principles on which action anthropology is founded. In most cases these principles can be only imperfectly realised in practice. But they provide a valuable orientation for all anthropologists, administrators and others concerned with the rights and aspirations of ethnic groups whom historical events have placed in a culturally subordinate position.

  • BARNETT, H. G., 1956. Anthropology in Administration. Evanston and New York, Row, Peterson and Company.
  • EGGAN, F. (Ed.), 1955. Social Anthropology of North American Tribes. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • FIRTH, R., 1959. Social Change in Tikopia. London, George Allen and Unwin.
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  • GARIGUE, P., 1956. “French Canadian Kinship and Urban Life.” American Anthropologist, 58:1090-1101.
  • — — 1958. Les Sciences Sociales dans le Monde Contemporain. Université de Montréal.
  • GEARING, F., NETTING, Robert McC., and PEATTIE, L. R., 1960. Documentary History of the Fox Project: Directed by Sol Tax. Chicago, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago.
  • METGE, A. J., 1959. Maori Society Today (mimeographed). Auckland, Adult Education Centre, University of Auckland.
  • — — 1960. “Maori Komiti in Action in New Zealand's Far North.” MS. to be published in a symposium on capital, savings and credit in peasant societies, Ed. Raymond Firth.
  • PIDDINGTON, R., 1957. An Introduction to Social Anthropology, Vol. II. Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd.
  • SCHWIMMER, E. G., 1958. “The Mediator.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 67:335-351.
  • SPATE, O. H. K., 1959. The Fijian People: Economic Problems and Prospects. Suva, Fiji, Government Press.
  • SPILLIUS, J., 1957. “Natural Disaster and Political Crisis in a Polynesian Society: An Exploration of Operational Research.” Human Relations, 10:3-27 and 113-125.
1   Barnett 1956:49.
2   Barnett 1956:56.
3   Garigue 1958:17.
4   Sol Tax in Eggan 1955:262-268.
5   Gearing, Netting and Peattie 1960:56-57.
6   Gearing in Gearing, Netting and Peattie 1960:295-297.
7   Gearing loc. cit.
8   For example: “In 1944 the Government drafted an ambitious, laudable ten-year improvement plan for the Fox settlement. They proposed paving the roads, doubling the land area, establishing a retail store, and raising the economic level generally by practicable means. These were projects that almost all the Fox would like to see in effect. The Government embarked upon a mild promotion campaign, but only with Tribal Council members. The Council voted it down. For the Council, with the support of only a section of the community, is afraid to act and is virtually immobilized. And, of course, acceptance by the Council without community support would not be enough for implementation of such an undertaking as the Government put forward” (Furey in Gearing, Netting and Peattie 1960:292).
9   New Zealand readers may note here an interesting, though by no means exact, parallel with the Maori situation. Young Maoris are increasingly achieving success in secondary and higher education. But there is a regrettable tendency in both academic and official circles to evaluate this success in purely scholastic terms. As everyone familiar with the careers of Maori students knows, their actual and potential social contribution to progressive development in New Zealand society is only very inadequately measured by examinations passed and degrees conferred.
10   cf. Spillius 1957:119-121. Spillius employs the term “operational research” for what corresponds broadly to action anthropology. The appropriateness of the term chosen by Spillius might perhaps be questioned since, according to common usage, all research is operational.
11  Tax in Gearing, Netting and Peattie 1960:304-306.
12   Firth 1959:27; italics ours.
13   Firth 1959:28.
14   The later phases of the Tikopia project (after Firth left the island) illustrate very well some of the difficulties with which the action anthropologist may be faced (Spillius 1957).
15   Piddington 1957: Chapter XIX.
16   Spate 1959.
17   Spate 1959:101.
18   Other questions should of course be asked as well.
19   This of course does not imply that these two alternatives represent the only possibilities in the organisation of a status system.
20   Spate 1959:86.
21  This epithet does not apply to all kinship systems in modern societies. That of French Canada, for example, has preserved to a remarkable degree its function of providing material and psychological security for the individual (Garigue 1956).
22   Furey in Gearing, Netting and Peattie 1960:292-293.
23   Metge 1959 and 1960.
24   Schwimmer 1958.
25   Schwimmer 1958:335.
26   Schwimmer 1958:335, 337.