Volume 60 1951 > Volume 60, No. 2 + 3 > Synchronic and diachronic dimensions in the study of Polynesian cultures, by Ralph Piddington, p 108-121
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IN opening this series of meetings of our Section, I think it only appropriate that I should pay some tribute to those who have played a major part in the development of anthropological science in and from New Zealand. It is noteworthy that the Dominion has played a part in the development of our science out of all proportion to its population. To demonstrate this it is sufficient to mention the names of Firth, Fortune, Keesing, Sutherland, Buck and Beaglehole. But our special tribute today should be reserved for one who has for many years pioneered the teaching of the science in New Zealand itself, our colleague Dr. H. D. Skinner. Thanks largely to his initiative and vision, the teaching of anthropology has been inaugurated at two colleges, and I hope that the time is not far distant when the other Colleges will follow the lead of Otago and Auckland, and of an increasing number of universities in Great Britain and the United States, by giving recognition to the science of anthropology as a necessary subject in the curriculum of a modern university. When that day comes, future generations of New Zealand anthropologists will remember with respect and affection the pioneering work of Dr. Skinner.

Most of our programme is devoted to papers on particular problems. For my own contribution I have chosen a topic of a more general kind, because I feel that our science needs from time to time a sort of theoretical stock-taking. Theory, I would emphasize, does not consist of sterile disputation about terms. Theory is essentially a charter for research, a formulation of problems for investigation, a review of techniques and above all a statement of criteria and relevance. In the progress of any science, - 109 research workers are constantly guided by a theoretical equipment which defines which types of observation are relevant to scientific enquiry and which are irrelevant.

Anthropological theory, then, is essentially a charter for the study of those communities which are our concern, and we can gain some insight into the nature of our problems from a development in another field. I refer to Bridgman's operational theory, which was first developed in the science of physics, but has in my view implications of the utmost importance in our own field of enquiry.

The central thesis of Bridgman's argument is that the concepts of science, and therefore the subject matter of any science, must be defined not in terms of qualities, but of the operations carried out in scientific research. He illustrates this with special reference to the concept of length. 2 In measuring the length of an object of common experience, such as a house, the operations are fairly simple. A measuring rod is placed in various positions along the object, and the length of the object is determined by the number of such placements. Precautions must be taken to ensure against possible errors arising from variations in the temperature of the rod or gravitational or electrical distortion. When we turn to the measurement of extra-terrestrial lengths in astronomy, new factors become important. Tactual operations are necessarily replaced by visual ones, and the factors of time and velocity, which can be ignored in ordinary terrestrial measurements, make necessary the employment of different mathematical concepts. At the other extreme, measurements of very small distances imply other modification of the operations employed in ordinary measurements. Particles of mechanical dirt, films of moisture and of absorbed gas must successively be taken into account as we measure smaller and smaller magnitudes, while ultimately we find that the gauges employed are atomic in structure and themselves have no definite boundaries and therefore no definite length.

By thus stating the operations carried out in measurements of length we define the concept, or rather the series of concepts, implied by the term.

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Bridgman's operational theory is of profound importance for social anthropology and for the social sciences in general. For example it simplifies enormously the classic problem of the differentiation of the social sciences—such as psychology, sociology and social anthropology—from each other. They all claim to study “human behaviour” and attempts are made to define the differences between them by epistemological hair-splitting over such issues as “the individual versus society” or “primitive versus civilized societies.” From the operational point of view the problem hardly exists. Just as the concept of “length” is a different one (i.e., corresponds to a different set of operations) for the astronomer, the surveyor and the atomic physicist, so “human behaviour” is a different thing for the various social sciences according to the different operations which they employ.

It will be seen that the term “operation” as employed by Bridgman implies not merely certain bodily activities involved, for example, in measurement, but also a body of theoretical knowledge about the nature of physical reality. This may be termed the conceptual framework of physical science. In the same way each of the social sciences possesses a body of technical operations related to a conceptual framework, the latter possessing in general a greater relative importance than is the case in the physical sciences.

In terms of the above scientific criteria, what are the operations which modern anthropologists employ in the study of cultures such as those of Polynesia? They are essentially operations carried out by the research worker in the field. 3 They form a synchronic study, that is the direct observation of a living human community at a given point of time or, what amounts to the same thing in a relatively - 111 static society, over a relatively short period of time during which no significant cultural change takes place.

The physical operations of the field anthropologist, such as the collection of genealogies, the compilation of maps, plans and diagrams, the techniques of observation and interviewing, linguistic recordings and the taking of photographs, need not be detailed here. What is much more important is the conceptual framework which provides the anthropologist with criteria of relevance. In the field the ethnographer sees human beings doing things. Over a period of, say, twelve months' residence in a native community there are vast numbers of observations which he might make. Of these, some are relevant and other are not. The scientific ethnographer therefore formulates a series of abstractions which enable him to bring order into the apparent hodgepodge of crude observations. I propose to call these abstractions the dimensions of a synchronic study. The term is not altogether satisfactory, but various alternatives are open to objection. The term “aspects” already has a specific meaning in the theoretical system of Malinowski, while “categories” would be misleading since the term implies mutual exclusion rather than merely different ways in which the same reality may be viewed. This is of more than merely verbal importance, since no one of the dimensions can be considered without reference to others. It will clarify what I mean by the term “dimensions” if, in listing them, I cite as examples field monographs which illustrate the operations by which they are studied. Unfortunately it is not always possible to provide such examples from Polynesian sources.

Firstly there is the dimension of needs. All cultures are adaptative mechanisms for the satisfaction of human needs, biological and social. 4 Examples of anthropological studies in which culture is considered from the point of view of biological needs are Malinowski, The Sexual Life of Savages, and Richards, Hunger and Work in a Savage Tribe. The social needs of man are more difficult to define. Whether and in what sense they are in the last analysis biological is - 112 a problem which cannot be considered here 5 What must be pointed out is that one way of viewing a culture is from the point of view of the way in which it provides an ordered social system, as exemplified in Hogbin, Law and Order in Polynesia, which gives an account of the mechanisms of social control operative in Ontong Java.

Secondly there is the dimension of institutions, 6 or organized systems of human activity. Firth, The Work of the Gods in Tikopia, is an example of this approach. In it we are given a description of a limited system of human activity, but one which is related to the fuller description of Tikopia culture provided in Professor Firth's other works.

Thirdly there is the dimension of aspects. Any one of the aspects of culture—economic, political, magi co-religious, normative and so on—may form the theme of an ethnographic account. Firth, Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori may be cited as an example of a description of the economic aspect of a Polynesian culture.

Fourthly there is the dimension of local variation. Within any homogeneous cultural area it is possible to study local variations on the basic pattern, as Professor Radcliffe-Brown did in his classic study of Australian kinship systems in relation to marriage rules. 7 The opportunities which the Polynesian field offers for such studies has been largely neglected, particularly in New Zealand. Many years ago Dr. Skinner suggested a division of New Zealand (including the Chatham Islands) into a series of “culture areas.” 8 Though his classification was based largely on material culture, he gave many leads toward wider studies, particularly in his emphasis on the relation of American culture areas to types of food supply and indications of a similar correspondence in New Zealand between culture areas and botanical areas. 9 Unfortunately these leads have not received the attention which they deserve. And though Professor - 113 Firth 10 deals briefly with communication routes in relation to natural resources, the study of regional variations in Maori culture is practically an unexplored field in which anthropologists and archaeologists might well cooperate.

To the above dimensions two others might perhaps be added. The dimension of social structure upon which Professor Radcliffe-Brown lays primary emphasis, 11 and the dimension of values or orientations which occupies a prominent place in the work of Professor Clyde Kluckholn and others interested in the problems of culture and personality. Whether we regard these as separate dimensions or include them as aspects of culture is not important, provided we recognize their significance. We are not concerned in quibbling about words. We are interested in the operations employed to solve concrete problems and on these there is far more agreement among anthropologists than one might infer from theoretical controversies.

A common feature of all the studies mentioned is that they lay emphasis upon interrelationships in the study of culture. Though each of the monographs lays primary emphasis on one of the dimensions of cultural reality, they all recognize its relationship to others. A study of an institution considers it in all its relevant aspects; the review of an aspect of culture takes into account other aspects as well as the institutions in which it is manifest; studies of local variations do not deal merely with individual items of culture, but with variations in their interrelationship over a given geographical area. These kinds of interrelationship constitute the essential facts of our science, for in any scientific study a fact is not something immediately apparent to the senses. The table before me is not for the atomic physicist something which can be seen, touched or measured, neither should it be for the anthropologist. Its physical reality lies in a complex and abstract set of relationships between atomic particles. Its anthropological reality lies in its relationship to the educational institution in which it exists, and therefore in its function as part of the educational aspect of our culture. This function would have to be - 114 defined in terms of the personnel of this College, of the educational needs of our community, and of the whole system of knowledge and belief connected with the institution concerned. The anthropologist, like any other scientist, has a definite conception of the reality of his subject matter. The reality of any item of culture, material or otherwise, lies in its relationship to the totality of the culture of which it forms a part.

In the past we have been led to neglect this principle largely as a result of the influence of the American conception of the culture “trait,” the conception that culture can be broken down into a series of discrete particles which are capable of description apart from the structure and functioning of the organic whole of which they are parts. This approach bears the same relation to the scientific one as the technique of the butcher does to that of the anatomist. The culture trait does not exist for the scientific anthropologist. Paradoxically, his view of culture is akin to the Irishman's definition of a net as “a number of holes tied together with a piece of string.” Culture traits are like the holes, having no existence apart from the relationships which connect them with each other.

I have chosen to illustrate my thesis from material culture, because it is here that the importance of interrelationships has been ignored to a greater extent than in any other field. One reason for this is that the field worker cannot take such traits as cross-cousin marriage or totemic increase ritual away with him when he leaves the field. He cannot put them in a glass case and concentrate on them so that they become objects of interest in themselves to the neglect of their cultural reality. “Material culture,” though it is a useful label for one of the many aspects of our study, is in itself a contradiction in terms since culture scientifically viewed consists of abstract and therefore immaterial relationships.

The above criticisms do not apply to everything which has been written about material culture. For example Sir Peter Buck is a technologist, but can never forget that he is also a Polynesian. Particularly in his studies of Samoan material culture and of Maori clothing, we find that what would otherwise be a dreary catalogue of unrelated technical - 115 processes is constantly enlivened and made real by flashes of insight into the cultural reality of the artifacts concerned.

It is outside the Polynesian field that we find the most adequate treatment of an element of material culture. I refer to Malinowski's study of the Trobriand bwayma (storehouse). In his discussion of this subject, Malinowski gives a full description of the building and structure of a bwayma 12 but the account of the material form of the building is related to his total account of Trobriand agriculture; to the importance of agriculture as the primary economic pursuit of the Trobrianders; to their specific type of kinship involving the system of urigubu exchanges; to the system of rank reflected in the size, pre-eminent position and specific structure of the chief's bwayma, and to the system of cultural values which are connected with Trobriand gardening and which are embodied in such emotionally significant terms as tokwaybagula, malia, and molu. Only when considered in this way can objects of material culture become legitimate subjects for anthropological study.

So far I have been discussing synchronic studies only. But cultures change, slowly or fast. Theoretically we can extend our study of the dimensions which I have mentioned back into the past to produce what is called a diachronic study. I prefer this to the more common term “historical” because the latter term is often used very loosely in anthropology. By using the terms “synchronic” and “diachronic” we emphasize the fact that the two types of studies are, or ought to be, fundamentally of the same kind and involve the same types of operations in which the definition of interrelationships is the fundamental task.

I may digress for a moment to point out that the sort of theoretical approach which I have put forward bears a close relation to recent developments in prehistory. Twenty or thirty years ago, the teaching of prehistoric archaeology consisted of a recital of technological processes and types of artifacts described in terms of their geographical distribution and sequence in time. Little thought was given to the human beings who made, used and valued the artifacts concerned. More recently, thanks largely to the work of Professor Gordon Childe, a new conception akin to that of - 116 the social anthropologist has increasingly influenced archaeological studies. They seek to recreate as far as possible the totality of the cultures and sequences of cultures from their material remains. Such an approach leads among other things to a study of the dynamics of diffusion in prehistoric times. The fact that a process of diffusion has taken place is itself of no importance. The reasons why and mechanisms by which it has taken place may be of profound significance. As Dr. Graham Clark remarks, the process of diffusion is not one in which items of culture are sent by post to the periphery, as one might infer from some distributional studies in Polynesia.

I said earlier that I preferred the term “diachronic” to “historical.” This is because the latter term has been misused by anthropologists and applied to studies which are in marked contrast to what historians actually do. It is worth noting that Professor Evans-Pritchard has recently affirmed that at various levels of abstraction social anthropology is closely akin to history. 13 Studies in social anthropology are mainly confined to communities living in the present or the very recent past merely because the evidence for reconstruction of their more remote past does not exist.

I may illustrate what I have said with reference to a particular study in the historical field, namely Dicey's Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century. Dicey divides the nineteenth century into three roughly equal periods, namely, those of Toryism, Individualism and Collectivism. For each of these he defines the relation between law and public opinion in terms of the total culture and particularly its economic, educational and religious aspects. Dicey's account of any one of these periods could stand by itself as a synchronic study, but because they are placed in order - 117 and the processes operative in one period are shown to lead to the next, the total study is a diachronic one, and because it deals essentially with inter-relationships is akin to the work of modern social anthropologists.

It will be clear that the view which I have put forward is not “opposed to history” or “anti-historical,” to use Lowie's epithet. The view is only opposed to types of reconstruction which would be laughable in terms of the work of modern historians.

In such an area as Polynesia, the amount of significant history which can be reconstructed is negligible. I have already given my reasons for holding this view 14 and will merely repeat them briefly and dogmatically. The evidence for scientific reconstruction in Polynesia is gravely limited. Native tradition is unreliable. Reconstructions based upon the diffusionist approach ignore the possibilities of parallel development—though the controversy between parallelism and diffusionism is no longer a live issue, many writers on Polynesia speak as though Tylor and Marret had never lived. Linguistic evidence is not always reliable—for one thing we must always take into account the possible processes of drift analogous to convergence in cultural development. Moreover, we can never be sure that language and culture have necessarily coincided in the past. Much the same applies to studies in somatology. Finally, archaeology has not produced startling results in central Polynesia, though the outlook is more promising in New Zealand.

It is of course impossible to generalize about the validity of these types of evidence. Each case must be considered on its merits and in particular the time span covered must be taken into account. Thus the recent archaeological work of Dr. Roger Duff suggests that we may be on our way to a coherent account of the development of Maori culture since the arrival of the original human inhabitants of New Zealand. Going further back, no one would deny the historic migrations of the Maori from the Society Islands. But many specific interpretations, particularly those based on the shifting sands of mythology and tradition, are open to question. And when we go further back to the more - 118 remote problem of Polynesian origins, we enter the realm of pure guesswork. In regard to this, my only comment is that the guess put forward by Heyerdahl in The Kon-Tiki Expedition is no less plausible than the numerous other theories linking Polynesian culture with a belt of areas from Southern India to South America. And it has, like Buck's Vikings of the Sunrise, the advantage of being readable.

In regard to diachronic studies in Polynesia, we are today concerned with communities which have been undergoing a process of acculturation for many decades. It is curious that most diachronic studies have been devoted to periods before what is termed the zero point of culture contact, that is, the time of the first impact of European civilization. In dealing with the period since zero point, evidence is more reliable and more detailed while, so far as contemporary change is concerned, we can actually observe the historical processes at work. But it seems that in Polynesian studies the less reliable the evidence the greater the enthusiasm for historical reconstruction.

It need hardly be emphasized that the study of acculturative processes since zero point has a practical relation to human problems. I am one of those who believe that the essential function of science is to be defined in terms of its relation to human needs and the contribution which it makes to human progress. 15 And from this point of view the study of acculturation is the most important and the most promising field of diachronic studies in Polynesia. But, as I stated earlier, it has been largely neglected. In spite of the work of Keesing, Sutherland, the Beagleholes and a few others, it is fair to say that in Polynesia major attention has been devoted to studies which are of questionable value for our understanding of man, and have no relevance to practical problems of human adjustment.

I have attempted to define briefly what I believe to be the scientific approach to the study of Polynesian cultures. - 119 But science is not the only important institution in our society, nor does the scientific outlook exhaust what is worth while in human life. There are many important fields in which it can play but a limited part. This may be illustrated with reference to museums. Anthropological museums can to some extent foster the scientific understanding of man, if they aim at the ideal caricatured by the critics of Dr. H. S. Harrison as “a collection of labels illustrated by specimens.” Indeed, the Horniman Museum itself is not only a tribute to Dr. Harrison's work, but also a complete vindication of the principle that the main function of museums is not to exhibit specimens but to tell the public something about them. But I know from experience that the museum keeper is limited in this respect—even if he swamps his cases with labels, maps and diagrams, he can at best give a very general and superficial picture of the cultural context in which specimens were made and used. He can excite scientific curiosity, but is limited in what he can do to satisfy it. The more important function of museums is social, aesthetic and even moral. An imperative need in the world today is for tolerance and mutual respect between peoples, and particularly in the relations between the so-called white races and those more liberally endowed with melanin. The attractive exhibition of native artifacts in museums can promote mutual appreciation across the barriers or race and culture. The museums of New Zealand, which are world-famous for the excellence of their displays are playing a vital part in this field, particularly in the promotion of healthy social relations between Maori and Pakeha.

Again, Maori traditions are of questionable value as historical documents. But they should nevertheless be preserved for their cultural value. They should be compared, not with historical records which they are not, but with, for example, the Arthurian legends. We have all as children been fascinated by these tales and some of us have been disappointed on finding that they have hardly any basis in historical fact. Like them, the myths and legends of Polynesia should be considered as a reflection of values. For example we might seek to interpret certain myths in terms of Mrs. Kluckholn's discussion of basic orientations in the - 120 definition of man's relation to nature. 16 Mrs. Kluckholn distinguishes three possible interpretations, namely, of man as subjected to nature, of man in nature, and of man achieving mastery over nature. Many Polynesian myths suggest the latter as the dominant orientation of Polynesian culture in this regard—for example, myths of harnessing the sun, raising up the sky and fishing up islands. This basic orientation might even be considered in relation to Polynesian technology and in particular the achievements of the Maori in mastering geographical environment. Such specific interpretations are of course hypothetical. They are mentioned merely by way of contrast with interpretations which attempt to rationalise Polynesian traditions in order to make them look like history. I am convinced that the ancient Polynesians believed as firmly in the miracles of Maui as we did as children in the miracles of Merlin, or, for that matter, as our ancestors did one hundred years ago in the literal truth of the Creation as narrated in the Book of Genesis. We cannot say whether tales of fishing up islands were originally merely metaphors for discovery, as suggested by Buck, but we can say that attempts to rationalize them in this way distort the cultural significance which they possessed for the Polynesians.

I believe that the humanistic as distinct from the scientific approach to the traditions and social culture of the Polynesians has important cultural implications for the future. For example, the aesthetic and humanistic appreciation of Maori legends, art and language should lead to their incorporation as part of the cultural heritage of New Zealand. Such aims, though themselves not scientific, are pursuits to which the scientist if he is also a sensitive and public spirited citizen may well devote more of his attention. Moreover, the developments concerned involve problems to which the scientist can make many useful contributions, as adumbrated, for example in Mr. McEwen's paper on the effects of acculturation on Maori aesthetic expression. 17

I have stated in this paper a view of the scientific approach to culture, and to Polynesian cultures in particular. - 121 I think it fair to say that my major points would meet with the agreement of most British anthropologists and of an increasing number of American ones. If I appear to have been unduly critical of previous trends, I hasten to express my conviction that fifty years from now much if not most of what I have said will have become outmoded by the advance of knowledge and the improvement in our techniques of observation. In fact, I would be pessimistic about the progress of anthropology if I did not hold this belief. At any point in the growth of our rapidly advancing science, the most we can do is to explore the recondite problems of human behaviour with the best techniques at our disposal, and on controversial issues to re-affirm the maxim: Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

1   Chairman's address delivered to the Anthropological Sciences Section of the Seventh Science Congress of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Christchurch, May, 1951. The text has been revised and slightly expanded for publication.
2   The following is a very much abridged and simplified formulation of Bridgman's views. For a full statement, see Bridgman, P. W., The Logic of Modern Physics, Chapter I.
3   While original field work constitutes the operational foundation of the anthropologist's work, much, in fact most of it, must necessarily be done at second hand through the field records of others. This is particularly important when we are studying the work of early observers such as Cook, Ellis, Mariner, Henry and others. Here we attempt to define in scientific terms the structure of indigenous Polynesian cultures, though our information is lamentably inadequate on many points. For an example of this procedure, see my contribution to Williamson, Religion and Social Organisation in Central Polynesia, Part II. Similar principles apply in the case of archaeological research which aims, or should aim, at the reconstruction of a once living culture from the material remains which are available to us.
4   For expositions of the theory of needs see Malinowski, A Scientific Theory of Culture; Piddington, An Introduction to Social Anthropology, Vol. I; and Ashley Montagu, On Being Human.
5   Professor Ashley Montagu (op. cit.) has recently argued forcibly that they are rooted in the biological construction of the human organism.
6   For a discussion of the sense in which this term is used, see Piddington, op. cit., Chapter VI.
7   Radcliffe-Brown, The Social Organization of Australian Tribes.
8   Skinner, H. D., “Culture Areas in New Zealand,” J.P.S., Vol. XXX, 1921, pp. 71-9.
9   Op. cit., pp. 71, 77.
10   Op cit., Chapter XIII.
11   See for example his article “On Social Structure” in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Volume LXX, pp. 1-12.
12   See Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic, Vol. I, Chapter VIII.
13   “What social anthropologists have in fact chiefly being doing is to write cross-sections of history, integrative descriptive accounts of primitive peoples at a moment of time which are in other respects like the accounts written by historians about peoples over a period of time, for the historian does not just record sequences of events but seeks to establish connexions between them. Nor does the anthropologist's determination to view every institution as a functioning part of a whole society make a methodological difference. Any good modern historian aims—if I may be allowed to judge the matter—at the same kind of synthesis.” Evans-Pritchard, E. E., “Social Anthropology: Past and Present,” Man, Vol. L, No. 198, p. 122.
14   See my contribution to Williams, Essays in Polynesian Ethnology, Preface and Part II.
15   This formulation has no relation to the motives of individual scientists. A man may take up a scientific career because he wants to know “what makes things tick,” or because he is interested in promoting human welfare, or even because he prefers the peace of the laboratory to the hurly burly of a more active and competitive career; but these and other possible motives have no relation to his function as a human unit in the total institutional organization of modern science.
16   Kluckholn, F. R., Dominant and Substitute Profiles of Cultural Orientations: Their Significance for the Analysis of Social Stratification: Social Forces, Vol. 28, No. 4, May, 1950, pp. 378-9.
17   McEwen, J. M., “The Development of Maori Culture Since the Advent of the Pakeha,” J.P.S., Vol. LVI, No. 2.