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Monday, June 6, 2011


Part Two: Edwin Wilmsen, Richard Lee, and the !Kung of the Kalahari

We come now to the first of the three examples of ideological critique that I shall be examining in detail: The excoriating attack by Edwin Wilmsen on the ethnographic studies of a group of people living in the Kalahari, a desert that covers much of southwestern Botswana, northwestern South Africa, and southern Namibia. The focus of Wilmsen's attack is the work of Professor Richard B. Lee and associates, which was published in hundreds of scholarly articles, a number of books, and at least one documentary film. Lee is a Canadian, born in 1937. He did doctoral work at Berkeley and taught at a number of American and Canadian universities. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Toronto.

Before launching into my account of Lee's work and Wilmsen's critique, I want to say something about the sort of research that people like Lee and Wilmsen do. I am a philosopher, and it is my impression that a good many of the people who follow this blog are either philosophers or else philosophically inclined intellectuals. We philosophers don't do much in the way of actual research, save when we are studying the history of our own subject. We do not work in laboratories, and for us a day-long visit to a library not at our own university is as close as we ever come to a field trip. At Commencement or during meetings of the entire faculty of our university, we gather with chemists, physicists, ethnographers, and geologists, and since we all look pretty much alike on those ritual occasions, it is easy for us to suppose that what we do professionally, and what they do professionally, is all just about the same. But nothing could be further from the truth. An ethnographer like Richard Lee or Edwin Wilmsen spends months, years painstakingly gathering information about the lives, cultures, and practices of groups of people very, very different from themselves, one detail or fact at a time. They learn languages not at all akin to any tongue they studied in school, and a good deal of their time and effort must be devoted simply to getting food, arranging for toilet facilities, staying healthy, and developing good working relations with the people they have traveled many thousands of miles to study. Since we philosophers do not do anything remotely like that, it is fatally easy for us to ignore the complex difficulties of conducting ethnographic research, rushing eagerly and much too soon past the factual details in an ethnographic report so that we can get to the theoretical issues which are our bread and butter. As I lay out Wilmsen's ideological critique of Lee's work, I encourage you to do a little background reading to enrich your understanding of the facts that are at issue. Once again, thanks to a commenter, I can give you the following URL which, if pasted into your command line, will take you to Google's scan of the Wilmsen:'s%20Land%20Filled%20With%20Flies&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false

An analogous caution must be issued with regard to the practitioners of an associated discipline, Paleontology. Paleontologists in a way have it even worse than Ethnographers. Since much of the human body does not fossilize, save under the most unusual of circumstances, and since language, diet, kinship practices, and religious beliefs leave only the most indirect traces on bones, if indeed they leave any traces at all, paleontologists seeking to learn something about the evolution of the human species are forced to make what they can from the bones left by the original subjects in whom they are interested. What is even worse, time and the slow alterations of the earth's crust most often bury the remains that have fossilized well below the present surface of the earth, so paleontologists must spend endless frustrating years digging about here and there hoping to hit upon some significant remains. When a tibia or a mandible or a tooth does pop up, paleontologists are agog with excitement, stretching to their limits the possibilities of indirect inference in an effort to fill in a bit more fully the gappy and spotty picture of human and pre-human life.

Much the same is true of archaeologists, who excavate the remains of human settlements. Things are not quite to bad for them, for quite often there has been continuous occupation at a site, so at least they can tell from what is on the surface where it might be fruitful to dig. [Not always, of course. As a twenty year old visiting Rome for the first time, I oohed and aahed at what I took to be Roman remains from Caesar's time, only to learn that I was actually looking at a building erected by Mussolini that had been bombed during World War II. It is probably just as well that I chose Philosophy as my field.]

Keep these observations in mind as we get into the details of the Wilmsen/Lee fight. I am, I confess, totally in Wilmsen's camp, but I think we need to be generous in our understanding of what motivated Lee.

The focus of our attention is a group of people living in a part of the Kalahari who speak a San language. Until relatively recently, these and other peoples in roughly the same area were referred to as "bushmen," a dismissive or derogatory term coined by colonial settlers of the Western Cape. Lee and his associates refer to the people they studied as !Kung San. I am going to follow Wilmsen's practice and refer to them as Zhu, which is a somewhat truncated transliteration of the words they use to refer to themselves. [For those of you to whom all of this is brand new, I will just explain that the San languages are click languages -- that is to say, languages which use a number of non-aspirated sounds that resemble clicks, in addition to the aspirated sounds with which we are familiar in Indo-European languages. There are many different "clicks," and I can testify, from walking across the campus of the University of Durban-Westville in South Africa overhearing student conversations, that click languages are extraordinarily beautiful, and monstrously hard for shlubs like me to pronounce properly.]

The fundamental premise of the ethnographic work of Lee and his associates is clearly stated in one of their many books, Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbors, published by Harvard University Press in 1976. "One justification for studying the !Kung is that they are relatively pure hunter-gatherers living in an ancient territory, and they in many ways may be typical of South African hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times." [p. 217]

Melvin Konner, one of the contributors to this volume of studies, writes in his essay on "Maternal Care, Infant Behavior, and Development among the !Kung," that:

"[I]t seemed wise to plan a specific study of infancy as part of the long-range Harvard project. Like other aspects of the expedition, this study suggested itself with a certain amount of urgency. Hunter-gatherer life did not seem destined for a lengthy future, and with it would pass an important chapter in our knowledge of human infancy, especially of the evolution of human infancy. That is, its importance lay not mainly in its uniqueness as an ethnological variety, but in its position as representative of a group of societies resembling, in their basic subsistence ecology, the original human sociocultural form." [p. 219]

Lying behind these two brief passages is an entire world-view, not only of Ethnography as a scientific discipline but more broadly of the history of human beings as a species. Before I can tell you what Wilmsen has to say about the work of lee and the Harvard Project, I need to recall for you [or tell those of you to whom this is all new] a good deal of what led up to the point at which Lee, Konner, and the others could make such statements.

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