Monday, September 26, 2011

Assumptions of Progress

As part of a reading group that I’m not sure is getting off the ground, I’ve started James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. I’m not even one hundred pages in, but I have been struck by the simplicity of its insightful premise. Its simplicity, however, runs counter to many still prevailing assumptions of Western culture concerning folks living “traditional” or “indigenous” lifestyles. Basically, he argues that the many “tribal” or “hill” people of Southeast Asia are not ancient holdovers of a pre-civilized era, but:

Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them (Scott 2009:8)

This simple and important premise is an antidote to many assumptions that still plague public understanding and some academic understanding of “indigenous” peoples.

When I teach cultural anthropology courses, I usually spend some time on the evolving approaches to culture that defined the discipline throughout its history. Subsequently, I discuss and critique Unilineal Evolutionist thought as espoused by folks like Edward Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan. In hindsight, the ethnocentrism and uncritical assumption of progress is glaringly obvious. However, the idea that those societies that have not yet achieved some level of “civilization” represent frozen depictions of times gone by still shapes our thinking. It definitely still influences my thinking in my less than critical and less than proud moments.

The idea that the very “backwardness” of such backwards societies are actually strategies of resistance turns such Unilineal Evolutionary assumptions on their head. While I haven’t finished the book and can’t assess its specific argument, I welcome its approach and its insistence to challenge deeply held, uncritical assumptions.

References Cited
Scott, James C.
2009 The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press.

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