Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: General Anthropology Division
Of interest to: Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Social movements
Secondary Theme: Citizenship
Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, there was a shift in the way that anthropologists referred to non-European people, particularly those in small-scale and tribal societies. Nineteenth Century evolutionists such as Morgan, Tyler, and McGee typically referred to these as “Savages,” whereas a new generation of scholars including Boas and Durkheim, referred to these same people as “Primitives.” This change is indicative of a broader cultural shift away from Nineteenth Century evolutionary thinking in which non-European people in general and tribal people, in particular, were seen as degraded or infantile, to a more culturally relativistic position where primitive people were viewed as a generative force that anthropologists could use to understand modern society as well as inspiring innovation in philosophy, art, and music. In museum exhibits, books, and public talks anthropologists moved past the concept of the savage as a curiosity or remnant of the past, to see the people who had been identified by this term as sources of knowledge. So too artists and musicians turned to the cultures of primitive people as a source of inspiration for their work. However, this shift in terminology tended to efface contradictions in European and American understandings of the savage or primitive. On the one hand it acknowledged the humanity and value of different people, but on the other hand, “the other” remained distinctly that: its value lay in its difference and in its simplicity.
The papers in this session will explore the transition between the savage and the primitive in terms of its cultural, political, and symbolic importance, as well as in terms of the contradictions in European and American understandings of difference that it both created and exposed.