Scholars behaving badly

In a recent blog post, The Fall of Rome was not a Walk in the Park, I talked about how some historians have refused to acknowledge that the fall of the Roman empire in the west involved a major decline in the level of material civilization. To hold this view they have had to ignore a huge amount of archaeological evidence that shows all too clearly that the collapse of the Roman empire in the political sphere was matched by a collapse of Graeco-Roman material culture at exactly the same time.

I have recently read of a similar process going on in a completely different context, in the field of anthropology. 

Here, one of the most famous of anthropologists, Margaret Mead, spent some time in the Pacific island of Samoa, as a result of which she wrote probably the best-known work in anthropology, Coming of Age in Samoa. This book painted an idyllic picture of Samoan life as it was lived by the native islanders. The overriding message was, humans in non-civilized states of existence live in peace with one another; it is the coming of civilization which corrupts them and brings violence to their societies.

Margaret Mead’s book was an instant success, and influenced a whole generation of anthropologists in the decades after the second world war. Anthropology departments in universities around the world were in thrall to her. One of her ardent disciples was a graduate student named Napoleon Chagnon – until he went to study the Yanomami, an Amazonian people. Here he encountered a warlike society in which violence was part and parcel of everyday life. Domestic violence towards women was a cultural norm, and as for men, Chagnon estimated that one in four men died violently at the hands of other Yanomami men.

When Chagnon published his research it was greeted with near-universal vitriol by anthropologists. It was suggested that he had falsified data to grab attention; even that he had helped spread a measles epidemic that killed hundreds of Yanomami.

But then, gradually, Margaret Mead’s work also began to be questioned. It was claimed that she had completely misunderstood what she was observing, that she had not learned the Samoans’ language properly and so could not fully access their culture, and had not really shared in the lifestyle of the people she studied.

Since then, the work of hundreds of anthropologists have shown that, in small-scale societies around the world, the rate of violence is appallingly high.

So, here are two examples of groups of scholars – one studying and writing about the fall of ancient Rome, the other looking at small-scale societies around the world – interpreting evidence in wildly different ways; perhaps ignoring great swathes of it, and painting over other bits which didn’t support their world views. What are we to make of it – what am I, who depends on the scholarly writing of others to produce this wide-ranging atlas of world history – to make of it?

And of course, I also have my own world view. I too have my prism through which to look at history. And so, gentle reader, do you.

By Peter Britton