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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Raymond Firth on Objectivity

I would like to share here some of the final words of the anthropological classic "We, the Tikopia" by Raymond Firth, because, more than 75 years after its first publication, they still point to a concern any anthropologist shares in some way.

"Social anthropology should be concerned with how human beings behave in social groups, not with trying to make them behave in any particular way by assisting an administrative policy or a proselytizing campaign to achieve its aims more easily. The scientist gives generalizations regarding the nature of the working of institutions; it is not his duty to affix ethical values to them, nor by conniving at such an ethical evaluation to pave the way for their modification. Missionary, government officer and mine manager are free to use anthropological methods and results in their own interests, but they have no right to demand as a service that anthropology should become their handmaid. Nor can the standards which they invoke - "civilization", "humanity",  "justice", "the sanctity of human life", "Christianity", "freedom of the individual", "law and order" - be regarded as binding; the claim of absolute validity that is usually made for them too often springs from ignorance, from an emotional philanthropy, from the lack of any clear analysis of the implications of the course of action proposed, and from confusion with the universal of what is in reality a set of moral ideas produced by particular economic and social circumstances.

This is not to say that the scientist himself may not have his own personal predilections, based on his upbringing and social environment, his temperamental disposition, his aesthetic values. He may regard the culture of a primitive, half-naked set of people on an island of the Solomons as a pleasant way of life, giving expression to the individuality of its members in ways alien to western civilization; he may regard it as something he would like to see endure, and he may strive to preserve it in the face of ignorance and prejudice, pointing out the probable results of interference with ancient customs. This he does as a man; his attitude is part of his personal equation to life, but it is not implicit in his scientific study. The greatest need of the social sciences to-day is for a more refined methodology, as objective and dispassionate as possible, in which, while the assumptions due to the conditioning and the personal interest of the investigator must influence his findings, that bias shall be consciously faced, the possibility of other initial assumptions be realized and allowance be made for the implications of each in the course of the analysis."

What a way to end an ethnography, long before the "reflexive turn" in the social sciences took place.

And then the question: I add to the row of "missionary, government officer and mine manager" the music festival director, the orchestra manager, the conservatoire principal, the professional musician and the music teacher; and I add to "civilization", "humanity", "justice" et cetera "art", "the aesthetic", and "beauty" - and then I wonder what my position as a so-called "applied" researcher within a conservatoire might be, regarding all Firth said above.

Raymond Firth. We, the Tikopia. Kinship in Primitive Polynesia. Boston, Beacon Press: 1963 [1936].

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