Anthropology looks at human differences in its study of the ‘other’ and at human commonalities in its more recent focus on the ‘suffering’. In identifying ways that anthropology can contribute to solutions for world problems, Professor Joel Robbins proposes an approach he calls the ‘anthropology of the good’.

If you ask people to define what is bad, most will agree that certain actions – with murder and torture at the top of the list – are the opposite of good. Consensus about what constitutes good, and how we separate this from bad, is harder to pin down.

Joel Robbins

In the early 1990s, Professor Joel Robbins spent more than two years living with the Urapmin, a group of people in the far western highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG).  He was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Virginia and it was his first extended experience of a culture strikingly different to his own. He slept in a house made of local bush materials, ate taro and sweet potato for every meal, hunted marsupials (“with notable lack of success”) and learned to speak the Urap tongue, a language with only about 400 speakers. It was, he says, a profoundly stimulating experience.

His time living in the Urapmin community prompted Robbins to ask a series of questions that have guided his inquiries ever since. The experiences he had in PNG set him on a trajectory that has led him to propose new theoretical frameworks for anthropology that look beyond older ways of understanding cultural differences and making comparisons.  He first turned to the question of how to understand radical cultural change, and he has more recently worked to identify cross-cultural variation in deeply embedded moral and ethical codes. He calls this latter approach 'the anthropology of the good'.

Described in simple terms, anthropology is the study of humans, and the fascinatingly complex ways in which we live, both now and in the past. Robbins, who arrived in Cambridge last year to take up the Sigrid Rausing Chair of Social Anthropology, is a sociocultural anthropologist. He has become increasingly interested in the path that anthropology has taken over the past 20 years in its study of people and how its changing focus reflects shifts in our collective preoccupations.

Until the late 1980s, anthropologists typically studied ‘the other,’ concentrating their attentions on people whose cultures appeared radically different from their own. Famously, the American anthropologist Margaret Mead returned from Samoa to report that adolescence was handled in ways that contrasted sharply with those observed in the West. Television documentaries focusing on encounters with remote communities perpetuate the image of the anthropologist as intrepid traveller, risking life and limb to document exotic tribal societies in action.

The anthropological study of such “others” was based on an assumption that culture is something deeply rooted in people and acts as enduring glue through generations – especially so in the remote and exotic parts of the world that acted for so long as magnets for anthropological fieldworkers.  What Robbins observed as a young anthropologist in PNG challenged these assumptions in a way that fired his curiosity and set him on course to study the tricky question of cultural change.

“The Urapmin are a remote community - even by PNG standards. There’s no road connecting them to the nearest town or even to their closest neighbours. They have no electricity and they participate very little in the market economy. Because they are so hard to reach, and because so few people speak the Urap language, Western missionaries did not make attempts to convert them,” said Robbins.

“However, in the late 1970s the Urapmin joined a charismatic Christian revival movement that was sweeping through PNG. Within a year, the entire population had converted and since 1978 the Urapmin have seen themselves as a completely Christianised community in which their traditional religion has no role to play. Achieving salvation in Christian terms became one of their most important collective aspirations.

”In embracing Christianity, the Urapmin transformed many aspects of their culture. In the space of just a few months, they rejected their highly elaborate traditional religious system and abandoned the taboos that had for generations shaped most aspects of their daily lives. They tore down their cult houses, threw away the ancestral bones that had been at the centre of their ritual life, and began to pray. The Christian code they adopted was singularly strict, demanding a high level of emotional and moral self-regulation.

“One of the questions I began to ask myself was: what can we learn about the nature of both culture and cultural changes by studying in detail such processes of dramatic transformation,” said Robbins. “This led me to engage deeply with anthropological theory, questioning long-standing assumptions about the enduring nature of traditions.”

On his return from PNG, Robbins wrote a number of works that argued that although newly converted, the Urapmin were deeply engaged with Christian ideas and ways of living.   He went on to help make a name for the anthropological study of Christianity, a religion that the field had largely ignored because, familiar to most Western researchers, it lacked the difference factor anthropologists looked for. 

Pursuing his interest both in Christianity and in cultural change, Robbins began carrying out comparative, literature based research on Pentecostal communities in South America and Africa. Along with Asia and the Pacific Islands, both these regions have seen a rapid growth of Pentecostalism which is fostering everywhere the kinds of dramatic cultural changes it brought about in Urapmin. 

Given the moral strictness of Pentecostal churches, and of Urapmin Christianity in particular, Robbins has also had a long-standing interest in the anthropology of ethics, a major strength of Cambridge anthropology.   This has formed the basis of his most recent theoretical work.

The late 1980s saw a shift take place away from the older anthropology focused on 'the other' or 'the exotic’ – away from an anthropology focused on striking cultural differences.  In its place has arisen an approach that Robbins describes as the ‘anthropology of the suffering’ in which researchers focus their inquiries on people who are in some sense victims – the poor and dispossessed, refugees and migrants, oppressed and marginalised communities – and whose plight and pain connects them to anthropologists and their readers in ways that are understood as a universal part of the human condition. 

Robbins has recently argued that this anthropology of suffering needs to be complemented with an anthropology of the good that returns to questions of cultural difference, though this time focused on differences in the ways people define and try to accomplish what they see as valuable.

It’s significant that Robbins has chosen to concentrate on the good – a concept that’s notoriously elusive. “If you ask people to define what is bad, most will agree that certain actions – with murder and torture and a few others at the top of the list – are the opposite of good.  Consensus about what constitutes good, and how we separate this from bad, is harder to pin down,” he said.

“What I have seen emerging in recent anthropology is a focus on such topics as value and morality, well-being and empathy as well as hope, time and change.  Research in these areas helps us to understand the wide cross-cultural diversity in understandings of the good. The shift to studying such topics has coincided with worldwide concern about human rights and with an explosion in NGOs seeking to foster their own versions of the good in various places.”

Researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences are increasingly asked to demonstrate the value of their work to society. What does anthropology offer that benefits the world? “Until recently anthropology was a discipline that saw its critical mission as demonstrating that people lived differently in different places. It used those differences to unsettle people’s assumptions that their own ways of life were the only natural and valuable ones – it sought to broaden our worldview,” said Robbins.

“Now we are beginning to see the emergence of new ways of thinking about cultures and I am working to develop an approach to anthropology that encourages a comparative study of how different societies conceive the good. NGOs, for example, have sets of values which they seek to apply in societies which may have moral codes to their own. In attempting to identify these differences, anthropology can make a valuable contribution to global discussions of what should count as pressing social problems and about how to find practical solutions to them.” 

To illustrate his point about the benefits of understanding the values that lie beneath cultural practices, Robbins returns to his study of the Urapmin. “When someone dies in Urapmin, the people who lived with the deceased go to a great deal of trouble to present relatives who have been living elsewhere with a major gift of bows, arrows, hand-woven string bags, cash and local shell money. The recipients do not take everything that’s offered to them but choose only those items for which they can quickly supply a precisely matching return gift. Then a week later, they invite the original givers to a feast and present them with equivalent gifts,” he said.

“This is only one example of the occasions when the Urapmin make a major effort to give each other the same things with little or no delay. Savvy now about the market economy, Urapmin are quick to point out that these exchanges make no ‘profit’.  Asked why they invest so much time and energy in reciprocation of matching items, their explanation involves the notion that these kinds of exchanges develop and deepen relationships, particularly in the face of events like death or dispute that threaten to destroy them.” 

We might say, Robbins suggests, that creating new relationships and strengthening existing ones is one of the primary ways in which the Urapmin seek to foster what they define as the good.

“The challenge is how to expand our own notions of the good so that they can encompass such possibilities as the emphasis the Urapmin put on the value of relationships.  The anthropology of good is in its nascent stages. It can be supported by many kinds of anthropological research already being undertaken from a range of other theoretical perspectives,” he said. 

“Were it to realise its promise, the hope is that anthropology might not only broaden our understandings of the diverse kinds of lives people live in different places, but that it might also help to expand our ways of thinking about such topics as development and justice that do so much to organise contemporary approaches to the wider world.”

The image accompanying this story is taken from Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society by Joel Robbins, published by Berkeley: University of California Press (2004).


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