SICK SOCIETIES: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony by Robert B. Edgerton

SICK SOCIETIES: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony

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An unsentimental look at the ways in which ""primitive"" or ""folk"" societies, independent of colonial influence, engender in their inhabitants the anxiety, alienation, and suffering we have historically attributed to urban civilization. Edgerton (Anthropology and Psychology/UCLA; Mau Mau, 1989, etc.) defines and documents ""maladaptations"" in societies as customs or behaviors that compromise a people's well-being. Drawing on a wide range of ethnographic records, he cites as examples: food taboos that result in poor diets; religious beliefs that engender fear; rites of initiation into puberty or marriage that, along with other areas of institutionalized inequality between the sexes, promote hostility and dysfunctional relationships. Edgerton disagrees with the adaptive or ""whatever is right"" school of anthropology, and he abhors the reluctance of cultural relativists to evaluate clear evidence of human misery as such. He documents conversations with tribal people who admit their ambivalence or, in some cases, their repugnance with traditional ways, and he is emphatic in pointing out that apparent and widespread individual suffering equals--and must be regarded as--societal malfunction. Edgerton is less successful in the second half of the book, where repetition and circular reasoning impede his analysis of the broader collapse of societies. Maladaptive decisions, he argues, are made in all societies, and every society can be evaluated on a (human) measure of sickness or health. The goal of studies like anthropology is to foster a better understanding of the sources of maladaptation so that we may reduce human suffering. Fascinating for its documentation of tribal cultures; admirable for its ability to keep the humanitarian aims of anthropological study always within reach.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1992
Page count: 350pp
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan