History and Theory in Anthropology
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History and Theory in Anthropology

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which both
developed from and contributed to the interplay between archaeological
and ethnological research (see Kroeber 1931). In the days before
radiocarbon dating, archaeologists lacked a means to tell the real age of
material they dug up. Relative age could be inferred from stratigraphy
within a site, but not easily between sites. Moreover, ethnologists were
collecting data on living cultures, but cultures known to have changed
through the centuries. Wissler\u2019s hypothesis was that culture traits tended
to spread from the centre to the periphery of any culture area. Therefore
those traits found at the periphery were older, and those found at the
centre were newer. When put to the test, the hypothesis seemed to work,
and it gave a dynamic aspect to culture-area research which had been
lacking. Implicitly, it also brought together diVusion and evolutionwithin
a framework of culture-area studies: evolution took place at the centre of a
given culture area, and diVusion was from centre to periphery.
The interplay between evolution and diVusion became yet more appar-
ent when American anthropology left behind the extreme relativism of
Boas to take up evolutionism again. Thus it took on special meaning in
Steward\u2019s work. We met him in chapter 3 as the architect of multilinear
evolutionism, but his theories also had a diVusionist basis. Crucial here is
his distinction between the \u2018cultural core\u2019 (which is determined by envi-
ronment and evolution) and the \u2018total culture\u2019 (which contains elements
of culture susceptible to diVusion). Steward developed the culture-area
idea within a framework which emphasized natural environment as the
limiting factor for culture, and technology as its enabling component (see,
e.g., 1955: 78\u201397).
Wissler had deWned Wfteen culture areas for all the Americas (including
the Caribbean): Plains, Plateau, California, North PaciWc Coast, and so
on. Kroeber Wrst altered the names and boundaries of the culture areas,
but not their number. Later, in his most important culture-area work,
Kroeber (1939) mapped eighty-four \u2018areas\u2019 and \u2018sub-areas\u2019 which he
56 History and Theory in Anthropology
grouped into seven \u2018grand areas\u2019 of North America only. He left South
America to Steward, who edited a six-volume study of the culture areas of
that continent (Steward 1946\u201350). Frequently culture areas turned out to
be correlated with ecological zones: in North America, the Arctic, the
Great Plains, the EasternWoodlands, and others; and in South America,
the Andes, Amazonia, and so on. If the environment is a limiting or
determining force upon culture, then its inXuence should be apparent
regionally. Steward and his followers both demonstrated this general
principle and tested the limits of environmental determinism by com-
parative studies both within and between culture areas. All this left the
problem of what constitutes \u2018a culture\u2019, but it did help both to Wll in the
ethnographicmap and to increase interest in cross-cultural comparison as
a goal of anthropological research.
Regional comparison, national traditions, and regional traditions
It is useful to distinguish three types of comparison in anthropology (see
Sarana 1975): illustrative, global, and controlled (which includes regional
Illustrative comparison involves choosing examples to make some point
about cultural diVerence or similarity. This is the basis of much introduc-
tory teaching in anthropology. We might choose Nuer as an example of a
patrilineal society, and compareNuer to Trobrianders, as an example of a
matrilineal society. We might choose an element of one society which is
unfamiliar to our audience, say gift-giving in Bushman society, and
compare it to a similar practice in a more familiar case, say gift-giving in
American society. Such comparisons may show similarities (e.g., the
practice of gift-giving itself), but usually the illustrations are designed to
show diVerences which reveal aspects of the less-familiar society.
Global comparison, or more accurately, global-sample comparison, in-
volves comparing a sample of the world\u2019s societies to Wnd statistical
correlations among cultural features, or (in ecological anthropology)
between environmental and cultural features. George Peter Murdock\u2019s
approach, discussed in chapter 3, is the best-known example.
Controlled comparison lies in-between in scope. It involves limiting the
range of variables, usually (though not always) by conWning comparisons
to those within a region. Regional comparison has been prevalent in the
work of a number of anthropologists of a variety of schools. Among the
diVusionists, Frobenius (in his studies of African culture areas) followed a
mainly regional approach. Among the evolutionists, Steward employed a
form of regional comparison. Among the functionalists, A. R. RadcliVe-
Brown (writing on Australia) and Fred Eggan (writing on Native North
57DiVusionist and culture-area theories
America) sought an understanding of speciWc cultures through a wider
understanding of their place within regional structures. At a deeper level,
structuralist anthropologists have sought to comprehend such regional
structures and deWne generative principles peculiar to a given region,
common structures which set the limits of variation, or culture traits
which stand in relation to one another in interesting ways \u2013 often capable
of transformations when they move between cultures.
The Dutch scholars who studied the Dutch East Indies (now In-
donesia) in the 1920s and 1930s originated a structuralist form of regional
comparison. Their regions are known within Dutch anthropology as
\u2018Welds of ethnological study\u2019 (ethnologisch studievelden), each deWned by a
set of features known as its \u2018structural core\u2019 (structurele kern). In the case of
the former Dutch East Indies, the structural core includes, for example, a
system of marriage in which a wife\u2019s lineage is of higher status than her
husband\u2019s.Within a given society, each lineage is linked to every other by
a circle of intermarrying units. The most articulate statement of the
theory of this school is J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong\u2019s (1977 [1935])
inaugural lecture at the University of Leiden. Although in recent decades
anthropology in The Netherlands has moved on towardsMarxist theory,
the understanding of indigenous knowledge, and the anthropology of
Third World development, nevertheless \u2018regional structural comparison\u2019
(as it is now called) remains strong in the folk perception of the Dutch
One of the best-known proponents of regional structural comparison is
Adam Kuper, a South African-British anthropologist who once taught at
the University of Leiden. Indeed, his 1977 inaugural lecture at Leiden
echoed that of J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong more than forty years before
(Kuper 1979a [1977]), but with Africa as his area of concern. In a number
of articles and books, most notably Wives for Cattle (1982), Kuper has
sought to explain the regional-structural basis of Southern Bantu kinship,
traditional politics, household economics, and symbolism. Any given
culture trait can best be interpreted, he argues, in relation to correspond-
ing traits in related cultures. What at Wrst may appear to be random traits
are intelligible within a framework which takes account of the Southern
Bantu region as a whole. Take three examples where close kin marriage is
common: Tswana men tend to marry women of lower status, and
bridewealth in Tswana society is relatively low; Southern Sothomen tend
tomarry higher status women, and bridewealth in their society is relative-
ly high; Swazi men may marry either way, but those who marry \u2018down\u2019
(like the Tswana) pay less bridewealth than those whomarry \u2018up\u2019 (like the
Southern Sotho). By comparing these societies, each set-up can be seen
as a transformation of another, and the entire regional system can be
58 History and Theory in