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Nativism And Revivalism

Nativism And Revivalism

Natural history

History of the concept

Schools of thought

Current status of research



Nativism and revivalism are two forms of social movements. Like several other forms of social movements—such as millenarism, cargo cults, and Utopian communities—revivalism and nativism have been considered to be aspects of the same class of phenomena. This larger class has been termed “revitalization movement” and has been defined as a conscious, deliberate, organized effort on the part of some members of a society to create a more satisfying culture. In revivalism, the aim of the movement is to return to a former era of happiness, to restore a golden age, to revive a previous condition of social virtue. In nativism, the aim of the movement is to purge the society of unwanted aliens, of cultural elements of foreign origin, or of both. Frequently, a movement is both revivalistic and nativistic.

The term nativism has also been used to refer not to social movements but to a widespread attitude in a society of rejection of alien persons or culture. In this second sense of the term, nativism is a form of Utopian thought (Mannheim 1929-1931). It is thus comparable to such popular beliefs as faith in the existence of a land without evil, or in the ultimate arrival of a messiah or mahdi, or in the coming of a millennium or of the ancestors with cargo. All of these beliefs are pervasive “mythdreams” (Burridge 1960), which suffuse a society or culture area over considerable periods of time; but although the code of a movement may incorporate such a myth-dream, the myth-dream, as well as the general social policy, of nativism, millennial expectation, revivalistic nostalgia, etc., does not in itself constitute a movement.

Natural history

Revivalistic, nativistic, and other kinds of revitalization movements have been generally observed to go through certain processual stages. These stages, if effectively fulfilled, are characterized by the initiation of certain functional tasks without which the movement cannot achieve its aim, the transformation of society. Manifestly, all movements do not complete the cycle, sometimes because the movement is suppressed by force, because its millenarism or messianic hopes are disappointed, or because it cannot attract or retain a sufficient membership. The successful movement, however, passes through the following stages:

(1) Premovement phase.

(a) Steady state. The society is satisfied with itself; no major group is experiencing sufficient stress or is sufficiently disillusioned to be seriously interested in radical change.

(b) Period of increased individual stress. As a consequence of one or more of many possible circumstances—depression, famine, conquest by an alien society, acculturation pressures, or whatever leads to the awareness of a growing discrepancy between life as it is and life as it could be (and is for someone else)—growing numbers of people experience psychological and physical stress.

(c) Periods of cultural distortion. As increasing numbers of individuals, singly and in small groups, find their situation both intolerable and without hope of relief by the use of available, culturally sanctioned means, they turn to idiosyncratic or systematically deviant means. This period of anomie (Merton 1949) leads to the distortion of the cultural fabric by the institutionalization of such socially dysfunctional customs as drug and alcoholic addictions, organized crime, excessive corruption of officials, mob violence, sabotage, and vandalism, etc.

(2) Movement phase.

(d) Prophetic formulation of a code. A prophet formulates a code, frequently (in religious movements) as a result of a vision in which he is instructed by supernatural beings and in which he and his people are promised salvation if the instructions are followed. The code defines what is wrong with the existing culture, delineates a goal that is described as better than the existing culture (if not Utopian), and outlines a cultural transfer, by the use of which the people can move from the bad existing culture to the good future culture.

(e) Communication. The prophet preaches his revelation to the people, promising salvation to the convert and to the society if his code is accepted.

(f) Organization. Special disciples and then mass followers join the prophet. As the number of members in the group increases and as the complexity of the mission grows, a division of labor develops. Different disciples take over the responsibility for various aspects of the movement’s activities.

(g) Adaptation. The movement will encounter resistance from vested interests. These must be either defeated in political or military combat or converted; sometimes conversion is accomplished by making modifications in the code that will remove the fears of the reluctant.

(h) Cultural transformation. As the whole, or a controlling portion, of the population comes to accept the new code, the system of cultural transfer, and perhaps even the goal culture, is instituted.

(3) Postmovement phase.

(i) Routinization. Once the cultural transformation has been accomplished, or is well under way, the organizational structure is divested of executive control of many spheres of the culture and contracts, maintaining responsibility only for the maintenance of doctrine and for the performance of ritual. It thus ceases to be a movement and becomes, in effect, a church or a political party.

(j) Steady state. Once the cultural transformation has been accomplished and the movement’s organization has been routinized in its activities, a new steady state may be said to exist. Even if the professed aim of the movement was revivalistic, this new state will almost certainly be different from the initial steady state. Now the cycle is ready to begin again.

History of the concept

Anthropological interest in revivalistic and nativistic movements can be considered to have begun with the work of Lewis Henry Morgan. In his book League of the Iroquois (1851), which is considered to be the first systematic ethnography of a primitive people, Morgan devoted considerable space to a study of the New Religion of Handsome Lake. This was a religious movement, beginning in 1799, that was only mildly nativistic and even more mildly revivalistic, but it did represent an effort to rebuild a healthy way of life among the reservation Iroquois of New York state. Following Morgan’s work, the next major contribution was James Mooney’s study of the Ghost Dance among the Plains Indians (Mooney 1896). The Ghost Dance was both enthusiastically revivalistic and vehemently nativistic.

Comparable phenomena were soon reported by anthropologists working in other parts of the world. In 1923 Williams published his study of the Vailala Madness, a cargo cult among a native people in New Guinea. Later workers have described other cargo cults in the Melanesian area and in general found them, as Williams found the Vailala Madness, to be revivalistic in native theory (in that the followers of the cult believe that they are restoring a golden age in which they will be reunited with their ancestors) and to be nativistic in social policy (in that whites are to be driven away). But inasmuch as the “cargo” is composed principally of European goods, and native goods and rituals are abandoned, both the nativistic and revivalistic aspects of cargo cults are qualified by a strong motive toward acculturation.

By the 1940s, it was possible to recognize that what were then generally called “nativistic movements” occurred within almost all of the areas of primitive culture known to anthropologists, among North and South American Indians, African Negroes, the peoples of the Pacific, and the tribal peoples of Europe and Asia as well. (The only major culture area in which revitalization movements are not known to have occurred on a wide scale is the aboriginal culture area of Australia and Tasmania.) In 1943 Ralph Linton published a brief paper on nativistic movements that served to establish the phenomenon as a special topic in anthropological studies of culture change.

Because communication among the various social science disciplines has been fitful, anthropological workers did not at first take full cognizance of studies of comparable movements by sociologists, historians, Biblical scholars, classicists, and classical archeologists. Sociologists have been concerned with such contemporary social movements in complex societies as the Father Divine cult in urban areas of the United States; historians have dealt with millenarian movements and Utopian communities of the past, with major anti-Western movements in Africa (e.g., the Mahdi in Sudan) and in Asia (e.g., the Taiping Rebellion), and with the origins of the great religious and political movements in both Western and Oriental traditions; Biblical scholars have studied the origin of Christianity as a social movement; and classicists and classical archeologists have investigated the new religion of Ikhnaton in ancient Egypt and the pre-Christian Essene cult memorialized by the Dead Sea scrolls. These materials, together with anthropological observations, now make possible sophisticated field and historical studies as well as generalizations about the phenomenon of rapid culture change.

Schools of thought

Concerning the conditions under which these movements arise, there would seem to be four major schools of thought.

The absolute deprivation theory

Perhaps the most common, and least sophisticated, theory is the view that absolute deprivation, in the sense of a low material standard of living, leads to dissatisfaction with the status quo and eventually to the adoption of a revolutionary ideology. This viewpoint, in political application, leads to a “bread and circuses” theory of social control. Mere material deprivation, however, does not inevitably prompt the deprived to revolt: on the one hand, under some circumstances, such as war, both civilian and military personnel may maintain high morale while hungry, cold, and uncomfortable; on the other hand, the response to extreme deprivation, as in concentration camps, may be profound apathy, dependence, and suggestibility. Furthermore, it may be empirically observed that social movements sometimes occur not in the least fortunate class or nation, nor in the most, but in a middle station.

The acculturation theory

Many nativistic and revivalistic movements have occurred among tribal peoples in contact with European civilization. This has sometimes led to the impression that acculturation pressure leads directly to fanatical social movements. This pressure, it is implied, produces a state of “culture shock,” in which the tribal people experiences a sort of collective hysterical syndrome characterized by ecstatic, but unrealistic, commitment to a Utopian social movement. The nature of the trauma inflicted by the higher civilization upon the lower may be conceived as the imposition of a competitive way of life, or as the requirement of an unfamiliar pattern of culture, or simply as interference with tradition. The code of the movement will, it is argued, represent some sort of compromise between withdrawal from, and approach to, the higher civilization. Although this viewpoint has merit as far as it goes, its relevance appears to be restricted largely to tribal populations in culture-contact situations; and even here it is only a partial explanation, since it fails to account for many kinds of social responses to acculturation pressure which are not fanatical, hysterical, or unrealistic at all, such as rationalistic political and economic movements or wholesale adoption of major portions of the higher culture.

The social evolutionary theory

Scholars working in the tradition of social criticism and analysis founded by Karl Marx have pointed out that in many revivalistic and nativistic movements it is possible to discern the expression of social protest by disadvantaged classes or groups. Furthermore, the historical significance in a program of social evolution of a given kind of movement may be defined by Marxian theory. Thus, millenarian movements in early modern European history and the Taiping Rebellion in nineteenth-century China have been interpreted as premature popular protests against oppressive social conditions, and the cargo cult in Melanesia as an early, naive, supernaturalistic effort to overturn a social order that can be effectively challenged only by a more rational revolution. As Worsley (1957) has indicated, the organization and tactics of even primitive social movements can be usefully analyzed by applying the Marxist model of revolutionary procedure. The rigid application of a class-revolutionary model in an evolutionary perspective, however, can obscure both general sociopsychological principles and also particular local and temporal conditions.

The relative deprivation theory

The most generally acceptable theory of revivalistic, nativistic, and other types of revitalization movement would seem to be one that recognizes, on the one hand, the influence of local and temporal circumstances and, on the other, the effect of a situation of increasing discrepancy between level of aspiration and level of realization. This theory has been called the “relative deprivation theory” (Aberle 1962). According to this view, the content of the movement, as expressed in the code promulgated by the prophet or other leaders, will be determined by the cultural materials locally available at the time, including in particular the myth-dream, the traditional customs of the society, and the customs of the society that may be exerting the acculturation pressure. The occurrence or nonoccurrence and timing of the movement will be determined by the degree of disillusionment of a significant number of members of the society with the way of life now available to them. This disillusionment must be based on an awareness of extreme discrepancy between some available image of the good life and the prevailing image of life as it is. The good life will be conceived as the life of a happier past era if present circumstances contrast unfavorably with nostalgic memory, or it will be conceived as the life of another group (a higher class, an acculturating alien society, or a foreign nation). The good life, however, generally is defined not only as a materially more comfortable existence but also as a life with self-respect and the respect of significant others. The precise moment at which the movement crystallizes is difficult to predict, and even the content is not easy to foretell in detail, because these features will be heavily determined by the knowledge, personality, and circumstances of the prophet and other leaders of the movement. Paradoxically, individual variability in society thus plays a crucial role in determining the nature and timing of a movement whose motivation derives from widespread social and cultural conditions.

Current status of research

There now exists a considerable literature describing nativistic, revivalistic, and similar kinds of movements, and, in view of the commonness of the phenomenon, there will be no dearth of future studies. Comparative analysis and theory, however, are slight in quantity and uneven in quality. Because there is no general consensus concerning the classification of movements, it is difficult to relate the definitive characteristics of the various types of movements to other classes of phenomena. Thus, a principal research need is the establishment of a taxonomy of social movements. Even though such a taxonomy will very likely require modification as experience with its use reveals inadequacies, it will serve to focus research problems more effectively than in the present system, which is a combination of culture area types (e.g., Melanesian cargo cults, South American terre sans mal migrations, Judaeo-Christian Messianic movements), and nonindependent general attributes (e.g., revivalism, nativism, millenarism).

The technical problem in establishing a reasonable classification of revitalization movements is the same as in most areas of the social sciences: there are so many variables of interest that the inclusion of all of them in one taxonomic matrix generates a very large number of classes, each defined by a large number of criteria. Thus the investigator is forced to choose between a simple rule-of-thumb typology convenient to his own interests but of little value as an absolute classification, or a complex classification too cumbersome for convenient use as a typology and too demanding for general use as a guide to observation. Until this problem is solved, this area of investigation, like many others in the social sciences, must remain imprecise.

Among the research questions of particular interest in the current state of understanding, the following may be mentioned.

(1) Psychological processes. It has been often observed that new codes formulated by prophets have a paranoid quality and that in the case of religious movements they often occur in hallucinatory visions. To what extent do “psychopathological” processes actually occur in prophets in the genesis and development of such movements? In particular, to what extent and under what conditions are the prophets and leaders of the movement necessarily dependent upon paranoid and hallucinogenic modes of thought? It has also been observed that the behavior of followers has a suggestible, even hysterical, quality. Is the hysterical conversion process a necessary feature of successful social movement?

(2) Cultural processes. Successful revitalization movements are able to induce coordinated change in large areas of culture in a short period of time. To what extent does evolutionary culture change depend upon this rapid process, as opposed to slower processes of invention, diffusion, and acculturation? What is the relative importance of cultural syncretism and of radical innovation?

(3) Social processes. The social structure of revitalization movements is often inadequately described. What are the relationships among the members of the movement, and between them and nonmembers (including both potential converts and enemies)? To what extent are these relationships determined by available cultural models, and to what extent are they developed in response to the exigencies of the movement itself?


Finally, two examples of revivalistic and nativistic movements may suffice to convey the quality of these phenomena.

The Ghost Dance of 1890

Among the Plains Indians of North America during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a religious movement emerged under the leadership of the prophet Wovoka (Mooney 1896). The central tenets of the prophet’s teaching were both revivalistic and nativistic: the existing world was soon to be destroyed by fire, flood, and upheaval, and in the holocaust the intruding whites would be annihilated, and along with them those Indians who followed their ways. Salvation, however, was assured for those who participated in certain prescribed dances, who led pure lives, and who abandoned white customs and returned to Indian ways. The new world, which was to follow the apocalypse, would see America returned to the surviving “Ghost Dance” followers and to their Indian ancestors, who would lead together lives of virtue and happiness. The Ghost Dance swept across the Plains and into neighboring culture areas, with various modifications from place to place. Although the Ghost Dancers planned no violence, American frontier settlers and military authorities feared an armed uprising. These suspicions led directly to the notorious massacre at Wounded Knee, in which U.S. troops killed a band of Sioux Indians who had fled their reservation after the “medicine man,” Sitting Bull, was shot while resisting arrest. Indian interest in the Ghost Dance subsided gradually in the face of white hostility and the failure of the millennium to arrive.

The Paliau movement in the Admiralty Islands

Following World War II, the Manus, a coastal people residing near New Guinea in the Australian Trust Territory, developed a new religious, political, and economic system under the leadership of a secular prophet named Paliau (Schwartz 1962). The Paliau movement was not a cargo cult and did not aim at the categorical expulsion of all whites. It was nativistic, however, to the extent that the movement sought to secure for Melanesians a greater degree of economic and political sovereignty than they had hitherto enjoyed under either the Japanese or Australian administrations. The “New Fella Fashion,” as the movement was termed in pidgin, dispensed with many of the traditional religious beliefs and observances, reorganized the settlement pattern and economy, and proposed new standards of family organization, political structure, and economic activity. In effect, the Paliau movement was an effort by a native population to bring itself into the main stream of world cultural development by a rationally conceived reorganization of its entire culture. Although Australian authorities were suspicious of Paliau, and his movement suffered administrative setbacks, and although a short-lived cargo cult temporarily interrupted its progress, the Paliau movement has survived and contributed substantially to the furtherance of the general aims of the Trust Territory itself: the development of self-respecting, selfsupporting, and self-governing native communities linked to the rest of the modern world by mutually satisfying economic and political ties (Mead 1956).

Anthony F. C. Wallace

[See alsoMillenarism; Sects and cults; Social movements; and the biography ofMooney.]


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