Sahlins, Marshall 1930 –
One of the most influential cultural anthropologists of the latter part of the twentieth century, Marshall Sahlins has written seminal works on economic anthropology, social and cultural theory, and the relation of culture and history. In his earliest writings he sought to clarify the social-evolutionist theory of Leslie White, his University of Michigan teacher, but he soon came to reject White’s evolutionism and technological determinism. In his mature works, he has elaborated a sophisticated reworking of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, one that is antithetical to reductionism of all kinds in the study of culture.
In his book Stone Age Economics (1972), Sahlins criticized the evolutionist ranking of societies on universalistic criteria such as the intensity of economic production. Influenced by Karl Polanyi, Sahlins argued that economic systems are culturally ordered, serving different ends in different societies. For example, hunter-gatherer societies may seem poor because the people have few possessions, but in fact they enjoy a kind of material plenty precisely by virtue of being unencumbered by things that impede their mobility. Traditionally, such people subsisted on wild foods, and when these grew scarce in one region, they could easily pack up and move to a richer one. Indeed, to the extent that poverty is a social status and a matter of wanting more than one has, hunter-gatherers have far less poverty than do the grossly unequal societies of advanced civilization, since their culture leads them to share scarce resources (like meat from the hunt) rather than possessing or consuming them individually. Thus, they exemplify a “Zen road to affluence,” or a “want not, lack not” philosophy that shows that the naturalized Western conception of mankind as fundamentally acquisitive and driven by fear of scarcity is ethnocentric (Sahlins 1972, pp. 2, 11).
In Culture and Practical Reason (1976), Sahlins took these arguments farther, offering a philosophically compelling, general critique of anthropological theories that explain social and cultural phenomena by appealing to material or functional causes outside the culture itself. Because practical utility and functionality are themselves always relative to particular cultural modes of existence, Sahlins wrote that it is wrong to conceive of them as external to the symbolically organized order of culture.
Structuralism’s great shortcoming has been its artificial separation of culture’s abstract symbolic structure from the real historical events that perpetuate and transform it. But these are reintegrated in Sahlins’s theory of structural history. Since people necessarily act according to their culturally presupposed categories and values, “history is culturally ordered, differently so in different societies” (Sahlins 1985, p. vii). Sometimes actions have unexpected outcomes, however, that can lead people to reconsider their conventionally held cultural meanings. Thus, cultural orders themselves are historical, partly formed and transformed by events. In his writings since 1980, Sahlins developed this theory through extended historical studies of intercultural contact in early colonial Hawaii and Fiji, as well as in the transpacific trade connecting Britain, China, Hawaii, and the Northwest Coast of America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A brilliant polemicist, Sahlins has participated throughout his career in important debates on such matters as color perception, sociobiology, world-systems theory, and postmodernism in anthropology. Perhaps the most famous of these was his debate with Gananath Obeyesekere on native rationality and the power of myths. This exchange centered on Sahlins’s historical account of the European explorer Captain Cook’s visit to Hawaii in 1779, and particularly on the question of whether he was viewed at the time by native priests as a manifestation of a Hawaiian god, Lono. The larger intellectual issue this raised was the politics of depicting cultural difference. Obeyesekere accused Sahlins of exoticizing the Hawaiians and perpetuating a European colonial myth in which irrational natives are naïvely given to mistaking Europeans for gods. In responding, Sahlins marshaled impressive evidence that Cook was treated as Lono in historical fact, and he argued that it is a greater denigration of other peoples to submerge their cultures’ distinctive rationalities under a well-intentioned but ethnocentric portrayal as being essentially just like one’s own. Some European colonial writers undoubtedly disparaged cultural Others for confusing certain men with their gods, but these Others may not have shared the European presumption that gods and men are (with one singular exception) nonoverlapping categories, highly distant from one another.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1976. Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1985. Islands of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1995. How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sahlins, Marshall. 2000. Culture in Practice: Selected Essays. New York: Zone Books.
Sahlins, Marshall. 2004. Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1992. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.