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World View

World View

Theoretical development


World view is one of a number of concepts in cultural anthropology used in the holistic characterization and comparison of cultures. It deals with the sum of ideas which an individual within a group and/or that group have of the universe in and around them. It attempts to define those ideas from the point of view of the individuals holding them, from inside the culture rather than outside. It stresses the self in confrontation with the universe, although it has so far leaned very little on the personality theories of cultural anthropologists. While emphasizing the cognitive aspect of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes, a world view cannot be clearly separated from its normative and affective aspects. Thus, it tends to be confused with such concepts as ethos (relating to values), modes of thought, national character, and even culture itself.

The concept of world view is closely tied to an ambitious effort made in the early 1950s by a group of scholars at the University of Chicago, guided by Robert Redfield. In Redfield’s book The Folk Culture of Yucatan (1941), he expressed an embryonic concern with the concept of world view. Redfield’s encounter with an Indian culture which was at grips successively with Spanish and modern urban cultures aroused his interest in the evolutionary process and in sociocultural change. He was impressed by the incurable wound inflicted on the Indian past and, throughout his career, thought of primitive culture as a broken thing, persisting here and there and striving to defend itself. This view caused Redfield to stress the positive aspects of the primitive condition and to see any evolution therefrom —in spite of reconstructive attempts—as essentially disruptive and negative. In approaching modern urban culture via the peasant culture which is its rural counterpart, Redfield sought to rediscover the purity of folk culture and, indeed, to reimpose it by a concern with the good life and by an interest in the cause of peace and understanding among nations. In its final metamorphosis, influenced by the theories of orientalists, the concept of world view merged with the concept of “Great” and “Little” traditions, which contains a more balanced evolutionary view of the loss of purity. Redfield’s original concern with levels of understanding among individuals who hold diverse world views developed into the study of interactions between high and low, intellectual and lay, urban and village cultures within a great civilization.

Theoretical development

In a seminal paper, “World View and Social Relations in Guatemala,” Sol Tax (1941) distinguished world view from social relations, although he suggested that perception of the latter enters into the “mental apprehension of reality” that is world view. Tax observed that Guatemalan Indians, who do not acculturate to Ladinos or to each other, continue to have a primitive world view, although they appear to have had a “civilized” type of impersonal, market-oriented system of socioeconomic relations since pre-Columbian times.

The first explicit elaboration of the concept occurred in Redfleld’s article “The Primitive World View” (1952). Here he clearly emphasized the individual: self is the axis of world view, which is the way a man in a particular society sees himself in relation to everything around him. Redfield was primarily interested in world views that characterize whole peoples and have been generally developed without the assistance of the specialized philosopher; he distinguished these from a “cosmology,” or the systematic reflections of the specialized thinker. He hypothesized that there are certain universal elements of world views. Every world view distinguishes (a) part of the self from another part, thus establishing, as it were, a dialogue within the self; (b) a human nature from that which is nonhuman; (c) classes and categories of the human, i.e., social persons (e.g., groupings of persons who are intimate and similar, others who are far and different); and (d) an entity called nature and another described in shorthand as God, within the nonhuman. Further, every world view includes (e) an orientation of the self in time and space by means of major natural phenomena; and (f) a similar orientation to life crises in human existence.

From these exploratory hypotheses, Redfield proceeded to question the nature of the confrontation and the attitude that man takes toward the confronted. Considering particular world views of various ancient and primitive peoples, he pointed out that these views vary greatly with respect to their central concerns; for example, some center on man, some on God or nature, while others confront man, nature, and God about equally. Further, world views seem to vary in regard to the attitude of man toward his relationship with the confronted; that is, they differ in the relative emphasis on cognitive and affective components (note the intrusion of values), the conception of the degree of order and the type of structure to be found in the universe, and the conception of man’s duty in relation to the confronted. Redfield emphasized the last mentioned possibility: “World view can be seen as a characteristic attitude of purpose or obligation toward that which is confronted, whether that be human nature, or God-Nature,… whether the Not-Man is conceived as two things, Nature and God, or whether one of these two prevails over the other, or is involved with the other” (1952, p. 33). Three main attitudes were identified: the nonhuman may be maintained, obeyed, or acted upon.

In his 1952 paper Redfield characterized the primitive world view as one in which (a) the con-fronter and the confronted tend to be unitary; (b) the predominant attitude toward the nonhuman is one of maintenance of the relationship;(c) the universe is thought to “care,” to be morally significant.

Redfield continued to write about world view in three monographs (1953; 1955; 1956). Although he made no very significant additions to the concept in these works, certain shifts can be noted. The conflict between Redfleld’s psychocultural attitude toward world view and his sociological conscience can be observed in The Primitive World and Its Transformations (1953), in which he struggled with Childe’s concept of the urban revolution and with the unfortunate tendency of the “technological order” to take primacy over the “moral order” —an offspring of world view and ethos-type concepts—in explanations of the rise of cities. This conflict arose most sharply in regard to the question of levels of understanding among the holders of world views, raised principally in The Little Community (1955) and Peasant Society and Culture (1956). In these works, world view, which in Redfield’s 1952 paper had been presented as an unsophisticated aspect of cosmology, became virtually the outside observer’s construction of a native’s total view, while cosmology seemed to be merely the insider’s total construction, although at the highest or most esoteric level. On this point, apparently, Redfield did not face clearly the full implications of the observer’s effect on the observed and of the possible effect of a primitive world view on the observer’s scientific world view. Furthermore, since the concept of world view was never clearly tied to social roles and social interaction, Redfield never completely made the conceptual transition from world view to the Great and Little traditions. Thus, in 1956 Redfield’s view of the relation between elite and peasant cultures continued to present the elite culture as a more highly developed form of the peasant culture. Redfield believed that this presentation would provide the basis for the study of intercommunications between peasant culture carriers (Little Tradition) and elite carriers (Great Tradition). The study of levels, however, shifted rapidly out of the field of social relations and into cultural history, in that it became the study of the evolution of leisure classes within folk societies, primitive rebellions against these classes, and eventual reintegration. Moreover, a flood of new data from Asian countries (e.g., studies of Indian villages) complicated the problem ad infinitum. The problem of definition became acute; for example, the following sets of terms have become virtually interchangeable: Great and Little world views; elite and folk traditions; high, classic, or learned elite cultures and low, popular, or debased peasant cultures. Redfield’s death in 1958 occurred before he could develop his ideas further.

Calixta Guiteras-Holmes, one of Redfield’s research workers, produced one of the finest and most complete accounts of Mesoamerican ideology to date. Although her book (1961) contributes valuable data on world view, it raises methodological problems in their acutest form. Following the method preferred by Redfield, she gave a thorough account of one individual’s world view. However, much of her initial description of the culture of the Tzotzil Indians gives a hearsay impression, thus overlapping with her account of world view, and insufficient attention seems to be paid to the difference between what informants do and what they claim they do. The work gives only minimal attention to sociological factors and does not move forward theoretically from Ruth Bunzel’s earlier work, Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village (1952).

Charles Leslie’s work on the Zapotec Indians of Mitla (1960), while far less thorough than Guiteras-Holmes’ study, was more ambitious in that it used data from more than one informant and attempted to link the whole community’s world view with its economic, kinship, and politico-religious institutions and with its experience of social change. Eschewing what he considered to be inadequate data on self and body images and peripheral concerns about the natural world, Leslie noted that Mitlenos seem mainly concerned “with comprehending and regulating their social relationships and with questions about the reality, efficacy and moral significance of supernatural beings” (1960, p. viii). In his discussions on the ritual of price, the social control of conflict, active versus decaying myth, and the function of laughter in controlling witchcraft, for example, Leslie related his world view material to levels of awareness in the life of the self and of society and to the wider field of anthropological theory. If his book is more a work of art than a work of science, this is no doubt because of the ultimate implications of a concept like world view.

In his first, unpublished work on world view, E. M. Mendelson attempted to render the concept operational by using Durkheimian and Levi-Straus-sian theory. Utilizing Durkheim and Mauss’s Primitive Classification (1903), he suggested that religion be returned to a prominent place in world view studies, insofar as it would seem fairly consistently to be itself characterized by a methodological approach to phenomena and insofar as the primitive seems to proceed not so much from the notion that the total world can be known in phenomenological terms now or eventually but rather from the notion that this knowledge is unattainable and that it is therefore necessary to ascribe names and functions to phenomena so that the world as a whole can be socially manageable. Taking initiation as the revealer of “the true names of things” as defined by society, he suggested that the question of levels of awareness could be approached through the study of initiation institutions in various societies. His three-level ordering of data includes:

(1) Cognitive systems at the level of the scientific world view

(a) Natural (biology, chemistry, physics)

(b) Social (psychology, sociology, communications, history, cosmology)

(c) Parasocial (theology, comparative religion)

(2) Attitude systems at the level of any world view (mineral, animal, vegetal, human, para-natural)

(3) Action systems at the level of direct behavioral observation (medicine, agriculture, technologies, ritual, etc.)

He also raised the question of philosophy as part of world view and/or as the framer and judge of world view.

In his work on Santiago Atitlan, Mendelson concentrated on religion, took data from several informants, and paid close attention to the effect of the observer on the observed (1956; 1958). He studied the areas of agreement and disagreement to be found when two religions (Indian and Roman Catholic) meet and suggested ideal types of three possible sub world views: the Roman Catholic archetype, the Indian archetype, and a world view consisting of elements from both religions.

Outside Redfield’s circle, little use has been made of the concept of world view. It appears in the work of J. S. Slotkin and in Clyde Kluckhohn’s contribution to the theory of social action, where it is, however, subordinated to social values (1951, p. 410). Clifford Geertz has observed that world view, as the cognitive, existential aspects of a given culture, combining with ethos and values (the moral and aesthetic aspects), underpins religion “to give to a set of social values what they perhaps need most to be coercive: an appearance of objectivity” (1957, p. 426). The implications of his work are important for the study of symbolic systems and ethics.

In short, world view was one tool for the better understanding of other peoples and for the creative tasks imposed upon anthropologists by the shift away from ethnocentrism. Redfield’s formulation of the concept may in time come to be seen primarily as an instance of haute vulgarisation, an attempt to interpret one aspect of anthropology to cultural historians. This evaluation leaves Red-field’s dignity and brilliance unimpaired.

E. M. Mendelson

[See also the biography ofRedfield.]


Bunzel, Ruth 1952 Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Durkheim, Emile; and Mauss, Marcel (1903) 1963 Primitive Classification. Translated and edited with an introduction by Rodney Needham. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as “De quelques formes primitives de classification” in Volume 6 of Annee socio-logique.

Geertz, Clifford 1957 Ethos, World-view and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols. Antioch Review 17:421-437.

Guiteras-Holmes, Calixta 1961 Perils of the Soul: The World View of a Tzotril Indian. New York: Free Press.

Horton, Robin 1960 A Definition of Religion and Its Uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 90, no. 2:201-226.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1951 Values and Value-orientations in the Theory of Action: An Exploration in Definition and Classification. Pages 388-433 in Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils (editors), Toward a General Theory of Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Leslie, Charles M. 1960 Now We Are Civilized: A Study of the World View of the Zapotec Indians of Mitla, Oaxaca. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne Univ. Press.

Mendelson, E. M. 1956 World-view. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Chicago.

Mendelson, E. M. 1958 The King, the Traitor, and the Cross: An Interpretation of a Highland Maya Religious Conflict. Diogenes 21:1-10.

Mendelson, E. M. 1959 Maximon: An Iconographical Introduction. Man 59:57-60.

Mendelson, E. M. 1965 Los escandalos de Maximon. Seminario de Integracion Social, Publication No. 19. Guatemala City: Ministerio de Educacion.

Redfield, Robert 1941 The Folk Culture of Yucatan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Redfield, Robert 1952 The Primitive World View. American Philosophical Society, Proceedings 96:30-36.

Redfield, Robert 1953 The Primitive World and Its Transformations. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1957.

Redfield, Robert 1955 The Little Community: Viewpoints for the Study of a Human Whole. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition, bound together with Peasant Society and Culture, was published in 1961 by Cambridge University Press.

Redfield, Robert 1956 Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition, bound together with The Little Community, was published in 1961 by Cambridge University Press.

Tax, Sol 1941 World View and Social Relations in Guatemala. American Anthropologist New Series 43: 27-42.

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