Review of Primitive Behavior by W.I. Thomas
The debt of American sociologists to Dr. Thomas is already very large, greater perhaps than that we owe to any other of our living writers. The Polish Peasant would be classed by many as the best sociological book written by an American, and to mention The Unadjusted Girl and The Child in America is only to remind the reader of two of his important published writings that go to make up our literary treasure in sociology. His Social Origins was published in 1909 and has been used in undergraduate instruction ever since, while waiting for the promised revision which lapse of time and the new information available has made necessary. This volume is the answer to that need.
From the title it is clear that the work is not a revision of the Source Book in Social Origins or even a treatment of that subject, but a new work, filled with interesting and relevant quotations from ethnographic literature on those aspects of primitive behavior which interested the author.
( 167) Family life and the relations of the sexes is particularly emphasized, six of the eighteen chapters being concerned with such topics as kinship, line-age, puberty ceremonies, avoidance, and sexual behavior. There is an interesting chapter on "language behavior," another on patterns of distinction, while government and law have each a chapter. The discussion of diffusion of culture is, again, referred to as that of "patterns," and there is a defense of the mental ability of preliterates in a chapter on mental endowment. One chapter is devoted to a description of a single Bantu tribe, taken from a single book, Gutman's Das Recht der Dschagga, devoted to a tribe inhabiting the slopes of Kilimanjaro. As introductory material, giving the point of view of the author, there are three chapters: "The Methodological Approach," "The Comparative Study of Cultures," and "Habit Systems."
Only in the bibliographies is the reader reminded of Social Origins, for art, magic, environment and similar topics are listed there. There is also a Bibliography on each of the grand geographical divisions of the primitive world. The Bibliography is excellent, with more than sixteen hundred carefully selected citations, a few with brief comments.
The literature in this field is already vast, with additions being made continuously; and, although this book is large, it was necessary to limit the material to a restricted list of topics chosen more or less arbitrarily. There was not room, even in a work that runs to 847 large pages and contains between 350,000 and 400,000 words, for many of the other subjects which would have been interesting and valuable to treat. Art had to be left out and economic relations could not have specific treatment, Magic and religion appear under other heads and folklore must have been reluctantly denied its chapter. Some day we may have a treatment of the play and amusements of primitive people and their notions of humor, but this will have to wait until ethnologists can overcome their solemn preoccupation with what they regard as important; for the existing sources leave this fascinating aspect of their life an almost total blank. Is the current pre-occupation with sex in our society related to the disproportionate amount of space devoted to the subject by contemporary ethnographers?
The practice of taking brief statements from accounts of peoples scattered all over the world has long been open to question and has been criticized by Thomas himself in The Polish Peasant, where he warns against the assumption that any group of social facts can be treated in isolation from the rest of the life of a given society. Herbert Spencer and Sumner did this because there was no other way to get material on the subjects that interested them, and so they had to rely on what was accessible.
( 168) just how many of the existing accounts will ultimately be discarded as inauthentic it is impossible now to know; it is possibly true that the errors of observation tend, as the statisticians say, to cancel each other. But anyone familiar with the difficulties of understanding a culture widely different from his own is tempted to discard all the general statements of untrained observers, drawing his blue pencil through every sentence which contains an "always" or a "never," and reserving judgment until further proof is offered on any interpretation which goes beyond what is actually seen and observed. Indeed, the work of modern holders of research fellowships who write monographs on a tribe after six months or so of residence, with "pidgin" as the means of communication, must be read with due caution and friendly skepticism. We have no way of calculating the "probable error" of their observations. Readers of Middletown in Transition will recall the statement of the authors in their Preface that they made a serious error in their first study although it was conducted by two highly trained observers, working for a year and a half in a single community, with no handicaps of language or differing culture. It is not a criticism of contemporary ethnologists to say that nearly every account of tribal culture which we now have must some day be re-written.
This uncertainty concerning the reliability of the data is far less serious in the present case than in other books that use this class of materials. For Dr. Thomas is neither establishing a doctrine nor attempting to de-fend a thesis. He is rather showing, with a wealth of citation, that human behavior has limitless variety; or, in his terminology, that "habit systems" can assume almost any conceivable form, and some forms which no one would have thought conceivable; or, as he likes to say, that "the definition of the situation" has infinite variability. No one can read through the material here presented and fail to realize the plasticity and modifiability of human nature. And there are several venerable fallacies that are disproved when this is accepted as demonstrated.
Evidence is presented in convincing array for the postulate that any ethnological group is capable of changing its "definitions" and of adopting the "habit systems" of any other group. The possibility of "independent origin" of specific "culture patterns" is admitted, but as always this is a sterile notion leading to nothing; and the facts of diffusion are interestingly set forth. It would be very useful to know more about this subject, in particular to learn what culture elements are readily diffused and why some seem never to be accepted. More efficient weapons, for example, are eagerly adopted; while family organization and names for relations seem, as Rivers says, to be impermeable.
The value of this work in the training of students in sociology would be difficult to exaggerate. As Thomas says, it is frequently found that the problems of a given situation are soluble only by going outside of that immediate situation; and there is no better way, indeed there is hardly any other way, to secure an objective attitude toward the culture of one's own people than the study of other human cultures that are in sharp contrast. There are around fifteen hundred quotations and references in the body of the text, all extraordinarily interesting, all selected with a fine discrimination from the vast literature available, and all tending to reinforce with irresistible convincingness the truth that the limits of variability in culture are impossible to set, and that the members of one culture can and do conform with complacency and even with eagerness to what the members of another culture would find not only unacceptable but intolerable. To get this insight, to get not only knowledge about it but at the least a vicarious acquaintance with it, is essential if the student is ever going to study society as a science, and this book is the best vehicle one could want. This reviewer is now using it in a large undergraduate class and no one has complained about the text-there should be some sort of Pulitzer prize for a man who can write and produce that effect!
The conceptual framework employed in the interpretation of the data is presented in the opening chapters and is reduced to a minimum. There is little or no reference to the ideas of other sociologists in this field, a lack which the scholar can supply to his students but which one wishes at times were done by the writer. Folkways, mores, acculturation, syncretism, ethnocentrism and other notions of Sumner can well be brought into interpret the material here presented and to establish continuity and unity in the science. So also with representations collectives, faits sociaux, impermeability to experience, and others, from the French writers, or Gemeinschaft, etc., from the Germans. It would seem that the primary group concept of Cooley and his notion of institution would have been valuable in more than one instance in throwing light on the meaning of the material. But sociology neither in America nor elsewhere has proceeded very far in developing an ordered and sequential statement of the work of its writers. Devoted to the study of social phenomena, they re-main a highly individualistic lot, free from all acrimony because they ignore each other's books.
Even those concepts for which many of us are indebted to Thomas him-self are largely neglected in the interpretation of this material. Scant mention is made of attitudes, or values, and the "four wishes" seem to suffer from neglect. "The definition of the situation" is the expression
( 170) used to denote the varying character of the mores and, while the etymology of a term should not be overemphasized if its meaning is made clear, yet the non-rational character of the anonymous folkways is such that they can be said to result from a "definition" in only a metaphorical sense.
It is to the behaviorists, the Watson behaviorists, that the author goes for most of his vocabulary of interpretation, supplemented by concepts from anthropologists of the "functional" school. The use of the term "behavior" for all forms of conduct including language, the conception of language as a structure of habit systems, and the use of the word "pattern" for all customs and habits reveals an acquaintance with and an acceptance of the views of Watson which were formerly more appealing to sociologists than they are at present. There is an ingenious argument which seeks to establish a continuity, not only with subhuman life with its philogenetically learned behavior, but with all nature; linseed oil, it is said, speaking anthropomorphically, can learn, forget, and remember.
This leaves the central problem of human culture as compared with animal behavior not only unsolved but untouched. Birds and dogs do form habits and, as the term is meant, "define situations," but they do not trade and barter, pay little respect to their dead ancestors, and never kill their kings. Moreover, when one species of animals is known and understood, all members of that species are known; while this whole book is a fascinating account of the amazing contradictions in the life of the different members of the one human species. Culture is due to a form of communication impossible to any other animal, and to the tendency of the human group to form collective habits without intending to do so, and at times without awareness that they are doing so. Our knowledge of these things is as yet inadequate, but it is well to recognize a problem here.
It is in the treatment of law and government that the influence of the functional anthropologists is most evident, for it is the fashion among them to identify civilized institutions with primitive practices which serve the same or analogous purposes, much as Marco Polo was accustomed to find an emperor and a pope in every Asiatic tribe. Whether law as we know it, or government as we understand it, is to be found among the simpler and less complex tribes of preliterates is a question on which the informed might well differ. There is good authority for the view that Dr. Thomas assumes; there are also those who would otherwise interpret the data.
But there is not a hint of dogmatism in the book. The material is presented in word-for-word quotations with a connecting series of comments,
( 171) admirably objective and always revealing. It will be long before anyone will give us a work of equal merit on this subject. The subtitle, An Introduction to the Social Sciences, implies that it was not written for sociology students alone. It can be commended to all those who seek to understand the riddle of human nature.
University of Chicago