Review of Primitive Behavior by W. I. Thomas
Robert H. Lowie
Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences. WILLIAM I. THOMAS. (íx, 847 pp., 12 figs. $4.00. New York and London: McGraw-Hill, 1937.)
Probably no sociologist in the world—certainly none of English speech—has so systematically kept abreast of ethnological progress as Dr Thomas. This latest outcome of his ripe scholarship, then, reflects with remarkable accuracy the viewpoints of cultural anthropology so far as they relate to a generic social science. Specifically, there emerge from his treatise the generalizations he has himself summarized at the beginning (p. 7): the impotence of either racial or geographical factors to account for culture; the improbability of parallelism on a large scale; the moulding power of specific experiences, leading to individual behavior patterns and standards for each society; the tendency for such idea-systems to spread, so that culture areas are recognizable in place of so many discrete tribal cultures.
However, Dr Thomas is much more than a purveyor of accepted anthropological tenets. For one thing he connects ethnology with psychology, showing by a magnificent array of instances how the established cultural order conditions individual response to a given situation. Moreover, his wide sociological experience and his equally impressive reading enable him to set many facts in a new light and to adduce many that commonly elude the professional ethnographer. Cases in point are the discussion of virtuosity as a goal (p. 42); of the Swedish taboo against the pronoun ni (p. 94 ff.); of the mother-in-law as "a perseverative" ("stepping up") application of a device for denoting relationship (pp. 214, 221 f.); of indigenously evolved Negro kingdoms (p. 425); of the alphabet as the achievement of the people rather than of an élite (p. 625).
A very large part of the work consists of verbatim quotations documenting the
points made. It is, indeed, an incomparable source book—one that I should set
above all other productions of this category. First of all, it embraces in
principle all epochs and all areas. Secondly, the selections both illustrate the
points made and are intrinsically worth while. Finally, the theoretical and
descriptive literature has been ransacked from the most catholic point of view.
There are old classics like Tylor and Dobrízhoffer; but we also find the most
recent theorists and observers Gayton, Evans-Pritchard, Gusinde, Mead, Gifford.
No student of the social sciences will fail to enlarge his insight and factual
grasp by consulting this monumental treatise.
ROBERT H. LOWIE
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA