Drive to ban 'primitive' names sparks debate

March 30, 2007

Stuart Blackman reports on dissent over academic support for pressure group

Many people will not think twice about applying the descriptions "native", "indigenous" or "tribal" to certain groups of people, but such terms are the focus of a debate that continues to grip social anthropologists.

The debate was brought to a head recently when the Association of Social Anthropologists decided to back a political campaign by Survival International, a British charity that campaigns to support "tribal peoples".

The ASA's support for the campaign raised concerns among its members about a potentially negative impact on perceptions of the academic rigour of social anthropology.

Survival wants to halt the use of the words "primitive" and "Stone Age" to describe those whose rights it campaigns for. The charity said that such terms were at best inaccurate and at worst used to justify the persecution or forced development of tribal peoples.

Survival said that such words could be used to further political ends - for example, Festus Mogae, Botswana's President, called the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) "Stone-Age creatures" who needed to be integrated into mainstream society for their own good.

The ASA's involvement in the campaign followed an invitation from Survival, said John Gledhill, chair of the ASA and professor of social anthropology at Manchester University. "This language has known material effects that are extremely bad for these human beings. There are plenty of examples of it tripping off the tongues of military officers as they're about to start clearing people out of the way."

Professor Gledhill stressed that, by joining the campaign, the ASA was not endorsing Survival's work generally. "We're just endorsing this particular campaign," he said.

Professor Gledhill wrote a statement of support, which was approved by the ASA committee before submission to Survival. It appears as a 50-word excerpt on the campaign website.

Simone Abram of Sheffield University, honourary secretary of the ASA but speaking in a personal capacity, said: "The problem is that the Bushmen are being turfed off their land in the interests of commercial gain. It's not that we want to become the word police. But you have to wonder about the motivations behind why people should want to label another culture as primitive."

But not all members of the ASA approve of the association's involvement in the campaign.

Adam Kuper, professor of anthropology at Brunel University and an ASA member, said the ASA's statement was not produced in consultation with its membership. "These sorts of statements that imply that anthropology has a particular political position always seem a bit dubious to me. I suppose constitutionally they're entitled to make a statement. But it's a bit odd when they're making it in the name of anthropologists without saying that some anthropologists take a rather different line."

Professor Kuper agrees that "primitive" and "Stone Age" are misleading and insulting. But he said that joining forces with a pressure group to campaign about it inevitably meant making oversimplified statements on complex social processes.

For example, many anthropologists would argue that there were similar problems with much of the language used by Survival itself. Terms such as native, indigenous and tribal could serve as euphemisms for primitive, albeit in the sense of a society untainted by creeping Western modernity, Professor Kuper suggested.

And yet, he said, the ASA's involvement in Survival's campaign required the association to ignore such language.

The issue of whether people such as the Bushmen ought to be preserved in cultural aspic is also a matter for debate. "There is a kind of green ideology out there that says hunters and gatherers are the only human beings who really live in tune with nature."

Ditshwanelo, a Botswanan human rights organisation, blamed Survival's interventions in the CKGR for disrupting negotiations between Bushmen and the government. How far academic bodies such as the ASA ought to become embroiled in political situations is clearly a matter for concern to people such as Professor Kuper.

He was worried that social anthropology's authority could be undermined. He feared that the discipline's careful analysis and detailed understanding of social structures could come to be seen as propaganda, not research.

But Professor Gledhill said: "With most anthropology books, you have to get to the end before you can see what they are saying. So if we want to make an intervention in the world, we do have to occasionally risk the danger of being simplistic."

Alan Barnard, professor of the anthropology of southern Africa at Edinburgh University, was also uncomfortable about simplifing complex academic issues to campaign on a specific issue. "But if the campaign does help the cause of people who are being deprived of rights, then I'm for it."

The ASA statement is available in full at


Many words that are seen today as pejorative were once mainstream in the lexicon of social anthropology.

"Historically, 'primitive' has been used by anthropologists to refer to people of a certain sociopolitical organisation," said Alan Barnard, professor of the anthropology of Southern Africa at Edinburgh University.

The term "savage", which is impossible to use politely today, was used by anthropologists in the 19th century as a neutral phrase to describe non-agricultural societies, Professor Barnard said.

The name "Bushman", which is deemed acceptable today to describe the various indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes of southern Africa, is a translation " Bosjesmans ", the name given to them by early Dutch settlers on the Cape.

According to the ASA's statement in support of Survival's campaign: "The use of the term 'tribal' is also potentially problematic." It says this is because "tribalism" is often used to explain conflict situations that have complex and modern causes. And yet the use of "tribalism" can be taken to denote "backward" forms of social and cultural organisation.

Even "indigenous" is far from straightforward. The Indigenous Peoples movement has sought to gain land rights for the original inhabitants of the land.

"It (the term) does have some success for some people seeking rights," Professor Barnard said.

But for anthropologists, it is riddled with conflicts between geographical, cultural and biological notions of indigenous. Indigenous land rights might exclude a third-generation settler, for example, but be granted to someone who cannot speak the native language, lives in Seattle, but can prove their ancestry.

"Indigenous is problematic as an anthropological category," Professor Barnard said.

So what words should we use to describe people such as the Bushmen, the Inuit or Amazonian Amerindians?

Perhaps there is no need any neologisms, according to Professor Barnard.

Many social anthropologists now prefer to refer to people by whatever name they give themselves.

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