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anthropology and the classics

Anthropology and the classics currently enjoy a fairly good relationship, but one which has never been stable. In the 19th cent. the interest of evolutionary anthropology in a ‘savage’ period through which all societies must pass meant that studies of contemporary simple societies began to be used to illuminate the classical past. After the First World War, classicists reacted against what were perceived as the excesses of the work of Jane Harrison and the Cambridge school, in which it was claimed that knowledge of ‘things primitive’ gave a better understanding of the Greeks. Meanwhile, in social anthropology, the rise of the static structural-functional paradigm and an insistence on an identity as ‘the science of fieldwork’ combined to cause a rejection of history. In the last 50 years, the divorce between the subjects has been eroded from both sides, with comparative studies increasingly valued as enabling us to escape from our intellectual heritage and the specific—though, to us, self-evident—ways it has formulated questions and sought answers.

Anthropology is a comparative science, and in this sense the classical scholar may draw on specific comparisons between societies in order to show the range of possible responses to an issue, especially one which to us seems particularly in need of explanation, such as the Athenian epiclerate (see inheritance, greek) or the Spartan system of age classes. Detienne's method is useful here. He performs a broad survey of apparently similar phenomena, thereby deriving general comparative categories. These categories are then applied to single cultures to study variation and particularity in specific contexts. A further stage is to extrapolate from this, filling in—if only hypothetically—some of the gaps in the ancient record.

It is, however, no longer the case that classicists only turn to anthropology in desperation, when faced with a strange custom which fails to make any sense. Areas such as law, economics, and the response to technological change have also shown the value of a comparative perspective. Current work which makes use of anthropology tends to be theoretically sophisticated, and has the advantage of making theory explicit, rather than working from assumptions which, because they are left unstated, the reader cannot criticize or modify. Such work may treat the surviving sources like the anthropologist's fieldwork informants, whose words cannot be taken at face value. Winkler characterized classical texts as ‘lying guides’; the fieldworker may observe one thing but be told the opposite, but the sources for the ancient world also have their own reasons for how they present material to us. A fuller integration of the classics and anthropology promises a more sophisticated approach to evidence as well as a challenge to the traditional boundaries between disciplines within classics.

There remain dangers for classicists; for example, adopting concepts from anthropology after they have ceased to be used there, or failure to appreciate the disciplinary context within which a particular anthropologist's work falls. This warning also applies to those studies which concentrate on comparisons with present-day Mediterranean societies, perceived as appropriate because of similar patterns of public/private, male/female, honour/shame. In fact, anthropologists are well aware that it is unhelpful to throw all inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin into one cultural melting pot, as this risks ignoring important aspects of variation. Ever since the discipline of anthropology was institutionalized in the late 19th cent., more use has been made of anthropology in Greek studies, but the most recent work includes some on kinship patterns, religion, and family relationships in Roman society.


J. E. Harrison, Themis (1912).Find this resource:

    E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).Find this resource:

      M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus, 2nd edn. (1962).Find this resource:

        S. C. Humphreys, Anthropology and the Greeks (1978).Find this resource:

          S. C. Humphreys, The Family, Women and Death (1993).Find this resource:

            V. J. Hunter, Phoenix 35 (1981), 144–55.Find this resource:

              J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire (1990).Find this resource:

                D. Cohen, Law, Sexuality and Society (1991).Find this resource:

                  R. Redfield, Arion 1991, 5–23.Find this resource:

                    T. Gagos and P. van Minnen, Settling a Dispute: Towards a Legal Anthropology of Late Antique Egypt (1994).Find this resource:

                      G. E. R. Lloyd, Adversaries and Authorities (1996), 1–19.Find this resource:

                        S. Blakely, Myth, Ritual and Metallurgy in Ancient Greece and Recent Africa (2006).Find this resource:

                          M. Detienne, The Greeks and Us: A Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece (2007).Find this resource:

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