Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Book Review: Remotely Global-Village Modernity In West Africa
In keeping with the Anthropology vein of this blog I wanted to briefly review the ethnography "Remotely Global" by Dr.Charles Piot. For those of you who aren't Anthro nerds an ethnography is basically a written account of a researcher's field work along with research from other sources and conclusions derived from deductive logic.
Charles Piot is pretty well known in cultural anthro circles, he's a big shot prof. at Duke actually. He is most-well known for his African research, although he dabbles with African-American studies and is a pretty well known leftist.
Anyway the subject matter is the Kabre people of northern Togo. Piot wraps his thesis around the idea that the U.S. State Dept. as well as previous anthropologists have stereotyped African villages and that colonial as well as postcolonial influences have had as much effect on the Kabre people as anything indigenous.
When I began reading this book I had the distinct feeling that Dr. Piot was trying to hard to grind out a place for himself in this discussion. Basically straw-maning many previous researchers while at the same time setting up his own research to seem as real and relevant as possible. I will complain that he "beat a dead-horse" with his attack against early Functional/Structural theory, since the ideas during the 1930s-1960s were in their developmental phase and much thought has been put in to adjust these ideas. He also seemed to give a bit too much attribute in this book to Marxism, which in fact his a part of his own political baggage and not directly all that relevant to the study of the Kabre people.
Ok now to the parts I found intellectually interesting. Piot writes about the Kabre "Gift Economy" which in essence he says gift-giving in the Kabre community is "always a type of moral inquiry,an interrogation of the other". Gift-giving in this community is a form of control and creates indebtedness in the reciever. Therefore making him subserviant in some regard.Its important to give gifts when meeting strangers since one doesn't know how they will respond this is a good way to gauge their character and intentions by waiting for the response or reciprocation.
Their ideas of "Person" is interesting as well. For example the idea that when a child is born into a family it is considered a stranger until the family can figure out which ancestor or dead relative has been reincarnated. Children in fact are considered androgynous, it is only through initiation rituals that children become"incomplete" or gendered. They become a boy or a girl officially after they have been initiated into that phase of life.
Of course this survey is very brief the book itself is highly theoretical and dry at times but at the same time very interesting and thought-provoking.
I recommend this ethnography to anyone interested in cultural anthropology.