Introducing Anthropology – on volcanoes, race and girls’ boarding schools…

Another day, another 7 or 8 excerpts from the Introducing Anthropology book.

We’re on to section 1.2,The Body

Simon Underdown isn’t messing about

“Race is one of the most misunderstood terms in modern science, misused by seasoned scientists and laymen alike. Put simply, there are no human races, just the one species: Homo sapiens The idea of human races is a totally artificial concept, a sloppy form of shorthand that refers to an ill-defined mish-mash of surface differences, such a sin colour (probably controlled by a small number of genes), as well as different cultural practices, especially religious ones. Humans have an innate need to define and categorise, but race is a dangerous and outmoded idea that just can’t keep up with modern science.” (p31)

He also mentions

“Our own species is remarkable for our lack fo genetic variation. The eruption of the super-volcano Toba approximately 74,000 years ago is thought to have wiped out much of our genetic diversity by causing the extinction of many human groups. “(32). [See Wikipedia – Toba catastrophe theory – a 2018 study apparently says ‘nope’.]

There’s a great piece by someone called Brian Street, “Representations of Non-European Society in Popular Fiction.

In the 1840s, publishing techniques were developed which enabled large quantities of very cheap fiction to reach the newly educated working classes. Novels were brought out in penny parts, the ‘penny dreadfuls’, and in 1847 the first successful attempt was made to produce cheap reprints of their serials in volume form. (p36)


“Killiam (1968: 2-3) dates ‘ethnographic fiction’ from 1874 because in that year Henty published his first boys’ books on the Ashanti campaign…” [By sheer pluck : a tale of the Ashanti war / by G.A. Henty ; with eight full-page illustrations by Gordon Browne] From the Wikipedia page on Henty

His children’s novels typically revolved around a boy or young man living in troubled times. These ranged from the Punic War to more recent conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War. Henty’s heroes – which occasionally included young ladies – are uniformly intelligent, courageous, honest and resourceful with plenty of ‘pluck’ yet are also modest.[10] These virtues have made Henty’s novels popular today among many Christians and homeschoolers.[9]


‘Primitive man’, on the other hand, spent his whole life in fear of spirits and mystical beings; his gullibility was exploited by self-seeking priests and kings, who manipulated religion to gain a hold on the minds of their simple subjects; he worshipped animals and trees, tried to control the mystical subjects; he worshipped animals and trees, tired to control the mystical forces of nature by means of ceremony, ritual, taboos and sacrifices, and explained the wonders of the universe in imaginative but unscientific myths. Politically, the ‘primitive’ was in the grip of either anarchy or despotism; social control, if any, was exercised by the most savage tyranny, by the despotism of custom or by religious trickery. (p38)

There’s a great piece by Faye V. Harrison on “Unravelling ‘Race’ for the Twenty-First Century” that reflects on her positionality and the influence of racial prejudice in shaping her intellectual interests.

“The intense debates over race’s scientific status led many anthropologists to adopt a devout ‘no-race’ position which, unwittingly, resulted in a failure to investigate racism along with race as a socially constructed phenomenon deeply grounded in… realities.” (41)

The final piece, an excerpt from Judith Okley’s essay “Privileged, Schooled and Finished: Boarding Education for Girls”. It’s bloody brilliant, a reflection on how her body was shaped (literally and metaphorically) by a British boarding school in the 1950s.

“Eventually the imitating child becomes the part. To survive in a place which beats down diversity, the victim has to believe in the rightness of his or her controller. Children and adolescents are most vulnerable, their minds and growing bodies may be permanently shaped. Apparently insignificant details such as bearing and posture are emphasised because, to use Bourdieu’s words, the body is treated ‘as a memory’. The principles of a whole cosmology or ethic are ‘placed beyond the grasp of consciousness, and hence cannot be touched by voluntary, deliberate transformation’ (Bourdieu 1977: 94).” (p.45).

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