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On Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account

Fredrik Barth and Colin Turnbull

Current Anthropology, 15 (1), Barth, Fredrik and Colin Turnbull, On
Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account, pp. 99-103.
Published by The University of Chicago Press. Copyright 1974 Wenner-Gren
Foundation for Anthropological Research. Stable URL at JSTOR:

interdependence of logicorationaland archetypicthinking

is treated in the text.
2. Do I thinkit possible that "change in the social form
of people's life as a result of 'social cooperation' will open
to mankind such perspectivesas will make Jung'sreligious
therapy look like sorcery"?That is to say, can socialism
become an integrativesymbolicframework,fullyreplacing
an integrative,archetypicsymbolicstructure?Definitelynot
in itself.It cannot be imposed bylogicorationalmeans alone.
It must come as a result of a new archetypicallyfounded
synthesis,as the organic ingredientof a new "culture"-in
which case Jung's"religious therapy"is no longer needed,
because it has come to pass.
3. Does mythcontainthesame kindof truthas a scientific
thesis? Definitelynot. A mythgives an all-encompassing
viewof the knownuniverse,whereas a scientifictruthgives
onlya quantifieddescriptionof a detail of the environment.
4. Is there any "basis" for religious belief? Is there no
fundamental differencebetween "truth"and "delusion"?
That is to say, in what relationdoes "religioustruth"stand
to objective reality,and is the relation the same as for
"scientifictruth"? These questions cannot be answered
without taking refuge in a belief in the absoluteness of
scientificor of religious "truth." My paper analysed archetypicsymbolicframeworksfrom the point of view of
theirorigin and biological usefulness(function).
5. Do I consider that my theoretical position is also
neutralin referenceto itscorrespondence to the "objective
content" of the subject treated? Definitelynot. However,
I can only express hope that it is closer to "objective truth"
than others.
6. What symbols do correspond with environmental
phenomena? Only archetypicsymbols,which constitutea
fusion of engrams with perceptions (projection); see my
7. Is religion stillrelevant?"Relevance" is not the question.The question is, How does the human nervous system
work? Does it still show the phenomenon of religious
experience or, in a wider sense, archetypic experience?
Of course it does.

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On Responsibility and Humanity:

Calling a Colleague to Account


Bergen,Norway.7 iv 73
The crisis of anthropology (cf. Hymes 1972) today can
hardlyarise fromanyirrelevanceofcomparativeknowledge
of cultures and societies to man's contemporarysituation.
To my understanding,it arises rather from our relative
failureto transformanthropologyfroma rich man's hobby
to a concerned human discipline.Anthropologyneeds the
discipline of rigorous intellectual standards and an informed, critical attitude to all aspects of one's own and
others' work. It must be human in recognizingthe social
and culturalconstructionof realitywhile yetseeking intercultural translatability
and universalityin participation.It
must be concerned in its strivingto transcend complacent
toleranceand value-freedomto create deeper understanding of the human condition. Since our steps are still so
uncertainin these directidns,we cannot allow many serious
mistakesin the profession,and must be highlycriticalof
ourselves and others. In our common interestI therefore
feel we are justifiedto demand full accountabilityof each
other. I am moved to react bya recentand highlysuccessful
book-The MountainPeople,by Colin M. Turnbull-since
I feel it exhibitsa number of anthropological difficulties
and failings in such a crass form that it deserves both

to be sanctioned and to be held up as a warning to us

Let me make some of my premises more clear. The
pursuit of research in social and cultural anthropology
entails circumstancesof fieldworkand analysis which are
rather special, and which thereforerequire special ethics
and competences both of professionaland personal kinds.
1. We imposeourselves unasked and in many ways incompletelyperceived on other people in other countries
and societies. There are no standards in those worlds for
the intellectualand moral operation of making an anthropological study; and as "marginal natives" we are free of
many of the constraintsof society-both ours and theirs.
This entailsthatwe ourselves set the standardsand impose
the constraints,and that we carry full responsibilityfor
what happens.
2. We legitimize-and finance-our activityas research,
perhaps even with a vague promise of applied usefulness.
In so doing,we surelycommitourselvesto certainstandards
of intellectualintegrityand competence, and objectivity,
by which our work should be judged and u-sedby others.
3. We use ourselvesas a research tool in participant
observation: our intuition,our charm, our emotions, and
our abilities.For thisreason we are particularlydependent
on our own self-awarenessand understanding,and we can
notaffordto lose our judgement withoutnoticing.
Turnbull's description of himselfand the Ik mountain
people of northernUganda givesthe impressionof seeking
to be self-consciouslyhonest and concerned with most of
I have mentioned.Myjudgement is nonetheless thathis book failson all thesepoints.Though presented
as a popular account,it reveals itselfas poor anthropology
in method, in data, and in reasoning. It is emotionally
either dishonest or superficial. It is deeply misleading to
the public it sets out to inform. Most disturbingly,it is
grosslyirresponsibleand harmful to its unwittingobjects
of study.
To give a keyto some of myindignation,let me illustrate
how named Ik are exposed in the anthropologist'stext.
Their illegal activitiesare publicized to anyone who bothers
to read the book: named persons are accused of cattle
theftor fencingstolencattle(p. 110); the locationof corrals
for such purposes is given (p. 278); photographs are
provided showingnamed persons forgingforbiddenspears
or engaged in illegal poaching (facing p. 128). Perhaps
the anthropologisttruststhat the authorities(referred to
as "Obote's speciallytrainedthugs,"p. 108) willbe ineffectivein utilizingsuch information.But whatcan justifyletting
an illiteratefamilylive foreverin the librariesof the West
in the followingdescription(pp. 122-23)?
than most,althoughhe
Atum'sfamilyseemedmore fly-ridden
and his brotherYakuma keptthemselves
reasonablyclean and
withthem,as washerill-tempered
and meanlittledaughter,Nialetcha.Nialetcha,beingoverthree,
no longerlived in the house, however,so possiblyhad fewer
lice.Yakuma'swife,Matsui,I wouldprobablyhavelikedifI had
been able to standeitherthe sightor the smell.Poor Matsui
had eye sores,and the flieswere constantly
at themand had
of courseenlargedthemand had gradually,in thisway,eaten
awayat the eyebrowsand eyelashes.Her eyes offeredsuch a
temptingmeal to the fliesthattherewas neverenough room,
and theycrawledall overherface.Matsuineverseemedto think
of brushingthemaway,and oftenwhenshe opened her mouth
in a smileof welcomethe flieswould crawlin and exploreit.
I do notthinkthatMatsuihadtheleastideathattherewasanything
wrongwithher. She was the motherof threesons and three
daughters,twoof whomwere trulybeautiful,all the more so,

in my eyes, because they were the only people who seemed to

share my opinion of their incredibleyounger brother,Lokwam,
and who used to treat him much as he treated Adupa. It was
one of the few real pleasures I had, listening to his shrieking

and yellingwhentheycaughthim and did whatevertheydid

(forit was alwaysout of sightbehindtheirstockade)and then
forhimto comeflying
out of theodokholdinghis head
and streaming
withtears,whileKimimeiand Lotukoulaughed
Ik persons are used in this way to provide material for
a trulybizarre picture of a culture and a society. Let it
be that they practice that "very early form of marriage,
marriageby capture" (p. 126); that theyterrifyeach other
with accusations of sorcery (p. 180), although they have
no knowledge of such thingsin theirsociety(p. 202); that
children pass through a series of ritesde passageby which
theyautonomouslyorganize their social groups (pp. 13640); thatchildrensupport themselvesfromthe age of three
(p. 135). More staggering,perhaps, thisis a societywithout
the institutionof the familyand one in which "they still
insist on living in villages even though the villages have
nothing that could be called a trulysocial structure,for
they encompass no social life. . ." (p. 133). And the general

public is here informedof an Africansocietywhich offers

us (pp. 236, 237)

an opportunity
to survival.If itis, theIk shouldhave it.Whetherit makesthem
or us any different
fromotheranimalsis a matterof opinion,
I wrotebackthat
but I mustconfessthatearlyduringfieldwork
I could notbelieveI was studying
a humansociety;it was rather
of baboons.
likelookingat a singularly
This was meantto be insulting
neitherto theIk nor to baboons.
. . . I searched for evidence of love almost from the beginning.
I found more of it in . . . two baby leopards than I did among


In all this, Turnbull for some reason sees a spectre of

the future of the West, a theme he develops in his last
chapter to a level of sophisticationwhere he agonizes in
one paragraph about "what has become of the Western
family"(p. 291), in the next about the decline of religion
and the growth of the state where "the loud-mouthed
anti-intellectualblabberings of heads of state and their
assistantsshow as well as anythingthat we are well along
on the Icien road" (p. 292), in the next about "the sorry
state of society.in the civilized world today" (p. 293). In
conclusion (pp. 293-94):
Even supposingwe can avertthe disasterof nuclearholocaust
or thatof the almostuniversalfaminethatmaybe expectedby
the middleof the nextcenturyif populationkeeps expanding
and pollutionremainsunchecked,whatwillbe the cost,if not
the same alreadypaid by the Ik? They too weredrivenby the
need to surviveagainstseemingly
odds, and theysucceeded,at thecostof theirhumanity.
This is what "the Ik teach us" (p. 294). Judgingfrom the
popular reviews,such philosophizingsounds authoritative
and sells well to a public that searches for understanding.
What method is used to establishthese sensational data
and insights?Sometimes it is hard to say, as when we are
told that "there is ample evidence in their language that
they once held values which they no longer hold, that
they understood by 'goodness' and 'happiness' something
verydifferentfromwhat those words have come to mean
now" (p. 287). But in other cases we can see the steps
wherebythe pictureis built.One procedure is the classical
error of imputingthoughtsand motives: Describing how
mothershandle infants,we learn how a mother"goes about
her business,leavingthe child [in thebush], almosthoping
that some predator will come along and carry it away"
(p. 136). We learn about "the splendid pastimeof wifebeating, which, surprisingly,among the Ik follows a formal
procedure: one of theirrare formalities,but observed with
diligenceand exquisitepleasure" (p. 166). Of the informant
who describes traditionalcustom for nunishinQ-adultery


we are told: "I do know that Atum enjoyed the vision

as he conjured it up, and would doubtless have been first
in line to throwhis daughter on the fire had I suggested
that the custom should be revived" (p. 181). The anthropologist's pathetic "empathy" is clearly exemplified, but
not generalized, in the followingpassage (pp. 111-12):
I had been desperately
me to thesedifficult
people,somehumantraitthatI could enjoy
and share,and I had thoughtI had foundone whenI firststarted
livingin myhouseand I sawthateverymorningmenand women
spenta lotof timejustovertheedge of thedescentintoKidepo,
simplysittingand staringat thatgreatand wonderfulstretch
of countryas the sun came up behindMeraniang.I used to sit
outsidemystockadeand enjoytheviewwiththemuntilI found
thatall theyweredoingwas combining
theirfirsthopefulsearchforsignsoffood.Then I begannoticing
theodors,but I did not have thecourageto sayanything
it.Atthesametime,I wasfrustrated
becauseherewasone massive
toileton mydoorstep....
The indignationwhen it is apparent that the Ik do not
suit Turnbull is pervasive (pp. 129-30):

I had seen no evidenceof familylife..

. I had seen no sign

of love.. . . I had seenthingsthatmade me wantto cry,though
as yet I had not cried,but I had neverseen an Ik anywhere
near tearsor sorrow.. . . So it was withcuriouspleasurethat
I awokeone nightto hear a distinctmournfulwailing,such as
heraldsdeath.. . . I got up feelingbetterthanI had fora long
time,hopingthatI was actuallyrightthatsomeonewas actually
cryingoversomeonewhohad died. . .

So in his preface he exercises his own compassion against

the accepted premise that"mostof us are unlikelyto admit
readily thatwe can sink as low as the Ik . . ." (p. 12).
How can a reputableanthropologistwithprevious extensive field experience get himself into such a mess? The
book supplies clues in the form of a series of grotesque
descriptionsof scenes and events during fieldwork.The
account we are given is a systematicallyfalse record of
these events, since it depicts Turnbull alone in the field,
handling his relationsand judging the situations,whereas
he was in fact throughout accompanied by the African
medical doctor Joseph Towles, ' "who shared much of the
experience with me. . . . He does not appear in these
pages because he has his own storyto tell . . ." (p. 12).
But I assume it is correct that the anthropologist from
the veryfirstlet himselfbe the passive object of competition
between self-appointed assistants (pp. 55-66); that his
monotonous complaint about the Ik's begging and his
continuous giftsto them correctlyreflectan extensiveuse
of (reluctant) gifts to buy rapport (e.g., p. 54); that he
let himselfbe trickedinto buyingextensivesupplies, which
were immediatelystolen fromhim (p. 57, 64-70); etc.
He then proceeded to hire a considerable number of
the population he had come to studyto be his workmensome to build a road up to the point where he wished
to have his house, some to build the house. This dislocation
of the local work force of a starvingpopulation for several
months finally resulted in the triumphal entry of the
landrover (p. 95):
The car made it all right,witha bitof pushinghereand there,
thoughit nearlytoppledover twicedue to the sidewaysslant
of thetrack.. . . WhenI breastedthatlastridgeup by Kauar's
villageand drovedownto wheremybomastoodwaitingforme,
I feltthatnow everything
was goingto be all right.I drovein
and theyclosedthe wide entranceafterme, pilingthornscrub
up againstit so thatit was as impregnableas any otherpart
I [This phrase was corrected
by Barthto read ". . . he was
Towles . . ." in a letterdated May 23, afterthe critiquehad
beensentto Turnbullforpossiblereply- EDITOR.]

Vol. 15

No. 1 * March 1974

of the stockade.I could not see the view,of course,but then

neithercouldI see theIk, and eventhoughtheywerethepeople
I was meantto be studyingand I had been thereonly three
monthsor less,theprivacygaveme intensepleasure.
The car inside its stockade turned out to be useful: "The
constantrustlingand cracking of twigsas the prier pried
got so much on my nerves that I gave up eating outside
or doing anythingelse in the courtyard,and used to shut
myselfup in the landrover again to cook my meals and
eat them there" (p. 95).
Besides such bizarre behaviour, and general gullibility,
the face which the anthropologistpresentedto the Ik seems
stronglymarkedbythe Bwana complex. One of the clearest
expressions is found in his relationship to Kauar, who
emerges from the description(pp. 88-89) as a true Uncle
Tom, who
used to volunteerto makethe long two-daywalkintoKaabong
climbbackto get mailforme.
and theeven moretiringtwo-day
. . .He was alwayspleased withhimselfwhen he came back,
and asked if he had made the tripmorequicklythan the last
time. .

. Then he used to sit and watch while I read the mail,

the expressionon myfaceto see if all was well.When

we dranktea togetherhe alwaystookexactlythe same number
of teaspoonsof sugarthatI took,and helpedhimselfto exactly
thesamenumberof biscuits,
When one day Kauar fell dead on his return marathon,
Turnbull is indignant at the lack of compassion shown
by the Ik, while "I still see his open, laughing face, see
himgivingprecious tidbitsto the children,comfortingsome
child who was crying,and watching me read the letters
he carried so lovingly for me. And I still think of him
probablyrunning up that viciouslysteep mountainside so
that he could break his time record, and falling dead in
his patheticprime because he was starving"(p. 89).
Indeed, it was months before the anthropologistrecognized thatthe population he lived among was in the process
of starvingto death. His statementsabout the character
and distributionof starvationare characteristically
contradictory (e.g., pp. 88-89, 123, 141). What does not seem
in doubt is his own egocentric response to the situation:
"I liked old Lolim.

. I also liked his daughter, Nangoli,

who was almost as bald as he was, and who was on several

occasions a true friend to me.

. .

. So .

. I brought him

a double ration that evening" (pp. 123-24). "There she

lay, day and night,skin and bone, but stilltryingto flash
those wonderful teeth in a smile. She also went on the
listformydailyfood rounds" (p. 126). Withsuch capricious
giftshe apparently expected to endear himselfto the Ik.
He also seems to feel he has set an example so he can
be highlycriticalof a governmentreliefoperation arranged
on the contrastingprincipleof equitable distributionbased
on census lists, because he "estimated that the records
indicated a population about twentypercent in excess of
the surviving population" (p. 282) and the scheme was
thus "administeredin a way thatwas littleshortof criminal
[and] a waste of good governmentmoney" (pp. 281-82).
Naturally,the relationshipthat developed between the
anthropologistand the Ik was as much a creation of the
latteras of the former.Turnbull gives tantalizingglimpses
only of this other party as partnersto human interaction
and not only as the objects of ponderous moralizing,
ridicule,and defamation.At one point he involved himself
very activelyin pleading the cause of some Turkana who
were illegally pasturing their cattle in Uganda. The Ik
reaction to thiseffort(p. 111) was
laughter,thatquite obviously,fromthe sidewaysglancesanld
evenopen looks,wasat myexpense.I gatheredit had something
to do withmyintervention
on behalfof theTurkana.Atumdid
tryto explainonce, wipingthe tears fromhis eyes. He asked

me if I knewthat,to startwith,theTurkanahad thoughtI was

official,and I said yes. That broughtlaughter.
a government
And did I knowthatwhentheyfirstled me downto theircattle
camps some of themhad wantedto kill me? I said I did not
thinkthatwas so, and thisbroughtlotsof laughter.Then he
said thatI had helpedthema lot and talkedto the government
lettersfor them,and whathad I got out
forthemand written
ofthat?WhenI said"nothing"
said Atum,"is whatwe are laughingat." And hisclearblue eyes
To this same Atum, who seems to have been his main
crutch and source of information,he developed a petty
hate relation which blossoms through the text in passages
such as "The unpleasantness of returningwas somewhat
alleviated by Atum's sufferingon the way up the stony
trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and
me laugh, and he kept stopping to rest,clutchinghis back
with both hands. In spite of the fact that I had already
lost both big toenails, it was a pleasure to move rapidly

and leave Atum gasping behind

. . ." (p. 216).

Indeed, thisqualityin relationsto people seems to be rather

in tune with Ik culture, except that they practice it with
a macabre self-ironyin which Turnbull is lacking (pp.
Lolimbecameill and had to be protectedwhileeatingthe food
I gave him.Once I caughtLomonginstealingout of Lolim'stin
butdid nothave
mugwhileLolimwas eating.Lolimwas crying,
to pull the mug away;all he could do was to hold
the strength
on to the mug withone hand and conveyas muchof the food
as possiblefrommug to mouthwiththe other.As soon as I
appearedLomonginreversedhis actionsand pretendedhe had
been feedingLolim,sayingthe old man was so blindhe could
notsee wherehis mouthwas to put thefood.The old man had
to retort,"At least,I didn'tput it in yours!"
at whichtheyboth rockedwithlaughterand held on to each
otheras thoughtheyweretheclosestof friends.
Unable to functionin thiskind of relationship,Turnbull
remained the clumsyoutsidertillthe verylast-and blames
the Ik for it. On one of his last days of fieldworkhe nearly
felloffa cliffforreasons which he claims looked contrived
(p. 273):

famines,this Iciebam,"Friend of the Ik," has his moment

of revenge and solemnlydevelops a final solution,a plan
for systematicculturcide (pp. 283-84):
My suggestion was simple enough. It recognized that physical
coercion would be necessary to relocate them, for they would
never move of theirown accord. They would have to be rounded
up in somethingapproaching a militaryoperation. The terrain,
was not spacious,and a well-organizedoperation
could have enclosed them and caught most of them before they
could flee. Then theywould have to be taken to parts of Uganda
remote for them not to be able to returnto Northern
Karimoja, foras long as theywere withinreach theywould always
try to return. The territoryfor relocation would have to be
mountainous and capable of being worked productively.All this
might have been acceptable except for the use of force, which
would have put the governmentin a bad light if misreported,
as it almost certainlywould have been by the internationalpress.
But my last stipulation was doomed to rejection. In discussing
the use of force I said that men, women, and children could
be rounded up at random and should be dispersed throughout
the country,in its mountainous regions, in small units of about
ten. Age, sex, or kinshipwas immaterial.Such random grouping
would do no violenceto the familystructure,butwould, ifanything,
be beneficial, for it would complete the fragmentationalready
complete in all but theircontinued localization,and would compel
their integrationinto the life of the communitiesto which they
would be allocated. If kept in larger units, they might well be
able to band togetherto work theirmagic around them wherever
theywent,perpetuatingtheirsurvivalsystemand perhaps corrupting stillothers. Whereas if dispersed in small groups, they would
be forced to find their own individUtalways, which would suit
and would quicklylose theirlanguage and
withit theirlast sense of belonging to a world long gone beyond
This culturcide plan, and the vituperation against the
Ik, are advanced under the flimsycover of a representation
of present Ik culture and society as a recent, monstrous

perversiondeveloped under the stressof starvation.I do

not doubt that hunger drove the Ik population to extremities, but very much doubt the conclusions as to future

creative capacity which Turnbull

draws from this. He

himself makes the passing comparison to World War

concentrationcamps (e.g., p. 236), withoutpursuing the
thought either to deepen his compassion or qualify his
saidAtum,"youcouldhavefallen prognosis.And surely,even had he been right,therewould
"You tookthewrongturning,"
over."For a momenthis face was serious,almostcross,and I
stillbe no justificationfor such a clandestine program of
waswarmedat hisconcern.Then I hearda muffled
at whichAtum
me and foundLojieridoubledup withlaughter,
Fortunately"Obote's specially trained thugs" had the
could controlhimselfno longer,and laughedand slapped his
not even to take his suggestionseriously;so the
withtears."You don'tlikeheights,
continued powerlessintellectualhas only been able to use words, and
do you?"heaskedand,leavingthequestionunanswered,
turnthe tragedy
ahead, now leadingthe procession,stilllaughing.It is difficult throughthemin senselessethnocentricity
to tellwhethertheywouldhave laughedharderif I had fallen of a whole people into a banal parable of himself and
or wouldhavefeltdeprivedof futurepossibilities
his understanding of his own society'sproblems. Yet in
On anotheroccasionthatsame day theymanagedto lose me
the world of men traffickingin words, surely this must
be the ultimatein intellectualimperialism?
In my opening paragraphs I spoke about accountability.
Where an anthropologistfailsto practicethe competences
There will be many anthropologistswho recognize unand ethicsof our disciplinein his relationsto other societies
dercurrentsfrom some of their own emotions during less
and cultures, and evades the sanctions of those most
happy fieldworksin the reactions and attitudes which
Turnbull gives free play in this book. What is frightening concerned, it must be up to his colleagues to speak and
is how theydistorthis judgement, erode his integrity,
act for those who are not given the rightof self-defence.
The blurb, however,quotes Desmond Morris ("beautifully
ultimately must have developed into a paranoid hate
towards the people he lived among so that all genuine
observed and beautifullywritten"),Ashley Montagu ("the
anthropologicalballast is lost. In his own words: "For the
parallel with our own societyis deadly . . . we would do
individualsone can only feel infinitesorrow at what they
well to read it"), and Carleton Coon ("a masterpiece . . .
a magnificentif ghastly tale"). For the hygiene of our
have lost; hatred must be reserv,edforthe so-called society
discipline and for our mutual instruction,I call on the
they live in. . .. It is that survival machine that is the
AssociatesofCURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY to take a differentstand,
monster,not the Atums and Lojieris . . ." (p. 285). So,
when asked for advice by the Uganda government on
and help clarify the ethical and practical issues this publicarelocation of the 1k as a measure against their recurrent thon raises.