What is the specificity of the human race within nature? How is its history to be explained? What impact do material realities, natural and man-made, have on human beings? What role does thought, in all its dimensions, play in the production of social relations? How are the human sciences to be advanced today? These are among the crucial questions confronted by Godelier in this key book of contemporary social theory. Its point of departure lies in a fact and a hypothesis. The fact: in contrast to other social animals, human beings do not just live in society; they produce society in order to live. The hypothesis: because they have the unique capacity to appropriate and transform nature, they produce culture and create history.
Drawing on his own extensive fieldwork and ranging over the most diverse ethnographic data, Godelier substantiates his case by attending to the analysis of both social relations of production and the production of social relations. In a sustained challenge to currently dominant schemas, he offers a series of highly original theses on the constitution, reproduction and transformation of societies, recasting the distinction between infrastructure and superstructures, illuminating the relations between economic determination and political/ideological dominance, and clarifying the character of ideology and its central role in the perpetuation of dominance and exploitation.
"Frustrated by the fact that most texts on women treated 'the man's world' as the given and then simply asked where and how women fitted in," Stephanie Coontz writes, "I decided to undertake a survey of American gender roles: that was the starting point of the present book" — The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600–1900, published by Verso in 1988.
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863-65. via Wikimedia Commons.
As the focus of her research shifted from "woman's private sphere" to the family as a larger arena in which the public and private intersect, Coontz became more attentive to the diversity of household arrangements across time and space. "Stimulated by the burgeoning research into family history," she writes, "I began to look at the family as a culture's way of coordinating personal reproduction with social reproduction — as the socially sanctioned place where male and female reproductive activities condition and are conditioned by the other activities into which human beings enter as they perpetuate a particular kind of society, or try to construct a new one."
Continued from part I.
Detail from Francis William Edmonds' The New Bonnet (1858).
The Limits of Structural and Demographic Analysis
Although it is important to compare demographic trends and household structures and seek their economic correlates, such procedures yield only limited information about the history of families. Olga Linares points out: “Qualitative changes in the meaning of interpersonal obligations may be as important in distinguishing among household types as more easily measured changes in size and form.” Indeed, as Barrington Moore Jr has commented, tabulating structural differences “necessarily involves ignoring all differences except the one being measured.” Changes in social relations and patterns are not “reducible to any quantitative differences; they are incommensurable. Yet it is precisely such differences that matter most to human beings.”47
Nic Ulmi's interview with Maurice Godelier was first published in Le Temps, Switzerland. Translated by David Broder.
Godelier in 2014, via YouTube.
"They called me Maurice the Red. Not for political reasons, but because of the sunburn." Maurice Godelier recalls thusly his stay among the Baruyas of Papua New Guinea. A great deconstructor of received wisdom, the anthropologist — today in his eighties — passed through Geneva for a conference organised by the University and the Latsis Foundation. There he reasserted the need to recognise the invariants at work in human societies, as well as the need to observe the way in which the imaginary transforms into social facts.