Module I: Introduction

II. Method and Theory in Cultural Anthropology.

C. Ethnology.

3. The case of Dani warfare.

While I have gone to some length to describe and compare theoretical difference in ethnology, this course will not require you to master all the subtleties and peculiarities of such a wide range of approaches. Some important theoretical issues will be raised but will be discussed further at the appropriate points in the syllabus. However, to give a preliminary illustration of ethnological analyses, I will briefly apply some of the above schools to an interpretation of Dani warfare, which Heider does treat in the first chapter of his ethnography (Grand Valley Dani: 19-23) and which we shall revisit in a later module (Political Anthropology).

a. Heider's orientation.

Heider's research, as reported in the Grand Valley Dani, was not conducted with a view towards testing a theoretically derived hypothesis of affirming or adding to a specific body of ethnological thought. In fact Heider abandoned his original research objective, to study stone axes from an ethnoarchaeological perspective, and gradually changed his focus "from the material aspects of culture to the mental phenomena which make up culture". This statement suggests a general Boasian strain in his thinking which is evident in other points in the ethnography as well as in his presentation of a fairly descriptive account of Dani culture. His final stand on understanding the Dani suggests that all the pieces of Dani life "make sense as part of a larger pattern of Dani culture (22)". This pattern is defined by a unifying principle of "low psychic energy". This conclusion and subsequent treatment is vague and only loosely developed but does illustrate an adherence to a Boasian perspective.

Heider's historical particularism is not totally uncritical and he does go off on some interesting tangents in parts of his book. One occurs in his "first revision". As a good Boasian, he initially assumes that Dani warfare was integrally linked to all the other elements of Dani culture, an expression of the principle of holism. Accordingly, he was concerned when the Dutch colonial authority forced the pacification of the area, a policy which he thought would lead to disruption and disturbances in other aspects of Dani life. However, the elimination of warfare caused no appreciable reaction, at least not one on the scale Heider had hypothesized. This observation not only questions Boas' specific theorization but the entire culture concept that the anthropological community has adopted across several different ethnological perspectives. If valid, it indicates that culture is not as tightly integrated or as determinative of individual behaviour as many anthropologists suggest.

b. Danietics and Daniemics.

I have already stressed that Dani warfare must in the first instance be considered in terms of the Dani's own cultural understandings and explanations, ultimately as a series of acts and observances related to their concern with the ghosts. An anthropologist who insists on exclusive adherence to emic methods might further contend that such an explanation was sufficient and could not be elaborated within wider conceptualization or theory of warfare, unless other groups practised and understood it in exactly the same way as the Dani. (This perspective is actually assumed in Gardiner's treatment of Dani warfare in the film Dead Birds, which we shall screen at a later time.)

An etic approach to Dani warfare would involve any one of many possible interpretations that viewed it in cross cultural terms as discussed in the subsequent subsections. At this point, I will introduce a Freudian argument, although this approach is not very current, perhaps because it adopts an extreme disregard of native meaning systems. A Freudian interpretation would view the events, objects, and rituals of war as symbolic of a universal sexual dynamic. Accordingly we might view Dani ghosts as father figures or superegos who perpetuate experiences of childhood repressions and punishments. They demand sexual abstinence and extensive incest avoidances in the same way that fathers' deny their sons sexual access to females within the family. To compensate for the resulting frustrations, they encourage continuous warfare, which provides an outlet for sexual energy and assumes a sexual imagery in the form of spears and arrows.

c. Structures and Functions of Warfare

A structural-functionalist theory of warfare would emphasize its role in establishing a common purpose and interest within a social group. In the face of a common enemy and attendant dangers the members of Dani alliances and confederations must put aside their local differences and unite for common action against their foes. Group identity, harmony, and continuity is thus insured both by warfare and the funeral and victory rituals that are linked to it. Constant warfare in its "ritual phase" would be particularly "functional" in the Dani social landscape, which is composed of groups whose members do not take on specialized occupations and thus has no "organic" unity and offers no intrinsic economic incentives for cooperatation.

d. Class Warfare

A Marxist position would first identify important socio-economic divisions among the Dani perhaps those which divide men from women, or elder married males from younger bachelors, or men holding different statuses in the Dani prestige hierarchy. We might then see warfare as a way of establishing or reinforcing exploitative relationships and unequal benefits among Dani classes. Women, who do most of the basic labour, can be viewed as an labouring class expoited by men, who claim exclusion from daily work responsibilities because they must continually prepare for battle, serve as watchmen, or organize ceremonies

e. Ecological Warfare

Heider actually entertains a cultural ecological explanation for Dani warfare in his "second revision" (21). He cites and gives substantial credence to the conclusion of a famous study of warfare carried out in another area of New Guinea by a prominent cultural ecologist, Roy Rappaport. This study maintained that warfare and its integration into a ritual cycle involving pig sacrifices keeps populations below the natural environment's carrying capacity and redistributes them in accordance with land availabilities among simple cultivators. The Dani similarly raise pigs and have constructed a cycle of warfare and ceremony that is similar to other highland New Guinea societies and might serve the same purpose.

We will return to ethnographic and ethnological issues and to a re-evaluation of Dani warfare later in this course.


Go to Discussion Exercise #2