Citation

From Syncretism to Polyculturalism: Reappraising Melville J. Herskovits' Conceptual Frameworks in Light of His Early Physical Anthropology

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Abstract:

This paper contends that the formative decade of the 1920s that anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits spent conducting physical measurements of Black subjects gave his later work in cultural anthropology a set of metaphors that were both hereditary and inherently conservative. The young Herskovits depicted cultural patterns as physiological systems: materialistic, mechanistic, and knowable according to positivistic scientific principles. Although Herskovits and his mentor Franz Boas argued for the importance of nurture over nature and culture over biology, Herskovits remained wedded to the idea of culture as a set of rigid, predictable patterns. The author of the landmark 1941 tome, The Myth of the Negro Past, posited “syncretism” as the allegedly scientific mechanism by which the various strains of culture in Black America might be disentangled along a spectrum of “acculturation.” Yet syncretism perhaps obscures more than it explains through its reductive view of culture, its presumption of “pure” unmixed cultures, and its lack of individual agency. Scholars in Religious, Cultural, and African American Studies might replace “syncretism” with “polyculturalism” to describe cultural synthesis in a way that is consonant with the scholarship of today rather than that of the 1920s, based not on syncretism’s acculturation, authenticity, or retention, but rather on social networks, imagination, reinterpretation, and invention. Polycultural bricolage offers the possibility of discussing cultural formation, including religious innovation, without the essentialist, holistic, and hostile binaries of syncretic acculturation – or even the holism of anthropologist Ramon Ortiz’s 1947 intervention of “transculturation.” Rather, polyculturalism suggests that cultures are not bounded systems but fluid, multivalent processes, constructed by many individual bricoleurs who work by recombining old and new, familiar and foreign, in a process that takes advantage of similarities between cultures and is not so much conflictual, inevitable, or mechanical as it is creative, individualistic, and imaginative.
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Association:
Name: 95th Annual Convention
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http://www.asalh.org


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435397_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Dorman, Jacob. "From Syncretism to Polyculturalism: Reappraising Melville J. Herskovits' Conceptual Frameworks in Light of His Early Physical Anthropology" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435397_index.html>

APA Citation:

Dorman, J. S. "From Syncretism to Polyculturalism: Reappraising Melville J. Herskovits' Conceptual Frameworks in Light of His Early Physical Anthropology" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435397_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: This paper contends that the formative decade of the 1920s that anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits spent conducting physical measurements of Black subjects gave his later work in cultural anthropology a set of metaphors that were both hereditary and inherently conservative. The young Herskovits depicted cultural patterns as physiological systems: materialistic, mechanistic, and knowable according to positivistic scientific principles. Although Herskovits and his mentor Franz Boas argued for the importance of nurture over nature and culture over biology, Herskovits remained wedded to the idea of culture as a set of rigid, predictable patterns. The author of the landmark 1941 tome, The Myth of the Negro Past, posited “syncretism” as the allegedly scientific mechanism by which the various strains of culture in Black America might be disentangled along a spectrum of “acculturation.” Yet syncretism perhaps obscures more than it explains through its reductive view of culture, its presumption of “pure” unmixed cultures, and its lack of individual agency. Scholars in Religious, Cultural, and African American Studies might replace “syncretism” with “polyculturalism” to describe cultural synthesis in a way that is consonant with the scholarship of today rather than that of the 1920s, based not on syncretism’s acculturation, authenticity, or retention, but rather on social networks, imagination, reinterpretation, and invention. Polycultural bricolage offers the possibility of discussing cultural formation, including religious innovation, without the essentialist, holistic, and hostile binaries of syncretic acculturation – or even the holism of anthropologist Ramon Ortiz’s 1947 intervention of “transculturation.” Rather, polyculturalism suggests that cultures are not bounded systems but fluid, multivalent processes, constructed by many individual bricoleurs who work by recombining old and new, familiar and foreign, in a process that takes advantage of similarities between cultures and is not so much conflictual, inevitable, or mechanical as it is creative, individualistic, and imaginative.


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