In her book “Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa”, Katherine A. Dettwyler, a practicing anthropologist, describes the culture of Mali in West Africa. The book is focused upon various problems of the native Africans’ life; the author speaks about the issues of health and female genital mutilation. The author also covers the miscellaneous topics of anthropology and cross-cultural analysis, such as, for example, ethnocentrism.
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Being a scientist devoted to her field of study, Dettwyler wrote the book in a conversationally vivid manner. The text was possibly meant to encourage students and people who are interested in anthropology to further explore the field.
This might be the reason the author included her personal opinions and quoted conversation in the text. She seems unwilling to overly complicate the book with academic language, relying mostly on what she supposes to be common sense. Even the title of the book is meant to arouse the readers’ anticipation and generally make the book interesting, thus extending the target audience.
However, in the course of reading, the author’s emotive discourse may distract some parts of the audience from the actual message of the book. The collision of the author’s feelings and her inclinations as a professional anthropologist is almost tangible. The conflict is expressed in how the author describes her culture shock when introduced to the native women’s way of treating children or the procedure of female genital mutilation, for that matter.
Culture shock is strictly personal. It is broadly defined as a process when a person is getting used to the foreign (or by any other means strange) environment (Pedersen 1). It happens so because it is very difficult for a person to stop thinking about the world, the people, and their mentality in terms of the culture this person was brought up in.
However, one of the main principles of anthropological studies is to put one’s cultural background aside at least for a while and act solely out of scientific interest. Cultural bias blurs clear perception and the students of anthropology are supposed to avoid biased assumptions in their works and when interacting with members of the culture they study.
Thus, it is rather humbling that a professional anthropologist should let herself be stricken by shock when introduced to the foreign culture for the second time. For example, the author expressed her utter disgust at a woman who failed to properly nourish her child. The author tried to instruct the woman on what she should do and allowed herself an outbreak of emotion (Dettwyler 31-33).
Such behavior presumably meant she was trying to do her best to save the child, telling his mother to buy food and taking him to the doctor. This is what a white American mother would do, and for Dettwyler it seemed rather complicated to stop projecting the white American modes of behavior on the Malian women.
Besides, the author somehow failed to take into account that, in 1993, Mali was one of the poorest countries in the world with the per capita GNI less than four hundred dollars (“Mali Trade Summary 1993” par. 6).
Surely, the concept of nutrition is important for motherhood, it is just that the Malian people probably found it difficult to afford nourishing food for their children (or even themselves) every day. Thus, the author’s emotiveness in her expression of the culture shock and hurt maternal feelings in the course of interaction with the Malian people can distract the reader from the Malian culture and behavior itself.
Another important cultural issue is female circumcision, or female genital mutilation. This issue has been troubling the world community for a long time and has caused much argument. There are diverse opinions about whether it affects general ethics and female sexuality; there are also diverse forms of understanding the effect of female circumcision on group and individual rights (Momoh 1-2).
However, to have a proper understanding of the procedure, it is worth referring to its very nature. In the cultures that practice the circumcision, it is deeply intertwined with the concept of bodily aesthetics and religious belief. It means that the custom, the ceremony and the very process of female circumcision cannot be observed separately from the culture.
There should be no notion of barbarism in anthropology since the science prides itself on observing cultures and cultural phenomena as a whole. This holistic approach is also one of the essential principles of anthropology, along with the principle of cultural relativism that presupposes people should treat each other’s culture with respect (Kratz 276).
Consequently, an anthropologist should not only show an impassive reaction to such phenomena but also percept them as an inseparable component of the culture, whereas the author seems to do quite the opposite. She points out that circumcision is simply taken for granted in Malian society and does not provide the reader with any speculation on the deeper roots of the process.
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To her credit, she does not scold the Malians, either. However, she makes jokes on the subject and asks inconvenient questions out of curiosity (Dettwyler 25-29). Thus, once again the reader sees Malian cultural values observed through the prism of Dettwyler’s cultural and personal values.
It is deeply rooted in the collective subconscious that there are norms and modes of behavior and that all ethnic groups should follow these norms. People are prone to judgment, which is what ethnocentrism takes roots from (Yang 67).
In other words, ethnocentrism is the key reason people think one race is somehow better than another. Just as any other culture, Malian culture is a self-sufficient world, and what a professional anthropologist should do is watch and give a detailed account of his/her observations. In relation to that, the conflict between the author’s occupation and personality is clearly seen.
Studying Malian culture is a good idea, but the author has difficulty in impassive observation, instead imposing her image of a white American female in a foreign culture to her writing. As an anthropologist, Dettwyler deploys the concept of cultural relativism and the necessity to refrain from ethnocentrism.
At the same time, she – as a person – seems to adopt the “white man’s mission” to civilize and educate the underdeveloped people, which is quite contradictory to the message she articulates.
To sum it up, Dettwyler’s book presents stories and conversations showing the ways of Malian life. These are very detailed and could be of interest to those studying African cultures. However, the style certainly lacks academicism, and the message of the book is rather blurred.
What is clearly visible is that the author, being a scientist, allows herself to be culturally shocked and overly emotional. Her ethnocentric remarks also suggest that she seems to have misinterpreted the whole idea of anthropology as a field of science.
Dettwyler, Katherine A. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa, Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1993. Print.
Kratz, Corinne A. “Circumcision, Pluralism, and Dilemmas of Cultural Relativism.”Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader. Ed. Aaron Podolefsky and Peter Brown. Boston, Massachusetts: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 269-280. Print.
Mali Trade Summary 1993. n.d. Web.
Momoh, Comfort. Female Genital Mutilation, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: Radcliffe Publishing, 2005. Print.
Pedersen, Paul. The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidents Around the World, Santa-Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1995. Print.
Yang, Philip Q. Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2000. Print.