As of today, the suggestion that human societies can be categorized as primitive, on the one hand, and advanced, on the other, is considered politically incorrect. This, however, does not undermine the suggestion’s factual appropriateness, as the considerations of political correctness do not affect the actual state of affairs, in this respect. In my paper, I will explore the validity of the above statement at length, in regards to what appears to be the discursive significance of Richard Borshay Lee’s article Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.
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When discussing the concerned subject matter, I will promote the idea that it is precisely the primitive people’s endowment with the sense of a mechanical solidarity (as defined by Emil Durkheim), which allows them to maintain the integrity of their traditional societies, while simultaneously denying them the prospect of a socio-cultural and technological advancement.
In his article, Lee expounds upon his experience of having bought an ox for the members of one of the Bushmen tribes in Africa, so that the animal could be slaughtered by them, during the course of these people participating in their traditional Christmas festivities.
However, even though Lee made a deliberate point in choosing the biggest ox out of those available for purchasing, the Bushmen appeared utterly dismayed by the fact that in their eyes, the animal in question was too small and skinny. As one of the tribe members pointed out: “Everybody knows there’s no meat on that old ox. What did you expect us to eat off it, the horns?” (Lee 1).
Initially, Lee did not know what to make out the tribesmen’s reaction, as there appeared to be no reason whatsoever for them to complain about his Christmas offer. Nevertheless, as time went on, it started to dawn upon Lee that the reason why the Bushmen were so critical about the slaughtered ox, is that it was their way of preventing him from growing too prideful, on the account of having succeeded in appeasing them in reality.
Moreover, as it appeared later, downsizing each other’s hunting-related accomplishments represents a commonplace practice among the Bushmen, because it helps them to maintain the inner stability of their tribes. Apparently, the earlier mentioned practice is meant to discourage particularly successful tribesmen from aspiring to claim the position of a leadership, which would threaten the interests the tribe’s elders.
As it was implied in the Introduction, Lee’s account can be best discussed within the conceptual framework of how Emil Durkheim used to reflect upon the notions of mechanical and organic solidarities. According Durkheim, in archaic (primitive) societies, people’s individual identities are being ‘dissolved’ within what happened to be this society’s ‘collective archetype’.
This explains why in primitive societies, people tend to lead highly ritualized lifestyles while striving to objectualize themselves within the surrounding environment – hence, their endowment with the mostly tribal (mechanical) sense of solidarity (Durkheim 140).
As it was shown in Lee’s article, while possessing the rudimentary understanding of the fact that certain preconditions should be created for tribesmen to refrain from challenging each other’s positioning, within the tribe, the Bushmen could not come up with any better (as the mean of encouraging the tribe members to live peacefully), than practicing the ‘ritual of humility’.
This presupposes the tribesmen’s automatic assumption that one’s strive to attain a social prominence is necessarily counterproductive, as it is being potentially capable of undermining the harmony of interrelationships within the tribe.
Nevertheless, such an assumption, on the part of the Bushmen, is exactly what prevented them from being able to evolve beyond the Stone Age, as it is namely the never-ending competition between the society’s members for a particular environmental niche, which sets this society on the path of progress.
Due to their intellectual primitiveness, it never occurred to the Bushmen that it is possible for people to be simultaneously competitive and moral/tolerant, as it happened to be the case with individuals in Western industrialized societies, the integrity of which is maintained by the citizens’ willingness to profess the virtue of an organic solidarity.
People that practice an organic solidarity understand that it is not solely the particulars of their kinship-relationship with each other, which cause them to act in one way or another, but rather the specifics of their professional affiliation and their varying ability to relate to a number of cognitively abstract notions, such as morality or ethics, for example.
In its turn, this is being made possible by the fact that in industrialized societies, people are encouraged to distance themselves from what happened to be their animalistic instincts, as the main prerequisite for them to be able to rise to the position of social prominence. This, of course, makes these people naturally predisposed towards entering into ‘social contracts’ with each other, which empowers them even further, as functionally independent but thoroughly integrated parts of the society.
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Thus, we can well assume that the fact that the Bushmen profess the virtue of a mechanical solidarity signifies these people’s inability to rise above their genetically predetermined perceptual and cognitive atavism.
The validity of this suggestion can be well illustrated in regards to the scene in Lee’s article, where the tribe member reflects upon what the Bushmen consider the actual purpose of their existence: “We love meat. And even more than that, we love fat. When we hunt, we always search for the fat ones, the ones dripping with layers of white fat… fat that slides down your gullet, fills your stomach and gives you a roaring diarrhea” (2).
In other words, it is specifically the sheer strength of the Bushmen’s animalistic instincts, which define their existential mode more than anything else does. This creates a specific dead-end circle – being unable to exercise a rational control over their atavistic urges, the Bushmen do not evolve cognitively, which in turn prevents the functioning of their societies to be observant of the principle of division of labor.
Consequently, this leaves Bushmen with no other option but to practice a number of essentially meaningless rituals, as the mean of preventing their tribes from being destroyed from within. However, whereas, this practice does appear sensible, as a ‘thing in itself’, it makes it rather impossible for the Bushmen to remain on the path of a continual evolvement – hence, these people’s socio-cultural and technological backwardness.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to what should be considered the discursive implications of Lee’s article, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good rationale in referring to the particulars of one’s ‘cultural uniqueness’, as such cannot be discussed outside of what accounts for the measure of his or her evolutionary fitness. This, of course, exposes the methodological fallaciousness of culturally relativist sociological theories.
Durkheim, Emil. The Division of Labor in Society, London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.
Lee, Richard Borshay 1969, Eating Christmas in the Kalahari. 2013. Web.