Review of Primitive Behavior by W. I. Thomas.
THOMAS, WILLIAM I. Primitive Behavior. Pp. ix, 847. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1937. $5.00
This book displays extraordinary erudition. No other anthropological work since The Golden Bough has drawn its material from as many and as diverse sources. Anthropological literature has been covered almost up to the date of the book's appearance, and the bibliography alone is enough to make it a necessary addition to any social science library.
The author states his primary theses clearly in his chapter on Methodological Approach: "Employing the term culture to represent the material and social values of any group of people, whether savage or civilized ... the structuralization of cultures, their diversification and the direction of their development, the total configuration of the patterns they contain, and the reaction of personalities to the cultural situation can best be approached in terms of the definition of the situation. An adjustive effort of any kind is preceded by a decision to act or not to act along a given line, and the decision is itself preceded by a definition of the situation, that is to say, an interpretation, or point of view, and eventually a policy and a behavior pattern.... On the social level these definitions and the patterns they initiate are represented by moral and legal codes, political policies, organizations, institutions, etc.
( 207) ... Examining this standpoint among primitive groups we find that they notice and magnify situations which we fail to notice, or disregard; that different tribes define the same situation and pattern the behavior in precisely opposite ways; . . . that a trivial situation may initiate a pattern which expands and ramifies and is stepped up to a position of emotional and social importance; that the same pattern may include a variety of meanings and applications; that in different populations an identical pattern may have different meanings and applications; . . . that different cultures may be more or less dominated by particular definitions and patterns; . . . that there is a tendency to step up patterns to unanticipated extremities."
It would appear from the foregoing that the author had two distinct purposes in mind: first, to show how differing definitions of particular situations influence culture configurations as wholes, and, second, to prove the diversity of response to similar situations by different societies. The bulk of the book is devoted to the second of these. The range of variation in response to particular situations is illustrated by a long series of examples taken without reference to their cultural settings, and presented under such headings as Kinship Behavior, Spiritual Intimacies and Avoidances, and so forth. This material has been skillfully selected. Its only weakness, one which it shares with most other compilations of this sort, is that these examples represent divergent forms of highly elaborated response. It would have been a valuable departure if examples from the lower end of the scale of elaboration had also been included. There seems to be no upper limit to the complexity which patterns of response to a given situation can assume, but there might conceivably be a lower limit, a minimum of patterned response essential to group survival. This would hold true in particular for the situations arising from biological needs and from the forced association of individuals within the social aggregate.
It is unfortunate that only one chapter, Exemplification of Bantu Culture, is
devoted to showing how differing definitions of particular situations influence
culture configurations as wholes. In this the author illustrates how the
component elements of a configuration may be oriented about a dominant value or
group of values, in this case the concept of life continuity in the individual
and sib. Analysis of another and markedly different culture configuration, say
that of some well-documented American Indian tribe, with the resulting
contrasts, would have made this part of the work more conclusive. It is becoming
increasingly evident that such orientations are one of the most vital features
of culture structure, and have a profound effect on the direction of culture
growth and change. A long and in itself excellent chapter on the Diffusion of
Patterns increases the value of the book for text purposes, as does one on the
Relative Mental Endowment of Races, but neither of these seems to have been
successfully integrated with the main theses of the book. In spite of these
minor criticisms. this work is in line with some of the most recent and
important trends in anthropology, and is recommended to all workers in the
University of Wisconsin