Economic Development and Cultural Change. January 1964, Vol. 12, No2, p220-221.


Review of George M. Foster, Traditional Cultures and the Impact of Technological Change.

Lucy Mair London School of Economics

The title of this book is rather wider than its scope. It is concerned with attempts to persuade peasant populations to adopt innovations, notably in the field of public health, which persons with scientific knowledge would regard as technically desirable. Only in the final chapter, and then in a quotation, is there mention of the uncontrolled impact of machine technology which is changing peasant societies through the impersonal agency of economic incentives. In essence, then, it is a handbook of applied anthropology, and as such it should be invaluable both to technicians engaged in betterment or community development projects and to those anthropologists who seek to cooperate with them.

Dr. Foster has been an official adviser on health and community development programs, and he took part in the preparation of one team of Peace Corps volunteers. The advice he gives is excellent. Do not take for granted the superiority of your own culture or the self-evident character of your technical arguments. Learn to communicate with people in their own language and to listen to their point of view; in their own terms their objections to your schemes are sometimes unanswerable. Remember that a change at one point in a system must lead to consequent changes elsewhere, and try to anticipate these. He has some advice also to anthropologists seeking to win friends among technicians.

For Dr. Foster, social change is 'a part of cultural change, and culture is sometimes reified as when he writes of "helping people to change their culture," as if it were a material object for them to tinker with. He indicates that the social structure is an important element in the situation confronting the technician, but he does not give it as much weight-or as much analysis-as would those of us in Britain who have been accused of abandoning anthropology for sociology. He notes that it is important to pay due regard to hierarchy in authority systems and to win the support of influential leaders; not to be identified with one faction where there are two; but his example of rival factions are people of slightly different culture, not interest groups or persons who are attached to rival leaders in a struggle for power or pickings. In a curious way one feels that to him a role is really a part played on a stage for the rest of society to hiss or applaud. That aspect of A's role which consists in his obligations to B et alia is neglected. But what makes social change a matter of agonizing choice is precisely that it may entail a neglect of specific obligations which will alienate specific individuals.

Dr. Foster's examples are largely taken from parts of the world where British anthropologists have not worked, and they and his bibiliography will be new to readers who have concentrated on Africa or even the Pacific. Yet occasionally one feels that some of our contributions might have helped the argument. not very important observation about the adoption of steel tools is taken from Firth's Elements of Social Organization; but his Social Change in Tikopia expressly offered as a study in applied anthropology, is not mentioned, and for the Maori we have an anecdote that could be paralleled from almost any peasant society, but no mention of his classic analysis of their economic system. Again, the remarks about the rigidity of the Indian caste system could hardly survive a reading of F. H. Bailey's study of the change in village structure in Orissa in response to new economic circumstances.

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