Caribbean (Anthropology)

It can be claimed that the social and cultural anthropology of the Caribbean has been made peripheral to the core of the discipline. This is because of the ways anthropology became professionalized and the concomitant epistemologi-cal requirements to look for, and create if necessary, ‘pristine’ cultures and social structures. This situation is not a reflection of the Caribbean’s intrinsic anthropological value. Centuries of hegemonic colonialism, migration, slavery and forced labour, miscegenation, and ‘derivative’ cultures broken off from their places of origin, all meant that anthropology defined the Caribbean as ‘hybrid’ and ‘creole’. Thus, anthropology’s ‘othering’ enterprise – simultaneously providing a subject for, and ordering status within, the discipline (the more ‘other’ the better) – made the Caribbean anthropologlcally inferior to more ‘exotic’ ethnographic locales.

Yet, Caribbean anthropology has always involved issues that only became popular in the discipline as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s, including colonialism, history and anthropology, diaspora processes, plantations, gender, ethnicity, the ‘crisis of representation’ characteristic of postmodernism, local world system connections, the links between fiction and anthropology-writing and the connections between ethnology and nationalism, to name a few.


The notion of ‘contact’ determines the very anthropological definition of the Caribbean itself. ‘The Caribbean’ can be defined as the societies of the archipelago located in the Caribbean Sea proper, from Cuba south to Trinidad. In practice, it has also been defined to include the Bahamas islands and Bermuda to the north, Belize in Central America, and Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana on the northeast shoulder of South America. A good case is also made to include within this designation the Caribbean diaspora communities created by a history of intra- and inter-regional migration, from Central America to North American and European cities such as Miami, Toronto, New York, Amsterdam, London, and Paris.

Caribbean ontologies

Casting the definitional net wide is justified because of underlying ontological arrangements. "Mintz has long argued (e.g. 1974) that despite centuries of colonialism involving at least six imperial powers, certain similarities are visible (but not totally determining) because of the plantation complex, the site of Europe’s first industries, and political economies based on extraction of raw materials, primarily sugar, for the benefit of the metropole, and the resulting ethnic-class division of labour. The Caribbean received up to 40 per cent of the approximately 10 million African slaves brought to the Americas from the early sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century; as well as indentured labourers from India, China, and Europe’s periphery, migrants from as far away as the Middle East, and colonial administrators, plantation owners, merchants and workers from the metro-poles. For Mintz, this history was an ever-present reality. Not only did it provide context, but the waves of the longue duree continually affected ethnographic realities. Apparent contradictions and paradoxes were explained by reference to history: the plantation was capitalist, but depended on forced labour. Peasantries were, where they existed, ‘reconstituted’, established, as nowhere else, after capitalism and not swept away by it, yet continually affected by movements in the world system. Historical processes informed the region’s manifest ethnic and cultural heterogeneity and explained it as a constructed reality for anthropologists, but naturalized this reality for Caribbean peoples. These forces accounted for a historical consciousness among Caribbean peoples, but it was a consciousness which many anthropologists could not (or would not) recognize.

The African diaspora and the cultural politics of ethnology

Twentieth-century Caribbean anthropology began with the collection of folklore by local ethnologists, even though their contribution was often minimized by professional anthropologists. These included Lydia Cabrera (1900-91) in Cuba, much encouraged by her brother-in-law Fernando Ortiz (1881-1969), Antonio Salvador Pedreira (1899-1939) in Puerto Rico, and Jean Price-Mars (1876-1969) in Haiti – upper and middle-class scholars who dealt with Afro-Caribbean themes. The aims of some were avowedly political. Early North American scholars were the students of Boas: Martha Beckwith (1871-1959), who collected folklore and data on ethnobotany in Jamaica; Zora Neale Hurston (1903-60), whose work in Haiti experimented with fiction-writing techniques; and Melville J. Herskovits, whose fieldwork was conducted in Suriname, Haiti and Trinidad. The impact of Herskovits’s work (often in collaboration with his wife Frances) was substantial. He aimed at exploding racist depictions of New World Blacks by maintaining the conceptual separation of race and culture and by tracing African cultural survivals in religion, language, the family, etc. from what he called the West African ‘cultural area’ with such theoretical tools as ‘acculturation’, ‘cultural focus’, and ‘reinterpretations’ (e.g. Herskovits 1941). In the process, he trained students and inspired others to work in the Caribbean. The opposing theoretical poles of the Afro-American culture question were framed by the debate between Herskovits and the African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. The former stressed the African origin of (for example) Afro-American family forms, while the latter argued that Africans were stripped of their culture in the enslavement process. This intellectual tension persists. One influential view questions only the levels on which such Africa—New World continuities should be sought: ‘less on sociocultural forms’ and more on ‘values’ and ‘unconscious grammatical principles’ (Mintz and Price 1992: 9).

Postwar developments

The debate on the Afro-American family was hardly academic. British colonial administrators, for example, officially decried the high number of what anthropologists came to call ‘female-headed’ or matrifocal Afro-Caribbean families (seen in contrast to ‘normal’ nuclear families). The anthropological response was a plethora of family and kinship studies. Until the 1970s, Caribbean anthropology was preoccupied with the whys and wherefores of ‘matrifocal’ families, ‘absent fathers’, ‘female-headed’ households, ‘illegitimacy’, ‘child-shifting’, marital ‘instability’, ‘loose’ kinship ties, ‘outside children’, ‘visiting’ sexual unions, ‘extra-residential mating’ and a number of other objectifying terms steeped in value judgements. Explicit colonial ideologies became implicit anthropological assumptions as anthropologists often endeavoured to explain these ‘pathologies’ and ‘deviations’ from North Atlantic value-norms. This concern was buttressed by imported theoretical orientations, most notably structural functionalism. Studies focused on lower-class Black family life in rural areas. Poverty was made to explain the family form and the family form was made to explain poverty. The study of three communities in Jamaica by Clarke, a member of an elite White Jamaican family who studied under Mal-inowski at the London School of Economics, is a prime example (1957). And those who lauded the Black family form as a positive ‘adaptation’ to poverty could not explain why other similarly impoverished groups (e.g. East Indians) did not make the same adaptations.

Later opponents of functionalism emphasized history and class conflict. Martinez-Alier’s (now Stolcke) classic work (1974), based on her Oxford DPhil thesis, is an extraordinary anthropological encounter with history. She showed how hierarchy became ‘racially’ organized in nineteenth-century Cuba and how this was intimately tied to the marriage and kinship system and gender ideology. In revising his functionalist stance of three decades earlier, Raymond T. Smith, a Briton based for many years at the University of Chicago and who sent many postgraduate students to the Caribbean, located the family and kinship complex in class relations: ‘The family is not the cause of poverty; its particular shape is part of the social practice of class relations’ (1988: 182). For Smith, this system was typified by a ‘dual marriage’ system where status equals marry, but men of higher and women of lower status enter extra-legal unions; a greater emphasis on consanguineal solidarity than on conjugal ties; a matrifocal (but not matriarchal) family practice (where ‘matri-focality’ now refers to the ‘segregation of sex roles and the salience of mothering within the domestic domain’ [1988: 182]); ‘domestic’ activities not confined to a single ‘household’; and sex-role differentiation, all wrapped up in a specific set of local cultural assumptions.


Gender studies tended to arise from family and kinship studies and have thus been underdeveloped as such. Local scholars were at the forefront, questioning why women were only visible within the family, even as some anthropological models depicted an ‘independent’ Black ‘matriarch’ as the ideal-type. Others questioned the invisibility of men altogether. Wilson (1973) tied his ‘respectability’ and ‘reputation’ dualism to cultural constructions of gender. Respectability is primarily the domain of women and involves the approximation of the value standards of the colonial and local elite. Reputation is primarily, though not exclusively, the domain of men. Reputation is an alternative, egalitarian value system with its roots in local estimations of worth. Descriptively evocative and once theoretically compelling, this schema has been criticized by those who argued that Wilson’s overwhelmingly normative focus did not account for power differentials, and by those who argued that his depictions of women obscured their activities (see Besson 1993; Yelvington 1995: 163-78).

Equally paradigmatic during the postwar decades was the debate surrounding the plural society thesis. The leading proponent was M.G. Smith, a middle-class Jamaican who studied under Daryll Forde in London and whose early work was on West Africa. Following British colonial administrator J.S. Furnivall and Dutch pioneering Caribbean scholar Rudolf AJ. van Lier, Smith (1965) posited the existence of separate ethnic/cultural segments in each society that maintained separate and distinct institutions and practices. These segments and corporate groups were held together by the over-arching power of colonial governments. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a fierce debate between the ‘plural society school’, the ‘stratification school’, functionalists like R.T. Smith and Trinidadian sociologist Lloyd Braithwaite who argued for the existence of a common core of values, and the ‘plantation society school’, who felt that Caribbean culture pertained directly to the exigencies of the plantation. The debate was never resolved. In his later years Smith’s thesis was criticized as middle-class ideology parading as theory and Smith himself acknowledged the ‘overwhelmingly negative reaction’ to his ideas by Caribbean scholars.

In the postwar watershed era, anthropologists from European colonial powers tended to study ‘their’ colonial societies. As the Caribbean increasingly entered into the US political, military,and economic orbit, and as Caribbean ‘social problems’ seemed to mirror some at home, American anthropologists increasingly discarded their exclusive focus on Native American groups. Neither North Americans nor Europeans could import their theories or methods wholesale. For example, the ‘community studies method’ in North America was met with the reality of rural-urban-national-world connections. The People of Puerto Rico project (Steward et al. 1956) was an ambitious early attempt to specify the workings of these historical links. Yet the Caribbean also came to be seen as a training ground for anthropologists who were to go on to bigger and better things. Even the doyens of postmodernism, Michael M.J. Fischer and George E. Marcus, did their early fieldwork in Jamaica and Guyana, respectively. Caribbean anthropology has tended to mirror the linguistic and national insularity of the region. Very few scholars did fieldwork in more than one language.

The next generation and beyond

It was natural that later generations of Car-ibbeanists expressed the contemporary concerns of the discipline at large as well as the themes of their predecessors. For example, in his semiotic analysis of ‘race’ and ‘colour’ in pre-independence Trinidad and Tobago, Segal (1993) showed how colonial constructions saw Blacks as culturally naked, who thus could only hope to be infused with European teachings, and East Indians as possessing ancestral culture, albeit an inferior one. Moreover, this theme was utilized by the middle-class Black and ‘Brown’ Creole inheritors of power as they appropriated lower-class Black popular cultural forms and elevated them to ‘national’ status.

With a multi-level focus, Williams (1991) demonstrated the articulations of ethnicity and nationalism in Guyana. The construction of ethnic and cultural difference and an ordering of ethnic groups to prove and justify contribution, authenticity, and citizenship was connected to the acts of cultural contestation over which group has historically contributed the most to ‘the nation’, which therefore gets constructed as ‘belonging’ to that group. This is achieved through a conceptual move of inversion, where the European-dominated social status hierarchy is turned on its head.

Questions of history and peoplehood have guided the long-term work of Richard and Sally Price among the Saramaka maroons in Suriname. In First-Time (1983), Richard Price recorded the Saramaka knowledge of the period 1685 to 1762 when their ancestors escaped slavery, established communities, and resisted European power. Price split the pages of his topic to juxtapose these narratives of ‘First-time’, the ‘fountainhead of collective identity’, with his own commentaries and citation of Western written sources.

The immediacy of power and class practice is evident in the urban ethnographies, only prevalent since the mid-1970s. These include Austin’s (later Austin-Broos) study of two neighbourhoods in Kingston, Jamaica and the hegemonic ‘legitimizing ideology of education’ maintained through local class relations and international economic pressure (1984), and a study of women factory workers in Trinidad that traces hegemony to control over the production process, and the complex ways social identities are dia-lectically determined and commodified in that same process (Yelvington 1995). Other recent ethnographies explore contemporary themes of migration and diasporic communities (Glick-Schiller and Fouron 2001), nongovernmental organizations and social movements (Schuller 2007), and local responses to neoliberal economic policies (Slocum 2006).

The region Trouillot called ‘an open frontier in anthropological theory’ (1992) remains relatively understudied. Of the 5,918 anthropologists in academic settings listed by the American Anthropological Association in the 1994-95 Guide to Departments, only 180 (3 per cent) list the Caribbean as one of their regional interests. A count of the 584 members of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth in 1994 revealed that only 32 (5.5 per cent) listed the Caribbean as a regional interest. Yet it is interesting to speculate how differently the discipline would have developed if Radcliffe-Brown had written The Virgin Islanders and it featured the stylized grieving of the Afro-Caribbean wake; if Malinowski had written Argonauts of the Eastern Caribbean and it was about reciprocity among fisherfolk in Martinique;if Mead had written Coming of Age in Jamaica and it was about female adolescence there; or if Evans-Pritchard had written Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Habaperos and it was about santeria worshippers in working-class Havana and the syncretization of Catholic saints and Yoruba orishas that characterizes the religion; now that anthropology has begun to recognize that, in terms of ‘hybrid’ and ‘creole’ cultures and social structures, and the presence of history, the world has been and is becoming more like the Caribbean.

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