Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography. xi+249 pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. London: Pluto Press, 2015. $99 (cloth), $35 (paper)

Fredrik Barth was a creative and outspoken theorist, an indefatigable fieldworker and world traveler, and he was fortunate in his biographer. Thomas Hylland Eriksen is not only obviously devoted to Barth, but he is also thorough, comprehensive, fair—pointing out problems and occasional failings of his subject—and not too much over the top in his admiration. Above all he does an excellent job presenting and explaining Fredrik Barth’s many works and his innovative methodological and theoretical positions as well as contextualizing his work in the anthropology of his time.

Fredrik Barth (1928-2016) was one of the handful of leaders of world anthropology from his youth in the 1950s until early in this century. His name was not as widely known or frequently mentioned as Clifford Geertz or Lévi-Strauss, but for many anthropologists in the Anglophone world his numerous and varied works were an important stimulus and source of ideas. He rejected the more popular contemporary approaches of structural-functionalism, Lévi-Straussian structuralism, and American neo-evolutionism, symbolic and psychological anthropology, and developed his own form of actor-oriented processual perspective. Over five decades he would carry out fieldwork among an unusually large number of peoples in remarkably different cultural and environmental settings, and throughout this period and with respect to the many cultures and topics he dealt with, Fredrik Barth maintained a perspective that was in fundamental disagreement with those other popular approaches. However, as we shall see, his work had more in common with certain other anthropologists that Eriksen says very little about.

Eriksen repeatedly stresses “Barth’s naturalist convictions, according to which the goal is to give the most truthful and accurate description as possible of something that can be observed directly” (142; my emphasis). For Barth there are no fixed social structures, underlying Lévi-Straussian models of the human mind, or Geertzian cultural systems expressed in symbols. The key—the crucial issue—is the observation of humans in action: individuals who are motivated, maximizing, calculating the odds in various social situations which are framed by available knowledge, resources, and key “values.” Barth did not search for abstract rules but investigated the knowledge, sentiments, and interpersonal realities existing at moments of decision. In his early work he applied this approach to political, economic, and social phenomena, but in later years he turned the same perspective to his investigation of knowledges, cosmologies, and rituals. As he summarized his lifelong position in 1994,

I consider life, as it appears somewhere in the world, as a manifestation of the thoughts, intentions and interpretations of a group of people, the way they are given shape through the processes: interaction, exchange, conflict, learning, the transmission of tradition, community, dominance. (Barth quoted, 189)

In beginning with individuals and their actions Fredrik Barth stood firmly on the side of such thinkers as William James, Gabriel Tarde, Max Weber, Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth (and even Franz Boas)—in contrast to those who believed that the social, economic, or mental systems are in control: Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, A. L. Kroeber, Leslie White, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Eriksen concentrates on Barth’s professional life, which was the center of his existence. The biographer writes in some detail about each phase of his career, each important book and paper, pausing periodically to discuss Barth’s crucial role in the development of Norwegian anthropology. Barth first gained recognition in the mid-1950s with two papers (“Ecologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan,” published in 1956, and “Segmentary Opposition and the Theory of Games: A Study of Pathan Social Organization” published in 1959), and his book, Political Leadership Among Swat Pathans (1959). While he would return to the Pathan material many times as his work stimulated discussion and contention, he would move rapidly into other cultural and geographical fields and social anthropological topics. Having carried out fieldwork among Kurdish villagers and pastoralists in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1951, with the Pathans in 1954, and with the Basseri of Iran in 1958 (Nomads of South Persia, 1961), he settled into his first academic post at the newly established University of Bergen, in his home country, with the task to create a Department of Social Anthropology.

With a group of eager young colleagues he turned his attention to the study of Norway’s various populations and sociological concerns. Before long he organized his crew around the study of entrepreneurship, and although their collective work, The Role of the Entrepreneur in Social Change in Northern Norway (1963), did not become widely known it was a source of inspiration for those who were aware of it and took it seriously. One result of this work was Barth’s own analysis of the dynamics of leadership and competition on Norwegian fishing vessels that he drew upon for the central case in his very well-known and oft-debated lectures published as Models of Social Organization (1966). His next joint venture with his Norwegian colleagues resulted in the work for which Barth is best known outside of anthropology (and within it), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (1969). Eriksen notes that Barth’s “most original, counter-intuitive insight in the introductory chapter is the view that ethnic differences do not correspond to cultural differences” (103) and this, unfortunately, is the message that many readers took away from the whole volume. Some years later Barth realized that he had underestimated the significance of culture in ethnicity.

As Eriksen puts it so well,

Subjectively speaking, ethnic identity does not merely concern social boundary processes and the strategic use of culture as a resource. It is also, often primarily, about meaning: eating the same food, laughing at the same jokes, sharing some solemn and joyful moments, smells, childhood memories and musical pleasures; in brief, the meaningful commonalities people develop by virtue of living close together in the same place. (108)

To this point Barth’s work had always focused on the dynamics and processes of social, economic, and political forms and their transformations (Eriksen titles Part 1, “A Man of Action”). In 1968 he began to feel the need to move to different kinds of regions and cultures than the arid lands and nomadic peoples he had worked with and to change his focus more to the study of knowledge and “how people think and how they thereby model their world” (Barth quoted, 111). Eriksen designates Part 2 “An Anthropology of Knowledge.” For his first venture Barth undertook a rigorous, exhausting, year of research alone among the Baktaman of the then-remote Ok Tedi region of northern Papua New Guinea. This research resulted in Ritual and Knowledge Among the Baktaman of New Guinea (1975) and the brief theoretical volume, Cosmologies in the Making (1987). In this work, too, Barth followed his “naturalist convictions,” neither looking for nor finding a logically integrated universe nor a “coherent totality,” but just individual humans improvising creatively, inventing and transmitting their inventions to others.

The last three field sites of Barth’s remarkable peripatetic ethnographic existence were in Oman (Sohar: Culture and Society in an Omani Town, 1983), Bali (Balinese Worlds, 1993), and finally Bhutan—from which no substantial publications emerged. (Unni Wikan, his wife, produced a good deal from that work, however.)

As distinctive as Fredrik Barth’s powerful position was, it did not spring unaided from his own mind. His first introduction to social and cultural anthropology was with an American soldier passing through Oslo in 1945, Conrad M. Arensberg, but his formal training in anthropology began at the University of Chicago a year later. It is common knowledge that Chicago anthropology had been heavily influenced by Radcliffe-Brown during his seven-year sojourn there in the 1930s, but another prominent faculty member in the 1940s was W. Lloyd Warner, progenitor of the pioneering and ambitious “Yankee City” research projects. Before coming to Chicago, Warner had been part of a vital study group at Harvard that stressed the idea, contrary to those of Radcliffe-Brown, that it is individuals in interaction who create social forms and institutions. The Harvard group had included the sociologist George C. Homans and the anthropologists Eliot Chapple and Conrad Arensberg.

Barth continued his graduate studies at the London School of Economics, where the intellectual leader was Raymond Firth, a student of Malinowski who also dissented from the so-called “structural-functionalist” model of society. Firth claimed, “The working arrangements by which a society is kept in being, the ways in which relations between groups are made operative and become effective, rest upon individual choice and decision. Here is our great problem as anthropologists—to translate the acts of individuals into the regularities of social process” (1964, 46; orig. 1954). Barth then moved to Cambridge University following Firth’s student Edmund Leach, who had just published Political Systems of Highland Burma, in which he declared, “I consider it necessary and justifiable to assume that a conscious or unconscious wish to gain power is a very general motive in human affairs. Accordingly I assume that individuals faced with a choice of action will commonly use such choice as to gain power…”(1954, 10).

As remarkable as Fredrik Barth’s work was, his theoretical approach was not unique, though his energy and the volume and range of his contributions were outstanding. Eriksen could also have noted that Barth had contemporaries in the United States who were working with similar ideas of strategic decision-making and activity systems (Ward Goodenough, Alan Howard, Roger Keesing), maximization in human motivation (Robbins Burling, Frank Cancian). Eriksen mentions Fred Bailey but there were a number of other British anthropologists who worked with actor-oriented political, economic, and social action, such as Jeremy Boissevain and members of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute/Manchester University group. In her 1978 article, “Political Anthropology: Manipulative Strategies,” Joan Vincent wrote of the florescence of “a range of theoretical frameworks, among them those built around transactions, symbolic interaction, systems analysis, methodological individualism, game theory, interaction theory, and political clientelism” (175). Fredrik Barth was a leader in this field rather than the lone wolf that he appears in this biography.

In the chapter called “Turbulent Times” Eriksen writes in some depth of various critical reactions to Barth’s work beginning in the 1970s. Some critiques were from a Marxist or postcolonial perspective, some were Durkheimian, others engaged critically with his models of transaction and maximization on their own grounds. Eventually it seems that Barth’s actor-oriented approach was overtaken, even swept away, as all the others were, by the politicized anthropological and intellectual earthquakes of the late 1960s and 1970s. As Vincent characterized the scene in 1978, “Political situations and encounters that have long characterized this approach within political anthropology are now meshed with a concern with emergent relations of domination and exploitation within a modern world system” (190). As I have argued elsewhere (Lewis 2014), anthropology has been overshadowed for several decades by the concerns Vincent writes of, ones that led to overly critical interpretations of earlier anthropology. Perhaps the time has come for more a balanced appreciation of Fredrik Barth’s contributions as well as those of his contemporaries.

The book is rich with discussions of Barth’s work, thought, and activities on the world stage of anthropology. Thomas Hylland Eriksen has given us a fine intellectual and professional portrait of a first-class anthropologist and a credit to the breed.

Works Cited

Firth, Raymond. Essays on Social Organization and Values. London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1964.

Leach, Edmund. Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London: Bell & Sons, 1954.

Lewis, Herbert S. In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2014.

Vincent, Joan. “Political Anthropology: Manipulative Strategies,” Annual Review of Anthropology 7 (1978):175-94.


Herbert S. Lewis: contributions / / Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison