Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Survival Machine of Colin M Turnbull (I)

a week or so ago, a little fatigued by comments threads where a few commenters seemed to be disagreeing with others purely for the sake of being disagreeable and the feeling that I was getting sucked into playing the same game myself, I decided to have a crack at writing an extended essay. Then I had the bright idea of posting selected passages from the references I intended to use under the title Dark Materials. Cryptic I know, and self indulgent.

After posting Dark Materials I, it occurred to me to do a web search for more up-to-date information on the Ik and Colin Turnbull. What I found was surprising. I changed plans yet again. Whether the essay I originally planned will actually appear is an open question (the odds are pretty long, based on past experience), but given what I've found on the Internet on the subject of The Mountain People, I've decided it's worthwhile to take a close look at the book. This could take a while, because beside the on-line sources, there's going to be off-line literature to track down and take a look at. So this essay will be presented in instalments. Then we might move on to one of the other authors I was going to use for reference.


The Ik were, and are, a small tribe living in Northern Uganda in the mountains where Sudan, Kenya and Uganda all meet. They became notorious in the 1970s after the publication of Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People. The book is Turnbull's account of anthropological field studies of the Ik he conducted between 1964 and 1967. The notoriety it brought the tribe was heightened by Peter Brook's 1975 play, called simply The Ik.

According Wikipedia, the Internet's foremost repository of authoritative libel, Turnbull

... was a famous British anthropologist who gained prominence with his book The Forest People (1962), a detailed study of the BaMbuti Pygmies. In 1972, he wrote his most controversial classic, The Mountain People, which portrayed Uganda's hunger-plagued Ik tribe. Turnbull was an unconventional scholar who rejected objectivity. He idealized the BaMbuti and reviled the Ik, whom he recounted as so coldly self-absorbed that they allowed their children to die if they could not survive after being kicked out at the age of three, and refused to share food with anyone, even gorging on the occasional excess of food until they got sick, rather than save or share.

There are two pretty serious charges against Turnbull there - they bothered me enough to make me question whether The Mountain People has anything useful to say at all. Turnbull "rejected objectivity" and "reviled the Ik" says the Wikipedia contributor. How justified are these accusations.

Chapter One of The Mountain People opens with this declaration:

Any description of another people, another way of life, is to some extent bound to be subjective, especially when, as an anthropologist, one has shared that way of life. This is as it should be; but then the reader is entitled to know something of the aims, expectations, hopes and attitudes that the writer brought to the field with him, for these will surely influence not only how he sees things but what he sees. At best his story will only be a partial one.

This I suppose, might be taken as a rejection of objectivity. To me it reads more like a standard disclaimer which I've commonly found in books on the social sciences: a declaration that however objective the writer might aspire to be, his work cannot claim the lofty objectiveness we assume that physiscists say have when they report their experimental findings.

The first few pages of Chapter One is taken up with a description of how Turnbull came to do his field study of the Ik. Turnbull is frank about his lack of initial enthusiasm for the project; it was his third choice and his attitude to the porspect of studying the "Teuso" as he then knew them evoked no enthusiasm, merely a clinical interest:

... But no amount of clinical interest could suppress the disappointment at the failure of the two preferred projects.

I make this point because one of the most delicate tasks of the field anthropologist is to establish a really satisfactory and amicable relationship with the people among whom he is going to live, and to regard them with a jaundiced eye is hardly the way to win favor.
[p 18-19]

Once again you can, if you wish, take this as a rejection of objectivity if you wish. Or as an admission of impaired objectivity if that's your preference. Turnbull's enthusiasm for the project took quite a few more knocks as he travelled to northern Uganda, with transport and equipment problems addin gto his frustrations:

... the Land Rover, painted fire-engine red, posessed the singular and by no means welcome ability to attract elephants, particularly male elephants very obviously in search of female company. This, like the leaky roof, remained a constant quality. [p 19]

So by Turnbull's own admission, he was somewhat disgruntled with his project by the time he reached the field and, therefore, not in the best frame of mind to reach an amicable rapport with his subjects. Did his lack of enthusiasm lead him to revile the Ik, as the Wikipedist alleges? To answer that question, we'll have to take a look at what Turbull had to say about them. I'll get back to you on that subject after I've done some more reading and pretty intensive note-taking.

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