Today, Dr. George Park died at the age of 90. He was a retired professor of Anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He was my thesis advisor and he and his late wife Alice were my “St. John’s parents”. Below is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of a manuscript that he was working on. It tells us something about his life and his way of thinking.
Kinga and the Knowledge Wars
My US schooling between the two World Wars was an excellent preparation for university, but left one pretty much in the nineteenth century. I was twenty and a Marine Corps fighter pilot waiting in the South Pacific for the planned invasion of Japan—when the war over there quite suddenly ended…
I didn’t discover the beauties of the social sciences until I was in graduate school. I’d gone back to university after trying journalism because it finally came to me that my colleagues in the profession had picked up almost nothing useful in ‘journalism’ classes about what a writer might do for the world – what the great journalists had done – only learned the ropes. After graduating in literature and philosophy I was finding out how little I understood of what my eyes were observing of the ‘real world’.
The Chicago School
Three years of graduate work covering all the social sciences led to one intensive year in anthropology. By then we (man & wife & two boys then) had to decide which way to go for earning our bread: ‘high journalism’ and ‘social scientist’ were my options. We decided I should teach for a year, and with one thing and another it turned into something more like a decade.
Sociologists today know the university where I did my graduate work as home of ‘the Chicago school’, an early teaching which linked the social sciences to direct observation and thereby to a ‘high journalistic‘ style of qualitative sociology–something contrasting to ‘quantitative‘ studies which ‘measure’ social systems without necessarily becoming directly acquainted with them… Most sociology falls between the two contrasting poles. I started my teaching career as a sociologist but moved toward the ‘qualitative‘ pole as best I could. The first step was a two year field study in northern Norway (for the doctorate degree in anthropology. Later I was able to get a post-doctorate year at Cambridge (UK) in ‘British social anthropology’ and consequently the fieldwork in Tanzania.
In the meantime, pretty much behind my back, the social sciences were flourishing in the US. That break from tradition came rather later on the British side. Social anthropology had developed without much sociological foundation there, though London in its classes brought European ‘sociological philosophy’ (not much observational basis) to bear and to good effect.
The more doctrinaire notions at ‘Ox-bridge’ about social structure had helped their fieldworkers start with the politically important features of social organization but had prevented their going much beyond. They sniffed at the ‘American’ notion of an anthropology centered in ‘culture’ and the descriptive analysis of prevailing ‘sentiments’ or ‘psychological’ premises implicit in the style of a people’s communal life. British social anthropologists kept to the end their notion of a ‘system in equilibrium’ as the subject one should study in the field. UK’s only really popular star in the profession was copiously descriptive in style and drifted in the end to New England. This was Bronislaw Malinowski, Polish-born author of an always engaging shelf of books on the South Pacific’s Trobriand Islanders…
So it is to my British tutors I owe my own special interest in social structure, but to fellow North American academics I owe my interest in direct observation (out in the public arena, in the study of a profession or a functioning institution, a community) using facework as a scientific tool. I also owe to North Americans the long years of stress which have led me to an understanding of the useless ‘knowledge wars’ I want to address in this book. The problem, you will see, is the very purposefulness of the narrow mindedness social scientists are expected to show in the pursuit of wisdom in Academia americanensis.
The history of knowledge is older and more lush than the Garden of Academe, but the tales intimately intertwine from the start of the 20th century, when universities undertook the management of public moneys for the advancement of science. Until that point, a university was a center for educating a lumpen elite, the live storage of books, and the meeting of scholarly minds. The introduction of Science, with its increasing needs for equipment, new buildings, salaries for research, and en masse professional training left the poor classical scholar up a tree dreaming of a Saintly re-established Equilibrium. Still, those were stirring times. By the time I had done my apprenticeship, the signs of a shrinking world were burgeoning everywhere.
The great knowledge revolution had taken hold, and knowledge of any sort, ‘practical’ or not, had begun to seem worth pursuing. The first phase in the democratization of knowledge began slowly with commodification of books in the English language: paperbacks, pocket size. The French had them earlier but in fuller size: ergo no sudden revolution. The US version got publishers putting scarce ‘library books’ in cheap versions, ‘mass produced’ with catchy covers.
Reading a monograph on an African pedestrian culture community had meant, throughout my time teaching sociology before Cambridge and Africa, at least a week getting hold of the book and writing long notes and citations without marring the library’s copy. A short generation later, by the sixties, you could assign such a monograph for a class and expect the students to buy it. Today, I suppose, that first phase of democratizing ‘college-level’ books was segueing into a further phase of ‘instant availability’ by courtesy of digital devices.
Technology had been democratizing knowledge but, for magnifying the knowledge base of social anthropology, the time was short. Research grants were painfully hard to get, and our ‘science’ hardly matured before the ‘field’ for ethnographic observation had virtually disappeared. Yet it is a premise of these pages that the immersion studies actually accomplished – in the too-short window of time a world in turmoil allowed – are a priceless inheritance, unique in its implications for basic research on what we almost casually used to call the ‘human condition’.
Pebbles of Fieldwork
I won’t try making a monument of pebbles, but bits of insight will begin to yield knowledge when you have got them properly laid out. The result can’t be seamless, and it could never be final. The very final chapter in the story of mankind will still be full of new stuff lying unsorted. That is one philosophical point I want to make, and I want to make it by showing off and sorting the pebbles I brought back, as a much younger social anthropologist, from Africa.
I was lucky enough to have, with my feisty, long treasured Alice and our four children, two years in East Africa just as colonial governments were secretly coming to an end. My research dealt with the Kinga people still thriving then in the Livingstone mountains of southwestern Tanganyika, (now Tanzania)…
Fieldwork in the early 1960s came to be focused on reconstructing the precolonial experience of ‘pure Kinga’ communities. What I knew about them when I arrived in their District was only that Kinga were ‘conservative’ in the meaning of their British governors. They hadn’t sold out or lost their way, they had kept continuity with their past as an independent people. This good news and a climate suitable for children had attracted me, and over the next six months as I reconnoitred and my family got settled in a luxurious mud hut (three rooms, tin roof) there was more good news. Guesswork had found me precisely the kind of people I stood to learn most from.
Kinga Trilogy by Dr. George Park