Marshall Sahlins (1930 – 2021) was an American anthropologist who is widely regarded as one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century. Sahlins received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1954 and spent much of his career teaching at the University of Chicago, where he was a professor emeritus. His work focused on cultural anthropology, political anthropology, and historical anthropology.
Sahlins’ contributions to anthropology are numerous and varied, but perhaps his most significant impact came from challenging prevailing theories in the field. He questioned the assumptions of structural-functionalism and cultural evolutionism, instead emphasizing culture as a system of meanings that is created by human beings.
Through his innovative ethnographic research methods and theoretical insights, Sahlins has left an enduring legacy that continues to influence anthropological thought today.
Marshall Sahlins’ personal background played an important role in shaping his intellectual interests and career path. He was born on December 27, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois, to Morris and Fannie Sahlins. Morris was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who worked as a tailor, while Fannie was a first-generation American of Lithuanian Jewish descent.
Growing up in a working-class family in Chicago, Sahlins developed an early interest in the social sciences. He attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree and went on to earn his Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University in 1954.
Throughout his academic career, Sahlins remained committed to exploring questions about culture and society that were relevant to people’s everyday lives. His experience of growing up as the child of immigrant parents likely influenced his interest in understanding how cultural meanings are created and transformed over time.
Sahlins’ upbringing also instilled in him a strong sense of social justice and a commitment to challenging existing power structures. Throughout his career, he used his scholarship to advocate for marginalized communities and challenge prevailing assumptions about race, class, and gender.
Marshall Sahlins – Academic Career and Fieldwork
Sahlins held teaching positions at a number of universities, including the University of Chicago, where he was the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Sociology. He was also a visiting professor at Yale University, the Australian National University, and other institutions.
Sahlins was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received several honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2009. In 2012, the Royal Anthropological Institute awarded him the Huxley Memorial Medal.
Throughout his career, Sahlins conducted fieldwork among a wide range of indigenous peoples around the world. He spent several years living among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic and studying their subsistence practices and social organization.
He also conducted research among Aboriginal people in Australia, where he developed his famous analysis of “the original affluent society” – a critique of Western assumptions about progress and development.
In addition to his fieldwork in Canada and Australia, Sahlins worked with indigenous peoples in Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, and Hawaii. His research in these contexts focused on questions related to colonialism, globalization, and cultural change.
Marshall Sahlins was a highly influential anthropologist who made significant contributions to the discipline over the course of his career. One of his most important contributions was his work on the concept of culture, which challenged prevailing assumptions about cultural universals and emphasized the importance of understanding cultural meanings in their specific historical and social contexts.
He conceived “culture as a system of meanings,” describing culture as encompassing more that just a set of practices or behaviours, but rather a complex web of symbolic systems that people use to create meaning and make sense of the world around them.
Sahlins argued that cultural symbols are not fixed or static, but are constantly recreated created, transformed, and contested by individuals and groups. He emphasized the importance of examining how cultural meanings change over time and in different contexts, rather than assuming that they are universal or timeless.
Sahlins also challenged prevailing theories about the relationship between culture and society. He viewed culture as an integrated system that maintains social order, and argued that cultural meanings can be used to challenge existing power structures and create new forms of social organization.
Sahlins argued that humans are not inherently individualistic but instead have evolved complex systems of social organization. He emphasized the importance of studying kinship systems, exchange networks, and other forms of social organization in order to understand how societies function.
Books and Ethnographies
He was also a prolific writer, authoring books such as “The Use and Abuse of Biology” (1972), “Culture and Practical Reason” (1976), and “How ‘Natives’ Think” (1995).
In his book “How ‘Natives’ Think“, Marshall Sahlins argues that Westerners have a distorted view of the world. He claims that the West is so focused on its own history and values, it has come to think of itself as completely different from other cultures around the globe. As such, Westerners often project their own way of thinking onto other cultures and fail to understand them on their own terms. Sahlins provides a number of examples to support his argument, including the way Westerners have misunderstood the role of magic in non-Western cultures.
In “Culture and Practical Reason” (1976) Sahlins develops the idea of “structure” in culture. He argues that human societies are not just collections of individuals, but are organized into distinct social units such as families, villages, and nations. These units give structure to culture by shaping the way people think and behave. Sahlins uses the example of a family to illustrate his point. He argues that the family is not just a group of people who happen to live together. It is actually a social unit with its own rules and regulations.
Sahlins has also made significant contributions to the history of anthropological thought. In “The Use and Abuse of Biology” (1972), he critiqued the way Westerners had used the concept of race to justify their treatment of non-Western peoples. Sahlins argued that race is a social construct with no scientific basis. He also critiqued the way Westerners had used evolution to justify their belief in the superiority of the white race.
Marshall Sahlins – A Towering Legacy
Marshall Sahlins was a towering figure in the field of anthropology, and his legacy continues to influence scholars around the world. Throughout his career, Sahlins pushed the boundaries of anthropological thought and challenged prevailing assumptions about culture, society, and human nature.
Sahlins’ impact on anthropology can be seen in the numerous books and articles he published over the course of his career. In addition to his scholarly contributions, Sahlins was also known for his activism and advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples around the world. He used his platform as an anthropologist to speak out against injustices such as colonization, cultural appropriation, and environmental degradation.
Sahlins’ passed away on April 5th, 2021, mourned by his wife Barbara Sahlins and their three children, Julie, Peter, and Elaine. While he may no longer be with us in person, Marshall Sahlins’ intellectual legacy will continue to inspire generations of anthropologists to come.
For Further Reading
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