Marshall Sahlins (1930 – 2021) – Race is a Social Construct

Marshall Sahlins (1930 - 2021)
Marshall Sahlins (1930 – 2021) Elkziz, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Marshall Sahlins was an American cultural anthropologist, best known for his ethnographic work in the Pacific and for his contributions to anthropological theory.

Early Life

Sahlins was born on December 27, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Morris Sahlins, was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who worked as a tailor, and his mother, Fannie Sahlins (née Glickman), was a first-generation American of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

Sahlins was raised in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He attended public schools, including Tuley High School, where he graduated in 1948. Sahlins then enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he studied anthropology, sociology, and history. He earned his B.A. in Anthropology in 1952 and went on to earn his Ph.D. from Columbia University.

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, Sahlins was awarded the Huxley Memorial Medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Over the course of his career, Sahlins made a number of significant contributions to anthropology, including his work on the concept of culture, the nature of human sociality, and the history of anthropological thought. He conducted fieldwork among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic and the Aboriginal people of Australia. He also worked with indigenous peoples in Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

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.

A towering legacy

Marshall Sahlins passed away on the 5th of April, 2021. He was survived by his wife,  Barbara Sahlins and his three children, Julie, Peter and Elaine.

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