How anthropology intersects politics | Interview with Dr. Marshall Sahlins

We met with Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, Dr. Marshall D. Sahlins, to talk about the intersection of anthropology and political science, disappearing peoples and cultures, and so much more. Enjoy!

How anthropology intersects politics | Interview with Dr. Marshall Sahlins
"The idea of having foreign governments teaching in American universities is bizarre. The only bizarre thing is now, the right wing has got ahold of Confucius Institutes because they're in an anti-China, communist, Yellow Peril, etcetera, crusade."Dr. Marshall Sahlins

Notable anthropologist Dr. Marshall D. Sahlins talks of connecting with disappearing peoples and cultures, chiefly succession in Fiji, Vietnam War protests, ousting the Confucius Institute, and the intersection of anthropology and political science. Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, Dr. Sahlins talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

See Dr. Sahlins’s Academic Influence profile

Link to the interview Dr. Sahlins mentions in our interview

See additional leaders in anthropology in our article
Top Influential Anthropologists Today

Interview with Anthropologist Dr. Marshall Sahlins

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:21How it all started

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University, and it is my pleasure to welcome another guest to this interview show, Professor Marshall Sahlins at the University of Chicago. Professor Sahlins, we would love to know how you got your start, starting from when you were younger in high school, and then leading up to today, so tell us a little bit about that story.

Marshall Sahlins: Well, you know, we’re talking about, high school is like the old Stone Age from this point of view. It was like, I’m trying to calculate. It’s like 70 years ago.

[laughter]

Marshall: 1948, let’s say.

Jed: Okay.

Marshall: That’s 52, yeah, 70 years ago.

Jed: Wow.

Marshall: And at that time, not a lot of people were going into anthropology.

Jed: Not at all.

Marshall: It was a rare field, and in fact, there were very few places that taught it. What got me interested was, I was a consumer of Indian novels, about the young tree in the tall pine forest has spoken with a forked tongue.

Jed: Wow.

Marshall: I read a lot of Indian novels and I began to be interested in other societies.

Jed: Wow.

"It's hard to say more deeply why I was interested in other peoples, and Lévi-Strauss says you'll get interested in other peoples in order to criticize your own society…"Dr. Marshall Sahlins

Marshall: And I entered the University of Michigan, 1948, it was with a lot of veterans, so with a lot of people from World War II. Most of my classmates were older than me, but I entered... And I remember registering at the University of Michigan. When I first registered, and the person who was getting me in said, “Well, what are you interested in?” I said “Anthropology,” and he said “Anthropology?” [chuckle] I was in a class of three, but that was essentially... It’s hard to say more deeply why I was interested in other peoples, and Lévi-Strauss says you’ll get interested in other peoples in order to criticize your own society, which is not a bad point of view. And it might be that it did motivate me because I have been active politically ever since, but that’s the story.

Jed: And what did you do after the University of Michigan? Did you graduate with a major in anthropology?

Marshall: I graduated with a major in anthropology. I did something unusual. I was in a class on Near Eastern Archeology, and recruited to go on a field trip to Iran with these... I’m sorry, to Iraq, with these four or five other people. When they found out that I was Jewish, I was excluded because the Iraqis didn’t wanna have any Jews coming in.

Jed: Wow.

Marshall: So I went to Turkey, and I did a senior thesis in Turkey on a secret sect of people who believed in a Jewish messiah of the 18th century. That was my last sort of flirtation with Judaism, I’m not actually a believer. Anyhow, I did that, and then I went to Columbia. I got my... No, sorry, then I went back. I took a Master’s at Michigan. We had a very tough exam, like 17 hours about fields of anthropology, and over four days for a Master’s degree. By the time I got to Columbia, I could ace the doctor exam without any studying, so I did that in a year, and then I did my thesis, and then I got... I had a job at Berkeley when I got my thesis finished. Actually, Alfred Kroeber, famous anthropologist, secretly interviewed me for a job at Berkeley by inviting me to lunch at the faculty club when I was finishing my thesis. In any case, he... I got a job at Berkeley, and on my way, I was asked to replace Leslie White for a semester at Michigan, and then I was offered a job at Michigan. I reneged at Berkeley and I went to Michigan and taught there for 16 years, and I played middle linebacker on the side.

[laughter]

Jed: Now that is a good story.

Marshall: Yeah. No, I... Later on, I got an honorary degree from Michigan and I addressed the MAs and PhD students who were getting their degrees, and I told them about my career at Michigan, which included the teaching and many other things. When I said, “Tomorrow, I’m getting a degree, an honorary degree, on the football field of the University of Michigan,” ’cause that’s where the graduations were, and the thought will across my mind, “Just give me the ball, give me the ball.”

[laughter]

Marshall: Anyhow, when I got home, I had a ball. It was the coach sent the ball, Roy Clark. It said, “Dear Marshall, go Blue.” And an autograph with [inaudible]...

Jed: Oh, that is really cool. Well, it sounds like you worked at U Michigan for many years.

Marshall: 16 years.

Jed: And then, after those 16 years, did you go down to the University of Chicago, or did you go somewhere else?

Marshall: Yeah, 1973.

Jed: Okay.

Marshall: I moved to Chicago... I was first born in Chicago, raised in Chicago, my family is in Chicago. And aside from Michigan football, the Cubs are my team, so we moved. We wanted to get back to the city, and we lived in Ann Arbor, but we were Chicagoans.

Jed: Yeah, you and your wife, you’re talking about, when you say we?

Marshall: Yes.

Jed: Okay, and did you have kids who you had to move back down?

Marshall: They had finished their high school, and well, the university and high school in Chicago.

Jed: Wow.

Marshall: And went to various colleges. At that point, incidentally, the University of Chicago paid full tuition for all the children of faculty, so...

Jed: Wow.

Marshall: Big deal.

07:05Focusing on specific cultures

Jed: Really good deal. Well, we are really glad to hear your life story.

Now, what got you into the specific area of anthropology that you’re in now?

Marshall: Well, in Columbia, where I was studying my PhD, there was a great interest in the development of cultures, evolution of cultures, and especially, it came across the desk of one of my teachers, favorite teachers, Morton Fried, since dead, and it came across his desk a certain article about the Aztecs having a certain kind of clan system, which was unusual because it was ranked, and so it wasn’t sort of the equality that you see among most of these... Well, most hunters and gatherers, and agricultural peoples. And this clan system, which was found by a Mexican, a German anthropologist, refugee Mexican, Paul Kirchhoff, he labeled it the Conical clan, and he says it’s an unusual organization.

"…it was an explicit mission to write down these things before they disappear."Dr. Marshall Sahlins

Well, I was working sort of on Polynesia at the time, and I saw that they had the same central clan, so I began to do a PhD. I did actually a library thesis on Polynesia, and then I went to the Fiji Islands because it was still functioning. I mean, this was a different planet from what you... From the way it is today. For those kids in school, it’s hard to recognize what we were doing. What we were doing, and what anthropology was doing, essentially, since the late 19th century, was sort of salvaging work, salvaging the cultures that were disappearing. I mean, it was an explicit mission to write down these things before they disappear. Unfortunately, they’d all, or not all, but largely disappeared, and so what I do now actually is I... I’m writing a book to try to revolutionize obsolete anthropology, which is what I do, but this... At that time, it wasn’t obsolete, so I was interested actually doing field work in a society that had this kind of clan system, which I did.

Jed: Wow, that is fascinating. You would describe yourself as an obsolete anthropologist...

Marshall: Yeah.

Jed: And you’re trying to revive that brand of...

Marshall: I hope so, but I also think that good anthropology is 40 years out of date. So well...

[laughter]

Jed: Well, I’m gonna ask you a few questions pertaining to the thing you said at the beginning, which is that people go into anthropology to criticize their own culture. And you said that that’s been a bit true of you because you’ve gotten into politics to some extent, and I wanna follow up on that because we’ve not only been interviewing your anthropology colleagues, but also professors who are influential in political science, and several of the political science professors that I’ve interviewed sound like they’re doing research that’s a lot like anthropology. They go into cultures that are different, they learn about those cultures, they survey them, they get to know them. I’m thinking of one guy in particular, Don Green, has recently spent time in East Africa. He’s a long time Yale guy who’s now at Columbia, and he said it was interesting because people whom he surveys there have never been surveyed, so they’re not jaded to that kind of, “Oh yeah... ” Looking at their watch, waiting for the last question that you’re gonna ask them, but it’s a completely different experience. Going back in time, he called it.

Marshall: Yeah.

Jed: Tell us both a little bit about your political forays and also about how you see this sort of going back in time, and why did that appeal to you when you were getting your start in Anthropology.

Marshall: There’s always a sense of going back in time, but it’s not really kosher to talk about these people as being of another time.

Jed: Okay, sorry about that. I don’t know these kinds of things, sorry.

Marshall: We don’t talk about them like that. Political scientists can do it, but they do survey with... Survey is not what we did. What we did was, you sat there until you could understand something going on, and you’ll try to talk about what was going on, and it took a very long time before you even started to do an understanding of these societies, which even after a year or two, would be very superficial. So...

Jed: Were you, sorry to interrupt, but were you in these cultures for a year or two?

Marshall: Yeah, yeah, and on the Fiji Islands, my wife and I were on an island, about 90 miles from the main island, which got two small, two or three small cargo ships of supplies from the main island a year.

Jed: Woah.

Marshall: So, that’s how we ran out coffee, ran out of cigarettes, ran out of... That was cigarettes. We would smoke at that time, of course.

Jed: And here you are now. [chuckle]

Marshall: We were marooned, and there was a radio telegraph that broke down, but I mean, yeah. It was far away.

Jed: And you were there for two years?

Marshall: I mean..we...the chief gave us a house and we lived there for a year.

Jed: A whole year, wow. And so the difference between what I was describing for some of these political scientists and you is that you really became part of the culture even as you were studying the control.

Marshall: An anthropologist, if they go to a place like that, which most of them do, you have to just consider it’s gonna take a long time to understand what’s going on, you have to learn the language. Incidentally, I had... And very funny that at six o’clock tonight, I get on a Zoom to Fiji because there’s a big conference about some chief being... Some controversy over the succession to a chief and somehow, there’s a University at Fiji that somehow, three or four of the faculty got involved in this controversy. One of them is actually a member of the controversy, and we’re gonna have this big Zoom about chiefly succession of the Fiji islands at six o’clock...

Jed: Oh gosh.

Marshall: And then some of which is in Fijian. Anyhow, yes, anthropology field work is serious long-term investment because understanding another society is not something like doing survey work where you have an interpreter probably not telling you the answers. This is something else.

Jed: I see.

14:28Politics in Anthropology

Marshall: As far as politics is concerned, yes. I’ve been involved... I think, the other day, I successfully was involved in three struggles. First, I stopped the war in Vietnam by inventing the ‘teach-in’ in 1965 when a bunch of us were gonna go on strike against the university and to hold classes outside about Vietnam and the university came and the state came down on our heads, and there were a lot of people who didn’t have tenure involved, I did. We got worried about that kind of action, and instead, we’re sitting around one night, I said, “Instead of teaching out, why don’t they teach it and we’ll have a teach-in?” [chuckle] And...

Jed: That was pretty brilliant. Now, we hear about that all the time.

Marshall: That was it. If I had a nickel for everything... That’s been called a teach-in since, including a band in Belgium or some place that won the European song contest called the Teach-In, the band... If I had a nickel for all those teach-ins, I’d be rich. But anyhow, it’s now even a... Even the corporations use the term when then before, it was a protest term, of course. Anyhow, it became a national movement. Between March and May 1965, we had a national teach-in. It was broadcasted all day on NPR and several foreign television networks and a radio hook-up of 200 colleges, and we had a big teach-in. Of course, it didn’t stop the war but it was the beginning of the protest that went on for years, of course. That was one thing. And I also saved a park in Ann Arbor and got rid of a bad president of the University of Chicago. Those are my three famous political activities. Oh, four. I also brought down the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago.

Jed: Was it more of a cult than an institute?

Marshall: Confucius Institute is academic malware propagated propaganda. It’s by The People’s Republic of China, which sends teachers here that got to be in the regular curricula of universities teaching Chinese, and they’re vetted for their political beliefs. What they teach in the institute itself is all a glorified view of China and the idea of having foreign governments teaching in American universities is bizarre. The only bizarre thing is now, the right wing has got a hold of Confucius Institutes because they’re in an anti-China communist, Yellow Peril, etcetera, crusade and the government now is interfering in American universities to get rid of Confucius Institutes.

Ten years ago, American professors had the chance of getting rid of them but they sit on their hands, even though it was a clear violation of the integrity of the university. Now, the government’s in, so instead of... We’re in a lose-lose situation where either the Chinese or the American government interferes in the American university, which I think is a bad thing to do.

Jed: Yeah. It sounds like you’ve been really for autonomy of the university, whether it’s the war...

Marshall: Absolutely.

Jed: In Vietnam, which you were against, and might make you a friend of the communists because you were trying to keep the US from fighting the communist in Vietnam, and on the other hand, you’re against the communists as they try to infiltrate our university. You’re neither friend of either side. [chuckle]

Marshall: I’m a friend of the people. [chuckle]

Jed: That’s right. I was gonna say, “And that’s because you’re a friend... ”

Marshall: The other day, Kamala Harris said something that impressed me. She said, when she was first an assistant to DA and she was doing a case, and she was taking charge of a case, and the job... And she identified herself as Kamala Harris for the people.

[laughter]

Marshall: She was advocating for the people.

Jed: Well... Good for her.

Marshall: I feel that way.

Jed: We need more people who are politically involved, who are for the people just like you, Professor Sahlins.

Now, as we close out our interview, are there things that you didn’t get to say in the interview that you did on YouTube that you mentioned before we started this interview and that you’d like to say?

"…essentially what anthropology is and why anthropology, in some ways, has an even better chance of truth than physics, because truth is human, and so are you."Dr. Marshall Sahlins

Marshall: No, but I would like to highlight something if students are going to link to that, and that is, if there’s a section in that interview that tells you essentially what anthropology is and why anthropology, in some ways, has an even better chance of truth than physics, because truth is human, and so are you. [chuckle] And you’re studying the same thing as you are.

Jed: Yes, no disagreement from me. I...

Marshall: Physics, the more you know, the more bizarre it is, right? Quantum mechanics.

Jed: Oh gosh, I stay away from that side of physics. I study things that are easily observable in the microscope.

"…the more you'll get into the culture, the more it's logical, but logic is something that's going on inside you...And you have that same nature as the thing you're studying."Dr. Marshall Sahlins

Marshall: On anthropology, the more you’ll get into the culture, the more it’s logical, but logic is something that’s going on inside you...

Jed: That’s right.

Marshall: And you have that same nature as the thing you’re studying. It means that you have a chance at truth, a certain kind of truth, a meaningful truth, that you can’t get in other sciences. There’s a section in the interview which I recommend to students if you want to know what I think anthropology is, what it is fundamentally.

20:50Sign off

Jed: Wonderful. And we will link from this interview to that interview as well so that people can see the full picture of Professor Marshall Sahlins.

Marshall: I think it’s called Anthropology 101 or Chicago Humanities, or something. If you can’t find it, I’ll send it.

Jed: Okay. Thank you very much, Professor Sahlins. It has truly been a delight to spend this time with you. We really appreciate you taking time out of your day and we look forward to talking to you again in the future.

21:18 Marshall: Yes, thank you very much.

Stay informed! Get the latest Academic Influence news, information, and rankings with our upcoming newsletter.