Fredrik Barth: An intellectual biography

As  a new biography of social anthropologist Fredrik Barth is published this month, we ask the author Thomas Hylland Eriksen, himself a renowned anthropologist, to expand on why he chose his subject…

‘Social scientists come in many shapes, some more interesting than others. One of the Fredrik Barthextremes is the wide-ranging scholar who circles the planet in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars, eventually developing a theory about life, the universe and everything. The opposite extreme is the khaki-clad explorer crawling on all fours while peering at the grains of sand on the beach through a magnifying glass. This is the end of the continuum where most anthropologists find themselves. Yet, the grains of sand are not enough. Indeed, a major ambition of anthropology consists in ‘seeing the world in a grain of sand’ (Blake), building social theory from everyday events in ordinary communities and discussing human universals through the life-worlds of a few individuals leading perfectly average lives anywhere in the world.

In this endeavour, Fredrik Barth (b. 1928) is an undisputed master. One of the most influential anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century, Barth’s career spans six decades and has brought him to more than a dozen field sites. This book tells the story of Barth’s life from his student days in Chicago just after the war to his retirement years in Oslo; and in doing so, it highlights the power of the ethnographic gaze and the critical potential inherent in an anthropological approach to human life. At its best, anthropology can tell us that everything could have been different, that there are many roads to the good life, and that the present social order does not necessarily constitute ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (Leibniz). Anthropology treats all lives in an equitable way, giving no pride of place to the pale and powerful.

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