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19 From Complementarity to Obviation: On Dissolving the Boundaries between

Social and Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, and Psychology

Tim Ingold

The roots of what I have to say in this chapter go the entire edifice of Western thought and sci-
back to concerns that originally led me, as an un- ence—namely, that between the “two worlds” of
dergraduate at Cambridge in the late 1960s, to humanity and nature. For this is what has given
take up the study of anthropology. I had just us the overriding academic division of labor be-
completed my first year as a student of natural tween those disciplines that deal, on the one
science and was profoundly disillusioned. It was hand, with the human mind and its manifold lin-
not that I was any less fascinated by the phe- guistic, social, and cultural products, and on the
nomena of nature. My disenchantment stemmed other, with the structures and composition of the
rather from a dawning realization that the sci- material world. And it also cleaves anthropology
entific establishment was so heavily institution- itself into its sociocultural and biophysical divi-
alized, internally specialized, and oppressively sions, whose respective practitioners have less to
hierarchical that the most one could achieve as a say to one another than they do to colleagues in
professional scientist would be to become a very other disciplines on the same side of the academic
small cog in a huge juggernaut of an enterprise— fence. Social or cultural anthropologists would
one moreover that seemed to have lost touch rather read the work of historians, linguists, phi-
both with its sense of social responsibility and losophers, and literary critics; biological or phys-
with its original mission to enlarge the scope of ical anthropologists prefer to talk to colleagues in
human knowledge, and to have become largely other fields of biology or biomedicine.
subservient to the military-industrial complex. I am not content to live with this situation. It
Looking around for something else to study, I was, in part, the challenge of closing the gap be-
wanted a discipline that would help to reconnect tween the arts and humanities on the one hand,
the sense of intellectual adventure associated with and the natural sciences on the other, that drew
scientific inquiry with the realities of human ex- me to anthropology in the first place, and I still
perience in a world increasingly ravaged by mas- believe that no other discipline is in a better po-
sive technological intervention. Anthropology sition to accomplish it. In this article, I present
seemed, at the time, to fit the bill. Indeed, the rea- a program for how this might be done. My ar-
sons why I took up anthropology then are still gument, in a nutshell, hinges on a distinction
the reasons why I continue to study it, though I between two approaches to thinking about the
might now express them in rather different terms. relations between those aspects of human exis-
I believe that the discipline has a critical contri- tence that have conventionally been parceled out
bution to make to the way we understand the between different disciplines (or, in the case of
process of human being-in-the-world which is anthropology, subdisciplines) for separate study.
badly needed in an intellectual, political, and eco- For convenience, I call these the complementar-
nomic climate that has always tended to divorce ity and obviation approaches, respectively. The
human affairs from their bearings in the contin- first regards every aspect as a distinct, substantive
uum of organic life. component of being. It admits that the study of
Since embarking on my studies in anthropol- each component is bound to yield only a partial
ogy I have never looked back. I have, however, account, but promises that by putting these ac-
often looked from side to side, observing with counts together it should be possible to produce a
mounting despair how it has been torn apart by synthetic account of the whole. These syntheses
the very divisions I thought it existed to over- are characteristically denoted by such hybrid
come. These divisions ultimately seem to derive terms as biosocial, psychocultural, or even biopsy-
from a single, master dichotomy that underpins chocultural. The obviation approach, by contrast,
256 Tim Ingold

is intent on doing away with the boundaries by this, however, the philosopher might respond
which these components have been distinguished. with the observation that the very possibility of
It claims that the human being is not a composite such a description is only open to a creature for
entity made up of separable but mutually com- whom being is knowing, one that can so detach
plementary parts, such as body, mind, and cul- its consciousness from the tra≤c of its bodily in-
ture, but rather a singular locus of creative teractions with the environment as to treat the
growth within a continually unfolding field of re- latter as the object of its concern. It is in this tran-
lationships. In what follows, I argue for an obvi- scendence over nature, our philosopher might
ation approach. isist, that the essence of our humanity resides.
Before proceeding further, I should add a note In short, the human being can only appear as a
about the terms I use for the different fields of an- naturally selected, empirical object in the eyes
thropology. For a start, I do not deal here with of the rationally selecting epistemic subject.
the distinction between social and cultural an- This paradox, that accounting for our exis-
thropology: I believe this distinction is already tence in nature means taking ourselves out of it,
widely regarded as obsolete, and I have no inten- runs like a thread through the entire history of
tion of reinstating it. So when I place the word Western thought and science. And it lies at the
social before anthropology, I mean it as a short- root of the idea that humans—uniquely among
hand for social-cultural. Likewise, I am not con- animals—exist simultaneously in two parallel
cerned with the distinction between biological worlds, respectively of nature and society, in the
and physical anthropology. To my ear, the latter first as biological individuals (organisms), in the
designation has a rather archaic ring, suggesting second as cultural subjects (persons). As organ-
a preoccupation with measuring skulls and exca- isms, human beings seem inescapably bound to
vating for fossil bones. I prefer the designation the conditions of the natural world. Like other
biological, since it suggests a more rounded con- creatures, they are born, grow old and die; they
cern with the conditions of human life, both now must eat to live, protect themselves to survive and
and in the past. Finally, I shall make no attempt mate to reproduce. But as persons, humans seem
to distinguish between archaeology and prehis- to float aloof from this world in multiple realms
tory, and will use the first term indiscriminately of discourse and meaning, each constitutive of a
to cover both. specific historical consciousness. From this ex-
alted position they are said to transform nature,
both ideationally through the imposition of
Social and Biological Anthropology schemes of symbolic representation and practi-
cally through the application of technology,
It is notoriously di≤cult to explain, to those new thereby converting it into the object of relations
to the subject, what anthropology is all about. among themselves, relations that are taken to
What, they might ask, is this being, this anthro- make up the distinct domain of society.
pos, from which our discipline takes its name? It Now a complementarity approach would ac-
is one thing, it seems, to ask what is a human cept this division between the organism and the
being, quite another to ask what is human being. person, and would aim to put together the partial
The first question is an empirical one, the second accounts of human life obtainable on each of the
is a question of ontology. A modern evolutionary two planes, of nature and society, to produce a
biologist, for example, might describe a human complete “biosocial” picture. The obviation ap-
being as an individual of a species with a suite of proach, by contrast, would reject the comple-
built-in characteristics that owe their origin to a mentarity assumption, that human existence can
process of variation under natural selection. To be neatly partitioned into its biophysical and so-
From Complementarity to Obviation 257

ciocultural components, not, however, by simply but also how such ways of behaving are chan-
collapsing one side of the dichotomy into the neled, evaluated and made meaningful, and the
other as in the more extreme forms of sociobiol- persons to whom they are directed categorized,
ogy and social constructionism, but by doing in terms of culturally specific, representational
away with the dichotomy itself. Whereas an ad- schemata. An obviation approach to the study
vocate of complementarity might assert that the of kinship, on the other hand, would begin by
human being is not merely a biological organism recognizing that behavioral dispositions are nei-
nor merely a social person, but the compound of ther preconstituted genetically nor simply down-
one thing plus the other, the obviation approach loaded onto the passively receptive individual
asserts that humans are indeed all organism, as from a superior source in society, but are rather
indeed they are all person, for in the final analy- formed in and through a process of ontogenetic
sis organism and person are one and the same, development within a specific environmental con-
and there is nothing mere (that is, residual or in- text. Kinship is about the ways in which others in
complete) about either (Ingold 1990: 220). By the the environment contribute—through their pres-
same token, this approach would reject the idea ence, their activities and the nurturance they
that there is an essence of humanity that sets us provide—to this process.1 Thus, insofar as it con-
radically apart from all other creatures whose cerns the growth of the organism-person within a
lives are wholly contained within the world of field of ongoing relations, kinship is indissolubly
nature, and with it the possibility of a purely ob- biological and social. But the biology pertains to
jective account of the human being as a naturally development, not genetics; and the social to the
existing, evolved entity. We may of course imag- domain of lived experience rather than its cate-
ine ourselves to be suspended in a world of inter- gorical representation.
subjective meaning, over and above that of our The contrast between the two approaches may
material life, but such imaginings can only be car- be illustrated by way of one other example. Bi-
ried on by a being who is already positioned in pedal locomotion, the capacity to walk on two
the world and, by virtue of that fact, already feet, is generally assumed to be one of the hall-
committed to relations with determinate compo- marks of our species, and as such to form part of
nents of the environment. You have to be in a an evolved human nature. Yet as we all know,
world to imagine yourself out of it, and it is and as Mauss famously observed in his essay of
through this being-in-the-world that you become 1934 on body techniques (Mauss 1979: 97–123),
what you are. people in different cultures are brought up to
Let me briefly compare the two approaches walk in very different ways. These ways are
as they might be applied to one of the classic acquired, or as Mauss put it (p. 102), “there is no
fields of anthropological inquiry, namely kinship. ‘natural way’ [of walking] for the adult.” How
The complementarity approach would reject would a complementarity approach deal with
both the radical sociobiological thesis, that kin- this? It would argue—very much, in fact, as
ship can be reduced to a calculus of genetic re- Mauss did—that although the body is innately
latedness, and the equally radical humanistic predisposed to walk, it is also educated by a re-
alternative, that it is an arbitrary social construct ceived social tradition, transmitted orally or by
that bears no relation to genetic connection at all. other means, consisting of certain ideal rules and
Rather, it would suggest that for a complete un- conventions that lay down standards of propri-
derstanding of human kinship we need to recog- ety, perhaps specific to age, sex or gender, that
nize not only how individuals may be innately walkers are enjoined to follow, and in terms of
predisposed to behave in certain ways toward which their performance is evaluated and inter-
those to whom they have a close genetic link, preted. Thus, while the capacity to walk is a bio-
258 Tim Ingold

logical universal, particular ways of walking are body undergoes processes of growth and decay,
expressive of social values. and that as it does so, particular skills, habits,
But the obviation approach can readily find capacities, and strengths, as well as debilities
fault with this argument. For a start, human and weaknesses, are enfolded into its very con-
babies are not born walking; rather, the ability to stitution—in its neurology, musculature, even its
walk is itself an acquired skill that develops in an anatomy. To adopt a distinction suggested by
environment that includes walking caregivers, a Connerton (1989: 72–73), this is a matter of in-
range of supporting objects, and a certain terrain. corporation rather than inscription. Thus walk-
How, then, can one possibly separate learning to ing, for example, is embodied in the sense of
walk from learning to walk in the approved man- being developmentally incorporated through
ner of one’s society? Surely, the development of practice and training in an environment. The
walking skills is just one aspect of the growth same, indeed, goes for any other practical skill.
of the organism-person within a nexus of envi- Having said that, however, I must admit to a
ronmental relations, and as such is closely bound growing unease with the fashion for the “body”
up with kinship. Walking is certainly biological, in current social anthropology, and indeed with
in that it is part of the modus operandi of the the very notion of embodiment. Advocates of the
human organism, but it is also social—not be- “paradigm of embodiment,” such as Csordas
cause it is expressive of values that somehow (1990), have drawn inspiration from the philoso-
reside in an extrasomatic domain of collective phy of Merleau-Ponty (1962) in treating the body
representations, but because the walker’s move- as the form in which the human person, qua cul-
ments, his or her step, gait and pace, are contin- tural subject, is intentionally present as a being-
ually responsive to the movements of others in in-the-world. One of their aims in doing so is to
the immediate environment. It is in this kind of break away from the Cartesian bias, still domi-
mutual responsiveness or “resonance” (Wikan nant in mainstream psychology, toward treating
1992), not in the subjection of behavior to cate- the body as the executive arm of a disembodied
gorical rules, that the essence of sociality resides. mind that, sheltered from direct contact with the
external world, is presumed to organize the data
Body, Organism, and Development of experience and to be the ultimate source of all
meaning and intention. I sympathize with this
Clearly, the problem with the complementarity aim, but I am not sure that the best way to over-
thesis is that it is unable to offer a coherent ac- come the troublesome mind/body dichotomy is
count of ontogenetic development. Human be- by dropping the former term and retaining the
ings are supposed to be in part preconstituted latter. It would seem just as legitimate to speak of
genetically, in part moulded through the super- enmindment as of embodiment, to emphasize the
imposition (through enculturation or socialisa- immanent intentionality of human beings’ en-
tion) of ready-made structures. Real humans, gagement with their environment in the course of
however, grow in an environment furnished by perception and action. The distance between a
the presence and activities of others. It is precisely Merleau-Pontyan phenomenology of the body
because the dynamics of development lie at the and what Bateson (1973) christened the “ecology
heart of the obviation approach that it is able to of mind” is not as great as might first appear.
dispense with the biological/social dichotomy. Perhaps this is merely an issue of semantics.
And it leads, naturally, to a focus on issues of em- Behind it, however, there lies a more fundamen-
bodiment. By this I do not mean that the human tal question. How, if at all, are we to distinguish
body should be understood as a site or medium the body from the organism? One answer might
for the inscription of social values. I would rather be that the body is a discrete object composed of
use the term to stress that throughout life, the organs and tissues, like as not dead or at least
From Complementarity to Obviation 259

anesthetized, as it might appear before the sur- those committed to phenomenological or ecolog-
geon in the operating theatre, whereas the organ- ical approaches, are markedly reluctant to go this
ism is a living being, situated and functioning in far. Their hesitation may be attributed in part to
its proper environment. But neither Merleau- the continuing influence of dualistic thinking, but
Ponty nor those who have followed his lead mean in part—too—to a certain nervousness about the
the body in this sense. They are rather referring implications of the position set out earlier for the
to “the living body . . . with feelings, sensations, distinction between culture and biology.
perceptions and emotions” (Ots 1994: 116), or These implications are indeed radical. If, as I
what is known in German as Leib (as opposed to have suggested, those specific ways of acting, per-
Körper). Yet in their determination to treat the ceiving, and knowing that we have been accus-
leibly body as the subject of culture, anthropolo- tomed to call cultural are incorporated, in the
gists such as Jackson (1989: 119) and Csordas course of ontogenetic development, into the neu-
(1990: 5) cannot avoid the implication that there rology, musculature, and anatomy of the human
exists some kind of biological residuum that is organism, then they are equally facts of biology.
objectively given, independently and in advance Cultural differences, in short, are biological. Now
of the cultural process.2 Culture and biology re- of course, it was precisely on the premise that cul-
main as far apart as ever, only the body has been tural variation is independent of biology that
repositioned: formerly placed with the organism anthropologists could claim to have refuted the
on the side of biology, it has now reappeared with raciology of the early decades of this century
the person on the side of culture. Hence the body (Wolf 1994). In 1930, no less an authority than
as subject is split off from the organism as object, Boas had declared that “any attempt to explain
leaving the latter bodiless, reduced to an inchoate cultural form on a purely biological basis is
mass of biological potential. The embodiment of doomed to failure” (Boas 1940: 165). From then
culture leads to nothing less than the disembodi- on, the biophysical and sociocultural divisions of
ment of the organism! anthropology have proceeded along markedly di-
It seems to me that the theoretical gains vergent paths. It is no wonder that contemporary
brought by the paradigm of embodiment will be social anthropologists should be fearful of going
more apparent than real, so long as we fail to back on such a fundamental tenet of disciplinary
take one final, and crucial step, which is to recog- integrity.
nize that the body is the human organism, and I believe this is an issue that has to be con-
that the process of embodiment is one and the fronted. How can we rest secure in the conviction
same as the development of that organism in its that raciology has long since been expurgated
environment. Once this step is taken, then one or from the discipline, now that the premises on
other of the two terms, body and organism, be- which this was done seem increasingly shaky, if
comes effectively redundant. Given the choice of not downright incoherent? Evidence of this in-
which term to retain, I would opt for the latter, coherence is not hard to come by, for example
since it better conveys the sense of organized in the “statement on race” recently endorsed by
process, of movement, connectivity, and relation- the International Union of Anthropological and
ality, that I take to be fundamental to life. Substi- Ethnological Sciences. Article 10 of this state-
tuting life for mind, and organism for body, the ment begins with the well-worn claim that “there
notion of a mindful body may be replaced by that is no necessary concordance between biological
of living organism, a substitution that has the characteristics and culturally defined groups,”
effect both of restoring human beings to their and ends by asserting that “it is not justifiable to
proper place within the continuum of organic attribute cultural characteristics to the influence
life, and of laying the Cartesian dualism finally to of genetic inheritance” (IUAES 1996: 19–20).
rest. Most social anthropologists, however, even What is striking here is the implicit attribu-
260 Tim Ingold

tion of “biological characteristics” to “genetic of this specification takes place over numerous
inheritance”—and this despite the recognition, generations, through changes brought about by
elsewhere in the document, that “biological dif- natural selection in the frequency of its informa-
ferences . . . are strongly influenced by nutrition, tion-bearing elements, the genes. Development
way of life and other aspects of the environment” is then understood to be the process whereby the
(Article 4). To return to my earlier example: con- genotypic specification, by definition context-
sider a culturally specific way of walking. Is this independent, is translated within a particular en-
not a property of the organism, the outcome of a vironmental context into the manifest form of the
process of development, and hence fully admis- phenotype. In this standard account, the geno-
sible as a “biological characteristic”? Despite type is privileged as the locus of organic form,
Boas’s strictures, there is nothing wrong with ac- while the environment merely provides the mate-
counting for this or any other aspect of cultural rial conditions for its substantive realisation. To
form on a “purely biological basis,” so long as be sure, an organism may develop different fea-
the biology in question is of development, not tures in changed environments, but these differ-
genetics. ences are regarded as no more than alternative
Evidently, the real source of the problem is not phenotypic expressions of the same basic design.
the identification of the social or cultural with the Only when the design itself changes does evolu-
biological, but the assignment of the biological to tion occur.
the genetic.3 For it is the latter assumption, which Let me return for a moment to the example
still lies unquestioned at the heart of much an- of walking. According to orthodox evolutionary
thropological theory as well as in the discipline’s biology, bipedal locomotion is one of a suite of
public pronouncements, that forces us to choose anatomical and behavioral characteristics that
between treating, say, a locally specific way of have emerged in the course of human evolution.
walking either as basically nonbiological or ex- It—or, rather, a program for its development—
trasomatic, governed in its bodily execution by a must therefore form part of the species-specific
scheme of acquired mental representations, or as genotypic endowment that each one of us re-
biological but genetically inherited. The first al- ceives at the point of conception. It is in this sense
ternative reinstates the Cartesian antinomies of that human beings are said to be universally
mind and body; the second takes us right back to equipped, as part of their evolved makeup, with
raciology. Breaking the link between biological an innate capacity to walk on two feet, regardless
form and genetic inheritance, however, is easier of how they walk in practice, or of whether they
said than done, for this link underpins the entire walk at all—or go everywhere by car! Specific
edifice of modern evolutionary theory and justi- ways of walking have not themselves evolved,
fies the fundamental precept on which it rests, they are just alternative phenotypic realizations
namely that the life history of the individual or- of an evolved, genotypic trait. By the same token,
ganism, its ontogenetic development, forms no we should all be genotypically endowed with the
part of the evolution of the species to which it capacity to rest for long periods in a squatting
belongs.4 position, yet this is something that I (along with
fellow Westerners) am quite unable to do, since I
The Myth of the Genotype have been brought up in a society where it is nor-
mal to sit on chairs. As this example shows, the
In brief, what is supposed to evolve is not the or- notion of capacity is almost totally vacuous un-
ganism itself or its manifest capabilities of action, less it refers back to the overall set of conditions
but rather a formal design specification for the that must be in place, not only in the individual’s
organism known as the genotype. The evolution genetic constitution but also in the surrounding
From Complementarity to Obviation 261

environment, to make the subsequent develop- tions for their own future development and that
ment of the characteristic or capability in ques- of others to which they relate, they figure not
tion a realistic possibility (Ingold 1996a). One as passive sites of evolutionary change but as cre-
would otherwise have to suppose that human be- ative agents, producers as well as products of
ings were genotypically endowed, at the dawn of their own evolution. Third, and most crucially
history, with the capacity to do everything that for my present purposes, this applies equally to
they ever have done in the past, and ever will do human beings. “Our basic image of human on-
in the future—not only walk and squat but also togeny,” as Robertson (1996: 595) insists,
swim, ride bicycles, drive cars, fly airplanes, carry “should therefore be that of a lifespan set be-
out scientific research, and so on (the list would tween an ascendent and a descendent generation,
be endless). linked by the process of begetting and being be-
What this means, in general terms, is that the gotten.” Human lives overlap: fashioned within
forms and capacities of human and other organ- contexts shaped by the presence and activities of
isms are attributable, in the final analysis, not to predecessors, they in turn affect the conditions of
genetic inheritance but to the generative poten- development for successors. There is nothing
tials of the developmental system (Oyama 1985), strange about this idea; on the contrary it sums
that is, the entire system of relations constituted up the process we are used to calling history. So
by the presence of the organism in a particular conceived, however, history is not so much a
environment. This is not to deny that every or- movement in which, as Maurice Godelier puts it
ganism starts life with—among other things—its (1989: 63), human beings “produce society in
complement of DNA in the genome. Orthodox order to live,” as one in which, in the course of
evolutionary theory has it that this DNA encodes their social lives, they grow one another, estab-
the formal design specification. Because, how- lishing by their actions the conditions for each
ever, there is no reading of the genetic code that other’s development. But taken in this sense, his-
is not itself part of the process of development, it tory is no more than a continuation, into the field
is only within the context of the developmental of human relations, of a process that is going on
system that we can say what any particular gene throughout the organic world. That process is
is for. It follows that there can be no specification one of evolution. The distinction between history
of the characteristics of an organism, no design, and evolution is thus dissolved (Ingold 1995a:
that is independent of the context of develop- 210–211).
ment. The genotype simply does not exist. And so
too, in the case of human beings, there is no such
thing as “bipedal locomotion” apart from the Anthropology and Archaeology
manifold ways in which people actually learn to
walk in different communities (Ingold 1995a). Between Evolution and History
Now if, as I have argued, organic form is a
property not of genes but of developmental sys- This is where prehistoric archaeology comes in.
tems, then to account for its evolution we have to Do archaeologists study human history or hu-
understand how such systems are constituted and man evolution? So long as the distinction remains
reconstituted over time. This conclusion has in place, archaeology seems to fall awkwardly be-
three major implications. First, far from being a tween the two stools. An indicator of this predic-
tangential offshoot of the evolutionary process, ament is the fact that while there has long been a
ontogenesis is the very crucible from which it un- strongly held view in social anthropology that
folds. Second, because organisms, through their there is little to distinguish it from the discipline
activity, can influence the environmental condi- of history, and despite the rather obvious links
262 Tim Ingold

between history and archaeology (in that both


study the lives of people in the past), the majority
of social anthropologists insist that their subject
has little or nothing to do with archaeology. Of
course, this was not always so. The evolutionary
anthropologists of the nineteenth century were
keen to study allegedly primitive peoples because Figure 19.1
Organic evolution and the history of culture (after
it was thought that their present existence could
Kroeber 1952: 50). “In this illustration,” Kroeber ex-
illuminate the earlier conditions of humankind in plains, “the continuous line denotes the level inorganic;
the spheres of social and intellectual life, just as the broken line the evolution of the organic; the line of
archaeology could reveal the early stages of ma- dots, the development of civilisation. Height above the
terial culture. But the subsequent rejection of this base is degree of advancement.” A marks “the begining
kind of progressive evolutionism broke the link of time on this earth,” B “the first human precursor,” C
between social anthropology and archaeology, “primitive man,” and D “the present moment.”
and at the same time ruled out of order any sug-
gestion that humans might be more or less cul-
tural, or that they might be further along or lag that they would rather not have to think about. If
behind in the course of history. human history has a point of origin, what could
So far as most contemporary social anthropol- it mean to have been living close to that point, or
ogists are concerned, living beings either inhabit even at the crucial moment of transition itself ?
a historically constituted world of cultural mean- Were such people semicultural, gearing up for
ing or they do not: all human beings do, other an- history? How can one conceivably distinguish
imals do not. There are no differences of degree. those actions and events that carried forward the
Yet the very idea that humans inhabit separate, movement of human history from those that set
cultural worlds implies that at some point, the it in motion in the first place?
history of culture must have lifted off from a In recent years archaeologists have expended a
baseline of full-blown, evolved human capacities. great deal of effort in revealing the origins of cul-
Short of supposing some kind of unfathomable ture and history in what has come to be called the
quantum leap, there is no alternative but to imag- “human revolution” (Mellars and Stringer 1989).
ine a historical trajectory that rises inexorably This is now supposed to have taken place during
from a point of emergence or origin. Figure 19.1 the Upper Palaeolithic, though archaeologists
shows an early example of just such a view, taken remain perplexed by the apparent fact that so-
from Kroeber’s classic paper of 1917 on the su- called modern humans—that is, beings equipped
perorganic (Kroeber 1952: 50). Here, the history with the full suite of evolved capacities needed to
of culture is seen taking off from organic evolu- set the cultural ball rolling—arrived on the scene
tion at point B; by point C we have the rudimen- a good hundred thousand years before we find
tary culture of “primitive man,” while by point D any evidence for the sorts of things with which
(the present) the origins of culture have been left culture is usually associated: burials, art, complex
far behind. Present-day social anthropologists and regionally diverse toolkits, language, and so
may well frown at this picture, and scoff at its in- on. Indeed, the alleged revolution seems to have
vocation of progressive development, but they taken about twice as long as the fifty-thousand-
themselves have nothing better to offer. And one year history it is supposed to have inaugurated!
of the reasons why they tend to steer clear of pre- Be that as it may, the argument I have set out
historic archaeology, I suggest, is that it throws above suggests that the entire project of searching
the spotlight on just those awkward questions for the genesis of some essential humanity is seri-
From Complementarity to Obviation 263

ously misguided. We look in vain for the evolu- should be foremost in combating the pretensions
tionary origins of human capacities for the simple of the origin-hunters. And they should help us to
reason that these capacities continue to evolve in recognize that our humanity, far from having
the very historical unfolding of our lives. been set for all time as an evolutionary legacy
Of course, even an orthodox evolutionary the- from our hunter-gatherer past, is something that
orist would have to admit that the evolution of we continually have to work at and for which we
humankind did not exactly stop once history and ourselves must bear the responsibility. There is,
culture were underway. However the conven- in short, no way of saying what a human being is
tional view, exemplified in Kroeber’s diagram apart from the manifold ways in which human
(figure 19.1) and reiterated by countless authors beings become. “Modern humans” have not orig-
ever since, is that by comparison with the rate of inated yet, and they never will.
historical change, this evolution has continued at
snail’s pace, so that to all intents and purposes, Landscape and Environment
contemporary human beings may be regarded as
not significantly different from their predecessors This recognition that the forms of human being,
of the Upper Palaeolithic.5 They are equipped and the capacities they entail, are continually
with the same basic morphology, capacities and evolving as life goes on, helps to put paid to
dispositions that, packaged in the genotype, have another dichotomy which has been particularly
been passed on down the generations for tens of troublesome for archaeology. This is between the
thousands of years. To be sure, the amount of natural and the artificial, and it lies at the source
genetic change in human populations over this of the idea that archaeologists study artifacts.
period may have been relatively small. My con- Now the very notion of artifact implies the work-
tention, however, is that in their dispositions and ing up of some raw material to a finished form,
capacities, and to a certain extent even in their corresponding to a preconceived design in the
morphology, the humans of today are not at all mind of the artisan. Only once it has first been
like their predecessors. This is because these char- made, in this sense, can it be brought into play in
acteristics are not fixed genetically but emerge the ordinary business of life, in the course of
within processes of development, and because the which it is used. This distinction between mak-
circumstances of development today, cumula- ing and using is fundamental to what I have
tively shaped through previous human activity, elsewhere (Ingold 1995b) called the “building
are very different from those of the past. perspective”: the idea that life goes on within
It is, I believe, a great mistake to populate the structures that have been constituted in advance,
past with people like ourselves, equipped with the rather than these structures arising within the life
underlying capacities or potentials to do every- process itself. Adopting such a perspective, it is
thing we do today, such that history itself appears easy to imagine that the forms of objects recov-
as nothing more than the teleological process of ered from archaeological sites correspond to de-
their progressive realization. Indeed the very no- signs that were originally in the heads of their
tion of an origin, defined as the point at which one-time makers.
these capacities became established, awaiting However as Davidson and Noble (1993: 365)
their historical fulfilment, is part of an elaborate have pointed out, it is a fallacy—and one that is
ideological justification for the present order of found very frequently in archaeological writing—
things and, as such, but one aspect of the intense to suppose that objects are ever finished in this
presentism of modern thought. In so far as the sense. For one thing, their forms are not imposed
task of archaeology is to illuminate the past by the mind, but arise within the movement of
rather than legitimate the present, archaeologists the artisan’s engagement with the material; for
264 Tim Ingold

another, in the course of being used for one enfold, into their very formation and consti-
purpose, objects may undergo further modifica- tution, the lives and works of their inhabitants
tion that make them peculiarly apt for another. (Ingold 1993b: 156–157). To appreciate what is
Whether, at any moment, we say the object is going on here, we need to adopt a different per-
being used or made depends entirely on whether spective, one that recognizes that the forms peo-
the reference is to a present or future project. Al- ple make or build, whether in their imagination
though at a certain point, the artisan may claim or on the ground, arise within the current of their
to have completed his work, that is certainly not involved activity, in the specific relational con-
the end of the object he has produced. Indeed, texts of their practical engagement with their sur-
an artifact can never really be said to be finished roundings. Building, in short, is encompassed by
until it is of no further use to anyone and is finally dwelling, making by use. I call this the “dwelling
discarded. The lesson to be learned from this is perspective” (Ingold 1995b).
that the objects around us have histories which, Alongside the relatively recent anthropological
in certain respects, are not unlike the life histories recognition, discussed earlier, that the human in-
of persons. Just as persons continually come into tentional presence in the world is an embodied
being through their involvement in relationships presence, there has been a remarkable upsurge
with other persons and objects in their environ- of interest in the landscape. This is already prov-
ments, so the forms and meanings of objects are ing to be a particularly fruitful area of collabora-
generated within the contexts of their involve- tion between anthropologists and archaeologists
ment in the diverse life-projects of the beings (for example, Bender 1993; Tilley 1994). Though
(human and nonhuman) with which they are sur- the precise meaning of “landscape,” as that of
rounded. In this respect they are never made but “body,” continues to be the subject of intense
always in the making.6 controversy, there is a clear connection between
We cannot, then, make a hard and fast distinc- the two concerns. For if persons inhabit inten-
tion between one class of things that are ready- tional worlds, and if bodies inhabit landscapes,
made in nature, and another class of things that then to reunite persons with their bodies is also to
have been made through the shaping of a nat- restore their intentional worlds to the landscape.
urally given raw material into a finished arte- But this raises a parallel problem, too. How, if
factual form. Nor can we adopt an analogue of at all, are we to distinguish landscape from envi-
the complementarity thesis, and suppose that ob- ronment? Just as the body has come to be identi-
jects, like persons, are in part naturally preconsti- fied with the cultural subject, and the organism
tuted, and in part molded through the imposition with the residual biological object, so there is
of cultural design. Just such an analogue is impli- a temptation to treat the landscape as an inter-
cated in the unfortunate designation of artifacts subjectively constituted, existential space, while
as objects of “material culture,” suggesting as it reducing the environment to a mere substrate
does that to make an artifact you first take an ob- of formless materiality. In this vein, Weiner
ject with certain intrinsic material properties and (1991: 32) speaks of how the bestowal of place
then add some culture to it. I noted earlier that a names intentionally transforms “a sheer physical
critical weakness of the complementarity thesis, terrain into a pattern of historically experienced
applied to persons, is that it cannot offer a realis- and constituted space and time,” thereby creating
tic account of ontogenetic development. In pre- “existential space out of a blank environment”
cisely the same way, an approach that stresses the (my emphases).
complementarity of natural and artificial—or Once again, the division between the sociocul-
built—components of the environment cannot tural and the biophysical is reproduced rather
begin to grasp the ways in which environments than dissolved. This, in my view, is a retrograde
From Complementarity to Obviation 265

step. The environment of persons is no more re- our dwelling. In practice, of course, one cannot
ducible than is their organic existence to pure mo- do one without the other, nor can either be done
lecular substance. It is not merely physical, and it without regard to the inherent temporality of the
is certainly not blank. For example, the ground I processes both of ontogenetic development and
walk on is surely a part of my environment, but environmental formation. I have already shown
in a physicalist description the ground, as such, how we can dispense with the distinction between
does not exist; there are only packed molecules of social and biological anthropology. It is now pos-
carbon, nitrogen, silicon, and so on. As Reed has sible to see how the anthropology/archaeology
eloquently put it, “it is the earth on which we distinction might be thrown out as well.
walk, and the soil in which we plant, that is rele-
vant for us as perceiving and acting creatures; not
the molecules discovered by scientists” (Reed Psychology and Anthropology
1988: 111). The environment, in short, is not the
same as the physical world; that is to say, it is not One of the reasons why, up to now, it has proved
describable in terms of substance. Rather, the en- so di≤cult to effect a reintegration of the subdivi-
vironment is the world as it exists and takes on sions of anthropological inquiry, and particularly
meaning in relation to the beings that inhabit it of its social and biological components, lies in the
(Gibson 1979: 8). As such, its formation has to be fact that in the conventional complementarity ap-
understood in the same way that we understand proach, the necessary link between the individual
the growth of organisms and persons, in terms of organism and the cultural subject can only be
the properties of dynamic self-organization of re- established by way of a third term, namely what
lational fields. But precisely because environment is called the “human mind.” The discipline that
does not stand as material substance to the im- exists to study the human mind is, of course, psy-
material forms of landscape—because it under- chology. Thus for advocates of the complemen-
goes a continual process of formation with, and tarity approach, psychology would have to be
around, its inhabitants—I see no basis on which along in any complete, synthetic account of
the two terms, environment and landscape, may human existence. The synthesis would not be
be distinguished. “biosocial” but “biopsychosocial.” As Mauss put
Earlier, I suggested that the concept of the it, an exclusive focus on the relations between the
“mindful body” should be replaced by that of biological and the sociological “leaves but little
“living organism.” But the formulation remained room for the psychological mediator.” An ac-
incomplete, since neither the body nor the organ- count of walking, for example, that rested solely
ism, however conceived, can exist in isolation. on an anatomical or physiological base, or even
We can now complete it with the proposition that on a psychological or sociological one, would be
the mindful body in a landscape be replaced by inadequate. “It is the triple viewpoint, that of the
the living organism in its environment. And this, ‘total man,’ that is needed” (Mauss 1979 [1934]:
to conclude, offers the basis for a real synthesis of 101, my emphasis). In what follows I propose to
archaeology and anthropology. Instead of being argue, to the contrary, that the human mind—
separated by contrived divisions between past conceived as some kind of structured entity—is
and present, or between artifacts and bodies, we as much an invention of modern science as is the
might say that where anthropology studies the human genotype. Mind, as I have already sug-
conditions of human living in the environment— gested with acknowledgment to Bateson (1973),
or of what phenomenological philosophers call is not in the head rather than out there in the
“being-in-the-world”—archaeology studies the world, but immanent in the active, perceptual en-
formation of the environment of our living-in, gagement of organism-person and environment.
266 Tim Ingold

As the study of the conditions of such engage- mind of the individual, the latter is concerned
ment, psychology should be no different from with the collective mind of society. Much recent
anthropology. work in social anthropology, however, has
To begin, we have to consider why a psycho- pointed to the inadequacy of the classical indi-
logical mediator should be deemed necessary at vidual/society dichotomy (Strathern 1996). We
all. The reason lies in the fact that the classical have begun to recognize (see, for example, Toren
division between the biological and the social is 1993) that those capacities of conscious aware-
not based on one opposition but is a compound ness and intentional response normally bracketed
of two: between body and mind, and between under the rubric of mind are not given in advance
the individual and the collectivity. Thus psychol- of the individual’s entry into the social world,
ogy has traditionally shared with biological but are rather fashioned through a lifelong his-
anthropology an exclusive focus on the individ- tory of involvement with both human and non-
ual, and with social anthropology a focus on human constituents of the environment. We have
mental rather than bodily states. I have already realized, too, that it is through the situated, inten-
addressed the problem of the mind/body dichot- tional activities of persons, not through their sub-
omy, but it remains to deal with that of individ- jugation to the higher authority of society, that
ual versus collectivity. This latter dichotomy rests social relationships are formed and reformed.
on a hierarchical conception of the relations With this, the hierarchical conception of part/
between parts and wholes that is very deeply whole relations simply collapses. Every particular
embedded in the structure of our thought. An- person, in so far as it enfolds in its constitution
thropologists have always professed their com- the history of its environmental relations, gathers
mitment to a holistic approach, but they have the whole into itself.7 But that whole, so con-
tended to take this to mean a focus on wholes— ceived, is not an entity but a movement or pro-
conceived as total societies or cultures—as op- cess: the process of social life. Persons come into
posed to their parts or members, individual being, with their specific identities, capacities,
human beings. Following principles set out by and powers of agency, as differentially positioned
Durkheim a century ago, it has generally been enfoldments of this process, and in their actions
conceded that as the whole is more than the sum they carry it forward. Consciousness and social
of its parts, so “society is not the mere sum of existence, though they appear at any particular
individuals, but . . . a specific reality which has its moment to offer alternative perspectives on the
own characteristics” (Durkheim 1982 [1895]: person, respectively inward-looking and out-
128–199). ward-looking (Ingold 1983: 9), turn out in their
Now the very logic of summation invoked here temporal unfolding to be one and the same, like
entails that every part is a self-contained, indivis- the single surface of a Möbius strip. Taking this
ible, naturally bounded unit whose integrity and view, I can see no further intellectual justification
constitution are already given, independently and for continuing to uphold the boundary that has
in advance of any relations it may enter into with traditionally divided psychology from social an-
others of its kind. These relations, in short, have thropology. The discipline that will be brought
no bearing upon the constitution of the individ- into being through the dissolution of this bound-
ual parts themselves, but are rather constitutive ary, whatever we choose to call it, will be the
of a distinct entity, namely society, located at study of how people perceive, act, feel, remem-
a higher level of abstraction. This Durkheimian ber, think, and learn within the settings of their
view has long underwritten the academic division mutual, practical involvement in the lived-in
of labor between psychology and social anthro- world. In the following paragraphs I should like
pology: whereas the former is said to study the to review some of the consequences of this per-
From Complementarity to Obviation 267

spective in three areas that have traditionally contexts of human engagement with the environ-
been central to psychological inquiry: perception, ment while treating the latter as no more than
memory, and learning. a kind of recording instrument, converting the
stimuli that impinge upon it into data to be
Perception processed. One of the most powerful critiques of
this view has come from advocates of so-called
Why do people perceive the world in the particu- ecological psychology, who have drawn inspi-
lar ways that they do? Mainstream psychology ration above all from the pioneering work of
has long regarded perception as a two-step oper- Gibson on visual perception (Gibson 1979).
ation: in the first, sensory data are picked up Ecological psychologists reject the information-
from the environment by means of the receptor processing view, with its implied separation of
organs of the body; in the second these data the activity of the mind in the body from the re-
are processed by a range of devices in the mind, activity of the body in the world, arguing instead
to generate images or representations, internal that perception is an aspect of functioning of the
models of an external reality. This processing is total system of relations constituted by the pres-
known as cognition. By and large, psychologists ence of the organism-person in its environment.
have been concerned to discover universals of Perceivers, they argue, get to know the world di-
cognition, which are attributed to structures es- rectly, by moving about in the environment and
tablished in the course of human evolution. discovering what it affords, rather than by repre-
Anthropologists, by contrast, have wanted to ex- senting it in the mind. Thus meaning is not the
plain why people from different cultural back- form that the mind contributes, by way of its ac-
grounds perceive the world in different ways. quired schemata, to the flux of raw sensory data,
They have done so by suggesting that human but is rather continually being generated within
cognized models are constructed on the basis of the relational contexts of people’s practical en-
programs or schemata that are acquired as part gagement with the world around them.
of a tradition, and vary from one culture to an- It follows from this approach that if people
other. What people see will therefore be relative raised in different environments perceive different
to their particular framework for viewing the things, this is not because they are processing the
world. At first glance, the universalistic claims same sensory data in terms of alternative repre-
of psychology seem incompatible with the rela- sentational schemata, but because they have been
tivistic stance adopted by social anthropology. trained, through previous experience of carrying
But as several authors have pointed out (e.g., out various kinds of practical tasks, involving
D’Andrade 1981; Sperber 1985; Bloch 1991), particular bodily movements and sensibilities, to
the two perspectives are, in fact, perfectly com- orient themselves to the environment and to at-
plementary. For unless innate processing mech- tend to its features in different ways. Modes of
anisms are already in place, it would not be perception, in short, are a function of specific
possible for human beings to acquire the pro- ways of moving around—of walking, of sitting
grams for constructing their culturally specific or squatting, of tilting the head, of using imple-
representations from the data of experience. ments, and so on, all of which contribute to what
I will spell out the logic of this argument later Bourdieu (1977: 87) would call a certain “body
on, because it bears on the issue of learning. My hexis.” And as we have already seen, these forms
present concern is with the way in which the ap- of motility are not added to, or inscribed in, a
proaches outlined above, both in psychology and preformed human body, but are rather intrinsic
anthropology, reproduce the Cartesian duality of properties of the human organism itself, develop-
mind and body, removing the former from the mentally incorporated into it modus operandi
268 Tim Ingold

through practice and training in a particular en- ous experience, within a given environmental
vironment. Hence capacities of perception, as of context. Let me clarify the contrast by means of
action, are neither innate nor acquired but un- a simple analogy. Suppose I play a record of one
dergo continuous formation within processes of of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello. An
ontogenetic development. This result is clearly in exceedingly complicated pattern is engraved on
line with the conclusions to be drawn from an ob- the otherwise blank surface of the disc, but the
viation approach to the relation between social mechanical processes—of rotation and amplifi-
and biological phenomena. In their rejection, on cation—involved in the operation of the record
the one hand, of the Cartesian view of action as player could hardly be more simple. Now sup-
the bodily execution of innate or acquired pro- pose I pick up my cello to perform the suite my-
grams, and on the other hand, of the cognitivist self. In this case, the music issues directly from
view of perception as the operation of the mind my own movement, a movement that involves the
upon the deliverance of the senses, the obviation whole of my being indissolubly coupled with the
approach in anthropology and the ecological instrument. The process of playing a musical in-
approach in psychology find common cause. strument like a cello is enormously complex, and
Both take the living-organism-in-its-environment calls for embodied skills that take years to ac-
as their point of departure. This is why (contra quire. But whether the music exists at all as a
Bloch 1991) I believe that an anthropology that structure in the head or mental score, indepen-
sets out from this point has more to gain from an dently of the activities of practice and perfor-
alliance with ecological psychology than from an mance, is a moot point.
alliance with cognitive science. Now in introducing his distinction between
complex structure and complex process meta-
Memory phors, Rubin was actually concerned with the
psychological study of memory. His point was
Another way of expressing the difference between that in mainstream cognitive psychology, it is
cognitivist and ecological approaches is in terms usual to regard memory as a kind of mental store,
of a contrast suggested by Rubin (1988). One in which past experiences and received informa-
may understand what is going on, he writes, in tion are engraved and filed, as on the grooves and
terms of one or other of two alternative meta- bands of a record (or, to adopt a more contem-
phors. The first is a complex structure metaphor, porary analogy, a computer disc). Remembering
the second a complex process metaphor. The is then a rather simple process of searching or
former, which is dominant in cognitive psychol- scanning, across a complexly structured cognitive
ogy, works by converting what is observed in array. It is, moreover, a purely mental, inside-the-
the world into a formal account, whether envis- head operation. Once a particular memory is re-
aged as a script, schema, grammar, program, or trieved, it may or may not be expressed in overt,
algorithm, and then has that account copied into bodily behavior. But every behavioral expression,
the mind so that the observed behavior can be like every playing of a record, is no more than a
simply explained as the expression of this mental replica run off from a preexisting template. With
blueprint. The latter, the dominant metaphor a complex process model, by contrast, remem-
in ecological psychology, imputes little or no bering is itself a skilled, environmentally situated
structured content to the mind. Instead, behav- activity. It is in playing the Bach suite that I re-
ior is explained as the outcome of a complex member it; the processes of remembering and
process set in train by virtue of the immersion playing are one and the same. It follows that
of the practitioner, whose powers of perception every performance, far from being a replica, is it-
and action have been fine-tuned through previ- self an original movement in which the music is
From Complementarity to Obviation 269

not so much reproduced as created anew. More preferred the approach of skill (one of his exam-
generally, remembering is a matter not of discov- ples was of strokes in tennis or cricket). However
ering structures in the attics of our minds, but as Connerton has pointed out (1989: 28), the cog-
of generating them from our movements in the nitivist emphasis on looking for structures in the
world. mind, and the concomitant reduction of action to
Armed with this contrast, let me now turn to a simple process of mechanical execution, has left
the role of remembering in social life. It is re- no conceptual space for the investigation of
markable that the two pioneering figures in the bodily enskilment, or what he calls “habit mem-
study of social memory, Halbwachs and Bartlett, ory.” It is true that most social anthropological
took opposite sides on the issue. Halbwachs, a work on memory has actually been about com-
committed Durkheimian, identified memory with memoration—the present reenactment of past
the very framework of collective representations events in ritual practice, storytelling, writing, and
that are supposed to give order and meaning to the like. And commemoration needs to be distin-
the otherwise chaotic influx of raw sensation. If guished from memorization: the developmental
memory is social rather than individual, it is be- incorporation of specific competencies (such as
cause the complex structures that underwrite the playing a musical instrument) through repeated
human capacity for recollection have their source trials. While the relation between memorization
in a collective tradition. “Our recollections,” and commemoration has yet to be fully unraveled
Halbwachs wrote, “depend on those of all our (Ingold 1996b: 203), the essential point to recog-
fellows, and on the great frameworks of the mem- nize is that the one cannot occur without the
ory of society” (1992: 42). For Bartlett, to the other. To commemorate the music of Bach, for
contrary, what counted was not the structure of example, it must be possible to perform it, one
memory, but the process of remembering. This cannot perform it without skill, and the develop-
process, he argued, depends upon an organiza- ment of skill implies memorization (Connerton
tion of what he called “schemata.” Ironically, 1989: 5).9
though it was Bartlett who introduced the con-
cept of schema into psychology, he did not like it, Learning
and warned explicitly against regarding schemata
as static, maplike structures—which is precisely This is the point at which to return to the psy-
how they are understood by most cognitive psy- chological version of the complementarity thesis,
chologists and cognitive anthropologists today. namely that the acquisition of culture is possible
According to Bartlett, the schema is an active or- thanks to innate mental processing devices. It is
ganization of past reactions or experiences, which perfectly true that if culture consisted of a corpus
is continually brought to bear, and at the same of transmissible knowledge, or in the words of
time continually evolves, in the complex pro- Quinn and Holland (1987: 4), of “what [people]
cess of our engagement with the environment must know in order to act as they do, make the
(Bartlett 1932: 201).8 And it is because this is things they make, and interpret their experience
largely an environment of other persons that re- in the distinctive way they do,” then the mind
membering is social. would have to be pre-equipped with cognitive de-
Clearly, without the ability to remember, vices of some kind that would allow this knowl-
human beings would be unable to learn anything edge to be reassembled inside every individual
at all. But there is a world of difference between head through a processing of the raw input of
learning as adding more to one’s internal, repre- sensory data. In other words, the programs or
sentational structure, and learning as the devel- schemata that enable people to construct their
opment of a skill (Rubin 1988: 379–380). Bartlett culturally specific representations of the world,
270 Tim Ingold

and to deliver appropriate plans of action, would gled story short, they boil down to two distinct
themselves have to be constructed from the ele- claims. One is that the concrete mechanisms
ments of experience, on the basis of certain rules making up the evolved architecture are reliably
and principles. So how were these acquired? constructed, or wired up, under all possible cir-
Perhaps in the same way, through the processing cumstances. The other is that these universal
of experiential input according to yet another mechanisms proceed to work on variable inputs
program. “You can learn to learn,” Johnson- from the environment to produce the diversity of
Laird explains, “but then that learning would de- manifest capabilities that we actually observe.
pend on another program, and so on. Ultimately, Consider the specific and much-vaunted example
learning must depend on innate programs that of language acquisition. Here, the alleged univer-
make programs” (Johnson-Laird 1988: 133). sal mechanism is the so-called language acquisi-
Whence, then, comes the information that speci- tion device (LAD). It is assumed that all human
fies the construction of the innate devices, with- infants, even those (hypothetically) reared in so-
out which, it would seem, no learning could take cial isolation, come equipped with such a device.
place at all? During a well-defined stage of development, this
By and large, in the literature of cognitive psy- device is supposed to be activated, operating on
chology, the postulation of innate structures is the input of speech sounds from the environment
taken to require no more justification than vague so as to establish, in the infant’s mind, the gram-
references to genetics and natural selection. Thus mar and lexicon of the particular language
it is assumed that the design specifications for spoken in his or her community. It would thus
what is often called the mind’s “evolved archi- appear that language acquisition is a two-stage
tecture” (Cosmides, Tooby and Barkow 1992: 5) process: in the first, the LAD is constructed; in
must form one component of the human geno- the second, it is furnished with specific syntactic
type. I have already shown, however, that it is and semantic content. This model of cognitive
impossible to derive a design specification for the development is summarized in figure 19.2. Notice
organism from its genetic constitution alone, in- how the model depends on factoring out those
dependently of the conditions of its development features of the environment that are constant,
in an environment. For cognitive psychology this or reliably present, in every conceivable devel-
problem is further compounded, for if the theory opmental context, from those that represent a
of learning as the transmission of cultural infor- source of “variable input” from one context to
mation is to work, the requisite cognitive devices another. Only the former are relevant in the first
must already exist, not merely in the virtual guise stage (the construction of “innate” mechanisms);
of a design, but in the concrete hardwiring of only the latter are relevant in the second (the ac-
human brains. Somehow or other, in order to quisition of culturally specific capabilities).
kick-start the process of cultural transmission, For comparative analytic purposes, it is some-
strands of DNA have miraculously to transform times helpful to sift the general from the partic-
themselves into data processing mechanisms. ular, or to establish a lowest common denomina-
This is rather like supposing that merely by repli- tor of development. But real environments are
cating the design of an aircraft, on the drawing not partitioned in this way. Let me continue for a
board or computer screen, one is all prepared for moment with the example of language learning.
takeoff. From well before birth, the infant is immersed
Attempts in the literature to resolve this prob- in a world of sound in which the characteristic
lem, insofar as it is even recognized, are confused patterns of speech mingle with all the other
and contradictory. To cut a rather long and tan- sounds of everyday life, and right from birth it is
From Complementarity to Obviation 271

Figure 19.2
The two stages of cognitive development according to the complementarity model. In the first stage the human geno-
type interacts with the constant component of the environment to produce the universal mechanisms of the mind’s
evolved architecture. In the second, this architecture operates on variable environmental inputs to produce cultur-
ally specific capabilities.

surrounded by already competent speakers who tablish, correspond of course to what appear to
provide support in the form of contextually observers as the diverse languages of the world.
grounded interpretations of its own vocal ges- In short, language—in the sense of the child’s
tures. This environment, then, is not a source of capacity to speak in the manner of his or her
variable input for a preconstructed device, but community—is not acquired. Rather, it is con-
rather furnishes the variable conditions for the tinually being generated and regenerated in the
growth or self-assembly, in the course of early de- developmental contexts of children’s involvement
velopment, of the neurophysiological structures in worlds of speech. And if language is not ac-
underwriting the child’s capacity to speak. As the quired, there can be no such thing as an innate
conditions vary, so these structures will take language-learning device.
manifold forms, each differentially tuned both to What applies specifically in the case of lan-
specific sound patterns and to other features of guage and speech also applies, more generally, to
local contexts of utterance. These variably at- other aspects of cultural competence. Learning to
tuned structures, and the competencies they es- walk in a particular way, or to play a certain mu-
272 Tim Ingold

sical instrument, or to practice a sport like cric- sensitization of the entire perceptual system,
ket or tennis, is a matter not of acquiring from comprising the brain and peripheral receptor or-
an environment representations that satisfy the gans along with their neural and muscular link-
input conditions of preconstituted cognitive de- ages, to particular features of our surroundings.
vices, but of the formation, within an environ- Through this process, the human being emerges
ment, of the necessary neurological connections, not as a creature whose evolved capacities are
along with attendant features of musculature and filled up with structures that represent the world,
anatomy, that underwrite the various skills in- but rather as a center of awareness and agency
volved. This conclusion is once again concordant whose processes resonate with those of the envi-
with the obviation approach developed earlier, ronment. Knowledge, then, far from lying in the
and it undermines one of the key ideas of the relations between structures in the world and
complementarity thesis—that cultural learning is structures in the mind, mediated by the person of
like filling a universal, genetically specified con- the knower, is immanent in the life and con-
tainer with culturally specific content. The notion sciousness of the knower as it unfolds within the
that culture is transmissible from one generation field of practice set up through his or her presence
to the next as a corpus of knowledge, indepen- as a being-in-the-world.
dently of its application in the world, is untenable
for the simple reason that it rests on the impossi- The three topics I have reviewed above—of per-
ble precondition of a ready-made cognitive ar- ception, memory, and learning—are of course
chitecture. In fact, I maintain, nothing is really closely connected. All of them could be addressed
transmitted at all. The growth of knowledge in in terms of a complex structure metaphor, by
the life history of a person is a result not of infor- imagining the world of our experience to be de-
mation transmission but of guided rediscovery, composed into a myriad of ephemeral fragments,
where what each generation contributes to the unit events, samplings of which the mind has then
next are not rules and representations for the pro- to piece together into some coherent pattern by
duction of appropriate behavior but the specific means of totalizing frameworks of social rather
conditions of development under which succes- than individual provenance. I have argued, by
sors, growing up in a social world, can build up contrast, for an approach that starts from rela-
their own aptitudes and dispositions. tions and processes rather than structures and
The process of learning by guided rediscovery events. Whether our concern be with perceiving,
is most aptly conveyed by the notion of showing. remembering, or learning, the workings of mind
To show something to someone is to cause it to are to be found in the unfolding relations be-
be made present for that person, so that he or she tween organism-persons and their environments.
can apprehend it directly, whether by looking, lis- There is no way of saying what the human mind
tening, or feeling. Here the role of the tutor is to is, or of specifying its essential architecture, out-
set up situations in which the novice is afforded side of this unfolding. For the forms of human
the possibility of such unmediated experience. knowledge do not stamp themselves upon the
Placed in a situation of this kind, the novice is in- substance of human experience, but themselves
structed to attend to this or that aspect of what arise within the complex processes of people’s en-
can be seen, touched or heard, so as to get the feel gagement with their surroundings. In short, the
of it for him- or herself. Learning in this sense is phenomena of mind are as much ecological and
tantamount to what Gibson (1979: 254) called an social as they are psychological. To conclude this
“education of attention.” Gibson’s point, in line section I should like to show why the approach
with the principles of his ecological psychology, adopted here promises to shed an entirely fresh
was that we learn to perceive by a fine-tuning or light on one of the most neglected areas of an-
From Complementarity to Obviation 273

thropological inquiry, namely the knowledge and evolved potentials, to a final state of full-blown
activities of children. cultural life, but nevertheless cannot countenance
the possibility of a form of life that is semicul-
Children tural, betwixt and between nature and history.
Substitute “ancestral hominid” for “infant,” and
In a paper presented some twenty years ago, the following characterization of childhood of-
Theodore Schwartz spoke of his “sudden and be- fered by Goldschmidt (1993: 351)—“the process
lated realization . . . that anthropology had ig- of transformation of the infant from a purely
nored children in culture while developmental biological being into a culture-bearing one”—
psychologists had ignored culture in children” would serve equally well to define the so-called
(Schwartz 1981: 4). There are signs, today, of a human revolution. And just as it is di≤cult to see
change of heart in both disciplines. The reasons how the events of this prehistoric revolution can
for the anthropological neglect of children, how- possibly be distinguished from those of the his-
ever, do not lie merely in a certain observational tory it is alleged to have inaugurated, so too,
blindness—the failure of ethnographers in the there seems to be no obvious way of telling apart
field to notice children, or to pay attention to the experiences, supposedly constitutive of child-
their activities and what they have to say. Nor do hood, that make a human being ready for his-
they stem from the real di≤culties, practical as tory, from those that belong to the historical
well as ethical, of collaborating with children in process itself. An obviation approach, however,
ethnographic research. To bring children back to enables us to dispense with such troublesome dis-
where they belong—at the center of our inquiries, tinctions. The infant, who admittedly starts life as
just as they are at the center of social life—will a “purely biological being,” remains so for the
require more than just a different attitude on rest of his or her life. Yet right from the moment
the part of ethnographers. For what is at stake of conception, this being is also immersed at the
is the very framework of theory and concepts center of a world of other persons—a social
that we bring to our scientific project. Once world—and participates in the historical process
again, the source of the problem lies in the thesis of its unfolding (Toren 1993: 470). Surrounded
of complementarity. Developmental psycholo- by its entourage of adults, the infant con-
gists could afford to ignore culture, so long tributes—by way of its presence and activities—
as they concerned themselves with supposedly to the latter’s growth and development, just as
universal mechanisms of acquisition, whose they contribute to its own.
structure and functioning were conceived to be To be sure, children are different. For one
indifferent to the specificities of the acquired con- thing, they are physically smaller, so that the
tent. But conversely, social anthropologists could environment affords them possibilities of action
afford to ignore children, so long as they were re- that are not available to grownups, and of course
garded as incomplete adults whose personhood constrains what they can do as well—especially if
was not yet fully formed and who had still to take it is full of structures built to adult dimensions. It
on the total complement of cultural knowledge is reasonable, too, to distinguish degrees of ma-
from their predecessors. turity in the life histories of organism-persons.
In a sense, anthropology would have rather Neurophysiologically, the brain of the adult hu-
not had to deal with children for the same reason man is more complex than that of the small child.
that it has shunned inquiry into human origins. It is not reasonable, however, to equate smallness
In both cases, the received theoretical wisdom or immaturity with a state of incompletion.
implies a transition from an initial state of bio- Persons, as I have shown, are never complete,
logical existence, defined in terms of naturally never finished, but undergo continual develop-
274 Tim Ingold

ment within fields of relationships. The image of out of certain ways of doing things, and grows
the child as an incomplete person has its source in into others. But no one has ever grown out of
the complementarity thesis, with its assumption biology, nor has anyone grown into society or
that humans come into the world with their ca- culture.
pacities already in place, waiting to be filled up
with cultural content. A classic statement to this
effect comes from Geertz (1973: 50): “Between Conclusion
what our body tells us and what we have to know
in order to function, there is a vacuum we must Throughout this chapter, I have argued against
fill ourselves, and we fill it with information (or the idea that human beings participate concur-
misinformation) provided by our culture.” The rently in two distinct worlds, of nature and
implication is that children’s ability to function in society, figuring as biological individuals in the
the world is at best imperfect. Yet as Toren has former and as cultural subjects in the latter. In-
rightly observed, “children have to live their lives stead, I propose that we consider humans as
in terms of their understandings just as adults do; indistinguishably organisms and persons, partici-
their ideas are grounded in their experience and pating not in two worlds but in one, consisting of
thus equally valid” (1993: 463). Adults and chil- the entire field of their environmental relations.
dren may, then, function differently from one Figure 19.3 illustrates schematically the contrast
another, but no better or worse. between these two views. Needless to say, the
The complementarity approach, in effect, hides environment of a person will include beings of
children from view behind a category of child- many kinds, both human and nonhuman, to
hood which marginalizes them, or even excludes which that person will relate in different ways de-
them altogether, from full participation in social pending on their particular qualities and charac-
life. The obviation approach, by contrast, brings teristics, and on the project in hand. As one
children out into the open, but it does so by dis- passes from relations with humans to relations
solving the categorical distinction between child- with nonhuman animals, plants, and inanimate
hood and adulthood. Children and adults are no objects, there is no Rubicon beyond which we
longer conceived to stand on either side of a can say of any relation that it is directed toward
boundary between becoming a person and being things in nature rather than persons in society.
one, between undergoing socialization and par- For as the edge of nature is an illusion, so too is
ticipating in social life, between acquiring cul- the image of society as a sphere of life that exists
tural knowledge and applying it in practice, or in beyond it (Ingold 1997: 250). But by the same
short, between learning and doing. Children are token, in the project of scholarly research, there
persons just as adults are, and their knowledge can be no absolute division of method and objec-
and skills are likewise developed through partici- tive between studying the lives and works of hu-
pation both with other children and with adults mans and of nonhumans. Why, then, should the
in the joint practical activities of social life. This participatory and interpretative approaches of
is not to say, however, that children and adults the arts and humanities be limited to the study of
are the same. It is possible to speak of children human subjects? And why, conversely, should the
without a special category of childhood, simply observational and explanatory approaches of sci-
in recognition of the inherent temporality of hu- ence be limited to the domain of nonhuman “na-
man life, of the fact that organism-persons grow ture”? Why, indeed, should these approaches be
older, increasing in skill and maturity—and in separated at all?
that sense also in knowledge—as they do so. Ever since its relatively recent inception, the
In the course of this aging process, one grows credibility of “social science” has been compro-
mised by the recognition that the observer of hu-
From Complementarity to Obviation 275

Figure 19.3
A schematic comparison of the complementarity and obviation approaches (after Ingold 1996c: 127). In the com-
plementarity approach (upper diagram), every human being is, in part, a person in society and, in another part, an
organism in nature. In the obviation approach (lower diagram), the human being is a person-organism situated in
an environment of human and nonhuman others.
276 Tim Ingold

man behavior is necessarily a participant in the dividual members for them to use in their every-
field of observation. In this vein, numerous critics day lives, but are rather generated and sustained
have pointed out that participant observation, within the contexts of people’s engagements with
the methodological crux of social anthropologi- one another and with nonhuman components of
cal inquiry, is a contradiction in terms. To partic- the environment. If this applies to knowledge in
ipate, it is said, is to swim with the current, to general, in must apply to anthropological knowl-
observe is to stand on the bank: how can one pos- edge in particular. In the field, anthropologists
sibly do both at once? Now it is doubtless true learn; in the classroom they teach. This does not
that scientific inquiry of any kind depends upon mean, however, that they are receiving knowl-
observation. But there is more to observation edge in the first case and transmitting it in the
than mere spectating. A disinterested bystander second. For in both, whether with local people or
who did not, in some way, couple the movement with students, they collaborate in the dialogic
of his or her attention to the surrounding cur- processes of its creation. It is through bringing
rents of activity, who failed to watch what was the two dialogues, in the field and the classroom,
going on, would see much, but observe nothing. into a productive interplay that anthropological
Observation, in short, is itself an environmentally knowledge is generated. It follows that the dia-
situated activity that requires the observer to logue in the classroom is as important, and as
place himself or herself, in person, in a relation of integral to the anthropological project, as the
active, perceptual engagement with the object of dialogue in the field. Belatedly, we have begun
attention. It is from this kind of sensory parti- to recognize the contribution that local collabo-
cipation, proceeding against the background of rators—erstwhile “informants”—have made to
involved activity in the wider environment of the advance of our subject. It is high time we rec-
human and nonhuman others, that all scientific ognized the contribution of students as well.
knowledge grows.
Thus, whether our concern be with humans or
nonhumans, there can be no observation without Notes
participation, no explanation without interpreta- 1. Because these others may be nonhuman as well as
tion, no science without engagement. As one such human, there is nothing strange about the extension
science, I believe that anthropology is destined of kinship relations across the species boundary that
to take its place as part of a broader ecological is commonly taken for granted among non-Western
study of the relations between organism-persons peoples.
and their environments, premised on the inescap- 2. This position is beautifully epitomized, and paro-
able fact of our involvement in the one world died, in the title of a recent article by Morton, “The
in which we all live (Ingold 1992: 693–694). Any organic remains” (Morton 1995).
divisions within this field of inquiry must be rela- 3. In this vein, for example, Goldschmidt (1993: 355)
tive rather than absolute, depending on what is writes of the “dynamic relation between the genetic and
selected as one’s focus rather than on the a priori the cultural, between biology and anthropology.” His
separation of substantive, externally bounded equation of biology with genetic programming leads
him to the bizarre thought that even the human em-
domains. I hope, in this chapter, to have given
bryo, to the extent that its development is affected by
some idea of how we might proceed with recon- environmentally specific “intra-uterine experiences,”
structing the discipline along these lines. could not be “purely biological” since it would already
I would like to end, however, with a word have acquired a modicum of culture (1993: 357, n. 19).
about the teaching of anthropology. I have 4. While recognizing that these processes, of individual
shown that the forms of human knowledge are ontogeny and evolutionary phylogeny, are distinct, bi-
not made by society, and handed down to its in- ologists do not deny that there are connections between
From Complementarity to Obviation 277

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genetic specification is supposed to establish a schedule tive science. Man 26: 183–198.
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Connerton, P. (1989). How Societies Remember. Cam-
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bridge: Cambridge University Press.
progress” (1952: 51).
Cosmides, L., J. Tooby, and J. H. Barkow. (1992).
6. The “finished artifact fallacy” has its precise coun-
Introduction: Evolutionary psychology and conceptual
terpart in standard notions of socialization or encultur-
integration. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J.
ation as the working up of human raw material into
Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psy-
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with regard to persons, rather than “he/she,” in recog-
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thropology. Ethos 18: 5–47.
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