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Author: Derek P. Brereton
Title: A Fair Reflection: The "Dirt Anthropology" of Robbins Burling
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: A Fair Reflection: The "Dirt Anthropology" of Robbins Burling
Derek P. Brereton

vol. 16, no. 1, 2006
Issue title: Retrospectives: Works and Lives of Michigan Anthropologists
PDF: Link to full PDF [251kb ]

A Fair Reflection: The “Dirt Anthropology” of Robbins Burling

Derek P. Brereton

Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice, Adrian College

“Now, that’s data!” Some seven years past his formal retirement, anthropological linguist Rob Burling looked up from the emeritus desk where, nearly every day he’s in Ann Arbor, he prepares books and papers for publication. Holding up a broad spread sheet comparing the tones of dozens of words from 16 dialects of Bodo, a subgroup of Tibeto-Burman, he took a justified scholar’s pride in being able to display the partial result of a half-century’s linguistic investigation. In that time, among other projects including over one hundred papers and reviews, Burling has published what he refers to as an “old-fashioned” ethnography of a Southeast Asian hill tribe village; offered an undergraduate text on the socioeconomic structure of rural mainland Southeast Asia; prepared the definitive, three volume, lately revised, and exquisitely detailed description of Garo grammar, lexicon, and glossary; penned a text for introductory anthropological linguistics; justified black English vernacular as a functional, structured, historically explicable dialect of English; devised a revolutionary, linguistically founded method of second language learning for adults; compiled a comparative description of transfers of political power in several regions of the world; and just last year brought out with Oxford a seminal theoretical statement on the evolutionary origins of language. Burling’s published work thus runs the anthropological gamut from the immediacy of actual social intercourse, to the mid-range exigencies of power transfer, to the immensity of language’s role in human evolution.

This retrospective starts with a summary of Rob’s most recent work explaining the evolution of language via the advantage which preexisting receptive and interpretive capabilities afforded the most adept individuals. It then weaves together the most salient details of his personal and scholarly biography. When some six years ago I first thought of doing this piece, Rob was surprised I would be interested in such an undertaking during a career stage most devote to more eye-catching projects. More than once he referred to my determined perusal of his corpus as “masochistic.” But I saw it as a way of developing my historical sense of anthropology, focusing on a subdiscipline other than my native one of ethnology, and honoring a wise and generous pedagogue. Unlike the other subjects of retrospectives in this volume, the scholar of whom I write was never formally linked to me as a dissertation advisor. I never even had a class with him, other than one audited late in my training that he co-taught with Milford Wolpoff on the evolution of mind. So I have taken this opportunity to enact the respect I feel by building on his work, to a small degree, at the same time I describe it.

The talking ape

The poles of the anthropological enterprise, data from observation and theory to explain them, Burling links with the simple, sweeping, unorthodox observation that, in concrete situations of overt or tacit competition, the advantage goes to those best able to interpret others’ emotional and cognitive states. These states suggest others’ likely intentions. Burling uses this phenomenological fact to argue that the driving force behind evolving linguistic competence was almost certainly not an advantage derived from production, but from reception. He also casts grave doubt on the sometime claim that language likely evolved from proto-hominid gesture–call systems, despite the validity of the assumption that these must have been analogous to those of present apes.

Knowing others’ intentions allows prediction of their behavior with far better than random accuracy. This affords such inference–makers precious information about germane social and environmental circumstances. Though intentions as such are not empirical, they are nonetheless real, as is known from their effects. And generally reliable access to the intentions of others is available through proxies that are empirical, like open palms or furrowed brows. Because all present apes have elaborate systems of bodily gestures and facial expressions—and the crucial capacity to interpret them—both the expressions and the interpretive capacity can be assumed to have preceded the emergence of spoken language in hominids. Indeed, in humans both modes of the originary gesture–call system continue to coexist alongside language. Had language evolved out of them, however, they would no longer exist any more than ambulatory forelimbs continue to exist in birds; when forelegs became wings, they were lost as aids to walking. In this sense, as Burling duly notes, evolutionary theory virtually precludes the possibility that language could have evolved out of gesture–call systems, for humans continue to use their own elaborate ones quite energetically.

Because the complex social environment of contemporary apes requires individuals to be skilled at interpreting gestures and calls, it is a virtual certainty that our hominid predecessors would also already have been expert social interpreters. This would have been true before language emerged to further exploit the interpretive moment in communication. The human primate still employs a wide range of nonverbal but emotionally direct grunts, wheezes, moans, shrieks, sighs, and giggles, every bit as interpretable as well formed sentences. Since to early hominids some spontaneous non-verbal expressions were audible, and others visible, Burling argues that it’s the interpretive ability, well in place before the intentional use of verbal signals, that was and still is at the bottom of linguistic communication. Comprehension, via inference, precedes expression.

This also discounts another common supposition about language, that in its remotest origins its development was driven by the intentions of individuals wishing to make their meanings clear. This view wrongly gives preeminence to the expressive side of communication and hides the priority of its interpretive side. But selection can only operate on existing phenotypic conditions, and the interpretive capacity was available. So language must have originated as marginally more skilled individuals interpreted pre-existing calls and gestures like grunts and bared fangs, thus gaining a competitive advantage. Later, also among the more astute, an awareness developed that some conspecifics, by means of interpretation, were likewise (1) making useable signals out of (2) pre-existing indications of (3) behavioral intentions; in effect, that some conspecifics had receptive and constructive minds adaptively striving to comprehend impinging conditions.

Such originary interpretations were only possible because patterns do exist in nature. Prior to the arrival of any intelligent creature into the environment, nature itself, because it is patterned, manifests millions of indications. A hill’s slope indicates the likely location of water, whether or not any sentient being is present to appreciate it; circling vultures similarly indicate the likely presence of carrion. Such myriad and ubiquitous indications were the very extant resource sentient beings learned to appreciate in the interest of survival and procreation. True, environments are dialectically affected by the creatures that exploit them. But it is not true that indications do not exist unless exploited as such by some creature. Though the interpretive moment in the development of language does create signals, it does not create the indications that make signals possible. Tidal pools indicating the likely presence of life existed for eons before sentient creatures evolved to exploit the fact. Such indications exist, in their own right, as “interpretabilities”—a useful but awkward neologism, consistent with Rob’s position, for which I hope he will forgive me. Because nature exhibits regularity, interpretability is an intrinsic property of some circumstances. Only if and when such indications are interpreted do they become emotionally and behaviorally constraining signals, on the basis of which the interpreting creature may guide its behavior.

So, in principle and in fact, natural indications must precede adaptive interpretations. The next step for would-be humans, having become skilled at turning natural indications to account by realizing that they could be interpreted, and so used as signals guiding behavior, was to intentionally produce such indications in the knowledge that others too would duly interpret them. Some individuals learned to produce indications for others to interpret in ways the producer intended. But this intentional moment could not occur before the interpretive capability was already well developed. And conversely, from the interpreter’s perspective, this last step amounts to using others’ interpretable intentions as a resource through which to extend one’s own life chances into the future.

This was the step that amounted to the gradual emergence of consciousness, defined as the awareness of the fact that others are turning indications into signals guiding their own activities. Following Nicholas Humphrey, Burling thinks of consciousness as the awareness that others have feelings that motivate behavior guided by indications. Though Burling treats the issue but briefly, it is consistent with his approach to note that consciousness must therefore be the top layer in a four-tiered model of mind. The first layer, prior in both logic and evolution, entails crude representations, rudimentary conceptual models of germane aspects of reality. These are mental phenomena that all creatures with cerebral cortices must have, at least to some extent. Either cortical advances over the basal reptilian hindbrain, and over the affectively adept mammalian midbrain, evolved because they more effectively modeled real conditions impinging on the individual, and so afforded such individuals a competitive advantage, or their evolution is inexplicable. After conceptual representation, the second mental layer entails affectively charged intentions, to approach or to avoid, based on the primary conceptual models of reality. Representations, however crude, had to exist before intentionality could emerge; by their very nature, naturally selected behavioral intentions presuppose that reality largely corresponds to one’s model of it. The third emergent tier is an awareness of having intentions, and so bringing them under some measure of voluntary control. This realization, this awareness, is not only that one has intentions oneself, but that other individuals, both of one’s own species and others, have them as well. Finally, knowing that others have intentions leads to the emergence of full-blown consciousness: elaborate, manipulable, virtual models of social and natural conditions of the past, present, and future.

Because mental models themselves are inconsequential, in the sense that merely imagining something does not impose real immediate consequences on the imaginer, consciousness is properly regarded as transcendental; real conditions and constraints are transcended in the human imagination. This is the phenomenon of referential detachment, a red light in the bawdy house of theory which culturists and postmodernists have found irresistible. Burling, thankfully, has proved immune to its seductions. References, indeed, are not necessarily linked to real world referents. This has led culturists and postmodernists to suppose, wrongly, that no references at all have real referents; that reality itself is either unknowable or irrelevant; that arbitrary cultural representations totally trump ones based on an illusory reality. But the actual actions we perform, based on whatever models, do bring about consequences in the real world; such real consequences, in turn, become the structures, the dialectically subsequent conditions, for further possibilities of agency. A fifth, presently emerging mental tier may be the wholesale externalization of mind now being affected by virtual, computerized modeling whereby any input can be used to test any scenario in advance, prior to exposure to real consequences.

In any event, one possessed of consciousness is (4) conscious of being (3) aware of having (2) intentions regarding (1) impressions of reality. Consciousness is in essence proleptic, anticipatory; it reaches into the future for the likely outcomes of present indications. So the evolutionary emergence of consciousness incorporated the temporal dimension on behalf of interpreters already exploiting the spatial one. But consciousness did not create temporality; it had always existed as a potential affordance. Some creatures merely learned how to avail themselves of it, for where some indications exist in space, as slopes for the presence of water, others exist in time, as grooming for the likelihood of durable intersubjective bonding.

Burling’s model thus reverses the French linguistic tradition from Saussure through postmodernist, irrealist versions of discourse theory. That trend emphasizes speaking, intentionality, and the production of texts. Burling, however, appreciates that no model aspiring to viability can ignore, let alone be incompatible with, Darwinian evolutionary theory and natural selection. The French tradition, unfortunately, takes its cue from Henri Bergson. He tried vainly to preempt Darwinism with his vitalism and “creative evolution,” and his intellectual heirs remain blind to the true significance of evolutionary theory. Accordingly, their models tend to turn out hopelessly incomplete. Burling, however, stays true to the twin Darwinian principles that selection operates only, and also inexorably, on available conditions. His model shows how, in the evolution of language, comprehension of existing phenomena, a comprehension that in its own first stages was likely just a byproduct of fortuitously affective behavioral reactions to threats or opportunities, must have preceded production. The model thus includes a clear notion of reality, in that the conditions impinging on individuals and species are, in fact, real. This is combined with conceptions of temporality, existence, virtual (mental) models of reality, virtual manipulation of cognitive tools, other minds, and, for humans, the existential requirement of mentally mediated sociality for survival in an—or any—environment.

It is a realist theory, not a relativist one. All its elements are posited as existing independently of what anyone knows about them, and are knowable by their effects. Though Burling himself hesitates to take the final step, that of duly affirming the existence of the world—to which language can only be an evolved adaptation—it is in fact an entailment of his position (personal communication). The reality of the world is demonstrated by the very emergence of language, which evolved as an adaptive tool regarding it. This fundamental truth thus precedes, and so makes possible, all the more familiar, secondary, particularistic assertions of culturism and discourse theories of the irrealist sort.

Sounding Right

Burling has been profitably focusing on the interpretive rather than the productive side of linguistic communication since his 1982 book, Sounding Right. There he detailed for the classroom a comprehension-based method of teaching and learning a second language. It made use of the very technique that comes most naturally to students—and is typically most repudiated by their teachers: having learners place easily substitutable words from their native tongue into the syntactical sequences of the target language. “In passing in front of la town hall...” By gradual stages the substitutions are increased so that students remain motivated by their own narrative comprehension, while they almost inadvertently gain exposure to, and so internalize, the target language.

This method requires the abandonment of eight linguistically ill-founded, though influential, tenets of typical language instruction: 1) All aspects of language are tightly interdependent; 2) Languages do not mix; 3) Grammar and phonology, being more central to language than the lexicon, deserve a corresponding priority in instruction; 4) Adult learners cannot rely on tacit acquisitional processes, but need explicit instruction, particularly in grammar; 5) The four skills of reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension should all be taught together; 6) Because for infant native learners speaking has priority over writing, the same must be true for adult, non-native learners; 7) Students’ production should be at least as advanced as their reception; and 8) Language is behavior.

Regarding this last faulty premise, Burling’s disagreement is with a formerly prevalent behaviorism in linguistics and the pedagogy of language learning. His point is that language is, in the first instance, not behavior but knowledge, not production but comprehension. This is the point of Burling’s phylogenetic model of language development described above. It is also ontogenetically applicable, as shown by the natural means infants use to learn their native tongues. While learning to speak they typically receive no instruction at all in how to move their vocal apparatus, or how to string words together. Burling also provides ample reason to reject the other seven assumptions, and proceeds to show how a focus on reading, based on what adult learners already know about their own language, can have striking results in the classroom. True to form, he constructed and classroom-tested an entire semester-long model of the program based on French. Though it succeeded admirably, one senses that the method may already have suffered the fate of those alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard that have sometimes been proposed. They might indeed be demonstrably superior, but nobody wants to endure the massive changes their implementation requires. Yet Burling’s central point, that language is primarily reception, comprehension, and knowledge, rather than intention, production, and behavior, eventually lead him to profound insights regarding its evolution. These, in turn, greatly enhance our understanding of humanness and the processes through which it has emerged.

Administrative travails

I first encountered Rob Burling’s kindness when in 1976, though Southeast Asia was then my primary area of interest, I had to drop his course “Peoples and Cultures of Southeast Asia.” Appreciating my distress, he simply said, “It’s OK.” I sensed, accurately as it turns out, that he could be supportive, direct, and reliable. Some 25 years later his editorial and intellectual guidance was invaluable as, after a long hiatus in my anthropological training, I prepared my first professional publications. But in those early days I heard that, due to some departmental controversy, he did not work with graduate students. This too was disappointing, but, coupled with his towering frame, made him seem all the more mysterious. Only recently have I learned that, as the faculty member responsible for assigning incoming students their advisors at that time, he listed himself as advisor for those who had not had a chance to select the permanent advisor they wanted. Rob fundamentally disliked the patron–client system through which advisors got their strokes from obedient students, but he wanted to ensure that students had contact with some faculty member until they got their bearings and linked up with a mutually satisfactory advisor. But some colleagues feared he was misusing his position. To place himself above reproach, he permanently and completely opted out of the system of competing for graduate students.

No faculty member stays long in an academic department without finding himself or herself in the midst of some turf–related contest. On another occasion, when Rob was given the chairmanship of the Department of Linguistics, an unsuspected rival for the position was piqued and promptly retired—at the peak of his productive career, and quite ahead of schedule. This gave Rob no chance to consider all the pros and cons of accepting the position, and remains a burr under his saddle. Rob himself has a semi-serious hypothesis as to why it is that, in four-field departments, it is the archaeologists who collectively succeed in organizing their departmental priorities, agenda, requests, and follow-through, and the ethnologists who, behaving as free radicals, get individually overheated and careen fractiously off department walls. It is because the methods of archaeological fieldwork require a team approach and the ability to self-organize. Ethnographic fieldwork, by contrast, is typically conducted by solitary individuals who perforce must establish their own priorities and agendas. Each subfield thus attracts a certain type of individual, the team player and the renegade. These proclivities play themselves out in departmental politics. Rob once stood in the doorway of one such free radical and explained that, as chairman of the department, he, Rob, was responsible for eliminating two positions. If the radical resigned Rob’s job would be half-solved. The person blanched, and soon left anthropology altogether.

The fact of having served as chair of few dissertation committees, and so boasting no immediate protégés, is one reason Burling’s scholarly impact, though considerable, has perhaps not equaled the potential influence residing in his actual production. Another is his avowed preference for writing about what interests him most at any given time, about which more later. The strongest scholarly reputations are built on having one’s name tied to a single subject others find indispensable, and by some measures Burling has not developed a single topically focused body of work.

The Passage of Power

Emblematic of his determined sawing against the grain is his 1974 book, The Passage of Power: Studies in Political Succession. It deals comparatively with the problem of transitions of political power in various regions of the world. It has little to do with linguistics, is only tangentially relevant to ethnology’s traditional emphasis on marginalized peoples, and, despite its brilliance, received not a single scholarly review. Its message echoes Churchill’s dictum that the worst form of government is democracy—except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. This tacit affirmation of the American system was not geared to garner popularity when, at the end of the Vietnam era, radical students and faculty were challenging foreign policy and global hegemony.

In keeping with his usual wont, Burling severed the polemical knot with mere finely honed evidence. He had both the presence of mind to see that the transfer of political power is one of the world’s most costly and disruptive problems, and the scholarly wherewithal to produce a cross-cultural comparison on how societies have actually faced it. The book starts with the human tribal heritage—still very much with us as revealed recently in parts of Africa and the Middle East. It then moves through cases from India, China, Latin America, and Russia. The Maratha Empire of 17th–century Maharashtra, for example, tried to consolidate power by inducing loyalty among its outlying principalities. It granted them local hegemony in return for political and military support. But this diffusion of power contributed to the very centrifugal forces that eventually destroyed the Maratha’s own accomplishment of centralization.

In a similar case, the 17th–century Manchus conquered China and adopted her administrative apparatus. This led to regionalization and corruption, so this victory too proved pyrrhic, and contained the seeds of its own destruction. In Latin America, Spanish colonial cities with extensive jurisdiction expanded into what amounted to city-states run by remarkably loyal councils. These conditions prepared the way in the colonies, following Napoleon’s Iberian victory, for a reactionary activism on behalf of the throne. Soon a once-effective administration was devolving into patronage, oligarchy, and misrule.

In the Soviet Union, an ostensible dictatorship of the proletariat under the tutelage of a vanguard elite saw no need to consider succession at all. What could succeed the proletariat? Yet despite this pretense of monolithic unity, the contests exemplified by the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (majority/minority) inevitably ushered in deep ideological schisms. This turned the Communist Party into a shadow government, actually run by an inner coterie of strongmen. The expedience of a vanguard elite had transmogrified into an entrenched oligarchy. Eventually the whole internationalist ideal was replaced by the reality of Stalin’s totalitarian one-nation socialism. After Stalin, without his massive purges and pogroms to enforce an ironic stability, rival bureaucrats resorted to infighting and coups. Lacking any provisions for orderly succession, dictators like Khrushchev and Brezhnev tried vainly to balance stability with the demands, again, of oligarchy and patronage.

Had Burling included a case illustrating the similar failures throughout the history of Arab and Middle Eastern succession, the book would almost certainly be considered required reading today. Be that as it may, the book still bore an unmistakable message for the self-styled “revolutionaries” of the American new left of the 1960s—whose skills, means, and sacrifices amounted to no more than a parody of true revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky. Rob’s message was that the democratic provisions for orderly succession we enjoyed in our own society were, if nothing else, the least pernicious of the available alternatives. This pearl of wisdom, prized out through solid scholarship, came from a man anything but conservative in his own politics. Indeed, immediately following the Watergate affair he contributed a piece to The Nation demonstrating the risk of executive tyranny shown by the entire history of political republics.

The third reason for Burling’s relatively limited impact, ironically, is probably that his books are easy to read. He bears an unregenerate, unrepentant loathing for ponderous or pretentious rhetoric, for any style that does not put ideas plainly. Having endured forced labor on certain such verbal rock piles as a graduate student, he vowed to write so that any college freshman could understand him. It’s his dogged pursuit of this simple directness that on most days has him hunched over his keyboard, tinkering with phrasing to make it immaculately transparent. In the late 1990s, after a visiting scholar gave an impossibly abstruse talk to the department, Burling fired off an objecting e-mail to all Michigan graduate students—and had no hesitation in forwarding a copy to the speaker himself. It reassured the students that it was not their fault if they found the talk incomprehensible. It was because it was gibberish. Similarly, after once slashing his way through the first two overgrown sentences of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice, Rob foreswore all further treks through Bourdieuian undergrowth once and for all.Though he doesn’t entirely accept my hypothesis, I think one reason an important work such as The Passage of Power has been ignored might be that understanding it is not an intellectual challenge. Some readers expect Foucaultian poses of recondite erudition (a phrase that, if it appeared in a manuscript for Burling’s inspection, would quickly find itself expiring in a pool of red ink). Discovering no challenge, they may have confused a lucid transparency for lack of insight, the error being entirely theirs.

The man and his dissertation

Having separated in the mid–1970s from the former Sibyl Staub, and following the death in 2001 of Anne Hvenekilde, the Norwegian Ph.D. in Norwegian second language acquisition with whom for two decades Rob had a year here, year there relationship, he now lives alone, across the Huron River in northwestern Ann Arbor. His two-story frame house he designed and mostly built by himself. The blueprint, prepared in a drafting course at Washtenaw Community College, hangs prominently in the hallway. Burling considers his house, not his scholarship, his most creative accomplishment. Perhaps it’s due to his having spent several early years in Rhode Island, Yankee territory where the formal, front entrance to many a home is nearly never used, that the only obvious entrance to Rob’s hand-made home is through his garage. I had to get used to this phenomenon during my own fieldwork in New Hampshire, where I devoted many an awkward moment to confusing the natives by knocking in the wrong place. Likewise, you’re already in Burling’s private space when he greets you, under his looming old wood-and-canvas canoe, specially rigged so he can single-handedly raise it from his car’s roof. Such devil-may-care individualism also appears in his having cut and sewn dresses for his young daughters, and in the passion for needlepoint in which he formerly indulged while listening to lectures. It was striking, to say the least, to observe the eminent scholar at his needlepoint, as one day in the 1980s we listened to Gregory Bateson.

Rob was born on April 18, 1926, in Minneapolis, his father a psychiatrist, his mother a homemaker of staunch—though thoroughly anticlerical—Puritan stock. Rob thus comes by his own fundamental anticlericalism quite honestly, though both grandfathers were Congregational ministers. When he “came out” as a non–Christian he found it a wonderfully freeing experience. To answer the Garo’s question on this matter, for many of them are now Christian, he answered that he was songsarek, their word for the pre–Christian Garo. They seemed puzzled to learn that this did not mean he sacrificed chickens. When in a friendly way I asked if he and Anne had gotten married, he drew himself up to his full imposing height in mock indignation, the better to take sight of me along his nose. He then archly proclaimed that he would certainly not, ever, do anything quite so foolish as to have a church wedding. He sees the dogmas and attendant practices of organized religions as exclusionary, divisive, and uselessly provocative. Neither was his very proper mother’s view of things ever clouded by the least uncertainty concerning what was right. For her, this most assuredly did not include non-standard English. So it came as no surprise when, at the age of 90, she interrupted his earnest validation of the black English vernacular he had detailed in English in Black and White by exclaiming, “Oh, Robbie! Shut up!”

After eight family moves during his youth, his family settled in Foster, Rhode Island and he attended high school in Providence. At Yale University he majored in sociology, of which he is not proud, and in pre-med, of which he is. A course with Ralph Linton introduced him to anthropology, and he took readily to the scientific, biological aspects of it, as well as to the rigors of meticulous linguistics. To avoid the draft he enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and served two years as a radar technician stationed off Newport, with a discharge rank of Third Class Petty Officer. Though accepted at Harvard University, he delayed matriculation in favor of traveling solo by bus and rail around the entire world: “first on the hippie trail.” Experiences in cross-cultural communication gleaned from that trip still show up in his writing, like his ad-lib experiments with interpreting Turkish hand gestures. At Harvard he became interested in questions of kinship and social structure, and it was Harvard’s Cora Dubois whose ruthless editing of his course papers showed him just how clear good writing could be. In 1954 on a Ford Foundation fellowship Burling sortied with wife and one child, a little boy—though when they came back that boy had a sister—into the Garo Hills of Assam. A second daughter was born shortly after. Upon completion of his degree he taught for six years at the University of Pennsylvania, and then came to Michigan for the remainder of his career. At various times throughout it he funded his research with fellowships from the Fulbright, Ford, Guggenheim, National Science, and Wenner-Gren Foundations.

A formative interest in social structure

Burling designed his dissertation research to contribute to a discussion of structure in unstratified societies. Anthropology wanted to know how society in general is structured; to ascertain the elements of social coherence; to analyze the structures that make sociality possible. For the answer it looked primarily to kinship relations in preindustrial societies. There had even been a suggestion that Garo men sometimes practiced an unusual form of marriage—with their mothers-in-law. This merited scrutiny. In general, anthropologists thought that forms of relatedness, and the behaviors habitually associated with them, followed rules of lineage affiliation, marriage, and familial authority. For long it had been recognized that, with near universality, final authority resides primarily in males. Their energies and activities are not constrained by pregnancy, parturition, and nursing, and, should push come to shove, males have the testosterone to be enforcers.

From such a model certain predictions can be made back to the data. If a society shows a preference for matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, for example, where will authority be located? In societies where a man is expected to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, the adult male with the most leverage on his behavior will not be his mother’s brother, his future or present father-in-law. This is because, as George Homans and David Schneider argued in their 1955 Marriage, Authority, and Final Causes, a work that both followed A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and inspired Burling, relations of authority tend to preclude those of intimacy. A young man is not likely to develop feelings of closeness to the daughter of the man exercising authority over him. Instead, if he does marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, the primary authority in his life is far more likely to be his own father. In such a society, residency will likely be constructed around male lineage mates, a tendency referred to alternately as “patrilocality” or “virilocality.” Conversely, in contrasting cases of patrilateral cross-cousin marriage, authority will indeed tend to reside in the mother’s brother, and in such cases residence will likely be matrilocal.

Burling’s Garo research highlighted the possible additional importance of simple spatial proximity, over and above genealogical proximity, in the channeling of authority. The actual enactment of social “rules,” such as those by which authority is allocated, depends significantly on what is practicable. Being ready-to-hand, co-residents, regardless of lineage affiliation, can sometimes provide the most effective leverage. So practicability constrains practice. Though Burling himself does not label it so, his work thus turns out to be a forerunner of what is now known as “practice theory”—albeit of a considerably more direct sort than lurks in the work of most better-known practice theorists. Sometimes one must think comparatively to see the beauty of simplicity. Those preferring Burling will be the puritans of academic fashion. Sooner or later, as his work so well attests, we have to deal with the presence, or the absence, of evidence. This question of the primacy of practice is most fully elaborated by Margaret Archer, Burling’s peer in sensible directness, in her morphogenic model of social transformation. That model dialectically links conditioning structures and agentive practices (e.g., Archer 1996[1988], 2003).

The cue to the influence of proximity in constraining authority comes from societies, such as the Garo, that are matrilineal but not matrilocal. The Garo are avunculocal. When Garo newlyweds reside in the village of the mother’s brother, it is the fathers and husbands of the women who, because they are present, take on roles of authority. So while Homans and Schneider suggested that locus of authority, rather than line of descent, is the important determinant of marriage type, Burling argues that residence, or proximity, also has its effect. Men living near younger lineage mates are more likely to supervise them than those living elsewhere. This practice is also linked to Garo inheritance customs. A daughter and her husband inherit property, such as house, bronze gongs, and access to fields, in return for caring for the aging elder couple.

Burling also uncovered a further important Garo structural principle they refer to as a’kim. It is the ongoing linking, as a principle of kinship, of two lineages by means of successive intermarriages. The Garo highly prize the a’kim relation, conceiving of it as analogous to that between siblings. The due enactment of a’kim in deciding who marries whom lends stability, continuity, predictability, security, and comfort to ongoing social relations. By the same token, whereas in the ethnographic present repeated interlineage marriages are ideal, the Garo also exhibit what is essentially a moiety system requiring exogamy.

The question as to whether a Garo man can marry his mother-in-law turns on one of those classificatory sleights of hand, such as the well known “ghost marriage” of the Nuer, whereby some peoples have customs allowing for fulfillment of social responsibilities in creative ways. After an elder Garo couple selects a daughter to be their heiress, and has her married to the young man who thus becomes their heir, the older man may die. When this happens, his widow will likely remain in the household of her son-in-law, and be referred to as his “wife.” This will be done using the same term that designates his original wife, the woman’s daughter. In this social sense the young man can then be said to have two wives, mother and daughter to each other. However, the arrangement with the elder woman is almost certainly exclusively economic, despite the suggestive terminology that led prior investigators, taking the term in its usual sense, to infer a fairly bizarre mode of marriage. However, if the young man happens to have married the older woman first, he certainly is expected to have conjugal relations with her; then, if he later marries her daughter as well, conjugality is likewise expected (Burling 1969:823). So yes, a Garo man can have a wife who is his mother-in-law, but only in a way qualified by due ethnographic inquiry into actual practices.

A house society?

I have already mentioned that Burling’s early ethnographic work presaged practice theory. His emphasis was on the primacy of practice, not culture or rules, in the organization of social life. Another arena in which his work also made a similarly early and unrecognized contribution has come to be referred to as “house society theory.” Lévi-Strauss posited the house society as a transitional form between simple and complex modes of social organization. Several anthropologists have capitalized on this hypothesis in the analysis of sociocultural phenomena and tendencies in particular parts of the world (e.g., Brereton 2005; Carsten and Jones 1995; Chance 2000; Geertz 1975; Joyce and Gillespie 2000; McKinnon 1991; Vansina 1990).

Combing Burling’s monograph for evidence that Garo society may be a type of house society, we find items such as the following. The word nok applies to both the material house structure and the social “household,” i.e., those family members basing their residence inside it. This identification of material and social relations, characteristic of both the houses of European nobility and Northwest coast social structure that Lévi-Strauss drew upon, typify the house society in general. Among the Garo, moreover, a death occasions earnest efforts to reestablish the particular house/household as a structural link between two lineages. That of the deceased normally feels intensely obliged to provide a “replacement” for the now-absent member. In addition, death requires compensatory prestations. Most commonly, some of the water that was used to wash the corpse is taken, along with an heirloom gong carried by exactly the same means Garo also carry infants, from the house of the deceased back to a man’s mother’s natal village. Burling notes that this explicitly symbolizes that the gong is sent in return for the man who lived and worked in his wife’s house. His ghost, in apprehending the gong and associating it with the water that contacted its, the deceased’s, body, will be able to find its way back to its natal village, there to be reborn. So the social loss occasioned by death is repaired by symbolic restitution. This in turn makes possible the reoccupation of a social slot, as it were, by a new birth taking place in the mother’s natal village. In the terms emphasized by critical realist philosopher of social science Roy Bhaskar, this is a case of an absence, in this instance effected by death, being a primary, motivating force in social affairs (e.g., Bhaskar 1993). (Similarly, it is the absence of sexual relations with a wife’s daughter, not the having of them, that for the Garo would be disruptive [Burling 1985:132].)

Several additional facts support consideration of Garo society as having houses as prominent organizing principles, in keeping with house society theory. Garo houses that are geographically close tend also to be close genealogically. Then, this association carries over into the formation of work groups, further strengthening the phenomenological tie expected in a house society between social and material relations. Again, ownership of houses as bamboo structures tends to pass from generation to generation via women of the same lineage (Burling 1985:131). Fourth, the office of headman adheres more closely to the house itself than to any individual; the office’s symbols, like supernaturally powerful drums, pertain not to the man but to the house he is from. The very word for “headman” literally means “big house.” As these data suggest, material pertaining to and explicable by house society theory may be found among the Garo. It seems not unreasonable to suspect that throughout the hills of Southeast Asia may lie other societies organized, at least to a significant degree, in such terms. Reviewing such reliable monographs as Burling’s Rengsanggri, ethnologists may someday discover as many examples in the hills as have already surfaced among the islands.

A telling detail of historical ethnography, as Burling’s recent trips back to Garoland reveal, is that despite much Garo migration to cities in the last half century, the near disappearance of their traditional swidden agriculture, and much missionary interference into traditional ways, the a’kimbond between lineages remains the centerpost of Garo social structure. It is still manifested in marriages, preserved in households, and reinforced in mortuary ritual. On the other hand, marriages that technically violate the former strict practice of moiety exogamy do now sometimes occur. Participants are aware of the change, and seem a little sheepish about it.

Especially in areas of the former Garoland that now fall arbitrarily within the borders of Bangladesh, some other typical practices that used to highlight structures of kinship and society are waning. Bridegroom capture, the practice of which was nearly unique to the Garo, is falling by the way. Again, the practice of “marrying” a widowed mother-in-law, if one is already married to her daughter, is disappearing. Likewise, selection of a daughter and her husband to be the heirs/caretakers of her aging parents, and bequeathing to them all real property, is giving way to more equitable property distribution among siblings. But the notion of lineage affiliation remains solid, as does the a’kim system of ongoing lineage relations through repeated marriages.

These observations of social change derive from Burling’s comparative, follow-up study in the Modhupur area, just north of Dhaka, done in the mid–1990s, some 40 years after his initial village study in the Garo Hills. He specifies that he wrote the monograph, Strong Women of Modhupur, expressly for the Garo. It was published by the University Press in Dhaka, and it resembles the sort of ethnography once regarded as a “report,” such as Derek Freeman’s Report on the Iban. Its primary aim is to present empirically grounded information, though Burling by no means ignores ethnography’s inherent problems of reflexivity. He seems to capture the best of both paradigms, marrying observation and subjectivity, by the scrupulous phrasing of what his own observation allows him to say. “If women have abortions they do not advertise the fact.” (Not: “Garo women have few abortions.”) “I have also been surprised by the number of stories I have heard of a single visit to the distant village of a friend or sibling that led to marriage.” (Not: “Many Garo find mates by visiting distant villages.”) “A few seem almost reluctant to admit that theirs had been, as they sometimes call it, a ‘love’ marriage.” (Not: “It is socially unacceptable for Garo to discuss how they became spouses.”) “I was always gratified when villagers made judgments about others that corresponded to my own, and on individual skills and aptitudes we generally agreed quite well. They pointed to the same people that I had recognized as hardworking or lazy.” (Not:“Deterministic cultural differences between ethnographer and target population preclude shared impressions and judgments.”)

The postmodernist dictum that all is nothing but perspectivally disjunct texts and their interpretation carries no weight with Burling. He holds implicit realist assumptions about the social and natural dimensions of the world. Against the indeterminacy propounded by W. V. O. Quine and followers, Burling demonstrates that to understand the linguistic choices speakers make, “[W]e have to consider features of the world outside of language,” i.e., referents that really exist apart from the presence or absence of any possible references to them (Burling 1966). He refers to himself as a “dirt anthropologist.” He unabashedly hopes the Garo will find his accounts a “fair reflection” of their circumstances. Few anthropologists have sacrificed the time and energy that could be spent on high profile publications to prepare a basic monograph, published in a third-world country, expressly for the people they have studied. But because Burling writes precisely, with consummate organization and duly qualified insight about social facts, Strong Women of Modhupur valuably records Garo lifeways and changes in them.

Parallel to Burling’s ethnographic work, and supporting it from below, as it were, are detailed studies of descriptive and historical linguistics of certain Tibeto-Burman language groups. Like all historical linguists, Burling implicitly holds that the fact that historical reconstructions of extinct proto-languages are possible at all is testimony to the force of rationality, irrespective of cultural particularities, in human affairs. The culturist hyperbole that humans live in incommensurate “worlds” wholly constrained by particular, and ungrounded, presuppositions is easily deposed by studies such as Burling’s reconstruction of Proto Lolo-Burmese. Such are only possible because linguistic transformations are explicable in terms derivable from humanness per se, entailing, as it does, basal rationality. All peoples at least tacitly recognize the law of non-contradiction—for example, that the same thing cannot both be a spoon and a not-spoon, here and now. This is all that basal rationality requires; without it nobody could tell the difference between their mouth and the spoon outside of it. That they can tell that difference means their brains are functioning rationally, giving the lie to claims that non-western peoples also evince utterly “non-western” modes of reason. Rationality isn’t western; it’s human. Moreover, were linguistic transformations serendipitous, or if the world as modeled and negotiated in terms of one language were not largely commensurate with that of another, historical linguistics would not be possible. The purpose of engaging in historical reconstruction is to show the most plausible genetic relations between languages or dialects. This sheds light on historical questions such as migration, notwithstanding that, through human learning, it is possible for languages to “migrate” even when people don’t.

Burling takes particular umbrage at the assumption behind the common question, voiced all too frequently by anthropologists themselves, “Where did the ‘X’ (Garo, French, Burmese) come from?” The question implies that a group of people with fixed ethnic and racial characteristics, and speaking a language close or identical to present-day Garo, came intact, at a certain point in time, to Garoland from somewhere else. It was Franz Boas who first disentangled race, language, and culture; but the layperson’s presumption of their tight-braidedness still lurks in the queries of some ethnologists. Burling subscribes to what might be called an emergent model of ethnicity, whereby those we now call the “French,” say, can be assumed not to have existed anywhere else until, in fairly recent times, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and historical factors converged in the place called France. Varieties of “semi-French” at the borders of Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain testify to the absence of anything essentially French that could have been carried from elsewhere to present-day France. It is, nonetheless, observable that phonetic, semantic, and grammatical regularities make some dialects more similar to each other than either to a third, less similar one. In turn, those three may form a group, or “family,” vis-à-vis other even more distant cousins. It is reasonable to assume, in such cases, that closely related dialects “descend” from a common ancestral language, for no other rational account of their similarity is available.

Burling’s approach is the scholarly one of first thoroughly gathering, meticulously checking, and rationally organizing the data. Then he draws only such limited conclusions as due scientific caution will allow. The emphasis is clearly on the data, and not on fancy theories to explain them. Burling’s work might even be considered an example of how much can be accomplished without doctrinaire theory of any kind. It is for this reason that notions such as realism, phenomenology, practice theory, and house society theory have to be imported to properly situate his work; his aversion to pretense is so visceral that he simply writes what he thinks is true, without searching for its place in the archives of theory. His is a method trimmed lean by Occam’s razor, ridding itself of assumptions beyond necessity. Burling knows as well as anyone that some theory must inform the gathering and presentation of data, but his work shows both a methodological rigor and a horror of adornment that are almost Calvinistic.

Indeed, Rob is perhaps best known among older linguistic anthropologists for in 1964 writing the piece that, according to Skip Rappaport, dealt the coup de grâs to componential analysis. “I didn’t mean to kill it,” says Rob, looking a bit apologetic concerning his “Componential Analysis: God’s Truth or Hocus Pocus?” Some, nonetheless, might suspect that the title alone betrayed something of the article’s conclusion. It has been translated and reprinted repeatedly. But Burling himself was not just a naysayer. He himself had used componential analysis in his Man’s Many Voices. It is a method for deriving the conceptual structure of a language by analyzing the semantic entailments of concepts embedded in related lexical items. Early applications appeared to yield favorable results in relatively bounded semantic domains, such as kinship designations, color terminology, and species’ taxonomies. Having experimented with the method, however, Burling realized not only that similar results were achievable by alternate means, but that the method precluded consideration of much indigenous thought and experience: whatever is not expressed, or does not occur, in clearly bounded domains. The aim of componential analysis was to feature empirical analysis; it was an attempt to move ethnology away from hermeneutics and toward science. This was undoubtedly its initial attraction for Rob. But he had not only the due caution to critically survey his own field, but also the courage to acknowledge its barrenness and the wisdom to cease cultivation.

Rob asserts that throughout his career he has just written about whatever happened to interest him at any time. This may be true. It does not, however, mean that his corpus is either random or incoherent. If one conducts and publishes original research on all aspects of language from phonology, dialectology, and pedagogy to social structure, history, and evolution, then one’s subject is, quite simply, language. Then one is truly called a linguist. Rob Burling has devoted his working life to understanding language—and helping us to understand it—as a tool for adaptation in spheres ranging from phenomenological immediacy to evolutionary immensity, in and through space and time. Though the estate is grand, this surveyor has been anything but grandiose. No one could have been, at one and the same time, more meticulous about detail and more modest about conclusions. In reading Burling’s work it is the very absence of far-reaching claims that sometimes gnaws at me. I find myself wanting him to make more of his own contribution. I once even asked him to let me notify a scholar, claiming credit for a certain insight, that Burling’s work had anticipated his by several years. But Rob demurred. “I do have a sense of pride,” was his justification, ironically revealing a profound aversion to self-aggrandizement.

As I was completing this essay during the early winter, Rob, at the age of 79, left for several months in Bangladesh and India. The trip would let him keep up old acquaintances with local scholars and Garo friends of half a century. He could update the village census he’s been keeping since the 1980s, the one that shows both reduced infant mortality and a falling birth rate, revealing that Garo women are tending to have fewer pregnancies. “Once I’ve done that,” he said, energizing his plan with pure boyish enthusiasm, “then I think I’ll just take a bus back up into the hills as far as I can get, find a dialect nobody has studied, and begin to learn about it from scratch. That’s what I really love the most! Just wade into the middle of a language and learn about it!”

The hills of Southeast Asia are Rob’s Galapagos. As naturalists first fathomed speciation by analogy with Sir Charles Lyell’s geological morphogenesis, so linguists of Burling’s mettle have made of dialects the substance of classification, history, and human adaptation. Though the name “Burling” may never flash throughout textbooks, the light his life of work casts on the reality of humanness will prove durably revealing. Burling is the Peter and Rosemary Grant of Tibeto-Burman linguistics, one from that cadre of tireless fieldworkers willing to persist for decades in amassing the material from which they then construct, test, and revise sound theory. As John Dewey so brilliantly argued in his great work, Experience and Nature, humans evolved to occupy the knowledge niche in nature.If, therefore, the expansion of sound knowledge is such creatures’ noblest achievement, so our finest exemplars are such as Robbins Burling, those who have devoted the vastly better part of their lives and energy to cautiously expanding it.


The content and presentation of this paper have benefited from kind and careful readings by Josh Reno, Susan Blum, and Thomas Trautmann, and from Rob Burling’s reading of it for factual correctness in Shillong, Meghalaya, India, at 5,000 feet elevation, “...a bit breathless and cold.”

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