Colin Turnbull’s Ethnography of the Mbuti

Turnbull Ethno

Colin Turnbull’s Ethnography of the Mbuti

Based on the pretense that clinical and laboratory observations are often distorted by the false nature of the setting, field observation promotes the notion that to consider the subject’s behavior in a natural setting will be likelier to yield meaningful information. In particular, there are specific observational opportunities that may only be experienced in this natural setting and cannot otherwise be effectively recreated in a more empirically driven or controlled setting. To this extent, our research identifies the ethnography as “a branch of cultural anthropology.” (Garson, 1) The indicates that in some regard, the social behaviors exhibited by subjects are in their own degree manifested by the controlled parameters of the group selected for observation. Thus, in considering the application of such elements as chronology, key events and issues, it must be noted that human behavior as a social characteristic is generally that which is being measured.

This helps us to understand the centrality of chronology, for one, which dictates that through the duration of an ethnography, the sequence in which behaviors are exhibited is a crucial aspect of qualitative analysis. Here, we can begin to detect patterns of behavior as well as the graduating evolution of social interactions, sometimes even between the observer and the subject. These are features that become apparent with a consideration of Colin Turnbull’s The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation, an anthropological study of the remote tribal group inhabiting the Congo in isolation from modern cultural. The ethnography demonstrates both the value of this mode of observation and the potential harm in this same approach, denoting the opportunity to gain great insight into a way of life but also threatening to corrupt it through invasion and exploitation. As the second book in a set of ethnographies, this text helps to demonstrate Turnbull’s long-standing commitment to immersion with the Mbuti and the resulting research.

Critical Analysis

The Congo is one of Africa’s most troubling paradoxes. Rich in culture and resource and nonetheless embattled by economic, ethnic and political strife, its history is driven in large part by the dichotomy of its struggles. In the balance, there are fast-fading windows into the history of mankind like the Mbuti tribes inhabiting the Iruti jungles. Renowned British anthropologist Colin Turnbull would spend significant portions of his career immersed in the lives and habitations of these tribes both during the 1965 composition of his groundbreaking and widely read The Forest People and the 1983 sequel The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. The latter of these works is subject to review here for its interest in the long-term impact on these peoples of the encroachment of modernity. The benevolent perspective that has been Turnbull’s in his historical characterization of the Mbuti people comes through in Change and Adaptation, which is a work distinguished for its sensitive demonstration of the simultaneously destructive and interdependent relationship between the Mbuti tribes and their village-bound neighbors.

The content of the text provides something of a departure from the ethnography style that has been Turnbull’s and so many other investigative anthropologists. Here, the focus on the pygmy people making up the tribes is interested primarily in evaluating the impact on the Mbuti of their interaction with the modernized world. Such is to say that study of this people is now well past the possibility of non-intervention and passive observation suggested by the ethnography. In this text, and the research attendant thereto, there is a clear understanding of this work as an aggressive assessment of the crimes of modernity and encroachment against an ancient culture of great value and beauty. It is therefore transcending of the purpose represented in the first of Turnbull’s works on the Mbuti, intending upon more than simply describing and even evaluating the people. Instead, its interest is on evaluating the lives of the Mbuti within the context of the challenges facing them in an increasingly deconstructing nation, region and even forest landscape. In all of these, the author describes a dire scenario in which interest must be largely dedicated to ensuring the survival of the Mbuti against the will of ethnic discrimination.

The small stature and extraordinary athletic prowess which are described in various informally anecdotal details by Turnbull relate our consideration of the anthropological subject to an array of academic considerations. Particularly, the concept of natural adaptation causes us to consider the unique physical orientation of the pygmy tribes, who are describes as remarkably agile, quick and where necessary, lethal. This latter aspect of the Mbuti identity is one to which the author subjects a great deal of consideration, as it tells us a great deal about the character traits of the people. Namely, there is a fierce disinterest in violence within the nomadic culture, even to the extent that hunting is regarded in Mbuti lore as a necessary evil for which all Mbuti must constantly be held accountable. The outcome, we may surmise, is the array of physical skills and strengths that seem to accommodate the Mbuti more to direct combat with an antelope than to bringing blows upon his fellow. The physical evolution of the Mbuti which has delivered them to their anatomical disposition may have a great deal to do with the needs foisted upon them by centuries of life uninterrupted in the jungles.

However, with an intercession with both the white man in the form of European colonizers and, more commonly today, the villagers settling in established communities surrounding and increasingly penetrating the forest, an anthropological process of acculturation has begun to occur. It is here that the interdependent needs or desires of the tribesmen and the village dwellers have come to intercede with one another. Most particularly, Turnbull describes the development of trade between the pygmies and the village dwellers, constituted of the former’s interest in acquiring such commodities as the agricultural goods which are yielded by more established community growing operations and the latter’s desire to obtain the meats, furs and vegetation accessible only in the formidable forests of the Congo. The process is having some seriously deleterious effects on the Mbuti, who have also been exposed to much ethnic mistreatment and subjugation by the villagers, who see the naive and uneducated tribal people as a source of cheap labor.

Another anthropological phenomenon distinguishing the Mbuti is their orientation toward children, who are considered members of the tribe. We might refer to this sociological disposition as relative to hereditary hierarchy. Contrary to many more developed cultures, Turnbull shows evidence of children taking on many of the responsibilities and rights as do adults. This is an aspect of the Mbuti culture which has remained even as it has come into contact with cultures more driven by sharp distinctions between minor and senior entitlements. This ageist perspective is not perceptible in the Mbuti, who instead appear to value to the virility and ebullience of youth. It is here that we see evidence of a culture not just preserved by a history of isolation but also largely molded by the impact of the environment containing it.

Though the ethnography does provide the opportunity for more natural subject behavior as a function of the diminished impact of experimental control conditions, there is a counterpoint to this opportunity in the susceptibility of such studies to unwanted variables. Indeed, the ethnography is a research approach which may be uniquely vulnerable to the inclinations of the observer. A fundamental danger in the reliance upon qualitative data such as that gathered through direct interaction between researchers and subjects is the potential for subjectively and prejudicially-based perceptions within the researcher to distort the findings of a study.

The story which Turnbull tells of the Mbuti shows them to be a people worthy of consideration and even admiration for their preservation of a simple but reasonably balanced society, particularly if such attention will help to protect and preserve their way of life. On the other hand, this return to a people made largely more recognized by Turnbull’s first ethnography does suggest something about the ethnography itself where anthropological purpose is concerned. Namely, the degree to which the people of the Mbuti tribes may have been exposed to the larger intersection with the modern world as a result of Turnbull’s first work is illustrative of the way that research can actually interfere with and alter the course of its subject’s experience.

To an extent, the ethnography may be a double-edged sword, with its apparent benefits through immersion taking on troubling implications where the researcher’s immersion itself becomes a factor in shaping data and outcomes. In addition to distorting intended findings, this also calls into question various ethical concerns where scientific examination is concerned. It is conceivable to argue that an ethnography such as that crafted by Turnbull may have eschewed proper ethical considerations when determining the personal and professional opportunities in committing to such a study.

Works Cited:

Garson, J. (2006). Ethnographic Research. North Carolina State University. Online at .

Turnbull, C. (1983). The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. Thomson Learning.

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