By Sarah Anne (Sally) Robinson, ret.
In 1953 when I started graduate school at the University of Chicago, it was the height of the post-World War II era, but conditions were changing rapidly. One of the significant influences on all universities was the gradual end of war veteran students supported by the GI Bill. Chicago itself was changing. Train travel was giving way to transcontinental airlines that flew over the city from Coast to Coast. Travel became less leisurely. These shifts impacted conditions that produced the vaunted “Golden Age” of the University’s Department of Anthropology; however, retirement and “new blood” in the faculty produced profound change not only in theoretical orientation but also in departmental character.
Faye Cooper Cole, a regional archeologist, was the founding chairman of the anthropology department, carved out of sociology in the latter part of the 1920’s. For several years he was its sole faculty member. I would not have understood departmental history if I had not heard Cole’s after-dinner address at the department’s reunion of former faculty and students held in the spring of 1954. He reminisced that his office was in a janitor’s broom closet and that he solicited his college fraternity connections for development funds. As returnees registered, they asked, “Where’s Papa Cole?” He was the paternalistic father as well as founder of the department. He believed that it would be his great work and set out to make it the best with not only excellent faculty but also a collegial atmosphere. Cole insisted that both faculty and students need not be friends, but they must treat each other with respect as colleagues.
In 1953, the core faculty of the graduate-level department included Robert Redfield, Sol Tax, Fred Eggan and Norman McCown, all of whom were Chicago products, trained in Cole’s brand of collegiality. With like-minded Sherwood Washburn, they carried it to new faculty and subsequent student generations. We students were included in informal gatherings both in the department and at professional meetings. We considered ourselves special and were envied and sometimes resented by students from other universities.
I arrived at the end of a period when student life in the department was rather unregulated. The year before students had organized a seminar to which they invited the faculty. It was not held again because the presenters spent so much time preparing papers for their peers that they neglected their course work. In 1954, the student study hall, where endless discussions took place, was converted into a classroom. We still gathered for afternoon tea in the lounge across the hall from the departmental office. From a big brass samovar tea was poured for all in the social science building every weekday afternoon. Anthropology faculty and students would assemble, settling in clusters of armchairs, to sip and talk. Few students were married or had any commitments at the end of the day, so we talked on and on about our reading, our work and our ideas.
Anthropologists from all over the world would make a point of visiting the department. Some only joined the discussion in the tearoom. Some gave pre-arranged lectures. Still others, mostly from Britain, joined the faculty for a term or more. Intellectually, the Department of Anthropology was extraordinarily rich. Nevertheless, it had a basic imprint left by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown when he was in residence in the 1930’s. The department became known as the “outpost of British social anthropology” with an analytical approach based on structure and function. This grounding in theory has always made sense to me as a key to understanding why societies work as they do.
We students were schooled on kinship systems and the political, economic, religious and other organizations based on them. Fred Eggan showed how these could modify themselves, quickly but within limits, in a functional response to changing circumstances. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Eggan is to distinguish between structure and organization. Structure is the framework; organization is how people within that framework operate to accomplish certain ends.
Sol Tax influenced me in many ways but especially through the Fox Project in which I participated. In the 1950’s, “objectivity” was an issue in anthropology as participant observation became more widely accepted as a fieldwork technique. Tax demonstrated that it is all right to become involved in a social group so long as one’s involvement is noted and later evaluated when emotions of the moment have less influence and a broader range of experience can be brought to bear.
Sherwood Washburn made manifest the importance of function. This was the time of the fake Piltdown Man exposure. Washburn had detected fakery before it was widely accepted. When I studied with him, he was performing experiments to show that physiognomy could be radically altered through changed muscular stress on bone. Few, if any, mutations were required. His experiments underscored for me the adaptability of structure, be it skeletal or social.
I was in awe of Robert Redfield. After a guest lecture, he would give a concise summary, often clearer than the speaker who had been talking for an hour. But, by the time I took a seminar with him, Redfield had leukemia and kept a cot for resting in his office. He was impatient. Hence my greatest lesson from him came when I tried to show off my own brilliance by critiquing a monograph on a particularly isolated group in an inhospitable location. Redfield only said to me, “When you have done field work under such adverse conditions, then you will have the right to criticize.” I was crushed but indignant at the time. Now I understand.
I don’t remember working with McCown. He did not interact much with us students outside class. However, I did get an “A+” from William Lloyd Warner when I took a course from him in the Sociology Department. I’ve been interested in the concept of social class ever since.
In the 1950’s, the velocity of change was increasing faster than cultural adaptation could keep pace. Life-altering new technologies, evolving Western culture and globalization in all its manifestations were proving catastrophic to small, isolated societies. We did not yet understand the turmoil being created and how it would affect even large, sophisticated nations. Kinship systems as the basis for organizing other cultural systems still made sense; but, as structures were pulled apart by invasive influences, rights and obligations became confused. Gaps were either filled by intrusive alternatives or were left as great chasms between reliable means and necessary ends. The result of such shifts was often a cultural double bind referred to as anomie.
The related psychological state, anomia, is brought on by the anxiety of a double bind situation. Grief after loss, PTSD, as well as anomia are universal reaction patterns. They overlap to a great degree because they all result from psychological stress; however, each has a different origin and, thus, a slightly different manifestation. I described anomia in a chapter in Currents in Anthropology (Robert Hinshaw, ed., Mouton 1979), so I won’t go into it here except to say that since rules of conduct are not fixed, outside a circle of people they know intimately or who are known to be like-minded, those affected by anomia stereotype categories of “others” and often deal with them in inappropriate ways. The anomic are egocentric and present-focused. Anomia can engender anger, despair or both, also apathy or hyperactivity which can alternate rapidly. The longer an anomic situation endures, those affected will become increasingly less able to discern connections between cause and effect. Therefore, it is difficult for the anomic to restructure their cultural environment. A state of anomie can persist for generations.
I am interested primarily in cultural anomie from an anthropologist’s rather than a psychologist’s or neurologist’s point of view. As a structure/functionalist, I think I have a key to rectifying an anomic situation at least incrementally.
PART II Designing a “Tool Kit” for Organizations
Over the decades since graduate school at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950’s, I have perfected what I refer to as my “tool kit” for designing organizations. It is based on the understanding of social structure that was at the core of my training.
To summarize what I have learned: status is an abstract term designating the social place of one kind of person in relation to another. One of several ways to consider status is as a place in a network of social relationships. When these are regularized, we refer to the network as a social structure. I think of social structure as a multi-dimensional Tinker Toy. The rods are conduits along which prescribed rights and obligations run. The knobs that join the rods can be labeled as a certain status. If time is considered as a dimension, one can see a very complex structure that shifts according to which rods, plugged into a node, are operating at any given moment.
Society develops an ascribed role for anyone in a given status. The role is an outline of how rights and obligations should be handled. As in the theater, the cultural prescription gives a certain amount of leeway as to how the role may be played. A discussion of character and organization is relevant; but, staying with the subject of status and role, these can be maintained indefinitely in a stable society where little change in circumstances takes place. If only a few circumstances change and they do not require complex shifts, they can be adapted to accommodate new requirements. But, if circumstances change fast and drastically, the structure can’t readjust to meet the new demands.
Eliminating, or making selective, prescribed rights and obligations or introducing rival ones can hollow out a structural conduit. Labels may linger in a culture, but they become ambiguous if there is not a common understanding of the rights and obligations that hold two statuses in relation to each other. It is this breakdown, I think, that leads to the social state of anomie where predictability based on commonality is lost. It is stressful to live under such circumstances.
Sorting out a complex situation on a society-wide scale is difficult, if not impossible; but what is conceptually possible, and subject to experimentation, is the design of institutions within the larger whole. Think of the by-laws of a club. There is usually a statement of purpose followed by a list of officers and their duties and by a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for carrying out the goals of the organization. Ideally the outline fits the desired ends, but sometimes it is inappropriate, or is outgrown; then struggles ensue. A standard organization chart can turn out to be inoperable. In which case it may be deliberately changed or simply subverted. If subverted, the organization itself may become out of control or else high-jacked for the particular ends of some person or faction.
It is possible to look at even a complicated organization and see it as a productive engine. Structure is the blueprint for a mechanical model. People are the fuel that makes the model operate. Up to a point, their behavior can be predicted. It isn’t good enough to outline what one would like to happen; a planner must also anticipate who will behave how in given circumstances. To foresee this, one must look at the self-interests of the probable occupants of each status. Thus, one can make predictions about how a mechanical model will operate as an actual organization. One can also see how to facilitate desired behavior and how to inhibit deviation from it.
In order to design an organization, I developed a chicken/egg process that, nevertheless, has steps. The first is to determine purpose. Even a complex institution, if it is healthy, usually has an overarching purpose. For the nuclear family, that could be “nurture”. For a university, it could be “learning”.
The second step is to figure out what kinds of people are going to have a stake in the operation of the organization. That should include those affected by its products as well as the operators within the organization. A consensus of people likely to be involved in the operation can tell the planner what character the organization should have. There may be many ways to reach desired ends, but the ones chosen should be consistent with the values of the participants.
The next step is to determine operational objectives, considering both the functions to be performed and the desired character of the organization. Now one can use the Tinker Toy analogy and start building a structure, being careful that the parts do not interfere with each other. This may sound more complicated than it is. In my time, I have written a lot of by-laws for various organizations. These are relatively easy to do and are great practice for model-building.
In 1969, I was hired for a limited time as a planner of a new university. After I left the staff, I put together all my ideas into a coherent whole with an introduction explaining the choice of operational objectives. There was a consensus forming in the literature of the time as to what these should be. I finished my proposal just when the Kent State incident occurred , so my model was never tested in practice. This is unfortunate.
Because the design was for a new university to be set up from scratch, it would have been possible to maintain some control over the experiment. The planning process could have demonstrated a way of restructuring dysfunctional organizations that have conflicting purposes and have operating procedures which do not meet the needs of participants. Fred Eggan would have been especially pleased by this approach. Sol Tax would have cautioned that the stakeholders must be heard in planning any subsequent modifications and that no foreseeable harm be done in the experiment.
An anomic society may gradually sort out rights and obligations and form new structures, but I think that applied anthropologists and others working within such societies can use what I have learned to shorten the process. However, it is essential for anyone who intervenes to understand clearly and realistically what is wrong with the structure of a dysfunctional group before offering a “cure.”
 Kent State was the site of the shooting of 13 unarmed college students, four of whom died, by Ohio National Guardsmen on May, 1970. The students had been protesting the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Sally Robinson’s term as an elected SfAA Executive Board recently ended and her insights from a very long career in applied anthropology were of great value to the Board.