Idiographic Theory

As in all sciences, most theory in anthropology is idiographic. Here are three examples:

1. In 1977, the New Delhi police reported 311 deaths by kitchen fires of women, mostly young brides who were killed because their families had not delivered a promised dowry to the groom’s family (Claiborne 1984). By 1987, the government of India reported 1,912 such ‘‘dowry deaths’’ of young women, and by 1997 the number was 6,975—over 19 per day (Dugger 2000; and see Shenk 2007; Srinivasan 2005; Van Willi- gen and Chana 1991). How to explain this?

Gross (1992) theorized that the phenomenon is a consequence of female hypergamy (marrying up) and dowry. Families that can raise a large dowry in India can marry off their daughter to someone of a higher caste and greater means. This has created a bidding war, as the families of wealthier sons demand more and more for the privilege of marrying those sons (and see S. Anderson 2003).

Apparently, many families of daughters in India have gone into debt to accumulate the dowries. When they can’t pay off the debt, some of the families of grooms have murdered the brides in faked ‘‘kitchen accidents,’’ where kerosene stoves purportedly blow up. This gives the grooms’ families a chance to get another bride whose families can deliver.

  • 2. Next, consider the case of fraternal polyandry, where two or more brothers marry one woman. This phenomenon has been the subject of investigation by anthropologists for generations (Petros 1963). In 1971, Goldstein observed that the custom was practiced in Tibet only among a class of serfs, known as tre-ba, who held title to their land but who also had major tax and corvee obligations to their lord. In order not to break up the land, Goldstein concluded, brothers would take a single bride into one household.
  • 3. Finally, consider an idiographic theory derived entirely from ethnography. When Anthony Paredes began his study of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama the group was a remnant of an earlier group. They had lost the use of the Creek language, were not recognized by the U.S. government as a tribe, and had little contact with other Indians for decades. Yet, the Poarch Creek Indians had somehow maintained their identity.

Paredes wanted to know how the Indians had managed this. He did what he called “old-fashioned ethnography,” including key-informant interviewing and learned about a cultural revitalization movement that had been going on since the 1940s. That movement was led by some key people whose efforts over the years had made a difference. Paredes’s description of how the Poarch Creek Indians held their cultural identity in the face of such odds is an excellent example of elemental, idiographic theory. As you read his account you feel you understand how it worked (see Paredes 1974, 1992).

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