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Harris and the Sacred Cow

Page history last edited by Julia Derouard 14 years, 7 months ago

To answer this question you'll need to at least take a look at Harris' article on the Sacred Cow in our Theory reader

In this paper, Harris proclaims at the outset, "I have never seen a sacred cow, nor been to India." Why didn't he think traditional fieldwork was necessary in this case? Why didn't he go talk to "native informants" about their sacred cows? How would Geertz have approached studying the sacred cow topic?

Emic versus Etic

Savannah Fetterolf

To understand why Marvin Harris felt that he could write an anthropological study without performing fieldwork, it is important to understand his stance in the argument about the importance of emic and etic perspectives in ethnography. Harris' entire argument is built upon the dichotomy between these two perspectives. Although ethnography was the signature of American Anthropology at the time that Marvin Harris wrote “The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle,” he felt as though etic studies with information derived from empirical studies were more scientific and, therefore, more valid than emic approaches. With this article, therefore, Harris strove to break away from other anthropological studies of Indian culture that tend to overemphasize “the irrational, non-economic, and exotic aspects of the Indian cattle complex” (282). For Harris, such emic perspectives did not meet the needs of the scientific community and, therefore, he sought to define the overall purpose of anthropological study as the production of cross-cultural generalizations. Therefore, he was able to forgo fieldwork and rely on using other studies about Indian culture and weeding out the emic information. In order to look at the energy contribution of cows in terms of the energy expended on raising cattle, Harris felt that actually interviewing “native informants” would not help in gathering scientific information, but only emic perspective on the cows place in ritual.


Jill Coen

Harris didn’t need new ethnographic data to take a different approach—a cultural materialist approach—on Indian cattle ritual. His purpose in writing was to revisit previously researched aspects of Indian culture in terms of “‘positive-functioned’ and probably ‘adaptive’ processes of [its] ecological system of which” it is a part” (Taking Sides 283).  To this end, thorough archival research on other ethnographies provided enough background for him to speak intelligently on the matter. Harris steered away from the earlier forms of blanketed ethnographies that studied culture from the “native’s point of view” and instead opted for a more contextualized, deconstructed, scientific, neo-evolutionary approach. Harris’ affinity for scientific and etic approaches to cultural study contrast with Geertz’ emic approach dependent upon “thick description.” Geertz believed in an emic ethnographic approach that is sensitive to the nuanced experiences of each particular anthropologist in his/her observance of culture. Geertz also believed human behavior was not as categorical as measurable by absolute science. Therefore, Geertz would not have relied to heavily upon other anthropologists’ ethnographies to study the sacred cow topic. He would likely have revisited previously studied communities himself and would have provided an ethnography laden with thick description that took into account his particular experience with cattle ritual and why his personal interpretation was slightly unique. Harris details his work in scientific, economic, materialistic terms that can be applied to others’ works. Geertz details his work with ‘thick description’ of his personal interpretation of particular cultural practices. 



Lindsey Scott

At first glance, it seems odd that Harris would write an anthropological paper about India's sacred cows without doing field work, but as the paper progresses, his point becomes more obvious.  If this had been a study of the cultural and religious significance of cattle in India, then fieldwork would have been necessary.  But Harris' paper is in fact a scientific and economic study of why the cattle could be sacred.  Because he uses science and statistics, this makes his work a different type of anthropological study.  I think the most revealing quote to the the purpose of this paper comes in the first sentence.  Harris writes that "in this paper I attempt to indicate certain puzzling inconsistencies in prevailing interpretations of the ecological role of bovine cattle in India" (282).  The phrase "puzzling inconsistencies in prevailing interpretations" (282) takes him out of the traditional anthropological view and puts him into another.   He states right out that he is going to be taking the foremost interpretations in this topic and try to find the inconsistencies among them.  This means that he's taking other anthropologists' work and is analyzing them to find what differs among them.  So, for the topic of this paper fieldwork is really unnecessary. 



Chelsey Megli

I think that Julia has the right critique of Harris. Harris assumes that economically significant things must therefore be religiously important and vice versa. This simply isn't true. If such an equivalence could be assumed then culture itself could be described in a series of formulae. We have learned through all of the other anthropologists we have read that culture does not arise as an absolute result of any situation (economic, political or social). It is a development of associations that changes without obvious cause or linear motion. That why anthropology is a different type of science and therefore cannot be evaluated as other sciences are.


Abigail Parker

what struck me the most about Harris's unorthodox approach to fieldwork (or lack thereof) in terms of India's sacred cow, was the similarity to archaelogy.  Essentially, Harris treats this case as though it were a very well-preserved excavation (with convenient historical data), and he draws his conclusions mainly from materials collected.  This is an interesting approach, but it brings to the forefront what I feel is archaeology's weakness, that the individual is often overlooked in favor of an all-encompassing view of culture.


Furthermore, Harris intends to emphacize, in writing this essay, the "rational, economic, and mundane" aspects of a cultural interpretation, instead of the "irrational, non-economic, and exotic aspects." (302)  This robs anthropology of some of its richest points and most fascinating examples of the human experience.  Subsequently, Harris's approach, while it does yield interesting conclusions about the sacred cow, is too narrow to be applied to anthropology as a whole.

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