What Makes People Tick?

Anthropologist Eric Wolf seeks practical ways to smooth social relations in the world. INTERVIEW

ERIC WOLF is a born anthropologist. Not that he grew up in an academic family: His father, an Austrian, came from a long line of weavers. His mother, from a Russian family exiled to Siberia, met him there during World War I when he was a prisoner of war. ``So, cultural differences between people form part of my growing up in Vienna,'' he says in a voice still faintly inflected with European accents. ``That, I suppose, disposed me toward asking questions about differences.''

Such questions still fascinate Professor Wolf, who is Distinguished Professor at the Herbert H. Lehman College and Graduate School of the City University of New York. Author of several highly regarded books, including ``Anthropology'' (1964) and ``Europe and the People Without History'' (1982), he is known for the pioneering work in peasant studies that culminated in ``Peasants'' (1966), which was translated into six languages.

On a recent Tuesday, the day he works at home during his busy teaching schedule, he applied the anthropologist's tools to his own background during an extended interview in his contemporary living room overlooking a wooded pond.

``Vienna is a cross-point between many different kinds of people,'' he says. At school, he recalls mingling with children from many Eastern European nations. He also recalls being ``interested in the big museums. I used to go there and copy things, make drawings, when I was quite young.''

That interest first led him toward biology and genetics. After studying in England, he emigrated to the United States in 1938 with his parents, where he entered Queens College intending to study biochemistry. One day he happened to visit an anthropology class where the professor was lecturing on Asia. ``And suddenly I realized that he was talking about all the things I was interested in - China, Japan, different types of writing, religious systems.''

Moving from the sciences to the social sciences did not seem a great leap. Anthropology, he notes, is ``a compound field'' ranging all the way from archaeology, with its need for highly refined technical and scientific skills, to linguistics and the analysis of literature. ``I know that people talk about the difference between Geisteswissenschaft [the arts] and Naturwissenschaft [natural science] and all that - but [the difference] doesn't really interest me greatly.''

Then is anthropology a science? Not, he says, if ``you're going to use validation by experiment as a criterion. All attempts to devise schemes to do this don't really replicate the experiment, because you can't control the variables.'' In the social sciences, he says, ``one has to settle for a level of reasonable interpretation and reasonable certainty.''

``I don't really think of laws, in the scientific sense, as being useful or discoverable in anthropology,'' he says. Instead, he looks for ``lawful regularities that come out of discovery procedures - but they are all temporary hypotheses, and they're always going to be modified.''

Nevertheless, anthropologists share with natural scientists a curiosity about how the world works. ``I suppose the qualification for anthropology is not to take for granted the way people act,'' he says. The real question is, ``what makes them tick, and why?'' - always bearing in mind that ``if you were born an Eskimo or a Masai, you would act and speak differently ... and acquire different ways of looking at the world.

``Those are all human possibilities, and the question then is, `Why one rather than another? What happens when two of these possibilities come into conflict with one another?'''

Wolf, who has done extensive field work in Puerto Rico and Mexico, still occasionally teaches in Spanish as well as English - a testament to the mingling of cultures in polyglot New York. ``I can go to the Bronx and teach students from Ecuador, Peru, Haiti, Jamaica, as well as native New Yorkers and Italo-Americans and Asian-Americans. So the question of how people manage to live together exercises everybody.''

What sorts of insights can anthropology offer to help smooth the course of contemporary society? As an example, Wolf points to the relations between Americans and Japanese. ``I've been told by Japanese friends that they find interaction with Americans very difficult, because Americans are friendly when they think they should be formal.'' The Japanese, he says, ``interact more easily with Latin Americans, who tend to be more formal in ways understood by the Japanese.''

Wolf finds such practical questions of social relations more interesting than theory. Although anthropology has ``a fairly large body of theory,'' he feels that in the future the field will be shaped less by new theories than by changing social and cultural conditions. These include:

The role of women. ``I think we are seeing a very large change, which ... goes along with lots of other things - changes in family structure, in how people earn their living, in the ability to delegate child-raising to others. I suspect there are going to be backlashes as well: Iran is a good example.''

International communication. These days, says Wolf, ``the people that we study are much more into international communication. Transmission used to be primarily from parents to children in certain contexts.'' TV, he says, has ``radically changed that: Both parents and children are learning together from a third source. I think it's going to change the nature of social relationships remarkably.''

Erosion of cultural differences. ``On one level, there's going to be increasing homogenization, in that people in Samarkand are going to wearing the same clothes that they do in New York - jeans, for instance.'' He notes, however, that there are ``circles of intimacy within this generally leveling trend,'' as ``all these little sub-groups of people that I teach in the Bronx'' strive to ``retain their identities.''

Emerging groups. While some groups may disappear, says Wolf, others will come into being - as they have throughout history. ``The Germans didn't really exist as a German nation in 1848,'' he says. ``The notion that all these Bavarians and Saxons and Prussians would form one cultural whole is pretty recent. Poles in the 1880s didn't think of themselves as Poles, but as coming from some locality in Poland. They got to be Poles when they came to the United States. We're getting more and more of these constructed cultural units.'' Europe after 1992 might produce a similar new grouping.

Why, finally, does he enjoy his chosen field?

``I find the whole business of culture and language enormously fascinating,'' he says. ``I mean, we're not grasshoppers - they're happily programmed to do a simple thing very well. But here we are stumbling around the world, trying to set up communication patterns that are extremely subtle and difficult for an outsider to learn and break into. I'd like to know how this works.''

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