➻ Elman Roger Service [1915-1996]

por Teoría de la historia

Service, Elman R copyElman Rogers Service (1915-1996) was a central figure in the 20th-century exploration of cultural evolution directed toward explaining cultural phenomena in causal terms. Service was born in Tecumseh, Michigan, in 1915, not far from the University of Michigan, and as a teenager during the Great Depression, he directly witnessed the inequalities that provoked so many of his later intellectual interests and gave him a lifelong commitment to social justice. Service’s high school was closed for lack of funds in 1933 before the end of his senior year, and he had to delay starting his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan until he could save enough money from a job in a Southern Californja aircraft factory. But Service fought his way back, both as a factory worker and as an amateur Golden Gloves boxer. Before starting his studies for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, Service volunteered to fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. He served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was wounded and hospitalized. He rarely spoke of his service in the war, but he offered an anecdote about being fortunate enough to be hospitalized with John Murra (himself later to be an important figure in anthropology), where they amused themselves by learning colorful Spanish epithets. Although Service was very much a serious force in the world, he characteristically took care not to take himself too seriously or allow others to do so. Returning to the University of Michigan in 1938, Service earned a degree in English, with some coursework in anthropology, in 1941. He then proceeded to a year of graduate study in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1942, before World War II drew him to military service in France with the U.S. army. After the war, Service resumed his graduate career at Columbia University. The small faculty of Columbia’s Department of Anthropology took on 150 graduate students in the early postwar years until 1953. Many were there on the G.I. Bill, and military service and the strain of readjustment to civilian life promoted bonding among men eager to regain their place in academic careers. That camaraderie heightened some of the divisions within the Department of Anthropology, where a fracture line split it into two camps, one committed to a humanities approach to anthropology, fo llowing Ruth Benedict, and the other to materialist approaches to anthropology, following Julian Steward. Service was a leader among the students aligned with Steward and materialism, including Pedro Carrasco, Stanley Diamond, Clifford Evans, Louis Faron, Morton Fried, Anthony Leeds, Robert Manners, Betty Meggers, Sidney Mintz, Robert F. Murphy, John Murra, Elena Padilla, Vera Rubin, Elliott Skinner, and Eric Wolf. Many joined together in a study and discussion group that met often to discuss different topics built around papers or talks by volunteers from the group. This group came to call itself, largely at Service’s impetus, the “Mundial Upheaval Society,” or MUS. Eric Wolf later commented that Service was respected to the extent of being seen as “something of a hero.” He came from small-town America; he had fought as a Golden Gloves boxer; he had fought in Spain; and he had even taken anthropology courses with Leslie White, who was then a major contender against Robert Lowie in the fight over evolution in cultural anthropology that was waged in the pages of the American Anthropologist and the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. He had ventured to the floor of the Grand Canyon to do fieldwork among the Havasupai. He understood and had original thoughts on the sntdy of kinship, and he offered an evolutionary discussion of social organization. And, in common with most in the MUS, Service aspired to understand and explain culture in terms of causality. Following a year of fieldwork in Paraguay, Service completed his PhD in 1950 and began his own teaching career at Columbia. He shared an office with Morton Fried, with whom he also shared a lifelong interest in the evolution of political systems, though they came to quite divergent positions on the origins of ancient states. Fried took a toughminded approach based in conflict theory and saw states emerging and expanding through exploitation. Service took an integrationist approach, arguing that increasing political centralization must offer at least some benefits from ruling elites. In 1953, Service returned to teach at the University of Michigan, initiating what was later occasionally characterized as the “Michigan-Columbia Axis.” Over the next 16 years, even with White’s presence at Michigan, Service became the preeminent scholar in cultural evolution. In 1969, Service moved to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he continued an active scholarly life until his death in 1996. With a strong background in evolutionary thought and in pursuit of causal accounts of cultural phenomena, Service used comparative ethnography to explore transitions from small-scale egalitarian societies to centrally organized states and empires. To facilitate comparability, Service organized ethnographic cases under the evolutionary categories of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Although he made many contributions to the study of social organization, cultural evolution, political organization, Latin American ethnohistory and ethnography, and history of anthropology, Service became most widely known for his classification system. Cultural anthropologists appropriately argue over the fit of cases to these categories, but the point was not to make cases fit. These were ideal types, so that failures to fit are not failures of the method but opportunities to explore why the fit doesn’t work. For example, the category “tribe” proved to be the most problematic, and this resulted in productive reconsiderations. And the category of “chiefdom” was especially provocative for research on transitions to centrally controlled societies that has been particularly influential and productively contentious in archaeology. Though Service’s contributions are particularly influential in archaeology, they are often not fully explored in cultural anthropology. Perhaps this is in part because his band, tribe, chiefdom, and state system of organization became foundational knowledge that organizes every introductory anthropology textbook. But the value of the system is in challenging us toward greater clarity in noting variations as well as commonalities. Service’s aim was not to offer merely another typology of stages. What distinguished his evolutionary approach was that he wanted to explore how evolutionary change works. The clarity in his contributions toward understanding such challenging questions contrasted with the abundance of fads and jargon that often infect anthropology. With characteristic good humor he responded with a clever critique under the title “Models for the Methodology of Mouthtalk.” Although recognized as a major figure in the 20th century in anthropology, Service consistently avoided any demonstrations of self-importance. He did not place himself in the spotlight at professional conferences, though he once quipped that he did agree to go to occasions when he was being “institutionalized.”

[Darrel LA LONE. “Service, Elman R”, in R. Jon McGEE y Richard L. WARMS (editors). Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology. An Encyclopedia. California: SAGE Publications, 2014, vol II, pp. 768a-769b]