Marshall D. Sahlins, a prominent and highly esteemed anthropologist and ethnographer, is recognized inter-nationally for his theory of the historicity and pervasiveness of culture in everyday life and the process of cultural change.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Sahlins completed his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and his graduate work at the University of Michigan and Columbia University. He served on the faculty of both universities, and since 1973 has been Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, while lecturing at Cornell University and throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1976.
Sahlins gained international attention and excited anthropological debates as a result of his theory about the history of European contact in Polynesia and his work with indigenous peoples of the Hawaiian Islands. He has also conducted ethnohistorical field research in Turkey.
Sahlins’s assertion that culture will always exist, albeit transformed, since it has historically differentiated people through segregation, domination, and repression, has stirred debate about the consequences of globalization for distinctive cultures. He maintains that a process of cultural recuperation will occur in which culture will live in new forms, emerging from cultural resistance and new patterns of human life. As he puts it, “homogeneity and heterogeneity, modernity and tradition are no longer opposed terms.”
Throughout his works Moala: Culture and Nature on a Fijian Island (1962) and Evolution and Culture (with Elman R. Service, 1960) and in his lectures, Sahlins describes collective interpretations of culture and its enduring nature, maintaining that culture will always exist as it adapts and transforms. His argument against the cultural diffusion position—that Western civilization has invaded and destroyed the cultures of indigenous populations—has gained increasing support from cultural anthropologists. Sahlins argues that cultural resistance modified Western influence and that Western scholars may not understand non-Western peoples and their cultures, which are resisting and changing globalization “through…new patterns of human life.” His theory of cultural change helps explain the dynamics of adaptation and conflict during globalization. Sahlins’s other books, Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958) and Stone Age Economics (1972), contain elaborations of his theory of cultural change based on his very extensive ethnohistorical research on social stratification, decision making, and customs by analyzing material flow and social relations, types of reciprocities, and the relationships between reciprocity and kinship, wealth, food, friendship, alliances, peacemaking, and marital alliance. Sahlins provides strong support and verification for his theory.
The significance of Sahlins’s theory of cultural change lies in its influence on contemporary anthropologists to conduct ethnographic field research in small-scale cultures with a perspective of the changing forms and dimensions of traditional cultures, resulting in a basic theoretical component of cultural change and social change curricula and ethnographic methodologies.
In summary, Sahlins has championed understanding cultural differences by focusing on collective interpretations of culture. By understanding the patterns of non-Western peoples, he maintains that Western anthropologists can research cultural change but may not be able to understand non-Western mentalities.
- Sahlins, M. D. (1958). Social stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
- Sahlins, M. D. (1976). The use and abuse of biology: An anthropological critique of sociobiology. Ann Arbor:
- University of Michigan Press. Sahlins, M. D., & Service, E. R. (Eds.). (1960). Evolution and culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.