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  Rationality (from Latin rationari, ‘think’, ‘calculate’), which is usually considered to refer to the realm of logic or reason in achieving certain aims, has raised a specific debate within anthropology since the turn of the century. It may be traced back to the sociologist Max Weber\'s theories on ‘rational man’. Weber argued that those pursuing the path of maximum benefit for the minimum input of resources demonstrated a rational decision. Rational behaviour was, therefore, associated with the prevalent ethos of capitalist society.

Anthropologists of Weber\'s time supported his ideas, simultaneously asserting that so-called ‘primitive’ societies were orientated by ‘non-rational’ institutions, such as kinship, religion and supernatural beliefs. Where such ‘non-rational’ elements were noticed in Western society, it was considered that they were survivals from an earlier epoch.

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, a French philosopher noted for his 1923 work The Primitive Mentality, advanced the view that ‘primitive’ thought was collectively different from the logical thought characteristic of Western society. ‘Primitive’ thought was considered ‘pre-logical’ or mystical, demonstrating the ‘law of participation’ which stated that the subject and object were believed to fuse into each other. Although such features may be noticed in the West, it was the objective pursuit of knowledge and the ‘rule of non-contradiction’ stating that two things could not logically occupy the same place, that dominated collective thought of the West.

From the 1950s, Claude Lévi-Strauss challenged such views, arguing that all human beings were ‘rational’. They all ordered and classified phenomena in a fundamentally similar manner. Apparent differences were the result of surface appearance due to the kinds of relationships that existed between thought, action and the environment. This he characterized with the notion of the bricoleur in ‘primitive’ societies: that is, he dealt with concrete items in the manner of an engineer creating a ‘science of the concrete’. Western thought was described as ‘domesticated’ and in which abstract science and history were the prominent organizing principles.

In 1975, Dan Sperber developed Lévi-Strauss\' theories to deal with symbolic systems. He argued that the keys to understanding symbols were symbols themselves. If we do not have familiarity with these symbolic enmeshments, then we will continue to judge peoples\' thoughts and conducts by our own Western assumptions on rationality. Western views, in turn, are dependent on the symbolic complex of technology, progress and economics.

This brief outline of the rationality debate is underpinned by the universalist and relativist dimensions. The universalists argue that all human beings are ‘rational’ because we are ultimately able to communicate and understand each other\'s values and lifestyles. The relativist viewpoint is that human societies are differently organized, so that varying definitions and views of what is ‘rational’ apply.

The problem with this universalist/rationalist debate is that in the process of identifying what defines ‘rationality’ for any particular community, their actions and thoughts may be over-rationalized. Statements do not need to be strictly logical in order to have intended effects. Nor do all people run their lives according to ‘rational’ motives, however one defines it. The issues of social contradictions, inconsistencies or absurdities also need to be taken into account.

Most contemporary anthropologists accept the view that in order for a society to be organized, a degree of ‘rational’ ordering is necessary which may be particular to the society. On the other hand, there is a universalist dimension present in the ability to transcend cultural parameters and relate to others on mutual grounds of agreement. RK

See also cultural relativism; emotions; ethnocentrism; magic; primitivism.Further reading Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind; , Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism; , Brian Wilson (ed.), Rationality.



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