Barth, Fredrik (b. 1928)
Dictionary Home
AnthroBase Home
Bookmark, cite or print this page

Norwegian anthropologist, educated at the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge. Prominent transactionalist (see "prosessanalyse"). Fieldwork in Iraq, Sudan (Darfur), Norway, Pakistan (Swat), Iran, Oman (Sohar), New Guinea (Bakhtaman), Bali. His perhaps most famous work was the anthology Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1969), in which he formulated a relational theory of ethnicity, which emphasized the boundaries between ethnic groups, rather than the "cultural stuff", which the boundaries enclose. Prior to this, he worked primarily with political, economic and ecological anthropology. Later, after his fieldwork in New Guinea (conducted while Ethnic Groups and Boundaries was in print), he turned increasingly to studies of knowledge.

Thus, the volume on ethnic boundaries marks a crucial turning point in Barth's thinking: Ethnic identity, which was manipulated strategically for political, economic and ecological reasons, was also a category of meaning. It thus formed a bridge from Barth's early, utilitarian transactionalism to a transactionalism that is fundamentally concerned with meaning - a term he resists, however, since meaning is a holistic phenomenon that cannot be partitioned up to form a transactional commodity. In contrast, knowledge, his preferred term, may easily be commodified in this way.

Barth's greatest contribution is perhaps his insistence on the methodological dictum that "everything influencing the shape of an event must be there asserting itself at the moment of the event" (1981: 6). Self-evident though this may seem, it is not at all simple in practice. That it is an effective strategy, however, is evidenced by the many, widely differing field sites that Barth has successfully studied and written about. During his New Guinea fieldwork, this principle was taxed to its utmost, and the last chapters of his monograph Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea (1975) are a fascinating and tortuous discussion of his minimalistic methodological credo.

As a very prominent and successful young anthropologist in the post-war years, Barth occupied a unique position in Norwegian and Scandinavian anthropology, particularly during the 1960's. Well helped by the rapid institutional expansion of the Norwegian university system in these years, by an effective cooperation with other talented and ambitious young Norwegian social scientists (e.g. Stein Rokkan), and by the simultaneous foundation of social science faculties for the first time at both new and old universities, Barth founded the hugely successful modern Norwegian anthropological tradition. Starting in the 60's, he built up the "Bergen school" of social anthropology, to which he attracted students and colleagues from Norway, Sweden and further abroad.

Though Barth's international prominence continued unabated throughout the next decades, his all-overshadowing dominance in Norway was progressively reduced as the local research milieus diversified and grew. However, it is still meaningful to say that Norwegian anthropology has retained a strong Barthian flavor, in its insistence on the value of intensive fieldwork and on the primacy of social organization over discourse and meaning.

Sample quote.

To see texts on AnthroBase dealing with Fredrik Barth, see: