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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Clash of Cultures
Brian M Fagan

(Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998),

2nd edition
335pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 35.00, ISBN 0-7619-9145-X.16.50.
Pb.; ISBN 0-7619-9146-8


This is a revised edition of a collection of essays first published in 1984, illustrating the encounter of the West with nine different non-western societies between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries: the Khoikhoi of the Cape, the Aztecs, the Japanese, the Tahitians, the Tasmanian aborigines, the Yahgan Indians of Tierra del Fuego, the Huron of Eastern Canada, The Northwest Coast Indians and the Maori.

Fagan draws inspiration from Eric Wolf's classic work: Europe and the People Without History (1982). Following Wolf , he wishes to demonstrate the importance of "thinking anthropology as a historical discipline" and to "unravel the chains of causation and consequence". Wolf's endeavour to connect western and non-western history is so successful precisely because he locates both history and anthropology within a wider analytical framework. Fagan has opted to side-step the question of a theoretical perspective (p10), but this decision has not served the book particularly well. The absence of solid and convincing core arguments means that the essays do not come together in a coherent fashion. Even attempt to divide the essays into three main sections : "The Age of Discovery", "Consequences" and "Interconnectedness" seems half-hearted and rather confused. As a result, Clash of Cultures' purpose seems too vague: "to explore how some of our forebears reacted to human diversity" (p32), and its general argument too simplistic - "...many of our problems interacting with non-western societies today have strong roots in historical processes that began over four centuries ago" (p10).

This re-issue may benefit from the current popularity of Samuel Huntington's intellectually dubious "clash of civilisations" thesis which proposes that conflict post Cold War will be organised along cultural fault-lines. Like Huntington, Fagan relies on simply stating and restating an essentialist view of cultural differences to describe a "cataclysmic clash of cultures" (p 173). In his view, western and non-western cultures were separated by "vast chasms" and "gulfs" of incomprehension and misunderstanding (p9, p15). The "clash of cultures" is explained as "a progressive confrontation between an expanding, sophisticated civilisation with radically alien beliefs and dozens of societies that lived in careful balance with the natural resources of the environments". The values of the natives are seen to be "completely alien to the goal-oriented, individualistic Westerners exploring the world with specific objectives in mind" (p16).

Fagan's case-studies reproduce a simple western/ non-western dichotomy, which employs a naive, but reified, idea of culture. He manages to draw attention to the ambiguous attitude of westerners to the non-west, simultaneously seeing it as something which can be exploited in practical terms, but simultaneously as a mental space where European idealism and nostalgia could be projected - a dream of unattainable paradise (p39). However, he fails to fully analyse or explore this ambiguity. He is compeeled to return to generalisations about both western and non-western culture which are more simplistic than the actual case-material suggests. The addition of new Asian material in Chapter 5 could have provided genuinely new perspectives which challenge conventional thinking about the encounter between East and West. However, the new chapter is poorly integrated into the rest of the existing book, and the historical account is patchy and lacking in coherence. In the final analysis, he fails to interrogate either "western", or "non-western" culture sufficiently, and does not manage to show the mutuality of the processes through which both western and non-western identities are created.

This book is presented as "an ideal text for students studying the background of the modern world". However, its usefulness is largely illustrative rather than analytical. For example, the chapter on the Aztecs conveys a good insight into the political, economic and social structure of Aztec society, but not all the chapters are of equal quality. I could only recommend this book to undergraduates as background or supplementary reading, to be backed up by more theoretically grounded comparative analysis.


Su-ming Khoo, University College Cork



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