What makes one person win a prestigious award and another not, for the same work or discovery?
One of my heroes during school was anthropologist Marvin Harris. We had one of his books as a text book in first year anthropology. I liked the book so much, I read everything else he wrote. One of his basic observations was that most people decide on lifestyle based on the best returns economically.
Harris termed his approach cultural materialism. Cultural materialism seeks to explain the organizational aspects of politics and economy and the ideological and symbolic aspects of society as a result of the combination of variables relating to the basic biological needs of society.
In 2000, Jared Diamond won the Pulitzer prize for his book Guns, Germs and Steel. I really loved Diamonds book and it reminded me of many lessons I learned through studying the carreer of Marvin Harris. Guns Germs and Steel examines how one society over took other societies because of geographical resources. A common misinformation has been that European and Asian societies conquered the earth because of some racial or intellectual superiority, when it was actually specific advantages of resources due to geography. The means to farm with large domesticated pack animals, and different strengths of metal, resulting from different effects of the Ice Ages on different continents.
Twenty years before Guns Germs and Steel was published, Marvin Harris had written several books published for a non-academic readership as well as research level pieces.
Harris was asked to write a book, a summary of all his research, into a dictionary, reference sort of format. It is called Our Kind and it basically sets out to answer all the major mysteries of culture. Each chapter is a nutshell of previous large scale works. It's really fantastic. A real life "Hitchhikers Guide" to the many layers of meaning within cultures.
Near the end of this handy encyclopedia is a chapter titled "Why The First Earth Conquered The Second." You can read it here, if you are so inclined.
Harris an anthropologist and Diamond an historian, both believed their observations and conclusions could be accounted for in material scientific standards, despite traditional sciences like biology treating the newer feilds of study as intangible, even flaky.
Why Did Human History Unfold Differently On Different Continents For The Last 13,000 Years?
I admire Jared Diamond as much as I do Marvin Harris.
I wonder what makes one researcher win the Pulitzer rather than another in this case?
Neither of these scholars had blind acceptance, but Harris's detractors were much more vitrolic than Diamonds.
I believe the difference in reception represented by the Pulizer Prize has no value on the stature of Harris's work over or under Diamonds. I believe the eventual acceptance and reward going to Diamond is a result of newer generations being raised already understanding that race, gender and domination are social constructs. Harris was a groundbreaking academic in a generation and history of racism and ethnocentricism. I was raised knowing that there was no such thing as race and humans had the potential and past history of living as eqalitarian societies. A scholar like Harris was an exhilarating body of work to explore. By the time Diamonds detailed history of Guns, Germs and Steel was published his audience was ready to accept revisiting misguided social constructs. Grade seven curriculums have included Guns, Germs and Steel. Although I was exposed to egalitarian cultures growing up in the pacific northwest of Canada now twelve year olds are studying what I was introduced to officially in first year college, research that was often rejected and ridiculed when first surfacing in the 1970's.
Comparing the work of Harris and Diamond is an opportunity to witness transformative history and thinking as it happened.
The comparison may be a reason for hope.