Marshall Sahlins

From Academic Kids

Marshall Sahlins (born 1930) is a prominent American anthropologist. He received both a Bachelors and Masters degree at the University of Michigan where he studied with Leslie White, and earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1954 where his main intellectual influences included Karl Polanyi and Julian Steward. He returned to teach at the University of Michigan and in the 1960s and became politically active, protesting against the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s he also spent two years in Paris, where he was exposed to French intellectual life (and particularly the work of Claude LÚvi-Strauss) and the student protests of May '68. In 1973 he moved to the University of Chicago, where he is today the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emeritus.

Sahlins' work has focused on demonstrating the power that culture has to shape people's perceptions and actions. He has been particularly interested to demonstrate the culture has a unique power to motivate people that is not derived from biology. His early work focused on debunking the idea of 'economically rational man' and to demonstrate that economic systems adapted to particular circumstances in culturally specific ways. After the publication of Culture and Practical Reason in 1976 his focus shifted to the relation between history and anthropology, and the way different cultures understand and make history. Although his focus has been the entire Pacific, Sahlins has done most of his research in Fiji and Hawaii.

In the late 1990s Sahlins became embroiled in a heated debate with Gananath Obeyesekere over the details of Captain James Cook's death in the Hawaiian_Islands in 1779. At the heart of the debate was how to understand the rationality of indigenous people. Obeyesekere insisted that indigenous people thought in essentially the same way as Westerners and was concerned that any argument otherwise would paint them as 'irrational' and 'uncivilized'. Sahlins, on the other hand, was critical of Western thought and argued that indigenous cultures were distinct and equal to those of the West.


  • Social Stratification in Polynesia
  • Moala: Culture and Nature on a Fijian Island
  • Evolution and Culture
  • Stone Age Economics
  • Tribesmen
  • The Use and Abuse of Biology
  • Culture and Practical Reason
  • Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities
  • Waiting For Foucault
  • Islands of History
  • Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii
  • How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example (1995: ISBN 0226733688)
  • Culture in Practice
  • Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa

External links

About the controversy with Obeyesekere (See also Death of Cook article, about the 2004 re-discovery of the original painting of the incident by John Cleveley, showing a less idealised Cook):


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