Our hard-wired tribal instincts may be responsible for an underlying prejudice that society came first, reality second. ‘Reality’, according to this view, is a social invention, to be retained only insofar as it is helpful to the community. In primitive societies, this notion that reality is deferent to social interests is more readily acknowledged, as illustrated by the following anthropologist’s account.
One night I was sitting in the house of a friend in Doro, the village where I was conducting fieldwork. One of my friend’s relatives burst into the room, shouting that his sister-in-law had been assaulted by a young man, Ninde.*A tribal court is convened and Ninde is found guilty. Later, the anthropologist discovers that everyone knew Ninde was actually innocent, but that they disapproved of him for a different crime – that of having designs on another woman, who was engaged. “Isn’t this unfair?” the anthropologist asked. “Not at all,” he is told. “What Ninde was convicted of was more true than what really happened.”
The thesis that modernist theories of meaning – relativism, structuralism and other variants of the consensus model – are pro-individualistic seems false. The individual has less power in an anti-realist world, not more. Under realism, he can readily suggest a new model of reality, or a new definition of art. By contrast, it is difficult for him to argue against a model or a definition that is valid because it has been socially agreed.
* quoted in J. Monaghan and P. Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction