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An exciting new book by Stephen Kidd on the social psychology of an indigenous people

18/05/2021

By Ian Skoggard

Social science is a broad enterprise focusing on diverse subjects of economics, politics, society and culture, to name a few, mostly all subscribing to objective, analytical, and if possible quantifiable methods of study. What if there was another approach, or dimension, to understand human behaviour, to which science by its very methods is blind? What if this dimension, in spite of it being unmeasurable and unsuited to scientific scrutiny, is actually truer to the why and how people behave and act in the world? What if this dimension had no name and could not have a name to be effective? That is, it reflected the unknown elements in the world that humans nevertheless had to reckon with in order to survive, such as their future and the depths of their feelings?  While science has the luxury of stepping back onto an objective perch, people living their lives in the world do not. Either time or circumstance prohibits them such a viewpoint. A flood comes, an army invades, and they are cast into real-time and need to respond without necessarily knowing all the facts, indeed, for the most part facing uncertainty for which a collective response is the best guarantor of success. Author, Stephen Kidd, has foregrounded this dimension of human reality and behaviour in his new book, Love and its Entanglements among the Enxet of Paraguay: Social and Kinship Relations within a Market Economy, to which I had the privilege to write the Foreword.  The book focuses on the persistence of Enxet sharing practices and the need to maintain a collective unity on even a modest scale in face of the disruptions wrought by colonialisation and modernisation. Their impetus for sharing is very much tied to the “unknown” I have been speaking about and the need to make relationships in the face of it.

Before working at Development Pathways, Stephen Kidd was an anthropologist and before that a missionary, all practices and experience that informed his insight into the life of the Enxet. As a missionary, Kidd worked and lived closely with the Enxet and grew to appreciate their culture and the particular challenges they faced. As a student of Liberation Theology, he understood that politics as much as religion was a necessary tool for their “salvation” and “redemption”. He realised that the Enxet needed political power and more control over their lives, including the control of resources, especially the land lost to the colonisers. He eventually decided to leave the mission and devote his time to indigenous land claims. At the same time, he came to appreciate the culture of sharing that survived and persisted in spite of capitalism, and decided to study anthropology. Under the tutelage of Dr. Joanna Overing, first at the London School of Economics and later St. Andrew’s University, Kidd followed her approach of focusing on a people’s day-to-day living, including their emotional life. In the field, Kidd studied Enxet emotional discourse and how it mediated social life. Anthropologists have long sought to understand how small-scale societies organise themselves without laws and institutions. Kidd discovered that the Enxet’s scrupulous attentiveness to their emotional states provides an answer.  

Emotions are an important barometer of environmental and social conditions. They bring together a certain knowledge of the world and aid the necessary collective response to external threats. Kidd noted that the Enxet understood their emotions as originating within an internal organ of the body called waxok, which translates as “hollow inside” and is considered to be the cognitive, affective, and the social center of the person. The words for most emotions actually refer to the condition of the wáxok. For example, happiness is a wáxok that is “sweet,” sadness is a “heavy” wáxok, and fear is a wáxok that “shivers.” Love is a “soft” and “unlocked” wáxok, open to the world and others. Overall, the sensing and controlling of emotional states was part of being an adult and trying to maintain an open and loving wáxok was the way of knowledge and well-being.

So let me return to my opening thoughts about recognising the unknown and uncertainty of human existence as part of the cultural equation of human survival. The Enxet concept of an internal unknown, or wáxok, the “hollow inside” at the center of human self and cognition, reflects the unknown of what life presents on the outside. One can regard culture as a raft floating on seas of unknown subjective depths and unknown objective distances in time and space.  Humans actively navigate between these poles, recognising and holding onto the one sure thing that is the hope of their survival, and that is each other.  Stephen Kidd in his insight has made that claim, for me at least, loud and clear; and as we face an uncertain future of climate change, it behooves us to reckon with it.

Our guest blogger, Ian Skoggard, is a Research Anthropologist at the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University where he studies religion and cooperation. 

Buy a copy of “Love and its entanglements among the Enxet of Paraguay: social and kinship relations within a market economy” by Stephen Kidd here.

Get a 30% discount when purchasing your copy through Rowman & Littlefield until 31st December 2021 using the discount code: LEX30AUTH21.

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