Social anthropology has a wide scope for the discipline. It wants to study man is his totality. It requires a wide ranging comparison. For such an approach, the study of primitive peoples is quite rewarding.
The primitives are small in number. The territory occupied by them does not cover larger spaces and what is most important is that the range of social relations among these peoples is not wider.
Besides, it has simple technology, and does not have any systematic art, science or theology. Our empirical generalizations made out of simple societies can be helpful in studying the evolution of larger and bigger societies.
(ii) Primitives live in a state of nature
The primitives had been living in a state of nature before the emergence of civil government. In the 18th century, the philosophers were interested in learning about the state of society and the primitives provided an excellent example.
The anthropologists later on realized that for constructing a theory of evolution the tribals were a good laboratory. Evans-Pritchard, hinting at the evolution theory and the study of primitive institutions, argues:
Later anthropologists were interested in them (primitives) because it was held that they displaced institutions in their simplest forms, and that it is sound method to proceed from examination of the more simple to examination of the more complex, in which what has been learnt from a study of the more simple would be an additional help.
(iii) Emergence of functional anthropology
Yet another reason for the study of primitive peoples has been the emergence of structural-functional analysis propounded by Radcliffe- Brown and Malinowski. It was established in social anthropology by these scholars that a society introduces order and system through the interrelationships of social institutions. For instance, the economy of a people is related to religion and policy.
In fact, according to functional anthropology, a society is a web of interrelationships between institutions. According to Claude Levi-Strauss, the rules of marriage and kinship are related to exchange relations. The functional understanding, therefore, promoted the study of simple societies.
(iv) Search for social order
Social anthropology has its prime scope for finding out uniformities and regularities of social life. This search can be fulfilled by the primitive peoples “who have a very simple social structure. Evans-Pritchard assets that social order in a society can be better found in primitive societies. He writes:
Uniformities and regularities of social life, for a society must have some sort or order, or its members could not live together.
It is only because people know the kind of behaviour expected of them and what kind of behaviour to expect from others in the various situations of life, and coordinate their activities in submission to rules and under the guidance of values that each and all are able to go about their affairs, and lead their lives in harmony with their fellows.
(v) Primitives have intrinsic human values
Study of primitive peoples contributes much to our knowledge about some of the values of human life. There has been a tendency among the British anthropologists to neglect the role of values in tribal life. The works of Risley, Rivers and Hutton have very callously overlooked the study of values in tribal life.
The fact of the matter is that the tribals and the non-literate peoples are not lacking in ethical principles. But, the anthropologists have either forgotten the place of values or have underscored these. However, there are some scholars who have very intensively studied the inherent values found in the tribal society.
In a recent study on Badaga-a tribal group in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu-Paul Hockings has very elaborately discussed the role of values in tribal life. He has analyzed some myths surrounding the Badaga people. He observes:
The analysis of the various myths surrounding the ancestral figure of Hette (it is a ritual related to spirits) shows that they are something more than a handful of brief justso stories.
Badaga myth is a Meta language which permits talking about some very basic facts of life: what it means to be a Badaga, to be distinct from other communities, and how this way of life can be maintained. Ritual is similarly concerned with the lives of real people, and not merely with the presumed requirements of the gods.
From all considerations it could be said that the study of primitive societies have a specific value system. The analysis of values has a bearing on the understanding of modern societies.
(vi) Other cultures are equally superior
Our understanding of western or continental society and also Indian society suffers from some prejudices. These prejudices have made us Eurocentric. We assume that European-American ways of living are universal, obviously the only conceivable ones and some-how right.
These prejudices make us think that the other cultures are backward, conservative and rudimentary. This is not so in reality. The first thing is that culture can never be compared. We cannot say that Negro music or for that matter tribal music is inferior to classical music. Music is music everywhere. Each music has its own superiority.
The study of primitive peoples would bring out a new world of social life. We find that each society has its own historicity and specificity. In order to better understand the contemporary society, we must make a thorough study of primitive society.
The argument is that to understand Indian villages, let us study the Japanese villages. It is this comparative perspective that prompts us to emphasize the study of primitive people.
(vii) Vanishing primitive social system
With the onset of globalization and the subsequent liberalization, the primitive societies are also fast changing. This is one aspect of social change. Social anthropologists have concerned themselves with this accelerating pace of change. But, still, another outcome of social change remains neglected.
The indigenous institutional framework, along with its knowledge is fast vanishing. It is found that many of the aspects of tribal animism, witchcraft, and in fact, the total social structure are fast disappearing.
If we turn our head towards these vanishing institutions, without any codification and record, the institutions would be lost in oblivion. Anthropological studies, therefore, should take up primitives as early and as urgently as possible. Evans-Pritchard very rightly stresses the importance of the study of vanishing primitive societies when he says:
Another and very cogent reason for studying primitive societies at the present time is that they are rapidly being transformed and must be studied soon or never.
These vanishing social systems are unique structural variations, a study of which aids us very considerably in understanding the nature of human society, because in a comparative study of institutions the number of society studied is less significant than their range of variations.
(viii) Constitutional obligations
To better answer the question of the logic for studying the primitive peoples on priority basis, it could be said that for India the study of primitive peoples is all the more important.
We have more than 400 tribal groups that are included in the list of Scheduled Tribes. They suffered considerably economically, socially, culturally and educationally in the past.
This situation is now being mitigated through constitutional provisions in the form of protection and development safeguards. We have introduced special development programmes among the tribals. This warrants us to study the primitives. It is constitutionally obligatory for us to study these peoples.