Book Review: Krippendorf’s Tribe

Krippendorf’s Tribe (1985), by Frank Parkin (1931-2011), explores the life of a British anthropologist and his experience with raising his family and a contrived research project. Parkin is a sociologist and has published nonfiction on Karl Marx (Middle Class Radicalism 1968, Class Inequality and Political Order 1971, Marxism and Class Theory 1979), Max Weber (Max Weber 1982), and Emile Durkheim (Durkheim 1992). Krippendorf’s Tribe represents his first foray into fiction. The book is a dark comedy: a satire of British society, academia, and the scholarly endeavor of anthropology.

Krippendorf’s Tribe is cleverly written and demonstrates the scathing wit and insight of Parkin, where family life, bourgeois British society, and academia are the objects of scorn. The book follows the descent of the Krippendorfs from a fairly typical middle-class British family to an “uncivilized”, wild group. Due to a large grant, the protagonist is tasked to go study a remote tribe in the Amazon but instead must remain home. The narrative of the family is interspersed with an alternate telling of the family life and James’ own family desires in the form of ethnographic blurbs. These blurbs are hilarious, and their publications illustrate the desire for the pseudo-anthropological, erotic magazine Exotica to objectify “exotic” women. Due to the witty writing and metanarrative, the book is an incredibly pleasant read and invokes reflexivity when considering the role that social sciences have had in exoticizing and othering people.

The story of the Krippendorf family is all at once, sad, uncomfortable, and funny. The Progenitor, James Krippendorf, is an unemployed anthropologist that is raising three kids alongside the Ethiopian babysitter while his wife, Veronica, is recording lepers in Calcutta as a television journalist. James receives a grant to study an Amazonian tribe but after misappropriating nearly all of funds on a new car, vacation, and elocution lessons for his oldest daughter, Shelley, he is forced to invent a fictional tribe and study his children, Shelley, Mickey, and Edmund, the members of Shelmikedmu. James’ domestic responsibilities and Veronica’s travels represent a reversal of gender roles. With the reversal of the gender roles, James feels devalued and this is represented through one of James’ ethnographic blurbs. Among the Shelmikedmu, men perform the most valuable work in the tribe; they perform the domestic duties and the men that sweep and clean the best have the most value. James is creating a society in which he seems valuable.

As a parent, James is ineffectual. He treats his children as study subjects, even in times when he is not performing “research.” He is not interested in parenting and thus treats his children with the detachment and “objectivity of a scientist. This is reflected in another one of the included ethnographic pieces included in the book. Children should look down when adults enter the room and should not address adults directly; the children and adults do not mix throughout the day and adults should be avoided. His lack of interest in parenting has led to even more outbursts from his children.

Beyond the issues at home, James’ task to contrive an ethnography of the Shelmikedmu results shines some light on one purpose for ethnographic photography. Magazines like National Geographic were notorious for displaying nude indigenous women and Exotica performs that role in Krippendorf’s Tribe. James photographs many naked women including a giant-breasted family friend, an Ethiopian babysitter, and a Thai nurse. James writes that the Shelmikedmu has a fascination with breasts and the larger the breasts, the larger the women’s propensity for black magic. They even go so far as to have seventeen words for different types of nipples.

By the end of the book, the children have devolved into cannibalism, living in a tree-house, hunting and kill neighborhood pets, the two oldest children are living incestuously, and the children cook over a fire. However, James’ biggest regret is that the two boys hunt, which is women’s work. The book closes with the family flying to the jungle. It forces the reader to confront the blurry line between “civilization” and “savagery” and the potential for one to lose the traits we ascribe to the civilized.

Krippendorf’s Tribe is a self-parody and offers a scathing critique of academia, scholarship, and anthropology. It examines Western society and civilization in the vein of Lord of the Flies (1954) but with a special kind of humor that demands continued reading. The book never takes itself too seriously and is a constant reminder that an over-reliance on perceived objectivity and jargon is a weakness of social sciences. Krippendorf’s Tribe uses satire and parody to remind us to be more reflexive and is a lesson in internalization: how expectations, lived experiences, and social pressures are adopted by the actors, and its reliance on humor and satire to drive its themes could have been a miss but in this case, the book is immensely funny; It is a must read.


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