A guy (maybe a geneticist/biologist) from this site,  http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2013/02/against-the-cultural..., wrote the harshest critique against Cultural Anthropology I have ever read.  Where are the cultural anthropologists?  

"Many cultural anthropologists need to move to staff positions at organizations like Survival International. They don’t belong in the academy. Those who remain should be scattered across other disciplines, such as economics, psychology, sociology, etc.  The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology. They don’t belong at universities. Cultural anthropologists don’t know much about the world in any systematic sense, but they know what they believe about how the world should be organized. Let them do their organizing in their proper environment. Like exotic species without natural predators these political operators only cause mischief in academic halls."

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I would worry less about Razib's qualifications and more about the fact that his rant has, at least in a modest way, gone viral. We need to reflect on why what he says resonates strongly enough with enough people for it to have won this much attention.

One place to begin might be Clyde Kluckhohn's observation that all human beings are (a) like all other human beings, (b) like some other human beings, and (c) uniquely themselves.The question confronting the anthropologist as ethnographer is how to sort them out. 

"Like all other human beings" is the domain of abstract social theory and, more recently, mathematical modeling.

"Like some other human beings" is the domain of area studies (where areas range from small communities to large geographical regions: East Asia, for example).

"Uniquely themselves" is the domain of the personal ethnographic encounter (in which, ideally but rarely, the anthropologist achieves what Martin Buber called an "I-Thou" relationship with the other, understanding in a deep and empathetic manner where the other is coming from.

Historically anthropologists have contributed to abstract social theory by providing the ethnographic grist for other academic mills, e.g., to cite a recent example, the use of social network analysis and mathematical modeling techniques to represent the Kula. More classically, one might point to Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life as theory based on ethnography in which Durkheim himself did not participate. Anthropologists have been, on the whole, consumers of theory instead of producers of new theory.

In relation to historical and area studies, we find ourselves in a curious situation. There are  some anthropologists, several in the case of those who specialize in East Asia, who develop a solid grasp of the histories and languages of the places they study. But Razib is correct, I believe, to observe that given the usual ethnographic scatter-gun approach of undergraduate and even graduate education in anthropology, most anthropologists lack this sort of knowledge, at least when they do their first fieldwork and try to launch their careers. 

What, then, is left for the anthropologist to bring to the table of larger discussions? The personal encounter is valuable. The personal encounter, combined with broad curiosity and a miscellaneous grab bag of other information, may yield genuine insights unavailable to those confined to their models or historical documents. But unless the anthropologist is also prepared to engage those with models or deep historical knowledge respectfully and learn enough about what they do to work as peers, offering personal insights in relation to what the models or histories claim,  the personal encounter has no inherent value in itself.

To those most immediately concerned, the fieldwork encounter may be a life-changing event. But in a world with a population approaching seven billion and an on-rushing flood of life-changing events the fuel on which the entertainment industry and 24-hour news cycle feed, why anyone else should care about something important to one of us (and maybe two or three other people) is not an easy question to answer. We can turn to science or to history for significance. A few brilliant writers may escape this choice. For the rest of us, the only alternative is to be of very minor or no significance at all. 

Razib is correct in his assessment of some anthropologists--especially those who rely heavily on relativism and reject universal patterns of culture.  Real sciences attempt to unearth universal laws, while anthropologists, in general, focus on the unique and particular.  They have so many interpretations of a single phenomenon because they look at it not as a whole.  "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is indeed a good analogy.  French theories make that myopic view of culture worse by suggesting selective dissection in cultural analysis.

The danger of relativism is the politicalization of an idea.  One can say that a certain cultural practice is unique to this group due to his political end that is related to exoticization, colonialization, victimization, or even rejection of that culture.  If we go back to the universal patterns, we will see that the "us/we versus them/they" opposite is superficial.  Relying on Foucault's subversive conception of power that is sociological/historical than natural/behavioral leaves us troubled and confused.

Abandonment of elderly is universal.  Even primates abandon the ageing members of their group.  Lonely death of the abandoned elderly in Japan is growing.  Americans abandon their old parents in elder care facilities.  Even in the Philippines, where extended family is the norm (ageing parents live with their children's families), old people are financially abandoned--they are penniless.  Anthropologists treat each case differently.  They blame government, society, modernity, patriarchy, etc.

If a comparative study is done, a universal pattern is obvious--abandonment due to limited resources available and limited economic participation and contribution.  We don't need big theories to discern that.  Anthropologists are equipped with ethnography to study how a universal pattern manifests or becomes either simple or complex in a culture.  They can study the extent of this pattern.  Is this observable in the marginalization of the poor that have no economic and political voices?  Is this observable in the banishment and ostracism in a community?  Is this observable among children when they group themselves to play basketball and reject the weak or unskilled?

Yes, I believe there are common patterns and universal elements in all cultures.  There are natural laws in society and culture, and anthropologists should be unearthing those.  Such laws should influence or even govern  us when we study culture the way physicists operate with natural laws of the physical universe in mind.      

Izabel

Soon you will declare that  there  are existing even universal anthriopological laws the same as natural laws such as the law of gravity. This positivism a la Comte frightens me. Maybe you suggest  to rename  social sciences SOCIAL PHYSICS and  especially  cultural anthropology  CULTURAL PHYSICS ? This effort to transplant natural  laws to the culture is not tsking under consideration the unpredicted human factor. Except if we consider the human as a potential engine or robot dressed to execute programs prepared in some laboratory. Brave New World  is coming and  all the Skinner's behaviorism. Better  to reread some of Durkheim and leave cultural antrhopology to it's unscientific peace. Otherwise why not to turn all of us to ..sociobiologists or ..culturobiologists .. 

Hi, Nikos.

I'm not into the simple application of physical laws in the study of culture, since it will only be analogical, symbolic, and metaphorical.  My belief in universal patterns and natural laws in culture is based on the fact that all humans have the same brain structures that control behavior, fear, aggression, sensory perception, emotional response, visual process, etc.  Humans are natural animal.  Society, community, culture are all ecologies.

The interplay of supply, demand, and price/value is observable in all cultures.  What's the underlying universal pattern in this phenomenon that happens in several ways?  Is it behavioral or just economic?  Anthropologists superficially focus on how this phenomenon happens, and most of the time the phenomenon is separated from humans when in fact they are at the center of it.  Have you observed how Marxist anthropologists focus on class, production, alienation without really going into why humans do such things or exhibit such behaviors or think and act such ways?  If greed is observable in all cultures, the first question should be why then how.  

If anthropology is the study of (hu)man, is it not imperative that we should look at culture, society, environment as spaces where humans exist and operate not as spatial phenomena where humans are not the core?  Also,  instead of studying colorful dresses and exotic foods of groups, why don't we ask why they dress as such and eat such foods.  Again, are the patterns behavioral or even ecological? Maybe we will find a universal pattern that is also observable among other groups if we don't focus much on the superficial that can easily be observed.  

I don't think digging natural laws and universal patterns will turn anthropologists into sociobiologists.  Underlying universal patterns are not easily observable.  With comparative ethnography, anthropologists can unearth them.  It is also through ethnography, anthropologists will be able to unravel how simple and complex those patterns are.  Some study "nature" or "nurture".  Anthropologists should study both.

Comte, Durkheim, and Positivism

In my reading, Durkheim's (deductive) approach can complete Comte's (inductive).  The inductive can compare sets of data to see if there is a common pattern and from that a generalizing theory/universal law is made.  Another one who is deductive can study that generalizing theory/universal law to find out how it manifests in different ways and across settings.  I don't see any conflict if they are done that way.

Durkheim's approach alone is incomplete.  Now that we know his different kinds of suicide, can we sense a common pattern that will explain why humans commit suicide? Is it economic, psycho-emotional, or even existentialist?  We need Comte's positivism to find that out.  We also need comparative ethnography.

I don't subscribe to the idea that universal patterns and natural laws in society and culture should always be genetic.  That's why Chagnon's biology of violence is interpretive to me.  

This comment of mine in one of the anthropology blogs I visit does not show that universal patterns are always biological:

"I studied tribal war, government-versus-communist rebels conflict, pimps and drug dealers, businessmen and loan sharks, World War 2, Iraq Invasion, gangs, prostitutes, and I saw a common pattern in their wars, conflicts, fights--territoriality and control of resources."

"Viral" may be a mild exaggeration; but if you read the comments, you can see that Razib's position attracted a fair number of folk who agreed with him and published positive assessments in other blogs, etc. 

But, that aside, I think we need to get past the idea that the search for universal laws like those that Newtonian physics appeared to describe before the development of relativity and quantum mechanics is the definitive model for Science with a capital S. As a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and thus a subscriber to Science (the magazine), I observe that very few of the articles it publishes concern the proclamation of new universal laws. Well over 99% concern highly specific results in areas like biochemistry and materials science. The focus is on interactions described in particular and (often literally) microscopic detail. The disciplines of scientific thinking—precise specification and the systematic search for alternative explanations—are applied in ways that better explain the particular facts of the case, as opposed to announcing the discovery of new principles of purportedly universal scope. It is science as Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass, as opposed to Newton examining the rate at which apples fall. 

"I observe that very few of the articles it publishes concern the proclamation of new universal laws. Well over 99% concern highly specific results in areas like biochemistry and materials science."

Is it because most natural laws and universal patterns in those areas have been proclaimed already and have become the  foundations of those disciplines?

The good thing with natural laws and universal patterns (fundamentals) is that it is easy to reject assumptions and interpretations because of the fundamentals. If assumptions and interpretations  don't fit to the fundamentals, they are false, invalid, and problematic.

An ecologist cannot easily claim that the extinction of a certain specie has no effect on an ecosystem because such claim denies the natural law in ecology that states "Everything is connected to everything else."

It's the same thing with mathematics.  If a proof defies the fundamentals, it is questionable.

In anthropology, we can write or say just about anything and connect it to culture without worrying if there are fundamentals about culture that can easily unravel our false assumptions and invalid interpretations.  For God's sake, we don't even have an exact general definition of culture.     

  

   



John McCreery said:

 

But, that aside, I think we need to get past the idea that the search for universal laws like those that Newtonian physics appeared to describe before the development of relativity and quantum mechanics is the definitive model for Science with a capital S. As a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and thus a subscriber to Science (the magazine), I observe that very few of the articles it publishes concern the proclamation of new universal laws. Well over 99% concern highly specific results in areas like biochemistry and materials science. The focus is on interactions described in particular and (often literally) microscopic detail. The disciplines of scientific thinking—precise specification and the systematic search for alternative explanations—are applied in ways that better explain the particular facts of the case, as opposed to announcing the discovery of new principles of purportedly universal scope. It is science as Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass, as opposed to Newton examining the rate at which apples fall. 

 

John

 

The magnifying glass of Serloc Holmes suggests an  analytical  approach in science and  on the facts of murder that he was investigating and since he acted as  a chemist  ( as created by Conal Doyl ), his method was the best to approach and REVEAL the secret detail that could bring him closer to the criminal person that Scotland Yards' officers could not afford. His  scientific approach consisted of  the  UNDERSTANDING  a sort of Weberian verstehen of the unclear human deed and to find out the TRUE CRIMINAL  out of a small but crucial detail. But of course he had to proceed  in a sort of synthesis of his data collected in order to conclude.  Combining the elementary  with the unusual he could be sure of his results . Later , Agatha Cristie put Poirot to work his gray genes to make analogous synthesis of  data collected ( sometimes  by his helpers).

Science must not be distanciated of this paradigm of methodology. To claim that one discovered universal laws is an arrognant statement and it's intention tends to the sphere of ridicule or extreme naivety. If  humans are  unique and different from each other, what is this claim of homogenization under '' cultural '' or ''social''  laws  the  same  as physical ?  Cultural  anthropologists who proceed  in some conclusions of rituals or social behavior of tribesmen  studied , are not  far from the Serloc Holmes'  analytical-- synthetic scientific model described above. But it should be erroneous to state that they discovered by this way   universal laws. Even Levi Strauss the  father of structuralism  admitted  that  his  structural model even  aided by mathematics and linguistical methods ( Jakobson ) was  not  interpretative of universal phenonena. His attentive to compare myths Bororo of Amazonas with  Oedipus myth, fell in the vacuum of scientific imagination. But cultural anthropologists who studied after him the social conditions and exceptional cultures of the Amazonian tribes spending years while living amidst them ,could use their conclusions to help these peoples to live free and could influence even goverments to respect their indigenous rights. I consider that the invention of terms like ETHNOCIDE and ETHNOCENTRISM by these cultural anthripologists or ethnologists ( as called in french)  was much more SCIENTIFIC   strictu sensu  that the famous  ''elementary structures of  kinship'' as invented  and described by Levi Strauss. After  all,  these  efforts  helped  better to our  understanding  of these DIFFERENT  cultures  than any structuralism. In opposition,''Tristes  tropiques ''of Levi Strauss is  an exception of  his  ''scientific work'', as a more  literate nostalgic approach to the otherness  and  for this  stays still important  diachronically inspiring new generations of cultural anthropologists and laymen with interests in the culture of the Others.

A field  like ethnomusicology could approach these cultures by computerazed and mathematical models  ? What synthesis  could these moidels afford ? Can music be quantified  ?  So, how can culture ? Serloc Holmes  was  searching the  well hidden  murderer by the best scientific  method of analysis- synthesis , and cultural  anthropologists are searching the hidden Other  by analogous methods.

I should rather suggest  to that  arrognant neophyte  Razib ( and all his likes ) to read some stories of Serloc Holmes , it could help him to develop his own personal poor human culture ( elementary my dear Watson ) sold out for a pocketful of ''scientific'' marbles

M

You wrote :

In anthropology, we can write or say just about anything and connect it to culture without worrying if there are fundamentals about culture that can easily unravel our false assumptions and invalid interpretations.  For God's sake, we don't even have an exact general definition of culture.     

And I ask  you :  For God's  sake ( your God ? mine ? Who's  God's sake ?)  Do we  have an exact general definition of the way YOU are  thinking  to write these lines ?  If no , then how you can expect to have general definition of culture  ? I am afraid  that the search of fundamentals in culture is a search of a phantom that never  existed but in the memory or imagination of  some fans of the spooky things. ( elementary dear M, elementary)

"For God's sake" is an idiomatic phrase, Nikos.  I learned that in kindergarten.  

There are a lot of fundamentals in culture that anthropologists either ignore or deny, so they can do whatever they want with anthropology.  Let me give you an example.  I speak three languages and three dialects.  It is obvious to me that language is dynamic and it goes with culture change.  "Unfriend" is now a word because of Facebook and our digital culture that were non-existent when I was a kid (I grew up in the boondocks).

The general statement about language being dynamic and changing according to culture change is a universal pattern.  Linguistic anthropologists will consider that as a fact.  If it were a fundamental law in language and culture, anthropologists in the 70's could have detected early the Tasaday Hoax. The Tasaday could not be an isolated stone-age tribe simply because their language/dialect contained agricultural words/terms related to planting and harvesting, and they supposedly only hunted and gathered.

If you understand my example, you will appreciate the beauty of cultural universals and fundamentals.

http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/archive/permalink/the_stone-age_...

http://articles.latimes.com/1990-01-08/local/me-63_1_stone-age

      







M Izabel said:

"I observe that very few of the articles it publishes concern the proclamation of new universal laws. Well over 99% concern highly specific results in areas like biochemistry and materials science."


Is it because most natural laws and universal patterns in those areas have been proclaimed already and have become the  foundations of those disciplines?


The good thing with natural laws and universal patterns (fundamentals) is that it is easy to reject assumptions and interpretations because of the fundamentals. If assumptions and interpretations  don't fit to the fundamentals, they are false, invalid, and problematic.


An ecologist cannot easily claim that the extinction of a certain specie has no effect on an ecosystem because such claim denies the natural law in ecology that states "Everything is connected to everything else."


It's the same thing with mathematics.  If a proof defies the fundamentals, it is questionable.


In anthropology, we can write or say just about anything and connect it to culture without worrying if there are fundamentals about culture that can easily unravel our false assumptions and invalid interpretations.  For God's sake, we don't even have an exact general definition of culture.     
  




  

I hate to say this, but Izabel you seem to lack a proper understanding of the scientific method. There is no such thing as fundamental in science. There is no underlying, lynch-pin element. There are things that have mountains of evidence in their favor. And as new, contradictory evidence appears in proper amount then these older theories undergo revision or are dissolved. And if they last a hundred years or more, with the proper amount of testing, they become laws, and even 'laws' can be violated.

For instance, as you approach zero degrees Kelvin fluids start to violate the principles of gravity. This doesn't mean that the data should be discarded due to violating a fundamental of the field, instead, as all theories are, it requires further testing and a 'newer' theory adopted (like Gravity 2.0).

It is only in public opinion that science is ever a place that is non-volatile, not haphazard, and lacking political intrique. ALL fields have large amounts of contradictory theoretical paradigms. Especially in programs that push the limits of the field.

Psychology, which is a bit younger than anthropology as an academic discipline not only has contradictory paradigms, it has a whole paradigm that is openly recognized as being complete bunk (psychoanalysis)!

Anthropology is overly broad because the older definitions of culture, society, civilization were not broad enough. The test of time has expanded our fields vision to incorporate new data. Should we stop being any sort of science and turn away data simply because it doesn't fit our 'definition?'

And yes, you can write anything to support anything. That's true in any field, but what's important is when it undergoes critical scrutiny. Nothing exists in vacuum, and in scientific literature it is easy to be buried underneath much more valid models, paradigms, and theories.


P.S. For a more solid definition of culture (if that's your poison), maybe you should look at the Prins' Barrel Model. I think that both describes and defines culture in a 'fundamental' way for anthropologists.





  

   

Aareon, scientific disciplines are peppered with fundamental laws.  Even mathematics has laws taught in elementary.   If you read my comments, you will not find a statement that considers universal patterns and fundamental laws as universal facts.  Universal patterns and fundamental laws are used for methodology.  In high school Physics, the first thing I learned was the difference between a fact and a law.  Your concern is about the universalisation of facts.

Here's the clearest definition of law in science:

  • Law: A descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances.

http://ncse.com/evolution/education/definitions-fact-theory-law-sci...

A  law should be looked at within its framework.  Newton's law of  gravitation is only applicable in weak gravitational fields. He did not study superfluidity, so why would you use his law in the context of superfluidity (of Helium, for example)?  Newton's laws should be understood and applied  according to how Newton formulated his theories, considered  factors, and framed circumstances.  

The laws of supply and demand only hold true when you talk about price, supply,and demand.  If you add other variables such as taste, preference, state regulation, and  other external factors, those laws do not always apply. Fundamental laws are not universal facts.

If the idea that language is dynamic and changes according to culture change is a fundamental law in the study of language and culture, you should treat that dynamism of language in relation to culture change.  You cannot apply that "law" to an isolated tribe in the Amazon (if there still is) that has been speaking the same language their ancestors spoke.

Even superfluids behave  according to the  fundamentals (not necessarily laws) found in quantum physics.  A  good example is  the quantum uncertainty principle significant in the study/measurement of atomic and sub-atomic particles.  Pauli's exclusion principle and Einstein-Bose condensate are used as fundamental bases for fermions and bosons (helium-3 is a fermion and helium-4 is a boson).

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