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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First off, I'm just going to go ahead and say the term 'fundamental' is unappealing to me. To describe something as fundamental makes it sound more solid than it really is. And I have never seen the term used to describe scientific principles, laws, or theories in any paper or class I've studied post-high school. Well, outside of papers that are 60-100 years old. I might have seen the term used then.

If we were to go back 150 years ago the scientific and mathematical 'fundamentals' then would be different than what they are now. We might even get to overhear the mutationist vs evolutionist debates (evolution being a 'fundamental' principle then and now).

As well, what's 'fundamental' is almost always subjective. What's fundamental in mathematics will change based on whether you're in the 6th grade or an abstract mathematician with a PhD.

Additionally, I don't think cultural anthropology lacks 'fundamental' general theory. The problem is that unlike most of the 'hard' sciences cultural anthropology can't do any real lab testing. Everything we deal with is black-box in nature. And that does mean that the establishment of general laws and theories will take longer than in most of the other sciences.

And I wouldn't agree that the 'isolated' Amazonian tribe would be immune to culture change and shifts in language due to culture change. Rather I would state that the tribe likely has been experiencing cultural and linguistic shifts steadily overtime, but these shifts haven't been recorded, and likely have been ignored by the tribe itself. To top this off, just because the tribe hasn't had contact with a state-level society doesn't mean that their way of life has not been impacted by state-level societies. Isolated does not mean vacuum.

P.S. The framework which you mention doesn't exist until contradictions to established laws and theories present themselves. The way you talk about 'fundamental' theories and laws makes it sound like we should reject anything contrary to the fundamentals. This is never the case in any scientific discipline. Anything contradictory warrants repeat experimentation and further testing. I brought up superfluids due to your usage of the term 'fundamental' to illustrate a case where rejection, rather than repeat testing, would have prevented progress in physics.

Fundamental law (in science)?  Google it, you'll see the frequency of its usage.  Here's one I found in a JSTOR paper written in 1953:  Leonardo Da Vinci and the Fundamental Laws of Science.

 Fundamentals are solid under stated conditions and considered circumstances.  How can a fundamental be subjective when it is a consistent result of repeated observations and experimentations that try to be objective?

Cultural anthropology should do experiments and even lab tests but anthropologists ignore those or they don't have skills to conduct them.  DNA tests and genetic analyses can be used in kinship, intermarriage, migration, early trade/exchange of plants and live stocks, community-specific diseases, but I don't think cultural anthropologists are taught how to do such tests.  There are anthropologists though who somewhat understand genetics and use it in their interpretations/analyses that, oftentimes, come out shallow.      

Culture and behavior are inseparable.  Experimental psychologists have been doing lab studies but their focuses are in cognitive processes, clinical psychology, and psychobiology/neurobiology.  Cultural anthropologists can do them too considering culture, social psychology, and cognitive processes (language behavior, for example), but they don't do them.  It’s not that they can't.  Maybe there are some whom we haven't heard of yet.  I suspect some Russian anthropologists are into laboratory works because I sometimes read about cultural/social anthropology labs in Russia.    

The Amazonian tribe was hypothetical.  If there are isolated tribes that haven't gone culture change and linguistic shift, the dynamism of language according to culture change does not apply.  If you believe that culture change is inevitable/unavoidable even if a community/tribe is extremely isolated, do some comparative ethnographic and historical cultural studies.  Maybe that is a fundamental law in culture anthropologists haven't agreed upon yet.  

My assumption is that culture change does not only happen when two cultures meet and when a community opens up to outsiders or insiders go out from their culture.  Change in ecological and social conditions within the community/tribe can also induce culture change.  If a lake suddenly dries up and fishermen suddenly become farmers, that is a culture change in their economy.  Maybe their language will adapt to the change by adding words and meanings related to planting and harvesting.         

If there is a case that follows a stated/considered condition but defies what a fundamental law says, it is problematic.  If there is a case beyond the stated/considered condition and defies a fundamental law, that law is not applicable to that case beyond its scope.  A law is not a general description of a whole.  It is not a universal fact that you can apply everywhere and to everything.  Newton's laws do not explain or prove everything in physics.

I like using fundamental law in relation to society and culture, because natural law seems biological, ecological, genetic, and evolutionary to me.  If we treat culture as a matter of nature, everything is biological/genetic, and I think that should not always be the case. 

Most members of my family are either doctors or engineers.  They try hard to be objective in their practices of science.  The doctors stick to the fundamentals of medicine, the case studies available, and the lab results they don't subjectively or personally interpret, so they can give correct diagnoses and medicines.  The engineers stick to the fundamentals of material science, so the structures they construct won't collapse.   I wonder why non-practitioners of science are so into denying scientific facts and fundamentals.  Why are they so into uncertainty of scientific facts?  Extreme/total revision in science seldom happens now because science has not been under the control of philosophy and theology for quite some time.  The scientific breakthroughs I read, most of the time, add knowledge not negate the existing ones.        

I suspect you are into science studies. Maybe this one written by one of the founders of the discipline will help:

"Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “‘the lack of scientific certainty’” inherent in the construction of facts.  I too made it a “‘primary issue.’” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast? In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?"

Latour (2003)

All  the misunderstanding  in this discussion is  because M confuses what AXIOME is  when naming it fundamentals. The very etymology of the term AXIOME leads to a certain value (  axia= value in greek)

M, the quote from Latour is very apt. It reminds me of a comment by Zygmunt Bauman to the effect that critique, having demolished old barriers and created a space for freedom, must now reconstruct the forum in which rational debate is possible. 

I also agree, however, with the thrust of Nikos' remark. Your remarks reek of scientism, the mistaken belief that one can get to the bottom of things by the application of proper method, as opposed to science, the endless quest for better approximations to reality. 

I recall once again Noam Chomsky's description of three views of science conceived as black boxes.

  1. The discovery procedure, for which the input is facts and the output is truth
  2. The decision procedure, for which the input is facts and a single theory and the output is a judgment, right or wrong
  3. The evaluation procedure, for which the input is facts and at least two theories and the output a tentative conclusion that, given these facts, one theory is better than another.

Scientism naively embraces the first model, assuming that if we only get our methods right we will know the whole and unvarnished truth. Following Chomsky, I prefer three, and the modest belief that through systematic research for counterexamples to our theories we can gradually develop better ones. Truth is the grail, or perhaps better, the Dao as described in the Dao De Jing: the Dao that can be named is not the true Dao. We search for truth, but the best we can do is find the love described in the lyric, "If this isn't love, it will have to do, until the real thing comes along." 

Nikos, read the basic stuff first before posting a careless comment.


Axiom is rarely used  in science because science is mostly inductive.  Axiom is common in mathematics because mathematics is deductive.  Here's the dictionary definition of axiom:



[ak-see-uhm]  Show IPA



1. a self-evident truth that requires no proof.


2. a universally accepted principle or rule.


3. Logic, Mathematics . a proposition that is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it.




If you want to know more about laws in science, read this high  school material:  



The problem is the preoccupation of non-scientists or those who are anti-science on the uncertainty of scientific facts and replaceability/negation of scientific laws.  Can you tell me if there has been a scientific law that has been totally proven wrong since the time of Einstein? A scientific law can only be negated or disproved if it is no longer observable since it is based on repetitive observations and experiments. Do you think that's easy?


There are laws, however, that are proven to be incomplete or not applicable in a different condition, but those laws are still considered to be true because they are still applicable and observable in a limited way.


"So you might ask, if theories are so well supported, do they eventually become laws? The answer is no – not because they aren’t well-supported, but because theories and laws are two very different things. Laws describe phenomena, often mathematically. Theories, however, explain phenomena. For example, in 1687 Isaac Newton proposed a Theory of Gravitation, describing gravity as a force of attraction between two objects. As part of this theory, Newton developed a Law of Universal Gravitation that explains how this force operates. This law states that the force of gravity between two objects is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between those objects. Newton’s Law does not explain why this is true, but it describes how gravity functions (see our Gravity: Newtonian Relationshipsmodule for more detail). In 1916, Albert Einstein developed his theory of general relativity to explain the mechanism by which gravity has its effect. Einstein’s work challenges Newton’s theory, and has been found after extensive testing and research to more accurately describe the phenomenon of gravity. While Einstein’s work has replaced Newton’s as the dominant explanation of gravity in modern science, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation is still used as it reasonably (and more simply) describes the force of gravity under many conditions. Similarly the Law of Faunal Succession developed by William Smith does not explain whyorganisms follow each other in distinct, predictable ways in the rock layers, but it accurately describes the phenomenon."



AIDS denialists believe that HIV does not cause AIDS because they  deny the certainty of scientific facts and fundamental  laws and principles in Medicine.  Do you know how many South Africans died because of that denial?


I stick to what my pediatrician sister said after reading this discussion:  "If I defy fundamental laws and principles in medicine, a lot of babies in my care will die.  Will those fundamental laws and principles be changed soon?  I don't  think so.  I still see their validity and implications everyday at work.  Maybe it will happen if the physiology and anatomy of humans will change. Do you know how long it takes for a human organ to evolve?"

Maybe you guys think fundamental laws and principles are theories.  Fundamental laws and principles are particularly specialized that they are just parts of theories.  Yes, theories can be superseded, proven incomplete, and disproved  and negated.

List of superseded  theories:


Definition of theory in science:

  • Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.


I'm  done with this  discussion.  So basic.

Which is more scientific, to cite authorities or consider the range of methods described as "scientific" empirically, to see where anthropology might or might not fit on the map of possibilities that the research reveals?

Scientific methods, most of the time, try to be objective and empirical.  I use "most of the time" because there are greedy, deceitful scientists who subjectively design, influence,and alter their studies to have results they want.  But such results don't usually stand because other scientists will check and check their validity through repeated experiments.  That's why the certainty of scientific laws is solid because before they became laws numerous experiments and observations were done to validate them. How can you question the certainty of Laws of Thermodynamics when lab studies/research after lab studies/research have validated them?  Laws are not claimed but observed.  Claimed laws don't last; observed laws do.     

To cite authorities is a research method.  I  don't think there is a scientific way in citation.  Citation also happens in literature and humanities.  If using a program that automatically directs one to footnotes where one can do his citation is scientific because it it computational, then citation can be scientific--but a stretch. The question should be if citing authorities is objective and empirical.  If one uses an entire text or a part of it as what it is, then it is objective.  Objectivity also  happens when one  treats a material as something that objectively exists--autonomous from someone's cultural, social, linguistic backgrounds.  Einstein writings exist independently--my catholic faith, Asian background, and social experience have no influence or control over them.  If one sees/reads those texts as what they are, then that seeing/reading is empirical.  Can one experience a text?  I think so.  People say Einstein wrote this because of the text he wrote.  Experience and evidence are present.

Can anthropologists do what scientists have been trying to do--objectivity and empiricism?  Can we treat the existence of a cultural phenomenon objectively--that its existence is autonomous from our language, perception, background, even interpretation?  Can we see and observe it empirically--without resorting to interpretive thinking?  Does social construction prevent us from being objective and empirical?  Are we really prisoners of who and what we are?  Is hermeneutics—our interpretive study of theoretical texts--the culprit why anthropology will never be objective and empirical?  

Objectivity and empiricism? Yes, we can—within limits. There lies the rub. We observe that in the same objective circumstances, human individuals behave in different ways. Political battles are a good example. Why? They see the situation differently. The national debt, for instance, may be seen as either a threat or a good investment, a club with which to beat the opposition or a topic for rational debate about how much debt, incurred for what reasons, constitutes a good investment. But how to we know that people "see the situation differently." They may tell us. But we know that politicians often speak evasively. Some may even lie. So we watch what they do as well as listen to what they say and infer motives that are not openly displayed. We interpret what they say and do. Our interpretations may prove wildly inaccurate or be spot on. That is where the objective and empirical facts come in. We examine means and opportunity and examine the wider context in search of possible motives. Only when means, opportunity and motive converge and circumstantial evidence supports our conclusion are we reasonably confident that what we infer is correct. 

Fundamental laws are important, but so are circumstances. Consider, for example, a problem I confront in my own research. I know (1) that the mathematics of social network analysis predict that above a certain scale and density social networks will contain a single giant component whose nodes are linked by at least one path. I am also familiar with the theory (2) that Japanese industries tend to be organised in terms of keiretsu, vertically integrated groups of suppliers and distributors that resemble feudal domains. I also know (3) that the Japanese advertising world is dominated by two major agencies, Dentsu and Hakuhodo.  Superficially speaking, (1) and (2) are contradictory. Given the scale of my data and (1) I expect to find a single giant component. I do. But given (3) I would expect to find at least two large discrete clusters. I don't. Does this mean that the keiretsu theory is wrong? I know from ethnography, i.e., personal experience in the industry, that there are freelancers and employees of TV production companies who work on projects for both Dentsu and Hakuhodo. I return to my data and develop techniques for determining how many there are. Based on my data, over 90% of the individuals whose careers are study work only for a single agency group. The giant component turns out to be only a thin veil, obscuring the presence of the largely—but not completely— discrete clusters that the keiretsu theory predicts. 

To me, this research is empirical, objective science. But its goal is not to discover new fundamental laws. It is, instead, to closely examine how what are asserted to be fundamental laws, of network analysis and Japanese industrial organisation respectively, apply to a particular historical case and open the way for further research, e.g., on the question whether the proportion of those who work on projects for more than one agency has changed over time and, if so, why.

From another perspective, moreover, these results are only a context within which to interpret data gathered from published comments and interviews with key figures in my networks. They inform my interpretations of what I see and hear as I try to explore what the changes over time that interest me have meant to individuals centrally involved in them. Conversely, what they tell me takes me back to my data and mathematical tools in search of evidence to confirm or challenge what they say.

Objective, empirical, interpretive: It is all science to me.


"Human individuals behave in different ways."


That should be a fundamental law in anthropology.  It does not mean total relativism though as it only talks about behavior.  Purchasing is a universal pattern in all societies that use money.  But it is practiced in several ways that are behavioral since preference is involved when one purchases.  Some physically hoard supply.  Others pre-buy or do layaway.  Purchasing as acquisition of goods (and services) in an economy does not change. The essence, which is buying, remains the same.  I know my examples are simple, but there are many complex examples out there that are observable. 


“Our interpretations may prove wildly inaccurate or be spot on. That is where the objective and empirical facts come in.”


All examples you gave only show the plural situations and different manifestations of a cultural phenomenon.  In anthropology, we directly go to that relative plurality and difference and feel secure with relativism without checking if there are underlying patterns in these situations and manifestations--the different manifestations of debt, for example, or the different situations where political battle occurs. I seldom see anthropological studies that use comparative ethnography (comparative case/lab/research study in science).  Is relativism the reason why comparative ethnography is not yet a staple in anthropology and the universal patterns of culture are ignored?  There’s already a published book about universal patterns.  I wonder why it has not caused an academic debate yet.  Who can deny the fact that all societies, communities, groups, cultures have languages.  That’s a universal pattern right there.  It’s observable.


If you interpret a set of data using facts that are empirical, then your interpretation is empirical.  When my sister saw my clinical lab result, she noticed my elevated white blood cell count. She interpreted that as a presence of infection in my body.  Before making that interpretation, she asked me if I was stressed out or if I worked out before my blood was drawn . She asked me too about the results of my previous general checkup to know if I was generally healthy.  I went to my doctor and found out, indeed, I had an infection that was easily treatable with antibiotics.

Why was my sister correct?  It was due to her interpretation of the clinical lab data that was anchored on irrefutable empirical facts, which have been observed and validated again and again in Medicine.  The fact that stress, working out, infection and diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis, leukemia, immune system disorders elevate white blood cell count is a fundamental fact in Medicine.  I don't know if the statement that white blood cell count goes up to fight infection is a principle or law in the study of infectious diseases, but it is an observable fact in medicine that can't easily be falsified, negated, or disproved.     

Now let's check how interpretation is commonly done in anthropology.  Yes, we observe and gather data. If we gather everything we see and are not selective of the data to gather, our data-gathering is objective. If we observe things  as what they are (example, a red apple on the dining table being a red apple--a fruit-- not as the sin of Eve or the designed symbol used by a tech company), then that's empiricism.  

We know how anthropologists selectively gather data so their chosen theories will work.  In that instance, the data-gathering is subjective.  They then use those theories in their interpretations of the gathered data.  Is the theory-based interpretation empirical?  It is only empirical if the theory is based on observable facts and has been observed again and again to be true and valid.  Do you think what Bourdieu or Foucault wrote are strong in objectivity and empiricism.  I'll argue they’re not.  They are full of assumptions, conjectures, and opinions that are vague and difficult to ascertain.  Read Foucault's concept of power, and tell me if it is not based on who and what he was and what he thought and believed in.  Is Bourdieu’s “habitus” observable or is it just a coined term/concept?  In science, sets--including supersets and subsets--exist as structures.  What is habitus really?       


It seems to me that most anthropologists subjectively and selectively gather data and interpret those data using theories that are full of assumptions, opinions and conjectures that need further interpretations. When will the interpretation stop?  In science, factual/empirical laws, principles, and rules are so clear that no further interpretation is needed.     


So what am I saying here?  Anthropologists should unearth universal patterns of culture, do comparative ethnography, and find out if there are underlying fundamental laws, rules, or principles that are common among all unique manifestations, situations, and conditions of cultural phenomena.  Again, the laws of supply and demand are observable in all markets, societies, economies that use money.  The laws and their consequences manifest differently in different situations and with different conditions.  Anthropologists should be studying those differences in reference to the laws.  Maybe, if they can do that, they won’t need the pseudo-empirical French theories anymore.  Look at Economics and how economists rely on economic principles, laws, and rules in their studies.  I still have to read a paper in Economics peppered with Postmodern concepts that is taken seriously by real economists--those who do empirical stuff and  serious Economics.      

M Izabel said:


I still have to read a paper in Economics peppered with Postmodern concepts that is taken seriously by real economists--those who do empirical stuff and  serious Economics.    


Sorry , but why not to claim economics  (and especially posdtmodern economics) a pseudo science the  same as your hated  French bla bla theorists , since a economic  theory of yesterday cannot absolutely interprete  the facts of today and all the Nobel prized economists  like Rubini, Krugman and the  rest,  cannot even approach in their writings  what  tomorrow  will happen to the markets ? See what  they preview about the national debts  of South European countries and how erroneous are their predictions . Why to take them  for serious ? Is that a rational science  or a focus pocus ? Maybe Siberian shamans can more easily treat a mortal disease  than these economists can resolve a national debt crisis . You can say  that they have to face toooo many data  and their computers are  almnost explosed from the overloading material they feed them  but  as some  old  villagers  say  : THE RESULT COUNTS FINALLY

I expected you to criticize limited assumptions and simplified models in Economics.  You have to remember assumptions and models, logical and empirical  or otherwise, are mostly created and used by economists who are into making/formulating economic theories.  Theories, of course, are not absolute truths; they can be incomplete, exaggerated, limited, and false. Why do theoretical economists use assumptions?  I believe it is due to their use of deductive mathematics that is peppered with many logical assumptions.  That's why we read "let x be" "or if and only if x is" or "assuming x is" before proceeding to equations. Aren't those assumptions in mathematics?  Even though theoretical economists assume, they try to support those assumptions with calculations and computational models. They are not based on nothing.

What I was talking about in my last comment were those empirical economists who do qualitative and quantitative studies and use empirical economic principles and laws in their interpretations.  Those who have sets of data they use for their calculated and statistically analyzed  interpretations.  Those who go back to the fundamental principles of economics to be empirical.  There are parts of economics that are not based on assumptions.  Those equations also used  in Finance are observable.  How can you say this equation, Profit = Revenue - Cost, is not empirical and based on assumptions.  It is practiced and observable.  One of the fundamental principles of economics is Law of Diminishing Returns, which is empirical and observable in any system of production.  How can you question its validity?

I believe scientific methods are not fully understood or correctly grasped by those people who doubt scientific facts.  Example, a theory in science is rigorously studied, validated, and verified again and again before it is generally accepted.  Our common usage of "theory" in our daily lives and conversations is speculative.  Speculative theories in science don't last.  They are immediately ridiculed.  If you have a scientific  theory, you need to support them with facts to be taken seriously.  Einstein's Theory of Relativity has been proven to be true and valid again and again, and that's why it is still being  used in Physics.  If in the future it is falsified, of course,  it will be rejected, but I  doubt it will happen.  Atomic bomb proves his theory.  How can it be false?         

Here's a good reading about prior assumptions in Economics--that "rationality implies the common prior assumptions," for  example.  


Those assumptions and reasons for assuming will vanish in economics if economists consider ethnography instead of mathematics in their methods.  As I said before, economic anthropologists  can do  what economists ignore and don't want to do.  All they need now is to have a solid background in empirical economics. 

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