Rex has just published another intriguing post, Human nature: it's not what you think. This takes off from a long post by Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology, a consistently innovative and stimulating blog, on the urgent need to brand anthropology. Greg takes his lead in turn from an article in American Anthropologist last year by my old friend, Ulf Hannerz, 'Diversity is our business'. I find all this activity very encouraging, so I do not apologize for revisiting in this context a theme which has already been featured at the OAC recently, the question of human nature. See here and here.

So I posted a comment on Rex's piece which I reproduce here in the hope that it might draw your attention to these other discussions and perhaps launch another phase of our own.

 

It’s great that Savage Minds is sticking with the theme of what anthropology is all about and the return to human nature as our discipline’s object is particularly gratifying to me.

I have long preferred to bypass the 19th century as the immediate source of modern anthropology in order to concentrate on its roots in the 18th century, in the liberal revolution as promoted by Rousseau and Kant. After all, the basic structure of Morgan’s argument comes straight from the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality among Men and Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View was a best-seller aimed at the general public as well as the first systematic account of our discipline.

The liberal Enlightenment invented anthropology as a means towards a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. They conceived of existing society as being founded on arbitrary social distinctions and studied human nature in order to base an equal society on what all people share. Hence the term ‘natural rights’ was the precursor of human rights today.

The word ‘nature’ has changed a lot since then. For us it implies biology and stands opposed to culture. But for Rousseau or Goethe, nature meant that which has become, has finished becoming and can no longer change or be changed (the main property of life).

I am struck by the fact that Ulf, Greg and Rex all want to brand anthropology as the study of diversity. Difference as a slogan is so 20th century. We wouldn’t be interested in other people unless they were different, but we couldn’t study them unless they were the same. So surely we have to put some effort into identifying what human beings have in common?

If anthropologists don’t want to contribute to the formation of world society, harping only on a retro preoccupation with human difference, who else will? Whatever human nature is not, there should be some mileage in discovering what it is. Our brand should be sameness in difference or the other way round.

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Ulf Hannerz' version seems quite close to yours, Keith:

 

"I like to think of anthropology as a cosmopolitan discipline... On the one hand, there is a concern with humanity as a whole and its condition—a moral and at times political engagement with community, society, and citizenship at a more or less global level. On the other hand, cosmopolitanism involves an awareness, and often an appreciation, of diversity in meanings and meaningful forms. These two faces may appear separately from one another: one may often be a cosmopolitanism with a worried face, trying to come to grips with very large problems, while the other is perhaps more often a cosmopolitanism with a happy face, enjoying new sights, sounds, tastes, people. At best, however, I think there is an affinity between them, and it should not be hard to find this kind of double cosmopolitanism among anthropologists."

I agree that posed in this way we start from a similar premise: a dialectic of sameness and difference. But Ulf's title privileges diversity and the other two posts that triggered mine do so too. I guess my assumption is that difference has been instituted as the experience of society in national terms, leaving human universals hard to conceptualize. Moreover, after a century of celebrating cultural difference, anthropologists tend to view universals as the bad guys: mainstream economics, sociolobiology etc. So I would claim that a special effort is needed for us to get beyond our default position. Put another way, "Diversity is our business" implies that some people normally think otherwise, namely, "everyone is like us". But someone like Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that globalization has reinforced identity politics: the more we get to know each other, the more we want to accentuate our differences. In this context, Ulf's first sense of anthropology as a search for moral unity at the global level seems to be harder to achieve than the opposite presumption. This leads me to suggest that some anthropologists at least need to push the search for what human beings have in common higher up our agenda. But of course, it would be just as one-sided to leave it there without asking how that sameness plays as variety.
Keith, the problem as now posed pits diversity against human nature, conceived as universal. Could it be that there is also a middle ground to explore, in that intellectual space where Robert Merton positioned mid-range theory? Selfishly, I think of the process by which my book on Japanese consumer behavior came to be written and the conclusions it reached at the end.

It all began with noticing a difference. While I was working at Hakuhodo, Japan's second largest advertising agency, every three or four weeks there appeared on my desk the latest issue of an internal newsletter called the Seikatsu Shimbun (Lifestyle Times). Sometimes it was a tiny booklet. Sometimes it folded out into an A3 size poster. The topics, the art, the language were also constantly changing. It struck me that, conceived as a material form of knowledge, it precisely inverted the conventions of the academic journal in which every issue conforms to the prescribed style and looks like every other—in effect a material representation of knowledge conceived as the accumulation of standardized units, like cans of Campbell's soup rolling off an assembly line. In contrast, the newsletter seemed postmodern. Every issue was individually designed—a beautiful representation of a new, more playful and transient kind of knowledge that might be labeled "being in the know." And that transient quality, combined with the playful manipulation of folding of the paper on which the newsletter was printed, also seemed very Japanese, reminiscent of cherry blossoms and origami. By the end of the book, which contains translations and commentary on two dozen of the newsletter that both the director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living and I found particularly interesting (a just under 10% sample of the going on 250 studies the institute had conducted when I began working on the book), I had realized that the researchers who produced it were deeply concerned with the same sorts of issues as their peers in other OECD countries: the rise and possible futures of the organization man, the entry of women into the workplace and public spaces, the reshaping of relations between men and women, what's happening to the kids, what will we do with longer lives and protracted retirement, what kinds of spaces will we inhabit. The issues were global, popping up regularly in countries with developed and developing economies. Their local forms were shaped by local conditions. Thus, in one, to me particularly poignant, example, the combination of long hours and long commutes that meant Japanese salaryman fathers were, indeed, largely absent from the lives of their wives and children, much more so than, for instance, those of the American white collar workers described by William F. Whyte in The Organization Man. The descriptions of the issues, the ways in which those involved in them were visualized, and the language used to talk about them were distinctly Japanese; but that, I argued at the end, was not the place to begin in trying to understand what the researchers cared so much about. Working up from the global issues, through the local material conditions, and then exploring the details of cultural difference in response to both was and still seems to me a far more productive approach than than starting from cultural nuance, getting bogged down in cultural difference, and winding up with an analysis that could only be described as Orientalism, rendering the other exotic and, thus, her concerns dismissible.

Perhaps what I am suggesting here is that instead of standing on one side or the other of an imaginary chasm between human nature and cultural difference, we explore the very real social bridges that already connect them in what is, after all, an evermore interconnected and globalized world.

Thanks, John, for this rich example of the same/different dialectic. It is not my aim to emphasize the chasm you refer to. Quite the opposite. Following Kant and Weber, I have always held in the polemical debates of economic anthropology (the Methodenstreit or the formalists vs the substantivists) that what is interesting, even essential, is to see the two sides in relation to each other, as you demonstrate.

My question is, Why argue that the essence of human nature is diversity? If the dialectic is universal, as it were, why pick difference as the selling point? I was responding to Huon's suggestion that Ulf Hannerz and I share a double notion of humanity as both the same and different. Ulf in that quote went on to say that sameness is a problem, but difference is fun. This and the title load the way we approach the pair. If both sides are equal, our attention is directed to one not the other.

I think we visited this scene in our previous discussion of human nature. Where one starts and comes out in the end depends significantly on the initial question. The liberal enlightenment asked on what grounds human beings could build forms of association beyond the boundaries of existing states. If all citizens are to be equal in a democratic society, on what basis can we found that equality? Or to bring it more up to date, if global warming is a problem affecting the planet as a whole, on what grounds and by what means might human beings come together to deal with it?

I don't say that anthropologists must pose such questions, but it would affect their intellectual practices if they did. And I do claim that the profession is biased towards emphasising difference at the expense of sameness. Max Weber resolved the German debate about whether ancient Greek economy was the same or different from the modern version by saying we wouldn't be interested in it unless it was different and couldn't understand it unless it was the same. He proceeded to apply Kant's dialectic of formal and substantive rationality to the capitalist economy.

Merton's theories of the middle range are terrific, but whichever level of society we operate at, we still have to pose clear questions at some stage. In a nutshell, I endorse the logic of the golden mean, aurea mediocritas, as I think you do: if we can identify a dialectical pair, we need to observe their interaction, not pursue one extreme at the expense of the other. If I tend to the universalist extreme, it is because I want to engage people who seem stuck on the other end.

Keith, I do agree that the pendulum has swung too far toward emphasizing difference and fully support the idea of seeking common ground for a shared politics. But relating the differences to the common humanity we share and the different circumstances in which we live as always struck me as the anthropological move par excellence.

John, I would go further than anthropology. Living together requires us to embrace the cultural particularity that is essential to human life rather than trying to efface it. I wrote the following not long ago:

 

What this adds up to is the possible formation of a new human universal. By this I mean making a world where all people can live together, not the imposition of principles that suit some powerful interests at the expense of the rest. The next universal will be unlike its predecessors, the Christian and bourgeois versions through which the West has sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize people’s lives everywhere. The main precedent for such an approach to discovering our common humanity is great literature which achieves universality through going deeply into particular personalities, relations and places. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will be founded on knowing that true human community can only be realized through them.

I like this, Keith: "The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will be founded on knowing that true human community can only be realized through them."

 

I think there is truth in it.  What's happening in the Arab world where freedom and change are aspired and in most of Asia, particularly India and the Philippines, where scams and corruptions are unearthed everyday and the culprits are investigated show our universal hope for freedom, need for change and development, and disdain for corruption.  Also, what Wikileaks is doing is an example of a world system that aims to root out corruptions in different societies.  The Swiss are now forced to have a moral stand on the funds stashed by corrupt tax-evaders and depositors from different countries.  I'm glad to know that there are mini-Wikileaks now in some Asian countries.  Even the Philippines has Pinoyleaks.  "Particulars composing a universal," I think, is a tantalizing idea. 

Keith, could your new regime include the following: equal access for every child to alternatives to the culture into which he and she is born, including the right to opt out of the one into which he or she is born?
OK, it's now knockabout time. But I don't want to play, so I will answer it straight. It's not my new regime, but an expression of one anthropologist's thoughts for others to think about, if they choose to read them at all, which is highly improbable. Jefferson wrote quite eloquently about the difference between equality and equality of opportunity. So did Rousseau. Neither of them used the term culture as a cutting edge concept nor do I. No-one chooses the circumstances they are born into, but what happens next can vary according to social legislation. While I am at it, I will say to Nikos that I do have a yen for being a prophet. I am coming round to the idea that a lifetime spent betting is quite good training for imagining futures. Who knows?

John McCreery said:
Keith, could your new regime include the following: equal access for every child to alternatives to the culture into which he and she is born, including the right to opt out of the one into which he or she is born?

Not knockabout time, a serious question. Especially to a U.S. citizen American like me, whose native mythology celebrates leaving the Old World for the New, the ability of people to say no to the way they were brought up and the social or geographical place in which they were born is more vital a right than that of parents to restrict children's access to influences that might seduce them in other directions besides those their parents have chosen. Choices have to be made. Does universal respect for others mean shutting your eyes to gross racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., because that's what the Romans in question do? Do you celebrate and support someone like Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Bao, or turn a blind eye to his imprisonment because the Chinese government sees him as a threat to public order? Do you stand with Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." or emulate the Pharisee who leaves the fellow in the ditch...especially if he happens to belong to some other tribe, because, after all, "We know what those people are like"?

 

If, like me, you believe that tribes, like corporations, are only artificial persons, and have no inherent human rights, how do you answer questions like this?



Keith Hart said:

OK, it's now knockabout time. But I don't want to play, so I will answer it straight. It's not my new regime, but an expression of one anthropologist's thoughts for others to think about, if they choose to read them at all, which is highly improbable. Jefferson wrote quite eloquently about the difference between equality and equality of opportunity. So did Rousseau. Neither of them used the term culture as a cutting edge concept nor do I. No-one chooses the circumstances they are born into, but what happens next can vary according to social legislation. While I am at it, I will say to Nikos that I do have a yen for being a prophet. I am coming round to the idea that a lifetime spent betting is quite good training for imagining futures. Who knows?

John McCreery said:
Keith, could your new regime include the following: equal access for every child to alternatives to the culture into which he and she is born, including the right to opt out of the one into which he or she is born?


John McCreery said:
If, like me, you believe that tribes, like corporations, are only artificial persons, and have no inherent human rights, how do you answer questions like this?
I think that constitutional democracy is incompatible with granting rights of citizenship to collectives of any kind, whether nations, tribes, churches, parties, corporations or whatever. And of course there are many collectives that don't even pretend to be democracies at all. Then there is the issue of how far political democracy is compatible with great economic inequality, an issue of curbing plutocracy that Jefferson was more sensitive to than the present generation of American politicians or indeed his Federalist opponents, who won on this one. So I believe there is some scope for social democracy too at the level of state guarantees of individuals' social rights. The problem is to identify where the state is in our world, when it comes to instituting freedom and equality. I also believe that the word culture has a lot to answer for when it comes to blurring the distinction between individual and collective rights, not to mention its role in splitting the world up into competing nationalisms.

Keith, you and I are in basic agreement. But I wonder about the others who may be reading these words. How many of them realize that sanctifying cultural difference implies that we raise no objection if individuals find themselves trapped in the groups into which they are born? And makes us complicit with fundamentalists of every stripe, who insist on the state's or parents' rights to control what their children learn or do? 

 

On the other hand, I also worry about the implications of what Zygmunt Bauman calls the liquid phase of modernity. What is it to live in a world where (here the questions are Bauman's): (1) the lifespan of institutions is too short to provide a stable framework for achieving personal projects, let alone addressing global issues; (2) power and politics are divorced, with one shifting to an uncontrollable global sphere while the other remains attached to places too small to encompass and control the forces that affect our lives; (3) "the gradual yet consistent withdrawal or curtailing of communal, state-endorsed insurance against individual failure and ill fortune deprives collective action of much of its past attraction and saps the social foundations of social solidarity"; (4) the collapse of long-term thinking, planning and action fragment both political history and individual lives, rendering such notions as development, maturation, career, or progress emptied of meaning that requires a sense of orderly sequence; and (5) "The virtue proclaimed to serve the individual's interests best is not conformity to rules....but flexibility, a readiness to change tactics and style at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret — and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability"? 

 

(5), I must admit, hits particularly close to the bone for me, since it has been the principle around which I have organized my career and the mechanism by which I have coped, first, with not getting tenure and, second, having to leave the ad agency where I had begun to feel at home. Both have strengthened my attachment to the liberty my ancestors sought when they left the Old World for the New and now almost instinctive revulsion to the notion of allowing any collectivity the right to determine my fate—despite which I remain a social democrat, clinging to the belief that things like public education, universal health care, and social insurance make it possible for children without wealthy and privileged parents to pursue their own dreams. Yes, there is a contradiction here. But it's one that I feel I must embrace and figure out how to deal with. 

 

Can anthropology help me? It already has, by cultivating an open-mindedness and willingness to take modest risks that have worked out well for me. Can it do more for others? Only, I suspect, if its thinking becomes robust and solidly grounded enough to offer improvements on what our predecessors have thought. "Improvements" is the key; rejection based on half-baked critique with no idea what to do next? To me that path seems suicidal.

 

 

 

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