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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Thanks for this impressive comment, John. I delayed answering in case any others might be interested in joining our dialogue.

On your paragraphs, I would only make anecdotal reference to the first. Canada provides an interesting example through the devolution of some political and legal autonomy to First Nations. Some women have appealed to the liberal constitution through federal courts against what they take to be a licence for increased patriarchal rule.

The Bauman characterization of liquid modernity is of course just an ideal type and like any good one it captures some aspects of our situation well, while exaggerating and repressing others. I prefer a set of ideal types which between them can help us to illuminate the complexity of social life. From my place in France, I would dispute his emphasis. Society isn't an object out there: it is relative to our subjective experience.

We all need stability and movement to a varying degree. I don't think a sense of home, loyalty, patriotism, kinship has faded away in favour of opportunism. Maybe there has been some breakdown of intergenerational alliance and my generation has been responsible for a good part of that. But the young also grasp at passing fashions that their teachers may be expected not to know and are not encouraged to accumulate long-term perspectives.

This relates to what anthropology can do. Ernest Gellner used to tell me that it was no good tearing down the edifice of contemporary economics before having an adequate replacement and that is what I am trying to do through the human economy project alond with colleagues in a large and growing international movement. I have hopes that one aspect of the OAC's potential would be to act as a Forum for addressing some of the long-term questions you raise, as well as many other more ephemeral possibilities.

 

@Keith

I have placed an order for The Human Economy. Amazon.co.jp tells me that it should arrive in between one and three weeks. In the meanwhile I will listen to the lecture and keep an ear open as you interact with folks in the Economic Anthropology discussion.

 

@Frank

I wouldn't call this a heavyweight fight; I wouldn't call it a fight at all. But, putting that aside, I do like those three points you take from Tim Ingold,

 

  • culural belonging is about enskillement instead of enculturation.
  • We need aproper view what a discipline is: a not closed-in entitybut a process in which both students and teachers can participate and through their participation, forge a sense of identity and belonging. Who needs interdisciplinarity then? [...] its rather to show that as scholarly conversations, disciplines themselves are ongoing, openended and mutually.
  • What should a graduate student know? is the wrong question. We should be asking not 'what' but 'how'. How should a graduate student know?

A process called enskilling, focused on how to know—that's good. But allow me to add a fourth consideration— occurring at a particular knot in the fabric of the larger conversation that is public life where a number of diverse threads overlap. The question is whether the knot can remain open enough to avoid isolation yet strong enough to hold together, when the world's wind threatens to blow the whole fabric apart. 

Thanks for joining in, Frank. I discovered that, while our translation machine can convert from English into anything else, it can't perform the reverse operation. Maybe the Admins should do something about that. I think it is important that OAC members who want to converse in another langauge should be encouraged to do so, but, as an English-speaker, I would like some access to them.

The idea of "branding" anthropology may seem rather crass, but it speaks to what others think we are. A lot of what you propose addreses how anthropologists (insiders) might relate to each other, but we can't be indifferent to how society regards us.

I think we can't afford to abandon inter-disciplinarity, especially when the funding bodies are so keen on it, but I agree with you that the internal conditions of building up a discipline matter. In a textbook I wrote with Chris Hann on Economic Anthropology (out next month), we both claimed that it was time to establish economic anthropology as a discipline (which raises the question of how many anthropologies there should be) and tried to remain open to cognate disciplines like economic sociology, economic history, political economy, critical philosophy etc. I have always found it convenient to operate with two hats as a social anthropologist and in development studies. I believe that "anthropology" in the sense of what we need to know to make a better world for humanity could be an interdisciplinary collaboration and a set of related disciplinary approaches. The latter might be practised exclusively in the universities, the former more flexibly.

David Graeber's focus on possibilities is a fruitful one and I have pursued something like it with colleagues in the Human Economy project. It is not particularly limited to anthropology. If you examine the implied antithesis of possibilities in his quoted statement, it is something assumed to be immutable (ie. the same or invariant) confronted by differences. This move was pioneered by the likes of Mead and Benedict and it is intended to show Americans that there are other possibilities. It can lead to anthropologists focusing on the Others while retaining an uninspected, invariant version of their own societies. I do believe this move from assumed sameness to difference is shared by the Boasians, Ulf, Rex, Greg and David, perhaps by you; and I wish to question its limits. There are significant differences within what we take to be invariant. I agree that Tim in different.

I don't think a sense of home, loyalty, patriotism, kinship has faded away in favour of opportunism.

Perhaps not faded way, but the distribution could be very uneven. In my personal life, I have been blessed to belong to a long line of long-married people with strong family feeling. But Ruth and I often remark to each other how the fact that we and our five younger brothers (four years, one mine) feel like real outliers since all of us are still married to the spouses we started out with. For my parents' generation, however, the annual family reunion was a big deal. I haven't been to one in years, and the Facebook chatter suggests that once the last of the parents generation is gone, that institution will probably die with it. I have read Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were and am no hardline supporter of "traditional family values," where these entail approval of mail chauvinist piggery. Still, the suspicion that I have enjoyed a perhaps increasingly rare form of family life cannot be avoided. 

 

Serendipitously, China Beat carries a piece that suggests that despite industrialization and the one-child policy, Chinese still cling to family as the core social value and sees this as a strength in the fundamentally Confucian model that made soon be the greatest competitor for the social democratic ideals that we espouse. This could be a bit of culturological nonsense. But, if nothing else, it evokes the spectre of our numerous divorced, multiply-married or never-married friends in both Japan and the U.S.A., who have seemed to be proliferating since,when was it?—perhaps 1969, I was still in graduate school—it suddenly became a faux pas to ask if a couple seen at a party and reported to be living together were married or engaged.

Did you just use the email link, Frank? There are some problems with editing posts today and I deleted my comment in order to repost. If you go to the thread on the OAC, you should see my post, but I will copy it in here in case:

 

Thanks for joining in, Frank. I discovered that, while our translation machine can convert from English into anything else, it can't perform the reverse operation. Maybe the Admins should do something about that. I think it is important that OAC members who want to converse in another langauge should be encouraged to do so, but, as an English-speaker, I would like some access to them.

The idea of "branding" anthropology may seem rather crass, but it speaks to what others think we are. A lot of what you propose addresses how anthropologists (insiders) might relate to each other, but we can't be indifferent to how society regards us.

I think we can't afford to abandon inter-disciplinarity, especially when the funding bodies are so keen on it, but I agree with you that the internal conditions of building up a discipline matter. In a textbook I wrote with Chris Hann on Economic Anthropology (out next month), we claimed that it was time to establish economic anthropology as a discipline (which raises the question of how many anthropologies there should be) and tried to remain open to cognate disciplines like economic sociology, economic history, political economy, critical philosophy etc. I have always found it convenient to operate with two hats as a social anthropologist and in development studies. I believe that "anthropology" in the sense of what we need to know to make a better world for humanity could be both an interdisciplinary collaboration and a set of related disciplinary approaches. The latter might be practised exclusively in the universities, the former more flexibly.

David Graeber's focus on possibilities is a fruitful one and I have pursued something like it with colleagues in the Human Economy project. It is not particularly limited to anthropology. If you examine the implied antithesis of possibilities in his quoted statement, it is something assumed to be immutable (ie. the same or invariant) confronted by differences. This move was pioneered by the likes of Mead and Benedict and it is intended to show Americans that there are other possibilities. It can lead to anthropologists focusing on the Others while retaining an uninspected, invariant version of their own societies. I do believe this move from assumed sameness to difference is shared by the Boasians, Ulf, Rex, Greg and David, perhaps by you; and I wish to question its limits. There are significant differences within what we take to be invariant. I agree that Tim is different.


Frank Broszeit said:

I just can see a blank page in Keith reply, so I can't answer to that.

 

 

This is a crucial debate that you've initiated, Keith, regarding the nature of the anthropological project and how we might define it for the future. (Although I must admit that the term 'branding', in this instance, makes my blood go cold. But then, given the increasingly market-driven nature of the modern university, along with the emphasis on research that produces applicable 'results', perhaps anthropology has indeed to try and sell itself better...)

 

Anyway, I may well be placing myself in a minority of one, but I do want to defend 'difference' as a crucial disciplinary differential, that sets anthropology apart from other subjects - the 'difference that makes a difference', if you like. Of course, merely framing the game as being one of difference versus identity, or diversity versus unity, as opposing monolithic blocks, strikes me (as I'm sure it does everyone else) as pretty unhelpful.

 

But following on from Geertz's point that relativism wasn't so much an invention of anthropologists as an empirical consequence of their encounters in fieldwork, I think that 'difference' is a vital analytical and rhetorical resource for anthropology, deployed in the critique of what 'we' take to be common sense. Maybe this might sound a bit like Martin Holbraad, but this is actually what I learned from Bruce Kapferer, and it's stuck with me ever since.

 

The origins of anthropology are, of course, multiple, and tracing them is to some extent arbitrary - in so far as Malinowski is the pioneer, according to one of our short stories, or Herodotus is, according to another, rather longer one. But I think Keith is right to pinpoint the 18th century as the crucial period. But if so, then I'd nominate Herder instead of Kant as an important source, with contemporary relevance. At least, this is Michael Forster's view (in After Herder), and I find it pretty compelling. Herder, he says, advocated a 'pluralist cosmopolitanism' rather than a homogenizing version, which he (Forster) associates with the Kantian idea of anthropology. That is to say, Herder's pluralist vision entailed 'a commitment to the equal value of all peoples, despite, and indeed in part because of, the diversity of their mental outlooks and in particular their values'.           

 

This strikes me, at any rate, as an important point, though I'm not quite sure how to sell it effectively.

Thanks for your contribution, Philip. Far from being in a minority of one, you are with the vast majority of professional anthropologists. And yes, Herder is the almost contemporary of Kant who stands as the ancestor of the difference lobby. Kant knew he was standing against the historical trend for the world to be divided into competing nation-states, but he went ahead anyway (in Perpetual Peace) and eventually the nationalists won. But it took two world wars to complete the division of the world into nation-states. The ethnographic revolution was born in Central European nationalism and became universal along with the political prototype. This is why I find it odd to suppose that such a powerful paradigm for the study of humanity could be explained by anthropologists' personal experiences in the field. Bruce and I have always been on opposite sides of this one -- he still bats steadily for the nation-state. I am betting on a new stage of world history to validate a Kantian turn in anthropology, but experience tells me that the academic anthropologists will be the last to buy into that idea. The motto of our profession after all is "Stop the world, I want to get off!" which is why for much of the twentieth century's urbanization and wars the ethnographers studied remote rural peoples conceived of as being outside history. Now ethnographers study anything anywhere, but they cling to that nationalist paradigm by evoking difference as their catchphrase and by reducing anthropology to fieldwork-based ethnography.
@Frank

I have over the years sat through a few of those "Hofstede, etc." sessions and thought about why they are popular. I conclude that seeing the lecturers/corporate trainers in question as "creating difference" is academic hubris. These courses are popular precisely because the differences are real and pose real problems for business people, NGO workers, diplomats, etc., for whom finding ways to negotiate, resolve, or work around differences is an everyday, in-your-face, highly practical problem.

Could anthropologists provide better help than the Hofstede, etc., crowd? Possibly. But step No. 1 would be avoiding the essentializing that reifies both extremes—the Difference and Human Nature—when the practical issue at hand is to be aware of difference and learn how to overcome it in a peaceful and constructive manner that leads to cooperation in pursuing whatever the goal is, closing a deal, providing effective therapy, or untangling some diplomatic dilemma.

Honestly speaking, the best training I have ever received in this regard came from a bunch of Christian missionaries who set up a telephone counseling service that has now lasted almost forty years. Knowing that they could not overcome their theological differences, they placed an absolute ban on proselytizing while counseling, and adopted the methods of Rogerian non-directive therapy in which Rule No. 1 is "Never make assumptions." Instead we were taught and advised to employ a variety of active listening skills: silence, minimal encouragers, open-ended questions, clarifiers, summaries, etc., to provide the kind of feedback that would help callers articulate what was bothering them. Shifting the focus from our own presumptions to what the other is trying to say—from our theory to their reality—that is the key.

Works for me.
Thanks, Frank and John, for bringing up this topic. It reminded me that I have a review stacking up on Seeing Culture Everywhere by Joana Breidenbach and Pál Nyíri which has a hilarious chapter on the "inter-cultural communications" industry (IC to aficionados).

Frank, the link to Ramadan/Zizek was broken and I fixed it (in case some people tried it from email).

Revolutions are a special case for universalism. My mentor, CLR James, used to say that in any country you will only find a handful of specialists in politics (including revolutionaries like him), maybe a few tens of thousands. These people dream about change and make plans for change all the time. Most people just want to keep what they have and that is a good thing, he said; life would be impossible without this inherent human conservatism. But "the revolution comes like a thief in the night" (Marx) when no-one is expecting it. Events move very quickly and many people soon discover that there is no going back, they may have already lost what they had or at least can no longer count on the status quo ante. Then something remarkable happens, he said: you may have seen a guy with an umbrella at the bus stop for years; he keeps his head down and says nothing; but now he turns up as a leading organizer of a street committee. Revolution revolutionizes people and, as Zizek said, everything becomes radically simplified at least for a time: freedom, dignity, democracy as universally shared goals, universal solidarity of the kind that David Graeber pointed out often happens in disasters.

I understand your desire to make learning anthropology relevant to your life, but one of the points of a graduate education is to withdraw from life, to read for example. "Sameness in difference" is metaphysics. People can't live by metaphysics. It takes intellectual work to expose the metaphysical premises of a social practice. Equally, it is one thing to make something new and another to live by it in a routine way.

The universal premises of a democratic society are obscured by pursuing cultural difference. I think you and I agree on that. In my review of Seeing Culture Everywhere I argue that the universalism of postwar social democracy has been systematically undermined in the last three decades. The result is that academics, including anthropologists, are subjected to measures of assessment and control that make a mockery of our professional aspirations as researchers and teachers. Understanding this requires some reading of history. It is not just an existential problem.

People generally live by means of particular institutional arrangements and only rarely, if at all, by general ideas. I prefer to call these particulars social, but they might be called cultural instead. This choice is rooted in a historical contrast between Anglo-French and German/American traditions of anthropology. If I were to guess at why, I would say that an emphasis on society speaks to a sense of living under the wieght of common institutions, as in Britain and France, whereas Germany was more fragmented and shared culture was the basis of its unification; the sheer size and diversity of US society and strong market/weak state made culture the main glue there.

I am not claiming that sameness in difference can be experienced directly. It's just that an appeal to human rights, democracy etc should rest on acknowledgment of what we have in common. Anthropology could play a part in making people more aware of that and it will not as long as the ethnographic model tends to celebrate difference. Sorry, these are huge questions and my answers may cover ground that you know well already.

@Frank

I wasn't recommending that we should all become Rogerian therapists. I was noting that the techniques these therapists use are widely applicable in all sorts of situations, and that I, for one, have seen them work very well in business contexts, where, if one looks into the matter, their use turns out to be consistent with all sorts of advice one reads and hears about the arts of salesmanship. Starting from where the other is and what they actually want is always better than bulldozing ahead with what you think they want or need. I was highlighting in particular the basic premise: "Make no assumptions."

As your your Bollywood film makers and Austrian film crews example illustrates, it can be just as much a mistake to assume that difference will be a problem as assuming that difference is irrelevant. Having worked in advertising and known a few filmmakers, I feel confident in saying, first, that this is a highly cosmopolitan crowd, participants in a global industry for whom flying around the world and doing a shoot with a bunch of people you have never met before is all in a day's work. I have also observed that there is a whole subindustry, of which most people are unaware, that handles local coordination and smooths out difficulties in cross-cultural communication. These are not, of course, the sort of people who have taken a Hofstede-type course, and try to apply what they've learned in them. You will frequently find that they are people who have traveled a lot and may have emigrated from their native countries. I have no trouble imagining, in the case you describe, an Austrian who was fascinated by Hermann Hesse and Indian mysticism, spent some time in an Ashram in India, and when that stopped being fun, looked around for a way to use his modest grasp of Hindi and ability to get on with Indians to start a business. An Indian friend had connections in Bollywood....This story is, of course, a fiction; but this kind of story is common in the global diasporas in which I and many people I khow have found our niches.

Finally, of course, it should probably be noted that for anyone used to dealing with clashes between directors or producers and prima donna celebrities or clients, the usual sorts of cultural issues are only minor problems.

Here again, I have had the good fortune to meet a few people who are really good at this kind of problem solving. I have seen them standing between two parties filled with self-righteous rage, listening quietly to first one then the other and, then, when things start to cool down, offering a quiet suggestion on which the disputants can agree.
A quick follow up to what I just said. The most beautiful job of branding anthropology that I have ever seen is this recent TED talk by William Ury: The Walk from "No" to "Yes." Note the beautiful way in which Ury repeatedly identifies himself as an anthropologist while delivering on the promise of using cultural understanding to achieve impressive results. Not a moment of theoretical harangue. Not a single instance of "We know better." Just a demonstration, a very effective one.

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