Can we really understand a cultural/social phenomenon using just one theoretical framework or specific analytical tool/lens?

It is pretty obvious that culture is a web of causes and effects, big and small, and society is a web of groups and institutions, organized and chaotic, yet I still read texts that peddle a specific theory to be the answer to anything social/cultural.  I'm currently in a state of becoming an anti-solo theory.  I just cannot force myself to just be Marxist or Postmodernist to really understand oppression and power.  A web of theories is what is needed to get to the center of any matter that is problematic. 

Studying corruption has made me realize that even weather, climate, or season can be a factor for corruption to happen and the corrupt to operate.  Corruption has to be mapped out thoroughly using multiple lenses and analyses if we are to understand the entirety of its anatomy.  Maybe,  just maybe, including the psychology of lying and thieving or the evolutionary biology of hoarding, competition, and self-gratification can give us ideas that drafting and passing anti-corruption bills/laws alone will not really eradicate corruption.       

What do you think?

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Just using the word "corruption" already implies a singularity that dismisses all other possibilities.


Cross cultural analysis is like surgery.


It takes a fine meticulous hand.



I believe that the main issue is what NIKOS said, who can and will be supporting this researches collaboratively. The deal has always been, one ruling over the other. An honest ruling theory should consider to do the lesser harm onto the rest, that is, to respect in the highest manner it's identity. 

I thought of chemistry when I read "web of theories". I thought of bonds linking atoms or molecules with each other. The intersection points between theories. Are they all part of the same web? That will depend on how is the bond, the common bridge between them. 

They may link synergically but also compete in certain degrees. It will all depend on what's the reason behind this search. I think that if your concern is about the common bridge among theories in order to analyze, then you focuse on the strength behind a web; its bonds.


 I think one of the great fallacies of today's anthropology is to think in terms of "really understanding" a culture or society. As in "You can't really understand the . . . unless you . . ." with that last blank usually being filled in by something like "actually live among them" or "spend a lot of time interacting with them," etc. I hate to say it, but to me that sounds incredibly arrogant, as though you actually think you can "really understand" a whole lot of people simply by putting in a certain amount of time "in the field" as we say. (One reason I hate to say it, is that I've been known to say more or less the same sort of thing myself from time to time.)

As I see it a discipline such as anthropology (or any other branch of the sciences/ humanities) is not about "really understanding" but exploring, investigating, inquiring, speculating, formulating (testable) hypotheses, etc. And what it is we seek to understand ought to be strictly determined (i.e. limited) by the nature of the project we have undertaken. If we are interested, for example, in whether the height of various Pygmy groups is determined by inheritance from a common ancestor or adaptation to certain environmental conditions, then we seek understanding by doing a certain type of comparative research either among such groups or in the literature (preferably both). We don't seek to "really understand" any of these groups, which as I see it is pretentious, but to explore certain possibilities that might help us get closer to understanding at least certain aspects of their life.

Isn't your 'web of theories' theory in fact a theory in its own right? In seriousness, I do agree with your overall point, but if we start with the belief that any theoretical framework can encapsulate even one aspect of human phenomena in its entirety, then we're looking at the application of theory to anthropological reality from the wrong angle. Theories can only help us to navigate our own perceptions, observations and experiences that are highly subjective. I figure that the more you dig into any one subject, the more various and opposing perspective should pop up (or you're sticking too closely to one theory). After a while, maybe one or two will stand out as the most suitable heuristic devices to convey your observations to others. Too much emphasis on theory leads to research/data that is shaped to fit existing theories, rather than the other way around.

Nicely put, Francine. Reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Victor Turner. Since the book is in japan, and I am, at the moment, in the USA, I can't quote it precisely. The following is a paraphrase.


Theory is only useful when it illuminates the social realities we encounter in the field. More often than not, moreover, it is a single idea, extracted from the logical sludge in which we first encounter it, that, like a flash of lightning, illuminates what we see—and may even be the key to seeing a coherent pattern in otherwise disparate facts. 


Turner's point was that a theory is never a total explanation, let alone a cookie cutter that imposes boundaries on what we see. It is only a tool or perspective that suggests a coherence where none was seen before and raises questions whose answers require further observation.



Weber? Sure. But if you really want to get into verstehen in a serious way, it's time to dig into Alfred Schutz's The Phenomenology of the Social World or, as I mentioned in a reply to Neil Turner in the Interpretive Anthropology group, take a look at the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Alternatively, instead of going back to the late 19th-early 20th centuries, it might be even more interesting to investigate more recent frameworks. Serendipitously, at the same Washington, D.C., bookstore where I found Odessa, Ruth picked up Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman (2009) Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World. The authors are environmentalists, not anthropologists, but the questions they address are much like those frequently debated on OAC. They apply to ecology a framework called Integral Theory.


The Integral Model maintains that there are at least four irreducible perspectives, two of which have been almost entirely excluded from academic and popular ecological discourse. If we exclude any one of these perspectives, we arrive at partial understandings and, unfortunately, partial solutions. We must include objective, inter objective, subjective, and intersubjective perspectives. The objective perspective examines the composition and exterior behavior of individual phenomena, including humans, bears, salmon, and beetles. The interobjective perspective examines the structure and exterior behavior of collective phenomena, ranging from ecosystems to political and economic systems. The data generated by these two perspectives are valuable, yet such data alone do not exhaust the "reality" of the phenomena under investigation, nor do they provide motivation for action. Motivation arises when we experience the phenomena in question through two additional perspectives — subjective (1st-person—I, me) and intersubjective (2nd-person — you, we). These perspectives constitute the interior aspects of phenomena, are traditionally associated with aesthetic experience and cultural values, and have largely been excluded from academic ecological discourse. We cannot understand our complex interiors through natural or social scientific methods, nor can we understand the natural world solely through our interior experience. We need both.


Integral Theory refers to these irreducible perspectives as quadrants and we summarize them as experience (subjective, 1st-person), cultural (intersubjective 2nd person/1st person plural), behavior (objective, 3rd-person singular), and systems (inter objective, 3rd-person plural)....


All four quadrants are necessary, the authors say, not only for understanding what we are talking about, but also for mobilizing people to reach agreements, cooperate and take effective action. 

If nothing else, the argument these authors develop reminds us that what we may have believed were the parochial concerns of anthropology are, in fact, part of larger conversations, to which we anthropologists might contribute if we weren't so self-absorbed. 

We must include objective, inter objective, subjective, and intersubjective perspectives.


That is a very useful tool and a reminiscent in an interesting way of Mary Douglas' 'grid - group' analysis.

Huon, glad you liked it. For another, similar framework, coming out of an operations research->organizational behavior framework, check out Soft Systems Methodology.  SSM is another example of people who started with a highly technical, engineering perspective on social systems (what Integral Theory calls the objective and inter objective quadrants) an then discovered that to make progress in changing how organizations operate, we have to take into account the experience and cultures of the people involved.
P.S. There has also been a lot of similar thinking coming out of Peter Senge and his colleagues at the Society for Organizational Learning. I first became acquainted with it be reading Senge's The Fifth Discipline. The SOL and SSM folk share a common problem, how to promote fundamental changes in organizations. This differentiates them from traditional anthropologists who study other cultures but do not engage as active agents in attempting to change them. The approaches they've developed for understanding the practical situations in which they find themselves working could, nonetheless, be useful for those of us who, by preference, only act as witnesses and commentators.

From what I have read about him in Integral Ecology, Ken Wilber seems to have been an interesting guy. The question, I suppose, is whether we spend our time rummaging around in the past in search of something to "apply" (God, I hate that word) or looking at what people are doing now and asking ourselves what we could be doing better.


P.S. Have nothing against "apply" in many legitimate contexts. It is just when I read an article that talks about "applying" theorist X to phenomenon Y," I gag. Whatever happened to the idea that we ought to be thinking for ourselves?

What interests me about your web of theories approach, M, is that it may be closer than most academic theories to how people think. In particular, how does memory function when we encounter something? I think of my own as a ganglion, a living web of tissue with linked nodes of varying size. If some new impression lights up a part of it, it may trigger off other parts, including some of the really big nodes. Then it is likely to find a place in my mind for future use.
Thanks for the responses, guys.  I guess I need to read more on Mary Douglas' grid-group analysis.  I've been on a hunt  for  a text that operationalizes the web of theories model and emphasizes overlapping linkages of different  theories.  I believe poverty can be analyzed using Feminism and Marxism, for example, with Marxist Feminism/Feminist Marxism as the overlapping link between the two.  Another link can exist between Marxism and Theology (of conscience, justice, and faith) connected by liberation theology.  The chain of theories can be endless. This is where I find Venn Diagram useful in containing/mapping logical relationships among sub-sets in a set.

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