Do anthropologists now doubt that peoples and cultures are different from one another?

Increasingly, it appears to be incorrect to suggest that peoples and cultures are not all the same, that peoples and cultures are to a greater or lesser degree different from one another. To argue that peoples and cultures have different lines of thought is skating close to condemnation.

Partly, this appears to be a resistence to any kind of generalization about a population or culture. Now anthropologists seem to believe that it is only possible to speak only of individuals. Any generalization, however accurate and well documented, is open to the accusation of "essentialism," particularly if the characteristics identified are not admirable. Anthropologists apparently have now adopted the principle, "if you can't say anythng good, don't say anything at all" (although this principle does not apply to the West).

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Delineate, according to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, means
"1. to trace the outline of; sketch or trace in outline; represent pictorially....
2. to portray in words, describe or outline with precision...."

Collectivity, according to the same source, means
"1. collective character.
2. a collective whole.
3. the people collectively."

Neither of these terms should be alarming. They do not prejudge our subject, the "delineation" of which should always, if we are at all true to our tradition, be a matter of empirical inquiry.
Phil, thanks for clearly this up. We appear to be on the same page. That said, "collectivity" resonates more closely with "collective" than "collection," and there is no denying that anthropologists have tended either to treat populations as discrete, bounded wholes — like the selves, nations, and works of art, all much of a muchness, envisioned by the Romantics, in which everything important when on inside them— or, alternatively like the independent cases required for the random sampling on which statistical analysis depends.

Of course, boundaries exist, and some groups are tightly integrated. But whether or not that is so is, as I stated before, an empirical question and not a safe assumption. I recall once again Howard Becker's teacher Everett Hughes, from whom Becker learned that ethnic groups are not ethnic groups because they share some fixed set of properties but instead because both those inside and those outside agree that they exist. I repeat my admiration for Mary Douglas' move from categories and boundaries in Purity and Danger to Group and Grid in Natural Symbols: a move that invites us to treat both boundaries and hierarchies as variables to be explored instead of constants assumed.

Jolanda, please tell us a bit more about what you have gleaned from Schütz. I am, at the moment, only about halfway through The Phenomenology of the Social World, still stuck in the mazes of purely subjective meaning. Any hints or guidance you might care to offer will be much appreciated.
John said, “To me what was most interesting about this project was that I started out looking for something distinctively Japanese about my Japanese colleagues' research. ...What I discovered was that ... the questions that preoccupied them were shared with their peers in other OECD nations: the organization man, women entering the workforce, the effects on relationships, increasingly "alien" children, what to do with retirement years extended by longer lifespans, that sort of thing. Their responses to these issues frequently involved the same sorts of moral panics as found in North America or Europe.”

To return to the question of whether we still recognize cultural differences, John’s example appears to suggest commonalities across what was once regarded as very distinct cultures. I do not doubt John’s findings here. He indicates that we may be dealing with “problems that are universal, at least in advanced industrial countries.” In this case, there would have been, or is a process of cultural convergence arising from “advanced industrial” conditions.

But are we reluctant to identify differences where there are differences? One of the things that strikes me about the nomadic peoples I study, is how very different they are from one another in just about every important sphere: Nuer and Somalis are very different from Basseri, and the Sarakatsani and Reika are markedly different from the others. Even with larger entities such as nation-states, it was very striking to me how different Europeans are from one another, not withstanding the great internal variations within each country. For example, while I was doing research in Italy, I was invited to lecture in Finland. What a stunning difference: Finns and Italians. These folks cannot even tolerate hearing about how the others think and do things; if you talk about it, they start squirming, literally.

Of course, many scholars and social scientists spend much of their time comparing societies and cultures, and this is done on many dimensions, e.g. freedom; legal transparency; human development; economic performance; etc. For example, the United National Development program Arab Human Development Report 2002, compiled by a large group of primarily Arab researchers, documents the differences in human development measure–education, freedom, internet use, women’ standing–between the Arab world and other regions. They do not shy even from judgements: “No Arab country enjoys high human welfare.” (113)

However, among anthropologists, cultural relativism, which asserts that each culture is based on its own values, and no culture can be judged from the point of view of another culture, appears to have morphed into a view that, really, we are all human, and so not really different in any significant way. Furthermore, anyone who asserts differences between cultures is doing so only to disparage certain cultures as a path to imperial and colonial domination and exploitation. A contributor to another thread argued that any generalization about a culture that could be viewed as identifying a negative characteristic is automatically “essentialism” and must be forbidden. Only the West can be relentlessly condemned as evil, as anthropologists commonly do, and any problems seen elsewhere attributed to the evil machinations of the West.

Anthropology, it appears, has become more interested in being politically correct (according to certain positions) than in understanding complex human realities. We seem now to be more committed to advocating for favoured groups and causes, than to discovering the way the world works.
Phil, one of the reasons that I am so much enjoying this conversation with Jolanda is that we have, so far, avoided sweeping generalizations about Anthropology. You and I have been down that road before, and, at least as far as I can see, it is a dead end.

Personally, I have never found any reason to doubt Clyde Kluckhohn's maxim that every human being is, in some respects like every other human being, in other respects like some other human beings, and in yet other respects uniquely themselves. The question when constructing generalizations about some human beings is always the scope of the "some" and what to make of the differences between this "some" and that one.


Sometimes the differences lend themselves to simple, mechanical explanations. The example that comes into my head comes from the American Southwest: Those who live on top of mesas must invest more time and effort in fetching water than those who live by the springs at their feet. Those who live by the springs may be more exposed to raiding by their enemies. There are trade-offs to be made, and these are usually easy to understand.

Sometimes the differences lend themselves to statistical generalizations. But we know now that Spearman's r and simple linear regressions are crude instruments, effective only in certain cases where random sampling is possible and normal distributions apply. Power laws and phase transitions appear to be more common than our predecessors thought. And why not, after all? Physics has moved on from Newtonian mechanics to relativity, quantum mechanics and still more esoteric things. Biologists have come to recognize that evolution may be punctuated instead of smoothly uniformitarian. We have always claimed that societies made of human beings are more complex. If this is true, why should we expect that simple causal analyses or rudimentary statistical modeling will sort things out?

If the general and soft systems analysts are right, most of what we anthropologists study falls in the great hole in the middle where neither simple mechanisms nor statistical generalizations apply. So we do what humans have always done, we tell stories about what we see. The problem is that, as D. McCloskey suggests in Rhetoric of Economics we still aren't very good at telling good stories from bad ones or, to add George Soros' twist in Open Society, we rarely have the knack of telling when a good story ceases to be a good story. Here there is plenty of work to be done, some of which may lead to sound generalizations with broad application while other conclusions are more limited, more fragile or both.

That, at least, is this my view. It directs my attention to process and detail and has very little to do, as I see it, with either political correctness or the reification of either Society or Individual.

Now I get off my hobby horse. I still want to hear what Jolanda has found of value in Schütz.
I would be interested to hear a response to the main question of this thread and the issue to which I devoted most of the content of my last comment, that is, the reluctance of anthropologists to discuss cultural differences.

Sorry, John, if you are bored with generalizations about anthropology, yet there are major changes through time in social institutions and societies, such as those of Japan becoming an "advanced industrial" country, with conditions and problems shared with similar ones. Commentators on anthropology seem quite comfortable with describing the transition from 19th century anthropology to 20th century anthropology. So I am a bit puzzled why it is a "dead end" to discuss the transition from 20th century anthropology to late 20th & 21st century anthropology. It appears to me that there have been major changes, some of which I have tried to identify.

Certainly how best to approach, record, and convey human life has been and is open to debate, or contested, as we now like to say. Perhaps for different purposes, different paths are appropriate. But there may also be dead end paths, and if we do not reflect critically on where we are going, we may find outselves lost, and our audiences having lost interest.
Phil, where in God's name did you ever get the idea that I am bored with generalizations about anthropology? I am only bored when the same generalizations get trotted out over and over again, and conversations go nowhere beyond the usual list of complaints. Could you, perhaps, move us beyond that?

You say, for example,

Nuer and Somalis are very different from Basseri, and the Sarakatsani and Reika are markedly different from the others.

Why not tell us about those differences? Even offer explanations for them? Show us how it ought to be done.

Or, if its anthropologists you want to talk about, instead, why not get specific? Put some examples on the table? That would be interesting.
Okay... I am a bit confused now on how this discussion has been directed and I think that in fact we are discussing several issues at the time.

It seems that Philip is most concerned about the relation between cultural relativism, the description of differences and similarities (generalizations) and accusations of essentialism.

It seems that John and I are quite interested in dealing with differences, characterizations and generalizations albeit on a quite different level, and our discussion so far has guided us from idiosyncracies and generalizations towards discussing a related but only derived topic of the relation between individuals (idiosyncracies) and society (generalizations).

Now, since Ryan (welcome!) has joined us, he seems concerned about Philip's concern for anthropology as a politically correct business shying away of generalizations, to put it rather bluntly. I think this is indeed somewhat implied, but I think the question of Philip's point to another quite interesting issue, which I think is good to discuss: is grand theory still possible and done in anthropology nowadays? correct me if I am wrong here Philip.

For John, I propose we open another topic maybe on our discussion about society-individual in the end Philip is obviously less interested in this discussion and he posed the question, so let's not take over his forum.

Then, let me turn to Philip's concern. I personally do see what you mean. Lots of cultural relativism, postmodernism and so on have led anthropologists to doubt everything and become more specific going from a country specialist to a region specialist to even a more specific 'town' specialist. Generalizations, based on systemic evidence as you put it, are not part of this tendency. The reluctance to talk about differences, as you put it, is part of this I think.Honestly I think it is healthy to doubt the description of cultural difference, unless well-documented and described in such a way that does justice to more than just generalizations. Moreover I think it is also an ethical question: we are reluctant to discuss cultural differences because it might reify them. That is, it can essentialize these differences, and the consequences of that we know from history can be large. A healthy caution then when writing about cultural differences is therefore, I think, nothing wrong with. I agree with Ryan. Cultural anthropology is about difference and similarity, how else do we study the people we engage with?
Nevertheless I have the feeling that more efforts are made to get a bit away from this currently quite over-stated prudence with generalizations and the description of cultural differences, but that is my impression. I also have the impression that, based on clear and well-documented evidence, this is more appreciated than before. I might be wrong there though, I work at an institute devoted to 'comparative study' so maybe I am a bit biased there.
Jolanda, you are a marvel. Please set up the "individuals (idiosyncracies) and society (generalizations)" discussion you mention, and we can move this thread over there. I do want to learn more about what you are taking from Schütz and also more about your work and that institute to which you belong.

Phil, how would it be if we pursued Jolanda's "more efforts are made to get a bit away from this currently quite over-stated prudence with generalizations and the description of cultural differences." I would certainly be intrigued to learn where her impression is coming from.

That "dead end" that I mentioned was not a comment on the possibility of discussing the transition you describe from 20th to 21st century anthropology, but rather on the cul-de-sac which our conversation, yours and mine, appeared to have entered.

You know that I am no foe of generalization and have spoken up strongly on the inevitably of using comparison in research—after all even the most ardent advocate of particularistic description cannot avoid the implicit, mostly naive comparisons made with him or herself. What I would like to do is to examine different forms of comparison and consider how they work in the different circumstances in which anthropologists find themselves. Our various discussions in various groups have already turned up several possibilities.

1. Salzman — Small-n comparisons of populations that share some general characteristic, e. g. nomads
2. Historical assessment of anthropological propositions as different points in history — McCreery's reference to the stream of social anthropological/social historian research on lineage organization in China.
3. Examination of what has been taken to be a unique case in light of cross-cultural data (consumer society in Japan)
4. Statistical hypothesis testing using HRAF or other data.
5. Michael Papangelous' proposal to examine a particular practice (Remembrance of the Name) as, in effect, a total social fact with a worldwide distribution that reoccurs in different cultural contexts.

Lots of stuff to talk about here. Angry denunciations of stuff we don't like? That gets old fast.
John, I appreciate your desire to engage anthropological substance and to attack middle range theory. Certainly I would be delighted to go on at great length about nomads and the differences between nomadic peoples. But I doubt that most members who have signed up for Theory in Anthropology would find that of sufficiently general interest.

Of course, John, I knew exactly what you were saying. But this group is not just a conversation between you and me, all appearances aside. I am speaking more generally, to an audience more than ourselves, about heuristic issues central to the mandate of anthropology. Yes, you can label a critical view "angry denunciation" if you like, but much theoretical discourse in anthropology is critical analysis of theoretical stances. I cannot object if you do not find this level of discourse congenial, and prefer substantive discussion; I prefer substantive discussion myself, and am happy to hear yours. But I find that many current theoretical stances undermine substantive anthropology, and need a challenge; even if "that gets old fast," it is a necessary response to ill conceived and counter-productive "theories" that currently hold sway.

Of course the various leads in this thread can be given lives of their own in new threads. It occurred to me that you, John, might want to frame a discussion topic on phenomenological approaches in anthropology. As for pursuing the question of comparison, you will recall that there is a discussion topic on comparative analysis already up, but which received little interest. Sure, we can follow up there. That would help me, as I am writing a book on comparative anthropology.

John asked, 'Phil, how would it be if we pursued Jolanda's "more efforts are made to get a bit away from this currently quite over-stated prudence with generalizations and the description of cultural differences." I would certainly be intrigued to learn where her impression is coming from.' Yup, this is what I had hoped to hear more about when I put up this question.
Phil, you write,

I find that many current theoretical stances undermine substantive anthropology, and need a challenge; even if "that gets old fast," it is a necessary response to ill conceived and counter-productive "theories" that currently hold sway.

I agree.

I do want to ask, however, what evidence you have that your approach to challenging these theories is working? I suggest that what you intend as rational argument is heard as angry denunciation. People are put off. Discussions grind to a halt. It might be worth recalling the words of that arch-SOB Frank Luntz, the US Republican-affiliated pollster and political strategist: "It isn't what you mean to say, it's what they hear that counts."
John says: 'I do want to ask, however, what evidence you have that your approach to challenging these theories is working? I suggest that what you intend as rational argument is heard as angry denunciation. People are put off. Discussions grind to a halt. It might be worth recalling the words of that arch-SOB Frank Luntz, the US Republican-affiliated pollster and political strategist: "It isn't what you mean to say, it's what they hear that counts."'

What effect an argument has is perhaps not all that easy to assess. It is said that the response to papers given in British universities is one of two: an unfavourable reception is signaled by comments such as "You can't really believe this," while a favourable reception is signaled by "Of course, everyone knows that." The immediate response to a challenge is often defensive, but that does not mean that the challenge will not be considered and ideas reassessed, although of course there is no guarantee. What evidence I can cite, and it is meagre enough, is that some of my critical papers have been reasonably widely cited, e.g. my critique of reflexivity in American Anthropologist, and an earlier paper contrary to a popular debunking of lineage theory, in the same journal. Of my recent books critical of postcolonial theory, one is reasonably popular and the other is a steady seller.

Of course I mention these things, out of courtesy, and out of respect for you. But I don't really have to account to you, do I? John, you have done your duty in trying to "correct" me. Now can you leave out the ad hominem declarations? They get old very fast.
Certainly the focus on cultural similarities and differences was central to anthropology for a long time. One might think of foundational works such as Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, comparing Samoa and America, or Benedict's Patterns of Cultures, comparing Pueblo, N. W. Coast, Plains, and Dobuan cultures. But increasingly we are reluctant even to characterize the nature of a culture, or to make generalizations about its features, which means that it is impossible to juxtapose different cultures. There is a strong tendency to speak only of individuals, rather than societies and cultures or populations. Both of these tendencies are marked in the comments of contributors to various OAC threads; I do have particular comments in mind, but would rather not name individuals.

One reason for the retreat from describing at a general level is the fear of being accused of "essentialism," a thought crime much condemned today. One contributor on a recent thread argued that any characteristic identified that could be thought negative, or reflected negatively on people or culture, must be considered "essentialism," and thus forbidden.

Recently a senior and much respected anthroplogist asked, if one described a certain course of action by a population, whether they were not regarded as "rational." Apparently the assumption by this anthropologist is that there is a universal rationality, and that because we are all people, we are rational in the same way. Well, I will not deny "rationality," but it is fairly obvious that different peoples follow different rationalities, if only for the logical reason that they start with quite different premises. But these days it is not quite correct to point this out. And thus not correct to make comparisons, which might be thought by some to be invidious.

Ryan Anderson said:
@PCS

"I would be interested to hear a response to the main question of this thread and the issue to which I devoted most of the content of my last comment, that is, the reluctance of anthropologists to discuss cultural differences."

I don't understand this claim. Who are you talking about? The last time I checked, looking at differences and similarities is a huge part of what anthropology is all about.

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