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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Salzman writes,

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.

I have been thinking about why this claim has no particular resonance for me. The answer is simple; I live in Japan, and the focus of my anthropological research has been the Far East. In this part of the world, the locals do not hesitate to characterize the nature of their cultures or to make generalizations about their features. In Japan there is a massive local literature devoted to nihonjinron, discourses on Japaneseness and addressing the claims that it makes is a perennial issue not just for anthropologists but for everyone who studies Japan. And then, of course, there is China, the center of the East Asian world for literally thousands of years and now on the verge of recapturing its traditional role. The Chinese are not shy about characterizing themselves in contrast to those who live in adjacent countries, which in turn respond by forcefully asserting their own peculiarities.Comparison and generalization are so much part of everyday life that the anthropologist must struggle to assert that his or her findings are not simply the conventional wisdom of the place in which he or she works. But these, of course, are great powers, economic giants, Asian Tigers. Even Vietnam has the distinction of having fought the USA to a standstill. The idea that an anthropologist might, by this or that mischaracterization significantly harm the cultures in question is palpably absurd. The problem is rather to search for explanations for diversity in cultures that resolutely essentialize themselves.
As John suggests, characterizing other peoples and cultures is a normal part of identity construction. It is not surprising that the same process happens "internally," among regions and even neighbouring communities. Julian Pitt-Rivers, in People of the Sierra, records the characterizations that neighbouring villages have of one another. In Iran, people in different regions are supposed to have different characteristics, in one region they are tightfisted, in another dishonest, in another they are sexually loose, and so on. Europeans have similar formulations, both between countries and within.

John says "The idea that an anthropologist might, by this or that mischaracterization significantly harm the cultures in question is palpably absurd." I won't say that I disagree, but this thesis, that our characterizations of other cultures can significantly harm them, is the central argument of what is probably the most influential book in the social science and humanities in the last three decades: Edward Said's Orientalism. Said argues that characterizations of other cultures, "the others," always disparages them and paves the way for imperialism and colonialism by providing justifications and rationalizations for conquering, dominating, and oppressing others. As my students have told me, "Said is God."
Allow me to add a qualification. I wasn't saying that all cultures are immune from what anthropologists write. I was asserting that what anthropologists write is pretty small beer in places like China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam or Taiwan, the parts of Asia we call the Far East. I was, implicitly, offering a bit of comparative analysis, developing an hypothesis about why anthropologists who work in the Far East might be less susceptible to the sorts of anxieties that, it appears, plague anthropologists who work in other places.

This hypothesis is not, I hasten to add, based on systematic research or with methodically keeping up with all of the research being done in the region. It is mainly a projection of my own experience, supported in some part by my impressions from the Society for East Asian Anthropology meetings earlier this year in Taipei, where (could it have just been the sessions I attended?) neither epistemological nor moral anxieties were much in evidence. I do not recall Said being cited.



Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
As John suggests, characterizing other peoples and cultures is a normal part of identity construction. It is not surprising that the same process happens "internally," among regions and even neighbouring communities. Julian Pitt-Rivers, in People of the Sierra, records the characterizations that neighbouring villages have of one another. In Iran, people in different regions are supposed to have different characteristics, in one region they are tightfisted, in another dishonest, in another they are sexually loose, and so on. Europeans have similar formulations, both between countries and within.
John says "The idea that an anthropologist might, by this or that mischaracterization significantly harm the cultures in question is palpably absurd." I won't say that I disagree, but this thesis, that our characterizations of other cultures can significantly harm them, is the central argument of what is probably the most influential book in the social science and humanities in the last three decades: Edward Said's Orientalism. Said argues that characterizations of other cultures, "the others," always disparages them and paves the way for imperialism and colonialism by providing justifications and rationalizations for conquering, dominating, and oppressing others. As my students have told me, "Said is God."
Sure, the East Asian case is interesting in this context, as are the concerns or lack thereof on the part of East Asianists. Edward Said was of course closely focussed on the Middle East, which was the "Orient" that he identified with and was avocating on behalf of. As is well known, Said was a professor of English who had little background in social sciences, Oriental Studies, or history. But he proved to be a master at identity politics.

Why was Middle Eastern studies such fertile ground for Said, and East Asian studies agnostic? Allow me a comparative hypothesis: Aside from the specificity of Said's areal referent, during the 20th century, the two regions were going in opposite directions in terms of development, power, and standing: East Asia up, the Middle East down. In East Asia, first Japan, and then China, Korea, Taiwan, and more, developing economically, technologically, militarily, politically. In the Middle East, the rise of the West in the 18th century left the Middle East behind. Falling farther behind in the 20th century, a series of false starts--ethnic nationalism, socialism, Islamism--has left the region stagnant, backward, conflictful, and going nowhere fast. This situation is exacerbated because the region conquered and dominated its neighbours for 1000 years, and Middle Easterners continue to believe that it is their right and duty to dominate. So their weakness humiliates, and sensitivity to slights by outsiders is understandably great. Said also provides a handy explanation for the decline of the region: it is the fault of outsiders.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Why was Middle Eastern studies such fertile ground for Said, and East Asian studies agnostic? Allow me a comparative hypothesis: Aside from the specificity of Said's areal referent, during the 20th century, the two regions were going in opposite directions in terms of development, power, and standing

Sounds quite plausible to me. Another factor may be the radical diversification of topics studied by anthropologists working in the Far East. In the case of Japan, here are a couple of paragraphs describing recent research in Japan, from the same chapter mentioned in my previous message.

Doing Fieldwork in Japan. brings together chapters by twenty-one scholars. The topics on which they did their research are as varied as the individuals who chose them. In the order in which they appear, they include Japanese teenagers who hang out in Harajuku, Tokyo’s teen fashion Mecca; radical student movements; a rural community in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands; a new religion reinterpreting Buddhist belief and practice to meet the needs of modern believers; an ancient but still thriving pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands (think Chaucer in a tour bus); a bioscience institute located in Osaka, the commercial heart of Kansai, the southwest of Japan; the impact of JETs, participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, on English-language education; the prosecutors office in Kobe, which along with Osaka and Kyoto is one of the three major cities in the Kansai; security policymaking by the Japanese Defense Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs; NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster; a quantitative study of women in the labor market and why men’s wages are so much higher than women’s; the impact of mine closure on a coal-mining community in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands; Japanese bureaucrats responsible for addressing the problems of the elderly, a rapidly growing segment of the Japanese population; Japanese foreign aid (Japan being one of the world’s largest donors); modern Japanese social history, with a focus on the Japanese labor movement; enka, an old-fashioned but still popular music genre, whose role in Japanese popular culture resembles that of Country and Western in the USA; two corporations, a lingerie manufacturer and a foreign multinational in the financial services industry; the creation of tradition in a changing Tokyo neighborhood and Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market; the betwixt-and-between lives of reverse immigrants, Japanese-Brazilian workers in Japan; and a review of a long and distinguished career that began with a study of a rural community and has included an award from Japan’s emperor. This list is long, but it still contains only a sample of what it might. Where are the studies of bar hostesses and geisha, kindergartens, bikers and bankers, blue-collar workers, the homeless, the aging, the comics, the artists, the shamans, the celebrities who make up the geinôkai (the world of the tarento, “talents,” performers and personalities who appear on TV, in movies, in ads), the potters, the fishermen, the cops, the gangsters, the juvenile delinquents, the baseball players, the sumo wrestlers, the account executives and art directors who work for advertising agencies, the women who get out the vote for local politicians, the mothers, the office ladies, the young women who travel overseas in search of handbags, love, new careers and new selves? The list gets longer every day.

The author of a comparative study who wants to include Japan in his cases must, first of all, decide whose Japan to include or, alternatively, go through all this literature and synthesize a case appropriate to the topic.
As an informal observer of humans and their individual and collective behaviors, I'd like to add my own, simplistic observation.

Philip said... "There is a strong tendency to speak only of individuals, rather than societies and cultures or populations." and "Said argues that characterizations of other cultures, "the others," always disparages them and paves the way for imperialism and colonialism by providing justifications and rationalizations for conquering, dominating, and oppressing others."

Two thoughts immediately come to mind. First, if I study an individual I may walk away thinking "fascinating" regarding a particular behavior or set of behaviors (just spend a late night in WalMart to see what I mean). Do I gain much from that observation if not put in a larger context? (i.e. comparing an individual to group norms, or a group to another group) I'm not so sure. I hope that anthropology is about creating a broader understanding of the human condition and how it varies from place to place and group to group. Certainly, the methods from which we arrive at generalizations require scrutiny, as Philip has mentioned more than once. In my estimation, the trouble comes in the judgments attached to observations, which leads to my second thought.

Said's concern seems to be that of the judgments made about the "other" and how those judgments then justify action. There is certainly something to be said for that. When I read Malinowski and see the phrase "primitive society" I cringe internally. The phrase is a loaded one, but that doesn't change the fact that what he describes might be described as a precursor to more socially and technologically developed societies in the industrial and post-industrial world. The real problem comes from how those descriptions are used, regardless of the phraseology.

If by primitive, we mean worse, less worthy of preservation / protection, or in need of modernization, then our generalizations do a disservice to the society being described. But if our descriptions are meant to record what is and inform the larger world, then that seems to have great utility. To say that "the burial rituals of the XXX differ markedly from those in Western society" need not demean XXX nor glorify the West.

As someone mentioned in one of the other threads here, humans (certainly the Western mind) are binary thinkers: up / down, left / right, on / off, black / white, bad / good. Nuance comes best from assessing similarities and differences. I think of it much like the eye exam and the series of either/or choices we make as the doctor goes through a series of lenses. Just use different or similar instead of the word "better" (i.e. "Is choice 1 or two better? Now, 1 or 2? Now, 1 or 2?) By sorting through differences or similarities (non-differences) we neck our way down to some sort of understanding of what we see.

We are only essentialist, imperialist, or colonialist when we carry our observations beyond their logical ends.

I think that I've seen enough as an informal observer to say that humans are quite similar in essence, but very diverse in the ways that they express and organize their humanity (that includes observations throughout the Far East and Middle East, as well as a broad swath of the US). I, for one, embrace that diversity. I might chuckle at some of the folks I see in WalMart late at night (not that I am there that often, but with young children there is often the need for medications in the middle of the night) but I also know that my world is infinitely more interesting because I am frequently surrounded by people that in outward appearance at least, are wildly different from me.
John, Philip, obviously you have been busy... I think much has been said the past day, but allow me to respond to some of the issues raised.

To come back to comparative efforts. I can only speak of my limited personal experiences in anthropology (mostly academic) up to date. And unfortunately that aren't too many of years, but let's not focus on that. What I implied was that comparative efforts are more acceptable. Even encouraged nowadays. I think we should distinguish a bit what comparative then is. First of all I think there are comparative efforts on a theoretical level, that is efforts that try to integrate field data from different locations to refine an overarching theory. Then there are comparative efforts that compare field data, open any edited volume and you can probably find what I mean. I tend to prefer the first as a 'comparative' effort and in that effort generalizations are of course implied. Opinions differ though and don't let me impose a definition of comparative here.

Now I enjoyed reading your examples from the middle-east and east-Asia, but I do not want to delve in them too much as it seems I would be going back to old issue. John made an interesting statement:
The author of a comparative study who wants to include Japan in his cases must, first of all, decide whose Japan to include or, alternatively, go through all this literature and synthesize a case appropriate to the topic.

Definitely, and I think this is the crux of the matter. Generalizing is okay, but define what you are generalizing about. I think Eric describes this quite well in his response to this discussion. Moreover be sure that what you are saying is representative for your field data. Are you just giving apt illustrations for that what you think or are you generalizing on the basis of your field data? This might sound rather basic but I think it is important to remember.

Then I think Eric is correct by adding that we should look at the methods we use for generalizing as well. This is I think something which is in the end the most noteworthy effect of that was has created our 'self-doubt' and 'reluctance to generalize' we should be very aware of what it is your actually generalizing about and what it is you are defining (if this is implied) moreover from an ethical standpoint I think we should also be aware of what your words can do to those people you are studying. I think it is just a question of being cautious but not over-cautious, but finding a balance between the two. We can not do without generalizing if we continue to write, study and theorize.

Then finally I think Eric gives a quite capturing statement that:
We are only essentialist, imperialist, or colonialist when we carry our observations beyond their logical ends.

True, but what is 'logical' here and how much observation is needed to remain within 'a logical end'?
Jolanda writes,

True, but what is 'logical' here and how much observation is needed to remain within 'a logical end'?

This question is an astute one. For example, what if the aim is to remove an aboriginal people, thus making it possible to develop an oil field, gold mine or tourist resort? Have we slipped a bit too close to "The ends justify the means"?

If our goal is to answer the question,

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

where do we stand? By my count, we have had answers from four or five people saying "No." No one has stepped forward to defend the alternative, that peoples and cultures do not differ in any fundamental way — an assumption that is, however, common in economics and rational-choice theory.

That said, I wonder where we stand vis-a-vis Phil's original brief. Is there a way forward on this particular topic? If not, do we move to the existing discussion of comparative method or start over again with a clean slate to address Jolanda's individual versus society issues?
John writes:

For example, what if the aim is to remove an aboriginal people, thus making it possible to develop an oil field, gold mine or tourist resort? Have we slipped a bit too close to "The ends justify the means

As I stated earlier, I hope (and personally believe) that anthropology is about creating a broader understanding of the human condition and how it varies from place to place and group to group. To me, understanding is the baseline ends we are trying to achieve, the logical ends. It may be that we go beyond that at times for advocacy's sake - to help preserve cultures that are under external threat, for example. I am certainly not suggesting with my comments that the ends justify the means or that I would want to see anthropology used to exploit a group, as in the example John provides.

Perhaps my post was tangential in its attempt to get at Philip's question and if so, let me clarify. Much of what I have been reading lately would indicate that the discipline, in its attempt to steer away from its colonial past, avoids comparative analysis. Whether that is because we truly doubt that people and cultures are different or because we don't want to be labeled as imperialist, colonialist, racist, etc. is not for me to say. I'm sure that it is a mix of both.

The biologist in me reminds me that people are essentially the same, bur for that matter, we're almost the same as the chimpanzee in biological terms. Clearly, however, people and chimps are not the same, and just as individuals (even those with identical genes) are unique in the collection of traits that make up their personality, groups are unique in the collections of artifacts, rituals, etc. that make up their culture. Can we say that the broad aims of individuals and groups are similar - to live, procreate, etc? Probably, but in doing so we really only say that their biological imperatives are the same. Their approaches even to these basic needs show tremendous variation between individuals and between groups.
Eric, what you have written below sounds quite fair to me. It fact, it seems common sense. It is, of course, the perennial failing of academic enthusiasm that common sense is thrown aside. As an undergraduate majoring in philosophy I worried a good deal about individuals being reduced to clusters of social roles or social relationships. Then, one day, I read a bit of Theodore Dobzhansky's magisterial work on evolution. Can't put my finger on just where he said this, but somewhere he remarks that the number of possible combinations of human genes is larger than the number of electrons in the visible universe. Thus, there is a vanishingly small probability that each of us is not unique in some way. Then, starting anthropology, I read the bit from Clyde Kluckhohn that I have mentioned before, where Kluckhohn observes that each human individual is in some respects like every other human individual (basic biology ensures that), in other respects like some other individuals (society and culture), and in still other respects uniquely him or herself (Dobzhansky had already taught me that). It still seems to me to make sense to compare human beings at all these levels and try to sort out the causes or occasions of differences at each of them. It is generally possible to do this while both obeying the physicians' ancient maxim, "First, do no harm" and being respectful of those who allow us to share their lives.

I thus tend to regard the sorts of academic moral panics you mention as the results of the kinds of conditions that Phil has described. Anthropologists who who work with people (by far the great majority) who find themselves at the shitty end of the world's great stick (especially the billion-plus who subsist on less than a US dollar a day) should, it seems to me, naturally develop the kind of guilt feelings and hypersensitivities that leave them morally and intellectually paralyzed. I know that I would be and thank my stars that I wound up in the Far East working with people who are, on the whole, reasonably well off and frequently wealthier, more powerful and smarter than I am.


Eric R. Price said:
John writes:

For example, what if the aim is to remove an aboriginal people, thus making it possible to develop an oil field, gold mine or tourist resort? Have we slipped a bit too close to "The ends justify the means

As I stated earlier, I hope (and personally believe) that anthropology is about creating a broader understanding of the human condition and how it varies from place to place and group to group. To me, understanding is the baseline ends we are trying to achieve, the logical ends. It may be that we go beyond that at times for advocacy's sake - to help preserve cultures that are under external threat, for example. I am certainly not suggesting with my comments that the ends justify the means or that I would want to see anthropology used to exploit a group, as in the example John provides.

Perhaps my post was tangential in its attempt to get at Philip's question and if so, let me clarify. Much of what I have been reading lately would indicate that the discipline, in its attempt to steer away from its colonial past, avoids comparative analysis. Whether that is because we truly doubt that people and cultures are different or because we don't want to be labeled as imperialist, colonialist, racist, etc. is not for me to say. I'm sure that it is a mix of both.

The biologist in me reminds me that people are essentially the same, bur for that matter, we're almost the same as the chimpanzee in biological terms. Clearly, however, people and chimps are not the same, and just as individuals (even those with identical genes) are unique in the collection of traits that make up their personality, groups are unique in the collections of artifacts, rituals, etc. that make up their culture. Can we say that the broad aims of individuals and groups are similar - to live, procreate, etc? Probably, but in doing so we really only say that their biological imperatives are the same. Their approaches even to these basic needs show tremendous variation between individuals and between groups.
Whoops! Theodosius (not Theodore) Dobzhansky.
John,

Even those outside of academia fall victim to the same sorts of 'moral panics'. My last tour in Iraq with the Kurds made me keenly sensitive to the plight they have suffered since before the Ottoman Empire. It was troubling to see these brave fighters marginalized by the Iraqi Army because they aren't Arab, and because they are seen as outsiders that are just biding their time until they can again push for independence. Now those views may be true, but the fact is that the Kurds have suffered for centuries and though they deserve a place of their own, they have been willing for the last six years to aid in the establishment of an Iraqi state that supports Kurd, Arab, and Turkomen alike.

It was hard for me as an advisor, to tell them to grin and bear the indignities laid upon them by the Ministry of Defense, when I sympathized with them so. So I had to do both. That is, I had to advise them as professionals to follow orders and to push their legitimate complaints up the chain, and at the same time I commiserated with them as a friend and colleague over chai and cigarettes.

If I manage to get into a grad/post-grad program for anthropology, I hope to do my fieldwork in Kurdistan because I have great respect for them as a people and would like to bring more understanding about their culture and their plight to the rest of the world.

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