One of my hobbies is reading scientific journals.  I like reading The Lancet, for example, to keep myself abreast with latest medical breakthroughs.  I sense five methods scientists/researchers use in their works. I know there are other things one can observe in reading such journals. For now, I'll focus on these five.  

1) Relying on previous articles, research, studies, and experiments without a generalizing theory as guide

2) Doing repetitive studies, experiments, and research to test the replicability and consistency of results and conclusions

3) Selecting a part of a whole (brain instead of a whole body) for specialized studies, research, and experiments

4) Making hypotheses before doing studies, research, and experiments that will validate or invalidate them

5) Using a language that includes terms, concepts, definitions, interpretations other scientists use and understand   

Are the methods above applicable or possible in anthropological study, research, and fieldwork? If not, is Anthropology then not a science?  If Anthropology is not a science, what is it then?

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I don't think that more authority should be given to the word objectivity than to the word subjectivity. 

Allow  me to disagree. What, after all, is objectivity? In Japanese, I find the translation kyakukansei,in which the kanji characters suggest that objectivity is the guest or visitor's perspective. Chinese uses the same characters. Only the pronunciation ke guan xing is different. Both accord nicely with the idea that objectivity is a third-party perspective from which things invisible to the cultural insiders whose lives are shared and analyzed can be perceived. Does this mean that the guest sees everything? Of course not. The are always zones of privacy from which the guest is excluded. Would understanding what goes on there improve the guest's understanding? Perhaps. But going there also increases the likelihood of winding up on one side or the other of quarrels internal to the group in question. Whose subjective account to believe is always a fraught question. 

Also, that it can be a good thing to get behind the public face of what we observe cannot be denied. But does subjectivity exhaust what we find there? What of material circumstances? What, for example, do we make of actual poverty concealed by the brave face of public celebration that leaves those involved deeper in debt? What of slowly changing economic or ecological conditions that leave those we study in the situation of the boiled frog, who doesn't notice until it is too late that the temperature of the water in the pot is rising? That we should do our best to understand what is happening as the people whose lives we study see it is something we should all take for granted. From soft systems analysis we know that material conditions alone do not determine outcomes on which the responses of human agents depend. But we also know that without an objective understanding of the hard components of the systems, the implications of the (mis)understandings of those most directly involved remain unclear.

Subjective understanding is important, but it only, I suggest, becomes valuable when surrounded by objective understanding. Both are part of the holistic understanding at which anthropology should properly aim.

@Larry: give or take some meaning, yes.

@M: your comment on how science works leads me to recommend some STS before further conversation; pickering, hacking, latour, schaffer, rabinow etc. in a nutshell refer to my initial bullet points. 'Science' artefacts are not scientific practice per se, your initial question is interesting in a certain light for me in so far as appreciating some basic principles, but understandably some integral work has escaped you due to a certain narrative.

@gabrielle: precisely.

@John: You have not understood gabrielle's point. It is the unfortunate way of online language. I mean you back it up in your linguistic example and then contradict yourself in the next paragraph? Objectivity does not equal physical, material, hard, nature etc... That is subjective in the limited sense of the word. Latours sheer obviousness is boring me but he points out something quite important, what is objective as objective in objective terms while objective, objective, objective, has been totally commandeered by one 'scientific' (in what I shall call the folkloric sense) way of living things. As an admirer of the 'sociotechnical' I can tell you I am not stuck in 1D of social social cultural cultural land. Hence the usefulness of ontology at this point. But anyway I think a concise and outlined new post is deserved. coming soon.

In addition,

There has been a number of conversations highlighted on the OAC recently that could use the 'bush' treatment.

Salzmans weak points from a while back highlighted on the 'This week' section, I mean every sentence was near terrible (unfortunate since his published work I have learnt from).

John, your conversation about anthropologies 'lack of' abilities was also very petty and in no way reflective of the burgeoning generation and work out there. Maybe of those in academic power, but since when was that the concern. Do not mistake the BS of social-constructivist, techno-determinist, or historo-structuralist as what is growing out there. You wondered on one of your posts why no one answered. Because they either didnt get it, and if they did that question was not a worthwhile endeavour. I could go on.

As I said before, work out a touchstone of what one means by objectivity and subjectivity (hopefully  something more enlightening than such a boringly modern dichotomy) then we can do anthropology and pluralistically compare effectively without getting lost in ether.

rant over.


Abraham, I think I had exhausted what I knew in previous discussions on  Deleuze's  assemblage, Guattari's  ecology, Serres'  aggregate, and Latour's  network.  I don't want to go back.  I'm pretty sure those four are enough to deconstruct (hard) science.  If you put anything in a web, it loses its identity.  My original post is not about the abstraction or the critique of science. After buying and reading so many books on Postmodernism, I have come to realize that anything can be Postmodernized or deconstructed.  It gets boring now.      

I thought Latour did grow up already and accept his theoretical follies.

I still like his ideas on realism, relativism, ontology, and metaphysics as far as actor-network theory is concerned, but I'm already too old to remain a coffeeshop Postmodernist and an armchair critic of scientific facts.

I have been reading how biological anthropologists use genetics in their studies that end with hypotheses as conclusions.  I'm interested to know why they fancy genetics.  Is it to align anthropology with natural or life sciences?  Is it to go extreme against humanistic anthropologists?  Is it for public acceptance?  Is it for research funding?

Importing methods used in natural or life sciences for more objectivity and empiricism in anthropology is better than turning anthropology into a poor copy of natural or life sciences.

What really influenced me in starting this discussion was what Chagnon wrote:

‎"Those departments of anthropology whose members adhere to the scientific method will endure and again come to be the 'standard approach' to the study of Homo sapiens, while those that are non-scientific will become less and less numerous or eventually be absorbed into disciplines that are non-anthropological, like comparative literature, gender studies, philosophy and others." 

I don't like his idea of anthropology as science.  I think the identity of anthropology should be based on the appropriation of methods from humanities and hard sciences in the study of culture.  I'm still reflecting what anthropologists can take from humanities to make this humanities versus science in anthropology irrelevant. 



I, too, chose anthropology in college because of the adventurous idea that I could study anything.  After taking Anthropological Theories, I became disillusioned. Three theories--Marxism, Feminism, Postmodernism were spoon-fed to us like we needed them to study culture. 

I knew even then that anything can be viewed through Marxist, Feminist, and Postmodernist lenses.  It is so because class, gender, and power exist in any culture.  If it's not about the masses, we can talk about the elite that alienate the latter.  If it's not about women and misogyny, we can talk about men and patriarchy.  Postmodernism is the worst--we can theoretically deconstruct anything that is socially constructed.

I find methods more interesting than theories.  When I read a thesis or a dissertation, I go straight to the methodology.  I want to find out how she/he does her/his research, fieldwork, and ethnography.  Same thing in sciences, I'm interested to know how scientists discover breakthroughs.  

I once read a thesis about rape.  The first theory I saw was Marxism.  She was a Marxist-Feminist.  I could not help but ask myself, "Did Marx write something about rape?"  I think we should focus on methods not on theories.  

I got it, Abraham; you are into STS.  As far as I'm concerned, STS has gone too far.  When I had it as the last GE course in my senior year, I liked it.  It was Moral Philosophy/Philosophy of Ethics situated in society and culture with science and technology as subject and history and archaeology as modes of inquiry.  I learned how STS humanized science and scientists.  I had the feeling then that STS had the potential of becoming anti-science and anti-scientists.  For that reason, I avoided it.

When STS started becoming loudly postmodernist, science became the power that should be deconstructed a la Foucault; the fact, a la Latour; the reality, a la Baudrillard.  What these French have contributed is distrusting as the initial point of inquiry.  When one starts distrusting, no amount of truth will change his mind.  If he distrusts science in the beginning (of research), I don't see a reason why he won't be an anti-science in the end (in his conclusion).   My logic is simple: when one has distrusted everything, his next step is to distrust himself or when one has deconstructed everything, what happens next is the deconstruction of deconstruction. It happened to Latour--now he is into the construction of realism.

STS scholars who question "scientific fact" and influence the gullible others should blame themselves why there are AIDS denialists who believed HIV doesn't cause AIDS, why there are conspiracy theory believers who include alien invasion and illuminati control in their schizophrenia and insanity, why there are those who think global warming is not real, why there are people who will rather remain ignorant than believe in gravity as a scientific fact.

I already said on Savage Minds that one can deny gravity as a fact but he won't jump off the building because death is a concern.  I thought the Sokal affair proved already the BS.



I don't mind a bit when someone tells me that I have misunderstood what they or someone else has written. That's part of dialogue, a door opening to fresh perspectives. What I hope for, however, is that the person who thinks that I have misunderstood will tell me, as exactly as possible, where the misunderstanding lies.

When I read what Gabrielle wrote, "I don't think that more authority should be given to the word objectivity than to the word subjectivity," I could have taken her more literally and simply remarked that I don't attribute authority to individual words and, in that sense, agreed with what she says. Perhaps I was mistaken to hear overtones of an ancient quarrel that goes back to Plato versus the poets, enlightenment rationality versus romantic intuition, the scientists versus the humanists, all rooted in a bifurcation of the world into (a) stuff we think is really real and important and (b) stuff we think is illusion and ultimately inconsequential—an opposition simply flipped on its head when the poet in a romantic mood elevates deep feeling and the well-chosen trope and rails against the narrow-mindedness of scientific abstraction and mathematical or instrumental logic. I can easily believe that I was mistaken. I often am. I need some help to figure out why. Can you or better she (I admire people who speak up for themselves) provide the help I need?

I can also easily believe that there is new thinking burgeoning among young anthropologists of which I am unaware. That is something for whose appearance I have been waiting for decades, and I would be delighted to learn more. Please do tell us more. 


Perhaps because I came to anthropology from philosophy (mostly analytical and philosophy of science), I was never under the illusion that anthropology would be a realm of perfect freedom leading to total understanding. I was looking for engagement, physical as well as intellectual, that would break through the endless recycling of what I had come to call the George E. Moore game: X asserts Y; Z picks a term, phrase, or proposition from Y and says, "I don't understand that; X replies with Y1 (a revision or elaboration of Y); Z picks a term, phrase, or proposition from Y1 and says, "I don't understand that."  The process iterates until X gives up trying to explain what X meant by Yn. Z then gets to sneer, "Gotcha." It is hard to see in what way, if any, knowledge has been advanced. 

When I say "science" or "serious scholarship," I do not restrict their scope to the combination of mathematical abstraction and experimental testing that we borrow from classical physics and use to describe hard science. I see statistical approaches using what Andrew Abbott calls the standard causal model to infer what are purported to be timeless principles that explain quantitative distribution as a softer form of science that may be appropriate when  practical or ethical considerations rule out experiment. I have also done some reading in the areas of case-based legal and clinical reasoning, where proof beyond reasonable doubt is central. Having done anthropology and observed my fellow social and cultural anthropologists at work, I have concluded that even at this degree of softening, what we do is rarely science. In most cases, our observations are too fragmentary, our speculations too weakly grounded, our biases too manifest to make even that claim. We are, however, in this regard no more worse off than our friends the historians or students of ancient art or literature, who also construct narratives to account for what is often only thin and fragmented evidence. Like them, we can still do what the scientists do, insofar as we construct hypotheses in a way that makes it clear what we are talking about, systematically search for evidence that disproves them, and insist that some theories are better than others because they account more fully for greater detail in the evidence we have. That is the way in which we expand the sum of human knowledge and occasionally learn things of some practical use as well.

My intellectual animus is directed against those who seize upon "theory," make large claims in terms that seem more pretentious than enlightening, and, at the end of the day, do nothing more than expound whatever theory entrances them, while cherry-picking anecdotes to illustrate thoughts that are rarely clear in any detail. To call that process "proof" or even "argument" is preposterous. In expounding this animus, I am and am likely to remain a curmudgeon. 

Still, as I've just said to Abraham, I am eager to learn new things. If I misunderstand and can be shown why, I will happily change my mind. If I couldn't do that I wouldn't, as I see it, be able to do science at all.

So. First of all when I was not trying to argue that subjectivity should have more authority than objectivity. What I was trying to say is that often an 'objective argument' is given more authority to than a 'subjective argument' which is not necessarily a good thing. One of the reasons for this not being a good thing is that it backs up the 'true = real', which I think is a very biased way of approaching our world.

I definitely don't deny that there is a possibility of frogs risking to get boiled. But there are many of these frogs every where, and the ones which get the money not to be boiled do so for very biased reasons. The problem for me then comes when the word 'objectivity' is then used as a weapon to explain why these frogs are getting more money than the others.

Furthermore if my friend is risking his or her life (and I am not saying here that people give money to the boiling frogs because they are their friends), and I can do something to help them, I will do so simply because they are my friend, and will not pretend that there is anything objective behind it. And if someone was to save their friends and do so saying that they are objective in that process, then they would be seen as being very inhumane. The subjective is what makes us who we are, and I admire people who work with their subjectivity rather than against it. I like the image of the chinese and japanese characters. But what I especially like about them is that this third party is a person (a guest or a visitor) - this means that this third person is bringing their own subjectivity to the argument, and that this subjectivity is useful, not detrimental, to the unfolding of a solution.

I think this is my main disagreement with postmodernism as a theory. It is indeed a lot of deconstruction, with 'nothing' left at the end. But what is this nothing? It's the values, beliefs, questions, ... of all of us. For me, these are not nothing. Furthermore, they are actually quite concretely physically impacting this planet - progress is value which slowly boiling a lot of frogs. But because progress is often seen as objective ('objectively it is better to live in a house then in a cave'), it is hard to discuss it. And I am not saying that progress is a bad thing, simply that if it is put in the category of 'subejctive' then we can start discussing it and working together to find which subjectivities we actually want to be in charge of building our world. I guess this is also why I had written the 'words' subjectivity and 'objectivity' because these are categories that we fit things into in order to communicate with each other, but then we often start giving power/authority to these categories, and then this is when it all becomes very subjective.

Finally, M, I like what you say about the method and theory because I think that this is indeed something where anthropology still has a lot to learn. But I would add that there is also another important point, which is the agenda and questions of the anthropologist at the beginning - which you talk about in your discussion about Chagnon. In a theoretical anthropology class that I had last year, I remember out lecturer telling us about the big debate on the virgin births - first you had Malinowski who talked about it in papua new guinea, then you had some feminist ( i can't remember which) who said that the only reason why malinowski was talking about it was because he couldn't conceive a society where the role of women would be seen as more important in the birth of the children, then this debate carried on with the new ways of giving birth today, where the role of the man and the women can be close to nothing, etc... And from what our lecturer was saying, this was actually a very important debate which went on and on. But what this actually told us was that what fascinates these anthropologists is the question of 'what makes us who we are' 'where do we come from in the first place' 'what are we made of' and if this question was of no importance to them, then probably these theories would have never existed. And these questions are completely subjective (or at least the reason why they are important to us is subjective). However, we will debate for hours about these questions of which the importance is subjective - and I think that the power of these subjective questions is a wonderful thing and I don't think that it would be better if these questions were objectively important (if there was such a thing as an objectively important question).

And, I think that these questions and there subjective importance can also tell us something about the questions that are the basis of theories that science is made of, and therefore at the basis of the physicality of the world that we live in.

It seems your idea of subjectivity is all over. I understand your points. There is a subjectivity that is good.  A lot of them actually.  But I'm more comfortable calling it as well-thought out preference.

Choosing a field site is already subjective.  If one studies rape in India, we can ask why not study rape in Pakistan?  There are many factors such as safety of the researcher or intensity of the subject (is rape more prevalent in India?) why he chooses India; thus, his preference is well-thought out.

Even in methods, choosing focus group discussion (FGD) over interview or storytelling is subjective.  Maybe he doesn't like interview or storytelling because it has a tendency to turn into gossip or maybe he thinks rape is a community problem that should be talked about as a group with different views.  Again this preference, though subjective, is good and well thought out.    


Choosing informants is also subjective.  Maybe he avoids that woman because she is known in the community for exaggerating things or maybe he prefers that man because he is honest and not shy to express his views even if they are about the ugly and the bad in his culture.  Again that subjective preference is good and well-thought out.

The subjectivity that is bad is the one that is done to manipulate result and conclusion.  Chagnon taking with him a geneticist to the Amazon had the subjective goal to explain Yanomamo violence as biological/genetic even though it is profoundly political and economic.  Why didn't he invite a political, economic, or social anthropologist to go with him?  


Another is the use of theory that affects how an anthropologist sees, observes, gathers data, frames his argument, and makes his conclusion.  When he goes to the field as Marxist, even when he is in the middle of a wedding ceremony, he'll only see what are related to class, alienation, means of production, exploitation.  Bringing theory to the field is always subjective and not good for a holistic ethnography. It causes ethnographic myopia.

Withholding information that do not fit to his narrative is also subjective and the worst of all.  If women in a community say they are valued that's why they are the ones who inherit lands and a Feminist anthropologist hides that information so she can focus on the idea of economic misogyny she sees in the field tilled by those women, that is subjectivity--the worst one.  

What I want to share is the difference between well-thought out subjectivity (preference) and subjectivity (manipulation) done maliciously.   


First, thank you for continuing this conversation. I find it very encouraging that you and Abraham and Ragnhild continue to engage even when your interlocutor (in this case me) appears to be obtuse and obnoxious. 

You write,

So. First of all when I was not trying to argue that subjectivity should have more authority than objectivity. What I was trying to say is that often an 'objective argument' is given more authority to than a 'subjective argument' which is not necessarily a good thing. One of the reasons for this not being a good thing is that it backs up the 'true = real', which I think is a very biased way of approaching our world.

The only problem I have with this is that I don't know what counts as a "subjective argument." When I think of objective arguments, I think of assumptions and evidence on which people agree as a starting point for reaching conclusions. But I certainly don't think that everyone who claims to be objective is. Appeals to conventional wisdom, especially the conventional wisdom of those in positions of authority, are too often labeled "objective," when they amount to nothing more than established prejudice. But what am I to make of "subjective argument"?

In my framing of the world "subjective" is defined dialectically in opposition to "objective." More concretely, subjective is to objective as invisible is to visible, interior is to exterior, unconventional is to conventional, feeling is to logic. Given this framing, it is not hard to understand why those who claim to be objective win more arguments than those who find themselves labeled subjective, advocates of personal opinions of no self-evident (albeit socially constructed) value. Self-proclaimed realists, those who offer what are taken to be objective arguments because their premises are unquestioned, will always win an argument against those whose premises can be dismissed as mere imagination.

But perhaps this framing itself is wrong. Can a case be made for "subjective arguments" that will be as strong (valid or simply persuasive) as objective arguments? I have some ideas, but before I rattle on I would like to hear how you or Abraham or Ragnhild, M or anyone else here would address this question.


You write,

Even in methods, choosing focus group discussion (FGD) over interview or storytelling is subjective.

You appear to be assuming a researcher who can choose whatever method he or she prefers, based on personal or scholarly preference. From my perspective you neglect practical questions, not the least of which are time and money. 

While working for a large advertising agency that prides itself on its market research, I noticed that some projects involved no research at all. Some involved focus groups. Some involved theater tests or quantitative surveys with Gallup-sized samples. Only a few involved test marketing. This scale of research possibilities was very precisely calibrated with the scale of the total budget for the project and, thus, the risk entailed by accepting and executing a proposal. Roughly speaking, most people were on board with the idea that exploratory (ethnographic or desk) research was a good starting point when launching new products into poorly understood markets. Focus groups or other more expensive methods would be used to test marketing hypotheses only if the risk was high.

Don't take these figures too literally, but a rule of thumb might be, less than $100,000, no research; less than $1,000,000 focus groups if the client were nervous; less than $10,000,000, theater testing and/or quantitative surveys; above that level, test marketing became a serious option. (All this was before the Internet and Internet surveys, which are turning the world of market research upside down.)

@John That was the only example I could think of as far as acceptable subjectivity in methods is concerned. Besides, I had anthropological fieldwork in mind not marketing research.  You are right. Time, money, logistics are also reasons why a researcher chooses particular methods.  Subjectivity because of those cases is still reasonable and understandable.    

Thanks, M. I began thinking of these issues when I did my first fieldwork in Taiwan. An admirer of Victor Turner, I imagined myself analyzing the local social structure, compiling extended case studies, then examining ritual in light of what I'd learned about the structural positions and conflicts in which those participating were engaged. It didn't take me long after arriving in Puli, a market town with a population of 35,000 located in the center of Taiwan, to realize that, working among the Ndembu, Turner had been working with people who live in grass huts in villages whose populations averaged around two dozen people. My people were Hokkien-speaking Chinese who lived behind brick walls and, while their quarrels would sometimes spill into the street, their lives were largely invisible to me. I was interested in ritual, but which rituals should I be interested in? In Puli, we had City God and Confucius temples, spirit-writing cults and spirit mediums, ancestor worship, geomancers, fortunetellers, and magicians ("magician" is a reasonable translation for 法师,Hokkien hoat-su, Mandarin fa-shi), Catholics, Protestants, and adherents of Buddhist-inspired new religions. When I found myself confronted with the opportunity to spend a year and a half as an apprentice/disciple to a Daoist magician, I leapt at the chance. The question was what to do with it. Previous anthropologists in Taiwan had done community studies. They saw only the rituals that happened to occur in the communities they studied during the period that they were there. I was traveling the length and breadth of Taiwan with my master, whose network of clients and disciples took us all sorts of places, mainly in the north and center of the island. I would never get to know the people for whom we performed rituals in any depth, certainly not enough to analyze the social background to the issues that my master's rituals addressed. I did, however, get to see many, many more rituals than the anthropologists doing community studies. I was able to document in close detail my master's repertoire and treating the symbols in it as a linguist treats utterances from a native informant, write a grammar of his rituals for my dissertation.

Had I remained in academia, there were several directions I might have pursued. I might have dug more deeply into my master's biography, which included growing up in Taiwan when Taiwan was still a Japanese colony and serving in the Japanese military police during WWII. I could have tracked the lives and careers of his children, the oldest son who took over the temple when my master died, and his three brothers, a high-school principal, a salesman selling Japanese construction machinery, and a computer expert who wound up working for Hewlett-Packard. I could have spent more time with my master's wife, trying to get her perspective on what her husband had done for a living and why she herself spent time learning to chant Buddhist sutras. Alternatively, I might have chosen to work on my classical Chinese and pursue the historical roots of the rituals my master performed through the several thousand pages of the Daoist canon. I might also have decided to devote myself to the comparative study of ritual in a cross-cultural context, comparing Chinese with non-Chinese ritual. There were many possible paths. To have followed them all would have been impossible. 

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