"What do anthropologists study?"

"Culture."

"Culture?"

"The stuff everybody in a group takes for granted."

"Ah....what about the exceptions to the rules?"

 

After spending many years in the bowels of the beast, working in and around the advertising industry in Japan, it has become increasingly clear to me that the anthropological ethics of informant anonymity and non-judgmental description, combined with an engrained distaste for hierarchy, produce radically unrealistic descriptions of culture and other industries in which who’s who and incessant value judgments are fundamental elements in what is going on.

This was brought home to me while trying to teach a fine ethnography of a Japanese advertising agency.  I suddenly realized that my students were assuming that the way the making of advertising was described in this book was the way in which advertising is made in Japan—instead, that is, of the way advertising is made by second-rate hacks who are assigned to the international division because they aren’t good enough to cut it in domestic advertising, where the budgets are orders of magnitude larger.

It is reinforced by my work with members of teams whose ads have won awards in a major Japanese advertising contest. There are certainly good reasons to believe that contests like this one reinforce established hierarchies, especially given that the juries are made up of people who have previously won awards. They are also, however, arenas in which current hierarchies are contested, genuinely creative work is celebrated, and innovation legitimized.

It now seems to me that anthropological theory is gutted by the assumption that a culture is uniformly shared and an ethics of professional presentation that preclude consideration of why some individuals are outstanding, instead of average, examples of what we are talking about. By focusing on the average, we lose sight of the exemplary and thus of a critical factor in social and cultural change.

 

Special thanks to Patricia Lange, who started

the thread on Savage Minds that stimulated this remark.

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John, I agree with your premise and believe that what you are calling for is a return to the German tradition. This focused on exemplary individuals and cases seen as dynamic historical phenomena within an articulate philosophical tradition and stood opposed to a French and British focus on social averages. (Although there was a particularist strand of English history and comparative jurisprudence that influenced British social anthrpopology). The majority of American anthropologists were at first German in origin which partly accounts for the focus on culture there. But everything went haywire after 1945 when Germany lost not only the war but its distinctive leadership in the global knowledge industry and German social scientists aped their new American masters. This was also the time when the US shifted from being a loose federation to being a nation-state and world power with obvious consequences for the ruling ideology and of course for anthropology.

The larger question you raise concerns the persistence of national culture and society as the frame for social thought. Ethnography was invented for the purpose of building nations and the "discovery" of the national model of territorially bounded cultural homogeneity in so many primitive, exotic locations reinforced its claims to universality. But society has been escaping from its national framework since at least the 1970s, even if this is only slowly becoming recognized in the approaches adopted by anthropologists. The saddest thing is that there is no sign of the Germans leading a move back to their own particularist traditions. Whenever I go there, I can never find anyone willing to discuss individuals, history and dialectics. Instead they just reproduce their intellectual status as an American colony. This could change, however. Let's hope so.

Thanks, Keith. I agree entirely with what you say about ethnography and nationalism. What, after all, is a culture conceived as a bounded whole but yet another another version of the nation within its proper boundaries, the self defined by its native genius, or the work of art in its frame—that were all simultaneously celebrated by German romantics in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

 

That said, I am not advocating a return to the führerprinzip or great man theory of history. I am, instead, wrestling in my own peculiar way with the structure-agency problem, recognizing that agents who do more than go with the flow of their structuring structures and effect serious change are, inevitably, exceptions to the habitus of the groups in which they appear. In my own research, I am wrestling with a project that when completed will include

  1. quantitative analysis of a series of social networks: members of teams that produce the ads declared winners in a major advertising contest,
  2. comparison of network measures with relevant economic data, to show how the changes in the networks are correlated with fluctuations in Japan's GDP and the changing shares of major media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines) in total ad spend during the 30-year period in question, thus building a framework within which to
  3. consider the history of industry assessments and forecasts over the same period, leading to a look at
  4. a long-standing debate within the organization that runs the ad contest, concerning the proper roles of advertising copy and copywriters in producing advertising, followed by
  5. interviews with key figures, in which we discuss their careers and their take on what I think I have learned in steps 1-4.

Yes, this is a hell of a lot of work, and it is not a project I'd recommend for anyone needing to finish a Ph.D. within the foreseeable future or publish another book before a tenure review. It is, however, an attempt to construct a framework within which to integrate the quantitative and qualitative, analytic and interpretive approaches in a way required, I believe, to extend the vision of ethnography to large-scale societies in a plausible manner.

It will, of course, be imperfect, as all things human are. It will, however, be at least a tentative dialectical step beyond the great man versus social forces framework in which so much contemporary debate remains embedded, not a return to great man instead of social forces.

That's a pretty amazing project, John. Good luck with it. But reducing the German intellectual tradition to a Führerprinzip is exactly the kind of lazy arrogance that has led to the wholesale denigration of what Germans distinctively contributed to modern thought, including by many contemporary Germans. Certainly there are many precedents there for your interest in combining quantitative and qualitative approaches. The whole institutionalist tradition was German in origin before it took on its 20th century American form. Manchester University's economic history department between the wars was the only one in Britain to approach economy from a German historical economics perspective. It meant that they studied the history of particular firms rather than be content with abstract generalizations.

I believe that the German approach is alive and well as practice, but not as a living academic tradition. Here is an example. In the 90s, donors from many western countries extended micro-loans to Bulgaria, among other Eastern European coutnries. These failed becasue they relied on the Bulgarian banks whose functionaries could not accept the risk of default on loans, so they lent no money. The Germans sent middle-level teams (not the leadership) from both sides to spend weekends in the countryside figuring out at a very personal level what might work. The solutions they came up with were eventually adopted by most other donors, including the EU.

The principle here is to recognize the subjectivity, particularity, individuality, creativity and dialectic that go into building effective institutions. The Americans treated Bulgaria as if it were Sri Lanka or Lesotho and delegated their standard loans scheme to a Catholic charity whose highhandedness was universally resented. The Germans acknowledged and studied the historical differences between Bulgaria and its neighbours. The fundamental attitudes to research and implementation run all the way through these different approaches.

Paradoxically, I am claiming that the variety of national intellectual traditions might be one way of rescuing anthropology from reliance on its one-size-fits-all methodology. More than anything else I look to German traditions for how to bring anthropology closer to philosophy, history and literature. There is more to this too than romanticism (which flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). More relevant to our purposes are the neo-Kantians, such as Weber and Simmel.

Keith, thanks again. I will happily raise your ire when it produces this type of commentary. 

 

That said, no wholesale insult to the German tradition intended—just taking a strong line to ward off misreading that assumes that the only alternative to writing about social forces or entrenched ideas that affect the masses is to attribute everything to magical powers ascribed to the Prime Minister, CEO, creative genius or other leader. The problem is to understand how, confronted with certain historical conditions, which include the networks in which they become embedded and how those are affected by other material circumstances, individuals come to think and act in ways that may, on occasion, lead to their being regarded as geniuses. The fundamental premise is that deeper understanding of the processes involved may say something useful about society and history at large.

 

In my case that premise owes a great deal to Victor Turner, who in turn drew on many of the German greats, most notably Marx and Freud, but also Simmel via Lewis Coser, as he framed his analyses of Ndembu society and ritual. I have since discovered that Simmel is, in particular, the ancestor most venerated by social network analysts, who see his discussions of the dyad and triad as the origin of the type of analyses they do. 

No question about it, I should revisit Weber. When I read him as an undergraduate, it was largely as a precursor to Talcott Parsons, which led to my largely writing him off as another spinner of large, static typologies of no particular practical use. I have learned better since, but I have never found the time to properly dig into him when there is so much else to do. I would be especially delighted if you or someone else here could summarize what he had to say about charisma, a topic closely related to the team-building, leadership and creativity issues that most fascinate me.

We know that charisma (like genius or spirit possession) appears most likely to be ascribed to individuals in unsettled situations, especially if said individuals are first to take actions or advance ideas that are then embraced by others. That said, it seems to me that to say something happens because of charisma is like explaining fire by invoking phlogiston. The critical question is always, how did that happen.  

 

Nikos, I wasn't talking about German anthropology at all, but rather the Geistewissenschaften in general.

It was an example of a method. No fuss. Maybe you should try a less splenetic style, Nikos, in the interest of intellectual exchange rather than baboon pink arse display.

Just want to say that I agree with the importance of Ulrich Beck's Risk Society. Among other things, its description of a world in which people of all classes fear invisible threats and feel forced to turn to experts for assistance in assessing and addressing these threats, sounds an awful lot like the world of traditional Chinese religion, in whose study I was once, and may be again, deeply involved. I speculate that it is not a bad description of all sorts of polytheistic/magical cosmologies found all over the world, which provide the settings for various forms of "spiritual" expertise. 

 

I recall in this regard reading Stoller's Fusion of Worlds and thinking how similar his West African sorcerers/healers seemed to the Daoist healers with whom I worked in Taiwan. The local color was different, but the basic schtick—providing persuasive diagnoses and ritual responses to people stuck with problems that they don't know how to deal with themselves—seemed remarkably similar. Ditto for the antagonism of various "ritual experts" to each other, expressed in accusations of sorcery/black magic. Still makes me wonder if it isn't time that anthropology's pendulum swung back from obsession with local nuance to bigger picture understandings of phenomena that seem, if not totally global, at least widespread in their distribution.

I am following this discussion with the interest of a colonized German who is critical of this status (my status). Keith, you have raised one paradox in your comment yourself: advocating the analysis of trans-national processes on the one hand, and rediscovering national traditions of thoughts on the other hand. I think there is yet another paradox in your comment, however – but maybe I am wrong – which is: in your example on micro loans in Bulgaria, you write that the initial problem was that “the Americans treated Bulgaria as if it were Sri Lanka or Lesotho“, and that one should better come to terms with „historical differences between Bulgaria and its neighbours“.  This would of course imply a study of nation states and their cultural particularities. Isn’t this again a reification of the nation states?

This said, I am honestly interested in finding ways to rediscover German approaches beyond the Führerprinzip that focus on exemplary individuals instead of social average. Maybe Sloterdijk could be an interesting vantage point, as he recently started to investigate what people do when they try to optimize themselves.



Keith Hart said:

I believe that the German approach is alive and well as practice, but not as a living academic tradition. Here is an example. In the 90s, donors from many western countries extended micro-loans to Bulgaria, among other Eastern European coutnries. These failed becasue they relied on the Bulgarian banks whose functionaries could not accept the risk of default on loans, so they lent no money. The Germans sent middle-level teams (not the leadership) from both sides to spend weekends in the countryside figuring out at a very personal level what might work. The solutions they came up with were eventually adopted by most other donors, including the EU.

The principle here is to recognize the subjectivity, particularity, individuality, creativity and dialectic that go into building effective institutions. The Americans treated Bulgaria as if it were Sri Lanka or Lesotho and delegated their standard loans scheme to a Catholic charity whose highhandedness was universally resented. The Germans acknowledged and studied the historical differences between Bulgaria and its neighbours. The fundamental attitudes to research and implementation run all the way through these different approaches.

Paradoxically, I am claiming that the variety of national intellectual traditions might be one way of rescuing anthropology from reliance on its one-size-fits-all methodology. More than anything else I look to German traditions for how to bring anthropology closer to philosophy, history and literature. There is more to this too than romanticism (which flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). More relevant to our purposes are the neo-Kantians, such as Weber and Simmel.

Thanks for taking up this thread, Florian. You do me an honour, since my argument had several dodgy features of which you have caught more than one.

I do not celebrate Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Simmel because they are German, but because I have learned so much from each of them individually. I find it interesting to speculate about combining the various national traditions in the way that one could say Marx combined German historical philosophy, French social thought and British economics. This is not to reify those traditions or to cancel out internal differences, but to make a first stab at intellectual comparison within a context of social history. It reflects the influence of teaching on how I think.

You are right to warn against the danger of reifying the nation-state, but here too national differences make an initial approximation to significant variation that, if it is serious, must push to other, more contradictory levels. Thus one might start with a contrast between African and European witchcraft, but this is likely to reveal significant relationships that are found in both places and elsewhere. My point in saying that the Germans were aware that Bulgaria is not Hungary or Romania is to take up an issue raised by Jim Ferguson in The Anti-Politics Machine, where he claims that the World Bank's recipes for poverty reduction abstract from local differences and thereby remove the politics from development.

What I take to be the great contribution of the neo-Kantians is their insistence on building ideal types, theoretical constructs if you like, whose form reflects the empirical substance they seek to understand. The pure types of subjectivity and objectivity are impossible to realise, yet an aspiration to each in combination is indispensable to truthful inquiry.

I am biased in that I believe Kant's philosophy is the highest achievement of the liberal Enlightenment and, unlike many anti-liberal intellectuals, I cherish how his legacy was interpreted and developed in 19th century German (but not just German) thought.

It is interesting that you bring up Peter Sloterdijk. I would like you to say more about him. I suppose he is famous for many things, but, living in France as I do, my attention has been drawn in particular to his heretical views on the welfare state. A French translation of a critical essay by Axel Honneth, Pauvres classes dominantes, appeared in Le Monde on 25th October 2009. My own ideas about the state have shifted of late. I think it would be fair to say that, when I wrote The Memory Bank a decade ago, I considered the state to be a greater evil than capitalism. But the work I have done since with French and Latin American colleagues on The Human Economy (and am now pursuing in South Africa) has brought me to a clearer understanding of the need for state intervention in development. This has been reinforced by conditions since the crash of 2008. The problem is to find out where the state could be said meaningfully to be.

Just to go back a couple of steps; charisma for Weber isn't one thing - it is heterogenous; it is the power that people ascribe to 'all demands that go beyond those of everyday routine' (routine is typically patriarchal or bureaucratic in form). Individual freedom within a world of multiple possibilities is a given for Weber. Sociologically at least, charisma is just one way of justifying particular kinds of claim or channeling certain kinds of participation etc. There is, though, as with Simmel a tension between Weber the liberal who views individual action as essentially free and Weber (or Simmel) the formalist who likes to see types everywhere.

 

It is true that usually Weber is associated with his various typologies, but he did what can reasonably be thought of as ethnographic work; his essay on 'The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism', which is based on a visit to the USA in 1904 is an interesting case in point:

 

"First a few personal observations... On a long railroad journey through what was then Indian territory, the author, sitting next to a travelling salesman casually mentioned the still impressively strong church-mindedness. Thereupon the salesman remarked 'Sir, for my part everybody may believe or not believe as he pleases; but if I saw a farmer or a businessman not belonging to any church at all, I wouldn't trust him with 50 cents..." Weber then enters a very careful analysis of the importance of belonging to a church in order to be in a position to do business.

 

Since there is a tendency to denigrate ethnography here, (and I suppose I would say this since I have spent a lot of time writing on the subject) I would argue strongly for detaching ethnography from the social determinist argument and from the view that one ethnography = one society. The alternatives are actually fairly well argued through by now. For instance, I strongly disagree that anthropology is the study of 'peoples' a la Viveiros de Castro, but I still think that ethnography is vital to anthropological knowledge.

 

 


Nice take on routine and charisma, Huon. I would add that Weber's most important ideal types were defined as sets whose mixture could be found in complex social reality. Thus tradition (here patriarchy), charisma and rationality (bureaucracy or market).

I would not want to denigrate ethnography, especially if it means talking to people in trains. I have read your important book on reading ethnography, so I know how much thought you have put into the project. My beef is, if the word is used to refer to studies of peoples, it is passe and if not, it can mean almost anything. But my main complaint is that many contemporary anthropologists reduce what they do to something called "fieldwork-based ethnography" and have lost sight not only of anthropology, but of all the other things that go into a story like Weber's about business and church-membership.

It is time that anthropologists owned up to doing much more than fieldwork in arriving at our idiosyncratic perspectives on the world. What else do we do? We write, teach, read widely, attend lectures, join discussion groups, criticize, make comparisons, watch television, listen to the radio, go to the movies, read newspapers, exchange messages; travel, surf the web; some of us actually count numbers, develop abstractions, study international languages, acquire historical perspectives, attempt scientific analysis, write poetry, make films and even sometimes think and reflect. We tell stories. What is mainly missing from the standard account is how these stories have shaped the trajectory of anthropology.

I celebrate the ethnographic revolution. It is great that a class of professionals decided to leave their comfort zone and study what people do and think where they live. I can't imagine how to study humanity without doing that. But it is not enough and, by clinging to this traditional mantra, we avoid self-scrutiny when it comes to anthropological methods. It is not accidental that ethnographers studied peoples as social averages. That's what the nationalist project is all about. If we want to retain aspects of that approach while trying something else, why stick to calling it ethnography? And, above all, why not pay more more explicit attention to the other things that make us anthropologists?

Huon, thanks so much for the remarks about charisma. It helps considerably to sharpen the point I was making when I compared charisma to phlogiston. You write,

charisma is just one way of justifying particular kinds of claim or channeling certain kinds of participation etc


This tells me that charisma is a pot-hoc label, a justification instead of an explanation. It also makes me pause. I am trying to remember if I have ever heard "charisma" used as anything besides a handy eumphemism for "We don't have a clue." No, that's not right. We do have clues. Something that surprises, delights or horrifies us has happened. We know that some situation was unsettled. Then something surprising happened.  We attribute its happening to the presence of an individual. But what was it about that individual or, more precisely, how that individual in question acted in that situation, that makes us look for something magical instead of trying to sort out the detailed mechanisms in question?


For those of us in the creative trades, this is a serious issue. Whether advertising creatives, brand consultants, or political pollsters, we are looking for answers that typically assume the form: The following details (d1, d2, d3....) interact to form a pattern P that appeals to a target audience T. It grabs their attention, stimulates interest, instantly communicates news,  adds value to the image of the individual, group or product in question, and, if it all comes together, moves the audience to act in the way that we want them to. 


Analyzed in these terms, the Weber on the train example and the salesman's response suggest the following logic: If the salesman hears that X is an atheist, the message is unexpected; it grabs his attention. It stimulates interest, leading the salesman to question if he wants to do business with X. In this case, the answer is no; the value added is negative  rather than positive. If the salesman is looking for business, this is not a motivator for trying to do business with X.


There is no rocket science here. The analysis may, in fact, be simplistic. But unlike "charisma," it at least attempts to spell out what is going on. 


Can we do better than this? 



I repeat what I said in a previous post.

The problem is to understand how, confronted with certain historical conditions, which include the networks in which they become embedded and how those are affected by other material circumstances, individuals come to think and act in ways that may, on occasion, lead to their being regarded as geniuses. The fundamental premise is that deeper understanding of the processes involved may say something useful about society and history at large.

Does Weber say anything more that suggests a stronger solution than what we have heard about charisma so far?

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