Whatever our many disagreements on a variety of topics, we can all agree that “essentialism” is bad. We frequently say so. But what exactly is meant by “essentialism”?

My old friend Michael Herzfeld (in his article on “Essentialism” in The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Alan Barnard & Jonathan Spencer, eds., which can be found at http://www.bookrags.com/tandf/essentialism-8-tf/) says
Essentialism commonly appears as both a violation of anthropological relativism and one of the besetting conceptual sins of anthropology. ... The distinctive mark of essentialism ... lies in its suppression of temporality: it assumes or attributes an unchanging, primordial ontology to what are the historically contingent products of human or other forms of agency. It is thus also a denial of the relevance of agency itself.

Following Herzfeld, we could say that “essentialism” is a form of generalization or characterization that assumes an unchanging nature unaffected by human action.

What would count as an example of “essentialism”? Let us consider Clifford Geertz’s characterizations of Indonesian and Moroccan cultures (in Islam Observed) as respectively synthesizing and agonistic. These characterizations are certainly generalizations, but do they ignore historical change or human agency? Well, much of Geertz’s account is historical, showing changes over time, and illustrating with the actions and influences of important individuals. So I do not think it would be accurate, using Herzfeld’s criteria, to call Geertz’s general characterizations an example of essentialism.

Another criterion for essentialism, this time put forward by Edward Said (in Orientalism, itself notoriously open to the accusation of essentialism), is the ignoring of internal variation. In Islam Observed, Geertz does discuss variation and some of the reasons for it. So I think Geertz can be acquitted of essentialism in this work.

It is important to note here that avoiding essentialism does not require avoiding generalization and characterization. If an appreciation of the historical nature of the features discussed and the ways in which human agency contribute to the historical pattern are taken into account in the generalization, or in the explanation of the generalization, then no accusation of essentialism is appropriate.

But since generalizing is dangerous, can we avoid it altogether? I would suggest we cannot, because all knowledge is based on generalization. Every individual, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral is unique at every moment of its existence. We cannot even speak of a particular plant or animal without generalizing over time. When we discuss anything beyond the unique, we must generalize based on abstraction of common characteristics. For example, most of our common concepts–tree, car, person, animal, house, rock, etc.–generalize certain characteristics that are common in the class. General though these concepts may be, they are valid: we know that trees in their many varieties, are not foxes in their varieties. My Baluchi friends taught my about the many varieties of camel, but they still spoke generally of camels, which were clearly differentiated from sheep and goats, never mind tents and trucks. Not withstanding the differences among camels, and among horses, it is valid to say that camels are not horses, and that we can specify the general differences between them.

There are other cases where generalizations are based on central tendencies (mean, mode, median), even where the distributions of the cases involve overlap. For example, we know that there are among men and women many heights, and that there are many women taller than many men. But in general (certainly no such claim for myself), men are taller than women. Different groups will give different answers to questionnaires or perform differently on tests (such as Robert LeVine’s study of Nigerian groups in Dreams and Deeds), and in spite of overlapping distributions will show different averages. So too with many measures of social and economic development–e.g. education, health, productivity, connectivity–where different communities, regions, or societies have different results on the appropriate measures(e.g. UNDP Arab Human Development Report 2002).

What of qualitative generalizations, such as those of Geertz? I do not see how they can be avoided if we are to speak about different cultures and their commonalities and differences, both over time and among cases. Applying the intellectual procedures that are typical of all knowledge would appear to be unavoidable.

And yet, it is apparent that anthropologists today do avoid generalizing. Perhaps the fear of essentialism–and other sins, such as “reductionism” and the “master narrative”–leads us to avoid formulating general characterizations. This is apparent in the discussions here on OAC, where in response to any hint of generalization, discussants retreat into anecdote: “Well, the chef in my Japanese soup restaurant says.....” Yes, we can avoid controversy by avoiding attempts to formulate knowledge, but of what value is a substantiveless anthropology? Has fear made us feeble?

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NIKOS, could you elaborate a bit? What do you mean by "HOW TO DISTINGUISH THESE PARTS A PRIORI "?

I ask because, speaking as a pragmatist, I am willing to admit that every inquiry begins with assumptions implicit in the way that the question is framed. I also agree that it is useful to be aware of those assumptions in examining the evidence brought to bear on the question. But this is a very weak sense of "a priori," since the evidence, especially if pursued systematically with sufficient zeal and rigor, may overturn the initial assumptions and require reframing the question.

An odd, but perhaps pertinent, example. Yesterday my wife and I took our grandchildren to see the dinosaur bones at Harvard's museum of natural history. The most spectacular of the exhibits was a forty foot long Pleiosaur, which I learned from reading information provided on a card for visitors with a more than casual interest is not, technically speaking, a dinosaur at all. According to the information on the card, the scientific meaning of "dinosaur" is restricted to reptiles who lived on land and stood erect on two or four limbs that extended straight down from the hips or hips and shoulders. The Pleiosaur lived in the sea and, like many other reptiles (including modern crocodiles and iguanas) had limbs that extended out from the side, It was, thus, not a dinosaur. The assumptions of my youth, in which Pleiosaurs were conceived as dinosaurs living in the sea were invalidated. The bones still exist, the exhibit remains spectacular, but now I have learned something new.

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
So, you suggest that some parts of generalizations are useful and positive , but some parts are not ( these that don't regard internal variation , shift and whatever change). The point is HOW TO DISTINGUISH THESE PARTS A PRIORI ?
Nikos, statistical measures of central tendency and distribution automatically take into account variation. Qualitative formulations would ideally provide the evidentiary basis, which would almost always include indication of variation.

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
Philip

So, you suggest that some parts of generalizations are useful and positive , but some parts are not ( these that don't regard internal variation , shift and whatever change). The point is HOW TO DISTINGUISH THESE PARTS A PRIORI ?
Deniz, let me give you a few examples from my own research: About the Baluch, I would generalize as follows:
Sarhadi Baluch are a tribal people. Most Baluch, and almost all female Baluch, are illiterate. Traditionally Baluch were nomads, living in tents and migrating regularly.

Some people might regard being tribal, nomadic, and illiterate as bad. Yet these are accurate descriptors of the Baluch. (You could refer to my book, Black Tents of Baluchistan.)

I could also say about the Sardinians I know the following: Highland Sardinian shepherds look to vendetta to regulate life in the pastures. Invidia, envy, is a sentiment directed at those who strive to do better than others and threaten community unity, and is often expressed in violent attacks. (See The Anthropology of Real Life.)

Vendetta, envy, and violence would be considered bad by many. Some Sardinians think these things are bad. So we should not describe them, should pretend they do not exist?

If we anthropologists are trying to study human life in all of its forms, its commonalities and its variations, would we not have to describe life in its various aspects, whatever we or someone else thinks of them?
Deniz, so it is not the statement, but the general political view that should define "essentialism"? Anthropology is now to be defined by political views, some correct and others incorrect?

You have not dealt with the other examples I give in that post, or the examples from my own work that I give in the following post.
Certainly not. If this were true, then we can forget about research altogether, as we all have our answers a priori. The view that everything is political and can be nothing else, and the celebration of it, is the most corrupting influence in anthropology. This view destroys any idea of knowledge, and makes anthropology no more than an opportunity for the expression of personal and political impulses, and thus worthless.

deniz batum said:
Dear Professor
Everything everywhere is always defined by political views. Don't you think so?

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Deniz, so it is not the statement, but the general political view that should define "essentialism"? Anthropology is now to be defined by political views, some correct and others incorrect?

You have not dealt with the other examples I give in that post, or the examples from my own work that I give in the following post.
Deniz Batum writes,

Just because you are writing about "material facts" does not mean your production is not socially constructed. And furthermore may I ask who has conceptualized this "magic"? Anyway, you are writing about the implications, meanings of material facts. You are writing this to share with an audience for whom it will make sense when they read it. You use a certain "language" so to speak to convey this information. If all of this is not socially constructed I do not know what is.

Deniz,

Like Phil, I ask if you read beyond the first paragraph to which you react with current clichés. If you had, you would have seen me saying directly that scholarly knowledge is socially constructed. But for me this is just the start of a discussion that includes close attention to how it is constructed and the implications of different forms of construction. Personally, I agree with Pierre Bourdieu's position that is perfectly possible to acknowledge that the canons of scientific method are a product of particular places and moments in history and to, nonetheless, to find them worth defending. They have, after all, produced results like the technology that we are using to communicate; a claim that no other approach, religious, aesthetic or common sense can equal.

Note, too, the quote from the Nichomachean Ethics. I am under no illusion that anthropological fieldwork can produce results comparable to those of experimental science. How could it, since most fieldwork is done by individuals with different degrees of talent and training, pursuing what insight they may discover while deploying ideas and methods that are little more than starting points and rules of thumb to work with, producing work that is rarely if ever replicated? But that does not change the force of what I was saying when referring to material facts about the body of ritual I studied for my dissertation or the ad annual credits that supply the primary data for my current research. There are facts there, facts firmly attested and readily available for other researchers to examine; facts relevant to judgments that this or that interpretation is better than others. The line you are pursuing leads nowhere but to Punch-and-Judy shows in which "critics" with different prejudices talk past each other. The word for that is piffle. Not my cup of tea.
Deniz says, "Everything everywhere is always defined by political views."

Isn't your assertion, Deniz, a perfect example of essentialism, with "political views" the essence of "everything everywhere"? And, at the same time, it is an example of reductionism, i.e. the reduction of a complex phenomenon of many aspects to one single factor?

What concerns me is not that people are sometimes swayed by their political views or attitudes, but rather the replacement in anthropology of knowledge by political posturing. Rather than addressing biases as corrupting serious understanding, many celebrate the triumph of political sloganeering over knowledge of how the world works.

Certainly individual researchers may be biased in many ways--they may be self-deluding, dishonest, mad, politically committed, unperceptive, self-advancing, etc. etc.--an understanding central to scientific method, which never relies on the work of one individual. The unreliability of reports from a single source is the reason that science is a collective project, basing its findings on multiple replications, and using this criterion as its strict standard for "reliability."

We anthropologists include the same kinds of unreliable individuals, but we disdain procedures to check them. So instead of reliability, we encourage all manner of outrageous posturing, and celebrate it. I don't see how that could be considered anything but corrupt.
BDwyer writes, "I wanted to point out that social and cultural anthropology is a social construction which simply means that social anthropology cannot be thought of as dealing with facts - as in there is a tree there or not there."

All human knowledge is socially contructed. In this respect, there is no difference between physical and biological "facts" and social and cultural "facts." "Tree" is a concept that defines a category of "plant," another concept that defines a category, both part of an intellectual framework used by (some) people to understand their world. "Tree," you might notice, is also a highly abstract concept, far above the many varieties of trees, and even farther above the particular instances of trees.

In my ethnographic reports, there are thousands of "facts" about social activity among the peoples I studied. Let's take an example or two:

In the Sarhad region of Baluchistan, there is a group that calls themselves the Shah Nawazi. One fact. They also call themselves a rhend, or line of descent. Second fact. In the 1960s & 1970s, most Shah Nawazi lived in black, goat hair tents. Third fact. These tent dwellers migrated from time to time during the year, more in fall and spring than winter, to seek better pasture and water, and to remove themselves from disease and enemies. Several more facts.

Why, in your view, are these social and cultural facts and different from the fact that so much rainfall (not much) fell in the Sarhad in 1972, or that there are in the landscape some salt flats where water evaporates, or that the altitude at Khash is around 5500 feet? I don't see the difference.

All "facts" may be correct or incorrect, and may be contested. Ideally, alleged facts are supported by evidence of some kind. For example, people measure the rainfall, just as I participated in and counted the migrations of the camp I lived with, as well as others.

The current tenor of anthropological debate seems to be that we cannot do anything or learn anything. Anthropology would be a lot healthier if we stopped debating the metaphysical and epistemological status of "facts" and instead applied outselves to discovering some and then insuring that we have got them right.
Clifford Geertz, in Islam Observed(1971), characterizes the orientations of Indonesians and Moroccans:

"On the Indonesian side, inwardness, imperturbability, patience, poise, sensibility, aestheticism, elitism, and an almost obsessive self-effacement, the radical dissolution of individuality; on the Moroccan side, activism, fervor, impetuosity, nerve, toughness, moralism, populism, and an almost obsessive self-assertion, the radical intensification of individuality." (54)

What do you think? Is this a valid formulation? If so, why? If not, why not? If not, what other way might one formulate the comparison?
Is "valid" the right issue here? Why not "apt," for example?

"Valid" suggests that clear hypotheses with testable consequences are being proposed. "Apt" suggests that someone who knew both cultures could agree that the contrasts fit fairly well as applied to this particular pair of cultures in the moment that Geertz was writing, with no assumption that they apply equally to every member of both populations or represent eternal verities about them.

It is possible, after all, to articulate contrasts without essentializing. Biologists, for example, do it all the time when discussing speciation in a Darwinian instead of Linnaean context.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Clifford Geertz, in Islam Observed(1971), characterizes the orientations of Indonesians and Moroccans:

"On the Indonesian side, inwardness, imperturbability, patience, poise, sensibility, aestheticism, elitism, and an almost obsessive self-effacement, the radical dissolution of individuality; on the Moroccan side, activism, fervor, impetuosity, nerve, toughness, moralism, populism, and an almost obsessive self-assertion, the radical intensification of individuality." (54)

What do you think? Is this a valid formulation? If so, why? If not, why not? If not, what other way might one formulate the comparison?
Allow me to rephrase: Is this possibly apt formulation a valid anthropological exercise?

John McCreery said:
Is "valid" the right issue here? Why not "apt," for example?

"Valid" suggests that clear hypotheses with testable consequences are being proposed. "Apt" suggests that someone who knew both cultures could agree that the contrasts fit fairly well as applied to this particular pair of cultures in the moment that Geertz was writing, with no assumption that they apply equally to every member of both populations or represent eternal verities about them.

It is possible, after all, to articulate contrasts without essentializing. Biologists, for example, do it all the time when discussing speciation in a Darwinian instead of Linnaean context.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Clifford Geertz, in Islam Observed(1971), characterizes the orientations of Indonesians and Moroccans:

"On the Indonesian side, inwardness, imperturbability, patience, poise, sensibility, aestheticism, elitism, and an almost obsessive self-effacement, the radical dissolution of individuality; on the Moroccan side, activism, fervor, impetuosity, nerve, toughness, moralism, populism, and an almost obsessive self-assertion, the radical intensification of individuality." (54)

What do you think? Is this a valid formulation? If so, why? If not, why not? If not, what other way might one formulate the comparison?
"Valid anthropological exercise"? May I take it that the actual question to which "valid" ambiguously points is "Is this the sort of thing that an anthropologist ought to be doing?" The assumption being, of course, that to write in this way is inherently judgmental, stereotyping and essentializing, i.e., a big No, No.

If so, I would say that the assumption is at least as judgmental, stereotyping and essentializing as the text being criticized. Until the statements in question have been seen in context, with due attention paid to logic, trope, and the character of the author, no such assumption is warranted.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Allow me to rephrase: Is this possibly apt formulation a valid anthropological exercise?

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