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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Replies to This Discussion

John, I would not disagree with your view on this. But you and I are pre-Said, pre-Orientalism anthropologists. Perhaps anthropologists more recently entering the field would have different views. I wonder if we might (ever) hear from the other 262 members of this group.

John McCreery said:
"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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