This is in some ways a spin-off from a discussion we were having before the summer vacation on the anthropology of irrationality where we were trying to pin down the unpindownable irrationality of contemporary cultures. Part of the problem seems to be that expectations of the bizarre and the mercurial have in certain ways become normalised or institutionalised in contemporary global society. But what can anthropologists fruitfully say about that situation that would help us understand it? Certainly the discussion we had did not get too far toward clarity...

I was left cogitating on our discussion -- a small rivulet in the great 'runaway world' as Edmund Leach called it, but I couldn't help noticing that as anthropologists we are so involved in talking about ourselves that we have forgotten that our difficulties in understanding what is going on are only one little part of a much wider problem in 'social science'.

Obviously, it was economics as a social science discipline that hit the buffers most spectacularly over the last years with its utter failure to predict or indeed to have anything useful to say about the 2008 global financial crash-- and its various aftermaths including the continuing crisis in Euroland. 

More recently it has been Psychology that is in crisis if these recent headlines are anything to go by: because it wasn't enough that the main association of U.S. psychologists had involved itself in U.S. government torture--

a study now suggests that, in terms of their verifiability at least, claims made by psychologists in their top journals are more likely to be wrong than right:

Whatever happened to the 'science' in social science?

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What you suggest is just. But please consider  a certain handicap.

* I don't have the complete book; just I have read the introduction.

* I have serious difficulties to write in English. I have to check constantly the text and it takes a lot of time. 

* I ask you to open a group or a discussion on Human Social Science, i.e. a science that connects individuals and society.  Agar says: The reason for “human” and “social” is this: The two terms label different levels of organization—person and group.

I'll go to participate with posts and opinion, anyway.

Thank you,




    Continuing our comparative (hip-shot) ethnographic sketches of our sides of the Atlantic: 

    With your familiarity with the German situation and especially with your work at the Dresden refugee centers you seem to have come up against a number of jarring inconsistencies or paradoxes right a the level of ethnography: 

    --  Hungarian peasants encountering Syrian refugees with nice clothes, smart phones, and jewelry (I think this was John’s example);

    --  A refugee woman using the day bed given her at the center to store / hoard men’s clothing while her daughter slept on the floor;

    -- the thugs who work as security at the center befriending refugees. 

These and other experiences add up to what you describe as an “organizational chaos” which induces something like a crisis of conscience in the thoughtful ethnographer: 


Currently what has particularly caught my attention is how the chaos following the refugee tide has big man-society-like features emerge in local Red Cross camp social systems.

This facet, the practical organizational chaos that now proliferates locally around the country as a result of Merkel's brief open door line, is also a hot topic in German media this day. It is paradoxical, if we agree that one goal of a more ethnographic take on the refugee crisis is to provide an impetus for a more humane European refugee policy, is that it is exactly the net ethnographic experience of the frontline reception apparatus that is now providing the main fuel for the restrictive turn.


A close and compassionate ethnographic study of the refugee crisis, which one hopes would produce a humane response – the very opposite of repressive government reactions – “is now providing the main fuel for the restrictive turn.” 


I find these reports insightful and seemingly true to life, probably because I’m disposed to see contradiction and ambivalence at the heart of social life.  However, I wonder how you square your account of the chaotic thickness of the refugee crisis with your advocacy of a stringent analytical approach:    


. . .  Huon, I like the plain and sober style of your ordering efforts; in particular because of how they squeeze our minds to aspire for inferring simple, non-esoteric mechanistic principles from vastly complex empirical processes. That, I think, should be a default in all (social) scientific practice. 

Are there really “simple non-esoteric mechanistic principles” to be found here? 


    But fair is fair; I’ve formed some impressions of the German centers from your account, and you ask me to add more to my Murrieta sketch of a few days ago: 


I'd have appreciated Lee if you'd bent your fiction to include also some of the more friendly, committing encounters with Latinos that Susan's life, would it have been real, most likely had encompassed. I'd reckon she'd regularly find herself in social situations where she'd be naturally inclined to make less outsider-style judgments of migrants than the distanced, uncommitted ones you fantasize she made as a shopping mall customer and media consumer. For instance at the hospital (migrant patients), or through her children's networks (migrant parents/playmates), or via her husband's business (migrant partners/customers).  


    Good, sound points, however I’m afraid they don’t elicit information about “friendly, committing encounters with Latinos . . . Susan’s life . . .  most likely . . . encompassed.”  I’ll try to be brief – always a problem in ethnography, whether “real” or fictional. 

    First, as my “ethnographic fable” has it, Susan is a nurse who works at a hospital in Riverside, California, about an hour’s commute.  Here you need to understand a barbaric feature of the American health care system: poor and/or illegal Hispanics typically don’t receive regular medical care; rather they depend on the emergency rooms of public hospitals.  Those provide “emergency” care which does not include pre-natal visits, prescriptions for vitamins, etc. The result is that a Hispanic woman will arrive at an emergency room in an advanced state of pregnancy, and often accompanied by another woman and several children.  Not having received care along the way, the woman is often unhealthy and classified as a “high risk” pregnancy.  So Susan’s encounter here is fraught with emotional and professional stress – all those kids, another on the way, a medical crisis waiting to happen: none of this facilitates those “more friendly, committing encounters” you mention.  And all the while, Susan nourishes her own, too long  postponed desire to have another child. 

    “Her children's networks (migrant parents/playmates)”:  Susan and Matt are a typical anomic suburban couple, with no real ties to the community and too busy to make deep local friendships.  The demographics of Murrieta are: 56% white, 27% Hispanic, with (a large overlap here) 23% of residents whose household language is not English.

As their son gets older and enters elementary school, he will find lots of Hispanic kids in his class (much more than the 26% due to large Hispanic families), many of whom have a poor command of English.  The “children’s networks” that exist are mostly within extended Hispanic families – lots and lots of cousins.  Their son will find it very difficult to become part of these “networks.”  Instead, Susan and Matt will arrange play-dates and sleepovers with other parents like themselves – non-Hispanic, busy commuters. 

    Her husband’s business:  Matt also has a long commute; his socializing with business associates and customers is usually done on the spot.  He rarely brings someone home from the job (probably that person will then have an even longer commute to return home). 

    All these factors feed into Susan’s cathartic experience at the Safeway supermarket. 


    Murrieta and Dresden – so different, so much alike.  Where are the answers to these unhappy situations?  

OK, I have done it. As per Oscar's suggestion, I have just started a new forum to discuss Agar' The Lively Science. If you have a moment, please have a look.

Oscar González said:


What you suggest is just. But please consider  a certain handicap.

* I don't have the complete book; just I have read the introduction.

* I have serious difficulties to write in English. I have to check constantly the text and it takes a lot of time. 

* I ask you to open a group or a discussion on Human Social Science, i.e. a science that connects individuals and society.  Agar says: The reason for “human” and “social” is this: The two terms label different levels of organization—person and group.

I'll go to participate with posts and opinion, anyway.

Thank you,


The chaos that kristian describes could be a fruitful starting point for all sorts of analytic comparisons. Things that come immediately to my mind are

1. A common pattern in cities around the world where police, tacitly if not explicitly, identify certain parts of the city as redlight districts or no-go zones. Criminal activity within these spaces is tolerated, so long as it does not spill over to the "normal" world outside.

2. The generalization of this perspective in David Kilcullen's Out of the Mountains, with its New Guinea fishtrap model of state formation, in which ungovernable parts of the city become breeding grounds for criminal gangs or terrorists who may, in rare cases, become revolutionaries overthrowing an existing order and creating new states. Gangs and states work in the same way, claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, offering protection, and resorting to violence to control those who might wish to escape.

3. A broad historical understanding of the formation of European feudalism in the ruins of the Roman empire, and similar cases, e.g., the rise of warlords in dynastic interregnums in China, or following the collapse of Heian civilization in Japan. Again the theme is the emergence of "big men," strong leaders who offer protection and attempt to monopolize violence.

Lots to think about here.

OK, I have been out and about in glasgow amongst other places. Did we resolve the issues about contacting Michael Agar etc?

JOHN: 2. The generalization of this perspective in David Kilcullen's Out of the Mountains, with its New Guinea fishtrap model of state formation, in which ungovernable parts of the city become breeding grounds for criminal gangs or terrorists who may, in rare cases, become revolutionaries overthrowing an existing order and creating new states. Gangs and states work in the same way, claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, offering protection, and resorting to violence to control those who might wish to escape.

Earlier John, you were arguing that anthropology has tended to attempt 'Parmenidean' -- static universalising models rather than embracing 'Heraclitean' flux. Isn't this model of Kilcullen's very much in the static universalising mold? Taking into account the on the ground chaos that Kristian and Lee note, shouldn't the emphasis be on looking for the whatever new forms are in-the-making in this situation. Some of these new institutional forms will be the result of unforseen feedback loops, for instance between particular cultural expectations of migrants, police, hospitable locals etc. Some will take a familiar 'frustration-aggression' form or a 'withdrawal into my set of comforting expectations about reality', but others are likely to be utterly new. My guess is that the meaning of the 'state' is already being changed by this mass-scale process involving millions of human perspectives. Ethnography should come into its own in observing and giving some conceptual clarity to what those changes are.

Lee, in our manifold discussions over the latest half year, I have already proposed sketches of various explanatory models to particular phenomena at hand. See for instance here, here and here; then we also had this good one from Keith. These are far from 'simple mechanistic principles', an analytic concept which seems way to crude (and way too Newtonian!). And they are just preliminary propositions off the hand in a gunslingers internet-forum, and hence need a lot of refining to work as proper social science. What they really are, you might say, are sign posts towards the kinds of aspirations that anthropology should have to maintain its proud disciplinary legacy whilst also joining ranks with the rigorous empirical (social) sciences.

In this light, the direction of anthropology which you incorporate, whilst producing mind-provoking and (not the least) highly amusing reads, has, as I see it, one major problem: The conclusions are nearly impossible to test. One reason is, as you've explicitly confessed, the nature of the data: They are fictions. Trying to apply a critical engagement with such data, a prerequisite of any solid (social) science train, is akin to trying to pick apart the ingredients of an already cooked meal. Another reason is that major explanatory power is ascribed to (the interplay of) forces that are essentially esoteric (i.e. empirically inaccessible); creation (eros), destruction (thanatos), 'the inherently enigmatic nature of human existence', Penrose triangles....I don't mean to principally deny the existence and possible significance of these forces. I'm just saying that we can't really test them (or can we? then please show me how). So you lock me in an 'irresolvable dilemma', if you will, of sympathy vs. doubtfulness viz your account of Stella's immigrant hostility. There are good arguments for both, but no visceral grounds for either.

As I already indicated with reference to Huon's messing around with the Agar-piece, we obviously must be careful not to get too grandiose in the pursuit of explanatory models. Yet, explain we should, and we should do so on the basis of real ethnographic data, so as to give other analysts some kind of chance to engage our proposed models critically (i.e. refine by confirm/falsify-procedures). Exactly what we want to explain is solely an effect of the research focus.

I'll add one more small signpost as my last contribution to this dwindling thread.

0130 Saturday night. The refugee camp dining hall is still filled with people; men and children talking, fingering smartphones, playing cards, drawing. Employed as a social worker, a Red Cross colleague from the kitchen tells me I'm responsible to get the kids to bed. I approach various 'Babas' (Dads). One complaints that his family has to sleep directly next to the fire exit door in the large gymnastics hall, which makes up the sleeping space for half of the camp's total 700 people. Even though the door is supposed to be closed during the night, being the shortest route to the next door dining hall, night hours catching an autumn chill, it is steadily frequented by the many men who stay awake into the early morning hours, with the result that Baba's 4 year old son can't sleep due to noise and a cold draft. He asks for another blanket, and if they could please be moved to some place away from the door. I bring the request to the shift leader, who reacts skeptically ; 'Everyone gets the same equipment set when they arrive (sleeping bags, hygiene materials, warm clothes), if we start making exceptions, it would get unfair, and everyone would come ask, and then there won't be anything left for future occupants'. This logic seems to derive from certain episodes in early camp days when some warehouse stockpiles (the typical reference is 'the shampoo-incident') ran out due to unregulated distribution by volunteers. Walls in the dining room now exhibits various posters to deter refugees from asking for more stuff than what they get at entry ('Sorry, no clothes distribution today' has been posted since I first arrived a week ago). Staff is strictly informed that any distributed item, as well as every meal, be meticulously registered in a computer system by individual name and code (the refugees carry digital chip cards) so as to ensure that no one 'cheats to get more than others'. Ironically, the warehouse is vastly overstocked with clothes and toys due to the ongoing popular donation will. Return to Baba and the sleepless son. I suggest to my team leader that if we can't give out another blanket, at least we could close off the fire exit for the night,  but he shrugs it off with reference to the formal fire safety regulations. And 'Moving the family in the middle of the night is also not possible; they'll have to go to the registration/warehouse-staff and report it tomorrow if they still feel it's a problem'. So I return to 'Baba' to express that I'm sorry, that I can't fulfill any of his wishes. I try to comfort them by saying that I'll talk to the security folks that they tell people to not use the door. Approaching my colleagues and the securities, I'm faced with ironic indigence; they all laugh pettily at my efforts, telling me that whatever we do, we can't get these refugee men to stop using that door; 'it's their culture that makes them behave like that'.

Research question: What social mechanisms are at work that forces me (and, as it turns out from personal talk, several of my other red cross colleagues), to the contrary of my conscience and convictions, to let down Baba and his freezing, sleepless son?

Some plausible candidates:

1. The refugees' collective experience of material scarcity, stimulating a few hoarding incidents, which in turn breeds a default systemic skepticism to any refugee request

2. A cultural logic of ordered, individualized service fairness, which have become socially institutionalized as a set of formal rules and regulatory technologies organizing all material distribution systems

3. A decision hierarchy where leaders (all upshots starting as ground floor workers in the early days) derive power from having secured formal exclusive entitlement to bend the distributive regulations (i.e. the ground floor worker can't use personal judgement and personally has to take the social blame when the system fails to meet individual needs; leaders can use personal judgement and gets social credit when bending the rules to humane ends)

All of this could in turn be further anchored to wider cultural models and socio-legal hierarchies dominating German work life.

Surely more could/should be added; a week hardly counts as a fieldwork.

Lastly I'd ask you Lee to take this mini-quasi-analysis as an analogue to how to alternatively expl/-ore/-ain the roots of immigrant resentment. What I'm intending to advocate is that you try shine light on specific social mechanisms in Murretia that hampers Susan's potential will/capacity to engage in mutually trustful and committing relations with immigrants (you did start indicating some in your last post). This would lead down the path of what I'd call an institutional approach to everyday (ethnic) schismogenesis, one that, if based on non-fictitious ethnographic data, would truly be scientific.

Chaos is only the beginning.

Kristian, as I read them, 1., 2., and 3. are great starting points for further analysis. They are not, however, mutually exclusive hypotheses. A few additional thoughts.

1. Let us assume that you are right and the collective experience of material scarcity leads to a few hoarding incidents. Why are these interpreted as grounds for default skepticism instead of outliers in relation to a non-hoarding norm?

2. What counts as service fairness is a great question. We know of a case in Japan, where following the earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan, the operator of a charity that collects unused food for distribution to the needy, quickly organized a truckload of food, only to run into incredible static because the items were so diverse that they could not be divided into exactly equivalent parcels for distribution. In this case, the cultural roots run deep, as food is traditionally served in Japan in equal individual portions.

3. The balance between individual initiative and systematic control is a perennial issue in all organized human behavior. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever come up with a single, universal solution. On the one hand are old-fashioned military models in which officers make decisions and the troops do what they are told. On the other are newer, team-style models, in which individuals with different skill sets and responsibilities are given considerable freedom with a framework defined by an overriding objective. This approach is the one now most commonly embraced by modern military organizations. Called management-by-objective, it was inspired by the way, by the German blitzkrieg. In creative teams like the ones I study in the Japanese ad world, management-by-objectives takes on a looser form because while the overall goal, e.g., to produce a TV commercial, may be clear, the specifics of message, framing, casting, music, etc. all have to be negotiated by people who will have to work together, instead of each doing his or her own thing.

Hope this is helpful.

Thanks for the elaborations John. First, I should underline, in line with previous arguments, that these are thought as interacting elements of an explanatory model (i.e. not mutually exclusive). The list is far from exhaustive; in the meanwhile, a series of further hypothetical elements have come to mind. Each would have to be re-formulated as research questions so as to serve as guides for further ethnographic fieldwork practice.

More overall, the main challenges/goals in this kind of research setup, as I see it, is (1) to asses the explanatory significance of each individual element to the phenomenon at hand (i.e. on a continuum from very to merely important), and (2) how they exactly interact to produce it. Your question in point 1 constitutes one of many relevant venues in such pursuits. Your questions in 2 and 3 on the other hand I'd put off until I feel I've got a more reliable picture of what's actually going on since they are more of a normative/applied kind (i.e.  better/worse service fairness/system management models).

Kristian, let's start with the assumption that we are dealing with interacting elements. What might the interactions look like? Considering the following propositions.

1. When human beings interact with other human beings who are perceived as having a different culture, troublesome individuals are seen as typical of the group to which they belong. Thus, for example, while working on a telephone counseling line in Japan, I often heard people complain about Japanese bosses and framing their complaints in terms of "the Japanese." The possibility that they were having to deal with a particularly difficult individual or someone having a bad day had not occurred to them.

2. Where fairness is seen as a matter of equal shares instead of, for example, "Women and children, first" or, in more desperate situations, triage based on urgency of need and whether help is practically possible, there will always be situations like the family stuck beside the door. Given a rule that families with children are allocated the more safe and comfortable spaces, that problem might have been avoided.

3. Prohibitting initiative may be seen as fair and a way to avoid other problems. If it puts volunteers in the position of having their desire to help frustrated, it could be reinforcing the stereotyping described in 1. Don't blame me. Don't blame my bosses. Blaming "them" is so much easier.

These are only the roughest of rough ideas. It might be useful to try to diagram the feedback loops connecting each of the three elements with the others and then try to see what is missing.
Re the Michael Agar thread. Lee contacted me via email to ask if I wanted to contact Agar. I told Lee that I preferred that he do it, arguing that this would demonstrate to Agar that at least two people, Lee as well as myself, with whom he has had positive interactions in the past, were interested in this project.

Lee also mentioned that many people do not own or as yet have access to The Lively Science and asked about scheduling.

In my own case, I leave Friday for five days in Taiwan, combining the joint meeting of the East Asian Anthropological Association and Taiwan Society for Anthropology and Ethnology, with a sentimental return to the town where the fieldwork for my dissertation was done back in 1969-71. I will be back in Japan on the evening of October 7. Just over two weeks later, Ruth and I will be off to the States, from which we will travel on to Ecuador, to join a college roommate and his wife as part of an adventure tour to the upper Amazon and Galapagos. That that will take three weeks. We will then return to the USA to spend Thanksgiving with our daughter and grandkids and, finally, arrive back in Japan on December 1. Thus, for me, a two-week seminar October 8-22 would be good. Alternatively, delaying the start until December would also work. There is, however, no reason why the rest of us could not carry on in my absence. Any thoughts or recommendations would be most welcome.

Agar -- sounds good. Perhaps Oscar can point those of us who havent read the book or dont have it to hand to where to find the introduction.

Kristian's note on Baba and his family caught up in the institutionalising process echoed Keith's logic of equality and inequality. 

A. inequality is a structural denial that two classes have the same nature and rights

B. [equality] is a dialectical construct of situations when two parties are considered to be naturally unequal

I think that if this does apply in this situation, it applies in a fuzzy and highly ambiguous way. Is equality of treatment being imposed because the people are considered to be naturally unequal? or because the crude classification 'treat everyone equally' is a way temporarily of keeping an expectation of uncontrollable disorder at bay? or because those with power have too little imagination/empathy or rather because they see all too well the difficulties of dealing with the extraordinarily diverse life experiences of all the people involved? Then there is their understanding of what the future of this situation is--how long and qualitatively how do they see this situation developing. 


Thanks to John for opening the thread on New Human Science and  Agar's book.

The Introduction of The Lively Science is at

I'm trying to get the whole book, soon I'll post some comments after reading the introduction.

Thanks to everybody,




OAC Press



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