Theory for Anthropology


Theory for Anthropology

OAC already has a group named Theory in Anthropology, a good place to discuss theories already embraced by anthropologists. This group is, instead, intended for discussion of theory found outside anthropology that anthropologists might find useful.

Members: 119
Latest Activity: Nov 9, 2017

Discussion Forum

Action Anthropology and Sol Tax in 2012: The Final Word?

A new book on action anthropology put out by the Journal of Northwest Anthropology is out. You can find it at Amazon. Here is the abstract of this excellent new work:Action Anthropology and Sol Tax…Continue

Started by Joshua Smith Apr 3, 2013.

Emergence of Organizations and Markets 5 Replies

My recent explorations of the work of the Anthropology of Administration group at Minpaku, Japan's National Museum of Ethnology, have led me to have a look at recent developments in organization…Continue

Started by John McCreery. Last reply by John McCreery Nov 15, 2012.

Model Thinking 7 Replies

Scott Page, one of the two authors of Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Lifeis…Continue

Started by John McCreery. Last reply by John McCreery Apr 11, 2012.

Global Ethnography, A Sociological Perspective

How long has it sat on my bookshelf, this volume titled Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World, authored by Michael Burawoy, Joseph A. Blum, Sheba George,…Continue

Started by John McCreery Apr 4, 2012.

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Comment by John McCreery on May 4, 2011 at 7:59am

Mid-level theory is great stuff. But the way people are trained these days, our colleagues here are not likely to know much of it. Could you, perhaps, take some examples from your paper and tell us a bit more about them?


To me, for example, the work of Kevin Lynch on mental maps of the city is familiar because one of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living studies included in my book on Japanese consumer behavior was inspired by that work. The point the authors were making is that people's mental maps of Tokyo were heavily dependent on where they lived and worked. The shopkeepers who live above or behind their shops on a traditional shopping street may know the neighborhood intimately. Commuters who spend most of their time at schools, factories or offices may know places close to the stations where they get off and on trains but be lost around stations where their trains never stop. The mental maps of tourists and business people who travel overseas include destinations left out by less cosmopolitan types. They have often found themselves asked about famous site-seeing spots that many Tokyo natives have never visited. 

One does, of course, have to be careful. Stereotypes can be misleading. My barber, for example, spends most of every day of his life in his barbershop in the neighborhood where I live. He has, however, taken vacations during which he has traveled on package tours to Southeast Asia. He reminds me of my Daoist master in Taiwan. When I met him it was at his storefront temple in Puli. I thought of him as a local practitioner. When I became his disciple, I found myself riding with him in cabs or pilgrimage buses the length and breadth of Taiwan. As I got to know him better, I learned that during WWII he had joined the Japanese military police and spent time in Manchuria. 

What I like, in particular, about ideas like Lynch's is the way that they point you at the data and give you something to get your teeth into. Your other examples must be similar. Can you show us where they bite?

Comment by Michael E. Smith on May 4, 2011 at 6:58am

John- Sorry, the late semester chaos lasted a long time! The basic point of my paper on urban theory is to introduce a number of concepts and approaches from various (non-anthropological) disciplines that are useful for archaeologists studying ancient cities. These include Amos Rapoport's environmental-behavior theory; architectural communication theory (how architecture communicates various types of meaning); space syntax; urban morphology; reception theory; generative planning theory; normative urban theory; and city-size theory.


But probably more to the point for this discussion is my emphasis on Mertonian middle-range theory. My rediscovery of Merton was a revelation. I had learned about Robert Merton's middle-range theory as an undergraduate in the 1970s, and then largely forgot about it (the fact that archaeologist Lewis Binford hijacked the phrase to mean something else certainly contributed here). I have long been fed up with high-level social theory, currently very popular in archaeology and anthropology. This kind of pholosophical, abstract theory may be interesting to think with, but it does not answer questions about how the social world works. It does not deal with the nuts and bolts of social behavior, institutions, and their changes through time.


Middle-range theory is at a lower conceptual level than abstract social theory. It describes more empirically grounded and more limited domains. Roy Ellen's theory paper does a good job of discussing levels of theory. I use the example of social mechanisms to illustrate middle-range theory in sociology today. What is sometimes called analytical sociology (associated with Hedstrom and others) is based on identifying and analyzing social mechanisms. Mechanisms are causal models that account for specific features and changes in society. They are not universal and they are not highly abstract and philosophical.


It turns out that social mechanisms, and middle-range theory more generally, are widespread themes in a number of social sciences. There are major literatures in sociology, political science, and in historical social science (e.g., Charles Tilly). In exploring some of this literature, I came across a book by political scientist John Gerring (Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework, 2011,  Cambridge) in which he largely dismisses anthropology as being too interpretivist, with a conceptual structure too divergent from other social sciences, to be considered in his treatment. The different approaches to theory and explanation used in anthropology and other social sciences are very usefully discussed by Lars Mjøset in his paper, "Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences" In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.


The reason I called my reaction to this literature a revelation is that it explained in detail the reasons why I have been dissatisfied with theory in anthropology and archaeology for many years. I don't like theory that is about theory, or is about philosophical concepts that barely touch the ground. I do like theory that explains how the social world works, and this is what middle-range theory is, and this is what social mechanisms are all about.


One reason why middle-range theory has not caught on in anthropology is the strong emphasis on high-level theory, or interpretivist accounts. As Mjoset explains, this intellectual approach denies the existence of levels of theory. All theory is held to exist at the same level (I go into this in my paper).


It seems bizarre to me that after a career in anthropology departments, identifying myself as an anthropological archaeology, I find that I get almost no intellectual benefit from anthropology, while getting all kinds of ideas from sociology, political science, geography planning, architecture, and other fields.

Comment by John McCreery on May 4, 2011 at 3:59am
Michael, are you there? What happened to "I'll try to post something on the paper before long"?
Comment by John McCreery on March 12, 2011 at 4:48am
@Michael. Terrific. I look forward to it.
Comment by Michael E. Smith on March 11, 2011 at 12:20am
I'll try to post something on the paper before long.
Comment by John McCreery on March 9, 2011 at 1:30am



Michael, I have just scanned the paper, which I found very exciting, indeed. "Exciting" may seem a peculiar adjective to apply to a review so chock full of material that no quick synopsis can possibly do it justice. But, perhaps perversely, that is precisely what I find exciting about it. There are so many leads to so many things to think about — and this is the vital point — every single lead points to something physical, something we can look at, perhaps even measure. It doesn't leave us stuck in the endless circular round of conjecture: the could be, maybe, I think, who gives a damn what YOU think? of so much "critical" debate. Each of the eight types of middle range theory you identify says clear, "look at this, this, and this." That's terrific!

So, a totally over the top suggestion: if you'd like to use this group, I'd be honored; if you'd like to start your own, I'd join. The basic idea is that you start a series of threads, one devoted to each of the types of middle-range theory that you mention in the paper. Introduce them sequentially and—this is where I really need help—spell out one of the type examples in a bit more detail. 


I make this suggestion because the biggest stumbling block for me, personally, is that except for the allusions to Kevin Lynch (whose work inspired a study included in my book on Japanese consumer behavior) and Paul Wheatley (my once and possibly future specialty is Chinese ritual), I don't have a concrete image of what is going on in the other cases you mention. I can conjure up an image, but have no familiarity with the relevant literature against which to test if I am even close to right.


Would you be up for something like this?

Comment by John McCreery on March 9, 2011 at 1:00am

Michael, thanks for the strokes. You will note, however, that this particular group, founded several months ago has not attracted a great deal of attention. Could be because anthropologists are allergic to most of what you and I consider theory—the kind that, as you mention, has more to do with the data and arguments at hand than, what shall we call it? The metaphysics of self-construction?


Anyway, should you be so inclined, given the currently moribund state of this group, why not start a discussion focused on your paper. Lead off with a summary that hits a few key points. (I will, of course, read the full paper myself and urge others to do so. The trick is to provide a taste that lures others to participate.)

Comment by Michael E. Smith on March 9, 2011 at 12:34am

In my research on comparative urbanism, I have found virtually no useful theory within anthropology, but LOTS of useful theory in other fields (I take a scientific and materialist approach to the world and to scholarship). I finally got fed up with archaeologists citing Bourdieu and Giddens all the time, when the work of those guys had nothing to do with the data or context or arguments at hand. So I wrote a paper on "Urban theory for archaeologists" which promotes what sociologists call "middle-range theory". The paper is in press; proofs are located here.  What I found most disheartening was that not only did I find little useful theory within anthropology, but the approaches to theory were not helpful. In contrast, work by sociologists was extremely useful, both for understanding cities and for understanding the role of theory.


I would not think of joining an "anthropological theory" group, but this one sounds intriguing, and with John as moderator its probably useful and interesting.


Comment by Ariane Beldi on September 8, 2010 at 10:20am

This isn't directly related to the subject of this topic, but I thought I'd still post it here because it might be useful to some of the members. Earlier, I said that I wasn't sure I'd still be able to participate in this group, because Ning has been changing its policies with respect to its networks and I have been receiving emails telling me to choose one of the proposed plans to maintain my network. I did start a little thing just to try out the possibilities of Ning and I realize that the new rules only apply to networks and not Ning accounts. So, even though my network is deactivated in the coming days, I'd still be able to keep my account and thus to participate in these discussions, which I hope to do more frequently than I have so far, because of the heavy load of work imposed by my dissertation.
Comment by John McCreery on August 20, 2010 at 3:53pm
Oscar, that is a brilliant list of suggestions. Could I ask you to pick one to start with and write a few paragraphs about why you think the approach in question has something to offer anthropologists?

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