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: 115
Latest Activity: May 21

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.

Comment Wall

Comment by John McCreery on March 12, 2011 at 4:48am
@Michael. Terrific. I look forward to it.
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 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 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 John McCreery on January 20, 2012 at 7:16am

Since there has been no action in this group since last September and I am otherwise preoccupied, I will, if there is no objection, shut down this group 24 hours from now.

Comment by Paul Wren on January 20, 2012 at 8:25am

John,  what are your intentions in terms of "shutting it down"?  Lots of good content here., I hope you are not deleting it.

Comment by John McCreery on January 20, 2012 at 8:39am

Paul, is there an alternative to deletion, an archive, for example? I just thought that having said multiple times that inactive groups should be pruned, I'd better set a good example.

Comment by Oscar González on January 20, 2012 at 8:49am


I think "theory for anthropology" is a very good idea and I thank you the creation of this group. Please don't close the discussion, even if it is quiet now.


Comment by Keith Hart on January 20, 2012 at 8:57am

I realise that you feel frustrated that the Admins have not responded to your reasonable suggestion that the plethora of Groups needs to be weaned in order to make the site less cluttered. But this is because we have not been able to resolve the contradictions involved in such a move. Moreover, you will have noticed the precipitous decline in activity at the OAC and it is not obvious that our limited energies should be devoted to removing content rather than stimulating its addition. There is some evidence that many readers use the site as an archive. It is also the case that many are deterred by the abundance of confusing semi-moribund activity here. I would like to add my voice to those of Paul and Oscar. To delete the group and its content would be viewed as a hostile act and I wouldn't want that on several grounds.

Comment by John McCreery on January 20, 2012 at 9:07am

OK. I leave it here.

P.S. I've been using the Blog to add a bit of content now and again. But you're right. Things are awfully damned quiet, despite the fact that a steady stream of newcomers seem to be signing up. Do they come just to plow through our midden? Or do they take a look and bag it? Any way to tell?


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