Do anthropologists now doubt that peoples and cultures are different from one another?

Increasingly, it appears to be incorrect to suggest that peoples and cultures are not all the same, that peoples and cultures are to a greater or lesser degree different from one another. To argue that peoples and cultures have different lines of thought is skating close to condemnation.

Partly, this appears to be a resistence to any kind of generalization about a population or culture. Now anthropologists seem to believe that it is only possible to speak only of individuals. Any generalization, however accurate and well documented, is open to the accusation of "essentialism," particularly if the characteristics identified are not admirable. Anthropologists apparently have now adopted the principle, "if you can't say anythng good, don't say anything at all" (although this principle does not apply to the West).

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I tend to agree with Philip that indeed, there has been a pull to talking about individuals. I think this is also related to the impact of the so-called post-modern turn in anthropology. I think essentializing characteristics should be treated with care. Nowadays, as we all know, it is simply the case that we have not met all the members of a culture or population and informants do read our work. I think that a careful generalization is nevertheless possible, but on quite different grounds. I believe that if one can show that certain characterizations (essentializations), whether or not this believe is shared by the anthropologist, influence behavior. Obviously, from participant observation we can show our reader how characterizations, beliefs that may or may not be true, influence social relations and the behavior of individuals. I think then that we should be more concerned with analyzing and showing this, then with the question of whether something is or is not a characterstic of a whole group or population/people.
hey amy! I am not sure what exactly you mean by theories so could you specify? what kind of theories are you reading?

Amy Santee said:
I'd love to know more about this. I am only starting to get into newer theories from the 1980s and 1990s, and am familiar only with the older stuff from before that time (the classics, I guess.)

What specific theorists are popular today and why? I can understand the pull/push toward speaking about individuals, but would like to know more about what theorists are doing so.
Jolanda, let me briefly describe a specific case and how I dealt with it in my book on Japanese consumers as seen through the yes of a group of Japanese market researchers. One of my purposes in writing the book was to give non-Japanese readers to hear individual Japanese voices analyzing the changes they perceived through their own research on changes in Japanese society. Each chapter in the book includes an introduction that I wrote, in which I provide the background information that non-Japanese readers need to understand what my Japanese colleagues were talking about, together with pointers to research by Western Japanologists (some anthropologists, many from other disciplines). It continues with verbatim translations of the whole or large chunks of an internal newsletter in which these researchers described what they discovered for the employees of the Japanese ad agency that established their research institute. Each chapter then concludes with the transcript of an interview with one of the researchers.

Needless to say, the book is filled with generalizations:generalizations about Japan, Japanese society, Japanese consumers, and specific types of Japanese consumers.The last are particularly interesting, since this is where my colleagues develop characterizations of emerging consumer segments and explanations of how their appearance reflects changes in Japan as a whole.

Thus, for example, a study of 60+ consumers conducted in the mid-1990s describes a group called "Silver Aristocrats." These are people who came of age and entered the labor force in the 1950s. They enjoyed lifetime employment and annual salary increases that were often large during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s and the economic bubble of the 1980s. They retired with substantial pensions and generous separation payments to add to their already substantial personal savings. With their children independent and their mortgages paid off, they were free to enjoy a "third life" in which they would have both the time and the resources to do pretty much whatever they liked.

How should we treat these generalizations? To me the obvious answer is "with care." None are simply speculations or based on taking as gospel what one or a few individuals say. Some are more speculative than others but not, on that account, necessarily wrong. Some are non-controversial.

To remark, for example, that the most popular beer in Japan is toriaizu (for the time being) beer alludes to a fact well-known to every Japanese business person. Afterwork drinking sessions with workmates normally begin with the highest ranking person present saying "for the time being, beer." The beer is whatever the establishment serves and is used for the first round of obligatory toasts. Once these are over, individuals may order whatever other drinks they prefer. Does this description always apply? No. It is, however, so much the norm that for it not to happen would be noteworthy.

To me what was most interesting about this project was that I started out looking for something distinctively Japanese about my Japanese colleagues' research. What I discovered was that, while there were, indeed, cultural differences, their use of the Japanese language and certain distinctively Japanese forms of charts and illustrations, for example, the questions that preoccupied them were shared with their peers in other OECD nations: the organization man, women entering the workforce, the effects on relationships, increasingly "alien" children, what to do with retirement years extended by longer lifespans, that sort of thing. Their responses to these issues frequently involved the same sorts of moral panics as found in North America or Europe. The fear that children deprived of fathers who are away all day at factories or offices, smothered with motherly love and concern by ambitious "education mamas," pampered but also forced to endure rigorous schedules of after-school classes would grow up weak, psychologically disturbed, or otherwise pathological was, for instance, as common in Japan in the 80s and 90s as it had been in the USA in the 50s and 60s. There were, on the other hand, local material conditions that might make these fears more realistic in Japan at the time the research I was doing was done. Instead of rural villages or cozy neighborhoods with nosy neighbors to keep an eye on what kids were up to and empty lots and parks for them to play in, in Japanese cities at least growing numbers of children live in high-rise apartments inhabited by families who are largely strangers to each other. Mothers in upper-level apartments cannot keep an eye on kids in playgrounds at ground level or trust others to report or reprimand misbehavior. Fathers with hour-plus commutes and long working days may, except for weekends, literally never be home while their children are awake, unlike the American fathers described by William Foot Whyte who were away during the day but home by five or six o'clock to share dinner with their families and still have time, especially in summer, for baseball games or other community activities.

Thus, it seemed to me that in assessing the numerous generalizations on which I was reporting, as well as my own conclusions, it would be necessary to consider (1) problems that are universal, at least in advanced industrial countries (2) local material conditions that might influence the degree of severity of the problems, and (3) local language and imagery, rooted in a different history, that might affect how both problems and explanations/interpretations were being articulated.

Individual versus society is simply true crude a model to guide us in what we are doing.

That, at least, was my conclusion. What do you think?
Dear John,
Thanks so much for your reply en exposé. It is interesting to read about your book and experience, and I do agree with you that individual and society is too crude a model. I think you formulated quite well what was on my mind when I wrote my reply. In fact I believe that you, like me, tend to think that it is important to explain these generalizations and their effects. To let individual Japanese talk, as you describe it, is I think part of this. For both of us, I think, generalizations are not all that bad, as long as they are well-described and give insight in individual perspectives and the social relations they entail. Now, I wonder, how do you deal with the individual and society model? did you find a way out?

John McCreery said:
Jolanda, let me briefly describe a specific case and how I dealt with it in my book on Japanese consumers as seen through the yes of a group of Japanese market researchers. One of my purposes in writing the book was to give non-Japanese readers to hear individual Japanese voices analyzing the changes they perceived through their own research on changes in Japanese society. Each chapter in the book includes an introduction that I wrote, in which I provide the background information that non-Japanese readers need to understand what my Japanese colleagues were talking about, together with pointers to research by Western Japanologists (some anthropologists, many from other disciplines). It continues with verbatim translations of the whole or large chunks of an internal newsletter in which these researchers described what they discovered for the employees of the Japanese ad agency that established their research institute. Each chapter then concludes with the transcript of an interview with one of the researchers.

Needless to say, the book is filled with generalizations:generalizations about Japan, Japanese society, Japanese consumers, and specific types of Japanese consumers.The last are particularly interesting, since this is where my colleagues develop characterizations of emerging consumer segments and explanations of how their appearance reflects changes in Japan as a whole.

Thus, for example, a study of 60+ consumers conducted in the mid-1990s describes a group called "Silver Aristocrats." These are people who came of age and entered the labor force in the 1950s. They enjoyed lifetime employment and annual salary increases that were often large during the period of rapid economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s and the economic bubble of the 1980s. They retired with substantial pensions and generous separation payments to add to their already substantial personal savings. With their children independent and their mortgages paid off, they were free to enjoy a "third life" in which they would have both the time and the resources to do pretty much whatever they liked.

How should we treat these generalizations? To me the obvious answer is "with care." None are simply speculations or based on taking as gospel what one or a few individuals say. Some are more speculative than others but not, on that account, necessarily wrong. Some are non-controversial.

To remark, for example, that the most popular beer in Japan is toriaizu (for the time being) beer alludes to a fact well-known to every Japanese business person. Afterwork drinking sessions with workmates normally begin with the highest ranking person present saying "for the time being, beer." The beer is whatever the establishment serves and is used for the first round of obligatory toasts. Once these are over, individuals may order whatever other drinks they prefer. Does this description always apply? No. It is, however, so much the norm that for it not to happen would be noteworthy.

To me what was most interesting about this project was that I started out looking for something distinctively Japanese about my Japanese colleagues' research. What I discovered was that, while there were, indeed, cultural differences, their use of the Japanese language and certain distinctively Japanese forms of charts and illustrations, for example, the questions that preoccupied them were shared with their peers in other OECD nations: the organization man, women entering the workforce, the effects on relationships, increasingly "alien" children, what to do with retirement years extended by longer lifespans, that sort of thing. Their responses to these issues frequently involved the same sorts of moral panics as found in North America or Europe. The fear that children deprived of fathers who are away all day at factories or offices, smothered with motherly love and concern by ambitious "education mamas," pampered but also forced to endure rigorous schedules of after-school classes would grow up weak, psychologically disturbed, or otherwise pathological was, for instance, as common in Japan in the 80s and 90s as it had been in the USA in the 50s and 60s. There were, on the other hand, local material conditions that might make these fears more realistic in Japan at the time the research I was doing was done. Instead of rural villages or cozy neighborhoods with nosy neighbors to keep an eye on what kids were up to and empty lots and parks for them to play in, in Japanese cities at least growing numbers of children live in high-rise apartments inhabited by families who are largely strangers to each other. Mothers in upper-level apartments cannot keep an eye on kids in playgrounds at ground level or trust others to report or reprimand misbehavior. Fathers with hour-plus commutes and long working days may, except for weekends, literally never be home while their children are awake, unlike the American fathers described by William Foot Whyte who were away during the day but home by five or six o'clock to share dinner with their families and still have time, especially in summer, for baseball games or other community activities.

Thus, it seemed to me that in assessing the numerous generalizations on which I was reporting, as well as my own conclusions, it would be necessary to consider (1) problems that are universal, at least in advanced industrial countries (2) local material conditions that might influence the degree of severity of the problems, and (3) local language and imagery, rooted in a different history, that might affect how both problems and explanations/interpretations were being articulated.

Individual versus society is simply true crude a model to guide us in what we are doing.

That, at least, was my conclusion. What do you think?
Jolanda writes,
Now, I wonder, how do you deal with the individual and society model? did you find a way out?

Dear Jolanda,

Allow me to respond to your questions as personal ones and to describe the way out that I find congenial. I may hope that it has a broader application, but that is for others to decide. Allow me, too, the freedom to approach these questions in what I take to be a philosophical manner, setting out a premise and then describing what I take to be some relevant implications derived from that premise.

Premise: We are all human here, and we are all imperfect.*

Ethical implication: I would, if I could, attend to everyone with whom I converse with the same combination of open-mindedness, respectful attention, and critical skepticism that with which I would like to have what I say heard.**

Epistemological implication: From our crudest notions to fully formalized theories, every set of human ideas is both (a) an historical artifact and (b) at best an approximation to that great unknown we call reality.***

So, first, what do I think I know about the individual versus society model? It is, I believe, at least as far as modern thinking goes, an artifact of the Protestant Reformation and then the Enlightenment. The most rigorous protestant reformers had as their ideal the dismantling of the whole apparatus of rituals, priests, saints, etc. that stood between a individual soul and its God. The Enlightenment and then the Romantic development of this vision looked for substitutes for God and found them either in humanity as a whole or, the Romantic alternative, the nation conceived as a discrete entity, clearly separated from others and united by blood, soil, language and custom. This basic assumption, a naked self/soul standing in the presence of its God or God-alternative, is the historical origin and fundamental form of the individual versus society debates in which scholars across the whole range of humanities, social and physical sciences, together with interested members of the public, now engage.

Is the basic assumption of a self/soul in a one-to-one relationship with a God or God-alternative the only possible one? No, here is where both anthropology and history have something to say. By far the most common assumption discovered by both ethnographic and historical research is that individuals participate in a host of diverse relationships, with kin, with friends, with neighbors, with trading partners or fellow devotees of one or more of the divinities available in polytheistic cosmologies. That apparatus intruding between and competing with the relation between the individual self/soul and its God or God-substitute hasn't gone away, even in societies with ideological commitments to human rights, totalitarianism, or religious or market fundamentalism. In China, a fairly large chunk of the world, for example, the traditional Confucian view clearly spells out the degrees of obligation attached to different degrees of kinship and a central political dilemma is how to assert the primacy of the state against the primordial attachment to family.

So, when the issue of individual and society comes up, I want to know concretely who, what, where and when we are talking about. Having read Robert Bellah, et al's Habits of the Heart I am aware that in the United States there are currently at least four popular forms of individualism:

a. Classic Religious: The naked soul and his or her God
b. Classic Political: The individual citizen and the Nation
*Both a. and b. assume an objective source of ultimate value outside the individual
c. Egoistic Instrumental: The rational actor and the Market
d. Egoistic Expressive: The emotional actor and the Audience
* Both c. and d. assume that the source of ultimate value lies inside the individual

To these I add the sorts of considerations that anthropology and history add to my thinking, recognizing that in many if not most cases, the individual vs God or God-substitute model is either a crude approximation or simply doesn't fit the case.

Sorry for running on. Forgive my logorrhea.

Notes:
* Surely in large part an artifact of a Lutheran upbringing
** As others who participate in OAC have noticed I, too, am only human; prejudice, irritation, drink and outrage may all contribute to my failure to walk what I talk here.
***The logic here is thin. To get from always imperfect approximations to always historical artifacts would require adding to what is already an excessively long post.
A thought from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's Science and the Modern World.

Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbors something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration. We must not expect, however, all the virtues. ( S.M.W. p. 298)
Dear John,
Thanks for this reply! Already the first few lines made me think. I like your expose on the origin of the individual-society model to protestantism. I never looked at that way. I see the origin of individual-society model in other models that are based on dualisms, the nature-nurture debate one of the most prominent. Perhaps it is another path I set on, but I think that dualisms, dichotomous models and thinking, go all the way back to the mind-body model of Descartes. Any way that is a bit besides the point, so I will turn to your comments now.

Your philosophical premises are interesting and I think generally acceptable. Drawing it from these premises to the debate on individual-society, I wonder, whether in your case your model nevertheless starts from the individual engaging with others in (several) kinds of relationship. Correct me if I wrongly understood you though. From this, and your further explanation that:

So, when the issue of individual and society comes up, I want to know concretely who, what, where and when we are talking about.

Points to a quite empirical substantiated view of individual-society. Let me draw a possible conclusion from this to add to our discussion: is society then a situational - to be empirically investigated - concept?

And by the way, thanks for the quote. I wish only everyone would have this idea about 'others'.
Jolanda,

I am really enjoying this conversation. Thank you for continuing. Allow me to respond to your latest thoughts.

On Binary Oppositions

Here we need to separate two levels of abstraction. The tendency to think in terms of binary oppositions (nature/culture, the raw/the cooked, yin/yang, man/woman, left/right, for example) is, as far as I can see, a human universal. The specific binary opposition individual/society may be another matter, especially when it occurs in theoretical debates that appear to be rooted in monotheistic religion. Also, an historical footnote: Descartes (1596-1650) was born thirty-two years after Calvin (1509-1564) died. His formulation of the mind-body problem may be, in part, a reaction to the devastating uncertainty of all systems of authority resulting from the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), which devastated Europe on a scale not matched, I speculate, until World War I. In any case, his method, stripping away everything he could doubt, left him with that naked soul confronting the God I mentioned in the last message.He was then stuck with the problem of how to explain the material world of which neither that soul nor its God were a part.

Society and Individual

You write,
I wonder, whether in your case your model nevertheless starts from the individual engaging with others in (several) kinds of relationship.

The answer is yes. That is not, however, to reduce society to individuals. Society is an emergent phenomenon. It requires individuals but is not reducible to them. The relation here is like that of chemical molecules to the atoms of which they are made; water, for example, is not just hydrogen and oxygen but hydrogen and oxygen combined in a certain configuration (H2O), whose properties are not predictable given only the atomic structure of the elements themselves.

Here my mentors are Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Here they describe a process with three basic steps:

1. An individual communicates an idea to others.
2. The idea is taken up by the members of a group.
3. Newcomers (children or strangers) internalize the idea, which to them seems taken for granted, part of nature.

The points to note here are that, as the idea is communicated, it existence ceases to depend on the individual who first had it. That individual may die or disappear, but the idea is still around. It may still be relatively fragile. If taken up by only a few members of the group, it can cease to exist if they do. If, however, the group is large and the idea is taken up by most of its members, it will be robust. It will, in other words, have become what Durkheim called a social fact. It may only be an idea but, as W.I.Thomas famously wrote, "What men believe to be true is true in its consequences."

Let me pause here, and see what you think.





Descartes (1596-1650)
John said, "Society is an emergent phenomenon. It requires individuals but is not reducible to them."

This assertion has for over a hundred years been the foundation of sociology and anthropology. It explains why our "unit of analysis" must be a collectivity of some kind, must be society and culture, rather than one or several individuals.

No one of our founders put this more convincingly than Emile Durkheim in his book Suicide, where he showed convincingly that, even in this most personal and decisive of acts, the impact of social relations was critical. While suicide is an individual act, and each has a unique story, suicide rates are, as Durkheim put it, "social facts." That is, the extent to which people make this personal decision depends upon the nature of their social context. By way of demonstration, Durkheim shows that there is great regularity in the differential suicide rates of Cathlics, Jews, and Protestants, as well as in unmarried, married, and divorced people, which he accounts for in terms of their varying social contexts, which he describes.

When you are dealing with one or a few individuals, how do you know whether what you are finding is the result of idiocyncratic characteristics, particular social positions, or cultural orientations? For example, if I see some of my Baluchi friends taking up weapons and going off to fight, do I attribute this to their personal anger, to high testosterone resulting from eating too many dates, to a culture of combat, or to collective security arrangements? Without looking at societal arrangments and cultural orientations, it is impossible to understand why people do what they do.

If the above is accepted, then we must strive to characterize and generalize, in order to delineate society and culture. Of course, we must do so carefully, and must substantiate with evidence, preferably systematic evidence, our generalizations.
Phil, how do you understand the meaning of "collectivity"? If your definition agrees with that which Google just provided, A body of people considered as a whole, I would prefer the more neutral "population," which leaves boundaries and integration as empirical issues instead of a priori assumptions.

Surely one of anthropology's more convincing discoveries is the artifice regularly used to impose the appearance of whole on fluid and messy situations, where relationships sprawl instead of collapsing into tidy, localized bundles. Among the classics, I think, for example of Nadel's Black Byzantium or Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma. Among more recent works, Chris Kelty's Two Bits, a multi-sited ethnography of the free software community, a "recursive public," whose membership and boundaries are porous and disagreements legendary, comes to mind.

I note, in this regard, that, while I did say "group" too casually, there is nothing in Berger and Luckmann's analysis of the creation of social facts that requires boundaries. A loose, open network can sustain a social fact without the network's coalescing into a whole. One thinks, for example, of the citation networks that support academic reputations. I am reminded of this example by a discussion on SOCNET, where the issue is precisely whether citation, even mutual citation, is grounds for imagining a link in a social network. Note how often scholars may cite people with whom they have not the slightest personal connection, who may, in fact, be dead.
Philip, thanks for joining our discussion!
And John, I am grateful for the way this discussion is going, better put, happy that it is now going towards Luckmann and Berger. I am actually, very interested in Schütz at the moment and in your previous answers I thought I had discovered some kind of hints towards such a conception of society-individual. Any way, let me respond to some of the points you have raised.

John, I think partly because I am currently quite convinced of Schütz his approach there is little left to discuss. We simply seem to agree. Put it simply, society is the not just the sum of individuals but a bit more. Schütz was especially focused on the way individuals constitute meaning, and argued that this was done intersubjectively. In contrast to Husserl therefore he saw intersubjectivity as something of the 'mundane'. I think this is where Luckmann, after all a quite faithful student, derives this notion of how a social fact comes about.

I share John's concern about the formulation of Philip. My attention was drawn to Philip's last paragraph:

If the above is accepted, then we must strive to characterize and generalize, in order to delineate society and culture. Of course, we must do so carefully, and must substantiate with evidence, preferably systematic evidence, our generalizations.

I would like to ask what exactly you envision with 'delineate' because, as John, this would mean creating 'delineations' or in other words boundaries. Whereas following Schütz, and Berger and Luckmann for that matter, I am (and John seems to be as well) quite convinced that any 'bounded entity' is not the case, but please correct me if I misunderstood you there Philip. Three questions in particular come to my mind, for you Philip in this case but perhaps John can also engage in these questions, what does delineating society and culture mean? and how would you envision this? then if this is through generalizations, as the second part of your argument seems to suggest, based on systemic evidence, what is systemic evidence?





John McCreery said:
Phil, how do you understand the meaning of "collectivity"? If your definition agrees with that which Google just provided, A body of people considered as a whole, I would prefer the more neutral "population," which leaves boundaries and integration as empirical issues instead of a priori assumptions.

Surely one of anthropology's more convincing discoveries is the artifice regularly used to impose the appearance of whole on fluid and messy situations, where relationships sprawl instead of collapsing into tidy, localized bundles. Among the classics, I think, for example of Nadel's Black Byzantium or Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma. Among more recent works, Chris Kelty's Two Bits, a multi-sited ethnography of the free software community, a "recursive public," whose membership and boundaries are porous and disagreements legendary, comes to mind.

I note, in this regard, that, while I did say "group" too casually, there is nothing in Berger and Luckmann's analysis of the creation of social facts that requires boundaries. A loose, open network can sustain a social fact without the network's coalescing into a whole. One thinks, for example, of the citation networks that support academic reputations. I am reminded of this example by a discussion on SOCNET, where the issue is precisely whether citation, even mutual citation, is grounds for imagining a link in a social network. Note how often scholars may cite people with whom they have not the slightest personal connection, who may, in fact, be dead.
If we consider Durkheim's examples--Catholics/Jews/Protestants, and single/married/divorced-widowed--it is clear that he was speaking of categories of people, each defined by particular characteristics, rather than "groups" of people who stood arm in arm in a large field. I use the term "collectivity" to refer to any population that in some sense relate to one another. Radicliffe-Brown said that the "object" of our study is any "convenient population," if I recall correctly.

Group boundaries and category inclusion are a big deal for lots of folks in lots of situations. Who is or is not a Catholic/Muslim/Jew, or more complicated, a "real" Catholic/Muslim/Jew, and who is a heretic, or an apostate, or a "bad" Catholic/etc., is a question that agitates many people. So too in much the same way, communist/socialist/democrat/ Democrat/conservative/Republican/libertarian, and also patriot/terrorist, etc. etc. Boundaries are important in that they mark rights: rights as citizens to vote; rights to enter for immigrants; rights to attend classes and receive credits and degrees for students; etc. etc. Ownership is another: who owns this plot of land, and what are its boundaries; and who owns this toy, who must respect that the toy belongs to another, and who might nonetheless be asked to share. Quite a bit of what we study is boundary and category definitions and claims.

When we as researchers define categories and phenomena, we do so because we believe it is fruitful for our research to make certain distinctions. Whether that works out depends on our findings, as long as they are evidence-based and not circular. Ideally we want to look at evidence that is independent of our definitions and hypotheses, and has the capacity to conform to or refute our hypotheses. By "systematic" evidence I mean statistically representative evidence, evidence from a variety of sources, and evidence that bears on various sides of the question. An anthropologist's intuition is not sufficient; nor are the reflections of a favoured informant. (There is a useful thread on evidence-based research in the Theory in Anthropology group.)

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