One of the difficulties I have with anthropology is that the categories we go around applying all over the place (religion, economics, power) do not always work so well in different social and political contexts. So the tools of description come from a certain perspective, and may not necessarily fit or correlate with the concepts/terms that are used in the communities we study. So it's also a constant process of translation and feedback, I suppose.
I agree with John that the basics of our embodiment do make a majority of experiences translatable, but on the other hand our categories can pigeon hole what we experience.
But when it comes to cultural and social anthropology I am not sure how valid the search for repeatability is. And this is something that I wonder about a lot--especially after reading about cases in which more recent anthropologist go back and try to verify earlier ethnographic work, as happened with Mead's work. I think it was pretty strange to assume that returning to Mead's field site would yield the same conclusions. Since social situations and context change so often and so rapidly, why should anthropologists even think that data from one year to the next is going to be comparable? Maybe some kinds of data will fall into that territory, but certainly not all of it.
What do you think of this hypothesis? Could it be a sort of new direction (even if it is not new in anything it says, it seems to me that the way it merges together different things is new)?>
p. 3-4 The systematic study of the relationship of the individual to society has, from its very beginning, been marked by acrimonious contention over both its proper procedure and its goal. The debate has not been confined, as in other fields, to questions of the truth of this or that theory or the correctness of this or that method. Rather, the whole subject matter of the social sciences as something unique in its own right and having prior existence in prescientific experience has itself been put in question. In one camp, for instance, we find social phenomena treated exactly as if they were natural phenomena, that is, as causally determined physical events. In another camp, however, we find the sharpest contrast drawn between the two classes of phenomena. Social phenomena are here treated as belonging to a world of objective mind, a world which is, to be sure, intelligible, but not under the form of scientific laws. Often enough the attitude of the social scientist toward his subject matter is determined by his own presuppositions, metaphysical, ethical, or political, or by value judgments of whatever kind. These presuppositions may be tacitly assumed or openly stated. As he pursues his reseaerch, he finds himself entangled in problems whose solution seems necessary if his work is to have any sense at all. Is social science concerned with the very being of man or only with his different modes of social behavior? Is society prior to the individual, so that apart from the social whole the individual does not exist at all? Or should we put it quite the other way and say that the individual alone exists and that social organizations, including society itself, are mere abstractions—"functions" of the behavior of separate individuals? Does man's social being determine his consciousness, or does his consciousness determine his social being? Can the history of man and his culture be reduced to laws such as those of economics? Or, on the contrary, can we not say that so-called economic and sociological "laws" merely express the historical perspectives of the age in which they were formulated? Faced with all these dilemmas, it is hardly surprising that many social scientists try to deal with them prematurely by naive pseudo-solutions generated from subjective biases which may be temperamental, political, or at best metaphysical.
Except for the anachronisms of non-PC "man" for "human" and the assumption that social scientists are interested in being scientists, this passage, originally published in German in 1932, seems to capture our current predicament pretty well. Anyone disagree?
Can we do anything about this? We can begin by getting rid of unrealistic expectations about what solitary anthropologists can do in a short time. And we might want to recognise, and try to implement, the basic principles of organization followed in every successful venture: specialization and division of labour. As well, maybe we should build in a bit of that “market place of ideas,” of mutual critique, of sharing of insight, that leads to improvement of understanding, or at least refinement of various positions. How can we do this? By following the example of archaeologists, geologists, physicists, biologists, etc. and working in research teams, each member with specific specialized tasks, but with sufficient overlap so as to facilitate mutual sharing and criticism. Here is one type of “replication” feasible for anthropologists, contemporaneous and continuous, rather than separate and sequential. Of course, it would help if we actually trained students in research methods and techniques, rather than forcing each of them to try–with greatly varying success–to invent wheel yet again.
Thank you for this. I have been following this discussion closely, as a grad student who wonders what the heck I am supposed to be doing, who doesn't understand why working alone is the pinnacle of our discipline, and who despairs of ever knowing enough of current theory and practice to be able to intelligently address my areas of "expertise". Everyone who has contributed to this discussion has given me much to think about, and there is still so much to learn.
But seriously, I do suggest that several of our different groups and discussion threads could benefit from a serious joint reading of Andrew Abbott (2004) Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. In this book Abbott eschews essentializing debates and moralizing critique aimed at establishing the superiority of one method over another. Instead, he argues for seeing both classic methods and classic debates as opportunities to pivot in search of fresh ideas. Thus, for example, people working on topics currently dominated by hardcore statistical analysis (survey research, cluster analysis, that sort of thing) or formal modeling (economics, for example) might pivot toward ethnography to see their problems in a new light. Ethnographers mired in thick description might pivot in the opposite direction, looking for things to count as a basis for statistical analysis or computer simulation. Moving in either direction will lead to fresh insights. After laying out three different senses in which social scientists "explain" things: syntatically--by embedding them in stories that describe series of events; semantically -- by translating the unfamiliar into the common sense of their discipline; or pragmatically -- by identifying key bottlenecks at which intervention will be effective, Abbot goes on to look in detail at five methods: ethnography, history, standard causal (a.k.a., statistical) analysis, small-n comparison, and formal modeling (including computer simulation), noting the strengths of each and pointing to paths along which shifting from one to another has been intellectually productive. To me his approach seems both eminently sensible and highly provocative.