Some influential anthropologists have argued that we must have clear theory and follow it consistently. Marvin Harris disparaged those anthropologists who did not, with the epithet "eclectic." This was Harris' polite term for "confused."

Yet some of the most popular and respected anthropology books appear to be very eclectic. For example, Nancy Scheper-Hughes' SAINTS, SCHOLARS, AND SCHIZOPHRENICS, always the most popular book in my psychological anthropology course. She draws on demographic, ecological, economic, cultural, and psychodynamic theories to explain the patterns that she finds.

So is our use of theory and theories more complex than we sometimes want to admit, or to contemplate?

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Ah, this is one of the most important questions we can ask of and for anthropology! The reason why I say this, is that anthropology has always been the intersection of two modes of knowledge production: ethnography and theory. Anthropology is the site of these two modes constituting each other, and of course a site of theoretical contestation.

Recently, the concept of evidence has become a concept of interest in British anthropology - see the special issue of JRAI on The Objects of Evidence: Anthropological Approaches to the Production of Knowledge, edited by Matthew Engelke (2008); and How Do We Know? Evidence, Ethnography, and the Making of Anthropological Knowledge edited by Chua, High and Lau (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2008).

[Quick plug: ask your library to buy it!]

Evidence is central to the contestation mentioned above, because all anthropologists, no matter what their theoretical persuasion, rely on the quality of their evidence in arguing their case. More than that, the question of evidence at the confluence of ethnography and theory, highlights how theory may shape what we think of as evidence - and thus, in essence, what we produce as evidence in our work. This would be theory-driven anthropology. That relationship is of course a two-way street: as our small-scale ethnographies are made to speak to our more abstract explanatory models, they also influence and help to shape these very models. This would be ethnography-driven anthropological theory. I think that both are always present in any anthropology worth its salt (or grant money). Evidence, then, is really the modus operandi within this field of constitutive contestation.

I really think it is worth our while to cast a watchful eye on evidence in anthropological work in relationship to theory - e.g. how are data from small-scale ethnographic research transformed, so to speak, into building blocks of theoretical argument? To my mind, what we find at the other end of the spectrum from the 'confused' eclectics are blinkered anthropologists whose field of vision is limited by their theoretical agenda. This kind of limitation may lead to prohibitive selection of evidence from data. On another level, then, most theories bring with them evidentiary protocols of what counts as evidence, and what doesn't.

I think that if we're interested in discussing theory in anthropology, we would do well to be interested in evidence in anthropology!
"Should anthropology be theory driven?" This is really a crucial question.

On one hand we can spontainously say: of course. It is the exclusive possibility. All what we can maintain in anthropology is theory.

Tim Lau outlines the question with an ambivalent model of "theory driven anthropology" and an "ethnography driven anthropological theory". Both are qualified by the qualitative relation of 'theory' and 'evidence'.

This model is doubtless valid in the present situation of the field, but one can also make a big step back and say: this is the problem! The model is much too narrow.

Anthropology is in the clinch between its definition and its extremely limited and apriori devalued research field. "Anthropos" with all its weight of the Greek term, implying in fact all humans from whatever beginnings. But on the other hand it has to be content with the "primitive wilderness" of the palace garden, where history reigns with all its brilliant facades (putting prae-protohistoric prehistory and primatology in some shady storage huts at the backyards, together with "ethnography, ethnology and "cultural anthropology" to some extent).

What about civilisation? What is the relation of the civilised "anthropos" in regard to his image of the "anthropos" of cultural and physical anthropology, of ethnography? Does the great science of history produce a system of high values which condemns the "anthropologist" to be content with "primitivisms" or are the "primtivisms" of the "civilised anthropos" "primitive theory"?

I will stop here for the moment.....The first step towards a theory implies also: to define the domain it takes its evidences from....(See my paper on "Micro and Macrotheories" in: Egenter, Nold: The Relevance of the Primitive in Architecture; Architectural Anthropology Research Series vol. 1:

All the best

Thanks, Philip, for having kicked off this lively group.

My greatest beef as an undergrad at Cambridge was that our teachers, people with sophisticated knowledge of many theoretical traditions, tried to shield us from intellectual history, all in the name of an ethnographic practice that derived its concepts from "the field". Once, in our graduate seminar, I complained about the low-level empiricism that passed for discussion and Meyer Fortes took me aside later to say, "You are too rational, Keith. Anthropology is not a rational subject". Meyer Fortes! I suspect that my lifelong desire to teach social and anthropological theory comes from that. But I think it is too extreme to claim that anthropology can or should be "theory-driven". We ought to be self-conscious about where our ideas come from and how we use them, but I prefer a dialectical method of combining theory and fact, reason and what we find in the world, whether Kant's, Hegel's or Marx's. Does it have to be either/or?
I had a related classroom experience just yesterday. Be aware that I work in Bielefeld, the Holiest of the German Temples of Sociology, having been hired basically as an exotic specialist.
The class is on ethnicity, and we were debating various issues of diacritics, cultural features which are/are not markers of categories and how all this looks in interaction ... and after a long round of discussion, one of the students (late-BA stages) remarked how weird it was for him to read all these anthro texts, which (to him) all seemed to start from scratch, again and again and again. In his mind, there was a specific model of how an academic discipline ought to work: There is something called "Allgemeine Soziologie" (General Sociology), and from this, spin-offs are generated, but we all can always fall back on AS, and we do not have to explain our basis in AS in every paper we write.
I found his comments highly insightful, especially considering how little students are encouraged to develop a wider and interdisciplinary focus in this Bolognese-world, and a lively debate developed, and never mind ethnicity.
The students were pretty interested to learn how it had come about that within anthropology there is now a heavy tendency towards methodological eclecticism, and how the fact that anthropologists are used to dealing with cases which do not fit into the neat categories set up by disciplines focusing on Atlantic civil society had led to a generally inductive approach across the board (as well as the inevitable Bongo-Bongo-ism) and this certain way of writing and structuring texts which this one astute student noticed.
In the end, they found it reasonable and fruitful to maintain a certain academic division of labor, where sociologists and anthropologists each do what they do best - which in case of anthropology means following an inductive and eclectic approach, letting the problem (as perceived) generate the appropriate methodology, and always, always working from the data (which is a difficult issue in anthropology, which we might want to get into at another point).
I am throwing this anecdote out as an encouragement to think about a) what do we have within anthropology which might resemble the "Allgemeine Soziologie", something we can all fall back on, our common ground which we do not have to justify anymore, b) what is the importance of people like Marvin Harris ("one theory!), Meyer Fortes ("not too much theory, please"), and Keith Hart ("we might not always use it all, but we should be aware of what there is") for the ecology of ideas within anthropology, and c) what is it that anthropology does that really justifies its existence vis-a-vis other disciplines, so, another ecological question.
A related issue is how ethnographic methods are now heavily accepted amongst non-trained practitioners, and what shape ethnographic methods take outside academia.

It is not a problem as such that ethnographic methods is becoming more widespread and I certainly don't want to advocate sealing off anthropology as discipline from the rest of the world. Nevertheless, I do feel that current developments waters down the importance of theory outside academia. I often hear non-trained ethnographers claiming how anyone can do good ethnography - which to me is a huge devaluation of the merits of anthropological training and theory. This might be our own fault, having not stressed the importance in theory guiding analysis, or it might be that the hype of anthropological methods are overshadowing theoretical considerations.
Another way of putting this important point, Rasmus, is that anthropologists frequently claim that the adoption of 'ethnography' in geography, nursing studies etc is not the real thing, which we own as a discipline. But this is because we have forgotten what it is about 'anthropology' that makes our version of ethnography special. You have suggested training and theory. In a recent dispute with Philip Salzman on Twitter (which was admittedly constrained by 140 spaces), I claimed that what matters is a discipline's Object, Theory and Method taken together and that academic anthropology has come to rely on identifying itself in the academic division of labor by an impoverished version of Method alone ('fieldwork'). I forget what Philip and I argued about, but I think it was his insistence that Theory should be in the driving seat...
Keith, I don't think that I was arguing that "Theory should be in the driving seat..." My point was, I hope, a bit more nuanced: Those who forget history, are bound to repeat it, first as sociology, then as anthropology. But let's not dwell on an old argument, especially one carried out in 140 characters.
It would be more helpful at this point if you would be so kind as to tell us what you think our "discipline's Object" should be. I know you have written about this elsewhere, but please give us an executive summary (or study notes).
Isn't the critical issue whether what we call theory generates insight into the data we collect? I think of what Victor Turner wrote,

"In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough."

Victor Turner (1974) “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors” in Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (p. 17).

I wonder, too, if it might be a useful exercise to examine anthropology through other eyes, to get some perspective on what we do. In recent years, I have found myself increasingly attracted by the work of Chicago sociologist Andrew Abbott, whose Chaos of Disciplines, Time Matters: On Theory and Method, and Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences are filled with germane and provocative thoughts.

The British philosopher, historian and archaeologist, R.G. Collingwood, had a methodological principle: when he encountered something, a Roman figurine or an argument, he would ask, "What question is this the answer to?". This was partly a way of introducing a subjective dimension to the inquiry, following his idol, Croce. But it also reminds us that we sometimes forget why we are doing what we do.

If I may digress, my first fieldwork lasted two an a half years and I thought I became better at it all the time, more sophisticated as a linguist, in social relations, interviewing etc. But when I went back to my fieldnotes, the only parts I ever used came from the first 12 months. This was when I was discovering big new things, asking questions and chasing the answers. At times it read like a detective story. Later on I just became an expert in parish pump politics who knew all the details and lost sight of the big questions.

Both the alleged founders of British social anthropology, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, claimed Durkheim as a major influence. Durkheim was forced to invent sociology because they wouldn't let him pursue the study of the spirit and sources of social solidarity within philosophy. The twin godfathers of BSA, who differed in other respects quite profoundly, agreed that a good way to answer Durkheim's question (and one he himself turned to later in life) was to study the so-called simple societies on the grounds that they reveal more clearly the principles by which complex modern societies work. So the object of this school was to study the sociology of primitive societies, as Evans-Pritchard explained in his introductory text, Social Anthropology (1950). The theory was functionalism: how do things work in the here and now for the people involved? with the twin founders offering rival variants. And the method was fieldwork or scientific ethnography. All long gone now, expect for the method, but my point is that the coherence of object, theory and method came from the original Durkheimian question.

I won't go into how I think we could reinvigorate contemporary anthropology by posing similar questions and trying to answer them through a coherent object, theory and method. We are in a transitional period, either that or terminal decline as an academic discipline. I think you said on Twitter that we have to have a theory or it's all an eclectic mess. I could be remembering wrong. I said it would help to have an explicit objective linked to clear questions and yes, theory and method too.

As a trailer, I now suggest that one way of relaunching anthropology would be for it to be an intellectual project seeking to illuminate how we might make a better world society, fit for all humanity. Such a project would return us to our 18th century Enlightenment roots, but in a new historical context.
If I may digress, my first fieldwork lasted two an a half years and I thought I became better at it all the time, more sophisticated as a linguist, in social relations, interviewing etc. But when I went back to my fieldnotes, the only parts I ever used came from the first 12 months. This was when I was discovering big new things, asking questions and chasing the answers. At times it read like a detective story. Later on I just became an expert in parish pump politics who knew all the details and lost sight of the big questions.

This statement resonates strongly with me. I wonder if we might add something about the importance of a comparative perspective in relation to theory.

One of my continuing dissatisfactions with the anthropology of Japan is the way in which so much of the work done is entirely Japan-centric, making little if any reference to work done in other places, even other places in Northeast Asia. Looking at historic predecessors, I note that Ruth Benedict devotes a substantial part of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword to discussing how the Japanese are not Chinese and that Chie Nakane's Japanese Society develops a theoretical idea--vertical "frames" versus horizontal "attributes"--rooted in Nakane's fieldwork in India. Nowadays, however, these sorts of comparisons have fallen out of fashion. Even ostensibly "theory-driven" work on Japanese pop culture slips too easily into casual Japan-versus-THE WEST generalizations that serve mainly to exoticize details of Japanese behavior that have caught the ethnographer's attention. In areas like gender or social stratification, the necessary bows and obeisances, a.k.a., citations, are provided for currently fashionable theorists; but the notion that something might be learned by close comparison between, for example, the lives of working women in Tokyo and the lives of their peers in Shanghai, Taipei or Calcutta leaves the application of "theory" a cookie-cutter exercise.

Oh, well. As you can see, these are issues that get me exercised, and the comments above should be taken with lashings of soy sauce. But isn't the lack of explicit ethnographic COMPARISON one of the key factors rendering so much of contemporary theory vacuous?
John McCreery has, to my mind, touched on a critical issue in advancing anthropology: comparative analysis. He is correct, too, that we are often fieldsite–centric, ignoring parallel cases elsewhere, and contrasting “our” case only with vague stereotypes. An example from another region has struck me: Africanist anthropologists interested in development sometimes spin out theories about how helping tribes will bring development. They are trying to invent development theory di nuovo. Do they look at how Europe or East Asia evolved and became highly developed societies? Not at all. So instead of serious development theory, they end up with a kind of politically correct theory based on sympathy rather than understanding.

Comparative analysis has also fallen into disuse because it is an analytical tool for pursuing causal explanation. Twentieth century advocates of comparative analysis–Radcliffe-Brown, S. F. Nadel, F. Eggan, R Hackenberg, Julian Steward, and even Eric Wolf, not to mention Murdock and his students–used it to discover “concomitant variations,” or “co-variations,” as a foundation for establishing causal relations. When such scientific-oriented, “positivistic” approaches fell out of favour in the late 20th century, so did comparative analysis. It was replaced by “interpretation,” “subjectivity,” and “reflexivity.” To compare cultures, it came to be felt, was a violation of our subjects’ integrity, an imperialist objectification and thus demeaning of them. Abstraction and comparison was seen as a kind of ethnographic rape. Who would want to engage in that?

Perhaps our times have changed, and we strive for a new balance of sensitivity, on the one hand, and serious investigation, on the other. Will this new balance bring comparative analysis back into favour?
Philip, thanks. The strokes are much appreciated. That new balance between sensitivity and serious investigation sounds very good, indeed. Perhaps to stimulate further discussion and -- frankly speaking -- because I need a break, please allow me a bit of self-indulgence.

You write that, "Comparative analysis ... is an analytical tool for pursuing causal explanation." It is certainly that. It can also, however, be a powerful rhetorical device for focusing and framing description. We can see that effect crudely and weakly displayed in the conventional approach that contrasts them (the people we are studying) and us (the stereotype we have of ourselves). My proposal is that it works even better when three or four populations are being compared, in what we might call extended comparison. Positioning a second or third term between the us and them can break down stereotypes, stimulate fresh thinking, even make comparison more fun.

Here comes the self-indulgence. This is the way I began the chapter on "Traditional Chinese Religion" I wrote for Ray Scupin's Religion and Culture, An Anthropological Focus.

Turn back the clock a century. You have graduated from university and accepted a post with one of the great British trading companies that operate out of Hong Kong. To reach China from England, you must travel by ship. En route, your ship will stop in Italy, Egypt, India. Wherever it stops, you have a few days to explore the countryside and pursue your interest in comparative religion. Italy is strange but also familiar. With its crucifixes, candles, incense, priestly vestments, carnivals and saints days, Italian Catholicism may seem a bit exotic. Still, it is Christianity, the most common form of religion in Europe. Its churches, priests and doctrines are not all that different from what you imagine when you think of religion in the West.
In Egypt you encounter Islam. Mosques replace churches. Friday not Sunday is the holy day, and religious images are forbidden. But Islam also has its saints and festivals. Islam is, like Christianity and Judaism, a religion of the Book. All three are monotheistic religions rooted in belief in one, transcendent God, who exists apart from His creation and reveals His will through prophets whose words are recorded in canonical, sacred texts: Torah for the Jews, the Bible for Christians, the Koran for Muslims. For believers in all three religions, their faith is the mark of membership in an exclusive religious community.

In India you encounter Hinduism. Here, too, there are temples, rites, and festivals. The division between Brahmin and warrior castes recalls a familiar division between priestly and secular authorities. But instead of one God there are many—goddesses as well as gods, and a seemingly endless variety of both. Stranger still, devotion to one does not preclude the worship of others. Instead of one sacred Book, you find a seemingly endless list of scriptures, commentaries, folktales and myths. There are, to be sure, similarities between their content and what you find in the sacred Books of the monotheistic religions of Europe and the Middle East. There are, however, no rabbis, priests or judges with the power to determine which are canonical and which are not.

You may note, too, that Hindu creation myths do not describe a singular event. Instead of a one, definitive pronouncement, "Let there be light," creation in Hindu thought is an endlessly repeated dream. Mystics of all schools seek to free themselves from the dream by losing their mortal selves in the great Self that is God. In this archetypically mystical religion, the mystic's search for that true Self has replaced submission to God's revealed Word .

Then, at last, you arrive in China. Here, again, there are temples, rites and festivals; images like those of Catholic saints or Hindu gods and goddesses; fire, incense and offerings. When, however, you ask, "What is the religion of China?" you hear two surprising answers. Some say that China has three religions: Confucianism and Daoism, both indigenous to China, and Buddhism, imported from India. The other says that China has no religion. The three religions aren't religions at all, but schools of moral philosophy. The customs of the masses are only superstitious magic.

If you live long enough—to the middle of the twentieth century—you will also hear some scholars say that there is, after all, one Chinese religion . It is not, however, a monotheistic religion; there is no single high God. Like Hinduism, Chinese religion is polytheistic and only in one of its many dimensions—the worship of ancestors—exclusive. But in contrast to Hinduism, there is no Creator who exists apart from His creation. The world does have an invisible dimension, the realm of spirits; all spirits—whether gods, ghosts, or ancestors—exist, like the human beings they resemble, inside the one, self-sustaining, natural order of things.

There is no attempt here at causal analysis. But neither would I regard what I have written as ethnographic rape. It might be considered pretentious, an experiment in using the same scale as Max Weber. But no disrespect is intended, nor, I hope, conveyed.

Be interested to hear how others with less ego invested respond.



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