What is it we intend that a theory should do for us? Is it meant to be a distillation of basic truth? Is it meant to be a fruitful guide to research. Is it meant to be a specific statement about the way things work?

It might be useful to distinguish between these different tasks, or between different kinds of theoretical formulation that serve them. One much discussed distinction is between highly abstract, general theory, and more specific, lower level theory. A famous sociologist of the mid-twentieth century, Robert K. Merton, favoured the latter, labelling it “middle range theory,” in contrast with the more abstract “grand theory.” How did he define, and why did he favour “middle range theory”? Middle range theory is specific enough to say what can or can not happen, and therefore can be tested by evidence. Grand theory is so abstract as to make it difficult to challenge with evidence.

Most “theory” in anthropology is highly abstract. I call it “heuristic theory,” because it is mainly meant to guide research by indicating what is important. Heuristic theory is more or less equivalent to grand theory, although sociologists, e.g Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills, tended to elaborate more than anthropologists do. Perhaps a paradigmatic example would be Clifford Geertz’s theoretical statements about religion, common sense, art, etc., which are frank in taking the form of definitions. Heuristic theory, and definitions, cannot be shown to be true or false; rather they are seen as either fruitful or not (or, "old" or "new," as fashion is our master, even in anthropology).

In contrast to heuristic theory are formulations that I would label “substantive theory,” which are more or less the same as Merton’s middle range theory. These tend to be fairly specific about something in particular, such that evidence can be brought to bear in support or in refutation. A simplistic example in one proposition would be “nomads do not have kings.” This substantive theory could be addressed by looking at as many cases of nomads as we can find, and seeing if any have kings. (My bet: don’t put your money on the kings.)

In addition to heuristic theory and substantive theory, there is epistemological theory, that asserts how we can know things, and may support or dismiss heuristic theory or substantive theory, or both. Usually epistemology is attended to by philosophers, but as nothing human is alien to anthropologists, we dabble in epistemology as well.

Views: 2083

Replies to This Discussion

Nice points all. I think that I was too careless in my last post, because it is not beliefs per se with which I am concerned at present. Let us just say that certain behaviors have physical and cognitive effects and that causal accounts must recognize these regardless of what people happen to believe.

In as much as people act in accordance to what they believe-- that is if they desire X and believing that Y may achieve X, they thus do Y-- belief may also be causally relevant mental state, because it is part of what Dan Sperber would call a causal cognitive chain. One can easily imagine a (not really that) hypothetical circumstance in which say a military leader will go to great expense to have performed some piece of divination, one giving dangerously bad advice (though of course a more nuanced interpretation of divination is probably warranted), or one in which warriors were given (mostly ineffectual) magical protection for an upcoming battle, and who acted on that belief. Or for that matter, I might decide to drive to San Francisco in my automobile believing that it will safely make the journey, decide to make the journey, and be woefully mistaken. But ascertaining what people believe is a challenge (and some would say that beliefs are a folk psychological notion that should not be given scientific dignity).

Still we might wish to try to remain epistemically innocent, and refrain from explaining people's actions by the beliefs we ascribe to them. Instead of talking about people acting some way because they *have* a particular belief, it may be sufficient to talk about people acting *as if* they had such and such belief, without actually ascribing the belief to them, as a kind of heuristic.

Indeed, does much of ritual not derive some of its power from participants acting as if they believe or assent, even if they do not? As when everyone must rise at the playing of the US national anthem, or when during Nazi Germany a person had to perform the Nazi salute when greeting another, or when everyone says Amen after prayer.
Jacob Lee writes,

Indeed, does much of ritual not derive some of its power from participants acting as if they believe or assent, even if they do not? As when everyone must rise at the playing of the US national anthem, or when during Nazi Germany a person had to perform the Nazi salute when greeting another, or when everyone says Amen after prayer.

The tricky bit here is the purported content of belief. At last week's conference in Taiwan, there was some discussion of the common observation that Chinese kids are not usually taught the what to believe or why a ritual has to be performed in a certain way; if taught anything at all, it is how to perform the ritual, e.g., light three sticks of incense, hold them in both hands with your hands at eye level, bow toward the god. Arguably, all they need believe is "This is what my mother told me to do."

Mothers may not even teach that much. As Maxine Hong Kingston notes in one of her novels, I think Warrior Woman, she wasn't taught anything. She just watched and imitated, was corrected when she behaved incorrectly, and overheard bits of this and that. To learn the what and the why, she had to ask a lot of questions, do a lot of digging, and work it out for herself.

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service