Whatever our many disagreements on a variety of topics, we can all agree that “essentialism” is bad. We frequently say so. But what exactly is meant by “essentialism”?

My old friend Michael Herzfeld (in his article on “Essentialism” in The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Alan Barnard & Jonathan Spencer, eds., which can be found at http://www.bookrags.com/tandf/essentialism-8-tf/) says
Essentialism commonly appears as both a violation of anthropological relativism and one of the besetting conceptual sins of anthropology. ... The distinctive mark of essentialism ... lies in its suppression of temporality: it assumes or attributes an unchanging, primordial ontology to what are the historically contingent products of human or other forms of agency. It is thus also a denial of the relevance of agency itself.

Following Herzfeld, we could say that “essentialism” is a form of generalization or characterization that assumes an unchanging nature unaffected by human action.

What would count as an example of “essentialism”? Let us consider Clifford Geertz’s characterizations of Indonesian and Moroccan cultures (in Islam Observed) as respectively synthesizing and agonistic. These characterizations are certainly generalizations, but do they ignore historical change or human agency? Well, much of Geertz’s account is historical, showing changes over time, and illustrating with the actions and influences of important individuals. So I do not think it would be accurate, using Herzfeld’s criteria, to call Geertz’s general characterizations an example of essentialism.

Another criterion for essentialism, this time put forward by Edward Said (in Orientalism, itself notoriously open to the accusation of essentialism), is the ignoring of internal variation. In Islam Observed, Geertz does discuss variation and some of the reasons for it. So I think Geertz can be acquitted of essentialism in this work.

It is important to note here that avoiding essentialism does not require avoiding generalization and characterization. If an appreciation of the historical nature of the features discussed and the ways in which human agency contribute to the historical pattern are taken into account in the generalization, or in the explanation of the generalization, then no accusation of essentialism is appropriate.

But since generalizing is dangerous, can we avoid it altogether? I would suggest we cannot, because all knowledge is based on generalization. Every individual, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral is unique at every moment of its existence. We cannot even speak of a particular plant or animal without generalizing over time. When we discuss anything beyond the unique, we must generalize based on abstraction of common characteristics. For example, most of our common concepts–tree, car, person, animal, house, rock, etc.–generalize certain characteristics that are common in the class. General though these concepts may be, they are valid: we know that trees in their many varieties, are not foxes in their varieties. My Baluchi friends taught my about the many varieties of camel, but they still spoke generally of camels, which were clearly differentiated from sheep and goats, never mind tents and trucks. Not withstanding the differences among camels, and among horses, it is valid to say that camels are not horses, and that we can specify the general differences between them.

There are other cases where generalizations are based on central tendencies (mean, mode, median), even where the distributions of the cases involve overlap. For example, we know that there are among men and women many heights, and that there are many women taller than many men. But in general (certainly no such claim for myself), men are taller than women. Different groups will give different answers to questionnaires or perform differently on tests (such as Robert LeVine’s study of Nigerian groups in Dreams and Deeds), and in spite of overlapping distributions will show different averages. So too with many measures of social and economic development–e.g. education, health, productivity, connectivity–where different communities, regions, or societies have different results on the appropriate measures(e.g. UNDP Arab Human Development Report 2002).

What of qualitative generalizations, such as those of Geertz? I do not see how they can be avoided if we are to speak about different cultures and their commonalities and differences, both over time and among cases. Applying the intellectual procedures that are typical of all knowledge would appear to be unavoidable.

And yet, it is apparent that anthropologists today do avoid generalizing. Perhaps the fear of essentialism–and other sins, such as “reductionism” and the “master narrative”–leads us to avoid formulating general characterizations. This is apparent in the discussions here on OAC, where in response to any hint of generalization, discussants retreat into anecdote: “Well, the chef in my Japanese soup restaurant says.....” Yes, we can avoid controversy by avoiding attempts to formulate knowledge, but of what value is a substantiveless anthropology? Has fear made us feeble?

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Phil, everything you have said here is true. Without generalization, anthropology is nothing more than a hobby, what Edmund Leach called butterfly collecting. The trick, as you are pointing out, is to disentangle generalization from the Medieval Scholastic approach that equates generalization with a search for timeless essences, where an essence is conceived as a set of constant properties uniformly shared by the members of some category with clearly defined boundaries. As George Lakoff points out in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, it is a great mistake to think that human beings normally think in this way. It is, in my view, a greater mistake to assume that scholars ought to.

In the best of all possible worlds, the anthropologist's education would include enough math to distinguish between nominal, ordinal, integer and real metrics when describing what we are looking at, enough statistics to be familiar with the properties of distributions and what they do and do not imply, together with some basic elements of historical, clinical and legal reasoning, to enable him or her to behave like George Soros, able both to identify a good story and to recognize when it stops being one. The most important thing, however, is to cultivate the intellectual modesty that recognizes that all generalizations are at best approximations to the truth, and that their application or relevance to any particular case is always problematic.

Given this education, the problem of essentialism disappears, and the anthropologist can get on with his or her business of learning something substantial about the human species.
I feel the need to bring up (once again) Manuel DeLanda's attempt to break with essentialist thinking. He replaces the Aristotelian general-particular way of thinking with individual and universal singularities. This demands quite a lot of technical terms but it boils down to that an individual singularity (the "particular" in Aristotelian view) is the result of an emergent process that involves universal singularities that are distributed in a unique diagram that form the actual entity we study. He exemplifies this with Weber's three "essential"/general organizational forms. DeLanda rather sees these forms as extreme topographic points (universal singularities) that a real actual organization may take, they end up somewhere in between Weber's organizational tenets and the end result can only be studied through historical emergent processes, not from essential categories. The point is that there are differentiating processes and "molarizing"/homogenizing processes going on at the same time which makes camels look the same while also being different to each others.

I guess we will most likely be stuck with essentialism in one way or another since we depend on language and our habits of representation in order to convey our ideas. Language and representation essentializes the world and there is no way we can circumscribe this. Or is it?
Awareness that history and chance play a decisive part in the social reality, that no society is a self-contained system, and that identities can be fluid and negotiated is all good. This is a great insight of the 20th century to which anthropology contributed a great deal. The problem is if this is driven to such a degree that we abandon any attempt to make statements about the human condition in any general term, at which point one may well wonder if it is a research discipline or if it has turned into anecdotal pursuit. Maurice Bloch has written rather scathingly about the way anthropologists have abandoned the questions that people want answered, whether they are Western scholars or Malagasy villagers:
After many anecdotes about the linguistic variations they had encountered on their travels, the conversation rapidly took on a more theoretical turn. If people used different words, did they understand they understand the phenomena they designated so differently in the same way? If we are all related, how had this variation come about? Were the speakers of unrelated languages fundamentally different types of moral beings? And if they were, as some maintained, was this due to the language they had learnt, or was the language the manifestation of a deeper cause?
(Bloch 2005: Essays on Cultural Transmission)

So we now know more about the complexity, diversity and dynamics of human culture globally and historically. How do we go from there to explain why so many themes and structures seem to repeat themselves globally and historically? How do we explain that constructed identities can become cognitively situated to such a degree that they affect even neurological non-conscious behaviour? If there is no genuine attempt by anthropology to answer these challenges then others will try to fill the gap, not seldom with biological and genetic determinism which appears to give easy and 'objective' answers. The rise of cultural evolutionism again is a sad testament to this.

If anthropologists do not actively engage with these researchers in debate both in publications and with the public they run the risk of becoming obsolete. Anthropology must actively reach out to other disciplines and fields of research, but most importantly it must dare to aske the 'big' questions of life and what it is to be human. All is not chaos around us, if essential inherent behaviour is not the answer to the ordering of social life - then what is? It is not enough to sit at the sidelines and point out weaknesses in other peoples research, when we should be actively helping to shape that research to begin with.

Declaring some questions off limit solves nothing, it only results in abandoning those questions to others who are more than willing to give people what they want. Not seldom with disastrous results.
So we now know more about the complexity, diversity and dynamics of human culture globally and historically. How do we go from there to explain why so many themes and structures seem to repeat themselves globally and historically?

A good question, and part of the answer may lie in the ways in which all human beings resemble each other, anatomically, neurologically, etc. Another may be in the ways in which some human beings resemble each other due to the social and material environments in which they live. But, whatever approach we adopt, the critical question we face is how to get beyond "may be" to substantive issues and findings. Here, then, is a brief list of questions that I ponder, to which I invite others to add their own.

1. George Lakoff, et al, on the one hand, and Mary Douglas on the other have suggested that the fundamental metaphors in terms of which human experience is organized are grounded in human anatomy but expressed differently in different societies/cultures. One thinks, for example, of the bow, lowering the head or the body as a whole to signal deference. Observed in numerous species, it is clearly grounded in our mammalian (or, more broadly, warm-blooded vertebrate) DNA. That said, its expression in human societies varies from a brief nod to the carefully calibrated bending from the waist practiced by Japanese businessmen to the full kowtow (the three kneelings and nine knockings of the head on the floor) of the Imperial Chinese court or the complete prostration demanded of subordinates approaching Turkish Sultans. All these contrast, moreover, with the military salute, in which those of lower rank stare straight into the eyes of the superior. Can we develop a theory that accounts for all of these variations?

2. In my research on how changes in Japanese society are seen through the eyes of Japanese market researchers, I observed that the problems that preoccupy them are the same as those of their counterparts in other OECD countries: the fate of the organization man; women breaking out of traditional roles as housekeepers to play active roles in society as workers and consumers; changing relationships between men and women; children who seem alien to their parents and grandparents; what to do with third of life that now remains after retirement. None of these are universal human problems. They are all associated with specific social, economic and demographic changes in the societies in question. Can we develop more powerful theories to explain variation across countries in how these changes are handled?

3. My anthropological career began with fieldwork in Taiwan, where I spent a year and a half as a sorcerer's apprentice, following around a Daoist healer and analyzing his rituals. Some years later, I found myself reading Paul Stoller's Fusion of Worlds, an description of magic as practiced by the Songhay in West Africa. Details varied, but I instantly felt "I know this world." The secrecy, the backbiting, the competition between those who claim special knowledge of invisible powers that affect people's lives: all this was very familiar. Then, a bit later, I found myself reading Risk Society, the English translation of Ulrich Beck's Riskogesellschaft. Here again I found myself in world of invisible powers, where laymen must turn to experts for diagnoses and prescriptions to address the misfortunes that afflict them. Could a single, well-crafted theory account for these and other cases?
Isn't the fact that the Human Condition is so contingent on historical or accidental events makes any basic ontological assumption questionable?

Why the capital "H" and "C" on "Human Condition"? Why the words "ontological assumption"? What is this but puffery, masquerading as argument?

Why not approach the matter in the spirit of Clyde Kluckhohn, who observes that each human individual is, in some respects like every other human being, in other respects like some other human beings, and in yet other respects uniquely him or herself?

Thus, for example, we are all featherless bipeds; we are animals who have to eat something. Some of us eat pork while others don't. For some refusal to eat pork may reflect religious belief. Some might eat pork if they could but live in places where there are no pigs. Others may belong to communities where pork is on the menu but have a personal preference for steak, cauliflower or tofu. There is plenty of work to be done mapping the differences and developing theories to explain them.

How does rattling on about the "Human Condition" help with this project? What obnoxious ontological assumptions are involved in keeping an open mind tempered with respect for evidence? What evil is wrought by systematically seeking evidence that conflicts with the theories to be tested? What is foul about withholding judgment until, given the theories and evidence at hand, one theory seems demonstrably superior? What, pray tell, is wrong with cultivating these habits of mind, a.k.a., the scientific method?

Whoa, there, hobby horse! But the questions are serious ones.
So I am saying that this drive to a general science of anthropology always seems to have the sense of "now is the time" or "we know everything we need to know about diversity."

Question: How would you persuade me otherwise if I said that sounds about right? Seriously, when is the last time you read an ethnography that described something so unlike anything you'd heard of or imagined before that you were genuinely surprised? Am I just being jaded when I seem to notice that from peasants to primitives to pop culture what ethnography describes these days all seems much of a muchness, a pastiche of stuff that's been noticed before?

Not always, of course. Chris Kelty had something fresh to describe in Two Bits, and that "recursive public" idea he came up with seems genuinely new. Tom Boelstroff's Coming of Age in Second Life has interesting things to say about the pacing of interaction in a virtual world where it takes time for computerized effects to become visible and avatars may keep on dancing while their owners are doing something else.

Help me out. What am I missing? Where are those fresh insights that ethnography is supposed to produce?
B. Dwyer argues that "this drive to generalisation is really something routed in individual professional prejudices of certain anthropologists rather than a desire to understand human beings living their lives."

Is this argument taking the view that anthropologists who do ethnography are free of prejudices and never produce tendentious accounts? And only those who try to generalize are tainted with, nay, motivated by "prejudices"? Presumably the same people who wrote righteous ethnographies move to their darker side as soon as they think of comparing and generalizing. A peculiar argument, in my view.

This whole approach, that researchers must be pure in mind and spirit to produce honest work, is totally mistaken. So too is the enthusiasm for "reflexivity" that pretends that self-therapy is the road to objectivity. As Ralf Dahrendorf said, truth is not a function of morning exercises in objectivity, but of a market place of ideas, where one's arguments and evidence are scruitinized and challenged by others' arguments and evidence. The scientific method is based on the assumption that many if not all scientists are self-deluding, liars, stupid, cheats, and/or crooks. No one's results are taken at face value; all are scrutinized, preferably through replication to show that other people in other places get the same results. Absent the same results, the findings are refuted and disregarded. It does not matter whether the original scientist is a saint or a devil; what matters is whether the findings hold up.

So I would suggest that we forget about anthropologists' prejudices, positions, genders, races, nationalities, sexual preferences, voting patterns, class origins, and religious opinions, and instead address their findings with arguments and evidence, preferably more of the latter than the former. This applies equally to ethnography as to comparisons and generalization.

BDwyer said:
Well I think you missed my point and got a little over exited. I assure you I am not evil nor am I anti scientific method - it works very well in certain circumstances and indeed use elements of sf in my own work. Also I don't think Clyde can help you here though, wasn't it Clyde who said that the focus of the anthropologist is upon the group and the individual as a member of the group, alas distinguishing from the psychologist whose focus was supposedly on the individual. I think if I remember rightly that he also distinguished anthropology from sociology because of the latter's focus on the present and measurement. Wasn't it Clyde who also said if I am not mistaken that anthropology has tended towards pure understanding with a focus on the past. But admittedly I don't really know much about his work as I have not read a lot of American anthropologists. Hmmmm, sounds like the spirit of Clyde Kluckhohn is also open to "social construction" by current day social anthropologists though. Anyway, my point is that this drive to generalisation is really something routed in individual professional prejudices of certain anthropologists rather than a desire to understand human beings living their lives. BTW I am not advocating that we should shelve the comparative approach. So I am saying that this drive to a general science of anthropology always seems to have the sense of "now is the time" or "we know everything we need to know about diversity" so "now lets get defining what we really are". My sense is that we need to be cautious of such calls and approaches.
thanks

John McCreery said:
Isn't the fact that the Human Condition is so contingent on historical or accidental events makes any basic ontological assumption questionable?

Why the capital "H" and "C" on "Human Condition"? Why the words "ontological assumption"? What is this but puffery, masquerading as argument?

Why not approach the matter in the spirit of Clyde Kluckhohn, who observes that each human individual is, in some respects like every other human being, in other respects like some other human beings, and in yet other respects uniquely him or herself?

Thus, for example, we are all featherless bipeds; we are animals who have to eat something. Some of us eat pork while others don't. For some refusal to eat pork may reflect religious belief. Some might eat pork if they could but live in places where there are no pigs. Others may belong to communities where pork is on the menu but have a personal preference for steak, cauliflower or tofu. There is plenty of work to be done mapping the differences and developing theories to explain them.

How does rattling on about the "Human Condition" help with this project? What obnoxious ontological assumptions are involved in keeping an open mind tempered with respect for evidence? What evil is wrought by systematically seeking evidence that conflicts with the theories to be tested? What is foul about withholding judgment until, given the theories and evidence at hand, one theory seems demonstrably superior? What, pray tell, is wrong with cultivating these habits of mind, a.k.a., the scientific method?

Whoa, there, hobby horse! But the questions are serious ones.
B. Dwyer says "Socio-cultural anthropology is not an abolutist science."

I am not sure what an "absolutist science" is in comparison to "everyday science" or "evidence-based knowledge." What I do know is that we have to decide whether, on the grounds of epistemological relativism, we accept the idea that anything anyone says is as true as anything anyone else says, or whether, instead, we are serious about pursuing sound, evidence-based knowledge. If the latter, than formulating and testing generalizations is indispensible. Radcliffe-Brown defined social anthropology as a sub-division of comparative sociology. Otherwise, it is no more than a repository of colourful anecdotes and personal adventures, and, latterly, an expression of political inclinations.
May I ask, in a spirit of friendly inquiry, what B. Dwyer means by "absolutist science"? I ask because this sounds like an oxymoron to me. When I talk about science I mean a relentless and, ideally, systematic search for contradictory evidence that drives a never-ending effort to come up with better theories. There is no big-T Truth here to which the scientist claims absolute fidelity. There is only the pragmatic observation that no other approach to constructing knowledge has ever generated more useful results.

The poets among us may please us, the moralists may challenge our complacency; great writers may touch our hearts in ways that turn the pains of guilt into guilty pleasures. In this regard I think of anthropologists like Ruth Behar (Translated Woman or The Vulnerable Observer) or Robert Desjarlais (Shelter Blues). But, alas, too few of us can write like that. For most of us a bit of normal science is about as close as we will get to producing something worthwhile.

Perhaps, in the interests of moving the conversation forward, we should draw a distinction between science and "scientism," using the latter to refer to the religious belief that Science has replaced God as the source of absolute Truth. We can then recognize that while this belief flourished briefly between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has always been inconsistent with the actual history of science in the sense described above.
BDwyer writes,

I wanted to point out that social and cultural anthropology is a social construction which simply means that social anthropology cannot be thought of as dealing with facts - as in there is a tree there or not there

I reply,

This is nonsense. Consider, for example, the data I used for my dissertation on the symbolism of popular Daoist magic. The stuff about which I was writing, the spirit money, the incense, the food offerings, the mudras (mystical gestures) and the words employed in incantations are as thoroughly material facts as trees. The same is true of the credits attached to winning ads in the Tokyo Copywriters Club Annual that I am analyzing using the techniques of social network analysis, which, by the way, are mathematically well-defined and produce both predictable and replicable results.

The truth in the assertion that science and scholarship are social constructions is that agreement on what counts as a plausible conjecture or solid result depends on building a consensus within research communities that share basic concepts and methods, which, by the way, need not be the same from one community to another.

As Aristotle points out in Nichomachean Ethics III, it is the mark of an educated person that they demand no greater precision in argumentation that the subject matter allows. Literary scholars looking for fresh insights into particular works or genres confront different kinds of data and employ different interpretive approaches from biochemists performing experiments to analyze the structure of proteins. Mathematical logicians demand more rigor than archeologists developing plausible conjectures from the spatial distribution of potsherds.

There is nothing, however, in this scholarly common sense that implies that social construction equals sloppy all the way down.
Why not when someone asserts a generalization that makes a culture/people look good? E.g., "America is a great nation"?

Isn't the real issue the assertion of uniform, constant and immutable traits that define the culture/group in question? Or in other words, the application of Aristotlean/Scholastic logic in which the essence of a substance is the set of attributes that define it now and forever?

deniz batum said:
In my opinion, to put it very bluntly:
Generalization: Moroccan people are generally dark haired. / Muslim women are generally dark haired.
Essentialism: Moroccan people are generally proud. / Muslim women are generally abused.

I think Essentialism is when the knowledge producer is making a statement that makes a culture/ a group look "bad" without the relevant proof to back this claim. We should definitely avoid it, perhaps by realizing that our knowledge is always situated.
Deniz, Does the statement "Moroccan people are generally proud" make Moroccans "look 'bad'"? I am not sure that Moroccans would feel that way. I don't.

Furthermore, I am not sure that anthropology should decide what it says on the basis of how good it makes the people we are talking about look. You would have to rule out statements like "Most Nazis were cruel to targeted minorities," and "Many Soviet citizens were starved, executed, or tortured."

As John suggests, essentialism is "the assertion of uniform, constant and immutable traits that define the culture/group in question," whether those traits might be deemed by some as positive, negative, or neutral. On the other hand, generalizations--descriptive generalizations--can and should take into account internal variation, and should not rule out change.

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