Theory in Anthropology

Theories guiding our thinking, and thinking about theory.

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Discussion Forum

Foucault and Consensus 17 Replies

Started by Joel M. Wright. Last reply by Valentini Nov 19, 2013.

Recent Prestige Theory 4 Replies

Started by Bill Guinee. Last reply by Paulo Augusto Franco Jun 21, 2012.

What's wrong with Quine? 78 Replies

Started by Amiria Salmond. Last reply by John McCreery Dec 15, 2011.

What use is Anthropology? 25 Replies

Started by Liz Challinor. Last reply by Youdheya Banerjee/Bandyopadhyay Sep 18, 2011.

Gramsci's notion of hegemony 8 Replies

Started by Toby Austin Locke. Last reply by Eugene L. Mendonsa Aug 11, 2011.

Do anthropologists now doubt that peoples and cultures are different from one another? 44 Replies

Started by Philip Carl SALZMAN. Last reply by Michael Francis Nov 9, 2010.

Post-Subjective Anthropology 69 Replies

Started by Philip Carl SALZMAN. Last reply by Amiria Salmond Oct 15, 2010.

Is structuralism an elaboration of dialectics? 32 Replies

Started by Joel M. Wright. Last reply by MAI Saptenno Oct 4, 2010.

Assemblage, Structuration, Praxis 10 Replies

Started by Joel M. Wright. Last reply by Joel M. Wright Sep 14, 2010.

Capitalism and Flow 8 Replies

Started by Joel M. Wright. Last reply by Joel M. Wright May 18, 2010.

From Marxist anthropology to .......??? 34 Replies

Started by Philip Carl SALZMAN. Last reply by Joel M. Wright May 10, 2010.

Closing down Philosophy? Call to action.

Started by Heike Schaumberg May 1, 2010.

Can anthropologists cheat? 17 Replies

Started by Philip Carl SALZMAN. Last reply by John McCreery Feb 2, 2010.


Started by fahmid al zaid Dec 25, 2009.

Perspectivism vs. Domestication of Nature (?)

Started by Ricardo Samuel Monteiro Dec 20, 2009.

How can comparative analysis contribute to future progress in anthropology? 33 Replies

Started by Philip Carl SALZMAN. Last reply by John McCreery Dec 11, 2009.

theory of 'joining the tribe'?? 2 Replies

Started by Sinead Devane. Last reply by Sinead Devane Dec 8, 2009.

What do we want out of a theory? 26 Replies

Started by Philip Carl SALZMAN. Last reply by John McCreery Dec 2, 2009.

Any theory on Ecology of Poverty? 2 Replies

Started by Ranjan Lekhy. Last reply by Ranjan Lekhy Nov 29, 2009.

Comment Wall


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Comment by Layla AbdelRahim on November 7, 2010 at 7:08pm
Michael, have you tried to understand from the perspective of San/Bushmen why scholars from their milieu "literally do not exist"? You see, the skin colour and gender here will play a vital role in the kind of explanations, justifications, or critiques are generated because your experience with oppression and marginalisation from the production of knowledge is ultimately different from their experience. Also, your acceptance of this reality as a given is in big part what guarantees the persistence of the invisibility and unavailability of knowledge from the Bushmen's perspective. The fact that you are a scholar on Southern Africa and they are not even scholars of their own place, leave alone your country, is in itself a structure of oppression and applied Orientalism from which you emerge as the winner and they as losers (well, they're unavailable, you say). Here's your chance to approach this problem creatively and investigate new ways of refusing this structure of unequal availability of knowledge, unless you find it too comfortable to renounce. In the end it is you who continues to produce the lens and the knowledge and all those people (who happen to be of a different colour than yours by mere coincidence or fate beyond your grasp - you say) continue to be unscholarly and unavailable. But then their colour, ethnicity, or language shouldn't be acknowledged as having anything to do with why Bourdieu is cited and why they are unavailable. That's Orientalism for you per se.

With regard to languages, precisely, most Africans speak at the very least 4 or 5 languages and yet it is the white foreigner who speaks, mostly, English who studies them. Don't you find anything uncomfortable about this?

I didn't say that Elias and Bourdieu have nothing to contribute to the understanding of civilised relations around the civilised globe. You misunderstand me if this is what you hear me saying. I am saying that it is an Orientalist production of knowledge and its economy when you find it acceptable that you as an incompetent scholar who doesn't speak the language of the place who can afford to venture to study thereby continuing to participate in the structure of unequal distribution of power in the voices that are funded and cited and through whose lens whole peoples are then explained. So, if Bourdieu or Elias are some of the voices among, first of all, Chinese, and then Japanese, Russian, Zulu, and Tasmanian, then you truly begin to have a dialogue. If, however, you are a white male who gets grants to study people who are marginalised enough to be inexistent as voices and authorities, and you rely on mostly other impressive white males, then you have not budged an inch from the day of Napoleonic expeditions.
Comment by Michael Francis on November 7, 2010 at 6:36pm
@Layla - To give an example from my own fieldwork where I work in Southern Africa with various people of San/Bushmen descent. While I try to understand the world from their perspective there is no possibility to use Bushmen scholars - they literally do not exist. As for learning language skills the one village has at least 8 languages spoken in it as they are a disparate group of people that have been settled together. I can do a few greetings but we do use a lingu-franca - English or Afrikaans. And because I do multi-sited ethnography in the course of my fieldwork rounds I can encounter many more languages than that. I base my scholarship on long-term relationships and long-term fieldwork instead of crude generalisations.

You cite Elias and Bourdieu as being unacceptable scholars on China yet do not say why other than by dint of their skin colour and language skills. Did they go to China? Did they speak to Chinese using an interpreter? You will have to unpack their scholarship a little more to be fair to their ideas. What response would be elicited if I claimed that a Zulu scholar's ideas were useless because he is black?

I also think the notion of applying a theory in the sense you suggest is not really how theories are used. They are not picked whole off a shelf from a super-market of ideas. They either speak to an issue or they do not and are always modified by context and content in the fieldsites. And I speak as a cultural anthropologist (as opposed to archaeologist/linguistic/biological) and that participant observation is the norm and standard in the discipline (that's the part where we go there and interact, very dynamic as you say). Sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari with a cold wind blowing under an African sky sure makes theory seem distant. You speak of totalizing discourses and theories that preclude local knowledge but perhaps are guilty of the very same. You take a theory, Orientalism, and apply it in a totalizing way to any or all scholarship. My research venture/encounter reminds me that (Western) theoretical constructs and ethical stipulations are not metaphysical ends or sets of values in their own right. They must be always laid open to reexamination and change when applied to (non-Western) empirical contexts and real-life subjects/informants. And that applies to all theories including Orientalism. Unpack it in a 'western' context and how it is used to dismiss 'white' scholars as being colonial voices of power with scant regard to their methods, ethics or intention. And one can acknowledge the privilege white male scholars have held/do hold and still find their ideas useful, insightful, and applicable.
Comment by Layla AbdelRahim on November 7, 2010 at 6:27pm
Piers, the problem is that most people have been domesticated deeply enough to accept the current hierarchy in the production of knowledge as normal and invisible. And whenever someone points out to this persistent structure, her observations are dismissed as simplistic because the domesticated observer is busy justifying the system of oppression and the production of domesticated knowledge through convoluted lies and illogical logic referring to them as "nuances" "complexities" et al (for instance, see Zizek, Derrida, and the whole spectrum of "complex" scholars, when after huge circles of chewing on the problem they end up with no solution and with the status quo elegantly confirmed).

I am glad to hear that you and John McCreery listen to and cite the voices of other anthropologists around the world. I hope this trend continues. It is precisely my point that those voices exist but they cannot be heard if their value is devalued and they are silenced by being ignored and overwritten or simply studied by a Western scholar as a "field informant". Second, this doesn't erase the fact that citing one or two anthropologists from "remote" from the Occident places mostly works to confirm the marketing strategies of the status quo of power relations and that authors and authority are still hugely disproportionate with regard to the participation of women and ethnic groups in being equally compensated for their work and knowledge and in being equally cited on par with Elias and Bourdieu or, even worse, Zizek and Derrida. Call me simplistic, but the reality of power is still simply racist and sexist. And I am not even getting into the territory of ethology, although, lately there has been some strong voices coming out of this field, some of whom try to have the animal speak for herself (including from Japanese primatology).
Comment by John McCreery on November 7, 2010 at 4:10am

Good to hear from you. I was, just yesterday, the discussant at a bilingual panel at the annual fall meeting of the Anthropology of Japan in Japan group, where papers were presented in either English or Japanese and the discussion proceeded in both languages. One of the most interesting presentations in Japanese was from Hiroshi Ichinose, whose thesis topic was the adoption of "Coaching" as a management practice by Japanese corporations. Ichinose's Ph.D. is from a British university and his research had the curious effect of turning him into a local authority on this Western practice, frequently asked by Japanese companies to explain coaching to their managers. As he described this experience, he noted that when he tried to assert the authority of a foreign-trained expert, he got nowhere. The workshops became successful when he began to use local metaphor, likening the coach to a Japanese mother motivating her children to do well in school. The native anthropologist as authority on foreign theory (not just a better sort of informant for foreign academic audiences), discovering the the need to localize his foreign learning was fascinating.
Comment by Piers Locke on November 7, 2010 at 3:58am
Layla- you might be interested to hear that I know a Congolese man working as an anthropologist in Mongolia, and a Nepali anthropologist who has studied aging in The Netherlands (bucking the trend of anthropologists in developing countries only studying their own societies, rare as it may be).

I also think you take a simplistic view regarding Orientalism. If one takes Indology for example, one finds that elite brahmans not only served as interlocutors for curious white men, but also as agents responsible for transforming their own religious and social traditions as a result of the colonial encounter; applying, modifying and selectively responding to European Enlightenment values in relation to their own.
Comment by Layla AbdelRahim on November 7, 2010 at 3:25am
@ Izabel: Thank you for your response. Much appreciated. With regards to the critical mass - it exists out there, if only those who want to "study" a place listened to the knowledge out there.

@ Jacob: I don't understand why you want me to include Chinese sources, if it is not I who wants to study China. When I studied the Swedes, I included their sources. My response was to the question about understanding China through Elias and Bourdieu (non of whom even spoke Chinese, by the way). I respect Bourdieu a lot. He is one of my favourite sociologists/anthropologists. But to "apply" him? and to China? Well, I know that's what anthropologists are mostly trained to do. I invite you to consider to unlearn and not to apply anything. Go learn Chinese and interact. Much more dynamic.

@ Michael: Orientalism exists ONLY as a construct of the white men of power. It does not mean that whatever exists there exists because the white men of power had willed it so. If you go to any place east or south of the nexus of power (the power of the production of knowledge as well), and talk to people, you'll discover that they don't think of themselves in terms of "we are east of the norm". There is a normative direction inherent to the term itself that starts from Europe. Well, compared to Americas, a person in China would be a Westerner, but you don't think of them that way because of your normative knowledge of power.

As for focusing on "white man" and not ideas, well, most ideas are published and marketed under western names that happen to belong to white men. There is no way that you can get around the fact that if you have one "oriental" name in any "respectable" bibliography on any place, people applaud it as a multicultural endeavour. How many Zairian anthropologists have you seen cited on the anthropology of Switzerland? Or a Tuareg on the anthropology of the United States? or a Zulu on China? That's how the economy of Orientalism works. Inaccessibility of Chinese thought on China is a lame excuse, because you would never accept a work by a Chinese scholar on America who didn't bother to learn English, because she relied on Japanese sources who also didn't know English. The way "orientalism" works is because there are still people who believe that it is ok to continue to look at "other" places through the lens of white men because those places don't have good enough or accessible scholarship. If you can't access it - don't study it. That's my solution. Study Ireland or at least make the effort to honour the self-knowledge of the people you want to "study".
Comment by Michael Francis on November 6, 2010 at 10:16pm
I meant logical conclusion but perhaps local works as well...
Comment by Michael Francis on November 6, 2010 at 10:13pm
Hi Layla,
As we're discussing theory perhaps Orientalism needs a little unpacking as well. I think it was Sahlins who once quipped that Edward Said forgot that sometimes the Orientals are, well, Oriental. Sometimes it seems that people cite Orientalism as if the Orient is entirely manufactured by the West white male gaze and forget that Oriental epistemology can and does exist on its own terms but also may be understood from an external perspective (even white male). While that picture is fragmented aren't they all? We have to be careful when using ideas such as Orientalism that we do not create another totalizing discourse that excludes some voices based solely on phenotypic features such as skin colour. I always thought that anthropology was very good at obtaining other voices through its central practice of participant observation even if the other voices got lost in the write up later. Which is more of a literary problem in anthropology. But also Orientalism and its proponents via deconstruction seems to focus on the man (white one's generally) instead of the ideas or theory presented. While one can try to include 'indigenous voices' in their work but if that work is non-existent or inaccessible then it cannot be included. And we should not privilege Chinese voices, for example, just because they are Chinese, but based on what they explain or theorize. And the local conclusion if taken to the extreme is that nobody can say anything about anyone else.
Comment by Jacob Lee on November 6, 2010 at 9:56pm
Having said that, I would like to make two additional points. First, there have been a series of seminars related to China and Japan, and it would be nice to have a future seminar on similar topics by an anthropologist native to either of these places. In general too it would be nice to have a broader spectrum of anthropologists and other social scientists and philosophers lined up. That's probably going to take a little outreach, given most of our own network of contacts.
Comment by Jacob Lee on November 6, 2010 at 9:40pm
Layla, perhaps you could rectify that problem more directly? Not only would your directly including Chinese sources knowledge into this discussion be welcome, it would be much more interesting than the lazy(and in some ways very Western) critique you have just offered. The native literature about China is simply inaccessible to many of us, so we talk about what we know, and what we know is a largely Western tradition of anthropological thought.

As for the Corkonian Anthropologist's (real name?) citation of Zheng Yongnian, I don't know where that counts in this picture, because all I can see is that he is a professor of Chinese Studies in a university in Singapore, and I don't want to presume too much.

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