The following remarks are an edited version of something I just wrote on Savage Minds. The topic is method or, from my perspective, the lack thereof in interpretive anthropology.
I’ve never thought this was a problem related to cultural data or to anthropology’s method of interpreting it.
In this respect you are, I suspect, typical. You are quite correct to point to a
whole cottage industry in anthropology that worries over interpretive excesses
but can you say that its worries have been taken seriously? My impression that they haven’t been is admittedly based on personal impressions, not systematically collected data. But since our conclusions can be no stronger than the data on which we base them, I’d like to see some if you have it to offer.
Meanwhile, let me offer a few frankly speculative conjectures, based on my reading of classic and later, mostly British, social anthropology.
(1) Malinowski and other authors of classic monographs were acutely aware of the difficulties of interpretation. Their standard critique of Tylor and Frazer, et al, was that they imposed conjecture on fragmentary data torn out of interpretive context, resulting in what Evans-Pritchard labeled “If I were a horse” stories.
(2) The structural-functionalist embrace of Durkheim’s “social facts” was, with important implications for fieldwork practice, a way of distinguishing the social, what everyone seemed to say and do and the visible structuring of spaces (homes, palaces, temples, villages, cities) within which they said and did it, from the personal (the private feelings of the unformed child, the village idiot, the women, or others), discovered in behavior or comments that appeared to be idiosyncratic. The social was defined as the domain of anthropology; that other stuff left to the psychologists and psychoanalysts.
(3) The result was a practice in which cross-checking with multiple informants and sifting through data to separate the essential from the accident were standard procedures. All perfectly consistent with humanistic scholarship articulated and argued in terms of Aristotlean/Thomist logic.
(4) The world changes. The grand stereotypes embodied in classic theory are challenged on both moral and empirical grounds: morally because it is no longer seen as proper to exclude the voices of the children, the women and others regarded as minors and dependents and lacking the authority to make definitive pronouncements; empirically because growing concern for subjectivity and agency shift the focus of analysis from social facts (the stuff that everyone is supposed to take for granted) to individual opinions and choices and, thus, from generic similarities to the range and distribution of individual variation.
(5) Here, however, anthropology confronts a problem shared with other humanistic disciplines. A solid majority of its practitioners hated math in school and have found all sorts of snarky reasons for denigrating statistics to provide excuses for their ignorance. As a result, we lack the technical know-how to address individual variation in anything but an impressionistic and moralistic manner in which—now I am being snarky too—what informant X happened to tell me on a day I was paying attention is conflated with an interpretation of “CULTURE,” of which informant X, for no demonstrated reason, is taken to be typical.
(6) The result can sometimes be the production of deeply moving stories. Take, for example, Ruth Behar’s Translated Woman. The writing is gripping and thought-provoking. But in what sense is Behar’s Mexican friend typical of any category to which we might assign her? To see her as typical of women oppressed by poverty and the macho habits of the men in her life is probably not wrong. But her toughness? The initiative she demonstrates in forming and maintaining a relationship with Behar? Are these generic features of her social type or exemplary features of a rare and idiosyncratic response to the hardships that shape her life? We shall never know until someone does a study of a population of individuals like her, to see if she lies close to the mean or represents an outlier in the distributions of the qualities we attribute to her.
In sum, the breakdown of the classic division between social fact and personal idiosyncrasy that enabled anthropologists of earlier generations to sort through their data and focus their attention only on the common features of “society” or “culture” breaks down when subjectivity and agency are concerns. It is time to stop whinging and moaning or simply asserting the superiority of our trained intuitions and develop methods appropriate for addressing our new concerns in a serious manner.
That’s my take on where we are. Others closer to the game should be able to show me where I’m wrong. In a scientific spirit of openness to falsification, I await your comments.