Over on Savage Minds, the question of where the value of anthropology lies has led once more to repetition of the cliché that anthropologists know things that less broad-minded scholars in other disciplines don't. I was moved to reply in what is, yes, a deliberately provocative way. Here is part of that reply.

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Consider as provocations three books I am now in the process of reading.

The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China by French sinologist Francois Jullien is to my eye the book that E. E. Evans-Pritchard might have written about Nuer religion if he’d had available to him several centuries worth of texts by Nuer scholars with which to refine his interpretations of Nuer ideas of divinity. Sweeping magisterially through classical Chinese writings on war, politics, calligraphy, painting, poetry, the novel, and martial arts, he demonstrates the pervasive recurrence of the term shi, roughly translatable as disposition or propensity and derives from its multiple usages a worldview significantly different from that which Western philosophy and social theory takes for granted.

Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan by historian Kim Brandt is a narrative history of the “Mingei” (folk art) movement’s origins and development in the years between Japan’s acquisition of Korea as a colony and its postwar recovery from defeat in WWII. In it we learn, for example, that Yanagi Tsuneo, now hailed as the founder of the Mingei movement, was a member of a class of middle-class intellectuals for whom Yanagi’s original interest in Yi Dynasty Korean porcelain was a way of asserting both independence from and intellectual superiority to members of corporate elites whose embrace of Japanese tea ceremony had driven the prices of tea ceramics sky high. Japan’s colonization of Korea made it possible for people like him to acquire art that was, for them, still reasonably priced. Brandt’s artful interweaving of social, cultural, political and economic factors in the rise of Mingei is far closer to a holistic view of a cultural phenomenon than most ethnography I’ve read recently.

Finally, Organizational Ethnography is the English rendition of a book in Japanese by Toshihiro Kanai, Ikuya Sato, Gideon Kunda, and John Van Maaren. The authors teach at business schools and their educational backgrounds vary. But Kanai, who writes as a sociologist who later went on to do a Ph.D. at the Sloan School at MIT where Van Maanen teaches shows a highly sophisticated grasp of the anthropological roots of ethnography in his introductory essay. I am looking forward to the rest of the book.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, “Guys, you need to get out a bit and explore what is going on outside the disciplinary walls in which you confine yourselves.” Others are doing a lot of what you claim to do out there, and some of them at least are doing it better. Can you pull yourself together and equal or surpass their scholarship?

 

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