The Limits of Ontological Anthropology?

After reading Mario Blaser’s intriguing article, The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program (2009), I started to see where gaps could lie in the ontological perspective. Although he suggests a “political ontology,” his most compelling and evocative thesis lies in the claim that the Yshiro Indigenous communities of Northern Paraguay abide by an entirely ‘different world’ when they conceive of appropriate conservation behaviors. Thus, their idea that the environment is sustained through maintaining a sense of reciprocity between community members is of a ‘different world’ than that of the National Parks Direction, whose concept of conservation ties to contemporary scientific principles. He draws in de Castro’s idea of uncontrolled equivocation, “a type of communicative disjuncture where the interlocutors are not talking about the same thing, and do not know this” (2004).

But is this always the case? On the basis of much literature I have read on commercial fishing, ethnoecological knowledge is not always tied to the ‘indigenous’ groups that many anthropologists focus upon. Rather, these contrasting ecological models could also be hybridized from the scientific theoretic perspective and local ideology, as is the case with much commercial fishing in the contemporary era. Commercial fishing itself is largely grounded in sharing and cooperation, two institutions that are essential to the functioning of this work practice. Therefore, isn’t there some way to merge scientific theoretic perspectives and the so-called ‘local’ outlook? I have always been sympathetic to the ideas of folk biologies, psychologies, psychics, etc. that all underpin various anthropological investigations, but I also see a very clear affinity between the ‘cultural’ explanations for such phenomena and the scientific.

In fact, I am still convinced that the scientific is equally cultural. Many of the guiding principles of science in the modern era are also imbued by Western moral and philosophical beliefs, so how could this be used as an objective pillar for assessment of a separate ‘cultural’ model? In the end, what does ontological anthropology accomplish but expanding the divergences between us and ‘the other’? Can our worldviews be as different as the ontologists suggest?

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Comment by Chelsea Hayman on August 16, 2012 at 12:48pm

Wow, I am so glad to see that I was able to generate some conversation regarding this post. I am relatively new to the idea of ontology (LSE is the first place that exposed me to it) so I have been very curious about how it plays out in anthropology. I suppose it is useful for the exploration of religion, but I think that it can risk further abstraction, which is problematic in a discipline that I've viewed as more practical than philosophical. This is just one of the many issues I have probed after reading a lot of work by the ontologists. I find some of the work that influenced them more appealing - like that of Bruno Latour.

Comment by John McCreery on July 31, 2012 at 11:53pm
" Better, in my estimation, to admit that we all share one world, messily partially, myopically and incoherently, than claim that we live in neatly separate, ontologically coherent, micro-spheres."

Yes,yes,a thousand times,yes.
Comment by Huon Wardle on July 31, 2012 at 11:45am

Let's turn the issue round. Ontology does describe some important aspects of social worlds if we redefine it as a problem along these lines: people in different settings value and think about certain things/properties which other people ignore, dismiss or are unaware of. These arrays of important properties and differences can endure over long periods of time in particular settings and of itself this will have certain effects.

W.H.R. Rivers noticed that this was true of kinship terminology - the forms of address people use to talk about people around them. He collected lists of terms for kinds of people in Melanesia and Polynesia that are still in use today. These terms, for father's sister, mother's brother and so on, endure despite large scale changes in other aspects of the lives of people there. Rivers' point was that they wouldn't last if there weren't needed at some level for going about social life. This was somewhat at odds with his American colleague, Kroeber, who thought that kinship terms have a logic of their own independent of social experience as lived. Rivers added a theory of change to his theory of conservation - the 'diffusionist' view much reviled by later functionalist anthropology. For his era of social scientists both 'statics' and 'dynamics' were needed in explaining social life. Functionalism chose to focus its attention on statics.

What is my point? Part of the problem with the new interest in ontology is that it again weights statics or cultural conservatism higher than dynamics or the process of change. Ernest Gellner pointed out that functionalism as a method is good and useful - 'socially speaking, why would these people do the apparently strange things they do?'. But functionalism as a doctrine, the doctrine that every element of a society is useful or has intrinsic social value, is nonsensical and even dangerous.

Translate that into the questions now raised by anthropological ontology. As a method - 'what are the things in the world that people hold to be important and what are their interrelations with specific people and with each other' - ontological questioning of this kind is important and valid. As a doctrine - 'peoples live within unique worlds of thing-people relationships - we must respect that' - we are back with much the same ideologically conservative weighting as before. One fundamental aspect of the debate here is about whether anthropology concerns peoples, the ethne of ethnography, or people, the anthropoi of anthropology.

Ontology as a doctrine in its different guises, whatever its claims to speak on behalf of a particular worldview, is forever trying to introduce general anthropological principles surreptitiously through the back door of ethnography. Better, in my estimation, to admit that we all share one world, messily partially, myopically and incoherently, than claim that we live in neatly separate, ontologically coherent, micro-spheres.

Comment by John McCreery on July 24, 2012 at 5:09pm

Do I see some advantage in substituting "ontology" for "culture"? In my idiolect, no. There ontology is one component of culture, but culture itself is shorthand for the good old Tylorean "“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society," where "society" is shorthand for "some social group," where a group includes at least two people. The group could, for example, be a group of poker players. The cards are part of their ontology, but so are actions labeled "bet," "raise," "call," "bluff," and "fold," and specific combinations of cards, "straight," "flush," "full house," "pair," etc. An anthropologist who studies this group can learn how all these things are defined and their implications in light of the rules of poker. Is that enough to make her a skilled poker player? Not likely. 

Comment by Keith Hart on July 24, 2012 at 1:32pm

Thanks, John. That is the most congenial (operational) definition of ontology I have seen. Do you think much is gained or lost by substituting the word for culture? In anthropology it is often used to debunk Western assumptions in ways that commit the ethnological fallacy of speaking of a people as a unity.

Comment by John McCreery on July 24, 2012 at 10:02am

With due respect to Keith, with whom I largely agree, there may yet be something worth talking about if "ontologies" are taken as topics for exploration, the central question being what are the basic sorts of things that people see as composing their world. The important thing to remember is that the categories that constitute a particular cultural space do not, ipso facto, determine where people position themselves or try to move themselves around within it. Thus, for example, in the cultural space of Chinese popular religion, the Yin and Yang, the Five Elements, the 10 Heavenly Branches and the 12 Earthly Stems are generic features on which there is wide agreement. But that leaves room for an endless stream of permutations and combinations in relation to which people may adopt all sorts of attitudes, from fatalism, to seeking the help of gods or immortals, to arms-length skepticism or outright rejection as absolute nonsense. 

Or, to use a more modern example, the use of "ontology" in computer science points to the question of what sorts of entities and what sorts of relations between them are required for a system designed for some particular purpose. The observation that similar entities can be combined in different ways for different purposes is the key insight behind what may still be called "object-oriented programming" (OOP).

Again, the basic lesson is the same. The "things" of a world do not determine what people do with them or how they feel about them. They create a set of possibilities that can be enjoyed or exploited in what may be an infinite number of different ways. But finding out what sorts of "things" people talk about all the time can be quite a good way to start understanding the lives they lead.

Comment by Keith Hart on July 23, 2012 at 11:21am

Maybe you are preaching to the converted here, Chelsea. The space provided by the OAC is predicated on conversation, dialectic, hybridity, movement, plural anthropologies. We had a strong argument in Huon's Philosophical Anthropology group once; but the ontologists left. I have a lifelong aversion to the culture concept, with its historical roots in the early modern European court and German nationalism. The idea of a separate worldview held in common never appealed to this Manchester man. Ontology seems to be a replacement for this at a time when all sorts of ordinary folk "see culture everywhere". It's such an old trick to trade up into Greek when a Latin word achieves popular usage.

I agree with Huon that it pays to ask if another word will do and you tempt us with one, world. I believe that it would be worth the effort ro explore the uses and limitations of "world". C S Lewis has an interesting essay on this in Studies in Words. Heidegger's late metaphysics hinge on three concepts: solitude, finitude and world. His main conclusion is that both the idea of the self alone and that of everything out there hanging together as a unity are blatantly unrealistic. Finitude -- position and movement in timespace -- is where we inevitably start and ultimately remain. But the self/world pair complement each other and how we construct them affects what we do in finitude (and vice versa of course).

Lastly -- your piece really rang my bells, that's for sure -- the main claim that science is objectively true rests on its conformity to conditions out there in the (why not?) real world. Kant offered a different view. He thought science grew out of cooking (fermentation and metallurgy) and that scientific "laws" were like recipes. They work more or less well according to what we want to use them for, within a range of acceptable error, until they don't any more and some new rules are needed. Newton's mechanics still work for building bridges, but you need Einstein to send a projectile to the moon. So in an encounter with extra-terrestrials, would we expect their mathematics to be the same as ours? It would be if maths faithfully reflects how the universe is constituted. But if maths is just a recipe that has worked well enough for us so far, adding and subtracting bits as we go along, there is no reason to suppose the extraterrestrials would have anything similar.

This bears on the idea of how "western" modern science is. Of course the recipes contain all kinds of arbitrary cultural elements. Newton was a mystic who put more of his time into searching for signs of the second coming than into optics. As Master of the Mint, he enjoyed hanging counterfeiters at Tyburn. Not a nice man, as well as a kook. But the value of scientific knowledge lies in its reliable application, getting the same thing right again and again, not on where it comes from.

Thanks for the stimulating post.

Comment by Huon Wardle on July 23, 2012 at 9:29am

I think people should count to ten before they write the word ontological and during that space of time they should work out whether they can't think of another word or words for what they mean. Joking apart, there are serious problems involved, but we might take two. 1. science isn't one thing it is a lot of different habits, intellectual trajectories and technological processes. Scientists also engage in maintaining community reciprocity otherwise they wouldn't get any research grants 2. I very much doubt that there is any such thing as a unified local outlook. Misunderstanding and equivocation are in very large part what communication between people consists in - that includes scientists from diffferent disciplines for example. So, I think I agree with you but that might just be an 'uncontrolled equivocation'....

Comment by John McCreery on July 23, 2012 at 7:07am

Can our worldviews be as different as the ontologists suggest?

No.

Insofar as we are all homo sapiens, who see, hear, taste, smell and touch with the same senses, walk upright on two legs, manipulate with two hands with eight fingers and opposable thumbs, speak languages whose phonemes are subsets of universal phonetic differences, make love in some subset of a limited number of possible positions....we live in the same world. We can perceive it in different culturally conditioned ways and, in most cases, respond with culturally conditioned habits — but so long as we don't kill each other first, we can usually sort things out.

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