In 1983, Norman Tebbit, a minister in Thatcher’s government, justified cuts to the social sciences by saying that those who study ‘the pre-nuptial habits of the Upper Volta valley’ were not deserving of money. In Tebbit’s telling, a venerable, and vital, branch of anthropological inquiry – the study of kinship – was reduced to the documentation of exotic, native antics; all very well, perhaps, but not relevant, not useful. At the time, Jonathan Benthall – the then Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute – offered a courteous and moderate response to the Cabinet Minister (reprinted in Anthropology Today), pointing out anthropology’s utility to society in general.

But, in recent years, the timbre of criticism has, I think, changed. In Tebbit’s assessment, anthropology came across as daft, but harmless; a whimsical discipline devoted to the study of unreasoning peoples. But, according to the new spirit of criticism, anthropology is itself unreasoning, and not only useless, but also deluded, and even dangerous – the undisciplined savage in the academy.

This animosity towards anthropology is encapsulated in a document recently reported on by the Guardian: a thesis written by Dominic Cummings, former hatchet man and ideologue-in-chief to the education secretary, Michael Gove. Cummings’ paper is a shoddy concoction, a rambling reflection on the future of teaching and learning, in which the author champions the notion of an ‘Odyssean’ education – a kind of heroic, roving acquisition of knowledge, with entrepreneurial associations – that would combine the sciences with the humanities. But what we actually get is something more cyclopean: a squint-eyed vision of human life determined by self-interest, genetic imperatives, and power laws. (As Keith Hart has noted, we get the statistical models we deserve, so it is perhaps no surprise that power-law distributions, with their ‘premise of extreme inequality’, should be so in vogue at this late capitalist moment.) In keeping with this vision, Cummings says that he wants students to read Thucydides and Steven Pinker, but not – I should imagine – Herodotus, and definitely not Marx, nor – god forbid – anything by French postmodernists. (Cummings makes it unmistakably clear that Derrida and co. are dehors-texte.)  

As for anthropology, Cummings – in a move that is exactly the opposite of the expansive and polyhistoric approach that one might assume to be properly ‘Odyssean’ – simply condemns it. It is intellectually suspect; in hock to a dodgy model – the ‘SSSM’ (of which, more in a moment) – that goes all the way back to Boas. Moreover, he flatly asserts that students taking such courses are wasting both their own time and our money. Here, it appears to have slipped the mind of this hectoring Odysseus that, since he is a civil servant, the British taxpayer is in fact funding his own dubious scholarship.

But where does this idea come from that anthropology is so contemptible? It owes to a particular polemic, of recent make, largely developed within cognitive science. Cognitive anthropology, in particular, along with its sister discipline of evolutionary psychology, have been raising doubts about the relevance and premises of long-standing social and cultural approaches. I have commented on this question of relevance elsewhere. What interests me here is the tone and the rhetorical tactics employed, for the critique is carried out with particular derision, and is characterized by such excess, that it amounts to a sort of asymmetric warfare: a discursive offensive – and an offensive discourse – out of all proportion to its target.

The cognitive critique centres on (what it takes to be) anthropology’s most fundamental presupposition, dubbed the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ (SSSM) by Cosmides and Tooby, both evolutionary psychologists. According to this anthropological article of faith, since human nature is so radically plastic, there are, therefore, no universal cognitive capacities; thus, nothing is innate; everything is cultural. Owing to their irrational commitment to this barren paradigm, social-cultural anthropologists have resisted the magnificent shift ushered in by the cognitive sciences. But just how plausible is this picture? Not very, I suggest. There is something shifty about the paradigm as presented, for, rather like Latourian iconoclasts, who, in smashing up idols, demonstrate that they are the only ones who naively believe in their astounding power, cognitive scientists have been monstering a model which only exists in their own imaginings.      

To see that this is so, consider the devastating case presented by Steven Pinker. In his book-length critique of the SSSM, The Blank Slate (henceforth BS) he argues that it is not merely a malign paradigm that has infected intellectuals, but that it has also spilled out into society at large, with the most diabolical consequences. Not only has it legitimized the ‘release of dangerous psychopaths who promptly murdered innocent people’, but, much worse, it has ‘led to some of the greatest atrocities in history’ (BS, x-xi). Indeed, the idea that nothing important about humanity is natural, and everything is cultural, Pinker links to a hodgepodge of modern horrors, from the architecture of Le Corbusier (BS, 170) to the killing fields of Cambodia (BS, 158). And crucially, Pinker fingers anthropologists as key culprits.

Although he allows that Franz Boas was no mere ‘blank slate’ subscriber, he states that, nevertheless, ‘Boas had created a monster’ (BS, 23), the all-consuming culture-concept, subsequently pushed to the limit and peddled by his students, Kroeber, Mead, and Benedict. This Boasian monster-concept is supposedly based on two premises: the first, that there is categorically no relationship between biology and culture; the second, that the notion of culture, because it elevates analysis towards the level of the collective, is wholly indifferent to the lives of individual human beings.

As for the latter, Pinker singles out Kroeber, and his concept of the ‘superorganic’, which clearly demonstrates, he says, ‘Kroeber’s insistence that individual human minds are not worthy of attention’ (BS, 156). And, having put the finishing touches to this sinister, straw man figure, it is, then, a simple business to suggest that such a callous idea of the primacy of social and cultural totality – an ‘anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction’ (BS, 421) – should find its ultimate expression in the gulag, and its fictional equivalent, Orwell’s Ministry of Love (BS, 426-27).  (It is, incidentally, worth noting that Pinker, in his preface, remarks that his approach ‘will be coolly analytical’ (BS, xi). But this is surely a funny way to describe a form of argument that can insinuate some sort of connection between Alfred Kroeber and mass death in the twentieth century.)

With regards to the first premise – the anthropological axiom, as Pinker has it, of the ‘absolute separation of culture from biology’ (BS, 28) – he aims to substantiate his claim by means of a handful of devastating citations (BS, 23-26). For instance, this, from Leslie White: ‘Much of what is commonly called “human nature” is merely culture thrown against a screen of nerves, glands, sense organs, muscles, etc.’ Or this quote from Kroeber: ‘Civilization is not mental action but a body or stream of products of mental exercise.’ Then there is the following from Clifford Geertz:

‘Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products – products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless.’

But let us observe that the quoted words, so apparently damning, in fact refute the interpretation Pinker wants to put on them. What these authors are actually asserting is obviously not that there is ‘an absolute separation of culture from biology’ – who would defend such an absurd position? – but, rather, to cite Sahlins, that while biology ‘is an absolutely necessary condition for culture, [it] is equally and absolutely insufficient’.

So, what of the second premise, that the anthropological commitment to holism entails a lack of concern for individuals? Pinker’s paraphrase of this position is that it dictates that, ‘we should forget about the mind of an individual person like you, that tiny and insignificant part of a vast sociocultural system’ (BS, 26; original emphasis). But what Pinker fundamentally misunderstands is that this claim about the autonomy of culture (or, for that matter, society) is not some dubious moral assertion about the irrelevance of individuals, nor yet a denial about the singularity of human lives; it is an elementary, analytical point about the scale of phenomena to be investigated.

Indeed, Pinker himself shows that he respects this principle when he comes to discuss ‘levels of analysis’ in science. Taking the example of language, Pinker quite rightly observes that, to study it as a totality is to posit ‘an abstraction that pools the internal languages of hundreds of millions of people living in different places and times. It could not exist without the internal languages in the minds of real humans conversing with one other, but it cannot be reduced to what any of them knows either.’ As a consequence, ‘The English language was shaped by broad historical events that did not take place inside a single head.’ (BS, 71).       

Now, compare Kroeber (writing over half a century ago): ‘the English language is a piece of culture. The faculty of speaking and understanding some or any language is organic: it is a faculty of the human species. The sounds and words are of course made by individual men and women, and are understood and reacted to by individuals, not by the species. But the total aggregation of words, forms, grammar, and meanings which constitute the English language are the cumulative and joint product of millions of individuals for many centuries past.’ (Anthropology: Culture Patterns and Processes, 63)   

In other words, in spite of all the blustering and bad-mouthing of anthropology elsewhere in The Blank Slate, here, Pinker and Kroeber are talking the same language.

In Japan, there is a well-known genre of ‘special effects’ (tokusatsu) films and TV dramas, such as ‘Ultraman’ (pictured above) which generally end in a titanic battle between colossal alien protagonists – enacted by performers in rubber body-suits, who thrash around in a Lilliputian landscape of office blocks. Something very like this shows up in the rhetorical policy employed by cognitive science in its critique of anthropology, for, in making its case, it constructs what Owen Chadwick once called ‘balloon duellists’: massively expanded, dirigible positions that crudely caricature the attitudes and arguments they purport to represent. Hence, the ridiculous picture of open-eyed, inquiring scientists versus close-minded and intransigent culture-mongers. So it is that, all the while cognitive science has imagined itself to be engaged in a righteous war against a monstrous anthropology, it has actually been wrestling with an enemy whose body is limp and lifeless, because there is no one inside the monster costume. And there never was.     


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Comment by John McCreery on November 12, 2013 at 8:39am

Heesun, you have put your finger on one of the most serious weakness in anthropological theorizing today. Because there is simply too much to read everything, we fall into the habit of citing, not the original author to whom we trace an idea, but instead the straw man constructed by teachers or critics to communicate shallow ideas quickly. Even when we do take the time to go back to the original, we too often carelessly read it through the veil created by those "published works and occasional oral traditions." In my case I think of Malinowski. When I got around to reading the original ethnography, I discovered that the highly intelligent and sensitive author of Coral Gardens and Their Magic  and The Sexual Life of Savages had been reduced by my history of theory classes to a a caricature sketched by the words "functionalism," "kula," and "magic, science and religion." Did he get everything right? That's humanly impossible. But when Annette Weiner restudied the Trobriands fifty years after Malinowski, lived in a commoner village with no aristocrats and no garden magic, and observed that he'd totally missed the role of women in the exchanges of other goods surrounding the kula, she could still write that life in the Trobriands was much as Malinowski described it. Not bad, that.

Comment by John McCreery on November 11, 2013 at 3:42pm

What I see now, though, is a fairly shock-proof anthropology, not relaying a single grand theory, but as a colleague of mine puts it, exploring human social life as it actually exists'.

Best news I've heard all day. Let me, in that spirit, plug a book that has just been published, Japan Copes with Calamity, ed. by Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger, and David H. Slater. Peter Lang AG, 2013. It reports on a collective project, involving anthropologists from the U.S., UK, Europe, and Japan, all engaged in what they call "urgent ethnography," starting only days after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Northeast of Japan and set in motion the Fukushima nuclear incident. The goal was to record, as quickly as possible, responses to what have happened before they became overwritten by official pronouncements and routinised media coverage. There is no grand theory here. But is is hard to imagine a stronger effort to depict human social life as it actually existed in a particular place and time, in the wake of a natural and anthropogenic catastrophe of historic proportions. 

Comment by Huon Wardle on November 11, 2013 at 1:07pm

    So, we shouldn’t feel too bad when we see that anthropology books are disappearing from the shelves of even the most high-brow bookstores.  So what if Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond sell a hundred or a thousand copies to every one genuinely thoughtful work of anthropology?  Those guys are almost as far from tapping into the Main Vein of global culture as we are.  They can’t hold a candle to the viral stars of YouTube such as “Hungry Dog,” or commercial successes such as that ebay sensation, the image of Christ on a grilled cheese sandwich. 

Never a truer word... My sense is that anthropology has changed very considerably over the last decade. The current generation of anthropology teachers inherited a tremendous intellectual mess from the folk who held sway in the 1980s and 1990s. Structuralism plus a daub of marxism with a few anecdotes from fieldwork thrown in. There is a certain truth in the jibes against SSSM, except they are out of date. A minor sluice of post-modern ideas (mostly just claims) managed to knock the class who took their degrees in the 1970s over completely and some of them still sit on the floor jabbering incoherently. What I see now, though, is a fairly shock-proof anthropology, not relaying a single grand theory, but as a colleague of mine puts it, exploring human social life as it actually exists'. And I would definitely include in that your insights about cultural interchange and continua. There is a certain curiosity about human worlds and an openness to thinking about them that is unique to anthropology - that, to me, is why so many students want to study the subject, albeit that they might be better paid if they took dentistry...

I should also say, I find reading Nietzsche very rewarding; but, since he was foremost a writer of aphorisms, you have to decide which kind of Nietzsche you prefer.

Comment by Lee Drummond on November 9, 2013 at 2:32pm


    Fascinating and important ideas kicking around here; I’ll try to frame a Comment a bit later.  For now, though:



    Could you discuss the contrary trends in anthropology which you identify in two of `your recent Comments: 


. . . I dropped into Heffers bookshop in Cambridge recently. I hadn't been there in twenty years. I was struck by how the anthropology section which used to stretch about 12 feet by 6 had dropped to a handful of authors . . .  This either means that no one is interested in anthropology any more or that the people who are don't buy their books in bookshops. I think that the kind of anthropology we might recognise as significant is no longer sold in bookshops; but maybe the issue here is that the book industry has changed and so has anthropology.


Sitting in a working anthropology department, the most obvious fact I see is the constantly increasing number of students taking anthropology. Many meet it first as an elective, then they decide to switch their degree from whatever it was to anthropology. If anthropology as a discipline was actually in decline, then its university profile would look much more like classical languages or even philosophy in some universities (meaning absolutely no offence to those subjects) where many departments of these prestigious disciplines with low take-up have closed. But that is not the case. . . 


    Regarding your second point, are the swelling enrollments you’re experiencing solely in undergraduate courses, or does that spill over into graduate courses?  In the U. S. (I know, a very different kettle of fish) anthropology traditionally has enjoyed a certain sex appeal over, say, Plain Jane topics like sociology and political science (there’s an oxymoron!).  While that bloom is mostly off the rose today, a bit of the old fragrance lingers on.  Way back when, even before my ancient experience, my old department at Chicago had the distinction of failing Kurt Vonnegut’s thesis (on myth) and discouraging Saul Bellow from a career in anthropology.  Both future literary giants were attracted to anthropology because it seemed to generate exciting ideas and offer the promise of adventure in faraway places with strange-sounding names.  And both were soundly disabused of those expectations.  Our loss: Imagine, an anthropologist with Vonnegut’s imagination or Bellow’s ethnographic ear.  But, alas, Bellow had to settle for the consolation award: the Nobel Prize. 

    My point is that kids (especially those with the rare ability to think creatively) get interested in anthropology because it has a trippy feel and reputation, then many of them learn differently.  An undergraduate degree in anthropology is no more (or only a little more) of a handicap in the job market than most other liberal arts degrees – which is to say, a huge handicap.  Dental technicians coming out of vocational school are far better prepared to survive in the U. S. economy than any liberal arts major.  So, in your experience, what happens to those students who flock to anthropology courses? 

    A critical concern stemming from this is the career possibilities of graduate students in the field.  What happens to them?  Do a goodly fraction become bureaucrats, that is to say, “development specialists”?  [I’ll try to address this subject – about which I have strong feelings – in a subsequent contribution]  How many land solid academic positions?  How many get by on piece-work as “adjunct” professors? 

   On to your first point, about bookstores.  If Cambridge bookstores, in one of the world’s intellectual centers, are stocking few anthropology books, isn’t that a bellwether for what’s happening in the less enlightened areas of the globe?  Since we are both interested in the possible utility of the notion of continua as a distinctive feature of social phenomena, let’s say that your Cambridge bookshop represents the acrolectal, highly literate and intellectual pole of an intellectual continuum.  Allow me to suggest a candidate for the other, basilectal end of that continuum: where I live. 

    My “home town” – I don’t know what else to call it – numbers around 50,000 year-round residents.  However, that figure swells to close to twice that number when Canadians (flush with petrodollars) and fat-cat residents of northern U. S. cities flock here as snowbirds.  The town has three small bookstores: a gay establishment named “QTrading, Inc” (after all, this was home to Liberace, the undisputed emperor of a certain form of the empire of the senses); a Spanish language bookstore (although relatively few Hispanics live where they work as gardeners and waiters); and, the most popular by far, a bookstore specializing in gift books – big, glitzy, coffee table monsters with great photos and, well, more great photos.  In another town, about twenty miles down the road, there is in fact a Barnes and Noble bookstore (in one of the Westfield shopping malls, recently featured in news footage from Kenya).  That bookstore does boast an excellent selection of CDs, DVDs, stationery, gift items, and, oh yes, it does have some books. 

    A tiny fraction of homes in my “home town,” though bursting with square footage and more bathrooms than occupants [Here’s a deep, existential question to ponder: Why do you need more toilets than assholes?] have what you could call a “library” or “study.”  Such books as one finds there are tastefully (that is, sparingly) arranged on glass-fronted shelves with complementary bric-a-brac, or displayed on oversize coffee tables.  But, ye literate ones, don’t despair: an interior designer of national repute has revived a flagging interest in classic literature.  This tastemaker (remember Vance Packard?) collects boxes of old books, tomes with leather bindings and lots of gilt print, then puts them through a heavy-duty band saw which slices off all but about two inches of a book’s spine and boards.  These stubs are then glued together and attached to cabinet doors, so that the cabinet at first glance looks to be a library of the classics, then one opens the cabinet doors and , voila! a nice selection of premium vodkas and single malts.  A masterpiece of interior design!  What could be finer than to be in, well, certainly not Carolina? 

    So, we shouldn’t feel too bad when we see that anthropology books are disappearing from the shelves of even the most high-brow bookstores.  So what if Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond sell a hundred or a thousand copies to every one genuinely thoughtful work of anthropology?  Those guys are almost as far from tapping into the Main Vein of global culture as we are.  They can’t hold a candle to the viral stars of YouTube such as “Hungry Dog,” or commercial successes such as that ebay sensation, the image of Christ on a grilled cheese sandwich. 

    As our old favorite (and lamentably deceased) Tony Soprano used to say, “Fo’git about it.”   Perhaps anthropology is destined to be a sort of undertow to the prevailing currents of global society.  Is there any solace here?  Probably not.  Well, maybe.  After all, recall that the four books of Zarathustra (perhaps the most important work of modern philosophy – could I possibly hear disagreement here?) didn’t make it into print until its author was, shall be say, conceptually indisposed.

    Looking forward to continued unraveling (or, glory be, could it be? knitting together) of this ”thread” – what old fogeys used to call a “line of argument” or “topic for discussion."    


Comment by Huon Wardle on November 8, 2013 at 7:26pm
We'll I couldn't help reading Cummings further after that and you are right, heesun, there is something both sinister and funny about his ramblings; sinister in the 'lunatics have taken over the asylum' sense and funny in so far as the whole effect is something like a cross between dr strangelove and an episode of doraemon. What it comes down to is the idea that we can predict nothing about the social world but that high iq and Nietzschian philosophy will always reign supreme. He is after all a right wing policy geek or wonk as people in Britain say.
Comment by John McCreery on November 8, 2013 at 6:54am

Philip, one additional point. When I was in graduate school in the 1960s, Ethnography (exploratory research) and SCA (hypothesis testing) were were presented as opposite poles of the same spectrum. Ethnography generated hypotheses for testing by SCA. SCA suggested correlations whose validity was questioned by ethnography. One thing that fascinates me about Abbott's diagram is that SCA and Ethnography are now represented on dimensions that are orthogonal to each other. Are they now supposed to be pursuing research aims unrelated to each other? In the diagram's terms the answer is "Yes." But... What do you think?

Comment by Philip Swift on November 8, 2013 at 3:45am

John, thanks the recommendation - I've been meaning of get hold of Abbott's book for some time. I must check it out. 

I feel I should probably apologise to Heesun, since my mention of Cummings' horrible policy paper prompted you to go and have a read of it! But I love your depiction of him as a hunter-gatherer of data. Thinking about his idea of 'Odyssean education' (originally conceived by physicist Murray Gell-Man), it seems to me that what might be appealing about the figure of Odysseus for this model is his questing, entrepreneurial character - basically, Odysseus as venture capitalist. It's also ironically appropriate, given the assumption that the humanities will be made subordinate to cognitive science, since anyone who has read the Odyssey knows that Odysseus is a bloke who brooks no competition: he kills all his rivals.

I mused that, instead of Odysseus, why not imagine a less-questing, and aggressive model of knowledge-making - Penelopean, perhaps? A model based more on weaving and waiting, on the patient fabrication of connections and tracing of patterns.  

Keith, I think that history is tremendously important - though, of course, this isn't to say that emphasising its ties to anthropology is to deny that the latter is somehow less a science. Bloch's silly remark is of a piece with other cognitivist claims, viz., that history should become part of cognitive science as well, since, as Pinker says, 'History and culture...can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics and evolution.' (BS, 69).

So we have these claims about the massive, explanatory power of cognitive science, in tandem with an uncompromising critique of interpretative methods. But what amuses me is that, when cognitive scientists have attempted to write history, they draw on these very methods in order to do so. (The same sort of thing occurs in Pinker's criticism of Kroeber - I mean, attacking his holism, then happily deploying the same method elsewhere). I'm tempted to call this phenomenon, in this sort of writing, of simultaneously entertaining two contradictory ideas, cognitive cognitive dissonance.

It comes across strongly in Pinker's Better Angels book - don't go away and read it! But basically, in the course of examining why there has been a decline in violence across time, Pinker is required to explain the anomaly of the 1960s - esp. in America - where crime was on the increase. To do so, he has a go at historical analysis, which is truly dreadful. Referring to the reverse as a 'decivilizing process', he gives us a sort of list of examples of mad, bad, and dangerous behaviours from the period - including the antics of the Rolling Stones, the Who's Keith Moon smashing up hotel rooms, Marxist protest (obviously), and 'naked concertgoers frolicking in the mud' at Woodstock, and suggests that there are 'plausible causal arrows' between all this and the 'actual violence'. Good for a laugh, no doubt, but I don't think much of it as historical explanation.    

Anyway, Huon's mention of Everett - who I haven't read - called to my mind the work of Stephen Levinson (at Max Planck). For years, I had assumed that, owing to the barrage of refutations, Whorf had been written off, but in fact Levinson takes the view that, not only might Whorf have been on to something, but that the idea of Universal Grammar is a pipe dream. Diversity, he points out, is 'the most striking feature of human language', and that these differences go deep. He notes that, on the contrary, much cognitive science assumes that 'all languages are English-like, but with difference sound systems and vocabularies'. I don't think it is a coincidence, in this regard, that cognitive science, in terms of its references, is overwhelmingly Anglophone. It seems to me that translation, which is fundamental to so much anthropology - and history for that matter - the necessity of having to translate, should lead anthropologists to ask the types of questions that they do.    


Comment by Huon Wardle on November 7, 2013 at 12:10pm

I simply don't want to keep reading it- I think I've got much better things to do instead (heesun)

I like your reading, Heesun, and I also like this sentiment very much. The truth is that we really don't have time to read rubbish and we should think about isolating ourselves at certain levels from having to engage with this kind of thing. Daniel Dennett, who is sometimes grouped with Pinker, Diamond and Dawkins in the mega-evolutionary-theory circuit, made what I thought was an amusing and shrewd comment in a thing he did for the Guardian last year (it has been taken down now but has left a few traces. He pointed out some rules for putting forward an argument, but he also pointed to what he called 'Sturgeon's law' which holds that 90% of writing in any given field is 'crap', generously he included a whole range of fields - philosophy, biology, cultural anthropology and so on. His advice was not to bother with the 'crap'. I have a feeling that part of this was a corrective to the kind of ideological war Pinker and friends like to wage on anthropology. I read 'The Blank Slate' a while back and was equally annoyed as Philip about its silly argumentum ad absurdum posturing - isolate a quote from an anthropologist, any anthropologist, take it out of context and then say 'look that is bad thinking!' Then look at his own evidentiary base and we find that it is all about twin studies that show that people's lives are predestined based on their innate capacities; hence, for example, Pinker argues that upbringing, including quality of parenting, does not matter because innate capacities outdo everything else (Kaspar Hauser Syndrome anyone?). At first I thought, 'this is dangerous nonsense' but then I thought, 'this is just nonsense, I have better things to do than holding a silent argument with this kind of drivel'. Again, we have to face the fact that there is no aristocratic hierarchy of knowledge anymore; there is a kind of free for all in public discourse - and that is democratic at one level though the result is that certain kinds of ideas tend to float to the top. There is a question of why these resurgent innatist and social evolutionist types of argument are resurfacing, but there may be an even more pressing case for building a more firmly grounded anthropological view which can be demonstrated at different levels of complexity. 

Comment by John McCreery on November 7, 2013 at 6:30am

With all due respect, setting up our discussions in terms of relations between ethnography, history and philosophy is a bit, yes, old-fashioned. Allow me to recommend Chicago sociologist Andrew Abbott's Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences (W. W. Norton, 2004). On page 29, Abbott provides the following diagram as part of his explanation of what he is trying to do in the book.

As you can see, Abbott envisions a three-dimensional space whose axes are labeled Syntactic, Semantic, and Pragmatic, to reflect the aims of the search for knowledge: Syntatic=a grasp of how things unfold over time; Semantic=understanding the ideas that add meaning to the events examined; Pragmatic=knowledge needed for policy or other action. The "SCA" farthest from the "Common Sense" zero-point on the Pragmatic axis stands for "Standard Causal Analysis" and refers to the standard practices of quantitative research, using statistical analysis to identify causal chains in which policy-makers (also advertisers, etc.) can intervene. Notice, moreover, where ethnography is situated, at the mid-point of the Semantic axis that points from common sense to Pattern Search. Ditto for history, midway along the Syntactic axis before Modeling/Formalization. 

Where would you put philosophy in this scheme? I would say between common sense and ethnography on the Semantic axis. What about you?

Comment by Keith Hart on November 6, 2013 at 4:37pm

Hi Philip,

I know it is impossibly arrogant to dismiss both history and philosophy as inferior to ethnography. Chris Hann and I argue in our book on Economic Anthropology that we need to bring all three together: world history, ethnography and philosophical critique. It's another case of standing on one foot and falling over, rather than being sensibly interdisciplinary about it. I would not dismiss the claims of a humanities approach over social science. One of the reasons that I encourage those who have a choice to opt for history rather than anthropology is that historians spread themselves between small-scale concrete inquiries and large-scale erudite generalisations without the hang-ups the rest of us have about whether it is scientific or theoretical enough. They have a much stronger sense of earning respect over time by the quality of ones scholarship. I do not hold up Maurice Bloch as a success for the simple reason that his claims for anthropology are not plausible. this is another side to our dilemma. The scions of the best schools dominate the subject in the academy and they arrogantly ignore the plight of the many who don't get a look in, as well as slagging off other disciplines.


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